Tuesday 7 September 2010

My soul must sing (Matthew 12:15-37)

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

The truth is: some words do hurt. Scars and bruises heal. But words; we remember them for years. Some words we treasure in our hearts all our lives.

Today’s passage is about God’s word to us. In the passage just read to us, the bible records what was “spoken” by the prophet Isaiah about Jesus. Jesus is called God’s chosen servant, sent to “proclaim” justice to the nations.

But today’s passage is also about our words to God. How do you speak to God – in your prayers? How do you speak about God – to your friends?

In today’s passage we find two different answers. Look with me to verse 22:

Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see.

Immediately we have two different responses. First, the crowds are amazed by the miracle. “Could this be the Son of David?” they ask. Meaning: Is this something new that God is doing? Among us? Through this man? Could he be the one the Scriptures talked about - the Christ; the Son of David?

But the second response is not so positive. The Pharisees say, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons that this fellow drives out demons.”

Now just turn to the page before to Matthew 9 verse 33. What do we see? A man who has a demon is healed. The crowd is amazed. And in verse 34, the Pharisees say, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.”

This has happened before. The same miracle. The same response. The same rejection. This is happening again.

The Pharisees - the religious leaders - they have continually rejected Jesus.They cannot deny the miracles - the man is healed. It is obvious to everyone. But they can deny the source of the miracles. It is by the... prince of demons, this fellow drives out demons.

In other words, they are running a smear campaign. They are attacking his reputation. They are questioning his motives.

And today we will see what Jesus has to say in response to their accusations. And his first point is: these accusations just do not make any sense.

Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, "Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges.
(Verses 25-27)

The Pharisees are describing Satan’s armies as being “divided”. We encounter that word three times - the kingdom is divided, the city or household is divided - Satan is divided. In essence, the religious leaders are saying that the devil doesn’t know what he is doing. They are claiming that there are factions within the demonic realm opposing one another. Very dangerously; very foolishly, the Pharisees are making the statement that Satan is weak.

Now the last thing I want to do is paint a picture of the devil as a strong! But notice that Jesus refers to Satan’s “kingdom” - twice. Verse 26: How ... can his kingdom stand?

And last week we looked at a passage from 2 Corinthians 4 where the bible referred to the devil as the “god of this age” (verse 4). Meaning: the evil one has some hold on this world - over this generation - it’s culture, it’s thinking - and we learnt last week that the main thing the devil tries to do is keep us from seeing God’s glory revealed through the gospel. We hear these words, about Jesus, about the cross - and it just sounds... silly. But God causes the light of the gospel to shine in our hearts. And when that happens - Jesus looks amazing, compelling, attractive. Suddenly, we can’t get enough of Jesus. Suddenly, the bible is a book we want to know more and more about!

But that doesn’t mean Satan is weak. It means God is stronger - infinitely more powerful than the devil. And that’s the point Jesus is getting across.

But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
(Verse 28)

There is a greater kingdom - the kingdom of God. There is a greater power - the Spirit of God. And Jesus is challenging those who have just witnessed the miracle of healing and exorcism - do you see this greater kingdom? Do you see the greater Spirit? And do you see the greater King?

Friends, this is not a passage about exorcism. Jesus begins with the miracle where he casts out the demon from the man - the passage assumes this is the cause of his illness - Jesus begins with the exorcism. But it serves merely as an illustration to the main point Jesus makes.

What illustration? Notice Matthew carefully records the condition of the man before, and after the miracle. Before: the man was blind and mute. After the healing: he could both talk and see. These are not incidental details. His senses were blocked. He could not perceive anything outside of himself. But as soon as Jesus heals him; as soon as the demon is cast out - he is able to speak and he is able to see.

Now contrast his condition with that of the Pharisees. Jesus is saying to them: this man now sees, but you remain blind. He can speak - but all you do is slander.

2 Corinthians 4:4 - The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

The Pharisees were quick to recognise the work of evil in the man who was physically impaired. Jesus draws their attention to the evil in the hearts of those who are spiritually impaired.

