Saturday, October 26, 2013

Psalm 31

Blessed be Yahweh, for He has made marvelous His lovingkindness to me in a besieged city, Psalms 31:21.

A city under siege is a city cutoff. When an enemy besieges a city the goal is to isolate the city, to reduce it to hunger and thirst, to wear down its inhabitants, and ultimately force the city’s surrender. A city under siege looks for help from the outside, knowing that resources within the city must ultimately vanish; both besieged and besieger know it is only a matter of time before the city capitulates unless it receives outside help.

Peoples in ancient times knew the danger of a siege; being caught in a besieged city without hope of relief was a death knell; history is replete with accounts of sieges in which the besieged were massacred in retribution for holding out against the attacker – besieging armies are not known for mercy.

Against this backdrop the psalmist writes of God, He has made marvelous His lovingkindness to me in a besieged city. Against all appearances those who know God are better off in a besieged city than all the armies of might arrayed against them; while unmerciful enemies may besiege the people of God the mercy and lovingkindness of God sustains His people and they need not fear.

One of the many dangers of looking at appearances and responding to them is that we end up using natural weapons and natural thinking rather than relying on the Holy Spirit and the Word of God and learning to see things as God sees them. Paul writes that the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly but mighty to the pulling down of strongholds; he also writes that we don’t wrestle against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers – our fight is not to be in the arena of flesh but in the realm of the spiritual, not in the seen but in the unseen. What we see with natural eyes is a distraction if we respond in kind; the temporal diverts us from the eternal. When God’s people are besieged they have the enemy surrounded.

2 Kings 6:8 – 23 relates an account of a city under siege, while not all inhabitants of the city of Dothan were followers of the true and living God, the prophet Elisha and his servant were enough to protect the city, in fact, the besieging army was there to capture Elisha – God’s people attract God’s enemies; the enemies of God need not attack cities that pose no threat to them.

We read in this passage, Now when the servant of the man of God had risen early and gone out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was circling the city. And his servant said to him, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” So he answered, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Yahweh, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” And Yahweh opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

No doubt the enemy surrounding Dothan thought they had it made, and no doubt Elisha’s servant thought all was lost; however Elisha saw with different eyes and the eyes of the invading army were made blind – of course in one sense they were blind from the beginning because they could not see the reality of the true and living God. Those who eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil have their physical eyes opened, but the opening of physical eyes and reliance on them results in spiritual blindness – it was so in Eden, it was so in Dothan, and it is so today.

We need not fear when we are surrounded by troubles, by enemies, by turmoil; for the true and living God and His Son Jesus Christ are with us and as John writes, Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. When we find ourselves in a besieged city let us look to the lovingkindness of God and rejoice…for we have the enemy surrounded.   

Friday, October 25, 2013

Jesus Always

I haven’t heard from my friend George Will for some time, he’s overdue to check-in. If I don’t hear from him soon I’ll try to find his son Art in Florida and ask how George is, maybe George has gone to be with Jesus (I’ve written about George on my Kaleidoscope blog); though the phrase “gone to be with Jesus” isn’t really accurate because George has already lived with Jesus and in Jesus and for Jesus for many years.

A few months ago I read that Dallas Willard told someone that when he died it might take him a while to realize that he was in heaven. I don’t think that was boasting; I think we can be so infused with Jesus and enveloped in Jesus that being in Christ is an existential and transcendent reality that overwhelms us.

I’m thinking about George this morning because I’m thinking about a passage that I associate with George, a passage that could easily be his “life passage”, 1 Corinthians 1:30: But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.

George planted this passage in my heart in 1966 and 1967; I guess my life is a fulfillment of the proverb that tells us that if we train children in the way they should go that when they grow up they won’t depart from that way. While it’s a fact that during my growing-up I have had seasons of departure from the Way, it’s also true that I’m now more in love with Jesus than ever – you could say that I’m learning what it is to truly love Jesus, to be in love with Jesus, to adore Jesus; my heart skips beats and my eyes light up at the thought of Jesus. This is not poetic or romantic language for the sake of language – this is my experience.

