Tag Archives: Truth

God’s People, part 180: Mary of Bethany

Read Luke 10:38-42

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“When Mary arrived and saw Jesus, she fell at his feet and said, ‘Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.’”  (John 11:32, 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.

MaryAointingJesusPart 180: Mary of Bethany. I belong to a group of clergy who meet to preach and discuss preaching before each other. It is a small covenant group that was established to help us all better hone our preaching skills. Like any group of professionals, clergy are always seeking ways to grow in their effectiveness as preachers, teachers and communicators.

Today, as I sit down and write this devotion on Mary of Bethany, I must confess that I was blessed to hear a sermon from a good friend and colleague, Rev. Amanda Rohrs-Dodge, on Martha and Mary of Bethany. The sermon was around the subject of hospitality and that there are really many different forms that hospitality comes in.

As was discussed in the last devotion, Martha and Mary had Jesus over as their guest. In that culture, one that was built on honor, it was a sacred duty to show radical hospitality to one’s guests. Such hospitality included making them feel at home, tending to their every need, preparing a feast, and ensuring that the guest had a safe place to rest and be. That is why, in the Old Testament, people like Lot went to troubling extremes to defend his guests from the towns people who were wanting to have their way with them.

As such, Martha was busy busy being the host, tending to Jesus’ every need and making sure everything was in order, dishes prepared, food cooked, etc. What’s more, when she saw Mary sitting and listening to Jesus rather than helping her with what needed to be done, she complained to Jesus about how unfair it was that Mary wasn’t helping out. She did this to scold her sister and she asked Jesus to send her sister away to help her.

This is where Rev. Amanda’s sermon comes in, because she shed light on an important point that I had never even considered before. While Martha was showing Jesus hospitality through taking on the role of the host, Mary was also showing Jesus hospitality by simply sitting and listening to him. She was showing radical hospitality through being present for Jesus. In fact, the account does not tell us that any one else was doing that. I just mentions that Mary was there listening to him.

Whether there were others or not is beyond the point. We so often look for God to be present with us, we look for Jesus to be present in our lives, but do we ever stop to consider being present for God? After all, what more does God want that a relationship with us? What’s more, how can we have a relationship with God if we are not present for God to have said relationship? Healthy relationships are always a two-way street.

Mary was not perfect at this, by any means. In her moment of grief and despair at the death of her brother, she was angry at Jesus because he wasn’t present for her brother when he was gravely ill. In not being present for her brother, she felt he had abandoned her as well. She wouldn’t have had to grieve and experience the pain death and loss if Jesus had just showed up.

With that said, in her grief she also failed initially to realize that Jesus, too, was grieving the loss of Lazarus. Knowing there is a grander plan in place does not make the death of a loved one any easier. Who was present for Jesus in his pain and in his grief? Yet, relationships are a give and take and Jesus understood why Mary was upset and it grieved him all the more.

Still, when not consumed by grief and despair, Mary was a person who chose to be present for Jesus. She didn’t look for him to serve her, she served him and looked to learn from the One she loved so dearly. That is why, while all the other disciples were missing the point, Mary was the one who anointed Jesus’ feet, an act that symbolically prepared his body and spirit for the brutal death he was about to face. That is why Jesus said that whenever people talk about his death and suffering, they will remember the kindness, compassion, and presence of Mary.

Indeed, this ought to challenge each of us to grow in our hospitality. We ought to be hospitable to others, and we ought to play the part of the host, attending to the physical needs of others. But we also need to balance the inner-Martha with Mary as well. We ought not merely be busy, but take time to actually be present with those we are serving. What’s more, we ought to reflect on how we can show hospitality to ourselves and to God. Let this be our challenge, that we grow from distracted, busy hosts to radically hospitable people.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
It is important that we not only show hospitality to other people, but that we show it to the One who first showed it to us. All that requires is our sincere presence.

PRAYER
Lord, You are always present for me, to the point I need not even ask for that. Now, Lord, I want to be present for you as well. Thank you for being in relationship with me and create in me a more hospitable and present spirit. Amen.

