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?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

01/22 - A Disregard for the Normal Things of Life

Matthew 8:18-27

Jesus seemed to be in a testy mood.

First, he challenged the religious teacher, apparently one of the disciples (i.e. students) following him. The man seemed to be a nice, decent fellow, and his declaration about following Jesus sounded very sincere. However, his teaching position brought a nice, pleasant lifestyle, and although Jesus did not reject his offer, he made sure the man knew what he was in for if he continued to follow. We are not told whether the teacher was scared off by Jesus’ comments.

Next, Jesus challenged one of his disciples who wanted to go handle a family matter. It is not clear whether the man’s father had just died or was either old or ill and close to death. Regardless, he wanted to do a good, decent thing. Jesus’ response seemed at least insensitive if not heartless. We are not given enough details to know, but perhaps the man’s father was months or longer away from death, and the man was really a half-hearted follower.

Third, Jesus rebuked the closest disciples because they were afraid. The situation was certainly desperate, with strong waves sweeping over the boat, and clearly they expected to drown at any moment. After rebuking them for lack of faith, Jesus rebukes the storm. It was a miracle even more astounding then the healing and casting out of demons they had seen him do earlier.

We feel sympathy for the teacher, the man concerned about burying his father and the disciples in the boat because we think like them and their responses seem reasonable. We think it is normal to expect decent housing, to take time for family matters and to panic when life is threatened. However, Jesus had a certain disregard for the normal things of life.

He believed he was on a mission from God, so he was not afraid of storms and could even sleep through the worst of them. His vision of a spiritual kingdom was so great he was willing to give up the expected comforts of life to accomplish its mission. Even family was not as important as the spiritual kingdom.

Jesus was not challenging his followers just because he was having a bad day. He was trying to get them to put the kingdom of God first in their lives.

Today he challenges us the same way. Will we too have that certain disregard for the normal things of life? Will we put the spiritual kingdom ahead of all else? Great blessings are ours if we do.

Monday, February 2, 2009

01/21 - Surprised and Delighted at Faith

Matthew 8:2-17

Of course Jesus was delighted, even excited, about the Centurion’s faith. But, Matthew wrote that Jesus was “astounded” by it! How can Jesus be astounded?

The Centurion, head of Rome’s military troops in the town or region and likely a follower of Roman, polytheistic religion, was an unlikely candidate for faith in Jesus.

At first he probably thought of Jesus as leader of a grassroots, splinter movement in the Jewish religion. He likely had observed Jesus from the periphery of the crowds to decide whether Jesus should be arrested for treason and the crowds dispersed because of all the talk about a new kingdom.

The Centurion grew to respect Jesus so much that he thought himself unworthy to have Jesus come to his house. He even called Jesus “Lord,” in respect for the moral and spiritual authority Jesus displayed.

From his observations, the Centurion knew Jesus had great authority over nature to heal and over the spiritual world to cast out demons. As a man under authority who in turn exercised authority over others, he recognized Jesus was under authority of God and in turn exercised authority.

Although the Centurion probably did not understand many things about Jesus, such as him being the incarnate Son of God, Jesus was delighted at his simple, strong faith.

Even more interesting for us is that Jesus “was astonished” at the man’s faith. This may contradict our belief that Jesus had to be all-knowing (omniscient it the theological term) when he was here on earth because he was the Son of God. If he was omniscient, how could he be surprised by the Centurion’s faith?

Hebrews 12:2 called Jesus, “the author and perfecter of our faith.” Some translations say, “pioneer of faith.” Jesus, like each of us, lived by faith. Just as the Wright brothers were pioneers of flight because they expanded the boundaries of human flight, Jesus is the pioneer of faith because he expanded the boundaries of living by faith.

By faith, Jesus went through the temptation in the desert. By faith, he began his teaching ministry, believing God would bless his efforts and build a great spiritual kingdom on Earth. Later, by faith, he would face the most difficult situation of all—his crucifixion.

Jesus was surprised at the Centurion’s faith because it was so unpredictable. He appreciated the Centurion’s faith because faith was the foundation for his own life.

Today, Jesus is omniscient and not surprise when one of us shows unusual faith. However, he is still very delighted when one of us takes any little step in faith or trusts him to take care of some need or concern.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

01/20 - A Carpenter Talks about Building a Life

Matthew 7:1-12

Jesus knew nothing was sadder than watching a person’s life crash in the storms of life. He also knew nothing was more magnificent than a person facing life’s storms with strength and courage.

Certainly he had watched people in his village, even some in his own family, go through such storms, and he, like any of us, had faced some of life’s troubles. We know one great crisis he faced—his temptation in the desert.

