Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Way of the Secret, Open Heart

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Rend your heart and not your garments. (Joel 2:13)
“Rend your heart,” says Joel, “not your garments.” Rending, or tearing open, the garment was a way to demonstrate grief or repentance. In practice, it would be either a true sign of an inward disposition or, as it often was, merely an outward display, an empty show — and God had had enough of that from his people. In Isaiah, the Lord voiced his complaint: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (Isaiah 29:13). This was a chronic condition with them, and once again, in Joel, it was time for a change in their inward disposition — a true repentance.

By the time of Christ, the Pharisees had perfected their sanctimony. The Lord Jesus spoke out against this in the Sermon on the Mount, particularly in regard to the practice of charity, prayer and fasting:
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him …

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18)
Alms, prayer and fasting are all very good things, but the Pharisees had become something of a play-actors guild with them. Jesus called them hypocrites, from the Greek word hypokrites, a term for stage-players and other pretenders. His criticism was that they were putting on masks and playing parts that did not match who they really were in their hearts. Everything became a show, to be seen by others. Their alms, prayer and fasting were for the applause of men. This praise was what they were angling for — and that would be all they would receive. Jesus’ sad refrain about them was, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” God was not impressed with them, for though God does indeed care about our actions, he is more concerned with the heart from which those actions spring: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23).

The Lord Jesus calls us to a different way, a way that is not about us, a way of humility. It is at once both a quiet, secret way, yet the way of an open heart. It is the way of Jesus, who did not come to please himself but to please the Father. Not to be served but to serve and to pour out his life for our sake. Paul exhorts us to this same mindfulness:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)
There was a hiddenness in the way Christ came into the world. Though he was God’s Anointed King, and fully divine as well as fully human, he was not born in the sanctity of a temple or the luxury of a palace but in the simplicity of a stable. He did not grow to maturity in a royal court but in the obscurity of a little village and the home of a humble carpenter.

There was also a hiddenness in his ministry, which was often unannounced. Many times, the crowds even had to track him down. Sometimes the disciples, too, had to search for him. He spent much time, in the late evening or early morning hours, off by himself in a quiet place, praying. His death on the cross was not glorious but shameful in the eyes of the world, designed to humiliate him and his followers.

He did not come to exalt himself but to empty himself — yet he did not lose anything of his divinity by doing so. Rather, in taking the nature of a servant, he revealed to us the very nature of God, who is love. In him, then, is exemplified the second refrain from those passages in the Sermon on the Mount: “Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
Understand, Christ did not humble himself in order to be exalted. His humility and servanthood is itself exaltation. His love and the giving of himself is the glory. For he has never ceased to be human, never ceased to be servant, never ceased pouring himself out for us. In a word, he has never ceased to be love. That is the “secret” way that gives light to the whole world, and Jesus calls us to himself that we might learn him and the way of the secret, open heart.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Return to Me with All Your Heart

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Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is close at hand — a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come. (Joel 2:1-2)
We do not know much about the prophet Joel or the occasion of his writing. He speaks of devastations that are past and also of great devastation to come, which he calls “the day of the LORD.” He speaks of locusts as armies and armies as locusts. In chapter 2, he describes a time of terrible judgment, when God allows the violent ways of man to come to fruition. Whatever the judgment is that he foretells, however, it is not the end nor is all finally lost. There is a word of hope from the Lord, an opportunity for repentance, for turning again to God.
“Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing — grain offerings and drink offerings for the LORD your God.

Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. Let the priests, who minister before the LORD, weep between the portico and the altar. Let them say, “Spare your people, LORD. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (Joel 2:12-17)
Joel twice says, “Blow the trumpet in Zion.” The first time was to sound the alarm, but now there is a different purpose: to declare a holy fast and call a sacred assembly. Everyone is to come, from the very young to the very old, and even the bride and groom are called back from their honeymoon — it is a deeply serious matter. It is to be the preoccupation of the priests to weep between portico and alter, an area accessible to priests alone, to cry out for the mercy of the Lord, for him to deliver his people from destruction and the reproach of the nations.

Even now — whatever you have done, or are going through, or will face ahead — even now is the time to repent, to return to the Lord. Not in outward show or empty ritual, but with all your heart. Tears and ashes mean nothing without the heart. They do no good but are merely a deception. And God, who knows all hearts, is not the least bit fooled.

God is full of grace and compassion, slow to anger and abounding in love. That it is what he is in his very nature. Those who are hard in heart are senseless of it. But if we allow our hearts to be open, even to be broken before him, we will experience the love and grace he has towards us. Indeed, it is divine love and grace that breaks open our hearts to receive him. And if we are willing to bring our brokenness for the sake of his love, we shall be healed by that same love.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Glory of Christ Changes Us

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When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the LORD had given him on Mount Sinai. When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. But whenever he entered the LORD’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD. (Exodus 34:29-35)
The blue jeans I wear are the Walmart special, called “Faded Glory.” I don’t like to wear new jeans that are deep blue, so a brand that comes pre-faded works just fine for me. But the truth is that all blue jeans will eventually fade in the wash, with very little of the original “glory” left in the end.

