Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass

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Zechariah 9:9-13; Matthew 21:1-11

In the Old Testament book of Zechariah there are two commands to rejoice.  Once it says:

“Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion:  for, lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the LORD.  And many nations shall be joined to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people: and I will dwell in the midst of thee, and thou shalt know that the LORD of hosts hath sent me unto thee.”  (Zechariah 2:10-12)

Very clearly we see two Persons called the LORD here.  The Speaker who says “lo, I come” is called the LORD.  And this LORD is also sent by the LORD of hosts.

He is LORD from LORD.  Light from Light.  Very God from Very God, as the creed would put it.  Here is the LORD Christ speaking of how He would dwell in the midst of His people and join them to His Father, the LORD of Hosts.

In Zechariah 9 we get the second command to rejoice – and again it is about the coming of Christ to His people:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.”  (Zechariah 9:9)

Here is the kind of LORD He is:  Christ is the lowly King.  Can you fathom this?  The King who is LORD, the Sent One from the Most High, the Christ, the Son of God – He is lowly.  He rides not in a chariot, not on a stallion, not on a white charger, but on an ass.

Rejoice greatly O people of God!  Here is the humble-hearted LORD Almighty.

They didn’t know it, but the people of Zechariah’s day would have to wait 500 years for this coming.  But when it happened on that Psalm Sunday, it unfolded exactly as written.  The LORD Jesus makes His travel arrangements and Matthew comments:

“All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet [Zechariah], saying, Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.  And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, And brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon.  And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way.  And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David:  Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.”  (Matthew 21:4-9)

This coming to Jerusalem is often called “The Triumphal Entry”.  To call it such makes the comparison with the Roman Triumph ceremonies where conquering commanders and kings returned from battle to receive glory and honour.

Christ’s “triumphal entry” is different.  For a start, His choice of transport is a deliberate subversion of kingly expectation.  He does ride into town. He is a king.  But He’s not that kind of king.

He is the lowly King.  And He doesn’t come returning from battle – He’s heading for His death.  In five days He would be strung up on a Roman cross.  And the crowd that sings Hosanna will soon cry “Crucify Him!”

No-one has captured the irony better than Samuel Crossman in My Song is Love Unknown.

Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for His death they thirst and cry.

Jesus knows that this is their destiny.  And His.  Yet He rides on.

And perhaps the deepest irony comes when we consider their benediction: “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”  The saying is from Psalm 118.  As we turn to the original context, notice where the blessed recipient of these hosannas ends up…

“Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the LORD:  we have blessed you out of the house of the LORD. 27 God is the LORD, which hath shewed us light:  bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar.”  (Psalm 118:26-27)

The Blessed One is the Coming One.  He comes in the name of the LORD.  But where does He come to?

There is a welcoming committee who greet Him “out of the house of the LORD” – that is, the temple.  And when they eventually get hold of Him, what do they say?  “Bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar.”

This Coming LORD is the Blessed One, but as He’s received by the people He becomes a Human Sacrifice!  The King is bound upon the altar.

What kind of triumphal entry is this?  It is a procession which leads not to a stage, not to a throne, but to a cross.  This is the meekness of our LORD and King, whose glory is His sacrifice.  This is truly love unknown.

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.

Many are called but few are chosen

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Matthew 22:1-14

…So the handsome prince married his beautiful bride and they all lived happily ever after.  Do you believe in fairytales?  I say “fairytales” – it’s a bit deeper than that.  It runs in our cultural bloodstream. It courses through our literature, our music, our films, our deepest values in life.  We have this belief that when the guy and the girl get together – that is it.  That is the ultimate.  The happiest of happy endings.

Jesus tells us why we have that sense.  He says:

“The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son…” (Matthew 22:2)

In this parable, God is the King, Jesus is His Son.  And the kingdom of heaven is a wedding feast.  It is a joyful celebration thrown by the Father for His Son.  Here is the meaning of life according to the Bible:  The Father loves His Son Jesus and invites the world to enjoy Jesus Christ with Him.

