The real Jesus - Matthew 8:18-34
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
SJN pm. 20.1.19
The Real Jesus
Jesus Christ has always been a controversial figure. The radical psychologist, Havelock Ellis said of him, ‘Had there been a lunatic asylum in the suburbs of Jerusalem, Jesus Christ would infallibly have been shut up in it at the outset of his public career.’ The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was no less scathing of Christianity as whole, ‘I call Christianity the one great curse’, he wrote, ‘the one enormous and innermost perversion, the one great instinct for revenge, for which no means are too venomous, too underhand, too underground and too petty- I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind.’ By way of contrast the Russian writer Dostoevsky had this to say about Jesus: ‘Nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly and more perfect than Christ; and I tell myself with a jealous love not only that there is nothing but that there cannot be anything.’ Opinions divide around this man, in fact families and whole nations have divided around him- for or against, but few can be indifferent.
This evening we are going to be looking at three episodes in the life of Jesus which in their own distinctive way raise some serious questions about the identity of Jesus. And of course, you cannot separate off the identity of Jesus- who he is, from the mission of Jesus- what he came to do. Now the way we are going to approach these three scenes is going to be a little different because on closer inspection some of the things we come across don’t quite seem to make sense.
First, just take a look at the challenge to would be followers, vv 18-22
Here is Jesus on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee in Capernaum having been busy healing the sick and exorcising the demon possessed. It is the following day and as the crowds are starting to gather in the early morning light no doubt looking for more healings, and he decides to skip town altogether and go to the other side of the lake. At this point two men try to catch Jesus before he gets into the boat. The first is a teacher of the law- a Jewish theologian, what many would think to be a real catch for any rabbi looking for would-be followers, ‘Teacher’ he says, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ No hesitation, no qualifications- just ‘all out for Jesus’. But rather than congratulating the man for making a good decision he challenges the man with an uncertain future, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’
The second man is already called a disciple-he has started off with Jesus, but has received news that his Father has died and so, understandably, wants to honour his Father by arranging and attending his funeral. But that isn’t good enough for Jesus, who tersely, remarks, ‘Follow me, let the dead bury the dead.’ Not exactly the pastorally sensitive response we might have come to expect from Jesus is it? But he feels he has every right to make such a demand without even a hint of apology. And so some might ask: Who does he think he is?
Well, he tells us who he is in verse 20, ‘The Son of Man’. And it is this which doesn’t appear to make sense. You see, the term ‘son of man’ has its origins in the Old Testament. It could simply mean ‘man’- a human being. So is Jesus simply saying ‘Men can’t count on having any security, especially if they follow me’? That doesn’t quite add up. However, Jesus appears to be using the term as a kind of title for himself in which case the teacher of the law’s thoughts, whose mind would have been steeped in the Old Testament Scripture, would have gone to Daniel 7 where we read of a mysterious figure described as ‘one like a son of man’ who appears to be anything but a mere man because he has the ability to go straight into God’s presence to receive the glory and authority of God himself. And so on the one hand he is man-like, and on the other he is God-like. What is more, Daniel’s vision seems to be concerned with the end of time with the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven to receive the kingdom- clouds denoting the presence of God as at Sinai. Now what doesn’t seem to make sense is Jesus claiming to be this special Messianic figure, who has the authority of God, whom nations will worship saying he has nowhere to lay his head, that he is homeless, a vagrant. How is it that the one for whom the whole universe is his home can’t find a place to live on earth? This forces us to ask: what kind of Son of Man is this?
Second, there is the calming of a threatening storm- vv23-27
There were some disciples who followed Jesus in v23, but as things turned out most of them probably wished they hadn’t at this point because without any warning they found themselves in the middle of a gut-wrenching storm. In fact the word used in the Greek which is translated ‘furious storm’ is the word seismos. So this is not just a strong wind, this is cataclysmic- a dark deluge which would freeze the heart of even the most seasoned fisherman which is exactly what many of them were. They are scared spitless! The disciples are busy rowing and Jesus is busy sleeping. And so they wake him up begging him to save them, which he does. With a simple word the sea which was a torrent of churning waves one minute is transformed into a milk pond the next – notice it was ‘completely calm.’ Not even a ripple. That is not normal!
