Tag Archives: Kingdom of Heaven

The Sermon, part 1: Introduction

Read Matthew 5:1-12

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
But He gives us even more grace to stand against such evil desires. As the Scriptures say, “God opposes the proud but favors the humble.” (James 4:6, NLT)

sermononthemount We just made it through our last series, “The Beatitudes”, and now we are beginning an extension of that series, called “The Sermon”. This particular series will helps us to journey back in time to the base of a mount, as we await the Rabbi יְהוֹשׁוּעַ (Yeh-ho-shoo’-ah) to rise and teach to us the word of God. Many of the people gathered around us are more than likely awaiting some sort of proclamation of kingship. Many were hoping that this יְהוֹשׁוּעַ, also known as Jesus, would proclaim himself to be the Messiah, the one sent from God to rule Israel and defeat and destroy all of Israel’s enemies.

We, on the other hand, have hindsight as an advantage over and against those surrounding us. We know that, indeed, Jesus does proclaim to be the Messiah; however, Jesus was not proclaiming to be king of any ordinary, worldly kingdom, but the very Kingdom of God. We have this hindsight, because we are time travelers and we know the outcome of this sermon and, indeed, of Jesus’ life. Yet, this hindsight, as we have gained from Sunday School, Church and/or the Bible, can also work as a hindrance to us in understanding the fullness of what Jesus was ACTUALLY teaching. Thus, we will take many weeks to journey back to the foot of the mount so that we can listen to our Lord’s sermon within the context it was preached.

To introduce this series, let us look back to and recap our previous series on the Beatitudes. As the crowds were gathering around him, Jesus climbed up on the mountainside and sat down. As his disciples sat around him, he began to teach them what we have now come to know as the Beatitudes. What’s more, he began what has gone down as the greatest, and most well-known, sermon of all times.

If you remember, Jesus taugh that the poor in spirit were blessed for the possessed the Kingdom of Heaven. While the impoverised are certainly among those who are “the blessed”, Jesus is also referring to those who do not arrogantly think they are above God’s blessing, as well as those who are not “needy” in the sense that everything is about them and what they need (aka the selfish). The New Living Translation puts it best by paraphrasing Jesus in this way, “Blessed are those who are poor and realize their need for God.” Such people are the true people of God.

Jesus taught that those who mourn shall be comforted and that those who are humble shall inherit the whole earth.  By “mourning”, Jesus is referring to those who are lamenting over the world and it’s current state. They shall be comforted on that day when God finally recreates the earth to be a place where God’s justice, love, and peace reign supreme. Those who are humble (or meek), will be exalted and blessed. Those who are proud, arrogant, and selfish will be humbled.

Those who hunger, not only for food but for justice, will be satisfied on that day “when Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet” (The United Methodist Hymnal, pg. 14). Those who are merciful will be shown mercy by God. Those who are pure in heart, meaning those whose heart is solely devoted to God and God’s reign of peace, love, equality and justice, are the ones who see God. Those who work for peace are the children of God. Finally, those who are persecuted for doing what’s right are blessed and in possession of the Kingdom of God. In fact, they should be filled with joy and where persecution like a badge of honor, because people have been persecuted for doing what’s right throughout the ages.

This, I am sure, is not what many in the crowd were hoping to hear. They were probably wanting to hear Jesus call out the Romans for oppressing Israel. They were probably wanting Jesus to call out the Temple and its leadership, for the corruption that had become of God’s holy house in Israel. They were probably hoping Jesus would call down God’s heavenly army down on the opponents of Israel for the wicked evil they had perpetuated throughout the world, especially against God’s people Israel.

This, I am also sure, is not what many of us what to hear. The reality is that if we are living in a Western society such as the United States of America, we are more than likely either middle-class or higher. Sure there are poor people in America, but most of America has plenty and live life-styles that are centered around self (including family), wealth, and comfort. Jesus’ message challenges us because it forces us to look at our own lifestyles, and our own faith, to discern whether we are truly “poor in spirit”, recognizing “our need for God.’ As we approach this new series, let us let go of our biases and agendas so that our Lord can teach us about God’s heavenly kingdom

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Justice that love gives is a surrender, justice that law gives is a punishment.” – Mahatma Gandhi

 PRAYER
Lord, humble me and prepare me for the things you have to teach me. Amen.

