Sunday, February 23, 2020

Sermon: Jonah 4: 1-11 The Scandal of Grace

Previously in the story of Jonah... We watched how the word of the LORD came to Jonah, telling him to go to Nineveh, but Jonah said no, and set off in the opposite direction. A storm, and a sinking feeling, and swallowed by a great fish later, Jonah was back on dry land, rejoicing in God’s grace to him when he was under the sea.

And we watched in the last episode how the word of the LORD came to Jonah, telling him to go to Nineveh, and this time, Jonah obeyed. He preached his eight word epilogue, announcing that Nineveh’s days were numbered, and in that most unlikely way, revival broke out in the city. Everyone including the king donned sackcloth as a sign of mourning and repentance for their sin, and wondered if God would relent from his fierce anger.

And at the very end of chapter 3, we heard about the reprieve that Nineveh received: ‘When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.’ (3:10).

So, given all that has happened, how would you feel? And remember that Jonah is a prophet, someone sent to proclaim God’s word. And he’s seen people respond to God’s word, and trust in God. So how should he feel? Blessed? Rejoicing? Happy? Satisfied? All of the above?

It’s quite a shock then, to read the start of chapter 4: ‘But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.’ Well, those two options didn’t appear in our possible list of expected reactions. Rather than being delighted, he is displeased. Rather than being amazed, he is angry.

So what’s going on? Why does he feel this way? And what might God be teaching us through this reluctant and now angry prophet?

To help us to understand why Jonah feels this way (whether it’s right or not), let’s listen in to his prayer from verse 2 onwards: ‘O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ (2-3)

Jonah says he knew what was going to happen if he came to preach in Nineveh. While he was still at home, sitting in his comfy armchair, he said to himself what would happen. He knew that if he came to preach in Nineveh, then people would be saved, and turn away from their evil ways. And, perhaps surprising to us, that’s the reason why he was so quick to flee to Tarshish.

He didn’t want the revival to happen in Nineveh, he didn’t want the people of Nineveh to hear God’s word and turn to trust in God. And so he went quickly in the opposite direction. Can you believe that? It’s hard to take in, isn’t it?

Now, how could Jonah be so sure that the people of Nineveh would turn to God? How could he be sure of the revival he didn’t want to see happening? It’s because he knew God’s character - he knew what God was like.

Those words in verse 2 are words we find in various places in the Bible. We heard them in Psalm 145; they’re also in Exodus 34 (which we were thinking about this morning, as the glory of the LORD passed by Moses). And, while we’re used to praising God because of these characteristics, and we rejoice in his grace and compassion, his slowness to anger and his abounding love - it seems that these are almost seen in a negative light by Jonah.

He knows these things about God; he knows that God is always like this. He was glad to receive God’s grace and compassion himself when he was sinking under the sea; but he doesn’t want God to be gracious to anyone else. Especially not the Ninevites. And so he resisted bringing them the good news of God’s grace. In effect he was racist, even sectarian, as he tried to withhold God’s grace from his enemies.

And so, having been used by God to bring about revival in Nineveh; having seen God’s grace lavished on his enemies, he doesn’t want to see any more. Doesn’t want to live any more. Maybe can’t even face going back home and reporting on his mission trip. You did what? You saved a bunch of Assyrians?

But God invades his pity party with a piercing question: ‘Have you any right to be angry?’ (4) If we have received God’s grace, can we really withhold it from anybody else? if we have received God’s grace, can we draw lines around it to stop other people from also receiving it? Can we prevent God from being gracious to whoever he show his grace? Are there people you would be angry at if they received God’s grace? Or would you be angry at God if he was gracious to anyone?

It just might be that we are more like Jonah than we would like, or admit. And so God’s question comes to us as well: ‘Have you any right to be angry?’

There’s no answer to the question. Instead, Jonah takes up a grandstand view of the wrath he hopes will still fall. You know the way people position themselves for a fireworks display? Jonah sits down outside the city, ‘and waited to see what would happen to the city.’ (5)

All the way through the book, we’ve seen how God has sent or appointed or provided lots of different things. There just so happened to be a boat going where Jonah wanted to go. (1:3) He sent a great wind on the sea. (1:4) He provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. (1:17) Now, in quick succession, the Lord provides three more things for Jonah.

First of all, there’s the vine. It doesn’t need plant food, especially not the one called Miracle-Gro, but it is a miraculous growth - growing up over Jonah’s head to give him shade, to ease his discomfort. Jonah’s very happy about it.