A LOOK BACK: Represent!

bflw-devotional-800x490Writing the Life-Giving Water devotionals is not only an important ministry, but is a deeply rewarding spiritual discipline for me as well. With that said, observing Sabbath (aka rest) is an important spiritual discipline as well. So here is a LOOK BACK to a devotion I wrote in the past. Read it, reflect on it, be challenged by it. Who knows how God will speak to you through it and how it will bear relevance in your life today? May the Holy Spirit guide you as you read the suggested Scripture and subsequent devotion.

God’s People, part 67: Beholder’s Eye

Read 1 Kings 1-2; 1 Chronicles 28-29

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Get the truth and never sell it; also get wisdom, discipline, and good judgment.” (Proverbs 23:23 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.

PerspectivePart 67: Beholder’s Eye. There is an old adage that says, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I would argue that so is history and any other form of knowledge. We as humans, especially in Western Civilization, tend to compartmentalize things. If it is right-brained, artistic, creative, and aesthetic in nature, it must be subjective; however, if it is left-brained, logical, scientific, historical, and fact-based, it must be objective. I believe that this reasoning is no more than a false dichotomy and that such fallacious thinking gives us an excuse to not deal with true human complexity. The world is seldom, if ever, so simple.

Just as it is true that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” so it is true that history, science, and other such disciplines are as well. Yes, there are facts, there are scientific laws that never change and there are subjects can only be seen in black and white (such as mathematics); however, how we interpret those laws, those facts, and even (in some cases) numbers, can often lead us to wildly different conclusions. It is also important to acknowledge that we can use facts in ways that support our conclusions, and we can skip over facts to not muddy the water in the well of our conclusions.

As a philosopher, I have long concluded that while facts must be true, the truth need not be factual. For instance, Jesus told the story about the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Parables are, by nature, not factual. They did not ACTUALLY happen. We could, possibly, imagine them happening. They may not be far-fetched; however, they did not actually happen. They are not factual, historical accounts. With that said, they convey THE TRUTH and through them, we are hopefully enlightened to a whole new way of thinking and living.

Yet, a fact cannot be a fact if it is not true. That is a simple, yet solid maxim. Unfortunately, we conflate the two realities and often resort to thinking that if something is not factual, then it must not be true. When we look at the Bible as a history, and parts of the Bible are recording history, we often measure its veracity by adding up the facts.

In the case of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, we often see two sets of accounts (one set in 1 & 2 Kings and the other set in 1 & 2 Chronicles) that tell the same basic story, yet the facts are different. The author of one might have written more favorably about, let’s say, David, than the other might have. From a 21st century stand point, the contradictions might cause some to put up red flags indicating that this account might not have happened because there are apparent contradictions; yet, that is not necessarily the case. In fact, both accounts could be true despite the contradictions.

What’s more, just because a text is written against another nation, does not mean that the other nation was all-evil in God’s sight. We have to remember that history is written in the beholder’s eye and that history is most often written by those who come out on top as the victors. Just because the Northern Kingdom of Israel is listed as a wayward Kingdom does not mean that they were all that the kings and scribes in Judah hyped them up to be. There may be facts in there; however, those facts get presented to us through the lenses of those writing them. This makes the truth hard to discern without grace, but it does not cancel the truth out.

This is an important lesson to learn, not only for studying the Bible, but for all things. Do we judge others based off what one side says about the other? Do we judge other nations based off what the leaders in our nation have to say about “them over there”? It is time for us to challenge ourselves from seeing the world in such a “true or false” way, for none of us truly live “true or false” lives. We all live in the “not sure” zone, as it were. Let us learn to be careful in our interpretation of facts. Let us be cautious in not just discarding potential truth because the facts don’t seem to line up. Let us also remember that, at the end of the day, God’s grace is what is ULTIMATELY TRUE.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
While fact is dependent on truth, the truth is not dependent on fact.

PRAYER
Lord, let me seek you and your wisdom out so that I may be more humble in my quest for truth. Steer me from making rash judgments. Amen.

Not an Excuse

Read Luke 13:1-9

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Jesus told him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through Me.’” (John 14:6 NLT)

mass-crucifixion-appian-way-2I am sure everyone who has been consistently reading these devotions knows that I am a huge fan of The Walking Dead. For those of us who watch the show faithfully, we know that the opening to Season 7 was a doozy. I am not going to give away any major spoilers; however, I am going to discuss this first episode in a way that I think will lend itself to this devotion. The season kicked off where the previous season left off, with Rick Grimes and the leaders from the Alexandria community grouped together in a circle bound up and on their knees.

