Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Have you ever been sitting in the house, and out of the corner of your eye, you spot something moving along the skirting board? Or maybe you’re lying in bed and you hear some scraping and scratching, the patter of teeny tiny feet in the attic. When you have a mouse on the loose around the house, then you need to set a trap or two.
Lots of people have different ideas about what the best thing to put in the trap is - peanut butter, Mars bar, chocolate or whatever, you can tell me later what you use - but the idea is the same. There’s something sweet, something nice that attracts the mouse over, but as it enjoys the sweetie, it meets its maker.
Put yourself in the mouse’s shoes for a moment. It smells the tasty treat, it wants to enjoy it, but it actually brings about the death of it. Something nice leads to death. That’s the picture Proverbs paints of adultery. Look at 5:3. ‘For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil, but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword.’ Do you hear the contrast? Honey lips, sweet with smooth oily words; in the end bitter and sharp. Now it says there the forbidden woman; ladies, this could just as easily be the forbidden man.
We’re still in the early chapters of Proverbs, where Solomon is speaking to his son, passing on wisdom for life. He’s teaching and training his son how to live, what to do and what to not do. Over the course of three chapters Solomon addresses the issue of relationships and adultery, urging his son to stay away from the forbidden woman.
There is wisdom here for us, as we seek to live out God’s way, whether we are married or single. In a day when the crowds flock to read and now watch Fifty Shades of Grey; as TV adverts and programmes push the boundaries; we need to know what God’s wisdom says about relationships.
Here in Proverbs 5-7, it’s clear that God wants faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness. The warnings come from the outset. We’ve already seen the sweet, smooth trap of the forbidden woman’s lips. But to follow her, to pursue her is to follow the path to Sheol, the place of the dead; rather than the path of life (5:5-6). It’s as if there’s a fork in the road, to life or death, like a T junction - you can only go one way. Because of that, Solomon warns his son to stay away from her. Don’t go near her!
Over in chapter 7, we have a worked out example of the dangers of heading over to her. From his window, Solomon watches and sees ‘a young man lacking sense.’ He goes along her road, he’s just passing by when she pounces. It’s as if he is overwhelmed that she wants him, kisses him, speaks to him. She is ready, her bed is ready, her husband is away on a long journey, there’s no danger, you won’t be caught, it’ll be fun, come on ahead... The seductive speech and smooth talk persuades and compels him. The Mars bar is enticing in the trap, but it’s a trap all the same.
Do you see the three pictures used - the ox to the slaughter as he follows her; the stag caught fast until the arrow pierces its liver; the bird in the snare. He doesn’t see what lies ahead. He’s caught up in the moment. And he’s well and truly caught. Chapter 6 (which we didn’t read) portays adultery as carrying fire next to your chest, or walking on hot coals. The danger is there.
Back in chapter 5, Solomon asks ‘Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?’ It’s a question that Solomon would have needed to ask himself. You see, for all his wisdom, for all his understanding, he himself was caught in the same trap. Dale Ralph Davis is an Old Testament lecturer. He called his commentary on 1 Kings ‘The Wisdom and The Folly’. In 1 Kings, we have the record of Solomon’s reign. God asks him what he would like, so Solomon asks for wisdom. He builds the temple, his palace, and everything is great. The Queen of Sheba comes to visit to hear his wisdom. Chapter 10 is the pinnacle, a record of his great wisdom, and prosperity. But the folly begins in 11:1 ‘Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh... He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart.’
Even wise Solomon fell into this trap. And Jesus heightens the command - to even look with lust is to commit adultery in the heart. The traps are set all around us. Virtually everywhere we look is a minefield. The papers, the TV, internet, as we walk around. Always before us are the paths to Sheol or to life. As 5:21 tells us, ‘For a man’s ways are before the eyes of the Lord, and he ponders all his paths.’ Every choice we make, the Lord sees, the Lord knows. Every step we take, towards the trap or away from it, the Lord is aware.
