As I think back over this year what strikes me is that it’s been a particularly TOUGH ONE for LOTS of people I know. Significant illness, and even deaths, among close family members. Daily struggles in areas that don’t seem to get better from one month to the next. Difficult situations that don’t seem to have any simple answers. Things that rob you of sleep, that cause you to worry, and perhaps even to doubt what God’s got planned for you.
And when we go through those sorts of times, it’s easy to have the nagging doubt that says, “Surely it’s not meant to BE like this. Surely for Christians, things should be a bit EASIER. And there should be some sort of guarantee of better things.”
And it’s even MORE of a nagging doubt when you’re actually suffering because you’re A CHRISTIAN. Suffering injustice directly BECAUSE of your faith.
Last Saturday a Pakistani court sentenced Aasya Noreen to death for allegedly defaming the prophet Mohammed. The Christian mother of five was talking to her Muslim co-workers in the field as they tried to convince her to renounce Christianity. The disagreement led to the local Muslim cleric filing charges. And finished in her sentencing to death by hanging.
You hear these things, and you shake your head and think, surely it should be better than this!
On the 22nd October this year, in Bhutan, the Christian Prem Singh Gurung was sentenced to THREE YEARS IMPRISONMENT for showing the Jesus film.
Or on June 16 this year, the Iranian Christian pastor Behrouz Sadegh-Khandjani was arrested for the third time in four years. He’d been writing letters of protest to the government about the imprisonment of fellow believers. He attended a meeting with officials he’d requested to discuss his concerns, but he was arrested instead. He’s still in prison.
You hear these things, and you shake your head and think, surely there’s got to be some BENEFITS from being a Christian. If Jesus really IS the king of kings. If he really DOES rule over every authority in heaven and on earth. Then why don’t we SEE some of that victory?
John the Baptist
And it’s just these sorts of doubts that are swirling around in the head of John the Baptist in Matthew ch 11. He’s stuck in prison, and, in v3, he sends his disciples to Jesus with a question. “Are you the one to come, or should we expect someone else?”
In other words, “Have I backed the wrong horse?”
I’ve never placed a bet in my life, but I understand that in this year’s Melbourne Cup So You Think was the shortest priced favourite for twenty years. A sure bet. As good as printing money. Or so the PUNTERS thought. Except it DIDN’T win. And the punters lost their money.
And John’s wondering whether he’s in the same boat. Whether he’s backed a dud.
Back in Ch 3, he was talking Jesus up to everyone who’d listen. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. Jesus is coming! Prepare the way for the Lord.”
And John had been reading prophecies like Isaiah Ch 4, and he knew there’d be judgment and justice and retribution for the wicked. And Jesus was the one with the big stick to make it happen. He says this about Jesus in v11.
But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
And John can’t WAIT for some PAYBACK to begin. For wrongs to be set right.
Problem is he’s stuck in prison. For standing up for what’s RIGHT. You can read the details in Matthew 14. He’s in prison because he’s been arrested by the Tetrarch. The local governor Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas is the same guy who later sits in judgement of Jesus. And orders him flogged. Herod Antipas is a prince. Building palaces; wearing fancy clothes. The complete opposite to John.
But the two collide when Herod marries his own niece. Who’d been previously married to his brother. It’s the sort of messy story you get on Days Of Our Lives… So I’m told.
And when John pipes up and says to Herod it’s against God’s law to do what he’s done, Herod throws him in jail. Doesn’t want to hear about it. More than that, his ambitious new wife wants him dead. For daring to speak against his lifestyle choices.
And so John’s stuck in Herod’s prison. He’s DONE THE RIGHT THING. Stood up for justice. And look where’s it GOT him. He’s done it all to prepare the way for Jesus who’s going to bring some retribution. To right some wrongs.
But there’s a problem. Jesus ARRIVES. Begins his ministry on the back of John’s preparation. And the news John hears isn’t quite what he was expecting. He hears about all the things Jesus was doing – about the healing and the miracles and the crowds. About the children, and the parties. And he wants to know “Where’s the FIRE? The justice? The new broom?”
Things should be a whole lot better.
A Message to John
That’s the message John’s disciples bring Jesus. And Jesus sends a message BACK. He responds with some prophecies from Isaiah of his own. He’s got a message for John. He says, (v4) “Go back and report to John what you hear and see.
That the blind, verse 5, receive their sight. That the lame walk. Those who have leprosy are cured. The deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. A whole string of quotes from Isaiah ch 35.
In other words, why are you surprised? There’s nothing UNEXPECTED. It’s all in the agenda. Back in Isaiah.
And it all says something about who Jesus is. He might not be knocking off the Romans like John wants. But he’s preaching to the poor. And binding up broken hearts. And restoring the blind. And so John’s mind should go back to Isaiah 35 and read it again with fresh eyes.
