Jesus Supreme

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 17th July 2022 at Connect Southwater Community Church, West Sussex. I also subsequently preached the same message at Manningtree Methodist Church on 31st July 2022. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.

I had quite a memorable day recently. After working with my current employer for eleven years, I packed up my bag and left for the final time. It was quite sad saying farewell to some people who, over the years, have become good friends.

I start a new job in September. I interviewed way back in March, so it’s quite a long time to wait before starting. I did visit a couple of weeks ago, though and it was good to spend some time meeting colleagues face to face. I was also given my new email address, which meant that when my new boss emailed around brief introductions of those who start working in September, I was able to read what he wrote about me. He wrote:

Simon Lucas currently teaches History and Philosophy at Thomas’s Battersea Prep School. Previous to that he had worked at Worth and City of London Secondary Schools. He has also spent time as a freelance writer and this remains a passion of his. He is also an experienced sailor.

An interesting precis of 43 years of life! I assume that he picked out the details which he thinks are most relevant to the role I’m taking on, specifics that would vindicate his decision to appoint me, and something that might enable some of my new colleagues to make a connection with me.

Today’s passage is from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. After his introductions in the earlier part of this chapter, Paul immediately gets down to business with a rich section in which he re-introduces his readers to Jesus. He summarises Jesus’ life and work into a few short sentences. 

It’s complicated stuff, but it’s well worth digging into since it is truly remarkable. Let’s see if we can make sense of it together. 

If you do have access to the text, it would be well worth your while having that in front of you. A reminder that we’re looking at Colossians 1:15-28.

Our first point this morning, then, is – Jesus is supreme.

Paul wants his readers to understand that Jesus is superior to all others in authority, power and status and gives a number of explanations of this.

The first is that Jesus ‘is the image of the invisible God’. 

You don’t need to get too far into the Old Testament to see that many people before Jesus had close encounters with God. What is notable, though, is that in none of these encounters did anyone actually see God. He remained invisible.

Moses, in fact, asked God to show him his glory. But God replied, in Exodus 33:20, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” 

God is simply too holy to be encountered by humanity. 

But when people see Jesus, they see God. 

I find that absolutely amazing!

When we encounter Jesus in the gospels we’re not just reading about a great teacher, or a moral leader, but God himself.

What’s more, in verse 19, Paul says that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.” 

All of God’s fullness, all of God, every aspect of his character, personality, power, righteousness and holiness are in Jesus. 

Wow. Just wow.

The second way in which Paul explains Jesus’ supremacy over all is by stating that Jesus is ‘the firstborn over all creation’ – still in verse 15. 

As the firstborn, Jesus is God’s heir, and as such everything in creation is his. Paul makes this clear in verse 16 – all things have been created for him. 

But it’s more than that. 

Paul says that all things have been created through him. 

Jesus is the creative force by which the universe came into existence. Things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible – all created through him and for him. 

And verse 17 tells us, in Jesus all things hold together. 

Creation depends on Jesus because he is the force that created it and that keeps it together.

All of creation was made for Jesus. 

All of creation was made through Jesus.

All of creation is sustained by Jesus.

The next way Paul explains Jesus’ supremacy is that he is “the head of the body, the church.” 

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12 that the church is the body of Christ, and that each of us, as members of the church, are part of this body. Here in Colossians, Paul tells us that Jesus is the head of that body. As such, we depend on him completely. Without a head, a body cannot function. Without Jesus, the church cannot function. Indeed, without Jesus, there simply isn’t a church.

Finally, Paul says that Jesus has supremacy over all things because he is “the beginning and firstborn from among the dead.” 

Just as he is firstborn over all creation, Jesus is firstborn over the new creation. It is Jesus who was the first to rise from the dead. 

Jesus brought the new creation into existence through his death and resurrection. 

As a consequence of Jesus’ resurrection, we can be part of a new creation and enjoy an unbroken relationship with God. We too can look forward to the day when we will be raised to new life. 

Jesus has supremacy in all things because he is the image of God, he is the firstborn over all creation, he is the head of the body, and he is firstborn over the new creation. That’s quite a CV and certainly should provide us with plenty of motivation to love and follow him.

Paul now turns to consider the state of humanity before and after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and this is our second point – alienation and reconciliation.

Claire and I recently enjoyed watching the final series of Derry Girls. When it first came out I watched the first episode and wasn’t impressed. Claire then made me watch every episode and it’s now one of my favourite television programmes. 

I found the final episode really poignant. It was set at the time of the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, which sought to end the years of violence by bringing together loyalists and republicans into a shared political experience in which all views could be represented. 

Of course, nothing in this world is perfect, but the Good Friday agreement has generally been a real success. Northern Irish people who were once alienated by their views on Northern Ireland’s relationship with the United Kingdom have achieved some form of reconciliation. 

Let’s hope that this continues to be the case, despite the current difficulties the province faces.

In the next section of his letter to the Colossians, Paul tells his readers how they were once “alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour.” 

This is the natural order of the world. It’s not what God intended but it’s what humanity have made of it. 

Humans turn their backs on God and fail to live to the standards he sets. 

