Lost sheep

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Luke 15:1-10

Kevin’s mother might complain to her friend:  “I’m afraid since his girlfriend left him, Kevin’s been completely direction-less.  A bit of a lost sheep really.”

But it’s not just Kevin.  The Bible puts that label on a much broader constituency.  Often the people of God are called “sheep without a shepherd” (e.g. Numbers 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17).  And Isaiah said “All we like sheep have gone astray.” (Isaiah 53:6)

It’s not a flattering picture, but this is how the Bible paints the spiritual condition of the human race.  Not majestic lions, not soaring eagles, not even faithful dogs – lost sheep.

Here’s the famous parable from Jesus’ own lips:

“What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?  And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.  And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.”  (Luke 15:4-7)

The foolishness of sheep beggars belief.  They will not find their way back to the sheep pen.  There is no such film as Flossie Come Home! There is no triumphant final scene with Flossie trotting, slow motion, back to the farm at sunset, its brave journey now at an end.  If Flossie gets lost, Flossie stays lost.  And dies.  The End.

And even if the shepherd goes out and finds Flossie, the job is not done. A lost sheep will not walk beside its master as they head home together. The sheep must be hoisted onto his strong shoulders and carried every step of the way.

Sheep are dumb.  Really, really dumb.

What is your picture of humanity?  Are we brave masters of our own fate? Are we bold seekers after truth?  The Bible says that, spiritually speaking, we’re bleating sheep who don’t even know how to respond when the LORD our Shepherd appears.

Jesus could not leave us to find our own way home.  He couldn’t just send us a map and trust us to figure it out.  He couldn’t even blaze a trail and ask us to follow close behind.  Occasionally He speaks in those terms (see yesterday’s post).  But all talk of “our following” relies ultimately on “His carrying.”

The sacrificial disciple of a few verses earlier is now shown in their natural condition – they are a lost sheep now rescued.  The followers are first the found.  Those who “carry their cross” are, more fundamentally, those who are carried.

Jesus had to come and take our whole humanity onto Himself.  He joined us in our predicament, united us to Himself and marched home, carrying us with Him.  (Isaiah 40:11)

If the image of Luke 14 was a dead man walking – cross on shoulders, the image of Luke 15 is a lost sheep found – carried on shoulders.

Can you picture the journey home through the eyes of that sheep?  If you trust in Christ, that’s where you are.  And there’s nowhere safer!

Cross to bear

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Luke 14:25-35

A stammer.  An irritating workmate.  An infirm parent.  A complaining parishioner.  An unpleasant duty.  A chronic illness.  We might be tempted to call these things “my cross to bear.”  But we shouldn’t.  Jesus means something very different by the phrase.

But it’s not just the world-weary grumblers who get it wrong.  The zealous do-gooders can also misunderstand the saying.  As they trudge grim-faced towards their hoped-for redemption they still see “life in the old girl yet.” And strangely these words from Jesus inspire them to greater striving.  They hear the call to take up their cross and they attempt to summon all their self-denying powers for a grand display.  Such people like to feel “challenged” by Jesus’ words because, deep down, they feel they can rise to the challenge.  But this too is a misunderstanding of “bearing our cross.”  Jesus doesn’t want us determined, He wants us dead!

Here is what Jesus says.  In Luke chapter 14, Jesus turns to the crowds and says:

“Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”  (Luke 14:27)

When Jesus speaks of our “cross to bear” He’s not referring to the inconvenience or the weight of the thing.  If a first century man found himself carrying his own cross, its heaviness would be the least of his worries.  It’s where he’s headed that is the issue.  Any minute the positions will be reversed and the cross on the man will become the man on the cross.  If you ever saw someone bearing their cross you knew instantly that they were on their way to die.  Their death was a fait accompli.

We get a sense of it in modern times if we’ve seen The Green Mile. As Percy the jailer leads John Coffey to death row he cries out repeatedly: “We’ve got a dead man walking here.” That’s the condition of a man bearing his cross.

Jesus is not referring to some uncomfortable or irritating burden.  And He’s not laying out some arduous path in life. He is speaking our death sentence.  And He demands that we consider ourselves dead already.

He drives the point home with two illustrations (v28-32).  No-one builds a tower and no-one goes to war without counting the cost.  And if we haven’t the strength to complete the job, we must face that fact and come clean.  The out-numbered general “desireth conditions of peace”… And so should the Christian who is called to follow Jesus.

This command to take up our cross is not our opportunity to prove how strong we are.  It’s our cue to surrender.  But when we do surrender something wonderful happens.