But then, the next morning, God provided a worm. And the worm was very happy, chewing on the vine, so that it withered away. But Jonah was less happy. His shade had gone.

And that was emphasised by the next thing God provided - a scorching east wind, on top of the sun blazing down on Jonah’s head. He was faint, he wanted to die, for, as he says again: ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’ (8)

And God responds with the same question again: ‘Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?’ (9) To which Jonah is on the war path - ‘I do, I am angry enough to die.’

Poor Jonah! Angry about what has happened in Nineveh, and angry about what has happened outside of Nineveh. Always angry! But the gracious God speaks to him with words of grace and challenge; trying to turn him around, so that he again will rejoice in God’s grace, and see things from God’s perspective.

‘You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight.’ Jonah was all concerned about this plant. He hadn’t done anything to plant it, or make it grow. It had only lasted a day. And yet he was concerned about it, and angry over it. He was concerned about the vine, and yet he wasn’t concerned about the flesh and blood people of Nineveh, people made in God’s image, people God cared about.

And here’s how God finishes his speech (and indeed finishes the book): ‘But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?’ (11)

He’s challenging Jonah to see the city the way he sees it. Over a hundred and twenty thousand people, who don’t know whether they’re coming or going. They have no spiritual awareness. Shouldn’t God care for them as well?

And that’s where the book ends. The unanswered question is left the reader to answer. We’re left wondering what Jonah’s response was. It’s a bit like the end of the parable of the prodigal son, isn’t it? The younger brother has come home, the party is ongoing, and the older brother is outside, with the father appealing for him to come in and join the party. But we’re not told. The invitation is left without resolution.

What about us? What about you? Is God’s grace something wonderful for you? Or is God’s grace something scandalous to you?

Have we got Ninevites that we don’t want to be saved by God’s grace? Are there borders or limits on God’s grace? That’s the question that God asks Jonah, and is asking us tonight.

So let’s be still for a moment, as we consider that, in God’s presence, before we pray together.

Lord God, we thank you for your grace. We thank you that you have reached for us and saved us. Thank you that everyone who believes in you receives forgiveness of sins. Help us to see people as you see them; and to share your grace with everyone we meet; in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 23rd February 2020.

Sermon: Mark 6: 45-56 Who is Jesus? Water Walker

It won’t be long until Jamie starts to do jigsaw puzzles. Starting with the small number of big pieces, and then with smaller pieces but more of them, he’ll build up the puzzle until he’s able to see the finished picture. At the start, there’s just a jumbled pile of pieces, but by the end, the picture is clear and obvious. Now, normally, when you’re building up a jigsaw puzzle you can see the picture on the box, but it’s much harder if you’re trying to build it without knowing what it’s meant to be.

That’s sort of what’s happening in this section of Mark’s gospel. The disciples have been asking ‘who is Jesus?’ and they’ve got lots of puzzle pieces, and they’re trying to piece together just who Jesus is. But they haven’t quite managed it yet.

They’ve seen Jesus heal people, and drive out demons, and teach, and calm the wind and the waves with a word, and raise a dead girl, and so much more. So they’ve all these pieces, all these clues, but they haven’t put them together yet. They haven’t joined the dots.

But I don’t need to tell you that it’s much harder to get things done when you’re sleep-deprived or even just very tired. Jigsaws, or normal everyday life, or thinking straight can be more difficult when you haven’t slept. And that’s what we see here in today’s reading. The disciples are getting more puzzle pieces to put together, more clues as to who Jesus is, but they still can’t work it out, and all the more so because of everything that’s been happening.

I’m sure you’ve had days when you get to the end of them and you think - did all that happen in one day? So much going on, so much you’ve been through, and it was all in twenty-four hours. Well, put yourself in the sandals of the disciples for a moment or two.

Earlier in Mark 6, they had been sent out by Jesus to teach and heal and drive out demons - the things that Jesus had been doing. And at the start of this day in question, they had come back to Jesus and reported all that they had been doing. (30). But there were so many people about that Jesus, caring for the disciples, took them by boat to what was going to be a quiet place to get some rest. Except, the crowds were there before them, and it was as busy as ever around Jesus. So Jesus cared for the crowds (as the good shepherd for these sheep without a shepherd), and then cared for the crowd using the disciples, as he fed the five thousand men (plus women and children) from just five loaves and two fish.

