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
Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’
I was almost immediately turned off by this book when one of the first things I saw was a quote by Shane Claiborne. I pressed on because that's the deal and eventually arrived at page 24-25. What I read on those two pages inspired me to press on further:
From the time of the murder of every young boy after Jesus' birth to the day of his crucifixion, Jesus was opposed by an empire intent on maintaining the status quo. This kingdom labeled Jesus a troublemaker, rabble-rouser, dissident, community organizer, agitator, nonviolent revolutionary, renegade, rebel, and traitor. But none of this was a surprise to God, for God was preparing the world for the coming revolution.
Many of our Sunday schools continue to encourage followers of Jesus to embrace a respectable Jesus, an agreeable teacher with pleasant stories to tell about how to be good. But no one would crucify this Jesus. No one would be threatened by such bland personal morality. Instead, they'd invite this Jesus over for a cup of tea and a chat about the weather. (24-25)
At this point, I was fairly well hooked. I mean, if this was the basis for everything else Greenfield was going to write in the book, then how could it go wrong?
Greefield goes on over the next eleven short chapters to explain to his readers all the various ways that he and his friends believe Jesus is subversive. Jesus is subversive in sharing, parenting, charity, suffering, and vocation among others. And, sure enough, Greenfield and his followers have all managed to flesh these various subversions rather well. It is very compelling the way he and his family have lived out these subversive behaviors that Jesus evidently taught, lived, and advocated. "He came to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. He came to subvert the world as we know it" (27).
I'm torn, frankly, as to whether or not I like this book. There are times when I was all over it and marking up my pages, underlining sentences, posting quotes on Twitter. When Greenfield talks about money and power and how the birth of Jesus took place in that shadow and then goes on to talk about Jesus preaching an alternative to empire–wow, I was hooting and hollering and jumping up and down on my couch.When he poked the bear and said, "Today, too many of our churches have concocted a dozen ingenious reasons why these stories no longer mean what they say," (78) I was again stunned that someone had the nerve to say it, and mean it.
Then there were other times when I was fairly well convinced that I was reading the party platform of the liberal wing of the American government. There were times when I felt as though Greenfield was loudly condescending towards those reading the book who might take exception with his particular understanding of what kingdom means and how we might go about being subversive. There were times when I deeply disagreed with his particular take on something Jesus said or did (for example, his conclusion that the feeding of the 5,000 was a mere 'beautiful miracle of sharing and abundance', 51.) And there were times when I felt that his activism bordered on the absurd (for example, the Pirate Flash Mob is something I seriously doubt Jesus would participate in precisely because it is absurd. See chapter 9, 'Subversive Citizenship.')
In the end, I came down on the side of liking the book. It seems to me that what I heard him saying is that what really matters is Jesus and love in Jesus' name. We need not be divided by our binary code of political opinions if we are united in our passion for the Lord's heart.
I think there is a lot about this book to commend and I do recommend it to my readers who want their faith to be challenged and who want to start living a more Jesus driven, Kingdom oriented life.
There are parts of this book that people are going to like. There are parts of this book that people are going to hate. As I noted above, I'm not sold on all of his exegetical points and I'm not sold on all his practical applications of said exegesis. At the end of the day, however, this is a book that tells the story of how one family decided to live out their vocation among the poor of the world. I think they do it well and I think it would be great if more people could live in such a way. That's not, necessarily, Greenfield's ambition though: "You must resist the temptation to do nothing because you can do only a little or because you can't like someone else who seems more radical. It takes many candles to overcome the darkness" (164). He goes on, "There is nothing prescriptive about the stories I have shared in this book. The stories are merely demonstrations of how God has worked in my life and the lives of those around me" (164-165).