In Mark chapter 10, James and John get excited about the coming kingdom of Christ.  They approach Jesus to ask for top jobs in the new cabinet.  He responds:

“Ye know not what ye ask: can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”   (Mark 10:38)

Jesus is referring to the suffering of the cross here.  He is clear that the path to glory is through suffering.  So He asks His disciples whether they can do what He does.  Can they endure His cross?  He expects the answer no.  But instead they say:

“We can.  And Jesus said unto them, Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of; and with the baptism that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized:  But to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give.”  (Mark 10:39-40)

They can’t “drink the cup” in that ultimate sense.  But they “shall indeed” drink it.  In the ultimate sense they cannot bear the cross – not the way Christ bears it.  But they shall.

If anyone thinks they can bear the cross they are as foolish as James and John.  But in another sense, every Christian “shall” bear their cross.

How does that work?  Paul put it brilliantly in Galatians 2:20:

“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”

Notice how, for Paul, the cross has happened for him.  It is that fait accompli we’ve been considering.  There has been a surrender to Christ and now Paul is dead.

How did he do it?  Did he summon up all his religious powers for this arduous task of self-denial?  No the cross of Jesus itself put Paul to death. He was crucified with Jesus.

You see Paul’s cross was not a precursor to Christ’s cross nor a payback for Christ’s cross.  Paul’s cross was accomplished by Christ’s cross.  Jesus had taken Paul and all his little self-salvation projects and had put the whole sorry mess to death.  Paul no longer lives.  He is a dead man walking.

And that is a very good thing.  The old Paul did not just need correcting or chastising or challenging or coercing – he needed killing. Yet in Christ’s cross, that is effected.  Now the new Paul bears his cross, not as a burden but as the liberating sign of his death to the old.  How wonderful to be dead!  How freeing to cease relying on myself as a source of life and instead to rely on the Son of God “who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

It’s fascinating to read on in Luke’s Gospel.  Following on from this teaching about total self-surrender and cross-bearing what do we read? We might expect the crowds to fade away with only a few rock-hard devotees remaining.  It’s the exact opposite.

“Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.  And the Pharisees and Scribes murmured.”  (Luke 15:1-2)

Surrendering unto the cross of Christ is not a message for the spiritually hard-core – it’s the only refuge for publicans and sinners.

Don’t take up your cross as a sign of your self-denying piety.  Take up your cross because you can’t do the Christian life, only He can.  But consider His death your death and rejoice – you are a dead man (a dead woman) walking.

“God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.”  (Galatians 6:14)

Highways and hedges

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Luke 14:7-24

Personality tests split the world into introverts and extroverts.  The diagnostic is usually something about energy levels – do you energise on your own or with others?  If you re-charge by yourself you’re an introvert.  If you come alive around people, you’re an extrovert.

I’m not sure it’s helpful to label people so definitively.  Such diagnoses never capture our complexity and are too easily used as excuses when we’re called out of our comfort zones.  Nonetheless, let me ask a question:  How would you label God?  Is He an introvert or an extrovert?

If you read some theology you might conclude that God is an austere Individual, happiest in His own company.  He is turned in on Himself and desires everything else to be equally focused on Him.  On this view, He is self-centred and we, if we want anything to do with Him, must be other-centred (i.e. centred on Him).  But if you read the Bible you see that the living God is thoroughly outgoing.  It’s we who are introspective – curved in on ourselves.

From before there was a universe, He shone out His Light, He spoke out His Word, He sent out His Son.  This outgoing reality is the impetus for His creation.  He wants others besides Him – more sons alongside the Son.  Salvation is no different.  He continues to reach out to an estranged world.  “All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people.” (Romans 10:21)  When we look to the cross – the ultimate revelation of God’s nature – how could we doubt that He is completely other-centred?  And when we look at why Jesus had to die, how can we deny that we are the narcissists, pre-occupied with self and hating the Other.

While at a dinner party Jesus told a story about the nature of the kingdom.  It paints ourselves and God in our true colours.

“A certain man made a great supper, and bade many:  And sent his servant at supper time to say to them that were bidden, Come; for all things are now ready.  And they all with one consent began to make excuse.  The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it:  I pray thee have me excused.  And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them:  I pray thee have me excused.  And another said, I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.  So that servant came, and shewed his lord these things.  Then the master of the house being angry said to his servant, Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind.  And the servant said, Lord, it is done as thou hast commanded, and yet there is room.  And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.  For I say unto you, That none of those men which were bidden shall taste of my supper.”  (Luke 14:16-24)

The great supper is the feast of feasts on the day of the LORD – it is heaven itself.  The Host is the Father.  The Servant is Jesus.  Those who were first invited are the Jews.  And those found in “the highways and hedges” are the Gentiles – the whole world invited into the Feast.

