Advent reminds us salvation comes differently than we expect. Not a warrior wielding a sword to show off his military power, but as a baby. 5:03 PM – 29 Nov 2015
Archive for the ‘Advent 2015’ Category
Read: Matthew 12; Exodus; 1 Kings 1-11
In his short little book simply titled Following Jesus, NT Wright waltzes through several New Testament books and explores their main themes and ideas. Among the books explored is the Gospel according to Matthew. Of Matthew he writes:
Matthew's whole gospel is, in fact, a Coronation Anthem. And the only sensible reason for going to church and hearing Matthew read is so that we can learn how to join in.
But who is being crowned King? Matthew gives him two names, and explains them both. He is to be called 'Jesus', which means 'YHWH saves'–because, says Matthew (1.21), he will save his people from their sins. That is, he will deliver his people from their exile, which was the punishment for their sin. He will be the King who will go down into exile with his people and lead them up and out the other side. And the real exile is not the Babylonian one. It is the satanic exile of sin and death.
The second name is 'Emmanuel', which means 'God with us' (1.23). Matthew has drawn together the two threads of Jewish expectation. First, God will save his people from their sins; yes, and he'll do it through the King, Jesus. Second, God himself will come and dwell with his people. Yes, says Matthew; he'll do that, too, through the King, Jesus. This book celebrates the coronation of the saviour, the God-with-us-King. (25)
Well, that's a wonderfully beautiful way of saying it. I've said it with several more words, to be sure, and so has Matthew. But Matthew is building his Gospel brick by brick (if I may change the metaphor) and will not be satisfied until he laws the final brick, the capstone to the entire edifice: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In the meantime there's a lot of ground to cover. This is where we meet chapter 12 of Matthew. And it is overwhelming.
One thought, governing two aspects of Israelite history, bookends this chapter and thus defines for us everything going on in the middle. First, in verse 6: "I tell you, something greater than the temple is here." This must have absolutely sent shock waves through the community. People just didn't talk about the temple that way, but Jesus did. I think perhaps he wanted them to keep the temple in perspective or maybe he wanted them to think about the temple in a new way–not so much as a place, but as a person in whom all that the temple offered was reserved and unleashed.
I suppose we are kind of that way with our own buildings now too. And the sad, sad reality is that in our modernish ways we tend to invest a lot more of our time and resources in our properties than we do in our people. And maybe Jesus was making a similar judgment about the people of that generation. The key is found in what he says: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. In other words, I care far more about people than I do about your rituals. They never escaped that trap. I wonder if the church of now will? Jesus said this. Jesus said that mercy is more important than ritual.
This is a message the church has yet to hear.
There's so much kingdom talk in this chapter. One thing that stands out is that now the agitation and aggression towards Jesus is heating up. Now the Pharisees are openly plotting to 'destroy' him. Now they are actively thinking that Jesus is a mere agent of the devil. Jesus keeps on going. He will continue to be a man of healing and hope. He will continue to be merciful to all who desire mercy. I guess Jesus' thinking is that the more people line up against him, the more merciful he will be. I mean seriously: how depraved does one have to be to plot against someone who heals another person? Yet that's what they did. Jesus heals, and he's in league with the devil. Jesus heals, and he's a threat to the power structures and must be destroyed. Jesus lets his people eat, and he's little more than the leader of a sinful band of degenerates.
No one says such things about the church. I suspect that's because we don't do these kinds of things that arouse the suspicions of others.
The chapter ends much as it began, in verse 42: "The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here." Solomon, man of wisdom and wives, was indeed a great king. He wasn't as great as his father, but he was special. Now Jesus says that even Solomon is eclipsed by Jesus.
Jesus is greater than the temple. He's greater than Solomon. He's greater than sacrifice; he's greater than wisdom. And he will keep pressing on doing good to people and preaching the kingdom of God.
You have to admire Jesus…even though 'admire' is a poorly chosen word. Something greater. And? This something greater says that what really matters is mercy. Jesus, the King, Emmanuel, the Son of Man, says that what matters for his disciples, for those who would follow is this: mercy.
NT Wright concludes his chapter on Matthew in Following Jesus with these words, "In the kingdom of the Son of Man, the power that counts is the power of love. It is the rule of Emmanuel, God-with-us." (31) Jesus says he is building a family of brothers, sisters, and mothers around himself. He is the center which holds us together and how does he hold us together? Mercy, love. And what is he saying to us? Be merciful. Love.
This is the something greater: the teaching, embodied in Jesus, that what matters here and now is mercy, not sacrifice.
Go and be merciful.
In case you don't want to open your book, here's Matthew 11. I have only a couple of thoughts today.
After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. 2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” 4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 Whoever has ears, let them hear.
16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”
20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.[e] For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.
27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
It's an old cliche by now, but what if the things Jesus said about himself are true? I say that in the sense that they are true but with the idea that, of course, there are people who do question these things and others who dismiss Jesus as out of his mind altogether. Nevertheless, the things he says in here are, on the surface, outrageous to most of our minds. In our pluralistic world, overrun by the notion that all religion is created equal, essentially worshiping the same god, and that all paths lead equally to the same eventual outcome, it is difficult to make the sort of statements that Jesus made and be taken seriously by anyone.
Look what he says about itself.
All things have been handed over to me by the Father. Well, back in the early chapters, the devil tried to do this. And at the end of the book, Jesus again says all authority is his. We like to claim authority for ourselves. Politicians are really good at it. We think we have the right to dictate the outcomes and the parameters of religious experience and what some generically call 'salvation.' But Jesus is saying that only he has the authority to make such claims. All is a fairly exclusive and limiting word in this context.
Then he says that no one knows the Father except the Son. And that it is the Son's prerogative to reveal the Father to anyone he chooses. Well, this sort of stamps on the feet of the crowd that wants to be nice to everyone and declare all religious experiences are equal opportunity stairways to the Father. I know it's the modern thing to do, you know, being nice to everyone about their peculiar religious expressions and experiences. Jesus is making some fairly stiff claims here about himself and about God. I can see how people might be offended.
He says some other things too about rest, and yokes, and labor, and burdens. He says some awkward things about John the Baptizer and some of the kings of earth ('reed shaken' being a reference to a Herod). He said some strange things about Sodom–things we would dare not say. He said some things about the fickle generation he was among–and none of us are so willing to call today's generations what they are: fickle and temperamental, mere infants, unrepentant. You see all these things Jesus is saying are not mean. They are honest evaluations of the sort of people he was ministering to.
