Tag Archives: Christ

God’s People, part 88: Zedekiah

Read 2 Kings 25:1-26

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“But Zedekiah did what was evil in the LORD’s sight, just as Jehoiakim had done.” (Jeremiah 52:2 NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

ZedekiahPart 88: Zedekiah. Zedekiah was the great-grandson of Josiah; however, he wasn’t even half of the king that his great-grandfather was. Following the death of Josiah, the third eldest son of the great king succeeded him. This certainly attests to the fact that Josiah must have seen him as being in line with his agenda and policies; however, Johoahaz reigned for only three short months before being deposed by the Eyptian Pharaoh Necho II, and was exiled to Egypt.

The Kingdom of Judah was given over to Jehoiakim, Josiah’s second eldest son. At first, he was a vassal of the Egyptian Pharaoh until Egypt was beseiged and conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. At that point Jehoiakim switched allegiance to avert the destruction of Jerusalem. As a part of the agreement, Jehoiakim paid a tribute from the national treasury, handed over Temple artifacts, and handed over some of the royal family and nobility as hostages to the ruthless Babylonian king.

Eventually, however, Jehoiakim switched his allegiance back to Egypt and sealed his own fate and the fate of Jerusalem. Jehoiakim died during the first Babylonian seige of Jerusalem and was succeeded by Jechoniah (aka Jehoiachin), Josiah’s grandson and Jehoiakim’s son. Three months later, fearing retribution from a possibly vengeful king, Nebuchadnezzar deposed Jechoniah and replaced him with his son, Josiah’s great-grandson, Zedekiah. It wasinto this treacherous and precarious situation that his reign began.

Zedekiah proved to be a head-strong young king who was determined on revolting against the great Babylonian king, which sealed his fate. It was during his rule that Jeremiah was prophesying. The great prophet’s counsel, and the counsel of the Zedekiah’s other advisers and family member, was to acquiesce to Babylon’s rule and spare Jerusalem and it’s people from certain disaster. Jeremiah’s message was that it was because of Judah’s sin and pride that they were in this predicament to begin with. The prophet counseled Zedekiah to humble himself and remain a vassal king of Nebuchadnezzar.

Zedekiah, on the other hand, had other ideas and he, following the example of his grandfather, allied himself with Egypt and revolted against the Babylonians. This, sadly, ended in Jerusalem being beseiged for two long years. The author of 2 Kings wrote: “By July 18 in the eleventh year of Zedekiah’s reign, the famine in the city had become very severe, and the last of the food was entirely gone. Then a section of the city wall was broken down. Since the city was surrounded by the Babylonians, the soldiers waited for nightfall and escaped through the gate between the two walls behind the king’s garden. Then they headed toward the Jordan Valley” (2 Kings 25:3-4 NLT).

The results were catastrophic. Babylon beseiged the city, meaning that they blocked anything and/or anyone from getting into the city, and they blocked anything and/or anyone from getting out of the city. That resulted in famine within the walls of Jerusalem, and people starving to death. Some resorted to cannibalism and, eventually, Jerusalem was so weak that Nebuchadnezzar could just waltz into the city and take it with very little resistance. Once he did, he slaughtered tons of people, took treasures out of the Temple, and leveled the Temple to the ground.

The priests, scribes, nobles and other prominent people were taken alive from Jerusalem and exiled to Babylon. Zedekiah took a secret escape route out of the city, but was caught by Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers. They slaughtered his sons as he watched and then gouged out Zedekiah’s eyes. The deaths of his sons was the last thing, literally, that Zedekiah would see.

The challenge for us here is humility? Are we like Zedekiah, too proud to listen to painfully true advice, or are we the type of people who swallow our pride, listen to good advice, and make the necessary changes in order to avoid catastrophe? If we are the former, we can expect that we will, at some point, find ourselves humbled by the catastrophic unintended consequences of our pride; however, if we are the latter, then will be honoring God and following in the footsteps of Christ, who embodied humility. Let us all, by the power of the Holy Spirit, find ourselves walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Jesus of Nazareth in the New Living Translation of Matthew 23:12

PRAYER
Lord, keep us humble so that we may not stumble on our pride. Amen.

