Monday, February 28, 2011

Luke 1 - a worthy storyteller

Luke tells a good story. Actually he tells two good stories: one about Jesus, and another (Acts) about the foundations of the early church, focusing especially on its providential, at times painful transition from a Jerusalem sect to a universal faith. The inclusion of gentiles is clear in Luke's salutation, which is addressed to Theophilus, a Roman name meaning "lover of God", who was probably the publisher/patron of his two-volume work.

And what a work it is. While only the "Holy Ghost Writer" could tell the story of the Son of God, of his human collaborators Luke is pre-eminent. He researches, organizes, and writes better than any. His books tell vivid story after story of real people and yet maintain their tight focus on Jesus, the Christ for all peoples. You can't tell a book by its cover, but you can tell this one by its salutation: Luke delivers on his promise to include accounts from "eyewitnesses and servants of the word," he has "carefully investigated everything," and he did "write an orderly account." How well he achieved his aim: that not only Theophilus but two millenia-and-counting of Christendom "may know the certainty of the things you have been taught."

It is believed that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, may have been a key source. This seems likely. Luke has a pronounced emphasis on women and their perspectives. The details of the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus are particularly rich. It is as if we are sitting around a family reunion (as praise God we all shall some day!!) and Mary and Elizabeth are swapping stories about their kids. "Remember when I was carrying John, and you told me you were pregnant, and John leaped in my womb?" As a reader, I enjoy Luke's poignant depiction of God's presence and promise with "real people" and their day-to-day lives. This style of writing was not always the case among Greek-trained scholars. But new wine calls for new wineskins. Luke weaves together threads of theology, contemporary reporting, and good, old-fashioned Old Testament-style storytelling.

Joe often asks me, "Dad, what's your favorite book of the Bible?" I usually tell him, "Luke". So I hope that March will be not only a month of slushy slogging, but also of blessed blogging.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Mark 16 - explaining yesterday's blog; power for the powerless; and rest

I feel compelled to clarify the meaning of yesterday's blog entry. I was not implying that modern-day Vermont would crucify Jesus, at the UVM Water Tower or anywhere else. Instead I rather clumsily tried to make the Passion less "mythic" and more "real" by conjuring a contemporary time and place. My apologies to anyone for the confusion.

I will add this caveat however: "If you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me." Someday in church I will sing a powerful black gospel song, "Poor Little Jesus Child, We Didn't Know Who You Were." The singer laments the world's awful treatment of the son of God but comments, "that's how things is down here." One of the many profound messages of the Passion is that godly society must not victimize the outcast, the downtrodden, the stranger who seems to threaten the status quo. Better to humbly work out our differences as neighbors. 

* * * * * * *

I feel for the women of Sunday morning, fast friends of Jesus, far more faithful witnesses of Friday's horror than was boastful Peter. In love they watched Jesus die, powerless to do anything; in love they visit the tomb to prepare his body for formal burial but are once again powerless. "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?"

But God, but God, but God! Who but He could send an angel to push away the stone as if it were a dust bunny. The last verse of the book (v. 20) confirms the same dynamic: "the Lord worked with them (the disciples) and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it." He does not leave us powerless; indeed the trick is to leverage the very heavy stones on our chests in such a way that we press into God and His power. It really doesn't matter how heavy the pressure is, just so long as we respond to it by pressing into God, and not away from Him.

* * * * * * *

I have been blogging daily for two weeks straight now, since the day after Diane's funeral. The "Chapter A Day" format provides for short breaks now and then. God willing I will post the Luke 1 entry early next week. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Vermont's Passion

Reading the Passion of Christ, I want to mentally avert my eyes at the relentless cruelty and agony. 

Updating this story to 21st century Vermont gives the horror some context. The son of God appears (in the flesh, as a man) on the eve of the last shopping weekend before Christmas. He walks into the University Mall and overturns the store racks and pushes shoppers out into the parking lot.

