Politicians don’t like to appear weak. They don’t like to run out of words, lose an argument, appear foolish to other people. If they do, they worry that people will think they are weak leaders. They’d never see their policies through. They’d never keep their promises.
The question is what we will conclude about Jesus. In the early chapters of Matthew’s gospel, we’ve seen Jesus’ extraordinary authority. But then the last few weeks, we’ve seen Jesus’ authority being rejected. What does that tell us about him? Is he weak? If we’re used to the hustle and bustle of Prime Minister’s Questions, it’s tempting to start to write Jesus off at this point. “This one won’t go very far. He won’t last 10 minutes.”
So Matthew pauses looking at people’s responses to Jesus. He pauses to slot in a long quotation from Isaiah chapter 42. A quotation that will help us to understand why Jesus is being rejected in the way that he is. A quotation that will help us not to write Jesus off because he appears weak.
This quotation shows us three things about Jesus being rejected.
Jesus’ rejection is part of his gentle character
First, Jesus’ rejection is part of his gentle character. Jesus’ rejection is part of his gentle character.
Jesus is being rejected. Verse 14: “But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.”
So what did Jesus do? Verse 15: “Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place.” He did not pour oil on the fire. He just withdrew, backed off.
There are four passages in the second half of Isaiah that speak of a character called “the servant of the Lord” Matthew quotes one of them. Matthew’s sees Jesus as being the one those prophecies foretold. Here is how Isaiah 42 begins: “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight.”
The character of the servant. “He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.”
“He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets.” He won’t go looking for an argument. He won’t pick a fight. The opposite of some football so-called fans this last week. You won’t hear his voice raised, in a shouting match with his adversaries. That’s not his style.
We all get into arguments from time to time. Sometimes they go on and on. All of us like to win an argument. The real wisdom call comes in when to walk away. To leave what somebody else said unreplied to. Recognise the argument you’ll never win. Value the relationship more than scoring points. Or loving the other person enough, to see that it’s unkind to lower yourself to their level.
Jesus was the master at this. The temperature got hot. People wanted his life. He just walked away. Go somewhere else.
Which fits with the other side of his character we get here. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.”
People used reeds for two things. They would use them for support, a bit like a walking stick. And they would use them for measuring, like a ruler. But once the reed got a kink in it, once it was bruised or bashed in the middle, it was no use for either. It would not support you, and it was no longer straight enough to use for measuring. So you snap it in half and throw it away.
Society at large treats people a bit like this. Once they have a bruise or a bash or a kink in the middle. Once they’re a bit wonky, no longer perfectly formed, not quite as useful to us as they once were: We snap them in half and throw them away. Not literally. Not in this country. Not yet. But we move on. Find someone more impressive. Give our attention elsewhere. It’s a harsh world.
That is not Jesus’s way. He doesn’t discard people, write them off, give up on them.
That’s not universally true. Jesus did write off the Pharisees who were so critical of him. And we’ll see next time that Jesus has even harsher things to say. That’s because the Pharisees were not bruised reeds. They were not smouldering wicks. They were stubborn, obstinate, haters of Jesus even though they should have known better.
Yes, he’s a shepherd who’s harsh with wolves. But gentle with sheep.
All of which is a part of the gentle character which makes him so liberating to follow. Yet again, we have to look back to the end of chapter 11. Verse 28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
When we see Jesus walk away from the argument, it is not weakness. And this stage of his ministry, he’s not looking to pick a fight. His ability to walk away shows his strength of character. It shows his gentle character. He is gentle and humble in heart. He’s got time for the bruised reeds among us. He is kind. He is gentle. He is a wonderful master to follow through life.
Jesus’ rejection is part of his gentle character.
Jesus’ rejection is how he saves his people
Second, Jesus’ rejection is how he saves his people. Jesus’ rejection is how he saves his people.
As I said, Matthew has shown us Jesus speaking and acting with great authority. He is the King that Israel had been waiting for the centuries. But then, he wants to find an Old Testament picture of Jesus. He goes for the four servant songs in the book of Isaiah.
He quotes from Isaiah chapter 42. It’s the one that fits here. It paints Jesus as not being quarrelsome, not crying out, not arguing in the streets.
But the point is that Matthew is looking for the Old Testament figure that Jesus most resembles. And here’s who he finds: The servant from Isaiah.
The 4 servant songs are heading to a high-point. The Old Testament chapter that gets quoted in the New Testament more than any other. The servant song in Isaiah chapter 53.