There’s a verse in 2 Timothy 2:22 where Paul warns about dangers, but doesn’t leave it there. He also promotes the better. ‘So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with all those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.’ Run away from the wrong (which Solomon has been telling us), but he also tells us what to pursue.
First, he puts it in picture form: ‘Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well...’ and then he gets to the idea itself: ‘Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth.’ Don’t be intoxicated by forbidden ones, be intoxicated by your wife or husband. The Song of Solomon is all about that deep love between husband and wife. There the images of love and the description of beauty is enlarged even more than the ‘lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love’ we find here. As a preacher at a minister’s conference put it one time, why would I want a cheap and nasty Big Mac anywhere else when I can have steak and chips at home?
Now. some of you might be saying, well, that’s ok for those who are married. All of us, at some stage of our lives is single. Some of us end up being single again after marriage. What about us? The warnings remain. The senseless youth is single. But there is still a husband to delight in. The Bible makes it clear that every marriage, even the best, is really only temporary. The vow is ‘till death us do part.’ As Paul teaches in Ephesians, marriage is a picture of the relationship between Christ and his bride. That is the only marriage in heaven, when we will be joined with him for ever.
In that sense, each of us is called to delight in our husband, to take joy in our relationship with Jesus, and be faithful to him. He came to save us, by living the perfect life, including in his sexual purity, to take away our sins, to divert us from the path to Sheol and set us on the path of life. If the iniquities of the wicked have ensnared us, and the cords of our sin hold us fast; Jesus came to loose our chains, to free us - not for sin, but to live for him.
As Paul writes to the Corinthians - ‘You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.’ Each of us, single or married, belong to God, bought by him. By his grace, let’s be aware of the sweetness of the trap, and steer clear, as we live out his wisdom and walk in his ways.
This sermon was preached at the Wisdom for Life Lent Midweek Series in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 25th February 2015.
Sunday, February 22, 2015
I used to work in a corner shop owned by a man called Jackie. On a Tuesday evening and a Saturday evening from 6.30 - 10.30, there was me and another teenager manning the shop. Besides serving customers, there were the shelves to keep stocked, and cleaning to do. Sometimes, there wasn’t much to do. The shop was quiet, the shelves were full, and all was clean. You’d have a bit of time to stand and chat, but you always had to be on the lookout. Not for customers, but for Jackie himself. At any moment he might pop in, through the front door or through the back door, just to see how things were going.
He wasn’t paying us to stand around talking (as he told us on more than one occasion!). When he was away, he expected us to work as if he were there. Some of my colleagues found it so tiring to work when he was there, and needed a rest once he had gone away again (only for him to have forgotten something and to walk back in, and find them lounging over the counter!). When the cat’s away, do the mice play?
We find ourselves in a similar situation in this morning’s reading. What will it look like to be a good servant, a faithful worker in God’s kingdom? Last week, you might remember, we looked at the greed of the man wanting a share of his brother’s inheritance. Jesus told the story of the foolish farmer who was rich, but not rich towards God. Jesus tells us to store up treasure in heaven, not on earth, by seeking God’s kingdom as our first priority.
This morning, we see what seeking God’s kingdom looks like. Jesus is pointing forward to the time after the cross and the resurrection, to the period after the ascension, when Jesus is no longer on the earth. His servants are here, keeping the business going. This is a word for us, for our time. Seeking God’s kingdom means watching and working while we wait for his return. Because Jesus will return. We just don’t know when.
So first, the watching. Imagine a big house, something like Downton Abbey. The master has gone away for the evening to a party. A wedding feast. There’s no indication of how long the party will go on, or how late the master will get home. But when he does get home, at whatever time, he expects his servants to be ready to greet him. To open the door when he knocks, to usher him in out of the cold. Alert, watching, waiting, ready. They’re not sleeping, or snoozing, they’re ready. There is a blessing for those watching servants.
