That excitement that comes when we open the box of a new phone, tablet, or laptop. When you look at it and convince yourself that it was worth the money that you forked out on it. That smell when you get into a new car and settle back into the driver’s seat and hope that the miles you will put on it will not reduce that sense of achievement. Even a new job, friendship, relationship or achievement. One thing we can guarantee is that with enough time the buzz will fade: new phones get scratched, a laptop’s specification become dated, the “new car” scent in our car gets replaced by the odour of stale chips buried under our seats. All it takes it time for something to lose its gloss, to seem banal and to leave us dreaming of the next thing that we need to buy.
These last six months of living in a covid shaped world have been a challenging and diverse experience. The contours of this context have challenged so much of what we value, and where we look too for value. Yet, even in these ever-changing days as a Christian, I have still found myself looking at things other than Jesus to provide the hope and security that seem to be lacking in these days. Even in a new normal, the reality of my normality means I constantly search for that which cannot be found where I look. Where we have found ourselves looking over these last six months for security and value as things around us have changed beyond recognition, as we wait for more pain? I think that normal boast that’ stuff’ gives us has lost its potency during these last six months. The gloss is fading quicker, and suddenly everything just seems frivolous.
I write as a Christian, my faith is central to who I am, and has helped me navigate choppy waters and still oceans. It is not just some private part of my life, it is my life. Yet, I must be the first to admit that these days have been perhaps more challenging as we have had to wrestle with questions of God and worship. It has been hard to know where to look as waves around us rage. We know that we are meant to look to Jesus as our rock amid all the storms and seasons in life. Yet, I know as a Christian, I must look to Jesus, but working that out can be difficult, as things change almost at an hourly rate. Moreover, this has been a difficult season for me (and many) in terms of ministry, trying to think, act, pray, and minister through Covid situations: having to reimagine what Church and pastoral ministry look like. Then to try minister not only to those in the care of the churches but also too ourselves.
The reality of this new situation is that because the change has been so drastic, and everything is fluid it can be challenging for us to make time for ourselves because as disciples (regardless of our role or work) we are always having to read new guidelines, adjust to new procedures and produce online content. So what do we do during this new normal? Where do we find ideas and inspiration for Church and personal discipleship? We find the new in the old: we look to the one who is ever-glorious and on whom time has no effect. When everything else starts to fade, we must look to the one against who all other things seem dull when we have seen him in all his splendour and beauty. Our example, challenge, and hope in this new normal? Jesus.
The Challenge of Scripture
Scripture always speaks, especially if we are genuinely listening. God will use it for his purposes in us and to his Glory through us. Over these last few weeks, I have found myself reflecting on Matthew 14. I have found myself challenged by what I have seen and learnt in the past, and I have found myself challenged by the new that I have not picked up before.
As always, I am challenged by what I see in the person and example of Jesus Christ. Not just him as our Saviour and the Son of God, but Jesus the man, as I ponder the pace at which he lives, the heart through which he ministers and the way he interacts and responds to the challenges of living in a fallen and broken world. I am challenged and encouraged by the normality and struggles of the ragtag group of men who are following Jesus: I am inspired by their efforts because it reminds me that faithfulness – not perfection – is the call of the disciples, and God often works in spite of us, not because of us. During this stressful season, I think we must allow ourselves to be challenged by Jesus, especially here in Matthew 14. As we see his rhythms of life and ministry, as he models for us the way of the Kingdom even amid distress, interruption and Chaos. Then we must ponder the example and challenge of the disciples, particularly Peter as he steps out onto the water. Let us consider just what that picture might mean for us and our walk of faith during these days as we seek to live out the great commission. In the disciples, we see the reality of faith, and we should rejoice in it!
Ministering in Response to Difficulty | The Example of Jesus
The Continuing Commission
As the clock struck midnight on December 31st and we entered into the new year, we all had plans, idea and dreams of what 2020 would look like. It is safe to say that no-one would have presumed a six-month lockdown that affected every part of how we lived. All our plans for new ventures or projects, travel, work and self-improvement went out the window as covid locked the front door. Normality became difficulty: Socially Distant became our norm. A difficulty that has redefined every aspect of our lives currently: Home, Work, exercise, and how we shop – anything else you can think of has been redefined – even how we do Church.
