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Sermon for 15 July

 

Jeremiah 18:1-6, Matthew 12:16-21


One of the good things that has come out of America.....in former times, was the TV show ‘Mission Impossible.’ Maybe some of you remember it? With its iconic theme tune:

 

  • dahh… dah, dah, dahh, dahh … dah, dah, dahh, dahh… dah, dah, dahh, dahh, dah, diddleahh, diddleahh, diddleahh, dah, dah, dah…
  • and a burning fuse running across the bottom of the screen…
  • and the leader of the team, Jim Phelps, listening to a tape recording with the words, ‘Your mission, Jim, should you choose to accept it,’ then details of the (impossible) mission, concluding with, ‘This disc will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Jim.’ Jim closes the lid, walks away, and smoke billows from inside the case as it self-destructs…

I think of this iconic TV programme, later made into films with Tom Cruise, when considering the theme of ‘Jesus the Jew’ in your series, ‘The Bible Jesus Knew.’ Am I saying Jesus was an ancient version of Jim Phelps, or Tom Cruise?! Maybe I am! But with a couple of differences: for a start he wasn’t American. Oh no, in Jesus’ day, America wasn’t a trump card. 

In Jesus’ day mission was seen to be possible. The Pharisees had a saying, ‘If the whole of Israel kept the Law for one day, the Messiah would come.’ And that’s why they were so insistent on rigorous sabbath keeping, and tithing minutiae, and extreme ritual purity. The Sadducees emphasised obedience to the written law, they didn’t like interpretation. The scribes were teachers who specialised in interpretation, and they argued over scriptural possibilities. The Herodians were accommodators to the Roman occupiers, and there were exclusivist sects in the desert, like the Essenes, they kept apart, emphasising holiness, and waited for redemption. 

Each of these groups had a sense of ‘mission possible,’ a way of being Jews in accord with their scriptural tradition. If only the nation follow our way, then the kingdom of God will come in all its fullness. Generally this was thought to be through the arrival of a Messiah, one who would lead the nation out of oppression, to a liberated present, and a glorious future. 

So each of these groups, and others besides, interpreted the Scripture – the law, the writings and the prophets – accordingly. The one thing all the Jewish groups wanted was liberation, for hundreds of years they had been subject to overlords, at various times there had been bloody revolutions, everyone looked for signs and wonders and prophecies that would make the impossible liberation mission possible. But each saviour, each messiah, each prophet ended up in smoke, destroyed. 

When John the Baptiser came in from the desert, they said, ‘Could it be him? He has the words, the power, the authority.’ John said, ‘No. Not me, but the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire (Mt 3.11) comes very soon.’

Jesus from Nazareth comes, with even wiser words, greater power, incredible authority. ‘Is it him? How do we know if he’s the Messiah? He’s from Bethlehem, the city of David. He does supernatural works, he heals, and casts out devils, he even raises the dead! Could this be the Power that brings us liberation?’

Admittedly he has a dodgy side: he doesn’t respect the sabbath, he touches unclean people, he consorts with tax collectors and sinners, he eats and drinks too much, and the religious leaders, initially intrigued, become disgusted with his lack of holiness, and his scandalous interpretation of scripture, and his abhorrent theology. He claims to forgive sins, for God’s sake! Literally. This is blasphemy, only God can do that. That’s what the Scriptures say. 

And after three years, even the commoners who had lauded his miracles and compassion and phenomenal insight, melt away. For the scriptures demand a liberator like King David and future glory, but this Jesus talks about turning the other cheek, and loving your neighbour, and embracing the outcast. There’s no glory in that. 

So reluctantly, then dismissively, they give him over as ‘mission impossible.’ 

Just a few believe, a handful. There are rumours that some saw him alive after his public execution. Some remembered he had said that would happen, but the scriptures don’t. Then 50 days later at the great feast called Pentecost, there’s a kind of riot in the city. People are preaching in various languages. And for days and months and years afterwards a movement based on the life of Jesus the Nazarean just won’t fade away. It keeps going, undergirded by the incredible claim that Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected. Jews believed in resurrection (although not the Sadducees), but only at the End Time. And all over the place little groups are getting established based on the teachings that Jesus said. In a word, his teaching came down to, ‘love God with all your being,’ and, ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ ‘This is the law and the prophets,’ he had said. 

A companion of Peter called John Mark, began to write down Peter’s recollections in story form. Two other writers, Matthew and Luke, separately, got hold of copies, and wrote their own versions, after interviewing other people and hearing from other sources. 

By this time, forty years after his death, it was becoming clear what Jesus had been going on about. His mission was based on a radically different understanding of the scriptures. Where everyone, like everyone, else had understood ‘national liberation’ as the key missional theme, Jesus’ emphasis was on liberation of the heart and mind and soul. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are the meek… blessed are the merciful… blessed are the peacemakers… pray, your will be done… do not worry about your life… do not judge… those who enter the kingdom of heaven are those who do the will of my Father.’

