Saturday, July 14, 2012

07/14 - A Day Shaped by a Night of Prayer

Luke 6:12-26

Sometimes we think everything was easy for Jesus. He just knew what to do and knew when and how to do it. But like us, he needed help and guidance, so he prayed, not for a few moments, but for hours, lasting through the night.

It may seem odd he was praying so passionately at this time. His ministry was very successful and exciting. The crowds were large, coming from all over the country, from Judea and Jerusalem in the south of the country and Tyre and Sidon in the northern coastal region. His healings were dramatic—people could just touch him and be healed—and his preaching was powerful and attractive to the crowds. With this success, many of us would have not thought to pray, especially for all night.

Although we don’t know what Jesus prayed about, we can guess that he prayed for his ministry, for insight into hearts and minds of people, and for guidance about what to teach. He undoubtedly sought direction in selecting apostles. Certainly the night of prayer with gave him clarity about his courses of action.

Jesus immediately called together his dedicated followers and picked twelve to be apostles, part of an inner circle. Likely he talked to them a while about their new roles before leading them to a good place from which to teach.

His teaching started oddly with the statements about blessings and woes[1], which probably he was led to do in answer to his prayers the previous night. At first we may think the blessings and woes were prescribed actions for Jesus’ listeners, telling them to strive for certain life conditions. Analysis of the Jesus’ language shows this was not his intention.

He divided humanity into two groups: one consisting of people who are poor, hungry, and crying and are hated, excluded, and rejected; another consisting of those who are rich, well-fed, laughing, and accepted. And counter to common sense, he said that the first group was blessed and that there was woe on the second group.

Careful reading of the text shows he was not prescribing behavior but describing the way life works. He knew that hungry and unpopular people have hearts more open to the kingdom of God and thus are blessed. Rich and popular people often have satisfied hearts and are not seeking spiritual things, so woe is on them. However, he also knew life was unpredictable and situations changed. People now hungry may soon be satisfied and those now well-fed may someday go hungry. He knew the fickleness of humans and that popular, accepted people can fall out of favor and vice-versa.

Did Jesus really want people to be poor and hungry, to cry instead of laugh, to try to be hated, excluded, and rejected? No. He gave the blessings and woes to describe the truth about life and to open his listeners’ minds and hearts to the real, deep truths

[1] The blessings and woes he gave that day differ some from those in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). Like any good preacher, Jesus had a body of good sermon points to choose from, and on this day he sensed the need for a slightly different opening than in the earlier sermon.

Friday, March 27, 2009

01/25 - Breaking Old Ways of Thinking

Matthew 9:14-26

John’s students had been carefully watching Jesus, and they had a question about fasting they thought was important.

The most devout, conservative members of the religious establishment fasted, and John, the great religious reformer, taught his students spiritual disciplines like fasting. Jesus kept Jewish religious practices, quoted much from Jewish scripture, and was sympathetic with John’s reform efforts. These associations were clear to the questioners.

In today’s lingo, Jesus’ answer to their question was, “It’s party time.” A wedding in that time brought together extended family and friends and was a festive, long event, perhaps lasting several days. Certainly, it was not a time for fasting.

Jesus’ coming was also a great celebration, at least for those willing to join the party. People were healed from life-long, chronic illnesses. Some were even brought back from death. His teaching gave new hope for dull and petty lives. There was a holiday spirit in the crowds following him.

Jesus realized, however, that the question about fasting was the wrong one. For example, they could have asked about the purpose of his spiritual kingdom, about being intimate enough with God to call him “Father” (Matthew 6:6) or about asking God for things like a child asking daddy for a piece of bread (Matthew 7:9-10). Their question revealed something troubling to Jesus—these people were trying to fit Jesus—who he was and his spiritual kingdom—into their religious categories.

Jesus simply did not fit into those categories. Who else had contemplated the great ideas he had thought about in the same breadth and depth? After all, he had the mind of God. Who else had a completely pure heart (a condition beyond our imagination)? Who else was God-made-flesh?

Likewise, Jesus’ spiritual kingdom did not fit into religious categories. He did not come to start a new religion. God had previously done that through Moses, and Jesus respected the Law and the Prophets so much that he would fulfill, not destroy, them (Matthew 5: 17). He did not come to reform the existing religion. John was already doing that successfully, and Jesus approved of his work.

Jesus’ spiritual kingdom compared to religious systems like the sun to a candle. His kingdom would affect not just the religious aspects of human experience and history but everything about humanity and its history. His goals would be evidence of the greatest megalomania if anyone else had them.