Last year we saw another royal wedding.  William and Kate invited 40 kings and queens, 50 members of the royal family, 60 governors general and Commonwealth prime-ministers, 200 members of the government, Parliament and diplomatic corps.  But also they invited Kate Middleton’s grocer, butcher and postman, her pub landlord and 300 other friends of the couple.

Gentlemen were required to wear uniform, morning coat or lounge suit. Ladies were required to wear a hat for the wedding service.  Some of them perhaps went overboard.

In Biblical times, life was even simpler for the recipients of invitations. Servants would come and take your RSVP personally.  And if you wanted to go, the right clothes were provided on the day by the host.  Therefore there really was no excuse for not showing up and not being dressed for the occasion.

But the shock of Christ’s parable is how people respond to the King’s invitation.

“And sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come.  Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner:  my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage.  But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise:  And the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them.”  (Matthew 22:3-6)

First the servants are met by indifference, then mockery, then violence. Earlier this year, republican sentiment was stirred up by the royal wedding.  Many took it as an opportunity to voice their anti-royalist grievances.  But you have to hate the King and His Son very much to kill the inviters, don’t you?  This is high treason.

And yet Jesus is simply retelling the Old Testament story here.  Prophet after prophet invite the people, and prophet after prophet are met with hatred and violence.  Eventually the King responds:

“But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth:  and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.”  (Matthew 22:7)

Here is a prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem which occurred in AD70.  Those who refused the invitation of the King would be those who themselves kill the Son.  Jesus says judgement will fall.  And we look back to see that judgement did fall, just as He predicted.  But this is not the end of the story.

“Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy.  Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage.  So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good:  and the wedding was furnished with guests.”  (Matthew 22:8-10)

The kingdom of heaven is for everyone.  Bad and good.  Diplomats and butchers, princes and prostitutes, celebrities and criminals.  The Father will celebrate His Son and will celebrate with everyone who wants to join in.  It will be an eternity of feasting and joy.  It will be the happily ever after we all long for.

But this parable doesn’t end with that “happily ever after.”  Jesus brings everything back to earth with a bump to discuss the case of a single invitee who misses out.

“And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment:  And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless.  Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  For many are called, but few are chosen.”  (Matthew 22:11-14)

One man was not wearing the appropriate clothes.  He has refused to put on what’s been provided.  He’s refused to acknowledge the occasion.  It is a snub to the Father and the Son and he is cast out of the feast.

Heaven is a party.  But it’s not any old party.  It’s God the Father’s celebration of His Son.  The many who are called are not called to a place of abstract blessings and general pleasures.  The chosen are those who don’t merely celebrate the supper – they celebrate the Son. The very essence of the kingdom is a love and honour for Jesus.  If we don’t want to acknowledge Jesus, then we may be called, but we are not chosen.

But then why would we not acknowledge Jesus?  Especially when we understand the lengths He has gone to, to invite us.  In the story he sends servants.  But in the Gospels He came in Person.  He is God’s personal invitation to the feast.  And everything He does beckons us in.  On the cross He voluntarily took our judgement for heavenly high treason.  The Great Bridegroom got bound hand and foot and dragged outside the city.  The Royal Son of the Father was cast into outer darkness with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Jesus suffered hell to bring us heaven.  He was cast out so that we could be brought in.

Being “chosen” is not about looking within to find qualifications for the feast.  We find ourselves chosen when we look away to Christ and our hearts are won by the Heavenly Bridegroom.

All things are ready:  come unto the marriage!

The last shall be first and the first last

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Matthew 20:1-16

Have you ever discovered a co-worker’s salary?  How did it affect you?  It can be deeply destabilising.

There are good reasons that offices issue their payslips in sealed envelopes.  Knowing the wages of fellow labourers can inspire volatile jealousy and tear a workplace apart.  But why should it?

Well, human beings are incurable rankers.  We constantly assess ourselves against others.

There is within us a deep-seated feeling that “I am not ok”.  And we seek to drown out its intolerable voice by shouting “But I’m not as bad as him! And I certainly deserve more than her!”  To use the technical term, we are committed to an intensive and almost unceasing programme of self-justification.

Nervously, we eye the front of the queue and, whether through hard work or just self-deception, we put ourselves forward.  Maybe not to the head of the queue.  But pretty far along.  Further than most!