In the previous season, the Alexandria community decided to help the Hilltop community in fighting against a common threat: The Saviors. These supposed “Saviors” were anything but. They were some pretty bad dudes who were forcing other communities to either work for them or, if the community refused, killing them in brutally awful ways. So the Alexandria community attacked the Saviors outpost and killed everyone there, only to find out that the outpost the attacked was merely one outpost among many. There were far more Saviors than Alexandria could handle, and the plan ultimately backfired. The Alexandria leaders were eventually captured and grouped together in the circle we see them in at the start of Season 7.

What happened following that can only be described as horrific,  brutal and extremely hard to watch. To sum it up and spare you the emotional trauma that TWD fans had to endure, unless you are already among them, a bloodbath ensues. Negan (pronounced Nee-gan), the leader of The Saviors, plays a twisted game of “eeny meeny miny moe”, where he selects the person who is going to die. When he arrives at the person, he brutally bludgeons him to death with a barb-wire wrapped bat that Negan has nicknamed “Lucille”. Trust me when I say this, it wasn’t pretty. It was graphic, numbing, scarring, and certainly painful to watch. But it was not pretty. What’s more, Negan didn’t stop with the first victim, but ended up choosing a second one to kill in the same fashion.

The point of my bringing this up is because we can very easily imagine such violence existing in our world. As much as we try to pretend it doesn’t exist, we know it does. Honestly, it doesn’t take a zombie apocalypse for that kind of stuff to happen. Yet, while such senseless, brutal violence exists in our world, it is also true that most of us (in Western Civilization anyway) have the choice to be sheltered from it. We can choose to not watch the news, to not open our eyes to the suffering of others around the world, and to live as disconnected from such violence as we choose to be. Yes, I realize that some suffer domestic violence and that not everyone has this choice, but most of us do.

With that said and out there, there are many in our world who think that we can excuse ourselves, as Christians, from following in Jesus’ footsteps. We think that Jesus’ teachings were good for his time because he didn’t live in the age of terrorism. We think that Jesus lived in a golden age that allowed for him to be all “tree-huggy” and “hipster” like. First, Jesus was no tree-hugger nor was he a hippie. Those things come from our world not his. Second, if we truly think that Jesus’ world was less dangerous and less violent than ours, it is time for us to head back to World History 101.

God’s honest truth is that while the actions of Negan shock us because we NEVER see anything like that on a regular basis, Jesus and the people in 1st century Palestine would not have been shocked in the slightest. Growing up, Jesus would vividly remember the forest of crosses, upon which thousands of Galilean men and women were crucified on because of their trying to revolt against King Herod. He drew a reference to, and clearly was aware of, Pontius Pilate slaughtering the mob of people he lured to the public square to “talk” to them about their grievances. It is true, Jesus’ world was not like ours. It was much, much worse.

So, the challenge for us today is to show both a bit of honesty and a lot of humility. Comparing the things we face in our world to that of Jesus’ is NOT AN EXCUSE for us not following the Christ. If we believe in Jesus, then it is clear what we ought to be doing. If we don’t believe, or we don’t think that Jesus’ teachings make sense for us today, then at least be honest and admit that you don’t follow Jesus. This is not meant to push anyone way, but to draw the line so that we can honestly evaluate ourselves. As Christians, everything we do, say and believe ought to be measured by THE ONE who is THE WAY in which we follow. I pray that we all have a heart-to-heart with Jesus during this Lenten journey and choose to follow The Way, The Truth and the Life.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.” – Pope Francis I
PRAYER
Lord, help me face the truth and shed the excuses. I am yours. I follow you. Amen.

The Dark Woods

Read Matthew 5:13-16

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16 NLT)

blair_witch-2016-headerJust recently I was watching the direct sequel to the Blair Witch Project entitled, Blair Witch. I can remember the first film like it was yesterday. BWP was a highly anticipated film. It was 1999, only two years prior to 9/11, and the way the director and filmmakers chose to promote it gives us an idea on the kind of world the ‘90s were. They chose to use the real actors’ names in the film, put their names and faces on milk cartons, and stated they were missing…FOR REAL. What’s more, and I didn’t know this at the time, they sent each of the actor’s families a letter offering their condolences over the disappearance of their children/siblings.