That is a helpful caveat and helped bring the book to a good close for me. Each of us is called to a place in life and we struggle to live out that life faithfully in the place God has called us. The Lord called Greenfield to live among the poor and enrich their lives. He called me to educate children with special educational needs–many of whom are poor and living in single-parent environments. Others will have their own calling to be faithful to. It's not always easy. Greenfield's book, despite my reservations, is a helpful corrective and a powerfully prophetic word to the church in America that has grown too Conservative, too Binary, and too wealthy to mount any formidable offense against the powers of darkness that prevail in this land. Prophets like this are necessary for the church to wake us up. One only hopes it's not too late.
I love the quote he includes on page 27 from Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador: "A church that doesn't provoke any crisis, a gospel that doesn't unsettle, a word of God that doesn't get under anyone's skin, a word of God that doesn't touch the real sin of the society in which it is proclaimed–what gospel is that?"
Herein is the challenge for Christians–especially American Christians–who live in a sterile environment where faith amounts to a mere tithe on the first day of the week. I think this book is a wonderful example of a radical alternative to the empire of this world, a counter-cultural challenge to be exactly the opposite of what this world expects Christians to be: white, clean, tidy, and full of all the right answers. This book got under my skin, it unsettled me, it challenged my privilege, and my values.
Let's hope that the provocation continues in me and begins in others.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Subversive Jesus (Amazon, $11.40)
- Author: Craig Greenfield
- On the Web: Alongsiders
- On Twitter:
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: Zondervan
- Pages: 182
- Year: 2016
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the BookLook bloggers review program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
I preached a couple of weeks ago (again!) and I decided to use Matthew 13 as my text. I had been doing some light research on the chapter and taught a little of it in my Sunday school class so I took the next logical step and went ahead with a full blown manuscript. It preached fairly well although I would agree with anyone who said it's a bit long. It preached long too. Anyhow, here's the text of the sermon. Enjoy.
The Kingdom of God
Sermon Text: Matthew 13
One of the things we understand from Jesus, that is, things explicitly taught by Him, to us–about how to do something–is how to pray.
So, when Jesus, for example, said “I will make you fishers of men,” it’s not like he explicitly told you and me–and I assume the majority of us are not fishermen in the sense that Jesus’ first disciples were–how it is that we are to go about doing such a thing. For that matter, what does it mean to be a ‘fisher of men’?
But some will argue that he did in fact teach us how to make disciples at the end of Matthew 28 and thus we do, in actuality, have our blueprints for how to be fishers of men.
We might also take the idea of worshiping in Spirit and truth. We do not really gather from his conversation in John 4 what that means or exactly how such worship might look–and I assume it would look profoundly different in our culture than it would in Samaria in the first century, or in Africa in the 21st century.
But whatever else we may decide about such things as these, and they may be radically different from person to person while remaining profoundly orthodox, is that at the end of the day, Jesus did teach us how to pray. We know the sort of things he taught us to pray–things that are typically quite different from the things we pray for, safe travel, sunshine and safe travel–not that there’s anything wrong with these things but that they are different from what he specifically said to pray for.
And, to put a fine point on this, Jesus told us specifically to pray, “Your kingdom come.” I have heard a lot of people pray before that the Lord provide us with daily bread, and forgiveness of sins, and that his will be done. But I have heard few, very few, people–elders, deacons, preachers, prophets, or little old faithful ladies–pray that God’s kingdom come.
And why? What is it about this kingdom that prevents us from praying ‘your kingdom come’?
It seems that even in this context of Matthew 6, it’s not as odd as it might seem to find Jesus talking to his disciples about the Kingdom. Matthew has had the kingdom in mind from the beginning of his Gospel when he started with a genealogy of ‘Jesus Messiah, the son of King David, the son of Abraham.’ When you start a book by talking about kings, the reign of kings, and the sons of kings well, then I suppose we ought to assume that perhaps the idea is going to be featured in the rest of the book.
And so it is and so it goes. Over and over again in Matthew we see a clash of kingdoms: Jesus collides with Herod near his birth, he collides with the satan after his baptism and many other times too, at times he collides with his own disciples, and other times with the leadership of Israel. Finally, he collides with the kings of Rome.
