By Simon ManchesterSunday 23 Dec 2018Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterFaithReading Time: 17 minutes
This is the Christmas season, and on a smaller scale, it is also the cricket season. I was reading a book on the clashes between the Australians and the English over the century, in the Ashes series. I read an extraordinary story of W.G. Grace, who was the heavy giant of English cricket back in the 19th century. On one particular occasion he was bowled out by an Australian and he simply, believe it or not, he just bent down, got the bails off the ground, and put them back on the stumps and said to the Bowler, “The people have come to see me bat. They have not come to see you bowl.” The nerve of doing that, the cheek. Apparently, he was bowled a few balls later. And as he walked away the Bowler called out, “Surely you’re not leaving. There’s one stump still standing.”
I tell you that because what W.G. Grace did dishonestly, I think is a fraction, of what Jesus did in that reading that we just had. Can you imagine Jesus walking into the synagogue of Nazareth, it’s a small town, somebody hands him the scroll of Isaiah. It’s 700 years old. He turns to the place where the Messiah is being spoken of, and then he closes the scroll, and he says, “This is talking about me.” What a thing to say. And if it’s false, of course, it’s amazing dishonesty. If it’s true, it’s an amazing priority. Not only did Jesus say this, but he also went onto say something quite unusual, which is that he quoted half the scripture. He left part of it out, which was very significant why he did that. The people in the synagogue became quite patronising because Jesus said something which made them so angry. They came forward as a group, grabbed him, took him out of the city to the top of a hill to throw him over the cliff.
I want to take a few minutes to try and work out what was going on because I think this will help you to believe more than you do. I understand that the summer in Finland is described as nine months of expectation followed by three months of disappointment. And it seems to me that Christmas is often days and days of expectation and then huge disappointment. As if we get to the end and say, “Was that it?”
The Promise Fulfilled
Let’s think for a few minutes about this passage we just had read for us, Jesus in the synagogue reading an Old Testament scripture. First of all, he claims to be the target of the promises of God. There are lots of promises in the Old Testament about the Messiah, and of course, Isaiah had lots of promises about the Messiah himself. And one of them is in Chapter 61, which is the one Jesus quotes, “The spirit of the Lord is on me because He’s anointed me to proclaim. And this is what I’m to proclaim,” says Jesus, “Good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, escape from darkness,” or perhaps blindness, “and God’s favour.” “That’s what I am to proclaim,” said Jesus.
Now, as Jesus read these verses out, he came to the astonishing conclusion for everybody present, that it was all about him. There are over 300 specific or veiled references to the Messiah in the Old Testament. If somebody was ever to claim to be the Messiah or came along today and said, “I’m the Messiah,” we’re able to say to them something like this,
- Do you come from the tribe of Judah?
- Are from the line of David?
- Were you born in Bethlehem?
- Were you betrayed for 30 pieces of silver?
- Did you get your hands pierced?
This is just a handful of them. I mean, one of the more difficult ones is, “Are you born of a virgin?” That always reduces the number hugely. But somebody has said, if you take 8 of the easy predictions and go looking in the world for somebody who will fulfil 8 of the easy predictions, you’re looking at somebody who is 1 in 10 to the 17th.
That is 1 with 17 notes at the end. And they’ve illustrated this by saying, “Imagine that you were to get 10 to the 17th silver dollars.” It’s an American illustration, and you were to cover Texas with the silver dollars, 10 the 17th. It would cover Texas knee deep in dollars. Then mark one coin across the country, get a man, blindfold him, ask him to walk across Texas, pick one coin as he goes, and his chance of collecting the one coin is 1 in 10 to the 17th, and that’s to fulfil 8 of the more than 300 predictions which Jesus fulfilled.
You see why it’s an astonishing thing? And when Jesus says it’s me, and we check his credentials, we discover yes. All these predictions fit. And then his life went on to do what the predictions said he would do, and his death, what the prediction said would happen, and his resurrection, what the prediction said would happen. And you’ll notice that he says, “I’ve come to rescue. I’ve come to rescue people who are poor, in prison, and blind.”
Those of you who are here this morning who think that somehow the Christian message is that there is a program for you to do, have missed the point of Christmas and missed the point of Christianity. Because the point of Christianity is not that there is a program for you to do, but there was a program for him to do, and he did it. And your job is to acknowledge it and receive it.
So, it’s an extremely, extremely important situation. Now, one of the things Jesus was predicted to do was to give people a new heart. The Old Testament said that the Messiah would bring a new heart. He would take out the heart of stone, an unbelieving careless heart and he would give a new heart, a heart with his spirit. And there are many in this building today who can testify that he’s done that for them in giving them a brand new heart.
