Tag Archives: Forgiveness

God’s People, part 91: Jonah

Read Jonah 4

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“As the crowd pressed in on Jesus, he said, “This evil generation keeps asking me to show them a miraculous sign. But the only sign I will give them is the sign of Jonah.” (Luke‬ ‭11:29‬ ‭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 91: Jonah. Thus far, we have covered the major prophets prior in the Hebrew Scriptures; however, before we follow the people of Judah into the Babylonian exile, there are several more prophets and/or figures we should pause to look at. One of them is a prophet who is very well-known because of the grandiosity of his story; however, with that said, very little is known about this prophet as a whole.

The prophet I am referring to, of course, is Jonah. In fact, scholars debate whether Jonah was a real prophet or not. There is, of course, an obscure reference to a prophet named Jonah in 2 Kings: “Jeroboam II recovered the territories of Israel between Lebo-hamath and the Dead Sea, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had promised through Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath-hepher” (2 Kings‬ ‭14:25‬ ‭NLT‬‬).‬‬

This leads me, and others, to believe that the book of Jonah was based the historical prophet mentioned in that book. Of course, the fact that there might have been a prophet named Jonah does not mean that the accounts in the book of Jonah were word-for-word historical. Jonah lived in the 8th century BCE, while the book was written somewhere between the 5th and the early 4th centuries BCE. The book itself is written in the style of a satire or a parody, and it may have been poking fun at a faction within Jewish society who were pushing for separationism. This faction believed that the wrath of God befell people who disobeyed them, destroyed wicked cities, and that God’s mercy was not given to people outside the Abrahamic covenant.

If this viewpoint sounds familiar, it should because it was the viewpoint of a faction that was on the rise around the post-exilic time period the book of Jonah was written. That faction became known as the Pharisees and they were pushing for strict observance of Jewish Law (Torah) and separation from Gentile culture. There very name means “set apart”, or “separated”. Jesus of Nazareth, like the author of Jonah, would go on to challenge this group and so would the earliest Christians who ended up seeing Jesus’ death and resurrection as being the opening of the Abrahamic covenant to all of the people of the world.

But as for the prophet Jonah, as detailed in the book, most are familiar with his story. He was commanded by God to go to Ninevah and proclaim God’ wrath upon the city. At first he refuses and heads in the opposite direction, running away from God’s call. After being swallowed by a giant fish (not necessarily a whale), and after having stayed in its belly for three days, Jonah is spit up on land and reluctantly goes to Ninevah.

Having proclaimed the destruction of the city to its people, Jonah witnessed the Ninevites repent en masse. He then realizes that God had heard their repentance and, in an act of mercy, chose not to destroy the city. This angered Jonah, who believed that the city ought to be destroyed for he does not believe that the repentance was enough. In protest, Jonah stormed out into the wilderness and refused to eat or drink anything. He sat there and waited for God to destory Ninevah. When that failed to happen, he hoped to die in the wilderness since the LORD was showing mercy, rather than venegful wrath, toward the Ninevites. God did not allow Jonah to die, which further frustrated and angered him.

Jonah’s attitude counters the attitude Christ taught us to have toward our enemies and toward our culture as a whole. Yet, with that said, we see many “separatists” in the Christian today. These people would have Christians separate themselves from the “secular” culture in order to remain “set apart” and holy. Such people push people to buy exclusively from Christians, to listen exclusively to Christian music, to burn their secular CDs and to disengage from secular culture. Such people, sadly, are not learning from Jonah or from Jesus.

While we should not be joining in with the “wickedness” of the secular culture, we should also not be disengaging it. The challenge for us is to enter back into the model practiced by the earliest Christians. This model of evangelism engaged the culture and utilized it in a way that pointed to Christ and brought glory to God. Those who read Life-Giving Water’s devotions know that I often use secular culture as a springboard to Jesus Christ and the divine call placed upon all of us. Let us learn from Jonah and, instead of separating ourselves, let us engage the secular culture for the glory of Christ.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

The sign of Jonah, prophesied by Jesus of Nazareth, was both a prophesy of Jesus death (in the belly of Sheol) and resurrection, as well as a prophesy that God was going to show great mercy through Christ to all the world, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. That was the sign God was going to give the self-righteous Pharisees and others who thought that only they were deserving of God’s grace.

PRAYER

Lord, help me to not only acknowledge you are merciful toward me, but help me to model your compassionate mercy to others. All who repent are forgiven. I praise you Lord! Amen.

God’s People, part 25: Joshua

Read Joshua 1

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Now if Joshua had succeeded in giving them this rest, God would not have spoken about another day of rest still to come.” (Hebrews 4:8 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.

