Matthew12v20: THE BRUISED REED AND SMOKING FLAX

(A) Introduction

Matthew quotes Isaiah42v1to4 to amplify the nature of Jesus' ministry which he has just described more prosaically by these words: Many followed him, and he healed all their sick, warning them not to tell who he was. Mt12v15and16. I am going to look at just one aspect of Christ's policy foretold by the prophet in these lovely words: A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. Mt12v20.

I have just finished reading the fascinating biography of William and Catherine Booth by Roy Hattersley. Unlike many biographies of famous Christians this one deals with the failings of William and Catherine as well as their virtues. I will use material from Hattersley's book to illustrate this exposition on one of my very favourite texts in the Bible.

(B) The bruised reed he will not break.

A dried reed was a bit like our garden cane. The most common use to which it was put was as a measuring stick. The word 'canon' used to describe the books of the Bible that have been accepted as inspired by God is derived from the Greek for reed - 'kanna.' The canon of sacred Scripture consists of those writings that 'measure up.' They have been brought to the kanna, the measuring stick of experience, and not found wanting.

(1) Some reeds are damaged by nature.
Reeds can be damaged by strong winds or hail. We can imagine the maker of measuring sticks going through a bundle of reeds and taking out all the damaged ones, breaking them up and throwing them on a heap for burning. Only the best will do for the manufacturer.

There is something very sad about unwanted things - the tatty items left after a jumble sale, the broken toys in the attic and severely handicapped, abandoned children whom no-one wants to adopt.

Nobody is unwanted by Jesus. He realises that the very best of us is flawed in one way or another. The disciples that he chose were very far from perfect. Their weaknesses are evident in the gospel narrative. Peter wanted to impress and be well thought of, James and John, the sons of thunder, were fiery, over zealous and uncompromising and Thomas was too pessimistic for his own good. Jesus said: "Whoever comes to me I will never drive away." Jn6v37. This is a precious promise for all those conscious of their imperfections.

(2) Some reeds are damaged by ill use.
I have seen little boys have sword fights with garden canes. It does them no good - neither boys nor canes! I expect there were young rascals who did the same with dried reeds. If an ox accidentally trampled on a bundle of reeds it would bruise many of them.

There are many damaged folk in the world. My brother, Paul, has one in his church - a West Indian with mental problems. He was brought to this country by his father and abandoned. Rejected by his natural family Tommy is insecure and attention seeking - a difficult Christian to work with. He is a bruised reed but Jesus has not rejected him. Jack, who attended our church, had a dreadful upbringing. He was the illegitimate son of a nasty, brutal chimney sweep. The first Christmas dinner Jack remembered was bread and butter with boiled swede. Jack was ostracised as a boy and remained for the rest of his life an outsider with a chip on his shoulder. He was a very difficult Christian for any fellowship to manage. Yet, Jack, a dreadfully bruised reed, was not cast aside by Jesus.

Unfortunately some Christians get damaged within the church. Young John Mark must have been bruised by his own failure and then the unwillingness of Paul to forgive him. There is a lady in my church who came to us after heavy discipleship from an authoritarian pastor. It affected her badly - to the extent that she has been unwilling to come into membership with us. When the leadership in a fellowship fails to recognise the gifts of other members this impairs the usefulness and development of those members. Thankfully, Jesus is able to use for his purpose even those like Mark whom the church has bruised.

(3) Some reeds get bruised and damaged by frequent use as measuring sticks.
Eventually a useful tool will wear out. Jesus does not discard those who are broken in his service.

I use damaged things - a hockey stick held together with sticky tape, a battered trilby hat to keep wicket in and old, much used books that are falling apart. After you have used an item for a long time, and it has served you well, you grow attached to it. This is also true in human terms. A benevolent employer may keep a tried and trusted employee out of sentiment long after he or she has ceased to be truly useful. A fine preacher and holy man came to speak at our chapel year after year. I kept inviting him, long after his powers failed, in recognition of past blessings.

Jesus gets attached to those who have served him faithfully and well through the years. He won't abandon us when our powers wane. Instead he will be like the elderly builder with a favourite but bruised measuring stick; he will show patience and use us gently. Many a frail, old saint has wrought blessing in the Master's hand.

(4) It is wonderful what Jesus accomplishes with a bruised reed.
William Booth believed in the sinless perfection of the Christian. I wonder if you would have believed in his sinless perfection if you had entertained the General in his pomp. This is what one lady said of her experience. He sent detailed instructions a week before his arrival on how to prepare his meals. In making the toast, the bread should be cut tolerably thin and gradually toasted until it is dry and hard but not too crisp. On arrival William Booth virtually took over the management of the household. He demanded dinner at once and simply wolfed it, putting his knife in the salt and in his mouth. He next retired upstairs but didn't like the bedroom I had prepared as it was at the front of the house. So he took possession of the rose room .... . During the afternoon the fire must have annoyed the General in some way because he put it out by throwing water over the fire and hearth ... . Nearly all our doors had to be padded with dusters to prevent them banging and orders were sent down to shut the dog up.