God’s People, part 83: Isaiah

Read Isaiah 6

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“So Isaiah the prophet asked the Lord to do this, and he caused the shadow to move ten steps backward on the sundial of Ahaz!” (2 Kings‬ ‭20:11‬ ‭NLT‬‬)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

 Part 83: Isaiah. Isaiah is a name well-known in Christianity because of the prophetic book named after, and traditionally considered to be written by, the prophet. While Christians may not know much about the prophet himself, they know some of his famous prophecies such as, the virgin birth (Isaiah 7:14), pastoral images of heaven such as the lion laying down with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6), and other such prophecies in which Christians see fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Isaiah was a prophet who was actively prophesying for 64 years. He played an adviosry role with a number of kings. His early ministry started in the last few years of King Uzziah and he died under the reign of King Hezekiah, whom he was influential in advising. With that said, not all of Isaiah’s ministry was smooth and easy. A number of years were spent standing up to the wickedness of King Ahaz. In fact, Isaiah 7 was written as a message to be sent to that wicked king.

In that chapter of the prophet’s book that God challenges Ahaz to demand a “sign”. The king refused the challenge and answered in a “religiously correct” way. He said, “I will not ask for a sign. I refuse to put the LORD to the test.” Yet, the king was insincere and Isaiah called him out on it. He may not have asked God for a test; however, he was TESTING God’s patience with all of the injustice and unrighteousness Ahaz and his courts were engaging in. God had enough and sent Isaiah to call him out on it.

It is to Ahaz that Isaiah declared that God would, indeed, provide a sign anyway. The sign would be a “virgin” or a “young woman” giving birth to a child. This child would one day grow up to be righteous, to reject what is wrong, and before fully maturing destruction would come upon the wicked king. This prophecy, in the moment, was announcing the end of Ahaz’ reign. Of course, as with all reigns, Ahaz’ did come to an end and his son, Hezekiah, was a righteous king.

With that said, it is wrong to only read the prophecy as having to do with Ahaz. God was announcing the end of the wicked world order. While Hezekiah may have been righteous, he was still sinful in some areas, and most of the kings who succeeded him fell short of even his standard, let alone Gods. This prophecy, through the eyes of those who knew him and came to believe in him, pointed right to Jesus Christ who would reject wrong and live a perfectly righteous life. It is the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ that sets God’s plan of redemption and the upheaval of the wicked world order in place.

Powerful words for Isaiah to deliver to a king who, know doubt, might have had Isaiah thrown in prison or executed. Yet, the bold prophet was not always so bold. At the outset of his call, according to his own words in Isaiah 6, the Isaiah had a vision of God. The vision was so intense that he feared he might die from having looked upon God’s holy presence as a sinful man. As is a common human experience, Isaiah could not believe that God was choosing him. Clearly he was wrong and, when God affirmed his call in the vision, Isaiah’s response was “Here I am, Lord send me.”

From that point on, everything changed for Isaiah, who went down as one of the most influential prophets in the history of Israel. The same is true for you. As you read this, you are probably thinking, “Who? Me? I am not called! Not me!” That, my friend, is the response most of us have when we feel God’s call. Let me put it this way, God is calling you! God is calling us all. You may be called in the same way as me, or you may be called differently than me, but you are called. The question is, what will your response be? If you answer yes to the call, I can promise you this, nothing will ever be the same again! Everything will change for you and for the world around you. May it be so.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

Denial is a common human response, but it seldom exacts any change.

PRAYER

Lord, here I am. Show me what you are calling me to do and send me to do it. Amen.

God’s People, part 51: King David

Read 2 Samuel 4

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Then David called one of the young men and said, ‘Come here and strike him down.’ So he struck him down and he died.” (2 Samuel 1:15 NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Weltchronik_Fulda_Aa88_286r_detailPart 51: King David. When people think of David, they think of shepherd boy, they think of a poet and a songwriter, they think of a giant killer, and they think of a “sweeping”, somewhat wrong, romantic affair between him and Bathsheba. Usually that latter one gets brushed over because, after all, the affair resulted in the eventual birth of Solomon the wise. Maybe I am overstating this a little bit; however, if so I am only overstating it A LITTLE BIT.

On the one hand, David was called “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14); yet, on the other hand, David was a man far removed from the heart of God. If you read the Bible closely, between the lines of the sometimes seemingly flowery accounts of David’s life and reign, you begin to piece together a starker, and more disturbing, portrait of the “great king”. In fact, some of David’s patterns and actions are downright loathsome.

First, while David claims to harbor no ill will toward Saul’s family following Saul’s death, family members start turning up dead left and right. The pattern is always the same, 1) David commands his men to do no harm to a specific person. To make this easier to follow, we’ll call said person “Bob”. 2) Someone from David’s men go rogue and kill Bob anyway. 3) The rogue agent returns to David all proud and happy that he did his king a favor. 4) David is infuriated with the rogue agent, is “grieved”, and has the rogue agent put to death.

