Monday, July 30, 2012

Matthew 19

In the first century it was easy and fairly common for a man to divorce his wife. The divorced woman had few, if any career options. Women were not allowed to own property and they were forbidden pretty much any and all career opportunities. Her best option would be to find another family member to take her in, at least then she would have room and board. Many divorced women fell into to destitution or turned to prostitution to survive. Jesus teaching on divorce (19:1-12) is a shift from this casual and unjust treatment of women in the first century society. Biblically there are legitimate grounds for divorce: adultery and abandonment. Divorce, spiritually, is the rending of a joined soul (two become one). Divorce should only be practiced when it is necessary to prevent a greater evil (continued abuse, abandonment, breach of marriage vows, etc.).

The story of the Rich Young Man reflects Jesus central teaching on wealth and possessions. The point Jesus makes is not that the rich young man controls a lot of stuff, the point is the rich young man's stuff is controlling him. I have come to realize that how much we have is not the critical question. I have known generous people who owned next to nothing. I have known generous people who owned, by the worlds standards, everything. I have known miserly rich people and I have known miserly poor people. The question is not how much you own but how much owns you. That is why, back in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says where you treasure is there you heart will be. What I value most becomes the center of my life and love. When keeping, accumulating, and protecting my material possessions becomes the primary focus of my life those possessions have become an Idol for me. This is a vital lesson for modern Americans. The primary American Idols are Money, Sex, Power and Self. (They used to call them Mammon, Venus, Aries and Narcissus.) The only cure is to learn to be generous and giving. One friend of mine once said "being generous may be the most counter cultural thing of all."

The Disciples of Jesus are astounded. In the first century (and, for many, our own as well) it was believed that money and possessions were a sign of God's favor. This is why the disciples ask Jesus "who can be saved?" They are asking: if those who reflect the favor of God (by owning a lot of stuff) are going to have a hard time entering the Kingdom . . . what hope is there for the rest of us?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Mathew 18

Often when we read the English translation of the New Testament we encounter conceptual difficulties. One great example of this is verse 9: "if you eye causes you to stumble . . .pluck it out . . . better to enter life with one eye than to have two and be thrown into the hell of fire." When I think of the word "hell" the concept I think of, probably rooted in middle ages literature, is a place of eternal torment with brimstone, fire, the devil, etc. The Greek word that gets translated "hell" here is the word "Gehenna". Gehenna is one of the valleys leading out from Jerusalem. It has a rather nasty history. It was, at one time, the place where Moloch worship was practiced -- the worshipers would offer their children to the sacrificial flames. Probably because of this practice in later years, and by the time of Jesus, the Hinnon valley was the city garbage dump where all manner of refuse and trash was thrown and burned. The fires in the valley never went out. The image changes how we read the passage. Jesus is not talking about eternal punishment as much as he is saying we are not worth being thrown onto the garbage heap of history.

The parable of the unforgiving servant -- this Sunday's (July 29th) message at Christ Church. Is a study in extreme hyperbole. Jesus tells this story to make one very clear point. The first servant owes 10,000 talents. A talent was 15 years wages for a common laborer (assume minimum wage in modern time - $7.25/hour x 40 hours a week =  $290 a week or $15,080 a year x 15 years = $226,200 per talent). The amount owed is ridiculous and ludicrous by any eras standard -- it is an unthinkable sum by my math 10,000 talents in modern terms comes to $22,620,000,000 (starting to sound like the national debt). The second servant owes the first servant 100 denarius -- a denarius was a days wage for the common laborer so, again using minimum wage as the standard, about $5800 modern dollars. This is not a small amount of money (at least not small to me) but when compared to 22 billion is pathetically tiny.

The point of the story is that the cost of the payment of our debt to God is beyond our wildest calculations and our ability to pay (the cost of our payment is the life of the Son of God). It is a debt so enormous that it is beyond our ability to ever be able to pay -- we are lost, profoundly lost and only by the grace of God will it ever be paid. The good news is that the Kingdom of the Heavens has arrived! The debt is cancelled and paid in full (FORGIVEN). Having been forgiven what we could never forgive for ourselves -- having a debt paid that we had no hope of paying ourselves -- we ought to extend that same grace and mercy to each other. This is a central theme of Jesus ministry: you have been forgiven -- forgive! Forgive us our sins AS WE forgive those who sin against us. We are blessed to be a blessing! Someone once said "salvation only comes to us on its way to someone else: if it stoped with you it wasn't real!"

