Bible Study, Matthew, Uncategorized

The Irony of John the Baptist


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.


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.


Bible Study, Matthew, Uncategorized

Turning Dust into Good Soil


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.


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.

Matthew, Uncategorized

Understanding John the Baptist Through the Exodus Story


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.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. — Matthew 3: 5-8

Beginning this week in Matthew 3:5 we see a literal Exodus of the people of Israel from Jerusalem, Judea and the whole region; away from  the safety of civilization and toward the desert wilderness.  This isn’t the first time in history that this has happened for the people of Israel, and Jewish tradition has ensured that the first time wasn’t forgotten.  The people of Israel have again been waiting 400 years for the spirit of God to move.  This time their enslavement is not physical as it was in Egypt, but spiritual, and the deliverance that they have been promised will come in the form of a Messiah.  This promise has been met with counterfeits in recent history, so no one is sure exactly how the people of Israel will be delivered; but still they have faith.  In the midst of this, if you are one of the devout, then witnessing an Exodus of people into the desert wilderness is something you would recognize.  This would be something worth stepping away from the comfort of your daily life and venturing into the desert to see.

It is here in the desert that we find John surrounded by people.  Now that they have arrived, he preaches repentance and baptizes in the Jordan river.  The water is significant.  It is well known to the Israelites that in order to escape, you have to pass through the water.  The waters have covered the earth, they have covered Pharaoh’s armies, and they covered the people who originally passed through this very same river into the promised land.  For each believer, these waters now offer the cleansing needed to prepare for the Kingdom of Heaven that is about to be ushered in by the coming Messiah.

But what, or rather, who is it that pursues them into the desert?  Who are the ones who would keep the people exiting to John enslaved?  We get the answer in he next verse as he calls out the Pharisees and Sadducees for being a brood of vipers.  This language reflects back to Numbers 21: 4-9 where we have seen these snakes before while wandering in the desert.

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea,[a] to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” — Numbers 21: 4-9

In the past it was up to Moses in communion with God to counteract the venom of the serpents by lifting up a bronze snake on a pole for all to see and be saved.  The people coming to John in this wilderness are still being pursued by vipers and still in need of something to look to for salvation.  This, in fact, is why John is here; to point the way, and to tell us that God is still in the business of saving his people.

In the last 400 years the Pharisees and Sadducees have carved out niches for themselves in the political/religious social order.  They have both found a comfortable spot for God, keeping him in check by carefully studying the law.  They have developed separate systems that seem to work in the delicate political/religious balance of the time, but these are systems based on inequity.  They are systems that conveniently work to benefit both the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  Neither group makes up a large percentage of the population, and both groups lay heavy burdens on the Jewish people while invoking the name of God.  To borrow an idea from Tolkien, they have inherited a kingdom that has no king, and in their minds it needs no king.  They have crowned Herod king, and he does not share power.

There is a tyranny of sorts that can come with the status quo, and the Pharisees and Sadducees both wield it mightily.  John has drawn both groups out out to the wilderness.  John is preaching the one thing that can challenge this delicate power balance.  John is preaching change, John is preaching repentance, and John is preaching baptism because John knows that the King is returning.  He knows their hearts, he knows why they have followed the people into the wilderness, and he warns that the wrath of God is  coming for them.

Wrath of God is such an interestingly complex concept in the New Testament.  Several places within the writings of Paul we find a paradox of the Glory of God and the Wrath of God being what appear to be two sides of the same coin.  It depends on whether we are fleeing or pursuing, if we are trying to keep the law, or trying to use the law to keep others in line.  For either person encountering God leads to death, this is the effect of original sin.  But for those of us who, upon finding God, would repent, then in this death we also find life.  At the moment when we would meet our end, we find a beginning, new life and true freedom in Christ.

 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” — Romans 2:7-8


16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?” — II Corinthians 2:16


without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved and that by God. — Philippians 1:28

John ends his charge against the Pharisees and Sadducees with the statement that in order to meet the Glory of God rather than the wrath of God, they should produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  This suggests what is at the heart of the problem with the status quo.  When we hedge God out, we pin ourselves in.  When we keep God safely at a distance, we fail to produce fruit.  Our initial repentance may be genuine, but the fruit begins to wane when we no longer practice crop rotation.  We become too comfortable tilling the same ground and growing the same crop.  The risk diminishes with the familiar and our dependence on God begins to lessen.  It is not our works that can save us. It never has been.  Fruit is something that only God can produce in and through us, but you’ve never had to look far to find those who know the power of entrapping people in a gospel of works.  There is no doubt that some part of all of us are vipers wanting to work our way to salvation, but John points out the way to life; it is found by looking to the cross.

Make no mistake: in the end, it is this type preaching that will get both John and Jesus killed.  The status quo is powerful, kingdoms are not surrendered easily, and the kingdom of heaven will still cost you no less than your life.  But John knows that in this world we are not born free. Freedom is only gained by laying down our lives, and he is able to see through the deception of the Pharisees and Sadducees.  John can see that the kingdom of heaven has come down, and that truth is a paradox.  Freedom is found in surrender, life is found in death, and the narrative of a holy nation is also a personal journey.

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.


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.


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.



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.

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.