Foot washing

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John 13:1-38

How are you known by those around you?  What would they describe you?

Busy?  Easy-going?   Nice?  Withdrawn?  Driven?  Glum?

What about your church?  How is it known in your area?

The night before Jesus died He spoke of one mark by which His followers are to be identified in the world.  One word should spring to mind when the world thinks about Christians.  Loving.

“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.  By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”  (John 13:34-35)

The distinguishing mark of the Christian is not a dress code, not an institutional configuration, not even primarily a doctrinal or moral or religious code.  The ultimate, distinguishing mark of the Christ-follower is love.

This is not simply Jesus’ last request.  Jesus calls it a new command.  ‘New’ because it is to be taken up afresh in every generation.  But this is not a suggestion from Jesus.  It’s a command:  As He has loved us, so we love one another.

This speaks of manner, of order and of movement.

Manner:  We are to love in the same manner as Christ has loved us.

Order:  We are to love having been loved by Christ.

Movement:  We are not to “return the favour” to Jesus but to “pass it on.”

All of this is taught in the foot washing which provides the backdrop to this teaching.

In John 13 it is the night before Jesus’ death.  And just when you might expect Jesus to be comforted and supported by His followers, it is Jesus who pours Himself out for them:

“When Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end… Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet…”  (John 13:1,3-5)

Here is Jesus ‘loving unto the end.’  And the foot washing parallels His own history as Son of God.  Just as He left the Father’s side to love us in costly, sacrificial service, so He leaves His place at the table, trades His robe for a towel and washes His disciples.

And once He had washed and dried their feet, He took up the robe again and returned to His place.  In verse 12 He asks, “Know ye what I have done to you?”

Do they?  And do we?  This foot washing is a picture of something far deeper.  Jesus had come from God, was returning to God, and the route which He trod took Him to the utter depths of the cross.  We must never forget that these hands which lovingly washed His friends’ feet would, in a matter of hours, be nailed to a Roman cross.  We cannot forget this because the washing is meant to picture Christ’s love shown at the cross.

And what a picture!  The ruler of the universe, stooping and serving His followers.

John writes about it recalling every last detail.  Verse 5:

“After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.”

As John writes about it, he is carried back to the moment it happened.  John was there.  He’d had his own feet personally washed and padded dry by the LORD of all creation.

How would you feel as Jesus came around the table to you?

I was once in India, staying with a very respectable family in Indian society.  The father was a Nawab – the equivalent of a Maharajah or the British equivalent of a Lord.  And while I was there, my hosts were insisting that I had a pedicure.  I flatly refused – no way was I going to let someone poke around my carbuncled monstrosities.  I didn’t want to stand over another human being while they fussed over my dirty feet.  No person should have to do that.  It is such an awkward thing, to have someone hold your naked feet, to wash water over them and towel them dry while all you can do is sit there and watch.  There is something very uncomfortable about allowing someone to serve you to that level.

But I was uncomfortable having one of the household servants do it.  It is unthinkable to imagine my host – this Lord – taking off his royal robes, wrapping a towel around his waist and kneeling at my stinking feet.

That is inconceivable for us.  But what about this?  In John 13, the Lord of the universe does this very thing.

This is how Jesus has loved His disciples.  He loves them in action.  He loves in concrete service.  He addresses their needs.  He loves in humility. He gives up His rights and privileges.  He loves in a costly way.  He loves even under pressure – the cross was just hours away!  He loves unconditionally – these men would, by the end of the night, betray Him, desert Him or deny Him.  Yet He lovingly washes all their feet, even Judas’.  And He loves in self-forgetfulness – He doesn’t care that He loses face.  He is not concerned for His own self-image.

How do we measure up to Christ’s new command?

I can kid myself that I’m loving… until it means inconvenience, or a loss of face, or until my love is not returned in kind.  And how often does our love evaporate when we’re under pressure from other quarters?

But notice again the order – as Christ has loved us, so we love others. There’s an order in which we are to obey the new command.  First be loved.  Then love.  First receive Jesus’ love.  Then pass it on.  First know, realise, appreciate – then do.  First understand, then act.  That’s the order.

In fact this order is one that Jesus Himself follows.  Did you notice that very strange line in verse 3?  In verse 3 we get a rare psychological commentary on the thought-life of Jesus:

“Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper…”  (John 13:3)

Jesus loved the world out of the security He already had from His Father. He first received love and then passed it on.  If that’s the order for the Son of God, we certainly cannot short-circuit the process.

