Bible Study, Uncategorized

Finding What you are Looking for in Advent

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In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10 and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.

11 When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!”12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.

14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15 “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. 16 In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17 Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” 18 Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.

19 Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. 20 But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe. — Acts 14: 8-20

So much of the Advent season is about preparing our hearts for the singularity of the eternal creator of the universe, the One who created everything and through whom all things are created, the First and the Last, the One who is outside of space and time arriving within the space of our lives and walking in our present moment.  It is exactly this type of event that plays out in Lystra as the apostle Paul being full of the Holy Spirit enters the city and begins to teach and preach.  A lame man who has never known the freedom and feeling of being able to walk is able to lock eyes with Paul as he is speaking and receive healing.  We aren’t told how Paul is able to know that this man has the faith needed to receive healing, but we do know that Paul says that it is because of the faith that is immediately evident in this man that he is able to be healed.  A man who has never walked is immediately able to jump up and walk and the result is pandemonium.

This healing is miraculous, even by modern standards and the effect is immediate.  The crowd is emotionally moved and begins to bring wreaths and bulls to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas, calling them Zeus and Hermes.  It seems that a local legend that Zeus and Hermes had once visited the city in disguise and only an old couple recognized them may have fueled the response that Paul and Barnabas received.  The expectancy of a visit from these gods fuels the excitement of the crowd and leads them to worship Paul and Barnabas.  Certainly from his past as a Jewish persecutor of the early church Paul knew where this response from the crowd was probably headed and he worked in vain to correct their error.  It wasn’t long though before Jews who had followed Paul from Antioch and Iconium were able to finally take command of the crowd and  have Paul stoned to death.

It seems that when God moved in Lystra everyone found what they were looking for.  The lame man found healing, the Gentiles found Zeus and Hermes and the Jews found justice against a blasphemer that they had been pursuing.  The Holy Spirit moved in the midst of the people of Lystra.  But if we’re not careful we’ll miss the message, because it’s not found in Lystra, but outside the city.  Paul gives us a clue in his message to the crowd just before being stoned to death.  The Good News of the Gospel is that we are free from worthless things, all the bulls and wreaths that we can produce, all the healing we can receive, all of the justice that we can carry out miss the point of Advent.  It is not about what we want, it is about who He is.  If our hearts desire is not Him, then whomever can produce our hearts desire we will worship.  If all we want is healing, or food, or prosperity, or justice or even religion, then we have set ourselves up to miss God incarnate when He arrives.

He is the Living God, He is Here, He is Now and He will live and breathe and move within us and among us if we are prepared to receive Him.  Out of His abundant grace He has provided us with our prosperity, with food for our stomachs and joy in our hearts.  But these things must not be perceived to have been earned or they will corrupt our vision of who He is.  We cannot conceive of God, this is why He had to be conceived as one of us.  The miracle of Lystra is found outside the city with the broken body of Paul who  has been stoned and his body discarded.  The miracle of a lame man rising and walking earlier in the city pales in comparison to the miracle witnessed by the disciples who witness Paul’s broken body rising and walking outside Lystra back into the city.

Only those who are pure in heart are even there to receive it.  For Paul blind faith is transformed into rock solid belief as he receives supernatural healing.  For his disciples an understanding that all we bring to God are open minds and hearts ready to receive and give thanks for all things, because within all things, in places that we cannot possibly anticipate we will find Him and receive the knowledge of Emmanuel.  If our hearts desire is to know that we are not alone then we will be prepared to receive the fact He is real, and He is risen.

The Advent blessing found in Lystra is the knowledge that the secret of life is not found in what we can receive, or even in what we can give, but simply in what we can know… that we are not alone.  It is through experiencing this reality that God can begin to move in our lives and in our world.  If our identity is rooted in His reality then old things begin to pass away and new things are born.  The result is a faith that whispers to us the same thing it whispered to the disciples who witnessed this miracle, that “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22)”.

