Category Archives: Matthew

Matthew 2: One King Too Many!

“This town ain’t big enough for the both of us!”

I always thought John Wayne said it. But apparently it’s from a 1932 B-grade Western called “The Western Code”.

It’s what happens when TWO people BOTH want to be in charge. And ONE of them will be disappointed!

“This town ain’t big enough for the both of us!” It might have been what someone said in an old Western movie. But it’s ALSO what King Herod said in about 2 BC.

He’s thinking of King Jesus. And the town was Jerusalem.

Because there was a new king in town. And the OLD King wasn’t too pleased. As far as Herod saw it, ONE king was just right. And any new contenders were a threat. Because Herod was in no mood to share his power with ANYONE.

The trouble started when some astronomers turned up. Wise men from around Persia. They’d arrived because they’d noticed a new star appear. And they’d worked out that meant A KING OF THE JEWS had been born. Literally, a sign in the heavens.

And so they turn up at Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. The obvious place for a new king of the Jews to be born. And they ask, in v2.

“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

This new KING OF THE JEWS was so important, A star had appeared to herald his birth. Like a 21 gun salute. Or a trumpet fanfare.

The WHOLE COSMOS was sitting up and taking notice. And that’s what these wise men wanted to do, too. Because when they found him, they wanted to WORSHIP him.

The problem was it was NEWS TO HEROD. His wife hadn’t given birth. So there was no new prince HE was responsible for.

And so this new king, whoever he was, was a THREAT. And he thinks, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”

Now, King Herod – Herod the Great – had a history of wiping out his opposition. He’d already murdered a wife, his three sons, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, and an uncle. All because he thought they might be a threat.

And they were just NORMAL people. But the wise men were talking about a new king whose birth was announced by a NEW STAR! And who was worth WORSHIPPING. V3 says Herod was DISTURBED, and all Jerusalem WITH him. And no wonder – with HIS reputation, NO ONE was safe!

So Herod got to work. First up, v4, interrogating THE RELIGIOUS LEADERS. “Where would the Christ, or Messiah, appear?” (God’s promised chosen rescuer). They told him Bethlehem was the place. A little town just up the road. That’s what the prophet Micah had predicted.

Next up, he calls THE WISE MEN in, v7, secretly. He finds out when the star had first appeared. That will give him a BIRTH DATE, so he knows how old the boy is.

Then he points them in the direction of Bethlehem. And enlists them to do his dirty work for him. Listen to his instructions. There in v8.

He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

Yeah right! Herod’s about as likely to worship this new king as Donald Trump is to send a Christmas card to Joe Biden.

And so the Magi head off again. But rather than follow HEROD’s directions. It’s THE STAR that leads the way. So they follow IT, INSTEAD.

And v9 tells us the star stopped over the place the child was. It’s actually a PASSIVE verb. The star WAS STOPPED. It didn’t just stop. It was MADE to STOP. In other words, GOD stopped the star.

The God who controls the events of history. Controlled the star that honoured his Son. The star that rose in the sky at his BIRTH. The star that guided the Wise men to where he was.

And notice what happened next. It’s there in v10. What is it that makes the Magi so happy?

When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.

I don’t think it’s THE STAR that made them happy. They’d obviously seen IT before. I think it was the fact that the star had STOPPED. They were overjoyed because their journey was OVER. Their searching was finished. They were finally HOME.

They may be hundreds of kilometers from where they LIVED. But they were HOME. The place where the REST of their LIFE BEGAN. Where questions would be answered. Where searching stopped. Where everything would get put into perspective.

Now the NIV translation’s pretty weak here. “They were overjoyed”. There are actually four different words. The old RSV is an accurate translation. “They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

And this was even before they’d MET Jesus. That’s in v11.

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary,

Two things to notice, just as an aside. They didn’t meet Jesus in the stable. And he wasn’t in a manger. It was a HOUSE. And it wasn’t a BABY – but a CHILD.

So it must have been some time AFTER Jesus’ birth. (After the night the shepherds visited).

Some other information that supports that:

First, it’s likely the star appeared at Jesus’ BIRTH. And it took the wise men a reasonable period of time to TRAVEL. A number of months at least.

Secondly, Herod sets an age limit of TWO YEARS when he sends his soldiers to kill the baby boys in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16). Because he’d worked out when Jesus was born. And done his sums.

In fact, it doesn’t actually say they went to BETHLEHEM AT ALL. Herod TOLD them to go to Bethlehem. But LUKE’S gospel tells us Jesus’ family returned to Nazareth after his dedication in the temple at 40 days old. So it’s possible that’s where the house is.

So, most nativity scenes and Christmas cards get that bit wrong! Where they show the shepherds and wise men all gathering around the manger.

Almost certainly, it’s two different events. Which makes sense, seeing it’s LUKE’S gospel that tells us about the SHEPHERDS. And Matthew that tells us about the WISE MEN. And neither mentions the other.

So, these wise men finally meet Jesus. And what do they do? V11.

… they BOWED DOWN and WORSHIPED him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with GIFTS of gold and of incense and of myrrh.

The journey was OVER. They’d found the one they’d been looking for. And they fell down. They WORSHIPPED. They gave their gifts. In recognition and gratitude.

This little boy/ embodied God himself. And deserved their worship. Not just their GIFTS, but their LOYALTY and RESPECT and their LIVES.

And their gifts show a God-given insight into Jesus. His identity and role. GOLD fit for a KING. INCENSE – used by the PRIESTS in offering up prayers. And a strange gift for a baby – MYRRH – used to embalm A DEAD BODY.

So much expectation wrapped up in such a small bundle. Arrives with the backing of the God who controls THE STARS. The God who prepared his people to expect him through prophetic messages.

This little child destined for such an AWESOME and PUZZLING combination of roles and responsibilities. A KING over the world – over life and death. Over the fate of people. (promised to David, predicted in Isaiah 9)

A PRIEST standing between God and man. Representing one before the other. (An ETERNAL priest in the order of Melchizedek, promised in Psalm 110).

A DEATHLY SACRIFICE – a life offered in place of others. The means of atonement. A suffering servant pierced for our transgressions, promised in Isaiah 53).

Somehow, they’d perceived that this life that had started with such INNOCENCE and WEAKNESS and PROMISE. Would END in POWERFUL, LOVING, VIOLENT SACRIFICE.

No wonder they’d bowed down and worshipped!

That’s ONE reaction to Jesus. But the opposite reaction is never far from the surface. Look at the very next verse. Verse 12.

And having been warned in a dream not to go back to HEROD, they returned to their country by another route.

And it was just as well they did. Look at how Herod reacted when he found out. Down in v16.

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was FURIOUS, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Herod. And the Magi. Two opposite responses to Jesus.

Herod was troubled. And jealous. And threatened. And furious. He’d do ANYTHING to keep Jesus OFF the throne.

And the Magi. They’d do anything to SEE HIM ENTHRONED. To WORSHIP him. To OFFER THEMSELVES in SERVICE to him.

And it’s the same today. There are millions of Herods around. Puny, deluded kings. Looking to control every part of their life. (Their health, their financial security, their pleasure, their leisure, their choices). Refusing to submit. Always knowing best. Ruthless in dealing with any threat to their autonomy.

You see, anyone who lives life WITHOUT Jesus on the throne. Is a King Herod.

It’s JESUS who deserves to be your king. In fact, he IS the king over the cosmos, whether we recognize him or NOT.

God sent him to be a priest and a sacrifice. To die in our place. To win our reconciliation back to God. And then he RAISED HIM FROM DEATH, DECLARING him to be both LORD and MESSIAH. To be KING over EVERYTHING. (That’s Acts 2:36)

Philippians 2 says God EXALTED Jesus to the HIGHEST place, and gave him the name that is above EVERY name. So that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE SHOULD BOW.

And, ONE DAY, that WILL happen. (Every knee will bow before King Jesus). Either WILLINGLY, or Unwillingly.

The wise men just got in EARLY. They bowed the knee to Jesus as a little BOY.

But MOST people AREN’T wise. They’re like King Herod. Most people think life’s about looking after “Number One”. And ignoring the opposition. Doing WHAT they want/ WHEN they want. People might OPENLY thumb our noses at Jesus. Try to wipe him out. That’s what Herod did. Or people might just PRETEND he’s not there. ACT as if he’s not there. That’s probably most Aussies. But either way. For most people. If Jesus is on the scene. (If he’s asserting his right to rule). THAT’S ONE KING TOO MANY.

And THAT sort of attitude/ is what the Bible calls sin. (Setting yourself up on life’s throne. Instead of Jesus. Thinking you know better than the God who created you). That’s sin.

And God says/ that deserves his JUDGMENT. ETERNAL separation from him. Giving us what we WANT. Independence from God for all eternity. (People thought being on HEROD’S bad side was a scary thing. But that’s NOTHING compared to being on God’s bad side.)

Much better, says Matthew, to be a WISE GUY. Wisdom/ is recognising the true state of affairs and acting on it. It’s what the Magi did. Recognise who Jesus is. And submit to him. Fall before him. That’s where we deserve to be. On our faces in front of him.

This Christmas we all give and receive gifts. But how about giving KING JESUS the gift HE deserves? Our loyalty. Our worship. A life committed to serving him as king.

You see, the Magi ALSO knew that once Jesus arrived/ that was ONE KING TOO MANY. They couldn’t continue being king of their life/ while Jesus was king.

And so they demitted. They stepped off the throne of their lives. They bowed down and worshipped. They gave the crown to Jesus instead.

And that’s what WE need to do. The FIRST time we do that is when God makes us a new person. When we become a Christian.

Perhaps that’s something YOU need to do this Christmas.

Most of you have already done that. But we need to KEEP doing that. EACH DAY hopping off our thrones. And bowing before King Jesus. In SUBMISSION to his majesty and authority. And in THANKS that he’s saved us. Give up your kingship in your CAREER. In your AMBITION. Give it up / in your plans for how your CHILDREN will grow up. Or your plans for the future. Give it up in your MARRIAGE. Or your singleness. Give up your kingship over your HEALTH. And over your COMFORT. And PLEASURE. And your FINANCIAL SECURITY.

Wise Guys give up their kingship EVERY DAY. And fall before King Jesus. Because they recognise that TWO kings/ is ONE king too many.

Matthew 16: Identifying Jesus

Making the right identification can be a matter of life and death. My friend Diane posted this photo of what was inside her letterbox the other day. Her comment was “I might leave that letter there!” For those of you who don’t know your spiders, it’s a red back spider. The tell-tale sign is the red stripe down the back. A bite from one can make you quite sick. And, before antivenom was introduced, bites had caused DEATHS.

When it comes to spiders, it’s VITAL to make an accurate identification. It can be A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. It’s no good thinking a spider’s harmless if it’s actually DEADLY.

But it’s EVEN MORE IMPORTANT to make an accurate identification about JESUS. Because it’s your ETERNAL destiny that’s at stake. Did you notice those scary words near the end of the chapter? V26.

26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?

Jesus is talking about the decision someone makes about WHO JESUS IS. It’s foolish to pursue RICHES, rather than JESUS. Because YOUR SOUL is more valuable than ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD.

That decision about who Jesus is; it’s far more important than just a matter of opinion – like whether you like CHOCOLATE ice cream or STRAWBERRY. Make the wrong choice, and you FORFEIT YOUR SOUL. You LOSE it, for ETERNITY.

So can I suggest, for the sake of YOUR ETERNAL SOUL, that you listen in for the next twenty minutes of so. That you put your phone away – unless you’re using a Bible app. That you wake up, sit up straight, and unblock your ears. Your soul will THANK you for it!

Identifying Jesus WRONGLY (1-12)

In the first section we see what NOT to do. (People identifying Jesus WRONGLY.)

V1. Some Pharisees and Sadducees team up, and ask Jesus to show them a sign from heaven.

But we’re told it’s A TEST. They’re not genuinely seeking. They probably expect him to FAIL, and prove to the people he’s just the latest in a long line of pretenders.

They’re making a decision about Jesus’ identification. But it’s completely wrong. Look at v2. (Just to help you see what Jesus is doing, the word for SKY is the same word for HEAVEN the Jewish leaders use.)

They’ve asked him FOR A SIGN FROM HEAVEN. So Jesus says, v2, “Speaking of A SIGN FROM HEAVEN. At NIGHT, if the heaven’s red, you interpret the signs, and predict FINE weather. Or in the MORNING if the heaven’s red, you predict STORMS.

You can interpret the HEAVENS, but you’ve got no idea about how to interpret the signs of the TIMES.

He’s talking about the PRESENT time. In other words, God’s already GIVEN you a sign. But you’ve MISSED it. You’re living in JESUS-time. And I’m doing all sorts of signs. A time when GOD HIMSELF is visiting his people. He’s promised it through his prophets, so the people should be ready. But they’ve MISSED IT COMPLETELY.

And Jesus dismisses them with a word of judgment. V4

4 A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”

And he leaves them behind. They’ve mis-identified Jesus. Which makes them wicked.

But also DANGEROUS. Because anyone who LISTENS to them might be INFLUENCED by them. And so, Jesus warns his disciples. V6. WATCH OUT for the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. By which he means their DANGEROUS INFLUENCE.

They think he’s talking about accepting BREAD from them. Because they’d forgotten to pack lunch. Like a warning – “Don’t accept lollies from strangers.”

They’ve misunderstood. And Jesus has a word of rebuke for THEM. V8, “You of little faith.” And then, down in v11, how is it you don’t UNDERSTAND I’m not talking about BREAD?

He connects FAITH to UNDERSTANDING.

Because it’s not just misunderstanding the figure of speech (the saying about YEAST). It’s misunderstanding WHO JESUS IS. V9, If they’d remembered that Jesus had already fed 5000, with plenty of leftovers. And not long after, another 4000 with plenty of leftovers. Then they wouldn’t have misunderstood his warning about YEAST. And think he was offering a lunch solution.

If they’d recognised Jesus a little better, they’d TRUST he’d already have lunch ORGANISED. He didn’t need to organise anyone else to cater!

If they’d TRUSTED better, they might have understood about the yeast of the Pharisees.

A lack of FAITH is connected to a lack of UNDERSTANDING.

We wonder how the disciples could be so DULL. How they go straight to the EARTHLY solution for lunch. When Jesus is sitting right next to them.

But it’s what we do all the time. We know Jesus can do ANYTHING. But something goes wrong, and our first instinct isn’t to PRAY – to hand it all over to our powerful, loving Master – it’s to fix it ourselves. To use our brains, or our influence, or our money. OUR solutions, not Jesus.

And the disciples are JUST LIKE US.

But the section finishes ON A POSITIVE NOTE. V11, he repeats his warning. And V12. Then they UNDERSTOOD he was talking about the TEACHING of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

  1. Identifying Jesus CORRECTLY

As we move into the next section, Jesus BUILDS on that understanding. We see people identifying Jesus CORRECTLY.

It’s the POSITIVE to the last two NEGATIVES. The LIGHT compared to the DARKNESS.

V13, they move up to the region of Caesarea Philippi. Up in the far north of Israel. They finally seem to have escaped the crowds of the previous few chapters. And he takes the opportunity to de-brief on the last period of ministry. V13. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” he asks.

“Think back, as you’ve overheard people talking, what are they saying about me?”

They all chip in: John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah.

“But what about YOU?” counters Jesus, v15. That’s MORE important. What’s YOUR identification?

Typically, Peter is the first to speak. V16.

You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

It’s the climax of the story so far. A completely clear identification. No confusion or misunderstanding.

One commentator says, “He could not have ascribed a higher place to him. His words bring out the essential being of our Lord in the most comprehensive expression in the gospels.” (Morris, 421).

He’s the CHRIST. Or MESSIAH. God’s promised anointed King. Predicted in the Old Testament prophets. Who’d bring in God’s kingdom. Longed for by all the people.

But not only that. He’s the Son of the living God. At the very least, it’s another KINGLY title. Right alongside “Messiah”. 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 2 talk about God’s appointed king being his SON. His representative, who REFLECTS him, and acts on his behalf.

But Peter and the other disciples have witnessed Jesus’ baptism, when a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well-pleased.”

They’ve heard Jesus call God, “My Father”. (Including here, in the very next verse.)

The disciples may not be all the way there yet, but they’re growing in their understanding that God’s SON is more than a TITLE for Jesus. That it reflects something of his eternal NATURE, and RELATIONSHIP with God the Father.

And Peter finally wins a cheer from Jesus. V17.

17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.

