Wednesday, December 27, 2023

David's Son

Can you imagine sitting on that hill, waiting in anticipation for this new rabbi to begin teaching, and He opens with, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 5:3)

The people immediately could identify with Jesus' words. Many had dragged themselves to that hillside, having rushed to finish the day's work and having made sure the animals were secure, left home with anticipation in their hearts. They walked with their children, their parents, worried that not having done a full day's work, they were losing money, and yet, everyone that would have done business with them was on the road as well. Mothers sat down, tired, but excited to hear something, anything to refresh their souls.  Children saw their parents excited and although they didn't know why, they were happy to see their parents chattering away. 

The disciples were open to anything!  They had seen this rabbi heal, preach, and become, in short order, a rock star. Matthew indicates that Jesus was the one to watch: "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him." (Matthew 4:23-25)

So, can you imagine how the disciples felt when Jesus sat down, and all eyes were on Him, and by extension, on them?  They must have felt ecstatic! 

Wow!  Who would have thought?  We had some inkling this Man was special, but now do other people!  They seem to adore Him, and us too!  

But when His opening statement was about the poor in spirit, were they flabbergasted?  Was the crowd?  

Did you hear that!  No one cares about the poor in spirit?  The religious leaders certainly don't and all our faith seems to do is make us aware of how imperfect we are--how sinful--how unloved. We don't need to be reminded of our failings--our leaders do a great job at that. They rarely speak to us.  We get plenty of scornful looks, to be sure.  Who is this Man? He starts His teaching with an affirmation that we exist--that alone would stop us in our tracks.  But He is inviting us to walk with Him: not to be condemned, but to be included. 

Then, more astonishing words fall from His lips: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." (verse 4). 

Wait a minute.  If I am poor in spirit, and you bet I am, mourning is my constant companion.  I have no resources, no help, and no sense that anyone really cares.  So, yes, here I stand, poor and in mourning.  I am listening, Rabbi. Please continue.    

Luke places Jesus in the synagogue to inaugurate His ministry with the words of Isaiah.  So, I do not believe it is a coincidence that Jesus inaugurates the Kingdom of God with the same idea, drawn from the same deep source. In this hillside sermon, Jesus is summarizing the verses in Isaiah He read in the synagogue: 

"'The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor...

And you will be called priests of the Lord,
you will be named ministers of our God.
You will feed on the wealth of nations,
and in their riches you will boast.

Instead of your shame
you will receive a double portion,
and instead of disgrace
you will rejoice in your inheritance.
And so you will inherit a double portion in your land,
and everlasting joy will be yours.

For I, the Lord, love justice;
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people
and make an everlasting covenant with them.

Their descendants will be known among the nations
and their offspring among the peoples.
All who see them will acknowledge
that they are a people the Lord has blessed.'

I delight greatly in the Lord;
my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

For as the soil makes the sprout come up
and a garden causes seeds to grow,
so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness
and praise spring up before all nations." (Isaiah 61:1-3, 6-11)

The people knew these verses were from an earlier part of their history.  Isaiah was writing as Assyria was gaining power and Israel was losing power. (Sound familiar?  Replace "Assyria" with "Rome.")  Isaiah saw Israel becoming a captive of Babylon but also he saw their eventual return from captivity. It was another redemption, just as had happened in Egypt.  Cyrus the Persian conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return home. A greater deliverance awaited them: being freed from sin through Christ. [1]       

But Jesus wasn't speaking as a soon-to-be Liberator from the hated Romans.  He was using these verses, distilled into words describing those who were "poor in spirit" and "mourning," as a foundation for the very reason He came: to save the lost.  Liberated Jews from the Romans would still be in bondage to their sin.  A change of place does not change the heart itself. 

Reversals are replete in these verses! All of the elements of grief--the ashes, mourning, despair--were  replaced with a crown, anointing oil and a beautiful garment.  Former captives were now tall and strong as oaks, free and out in the light of day, rejoicing that God had delivered them.  People who once slaved away under a cruel foreign yoke were now once again wearing priestly garments, and lived with abundance.  People had no more shame, and the land before them was large, inviting and full of all that God wants to give His children.  

Isaiah exulted in these words and saw himself as adorned and adored for it is God Himself that made this freedom possible. 

God does not allow sin to reign forever--it goes against His very nature. He was and will be faithful to His people and acts in might ways.  

He brought righteousness to His people and will bring it again.  Why?  Because it all springs from the  "everlasting covenant" He made with David: 

"When your days are over and you go to be with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.” (1 Chron. 17:11-14)

The following verses still ring in our ears as we just celebrated Christmas.  The angel tells Mary:

“Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:29-33)

David's Son is seated on the hillside. He is teaching these people that God has not overlooked their captivity, their bondage and will not allow sin to reign forever.  The Lord delights in His children and how He loves us shows His character to all the nations. 

It wasn't Assyria, Babylon nor Rome that posed the greatest threat to freedom:  It was the sin that lives in all of us, shackling us to shame and causing us to despair as its promises turn to ashes. It is death that robs us of those we love and causes us to shrink from the unknown it poses. 

Jesus was showing the people that liberation from sin and death was the greatest redemption of all. The Kingdom of God swings wide open its gates to those whose spirits are crushed and who mourn the loss of all they depended upon.

David's Son is seated on the hillside.  His words will drive the people to remember the promises of God. 

Maybe under their crushing loads they had forgotten. But God had not.   

How do we know?  David's Son is here. 

[1] p. 1015                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Gather 'Round: Jesus is Starting

Let us begin.  Jesus is establishing the constitution of the Kingdom of God. The Law was given by Moses after the children of Israel were settling down in the desert and then Moses gave it again to the next generation that was to enter the Promised Land. 

God never asks us to do anything that He has not fully informed us about first. In fact, the whole Bible is filled with instructions on how to live as His children.  But why so many rules?  Things to do?  Things to not do?  Things to remember?

Let's make a quick dash back to the Garden for a moment.  There were two trees there: One was the Knowledge of Good and Evil and one was Life. We all know which one Adam picked; consequently, he was bound to his own knowledge, interpretation and the chaos that came from his choices. He would sin, although he thought what he was doing was the right thing.  He would sin knowing what he was doing was wrong, but his corrupted nature drove him on.  Paul put it well: 

"For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.  So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin." (Romans 7:19-25 NIV)

So, thanks Adam: You bequeathed to us ignorance and an inclination to disregard God's words of life.  So, every chance God gets, He reminds His fallen children what is expected of them, and what the consequences will be for transgression.  He is not a permissive Parent; He loves us so deeply that He wants the best for us.  He goes out of His way to guide us, show us and direct us, and yet many times we respond out of contempt, anger and a disregard of His words. 

Jesus is the Word of Life, so what He speaks is life itself--life in His Father while we live in a fallen world. He is letting us know the rules and regs of the Kingdom; He is asking a lot of us, but He also will be empowering us when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost.  But for His listeners on the hill that day, He was saying, "I am bringing you a new life, a new way to live in this world. I will lay it out for you and one day, these words will live in your heart."

It's the syllabus on the first day of college.  It's the contract you sign when you buy your first house. It's your first bank loan. Nothing has happened yet; it will, and you will see it unfold because you will know what to look for as it unfolds. 

