Category: Matthew (page 2 of 20)

Repent! It’s Happening!

It’s happening. John the Baptist is standing out in the desert, right there in the Jordan River, where the world’s resistance to God is meeting the irresistible force of God’s coming. The ax is already at the root of the trees! It’s happening. Get ready. You’d better re-think your priorities. You’d better re-order your lives. Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near! Produce fruit in keeping with repentance! Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire!

Jesus is coming. And he’s coming to judge. And Jesus is going to judge us according to our fruit that’s in line with our repentance. And repentance doesn’t just mean saying “I’m sorry.” We know this. We experience this when someone we’re close to says “I’m sorry” one too many times and we flip out in frustration. “Stop saying you’re sorry! I don’t want you to be sorry! I want you to change your behavior!”

When I was roofing houses a million years ago there was an old crusty guy who worked with us. We just called him Tommy. I don’t remember his last name. He was originally from New York  and I always felt like he had mafia ties. Anytime anybody ever said “I’m sorry” about anything, Tommy would say, “Don’t be sorry, just don’t do it no more!”

The word “repent” means to turn around, to start going in a different direction. It means to make a brand new start.

What John the Baptist is preaching sounds a lot like the Old Testament prophets, calling God’s people into a right relationship with the Lord that has to impact every part of their lives. Repentance is a change in your attitude toward God that changes all your actions and the overall direction of your life. But as much as this sounds like the Old Testament, there’s a distinctly new element to this. He calls the people to repent because the Kingdom of Heaven is near. The Messiah is coming. The Kingdom is here. It’s happening. Repent.

But if I’m told over and over again I need to repent, I need to change, I need to orient my life toward God, nothing significant ever happens. Nothing really changes. It’s like being told I need to exercise and lose weight. I know those things. My doctor tells me. My family tells me. I know I need to exercise and lose weight. But I still wind up at Whataburger twice a week!

I don’t need a preacher telling me to change. I don’t need some prophet telling me to get my life right, or else. I need some power from outside myself to make me different. It’s got to be something besides me. Because with just me, it’s not happening. I can’t do it.

Thank goodness this is not about New Year’s resolutions. This is about change.

You can’t do it. I can’t do it. This change we need is not tied up in your commitments or your identity. This is not about your family or your nation or your church. It has nothing to do with your education, your zip code, or your bank account. I was raised in the Church; I’m a Christian. Give me a break! Out of these stones God can raise up as many Christians as he wants! This call to repentance is universal. It’s not just for sinners or backsliders or non-Christians. This is a call to repentance for all of Israel, including the religious leaders. Including you. And me. All of us.

And, praise God, John the Baptist points to that great power from outside us that is coming. He isn’t talking about some new self-help promotion or a New Year’s resolution. He points us to the only source of real, lasting, significant change: the Holy Spirit. The coming Lord who is more powerful than me will baptize you with the promised Holy Spirit! A power that can make a new creation out of stubborn people like us, stones like us, who have no way to save ourselves. The power that is coming is not our power — not the power of our deeds or our inner resolve or our spiritual disciplines or even our faith and repentance. It’s God power. We are able to repent and bear fruit because of God’s power in the coming Lord Jesus and his Holy Spirit!

We can’t trust the powers of this world to make us children of Abraham. We can’t tell ourselves we have better genes or better morals or better theology or better attitudes or better humility or better works. It is God through Christ who is making children of Abraham. He is making people brand new for his Kingdom. Stones like you and me. It’s happening.

We are being changed. We are being weaned away from our possessions and turning more toward being possessed by the everlasting love of God. We are becoming less interested in blessings for ourselves and more interested in serving others with the grace and mercy of our Lord. We are in the process of becoming more thankful and less self-righteous and sure. We are gradually becoming less preoccupied with our own privileges and prejudices and seeing ourselves more and more in solidarity with all human beings who, like us, can receive grace only from the hand of God.

It’s happening. God does not sleep. He’s wide awake and he’s bringing his Kingdom to us. The new heavens and new earth where everything that’s wrong is made right and everything that’s broken in you and in those around you is fixed. It’s not some fuzzy, far-off dream. It is the Word of the Lord. The God who came to us in Christ Jesus is unveiling his Kingdom in all its glory. He is bringing justice and joy to the whole world. The Kingdom of Heaven is near.