Peter thinks he can.  Peter wants to put his own doing ahead of Christ’s love.  As Jesus comes around with the bowl Peter protests:

“Thou shalt never wash my feet.”  (John 13:8)

Later on Peter commits the same error.  In verse 37 he boldly proclaims:

“I will lay down my life for thy sake.”

He has things backwards:  “Don’t wash my feet, I’ll wash yours…  Don’t die for me, I’ll die for you.”

Jesus has to burst his bubble in v38.  Peter has no resources to play the part of Jesus.  He will deny Christ before the night is out.  That’s a shocking turn-around for a man who sounds so spiritual, so committed. But actually Peter’s words in the upper room are full of the same independent self-assuredness which lead him to deny Jesus.

Peter’s mistake in a nut-shell was this:  he trusted in his own love for Jesus rather than Jesus’ love for him.  He reversed the order.  He put his own acts of love ahead of Christ’s.  And when the crunch came, of course his own love failed.

Will we submit to the humbling, sacrificial love of Christ?  He stoops not just to our feet but to a cross.  But through it, we are cleansed and ready to serve.

The sheep and the goats

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Matthew 25:31-46

The gospel according to Jesus is a little different to the gospel according to me.  The gospel according to me tells of a God who is, generally, far off, but when he does involve Himself it mainly concerns me, my loved ones and the success of Australian sports teams.  Therefore, when Christ announces His news for the world, I am constantly taken off guard.

In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats.  It speaks of the end of history as we know it.  Here is a truly earth-shattering event “when the Son of man shall come in his glory and all the holy angels with him.”  On that day the world will be split in two.

On His right there are the sheep (v33), who are blessed by His Father (v34) and called righteous (v37).

On His left there are the goats (v33), who are cursed and will share in the devil’s fate (v41).

The sheep will inherit eternal life, the goats will go to eternal punishment (v46).

And there is no third category.  This is not a menagerie – sheep, goats, cows, chickens.  There is one Judge at the end – Jesus.  And there are only two kinds of person.  All humanity will find itself either as a sheep or a goat.  The fates of these two groups are eternal and, on that day, irrevocable.

This is the news Jesus announces and it wakes us up to eternal realities. We spend our time ruminating over other divisions – right-wing or left-wing politics, public or private education, Blackberry or iPhone.  But this is the division of eternal significance – sheep or goat.  Which are we?

Well let’s first notice the asymmetry between the two.

The sheep come. The goats depart.

The sheep are blessed by the Father.  The goats are simply cursed.

The sheep inherit the kingdom.  The goats just ‘go away.’

The kingdom is prepared for the sheep.  Eternal punishment is prepared for the devil and his angels.

From this passage it is clear that heaven is for people, hell is for devils. The only reason people end up in hell is that, insanely, they follow the devil to his fate.  Hell is not for people.  It is the greatest tragedy in the world that people end up there.  But they do end up there.  And so Christ warns us.

It is important to notice this asymmetrical nature to the blessing and cursing.  The Father personally blesses the sheep.  The goats simply are cursed.  And standing in between them is Jesus.  He defines the future. Eternity pivots on Christ – it is ‘coming to’ or ‘departing from’ Him that carries eternal significance.

Before we examine the characteristics of the sheep and goats, let’s note one more fact about them.  They are sheep and goats before Jesus describes any of their actions.  They are on the right and left before He points to any of their deeds.  Their actions merely demonstrate their nature.  There is nothing that the sheep or goats did in order to become sheep or goats. Indeed both the sheep and the goats were entirely unaware of what they were doing or failing to do.  Neither grouping acted to become sheep or goats.  They simply couldn’t help acting as sheep and goats.

So what are these groups like?  Jesus says to the sheep:

“I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat:  I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink:  I was a stranger, and ye took me in:  Naked, and ye clothed me:  I was sick, and ye visited me:  I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”  (Matthew 25:35-36)

They are such Christ-like acts.  Feeding, sheltering, healing, comforting. These sheep are very like their Shepherd.  Yet Jesus does not say they did it “like me” or “for the sake of me.”  He says they did it “to me.”  How is that possible?  That’s the question the sheep ask:

“Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?  Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?  And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”  (Matthew 25:37-40)

Christ is hidden in the least of His brethren.  Acts of Christ-like mercy directed to the family of Jesus are kindnesses to Christ Himself.  Just as He takes the persecution of His people personally (Acts 9:4), so He takes the care of His people personally.

