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Matthew 13:53-14:14

Jesus’ response to rejection, grief and need

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We study through books of the Bible here at The Village Chapel. And we do have extra copies. If anybody would like one, raise your hand up real high. Somebody will drop one off at your row, your aisle. Just raise your hand. And it’s great to follow along in the text.

And I don’t know about you, I’m loving our study of the gospel of Matthew. We have seen as we have studied that this book is really all about the king and his kingdom. We’ve studied the person of Christ in the first four chapters, the principles of Christ in that Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5, 6 and 7, the power of Christ and quite a number of the miracles of Jesus recorded in Matthew’s gospel chapters 8-12, the parables of Christ, 7, some people counted as 8, parables right there in Matthew chapter 13. And we’re finishing up Chapter 13 today.

And Jesus along the way with those parables, by the way, regularly points out that they have this sort of two-pronged effect. They reveal and they conceal. They reveal to those with eyes to see and the ears to hear. They conceal from those who have no faith or not interested in hearing from God or not curious about God and who simply reject God outright.

I don’t know which condition you find yourself in today. I find myself, if I am to be quite honest, I think sometimes I’m in a learning mood and sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I’m a little thick and it’s a little hard for stuff to get through. There have to be a few people in the room like that. I see some heads going up and down, mostly wives. No, we men are definitely.

What is the disposition of your heart? I love the way the 19th century English poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wrote:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven. Every common bush afire with God: But only he, who sees, takes off his shoes. The rest sit round, and pluck blackberries.”

–Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Now, you got to let that sink in. Okay? How many of you like blackberries? I had some this morning. I love blackberries. But if I had to trade blackberries in for any small glimpse of heaven, of Jesus, of his grace and mercy to me, I’d give them away in a second. This, by the way, little known fact, she and Robert Browning who became her husband, here’s how they dated: 600 handwritten letters at a distance. It’s like the first online dating thing, I think no way, but very Victorian era at that point, right?

Like I say, I like blackberries, but I really want to see that with the coming of King Jesus into the world as Matthew is trying to remind us the kingdom of heaven was also breaking in. And this is really important. We ask the question, “What is this kingdom of heaven?”  We hear this phrase over and over again throughout the gospel. It’s really quite a bit in the gospel of Matthew. This is where God’s name is honored. God’s righteous reign and rule are respected, where kingdom perspectives, kingdom values, kingdom, vision, mission and goals are all embraced. And, that over and over again as we’ve gone through this, we’ve been trying to point out this question and get you to think about it. What kind of world do you really want to live in? Which kingdom?

Because for now, we all get to choose our king but we need to realize that in the choosing of our king, we’re also choosing a kingdom. And that those kings, and there are many of them, many different choices. And so, it’s been great I think to ponder that just a little bit. And I don’t know if you’ve ever wondered if the God of the Bible knows what you’re going through. Could God understand what it’s like to live in this kingdom? The kingdom of the earth as broken as it is, as filled with difficulty as it is, when life’s worst experiences include things like agonizing, rejection, the smothering grief of loss, the weight of the relentless need all around us. And we all feel this. All I have to do is be aware of the world around you. But what is it that the God of the Bible thinks of these things and what has he done about these things?

And coming to Matthew’s gospel like we have done and coming to this place in Matthew’s gospel I’ve found quite helpful myself this week because as I said, Matthew is all about King Jesus and his in-breaking the kingdom of heaven. It has begun. It’s not fully consummated yet but it has begun. And we are being invited to be a part of that, to join him in his kingdom and in his kingdom mission.

And as we turn, and I don’t know, do you have one of the Bibles that have red letters? If you do, you’ll see that we’re now moving into a chapter that it’s mostly black ink. And it just kind of made me sit up straight and think, and there’s nothing divinely inspired about do we know which letters should be red and which letters should be black? I’m not saying there is, but I just found it interesting as I looked at this that now, we’re moving really, in verse 53 of chapter 13, we’re moving into a section of literature anyway where the narrator is speaking.

I’ve been reading Jesus speaking through these parables. And He has been telling humanity what it’s like to live in the kingdom of heaven. And now, the human narrator is going to speak, divinely inspired, that’s true. I believe that. But he’s going to tell us what it’s like for divinity to live in the kingdom of the earth. And that contrast to me was really fascinating as I pondered this entire section. Before I read, would you permit me a prayer for illumination?

“Heavenly Father, we know that we don’t live by bread alone, but we find life in every word that proceeds from your mouth, every truth that has been recorded in the written word of God, the ancient scriptures which you’ve graciously given for our learning, for our instruction, for our correction when needed and for which we now praise you and thank you. As we study, give us a clearer vision of your truth, a greater faith in your power and a more confident assurance of your love for us. In Jesus’ name, amen and amen.”