Humans push God out of all facets of their lives, putting themselves and their own needs above everything else. 

But there is better news. They were alienated from God. They were enemies of God.

Look at verse 22. 

“But now.” 

The negative has been transformed into a positive. The Colossians have been reconciledwith God. Reconcile means “to restore friendly relations between.” Humanity and God can now have a more positive relationship. 

How this reconciliation has been brought about?

Paul says to the Colossians that God “has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” That’s verse 22. Humanity has had their friendly relations with God restored by the act of Christ dying on the cross. 

We saw in verse 19 that all God’s fullness dwells in Jesus Christ. There is nothing of God that is not in Jesus. Jesus is wholly, fully God. It is because of this that humanity can be reconciled with God through Christ’s death on the cross. 

Since Jesus is God, there is nothing wrong to be found in him. He is holy, without sin, without blame. 

Because he has no sin of his own, he is able to take on the sin of the world – the wrongdoing of all people – and to take the penalty that should be ours. 

The punishment for sin is death, but Jesus took this punishment for all of humanity. 

What’s more, he defeated death by rising again to life. 

The consequence of this is that Christ can present us to his father as “holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” There is no sin for God to see in us, because it has been dealt with.

If I borrowed £10,000 from a finance company to buy a new car, I would be in debt to them. It would show up on their computer system. Now imagine if my friend phoned up the finance company and paid the loan off for me. That would remove my debt from their records. If I subsequently phoned them up and tried to pay off the loan, there would be some confusion as their systems would say that there is no debt in my name. There is nothing for me to pay off. It has been dealt with.

It’s similar, but on a massively more significant scale, with God and my sin. When a Christian appears before God on the day of judgement, there will be no record of sin because it has been dealt with. That means that if we turn to Christ and accept that he died and rose for us, we can have a relationship – we are no longer enemies.

If we read on, though, there is an “if” here. Paul continues in verse 23, “if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.” 

We must, as one of my teachers at school used to regularly tell us, “keep on keeping on.” 

Being a Christian is not just about a singular conversion experience, but a life lived out day by day, holding onto hope held out in the gospel. 

If we are to hold onto this hope it is necessary for us to know and understand the gospel message as found in scripture. We will want to immerse ourselves in the word of God regularly. We will want to live out the teaching we find in scripture, building on the foundations of our conversion.

It’s like doing anything – if you want to be a runner, you have to run. By running regularly you ensure you remain fit and healthy, and able to run. Over time you will get better at running. If you neglect your running, your fitness suffers and before you know it, running becomes very difficult, and eventually you’ll find yourself unable to run at all.

Once we were alienated from God, but through Jesus we have been reconciled to him. Now we need to live our lives holding onto the hope held out in the gospel.

Our third point this morning is perhaps the most challenging – sharing in affliction.

When I was a student I had a Saturday job working in the books department of WHSmith. By this point I was in my early twenties and had already undertaken management training with Marks and Spencer. With the exception of our older supervisor, the rest of the team were teenage girls. Together we did a great job, despite some strange requests from management. We went through a period where it seemed as if every week we were asked to reorder all of the books in the department in ever stranger ways.

Despite our competence, our supervisor did periodically like to get really cross with us. It was generally the girls who bore her wrath; I don’t think she liked the idea of picking a fight with me – maybe because of my gender, or my age or my experience. Sometimes, if one of my colleagues did do something wrong, I would take the blame as generally our supervisor would grumble under her breath for a minute and then move on, whereas if one of my colleagues admitted her wrongdoing, she would be strongly chastised. I guess I felt able to take the fire for the younger, less experienced members of the team.

That might seem like a rather random thing to drop in at this point, but I do think it is relevant – as we may or may not see shortly!

In verse 24 Paul tells the Colossians, “now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you” and continues with the even more confusing, “I fill up in my flesh what is lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions.” What does he mean by this?

Before we address this, perhaps we should look at what Paul considers to be his mission. He tells us in verse 25 that he has become the servant of the church, commissioned by God, who entrusted him with the task of presenting to the Colossians the word of God. Paul is to share “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people.” 

But what is this mystery that Paul is commissioned to share?

Thankfully Paul answers this in verse 27 – the mystery, he says, is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” 

If we follow Christ, then he lives within us as the Holy Spirit. He promised his followers that his Father “will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.” This Spirit, he says, “lives with you and will be in you.” You can read this passage in full in John 14. 

Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, lives within us. His presence marks us out for glory – a resurrection of our own.

Simply put, then, this mystery, which Paul is to share, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ – that through his death and resurrection we might share in his glory, be reconciled with God, and spend eternity with him in glory.

But why is Paul suffering? And why does he rejoice in his suffering?

Paul rejoices because he is suffering for the young church. Whilst he is in prison he is taking some of the fire away from younger Christians who might not yet have the same level of understanding or spiritual maturity that he has. As the figurehead of the new movement allied to Christ, he serves as the lightning conductor, drawing the ire of the authorities, and reducing the pressure on others. Paul endures it “for the sake of Jesus’ body, which is the church.”

But there is also a spiritual dimension here. Paul understands that we live in a period that could be known as the ‘between times’. Jesus has come, has died, and has risen. This brought about God’s new creation, of which Jesus is the first born, as we saw in verse 18. 

But Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead, and to take all who follow him to glory. 

Paul, like us, lives between these two periods. The new creation has begun, but has not yet seen its fulfilment. That leaves us in a period of great tension, a period in which some people follow Christ and strive to serve him, whilst others continue to live in darkness, rejecting Christ. Those who turn their backs on Christ are often openly antagonistic to him, and subsequently to those who follow him. Thus when Christians are subjected to abuse, it is as a consequence of their love of Christ; in essence it is Jesus who is being abused. In verse 24, then, Paul understands that the suffering that fills up his own flesh is a continuation of the abuse that Christ received.

None of us want to experience suffering, and few would join Paul in rejoicing in suffering. It’s not uncommon to suffer for our faith though. I’m sure that there are people here today who have endured suffering because of their beliefs. You don’t have to look too far to see people who endure real hardship, punishment, imprisonment or worse for holding on to the gospel of Christ. 

Maybe we can draw comfort from this passage, however. If we find ourselves enduring suffering, we are doing so on behalf of Jesus; it is he who upsets people, it is his gospel that people find offensive. 

Jesus himself warned us of this in Matthew 24, when he warned “then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.” 

Not an easy message at all, but again, it is clear that those who endure persecution do so as a consequence of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. 

Maybe we can also hold onto the fact that if we face trouble because of our faith, like Paul we may in a way be protecting those who are newer in the faith, younger Christians who, if they faced the same level of challenge, might be tempted to renounce their faith and fall away. Consequently, we can see how the persecution of individuals is actually persecution of the body of Christ, the church, and those who face it do so to protect others, and ultimately build up the church.

Well, we’re coming to the end, you might be relieved to hear! This is a really challenging passage, and I hope that we have a better understanding of what it means.

In summary, it starts with that terrific acclamation of who Jesus is – the supreme being over all things, no mere teacher or miracle worker, but the image of the invisible God himself. The whole fullness of God dwells in him. Our natural state is alienation from God, but through Jesus’ death and resurrection we have been reconciled by him. As a consequence of Jesus’ death, we can approach God as holy, without blemish and free from accusation. A truly remarkable gospel message which it is good to remind ourselves of frequently.

Paul drops in an ‘if’ though – we will be reconciled “if” we continue in our faith, establish and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. 

As Christians we are expected to continue working to build up our own faith, not moving from the hope held out in the gospel. That’s why it’s so important that we regularly remind ourselves of this gospel message, and don’t neglect it once we have become Christians. 

And then there’s that message that suffering may follow conversion, but if we encounter this we do so as a consequence of who Jesus is and what he has done, not because of who we are. 

By suffering we play a part in building up the body of Christ, the church.

But ultimately, we need to remember that at our head is Jesus, the image of the invisible God, supreme over all. It is he whom we worship, he whom we dedicate our lives to serving and he on whom we build our hope.What a remarkable message that is!

Si’s Bible Reflections
Si’s Bible Reflections
Jesus Supreme

May your word to me be fulfilled

[26] In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, [27] to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. [28] The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” [29] Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. [30] But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. [31] You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. [32] He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, [33] and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” [34] “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” [35] The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. [36] Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. [37] For no word from God will ever fail.” [38] “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Luke 1:26-38

How do you feel when your boss asks you to do something? Maybe if it’s something simple, or you have a good relationship, it’s not an issue. Perhaps if they asked you to do something tricky, or time consuming, or if you don’t get on with your boss, it might get you a little hot under the collar. Whenever my boss approaches, I always start panicking; what have I done? What is he going to ask me to do?

In today’s passage, Mary is visited by someone even more scary than a boss; an angel. It might seem odd to describe an angel as scary; our image when we think of angels is of little girls in white sheets, with tinsel halos, ballet-dancing across the stage at a nativity. Not exactly an image to frighten the living daylights out of you! But this is not a Biblical image of angels. Whenever people encounter angels in the Bible, one of the first things the angel says is, “do not be afraid.” Angels evidently strike fear into the hearts of all those to whom they appear. Today’s episode is no exception; the angel, Gabriel, says to Mary in verse 30, “do not be afraid Mary.”

Not just that, but Luke records that Mary “was greatly troubled” at Gabriel’s words. At this point, Gabriel hadn’t said a great deal, simply, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” Gabriel hadn’t mentioned the fact that Mary was going to give birth to God’s son yet, simply that God is with her. The greeting alone was enough to trouble Mary!

You’d think that Gabriel’s message would trouble her even more. 

What does Gabriel tell her?

She has found favour with God. 

She will conceive and give birth to a son, whom she is to call Jesus. 

He will be called great and will be the son of God. 

God will give him the throne of his father, David. 

He will reign over Jacob’s descendants for ever. 

His kingdom will never reign. 

How would you react if you were given that message? It’s shocking. It’s unsettling. It’s remarkable. 

It is astonishing.

I think I would be lost for words. 

