Daily Devotionals

Matthew 26.47-68

I don’t know whether you’ve ever played that parlour game where you are given a series of quotes in Elizabethan English and you have to decide whether each quote is from Shakespeare or the Bible. If you haven’t played this then you have not really missed much. If you’re a fan you can find it on Sporcle. I once had a colleague who, in his first month as a curate, was told to go round the area knocking on people’s doors and inviting them to church. One older lady said firmly, no thanks, she didn’t want to come to church, my religion is a private thing and in any case I live by all the teachings of Jesus: ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’. And she shut the door firmly. Michael headed down the path giggling at the quote from The Merchant of Venice (or was it Hamlet, he couldn’t quite remember.) 

‘Live by the sword, die by the sword’ sounds like the Bard but here it is: it’s a rebuke to an overheated disciple right in the middle of the arrest scene in Matthew. Jesus’ sufferings up to this point have been psychological and spiritual. He knows what the crowds don’t know. And what the disciples seem so reluctant to accept – that he is heading to Jerusalem to die. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus wrestles in agonised prayer to embrace the will of his Father. His closest disciples dozed. 

Our passage comes in as Jesus is still praying. Immediately Judas arrives and betrays him with a kiss. This feigned intimacy with its cataclysmic breach of trust has become a byword that echoes down the centuries. It’s a moment of fatal miscalculation for Judas that makes me shiver.

And now with his arrest Jesus is under real physical threat. The innate human fight or flight response in situations such as these is very powerful. Mark’s Gospel tells us that one disciple took flight in his underwear. Here in Matthew the response is fight. And as so often violence threatened invites a violent response. Faced with an arrest party with swords and clubs, one of Jesus’ disciples draws his sword and cuts off the ear of one of the servants. Luke reports that Jesus healed the servant’s ear. And I feel reassured – Jesus still has miracle working power. But in Matthew we are just as confident that Jesus has great power – but he explicitly refuses to use it. To be sure, he says, he could appeal to his Father for more than twelve legions of Angels, ‘but how then will the scriptures be fulfilled which say that it must happen this way?’ Neither Judas, nor the Temple police, nor even Jesus’ disciples understand his utter determination to live and die as it was spoken of him in the prophets. 

After his arrest the disciples desert him and flee. And now Jesus is truly alone. But this is necessary because he and he alone can work the salvation of humankind. Jesus does not play the game of swords. ‘An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind’ said Gandhi. But the way of Jesus is not non-resistance. Nor is it the way of non-violent resistance. Rather Jesus is embracing his destiny, the destiny pre-ordained by the Father and prophesied in Scripture. 

What follows is a travesty of an illegal trial where Jesus’ accusers are scrabbling around for the necessary two witnesses who will tell the same story. Finally two can agree about his intent to commit a terrorist act against the Temple and then miraculously rebuild it faster than the Nightingale hospitals are going up. But Jesus hasn’t actually done anything wrong. And John tells us that this stuff about destroying the Temple and rebuilding it in three days is really about his body: it will be destroyed and God will restore it on the third day. 

In the end they settle on the charge: his self-claim to Messianic kingship. Jesus doesn’t deny it. And he doesn’t keep silent either. He simply quotes from Daniel: one day you will see the full power of the Son of Man. No arrogance, no exaggeration, but no compromise either – just a proper confidence in God’s purpose and God’s power. All they can do is lash out, mock and spit at him. It’s a drop compared to the ocean of God’s love in Christ.

The path that Jesus was called to walk is of a different order to yours or to mine, of course. His path was uniquely lonely and costly. He carried the sins of the world on his shoulders. But in our own small way are we bound to follow after him and to walk the way of the cross. What sustains us is not some perverse enjoyment of suffering. Rather we know he has gone before us, that he walks with us and that we have the Spirit of Jesus in us. We follow well when we live by Scripture and hold the hand of our loving heavenly Father in prayer. One writer put it: ‘never confuse the edge of your foxhole with the horizon.’ We can be so tempted to leave God’s power out of account. We can replace God’s ways and wisdom with our own. We are too tempted to look around and not up – to see only our foxhole and not God’s sun-emblazoned horizon.

Lord, we look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross and despised its shame. In times of great upheaval and change when so much trust and hope is invested in the work of scientists, the efforts of our self-sacrificial healthcare workers, and in human organisation, instill in us the habit of looking up, putting our trust in you, our God and our redeemer.

Matthew 26.31-46

I know this might sound weird, but I find this passage profoundly comforting. 

