Friday, September 4, 2015

Insane in the Airplane

As I write this I'm sitting in a plane at O'Hair, waiting to go back home. The flight is delayed because of bad weather in Cincinnati. 

When the pilot announced the reason for the delay people groaned loudly. Then the guy behind me said, "Someone (meaning God) hates me!" He then called his wife to complain some more. 

How insane are humans?! Should we instead risk it? Should someone (meaning God) disrupt the weather pattern so we can make it home on time? Doesn't it make more sense to be thankful that we have technology that lets us know when not to fly into a specific area? Doesn't that technology help raise the odds that we will get home?


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Matthew 4:23 - 5:12: Who Is Really Well Off?

Before diving into a study of the Sermon on the Mount (just the beatitudes, here), there are two things that must be settled in the mind of the person reading, if they plan on getting anything at all from it.

1. The author of the sermon was brilliant. This may seem like an unnecessary step, but you would be surprised. If a person approaches the sermon as if it is anything other than the work of a genius, they will eventually view it the same way we might view a picture a small child gives us. We will be thankful for it, but since we don't think it is the work of a master artist we will look quickly, hang it on the fridge to look at from time to time, and be on our way. But when we approach it as we would a Van Gogh, for instance, we might just let it come over us, as we ponder what each section means, and how it connects to the following section.

2. We must look at the sermon as one sermon. More specifically, we must view it as a sermon that expounds on Jesus' primary message, "The availability of the kingdom of the heavens." Many people look at it is a few disconnected wisdom sayings that were gathered together. If this is true then it would be impossible to obey, and even harder to understand. But if we view it as a whole sermon, we will do the hard work of seeing how each section connects and makes the whole, then we can obey it.

There are really 4 questions that every thoughtful person considers in their lifetime. In Matthew 4:12-22, Jesus gave an answer to the first question by shining a light on the darkness, and revealing that reality is God and his kingdom. He then began inviting everyone to repent, and enter in.

In this passage I believe he sets out to answer the 2nd question:
Who is well off?
The passage begins with Jesus teaching and healing a crowd full of various representatives of society. The poor are there with their sick loved ones, those possessed by demons are there, paralytics are there, and people from every strip of land in the region have gathered around Jesus to hear his message and be touched by him.

The people living in this day lived within a culture of honor and shame. That many of them were sick already put them in the shame category. If they were women–shame. Unclean–shame. Many of them just because of the condition of their everyday life would've fallen into a category of shamefulness. They would've been looked upon with pity or the kind of sympathy that says, "It sucks to be you."

These are the people who are surrounding Jesus as he begins to speak his, "Blessed are the ________ for _________, formula. This formula would not have been new to many of them. They may have read The Wisdom of Sirach which announced its own beatitudes (See image).

Sirach's beatitudes are not shocking. Indeed, they are unremarkable because they are assumed by the masses. Who wouldn't want to rejoice over their children, or speak to attentive listeners (I'm a preacher, I really want this one!). So maybe when Jesus opened his mouth to begin speaking they thought they were going to hear the same old news that never included them.

Imagine the shock that came over them when they heard him say, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." These likely had never been called blessed, unless you include the times they were called a bless-ed nuisance. But now they are hearing a message that, if true, changes everything for them.

Jesus is not suggesting that they are blessed because they are in their condition, he is not telling them to all go and become poor in spirit, as many people teach. He is telling them that in their lowly condition they, too, can experience blessing, because they can enter the kingdom. And as they enter the kingdom they will encounter a divine reversal that fills their lives with blessing.

The poor in spirit: As Martyn Lloyd Jones says, "what our lord is concerned about here is the spirit; it is poverty of spirit. In other words, it is ultimately a man's attitude towards himself." A person who is poor in spirit is not a humble person necessarily. Humble people think of themselves little, people who are poor in spirit think little of themselves. The world has different names for them: Loser, Nobody, Zero, No-good. But in the kingdom of heaven they will find that their status has been reversed, because they are now in relation to the king of the kingdom. This makes them giant like.