And while we jostle for the front, the Judge of the World arrives to announce: “The front is the back and the back is the front!”

It’s a sword-thrust through the heart of self-justification.

And how do those at the front feel?

Read Matthew 20:1-16

Into whose shoes do you naturally put yourself in this story?

Most church folk  see themselves in the hardest working labourers.  And their cries of “Unfair!” resonate with us, even if we might never be so bold as to voice such a “murmur.”

Rarely do religious types think of themselves as those standing idle because “no man hath hired” them.  Yet, if we are Gentiles, that is our story.  We have been passed over for generations while God established His vine, Israel.  We have been invited in at the last minute and lavished with the blessings of Abraham.

So really it doubly reveals my self-justification.  I’ve actually worked some of the shortest hours and I’m tempted to feel cheated!  How deep our sense of entitlement runs!

But here is the rock on which our self-justification is dashed:  the goodness of Jesus.  This is a stunning truth.  Any who grumble against the judgement of Jesus will find themselves grumbling against His generosity.

“Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way:  I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.  Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” (Matthew 20:13-15)

The penny was a perfectly reasonable day’s wage.  If these grumblers had never known about their neighbours’ pay they wouldn’t even think to murmur.  But they don’t just want pay, they want more pay than others. And Jesus puts His finger on their problem – their “evil eye.”  This just means their jealousy.  They want to be rewarded and vindicated as better than others.  But the Lord refuses to play along.  He wants to be generous.  And so He makes a show of His equal pay to all.

He doesn’t quietly lavish the undeserving with grace, He publicly does it. He is declaring to all that generosity is the very atmosphere of His kingdom.  Therefore self-justification is out.

There can be no murmuring, no entitlement spirit, no ranking in Christ’s Kingdom.  While we jostle for the head of the queue, Jesus shows up at the back – the lowest of the low.  He serves and suffers and bleeds and dies the most shameful death.  And He – the Servant – is vindicated as Lord.  The Last became First.  He made the back of the queue into the front.

Meantime, all those clambering to the “front” find that it leads only to further jealousy, back-biting and gnashing of teeth.

The implication is clear.  Give up the self-justification.  Give up the comparisons and the competition.  Don’t despise the generosity of Jesus. Depend on it.

A millstone around your neck

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Matthew 18:1-9

A heavy burden weighing you down.  Inescapable.  And probably self-inflicted.  That’s how we think of a millstone around our necks.  A job, a relationship, an ongoing commitment – these things can often be called “millstones around our neck.”

But when Jesus said it, He wasn’t referring to a wearisome inconvenience. He was speaking of a deadly punishment:

“At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.  Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.  But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”   (Matthew 18:1-6)

It’s not simply that this millstone weighs you down as you trudge along the road.  It’s much worse than that.  This millstone sends you plummeting to the ocean floor.  This is about being swallowed up in the abyss, never to rise.

In fact, Jesus says that such a death would be preferable to the fate He’s talking about.  Drowning is better than what awaits “whoso shall offend one of these little ones.”

How can Jesus paint such a violent picture?  It all flows from His protective love for these “little children.”

He begins by teaching us to be little children.

Matthew Henry comments on this:

“Children, when very young, do not desire authority, do not regard outward distinctions, are free from malice, are teachable, and willingly dependent on their parents.”

Unlike the disciples in this scene, the little children are not grasping at glory.  They are simple, humble, dependent, happy with their lowly position in the group.  They are content simply to be with Jesus.

This is the essence of the Christian life.  But then Jesus adds a second quality in verse 5.  He wants childlike Christians to receive the humble and lowly also.  The person who is received by Jesus (v4), is to be the person who receives like Jesus (v5).

Here we see how much Jesus values child-like faith.  The essence of the kingdom is being received by Jesus as a child-like truster.  In turn we become receivers of other child-like trusters.  The kingdom which Jesus is describing is so different to the power-grabbing philosophy of the disciples.  And Jesus will oppose their theology of glory with all His might.  He is determined to paint the kingdom as a kindergarten of kindness.  Status seeking is completely excluded.  And verse 6 will declare it in the strongest terms:

“But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”  (Matthew 18:6)

If the disciples were offended by being told of their need for “conversion” in v3, how will they feel after verse 6?