Peace,

Allan

Prepare the Way for the Lord

“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near! Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with an unquenchable fire.” ~Matthew 3

I love John the Baptist. I think all preachers love John the Baptist. All preachers want to be as bold and courageous in proclaiming the Gospel. All preachers want to be popular like John the Baptist. We all want to baptize as many people as he did. I think we can all relate to John the Baptist. He didn’t always wear what the people expected him to wear. And when he preached something the people didn’t want to hear, he got his head chopped off.

Only once, though. It only happened to him once.

We’re supposed to talk about John the Baptist during the Christmas season. It’s part of Advent. John the Baptist is the one proclaiming that the Christ is coming. But we never include John the Baptist in our Christmas sermons because it just doesn’t fit with the Christmas season. Not the way we like it, anyway. John the Baptist is loud, unpredictable, and rude. He’s like the crazy Uncle John we’d rather not show up for Christmas dinner. He greets the religious leaders in Matthew 3 by calling them a “brood of vipers!” How would you like to get that on the front of a Christmas card?

We want the soft, romantic glow of twinkling Christmas candles and John the Baptist is talking about an unquenchable apocalyptic fire! We want the baby Jesus in a manger, cooing softly at the docile barn animals around him — the Jesus Ricky Bobby is praying to in Talladega Nights — and John the Baptist gives us Jesus as a judge with an ax in one hand a pitchfork in the other!

The prayer of the early church was “Marana tha,” Lord, come quickly. That is not a prayer for Jesus to come again as a helpless infant; it’s the longing cry of God’s people for him to return in the fullness of his power and glory when every knee will bow in heaven and earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father! The prayer is for Jesus to come again to finally put an end to all sin and wickedness forever. The hope is that Jesus will make right all the things that are wrong, that he will finally fix everything that’s broken.

That’s not so scary to the poor and oppressed of this world. But, for those of us with a lot to lose? Maybe it’s a little scary.

John the Baptist is proclaiming a reality that’s coming, a reality that’s going to expose what you and I sometimes think is reality. The coming eternal reality is going to show just how false our earthly conditions and our human endeavors really are. The Holy One of Israel is going to expose all our pretensions for what they really are. In him is life and that life is the light of all people. And that light is going to shine in the darkness.

“Wait til the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of people’s hearts.” ~1 Corinthians 4:5

Luke 8 quotes Jesus as saying there is nothing hidden that won’t be disclosed; everything that’s concealed is going to be known and brought out into the open.

“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!”

John the Baptist is so completely blown away by the reality of the coming Christ. He sees right through the charades of this world and the roles we play and the lines we say and how precious all this is to us. He sees right through all of it to the sheer power and holiness of the coming Lord. John is pointing us to the future, not the past. He’s orienting us away from our religious rituals and toward the person of Jesus Christ; away from our present-day systems and structures to an utterly brand new authority and dominion of our King and his Kingdom.

It’s happening. John the Baptist is standing out in the desert, hip-high in the waters of the Jordan River, where the world’s resistance to God is meeting the irresistible force of God’s coming. The ax is already at the root of the trees. It’s happening. Get ready. You’d better re-think your priorities, you’d better re-order your lives.

How do we get ready? How do we prepare? Where the do the roads need straightening out? What fires need to be lit to burn away the garbage in his path? What dead trees need to be cut down? What roughness in your heart needs to be smoothed?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It’s amusing to me how “research” and “data” comes out to prove what anybody who’s paying attention already knows. By simple observation — just by looking at the symptoms and the consequences — we all know that smart phones and mobile technology devices are killing us. Socially, mentally, emotionally, academically — it’s hard to find a serious person who believes smart phones make us better. But the research that proves the harmful effects of smart phone technology is just now beginning to come out.

Here’s a link to an article that contains links to some of the more recent studies. Science is telling us that 8-11-year-olds who spend more than two hours on their screens every day are demonstrating “lower cognitive function.” Our mobile devices and social media use share an “unfavorable relationship” with attention, memory, impulse control, and academic performance. Digital technology is proving to slow down the overall development of teenagers. And the smart phones are “stunningly addictive.”

Fascinating!

As the “proof” pours in, elite schools in the U.S. are now beginning to reduce or eliminate the screens in their classrooms. Where once our society feared a technological divide — the rich kids would have access to technology and all the advantages that come with it and the poor kids would not — now scientists and education experts are fearing the opposite. The students in less affluent schools are using the technology and screens and getting dumb while the students in the rich schools are learning without the technology and screens and getting smart.

Shocking!

What emoji do I use to communicate sarcasm?