So if you’ve put your feet in the disciples’ sandals, they’re probably warm, and sore, and a bit sweaty, after you’ve been walking through this big crowd, catering for their needs, bringing them bread and fish until they’re all full. And there’s no break afterwards, as we see in verse 45 of our reading. Dinner has been served, and the clearing up has happened, and ‘immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd.’

But they’re not on a cruise liner with good food and entertainment and sunloungers aplenty. They’re in a wee boat, in a big storm. Look at verse 48. Jesus is on the land, having been praying alone on the mountain, and he sees ‘the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them.’ This isn’t row, row, row your boat gently down the stream. This is row hard, straining at the oars, trying to make progress against a strong headwind. After all they’ve already been through that day.

And then, around the fourth watch of the night (between 3am and 6am), they catch a glimpse of something seemingly walking on the lake. Tiredness might make you hallucinate, but they all see this figure, maybe a ghost? And they cried out, because they were terrified!

But it wasn’t a ghost. It was Jesus, walking on the water. Now that should be a big clue as to who Jesus is - because it’s just not possible for any of us to walk on water (when it isn’t frozen into ice). And it’s definitely not icy - the disciples were straining at the oars; but also, it isn’t calm and flat - the wind is up, the waves would be rough - and yet Jesus is walking on the water.

There are two other clues to Jesus’ identity in the way Mark tells this story. Look again at the end of verse 48. Did you notice this when it was read? ‘About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them...’

What’s that about?! Jesus is out walking on the lake, and he wasn’t even going to the boat, he was going to pass by them. That’s an echo of something that happened a few times in the Old Testament - to Moses and Elijah - when God passed by them; showing them his glory.

So in Exodus 34, the glory of the LORD passed by Moses, as God’s name and character were revealed to him - ‘The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness...’ (Ex 34:6). And in our reading from 1 Kings 19, the LORD passes by the disheartened prophet Elijah, revealing his presence and recommissioning him for service. In each case, the encounter is marked by the LORD passing by, revealing his identity and glory. And that’s what Jesus is revealing, as he is about to pass by the frightened disciples.

But there’s one more clue, one more puzzle piece for the disciples, and that’s in what Jesus says to them in verse 50: ‘Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”’ Those are words of reassurance, of comfort - words that you often hear when God appears to someone in the Bible. But the middle phrase has a deeper meaning. You see, Jesus isn’t just saying, it’s ok, It’s me, I’m here. He is saying that, but he’s saying more than that.

You see, the words he uses literally mean ‘I am’ - the way that God introduces himself to Moses in Exodus 3 at the burning bush: ‘God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”’ (Ex 3:14)

Do you see the puzzle pieces they are holding in their hands? Jesus has fed people miraculously giving them bread in a remote place - just as God did in the wilderness in Exodus 16. Jesus has walked on the water - which is something only God can do. Jesus was about to pass by - which is what God did in the Old Testament. And Jesus uses God’s name as his own form of address as he says, ‘I am.’

The disciples have all the puzzle pieces; they have enough to put it all together and work it out; it seems so obvious. And yet they still don’t get it. They still can’t grasp who Jesus is. Why is that? Why might it be when you’ve talked to a friend, and you’ve told them about Jesus, and you’ve answered their questions and explained about who he is and why he came and how much he loves them, and yet they still don’t grasp it for themselves? Why do people sometimes not get it, even when it seems plain and clear and obvious?

‘They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.’ (51-52) The disciples had all the information they needed, but they still don’t get it because their hearts were hardened. It’s not that they couldn’t see - they just wouldn’t see. Even when they had been part of the miracle, and had seen Jesus in action up close, they still weren’t getting it.

Perhaps you are getting frustrated with the disciples by now. Or getting frustrated with your friends or family who aren’t getting it. Yet here we see that Jesus is patient with these slow learners. He doesn’t give up on them; he continues to show them who he is, bit by bit and step by step. And we ought to give thanks for that - because we can be slow to learn and slow to recognise Jesus too.

What pieces of the puzzle do you have? Which bits of Jesus’ identity have you seen and heard? And how do you put them together?Are you forming this picture of who Jesus is?

The irony of the very last verses of our reading today is that while the disciples still don’t recognise Jesus for who he is, the people of Gennesaret (who haven’t been up close and personal in the midst of the storm, and who haven’t seen Jesus walk on water) - they know who Jesus is. They recognise him and immediately run through the region to bring everyone who was sick. They recognise Jesus - if only as healer - while the disciples are still struggling to work him out.

