The Lordship of Jesus - Matthew 12:1-21
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~~The Lordship of Jesus 12:1-21 (24.3.19)
Matthew 12:1- 21
Arguably one of the greatest professional boxers of all time was Mohamed Ali. He actually won the world heavy weight championship against Sonny Liston in 1964 at the age of 22 when he was then known as Cassius Clay- I remember watching clips from the fight on TV as a child with my Dad at the time. He was from Louisville, Kentucky and was known as the ‘Louisville lip’ because he had the annoying habit, for some at any rate, of proclaiming in a loud voice, ‘I am the greatest.’ Well, the story goes that one day he was relaxing in a passenger airliner waiting for the plane to take off when the air stewardess came by to check that everyone had fastened their safety belts. Ali had decided not to. When the stewardess asked him to buckle his belt he said, ‘Superman don’t need no belt’. And quick as a flash the stewardess replied, ‘Superman don’t need no plane!’ He fastened his belt!
We are never too impressed are we by someone who tries to tell us how great they are. Immodesty isn’t a well-liked characteristic. Now the interesting thing about Jesus is that he is able to both state without any sense of embarrassment how great he is- in fact greater than any else who has ever lived- and how humble he is and both descriptions fit him perfectly. Normally the two would be in flat contradiction with each other- people who say they are great aren’t humble and those who are humble don’t tell you they are great. So someone who is able to do that and carry it off by providing evidence to back up both claims is someone who is going to be unique. Which is of course what the Bible claims to be the case for here is someone who combines both the nature of God and the nature of man such that he can be both great and humble at the same time. This is what we see in our episode from Matthew this evening- chapter 12.
First of all we have, a divine approval – look at verse 15: ‘Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. Many followed him, and he healed all their sick, warning them not to tell who he was. This was to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: "Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight.’
Now to understand why Jesus is acting the way he does we have to take note of what has just been happened. Jesus has just had a run-in with the religious rulers because he allowed his disciples to eat corn picked from the fields as they travelled along the road, as well as heal a man with a shrivelled hand, both of which took place on the same day which was a Sabbath-the Jewish holy day. Now that was the most religiously incorrect thing Jesus could ever have done because it ran contrary to all that the Pharisees held dear, namely, keeping their rules. The result? v 14, they hatched a plot to kill him. And so Jesus withdrew. But he didn’t pull back out of cowardice; but because of his divine character- v 17, ‘This was to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah’. And what was that? Well, in chapter 42 of that prophecy which is being quoted here, we encounter a person simply known as the ‘Lord’s Servant.’ In fact, at times the link between Yahweh- the LORD God and the servant is so close that the two are almost interchangeable- so what the LORD is saying and doing, the servant is saying and doing, and vice versa. And here in Matthew 12 the full identity of this ‘servant’ is now being revealed –it is Jesus. So when God steps onto the stage of human history he does not strut and brag like human conquerors do, on the contrary, v 19, ‘He will not quarrel or cry out no one will hear his voice in the streets.’ You see, the ministry of Jesus is not like the glitzy ministry of the American TV evangelist or the rabble rousing revolutionary. It is a quiet and gentle ministry- peaceful and unobtrusive. He does not force his way into people’s lives, instead he invites people to share in his life. And as such he receives the divine approval of his heavenly Father, ‘Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight: I will put my Spirit upon him and he will proclaim justice to the nations.’ In other words, Jesus is behaving in a way which gladdens the heart of his Father. Jesus practices what he preaches in that he has that lovely ‘beatitude attitude,’ a discrete loving service to those in need- v 15. ‘Many followed him and he healed their sick, warning them not to tell who he was.’ Jesus is not into self-publicity but self-giving service. Now could I ask whether this is your view of God? A God who is strong, yet sensitive? A God who is firm, but flexible? A God who is tough and yet tender? Well, that is the God of the Bible. For that is the God with whom we come face to face in the person of Jesus.
However, the claim to greatness is nonetheless present but in a veiled way and is the very thing which led to the religious leaders conniving to do away with Jesus. Let’s just follow this through and as we do so we shall see that C.S. Lewis’s trilemma when it comes to deciding who Jesus is still holds: he is either mad, bad or God- and so we come to the divine claim.
