Spiritual Struggle and Warfare
Jesus had just healed the man with the withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The Pharisees had been incensed that he had broken the Sabbath and began plotting to kill him. So the text tells us 'Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place'. It was enough that Jesus had demonstrated the love and power of God. He did not need or want or seek a public confrontation with his enemies at that point. Jesus retreated from what would have been an ugly scene. 'Discretion', it is said, 'is the better part of valour'. In the novel War and Peace as portrayed in the recent TV series, after the Battle of Borodino in 1812 the Russian General Kutuzov retreated behind Moscow and left it to the mercies of Napoleon. He did this against the advice of his officers and commanders. It actually happened that way in history. Napoleon entered Moscow but his supply lines failed and he was forced to retreat through the Russian winter, harassed and attacked by Russian soldiers. Russia was saved. It is a very strange thing that 129 years later in 1941 Hitler did the same thing as Napoleon. He advanced on Russia, couldn't hold it, retreated in winter and was eventually defeated as the Russians followed him back to Berlin. The British retreated at Dunkirk in May and June of 1940 on an armada of little ships and were able to fight another day. It is often wise to walk away from arguments and personal conflicts also. It is only humiliating if false pride gets in the way. Jesus healed others as they came to him but he warned them to keep quiet about it and not to raise up a storm of publicity nor incite expectation or hope. He did not want to be made into a political Messiah or an instigator of rebellion. He knew his destiny was not to rule on earth but to rule in heaven and that by way of self-sacrifice of his life.
Matthew here quotes Isaiah 42: 1-4 because he applies the prophet's description to Jesus directly. Jesus is chosen and loved and empowered by the Holy Spirit. He is a preacher of international standards and his message is justice. In Judaism justice is first directed towards God and then to our fellow human beings. The concept of justice as human rights without reference to God is alien to the Bible. Yet that is how we understand it in Britain and Europe today where the homosexual mass murderer Dennis Nilsen can demand a supply of pornography in jail as his human right.
Jesus was not like Nelson Mandela in his earlier ANC years, blowing up installations and threatening the apartheid state. Jesus was not even like Martin Luther King organising mass demonstration for legitimate civil rights for African Americans. Oddly, strangely, Jesus lived an obscure life and whenever any momentum was about to take off, he retreated till the heat died down. This contrasts with the public relations operation of the Church of Scotland which seeks on a daily basis through its website and by placing stories with the media to bring attention to the good works of the Church. That's just the way things are done today. It is called 'bigging up'. Recently the lead website article and photograph was all about the success of the Livingston Ecumenical Church. The truth is that this has been failing for the last 30 years and has now split into two warring congregations.
We don't however need the opposite of 'bigging up' which is belittling and that is a characteristic of some people in local congregations who constantly 'do down' whatever does not please them. Jesus did not do that. 'A bruised reed he will not break and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out'. If your Christian faith is weak or like David Cameron's as he has said himself – like an intermittent mobile phone signal in the Cotswold Hills, Jesus will not seek to close it down. Even if you give a pittance in your offering, Jesus will not throw it back at you as being not worthy of Him. Even if your love for the Lord is luke-warm at best and pretty cool at worst, he will not freeze you out of his consideration. Of course the Lord is well able to encourage, strengthen and increase your faith and love for Him. He has done that in people here over the years. Give him a chance. See what the Lord can do for you and with you. In his name the nations will put their hope. Every peace-making initiative that takes place in the word today is inspired directly or indirectly by Jesus. Not by Moses or Mohammed or Buddha. Only Jesus founded the Kingdom of God in peace in the hearts of women, men and children by his proactive involvement which went as far as dying on Calvary. It is he who still gives the drive and impetus and vision to make peace. But – to repeat the point – the justice of Jesus first involves the love of God. Grievous indeed it is that the political leader of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon offers no personal acknowledgement of Christian Faith.