And once the early followers began to understand what Jesus had been on about, they began looking at their scriptures with new eyes. They began to see a kind of minor key, subterranean themes, almost like hidden clues, as to what the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the God and Father of you and I, is really like. 

When your hopes and dreams are in a certain direction you become blind to the periphery. You have theological and biblical blinkers. That was the huge problem Judas Iscariot had. He thought Jesus was the Messiah-like-David who would raise up an army, so he ‘cleverly’ manipulated events to force Jesus to use his power to come out against the authorities. ‘If I get him arrested he will, like he said, call upon a host of angels to slaughter the authorities.’ In fact a sword is drawn at his arrest to protect him, but Jesus commands it to be put aside. Jesus is arrested. He is crucified. And in his horror Judas ‘repents’ (the word metanoia means ‘changes his heart’), and returns the blood money, and takes his own life. 

When this story, and all the stories of Jesus, are written up by Mark and Matthew and Luke, they are written from the perspective of a new understanding of scripture. This new understanding wasn’t prophecy as foretelling, but prophecy as fulfilment, and in Matthew’s Gospel especially we find this word fulfilment all over the place, fourteen times in fact, including here about Judas Iscariot:

9Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, ‘And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, 10and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.’

The word ‘fulfilment’ (pleroo) means ‘to accomplish,’ or ‘carry out to the full.’ Fulfilment is Matthew’s central theme, for the coming of the Messiah is the climax of the history of God’s people. There are 44 direct citations of the OT in Matthew, plus another 262 allusions and verbal parallels. The other Gospels don’t have as many quotations or allusions, but they are there, as they’re also in the other NT writings. Some say these OT references give a ‘typological’ understanding; that verses in the OT offer a type of a Messiah that Jesus fulfils. But we need to question this, as it’s too simplistic to say that OT writers were unconsciously writing about Jesus. As I said, the scholars of Jesus’ day had texts from the scriptures that ‘proved’ that the Messiah was to be militaristic.

We need to remember that Matthew was writing to followers of Jesus who were gathered in emergent Christian communities. For 40 years the apostles and preachers (like Paul and Barnabas and Philip and his daughters) had been relating stories about the life of Jesus. So when the Gospel writers, and Matthew especially, come to write these stories down, Matthew is convinced that the life of Jesus is the climax of God’s plan for salvation for God’s people. 

Previously the scriptures had indicated how God’s plan was being worked out, but in Jesus himself the Great Plan (capital ‘G’ capital ‘P’) is revealed in full. Jesus himself is the embodiment of God’s revelation. What was written is now a person! What was conceived is now present! What was hoped for, has come into being! 

‘Jesus is here, his Spirit is with us,’ we bellow! ‘Jesus is here… his Spirit is with us!’

So Matthew, and the early Christian preachers look into the scriptures to see whether they can find indications of this revelation in Christ. And by God they can, ‘by God’ they can. Not by themselves, but by the grace of God they can. 

And here I want to say something very carefully, and please listen very carefully. Reading the scriptures, and being aware of the ways of God, and knowing the presence of the living Christ is both very straightforward, and very mysterious. Do not ever think you know what the scriptures say. Keep humble as to their meaning. 

Matthew was writing to Christians who, on the one hand, knew Jesus had risen from the dead, but on the other hand, doubted. That’s why he refers them to scriptures which had heretofore been interpreted in different ways, these scriptures indicate Jesus fulfils God’s mission to bring salvation to the world. But most people, believers included, have difficulty believing it. 

Or, to put it another way, we are like Matthew’s community towards the end of the first century. We know lots about Jesus, and yet we are still infants in the faith. Matthew is saying to his community, ‘Look, in the scriptures all along, there has been a golden thread about God’s salvation that you have missed.’ Maybe they were reverting to the ‘type’ of Messiah about strength, about power, about wealth, about status, about glorious buildings and fine clothes and comfortable living. 

But all the while God’s plan is in accord with God’s nature, and in the person of Jesus we see most accurately what God’s nature is like. The dominant reading of scripture had missed it for centuries and centuries. We miss it ourselves today, look at us in our finery. 

In Jesus the Jew we see God how God really is – welcoming the refugee, touching the unclean, nursing the sick, giving life to the hopeless, clothing to the poor, time to the ignored, visiting the prisoner, feeding the hungry. 

The scriptures had said this all along; you are to care for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. Those are whom God loves most. But the Jewish community, and the Christian community, so often turns and yields and is seduced by the majority voice, the voice of power and glory and everlasting fame.

Look at the final words from our reading in Matthew:

11 Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus said, ‘You say so.’ 12But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?’ 14But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

What sort of Saviour is this who says nothing to power, not even to save his own life? 

This is the Saviour of the world who fulfils the impossible mission of saving the world. 

Amen. 


Posted: 15-07-2018 at 21:28
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