With images of ripping cloth and breaking wineskins, Jesus tried to shake the questioners out of their limited ways of thinking. They were in danger of missing who he was and what he would do because their minds and hearts were closed.

Today, what images would Jesus use to shake us out of our limited thinking? Our categories, especially the religious ones, inhibit our ability to think about him. If we are to get full benefit from Jesus and his kingdom, our old thinking categories have to tear and break.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

01/24 - The “Fight or Flight” Response to Sinners

Matthew 9:1-13

Sandwiched between his accounts of the paralytic’s healing and the party at his house, Matthew wrote of an event that rocked his life to its foundation.

One day Matthew was doing his normal routine at his tax franchise when Jesus spotted him. Jesus may have remembered Matthew from the times he had paid his taxes or the times he had seen Matthew in the crowds watching him teach and heal. Jesus invited Matthew to join the inner core of the ministry, and Matthew’s life was never the same after he left his tax booth that day.

We may wonder why Jesus picked Matthew instead of other, more likely candidates. Jesus dealt with a lot of theology in his teaching, so it might have been useful to have a professional religion teacher help lead the ministry. Jesus also emphasized righteousness, so it might have made sense to invite some respectable religious folks, like the Pharisees, to help. However, the other events in this passage showed that many religious people did not understand Jesus’ vision.

When Jesus noticed the paralytic and the men carrying him on the mat, he saw more than just a sick man who wanted healing. This group was permeated with infectious faith. Jesus knew, as we also can know, that this kind of faith aligns a person’s life with God’s purposes, allows God’s saving work to be done, and leads to forgiveness of sins. Jesus, knowing the heart of God, confidently announced, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Perhaps the religious teachers were reasonably concerned about someone speaking on God’s behalf regarding forgiveness of sins (even though they had put themselves in exactly that position by deciding who would not be forgiven). Regardless of their concerns, at least they could have recognized the faith of these men and helped them grow closer to God. However, too many of the religious teachers had little interest in recognizing and nurturing faith.

We see a similar situation when Jesus went to the party at Matthew’s house. He saw valuable people there with potential for faith and renewed life. The respectable religious people saw only “sinners” who might tarnish the respectability of a good, religious person who got too close.

Then, as now, respectable religious people can fall into a “fight or flight” trap regarding sin—they either condemn and argue against or quietly avoid those they label “sinners.” Neither alternative actually cures sin. Jesus knew the way to stop sin was to change lives, which is done best by drawing close to people and nurturing them. So, for his ministry, he had to pick people like Matthew who saw faith in unlikely people and gave parties for “sinners” like himself.

What is our response to “sinners”? Is it “fight or flight” or will we reach out to accept and nurture them like Jesus did? Perhaps it is time we threw a party and had a good time with some of our fellow “sinners.”

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

01/23 - Dumb Demons and Suicidal Pigs

Matthew 8:28-34

These demons were not very smart—they picked suicidal pigs for their next victims—and they showed some signs of paranoia. But, they still give us a unique view of Jesus.

So far, Matthew has shown us Jesus through the eyes of a prophet (John the Baptist), the heavenly Father, large crowds of followers and curious gawkers, an ostracized leper, a Roman centurion, a teacher of the law, and 12 of his closest followers. This look at Jesus through the demons’ eyes is perhaps most unusual of all.

We should be careful about accepting their word. After all, they were paranoid and not very smart. Also, by nature, they were prone to lie. Still, their reaction to Jesus is enlightening in two ways.

First, they recognized Jesus’ unique nature. Apparently, before Jesus could say anything, they blurted out, "What do you want with us, Son of God?" Matthew does not tell how they knew he was the Son of God. Perhaps they saw realities in the spiritual realm undetectable by human eye, or they communicated some way with other demons, maybe even some of the ones Jesus casted out earlier. Regardless, their testimony to Jesus’ divinity adds some credibility to our faith in him.

Second, they recognized Jesus’ authority. They assumed Jesus had the authority and power to torture them and to cast them out. In fact, they begged Jesus to let them go to the pigs if he decided to cast them out.

Jesus did not dispute their understanding about his nature or authority. Instead, he exercised his authority with a simple, one-word response—“Go.” At his one-word command, the demons left the two men.

If even demons recognized that Jesus was the Son of God and that he had authority over the powers of the spiritual world, then what are we individually to do about him?

The people of that Gentile village decided they did not want Jesus around. Perhaps the loss of the pigs, what today would be many thousands of dollars, caused them to fear additional loses if he stayed around. Perhaps they were just afraid of someone powerful enough to command demons.

We too may find that having Jesus around is inconvenient, sometimes costly and even frightening. However, when we need someone with real power, including power in the spiritual dimensions, where else can we turn?