This happens in nearly every case, including in the case of his eldest son, Absalom. Let’s pause and stop to consider this. As a king, David has absolute power over his army, over his subjects, and over his whole kingdom. That is a fact of monarchy. This means that one of the following is true: either 1) David is an incompetent leader who has absolutely no control over his own kingdom/army and, subsequently, commands no respect from his subordinates, or 2) David ordered his men to do things that he later covered up by acting outraged and having the assassin put to death.

While we would like to think the former, I think the pattern gives us a reason to suspect the latter. David was a skilled warrior, a top notch general, and a brilliant strategizer. He conquered and unified a divided kingdom, and he defeated all the enemies surrounding Israel. What is the likeliness that this leader, this king, would have no control over his men and would command no respect from them? Also, even if one or two did make the mistake of going rogue, wouldn’t the others have seen the consequences of that and not fallen into the same pitfall?

I think David deserves more credit than being labeled incompetent, and so do his men. Unfortunately, that also means that David comes out a lot less “a man after God’s own heart” than we would like him to, which makes perfect sense when we look at his sordid, scandalous affair with Bathsheba, an affair that ended with the loss of a child, causing a major division of his family and, ultimately, causing the destructive division that split the very kingdom he fought so hard to unite. But we will talk more about that major faux pas in the next devotion.

The point is, David was sometimes a great man, a great artist, a courageous leader, and a great king; however, there was a much darker side to him as well. Sometimes David was a despotic tyrant and a monster. What we see in David is, if we are honest, what we see in ourselves: great complexity. God created us good and fashioned us in God’s own image. God made us human beings after God’s own heart; however, our sinful nature has removed memory of that fact far from us and we often find the monsters (or demons) within us coming out with relish. The challenge today is to, like David did in Psalm 51, recognize our sinful nature and repent of it to our Lord Jesus Christ. Only through repentance can we find the gift of redemption that awaits us through Christ our Savior.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY Through David, the worldly messiah (messiah means “anointed one”), came tyranny, division, destruction and an end. Through Jesus, God’s Messiah and only begotten Son, comes reconciliation, redemption, salvation, sanctification and a Kingdom without end.

PRAYER Lord, clear the way to you in my heart that I may find my salvation and sanctification in you. Amen.

God’s People, part 1: Eve

Read Genesis 2:4-25; 3:1-24

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Then the man—Adam—named his wife Eve, because she would be the mother of all who live.” (Genesis 3:20 NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly are like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

AdamAndEve01Part 1: Eve. When we think of Eve, we tend to think in negative and sexual terms. That last one may make you uncomfortable to read, but it is true. Eve is commonly known as the mother of us all, but only because she chose to disobey God and lured Adam to do the same. Her sin, as it is commonly understood, led women into having labor pains and to the establishment of patriarchy (aka women being under the dominion of men). Sadly, our common way of understanding things does an injustice to Eve herself, and it has been damning for women throughout the millennia.

I also think that our tradition, in this regard, does an injustice to the Scriptures themselv es, as I think we tend to lay more blame on Eve than we do on Adam. My reading and interpretation of Scriptures leads me to a different place. By focusing on the sin of Eve, we also miss the beauty of her inherent goodness that is a reflection of the divine image of God. While the story has Eve coming from man, it is only because God realized that man was incomplete without woman. The story is kind of comical in how it is structred because God sets out to create a partner for Adam and has to give it a couple of attempts before getting it right.

The first time round God gave Adam animals, but ended up finding out that humans and animals don’t make a good match. Then God tries again and this time puts Adam asleep and forms woman from Adam’s rib. In other words, Eve was not a sheep or a donkey or a horse or any other animal. Eve was another human being like Adam, made from the same flesh and blood. The important thing to note is that Eve completed Adam.

Yes, Eve did sin, but it is important to realize that it was Adam who God told not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That was a direct command from God to Adam before Eve was even created. Presumably, as the story never specifies, Adam told Eve; however, it’s no wonder that Eve was the vulnerable target for the shrewd and crafty serpent. She had less of an understanding  as to why they could not eat from that tree, and so the serpent lured her in. Despite that, Adam is still culpable because he was the one who truly knew better.

Yet, that still misses the ultimate point being made here. Eve did not let her sin weigh her down. She became the mother of all despite many painful and tragic circumstances. Also, while sin may have entered the world through the first people, so did true LOVE. Why, you might ask? Because, through Adam and Eve’s choice came God’s plan of redemption through Jesus Christ, who is the ultimate embodiment of God’s faithful, unconditional love. Christ is the clear choice God has given us in regard to away out of our sin and back into a relationship with our Creator.