So, let me read Chapter 13:53 on down through Chapter 14:14. It goes like this:

 “It came about that when Jesus had finished these parables, he departed from there. Coming to his hometown, he began teaching them in their synagogue so that they became astonished. And they said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary, his brothers, James and Joseph, Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this man get all these things?’

And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household. And he, Jesus did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.'[Verse 1 of 14.] “At that time, Herod the tetrarch heard the news about Jesu and he said to his servants, ‘This is John the Baptist. He’s risen from the dead and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.’

For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip for John had been saying to him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’ And although he wanted to put him to death, that is Herod wanted to put John to death, Herod feared the multitude because they regarded him, John the Baptist, as a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod, thereupon a promise with an oath to give her whatever she asked.

And having been prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.’ And although he was grieved, the king commanded it to be given because of his oaths and because of his dinner guests. And he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. And his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl and she brought it to your mother. And his disciples, John the Baptist’s disciples came, and took away the body and buried it. And they went and reported to Jesus.

And when Jesus heard it, he withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place by himself. When the multitudes heard of this, they followed him on foot from the cities. And when he came out, he saw a great multitude. He felt compassion for them and he healed their sick.”

So, wow, you’re glad you came to church this morning? It’s like one of those times you’re going, “Whoa. Okay. It’s interesting.” It’s a real change in the literature there, isn’t it? And just the voice that speaks to us and what’s being conveyed. And I don’t know if you tried to see it through the filter of those little comments I made right before it or not, but I’m going to try to help us all see it that way.

But first, let me just orient us geographically. Let me see if this thing is working here. Oh yeah, good. Okay. So, here is the Sea of Galilee. You see the trembling green dot up there. Some of you can see that, that’s my low blood sugar hand holding a … that’s what that is. This whole area here belonged to a guy named Herod the Great. He was actually –  the Roman emperor had appointed Herod the King as king of that entire area.

He died in 4 B.C. He ruled from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. When he died, Jesus had already been born. So, our Western calendars are a little bit off. Jesus was probably born in what we call 5, 6 or 7 B.C., but we know a little bit more than Dionysius Exiguus did in the 6 century A.D. when he set the Western calendar. So, we know when Herod the Great died, his kingdom, all of this was split up into regions. A lot of them called tetrarchs or this is the Decapolis meaning the 10 cities area.

Galilee is here. This is the richest, most fertile soil. Capernaum is right here. This is where Jesus is having most of his Galilean ministry. Nazareth is down in this area right here. You can see it, the lower part of Galilee. And so, if Jesus is doing all of that teaching and he moves to his hometown, he’s moving down this way. People are coming to him from all over though. Religious leaders from down here in Jerusalem will travel all the way up.

Now, this whole area is no bigger than the state of New Jersey. But, when you don’t have a car or a bus, when you’re walking (in sandals,) that’s a long way to go to hear Jesus. And yet that is happening. People are coming by the thousands to hear Jesus.

Now, Herod, just another little word about Herod the Great and if you’ll just join me, this is kind of a very simple little map. As I say, 4 B.C., Herod the Great dies. And then, what we have here is Herod Antipas who is going to be the product of … so, Herod has all these wives. And by the way, he’s crazy paranoid about losing his throne. But one of his sons is Herod Antipas. You’ve got Antipater, Aristobulus, Alexander. You’ve got Antipas down here. You’ve got Herod Philip II, the Tetrarch. There’s Herod Philip I who’s actually the husband of Herodias. That’s her first husband. And what we just read about is that this guy over here, Antipas takes this guy over here, takes his wife.

And while she, Herodias there, is actually his niece to begin with in the storyline. She also calls him uncle, right? And then when he marries or steals her from his half-brother and brings her over here and he marries her, now she’s calling him, “Uncle Honey” because she married her uncle. And it just gets nuts. So, if you think your family is a little twisted or weird in any way, welcome to the Herodian dynasty. No wonder it’s a mess. No wonder things go sideways in so many different ways. But I could go off on that for way too long and I really don’t want to.

I think these first few verses remind us of this: familiarity often breeds contempt. And contempt can be passive or aggressive. You might have walked in here this morning so familiar with everything that is going to be done in here that you have this sort of passive contempt for it. Maybe we should call it indifference at that point. “No, I don’t need to hear any of this. I don’t need to learn any of this. I’m tired of that guy up there talking. He’s just speculating most of the time anyway. Does he think he is telling me what to believe? I’ve already read the Bible. I’ve read it all. I’ve read backwards and forwards. I know what he already has to say. Jesus was a good dude. Yeah. He never got mad about anything.”