Jesus thought a person made choices that determined the overall quality of life he or she lived. Earlier, he had described this as picking one of two roads for life. Here, with different imagery, he said a person builds a life like a carpenter builds a house. When good choices—that is, putting the words of Jesus into practice—are made during construction, a grand, strong life is created.

Some of Jesus’ teachings directly related to possible life crises; for example, worry, broken marriage, and oppression and abuse. All of his teachings built the inner strength necessary to face them.

To some, Jesus’ claim about the power of his words might sound like a most astounding display of ego. The listening crowd recognized that he assumed for himself the right to simply say what was true on any topic without any reference to precedent or other authority. He spoke as if he knew more about God’s thoughts than anyone else, including their religious leaders.

The most noticeable assumption of authority by Jesus was seen when he expanded on current religious teaching. He quoted the teaching (“You have heard …”) and then expanded it (“but I tell you…”) without any logical argument, reference to religious authorities, or statement of precedent.

Normally, people are put off by this type of attitude. However, the crowds listening to Jesus were at least fascinated by him, and some thought he spoke hope into their lives and made sense like nothing they had heard before.

Jesus the carpenter knew how to build a house that would withstand rain and flood. Jesus the teacher knew how to build a human life that would withstand storms of crises.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

01/19 - Life is Like a Journey

Matthew 7:13-23

Was Jesus angry at people who did not do what he thought they should? Was he threatening them?

Typically this passage is interpreted as if he was angry at those on the wrong road and was threatening them with hell.

Previously in the sermon, Jesus used “life” referring to the existence we now experience and its quality, not what we will experience after death. When he talked about “the road … to life” and “the road … to destruction,” it was likely in relationship to the quality of life he had been teaching about earlier in the sermon.

Jesus, a keen observer of human nature, had noticed that each person fits in one of two categories. Some people tend to make day-by-day choices that led to the quality of life he had been teaching about. Others make choices that bring destruction to their life, especially to the inward, spiritual part.

It was as if each person he met was on a road, some on a road leading to life and others on a road leading to destruction of all that is glorious about being a human. And, he had noticed it is easier for a person to get on the road to destruction than the road to life.

Jesus’ reference to “false prophets” probably meant the respectable religious people who had become spiritual leaders, a group he had already mentioned in 5:21. Several times earlier in the sermon when he said, “you have heard…,” he likely was referring to their teachings.

Jesus’ warning about spiritual leaders was very important to the common folks because, sensing intuitively the principle about the two roads, they naturally turned to established religious leaders for help.

He urged the common folks not to take the righteousness of these leaders at face value but to put them under the microscope to see what was true. This was a turnaround—religious leaders usually do the testing, mainly of the lives of their followers.

Jesus said these false prophets would come to believe they were the image they projected. When his kingdom, based on heavenly principles, would soon be revealed, they would assume they had the right to enter. He would personally block their entrance.

No, Jesus was not threatening people about wrong choices; he was describing, more with sadness than anger, the true human condition. He was willing to do anything to get a person on the right road for a journey to new life.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

01/18 - Fatherly Nurture and Observations in the Laboratory of Life

Matthew 7:1-12

Jesus seemed to be talking in a stream-of-consciousness mode.

In the space of a few minutes, he talked about worrying, judging, fixing other people, God’s fatherly care, and treating others like ourselves (note that chapter and verse divisions were added much later). On the surface, these seem to be a randomly assembled chain of teachings. However, there may be an underlying thread of logic holding them together.

Judging and fixing others and worrying tend to be human preoccupations that interfere with the quality of life Jesus envisioned for his listeners, a life full of zest and busy with things of the kingdom of God.

All three preoccupations run counter to the thinking of God. He thinks worry is useless because He takes care of all that is necessary. He thinks He is more capable than any of us at judging and fixing people, actions which are His sole prerogative.

Jesus gave a two-part solution for our worrying, judging, and fixing preoccupations. One part is learning to trust God to handle our needs.

When children feel insecure about the parental figures in their lives, they tend to worry or to mistreat other children. Similarly, adults tend to worry or to judge and fix others when they feel insecure about the care of God, the heavenly Father.

Jesus first knew about the power of fatherly love from his good and decent stepfather, Joseph. He also know about it from observing seriously flawed fathers in the village where he had lived and worked, men who still took good care of their children’s needs.

Jesus wanted us to know God as the best, doting father, waiting to spoil us. Knowing such love calms our inner fears and reduces our tendency to worry, judge, and fix.

A second part of the solution is learning how to treat other people like we want to be treated.

Jesus knew the hurts and dreams of humans because he had studied his own human experience like a scientist observing an experiment in a laboratory, and from the knowledge he gained, he figured out how to treat other people. He invited each of us to join him in the laboratory, each to study our own human experience, and from the knowledge gained, to learn how to treat other people.