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Matthew 17

After predicting his death in Jerusalem (16:21-23) and a conversation about "taking up your cross," Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on a high mountain. Peter, James, and John are the inner circle of the Apostles. He frequently takes them aside and does extra work with them that is not afforded to the other 9 Apostles. There are conflicting theories as to where this mountain is. Some place it at Mt. Tabor above the Sea of Galilee, others place it at Mount Hermon in the north -- not too far from Caesarea Phillipi (16:13). The location is less important than the experience. On the mountain, with the inner leadership circle (Peter, James and John) watching Jesus true spiritual nature is revealed. The outside form assumes the appearance of the inside reality. Moses and Elijah represent the sum of the Old Testament -- Moses represents the Law and Elijah, considered to be the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, represents the prophets. The Hebrew bible was often referred to as "The Law and the Prophets" when referred to in its totality.

Moses and Elijah are talking with him -- the details are not given but one of the other gospels notes that they were talking with Jesus about his impending "departure" at Jerusalem -- that his Jesus impending death. Peter's response is typically human. Not knowing what he is say, he suggests that they build a somewhat permanent shrine on the spot. Peter wants to build tabernacles, tents, for the three luminous figures. Then the cloud shows up. In the Bible whenever a cloud shows up it is God and sure enough the voice of God speaks to those on the mountain. I have often thought that the voice from the cloud sounds a bit impatient, especially when it says "listen to him!" It feels like one of my school teachers looking at me and saying "Pay attention!" (because, of course, I wasn't). Peter, James and John are reminded that Jesus is who he says he is and that they should stop worrying about building booths and other temporary nonsense and listen.

Much is made of the story of Jesus curing the boy with the Demon (14-21) but it seems simple enough to me. The Christian life is a spiritual journey. We are called to go on to maturity (to grow up spiritually). It stands to reason that the spiritually immature disciples are encountering things they cannot handle. When Jesus tells them to have "faith like a grain of mustard seed" all he is saying is they should mature to a point of having a faith (however small it may seem) that is unshakable and immovable and will continue to grow.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Matthew 16

All too often in our lives we are looking for "signs from God" as to what we are supposed to do. More often than not we are so busy looking for signs, external and miraculous signs, that we miss the very presence and power of God in our very midst. Jesus chides the Pharisees because they can read the signs of the weather (red at night sailor's delight, red in morning sailors take warning) but are unable to see the most incredible sign in the history of the universe -- the very in-breaking of the the Kingdom of the heavens among us. What drags us back and holds us down is the "yeast of the Pharisees (6)." The teaching of the Pharisees is so burdened by human tradition and legalism it becomes paradigmaticly impossible to see the new move of God under our very noses.

13-20 contains the most important question of all. Someone once said that spiritually there are only three important questions. The first is the one addressed here: who is Jesus? In order to live this life and to be faithful Christ followers a clear and grounded answer to this question is essential. There are many answers that are given. In Jesus time some said he was Elijah (according to the prophet Malachi, Elijah was supposed to return and then the Messiah would come); others said he was John the Baptist raised from the dead (King Herod in chapter 14 made this argument); others suggested Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. In our world today there are multiple answers to this question. Some say Jesus was a legend (never really existed) others say he was a lunatic (crazy teaching) others that he was a "good moral teacher" and still others that he was a misunderstood Rabbi. The answer that Peter gives is the answer of the faithful. Peter says "You are the Messiah (the Christ) the Son of the living God!(16)" 

Three questions that matter but the first one determines all else. Who is Jesus? The answer to the other two questions: What is Salvation? and What are the implications for living? are determined by how we answer the first question. If I know Jesus as Lord and Savior . . . salvation answers itself and the implications for living become clear as well.

Finally, Jesus says to take up your cross and follow me. What will it matter if you gain the whole world and lose your soul? What difference will it make if I have all that life says I should have and realize that the one thing that was most important -- eternally important -- is the one thing I have lost. When I give my life away in service to Christ and the world he loved . . . I gain life that is life indeed. One friend of mine put it this way: remember that giving is living and living is giving and joy is the inevitable result.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Matthew 15

It is not what goes into us that defiles us it is what comes from our broken hearts. This is part of the essential theme of the Gospels. Our hearts are broken. From our damaged hearts comes all manner of selfish, self serving and prideful behavior. Human beings are in need of a "heart transplant". We need to be transformed from the inside out. All the talk about being "born again" or being "saved" only scratches the surface of what Jesus was actually about. Christ followers are being remade from the inside out. We don't wait for eternity to be made into new people . . . we begin the journey now.