It’s an unexpected blessing. You’d expect that the servants would have to do their job, make the master a bite of supper or a cup of tea, and get him ready for bed. but look at verse 37. The master caters for the servants. The master serves the servants. It’s unheard of! But we’re not in Downton anymore, we’re in the kingdom of God.
When Jesus returns, he himself will provide for and care for his servants. We’ll be welcomed to his wedding feast, given a place at the table, and given the best food to eat. All those who are watching and waiting for him - all who have longed for his appearing (2 Tim 4:8).
The only thing is that we don’t know when it will be. If you’ve ever had your house broken into, it’s a horrible experience. For someone to be in your space, looking at and taking away your things, it’s terrible. If you’d known when they were coming, you would have been ready for them, maybe with a poker or something stronger. But that’s the point. The thief doesn’t ring up and make an appointment. He doesn’t post a card to say I’ll be in your area on Tuesday morning, if it would be convenient to call? In the same way, Jesus says he is coming at an unexpected hour, so be ready. Watch for his coming, whenever it may be.
So are you ready? Are you watching for him eagerly? Ready to welcome him, and surprisingly to be served by him? When the Queen came to Enniskillen for her Jubilee service, the Rectory was made ready (and searched carefully by the security brief). The Dean had to be ready for her coming for morning coffee. The King of Kings has told us he is coming. Are we ready to receive him? Watch!
But as Jesus goes on (and doesn’t really seem to answer Peter’s question), he says that it’s not enough to watch, we also have to work while we wait for his return. The master has left us work to be getting on with. In school, when the teacher left the classroom, the work was forgotten until they appeared at the door, giving off about the noise! What about us? Will we be found at the master’s work when he returns? Again there’s a blessing involved (43).
The unfaithful servant, however, is in danger. He doesn’t care what the master said, he beats the other servants and eats and drinks and gets drunk, lording it over them. But whether he expects him or not, the master will return and deal with him. He’ll be punished, condemned, put with the unfaithful.
So what is the work the master has left us? At the end of this gospel, he sends the disciples out as his witnesses to all the nations. We have been given the job of sharing the good news, telling people about Jesus the Saviour of the World. Are we getting on with this task, or are we merely looking after ourselves and our own preferences?
Have we forgotten about the return of the Lord Jesus, given up on him, and happy to do what pleases us, with no thought of his judgement? You see, there are consequences to our obedience or disobedience. In verses 47-48, the people in view are all servants of the master. These aren’t strangers, these are servants. To know what he wants and to disobey is a serious offence, more serious than not knowing what he wants and doing the same.
In this way, this parable is probably for church leaders (in whatever role), as we take charge and feed the other servants. So pray - pray for those who lead in this congregation, in the organisations, in the diocese - pray for faithfulness, to keep to the work the master has allocated. Pray for focus, to keep on track.
The big message of this morning’s reading is that Jesus is coming. He will return. He wants to find us watching and working as we wait for his return. He has given us work to do, because he completed the work he had to do. He came two thousand years ago to bring fire to the earth. He had a baptism to be baptised with, a work that he had to do, a submersion that only he could do - to go down under the waters of death, to rise to new life. And while his death on the cross brings peace, Jesus says that he also brings division.
Not everyone welcomes Jesus. Not everyone serves Jesus. The division comes on the earth, between those who belong to Jesus, and those who reject him. But Jesus says that division can even be found in families. Households can be divided by him. Some become his servants, and work and watch for him. Others will reject him, refusing to serve him.
But remember where the blessing lies. The blessing is for those who serve the Servant King, who died to bring peace, who serves his servants in his paradise. Will you watch and work for him as you wait for him to return? Let’s pray.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 22nd February 2015.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
If you've ever watched The Sound of Music, you'll remember the moment when Maria is teaching the children how to sing. The song goes on about do a deer, a female deer (and so on). But before they get to that, they first hear these lines: 'Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, when you read you begin with ABC, when you sing you begin with Do-Re-Mi.' Before they start into intricate harmonies, they need to get the basics. By starting at the very beginning, they can then move on to everything else.