Familiarity can breed contempt. I think we need to always come to the scriptures with our hands open to receive from God. And when we pray, bent knees, and we often do these physical things to express our submission before God. And that’s because we’re just so programmed in the world in which we live to think like Herod or like the people of Nazareth. “I don’t need to hear from this guy. He grew up here. Who he thinks he is? We know his mother. We know his father. We know his other kids.” And the kind of shut-the-door approach that they had in Nazareth toward Jesus is a complete rejection of God’s overtures of love back to them.

The second thing I think we see in that first section is that Jesus does know our experiences of living in a world plagued by rejection. And in the rest of the passage, we’ll see his response to grief and relentless need as well. But I think this is really important for us. And now, I was considering it myself through what’s been a fairly difficult couple of weeks for a lot of us. And what’s certainly been a fairly difficult couple of years for all of us.

When I was thinking about all of that, I was trying to think about, “Well, how does Jesus respond to these things himself?” If this is indeed after the parables, Jesus embodying us to see what it looks like to live in the kingdom of heaven, now here’s the divine one living in the kingdom of the earth. And how is he responding to it?

Does that help you see … I think a great way to frame this particular text and to see how is it that Jesus does that and what solutions does the gospel offer, Christianity is the first solution I think that actually makes sense in where God actually starts to show us that he intends to set things right that are broken in the world. And to do that, he actually doesn’t just send messengers. He did send some prophets – and all that sort of thing – got rejected.

But then he came himself and he got rejected. And Nazareth is a real thing that really happened, but I think it also symbolizes the rest of what happens to Jesus as he’s rejected by the religious leaders of the day and as he’s rejected by some of us in our own day and time from time to time. Even those of us who say we believe in grace and have received all of it sometimes just don’t want to hear from him, just not interested at this particular moment. And so, we find ourselves doing the same thing.

And I feel like what we see here is that Jesus responds to this kind of rejection with resolute faithfulness. He continued his journey to the cross and that the cross starts to become this place where Jesus established an irreversible basis for our acceptance before God. See, this is where the real contrast comes. What does Jesus do about the rejection in the world that fills this world?

He shows us how the ultimate acceptance is on offer to you and on offer to me because of what he did. Not because of any merit of my own or your own but because of what he did. The cross is the most brilliant display of these four things from God, his love that motivated him to go to the cross, his real love for justice, too. That is he didn’t just sweep our sin onto the rug or just push a button and wipe it all out. No, he actually paid for it himself.

He took it seriously and paid the prize for my sin. He just didn’t tell me to go out and just deny it or just tell me, “You’re good enough. You’re smart enough. And all God people love you.” He didn’t do that. He came and he died in my place, justice. He honors justice and then mercy –  God granting to each and every one of us his mercy. That is, we didn’t have to take the wrath of God that we actually deserved. We didn’t have to take that. That’s mercy. We’re not getting something we do deserve. And then his wisdom in putting all of that together, that’s just mind-blowing when you think about it. Paul Tripp summarizes it beautifully. He says:

“The One who deserved to be loved and worshiped, Jesus, was willing to be reviled and rejected, so that we, deserving rejection, would be forever loved and accepted by the Father.”

–Paul Tripp

Isn’t that beautiful and a succinct way of saying it?

The 17th century English theologian John Owen, by the way, man, when you come to a church and you get a little John Owen and a little bit of Jonathan Edwards like Kim quoted earlier, I mean, that’s awesome. I’m loving this today.

“We can begin each day with the deeply encouraging realization, I’m accepted by God, not on the basis of my personal performance, but on the basis of the infinitely perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.”

–John Owen

The Apostle Paul would write about that later in 2 Corinthians 5:21. He would say this, “He made him,” that is God made Jesus, “to become sin on our behalf so that we might become the righteousness of God in Christ.”

See? So, if you are recognizing that you’re a sinner but you come to faith in Christ, to believe and trust in Jesus, what has happened is that Jesus who did not sin came and died in my place and in your place. He took on our sin, nailed it to the cross, paid the price for our sin so that we could receive God’s righteousness in Christ. That’s amazing. Who wouldn’t want that? If you’re sitting here, I trust that you’ve considered this carefully. I implore you if you’ve never experienced it to turn to him in faith believing.