It is here where we find the message of the manger.  This is where we find the poor, the hungry, the stranger, the imprisoned.  This is where we experience and embrace persecution and trials and hardships.  This is where we find a Gospel founded on rock that cannot be taken away because it is not founded on ourselves but on Him.  This is where we can find peace in our prosperity because we know that it flows not from our own merit, but from Grace, and this grace is meant to be shared.  Our healing is meant to bring others healing, our wealth is meant to bring others comfort, our justice is meant to be founded on our own understanding of the mercy that has been shown to us.  If we are looking for Him, we will find Him when he shows up in the most unexpected places and in the most unexpected ways we will find delight in our Creator.

 

 

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Bible Study, Matthew, Uncategorized

The Irony of John the Baptist

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13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[d]by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[e]” — Matthew 3:13 – 4:4

John has just rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees.  He has warned them, that if they have come into the wilderness in order to control him, then they should know that there is one coming after him whose sandals even he is not worthy to tie.  This just makes his next response all the more ironic though.  I have to think the words flew out of his mouth before he could think, which gave both Jesus and John an honest glimpse into John’s heart.  It also gives us a glimpse as to why John was not the chosen Messiah.  In Greek the word Matthew uses is dieKOluen, die being a form of dia or “through” and KOluen from kóluó for “forbid”.  When Jesus requested John to baptize Him, the one who had proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, the one who preached repentance and preparation for receiving a new covenant, John the Baptist thoroughly forbid Jesus from doing this.  In the end, John’s answer to Emmanuel was the same as everyone else’s, John said, “no”.

John must have had a preconceived idea of how things would go when Jesus arrived.  He had been waiting in the desert for a long time preparing himself and others for the Kingdom of Heaven.  But when the Messiah appeared, His first request was not for command of the Temple, or for an army, but instead for John to simply baptize him.  John probably only realized  after he rebelled that he had had these preconceived conditions in his heart as to how Jesus should move and act.  It was a small rebellion, momentary but powerful.  John sinned, not because he was wrong, but because only God is right.  John had tradition, biblical teaching and the law, but those things aren’t God.

One of my favorite descriptions of Christ comes from C.S. Lewis’ description of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan is described as not being tame, but as being good.  In this week’s reading, Jesus is good, but he is not tame.  In this instance, the I AM declared that his son should be baptized and Jesus’ response to John clearly restates this request.  Jesus knows that the Father has his reasons for sending Him in this space at this moment in time.  Following for Jesus is not tied to a legalistic adherence to scripture, but in an obedient relationship to the Father.  To his credit, John can practice what he preaches.  At this moment, the one who has been preaching repentance will himself repent when Jesus answers his rebuke with a simple request for obedience.

Jesus calls John out of thinking about the past and into the present.  He uses the Greek word arti which means “at this precise present moment”.  Jesus’ baptism by John is in accord with the God’s will and occurs in God’s time.  This will be a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry as time and time again he goes against perceived rules and religious teachings that have been established in legalism and not love.  Jesus will call all things into the present, living out the law among men.  One of my favorite quotes is by Catholic priest James Martin that “there is a reason Jesus didn’t come down as a book”.  I think this baffles us today as much as it did John and others in Jesus’ day.  The obedience to deliver baptism in this present moment in Matthew seems to unlock the further baptism John believed Jesus would deliver, as the Holy Spirit descends and the voice of the Father speaks.  God’s will is moving and it is unpredictable, it is unknowable, but it is good.  It is what the people have come into the wilderness to find.

From this point on in Matthew, we know that all cards are on the table.  John who has been sure of what he has been proclaiming is himself unsure of how it will be implemented.  The Messiah of the Living God has arrived and already He has refused to play the part we have scripted for Him.  His light illumines our darkness.  We are infected with rebellion.  We have taken the scriptures not as a path to salvation, but as leverage for control.  We would be our own gods, all of us, even John.  And now there is one who would compete for the throne of our hearts.  This God is not of wood, or stone.  He is not a manifestation of our imaginations, or a product of our making.  He is flesh and blood, He is freedom, He is life and He has arrived.

