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. 


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