“The highways and hedges” are the main roads and the country lanes.  “Hedges” also speaks of crossing the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:14).  It means pushing all the boundaries and going out to the ends of the earth.  This is the missionary love of the Father who does all things “that my house may be filled.”

On the other hand, what are we like?  We are those who are more interested in our land, our oxen and our love nests (v18-20).  Our investments can wait, our business interests can wait and our spouses can come along – none of these things should keep us from the kingdom.  It is not land and oxen and wives that bar us from heaven – it is our determination to pursue them for our own benefit and on our own terms.  And so, the natural human heart shuns the company of the banqueting hall and shuts itself away with its own interests.

We are the ones consumed with ourselves and our own priorities.  God is the one going out to the highways and hedges.

Therefore, what is it to be godly?  What is it to be Christlike?

Often we picture godliness in individual terms.  There we are, sat on the end of our beds, reading alone, then screwing our eyes tight shut and determining not to be “worldly.”  But this parable would tell us to think again.

God is the God of the highways and hedges.  Therefore godliness is radical other-centeredness.  And Christ-likeness is opening our life out in invitation to the world.

A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions

Luke 12:13-34

In June of last year it was reported that a 17 year old Chinese youth sold his kidney to buy an iPad2.

We recognize the folly of that kind of covetousness instantly.  But what about greed that is closer to home?

Recently I read an excellent discussion of the much-used phrase “material blessings” in our church prayers.  We thank God for all our “material blessings” but why do we consider our possessions to be “blessings”?  God is to be thanked for all good things certainly, but are we sure that He smiles on every purchase?  In presuming that they are “blessings” are we not immediately and unthinkingly justifying our lifestyles, no matter how grand?

Perhaps the most frightening thing about greed is the blind spot we all have when it comes to ourselves.  Lusters feel their lust.  Haters feel their hate.  At once these sins feel sinful.  Greed doesn’t feel greedy.  Far more often it will feel like a need or a desert.  Mostly it is born out a sense of entitlement or of unthinking selfishness.  Our standard of living rises like the temperature in the pot, and we are the proverbial frog being slowly cooked alive.

Jesus was once interrupted by a member of the crowd shouting:

“Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me.” (Luke 12:13)

The Judge of the world would surely prove an excellent arbitrator here.  But Jesus is not interested in the case.  That should give us pause for thought.  How often do we petition Him regarding our own private gain?  And how often does He respond with effectively the same reply:

“Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?”  (Luke 12:14)

Jesus is not interested in hearing our compensation claims.  He’s far more concerned that we hear His warnings:

“And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness:  for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”  (Luke 12:15)

We nod sagely at His wise words.  “So true Jesus” we concur, thinking of all those other people who really need a copy of the sermon.

And Jesus says “Take heed and beware.”  It’s emphatic.  And to drive home the point He tells this parable:

“The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully:  And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?  And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?  So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:16-21)

Up-grade, up-scale, up-market, upwardly-mobile – this is the direction of his life.  And it’s the life of so many of us.  Our phone contract expires and what do we do?  We sell our old car, what’s our next purchase?  We leave behind the crummy neighbourhood, where do we look next?  We up-grade of course!  What else!?

And we can be certain that this man considered his fruitful ground as a “material blessing”.  Also his many goods.  And barns to store them in.  Surely they were tokens of God’s good pleasure!  He used these fruits, wheeled and dealed, and planned beautifully… for the medium term.  His eyes were fixed on the yacht, the Caribbean island, the villa in Tuscany and plenty of golf.  Yet on the very eve of retirement, the plug is pulled and He faces “Him with Whom we have to do.” (Hebrews 4:13)

Instead of a golden handshake and a pat on the back, the final verdict on his life is “Thou fool”.  Those words must have come as such a shock.  It was probably the first time he heard that assessment.  On earth he only ever heard praise (or else jealousy).  We would look on his life with envy, that same envy which took him to hell.  But God sees it with crystal clarity “Thou fool!”  That’s the true verdict.

The story was prompted by a man’s dispute with his brother.  The man wanted Jesus to arbitrate in a small claims court.  But at the end of the story we hear about a much bigger court of judgement and a far more important verdict.  It’s that verdict that should shape our lives.

How will we see Jesus then?  Our small claims Advocate?  Or our only Defence for the verdict that really matters?

How will we see God?  An endless Dispenser of financial blessings?  Or the One who holds our life in His hands?  (Daniel 5:23).

How will we see our life?  An up-scaling journey to ease and safety?  Or the opportunity to pursue another kind of riches – a richness towards God?