Peace,

Allan

Church People on Church Days

Jesus heals the invalid at the Pool of Bethesda. The man was instantly cured. His life was eternally changed. Jesus made him well. Jesus made him whole!

But it was a church day. And because it was a church day, some of the church people got upset. The guy at the pool is not the only sick person Jesus ran into this day. There are some really sick church people in this scene.

“The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat!'” ~John 5:9-10

The church people, the self-appointed guardians of the truth, immediately put this man on trial. They’re in his face. This is an interrogation. “You’re not supposed to do that! Why are you doing that? Who said you could do that?”

It’s quite incredible, huh? A man is made whole and given new life by the will and power of God, and the opposition comes from church people. Not evil people, no. Good people who mistake their religious traditions for the will of God. These church people are sicker than this paraplegic ever was.

The Law of Moses was very clear that the Sabbath Day is a holy day and it needs to be recognized as part of the covenant between God and his people. It needs to be a sacred day and nobody’s supposed to do any work. But the Jewish teachers and scribes had added to it. It wasn’t specific enough for them. It wasn’t strict enough. It was too gray. How can we judge people, how can we know for sure who’s right and who’s wrong unless we make this more black and white?

So, to make themselves really happy and everybody around them really miserable, they came up with their own rules and restrictions as supplements to God’s Law. It came to be known as Mishna — pages and pages and books and volumes of their own interpretations they bound on all the people. Regarding the Sabbath Day alone, they had 39-different categories of things a person could not do. And they used these interpretations — and that’s all they are — to control people. It gave them power and authority. And if you threatened their interpretations, you were in for a fight. These church people were willing to kill to protect their interpretations.

So, after they publicly berate this guy, they go after Jesus. How dare you work! How dare you heal! How dare you help this man on the Sabbath! And Jesus’ defense is simple: “My Father is working today and so I am working today.”

Jesus goes on in the following verses to explain that every single thing he does, he does because of his Father. Jesus claims he is sent by God, he’s on a mission from God, he’s doing the works of God, he’s obedient to God, and he’s bringing glory to God. And that ticks them off even more! So now Jesus finds himself on trial and he starts bringing out the witnesses in verse 33: The Scriptures testified to me; John the Baptist testified to me; God in heaven testifies to me by these works he’s given me to do. But you…

“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” ~John 5:39-40

This is what upset Jesus the most. You know every letter of every word, you’ve interpreted every passage, you’ve memorized it, you argue to the death one verb here and one participle there — you think you have eternal life in the Scriptures. But you don’t!

Dear reader, eternal life does not come from the Bible; eternal life comes from Christ Jesus to whom the Bible points. Our trust and faith and hope is not in the Scriptures; our trust and faith and hope is in the holy Son of God to whom the Scriptures point.

These church people are sick. They know the Word of God frontwards and backwards, but they don’t know Jesus. Their disbelief was deliberate, their diagnosis was severe. They love their church life and their traditions and interpretations, but they had forgotten how to love God and the people God is healing and making whole. Their expression of church had become horribly twisted. They had turned their life-giving and soul-saving faith into something life-taking and soul-destroying. Instead of being a source of joy and light, they were using their religion to suppress and judge. They knew the Word of God, but they totally missed his will. They had counted every letter of the Scriptures, but they had totally missed the truth.

Does any of this sound familiar? Does any of this feel familiar?

I think we’re all — every one of us — susceptible to this sickness. It’s dangerous. It’s deadly.

Do we want to get well?

Sometimes our vigorous preservation of our church traditions counts more than the openness and spontaneity of faith. We know our Bible, but sometimes we use it to defend all the wrong things. We know our Bible, but sometimes that’s all we know. Our allegiance to the way things have always been done sometimes gets in the way of the healing and saving work of Jesus. We can’t appreciate or applaud the good that’s being done because it’s being done differently.

And Jesus deliberately challenges these rigid traditions. He goes out of his way to do things on the Sabbath, just to make the point. So much so, it becomes his habit.

When the apostles picked grain on the Sabbath in Matthew 12, the Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the Law and Jesus said, “Relax. Look, we’re hungry. We need food. I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Remember? In that same chapter, Jesus heals the man with the withered hand on a church day, in church, and when the church people tell Jesus, “Hey, that’s not how we do things in church!” our Lord says, “People are valuable to me. People! Their physical needs, their emotional needs, their spiritual needs — their souls are valuable to me. It is good to do good. On the Sabbath or any other day of the week, it’s good to do good for people.”