It is a wonderful thought that the smallest acts of mercy – acts that we have long forgotten – are remembered by Jesus the Judge.  On the other hand the goats are characterised by their callous indifference to the needs of Christ’s people.

Jesus says to them:

“I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat:  I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:  I was a stranger, and ye took me not in:  naked, and ye clothed me not:  sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.  Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?  Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”  (Matthew 25:42-45)

Here is perhaps the most striking difference between the sheep and the goats:  the sheep can’t remember when they did any good, the goats can’t remember when they didn’t!  The sheep are entirely forgetful of the works they have performed.  It is the goats that are mindful of their deeds (and indignant that they should be found wanting).  The sheep have found righteousness in their Shepherd and unthinkingly express it to His brethren.  The goats assert their righteousness to the Shepherd yet are unthinking towards His people.

Jesus is not laying out a programme of works for those who would earn heaven.  Those who end up in the kingdom seem blissfully unaware of any “merit”.   And the works that are mentioned have nothing “religious” about them.  Those trying to climb the ladder to impress the Judge have forgotten what the Judge has done.  He has stooped down to the very depths.  He comes to us in grace, transforms us into little christs, then puts Himself into our neighbours and says, “Come away from the ladder, come out into the world, that’s where I am.  I am always coming down. And my love is for spreading!”  His life of self-emptying love is contagious.  And wonderfully – according to this parable – it is the life of the eternal kingdom.

Well done, good and faithful servant

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Matthew 25:14-30

We’ve seen the danger and the opportunity of “talents”.  Whether it’s the monetary unit or the God-given ability, we’re tempted to abuse our talents in one of two ways – self-indulgence or cowardly retreat.  We either show off our talents in self-promoting ostentation or we bury our talents and keep them from the world.  Neither option is Christ’s intention.  He wants us to be servants – using our talents for the blessing of others.  But how will we be motivated to move out of our natural responses driven by pride or fear?

The answer from Matthew 25:14-30 is to get a true vision for our Master.

Let’s recap the story… one servant is given five talents and makes five more.  Another is given two talents and makes two more.  The last servant is given one talent and “he went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money.” (v18)  And the reason for his tight-fisted parsimony?

“Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed:  And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth:  lo, there thou hast that is thine.”  (Matthew 25:24-25)

This is such a contrast to the way the Lord is portrayed in his dealings with the good servants:

Well done, thou good and faithful servant:  thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things:  enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”  (Matthew 25:21)

The amount which they make their master is not important – whether five talents or two – faithful service of this lord is what counts.  After all, both good servants are told that their talents are merely “a few things” when compared to the “many things” he has in store for them.  This lord is no grudging miser.  He exalts servants to thrones, making them rulers.  And not simply rulers, they are intended for the life and love of this lord – entering into his joy.

Again let us compare this to the allegations of the third servant.  “A hard man, reaping where [he] hast not sown”?  An object of dread?  One who makes his servants shut down and close off?  It is amazing to think that this servant is describing the same lord.

And yet, in response to this meanness, the lord displays exactly the hardness that the servant fears:

“His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:  Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.  Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.  For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance:  but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.  And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness:  there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25:26-30)

Judgement is repeatedly presented in the Bible as a handing over to the person’s mad desires.  Everyone gets the lord they trust in.  Forever.

Here again we see that the wicked servant gets exactly the kind of lord he looked to.  To imagine the Lord of heaven as a harsh task-master will create a certain kind of grudging service, which in turn will result in a certain judgement.   On the other hand, trusting a generous Lord to be the One who raises servants to be kings, this produces open-hearted spend-thrifts.

It all turns on how we see the Lord.  And how should we see Him?  In the next chapter He tears apart bread and says “This is my body”.  He pours out wine and says “This is my blood.”  He gives His very Self to the world in love and as we look on, how can we not thrill to the invitation “enter into the joy of thy Lord”?  It’s that vision that creates “Good and faithful servants.”

Talents

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Matthew 25:14-30

Flourishing economies are hard to come by in world history.  Every now and again resources are found, technologies discovered, enemies plundered and wealth increases.  But usually it doesn’t last very long.  This is because, historically, people have only ever known two responses to wealth:  we either hoard it or we display it.

