Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Band of Brothers

Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali.
This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet:

From that time Jesus began to preach and say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men." Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.

Going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.

Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people. The news about Him spread throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all who were ill, those suffering with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and He healed them. (Matthew 4:12-24)

There’s a great scene in the 1938 version of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” where Robin Hood meets a giant of a man named John Little on a log bridge over a stream. They challenge each other for the right to pass first and end up settling the matter with quarterstaffs. I won’t tell you how it turns out, you can rent it and see for yourself, but suffice it to say that “Little” John (played by Alan Hale - see picture*) becomes the first, and most trusted, of Robin’s “Merry Men.”

The recruiting of a band of brothers is a common aspect of many tales of a great quest. We see the same thing in “The Fellowship of the Ring” the first novel in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The pattern is very much the same in each case; the Hero meets a person in his travels, and has a brief encounter during which the Hero finds some worthy trait in the new acquaintance, the hero then invites the individual to join him on the quest. The fact is though, all these adventures take their example from the calling of the disciples by Jesus as he sets out on his earthly ministry.

The one great difference is, unlike Robin Hood, Jesus knows the worth of the twelve before he calls them. There is no need to test their mettle; the quest (ministry) itself will do that soon enough. He knows their hearts already, all that remains is to ask them to follow and see their response. The remarkable thing is - in every account the disciple’s response is immediate – they follow.

In the Kingdom Gospel only the calling of the fishermen is included. As with Robin Hood, here we find a man named John, along with his brother James. They work together with their father Zebedee, mending nets, tending to the boats, hanging the fish to dry, all the tasks required of the family business. Then a stranger walks up to them and ustters a strange phrase, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men." We are told they leave their nets and their father and follow the stranger to Capernaum. The same response as Peter and his brother Andrew; they leave their father Jonas and follow the Nazarene.

Considering the culture of the day, this is a remarkable thing. In first century Israel family is everything. To simply walk away leaving one’s family in the lurch was tantamount to treason. Imagine poor Zebedee’s reaction, that is his sons walking off down the beach. And not only is it his flesh and blood, the seed of his loins, but that’s his retirement plan walking away as well. What would your reaction be? Considering that from the perspective of his neighbours Jesus has abandoned his family to become an itinerant rabbi, one has to ask what kind of Kingdom is Jesus setting out to create? Is he questioning the value of the family and the reality of having to make a living?

In a word – Yes!

Or at the very least He is redefining them. One of the hardest things for many people to understand is that the Kingdom of God is not here to meet our needs. The truth is, we are here to meet the needs of the Kingdom of God! The Kingdom does not serve the family; the family is at its best when it serves the Kingdom. God’s goal is not to make us more effective at our careers; but rather, our work is most truly successful when it serves to express the will of God.

In the Gospel Kingdom, Peter and Andrew are still brothers, only now they are part of a much larger brotherhood. James and John are not only the sons of Zebedee, they are now the ‘sons of Thunder’ (Mark 3:13-19), children of the Heavenly Father. They are all still fishermen, only now they fish for people to join the Kingdom. In this passage Jesus disrupts the structure of our families and the pattern of our lives, not to destroy them, but to transform them into something greater that will ultimately bring about the promised Kingdom.

And where is the first place that the Heir leads his band of ‘merry men’? To Syria - a Gentile nation next door to Israel. Jesus’ quest begins in an area where there are not just Jews, but a heavy Gentile population as well. His new home town of Capernaum is in the heart of an area of Israel where many Gentiles have made their home - "the Galilee of the Gentiles"(vs 15), living side by side with their Jewish neighbours. In this part of the world even the Sea of Galilee itself is known by another name, the sea of Tiberius (see John 21). This too is indicative of the nature of the kingdom that is to come. It will be a place where not just one nation, not just one people, but all of mankind is welcome.

Now, imagine with me once again the response of Matthew’s church upon hearing these things. Imagine the turmoil that is their own lives. Given the fact the ‘cult of the Nazarene’ is considered a threat by both the Jews and the Romans, it is likely that many of Matthew’s listeners have been estranged from their own families as well. They are popular with the servant and working classes, even with some of the nobility, but they are decried and even hunted by those in authority.