As I write some of us have not been able to meet physically for months, we miss the companionship of our church family. Yet just because we have not been able to meet, only a fool would suggest that the Church has not been functioning. Why? Because the Church is not a building, it is a people gathered. Thus, we have had to reimagine what it means to do Church in these times, how we can gather, and what it means to live in the Kingdom of God. The reality of our being has not changed even if our being has changed. The Church is still the gathered people of God whether we are worshipping freely, isolating because of lockdown, or meeting in secret because we are being persecuted. Thus, while our mode of being has had to adapt our reality remains the same – we are children of God adopted through the work of Christ as we put our trust in him. Nothing can redefine this. Thus our citizenship is assured regardless of circumstance, then also the responsibility of our citizenship remains.
As citizens of the Kingdom of God, we are still called to live out the mandate of that Kingdom. Whether in “normality” or difficulty as citizens of the Kingdom of God, we are called to live our the responsibility of our citizenship. To be like Jesus for the Glory of God. Question’s then for us today to consider:
- How do we grow in our own faith?
- As we live socially distant lives, how do we draw near to those around as we seek to live out the Great Commission and share the hope of Christ?
These are not new questions, they should be our daily consideration as we live in this world and wait for the coming of Christ, to see the beauty of Jesus, to know the wonder of relationship and be transformed (continually) by the Holy Spirit is to naturally want others to know the same wonder. Thus, we consider how do we reach this culture, this time with the hope of Jesus. There is no right answer, in each season of life, we must find the right way to share the good news of Jesus Christ and to call people repentant.
The Commission Example
While there is no constant answer, there is a continuous example: we must fix our eyes upon – regardless of time or season – Jesus Christ. As we seek to live for him, we look to Him as our example and guide. There is no season of life, no struggle that Jesus cannot relate to or offer us an example through. The context for Matthew 14 is one of great difficulty, Jesus has just heard the news of the death of his first cousin and fellow worker in the cause of the Kingdom John the Baptist. In the build-up to the feeding of the five thousand, there are several different events to be mindful of:
Jesus must have been drained from the teaching and the needs of the crowd (Matthew 13). Then to hear about the death of a loved one must have been like a punch tot he gut. There is nothing ideal about this setting or context. I think every moment of Jesus’ ministry on earth would have been difficult, but this season, this time must have been one of the hardest as the needs of the people was great and the loss of a close friend. Yet he continued to do that which God called him too. Furthermore, in his continuing of the work that he was called to Jesus models something that is radically different to our way’s because as he does the work of the Kingdom, a work that is opposed to the ways of the world he models ways that contrast to the world. Jesus models for us both the method and the example.
Seeking the Presence of the Lord: A Solid Foundation
We all have a default reaction that almost instinct decision when we are stressed or worried that gives us some space or relief. You know the character in the American Cop Show who when receiving lousy news heads down to the firing range to let off a few rounds before heading out to enact justice. They might be far fetched reactions on TV, but they reflect something of our fundamental human nature.
As mentioned in verse 12, Jesus receives the news of Johns death, yet, it is perhaps the worst type of death-news. The end of a family member not by illness or accident but at the hands of the state because he said something they did not want to hear. This is a situation for many Disciples of Jesus today: suffering at the hands of an oppressive state, think of places like Sudan, Iran, North Korea, where families are torn apart by the hand of a fearful government of the Gospel and a people who bow at the throne of the eternal king.1 How many families must hear about the murder of loved ones? In Jesus, they have one who knows their pain. I wonder how you might react if you had to bear such news? Head for the pub? Go for a long-distance run, head to a coffee shop somewhere where no one knew you, and you could just be along in the busyness of the crowd, or perhaps you might just head into work and bury yourself in the busyness of life in the hope that it might pass and you will not have to do anything.
A Gospel Reaction
I love what we learn of Jesus at this moment as he reacts to the death of his cousin and partner in the work of the Lord, amid a busy season (teaching, leading, healing, confronting and bringing in the Kingdom of God). He could have just continued to be busy. However, he did not. He did not react by ignoring it or losing himself in all that needed to be done. Far from it:
“When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.“ Matthew 14:13 NIV
We learn about Jesus in the seemingly insignificant details in these moments: about the type of person he is, the foundation that his life is built on – his relationship with God the Father. In the face of significant tragedy, Jesus does not return to work, not head for another early escape, no he heads for solace – a place to be alone with God the father. It is a pattern that is not unique to this moment, it is part of Jesus regular rhythm: thus, we learn that for Jesus spending time with God the father is not just important to him, it is foundational to who he is and what he is called to do. Whether it’s the night before picking 12 disciples to serve with him; in the garden before willingly going to the Cross; or here in the face of devastating news Jesus sought solitude so that he could rest in the presence of the Lord.