A few years ago an acquaintance of mine left his wife of decades – they were both in their 50s and he left her. I hear of these things more and more and I wonder how could that be…after many years of marriage why would someone leave a husband or wife for another person – why shatter the sacredness of a holy bond?

In the same way I wonder how those who have followed Jesus for years become fascinated by tangential teachings, doctrines, and practices that push Jesus away – I wonder how anything can take the place of Jesus. I love my wife Vickie more everyday and I love Jesus more everyday. My two great joys in life are to be with Jesus and be with Vickie; associated with these two great joys are to share the love and grace of Jesus with others as Christ’s broken bread and poured out wine. What else could I possibly ask for?

I have two friends whom I dearly love who prefer other dance partners to Jesus and I just don’t understand it, I’ve known and loved them for years, they’ve been major influences in my life for years; they are advancing in chronological age as I am – and yet the storyline of their lives has changed from Jesus to other things. They are offended when I talk about Jesus being the center of all we do – how can this be? The situation reminds me of a time when I went to see the adulterous husband of one of my parishioners – he didn’t much care for me knocking on his door, he didn’t much care for me coming into his house (it was hardly a home at that point), he didn’t much care for what I had to say, and I’m sure he was glad to see me leave.

Jesus is our wisdom and our righteousness and our sanctification and our redemption; Jesus is the only one in whom we are to glory, there is nothing to be compared to Him. In the New Jerusalem there is no sun or moon or stars – all light comes from the Father and the Son – if that is the fashion of our future, should it not also be the fashion of our present?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Sermon on the Mount/Reflections – II

The Setup

The scribes and Pharisees were the image of righteous religion in much of the Jewish mind in Jesus’ time. They were known for keeping the law, and then keeping the law again, and then keeping the law yet again. That is, they not only kept the Law but they kept many other rules that would keep them from breaking the law. Let’s say that the Law of Moses said, “You shall not drive more than 55 miles per hour.” The Pharisees would decree something like, “You shall not drive more than 40 miles per hour.” Because they took the 40-miles-per-hour decree as seriously as Moses’ original decree not to drive more than 55 miles per hour they were pretty certain they had Moses’ decreed covered, that they wouldn’t ever break it. 

While not every Jew wanted to be a Pharisee, while not every Jew agreed with the doctrine of the Pharisees, in the general Jewish mind the Pharisees were the dominant image of religion much like Coke is the dominant image of soft drinks worldwide (sorry Pepsi).

With the above in mind, the Pharisees in the crowd must have been pleased to hear Jesus say (Matthew 5:17-19): Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Imagine the Pharisees thinking, “He is one of us. This is great. We can bring him into our fold, teach him the finer points, get him on board, and use him to expand our influence. He may be a bit confused on some issues but we can work with him. Jesus is affirming our position, he is affirming us.”

That feeling that we get when we are acknowledged in a crowd was coming over the Pharisees, they were feeling goose bumps, all eyes must have been on them, they were basking in the recognition – had they known about Oscars they would have thought that this was Oscar night and they were on the podium receiving the Best Picture award. They were framing their acceptance speech. Their sense of righteousness must have hit its pinnacle right before they heard Jesus’ next words:

For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20). Then Jesus begins a series of juxtapositions with the pattern: You have heard it said…but I say to you…. Jesus assumes the position of Lawgiver on the Mountain as He transposes the Law of Moses upward and inward and beyond the externalities of the scribes and Pharisees.