As I say this, I want to be careful not to denigrate the seriousness of demonic opposition in this world. In preparation for this week’s message I happened to watch a TV documentary highlighting the work of some churches in London of casting out demons. Reporters went undercover to film meetings where mass exorcisms were apparently being carried out. People were rolling on the floor. Pastors were laying on hands, saying “In the name of Jesus, I cast you out!”

The investigation revealed an over-eagerness in some of these cases, to ask for monetary contributions in return for such services. It was appalling, yet not surprising. This morning, for my devotional I read Acts 19 where the seven sons of Sceva tried to copy the authentic ministry of the apostles by invoking the name of the Lord Jesus over demon-possessed men, only to be beaten up by the man with the evil spirit.

But that’s the picture we have of the conflict with the demonic. It looks scary. It appears spectacular. Yet 2 Timothy 2 paints a very different picture.

And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
(2 Timothy 2:24-26)

According to 2 Timothy, the way in which the Lord’s servant applies the gospel to someone under the trap and captivity of Satan is... gentleness, not quarrelling; it is through instruction and the knowledge of the truth.

Friends, it is exactly what we are doing right here. Right now. With our bibles open. Through the hearing of my voice speaking to you - at times, pleading with you - with sincerity, integrity and gentleness. We do this every week here in the Chinese Church, in hope that by God’s grace men and women would be released from the bondage of evil into the freedom of the children of God.

I write to you, young men,
because you are strong,
and the word of God lives in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.
(1 John 2:14)

He’s talking about you; you who have the word living in you. John is saying, you have overcome the evil one. But what does that mean? Overcoming temptation? Yes. Resisting his attacks? Certainly. But more than that, it’s about gathering men and women into the kingdom of God. That’s what Jesus says in verse 29:

"Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man's house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house.
"He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.
(Verses 29-30)

He who does not gather with me scatters. That’s what the Pharisees are doing - they are scattering. They are working against the work of Jesus. Meaning: their comments were not innocent observations coming from a subjective view of situation to raise some sort of discussion - they were attacking Jesus; they were attacking the people who were gathered around Jesus.

Who were they talking to? Not Jesus. The Pharisees were talking about Jesus to the crowd. They saw him perform the miracle, they saw the crowd gathering around Jesus, they heard them said, “Oh, this guy could be the Christ,” and their intention and instinct was to break up the crowd. To lead them away from Jesus. They were attacking Jesus, but they did this by attacking the people around Jesus.

And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
(verses 31-32)

The key issue here is blasphemy. Blasphemy is not a word we use commonly today. People think it means saying a bad word, a rude four-letter word. And so we might worry, that if we curse, or say things against God and Jesus, does that mean Jesus says, I will go to Hell? The answer is no. That’s not quite what Jesus is talking about.

Blasphemy means insult. Notice that Jesus doesn’t focus on what is said, but who the insult is said against. Now, insulting God is, of course, a very serious thing. But what does Jesus mean when he says in verse 32 – anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age, or in the age to come?

Remembering the context of the conversation, what Jesus means is, calling something good as evil. That is what the Pharisees had done. They saw what Jesus did. No one could deny that he was helping and loving people. Jesus was doing a great good. But they looked at it and called it evil.
Blaspheming against the Holy Spirit means, looking at something that is so obviously good from God can denying all reason, denying all that you know and labelling that as the work of the devil.

Practically, it means: if you are worried that you might have done this, well, you haven’t. If you are sitting there anxious about something you’ve said to God, in haste or anger, and you can still hear your conscience speaking to you – you’re OK.

But if you keep denying God. And denying him, denying him, denying him, denying him and denying him... it doesn’t mean you will become like a demon-possessed man - writhing on the floor, looking like an extra from Resident Evil or incapacitated, with all your senses impaired. That’s not necessarily what you would look like. Rather, you might end up looking very much like a Pharisee. It’s not that you will speak bad words, rude words; but like the Pharisees you might use very eloquent words, religious-sounding words, theological words - all to deny the goodness of God.