The beef with Jesus and his followers begins in verses 1 and 2, ‘His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” ‘Against the law?- says who? Well the Pharisees- not the Old Testament. The Sabbath is the day of rest, peace and wholeness- a statement of belief according to Genesis 2:2- that the whole earth is under God’s kindly rule. And by his people not engaging in their normal working activity they show they believe that, that the world will not stop working because they have stopped working- God’s fatherly, providing care goes on. You have it in the ten commands in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 10. The Sabbath is a day of blessing for man. Furthermore the Old Testament law made provision for people on a journey to pick grain or fruit or whatever from the fields as they travelled. They could snack if they were hungry, as long as they didn’t gather and store the stuff that was OK- again a sign of God’s kindness in providing for people’s needs. But the Pharisees came along and added to God’s law and made up 39 categories of work prohibited on the Sabbath. And surprise, surprise picking grain was one of them.
Now Jesus could have ended the argument in v3 by saying- ‘You are wrong- that is your law, not God’s law and it is therefore quite lawful for my followers to do what they are doing.’ But he doesn’t. Instead Jesus uses this as an opportunity to not only put the legalist in his place, but to establish his place as the one who has an authority which belongs to God alone- putting himself on a par with God. In so doing Jesus was being deliberately provocative, ratchetting up the stakes
The climax to where his argument is leading is verse 8 ‘For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.’ The Sabbath a picture of God’s absolute rule in his universe and a sign of what is to come- heaven and Jesus says he is Lord over it. Let that sink in. God is by definition Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus declares he is Lord of the Sabbath. It doesn’t take an Einstein to complete the equation does it? God is Lord, Jesus is Lord, Jesus is God.
So what are the steps in his argument? There are two arguments from Scripture backed up by a visible demonstration of the claim.
First, Jesus points out that there is precedent for this kind of action and it goes back to David and his followers when they were on the run going into the house of God to eat the showbread. Strictly speaking the bread was not for them but the priests. Furthermore the priests themselves weren’t as strict as the Pharisees either because they worked on the Sabbath, doing what priests do. What is the point Jesus is making? Well, he is saying in effect to the Pharisees, ‘You would have no problem with David and his followers doing what they did because he was God’s anointed, the King, the Messiah.’ The implication being that Jesus is the Messiah because he is doing what David did. In fact the inference we are to draw is that Jesus is greater than David because even David did not claim to be Lord of the Sabbath. So ‘if David and his followers had the right to do what they did’ says Jesus- ‘so do I and my followers.’
Furthermore, he is saying that his followers are greater than the priests who serve in the Temple because Jesus is greater than the temple. That would have taken the wind out of his critic’s sails. The temple was the highpoint of Judaism- the place where God dwelt, the meeting place of God and man, the place of sacrifice and forgiveness and mercy. Jesus is saying he is greater than that? How can he be? Well, he can if he is God in the flesh, if his words are God’s words and the sacrifice he is going to make for the forgiveness of sins is that of the servant prophesied by Isaiah.
And then he goes on to demonstrate that everything he has claimed is true- he heals a man with a shrivelled hand on the Sabbath. The Sabbath of all days is the day for doing good, healing not harming, saving not killing. Why, common sense tells you that if you have a sheep fallen down a pit on the Sabbath you don’t leave it there to die- even the religious would get down and lift it out: how much more a man in the pit of self despair because of a terrible infirmity? And since God is in the saving and sustaining business on the Sabbath, so is his Son- and Jesus heals the man to the utter fury of the Pharisees. Again do you see the equation- what God does, Jesus does?
And this leads us to the divine offer. The cry of the religious person is: ‘What is lawful?’ You see it there in verse 2 ‘Look, (say the Pharisees) Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.’ And then again in v10 ‘They asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’ But the concern of Jesus is ‘What is loving?’ And that is shown in actions- feeding the hungry disciples, healing the man with a shrivelled hand. Not that any of this was to be set in opposition to God’s law, rather it was a fulfilment of it, hence v7 ‘If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.’ a quotation from the OT prophets -Hosea, who were seen to be the true interpreters of the law.
But the problem with the religious then, and many of the religious now, is legalism. Think for a moment of the characteristics of legalism. Legalism is rigid, uniform and mechanical-you don’t even have to think about it, just disengage the mind and go through the motions. But the real problem with the legalist is that he thinks that he doesn’t need God. Legalism is the search for innocence, not forgiveness. ‘I must be alright’ says the legalist, ‘for I have kept all the rules’. And the more you can define the rules the easier it is to see if you have kept them, the legalist hates ambiguity. And so at the end of the day, legalism is all about self- explaining self, justifying self, exalting self.
