Matthew, Uncategorized

The Role of Wilderness in Bringing Repentance

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. — Matthew 3: 1-5

16797435_10210416695067894_1092467000259285369_oI was going to take a break this week from writing on Matthew because I was on a backpacking trip to the Wilson Creek area of the Blue Ridge Mountains hiking the Harper Creek Trail. I was gone on Sunday, but a lesson from the upcoming chapter in Matthew slipped into my trip that I thought was worth writing down.

At the beginning of Matthew 3 the stage is being set for Christ’s baptism by his cousin John out in the wilderness of Judea.  Since I just returned from being in the wilderness, I have spent some time thinking about this passage over the past few days. Growing up I went backpacking occasionally with the Boy Scouts, but had really not done any in my adult life until about 7 years ago when I went with a group from my church and it changed my life.  There is so much about getting out of the modern world and into the woods that is cathartic, particularly if you work in technology like I do, surrounded by screens and devices all the time.  I am particularly blessed to go to a church with a large group of people who also enjoy heading out into the wilderness which makes trips not as difficult to plan, and the community and fellowship on the trips is as big a part of the trip as the destination.

One big part of backpacking is the planning of the trip, what gear to bring, what gear to buy, the probability that you will need an item (winter backpacking has additional variables depending on how cold it will get) versus how much something weighs.  It can get really technical and is something I like to geek out about on occasion.  Underlying a lot of this preparation though is a basic fear/respect for the wilderness.  Knowing that you are leaving a space that is comfortable, predictable and relatively safe and entering into a wilderness area invites any number of scenarios to enter your mind that might not otherwise on any average Tuesday.  What if it rains?  What if my headlamp batteries die?  What if I get lost?  What if a bear tries to eat me?  The possibilities are endless, and so is the gear, but at the end of the day you are limited by the load that you can carry.

That is what is so powerful to me about the description that Matthew gives of John the Baptist.  He is not limited by the load he can carry, because he has chosen not to be the one that carries the load.  He doesn’t have the gear.  He wears clothes of animal skins and eats locust and wild honey.  John isn’t prepared to survive the wilderness, instead he has become a part of it.  He is operating in a manner that depends on God for his survival.  John has found his repentance in the wilderness and is walking by faith now.  He is in step with God in a place both physically and spiritually where the people who come to see John can feel God all around them.  The load that John carries now is light and his burden is easy.

You see, God made the wilderness, it bears some of his likeness and we know in Genesis he pronounced that it was good.  To borrow an idea from C.S. Lewis, in God’s wilderness we can find a pale reflection of a creator who is good, but not tame.  We can also begin to see if we look hard within ourselves that same reflection of our Father in whose image we are all created.  Repentance is all about laying something down, and if you want to lay something down that is hard to let go of, go to a place where you can’t carry everything.  Go to a place that forces  you to lay things down.  The wilderness is where you can shed some of the weight, exchange fear for faith, certainty for possibility.

Baptism as it turned out on this trip was found for me in the valley.  At the end of our considerable descent with multiple stream crossings where using the proper gear (trekking poles and waterproof boots) could keep you dry, we finally came, exhausted to a crossing that could not be negotiated by stepping around or over.  We were forced to enter into the water in order to cross over.  For full disclosure, I still didn’t go barefoot, I used a pair of water shoes, but I did have to sit down, take off my boots, roll up my pants and enter into the February waters of Harper Creek before I could begin my ascension on the other side.  This is what I had come for, it was part of why I was here, and still it wasn’t easy.  The water at this time of year literally burns your legs and feet as you wade across.  You only enter the water if you have come to a place where you have no other choice.  A place where your desire to go across is greater than your willingness to go back to where you came from.

It is at this same place spiritually that I believe we reach what is referred to in Matthew in the Greek as Metanoia or a state of “after or beyond mind” commonly translated as repentance.  When we realize that we are no longer sufficient for our own needs, our energy and strength are not limitless, and yet we are intricately a part of something so much larger and wonderful and beyond that we ever imagined.  Again to borrow from CS Lewis, we desire only to press on, “to come further up, come further in” and in order to do this, we must change, we must lay down the illusion of our own self sufficiency.  Long before John there was a wilderness, and long before us there was John, I believe both still call to us with the same message of our need for repentance.