Why? because it was there that all the madness of the world made sense, it was there he was able to renew and refreshed and ready for whatever else may come. The seeking of solitude was not a motion to escape, no, it was a motion to be renewed in the things of the Lord. Now at this point, his movement to rest and solitude was denied by the demands and desires of the crowd who either unaware or unconcerned with the news of John the Baptist had their own needs to be meet because by verse 13 they had followed him to where he hoped to withdraw.
Yet, as we read on through, we see how important this motion is to Jesus because as soon as he has again given of himself in ministry and mission, he reenacts his movement of withdrawal: “After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone.” (14:23 NIV) We live in a preputial state of busyness, even in this strange time of limited movement and interaction we have replaced one busyness with another. Here Jesus shows us how we must live if we are to live with him and for him. The presence of the Lord is to be our priority, not as a matter of escapism but as fuel for living in the madness of this age.
Retreat or solitude is not just a one-off event every few years on some spiritual retreat that we head off on once a year. It is to be our rhythm of life, the fuel for the fire of God as we live in this world for him. Yes, there will be moments where we seek to withdraw, and the world interrupts, that is okay, like the crowd with Christ we respond as Christ but at some point, we must seek the presence of the Lord, to be with him, and bring all that we have faced before him.
Imagine those prayers as Jesus was alone on the hill, imagine as he brought before God his pain at the loss of his cousin and friend, imagine as he lamented over the weariness of the ministry that he had been doing, or shared his frustration over those who were walking with him. We know not what was prayed, but we can be assured that the desire for that time strengthened him as he healed, ministers to and then feed some 5000 people, then that that time would have strengthened him and ready him for all that was ahead in the coming moments: walking on water, the feeding of the 4000, ministering to the candidate women, teaching the crowds and everything else that the pages of Scripture do not record.
Finding our Own Retreat
Every context for discipleship is different, and each follower of Jesus is called to not just live for him but model our lives on him; we must wrestle with what that looks like in our own context. So what does retreat, solitude, withdrawal look like in our daily rhythm of life? Does it even factor in for us, or are we so busy in the madness that we continually delay that which is vital to our faith? That time which helps in our disciple and to understand our missional context.
Perhaps today we can stop and consider what our life looks like? Where our moments of rest and retreat need to concreted in? Maybe we need to set aside time today from the madness to spend with the one who is sovereign over the turmoil. Let us find our own rhythms modelled on Christ so that we can live faithfully with him and for him to the Glory of God in a way that contrasts and confronts the world around us. What do those moments of withdrawal look like? Simple, they look like verse 23 – prayer, thinking through the word, and literally just time with God. For everyone that will look somewhat different, it might be losing yourself in the busyness of a coffee shop, out for a run with a podcast on, sitting in the car before heading into the shop, or home in the living room infant of the warm fire. Yet for everyone, it must be part of the rhythm of life.
Dealing with Interruption | The heart of Jesus
Our reaction to changes shows something about us. However, we can learn something about ourselves and others by how they react to interruption. Some people love interruption because it means they never have to deal with the things in front of them, others to interrupt them is to drive them off the edge of a cliff. Then there is Jesus, he who upon hearing the news of the death of John the Baptists moves to withdraw only to be met with the crowd he sought to leave behind. What doe he do? He feels compassion towards them, and then he acts out that compassion. Interruption is part of life and faith, how we respond to it is up to us. So let’s heed two points from the example of Jesus here: A heart of Compassion and The Act of Compassion.
