Sunday, March 31, 2013

A "signpost" of the future

The resurrection of Jesus Christ was one of the main points of early Christian preaching, it was shown to be in accordance with old testament hope and a demonstration of the claim that this Jesus is the Messiah. The resurrection they proclaimed was that Jesus was bodily raised from death, this went beyond him being alive in some sort of "otherworldly" sense, rather it was the glorification and raising again of his physical body.
  In reading through the sermons in Acts and especially noting the resurrection emphasis, I noticed a point Paul made in (Acts 13:34) he says "the fact that God raised him from the dead, never to decay, is stated in these words: "I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David". Paul is quoting from Isaiah 55 in that statement, and to me at first glance it seems a strange way to convince someone that a person was raised from death, after all it doesn't mention resurrection anywhere. Yet upon a deeper analysis of the statement the point being made is great truth, and defines not only that God "raised Jesus", but that in raising Jesus from death He has acted according to His own nature as being a God who "keeps covenant" and creates a glorious future.
   The context of Isaiah 55 is God's offer of renewal, a wonderful future for Israel freed from captivity. The return from exile in verses 11-13 is pictured by the creation itself expressing joy and experiencing liberation. So it was with the promise to David, the throne had fallen and the house was desolate (Psalms 89). The prophets however saw God raising again the house of David and fulfilling His promise (Acts 15:15-17). This fulfillment had effects that would extend to all nations and a Kingdom that would fill the earth. God reaches to humanity to bring us out of our displacement caused by evil and restore us to Himself.
  God seeks the healing of His creation, (Hosea 6:1-3) "Come, and let us return unto the Lord: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up. After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight. Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord: his going forth is prepared as the morning; and he shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain unto the earth". God continually comes to us to offer mercy and stir our heart to repentance. Hosea likens God's discipline and subsequent renewal as life from death and God shall be to us as the seasonal rains upon the fields, life-giving.
  God shows to be able and willing to create new reality and renew life for those who seek Him. If you read in Ezekiel chapters 33-37 you see a cycle, God punishes the waywardness of Judah and condemns the  shepherds who should have watched over the people. Yet God promises to give them a true Shepherd, his servant David, God says he will bring them back from the nations of captivity and restore them to the land. Moreover he says in chapter 37 that the renewal of Judah and Israel as one kingdom will be as life from death, dry bones restored to life, and his servant David to be their King.
  Jeremiah lived and prophesied during some of the bleakest of times in Judah's history, right up until Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. Again however we see the newness that God promises amid the darkest hours, read chapters 31-33. In chapter 32 Jeremiah is a prisoner and the fate of the city is assured yet God commands Jeremiah to buy a piece of property in Judah. Why buy something you never will receive. Buying property in a place that is about to be overrun by foreign invaders seems futile and a waste at the least. This transaction however was to be a signpost of the future God would restore them and create a new future.
  This brings us back to Paul's usage of Isaiah's prophecy in (Acts 13) to support his claim of the Messiah being raised from the tomb. For one God had fulfilled the Davidic promise, even if it was in the most unlikely way, would that be unusual for God? God shows his power time and again through what we consider weak (Luke 1:52). What I hope we grasp however is that Jesus being raised from death not only says that he is Lord, but it is also a "signpost" for us, pointing to a glorious future and new reality. The resurrection of Jesus says death will not have the last word, God's future has broken into the present by raising Jesus. Even though, as in Jeremiah's time, all the data seems to indicate otherwise; God will heal his creation and reverse death.
  Our "newness of life" begins in our baptism into Christ (Romans 6:1-3). Our baptism itself is a picture Paul says of Jesus being crucified and raised again, and we enter that, by that action. Look beyond the circumstances that may surround and allow God's kingdom to break into this world through you now.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Beatitudes pt.4