Today, as we baptise Jamie, our prayer is that he will grow up to get to know Jesus, to recognise him as his Saviour, and God, and friend. And it’s our prayer for each of us gathered here today. We don’t need to have everything worked out, and every detail absolutely covered before we commit - hopefully the puzzle pieces we do have show us enough of Jesus to know that he is Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, who came to save us. Who still speaks those words of comfort and assurance because he has paid the penalty for our sins, and died on the cross for us, and comes to us to say: ‘Take courage, I am. Don’t be afraid.’

Together we are getting to know Jesus better, as we encourage one another, and help one another to grow in faith in God, and knowledge of God, and love for God.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 23rd February 2020.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sermon: Jonah 3: 1-10 Revival in Nineveh

Deja vu is the feeling that you’ve lived through the present experience before.

Deja vu is the feeling that you’ve lived through the present experience before. Sorry, I couldn’t resist it! But you could be tempted to think that we’ve been here before, as we open up to Jonah chapter 3 on page 928.

You see, for a second time, the word of the Lord comes to Jonah. And for the second time, the word of the Lord sends Jonah to Nineveh. The first time had come back in chapter 1, when God said ‘Go’ and Jonah said ‘No’. Since that moment, Jonah went on the run from God, onto a boat going the opposite direction from his God-given mission, into a storm, and ultimately into the belly of the great fish.

Even in Jonah’s rebellion, God has been in control - so that this most reluctant prophet witnessed to the pagan sailors (who then turned to worship the one true living God of heaven who made the sea and the land); and God had appointed the great fish to rescue Jonah from a watery grave. After three days in the fish, Jonah must have been stinking to high heaven, and was vomited out onto dry land.

We see God’s grace in action right from the start of this chapter. God’s word comes a second time to Jonah. God is the God of the second chance. Have you found that out yourself? You’ve messed up; you come back to the Lord; and he welcomes you in, again and again - for the second time, and the twenty-second time, and the hundred and second time.

And notice that God doesn’t mention what has come before. He doesn’t say, now Jonah, you remember what happened last time, so get it right this time. You see, with God, our past is gone, forgiven and forgotten, and never more to be remembered or cast up. No, it’s almost as if this is the first time God has mentioned Nineveh to Jonah.

And so God sends Jonah with these words: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’ (2) God has a message for Nineveh and Jonah is his chosen messenger.

So what will happen this time? Last time around, God said Go and Jonah said No. What will he do now that he has heard God’s sending all over again? Well we see the answer in verse 3: ‘Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh.’ Phew! What a relief! This time he obeyed God’s call, and went to where he was meant to go.

And we’re told a little bit about the city to which he had travelled. ‘Now Nineveh was a very important city - a visit required three days.’ (3) You can almost hear the travel agent’s sales pitch, can’t you? For a proper city break experience you’d need three whole days in it. One or two days wouldn’t be enough. To see the sights you need to have three days.

You can imagine the size of it; the importance of it; how amazing it would have been to be there. But remember Jonah isn’t there for a city break; he isn’t there to see the sights from the open-top bus tour; in fact, he wouldn’t have chosen to go there at all. You see, Nineveh is the capital city of one of the hostile superpowers of the day. Going to Nineveh is going into the heart of enemy territory. Pagan territory.

And it’s to this hostile place, enemy territory, that Jonah has been sent by God, with a message to proclaim. And he doesn’t waste any time. On his first day, he starts into the city and proclaims a message. The message we hear in verse 4: ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.’

What about that for a sermon? It’s short and snappy, but it’s all doom and gloom. The countdown clock has begun. Forty days, and Nineveh will be overturned (or overthrown). It’s the same word used to describe what had happened to Sodom and Gomorrah.

So what do you make of his proclamation? Before, when I read his message, I used to think - Jonah really doesn’t like the Ninevites, and he says as little as possible, and offers no hope, and wants them to be overthrown. He’s a reluctant prophet and he’s reluctantly there, so he doesn’t waste much of his breath on them.

But look back to verse 2. ‘Proclaim to it the message I give you.’ Is it that Jonah is like a huffy toddler; or is he actually being faithful this time, even in the sparsity of the message? Perhaps I was being too hard on him. Either way, the message has been proclaimed in the streets of Nineveh. The question is, what will happen next?

You can imagine what would happen these days if someone proclaimed this message in the streets of Portadown or Armagh, in Belfast or London. They’d either be laughed at, or ignored, or locked up. But that’s not what happened in Nineveh. Do you see their response in verse 5?

‘The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.’

While the message didn’t say much, and didn’t offer much or any hope, the Ninevites believed this word of the Lord. They believed God, by taking him at his word, believing what he said to be true, and taking action based on what he had said.