We’ll see in the next section though, he’s got the identification right. But not the NATURE of Jesus’ kingship. He’s got the right business card. But the wrong JOB DESCRIPTION.

Jesus gives him a Cheer. But, in SOME ways, it’s a back-handed compliment. Jesus is saying, “You’re BLESSED. Yes, you got it right. But you didn’t work it out on your own. It was REVEALED BY MY FATHER IN HEAVEN.”

Which is comforting for US, as we tell our friends and family about Jesus. It doesn’t depend on how clearly or cleverly we explain things. How persuasive or persistent. Or how intelligent they are, or good-intentioned. But it’s all about GOD revealing it to them. It’s all up TO HIM. HIS Spirit blows where he wills.

All of which means we should be PRAYING for people / AT LEAST AS MUCH as we SPEAK to them.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? The Pharisees and Sadducees want a SIGN from heaven. And Peter, v17, receives a message from THE FATHER in heaven. (That Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God!) That’s the only sign from heaven they needed. To identify Jesus CORRECTLY!

And when Jesus says the only sign they’ll be given is the sign of JONAH. A bit further on, v17, it’s the SON OF JONAH – Simon – who receives the message.

It’s the only place in the Bible where Simon Peter’s dad is called JONAH. There’s one other reference in John 1, where Peter’s dad is called JOHN.

So it seems like what Jesus and Matthew are saying is that the sign from heaven the Pharisees wanted/ is Peter’s declaration. HE’S THE CHRIST. THE SON OF THE LIVING GOD.

Everything’s pointing to THAT SENTENCE as the most important thing you can notice. It’s Matthew’s way of highlighting, underlining, and printing in capitals! It’s the executive summary of the gospel, so far.

Identify Jesus correctly! Nothing matters MORE.

(There’s certainly plenty of double-meaning stuff going on in this chapter. We’ve already mentioned the double meaning of HEAVEN at the START. The Pharisees mean WHERE GOD LIVES. And Jesus uses the same word to mean SKY.) So perhaps it’s not surprising to have two meanings for “a sign from heaven”. And two meanings for “a sign of Jonah”.

And there’s ANOTHER pun in what Jesus says NEXT. It’s a continuation of Jesus’ blessing for Peter. V18.

18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

Peter, or Petros, means ROCK. And Jesus declares that he will build his church on THIS ROCK (or PETRA, which is feminine).

There’s a whole range of views about what Jesus meant. Especially the view that PETER HIMSELF is the rock, and he’s the foundation of the church.

But if that’s what Jesus meant, it seems funny to address Peter at the START of the sentence, and then switch to talking ABOUT him.

So I think “this rock” is Peter’s identification that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. That’s the testimony that Jesus will make the foundation of the church he builds.

And all of Matthew’s literary techniques highlighting Peter’s declaration just REINFORCE that view.

The identification that Jesus is God’s Messiah King and Son, and then testifying to that, is what Jesus will use to build his church. And that certainly proved true in the Book of Acts. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, in Acts, 2, gives birth to the New Testament church. More than three thousand were added to their number that day.

And what was the content of Peter’s sermon? That God raised Jesus from the dead. And exalted him to his right hand. And made him both LORD and CHRIST. In other words, a testimony about who Jesus is – the Christ, the son of the living God. The foundation on which the church was built.

And that’s got an application for the things we do in church. Of all the things you can emphasise – all the messages you can send – there’s nothing more important than the message that Jesus is God’s promised, appointed, anointed king. His son. Come to bring his kingdom. And to KEEP saying it.

That’s what it means to be EVANGELICAL. We’re always on about the GOSPEL. Who Jesus is. And how we respond to him. We don’t outgrow it. We never move beyond it. It’s not just a message for non-Christians to hear. It’s a message we KEEP proclaiming to each other.

And when we keep proclaiming it. JESUS WILL BUILD HIS CHURCH. How good are those words!? It’s not our church. It’s JESUS’. So he’ll take RESPONSIBILITY for it.

HE’LL build it. It’s not up to us. We just need to keep testifying to who Jesus is.

And he’ll build it STRONG and SOLID. V18, so that even the gates of Hades won’t overcome it. Which probably means that even DEATH won’t defeat it.

That’s certainly what we’ve seen down through the history of the church. Anti-Christian institutions – governments and armies and powerful individuals – try to destroy the church by killing people. Arresting, imprisoning and torturing. But it hasn’t worked yet. And the church is still growing.

And it’s in his role as God’s appointed King that Jesus makes ANOTHER promise in v19.

19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

The idea is of a king who gives authority over the palace to his steward. In Isaiah 22, God appoints Eliakim as the new steward, or administrator, in Hezekiah’s palace.

21 …He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. 22 I WILL PLACE ON HIS SHOULDER THE KEY TO THE HOUSE OF DAVID; WHAT HE OPENS NO ONE CAN SHUT, AND WHAT HE SHUTS NO ONE CAN OPEN.

Eliakim has the authority of the king, himself. When he makes a decision about something, that decision STANDS. Heaven’s authority stands behind him. No one can overturn it. What he PERMITS, is permitted. And what he FORBIDS is forbidden.

It might have been a LITERAL key, that unlocked doors. Or it might have been a ring, with the king’s SEAL on it. Or it might just have been a METAPHOR.

So the idea of Jesus’ promise is that Peter, as the representative leader of the church, will have the authority of heaven’s king. Of Jesus himself. Decisions made about how the church functions will be REINFORCED by Jesus. About what’s forbidden and what’s permitted. They won’t be overturned by a higher court. Earthly decisions will have HEAVENLY IMPLICATIONS.

Which means the CHURCH isn’t irrelevant and insignificant. Its business isn’t marginal and trivial. Shame on us if all we’re doing is running business meetings, holding hands, maintaining buildings and having cups of tea.

We’re involved in the stuff of ETERNITY. Of saving SOULS. Of declaring and glorifying Jesus among the nations. Of preparing people for ETERNITY, by growing them more and more like Jesus.

Jesus’ church is the CENTRE of God’s purposes for his world!

JESUS is building HIS church. And he’s authorising and supporting US/ as we strive to make the King of heaven/ the king of ALL.

Peter’s declared clearly about Jesus’ kingship, but they’re dangerous words POLITICALLY. They can be easily misunderstood – as we’ll see in a minute. It’s not yet time for Jesus to be revealed. So, v20, he warns the disciples not to tell anyone that he’s the Christ.

And from that time on, v21, he begins to explain more about his job description. He BEGINS to teach – because it’s a long process. And the disciples are slow learners.

Jesus’ church WILL be built. He’ll be victorious IN THE END. But the victory comes THROUGH defeat and sacrifice. V21

21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

None of that fits Peter’s picture of a conquering Christ, so he promises to do whatever he can to stop that happening. “Never! This shall never happen to you!”

But Jesus knows that the only way to LIFE and VICTORY / is through the VALLEY of defeat and death. And Peter’s view of things is a TEMPTATION for him. A temptation to take the easy way. The pain-free way. And he says, v23, “Get out of the way, you’re trying to trip me up. You’re just like Satan himself. You’re perspective is EARTHLY, not HEAVENLY.”

Jesus is determined to do his Father’s will. And that’s suffering and death.

  1. The implications of identifying Jesus correctly

In fact, he goes on to say, it’s no different for anyone who FOLLOWS him. (It’s the implications of identifying Jesus correctly). V24

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up HIS cross and follow me.

Once you RECOGNISE Jesus, you’ll FOLLOW him. Because he’s KING. And God’s SON.

And to follow him means following his WAY. Jesus suffered and died. Which means that YOU, TOO, will suffer and die. V25.

25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever LOSES HIS LIFE FOR ME will FIND it.

The only way to victorious life FOR JESUS was through suffering and death. And it’s the same FOR US. The only way for US to find life is to LOSE our LIFE for JESUS. To hand over EVERYTHING to him.

It’s like learning to swim. You never learn with your feet touching the bottom. You’ve got to hold your breath and step into the deep. And that’s when you can enjoy the glorious freedom of swimming.

It’s the same with JESUS. Give up your life. Your safety. Your control. Dive in. Let go of the need to be FIRST or GREATEST or RIGHT. Unburden yourself of the desire for self-protection or comfort.

That’s the only way to experience true life. Now, OR in eternity. Lose your life for Jesus, and he’ll REWARD you.

We do it ONCE, when we first become a Christian. But we have to KEEP doing it. Every day. The battle is always to be in charge. Every day, take up your cross.

Or you can stay safe in the shallow end. Hold onto power. Maintain the illusion that you can control your own destiny. Your own health, and fulfilment, and death. And you’ll end up losing your soul.

Can you SEE Jesus? Do you IDENTIFY him correctly? Will you FOLLOW him?

You won’t regret it. Your SOUL will THANK you for it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matthew 13:1-52: Good growth

In the middle of an empty field, a man wearing a backpack lies dead. There are no other clues visible. How did he die?

Do you remember those puzzles? We use to tell them around the campfire when I was a teenager. And the idea was you had to keep asking yes/ no questions until you found out the answer. Which was always SIMPLE.

In THIS case, you need to work out that the backpack had a PARACHUTE inside, and it DIDN’T OPEN when he jumped out of a plane. SIMPLE!

Or what about THIS one. A man walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a glass of water. But the bartender takes out a gun and aims it at the man’s head. The man says “Thank You” and walks out.

Very strange! Until you work out, by asking questions, that the man wanted the water to fix his HICCUPS. The bartender SCARED him by taking out his gun. And cured his hiccups. SIMPLE!

SOME people LOVE these. And they can’t give up until they find out the answer. OTHER people just get ANNOYED and walk away. It doesn’t bother them if they don’t solve the puzzle.

And that’s what Jesus is doing with PARABLES. They’re PUZZLES that have a simple point. But it’s not OBVIOUS. So you’ve got to THINK. And ASK QUESTIONS. And then, if you WORK at it, they’ll MAKE SENSE. And things will be CLEARER.

But OTHER people just see NONSENSE. And they walk away. And things are LESS clear. It CONFIRMS them in their ignorance. In SOME ways, it makes them HARDER.

Which is a bit different to the way LOTS of people understand parables. They think of them as ILLUSTRATIONS that EXPLAIN things. To make things EASIER.

But the surprising thing is it’s the OPPOSITE. They HIDE things. They’re more like A TEST. To find out who wants to listen. Or A NET that SEPARATES people into two groups. Those who want to UNDERSTAND. And those who DON’T.

You can see that there in v10. The disciples come to Jesus and ask, “WHY do you speak to the people IN PARABLES?”

Which is what he’s been doing. Back up in v1, Teaching HUGE CROWDS down by the lake. There are SO MANY people, he has to hop in a boat so he doesn’t get pushed back into the water. And, v3, he tells them MANY THINGS IN PARABLES.

And there are SOME, like the DISCIPLES, who want to UNDERSTAND. Who ASK QUESTIONS. And Jesus says, v11

“The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to YOU, but not to THEM.

See that? TWO GROUPS. ONE, like the disciples, who ask more questions. And God GIVES them knowledge about the kingdom of heaven as they think about the parable. They DISCOVER THE SECRET.

And then there’s MOST of the crowd, who just walk away at the end of the day, and move on. Who say, “That was interesting! I wonder what’s for dinner!”

Two groups. And the parables work DIFFERENTLY depending which GROUP you’re in. V12.

12 Whoever HAS will be given MORE, and he will have AN ABUNDANCE. Whoever does NOT have, even what he HAS will be taken from him.

God’s AT WORK when you hear a parable.

And that’s the case whether it’s JESUS telling the story, or US telling our friends about Jesus. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of telling someone about Jesus – perhaps a friend or family member. And, after a while, they know all the FACTS – but they JUST DON’T GET IT. Something just doesn’t connect. It’s like they’re DEAF.

But with OTHER people, GOD makes them CURIOUS. And they’re EXCITED by what they hear. It’s GOD who opens their ears. He gives them understanding and faith to accept his gifts. And it’s like someone turns a switch, and they see it all CLEARLY.

So we need to keep PRAYING that GOD will be at work.

And God’s at work in the teaching of Jesus. Just like FISHING happening in boats all around them. Nets catch fish. All sorts. And then the fishermen SORT them into GOOD and BAD. Jesus has caught ALL sorts of people in that great crowd of people by the lake.

And the PARABLES are SORTING them. The GOOD fish want to know MORE. It’s like an itch they keep scratching until they understand.

But OTHERS are tossed back. They’re BLIND and DEAF and DULL. Which is what Jesus goes on to say. V13

13 THIS is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

He goes on. It’s just like in Isaiah’s time, 700 years before. He kept preaching God’s message of repentance to Israel, but it just made them HARDER.

14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15 For this people’s heart has become CALLOUSED; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.

The more they HEARD, the deafer they GOT. The words just made their hearts HARD and CALLOUSED.

Like when you play the guitar a lot, you get CALLOUSES on your fingers. The skin gets THICK, and you can’t FEEL ANYTHING.

And that’s the way it was for people in Isaiah’s time. Except they had calloused HEARTS. That couldn’t feel anything. The message just TOUGHENED their hearts, rather than MADE THEM SOFT.

And Jesus says it’s like that in HIS time TOO.

It’s what’s been happening leading up to these events. Back in chapter 12. The Pharisees CRITICISE him for his disciples eating grain on the Sabbath. Then for healing a man on the Sabbath. Then they say Jesus casts out demons because he’s the PRINCE of demons. And then they have the ARROGANCE to ask Jesus for a sign – despite seeing all his miracles, and hearing all his teaching.

They’re JUST THE SORT of Israelites with hard, calloused hearts. Who are DEAF to God.

And there are plenty of the crowd listening to him by the lake just like that TOO.

A parable about parables

And so Jesus’ FIRST parable is about THAT PROCESS. Of some HEARING. And some NOT. It’s a parable about PARABLES. About how they’re more like a puzzle to be solved, or fishing that separates, than an illustration to make things clearer.

V3. A farmer sows some seed. Perhaps Jesus could even SEE a farmer from where he sat in the boat. And he takes a handful of seed, and throws it out across the ground. And then he takes ANOTHER handful, and throws it in the OTHER direction.

And as he does, it lands in different places. Some of it lands on the PATH, and the birds come along behind him, and eat it up. The seeds DO NOTHING.

SOME lands off in the corners, where there’s plenty of ROCKS, but not much SOIL. The plants BEGIN to grow. But the roots have nowhere to go, so there’s no STAYING POWER. They shrivel up and die on the first hot day.

OTHER seed lands off on the EDGES, where the WEEDS blow in from the desert. Plenty of SOIL, but also plenty of COMPETITION. And as the plants grow, so do the weeds. (And everyone knows WEEDS grow easier than CROPS. Certainly works that way in MY garden!) And the weeds CHOKE the plants.

But then there’s the GOOD SOIL. And if the farmer’s any good at sowing, MOST of the seed will land THERE. And THERE, the soil produces a rich harvest. A hundred, or sixty, or thirty times what was sown.

And down in v18, Jesus EXPLAINS what it means to the disciples. He tells them the secret about the kingdom of God.

God’s kingdom BEGINS with A MESSAGE. It begins when people HEAR THE CALL to live with God as king, to turn from their sin, and be part of his kingdom.

And people RESPOND in different ways to that message.

V19. SOME people with calloused, hard hearts do NOTHING. Jesus says they don’t understand it because Satan’s at work SNATCHING AWAY the message. He hardens attitudes, and changes priorities, and distracts attention – whatever it takes so the message never connects. That’s the PATH.

Or V20. SOME people love the idea of knowing and serving the God who MADE them and SAVED them. But they don’t LAST. The roots of the message don’t sink down deep into them. There’s only a SURFACE commitment. Which means as soon as DIFFICULTIES come, it’s all too hard, and they give up. It might be sickness, or unemployment, or persecution. That’s the ROCKY soil.

Then, v22, there’s the THORNY SOIL. That’s people who accept the good news about being forgiven and serving Jesus. And the roots are growing into them deeply.

But as life goes on, OTHER things begin to grow TOO. GOOD things in life just CROWD OUT the kingdom. Family, tax, work, sport, renovations to the house, holidays, newspapers, entertainment. God’s kingdom gradually slips down the list of priorities from Number One, until it’s not even in the top ten. There’s normally no conscious decision to stop living as a Christian. Just that the kingdom of God becomes IRRELEVANT. And the kingdom of SELF becomes MOST important.