Friends, you’re never going to experience this until you take yourself to the target. You’re never going to really get Christianity or Christmas until you take yourself to Christ. I would suggest that you do that on your knees in private, personally and genuinely and say to him, “You have come in greatness, and you offer something beyond the value of this world. And I myself am a person in poverty, and imprisonment, and in blindness, and I’m asking you to grant to give me that.”
If Jesus is sort of peripheral to your life, if he is irrelevant to you, if he’s foreign to you, it’s probably because you’re still in the dark. Once the lights go on and once you’ve come to him, he is as central to your life as the sun in the sky is to your day. So that’s the first thing, Jesus sees himself as the target of the promises.
Jesus Quotes Half The Promises
Here’s the second thing. Jesus quotes half the promises. When he’s in the synagogue that day, he stops short of finishing the quote. He only quotes half the promise. And because he quotes half the promise, it’s easy to see Christianity as more ordinary than it is. I was reading that Sir Alec Guinness, who’s a great English actor, had a favourite restaurant, and he would go to the restaurant, and he would hand his coat over to the man at the desk. And one day he handed his coat over to the man at the desk and the guy said to him, and he was quite chuffed to hear this, “We don’t need your name, we know who you are.” And sort of smiling and beaming, he walked over to his table, had his meal. When he went back to collect his coat, there was a little tag that said, “Bald with glasses.” So they’d obviously not quite appreciated who he was.
It is possible to have a view of Jesus, which is that he’s nice, ancient, religious, moderately interesting. And you’ve missed the point entirely. He’s central to the world.
So, what does he say? He says in Chapter 4:18, in the verses that you were given just a few minutes ago, he says,
“My job is to proclaim or preach or announce or evangelise good news, and it’s for these people, the poor, the trapped, and the blind.”
And you’ll be sitting there thinking to yourself, “Well, I’m not poor. Well, I’m relatively poor, but I’m not poor. I’m not trapped, and I’m not blind.” That’s the bulk of you. So we have to ask ourselves the question, “What is Jesus talking about? Did he walk the world giving money to the poor, so they became rich?” No, he didn’t have any money. So he never gave money to the poor.
Did he help people out of their prison, out of their jail? No, he didn’t get anybody out of prison, as far as we know. And even John the Baptist, his friend who was in prison was not brought out of prison and got depressed.
Did Jesus go around healing blind people? Well, he did heal a few blind people, but he left a lot of blind people. So what’s he talking about when he says, “I’ve come to bring good news to the poor, the imprisoned, and the blind.”
Friends, listen to this. He’s talking about a spiritual condition, the person who without Christ is spiritually poor, bankrupt in God’s economy. You know, you might think to yourself, I’m a 50% sort of guy, I’m a 90% sort of girl, but in God’s economy, the whole human race is bankrupt. We have nothing to bring to him. And then you might say to yourself, “Oh, I’m certainly not in prison,” but the Bible says there’s nobody who can get out of their predicament.
You can’t emerge from your problem and impress God. It’s impossible. It doesn’t matter whether you live a thousand years and sign checks to every charity and join every rotary club. It’ll never happen. And then you might say to yourself, “Well, I’m not blind.” But I say again, if Christ is peripheral, marginal, on the edge of your life, you haven’t seen him. You haven’t really seen him. There’s a blindness and darkness, and Jesus has come to bring an answer. That’s one of the reasons it’s so difficult when you’re a Christian, and you’re talking to a non-Christian about Christianity, because the non-Christian thinks they understand Christianity, but they don’t understand Christianity because they are still blind. It’d be like you standing at the art gallery next to a painting, and there’s a person beside you who is physically blind, and the person who’s physically blind starts to describe the painting to you, and after a while you say it’s got nothing to do with what you’re talking about. And that’s what it’s like for the Christian trying to explain the non-Christian, and the difficulty of listening to a non-Christian explain Christianity to a Christian.
A great tragedy today, is watching the world, and the great cause of the problems of the world watching the world walk away from Christ and turn their back on the riches, the spiritual riches, the freedom, the light. And then wonder why the world is getting so much more complex and dark and empty and sad. Here we are watching the world in Australia walk away from Christ steadily, confidently, as people get sadder and emptier, and more distressed, it’s a great tragedy. Jesus said on one occasion he is a doctor, and he said, and there are two kinds of people in the world. There were those who realised their sickness and there were those who denied their sickness. And how sad it is to see people who look as though they are rich, who look as though they are afraid, who look as though they are seeing but spiritually, eternally poor, imprisoned, and in the dark.