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Honestly, the ascension after passing through the waters might have been the hardest part of the trip, it was steep and technical and I was really tired.  Our pace was slower than we had anticipated and when we got to our designated campsite the sun was going down and we learned that we wouldn’t be able to use the site.  We were forced to keep hiking in the dark and to get water to carry with us because the site we were headed to wouldn’t have any.  In many ways the last hour or so of hiking after crossing through the river was one of the hardest things I’ve done in a long time, but waking up on the top of the mountain with the sun rising and viewing the cascading falls we hiked the night before was absolutely worth it.

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There is an interesting place that your mind can go to when backpacking, particularly once you’ve hit a certain place mentally and emotionally where you are almost on auto-pilot.  You are simultaneously in the moment, focused entirely on what you are doing, and also somehow remote and able to think about life and talk to God.  You are locked in an solitary struggle, yet also a participant in a larger corporate experience, taking part in a common struggle.  I think this is where we find John, alone with God, yet also surrounded by people.  The people have ventured out into the wilderness to find God and John is willing to show them the way, but the way isn’t easy.  It involves repentance and baptism, it involves a willingness to come to the wilderness, but an even greater willingness to continue pursuing God when leaving it.  The path to the wilderness leads to a point where people who have carried their burdens to feel empowered to lay them down, but the easy yoke and light burden they exchange it for, is one designed for ascension.  There are no guarantees on the trip, except that we don’t walk it alone, we are in communion with God and participants in a greater struggle, a common struggle we engage in along with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

I guess that some people are called to live in the wilderness like John and call to the rest of us to come venture out.  To pack what we think we need, and then come to a place where we realize just how small we are and how big God is.  It is in these places, in these wildernesses of life that not only repentance is possible but revival as well.  It is because of what we go through in the  valleys that we are able to reach of the summit.  There is new life waiting for us in the wilderness and I am grateful that it calls.

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Matthew, Uncategorized

Matt:2 A Case Study in Preparing for Emmanuel

 

wisemenFor 430 years Israel was captive in Egypt.  It has now been 400 years again since the last minor prophet of Israel has walked the earth, the Spirit has been silent.  But things are beginning to change, visions are being seen, angels are visiting men and magi from a far off land have left their home country to follow the signs that the Anointed, the King of the Jews is to be born.  The clock is ticking down, in 30 years the time of serving in bondage to sin will be up and the new Exodus will begin.

A counterfeit King sits on the throne.  Herod has secured his position through political wrangling, intimidation and murder including that of his sons and wife.  He has ruled by fear, but in his old age he is finding the arrival of the magi disturbing.  The tables have turned, he in fact is now ruled by fear.

He pretends to be a follower, just has he pretends to be the Jewish king, but his heart is filled with murderous plots, desperate to hold on to the power and position that he has given so much of himself to achieve.  The faith of the magi is not something that he can possibly comprehend.  The innocence and wonder of a people looking for a king, searching for a Messiah is foreign to one who has dedicated his life setting himself up as king.  For the aging ruler, any challenge, even in the form of a baby, especially in the form of a baby is a threat that must be met with violence.  Hate is the only emotion available where hope should dwell.

It is not only Herod who is disturbed at the news that the period of silence might be at an end, that the Living God may be moving among men once again, it is all of Jerusalem with him.  This does not speak well of the Hellenized version of Judaism that had emerged in the culture, one driven by politics and power with just enough religiosity to appear righteous.

This is the prequel, the last chapter of Matthew before we skip to Jesus’ adult life.  This is a world without God, one ruled by fear and steeped in corruption that the infant Jesus enters into.  It is one where a few, a remnant are still faithful, where those still with wonder and innocence seek a better world.  Where the plots of the politically powerful are defeated by the obedient faith of the righteous willing to listen to a God who speaks in dreams.  Those with the least are the most able to follow, and those who have benefitted most from Grace have used their privilege to grab even more power hardening their hearts and blinding themselves to where they are unable to extend any grace to others.