He has words for kings. He has words for would be disciples. He has words for the current generation. He has words for the unrepentant cities–we won't dare pronounced such sweeping judgments on the cities of this earth, will we? He has words for those who have ears and will hear. And to all of these people he pronounces a beatitude: Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.
So as you read through this eleventh chapter, what do you think about Jesus? Are you offended? Are your ears attuned to his words? Are you ready to take up his burden or the burden of the world? Many folks, even many so-called Christians, are offended at the words of Jesus, his words of exclusivity. We don't want to offend or give offense or hurt someones feelings. But Jesus said these things, he invented them, and we can either accept them or reject. Being offended is a cop out.
Don't be the fickle crown, wavering back and forth between a dirge and a delight. Choose Jesus. That's all.
Eugene Peterson wrote, in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, "Jesus' imagery, to be followed soon by his sacrifice, is totally counter to our culture of more, more. Could Jesus have made it any clearer? We don't become more, we become less. Instead of grasping more tightly to whatever we value, we let it all go: 'He who loses his life will save it.' 'Blessed are the poor in spirit' is another way Jesus said it." (102)
This tenth chapter of Matthew continues to expound upon this cost of following Jesus that Jesus began outlining in the 5th chapter. I'm not convinced that in the church here in America we give sufficient though to what it means to follow Jesus. I really don't. Often times, it's a matter of being baptized or catechized or initiated–the church is like another club we join with a set schedule and dues. That's not what the church is nor is it what Jesus said it would be like.
Even now, here in America, we are beginning to feel the crunch of a lot of things. A lot of the things we are feeling are trickling down and having an impact on the church. Jesus called it! Jesus said that discipleship is not a walk in the park or a trip to Wal-Mart. Let's be honest: the church in America hasn't had it rough. At all. It's not persecution when people call you names or when they disagree with you over evolution or climate change. Let's be frank, can we? We have it made as Christians here in America.
But maybe we are starting to feel the tables turn a little. Maybe the economic woes have affected Christians and churches? Maybe the constant threat of terrorism affects us too. Maybe job insecurity is another factor? But you know what? None of this is persecution of the church. None of this is persecution of Christians.
Jesus did speak to his disciples, the original twelve, and gave them a hint of what it might be like to belong to him, to follow him, and to be with him. I'm not sure how far we want to apply these things to our lives as Jesus followers here in America or even in this 21st century. Maybe the things Jesus said in the tenth chapter of Matthew were only intended for those original twelve? Whatever the case may be, Jesus sent them out, gave them clear instructions, and give them a clear indication of what they were going to face along the way.
He promises they will be provided for. Sounds fair enough. It may not always be a piece of pie with whip cream, but they will get along. It sounds boring and wrong for an American to say this, but I wonder how many American Christians would still be Christians if 'getting along' were the sum total of their daily existence? Our motto is typically something like, 'We need to get ahead.' Jesus said in the sixth chapter, pray for daily; pursue the path of righteousness; don't worry about what you need for each day. Our problem in America is often that we think material blessings are blessings. To an extent, we are 'persecuted' with too much. Ask yourself, can you be a faithful Christian if Jesus asks you to simply 'get along' each day with what he provides?
He promises there will be persecution. Yep. Sheep among wolves, serpents among the innocent and all that. Devious children who will kill you for a quarter. Immoral judges. Constantly on the run to this place or that place. We are told we will be no better than Jesus. Ask yourself, are you better than Jesus? Do you suffer with the righteous? Do you pursue justice? Have you been called the satan yet? Has something you have done been called the work of the devil? Can you be a faithful Christian if Jesus asks you to suffer for righteousness? If we are the sort of people who think that we will escape all this, ask yourself this: when secular America finally collapses under the weight of its own hubris and immorality, do you think that the church will be spared? Judgment begins with the house of the Lord. Are you prepared to be faithful?
He promises an opportunity for testimony and proclamation. I suspect, however, that we may not very much like the opportunities provided for us. Where will you be when Jesus asks you to testify? Where will you be when he asks you to acknowledge him before men? Where will your heart be when the time comes to confess with your mouth what you claim to believe in your heart? Are you prepared not just to confess some random, generic God but specifically the Jesus who makes exclusive and divine claims to being the only way to life? It's a tall order. You may have to reject your family. You may have to reject your children. You may lose your children or parents or siblings because of it. Are you prepared?
Are you prepared to take up your cross?
Are you prepared to lose your life?
The upside down culture of the Kingdom of God–the very one that Jesus told them to proclaim: 'And proclaim as you go, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand' (7)–is about such things as losing to gain; dying to live; starving to eat; being poor to be rich; being called the devil in order to oppose him; revealing the hidden and hiding the revealed; giving away your last cup of water in order to receive a reward you cannot hold; proclaiming not peace, but war? Are you prepared to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons? Are you prepared to live hand to mouth? Are you prepared to be uncomfortable? Are you prepared to beg for a place to lay your head or a mouthful of food? Maybe Jesus didn't mean we would do all this, but where does it say he didn't? The upside down nature of this kingdom is this: what the world values, Jesus does not. And yet everything matters–even our hair.
I cannot help what is written. I can only talk about what is there. And what is there in the tenth chapter of Matthew is scary stuff. Just ask yourself: Is this what you signed up for? Or were you hoping to skate by? Are you prepared to die in order to live? It's upside down. I know. But there it is.
Where are you?
Let. Life. Go.
I'm still thinking about chapter 8 to an extent–that Jesus we follow who mixes and mingles and heals people that we typically reject. Jesus didn't consider himself better than them–which is exactly how we tend to think of most people. We tend to stick with our own because it's comfortable for us. I'm not necessarily saying that is wrong, but I'm not necessarily saying that is correct either. What I am saying is that if we are followers of Jesus then we need to give serious consideration to how we imitate him in the relationships we create and nurture.
It's not easy. There are people in this world we are naturally offended by and people who are naturally repulsive to us. In some ways, too, we will be repulsive to some people. It's OK. I have learned, and to a large degree, I am still learning, that I don't think the Lord expects that we will 'like' every person we meet. I think this is one of the reasons why there are so many personalities available in this world. It means there is someone for everyone. Yes. There are people I will be naturally drawn to; there are people you will be naturally drawn to. And in this, all people can be reached with the good news.