And you see the effects of legalism here in this passage. First, legalism turns my view into your burden. The Pharisees view was that it was better for the man to remain infirm than to be healed. So he can keep his burden so they can keep their opinion. Secondly, legalism turns my views into your boundary. Your opposing view not only makes me question your right to have fellowship with me but your salvation. The disciples must be beyond the pale because they were not part of their group. But thirdly legalism turns my opinion into your obligation. ‘You had better toe the party line or you are out –hence them getting rid of Jesus. That is legalism. The legalist bullies and intimidates to get you to conform. If you want to keep in with the group then just do, don’t ask. But Jesus did ask and that is what made him uncomfortable. And it has to be said that the suffocating curse of legalism with its fear-induced conformity is very much alive and kicking today and is no respecter of churchmanship. That is the way of legalism.
But that is not the way of Jesus. We have already seen what that is at the end of the previous chapter. The yoke of the Pharisaic law is a burden, the yoke of Jesus- the one who is gentle and humble in heart- gives rest- true Shabbat- (11:28-30).
Look at verse 20 which is one of the most moving descriptions of Jesus in the Bible: ‘A bruised reed he will not break, a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.’ At the time of Christ reeds were used for all sorts of things. A shepherd would often make a flute- like instrument out of a reed and play soft, gentle music on it. But if it became split or bruised it would no longer make music and the shepherd would throw it away. When a lamp burned down to the end of the wick, it would only smoulder without making any light and so it would be snuffed out. Now can you see who this imagery applies to? It is to people who are bruised and broken. Folk the world and legalistic religion would consider beyond repair - only to be discarded as useless.
Just think about it for a moment: is there anything more frail than a bruised reed? There it is by the water’s edge. It was once slender and sturdy, now it is bowed and bent. And that may well be a picture of you if the truth be known. You can remember a time when you were strong and upright. That is, until something happened. You were bruised perhaps by some harsh words, a friend’s anger, a spouse’s betrayal, or religion’s rigidity. And so you were wounded, bent ever so slightly, feeling you could easily break any time. Is that you?
Or is there anything more close to death than a smouldering wick? Once a flame passionate and glowing, now merely flicker and steadily failing. Not yet cold, but no longer hot. That perhaps is a perfect description of the way you feel about your faith. You remember how once you shone so brightly, your light blazing a trail for others to follow. But then came the cold wind. Someone said your ideas were stupid, that your zeal was embarrassing. The harsh wind of criticism seemed relentless. Oh, you stood up to it for a time, but you felt so isolated, so alone, leaving you feeling as if you were one pinch away from total extinction. Perhaps that is you?
If so, then see how Jesus will deal with you as he dealt with the people he encountered in this Gospel. The bullied disciples, he defends. The put upon man with his wizened hand he restores. That’s Jesus. He doesn’t despise our infirmities, he deals with them. At the point when we feel we can no longer go on, that is exactly the point at which Jesus quietly comes alongside as we feel the touch of his Spirit and hear the voice of his Word-he will not break us or snuff us out, that is not his way. The bruised reed he will bind, the smouldering wick he will fan into a flame
So let me tell you about Rita Armstrong.
Rita’s nerves suffered quite severely as a child when she was subject to air raids during the war. When leaving school she struggled with acute depression. But it wasn’t until 1974 that she was actually diagnosed as having manic-depression and was given medication. It was then she was introduced to an Edinburgh doctor called Winifred Rushforth, who although 95 was still going strong. This is how Rita takes up her story: ‘Winifred believed in each one of her patients and helped us to believe in ourselves. My bruised and battered personality was bathed in her loving acceptance. She was never shocked. She never told us what we ought to do. She did not tell us- she showed that God loved us. By now my children had grown up and were leaving home. One afternoon, as I sat in a rare moment of peace meditating on God’s greatness and power, I thought back to the blitz, and then scanned through the centuries to Calvary, and back still further to the beginning of everything. And only God was there. Then I contemplated my future, the time when my life would finally be wound up. And God would still be there. I felt very insignificant against such a backcloth and my petty problems paled pathetically. Then I remembered the childlike faith with which I had given my life to God, confident that Jesus loved me. And Jesus cannot change. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Suddenly a light shone. Realisation dawned and a great joy overwhelmed me. Something I must have been told many times became real. I started singing. What I was singing was quite simply this: ‘I matter to God.’
The bruised reed and the smouldering wick you see. Society knows exactly what to do with you. The world will break you off. Society will snuff you out: but not Jesus. A bruised reed he will not break, a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.
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