Day: June 25, 2011

Sermon: The Significance of Small Gifts

Tomorrow I’m preaching about Jesus sending the disciples out to do great things — heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons.  But to that list of great things, Jesus added giving a cup of cold water to a little child.  Small gifts have great significance in God’s Kingdom.

The Significance of Small Gifts

Matthew 10:40-42

“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. 41 Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”

Don’t Wear Out Your Welcome

When I was a boy of about 8 or 9, I loved to go to my friend’s house and play.  We would get busy riding our bikes, exploring the creek at the bottom of our street, or playing ball that sometimes, often, I would stay longer than I had intended.   Invariably, when I got home from my friend’s house, my mother would tell me not to stay so long next time, because “you don’t want to wear out your welcome.”

Like many of those wise parental sayings, I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but I knew it had something to do with my friend’s mother getting tired of having me at her house.  It was good advise then, even if I wasn’t entirely sure of its full meaning, and it still is today.

Here in these three short verses we just read, Jesus has some words about “welcome.”  And apparently he wants his disciples to understand the significance of welcoming others, and of the significance of being welcomed in turn.

But to understand that, we have to go back to the beginning of chapter 10, and look at the setting.  Jesus isn’t just randomly tossing out some “here’s how you ought to behave when you’re traveling” advice.  No, there is a specific setting, a context in which Jesus offers these closing words.  We know they are the closing words of instruction, not only because they come at the end of the chapter, but because Matthew begins chapter 11 by saying, “Now when Jesus had finished instructing the disciples….”

Jesus Sends Out The Twelve

But what was he instructing them for?  Jesus was equipping and preparing the disciples to go out and do exactly what he had been doing.  They were to go and do exactly what they had seen Jesus doing.  The disciples were to go and proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Remember that last week we talked about Matthew’s Gospel being the Gospel of the Kingdom of God?  Well, in the next few weeks we’ll have an opportunity to look at Matthew and at the teaching of Jesus as Matthew presents it.  Each gospel writer has a unique message and approach, and for Matthew the Kingdom of God is it.

So, let’s look at the words of Jesus as he gets the disciples ready.  Here’s the setup in Matthew 10:1-4:

“1 He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil[a] spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.

2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”  — Matthew 10:1-4 NIV84

Okay, that’s the setup.  Jesus called the disciples together, then gave them authority to do what he had been doing – drive out evil spirits, heal sickness and disease.  These are signs of the presence of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus has been doing these very things, plus others, to not only announce the Kingdom of God as a present reality, but to demonstrate what life in the Kingdom of God is like.

Remember last week when we talked about the Great Commission, we said that the verses that precede Matthew 28:19-20 were important.  Why?  Because Matthew 28:18 says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  Here, prior to Jesus final instructions to his disciples, he gives them that same Kingdom authority, although limited to evil spirits and healing diseases.  In other words, this is a trial run for their ultimate mission.

Luke’s Gospel has a similar account, coincidentally found in Luke 10, where Luke records the sending of the 70 or 72, depending on your translation.  The number is not so important as the idea that here a multiple of 12 – 6 x 12 – is being sent out.  Luke’s version tells us that now there are more than 12, there are 70 or 72 who have the same authority, are given the same instruction, and who go to proclaim and demonstrate the same kingdom.

And, of course, getting back to Matthew’s Gospel, this becomes the ultimate mission of the disciples, and the last instruction Jesus gives to them, before he ascends back to heaven.

So, this idea of mission, of being sent, of a divine decree directed toward the disciples is a key point.  Jesus is not just the Messiah, he is the Messiah with a mission – let everyone know that the Kingdom of God is inaugurated!

The Specifics of the Mission

But, they are not just to run willy-nilly all over the place in their going.  No, the sending has specific instructions.  There are ways the disciples are expected to behave, there are things they are expected to do.  This is not make-it-up-as-you-go, but a well-defined mission.  For that we have to read the next verses, Matthew 10:5-15:

“5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6 Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. 7 As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ 8Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,[b] drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.9 Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; 10 take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.

11 “Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave. 12As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. 15 I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”  — Matthew 10:5-15 NIV84

I don’t have a lot of time to spend on what all of these instructions mean, but some are pretty straight-forward.  Here’s a quick run-down:

Don’t go to the Gentiles or Samaritans.

Do go the “lost sheep of Israel.” By the way, the lost sheep of Israel weren’t lost because they were morally inferior to the Pharisees or other overtly righteous Jews.  They were lost because they were the marginalized, the outcasts, those who were lost to the way God was being worshipped, and the Torah was being observed.  They weren’t lost due to their own sin, although they were sinners; they were lost because no one in positions of religious authority wanted to have anything to do with them.

Proclaim the good news, “The Kingdom of heaven is near.”  That was the message, and to demonstrate that this message was true, they were to perform the signs of the Kingdom.  We call them miracles today – healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers and driving out demons.  These also are all theological problems that keep the lost sheep of Israel from worshipping God, that marginalize them and push them to the outskirts of respectable society.

