The Bigger Story

Matthew 28:16-20

THIS IS AN ADAPTED AND EXTENDED VERSION OF MY SERMON PREACHED ON 11TH JUNE 2017, TRINITY SUNDAY.

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus meets his disciples in Galilee for what has been called ‘the Great Commission.’ It’s Matthew’s ascension scene, where Jesus tells his disciples of their mission to go to all the world with the gospel.

Following the recent UK General Election, with all the confusion that has caused, and the fast-approaching Brexit negotiations, politics is very much the centre of attention at the moment. And when there is even the hint of a power vacuum, there are inevitable questions about who’s in charge.

Well, the good news of Matthew’s Gospel is that God’s in charge. God is King, ruling in Christ Jesus; and that is good news for the world. Jesus declared to his disciples that “all authority in heaven and on earth” had been given to him. Notice that Jesus did not say ‘will be given to me.’ No, has been given. It is already his.

Jesus also said that all authority was given him. And all means all. Not just some ‘authority’, not a portion, an element of authority. There is no power sharing or negotiating going on here. All authority in heaven and on earth sounds pretty universal, doesn’t it? Jesus is the supreme, there is no one above him, no-one beside him, no one greater than him. All authority means exactly what it says. He has the ultimate authority in both heaven and earth.

Here is a claim to divine authority unlike any other. After all, read the Old Testament, and again and again we find that the Lord is ‘the creator of heaven and earth’. That same picture is being painted of Jesus.

Throughout the gospels we see that Jesus has authority – his teaching is done with such authority that no-one had heard anything like this before. He demonstrated he had authority to forgive sins, to heal, to rid the afflicted of unclean, demonic spirits. And he had authority to give it away to his disciples to do those things too.

The question, however, that needs asking, is when was Jesus given this authority? The answer is not just in the resurrection, but in the cross itself. If we read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, it is clear that Jesus understood that the cross was all part of God’s purposes.

Those who misunderstand what Jesus was doing might consider his death to be a disastrous turn of events. Here is Jesus, the good man, a great teacher, a doer of good, a healer, possibly a prophet; the man on the side of the poor and marginalised. And then there is the ‘establishment’ – the religious authorities, the people with all the power and control, and the Roman overlords. You couldn’t get two more different set of people – the establishment and authorities, versus the poor itinerant preacher who stood up for others. On this basis, there was only going to be one winner.

That’s very often how Jesus is portrayed. And the resurrection, if it is believed at all, is just some kind of story of glorious reversal, where good ultimately triumphs over evil. But that is all it is. The cross and resurrection of Jesus feature in no other way than an example of love overcoming hate, self-sacrifice over self-interest. And while there are elements of truth in there, it is by no means the whole story, or in fact anywhere near the central story of who Jesus is and why he matters.

Or, from another tradition, we might view the cross as merely the means by which God deals with my (personal) sin so I can be forgiven and one day go to heaven to be with him. The problem with this is it’s just about ‘me and God’, a totally privatised version of Christianity. There is no doubt Jesus died for my sins, so that I can be forgiven. But the New Testament never allows us to leave it there. There is, again, a much bigger story being told. A story that involves the whole of humanity, indeed the whole of creation.

To understand Jesus’ claim to authority, we need to get to grips with the much bigger story that God is telling. The great storyline of the entire Bible is that God, the Creator, is going to restore his world, and to restore himself as the rightful King over his world. So, right at the beginning of Genesis the Bible tells us that God created the universe – he is the Creator God, the Father of creation. But sin and evil entering into God’s world is like a coup, with humanity trying to topple God from his throne and instal itself as rulers instead. And the whole story of the Bible from then on in is that God is going to bring in his kingdom to his world, and one day unite heaven and earth under his loving, total, sovereign rule. So that all may know and worship him as the ruler of heaven and earth.

The whole story of the Bible, from the calling of Abraham to go to the land God promised (a foretaste of the fuller kingdom of God), the Exodus – God’s redemption of his people from slavery, the whole history of God’s people Israel, singling them out to be ‘the light to the nations’ to say that the Lord is God of all the earth, the rule of kings like David, to whom God promised an heir to sit on his throne forever, Solomon and the rest is the story of how God is indeed ruling and will one day be seen to rule over everything.

The prophets, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel all spoke of one who would come who would be God’s king. Isaiah spoke of a servant-king who would suffer for his people, and through that be declared king of the world. And this is the theme of the Bible, and especially the psalms if you read them through this particular set of lenses: the king of the Jews would be the king of the world.

But he would be a king unlike any other before. He would defeat sin and evil, he would put earthly powers in their place, and he would rule. But he wouldn’t do so with a sword and an army, with warmongering and political manoeuvring. He would do so with love, and sacrifice. And here is the bringing together of two essential things: God made man to rule (which is what we find in Genesis , when humanity is given the commission to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ with images of God), and that ultimately God would rule, in and through the one king he had chosen – the Messiah, the Christ.

And in Jesus, we see these two things coming together in one person. If we go back to the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, we read that the angel’s comforting words to Joseph, that the baby in Mary’s womb should be called Jesus, as he will save his people from their sins. This child was the fulfilment of God’s promise, that a virgin will bear a child and call him Immanuel, God With Us. And then after the birth of Jesus, wise men from distant lands come to find ‘the one born the King of the Jews’.

Jesus begins his public ministry with the words, “the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” And if you read Matthew’s Gospel from start to finish you will be struck by the number of times Jesus talks about ‘the kingdom of heaven’ – which Mark and Luke call ‘the kingdom of God. All of Jesus’ parables, all his teaching is focussed on this truth: that God is coming to reclaim his world, and deal with sin and evil once and for all, and he will be king over his world.

