Why doesn’t everyone follow Jesus?
If Jesus is the person we believe him to be. If Jesus is the person he claimed to be. If Jesus is the person the gospel-writers portray him to be. Then surely everyone would follow him!
He could heal the sick, control the weather, and raise the dead. He could hold vast crowds for hours, spell-bound with his teaching, while the boffins wondered how he hadn’t been to school.
Sure, Jesus could pull a crowd. They loved a miracle But he had precious few followers.
And so today. If Jesus is still alive today, wouldn’t you expect everyone to follow him?
Two years ago, 12th January 2015, the Daily Telegraph ran an article with the following headline: “Church of England cannot carry on as it is unless decline ‘urgently’ reversed” Apparently a quotation from the two archbishops. Here’s one sentence in the article: “Typical Sunday attendance has halved to just 800,000 in the last 40 years.”
Exactly one year later, 12th January 2016, another article in the Daily Telegraph: “Sunday attendance slumps by 22,000 to 765,000 as older worshippers die and Archbishop of Canterbury warns of struggle in ‘anti-Christian culture’” That’s another 3% off the books since the previous year’s article.
Now, sure: Christianity in Britain is bigger than just the Church of England. A lot, lot bigger. But still, look at how people choose to spend their Sundays and you wouldn’t get the impression that Jesus is the Son of God, who came to this earth to rescue us and to be our lord and master.
Unbelievers feel it. No matter what we say, people find it hard to get past the idea that the majority must be right. And we feel it, too. Sometimes, it nags at us: “If this is all so real, why aren’t more people here?” But we feel it most sharply when we long for our family and friends to share our faith. We can see Jesus so clearly. Why can’t they?
On the previous two Sundays, we’ve been looking at the end of Matthew chapter 12. We’ve seen Jesus rejected, and we’ve seen people follow him. Matthew is drawing together the threads from the whole of chapters 11 and 12, where we’ve seen many responses to Jesus. We’ve seen so many people reject Jesus for so many reasons. And it makes us ask: “Why?” “Why do all these people reject him, if he is for real?”
That is the question Matthew chapter 13 will answer. It’s a great chapter for someone who is looking at the claims of Jesus but not yet convinced. It’s a great chapter for the Christian who’s finding it hard to keep talking about their faith when people often aren’t interested. It’s a great chapter for the church that is tired, years of spreading the good news, and somehow things don’t take off as we hoped. Welcome to Matthew 13.
The chapter contains many parables. We’ll see what those are as we meet them, but for now they’re stories. Today, we’re not actually in a parable – we’re in one of the other bits dotted between the parables.
If you glance down at the Bible, you’ll see that Jesus tells a parable called “the parable of the sower”. It comes in verses 3 to 9. Starting in verse 18, Jesus will explain the parable of the sower. Verse 18: “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means:”.
But in between telling the story, and explaining the story, there’s another section. Verse 10: “The disciples came to him and asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?’”
Matthew’s going to start to answer why not everybody follows Jesus. But we’re going to have to follow the train of thought to get there. Let’s see what Jesus says. Why did he teach in parables? Once we see that, we’ll see that Matthew has started to answer why not everyone follows him.
There are 4 stages to the argument.
Firstly, people harden their hearts against Jesus. They close their eyes. They shut their ears. Verse 15: “This people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.”
Some people choose not to listen when they hear the good news of Jesus. They don’t want to know it, so they put their fingers in their ears, and talk loudly over the top of Jesus so they don’t have to hear his voice.
That’s stage 1. Stage 2, is to observe how parables work. Parables filter people who hear them.
Parables are not just stories. Riddles. Jokes. Proverbs. Stories – anything where the meaning is not on the surface. Where you have to think about what is said, and work out what Jesus is saying. If you’re not willing to do that, parables are just a good story, a funny joke, or whatever it is. Parables draw in the person who’s listening. They involve you, as you ponder, chew on it, and let its message sink in.
Let me just pause for a moment and check that you were listening. Check you heard that right.
Many of us were brought up on the idea that Jesus used parables because it made his teaching easy to understand. He used vivid stories that illustrate his truths, so that people get it. In many churches, parables are a favourite for all-age services, for exactly this reason. A colourful story is so much more accessible than abstract truths. That’s what many of us have been brought up on. Jesus used parables to make himself more easily understood.