The mall manager calls the police, and the police calls the governor. The governor calls the attorney general, the Vermont National Guard, and the pastors of the biggest churches. Together they decide that this man is bad for business and a threat to their respective missions, and therefore he must die. The local federal judge wonders (not for the first time) if Vermont hasn't lost its mind, so he offers to release the son of God. "No," the leaders and their mob reply. "Release Michael Jacques!" He does. The rapist-murderer of little girls is set free, and Vermont is safe from the likes of Jesus. Then the judge has the son of God flogged in front of the courthouse on Church Street, briefly interrupting the flow of last minute visitors to the post office, their arms full of holiday packages.

The judge then hands over Jesus to the Vermont National Guard. An entire company of soldiers beat him, spit on him, and jam a helmet with razor webbing onto his head. Finally, he a cross is loaded onto his shoulders and he is marched up Pearl Street to the Water Tower by UVM and Fletcher Allen. The cross is tied to the tower, and he is nailed to the cross. The soldiers, the governor, the police, and more gaily dressed holiday shoppers stand around and taunt him to come down and save himself. He dies in anguish.

And when it's all over, everyone smiles and says "Merry Christmas!" or "Happy Holidays!" and waves and goes home. Home for the holidays.

But even in this story, there is redemption. There is Simon, a man from Highgate doing some shopping in town, who is trying to get through the crowds at the intersection of North Willard Street when soldiers force him to carry the cross because Jesus is too exhausted and is slowing down the procession. His reaction of empathy and moral outrage is the beginning of a lifelong identification with Jesus. A National Guard sergeant looks at Jesus hanging dead on the cross and suddenly realizes he and his comrades have killed an innocent, even godly, man. His life is changed. One affluent local businessman who was quietly on Jesus' side bravely approaches the chief medical examiner and asks for permission to remove the body. Tomorrow is Saturday and no-one wants to work, so the request is granted. He places the body in his own well-appointed plot at Lakeview Cemetary.

And on Sunday, the grave was visited by the women who had served Jesus faithfully for months and who all day Friday had remained courageous witnesses and faithful prayer warriors. There were "there" for Jesus.

What happened then is told in Chapter 16. But you already know. So you know that when evil takes its best shot against God, and appears to win......redemption and glory are right around the corner. And so today we watch and wait, for our redemption draweth nigh.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mark 14: Broken and Spilled Out

Funny how I know better than other folks how they should honor Jesus. I'm probably not the only Christian on the planet who heard about the Americans killed by Somali pirates this week and uncharitably wondered if cruising the world in a big yacht and delivering Bibles was really the best use of their money.

Which goes to show how little I know, after reading Mark 14. A woman pours an entire jar of fabulously expensive perfume over the Master's head. The disciples are offended by the "waste," but Jesus sees something even more valuable than bread for the poor.

He sees a woman whose heart is so full of love, gratitude and humility that she gives her most precious possession to the one she loves. As Jesus says, "she did what she could." This woman is not "not far" from the Kingdom - she is There. She is among the first fruit of ransomed souls who, like Paul to come, will pour themselves out like water on the sacrifice and service of their faith. It is said of the great saints that their zealous love is often misunderstood. Wondrous love makes the rest of us wonder, sometimes. Last spring Diane and I were about to argue when suddenly she became gentle and conciliatory. Surprised, I asked her, "you didn't use to do that, what has changed?" Sitting in her wheelchair she answered, "I have so little to give you, but I can give you my patience." What wondrous love. It was humbling.

By contrast, the disciples are just humbug. In response to their pathetic reference to helping the poor, Jesus retorts: "You can help them anytime you want." Emphasis on the "you". Don't worry so much about the mote in your brother's eye, take out the log in your own, whydontcha.

Jesus prophesied, "Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” And so it has been, and will be until He returns. Who in the modern evangelical church hasn't heard Gloria Gaither's "Broken and Spilled Out"? Who hasn't heard a sermon or Sunday school lesson about this story, or merely read it in the Bible? Just one more prophecy that 20 centuries later is spot-on.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mark 13 – Conundrums of Prophecy

Some people hear how Jesus said “I will return soon” and think, “yeah, right, so why haven’t you returned in the last 20 centuries?” Sophistic arguments about how “he has returned in the Spirit of His People” ya-da-ya-da-ya-da  are discounted and rightly so.