We all make choices and those choices all bear consequences. But that does not make us any less God’s people. The story of Eve drives that point home. Eve did not let sin have the final word and, as such, she became a part of God’s redemption plan as God would choose to become one of her descendents and redeem the world. God does not want you mired by your choices or their consequences, but wants you to move forward from them, like Eve did, and allow God to guide you toward being who you were created to be.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Grace is a much more accurate word to use when dealing with the state of human existence. God gives us unmerited favor through Jesus Christ, and since Adam and Eve, our lives have depended on it.” – Monica Johnson

PRAYER
Lord, I acknowledge that I am a sinner. Still, despite my sin, give me the perseverance of Eve who moved beyond her sin, was fruitful and multiplied. Because of Eve’s faithful perseverance, your Son Jesus Christ came into the world and conquered sin and death. Amen.

Itinerant

Read Romans 15:14-33

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’” (Acts 9:15-16 NLT)

pauloftarsusJust last night I was watching the film, “Paul the Apostle”. I am imagining you can tell who the film was about just by looking at the title. It is basically the Acts of the Apostles (aka the Book of Acts) acted out on the screen. It follows Saul, a young Pharisee who is determined to zealously follow God at all costs. Even as Peter and the disciples are receiving the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and preaching to the masses about their risen Lord Jesus Christ, Saul is looking to zealously serve God by putting an end to the Jesus movement. This Saul eventually ends up approving of, and aiding in, the martyrdom of Stephen.

From there, Saul goes on to wage a bloody and violent campaign of persecution, hunting down all who would call themselves followers of the Christ. Yet, Saul was about to have a transformation unlike any of the other Apostles had ever gone through, let alone hoped it would happen to their fiercest of enemies. On the road to Damascus, Paul was blinded by a bright light and he heard the voice of Christ, whom he was persecuting, telling him to go to Damascus and wait there for Ananias to come and heal him. Of course, this does happen three days later and, upon receiving his sight back, he is told by Ananias that God has called him to be an Apostle to the Gentiles and that he (Paul) will learn how he will suffer for the Gospel.

I will now fast forward to the end of the movie, which is also where the Acts of the Apostles ends. Saul, who now goes by his Roman name Paul, is about to board a ship as a prisoner being sent to Rome. In between Paul’s awakening to the truth of Jesus the Christ and the end of his story in Acts, Paul had been on three missionary trips around the known world at the time. He had traveled throughout Judaea, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and back again. Now, he would be traveling to Rome to appeal his case before the Emperor. As we all know it, Paul would never return home again.

Paul had practiced an itinerant ministry, meaning that he didn’t just stay in one church community but moved from place to place as the Holy Spirit led him. His ministry was not to just one person, or one church community, but to all people. As John Wesley once said, the world was Paul’s parish and he had all intentions of going to Rome (albeit he was not intending to go as a prisoner) and even up to Spain should God will it. Itineracy was a reality for the Apostles and the early Christians.

In the film, as Paul was about to board the ship, his former mission partner, Barnabas, said to him, “The Lord is a hard taskmaster, too hard for me today.” Indeed, Barnabas knew he would never see his friend, his brother in Christ, ever again. He knew that Paul would go to Rome, preach to the people there and eventually find himself on the wrong side of Caesar. He knew that his beloved Paul, the one he had shared so many journeys, trials and tribulations with would become another martyr for the faith. “The Lord is a hard taskmaster, too hard for me today.”

As I sit here reflecting on the ministry of the early church, as well as my ministry, I can relate with that. I can relate with the human need for keeping things the same, for keeping things familiar, for keeping things comfortable. I have been serving in my current church for the past 5 years. During that time, I have come to love this community and I am honored to be the pastor of such a great church with a great Spirit. Yet, God does not call me to stay in one place, but to be itinerant and open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Now, after five years of awesome ministry here at my current church, I am being called to serve in another one.

This is, of course, bittersweet for me. I will miss serving alongside my current church family; however, I also look forward to what God is calling me to in the future. One thing that I have learned, and something that I would like to impart to all of you who read these devotions (I will keep writing the devotions no matter where God sends me), is that God never promises us easy or comfortable. What God promises to us, if we are faithful, is that God will be with us through thick and thin. I trust that to be true, and I have experienced its truth.