We either squirrel it away for a rainy day, (because who knows how long prosperity will last), or we show off our wealth ostentatiously, perhaps building great monuments to ourselves.  Of course, in either case the economy stagnates.  This is because, whether we hoard or display, we are not re-investing.

But what happens when whole cultures are raised on stories like this one.  Read Matthew 25:14-30.

Here the “talents” are not given for the benefit of the recipients.  They are a trust from the master to the servant.  The servant was not to show their talents around town.  But nor were the servants to hide their wealth away. They were to put the money to work.  And work it did – for those who invested it, that is.

A culture reared on such stories will begin to have a very different attitude to wealth.  And so it has proved to be in western civilisation.  There has been incredible economic flourishing in cultures where the Bible has held sway, not because its people are more ingenious, and not simply because their resources have been more plentiful.  The attitude to wealth has been different (we’ll consider more on this tomorrow).

But for now let’s consider “talents” in the way we have come to understand them (thanks to this parable).  What should we do with the abilities that our Lord has given us?

Again the temptations are exactly the same – they travel in one of two directions…

We are tempted to display our gifts in proud ostentation.  Most people wouldn’t dream of disclosing their bank balance in a conversation, yet we can sprinkle our speech with achievements, connections, claims to fame, anything that would reflect well on us.  We flash our talents around like an ancient king looking for adoring subjects.  Or…

We hide away – ‘keeping our light under a bushel’.  Because, here is our fear:  If we prove ourselves to be “talented”, well, people might expect more from us.  Our limits would be tested and our energy depleted. Perhaps it’s best, we conclude, just to bury our talents and keep ourselves to ourselves.

Yet Jesus calls us to a third way.  We’ll see how tomorrow…

Signs of the times

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Mark 13:1-37

When “wars and rumours of wars” hit the headlines, Christians will often proclaim, “This must be the end.”  And often they will point to Mark 13 as proof.   Yet in this chapter Jesus says something quite different:

“And when ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars, be ye not troubled:  for such things must needs be; but the end shall not be yet.  For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom:  and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and there shall be famines and troubles:  these are the beginnings of sorrows.”  (Mark 13:7-8)

When nations rise against nations, people declare, “These must be the last days.”  And of course, they are right.  Yet “the last days” describe the whole period from Christ’s first to His second coming.  The last days have been going for 2000 years now.

When we see international breakdown, what should we conclude?  Jesus says “These are the beginnings of sorrows.”  The word for “sorrows” is a word for “birth-pains.”  Such events might be painful – excruciatingly painful.  But they are a pain that leads to new life.  These signs are not death-throes but birth-pains.  In one sense they represent an ending.  But far more they are the ending that births a new beginning.

Back in Matthew 16 Jesus spoke of “signs of the times” such as the famous, “red sky at night.”  (Matthew 16:3,4).  These are the kinds of signs Jesus wants us to be attuned to.  In Mark 13 He also speaks of the fig tree, whose leaves may be tender now, but such vulnerability signifies a coming summer.  Think about these signs.  Though the sky is blood red, yet, as we all know “red sky at night, shepherd’s delight.”  And though the fig tree is tender now, summer is around the corner.

In just this way Jesus wants us to interpret the signs of family, national, international and cosmic breakdown.  They are painful – but painful like pregnancy is painful.  There is new life coming.

It would be easy to read Mark 13 merely as a prophecy of doom.  But Jesus intends something else beyond these “sorrows.”

There is “the end” (v7, 13).  In Greek it’s the word telos meaning goal.  It is the end for which all things are made.  The universe is heading towards its goal.

There is “birth” (v8) – the regeneration of all things!  (Matthew 19:28)

There is “summer” (v27) – after the cold of winter and after the tenderness of the leaves in spring, all creation will blossom.  Christ’s world will flower and bear fruit.

There is “the cloud” (v26) – this is the cloud symbolising the Presence of the LORD with His people (Numbers 10:33-36).  Jesus will come with the cloud.  It’s the cloud that provides shelter by day, light and warmth by night.  Jesus will come back in the cloud and neither He nor the cloud of His presence will ever leave us again.

There is “gathering” (v27) – as a hen gathers her chicks, Jesus will gather His people.  Our lives are scattered in this age, we are distant from one another and from Christ, one day He will gather us.