Yikes, can you imagine being those family members and getting a notice stating that your child was missing and believed to be dead? It was a total commitment to realism, but I can only imagine the heartbreak that caused. Of course, the actors had to hide away, lay low, and keep quiet until the film came out. What’s more, they made a “mockumentary” and aired it on national, and international, television leading up to the film. The marketing was, in a word, brilliant; however, it did have its consequences. Heather Donahue, the main star, stated that the film forever changed her life…and not in a good way. The film went down in history as being one of the most influential horror movies of all time, and it also spawned countless copycats and/or “found footage” horror films that now flood the theaters.

The direct sequel to this film, Blair Witch, was just released in 2016 and it, too, follows the same format as the first film. By now, most (and I do stress most as some still believe that BWP is a true story) people are aware that these films are fiction; however, the newest installment still delivers in terms of intensity, scares and a foreboding sense of doom. What makes this work in both films is that they are filming it in the woods, and a majority of the film is shot at night with very little lighting, only enough to see the actors and their immediate surroundings.

Have you ever been in the woods at night? I have. Well, I practically live in the woods but, that aside, I have been in the pitch black woods at night with nothing but a flashlight to guide my way. It is not a pleasant experience because one’s sight is so limited. Limited sight is scary enough on its own, however, add in the fact that around you could be bears, coyote, mountain lions (I swear they exist here), and any other number of wildlife. All one experiences in the woods at night is darkness, shadowy formations of trees, and sounds of critters moving and leaves rustling.

Being in the woods at night is a great metaphor for living one’s life as a Christian in this world. Jesus tells us that we are salt of the earth and the lamp on a lampstand. In order for us to not lose our flavor as salt, we have to be willing to have the courage and the faith to go where God is leading us. We have to be willing to go into the dark woods and to live our lives faithfully within it. In order for us to do so, we have to not hide who we are or whose we are, for to do so is to hide the light of Christ under a basket. That is treacherous at best for then we do not have the light of Christ to guide our way, and we do not have the light of Christ to draw others to the Salvation we bear in us.

Here’s the catch, we cannot be faithful Christians without entering the dark woods. Following Jesus is NOT about playing it safe, it is about risking safety in order to bring Good News to the last, the least, and the lost. Today’s challenge for us is to reflect on where we are. Have we left the safety of our sanctuary? Have we left the safety of the arms of Christ in order to venture out into the dark woods? Have we left comfort behind to embrace the darkened path that Christ has chosen for us? If not, I pray you will take that next step for the harvest is great, but the workers are few.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Love will find a way through paths where wolves fear to prey.” – Lord Byron

PRAYER
Lord, thank you for being my sanctuary no matter where I go. Help me rid myself of fear that I might bold step out into the darkness and shine your light. Amen.

The Sermon, part 16: God-Centered Prayer

Read Matthew 6:7-8

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: ‘Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: “To an Unknown God.” This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the One I’m telling you about.’” (Acts 17:22-23 NLT)

ladyonthemoonI have yet to reveal this in my devotions, but most who have known me over the years know that I had once practiced Wicca[i] for nearly a decade of my life. I was brought up in a Christian home, raised to be a Christian in a church, and had even experienced the call to become a pastor as a child. With that said, as a teenager I became disenfranchised with Christianity and with institutionalized religion as a whole. More than that, I was disenfranchised with myself and was seeking who I was, as opposed to who everyone else though I should be.

I know, I know, it’s a common teenage thing: the search for identity; but it’s not to be scoffed at, and it led me to Wicca. Honestly, I thank God for that. Yes, you heard me right, Wicca was a gift given to me from God and I am thankful for it. Through Wicca, God gave me the space to grow, to discover myself, to find my God-given identity, and it kept me seeking the divine rather than denying it. It gave me the space to, overtime, reconnect with my calling and to wrestle with my faith. What’s more, there is truth within the teachings of Wicca and I learned a great deal about God through it.

Since, then (in 2004 to be exact) I came back to Christ, not because Wicca was bad or wrong or (add your adjective here), but because Christ had laid a claim on my life long before I ever chose to go out and explore my spiritual identity. While I may have left the Church, I never left God and God never left me; rather, believe it or not, I grew closer to God through Wicca and gained a much better appreciation and affinity for God’s creation.