Isaiah 53 has the same language of Jesus not picking a fight. Here’s verse 7: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”
But the main thought in Isaiah 53 is why the servant suffers. It’s to save and rescue his people. Let me remind us of the centrepiece of that servant song: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
The servant of the Lord will suffer and die. The servant of the Lord will take on himself the sins of all of God’s people. The servant of the Lord will be punished by God in our place, so that we might be rescued.
Yes, we see Jesus being rejected. Yes, we could take this as a sign of weakness, a reason not to follow him. It’s actually through this kind of rejection that he will one day save and rescue his people.
And in fact that thought is there in Isaiah 42 as well. Jesus is the one with God’s Spirit on him. God’s Spirit to make him the one who brings justice to the nations. God’s Spirit to make him the one who puts things right in the world.
Let me tell you the story of Arland Dean Williams. On 13th January 1982, a freezing winter morning., Air Florida Flight 90 took off from Washington National Airport. It failed to gain altitude, and crashed into 14th Street Bridge before plunging into the icy Potomac river below. 69 people on board died on impact or failed to get out. Only 6 made it into the icy water.
A helicopter arrived to rescue the passengers. Five times it let down a rope. Each time, Arland Williams took the rope, but then let go. Finally, it returned for a sixth time, but could not find the man. He’d been pulled under the river when the tail section sank.
Something only came out as the survivors told their stories. Each time, Arland had passed the rope to one of the other survivors. The reason he drowned was that he deliberately helped each of the other 5 survivors to safety. His suffering saved the lives of all 5 who escaped the aeroplane.
When they repaired the bridge that carries 14th Street over the river, they renamed it the “Arland D Williams Junior Memorial Bridge”.
Jesus’ rejection is how he saves his people.
Jesus’ rejection must not be mistaken for weakness
And then third: Jesus’ rejection must not be mistaken for weakness. Jesus’ rejection must not be mistaken for weakness.
This is why politicians don’t like losing an argument or running out of words. They’re worried it makes them look like losers. Worried people will think they will lose in the long run. Worried people will think they are weak.
Matthew is saying: Jesus might be rejected now. But it will not be so forever.
Look back again at verse 20: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory. In his name the nations will put their hope.”
When Matthew quotes Isaiah 42, he does not stop short. He goes right to the end of the servant song. He ends on a note of victory. He will come out on top. He will be the victor. In his quest for justice, he will succeed.
So look at Jesus. On earth, in these early stages of his ministry, he looks small and weak. We see him rejected. He has a small band of followers, and a fickle crowd that comes and goes.
But one day, he will return to this earth. It will not be in obscurity, as a baby. It won’t be in one corner of the Mediterranean. It will be a cosmic, global event. It will be an event that nobody will miss. He will come back in power and great glory.
That will be a day of crushing defeat for everyone who has persisted in rejecting the rule of the Lord Jesus. And it will be a day of tremendous celebration, vindication, victory, for everyone who has put their hope in him. By the time he comes back, whole nations will have put their hope in him. And when he returns, every good thing he came to bring about will be delivered in spades.
Wimbledon begins in a week’s time. One of the fun things about tennis is the scope for great reversals. And I have to say: The English excel at this. We never win at sport, without first making our supporters sweat for their support, convincing them we’re about to lose along the way. The Scots are little better, so if Andy Murray wins the final he’ll do it having gone two sets to love down first. At that point, half of us give up supporting him. Turn the TV off. And we don’t stick around to see the glorious 3-2 finish.
People do this with Jesus, too. They see him in Matthew 10 and 11. A reject. A loser. And they change channel. They don’t stick around to see the glorious finish.
Don’t mistake Jesus’ rejection for weakness. In this age, he gently gets alongside everyone who will come to him and follow him, however weak they are, however bruised they are. However unimpressive Jesus seems in the short term, in the age to come, he will bring victory.
Jesus’ rejection must not be mistaken for weakness.
Politicians don’t want to appear weak.
At times in his earthly ministry, Jesus appeared weak. Measure him by the standards we apply to others. Ask whether he is strong, impressive, witty and winning. He doesn’t fit. And that could put some people off him.
But don’t be fooled.
The way he was rejected was really all part of the plan for how he’d save the world.
One day, he’ll come back in power and great triumph. He’s worth following alright.
He’s gentle and humble in heart. Some come to him, take his yoke upon you, and you will find rest for your souls.