Jesus had a grand plan for a grand life for each of us. He intended that nothing get in the way of that life.

Monday, January 19, 2009

01/17 - Reading Theology in Birds and Flowers

Matthew 6:25-34

Jesus thought it was glorious to be a human, and he lived life with zest. He wanted the same for his listeners.

He understood life was fragile and dangerous. When he said “Each day has enough trouble of its own,” perhaps he thought back to troubles in the lives of Mary and Joseph, such as those around the time he was born, or troubles in his life, such as his recent time in the wilderness.

Jesus knew a person could lose life in quality as well as quantity. He was especially concerned about how worrying corroded away the quality of life, and worrying about things God already took care of seemed extremely senseless to him.

Jesus drove his point home with two wonderful lessons drawn from nature. The birds fly and sing, providing us great enjoyment, yet they do not worry about food. Also, the flowers of the field are clothed in magnificent beauty, but they die and dry out and are gathered with the straw used to coax the fire to life. If God feeds the birds and clothes the flowers, Jesus said, He will certainly take care of us.

Obviously, his zest for life included a great appreciation for the beauty of nature. As a youngster, he and his friends probably played in the fields around the village, wondering at what they saw. We can image them lying on their backs on a hillside studying the clouds. Even as an adult, when he had a few free moments, he went on walks through the countryside, admiring the flowers and trees and watching the birds and other animals.

Jesus' zest for life included more than just appreciation for nature. As he contemplated nature, he saw great truths about God revealed. It was as if he read nature like a theologian reads a scholarly book.

When we live the fulfilled life Jesus wanted for us, instead of worrying about necessities of life, we will act and think like him, including looking out for the things of his spiritual kingdom. With his kind of zest for life, perhaps we too will be able to read some theology from the birds and the flowers.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

01/16 - A Business Model for the Spiritual Life

Matthew 6:16-24

Humans are economic amphibians, living in two very different economic systems at the same time.

Jesus said a person could invest in and build up treasures in either the earthly or the spiritual economic system. Because earthly treasures are easily damaged or lost, he said to only collect them in the spiritual economy. As economic amphibians, we might assume we can strive for treasures in both systems, but this is not possible. Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and Money.”

Although Jesus did not say exactly what spiritual treasures are, he taught in other parts of the sermon how to invest to get them: be faithful in marriage, even in the heart; keep promises; treat everyone well, including those who are not kind in return; and give gifts, pray, and fast to please God, not others.

From Jesus’ economic concepts, we get two strategies for how a person can change his heart. He said “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In other words, a person can change his heart by changing the location of his treasure.

Sometimes this passage is interpreted as if Jesus said, “Where your heart is, there will your treasure be,” which is probably true. However, in this passage, Jesus said the heart follows the treasure.

Another strategy for changing the heart is to change what the eyes look for.

Financial talk has a lot of vision-related language: An investment sage is on the lookout for a good buy and looks over financial records of a company to decide its value. A sales rep takes a look at a car or piece of property to decide its worth. An antique collector spots a priceless heirloom.

Likewise, the spiritual investor can be on the lookout for spiritual opportunities. He can look over a situation to determine its spiritual potential. He can spot the opportunity to do a good deed.

Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body,” meaning that what we search for determines our spiritual condition. If a person only looks for bargains in the earthly economy, his inner being “will be full of darkness.”

The spiritual investor is on the lookout for spiritual opportunities, and Jesus said his “whole body will be full of light.”

Thursday, January 15, 2009

01/15 - Prayer For the Masses

Matthew 6:9-15

The most extraordinary thing about the prayer Jesus gave is that it is so ordinary.

Most of us have read and recited what we call The Lord’s Prayer so many times that we no longer know how unusual it sounded to Jesus’ listeners that day.

For his model prayer, Jesus could have chosen a more complex, longer one in use at the time. He could have chosen one of the Psalms, which he loved. Instead, Jesus gave this eloquently simple prayer.

In most of our modern translations, it is a little over fifty words long, and according to how it is punctuated, it is five or six sentences. Its language style is simple, perhaps what one would call generic. Even at a leisurely pace, it only takes a little over 15 seconds to say it.

The prayer briefly touched on perhaps ten topics; about half of them dealt with God and his plans and about half dealt with the one saying the prayer. Jesus had just said, “When you pray, do not keep on babbling” (Matt. 6:7), and this prayer is starkly different from a babbling prayer.

Two aspects of the prayer are curious. First, there is no thanksgiving.

Jesus certainly emphasized giving thanks to God in his teaching. Maybe he assumed that because God already knows everything about us (consider Matt. 6:8), every important topic did not have to be included in every prayer. On the other hand, he may have been giving a model of praying and not a model prayer; in other words, he was telling how to talk to God, not what to say.