Luckily for us, this Jesus is different. In chapter 9, Jesus continues to rub shoulders with people that others looked down upon–in particular the tax collector named Matthew. Here's something for you to think about for a minute or two….who makes you uncomfortable? Who is out of your comfort zone? Who gives you the creeps? Who are the outcasts that Jesus would hang around that the world might otherwise reject?
So, then, on to some other thoughts. Jesus talks a lot in this chapter, but it's not like he's giving us a big long discourse as he did in chapters 5-7. His thoughts are memorable one liners that challenge the status quo and conventional wisdom of the day. I think he offers those same challenges to us as well. In other words, these things Jesus says are spoken to us as directly as they were spoken to those who would be his followers then.
First, notice that Jesus says, 'Your sins are forgiven' to a man who is paralyzed. I would think the more pressing matter would be the man's paralysis, but Jesus first addresses his spiritual condition as if one were somehow related to the other. The astonishing thing is, however, that Jesus mentions forgiveness at all. Indeed, as they reply, who can forgive sins but God alone? This is Jesus at his realistic best. Think about it, what other major religion in this entire world begins, continues, or ends with the leader of that religion addressing sin? Seriously? The very fact that Jesus addresses sin in a person's life indicates something about the nature of his being here. I think it says more about his purpose than it does about his nature (although, let's not take away from his nature).
Second, notice that Jesus says, 'Go and learn what this mean, I desire mercy and not sacrifice.' I can't tell you how much I love this statement because Jesus is claiming it for himself. Notice the 'I' in the sentence. Notice the 'I' in what follows: 'I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.' This means there is hope for us all. Jesus didn't come to earth and say, 'I'm interested mostly in all the folks who have it right.' No. He came and said, 'I came for all the people who are completely wrecked by life, by sin, by anything that wrecks life and humanity.' I love this because it means that I, too, am worthy to be called by Jesus precisely because I'm unworthy of Jesus.
Third, notice that Jesus says, 'But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.' Jesus, in other words, brought something new. He brought a new forgiveness–administered and received through himself. He brought new calling–because any wreck of life can be called to follow Jesus. He brought new reasons to fast and pray–centered around himself and his presence. Jesus brings new things to humans and gives us new reasons to do this things we do. I saw this thing the other day where someone was pointing out that all the traditions surrounding Christmas actually have their roots in pagan festivals and suchlike. The meme ended by saying something absurd like 'you don't have to believe in Jesus to celebrate and enjoy the season.' Well, that's ridiculous. What Jesus did was inspire his people to take all those pagan holidays and infuse them with new meaning and new hope.
Jesus makes all things new and that's what makes Jesus amazing.
He said some other things too. He healed a woman of a bleeding issue and raised a young girl to life. He said, 'your faith has made you well.' He then healed a couple of men from their blindness. Then he drove a demon from a many who couldn't talk. And at this point we hear other voices. The crowds marveled and said, 'Nothing like this was ever seen in Israel.' And we too are amazed at all that goes on in the chapter: the healing, the forgiveness, the claims, the miracles of many sorts.
Yet there are still other voices who are no so impressed with Jesus' words, but instead seem to be a bit sour: 'It is by the prince of demons he casts out demons.' Maybe we are being forced to decide how we will respond to the things we see Jesus do and the things we hear Jesus say. How anyone can see these things and hear these things and see nothing but the work of the satan is beyond me. How? Where does that sort of energy come from that can see a dead girl raised and consider it a matter of the work of the devil? Does the devil do this kind of work? Does he heal? Does he show compassion? Does he set the world straight and undo the things he himself brought about to the world?
Here's the kicker. The last thing Jesus says in this chapter, the last thing he does, the last thing he sees. He sees people just like those who would attribute his work to the satan and he has compassion on them because they are helpless and harassed like sheep without a shepherd. Again, this is the Jesus who says, 'Pray to the Lord of the harvest for workers.' Do you hear that? Even after these people basically say that Jesus is doing the work of the satan he still has compassion on them, he still wants them in his fold, he still wants them.
He still wants us.
He still wants us.
The eight chapter of Matthew, close on the heels of the Sermon on the Mount, is a spectacular introduction to the Jesus we follow. What is probably most amazing is the variety of people that Jesus meets along the way after he came down from teaching.
This is probably significant. It probably means something amazing that Jesus said all that he said about what his followers look like (in chapters 5-7) and then goes on to demonstrate those things in his own life in the chapters that follow. What is compelling about this eight chapter is that Jesus makes it plain that his work, the work we see on display in chapter 8, is a matter of the kingdom. Look what he says: "I tell you, many will come from the east and the west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." This is encouraging as the context indicates Jesus was about the business of healing the servant of a Roman Centurion.
So, then, look at the sort of things that happen in chapter 8.
The first thing that is different about this Kingdom is that Jesus touches people; lepers to be precise. It's an unheard of thing. This is one sort of person Jesus stretches out his hand to touch. And when he does, Jesus doesn't become unclean. Who are the 'unclean' people in our culture that Jesus would likely reach out and touch? Go, then, be his hands.
Next, notice that this kingdom also has room for the oppressors among us. Roman Centurions were probably not well known for their likability. They worked for the enemy, the oppressor, the hated Romans. Yet Jesus says this enemy as more of a shot at the feast of Abraham than does some who are natural born sons of the kingdom. That's a strange thought, isn't it? It makes me wonder who the enemies are in our culture. Can you identify them? If you can, go and be Jesus' welcoming committee.
Then go on in the story….Jesus also touched his mother-in-law's hand and healed her…he healed those oppressed by demons–a large population among our own culture I am sure. Notice Jesus: he heals by touch, he heals from a distance, he heals by a word…he heals anyone who asks and everyone who comes to him with a need. He carries our sickness and weakness–he sort of takes it into himself and in himself disease has no triumph. But he also makes something else clear to his would-be disciples: this is no easy row to hoe.
Discipleship, as explained in chapters 5-7, has a cost. Here in chapter 8 he lays out some of that cost.
You have to be prepared to live on the run. There's no settling down. There's no staying put. If you are going to follow Jesus, be prepared to live like Jesus.
You have to be prepared to prioritize like Jesus. Jesus said we have to think about what matters and there may simply be times when the priorities of this life are no longer priorities. We have to discern what matters most when we follow Jesus. It's hard. I know it is, but Jesus doesn't seem to mince words.