“Take heed; and beware of covetousness:  for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”

The crumbs under thy table

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Matthew 15:21-28

It is, perhaps, Thomas Cranmer’s most famous prayer.  Known as The Prayer of Humble Access, it is said prior to receiving the Lord’s Supper:

“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.”

Communion means eating with the Friend of sinners.  Therefore as we come, the last thing we should claim is our worthiness.  It’s not “our own righteousness” that qualifies us for table fellowship – we have none.  This is God’s soup kitchen and we are beggars.  We are utterly dependent on His mercy.  But completely confident that His “property is always to have mercy.”

The story of the Canaanite woman illustrates this attitude beautifully.  And it’s the inspiration for Cranmer’s famous prayer.

Jesus has withdrawn from Israel and from public ministry for a few days.  He and His disciples are in the vicinity of Tyre – a city with notorious connotations in Scripture.  In Ezekiel 28, the king of Tyre is described as the devil himself!  Jesus has therefore retired from Jerusalem – the city of God – and has gone to the city of Satan.

The irony is that in Jerusalem He encountered the most diabolical uncleanness – an uncleanness of heart (Matthew 15:1-20).  Now in the vicinity of Tyre He meets some foreigners who are beset by uncleanness but who, nonetheless, demonstrate great faith.

What is this demonstration of great faith?  Jason Goroncy’s sermon puts it wonderfully:

“She came to him, trusted in his promises, stretched out her hands and held them there until he filled them.”

But Jesus made her hold them there for quite some time!

“And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.  But He answered her not a word.  And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, Send her away, for she cries out after us.  But He answered and said, I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, Lord, help me!  But He answered and said, It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”  (Matthew 15:22-26)

To make His point, Jesus paints a picture in words.  Imagine a family where all the children are hungry.  There are babies crying out for food.  In among them all is the family pet, Rufus.  Rufus is also hungry and letting out a pathetic doggy yelp.  Jesus is saying that no self-respecting parent would come across this situation and feed the dog first.  There’s an order to things.  First let the children be fed.  Then once the children have had their fill, the dogs get their turn.

In this illustration, the children are the Jews, the dogs are the non-Jews (the Gentiles) and the bread is Jesus Himself.

Now if we think that the analogy is insulting to Gentiles, just think how much more insulting it is to Jesus.  At least dogs are sentient beings.  Jesus is represented by a food stuff!

But of course that’s pressing the details too far.  Jesus is not saying that Gentiles are like dogs in every sense.  Simply that, in the household analogy, there’s an order to things.  The children get the bread first – and the Jews get Jesus first.  That’s the way God has set things up. The Eternal Son of God, was born as a Jew.  His mission between the stable in Bethlehem and the cross in Jerusalem was a mission to the Jews.  Then after He rises He tells His disciples to go into all the world.  First the Jews get Jesus, then the nations.  First those in Jerusalem then the people of Tyre.  That’s the meaning of the children and dogs story.

In verse 27, the woman shows that she understands Jesus’ lesson.  And she immediately picks out the most important truth: whether you’re a child or whether you’re a dog – you need bread!

“And she said, Truth, Lord:  yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”

This woman blurts out, “Just give me crumbs – whatever I can get!”  She knows the problem of uncleanness, she knows that Jesus is the solution and all she wants is just a crumb.  If she can just get a morsel of Jesus, she’ll be happy.  Essentially she says:

“Call me a dog, put me second, I know I’m outside the covenant people of God, I know I have no claim upon you Jesus.  I do not presume to come to this your table trusting in my own righteousness, but only in your manifold and great mercies!  I might be second, so then give me seconds!  The scraps from your table are greater than the feasts of Emperors.  If all I get is a crumb, that’s all I will need, because you are the Bread of life!”

How will Jesus respond to this?

“Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.  And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.”  (Matthew 15:28)

She stretches out her hands and holds them there until Jesus fills them.  And He fills them to overflowing.  It is His property always to have mercy.

Does Jesus seem like He’s withholding from you?  Does it feel like His grace is for other people and He will never come around to you?  Press in closer.  The Bread of life has more than enough for you too.

The head of John the Baptist

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Mark 6:14-29

TS Eliot said “human kind cannot bear very much reality.”  This story plumbs the violent depths of that truth.

John the Baptist was a shining light.  He was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets.  Jesus called him the greatest man born of woman (Matthew 11:11).  As the summation of all the prophets who preceded him, his ministry was a preparation for Christ.  With his whole being he testified “Behold the Lamb of God.

John was the “voice” of Isaiah’s prophecy:

“The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”  (Isaiah 40:3-4)

In preparation for the LORD Jesus, John would challenge both power and perversity.  The lofty will be brought low and the crooked will be made straight.  This puts John on a collision course with sinful rulers.