The mourners: Think of a person who is stricken with grief. Perhaps a parent whose child has died, or a father whose income supports his family, and he hears the news that he just got laid off. No matter the reason, to mourn is not to be viewed as well off, it is to be in an unenviable condition. But as they enter the kingdom of heaven, they will find comfort that goes beyond measure.

The meek: In Aramaic (Jesus' language) the word was praus. It is not merely humble or gentle, but it describes a person who has no capacity to resist. Think of an individual that never asserts herself, therefore she never gets her way. Think of a kid being bullied, he wants to resist, but can never bring himself to do it. In the economy of this world such a person is to be pitied... In the kingdom, the whole earth is their domain, because the whole earth belongs to their father. "The Lord is their shepherd, they shall not want."

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are a nuisance: Consider the Prophets, John the Baptist, Martin Luther King Jr., the abolitionists, and do-gooders in general. Many of these may be celebrated now, but they where a nuisance to everyone in their day. This is the reason many were killed. Unfortunately their hunger and thirst goes unfulfilled in the kingdom of this world... but as they enter the kingdom of heaven, they find a bountiful quantity of the righteousness they were seeking.

The merciful: Not simply those who are nice, but those who are merciful to a fault. Like people who let you run up a tab knowing you will never have the capacity to repay it. They do so because they see the world from your perspective, and they pity you. The worldly wiseman will rightly call them fools. They will never get their due, and will always end up on the bottom. That is, until they enter the kingdom. Then they are recipients of mercy which supersedes any kind they ever handed out.

The pure in heart: People whose longing for purity is never fulfilled, both in outsiders and in themselves. Their longing for purity may even be a pain in themselves. See Psalm 24:3-4. Every time they white glove test their heart they find one more dot. In the eyes of this world they will never find what they are looking for. In the reality of the kingdom they will see God, and when they do they will finally lay their eyes on the holiness that they've been seeking–they will see God.

The peacemakers: Think of it in terms of Jesus' day. The peacemaker was one who likely tried to create peace between two forces that hated one another. Jews and Romans, or Jews and Samaritans, or any opposing groups. When you try to create peace between enemies, you likely become the enemy of the two enemies. The peacemaker is in an unenviable position. They are viewed as a sell out because they refuse to take sides. No matter though, in the kingdom of heaven they resemble the prince of peace.

The persecuted: These suffer physical or emotional attack because of their commitment to doing what is right. Think of a whistleblower (maybe called a snitch) who becomes persona non grata, because they reveal instead of conceal. Like those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the world sees them as a thorn in the side. The only justifiable response is to remove the thorn. While they may not be at home in the kingdom of this world, they will find a warm welcome in the kingdom of heaven, and will experience the blessing of God in this life.

By declaring the down people as up, Jesus effectively opens wide his kingdom to everyone who would enter therein. When the world frowns and pities someone because of their condition, Jesus says, "Blessed are you."

Who is supposedly blessed in this picture?
And in a world that relentlessly sends messages to us about who is well off and who isn't, the apprentices of Jesus must learn to join him in pronouncing beatitudes to those who seem un-blessable.

"So," as Dallas Willard says, "we must see from our heart that: Blessed are the physically repulsive, Blessed are those who smell bad, The twisted, misshapen, deformed, The too big, too little, too loud, The bald, the fat, and the old... the flunk-outs and drop-outs and burned-outs. The broke and the broken. The drug heads and the divorced. The HIV-positive and herpes-ridden. The brain-damaged, the incurably ill. The barren and the pregnant too-many-times or at the wrong time. The overemployed, the underemployed, the unemployed. The unemployable. The swindled, the shoved aside, the replaced. The lonely, the incompetent, the stupid. The emotionally starved or emotionally dead... Even the moral disasters will be received by God as they come to rely on Jesus, count on him, and make him their companion in his kingdom. Murderers and child-molesters. The brutal and the bigoted. Drug lords and pornographers. War criminals and sadists. Terrorists. The perverted and the filthy and the filthy rich. The David Berkowitzs (“ Son of Sam”), Jeffrey Dahmers, and Colonel Noriegas."