Their response is seen in their fasting and their sackcloth. These are signs of mourning for their sin, of repentance. And their repentance goes all the way to the very top, to the king of Nineveh himself. There he is, seated on his throne in his royal robes. And then there he is, covered in sackcloth, sitting in the dust. Even the king has humbled himself, numbering himself with his people, seeking God’s mercy.

The king sets an example of fasting and repentance. And then he issues his own proclamation in response to the proclamation of Jonah:

‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone urgently call on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.’ (7-8)

Here’s what revival in Nineveh looks like, by order of the king. Did you notice there are five ‘lets’ - two negative and three positive. First, negatively, do not let man or beast, herd or flock taste anything, eat or drink. So to show their seriousness, they are abstaining from food and drink.

And then positively, they are to let man and beast be covered with sackcloth; they are to let everyone urgently call on God; they are to give up their evil ways and violence. They’re turning away from their sin and turning towards God, calling on him for mercy.

And yet, as his proclamation goes on, he’s just not sure what might happen. He has no assurance that God will respond to their cries for mercy. Do you see what he says there in verse 9? ‘Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.’

He’s not sure if God will be merciful, but he hopes it will be the case. Who knows? Who does know? Jonah knows! Jonah knows this personally - that when he cried to the Lord from under the sea, the Lord saved him and showed him amazing grace. Jonah also knows this because he has heard about the pagan sailors who cried to the Lord and received his amazing grace. Jonah knows this, but he hasn’t communicated it to the Ninevites!

They’re hoping that God might relent, might have compassion on them, so that they don’t perish. But they don’t know for sure! I wonder, could we be like Jonah? What’s the message we communicate about God? Are there bits we fail to mention? Do we miss out the ‘good’ bit of the good news?

So the Ninevites are unsure about God’s grace. But then they experience it in full measure in verse 10: ‘When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.’

How amazing God’s grace is! He showers his saving grace on this city of his enemies, having compassion on them, not bringing the destruction they deserved. Do you recognise yourself in this picture? If you’re trusting in Jesus, then you are a Ninevite! We too were in the path of destruction. We too faced God’s wrath. But he has had compassion on us, and has given us the grace to turn to him from our sin, and to find his salvation.

How amazing is God’s love, that while we were still his enemies, Christ died for us, to make us his friends. And that’s what we remember and celebrate tonight, as we gather at his table, as we remember the king who stepped down from his royal throne, who was stripped, and beaten, and brought low - for us and our salvation.

This is the blessing for all who hear and repent. Yet Jesus takes up the story of Jonah, and points to the sign of Jonah. You see, the people of Nineveh repented when they heard Jonah’s preaching (even such as it was). But the people of Jesus’ day, with someone greater than Jonah preaching to them, refused to listen, refused to repent. May it never be true of us - that we have heard Jesus’ teaching, and we have turned away.

Jonah eventually obeys, bringing God’s word to a lost and needy world. We too have been entrusted with a message, with the good news of the gospel, of the God who will answer all who call on him. How can we remain silent?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 16th February 2020.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Sermon: Mark 6: 30-44 Who is Jesus? Provider (1)

Have you ever wondered to yourself: Does God really care about me? I mean, there are so many people in the world, with so many needs and wants, does God care about me? Yes, I know that God loves me - he loves everybody after all, but does he care about me?

This morning I hope you’ll see that Jesus cares about you - because he cares about his disciples; and he cares about the crowd; and he cares for the crowd through his disciples.

So first of all, Jesus cares about his disciples. I’m sure you’re well used to the idea of catching up with someone - you haven’t seen them for a while, or just all day, and so you find out what they’ve been up to. So the boys and girls get home from school and you ask ‘what did you learn in school today?’ Or you get in from work - how did you get on today? Or you meet a friend for coffee - what have you been up to? That’s what’s happening here in verse 30.

You see, to understand verse 30, we need a flashback; like in the start of each episode in a TV series - previously on... If you glance to the previous page, you’ll see that Jesus had sent the Twelve out, two by two, in verse 7. We get a summary of what they had been up to in verse 12-13 - preaching that people should repent, driving out demons, anointing and healing people. That’s what they had been up to. But now in verse 30, they’re back with Jesus, and they report to him all they had done and taught.