How wonderful it is when people turn to Christ and find themselves receiving true riches, true freedom, and true light. So, he announces that he’s got a message and it’s for everybody who’s humble about their condition and knows their need, and then he leaves something out of the quote. I want to tell you what he leaves out of the quote.
In the original quote, it says, “To proclaim the lame…but to proclaim the Lord’s favour,” and then this is how it finishes, “And the day of God’s vengeance,” and Jesus leaves that out. He stops at favour. Now I’d be tempted to stop at favour, because I think, well, that’s such a pleasant thing to say. I’m here to tell you about God’s favour, but why does Jesus stop at that word favour and not go on to say there’s also the day of God’s vengeance. Is he embarrassed that God would come one day in justice? Is he thinking it’s probably too negative? Does he want to stay popular? No, none of that can be true. The reason that he stops at the word favour is because at his first coming, he’s come to proclaim God’s favour.
At his second coming, he brings God’s justice and vengeance. So he is making clear what he has come to do, and he is shelving for the minute what he will do at his second coming. And this I think is why Christianity often seems so feeble, because what has the church got to say to the world, except God holds out his hands to you. And you can imagine the world walking past and say, “I wouldn’t want any interest in that. That’s like joining the boy scouts. Why would I want to join that? I’m perfectly happy. I like running my life my way.”
Think about the boy scouts, you know, join it if you want and do the badges, and play your game. And you people who go to church, you know you like this kind of churchy stuff, well, I don’t. So easy to dismiss Christianity because it looks so feeble? In fact, it seems a little bit like a hospital, the church, because it is a hospital, full of sick people, most of whom know they’re sick and most of whom are grateful for the doctor. But I want you, friends, not to miss out that the Messiah who today offers the world an answer to spiritual bankruptcy, and spiritual imprisonment, and spiritual darkness, is going to one day come and announce your decision. And he’s going to seal your decision, and he’s going to seal your decision forever. Because there will be a day, and it’ll be a very wonderful day where God will come in great justice.
What is often called judgment. And he will decide exactly where people stand, not on the basis of their performance, but on the basis of their response to Jesus.
It’s Santa who comes for good people, but Jesus comes for naughty people. That’s why he’s so wonderful because none of us is good when we’re honest. So if today you take in the good news, the spiritual riches, the spiritual freedom, the spiritual light, there will come a day where he will welcome you in. If you say no to the spiritual riches, the spiritual freedom, the spiritual light, they’ll come a day where he will say no. It’s really very simple.
I was reading that when Cyclone Irma came sweeping across Florida in 2017, the police put a sign outside which said, “Evacuate now. Avoid Irma’s wrath. You can party later.” And you say as you look at that, “Geez, that’s very unfriendly. Escape Irma’s wrath? You know, what a terrible thing to say.” Actually, it’s a super loving thing to say of the police. I don’t want people to be injured or harmed or hurt. And when the church says, “Escape God’s wrath,” it’s not because of unkindness.
It’s a huge word of kindness. And Jesus comes to offer today an escape. And one day that day will come, and we will suddenly find ourselves face to face with him, and there we will be, all of us, before our maker. And the question will not be, “Have you lived a good life? Are you a good guy? Did you love your family? Did you build up a big business? Did you win medals? Were you terrific?” None of those questions will amount to anything. The question will be, “What did you do with my son who I send to bring you that salvation?” That’ll be the question. And that’s why I find this so encouraging at Christmas because it explains why the church is weak. The church is marked by an offer and a warning.
His Promise is All We Need
Now, the third and last thing today is, Jesus tells us that his promise is all we need. I know that there’ll be some of you today and you’ll say, “I’d love to become a Christian, but I just need really good proofs because I’m highly intelligent and I need some miracles to happen right in front of me.” But Jesus says, “This promise is enough for you.” And I’ve never seen a miracle, but I’ve got the promises. And the promises are valuable. Lots of things are not valuable. I was reading that in the UK there are a billion cards that get thrown away at the end of Christmas. The wrapping paper, which is used in England, is enough to wrap two suburbs. Six million trees, enough trees to fill Epping Forest and all the parks of London are thrown away.
The one that really shocked me is that there’s enough aluminium foil being thrown away to make 14 Boeing 747s. So, this is kind of disposable. You can forget these things. But when it comes to the promise of salvation, it’s priceless, and it’s sufficient. It’s all you need not to be wasted. Now, the people in the synagogue that day, they did not think that Jesus was giving them a priceless promise at all. When he said, “I’ve come to proclaim freedom from poverty, imprisonment, darkness.” They listened to him, and this was their response. They turned to one another, and they said, “This is Joseph’s boy, isn’t it? Isn’t this the carpenter’s boy?”
