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?
I’ve been in plenty of healing meetings where there’s been a call for anyone with back problems to come forward for healing. Knees, shoulders, elbows get their fair amount of coverage too. I’ve never heard a speaker announce, “I feel there’s an anointing for healing from impotence.” Or Aids or constipation. Yet don’t those people need God’s touch just as much?
It was probably about as socially acceptable for the man with leprosy to present himself to Jesus, in the midst of a very large crowd (Matthew 8:1-4) as for someone to shout out their need for healing from gonorrhoea. Yet this man was desperate. Desperate enough to ignore the social stigma and risk severe punishment.
As well as compassion, Jesus had an agenda in healing this leper. It had begun way back in Moses’ time, when God gave long and precise instructions of what the priests were to do when someone got healed from leprosy – see Leviticus 14. But as far as I know, no priest had ever got to use this lengthy piece of legislation, since leprosy was incurable – until this moment. Jesus wanted the priests to understand that God had planned for this centuries before; that God was on the move, that Messiah had arrived. Other versions of this story in Mark and Luke tell us that the healed man did not obey, so the priests missed that opportunity.
That aside, this man did not allow social dogma to govern his actions. He knew his need, and went directly to Jesus. I wonder how much courage it took to engage Jesus, to challenge his willingness to engage with a social outcast.
There are few of us who don’t have some issues we are embarrassed about. An unsavoury history. Skeletons in the cupboard. Relatives who flout the norms. An unmentionable health issue. A bad habit. Needs… Things we don’t feel able to share with others. Things we most certainly would not like to be made public. And neither should we feel pressurised to do so.
One thing is certain. Jesus was willing. He reached out towards the man, engaged with him, healed him, wanted to use his testimony. The stigma was irrelevant. Jesus wanted to bring change to this man’s life.
Whatever our issues, Jesus is not embarrassed to deal with them. He is willing to touch every area of our lives we are willing to entrust to him.
Bad things happen to good people. They also happen to bad people, at about the same rate. I hate that children get sick and that disasters happen. I hate divorce, poverty, unemployment and all the other ills of life. But they happen anyway – to all of us, in one way or another.
Jesus never promised an easy life. In fact he assumed that life would be tough. Take this parable in Matthew 7:24-29
The expectation was that attack would come from all sides – rain pitching, floods rising, gales blowing on wise and foolish alike. The difference wasn’t in what happened to them, but in the spadework they’d put into life. That’s what affected the outcome.
In the Galilee area, stream beds dried up in summer, leaving a tract of land that looked to the unknowing newcomer a very convenient location for building. But of course, when winter came the water would reclaim its territory. The locals would recognise the stupidity of such plans. They knew that if you wanted a house to survive all climates, you had to put much effort into its foundations.
Crowds would gather wherever Jesus stopped to tell his stories. It was easy listening for the most part. A rest from work, sociable, lots of humour, miracles from time to time, even the odd free lunch. Who wouldn’t want to stop by and listen? So long as you didn’t take it too seriously.
But listening wouldn’t help, Jesus said, when the going got tough. You had to put the words into practice. That was, and still is, the only remedy against succumbing when disasters come along in life.
Going to church never saved anyone. Being there, one of the crowd, listening to what the preacher says is not enough. Even reading the bible for yourself won’t do the trick on its own. The words have to go deep inside to the point where they change what you do, how you live life, your language, your attitudes, how you press on in faith. When the storms of life come – and no-one is immune – the ones who cope are those who have absorbed and fed on the Word of God, anchoring their lives, obeying.
Lord make me hungry for your Word. Help me dig deep, so it affects every area of my life, that I may hold fast to you when storms come, and know your peace in every situation.
I must be the luckiest person alive! Some person in Africa that I don’t even know, has emailed to tell me that he’s going to give me buckets of money if I just let him have my personal and bank details. How good is that!?! Don’t worry, I’ve spotted the con. But they are getting more sophisticated, and sometimes I’ve really had to read carefully to check it isn’t something genuine. The best clue generally, is that if it looks too good to be true, then it almost certainly is (too good to be true).
A bit like the false prophets Jesus talked about in Matthew 7:15-23.
They were the ones who were trying to lead people down an easy-looking path: a very attractive form of religion with a comfortable life style and not too many challenges. The problem with easy religion is that it doesn’t develop your character. It doesn’t challenge and change you into the best ‘you’ you can be. So, if you want to know if what someone is preaching is true, take a look at their life. If you can see the fruit of the Spirit all over them – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control – then they are the genuine article. Rub them up the wrong way and see what comes out. That’s the test.
Scary thought. What happens in me when I’m rubbed up the wrong way? When I’m kept waiting, or treated rudely, or unfairly – how’s my self-control then?
When we hear the message of salvation preached, be sure it is no easy sell. The wonderful news is that it costs absolutely nothing to become a Christian – Jesus paid the price for all our wrongdoing once and for all on the cross. That is absolutely true. But, it costs you everything to BE a Christian. God expects a life surrendered to him – that is what Jesus paid the price for. The contractual obligation, actually. Anything less is not honouring our side of the bargain.
Jesus never promised an easy life – just read his parting words in John 15 and 16. “In this world you will have trouble…” But he did promise to be with us, and to empower us to bear good fruit even in difficult times, through his Spirit.
If your Christian life is easy, are you sure you’re on the right path? Short-changing God is not the way to go.