As we heard yesterday Jesus was well aware that one of his closest friends was going to betray him but now we become aware that he knew all his disciples were going to let him down; they were all going to flee and abandon him. In fact, he has always known, because he quotes the prophet Zechariah who had foretold these events. 

What he also knows though is what happens after that, he knows he will be raised up… and he tells the disciples that. But did you notice that Peter, dynamic, confident in his own courage, ignores that promise and announces that HE will not fail, HE will not abandon Jesus.

However, like all of us, Jesus knows Peter better than he knows himself… ‘Yes you will Peter, yes you will’ – something Peter fervently denies. “I won’t! I’ll die rather than let you down!”

Peter is so earnest, so passionate about his LORD, so confident that he will be brave and adamant about his devotion. He inspires the others to all agree… “of course we won’t flee…”

You can imagine Jesus’ wry, sad smile – because he knows. 

And then we see how Jesus feels. This is beautiful, profound and comforting, because we see the heart of Jesus – fully human – knowing what the coming events are going to cost him.  He is deeply grieved – even to death. He is afraid, he throws himself on the ground to pray. He begs the father, not once or even twice but three times – is there another way? 

He knows there isn’t; this has been the plan all along – and unlike the disciples who can’t even stay awake – Jesus will keep his word; will be obedient to the Father. He will not run – but will head to the cross. It’s worth dwelling for a few minutes with Jesus, in Gethsemane, to remind us of his faithfulness in the face of fear. 

There are at least two encouragements in this passage. Firstly, that Jesus knows fear. This is not some distant God, looking upon mere humans and telling us to buck up, to get it together. What Jesus was facing was far greater than anything we ever will. He was about to carry all human sin, so those who put their faith in him don’t have to shoulder even their own. But that we have a great high priest (as Hebrews says) who understands is beautiful. 

Whatever you are feeling right now, Jesus gets it. He doesn’t criticise or condemn you for it. He’s with you in it.

I don’t know if you noticed, but this episode parallels another earlier in the gospel. In chapter 17 Jesus took the same three disciples up a mountain and they saw him transfigured. They had this astonishing encounter – even hearing the Father’s voice – which terrified them. Here, Peter, James and John have a different response… because this isn’t Jesus in shining glory talking with Moses and Elijah, this is Jesus face on the ground, in tears, praying.

But it’s also where we see a second encouragement – in how Jesus responds to their actions. SO sure they won’t run but already abandoning him when he needs the comfort of their company! Jesus does chastise them, but gently – “could you not even stay awake with me for just one hour Peter?” “Pray for courage and protection or yourself my friend, I know you WANT to be brave and loyal – to be a good disciple, but I also know that you are going to fail in that, you already are!

Jesus knows not only our fears but our frailty. That despite our best efforts to be faithful disciples, to be strong and courageous in following him, we too will fail. We will fall asleep, or the equivalent. We will give in to temptation, or anxiety, or frustration. That we just won’t be the heroes of the faith we long to be. I suspect that all of us are going to face that in the weeks to come – if we haven’t already. There will be days we are full of faith, full of self-sacrifice and courage and also days when we wobble, when we are overwhelmed and self-absorbed. 

And yet what Jesus shows here and will show us, is kindness. Compassion. He gets it, gets us – and loves us anyway. 

I don’t know if today has been a good day, or one where you have struggled?

I don’t know if you made good choices, behaved as you wished to – or not? 

But we know that we are loved, that forgiveness is always available at the cross, that as the song says His mercies are new every morning. So let’s come to our Lord, our saviour, our friend – let’s ask His forgiveness, let’s receive His mercy and let’s delight that we are known, really known, and loved, really loved. 

Let’s pray: 

Lord Jesus, as we see you in Gethsemane, as we see you wrestling with fear, as we see you at the end of your ability to cope, we thank you that you are with us in those moments too. And we ask, Father, that just as you sent your Spirit to comfort Jesus, just as you encouraged Him, we ask that you would do the same for us. That you would send your Spirit, that you would encourage us, that you would help us to get up from wherever we have fallen, and to walk again. And Father, where we know we’ve let you down, where we know that we have sinned, that we have fallen short of who we aspire to be for your sake, we bring those things to the foot of that cross, the cross we see Jesus walking towards. And we thank you that you will forgive us and that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We give you yesterday. We give you today. And we say Lord, have mercy. Hear our prayer.