But what doesn’t seem to make sense in this episode is what Jesus says to his disciples, ‘You of little faith, why are you so afraid?’ Why say they are of ‘little faith’? It looks like they have stacks of faith; they had faith enough to wake Jesus believing that he had the power to bring the storm under control. Sure, they never expected a miracle quite like this, they probably didn’t have much of an idea how he would do it, but that he would save them and have the power to save them wasn’t much in doubt. So why castigate them for being of ‘little faith’? They came to the right person at the right time with the right request- if only more of us who call ourselves Jesus’ followers would do that. So what is going on?
Before we answer that
question let’s move to the third scene, the casting out of destructive
demons- vv 28-34.
Jesus is now in Gentile country, we know that because it is named for us -the ‘region of the Gadarenes’, and also because you have pigs roaming around near a graveyard and as you will appreciate pork was not in great demand by Jews. And you have to wonder whether the teacher of the law would have been so keen in keeping his pledge of following Jesus wherever he would go if he knew that Jesus was going to end up here, because this place would have offended every religious bone in his body since everything about it screams ‘unclean’ – it is Gentile country, in a graveyard with a herd of pigs roaming nearby. That is not a place any purifying seeking Jew would go. And yet here is Jesus only to be met by two men whose lives are a complete ruin possessed by demons so powerful that no one can pass by that place without being beaten up-v28.
Now the demons are in no doubt about the identity of Jesus- he is the Son of God-29. But what do they mean when the say, ‘Have you come to torture us before the appointed time?’? The word translated ‘torture’ is the same word used in verse 6 to describe the agony of the Centurion’s servant. The demons seem to know that the Christ, the Son of God, will cause demons to suffer, for that is part of his God-appointed role. That makes sense to them. What doesn’t make sense is that it seems to be going to happen now, ‘before the appointed time.’ Yes, there will come a time, at the end of the age, with the coming of the Son of Man of Daniel 7, robed in God’s power with God’s authority to exercise judgement over the whole universe- angels as well as men- but this is not the appointed time! And it would seem that to some extent Jesus recognises that, for the demons are not caused to suffer as one day they will, but instead, at their own request- begging Jesus-they are transferred to the pigs causing them to stampede over the cliff to drown in the sea.
So we are forced to ask- who is Jesus? Things are not quite what they seem.
Now let me say this.
If, as in the first story, you are like the men who are just impressed by Jesus, maybe admire him and to some extent want to follow him-then you are no better than they are. He is a teacher and a healer- that much they know. But if that is all he is to you, then you are no different to them and Jesus sets the bar just as high for you as he did for them. He says get ready for a homeless life, to be not welcomed in this world, being a misfit, feeling the odd one out-as he was- constantly. And if the most sacred duty you can think of performing has to be done before you follow Jesus- then you will never follow him. And of course if he is just a teacher- why on earth should you? There are plenty of other teachers and leaders you could follow with all sorts of wisdom who won’t make such demands so why not follow them instead?
Also, if, as with the disciples in the second episode, you simply see Jesus as a man, albeit powerful man, v 27, ‘What kind of man is this?’ then your faith is no better than theirs, it is ‘little faith’ which amounts to being no faith and receives a short shrift from Jesus as being worthless.
Furthermore, if you are somebody who sees the supernatural at work in Jesus and so thinks of him as some kind of super-man, not quite Clark Kent, but not far off, then your faith is no better than that of the demons. They recognised him as the Son of God with great power who one day is going to deal forcefully with them and with everyone else who has brought misery and mayhem into God’s good world- and Jesus might be just as impressive to you. If so, your belief is right there alongside the demons.
So where are people going wrong in their assessment of Jesus, failing to get their heads around the Son of Man being a wanderer; a man who stills storms and the Son of God who seems to be getting his timing all wrong?
Well, it all boils down to the fact that in every case there is a failure to appreciate Jesus true identity and Jesus true mission.
What are those? Well, we are given a clue by Matthew back in verse 17 as he quotes Isaiah 53:4, ‘He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases’. This is one of the purple passages of Scripture which tells us that God’s Son- the Kingly Son of Psalm 2, is the Servant of the Lord of Isaiah 53. The way he will establish God’s reign will not be through miracles but through a sacrifice- the offering of his own body to atone for our sin- taking upon himself our infirmities, being wounded for our transgressions. And it is the coming together of all of these titles and roles in the person of Jesus of Nazareth which accounts for the failure to respond to him properly and, if the truth be known, may well account for some of you here tonight failing to respond to him properly in faith and obedience. The people concerned couldn’t piece them together- so let us do just that.