In Mark 6 we witness this collision.

“For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.”  (Mark 6:18)

Herod had taken up illegally with his sister-in-law. Presumably he thought kings could do as they pleased.  John was there to remind him – the lofty will be brought low and the crooked shall be straightened.  For this dose of truth, John was imprisoned.  Mark tells us that it was “for Herodias’ sake” that Herod made the arrest (v17).  Herod himself “feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy.” (v20).  He protected John from his wife, Herodias, for she wanted him dead from the beginning.

Yet Herod’s own response was fascinating.  He watched and learnt from John with great interest.  Verse 20 says he “observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.”

Herod actually allows his prisoner to continue preaching.  More than this, he listens.  Even more, he gladly returns again and again.  We know that John preached repentance fiercely.  We know he had been saying both publicly and privately that Herod should give up Herodias.  John touched a red-raw nerve with Herod and yet he was compelled to listen.

John’s preaching put him into a spin.  That’s the sense of Herod “doing may things” in verse 20.  He is turning every which way.  He is folding his hands, his stomach is knotting, he’s shuffling from foot to foot.  It’s excruciating but he knows he is being addressed by Truth with a capital T.  What will he do?

Well, that’s the problem.  He doesn’t do anything.  He listens.  He gladly listens.  But he never responds.  He is paralyzed by indecision.  But Herodias, his wife, is not.  She takes advantage of “a convenient day” (v21) and pounces.

“Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee; And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee.  And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom.”  (Mark 6:21-23)

At this party the wine was flowing, the socialites were chattering away and Herdoias’ teenage daughter was doing the ancient equivalent of a pole dance.  This pleased Herod and the guests, and with a stupid, drunken oath Herod puts everything on the line.  The girl doesn’t know how to answer, but her mother does.  Instantly she tells her daughter what to ask for – The head of John the Baptist:

“And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist.”  (Mark 6:25)

Here is the defining moment of Herod’s life.  What will win?  On the one hand there is the truth he has heard from God – truth which he cannot deny.  On the other there is an illicit relationship, drunken revelry, his state of arousal and the fear of losing face.

Well this mighty ruler shows himself to be pathetically ruled by forces beyond him.

“And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her.  And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought:  and he went and beheaded him in the prison, And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother.”  (Mark 6:26-28)

John had loved Herod more than anyone else in Herod’s life.  John told him the truth.  Herod liked to listen.  But he did nothing.  Eventually he cut off the head of the man who warned him.

This is our natural response to truth.  We are shocked, we are intrigued, we are thrown into a spin.  But if we remain paralyzed by indecision we will find it psychologically impossible to tolerate both the truth and the falsehood of our lives.  Something will have to give.  Naturally, we all want to silence the truth.  Jesus told people in His day that they were always killing prophets (verses).  They didn’t chop off heads and put them on serving dishes, but they resisted the truth whenever it was offered.  Human beings cannot handle too much reality.

When Herod finally met Jesus, Luke writes:

“Herod was exceeding glad: for he was desirous to see Jesus of a long season, because he had heard many things of him; and he hoped to have seen some miracle done by him.  Then he questioned with him in many words; but he answered him nothing.”  (Luke 23:8-9)

The Word of God gives Herod the silent treatment.  This is the ultimate judgement of truth-haters.  Flee from the Truth and at some point the Truth will let you go all the way to the outer darkness.

All of which makes us consider very seriously- how are we receiving the word?  Perhaps, re-examine the parable of the four soils:  Are we hardened to the word?  Rootless and shallow?  Choked by worry, wealth and wanting?  Or do we welcome the word?

Pearl of great price

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Matthew 13:44-52

Recently a friend emailed me with a question.  He’s not yet a Christian but he’s been attending Bible studies for a while.  The previous night they had used Christian-sounding language that he didn’t understand.  He wrote:

“They asked me if I had ever ‘given my life to God.’  I was unsure.  What does that mean?  Is it in the Bible?”

I wonder how you would respond?

Every evangelical sinew in my body twinged:  “Of course you need to give your life to God! What is a Christian if not someone who has given their life to God? As it is written in the book of…”  Hmm.  That’s funny.  I’m usually pretty good at citing Bible verses.  I can proof-text in my sleep.  But it took me a long time to come up with any “giving-your-life-to-God” language.

Eventually a couple of verses in Romans sprang to mind (6:13; 12:1).  But both of them assume that becoming a Christian has happened.  Even in these verses, “giving your life to God” is the response to salvation, not the way towards it.