The relevance of all of this is that, because of my experience in religions outside of Christianity, I have something to offer in terms of understanding what Jesus is talking about when using the term “pagans” (depending on what translation you use). Matthew was written in Greek, and the word that Matthew quotes Jesus saying is, ἐθνικός (pronounced eth-nee-kos’).  This often gets translated to “pagan” or “Gentile”. It is where we get our English word “ethnic” from and, in Jesus’ Jewish context, it refers to anyone who is NOT ethnically Jewish and/or has not converted to Judaism.

In this passage, Jesus uses the common Jewish perception of Gentiles (or pagans) in regard to prayer. In the ancient pagan world, people would go to great lengths to pray the right prayers, say all the right things, and perform all the right rituals in order to appease the gods and make them happy. To fail to do so could result in the prayer not being answered. In other words, the prayer was intended to manipulate the gods to do what the person was praying for.

If taken literally, Jesus’ words could be seen as an oversimplification, if not a mischaracterization of those religions. In the ancient, Greco-Roman world, there were many different types of pagan religion and cult groups. Each of them had different practices and different beliefs. What’s more, to take his words and try to literally apply them to a modern-day, neopagan religion such as Wicca, would be a mischaracterization. Wicca is a religion that seeks to find balance and harmony with nature and doing one’s part to add to that balance. It is not a religion that solely focuses on self, nor does it seek to prayerfully appease angry, fickle gods.

Yet, Jesus’ point in teaching about prayer was not to put down “pagans” as much as it was to distinguish what prayer ought to be in the Judeo-Christian context. It ought not to be focused on self or on manipulating God/nature in order to affect self-driven (not always self-centered) change in the world around us. That is not what prayer, as defined by Jesus, ought to be. Yet, can Christians truly hold non-Christians to account on that? Do Christians model God-driven or self-driven prayer? Is one’s prayer life centered on self, and on what oneself needs, or is one’s prayer life centered on God and what God wills?

That is what Jesus is talking about in today’s passage. It is not a judgment against “pagans” or other religions, as Christians have unfortunately interpreted it; rather, it is a mirror that Jesus is holding up to Christians to measure themselves in. He utilized language that the people of his time would understand, drawing a comparison between the way the Greco-Roman world practiced prayer, and the way Christians ought to practice it.

The questions for us are these: Are we set apart for God, or are we set apart for ourselves? Are we living the talk, or are we talking differently than how we live? In what is to follow from this passage, Jesus is about to show us what God-driven/God-centered prayer is all about. Reflect on your prayer life between this devotion and next in order to prepare for the instruction our Lord is about to give.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” – Søren Kierkegaard.
PRAYER
Lord, I center my prayer on you. What is it you would have of me? Show me the way. Amen.

[i]Due to time and the focus of this devotion, I cannot go into detail about Wicca. If you want to learn more about it, here is a reasonable and accurate web site which you can visit: http://wicca.cnbeyer.com/wiccan-basics/

The Sermon, part 10: Fourth Antithesis

Read Matthew 5:33-37

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” (John 14:6 NRSV)

truth-008“What is truth?” Those are the infamous words of the Roman Prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate. During Jesus’ Roman trial, he was being questioned on who he was, because the word got around that he was claiming to be the Messiah, or king, and that would have been very disturbing to Pilate.

The Prefect questioned Jesus, “Are you a king? Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus answered back, Jesus replied, “Is this your own question, or did others tell you about Me?

Pilate was enraged! “Am I a Jew? Your own leaders and priests brought you to me for trial! Now tell me, what have you done.”

Jesus looked a Pilate and ansered back, “My Kingdom is not of this world, otherwise my followers would not have allowed me to be handed over to the Jewish leaders. My Kingdom is not of this world.

Pilate was growing impatient. “So, you are a king then?”

Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.

“What is truth,” Pilate retorted the philosophical question in disgust with this man, as well as disgust with the whole region.

Though these events were recorded in John 18:33-38, the question, “What is truth,” is one that is relevant to us here today. Anyone who has watched politicians at work, know that the truth is not always what it seems. Things are said, “facts” are thrown out there, and stats are flaunted like evidence! Promises are made, assurances given and, at the end of the day, nothing changes. Our trust hangs in the balance, while the truth gets buried a pile of “untruths”.