The challenge for all of us is to develop that kind of trust. God is calling you somewhere too. For church members, unlike itinerant ministers, it does not mean God is calling you to leave your church family to go elsewhere (though some in the church do get called to be missionaries in other lands); however, like Ananias, God is calling you to move within your community and to go and spread the Good News. Whether that is at work, at school, at the diner, or in other places around your community, God is calling you to be willing to be moved by the Holy Spirit and to go outside your church walls and into the community around you. I pray we all answer that call.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
PRAYER
Lord, open my heart up to your movement and send me to the places in my community you need me the most. Amen.

The Lion

Read Daniel 6

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10 NRSV)

the-chronicles-of-narnia-the-lion-the-witch-and-the-wardrobe-52212a00a5e0bWe live in a culture that strives for safety. We want our churches to be safe, we develop safe zones for our students at universities, we eliminate any lunchtime activities that might not be safe, and we go out of our way to associate with people and places that share our worldview so that our worldviews are safe. We avoid talking about religion and politics at the dinner table, or anywhere else for that matter, to keep safe from opposing viewpoints. We are a culture that is mired in the desire for safety.

In fact, the need for safety has grown since September 11, 2001. The more unsafe we feel, the more we seek to FEEL SAFE; that is a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle because the more we strive to feel safe, the less safe we actually feel. If that is not the case, then it is surely the case that the more we strive to feel safe, the more the world reminds that we are not, which causes us to strive to feel more safe. Regardless, “saftey is a virtue” for many people.

The need for safety carries out beyond just what was mentioned above. It crosses over into our faith journeys as well. In churches, we avoid preaching about controversial topics in order to keep people feeling safe. We avoid having discussions around social issues so that no one is offended and everyone feels safe. Sometimes we avoid even talking about Jesus Christ because that might be too “threatening” to some or, if we do talk about Jesus, we dilute what we say so that people feel safe.

Now, you might be asking the following question: what is wrong with feeling safe? Shouldn’t we aspire to keep people safe? Shouldn’t we strive to give people a sense of security? Should we be striving to create sanctuary in our churches, and aren’t sanctuaries “safe” by definition? My response is following, are we truly creating a “sanctuary” when we create a false illusion of “safety”? I think not. If all we are doing is pulling a ruse, a wool blanket, over people’s eyes, then we are not creating a sanctuary at all. What’s more, where in Scripture is safety defined as a moral goal or a virtue?

Was Abraham safe when left home on a hunch he should follow a God that could not be seen? Was J0seph safe when he prophetically told his brothers what their future was according to a dream God had given him? How about Jonah? Where did playing it “safe” land him? How about Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Esther, Ruth, David, Micah, Zecheriah, Nehemiah, Jesus, or the Apostles? Where do you see God calling them to remain safe?

One of my favorite stories, one I can relate to, is the story of Daniel. When Darius the King put out a decree that no foreigner was permitted to pray to their God so that they could show their loyalty to the king, did Daniel choose to play it safe? No, he prayed anyway and when he was caught he was thrown into a lion’s den to be eaten alive. I think it is “safe” (pun intended) to assume that there was nothing SAFE about that situation!

Yet, Daniel was not seeking a fasle sense of security or a false sense of safety, because Daniel’s faith led him to a place where he was TRULY SECURE. Daniel’s faith led him to dwell in God, who was present with him. Despite the deadly circumstance he found himself in, he was more secure than anyone of those who complied with the king’s orders, and GOD DID NOT FAIL HIM.

Our faith calls us to face lions because the one whom we have faith in IS THE LION OF LIONS! Our God does not promise us safety, but in God we have security! Every day, as a pastor, is another day that I am called to step out in faith and risk facing the lions waiting to consume me. Somedays, it feels as if those lions have taken their fair share of fatal chomps; yet, here I stand. I am still a pastor and I am still taking my daily steps of faith in service of the ONE TRUE LION! This is not just the call of a pastor, but the call of the church! This is the call of all who call themselves Christian and who make up the body of Christ. I pray that you choose to give up safety for the true security of faith!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.” – Tacitus

PRAYER
Lord, help me to let go of my need to be safe and seek security through my faith in you. Amen.

The Sermon, part 13: Be Perfect

Read Matthew 5:48

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“You must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 18:13 NRSV)

johnwesley
John Wesley preaching to the masses.

“But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NLT). Wait, what did Jesus just say? Did Jesus just tell his disciples, us included, that we are to be PERFECT? How can that be? Didn’t he, as the Son of God, know what Apostle Paul was going to write in Romans 3:23, “Everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (NLT)? Okay, I am being facetious here but, honestly, if all have sinned and no one is righteous, then how can anyone of us “be perfect”. It seems like either Jesus is out of touch or he’s a spiritual tyrant, demanding his “subjects” do the impossible.