Different types of people who HAVEN’T understood the secret about the kingdom. Who HAD a little, but then the LITTLE was TAKEN AWAY.

And that’s what’s going on ALL AROUND JESUS as he spreads the seed about the kingdom.

But the GOOD news is/ that’s not EVERYONE. In SOME people, like the disciples, the seed takes root. And it grows down DEEP, and grows up STRONG. And doesn’t get CROWDED OUT.

And it produces FRUIT. The kingdom grows BIGGER. It grows bigger in INDIVIDUALS, who hand over more and more of their life to living GOD’S way.

But also, more and more PEOPLE who repent and believe. Spreading from person to another. One family to another. One region and race and country to ANOTHER. Across borders and oceans and language barrier. Despite persecution and fear and all sorts of obstacles. That’s FRUIT. 30, 60 and 100 times what was sown.

And it’s been growing like that for two thousand years.

And it’s going to KEEP growing. That’s the message of the OTHER parables in the chapter. V31. Like a tiny mustard seed that ends up growing into the biggest plant in the garden. From little things, big things GROW. That’s the kingdom. Starts small, but will FINISH BIG.

Or v33. Like YEAST. A tiny amount can work its way through the whole batch. It takes a while, but it makes a HUGE DIFFERENCE. The kingdom of God is LIKE THAT. You can’t always SEE it, but it CHANGES EVERYTHING!

Or, v24. This one’s a bit different. It’s got a sting in the tail. The kingdom grows like a crop of wheat. But an enemy comes and plants weeds all through the field. During the season the two plants look similar. But when it’s time for HARVEST, the difference is OBVIOUS. And v30, the WEEDS will be ripped out, bundled up, and thrown in the fire. But the WHEAT gets gathered, and brought into the barn.

The kingdom’s like THAT.

ANOTHER puzzle for the disciples to think about. Are they LISTENING? Are they SEEING? They work hard to understand – v36. Because God’s given them the secrets of the kingdom. They come and ask Jesus to EXPLAIN it.

V37. Jesus is sowing the message of the kingdom. Same as the FIRST parable. And the wheat begins to grow. People growing more like Jesus. But then Satan plants some DIFFERENT seed. And there’s a DIFFERENT sort of growth. The sons of the evil one.

And as life goes on, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. That’s describing the time we live in NOW. Between Jesus’ FIRST visit and his RETURN. Two different seeds growing, and it’s hard to tell the difference.

That’s fascinating! Because it’s saying that the two groups of people might be living very similar lives. Wheat that looks like weeds. Or weeds that look like WHEAT. They look the same!

And God is PATIENT with people, giving them TIME to show that they’re WHEAT, not WEEDS. There are people out there who look like weeds, but God’s chosen them. And in his timing, perhaps when YOU TELL THEM THE GOSPEL, they’ll be shown to be WHEAT. THAT’S why God’s delaying judgment!

But ONE DAY, v40, God’s patience will run out. Jesus says on that day – Harvest day. Judgment day – the difference will be OBVIOUS. At the end of the age, when Jesus sends his angels to WEED OUT everything evil and sinful. They’ll be thrown into the furnace of hell. But v43, the righteous – the WHEAT – will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

Two different groups. Which group are YOU in? The scary thing is you could LOOK like a Christian, but NOT be. What type of plant are you? Wheat or weeds?

If Jesus is RIGHT, then NO QUESTION MATTERS MORE.

If Jesus is RIGHT, then it doesn’t depend on what your LIFE looks like. But on HOW YOU LISTEN. On what type of SOIL you are. What you DO with the message Jesus brings. See how Jesus finishes? V43. He who has ears, LET HIM HEAR.

Are you listening?

That’s the APPLICATION. HEAR. LISTEN WELL.

Are YOU listening? Be an ACTIVE listener. Not a LAZY one. If you don’t understand at first, KEEP ASKING QUESTIONS. Like the disciples. Keep searching. Read more.

And let the roots of the gospel DIG their ROOTS DEEP DOWN into your soil. Don’t be the rocky soil. Where the roots are shallow. Don’t be half-hearted, or complacent. Or distracted or pre-occupied.

Be good soil. Soft, fertile, moist soil. Let the message about God’s kingdom drill down into every corner of your life. Don’t have a calloused, hard heart. Make it soft and inviting.

Meditate on God’s word. Listen to it. Fill your head with it before you sleep, and as you wake. Make it your treasure. Shine its light into every dusty room. Study. Read. Concentrate. Work hard. Prioritize. Buy a library. Dust off those Christian books you bought but never read. Podcast a good preacher.

Mourn for your sin. Put pride to death. Hunger and thirst for righteousness. Search out wise, godly voices to speak the kingdom to you. Be humble, and willing to hear and change. Listen often, speak little. Invite correction. Apologise freely. Open up and share in prayer times. Form a prayer triplet. Step out in faith in scary ways. Volunteer for a new ministry. Put yourself in situations where God will change you and teach you.

And don’t let THE WORLD sow its seeds into you. So many MESSAGES that seduce and attract and deceive. Don’t listen to the messages the evil one scatters. “A little bit won’t hurt. No one will find out. You deserve it. Everyone else is doing it. It’s not wrong if it makes you happy. Rules are old-fashioned.” Don’t listen to them!

THAT’S the way to be good soil!

Are you giving up everything?

And what it all boils down to. If you want to be good soil for the seed of the gospel, MAKE JESUS YOUR KING, IN EVERYTHING. And KEEP HIM NUMBER ONE. Because the kingdom is WORTH it. It’s a valuable treasure worth giving EVERYTHING for. That’s the point of the parables from v44.

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like TREASURE hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his JOY went and SOLD ALL HE HAD and bought that field. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of GREAT VALUE, he went away and SOLD EVERYTHING HE HAD and bought it.

The kingdom is SO VALUABLE, it’s worth YOUR WHOLE LIFE. Give your REPUTATION for it. Give your time, your energy, your prospects, your family, your money, your influence, your comfort, your future.

That’s what the kingdom is WORTH. Everything! And that’s what King Jesus DEMANDS of you. Everything!

If you’re just visiting today, and just checking Christianity out. That might sound a bit extreme. But you’re probably surrounded by 10 or 20 people who have DONE JUST THAT. Who HAVE given up everything. And ARE giving up everything. For the sake of Jesus and his kingdom. And they’re NOT DISAPPOINTED. They believe it’s a TREASURE that’s WORTH IT!

God’s kingdom may look small at the moment. But it’s GROWING. And it’s BEAUTIFUL and GOOD. And it’s making this world BETTER.

And YOU CAN BE PART of that beautiful, valuable growth. As it grows in YOU, as you make Jesus number one, you can PRODUCE FRUIT. Thirty, sixty or a hundred times. You can grow in godliness. In patience and holiness and gentleness and faith.

Are you sharing the treasure?

And you can help produce people who are good soil AS WELL. As YOU scatter the seed of God’s kingdom and share what you know of Jesus. As you SHARE THE TREASURE you’ve found.

That’s the point of one of the last things Jesus says in this chapter. From v51, he asks the disciples if they’ve UNDERSTOOD all these things. (Have they HEARD? Have they GIVEN EVERYTHING for the kingdom? Are they good SOIL that produces FRUIT?)

And they say YES.

And so Jesus says to them these strange words in v52.

“Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed (or DISCIPLED) about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

Lots of opinions about what he means. But here’s what I think he’s saying. The teachers of the law were experts in the OLD covenant. But now JESUS has come. And he’s discipling people in the kingdom of heaven. Including the disciples.

Who now UNDERSTAND.  THEY’RE experts. Of old AND news. They’ve HEARD, they’ve given all they have to get the treasure of the kingdom.

And now Jesus says they need to SHARE that treasure. Don’t leave it stored away. It’s too valuable to leave locked up inside you. Like the owner of precious painting. Who loans it to the National Gallery so EVERYONE can enjoy it.

Jesus is inviting you to be PART of God’s kingdom. To let it grow down DEEP into your soil. To give EVERYTHING for it. And to SHARE it.

He who has ears to hear, let him HEAR!

 

Matthew 20:20-28: Leadership

I’m no movie expert. But it seems to me that movies have THREE BASIC PLOTS. There are LOVE stories. There are JOURNEY stories, where people travel, or change in some way.

And then there are HERO STORIES. It might be a Western, or a War movie, a Science Fiction, or – the popular one at the moment – a Superhero movie. The hero will ACHIEVE A GREAT VICTORY – win a war, destroy the Death Star, win the Hunger Games, find the treasure, or ride across the mountain range.

But one thing hero movies ALL have in common, as far as I can tell, is some sort of SELF-SACRIFICIAL RESCUE. Often it’s the CLIMAX of the movie. The hero risks his life, or loses something, to save someone. And the greater the SACRIFICE, the better the story.

We LOVE that sort of story, because we love that sort of HERO. We love the ANZACS. We love our surf lifesavers, or our firefighters. Who risk their lives, or GIVE their lives, to save people.

We love the LEADER who puts his FOLLOWERS BEFORE HIMSELF. We love the sports hero who stands out ON the field, but then in the interview afterwards is HUMBLE. And talks about the REST OF THE TEAM, or their OPPONENT, rather than themselves.

And we’re APPALLED at the company CEO or earns $20 million a year plus bonuses, while re-trenching half his workforce. Or the developer who gets elected to his local council for the sole purpose of pushing through his own developments.

But how did we GET to that place? The place where we value the HUMBLE leader more than the PROUD and ARROGANT? The self-sacrificing hero, rather than the all-conquering victor?

How did we get to the place where politicians are expected to SERVE the people they represent, rather than EXPLOIT them? Or where the world super-power, America, is expected to PROTECT weak nations, rather than CONQUER them?

It’s certainly not the NORMAL picture of a leader or a hero we see from HISTORY. The Ancient GREEK view of a hero was someone who ruthlessly conquered and ruled. Like Alexander the Great. You were expected to WORSHIP a leader like that. And humility was seen as a weakness, not a virtue. Something FORCED on you, not that you CHOOSE.

Or for the ROMANS. Caesar Augustus killed three hundred senators and two hundred warriors, conquered the world, and made himself a GOD.

The European Feudal system through the Middle Ages wasn’t much different. It viewed heroes as nobly born, and skilful in battle. They pursued PERSONAL GLORY above anything else. Leaders ruled with an iron fist, and exploited their subjects. SOMETIMES the lords looked after the peasants. But it was very clear who was helping who. And the lords always expected gratitude, respect and obedience in return.

And the Crusades, in the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries. They may have been established by the church, But they were more about GREED AND PRIDE, and PERSONAL agendas, than any genuine Christian conviction.

And we can say the same for THE SPANISH INQUISITION, and the conquistadors. And the British colonialization of India and various countries in Africa during the fifteen and sixteenth century.

In fact, it probably wasn’t until THE REFORMATION, during the 1500’s, when the Bible’s teaching was rediscovered, that A NEW TYPE OF HERO emerged. Or RE-emerged.

Martin Luther read his Bible, re-discovered grace, and went on to risk his life, again and again, to make sure the message of salvation by faith alone was proclaimed to everyone. THAT’S what mattered, and his life was irrelevant. When he was asked to appear before a trial on charges of heresy, he wrote

You ask me what I shall do if I am called by the emperor. I will go even if I am too sick to stand on my feet. If Caesar calls me, God calls me. If violence is used, as well it may be, I commend my cause to God. He lives and reigns who saved the three youths from the fiery furnace of the king of Babylon, and if He will not save me, my head is worth nothing compared with Christ. This is no time to think of safety I must take care that the gospel is not brought into contempt by our fear to confess, and seal our teaching with our blood.

The leader willing to sacrifice himself for the people. And during the Reformation there were many more who lay down their lives for the cause of the gospel of grace.

The Reformation produced the Puritans. Who founded America. And inspired the push for the abolition of slavery. And softened the harsh control of England, and the East India Company in India.

And where did all this self-sacrifice for the people come from? This humility of service by those in power? It came from JESUS. Who didn’t just TEACH about servant leadership. He LIVED it. And DIED it. And he commands US to do the same.

In Matthew 20, he takes the twelve disciples aside, and tells them again about what’s in front of them as they head to Jerusalem. It’s almost a repeat of conversations in Ch 16 and Ch 17.

In v18, Jesus warns he’ll be betrayed, condemned to death, flogged, and crucified. On the third day, he’ll be raised to life.

Then, in a somewhat surprising case of selective hearing, James and John’s mum comes to Jesus with a request. And her two boys are right there too. She’s forgotten all about the SUFFERING and DEATH bit, and only heard the bit about HEADING TO JERUSALEM. Because that’s where the military revolution will begin. V21. “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

She’s saying to Jesus, “I like the idea that you’re going to be a KING. When the victory happens, since I asked FIRST, can my two boys get best spots in the new regime?” And we thought “tiger mums” were only a RECENT thing!

Jesus turns to the sons. Because it’s really about THEM. “You don’t understand what you’re asking,” Jesus says. They still haven’t understood. He’s spent so long talking about a kingdom of SERVICE and SACRIFICE and SUFFERING. And REJECTION IN THIS WORLD. But they’re asking for HONOUR AND RECOGNITION AND POWER. To even ASK it means they haven’t UNDERSTOOD HIM AT ALL. Can you drink the cup I’m going to drink? He says. Can you endure the suffering that’s planned for me.

Like MOST males, apparently, interviewing for a job, the brothers are OVER confident in their abilities. “We CAN,” they answered.

Jesus said, “That’s true. You WILL suffer like me. But it’s not up to me to hand out the leadership roles. The FATHER’S prepared those places.

It’s only a minor comment from Jesus. But it says something significant about HIS HUMILITY. And his attitude to power. He’s CONTENT with his place. He willingly submits to the Father. And defers authority to him.

He’s rebuking their ambition and pride. But at the same time he models the RIGHT attitude to worldly ambition. Humble servant leaders are CONTENT. They look DOWN, not UP. They look down, to SERVE those they lead, rather than looking up to DRAG DOWN those ABOVE them.

But back to James and John. The brothers were asking for power and glory. But the irony was that when Jesus came in his kingdom, the people on his right and left didn’t have any power, or receive any glory.

By the end of these verses, we see what that LOOKS LIKE. When the Son of Man gives his life as a ransom for many. When he’s raised on the cross. THAT’S when he brings in his KINGDOM. And who are those on his left and right? Two CRIMINALS. Who die WITH him. THAT’S what it means to be first. To be GREAT. I bet James and John didn’t have THAT in mind when they asked!

At this point the OTHER disciples notice. And their reaction is FASCINATING. It would be FUNNY if it wasn’t so SAD. V24, They’re INDIGNANT with the two brothers. But this is no RIGHTEOUS indignation. They’re not rebuking James and John because they’ve misunderstood the kingdom. They’re JEALOUS! They wished they’d thought of it first!

So close to the end, and still Jesus’ closest followers have no idea. He must have been tempted to give up. But he calls them together. AGAIN. V25. And gives them A LEADERSHIP LESSON.

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.

The way of the world is that rulers RULE. Their decisions are based on what will further THEIR cause. What will bring THEM glory and wealth and recognition.

It wasn’t meant as an insult. It was just a DESCRIPTION. A known FACT. The reality of leadership in the Greco-Roman world. If Gentile rulers had been listening, they would have nodded their heads in agreement. “Yep! That’s what a leader SHOULD do!”

In many parts of the non-Western world, it’s STILL the way leaders rule. If someone has ANY sort of authority or hold over people, they EXPLOIT it for their own advantage. A check point guard, a building inspector, a visa processing official, an election official, a librarian, a parking officer, a policeman, someone who receives tenders for jobs. All the way up to Presidents and army generals. David Lim says there are still places today, not too far from Australia, where you need to bribe a doctor just to go on the waiting list at a hospital.

It’s just accepted that corruption and bribery is the way to do business. It’s the way you grease the wheels of industry. Rulers LORD IT OVER the people they RULE.

But Jesus REDEFINES leadership. In CONTRAST to the way the WORLD leads. Look at what he says next. V26. Once again, he turns things upside down. He’s just taught how the kingdom belongs to little children rather than the powerful. And, conversely, that the RICH find it almost impossible to enter the kingdom. V26 he adds.

26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-

Jesus is REDEFINING the great leader. It’s not the person who conquers and accumulates and builds his own empire. And demands praise and gratitude. The great leader SERVES.

India’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, understood it. He declared, in a speech, “Fellow citizens, I have come to you as your first servant, because that is what prime minister literally means.” That’s the sort of attitude we appreciate in our leaders.