There is the “power and glory of Son of Man” (v26) – The whole cosmos will be shaken, yet one thing will survive.  Jesus Himself.  Think of how He speaks:

“Heaven and earth shall pass away:  but my words shall not pass away.” (Mark 13:31)

It is an astonishing thing to say.  Who does He think He is?  Well He knows Himself to be the One Person who can last this judgement.  He, and in a real sense He alone, is what remains on the other side of this judgement.  The last day will be the Day of the LORD.

For He will be the true Temple torn down – the Head of creation taken down to the tomb.  Yet from there He will arise.  And for those who come into Christ, the safe-house, the end will be “summer”, “regeneration”, “gathering”, “the cloud of His presence” and “the power and glory of the Son of Man”.

Follow the “signs of the times.”  This dark night, awash with blood, will give way to a delightful dawn.

Wars and rumours of wars

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Mark 13:1-37

Whatever dominates the skyline of a city tells you what they worship.  In that ancient city of Babel, they sought a name for themselves so they tried to build a tower to heaven.  In a sense they worshipped themselves.  The ancient cities that Paul visited would have been dominated by massive shrines and temples, set up in the high places.  Up until the last hundred years, London was dominated by St Paul’s Cathedral.  Of course today our city skylines continue to be dominated by our objects of worship.  Today the great centres of finance tower over us and remind us who we really serve.

In Jesus’ day, one building captivated the hearts and minds of the Jews – the temple.  And with good reason.  In Moses’ day the LORD revealed a heavenly blueprint to construct a model of heaven and earth.  Moses built this portable model called the tabernacle.  And the Glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle with the very Presence of God.  Later Solomon built a bigger, solid version of this model of heaven and earth – this was the first temple.  Again, the cloud of the LORD’s Presence filled this building.  Here was the dwelling place of God on earth.

No wonder that the people thought they were safe so long as they had the temple (Jeremiah 7).  And no wonder that when the LORD judged the Israelites for their sin He struck at the temple.  So in the 6th century BC the Babylonians came and destroyed the temple and carried the people into exile.  The people came back after 70 years of exile and built a second temple.  This time the temple was desecrated by the Greeks.  Then the temple was rebuilt again by 20BC as Herod’s Temple.  That’s the one standing in Jesus’ day.  And the disciples are very impressed by it.

“And as Jesus went out of the temple, one of his disciples saith unto him, Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!”  (Mark 13:1)

Here was the most impressive building a Jew was ever likely to see.  Massive stones, magnificent structures.  More than this, it’s God’s house – the place where humans can meet with the Most High.  Surely Jesus will also be impressed by the temple.  But His reply leaves everyone dumbfounded:

“And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”  (Mark 13:2)

It’s almost impossible to imagine the impression these words would have had on the disciples.  Think for a second of those stunned faces witnessing the Twin Towers collapsing – that’s the level of shock here.  To strike at the heart of America, Al Qaeda struck at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon – symbols of American pride and security.  Well, take the shock of that attack and multiply it: because here is God’s building – God’s house – and Jesus says it will be rubble.  He was predicting Jerusalem’s destruction in AD70 – but that cataclysmic event spoke of an even more cosmic demolition.

After 9/11 America was in a state of shock because if those buildings could be struck, nothing was safe.  Even more so with the temple.  If God’s house was going to be demolished then nothing on earth is safe.

After Jesus speaks no-one can say a word.  Maybe for an hour.  Maybe even longer.  In verse 3 we see Jesus sitting on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the temple.  No-one can speak as they leave the temple courts, cross the Kidron Valley and climb the Mount of Olives.  All are silent because Jesus has spoken of something truly earth-shattering.  God’s house is going to be demolished.  Is nothing safe?

The disturbing answer Jesus gives is ‘No’.  If God’s house is scheduled for demolition, rest assured the rest of the world will follow.  That is Mark chapter 13 in a nutshell.

Judgement from heaven always moves from the top down.  As 1 Peter 4 declares:

“Judgment must begin at the house of God.”  (1 Peter 4:17)

The stones of the temple will be completely broken apart.  But that’s just the beginnings of things breaking apart.

There will be international breakdown:

“And when ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars, be ye not trouled:  for such things must needs be; but the end shall not be yet.  For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.”  (Mark 13:7-8)

There will be family breakdown:

“Now the brother shall betray the brother to death, and the father the son; and children shall rise up against their parents, and shall cause them to be put to death.”  (Mark 13:12)

Most shockingly, there will be cosmic breakdown:

“The sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken.”  (Mark 13:24-25)

First the temple will be rubble.  But one day the whole universe will be rubble.