Jesus gets to the heart of the matter:

"Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."
(Verses 33-37)

Jesus knows our hearts. He hears our words but he sees straight into our hearts. The word he uses is actually “treasure”. Out of the good that is treasured in our hearts, the good man speaks good words. Out of the evil that is treasured, the evil man speaks.

The issue is not just what he have, but what we want. What do you store up in your life? What is valuable? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.

What Jesus is saying is: the Pharisees didn’t have a slip of the tongue. Opps, I did it again! Opps, I didn’t really mean it, that time. Rather, these sentiments of hatred and dissent have been storing up in their hearts - bit by bit - for some time now. That’s the reason Matthew records the earlier encounter at the end of chapter 9. The religious leaders have been harbouring resentment against Jesus ever since he began his ministry. And their words simply reveal the content of their hearts. And it’s their hearts, that Jesus is talking about.

This is important because of what Jesus says about the day of judgement. He says in verse 36, “men will have to give an account ... for every careless word...” It’s tempting to use this verse to warn against swearing, or gossipping, or mean-spiritedness, but that’s not exactly what it’s about.

The word “careless” means unprofitable or ungainly. It’s referring about empty, meaningless talk. In that way, it seems to me, it’s even more scary than if Jesus was talking about cussing. You see, Jesus is saying we’re all talk and no action. We speak as if our words have no consequence and no value.

Jesus has used this series of illustrations before - the connection between trees and fruit; words and actions - back in the Sermon on Mount at the end of chapter 7. And if you look there, you’ll see how empty words lead many to false confidence and final condemnation.

Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'

These are possibly the worst words in the bible. I mean, they are absolutely horrible. Masses coming to Jesus, confident of their salvation - confident they will be received with honour from God into his kingdom - only to be turned away. Why? Because their confidence lay in themselves - their words and their works. They prophesied in His name and performed miracles - many miracles, in fact.

And the startling revelation at the last day? I never knew you, Jesus says.

What is empty talk? It’s confidently claiming to know God - to know about God - to know how to please God - to know the secrets of God. But never having been known by God.

Jesus isn’t talking to pagans. He’s not talking to people who’ve never heard of him, who know nothing about him. He’s talking to Pharisees. Men who are steeped in scripture. Teachers of the law. Full of piety and wisdom. Yet full of resentment against Jesus.

In the same way, the bible speaks to me and you who claim to know God. Are we known by God (1 Corinthians 8:2-3)? Do we submit to his word and his authority? Our words - do they merely parade confident knowledge of biblical data or do they reveal our love, gratitude and submission to Christ as Lord and Saviour?

As the psalmist says, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)

It means the best way to get Christians to speak about Jesus, is to help them love Jesus. You make the tree good, Jesus says, then the fruit will be good. But how do you do that?

That’s the reason I’ve left verses 18 to 21 till now. It’s a picture of Jesus in the eyes of God the Father. When the bible speaks of the love of God, it is first and foremost talking about the love the Father has for the Son, and the love the Son has for the Father. Only when we understand that, do we come to understand God’s love for us.

The first thing we see is that Jesus is the perfect servant.

Verse 18: "Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.

If you have a girlfriend or boyfriend - you might carry around with you a picture of them in your wallet. Dads and mums carry photos of their kids, especially embarrassing ones of them in diapers, to show off at in church of your high-school reunions. Of course these days, it’s more likely to be a picture on your mobile phone or on your Facebook page.

Verses 18 to 21 is God the Father’s photo of Jesus. It’s a snapshot of the Son he loves. It describes what he loves about the Son. His humility, his submission - it is a picture of Jesus, the servant of God.

And we need to see this picture of Jesus. Too many times, too many people miss it. We need to see Jesus as the true servant of God who comes as the true servant of man.

He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.

A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory.

In his name the nations will put their hope."
(Verses 19 to 21)

A reed was used as a ruler. Once it’s bent or broken it’s no longer of any use.

Similarly a wick on a candle, when it starts to smoke, it’s useless. There is no more light, it just pollutes the air with smoke.

These verses are talking about rejects. The nobodies. Jesus comes for them.