Jesus is the Son of Man alright. He is a man- made of flesh and blood, who gets so exhausted that he sleeps through a storm. And since this Son of Man is also the suffering servant, at this point in God’s plan he is homeless, reviled and rejected as will be the lot of anyone else who follows him. But one day he will appear in his full, naked glory, the glory of Daniel 7. That is why we can and should put him before even the most sacred duty and the closest ties if he demands it, because he has all the authority and power of God for, he is God. When you recognise that, it begins to make sense. He has all the power of the universe at his disposal, but he is not going to use that power, he contains it for he has yet to go to the cross and fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah 53- the way of suffering.
Similarly with the disciples in scene 2. Believing that Jesus is a man who has power to rescue them from a storm is not enough- it is ‘little faith’ equivalent to ‘no faith’- inauthentic, non-saving faith. By this miracle Jesus demonstrates that in his own person we have embodied the Creator of the universe because according to Psalm 107 it is Yahweh who with a whisper calms the storms and stills the raging seas. That is what we see Jesus doing here. No wonder the disciples were baffled, how can a man do that which is the sole prerogative of God? Well, he can if he is also God. But Jesus hadn’t come just to calm storms, but to subdue that which storms in the Bible symbolise- the unruly chaos and life threatening anarchy which results from our rebellion against our Maker. And he does that by fulfilling Isaiah 53. And since he has not yet done that, it is unthinkable that God should let him drown! It was impossible. And so had the disciples really understood who Jesus was they wouldn’t have woken him, they would have known that until he had fulfilled God’s plan of salvation they were as safe in that boat as it was being battered by the waves just as if they had been lying in a hammock on their front porch being gently rocked by a breeze.
Scene 3 has the Son of God doing in time something which is a foretaste and sign of what he is going to do at the end of time- releasing people from the dark forces of oppression. Here are these two men whose lives have been reduced to a shadow existence, living in filth and squalor amongst the dead- because that is what they are to the rest of the world -the living dead. But Jesus steps into this demonic battle zone to liberate, and just as with a mere word he calms the unruly storm and all that that represents in terms of a fallen world collapsing back into itself into a dark primordial chaos of Genesis 1:2 before God’s Word and Spirit set to work, so by a word he frees these men and binds the demons. But of course the real destruction of the devil and death came at the cross- Isaiah 53 again. The demons did not understand that, which is why they were both petrified and perplexed thinking Jesus had got the timing wrong.
What is more, the people in the area didn’t understand it either. Just look at their reaction in v 33, ‘Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region.’ They had heard what had happened to the two demon possessed men, something you would have thought they would have thanked Jesus for. But no, they are more concerned with the pigs than people. In fact the common reaction of many non-Christians on reading this story is, ‘It is a bit unfair on the pigs isn’t it?’ What is the concern of the townsfolk? It is their economic prosperity, you can’t have a man like Jesus running around he might upset their whole way of living and that is intolerable, even though lives are cleaned up in a way that is unprecedented.
And so we are back to where we started- people are divided around Jesus. But when we begin to see just who he is- the Son of God, the mighty Son of Man of Daniel 7 and the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 -the God who doesn’t remain distant from the world and uncaring about the plight of people but who steps right into the darkness, who subdues the chaos enabling people to regain their lost souls and be put in their right minds who, in a word comes to save- then you can’t ignore him. You can’t shrug him off as an interesting chap who had one or two insights into life. No, not if he is God.
I guess to some extent Havelock Ellis was right. When faced with the outrageous claims of Jesus, what do you do with someone like that who claims to be God and starts acting like God? Well, if he is just a man then locking him up for his own safety let alone the safety of others would be the obvious course of action- the kindest thing to do. But if Jesus is who he claimed to be and showed himself to be, then the most sane and measured response is that of Dostoevsky-: ‘Nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly and more perfect than Christ’- of course not-if he is God on earth as a man. Then it makes perfect sense to follow him wherever he may lead you, because you can trust him for he died for you to free you so you can live a life of loving obedience to him who will be with you in life’s storm and will firmly guide you from this world to the next.
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