The prospect of martyrdom is not only a reality, but had to be considered before they even decided to follow this Jesus, this Jewish Messiah rejected by his own people. Would it have given them some comfort to know that it had been the same since the beginning? Would they have drawn encouragement from knowing that James and John, and Peter and Andrew had all left their lives behind as well to follow a the same path as they? I think so; and as storytellers we can draw this out in our telling and give encouragement to our listeners as well.

In the story of the calling of these four disciples, we see not only a representation of the calling of all the twelve, but the first glimpse of what the Gospel Kingdom will look like. We get our first hint at the revolution that is to come. A revolution that will be launched officially in our next episode as Jesus lays out for the people his “Kingdom Manifesto.”


Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 8

[* TUT (Totally Unrelated Trivia) - if the man in the picture looks a little familiar, but you have never seen the Errol Flynn classic, it’s likely because the actor’s son, Alan Hale Jr., played ‘The Skipper’ Jonas Grumby on the TV show Gilligan’s Island. Strong family resemblance, eh?]

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Heir’s Claim is Challenged

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘ He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, ‘ In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God.’”

Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.’”

Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him. Matt. 4:1-11

In every good legendary tale there is always someone who challenges the heir’s claim to the throne. Most often this is the usurper himself, who, believing his or her claim to be legitimate, is unwilling to allow anyone to take it from them. My personal favorite is Alan Rickman as the sherrif in Costner’s ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’(see picture). If I was casting a film and needed a great heavy.. Rickman’s my first choice.

However, in the story of the Gospel Kingdom the challenge to the Heir’s claim comes from Satan himself.

It is important to note here that Satan’s claim is not without merit. Indeed, God gave the throne of this world to Adam and Eve in the Garden, but they surrendered the title to Satan when they disobeyed God and bought into the Deceiver’s lies. So while Satan has a legitimate claim to the throne, it was won by trickery and deceit and is therefore defiled by his evil intentions.

It is also important to note that the challenge is a necessary part of the process. Satan does not surprise Jesus in the wilderness. He does not interrupt one of his teaching sessions in the courtyard of the temple and challenge his claim in front of the people (well, not directly anyway). No... Jesus is led in to be tempted in the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Before he can begin his ministry the matter of the legitimacy of his claim to the throne of the kingdom must be settled, he and the Usurper must have it out before His campaign for the hearts of the people can even begin.

And that is because once again, Jesus is walking the same road as the nation of Israel. It’s not just that they spent time in the wilderness and so must He. The temptations He faces while in the wilderness are the same temptations faced by Israel when they journeyed out of Egypt. Jesus is tempted with: a) hunger, b) putting God to the test, and c) false worship. These are the same temptations, and in the same order, as Israel faced in Exodus 16, 17, and 19-32. They are also the same temptations the church faces today as she struggles to find her role in the Gospel Kingdom. Let’s quickly look at each one making a few observations. I leave it to you to flesh these ideas out in full and see if they too stand up to the test.

First of all we have hunger. After 40 days of fasting no one is surprised that Jesus is hungry. The Usurper offers a quick fix; “You’ve got the power - use it.” Why doesn’t Jesus simply turn the stones into bread? This temptation is about vision! It’s about dealing on too small a scale. Jesus’ mission is about feeding the spiritual hunger of the entire human race, not just His own current physical need. If Satan can get His mind off the big picture and onto some small personal need (however important) then he’s won! He tries to do this to the church as well. We get side tracked into fighting over details instead of keeping our eyes on the bigger need. And while it’s true that we need to lead people into the Kingdom one person at a time, we must never lose sight of the fact that an entire world is dying out there.

Next we have putting God to the test. The usurper’s tactic is a classic. He says, “Fine! You want to quote scripture - we’ll quote scripture. Try this one on for size.” It’s really about faith! The world wants us to do this all the time. They want some tangible proof that everything we believe is true. Herod does the same thing later at the end of Jesus’ ministry - “Prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool!" (Great line from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’) But if we give into this, if we say, “God show me that you’re real by doing such-and-such” expecting that He will react in such a fashion, we reverse the relationship between us and God, attempting to put ourselves in charge and put God in a position of obligation to us. Satan knows this when he poses the question. Jesus knows it too, and doesn’t fall for the trap.