Second, all the first-person pronouns were plural: not my and I but our and we. He may have been giving a model prayer for public use, which connected to his earlier discussion about hypocrites praying in public. Perhaps, if he was giving a model for how to talk to God, the plural pronouns are not important.

In giving this model, Jesus took prayer out of the hands of experts and distributed the right to pray to the masses. His model is one almost anyone can use—just say simply what is on the heart and do not worry about leaving something out.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

01/14 - Recovery from Addiction to Praise

Matthew 6:1-8

Jesus knew that getting praise from others could be addictive.

He had seen prominent people giving gifts out in public with great fanfare and pray-ing flowery prayers, not only in the synagogues but even on the street corners. He, like many listening to him that day, could see through the apparent good actions. Those giving the gifts and offering the prayers were more interested in being adored, and perhaps even envied, than in doing good. Outwardly they made their motives seem like the glorifying of God, but Jesus knew otherwise.

At least one time, Jesus himself was tempted to do something just to get the praise of people. In the desert, Satan challenged him to leap from the Temple and let the angels rescue him, getting attention from the gathered crowds and proving he was God’s Son. He well understood this temptation.

He also knew the only solution for it—abstinence. Like any addiction, the only way to way to recover from cravings for praise is take away the opportunity, to “go cold turkey.” Jesus said to the person addicted to the praise of men, “Go into your room, close the door.” He even said, “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”

Jesus wanted people doing good deeds. In fact, he wanted them done so they could be seen. This is what he meant by “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

How do we know when to do the good deeds “before men, that they may see,” and when to “go into [our] room, close the door”? We will have to deeply search our hearts to be sure our motivation is the praise of God and not the praise of men. Perhaps, as we learn to think like Jesus and our hearts grow more like his, the decision becomes trivial—we will just know.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

01/13 - A Martial Arts Response to Evil

Matthew 5:38-48

“Is he crazy!?” was probably the main thought in the minds of Jesus’ listeners that day. Surely some of them thought, “Well, it’s fine and good for God to be nice to people who are not nice to Him, but He gets to stay in heaven above the fray and doesn’t have to take anything off them.”

With the sending of Jesus, God was no longer “above the fray.” Jesus was there living everyday by these very principles. In fact, what Jesus gave in this teaching was his battle plan for defeating evil. The whole drama of his crucifixion can be summarized in his statement, “Do not resist an evil person.”

The parallels between Jesus’ teaching in this passage and specific events before and during his crucifixion are uncanny: He was slapped during his trial (Matthew 26:67). The soldiers who crucified him cast lots for his clothing (Math 27:35). He was compelled not only to walk to the place of crucifixion but also to carrying his own cross part of the way (John 19:17). While on the cross, he prayed for his enemies, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34).

What Jesus already knew to be true the day of the sermon, and later proved with his crucifixion, is this: ultimately, evil collapses in on itself when allowed to run its course in the presence of kindness and goodness.

This idea is not as farfetched as it first appears. Consider how some martial arts teach a defender to turn the strength, weight, and momentum of an attacker against himself. The faster the attack, the more power the defender has to turn back against the attacker. The taller and heavier the attacker, the harder he falls.

Similarly, in the crucifixion, Jesus’ submission to evil and his goodness and love tripped up evil. All the forces of evil took a mighty run at Jesus and at first seemed to have won. However, he turned evil’s momentum back against itself, which rendered it a death blow.

Our natural response in the situations Jesus taught about is to defend our rights and our safety. However, he is inviting us to join him in redeeming our own little corner of the universe. When we turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and pray for people who abuse us, we will eventually see evil collapse in on itself and good come.

Most importantly, by returning good for evil, we act like the God of this universe who rains down blessings on everyone. We begin to resemble Jesus and in more than just title can call our self a son or daughter of God.

Monday, January 12, 2009

01/12 - Three Facets of Commitment

Matthew 5:27-37

Jesus’ was audacious in these teachings.

Three times (as he had just done with murder), he said something like “You have heard it said” and quoted a teaching from the Law. Each time he followed with “but I say” and expanded the teaching to a broader meaning. In other words, he presumed to take what God directly revealed in the Law and enlarge on it. Astounding!

A closer look at these three teachings on adultery, divorce, and vows reveals they were linked by a common principle: keeping commitments requires an alignment of a person’s heart, intentions, and actions. It may be easier to see this by analyzing the three teachings in reverse order.

The custom then was to make promises and contracts by swearing on something great; the more important the commitment, the greater the thing chosen to swear on. However, a variety of “loopholes,” which people used to excuse themselves from commitments, had also become part of the custom. Jesus simplified the whole matter of commitments by saying, “Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'.” No embellishment. No exaggeration. No loopholes. No mental reservation tricks.

