Heart of the Kingdom


 

 

Welcome to Calvary and our teaching series “Matthew: An Invitation to the Kingdom.” When we began this series back in January—back before the pandemic, back before our unique suffering as a Church, I quoted something Eugene Peterson said in his introduction to Matthew:

“Everyday we wake up in the middle of something that is already going on, that has been going on for a long time […] we are neither accidental nor incidental to the story.” Peterson: Introduction to Matthew, The Message

We are reminded that Jesus is the beginning and the end of our story. He is the centre and circumference of our faith. In Jesus we find a coherence to life that we cannot find as people alienated from God.

So in today’s passage we are going to hear Jesus speak to what is at the heart of the Kingdom: the heart of the Gospel.

In Matthew 15 (8,9), Jesus quotes an ancient prophecy of Isaiah (29:13):

These people honour me with their lips,/but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;/their teachings are merely human rules.” NIV

These people make a big show of saying the right thing,/but their heart isn’t in it.
They act like they’re worshiping me,/but they don’t mean it.
They just use me as a cover/for teaching whatever suits their fancy. MSG

There is something about our heart that is central to the spiritual life, central to the Kingdom of heaven. It has something to do with “who” or “what” is the focus of our worship.

 

Today we will look at Matthew 15:1-20 where we will find what the Heart of the Kingdom is all about. What we will find is that the Heart of the Kingdom is the focus of worshipping God with our hearts near Him. This nearness with God is the reason Jesus came; to bring us near God; to rescue us from alienation from God, from others, and from ourselves; and worship God in Christ. We might hear it most clearly stated in a passage like Ephesians 2:12,13:

“Remember that at [one] time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

 

Last week Dan told us about John the Baptist being beheaded and that in response to his cousin’s execution Jesus withdrew to a solitary place to grieve and to pray. But of course the crowds followed Him, and you may remember that Jesus took responsibility for the crowds, hungry for food that feeds the body and spiritual food that feeds the soul.

I loved how Dan pointed out that Jesus demonstrated His commitment to people who followed Him into the wilderness. Here we are, perhaps feeling the wilderness more keenly, aren’t we? Yet it is in wilderness where all false hopes and futile trusts are shed. Unimportant things are stripped away that we might get to the heart of the matter.

 

We enter Matthew 15, after Jesus has fed 5000 people, now in a place called Gennesaret not far from Capernaum, located on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. We find as people learn that Jesus is there they bring their sick loved ones to him.

It is in this very context that Jesus encounters some well-meaning Pharisees and legal experts who ask a straight-forward question. It’s an important question to them, since they travelled some 125 km from Jerusalem to ask it. It would’ve taken them some 4 to 5 days just to walk this distance. Here is their question: “Why do your disciples break the traditions of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

To be fair, it’s probably not that the disciples never washed their hands before they ate, since that’s not just about tradition, it’s about cleanliness and stopping the spread of disease. This washing the Pharisees and legal experts were talking about was about the “tradition” about how to wash their hands and it had become a rather involved ceremonial cleansing.

I won’t go through how obsessive/compulsive this washing became other than to say they washed from the tips of their fingers to their elbows, before and after meals, before and after trips to the market, or getting too close to those they thought were “unclean”.

 

I don’t mean to down-play their concern, after all, I take it at face value that they were truly wanting to please the God they thought they were worshipping. The rival religious-political group, the Sadducees, on the other hand mocked them by saying “when a Pharisee finished washing the golden candle-stick of the Temple, soon they thought it necessary to wash the sun.” (Dwight Pentecost, p. 241, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ) In other words, others could see there was something a little overboard about the attention to cleaning your hands that didn’t seem reasonable and maybe had little to do with pleasing God in the end.

But the question stood, “Jesus, why don’t your disciples ceremonially wash their hands before they eat, because that’s the traditions of the elders?” What is Jesus going to say to this? Is there anything particularly wrong with ceremonial washing? If anything, it looks like what we’ve been learning to do more of in this pandemic: wash our hands more often and more thoroughly.

 

Jesus could’ve responded in a number of ways. He could have done an in-depth study of the rabbinic traditions and where they might have departed from God’s laws. You know, have a reasonable debate of ideas. He could have complied, “went along to get along”; “I’ll do better next time; I’ll teach my disciples to follow the traditions.” It’s not a bad tradition after all. He could have thrown His disciples under the bus, “oh those disciples, they have a lot to learn; they’re just a bunch of fishermen and rabble rousers after all.”

No. Jesus didn’t appear to entertain such an important question that these well-meaning folk came all the way from Jerusalem to ask. Immediately He answers with: “and why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?”

Now the fight is on. Jesus goes a particular tradition that Pharisees used to release themselves from taking responsibility of taking care of their parents. Until Dan mentioned this last week I hadn’t seen the connection between Jesus taking responsibility for the people who had followed Him into the wilderness and addressing the need to take responsibility for our parents.