Matthew’s Gospel is one telling you and me not so much about how to be saved–in some strange sense of going to heaven when we die–but about how God was once again becoming the King of this earth and thus bringing about to fulfillment his plan which he announced in creation–if He created this heavens and the earth, then the heavens and the earth and everything in them are his and he will rule them–and specified in the person of Abraham in Genesis 12–that is, his plan to bless all nations through Abraham and the promised Seed who would crush this earth’s kingdoms which are so masterfully under the control and direction of the serpent.
And in some way we see God becoming King in Jesus and we see Jesus reclaiming the heavens and the earth for God through his death and his resurrection: All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me, he said, now you go and tell this story and make disciples.
Scott McKnight writes, “I lay down an observation that alters the landscape if we embrace it–namely, we need to learn to tell the story that makes sense of Jesus. Not a story that we ask Jesus to fit into. No, we need to find the story that Jesus himself and the apostles told. To us common idiom, If Jesus was the answer, what was the question?’ Or, better, ‘If Jesus was the answer, and the answer was that Jesus was the Messiah/King, what was the question?’ (22) McKnight goes on to state, quite bluntly: “What is the kingdom story of the Bible? Until we can articulate the Bible’s kingdom story, we can’t do kingdom mission.’ (23)
Part 3: What the Church Needs. Now.
We've been taking the last Sunday of each month the past couple of months to visit other churches in our area. This, in conjunction with our travels to preach in various churches, gives us the opportunity to see how the Lord is working in our part of the world.
It appears, from what we can tell, that God is working in one of two ways. On the one hand, there are struggling, dying, small churches dotting the land around us. They are congregations full of few generations (which is a nice way of saying that they are filled with older people who have never left the small town where they were born). There's nothing particularly fancy about these churches. They still have fellowship dinners–carry-in–and sing songs from a hymn book. They still do traditional things like read Scripture as a call to worship and clutter up the spirit of worship with strange meditations before communion and too many announcements.
Yet these churches plod on day after day. They turn over their preacher every couple of years and operate on significantly small budgets. But they are still here, alive, and contributing to the Kingdom of God, in some way, right where they are. They wield very little power in this world. Yet here they are still here–living, breathing, and worshiping.
On the other hand, there are what I call hip churches. They are large and have virtually cut themselves off from anything resembling tradition. Their preacher is young and doesn't own a suit. They are spread out over large areas and consume a lot of resources. Their buildings are new and ergonomic. Everything is a production. The music is loud and modern and has a lot to do with singing about how great our problems are in this world and how God is somehow greater if we just open our eyes and see. These churches wield a lot of power and influence in the world precisely because they are so large.
And they too are here. They press on every day and face problems that are proportional to their size. Every church has problems and really it's simply a matter of size that determines the nature of the problem and solutions. They have large budgets and I suppose this might be one of the problems they face: how do we keep people interested and the money flowing? They are, nevertheless, here and they, too, are contributing to the advancement of God's kingdom–sometimes in spite of themselves–but here they are: living, breathing, and worshiping.
In Mark 1, we have seen that Mark had something to say to the church about preaching and repentance. In this third post of my short series, I'd like to look briefly at what he says about power. Here's what John the baptist said, "After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
If I hear him, and I think I do, he is saying something like this: the One who comes after me will not only come in power but he will also empower you. Now it could be that John was talking to the individuals in his audience that day and probably was, but it could also be, and I think it is more likely, that Mark has him speaking to us, the Church in every generation who reads this verse. After all, these words were recorded for us and we read them. Right? So I suspect that even though these words were uttered a long while ago by a preacher we would surely not listen to then any more than now, the words nevertheless mean something to us or at least should.