The Beatitudes, part 9: Persecuted

Read Matthew 5:10

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3 NRSV)

Nailed hand on wooden cross.

 

 

Jesus, having given a series of blessings to people who were normally not considered by society to be blessed, bookends his series of beatitudes with, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:10 NRSV). The New Living Translation puts it in what I think captures the heart of what Jesus is saying, “God blesses those who are persecuted for doing what is right.” In other words, in the eschatological plan of God, in God’s end times plan, those who stand up for what is right and who do the right thing at great cost to themselves, will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.

It is important to note that this particular beatitude seems to have been written by Matthew himself as away of coming full circle in Jesus beatitudes. I am not suggesting that Matthew fabricated it, or that it doesn’t represent what Matthew believes Jesus was saying. Quite the contrary. Matthew uses this particular Beatitude as a literary device to bring Jesus’ beatitudes right back to where they started. This particular “beatitude” is not found anywhere else in the Gospels, and it is not to be confused on what Jesus says regarding persecution as a whole in the following two verses as well as in Luke 6:22

What’s more not only does it nicely bookend the beatitudes in between it and verse 3; however, it also ties directly into what is to follow about persecution itself, and how Christ’s followers should react to persecution. Christ’s teaching on persecution as a whole, and what his followers’ repsonse should be to it can be found in both Matthew and Luke.

So often, when we read this blessing we tend to read it in one of two ways. We will either read Jesus as saying, “Blessed are those who are oppressed and persectued, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Or, if we don’t read it that way, we read it in the following way, “Blessed are those who are oppressed and persecuted because they are Christians, for theirs is Kingdom of Heaven.” Both ways of reading it are not entirely wrong as it is true that Jesus teaches that in the Kingdom of Heaven puts a special emphasis on those who are “the least of these” by society in this current age. It is also true that Jesus does say that those who are persecuted for following him are blessed as well; however, Matthew 5:10, though certainly related, does not explicitly say those things at all.

What it does say explicitly is the following: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing what is right, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Notice, Jesus doesn’t put any stipulations on that. He doesn’t define who, where, what, when or how that comes about. Does Jesus mean that anyone who stands up for what’s right possesses the Kingdom of Heaven? What if they are not Jewish (in Jesus’ context), or what if they are not Christian (in our context)? What if they are not one of us, what if they are from Samaria (in Jesus’ context), or what if they are from Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Russia, etc. (in our context)? Also, what if their “right” is in opposition to our own thoughts, beliefs, actions, etc.?

Jesus does not specify any of that. He does not put restrictions of that statement whatsoever; rather, he simply states, “God blesses those who do what is right, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Of course, as we discussed earlier on in this series, “righteousness” or “doing what is right”, really amounts to doing justice, living justly, and standing up for justice. Those who do so will certainly be attacked by those who are in support of injustice (whether they realize it is injust or not).

And to tie it back to Jesus first blessing of the “poor in spirit”, they are not defined by religion, race, geographical location, or any other thing that we divide ourselves with; rather, they are defined by three things: living justly/seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. Anyone, regardless of who they are or where they come from, who seeks and strives to live that out in their lives possess the Kingdom of Heaven, both now within them as well as when that Kingdom is fully realized here on Earth. This is what Jesus is telling us. Even if you are persecuted now for doing what is right, the reward that follows will certainly be well worth the persecution. I pray we all open our hearts to, and define our lives, by that very truth.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY “If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.” (1 Peter 2:20 NRSV)

PRAYER Lord, strengthen me to do what is right, even in the face of persecution. Amen.

THE CHRISTIAN MANIFESTO, Part 7: Blind

Read Luke 4:13-21

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Then Jesus told him, ‘I entered this world to render judgment—to give sight to the blind and to show those who think they see that they are blind.’” (John 9:39, NLT)

aa_keller_senses_2_eRecently, a fellow colleague and friend of mine got into a conversation about the scripture passage I was preaching on at the church that I serve. The passage is Luke 4:14-21 and is on Jesus’ first recorded visit to the synagogue in Nazareth following his baptism and wilderness experience. In that passage, Jesus is handed the scroll of Isaiah and he opens it up to the following passage: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, for He has anointed Me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the LORD’s favor has come.” Inspired by the conversation, I have decided to devote a series of devotions on this particular passage, which has become known as “The Christian Manifesto”.