Mary’s response is to ask how this could be, since she has a virgin. As far as she knows, virgins don’t give birth…

Gabriel answers her, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”

How does a young girl, engaged to a decent man, get her head round that? To take on board that the Holy Spirit is somehow going to make her pregnant, that she is going to endure nine months of pregnancy, that she is to give birth, that she will bring up a child who, according to the angel, is the son of God? How will she cope? How can she possibly afford this? How is she going to explain this  to Joseph? How will he react? Will he break off the engagement? Will she be stoned, since this was the punishment for bearing another man’s child? How will her family react? How will her community respond?

There’s no way that she can go through with this surely.

Surely she just turns to the angel and says, “thanks, but no thanks. Find someone better suited to this role.”

Yet she doesn’t. In one of the most remarkable statements in the Bible, Mary says to Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”

Mary was perturbed when the angel appears. Yet her response to his earth shattering message, is yes, of course. I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be to me according to your word.

This, then, is why Mary was entirely the right person to give birth to Jesus. She completely accepts God’s plan for her life. She knows the impact that this will have, she knows that her life will be changed forever, she knows the risks involved, yet she says to God, “of course.”

How many of us, when confronted by God’s plan for our lives, respond as Mary did, “I am the Lord’s servant?”

Or how many of us, Jonah like, run away in completely the opposite direction?

Or how many of us just do our best to ignore the plan that God has for us, that’s niggling away inside us, nervous of the impact that it will have on our lives, and the lives of our family?

As Christmas draws closer, let’s reflect on Mary’s response to Gabriel in this remarkable passage of scripture, and strive to emulate her attitude more as we go through our lives, day by day.

They will call him Immanuel

[18] This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about : His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. [19] Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. [20] But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. [21] She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” [22] All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: [23] “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). [24] When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. [25] But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Matthew 1:18-25

A week today it’s Christmas Eve! It’s funny because on the one hand it seems to have come round really quickly this year. On the other, since Christmas seems to begin in the retail world in August these days, it seems to have been coming for a very long time. I suppose it’s the combination of the two that means that the Big Day just creeps up on us!

It’s unlikely that Christmas Day crept up on Mary and Joseph. I think that they must have had a rather interesting nine months before the birth of Jesus.

Matthew says surprisingly little about Mary in his account of Jesus’ birth. We get a sense of the remarkable situation in which she found herself, however. She was a young girl, engaged to Joseph. One day, much to her great surprise, she discovered that she was going to have a baby. What’s more, before she and Joseph ‘came together’ “she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.”

What thoughts must have been running through her head? How can I have a baby, I’m a virgin? Can the baby I’m carrying really be God’s son? Why me? How on EARTH am I going to explain this to Joseph? Is he going to call off the marriage? What will happen to me and my child? Will anyone believe me? Will I be rejected by my family? Will I be an outcast?

Will I be stoned to death for sleeping with someone else whilst betrothed? That’s how it could look to others…

Was this an exciting time for Mary? A worrying time? A challenging time? A daunting time? Probably all of these!

What about Joseph? We get a picture of a decent man – a good Jew “who was faithful to the law,” who did not want to expose Mary “to public disgrace,” and therefore decided “to divorce Mary quietly.” One word from him and Mary would indeed be stoned. But he was not that kind of guy. And he cared too deeply for Mary to allow that to happen. 

I’m not surprised he wanted to call off his marriage. It must have been incredibly humiliating to discover that his fiancée was pregnant, carrying a baby that could not possibly be his. How upsetting for him. He thought he had his future worked out – a good life with Mary – and now it looked like it was going to come to an end before it had even started.

But then one night an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him, “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

What. A. Revelation. His fiancée was carrying the son of God! God himself! How utterly remarkable. Mary, his Mary, was going to give birth – to God?!

I cannot begin to imagine how stunned Joseph must have been by this revelation. But, since he was a good man, he did exactly what he was told and “took Mary home as his wife.” What’s more, “he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth.

We have here a picture of two decent, upright, honest, devout, kind people, who honour and respect God, and who honour and respect each other. 

Wouldn’t it be great to see a few more people like this in the world today?

Well you know what they say, “be the change you want to see!”

Of course, we could hardly look at this passage without reflecting on verses 22 and 23:

All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

The baby that Mary will bear is the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. He is the long-awaited Messiah, sent by God to rescue his people. Indeed, this baby will BE God – Immanuel – God With Us.

There’s a chorus in a contemporary carol that hits me hard every time I sing it :

And who would have dreamed or ever foreseen

That we could hold God in our hands?

The Giver of Life is born in the night

Revealing God’s glorious plan.

I’ve known the story of Jesus’ birth for forty odd years now, but singing that chorus still gets me every time. It’s a succinct expression of the truth of Immanuel.

Mary held God in her hands.

The one who gave life to all was born in the night.

God’s plan for humanity was revealed through the birth of this baby boy.

So, how can we be more like the decent, God-loving Mary and Joseph today and in the weeks and months ahead?

And what does it mean to us that Jesus is Immanuel – God with us, born to humanity, dwelling amongst us? What does it mean to us that our God should enter our existence in order to save us from our sin, and to reunite us to him?

Photo by Mark König on Unsplash

The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men

[22] When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. [23] They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.

