Monday, March 31, 2008

A Palace of Time

It is sometimes a remarkable thing the way God points me in a particular direction in my life. The other night I was at my friend Gord's place, with a number of other people and we found ourselves having a very meaningful conversation about how we need to 'experience the moment' more. The next day I sat down to consider the following passage of Matthew's gospel in preparation for this article and was a little taken aback because, in a manner of speaking, the passage is about the same thing.

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Matthew 12:1-8 NKJV

When someone mentions the Sabbath, what comes to mind? A day of prayer? A day for church? Synagogue? It is certain that these things have their place in our Sabbath observance, but to truly appreciate the depth of the relationship between Jesus and the Sabbath we need to understand that above all else, the Sabbath is - a gift!

Think about it for a moment. The first thing that God chose to declare as sacred forever, was not a piece of land for people to make pilgrimage to, not a building where one would seek His presence, or even an artifact, some carving or golden idol that would be the object of our worship. No, the first thing that God chose to make scared forever was a day (Ex. 20:8-11), a period of time, a collection of moments set aside for the purpose of being with His people. The most sacred thing to God, after ensuring we knew who He was, is to spend time with us.

The Sabbath is a gift - a gift of time. In a world that, even in Jesus' day, called upon the individual to spend every waking moment struggling to survive, God seeks foremost to ensure that we are rested. In the world of the Bible the only ones who reclined at dinner were the masters, the oppressors, the idle rich, most of whom had achieved their wealth and power on the backs of others. To His people God offers a taste of equality with the upper classes; what Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel calls, "a Palace of Time," a place where the servant and the slave, the fisherman and the carpenter, the handmaid and the midwife, come to recline at table with their Creator.

In a life of hardship and stress God gives his people the greatest gift of all - time! It was a completely foreign concept for the culture of that day. No one outside of the Jewish community could fathom it at all. Consider the words of Roman historian and orator Tacitus on the subject...

"In order to secure the allegiance of his people in the future, Moses prescribed for them a novel religion quite different from those of the rest of mankind. Among the Jews all things are profane that we hold sacred; on the other hand they regard as permissible what seems to us immoral. ... We are told that the seventh day was set aside for rest because this marked the end of their toils. In course of time the seductions of idleness made them devote every seventh year to indolence as well."

In fact most cultures considered the Jews lazy, shiftless, and undisciplined because of their habit of taking a "holiday" every seven days. It was one more thing that contributed to the general public's distrust of all things Jewish.

Of course, as usual, the Pharisees and the priests had turned it into another way to burden the backs of the people with layers and layers of legalism. In the strictest terms they were right to challenge the actions of Jesus' disciples. Picking the heads of wheat could be interpreted as work. Since there was good reason for the Sabbath laws, they had to be observed. The problem was the Pharisees had forgotten the reason.

The laws of the Sabbath were designed to slow down God's people enough so that they could enjoy God's gift. Even in the first century, life often was racing around at such a pace that people didn't see what was right in front of them. Picture it this way...

Imagine that the moments in your life are like the telephone poles at the side of the road. If you're driving down that road at 60 miles an hour then the poles are going by at about one per second. Not much time to notice either the poles themselves or the spaces between them. But if you are going from pole to pole, from moment to moment, at the pace of a Sabbath walk, then you get to enjoy it all. You can see the flowers God has planted along the road between the poles. You can hear the singing birds which God has housed in the trees - trees that need to be pruned to make room for the wires to pass from pole to pole. And yes, you can even see the pop cans and McDonald's containers that litter the way, making note to come back the next day when work resumes and clean up the highway of your life just a little bit.

The laws of the Sabbath were not designed to restrict us, as some Pharisees might think. They were designed to grant us access to the Palace of Time, where matters of the soul, the heart and the mind can be examined without the tyranny of the agenda to distract us. It's hard to love God with all your soul when your soul is so badly in need of rest.

Jesus came to take us back to that palace, to reunite us with the gift that God chose to give us first above all others - the gift of time with Himself. A time for us, as my friend Gord would say, "to carry eternity in our hearts... to dialogue freely with an inner expanding universe... and to catch the truth in a net."