Here we go. I am going to contrast the first Beatitude, with the world's and religion's reactions. Jesus is being radical here--because the Kingdom of God is. 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:3 NIV) 

The World's Opinion: 
  • The poor? Get out of my way. If you're poor, it's your fault; it's some kind of moral failure; some addiction, or some trauma you just need to get over. 
  • Maybe if I really cared, (and I really don't) I'd try to help, but indifference works for me. It costs me nothing, I can say you're free in the choices you've made, and I can walk on by. 
  • Gotta take care of me, you know?  It's all good.  
Religion's Opinion: 
  • You're poor in spirit because you lack faith. 
  • You need to work harder on being good. 
  • Yes, those are disapproving glances from those around you in church. Your poverty makes us uncomfortable. You remind us our fortunes could fall, so we will ignore you, for fear we could be next.  
  • You remind me that things can go wrong and I have a nice, neat theology that says differently. 
  • I am blessed.  What's wrong with you?
But the Kingdom of God is about relationships--rules and regs are for guidance and direction, but God is all about relationships--it started in the Garden when He walked in the Garden to talk with His children. 

Let's go deeper into what Jesus is saying.  The word for "poor" is described in Strong's Concordance as this: 

"to be thoroughly frightened, to cower down or hide oneself for fear; hence, ...properly, one who slinks and crouches...often involving the idea of roving about in wretchedness...but it always had a bad sense till it was ennobled in the Gospels; see Matthew 5:3..."[1]

"Ennobled in the Gospels..." Wow!  Everything Jesus touches goes from chaos to order, from ashes to beauty, from mourning to rejoicing. His use of the word, "poor," made it go from slinking in the shadows to being out in the light.  Adam slinked in the shadows--sin does that to us, doesn't it?  You are brave at first, thinking you have this sin thing (it's really tiny anyway, right?) under control and then slowly but surely, the money runs out, a famine hits, and now you're eating pig food.  The shadows are the best place to hide your shame. 

But Jesus ennobles it because He recognizes the ruined relationship behind the slinking, the shame and the self-loathing.  Oh, and don't forget all that loathing heaped on a person by others.  Without Christ on the throne, the self is there, sitting and smirking and all the while casting condemning looks at everyone. But this throne is occupying a dark prison cell. Malcolm Muggeridge talked about the the dark dungeon of the ego--and that it is.   It is a place of only one--one who is lonely and yet in denial about the loneliness.  

But the Kingdom of God is a place of light, not condemnation.  Jesus is seeking to restore your brokenness, by reaching out His hand to clasp yours.  He wants to lift you up.  

To those who were listening to Jesus that day on the hillside, they thought that the poor had, for some reason, missed God's blessing--God rewarded those who loved Him and if you had no visible rewards, well, we all knew what kind of person you were.   

I love how the NIV Study Bible puts it: The poor in spirit are "in contrast to the spiritually proud and self-sufficient." The kingdom that is theirs is not "something earned.  It is more a gift than a recompense."[2]

Can you just hear the "poor" (in all senses of that word) taking amongst themselves, as they listen to Jesus: 
  • He's talking about me!  The only time I hear about me and those like me is either with scorn or glances that speak of contempt and abhorrence. 
  • I am poor in spirit and in pocket.  It's the first thing He is talking about--I don't know of anyone who starts a teaching about the poor--we are usually tacked on at the end as a warning to not be like us in any way. 
  • Yeah, I've got a little money--probably a lot more than those around have--yet, I feel poor. Spent.  Empty.  Alone.
  • If this Man is of God, does that mean God cares about me?  Really?  Dare I think such a thing? 
  • I work all day, and pay taxes, which leaves me with very little to feed my family on.  Yet, this man says the "kingdom of God" is mine.  Wow. I am this poor person is possession of a kingdom. Wow.  Who is this Man?
As we move further away from the enthralled crowd, we see the religious leaders hovering about on the parameters.  What are they saying?
  • What?  What kind of kingdom are you preaching, Jesus of Nazareth?  We already have the Kingdom of God, thank you very much.  It's located in Jerusalem, the city of King David, and God lives there and expects us to honor Him by doing our duty. You earn His approval, Jesus, by offering sacrifices, paying tithes and being a Jew we approved of.  You are advocating these people get something they haven't earned.  We have, for sure, but them? 
  •  Look at them, will you?  They never look that excited when we teach.  They are hanging on every word that falls from that suspect rabbi's mouth.  They just glaze over when we teach or look at us with fear in their eyes. That's better than this, I say.  People should fear God and those who are appointed to represent Him.  
  • Why is He mentioning the poor?  They are the least worthy of God's notice. We are the ones He's proud of, because unlike this rabbi, we get how God works. 
The crowd must have sat there, stunned. If you recall, at the very end of the Sermon, we learn: "When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of law." (Matt. 7:28-29 NIV)

Jesus is just getting started. 

[2] The NIV Study Bible. Kenneth Barker, gen. ed. Zondervan. 1985. p. 1449.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Slavery: Old and New

Moses came down from the mountain with stone tablets upon which God had inscribed the laws of the new covenant. He wanted these former slaves to hear what freedom meant in the Promised Land.   

Jesus sat on the side of a mountain, and began to teach. He wanted these "slaves" to hear what freedom meant in the Kingdom of God. 

But first, some background.  

God wanted His newly freed people from Egypt to understand what being a chosen people looked like. They had just been liberated from slavery and had walked away from their captors after God mightily demonstrated His superiority over the gods of Egypt, including Pharoah himself. All of the plagues were an utter repudiation of the gods that men had used to oppress the Hebrews and support a system of absolute rule. 

Oppression is never God's way and His rule, while absolute, is never dictatorial. 

God had cleared the way for the newly freed slaves. He also had to do some spiritual housecleaning for them, so as they left the enormous influence of Egyptian society, they were open to a new way to thinking about the universe.  

If the gods were at the center of everything the Egyptians did, the Hebrews needed to see these gods judged, stripped and cast into the sea, along with Pharaoh's army.  The sun god of the Egyptians, Amun Re, was rendered powerless when the ninth plague fell and darkness permeated the land. Even Pharoah himself, seen as a god, watched his first born son die, and Nekhbet, "goddess who protected sovereignty and person of Pharaoh from birth" and Osiris, the god of "resurrection and life; ruler of the underworld; giver of eternal life" [1] failed to overturn God's sentence on them.  

Then there's the idea of Pharoah himself, who controlled the order of the universe and because he was  "viewed as god incarnate, was responsible to maintain ma'at ["harmony"] through his divine powers and by performing the necessary religious rituals." [2]  God displayed how Pharaoh was the not the keeper of order: his kingdom was thrown into disorder with the plagues (especially the death of his son), and his army was drowned by waters that had opened up and then closed. The most powerful man in the ancient world was bested by a motley group of slaves, whose God was the only true One, mighty to save and compassionate. 

The desert for the Hebrews would be the schoolroom:

  • Who are we? You are God's chosen ones, to whom the covenant was given and now is being fulfilled by giving you your freedom and re-establishing your identity.   
  • Who is God? The only true One, Yahweh, Maker of heaven and earth.  
  • How do we now live?  Moses will bring the very words of God to you and you will now have a new way to live: obedience will bring you blessing and disobedience will bring you chastisement from God, who loves you beyond measure.   

Now, let's fast forward to the new Moses--Jesus--and see Him on the mountain, bringing the people a new way to live. No, they are not legally slaves, but they are in bondage: to the obeying the minutiae of the Law, to keeping out of the Romans' way and to themselves, with the taskmaster of sin snapping his whip over their heads. They build lives with bricks made with no straw: shoddy and unable to withstand life's uncertainties. 

Jesus sits down and surveys these former slaves who are now in a different Egypt. But the questions  and the answers are the same: 

  • Who are we? You are God's chosen ones, to whom the covenant was given and now is being fulfilled by Jesus Christ giving you your freedom and re-establishing your identity.   
  • Who is God? The only true One, Yahweh, Maker of heaven and earth.  
  • How do we now live?  Jesus will bring the very words of God to you and you will now have a new way to live: obedience will bring you blessing and disobedience will bring you chastisement from God, who loves you beyond measure. 