The Heart of Compassion
Interruption comes in many different ways, yet for Jesus at this moment, the interruption was in the form of people. They wanted more from him, more than perhaps he felt he had to offer at that moment, yet rather than rage or scorn them he looked upon them in their need and had compassion on them. How we react says something about us, and here Jesus responded with compassion. Compassion is the heart of Christ. It is why he went willingly to the Cross to deal with the problem of Sin. It is why on the Cross, he was able to look down on those who mocked them and pray: “forgive them because they do not know what they are doing!” To have compassion is to join in another suffering (Com: Join / Passion: Suffering) and to have compassion is the way of the Cross, and the heartbeat of the Christian life and work. A compassionate heart takes human interruption in its stride and uses it for the purposes and Glory of God. Consider today how we respond to the interruption of others; because to have the heart of Christ means our compassion is more than a feeling, it incarnates itself in action.
Acts of Compassion
What is true, inwardly will show outwardly. In that our reaction too, the unexpected will show where we find comfort or security, so will our response to interruption show our heart. If we are those who walk with Jesus, then as we live for him and look to him; we must be becoming like him in our weakness as God the Holy Spirit works in us to scantily us and bring Glory to God. If we are followers of Jesus, then our Spirit-empowered response to the interruptions of life, those moments when people come with their needs will incarnate the compassion that our heart feels.
To the crowd with all their needs, Jesus meets their needs know and unknown: he taught them the ways of the Kingdom of God to meet a spiritual need they knew nothing about, he meets their physical needs through healing and the providing of food for the entire crowd. Today, where ever we are and whatever we are facing, let us seek to not only turn to Jesus in moments of stress or suffering but to a response like Jesus. May our heart be shaped by his compassion and may our lives incarnate his mercy by our words and deeds. Even today lets consider how as a church we might respond well to this great interruption that is covid-19, how might we by our teachings and living out of the way of Jesus display the compassion of Christ to the Glory of God?
The Reality of Discipleship (14:22-36)
I wonder what image you would use to describe what it’s like to be a disciple of Jesus to someone who is new to the faith. Maybe you might use the image of a marathon to remind them that it is not a sprint, but it is the race of life; perhaps you would use the image of a tree growing over the years, similar to the Imagery in Psalm 1. There are so many different ways to describe the reality of following Jesus and the struggle it is even after coming to faith. A struggle not because of Jesus, but because we drift from reliance on him and the Holy Spirit to self-effort, we drift from the Kingdom to the world. We take our eyes off Jesus and look either to ourselves, our effort or to the world around us for that thing we need.
There is much that could be said about this section of Matthew 14, about what it teaches us about Jesus as the one who is sovereign over the Chaos and Lord of the Elements, that there is nothing outside of His Lordship and authority. Yet, I think what I want to focus on is the encouragement that it offers us today amid the reality we find ourselves living in. When we study the disciples at this point, I think this whole scene is one of the perfect pictures for describing the reality of living in the Kingdom fo God. Jesus and Peter on the water capture succinctly the struggle and progress that is our walk with Jesus.
One of the biggest dangers, as we walk with Jesus, is the perfect misconception. Meaning we presume that when we come to Christ and then walk from there that it is some upward curve of perception, a journey free from stumble, stress or lethargy. Then when we find ourselves in one of those seasons where the clouds seem not to lift and ever thick. Where we stumble and see more eager for lazying about that Christ, where (we think) there is no evident fruit in our lives of the works of Grace we wonder if our faith is even real or if it ever was. Discipleship is a journey, and every journey takes time and looks different. Thus we must be mindful of the meta-reality of all discipleship and our specific reality as we walk with Christ, to live out his purposes and to bring Glory to his name. That while we are free from the curse of Sin, we are still under its reality. Thus, we will stumble, we will fall, we will make mistakes and will be dishonour God as much as we honour him. What do we do? Well, we stop thinking much of ourselves, we look to Christ, we seek His guidance, and we walk the road ahead of us for him and with him in the power of the Holy Spirit. The struggle is not the sign of the absence of faith, it is the reality of faith as God works in us to ride us of that which is not pleasing to him, and like anything worth, while it will take time and require pain and passion.
A Kingdom Reality
Consider Peter in this section of the passage; so full of energy and enthusiasm for Jesus and the Kingdom. He finds himself out on a lake in the middle of stormy waters – nothing unusual for a boat full of fishermen – yet out on the water they are met by the approaching figure of a man amid the mist of the raging water! How they must have questioned their sanity at the time. There a considerable distance from the land the disciples fought against the water, and Jesus strolled out as if this was completely normal for him. They think its a ghost! Jesus assures them it is him with the command to “Take Courage.” A command that Peter takes literally as he requests permission to come out of the boat and walk to Jesus on the water. A request which Jesus permitted as he called out: “Come” It really is the picture of Salvation and the reality of discipleship.