How He did that we'll talk about next time.


P.S. The pic below is of an artwork that Gord created some time ago. It depicts the poem he wrote that the above quote comes from. I hope you don't mind Gord, it's too good not to share. (click to see larger version)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Burden of Obedience

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11: 27-30

You've heard me say a few times that there are passages in the gospel of Matthew that are often misunderstood, well, at least from my perspective. I'm fully willing to admit that I have likely misunderstood a great deal as well. So when I make this claim that something has been incorrectly interpreted I have to be careful. It's easy to get caught up in your own ego and start spouting human wisdom instead of God's. And so I ask you dear reader, to examine things carefully when I say such a thing and make sure that my explanations are valid. If they are not I ask you to challenge me in the comments section so we can debate these things together and by so doing come to a more perfect understanding of God's message to us.

I say this because I have always thought this was another passage that is often used incorrectly. I've heard more than a few preachers over the years use this passage to tell people how easy it is to follow Jesus because we are no longer under an obligation to obey the law. But that's not how I read it.

Jesus doesn't say he's giving us a deck chair on which we can lie back and watch the world go by; he says he's giving us a yoke. Granted, it's a different yoke from the one we've been carrying, but it is a yoke just the same.

When I first started examining the gospels from the Jewish perspective, one of the first things I looked at was the Tallit or prayer shawl. The Hebrews were commanded in the Law of Moses to wear tassels called tzitzit (shown in picture at right). These tassels must be tied in a very specific way that utilizes 613 knots and wrappings to represent the 613 tenets of the Hebrew law. Over time these tassels moved from being attached to tunics and cloaks to being worn on a shawl that was specifically for the purpose. This shawl came a symbol of the Jewish culture (the flag of the modern country of Israel is patterned after the traditional prayer shawl) and would be worn by Jewish men (and in modern times by women as well) across the shoulders and then raised over the head during times of prayer.

What has the tallit to do with this passage? Well, in Jesus time both the Pharisees and Sadducees ran schools designed to instruct people in how to go about obeying the Law of Moses. For each of the 613 tenets of the law these teachers would have an expansive commentary on what it meant to obey that particular rule. Most of these teachings have been collected in a very large document known as the Talmud. Because of the great burden placed on the people by these laws regarding the Law the prayer shawl soon became known colloquially as "the Yoke of the Law." The yoke, the device used to hitch oxen to their loads, had long been a symbol of obedience to God, but the rabbinical schools were making it a symbol of how burdensome it was to follow God.

Knowing this, it becomes very important to note that Jesus is not removing the yoke from our shoulders! He is replacing it with "His yoke." The obligation to obey is not being removed, only the burden the people had come to associate with obeying God. Jesus is trying to help us understand that obeying God should not be a strain on us. The Law of Moses was never intended to oppress the people of Israel, the Pharisees and Sadducees used it for that purpose. The Law was intended to protect the people from the consequences of sin by helping them to avoid it.

Jesus words are designed to guide the people back onto the path of righteousness. The yoke that Jesus offers us is not bound to the complexities of trying to obey 613 rules that tie us up in knots as we try to obey them. His yoke binds us to only 2 rules...

Jesus said to him, “ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22:37-40 NKJV)

This is the rest we are given in Christ Jesus, rest from the burden of legalism. To obey God is not a labour of oppression, it is a labour of love. The yoke of Jesus is easy and the burden is light because it born/borne in the love of and for God. To pull this yoke effectively we need to allow Jesus to teach us gentleness and humility, for they will aid us in the task better than legalism and being judgemental. The yoke of Jesus is the way of God, and like being in love, is profoundly satisfying to the human soul.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Talkin' About My Generation

It's been a while since I made any overt pop culture references on these pages, so let's start with a video shall we. It's from the BBC's 1981 version of Douglas Adam's "Hitchhiker's Guide to the galaxy" and while it's a bit long (9 minutes) it does relate to the topic at hand. It also takes a great shot at philosophy in general. If you don't have a high speed connection, don't worry, it's not essential to understand my point, it's just a bit of fun. While you watch the video - see if you can find the John the Baptist reference.