Part 6: Blind. Have you ever wondered what it must be like to not be able to see with your eyes? We rely on our eye sight so much. We rely on our eyes to show us the world around us, to spot danger, to view obstacles as we move from place to place. We utilize our eyes to enjoy the beauty of nature, to gaze at the beauty of the ones we love, to read the words of philosophers, novelists, poets and other authors. We use our eyes for just about every part of our lives. It is very hard, indeed, to imagine what life without our eyes must be like.

Yet, I think that, for those of us with our eyesight intact, we take that sense for granted. What’s more, when we try to imagine our world without our eyes, we are totally inept at doing so. Even more than that, we often perceive that persons without their eye sight, or those who are lacking any of the senses we come to rely on, are in a worse place than we are. We view their lot in life as being one of hardship and burden, and we often thank God for keeping us from having such a lot. Yet, is that truly so when we look at our lives from God’s perspective? Is our lot better? Are we truly able to see better than the blind?

Helen Keller was blind. She could not see and, what’s more, she could not hear either; however, it was in her blindness and deafness that she came up with an entire school for the blind and deaf. In doing so, she enabled countless children like herself a chance at higher quality of life than her surrounding world, and the “able-bodied” people who pittied them, would ever afford them to have. I think also to Ludwig Van Beethoven who had progressive hearing loss and eventually ended up deaf. Yet, in his utter deafness, this maestro composed perhaps the greatest and most well-known symphony of all time, which was his 9th Symphony and most known for it’s final movement, “An Ode to Joy”. The man who was pittied for his deafness, gave the world something it would love to hear centuries following his death.

The truth is, we who have our sense often fail to use them. We may be able to physically see, we may be able to physically hear, yet we find ourselves deaf and blind to the direction God is calling us in. Perhaps we are the blind or, if not us, perhaps there are those around us who are unable to see the presence of God in their lives. Perhaps there are people we know (ourselves included) who can not see the vision of the Kingdom that God is laying before us. Wherever the blindness is, whether it be pyhsical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual, Christ’s manifesto lays out the fact that our purpose is to eliminate blindness and to help restore sight to the blind.

This is no easy task, for sure. It is one that takes hope and faith. Do you have such faith? Do you believe that Christ came to restore sight to the blind? Do you believe that Christ has restored your sight to you? Do you believe that Christ has given you the power and the authority over the powers that take sight away from people? Do you believe that you are called to help make a difference in this world by giving sight back to a world that has gone blind by its hatred and its sinfulness? If so, then what are you waiting for? In the name of Jesus, carry on the restoration that Christ started all of those years ago.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” – John Newton
PRAYER
Lord, open my eyes that I may see and believe that you have come to give sight to those blind to your Kingdom. Amen.

A New Year’s Resolution

Read Luke 16:19-31

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“And He will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these My brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help Me.’” (Matthew 25:45)

homelessWhat does it mean to elite? The word, no doubt, has many different meanings for each of us. As a football fan, I think of elite in terms of superior skill and athleticism. I remember when NY Giants quarterback Eli Manning was being asked if he thought he were an “elite” quarterback. In that sense, the question was asking him if he thought his skills were at a level that was above most quarterbacks in the league. But being elite does not just refer to success; rather, it also means being among the extremely privileged. It means being a part of a select group of people who are superior in ability and/or qualities, such as success, status, skill, wealth, and other such things.

There is nothing wrong with being elite in the most basic sense of the word. There is nothing wrong with being the best at something, or being the most skilled, or giving the best performance, etc. There is nothing wrong with being gifted in a way that sets one apart from others; however, what tends to happen is that such “elite” people tend to get treated better than others because they are viewed as being elite. What’s more, a system gets put in place by the elite in order for them to maintain the status they feel entitled to. Because the elite see themselves as being superior in one way or the other from those who are not considered elite, the elite begin to see themselves superior in all respects and they do whatever it takes to keep their status and their privilege in place.