What hope can there be when, according to Hebrews 12:27, everything that can be shaken will be removed?  Where will we find security when even the Temple resists the saying “safe as houses”?  Where can we put our trust when even God’s house is scheduled for demolition?

When we hear of “wars and rumours of wars” there’s two things we can conclude.  Firstly, this age is not a safe time in which to make your home. Secondly, we are moving towards a regeneration – through the pains will come new birth.  And only the new Jerusalem can provide the security we crave.

I would have gathered thy children as a hen gathereth her chickens

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Matthew 23:37-39

Jesus calls the Pharisees a lot of names in Matthew chapter 23.  They are hypocrites – not practicing what they preach.  They are blind guides. They are absurdly imbalanced moralists – ‘straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel’.  They are whited sepulchers, they are serpents, vipers and murderers, the very apex of evil in the history of God’s people (v33-36).

Yet what does He call them at the end?  Children.  Chicks even.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matthew 23:37)

Notice first who Jesus claims to be in this verse.  He is the One who has sent prophets to Jerusalem over the centuries.  He is the One always longing to gather Israel.  He is the One who feels an ancient, parental love for the people of God.

Jesus weeps over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41) because He has always wept over Jerusalem.  Now He stands in its midst, an unschooled Rabbi, seemingly a ‘minority of one’ taking on the religious establishment.  Yet notice the towering “I” He unleashes in this teaching:  “How often would I have gathered thy children.”  Jesus considers Himself the driving force of Israel’s history.  Here is the Lord God among us, and what is He like?

He is like a mother hen.  It’s an incredible change of tone in verse 37. We have had 36 verses of blistering condemnation.  Yet in none of those verses does Jesus mention His divine identity.  Those assessments might have been made by any religious observer with eyes to see it.  The Pharisees themselves would have considered it a critique from below.  But now Jesus invokes His ancient authority as Lord of Israel.  In verse 37 He draws Himself up to His true height, and when He does so, how does He appear to the people?  As a hen gathering chicks.

This is the true heart of Zion’s King.  He has intense motherly concern for these snakes, these killers, these white-washed tombs.  He longs to gather them.  Whatever we have said about the warrant for harsh words and ridicule in this chapter we must recognize that the last word is grace. Jesus is not “writing off” these wicked men, He’s pursuing them.  And the pointing of His finger serves the welcome of His wings.  This should also be our heart if ever we offer stinging rebuke.  The point is not to crush but to gather.

But these Pharisees will have none of it.  And so the real condemnation of the self-righteous is not so much their resistance to the rebukes as their refusal of the relationship.  It is grace that constitutes them as sinners – the offer of mercy which occasions their reprobation.

Our discussions about God’s love and God’s anger can become very abstract.  This verse makes it personal.  The love of God has shown up among us and His name is Jesus.  He is the eternal Gatherer – the One who longs to reconcile all people to the Father.  His anger is the response of love to wilful children who refuse His grace.

The Lord God of Israel does not stand behind both love and anger as though He wills one or other according to human worth or some divine caprice.  God is love and His anger is only ever a response to the thwarting and refusal of this love.  He does not become angry in spite of those motherly wings but because of them.

“Fly sinners, fly into those arms
Of everlasting love.”

—  Charles Wesley, Jesus the Name High Over All

Whited sepulchre

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Matthew 23:25-39

Last time we considered the absurd lack of proportion demonstrated by the Pharisees.  They strained at gnats and swallowed camels.  In other words, they obsessed over minutiae and ignored the whole point of the Scriptures.

How did it come to this?  How did they end up having such a diabolical problem with perspective?

The answer is that they made the kinds of errors that we are tempted to make every day.  They focused on externals, whilst ignoring the festering darkness within.

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.  Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.  Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.  Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”  (Matthew 23:25-28)

On the outside there is cleanliness, brilliant white, beauty and apparent righteousness.

On the inside there is extortion, excess, death, uncleanness, hypocrisy and iniquity.