Matthew 26.1-30

There’s so much to take in! In the previous two chapters Jesus has answered the disciples’ questions about the end of the age robustly, with warnings about being prepared and stories about judgement. Jesus now transitions from the unsettling Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, with its warning for those who ignore the disadvantaged and vulnerable, to the equally unsettling news of his upcoming crucifixion.

Jerusalem is bustling, throngs of people, hundreds of thousands more than usual, fill its streets for the Feast of the Unleavened Bread (including Passover), one of three pilgrimage festivals in the Jewish calendar when the faithful would travel to the Temple in Jerusalem.

With minds turned to celebration and worship, there are also more sinister undercurrents. There are those in Jerusalem who conspire and plot to kill…

In this chapter, we often skip over the beginning detail and rush to the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest but, today, I invite you to bide a while here at the first table in this chapter.

Jesus is at Simon’s house, Simon the leper. This is Simon’s only mention; probably healed by Jesus, still bearing the name of his previous affliction, here a testimony to the power of the one with whom he shared his table. An unnamed woman enters, and pours expensive ointment on Jesus’ head. An intimate and extravagant act of devotion and worship. This woman truly comprehends the significance of this man, Jesus. However, in the midst of the beauty of the scene, the disciples’ concerns turn to money and cost! This perfume was worth a large sum but the disciples could not see that its use to anoint their Rabbi was worth more than money could buy. Trust Matthew, the tax collector, the accountant of the group, to be doing the sums and putting financial value and security at the top of the priority list!

The onlookers declare her act of sacrifice and devotion a ‘waste’! They could not see what she saw; despite three years following their Rabbi, they were left perplexed and bemused about who he truly was. Suddenly they appear to be concerned for the poor! The poor whom Jesus has had to teach them about very firmly just a few verses before, in chapter 25. Sadly Jesus’ words that, ‘you always have the poor with you’ are as true today as they were when he said them. 

This woman’s act of faith is literally dripping with symbolism. She is preparing her Lord for burial, looking ahead to what is to come, just like the Magi did in chapter 2 when he was just months old. Then, unnamed visitors brought gold, for a king, incense, for worship, and myrrh, to anoint a body; this new unnamed visitor anoints her saviour in preparation.

‘Why the waste?’ they say. An act of worship and devotion can never be declared a waste! Come and sit at the table for a moment, drink in the scent that fills the room. Reflect upon what the next few days will bring…

This woman’s act of faithful, humble devotion stands in sharp contrast to Judas’ act of deception and betrayal. Another disciple distracted by money; not so concerned this time about the poor, more keen to line his own pockets!

We come to the second table in the chapter. Jesus is sharing the Passover meal with the twelve. This meal table is a symbol of mutual friendship, a place of devotion and trust. But this sacred time together is overturned, just as Jesus turned the tables in the Temple, as Judas plots to betray his master and friend. Psalm 41.9 expresses this sense of betrayal, ‘Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.’

The Passover meal was, and still is, a physical reminder of God’s care for his people, how he heard their cries in captivity in Egypt and delivered them from Pharaoh’s hand, keeping his covenant promise to his people. Jesus takes two of the symbolic Seder foods and gives them new meanings: the bread that hadn’t had time to rise is now to remind them of his body, the wine, the royal drink symbolising freedom, four cups of it reminding them of the four expressions of redemption God uses in describing the Exodus from Egypt, now remind them of Jesus’ blood. God has not forgotten his covenant with his people, in fact, in Jesus, he is renewing it, and inviting us to share in it. Jesus invites you to sit a while at the table with him, and be renewed in his presence. This table is for all who are hungry and thirsty. If you are hungry and thirsty, come.

Lord, you invite us to come to your table. Help us to hunger and thirst after you, and allow ourselves to leave your table changed and renewed, firm in our identity as your forgiven children.

Matthew 25.31-46

In today’s reading, Jesus likens his job as heavenly Judge to that of a shepherd, sorting through his flock and separating the sheep from the goats. When two animals are so anatomically alike, one of the easiest ways to tell them apart is their behaviour. It’s how they act that’s the giveaway. 

So it is with the two groups that Jesus describes. The righteous and the cursed can look remarkably similar to the untrained eye. It is their behaviour that distinguishes them. Jesus is specific: the righteous are those that have helped people in crisis. They fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and befriended the prisoners.

Surely this makes things simple for us as Christians? We know just what we should do in order to be counted righteous by Jesus. In fact, we can create ourselves a handy tick list: Wrote a letter to a prisoner. Tick. Volunteered at the local food bank. Tick. Donated to a homeless shelter. Tick.