Matthew 17:22-23

It’s really hard to lose a loved one. That’s probably an understatement. It’s gut wrenching. It’s heart breaking. It hurts like nothing else. It brings even the strongest to tears. Even if we know that they have gone to be with the Lord, it can still be deeply traumatising for those of us left behind. It just hurts. Really hurts. 

In today’s reading, Jesus, for the second time in Matthew’s Gospel, predicts his death. Even under normal circumstances this would no doubt have been hard for his closest friends to bear. But the particular circumstances in which Jesus says he will die are deeply unsettling. He will be delivered into the hands of men and they will kill him. This is not a “normal” death, from sickness or from old age. This is not even a tragic accident. This is a violent death at the hands of his enemies. 

Jesus’ disciples must have been deeply shocked by this revelation. If they accepted that he was the Messiah, the last thing they would have expected would be for him to be killed. According to their expectations, the Messiah would be a triumphant king who would lead his people to victory. A brutal death at the hands of his enemies was definitely not what they expected to happen to their Messiah.

The reaction of the disciples is completely understandable. I’m not surprised that they were filled with grief. 

The revelations don’t even begin there, though. Look again at that first part of Jesus’ statement here. “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.” This is a clear foreshadowing of his betrayal. Someone is going to hand him over to his enemies. Being delivered suggests that someone whom he knows and trusts is going to hand him over to the people who will kill him. This is deeply shocking. 

I wonder if the disciples grasped the enormity of what Jesus was saying? It looked like one of them was going to be responsible setting in motion the chain of events that would lead to Jesus’ execution. 

Jesus is making it clear that he is going to die. What’s more, he’s going to suffer a brutal death at the hands of his enemies. And as if that were not enough, his death will be precipitated by a betrayal by someone close to him.

It’s not surprising that the disciples were filled with grief. I expect they were stunned to the point of despair. 

Sometimes if someone tells you bad news you’re so overcome that you don’t hear what they say next.

I wonder if the disciples heard what Jesus said next?

“On the third day he will be raised to life.”

For Jesus his execution is not the end. He will beat death. Death will not be able to hold him. Death will be defeated. 

And Jesus will be raised to life!

What’s more, Jesus’ resurrection foreshadows what will also be true for all of Jesus’ followers.

If we put our hope in Christ, we too will be raised for life!

That is remarkable!

I feel a little sorry for the disciples here. It feels as if they’re the only ones who don’t know what’s going on. Jesus has a clear understanding of his own fate: betrayal, execution, resurrection. We are in the fortunate position that we also know what will happen to Jesus. But the poor disciples have no idea. It’s not surprising that they were troubled. 

Jesus, though, understands the mission that lies before him. He knows that he has been sent by his father to take the punishment for our sin. He has been sent to bear God’s wrath, the wrath that would consign us to eternal damnation if we were forced to bear it. He has been sent to defeat death, to defeat the grave, by rising to new life after his physical death. He has been sent to be the first to ascend to heaven. He has been sent to open the prospect of heaven for us – if we accept his death and resurrection, and seek to follow him. 

The disciples were filled with grief by the prospect of the death of their friend. But that’s because they didn’t grasp the full significance of his sacrificial action. Death would not be the end for him; he would rise to new life on the third day. And by doing so he paves the way for them, and for all who believe, to also draw comfort that death is not the end; we too will be raised to new life.

And that’s quite a revelation!

Faith as small as a mustard seed

[14] When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. [15] “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. [16] I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.” [17] “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” [18] Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. [19] Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” [20] He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Matthew 17:14-21

I really hope that we don’t have any more lockdowns – for many, many reasons. One reason is because my family found home learning, how can I put this… challenging! My children generally do well at school, but it was really tough trying to support them through their learning at home. I lost track of the number of times I said to them, “just believe in yourself, have faith in your own ability, you can do it!” They seem to accept this from their teachers, but not from me!

In today’s reading, Jesus is teaching his disciples about faith. A man had taken his son to Jesus’ disciples. His son suffered from seizures, and had hoped that Jesus’ disciples would heal him. They failed to do so, however. The man’s son was subsequently healed by Jesus, and Jesus used this situation as a lesson in faith for the disciples. 

Interestingly, in other healings, we see people made better because of their faith in Jesus. The man in this story clearly has faith in Jesus’ disciples – but his son wasn’t healed. Jesus’ disciples want to know why not.

Jesus tells them that they were unable to heal the son because they have so little faith; it wasn’t the man’s faith that was left wanting, but the faith of the disciples. 

The power to heal came not from the disciples themselves, but from God. It was God who would heal, not the disciples. It was crucial, therefore, that they had faith in God’s ability to heal; if they lacked faith, then the healing wouldn’t take place. 

What’s more, they didn’t need a huge amount of faith. Jesus explains that, “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move.” 

I find this reassuring but also challenging. 

I find it reassuring because sometimes my level of faith feels small. Sometimes I wonder if my faith is really genuine, because I am more aware of my lack of great faith rather than my possession of a small faith. And yet, even with faith as small as a mustard seed, great things can still be accomplished for the glory of God and his his kingdom. 