Like Tim Fischer. He may not have been the most talented politician we’ve ever seen. But people appreciated his humility and his attitude of SERVICE.

It’s perhaps a bit surprising, but Jesus doesn’t actually discourage us from wanting to be GREAT. To be AMBITIOUS. He just encourages the RIGHT sort of AMBITION. GODLY ambition, rather than WORLDLY ambition. It’s a good thing to want to become GREAT. To want to be FIRST.  After all, 1 Timothy 3:1 says Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he DESIRES A NOBLE TASK.

In other words, IT’S A GOOD THING to want to be in Christian leadership. GODLY, not WORLDY ambition. The difference is all about YOUR MOTIVATION. The motivation ISN’T because it looks good on the resume. Or it’s good for your ego. Or because the PAY is good. Or because people notice and appreciate you. Your motivation to lead people should be because you’re better able to SERVE them.

People with WORLDLY ambition are first to get in the queue. They undermine others, and drag them back. Their agenda is about furthering their cause. Whereas GODLY ambition looks like this. It’s first to volunteer to BE A SERVANT. It’s going to the BACK of the queue. It’s being first to volunteer for the job nobody else wants. And it’s being content when nobody else notices.

Godly ambition is joyfully spending hours preparing your Sunday School lesson. Or weeks practicing the piano. Or years doing a theological degree. Or a decade raising kids, or leading Youth Group or Home Group. Because you’re SERVING the people you lead. THEY come first, you come SECOND. The servant leader is first to arrive and last to leave. The servant leader never asks anyone to do anything she’s not willing to do herself.

THAT’S what godly ambition look like. A SERVANT LEADER. And here’s what ELSE godly ambition looks like. V28. The ULTIMATE servant leader. The ultimate self-sacrificing hero.

28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to GIVE HIS LIFE AS A RANSOM FOR MANY.”

He didn’t come to lord it over people. To impose his rule. He came to SERVE. He put aside his eternal glory. His privilege. His position. And made himself NOTHING. FINITE. LIMITED.

And offered his life in self-sacrificing rescue. For a world who rejected and despised him.

The cross is the greatest symbol of humility and leadership. Of self-sacrificial heroics. Our leader hung there. Our leader calls US to follow him, and to take up OUR CROSSES. Daily.

THAT’S the type of leader Jesus calls you to be. That’s the type of HUSBAND he calls you to be. And FATHER. That’s the type of boss, the sports captain, the Sunday School teacher, the mother, the roster organiser.

Whatever area of leading you’re involved in. Put OTHERS first. And sacrificially SERVE them.

Attitude as well as actions

And it’s not just about ACTIONS. ATTITUDE matters TOO. It’s no good obeying Jesus and serving others. But doing it RESENTFULLY, or SPITEFULLY. Or out of PRIDE or JUDGMENTALISM.

Our attitude is to be one of HUMILITY. Before the time of Jesus, humility was seen as a character FAILING. A WEAKNESS. It wasn’t something you chose yourself. It was something done TO you. You were HUMBLED. But Jesus came along and CHOSE self-sacrifice. He CHOSE humility and servanthood. And he did it for the sake of OTHERS.

Paul described the attitude of humility, and what it looks like. Philippians 2.

2:1 If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

In HUMILITY, consider others more than you consider yourself. Humility shows itself in putting OTHERS first. And thinking of THEM first. And listening to THEIR opinions. CS Lewis defines humility like this. It’s not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.

Humility shows itself in UNITY. Because you’re opinion doesn’t matter that much.

And our example in humility is our servant king. V5. Who makes himself NOTHING, and makes much of US.

5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

7 but made himself nothing,

taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

8 And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to death-

even death on a cross!

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

 

Trust Jesus. Follow his example. In humility, SERVE one another. He’s WORTH it.

Matthew 18:21-35: Forgiveness

This church is full of MATHEMATICAL GENIUSES. With INCREDIBLE MEMORIES. You may not have thought of yourself like that. But when it comes to keeping COUNT of how many times someone’s hurt you. Or offended you. You’re EXPERTS! With photographic memories! And I’m no different. We’re specialists at remembering how many times someone’s left the bathmat on the floor. Or not taken out the garbage. We’ve got a photographic memory for the times we were unjustly accused, or missed out on the deserved promotion. We’re EXPERTS at holding grudges. Bearing resentments. Refusing to forgive. We’re great at storing them away for future use / every little slip and mistake. And reminding the offender every chance we get.

And we’re not alone. Our world is full of bitter, angry, unforgiving people. Bruised and resentful because of injustices and offences. People wounded by broken relationships. Marriages, families, workplaces, churches, communities. Even diplomatic relations between countries lie in RUINS because of PRIDE, and self-righteousness, unrepentance and UNFORGIVENESS.

And it’s never been any different. And we’re not getting BETTER, now we’re more civilised and advanced. If anything – we’re getting WORSE.

We need a better way. People are DESPERATE for a better way. Our world NEEDS it. Jesus OFFERS a better way. Something BRAND NEW and UNIQUE. He offers us the unconditional forgiveness of God. And dies in our place to WIN it.

But he also calls US to offer that same unconditional, complete forgiveness to OTHERS. Again and again. It’s a forgiveness that has the potential to change the world. But he doesn’t just COMMAND it. He gives us the MOTIVATION, and the POWER to DO it.

And if we could begin to PROCLAIM that forgiveness. And REFLECT it and MODEL it. It would CHANGE OUR WORLD, one person at a time. Let me show you HOW.

You owe a debt you cannot possibly repay

The passage we just read begins with a question from Peter. He’s ONE OF US. One of those with a long memory for bearing a grudge. The context is Jesus has been teaching about RESTORING a sinner, from v15. (How to encourage towards repentance /someone who’s sinned against you). And the emphasis is about RECONCILING. About winning your brother over. Leading him to REPENTANCE, so you can FORGIVE him.

But as Peter’s been listening, he comes to Jesus with a very NATURAL sort of question for a score-keeper. For a grudge-holder. He’s turned the whole thing around. See there in v21? “HOW MANY TIMES? If I point out my brother’s sin. And he repents. How many times should I forgive?” When can I forget about RECONCILIATION? When can I STOP forgiving? And when can I START getting revenge? When can JUSTICE start? And then he suggests what he, no doubt, thinks is a VERY GENEROUS number. What about SEVEN times?

But Jesus comes back with an answer that’s really saying “Lose the calculator! Not seven, but seventy-seven times. Forget keeping score.

  1. We all owe God a debt we can’t possibly repay.

And then he tells a story. A story that shows that Peter’s WHOLE WAY OF THINKING IS WRONG. It’s a story that provides the antidote to Peter’s sickness. The cure for his disease. It’s a story about A KING who decides to settle accounts with his servants.

First up, they drag in a guy who owes ten thousand talents (v24). It’s A HUGE sum. Maybe 1500 years wages. But the basic point is that he’s got NO WAY OF REPAYING IT. It’s IMPOSSIBLE! Which is the FIRST lesson we learn from this story. WE ALL owe a debt to God we can’t possibly repay.

But notice that doesn’t stop the servant MAKING THE OFFER. Look at his response there in v26. When the king orders his family sold into slavery,

26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back EVERYTHING.’

Not just PART of the debt. (5 or 10%). He’s got the cheek to promise THE WHOLE LOT. Who does he think he’s trying to fool? He doesn’t realise the extent of his debt. Or his ability to repay it. He’s living in dreamland!

But it’s a common attitude from people/ when it comes to GOD. That’s who the king REPRESENTS in this story. When it comes TO GOD, people think they’re not REALLY that bad. At least compared to OTHERS. Their debt isn’t THAT big. And won’t be that hard to pay off. They try all sorts of strategies. Thinking they can RESTORE their heavenly bank balance. They think being NICE to people will do it. Or sponsoring a World Vision child. Or recycling their plastics. Or buying Fair trade coffee. Or getting solar panels. Or being tolerant and not judging people. Doing GOOD DEEDS that, somehow, cancel out the BAD DEEDS. As if going UNDER the speed limit somehow cancels out your speeding ticket for going OVER the speed limit!

But people who TRY/ are just FOOLING THEMSELVES. They’re not fooling God. Because there’s NO repayment plan you can come up with to cancel your debt. The reality is/ WE ALL owe God a debt we can’t possibly repay. Good or bad. Young or old. Educated or not. Rich or poor.

Our lives involve pleasing the most important person in our lives – OURSELVES. That’s our basic human nature. At the same time as IGNORING our Creator, our Sustainer, our Saviour. Which is the ULTIMATE sin. The root of all the rest.

We MIGHT be doing good deeds. But all the while, we’re spending up from the ATM of God’s patience. Building an unpayable debt. With a spending spree of REBELLION and INDEPENDENCE and “I know best” in thoughts and words, attitudes and actions. We’re headed for a DAY OF RECKONING. A heavenly AUDIT. When the King of the Universe will call US to settle accounts.

The problem with holding grudges. And keeping score. And refusing to forgive. Is the SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS and PRIDE of it. Because it forgets that WE ALL owe a debt we can’t possibly repay. Who are WE to hold a grudge against those people who sin against us?

Your debt has been extravagantly cancelled

But the incredible thing about this story/ is that despite the over-confidence of the servant. The audacity to think he could come up with his OWN repayment plan. … the king showed him MERCY. V27.

27 The servant’s master TOOK PITY on him, CANCELED the debt and LET HIM GO.

One minute this man owed MILLIONS. The next, he had a CLEAN SLATE. Transferred from hopelessly drowning in debt, to owing NOTHING. Free as a bird. It’s grace that’s EXTRAORDINARY! And shocking and UNFAIR! The servant didn’t DESERVE it. It doesn’t seem FAIR – certainly not for those who owed LESS, and probably still had to pay. His debt was EXTRAVAGANTLY CANCELLED.

Which is the second thing Christians learn from this parable. Your debt has been EXTRAVAGANTLY CANCELLED. God promises us UNEARNED FORGIVENESS in place of JUDGMENT. GRACE in place of JUSTICE. INNOCENCE instead of GUILT. FREEDOM in place of SLAVERY. And FRIENDSHIP in place of HOSTILITY.

Jesus TEACHES it. But he does more than TEACH it. He’s the one who EARNS it. He takes the just punishment your sin deserved. So you can gain the restored relationship with God that JESUS deserves.

It seems SO UNFAIR! If you’re a Christian, whose sins are forgiven, you deserve NONE OF IT. It’s NOT because you work harder. Or understand it better. Or are a nicer person. It’s not because you’re better educated, or a better parent. Or have a more important job or place in society. It’s not because you’ve read the right books, or even that you were in the right place at the right time. God showed you GRACE when you DIDN’T DESERVE IT. You owed a debt you couldn’t possibly repay. But your debt has been EXTRAVAGENTLY CANCELLED. Two EXTRAORDINARY truths.

It’s why Christians SING! We really DO have something to sing ABOUT! We sing words like these.

1. Amazing GRACE! How sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me; I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.

 

Or we sing

How deep the Father’s love for us, How vast beyond all measure, That He should give His only Son TO MAKE A WRETCH/ HIS TREASURE. How great the pain of searing loss, The Father turns His face away, As wounds which mar the Chosen One Bring many sons to glory.

I will not boast in anything, No gifts, no power, no wisdom; But I will boast in Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection. Why should I gain from His rewards? I cannot give an answer, But this I know with all my heart, HIS WOUNDS HAVE PAID MY RANSOM.

They’re words you can ONLY sing truthfully if you’re a Christian. Wonderful words of praise. That express the incredible, unbelievable, SHOCKING truth that, in a world full of guilty people, (people who owe a debt they can’t possibly repay, who justly deserve punishment), there are SOME whose debt has been EXTRAVAGANTLY CANCELLED.

But perhaps that’s NOT you. Perhaps you look at your own life and you know truth number two DOESN’T describe you. You know your debt HASN’T been extravagantly cancelled. Perhaps you know truth number ONE only TOO WELL. That you owe God a debt you can’t repay. And perhaps that repayment plan’s been worrying you for years. Then accept the wonderful offer of truth number two. God is offering to cancel your debt. To forgive your sin. And all you need to do is ASK HIM. And then you can know the wonderful truth of lesson number two. And can sing those words with CONVICTION. I guarantee it will change your life!

You show that you understand such grace by reflecting that extravagance towards others.

BUT, that’s not what happened with THIS SERVANT. V28. No changed life. No thanks. No songs of praise. Just this. 28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

Perhaps the equivalent of a few thousand dollars. Not insignificant. But certainly something that you COULD repay. Which the poor guy suggests. 29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

Almost identical words to the FIRST servant. But the response is THE COMPLETE OPPOSITE. Instead of cancelling his debt. Instead of paying it forward. V30 “But he REFUSED. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

The servant was SHOWN mercy, but refused to show MERCY HIMSELF. He’d been forgiven, but failed to forgive. As we hear the story, we’re SHOCKED. It seems so UN-NATURAL to respond to grace the way this guy did. And his fellow-servants are shocked too. And when they tell the king the news of what’s gone on, the miserable servant’s done for. V32.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled ALL THAT DEBT OF YOURS because you BEGGED me to. 33 Shouldn’t YOU have had MERCY on your FELLOW SERVANT JUST AS I HAD ON YOU?’

It seems so obvious. So NATURAL. That when you recognise the size of the debt that YOU’VE been forgiven. That any debt someone has to YOU just can’t measure up. And it’s just OBVIOUS to show mercy similarly. As it says in Colossians 3:13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. FORGIVE AS THE LORD FORGAVE YOU.

It’s BECAUSE we’ve been forgiven, we know what it feels like. And we’re ABLE to forgive.

You see, Jesus is calling US to see things the way GOD sees them. To see BOTH parts of the story. Not just the SECOND. That’s the point Jesus is making. If we only heard THE SECOND part of the story. Where the servant found the man who owed him money, and threw him in jail. It wouldn’t seem so wrong. It’d be JUST. TOUGH, but FAIR. The sort of thing people do every day. It’s NATURAL, in our world, for people to seek justice when others owe them a debt.

But it’s the FIRST PART of the story. That gives THE TRUE PERSPECTIVE. That highlights the hypocrisy. And that makes his behaviour so unforgivable.

The point is that NON-Christians only know the SECOND half of the story. They don’t know what it means to be forgiven an unpayable debt. And so, it seems NATURAL for them to hold grudges, to not forgive, to demand revenge. But if you’re a Christian, then you have a FIRST PART of this story. Your impossible debt has been extravagantly cancelled. So, it’s UNNATURAL not to reflect that extravagance to OTHERS.

And that’s the THIRD truth we learn from this story. YOU SHOW THAT YOU UNDERSTAND SUCH GRACE BY REFLECTING THAT EXTRAVAGANCE TOWARDS OTHERS. It’s the NATURAL RESPONSE for people who’ve been SHOWN great mercy, to SHOW mercy.

So, whatever sin’s been committed against you. Whatever hurt you feel. Whatever bitterness you hold. No matter how HUGE it seems. How frequent the slip-up. Jesus calls you to forgive heartily. To show GRACE WITHOUT LIMIT. Because it can never measure up to the debt YOU’VE been forgiven.

You see, ultimately, to hold a grudge, is to DOUBT GOD. And to FORGIVE / is an act of FAITH in a just God who’s better at being fair than me. Romans 12:19-20 puts it like this

19 Do NOT TAKE REVENGE, my friends, but LEAVE ROOM FOR GOD’S WRATH, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

Leave the justice up to GOD. That’s what he’s GOOD AT. If someone’s harmed you, LET IT GO. BLESS those who persecute you. Live in harmony with one another. Don’t be proud. If they repent, FORGIVE them. It’ll be good for your blood pressure, and your mental and spiritual health. God will make sure justice is done.

The World is hungry for grace like that

But as for YOU, Jesus calls you to forgive heartily. To show grace without limit. He’s calling us to be people of GRACE. Of forgiveness. Calling for a RADICAL REFORMATION of the way we treat people. He wants his church to be A HAVEN OF GRACE. A SECURE LITTLE ISLAND OF FORGIVENESS. Not that we’ll be PERFECT. But where we show patience to people. We’re quick to confess sin to each other. And quick to FORGIVE. Too often, churches AREN’T places like that. But they SHOULD be. More than any other place. Jesus calls us to be an island of grace in a stormy ocean of UN-grace. Because the reality is/ that’s the way the world is. In the world/ it’s UN-grace that’s the natural response. The way of the world. The way of people who haven’t know a debt extravagantly cancelled. Resentment, bitterness, judgmentalism, and unforgiveness means there are broken relationships ALL OVER THE PLACE.