The crowds around Jesus - they are full of sick people looking for help. The sinful tax collector and prostitutes. He doesn’t turn them away. He is gentle with them, he is loving towards them, he comes and serves them.

And yet, there is a double-meaning to these verses. The word “justice” is found twice – Jesus proclaims justice, in verse 18; and the servant leads justice to victory, in verse 20. And that word “justice” can very well be translated “judgement”. Verse 18 “He will proclaim judgement to the nations.”

It is the same word found in verse 36, “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgement for every careless word they have spoken.”

The servant is also the judge. That is the reason he warns the Pharisees about their words. That is the reason he has the power of the Spirit to bring in the Kingdom of God. Jesus is God’s chosen servant to bring justice to the nations.

The Pharisees - to give them some credit - are looking for God’s King. They are sincerely looking forward to God’s kingdom. And in their minds, God should also be looking forward to them - the religious, the upright, the holy, the learned, the teachers, the leaders.

But with Jesus, they see a servant. Surrounded by rejects. Showing compassion to the weak. Rejecting the proud and powerful. And in their minds they are thinking, “This can’t be the King! This can’t be the Son of David; the Messiah; the Christ! How can he - a lowly peasant carpenter from Nowheresville - be the coming Judge and Ruler of God’s new kingdom?”

But that is exactly the point. These verses from Isaiah have God speaking of his servant - the humble one, the gentle one, the submissive one - as the judge and king. Because Jesus is the true servant - that is how we know he is the true Messiah. That is how we recognise Jesus as the Christ.

That is the case with the cross, isn’t it?

Many are simply offended by it. How can God die? Why would he let his servant, someone he has sent; someone he is pleased with, endure such pain - endure such shame!

That’s what the crowds thought at the cross. Matthew records how Jesus was mocked by the soldiers as he was tortured. The religious leaders were making fun of him on the cross - challenging Jesus to come down and prove them wrong. Even the other criminals on death row poured insult on him.

The cross is offensive. Not simply because it is such a grotesque image of pain and suffering. No, it is offensive because it insults our notion of who God is and what God ought to be doing. Religious people hate the cross. Good people hate the cross. Powerful people hate the cross.

Do you see? That’s why Jesus came for the weak. He came to the humble, the rejected, the outcast and the lowly. The weak recognise their need for God. The humble are drawn to Jesus. The outcast see the grace of the cross. The lowly bow down and worship the majesty and the glory of the Christ.

So the question is: what are you looking for in Jesus?

One song that I really love - that we sang at Solid Rock this year - is Beautiful One. Now I know a lot of people have trouble singing the lyrics. And I’m personally not a fan of “Jesus is my boyfriend” lyrics. Do you know what I mean? Songs which go all gushy about Jesus as my hearts desire, my only one, my truest love. It’s hard enough getting guys to stand up in a crowd and sing out loud songs about God in front of everyone.

But I confess I love this song. I love it because it doesn’t just say that Jesus is beautiful. It tells us why. It is a song about the beauty of the cross.

I read somewhere of somebody saying that these words aren’t scriptural. You don’t find anywhere in the bible, Christians saying of Jesus, “You’re beautiful!” And that’s true.

Yet I read today’s passage about Jesus as the true servant; and do you know what I hear? I hear God saying these words. This is my servant. With Jesus, my soul... my soul is pleased. Meaning: God the Father has no problem whatsoever, expressing his love for his Son. He is proud of Jesus. He loves Jesus. His soul is filled with overwhelming joy over Jesus.

So maybe you might have a problem singing these words. That’s OK. Just listen. Not to me, or the person next to you singing them out loud, eyes closed, arms raised. No, don’t listen to our words. Listen to God’s. Listen to God the Father expressing how crazy he is over his Son, his true servant, his humble servant, Jesus.

And pray. Pray that God might just open your eyes to see Jesus on the cross as majesty, merciful and marvellously beautiful.

Wonderful so wonderful is Your unfailing love
Your cross is spoken mercy over me
No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart can fully know
How glorious, how beautiful You are

Beautiful one I love
Beautiful one I adore
Beautiful one my soul must sing