I find it challenging, because if I could metaphorically move mountains with even a tiny amount of faith, what might be possible if I had more faith!  How much difference could I make to God’s kingdom, to the world, if only I had a little more faith! How much more could God work through me if I trusted more in him?

Jesus criticised the disciples for their lack of faith. How can we be sure that we don’t also suffer from lack of faith?

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Romans 10:17). If we want to build our faith, then, we should endeavour to immerse ourselves in the Word of God, found in the Bible. 

It could be said that faith leads to greater faith. Our faith leads us to the Bible, to the Word of God, and to prayer. The Word and prayer in turn strengthen our faith, which in turn leads us deeper into the Word and prayer. The Word and prayer serves to strengthen our faith further.

In contrast, lack of faith leads to a greater lack of faith. We doubt our faith so neglect our Bible study and avoid prayer. Since we’re not immersing ourselves in the Word of God and engaging in prayer, our faith weakens.

Two cycles then – a virtuous faith cycle, and a vicious lack of faith cycle.

The great news is that if we find ourselves on the latter, it is easy to switch to the former; we just need to pick up the Bible, study the Word, and to pray to God.

I wonder which of these cycles you are currently on?

Do you want to strengthen your faith?  

How might you do this?

Listen to him

[1] After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. [2] There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. [3] Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. [4] Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” [5] While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

Matthew 17:1-5

I do enjoy reading Which? Magazine. My wife subscribes (well, I think it’s more a case of she’s forgotten to cancel her trial subscription of some years ago!) Whenever I’m planning a purchase I consult Which? to check for their reviews. If they recommend a product, or have selected it as a Best Buy, then it is highly likely that it will make it to the top of my list of possible purchases. An endorsement from Which? is a big deal as far as I’m concerned!

In today’s reading, Jesus receives three endorsements, one of which truly is the ultimate endorsement; from God himself!

Jesus has headed up a mountain with three of his closest disciples, Peter, James and John. Whilst he was there the disciples were absolutely stunned to witness his transfiguration – defined by my dictionary as “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.” Then Moses and Elijah appeared, and talked with Jesus! What a completely remarkable sight that must have been! Here we see Jesus meeting with Moses, the deliverer of Israelites and lawgiver, and Elijah, the great prophet. Jesus is the ultimate fulfilment of their work – pointing people to God, reaffirming God’s law and rule, and delivering all of humanity from their sin. Moses and Elijah therefore could be seen to endorse Jesus’ work.

Peter, keen to extend this amazing moment for as long as possible, offered to put up shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, but this clearly wasn’t the time – he was interrupted by none other than God!

God endorses his son, Jesus. He declares him to be his son. He declares his love for him. He affirms that he is pleased with him. And he issues an instruction: “listen to him!” Through God’s interruption of Peter it is clear that Jesus is above even the law and the prophets. He is like Moses, but better. He is like Elijah, but better. He is better because he is the son of God. He supersedes all others. He is greater than all others. 

Yesterday we considered that great question that Jesus posed to his disciples: “who do you say I am?”

Today we find an answer to that question. Jesus is God’s son.

The question for us today is, do we obey that instruction issued by God during the transfiguration? Do we listen to Jesus? Do we study his words in the Bible and seek to apply them to our lives? Do we strive to live by his teachings? 

If God commands us to listen to his son, perhaps we should make sure we do just that. 

Who do you say I am?

[13] When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” [14] They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” [15] “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” [16] Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Matthew 16:13-16

Do you remember dinner parties? Drinks receptions? Work conferences? What with the global pandemic, I suspect that this are little more than a distant memory! Maybe you think that’s a good thing! Back when we did meet up socially more regularly, what would you ask someone you met for the first time? I suspect there’s a very good chance that it was, “and what do you do?” We’ve become very good at defining who we are by what we do for a living. It’s almost as if how we make the money that pays our bills is the most defining aspect of our identity. 

Our passage today describes a pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry as he prompts those following him to reflect upon his identity. It all stems from the probing question that Jesus asks his disciples: “who do people say the Son of Man is?” 

Jesus used this title, Son of Man, as a messianic title – a name to describe the Messiah. The best explanation for this term is to be found in Daniel 7:13-14:

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

Studying this conception of the Son of Man, we can see that:

  • The Son of Man comes with the clouds of heaven;
  • The Son of Man is able to approach God, and stand in his presence, suggesting an absence of sin;
  • The Son of Man has been given authority, glory and power to rule by God;
  • The Son of Man will be worshipped by all nations, by people who spread every language;
  • The Son of Man rules over a “dominion” that will last forever, that will never be destroyed.

This is who Jesus no doubt has in mind when he asks his disciples, “who do people say the Son of Man is?” He is asking, who do people say is the Messiah, the sinless, powerful, eternal ruler, given authority by God himself?

That’s quite a question! 

Jesus disciples don’t shy away from an answer, though. Their response suggests that the Jewish community was experiencing heightened anticipation for the coming Messiah. Some think that John the Baptist is the Messiah. Some believe that Elijah is the Messiah and would be returning soon. (Indeed, some thought John the Baptist was Elijah; it is certainly true that he was an Elijah-like figure). Some believed that one of the prophets of the Old Testament was actually the Messiah. 