What is this new identity? It's not just your heritage given to you at birth by your Jewish parents; it's a new kingdom, where how you operate is very different from what you are used to and what you think God expects. It's not a repudiation of the Law. Jesus is the fulfillment of it: “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose." (Matt. 5:17, NLT). 

Picture Jesus sitting down on the hillside, and He is surrounded by His disciples. Then the people all settle in. A hush descends over the crowd. Earlier, one of the new disciples, Nathaniel, declared upon Jesus telling him that he saw him sitting under a fig tree: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel” (John 1:49) and Andrew told his brother Simon, “We have found the Messiah.” (John 1:41). These men barely knew Jesus and yet they exuberantly embraced faith in Him; they sensed, through the gentle encouragement of the Holy Spirit, that this Man was different.  Many in the crowd that day felt a flutter in their hearts: this Rabbi was different from what they had experienced with the religious teachers of their day. 

Excited expectation was in the air. 

They all waited.  Jesus spoke and His words touched exactly where these precious "slaves" were living: "Blessed are poor in spirit..." (Matt. 5:3)

This new kingdom of God had just arrived, with tender words for those who needed them the most: the scorned, the ignored, the poor in spirit. 

The world changed that day.   

The people that day didn't know it, but three years from now, another hill will loom into view.  

The lambs' blood, splashed on door frames of the slaves' houses in Egypt, saved them from death.  Their salvation prepared them for a new life in a land filled with milk and honey. 

This Lamb's blood, splashed on the wood of a cross, will save these slaves from death.  Their salvation will prepare them for a new life in a land filled with milk and honey--the Kingdom of God.   


[1] Ray Vander Laan, Stephan & Amanda Sorenson, God Heard Their Cry: Finding Freedom in the Midst of Life's Trials, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 126-127. 

[2] Ibid., 38.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

The New World (Kingdom) Order

Matthew moves rather swiftly after Jesus calls His disciples to showing us exactly what Jesus' ministry will be about:  

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. (Matthew 4:23-25).

You can see the reversals in abundance here. Disease is not part of God's creation; it is the result of the Fall.  Pain, demon-possession, seizures, paralysis are all counter to what God intended for His creation.  Think of it this way: When God hovered over the water in Genesis 1, He hovered over chaos.  To the ancients, water represented chaos.  God hovers and then, BOOM! He speaks order into chaos with light, a demarcation of the waters, life and then man. The Garden of Eden was a place where God's beneficence ruled and all was well. But then Adam and Eve disobeyed God. The result--sin--reintroduced chaos back into the order of things: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time." (Rom. 8:22)  

In Matthew, we see God invading chaos as His Son touches those afflicted by disease.  Jesus bestows order on human bodies ravaged by one of sin's most terrible manifestations. Jesus heals everyone from everywhere--no special treatment for God's chosen people.  All are invited to experience this rolling back of chaos. Jews (Galilee, Jerusalem and Judea) and Gentiles (the Decapolis) are welcomed. This is not the only way Jesus will push back against chaos; it's a start and a powerful one at that.  

In Luke, we see God invading chaos as His Son inaugurates His ministry with words of restoration,  spoken by the prophet Isaiah to a people ravaged by war and destruction in Israel's past. One thing to remember:  The Jews had an assigned reading each Sabbath in the synagogue.  Jesus didn't just show up one day and go, "Nice!  I can use these verses!"  God attends to every detail; His Son knew what the reading would be.  

I propose He chose that particular Sabbath, knowing that those verses were written for people in the past, to remind them that God's order for Israel would return. These verses that Jesus is now reading will remind the people that God is once again bringing back order, but at a deeper level that they cannot yet conceive of: Chaos will be removed from the human heart and replaced with the very Spirit of God.

Jesus as the Messiah stands before them, announcing that a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God, is here:  

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor... (Luke 4:18-19)

Jesus' Kingdom will be a place where the poor--who cry out to God day and night--will hear the good news that yes, God has heard them and He is coming to comfort them and offer hope. God will no longer allow chaos to pummel the brokenhearted--their hearts will be bound up with tender bandages of God's love, so they may start to truly heal. Those in bondage, chained by fear, hopelessness and emptiness, will hear the sound of their chains hitting the floor and the doors swinging wide open. The prisoners, the outcasts, the ones whose lives go unnoticed by the rest of us because they dwell in the shadows, will walk out into the light provided by the Son. 

This Kingdom will not ignore the poor or blame them for their poverty; it will not allow the pain in people's lives to persist; it will not walk by and sneer at those peering out from behind bars and it will not allow those in darkness to remind there. What chaos has done to humanity via sin is no longer the norm; Jesus is bringing forth a new creation, with light and a new garden, where God's people can once again walk with God. 

But as Oswald Chambers points out, between the Garden of Eden and the Garden of the new Heaven and Earth in Revelation, is the Garden of Gethsemane. 

To those sitting in the synagogue that day, they would know the rest of the passage (but not understand its richness in describing what God is doing in this Man standing before them):

...and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
Strangers will shepherd your flocks;
foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.
And you will be called priests of the Lord,
you will be named ministers of our God.
You will feed on the wealth of nations,
and in their riches you will boast.

"For I, the Lord, love justice;
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people
and make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants will be known among the nations
and their offspring among the peoples.
All who see them will acknowledge
that they are a people the Lord has blessed.”

I delight greatly in the Lord;
my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the soil makes the sprout come up
and a garden causes seeds to grow,
so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness
and praise spring up before all nations. (Isaiah 61:2-11)

This is the Declaration of the Kingdom of God--one filled with restoring love, standing on the foundation of God's forgiveness because of the blood of His Son.   

But this Declaration needs a Constitution!  Once the Kingdom is declared having arrived, what is it based on? How will it operate?  What will its citizens look like? Act like? How will we know this Kingdom is really here? 

Matthew will show us this new Kingdom's articles in what are called the Beatitudes. 

These articles are so alien to the world order that they are hard to understand, let alone practice. But God calls us to a place of dependence on Him to make His Kingdom happen.  And when His children walk in its ways, they stand out to a world drowning in its own sorrow and sin. 

We not only offer that cup of cold water in His name--we are that cup of cold water. 

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Stinky Fisherman

God's timing is perfect and Jesus' knew His time had come. The Son left the desert, after He had received the comfort of the angels (Matt. 4:11). The Son deeply identified with our frailty: He experienced our physical hunger and knew what would satisfy our spiritual hunger: the bread for life and the Bread of life.  He felt Satan's assault on identity: "If you are the Son of God..." Finally, He saw the supposed freedom and tantalizing wealth that the world holds out to us in exchange for worshiping  Satan. Satan said to Jesus and us:

Just ignore God.  All of this is mine to give and what an offer it is! Just a nod here and there would be fine, but even better: Deny God.  Live as if He doesn't exist. Attribute His creation to other gods, philosophies, scientific theories, whatever. Just keep God out of sight, and out of mind.

Jesus replied that only God is worthy of our worship, for any other candidate is a lie from the Father of Lies.  He showed us that Satan is not all-powerful.  He showed us that the very words of God are the only sufficient weapon to drive Satan away. He showed us that there is a way out of the desert: "Resist Satan and he will flee from you." (James 4:7)  

Jesus walked out of the desert and into the human community. That's where we live and so does He. You can just hear Satan laughing as the men came and arrested John the Baptist: Well, Jesus. So You scored the victory in the desert, but I got John!  It's not going to end well for that bug-eater. If You think about it, maybe the only way you could be the Messiah is for him to be killed, so all of the attention is on You!"

