The Right Christ For The Right Church At The Right Time
I have always been fascinated by the way the four Gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—portray the Gospel story in different ways. They are like four great artists who paint the same picture from differing perspectives with differing hues, shades, and styles. Mark, for example, seems to be the Grandma Moses of the Gospel writers. He has a limited palette of colors, his paintings are without embellishment, even rough-hewn, and he sticks only to basic portrayals. Luke I would describe as the Rembrandt of the evangelists. Magnificent detail, rich colors, and ingenious interplay of light and shadow give a majestic fullness to his work. John seems to me to be the Picasso of the group. His portrayal of the Christ is radically different from the others, filled with abstractions, and even some shocking and controversial perspectives. Matthew, for me, is the Vincent Van Gogh figure. Bold, brassy colors, together with strong, authoritative images, mark his work. For example, there was a time when Van Gogh was hospitalized at San Remy in the south of France and during his convalescence, he sought to duplicate the work of some of the great masters who preceded him. One of the paintings he copied was Rembrandt’s “Raising of Lazarus.” He used the same composition as Rembrandt, except that where Rembrandt had Christ portrayed as a tall, strong figure, Van Gogh replaced the human figure with a fiery sun, overpowering in its brightness and brilliance. Van Gogh was saying that Christ is the ultimate light, the energy producing, life-giving center of the human experience, the magnetic force holding everything together. Matthew portrays Christ in the same way. More than any other Gospel writer, he emphasizes the centering and consuming authority of Jesus. Jesus, as Matthew tells it, is the single most powerful force ever to appear on the face of the earth; and Jesus, as Matthew tells it, demands a response. We see that quite clearly in this passage from Matthew 4.
I must admit that when I first read it, I had to read it again—and when I read it again, I had to shake my head in disbelief. The Gallup Poll recently stated that 79% of the people in our country claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. That means that 8 out of 10 you see walking through a shopping mall if you stop them would say: “Yes, sirree! I am a follower of Jesus Christ!” Amazing! That’s enough people to change the world, to revolutionize this globe. In fact, if even just half of those people were really faithful, then we would cease to be the masters of mediocrity in our faith and would become instead redeeming revolutionaries.
This passage in Matthew is running over with revolution. It is clear that Jesus doesn’t call us just to be people who check “Protestant” on job applications. He calls us to give our lives, to be willing, if necessary, to leave family, kith, and kin to follow Him, to build His kingdom and to do battle with evil, cost what it may. I fear that we have forgotten that. I fear that we are like Dan Fouts. Remember him? He was for many years the quarterback of the San Diego Chargers. A year or so ago, he retired and do you know what he said? He said: “Now that I am retired, I want to say that all defensive linemen are sissies!” Pretty safe to call defensive linemen sissies when you’re no longer on the playing field. That’s the way we are. We declare war on Satan, but we do it from the safety of the sidelines. We make bold Christian claims, but we do it within the confines of our own church building. But when we are actually out on the playing field of life,
faced with the demonic power of evil, we tend to become good reticent and reserved Presbyterians—sideline saints. But here in Matthew comes the revolution. Jesus Christ won’t let us sit on the sidelines. It’s time for us to take sides—and it’s right for us to take sides—it’s the right time for us to take sides.
Because we have the right perspective.
Matthew 4, verse 12, tells us that Jesus’ ministry began at the time when John the Baptist was arrested. At first glance, that would not seem to be a propitious time to start a revolution. Jesus’ most dominant and most visible ally had been thrown in jail. Had we been advisors to the Christ, we would have suggested that Jesus put things on hold for a while. “Let’s let the dust settle a bit, Lord, before we press too hard.” But right here Jesus teaches us a great principle. He gives us the right perspective. What appears to be an obstacle for us is always an opportunity for God. Write it down and remember it. From the human perspective, it was a time of pain and difficulty for Jesus, but from the perspective of God, it was nothing other than the birth-pangs of the revolution. What appears to be obstacle for us is always an opportunity for God.
Now that’s easy for me to say but it’s not always so easy to see. It takes a lot of faith to see it sometimes. We are sitting in a folding chair under a canopy out in some cemetery before a loved one’s coffin and we wonder how this could be an opportunity for God. It’s easy to say it, but it’s hard to see it when the one who swore to love you as long as you both should live suddenly decides the vow didn’t count and moves on to someone else. It’s hard to see how our obstacles can become opportunities when it is our child in that hospital bed or when it’ s our house that’s burned down or when it’s our job that is terminated. It takes a lot of faith to see God at work then.
You may have heard the story about the two Roman Catholic nuns who were driving home from their work as nurses at the hospital and they ran out of gas. They saw a gas station up ahead but they didn’t have a gasoline can to carry the fuel. So they reached into the backseat and pulled out a bed pan. They went down to the station, filled it up with gasoline, came back and were pouring the gasoline into the car with the bedpan. Two old boys in a pickup truck drove up, looked at that, and one of them said: “Now that’s what I call faith!”
Sometimes it takes tremendous faith for us to believe that God is active and working in our lives, but the fact is He is. Here, in Matthew, Jesus says: “Even though John the Baptist is in jail, I am going to work.” What to us appears to be an obstacle is always an opportunity for God. That’s the right perspective.
Then we have the right proclamation.