Similarly, Jesus addressed divorce. Many had found “loopholes” in the Law to allow divorce for about any trivial reason. Jesus taught to keep the marriage commitment except under the most extraordinary circumstance of adultery. He seemed to apply the principle of “Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes'” here too. A person in a marriage should have every intention to keep the commitment

In teaching about lust, Jesus used excellent hyperbole and some of his strongest language to describe how damaging lust is, as damaging to a person as committing the act of adultery. He said the marriage commitment was to be kept not only with intentions and actions, but even in the workings of the heart.

At first glance, Jesus seemed to be giving new rules to replace those in the Law, but he was not. He knew rules only go so far in making a person righteous. He was describing a spiritual health, which is unattainable through rules, where a person’s heart, intentions, and actions are aligned to keep commitments. Such a person can simply say “yes” or “no” to a commitment without embellishment. Once a commitment is made, the person can keep it in heart and in actions. Jesus was such a person.

These teachings seem overwhelming at first, but fortunately, they are not the whole story. Jesus is willing to heal us from the inside out, leading us to a spiritual health level where we can live up to these standards. He says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” and we can trust ourselves to him.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

01/11 - Salt and Light and Reductionism

Matthew 5:13-26

Jesus paid his listeners a great compliment.

He thought they, ordinary people, could be salt-like preserving power and guiding light in the culture and by this power and light in their everyday lives, they could lead people to praise God.

Jesus knew that just as salt can mix with other minerals and lose its power and lanterns can be hidden, his listeners could lose or hide their good influence. He hoped this would not happen so they could join him in changing the world.

Naturally, many of them thought, “How does what he says fit into the Law and the Prophets?” To many of them, he seemed to be straying from their current religious system.

Jesus, knowing their question, said he did not intend to abolish any parts of the Law and Prophets, but instead, he wanted “to fulfill them.” By “fulfill,” Jesus certainly meant to obey them, which he did perfectly. But “fulfill” can have another meaning.

By Jesus’ time the Law and the Prophets had been transformed into an intricate system of religious rules and traditions. This reductionism (the dividing of a complex system into component parts) dominated their theology, and people spent considerable time and effort trying to follow the rules and traditions.

Jesus knew parts of the Law and the Prophets were shadows of great principles that were lost in reductionism, and he refused to be bound by it. Instead, he intended to “fulfill” the Law and Prophets, that is, to bring them to completion by showing everyone those great principles. For the rest of his teaching in this section of the sermon, the remainder of chapter five, he takes teachings from the Law and the Prophets and shows the principles they shadow.

Consider Jesus’ teaching about the command, Do not murder. Rather than reduce it to a group of rules and traditions, he does the opposite and shows that the command is a shadow of higher principles: think well of your brother and seek peace with him (by the way, principles related to several of the Beatitudes).

Reductionism is an innate human tendency. People in Jesus’ time did it to Moses’ Law; we tend to do it to Jesus and his teachings. If we are to have the full advantage from what he did and taught and to be salt and light in our world, we will have to fight this tendency, and we will have to let him transform our hearts and minds so we can think like he did.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

01/10 - The Descriptive Laws of the Spiritual Realm

Matthew 5:1-12

The Beatitudes are to the spiritual realm what the laws of science are to the physical realm.

People have puzzled over what these nine statements are for years, perhaps even from the day Jesus first spoke them. Some say they were commands, but they do not have that language or feel; compare them with Jesus’ instructions later in his sermon. Some think the Beatitudes were striking statements to get listeners’ attention or jar them out of usual ways of thinking.

Perhaps the beatitudes are exactly what they seem to be—simply statements of truth.

Scientists talk about laws such as the Law of Gravity, Law of Relativity, and the Ideal Gas Law. These laws are not the prescriptive kind, stating what ought to happen, but are descriptive, stating does happen.

Similarly, Jesus was stating laws about how the spiritual realm works. By today’s usage, he could have talked about the Law of the Mourner, Law of the Righteousness Seeker, and Law of the Peacemaker.

How do the Beatitudes, nine spiritual laws, fit into Jesus’ sermon? They are the foundation on which the rest of the sermon was based. Actually, everything he did and taught for the rest of his life was based on them.

The Beatitudes are not commands any more than the Law of Gravity is a command but they are helpful to us in navigating through the spiritual realm just as understanding the Law of Gravity helps us navigate safely through the physical one.

Think how we esteem a scientist who understands the physical world enough to discover its laws. For example, we are in awe of Einstein because of his influence on modern physics through discovering several laws of physics. Scientists of his caliber think on a different level than the rest of us.