As mentioned in the Matthew 24 post, I am not a student of prophecy. I can’t even intelligently discuss pre-post-or-mid tribulation, much less defend a position. Whenever I ponder this failing, I remember the New Yorker cartoon in which the elderly French man says to a little schoolchild, “Mon petite cherie, I have lived eighty long and happy years without ever knowing how to explain the Pluperfect Subjunctive Tense.”

But thanks to my parents, my first grade teacher Mrs. Bates, and especially my third grade teacher Mrs. Pitts, I can read. And what I read plainly in Mark 13 answers a lot about the return of Jesus Christ.

First, as to why his return has taken “so long”: see verse 10, “and the gospel must first be preached to all nations.” Due to limitations in global geography and transportation, worldwide missions wasn’t even attempted until about 200 years ago. Progress has been steady, but according to Wycliffe Bible Translators ( 340,000,000 people speaking 2100 languages have no Bible in their own language. No wonder that God, who delights at one sinner repenting over 99 who don’t, has withheld His call for the last trump.

Second, “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Understood as 30 years, vs. 30 is a problematic verse, to say the least. But understood as “race”, it is prophecy come true, so far. What other first century “people group” is intact, other than the Jews? Then, as now, they observe (sometimes in the breach) Moses, teachers like Gamaliel, sacred teachings like the Mishnah; their middle-eastern nation is under attack by gentile oppressors; they struggle with how much to assimilate with gentiles; they say the Shema (Hear O Israel, the Lord Your God is One”) in their synagogues. Despite centuries of forced change, abuse and apparent powerlessness, many if not most Jews are Jews first. Jewish identity is in no danger of disappearing. Of what other first century people can it be said 20 centuries later that “this generation will certainly not pass away?” Truly, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

Monday, February 21, 2011

Mark 12: Not Far From The Kingdom

After spending days chastising and intervening, it must have been a pleasant change for Jesus to talk with a teacher of the law who "got it", who understood that the Law is about loving God and one's neighbor and not (primarily) about rituals and sacrifices. So when Jesus heard this teacher's wise response, did he embrace him and say "well done good and faithful teacher, come join me in the Kingdom"?

No, he did not.

What he said was, "You are not far from the Kingdom of God."

And "Not Far" is a synonym for "Not Close Enough." No one wants to be "not far" from the bomb shelter when the A-bomb explodes. What did this good teacher lack?

Jesus explains in the next passage: faith in Him, King David's son and master. Loving God and man isn't enough for citizenship in the Kingdom. Anyone, Jew and Gentile alike, who would enter and enjoy the Kingdom must call David's son Savior and Lord.

For all among us who live exemplary lives and strive to love God and our neighbor, but have yet to acknowledge the full identity of Jesus, be both encouraged and warned: we are "not far." We must acknowledge his delivering work on the cross for the many times we have failed to love, then follow Him as Lord into the Kingdom of God, in this life and the next.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Mark 11 - Jesus does an intervention at the Temple

I've always wondered why Jesus resorted to, well, violence in the oft-told story of the Clearing of the Temple. He turned over tables, chased people and cattle out of the courtyard, and (as recorded only in Mark) even stopped people from carrying merchandise through the courtyard, seemingly seeking a a "shortcut" from one neighborhood to another. Sort of like trying to save a few seconds on a busy errand by cutting through a "holy ground" graveyard.

Why couldn't he have just loudly demanded, "this part of the temple is for the gentiles to pray, so stop using it as a den of robbers"?  

I think that Jesus was doing an Intervention. An intervention is an act of "tough love" performed by mature individuals (social workers, parents) on behalf of a wayward loved one that JUST DOESN'T GET IT and are engaging in behavior destructive to themselves and others. So, UNLESS SOMEONE REALLY GETS IN THEIR FACE they are headed for certain destruction. The principle is, "cause a little pain now to prevent a lot of pain later." The practice may involve shouting, shaking, and in-your-face consequences.

