A sermon by Larry Campbell on Matthew 9:15-38
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, o, Lord.
The last time I spoke here at saint benedict’s table, you folks were wonderfully attentive. However, you’ll remember I sort of went on and on. Tonight I’m committed to not taking up as much of your time. With that caveat, we begin.
- To listen to the message, click play:
Before the passage we read tonight in Matthew, we were told about the woman who was healed simply by touching the hem of Jesus’ robe. He healed the daughter of the synagogue leader. He healed two blind men. He healed a man who couldn’t speak, and whom the people believed had been possessed by a demon. The common denominator of most of these healing events was what Jesus told all of them; it was their faith that healed them.
As we pick up the story from here, we are told that the message Jesus proclaimed throughout the region was the good news of the kingdom. This was always accompanied with the healing of the sick. This healing ministry was to be a sign, and was to give credence to Jesus’ authority, and His claim that the kingdom was near. This is the same message that Jesus told his disciples to preach as well.
Jesus also then gave the disciples a curious set of instructions. He said, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” We’ve heard Jesus say to those He healed, not to tell anyone about the healing. I’ve always wondered why. But this seems to be a little different. “Don’t go among the Gentiles.” I believe this has to do with God’s over-arching plan of salvation for humanity.
The incarnation, or the en-fleshing of God in Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, is more than just what we celebrate at Christmas. It starts there. That’s the beginning of a massive miraculous invasion of Nature by the Creator. Part of the mission of the Incarnate One was to take the form of humanity and in that form to respond to God’s call with a huge ‘Yes’. We, as humanity have failed to say ‘Yes’ to the call of God.
Jesus said ‘Yes’ to God in the desert and ‘No’ to evil. He said ‘No’ to self-centredness, and ‘Yes’ to living by every word that comes from God. He said ‘No’ to the seduction of religiosity and politics in order to acquire power and fame, and said ‘Yes’ to allegiance to God only. Jesus’ 33 years was spent teaching humanity what it means to live in God’s kingdom; to love God, and to love humanity with His whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. We have been unable to do this, but He did it.
When Jesus told his disciples to focus on the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he was fulfilling the next part of God’s mission to us. First, He was living as a human; as humans were created to live. Then in living as a human He successfully faced evil. Now he was living into the covenant that God had with Israel. And in this phase of God’s plan in Jesus Christ to save humanity, the people of Israel were being called and reminded of that covenant.
The next phase was during the passion of Christ. After suffering false accusations, abandonment, ridicule, misunderstanding, and even alienation from God, His Father, we are told by John in his gospel, “…knowing that everything had now been finished, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty’…When He had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.”
Jesus came to do what humanity was never able to do…to say ‘Yes’ to God. Paul writes, “…being found in the appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient…” that’s obedience to the Trinity’s plan to reach down to humanity; he continues, “…obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8)
And that’s not all! After the Christ Jesus went back to sit at the right hand of His Father, They send Their Spirit to live in us and through us! The Kingdom of God is near, indeed!
But I want to explore another thought. Jesus was talking about the lost sheep of the house of Israel. I was wondering about the lost sheep of the church.
Some of us are in the process of reading the Chronicles of Narnia together. Right now we are reading “The Silver Chair”. We’ve already been introduced to Eustace Scrubb. In this story, he has called for Aslan the Lion to help him and his friend, Jill, and they’ve been transported to a mountain in Aslan’s kingdom. This is still a fair distance from Narnia.
Narnia is apparently in a bad way, and Aslan is sending Jill and Eustace to save it. Before Jill is sent to Narnia (carried on the sweet breath of the Lion, by the way…which is awesome!), Aslan gives Jill four signs that she needs to watch for in order to accomplish their mission. He says, “First, remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning, and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night…Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind…That is why it is so important to know the signs by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs; believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”
This sounds strangely familiar. Remember when the Jews who had escaped from Egypt were set to enter the land that God promised for them? God had given them many laws that were designed to give the people direction and to remind them that their God was the Lord. Then God said to the people, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) These signposts were gifts given by God to help the people of Israel be the humans they were created to be. They were to remind the people who they were, and to Whom they belong. They would be tempted to break their agreement with God. They would be seduced by other gods, and by things that distract all of us from God. They would even wonder whether their God was capable of helping them…or maybe their God wasn’t even there.
This is why God said to the people of Israel, “What I give you today is to remain on your hearts.” This is why Aslan says to Jill, “Remember, remember, remember.” However, once Jill is in Narnia, she has a hard time even remembering what she was supposed to remember. (Sounds like me going grocery shopping.) And Israel was distracted, and seduced, and they forgot. They forgot who they were and to whom they belong.
This is what Jesus was doing. He had come to live in humanity’s skin, to face evil, and to fulfil the covenant God had with Israel. He was here to remind them who they were, and this was the mission He gave His disciples…go to the lost sheep of Israel.
What about my question about the lost sheep of the Church? Personally, I feel lost often. I get distracted from my God. I am seduced by the tantalizing “come-ons” from what is often a mindless celebrity culture. I want things so I can be cool or feel like I am in some way complete. Do any of you feel this way sometimes? I love what the apostle Paul says in Romans (7:18,19). He says, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
So, can we take a page out of the ancient text, or listen to Jesus speaking with the voice of Aslan? Can we think of some phrases that God has given us to remember? Can we say them as we drift off to sleep, or as we wake? Or maybe we can repeat them when we can’t sleep. Can we write them down and stick them on our fridge or on the mirror in our bathroom? Can we tattoo them on our wrists? (That sounds like a kind of a hipster thing to do.)
I don’t want to share too much about me but there was a time when any thought of God was the last thing on my mind. I did want to connect with God but I would procrastinate and continue on my distracted way. Then I remembered hearing about the desert hermits that told their followers to say the Jesus Prayer. And so I started to pray… “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And I would repeat it often, as the desert hermits instructed their followers to do. At night I said it til I fell asleep… which meant sometimes I said it 20 times, and sometimes I didn’t even get to the “have mercy” part. But I believe in many ways this practise has saved me.
Here are some other phrases we could use, as signs from our God, to remind us who we are, and to Whom we belong…
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me”, or,
“What does the LORD require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”, or,
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbour as yourself.”, or even, (you can say it with me…)
“Almighty God, to You all hearts are open, all desires known, and from You no secrets are hidden. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your hold name, through Christ our Lord, Amen.”
I’m sure many of you have other phrases that come to mind. Teach them to your children. Talk about them with your family when you sit down to the supper table. Talk about them with your friends as you walk down the street, or as you chat over breakfast at the diner, or while you nurse a beer at the pub. Sing them to yourself when you lie down. Pray them when you wake in the morning. Amen.