I also noticed this: John makes a connection between power, baptism, and the Spirit in verse 7-8 and then in verse 9-11 he makes another connection between power, crucifixion, and Jesus. Here's how I see this. Mark uses a word in verse 10 when Jesus is baptized that our Bible's have translated 'ripped' or 'torn.' There's nothing particularly fancy about this word in Greek. We sometimes transliterate it as 'schism.' The interesting thing about this word, though, is that Mark only uses it's verb form two times. Once, here in Mark 1:10 at Jesus' baptism and again in Mark 15:38–at Jesus' crucifixion: "The curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom." So, if I hear Mark, and I think I do, he is saying there is a serious connection between this Jesus who comes in power, who baptizes us in the Holy Spirit, and his crucifixion.
The crucifixion and the necessary resurrection are both a part of this powerful arrival of the Spirit of power.
Here's my point: this is what John the baptist preached. Look what Mark wrote: And this was his message. Or: And he was (continually) preaching saying. He was constantly preaching to whoever would listen that someone was coming who would do things in power of the Spirit. This echos the Older Testament prophets who made similar statements. In particular Zechariah who said, "This is the Word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: 'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty." (4:6). Now John says that this Spirit is the power of Jesus and that it was beginning with the arrival of Jesus and that it's full manifestation was to be realized at his crucifixion and resurrection. This is why he makes the connection between Jesus' baptism and his crucifixion.
This is what the prophets preached. John was another in that long line of Israelite prophets who announced this powerful arrival. Paul the apostle would later make this connection too when he wrote to the church at Corinth: "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power" (1 Corinthians 4:20). The kingdom is about power. The prophets said it. John clarified it. Jesus brought it. Paul preached it. The Spirit is it. Here it is: the power of the church is the presence of the Holy Spirit.
It just so happens that this morning I listened to a rather old lecture by Professor NT Wright from 2012. In this lecture, he made something of a similar point as I am making here. He said:
"The way God rescues people from sin and death is by overthrowing all the powers that held them captive. And the way he does that is not with superior firepower of the same kind, but with a different sort of power altogether…The power that is let loose transformatively in the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it will continue to work until every tongue confess and every knee bow."–NT Wright, How God Became King: Why We've All Misunderstood the Gospels (my emphasis)
So what am I saying? And how does all this tie together? What does visiting churches around the area where I live come into play here? What does the church need? Now? Well, I think it's rather simple, isn't it? The church needs prophets who will proclaim this message of the power of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. John didn't come in any fancy way. He came as a prophet of old, like Elijah. He used words that reminded us of Zechariah and Isaiah (or quoted them outright). He's the one prophesied by Malachi. He preached a message that pointed unalterably to Jesus–the one who came with power and the Spirit.
John didn't come doing miracles. John didn't come from a high class of people. He didn't stand in the temple. He didn't write books or anything like that. He simply, continually, preached the good news, the Gospel, that God was beginning to do what he had promised he was going to do: return to his temple and set all people free from the bonds of captivity and exile. There had been 400 years of silence, sin, and exile in Israel–490 years said Daniel–and this is what God did: He sent a prophet to proclaim his Good News. Nothing more. Nothing less. He sent a preacher to preach, prepare, and proclaim in power the coming of Jesus.
John came along and simply said: you want to be free? The power to set you free is in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
That is power!
I think this is what the church needs now. We live in desperate times, don't we? People are desperate for hope and healing and many churches and christians do little more than point to a political candidate and say 'vote for her or him.' Churches keep plodding along as they always have–but with remarkably little demonstration of the Spirit's power. Some are old and dying and plodding along. Some are new and living and plodding along. But where is the Word of God? Where are the prophets? Where is the Spirit? Where is the Power? We will get things done not by strength and might but by the Spirit of God. How are we, as the prophets of God, manifesting this Spirit of power, the Spirit of God here, among ourselves and in the world in general?
Or is the church devoid of prophets?
How can we get out of the way so that the Spirit's power is evident among us?
How can we preach in such a way that when we are finished people will know that Jesus is arriving? How can we preach with such power that people know who empowers us?