This Lent, we're going to learn from God's wisdom in the book of Proverbs. Over the course of the next few weeks, we'll see what God says about relationships, and work, and our use of the tongue, among other things. But before we get to those things, we need to start at the very beginning. Where does wisdom begin? What are the baby steps of being wise?
Most of the book of Proverbs are stand alone two-liners. They're collected together, and it's hard to see any rhyme or reason to their order. Some are by Solomon, some are by Lemuel, Agur, and others. It's a bit like a box of sweeties - you don't know what you'll get, the topics and themes vary, and you'll find something to catch your eye and chew over.
But the start of Proverbs is a sustained discussion. Chapters 1-9 are the words of instruction and teaching passed on from a father to his son. So, for example, in our second reading, we had the opening words 'My son, do not forget my teaching...' Solomon is teaching his son, training him for life, praising wisdom and warning against folly. But even before that, we get the purpose of the book of Proverbs. Here's what it's all about. It's all about wisdom, instruction, understanding, prudence, and guidance.
Everyone is in view. The simple in verse 4, and the youth. The wise are there as well in verse 5, so whatever you think of yourself; whatever others think of you; you are begin addressed. Here is wisdom to make you wiser, to grow in knowledge and insight. The school is open, if you will but listen. The Further Education Colleges are promoting life long learning, with courses to suit all tastes and personalities. Well here, Solomon is interested in lifelong learning. Whoever wants can come and listen and learn. But how are we going to do this? How can we start out in wisdom?
The whole introduction drives to its main point in verse 7: 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.' Knowledge begins with the fear of the Lord - and, as we heard at the start of the service 9:10 also says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom. Now when we hear those words, we maybe think of a shrinking back, fearful terror, the way some people are afraid of spiders or the dark or clowns (true story!). But when the Bible talks about 'the fear of the Lord' it's more an honouring, respecting, giving God his due place and glory.
Recently Stephen Fry has been making headlines for an interview he gave to Gay Byrne for an RTE programme broadcast a couple of weeks ago. In it he describes God as being 'an evil, capricious, monstrous maniac.' Fry is a celebrity intellectual, famous for his TV programme QI, in which he display his superior intelligence. Yet Solomon says that Stephen Fry hasn't even started in true wisdom, he hasn't got going with true knowledge. For all his brains, he actually despises wisdom and instruction from God.
As we launch into this time of Lent; as we listen in to God's wisdom, we're challenged straight away by the attitude of our heart. Will we bow before him in fear and awe? Or will we carry on, thinking we can become wise by ourselves, isolated from God?
The fear of the Lord is pictured in what may be the most famous verses from Proverbs. They were quoted to us at our wedding, and maybe even as yours as well. 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.' (Prov 3:5-6). Do you see how that fits with true wisdom? Bowing before the Lord, not leaning on your own understanding, acknowledging and depending on him displays this fear and respect.
Otherwise we're like the little child who wants to do everything for theirselves, only to realise after the mess has been made that they can't actually do it right. So often we can set out, we think we have all the answers, but then discover that things aren't as straightforward as they first appeared. When we get to that point, will we keep going, getting more and more tangled up, or will we confess our weakness, our folly, and turn to God for his wisdom?
Perhaps you're facing a situation at the moment. You're not sure where to turn or what to do. Solomon urges us to seek wisdom - not just any worldly wisdom, but God's wisdom. Turn to the creator, to the one who made us and knows us better than we know ourselves. Fear him, by bowing before him, and discover true wisdom - God's wisdom. That's the encouragement James, the brother of Jesus gives us in that last reading. If you lack wisdom, ask God, and he will generously give it.
Over the next few weeks, let's dive in to God's wisdom. There are 40 days in Lent, and 31 chapters of Proverbs, so even one chapter per day (with some days to catch up!) will get us through it this Lent. Let's bring ourselves to God, ask him to teach us, and discover his wisdom for life. Let's pray.
