Matthew 23:37-39: “How Often I Have Longed”
Sunday morning worship, September 23, 2018
“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, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matthew 23:37-39).
As I read this passage this week the phrase, “how often I have longed to…and you were not willing,” struck deeply into my soul. So I did a word search on the phrase, “If you are willing,” and found a few interesting results. It first appears in Genesis 23:8 where Abraham asks the Hittites to sell him some land so he can bury his wife, Sarah, because he was a “foreigner and a stranger among you.” In Matthew 8:2, Mark 1:40, and Luke 5:12 a leprous man begs of Jesus, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” to which Jesus replies, “I am willing. Be clean!” But when Jesus says to His Father, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42), we know the Father not only requires Jesus to drink of the cup, but will forsake Jesus once Jesus becomes sin for us (Matthew 27:46).
But perhaps the most interesting place I found this phrase was in Isaiah 1. Isaiah was given a “vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem” which begins, “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Then, in Isaiah’s vision, the Lord recounts the ways in which Judah and Jerusalem have rejected God as their Father.
Then in verses 18-20 we read: “‘Come now, let us settle the matter,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.’ For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Now, here in Jerusalem, Jesus expresses this same sentiment as this promised judgment begins its realization: “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, who you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation” (Matthew 23:35-36).
“If you are willing and obedient…but if you resist and rebel.” “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” This morning I ask you, as I have asked myself this week, “What are we not willing to let Jesus do in our lives?”
· As followers of Jesus Christ we live by faith “like a stranger in a foreign country” even today (Hebrews 11:9). But the Holy Spirit is willing to take up residence in our lives: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth…I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:16-18).
· As followers of Jesus Christ we have been made clean: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
· Last week we read that John and James, and by implication in some manner of speaking all of us as followers of Jesus Christ, “will indeed drink from [Jesus’] cup” (Matthew 20:23).
But what Jesus really wants for us, according to Isaiah, is to “eat the good things of the land.” In the immediate context of Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces woes on the Jews generally and on the Pharisees and teachers of the law in particular. From these pronouncements, I believe, we can more fully understand the ways in which Jesus was frustrated from giving the Jews, His chosen people, all He wanted to give them. And now, we, also as His “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Peter 2:9) have to ask ourselves, “What good things are we keeping Jesus from giving us today?”
Jesus began by condemning the teachers of the law and the Pharisees for “shutting the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” and “traveling over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” (vv13-15). What Jesus wants to give us is the “good news of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23) and “life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
So we should ask ourselves, “Does the gospel message we proclaim in Jesus’ name accomplish Jesus’ goal?” The teachers of the law and the Pharisees were condemned for making their converts like them. Even today most followers of Jesus attend churches where they “feel comfortable,” “feel welcomed and loved,” and are among people like themselves. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”
This was not true of the early church; read 1 Corinthians to understand this. In Matthew 22, Jesus tells a parable about a wedding banquet a king gave for his son. The first invited, by implication those most like the king and his son, paid no attention to the invitation and even “seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them” (v6). So the king sent his servants, “to the street corners [to] invite to the banquet anyone you find” (vv8-9). If our gospel message is only being extended by us to people like us, are we not in danger of inbreeding and gaining a level of comfort in our worship Jesus does not intend for us?
I was once told never to pastor a church that has the word “memorial” in its name. I’ve been told by some over the years they come to church to feel close to a departed loved one. Even while here I came to know a man who couldn’t return to this building after his wife died. If the gospel we proclaim truly has the power to change the lives of the unsaved, shouldn’t it also be continually changing the lives of the redeemed? What new perspectives on life does Jesus long to give to us? Shouldn’t we be interacting over the gospel with multiples of people who think differently than we do? Wouldn’t our faith grow deeper, richer, and stronger and we become more effective in the proclamation of our gospel message in such an environment? A challenged and successfully defended faith is a stronger faith.
Then Jesus condemns the teachers of the law and the Pharisees for focusing on the minutia of the Scriptures and missing the bigger picture. The context of this condemnation is tithing, but Jesus said they neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Jesus charged: “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Over the years of my ministry I’ve been placed in many uncomfortable positions.
I believe in the truths of the Scriptures, but am continually reminded, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:14). So if I spend my life imposing my standards on people who don’t have the Spirit living within them, I will continually miss-communicate.
Remember Jesus chastised Nicodemus for being “Israel’s teacher” and not understanding what Jesus was saying about being born again (John 3:5-15). So how can we condemn or even ignore people who think and/or live differently than we do when the Holy Spirit has not taken up residence in their lives? Jesus wants to give us new brothers and sisters, but we have to leave our doors unlocked and opened if we want them to come in. I’ve never been close to the best at letting others play with my toys fearing they would break them or mishandle them. But I’ve got to change. We have to share what we have if we want to receive what Jesus has to give us in return.
Finally, Jesus condemns the teachers of the law and the Pharisees for “looking beautiful on the outside but on the inside being full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (v27). Jesus said they appeared to people as righteous but were actually full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Jesus said they were whitewashed tombs.
I believe what Jesus wants to give us is a continual experience of His presence. I’ve come to believe this is our greatest struggle. Most of us have a pretty good grasp on at least the fundamental truths of Biblical faith. We have a decent understanding that (a) God is love and lovingly watches over our lives and cares for us individually; (b) God can be trusted to do what is right for us especially regarding our role in extending His kingdom; and (c) God has forgiven us of our sins and saved us.
But how we actually experience these truths in our lives is often quite different from what we say we understand intellectually. There are a lot of “but’s” in our experience of these truths. We can say we know we are saved, but we still at least somewhat fear death and standing before God in judgment. Trusting God when we or a loved one is ill, or when we have lost our job, or can’t pay our bills, or the walls of our lives seem to be crashing in on us is difficult. Standing firm in our faith and worshipping God as the rain falls takes every ounce of faith we can muster if we can even get to that point. So we return to the question of the morning: “What good things are we keeping Jesus from giving us today?”
The best answer I can give is a simple one: “Ask Him. Ask Him personally.” Then we need to open our hearts and our minds and invite Him in once again—without preconceptions, without conditions, and without fear. Run into the extended arms of Jesus this morning and allow Him to wrap His arms full of love, peace, and affection around you and allow yourselves to be surprised at what happens next. That’s how trust begins. That’s how real love is experienced. That’s how a hen gathers her chicks under her arms. That’s what I believe Jesus wants us to do.