In the storms of this life, there is one who calls us to himself, he beckons us him, and amid the storms, he is secure, beautiful and steadfast, and when we see him as he is, we will go to him. Thus, as Peter takes his steps out, he captures our discipleship perfectly, not in his walking on water, but in his stumbling! As with each step, the reality of his situation becomes clearer, he is literally walking on water amid waves and Chaos towards a man who he is not quite sure about. A reality that causes him to lose sight of the one he must set his eyes upon, and upon whom when our eyes our set all other things make sense and subside. Discipleship is seeing Jesus for who he is (The Lord), then fixing our eyes upon him as we walk towards him. Our struggles are when we lose sight of him, and begin to see other things are more useful or greater than he.
It is in those moments that like Peter on the water we begin to sink, and like Peter on the water, we meet the one who is greater than we can ever imagine, and greater than all – Jesus, our rescuer. When Peter took his eyes off Jesus, he felt the hand of Jesus in rescue, because Jesus is the one who not only saves us but stays with us on this journey and is there for us at every point. So today amid all the Chaos of covid, as we discern what it means to live for him in anxious times as we adjust as churches and people to living out the great commission for the sake of our time let us be assured that we are not alone. The triune God is with us as the Holy Spirits works through the body of Christ to bring the hope of the Gospel to the world, and works in the members of that Body to make them more into the image of Jesus and help them on the journey whether they are sailing, subliming or stuck.
As We Go
So there are three things I think we must take from this section of Scripture as we go live in our normality and the Kingdom of God: 1) The Wonder of Jesus 2) The Model of Jesus 3) The Reality of Living for Jesus.
1) The Wonder of Jesus
This is a section of Scripture that reveals so much about the person of Jesus Christ and why he is worth following. We see so many illusions to his greater: he is the greater provider, the one who is sovereign over all things. Yet, we also see something of his humanity and tenderness in how he reacts to the death of his cousin and friend. In the person of Jesus, we find one who can meet all our needs known and unknown and in whom we can trust. So perhaps this week we will take time to consider a new or again who Jesus is and what he offers us.
2)The Model of Jesus
We see not only one worth following but in him the way of following. Jesus came not just as saviour, to free us from Sin and then leave us to live as we wait for him. He was and is our example. So today lets consider what it means to live for him by looking to him. Maybe its the challenge of how he withdraws from all the busyness to the presence of the Lord; perhaps it was that foundation of his life that he basic reaction to bad news was prayer and presence; perhaps it was how he responded to the interruption and demands of the crowd. Perhaps it was his heart of compassion, that he looked upon those who needed him not with disdain but delight as he had compassion on them and minister to them. Maybe it was even his example of how he used what he had for the purpose of the Kingdom and the Glory of God: whether five loaves and two fish, the time it used to teach and minister to the crowd or simple the emptiness of the wilderness. Whatever it is in this passage as we consider the wonder of Jesus, let us also model our lives on Him as we look to Him and seek to live for him.
3) The Reality of Living for Jesus
Then finally, as we marvel as the person of Jesus, as we bring our Sin before him and admit our need for saving. Then under the power of the Holy Spirit who is at work in us to scantily us for his purposes and to his Glory as we model our Kingdom living on his life and example so that through us people might wonder and marvel at him. Let us give ourselves some grace about the reality of living for Jesus, that we are not called to perfection, but we are called to faithfulness as we consider the exchange of Peter and Jesus on the water. Those moments of triumph as Peter walked to him, and the brutality of failure as he took his eyes him and then the wonder of rescue and he slipped Jesus reached for him. As we live faithfully in the power of the Holy Spirit to the Glory of God for the purposes of Jesus, there will be many moments of Sin and struggle, and that is okay. It is not that God wants us to sin, nor in fine with our Sin, it is just the reality of living for Jesus in a world that it is still under its curse that until we are with him fully, we will struggle as we live for him. Yet, today let us take hope from the example of Jesus that our call is not to perfection, but to look to Jesus as we walk towards him in the storms of this world so that the people around us might see him for who he is – Lord and saviour.