I don’t think we’re meant to imagine Jesus looking past the disciples to some shadowy figures in the crowd.  This is not a verse about stranger danger.  It’s a verse about self-assured glory-seekers – just like the disciples have been in verse 1!  It is behaviour just like the disciples’ that will “offend” (that is, it will make little children stumble).  The most dangerous thing for child-like trusters is a culture of leaders who are constantly asking and assessing “Who is the greatest?”

It’s the affectation of grown-up glory-hunting that causes “little ones” to stumble.  This grasping for greatness shepherds them away from the very essence of the Christian life – resting in Jesus like a child in His arms.

So Jesus says “Don’t even think about it!  You’d be better off drowning yourself than harming my children.”  It’s very strong teaching.

Are we child-like?  Dependent?  Have we resolved to abandon the power-plays and status-seeking?  Or do we despise the little ones (v10)?  Do we look down on them, desiring to raise ourselves up?  Are we essentially asking each other “Who is the greatest?”

If we are, we’re already swallowed up in Gentile thinking (the sea and the nations go together in the Bible).  If we raise ourselves up we’ll be cast down.  Instead, to be a great one let’s become a little one.

Jesus wept

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John 11:1-46

How do you handle death?

Broadly speaking, people either deny it or they befriend it.

Denial is the majority option.  “Life is for the living” we say and we put death out of our minds.  As best we can.  But it will come out in other ways.  Hebrews 2 says we are “subject to bondage” “through fear of death.”  All our fears are ultimately a fear of this final enemy.  However we deny it, it will surface in a slavery to fear.

The other popular response is to befriend death.  “It’s the circle of life” we sing along with the Lion King.  We tell ourselves it’s a good thing that our loved ones are compost.  It makes the flowers grow, or something.  Somehow we pretend that death is not the dreaded foe that Scripture declares and which most of us feel it to be.

Jesus does something different in the face of death.  He enters in and He defeats it.  He cares and He conquers.  He stands with us in our sorrow, and He defeats our sorrow.  And we need both caring and conquering.

We don’t just want a shoulder to cry on, and we don’t just want a King who breezes in to control the situation. We need a caring conqueror.  And that is just what Jesus is.  The comfort He provides is exactly what our hearts cry out for.  He mourns with us.  But He doesn’t just rub our backs and say “there there.” He doesn’t just carry our sorrows – He conquers them.

In John chapter 11, Jesus comes to the funeral of his dear friend Lazarus.  And He enters into the fullness of grief:

“When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled, And said, Where have ye laid him?  They said unto him, Lord, come and see.  Jesus wept.  Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!”  (John 11:33-36)

The family are mourning, the friends are mourning and the Lord of the universe is mourning.  Jesus wept.  God the Son cries.  He cries many times in His life (cf Hebrews 5:7).  He enters into our world and He feels for it.  There is much for Him to cry over, and He shows Himself to be far more profoundly emotional than we are.  We shut down and close off.  Jesus enters in and opens up.  He loves and He longs.  He rejoices and He mourns.  And when He sees the immense grief that death has brought into this world; when He sees the depth of sorrow in a family torn apart by death – of course He cries.

John 11 verse 5 tells us He loves Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary.  And those present couldn’t help but notice it.  Verse 36, they exclaim: “Behold how He loved him!”

Here is the One who now sits on the throne of heaven.  And, behold, how He loves!  This same Jesus who cared for Martha and Mary, He knows how to cry along with each of us.

But, wonderfully, Jesus isn’t just sad about death.  He is the One Person who can do something about it.  Jesus doesn’t just care, He conquers.

In verse 43 Jesus stands at the tomb and calls in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!”

“And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes:  and his face was bound about with a napkin.  Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.”  (John 11:44)

A decomposing corpse obeys Jesus’ voice, is raised to life and he walks out of the tomb.

Put yourself in the shoes of those present at the tomb.  They had come to pay their respects to a friend and his family.  They had come to do the only thing we know to do in the face of death – they had come to mourn.  But instead they get front row seats to the most spectacular victory over the most tyrannical enemy.  In front of their eyes, Jesus commands a corpse to live again.