Of course, to do this would be to miss the point entirely. After all, when Jesus rewards the sheep, they do not stand smugly, clutching completed checklists and congratulating themselves on having met the requirements. Instead, as The Message translation puts it, they turn to Jesus and ask, ‘What are you talking about?’ They are oblivious to the moments in which they have done the very things Jesus views as most important.

It is the same for the goats. ‘When, Lord?,’ they ask. ‘When did we fail to act as you wanted us to?’ As C.S. Lewis comments, the heaviest charge against them is not the things they have done, but those they never dreamed of doing.

When it comes to the crunch, neither group is aware of what it was they were doing right or wrong. The most important decision points have entirely passed them by. The troubling message of Jesus’ story, then, is this: it is our unconscious actions that reveal our deepest character. He’s not just watching when we’re on our best behaviour. He sees the forgotten moments too. And there’s no pulling the wool over his eyes.

But this is more than just a story about being a Good Samaritan. Notice that Jesus does not simply applaud the sheep for helping the needy. He tells them that in doing so, they have ministered directly to him. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” You will inherit the kingdom, he says, not because you served them, but because you served me. 

So this is not just a story about what we do. It is a story about why we do it. We choose obedience to him not because we want to convince him that we are worthy of inheriting eternal life, but because he is worthy of that obedience. And as we learn through repeatedly putting his priorities into practice, he is also changing our hearts to be more like his. C.S. Lewis puts it like this: ‘We do not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because he loves us.’

So when we choose to act selflessly, it is not just in response to a crisis. In fact, quite the opposite. We act from a place of security, as grateful recipients of the greatest love of all.

Our very first job, then, does not concern our treatment of others at all. It is to fix our eyes on Jesus, the shepherd on the throne. This is the greatest commandment (Matthew 22.35–40). Loving our neighbour is crucial. But it comes second, because it flows from our loving relationship with God, powered by his Spirit in us. Just as faith without works is dead (James 2.17), so works without faith are lifeless. It is the two together that make a sheep a sheep, rather than a goat.

Father God
We love you. Help us to love you with all our hearts. We desire to love our neighbours as ourselves. Will you open our eyes to see the needs of those around us and inspire us to meet those needs with reckless generosity and kindness. We want to live as sheep who follow your son Jesus, our shepherd King. Empower us by your Spirit to be obedient to your call.

Matthew 25.1-30

I wonder how you deal with uncertainty over deadlines. 

Are you the sort of person who likes to have things planned meticulously to the hour, making sure that none of your time is wasted or unaccounted for – organising in advance to make things happen ‘just so’, strategising and weighing up the pros and cons?

Or do you prefer to go with the flow, letting time take its natural course and allowing spontaneity to govern your actions? 

Perhaps the former feels constraining to you. Perhaps the latter seems bewilderingly chaotic. 

It seems strangely apt that we have come to this passage at a time when our entire society’s modus operandi has been disrupted. Whichever of those two camps you most identify with, the ‘normal’ ways of going about our business have come to a juddering halt. Those of us who love to plan are forced to realise that we are not really in control. Those who roll with the moment are coming to terms with restrictions and limitations. 

This is profoundly uncomfortable – and yet, in so many ways, it is probably a long overdue opportunity to look in the proverbial mirror and undergo a spiritual health check.  

We have been forced to examine our daily routines, precisely because we have been unable to follow them. And through doing that we have been made to examine our lives and our priorities. 

How do I spend my time? 

What do I do when I wake up? 

How do I use my commute? 

How do I interact with my colleagues? Am I the sort of person who they are currently missing whilst we work remotely because I seek to build them up ordinarily? If I have already had my last opportunity to speak to them of the reason I can be hopeful in the face of a pandemic, have I really tried to introduce them to the One who is in Control? Or have I missed that opportunity? 

How do I spend my money? 

For what is my soul thirsty and where have I undernourished it? 

Which disciplines have I neglected – and how has this affected my spiritual health? 

If normality is perhaps neither so normal nor so certain, why don’t I take more risks in Jesus’ service?

The parables we read are about waiting for Jesus’ return. But this is not a passive waiting; those who are portrayed as responsible in each parable have readied themselves. They have made use of the time given them to be prepared. 

How can we use these strange circumstances to realign our hearts with God’s purposes? 

How can we welcome this interruption as a way of forming new habits? 

As someone who works in a secular job, I love that Jesus so often portrays normal life as the setting for his parables. As I go about my daily business, how am I serving the Kingdom? 