Now, what do we see in 14:1-12? This is a little bit different. This is a switch. It’s not the rejection of Nazareth. And by the way, I’ve got a bit of Nazareth in me. I have to say I bet we all do. It may come and go but I’ve got a bit of that in me. What do we see in 1 through 12 in terms of the human condition, the weakness, the need for salvation in versus 1 through 12 and Herod?

People, here are the key players: Herod, Herodias, Salome, the dirty dancing daughter of Herodias, John the Baptist. And Jesus to some degree is here as well, at least referred to. I’ve got to admit I chuckled a little in the first couple verses. Look with me at 14:1-2. This is just interesting. “At that time, Herod the tetrarch had heard the news about Jesus.” What was he hearing? “Oh, there’s this guy, this carpenter’s son. He’s preaching. He’s healing people. He’s working miracles. He even raised a little girl from the dead,” is the rumor.

And so, it says right here in verse 2, “He says to his servants,” this is Herod Antipas, “This is John the Baptist. He’s risen from the dead and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” So, some of us from the staff said, “Well, this is the makings of a Jordan Peele movie.”

And if I were Jesus, if I want to mess with Herod, I’d probably appear to him in a dream holding my head off like this and just go, “Dude, you blew it. You went the wrong way. You made some wrong choices, buddy.” But that’s not what has happened. Because Herod is hearing about all these miracles and all that sort of thing and John the Baptist was renowned as a prophet. He doesn’t know who Jesus is at this point. He just has heard that there’s a person doing all this. And so he thinks to himself, “I did something really bad. I cut off the head of a prophet and now he is coming back.” So, very superstitious about all of this, but you can see, this guy – he’s ruled by pride, self-deification.

Herodias, his wife that he stole from his brother is ruled by a lust for revenge. I think this is child abuse to some degree with the dancing that they put this young girl, who’s probably 14 years of age is my guess, probably middle teens. There’s a lot of darkness here including the violence perpetrated on John the Baptist. And even when Herod says that he’s drunk at the feast and he goes, “Anything you want from my kingdom!” Well, he’s not even a king. He’s a tetrarch. And you can see that he wants the title that he doesn’t have. He’s just self-obsessed like his daddy was. And he’s just trying really hard to look important and to feel important.

And again, this is not an uncommon problem to humanity. I confess I have a little bit of Herod in me. We all do. That’s why we check to see how many people liked something. That’s why we want to be the first one to know. We just always want to have that kind of power. That’s a human problem.

And with Herodias, it’s sort of like if Herod Antipas is an Eastern despot that has been confronted by John the Baptist and called out for his sin of stealing his brother’s wife and all that sort of thing, I mean it’s one thing to say something to an Eastern despot, it’s another thing to actually say to his wife the kinds of things John the Baptist was calling them both out for.

And she has been stewing on this. And so when her daughter has an opportunity to literally win the lottery, “Anything in my kingdom is yours,” what does she want? What does she tell her daughter to ask for?  The head, vengeance, revenge. That’s how obsessed people get with their outrage, with their revenge. They want to take control. They want to get people back who have in some way offended them. I mean, that’s a dark little passage right there with all of that.

But Jesus, interestingly when he experiences the loss of his cousin, John the Baptist here, he doesn’t just sidestep the crucifixion but he transforms it into a resurrection. And he does to his own tomb what he will do to John the Baptist’s tomb and what he will do to my tomb someday and what he will do to your tomb. Because last time I checked, 100% of us go that way until the Lord returns himself. And I hope it’s before I finish this senten…ce, but it wasn’t, so, I’m just going to tell you whenever he comes back, he’s going to set everything right.

And that’s how he responds to rejection and this deep sense of loss and grief for the loss and as well the injustice of it. I mean, there are so many things you can see in those first 12 verses. The kind of injustice that this Eastern despot wielding this power, it’s totally corrupted him and he just off with somebody’s head.  No trial; no, “Was he guilty or not?”  None of that, and so, it’s amazing how that goes.

I’m going to quote from a guy that’s going to preach for us next week. (I’m excited. Malcolm’s coming.)

“The realization that Jesus himself is the fulfillment of prophecy, and that the apparent defeat of the cross is revealed or unveiled in the light of the resurrection as a victory, completely transforms and galvanizes those who grasp it.”

–Malcolm Guite, Why Poetic Imagination is Necessary to Understand Biblical Prophecy

Alright, you want to be transformed and galvanized in your confidence in God? Then remain, be connected, remain part of God’s church, God’s body. This is where you get reminded about the fact that Christ has risen. He’s risen indeed. Oh, sing hallelujah. And one of the kids of the author of that song sang it, “Oh, sing, happylujah.” So, I sing happylujah every time. I do that every time. And that’s what hallelujah is. It’s indeed rejoicing in our God who is so good to save us.