Jesus then redirects this question to his disciples, and to Peter in particular. “What about you?” he asks. “Who do YOU say I am?”

We know that the disciples’ response is going to be insightful. They, after all, have spent lots of time with Jesus. They have followed him from place to place. They have listened to him teach. They have seen him perform miracles. They have seen him heal. 

So who DO they think that Jesus is?

A great teacher? A magician? A prophet? A fraud?

No, Peter answers for the disciples: “you are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

Peter believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God. Peter believes that Jesus is the Son of Man. 

Peter’s response suggests that Jesus is the one who stands in God’s presence, who has been given authority, glory and powder to rule by God. Peter’s answer suggests that Jesus is the won who will be worshipped by all nations, and who rules over an eternal kingdom.

Whether Peter fully understands the implications of what he says is unclear. Indeed, from Mark’s account of this episode in Mark 8, it is likely that Peter didn’t have the full picture of what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. But we do see here a burgeoning understanding amongst Jesus’ disciples that their master is different – he is not merely a teacher, but someone who will make a significant impression on the world. 

How would WE answer this question? Who so WE say that Jesus is? 

This is one of the most important questions we face, and it’s definitely worth reflecting carefully on our answer, as well as thinking through the implications of our answer.

If we believe Jesus to be the Son of Man, the Messiah, how does this change our lives, how we live, what we do?

What better time could there be than advent to think about this? As we think about that baby born to Mary all those years ago, as we attend Christmas services, as we share the joys of the season with our family and friends – who do WE say that Jesus is?

They Praised the God of Israel

[29] Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. [30] Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. [31] The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

Matthew 15:29-31

Sometimes I’m at home with my children whilst my wife is at work. They often ask, “when will mummy be home?” When she does arrive back, as soon as she puts the key in the door the children drop everything and run to the door, shouting, “mummy! Mummy!”

In today’s passage Jesus returns to Galilee after his visit to Tyre and Sidon, where he encountered the Canaanite woman with the demon-possessed daughter. I can imagine the Galilean crowds asking themselves, “when will Jesus be back?” and peering over the horizon to see if they could see Jesus and his disciples returning. As it is, no sooner has he returned (and climbed up a mountain – presumably another attempt to get some peace and quiet after he was recognised in Tyre and Sidon!), than word spreads that Jesus has returned. Immediately, big crowds flocked to Jesus, “bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others” to him. 

What is Jesus’ response? He heals them – the mute spoke, the crippled were healed, the lame walked and the blind saw.

Just pause for a minute and reflect on that. How incredible must it have been to witness this? A man dismissed by some as no more than a carpenter from Nazareth healing scores of people! Imagine the joy of all those who had been healed, and of their friends who had supported them to get up the mountain!

The most important aspect of this story for me is the response of the crowd. What do they do after being healed, or seeing their friends receive healing? They “praised the God of Israel.” They turned their joy into praise for God. They recognised that they had received healing from God, and praised him in response. 

This was the key to Jesus’ ministry; to get people to the point of praising God. Whether it was through his teaching, his healing, or, ultimately his death and resurrection, he points the crowds – and us – to God. He brings us to God and God to us. He bridges the chasm that has emerged between sinful humans and perfect God. He seeks to restore the perfect relationship that humanity and God had known before the fall. And through his death and resurrection he does exactly that.

Jesus loves his father and wants us to love him too.

Jesus loved the crowds. He his compassion for all. 

How do we measure up to this example that Jesus lays out before us?

Do we love our fellow people, have compassion on them, and seek to serve them as Jesus serves the crowds here?

And do we love God? Do we turn every blessing we receive back into praise, “praising the God of Israel?”

This are great questions to ponder this weekend!

Even The Dogs Eat The Crumbs

[21] Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. [22] A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” [23] Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” [24] He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” [25] The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. [26] He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” [27] “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” [28] Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Matthew 15:21-28

It’s great to visit other countries. I really enjoy getting out of England and seeing some of the rest of the world. There’s nothing better than a relaxing holiday in foreign climes – especially, in my opinion, if those climes are warmer and sunnier than at home! But trips away also have the potential to change us. Sometime ago I spent a month in Belarus, and those four weeks away changed me more as a person than any other four-week period that I can remember. Whilst I was dating my wife, I often visited her at home in Northern Ireland. It dawned on me one day whilst there how I had always regarded people from countries other than England as somehow “different” – but that when I was in Northern Ireland it was me who was “different,” not the Northern Irish! Perhaps we’re ALL different – or, looking at it from another perspective, perhaps we’re all the same really, no matter where we are from, or what our culture, beliefs or heritage are.

In today’s passage, Jesus has left behind the familiar Jewish region of Galilee, perhaps as a result of his run in with the Pharisees, that we reflected upon yesterday. He has withdrawn to the region of Tyre and Sidon, where he no doubt hoped to escape from the crowds of people who had been following him. No sooner had he arrived, though, when he is confronted by “a Canaanite woman.” 

It’s very interesting how this woman addresses Jesus. Despite Jesus’ expectation that he would be rather more anonymous away from Galilee, this woman immediately cries out to him, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” She understood that Jesus was a descendent of King David – as the prophesied Messiah would be. What’s more, she follows up this statement with a plea – “my daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” She clearly believed that Jesus had the ability to expel the demon and to end her suffering. 