No. Another lie. John's ministry was not ended because of Jesus' arrival. John was arrested by an evil man who bowed down to Satan so he could have all the world's "splendor" (4:8)

Reversal? Satan's disbursement of wealth, privilege and power provides a seductive package to those who, in the desert of their souls, choose to bow down and ignore God. God's bounty is beautiful, soul-nourishing and filled with love, all presented without pretension or deception. Satan's is ugly, soul-sucking and filled with destruction, presented with a false veneer and lies.  

Slaves to sin have a hard time choosing God's way; children of God know they now have a choice to choose rightly and try to do so. So, Jesus's reversed the lie that we really can't live lives of victory--that we belong in the desert, for we deserve it. We can walk out of the desert.

So, Jesus walks out and settles in Capernaum. Isaiah sketches out the place: 

“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles:
The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death
Light has dawned.”

He is going to a land filled with Gentiles. There's a reversal, isn't there?  Shouldn't He have gone only to the Jews? Judaism had become very insular and had severely limited its contact with non-Jews. So, while Jesus is amongst His fellow Jews around the Galilee, He is also around Gentiles. More than that, this is northern Israel, and Zebulun and Naphtali were the tribes who were swept away from Israel by the Assyrians, 700 years before. (1)  Jesus is in the heart of a devastated kingdom, and He is bringing restoration to those who are in "darkness"--the darkness of lives without the one true God and the darkness of a history without hope. Jesus is bringing light to all of it.   

What the world says is something is "over and done with," or "You need to get over it," Jesus acts out the words of Isaiah, 

"But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob,
And He who formed you, O Israel:
'Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by your name;
You are Mine... 
Behold, I will do a new thing,
Now it shall spring forth;
Shall you not know it?
I will even make a road in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert.'" (Is.43:1, 19)

Jesus now says, "Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand." He is going to build His community of apostles--ones who will be sent out to proclaim this "new thing." Jesus could have done this all by Himself.  But God, from the very beginning, is interested in a relationship with us, and we with each other. Relationships are more important than black and white rules.  The Pharisees were the exact opposite:  They wanted a strict adherence to rules, and condemned anyone who fell short.  Jesus interacted with people who had broken societal rules or were marginalized because of those rules: prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, losers of all kinds.

In fact, Jesus picked losers to begin His ministry. Bible teacher, Ray Vander Laan, teaches the ancient rabbis were approached by prospective students, and asked if they could study under him.  You picked the rabbi. Simple. 

But we are in reversals when we step into the Kingdom of God.  Jesus asked them to come and follow Him, and He would "make them fishers of men." (Matt. 4:19)

Evidently, these men had not approached any local rabbi to follow him.  They were fishermen, and they saw themselves as such. Lowly workers, not disciples. 

We are losers in any spiritual school--no one would want us. We sit on the sidelines, watch others join a rabbi and learn from him.  We sighed and go out every day on that lake. Why ask to follow a rabbi when we smell of fish?  He probably turn up his nose at us.  What do we have to offer, anyway?  That's who we are and that's all we'll ever be. 

But Jesus beautifully blends the two occupations: a fisherman and a disciple, trained to catch people for His Father's kingdom. 

Jesus pursues us. He asks us to join Him in His work. But do we, like the fishermen soon to be disciples, that we are not worth it?

Why would God want me? I am so used to sitting on the sidelines that the bench perfectly matches my butt. I sigh every day and just go on living.  Existing, really. I smell of sin, failure and shame. God probably turns His nose up at me, because I have nothing to offer.  I will always be me and nothing more. 

But Jesus reverses our low self-worth into a Kingdom asset: Follow Me and I will make you a vital part of My Kingdom. I will transform your ashes into beauty, your heartache into joy and your sense of worthlessness into an empowered child of God. 
What did our loser-boys do after Jesus called them?  They dropped everything--that's how ready they were.  If they had been truly committed to life as fishermen, they would have respectfully declined. James and John even left the family business to follow Jesus. 

John and James, Andrew and Peter.  All eager. All willing. Right?  Let's explore this a bit more.  

Luke gives us some added detail here:  

"One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

"When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, 'Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.' Simon answered, 'Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.'

"When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

Then Jesus said to Simon, 'Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.' So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him." (Luke 5:1-11)

Let's learn from Peter how it feels to be called. Simon Peter is a knowledgeable fisherman; he knows how and where to catch fish. He is willing to loan his boat to Jesus for a teaching platform; he hears what Jesus has to say, but Peter just keeps cleaning his nets...

Interesting teaching, there, Rabbi.  The people seem enthralled with you.  Been a long time since anyone came around teaching and reaching out to us.  But I'll just keep cleaning my net.  Gotta earn a living, you know. Go out again? What? We fish at night, Rabbi--but I wouldn't expect you to know this. I do, though. OK, why not?  Can't hurt. Deep water, hmmm. Now everyone is staring at me.  My partners, the crowd. Great. I am a nobody, and now everyone is looking at me. I did hear your teaching, Rabbi, and I gotta admit, you had some very powerful things to say. I am no expert, but your words rang true.  So, if you say go out again, I will. 

WOW!  The nets are boiling with fish!  Help me! 

Oh, I cannot do this!  Yes, I can haul in this catch with my buds, but why me?  Why did you allow every fish in this lake to come into my net?  I am simple fisherman with a simple catch each day--not great, but I squeak by. THIS is way more than I deserve...Jesus!  I must tell you:  You don't know who you are talking to!  I am just a man, with a sinful heart and your generosity is so beyond anything I deserve. I am a sinner who deserves, well, if truth be told, nothing. I am going to fish for what?  You are picking me to fish for people? Me? 

Yes, you. And you. And you.  Jesus knows our hearts and loves us anyway.  When we walk out of the desert with Him as former slaves, He calls us to serve with Him to reach a world where shame and guilt drown people as surely as Pharaoh's army.  We part the sea with our proclamation that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life!

When the world says, "Losers! Slaves! Low-lifes!"

Jesus says, "Child of God! Freed captives! Called to serve!"


Thursday, November 9, 2023

The Temptation of Jesus: Are You Kidding Me?

We love to read those passages about the Second Coming:  

So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:28)

Not another crucifixion. No watching the Lamb of God be beaten. No gambling for a tunic underneath the gaze of a dying man. No crying. No cold tomb. No smell of sweet spices to mask the smell of death.

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.(1 Thess. 4:16-17)

Everyone will see Him. No more hidden glory. The earth will no longer be under the sway of death. We will finally meet with our Bridegroom and be forever with Him.

Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. (Rev. 1:7)

Yes:  The triumphant One. Repentance and acceptance of the Lord, amidst regret and tears. Glory. Honor. Praise. 

This is what we expect of the Messiah, the King, the Beloved of God. 

But wait. Come and see.  Stand on a mountain with me and see Jesus, baptized and affirmed by the Father, is going into the desert. What? He is willingly being led there by the Spirit. Is He going there to pray? (That's acceptable.) Is He going there to talk to His Father about His upcoming ministry? (We think that is a good idea.) 

But no: Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (Matt. 4:1)

What?  But the Father said, This is my Son, whom I love; with Him, I am well pleased. (Matt. 3:17)  How do you have these two polar opposites, the holy Father and evil itself, in the same room? But here is the reversal:  The King of Glory, took on our flesh and so identified with us that He willingly faced the devil.  We are tempted--He stepped in and was willing to be tempted as well. The One who created all manner of life and abundance, with things multiplying after their own kind, now faces hunger.  

Hunger?  The One who prepares a table in the presence of our enemies (Ps. 23), the One who sat with Moses and the elders and ate a meal (Ex. 24:1-18), the One who provided manna and quail in the desert (Ex. 16) and the One who ordained harvest and planting to never cease (Gen. 8:22) is now facing one of the most common experiences of humanity: hunger. 