Notwithstanding William Booth's belief in the sinless perfection of the saints he was a seriously bruised reed from the time of his conversion to his death. Jesus did not remove all the flaws in Booth's character but used him, the imperfect instrument that he was, to rescue thousands upon thousands from poverty, misery and sin. I love the way Hattersley finishes his biography of the Booths: Neither General nor Catherine Booth ever flinched under fire. Both died victorious. And to whom did they owe their victory?

(B) The smoking flax he will not put out.

In the days of Jesus a piece of cloth was put into animal fat or olive oil to act as the wick of a lamp. When a lamp shines the oil in the wick burns and more oil is continuously drawn up to replace it.

(1) Conditions under which a wick smokes.
(a) A wick might smoke because it is defective. In my experience some wicks are smokier than others.

There are many defects in Christians that make them like smouldering wicks. We have weaknesses of temperament, disposition and character that impair the flow of oil and make the wick smoke. Some of us are bombastic, some nervous, a tiresome few touchy and resentful, others are cussed or garrulous or insensitive. The list is endless. So our lamps may not shine as brightly as they should.

(b) I seem to remember from my boyhood when we used oil lamps in the depths of rural Suffolk that the wick smoked in windy conditions. A strong draught made the lamp flicker and the wick splutter and smoulder.

Conditions are not always propitious for the unhindered display of Christian virtue. Roy Hattersley writes of William Booth: The church of England denounced him. The Wesleyans ostracised him. The Establishment derided him. The brewers and publicans assaulted him. These were bitter winds and it is little wonder that he was arrogant and dictatorial and that his lamp smoked from time to time. But he never flinched from his vocation. His physical courage was immense and his moral courage even greater. General Booth's whole life was a triumph for certainty. I think I would say that his life was a triumph of faith.

(c) The most common reason for a smoky wick is that the fuel supply has run out. This is what happened with our paraffin stove. If my father forgot to turn it out before going to bed by next morning the wick was ruined and the house full of smuts.

There are times when we haven't much oil in our lamp. Perhaps we have neglected prayer, Bible reading and Sunday worship and our spiritual life begins to suffer. There are times, too, of disappointment and discouragement when our light glows very dim and the wick, smoulders. We can become self-absorbed and discontented and then there are few signs of joy and peace illuminating our lives.

(d) After much use the wick gets tired and doesn't draw up the oil like once it did and begins to smoke.

There is a real problem of getting tired in the work. My sister in law, Ruth, tells her husband that after 31 years as the pastor of the same inner London church he is getting tired in the work. The folk who attend my church often tell me: "We need a pastor." That may be so but it is equally true that my church needs a new secretary. I have been doing the job for the last 16 years and it is time for a change. But there is no one to take on the task.

It is a comfort to know that Jesus does not snuff out the smouldering wick. So long as we give a little light Jesus can still use us.

(2) The problem with a smouldering wick.
(a) A smoking wick is ineffective - it does not produce the light it should. A lot of Christians probably think they are ineffectual. I do not seem to have made much difference to the lives that I have touched.

(b) Worse - a smouldering wick is offensive. The smoke it produces gets into the eyes and throat which is both irritating and annoying.

There are plenty of irritating Christians about. I can remember working with one at a Pioneer Camp. He was never wrong. This is a very annoying trait. I can remember standing with him on a campsite on the Suffolk coast arguing about which direction was west. Percy kept pointing towards the North Sea and saying, "That's west John, I know it is." One evening he fell into a ditch and swore blind that it wasn't there in the afternoon. Jack was another annoying Christian. If we were having a discussion in my car on the way to church he would often yell: "When Christ establishes his Kingdom here one earth I'll be the teacher and John Reed will be my pupil." Well, that's something to look forward to!

In the 19th century the early Salvation Army workers offended many respectable Christians because they were uneducated, vulgar and 'in your face'. Anglican Bishops were horrified by the Hallelujah lasses with their banjos, concertinas and tambourines singing such songs as:

          Elijah was a jolly old man
          And was carried up to heaven in a fiery van.
Staid Calivinists disapproved of Happy Eliza who was sent to liven up a flagging Nottingham campaign and marched through the town with streamers flying from her hair singing:

          Shout aloud Salvation, boys, we'll have another song
          Sing it out with spirit that will move the world along
          Sing it as our father's sang it many millions strong
          As they went marching to glory.