Those characters in the parable know that the Bridegroom and the Master is coming back – but they do not know when. They do not know how long they each have to perform the duties assigned to them. But they do know what they must do until that point. And their reward is joy. 

In the parable of the ten virgins, we are told that those who were ready went into the feast. After spending such a long time waiting for the Bridegroom to arrive, how welcome that food must have been! In the parable of the bags of gold, we are not told exactly what the reward for the two faithful servants is – but the invitation to share in the Master’s happiness surely indicates some sort of celebration. 

I want you to stop and think about the difference this element of joy makes. If it were not there, these parables would simply speak of a hard taskmaster who is waiting for an opportune moment to point out our mistakes. But these verses tell us of a God who longs for us to roll up our sleeves and join in with the work he is doing – and who will share the celebrations with us. The times when I have been asked to make cakes or arrange flowers for friends’ weddings have never been simply about the task in hand; instead, my contribution has been given joyfully knowing that dear people whom I love are celebrating, and this has been part of that. 

I think the active waiting will look different for each of us, but we need to stop and reflect on what that means for us in the day to day. Perhaps we need to ask God to fill us with greater anticipation of the joy that we are promised as we seek to serve him. 

Father, thank you for the many blessings you pour out on us. Thank you for being a God who longs for us to join in with the work you are doing in restoring hope to a world that so desperately needs it. Please would your words here challenge us to see where we invest in the wrong things – but would we be spurred on by knowing that there is greater joy to be found in the work that you have set for us. Where are hearts are sleepy, wake us up. Where our minds are distracted, call us again to your presence. Where our souls are tired, fill us again with your joy and your strength. 

Matthew 24.36-51

What strange and difficult-to-unpick things Jesus has been saying prior to this passage. About the end of days, the close of the age, the second coming of the Son of Man and the signs that will accompany this. Perhaps he saw in his hearers, and sees in us, the desire to stare into the future, trying to win some special understanding of these things, because here, at the beginning of today’s reading, he adds a caveat, as if to prevent eschatological gazing into the distance: no one knows the day or the hour, he says, not even him.

For those who are determined, there is still the possibility of trying to draw out details of what that end of days will look like from this passage. Two are side-by-side, and one is taken. Taken where? Taken how? We could ask many questions to which there are few clear answers, but thankfully, the details of the close of the age don’t seem to be Jesus’ point.

His point seems to be preparation.

He tells us of the people around Noah and the two pairs of workers. All of them doing everyday life without a thought for what is coming. And so the time comes upon them unexpectedly. They’ve made, it seems, no preparation. Don’t be unprepared, stay awake, Jesus says.

Then we have the thief in the night. Again, the householder isn’t prepared. Had he known the hour, he would have been prepared, but you, Jesus says, should be prepared even though you don’t know the hour.

Next we meet the two servants, both of whom know the master is returning but not the hour. One faithfully undertakes the tasks left for him. The other, telling himself the master might not return, at least not soon, spends his time differently; fitting in the things he knows the master has not asked of him. Neither are looking to the master’s return, so when he comes he catches them in the act – one acting faithfully and righteously, the other selfishly and unrighteously. They’ve not explicitly prepared, but their actions while he is away have formed their preparation for his return. They have, if you will, prepared by doing.

In the two servants I think that we see examples of how often what we do flows from how we perceive ourselves. In particular here: what is their attitude to being servants of the master? The good servant appears content with his position, he acknowledges his master’s lordship and serves him accordingly. The wicked servant does not. He feasts and beats his fellow servants – that is, he makes others serve him and takes the authority for choosing and issuing punishment. In essence he begins to act as though he were the master.

One says his lord is lord, and the other says ‘I am lord’.

What they do in their ‘preparation by doing’, whether righteousness or wickedness, very clearly flows from their attitude to being servants – who they see themselves as, and who they see the master as. There is, of course, a feedback loop between identity and action. For those who act like they are a lord will, sooner or later, come to think of themselves as such.

The parallels to our attitudes to God and ourselves, and our actions, are reasonably clear.

And there are, I think, three basic attitudes:

Firstly to refuse to see God as master, and instead to proclaim ourselves lord of our lives. We see an echo of this in the worst of the attitudes of our age – ‘if the master is not going to return [or, as many might say, ‘there is no master’] what is to stop me becoming king and living in whatever way I choose, putting me first to the detriment of others?’ It’s not particularly difficult to think of both large and small examples of this both in the world, and far too frequently, in our own hearts. Whether explicitly or merely by our actions, how often do we say ‘I am lord’?