JoshuaPart 25: Joshua. Joshua is a very strong character in Bible, in fact, he may be one of the strongest. Sure, there is Samson; however, Joshua is displayed with little to no weaknesses, whereas Samson is filled with weaknesses a plenty. But we’ll discuss Samson at a later time. Joshua was the protégé of Moses. He was the son of Nun, born a slave in Egypt before the time of the Exodus.

Almost immediately following their escape from Egypt, selected Joshua to be the leader of a militia group and was put in charge of fighting and defeating the Amalekites in Rephidim (Exodus 17:8-16). Quickly, Joshua became Moses’ right-hand man. It was Joshua, and Joshua alone, who ascended Mount Sinai with Moses to accompany him as he communed with God “face to face” and received God’s vision for the Israelites in the land of Caanan, as well as received The Ten Commandments.

He ended up becoming the leader who took over for Moses, the one who led them to enter into Canaan and conquer the lands from the native peoples inhabiting it. He led with an iron fist, so to speak. He was a general, a warrior, and a conqueror and he had much blood on his hands.

While Joshua was most definitely a person of strong faith, and one who was faithful to God, he also was someone who saw things only in black and white. You were either for him or against him. You were either Hebrew or not Hebrew, which also translated to you were either allowed to live and flourish in the Promised Land, or you were slaughtered and killed. Even when one looks at the story of Rahab, she proved to be for Joshua and the Israelites and so she was spared.

Upon one’s theology and understanding of God rests how one interprets Joshua’s leadership. Joshua believed that he had been appointed by God to take over from Moses, and he was instructed by God to not turn to the right or to the left from Moses’ teachings (Joshua 1:7). What followed was a campaign to ethnically cleasnse all of Canaan and to build a Kingdom of Israel. This involved the raiding of cities, towns and the countryside and resulted the deaths of countless men, women and children.

I am not writing this to debate, one way or the other, as to the reason or the justification for what Joshua and his army did. We live in different times and, no doubt, the Israelites were not going to be able to just knock on the doors of Jericho, expecting a welcoming embrace and gracious hospitality. Joshua was made leader and, in his leadership, he turned his band of nomadic desert wanderers to a unified army that conquered the land it had in its sights. From that land rose judges, kings, queens, prophets and, ultimately, the Messiah.

What I also know is that Jesus is the english transliteration of the Greek word name for Yehoshua, which is the name Joshua in English. In other words, Jesus (which is Greek) really was named Joshua. That is why the author of Hebrews compares Jesus to Joshua…or rather, the two Joshuas. Joshua, son of Nun, brought them into the land of Canaan where they could rest from their wandering in the wilderness, Joshua (aka Jesus) the Christ, brings us into the Kingdom of God.

Unlike Joshua, Jesus didn’t do this by military conquest, but through unconditional love, compassionate grace, and merciful forgiveness. Rather than slaying his enemies, Christ sacrificed himself and was slain by his enemies. Rather than conquering by the sword, Christ conquered THE ENEMY, by loving those who persecuted them even to the point of forgiveness and he conquered death by resurrecting from the dead into true life. One Joshua led to the other, no matter how imperfectly.

To play upon Joshua’s own advice, we need to choose this day whom we serve. Will we serve a black and white mentality? Will we serve the imperfect Joshua who conquered by the sword? Or will we serve the Joshua who died because he loved instead of hated, who rose so that we might rise to life in him, and who calls us to conquer evil through unconditional love and divine grace? Choose this day whom you serve.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“The glory of Christianity is to conquer by forgiveness.” – William Blake

PRAYER
Lord, remind me daily that I am a servant of love. Let love be my ultimate campaign. Amen.

Amazing Grace

Read Luke 20:9-18

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Therefore, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘Look! I am placing a foundation stone in Jerusalem, a firm and tested stone. It is a precious cornerstone that is safe to build on. Whoever believes need never be shaken.’” (Isaiah 28:16 NLT)

AmazingGraceAgain, I want to reevaluate the parable of the vineyard and the wicked tenants. In particular, I would like to have us focus on the wrathful ending to it. In the last devotion, we spent time discussing what the parable reveals to us about God’s plan of redemption. Being that this is the parable Jesus chose to teach just days before he was going to be betrayed and handed over to the Romans for capital punishment, it reveals to us exactly what Jesus thought his mission to be. Yet, as was also discussed, the redemption seems to get lost in translation and overshadowed by God’s wrath.

So, let us look at the rhetoric Jesus is using and try to understand this not as God’s wrath, but of God’s ultimate measure of grace. The reality is that when Jesus asks the question, “what do you suppose the owner of the vineyard will do to [those wicked tennants]?”, he is attemption to elicit a certain response. Yet, the religious leaders had come to be trap this pesky Galilean teacher, not to be trapped by him. So, these leaders remain silent rather than answering the question.