Political parties have manifestoes which outline the kinds of things they want to do if you elected them. The sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7) is, if you like, a kind of of manifesto. It’s all about the kingdom: what kind of world is God going to shape, what kind of king is Jesus going to be, what kind of people are going to come out of accepting that Jesus is the Messiah? And there are surprising things in there: the beatitudes, for example, demonstrate the relationship between the kingdom and meekness (humility), righteousness, suffering and persecution.

And so we get to the crucifixion, which appears to be a defeat, doesn’t it? It appears to be a resounding victory for the powers and authorities of this world. The religious leaders, the authorities over God’s people, and the Romans – the most powerful, ruthless and efficient Empire the world had seen – come together in an unholy alliance. The mockery of Jesus – placing a purple robe on him, and a crown of thorns, the notice above his head ‘here is the King of the Jews’ all designed to ridicule him are in fact his rightfully to own. Here is the dreadful irony, that they were in fact crucifying their king.

And if we think about it, if this is so, then the cross becomes more than just an instrument of torture and execution. It is Jesus’ throne. Just as an earthly king is lifted up, on a platform, so everyone can see him, so Jesus is lifted up – and the cross is the means by which God brings in his kingdom. Because on the cross Jesus, mysteriously but wonderfully, beat the powers of evil and wickedness, of sin and even death. He beat them at their own game. The powers of the world thought they could trump God, only to find that they were the means by which God brought in his victory over them.

If you read Psalm 2, this is exactly what God said he would do. The kings of the earth plot in vain, the nations conspire to get rid of God and his chosen king. But God, in heaven, laughs at their attempts. “I have installed my king on my holy hill,” says the Lord. His Son, lifted high on the hill outside Jerusalem. The cross is not a defeat but the victory over the powers of evil, the ‘authorities’ set against God. (I can’t help but think of the scene in Superman 2 when Superman, in his ice palace, is locked in by Zog and his cohorts and they think they have taken away his power, only for him to have switched things round, so it is they who have been weakened).

The resurrection is that final vindication of Jesus, the acknowledgement that Jesus wasn’t just an innocent who received God’s favour, but the suffering and now victorius, unstoppable king, God himself come to rescue his world. And death had no power over him.

That is the message of the cross and resurrection: God is King, and in his Son God himself reigns. Over everything. And so Jesus announces to his disciples that he is the victorious king: all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. I AM THE KING OF ALL CREATION.

And so, as Jesus announces his victory to his disciples he tells them: Go! Go into all the world. Go into every corner of the world I have created, go into every nation, every society every culture; every village, town and city; go into every home, every office block, every school, everywhere and tell them “God reigns. Jesus is your King.” Tell them that the tyranny of sin and evil is at an end, tell them that sins can be forgiven, hope restored.

And baptise them in the name of the Creator God, who you may call Father, and his Son who reigns, and his Spirit who gives life and peace and hope. And by being baptised they would be acknowledging that Jesus is King, they will have accepted his rule over them and their homes.

And teach them all I have commanded you.Teach them to love one another in my name, to demonstrate that my love triumphs over hate, tell them that God is the God of the poor, the marginalised, the sick and the suffering; teach them to love the one God, and love one another; teach them to trust me, and seek me, and know me; to forgive as you have been forgiven, and to do so until that day when he calls time and brings together his whole creation into one – heaven and earth brought together under the one rule of God.

This is the dramatic, world-changing Christian worldview, the lens through which the bible sees the world as it is. It should be the driving force for authentic Christian living, Christ-centred social action and world mission, for politics and artistic endeavour, for invention and the media. Jesus is Lord and King over it all. All authority in heaven and on earth is his.

I hope that you can see from this that Christianity is not a private dealing between me and God, that will one day end up with my disembodied soul living forever in heaven. This is the typical way people, even longstanding church members have believed. But that is not what the Bible teaches, or anywhere close. It is not what Jesus taught, not what the good news of Jesus is about. It is so much bigger, so much more wonderful and exciting to be part of God’s kingdom plans.

The church has a duty, a responsibility, a delight to proclaim and live out the consequences of the good news of Jesus: that he is king. All authority in heaven and on earth is given to him. And he is a king who will reign forever, and with love and justice. Our world is hurting. Communities around the world are going through hell, and people ask what is God doing. And the answer is what has God done, as we point them to the cross and empty tomb.

And the task of making him known, and of displaying the reality of his kingdom, is with us. That may sound like a big ask. But we are not powerless, and we are not alone. “And behold,” says Jesus, “I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS, until the very end of the age.”

Governments will come and go, policies will be implemented and forgotten; the rulers of the earth my have their day, but God owns eternity. The cross has defeated all counter claims to ultimate authority.

I am calling on you, as God’s people here in this place, to know this, to live this, to pray this – as we have done over these past few weeks: THY KINGDOM COME. And we can see God’s kingdom come, as the poor are cared for, the hungry fed, relationships restored, the sick healed, sins forgiven, the gospel shared with those who do not believe, and people through faith in Jesus welcomed into God’s kingdom.

As we believe and live out the consequences of this wonderful reality, that Jesus Christ is King, my prayer is that we would know Jesus Christ as our King and Lord, our Saviour and our Friend, more and more each day. May we serve him in his world, and work and pray with him for the day when all will acknowledge him as their rightful King and Saviour.

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