But in fact the opposite is the case. Jesus used parables in order to bury the meaning below the surface. To make people have to dig a bit if they want to get something out of his teaching. Let’s put it in black and white, and risk overstating things: Jesus used parables not to make his teaching easier to understand but to make it harder to understand.
A friend of mine can remember when automatic doors first started appearing everywhere. I think he lived in Basingstoke at the time, but that’s not relevant. The local supermarket had automatic doors, and it confused people. Look at the shop from a distance, and it looks like it’s closed. The doors are shut. But walk up to the doors intending to go through them, and the doors slide open for you to walk through.
Parables are like that. Look at them from a distance. Study them out of academic interest. Sit on a Galilean hillside to listen to Jesus for his entertainment value. The parables remain closed. But walk up to them intending to go through them, to put them into practice. They slide open. They give up their meaning readily. And you can walk straight through to follow Jesus.
Not everyone reads or enjoys Harry Potter. But if you’re someone who does, I could remind you how platform 9¾ works. You can’t see it. You just see platform 9 and 10. But walk straight into the wall between platforms 9 and 10 and through you go. (Don’t try it, the next time you’re at King’s Cross. It doesn’t work.)
Stage 1: People choose not to listen. Stage 2: Parables filter the people who hear them.
Stage 3: Jesus deliberately chooses this method of teaching because it filters. It suits people’s hard hearts.
They key here is the starts of verse 13, and the words “this is why”.
Verse 10: “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
Verse 11: “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.”
Then comes verse 13: “This is why I speak to them in parables: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”
Not everyone wants to listen to what I have to say. This is why I speak to them in parables. I use parables because they have this filtering effect. It allows those who want to tune out to do so. Or, more accurately, it allows to those who don’t wish to tune in to stay on the outside.
Jesus deliberately chooses this method of teaching because it filters. It suits people’s hard hearts.
And then stage 4: It is also true to say that Jesus hardens people’s hearts.
This is the bit we don’t like, but it’s quite clear in what he says here. Follow the logic of what he says, and we see in what sense Jesus hardens people’s hearts.
People harden their own hearts. They close their own eyes. So Jesus deliberately chooses a method of teaching that will allow people to do just that. He deliberately chooses a method of teaching that will confirm someone in their spiritual blindness, their deafness, their hard-heartedness. Jesus is saying: “If you want to turn a blind eye to what I’m saying, then I’m not going to stop you. In fact I will teach in such a way as to make sure you don’t understand what I’m saying. I’ll make sure you miss the point, if that’s what you want to do.”
In summary Jesus teaches in parables because some people choose to put their fingers in their ears, and if you do that Jesus is not going to pull your fingers out.
We won’t look at it now, but this comes across even more clearly if you look at Isaiah chapter 6, the passage Jesus is quoting. It’s slightly different from the version Jesus quotes. In Isaiah, the Old Testament prophet is commissioned for his ministry. He is told to go and close people’s eyes, to stop up their ears, and to harden their hearts. Their hard hearts were not just their own doing. It was something God was doing, through Isaiah’s teaching ministry.
Or look at the story of the Exodus, when God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. God showed that he’s boss by a series of 9 devastating signs that we call the plagues of Egypt. He did that because Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, was incredibly stubborn. He would not let the people go, even though his land was being ruined. The writer of Exodus describes what was going on in two ways. In some places, it says that Pharaoh hardened his heart. In other places it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to gain glory for himself.
The people of Jesus’ day closed their eyes and ears to Jesus. Jesus deliberately chose a way of teaching that allowed them to do this. And in so doing, we may say that Jesus himself closed their hearts from hearing him.
April 2nd, 1801, was the Battle of Copenhagen. A British naval fleet attacked a Danish fleet anchored just off Copenhagen. We won. But we nearly didn’t. Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson was leading the attack, but Sir Hyde Parker was in command. He couldn’t see the battle clearly because of the smoke, but guessed Nelson might be in trouble but too loyal to retreat. So he signalled the order to retreat. Nelson knew it would be a disaster. A retreat would take them back across the line of Danish fire, whereas he knew they could win.
Nelson was blind in one eye. He spoke some of his most famous words to his flag captain, a man called “Thomas Foley”. “You know, Foley, I only have one eye – I have the right to be blind sometimes.” He then held up his telescope to his blind eye and said, “I really did not see the signal.” Nelson won by disobeying orders; he got away with it, so he came back a hero.
