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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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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