Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Matthew Series, Week 17 -Seeking God

  There’s this story where A.B. Simpson, the founder of the Alliance, is pastoring in Louisville Kentucky in the late 1800s. He was from Canada originally, but due to health concerns he moved to the States. While in Louisville he would take daily strolls into the forest. On one of these forest strolls, his back gave out. In an age without cell phones, and in a sparsely traveled area, there was no way for anyone to locate him. The story goes that Simpson only had one option, call out to God for help.

Now at this point in A.B. Simpson’s life, he understood God to be his Savior. Like most Christians, this central teaching is the bases for everything else we understand about God. That’s because without an understanding of God as Savior, we cannot enter into relationship with him, because we don’t understand our need for him. But in this moment of pain, Simpson called out to God, not for salvation, which he had, but for help. And God responded with a healing. It was in that moment Simpson’s theology grew into an understanding of Jesus’ not only being our Savior who seeks the lost sheep, but also our Healer who seeks to reveal himself through our suffering. 

Simpson went onto live a life that wasn’t absent from pain, but rather that in his pain, he saw God seek after him.

And it’s this idea of God not only seeking us to save us, but also seeking us in all facets of life, thereby bringing us ever closer to him, that brings us back into our Matthew series, where we’ll be coming back to chapter 8, starting in verse 23. And as we get back into Matthew 8:23, let’s remind ourselves where we are so far.

In the first severn chapters of Matthew, we learned about Jesus’ identity, and how his identity was to encompass who his disciples are. If a person desires to be a disciple of Jesus, then they have to follow as Jesus leads. Through Jesus’ first sermon that Matthew presents us, we learn that a disciple has to come to the realization that they cannot meet the standard of God’s perfection, therefore they must rely completely on Jesus for everything. A disciple has to rely on Jesus to save them from sin, to work through them with people, and to direct their thoughts and and actions through his word. Everything a disciple is, is wrapped up in who Jesus is.

Then last week we started moving towards the second of Jesus’ sermons, by looking at the first of three, three-fold narrative structures. In this first three-fold structure we saw that Jesus, the God come down, is willing to heal, he has the authority to heal, and because of these factors, he is deserving of our service. Jesus’ willingness to heal and the ability to do so flies in the face of ancient ideas of the divine. For most religions, we must prove worthy of the gods’ attention in order for them to act. Yet with Jesus, he willing acts, even before we seek him (Romans 5:8). And because he is willing and does act, a correct response from us is to serve him as he sees fit.

It was after this three-fold structure that we then get a teaching section by Jesus. This teaching has to do with his, and by extension his disciples, not being tethered to a world that has rejected him. Even though Jesus created the world, the world has rejected him (John 1). Because of this, in the state that the world is in, it cannot house the people of God. Therefore we cannot allow the things of this world to tether us to it, always remembering that everything we have are merely tools to accomplish the things of God.

This understanding of Jesus’ willingness and authority, our service and untethering from the world, leads us into our second set of three-fold narrative structure. So let’s read together starting in Matthew 8:23.


8:23 Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”

26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”

This is one of those famous Sunday school stories. The storm is an impressive one, even to those disciples who are fishermen. These types of storms were common place on the Sea of Galilee, and they were not to be trifled with. But there are three things we are to notice. 

First, Jesus was asleep. Though it was a horrendous storm, it didn’t seem to bother Jesus, most likely because his physical body was exhausted from the ministry work. 

Second we need to recognize Jesus’ response to the disciples’ fear, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Well because there’s a deadly storm Jesus. But this follows the first three-fold structure where we learned that Jesus is willing to act in human affairs, he has authority and we cannot be tethered to this world. So there should be no fear of the storm.

Finally, we are to notice the disciples’ response, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” By leaving this narrative on a question, Matthew is inviting us to answer it. The obvious answer is, he’s not a mere man. This not only points us to the identity that Matthew has been presenting of Jesus being the God come down and taking on human flesh, but also the narrative carries forward the idea of Jesus authority. Yes, Jesus can heal, but so could others, but Jesus also has authority of nature itself. The disciples final statement moves us forward in our understanding of both Jesus’ identity and his ability to call nature to order.

This then moves us into our second narrative, which we pick this up in verse 28.

28 When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes (Gad-ar-een-z), two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. 29 “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?”

30 Some distance from them a large herd of pigs was feeding. 31 The demons begged Jesus, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.”

32 He said to them, “Go!” So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. 33 Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region.

This is an interesting story. We know something of the area from what Matthew gives us. This area is most likely filled with more Gentiles than Jews, or these Jews are more Hellenized to the point of allowing the raising of pigs, something that a strict Jewish observer would have nothing to do with. But we are to notice three things here as well. 

First, the demons recognize Jesus, this is the answer to the disciples’ question, “What kind of man is this?” Not only does nature obey him, but also the possessing demons. 

Now we’re not getting into why Jesus allowed them to go into the pigs, but rather we need to notice that he granted their request. This is Jesus’ authority over the spiritual realms on full display. Jesus does not only exercise a demon out of someone, something that did occur during this time, but he could tell the demon where to go, showing his authority over such creatures. 

Finally we are to notice that the people in the region rejected him. Though Jesus freed two men, he did cause a social crisis in the destruction of the pigs and therefore would lead to some economic problems.