The Kingdom of the heavens is not about food and drink and what we do or what we don't do. It is about servants becoming sons and daughters. It is about the restoration of the image and likeness of God in every human being. Looking at other stories and teachings in the Gospel we can see that "what proceeds from the heart" is a the same teaching as the good tree bringing good fruit. The Gospel is not giving us a new rule book -- rather the Gospel is showing what the evidence of a heart transplanted Christ follower. The transformation of a human into sons and daughters of God is a life long process that requires us to get close to the one we are to become like.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Matthew 14

The feeding of the 5000 (13-21) is the only miracle of Jesus recorded in all four gospels. Some have speculated that he popularity of the story may have to do with the image of taking bread, breaking it and giving it out -- an action that looks and feels like Communion -- is the reason it was remembered. Others have made other suggestions. The really fun thing to do is to place the four stories side by side and look at them. What the reader will see are the kind of variations that eye witness accounts would likely have. The central story -- Jesus turned 5 barley loaves and two little fish into an enough food to feed a multitude -- is the same. But the colors, the dialogue and even some of the sequencing of the story vary slightly from gospel to gospel.

Jesus walking on water (22-33) contains my favorite St. Peter moment in the Bible. Peter when he discovers that it is Jesus walking on the water asks Jesus to invite him out. John Ortberg's book, "If You Want To Walk On Water You Have To Get Out Of The Boat" is based on this same kind of heart felt risk taking. Peter actually steps out of the boat and begins to walk on the water -- ever wonder what that felt like, how deep does he sink? Peter walks on the water until he is overwhelmed by fear. Notice he sees the strong wind (30), becomes frightened and begins to sink. There is a powerful metaphor for the Christian journey in this passage. As long as Peter kept his eyes firmly on Jesus he could do the miraculous. The moment he allows his fears to get the best of him he begins to sink. But, see also that when he cries out to Jesus in his failure Jesus lifts him up and puts him in the boat. I want a faith like Peter that leaps before looking. I want a faith like Peter's that follows Jesus even when following Jesus seems ridiculous, impossible or just plain difficult. I want to have a level of trust and faith in Christ that I will step out of the boat and either walk toward him or know he will catch me when I go down. I do not ever want to be driven or controlled by fear.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Matthew 13

This chapter is a collection of parables. Parables are short stories or vignettes that have a central point. A parable, like a painting, should first be examined at a distance so the whole picture can be seen. Unlike the parable of the sower (13:1-9 and 18-23), most parables do not necessarily have a one to one correlation. This is the one parable that Jesus takes the time to explain to his followers (along with the wheat and the weeds later in this chapter), all of the others are left to instruct, to challenge and, ideally, to let us catch glimpses of the kingdom Jesus is ushering in. Jesus also explains, in 10-17, the purpose of speaking in parables. The point is pretty simple, Until one chooses to live a Christian life one cannot understand what Jesus was getting on about. Those who come to know and follow Jesus have an experiential understanding of kingdom life.

The parable of the wheat and the weeds, the mustard seed, a hidden treasure, a fine pearl, and the broad cast net show fundamental truths of the Kingdom of the heavens: from small beginnings (the mustard seed) come great conclusions (a tree); it is worth all we have to live into it (treasure and pearl); there is room for everyone -- but not everyone will get it.

51-53 is an echo of the wine skins illustration that Jesus uses earlier in the gospel. When the new is breaking in we tend to stick with what is comfortable and familiar.

Notice in 54 that Jesus brothers are named James, Joseph and Simon and Judas. These, by all appearances, are Mary and Joseph's younger children (Jesus being the first born). James and Jude are identified as leaders in the early Christian movement. This is the James who is referred to as "the Lord's half brother" and is presiding at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and is generally believed to be the author of the Epistle of James. In 1 Corinthians 15 we learn that James was accorded a special post resurrection from Jesus. Judas (Jude) is generally believed to be the author of the Epistle of Jude. Following Jesus death and resurrection his brothers and his mother become an integral part of the early Christian movement.