Can you imagine what it is like to live your life while being blind and dumb? You can hear but you cannot see and you cannot speak. This is perhaps an unusual combination of debilities. Deafness and dumbness are often found together. Blindness is often found on its own. There are many charitable societies for the deaf, dumb and blind, most originating in the Victorian era. The text describes a poor soul brought to Jesus who was blind and dumb. In the understanding of the time they thought he was demon possessed. This does not mean that there was a raging power within the man, only that there was a spirit which caused blindness and a spirit which caused dumbness within him. This language brings contempt upon Christianity and Christians today. It is not easy for us to understand it or explain it. Neurological science is investigating how the human brain works. It is slow going. No-one can yet explain how the physical brain relates to the human mind. One is a physical lump in our heads, the other is who we are, metaphysical, mental, spiritual, emotional. They talk these days of electrical wiring in the invisible sub-atomic particles of the brain. One thing is obvious. There are few cases of healing of blindness and dumbness. There are many cases of partial or whole restoration of sight and for that we are most grateful. Lifelong blindness and dumbness however have no easy cures. Suppose we then just substitute the description demon possessed with brain electrical wiring problems surely the story is valid. The fact is that there was such a case of blindness and dumbness and Jesus healed both conditions in the person brought to him. If scientists today could do what Jesus did, we would hold them in respect and awe. They cannot and they do not.
Jesus' detractors had followed him and had seen this miracle of healing. They treated him with contempt and mockery and accused him of being an agent of the devil. There were plenty of Jewish healers in Jesus' time, magicians and sorcerers, 'New Age' type healers, conmen and fraudsters who sought to make money out of human suffering. Let's not be superior. Here's the names of New Age shops not far from here. The Stone Ring Bathgate, Spiritual Oasis Burntisland, Crystal Clear, Firm Mystique, Golden Books and Music and Mystical Charms – all in Edinburgh. Then there's Healing Edinburgh, Henrietta's Holistic Healing Centre also in Edinburgh and the Alloa Healing Rooms. There's lots of therapists including someone in Livingston who offers something called CranioSacral Therapy. I don't know if she also supports Livingston Football team. Lots of people wear charms and copper bracelets and take potions for supposed or perceived ailments apart from the prescribed medicine we all rely on. We can't be superior when looking at the language of the Gospels. It is different language – but the same issues are with us today.
Jesus answered his accusers in three ways. Firstly he pointed out the illogicality of their position. How could he do something good on behalf of Satan? The devil seeks only mayhem and destruction in human lives. The devil does not fight himself. Jesus had just brought healing and peace. Secondly, Jesus drew attention to Jewish exorcists. Who did they work for? Good or ill? Then he added important words 'But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you'. We might put it this way 'If I repair the broken electrical circuits in this man's brain by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you'. Jesus pulls rank of authority by this reference to the Holy Spirit. It is a claim to equality with God. He has shown it clearly but they have have called this the devil's work. There's a lot of blasphemy in our society. Much of it is inherited bad language. There's also a determined denial of God which is something different. When people speak ill of Jesus, they are doing the same thing that his enemies were doing in this passage of Scripture. Thirdly, Jesus explained how and why he was able to heal. Only because the healing power of the Holy Spirit working in and through him was stronger and more powerful than the dead connections in the suffering man's brain. He could bring them to life only because he was the Son of God. And that explains also why many Christians are not able to heal every case in the name of Jesus. He alone is the Son of God.
We should not be cowed and we should not lose heart when misfortune strikes. It is Lent. It is a testing time. We are all subjected to ongoing temptations, our surroundings entangle us in everyday problems and enticements and we are all conflicted within to some extent or other. We are like Oor Wullie with his angelic better self and his devil like worse self sitting on each of his shoulders whispering into his ears, competing for his attention. As we approach Holy Week in the distance we are invited to think more carefully and more deeply about our Faith. We must look at the bigger picture of where we are and see the direction in which we are heading.
'In this world of toil and snares, If I falter, Lord, who cares?
Who with me my burden shares? None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee'.
'Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee;'
'Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise'.