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.  

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