The second response is one halfway between the good and the wicked servants. An attitude that says ‘I accept God as my master ultimately, but I’ll just wear the crown of lord myself for a little while, while he’s not here, or in this small part of my life that he won’t look too closely at’. ‘Jesus is coming, look busy’, so the pithy phrase goes – Jesus isn’t stupid though, he sees very clearly between ‘looking busy’ and having been serving faithfully.

Certainly I recognise this attitude of procrastination in myself: How often do we put off doing something good because no one will know if we do it at the last minute? Tidying or cleaning, completing a piece of work, exercise, calling my parents, offering help to someone else, spending time reflecting and praying and engaging with God. It’s so very easy to say ‘I will do it, but it’s just a bit too much effort right now.’ I’m not suggesting constant work, clearly rest is God-ordained and good, but when we choose to be Lord of our own lives, even in part, or for a time, are we neglecting to attend to the ‘preparation by doing’ to which we’re called?

And so finally, the attitude of the faithful and wise servant, who says ‘My lord is lord’, found in us when we say ‘God is my king’. Out of this right understanding of identity flows righteousness, and attending to preparation by doing good. Again, there is an obvious link between identity and action, or at the very least our actions proclaim our attitude to our identity.

I have, as I’m sure have many others, been asking in this season what might living with Christ as Lord look like, in our homes, in our work, in our routines of prayer and worship, in our service and love of others, and ultimately, in our acts of love and devotion to Him?

How might we follow the example of the faithful and wise servant in the diligent stewarding of the resources and responsibilities we have been given?

What would it look like to listen and respond to the call and command of God, as we see in Noah?

Will we love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and soul, and our neighbour as ourselves, as Jesus instructs the Pharisees a few pages earlier?

My prayer is that I, that we, will recall and proclaim that Jesus is Lord, in both our identity and our actions. And that in this we will be making good preparation for his return, for ‘concerning the day and hour no one knows’.

Heavenly Father, give us true humility to see ourselves in light of your love and lordship, mercy when we wrongly think or proclaim ourselves as master of our own lives, wisdom to know what faithful service to you looks like in our specific circumstances, and strength to continue in preparing for your return by doing the good works you have set before us. In the name of Jesus, our Lord and saviour, we pray.

Matthew 24.1-35

One of the great London preachers of the early 19th century was a Scot called Edward Irving. He preached systematically from Scripture and his bible studies on Corinthians led directly to the earliest known British charismatic movement, still sometimes called the Irvingites. His eloquent turn of phrase led to a mention in Parliament by George Canning, later Prime Minister. Irving ended up preaching to congregations of thousands of the fashionable and the famous. In a building made for 600. For a while admission was by ticket. Prime Minister Lord Liverpool attended and a young Gladstone was taken along by his father. 

But Irving’s most famous sermon was preached in a small chapel on a stormy night in Annan – a village just over the Scottish border from Carlisle. In the middle of his exposition on preparedness for the Lord’s coming, lightning struck the church roof. When the ringing in people’s ears cleared the quick-witted Irving roared to the congregation from the King James Bible: ‘For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be.’ The effect was electrifying. The congregation hurried home in the rain reconsidering their priorities. 

In a way,  that is all you need to know about Matthew 24. It is about readiness. You know what that looks like and feels like. It involves a shift of perspective, a change of focus and a reordering of our  priorities. If you like, stop reading right here. I mean, read to the end but don’t lose the key thought: be ready for his coming. The rest of what I have got to say is footnotes. Some thought Jesus was predicting a sprint. But what he says is not a sprint but a 10,000 metre race. But even the 10,000 metre runners sprint at the end. Stop here too if you like.

Some take Matthew 24 as a timetable of events leading up to the coming of the Lord. Another popular way to see the text is to note that much of what Jesus says here predicts with reasonable accuracy the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans just 35 years later.  But not everything in this chapter fits perfectly with 70 AD Judea. Others, and I think I’m closest to this, think that these signs are seen right through history but will intensify at the end. The symphony of history, if you like, has repeated themes that all converge in the final great crescendo. Perhaps it is most helpful to see Jesus’ teaching as not referring to unique events at the end of time, but the patterns of repeated actions, all of which are meant to draw our attention to readiness for his coming.