 

As we watch and listen to Jesus we begin to see this pattern of taking responsibility for others; we are our brother’s and sister’s “keepers”, in other words, we have a responsibility to each other.

Jesus goes for the throat on a tradition that Pharisees used to release themselves from taking the very costly responsibility of taking care of their parents. This tradition, known as “Corban”, was meant to be an expression of worship, assigning a gift as corban was meant to designate a gift to God.

The problem was it became about the honour a person could show for themselves with the gifts they gave to the temple. This show of a gift devoted to God wasn’t about God, and for some reason it was given at the expense of their legitimate responsibility to take care of their parents.

Jesus addresses this tradition. How? He goes to the Old Testament laws, He goes to scripture as the guide to His ethic:

You break the command of God for the sake of your tradition.
For God said, ‘Honour your father and mother’ [Ex 20:12] and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ [Ex 21:17]
But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ (Corban) they are not to ‘honour their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.

 

Many of you know that we took care of my wife’s parents in our home for 7 1/2 years.  It was costly in all sorts of ways, but we took this on as our responsibility. My generation may have been the first to not take care of parents, and it might be a sad legacy of the wealth of my generation to be able to “afford” to set up our parents in senior care homes. Growing up, I would have had friends who either had their grandparents live with them, or live very near them.

What I’m getting at is Jesus took “honour your father and mother” with a seriousness that our generation may not. One of the dynamics that Mercy and I had to confront was how her parents expected that honouring meant obeying even in adulthood. Our answer was to honour them with care while we learned to care for each other and our children. In some ways, my honouring of them was to not dishonour them. That sounds like a low bar to meet, doesn’t it? But I will say this: not dishonouring them meant we were in a position to care for them when the time came. There are many ways to care for our parents, and in this time may I encourage us to be mindful to how we care for our aging parents, especially since the pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of senior homes.

Let me encourage us to consider how we might take care of our parents. Let this be a gentle nudge; move with the “unforced rhythm of grace” (as Eugene Peterson would say) as you prayerfully consider your parents, even if you’ve been estranged from them. It is now, when you and your parents are in their right minds, to have the hard conversation about what care can look like.

Obviously at the time of Jesus saying this, there were no care homes, no financial safety network; aging parents relied entirely on their children to care for them into old age. (On the cross we see Jesus make sure His mother is cared for by John [John 19:26, 27]).

Indeed we are at our best when we care for the uncared for. Therefore we should always be careful about the ways we might nullify the word of God for the sake of our cultural expectations (an excellent resource I recommend is A Vision for the Aging Church: Renewing Ministry for and by Seniors by James M. Houston). In fact, we need to be careful about any of the ways we might nullify the word of God whenever we consider it inconvenient.

 

There is no doubt that the gospel of Jesus Christ presents us with inconvenient truths. “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” (G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World)

The hard words Jesus has to say to the experts of the law are equally hard words for contemporaries who are tempted to nullify God’s word. But this was not the main thing Jesus wanted to get across, this was just a ripe juicy example ready to be plucked that would lead to the big idea.

 

In Matthew 15 (8,9), Jesus quotes an ancient prophecy of Isaiah (29:13):

These people honour me with their lips,/but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;/their teachings are merely human rules.” NIV

These people make a big show of saying the right thing,/but their heart isn’t in it.
They act like they’re worshiping me,/but they don’t mean it.
They just use me as a cover/for teaching whatever suits their fancy. MSG

There is something about our heart that is central to the Kingdom of heaven. It has something to do with the focus of our worship. All else that follows will hinge on this prophetic word. How do we know if we’re focussing on the wrong thing or the wrong person until or unless Jesus confronts us with such abruptness?

Think about our own self-worship, our inclination to make worship about how we feel instead of about the truth of who Jesus is, the truth of what He comes to do. Think of how many times we think about ourselves every waking hour until or unless the Spirit of Jesus nudges or checks us out of our self-focussed stupor.

Would Jesus say this of us? “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”

When we come to the end of this section where Jesus is explaining the centrality of the heart in verses 16-20 Jesus says this (MSG):

Don’t you know that anything that is swallowed works its way through the intestines and is finally defecated? But what comes out of the mouth gets its start in the heart. It’s from the heart that we vomit up evil arguments, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, lies, and cussing. That’s what pollutes. Eating or not eating certain foods, washing or not washing your hands—that’s neither here nor there.

I would not want us to miss the point. Rather: I would want us to have our hearts come near to Jesus, and our worship be informed and animated by His word because I would not want our Lord to say of us, “They act like they’re worshiping me, but they don’t mean it. They just use me as a cover for teaching whatever suits their fancy.”