This is a type of recognition that the Pharisees did not see coming, one that challenges their self-righteousness and which can lead to only one of two things; either repentance or hardness of heart. Jesus’ words also challenge the everyday man and woman in the crowd, for no longer can they excuse themselves by saying, “I can’t monetarily afford to become a Pharisee. I don’t have the education to be a Pharisee. I can’t become a Pharisee because of this or that.” Everyone has a heart, everyone has a mind, everyone has a will; and Jesus’ words hone in on the heart, the mind, the will – there is no hiding, no escape from the Word of Jesus on the Mountain. No doubt many tried to explain away His Word, just as we do today. After all Jesus didn’t really mean for us to turn the other cheek and not to resist evil and to give not expecting repayment; He didn’t really mean that we are to be peacemakers and gentle and to mourn for the people and world around us.   

We all have, and have had, images of righteousness, images of what it means to be holy, measuring up to God’s standards, and measuring up to man’s standards of righteousness. These images are usually chameleon, changing as our environments change, as our moods change, as our perceived successes change. We want to associate ourselves with the leading religious team, the one in first place, the one receiving recognition.

God only has one standard, His Son Jesus Christ – Jesus never changes. And Jesus…what is He focused on in us? Read His Word in the Sermon on the Mount – He is focused on the heart, on the inner person; and then from actions born of an inner relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; such a relationship with God informs and animates our relationships with others.

Jesus’ message was not seeker-sensitive; He did not lower the bar in order to get others to step over it; He raised the bar, He challenged religious contemporary thinking and living, He did it in public and He did it at the beginning of His ministry – there was no “bait and switch"...but there was a setup.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Sermon on the Mount/Reflections – I

I’ve been reading the Sermon on the Mount for 47 years, how is it that it is fresher today than 47 years ago?

Jesus’ first recorded extended teaching is not what we would expect; at least not what I would expect and I don’t think what His audience anticipated. Consider two contextual elements:

First, consider what preceded the message (Matthew 4:23 – 25): Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people. The news about Him spread throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all who were ill, those suffering with various diseases and pain, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and He healed them. Large crowds followed Him from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan.

Secondly, consider the messianic expectation of the Jews at that time, they were looking for the Messiah to deliver them from the yoke of Rome; certainly the miracles of Jesus and the large crowds following Him gave hope to many that He was the deliverer who would lead Israel to its promised place at the head of all nations.

With the above as the context, what would we have thought of the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount?

Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the gentle…blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…blessed are the merciful…blessed are the pure in heart…blessed are the peacemakers…blessed are those who have been persecuted…blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you…

This is hardly a clarion call to rise up against Rome. This is hardly a trumpet blast calling Israel to military and political victory. This is not Moses delivering Israel from Egypt or Joshua at Jericho or David subduing the Philistines nor Asa or Jehoshaphat leading their armies to victory. This teaching of Jesus is the opposite of what we expect. Consider verse 39, But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. Is this what His audience expected?

There are things we think are important to the point of driving our agenda and thinking which have little (if anything) directly to do with the Kingdom of God, and yet we think they do, we think that God must be driven by them. We think God must belong to this political persuasion or that one, that He must be the patron God of this nation or that nation, that He must surely be in favor of one economic system over another – we are confident that if God showed up at the ballot box that we know how He would vote. Rather than submit ourselves and egos to God we confidently insist that God inhabit our eccentricities and bless our parochial agendas and we do not doubt that we are right and that His great desire is that we be delivered from the equivalent of ancient Rome in our lives.

I cannot help but think of the vitriol swirling around the Affordable Health Care Act in the United States. There are professing Christians who seem to think that the world is coming to an end if the Act stays in place. If they think this is the case they ought to focus on bringing people into a relationship with Jesus – which indeed is what we all should focus on. We are all in danger of substituting political, economic, and social agendas for the Kingdom of God. I don’t know whether Jesus was tempted to give into political agendas or not, I do know that most of us would have been tempted to do so, I also know that I would have been in grave danger of giving in, especially at one point in my life. Jesus is showing His disciples and the crowds a better way, He is showing them the Kingdom of God, He is inviting them into a relationship with His heavenly Father; He is showing them not how to throw off the yoke of Rome, but rather how to be delivered from the oppression of selfishness, sin, and death…and religion that is focused on the external and things of this world.