Sometimes it works.....but if the recipient is truly invested in their destructive path, sometimes it doesn't. Such was the case with the Intervention at the Temple. The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law responded with fear and plans to kill Jesus. Which they did. Had they heeded Jesus and sought justice and charity for all people and welcomed the Gentiles (read: Romans) into their temple and their hearts, it is unlikely that they would have revolted against Rome. And Rome would have had no reason to destroy Jerusalem and tear down the temple stone by stone, as it did in 70 AD.

In fact, the only divine "Intervention" that has ever worked more than briefly is the Cross. On Calvary Jesus gave not just his time and words but his body and his life to rescue errant Israel and the ignorant Gentiles. And ever since, every day, people have responded to this Intervention by saying "thank you" and becoming reconciled with God and their neighbor. Tough love - it's a beautiful thing.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Mark 10 - Fields, Fathers, and Mothers, in Endless Supply

Jesus must have known his followers would have a hard time believing Mark 10:29, so he said first, "I tell you the truth." Then he makes a big promise: anyone who loses homes, family or fields for His sake "will receive 100 times as much in this present age of homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields."

Now, that is a remarkable statement. Jesus rarely promised his followers tangible, earthly goods and possessions. But here he seems to be promising to cover our losses a hundred times over.  

What does He mean?

Author James Lee Burke, creator of the detective Dave Robicheaux series of crime novels, once called the Roman Catholic Church "the largest social club in the world." He meant it in a good way: drop a Roman Catholic in almost any town in the western world and chances are he can find a church community and school for his children. If he chooses, he can be surrounded by people of faith and good will who will support him in his need.

I suspect this is generally true of all Christian churches. Lest we take it for granted, imagine a world where the ONLY people who would lift a finger to help you were those of your own family. If you were separated from them by geography or ostracism, you would be truly alone in the world. To make matters worse, both your employment and "retirement" would depend solely on your family's means and good will. No one else would feel obliged in the slightest to help you.

Then along comes Jesus. His teaching, blood and resurrection power creates a Kingdom where people serve each other. And not just Christian serving Christian, but serving non-Christian as well. Every man in need would have a neighbor. As this gospel took hold, the early Romans were amazed at the Christians who cared for sick and dying strangers - an unheard-of practice. Today, people in Haiti with no "field and homes" of their own due to the earthquake etc. are blessed by hundreds of church groups showering them with the bounty of their own fields and homes. And Haiti is just one example of thousands. On the shelf behind me as I write these words is a stack of letters of condolence. I can barely hold them all in one hand. Each one is from one of those hundred-fold fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. 

The system is not perfect. But it is safe to say that 20 centuries later, the rich, commonplace tradition of Christian brotherhood and support is a promise fulfilled.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Mark 9 - The King's Speech

Of the deaf/mute inflicting spirit Jesus said, “this kind comes out only by prayer and fasting.”

Why should this be, Lord? Other demons flee at your command. A legion of them escaped into a herd of pigs. What’s so special about a deaf/mute spirit?

I confess I do not know. Maybe it’s a particularly determined and powerful demon. Words are powerful things, tools of blessing and cursing. Stands to reason Satan would place some of his strongest troops on that particular front line. Or perhaps Jesus routinely relied on prayer and fasting for strength to deliver. Perhaps the Lord’s Prayer, in particular. He knew merely mouthing words of releasing, binding and rebuking would not carry the day.  

I saw “The King’s Speech” today. King George VI stuttered because he was abused by a childhood nurse and because he believed he failed to please his domineering father. The king was “delivered” by a self-educated commoner equipped with compassion and a self-taught, unique ability to divine the root causes of speech impediments. “Healing” required repeated treatments. In his impatience George often doubted, accused and abandoned his healer. But at long last they collaborated on fulfilling his important destiny. The stakes were high. Evil stalked Europe once again. Great Britain and its dominions and colonies needed words of courage from their young king, the embodiment of their unity and the only person who spoke for them all. Only after he overcame his inner “demons” could he cry freedom eloquently and without compromise.

Deliver us from evil, O Word of God, that we may (like you) speak freedom to the captives.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mark 8 – when healing doesn’t happen all at once

Only Mark records the healing of the blind man who needed not just one, but two “treatments” by Jesus. Jesus spits on eyes and touches them. Can you see?, Jesus asks. Well, kind of….. “I see men as trees walking,” he answers. Jesus touches his eyes again, and makes the man look up, and suddenly he sees clearly.