We live in a world of UN-grace. Of striving and me-first. The early bird gets the worm. No pain, no gain. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Demand your rights. You get what you pay for. But what separates Christianity from all the world religions. Is GRACE. We are in THE UNIQUE POSITION of offering GRACE to people. We are the only ones who have an ACT ONE to our story. Whose debt has been extravagantly cancelled. Rather than just an “Act two”.

And the FOURTH truth that flows out of this story is that THE WORLD IS HUNGRY FOR GRACE. They long to know forgiveness and acceptance, reconciliation and restoration. The world is full of bitter, twisted, angry, hardened, frightened people. People who’ve been consumed by unforgiveness. Who have been HURT, but who refuse to forgive. Who’ve DONE wrong, but never been able to say SORRY. People who’ve never known someone who’s shown grace to THEM.

The world is full of people waiting for THE OTHER PERSON to make the first move. Refusing to admit our fault. Because that’s weakness. Refusing to apologise or forgive. Husbands waiting for wives. Fathers waiting for sons. Mothers for daughters. Brothers for brothers. Ex-best friends who know longer speak. And it CRIPPLES people. DESTROYS them.

The world is full of people like this because to forgive is ACHINGLY difficult. To forgive is UN-NATURAL. It’s UNFAIR. It’s unfair to be expected to simply overlook hurt, to forgive, to do NOTHING in response to being hurt. To wish WELL someone who’s wished you HARM. Someone who’s HURT you SHOULD be punished. Not forgiven.

To forgive is COSTLY. You BEAR A COST whenever you forgive. It might be financial, or emotional. But the Christian is ABLE to do it, because the cost of sin has ALREADY been borne. By ANOTHER. By Jesus, the suffering servant, pierced for our transgressions, crushed of our iniquity. Christianity has something unique to offer the world. Because only GRACE can break the cycle of UNgrace. Of justice and vengeance. And only Christians who understand grace. Who’ve RECEIVED grace. Can dispense it.

So if you’re struggling to forgive. Jesus gives you the ANTIDOTE. Begin by recognising you owe a debt you cannot possibly repay. Second, if you’re a Christian, then YOUR DEBT HAS BEEN EXTRAVAGANTLY CANCELLED. It’s as you understand BOTH THOSE truths, that you’ll genuinely be able to live out truth number three. You show that you understand such grace by reflecting that extravagance towards others.

Forgiveness is like AIR YOU BREATHE. If you hold onto a lungful and refuse to breathe it out to others, you can’t breathe in God’s forgiveness. Breathe in God’s forgiveness deeply. Remind each other, in speech and song and prayer, of those first two truths. We owe a debt we can’t possibly repay. We’ve had our debt extravagantly paid for.

And when we breathe that truth in deeply. We can BREATHE OUT the fresh breath of forgiveness to those around us. We can show that we understand such grace by reflecting that extravagance towards others. Towards a world that’s HUNGRY for grace.

 

Matthew 15:1-28: Inside out

Lots of religions have rules about what you can and can’t eat. We’ve just finished Easter, when many Christians don’t eat meat for forty days before. At the same time, Jews have celebrated Passover, where they remove all the yeast from their homes, and only eat unleavened bread. And they NEVER eat pork. Neither do MUSLIMS, who also don’t drink alcohol. And they only eat meat that’s been butchered in a certain way. And during Ramadan, they fast during the day, and then feast at sunset. Many Hindus don’t eat meat, or specifically BEEF.

And many people follow these food laws because they believe that’s how to please God, or to be ACCEPTABLE to him.

But it’s not just FOOD. Each religion has a list of rules of OTHER things you have to do, or NOT do, for God to accept you. Pray in a certain direction a certain number of times a day. Or burn a certain type of incense. Or go on a pilgrimage to a certain place. Or pray a certain prayer, like a magic formula, hundreds of times. Or attend a religious ceremony as often as you can.

But Jesus turns all of that upside down. Or inside out. You see, Jesus isn’t RELIGIOUS, AT ALL. He says that God’s not impressed by what you eat, or don’t eat.

And he quotes the prophet Isaiah, who was talking about the Jews of his time. About six centuries before Jesus. And here’s what God thought of their religion. V8.

8 “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'”

They said the right WORDS. And performed the right ACTIONS. But their hearts weren’t in it. There wasn’t GENUINE DEVOTION to God.

And Jesus says it wasn’t just the people of Isaiah’s time who were like that. But that Isaiah actually prophesied about the people in Jesus’ time. They honoured God with their LIPS but their HEARTS were far from God. And so their worship was IN VAIN. A waste of time.

It’s shocking to think that well-meaning worshippers could be saying the right words, and doing the right actions. But that none of it COUNTS for anything. All the effort’s wasted. Not only WORTHLESS. It’s DAMAGING, because Jesus calls them HYPOCRITES.

It’s shocking because that could be YOU. You’re here this morning. Saying words, and doing actions. Working hard to worship God. And yet, it’s ALL A WASTE. So how can you make sure that’s not you? There’s no more important question to answer.

Let’s begin by looking at what starts the conversation. Jump back up to v1. Some religious leaders notice that Jesus’ disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat.

It’s not about hygiene, though. It’s about RELIGION. And being CEREMONIALLY clean. All the OTHER Jews followed the traditions of the elders. (Man-made rules about what you COULD and COULDN’T do. Things that made you clean and acceptable, or made you UNCLEAN and UNacceptable.)

But rather than answer the question, Jesus points to some of their OWN rule-breaking. And not just breaking man’s traditions, but GOD’S COMMANDS. V4. GOD says, “Honour your parents.” V5. But YOU say something DIFFERENT. YOU say “Vow to make your savings a ‘gift devoted to God.’ And then nothing else can claim it.”

And then, when the elderly parents look to the child for support. And the child cries poor. Because it’s all a gift devoted to God.

When THAT happens, you stand up for the CHILD. You say that’s OK. That it’s more important to KEEP YOUR VOW, than to look after your PARENTS. You make the HUMAN tradition more important than GOD’S COMMAND.

That’s Jesus’ accusation. And his judgment is, v7, “You HYPOCRITES.” They’ve come to Jesus concerned about his disciples not washing their hands. And they pretend their defending God’s honour. And yet, they actually do the OPPOSITE. They put HUMAN authority above God’s authority. And Jesus applies Isaiah’s words to THEM. Their HEARTS ARE FAR from God. At their core, they’re more interested in what PEOPLE think, than GOD.

And Jesus doesn’t want that sort of poison SPREADING. So he calls the crowd in closer, v10. And he says to them “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, THAT is what makes him ‘unclean.'”

He’s explaining the quote from Isaiah. The Pharisees have got it wrong. They focussed on being ritually clean on the OUTSIDE. (how you washed your hands, and what you ate). And they didn’t worry about what’s on the INSIDE. The HEART. A person’s motivations and devotion and love. That’s what GOD notices. That’s what makes someone unclean.

A bit further down, Jesus explains it some more. V17. Whatever you eat goes into your mouth, then your stomach, goes through your body and out the other end. It doesn’t do ANYTHING for your standing before God. It doesn’t affect your HEART. But, v18,

the things that come out of the mouth come from the HEART, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19 For out of the HEART come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.'”

It’s the HEART that matters. Your behaviour and words and desires come from THERE. If your HEART is unclean, then everything that COMES from your heart will be unclean. And it won’t matter WHAT you eat, or HOW you wash your hands. It’s like having MEASLES. Measles is caused by a virus. If you’ve got the virus in your body, it will produce spots on your skin, and you’ll get sick. You can’t get better from measles by scrubbing the spots off, or putting band aids on them. The symptoms come from the virus that’s INSIDE. You need to be cured of the VIRUS.

And Jesus says that’s what it’s like with the human heart. (With human nature). It’s SICK. And it produces all sorts of sickness. Sick ACTIONS, like murder, adultery, sexual immorality, and theft. Sick WORDS, like false testimony, and slander. Even sick ATTITUDES and DESIRES – evil thoughts like jealousy and greed and lust.

The Pharisees had a SMALL God, who only cares about hand washing and what’s on the menu. But the reality is he’s a BIG God, who’s God over EVERYTHING. And whose interest goes a lot deeper. And a lot broader.

Obedience and uncleanness have suddenly become much bigger. The Pharisees thought being clean was a simple matter of washing your hands, and eating the right sort of food. But Jesus says the problem is FAR GREATER. And being clean is FAR HARDER.

So if you’re sitting here, thinking that you’re OK with God, because you come to church every week. Or read your Bible and pray most mornings. Or because you put money in the collection. Or sponsor a child. Or because you’re a good person. Or at least better than MOST people. Then, THINK AGAIN. Jesus says your WORSHIP IS IN VAIN. It’s putting band-aids on measles spots. Useless for fixing the disease.

Take a close look at YOUR HEART. At your nature. Your TRUE nature, not the mask you put on to pretend to other people that you’re nice. Take a close look at the way impatience and anger oozes out of you so easily. At a traffic jam, or a small injustice, or when someone pushes in front of you, or when your plans don’t work out.  Take a close look at how strong your jealousy is for someone else’s possessions, or job, or wife, or abilities. Notice how quick you are to retaliate when someone insults you, or laughs at you. How strong the desire is to HURT. Notice how selfish and lazy and stubborn you are to help when you see the desperate needs of people around you. That’s all coming from your natural, sinful nature. Your unclean HEART. You can’t fix THAT by washing your hands, or eating clean food, or donating money.

Unless you can clean up your HEART, everything that comes OUT of you is going to be UNCLEAN. It’s a terrible, unbeatable problem. Because it’s IMPOSSIBLE to clean up your own heart. Cleaning up your HEART is as hard to do SPIRITUALLY as it is PHYSICALLY.

And that’s where Jesus leaves it. He’s posed the PROBLEM, but he hasn’t really provided the ANSWER. He’s described what makes someone unclean. And he’s described what CAN’T make them clean. But he hasn’t said what CAN clean a heart.

And so, as readers, we want to know the SOLUTION. We’re asking the question, “So what CAN I do about my unclean heart?”  And as we keep reading, Matthew ANSWERS it for us in the next section. The FIRST section finished with the problem of BEING UNCLEAN. And the NEXT section describes Jesus moving into an area that’s FULL of things that are unclean.

From v21, Jesus moves from Galilee into a GENTILE region. And he meets a Canaanite woman. A non-Jew, who didn’t eat the right food, or wash her hands the right way. In fact, didn’t do ANYTHING the Jews said you needed to do to be clean.

Which seems like a big problem to the Jews, but she’s got OTHER things on her mind. Her daughter’s suffering terribly from demon possession. And like MOST mothers, she’ll do almost ANYTHING to relieve the suffering of her kids.

She comes to Jesus and cries out, v22, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!

Jesus doesn’t answer. He’s HEARD her, but there’s a test to be passed, and a lesson to be learned. She KEEPS shouting out. She won’t STOP. The disciples come up to Jesus. “Send her away, we’re tired of the NOISE!” They probably intend for Jesus to HEAL the daughter before he sends the mother away. After all, they’ve never seen Jesus turn ANYONE away.

And that makes sense of what Jesus says next. V24 “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

In other words, “My FIRST audience is the JEWS. They’re the priority. I’m here to bring the Kingdom of God to THEM. Not to GENTILES. At least not at the moment.”

Perhaps the woman overhears. But rather than discourage her, and force her away. She comes up to Jesus and kneels before him. “Lord, help me!”

Now, Jesus speaks to the woman herself. And he says a similar thing to what he said to the disciples. But he uses a picture, or a metaphor, to say it. V26

“It is not right to take the ,CHILDREN’S bread and toss it to their DOGS.”

In any household, you feed the FAMILY FIRST. And the PETS get the leftovers. The children are the Jews, and the dogs are the Gentiles. It’s the JEWS Jesus is ministering to. It’s not meant to be an insult, just A MATTER OF PRIORITY. Jesus is TESTING her. What sort of obstacles is she willing to push through? How strong is her faith?

And what’s her reply? V27 “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the CRUMBS that fall from their masters’ table.”

In other words, I’m not pretending to be part of the family. I don’t deserve a seat. I don’t need BREAD. Crumbs are enough. I’m happy with leftovers. Even CRUMBS from Jesus can heal my daughter. And Jesus LOVES it.

Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

That’s the attitude to have! Faith that looks to Jesus in persistence and humility. She can’t do it. And only Jesus can. And she won’t give up until he DOES.

And that’s the answer to the problem raised in the previous section. About what to do about an unclean heart. You CAN’T fix your unclean heart. It will ALWAYS produce thoughts and actions that make you unclean. You can’t fix your heart. But Jesus CAN. Only Jesus has the power to clean your heart, and change your nature and your motivation. And give you the desire and the power to follow him. And to produce the fruit of a clean heart.

Jesus applauds the woman’s FAITH. It’s not her persistence he mentions. Or her humility. It’s her FAITH. Because her FAITH is where it BEGINS. It’s her FAITH that God loves to see. FAITH produces the FRUIT of persistence, and humility. It BEGINS on the INSIDE. And then WORKS OUT.

It’s what the Pharisees got so wrong. And what lots of people TODAY get wrong. Make sure that’s not you. Don’t focus on externals. Because you might be worshipping God in VAIN.

Look to Jesus. Not to good works, or rituals, or food laws.

Trust him. Focus on gratitude and humility. Only JESUS has the power to heal and cleanse and deliver. Only JESUS has the power to change your heart.

 

Matthew 13:53-14:36: Two Kings and two feasts

There’s a new production of Shakespeare’s Richard III that’s just finished in Sydney. And it got great reviews. Especially for Kate Mulvany, who played the title role of King Richard. It was an extraordinary performance, not just because she’s a WOMAN playing the part of a MAN. But because she’s got severe scoliosis, the result of treatment for childhood cancer. And she played Richard, who HIMSELF had severe scoliosis.

And, in the play, the twisted PHYSICAL deformity is a metaphor for the twisted PERSONALITY of Richard. His deformity makes people INSULT and RIDICULE him. Which, in lots of ways, MAKES him the person he is.

It’s a play about his rise to power – the way he gets rid of everybody else in his way. And how he controls everybody with fear and lies to gain the kingdom, and then KEEP it.

It’s POWERFUL portrait of a king. Powerful, because it produces a RESPONSE in the audience. At times they’re REVOLTED by Richard. At OTHER times, they SYMPATHISE with him. They begin to UNDERSTAND his responses and almost EXCUSE them.

And in today’s verses of Matthew 13-14, we see something similar. A powerful portrait of TWO KINGS. Two kings and two FEASTS. One GOOD, and one BAD. And we’re meant to COMPARE them. And then to RESPOND in SUBMISSION and FAITH and OBEDIENCE to the TRUE King, Jesus.

First up, there’s King HEROD. He’s proud, self-obsessed, evil man. And his FEAST is for HIS OWN PLEASURE. In contrast, there’s King JESUS. Who’s a powerful, compassionate provider and Saviour for his people. And whose feast is about meeting THEIR needs, not his.

It begins, though, with JESUS, v52 of Ch 13. He arrives back in his home town of Nazareth. And word about his miracles has raced ahead of him. The sorts of miracles the MESSIAH was expected to do when he came. But when the people see it’s only JESUS who’s the centre of all the attention, v57 says they TOOK OFFENSE at him. Because they’d seen him grow up. And they knew his family. And people like THAT didn’t grow up to be a KING. Or do miracles. And because of their lack of FAITH in him, Jesus didn’t do many miracles there.

Meanwhile, there’s ANOTHER reaction to the news of Jesus’ miracles. Another WRONG reaction, Ch 14 v1. King Herod hears about Jesus, and thinks he’s John the Baptist come back to life.

At which point we find out the story of how Herod had John killed. It’s a story of a king and a feast, of fearing the crowd, of pride, of a head on a platter, and a buried body. Each detail finds a contrast in the NEXT section about Jesus. This king is the BLACK to Jesus’ WHITE. The BAD to Jesus’ GOOD. Like a black cloth background that jewellers use to show a brilliant diamond.

John’s been arrested because he dared to challenge Herod’s lifestyle choices. He’d married his brother’s wife. And John said it was against God’s laws. So Herod threw him in jail, and wanted him killed. But he was afraid of the crowd.