Some denominations argue that the word for brothers can also mean cousin and that these are simply kin folks of Jesus'. Those that argue this usually have a theological presupposition of the perpetual virginity of Mary. Since she was always a virgin, they argue, she and Joseph could not have produced children. It is an excellent example of a theological idea requiring a reinterpretation of the biblical text. Given life in the 1st century, there is little to suggest that Mary and Joseph would not settle down to a fairly normal life and that part of that life would be the conception and raising of other children. In some ways this humanizes the "holy" family and makes them more accessible to our life and understanding.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Matthew 12

I'll be preaching on the first 14 verses of chapter 12 this Sunday at Christ Church. We know from the life of Jesus that Faith is born of relationship and not through trying to keep an endless list of rules and regulations. Our relationship with God through Jesus Christ is the heart and soul of a vital and vibrant faith. Unfortunately, probably because vital faith can feel nebulous to many of us -- what are the bench marks, what are the metrics, how do I know how I'm doing -- it is easy for us to fall back into the legalistic approaches of the Pharisees. The Pharisees are not bad people they just can't seem to get past the form of their religion to actually live in relationship with God. This form of religion is wrapped up in a long set of rules:

Because the commandment said: Keep the Sabbath Day holy, on it you shall not work, the religious teachers felt it necessary to define what "work" was. In their conclusion if you were a teacher, teaching would be work; if a farmer then farming; and if a healer than healing for you would be work and therefore forbidden on the Sabbath. This is why they Pharisees are so upset with Jesus in 9-14 -- Jesus won't play by their narrow rules.

Jesus returns to the core theme of a vibrant faith in verse 33 -- a good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bears bad fruit. We do what it is inside of us to do. If our hearts are not being transformed (daily) than all that we do is likely to be proceeding from mixed motivation or envy or pride or . . . The point of the Gospel is that we are changed from the inside out. I had an east Indian friend of mine once say "the outside reflects the inside." I think on one significant level he is correct. Who I am (or, at least, who I am becoming) will be revealed in how I live my life. It will be seen in my values, my decisions, what I choose to do and what I choose to avoid and what I choose to confront and what I choose to encourage. If I am not being made into the image and likeness of the Son of God . . . then I will live out my stale broken humanity in every aspect of life.

Notice that no amount of legalistic encouragement can make this work. I can keep all the laws and still be filled with Pride, Anger, Lust, Envy and all the rest. If the root of the tree of my life is being transformed by the grace and love of Jesus Christ I won't have to think about keeping the laws -- living within our Creator's designer's specifications will be the natural ebb and flow of my life.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Matthew 11

John the Baptist, man of the desert and prophet of God, makes his reappearance in the Gospel. John has been thrown in prison for challenging the King. The King in question, who was Jewish, had taken his brother's wife and married her. Under Jewish law this would be forbidden, even if she had been divorced. John is thrown in prison. I find it difficult to imagine what it must have been like for the man of the desert (John) to have to live in a hole (in the dungeon) without the sky overhead or the sun on his face. From prison, John hears of Jesus ministry and sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask the critical question: "are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" The problem, of course, is that John has already identified Jesus as the "Lamb of God" who takes away the sins of the world. John has already borne witness to the Holy Spirit and the voice of God. Why does he ask the question? Some speculate that he is just being sure and wants Jesus to remember him. Others speculate that the man of the desert is having a down time and is looking for assurance. Still others speculate that the purpose of the question is so that his (John's) disciples will move on and become followers of Jesus now.

Jesus response is not to explain it to the disciples. Jesus response is: go and tell John what you see and hear and then demonstrates a litany of things: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor hear the good news! A cursory study of the Hebrew scriptures reveals that these are all happenings that are attributed to the time of the arrival of the Messiah. Jesus is essentially saying to John -- "Yes I am the one, no need to look further."

The cities mentioned in the sequence of woes (20-24) no longer exist. Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum are all archeological sites today and, other than passers through are no longer vital cities or communities.

The chapter ends with the famous: come to me all you who are weary and heaven burdened and I will give you rest. Jesus is speaking of their heavy religious burdens -- the burden of trying to be in perfect compliance with the law. Notice, he says take my yoke upon you and learn from me. Jesus reminds us that in him is grace and forgiveness and through that relationship is the ability for us to live free.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Matthew 10

This chapter contains extended instructions from Jesus for the Apostles (literally means "sent ones") who are about to go out on their first missionary expedition. The instructions have to do with protocol for the preacher, being aware that trouble is coming, recognizing that human authority is not the one to be concerned with, and, finally, an instruction regarding the divisiveness of the message of the gospel.

The instructions regarding the mission of the twelve emphasize the urgency of their journey. They are not to travel in comfort -- the message is so urgent they must not tarry in places but keep moving. They are to live off of whatever is offered and if a town or village does not want to receive them they are to walk away and keep moving. The importance of getting the message to all corners of the "lost sheep" of the house of Israel out weighs all other concerns.