(3) Jesus doesn't put out the smoking wick.
In this respect Jesus is unlike many in senior management. They will try to get rid of difficult and troublesome staff. I know a teacher who although good with the children was abrupt, brusque, touchy and vehement. For years he worked with a headmaster who got the best out of him - who trimmed his wick! A trendy headmistress succeeded that headmaster who had no patience with her difficult colleague and did her best to get shot of him. So a teacher who did much for his pupils took early retirement at 50.

Jesus is also unlike many in the church - including me! Eventually I had an altercation with old Jack of whom I wrote above. What a smoking wick he was! Jack left our church. He no longer phoned me up to ask for a lift to chapel. And I was relieved. He needed his wick trimmed and I didn't want to do it. So I left him to stew in his own juice. He died before we were reconciled.

Jesus does not quench the smoking flax because:

(a) A smouldering wick may give a little light in a hostile environment. It can be used by Jesus to light other lamps. This is what the journalist W.T. Stead wrote about the Hallelujah lasses:

Ridicule as we may the doggerel hymns, the incoherent prayers, the wild harangues, the violent gesticulations and all the rude sensations of a country fair imported into public worship, the fact remains that the Salvation Army has saved for the time being, numbers of the very lowest of the community from vice and crime. The testimony of the police and of the magistrates in Gateshead is conclusive as to the gentleness of their work.

Poor old Percy, the camp worker, who was so irritating his wife left him was none the less used of God. He kept in touch by letter with all those who were converted at our camps and there is no doubt that this was a means of blessing to many young believers from non-Christian backgrounds.

A well-known pastor would sometimes take services at our church. He was a man who 'beat his own drum'. In other words the rather bumptious pastor was boastful. This really annoyed my mother and father. They always criticised his ministry! But the fact is he was used of God to save many.

(b) A spluttering wick can be made to burn more brightly. Sometimes all that is necessary is for the oil in the lamp to be replenished. Many Christians have dry spells. This was true of William Booth who had prolonged periods of ill health or imagined ill health. But again and again he would return to the battle with his lamp ablaze.

On other occasions all that Jesus needs to do is trim the wick. He may trim our wick through a variety of means - a set back, a word of advice, encouragement or appreciation, a passage of Scripture providentially given, a kind gift ..... . There have been times of discouragement when Dorothy has left a jam sponge on my doorstep! Jesus can even use a jam sponge to trim our wick.

(D) Concluding lessons.

(1) We need to have realistic expectations of other Christians. Every single one of us is a bruised reed in one way or another. Christians are in the church because Jesus accepts sinful men.

          Sing it o'er and o'er again:
          Christ receiveth sinful me;
          Make the message clear and plain:
          Christ receiveth sinful men.

(2) We should be like Jesus and try to get the best out of our fellow Christians. We can rarely do this by being censorious, demanding, disapproving, judgmental or brutal. We are more likely to trim a fellow Christian's wick by being patient, gentle, encouraging, appreciative, understanding, trusting and positive.

Christians should never forget the words of Paul: Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Col3v13.

(3) We must be tolerant of the weaknesses that irritate and annoy us. Sometimes our irritation is out of all proportion to the offence. Whenever I am with my brother, Paul, he fiddles. He has been fiddling for over 60 years! If he has a pencil in his hand he will tap it incessantly. This really gets on my nerves! But his misconduct is a trifling matter.

We must not reject Christians who talk too much, are blunt, pessimistic, look miserable, are obsessed with their health, blow hot and cold, are all things to all men, have no dress sense and so I could go on. These things are of very little consequence to Jesus. What matters to him is whether a man or woman is willing to be used. Think what a bruised reed like William Booth achieved by the grace of God and mercy of Jesus. He started out as a pawnbroker's clerk in Nottingham but founded a Christian mission that swept through the world and in the 21st century is the one voluntary organisation which the federal government of the United States regularly makes responsible for disaster relief.

(4) I am thankful that Jesus makes use of, and works with, the bruised reed. In Daniel 1 we read of the qualities King Nebuchadnezzar looked for in those that were to enter the king's service. They had to be: Israelites from the royal family and the nobility - young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand and qualified to serve in the king's palace. Dan1v3and4. If Jesus only accepted into his service those with such qualities there would be no place for me. I would be among the discarded toys in the attic. But Jesus accepts and works with and through the weak, the worthless and the offensive - and that includes me. I am in debt to the organiser of the Great Banquet who ordered his servant: "Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame." Lk14v21.

          Make me a channel of Your peace.
          Where there is hatred let me bring Your love;
          Where there is injury, Your pardon Lord;
          And where there's doubt, true faith in You.

The vital words in that simple prayer are: 'Make me.'

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