The blind man’s response is more than the title of a great but forgotten Johnny Cash song from his January, 1973 “Gospel Road” album. It describes how healing sometimes takes time, even when the healer is Jesus.

The blind man went from blind to “legally blind” to normal. How interesting that Jesus and the “being healed” man stayed engaged with each other. They both talked, they both listened. The man was also blessed with helpful, believing friends. One wonders if they also prayed for him. Certainly they were “in his corner,” the way dozens of friends and family have been in ours.

In our newly configured family, healing has begun. We see light. Are we at the “trees walking” stage? Hmmm. Don’t know. Is the light growing? I believe so.

Yesterday a dear friend sent along some “back story” about a profound spiritual breakthrough Diane experienced in 1996. She recalled what I already knew: Diane had been freed from some awful burdens that had oppressed her spirit for many years. I say this without laying blame on any people, living or dead. I DIDN’T know that this friend had been in deep prayer and fasting for Diane in the days previous to her overcoming. This great breakthrough was achieved by the Holy Spirit co-operating with the prayers and encouragement of many friends. In effect they “brought her to Jesus for healing.”

And the real point of the story is this: what happened 15 years ago was just the beginning. Her spiritual vision grew steadily and really sharpened in the last year of her life. Feb. 4, I believe, she surpassed us all.   

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Heart of the Matter - Mark 7

The Pharisees gave Jesus the perfect opportunity to speak to the very heart, so to speak, of his message. They were upset that Jesus' disciples didn't do pray on their knees with their eyes closed. Or close their eyes. Or go to church every week. Or go forward on Sundays. Or sing hymns. Or choruses. Or abstain from alcohol. Or vote Republican. Or, in short, do ANYTHING they were supposed to do, had been taught to do, were EXPECTED to do.

Neither I (nor Jesus) have anything against hygiene or any of those other practices. In fact I am or have been a habitual practioner of most of the above.


They are not what God commands. And Jesus from his heart wants us to know the commandments of God and obey them from the heart. You can sense His intensity. It's as if he has been given the perfect opportunity to say something so simple, yet so difficult to receive and practice.

Jesus said, "I want your heart. I want you to search out, learn, know and obey my commands, and the commands of my Father. Where this happens, the Kingdom is."

The historic forms of the Christian religion fails utterly at this. I think of some of the Catholics I grew up with, and the southern churchfolk I've heard about, who would sin on Saturday night and show up clean and sober Sunday morning, seeking forgiveness.  When we stop seeking to obey God with their whole hearts, the form loses its power and ceases to matter much. If Jesus preaches any "universalist" truth, it is that all forms of worship so practiced lead AWAY from God. 

So that's what I mustn't do. What must I do?

"Rend your hearts, and not your garments, turn unto the Lord Your God, He is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mark 6 - Homeboys From Nazareth


Phineas and Ichabod, two guys from Nazareth, tag along behind Jesus after his underwhelming visit to his hometown. They've been sent by the elders to watch and report back if he does or says anything (else) that would seem to elevate himself above his former neighbors. Standing on the shore of the sea of Galilee, they see him walking on water.

Amazing," Phineas says.

"I know what you mean," says Ichabod. "Big talker in the synagogue, but he can't even swim."
* * * * * * * *
I laugh at the clueless homeboys, but as always there is plenty of caution and encouragement for me. Caution: do I hold people back from growing into their divinely ordained calling and potential due to envy, disbelief, a critical spirit, pride or my selfish claims on them? Do my children know, really know, Dad believes they can soar with wings of eagles?

Encouragement: if Jesus could escape the false identities imposed on him by others, so can I. I am who God says I am, and will be who God says I will be. The truth makes me free.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mark 5: the Lion roars

Such a juxtaposition. The pathetic, helpless torture of a man at the hands of 2,000 demons, day and night cutting himself and howling amid the tombs. The sudden desperation of a man of high earthly position who has just realized he is powerless to save his stricken daughter. The long, slow bleed of chronic illness.