The Apostles are reminded (16-25) that those who are vested in the current religious and political systems will reject them and will work against them. Jesus tells them to keep moving, endure the persecution for the sake of the Kingdom and to remember that Jesus himself is not treated any better than they are -- a disciple is not above his teacher, if they treat me like this they will treat you the same.

The Church of Jesus Christ falls quickly into institutional ossification. We very quickly forget to proclaim the good news of the kingdom and become employment agencies for clergy.We quickly forget that the message of Jesus Christ is for everyone and find ourselves changing the gospel to be pleasing to the ears of those with vested interests in the current system. We forget the mission and protect the organization. Periodically God sends renewal to his churches. Renewal means change and renewal is always met with distrust, resistance, and difficulty. We who are in the midst of renewal are reminded in this passage to not worry about the struggle and to remember that the one we belong to and the one who calls us in infinitely greater than the immediate struggles we might face.

The gospel is divisive (34-39) not because Jesus expects his followers to be causing fights in their families and among their friends, but because of the very nature of the Kingdom of the Heavens. When our lives are changed others look with suspicion (and perhaps envy). As our lives are further transformed our families and communities fight to bring us back to "the way things were." We are not the ones driving the wedge but the wedge is inevitable.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Matthew 9

Jesus has authority to forgive sins (9:1-8). Is one of the things pointed to as evidence of Christ's divinity. I can forgive someone who has injured me but how do I forgive an injury that someone perpetrated on someone else. Only God can forgive in that way.

Matthew's call (9-13) is an example of how the Gospel of Jesus Christ spreads in the world. Matthew is invited to follow Jesus. He is a tax collector (pretty much hated by everyone because they were considered traitors -- working with the occupying Romans to collect taxes -- and because they were notoriously dishonest). When Matthew is converted to following Jesus, he calls his friends and family together and introduces them to Jesus. The gospel travels from us to our natural affinity lines (friends, family, co workers, neighbors). Here Matthew's community are all tax collectors and "sinners". When those who consider themselves righteous see those who have lived outside the faith coming into relationship with Jesus, they usually don't like it. The feeling is kinda like "I've worked hard and earned my righteousness and these people (it is always "these people") just waltz in and are given what I earned. The problem, of course, is that our so called "earned" righteousness is empty, pointless and an illusion.

New movements of the Holy Spirit require new containers. Wine skins, in the first century, were actually animal skins. Old Wine is no longer fermenting, no longer growing. Old Wine in a dried out wine skin won't do any damage. But new wine is vibrant, alive, fermenting, expanding and the dried skin can not expand to contain it. New Wine needs a supple new wine skin that can expand through the fermentation and expansion. The metaphor is essential. Throughout history the Christian church has experienced times and moments of deep spiritual renewal and growth. One characteristic of these movements of renewal is that new forms (forms for worship, for organization, and other understandings) emerge. New Wine (a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit) needs new forms and structures. These historic movements created the monasteries, new denominations, new music, new forms of church government, etc. What will the next fresh wind of the Holy Spirit create among us?

The end of the chapter (37-38) is vital for the life of any Christian community. When the Spirit is moving and people are responding and coming to faith in Christ there is so much need that needs to be cared for a handful of people cannot hope to accomplish it all. In the Christian movement everyone is called by God to serve, everyone is gifted by the Holy Spirit to be in ministry and everyone has been sent to make a difference. Churches that are vital and growing understand this and engage their communities in mission and ministry. And they pray hard that the Lord of the Harvest would send more and more ministers (workers) into the harvest.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Matthew 8

Finishing up the Sermon on the Mount -- we move back to Jesus itinerant ministry. Jesus is still in the Galilee and, coming down from teaching, he is approached by a Leper. Leprosy was the most dreaded of illness in the 1st century. Lepers were required to leave polite society and to not come in close contact with other human beings. Lepers lived in colonies apart from "healthy people". Jesus action in verse 3 was nothing short of amazing -- Jesus reaches out and TOUCHES the leper. I remember when the AIDS epidemic was first making headlines and no one was clear or sure how it was transmitted. There was a lot of misinformation and a lot of bad information. I remember the first time I shook hands with a man I knew was infected with AIDS -- in that moment I felt within myself all of the prohibitions that must have existed in the 1st century toward leprosy. Jesus "I do choose. Be made Clean!" is a fresh beginning.