That’s his attitude.

And we should be constantly re-evaluating our own attitudes. Is our church so well-defined and so safe and so comfortable that if Jesus showed up with his attitude, we’d interrogate him? Would Christ’s attitude be OK in our church?

A Scriptural service is when people are healed and made whole. A correct worship service is when people experience the love and grace and mercy of God. What makes a biblical worship service is when God is praised and salvation from Christ is proclaimed and Holy Spirit people eat and drink together and encourage and bless one another. After that, in church, nothing else really matters much at all.

Peace,

Allan

Body of Christ: Part Two

It’s not just a metaphor. It’s very real. As the Body of Christ, the Church is the physical, tangible, concrete, flesh-and-blood presence of Jesus in this world. Paul says, “I’ve been crucified with Christ and I no longer live; Christ lives in me!” Jesus Christ lives with and in and through his Church. Jesus and the Church are the same. You can’t have Jesus without his body. You can’t know Jesus without recognizing his body. You can’t be in relationship with Jesus and have nothing to do with his body.

That’s the way Jesus sees it. That’s how he talks about it. That’s how he’s always viewed it. Jesus is the Church; the Church is Jesus.

Saul’s on the road to Damascus when Jesus appears and blinds him with his light. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul’s thinking, “I’m not persecuting you. I’m beating up these lousy Christians who are blaspheming Scripture.” No, in the eyes of Jesus, you mess with the Church, you’re messing with Jesus himself.

It was always this way.

“He who listens to you, listens to me.” (Luke 10:16)
“He who rejects you, rejects me.” (Luke 10:16)
“He who receives you, receives me.” (Matthew 10:40)

Jesus authorizes the Church as his body on earth to do all the things he did.

“Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The Kingdom of God is near!'” (Luke 10:9)

On that last night he tells his gathered followers, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” (John 14:12)

And we do, right? We heal the sick and proclaim the coming of the Kingdom. And we turn the other cheek and go the extra mile, we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Why? Jesus says so you can be like me. So you can become sons and daughters of your Father in heaven. So you can reveal me.

When we forgive the ones who sin against us, people see Jesus. When we’d rather be wronged than to fight for our rights, people see Jesus. When we sacrifice and serve, when we consider the needs of others more important than our own, people will meet the Lord Jesus in us.

And the world will treat us just like it treated Jesus. Paul says he carries in his own body the death of Jesus so the life of Jesus may be revealed, so that Jesus’ life may be revealed in our (plural) mortal body (singular).

So, as the Body of Christ, we always side with the oppressed, never the oppressors. We always stand with the minorities, we always take care of the refugees, we always look out for the weak. We never discriminate, never judge, and never use force. We always give, always forgive, and always show love.

Jesus is the Church and the Church is Jesus. We must do the things Jesus did in the ways Jesus did them. If anybody’s going to meet Jesus in this world, they’re going to meet him through the Church, the Body of Christ.

Peace,

Allan

On a Donkey

“See, your King comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey.” ~Matthew 19:5

In some ways, and maybe in ways we don’t fully understand, we act like Jesus is going to serve our national or political or economic hopes and dreams. We wave our palm branches and behave like Jesus has come to establish a really great worldly kingdom that reflects all my beliefs and convictions.

Several years ago a gay lobbyist in the Presbyterian church  was fighting for the ordination of gay priests. And this was his main argument: Jesus loved everyone and today he would stand with the gay community, affirming its rights in society and the church; anyone who does not stand with us stands against Jesus.

My blood boils when I hear stuff like that: the use of a political movement or a political agenda to judge another’s discipleship to Jesus. Now, it’s really easy to use that illustration and condemn it as a sinful misuse of the name of our Lord and the Kingdom of God. But can we consider for just a minute how we might do the same things?

All Christians have to vote Republican because Jesus is against the gay marriage position of the Democrats.
All Christians have to vote Democrat because Jesus is against the war policies of the Republicans.
No, the Church has to support Republicans because of Jesus’ teachings on the abortion issue.
No, the Church has to support Democrats because of Jesus’ teachings on the gap between the rich and poor.

If we’re going to think and talk like this, we may as well pull the palm branches out and start waving them. This kind of thinking and acting and talking forces God’s people to choose between the lesser of two worldly evils. Jesus did not come so we could create a better version of the kingdom of the world, he came so we could be part of an entirely new and eternal Kingdom of God. Jesus is not a way for us to get our way nationally or politically or socially or economically. He won’t be used that way.