Of course, they surely knew what the answer was. They knew that any owner of such a vineyard, who had the right to claim his/her share of the crops, would definitely not sit by after having his servants killed by such wicked tenants. What’s more, the murder of his son would have driven this father (and any parent) over the proverbial edge. Yet, there the religious leaders stood, resolute in their silence.

Thus, Jesus answered for them, “I’ll tell you—he will come and kill those farmers and lease the vineyard to others” (Luke 20:16a NLT). This response elicited the exact response Jesus knew they would come up with. Instantly, the religious leaders scoffed, “how terrible that such a thing should ever happen.” In other words, these religious leaders were both saying that such a scenario is horrible and, on the same note, a rather far-fetched story that bore no relevance to them.

Yet, it absolutely bore relevance to them. Jesus, knowing their hearts were hardened, quoted scripture, “Then what does this Scripture mean? ‘The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.’ Everyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on” (Luke 20:17-18 NLT).

First, I want to point out that Jesus’ answer on how the vineyard owner would respond does not exactly match the Scripture that Jesus quotes. The answer itself is the answer that Jesus knew lay in the hearts of the ones he was telling the story to. It is the answer that we as humans would wish that the owner, who’s own son was murdered, would do. Of course, the father is going to seek vengeance and retribution for the death of his son, right? What father wouldn’t?

Jesus then follows that up with something quite different from that answer. Jesus points out to the religious leaders that God had given them the stone upon which to build God’s kingdom. This was the very stone that stood before them: Jesus Christ. Yet these religious leaders, who were builders in the sense that they were supposed to be leading the people in building God’s kingdom, had rejected that stone and, in doing so, had turned away from God. Thus, they would end up stumbling over the stone and falling because of it.

Yet, that was not God’s wrathful vengeance, but their own hardened hearts that led them to trip up instead of build. That was the result of their own unwillingness to see what God was doing through Jesus. Sadly, the religious leaders realized that they were the “wicked tenants” in Jesus’ story and, instead of repenting and turning back to God, they fulfilled their part in the prophetic parable. Instead of reacting as humans would in that situation, God instead showed AMAZING GRACE. This grace is extended toward all humanity, even those who have rejected God. In fact, some of Jesus’ opponents did eventually come to follow Jesus (e.g. Nicodemus, Saul of Tarsus, etc.). Everyone can turn from their sins through faith in Jesus Christ, and become the Kingdom builders they were created to be. This is God’s challenge to us this Lent.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.” – John Newton

PRAYER
Lord, you are the corner stone upon which I have been built. Thank you for your amazing grace. Amen.

The Sermon, part 25: Golden

Read Matthew 7:12

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“And what you hate, do not do to anyone. Do not drink wine to excess or let drunkenness go with you on your way.” (Tobit 4:15 NRSV)

pureatisgoldIf something is truly “golden”, it must be something of great value, right? We wouldn’t take something that is golden and leave it lying around for others to steal. We wouldn’t take something that is golden and flush it down the toilet. We wouldn’t take something that is golden and trade it for something made of plastic, would we?

Then, by the very nature of labeling Matthew 7:12 (cf. Luke 6:31) as the Golden rule we are implying that is one of the most valuable rule out of all the ones that Jesus taught. It is the rule that we all should be all aspiring to attain. Just like we persist and persist in earning what it takes to get that golden bracelet, or that golden neckless, or that gold portfolio (if you’re William Devane from the Rosland Capital commercials), we would certainly persist in trying to live according to the golden rule if we truly see it as being “golden.”

The rule, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12), is the bookend that concludes the instruction section of the great sermon. The sermon opens up with Matthew 5:17, which means that Jesus is not ending his sermon with a rule that he is coming up with on his own; rather, he understands this rule to be at the core of Jewish teaching. Everything that fall between Matthew 5:17 and 7:12 are summed up by the Golden rule.

What’s more, the golden rule (which sums up the law and the prophets as seen in Matthew 5:17-19; 7:17) is also intricately connected and related to the two greatest commandments, found in Matthew 22:34-40. It is important, therefore, to note that the Golden rule is the way, or at least one of the ways, that Jesus sees the greatest commandments being fulfilled. To love God and to love neighbor as one loves oneself is to do to others what one would have others do to him/herself.

While the phrase “The Golden Rule” was coined as early as the 17th century, the value of this rule is far exceeding what any phrase can make it seem. It has appeared in one form or the other as early as 2040 – 1650 BCE in Egypt. It is accounted for in Leviticus 19:18. It has been taught in China by Confucius (500 BCE), Laozi (500 BCE), Mozi (400 BCE), in India, in Greece as early as 624 BCE, in Persia as early as 300 BCE, in Rome by Seneca as early as the potential year Christ was born (ca. 4 BCE), and in other places as well.