It is in this system of power and status that we find the rise of elitism. When I went to India in 2010, there was plenty of elitism to see. Flying in to the airport in Bangalore, it was hard at first to even see the difference between that and Liberty International Airport. Bangalore is practically the tech capital of the world and some of the wealthiest people in India live there. Yet, stepping foot out of that airport and into the city streets, one could see the vast disparity between the haves and the have-nots. In fact, the further away from the cities one got in India, the more clear that disparity became. It would be easy for me to merely bring up India, and the still prevalent caste system, as an example; however, that would only serve to make us think that we are off of the proverbial hook, when in reality we are not.

Elitism exists in our Western society as well. It exists in our government, in Hollywood, in media, and in businesses. It exists in our educational system, where the elite in our society go to the best private schools, the semi-elite go to the better public schools, and the rest go to what’s left over. It exists in our medical system, in our hospitals, in our doctor’s offices, in our retirement communities, and other places. Those who have the money get the best and most quality care, while everyone else is relegated to clinics and/or whatever the government might provide. It exists in our towns and communities, where people in need are often told to “go elsewhere” so that those who have plenty can feel comfortable living in their communities and shopping at their local stores.

As the New Year commences, I want to challenge everyone who reads this devotional to reflect on the elitism that we are apart of and/or the elitism we have fallen victim to. Are we operating our lives, schools, businesses, health care facilities, communities, and governments in a way that is modeled on the “Economy of Heaven”, as seen in our suggested Scripture readings today, or are we modeled after the “Economy of this World.” I am not challening us in order to lay blame, point the finger, or stir the pot. I am writing this because I have been asking myself this question and know that God is calling us all to. The challenge for us is to assess how we, as children of God, can better live into God’s call to usher in Heaven on Earth. What can we do to help God’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1-7) become a reality? How do we join God in making all things new again? Perhaps, like me, you have been wondering this too? Regardless, I hope that you accept the challenge and start working toward the personal and communal changes needed to make that happen.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16, NRSV)

PRAYER
Lord, help me to honestly assess myself so that I may make the changes necessary in order to live up to your Word of justice, mercy, compassion and equality. Holy God, may your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Represent!

Read 2 Corinthians 5:13-21

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16, NLT)

imagesBack in March of 2014, a Christian film went mainstream and was shown in theaters across the country. The film was called “God’s Not Dead” and chronicled the struggle of a student in college whose philosophy professor asks him and his classmates to write, “God is Dead” on a piece of paper and sign it. Doing so, according to the professor, would get the kids out of having to dredge through the boring nonsense that is the philosophical “proofs” of God and get into the more interesting schools of philosophical thought. Of course, this professor is an antitheist and is a little more than just biased against any and all religious beliefs. An antitheist, for those who don’t know, are atheists who  believe that religion is the cause of the world’s problems, who despise religion, and who seek to “edcuate” people that religion is faulty, prehistoric superstition that needs to be eradicated!

Honestly, I was not all that enthralled with the movie, though as a philosopher I dug the academic debate the film centered on. Still, in a world where Christians are being put to death for being Christian, in a world where millions of Christians are displaced refugees because of radical governments and religious zealots, in a world where such Christian persecution exists, a student’s struggle against an extreme professor seemed a little contrived and, well, superficial. For fans of the movie, hold off on the dislike button, because I’m not done yet.

Just recently a student I know was in a science class learning about the theory of evolution. During that class, the teacher made a comment that religious people don’t believe in evolution because they choose to believe in a God that created everything as it is. Feeling that the comment was a denigration to her both as a Christian and as an intelligent student, she raised her hand and spoke up, stating that the teacher’s comment was untrue. “I’m a Christian, I believe in God, I believe that God created the world, and I have no problem with the theory of evolution. Can’t God create a world that evolves on its own without needing a puppet master pulling the strings?” She also let that teacher know that what he was doing was stereotyping her and other religious people, which in her words, “was not cool.”

This student did not lose composure, but remained respectful yet firm in her convictions and that teacher, realizing she was right, acknowledged her point and moved on with the lesson. Despite my gut reaction to “God’s Not Dead” and the theological issues I believe are inherent in that film, there is a truth that Christians are living in an increasingly polarized society that often doesn’t look kindly on religion or faith. In fact, Christians aren’t the only ones who face this, but people of all religions do.