And finally….we need to seriously consider who he is and 'what sort of man' he is. Who is this that even the winds and the waves obey? Are we prepared to follow a man who touches lepers? Are we prepared to follow a man who heals the enemy? Are we prepared to follow a man who takes our disease into himself? Are we prepared to follow a man who has no place to rest and who tells us that the dead will bury their own? Are we prepared to follow a man who can calm winds and waves?
We need to ask that: are we prepared to follow a man who calms winds and waves? The same man who orders disease to leave and sickness to vanish is the same man who commands the winds and waves.
And the last story….are we prepared to follow a man who sacrifices an entire community's economy for the sake of two men who were held captive by demons? Evidently the people of the Gadarenes did not: they begged Jesus to leave them. At least they were honest. They were not yet ready to follow a man who did all this sort of stuff.
Are we? This is the Jesus we follow and this is what marks his kingdom. Are we prepared to follow that kind of King? Are we prepared to touch and talk to and meet the sort of people Jesus did?
If not, then maybe we are not quite ready to follow him just yet.
Read: Matthew 7; Revelation 7; Genesis 12; Ephesians
I had a short, interesting 'conversation' with someone on Twitter tonight. I'd like to tell you he was a thoughtful fellow, but after one exchange he unfollowed me. Luckily for me, the conversation was picked up by another person who thoughtfully engaged me for more than a few tweets and we became sort of friends.
The original tweet, written by a self-described 'author and campus pastor' (whatever that means) went like this: "Proximity breeds compassion. If u don't understand people of a different skin color ask yourself if your friends and church are all the same." Well, I took exception to this tweet because it's based on a profoundly ignorant and unnecessary premise that a person's lack of understanding is necessarily due to a person's associations or, put more negatively, if a person has all the same color friends at play or at church then one probably doesn't understand people whose skin color is different. Ugh. I'm not sure a person can possibly be more ignorant about race relations than this person.
And what's worse is his follow up to my response. He wrote: You're going to be miserable in heaven. Look around: you live in a multiethnic world. My point was ways to understand others.
Clearly. Maybe instead of approaching things negatively he should have said: If you don't understand people of a different skin color go hang out with some of them. But instead, he chose judgment which is not very Jesus-like.
So, because I don't spend my evenings and weekends with people whose skin color is different from mine, I'm going to be bored in heaven. Even though Jesus will be there and I'll be fellowship with people of all sorts of backgrounds…I'll be 'miserable.' Somehow I doubt it.
Anyhow…what about 'race' relationships? I wonder if the best way to forge relationships, compassion, and understanding is to force a relationship where one does not exist? I wonder if that's what Jesus had in mind when he created the multi-ethnic church of Israelites and Gentiles, men and women, black and white, and so on and so forth? Or maybe the people Jesus wants me to understand are the people that I happen across each and every day of my life? I'm thinking of the little children in my classroom–disabled children, black, white, male, and female. Or maybe he was thinking of the white folks my wife and I ran into at a restaurant this evening? Or maybe it was the black men I used to work with many years ago in a small shop? Or maybe it was the black women I went to graduate school with? Or maybe it was the African man that I hosted in my house for dinner and conversation about 2 months ago? Or maybe it was math teacher who happened to be from Iran?
You see my point is this: I don't think Jesus requires us to force anything as far a relationships are concerned. Why would he? He was fairly consistent about his commands for us: Love people. Love people whoever they are, wherever they are, and whatever skin color they are. Love people. If you don't understand people of a different skin color, don't ask questions, love them. Go and love them. Or, better, whenever 'they' happen across your path, love them. If 'they' are laying in a ditch, love them. If 'they' ask for your cloak, give them your tunic as well. The point is that the Christian is defined by his/her love for other people–and it makes no difference who that person is.
If you have to force something, you really need to ask if it is love. If it isn't love, you really need to ask yourself if you are of Messiah.
And this works both ways, my friends because guess what? In all likelihood my pasty white Ohio winter skin is different from your skin color too.
Really it's that simple. Or, here in the seventh chapter of Matthew he says it this way: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Do you see that? Do you hear it? Jesus is saying something like this: Along life's way you are going to come across a lot of people. They might be black; they might be white. They might be an Israelite; they might be a Samaritan. They might be purple; they might be pink. They might be a man; they might be a woman. But it doesn't matter who you come across if you belong to Jesus, treat all people with the dignity and love you hope to be treated with by others. Jesus isn't saying we have to go out of our way to force relationships because what he is saying is that if you are a Kingdom person you won't have to force relationships. You won't have to because you will already be in a relationship built upon a foundation of love. Relationships will happen naturally and easily. We can simply move from place to place, from person to person, without fear or awkwardness, loving them all as Jesus calls us to do.
So here's a final point. I don't think Jesus is saying we have to go crazy in this life trying to understand every single person and every single ethnic identity. In some cases, this will be virtually impossible. On the other hand, what he is saying is this: don't do the world like the satan, don't do the world like Herod, but instead go and be kingdom people. When you are a kingdom person your life will be markedly different and people will notice as much without you having to actually announce it. So go! Be my disciples and be marked by your pursuit of the kingdom of righteousness, be marked by your love for your enemies, be marked by your willingness to do more than is asked of you, be marked your prayers for those who persecute you, be marked by your inconspicuous love for others, and be marked by being willing to do for others (love) what you would have them do for you (love).
Do you see? Jesus called us to be different and when we are different…things will be different. We will love people without them having to call attention to their skin color and without us having to announce that we love them. A few months back, a man from Liberia, Africa came to my house. He sat at my table. I served him a bodacious Mexican cuisine that my wife and I prepared. Afterwards he sat in my living room and I served him a cup of hot tea. We talked about Liberia. We talked about his work. We talked about Jesus. When it was done, we prayed together.
We were like old friends who were meeting again for the first time–two friends who had no past, but certainly shared a future. He loved me and accepted my hospitality. I loved him and shared with him whatever he asked for. But you know what? It makes no difference because at the end of the day, he didn't eat with a white man from the USA and I didn't eat with a black man from Liberia. Two disciples of Jesus sat, ate, shared, enjoyed fellowship, and loved each other. And that was enough. I'm certain that in heaven, I won't be miserable because it will be just like that day: unforced, unrehearsed, pure love in Messiah.
Read: Matthew 6
Let's be short today. Maybe.
Matthew six is a chapter that has been abused and misused by preachers throughout the ages. And by pew-sitters too. I'll be honest when I say that it is not a terribly complicated passage of Scripture to understand, but it's not necessarily easy to understand either. It's one of those passages that can be taken to extremes one way or the other. Or it can be ignored altogether.