And far, far more, the Scriptures speak of Christ giving His life for me! That’s the great theme of the Bible. Whatever offerings we make to God, the good news is the other way around.  He offered His life for me!

With that in mind, let’s read a couple of parables that Jesus told.  And let’s see how to understand them:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.  Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:  Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.”   (Matthew 13:44-46)

Here is how I usually hear these stories explained:

The “treasure” / “pearl of great price” is Christ.  There He is – precious but passive.  Inert.  Waiting.

The “man” / “merchant” is us.  We are the spiritual seekers.  Active.  Adventurous. Sacrificial.

And – well done us! – we sell everything to gain the treasure of Jesus.

But I wonder whether such an interpretation misconstrues all the literary clues of the passage.  More worryingly, I fear it misconstrues the very nature of “the kingdom”.

“Treasured possession” is a famous way of describing the people of God (Exodus 19:5).

“The man” who is active throughout the parables of Matthew 13 is not us but Christ.

At the same time we are consistently represented by impersonal and passive objects (i.e. the soils).

If these were two parables about us finding Christ they would be the only parables of their kind.  Elsewhere it is always we who are lost and Christ who seeks and saves.

Given these facts, surely the most natural interpretation is this:  Christ is the Man who gives everything to purchase the world so as to possess His church.  He is the great Seeker and He is the great Treasurer.  He is the great Rejoicer and He is the great Sacrificer of all.

“For the joy that was set before him, [Jesus] endured the cross.”  (Hebrews 12:2)

We are the purchased treasure, not valuable in ourselves but only in our Redeemer’s eyes.  He is the Glorious Giver, we are those bought at a price.  This is what the kingdom of heaven is like!

And yet… what happens when we opt for the first interpretation?

We become the great seekers.  We are the ones who treasure.  We are the great rejoicers and the ones who sacrifice all.  The weight is thrown back onto our shoulders.

What do we say to this?

Well, first, we ought to read the parables in context.  Shouldn’t our first assumption be that the main Actor of the chapter remains the same?

Second, we ought to understand the fundamentals of the gospel.  Isn’t it Christ who seeks and saves what is lost?  (Luke 19:10)  And don’t we love only because He first loved us?  (1 John 4:19)

Third, we ought to think about the nature of kingdom living.  Sustaining joy is a wonderful thing, but it flows from receiving Christ’s electing, sacrificial love.  There is a great danger of over-burdening the Christian when we insist that they play the role of the electing, rejoicing, sacrificing Seeker.  I learn my true place in the kingdom when I realise that I am not Chooser but chosen.  I am not Lover but beloved.  I am not Redeemer but purchased.  I am not Seeker but found. Then my heart is won, then I treasure Christ, then I rejoice, then I consider all things as loss for His sake.  But such a reaction is always just that – a reaction.  Christ is always the self-giving Actor.

So what did I say to my friend?

I told him that every Christian ought to say “I belong to God.”  If my friend couldn’t say that, then he probably wasn’t a Christian.

But here’s how we belong to God.  Not by “giving our lives to Him.”  Instead we look to Jesus on the cross and there we see the most incredible truth:  He has purchased me at an incredible cost.  Keep looking there until you are won by His love.  Whatever response we make at that point is belated.  The ultimate and eternity-defining truth is this:  He gave His life for meOf course I belong to Him.

Fell by the wayside

Matthew 13:1-17

Yesterday we encountered a mystery.  Jesus declares His word publicly – that is, for all.  But also He also proclaims it to a particular audience – not everyone has ears to hear.  You might think that Jesus takes a laissez-faire attitude to this phenomenon.  But no, He pleads “He that hath ears, let him hear.”  Jesus wants all people – anyone with ears! – to receive His word.  Yet He acknowledges that not all will.  How can this be?

Well there is no deficiency in the power or the willingness of Jesus.  The lack comes from us.  In the parable of the four soils Jesus speaks of four reactions to His word – three of them are deficient, to say the least (Mark 4:1-20).

First, there is proclamation that is like seed falling by the way side (Mark 4:4).  It is like a farmer sowing on a path – the seed sits on top of the unyielding ground and the birds come and eat it up.  In the same way Satan snatches the word from hard-hearted listeners.

The gospel does not forever remain as an option for its hearers.  If we don’t receive it, it is snatched away.  The devil is like a bird with seed, pecking at it wherever he can.  Satan does not concentrate on heavy metal concerts and voodoo ceremonies.  He flocks to churches. He flocks to the proclamation of the word.  Ever since he asked “hath God said?” he has been devouring the word through doubt and distortion.  If we are hard to the gospel, Satan takes it away.