The FEAST is there in v6. It’s Herod’s birthday, and his niece is dancing for the guests. It sounds more like a buck’s party! Herod was so pleased he offered the girl anything she wanted. At her mum’s suggestion she asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

V9, the king’s too proud to back down, so he gave the order. And the section finishes with John’s head presented to the girl on a platter. And then his disciples come and collect his body and bury it. He’s twisted and wicked and revolting. That’s the FIRST king and the FIRST feast.

By comparison, there’s Jesus, from v13. He’s out in the desert, but the crowds still find him. And he has COMPASSION on them, and heals their sick. At the end of the day, everyone’s hungry. The problem is no one’s got any food. There’s only five loaves and two fish. But there’s going to be a feast ANYWAY. V19. Jesus sits everyone down on the grass. He takes the food, gives thanks for it and breaks it up. Then he gives it to the disciples who hand it out. And MIRACULOUSLY, v20, everyone’s SATISFIED.

Just like when God provides manna for his people in the desert. So JESUS provides bread for HIS people in the desert. What sort of a king is he? Far more than a HUMAN king. He’s a king with ALL THE POWER OF GOD. Which would be TERRIFYING, if he didn’t COMBINE that power with love and compassion. The perfect combination. The love and compassion to recognise a need, and the power to do something about it.

He’s the complete OPPOSITE of King Herod.

  • Herod’s FEARED the crowd. Jesus FEEDS the crowd.
  • Herod proudly satisfies HIMSELF. Jesus, with COMPASSION, satisfies HIS PEOPLE.
  • And while Herod’s feast ends up with a head on a platter. Jesus’ feast finishes with left overs filling twelve baskets.

But there’s MORE to this portrait of a king. V22, the long day is over, and Jesus is searching for some peace and quiet. He sends the disciples back in the boat, and he sends the crowd home. And then he finds a quiet spot to pray.

Later in the evening, v24,the disciples are out in the middle of the lake, making slow progress, the wind’s against them, and the waves are making progress difficult. For every two metres they go FORWARD, they get pushed BACK ONE. There’s not much anyone can do except to keep rowing, and battle through it. Unless, of course, you’re JESUS.

V25. Some time around 3am, the disciples see Jesus walking towards them on the water. At least it LOOKS LIKE Jesus. But because he’s walking on water, they think he’s a ghost. (Normal people just can’t DO that). And they’re TERRIFIED.

It’s the right response, really. Because it’s only GOD who controls nature like that. Just like only God can miraculously produce manna from the sky, or dinner for thousands from five loaves and two fish.

Only God can walk on water. That’s what JOB understood. Job chapter 9. Job’s lost everything, and he knows that God’s done it. But he knows you can never win an argument against God. And he goes on to describe what God’s like. Job 9:5

He moves mountains without their knowing it and overturns them in his anger… 7 He speaks to the sun and it does not shine; he seals off the light of the stars.  8 He alone stretches out the heavens AND TREADS ON THE WAVES OF THE SEA.

Only GOD does those things. It’s right to FEAR him. And the disciples see JESUS walking towards them on the waves of the sea. No WONDER they’re scared. Afraid of the One who defies the laws of gravity and buoyancy and density.

But Jesus calls out to them, v27, “Yes, it’s me. Be brave and don’t be afraid.

And so Peter, the impulsive and impetuous, takes Jesus at his word. I love Peter! He’s one of those guys who acts first and THEN thinks. Who puts his MOUTH into gear before his brain. He says, v28 “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”

Those of us who know this story well forget how RIDICULOUS that sounds. “Tell me to come to you on the water!” It would have been much SAFER, more SENSIBLE, for Peter to say, “Lord, if it’s you, prove it by telling us… what we ate for dinner.” Or “What am I holding behind my back?”

But, no. The test is to command Peter to come to Jesus on the water. Peter’s offering himself as the test subject. If it’s really Jesus, not only will he CALL Peter, but he’ll ENABLE him to walk on the water, just like Jesus himself is doing. And if it’s not, then Peter will sink like a stone, the way he would every OTHER time he hopped out of a boat in deep water.

But it’s more than a test. All Peter’s thinking is that he wants to BE WITH JESUS. It’s the RIGHT SORT of fear. Fear of Jesus that moves you TOWARDS him in reverence and love. Is that the sort of fear you have for Jesus?

Jesus says one word. COME. And Peter does. He weighs up the risk, and decided the reward is WORTH THE RISK. He steps out of the boat, and starts walking, his eyes fixed on Jesus. And he’s getting closer. But, v30, at some point he takes his eyes off Jesus. And he notices the wind. And what it’s doing to the waves and the boat. And his faith melts, and his fear takes over. And he starts to sink. And he cries out to Jesus, SAVE ME.

Normally people notice Peter’s lack of faith. And that he sinks. But he must have made it a fair way. Because, v31, Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. And at the same time, he says, “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

Poor old Peter. The other disciples are back in the boat, cowering in fear. While Peter had enough faith to step out of the boat, and to start walking. And he nearly made it to Jesus. But he’s the one who goes down in history as the one who doubted. Which seems a little unfair!

V32. Jesus gets him back into the boat. And as soon as they do, the wind stops. Because it’s only GOD who control the winds and waves like THAT. Psalm 107 describes sailors out in a storm who cry out to God in the trouble. And v28 says, And he brought them out of their distress. 29 He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. 30 They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven.

And how should you respond when God’s rescued you like that? The Psalmist continues

31 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men.

And that’s what the DISCIPLES do. V33. The disciples WORSHIPPED him, saying “TRULY you are the Son of God.”  They worshipped A MAN! Good Jews, who’d grown up reciting Deuteronomy 6:4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is ONE.  Good Jews, who’d learned the first commandment, “I am the LORD your God, you shall have no other gods before me.” Good Jews! And yet, somehow, they understood that worshipping JESUS as God’s Son, wasn’t worshipping ANOTHER God. That, somehow, Jesus was ONE with God.

He’s a KING. But a king like no other king. (And certainly nothing like King Herod). Who’s selfish and foolish and vain. But Jesus is The Son of God. And he’s POWERFUL and COMPASSIONATE and GENEROUS. Which is the perfect combination when you’re in trouble, like Peter was.

So? Trust him

But we don’t just get a portrait of a king in these verses. If we look closely, we see the RESPONSE we should make. And it’s pretty obvious really.  When you need help, and there’s someone in front of you who’s powerful and compassionate and generous. We should TRUST him.

Back up at the end of Ch 13. Jesus comes home. And he comes to teach in the synagogue. Local boy, made good. They’ve heard all about his miracles. And they’re AMAZED. Amazed that someone as ORDINARY as Jesus has become famous for doing miracles. They don’t believe it, because they saw him grow up. And they know his family. They still see the young boy with skinned knees, not the Lord over sickness and demons.

And v58 says he did not do many miracles there. Not because there wasn’t the NEED. Or he didn’t have the power or the compassion. But because there wasn’t THE FAITH. FAITH is what they needed. And because they thought they knew better, they missed out.

And there’s plenty of people like that TODAY. Who think they’ve got Jesus worked out. They’ve put him in a box. He’s a good teacher. A prophet. A moral example. A failed revolutionary. A religious martyr. A con artist. A lunatic. They misjudge him. And they don’t TRUST him. And they keep him at a distance. And so they miss out.  They think they’re judging Jesus. But it’s really Jesus who’s judging THEM.

Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock is a famous abstract painting in Canberra’s National Gallery. Two people stand in front of it. One calls it a masterpiece, the other calls it a mess. Art experts agree with the FIRST person.

The second person thinks he’s judging Blue Poles. But the reality is, it’s the other way around. It’s Blue Poles that’s judging him. He’s showing his own ignorance by not understanding it, and judging it A MESS.

And that’s what it’s like with the people of Jesus’ home town. They’re offended by him. But that says more about their own ignorance than about Jesus. They LACKED faith.

Instead, they needed the faith of PETER. The next mention of faith is down in v31 of Ch 14. As much as he’s known here for his UNBELIEF, he’s the one we’re called to imitate.

As he walks toward Jesus, he’s fine. Because Jesus is the powerful, compassionate one who RESCUES and PROVIDES. But when he starts to look, instead, at his PROBLEMS. At the wind, and the waves, they suddenly seem bigger than he can cope with. And he starts to sink.

And we’re tempted to do the same, aren’t we? Sickness, or unemployment, or deadlines, or breakups or financial problems seem HUGE. And we think they’re too big for us to deal with. And they probably ARE.  But we’ve taken our eyes off Jesus, the powerful Son of God. And started focussing, instead, on the PROBLEMS.

We need to learn from Peter. What does he do when he starts to sink? He looks to JESUS. “Lord, SAVE me!” And Jesus immediately, reaches out his hand, and seizes him. And holds him firm. And takes him to safety. And calms the storm.

Yes, Peter’s faith was faulty. But it’s not the amount of faith that counts. But the one in whom the faith is PLACED. It’s not your FAITH that will get you through the storm. But the one in whom you PUT your faith. Don’t say, “MY faith is very important to me.” Say “The one I put my Faith IN is very important to me. I don’t know what I’d do without him.”

It’s the same response from the men who greet the boat when it reaches land. V35 says HAVING KNOWN HIM, they sent the message to bring the sick, and they begged Jesus to let the sick TOUCH HIS CLOAK. And all who touched it were healed. The word for healed is from the same family as the SAVED word. What Peter asked Jesus to do.

Look to the powerful, compassionate king with FAITH. And he’ll SAVE you. That’s the lesson.

Matthew 5:13-48: Living beyond law

lawRighteousness matters

RIGHTEOUSNESS. Living fairly and justly and with integrity and compassion. The major world religions all agree that righteousness MATTERS. It’s very important.

In HINDUISM, there are four main goals in life. The most important, a Hindu’s true calling, is dharma, which is about ethical and moral duties and conduct.

BUDDHISTS follow an eightfold path that leads to an end of suffering. The path is about wisdom, ethical conduct and concentration. Its steps include the right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right effort and right mindfulness. In other words, different aspects of RIGHTEOUSNESS.

In ISLAM, the word Muslim means “one who submits.” To live rightly as a Muslim you have to keep the five pillars of Islam: reciting the Shahadah, (that says there’s no god but Allah, and that Mohammed is his prophet); prayer five times a day; giving alms; fasting during Ramadan; and pilgrimage to Mecca. That’s the measure of righteousness.

And in JUDAISM, righteousness involves KEEPING THE LAW. And it’s seen by many Jews to be more important even than what you believe about God. Some of the distinctive Jewish law-keeping is to do with Sabbath, circumcision, and ritual purity to do with certain types of food.

All of those religions say that RIGHTEOUSNESS – right living – is very important. And Christianity agrees. The CATHOLIC church speaks about seven sacraments. Rituals that serve as channels of God’s grace. You’re righteous, or right with God, as you receive those sacraments with the right attitude. They include baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist (or Holy Communion), and penance (or confession).

ANOTHER way of thinking about righteousness in Christianity is the way Jesus summarises it. Many people can quote Jesus in Matthew 7:12, where he says Do to OTHERS what you would have them do to YOU, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Others can quote what he says in Matthew 22:37 “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Love God, love others. That’s RIGHTEOUSNESS.

That’s the major world religions. But I want to suggest that even most AUSSIES, who want nothing to DO with religion, still think RIGHTEOUSNESS is important. Most of them can not only QUOTE Jesus’ words, but they think, in general, they’re good rules to live by. They’ll say something like, “I reckon life turns out alright as long as you treat people the way YOU want to be treated. That’s the way I try and live my life.”

And Jesus agrees with ALL of them. Righteousness DOES matter. See it there in v19? Whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called GREAT in the kingdom of heaven. The WAY YOU LIVE matters to God.

And perhaps as you sit there, you’re AGREEING. Righteousness MATTERS. Perhaps you’re sitting there feeling reasonably COMFORTABLE. After all, you’re sitting in church, while MOST people AREN’T. And according to YOUR definition of what’s RIGHT, you’re not doing too bad. And you do your best. Sure, you’re not PERFECT, but when you balance out the good with the bad, you’re pretty sure you scrape past with a PASS MARK. And you’re certainly doing better than SOME people you know. Surely, God’s got to be impressed. Or at least he’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

But take a CLOSER look at what Jesus says. And maybe you won’t be sitting so comfortably. He says, “Religions are CORRECT. Righteousness MATTERS. But no matter how many laws they make, no religion goes FAR ENOUGH. Or DEEP enough. Their standards are JUST TOO LOW. And they’re FAR TOO EASILY IMPRESSED.”

It’s NOT GOOD ENOUGH to aim for four goals, or follow eight steps, or keep five pillars, or rest on ONE DAY, or not eat SOME FOOD. Or receive seven sacraments. And it’s not good enough just to sit in church on Sunday morning, or be a good bloke, or try hard, or be better than the guy who lives NEXT DOOR. Look at the words Jesus says at the START of v19. 19 Anyone who breaks ONE of the LEAST of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called LEAST in the kingdom of heaven,

Or v20. Which is SCARIER. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness SURPASSES that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will CERTAINLY NOT enter the kingdom of heaven.

50% just won’t DO. Or jump over to v46 and see how Jesus CONCLUDES this section. Be PERFECT, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Our standards of what’s RIGHTEOUS are just too low, and we’re too easily impressed. And if we don’t adjust our standards, we’re in for A SHOCK.

When I was in High School, I was a pretty good high jumper. I’d been to Little Athletics, so I’d learned the right technique. Which meant that at school carnivals, I had an advantage over the other kids who only did it once a year. So, I’d win the school carnival, and, sometimes, even the next level. ONE YEAR I even made the State Carnival. And I thought I was pretty GOOD. Until I turned up and I realised how high EVERYONE ELSE jumped. The bar was OVER MY HEAD. And I quickly came back to reality. I wasn’t really good AT ALL.

And that’s what it’s like with RIGHTEOUSNESS. According to OUR standards, we might think we’re doing FINE. But Jesus says it’s not OUR standard that COUNTS. It’s GOD’S. And he’s not so easily impressed. His bar is far higher. Righteousness MATTERS. Because if you’re NOT righteous, you won’t enter the kingdom of heaven. You won’t see God.

And so Jesus says to HUNGER and THIRST for righteousness. We saw that last week in v6 of Ch 5. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” It’s a GOOD THING to be righteous. Even when people PERSECUTE you for it (v10-11). Because (v12) God REWARDS people who are righteous.

Righteousness makes a difference

But there’s more to righteousness than REWARDS in HEAVEN. It MAKES A DIFFERENCE NOW. Its purpose is to slow, or minimise, the decay and evil in the world, and to drive out the darkness. That’s the point of Christians being SALT and LIGHT (v13-16). Jesus’ disciples – those who are pursuing righteousness – are SALT of the EARTH, he says. And LIGHT of the WORLD. They’re to ACT in the world, and CHANGE it.

We think of salt as being about FLAVOURING food. But in Jesus’ day, before refrigeration, its MAIN purpose was to cure and preserve food. To SLOW THE DECAY of food.

The world is DECAYING. The effects of sin destroy and corrupt and cause pain. And Christians are to SLOW DOWN and MINIMISE that process. Work AGAINST it. Righteousness speaks TRUTH against lies. It speaks and acts JUSTLY against injustice. It relieves pain and reduces suffering. That’s SALT.

The OTHER way righteousness works is like light in the darkness, v14. Darkness can’t exist where there’s light. Right WORDS correct dark and evil ideas. Right ACTIONS overcome dark and evil structures and behaviour. Light answers violence and hatred with gentleness and compassion. Light bring LIFE to DEAD things.

And for each picture, Jesus’ point is that they MAKE A DIFFERENCE. They CHANGE what they come in contact with. And if they DON’T, they’re USELESS. Salt that loses its saltiness is WORTHLESS. Light hidden under a bowl is a WASTE OF ENERGY. And so Christians shouldn’t be scared of the persecution that righteousness attracts. They should KEEP THEIR SALTINESS. They should LET THEIR LIGHT SHINE BEFORE MEN.

The temptation when you’re insulted is to wash your saltiness out, or put you light under a bowl. The temptation is to keep quiet, to blend in, to save your money, your energy, your emotions. To not get involved. To act and think like everyone else. But do that, says Jesus, (the end of v13) and you risk being thrown out, like dust, and trampled on. And (v16) no one will praise your Father in heaven because of you. Righteousness MATTERS. So LET IT SHOW.