And the Master's commands, sharp as scalpels:

"Come out of the man, unclean spirit!"

"Talitha, cumi!"

"Be healed."

And they do; she does; she is. Just like that. Behold our Lion and Deliverer. Glad I'm on His team.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mark 4: The Power In A Seed

All three synoptic gospels tell the parable of the Sower and the Four Soils, but only Mark tells its counterpart: the parable of the Growing Seed. The first exhorts us to receive God's word as good soil, the second comforts us that Kingdom growth ultimately depends on the supernaturally potent seed of the Gospel.  This power is invisible. It is inexplicable. And it is unstoppable.

I am reminded of the children's song  (click on first line for all words):

Oh I marvel at the wisdom of my God
yes I marvel at the wisdom of my God
when I saw the little lily
pushing up that mighty clod
yes I marvel at the wisdom of my God

By God's grace I must sow seed and be good soil. I am his co-laborer. But the power, power, wonder-working power - that's on Him. At Calvary Roman soldiers snickered at the Jewish rabbi for being seemingly oblivous to how real power works. "He cannot save himself." Almost 20 centuries later we name our children James and John, and our dogs Zeus and Caesar. 

May the seed sown this past week "bear much fruit". 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Mark 2: Unnecessary Medical Equipment, and The Unforgiveable Sin

When Jesus heals chronically ill people, they don't need their "life sustaining equipment" anymore. Last Friday Keene Medical dropped by and took away the oxygen tanks and breathing apparatus that Diane will never, ever, need again. I helped carry it to the truck. Gladly. With a spring in my step.

And so it must have been for the paralytic told by Jesus, "my son, your sins are forgiven, take up your bed and walk." One moment the poor fellow would have been (even more) miserable without his bed. The next - he scoops it up and walks away! No doubt with a spring in his step, too.

[Which reminds me of a funny cartoon. Jesus is about to lay hands on a paralytic, but stops when the guy says, "Are you CRAZY?! I could lose my disability check!" Well - funnier when you see it, I guess.]

And then Jesus turns his attention to the much harder-to-treat illness of acute spiritual pride. Those suffering from it consider it a blessing (shared only by them). In its final, terminal stages, symptoms include disorientation and confusion, i.e. delusions of "we aren't sick, everyone else is" and insisting that the delivering and healing work of the Holy Spirit is actually the work of Satan. When the disease has progressed thus far, says the Great Physician, it is terminal.

This condition should NOT be confused with early stage rebellion, idle daydreaming about the spiritual experiences of others, or honest uncertainty about the ways of God with man. These conditions are wholly responsive to repentance and then continuous daily treatments of the Word's reproof, correction and training in righteousness. In fact, simply being concerned that one may have contracted this fatal malady indicates the actual affliction is completely reversible.

In Paradise Lost, Milton's Satan said "Evil, Be Thou My Good." It is this sort of total, sweeping, uncompromising rejection of the revealed work of God that constitutes the "Unforgiveable Sin." The dusty, ancient Interpreter's Bible I found at Fletcher Library in Burlington called this sin "a distortion of the whole spiritual being, by which we are blinded to good and call it evil, and thus cut ourselves off from God and God's cause." There is a point, unknown to us, at which God's spirit will contend with man no more. But for those whose hearts desire it, the mercy and forgiveness of our wonderful Savior are always free for the asking. Hallelujah, what a savior.

Friday, February 11, 2011

OYNTB for Mark 1: of wild animals, angels, and The Call

I am struck by the humility of John the Baptist, especially when compared to the pride of the Pharisees. From Elizabeth's womb he was Messiah's herald. Saying he was “not worthy to untie the sandals” of Jesus was not empty self-debasement but a confession of his own unworthiness before and willingness to serve Israel's Judge, for whom he preached repentance and forgiveness. How unlike the religious establishment that wouldn't stoop to untie anyone’s sandals, least of all someone they blindly insisted was just a Galilean carpenter's son.  
I am struck by the promise of Jesus to Peter and Andrew: "I will make you fishers of men." With those four words he took responsibility. They would be apprentice Kingdom builders, their training and welfare now the responsibility of the Cornerstone Himself. Not theirs to wonder how, when or where. The only condition: "Come, follow me."
Finally I am struck by Mark's brief, vivid description of Jesus in the desert for 40 days. Of the gospel writers, only he mentions the presence of both wild animals and angels. I too have been sent out into a desert on a solitary pilgrimage that will last, I suspect, more than 40 days.