Finally there’s false worship. The Usurper takes an interesting approach here. He sort of acknowledges the Heir’s right to the throne but tries to include himself in the deal. In a sense he’s saying, “Okay, you are the rightful heir to the throne. But! Since I have it now, and my claim has some legitimacy, why don’t you be My Heir? I mean, it would be easier right? We can avoid all the conflict, work together, and in the end you’ll still be in charge... so why not do it the easier way?” The church faces this temptation on a daily basis. It’s about how we define true worship! Worshiping God means making a sacrifice. We don’t use bulls and doves anymore, but sacrifice remains at the heart of worship. However, as human beings we always look for a less painful way to do things, trying to soften the cost of discipleship. The problem is whenever the “power of positive thinking” replaces the power of self-sacrifice through grace, the Usurper wins. Jesus didn’t take the easy path, and neither should we.

Remember when I wrote about character types in the first episode? Most people would classify Satan as a flat character, fairly two-dimensional, only get to see him once, not that big a player in the story. As a storyteller however, it would be a mistake to classify him this way, because in the narrative of the Gospel Kingdom we see Satan far more than we realize. He is the embodiment of every antagonist that opposes the Gospel Kingdom. He stands behind every demon, he is responsible for all the suffering, the blind, the cripple, even the dead. It is he who blinds the scribes and pharisees to the truth of Jesus’ rightful claim to the throne. His greatest skill lies in his ability to hide himself in the words and actions of others.

The storyteller must remember this when telling the Kingdom Gospel. For in order to take back his throne, the Heir must defeat the Usurper completely, and the wilderness is only the opening round.


Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode EKG007

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Cry of the Herald

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
"A voice of one calling in the desert, '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...

... Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." Then John consented.

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 lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." Matthew 3:1-6, 13-17

In days of old, monarchs would oft-times be preceded by a well-dressed young man crying, “Here comes the King! Make way for His Majesty - the King!”, or some other such cry depending on the title and gender of the individual monarch. The reason this was done was to make sure the people realized the rich-looking person coming down the road was not just another member of the nobility, but the actual, for real, King in the flesh.

You see, most common people rarely got to see the King for themselves. Even the number of people who could recognize the local nobility was likely fairly small. This was largely due to the fact that class distinctions were very well drawn and unless you had business that brought you in direct contact with the ruling class, you were not likely to have reason to recognize them. In some jurisdictions this was of great concern because the penalty for failing to show proper respect for the monarch was death, and no one wanted to pay the ultimate price just for being inattentive!

Thus we have a man with the large voice coming down the road before the King making sure everyone was paying proper attention. This person would have been known as - the King’s Herald.

Enter - John the Baptist. Like the subjects of earthly kingdoms, those seeking the kingdom of heaven also needed help in recognizing their monarch when he arrived. It had long been foretold that the prophet Elijah would arrive before the Messiah to announce his coming. Anticipation of Elijah’s arrival led to the setting of a place for him at the Passover table. When John appeared on the scene dressed in camel hair with a leather belt (like the Old Testament prophet), preaching the message of repentance, people would have naturally made the connection. Every king must have a herald and with one foot firmly planted in Israel’s past and the other stepping out towards it’s future, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, certainly fit the bill.

But his role doesn’t stop there. John has another task to perform, a task which has largely gone misunderstood. Since the days of Saul and David, the prophets of God have also held the responsibility of anointing Israel’s kings. It is a role John is reluctant to perform recognizing that Jesus is no ordinary prince. How can a person who has committed no sin receive baptism for the remission of those sins. But he accepts the role when Jesus reminds him that it is required in order “ to fulfill all righteousness.”

This may well be one of the most misunderstood statements in the Gospels. To understand its significance we first need to understand that John was not the first baptist (immerser); they had been around in Israel for many years. The mikveh is a ritual immersion required by the Law of Moses for a number of reasons. The job of the “immerser” is to ensure that the individual is fully submerged beneath the surface of the water. The most significance place where this ritual could be performed is in the Jordan River. Among the many reasons for the mikveh ritual is the preparation of the High Priest before he entered into service in the temple.

