#34: Crowds are Crumbly

Matthew 8:18-22

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’

Manchester United or Macclesfield – the biggest teams have the biggest crowd. The slickest boy bands, the greatest painters and the best churches, they all have the biggest crowds, don’t they?

Vicars, preachers, evangelists. We are a bit like politicians in that we love crowds. Crowds of people listening to us, responding to us and following our lead. I used to think that Jesus was the ultimate crowd puller and worker. I think the idea grew out of all those picture bible illustrations and was tattooed into my inner psyche by my own relative failure to build and convert such crowds. Crowds speak to us of success; they massage our ego and establish our sense of importance in the religious pecking order.

How strange then that in the Jesus story crowds are often described quite negatively, seen as being shallow, lacking commitment and easily swayed. Small groups of highly motivated and wanting to learn disciples seem to be what Jesus is really all about if his Kingdom is to be established on Earth.

Straight after the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 8: 1, we see great crowds ‘following’ Jesus. Are they following him wherever he goes, learning from him, adopting his teachings etc.? Or are they following him like children chasing after the ice-cream van? In the gospels there are nine big crowd scenes, the people are drawn, Jesus leads, everyone is happy, but in each case the crowd seem to fade away, like the audience after a great concert.

In Matthew 8: 20 Jesus seemed to be looking for a deeply committed, long-term following which involved putting him first.

In contrast to ‘rent-a-crowd grand events’, some of the best stories of Jesus’ impact are about him meeting individuals such as a Roman Centurion (Matt. 8: 5), a possessed demoniac (8: 28) and a tax collector (Matt 9: 9).

Individuals start out as part of a crowd, but at some point they step out of the crowd and make their own personal journey to Jesus. The crowd is like a black hole pulling us in with its, ‘think, talk and act like everyone else’ gravity field.

L S Lowry is one of England’s greatest and certainly the most well-known painter of crowds with his pale-faced match stick men and women. What is often unnoticed about his crowds is that hardly anyone touches anyone else; they have all got their own bit of human isolation. Lowry once said, ‘all of my people are lonely people.’ The perfect way to look at his paintings is whilst listening to ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. The iconic Beatles album came out of the same place as Lowry’s paintings.

Warm intimacy, deep trust, love and acceptance, these are the gifts of Jesus, but you have to step out of the crowd and come to him if you want to discover this treasure. Crowds look strong, powerful, impressive and world-changing. But what really changes the world is not a lot of people with a bit of God inside them but a handful of people with a lot of God in their hearts.

Jesus is looking for people to step out of the crowd, to step out of their comfortable nest or burrow and out from all the ordinary people. Crowds come and go, one minute they are leaping, the next they are leaving. One minute this is the place, he is the one, this is the time and the next day they have found another place, a new celebrity and a better time. But individuals who are willing to step out of the crowd make their own difficult choices, who are swayed not so much by the masses but more by the man, these are the real world-changers. These are the followers of Jesus.

I don’t suppose Genesis had Jesus in mind when they wrote this song, but it’s great music and it works for me.

Stay with me,
My love I hope you’ll always be.
Right here by my side if ever I need you,
Oh my love.

In your arms,
I feel so safe and so secure.
Everyday is such a perfect day to spend,
Alone with you.

I will follow you, will you follow me,
All the days and nights that we know will be.
I will stay with you, will you stay with me,
Just one single tear in each passing year.

Lord Jesus,
Help me to step out of the crowd of life,
To become a follower of the way, the truth, and the life,
And a deeply committed part of your band of disciples.