The Holy One who comes to Jerusalem comes as the King of the entire world and he suffers and dies for all people. His people are not tied to any one nation. His love and salvation reaches beyond all borders of nation and language, culture and race.

Jesus is not going to be President of the USA. One, he’s not running. Two, you wouldn’t vote for him if he did.

Think about Jesus’ platform. Sell all that you have and give to the poor. Love your enemies. If Jesus had bumper stickers on the back of his donkey, they would say, “Be Last!” “Vote for Me and Die!”

Jesus doesn’t come with T-shirts and stickers and buttons and a hundred million dollar campaign. He doesn’t save the world with armies and markets and policies. He saves the world through sacrificial love and suffering and service and grace.

He rules with a towel, not a sword.

And when we finally decide to follow him, we find ourselves descending to greatness. It’s a Kingdom of downward mobility, where those who give up their lives find them. Where the last are first. Where those who die, live forever.

Peace,

Allan

Thoughts and Prayers

The people who are criticizing Christians and politicians for sending their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of the tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida but aren’t doing anything tangible or practical, are exactly right. Such is the backlash against supposed followers of Jesus in this country who offer their prayers but no real work toward real solutions that “thoughts and prayers” is trending. It’s a hashtag.

And they’re right.

When we pray to God we pray through the name of our Lord Jesus.  And we are ordained by God’s Holy Spirit to act as our Lord’s body — his representatives, his ambassadors — on this earth. We are the Body of Christ and it’s on us, Christians, to do something. That’s how prayer works. We ask God for the boldness, courage, and power to do what needs to be done. And then, by his grace, we do it.

I think about Jesus telling his disciples to pray for workers. In Matthew 9 and Luke 10 he tells his followers “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest , therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” And then the very next word is “Go!” Jesus says in the very next verse, “Go! I am sending you!”

Pray for God to raise up workers. Oh, by the way, YOU ARE THE WORKERS!

I think about the inspiring prayer of Paul at the end of Ephesians 3. The apostle prays to our God who, yes, “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” But how does God accomplish his will? How does God work in the world? “…according to his power that is at work within us!”

As part of the curriculum for the Transforming Community experience I’m in, I’m finishing up a book this week by Ronald Rolheiser called “The Holy Longing.” He addresses this near the beginning of a chapter on Consequences of the Incarnation:

“Not only God in heaven is being petitioned and asked to act. We are also charging ourselves, as part of the Body of Christ, with some responsibility for answering the prayer. To pray as a Christian demands concrete involvement in trying to bring about what is pleaded for in the prayer.”

We must put skin on our “thoughts and prayers.”

If I pray that more young people would be involved in our church, but I don’t seek out any young people for friendship or don’t give young people any opportunities for service or leadership, I’m not praying like a Christian. I’m not concretely involving myself in trying to bring about what I’m asking God to do. If my daughter is sick and I pray that she gets well but I don’t drive her to the doctor, I’m not praying like a Christian.

So, it is good to pray for the victims of the shooting and their families. It is good to ask our Father to bless those children and their loved ones with his merciful healing, comfort, and peace. It is good to lament the tragedy and it is good to pray for the soul of the shooter. But we’re not praying like Christians, and we deserve the criticism from non-Christians, if we’re not attempting to do something about the problem.

I understand it can seem hopeless. We live in a sick society with a fetish for guns. We drink the water and breathe the air of violence in the U.S. — it’s “our thing.” But Christians are a people of peace, not violence.  Followers of Jesus are reconcilers, not dividers. What does that look like in your context as it relates to what happened at Douglas High School on Ash Wednesday and what keeps happening every week in this country?

This is not meant for prescription, but for discussion. And reflection.

If you vote, maybe you cast a ballot for politicians who might change some gun laws. Maybe you stop giving money to organizations that promote the easy access to and proliferation of assault weapons in our cities and neighborhoods. Take the violent and divisive bumper sticker off your car.

If you don’t vote, maybe you stop going to violent movies. Maybe you destroy your own guns. You might speak against violence when the conversation at work turns to war or crime. If you’re praying for peace in the world, maybe you can start doing something real by forgiving your own enemies in your family or at church, being kind to people who are different from you, reaching out to the lonely and depressed people around you with love and grace and friendship.

Thoughts and prayers are good. To be Christian, though, it cannot stop there.

Peace,

Allan

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