It looks to me as if the Gospel has an eye both on history and the future at the same time. And there is even a worked example of this ‘double perspective’ within the text. The reader is meant to understand what the phrase the ‘abomination of desolation’ refers to. So here’s the history lesson. In 167 BC the ruler of the eastern part of the Greek Empire was Antiochus the Fourth. He thought highly enough of himself to use the title Epiphanes which means ‘God made manifest’. He tried systematically to destroy Jewish religion. He deliberately desecrated the Jerusalem Temple by sacrificing pigs on the altar and by having a statue of Zeus set up to be worshipped. It was one of the darkest days in Jewish history. In saying look out for this desolating sacrilege Jesus was not saying: Antiochus IV would return. He was saying: someone will arise behaving in a similar way; not just with disregard for godly faith but with positive antagonism towards it. Jesus is looking backwards but is also looking forwards at the same time. As Mark Twain put it ‘history does not repeat itself – but it rhymes.’ 

Someone said that the early days of the coronavirus epidemic was like the Phoney War – referring to the period between Sept 1939 and early May 1940 when Britain was at war, preparations were being made but the urgency seemed odd when nothing much appeared to be happening. By the end of May, Churchill was Prime Minister, the enemy were staring across the channel and the government were sending fishing boats to get the British Army off the beaches of Dunkirk. Jesus starts by saying that there is a Phoney War going on. But prepare seriously. The Day will come. Look for the signs. 

And the logic of signs is now the stuff of everyday life. Certain symptoms are the signs of underlying infection and the onset of disease. Every time I cough I wonder: is it new and dry?  I’m looking for the signs. Even my temporary and wet cough reminds me that this is deadly serious.

Lord, it is 2000 years since you walked the earth. Deliver us from complacency and give us, we pray, the power of the Holy Spirit to live lives of humble service and joyful hope. May your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as in heaven. Amen.

Matthew 23.13-36

The worship leader at the church I grew up in used to complain about worship songs with too many ‘woahs’ in. Well Jesus gives seven here, although they’re woes of the rather less joyful kind.

Following Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he has been challenging and confronting the religious establishment. The religious leaders have been testing Jesus and trying to catch him out with tricky questions but at the end of chapter 22 Jesus asks a question of his own and ‘no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.’ 

Now in chapter 23 Jesus goes on the offensive, and it is highly offensive: ‘hypocrites’, ‘blind men’, ‘whitewashed tombs’, ‘brood of vipers’.  When we encounter Jesus in the gospels, he often doesn’t fit into the box we’d prefer to keep him in. If we think Jesus was always gentle and tender and would never have a bad word to say about anyone, we find ourselves mistaken. Jesus didn’t shrink back from calling out, with holy anger, hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

Our reaction is likely two-fold. Part of us winces with the force of Jesus’ statements. Yet we may also find ourselves rubbing our hands with anticipation. We love to see hypocrisy being challenged, injustice exposed and the haughty brought low. We find pointing out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees almost as easy as chuckling at the clueless disciples.

The American pastor Paul Washer once preached a sermon to a youth conference in America which became well known (or at least, well known amongst people like myself: Christians who need to get out more – although I suppose we all fall into that category now) for forcefully calling out the hypocrisy of the young people there who claimed to be followers of Jesus but who acted nothing like it. His sermon contains the infamous line addressed to the congregation, ‘I don’t know why you’re clapping, I’m talking about you.’  When we rub our hands with anticipation as Jesus lets loose on the Pharisees, we might expect to hear the same thing directed at us. As Andy said in his sermon on this passage on 15th March (a sermon it’s well worth (re)listening to on the church website) if we don’t think self-righteousness is a problem for us, it’s probably a sign of our self-righteousness. Pride blinds us to our pride. I don’t know why we’re rubbing our hands, Jesus is talking about us. ‘Our pride isn’t like the Pharisee’s’, we protest. The doctor gave me a prescription for my phylacteries and I haven’t had a fringe since the ‘90s! Yet the woes which Jesus proclaims from verse 13 here are all derived from the attitude of heart he diagnosed earlier on in verse 5: ‘they do all their deeds to be seen by others.’