Herod’s reign has been long and his reputation is well-known, which makes it all the more surprising that magi wise enough to pursue the Jewish messiah and observant enough to notice and follow his star, were naive enough to inquire at the castle from the sitting king of the Jews as to where the new King of the Jews would be born.  But it is just these qualities that allow the magi to find the Christ child and also to escape Herod’s plans; their ability to seek and find God allows them to commune in a way that protects them on their return trip.  Reliance on God is also what allows Joseph to ironically escape the slaying of the first-born of Galilee fleeing in the night back into the land of Egypt.

The stage is set, and the long silence is about to be ended as God calls his son out of Egypt.  Man’s power and plans are on a head on collision course with God’s sovereignty.  The King is returning.  Those with hearts to ask, and seek and knock have now found him and their joy is complete.  He has been anointed, he is the Anointed, Death is going to be swallowed up in Life as innocence and obedience of the spiritual meet the lies, greed and corruption of the carnal head-on.

So, how do we meet God when He comes knocking?  Are we blinded by our own power and privilege?  Do we obey and follow without question?  Are we seekers, reliant on communion with God, simply looking to see His face here on Earth and present our gifts?  I don’t know the answer and I believe this is as important a subject of prayer as any other, but I will say as a coach and athlete I subscribe to the theory that when it comes down to it in a game, we usually play the way we practice.  I don’t think you get all the way to Jerusalem following a star by being a person who doesn’t listen to God when he speaks to you in dreams.  And I fearfully say that if we are the types of people who are secure in our own power, safe and well fed, we need to prayerfully consider whether we would welcome the true King in our little kingdom if he returned.  Would we be filled with hope or plot in hate?  Would we be filled with fear or step out in Faith?

You see, it is an ugly truth that as much as we would like to identify totally with the obedience of Joseph and the faith of the magi, there is part of us that contains the cruelty and greed of Herod.  We  would set ourselves up as stewards of our own little Kingdoms.  There is something nice and predictable about silence, maintaining the status quo and avoiding change.  But without change there in fact can be no new birth.  And in the end it is just that simple, we are only saved through change.  It is new birth that most threatens the safety and security of our kingdoms and it is only new birth that can save us from ourselves.  There is a message that has shattered the silence in Chapter 2 that had existed for 400 years and it shatters our silence as well.  We are not alone.  Emmanuel, God is with us.

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Matthew, Uncategorized

Matthew Chap 1: Doing What’s Right vs. What we Have a Right to Do

josephSo before I begin the initial post, I guess I should give a quick background of the purpose of this blog as well as the source material.  I have been teaching the “young adult” Sunday school class at my church for over a decade now (we’re not as young as we used to be) and at some point years ago we moved from a model of guided lessons or common reads to working our way through various books of the bible chapter by chapter.  Largely this methodology proceeds week to week through thick and thin, exciting and mundane with the Spirit working where He wills within the discussion of the class.  I am consistently blessed by comments and commentary that emerge from within the class and I have always meant to write down the things I learn…this is the current embodiment of that attempt.  Largely I am just writing this for myself to chronicle our journey through various books of the bible, but I definitely welcome anyone who reads this and finds hope, joy or further insight (or even criticism) to share and continue the lesson further.

This week we concluded the book of Romans and began the Gospel of Matthew.  We had a great conversation around the close connection that Paul shared with the various churches that he wrote to.  He had a love for people and for personal interaction and many times he paid a price for those interactions.  The last chapter of Romans to me gives context to the overall tone of the letter.  Paul is not writing theology from a remote place to attempt to coerce people into following him, but he writes in love to people he knows personally in an impassioned voice to bring people into a right understanding of Jesus Christ in order to ensure that the body of Christ grows in ways that lead people into the freedom of Christ and not into a bondage as great if not greater than the one that they were born into.  Anyway, that is the context of the lead-in to the Gospel of Matthew for our class and not what I am wanting to write about, maybe I will write about Romans at some point in the future…