That alone is cause for wonder. But let us continue.  Satan thinks he is in the driver's seat with the Son of God, who has (in his estimation) limited Himself to the point of helplessness. Humans are easily overwhelmed by hunger, fatigue and evil, and sink into helplessness so quickly--so will the Son of God, right? Satan is counting on it. 

Jesus has power (affirmed at His baptism) and now Satan insinuates that He is free to use it any way He can. He's now clothed in frail flesh, so He could use it to relieve His human needs. Stones to bread?  No problem. An immediate fix to a vexing need.

But His power is to be used to honor the Father in this redemptive drama. Jesus says, It is written: "Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." (Matt. 4:4) 

This quotation is taken from Deuteronomy 8:3: He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. 

This is desert language: These are the very words spoken by God to teach His children--former slaves-- of His provision and His all-encompassing care for them. Jesus is now identifying with these former slaves: He chooses to rely on God alone to feed and care for Him and to draw sustenance from Word.  Reversal? The King of Heaven chooses to identify with slaves. 

The devil switches tactics and now uses the very Word Jesus is relying on, upping the ante with this next temptation: 

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written:

'He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'"

Jesus replies: It is also written: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." (Matt. 4:5-7)

Let's look at the context of each quote. The first set of verses come from Psalm 91:11-12. The verses just before the ones quoted by Satan read:
If you say, "The Lord is my refuge,"
and you make the Most High your dwelling,
no harm will overtake you,
no disaster will come near your tent. (Ps. 91:9-10)

The verses after the quote are:
You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
you will trample the great lion and the serpent.
"Because he loves me,” says the Lord, "I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
He will call on me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.'” (Psalm 91:13-16)

Jesus is affirming that God is protecting Him because of His love and trust in the Father. The Lord is Jesus' refuge during this harsh time in the desert. All of Psalm 91 is a declaration of taking refuge and relying on Him alone for protection.  Jesus is identifying with King David, whose anointing as king was contested by Saul and resulted in his murderous pursuit of David--not unlike Satan's pursuit of Jesus now.  Reversal?  Jesus is aligning Himself with the harassed king, not the one who sat on a throne, ruling Israel from the glorious capital of Jerusalem.  

The second set of verses Jesus quotes is taken from Deuteronomy 6:16.  Again, the verses before this and after this are instructions to obey God and His decrees and if so, these former slaves will enter the land promised to them and will prosper. But they must always remember to be obedient, for God is jealous for their love and will not tolerate a descent into idolatry:  Don't test that love.  Jesus is identifying with these former slaves and modelling being obedient to all His Father commands, even to death on a cross. 

Did you notice in these verses from Psalm 91, You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent, an echo of the words spoken by God to the serpent (Satan disguised) about His redemptive plan after Adam and Eve sinned? 

And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel. (Gen. 3:15)

Satan, that roaring lion, that poisonous snake, will be vanquished one day by this very Man who now stands in this lonely desert, identifying with slaves and relying solely on His Father, not on His own power, to provide for Him.

The reversals here are breathtaking.  

Jesus meets Satan with a full repudiation of the third temptation, that somehow Satan deserves worship.  Jesus uses the words spoken by His Father to the former slaves in Deuteronomy 6:13 that only God is worthy of worship.  Here, Jesus identifies even more deeply with these former slaves: the deeper slavery to sin.  The children of Israel were led out of Egypt into freedom, but in their hearts, they were still slaves to sin.  Their status did not reflect true liberation from the greatest chains we bear as humans: our sinful nature.  Jesus is saying that there is nothing in this world that is worthy of our worship except God alone. Jesus will soon inaugurate His ministry when He reads, in the synagogue, the verses from Isaiah that He came to set the captives free.  Truly free.

The Second Coming is inspiring, but Jesus in the desert soothes my soul, for He walks with me in mine.  

His reversals should deeply comfort us, for they were done for former slaves: us.  

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Reverse the Curse

Before we begin, if you think humble origins are a cause for embarrassment or shame, consider Nazareth.  The NIV study Bible makes two interesting comments about it.  First, it is not mentioned in the Old Testament.(1)  So, despite being Jesus' hometown, it is not an important place.  If the Messiah is the Son of David, wouldn't you expect Him to be born in Jerusalem? 

But no.  God went the opposite way from the world's values to bring forth redemption:

"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

    'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.'

"Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength." (1 Cor. 1:18-25)

There's the reversal:  If wisdom could save you, then secular wisdom (hashed out by the Greeks, who loved wisdom so much they called it "philosophy") or spiritual wisdom (practiced by the Jews in light of the Torah) then Christ's death was not needed.  Wise humanity would stand redeemed before the Lord. 

But no.  Why not?  What tree did our first parents eat from?  "The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil."  The knowledge we posses, from that day forward, comes from our own assessment, our own deceived logic:
  • Judges 17:6: "Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." 
  • Proverbs 14:12: "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death."
  • Proverbs 5:7: "Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil."
  • Jeremiah 11:8: "Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but everyone walked in the stubbornness of his evil heart."
That is why our wisdom, our knowledge will never bring us to salvation:  It is bound up in us and we are corrupt. Thanks, Adam. 

So, the Messiah coming from an obscure town is part of God's plan to turn earthly wisdom on its head. 

Second, the NIV comments that the word, "Nazarene" is synonymous with "despised." (2) Wow!  We all know Nathaniel's comment that nothing good could come from there (John 1:46) but Philip tells him, "Come and see." 

That is how God has ordered things:  You can't think your way to heaven and you can't work or obey  your way to heaven. But you can come and see the Messiah: humble, despised but willing to reach out to you and to me.  

But aren't you glad?  If the King shows up, aren't you going to feel ashamed of who you are, what you've done and how you don't deserve such a visit?  In the light of Christ, our sin comes into sharp relief and we, like Adam and Eve, run and hide.  But when the humble Jesus shows up, we look into His face and we see God reaching out to bring us into His kingdom, our sins forgiven and our wholeness restored. 

Jesus always had a simple parable to illustrate a profound truth.  He told this one to push back on those who "had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else."

"Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector.  The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: 'I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.'

"But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Now.  Let's look at one more thing.  How would you announce a king?  Fanfare, fireworks, extravagance!  (Think about all the hoopla with the coronation of King Charles.) But no. Jesus is announced by a man who is a desert dweller, with an outfit and a diet to match his rather odd appearance.  He rails at the rich and the smug, and encourages the meek and the lowly. 

So far, so good.  John is firmly planted in the prophetic tradition--one who is fulfilling Isaiah's words about preparing your heart for the coming of the Messiah.  Then, a man shows up, requesting baptism, and John stops. John moves from fiery prophet to humble servant and asks Jesus to baptize him

There's the reversal.  The prophet becomes a servant and the King becomes a humble supplicant.  Jesus, who threw the stars into space says, “'It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.' So John agreed to baptize him." (Matt. 3:15).

I love what the NIV says about this moment: "By his baptism Jesus completely identified himself with man's sin and failure...becoming our substitute." (3)

Wow.  The One who is the King of the universe, who created all things and in Him all things hold together (Col. 1:17) stands in a river while a man pours water over His head.  God then reminds all of us that this is His Son, His beloved. 

The Kingdom of God is built upon such reversals, and Jesus Himself embodied the ultimate reversal: The King died for us. We then become His sons and daughters, no longer children of Adam but His own.  He loves us and is well pleased as we are clothed in His righteousness. 

Come and see.  