John is right when he teaches that Jesus will bring a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire, he just doesn’t anticipate that Jesus will first submit himself to this baptism.  This is the way of Christ, He leads where we cannot go, endures what we cannot endure and obeys what we cannot obey.  As Jesus emerges from the water, a voice from Heaven claims His son, the Spirit descends, and then the fire begins.  The word that Matthew uses is pur, the same word means fire as well as trials.  Baptism follows repentance, but purification follows baptism, and this baptism is one by fire and trials.  We get a confirmation in Matthew that this indeed is the way, as Christ departs from his baptism by John and enters deeper into the wilderness for 40 days.

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Forty days is a long time, honestly forty minutes is a long time when you’re tired and thirsty.  This is where Jesus places himself prior to his first meeting with Satan.  Forty days without eating and then the first temptation.  The temptation seems so simple reading about it from a distance, but when we’re physically compromised, our physicality is the first place where we break down spiritually.  Anyone who coaches knows this.  It was Vince Lombardi who once said “fatigue makes cowards of us all”.  After the mountaintop experience, the trials in the valley will very likely first take shape around our physical bodies.  It is difficult to escape Maslows pyramid as a framework for existence.  What we will eat, what we will drink and what we will wear  Jesus will later teach as being what pagans run after, and what our Heavenly Father provides.  But the path for passing from faith into belief involves extending ourselves into positions of vulnerability like where Christ finds himself, deep in the wilderness and at the end of a long fast.

The attack is subtle.  On the surface it appears to be a straightforward attack on Jesus’ physical vulnerability, but that is only part of the strategy.  The tip of the iceberg.  The real temptation, is to acquiesce to Satan’s’ use of scripture to validate turning stones into bread.  This level of spirituality involves understanding that what is right is not always what is good.  Satan quotes scripture out of context, it makes sense by the letter, it makes sense physically, but spiritually it moves our faith from being in the Father, to being in ourselves.  We want the blessing of being right without losing the assurance of being safe.

The lesson of the first temptation is that through Christ, we are more than physical.  This is what should be different for believers.  This is the first step toward having endurance in trials.  The knowledge that we are more than our physical bodies gives us freedom.  Immortality is an escape from the space-time continuum in which all of reality is trapped.  The space of our bodies and the the weight of the past and the tyranny of the future are the first three captors that we are set free from once we begin our baptism of fire.  This revelation is also true of God’s law, it is more than physical, it is more than a book, it is a relationship.  It is a dance between creation and creator.  It is not just the right thing, but the right time.  It is perfect, and we are invited to play a part, but we cannot control it.  Our prayer along with John’s for Emmanuel has been answered, and now we are free to rely less on bread and more on every word from the mouth of God.

 

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Bible Study, Matthew, Uncategorized

Turning Dust into Good Soil

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And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with[b] water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

–Matthew 3:9-12

There were probably a number of things that John didn’t like about the Pharisees and Sadducees, we kind of get that with the whole “generation of vipers” thing in the previous verses, but John cuts from generalities to specifics in these next verses pretty quickly.  Entitlement seems to be at the top of his list of grievances.  Entitlement is on the tip of his tongue as to why they should flee from the coming wrath, and why he is surprised they even know to be worried.  It is spiritual entitlement that has blinded these religious teachers from seeing the inadequacy of their own self-righteousness and it is entitlement that keeps them from seeing their need for God’s mercy.

The effect of entitlement for the Pharisees and Sadducees is a sort of blindness to the humble yet powerful origins of being formed from the earth.  John is quick to remind them that the God they profess to follow, the God they claim to worship, can still, to this very day, form children of Abraham from dust as he did in the ancient times.  There is no birthright, no inheritance of righteousness, no kingdom on this Earth that we can be born into that will provide safe passage into the kingdom of Heaven that is drawing near.  John knows that he and all who are gathered in the wilderness are what the Apostle Paul would later describe in his letter to the Corinthians as choikos, a Greek word meaning “made of earth.”  Is is the humility of understanding that he was created from dust that allows John both to grasp as well as preach God’s revealed plan of transforming dust into good soil for receiving the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is this theme of good soil that Jesus will continually refer to in His ministry as well.