Now let's look at the scriptures: Matthew 11:16-30. This first passage is usually associated with the last episode, but I've decided to include it here.

“But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions, and saying:

‘ We played the flute for you, And you did not dance;
We mourned to you, And you did not lament.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”

The relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth is, for me, one of the most compelling in all of scripture. Cousins by birth, they are also inseparably linked in the Kingdom of Heaven - the Herald and the Heir. John is the last of the Old Covenant prophets; living the life of an ascetic, challenging the motives of prince and pauper alike he calls the nation to repentance. He is the mourner mentioned in Jesus' brief parable of the children in the marketplace, calling the people to wail a lament for the spiritual condition of Israel.

Jesus, on the other hand, though proclaiming exactly the same kingdom, comes across as radically different. He is the flute player, inviting the people to dance with him. He shares their table, drinks their wine (and provides his own), tells them stories and gets in the occasional zing at their oppressors. There is no place for mourning in his ministry as he heals the sick and sets the captives free. His compassion knows no bounds, extending the kingdom to all who will receive it - prince and pauper alike.

And yet, despite their differences, Jesus and John have one thing very much in common; 'this generation' isn't listening to either one of them. A little 'market analysis' reveals the reason for this, neither Jesus nor John fit the public's expectations of a Messiah. Israel was indeed looking for the "coming of Messiah." It could be said to have occupied their every waking moment, but the Messiah they were expecting was neither a locust-eating, camel-hair wearing prophet nor a good-talking, party-going miracle worker. They were expecting a general!

Actually, Israel was looking for King David. They wanted the glory days of Israel back, the days when Israel was a force to be reckoned with. The hope was that David, the Warrior King, would return in the person of the Messiah, and with an army of "mighty men of valour" defeat the Romans and drive them from their land. Neither John the Baptist nor Jesus of Nazareth met these expectations, and so it is no wonder that the people had a hard time making the connection. Basically, like the people in the video, the Jews were asking the wrong question.

For those of you who haven't watched the video, a race of beings, realizing their own philosophical short-comings, built a great, sentient computer to answer the 'ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything'. After seven and a half million years of thinking the computer, named "Deep Thought" came up with the answer - "42". The computer goes on to explain that this is indeed the answer, it's just that the people did not properly understand the question they were asking.

For a hundred years the Jews had been asking the question, "When will Messiah come and save us from the Romans?" This question served to shape all of their perceptions concerning the Messiah. What they should have been asking, if they wanted to keep on track, was, "When will the Messiah come to save us from sin?" or at the very least, "When will Messiah come to save us from ourselves?" And make no mistake, they should have been able to figure out the right question. Throughout Israel's history God uses oppression by other nations and empires to correct the people after they have strayed from following God. Anyone who "had the ears to hear" what the scriptures were saying should have realized that if Israel was under the boot of another people it was because Israel itself had strayed from the true path.

Then He began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you.”

That is why Jesus doesn't stop at just pointing out to a generation that they missed the point. He goes on to warn the three communities where he has been performing his ministry that they are in particular peril. That we are not told what happened in Bathsaida and Chaorazin is testimony to John's declaration that there were many more things Jesus did that haven't been written down. But more importantly, these towns are now declared to be without excuse. Tyre, Sidon and even Sodom could at least claim some level of ignorance--there was no Torah, no prophecies, nothing to give them concrete instruction. But these three, with the testimony of scripture and the witness of the miracles that he performed, have no opportunity to make such a claim.

At that time Jesus answered and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight. All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

And then Jesus, as per usual, turns the whole thing on its head. Having just lamented the spiritual condition of this generation, he then goes on to thank God that the truth has been hidden from them. This is yet another paradox in Jesus' approach to promoting the Kingdom of Heaven. At least so it seems at first, but as you think about it, it starts to make sense.