So, Jesus is not tapping into anything new, nor is he breaking any new ground here by stating this rule; however, what he is doing is solidifying how important his teachings between Matthew 5:17 and 7:12 are, and he is simultaneously showing what the end result of those teachings is: To do to others what one would had done to oneself. In other words, to love God is to love one’s neighbor and to love one’s neighbor is to value and cherish him or her to the exact degree one cherishes oneself, even to the point of doing to the other what one would want done to him/herself.

This does not translate into, “Do unto others had they have DONE unto you,” nor does it translate to, “Do unto others BEFORE they do it unto you.” Those are not the golden rule, but the complete contradiction of the Golden Rule. Yet, many of us live our lives in that manner. Even if we don’t personally do that to those we perceive to be our enemies, we allow our political worldviews and opinions to be shaped around a “get them before they get you” idealogy. These types of views go against the Golden Rule and the teachings leaning up against it. Reflect on how golden this rule truly is for you and also reflect on how you might work on coming to value it more than you have.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.” – Confucius (500 BCE)

PRAYER
Lord, overlay me with the Golden Rule that it may cover me and guide me in all that I do. Amen.

The Sermon, part 23: Dogs and Pigs

Read Matthew 7:6

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way.” (Matthew 7:13 NLT)

pigsandpearlsHere, in Matthew 7:6, we have yet another obscure saying from Jesus, who uses shocking language that often confuses and befuddles his audience. Its not the overall point of the statement, or what seems to be the overall point, that is shocking; rather, it is the “name calling” that is shocking. It is quite clear that Jesus isn’t talking about literal dogs or pigs but is using those terms to describe unholy people. Why would Jesus use such language? It’s not the only time that he did, either. In Matthew 15:27, Jesus used the word “dog” toward a Canaanite woman as well.

Why would Jesus call people pigs? There is absolutely no parallel to this anywhere else in the New Testament. What is up with the use of dogs and pigs? It seems that the answer, as is usually the case, is not all that clear. What is clear is that, in Matthew 7:6, Jesus is not using the term dogs in the same way as he was toward the Canaanite woman. In that passage, the woman was pleading for help and he told her that he had come for the people of Israel, not for Gentiles. He uses “children” to describe Israel and “dogs” to describe Gentiles, in order to make the point that one first feeds their children before they throw what is left to the ravenous dogs.

That brings me to another important point. When you hear dogs, try to take off your 21st century lenses and put on your 1st century glasses. In 1st century Judea, dogs were not cute, lovable pets. They were seen as wild, unruly, ravenous, and dangerous animals that were prowling the streets looking for whatever they could scavenge and sink their teeth into. Like Jesus’ allusion to wolves, his use of the word “dogs” was intended to evoke images of dangerous creatures that could charge you at any minute and turn you into their next meal.

Pigs, on the other hand, are considered to be unclean in Judaism. They are forbidden by Torah to be use for food, and must be avoided at all costs. To come in contact with a pig and/or to eat it would make one unclean, and there were even prohibitions against breeding pigs. What’s more, pigs are known for being in the mud, so to throw one’s pearls before swine is to throw one’s pearls into the mud.

Now that the basics have been laid out above, let’s try and make sense of what Jesus is saying here. The focus of Jesus’ message in verse 6 is holiness. Jesus is warning his disciples to keep in mind their own holiness. To be holy is to be set apart for God and God alone. It is so easy to sell out our beliefs and our values in order to fit in and go with the flow. Yet, the only guarantee we have is in God, who promised to be with us always. Yet the easy way, the most comfortable way, often leads to our own destruction. The easy path usually ends up betraying and imprisoning us, leading us to a dead end. The people and the things we end up compromising our values for, more often than not, turn on us like a pack of ravenous, wild dogs.

If we value ourselves and our relationship with God, it makes no sense to compromise those things anymore than it makes sense to take one’s pearls and throw them into the muddy pig pen. Rather, we should invest ourselves in what is valuable, and steer clear from the dogs and pigs. By steer clear, I do not mean shun, ignore, or judge. The last devotion is clear on where Jesus stands on judging. By steer clear, I mean to not put one’s hope in what is hopeless, and to not compromise one’s values and beliefs by settling for comfort and complacency.

We were created by God to be holy, to be set apart for God and for the Kingdom of God. Our call is to invest ourselves in God, as well as in God’s Kingdom. Jesus did that, and he did not settle for the easy road. I think it is safe to say that the road to calvary IS NEVER EASY, but it is the only way to the resurrection. It is the only way to eternal life. We must be willing to die to what is unholy in us, and we must be willing to let go of our foolish investment in what is unholy around us in order to take that journey with Christ.

