Sunday, January 26, 2014

Trapped by the system? See the bigger picture

This was preached at a United Service when St Luke's and Highbury shared worship together.

Trapped by the System – See the Bigger Picture!

I don’t know about you … but I for one am looking forward to next weekend and the start of the six nations.  I will be rooting for Wales and joining in with some of that great singing too!  There is one song, however, to strike fear into the hearts of Welsh supporters.

And that’s when the English crowd see a triumph within their grasp and start to sing what has become almost the English rugby anthem – Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to take me home.

It’s one of those great spirituals that stirs the soul.  And in an intriguing way it has something to do with Matthew’s Gospel.

It’s been good sharing with Mike in preparing St John’s Assemblies and when we met at the beginning of this term, Mike told me about the way St Luke’s are taking a look at Matthew’s Gospel .  I thought it would be great to share in doing that – so at Highbury we are going to be taking a look at Matthew as well.

A Book to Change the way you see the World

Some books you read for fun, some books you read for interest, just occasionally you come across a book that makes you change the whole way you see the world and what it means to live in the world.

There’s fun in Matthew’s gospel, there’s a great deal of interest, but more than anything else Matthew’s gospel is the kind of book that’s aimed at making you change the whole way you see the world and what it means to live in the world.

You get the feel that Matthew’s gospel is put together by someone who knew what it was to be up against it in a world that could be very, very cruel, a world that seemed at times to be falling apart.

I guess, for me, it’s what makes Matthew’s gospel such a powerful read today.   Whether it’s watching the news from Syria or sharing with someone who is up against it, or encountering something, a diagnosis, a crisis at work, it can often feel as if the world we live in is a world in danger of falling apart.  But also it’s a world that makes you feel trapped into it – a world that’s impossible to break out of.

Trapped in the System

Tradition has it that the writer of this gospel was the disciple who in this gospel is identified as Matthew.   He finds himself rejected by the Jewish world of his family heritage, and he finds himself trapped in the ruthless, brutal world of the Roman Empire’s occupation of Galilee.  To build its magnificent buildings, to fund the lifestyle of its citizens, the Roman Empire had devised a system of raising taxes that involved franchising out contracts to a tax-raising company of people called in Latin Publicani.  The companies of Publicani would bid against each other with the promise to raise as much money as possible for the Roman authorities as cheaply as possible.  The company of Publicani winning the contract would then sub-contract down, and down and down … until the people at the bottom would be drawn fro the local population and be under great pressure to raise as much money for the Romans as possible and would themselves get as little as can be.

Matthew found himself caught in that system. He was trapped in a world that he couldn’t break out of.   It was a world that seemed to be falling apart.

He was Jewish and different Jewish people were struggling to be Jewish in that world – the rich and powerful, the Herodians, the Saducees, the High Priests – played the game with the  Romans and went along with Roman rule.  The Pharisees wanted a return to the ritual holiness and purity of the law.  Some reckoned a monastic rule was what was needed.  And not a few reckoned they needed to take up arms against Rome.

Matthew was trapped in the world of Roman oppression.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

And then something happened.

Someone had time for him.

More than that someone gave him a whole new way of seeing the world that made for him a world of difference.

That someone was Jesus.

And he had a simple message.

Repent.   Not just say sorry for things you have done wrong … but much more than that.  The little word translated ‘repent’ means get a whole new way of thinking, look at the world in an entirely different way, make a complete about turn in your thinking about the world and your life.

And discover that there is a bigger picture, a bigger picture that will help you to make sense of the world you live in.

What Jesus shared with Matthew was that that bigger picture was nothing less than the Kingdom of Heaven, the rule of God breaking into our world.

It changed Matthew’s life.

And he took up the task of sharing the good news of the Kingdom as one of the twelve disciples.

And there came a point, tradition has it, at which he put the whole message, the Good News he had discovered for himself down in writing, so that he too could tell the Good News of this Jesus.

Filling out the Bigger Picture – some brilliant teaching in Matthew

Matthew was a brilliant teacher … and he found the teaching of Jesus was what helped him to grasp that bigger picture and so he built his Gospel around five blocks of teaching.

And as a teacher he wanted to give all that teaching a framework that would be memorable.

In our western way of thinking we think sequentially – we start at the beginning, work through the middle and come to the end of a story.  We start an argument with the first point, develop the argument through points 2, 3 and 4 and then reach the conclusion.