This is the gospel. This is the good news.

So, who is really well off?

Anyone who is living in the kingdom of God.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Matthew 4:12-22: The Best Opportunity Ever

I can vividly recall my first assignment in my Preparing to Preach course at United Theological Seminary. It was a course I was very much looking forward to, particularly because the professor was none other than the Rev. Dr. Richard Eslinger. The man is a master sermon crafter, and if I was going to learn, it was going to be from him.

The first assignment he gave us was to write a one page sermon on the theme, "The world is full of darkness, but Jesus is the light of the world." As a know-it-all, 27 year old seminarian, I thought that was a piece of cake. The night before the class I sat down and wrote down what I then thought was a magnum opus, I now know that it wasn't. It wasn't even close!

Dr. Eslinger read all of our papers with little to no comment, then when he was finished he stood before us and said, “I have two observations for you. First,” he said, “you’re understanding of the world’s darkness does not touch 90% of the congregations that you will serve.”

Then he said this, “if you do not understand how each and every person’s life is touched and affected by the darkness of this world, you will never help them see why they need the light of Christ.”

His observations have remained with me since that day, but they rushed forcibly into my mind this week as I heard Matthew say of Jesus, "the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned" (Matthew 4:16).

As I prepared to preach this passage I couldn't help but revisit the mistake I made in my preaching class. What I did then was locate the darkness in the deed. For example, the darkness was rape, war, terrorism, and other wicked things. To be sure, those things to represent the darkness, BUT THEY ARE NOT THE DARKNESS. Rather, those evil deeds are come because the people who do them dwell in darkness.

So the darkness is not the deed, the darkness is the idea from which the deed emerges. Think about it, What was it that initially plunged humanity into darkness? Was it not an idea believed?

“Did God really say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'? God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

See, when the idea is taken hold of, the action follows. This is the way people sit in darkness. They take hold of false ideas, and as they believe them, their actions begin to conform to that which is untrue. It is this world that Jesus enters and shines light on the erroneous idea systems that were, and are, governing reality.

So instead of a God who was believed to be judgmental, vindictive, distant, or impassible, Jesus reveals a God who is just, loving, merciful, and concerned. Instead of the idea of scarcity that caused people to pinch and hold fast to what they have while others suffered, Jesus reveals the idea of God supplying all that is needed, thus encouraging generosity. Instead of the idea that a persons worth is determined by what they have or do, Jesus reveals that all people are worthy in the eyes of God.

This is the reality he comes to reveal to everyone who will place their trust in him. That is what he means by, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." He is not asking people to feel a certain way, as repentance is often understood. He is asking them to change their mind about their thinking, and organize their lives to live into this newly revealed reality called the kingdom of heaven.

This is the opportunity each and every one of us has been given. It is the chance to learn from Jesus how to live our lives as God intended for us to live them. Or, as Dallas Willard says, "As Jesus’ disciple, I am his apprentice in kingdom living. I am learning from him how to lead my life in the Kingdom of the Heavens as he would lead my life if he were I."

This is, quite frankly, the best opportunity that we will ever receive. Please do not miss out on it.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Genesis 22:1-19: A Threat to the Promise

In Genesis 21 God gifts Sarah and Abraham with a son. He was a miracle child, the child they ceased to think they would have. He was the vessel through which they would realize God's promise to "make their descendants as numerous as the stars."

In Genesis 22 God asks Abraham to return Isaac to him. How is it that in the span of one chapter God entrusts Isaac to the care of Abraham and Sarah, and in the next he is not so sure?