As I begin, three things I know already. First, I will face the "wild animals" of the world, the flesh and the devil. This unholy trinity would leave me a pile of bleached bones, if it could.  Second, angels will attend me; some visible, others not. Third, the voice that has called me into the desert is saying, "Come, follow me."

Friday, February 4, 2011

Matthew 28 - Come and See, Go and Tell

I am struck that the words of the angel given to Mary and the other women - "Come and see" that he is risen, and "go and tell" the others - is a fitting conclusion to Matthew. I know that the Great Commission is the real culmination, but there is something simple and direct about the angel's words for all of us. We, like Mary and Joseph and Zechariah, need to heed the angel, but unlike those "B.C." figures, we have the rock-solid eyeball evidence of the empty tomb and the Risen Christ.  "Come and see." And for those who have, the message must be shared with those who haven't - yet: "Go and tell."

February will be the Month of Mark. I've been thinking about the Jesus I have met in Matthew this month. I see an Annointed One drawing people into a new Kingdom of God. The old paradigm, the old covenant that Israel had so manifestly failed to obey, lay in tatters. The virgin bride of Israel had gone astray, and her leaders were in fierce denial aka willful blindness. In the fullness of time, it was time for a new Kingdom, born of the old. Unlike the old covenant, the new promised zippo of peace, prosperity and worldly comfort. There was no more "every man neath his vine and fig tree, will live in peace and unafraid" - in this world. Jesus made no promises of worldly plenty. (How strange that since then the cultures that at least seemed to reverence him most are the most affluent!) But he promised his followers, and modeled for them, internal and eternal love, joy, peace unbounded and overflowing.

And what a man. What a courageous, honest, compassionate, powerful, true-hearted man. How awful is sin and how well-deserved its condemnation and the devil's, if the First Adam was anything as majestic as the Second. We have fallen far. Hallelujah, what a savior!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Matthew 27: Pilate’s Wife and the Resurrected Dead

In the supporting characters of Matthew 27 I see myself and the rest of this broken world. One and all we either stand on this Rock or are crushed by it. Judas, the murderous scribes and Pharisees indifferent to the remorse of a traitor, Pilate, Barabbas, the amazed centurion, Joseph of Arimathea – books and movies by the dozen have told their stories. Fortunately for this poor blogger, they (and of course the Central Character) are also discussed by the other three gospel writers, so they can wait for a later post. Today I can focus on the only two mentioned exclusively by Matthew: Pilate’s wife and the resurrected wanderers.

This afternoon I finished “Alex Cross’s Trial” by James Patterson, a beach-reading novel about a lynch-happy Mississippi town of 100 years ago.  (If “lynching” and “beach-reading” in the same sentence doesn’t speak to the pervasiveness of sin, I don’t know what does.) Everyone in Eudora knows the Klan is lynching negroes whose only offense is offending fearful, hating white supremacists.

And so it is with Pilate’s wife, who tells her husband, “have nothing to do with that innocent man.” How casually she says it – “an innocent man.” She doesn’t need to persuade Pilate. He already knows. The First Couple and everyone else in town knew Jesus was innocent. It was understood. Like the former slave asserting his God-given freedom, his only crime was being true to an identity that his twisted world refused to accept. Their loyalties were to self, family, riches, power, tribe – not to justice and righteousness.

By happy contrast the holy dead are raised in freedom. What a wild story. Jesus dies, the earth shakes, the veil of the temple is broken – and as Matthew only tells, people emerge from their tombs and walk around, freed from death and the power of sin. After the resurrection on the third day, they enter the City. Is it Spirit-powered “performance art” prophecy, foretelling the Great Day when the dead in Christ shall rise? Whatever else it is, it’s a powerful sign that, as the centurion said, “surely this man was a son of God.”