In order to understand what is meant by this problematic command, “Be perfect”, we need to unpack our own understanding of the word “perfect” and the Western concept of “perfection” and juxtapose it with the Jewish understanding, which will give us a clew what Jesus was intending by this command. What makes interpreting Scripture difficult is that words often don’t translate perfectly from one language to the other, and this is a classic case of that.

Matthew, in writing Jesus’ words, is doing so in Greek. The Greek word for “perfect” is τελειος (pronounced tel’-i-os), meaning complete. This can be complete in terms of the completion of one’s tasks, it can refer to growth, as well as one’s moral character, among other meanings. The way this traditionally gets interpreted when the common person reads it in English, is that Jesus is calling for people to be morally perfect just as Gods is perfect. This misunderstanding causes frustration and/or it causes the reader to dilute the meaning to something less that what Jesus actually says.

Yet, it is important to note that, while Matthew is writing in Greek, he is pulling this word perfect from the LXX (the Greek compilation of the Hebrew Scriptures). The word “perfect” that Matthew is using can be found in passages such as Deuteronomy 18:13, which comes from the Hebrew word תָּמִים (pronounced taw-meem’). This word can mean “entire” (literally, figuratively, or morally). It can refer to integrity, being without blemish, being full, perfect, sincere, sound (as in sound judgment), undefiled, upright, and/or whole. One can see that, while the word “perfect” and “complete” do factor into both the Greek and the Hebrew words, there is a subtle, but important, difference between the two of them in terms of how to interpret them.

When looking at the context of Deuteronomy 18:13, one can see that being “blameless before lord” means to be “undefiled” in terms of following the Lord. Again, in context, the Israelites were being warned against only half-heartedly serving God and falling into the idolatrous practices of Gentiles, among whom they were living. So, in this context, the word is less speaking of moral perfection (in that one is morally “sinless” and, thefore, totally perfect in the sight of God), and is more or less calling God’s people into serving God wholeheartedly. In other words, don’t be tainted by the way the world does things; rather, be untainted and serve God wholeheartedly. Be wholly devoted to God, just as God is wholly devoted to you.

“You are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” This command, as you can see, is not demanding the impossible; rather, it is demanding what is due God: your whole heart! None of us are perfect, none of us are without sin, and Jesus is not demanding we try to attain perfection in that sense. Our Lord, is demanding that we devote ourselves wholly to God and be the antithesis to the WAY OF THE WORLD. With God’s help, we CAN and WILL attain such devotion.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as [some] seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance or mistake, or infirmities or temptations. Indeed, it is only another term for holiness. They are two names for the same thing. Thus every one that is perfect is holy, and every one that is holy is, in the Scripture sense, perfect.” – John Wesley, Christian Perfection (Sermon 40.9)

PRAYER
Lord, set me apart and make me holy. Perfect me so that, in you, I am perfect. I want to serve you wholeheartedly and devote my life in your service, not the worlds. Amen.

The Sermon, part 4: Law or Prophets

Read Matthew 5:17-19

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“‘But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,’ says the LORD. ‘I will put My instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people.’” (Jeremiah 31:33 NLT)

p1010002_edited-1Jesus prefaces his sermon with today’s passage and, in fact, the whole of Jesus’ message regarding the Law in the Sermon on the Mount is book-ended between Matthew 5:17 and 7:12. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” This text has often been glossed over, underwritten, and overstated by various different people trying to make sense about what Jesus is actually teaching.

It is important to note that Matthew’s Jesus sets up his teachings on the law with this statement. Historically speaking, Matthew’s community was following a much adjusted version of Judaism that, to many traditional Jews, didn’t seem a whole lot like Judaism. Even within the church, there was a major disagreement on what it meant to be a follower of Jesus, who was historically a Jewish rabbi. Can anyone follow Jesus and do they have to submit to and follow the Jewish law if they truly want to be one of Jesus’ followers?

Matthew’s community had to defend itself from claims that they were abandoning the ways and laws of Judaism. What’s more, Matthew and his community were mostly Greek-speaking diaspora Jewish Christians who lived in Syria, possibly in and around Antioch. With that historical context in mind, it makes perfect sense that Matthew includes Jesus beginning his Sermon in this Way. Jesus was Jewish and Jesus did not come to abolish or ignore the Law, the Torah, of God as given to Moses.