I wonder, as we examine our own lives, whether or not we have gifts that we have received from God that soon became something that morphed into something of an idol. It is all to easy for us to lose sight of things, and escalate them to a level of importance that they were never intended to have. This is what I believe happened with Abraham.

I think that Abraham began by seeing him as God's gift. But maybe as the years passed he began seeing Isaac, no longer as a vessel through which God's promise would be fulfilled, but as the key to realizing God's promise. Maybe Abraham began to place his confidence in Isaac and not the God who delivered Isaac.

It happens with us all the time; does it not? For example, a person receives a job opportunity, and they receive it joyfully, as an opportunity from God. Soon thereafter the job has taken over their life. Rather than being an opportunity to serve with distinction they begin to view the success or failure of the job with their success or failure as a person. They have become enslaved by that which was meant to be a gift.

Examples of this sort abound, from parents who begin to allow the success or failure of their kids to define their existence, to the person who begins a journey towards health, but ends up enslaved to an unreachable body image, we show the tendency to let gifts become masters.

When this happens a loving God will step in and say, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering.” In other words, God will ask that we relinquish control back to him, and be done with it.

It is necessary to give sacrificially to God those things which are beginning to take a stronghold in our lives, because if we do not the only end will be deeper enslavement. But when we sacrifice to God, when we bind Isaac and lay him on the wood as an offering, that is when we will discover a loving God prepared to give us back that which we sacrificed to him. But he won't return the sacrifice as a burden, he will return it as a gift once he knows we are ready to receive it.

My favorite illustration of this is found in Luke 18. It’s right after the story of the rich young ruler who went away sad because he refused to give up his wealth to follow Jesus. And as the man is walking away Peter says to Jesus, “Lord! We’ve left everything for you.” In other words, he is saying, “Jesus, we have sacrificed our family, we have sacrificed career endeavors, we have sacrificed relationships, we have sacrificed everything to be with you.”

And Jesus says, “Yes, and I assure you that everyone who has given up their home or spouse or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, will be repaid many times over in this life, and will have eternal life in the world to come.”

The aim of God in sacrificial giving is not to impoverish his people, it is not to make them have nots, but it is to teach them how to have everything. To be specific, it is to teach them how to have everything through him. As the song says, All things are mine since I am his!
How can I keep from singing?

Perhaps Abraham walked up the mountain that he began to trust in a way that he shouldn't have. But he walked down the mountain with a son he could love. He walked down with a gift from God. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Genesis 21:1-7 On Laughter

And the Lord said to Sarah, "... Oh yes, you did laugh" (Genesis 18:15).

When we think about life with God we typically don't think laughter. We think of words like surrender, sacrifice, worship, grace, etc... All these words are applicable, and suitably describe elements of the with-God life. But the way we talk about grace, about, surrender, about worship, etc, are too often dirge-like in their expression. 

The picture of the morose saint, holy but unhappy, dominates our thinking and seeps into our narratives of life with God. No wonder most Christian's talk of going to heaven when they die, while accepting mediocrity/hell on earth now. They have accepted laughter in the hereafter, if you will. 

The bible speaks of a different reality.  In the story of Abraham and Sarah we see laughter throughout the entire narrative. When God shares with Abraham and Sarah that she would have a child, they laugh (Genesis 17:17; 18:12). Sarah's laugh was respectable, it was "to herself." Abraham was different, he lacks couth and decorum, for he "falls on his face with laughter."

As one interacts with God they will learn God's plan for their life. They will learn that God's plans are wholly absurd, just plain ridiculous, and putting hearing it, they will laugh. 

The reason they/we laugh is because we are conditioned to deal with possibilities that lie within our realm of control. But whenever a proposal or a promise is made that seems impossible to us, our inclination is to laugh. We laugh, not of faith, but of incredulity. 