In the history of the human race a handful of people have been brought back to life after a matter of minutes – and with the help of advanced technology.  Some have survived longer frozen in the ice.  But Lazarus had been rotting in the Mediterranean heat for four days.  And the voice of Jesus called him to life.  Lazarus steps out into the sunshine with resurrection power surging through his body.  As you put yourself in the shoes of the crowd, can you see Lazarus?  Can you see Jesus?  What are you thinking about Jesus – this loving, tear-stained man?  He commands the dead to be raised, and they obey!  Who is He?

Well this miraculous sign points to His identity.  He has just said to Martha:

“I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:  And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”  (John 11:25-26)

Who is Jesus?  Jesus is the key that unlocks the grave.  He is the death of death.  All who trust in Jesus, even if they go to their graves, they will be raised again to everlasting life.

Jesus proclaims Himself to be the Answer to the problem of the world.  The claim would be ridiculous, if it weren’t backed up by the miracle.  Yet He makes the claim and then He raises the dead.  And in a matter of weeks He walks out of His own tomb, and the world has never been the same.

How do you cope with death?  Do you deny it?  Do you befriend it?  There is another way.  We can face it as the enemy it is, knowing the care of the weeping Jesus and the conquering of the risen Jesus.

The old poet and Anglican clergyman, George Herbert, once wrote of death:

And in his blessing thou art blest
For where thou only wort before
An executioner at best,
Thou art a gardener now; and more,

Death will always bury us.  It used to bury us as a grave-digger.  But now through Christ, the burial is like the planting of a gardener.  With Jesus, death can only make us better.

Regeneration

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Matthew 19:27-30

The new birth is absolutely critical.  That was Jesus’ teaching in John 3 – “Ye must be born again!

But often, when we think of the new birth, we imagine that it is only individuals who need regeneration.  But in Matthew 19, Jesus had something much bigger in mind:

“Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?  And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.  But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.”  (Matthew 19:27-30)

“Regeneration” translates a Greek word that might be more literally rendered “birth-again”.  There is a new birth that is not simply for people – it is for creation itself.  Not an endless cycle of death and rebirth.  A single and definitive rebirth – the regeneration.

Just as Christ was crucified once and rose never to die again, so this world will pass through the judgement and out into a once-and-for-all regeneration.  Heaven and earth will be reborn when “the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory.”

Jesus will stand again on the earth, the Last Adam and true Ruler of the Cosmos.  On that day the world will be set to rights.  Through the disobedience of “Man” creation fell.  Through the obedient Man reigning on the “throne of His glory”, creation will be reborn.

And it’s the kind of rebirth that will turn the world right-side up.  Scores will be settled.  The proud will be cast down and the humble exalted.  All who have “forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands” for Christ’s sake will receive back a hundredfold.  A 10,000% return on investment!

Christ’s teaching here answers the short-term folly of the rich young ruler. Perhaps we can imagine him still within earshot as Jesus says these words. Christ’s teaching on “the regeneration” shows the rich young ruler’s decision to be complete madness.

Because, in a significant sense, the problem with the rich man was that he wasn’t interested in riches enough. He could have had a hundredfold back with Jesus!  He wasn’t interested in ruling enough - he could have sat on thrones with Christ!  And he wasn’t “young” enough – he could have found eternal youth in Christ’s cosmic regeneration!

Whatever self-denial Jesus called the man too, it was only temporary. Jesus was offering him a fullness beyond his wildest dreams.

That’s so important to understand.  Jesus does not get us to trade “worldly pleasures” for private, spiritual experiences.  We might get that impression if we only understood “regeneration” individually.  But no, Jesus does not simply offer a private new-birth – a little, localised fresh start.  Only the very pious can trade this world for a personal religious experience!

No, no.  Jesus is unashamedly offering us the world.  And not just this world – this world, reborn.  It’s in the context of this cosmic regeneration that following Jesus makes sense.  If this world will be reborn with Christ at the centre, then, ultimately, there’s no such thing as sacrifice for Jesus. Only investment!

Camel through the eye of a needle

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Matthew 19:16-26

Jesus was always using comic imagery to make His points.