Yet, as mentioned above, this is only a preface to Jesus’ teaching on the law. Jesus neither denies or delegitimizes the Law, nor does he affirm the status quo. Instead, as we’ll see in upcoming devotions, Jesus shows that he is the fulfillment of the Law. He is not a fullfillment in the sense that Jesus did everything required by the Law without breaking it. It is quite clear in Matthew and the other Gospels that Jesus did break the Law (at least as it was understood by religious leaders his time period).
Jesus does not fulfill the Law in the sense that he provides a new interpretation of it, nor are his teachings a mere summary of the Laws in the Torah. Before I get into how Jesus claims he is the fulfillment of the Law, it is also important to note that Jesus says he not only fulfills the Laws but the prophets. Why the prophets? Because Jesus views both the Torah and the prophets (Joshua-2 Kings and Isaiah-Malachi) as being wholly prophetic and pointing to the end-time fulfillment of God’s reigning Kingdom.

In other words, the Torah (Law) and the prophets point to the coming of the Messiah who was to usher in the Kingdom of God. Jesus, in essence, prefaces his teachings on the Law with this claim: “I have come as a fulfillment of the eschatological promise found in the Law and the Prophets.” Another way that this could be expressed is, “The Law and the Prophets point to me!” Jesus’ use of the phrase, “I have come” (vs. 17) presumes that Jesus had come from and was sent by God.

Then, Matthew’s Jesus follows this up with a word to those Greek/Gentile Christians in his community who believed the Law was irrelevant and were lending credence to the argument of the Matthean community’s opponents that Christians disregarded the Torah. Jesus makes it clear, every commandment remains important. Witht that said, Matthew does not exclude those who hold this view from the Kingdom of Heaven; rather, they are “the least in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

While it is important to get the context behind these teachings, it is also equally important not to miss the overall point Jesus is making to all of his disciples, as well as to his opponents. God’s Law and the prophets both point to Jesus, the Christ, as. God’s eschatological (end-times) promise. Dismissing the Law, as well as upholding it as the end unto itself entirely misses the point. Both polar viewpoints are incorrect because they both completely ignore and pass by the very person the Law points to, namely Jesus Christ. To dismiss the Law as useless, is to do dismiss Jesus Christ. To render the Law to some sort of legalistic measure, is to render the fulfillment of that law as impossible. Today’s challenge is to let go of our biases and humble ourselves to place of student at the feet of the One who is God’s Law fulfilled.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“It is not wisdom but Authority that make a law.” – Thomas Hobbes

PRAYER
Lord, humble me that I may learn all that it is you have to teach me. Amen.

The Beatitudes, part 5: Hungry

Read Matthew 5:6; Luke 6:21a

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.” (Isaiah 58:10 NLT)

mother-teresa-feedingOne of the brilliant things that Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes brings to the table is that it provides us with a deeper and more profound understanding of the heart of Christ’s teachings. It is widely believed by scholars that the four Gospels drew the words and teachings of Jesus from the hypothetical “Q” source. It is nicknamed “Q” because it comes from the German word “Quelle”, which literally means “source.” I say that this source is “hypothetical” because there is no archaelogial proof or record of  it, however, Matthew and Luke seem to have been utilizing the same source material (both “Q” and the Gospel of Mark) for their Gospels. What’s more, they were doing so independent of one another, as each of the four Gospels were written in different places and times.

Many scholars believee that Luke’s account of what Jesus said in Luke 6:21a, is a direct quote of “Q”, as it presents the most simplified version of the Beatitude. The reasoning behind this is that typically, when humans change things, they do so by adding to something. In Luke 6:21a, Jesus says, “God blesses you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied”; however, in Matthew 5:6, Jesus is quoted as saying, “God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice,  for they will be satisfied.” It seems, on the surface anyhow, that while both are utilizing the same source for the quote, Matthew added to the quote in a way that Luke opted not to.

Of course, this is all educated speculation and it may or may not be the way it worked out in the writing and development of the Gospels; yet, it has led some to speculate that Matthew was “spiritualizing “Q” and, therefore, altering what Jesus was actually saying. I think that this is a grave mistake and has led some people to trivialize what Matthew’s account is undertaking. In Luke, Jesus’ beatitude blesses the physically famished. Period. “God blesses those who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied.”

In doing so, Luke’s Jesus is calling attention to the eschatological (aka “end of the age”) promise of God to right the wrongs of those who are poor, of those who are sorrowful, and of those who are hungry. It operates under the belief that God is working to bring justice into the world and, when that time comes, the world order as it exists today will cease to exist.

Matthew is ABSOLUTELY NOT in disagreement with Luke, and let’s not forget that Matthew wrote his Gospel prior to and separately from Luke. What’s remarkable here, in both independent accounts, is that we have what we can reasonably determine is an actual teaching of Jesus. The Gospels, despite differences in the accounts (which is a natural occurance when two different people are independently writing about the same person), truly do corroborate each other and convey the teachings of our Lord.