Kim Thomas has probably one of the best books on grieving and going through all of that. And I still proudly say that, even though I’m her husband ,but she said, “God,” this is after her mom died:

“God has been attentive to my morning. He has been ever close, close enough to catch my tears in a bottle as they fall from my eyes. I wonder if perhaps the bottle of my tears might sit on the shelf next to the tears Jesus wept.”

–Kim Thomas, Finding Your Way Through Grief

Of course, we’re told that Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. We’re not told that right here. And there are some Bible commentators that say he didn’t withdraw because he was sad. He didn’t withdraw because he was grieving. He just was moving on. I’m not sure. I feel like he loved his cousin pretty well. And I feel like that was proper and right for him to pull away for a bit.

But what happens? And you see it right there. Look at verses 13 and 14 of chapter 14. And we’ll wind this up here in a little bit. “When Jesus heard about John the Baptist being killed, he withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place by himself. And when the multitudes heard of this, they followed him on foot from the cities.” So, I don’t know if you can see it but you’re in a boat and you’re looking at the shore and there are [tons of people scurrying toward you]… and they’re just, “Hey, there he is over there!” And they’re literally following where he is going. It looks like a little video game and all the little munchkins are running and they’re coming after him.

But it’s because they have need. It’s because they too know rejection. It’s because they too know grief. And their needs are great and diverse. They need healing. They need hope. They need courage. They’re afraid. They’re oppressed by the Roman government and the culture around them as well. There is just a relentless amount of need.

How does Jesus respond to that? He reminds us there’s a day coming throughout the New Testament where Jesus will set the world to rights. There’ll be no more sickness, no more dying, no more sadness, no more crying. Just look in the book of Revelation. If you haven’t studied the book of Revelation, we did that during the pandemic and we did it on purpose in the pandemic because we wanted to study something that was bigger than the pandemic.

And so, the book of Revelation that basically reminds us who’s ultimately in charge of everything – the sovereign God of the Bible – so, we studied that. And you’ll find if you read the end of the book, you will find that is the plan that Jesus has. And so, his plan is to raise John the Baptist from the dead and he can do that. I can trust him to do that. On what basis do I trust him? Jesus himself got up from the dead.

And so, you read throughout the New Testament, I mean the resurrection of Jesus is just everywhere. And if it didn’t happen, the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 [verse 14], “All of our preaching is in vain as well as our faith itself.” Everything hinges on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that’s why we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It proves that he can and he will, when he makes a promise, he can fulfill his promise.

Last week, Frederick Buechner died. Some of you know of him. My favorite quote by Buechner is this:

“Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.”

–Frederick Buechner

That’s a great quote. That’s so true. And Jesus proved that in his own resurrection.

So, there’s relentless need around us. The Christian faith does not deny the relentless need around us. We have wept these past couple of weeks for six families. We will weep again as folks go on to their eternal rest. But what we have is a group of hopeful mourners. We don’t mourn or grieve without hope, 1 Thessalonians 4 [verse 13] tells us.

The apostle Paul, he says, “I don’t want you to be ignorant. Why? Because ignorance puts us at a deficit.”   If we don’t know the promises, the hope of the New Testament, that would be terrible for us and lead us to a great despair. And so the Apostle Paul says, “I don’t want you to be ignorant about those who are asleep.” And then he goes on to tell us about how the Lord will return one day. And how, he has defeated death itself. John Owen, one of his most popular writings was The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. It’s just the end of it. He put an end to death by paying the price for all our sins.

Let’s close as we began with the Paul Tripp quote:

“Grace, relentlessly pursues, relentlessly forgives, relentlessly transforms, relentlessly restores, all of which we relentlessly need.”

–Paul Tripp

I don’t know what your world is like. I don’t know what difficulty or troubles you may be experiencing right now. I don’t know what’s around the corner for any of us. I just know this. I need to be reminded over and over and over again of his amazing grace available to me, available to you in Christ. And when we get together on Sundays, we are going to remind ourselves over and over. We are going to relentlessly remind each other of this good news of the hope we have in Christ. Let’s pray:

“Lord, thank you that when you entered this world, you didn’t sidestep rejection. You didn’t sidestep grief. You didn’t sidestep relentless need. But as those crowds pressed in on you even as you were still considering the brokenness of the world that you had stepped into and the loss of your cousin, as all of that was going on, Lord, knowing that you would be coming to set things right. Impress that upon our hearts, Lord. Write that deep in our hearts that we might find our hope in life and in death in Jesus Christ in whose name we pray. Amen and amen.”

(Edited for Reading)

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