And the stand-out image to encapsulate this split-personality is a “whited sepulchre.”  Tyndale translated it “paynted tombes.”  Coverdale has “paynted sepulcres”   The Geneva Bible says “whited tombes.”  More modern translations say “white-washed tombs.”  It’s a compelling picture. Imagine it, freshly painted, gleaming in the Mediterranean sun.  Dazzling on the outside.  Death on the inside.  And that’s not simply a picture of an institution.  Jesus is speaking of people. These people were white-washed tombs.

Here is the reason for their imbalance between ‘the weightier matters of the law’, and the trivia with which they concerned themselves:  there was a deeper imbalance between their internal and their external world.  They were so concerned to appear brilliant that all their efforts were thrown into “operation white-wash.”  Hidden acts of kindness were useless. Ostentation and boasting were the order of the day.  It was a “Get pious quick” scheme and it left them spiritually bankrupt.  They only did what would exalt themselves in the eyes of others – and bringing a tithe of their garden herbs to the temple was perfect for this low-cost, high-impact publicity drive.  The weightier matters of justice, mercy and faith – they were too long-term, too labour-intensive, too hidden!  And so their righteousness was as thin as a coat of paint.  Underneath it was uncleanness and iniquity.

Does any of this hit home with us?  Are we drawn towards the “Get pious quick” schemes?  What do we make into our own barometers of spiritual health?  Do we settle for a trivial externalism?  Do we measure ourselves against mere box-ticking Christianity?  Are our eyes on the rituals that keep up appearances while the “inside of the cup” is anything but clean?

Well if we’ve been following Jesus’ teaching we ought to know that everyone has a problem with the “inside of the cup.”

“Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies:  These are the things which defile a man.”  (Matthew 15:19-20)

So if we’ve all got this problem, how do we “clean the inside of the cup”? Is it about turning our gaze firmly towards our navel?  Is the answer a re-doubling of our private spiritual disciplines?

Well there are a number of problems with that as a solution.  Firstly, the internally focused Christian will end up being just as neglectful of ‘the weightier matters’ of justice and mercy as the religious exhibitionist.  The focus may have switched from external to internal, but what is really required is a decisive shift from self to neighbour.  And that shift has to come from elsewhere.

The second problem with trying to “clean the inside of the cup” ourselves is the sheer magnitude of the task.  Stemming the flow of “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, etc” with personal piety is like trying to dam Niagara Falls with a cork.  There’s only one clean-up operation sufficient for the task.  The prophet Ezekiel speaks of it in chapter 36:

“Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.  A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you:  and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.  And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.  And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.  I will also save you from all your uncleannesses.”      (Ezekiel 36:25-29)

Here is a heavenly heart transplant which only the LORD Jesus can offer.  But if we have it, our world is turned inside-out!  Now that we’ve been cleansed, we can forget about “operation white-wash”.  The eyes of heaven see us as clean, the eyes of the world are just not that important.  We dazzle in our Father’s eyes, we don’t need to outshine our neighbours.  No, now we can love our neighbours.  And it has nothing to do with our own little holiness project.  It has nothing to do with climbing the rankings of our spiritual communities.  We are released from the need to justify ourselves and suddenly we can serve.

Not a white-washed tomb.  Christians have put down the paint brush.  We are those who admit to our filth and spiritual deadness.  But we are those who have been saved from our uncleannesses.  Now we have nothing to prove.  Nothing to lose.  Nothing to hide.  Now we can love.  And such love is the fulfilling of the law.

Strain at a gnat and swallow a camel

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Matthew 23:13-26

“There was an old lady who swallowed a cow, to catch the dog, to catch the cat, to catch the bird, to catch the spider, that wriggled and wiggled and tickled inside her.  She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.  I don’t know why she swallowed the fly – Perhaps she’ll die!”  (Traditional Nursery Rhyme)

Children love this daft imagery and sing along with glee.  No-one thinks that there is a class of “old lady” who are being “got at” with the nursery rhyme.  No-one could be as stupid as this “old lady”, surely!

Yet the picture Jesus paints is equally absurd.   Jesus thinks that there are people who fit the mould.  What’s even more shocking is that they are the most straight-laced, respectable people in society.  But Jesus describes them as plain ridiculous.

So what does He do?  He ridicules them.  Relentlessly.  That is the whole point of Matthew 23.