Second, there is stony ground.  There is immediate growth but then “affliction or persecution” rise on them like the sun on rootless saplings.  The new enthusiast withers away to nothing.

It’s not a question of if “affliction or persecution” come, only when.  Therefore the need for a “rooted” faith is paramount.  Instant joy is no sign of a true conversion to Christ.  There is an immediate “gladness” that can mask a deficient hearing of the word.

Third, there is thorny ground.  This chokes the life out of any initial growth and renders the hearer fruitless.

What are these thorns which can so strangle a person?  Are they gross immoralities?  No, the thorns are very ordinary.  They are “the cares of this world… the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things” (v19).  In other words wealth, worry and wanting are spiritual killers.  These insidious powers are enough to squeeze the life out of a hearer of the word.

Fourthly though, there is good reception of the word.  This response is like good soil which receives a seed and “brings forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred” (v20).

This is incredible fruitfulness.  A potential yield of 10,000%!  What does a person do to create such incredible abundance of life in themselves?  It’s actually very straightforward.  Jesus simply says they “hear the word, and receive it.”  It’s not as though soil combines the power of the seed with its own life-producing power.  It is simply the environment for the seed to do its thing.  It is a recipient of the power which resides in the seed.

The Christian is supposed to be like that: just making room for the word to do what the word does – create new life!

John 15 verse 7 speaks of abiding in Jesus as His word abides in us.

Colossians 3 verse 16 speaks of the word of Christ dwelling in us richly.

This is how incredible growth will happen in our Christian lives.  The hearer who makes a home for the word of Jesus will find exponential fruitfulness in their walk – thirty, sixty, a hundred fold!

Yet as we anticipate such a harvest we should be aware of how this growth will come about.  It will not look immediately impressive.  Instead it will be 1) weak yet powerful; 2) inward yet outgoing; and 3) gradual yet multiplying.

1) weak but powerful.

The story is told of a medieval Italian so terrified of the judgement that he commanded a giant marble slab to be placed over his grave.  He did not want to rise and meet his Maker, so he thought the marble slab would keep him down.  Yet before the burial was complete and the slab was laid, an acorn fell into the grave. Over the years, a great tree grew and split the slab in two.

Now you might think, what chance does a little acorn have against a giant marble slab?  There’s no contest.  The acorn wins every time.

In just this way the words of Jesus spoken from a pulpit, or over coffee, or in the open air – they seem so weak.  Yet they change eternities!

2) inward yet outgoing.

Jesus does not tell the story of The Brick Supplier who delivers a pile of bricks to four different builders.  That would be a very different parable.  Some builders would try very hard and build very high.  Some wouldn’t.  But if it’s about seed sown in soil – how is the soil going to grow the seed?  How can anyone try to grow?  Well, it’s organic.  It happens by the power of the seed itself.

And that’s the thing about the word.  The word is planted in us.  And unless we’re closed and Satan is snatching it away, the word is at work internally.  It’s internal but it will also be outgoing.  Down the track what has gone into us will grow out of us.  It first has an inward effect but, if it’s allowed to do its work within, it cannot help but transform our outward life.

3) gradual yet multiplying

Imagine the sower goes back to the field the very next day.  What would he find?  No discernible change.  In any of the soils.  But seed takes time.  And so does the word.

If we want a quick fix for our lives we should try some other way of change.  But if we want deep-rooted lasting change, then we must receive the word into our hearts.

Don’t let it fall by the way side.  In time it will produce a bumper crop – thirty, sixty, a hundred times what was sown!

He that hath ears to hear, let him hear

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Matthew 13:1-17

Having ears is one thing.  Having ears to hear is another.

Back in Moses’ day he lamented the spiritual deafness of the people:

“And Moses called unto all Israel, and said unto them, Ye have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt unto Pharaoh, and unto all his servants, and unto all his land; The great temptations which thine eyes have seen, the signs, and those great miracles: Yet the LORD hath not given you an heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day.” (Deuteronomy 29:2-4)

Notice how hard hearts, blind eyes and deaf ears go together.

In the next chapter Moses speaks of the solution.  Somehow they will hear the voice of the LORD (Deuteronomy 30:2).  Then,

“the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart.”  (Deut 30:6)

The heart-melting message will cut to the core of these hard-hearted people.  The light will dawn upon a blind nation.  The word will make itself heard in their deaf ears.

The word must be heard.  The word cannot be heard.  But somehow the word is heard, through no power of the people themselves.

When the LORD Himself stands among His people He repeats this teaching.  Jesus teaches the parable of parables – the four soils (Mark 4:1-20).

