Exodus 12:14-23 & Matthew 12:15-21;

Who is he?

I wonder what you think the most important question is. A few years ago the magazine, “Philosophy Now” ran a competition for its readers to suggest candidates for the most important question. Winners of the competition included:

“How can we best serve others?
“Is there some property, or some rational conceptual definition, which grounds Morality?”
“What one goal do I want to accomplish in life?”
“What is the nature of the world we live in?”

Questions can be a really powerful way of getting to the heart of an issue. Asking the same question of ourselves at different times in our lives and in different situations can help us to keep focussed on what is really important.

When I worked in business, I used to run workshops for different areas of the business to help them identify better ways of working. One of my favourite tools is called the “5 why” tool. It’s really simple, you just keep asking why something is the way that it is until you get down to the root cause, the real reason, the actual problem.
Asking the right question can be very powerful, and Jesus was very good at asking the right question at the right time.

At our home group this week, we were exploring a bit from Matthew’s eyewitness account of the good news of Jesus’ life that occurs a couple of chapters after the section we’ve just heard read, in chapter 16. Jesus was on his own with his disciples and he asked them two questions. The first one was, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” The second one was this, “But what about you, who do you say I am?”

For my money this is the most important question in the world. “But what about you, who do you say that Jesus is?” Our answer to this provides a foundation for us to answer all those other questions. “How can we best serve others?” – by following Jesus’ teaching and example. “Is there some property which grounds morality?” – yes – Jesus’ character and divine authority. “What one goal do I want to accomplish in life?” – to faithfully follow and obey Jesus my Lord. “What is the nature of the world we live in?” – It is created and sustained by Jesus for the glory of God.

Our answer to this question is immensely important. When Jesus asked it of his disciples he got a variety of answers. The crowds were reported back to him as believing that he was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. He was seen as a good man, a man with God’s authority, and a message from God, but just a human being.

When Jesus asks the question a second time, this time of the disciples, he gets a different answer. Simon Peter pipes up and says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

This really moves the game on. Peter has seen that Jesus is more than a human being, there is something divine about him, he is the Son of the living God. He has been chosen and sent by God as the Messiah, the Christ, the one who God had promised to send to rescue God’s people and to bring hope to the world.

In this little interchange we see a comparison between two answers to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am”. One inadequate, wrong, misleading. The other rich, accurate, and life giving.
It seems to me that we have a similar thing going on in the background to the passage we heard read this morning from Matthew chapter 12. To see this, however, we need to look at the wider context a little bit. The clue that we need to do this, is right there in the text, in the first three words. “Aware of this…” Everything else that we read about this morning Jesus did and said in the light of his awareness of “this”. If we are going to get a good handle on the meaning of what he said and did then we need to know what “this” is. So, what is it that Jesus was aware of?

In some ways the answer is straightforward – we just need to look at the previous verse, “the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” Given that, it seems very sensible for Jesus to have withdrawn, to have made himself scarce, and to be asking the crowds not to let people know where we was or what he was up to.

But, there is a bit more to it than that. Why were the Pharisees plotting to kill Jesus? Well at the beginning of chapter 12, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a corn field. They were hungry, so they helped themselves to some of the corn as they went, but they were seen by the Pharisees. Now the problem was not that they were stealing the corn, under the “gleaning” system of providing for people in society who didn’t have enough to eat, that was fine. The problem was that they were doing it on the Sabbath, the day on which God had commanded God’s people not to do any work. In his conversation with the Pharisees about this, Jesus had called himself, “Lord of the Sabbath”, and gone on to heal someone on the same day, in the synagogue, in front of everybody.

This had angered the Pharisees so much that they had wanted to kill Jesus. If you’d asked them the most important question, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” their answer would have been, “He’s a blasphemous, law-breaking, trouble maker who deserves to die.”

That’s the first answer to the most important question in the background to this passage. It is inadequate, wrong, misleading.

So what’s the second answer?

Well, it’s not really in the background is it? It’s there, full on, in Matthew’s quote from the writings of the prophet, Isaiah.

What I find remarkable about this answer is the person giving it. This is God speaking. This is God’s answer to the most important question. Just as Peter’s answer to this question was revealed to him by the Father, so this answer comes directly from the Father. Jesus is the Father’s chosen servant. Jesus is loved by the Father, who delights in him. Echoes here of the voice from the cloud at Jesus’ baptism, and on the mount of transfiguration. The Father put the Spirit on Jesus – more echoes of his baptism in the Jordan.

This answer goes on to describe what Jesus was like. Somehow he manages to proclaim justice without quarrelling. He leads justice to victory without breaking bruised reeds or snuffing out smouldering wicks. What a contrast to the way in which we tend to react when we believe ourselves to have been wronged.

So, this is the second answer: rich, accurate, and life giving.

What about our reading from Exodus? The night of the passover, of the escape of God’s people from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. Can we see Jesus here? Well, obviously not in person – he wasn’t born as a human until several centuries later. But there is, here, the event that gives us one of the most important answers to our most important of questions.

Death was coming. So that death would pass over the people of God, they sacrificed lambs and smeared the blood on the door posts. Safe in the knowledge that they were protected by that blood, they waited in hope for death to pass over so that they could get on with the next adventure in life. Hundreds of years later, at the annual festival celebrating and remembering this rescue, Jesus and his friends sat down to a meal. It would be his last. They shared bread and wine, and Jesus told them that his body would be broken as a loaf is broken, and his blood shed, as wine is spilt, so that they could live. He commanded them to share bread and wine in remembrance of this, a command that we have obeyed this morning.

Within 24 hours of that meal, what he had foretold had come to pass and his blood had been smeared on the posts of the cross so that death would pass over all who are protected by that blood, would pass over all who trust that Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Safe in the knowledge that we are protected by that blood, we wait in hope for death to pass over so that we can get on with the next adventure in life, in all its fulness, with God, for ever.

So, how do we answer the most important question? Who do we say that Jesus is?

Are there aspects of our understanding of Jesus that are inadequate, wrong, or misleading? Like the Pharisees have we come to see Jesus as someone who makes us feel ashamed, guilty, or afraid – someone that we’d rather wasn’t there? With the crowd, do we like his teaching and admire his example, but still think of him as just a human being?

None of us is perfect, which means that none of us see Jesus for who he really is, we won’t until we get to heaven and see him face to face, and know even as we are fully known. We just need to keep on asking the Holy Spirit to show us Jesus more clearly, and as we become aware of what we were wrong about we let that go, receive forgiveness if we need it, and go on with our lives, allowing how we live to be shaped by our deeper experience and knowledge of who Jesus is.

As we do, we will come to see more and more clearly the richness, the accuracy, the life giving promise of the ways in which God’s word answers that most important question, and learn to see Jesus for who he really is, the Messiah, the chosen servant, who saves us from our death by the power of his death and resurrection as we acknowledge him as our Lord. Not just with our words, but with our whole selves – body, mind, heart and soul.


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