What is important for me to stress here is that this is not a “battlecry” for Christians to rise up and take back what is “rightfully theirs.” If we read the Gospels, and the New Testament as a whole, we quickly realize that the world has NEVER been “rightfully ours.” We live in this world, but we are not of it; rather, we are ambassadors who represent Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven, and we are not called to battle the world in a match of wits, or in senseless debates over who has the truth and who follows the fiction. With that said, we are called to represent the realm and the reign of God and to shine Christ’s light into this world of darkness. That is the heart of what the college student in “God’s Not Dead” was doing, and that is the heart of what the student I know was doing. She was not trying to put him down, or enter into a battle of the wits in order to disgrace him; rather, she was was shining a light on the truth of her faith and, perhaps, encouraging other people of faith in the room along the way. As Christians, Christ has called us all to lovingly stand up for the truth and be witnesses of the hope of God’s presence with us, regardless of what the world does or does not think of it. Remember that we live in this world, but we are not of it. May Christ give us all strength.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.” – John F. Kennedy

PRAYER
Lord, help me to have the courage to represent Christ and to do so in a way that is honest, bold, loving, and tolerant. Amen.

Cubic Zirconia

Read Matthew 15:44

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls.” (Matthew 13:45, NLT)

cz2webWhat do you value? What is it that you place all of your stock in? What is it that you would spare no expense for? What is your gleaming treasure? In today’s suggested reading, Jesus tells of a man who stumbles upon treasure hidden in a field that is so precious to him that he then sells everything he has in order to purchase that field and, by extension, purchase that treasure.

Now for those of us who really hear that parable and really give it some thought, we are left there stunned. I mean, why would someone stumble upon treasure hidden in a field and sell everything they own just to purchase the field with the treasure they stumbled on and could have had for nothing. That just doesn’t make any sense, does it? That seems like the most ridiculous and unlikely scenario ever told, does it not? Come on Jesus, surely you can do better than that?

Yet, the power in the parable is not in its plausibility but in its implausibility, for it is in the extreme and implausible actions of this seemingly lunatic man that we find the truthful point that Jesus is making. Sure, the man could have just taken the treasure and kept it for himself; however, that action would have been cheap and worthless and it would have rendered the treasure as such; rather, by selling everything and purchasing the land, and the treasure by necessity, makes that treasure the most valuable thing the man possesses, for he now owns nothing but the small plot of land and that treasure. The things we value the most will consume our very lives, and our actions will follow suit. Nothing else will stand a chance in competing for our devotion.

So, let me ask the question again. What do you value? The treasure above represents the Kingdom of God. Do you value the Kingdom of God…do you really, really value it? Do you value what God values? Do you value love, compassion, presence, respect, hospitality, service, sacrifice, grace, faith, faithfulness, justice, mercy, and social/economic/ecological/spiritual responsibility? Do you value the dignity and the divine spark within the all people you know and deal with. Do you treat everyone with equal respect and honor? Are you real in your values? Are your values real in you?

Plenty of people list their values and claim to live by them; however, values are not cheap like talk can be. The very word value denotes something of worth or cost, something to be treasured and sought after. When we claim to hold values that we don’t follow we show that those values are not real to us, we show that we are really seeking after Cubic Zirconia as opposed to the diamond in the rough. When we use values as a mask to hide the truth of who we are and/or the things we do, we are showing ourselves to be disingenuous and fake. We may fool some with that kind of an act, we may even fool ourselves, but we will never, ever fool God. God knows our hearts.

The Kingdom of Heaven is something of profound worth, something worth selling our very selves to purchase and to possess. The truth is that we can never, ever possess it; rather, it possesses us. Though we seek the Kingdom of Heaven, we discover that it searches us out. Though we may be Cubic Zirconia on the outside, God sees in us the diamond in the rough and chisels away the shells that surround us to reveal the inner gem. And once God does that we are transformed into a people who live by the very values that have claimed and shaped us. We become transformed to the point that the very values of the Kingdom of God become our own identity. We not only believe in them, we live by them. Not because we feel obligated, or because we’re putting up some sort of manufactured front, but because it’s who we are.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.” – Socrates

PRAYER
Lord, help me to not only proclaim my values, but to actually live into the values I proclaim. Amen.