Matthew 4:17 tells us that “Jesus began to preach saying: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Every time He opened His mouth, He taught us something about the kingdom of God, and His words ought to be our words.
Think of the power of those words. There may be many words which you esteem and honor in your life. You may love the prose of Shakespeare or the poetry of Wordsworth, but the fact is that at a moment of personal or family tragedy, at a moment when life is slipping away from someone you love, at that moment you would never think of quoting Shakespeare or Wordsworth. Only one person’s words fit any situation—that one is Jesus Christ. I have been present a number of times when people have left this life, and I can testify to you, as can others, that after the consciousness of the dying one has become clouded, after they no longer see the light or hear the song of birds, after the ones they love the most have faded from their vision and their attention, even at that time, the words of Jesus whispered in a dying ear are heard and draw a response. There is no other word like His Word—and His Word is what we are to proclaim.
I shall not soon forget a conversation I had with a man who had been a faithful and noted preacher for 35 years. He lost his wife to death and I had called to express my sympathy. He proceeded to tell me that three months earlier, after his wife had learned of her terminal illness, he heard her weeping one night. He said to her: “Why are you crying?” She replied: “Because I don’t know if I’ll be saved when I die.” He was stunned by that. He couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. Here was the woman he loved, a woman who had dedicated herself to church and family, and she didn’t know whether she was saved. With devastating impact he realized that she had been hearing him preach for 35 years and he had emphasized more what we do for Christ than what Christ has already done for us. He went on to tell me that starting that next morning, they began a morning ritual. He would say to her: “Honey, what’s your greatest blessing?” She would say: “Jesus.” And he would then ask: “Why is He your greatest blessing?” And she would reply: “Because He forgives me.” As a result, he said, the last months of her life, even in the hospital, even on her deathbed, she was alive in sharing her faith.
My friends, we have the right proclamation. Who is our greatest blessing? Jesus. Why? Because He forgives us. That’s preaching the kingdom. That’s the kingdom message. The kingdom of Christ is not a place of food and drink. It’s a place of righteousness and joy and peace in the Holy Spirit. If our faith brings us only pain and guilt and agony, then we are in the wrong kingdom. If our faith brings us no joy, no life, no sparkle to our eyes, and no dance to our step then we are not in the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
John White has a book entitled Flirting With The World. He was living and working in Sri Lanka. One day he was talking with a teenaged boy in the neighborhood and the boy said: “Mr. White, you are a Christian, aren’t you?” John White perked up and answered: “Yes, how did you know?” The boy said: “Well, you don’t smoke and tell dirty jokes and you don’t go to those parties.” John White said that his heart sank. He said: “If all that boy perceived about Christianity was what I didn’t do, then I had failed.”
Do you remember what H. L. Mencken said? “Christians are people who are scared to death that someone somewhere is having fun.” Not so. Living in obedience to Jesus Christ opens us up to the greatest, most joyous adventure we can ever know in life. Because we are forgiven by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we are heaven-bound. That’s the Good News which is ours. That’s the right proclamation.
And we have the right purpose.
Matthew 4, verse 25 says that “great crowds followed Jesus.” Catch that. They followed Jesus. Obedience is measured by action. Christianity starts with a noun but it ends with a verb. Knowing is never enough. We can know all there is to know about the life of Jesus and not know Jesus. With knowing there must always be doing. Too many people are fascinated by the beauty of Jesus but they never give themselves to the duty of following Jesus.
Understand, please, that Jesus is the only one to ever walk this earth who had the answer to our fear, our failure and our finality. He deals with our fears, those things that keep us awake at night, those anxieties about tomorrow—He says: “Be of good courage, I have overcome the world.” He deals with our failures, those things that shackle and chain us in life—He has the key of forgiveness and He says: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” He deals with our finality, the fact that one day all of us will have our names etched on a piece of granite with two dates and a dash in between—He said: “Because I live, you shall live also.” Jesus is the only One who ever claimed to have those answers. That’s why people follow Him. He is the answer. That was the secret of the revolution. That is what separates the church from just being like the Jaycees or the Kiwanis or the P.T.A. or the Boy Scouts. It’s because we follow the One who has the right answer and the only answer for the hardest questions in life—Jesus Christ.
Some years ago, there was a couple from London vacationing in the north of Scotland. They had their young son with them. They were camping by a waterfall that tumbled down into a rushing river. As they were setting up the tent, their little boy wandered away. When they looked up they realized that he had fallen into the waterfall and was being carried downstream by the rapid current. They couldn’t get to him. In desperation they cried out to God for help. Across the river and down the way, there was a group of shepherds tending their flocks. One of the shepherd boys saw the drowning child, risked his life by plunging into that cold, rushing water, and managed to pull the little boy to safety. The grateful parents tried to find some way to thank the shepherd boy and his family. They learned that the shepherds were so poor that they could not send their children to school. So the parents said: “We’re going to take this shepherd boy back to London to live with us and we’re going to take him to school.” And they did. They gave that little boy a wonderful home and a splendid education. As a result, the shepherd boy grew up to be a brilliant research physician. His name was Alexander Fleming, and he discovered penicillin. And the little boy who was pulled from the rushing waters? His name? Winston Churchill. You see, when the right heart has the right opportunity and acts at the right place with the right attitude at the right time, the right God will always do the right things.
Jesus said: “Come and follow me.” He is the right Christ. This is the right time. The only question is
Will we be the right church?