I think Jesus assumes that Kingdom people will be practitioners of certain things like alms giving, prayer, and fasting. I don't think Jesus ever thought that these things were a mere means to an end–whatever end that might be in our minds. I do find it interesting, though, that we get a clue as to the point of these things when we read the so-called Lord's Prayer. Part of that prayer goes like this, "Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." This goes along well with the themes we have already seen in the first several chapters: we are not about getting our own way, by our own means, in our time. We, like Jesus, are about doing God's things, God's way, and with God's methods.
Praying for God's kingdom is saying we are happy and content with the things of God, the means of God, and the ends of God. It means we are willing to put aside our own ways and means and ends because we see and believe in something quite a lot different than ourselves.
So I wondered…maybe the point of giving of alms and the fasting similar to that of prayer? Maybe we fast in order to hasten the kingdom. Maybe we give alms to others as a way of announcing the Kingdom. And we don't have to pray a lot at all–in the sense of saying a whole bunch of words: your Kingdom come, your will be done. What else need we say?
Here's where it gets really exciting–when we pray for his kingdom and will to be done–in our lives. When we do so, we need not worry about all that much. Jesus says at the end of this chapter: Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. You hear it? He's saying the same thing: Your will be done, your kingdom come. Is this the content of our prayer life? Is this the purpose of our fasting life? Is this why we give? Are we practicing these things in order to hasten the kingdom's arrival?
I've been paying attention lately to the goings on in the world. There's a lot of worrying going on, and fear, and worry, and emotional output, and worry, and fear. Lately it seems like a lot of christians are being driven by fear and worry–which is an over concern for things over which we have no control. There is clamoring for more guns and more control and more violence. There's a lot rhetoric being bandied about by christians who think that we ought to act an behave in much the same way as the general population. We ought to exercise our constitutional rights and bear arms and kill people or wish and hope that others do the killing for us.
This is not a kingdom way of thinking. This is a satanic way of thinking, a Herod way of thinking. Herod uses the sword, and the satan says bow down before me. Yet neither of these are the quiet, unassuming way of hiding in a prayer closet asking for God simply to bring his will to bear on this earth. People who live in anxiety and fear are those who tend to think that God is not going to do anything. And you know what? He might decide to remain silent for a while. That's OK. Our responsibility is very simple: keep on praying, day in, day out, for God's will to be done on this earth.
Then go and live in faith that he will do so. Our simple life then becomes one free of anxiety, free of fear, and free of the need to resort to the ways of the satan or Herod to get things done. Let go and let God do what God is going to do in his time. Don't seek your own life or your own comfort. Seek first the Kingdom of God. His will.
Read: Matthew 5; Galatians 5; Exodus
At its very core, Advent is a time to think about the first coming of Messiah and, perhaps, to telescope that thinking into the future and his Second Revelation. When we take the time to pause and think about the Advent of our Lord, we are pausing to note that God's will was to undo this present darkness and replace it with light. Yet we also pause to understand that He was determined and willful that it would not be accomplished in the way or with the means by which the world gets things done.
So we read Matthew. Early on Matthew tells his readers that a certain king was on some throne and his name was Herod. This king got all worked up because a baby had been born who was also a king. This bothered Herod a great deal so he went out of his way to protect his position of power. He called for secret meetings with the wise men, he lied to them, maybe he threatened them, and then, when he saw that he was making no progress–two years down the road–he took the sword in hand and slaughtered children.
Because when you are a king and your power is threatened, it's always best to slaughter the innocent as a reminder of who really holds power. That's how the world gets things done. God did not accomplish things that way.
I read this tweet from someone I follow on Twitter. I don't know the guy from Adam, but I follow him and this could be the only tweet of his I have ever read. He wrote:
I think that so perfectly captures the point of Advent. And it was the Advent of Jesus–not Herod. Herod shows us exactly how the world does things. God shows us another way.
We are reminded, then, that God does things differently and as such he calls you and me, his followers, to do things differently, to be different. Thus prepared we arrive at Matthew 5 where Jesus blows the lid off of conventional wisdom by showing anyone who wants to follow him exactly the ways in which they will be different from the world.
Some people read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and think that perhaps it is a checklist we have to follow in order to be good Jesus people. But that's not quite what I take away from this sermon at all. Rather I think the point of the sermon is to mark Jesus' followers as different from the world. We are going to fail at most of these things he says, but that shouldn't stop us from being different, or from walking a different path, or, and here's the kicker, not doing things the way the satan or the Herod did things.
So our ambition is not the same as the world. We are content with our own poverty if that is what Messiah calls us to. We are merciful people, because we know the world isn't merciful. We are about peace! How many Christians do I see all over Facebook and Twitter continually calling for the death of people of Islam? That is not the Jesus way. That is not how the Lord accomplishes things.
As a Jesus follower, my heart is breaking for the world. I see people being raised in an ideology where their only hope is in killing or being killed. I see people being raised to believe that the only way to stem the tide of violence is to increase our own violent output–and to encourage our young men, and now women, to bear the burden of knowing they have killed another human being. I see other Jesus followers following the masses and making calls for death, deportation, and/or destruction of human life. Our enemy is not flesh and blood. I see Lord. Seated high and exalted. His will shall not be thwarted and I, as a follower of Jesus, will in no way promote the violence towards others that they would bear against me.
Jesus called his followers to be different, and told them not to follow the ways of the satan to accomplish His goals. If we are no different from those who wish to kill us, what's the point of following Jesus?
But we often forget these things. We forget that we are to be differently angry, if we are to be angry at all. Our hearts should reign in peace and forgiveness. Our hearts and eyes are to be pure. Our marriages are to be differently organized–but we find ways to justify our divorces in the church, don't we? We really do. It's really quite a problem in the church that our marriages are no different from the marriages of the world. So he goes on…
I find it simply amazing that in the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus focuses so much energy and attention on how we get along with others. We should be merciful, peacemakers, we should be salt and light, we should not be angry people or lustful people. We should treat our spouses differently. Ours is not the path of revenge and retaliation but of grace and peace: Turn the other cheek, do not resist the one who is evil, be kind, generous, and forgiving.