  Jesus continues to describe the character of those in the kingdom of God. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled". To me, hunger and thirst are our greatest most powerful needs and desires. I have felt hungry, when I say that I feel ashamed, never in my life have I truly known hunger, and I have been thirsty from work, but again I never have been very far from clean water. The need to receive physical nourishment is absolutely essential to sustain life. Jesus is equating this human experience to spiritual reality. There are some, Jesus is saying, that hunger and thirst for God more than all else, you will be filled, he says.
  The Psalmist of long ago wrote, "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?" (Psalm 42:1-2). To experience communion with God is the desire of the Psalm, to "behold the face of God", this certainly will be true one day literally, but isn't it also true now? When we are hungering for God we are looking for Him always and everywhere. I see God's work all around me, in the flowers, the blue sky, and the gentle noise the wind chimes make. I see God's goodness in the smile of a stranger I never will see again. I am being filled and nourished as Jesus said. I think this beatitude is about our priorities, what do we thirst after above all else? As Isaiah wrote long ago "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear and come to Me; listen, so that you may live" (Isaiah 55:2-3).

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Beatitudes Pt.3

  Jesus continued, "blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth". Jesus is still drawing from the wellspring of Hebrew scripture, this time from Psalm 37. The Psalm speaks of the actions of the "wrongdoers", "wicked" those who "carry out evil devices" and "prosper in that way". It continues to tell about how the "wicked plot against the righteous"and "watch the righteous to kill them". Then the Psalmist says "I have seen the wicked oppressing and towering like a cedar of Lebanon". Yet there is a contrast throughout the Psalm, the wicked oppress and do these things but they and their plans will not be established they will be overthrown by God who sees all these things and upholds those who look to Him. It would still seem the same today, many seem to prosper who are the aggressive, the scheming or powerful. But the message of the Psalmist and of Jesus is still the true perspective from God's view, the meek will be the vindicated ones, the poor and oppressed.
  What does "meekness" look like? It isn't exactly a word we throw around a lot in conversation and we probably wouldn't know how to receive being called a "meek" person. For starters it is how Jesus describes himself, "take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart" (Matthew 11:29 KJV). The word Jesus uses is in the Greek "praos", I know that is not a startling fact, but the meaning of the word and how it was used in his time tells us much about what meekness looks like. It means strength under control. The word would be used to describe an animal such as a horse that has been tamed. It is amazing at how such a powerful animal like a horse or mule can be tamed and that immense strength utilized for good, useful purposes. This is true for a disciple of Jesus, our tongue is a powerful part but is it out of control or tamed to speak what is good and edifying?  Our hands can be strong but do they tear down others or work to help others  and build community? Our legs are powerful but do they run to slander or journey to share faith. Our mind is perhaps the most powerful of all but does it harbor grudge and hate, or is it fertile soil for producing works of love, forgiveness and compassion? Meekness for us is self-control, a life that is trying to obey God with our body, it is this kind of a life that will be ultimately recognized by God regardless of what the rest of the world does and says.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Beatitudes Pt.2

  "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted". Again as with the previous statement Jesus made about the poor in spirit, this one as well is rooted in the Old Testament. In the "Servant Songs" of the book of Isaiah, chapters 40-66, there is a sense of mourning. Among many of such statements there is chapter 61:2 "to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn". In these writings in Isaiah, Judah is lamenting captivity, a exile that has occurred into Babylon that was brought about by unfaithfulness to Yahweh. Statements such as this are made "For our transgressions before you are many, and our sins testify against us" (Isaiah 59:12). Yet in these writings as well a sense of hope emerges, a longing for Yahweh to act again as he did in earlier times in Hebrew history, the exodus from Egypt. There is indeed mourning, but God will act again in history, he will comfort them, they will again be led through the sea, again they will travel through the wilderness as it blossoms and blooms. Judah looks for another exodus, a greater one really that the "arm of the Lord" will accomplish. So as Jesus says "blessed are those who mourn" he isn't unveiling a new form of teaching per say, rather the "new" aspect of it is him saying this is now happening, "you will be comforted". As Jesus goes through Israel proclaiming the forgiveness of sins to people he is bringing comfort a reconciliation with God, a return from exile spiritually. As his cousin John the baptist is baptizing in the Jordan river, which is itself a type of passing through the sea (1 Corinthians 10:2), a greater exodus is beginning to happen.
  What does this mean for me? What does mourning and being comforted from God look like today? It is still the same, we recognize our own sin or evil or imperfections or mess ups or whatever else you want to call it and we look to God to heal us from these, to comfort us with his love. I look at my own self and see a wretchedness about me that I loathe, I mourn over it. Yet as undeserving as I am God desires fellowship with me, God is interested in me, God wants to use me to work for him, God sent his Son to die for me. What comfort that is, what a new way of living that opens up. I was reading recently about the history of Christianity in Ireland, and St. Patrick of course was the man who brought the gospel to that country. He must have been a magnificent person, I look forward to meeting him, but in his own short autobiography his first statements about himself are "I, Patrick, a sinner, the rudest and least of all the faithful, and the most contemptible with the multitude". Kind of a surprising way for a man who has a holiday named for himself to begin his autobiography. I get a strong sense he knew what it was to mourn what he desired to change in his life. Paul himself called himself the "chief of sinners". But God has not abandoned us, he has brought comfort, Jesus himself experienced our "exile" on a Roman cross in order to bring us to God.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Way of Life

