“I’m putting it in my bag then!” That was the threat my mum used to make to my kids when they were little, if there was something they didn’t want, or turned their nose up at. The idea was that depriving them would help them realise they really did want that thing after all. It did quite often work, but I sometimes wondered how she was going to put a half-eaten dinner in her bag, gravy an’ all!
I wonder if that was the sort of principle Jesus was using with the two blind men (Matthew 9:27-31). They were following, calling after him – and what did Jesus do? Went inside and shut the door! They had to come knocking, and even then Jesus questioned them – “Do you believe I am able to do this?” He didn’t make it easy for them, perhaps to increase their desire and enlarge their faith.
No doubt many people would have recognised these two, since they had more than likely spent their days thus far begging for help. So I guess it was tempting for them to disobey Jesus’s instruction to keep their miracle under wraps, and grasp at instant celebrity status. They had been ‘nobodies’ all their lives, with no chance at education or training for a trade, but now suddenly found themselves the centre of interest! No wonder Jesus wanted them to keep it quiet and give their budding faith a chance to develop. Sadly they took the blessing, but gave no obedience in return, and grabbed their fifteen minutes of fame, to the detriment of their emerging faith.
I want to be good. I want to be spiritual. I want to know my bible thoroughly. I want a wonderful relationship with my Heavenly Father. I want all the blessings. What I don’t have such a taste for, though, is the effort, sacrifice, time, laying down of my pleasures, that are required to receive these things. Then I wonder why we don’t see miracles, why my life does not have the power that He promises, why people are not drawn to Him through me. Has God withheld some of these blessings and ‘put them in his bag’ to make me want them all the more, to make me realise what I am missing? To help me want to obey and serve him no matter what? Stir my heart some more Lord!
Have you ever noticed how something might happen in everyday life that illuminates something you’ve recently read in the bible, or heard in a sermon? The twin stories of the dead girl and the sick woman in Matthew 9:18-26 did just that. Jesus was just talking about how the old wineskins were not suitable containers for new wine, when ‘while he was saying this’ a ruler approached him. A ruler. In the synagogue (according to the parallel passage in Luke 8). Someone representing the ‘old school’ approach to spirituality. This man had a pressing need – but he didn’t ask his colleagues at the synagogue for help – he risked his position and reputation, and went straight to Jesus. The old wineskins didn’t have it in them to cope with the power required to bring his daughter back to life.
Then along came a woman who had no business being there! With her bleeding condition she was considered unclean, untouchable by the laws they’d followed to date. Her weary, worn-out body would have had no help from them, but revolted rejection. And a patch-up job would not have helped anyway. She needed a touch from Jesus – power not just to make life bearable, but to bring her a brand new life, to be whole again.
Both of these two people went way outside their comfort zones, driven by desperation. The God-given Old Testament laws were not wrong – but the way they were practised had distorted them. And men had supplemented them with their own additions, making them unwieldy, burdensome and impossible to keep.
Jesus showed us a new way – that God’s laws are not meant to be a hindrance full of demands, but a way to have a joyful relationship with a powerful Father-God, in a safe, secure community, where people look out for each other, and put each others’ needs before their own. In other words, LOVE.
Sometimes it takes a desperate situation to drive us to consider the unthinkable. These two had to press through all the mental summersaults to break through from their distress.
Why do we wait that long? If something is good, why linger? God wants each one of us to know and experience his deep love, to encounter his power, to be bearers of his presence into a needy world. What are you waiting for? Just ask him for what you need.
I love my niece’s idea for New Year. Rather than choosing ‘resolutions’ which inevitably get forgotten by the second week of January (at best!) she selects a word to take with her through the year. While resolutions are more about putting right what’s wrong from the past, this is more about looking forward to what life has in store, and aiming to making the most of it.
I think that is what Jesus was getting at when he answered the question posed by John the Baptist’s disciples in Matthew 9:14-17. They wanted to know why Jesus’s disciples didn’t fast, when it was seen by the Jewish community as an important godly discipline. In brief, fasting was undertaken for mourning and repentance – a recognition of wrongdoing (e.g. Joel 2:12 “Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”) or to try to change God’s mind (Daniel 9:3 So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.).