How many of our deeds are done to be seen by others? How much of our discipleship, service and worship is done with an eye on who is watching? How do we seek man’s empty praise? And where does our practice not match our preaching? Do we preach grace yet live in legalism, or forgiveness but hold a grudge, or sacrifice and still act selfishly? And in our present seclusion, hidden from the sight of others, how are we using our time? We’ve been commanded to go into our room, close our door, but are we praying? (Matt 6:6) The Pharisees and Scribes were also blind to their pride. They claimed ‘if we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ They were certain that if a prophet were sent to them, they would play no part in killing him… The irony is deafening. And their assumption of moral superiority testifies to the very fact that they were no better than their ancestors. Rebellion infects the whole story of humanity – the Hebrew Bible begins and ends with the shed blood of the righteous: Abel’s was murdered at the start (Gen 4:8) and Zechariah at the end (2 Chronicles 24:21). But we glimpse in the final verses of this chapter the heart of God which our pride and rebellion breaks. ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets, knowing that he would suffer that very same fate. The blood of the Righteous One was shed because of our rebellion, but that same blood secured our redemption. Here I find hope, because this is hope for the hypocrite who recognises his hypocrisy, repents of his pride and comes to the Lord in humility.

The last point of Andy’s sermon was to come to the one who wants to embrace self-righteous hypocrites like you and me. We have a father who wants to embrace the self-righteous older brother just as much as the prodigal younger brother, if only we will recognise our sin, lay down our pride and come to him in repentance and faith.

Father, we’re sorry for our hypocrisy and self-righteousness and we’re sorry for when we have been and still are blind to it. Please forgive us for the inconsistency of our lives and for when we value the praise of men above the praise of you, and our own glory above your own. Thank you that you died and rose to take the penalty of our sin and to give us your true righteousness. Help us by your Spirit to follow you faithfully, with humility and integrity. 

Matthew 23.1-12

Have you ever come across one of those people whose lifestyle and teaching are so integrated that you are literally hanging on every word they say? Any time they release a new book, music or podcast you check it out straight away because their authenticity is so attractive? And have you ever come across the opposite type of person who either crushes you with demands or is laughable in their double-morale? Today’s passage is about integrity.

Jesus is criticizing the Pharisees and scribes about the way that they live and teach. He begins by saying that they do have the right to teach the people – they sit in Moses’ seat, the seat of authority on the law, and they teach it correctly, but the problem is that they don’t practice what they preach.

The passage says that they tie up heavy burdens and lay them on the shoulders of others – how very far from Jesus’ own cry a few chapters earlier: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me […] For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ (Matt 11.28-30)

What was it that made the burden of the Pharisees and scribes so heavy? I think a clue is to be found in the next verse – that they don’t even lift a finger to help. Have you ever had someone give you a difficult task and the prospect of doing this thing really weighed you down? But if the difficult task instead was phrased as something we would do together the burden was suddenly lifted off your shoulders. There’s a huge difference between telling someone what they ought to do, and inviting them to join you in something you do together. Let’s do this time together, church!

Jesus goes on to address the leaders’ motivation – they just do it all for show. They do everything to be seen by others, praised by others, revered by others. They thrive off the attention that religious leadership gives them. But Jesus tells them that’s not the way leadership should be – instead of honorific titles they should be called servants. The principle is that whoever exalts himself will be brought low, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

I’ve been thinking lately about my own motivation. It’s easy in times of stress and isolation to just put up a ‘holy façade’ for the people I’m trying to lead. To put on a brave face and share a ‘thought of the day I just happened to stumble upon in my daily Bible reading that everyone should be doing now that they have time’. But that wasn’t quite the truth – I forgot to read the Bible this morning again, and stole that verse of encouragement from someone else on Facebook. 

It’s all coming back to integrity, isn’t it? Like with the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, our true values are going to shine through one way or another. No matter how much we say we believe one thing, perhaps even genuinely think that’s a value we hold, if we don’t embody it in our daily lives, it’s not going to make an impact. And Jesus is calling our values to be that of servants – how could you serve your friends, housemates or neighbours today? In the daily prayer this morning I prayed to see Jesus in every person that I met and that every person that met me would also see Jesus in me – maybe this could be your prayer too.

I’ve realised that this stripping down of normal routine over the last couple of days has forced me to take a step back and think about my values. The circumstances around me has allowed for a closer inspection of what things I actually prioritise, what my day looks like without distractions of busyness. 

It’s challenging, but also, so good. This is a unique opportunity to grow in intimacy with God – no one will see you reading that book or studying that scripture or praying that prayer, but you can do it anyway. And as Jesus says in the sermon on the mount, your Father who sees in secret – in the closed off homes and rooms – will reward you. How can you take steps to grow in intimacy with the Lord today?

Let’s pray.
Lord, we thank you that you are with us. We pray that in this time of change we would be able to see ourselves more clearly. Give us grace to see things that need to change and produce that change in us, Holy Spirit. Help us to grow closer to you in times of need, and bless us with your presence this day.