Jesus knew that they were very patronising and very proud. He said something interesting to them. He said, “No doubt you will say to me, physician, doctor, heal yourself, meaning you’ve got the problem. Fix yourself.” And Jesus went on to say, “You will say to me, do some miracles here because we’ve heard you did miracles, but if you do some miracles here, we may start taking you seriously.” And you know what Jesus said to them? He said, “In the days of Elijah the prophet in the Old Testament, there were lots of widows,” but he only helped one, and she was a gentile.
“And in the days of Elisha,” said Jesus, “There were lots of sick people,” but he only helped one, and he was a gentile. The people of the synagogue were filled with anger because Jesus implication is that God turned His back on the Jews and gave His help to the gentile. But actually, the point is, you see that that widow knew that she was in terrible need and came humbly to get help, and the sick soldier knew that he was in terrible need and he came humbly to get healing. And Jesus’ point is, “The problem you see is not with me,” says Jesus. “It’s not that I have the problem. The problem is with you. The problem…the question is, have you got that wisdom? Have you got that humility? Have you got that awareness to be able to say, ‘I’m in need. I must go to him,'” because that’s what marked the people who were helped in the days of Elijah and Elisha. And that’s what’s going to be marked by the people who were helped by Jesus in his day and today.
It’s the person who gets on their knees and says to him, “I have the need. You have the solution.” That’s the person who’s going to be helped. Perhaps you’ll feel the point of the anger of the people in the synagogue. If I was to say something to you like this, “Do you realise there are lots of people across this city from other countries, and they are hearing the message of Christianity? And they’re just gobbling it up as fast as they can? Do you know the people who go to the ESL classes around this city, English is their second language, and they’re offered some kind of children’s book to read so that they can get their Basic English?” They say, “We haven’t come here for the basic children’s book. We want you to read the Bible to us. We’ve never had the Bible read to us.” And there are people all over this city from other countries who are swallowing the message of Christ as fast as they can because they’re so appreciative. They know their need. They hear the news, the two wires come together and they are full of gratitude and joy. There are so many people who come and they’ll say, “This is nice and now I go home.”
“The problem you see,” says Jesus, “is not him. The problem is you.” It’s the listener. I don’t know if you know, but there are more Christians in a church in China today than there are in Europe, Eastern China, so-called Christian Europe, more Christians in China than Europe. The number of Christians in Asia has grown in the last 15 years, from 11 million to 171 million.
The growth of the church in Africa has moved in the last 100 years from 9% to 49%. And there are more people. There are more Anglicans in a church today, this Christmas in Nigeria or Tanzania or Kenya or Uganda, than in all the churches in England and America put together.
God offers, and wise people respond. So the people listening to Jesus are infuriated, and they rush forward, and they grab him, and they take him out of the city, and they take him to a cliff, and they go to push him off. And he just walked straight through the middle, because his time to die has not yet come.
But a little bit later he will allow himself to be arrested, and he will let himself to be taken out of the city. Jesus will be taken out of the city, and he’ll be placed on the cross. And as he’s placed on the cross, he will experience the most terrible spiritual poverty. Absolute bankruptcy, as everything he has, is emptied. He will experience the most terrible spiritual imprisonment as he is trapped and caught in the job of salvation. He will experience the most terrible darkness as even fellowship with His father, which has been eternal, is suddenly taken away from him. And he’ll do that so that a person like you and me might not experience that poverty, that imprisonment, or that darkness.
What a wonderful thing we celebrate at Christmas that somebody would do something for our eternal good. We’re so good at looking a week ahead, aren’t we? We’re so good at looking a year ahead. We’re so good at looking maybe even a decade ahead. We’re so good at working out our future plans. But he’s worked out our eternal plans, big, big plans. So Jesus is the target of the promises of God and he is the target that you need to go to. He quotes half the verse because in the present it’s an offer, in the future, the door will close
He tells us that the promise is all we need. You don’t need a miracle. If Jesus was to come into this building today and do 10 miracles, there would still be lots of people in the pews who’d say, “We still don’t believe.” Miracles don’t change people. The question is whether the heart is soft and open, humble and wise, and what a wonderful thing Jesus offers to us at Christmas. Something which will in eternity be seen to be the most wonderful thing we’ve ever heard, ever been offered, and in God’s providence ever received.
Let’s thank him. Let’s bow our heads. Our heavenly father, thank you for giving to us such a gift for such a result. We pray that you would give to all who are listening, the wisdom, the humility, the openness, and the joy of taking hold of Christ. We ask it in His name. Amen.