This sermon was preached at the Ash Wednesday Service in Aghavea Parish Church on 18th February 2015.
Friday, February 13, 2015
You would imagine that Jesus would like the religious people who were around in his day. They took the whole religion thing seriously. Yet the harshest words from Jesus' lips were directed towards the religious. Listen in to hear about the Woes of Religion, and how to answer them with relationship.
Sunday, February 08, 2015
It’s almost two years since the G8 came to Enniskillen. Alongside all the extra security and the influx of journalists, one part of the preparations made headline news. Right through the centre of town (and even in Brookeborough), there suddenly appeared all these fake shopfronts. On the outside, it looked like a thriving business; they livened the street up. But inside there was a derelict building. There were reports of people not looking closely, trying to get into the ‘cafe’, but there was nothing to eat. You’d go hungry depending on the picture on the outside.
Those fake shopfronts are a picture of the Pharisees and religious people Jesus meets in our reading today. On the outside, they look the business. They’re very impressive. They look very holy, very religious, very committed. But Jesus exposes the reality behind the front. He goes below the surface to see what they’re like underneath. At a meal in a Pharisee’s house, Jesus exposes the woes of religion.
Now that might sound strange. We think that Jesus would like the religious people, and that they would like him. But Jesus shows us that he’s not looking for outward religion which looks good but doesn’t change the heart. So let’s listen in, to see what the marks of outward religion are, to make sure that this isn’t us.
Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee. So he comes in, sits down, and starts to eat. The Pharisee is ‘amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner.’ (38). Now this isn’t just what you teach the kids, to wash their hands before dinner. The Pharisees had elaborate rules about ceremonial cleansing before eating, to show that they were clean and pure. But Jesus doesn’t bother with them. He takes his seat and starts to eat.
The Pharisee is amazed because this is something he always does. He always follows the rules. He always does it properly. And he expects Jesus to do the same. But this isn’t a rule in the Bible. It’s something the Pharisees made up for themselves to show how good and clean they were.
Jesus diagnoses the problem in verse 39: ‘You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.’ They make sure that they are clean on the outside, they put on a good front, but inside, they’re unclean. Like the fake shops, they look good on the outside, but inside they’re dirty and undone. They need to be clean on the inside too.
That leads Jesus to launch into the series of woes. These are the marks of outward religion. The first is concentrating on the wrong priorities. ‘Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God.’ (42) They focus on the law that says you have to tithe, give a tenth of all you get. So the Pharisees are out in their garden, carefully counting and cutting the mint leaves so that they give every tenth one to God. They’re meticulous - but they neglect something greater - justice for the oppressed, and love for God! Religion can get obsessed with the wrong priorities, and things that don’t matter as much.
Second, religion is more concerned with position and respect. And for those of us in robes, this is something to be listened to carefully. ‘Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marker-places.’ (43) Do we see religion as a way to be seen and respected, or are we serving God and sitting where it’s practical to lead the service from? It’s a heart issue. We need to see below the surface.
Third, outward religion makes other people unclean. To step on a grave was to make a person unclean. But an unmarked grave was a danger - you didn’t know you had stepped on it. Religion has a way of affecting others, leading them astray, without them realising.
At this point, one of the lawyers steps in. He’s watching the Pharisees get a hammering, and he’s offended on their behalf. So Jesus tackles the teachers of the law as well. Woe four: religion burdens people and doesn’t help them. By setting all these extra rules, it adds a burden to people trying to follow, but it doesn’t help them live for God!
Woe five: They honour the people who attacked the true spokesmen sent by God. Jesus mentions an A-Z of martyrs, Abel through to Zechariah, all of them sent by God, and all of them attacked and killed by the religious people who didn’t want to listen to what God was saying through them. It seems that there were loads of special tombs being erected for the prophets, but Jesus says that they’re really celebrating that these people are dead!