What does that mean exactly? That means that each of us should be investing ourselves in seeking out Christ, and seeking out the purpose Christ has put before us. What is that purpose? To spread the love, the peace, the hope, the healing, and the wholeness of God. Our purpose is to stand up for justice and to live justly. Our purpose is to LOVE and to always show mercy. Our purpose is to walk humbly with God. All other paths lead to a dead end, but the road to calvary, the road to the cross, leads to the Kingdom of God and eternal life.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” – William Shakespeare
PRAYER
Lord, help me see clear the distinction between the dead end highway and the road to Calvary. Amen.

The Sermon, part 18: Forgiveness

Read Matthew 6:14-15

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive.” (Luke 17:4, NLT)

unidos-en-la-fe-imagenes-cristianas-con-la-cruzAs was mentioned in the previous devotion, Jesus sets the model for how we should pray. Included in that model is the act of forgiveness. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” Jesus prayed. Debts, obviously, is a term that indicates finances are involved. Those of us who have ever taken out a loan, or borrowed from a friend, are all too familiar with what a debt is. Similarly, those of us who have loaned stuff out and waited for it to be paid back, know what it means to have debtors beholden to us.

I think it is important that we look at Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer, so that we can best contextualize them as well as understand the words that follow them. In the prayer, Jesus prays that God forgives our “debts” (ὀφείλημα, pronounced of-i’-lay-mah) just as we forgive our “debtors” (ὀφειλέτης, pronounced of-i-let’-ace). The Greek word for debt means “something that is owed”. With that said, the word is not so black and white, as it can also mean a sin or a moral fault. In other words, debt (ὀφείλημα) can be taken in both the literal sense of one owing someone money or property, and it can be taken in the spiritual sense of one owing God reparation for his or her sins.

There are some that want to merely see sins in this verse, and there are some Bible translations that choose to interpret this verse as “sins”; however, it is important to point out that in doing so, these translators are taking a stance that matches their theology as to what Jesus is saying here. So, if one sees Jesus’ primary mission as saving people from their sins, he or she will translate this word as “sins”. Conversely, if a translator sees Jesus’ primary mission as standing in solidarity with and liberating the oppressed (including impoverished people who are in debt to those oppressing them), then he or she will translate this word as “debts”.

Both positions, as I see it, are gravely mistaken because they both fail to see the poetic subtlety in Jesus’ words. How do we know this for sure? Because in verses 12-13, Jesus chooses a word that explicitly means debts (though, more subtly, it could mean sins); however, in verse 14-15, Jesus uses a word that explicitly means sins. The use of the two words in reference to forgiveness tells us that Jesus doesn’t see this as an “either/or”, but a “both/and”.

Jesus’ mission was both to save people from their sins, and it was to stand in solidarity with and liberate the poor. The two missions are not mutually exclusive of each other; rather, they are an intertwined and connected purpose with in the same mission. Salvation from sin equals a liberation of the poor and the oppressed, for sin is what leads to the evil of oppression and abject poverty.  If people didn’t sin, they would oppress others, nor would they hold people indebted to them to the point of impoverishment.

What’s more, without sin people wouldn’t have the corrupt notion of “owning” property and goods for everything that we possess is, theologically speaking, given to us from God. That is why the early church members gave all of their belongings to the whole community, to be shared in equally with each other for the good of the whole community. These earliest Christians were making The Lord’s Prayer a lived reality in their communities. And this is what we are called to do as well.

Jesus couldn’t be any clearer, if we forgive those who sin against us (spiritually or physically), then we are in line with God’s forgiveness and will receive it; however, if we harden our hearts to forgiving others, then we are not in line with God’s forgiveness and we have hardened our hearts to the forgiveness God wishes to give to us. Hardened hearts will not receive forgiveness because they refuse to, just as surely as hardened hearts refuse to forgive. So here’s the key truth for us to reflect on: FORGIVENESS IS THE KEY TO BEING CHRISTIAN.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
To offer forgiveness is to show thankfulness to the infinite times God has forgiven you. Happy Thanksgiving!

PRAYER
Lord, thank you for your forgiveness. Help me to forgive. Amen.