Just as time and time again Israel has failed to get the point, time and time again the truth is eventually revealed through those we would not expect. Remember, King David started out as a simple shepherd. Gideon didn't want the job of saving Israel. Jonah ran to the ends of the known earth. It is not those who profess themselves as wise that God seeks to use, but rather those who, knowing their own limitations, simply hope to do the best they can before God. They are not great thinkers, leaders or statesmen, they are just hard working everyday people whose oppression comes not from governments and princes, but from the everyday burdens of survival and conscience.

And this is the oppression that threatens more than the Romans or anyone else ever could. These are the oppressors that Messiah has come to save us from; our own sins, our own doubts, our own fears.

Until next time... Shalom.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Herald Questions the Heir

After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."

As John's disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: 'I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'

I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 11:1-15)

It seems more than just a little strange to us that Jesus' cousin John would be the one to broach this subject. After all, wasn't it John who declared to all present on the shores of the Jordan River, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!" And yet now he sends two of his disciples to ask, "Are you the one? Or should we look for someone else?"

And yet, there is something oddly comforting about it as well. Who among us has not wondered, especially when things seem to be going badly, if maybe we got it all wrong. I'll be straight with you dear reader, there have been more than just a few times when I have faced stiff opposition, especially well-read, articulate opposition, that I have found myself wondering if it might not all be just some great ancient legend after all. Yes indeed, I have!

And before you get out the candles and Holy water let me say that not all doubt is the result of demonic influences and the workings of the evil one. To doubt oneself, to question the validity of one's own beliefs is all too much a part of what it is to be human. This is most often the case when things don't play out the way we expect. And prophet though he was, walking and preaching in the spirit of Elijah, John was one other thing as well -- human.

He had his expectations of the Messiah just like anyone else. When he read the prophecies found in the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets, he looked for the conquering Messiah who would bring into reality the long awaited Kingdom of God and "if any nation will not listen, then I will completely uproot it and destroy it, says the Lord!" (Jeremiah 12:17 ) But that is not what he sees happening. There is no fire, no brimstone, no nations being brought to their knees for disobedience. What else is an old school, campaign weary, fundamentalist baptist going to do but ask questions?

And how does Jesus respond? Is he frustrated? Angry? Does he throw his arms up in despair and rend his garments?

No. He answers the question, gently but authoritatively reminding John of what else is written among those prophesies. "Go back" he says, "tell John what you see and hear." (Remember John's been in prison since chapter 4) "The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, (can you see him counting these off on his fingers?) the deaf hear (Isaiah 35:3-6 ), the dead are raised (Isa 29:18-19 ) and the poor receive the good news (Isaiah 61:1-3 )" Jesus knows full well that in John's present situation he doesn't need rebuke because he's harbouring a doubt or two; he needs reassuring that what he saw that day at the Jordan was no hallucination. That Jesus is indeed The One.

Then, after the two men leave to take Jesus' message back to their teacher, he turns to the crowd. You can bet that those nearest to him heard the two disciples ask John's question. It would have spread through the crowd in a matter of moments - I can picture them all looking to see what Jesus will say about his cousin's "unbelief." I can also picture the looks on their faces when he asks two satirical, almost sarcastic questions.

"Who did you go out to see? A reed swaying in the wind?" Hmmpf! Hardly! John was no reed! A thorn in the side of Herod and the Sanhedrin maybe, but no reed. I mean, John was a tough man, and not afraid of anyone. He stood up to Herod time and time again; why do you think he's in prison?

"Okay, then maybe you went out to see a man dressed in fine clothing?" Oh come on, Jesus! A camel hair tunic and a leather belt? Eating locusts? Okay, the wild honey's not too bad, but locusts! Get real!

Finally Jesus gives them the answer that likely sprang into their heads the moment He asked the question - A Prophet! "Yes," says Jesus, "and more than a prophet!"

We don't really know if John tried to play down who he was or if he just didn't realize the full scope of his role in history, but Jesus makes it clear that despite his denials, John was indeed the Elijah that Israel had been waiting for; the empty seat at the Passover table was John's!