Obviously, being dead keeps you from attending Temple, but raising the dead demonstrated that God’s power reached even to the world of the dead, to the other side of death.  Of course, God would demonstrate that most tangibly and dramatically in raising Jesus from the dead.  But, being sick either prevented you from traveling to the Temple for worship, or made you ceremonially unclean.  The same thing applied specifically to lepers, who had to proclaim in a loud voice and with the sounding of a warning bell that they were unclean.  Leprosy wasn’t just a bad disease that in the first century was uncurable; leprosy separated a person from family, friends, and most importantly, the worshipping community.  Finally, casting out evil spirits or demons did two things:  first, it demonstrated God’s power over evil; and, secondly, it reclaimed those thought to be not in their right minds, like the Gadarene demoniac, for service to God.  So, all of these instructions on what to do were for the lost sheep, the outcasts, the marginalized, the despised, the unwanted in society.

In contrast, the disciples are to bring the peace – the shalom of God – to the homes which receive them.  For those who do not receive them, the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, and more, awaits them.  And, with these words, Jesus turns the disciples’ attention to the the unpleasant side of their journey.

Conflict and Persecution Are Part of the Assignment

You would think that with the ability to heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons, there wouldn’t be a downside.  But, just as Jesus encountered opposition and persecution, so will his followers, even on this preliminary training mission.  Listen to some of what the disciples will encounter:

17 “Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.

21 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.

34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn

“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’[e]

37 “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

This does not sound like a picnic, does it?  So, here is this grand mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and to demonstrate its power by healing the sick, raising the dead, and casting out demons.

The bad news is that the opposition is strong and on a mission of its own – to stop Jesus from spreading the ridiculous notion that he, Jesus, is the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Savior promised by God.

Because if Jesus is all of those things, and if the Kingdom of God is really coming, then obviously the religious leaders are not in the lead.  They are being passed over.  God has not included them in this Kingdom revolution that is taking place.   Their power is threatened, their prestige is at stake, their livelihood is at risk.  Oh, and by the way, the Romans won’t be too happy either, if an insurrection breaks out.

This is pretty dramatic stuff.  Majestic in its scope, cosmic in its design, eternal in its duration.  This is the greatest drama the world has ever witnessed.  And, the disciples get to be part of it.

It’s Not Just About the Drama

But, it’s not just about the drama.  For as this chapter closes, and we finally return to our text for today, Jesus has some very simple, calm, and plain words:

“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. 41 Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”

To get in on this grand Kingdom epic, you don’t have to be a disciple.  You just have to welcome one.  Jesus promises that anyone who receives his disciples receives (welcomes) him; and anyone who welcomes him welcomes God, the one who sent Jesus.

But, it gets better.  Anyone who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet (which means because he is a prophet, or out of respect for a prophet) will receive the same reward as the prophet.  So, the widow of Zarephath who gave food and lodging to Elijah received the same reward as the prophet Elijah, who stood up to 450 prophets of Baal, among other things.  Jesus even mentions her in Luke 4.  So, this lowly widow gets a prophet’s reward for welcoming a prophet.

In other words, her obedience to God was just as important as Elijah’s obedience to God.

The same thing happens when someone welcomes a righteous person.  They receive the same reward as the righteous person, because they are being used of God in the same way.

In other words, it’s not just about the drama.  We often mistakenly think that unless we can do something big, something grand, something great, that God will not be pleased with us.  Part of that I attribute to William Carey, who in his zeal to get English pastors to support sending missionaries to India, said, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”

But maybe Jesus wants us to rethink that.  Of course, some will continue to do great, dramatic, world-changing things.  But not everybody.  The last instruction Jesus gave to his disciples in this passage was for the rest of us.

“And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”

And, here is where the rest of us come in.  Most of us haven’t healed the sick, raised the dead, or exorcised demons.  Most of us haven’t even seen anyone who was demon-possessed.  Personally, I’m thankful for that.

But all of us have seen little children.  All of us know how good a cup of cold water tastes on a hot, dusty day.  And all of us can do that – we can all give a cup of cold water to a thirsty child.

Mother Theresa, who certainly did great things, said, “There are no great deeds, only small deeds done with great love.”

So, if those of us who believe that we’ll never do great things like the disciples did for God, that’s absolutely okay.  Because even the disciples tried to run off the little children who wanted to see Jesus.  Even the disciples tried to turn away the most fragile and least regarded members of their own society, little children.

Of course, it does take some effort. A cup of cold water in Jesus’ day didn’t come from the water fountain, or the refrigerator dispenser.  There was no ice to cool the water, and water sitting in the sun quickly grew tepid and brackish.

No, to get a cup of cold water, one had to draw from the well, or a deep spring.  In either event, effort was involved.  So, I’m not saying small things don’t take effort, I’m just saying that Jesus thought they were pretty special.  And a cup of cold water gets lumped right in there with disciples on a mission to heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons.

I could go on and on, explaining in detail what I think this means, but really, that’s it.  You know what cold water is, we know who children are.  You can make the translation to any situation in life.  Small gifts, given with great love in the name of the One who loved us, have great significance in the Kingdom of God.