And so the phrase “to turn a blind eye” entered the English language. It’s what people do to Jesus. In his own day, they’d go and hear Jesus speak. In our day they come to a church like this where the good news of Jesus is announced week after week. And they say, “I have the right to be blind sometimes.” And they hold their telescopes to their blind eye, and say “I really did not see the good news of Jesus.”
If someone wants to do that, Jesus will not stop them. The reverse, in fact. He chose a method of teaching, quite deliberately, that lets people turn a blind eye. If they want to walk away from him unchanged, then Jesus wants them to walk away.
This is why Jesus taught in parables. And it starts to explain why not everyone follows Jesus. Partly, they don’t want to. They choose not to listen. And partly Jesus chooses to hide himself from people who don’t want to listen.
All of which has many things to say to us today, but let me draw out three.
Firstly, be careful about putting your fingers in your ears.
Jesus says here that if we refuse to listen when he’s speaking to us, we’ll find he becomes harder and harder to hear.
Put it another way, if you acquire the habit of putting your fingers in your ears when Jesus is speaking, it gets easier and easier to do. You may find that one day you cannot take your fingers out. You’ve shoved them in so far that they’re stuck. You could reach the point where you’re so good at refusing Jesus that you can’t take your fingers out even if you want to. You can no longer hear enough even to know that he’s trying to get through to you.
There’s a story told about a wise old man and a young boy. The man pointed the boy to a blade of grass. He asked him to pull it out. He did so, with ease. Then he pointed to a small sapling. The boy had to pull harder, but out it came. Then he pointed to a full-grown tree. “I can’t pull that out,” said the boy, “I’m not strong enough.”
“Deal with your habits,” explained the man. When they’re just beginning to take root, you can pull them out. Once they’ve taken hold and grown, you won’t be strong enough.
If you’re in the habit of refusing to listen to Jesus, start to pay attention as a matter of urgency. Keep on saying no, you’ll get so good at saying “no” that you can’t uproot the habit.
This applies to those who are not yet following Jesus. Maybe you’ve still got questions to ask. Then ask them. Maybe you need to investigate further. Then investigate. But don’t switch off, or send him away. Do that often enough, and you’ll wake up one day and find it’s the only response you can make.
But it’s a warning to Christians, too. How easily we switch off, close our eyes, harden our hearts. We measure everything we hear by what we already think Jesus must be like. And if it doesn’t fit, we reject what we’re hearing. We close our ears.
We’ve ruled out any possibility that God might ever disagree with us.
Which brings me to the second message for us today. Live out what you’ve already received. Live out what you’ve already received.
It’s what Jesus says in verse 12: “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”
As we hear Jesus speak, we need to take on board what he’s saying to us. Take it on board, live it out. Do that, and he’ll give us more, show us more of himself. Lead us on.
But if we start to ignore the things he’s saying, we’ll find that even the things we did know become less clear.
We have a phrase in English: “Nothing succeeds like success.” It comes from the world of business. There’s nothing to make a venture succeed like already succeeding. Success snowballs. It’s true in the spiritual realm as well. If we want to grow in our knowledge of God and his purposes, we need to live in the light of what we’ve already received.
I look at people I know who have moved away from the Christian faith, no longer believe the things they used to believe. It almost always started with something moral. Jesus Christ was making some demand of the way they should live their life, and they didn’t want to live the way he was asking them to. So they backed off. Chose not to live out what they knew. And then a few years later, other far more foundational convictions had evaporated. Even what they had was taken from them.
Live out what you’ve already received.
And then the third take-home message for us: Keep on speaking about Jesus.
As you tell your friends about Jesus, it’s frustrating when they can’t see what you see. You can see that Jesus is the best news the world has ever heard. They don’t see it.
It’s frustrating. It’s discouraging, and easily we give up talking to others about Jesus.
Don’t give up. Matthew has much more wisdom for us in chapter 13 to help with this, but already he’s started to explain things.
Keep sharing the good news. There will always be people who don’t want to listen. Doesn’t make the news any less wonderful.
And we aren’t responsible for how people respond to the good news. Jesus didn’t make people take their fingers out of their ears. And neither can you. But he also didn’t stop telling people the good news. It was always there for them to hear, if they would pay attention.
We can’t control how others respond to the good news of Jesus.
But he really is the best news the world has ever heard. And we are responsible for how we respond. Push him away, you might find he gets harder to hear the next time he speaks.
Jesus ends the parable of the sower with these words: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”