But that is not all he says. He pays John the greatest compliment that anyone had likely been paid up until that moment. John, son of Zachariah and Elizabeth, cousin to Jesus, baptizer of sinners, and conscience of puppet monarchs, is declared to be the greatest human being that has ever lived since Adam and Eve! "Among all those born of a woman, there is none greater than he..." Remarkable! But even more remarkable is the last half of that sentence, "But the one who is least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he!"

There are many who will tell you that this is an indication of just how great Jesus thinks you are! It's a very egocentric and arrogant way to interpret this passage and I will admit that I fell into the trap myself for a while. But I have come to realize that it is really a far more remarkable statement than that. It is not about Jesus' opinion of me, or you or anyone else. In fact, it's not even really about John. It's about the Kingdom!

The kingdom of God, the kingdom that the Heir will establish when he takes his rightful place upon his Father's throne, will be so unlike anything that has appeared before, there will be no comparing it. Everything that has gone before, from the day when Creation was finished until the present moment, will seem like Nothing compared to the Kingdom founded on the Gospel of Jesus Christ! It will be so great, so mind boggling, so far and above all that we could imagine, that the smallest, most insignificant citizen of that kingdom will be greater than John the baptist simply by virtue of the fact they are invited to be there at all!

And if that is true, then what can be said of this generation? Or of the one that witnessed John's ministry? We'll look at Jesus comments on that - next time.

Till then - Shalom.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Persecution 101

Last time we sat in on the apostle's first missions training session. Their class continues as Jesus points out the downside of preaching the Kingdom.

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes." (Matthew 10:16-23)

Why does there always seem to be a down-side? Try to imagine what is going on in the minds and hearts of the twelve as they hear these words. Jesus has just told them they will have the power to heal the sick, cast out demons, even raise the dead! But even this will not be enough to satisfy some people. They will be hated, put on trial and scourged! Scourging is no slap on the wrist! Metal shards woven into the strands of the whip tear the flesh away from the bone. This, they are told, is what it will cost you to declare the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

No wonder they are encouraged to walk such a fine line - "wise as serpents and harmless as doves." Even in this Jesus turns the world upside down. Since the garden of Eden the serpent has been looked upon as the lowest of the low, but now Jesus declares that in the new kingdom there is even something to be learned from such as this. But don't learn too much, lest the adversary hold us to account for that. The shrewdness we learn from the serpent must be tempered with the peace of God, represented by the dove, lest any should declare we mean them harm.

But there is hope even in this, "he who endures to the end will be saved." We will hear him say this again before the gospel is over; it will be echoed in John's Revelation in the phrase "to him who overcomes..." Paul will echo the same in his first letter to the Corinthians - we must finish the race to win the prize. Endurance, it would seem, is the key. It is not enough to simply begin - we must finish, we must endure. But not on our own strength, for on our own we could not succeed. He gives them more hope - the Spirit of your Father will speak through you. Our heavenly Father does not give us a task without giving us the means to accomplish it.

Even so, the task is never ending. "When they persecute you in this city flee to another." Don't stop, don't give up, move on - endure; because "you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes." This enigmatic statement has troubled believers for two millennia. Was Jesus referring to His resurrection? Or are there even today cities in Israel that have never heard the Kingdom Gospel from the very beginning? Or are the cities of Israel any city, anywhere, that Jews call home? Whatever it's meaning, one thing is for certain - the task started by the heir is not complete, and will not be complete until He himself returns, and so we continue for the one "who endures to the end shall be saved."

“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household! Therefore do not fear them. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 10:24-33)

There is a scene in one episode of the science fiction series Babylon 5 in which Vir, an aide to one of the alien ambassadors, is being dissuaded from seeking an audience with a group called the Techno-mages by the spectre of a house-sized monster with extremely large fangs and claws. The rotund diplomat holds his ground, refusing to be intimidated. Eventually the illusion is removed and a spokesman for the group says, with a hint of respect, "You do not frighten easily", to which Vir replies, "I work for Ambassador Molari; nothing much frightens me anymore."