The mind has been compared more closely to a portrait gallery than a debating chamber.  Certainly Jesus is a master of the striking image.  He paints evocative verbal pictures that linger long in the imagination. Just consider how He exposes the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in this chapter:

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.  Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.  Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!  Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?  And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty.  Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?  Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon.  And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein.  And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.  Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith:  these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”  (Matthew 23:14-23)

This catalogue of double-standards is shocking:

By day they defraud widows of their property, by night they lead prayer meetings.

They debate the minutiae of temple oaths while spreading the kingdom of Satan.

They take pride in tithing from their window box yet care nothing about the beating heart of the law:  justice, mercy and faith.

That’s the evidence which stands against them.  So how will Jesus, the Prosecutor, sum up?  Will He accuse them of committing some logical fallacy, using impressive Latin labels?  Will He produce a report with strongly worded findings?  No, He makes fun of them:

“Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:14)

We have already discussed the absurdity of the blind leading the blind.  In the same breath Jesus comes up with another even more absurd mental picture.  He asks us to imagine a fastidious diner fussing over the tiniest insect, all the while oblivious to the hulking great dromedary he’s gulping down.

If there is a “Waiter, Waiter” joke as ridiculous as this one, I haven’t heard it.

Waiter, waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.

Allow me to fish that out for you sir.  You wouldn’t want to spoil your appetite for the hippo.

This phrase is more than an absurd verbal picture.  It’s also a play on words.  In Aramaic, Jesus’ mother tongue, gnat is gamla and camel is gamal. So essentially these Pharisees can’t sort out their gamlas from their gamals. And the results are disastrous.

The religious leaders show an appalling lack of proportion.  They’re like Emergency Room doctors who refuse to treat a dying patient because of a technicality.  Peripheral matters blind them to the bleeding obvious.  How did they become so ridiculous?

Answer:  By doing exactly what we’re tempted to do every day.  More on that tomorrow …

The blind leading the blind

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Matthew 23:13-26

Three times Jesus uses this image in the Gospels:

“Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch?”  (Luke 6:39)

“They be blind leaders of the blind.  And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”  (Matthew 15:14)

“Woe unto you, ye blind guides.”  (Matthew 23:16)

When we use the saying we usually lament the ignorance of the leader, or perhaps their naivety.  Essentially the leader doesn’t know enough.  That’s what puts them in the dark and makes them an incompetent leader.

But the way Jesus uses the phrase is different.  He consistently applies the phrase to the Pharisees.  And it’s not their lack of knowledge that is the problem.  Their problem is their hypocrisy.  It’s the fact that they don’t practise what they preach that blinds them.

We have already seen how hypocrisy is like a beam in our eye while we berate our brother for the speck in his.  While-ever we are pointing the finger at others and ignoring the sinfulness of our own hearts we remain blind.

This is a frightening truth.  We tend to think that we have a pretty good grip on reality.  We imagine that, whatever other problems we might have, we can at least see the world for what it is.  But Jesus says that clear vision is not at all common.  Our eyes are not wide open, not naturally.

Why not?  We are inveterate self-justifiers.  We are committed to a view of ourselves that then shapes our view of everything else.  If we invest in a pious identity then something will have to give.  Because we are not pious. We are sinners.  Yet, in order to square the circle of our sin on the one hand and our need to project a “righteous” image on the other, we will have to deal in unrealities.  We will have to lie.  We will have to recalibrate and justify and mask and ignore and exaggerate and over-compensate. And such a re-adjustment of the truth comes at a heavy cost.  We lose our ability to see!  We lose touch with reality.  And if the leaders are out of touch with reality, God help those who are being led.

The Office is a study in how not to lead.  David Brent (or, in America, Michael Scott) proves to be the worst boss imaginable largely because of his own need to be vindicated.  The office must revolve around his ego and everyone suffers.

If you are in leadership of some kind you will want to lead well.  You won’t want to be a blind guide.  Yet the clear vision which Jesus urges upon us is not, first and foremost, about increasing our skills and knowledge base.  Ultimately it’s about losing our hypocrisy.  Drop the mask, and the blinders come off.

We need to see ourselves clearly as those who naturally belong in the pit.  And yet Christ has entered in and lifted us to the throne.  We are helpless, filthy, unworthy but blessed beyond measure.

Now, as we confess our sin and receive Christ’s alien righteousness we give up on the wearisome burdens of our own self-justification.  Now we realise that life is not about us and our own little holiness project.  Now we are freed to lead, which, in Christ’s book, means to serve.  And perhaps then we will lead others away from the pit.