Similarly, Jesus thought on a different level when it came to the spiritual world. Never before or since has a person explored so broadly about spiritual principles. He deserves our unreserved respect and dedication.

Friday, January 9, 2009

01/09 - The Ministry Begins

Matthew 4:12-25

Here begins the most extraordinary campaign to change human hearts and human history ever conceived.

It was extraordinary because of the location Jesus chose. Although he moved from Nazareth to make Capernaum his home, neither village was very significant. Commonsense should have told him to head for the region of Judea and especially Jerusalem, its major city, the center of religion and culture. Instead he went back to Galilee, the back country, and kicked off the greatest spiritual revolution ever started.

The campaign was also extraordinary because of who Jesus chose as his lieutenants. Following the custom of other rabbis of the day, he picked students (i.e. disciples) who were essentially apprentices. However, instead of picking those with academic bent, for the most part he picked working class men, like the fishermen Andrew, Peter, James, and John. They were probably literate, having gone to synagogue school in their youth, but they likely had no special theological or religious knowledge. Jesus mentored them in every aspect of his life and his ministry to carry on when he was gone.

Jesus' campaign was extraordinary, however, mainly because of the man at its center. Probably few people in those crowds knew Jesus was incarnate deity, but they still knew he was extraordinary.

In him they saw a tanned, strong man in the prime of his life who a few months earlier had been a quiet citizen of his little village, a carpenter, his time taken up with tools and materials.

Now he was a traveling preacher at the center of great mobs of people who came from all over the nation. He no longer worked with wood and stone; now he worked with ideas and healed people.

Although Jesus was successful, his work was grueling and difficult. Fortunately, the words of God still rang in his ears, the power of the Holy Spirit worked in his mind and heart, and his mettle had been tested in the desert. He was ready to begin his ministry.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

01/08 - Tempted to Take Shortcuts

Matthew 4:1 – 11

The Holy Spirit, which had just descended on Jesus as a gentle dove, seemed to turn against him, leading him into great trial and danger. This probably was not what Jesus expected when he received the Holy Spirit and heard God’s words of approval.

Jesus had mission to do and instead, here he is in the desert with few if any people to work on, facing temptations directly challenging his identity and his mission.

God had declared his identity, saying, “You are my son.” Satan challenged that identity with, “If you are the son of God…”

Jesus sought to prepare for his mission by fasting, perhaps at the Holy Spirit’s direction. Satan suggested he abandon the preparation simply to take care of his own needs. (Making the bread was not in itself wrong—he would later make enough to feed thousands.)

The mission’s strategy was to be yeast and sacrificial death and its methods to be stories about mustard seeds and lost sons. Satan suggested doing something splashy, like leaping from the Temple to awe the crowds with an angelic rescue.

Jesus knew the mission would lead him through deserts, doubts, misunderstanding, discouragement, and ultimately, terrible death. Satan said Jesus could do the mission—have control of every kingdom—with just a moment of worship, an act Jesus could have justified by pretending or by doing it with mental reserve.

We can barely imagine Jesus’ state after 40 days of loneliness and no food. The events of his baptism were faded memories that seemed like illusions. However, his righteousness proved stronger than Satan’s temptations.

The desert experience was essential for Jesus. Certainly, it gave him 40 days to meditate on God’s words and the mission. More importantly, the temptations showed him how strong and dedicated he was, and he would draw on this knowledge in the coming years.

Although the details are different, Jesus’ temptations match ours. Satan asks each of us, Will you look out for yourself instead of feeding on what truly nourishes the heart and mind? Are you sure about your identity as a son or daughter of God? How about doing something splashy to attract attention to your mission? How about taking a shortcut to save time and trouble?

Pray Jesus gives us his strength to give his answers to all of these.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

01/07 - A Good Son and a Proud Father

Matthew 3:13–17

This is our first look at Jesus the adult. His words and actions reveal his principles and his intentions, which we will see him live out consistently for the rest of his life.

John was understandably reluctant to baptize Jesus. He knew Jesus, who would soon be a fellow prophet, already lived a righteous life. However, Jesus knew a bigger purpose for baptism than just a commitment to repentance, its primary role in John’s ministry.

For Jesus, his baptism was important simply because it was a good act, a way to “fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus did not come simply to not do bad—he came to do all possible good, including unnecessary acts like rededicating himself to living a righteous life through John’s baptism.

The baptism served another purpose for Jesus. He had spent years thinking, observing, praying, and studying, and he was now ready to change the world. Like any person embarking on a great, new mission, he wanted an event to mark the turning point in his life. Jesus’ baptism launched his public ministry.

It was a spectacular launch. As Jesus arose out of the water, two significant events occurred that would sustain him to the end of his ministry.