We meet a Centurion -- the Centurion was the NonCom officer of the Roman Legion. A leader of 100 men and the essential backbone of the Roman army. The Centurion knew about giving and taking orders. He knew about doing what he was told and knew to expect those under him to do what they were told. Jesus likens this to faith. You don't manufacture obedience - it just is. We do not manufacture faith it is born in us like righteous living expressed in the Sermon on the Mount -- it is born of our deepening relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ and lived out in our transformed (and being transformed) lives.

Notice that Jesus, as he teaches us to live into the near "Kingdom of the Heavens" reality does not tell people that this life is comfortable nor is it easy nor is it the road to financial prosperity. Instead he simply reminds us that it is the road to life -- and all the difficulty we have living this life and walking this road is worth it because this is the only authentic life. The only life that is life indeed (abundant?). To the would be followers (18 and following) Jesus simply saying it will be hard (and if I may paraphrase "A League of Their Own") it is the hard that makes it great!  You know it and I know it -- the things in life worth doing are the things in life that require the most of us and our deepest commitments. Marriage, changing the world and, first and foremost and most important of all -- following Jesus. If we are to live the life he called us to -- it will require all that we have and when we have done so we will realize that it was not too much to give after all.

Matthew 7

Remember the Sermon on the Mount is not a new set of laws and regulations -- it is evidence that our hearts have been (and are continuing to be) transformed by the reality of the arrival of the Kingdom of the Heavens!
     When my heart is transformed by the power and love of God through Jesus Christ, I no longer have the burden of comparing my deeds to others and my failings to others. In a word, I can surrender dismissals, put downs and looking down at others' behavior. I am free from spiritual competition and pride that requires me to drag those doing better down to my level and making sure those below me never get up to where I perceive myself to be. Nothing kills a community faster than self righteous and judgmental Christians. The Church is not a museum of Saints nor is it a gathering of the perfected. It is a hospital for sinners and we are all in the intensive care ward.
     The lessons on prayer in seven are all lessons in persistence -- keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking. I believe that in persistent prayer we should pray until either God clearly answers our prayer or God changes our prayer -- that is when God tells us that what we are praying for is not going to happen we will adjust our request out of relationship and obedience and pray for the new thing God has revealed.
    The point of chapters 5-7 is spelled out in verse 15-20. Good trees bear good fruit. Bad trees bear bad fruit. The point of the Kingdom of the Heavens is that we are being transformed by neutral or bad into good. It is an internal process and is fundamentally a matter of the heart. If my heart is right than good things proceed from my heart. If my heart is bad -- all that I touch and do will also be bad. To put it another way -- verse 24 and following -- we must not just hear what Jesus is saying we must follow through. We must apply the teaching and relationship to our day to day journey and be transformed into the Sons and Daughters God created us to be.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Matthew 6

The Sermon on the Mount is not a new "set of rules" nor is it "another way to read the law" it is a description of the evidence that our hearts are in fact being transformed by the good news that the Kingdom of the Heavens is among us. It is proof that we are good trees bearing good fruit.
   In Chapter 6 we get to "religious" activity. Prayer, worship, serving and giving either flow from our desire to justify our lives or to "earn points with God" or to avoid the wrath of a vengefully God OR they are the natural ebb and flow of a life in grace. When we turn these things into laws they simply become another dead end religious activity. When we realize that communing with God in prayer (5-11) is not a "religious" requirement but the way in which our restored relationship with God is fed and nourished we are beginning to live into Kingdom values. When we realize that giving alms is not something we do so that others will see what great people we are or out of guilt and obligation but rather is the natural response to grace that has been lavished into our lives we are beginning to live into Kingdom values. When we engage in spiritual disciplines like fasting not because we believe they earn us credits with the Almighty but rather are seen as disciplines than help us living into Kingdom values we are free of the restrictions of the law and are beginning to live into grace.
     When we are concerned about earthly treasures we will never know the freedom of eternal treasure. Because where my treasure is there my heart will be also. NOTICE: Jesus does not say what we usually say. We usually say we value what we love. Jesus says we love what we value (where the treasure is there is my heart). This is an argument against idolatry in all of its forms. Whatever has the highest value in my life owns my heart as well. Think about it: what has the first claim, the first priority, the first energy of my life. Whatever that is owns my heart and is my god. People put all kinds of good things in that central position -- their families, their jobs, their countries, their health, their homes, their education, their reputation, their ministries -- but if we put first value on anything short of God we are headed for a spiritual train wreck and have missed kingdom values -- 6:33 seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you as well. C.S. Lewis once paraphrased if I aim my life at Heaven I get earth thrown in -- if I aim my life at the things of earth I end up with neither.
     Worry is evidence our hearts are not being transformed by the power of God. The opposite of worry is trust. If I believe that God will provide and I have surrendered the need to build my own kingdom, I will be living into the values of the kingdom of the heavens. The truth is I cannot screw up my courage and force myself to trust God. The reality is that trust is borne of relationship. If I am living in right relationship with God (understanding that my forgiveness and restoration and acceptance is a done deal) I will live life in trust. Trust can not be simply given it is earned and built through relationship. Don't worry about tomorrow -- tomorrow has enough trouble all by itself -- Deal with today's stuff, today.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Matthew 5