If you know the Lord and don’t speak of Him, it’s like using a bucket as a lamp shade.

If you’re a hypocrite, you’re like a tutting eye doctor, blinded by a plank of four by two.

If you’re trying to be good but not born again, you’re like a thorn bush trying to produce figs.

And if you’re trusting your earthly currency to buy a heavenly welcome, there’s more hope of threading a camel through the eye of a needle.  Let’s listen in to the context.

Jesus has just spoken on our need to be utterly child-like and dependent.  But a rich young ruler seems to want to take a different route into the kingdom…

“And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16)

Had the man been listening to Jesus?  His approach could not be more different to that of these little children, gathered up in the arms of the King.  Here is a man trying to earn it.

To the helpless, Jesus opens His arms and bids them come.  To the self-confident, Jesus employs a very different tactic.

“And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God:  but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.  He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother:  and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”  (Matthew 19:17-19)

Jesus uses the commandments to undermine the man’s self-reliance.  But it’s not working:

“The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up:  what lack I yet?”  (Matthew 19:20)

What does he lack?  Everything.  He lacks everything.  The ten commandments are not meant to be a tick-box form to reassure the moral.  They describe the life of heaven – the life of God’s son.  So Jesus lays it all out for this man.  Effectively He asks “Can you be the perfect Son of God?  Can you live my life – the life of utter self-giving?”

“Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven:  and come and follow me.  But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful:  for he had great possessions.”  (Matthew 19:21-22)

Finally the law exposes the man.  There he stands in the presence of his only Hope for salvation.  He should confess his need and cry for deliverance.  He should take the position of an undeserving “little child” and ask for Christ’s blessing.  But instead he leaves.  It is tragic.

Perhaps Christ speaks these next lines within earshot of the rich young ruler:

“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.  And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”  (Matthew 19:23-24)

A camel through the eye of a needle is more than a little tricky.  Even with a food processor!  Camels can’t go through needle eyes.  And rich people can’t get through the gates of heaven.

It’s a shocking teaching.

“When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?  But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”  (Matthew 19:25-26)

The disciples are exceedingly amazed because, to them, the rich seem the best resourced, the most blessed – those with most to offer.  If their resources don’t count, then what currency will be accepted in the bank of heaven?

Especially when we consider how good this rich man has been.  Neither his earthly means nor his morality qualify him for the kingdom.

Jesus will not give us even a glimmer of human hope in this teaching.  His point is not that the camel should go on a diet.  He’s not saying we should grease the beast and push.  He’s saying that it won’t happen, it can’t happen, it never will happen.  Rich people can’t get themselves into heaven.  Even good rich people can’t get themselves into heaven.

It is impossible.  From the human side of things, heaven is as open as a pin prick, and we are camels.  But the view from God’s side is very different.  From His side, heaven is as open as the arms of Jesus, and we are children.

But which will it be?  The gates of heaven turn on this question:  Will we be reliant or resourceful?  Will we approach Him with our dependence or our desert?

Suffer the little children and forbid them not to come unto me

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Matthew 19:13-15

What does a true disciple of Jesus look like?

Perhaps we imagine soldiers assembled before their commanding officer.

-          Or students in the school of their Rabbi.

-          Or labourers in gospel service.

-          Or worshippers at the feet of their Lord.

In Matthew chapter 19, Jesus gives us a hands-on portrait of the kingdom:

“Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray:  and the disciples rebuked them.  But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me:  for of such is the kingdom of heaven.  And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.”  (Matthew 19:13-15)

The disciples imagined that Jesus would be too “important” for children. They made the decision for Him and sent away the young families, giving them an earful as they went.  We can only imagine what their rebuke was…  “The Rabbi’s a busy man!  Don’t bring your grubby toddlers here! He’s the King, don’t you know child-care is beneath Him.”  In these rebukes they revealed how desperately they had misunderstood Jesus.

This King was all about stooping.  He had come from heaven to earth and it was His glory and gladness to do so!  To bend down and pick up the helpless, to bless the needy who have nothing to offer, “to gather the lambs in His arms and carry them in His bosom” (Isaiah 40:11) – this is His heart-beat.