For a Jew in the first century, fulfilling righteousness meant fulfilling the Law of Moses. Jesus is not only our King, he is our High Priest and must fulfill all the requirements of that role, including the Mikveh. In the Jordan River Jesus is immersed by John not for the remission of his sins, but in preparation for service in the heavenly temple. When the Spirit descends upon him, Jesus is anointed as our High Priest. When the heavens open up and God the Father pronounces this man Jesus as his own “beloved Son”, Jesus’ coronation as Heir Apparent is complete. The rightful heir to the throne has returned and made himself known, his Herald has proclaimed him to the populace and all now have the opportunity to recognize the King as He walks through the land.

As a story teller, I find myself identifying with John the Baptist. Each time I tell the stories of God I am proclaiming His majesty to the people. I stand as a witness to Jesus’ rightful claim to the throne of the Kingdom of God. But not everyone is ready to accept this claim. As is often the case with earthly kingdoms there is one who would challenge Jesus claim. We’ll look at that event in our next episode.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Out of Egypt...

Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him."

Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.

So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: "He shall be called a Nazarene." Matthew 2:13, 16, 21-23 NASB

If you pay any attention to the media these days you have likely noticed that for some time now the definition of the word “hero” has been changing. When I was a kid attending Saturday afternoon matinees with my mother (yes, I am that old) the definition of hero was pretty simple. The hero was the guy in the fedora/white hat/space suit who showed up just in the nick of time to rescue the beautiful stranger/rancher’s daughter/ female scientist from the crime boss/cattle rustler/alien monster.

Today the definition is a little broader. The term hero is used to describe anyone who has faced overwhelming odds in any aspect of life and managed to either succeed in over coming them, or by their example inspired others to face their own challenges in life. I’m not bringing this up in order to debate the definition of a hero. I bring it up to point out that different people at different times have differing expectations of their heroes. So it was in Israel at the time of Jesus.

We can better appreciate the people’s response to the Kingdom Gospel if we have an understanding of what it was the people were looking for in the person of the Messiah - the promised hero of Israel. For centuries the Messiah had been portrayed as the very embodiment of the nation of Israel. Like no one since Moses, the Messiah would ‘be’ Israel, representing the fulfilment of all their struggles, all their wanderings, and most importantly, the embodiment of the dream of Israel finally becoming the kingdom God had always intended.

In the story of the flight to Egypt that follows the visit of the Magi, avoiding the slaughter in Bethlehem, and ending with the arrival in Nazareth, Matthew forges three key links in the chain that connects Jesus to Israel’s history; a necessary task if Jesus is to meet the people’s expectations of the Messiah. Now, while God is not in the business of meeting expectations, certain conditions, established by God himself, must be met if anyone is to recognize Jesus as the Promised One.

Jesus is called “out of Egypt” just as the descendants of Jacob in the time of Moses. Like the Israelites under Pharaoh, Jesus too escapes the king’s attempt to eliminate the threat to his power by slaughtering male children. Like the children of God wandering in the wilderness, Jesus finally finds a home in a land that was not originally his own, but will be associated with Him the rest of his life. With these crucial connections in place Jesus is confirmed as the perfect hero for Israel. A hero who has suffered in every way just as Israel has; exiled, hunted, relocated and yet always triumphant!

The story of the child Jesus has now been connected to the story of the children of Israel in three key places; Bethlehem - the city of David, Egypt - the place of the exile, and Ramah - the place of mourning for what Israel has lost gaining the promised land. In the Hebrew mind Jesus would have fit the image of the Messiah as readily as John Wayne fit the image of the Texas Marshall.

The story also connects us once again to Abraham. Without question or hesitation Joseph obeys the word of the angel in his dream and leaves all that he has known to take up residence in Egypt. He has no idea how long he will be there, no certainty of making a living, no relatives or contacts in the land that once enslaved his people. He, like Abraham when he was called to leave his home in Haran, has only his faith in the Lord God to sustain him and his family. And like Abraham, faith is enough. Once more, Joseph proves his worthiness to serve as guardian of the Messiah.

For the storyteller who seeks to accurately present the Kingdom Gospel this is all crucial information. Try to picture the knowing look that Matthew would have given his listeners as he drew the lines between Jesus and Moses, between Joseph and Abraham. See in your mind’s eye the bonds that form as the Jews who knew these stories relate their significance to the Gentiles who worshipped with them. Imagine Matthew’s pleasure as he saw the look of understanding come upon the faces in his audience as the story of the Kingdom unfolds.

A story that will continue to unfold in our next episode... The Cry of the Herald!