But God's faithfulness to his word is not dependent upon our approval. We need not think it possible for it to become so. Case in point, Sarah and Abraham, the ones who thought God's promise was ridiculous, soon had another reason to laugh. First they laughed at what God said, but now, as they cradle a newborn baby, they're laughing because of what God did. First it was incredulous laughter, but it became laughter that emerges from deep wells of joy.

In life with God there is laughter on both ends. The invitation we receive is to get in on the joke that God intends to make something out of our lives that is absurdly beautiful. Or, as the apostle Paul said,  "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him" (1 Cor. 2:9).

Therefore, if you thought the promise from God was funny, just wait until you experience the reality.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Genesis 20:1-13: Abraham and Trials

A crucible is a metal or ceramic container that metal, or some other objects are placed in and subjected to very high temperatures. At the end of the process the liquid metal is poured out, free from many of the impurities that were a part of it when it entered the crucible. Because of this several groups, including the Marine Corps, have used the concept of crucible to describe a purifying process that new members go through.

The goal of these groups is to train, test, and mold, in such a way that they might form those they placed within the crucible into something stronger, and better prepared, to do the job they were training to do.

But even without organized processes that may be called "Crucible," we all at some point or another, have our lives poured into this metallic cauldron. And irregardless of how we act while in the crucible, we come out different than we went in.

In Genesis 20, Abraham is going into a crucible of sorts. It is called Gerar. Gerar is a place that resembles trial and test for Abraham, because it is here that he had to decide whether to entrust his life to the care of God, or take the protection of his life into his own hands.

Gerar was infamous for being a place where men with beautiful wives "ended up missing," and their wives ended up with the king. It is a great testimony that Abraham looks at his elderly wife and says, "If the king takes beautiful women, he is certainly going to take you." But in this passage, that is the only notable thing that Abraham does. The rest of it reads like a nightmare.

There is an important human phenomena that takes place in this story that, if obeyed and directed properly, can help us excel in our life with God. That is,
The thing you fear the most in any given situation is the thing you will focus on, and the thing you focus on will influence your behavior the most.
For example, my daughter is terrified of bugs. When she seems them she freezes in terror, and watches it like a hawk. As she is watching it she will start screaming for help, and if the bug moves a millimeter closer, she will move a mile away. Her fear of the bug leads to her focus on it, and as she focuses on it, it becomes bigger than a bug (a monster perhaps), and now the bugs movement influences her behavior.

This is not just a children's thing. Pay attention to the way things are advertised on TV, mark the way political campaign commercials are portrayed. Fear it always the motivating factor, because they know that if they can get you to fear, they can control your behavior.

And Abraham walks into Gerar, having given himself over to fear. He enters Gerar focused on their infamous reputation. His fear of them grows so much that he now cannot even consider that God has been his protector in times past (Gen. 15:1), and may even deliver him now. So now his fear of them is so palpable that he leans to his wife and whispers:
"If anyone asks, tell them you're my sister."
This is the insanity that fear can work in a persons life. 

So what is the alternative? How can we enter into situations that evoke fear in our lives? Should we just try harder? Trying harder doesn't work, this is the second time Abraham has leaned over to his wife in such a way. So what should we do? How can we go into Gerar and emerge victorious?

The answer is, we should fear God.
That's how we emerge from the crucible without letting it conquer us. Because fear works the same way with God as it does with the Gerar's of the world.

When we fear God we notice that he is awesome, terrifying, and holy, but we cannot look away, we focus on him. And as we focus on him we begin to see things in their proper perspective; that is, small problems, BIG GOD. Then our behavior is influenced, not by the fearful desire to protect ourselves, but by the holy God we are keeping in our view.
I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. - Psalm 16:8
This is Abraham's lesson from the crucible, and it is ours, too. We may not face "Gerarian" sized trials on a regular basis, but we will face trials. We will have the opportunity to place our focus on something. Why not God?
"The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged." - Deuteronomy 31:8

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Genesis 15: A Deal With God

In Genesis 15 we get to see Abram in all of his humanity. He is far from the Abram in chapter 12 who hears the voice of the Lord and follows without question. Those readings, though a proper representation, do not let us into the mind of the man. They do not tell us about how he might have wrestled with the decision because he had amassed several friends, or how his dad was well along in his years, and it would've crushed Abram to leave him. These things may not have happened, but certainly he had questionings and doubts when the word of the Lord came to him. But those we do not see, we must assume.