Matthew 26: The only good man, the only treatment for sin

Poet William Butler Yeats wrote in "The Second Coming"

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold... The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

I think Yeats was writing about the rise of the Nazis. But he also describes Matthew 26, where Judas, the mob, and the ruling Pharisees are "full of passionate intensity" while Peter and friends "lack all conviction," unable to keep God's son company or even admit they know him. 

Only one man stands strong. Jesus, praying alone in selfless obedience when everyone else slept.  Jesus, speaking calm words of authority to stop religious mob violence. Jesus, speaking truth to murderous, lying power, knowing his words will be used as a pretext for killing him. For those he calls to be dragged before the authorities to testify (see Matthew 10, he sets an example. As John was the last and greatest of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus is the firstborn of the suffering servants and martyrs whose blood is the seed of the church.   

How many tired, lonely prayer warriors has his example inspired? How many brothers and sisters in the crucible of suffering have bowed their heads and found joy in the words, "not my will but thy will be done?" How many evangelists and activists have met mob opposition with inspired words of authority?
This is the spotless Lamb of God who said, “Drink…all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
The awfulness of sin is so apparent in Matthew 26. It has so warped the hearts of the Heirs of Abraham that individually and collectively they plan and carry out the murder of the greatest of their prophets, the very Son of the Owner of the Vineyard. At best, they stand by cowed, helpless, selfish.
Last Sunday, I heard Jericho Congregational Church Sunday School teacher Rich Parker describe in moving terms the awfulness of our sin and the high price that must be paid for its utter destruction. Rich and his wife Linda lost their only child, John, to a long struggle with leukemia. He told us that leukemia cells are so insidious that EVERY CELL must be destroyed. Leaving just one cell alive invites an unrelenting multiplication that “when full blown, leads to death,” as James says. And so the painful, invasive, destructive chemo treatments are injected into the innocent victim’s body to do its terrible work. Nothing less will do.
In the spiritual realm, halfway treatments – slaughtered goats, alms for the poor, trying to follow the Golden Rule, etc. – will not destroy sin. Revival occurs not when people want to improve society, but when they die to self and embrace the cross. The violence, hatred, indifference, religious hypocrisy, and individual and societal spiritual death that plagued Israel and plagues the world today can be eradicated only by the most radical treatment: the application to the human heart of the blood of Jesus shed on the cross.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Matthew 25, "The Sheep and the Goats": Jesus saves the best for last

The medieval scholars who separated the New Testament into chapters did well with Matthew 25. It tells three parables with the same theme: in eternity, the godly will be rewarded and the ungodly punished; therefore choose God. It crescendos with the blunt, emotionally powerful call to compassion that is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

For the godly, Jesus saves the best for last. We are not promised worldly riches, peace, or health – we are not promised we will receive anything from this world, except its scorn.  But when Jesus comes into his kingdom, there will be banquets, ruling of cities, and – best of all – his favor. Of the three, the last is the only one that I am sure is not metaphorical.

“Best for last” also describes, in my opinion, the placement and quality of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Jesus makes our calling so simple, so – unreligious. Treat the needy well, and you will treat me well. Ignore and mistreat them, and you ignore and mistreat me. My friend Tim Callahan – faithful reader of this blog! – once had a dream in which he was so angry he wanted to slug someone. Jesus stepped in front of the person and said, “if you try to hit him, Tim, you will have to hit me first.” In his dream Tim cried, “but Jesus I don’t want to hit you. I love you.” Brother Tim understood right then what it means to be a Sheep.

The parable marks Matthew’s record of Jesus’ teaching ministry. The events leading up to the Passion begin in the next verse. It is as if Jesus is saying, “remember when I healed that leper, comforted that gentile woman, drove the demon out of that man? It was not just for them that I did that – it was for you to see and to keep your eyes open and do likewise. For the rest of your lives, until I come, I want you to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned. Love the needy. That is what sons and daughters of the Kingdom do.”

Then he goes to Calvary, purchasing mercy for us when we fail to love perfectly, which as sons of fallen Adam we were born to do. But that is a blog post for another day.