What the church needs right now is the sort of prophets who will stand up, like John did, and take their place among the long history of Israelite prophets who proclaimed God's enduring message of hope that in Jesus God is becoming King of this world for all people and that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess.
So here's a further point: it makes no difference if the church is small and dying or if the church is large and living. The same power is available to both and ought to be manifest in and among both. The same Holy Spirit of Jesus is available to the dying church as the living church. And perhaps if more dying churches recognized this there would be less dying churches. And if the living churches recognized this perhaps their fruit would be even greater.
Most of what we preach in the church is superfluous. Seriously. What we need in the church is prophets. Prophets who stand up and proclaim the unfiltered, unadulterated, Word of God. I'm tired of fluff. How are we, as the church, demonstrating the power of the Spirit of God among us?
I want power. Let's hear the prophets speak and so say with the congregations of generations gone by: Maranatha! Come Holy Spirit!
Or maybe our prophets will speak so powerfully, as a demonstration of the Spirit, that the Spirit will simply come among us, shake the place where we are meeting, and enable more of us to go forth and proclaim the Good News that Jesus is King!
Part 2 of 3: What the Church Needs to be Preaching. Now.
In part one of this short series of posts, I talked about what I think the church needs to be doing now, namely, preparing the way for the coming of Jesus. By preparing the way, I mean: calling people to repentance. It may seem simple and, perhaps, a wee bit out of sync with all the fancy things that churches are told they ought to be doing, but it seems to me that everyone needs to repent–including the church. In fact, the apostle Peter himself wrote: "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). Funny that Peter said this to the Church!
My point is, hopefully clearly, that there is always room for repentance and that perhaps this ought to form more our core message even today.
So there's that. John preached repentance. Jesus preached it. Paul preached it. Peter preached it. Clearly this is an important aspect of our preaching. But there's also another important part of our preaching that I want to explore in this short post. It has to do with the Kingdom.
For whatever reason, I can count on my one hand the number of sermons I have heard about the Kingdom in the local church. One sermon stands out because I was still in college at the time and didn't understand a single word the preacher preached. He preached from Matthew 13 and used Robert Farrar Capon's book The Parables of the Kingdom and its rather complicated (at the time for me) text to expound upon what Jesus was saying about the Kingdom. To this day I'm not sure I understand what the preacher said that Sunday or what Capon wrote in his book.
Scott McKnight has done a superior job teaching us about the Kingdom. His book Kingdom Conspiracy was a shockingly devastating book that nails it from the first page to the last. I took a lot from the book. Here's one thing McKnight wrote:
Kingdom mission flows from the kingdom story, and that story focuses on on God at work in history as God brings that history to its focal point in Jesus as King. That kingdom story, then, focuses on God as King through King Jesus. That story counters all other stories, especially stories that make humans kings and queens and thereby become stories of idolatry. […] This kingdom story tells the story of a kingdom; kingdom is a people, and that means kingdom mission is about forming the people of God. That is, the kingdom mission forms a kingdom people and that kingdom people in the present world is the church. This means kingdom mission is all about forming and enhancing local churches as expressions of the kingdom of God in this world. Which leads us back to a central reality of kingdom theology: there is no kingdom without a King. (123)
He says on the next page, which also happens to be the first page of chapter 8 "The King of the Kingdom", this: "Indeed, God is king, but God rules through his Son, the Messiah, the Lord, King Jesus." (125)
A little later he writes, "This ideal-king psalm [Psalm 72] leads to one of the most important observations about kings and kingdoms: kings determine what their kingdoms are like" (his emphasis, 128).
There is so much more I'd love to share, but this is a short post and you really should get your own copy of the book. But here's the point, from Mark 1:1: "The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus the Messiah." He then goes on to tell the story of Jesus: the things Jesus said, the things Jesus did, the places Jesus visited, the people Jesus interacted with, and the things Jesus preached. So, from the get go of Mark's Gospel, we, the readers, know that this is the Gospel (good news) about Jesus.