Daniel’s Apocalypse

Read Daniel 7

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man.” (Matthew 13:37, NRSV)

daniel-10-vision-son-of-manThroughout the nearly twenty centuries in which Christianity has existed, many Christians have been raptured by the notion that the End Times are approaching, looking to the apocalyptic texts in the Bible to interpret the events happening in their world. Since the nineteenth century, there has been a renewed and somewhat reimagined End Times narrative that has since become the dominant perception in popular culture of what the Bible is saying in books such as Daniel, Ezekiel, 1 Thessalonians, and Revelation. This popular understanding has been propagated in Christian literature such as “The Late Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsey and the Left Behind series. It has been found in the secular world as well in films such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and other such horror films.

The word “apocalypse” means “unveiling” and in apocalyptic writings, the authors have been given a “revelation” or an “unveiling” of the things that are currently happen and/or are soon to pass in the future. Daniel 7 is such an apocalyptic text, and in modern popular culture, it has been interpreted in light of other apocalyptic texts such as Matthew 24, 1 Thessalonians 4, and Revelation. The problem with this is that these interpretations often do not take the apocalyptic author’s own historical and religious context into account, which leaves us with a heavily skewed understanding of what those texts are stating.

Daniel 7 talks about the winds stirring the sea, four beasts rising up, and ten horns found on the fourth beast (three of which are removed and replaced by another smaller horn covered with eyes and a boasting mouth. The sea is always symbolizes the primordial chaos that surrounds God’s ordered and good creation. Water is both life and death, and the chaotic seas in the ancient world (as well as in ours) are always threatening to destroy us. The winds that are stirring them are the “angels” of heaven, implying that there is a spiritual warfare going on in the cosmos, mirroring the ancient Semitic myth of the storm god (Baal in Canaanite mythology and Marduk in the Babylonian mythology). In the ancient world, beasts always represented Empires and/or Kingdoms. Thus, in Daniel’s apocalyptic dream, the first beast represented Babylon, the second represented the Medes, the third the Persians, and the fourth represented the Greek/Seleucid Empire.

It was under these Empires, one after the next, that the Hebrew people suffered great oppression under. But, in Daniel’s vision, these Empires wouldn’t have the final say. God was doing something significant, something that would overthrow the forces of evil in the world and would begin the establishment of God’s Kingdom on Earth. He sees someone like the “Son of Man” coming on the clouds and ushering in that Kingdom. The apocalyptic author of Daniel was providing hope for people caught in what seemed like a hopeless situation. God would take authority away from the beast-like Kingdoms and return it to human-like Israel

It was this hope that, 160 years after the writing of this text, a Jewish prophet and teacher would proclaim he was the fulfillment of. That man, of course, was Jesus of Nazareth and he was claiming that he was that “Son of Man” and he proclaimed the arrival of God’s Kingdom on Earth. It was this “Son of Man” that was proclaiming a message that was counter to the powers of the world, one that preached of strength through humility, through meekness, through peace, through compassion, through self-sacrifice and through unconditional love. While Jesus does proclaim a post-ascension time when he would return, Daniel, according to Jesus, was not pointing to an event following the Christ; rather, Daniel was pointing to the Christ event itself. Let us who believe in Jesus as the Christ rejoice, for we have been chosen by him to continue the unveiling of the enduring Kingdom he ushered in! Our call is not to predict the future, but to serve God’s Kingdom today.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” – Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ (Matthew 19:21)

PRAYER Lord, thank you for revealing to me the Son of Man. Help me to do my part in serving your Kingdom on Earth. Amen.

Jesus Is For Real

Read Matthew 13:23-58

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
But [Jesus] said to them, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43)

heaven-is-for-realThis past Thursday, my wife, children and I went to the theater to see yet another faith-based film. It seems that 2014 is the year of faith-based films and, so long as they keep making them, my family and I will keep supporting them. The one we just saw was a film entitled, “Heaven Is For Real”, which is based on the bestselling book of the same name. The film chronicles a Wesleyan pastor, Rev. Todd Burpo, and his family through a tumultuous time.