47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man,so shall we[g] bear the image of the heavenly man.

I Corinthians 15: 47-49

In the warning that follows to the Pharisees and Sadducees John is not vague when describing the coming wrath of God.  He speaks of an ax which is poised to strike at the root of all who do not produce good fruit.  This analogy is interesting on many layers.  John is in the wilderness to announce the coming of the Messiah, the root of Jesse.  The One whom the Gospel of John teaches that all things were made through.  Paul later tells us in his letter to the Colossians that because all things were made through Christ, He holds  all things in existence together.  The ax will strike at this root of existence and all these things will be ultimately be undone.

For the Pharisees and Sadducees, their root is in the law and the covenant. This law will be fulfilled in their presence and a new covenant will be made within their lifetimes.  The ax also cuts at the root of all who have come into the desert to hear John and all of us who read the story 2000 years later still seeking God.  All the places where we find our security, all the marks we make toward an enduring legacy, all the ways we seek immortality, all the places apart from God where we find root will also be undone.  What is choikos will pass away as The Son of Man and Son of God walks the earth, as He teaches and heals and speaks among us.  Where soul, spirit, earth, and the Breath of God meet, that is where we will find the Living God.  It is here in the new age being ushered in by the Messiah where we will “live and move and have our being” Acts 17:28.

John understands his place within God’s plan, he knows the power of repentance but also the limits of a baptism by water alone.  John knows that while he has the power to challenge the systematic oppression of the Pharisees and Sadducees, there are sandals which he is unfit to tie.  It is by purios, a purifying fire that the branches will be burned that are not fruitful, and it is by threshing and winnowing that God will work redemption for all of his people.

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The process of winnowing is one that all the people in the wilderness listening to John would have been familiar with.  Wheat when gathered must first be trodden down and pressed in order for the kernels to separate from the chaff.  After this process, both the wheat and chaff are tossed into the air for the wind to separate.  The wind carries the dry dead chaff away, and the kernels of wheat fall to floor to be gathered and stored in the barn.  The chaff and dry grass is then burned.  It is this analogy that John uses to describe the redemptive and atoning ministry of the coming Messiah.  It is through this same process that each of us grows closer to God as well.  As we grow more like God, we grow more completely into who we were created to be.  As we shed the chaff we reveal the wheat, and when that wheat falls on good soil, it produces good fruit.

It is tempting to read this story and interpret that only some will be baptized with fire, that some people are wheat and some are chaff, but this doesn’t match the analogy.  Perhaps more importantly it doesn’t match the example that Jesus will give us in the upcoming verses as He himself gets baptized, receives the Holy Spirit and the journeys into the desert to be tempted, refined, and purified by fire.  If you have reached the wilderness because you have no where else to go, if this world is not your home because it is a corrupt, flawed and pale image of the One who created it, then you know that you have a lot of chaff to get rid of.

But if you are comfortable in the chaff, if the system keeping the chaff in place works in your favor, then the prospect of shedding it, of allowing it to burn, of valuing the simpleness of grain that is at the heart makes you nervous.  The fact is, it takes faith to believe there is any wheat in ourselves or in others at all.  The irony of entitlement is that it is rooted in fear.  It is the fear of losing, fear of not being enough that causes us to keep a death grip on what is only really ours through grace.  It is entitlement that robs us of the ability to extend the same grace that we ourselves have received and benefited from to others.

120810354_c11926ddfe_bThe Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t wander into the desert to pursue God or to find freedom, they were not trying to escape, they in fact were the jailers.  They were the beneficiaries of an unjust system, one that claimed supreme power, morality and justice but one that John hinted actually possessed none of those.  Entitlement causes us to assume that some are saved and some are judged, but humility reveals that we are all deserving of judgement, and all in need of saving.  Entitlement causes us to remain dry and lifeless as dust and chaff, but it is repentance that moves our souls toward God, and it is the waters of baptism that prepare our hearts of stone to be soil ready to receive the kingdom.

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