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is one of the more misunderstood passages in the Bible. If we do not understand the context we will never understand the purpose and we will quickly turn this wonderfully liberating teaching from Jesus into another set of impotent rules and regulations.
    Here is the critical background: Jesus is not giving us a set of rules to show how good we are: Jesus is showing us the Kingdom values we are called to live by. These are not rules they are bench marks on the journey. They are not rules they are evidence of the state of the root of our spiritual tree (remember only a good tree can produce good fruit). As we are transformed by the experience of the the Kingdom of the heavens being among us, as our hearts are changed and our values restructured by the power of the Holy Spirit, these new values will begin to emerge in our lives.
    It begins with the beatitudes: these are not manufactured emotions or behaviors -- they are emerging attitudes that begin to form in the lives of Christ followers. The poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted discover their blessedness in discovering their inclusion in the Kingdom as it is emerging. The Kingdom of the heavens leaves no one out -- not the poor (nor the rich) not the sad (nor the happy) not the meek (nor the aggressive) not the hungry (or the filled) not the merciful (nor the angry) not the pure (nor the soiled) not the peacemakers (nor the warmongers) not the persecuted (nor the comfortably mainstreamed). In the kingdom of the heavens (the Kingdom of God) we are salt, we are light, and we begin to do what was impossible -- rise above the law and live into these new values.
   Because our hearts have been changed (we are no longer trying to earn favor with God but have surrendered our hearts and lives by following Jesus!) we surrender all of the elements of human brokenness. We no longer live in the negative. Consider the evidence of a good person under the law was that we didn't do something -- we didn't kill, commit adultery, etc. Under the kingdom values we are able to surrender Anger and Dismissals, we are able to surrender lust and revenge and in so doing not only avoid murder and adultery but live into the kind of abundant life Jesus came to provide.
    When I read Matthew 5-7 as "just another set of rules" I will find myself continuing to live out the same "its impossible so I might as well fake it or reject it" scenario that "religious" people have been locked into since the foundation of the world.
     None of this matters and none of it is possible until I surrender my desire to justify myself and my actions. When I "repent for the Kingdom of the Heavens is at hand!" When I drop my nets and follow Jesus . . . I not only drop my nets I also drop all pretending and live into a whole new reality in Christ!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Matthew 4

     Before Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, there is a time of sorting and testing. The three temptations are both unique to Jesus and common to all of us.
     "Turn these stones into bread." This is the temptation for Jesus to use his special miraculous abilities on himself rather than for the purpose for which he came. I am not tempted to turn stones into bread (although on occasion I have turned bread into stones). I cannot do this. However, the underlying temptation is the same. Every day, ever moment I face the decision to use my position, my experience, my status, my abilities, my education for my own self satisfaction or to use them in service for others. Jesus refuses the temptation and so should we. To quote Peter Parker's Uncle Ben, "with great power comes great responsibility." Or, John Dickson "humility is choosing to use what power we have in the service of others." Jesus was humble (in the Dickson sense) and he had great power. Rather than use his power to satisfy his own needs he keeps them for others.
     "Jump down from the pinnacle of the temple and the angels will rescue you." Here, it should be noted, the evil one quotes the Bible. Just because someone quotes the Bible does not mean they get it. The temptation here, as I have always understood it, is the temptation to put on a great show rather than to do the hard work of ministry. Jesus refuses for the very reason that you and I should. The work of discipleship has no short cuts. Drawing a crowd is not necessarily drawing a congregation. Jesus refuses by saying one should not put the Lord your God to the test. I have often wondered, is he saying "don't test whether or not God will send the angels" or is he saying "do not tempt me, the Lord your God?" It is probably right either way.
     "I will give you all the kingdoms of the world IF you will fall down and worship me." Apart from arguing whether the kingdoms of the world are actually the evil one's to give away, this is, at its heart a temptation to take a short cut and compromise. Jesus will be King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Philippians 2 tells us that "at the name of Jesus every knee will bow . . ." But for Jesus to attain the crown of glory he must be obedient to his Father's will. That is to say, in order for him to attain the Crown he must first endure the Cross. How many times in your life have you been tempted to take a short cut, to take the easy way, to use the escape hatch rather than working through the hard part and winning through to the end? How many times have we worshiped at alters that were less than the Lord God Creator of the universe? Every time we bow down to something less that the Ultimate we are surrendering to the purposes of the evil one.
     The rest of the chapter is Jesus beginning his public ministry: 1) he moves from Nazareth to Capernaum (13) he begins to preach "repent for the kingdom of the heavens is at hand!" 2) he calls his first followers: Peter, Andrew, James and John. (The words: "Follow Me" were the invitation from any Rabbi to a potential student and carried the weighty assumption that said: I see in you the ability to become who and what I am.)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Matthew 3