According to the story, Todd’s son Colton ended up getting sick on a family trip to Denver. After bringing him home, his condition did not improve but got worse. It turned out that his appendix had ruptured and, close to death, Colton needed emergency surgery. During that surgery, he left his body and was able to see both his parents who were in separate places: his mom on the phone with family and his dad, who was in the chapel angrily praying and yelling at God.

Beyond that experience, Colton also experienced going to heaven where he met angels who sang to him and Jesus who came to him on a horse of many colors. Everyone in heaven, according to Colton, were young. While there he met his great-grandfather who he had never met in life, and he also met his unborn, older sister. At four years old, his son had never known his mom had a miscarriage and, to his mother’s surprise, he was suddenly aware that he had another “sister” who lived in heaven.

While the story is very moving, it is easy for us to get skeptical of such books and such accounts. Theologically speaking, when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven was he really referring to another place where he would be riding a rainbow colored horse? Was he referring to a place where we all look like we did when we were in our early twenties? Some have criticized the book for presenting an “extra-Biblical” picture of what heaven is. From a scientific perspective, how do we know that Colton wasn’t just imagining Jesus out of things he had seen and/or heard at home or at church. His father, after all, is the pastor of a Wesleyan Church. Secular critics have criticized the book for it’s lack of “reason.”

I must confess that I have never read the book, but when watching the film the details of the boy’s personal experiences of heaven became secondary to the overall point of the film. Pastor Burpo, in one scene, stands before his congregation asks, “If we truly believed that heaven is for real, how differently would be be living our lives?” That is a profoundly good and important question to ask. If we truly believe in heaven, if we truly see that heaven is FOR REAL, if we truly understood that heaven can be brought here on earth and that we are called to be a part of ushering it in, we will be living our lives differently.

I believe that the personal and, by nature, subjective experiences of a four year old boy cannot be proven or disproven. To be skeptical and critical of the fine details of his experience is to miss the bigger point that not only is heaven for real, but THE RISEN JESUS IS FOR REAL and he is calling to us in different ways. For some it is in a near death experience, for others it is in a Scripture verse we accidentally stumble upon. Still others witness the risen Christ in a person they are helping or in someone who is helping them. There are some who have visions and dreams that lead them to the RISEN CHRIST who is calling them into a deeper commitment. No matter how Christ is experienced…the fact remains that HE IS EXPERIENCED and he is calling us to be agents of his kingdom…the very real Kingdom of Heaven…so that the world may come to be as God first intended it to be: A WORLD OF TRUE LIFE AND LASTING PEACE. Experience that Jesus is for real, that heaven is for real, and that your call, no matter what it is or where it leads you, is for real.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 18:3, NRSV).

PRAYER
Lord, open my eyes that I may see and experience you. Change my heart that I may eagerly follow you. Amen.

A Modern Parable

Read 2 Corinthians 5:17-21

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’ (Matthew 18:21-22)

say_hello_2_heavenHave you ever pondered about heaven and hell? Often times they both seem so distant, they both seem so very far away. We all hang on to life, thinking that the longer we live the longer we can put off having to find out what lies beyond the great divide. Yet are heaven and hell that far away?

One day, while pondering on the nature of heaven and hell, I pictured hearing what Jesus would say about the two if he were living on earth today. What sort of parable would he tell, what kind of illustration would he use to describe the reality of heaven and hell? We all know the imagery he used in the New Testament; however, if Jesus were living on earth today, what example would he provide us? And then I thought of an event that had happened a while back and decided to put the exercise on paper. It went like this:

One day a man came up to Jesus and questioned him, “Rabbi, teach us of hell.”

Jesus looked deeply into the man’s eyes and began to answer in parables.  “Hell is like a schoolhouse of Amish children.  One day a man entered into the schoolhouse, lined up all the girls along the wall, and bound their ankles and hands together.  He called his wife to say goodbye and then started shooting the girls in the back of the head, one by one.  Finally, the man took his own life, leaving several Amish parents without their children, leaving his own children without their father, leaving his wife without a husband, and leaving his parents without a son.

In reaction to the incident, people around the nation began judging the man and his family.  His face was shown all over the television with the words, ‘The Face of Evil‘ written underneath.  People judged him as an evil person and before long such judgments would justify their harassing the killer’s wife and children.”

