Supporting the Church Abroad (Matthew 21:1-17)

Matthew 21 from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.

The Road from Jericho to Jerusalem is just 14 miles long.  A day’s journey on foot, uphill all the way. Bethany is on one side of the Mount of Olives. A natural place to stop and rest before the final ascent and panoramic view of all Jerusalem.  But it is not the road that should capture our attention.   Dusty roads through dramatic scenery were as common then as now, indeed little has changed.  Israeli checkpoints, barbed wire, military settlements and the Separation Wall have replaced the Roman garrisons but it is still Occupied Territory.  It is ironic that if Jesus were born in Binfield he would have no problem getting from Jericho to Jerusalem today. But because he was born in Bethlehem he would not be able to make the journey to Jerusalem.   Like thousands of West Bank Christians he would be turned back at any one of the 400 military checkpoints that clog Palestine. Each one acts like plaque narrowing the arteries – constricting the flow of Palestinian life.

The Right Revd Suheil Dawani is the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem. He was born in Nablus but serves at the Cathedral in Jerusalem. At least he did so until this week. He too has just had his Jerusalem residence permit revoked.  Under international law he has every right to live and work in his own country but the Israeli government is seeking to empty East Jerusalem of Palestinians and so under it is illegal for the Bishop to visit his Cathedral in Jerusalem.  Pray for your brothers and sisters today in the Holy Land who are denied the most basic of human rights – freedom of movement, freedom to worship, freedom to live in the land of their birth. Sadly they are haemorrhaging, as they are in Iraq and other Middle East countries.

Last week, for example, the most prominent Christian in Pakistan was murdered. Shahbaz Bhatti, 42, was shot outside his mother’s home in Islamabad Wednesday morning. He was the only Christian serving in Pakistan’s government. As Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, Shahbaz was well known for campaigning against the nation’s strict blasphemy law and lobbying for the rights of religious minorities. Last year Shahbaz made a video to be released in the event of his death. You can view it on my blog and also  Christianity Today. We need to do more than pray and give financially to mission.

That is why I travelled 7,000 miles to speak at Taylor University in Upland and Indiana University in Fort Wayne earlier this week. If we want to break the log jam in the Middle East we need to challenge the mindset in Middle America. Taylor maybe a small Christian University of only 3,500 students but everyone is challenged to go on mission trips, and boy were they fired up about the Middle East. So, on Tuesday night, when the University had invited Alvin Plantinga, described by Time magazine as the “leading philosopher of God,” to give a prestigious lecture, the students themselves organised a viewing of With God on our Side and at least 250 students showed up. We hope to have a recording of the Q&A online soon. On Thursday just before I flew home, I gave a 50 minute lecture on the Middle East to students at Indiana State University, that was also broadcast live by the local TV station.

In three weeks’ time, we have our Mission Sunday with Dick Dowsett. The emphasis will be on getting our hands dirty in mission and we hope in years to come we will regularly send mission teams to work alongside indigenous Christians to share Christ in word and deed. I will be with you in Spirit that weekend, because, God-willing, I will be in Israel-Palestine with about 35 US church leaders on a mission trip sponsored by World Vision and the Willow Creek Association building bridges with the church there. Unless we do, our fear is that the indigenous church in the Middle East will soon die out. In our gospel reading today we see Jesus on his final journey, like Shahbaz in Pakistan this week.   If you want to know someone’s heart, observe that person’s final journey. This was no ordinary walk.  No ordinary week.   In the verses before us this morning in Matthew 21 we learn three things about Jesus.

1. The Preparation for the King

We see here how Jesus acted with…..

1.1 Jesus – The Deliberate Intent

“As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” (Matthew 21:1-3)

This journey on Palm Sunday was no accident or whim. This is obvious from the clear instructions to the disciples on what to do.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem of his own free will and upon His own initiative.  Deliberate intent.

1.2 Jesus – The Prophetic Fulfilment

“This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them.” (Matthew 21:4-5)

Jesus was making a statement – a deliberate claim to be the anointed One by a quotation from Zechariah 9. It is steeped in significance.  Zechariah is a message about a king who would be rejected, but a rejected king who would nevertheless be enthroned.