(1) The NIV Study Bible, New international Version. Kenneth Barker, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Bible Publishers. 1985. 1444.
(2) Ibid. 1444.
(3) Ibid. 1446. 

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Down Into Egypt

It's interesting how Jesus' parents went into Egypt to escape the mad machinations of King Herod.  He was a man totally of this world: no Kingdom values here, to be sure.  Herod thought he'd outsmarted the kings from the East:  

Gentlemen! Welcome to Palestine, and to the City of David.  I heard of your arrival and I am honored to meet with you.  The streets of this city are ablaze with talk of your arrival and your inquiries as to where the King of the Jews is to be found.  A star guided you here?  Yes, one would expect that of a royal birth. The only august presence I know of in our city is my own, of course!  I have called you here--forgive the secrecy, I just don't want my streets filling up with excitable sorts--because my chief priests and teachers of the law tell me that the Messiah, this king you must be referring to, is to be born in Bethlehem.  The prophets of old foretold this.  I must make only one request of you.  When you find him, once you arrive in Bethlehem,  please notify me of his location.  I, too, wish to pay him homage.  No, it is not very far; only about five miles.  I am honored you are in my kingdom and I look forward to your return. We will celebrate this new king together.

The world 's values are on full display here: Lying, manipulation, murderous intent hidden under a guise of humility and honor, fear, loathing and someone appointed to a position who exploits it to gain a personal advantage. Herod is the poster child for how the world thinks, acts and speaks.  He is in sharp contrast to the Magi, who are not fooled about Herod's "sincerity" and who genuinely want to meet and worship this new king.  A king, by the way, who is not a Gentile, as they are.  They are willing to make an arduous journey to worship this king, for they sense his cosmic importance, or the sky would not be hosting a star of such astonishing brightness. 

So, they represent, unknowingly, a Kingdom value:  If you search, with all of your heart, this King who you do not know or comprehend, but make the journey anyway, following His guidance, you will find Him. He is there.  

Let's follow these men to the house (sorry, not the manger; look at Matt. 2:11) and what do they do?  They worship Him!  He's a baby...but that matters not one whit.  They see with the eyes of their hearts that this is not ordinary king. 

That's a Kingdom value:  You see with your heart as it is being gently led by thew Holy Spirit--that's the key.  We can be deceived by our hearts, but with the Holy Spirit showing us the way, we can go, knowing He will take us step by step to the destination. 

Jesus warns us of a heart led by the flesh: "For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander." (Matt, 5:19).

King David knew that once the heart heads down a road of alienation from God, confession is the way back: 

"Create in me a clean heart, O God. 
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence,
and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me."  (Ps. 51:10-11)

Sadly, Herod, once he realizes the Magi are not going to bring him the whereabouts of the Baby, he orders the murder of all the baby boys around and in Bethlehem. That's how the world works: refused entitlement leads to hatred and hatred leads to murder. 

That is why Jesus had no tolerance for any kind of anger: "But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell." (Matt. 5:22)

Ultimately, the Kingdom of God is built on love for God and for one another: "Jesus said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:37-40)

That is the Kingdom of God in its fullest expression, its most glorious bloom.  Hatred, vainglorious desires and condemning one another draws utter disapproval from Jesus and a call to return to Him for restoration.

Final thought:  Egypt was once the land of slavery for the Jewish people. Yes, it was a safe hiding place for Jesus' family, away from Herod, but it was more than that.  Herod was a kind of Pharoah, with his desire to control people, even to the point of death if he saw the "need" (i.e., the baby boys).  

Jesus and His family sojourned there, just as the children of Israel had done.  

But He returned to the land of His birth, to be the new Moses, to lead God's people to freedom, and to establish the Kingdom of God.  Slavery to sin was never God's intent; freedom and restoration is. 

He is always ready to lead us out of slavery into His Kingdom, where love is the rule of law. His love  for us will never cease.  


Please pray for the peace of Jerusalem. 

Friday, October 13, 2023

The Kingdom of Reversals

Shepherds. Angels, Wise Men. A little Baby in a Manger. A mother and a father looking on in adoration and wonder. Animals bathed in a warm glow. If we look beyond the malls, the sales, the hustle and bustle and stressing over who gets what, Christmas at its core is really beyond belief. 

Let us look on in adoration and wonder at who Jesus is:

"The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross." (Col. 1:15-20)

Let us continue:

"In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father." (Phil. 2:5-8)

So, let's ponder this together. Christ is what holds everything together in this universe--He created all we see and don't see and He is the reason why what exists, exists. He is the head of the church and was the first One to defeat death altogether by His resurrection. He reconciled the world to Himself through His sacrificial death.  He made peace and is peace to all who believe.

Keep thinking of that wee Baby in the manger as we ponder this. 

Then, given this divine resume, all honor and glory are due Him. But wait!  He divested Himself and became (wait for it!) a servant. Can you think of anything lower?  Here is a quick snapshot about being a servant in Jesus' day:

"Roman slavery, as it existed in the time of Christ, was comparatively unknown to the Jews. The Romans held in bondage captives taken in war, had purchased slaves. Their bondage was perpetual, and the master held unquestioned control of the person and life of his slaves. Yet large numbers were set free, and in many instances Roman freedmen rose to the highest honors" (ATS Bible Dictionary).

So, a Roman slave did not have the protections of the Old Testament Law--was Paul referring to the Roman slave's status in these verses?  Contrast the status of slaves in the Old Testament: 

"The condition of a Hebrew servant was by no means intolerable. His master was admonished to treat him, not "as a bond-servant, but as an hired servant and as a sojourner," and, again, "not to rule over him with rigor." (Leviticus 25:39,40,43) At the termination of his servitude the master was enjoined not to "let him go away empty," but to remunerate him liberally out of his flock, his floor and his wine-press. (15:13,14) In the event of a Hebrew becoming the servant of a "stranger," meaning a non-Hebrew, the servitude could be terminated only in two ways, viz. by the arrival of the year of jubilee, or by the repayment to the master of the purchase money paid for the servant, after deducting a sum for the value of his services proportioned to the length of his servitude. (Leviticus 25:47-55)" (Smith's Bible Dictionary). 

I propose Paul had Roman slaves in mind when he was inspired to write these verses--his Gentile readers would immediately understand his meaning; if he was referring the Jewish slaves, he would have had to describe how they were different than Roman slaves, which he did not do.

Point?  The reversal is this:  Jesus, the King, the Son, the Son of David, the Darling of the Father, cast off His heavenly robes at an appointed time and took on the status of a Roman slave (lowest of the low) and walked among us.  That wee Baby, visited by kings (who was a king Himself) who acknowledged His royalty, was raised as a son of a carpenter, lived in a village with His brothers and sisters, was thirsty, hungry and walked with the lowly, the outcasts, the sinners. 

Last thought: We are all familiar with the parable of the sheep and the goats, where the King (Jesus) has rightfully returned to His throne and His judging the nations: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left." (Matt. 25:31-33). 

The sheep had responded to the cries of the world's beleaguered while the goats galloped on by.  Who are the beleaguered?  “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’"(Matt. 25: 34-36). 

If Jesus is our Emmanuel, the One who is God with us, then consider that Jesus was:
  • Hungry and thirsty: out in the desert, facing privation as He battled Satan 
  • Stranger:  to His own people who misinterpreted His claims and His mission with many turning against Him
  • Needing clothes:  criminals were crucified naked; the Roman soldiers gambled for His tunic
  • Sick: exhaustion and sorrow were His lot--read Isaiah 53 for His experiences even though the Gospels may not chronicle each instance
  • Prison:  He was arrested and treated like a common criminal and His followers fled and denied Him
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’" (Matt. 25:40).