Jesus didn’t ban fasting – in fact he practiced it himself extensively at the beginning of his ministry. Indeed, Christians today do find it invaluable for demonstrating to themselves, as well as God, how serious they are about their commitment to him, or their desire to see a need met. What Jesus saw in the Pharisees and disciples of John, however, was that they were trying to earn their right to God’s recognition. By denying themselves comfort, they hoped that he would accept them. Jesus knew that these Old Testament methods simply proved man’s inability to attain godliness. And this was why he was bringing in a New Way of approaching God – that depended not on man’s efforts, but on His love for us, His reaching down to us, salvation through the death of Jesus – Grace and Grace alone.
The old ways had never been adequate. Jesus was bringing in the New Way.
Stuck in a rut? Last year’s model of life not working? What are you looking forward to for the year ahead? What word sums up what you are aiming for? Jesus came to give us a brand new life. If yours is old, tired, inadequate, ask him for a new one. Then ask him to fill it with his New Wine. And expect him to bring in his changes, because life with him is never boring!
This last week has seen a devastating fire at a retirement complex in my town. 150 residents, including some friends of mine, lost absolutely everything other than what they stood up in. But praise God for the miracle that no-one was hurt. Each one had to get up and leave everything behind. Our town has generously rallied round, donations have poured in, and the residents have been given everything they need physically. But there were some sad losses: pets, precious personal items, and memories that cannot be replaced.
Matthew 9:9-13 tells the story of how the Gospel writer was called to follow Jesus. Some bible deduction informs us (Luke 5:27) that this same guy was first called Levi, which means ‘attached’ (see Genesis 29:35). Matthew does not tell us himself, but Luke records that he got up, left everything and followed Jesus. Not attached anymore! So the name Matthew, gift of God, was so much more applicable.
How hard was it for Matthew to detach himself from his job, his income, his security, everything that was familiar? However difficult, all those benefits of his work were easily eclipsed by the person of Jesus, requesting him to follow him. Without hesitation, Levi, so attached, left it all behind. His new career as a ‘fisher of men’ was certainly not so lucrative, but had benefits that were out of this world!
The people who lost their homes in the fire lost everything but their lives. And that is nothing short of what God requires of us – and some, even more. As Matthew himself said (10:39) “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
- How attached to stuff are you – could you let go of everything if God asked it of you?
- What about other things – people, pets, precious personal items, memorabilia, life itself… Does God take an even higher place in your life than all these?
It might be helpful to remember that we own nothing, have a right to nothing. Everything we have is on loan from God. He doesn’t necessarily need any of it from us, but it thrills his heart to know we love him more than anything else.
Driving along a country road some years ago, a bus came careering from the opposite direction, right down the middle of the road, over both lanes. Amazingly, there was a wide grass verge, and my husband was able to quickly steer onto it, out from the pathway of the errant bus. It was a miracle we were able to avoid disaster, but it had been a bumpy transition to the verge, and my neck and back suffered whiplash. Christian friends prayed for me. I was able to forgive the bus driver, but I was still in a lot of pain. I woke in the night, completely unable to move – the pain was so excruciating. But I had a revelation: – this was only temporary, as I would, in time, heal; and God was giving me a vivid insight into the life of someone for whom that level of pain and incapacity was permanent. Strangely, I began to thank God for the experience, and before long, fell back to sleep. When I woke the next morning, I was completely healed, with not a single pain! But I was left with a compassion for those who suffer, that I could not otherwise have entered into. It was an important lesson for me.
When the paralytic man was brought to Jesus, in Matthew 9:1-8, I wonder how he felt when Jesus pronounced his forgiveness. Probably very disappointed – Jesus just wasn’t meeting the need he perceived most pressing! He lay there listening, as Jesus conversed with the teachers of the law, no doubt wondering if Jesus really had the power to heal, and if his chance at it was passed over. That delay must have been painful for the paralytic, but it was an important lesson for everyone there, him included. The people needed to know Jesus had authority over sickness BECAUSE he had authority to forgive.
Without healing, sickness may last a lifetime. Without forgiveness, sin lasts for all eternity.
Sometimes God deliberately delays answers to our prayers because we need to understand something else first. Don’t give up praying – he understands your needs before you ask. Before even you know what they are. Try to hear his heart for his priorities, his lessons. Then like the crowd you will be filled with awe and wonder, as you get the insight into his game plan, and see what he can do!