Matthew was not in disagreement with Luke, nor was Matthew “spiritualizing” the teaching found in “Q”. What Matthew’s Jesus is saying is that not only is Jesus calling attention to the eschatological promise of God in the Kingdom to come, but that God’s is actively working to bring that reality in the world as we speak. How, you ask? Because not only are people literally hungering and thirsting for food and drink, but people are hungering and thirsting for justice (also translated as righteousness) to be done. What’s more, it is not just the poor who hunger and thirst for such things; rather, all who truly follow Christ (and God) hunger and thirst for justice.

If one hungers and thirsts for something, they do not just it idly by and wait for some delivery truck to bring what they need. Instead, they actively seek what they need out. In other words, those who hunger and thirst for justice are actively seeking to do works of justice in the world around them. This is what Christ calls his disciples to do and this, in Matthew’s account, is the wisdom Jesus is imparting to his disciples and to those who are wishing to follow him. “Blessed are you who actively work to bring God’s justice into this injust world, for you will be satisfied in what you do and your work will not be in vain, neither now nor when God’s justice one day reigns supreme in the Kingdom to come. So the question for you to reflect on is this, are you bringing Jesus’ beatitude to life and, if not, are you willing to say, “Here I am, Lord! Send me!”?

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.” – Mother Teresa
PRAYER
Lord, I hunger and thirst for justice. Use me to be a blessing for those in need of it. Amen.

Religion and Politics

Read Luke 9:21-27

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
Today I appoint you to stand up against nations and kingdoms. Some you must uproot and tear down, destroy and overthrow. Others you must build up and plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10 NLT)

religion-politcs

There is nothing like a political campaign season to bring out the ugliness in people. One cannot go online without being barraged by people on all sides of any political divide, smearing everyone who thinks and views things differently than them. In this particular “Election 2016” cycle, things have descended to uncharted lows.

What’s more, the divide is not solely political either. There is a huge divide in terms of religion as well. Of course, religion has always been a divisive topic among Christians and other religious groups. There’s divisiveness within a religion, where people of the same religion are divided over doctrines, dogmas, and other such things. There’s also divisiveness between different religions as each fight to compete in whose religion holds the absolute truth.

In America, and in Western Civilization as a whole, people have become less willing to share their faith because they have come to see faith and religious believes as something that is personal and something that is to be private. What’s more, people have also come to believe that faith should not interfere with politics and vice versa. There is a whole history in Western Civilization that informs us on the dangers of religion and politics mixing. Even families are guarded against discussing the two, as the phrase goes, at the “dinner table” because they can often bring about heated and divisive arguments.

While this is often true and the mixture of politics with religion can be quite toxic and devastating, this has also led America and the Western world to a skewed and incorrect understanding of the role of religion in society. As we saw in the devotion series I wrote on the wrath of God, religion and politics are not mutually exclusive. The prophet is one who is called to speak out against injustice, against sin, against systemic evil and the societal abandonment of God.

In order for the prophet to fulfill her/his role, she or he must speak out against the ills that are plaguing society. Not just moral ills and not just social ills…but all ills. Prophets speak truth to power and, by doing so, push for societal/social/religious change. The prophet’s words are never “politically correct”, nor are they ever politically wanted. As a result, prophets often pay high social, political, and sometimes religious costs for daring to speak God’s word to the people.

What’s important to note here is that, while the prophet is not called to politicize God or Scripture, she or he’s message will inevitably have political effects and ramifications. By remaining silent and refusing to let God speak through us, we silence our prophetic voice and choose to remain complicit in the way of the world. The prophet is one who recognizes God is calling us to speak truth to power, to stand up against injustice and to push for the changing of the hearts of God’s people.

The question for us is, what is holding us back from being such a prophet? What is keeping us from speaking truth to power and standing up for what’s right? What is stopping us from choosing to not hide our faith away like some sort of “best kept secret”? What is stopping us from keeping our religion in the proverbial broom closet? Are we ashamed of our faith? Are we afraid of the consequences and of what others might think? Let us not shy away from our obligation to speak the truth and stand up for what is right. It may have political consequences, but far better that than the spiritual consequences of remaining silent through, complicit in and culpable for, the evil around us.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
We are not diplomats but prophets, and our message is not a compromise but an ultimatum. – A. W. Tozer

PRAYER
Lord, help me to speak the truth at all costs and steer me from turning a blind eye to the injustice in the world. Amen.