A DEEPER righteousness

Well, all that is really Jesus’ INTRODUCTION. He’s said righteousness MATTERS. (Without it you don’t enter the kingdom of heaven). And that it MAKES a DIFFERENCE in the world. (Like light and salt). But he hasn’t really said what it IS. And what it LOOKS LIKE. And from v17 we see Jesus RAISING the STANDARD. He shows TRUE righteousness. And how different it is from what everyone else THINKS. It’s a DEEPER righteousness. And the key to it is the paragraph from v17 to v20.

He begins by explaining his relationship to the Jewish law. The Old Testament. There was a rumour he’d come to REPLACE it. (To put an ALTERNATIVE set of rules in place. To DESTROY the old.) Perhaps people had seen him healing on the Sabbath, or not washing his hands the way other Jews did.

But Jesus says, v17, “I haven’t come to ABOLISH it. I’ve come to FULFIL it.” And then he goes on to say that NOT ONE WORD in the Old Testament will disappear, or pass away, until HEAVEN AND EARTH pass away. In other words, the Old Testament remains for as long as the EARTH remains. And the reason it remains, even though Jesus brings something BRAND NEW, is because he FULFILS it. Which means, MOSTLY, that it PREDICTS Jesus, or POINTS to Jesus.

And it’s more than just PREDICTIVE PROPHECY Jesus fulfils. Jesus fulfils EVERYTHING. It ALL points to him. Everything in the Old Testament are just SHADOWS cast by Jesus. He’s the 3D High definition, while they’re just the cartoon pencil sketch. He’s the ANSWER to all its QUESTIONS. The affirmation to all its DOUBTS. The success to all its failures. He’s the TRUE image of God, where every other human falls. He’s the true KING, where kings fail. He’s the true PROPHET, where prophets prove FALSE. He’s the true PRIEST, who offers one, eternal, effective sacrifice. He’s the true and faithful Israelite, when Israel proves faithless. The true lamb, the temple, the tabernacle, the temple curtain. He’s the true glory of God.

And because it all points to him, the Old Testament MATTERS. Including every law and command. Jesus says, v19, Anyone who breaks one of the LEAST of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called LEAST in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Righteousness MATTERS to God, and we LEARN what that LOOKS LIKE from his commands. And we’re to keep even the LEAST of them.

But does that means we should stop eating bacon, or start wearing tassels on our gowns, or sacrificing pigeons or goats for our sin? No! We need to remember what Jesus has already said. He FULFILS the law. He’s the ANSWER to its QUESTIONS. So we’re to keep all its commandments AS CHRIST FULFILS THEM. Or as seen through the lens of Jesus.

Which means, in SOME things, it becomes EASIER. We can EAT what we want and WEAR what we want. They’re just pictures of being holy. And Christ has MADE us holy. And we don’t have to offer SACRIFICES anymore because Jesus’ sacrifice for sin replaced them.

But in OTHER ways, true righteousness has become a whole lot DEEPER. The bar is FAR HIGHER than we realise. Because not only does the Old Testament point to Jesus. The Old Testament LAW points to Jesus’ TRUE understanding of law. To God’s TRUE requirements.

Jesus has just said we can’t even break the LEAST Old Testament command, and then he says, v20. For I tell you that unless your righteousness SURPASSES that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly NOT enter the kingdom of heaven.

Now, the Pharisees and teachers spent their time FOCUSSING on the major and the minor commands. If there was anyone who’d be keeping the LEAST commandments, it would be THEM. But Jesus says we’re to have righteousness than SURPASSES them. And Jesus’ criticism of them was JUST THAT. They were focussed on the COMMANDS, rather than what the commands POINTED to.

In some ways, keeping a hundred commands is EASY. Because you can keep lists, and tick them off. But Jesus, and God the Father as well all the way through the Old Testament, is more interested in what’s UNDERNEATH, or BEHIND, the rule-keeping. He wants DESIRES AND ATTITUDES AND HEARTS that are righteous. He wants a DEEPER righteousness, not necessarily a WIDER one. And he goes on to give a number of examples.

First, MURDER, v21. The Pharisees and teachers focussed on the COMMAND not to murder. But they’d overlooked ANGER and hatred. Bitterness and pride. Bad temper and frustration at others. That’s where murder BEGINS. Jesus wants a much DEEPER righteousness than simply not committing the ACT of murder. His bar was much higher. And his expectation reaches into every corner of our lives.

Next up, v27. Adultery. Once again, the Pharisees and teachers had focussed on the ACT of adultery. But they’d forgotten the dozens of steps that LEAD DOWN THAT PATH. The wandering eye, the active imagination, the flirty conversation, the daydreaming, the hunger for forbidden fruit. THOSE were the sins the commandment against adultery POINTED towards. The sins of eyes and heart and imagination, not just of actions. And Jesus called for a much DEEPER righteousness. His bar was much higher. And his expectation reaches into every corner of our lives.

Next, he turns his attention to DIVORCE, v31. And once again, the Pharisees and teachers had concentrated on the LETTER of the law, and forgotten the SPIRIT. God made marriage for LIFE, but human weakness and sin meant divorce is a reality. And so, to make themselves feel BETTER about divorcing their wife, they set a low bar. You could divorce your wife as long as you gave her a certificate of divorce, so she could remarry. And they ignored the attitudes of unforgiveness and lust and pride that LED to the divorce. And Jesus’ point is that the COMMANDMENT points to THOSE ATTITUDES AS WELL. He’s calling for a much DEEPER righteousness. His bar was much higher. And his expectation reaches into every corner of our lives.

Same thing with telling the truth, v33. Rather than just not lying. The teachers and Pharisees had set a much lower bar. They’d DEFINED ways they could GET AROUND telling the truth. Ways to say something so that you didn’t have to DO it. And behind it the desire to DECEIVE. To gain a benefit over someone else by not being COMPLETELY truthful. And Jesus says, v37, just let your Yes be Yes and your No be No. He’s calling for a much DEEPER righteousness. His bar was much higher. And his expectation reaches into every corner of our lives.

Same thing with REVENGE and HATE. The Old Testament set the principle that punishment should be EQUAL with the crime. “An eye for an eye.” Which the Pharisees and teachers took as an excuse to HATE THEIR ENEMY. To return the treatment of those who’d treated them badly. But Jesus says, that’s not righteousness. That’s not justice. That’s making you no different from THEM. He’s calling for a DEEPER righteousness. V39. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, let it go. Offer him the OTHER cheek. Or v43, instead of HATING your enemy, LOVE him. And PRAY for your persecutor.

Do THAT, and you’ll be salt of the earth, and light of the world. Do THAT, and you’ll be DIFFERENT. Do THAT, and you’ll be like your Father in heaven, V45, HIS rain falls on the evil AND the good. He shows common grace, whether people DESERVE it, or NOT. And Jesus FINISHES, v48. Be PERFECT, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Let me STOP for a moment, and ask you to reflect on how all of that makes you FEEL. I hope there’s something ATTRACTIVE and GOOD and TRUE about it. I hope it makes you HUNGRY for righteousness. I hope it makes you wish that the world had more people who LIVED like that. It would certainly be a BETTER PLACE.

But I’m guessing you’re also feeling like I did at that State Athletics Carnival. Like a failure. That the bar is too high, and you can’t possibly measure up. You know your own heart. How easily it slips into these sins of attitude. How easily words slip out, and tempers fray, and eyes wander, and desires shift.

And both of those reactions are RIGHT. (Hungry AND despairing.) But Jesus doesn’t want us to DESPAIR. Remember how he INTRODUCED this sermon? Back in v3. Blessed are the POOR IN SPIRIT. (Those who recognise they have NOTHING to OFFER GOD.) For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who MOURN. Who weep over their sin, who want to be DIFFERENT. For God will COMFORT them.

Blessed are the MEEK. Those who recognise they have nothing to offer. Nothing to contribute. And that only GOD can supply what they LACK. And finally, blessed are those who HUNGER and THIRST for righteousness. Who DESIRE it, who COMMIT to LIVING it.

And what’s Jesus’ promise for people like that? They will be FILLED. That’s PASSIVE. They don’t fill THEMSELVES with righteousness. When they’re hungry for it, and look to GOD, HE fills them. YOU bring the HUNGER, and God brings the RIGHTEOUSNESS. And he FILLS you with it. Consistent, deep and genuine righteousness.

“You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 3:13-4:11: A true son

The last house we bought had been renovated, which was good, houseAND bad. It was GOOD, because of the renovations done by PROFESSIONALS: the new blackwood kitchen, the lovely air-conditioner. The pool.

But what was BAD were the renovations done by the OWNER. Who WASN’T a professional. He’d polished the floor boards, but when he’d varnished them, he’d missed big patches. There was the shower he’d tiled. But there was no fall on the floor tiles to the drain. And the water pooled in one corner. And the water leaked out under the hob.

And there was the new fuseboard he’d installed in the laundry. There wasn’t enough power available to run the washing machine AND the pool pump at the same time. They’d trip the circuit breaker.

For the first few years, we lived in fear and trepidation about the next poor renovation job we’d discover. It was the house that JACK built.

But gradually, over the years, we got the PROFESSIONALS in to fix up his poor work. They did the job PROPERLY. And we could have CONFIDENCE in their work. And by the time we left, it was a house that was in better condition than when we BOUGHT it. And we could REST, and ENJOY our house.

And in the time of John the Baptist, the house of ISRAEL is in a state of disrepair. Built by poor workmen – home handymen. There’s disobedience and ignorance, injustice, legalism and self-righteous pride. It’s a mess.

And God’s not going to LEAVE it like that. He’s planned a RENOVATION. He sends John the Baptist, who comes preaching that the Kingdom of heaven is NEAR. That God’s coming to JUDGE. And that his Messiah will come with FIRE. The Master builder. Clearing out all the rubbish. Ch 3:12. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

And so Jesus arrives. John’s been announcing a fiery weapon of judgment. Someone to bring God’s JUSTICE against sin. But, instead, v13, Jesus arrives, and waits in line to be baptised by John, like the rest of the crowd. John thinks Jesus has got things the wrong way around. That Jesus needs to be baptising JOHN. That JOHN’S the one with sin that needs repenting of, and washing away. And John’s RIGHT. John IS the sinner, and Jesus IS the perfect One. John ISN’T worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals. It SHOULD be Jesus baptising John.

And a lot’s been written about why Jesus needed to be baptised when he hadn’t sinned. But look what Jesus says. V15. Matthew’s the only gospel writer who records his answer. And it seems to me it gets to the heart of the matter. Jesus says,“Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this TO FULFILL ALL RIGHTEOUSNESS.”

Jesus has come to fulfil all righteousness. To live the perfectly righteous life. Including baptism of repentance. But the point isn’t just that Jesus succeeds. But that Jesus succeeds/ WHERE ISRAEL FAILED. Where poor workmen build a poor house, Jesus is the CRAFTSMAN building the PERFECT house. Repairing the poor workmanship that came BEFORE.

It’s a theme Matthew’s already introduced. Back in Ch 2. Herod wants to kill Jesus. V13. An angel warns Joseph, and says to take his family to Egypt, and they stayed there until Herod died. And then, some time later, they return to Nazareth. And Matthew comments, in v15, And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called MY SON.”

It’s a quote from Hosea 11, describing Israel’s history. ISRAEL is God’s son. He sent Jacob and his family to Egypt to escape the famine. Then, much later, he called Israel OUT of Egypt, rescuing them from Pharaoh. In fact, when Moses goes to Pharaoh to plead for their release, here’s what God tells him to say. Exodus 4:22 ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is MY FIRSTBORN SON, 23 and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.'”

That was Israel. And Matthew’s point is that Jesus is ALSO God’s son. And he’s FOLLOWED THAT SAME PATTERN. Sent to Egypt to escape trouble. Then brought into the Promised Land. But more than just FOLLOWED Israel, Matthew says, in 2:15 that Jesus FULFILS Israel’s history. He COMPLETES it. Or PERFECTS it. Which could be more accurate. If we go on and read a bit further in Hosea 11 we find out what SORT of son Israel was. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 BUT THE MORE I CALLED ISRAEL, THE FURTHER THEY WENT FROM ME. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images.

God brought his son Israel out of Egypt, safely through the Red Sea and the desert and across the Jordan. But, still, they wandered away after other gods. Compare that to Jesus. Remember, we’re at Jesus’ baptism, Ch 3 v15, and he says he’s being baptised to FULFIL ALL RIGHTEOUSNESS.

He’s been called out of Egypt, just like Israel. Back into the Promised Land, just like Israel. And now, he’s at the Jordan River, just like Israel was before they entered the land. But he’s going to do it PROPERLY. He goes down into the river, and is baptised by John.

V16, he comes back up out of the river, like Israel did as they crossed the Jordan. But where Israel FAILS, Jesus SUCCEEDS. Where Israel DISAPPOINTS God, Jesus PLEASES him. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Israel, God’s son, FAILS God’s test. Their house is a mess of home handyman renovations. Idolatry and disobedience and pride. But Jesus comes, loved by his heavenly Father, and fulfils all righteousness. He passes his test, and God’s WELL PLEASED with him.Finally, someone who can do the job of being God’s son PROPERLY.

And, as we move into Ch 4, we see how he LIVES UP to that praise. V1, the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil. Or TESTED. It’s the same word. And yet James 1:13 tells us that God doesn’t TEMPT. So how could God want Jesus to be TEMPTED? Didn’t Jesus teach us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation”? And yet, here, the Spirit is leading Jesus to be tempted!

It’s the same WORD – test, or tempt. And both things can happen in the same event. The difference comes in the AIM. The GOAL. GOD wants to TEST Jesus – to prove that he’s reliable and faithful. But the devil has a DIFFERENT goal for the same event. His desire is that Jesus prove UNRELIABLE. That he FAIL the test.

Once again, James 1 shows us what THE DEVIL’S plans are. V13. 13 When tempted (or tested), no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;

That’s STEP ONE – you have a difficult situation to deal with. How will you respond? Here’s where the TEST becomes a TEMPTATION. 14 but each one is tempted when, by HIS OWN EVIL DESIRE, he is dragged away and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

A TEST becomes a TEMPTATION when we FAIL the test. When we GIVE IN. When desire is aroused, and then it leads to sin.

That’s what happens with US. That’s what happened with Israel, God’s firstborn son. But not with Jesus. Because he’s the TRUE son. The faithful, reliable builder. Who PASSES the test. Who RESISTS the temptation.

Look at how it worked with ISRAEL. God led them into the desert to TEST them. We read that in Deuteronomy 8. Moses is speaking to the people, and he looks back at the forty years they’d spent wandering in desert. And he says (Deuteronomy 8 v2) 2 Remember how the LORD your God LED you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to TEST you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.

And look at the TYPE of testing God did. 3 He HUMBLED you, causing you to HUNGER and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, TO TEACH YOU THAT MAN DOES NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT COMES FROM THE MOUTH OF THE LORD.

And how did Israel DEAL with the test? They didn’t learn the lesson. Instead of being humble, they were PROUD and STIFF-NECKED. Instead of being content and grateful for God’s provision, they GRUMBLED. Instead of trusting God’s word, they DOUBTED it.

Did you notice all the common ideas with Jesus’ temptation? Led by God into the desert. Hunger. Forty. But that’s where the similarities END. When Jesus, God’s OTHER, BELOVED son is led into the desert to be tested. It’s forty DAYS, not forty years. And he’s tested with hunger, just like Israel. But he proves FAITHFUL. He doesn’t grumble. V3, The devil, the TEMPTER, whispers in his ear, “If you’re the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Just the way James 1 describes it. Let your DESIRE – your HUNGER – entice you. Let desire give birth to SIN – to DOUBTING God, to satisfying SELF rather than pleasing GOD.

But Jesus refuses to give in. He PASSES the test. He quotes from that same Deuteronomy 8 passage that describes ISRAEL failing the desert testing. He says, “There’s more to life than BREAD. TRUE life comes from feeding on GOD’S WORDS. That’s what I’M going to do.”

And he passes the FIRST test. The SECOND test, from v5, is the temptation to TURN THINGS AROUND. Instead of submitting to his Father’s plans, it’s the temptation to SET HIS OWN AGENDA. To have his Father submit to HIS will. V6.

6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”

But Jesus is FIRM. Testing happens in ONE DIRECTION. It’s not for him to test his FATHER, but only for his Father to test HIM. V7. 7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the TEST.'” Once again, a quote from Deuteronomy, to show he’s fulfilling ISRAEL’s desert testing.