And lastly, in chapter 5, Jesus tells his followers that they are to treat their enemies differently. It's a hard thing he asks us to do, he commands us to do: don't think your own sins are any better than the sins of others. That's typically why we love ourselves and not our enemies. Jesus is very explicit, very clear on this point: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
That, my friends, is revolutionary. That is how you and I can be different in this world. Jesus pulled no punches when he said it and it probably shocked his listeners that day. I suspect few can actually do it, but there it is. The only weapon that Christians ought to be calling for right now against those who wish to kill is love and prayer. The world will call for weapons. The world will call for deportation. The world will call for blood and cheer when it flows. Those who follow Jesus must not do these things. We must be different. It may well cost us. Yep. No doubt about it. Yet in no way must we, Jesus' followers, disgrace his name by calling for more violence and bloodshed.
That's not His way. That's the satan's way. That's Herod's way. That's not our way.
We must not forget these things.
Read: Matthew 4; Daniel 7; Isaiah 52-53; Romans 10
"Nowhere in scripture is it set out more clearly that the kingdom of the one true God stands over against the kingdoms of the world, judging them, calling them to account, condemning them, and vindicating God's people" than in the Book of Daniel. (NT Wright, Simply Jesus, 158)
After Jesus is baptized, he goes out into the 'wilderness to be tempted by the devil' (4:1). Jesus stands his ground by remembering Scripture. This is probably something I suppose we all ought to do instead of relying on all the tricks and methods that modern pulpiteers created and package and encourage us to practice. But I digress.
But maybe I do not. You see, here's what I see. I see Jesus from the very beginning of his ministry going about with the Word of God on his lips, in his mouth, rolling off his tongue to whoever would listen and perhaps to some who would not listen willingly. I'm sure the devil who tempted Jesus in the wilderness was not happy to hear the word of God thrown into his face. Remember when he tempted Adam and Eve? They too hurled Scripture back to the devil, but something went wrong and they gave in to the temptation to sin anyhow.
I wonder how Jesus succeeded where they failed? I wonder if anyone of us noticed that Jesus succeeded where they failed? That third temptation always bowls me over too, "Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, 'All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.'" (4:8-9). Then we note, again flashing forward to the end of the book, that Jesus gets these kingdoms anyhow doesn't he? All authority in heaven and earth, he says, has been given to Me.
Let me get back to that part where Jesus quotes Scripture because this is the part that I find most instructional. Jesus knew the Scripture. He quoted Scripture. In my mind, then, I think what Jesus is saying is that this battle he was fighting against the temptations of the devil was theological. It was about far more than simply not doing something that the devil thought would be sinful or otherwise. It was about honoring the Lord God who gave the Scripture in the first place. Jesus, in quoting the Scripture in the face of temptation, is not just 'warding off the devil.' No. He's honoring God first in his life and trusting that it is God's order of things that matters and that the devil's order of things matters not.
Like Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael: We know our God will protect us, but even if he doesn't, know this: we will not bow down and worship your idol.
But we do not live like that, mostly. I know my own tendency is to not trust the Word of God first–even though I know it fairly well. I'm often like Adam and Eve: I quote it well and then rush right into the devil's hands. Ultimately, Jesus trusted God and was not about to usurp God's place for his own pleasure which is exactly what Adam and Eve. Trusting God's Word means, I think, trusting that the devil will leave on his own when he sees that we mean to practice what we are quoting back to him. It doesn't mean he will not be back later; he will. But it does mean for now there is a victory found not in winning, but in trusting God.
Jesus trusted that God's Word was sufficient. It was this very paradigm of ministry and preaching that Jesus practiced. We see it from the very beginning: in battles with the enemy, he trusted the Word of God. When preaching the kingdom of God, he spoke the word of God (4:17). When he went teaching throughout Galilee, 'proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom', he preached the Word of God (4:23). His preaching of the Kingdom and healing of people in cooperation with his preaching told us what the Kingdom is about: It's about God's Word finally being fulfilled among the people.
There's nothing fancy about it. No special techniques involved. He simply went about doing the things that the Word taught: resisting temptation, preaching the kingdom, healing the broken people of the world. Jesus is telling us: this is what the Kingdom of God looks like.
What's that mean for us at Advent in 2015? It means that maybe Jesus ought to be our paradigm for doing the work of ministry. But even more important that that, is, I think, what Jesus thinks the Kingdom of God is about. First, those who belong to it will, inevitably, face the same obstructions that Jesus faced from the satan. We will be tempted to think that the kingdom is about his ideas instead of God's ideas. We must resist him with the word of God and constantly remind ourselves or be reminded, what God's kingdom looks like–a Scriptural picture. The kingdom is shaped by God's word, not by our vision of it.
Second, the Kingdom of God will reach into unlikely places in this world. Jesus began his Kingdom preaching in 'Galilee of the Gentiles'…something terribly dangerous. It is a dangerous thing to announce to our congregations that it is imperative that we take the kingdom into places people consider unlikely. This might mean that we are sharing the Gospel, too, with unlikely people. At Advent, how unlikely was it that God himself came down and tabernacled among us? Yeah. That's the kind of unlikely I'm talking about.
Third, the Kingdom of God partners with unlikely people to get into the hearts and hands of people. We think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We think some people simply cannot be partners with Jesus. But this is the key: we are not calling people to follow me, or you, or the church, or the religion. Jesus called people unto himself: "Follow me!" he said. The key of our kingdom message is that we are inviting people to follow Jesus. Nothing else. Jesus called strange people, fishermen. Who calls fishermen to the climactic act of God in his world? Jesus. Who calls people like you and me? Jesus. We should try not to think so highly of ourselves.
Fourth, the Kingdom of God reaches into the lives of broken people in this world. Jesus did two things. He proclaimed; he healed. This is the essence of the kingdom: bringing new life to the broken people of this world. And Jesus' fame spread throughout all Syria. I see a lot of 'ministries' who do a lot of stuff, but the only people who gain any fame are those miracle workers. It's not Jesus. Here, it was Jesus whose fame spread. In our Kingdom preaching, the only one who should be noticed, or gain fame, or be exalted is Jesus.
In our kingdom work, whatever we do, we do it for the fame of Jesus. Always. Only. Jesus.
Read: Matthew 3; Psalm 2; Isaiah 42; Genesis 22; 1 Peter 1:1-12
It is quite impossible for me to overstate how important it is for us to see the big picture in the Bible. We are so accustomed to reading the Bible to find either how to be saved (in some way that we usually get to retain our American identity and be Christians) or as a great search for how to live a successful happy life.
But the big picture is not limited to a few verses here or there that tell us some magical formula for how to join the 'safe and happy' club. Scott McKnight sums up brilliant the point: "The messianic, lordly, and kingly confession of Jesus is not incidental to the Bible. It is the point of the Bible, and the gospel is the good news that Jesus is that Messiah, that Lord, and that King." (The King Jesus Gospel, 141).