Moses had a fading glory. It was fresh when he first came down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the Law. His face was radiant then, so full of light and glory that the people were intimidated by it, afraid to come near. But when Moses finished speaking to them, he covered his face with a veil. There were apparently several cycles of this: Moses spoke with the Lord and his face became radiant, then he spoke to the people with his face unveiled, then he covered it up again. The apostle Paul understood the reason for this: the glory faded away because it was but a shadow that would one day give way to the reality of what it represented, and to a glory that would endure.
Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:12-18)
The “hope” Paul has in mind here is the expectation of the enduring glory of the new covenant mediated through Jesus Christ. The old covenant, mediated through Moses, was glorious but transitory. The Law cannot change us; it can only point out our need for change. It cannot give us life; it can only point out our deadness. It cannot create righteousness in us; it can only condemn us for our unrighteousness. It cannot redeem us — but it can and does point us to Jesus our Redeemer.

When we turn to the Lord Jesus, the veil the covers our heart is removed so that we understand the Scriptures through the lens of who Christ is and what he has done. He is the reality of which the Law could only ever be a shadow, and what was veiled in the Law is now made clear in him. So the glory of the Law was never meant to endure but faded with the coming of Christ, to whom it was always pointing.

The Law of Moses was written on tablets of stone, but what we need is the Spirit of the Lord, who comes to write God’s law on our hearts. Indeed, he gives us a new heart and puts his own Spirit within us (see Ezekiel 36:25-27). Where that happens — as it does when we turn to the Lord Jesus in faith — there is true freedom, for the Spirit of the Lord transforms us.

Christ dwells in us by the Holy Spirit and when we contemplate him, we are contemplating who we truly are in him and who he is in us — and we become what we behold. It is as if we were looking into a mirror and the image that appears there changes our own appearance. In the Transfiguration, the glory of Christ appeared visibly, revealing his divinity in the form of his humanity. Likewise, as we look to Christ, we are changed by the splendor of his radiance, transformed into the image of him who is the perfect image of God, revealing with ever-increasing glory who God always meant for us to be.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

We Shall See Him as He Is

“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. (Luke 9:28-31)
The Transfiguration of Christ is found in Matthew and Mark as well as here in Luke. In all three, the sequence of events leading up to it is the same: Peter receives the revelation that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus foretells his impending death, then speaks to his disciples about the need to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. This is followed by the statement that some standing there would not die before they saw “the kingdom of God” (Luke), “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew), “that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark). About eight days later, Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him to the mountain to pray. The Transfiguration, then, is a very powerful revelation of the kingdom of God and the glory of Christ the King.

Jesus was deep in prayer when his face and clothes became radiant with light. Moses and Elijah appeared suddenly, also full of glory and splendor. Moses was the great Law-giver and Elijah the great prophet of the Old Testament. They were conversing with Jesus about his “departure,” which would soon be accomplished at Jerusalem. They had both had unusual departures themselves: Moses was buried by God and nobody ever found the grave, and Elijah did not see death but was translated to heaven in a “chariot of fire” in the middle of a whirlwind.

The word Luke chose for “departure” is significant. It is the Greek word exodus, a very evocative term, being the Greek title for the second book of the Old Testament. The book of Exodus was about how God led the children of Israel out of Egypt through Moses.

The exodus Jesus was about to fulfill was his death on the cross but also his resurrection from the dead and his ascension to his throne at the right hand of the Father. It was not a departure through death but a departure from death, for his death became the death of death itself. By his death, we also are set free from death, and from the one who holds the power of death. “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). The exodus Jesus accomplished became our own “deliverance from Egypt,” for in him we are crucified, made alive again and seated in the heavenlies at the right hand of the Father (Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 2:4-6).
Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters — one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.) While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud.

A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen. (Luke 9:32-36)
Peter, James and John had been asleep — it was often Jesus’ way to go off and pray in the night or early morning hours — but now they were fully awake, though understanding very little of what they were witnessing. They had missed much of it and by now Moses and Elijah were leaving. Peter, being the earnest and impulsive man that he was, wanted to build three dwelling places: one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. He did not understand what he was saying — so he went ahead and said it.

At that moment, a cloud came over them and Peter left off what he was saying, terrified as it enveloped him and the other two. The voice of the Father said, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” It was not Moses or Elijah but Jesus alone who is the Son and whom the Father anointed as Messiah. Moses and Elijah — the Law and the Prophets — were always about him, and in him they find their fulfillment. “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Christ is God’s final and complete word. He is the one we are to listen to, and in him we will understand the meaning of Moses and Elijah.

But now let’s consider the transfiguration itself, for Christ is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:3). The transfiguration was not a transformation of who Jesus was but a revelation of who Jesus is, a manifestation of his divinity in the form of his humanity. It was his divine glory being revealed for what it is.