This takes enormous honesty to face ourselves when our heart is far from Him. It takes a powerful truth given with faithful love to contradict our desire to follow any “teaching that suits our fancy.” I’m not sure we can do it alone. Check that: I know we can’t do it alone; I know we can’t face ourselves without the kindness of Jesus and we can’t bear truth without the care and committed love of the Body of Christ. Every word Jesus speaks into our lives comes from “the deep calling to deep” (Psalm 42:7) and with an invitation to go deeper.

 

Go deeper into the heart God gave you to worship Him. Go deeper into the heart of God. This is the point of Jesus’ encounter to reveal the Heart of the Kingdom. The Heart of the Kingdom is the focus of worshipping God with our hearts near Him. This nearness with God is the reason Jesus came; to bring us near God; to rescue us from alienation from God, from others, and from ourselves; and worship God in Christ.

What is worship? Is it just singing along with each other as we are led by worship leaders? Is it just a distraction from “real” life, this kind of religious lying to ourselves to get us through the week? Or is it as Richard Foster puts it: “To worship is to experience reality” (p. 138, Celebration of Discipline).

To worship the Living Creator God in Christ brings us into reality. If you doubt that check, if you are capable, all the focuses that you worship otherwise. Are you able to discern how worshipping anything but the Holy, Living, Creator God in Christ brings us out of reality, away from the nearness to God.

True worship isn’t a side track from real life. We don’t come together to worship so we can be inauthentic for a morning. Heaven forbid! True worship is the most real thing we can do, for it connects us to the author of reality in a time when our culture is confused about what truth is.

 

I love how John Piper writes about worship in Desiring God:

God’s ultimate goal is to preserve and display his infinite and awesome greatness and worth, that is, his glory.

God has many other goals in what he does. But none of them is more ultimate than this. They are all subordinate. God’s overwhelming passion is to exalt the value of his glory. To that end he seeks to display it, to oppose those who belittle it, and to vindicate it from all contempt. It is clearly the uppermost reality in his affections. He loves his glory infinitely.

This is the same as saying: He loves himself infinitely. Or: He himself is uppermost in his own affections. A moment’s reflection reveals the inexorable truth of this fact. 

God would be unrighteous (just as we would) if he valued anything more than what is supremely valuable. But he himself is supremely valuable… [and] it is right to take delight in a person in proportion to the excellence of that person’s glory. (p. 32)

I have to admit that I hadn’t considered this before. I had to read over, and contemplate it.  As I have walked with God over these many years I have come to recognize that God alone has the healthiest self-esteem in Creation. Atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens didn’t get it. He mocked what he thought was an infantile, egotistical, and ego-fragile god that we would not be capable of worshipping either.

God doesn’t need us to worship him. We need to worship him because He has created in us that impulse to worship what is most beautiful.

 

In the 4th century Augustine understood something of this when He wrote his “Confessions”. In the very first paragraph of his first chapter he writes, “You arouse us to take joy in praising you – for You have made us for Yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” Augustine, Book 1, Chapter 1, Confessions.

Here Augustine is coming alive to the awareness of his heart and it has something to do with the focus of worship for “you arouse us to take joy in praising You”, he says; “for you made us for Yourself – for you have made our heart restless until it rests in You.”

 

In this passage in Matthew, Jesus gets to the heart of the kingdom by saying, “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”

There is something about honouring God and having our hearts near Him—having our hearts in it—that goes together. There something about authentic worship of God that goes together with living God’s word authentically. In other words, worshipping God is authentic when we live informed and animated by His word.

Interesting, isn’t it? Jesus answers His accusers using the very word they knew, but not really. They knew it well enough to quote it, but not well enough to recognize its author when He was standing right in front of them.

When we recognize Jesus, we worship Him. This is whom we are after.

At Calvary we want more of Jesus, and we get more of Jesus as we seek Him and are animated by His Spirit and His Word.

Jesus points us to the Heart of the Kingdom and it’s all about Him, worshipping God with all our hearts. There are serious distractions in our day and in our context. I am not suggesting we ignore our grieving, or avoid the conversations we need to have, but bring them into the light of who God is, and what He is saying to us.

When we worship the Living God, all issues find their rightful place under His sovereign, wise, and gracious supremacy.

 

Many years ago when I was seriously ill, I came upon the letters of French bishop Francois Fenelon and it put my suffering into context: “Sought of rejected, known or unknown, applauded or opposed, what is it to me? It is Thee, and not myself; Thee and not Thy gifts distinct from Thee and Thy love, which I seek” (Fenelon Spiritual Letters, p. 98).


1 Comment on ‘Heart of the Kingdom’

  1. […] Last week Rusty shared about how the Kingdom of God is the heart of the matter. You will see how Jesus “weight tests” and “pressure tests” her to pull out the truth of what is in her heart. […]

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