A few verses later, Mark tells us that John the baptist had been put in prison and that Jesus picked up where John left off. Mark wrote, "Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God. 'The time has come,' he said, 'the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the Gospel'" (Mark 1:14-15). Well this is certainly interesting isn't it? Mark says the Gospel is about Jesus, the Messiah. Then John prepared the way for this Gospel to be preached. Then Jesus came on the scene preaching this same Gospel. And Mark uses the same word in all three places: 1:1, 14, and 15 all contain the word 'gospel' (or, as some translations say, 'good news.')
What are we to make of this? Well, if I may put a very sharp point on this, I will say: Jesus went around preaching…himself. The good news, or Gospel, is Jesus. Jesus preached that the kingdom of God was 'near' (interestingly, after he started preaching) and that because of this proximity, we ought to…wait for it…repent and believe the gospel! This is remarkable, isn't it?
Now, I think about this. The content of the Gospel is Jesus (of course this is fleshed out for us in several places; 1 Corinthians 15 comes to mind). It's what Jesus preached–and somehow this good news about Jesus, this Gospel, is related to this Kingdom of God he also proclaimed as near. We need to think about how, in our pulpits, we are going to make this connection both central and clear. We need to be telling a different story from our pulpits. We need to be constructing a different mission in our churches. We need to be preaching a different kingdom in our congregations. We need to be assuring the church and the not-church that Jesus is king, has received all authority in heaven and earth, and will be returning to claim his rightful place as King of this world.
We need to talk about the good news that Jesus is King. That Jesus rules.
In short: we need to be talking an awfully, significantly, larger amount about Jesus. We need to talk about the things Jesus did: he did miracles, he showed compassion, he demonstrated God's mercy, he loved unconditionally. And we need to talk about these things not as mere object lessons for how we can live better lives, but for the sake of themselves, for the sake of Jesus. In other words, these are the things Jesus did that characterize the Kingdom he said was near! Are we talking about them in our churches? Why do they matter? Why did Jesus do them? What do they signify or point to? What do they tell us about Jesus?
We need to talk about the things Jesus said. What did he say about himself? What did he say about the Kingdom? What did he say about humanity's need for repentance? What did he say about God's wrath, God's love, God's mercy, God's church, and the way of life he called us to? Jesus said his life was defined by the cross and resurrection. He told us that our way of life will be defined by taking up our cross, denying ourselves, and following him. Well, what are we saying about this life? What did Jesus say about the kingdoms of this world? What did he say about the end of exile, forgiveness of sins, and return to the Land? And again: we ought to talk about these things as part of the meta-narrative they are embedded in and not as if they were merely ways to help us live a better Americanized version of Christianity. We tell of the things Jesus said because Jesus said them. They are his words to us! We ought to listen to what he said. And we ought to preach them.
What story are we telling in the church? The world has all sorts of narratives out there floating around and many people are falling for them hook, line, sinker, and bobber. What story are we telling? Are we merely telling the story of mere salvation? Is it a mere join the club kind of thing? Or is it something greater, grander, better, bigger, badder, more magnificent and spectacular, and grandiose–and I'll run out of adjectives before I can run out of talking about the peculiar beauty and power that is the Kingdom of God Jesus was telling us about in his story. It's sad when our politicians speak more about Jesus than the church does. Jesus didn't call us to spend a lot of our efforts preaching theology–as important as that is–but he did tell us to spend a lot of time talking about himself. Jesus is the Way. Jesus is the Life. Jesus is living water. Jesus is the bread of Life. Jesus is truth. Jesus is the Resurrection. Jesus is I Am. That's who and what we ought to preach.
I wonder: are we selling people short by not telling them this story? It's a better story, isn't it? I'm not content with the stories of this world. I want a better story. I'm willing to bet there are other folks who feel the exact same way. So let's tell them the story of Jesus–for the sake of Jesus and nothing else. When people come to the church, they should hear the story of Jesus–for the sake of Jesus. I think Jesus is far less concerned about us leading 'good' lives here in America than he is about his kingdom being proclaimed and the good news about himself being heralded from our pulpits.