It’s there Isaiah says, stop your knees knocking. Be strong and don’t fear. Because the eyes of the blind will be open, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Isaiah who says in his next breath, when that happens there’ll be a highway for the righteous. The unclean won’t journey on it. There’ll be as great big sign Unclean sinful people NOT WELCOME HERE.
He goes on. But for the ones ransomed by the Lord there’ll be everlasting joy as a crown on their heads. And sorrow… and sighing… will flee away.
Jesus says, Tell John you’re seeing the first bit of that. Which means you’ll have to trust me for the next bit as well. And HOLD OUT for the ransoming. And the everlasting joy.
And you can tell John, verse 6; “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” In other words, tell him to stick with it… until the end. Even if it doesn’t look like I’m storming his prison cell… and overturning his personal injustice.
Which, I guess, is a word FOR US to hear TODAY. In OUR various difficult situations. To STICK WITH it. Stick with it when life is more tears than laughter. More defeat than victory. More pain than gain. We’re BLESSED when we stick at it. Jesus is true and real and alive. And he HAS won the victory. And one day we’ll SEE it COMPLETELY. So STICK WITH IT.
A Message to the Crowd
Now as John’s disciples are turning to go, Jesus talks to the crowd. Because, perhaps, they’ve got the same sorts of questions in mind as well. Because things hadn’t turned out quite like John SAID they would – at least for John.
They’d gone out into the desert to hear John because he was like A BREATH OF FRESH AIR. Promising a new broom. The complete opposite of Herod’s political mastermind. John’s the politically incorrect wild man – the Bob Catter of the first century to Herod’s sensible and measured Julia Gillard.
And Jesus says to the crowd, it’s no wonder Herod’s not impressed with John. Look at what he says in v7. Because his point is, you went to John in the wilderness EXACTLY BECAUSE he was different to Herod. You went out to hear John in the wilderness EXACTLY BECAUSE he was calling for repentance. So what’s the surprise when he meets opposition?
What did you go out in the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? He’s talking about HEROD. That’s Herod’s personal symbol. The seal on his signet ring. The mark on his coins. (You can see it in the pictures there).
What did you go out to see? I mean, you didn’t think you’d find another Herod out there, DID you? Verse 8? A man dressed in fine clothes? No. If you want that, look in Herod’s palace.
What you went out to see was a prophet. And more than a prophet. Verse 10, The VERY ONE, who, according to Malachi, would come to prepare the way for the Lord; To sweep out the house. So why be surprised, says Jesus, that he’s facing opposition?
Which is the sense of those strange sounding words in verse 12. Our NIV puts it, “From the days of John the Baptist til now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing. And forceful men LAY HOLD OF IT.”
That LAST word can also be translated snatch it away. Exactly the same word Jesus uses later in the parable of the sower. The sower sows the seed. The birds come and snatch it away.
And that helps us make some sense of it. Why be surprised John’s doing it tough? The kingdom of heaven has been pressing ahead forcefully. It’s been pushing against the opposition, don’t be surprised when the opposition PUSHES BACK! Forceful men snatch it away.
There’s A BATTLE going on. Which is why John’s locked away. And why Jesus will soon face the same. And why Aasya Noreen and Prem Singh Gurung and Behrouz Sadegh-Khandjani are in prison.
And Jesus’ challenge goes to the crowd and it goes to US. Verse 14. John is the new Elijah who was to come, the final prophet before Judgement. All the prophets have been giving the same message. Repent, do a U-turn back to God. And now John’s joined in on the chorus. Are you going to LISTEN to him? Jesus says figure it out for yourself. HE WHO HAS EARS… LET HIM HEAR.
Because in the end it’s not just Herod Antipas who’s the problem in Israel. And it’s not just the teachers of the law. It’s EVERYONE. We ALL sin. We ALL push against God’s kingdom that’s invading. That’s wanting to bring peace and life. And we want to cling to self-centredness and self-determination.
And his attention moves from John and Herod. To the crowd. To the fickle, hard-to-please, easily-distracted crowd. The WHOLE GENERATION needs to hear John’s message. To REPENT for the kingdom of heaven is near. Which is no different from Jesus’ message. To REPENT for the kingdom of heaven is near.
Hard to Please
Jesus says to the crowd, what can I compare this generation to? You’re like that stereotypical redecorator. She can’t make up her mind where she wants the sofa. She’s HARD TO PLEASE. Her hen-pecked husband moves it under the window. And then she decides it’s better next to the door. And then it’s better in the middle of the room. And then finally it’s better back where it started.
What’s this generation like? Jesus says, imagine we’re a bunch of kids playing in the market place. John comes, and then I come, and neither’s good enough. I played the flute for you, and you didn’t dance. John sang a dirge for you… you didn’t cry.
