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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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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