The King became a servant, walked with the lowly and calls us to do the same.  The Kingdom of God is an odd place to inhabit given how so opposite it is to the world, but it's a beautiful place for those whom the world casts out.  

That's where Jesus is standing with open arms. 


Saturday, September 30, 2023

Reversal in Matthew 1: Shame Need Not Apply

Matthew chapter 1 is one of many examples where the Simple Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, is the utter opposite of this world's order, values and way of thinking. 

We have looked at the genealogy and found some pretty unsavory characters among the descendants of Jesus--oh, yeah...they are like you and me. Think of it like this:  If the list of biblical predecessors in Jesus' lineage was filled with wonderful, holy people, you could argue, Why did You come, Jesus?  There's enough good people in the world--look at Your family tree--we'll (of course I am in that group!) get by. 

But no.  Everyone is fallen: people in the past, present and future: 

"None is righteous, no, not one;
    no one understands;
    no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one.”
Their throat is an open grave;
    they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
    in their paths are ruin and misery,
    and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:9-20)

Paul got it--he was a murderer after all, and so to be forgiven, freed and restored to do Kingdom work, was for him (and the rest of us) beyond comprehension. But it was true. Jesus came for people like us: "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5:32-34)

So, after seeing Jesus' genealogy as a rollcall of fallen humanity, let's go the next part of Matthew:  the birth of Jesus.

The reversals here jump out.  A young nondescript girl:
  • Calls herself a humble servant (in Luke) 
  • Hails from a small town ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" asks Nathaniel in John 1:46) 
  • A virgin (Physically impossible)
  • Pregnant before marriage (seriously sinful)
OK. That right there would be enough to remind us that His ways are not our ways: 

"Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God." (1 Cor. 1:26-29)

But Mary stands alongside her predecessors, Sarah and Hannah.  

Sarah was in a similar situation: She was barren due to her old age.  Perhaps, when she was younger, she could have had a child, but she didn't and now her age made this impossible. But God miraculously allowed her to conceive.  

Hannah was barren and could not have a child. She was of the right age, and prayed year after year for a child. God allowed her to miraculously conceive.

Mary was not married yet and hadn't had conjugal relations with her husband.  God allowed her to miraculously conceive. 

All three were in a world of shame.  But in the Kingdom of God, shame has no part in who we are. God allows us to become, in His power, all that we were meant to be. 

Even Joseph was filled with shame at what he perceived his wife had done (relations with another man) and was desperate to save her from "public disgrace" and so he was planning "to divorce her quietly."  Joseph's shame, however, did not blind him with such hurt or rage that he would allow Mary to be scorned or punished in her hometown--in his hurt, he still wanted to protect her.

In fact, Matthew calls Joseph, "righteous," and in the KJV, the word is "just."  That's a Kingdom word.  When the world tells you that you have every right to be angry, offended, hurt or misunderstood, and that you ought to fire all cylinders and punish those who have done this to you, a man like Joseph reminds us of the Kingdom way.  Look at the meanings of the word, "just," according to Strong's concordance: 
  • "righteous, observing divine laws" 
  • "in a wide sense, upright, righteous, virtuous, keeping the commands of God"
  • "innocent, faultless, guiltless"
  • "used of him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God, and who therefore needs no rectification in the heart or life"
  • "only Christ truly"
  • "approved of or acceptable of God"
Wow.  Those are Kingdom definitions and what a lovely world it would be if these qualities were operating in everyone, all the time.  But wait!  Aren't we being made to be like Jesus?
  • "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Gal. 2:20)
  • "And to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness." (Eph. 4:24)
  • "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren." (Romans 8:29)
So, even if the Kingdom of God is here, but not in an all-pervasive way (yet!), we can still operate with its qualities in our actions.  We can be the conduit for Jesus' love that pours love on shame, forgiveness on sin and hope on despair. 


Sunday, September 24, 2023

A Walk in Matthew: Flipping the Script

We are going to tour the book of Matthew, to see where Jesus flips the script of what this world thinks is right to what His Father says is right. I chose Matthew because his gospel is aimed at primarily a Jewish audience.  He wanted to them to understand that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Deliverer of Israel, the Messiah.  Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God once more--Adam and Eve having lost the first one due to disobedience.  Think of it this way:  God told them that they could eat of any tree in the Garden of Eden, including the Tree of Life.  But I believe Satan distracted them to that other tree, because that is the one that led to sin and death--the very business he's in.  

The Fall came because they disobeyed God's command about the tree; they ate of a fruit that allowed them to not only see good (they already had this with a beautiful garden inhabited by God) but to see evil as contrary to good, making good relative, as opposed to absolute.   

If you can see evil, you can do evil.  They ran and hid from God.  That is one definition of evil: You hide from God Who embodies good and you then define it based on your own knowledge, subject to the continuous whisperings of the enemy of your soul.     

Enter Jesus.  The D-Day of Redemption hit the shores of this sinful earth, and He came to undo, one person at a time, all of the evil pervading everywhere He looked. 

But to a Jewish audience, a claim of leadership, especially of Messiahship, required sterling credentials.  Sure, anyone could claim to be king or the Messiah, but was this person fulfilling the  requirements laid down by the prophets?  Excellent question and one Matthew hopes to answer by  Jesus's genealogy.  

Several reasons existed for why the Jews kept such detailed records:

A. Identity: You are a true child of Israel, inheriting all the blessings of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
B. Tribal Lands: Your tribe meant land and so who you are meant which real estate is rightfully yours.
C. Priest: You must prove descent from Aaron and the tribe of Levi; otherwise you could not serve as a priest.
D. Famous: If you were descended from one of the influential people of the Old Testament (Moses, Gideon, etc.) you were thought to receive a special blessing.
E. Family: The family was essential in Jewish culture and the parents handed down to their children their legacy and history.
F. The Messiah: The Old Testament said He would be the "Son of David," so being able to trace that lineage was crucial. Matthew places Jesus as being descended from David as well as from Abraham. Luke wrote for the Gentiles, thus tracing Jesus' lineage back to Adam. (1)

Matthew reinforces Jesus' Messianic claim by showing His direct descent from King David.  But who else is in the genealogy?  Wouldn't you expect it to be full of righteous people, noble and honorable?  The Messiah can't be descended from, well, those people!  But, guess what?  Those people are just like you and me, and the Messiah unites with us in kinship with fallen people.  He is perfect, but the people He's descended from are not. 

He reverses our notion that election comes from perfection.  Jesus makes common cause with humanity to save humanity. 

Here are just a few highlights of His predecessors:
  • Abraham:  Faithful man of God who also tried to bypass the promise of an impossible conception by sleeping with his servant girl.
  • Jacob:  Rascal, deceiver, and father of the nation of Israel, having been named as such after  fighting with God all night.
  • Judah:  Sleeps with a supposed prostitute, then wants to have her killed, until he finds out he is the father of her children. 
  • David: Great king but terrible father, adulterer and murderer.
  • Solomon: Wise guy but had to figure out that all is vanity by indulging in it. 
  • Manasseh: Brought back idol worship in Judea, undoing his father's legacy, practiced it himself and sacrificed his own son. 
See my point of reversal here?  God used ordinary, sinful, confused, conniving, immoral, well-intentioned people (like you and me) to lay the genealogical foundation for the Messiah, who would wrap Himself in our frail flesh to redeem our frail flesh.

Takeaway?  God uses us, whatever is in our past, to further His kingdom.  The perfect, the self-righteous, the I-am-no-longer-a-sinner types He passes on and looks to us: humble in our assessment of ourselves and knowing that we need a Savior. 

The Kingdom of God is made up of people just like you and me. 

(1) "Why Were Genealogies So Important to Israel?"  

