A Slender Reed


 Yesterday, I was working outside while listening to a sermon on my Walkman. Who says men can’t multitask? The speaker was enthusiastic, so much so that I had to turn the volume down twice. The congregation were urging him on with "Yaymen!" and "Preach it, brother, preach it!" Nothing wrong with that!

What fascinated me was the way he handled his text, our Lord’s words to the crowds concerning John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?" (Matthew 11.7) He described the reed, and the ways in which this plant can be put to use: as an arrow, a pen, a sword, a musical instrument, or as material for building. For each of these uses he found an application in the life, work and worship of the believer. It was wonderful, all the ways in which we could be used, if we were like this plant that flourishes by the banks of the River Jordan!

Had I been misled by my grandmother? My father was strong and steady in temperament, a man you could rely on. His brother was not so. My grandmother would shake her head, saying: "Our Bob - he’s a slender reed!" I didn’t want to be like that, even as a young boy.

When we look at the context, it seems clear that the answer to Christ’s question is no, John the Baptist did not resemble a reed. The answer to His second question is similar. "What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing?" No, of course not! "John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey." (Matthew 3.4) It’s only when we get to the third question that the answer is in the affirmative. "What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes. I tell you, and more than a prophet." (Matthew 11.9)

Dr Sproul puts it succinctly: "Jesus praises John as the greatest of men, cast in the mold of the prophets of Israel and unmoved by expediency or luxury." (My italics.)

Several years ago, I was sitting in a meeting as an observer. The subject under discussion was the conduct of a man who was absent on that occasion. Facts gave way to fiction, fingers were pointed, faces contorted: they were having a fine old time. I wasn’t very interested. I’d heard it all before.

I was watching the man a few seats away from me. He said nothing, but he followed the arguments with interest. His head turned this way and that. His eyes were bright and his prominent nose was twitching like that of a hound sniffing the air for the scent of the quarry.

He only joined in at the end, when it was quite clear that the absentee was going to get it in the neck if he ever showed his face in that gathering again.

The man was an utter reprobate, he insisted. He must be summoned to appear before them all, at which time he would be given a fair trial and a fair hanging; in fact, hanging was too good for the likes of him - and so on.

Afterwards, I went and sat next to him. "Why did you say that? You’ve always told me he was a good man, one of your best friends. You’ve known him for years."

"Well, yes, he is my friend, but…well, he ought to have been here to answer the questions that people wanted to put to him."

"But you condemned him outright, without hearing what he had to say."

"Well, I mean, well, er, obviously, if he had nothing to hide, I mean, he’d have, er, but clearly..."

There was only one thing that was clear to me. The real reprobate was the one sitting next to me, the one who’d sold his former friend down the river when he saw which way the majority were going to go, so that he could position himself to his own best advantage: a slender reed who would bend whichever way the wind blew. 

"And what kind of meeting was it," you may be wondering, "where such things went on? Who were these people? County councillors? Trade unionists? A social club’s committee? Businessmen in the boardroom? Politicians in the aftermath of an election?"

No, come on - you’re ahead of me, aren’t you? You knew all along what it was: the congregational meeting of a local church, of course!

I think it’s time to turn over the page, to Matthew 12, 18-21. Here’s another reference to a reed - but in an entirely different context. "… and in His name, the Gentiles will hope."

Yes, we do.