I call this is the parable of parables because of what Jesus says in verse 13:

“Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables?”  (Mark 4:13)

If the disciples don’t understand this parable, they won’t understand any parable.  This is Christ’s word on Christ’s word. And as He explains it Jesus says,

“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:9)

Jesus is pleading here.  He begins by saying “Hearken, Behold!”  He repeats the saying “If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.” (verse 23). He continues His parable saying “Take heed!” (verse 24).   He wants all people to hear.

Jesus is public here.  He expects all people to hear.  In a sense He’s saying “You have ears don’t you?  Well use them.”

But Jesus is also particular.  There will clearly be some who do not hear. The whole point of the parable is that there are four different reactions to the word of Jesus (we will see these more next time).  But, ultimately, those four reactions boil down to two:  either you hear or you do not.

Hearing is not the same as listening.  It’s not the same as being in the audience.  Receiving Christ’s word goes beyond the mere reception of sound waves, or the understanding of doctrine.

We have to be a new kind of person to hear Christ’s word.  Yet, as we’ll see tomorrow, it is this word itself that has power to effect that change. The word to which we are naturally deaf has a power to un-stop our ears and make us its hearers.  As Jesus commands those with ears to hear, His word is powerful to effect what it says.  Tomorrow we will see how this word makes in us a home for itself.

Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden

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Matthew 11:20-30

Jesus has hit something of a brick wall in His evangelism (Matthew 11:20-24).  He brings the living and life-giving word of God.  He answers every question with the wisdom of heaven.  He performs the mighty works of God.  He is like a little oasis of paradise walking around planet earth.  Everything that He touches turns to Eden.  Everyone brought into His sphere is made whole and given peace.

But so many have looked on with cold, stony hearts.  They have refused to acknowledge the bleeding obvious – that here is God’s Son come into His world to set it straight.  Instead, when the light shines, people prefer the darkness.

Does this discourage Jesus?  No.  In fact He turns this into a prayer of praise!

“At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.  Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight.”        (Matthew 11:25-26)

The Lord of heaven and earth takes pleasure in hiding the truth from the wise and prudent.  And He loves to reveal it to “babes”.  Why babes?

Little children must receive everything.  They are completely dependent, coming to their parents with empty hands.  Jesus says, it’s the simple, dependent, child-like trusters who will understand the things of God.  While the “wise and prudent” will have the truth hidden from them.

Where will God hide the truth?  He will hide it on full display to the world.  He will hide everything in Jesus:

“All things are delivered unto me of my Father” (Matthew 11:27)

God the Father commits everything into the hands of His Son.  Even before the world began the Father was pouring His Spirit unto and into His Son.  Jesus is the eternal Heir and Executor of the Father’s will.  He is the hiding place of God.  Therefore, verse 27 continues:

“No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.”

There is a kind of “family secret” between God the Father and God the Son.  If the verse ended with “save the Son” we would have an impenetrable “circle of trust.”

If it weren’t for the Son’s revelation, no-one would know God except God.  The Father, Son and Spirit would be enjoying their own company.  But that life would be closed off to us.  This is a tragedy since, according to John 17:3, knowing the Father and Son is eternal life.

But the good news is that the Son reveals the Father.  There is a Way into the family secret.  There is a Way into the life of God.  And His name is Jesus.

Therefore Jesus calls out to the whole world from verse 28 – Come! Come in! Come one! Come all! Come to me!

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Coming to Jesus means coming into true knowledge, true family, true life, true rest.

A yoke was the piece of wood that went across the shoulders of your oxen as they pulled your plough.  The yoke ensures that oxen keep in step.

Jesus says that you and I have some kind of yoke.  Even before we come to Him, He assumes we already have a yoke.  And it’s heavy.  So we plod through life attached to something.  It could be another person; it could be some vision of the good life – career, family, travel; it could be some religious system.  But we are yoked to something that determines our path, our speed, our direction.  It controls our life.  And it’s a heavy, wearying, burdensome weight.

Whatever that thing is, Jesus says – “Lay it down, and be yoked to Me.  I’m the only one with an easy and light yoke.  Every other yoke fits badly.  But when you’re joined to me it’s not a burden – it’s true rest.  Rest for your very soul.”

Nowhere else in the Bible does Jesus describe His heart.  And how does He describe it here?  Meek and lowly.  There He stands – the Revelation of God; the Way of salvation; this world’s Centre of gravity; the Rest for weary – and He is meek and lowly.  He is both great to still our fears, and gracious to win our hearts.  And His offer stands today.

He says to us today “Lay down your burdensome quests and tiresome yokes.  Come to me.  Receive my rest.  When you are joined to me, you are brought to the Father and drawn into the very life and family of God.”