The final woe is that the key of knowledge is taken away. By making God’s word awkward and obscure, the lawyers don’t enter in to knowing God, and they make sure that no one else can either. The door is locked, and they’ve thrown away the key to stop people getting in.
The woes of religion: a focus on looking good, while being far from good. The Pharisees and scribes are furious and begin to be very hostile towards him. Towards the end of the passage, Jesus summarises the woes of religion in one word. Look at 12:1. ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees that is, their hypocrisy.’ Hypocrisy is like yeast - it spreads quickly, and affects everything it comes in contact with.
Perhaps you’ve invited people to church only to hear that they don’t want to come. That the people in church are all hypocrites. We need to hear the diagnosis of religion, to see if this is us. Are we like this? Jesus gives his disciples three ways to beware of hypocrisy; three answers to outward religion. Let’s look at them briefly.
First of all, fight hypocrisy with integrity. If hypocrisy is appearing to be one thing but actually being something else, then integrity is being the same all the time. ‘Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.’ So don’t let secrets flourish. Live in the light. Be open and honest. Let some people inside, to know the real you, not just the ‘you’ you show the world.
Secondly, don’t fear people, but fear God. Some of us live to please other people. Everything we do is for them, and what they will think of us. But don’t worry about their opinion. God is the one whose opinion matters - who can throw people into hell. But even as we fear him, remember that (at the same time) he loves you. If God knows about and cares about the sparrows, then how much more will he love you? So fear him, but don’t be afraid! Living to please God, in the light of his love transforms us.
And lastly, don’t be ashamed of Jesus. If we live as his people, if we acknowledge him; then he will acknowledge us. It’s not about being religious, and obeying a set of rules. It’s about being in relationship with Jesus, being connected to him.
The danger of religious hypocrisy is real - we can look good on a Sunday morning and be a terror through the week. But knowing God, being in relationship with him changes us, and helps us to live for him, knowing his love and care. ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy.’
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 8th February 2015.
Sunday, February 01, 2015
Have you ever been in the position where people don’t ‘get’ what you’re doing? You do something, perhaps you help someone, but the people watching on assume the worst. They reckon your motives are wrong. They get the wrong end of the stick. They only see the negative in your actions.
When we live for Jesus, we find that sometimes, people don’t like that. They start opposing you, when you’re only trying to help and do the best for other people. And you might wonder why that is. Why do people see evil motives when you’re trying to do good? Why do the knives come out when you’re seeking to follow Jesus?
This morning’s reading helps us to see that you’re not alone in those situations. The Lord himself was misunderstood, thought the worst of, and spoken evil of. But through it all, we discover another aspect of who Jesus is. This morning, we see that he is the stronger, something greater Saviour.
The trigger is something straightforward. Out of one verse, a simple driving out of a demon, so that a man who was mute could now speak, comes the rest of the passage. The exorcism displays Jesus’ power. This man couldn’t speak. He wasn’t able to sing, answer the phone, say goodnight to his family, or anything else. Jesus drove out the demon that was afflicting him. The man could speak, the crowd was amazed. We see Jesus’ power over demons.
But not everyone was happy. In verses 16-17 we see the two responses to the miracle. Some reckon that ‘He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons’ while others aren’t satisfied and want ‘a sign from heaven.’ We’ll take each of them in turn.
So first up, verse 15. ‘He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.’ This is the excuse that denies Jesus’ power. It seems that they were muttering among themselves, but Jesus knows what they’re thinking. Is Jesus really on the devil’s side? Is he working for his boss, Satan? Is that how he can move around the demons, like a demonic middle manager (maybe you’ve met one of those in your time...)? But that’s just silly. The man was made better by Jesus, there was deliverance here. As Jesus says, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert.’ A football team where the players tackle each other isn’t going to win games. If Jesus is working for Satan, and working against Satan, then Satan’s kingdom won’t stand either. We need another explanation for where Jesus gets his power from.
