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 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.

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