You can imagine that, with the summary we get, that they would be as excited as children coming in on a Monday to tell their teacher everything they got up to over the weekend. Or the Paraguay team will be when we get back at the end of April. They’re definitely excited, and they’re probably tired as well. And it’s busy. ‘Because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”’ (31)

Jesus knows what they need - peace and quiet and rest. You see, Jesus doesn’t just care for our souls - he cares for all of us. He knows that we need to rest and recover, that we can’t be on the go all the time. And so he cares for his disciples. And it’s Jesus who will care for them - did you notice? They weren’t just being sent off by themselves; they were invited to come and rest with Jesus, to find in him their rest, because he cares for them.

Jesus cares about his disciples. Are you experiencing that today? You see, we can be so busy working for the Lord, that we neglect to take time out with the Lord. We can get caught up in the cares of our particular ministries and service, that we forget that the Lord cares for us. That we can feel guilty to be resting. But Jesus cares about his disciples - and he cares about you if you’re following him today.

Now, have you ever had that moment where you’re away on holiday, and you bump into somebody you know? A few years back, we were in New York on holiday, just walking up the street, and who should be coming the other way, only two other Church of Ireland ministers! They were there for a conference. And we thought - you can go nowhere!

Well here, Jesus and the disciples set off in the boat, going to a solitary place. Somewhere nice and quiet. Get a bit of peace. Some time off. But it didn’t work out that way. You see, the sea of Galilee wasn’t that big, and as Jesus and the disciples sail along, the crowd spot them going, and can run around the shore, and be there before them! So much for a quiet time!

So, how would you finish this sentence: ‘When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he...’ What do you think? What would you do? He groaned inwardly and thought, so much for a quiet time. Or, he jumped back in the boat and they sailed away again. Or, he told them all to go away and leave them alone. Much as we might be tempted to do one or all three of those, that’s not what Jesus did.

Do you see how the sentence ends? ‘When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.’ (34)

Jesus cares about the crowd. He has compassion on them. He feels for them. And why does he do that? Because they were like sheep without a shepherd. They were lost. Bewildered. And he cares for them, because he is the shepherd Lord.

And the way he cares for the crowd, and guides them, is by teaching them. These sheep without a shepherd hear the shepherd’s voice calling to them.

Sheep without a shepherd. Could that describe the people you come into contact with every day? The people you share an office with; the people you meet in your work. People who need to hear the shepherd’s voice calling them, guiding them. Could that be you today? Jesus came to be your shepherd, to lead and guide you. He cares for you. He has compassion on you. Can you hear him calling you?

Jesus cares about his disciples. Jesus cares about the crowds. But it seems that the disciples don’t care about the crowds. You see, it’s getting late, and they urge Jesus to send the people away. Tell them to go off and get themselves something to eat. It’s very practical, and you could even argue, compassionate - the disciples don’t want the crowds getting hungry, so send them away to sort themselves out.

And then Jesus says those incredible words in verse 37: ‘You give them something to eat.’ The disciples are quick to jump in with the absurdity of the situation: ‘That would take eight months of a man’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?’ (37)

That’s a huge amount of money, for one meal. And the disciples can’t get over the thought of it. They’re thinking practically, Humanly. It’s as if they’ve forgotten what they’ve just been doing in their preaching, healing, driving out demons mission trip. It’s as if they’ve forgotten all that they’ve already seen Jesus do. It’s as if they still haven’t realised who Jesus is - not just an ordinary man, but Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.

Jesus will care for the crowd through his disciples. He’s already indicated that by telling the disciples to feed the crowd. So then he asks them what they have. That’s where we start. Not by thinking about what we don’t have - as if we think, oh, we would need this and this and this before we could start to make a difference. No, Jesus asks them what they have. However small.

It turns out they have five loaves and two fish. Don’t think of a pan loaf, though, this is more like a wee bap or a wee bread roll. It seems so small, so insignificant, when faced with such a great need. But Jesus can use the little we have in amazing ways. And he cares for the crowd through his disciples. And so he gets them to get the crowd sitting down, ready to eat. This vast open air dining room, as the sheep without a shepherd sit down on the green pastures.

Jesus takes the loaves and the fish, gives thanks, breaks them, and gives them to the disciples to set before the people. Those verbs (action words) are the same words in the same order as at the Lord’s supper. Taking, giving thanks, breaking, and giving. Jesus is supplying the peoples’ need, caring for the crowd through his disciples.

And his grace supplies abundantly, even more than enough. From just five little loaves and two fish, the whole crowd ate and was satisfied. They had their fill. But grace supplied even more - twelve baskets of broken pieces of bread and fish. The original amount wouldn’t have filled one basket, but now there are twelve baskets of leftovers. And that after the five thousand men (and however many women and children) had eaten.

