December 2019 – Modesty Above Publicity

There had been a difficult confrontation. The atmosphere was getting more tense. Jesus had been engaged in an exchange with the religious teachers, the Pharisees. They were picking fault with the behaviour of both Jesus and His disciples. No doubt their antagonism had deepened as Jesus exposed their ignorance of the Bible and their careless disregard for the welfare of the people around them.

Matthew tells us that their resentment at Jesus was darkening into something even more sinister. They were now plotting murder (But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. Matthew 12:14). No longer content to argue and criticise and find fault, they now devised plans to kill Jesus. In response, Jesus decides to withdraw. He sought to avoid needlessly antagonising His unreasonable critics.

The withdrawal is noticed and large crowds follow Jesus, magnetically attracted to Him and ignoring the hostility of the religious authorities. Something wonderful then happens. Whilst the Pharisees had shown a careless indifference to the needs of the people, Jesus displays a profound compassion by healing large numbers of them. You can imagine the place would have been abuzz with the delighted cries and excited exclamations of those who now found their minds and bodies restored. In the midst of the joyous hubbub, Jesus issues a word of caution, telling them very clearly not to go about advertising what had happened to them:

Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all 16 and ordered them not to make him known. Matthew 12:15-16

Jesus reasoned that the people had an expectation of the wrong kind of Messiah. They were looking for an aggressive military leader to overthrow Roman rule. In the light of such false expectations, Jesus deliberately avoided any publicity. Sometimes this is referred to as the Messianic secret, the strategy of concealment that Jesus seemed to adopt for a large part of His ministry. Helpfully, Matthew provides us with a commentary on this approach on the part of Jesus, pointing to the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah:
“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
    my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. v.18

Isaiah provides a picture of the Messiah who has been chosen by God, is loved by God, is equipped by the Holy Spirit and called to proclaim the good news to the nations. This is the vocation of the Messiah.

The question is: how will the Messiah go about that work and how might He fulfil that calling?
In v.19-20 we read the answer in a whole series of negatives:
He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
    nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
20 a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smouldering wick he will not quench, v.19-20

There will be no quarrelling or loud shouting on the part of the Messiah. In other words, He will not seek to draw attention to Himself. There will be no self-advertising, which would make the Messiah a figure known in public, in the streets as it says here.

A bruised reed and smouldering wick are images of weak and vulnerable people, those, for example, whose faith may be dim and doubts may be large, and who could very easily, like bruised reeds, be entirely crushed, or like smouldering wicks, be snuffed out. The point is that Jesus never does this. He is gentle and understanding in dealing with our weakness and vulnerabilities. There is nothing brash or tactless about Jesus.

You may recall that at the beginning of His ministry, shortly after His baptism, Jesus underwent a protracted period of temptation. One of those temptations was to throw Himself down from the highest point of the temple – a place of prominence amidst the population. Such a dramatic act would cause a sensation, and create a spectacle. Jesus rejected that as a path to be resisted. He would be quiet and humble instead, for that was His calling.

Jesus did not come to browbeat people into submission. His approach was altogether different. He was gentle and humble and meek. He was respectful of human frailty.
Jesus put modesty above publicity.
Jesus put gentleness above pressure.
Jesus put the quiet, steady growth of the Kingdom above any lust for sensationalism. He respected individuals and did not manipulate people.

Would this not be a pattern that would be so refreshing in a General Election? Can you imagine it? It is certainly the pattern that ought to operate in the church. But does it?

The pattern in Jesus’ service was what you might call humility without publicity. That humility was glaringly evident in the Incarnation, as He willingly became a vulnerable and dependent human baby. The staggering humility of the Incarnation then pervaded all His subsequent life and ministry:

How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming;
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.
Jesus comes to human hearts ever so kindly and gently and tenderly. He beckons us to receive Him, knowing that in Him there is no hidden agenda, but a fullness of life only experienced in knowing Him and in discovering the joyous liberty of bowing to His Lordship over our lives.

Wishing you a blessed Christmas,

Martin Thomson