First, he received a new, and probably more powerful, presence of the Holy Spirit. The scriptures do not tell us to what extent he had the Holy Spirit earlier in his life, but certainly from this point on, he would have everything the Spirit could provide to help him in his quest.

Second, he heard words of approval from his proud Father. A human father tells his son or daughter how proud he is right before the child starts a new phase of life, like entering the university, starting a new job or getting married. The father hopes his words will sustain the son or daughter in the tough times that are sure to come.

God was no different. He was proud of his son and wanted that pride to sustain Jesus in the tough times. We can only guess at how often Jesus thought back to this day to gain strength to keep going.

01/06 - God Was Back in the Prophet-Sending Business

Matthew 3:1-12

Everything about John the Baptist and his methods go against today’s accepted wisdom for generating spiritual revival.

First, he was an extreme eccentric. He ate strange foods and dressed in course clothing. John looked odd and probably smelled unpleasant.

Second, John chose a poor location for his work. Commonsense says to do big ministry in major population centers. Folks in big cities such as Jerusalem had to travel a day or more to hear his message.

Third, his personality was gruff, blunt, even rude, and his message was threatening and unpleasant. When he finally got the attention of mainstream religious people—both conservatives (Pharisees) and liberals (Sadducees)—he insulted them and called them names instead of making them his allies.

John’s methods and personal qualities did not hinder his success. In fact, many people came to see him out of curiosity, got caught up in his message, and became his disciples.

John accomplished his main goal: preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry. His preaching caused thousands of people to examine their hearts, repent, and dedicate themselves to God. Many of these people later migrated to Jesus’ ministry, and several in his inner circle of twelve were first followers of John.

The people felt anticipation because of John. No prophet had come in many generations, and the sending of John signaled that God was in the prophet-sending business again. And if God would send one prophet, He might soon send another one, exactly like John was saying. When Jesus started his ministry, he found a nation expectant that God was at work.

Monday, January 5, 2009

01/05 - Neither Time Nor Distance Hindered God’s Plan

Mathew 2:19-23

How are Mary and Joseph making it financially? Apparently he was not a wealthy man, and he quite his work when they went to Bethlehem. Perhaps he got some work after Jesus’ birth, but within a year or two, the family fled in the middle of the night on a long, expensive trip to Egypt. While there, he may have found work but soon came another expensive trip back to Israel.

God had provided. From far away, He sent valuable gifts with the Magi. In fact, He was looking out for this little family in almost every way. For example, consider how He directs Joseph in dreams. First, He first tells Joseph to flee to Egypt to prevent Jesus being killed; second, to return from Egypt after Herod dies; and third, to locate in Nazareth, safely away from Herod’s son.

Every detail had been anticipated and a grand plan worked out, as illustrated by Matthew’s references to prophecies:

  • The Messiah would be born to a virgin (Matt. 1:21)
  • He would be born in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:6)
  • He would be called from Egypt (Matt. 2:15)
  • There would be weeping for the children (Matt. 2:18)
  • The Messiah would come from Nazareth (Matt. 2:23)
God determined details of events centuries ahead of time. He sent needed gifts from Persia and sent Jesus to Egypt for protection. Neither time nor distance mattered to God in planning for the sending of his son.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

01/04 - A Preemptive Strike Could Not Stop the Message

Mathew 2:13-18

We never see this part of the Christmas story on a greeting card. There is nothing sentimental about danger, about fleeing the country to save the life of your child, or about some king killing your baby simply to prevent competition for his throne.

On the surface, this event appears to be about a violent, cruel tyrant who would stop at nothing to consolidate and keep his power. History tells us that this was not the only time Herod resorted to mass killing to accomplish his goals. However, something more profound was really going on.

What we really see here is a preemptive strike in the war between good and evil. The evil side struck early and struck hard against God’s work to save the world. War experts talk about collateral damage, that which occurs to innocent people as a byproduct of war. From the perspective of the evil side, the killing of innocent babies was simply collateral damage. This event confirms that Jesus came in human form to join in the spiritual war between good and evil.

This event also presents us with an interesting question: Given that Jesus came to die for our sins, why didn’t God simply let it happen with the babies in Bethlehem? The death would have been quick and efficient and would have accomplished the sacrificial killing of His son.

We must remember that Jesus did not come just to die—he came to live and to show us how to live completely from birth to death and then to resurrection life. There could be no shortcut. Every aspect of Jesus’ story is the message from God. Isn’t that what scripture means when it says “the word became flesh” (John 1:14)? If he had died that day, we would have gotten only the first few pages of the story.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

01/03 - Some Unexpected People Find the New Baby

Matthew 2:1-12

Jesus attracted some of the least expected people and was overlooked by people who should have paid him the most attention, a pattern that continues to this day. The Magi were among the first of the unexpected people attracted to him.