This 'big picture', though, is, again, not confined to the New Testament. It is the message that was heralded for years in the Old Testament. Listen to Peter's words: "Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicated when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories" (1 Peter 1:10-11). The OT prophets were struggling to understand Jesus, to point to Jesus, to announce the coming kingdom which was in Jesus. Periodically we get glimpses, glimmers. Only in the New Testament do we get the full taste.
There's an old saying that floats around the church and goes like this: The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed; the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed. It's kind of corny, but it is no less true: the Old Testament was telling its way to the New Testament. Matthew says from Abraham to David to Jesus and all points in between (Matthew 1). Matthew 3 points out for us an even greater connection because he says that the prophets also pointed to John as 'the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.' John was heralding the announcement that what the prophets had been pointing to was now beginning to happen.
The Kingdom was coming, the King had arrived, it was time. And there was only one direction he was pointing: Jesus.
I'm sure when Isaiah said that he was talking about YHWH, but now here is the New Testament saying that John announced Jesus. And when John announced a Kingdom that was coming, he was also point to Jesus. Whatever else might be said, our eyes are being trained here to look away from Herod (chapter 2), to look away from John (3:11-12), to look away from a certain ancestral connection (3:7-10), and to look directly to Jesus. Of Jesus, the voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." This, interestingly enough, is the same sort of language used in Psalm 2, a royal Psalm, when a King was ascending to the throne.
John cuts through it all too when he announces Jesus. John announces a Kingdom and points to Jesus. John baptized with water, but pointed to the greater baptism of the Holy Spirit which would be brought about by Jesus. John called people to repent, but pointed to Jesus as the final arbiter of righteousness. John was a voice in the wilderness who prepared the way, but deferred to a greater voice from heaven that announced Jesus as the Son. John came as a messenger, Jesus came as Messiah.
Advent is a time to think about this arrival. John announced a lot to the people:
1. The coming wrath (v 7)
2. The coming kingdom (v 2)
3. The coming Lord (v 3)
4. The coming Spirit (v 11)
5. The coming King (v 17)
We too are heralds. We too have an announcement to make to people about this King, and this Kingdom. We too have something to say about the Holy Spirit. We too have something to say about the coming of the Lord to visit this planet. Now as we prepare through Advent for this announcement at Christmas time, we pause to allow the Lord to teach us words to say. We are mere 'voices.' We are no more worthy to untie Jesus sandals than John was. Yet we have a message to proclaim. We may not always know exactly when to say it; we may be in a wilderness too. All John knew was that he was a voice pointing not to baptism, ancestry, or his own good looks. John's message was Jesus.
The message is simple and complex, but the essence of it is what I wrote above, what is concealed in the Old Testament, and what is revealed in the New Testament: The King has come, the Kingdom is here, the Spirit is available, the Lord has visited us, and only in Him will we avoid the wrath.
During Advent we allow the Spirit to prepare our hearts to receive the one who visited us all over again and we prepare for his soon arrival again, here, among us. We will not miss him when he arrives and we hope others will not either. So herald his coming! Announce his arrival! Prepare the way of the Lord!
John's message was Jesus, should ours be anything less?
Read: Matthew 2; Psalm 2; Revelation 12; Genesis 12
I thought a little more about that genealogy from Matthew chapter 1: "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham." So, in some way, Jesus is related to David and Abraham. OK. And the Lord made promises to Abraham ("I will bless all nations through you") and to David ("Your offspring shall forever sit on the throne of Israel"). Now Matthew tells us these promises are somehow fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. So I'm thinking…hear me out…maybe the promise to Abraham originally was that God would bless the world through a king, a ruler. Maybe all along the plan was that God would be king of not only Israel, but of the nations.
Later Jesus says that 'all authority on heaven and earth has been given to me.' Why would he say such a thing? What could such a thing even mean? Well, I think it's fairly clear what he means: I am the King. Now, keep that in mind and let's see Matthew 2.
What is amazing about chapter 2 of Matthew is the mention of Herod: "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.'" Well, this is all very, very tantalizing isn't it? But it doesn't stop there because Matthew goes on to give us a fairly good description of just who this Herod was.
Ten different times Herod is mentioned in this chapter and we are not given a glowing report. He was 'troubled' by this report that another king had been born and that people wanted to worship him. He summoned the wise men secretly and questioned them–intrigue (see Daniel 11). He was so dangerous that the wise men had to be supernaturally warned (12)! We are told that he wanted to 'search for the child, to destroy him' (13). He becomes furious that he was duped (16) and ordered that all babies 2 years old and under be slaughtered. And, finally, we learn that he died (15, 19) and that his offspring, Archelaus, evidently worse than his father, was ruling.
Here's my point. From his very birth, Jesus was in conflict with the kings of the earth. Why? "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?" Right there is your answer. There was conflict because Herod saw that he had a rival for the hearts and affections of the people of Israel. Herod, like Belshazzar in Daniel 5, saw the writing on the wall. The question the chapter is opening up for us is this: Who is the rightful king of Israel? Who is rightfully the heir of David, the son of Abraham (1:1)?
All we learn about Herod in Matthew 2 is that he was a fearful man, paranoid, secretive, prone to anger, violence, murder, that he died, and left offspring to rule who was, evidently, worse than Herod himself. That's what Matthew tells us about him. Herod was so fearful and unworthy of his position that he murdered innocent children. He did not rule in love, but by fear.
Then Matthew goes on to give us 26 more chapters concerning Jesus–the one we were told in chapter 1 is the rightful heir to the throne of Israel. I don't think this means Jesus is necessarily opposed to earthly kings or rulers. And I don't think those rulers who rule with justice and righteousness need to worry much either. But there is a conflict because Herod rules this way: the sword, fear, aggression, violence. Jesus rules another way: by dying. Jesus is the one who would later say to his disciples, "Put your sword back in its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). Jesus would surrender to violence at the appropriate time, but not until then (see Revelation 12). Jesus would demonstrate his rightful kingship by surrendering to the violence of Pilate, Herod, and others and eventually overcoming it in his Resurrection.
Jesus stands in marked contrast to the kings of this earth because on the mountain in Matthew 28 he said, 'All authority has been given to me.' All. "The point is that now, with Jesus's death and resurrection, the rule of the king of the Jews has been established over the nations, as in Isaiah 11 and Psalms 2, 72, and 89. His followers are to go and put that rule into effect" (NT Wright, How God Became King, 115). Yep.