The Sermon, part 17: The Model

Read Matthew 6:9-13

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
Yours, O LORD, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty. Everything in the heavens and on earth is Yours, O LORD, and this is Your kingdom. We adore You as the One who is over all things. (1 Chronicles 29:11, NLT)

jesusprayerThe Lord’s Prayer is considered to be the greatest Christian prayer in the history of Christianity; however, I would be amiss to leave out the fact that The Lord’s Prayer is, at its core, a wholly Jewish prayer. For instance, it was the custom in first century Jewish prayer to address God as “Our Father”. What’s more, there is nothing in this prayer that would go against the religious convictions of the Jewish people. All Jews are in line with praising God, praying for God’s will to be done, praying for God’s Kingdom to come, praying for daily bread, forgiveness, and the deliverance from the evil one.

There are a few things we can pull from this prayer that will benefit us as Christians. Jesus lays this prayer out as a model for his disciples to shape their prayer life around. First, this prayer only goes to show that Jesus’ spiel on public prayer was meant more as a rhetorical device than to be taken literally. The very usage of plural pronouns and determiners such as “we”, “us”, and “our”, suggests that this is a communal prayer that Jesus is modeling for his disciples. It is a prayer that is meant to be prayed corporately and in public.

Second, it is a prayer that is patterned in a way that put God at the center of it, but is not devoid of concern for the people praying. The prayer starts off with a praising of God. To quote the King James Version, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” This praising of God not only honors God as holy, but also clearly states who God is in relation to Jesus. For the word Father, Jesus does not use the Hebrew word for father, but rather uses the Aramaic word of “Abba”, which is a both a child’s term of endearment toward their papa or their dada, as well as it is an adults child’s formal way of addressing his/her father.

Thus, the  use of the word “Abba” denotes an intimate relationship between God (the Father), and Jesus the son. On top of that, the prayer implicates that God is not only Jesus’ father, but “our Father” as well. We are all God’s children, and those who believe in and follow Jesus acknowledge that they are included in that intimate father/child relationship. What’s more, it is implied that Jesus is not only our LORD (of which he certainly is), but also our brother.

The first half of the prayer deals with God and God’s will for this world. The people praying this prayer are, then, aligning themselves with God’s will, which is to bring heaven to earth and establish God’s Kingdom here. The second half of the prayer deals with us, and the way in which God’s Kingdom will be realized. “Daily bread” is a reference to “manna” which was provided to the Israelites during the Exodus. It is a reminder that in order to share in God’s future blessings when God’s Kingdom comes, we must trust that God provides for us in the here and now.

The prayer reinforces that to receive God’s forgiveness in the Kingdom to come, we are to be a people who forgive. This forgiveness, by the way, does not just refer to the forgiveness of sins, or forgiveness on a spiritual level. Jesus very intentionally utilizes “debt forgiveness” as a way of showing the expansiveness of God’s forgiveness. A debt can be rightly seen as metaphorical for sins, but it also points the Christian to God’s future Kingdom, where poverty, oppression, and social-economic injustice cease to be. This prayer is designed to realign the hearts of the people praying it with the heart of God. Forgive us what we owe you God (and let’s face it, we owe God EVERYTHING), just as we forgive others what they owe us. That includes sins, money, favors, allegiance, and anything that could be considered a debt.

The prayer then also acknowledges that EVIL exists, and that we are often tempted to join in with evil rather than resist it. Let’s face it, it’s much easier to maintain the status quo than to risk our livelihoods, our jobs, our families, and our lives to stand up for what is right; yet, in God’s kingdom the status quo will be overturned and replaced with God’s righteousness and justice. While the closing words of the prayer were not originally in Jesus’ prayer, they are biblical (1 Chronicles 29:11) and appropriately remind us that we are to LIVE FOR GOD and that GOD does not LIVE FOR US. It appropriately reminds us that we are to be converted to God’s will, and give up on trying to bend God to our will. In essence, it concludes where the prayer started off. In other words, our prayer life should center on God and God’s will for us. Our prayer life should also translate into how we live our lives and serve our God. This is the model Christ gave to us, and we are challenged and charged to follow it.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Humble prayer to our Heavenly Father, in deep faith in Jesus Christ, is essential to qualify us for the companionship of the Holy Ghost.” – Henry B. Eyring

PRAYER
Silently, pray “The Lord’s Prayer” as often as you feel called to pray it.

The Sermon, part 15: Authentic Prayer

Read Matthew 6:5-6

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“God detests the prayers of a person who ignores the law.” (Proverbs 28:9 NLT)

authentic-indian-laoshan-sandalwood-prayer-beads-bracelets-16-mm-beads-8a8143da7a340fb23016a36462a24820There can be no doubt that Jesus was for authenticity. Jesus was not a fan of fake people and he had a word he liked to use toward fake people: “hypocrites”. The word “hypocrites” in Greek (the language Matthew was written in) is ὑποκριτής (pronounced hoop-ok-ree-tace’) literally means “stage actor.” Thus, properly speaking, a hypocrite is a person who puts on a show.