In Genesis 15, however, we are given a glimpse into the mind of Abram as God rehearses with him what the promise will be. Unlike chapter 12 where he simply moves at "Go," here Abram responds with what's on his mind:
  • "O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?"
  • "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir."
  • "O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?"
 These are the wonderings of a normal human being who is simply trying to connect the dots. But in Abram's case there is history behind his wonderings. Perhaps as he hears God's promise of descendants and land he remembers how he and Sarah resigned themselves to not having children. Maybe after years and years and trying they simply said, "Let's face it, weren't meant to be parents." A decision like this, of course, would have been made with much pain and hurt. And as idea of no children settled, it must've left a scar in its place. And now when the voice of the Lord begins speaking about children that scar is ripped wide open as hopes that were forsaken begin entering the mind, and an obviously guarded but hopeful Abram asks, "How can I know?"

"Understanding," says Augustine, "is the reward of faith. Therefore, seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand."

While Abram isn't displaying doubts that God's promise would happen, he does exhibit a faith seeking understanding; a faith that wants to become stronger. This type of faith God honors, and in this passage he does so in a way that is so striking that Abram would never forget.

He commands Abram to gather animals, Abram does so and immediately cuts them in half, showing that he knows something of what is to take place. Scholars believe that in Abram's day this was how they made contracts together. In our day, contracts are made on pen and paper; we are a society of the pen (or the computer). In Abram's day they were an oral society; contracts were spoken publicly, and the punishment for breaking them was acted out for all to see.

When Abram asks God, "How?" God's answer to Abram was by pointing to himself. Through this treaty with Abram he binds himself to the promise he made to Abram. He is so invested in seeing this promise come to pass that, like the mutilated animals he passes through, he is willing to suffer death if he breaks his word.

This is how Abram would know that the promise would come to pass. But if this weren't enough, another message about the character of God is delivered that day. See, in these verbal covenants the acting out of the punishment (passing through the animals to symbolize what would happen if the deal was broken) happened between both parties. So they should've both pass through, but in this passage only God does. 

This means that he takes upon himself, not only the punishment due if he broke his word, but he takes upon himself the punishment if Abram breaks his part of the covenant.

In other words God is saying, "I am so invested in seeing my promise fulfilled in your life that even if you sin, even if you lose faith, even if you break covenant, I will suffer the consequence for you, but I will still bring my promise to pass!"

What a deal, right? Yes... for Abram... and for his seed, but not for God!

The knowledgeable reader might recall that Abram soon thereafter lost faith, and his descendants lost faith; therefore, if God is going to be true to his word he must suffer death. He must be cut off like the animals he passed through.

If you fast forward a little bit more to Mark 15 you will find a scene that is very similar to the one in Genesis 15. In it, the sky once again grows dark, but instead of God standing between sliced up and bloody animals, you will find a man hanging between two bloody criminals.

And from this mans mouth come these words, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” Which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Or, "Why have you cut yourself off from me?"

And there it is.

There is the reason we can trust God unreservedly!

The reason Abram learns that God will keep his word is because he sees how fully invested he is in bringing about his promise. This is the same way we can be sure that we can confidently follow Jesus, because we see how committed he was to ensuring the promise of life in the kingdom to any who desire it.

If one believes this, then nothing more is needed to move from faith to faith. This is how Abram could "know for certain" that the promise could be realized. This is how we can know, too. And after knowing, we can find life in union with Christ.