The disciples had to eat their words as Jesus invites all and sundry:

“Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me:  for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 19:14)

The disciples had it exactly wrong.  It’s the helpless dependants who belong with the King.  Therefore their own attempt at excluding the needy puts them on dangerous ground.  Who do they think they are barring those whom Jesus welcomes?  The disciples should not think of themselves as noble defenders of Jesus’ honour.  Jesus welcomes “little children.”  If the disciples do not, it only shows that they must repent. They must do what Jesus commands in Matthew 18:

“Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

It’s not just that these disciples are unfit to judge – they’re unfit for the kingdom itself.  They also must come to Jesus, accepting the position of total need which they disdained in the children.

The point about “little children” is that they receive everything and have no complex about it.  Has there ever been a seven year old who’s been given a gift and responded: “Are you sure? I feel so bad because I haven’t gotten you anything. Let me pay you for that!”?  Little children freely receive, with no thought of desert or pay-back.

This is how Jesus wants us with Him.  Little children with no thought of desert or payback, just content to be in His arms.

Nothing in the Bible transforms my prayer life like this image.  So often I come before the Lord like I’m a soldier and He’s my Sergeant Major.  Or I’m an employee and He is my Line Manager.  Or I am a worshipper trying to summon up devotion to a static Object of praise.  But no, He wants me to come, and to come as a little child.  In fact without “converting” and becoming like a little child I will know nothing of this kingdom and this King.

But in reality the Son invites me into a kingdom where little children belong – in fact, only little children belong.  It’s a kingdom whose royal insignia could depict this scene – The Lord of Life stooping to gather up the children as they squeal with delight.  This kingdom is, fundamentally, a Family where, in Lewis’s phrase “Everything is for the asking, and absolutely nothing can be bought.”   What could stop you from coming to this King?

What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder

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Matthew 19:1-12

Two friends of mine were getting married.  They had just made their vows and the minister held their hands aloft to present them, united, to the congregation.  He was about to read these words from Matthew 19 as the prayer book stipulates:

“What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”  (Matthew 19:6)

But before he said those words, he glared at the assembled friends and family and offered his own translation of the verse:

“Do NOT mess with this!”

God has joined them!  Let no-one come between them!  It was a stern reminder about the seriousness of this union.

I wonder what advice you have heard concerning a healthy marriage?

Trust.

Sense of humour.

Keeping the passion alive.

Never going to bed angry.

Never trying to change the other person.

While some advice seems to be geared at letting the partners live out separate existences, at least most modern marriage counsel still recognises the vital importance of one-ness.

And so advice abounds on how to create such oneness:  Couples are counselled on the importance of communication, a good sex life, conflict resolution, quality time, etc.

No doubt these things can be helpful.  But our verse for today declares that something decisive has already happened to a married couple:  “God hath joined [them] together.”

God has united the married couple.  The union is not primarily in the couple’s hands.  The union is in God’s hands.  The quality of union does not depend on the partners.  It’s not down to their compatibility, their communication, their commitment.  It’s not about their ability to unite themselves.  It’s foundationally about God’s ability to unite them.  And He is very good at His job.

In fact He has united the married couple.  At the most fundamental level, this one-ness is not a future hope but a present gift.  When the two become one flesh it’s not primarily a human union which God then blesses.  Instead the human union is an enjoyment of the prior fact of “what God hath joined together.”

In 1943 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was both engaged and imprisoned.  He wrote a wedding sermon for his niece in which he declared:

“It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”

The experience of oneness (love) does not effect the oneness.  That is too great a burden to put onto anyone’s love.  Instead the fact of oneness (marriage) sustains and encourages the experience of oneness (love).

So before you read another paperback on “17 Tips for a Healthy Marriage”, look full in the face of your spouse and know, as surely as that ring is on your finger, you are one with this person at the very deepest level.  Like a head to a body you are joined.  The other person might not be for your union.  You might not be for your union.  But God is not just for your union – He has established it.  And let no-one – not even yourself – put it asunder.  Reflect deeply on the fact of your oneness, and see if it does not affect the experience of your oneness.