Maybe it’s because I was a teacher, but there’s something about the story of Jesus calming the storm, in Matthew 8:23-27 that makes me think it was an orchestrated learning opportunity. There’d been a large crowd round him, which would likely have still been disbursing when it all happened ‘without warning’. There’d been nothing that had told those seasoned fishermen that trouble was likely. Then Jesus appeared to have fallen asleep in the blink of an eye, and stayed that way through the noise of the storm, the shouts of the disciples, and the frantic rocking. And then Jesus’s response when they woke him. Not a bleary-eyed, “Why, what’s going on?” but, “You of little faith!” I’m convinced it was a set-up!
So who learned what?
The crowds learned that Messiah had come. Only he could have that power.
The disciples learned that Jesus could be trusted in times of danger.
The powers of darkness found out Jesus’s power was greater.
So why did Jesus rebuke the disciples for waking him? Jesus was equipping the disciples for the future. They were learning to trust his power even when he wasn’t around – on that occasion because he was sleeping, but in the future, when he would no longer be physically present, and they would have to trust the Holy Spirit within them. They learned that it was safe to be out in a boat in a storm with that kind of God. And they learned that they could still whatever storms life or the Jewish and Roman authorities threw at them.
We, the readers, learn that it is safe to be in life, however stormy, with that kind of Lord. It is safe, but challenging just the same.
Oh, and one more thing…if it was orchestrated, then maybe some of the storms in my life are more about God teaching and training me to trust him better, to live more in his power, and to learn how to manage situations in his wisdom and strength… As I said, challenging just the same.
My unfavourite moment. When the teacher would choose two sporty types to pick their teams from the rest of the class. And I would be one of the last selected. Ah well, you can’t be good at everything!
A teacher of the law wanted to be picked to be on Jesus’s team (Matthew 8:18-22). They were riding pretty high in the popularity stakes just then, and he didn’t want to miss out on any privileges of being one of the in-crowd in the new kingdom Jesus was going to establish. Jesus quickly burst that bubble. Material gain was not part of the package.
Matthew then talked about another would-be follower, who wanted to ‘first bury his father’. Given that burials then followed within hours of a death, it’s unlikely his father was dead, but this man wanted to wait until his filial duties were done and dusted before following Jesus full-time.
Neither of these guys were going to be picked onto Team Jesus. Their heads were not in the game. One wanted the glory, the other didn’t want the commitment.
Sometimes it’s hard to see our own motives. Some church jobs come with benefits, a bit of honour; whereas with some tasks we’ll find some very good reasons why we can’t take on that role. We might hide behind our employment, our kids, our ageing parents, or some specific situation.
In God’s Kingdom, it’s not about what we do. It’s about willingness. Submission. Obedience. And it’s about relationship. Knowing who Jesus is; knowing how important I am to him. Knowing I can trust him, so that if he tells me to do a job, however demanding, however menial, he will give me the skills, energy and time I need to do it. Like for the father in the second story, sometimes our obedience demands a cost from others. But I must trust God to take care of whatever situation might be holding me back.
Jesus couldn’t appoint the two guys in the reading because of their motives and attitudes. If you want to live up close to Jesus, where you can see him in action in the world around you, then get your head in the game: be prepared to do whatever he asks, and commit to doing it with all you’ve got, whatever it costs.
I love the story of the Centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13). I love that he cared so much about someone who worked for him. I love the humility of this guy, who had significant authority; and I love how he recognised the chain of command. He was able to give orders and expect them to be obeyed, because he received orders and obeyed them. That’s how authority works. Anything else and it’s anarchy, really. Chaos.
Jesus had authority over the powers and principalities, which enabled him to heal, restore and set free – because he obeyed his Heavenly Father in leaving the glory of heaven, to come to Earth and die on a cross. He maintained his authority because he lived a wholly righteous life. And as he died his obedient death, he continued to keep mastery over the powers of darkness: sin was overcome, death was defeated.
That is why Jesus was able to simply give the word for the servant to be healed. Obedience. The Centurion knew that.
What do you, what do I, expect to achieve in this world? For God, for his Kingdom? Any power we have comes from obedience. If we are not listening, hearing and following through on what we have been given to do, then we cannot expect to have the power to bring healing, flow in the gifts of the Spirit, or achieve anything. There is a requirement to do what he says. Repent. Live righteously. Love God. Love your neighbour. Make disciples. Pray. Rejoice. Love one another. Be filled with the Spirit…
And then those things that he has specifically spoken to us as individuals. The things we plan to get round to sometime.
If we are lacking power, could it just be that we need to follow through on what he’s told us to do?