The Middle Eastern way of thinking was different.  [See Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes]

The Eastern way of thinking often sees a different kind of pattern where 1 is like 5, 2 is like 4 and the most important point is in the middle.

The teaching of Jesus Matthew brings together fills out what it means to live your life under the rule of God seeing that bigger picture of the Kingdom of Heaven.    It starts with the Sermon on the Mount – and it involves being peacemakers, hungering and thirsting for justice.  It involves loving your enemy as well as your neighbour, blessing those who persecute you. It’s about prayer and about forgiveness.   It involves doing to others what you would have others do to you.

That Sermon on the Mount is balanced with the fifth block of teaching in 23,24,25 starting with woes, the middle of which is woe to you who tithe and neglect the higher things of the law, justice and mercy.  And it comes to an end with that appeal to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner.

The second block of teaching is the commissioning of the Twelve in chapter 10 and the fourth block of teaching is all about the Church in 18.

That leaves the central block of teaching in chapter 13.

And that’s where Jesus fills out this bigger picture and tells a number of stories, parables that are all about the Kingdom of Heaven.

To grasp the bigger picture that can then enable you to see the world in an entirely different way and so cope with a system that feels as if has you trapped, you need to grasp what Kingdom means to Jesus.

To understand the bigger picture of the kingdom
you need to grasp the back story

Matthew realises that to do that you need to grasp the back story.

Jesus did not just come out of thin air.

He came as the point at which the whole of that back story reached its culmination.  He came to bring to fulfilment the whole of the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.

The back story is the whole of the Old Testament

If you want to grasp what Jesus is about and the difference this talk of the Kingdom of heaven can make in our world and in our lives you need to grasp that back story.

Open Matthew’s gospel and he confronts you with the back story in a brilliant way.    It’s one of the most important passages in the New Testament and it’s hardly ever read!  Open the gospel at chapter one and you know straight away who the story is about.

This is the genealogy[a] of Jesus the Messiah[b] the son of David, the son of Abraham:

So Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, the King in the Kingdom.

How dull!  Until you realise that what Matthew is doing is summing up the whole story of the Old Testament – in three parts –

Genesis 1-11 sets the scene –

From Abraham to David

From David to the Exile

From the Exile to Jesus the Messiah.

Remember the patterns and the importance attached to the mid-point.

Isn’t it interesting – the first of those sections basically includes the Law, the first part of the Jewish bible and takes you a bit further through Joshua and Judges.

The second and middle part deals with the period when there is a kingdom, at first under Saul, then united under David and Solomon and then divided – until the north collapses first and then Judea and Jerusalem fall to the Babylonians and the exile comes.

The final part is from the exile to Jesus – and basically is the latest part of the Hetbrew Bible, the writings

If you want to know about kingdom and God’s way with kingdoms then you need to get a handle on the middle section.

Interestingly, it’s not given the title in the Jewish bible of the bit about the kings..   Instead this story (including Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) is described as the section of the Prophets.

Kings AND Prophets in the Old Testament

There were two kinds of people really important in the period of the kingdom.  The kings … and also the Prophets.  In some ways, you could argue, the prophets took precedence!

Right at the outset the people wanted a king just to be like the other nations.  And the prophet, Samuel, warned them that was very dangerous because you could get bad kins as well as good kings.

The story of the kings is exactly that.

Even the greatest of the kings, David, does awful things with Bathsheba and involving murder – he is confronted by a Prophet Nathan.

The task of the prophet is to challenge the king to return to the ways of God, and to map out what it takes to be a king in God’s kingdom and rule in the way God intends.

Passing the mantle on from Elijah to Elisha, to Prophet, to Prophet

The iconic figure among the prophets that came to encapsulate what it means to be a prophet was Elijah.

He challenged the kings who did terrible things and mapped out what it takes to be a king in God’s way.

And then he came to the end of his life and we arrive at the significance of that spiritual and its references to a chariot taking you home!

As Elijah came towards the end of his days, he passed the responsibility on.  And there is a wonderful account, he has as it were someone who is shadowing him.  Elisha.

Sensing the end of his ministry had arrived Elijah wants to go off on his own, but Elisha won’t have any of it:  “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”

Elijah goes down with Elisha through the wilderness, and comes to the Jordan.  Elisha goes down into the Jordan with Elijah and across to the other side.  Then Elisha sees it – a chariot coming for to carry Elijah home.

And as Elijah is carried away in that chariot he leaves his mantle behind – his cloak.  And Elisha takes up the mantle.