Unfortunately, today’s passage has become one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted texts in the enitre New Testament. Throughout Christian history, it has been an unfortunate reality that Judaism has gotten the short end of the stick. They’ve taken the blame for “killing Jesus”, they’ve taken the blame for being more concerned with “the law” than with God or human beings, and they’ve taken the blame for just about everything you can imagine.

This, in my mind, is a blight on Christianity and it is to our shame that Christians have in the past and continue to look down their proverbial noses at our Jewish brothers and sisters. Do we forget that Jesus was a faithful Jewish rabbi and prophet? Do we forget that Jesus claimed to be the JEWISH messiah? Do we forget that Paul and some of the earliest Christians were, in fact, Jewish?

In fact, Paul had some choice words for Christians who were starting to discriminate against Jews within the church in Rome. “You, by nature, were a branch cut from a wild olive tree. So if God was willing to do something contrary to nature by grafting you into His cultivated tree, He will be far more eager to graft the original branches back into the tree where they belong” (Romans 11:24 NLT). While Paul was trying to understand Judaism in the context of the risen Christ, and he was trying to develop his own soteriology (understanding of Salvation) in light of the fact that many Jews had not accepted Christ as the Jewish Messiah, he also did not condone, nor did he participate in, the bashing or blaming of his Jewish brothers and sisters.

Now, back to prayer. Jesus states in verse 5 that one should not “pray as the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on the street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them.” This verse was not meant to be taken literally as a pronouncement against public prayer. First off, the synagogue is known as a house of prayer and it is where countless Jews, Jesus included, went to pray and worship. Public prayer in the synagogue was normal and quite called for, just as it is called for in our churches.

Second, public prayer in the street corners was NOT a normal practice in Judaism, nor was it necessary. It is inherently wrong and slanderous for Christians to propogate this as a common practice in Judaism. Again, Jesus was not saying this a commanded prohibition against the act of public prayer, which he clearly wanted the church to engage in (Matthew 18:19-20), but on the intent behind it! This is important to note.

What Jesus is doing is calling us to look within our own hearts and search the motive(s) behind our prayer. Are we praying for recognition, to appear to be holy, or to gain some sort of selfish desire? Are we stage actors, putting on a good show and pretending to be something we totally are not? Or are we praying to GOD alone, for the sake of praying to God? Is our prayer centered on God, and God’s will, fully expectant that God objectively hears and listens to our prayers? Do we believe, or are we mere stage actors looking for something else?

Jesus’ comman to go in a closet, or to be alone when praying, is not meant to be taken literally; rather, it is asking us if our prayer is centered on God ALONE and, on top of that, are we totally focused on GOD alone. We can fake pray in the closet too, just as easily as we can in a public place. The location, nor the company, is not what matters, what matters is the authenticity. Where are you in your prayer life? Are you authentic? Are you solely focused on God, or are have you let others (yourself included) into that (metaphorical) space that is meant to be for God alone? Reflect on this and be challenged by it to further develop your prayer life.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” – Martin Luther

PRAYER
Lord, I offer you my authentic prayers for I know that you alone hear them when I pray. Amen.

The Sermon, part 13: Giving

Read Matthew 6:1-4

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“[The righteous] have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor.” (Psalms 112:9 NRSV)

c0e196b99c81dec65d742efe7a2db1a5Now that we’ve gotten through the first third of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we move into the next section, which is a series of instruction to Jesus’ disciple and followers. In this instruction, Jesus follows a formula of pointing out negatives which sit in juxtaposition with positives. In other words, Jesus points to the way that something should not be done, and then points to the way it should be done.

As with any of Jesus’ teachings, there is quite a bit to unpack to fully understand the teaching and its truth in our lives. In our text, Jesus instructs on how one should go about “almsgiving” or giving to charity. That Jesus instructs on this shows that giving was an important practice to Jesus, who was a first-century Jew. Also, Jesus was not the first to stress the importance of giving to charity; rather, Jesus’ teaching explicates the fact that almsgiving was an important part of the Jewish faith. It is a tradition that Jesus carried on, not one he created.

In verse 1, Jesus warns his followers not to do acts of “piety” publicly for the purpose of “being seen”, for there is no heavenly reward in that.  As a pastor, I have people who do things under the radar so that people do not know they did it. That is something I have always admired; however, there are some who judge others for being public about their acts of charity. That is unfortunate, because Jesus never prohibited public displays of charity. Think about it, Jesus himself displayed acts of charity in public.

What Jesus is warning against here is acts of charity that are done for the purpose of being seen. To do such is to for the wrong reason. Self-aggrandizing schemes are not righteous because they are self-serving. Such schemes have no concern for those being served, except the served bring esteem and honor to those serving. This has no place in the Kingdom of Heaven and bears no eschatological (end-time) reward.