As we finish this narrative, we should have a connection back to the first three-fold structure. Here again is the authority of Jesus, but this time extending to the spiritual realm. But also we should recognize Jesus’ call to be untethered to this world, yet here are a group of people who reject that untethering. Their pigs, were more important than the freeing of the two men. It’s a simple reminder that no economic need is greater than the Gospel message.

Next, we move to the third part of this second narrative structure in chapter 9 verse 1.

9:1 Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. 2 Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”

3 At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”

4 Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? 5 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 6 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” 7 Then the man got up and went home. 8 When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man.

Whereas both the Gospel of Mark and Luke give us the fuller story of what is happening, Matthew only gives us the bare bones of what we need to know to follow his line of thinking (Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-39). Mark and Luke tell us that this all takes place in a home where a large crowd has gathered. The friends cannot get the guy on the mat to Jesus so they bust through the roof. Matthew skips this background setting, so that we can focus on the interaction between Jesus and the teachers of the law. We are to notice that Jesus’ first reaction isn’t to heal, but to say, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” This is huge, and can be seen in the reaction of the teachers of the law, when they respond with, “This fellow is blaspheming!”

Why is it blasphemy? Because there is a theological underlying understanding that only God can forgive someone their sins. Sure, God gave ceremonies to perform for the removal of sin by sacrificing animals, but the actual forgiveness of those sins can only come from God. This is because, we may sin against each other, but ultimately our sin against God himself. This is illustrated in Psalm 51, where, even though David has sinned against Urial, Bathsheba, and against all of Israel, he writes to God, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight (v.4).” The ultimate place where we sin is against God himself, and until we are reconciled with God, we can never be truly reconciled with each other.

It’s this underlying theological understanding that only God can forgive sins, that makes Jesus’ words of forgiveness so revolting to the teachers of the law. In saying he forgives the man sins, Jesus is claiming divinity. Jesus is calling himself God, and it’s not lost on the teachers of the law. 

So what does Jesus do? Jesus first says, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?” The the obvious answer being your sins are forgiven, because that is unseen. Then Jesus proceeds to use his authority, that authority we have seen him use several times so far, and he heals the man. This in turns proves his point, Jesus is the God who has the authority to forgive sin. Except does it really prove his point? 

If we read carefully we see that Matthew adds a bit of commentary. In the last sentence we read, “When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man.” They missed the point. They thought God had given Jesus this authority, yet we as the reader should understand, no, Jesus is God himself come down.

This is the third group that hasn’t grasped Jesus so far. The disciples’ question, who is this man? The pig farming town rejected Jesus, and now the people see Jesus claim to be God, yet they miss it.

This brings us into the end of the three-fold narrative structure with Matthew’s own conversion story in verse 9 of chapter 9.

9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

This is an interesting story, because Matthew tells it in the third person, but more than that, he doesn’t use his Hebrew name. Both Mark and Luke in their Gospel accounts use the name Levi, Matthew’s Jewish name. But to Matthew, that that name is gone, Jesus changed it, and therefore Matthew uses the name Jesus called him, rather than one that pointed to his life before he met Jesus.

Here we are to notice that Jesus does the same calling to Matthew the he did to his first disciples back in chapter 4, “Follow me.” And just like those first disciples, we’re told, that, “Matthew got up and followed him.” This shows us that the correct response to Jesus is to leave behind our old lives and follow Jesus in his life. Unlike the three groups who did not understand who Jesus was, Matthew understands that he must follow him.

Then Matthew host Jesus, along with other people that were not “good” company to have for a Rabbi of Jesus’ abilities. This is why the Pharisees spoke so derogatively towards Jesus and his eating with “sinners.”

It’s here that Jesus reveals his mission, to go to those who are in need, like a doctor to the sick, or God to the sinner. Jesus gives a little Old Testament jab at the Pharisees by quoting Hosea 6:6, pointing out their desire to perform un-heartfelt things for God, while God desires compassion on others.

Here we are to see the summation in this three-fold narrative structure. The God of nature and spiritual realms, who forgives sin, has come to sinners to bring them back to himself. Matthew understood this and used his new name, because he was living in Jesus’ new life.  

It is the same life that Jesus is calling us to as well. We must recognize that when we answer the call of Jesus to follow, that it isn’t a simple one time prayer that we say, but rather a new life that we live. We live this life in the power of the God who is over nature and the spiritual realms. We live in his life, because we are in desperate need of his forgiveness and mercy. If we are to be Jesus’ disciples we must realize that our lives are not our own, but Jesus’. We are to follow where he leads. And where he leads we will see storms quelled, demons cast out, sins forgiven. But above all, we will see the mercy of the Almighty God, given out to those who would accept it.

Last week I challenged you to ask if you struggled with Jesus’ authority in your life. This week I want to challenge you to ask the question, am I living fully under God’s authority? Following that up with, and I seeking out sinners to be reconciled to God as he seeks them. And finally, following that up with, as I follow, am I living in the new life of Jesus, is my identity in him like Matthew, or am I trying to hold onto my old self?

God has called us out of our old sinful lives into the life of Jesus. A life that seeks forgiveness, and mercy over ritual observations that have no life changing worth. Let us be a people who are known for forgiveness and mercy, as our God is known to us. Amen.

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