So it is with the fear of the Lord; it is a matter of perspective. The curse of small minded people is to be obsessed with the details. They are so busy focusing on the object of their fear they cannot pull away to see the bigger picture. Here Jesus encourages the twelve to do just that. If they are to be the heralds of the Kingdom of God they must learn to see beyond the immediate, to pull their gaze from the purely physical and catch a glimpse of the heavenly. They must learn that death is not an end in itself, as final as it may appear to be. What are the threats of those who oppose the kingdom compared to the majesty of the one who rules it? This then is how we conquer the fears that assail us in this world - with the fear of God - which is the beginning of wisdom. (Psalm 111:10)

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it." (Matthew 10: 34-30)

I had a terrible time with this passage when I first became a Christian. Likely because I was reading a more literal translation which reads, "Unless a man hates his mother and father he is not worthy of me." Tough to wrap your head around that, especially when you consider how important family was in the cultures of the 1st century. Eventually I figured out that what Jesus was talking about was a love so great that all other loves appeared as hatred by comparison - hard to imagine a love that strong. And yet, we see this happen time and time again. My own mother never understood why I followed God in any way other than the way she taught me. She never once came to hear me preach, or tell stories, or sing. In her mind rejecting the tenants of her faith meant I had rejected her. It is this that Jesus warns us about. The greatest enemies of the kingdom will often be those we love the most.

“He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward. And he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.”

'Nuff said. Till next time - Shalom.


Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Heir Sends Out the Twelve

Happy New Year Everyone! The play has finished its run, (thank you for your support), the trappings of Christmas are packed away for another year; what say we get back to work...

These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs; for a worker is worthy of his food.
“Now whatever city or town you enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and stay there till you go out. And when you go into a household, greet it. If the household is worthy, let your peace come upon it. But if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet. Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!

Matthew 10:5-15 (NKJV)

As I mentioned last time, in this second session of teaching Jesus lays out some ground rules for how the twelve should conduct themselves while they are out on the first ever missions trip. As with most of Jesus' teachings what He has to say seems counter-intuitive, starting with His target audience.

So far we have seen that the most remarkable examples of faith have come from the Gentiles that Jesus has encountered along the way. And yet, Jesus is very clear to his band of followers that they are to focus on the "lost sheep of the house of Israel." Even 1st century market analysts might be inclined to suggest that since the focus groups showed a better response among the Gentiles, then maybe, in order to ensure better success with this inaugural campaign, it should target Gentile communities. Jesus' admonition to seek out the lost sheep of Israel makes it clear that popular response is not what He is after. He is the 'Son of Man' to be sure, but he is also the Son of the Father, and for millennia God has desired to see the people He has called come into fellowship with Himself.

After 400 years of silence the kingdom Gospel is finally being offered to the people and it must be offered to the People of God first! God made a promise to Abraham, to Moses, to David and to all their descendants that the new covenant would see Israel made complete in her relationship to the Creator of all things - Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise. "To the Jew first and then to the Greek." (Romans 1:16)

Jesus' next instruction must have taken the twelve aback to at least some degree. "Heal the sick?" "Cleanse the Lepers!?" "Raise the dead?!!" The twelve had seen Jesus do all these things and, as far as we are told, were never given step by step instructions as to how to do any of them. So incredulous does this sound that down through the centuries scholars of all stripes have debated their "real" meaning. As one commentator put it...

"To be sure, Jesus healed people, cast out demons, raised the dead, and performed many other mighty deeds, but we are not Jesus. So how, in the name of heaven, is the church supposed to do what He did? ... We do not, in fact, have the power to touch lepers or cancer patients and cause them to be healed in an instant; we cannot shout "Be gone!" at the raging forces afflicting a diseased mind and expect the illness to flee; we are not able to stride into a funeral home and, with a word, raise the dead from their caskets." (1)

And yet, from the gospels to the journeys of Paul, and until the present day we have heard testimony after testimony of disciples of the Heir to the kingdom doing just these things. What then are we to make of Jesus instructions? How do apply them equally to both camps?

It seems to me that the key point here is that the mission of the twelve is not a new mission. It is, in fact, the same mission upon which Jesus Christ Himself was sent. A mission that was set out in the words of the prophet Isaiah...