Look at verse 20: ‘But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.’ Away back in Exodus, the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt. God heard their cry, and sent Moses to rescue the people. He sent the ten plagues on Egypt - blood, frogs, gnats, flies, plague on livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn. After the first couple, the magicians of Egypt were able to do the same - although if your water had turned to blood, why you would want even more blood and not some water? But after the third one, in Exodus 8:19, they declare: ‘This is the finger of God!’ This is God’s doing. But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and wouldn’t relent, wouldn’t listen.
Jesus is saying that he is on God’s team, not Satan’s. Jesus’ power is the finger of God. He shows that God’s kingdom has come. And then he says this in a way we don’t expect to hear from Jesus. Look at verse 21. Picture a strong man living in his castle, fully armed, with his property under lock and key. Now imagine that a stronger man comes, attacks him, overpowers him, and takes away his armour and his property. At first glance, you don’t expect Jesus to talk about himself as this stronger man, coming and attacking. But this is what he has come to do. The devil has the world in his power. He holds us captive. He is the strong man. But Jesus is the stronger. He came to overpower the devil and take away what he owns.
[Jesus goes on to say that moral reform or self-effort isn’t enough. To get rid of a demon, whatever it is, by trying really hard isn’t enough, if you don’t then fill your life with Jesus. Otherwise, the demon returns, bringing others with it, making things worse.]
The excuse denied Jesus’ power. They reckoned he was working for the devil. But Jesus says that he has come to bring deliverance, the kingdom of God, by being the stronger man who defeats the devil. A woman in the crowd thinks this is great, and shouts a blessing on Jesus’ mother - wouldn’t it be great to have a son like him? But Jesus says that the blessing is rather for those who hear the word of God and obey it. It sits between these two objections perfectly - as he teaches who he is, and as he explains why he came - will we listen and obey and be blessed?
The first crowd reckoned he was working for the devil. But the second crowd ‘to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven.’ (16) The miracle they had seen wasn’t enough. They wanted something extraordinary; they demanded a sign of his power, like a magic trick. Then they would believe, or so they thought.
Perhaps we could be tempted to think the same. If God were to show up and do something extraordinary, then I would believe him. Then I would really follow. But Jesus says that this generation is an evil one for wanting signs. Instead, he points them to God’s word, to the sign for them, the sign of Jonah.
Now we all know the story of Jonah. He ended up in the belly of a fish because God said ‘Go’ and he said ‘No’. But after he came out of the fish, he did obey God, he came out of his deathly prison, had a resurrection of sorts, and proclaimed God’s word to Nineveh, that wicked city. As we heard in our first reading, they obeyed, they repented, and believed the message.
Yet this generation refuses to listen to Jesus! He points them to two stories in the Old Testament to show how wicked they are. The Queen of the South was a pagan queen who lived far away in Africa. Yet she travelled the whole way to Jerusalem because she heard of Solomon’s wisdom. The people around Jesus didn’t have to go anywhere, he was right there, yet they refused to listen to him. In the same way, the people of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s message, but the people of Jesus’ day wouldn’t repent when Jesus spoke to them.
But there’s a forward focus here. Jesus looks ahead. Do you see in verse 31? ‘The Queen of the South will rise at the judgement... and condemn... Nineveh will rise up at the judgement... and condemn.’ Yet something greater than Solomon and Jonah is here. The stronger, something greater Saviour is here. And they will not listen. They deny his power with excuses about working for the devil, or they demand his power in miraculous signs. They’re not satisfied with Jesus, yet he has come as the Saviour. He came to do good, but they only see it as evil. He came as the light, but they only see darkness.
And what about us? What do we make of Jesus and what he came to do? Will we look at him and say, the wrong sort of power, or not enough power? As we come to his table, let’s rejoice in our stronger, something greater Saviour, who has defeated the devil and sets us free.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 1st February 2015.