Is it possible that she recognises Jesus as the Jewish Messiah – something that even the disciples had failed to fully grasp? Her greeting here would suggest that yes, she does!

Jesus’ response has challenged believers for generations – he seems to be uncharacteristically dismissive. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” he declares. When she falls to her knees and begs him, “Lord, help me!” Jesus responds with the statement, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

Is Jesus calling this woman a dog?! Apparently the word rendered dog here is actually closer to the word ‘puppy,’ suggesting a beloved household pet rather than a vicious wild animal, but even so, it still doesn’t sound very polite!

Some writers have pondered whether this is the more human aspect of Jesus’ character coming through. Perhaps Jesus himself hasn’t fully grasped what it means to be Messiah, they reason. I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable to comment on this, but if Jesus was sin-free, as Christians hold him to be,  I would suggest that we need to be careful where such thinking takes us!

Whatever the reason for Jesus’ seemingly harsh response, the woman gives as good as she gets. She replies, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She’s not looking for the full blessing that the Messiah bestows on the Jews – but she believes that there is enough blessing to go round, and maybe even just a little might come her way – and that little will be enough to save her daughter. 

Sure enough, this is the case. Jesus is so impressed, perhaps so moved by this women’s pleas, that he grants her request and her daughter is healed. 

Does the trip outside Jewish territories change Jesus’ thinking? It is entirely possible. Certainly we see the dawning of the next phase of his ministry – a ministry to save the whole world from their sin, not just the Jewish people. 

Maybe encountering people who are different to us is important for all of us. Maybe it helps us to better understand the world, and our place in it. Maybe it helps us to see people different to us not merely as “those others,” but people who are fundamentally the same as we are. 

I think particularly of those migrants who are desperate to cross the English Channel to build new lives in England. By making the crossing, they are risking their lives – and many have died in their attempts to find safety. What must be driving them from their homes that makes the Channel crossing seem like a risk worth taking? How do we view these people? Are they “other,” outsiders who do not deserve the lives that we lead? Or are they not so different to us really? How would we act if we were in their shoes?

The Gospel message is for all people – people like us, and people who, at first glance, are not quite like us. We have a duty, a mission, to reach out to all people, and to share Jesus’ love and message of new life with everyone. 

Perhaps we should get out of our comfort zone and strive to meet more people who we think are different to us? Maybe our view of ourselves and the world might change – possibly for the better!

Their Hearts are Far From Me

[1] Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, [2] “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” 

[3] Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? [4] For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ [5] But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ [6] they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. [7] You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 

[8] “ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 

[9] They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ ”

Matthew 15:1-9

I was lucky enough to spend a couple of years as a small boy at a Prep School in the middle of the Surrey countryside. I have many memories of the place. Most of them are incredibly happy memories. On reflection, many are also a little odd! I remember learning Ancient Greek at the age of eight. I remember studying the path of maggots through a dead rabbit we found on the playing field. I remember learning how to round up cattle and sheep. And I remember learning how to service a vintage tractor. Some of the things I learnt have come in useful, others not so much! One of the things we did before every meal definitely served a purpose; we had a hand inspection to ensure that our hands had been thoroughly scrubbed clean before we were allowed into the Dining Room. The headteachers clearly knew that small boys’ hands were often rather grubby, and perhaps should be cleaned before eating!

At the beginning of Matthew 15, Matthew recounts how some Pharisees and teachers of the law ask Jesus why his disciples didn’t wash their hands before they eat. This was “the tradition of the elders,” and they are clearly affronted by Jesus tolerating his disciples failure to wash their hands. Jesus responds by asking why they fail to keep the commandment to honour their mothers and fathers by claiming that the money they would have used to support their parents is devoted to God. 

Jesus then says: 

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

“‘These people honour me with their lips,

But their hearts are far from me.

They worship me in vain;

Their teachings are merely human rules.’”

Jesus is clear that the Pharisees’ worship is false. They say all the right things, but actually, in their hearts they do not know God. Consequently the worship that falls from their lips is worthless. The rules that they teach do not come from God but are invented by humans. 

The rule to wash hands before eating falls into this category – a rule devised by Jewish teachers, and of no consequence in a person’s relationship with God. God is not concerned about whether or not someone washes their hands before eating. This rule has become one of the yokes that the Pharisees sought to hang round the necks of Jews, a burden that Jews were expected to bear, but of no eternal significance.

The question for us today, then, is to assess how similar we are to the Pharisees. 

Do we honour God with our lips by going through all the motions – going to Church, serving on Church teams, going to Home Group etc? Meanwhile, are our hearts on earthly things – gaining promotions, getting a better car, even just the day to day burdens of ensuring we and our children are in the right place, at the right time?

Or are our hearts focused on serving God – committed to studying his word, building our prayer lives, sharing his Gospel, being compassionate to all whom we encounter?

Are we focused on the rules of Church life whilst not truly worshipping God?

Or is our worship heartfelt and genuine, the driving force of our lives, the sustenance that carries us through our days?