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me,
Because the LORD has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD
Isaiah 61:1-2a (NKJV)

Wherever there is suffering, wherever there are those who have been beaten back by their circumstances, by illness, by oppression, by their own short-comings, the mission of Jesus Christ continues. It matters not whether that suffering is relieved by miraculous intervention or the hard work of dedicated individuals driven by the love of Christ in their hearts. Actually, Paul went so far as to say that motivation wasn't even an issue: "What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice." (Philippians 1:18 NKJV)

And so Jesus' mission is to continue through the twelve. And what is more, just as they were not charged for the blessings they have received in the capacity to do these things, so too they must freely distribute the blessings of the kingdom. One cannot help but wonder if Jesus is engaging in a little hyperbole here; can you imagine for a moment walking across the barren Judean wilderness in bare feet?! Without food or extra clothing!? Even if we take into account that the word "provide" ("take" in some translations) in this passage can also mean "acquire", we are still left wondering. Judas, we are told, held the purse strings for the group. Could the disciples not do what it would seem that Jesus did, at least in some fashion?

I would suggest that the point here is dependency. Take a look at the kind of men that Jesus has gathered about Him; fisherman, tax-collectors, zealots. Men who by their very nature are self-reliant in the extreme. Ostracized from society by their trade, politics, or lineage they have had little choice but to learn to rely on themselves alone. This, it would seem, they must unlearn if they are going to be of any use to the Kingdom of Heaven. For in the Kingdom strength and ability comes from one place only - the Father.

It is a lesson we too must learn, for in our society as well, self-reliance is regarded as a virtue to be admired. It is all too easy to get the task done on our own strength, in our own time, by our own means. Reliance on God and God alone does not come easy, it is so counter to what we have been taught most of our lives.

Jesus' instruction regarding those who reject the message also seems counter to what we would think the gospel requires. In the time of Jesus so great was the disdain of the Jewish people for the Gentiles that when forced to pass through a Gentile town by need or circumstance, they would upon leaving, stop and shake the dust from their sandals so as not to contaminate the rest of the country with Gentile dirt. In making this admonition, Jesus, in the minds of the twelve anyway, levels this kind of contempt on those who reject his message. And as if that were not enough, He goes on to give Sodom and Gomorrah a better shot on the day of judgment than these who refuse the twelve their hospitality.

What are we to make of this? Have we not always thought that we must never give up hope for the salvation of our loved ones? And even that of strangers? Here too, I think, is a lesson to be learned, even for us today. The Kingdom Gospel does not coerce or bulldoze its way into peoples lives. It does not hound, or badger, or insinuate itself into their thinking like an inquisitor trying to extract a confession, or worse yet, a salesman trying to secure a contract. Instead it relies on a sense of responsiveness in the individual. It goes where it is welcomed and bides its time where it is not. It is not a matter of racking up another successful strike, stamping a little cross on the side of our plane like some WWII dive bomber. It is a matter of allowing the Holy Spirit to prepare the hearts of those who would receive him and reaping where the harvest is ripe.

By instructing the disciples to "shake the dust off their feet" Jesus seeks to prevent them from making the mistake far too many Christians make today - taking possession of the spirit's responsibility. We too easily accept the lie (and a lie of the enemy it is) that we have failed God and Jesus if those to whom we preach the gospel do not readily embrace it. We convince ourselves that if that person dies tonight without the assurance of salvation in their hearts it is our fault for not being better preachers of the kingdom message. Down-trodden we berate ourselves and shy from the task at hand, fearful that we are doing more harm than good.

But we are not responsible for how others respond to the message, any more than the apostles were to blame if no one in the village would offer them a place to stay. And if they do not listen to us, often we need to move on and allow the Holy Spirit to continue His work so that another might come along at another time when the harvest has ripened a little more.

But sometimes, those who reject the kingdom Gospel do more than just refuse to respond. Sometimes they take offence and seek to prevent the message from being delivered. Jesus has words on this matter for the twelve as well, which we shall look at next time.

Until then... Shalom.

(1) "Matthew" Thomas G. Long, Westminster John Know Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1997 - page 117.