Same thing with the devil’s THIRD temptation. V8. “Forget a HEAVENLY kingdom,” he whispers, “Use your power as Son of God to build an EARTHLY kingdom.” All he has to do is worship the Devil, the PRINCE of this earth.

But Jesus’ eyes are only on ONE KINGDOM, and his knee will bow to only ONE LORD. V10. 10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'” Jesus PASSES THE TEST, the devil LEAVES him, and angels attend him.

He’s proved RELIABLE. The beloved Son, whom God’s pleased with. Where Israel fails – where YOU AND I fail – Jesus SUCCEEDS. He fulfils all righteousness, while we’re NOT righteous.

Which is fine for JESUS. But the problem for US is that God DEMANDS sons who are righteous. Who pass the test. Who resist the temptation. We see that in Jesus’ teaching in the next chapter. His sermon on the mount. And, among other things, he preaches, Ch 5 v3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, and those who mourn. (Who RECOGNISE their poverty and sin and GRIEVE it.) For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. For they will be COMFORTED.”

And, v6, “Blessed are those who HUNGER AND THIRST FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS, for they will be FILLED.” They’ll be filled with RIGHTEOUSNESS!

And a few verses on, down in v20, he talks about how important righteousness is to God.

20 For I tell you that unless your RIGHTEOUSNESS SURPASSES that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will CERTAINLY NOT enter the kingdom of heaven.

On our own, an IMPOSSIBLE TASK. No wonder we need to mourn our sin. No wonder we’re to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Because we miss out on the kingdom if we’re NOT righteous.

But it’s not impossible. Because it doesn’t come from ourselves. Jesus promises that when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, we’ll BE FILLED. Jesus HIMSELF will do the filling.

In God’s PERFECT PLAN, Jesus STANDS IN OUR PLACE. HE provides the righteousness we LACK. His perfect obedience is substituted for our FAILURE. And God, in his MERCY, reckons us as RIGHTEOUS.

2 Corinthians 5:21 describes the substitution that happens in God’s heavenly court room. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Our poor workmanship, our weak efforts, our broken righteousness/ replaced with the pure, perfect work of the TRUE son.

And all it takes on our part is FAITH. Romans 3:22 says 22 This righteousness from God comes through THE FAITHFULNESS OF JESUS CHRIST to all who BELIEVE. Faith in the faithfulness of Jesus. Trust in the trustworthiness of Jesus. That’s the key to unlocking the riches of righteousness.

People go through life doing their best to please God. Their life is a house, and they work so hard to make it acceptable. They add an extra do-it-yourself extension of rule-keeping, and then a back verandah of respectability, and a shiny new bathroom of donations and generosity, and a garden bed of service organisations and committee-work. And then they finish it all off with a fresh coat of “At least I’m doing better than Joe down the road!”

But it’s all rubbish. Poor quality work that won’t LAST. That won’t pass God’s inspection. The Apostle Paul gave his LIFE to those DIY renovations. Until one day he found the TRUE Son, the EXPERT BUILDER. And realised how WORTHLESS they all were.

In Philippians 3, he writes I consider them rubbish, (All those efforts to be righteous) that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through the faithfulness of Christ-the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.

That’s the precious treasure worth giving up EVERYTHING for. The righteousness of Jesus’ PERFECT work. The perfect righteous, God-pleasing life. And he GIVES IT TO US when we TRUST him.

And it’s not just irrelevant head-knowledge. It’s a truth that makes a REAL DIFFERENCE in the way you live. Because it gives you CONFIDENCE and JOY and HOPE. You don’t have to worry about your own performance, because Jesus has performed FOR you.

You don’t have to keep STRIVING to PERFORM. You can REST in Jesus’ work. Content and confident.

And you have a PURPOSE. To know him BETTER. And to GROW into the righteous status you already have. To become more like Jesus as you live WITH him, and IN him, and FOR him.

Paul goes on to describe what that righteousness means for his life. Philippians 3 v10.

10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, BECOMING LIKE HIM in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I PRESS ON to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Our right standing in Christ before God doesn’t make us complacent and lazy. It MOTIVATES us to PRESS ON. To live following Jesus. To follow his EXAMPLE of resisting temptation. To truly live by every word from God’s mouth rather than the words of the world. To work for his glory and kingdom, and to worship and serve him alone.

THANKS BE TO GOD FOR THE INDESCRIBABLE GIFT OF HIS SON.

John 1:10-14 Undercover Boss

undercover boss 4I wonder if you’ve seen any episodes of UNDERCOVER BOSS. It’s a show where owners and General Managers go undercover in their companies. They’ve had some big companies do it: Boost Juice, Domino’s Pizza, IGA supermarkets and Big 4 Holiday Parks.

The bosses take off the Armani suits and Gucci ties. They give up all the privileges. And they put on the company uniform, the steel capped boots, the bad wig and fake glasses. And no one recognises them.

They spend a week doing the normal, dirty jobs of their employees. And often, not very well, either. It’s quite funny watching the frustration of people used to success not being able to do quite simple, practical tasks. Fred Harrison, the CEO of IGA Supermarkets, was actually SACKED for poor performance by his supervisor!

But the intriguing part of the show is when the bosses begin to understand the real-life struggles their employees go through. A single mum who juggles a dozen different parts of her life. A dad working night shifts as a second job to pay for his son’s uni. Someone coping with chronic illness and big medical bills.

Bosses who’ve had all the lucky breaks come to realise that normal people can work just as hard, but not come out on top.

And then at the end of the show, there’s the big reveal. The bosses take off the disguises, and they get to express their admiration for their employees. And they reward their hard work and commitment.

The boss goes back to his corner office and three piece suit. The employee gets a helping hand. Everyone’s changed. And we like to think society will be just that little bit more egalitarian and respectful as a result.

That’s just a TV show.

But what if Undercover Boss happened for real? What if the ULTIMATE boss went undercover? What if GOD became ONE of US?

Well, that’s exactly what we celebrate at Christmas.

It’s what the angel told Joseph. There in v23 of Matthew Ch 1. Mary was going to have a baby conceived by the power of God’s Holy Spirit. And he was to be called IMMANUEL, which means GOD WITH US.

GOD WITH US. In a way that’s impossible to completely understand. God went undercover.

A virgin became pregnant. Simply by the power of God. And then God himself was born as a helpless baby boy.

No longer infinite and absolute and eternal. But weak, and fragile and limited. Human in every way.

The God who CREATED everything chose, instead, to BE CREATED.

The One who was outside of time – who CREATED it – who existed BEFORE time  chose, instead, to step INTO time.

The author chose to enter his own story.

Like Alfred Hitchcock. Apart from making brilliant movies, he’s famous for making small appearances is his own movies. Cameos. For a brief second, he’d step out from behind the camera to be part of the story he was telling.

His fans love to study his movies to identify him. Missing a bus during the opening credits of “North by North West”. Sitting next to Cary Grant on a bus in “To Catch a Thief”. Sitting with a child on his lap in a hotel foyer in “Torn Curtain”. He’s even the “Before” and “after” photos in a weight loss ad in a newspaper.

37 appearances identified so far in nearly 50 years of movies.

For Alfred Hitchcock, it’s quirky and cute and interesting. But largely IRRELEVANT TO THE STORY. But when God, the author of creation, chooses to step into creation, it’s utterly unique, and incredibly significant. It CHANGED THE FACE OF HUMAN HISTORY.

For Alfred Hitchcock, it’s just a fleeting glimpse. A split second. And then he goes back to behind the camera. He doesn’t really experience the life of the actor. There’s no hard work, no learning lines, no aching feet.

But for God, when Jesus came as the undercover boss it was different. He experienced everything we do. From cradle to grave. The lows and the highs. Every weakness, every limitation. He GETS IT.

Like the undercover boss who puts on the overalls and the hard hat. Who gets his hands dirty. And really begins to understand what his employees go through.

That’s Jesus. The book of Hebrews says this. That’s the SECOND reading there on your sheet. Ch 4 v15.

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been TEMPTED IN EVERY WAY, JUST AS WE ARE-YET WAS WITHOUT SIN.

He knew what it felt like to be hungry and weary and sick. He experienced blisters and sunburn and headaches. He understood loneliness and betrayal and frustration. He felt the temptation to get angry or even, and to want his own way.

He was God WITH us.

And that means he understands. He sympathises. He GETS it.

Which is a great comfort. (Even if he was just a NORMAL person. To know someone GETS what you go through.) But it’s even better that GOD HIMSELF understands. Because it means he’s got the inclination, and the power, to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Look at the very next verse.

16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with CONFIDENCE, so that we may RECEIVE MERCY and FIND GRACE to HELP us in our time of need.

Jesus DID walk in our shoes. But NOW, he’s back in charge of the Universe. Like the undercover boss who’s put the suit back on.

And we can be confident he’ll give us a sympathetic hearing when we ask for his help. He gets it, AND he’s got the power to do something about it. Because he’s GOD WITH US.

He’s the perfect High Priest who stands between us and God. Standing up for us. Presenting our requests to him. Bringing them by his authority.

And that means we can be confident of our prayers being ANSWERED. Of God giving us grace to help in times of need.

Is that something YOU know? Do YOU come confidently before God, because you know Jesus is your high priest?

He’s GOD WITH US. Experiencing everything we’ve gone through.

In fact, far MORE and far WORSE than most of us ever will. He didn’t come to the VERY TOP of society. He didn’t come to a royal palace. To a powerful position. To the front of a parade.

He came to a working class family. In a dusty back corner of an insignificant nation. Recognised only by a bunch of dirty shepherds. And he grew up in anonymity. Like every other teenager.

But that was just the beginning. He began his mission. He preached and healed the sick. He cast out demons and calmed storms.

He was God walking and talking and living human life.

But he wasn’t acclaimed and recognised and celebrated like you might expect. In fact, he was misunderstood, and overlooked, and rejected by almost everyone. The THIRD Bible reading, from Jn Ch 1, puts it like this. There in v10.

10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, THE WORLD DID NOT RECOGNIZE HIM. 11 He came to that which was his own, but HIS OWN DID NOT RECEIVE HIM.

He MADE the world. If there was ANYONE who deserved to be recognised, it was the One who’d MADE everything. But when he ENTERED it, the ultimate injustice was his creatures wanted nothing to do with him. They REJECTED him.

Like the employees who don’t recognise their undercover boss. Who treat him as the new junior. They don’t realise who they’re talking to. You half expect the boss to lose his temper. “I pay your wage, buddy! You can’t treat me like that!”

And it was like that with Jesus. The crowds were happy to follow him when he fed them, or healed them. But when he challenged them to leave everything to follow him. They didn’t want anything to do with him.

And the powerful and pious – the religious leaders – were OFFENDED by him. And JEALOUS of him. And they were wanted him dead.

And in the end, they SUCCEEDED.

He was convicted of crimes he didn’t commit. His friends abandoned him. And then he was unjustly punished with a barbaric, tortuous death.

Which was TERRIBLE news. But it wasn’t the END of the story. Because he wasn’t just ANY man. He was GOD. And so death couldn’t beat him. And he was RAISED TO LIFE.

And THAT’S what the angel was talking about to Joseph. Way back when Mary was pregnant. “Call him Jesus,” he said, which means GOD SAVES. “Because he will SAVE HIS PEOPLE FROM THEIR SINS.” (See it there, in v21 of the first reading?)

And the incredible story of Jesus’ life isn’t just that he CAME. Or that he came as GOD WITH US.

But that he came as God with us TO SAVE PEOPLE FROM THEIR SINS.

Mankind’s natural inclination is to IGNORE the God who made us. It’s the ultimate insult. To NOT recognise him, or receive him, as John puts it.

To choose OUR way instead of God’s. To act as if God ISN’T the one who made us, and who deserves our loyalty.

That’s what SIN is. It’s that basic attitude that’s such an insult to God.

And it’s the ROOT of every OTHER sin. Every time we break one of God’s commands, behind it there’s the attitude of pride, of self-sufficiency, of rebellion against God.

It’s sin like that  which refused to recognise Jesus as God with us.

It’s sin like that which nailed Jesus to the cross.

It’s sin like that which we’re ALL guilty of.

It’s sin like that which God would be perfectly just to punish us for.

And yet, it’s sin like that which Jesus came to DELIVER us from. Look at how John continues. The world God made REJECTED him when he came to his own. But NOT EVERYONE. It wasn’t UNIVERSAL. V12.

12 Yet to all who RECEIVED him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-

There were some people who DID recognise Jesus. Who saw through the disguise. And who RECEIVED him.

Which means to see past the limited human form, and see the infinite GOD HIMSELF. God who walked and talked.

A bit further on there in v14, the author describes the incredible experience of some of those who walked with Jesus.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We HAVE seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

They saw through the disguise, and saw the glory of GOD HIMSELF. The invisible made visible. The infinite made finite.

And they RECEIVED him. Which means they BELIEVED IN HIS NAME. That’s the way v12 puts it.

To believe in Jesus’ name means to TRUST HIS AUTHORITY. To trust that he really IS God with us. That he really DOES speak on God’s behalf. That he really IS the High Priest who sympathises with our weaknesses, and who presents our interests before the Father.

And it means trusting what he’s DONE. What he’s achieved by his death and resurrection. Trusting that it’s on the basis of THAT WORK ALONE that we can approach God. And nothing to do with our own merits. Trusting that he’s DEALT with the sin that separates us from God.

And lastly, it means SHOWING that trust in the way we follow him each day.

And the wonderful promise in that verse is that anyone who RECEIVES Jesus like that. Whether WAY BACK THEN, or TODAY. Anyone who recognises him. And who trusts his authority, he gives the right to BECOME GOD’S CHILDREN.

That’s what it says there in v12. The privilege of being part of God’s family. Connected to the Creator who made us. Which is, ultimately, what we were DESIGNED for.

That’s an offer to ANYONE. No matter how good or bad you’ve been. No matter what your background. All he asks is you RECEIVE. And BELIEVE.

And when you become part of the family, there’s all sorts of BENEFITS that come with that. Gifts from the Boss who went undercover.

Just like the undercover boss who gives gifts to his loyal employees. Jesus hands out FAR GREATER gifts.

He makes us God’s children. Which means we can call God FATHER. And he loves to hear the prayers of his children.

And Jesus brings forgiveness, and peace and purpose and love. He makes us part of his worldwide family.

Are they benefits YOU know?

Have you RECEIVED Jesus? Have you BELIEVED IN HIS NAME?

If you’ve never DONE that, this Christmas is a great opportunity. To RECOGNISE the greatest gift ever given. When GOD GAVE HIMSELF. And to RECEIVE him. And to TRUST him.

After all, Christmas is the time for receiving gifts. And this is the best gift of all.

Or maybe you’ve done that BEFORE, but you’ve DRIFTED AWAY. You’ve got distracted and wandered off doing your OWN thing. You’ve lost the wonder you ONCE felt when you recognised Jesus. And you need to REAFFIRM what you’ve believed before.

Either way, becoming God’s child is as easy as ASKING. Talking to God. That’s what PRAYER is. ACCEPTING the GIFT Jesus offers. It’s as easy as saying something like,

Dear God, thank you that you sent Jesus to walk among us. Thanks that even though I fail to recognise him, and ignore him, he died and rose again to SAVE me from your judgment. Please forgive my sin, and help me to live trusting in Jesus’ authority. In Jesus’ name. Amen

In a moment I’ll finish up by praying that prayer.

The exact words you pray aren’t important. Or when or how you do it. You may like to say it in your OWN words. You may like to do it LATER. What COUNTS is whether you MEAN it.

And perhaps you’re not ready to make that step just yet. Because it’s a HUGE step. A LIFE CHANGING step. And it’s one you don’t want to RUSH INTO.

Perhaps you’ve got some questions. Or you want to do some more investigating. I’d LOVE to help. Helping people asking those sorts of questions is the best thing about this job!

Everyone should have a comment card with them. And, hopefully, a pencil. And, if you’d like, I’d LOVE you to make a comment. Or ask a question. Or ask us to pray for something.

Fill in your details if you’d like me to contact you. I promise we won’t sell them to Reader’s Digest. And when the collection bags come around just pop them in the bags, and they’ll get to me.

And please don’t put any money in if you’re a visitor. You’re our guests.

Let me pray for us all

Dear God, thank you that you sent Jesus to walk among us. Thanks that even though I failed to recognise him, he died and rose again to SAVE me from your judgment. Please forgive my sin, and help me to live trusting in Jesus’ authority. In Jesus’ name. Amen