Saturday, September 16, 2023

The Simple Kingdom: Reversing the Curse

 There 's a lovely song that captures my new series of blogs.  It's called "Simple Kingdom."

Your Kingdom is simple, as simple as love, You welcome the children, You stop for the one.
We wanna see people the way Jesus does; Your Kingdom is simple, Lord, teach it to us.

Your Kingdom is humble, as humble as death, this King is a Savior who gave His last breath.
So we may die daily, our pride laid to rest, His Kingdom is humble, and the broken are blessed. 

Hallelujah, hallowed be Your name!  May we live and breathe Your praise!
And hallelujah, let all creation sing!  Oh, the King of Heaven reigns!

Your Kingdom is coming, Your Kingdom is here, alive in our waiting, our work and our tears.
So come to us quickly, forever our prayer; Your Kingdom is coming, Lord Jesus, come near.

Your Kingdom is backwards, it flows in reverse; what You call a treasure, this world calls a curse.
The small become great and the last become first, Your Kingdom is backwards
Lord, teach us to serve; as it is in Your Kingdom, let it be in Your church.

What is especially impactful is the last stanza, where it talks about reversals--how Jesus' death upon a cross with all of its shame and horror becomes a symbol of life, resurrection and freedom from sin.  The last in the Kingdom do become first.  God has not ignored the cries of the poor, the lost and the oppressed.  Jesus inaugurated His ministry with these words from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

Who needs the good news the most?  Those who the world says are of no value, or who have caused their own problems and deserve the consequences.  

Who needs to be free the most?  Those who are imprisoned by their choices and habits, and those who think a cell is the only thing they deserve in life.

Who needs to see the most?  Those whose eyes cannot see themselves as part of God's household.

Who needs to be set free the most?  Those who the world's system holds back, either with a denial of opportunity or of their personhood.

Who needs to enter into the year of God's love and saving touch upon our hearts?  All of us. 

C.S. Lewis equated Jesus's arrival into this world as an invasion:

“Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. I do not suppose you and I would have though much of a Frenchman who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side. God will invade."

I love the connection to D-Day.  The Allies land on the shores of France on June 6, 1944 to retake Europe out of the grip of evil.  

Jesus came to earth to retake earth out of the grip of evil.  

What if the Allies showed up and said to the Nazis, "You guys are doing some awful things.  You need to stop it.  Close down those camps and stop fighting.  Have a nice day!"  Then the Allies left.

No.  The evil in Europe was systemic, with its governments, resources and people all dedicated to one thing:  the takeover of the world and the annihilation of those who were deemed useless.  The Allies had to come in and fight each and every stronghold held by the Nazis and liberate those held captive in camp after camp, until not one was left operational, and the Nazis were defeated.

For years afterwards, the Allies sought to remove Nazism out of the population by reeducating them.  They needed to reframe their view of the world through the lens of freedom and democracy.  

Do you see my point?  Invasion was only the first step.  Fighting ensue so the war would cease.  The system that propagated the evil had to be dismantled and people had to be reformed, otherwise the removal of Nazism from Europe would have not succeeded.

Jesus invaded here by leaving the courts of heaven and landing on the shores of earth, ready to reverse the values of a fallen system to ones of His kingdom--the Kingdom of God, not a rubber-stamping of the kingdom already here.  He redeemed our hearts so the system of evil could be dismantled: one saved follower at a time.  

Only the return of Christ will inaugurate a complete restoration of this planet, but in the meantime, we as His followers have plenty of work to do. 

That is what I intend to explore here:  How the Kingdom of God is an utter reversal of what this world advocates.

Join me.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Spiritual Warfare, Woes #5-7: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee of Righteousness

I am going to combine the last three woes.  Jesus intensifies His condemnation of the Pharisees as He continues to levy those accusations against them.  

He reiterates that the Pharisees' hypocrisy is too egregious to ignore:   

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." (Matt. 23:27-28). 

Whitewashing a tomb seems innocent enough, when you are trying to make it look nice for a burial. In fact, when the mourners approach, you don't them to be distracted by a tomb that is not ceremonially prepared and unacceptable.  You honor the funeral procession and the dead by presenting a tomb that is really as it appears:  ritually clean and ready.  

But whitewashing a tomb when there are bones still in it and it is utterly unclean because of that, is another matter entirely.  That's a sickening kind of fraud.  It appears one way but is really another.  And that is not due to error.  The person who presents such a tomb totally knows what it wrong, but hopes everyone will ignore it.


Jesus will not and cannot ignore this.  The Pharisees are deliberate in their hypocrisy; He is not going to let them pass off their "respectability" without a challenge.


Because that's what prophets do.  The Old Testament tradition of the prophet is one who warns, cajoles and laments over what the people are doing and not doing, and how it is an offense to God Himself. Jesus takes on the mantle of a prophet in His denunciations. In fact, the next woe mentions the prophets and how the people (like the Pharisees) responded to them: 

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against  yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!"(Matt. 23:29-32).

And they will.  They will conspire to murder Jesus, in the tradition of how many leaders in Israel responded to the prophets of old.  They are in a long line of those who listened to the prophets, not to learn how they failed God, and so repent and rededicate themselves to walking righteously, but to find a way to silence them.  

Then Jesus launches into His strongest attack.  He rails against those whose hardened hearts will only follow a god of their own creation. Their hardened hearts no longer hear the voice of God--they only hear the god of this world's voice. 

Satan rolls out his "Did God really say?" line to every generation, and sadly, many listen and believe.

In fact, Jesus equates those who listen with idolatrous snakes.  The comparison to Satan in the Garden of Eden is unmistakable:  

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation." (Matt. 23:33-36). 

It is interesting that Jesus is speaking of now, as well as a time to come.  He says that He is sending "prophets, and sages and teachers."  Who are these?  They will be of the New Covenant, washed in the blood of the Lamb and who will proclaim the Good News.  Think of Peter, Paul and the rest of the disciples, who will die in the service of this New Covenant, or people like John, who will be banished.  Why is Jesus laying the future persecution of His soon to be born church on the shoulders of these religious leaders?  

Because they refused to believe in the Messiah, the very One who stood in front of them.  Jesus' miracles were a testimony that he was not a false prophet, and they validated His ministry.  But, the religious leaders dismissed them as fakes, and refused to believe in Him.

When He raised a man from the dead, you would think that they would have reconsidered their view of Him and embraced Him wholeheartedly.  No.  They conspired to kill Him--the bitterest fruit of their hardened hearts.

I see the fall of the Temple of Jerusalem being referenced here as well, for Jesus later talked to His disciples about the End Times in Matthew 24 & 25.  The siege and destruction of the Temple in 70 AD qualified as the End, for the Jews were killed in vast numbers, their beloved Temple destroyed, and those who survived were enslaved or exiled out of Israel, not to return until 1948.  (Jesus' words to them create a blueprint for us as well.  History repeats itself, and our End Times will have similar things happen to us as it did to them.)

Why this dismantling of everything the disciples grew up with?  Because their  leaders would not say, "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord."

Disbelief in the Son of God can have catastrophic consequences for a society, when leaders turn their back on the Truth--the One who is the Way and the Life as well.  It happened in Israel.

It is happening in America.

God loved Israel but allowed her to sow the seeds of her own destruction.  But He brought her back and restored her. 

God loves America but will allow her to sow the seeds of her own destruction.  Unless we say, "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord," our days are numbered. God wants nothing more than to restore His people, but before restoration comes repentance. No leader, no political party, no one church, is a substitute for a personal and whole-hearted return to Him and a life that reflects such a commitment.   

Satan's deception was and will always be enticing us to trust our own hearts, our own wisdom.  
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