The Jewish Law, just like our American justice system, had provisions written in it to make sure that people told the truth in crucial moments. If one had taken a vow, and were under oath, one’s words were weighted and any sign of lying would result in a severe penalty. While lying outside of an oath or vow is immoral, it does not bear any legal ramifications, even if it does bear social ones.

To paraphrase, Jesus says, “You have heard it said that ‘You must not break your vows’. But I say to you, do not make any vows! Don’t swear by heaven, or the earth, or Jerusalem, for those are not yours to swear by. They are God’s! And do not even swear by your own head for you can’t even control turning one hair black or white. Rather, just say a simple ‘yes,’ or ‘no,’. Anything beyond this is from the evil one!

Here again, Jesus took what seemed to be a common sense law and gave us an absolute antithesis in return. Rather than our words mattering sometimes, yet not others, Jesus proclaimed that our words matter ALL THE TIME. Truth is truth, lies are lies, and to say otherwise is to be, well, not truthful! God is not a liar, and God will not be represented by liars.

This, again, is not meant to establish a new law, but to point us to the one who is the fulfillment of the law. The one who embodied the TRUTH at all costs! This is not about being kind to a friend you think doesn’t look so great in those plaid pants, or anything like that. Jesus is NOT against tact! Nor is Jesus against those who lie to do what is morally just, such as lying to the gustapo that one isn’t hiding away Jews when they really are in the house hiding.

What Jesus is doing is speaking truth to power, and to those who choose to follow the power of the world, rather than the Truth of the Word. Jesus, the Word of God, is faithful and true and calls all followers to be likewise. We are to be truthful, we are to not make oaths for there should be no need to swear by this or that; rather, we should mean what we say and say what we mean. While we cannot force the world to be truthful, we can choose to not be beguiled by the world. Let us, instead, follow the one who IS TRUTH and let TRUTH lead and guide us in all that we do.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” – Buddha

PRAYER
Lord, reveal your TRUTH in me, and speak it through me in all I say and do. Amen.

The Sermon, part 5: Higher Standard

Read Matthew 5:20

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“For Christ is the [purpose] of the Law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4 NRSV)

Jesus had just told his disciples that he did not come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets; rather, Jesus had come to be the fulfillment of them. As was mentioned in the previous devotion, this does not mean that Jesus fulfillls the law by any sort of legalistic way. His teachings neither summarize the Law, nor do they offer a “new interpretation” of the it. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets because they point directly to him, the Messiah, and his coming to usher in God’s reign.

Jesus then takes that one step forward, just in case anyone may have thought that the Torah and the Prophets were now “history”. Such a willy-nilly approach to understanding Christ’s prophetic fulfillment of Scripture is even more unacceptable than that of the hypocrisy of some of the Pharisees. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

An important historical side note needs to be entered here. It can be said with much certainty that there were Pharisees in Jesus’ day; however, they were not as prominent of a group as they were in the time that Matthew was writing his Gospel. It is quite probable that Jesus did face opposition from some Pharisees as he traveled town to town with his message of God’s Kingdom come; yet, there can be no doubt that Matthew’s community was the one truly facing opposition from the Pharisees.

The reason for noting this is because in Jesus’ day, the group that was really in power were the Sadducees who controlled and presided over the Temple. They were the ones that made up the majority of the Sanhedrin, at least at the time of Jesus, which was the ruling religious body of Judea. What’s more, the Sadducees and the Pharisees were opponents of each other. This can be seen in Paul’s craftily pitting the Pharisees against the Sadducees in Acts 23:6-8.

In Matthew’s day, however, the Temple was long destroyed and the Sadducees were not more. It was the Pharisees, at that point in history, who were working to redefine what it meant to be Jewish without a Temple to make sacrifices for the atonement of sins. Their answer was strict observance of the Law, with the understanding that if you strictly observe Torah, that equals an atoning sacrifice greater than the slaughter of animals. Matthew’s community, on the other hand, believed Jesus to be the answer to the question of how to be Jewish apart from the Temple. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection not only provided atonement for the believer, they were the ultimate fulfillment of God’s Law and the Prophets.