We asked the question at the start: Does God really care about me? What do you think? We’ve seen how Jesus cares about his disciples - not a slave driver, but the Master who cares about rest and refreshment for his gospel workers. We’ve seen how Jesus cares about the crowd, having compassion on them because he is the shepherd Lord, who cares about the shepherd-less sheep. And we’ve seen how Jesus cares for the crowd through his disciples, using the little they have to multiply and magnify his abundant grace.

Jesus cares about you, whoever you are. He loves you so much that he came into this world to care for you. The bread, broken into pieces, would be taken again by his disciples on the night before Jesus died on the cross - his body, broken to satisfy the penalty our sins deserve. He offers you his shepherd care today. He’s calling you to come and be with him, to know the Lord as your shepherd today, and all your days, and for evermore.

That’s our prayer today for Charlotte and Freddie. And it’s our prayer for all of us gathered here - that we’ll hear the shepherd’s voice, and know the shepherd’s compassion, and receive the shepherd’s rescue - that we’ll commit as his disciples, and be used by him to care for the crowd.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 9th February 2019.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Sermon: Mark 6:14-29 Who is Jesus? Baptist's Back?

Who is Jesus? If you type that question into Google, there are 1.7billion results; 1.7billion web pages seeking to answer that question. But the question didn’t begin with the internet age. Rather, it’s a question that has been asked since Jesus began his earthly ministry about 2000 years ago. And, as we can see in our reading today, it’s a question that has always, from the beginning, produced many different answers.

With the disciples, we’ve been asking that question this term, as we journey through Mark’s gospel, as we listen and watch as Jesus teaches and heals and performs miracles. This morning, we get to hear some of the answers that people are coming up with as they ask that same question: Who is Jesus?

But before we dive in to the passage itself, it might be helpful to take a step back, and recognise that this seems to be a strange sort of passage. Perhaps you noticed the strangeness when Mary announced the reading with these words: ‘Hear the gospel of our Saviour Christ...’ and concluded it with the words: ‘This is the gospel of the Lord.’ It seems strange to say or hear those words when, apart from one mention in passing, the passage doesn’t really feature Jesus. In fact, the passage as a whole is more about John the Baptist, and what happened to him.

Yet it’s still the gospel of the Lord, our Saviour Christ. John is a servant of the Lord, a servant of the gospel, and as he points to Jesus, he shows us what it might look like to be faithful to Jesus. And that brings us back to the question of the hour, the question of all of time: who is Jesus?

Google will give you 1.7 billion answers. In our passage today, we hear of three popular answers. It’s a bit like on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and they ask the audience. Everyone gets to vote on which of the four answers they think is the right one. So who is Jesus?

Well some people in verse 14 say that Jesus is John the Baptist raised from the dead. Others say that Jesus is Elijah - a famous prophet from the Old Testament, who would come to prepare the way for the Lord. And others claim he is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago. Three different answers, different opinions about who Jesus is. What do you think of them? Are any of them convincing, based on what we’ve already seen of Jesus in Mark’s gospel?

The first one is obviously wrong - after all, John had baptised Jesus back in 1:10. They’re two different people. And as for the second, Elijah comes to prepare the way for the Lord, but Jesus himself is the Lord, whose way is prepared for him by the Elijah - John the Baptist. So the first two options are wrong. Now, the third gets closer to the mark. Jesus described himself last time as a prophet without honour in his hometown. And he is prophetic, but he’s much more than a prophet (as Mark has told us in 1:1 - Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God).

So the people are coming up with possible ideas about who Jesus is, but they’re all wide of the mark. And among them is none other than King Herod. He was the ruler of the province of Galilee, and son of the King Herod who had ordered the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem when Jesus had been born. And Herod heard about all that Jesus was doing - and how his disciples were going two by two among the villages preaching, healing people and driving out demons.

And what does Herod think when he hears of the name of Jesus which is now well known? ‘John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!’ (16) Herod is almost haunted with the thought that John the Baptist is back from the dead.

Now that immediately raises questions for us. You see, the last we heard of John had been back in 1:14. It was after John had been put in prison that Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. But now we hear that he has died - been beheaded by Herod. So how did all that come about? That’s what Mark tells us in the rest of our passage.