We see here then how He who inspired the prophecy, came to fulfil it.  Deliberate Intent, Prophetic Fulfilment.

1.3 Jesus – The Unquestioned Authority

Jesus said,If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” (Matthew 21:3).  Jesus spoke with unquestioned authority because He is king and everything belongs to Him.

Jesus was not intimidated or afraid of what was going to happen. Jesus had every excuse to avoid Jerusalem at this time, but no. We find everything He did, especially in that last week, was done with deliberate intent,

in fulfilment of the Scriptures and with unquestioned authority.  The King of the Universe was in control. What does that teach us today?   Are there things we are afraid about? Anxious over? Intimidated by?  Decisions we would rather put off?  How should this story affect the way we act?  Jesus calls us to follow Him. Here we find Jesus demonstrating deliberate intent, in fulfilment of the Scriptures and with unquestioned authority.

The Preparation for the King.

2. The Presentation to the King

They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matthew 21:7-11)

We know this story so well, I simply want to pick out one word to give us a different perspective.  Matthew tells us that the whole of Jerusalem was “stirred”.  The Greek word is the one from which we obtain our word “seismic”.  Jesus arrival in Jerusalem had the impact of an earthquake. It was as if a psychological earthquake had hit the city.  Jerusalem was the epicentre. The presence of Jesus shook the city to its very foundations. Here was their King, riding on a borrowed donkey. Mobbed by unsophisticated fishermen and country Galileans’.  Defying the State with palm branches and children’s choruses.  Jerusalem had never seen anything like it. Within a week that earthquake would tear the thick temple curtain from top to bottom. No longer would access to God be restricted.  This was His intention, to compel Jerusalem to recognise Him, even if only for an hour.  They had heard His teaching, seen His miracles, now He had come to claim His city.  He would offer her a choice – peace and reconciliation or judgement and separation. It’s a choice we all face. Abraham Kuyper the Dutch theologian and politician put it like this,

“When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin, you must, at the price of dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy with all the fire of your faith.”

Jesus did so on Palm Sunday, and it led Him to the cross. The preparation for the King, the presentation to the King.

3. The Pronouncement of the King

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.  “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.

“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him. “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, “‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’?”

And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.” (Matthew 21:12-17)

Here again we see the King asserting His royal authority.  There is a magnificence and dignity even in His anger.  Why did Jesus act in this way?  Notice his reply.

“It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Matthew 21:13)

Two quotations from the Old Testament prophecies are brought together. Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11 vindicated His action, one descriptive of what the house should be – a house of prayer; the other descriptive of what the house had become – a den of robbers.

The house that ought to be a house of prayer had become a den of robbers, in the area reserved for non-Jews – the Court of the Gentiles. What was it that angered Jesus so much? Was it the commercialism? The corruption?

I don’t think so. His quote from Isaiah 56 suggests it was much, much deeper and the cursing of the fig tree the next day gives us a clue.  The myth of racial purity is not new, nor is the desire to limit or exclude those deemed inferior. This is particularly so today in Israel. It is increasingly being defined not as a State for Israeli citizens but a Jewish State. Becoming increasingly exclusive rather than inclusive. Surprisingly perhaps, in the Old Testament, God insists that Israel was never to be so narrowly defined. God’s people always incorporated people of other races. This extended not just to their identity and right of residence but also to their inheritance of the land and right to worship God in the Temple. Membership of the people of God was always on the basis of faith not race.

An Inclusive Israel

Moses, for example, warned the Jewish people against a racial exclusivity:

Do not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. Do not abhor an Egyptian, because you lived as an alien in his country. The third generation of children born to them may enter the assembly of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 23:7-8)

The Edomites, descended from Esau, lived in what is today the Negev and Southern Jordan. King David, similarly, looked forward to the day when other races – would have the same identity and privileges as the Israelites:

“I will record Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me— Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush — and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’ “ 5 Indeed, of Zion it will be said, “This one and that one were born in her, and the Most High himself will establish her.” 6 The LORD will write in the register of the peoples: “This one was born in Zion.” (Psalm 87:4-6)

Egyptian (Rahab) Persian (Babylon), Palestinian (Philitia), Lebanese (Tyre) and African (Cush). The only criterion for citizenship God lays down is faith. God welcomes all ‘those who acknowledge me’.  An Inclusive Israel.