So the question remains: What ought the church to be preaching? Now? I think the answer is simple: Jesus.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
Part 1 of 3: What the Church Needs to be Doing. Now.
Been thinking about church. I do that a lot for some reason. It's not like I have anything else to do with my time. (/sarcasm). The truth is, I'm fairly heavily involved with my local church through helping lead worship (singing, playing guitar, reading Scripture), teaching a Bible school class, and teaching at a small, local Bible College. I also do pulpit supply whenever I can, wherever I can. I wish every day was Sunday, sometimes.
I have a love/hate relationship with the church. I have spent my entire life married to the church. It has seen my best days (baptism, wedding) and my worst days (termination, heartbreak). I am almost 46 and the church has never not been a part of my life in some way, some shape, or other. So this post isn't about any church in particular, it's about the church in general. It's a short sermon sans a pulpit.
Here's the first of three things the church ought to consider when the church considers its appearance and mission to the world. All three will be drawn from Mark's Gospel, chapter 1.
First, preparing the way. The last thing faithful Israelites heard from the prophets before a what must have been a dreadfully long 400 year silence, was this: "I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me…I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes" (Malachi 3:1, 4:5). There's a lot more to Malachi's thoughts, but this is where Mark's Gospel begins. That is, he begins by telling his readers that this is what the prophet(s) said, and this is what happened, "And so John the baptist appeared in the wilderness" (Mark 1:4a).
I doubt seriously this is what people had in mind. Maybe they expected some flashbang or shock and awe. Maybe they thought about fire from heaven or miracles galore. Maybe they thought and end to the Roman occupation with a giant military coup. Yet there was John. Preaching a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." So, it seems, what Mark is telling us is this: the way John prepared the way for the Lord's arrival, the way he prepared people for the appearance of the Lord in his temple, was this: Take personal inventory of your sin and repent. Imagine that such a task–preparing the way of the Lord–could be accomplished with such an unflashy medium. Preaching: repentance.
This is decidedly not how we prepare the way of the Lord in the church. Instead we draw them in with fidgets and gadgets and gimmicks. And all churches do it. To an extent, some churches even make repentance a gimmick. John did nothing fancy. He simply went out and preached that people needed to repent. Interestingly enough, when Jesus took up the mantle of gospeling after John was put in prison, he did the same thing: "The time has come. The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15). John didn't even draw people in with supernatural power. He went as far away from them as he could in fact–the wilderness. He didn't hang out at all the swank places eating rich fair–he simply at locusts. He didn't look particularly fashionable–he wore scratchy camel hair and a belt. Yet people went to him. And listened. And were baptized by him.
Maybe there is something to what John was doing? Maybe the Lord knew what he was doing? Maybe we need to imitate John? Maybe part of our preaching objectives ought to be calling people to repentance from their sin?
How is it that such a simple message was able to prepare a generation of people for the arrival of the Lord in his temple? And why don't we do more of this in our churches? I mean, isn't the Lord going to return someday to claim his bride? Maybe the best message that the church can preach to the world and to the church is that they and we need to repent.
I've been thinking about it. There's a lot to do in the church in America, here in the last days. Maybe it is time for the church to stop pushing a gospel of America and to start preaching repentance again. It's just a thought. Maybe it is time for the church to abandon all the tricks and gimmicks and all the sermon series' about How a Good American Can Have a Happy Outlook on Life.
Maybe it's time for real power in our pulpits again.
I saw the other day in my Twitter feed where someone quoted a certain political candidate as saying if he is elected to the presidency Christians will have power in this country. Everyone knows that such statements are merely populist in nature, but if it has even a thread of truth in it, the church ought to be afraid. The church doesn't need power (and I'll demonstrate this in a future post). The church needs prophets. The power will come, but not from politicians. This is all another post. In the second post, I'll write about preaching the Kingdom.
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?