After reading Paul’s letter to the Romans about Christ, I felt a longing to read about the life and teachings of the man that the letter was written about.  So in Matthew Chapter 1 we again have a laundry list of names, (much like the one in the last chapter of Romans, but again I digress).  The list is not technically a list of ancestors of Jesus, but of Joseph, his adoptive father.   The list begins with Abraham and this is significant because of who it doesn’t begin with.  It doesn’t begin with Adam and it doesn’t begin with Noah, it begins with Abraham, because the promise made to Abraham is a promise based on Faith, not works or genetics.  This is important because within the genealogy proceeding from Abraham, several instances of non-Jewish lineage are mentioned, specifically Tamar, Esther and Ruth.  These instances are important, they mention instances where faith in God was maintained by people not of Jewish birth (Tamar was a Canaanite, Ruth was a Moabite and Rahab was an Amorite).  The promise of faith given to Abraham as opposed to a promise based on race is an important element of the works of Paul, but to me in this context is more a commentary on the power of faith and relationship with God that is crucial in leading up to the birth of Christ as well as in his teaching and ministry in later chapters.

Not to carve out a neat 3 point lesson from this, but…one point that I do take from the genealogy of Christ is that we all have a role to play in a composite sketch of God’s plan.  Each of the names listed lived their own personal lives much as we live ours, in their own setting and probably had many of the same existential questions that we have, but in the end the mention that they get in the bible simply involves raising their children.  The mundane, the everyday things of life are so incredibly easy to take for granted…but Matthew tells us they are sacred.  Joseph, who is declared as a righteous man in verse 19, I believe we can reasonably assume inherits some of his righteousness from this lineage of faith.  As a descendant of David, this righteousness is his most valuable inheritance and leads to my next point.

Genealogy still matters if you are adopted.  The genealogy of Matthew chapter 1 is widely held as the genealogy of Christ.  The adoptive love of Joseph for Jesus is a love that models the Father’s own love for us as written by Paul.  God has chosen a specific lineage of faith to bear the promise of Abraham, culminating in Joseph, who serves as nurturer and protector for God’s son in his most vulnerable state.  We too are heirs of this lineage of faith, of God’s promise and the adoptive love of a Father who chooses us, not for anything we can offer Him but because he chooses to love us as we are, because we are family.

And since we are family, we inevitably make mistakes.  In fact in verse 21 Joseph is told that the mission of his child will be to save us from our mistakes.  It is truly gospel (good news) that God’s plan can allow for our mistakes.  From this reading we can assume that best thing Judah did was marry well, it was Tamar that carried on the faith, defended the lineage and contributed to the development of the man who would be called on to raise the Christ child.  King David, whose name you would think would be mentioned to add glory to the lineage of Joseph, Matthew throws shade on by recording that his child Solomon was born not from Bathsheba, but Uriah’s Wife, recollecting not only David’s most shameful mistake, but of all of David’s accomplishments, this is the one that matters, and it is tainted with sin.

This is our legacy, these are the generations of man.  But the mystery of God is that throughout the 28 generations of Israel, a composite sketch is being developed leading up to the first generation of God since the creation.  At long last Emmanuel has come, for the first time since man walked in the garden, we are not alone.  Each person in this lineage through faith, in spite their imperfection has contributed to the Christ story through which we all are saved.

And so, the final point, when we walk by faith, sometimes doing what is good is not the same as doing what is right.  Sometimes choosing to do right instead of what you have a right to do is where we find grace.  It is grace that Joseph extends to Mary who is found pregnant.  It is a good thing that he has in mind to divorce her quietly, not to make a spectacle out of her, but it isn’t righteous.  If we hold righteous to mean that embodies what is right, then only God is righteous.  What is right is what is in step with following and obeying the Father, and the Father has a different plan, one that intends to do exactly the opposite, to make a spectacle of Mary and her baby such as the world has never seen.  

It is a gift from a lineage of faith that affords Joseph the righteousness he needs to be in a place spiritually to obey God when called upon to forgive Mary and take on the responsibility of caring for and raising Jesus.  It is no mistake that the church chooses Advent to begin the year.  This was the context for His birth and this is how we begin as well, with new birth, where God is still calling us to acts of faith, to extend grace, to love and to carry out our part of his eternal plan.

 

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