It was Herod who had ordered for John to be arrested, bound, and put in prison. And why did that happen? ‘He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married.’ (17)

Herod was married to someone else, and Herodias (who turned out to be his niece), was married to Herod’s brother. But Herod got rid of his wife, and Herodias divorced Philip, and Herod and Herodias married. In the old BCP (1926), there was a Table of Kindred and Affinity. It set out who could not get married, because they were related. And Herod and Herodias’ relationship was also forbidden (Lev 18:16, 20:21). And John told Herod this, to his face: ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ (18)

John spoke the truth of God’s word to the people in power, the people who thought they could do what they wanted. Herodias hated John for it, held a grudge against him and wanted to kill him. But Herod was more complicated. He heard what John said, and while he didn’t like it, he was still captivated in some way by John.

We’re told that he feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. And we’re told that when he heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. (20)

Herod is caught in a dilemma. He likes to hear what John has to say. But he doesn’t want to do it - because he likes living in his sinful rebellion even more. He knows that John is a man of God, but doesn’t want that for himself - because he likes being Herodias’ man even more. He’s being challenged to repent, to turn to God, to give up his sin. But Herod thinks he’s in control of the situation. He holds the keys that keep John locked up. But it turns out that Herod is more of a prisoner than John is. Herod is in bondage to his sin, and is imprisoned because of his desires. And he has lost control of the whole situation.

It all comes to a head on Herod’s birthday. He throws a big banquet for his high officials, military commanders, and the leading men of the region. It must have been a boozy affair, and then Herodias’ daughter comes in to dance for the men. Now, it wasn’t that she did a ceilidh dance - something respectable. The subtext is that this was a provocative, lustful kind of dance. Highly inappropriate - and even more so because this is Herod’s step-daughter and niece. Yet he’s so impressed that he offers her whatever she wants - and swears it on oath, even up to half his kingdom.

The girl goes to her mother, and her mother knows exactly what she wants. John’s head. And the girl shows she is her mother’s daughter, by wanting it on a platter. Right now.

Herod was ‘greatly distressed’ (26) by the request. He didn’t want to do it, yet because of his oaths and his guests, he didn’t want to lose face, and so he gave the order. And straight away, John was beheaded. The voice of God’s servant to him was silenced, without so much as a final word or even a farewell.

It’s no wonder that Herod was fearful that John had been raised from the dead when he heard of the miracles of Jesus. Was it his guilty conscience pricking as he remembered what he had done to that righteous and holy man John? How he had chosen to side with Herodias and his sin, rather than John and God’s word?

We can know the right path; we can be called to it time and again; and yet choose to go our own way. And with Herod, it wasn’t a temporary stumble into sin, or a momentary lapse. It was a headlong, deliberate choice to go his own way, fully knowing how wrong his path was. He liked to listen to John the Baptist, but it didn’t change his mind or his heart or his ways. He thought he could sort out his sins some other time. And that’s a dangerous path to go down.

You see, later on, Herod greatly desired to meet this Jesus. He had heard so much about him, and wanted to see him perform a miracle for him. Luke tells us about the meeting in Luke 23:8-12. Herod had many questions for Jesus, but ‘Jesus gave him no answer.’ And then Herod ridiculed and mocked him. As Sinclair Ferguson writes: ‘Having rejected the preaching of John, he ended life ridiculing the One whom John had said was greater than himself. In the end, God had no more to say to Herod.’ (p117)

Herod shows us the danger of hearing God’s word and doing nothing about it; of loving to hear preaching, but loving our sin even more. Could that be a description of (some of) us? We think that we’ll repent some day - but that some day may never come. Today is the day of salvation! Don’t delay any more if this is you!

John shows us what it means to serve God as we point to Jesus - speaking truth to power, even saying the uncomfortable things, no matter what the cost. John didn’t water down his message, didn’t change it so that his hearers would like it better; didn’t say to himself that times change and we need to be relevant to the culture and sure everybody’s doing it these days. He was faithful - even though it cost him his head.

And in one sense, we’re no further on in our quest to answer the question of who Jesus is. The three answers provided are either wrong, or not fully complete. But Jesus is not just a prophet; and he’s not Elijah; and he’s not John the Baptist brought back to life. Jesus is the one who was raised to life. The day after his meeting with Herod, Jesus was crucified, dying to take away our sins, bearing our burden on his back. And on the third day, Jesus rose again, triumphing over sin and death and hell - rising to give us the assurance of life with him; life for all who will repent, and turn from their sin, and trust in him as their Saviour. What a wonderful name, the name of Jesus - the only name given to us by which we must be saved. Are you trusting him today?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 2nd February 2020.