I love Christmas. Truth to tell, I even relish the crowds in Northumberland Street, and the semi-detached houses festooned with flashing lights competing for the prize for worst dressed home in the city. My family will tell you that I won’t even contemplate a Christmas tree that doesn’t have to be jammed in between the floor and ceiling of our sitting room. But the passage that we’re looking at this morning brings home to us that behind all this there’s tremendous danger.
This evening will see Carols by Candlelight services number 7, 8 and 9. Hundreds of us are pulling out all the stops to attract thousands of others to come along. Why do we go to all this trouble? Is it so that we can add some traditional atmosphere to the winter festival celebrations of our community? Is it so we can at least fill this barn of a building a few times each year, and feel satisfied with that?
There’s no harm in giving people an innocent good time – indeed it’s a kindness. But this passage we’re looking at this morning brings home to us that our purpose is infinitely more serious than that. Because the crowds flocking to the shops and the carol services are in terrible danger. And we want to see them escape it, because the love of Christ compels us. That’s what we’re about, when you look behind the tinsel and the candle wax.
This passage brings home to me that Christmas can all too easily become the ultimate festival of hypocrisy, as people ooh and aah over gentle Jesus meek and mild, whilst utterly rejecting his rule over their lives. And that kind of hypocrisy places people in deadly and eternal peril. That’s not what I say. That’s what Jesus says.
So if you’re feeling that you’re in danger of being suffocated by sentimentality at this time of year, here’s the antidote.
What’s this passage to which I’m referring? It’s the final section of Matthew 23 – the chapter that we’ve been working our way through over the last few weeks. To be precise, it’s Matthew 23.29-39, and you’ll find it on p 992 in the Bible’s in the pews. Do please open it up.
These verses fall into three sections, which are in fact the paragraphs in this version – the first from 29 to 32, in which Jesus exposes supreme self-deception. Then the second is from 33 to 36, in which Jesus makes clear the deadly danger. And then the third is from 37 to 39, which reveal the tender compassion of Jesus that lies behind his ferocity.
And let me tell you now that there are three key lessons that I want us to go away with this morning – one from each section. First, be alert to hypocrisy. Secondly, be warned of the coming judgement. And thirdly, be willing to be changed. And those, too, are there on the service sheet so that you can’t miss them. So:
First, SUPREME SELF-DECEPTION: BE ALERT TO HYPOCRISY
This is verses 29 to 32. Take a look for yourself at v 29 for a start. This is Jesus speaking, as is our whole passage:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
As we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, this is the repeated refrain with which Jesus is hammering the religious leaders of his day. In fact this is the seventh time in this chapter that he’s said exactly this – glance back to verse 13, then 15, 16, 23, 25 and 27. ‘Woe to you’ – meaning what? Meaning ‘you are facing destruction’. Why? Because of your hypocrisy.
What is the nature of this hypocrisy? That’s what Jesus has been spelling out. So we’ve seen that these are religious people who do not practice what they preach. Everything they do is done for the kudos they get when other people see it. They harp on about how the only way to get to heaven is to be good enough and in doing that they slam the door of heaven in people’s faces – because neither they nor anyone else can be good enough. They’re like pied-pipers, pouring all their energies into dragging others on to the road to destruction along with them. They are blind guides – redefining sin (as Ian put it last week) in order to water down God’s demand for holiness, and redefining obedience by majoring on the the minor and neglecting the major. They project an image of godliness – so they look highly spiritual to the undiscerning outsider – but inside they are wicked. That’s 23.1-28 in a nutshell.
And now here is the seventh woe – the climactic criticism. This is where their hypocrisy becomes breathtaking in its capacity to conceal naked evil under a cloak of religious observance and respect. And worst of all, in this case at least, they succeed in concealing the evil even from themselves. Verse 29 again:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets. So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.
We don’t know exactly what examples Jesus had in mind, but evidently the Pharisees were honouring the memory of prophets and other Godly figures from the past who’d been persecuted and even killed by those who opposed the message that God had given them to pass on.