The Magi, probably by some kind of astrology used in their religion, figured out that a new king of the Jews had been born. Their knowledge about the new king was incomplete; for example, they did not know the place of his birth. Even realizing their knowledge was limited, they were willing to begin their journey to find the new king.

The journey of the Magi was long and arduous. Some guess they came from Persia, over a 1,000 miles away, or even farther east. They would have traveled many months only to spend a short time, perhaps a few hours or days, paying honor to a baby who would not even understand who they were.

Although they apparently knew little about the divine nature and historic role of the child, they decided he was worthy of their worship. They found the baby Jesus, worshiped him and offered him exquisite gifts. The Magi showed faith by acting on the little knowledge they had.

In contrast, people in Jerusalem, including the king and the religious leaders, were not aware of the birth of the special child. They knew some facts about the coming Messiah but completely missed the event. They had to learn about it from strangers who probably were closer to pagan than monotheistic believers like they were. And as far as we know, after the Magi tell them, no one in Jerusalem makes the six-mile trip to Bethlehem to see the child.

There is much we can learn about faith in Jesus from this story. Like the people of Jerusalem, we know some facts about him, but like the Magi, our knowledge is at best partial and perhaps faulty in some ways. Regardless of our knowledge, the important question is Will we just learn some facts about Jesus, like the people of Jerusalem, or will we, like the Magi, experience him? Will we travel the distance to find him, give him our greatest gifts, and worship him?

Later, in his public ministry, Jesus told parables about people making heroic efforts and spending everything to gain great treasure. Perhaps while telling these parables, he remembered Mary’s and Joseph’s accounts of the Magi who came over a great distance to find him, bringing costly gifts.

Friday, January 2, 2009

01/02 - God Picks a Stepfather for His Son

Matthew 1:18-25

God had a delicate situation. His son was to have every human experience, including growing from infancy to adulthood. God would be constrained in how He intervened in the rearing of Jesus, a responsibility that would fall mainly on the boy’s mother and stepfather. Jesus would even learn the concept father first through his daily experiences with the one God picked for that stepfather role.

This passage gives us a glimpse of the character of Joseph. Imagine the scene where Mary tells him she was not just pregnant but pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph was shocked and felt betrayed. The story about the Holy Spirit sounded like a weak attempt to divert attention away from her moral failure. Perhaps it made him question her mental stability. Despite the grief, anger, and dismay he felt, Joseph decided to break their betrothal quietly to reduce her embarrassment and punishment.

However, Joseph was not to have it so easy. God called him to continue the betrothal and to marry her. People then, as now, knew babies came in nine months, and they would interpret Mary’s expanding belly as evidence of his moral failure too. We can imagine how this pregnancy tarnished this good man’s reputation.

Based on how he is described in this passage, we can guess at how Joseph lived a life of kindness, strength, and godliness before his stepson. Jesus would eventually know the truth about his father. However, it was first from Joseph he learned about being a good man as he followed in Joseph’s steps in childhood, and as he worked in adolescent years with his stepfather in the family carpentry business.

Throughout his life, Jesus would think fondly about the strength and character he learned from Joseph. He would draw on this strength and character as he, like Joseph, sought to obey God in every situation regardless of its difficulty.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

01/01 - God, the Social Engineer

Matthew 1:1-17

My family had a reunion picnic last summer, and afterward I sat enthralled as aunts, uncles, and cousins told stories about my ancestors. Imagine attending a family reunion picnic with young Jesus and listening as the young boy heard the stories about his ancestors, many of them listed in this genealogy.

The genealogy is actually for Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus (Matthew called him “the husband of Mary”). Mary’s ancestry connects to the genealogy, and because she and Joseph were likely of the same Jewish tribe, her connection to it was probably just a few generations back.

Matthew started by calling Jesus “the son of David, the son of Abraham,” emphasizing his Jewish heritage. The genealogy contains a Who’s Who of Jewish notables: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ruth, David, Solomon, and Hezekiah. Of the ancestors we know about, some were good, such as Ruth, some were shady, such as Jacob, but most were very complex with strikingly great flaws and strengths. For example, God said of David, “[He] is a man after my own heart,” (Acts 13:22), but David was also a murderer.

In listing the ancestors of Jesus, including the large number lost to obscurity, Matthew showed Jesus was part of a family with rich traditions and culture accumulated over many generations. Those traditions and that culture would form Jesus, just as you and I are formed by our family traditions and culture.

It was not an accident Jesus came into this particular family at this exact time. God had been preparing for his coming even before choosing Abraham to start a great nation, the starting point of Matthew’s genealogy. Generation by generation, God had been doing social engineering on the grandest scale.