"For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life". (Ephesians 2:10) NRSV. That phrase "our way of life" has struck me lately reading through the Ephesian letter. How often do we separate our "religion" from other parts of life? Paul writes our good works we are in Christ to do is our very way we live, our life itself. Then it dawned on me it has always been this way. Our life in God is always about a walk or a path an ever increasing journey we are on in life, one that  consumes our whole life. In Genesis 5:24 we read a very short bio of a man named Enoch, "Enoch walked with God". We know very little else about this man, but doesn't saying he walked with God say it all? This man lived life in God's presence, he interacted with and obeyed God, he surely bore the image of God as he lived among others.
  In Isaiah 2:3, a prophetic verse foretelling the Kingdom the Messiah would establish, a Kingdom here now that reigns in our life. "Many peoples shall come and say "Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths". The ways of God are for us to learn so we can walk his path, life is a pathway which we walk with God.
  Jesus in the "sermon on the mount", talks of two pathways in life, two gates that can be entered, each with different destinations (Matthew 7:13-14). So often people equate "religion" merely with a belief system when it should be seen as a "life system", what we simply "believe" will have no power to save unless we live out that belief in life, it becomes our pathway.
  In Micah 6:6-8, some of my favorite Bible verses, Micah presents the question what can I bring to God that will be pleasing? Then he speaks of this extravagant amount of worship thinking God would be pleased with it, but what does God desire first? "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with you God". The worship is important, it is the outpouring of our heart, but of foremost importance is our walk with God, how we live among God's creation and listen to and obey him.
  It is all about a way of life, a way we never "arrive" at, so to speak, but a way we live each day. A path we follow that is in Jesus footsteps, he is the one leading us. It is an ever increasing way of knowing God in his Scriptures, we should be constantly seeking, changing if need be, and living out our knowledge to make a difference in life. Easy for me to say, a constant challenge to really live. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"The Beatitudes" part 1

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven". The words that open the greatest sermon ever preached, the "sermon on the mount". In Matthew chapters five, six, and seven is found this discourse. From the opening statement he turns much of the world's wisdom on its head and shows the true path of happiness, he shows what it means to live in God's Kingdom and he invites us to enter into this way. Many would think, blessed are the wealthy, blessed are the aggressive who get their way but "blessed are the poor in spirit"?  Jesus is telling of a blessedness, or happiness, in life that transcends money, fame, power, health or whatever else that is transient in nature and can change in a "New York minute". What does it look like to be "poor in spirit"? Ultimately the answer to that is for you to wrestle with and pursue just as I do myself, but perhaps I can share with you my own ideas. First I don't think it means to walk around in a sad and morose condition. Jesus himself enjoyed life and people and celebrations, his first miracle was done at a wedding feast. The parable of the prodigal son ends with an extravagant celebration. All through the gospel writings Jesus is interacting with people and it should be this way for us as well. We have every reason to rejoice and live to make a difference.
  There is a sense in which we should have a "poorness of spirit" however, and to emphasize the point even more Jesus uses the strongest possible word for "poor" in this statement. He uses the word "ptochos" which means , begging poor. There is another word he could have used which would convey poorness but would have implied that one still possessed basic necessities. The word Jesus used however means to be a beggar and completely destitute of even the most basic needs of life. It means to be completely dependent on a outside source for needs. And this portrays our position before God, we understand that our true fulfillment in life is going to be found in him. We bring nothing to him that he needs, rather he provides to us and our direction in life is to be guided by him. What Jesus is saying here is rooted in the old testament writings. In Isaiah chapter 66, God speaks of the one to whom he looks to and esteems "But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word"(Isaiah 66:2). In this passage God is contrasting the "contrite in spirit" with those who "chose their own way, and take delight in their abominations". A way that will only lead to our own ruin and heartache, a way that I have walked before.
  Jesus is telling us about a better way, he is inviting us to come in. Follow him, those who recognize their need is found in God are experiencing the "kingdom of God". The Kingdom is within their hearts and life is being transformed from the inside out. A blessedness is found that cannot be taken away a path in life is walked that is certainly going to lead home.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