Just as one king is succeeded by another, the Old Testament story is of a the mantle being passed, as it were, from one prophet to another.   To Amos, Hosea, Micah, to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel – the mantle is passed on.   With the kings come prophets, speaking out against the powers that be, shaping how they should rule – spelling out what it takes to be King in God’s kingdom ruling in God’s way.

There’s been a long gap – without a king, there’s been a long gap when the prophetic voice has not been heard.

And along comes John the Baptist.

John the Baptist takes up the mantle

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea,

The way he dressed- clothing of camels’ hair, a leather belt around his waist, the location in the wilderness of Judea, the words from Isaiah, ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord!

All of this leaves you in no doubt – he is picking up the mantle that has been passed on from Elijah.  He looks just like him.

The powerful way he spoke out against that ruling elite and those struggling to make sense of that world – you brood of vipers.  He could see that it was a world that seemed to be falling apart – it’s not because of who you are, your antecedents – know it’s what you do with your lives, how you live, the fruit you bear – that’s what counts.

He has a clear message 

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

It’s very easy to think of repenting as something you do when you are sorry for something wrong you have done.

The word here is very much more powerful than that.  Getting a whole new way of thinking, seeing the bigger picture, getting a whole new mindset, a whole new way of looking at the world – the kingdom of heaven has come near – the way of God’s rule.

John knows one is to come after him who will take this project very much further, to its ultimate limits, one who will fill out this bigger picture and seal this whole new way of thinking not with the waters of the Jordan or anywhere else – but with the power of the Holy Spirit and fire.

Then Jesus comes.

John the Baptist passes on the mantle to Jesus

And what he does is so significant.

He goes with John into the Jordan just as Elisha did with Elijah.

He comes out from the Jordan ready for his ministry to begin.

When we move on to Matthew 4:12 it is not until John has been silenced – imprisoned by the son of the Herod the Great who had slain the innocents, himself called Herod, that Jesus starts his ministry.

Matthew notices that Jesus goes to the very place where he felt so trapped  in this horrible world of Roman oppression – to Capernaum – and what the prophet Isaiah had said is being fulfilled – that in this land of Galilee where people are sitting in darkness, the darkness of this brutal Roman oppression,  a light shines in the darkness – the light has dawned.

Then and this is most significant … Jesus has exactly the message of John.

The prophetic voice of John speaking out against the powers that be is not silenced.

Repent, get a completely new way of seeing the world, a new outlook on life, a complete turnaround for the kingdom of heaven, God’s rule has come near.

Jesus is the prophetic voice – but as the Gospel unfolds something else becomes apparent – Jesus is ushering in a way of relating to other people, a way of living in the middle of a hostile world, under  God’s rule as people who belong to the kingdom.

Jesus passes on the mantle to the disciples

He calls his disciples – to come under God’s rule in his kingdom and he offers them a way of living in the middle of a very hostile world, under this rule of God.

And he gives them the same message – to proclaim the Good news, the kingdom of God has come near – when he sends them out (10).

And among those first 12 is Matthew.

His life turned inside out, he sees the world differently.

It is as if the mantle has been passed on from Elijah, to Elisha, from John the Baptist to Jesus, from the disciples down through the generations to us.

We are invited to take up the mantle
- not only seeing the bigger picture, but living it too!

And the message remains the same …

When we feel trapped by the system in a world where we can see things are wrong but we can’t seem to break that system, then we too can see a bigger picture.

We can see things in a very different way.  We can live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and follow a way of living that is shaped by the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the rest of the teaching in Matthew’s gospel – the way of the peacemaker, the way of one who hungers and thirsts after justice, the way of forgiveness, doing to others as you would have others do to you, feeding hte hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner.

The final twist in the tale
A King in the Kingdom who is with us to the end of the age

There is one final twist in the tale – those like Matthew who did follow Jesus not only saw in him the Prophet to bring all that line of prophets to fulfilment, they saw more than that in him.

They saw that he had what it takes to be king in the kingdom of heaven.  All that those great prophets of old had said about what it takes to be king – that’s how Jesus had modelled his ministry and all he did.

Look to Jesus and find the King of the kingdom who asks us to grasp the bigger picture, and live our lives as citizens of that Kingdom of Heaven, looking to him as  the King who will be with us to the end of the age.

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.” ’

4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

Matthew 4:12-25

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15 ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
   on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people who sat in darkness
   have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
   light has dawned.’

17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

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