The man looked back at Jesus in utter astonishment.  “What then of heaven, Rabbi,” he asked.

Jesus answered,  “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the Amish parents who, after their children were mercilessly and brutally murdered by a gun man, met with the family of the murderer.  They brought food, tears, and prayers to the killer’s wife’s door, sat with the wife and kids, ate with them and prayed with them.  They said to the wife, ‘In our hearts we have already forgiven him.’  They also begged the wife, ‘Do not leave this area. Stay in your home here. We forgive this man.’”

While these words are obviously not the actual words of Jesus, I do believe that they are true insomuch as they shed light on the nature of heaven and hell.  The fact of the matter is that hell, often times, surrounds us; however, as followers of Christ, we are called to be ambassadors of heaven. The Amish in the parable above, pulled from a real life event, acted as heavenly ambassadors would. Though they were the grieving victims of a heinous, evil crime, they chose to act out of love and forgiveness, rather than out of vengeance and hate. It may be a tall order but, as the Amish proved, it is not an impossible one. May the love of Christ permeate you so that you can show it even to your enemies.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“Love seeketh not itself to please, nor for itself hath any care, but for another gives its ease, and builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.” – William Blake

PRAYER

Lord, teach me to love, regardless of the cost. Just as I am forgiven, give me the humility and the strength to forgive. Amen.

Growing in Grace

Read Matthew 13

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” (2 Peter 3:8)

vbc_gig_screenWhen I was in my later teens, I went through a period of trying to identify who I was as person. I knew who my parents told me I was, I knew who the church thought I was, I knew what society expected me to be; however, I needed, as do all young people, to discover who I was.

For many years, the church was a place I found my identity in; yet, as I was going through this period of change, the church became less and less so. I got tattoos, pierced my ears, and started to change from the little boy everyone knew me as, into something different. And of course, different is not always a welcome thing. I remember the looks I got when I first walked into church with my newly inked skin. I was proud of them, clearly some of my fellow church members were not. It’s not that anyone said anything nasty to me, but I could just tell by the way they looked at me.

So, to make a long story short, I walked away from my Christian faith for many years. That does not mean I stopped believing in God, or in a higher power, but I sought for that connection in other things. I started to have a negative perception of the church as a whole as a result of my previous experiences. That was sad, looking back, because most of my childhood years in the church are fond memories for me.

Thankfully, the story does not end there. While some of the reactions I got from some of the members of my church were negative, there were other people in the church who did not look at me, or treat me any differently. The pastor of my church at the time, kept on embracing me and treating me with the same respect and dignity as he always had. He patiently answered questions, invited me to be a part of different ministries in the church, all the while allowing me to find out who I was as a person.

One of my Sunday School teachers was another person who kept on loving me despite my changes, as did some of the other church members and, of course, my parents. Despite my walking away from my Christian faith, I could not walk away from the impression those people, and others, left on me. Despite my focusing on the negative that happened, I still could not wipe away the miraculous positive reinforcement that those people had on my life.

And those experiences, in part, inform who I am today as a pastor and spiritual leader. I have come to learn over the years that even just a little grace goes a long, long way. It’s like a mustard seed, that starts off as the smallest of things but grows into a giant tree, sheltering the birds of the air from the desert sun. Grace is the doorway to the Kingdom of Heaven. At firsts it looks small, distant and hard to enter, but as you journey closer to it you realize it is a door wide open, and all who enter it will be changed forever.

As Christians, we are called not only to receive grace, but to be bearers of it. In fact, if we are to grow at all as Christians, we are to grow in grace. It is so easy for us to fall into legalism and judgmentalism, for that is the way of this world; however, though we live in this world, we are called to transcend it. We are called by God to extend grace to all, even to those whom we feel don’t deserve it. After all, who are we to judge who deserves God’s grace. Let us err on the side of grace and extend that grace to all people, no matter how different they might be. You just never know who’s life God will touch as a result of that grace.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“If we are to err, and err we shall, then let us err on the side of grace.” – Rev. Alec C. Park

PRAYER

Lord, help me to extend my grace to all people. Soften my heart that I may bear witness to the undeserved grace you have given to me. Amen.