So what? Well, here's the thing: Jesus is either king of the entire world or someone else is, but if Jesus is king then no one else can be. Herod tried to cling to that title, but he didn't understand that his rule was derivative. That is, like Pilate, he had no authority except that which was granted him by God (John 18-19). The kings of this world do not recognize this either in our day. They just don't. They think the world is their plaything and that they can do as they like, when they like, with whomever they like. Humans are stupid like that. Jesus' point is very simply this: the kings of the world did their worst to him, they tried from a very early age to kill him and end his rule before it began, but Jesus undid them. He exposed them for what they are. He triumphed over them at the cross and the Resurrection.
We have one king. It is not a president. It is not a prime minister. It is not a high priest or a pope. It is Jesus. He rules because he lives. Kings will come in conflict with him and they will lose because at the end of the day all authority belongs to Jesus. And no one else.
So what? The question is: Who is the rightful king of Israel, and consequently, the World? And: To whom have you given your allegiance: Jesus or or someone else?
There's only one king.
Read: Matthew 1; Romans 1:1-7; Hebrews 1; Isaiah 9:10-25
Advent is upon us and I am glad. It is an important time of the year for Christians to reflect upon the First Coming of Jesus and his subsequent ministry and, perhaps, to begin preparing ourselves for his Second Coming. You see, if the First Coming is any indication of what things will be like at his Second Coming, then I think perhaps we, Christians have a lot of preparations to make before his arrival.
He will come to us and we have to ask if we will be ready. I wonder if those Israelites who were living during his First Coming had any idea what was about to land on their doorstep? Think about it: it had been 400 years (give or take) since a prophet had been heard in the Beautiful Land. Then all of a sudden, John the Baptizer shows up and starts shaking the earth with his preaching about the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. What would you have done then? What will you do now if someone starts preaching just the same? Will there be anyone preparing the way of the Lord now?
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Matthew 1 is where we begin. We begin with the very beginning, but perhaps Matthew began his Gospel with the end in mind. That is, maybe he wrote chapter 1 while thinking long and hard about chapter 28. Again, I'm ahead of myself. Let's stick with chapter 1 and the genealogy of Jesus. At this point, I'll make four quick observations about the genealogy of Jesus as written by Matthew and then offer an 'application' (since that's what we do.)
First, it's the last genealogy in our Bible. That's strange. Sort of. But there it is. There are genealogies all over the place in the Older Testament, but in the New Testament, we see those Old Testament genealogies (in Matthew and Luke) summed up in Jesus. At the name of Jesus, the genealogy of Israel stops (so to speak) and a new family line begins (see Mark 3:31-35). What we see is a family line from Abraham to David to Jesus. That's important. How can we be a part of Jesus' family? Who are the children of Jesus?
Second, the Lord used an eclectic group of people to bring about the fulfillment of the promises he made to Abraham, David, and others. If you are familiar with the Older Testament, you will see what I mean when you read through and see names like Judah, David, Uriah, Rahab, and others. Bad behavior and poor decisions were not limited to the women included in this genealogy. There are some terribly sketchy men too. Nevertheless, God used all of them to bring about his history, to bring about his plans. And not a single one of these sketchy people thwarted God's plans. So despite the worst intentions of this current world, I doubt seriously anyone alive or dead now can either.
Third, why does Matthew begin his Gospel with a genealogy? Isn't there a better way to begin telling a story about someone so important? Well, perhaps. I guess. But here's the point: not only is Matthew saying that the the family of Israel finds its terminus in Jesus and that beginning with Jesus a new history is taking shape, but he is also saying that the history of Israel led up to and culminated in the birth of Jesus–Immanuel (see Isaiah 9). In other words: Jesus is the whole point of Israel's history (see Luke 24:13-35, 44-49; John 5:39-47). History terminates and begins in Jesus. Why begin this way? Well, I think it's because it points to the purpose of Matthew's telling of the Gospel story and what you and I should understand as his intentions (I explore this in the next paragraph).
Fourth, two prominent names are found in the genealogy: Abraham and David. Abraham is mentioned three times; David five. On the one hand, Matthew is reminding us of the promise that the Lord made to Abraham especially in Genesis 12–that through Abraham the Lord would bless all nations. Matthew is saying that now, in Jesus, God is bringing that promise to bear upon the world. And isn't this what Jesus says in Matthew 28: Go, make disciples of all nations. The reference is undeniable. Then there's David, mentioned five times in the genealogy and what's more is that the genealogy is laid out in such a way (notice that in verse 17 we are told 14, 14, 14) that we are to think about David, the great King of Israel. (David's name, using a form of Hebrew numerology called 'gematria', is equivalent to the number 14, D=4, V=6, D=4; DVD=14; they had no vowels). The point is simply this: this is the genealogy of the coming King, the promise made to David that his heir would always sit on the throne of Israel. That's the point. Not only is Jesus the fulfillment of promises to Abraham, but also to David. Verse 1, Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham. Interestingly enough, this is very much the way Paul the apostle begins the letter to the Romans.
So what? Why is all of this important, if it is important? Why should we care? We should care because the last name in the genealogy is Jesus, called Messiah, called Immanuel. Three things. It matters because Matthew is telling his readers: you need to pay attention to this story of Jesus because in him is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham; in him is the fulfillment of the promise to David; and in him is the fulfillment of the promise to the Prophets. He is saying: this story is not about you, or Israel, or anyone else. It's a story about Jesus and everything I'm about to tell you points to Him as the fulfillment of the ages.
Like I said, Matthew begins with the end in mind. Immanuel means 'God with us.' The story ends in Matthew 28 with Jesus promising never to 'leave us or forsake us.' It is comforting to know that whatever we face here and now, we are not alone. When we go forth and invite people into the family of Jesus, when we help continue his family line of mothers, and brothers, and sisters, he is with us. Always.
Finally, if this is what his First Coming was about, how much more is this what his Second Coming will be about also? If the first coming was about announcing a Messiah, a King, who will save his people from their sins, then how much more will his second coming be his very enthronement and final rescue of those people he saved?
So if this is a story of Jesus that we should pay attention to, then what are things Jesus did in his story that we should pay attention to? What kind of a Messiah was he? What kind of a king was he? And if we are members of his family, what sort of offspring are we supposed to be in light of all this?