     John the Baptist was a major first century figure. Crowds came to see him preaching beside the Jordan river not too far from where it empties into the Dead Sea. John wore the traditional prophetic clothing of camel hair with leather belt. John's following is difficult to assess. However it had to be much larger than we usually think. Disciples of John are discovered hundreds of miles from the Jordan River. Apollos (Acts 18:24) knew only the baptism of John before meeting Priscilla and Aquila and in Ephesus, Paul encounters disciples who had only been baptized by "John's Baptism" (Acts 19:1-7). What this suggests is that John's ministry had enormous and wide spread appeal and influence. Christians understand that John's role in the coming of the Christ was to prepare the way -- that is to call people's hearts and lives back to God in anticipation of the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. John's message (which later becomes Jesus' message: see 4:17)) is that people should "repent for the Kingdom of heaven has come near!"
     Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near is probably the most radical idea ever introduced and is one of the most misunderstood. The assumption that we often make is that because the "kingdom has come near" we should do something (repent) so that we can enter into that kingdom. The reality is much more radical. What John (and Jesus) are saying is the reign of God -- a reality where our lives are in perfect harmony with God's purpose -- is a done deal. The purpose for our creation is that we would live our lives in fellowship with our creator -- to be the object, the focus of God's love and grace. This purpose lived out is seen in the relationship between God and the first human, Adam.  The announcement that the kingdom of heaven has come near (is at hand, has arrived) is an acknowledgement that through Jesus our fellowship with God is restored and we can now live the abundant and joy filled life we were called to live.
     John's baptism is with water for repentance -- people admitting their failings. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire -- that is the power to fully transform. There is a huge difference between saying "I'm sorry and I'll try harder" and actually having the grace and power in the Holy Spirit to live into a whole new reality. This new reality is what Jesus offers us -- forgiveness for our brokenness AND the fire and power of the Holy Spirit to change. That is a kingdom of heaven value, indeed!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Matthew 2

     In our need to get as many children in the Christmas pageant as we possibly can, we often compress the infancy and childhood stories from Luke and Matthew into one holy night. When we look closely at Matthew two we find some interesting things: we find that Jesus is referred to as Child (not infant vs 9); and that the Magi visit a house (not a manger vs 11). Best scholarship suggests that the Magi visited the child Jesus around his 2nd birthday.
     The slaughter of the innocents (13-18) has some support outside the Bible in other first century documents and the event -- killing of all potential rivals -- is perfectly in character for Herod the Great. Herod held power with an iron fist and killed all potential rivals -- including family members and the occasional baby. I find it important to note that the events of Jesus birth and infancy are not presented in the Gospel as happening in some idyllic state or in the unfathomable mists of time but, rather, are shown in the stark, brutal political reality of the time. It helps me when I see the same kind of brutality and the same kind of merciless political maneuvering  in our world that we bring Christ into the same environment today that he was born into over 2000 years ago.
     The escape to Egypt is captured in a marvelous little book by Madeline L'Engel titled A Dance in the Desert. It is  wonderful poem and worth taking a look at. One thing I note from Chapter 2 of Matthew is how often what looks like a detour (the flight to Egypt the return to Nazareth) are seen theologically as the hand of God moving, maneuvering, leading us to the place and places where we can make the greatest difference.