An Inclusive Inheritance

As if to emphasize that ‘citizenship’ means much more than a new passport God instructs the Israelites to share the Land and give an inheritance to all who trust in him.

“You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who have settled among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe the alien settles, there you are to give him his inheritance,” declares the Sovereign LORD.” (Ezekiel 47:22-23)

Those of other races, therefore, have the same rights as ‘native Israelites’. An Inclusive Israel, an Inclusive Inheritance.

An Inclusive Temple

The inclusive nature of Israel extends beyond identity and inheritance to include the right to worship God in the Temple. God declares through the prophet Isaiah his acceptance of all who come to him in faith.

“Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say,  “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” … And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:3, 6-7)

As we have seen, Jesus cites Isaiah 56 to justify his actions in clearing the money changers and traders out of the Temple. But he is saying something much more profound than merely cleaning up the corruption in the Temple.

The act of cursing the fig tree was a sign of judgment on those who were in the act of rejecting their Messiah.

My most uncomfortable experience this week occurred after I’d delivered a lecture to students at Indiana Purdue University. Just before I began, my host pointed out there were more faculty ion the audience than students and one in particular, an Orthodox Rabbi who was also on the faculty. In the Q&A he challenged me on the exclusive claims of Jesus, and I could only plead guilty, although I pointed out that his own theological position was just as exclusive and that his claims and those of Jesus were mutually exclusive.  We agreed to differ. The cursing of the fig tree that follows in Matthew 21 was an acted parable. Numerous Old Testament prophecies identify Israel as a fig tree that would be cursed. (See Hosea 9 and Jeremiah 24). Matthew’s account makes this crystal clear. After a series of parables, Jesus concludes:

“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” (Matthew 21:43)

This is because membership of God’s people was never on the basis of hereditary and race but always on the basis of faith and fruit. Just as it is now.  If you want to explore the relationship between Israel and the Church,

I commend a bible study by John Stott called “The Place of Israel” which shows how the word Israel is used in the New Testament. You’ll find it in the back of my book Zion’s Christian Soldiers.

The religious leaders had turned the Temple into an ugly sight, but for one brief moment Jesus turned it into a place of beauty. In Matthew 21:14 we read how for one brief moment the house was no longer a den of robbers, but a house of prayer. “The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.” (Matthew 21:14). What a picture. The Temple court was thrown into total disarray, doves, lambs, sheep and goats running loose. People scrambling for the coins amidst the upturned money tables.  But here also were the blind and the lame. The face that a moment before had flamed with indignation was soft with the radiance of compassion.  This is one of the most moving pictures in the Gospels.  Jesus casts out but He also takes in. He overthrows but He also builds up.  “for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations… I will gather still others to them…” Jesus did not merely quote it – he fulfilled it. He cast out and he overthrew, but then he gathered the exiles, the outcasts, the blind and the lame of all nations.

This is the King in action. What a King.   Thank God for this vision of the King. I could not live in a world so full of evil if it were not for my belief in a king of justice. A king who can and does overthrow and cast out. But thank God also, before everything is put straight, before the house is put in order, with the tables still upset, the money scattered, and the people still in confusion, this King gathers the outcasts and heals them.  Like Jesus we must work as he gives us the opportunity. We must work even while the world is going astray, where ever there is arrogance and racism, where ever there is ethnic cleansing, where ever there are refugees and asylum seekers, even as this week martyrs too. It should not surprise us that much of this world is a war zone.  The events of Palm Sunday and the example of our Lord teach us to be in the business of upholding justice but also relieving injustice. Challenging evil and cleansing evil – and beginning with what is in our own hearts. Worshipping the peace maker but also working at peace making. I invite you to be a servant of the Prince of Peace who rode into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday to rescue you.  Cross the divide. Be a bridge builder. Be a peace maker this year. Let’s pray.