They were building monuments for them – something that it’s possible to do with words as well as in stone. But Jesus knows their hearts, and he knows that in reality they would hate these people if they encountered them just as surely as their forebears had. Like father, like son, you might say. Despite their denials, they were no different.
We do have an astonishing capacity to celebrate – even venerate – dead heroes of the faith who, if they were alive today, we would persecute, or oppose, or (in our understated English way) disagree with, or find mildly embarrassing and wish they would go away. It came home to me years ago that that really will not do, if we’re going to be serious about our commitment to Christ and his gospel.
Let me give you a couple of examples. John Wesley and George Whitfield are celebrated and honoured figures in the Church of England. They were instrumental in the Evangelical Revival of the Eighteenth Century, opposing the spiritual and moral degradation of that time, and calling the nation back to repentance and faith in Christ.
You might be aware of the monument to John Wesley that stands down on the Quayside at the site of his first open air sermon here – a monument that’s been carefully retained despite all the development that’s taken place around it. And I’m glad it has. But I can’t help wondering what Jesus would have to say about those who’ve gone to such great lengths of preservation. It has carved into the stone plinth the words of Isaiah 53.5 – a prophecy fulfilled by Jesus:
He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
That was the heart of Wesley’s message, and it’s as clear a statement as you could wish for of what is called in the theological jargon ‘penal substitutionary atonement’. That is to say, on the cross Christ took the punishment for our sins that we deserve, in order to rescue us from hell.
But the irony is that this Gospel of penal substitutionary atonement is one that is reviled by a large part of the theological establishment – not least in the Church of England of which Wesley was a member, and in the Methodist Church of which he was the founder.
What is more, Wesley and Whitfield began that process of revival by the irregular preaching of this Gospel in the open air, across parish boundaries, and in meeting rooms and halls up and down the land, not least in Newcastle. And because they majored on the major, and ended up breaking minor rules as a consequence, they were vilified at the time by the same church authorities. Today, the church authorities honour Wesley and Whitfield, while they continue to vilify those who act in similar irregular ways in the cause of the biblical Gospel.
So that’s going on within the Christian church today. What Jesus was primarily referring to in these verses was what was going to take place between the Judaism of the time and himself – and subsequently his disciples.
And I cannot escape the conclusion that perhaps the closest parallel situation today is in fact the way that Islamic religious authorities (where they are dominant) often behave towards Christians. If a Muslims in an Islamic state convert to Christ, they find themselves ostracised by their families, and (whether or not it is carried out) subject to the death penalty as a result.
And this is persecution of a different order even to the fierce persecution of, say, an atheist tyranny. Why? Because in Islam Jesus is honoured as one of the major prophets – even as the Messiah. And yet his atoning death is denied and those who take Jesus at his word and believe and trust in him are, at best, cast out. It is the supreme self-deception, and the word Jesus himself uses for it is hypocrisy.
But we cannot be alert to hypocrisy in others without also being alert to it in ourselves. And here’s another variety of the same kind of hypocrisy that I fear I for one all too easily fall into.
As believers we honour those who gave their lives for their faith and for the cause of the gospel. My experience of Africa, for instance, has brought home to me the sacrifice of all those who in the Nineteenth Century sailed to Africa to share the love of Christ, knowing full well the death rate just from disease never mind persecution. And so many of them died even before they saw any fruit from their work.
We honour them, but are we willing to give our lives for the sake of the Gospel? Because when we celebrate the martyrs, but keep our own heads below the parapet, snug and comfortable, then there’s only one word for it: hypocrisy. And we know what Jesus thinks of hypocrites. Verse 32:
Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!
The fearful thought there is that there is a limit to God’s patience. God is patient – more patient, I think, than we begin to understand. But the day does come when God’s patience comes to an end.