I note this because it is important that we don’t become false judges of the Pharisees as a group. I would imagine that most Pharisees were earnest, faithful people who were living out their call to follow God in the way that they understood that. Jesus’ teachings, while certainly calling out the hypocrisy of some of the religious leaders of his day, were pointed straight at the disciples. It was imperative to Jesus that his disciples realize that in order to be of the Kingdom of God, they have to exceed the “righteousness” being taught by the Pharisees. In other words, God has a higher standard.

As we will see in the next several devotions, Jesus lays out what he believes to be the true standard of God in the Law and the Prophets. In the meantime, let us reflect on the following warning that Jesus gives his disciples. What does it mean for us to exceed the Law and the Prophets?  What does it mean for us to live our lives in the same manner that Christ lived his, as a fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets? If Christ is within us, then that fulfillment should be evident. Let us reflect on these questions as we await what Christ has to teach us.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Being a Christian is more than just an instantaneous conversion – it is a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Christ.” – Billy Graham

PRAYER
Lord, teach me your way that I may, through you, represent your coming Kingdom. Amen.

Truth Vs. Fact

Read John 14:6-10

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32, NLT)

Tropical big fish in a small fish bowl

One of the things that intrigues me most about the Bible is about how the Bible interacts with history. I love reading the stories about Esther and the Persian King Ahasuerus who, for good reason, is believed to be King Xerxes I of Persia. I love reading about archaeological finds that corroborate the stuff found in the Bible. One such example is the discovery of Caiaphas’s ossuary, which is a chest containing the bones of the high priest who found Jesus guilty of blasphemy and had him handed over to Pontius Pilate. It intrigues me when I learn that we have discovered Pontius Pilate’s name inscribed in stone. This kind of stuff makes me feel like a boy watching Indiana Jones and relishing in the history and the adventure.

As a person who gets excited about history, I find the links between the Bible and historical records to be simply stunning and thought-provoking. I also love studying, apart from the Bible, the times and contexts of the areas that the Bible is referring to. For instance, the Bible says that Abraham came from Ur. Where was Ur? What did it mean to be rooted in the culture of Ur. What sorts of religious, cultural and social practices existed in that land and in that time? Or, what was it like growing up in first century Palestine? What did it mean to be a Jew in that time, what sorts of things did the people of Jesus’ time have to deal/cope with. What did it mean to be poor, sick, lame, imprisoned, etc., in the time of Jesus?

With that said, our culture has become too reliant on history as a measure of truth. For instance, were Adam and Eve literal people? Was the world created in six literal days? Was there really a Noah and did God literally flood the earth, killing everything on it? Did Jonah really get swallowed up by a gigantic fish? Did Elijah really get carried off to heaven in a chariot of fire? For some, perhaps for many in today’s day and age, these questions and more become the focal point. And this focal point leads us to even more questions. If those things weren’t historically accurate, if they didn’t literally happen exactly as it was written (word for word) in the Bible, then should we just discount the Bible as being nothing more than a fanciful fairy-tale, full of lies and superstition?

In today’s time, people equate fact with truth. People tend to hold the following proposition: “if it isn’t factual, then it isn’t true.” Then they will take a story like Jonah and search for historical proof that Jonah existed, they’ll search for historical and scientific evidence that one can be swallowed up by a fish. If they cannot find said evidence, they end up with the following conclusion: “there is no historical evidence to prove that this really happened; therefore, its historicity is in question and we must conlcude the Jonah story is not true.

Yet, the proposition is what lacks in truth and it leads to such a false conclusion. It can be said that in order for something to be truly and/or wholly historical, in must be factual. It can also be said that if something is factual, it must be true.  Yet, while facts are dependent on truth, it does not follow that truth is dependent on fact. Just because something didn’t actually happen, does not mean it is not true! Take Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Was there a Good Samaritan? Did such a Good Samaritan actually exist? Who knows?!?! It was a parable that Jesus told in order to convey the truth of what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Whether, it was a parable drawn from a historical event, or whether it was spun up by Jesus’ masterful storytelling skills in the moment is completely irrelevant!