But more than this.  We should realise that marriage is a proclamation of our union with Jesus.  Therefore we also learn about our Christian lives from this verse.  You see God hath joined me to Christ.  My union with Jesus is His achievement.  I do not make it happen.  I just enjoy it – and all the more as I recognize the sheer fact of it.

Just as with marriage books, there are a million paperbacks promising to “put the romance back into your Christian walk.”  There are tips and techniques.  There’s advice – some of it sensible, some of it plain ridiculous.  But what do we need first?  We first need a conviction regarding the strength of the union.  God hath joined me to Christ.

So in the same way that I looked at my spouse while feeling my wedding ring, so I look full in the face of Jesus and call to mind my baptism… and I know I am one with Him like a body to a head.  The union is not as strong as my human feelings or faithfulness, it’s as strong as divine faithfulness.  Therefore let not man put it asunder!

Let the fact of your union shape your experience of it.  And realise, to rephrase Bonhoeffer,

It is not your spiritual experiences that sustain your covenant union with Jesus.  But from now on, your covenant union with Jesus sustains your spiritual experiences.

I am the Good Shepherd, the Good Shepherd giveth his life for the sheep

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John 10:1-21

When you meet someone at a party what are the first two questions you ask?  Usually it’s:  Who are you?  And what do you do?

In John 10:11 Jesus answers both questions.

Who are you?  I am the Good Shepherd.

To the Jews who were listening, this was a very significant title.  The Old Testament would describe wicked rulers as bad shepherds who cared nothing for their flock.  Yet the people awaited good shepherding (Ezekiel 34).  This would come from God Most High and through “David” – the Ideal King, the Divine Messiah.  He and the unseen LORD would be one in caring for the flock.  Just as the Messiah confessed that “The LORD is my shepherd”, so the Messiah would be the Good Shepherd to His people.

Therefore Jesus’ claim to be this long promised Shepherd was nothing less than the claim that He is the Messiah.  Jesus is the Divine King who reveals God’s pastoral heart to earth.  He is the eternal Son, through whom the Father has always ruled and saved.

Now how would anyone go about proving they were God’s eternal King? How should Jesus justify His claim to divine, messianic status?

We might expect Him to rain down fire from heaven in spectacular fashion.  Or to make a donkey sing light operetta.  Or turn a mountain into a flower-pot.  Jesus doesn’t do anything like that.  This is how Jesus proves He’s the King of the Cosmos:  He says, ‘I am King, because I die for my people.  I am the LORD because I pour out my life unto death.”

“I am the Good Shepherd:  the Good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep.”  (John 10:11)

It’s very surprising.  Jesus proves His deity by dying!

And this is the shocking answer to our second party question:  What do you do?  I give my life for the sheep.

Think about that mental image for a minute.  Picture in your mind a shepherd who cares for his flock so much that he dies for his sheep. Perhaps a pack of wolves have cornered young, wee Flossie.  He races down the hill and into the fray, putting himself between Flossie and the ravenous wolves.  Flossie gets away, the shepherd is torn apart.

This shepherd would rather die than see harm come to his sheep.  He dies instead of them.  He dies in their place.  He dies so they might live.  That’s the shepherd Jesus asks us to imagine.

Now what would you say to someone with this kind of job commitment?  I would tell them, “Get a life!  Take up squash, get a hobby, have a sense of perspective!”  A good shepherd turns up early and mends the fence.  A shepherd who dies for sheep has ridiculous job loyalty!  How highly does this shepherd value His sheep?!

But think of it.  If the Good Shepherd is the LORD Messiah, and the sheep represent you and I, what is Jesus telling us?

He is saying that He – our Lord and King – has died for us like a rescuing shepherd, dying for sheep.

And that is His proof of divinity!  The proof that He is LORD is that He dies for the weak and unworthy.  Not heavenly special effects, not freak miracles but a bloody crucifixion – that is how the Good Shepherd is identified.  We expect to see true deity on a throne – Jesus reveals it on a cross.

But through it, He wins our hearts.  Every other would-be shepherd of our souls demands “Your life for me!”  Jesus opens His arms and says “My life for you!”

“I am the Good Shepherd:  the Good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep.”  (John 10:11)