And that brings us to the next section here – verses 33-36 – and my second heading:
Secondly, DEADLY DANGER: BE WARNED OF THE COMING JUDGEMENT
You snakes! You brood of vipers!
There’s another example of the strong language that Jesus uses to make his point. No doubt Jesus would have been caught by any law to ban incitement to religious hatred such as that proposed by the current home secretary – because strong criticism is so easily construed as hatred or inciting hatred. But how far from the truth that is about what is in the heart of Jesus – as even this passage reveals later.
And if you think that I’m overstating any possible effect of such a law, let me quote the Barnabas Fund (which we’re supporting in our Mission Gift Week), in an article headed ‘Protect Muslims, but not Islam’, on a similar law passed three years ago in Victoria, Australia:
[This] looks set [they say] to become a tool for the suppression of free speech… [It] bans incitement of hatred against people because of their religion. However, an attempt is being made to use it to ban any criticism of Islam itself. Two Christian pastors are on trial for “vilifying Muslims” because they gave a seminar to Christians about certain aspects of Islamic religion.
You snakes, you brood of vipers” says Jesus (verse 33)…How will you escape being condemned to hell?
Notice two things there. First, the deadly danger of being condemned to hell is real, and we learn about it from the lips of Jesus himself.
But secondly, there is an answer to his question: ‘How will you escape?’ And it’s the same answer for everyone, including us. We have to heed the warning that Jesus gives. Take him seriously. Admit our hypocrisy and repent and believe in him and ask for forgiveness. And when we do that, mercy is freely available, and our sin is covered by the blood of Christ shed for us, and all fear of condemnation is lifted from us.
And that’s what God wants to happen; and that’s why through the person of his Son he sends people to tell us about the way out. Verse 34:
Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.
Of course, that was not true of every Pharisee. There were those who did repent and believe, as Jesus knew. I suppose the most well known example is that Pharisee of Pharisees Saul, who became the apostle Paul after encountering the risen Christ as he travelled to Damascus on another expedition to kill Christians or pursue them from town to town. Some Pharisees did believe. But in general, they didn’t. They turned their backs on their only way of escape. And if we do that, the result is fearful. Verse 35:
And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered [not them but their forebears – like son like father] between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.
Godly Abel is, of course, the first victim in the Bible, killed by his brother Cain. And we heard the account of the murder of Zechariah from 2 Chronicles, which was probably the last book in the Hebrew arrangement of the Scriptures – so Jesus is referring to all the killing of the Godly from the beginning to the end of the Bible.
So there is a terrible judgement coming. In earthly terms, the final judgement was prefigured a generation after this in AD 70 when the Romans desecrated and destroyed the Temple and wiped Jerusalem off the map. But the final eternal judgement awaits the the Day of Judgement that will one day come.
And what will become of those who scorn the only way out? ‘How will you escape being condemned to hell?’ warns Jesus. This is the deadly danger. So be warned of the coming judgement.
But never doubt that this stark warning comes from a heart of love. And that is my third and final point:
Thirdly, TENDER COMPASSION: BE WILLING TO BE CHANGED
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings [what a graphic depiction of the loving, weeping, compassionate heart of Christ that is!] but [and how terrible this is] you were not willing.
So for Jerusalem, after that, all that remained in the present was destruction, as Jesus turns his face away. Verse 38:
Look, your house is left to you desolate.
And in the future there was the prospect of the Day when Jesus will return – verse 39:
For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’.
For those who have become alert to their hypocrisy, and heeded the warning of the coming judgement, and put their trust in Christ, he will come as Saviour. Those who have rejected him and spurned his love will still have to acknowledge him as Lord on that Day – but for them, he will be coming as Judge. So be willing to be changed.
That is the message – and behind all the trimmings, fun as they are, it is the message of Carols by Candlelight, and of Christmas. That’s why we must go on going to ever greater lengths to get the message out. We dare not turn our backs on the tender compassion of Jesus. Be alert to hypocrisy. Be warned of the coming judgement. And be willing to be changed.