The point of this is that, while we can get intrigued by the historicity of the Bible, we ought not get caught up in whether it is historical or not. The Bible was not written to be a history text book. Yes, it does include historical events in it. It also includes allegory, poetry, mythology, laws, songs, philosophy, and a whole host of other things. What the Bible was written for was to convey theology and spiritual truth. To stumble on our 21st understanding of history and whether or not the Bible holds up to it is to, quite frankly, foolishly and senselessly miss the point. Rather than seeking the historicity of the Bible, seek truth within its pages, for the Bible is spiritually authoritative and it is a profound part of the foundation of our faith, filled with the Truth.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“It’s like a finger pointing to the moon, don’t concentrate on the finger or you’ll miss all of that heavenly glory.” – Bruce Lee

PRAYER
Lord, rather than facts, fill me with your truth that I may be set free to live out that truth in my life. Amen.

The Gospel Truth

Read Luke 20:9-19

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
He replied, ‘My mother and brothers are those who listen to God’s word and do it.’” (Matthew Luke 20:9-19 CEB)

copy-of-jesus-faceIf I were to walk into any given church, or up to any random person, and ask them what the heart of the Gospel message is, I would more than like receive something like the following: “The Gospel message is that God sent his one and only Son, Jesus Christ, into the world so that he could be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Because Jesus was perfect and without sin, he became the spotless lamb led to the slaughter in order that he may die the death we deserve in order that those who believe in him might be atoned to God and saved.” This is the, in essence, the modern, popular Christian understanding of the heart of the Christian Gospel. Jesus came to die so that we might live.

Yet,  when you read the Gospels themselves, we find that Jesus dying as a sacrifice for our sins is just a part of the Gospel story. It is not the whole of it. Yes, Jesus’ death and resurrection are vitally important to Christian theology, Christology, and the Gospel message; however, only so when it is told in the context of the other components that we find in the Gospel. When those components are missing, what we end up is with a skewed, inaccurate portrait of the purpose of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as a skewed and inaccurate portrait of God’s purpose for sending Jesus, the Christ.

While it is certainly true that Jesus’ death and resurrection has brought about salvific and transformative atonement from our sins, to only tell that part of the story does an injustice to the life and the teachings of the Christ. In fact, it not only does a disservice, but it completely ignores Jesus’ life and teachings altogether, as if they are simply secondary and/or non-important. Yet, was Jesus’ life and teachings trivial? Was his life and teachings secondary, just a necessary back-story to his ultimate death and resurrection? If that is the case, if Jesus’ teachings are trivial and secondary to the work of salvation in the world, then why go down the route of teaching and preaching at all. The Gospel writers could have simply just had Jesus proclaim that his the messiah and the son of God, have people reject that, have him crucified, died, buried, resurrected and be done with it.

But that is not what the Gospel writers did. Rather, they included the whole of Jesus’ life and they dedicated most of their time on Jesus’ teachings. For them, the person of Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings were both as integral to God’s salvation plan as his death and resurrection were. Jesus came, not to die, but to bring TRUE LIFE into the world. To show them what God means by LOVING GOD and NEIGHBOR. Jesus came to set the example and to personally deliver the beginnings of God’s reign in the world. But, like Jesus’ own parable of the wicked tenants suggests, some of those in the world to whom the father sent the son (e.g. the Romans, the politicians, some of the religious leaders, etc.), rejected his identity, as well as his authority, and tried to eliminate him.

That plot, though, ultimately failed; rather, what happened was that God made the greatest good EVER come out of both the life and the death of Jesus. Instead of remaining dead, Jesus resurrected and now sits in power and authority in a complete union with God. Those who believe in him have found the power of redemption, as well as the transformative presence of the Holy Spirit and the perfecting grace of God in their lives. They are not saved, but are transformed and are living out their FAITH in real and tangible ways.

The challenge for us is this, don’t be misled by a lopsided and misguided Gospel. Jesus wasn’t born merely to die. What kind of God would scheme up that kind of plan? Rather, Jesus was born so the he might LIVE in the world and that through him we might attain TRUE LIFE. Even in the face of evil, and even when finding himself in the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus perservered and triumphed over death because in him was a presence greater than death…the very presence of GOD. Through our belief in Christ, through our following his example as detailed in the Gospel, and through his death and resurrection, we have found REDEMPTION and have been placed on the narrow path that leads to life. Let’s start walking it.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“We cannot have the fruits of the gospel without its roots.” – Joseph B. Wirthlin

PRAYER
Lord, I open my heart to the truth of your Gospel. Perfect me in it and set me a part a witness to its power. Amen.