"Then their eyes were opened" (Luke 24:31)

  Countless thousands of people were crucified in the ancient world. A mode of execution probably invented by the Persians around the sixth century B.C. was perfected by the Romans and lasted until abolished by Constantine in the fourth century A.D. Thousands of Jewish men were crucified by the Romans especially leading up to the revolt in 67 A.D. Yet one crucifixion emerges in history to stand alone from all others, one crucifixion has happened that has in many way changed how we even see a cross today. Is it not amazing that Paul could write in Galatians 6:14 "May I never boast except in the cross of my Lord Jesus Christ". How could Paul say that his boast was in a crucifixion? especially in that time period. How to Paul could one who was executed in this way emerge to become his Lord?
  From a Roman perspective the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was just another day, it was just another illustration of what happens when the empire responds to a perceived threat to its peace and stability. In fact it isn't really discussed much at all in their ancient writings. Death on a cross was associated with such shame that it was not a topic for polite company. Even surprisingly the Gospel writings are reserved when speaking of the crucifixion, they simply say "they crucified him", without much of the horrific detail. To the Roman mind it was foolishness to ascribe anything to Jesus honorary. Probably the oldest depiction of Jesus being crucified was found on a plaster wall in the ancient city of Rome. It is called the "Alexamenos graffito" and you can see photographs of it on the internet. It is a inscription of a figure upon a cross with the head of a donkey and a young man is standing to the side with a hand raised in homage. Then there is a caption in Greek that says "Alexamenos worships his God". Justin Martyr a second century Christian apologist writes "they say our madness consists in the fact that we put a crucified man in second place after the unchangeable and eternal God, the creator of the world". All in all to the Romans, and everyone else for that matter, crucifixion was a humiliation, it labeled one as a outcast, and asserted the authority of the empire.
  In Luke chapter 24, I hope you take five minutes to read the chapter to get the context, we meet two despondent souls who had put their hope in Jesus of Nazareth but had witnessed his death. Cleopas and perhaps his wife (John 19:25) were returning home on the Sunday morning after being in Jerusalem and they happen upon a "stranger". As a conversation ensues among these travelers they tell how they had hoped this Jesus would have been the one to have "redeemed Israel". They were telling the story from the perspective of what crucifixion meant to them, not yet understanding the meaning of his death, it was simply hopes dashed.
  Something remarkable happened, something beautiful, as they travel along the way they reach their destination in the village of Emmaus and persuade this "stranger" to eat supper with them and stay with them since it was evening. As the meal begins we read "When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him". Their eyes were now opened to behold the resurrected Jesus, yes vindicated from death, beginning the reversal of the curse. That wonderful phrase "their eyes were opened" is found at another meal setting in the Scriptures though in a much less wonderful setting. The serpent tempts Eve to eat of the tree that God had forbidden them to eat of, then her and Adam both eat of it and "the eyes of both of them were opened" (Genesis 3:7). They were opened to behold guilt, shame, and alienation from God. But in Luke 24, Cleopas and his wife experience renewal, hope restored, joy and a communion with God who raises the dead. This Jesus had come into this world, a world that loves its darkness, and he endured the ferocity of it. Evil itself exhausted its power on Jesus, and he took on himself, my sins, your sins, the sins of the world and laid them in a grave so that he could emerge from that tomb victorious and usher in a new reality for every nation. Yes a new world is being born through the resurrection of Jesus, I hope you will be part of it, Being born again of "water and the Spirit" (John 3:5) and experience new life in Jesus.