John does it tough in the desert in his camel hair coat eating locusts. And you say that’s no good. Jesus comes along and he eats and drinks with sinners, and you say that’s no good. They say, verse 19, he’s a glutton and a drunkard and he hangs around with tax collectors and sinners.
JOHN does it one way. Israel doesn’t want to hear about it. JESUS does it another way. They still don’t want to hear it. Nothing penetrates. Nothing gets through.
Always something to pick at. To complain about. So you don’t have to listen to God’s call to repent.
Which seems to be typical of the way people write off the claims of Jesus today. The humanists want to keep churches out of the public sphere. They say religion’s got no place in government and society. And then they want the church to apply for grants to care for the elderly, or find jobs for the unemployed. They want our HELP and COMPASSION, but they’re not interested in finding out WHY we’re compassionate.
Pakistan is willing to persecute and sentence Christians to DEATH, yet is happy to accept aid relief for its flood PREDOMINATELY from Christians.
With SOME people, it doesn’t matter HOW you deliver the message, NOTHING’S good enough.
Which is what Jesus goes on to say in verse 20 to 24; the towns he’s been travelling in, up around the north of the sea of Galilee. Korazin. Bethsaida. Capernaum. So many miracles. Such a clear call. But they’re DEAF AS POSTS.
If the miracles that were performed in you, verse 21, had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago. Even Sodom… verse 23… the Old Testament city so famous for its sleaze… even Sodom would have repented and would still be standing. But the cities of Israel are even harder. And are going to face the judgement of God.
I HOPE that’s not the way it is WITH YOU. I hope you hear Jesus’ call. And you LISTEN to it. That you REPENT. And turn back to God. And submit to him. And honour him.
Here’s what it boils down to. The people of God are never going to get soft treatment in a hard world. And we shouldn’t expect otherwise.
And yet Jesus says, it’s worth it. Might not seem SMART. But it’s worth it. Doesn’t mean we’re protected from life’s tragedies and safe from persecution. Probably the opposite.
The Apostle Paul says the same a few years later. 2 Corinthians 6 v4. He says,
…as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger;
Why would you PUT UP with that sort of treatment? He goes on. Here’s the perspective that makes it all WORTH IT.
in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, AND YET WE LIVE ON; beaten, AND YET NOT KILLED; sorrowful, YET ALWAYS REJOICING; poor, YET MAKING MANY RICH; having nothing, AND YET POSSESSING EVERYTHING.
That’s the perspective Jesus wants John to have. To stick at it even when he CAN’T see the victory and the pay-off. Because that’s what FAITH is.
In the end, we don’t seek righteousness because it’s popular. But because it’s right. We don’t hunger for compassion and integrity because it pays off… but because we’ve heard the message of the kingdom and repented. Even though there’s a cost.
Doesn’t sound smart, in a way, does it? At a HUMAN level, it’s not a good career move to stick at being a Christian. Or a good FINANCIAL move. Or even a good LIFESTYLE move.
Which is why Jesus, in verse 25, praises God that he’s hidden this stuff from the wise and learned… and yet shown it to the simple. Which has always been God’s way of doing things.
So he says, come to me… if you’re labouring and loaded; if you’re weary and burdened. Don’t give up. In your hardships and your heartaches, turn to the expert.
Funny how when times are tough there’s no comfort in talking to someone who hasn’t suffered anything themselves is there? But there’s somehow immense help to be had from someone who’s been there before.
Verse 28, Jesus says, no matter what you’re carrying, come to me. And I’ll give you rest. Rest from the load of the Herods of the world. Rest from the load of the Pharisees who’ll load you up with laws and rules. He says, “For I am gentle, and humble in heart… and no matter how tough it seems now, no matter if you’re in the prison cell of Herod Antipas… Jesus says, “if you come to me you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy. And my burden is light.”
I don’t know what you’re up against right now. Whether it’s family tragedy, or you’re struggling with career issues, or maybe illness. Or maybe like John the Baptist – in some way getting hammered expressly for being a Christian. Can I say, don’t be surprised. Don’t be shocked if your workmates want to ban the subject of Christianity in the lunchroom. Don’t be surprised if, like Ross shared the other day, the teachers in your staffroom up the level of the dirty jokes when you’re around. To see how you’ll react.
Don’t be surprised if your neighbour or your husband or your sister walks away when you mention the name of Jesus. Because it’s always been that way. Don’t be surprised.
But do persevere. Don’t be surprised. But do press on. No matter how hard the times. In the confidence that the one who ultimately redeemed his people at the cross has been through the toughest of times for you; and he’ll be there through the toughest of times with you as well.
Because he says, come to me all you who are weary and burdened. And I will give you rest.