Historically speaking, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that people would blow horns when big donors gave money at the synagogue. It simply is not a Jewish practice, nor is Jesus’ use of the illustration a prescription against his own Jewish faith. Judaism did not promote self-aggrandizing schemes any more than Christianity does. In verse 2, Jesus utilizes the “trumpet” as a metaphor for self-aggrandizing, just like when we use the metaphor that someone is “tooting their own horn.”

Finally, verse 3-4 instruct Jesus’ followers on what “pious” giving is all about. What it comes down to is this: Where is your heart? Jesus emphasizes that one should be doing one’s duty to God, such as helping the poor, in a way that ONLY God sees. Again, not in the sense that one needs to be writing checks in a dark closet tucked away from the rest of the world, so that no one knows he or she is writing it; rather, it means that we should do what we do without seeking attention or approval from anyone BUT God. If people happen to see it, so be it. If they don’t, so be it.

If we are doing what is right for the right reason, chances are we won’t notice whether one sees it or not, because we will be too busy serving God. That is the kind of giving Christ is instructing us to partake in. Giving for the sake of giving, not for the sake of receiving. Giving for the sake of others, not for our own sake. Such giving, such righteousness, will sound the horns of heaven in celebration of the coming Kingdom of God. Such giving will reap eternal rewards!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” – John Wesley

PRAYER
Lord, thank you for your instruction on giving. May I learn to live by it. Amen.

Wrath of God, part 5

Read Jeremiah 31:1-10

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“I—yes, I alone—will blot out your sins for My own sake and will never think of them again.” (Isaiah 43:25, NLT)

jer4-weeping-prophetJeremiah stood there in the midst of the city. Everything had been destroyed and burned to the ground. The houses were smoldering furnaces with smoke billowing to the heavens. Corpses were lying everywhere and the stench of decay filled the air. Jerusalem had her share of sorrows in the past, but they all paled in comparison with the Babylonian seige.

The Temple was in ruins and not one stone remained on top of the other. The holy place of God was a ransacked pile of rubble, laid to waste by the gentile Babylonians. The survivors were left without their Temple, without their homes, without the property, and without anyone of their spiritual leaders. King Zedekiah, his cabinet of advisors, his family, his priests and all of the leaders and their families were all exiled from Jerusalem and taken back to Babylon as spoils of the war. The future of Judah, the future of Jerusalem, were uncertain.

Jeremiah stood there that day, having been released from the prison by order of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II. He was imprisoned by King Zedekiah for speaking out against the corruption of the King and the king’s government. Nebuchadnezzar had him released because word reached him that there was a prophet who prophesied in Babylon’s favor. Jeremiah stood there, horrified at the site of the utter and complete destruction, and he wept.

“If only they had listened,” he thought to himself. “If only they had turned from their wickedness, from their corruption, from their greed, they would have avoided all of this. How many innocent lives had been destroyed by the evil perpetrated by those who refused to live justly, who refused to love mercy, and who refused to walk humbly with their God?

But as sad Jeremiah was that day, he was not without hope for he knew that God was not the God of eternal judgment but the God of endless and ever abounding grace! God would not abandon the people of Judah, but would be working to bring them home and to restore them back to the people they were created to be. God would be showing them forgiveness and working toward reconciliation. This was not so just in spirit and in truth, but through the leadership of those who were still open to God’s wisdom and guidance; through the leadership of people like Jeremiah and those who followed him.

What is important for us to gather from Jeremiah and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians is that GOD is not the GOD OF WRATH, but the GOD OF GRACE. When looking at the wrath of God, ask yourself this question: Is God reigning wrath down on the people? Even if it is being articulated that way by the Biblical authors, is that really what is going on? Or is the wrath of God, properly speaking, the natural consequences to the evil that people perpetuate? People may get away with being wicked for so long, but eventually (as the phrase suggests), “every dog has its day.”

What’s even more important to glean from this narrative, is that while we do often bring the wrath of our actions down upon our heads, God never gives up hope on us. God is always forgiving us, always working to restore us back to a place of righteousness, and always working to reconcile us with God and with our neighbor. In wrath, in the natural consequences of our sinful and evil actions, there is still GREAT HOPE. Today’s challenge is to see the hope in the consequences we, and the world, are facing today and to begin to be God’s mouthpiece for the proclamation of the Good News of God’s reconciliation and restoration!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“The work of community, love, reconciliation, restoration is the work we cannot leave up to politicians. This is the work we are all called to do.” – Shane Claiborne

PRAYER
Lord, help me to not only seek justice, but to seek reconciliation for myself and for others. Amen.