In the beginning, man was created in the image of God, to be like God and to bear his glory. However, Paul reminds us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We have each turned away from God and broken the connection, fellowship with God, each other, the rest of creation, and even our own selves. But God became one of us, joining himself to us in order to reconcile us back to himself, that humankind might bear the divine glory for which we were originally created. That we might, in the words of 2 Peter 1:4, “participate in the divine nature.”

In the transfiguration of Christ, we see what God has always intended for humanity — to conform us to the image of Christ, transforming us as we allow him to renew our minds. He is at work in us not only empowering us with the ability to do what pleases him but also creating in us the desire to do so.

As Christ was revealed in his transfiguration that day on the mountain, that is how we, too, shall one day see him — and we shall be like him, for the revelation of Christ transforms us. “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Even now, “the darkness is fading and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Christ is the Meaning of the Law


Earlier in Psalm 19, we saw Christ as the meaning of the stars and also wonderfully portrayed by the sun. As we continue in this psalm, we discover that Christ is the meaning of the Law of Moses, which is to say, we understand the Law through him. All the Law and Prophets, he said, are about him. In the Sermon on the Mount he made it very clear that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them. He is the perfect revelation of God’s purpose in them. If we want to know what they are about, or ever were, we have only to look to the Lord Jesus.
The law of the LORD is perfect,
    refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
    making wise the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right,
    giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
    giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is pure,
    enduring forever.
The decrees of the LORD are firm,
    and all of them are righteous.
(Psalm 19:7-9)
Christ is God’s ultimate word to the world, the perfect expression of God’s being. He is the Good Shepherd who “refreshes” or “converts” (KJV) our souls, turning us back to the path of what is right and true and loving. His teaching is a sure and trustworthy foundation upon which the wise may build their house. His ways are straight and true and lead us to joy. He is the very radiance of God’s glory, giving us light by which we may see God. He is the personification of pure love and awe toward God, doing only what pleases the Father. His law is summed up in this commandment: Love one another.
They are more precious than gold,
    than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
    than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward.
(Psalm 19:10-11)
There is nothing in this world that can satisfy our desires like Christ — indeed, none can satisfy us except Christ, who made us and gave himself for our sake. And there is nothing sweeter in life than to know him. He shows us the paths and the pitfalls so that we may come to know the blessing and peace of God in this life and in the ages to come.
But who can discern their own errors?
    Forgive my hidden faults.
Keep your servant also from willful sins;
    may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
    innocent of great transgression.
(Psalm 19:12-13)
Through the cross of Christ, divine forgiveness has been revealed and the power of sin broken. God’s purpose is to conform us to the image and likeness of Christ, transforming us by the power of the Holy Spirit and the renewing of our minds by Christ. In this way he delivers us from the faults and inclinations of which are we are unware as well as the sins we know all too well.

As the writer brings this psalm to an end, so I close echoing the same prayer: May these words and this meditation be pleasing in your sight, Lord Jesus, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Random Thoughts

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Thoughts culled from my random file. About divine love, relationship with God and new life in Christ. Some have come to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Many have been my tweets and Facebook updates. Some have been my Instagrams. Offered as “jump starts” for your faith.
  • Faith in God is relational, more about trust than certainty.
  • Today I repent of the prides and arrogances I know about ... and ask forgiveness for the ones I have not yet realized.
  • The humility of Christ and His cross exposes evil for what it is: pride against God and one another.
  • Biblical justice is relational, about readiness for community.
  • The justice of God is not about retribution but about restoration to fellowship.
  • The judgment of God does not come to condemn us but to transform us.
  • The cross was not a penalty Christ paid but a victory Christ won.
  • The cross was not the reason for God’s forgiveness but the revelation of God’s forgiveness.
  • In Jesus Christ, God forgives our betrayals, removes our shame and leads us back to holy community with God and one another.
  • In Jesus Christ we become part of the new creation. The whole cosmos cries out for this revelation.
  • What is God showing you about what he wants to do in the world? Pray that!
  • Thank you, Lord, for your healing presence.
  • Forgive me, Lord, for baptizing bitter fear as righteous anger, for being quick to take offense and slow to love. Teach me the strength, gentleness and humility of Christ. Amen.
  • The resurrection of Christ exposes the truth about death: it is a helpless and defeated foe, and cannot stand.
  • The abundantly available grace of God transforms sinners into saints.
  • In Jesus Christ, sins are forgiven, shame is removed and new life begins.
  • Remember today that your blessing is not rooted in your job but in God.
  • Remember today that your significance is not found in your work but in the love God has for you.
  • How deep the love, how wide the mercy, how abundant the grace, how joyful the fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • God doesn’t do “pay back.” He does “pay forward” ... and he does it with grace.
  • God is love. Love casts out all shame.
  • There are no boundaries to the grace of God. He is always working for our good.
  • DREAM ~ A communication from a deeper realm, a vignette from the spiritual dimension.
  • We live in between the great things God has already done and the greater harvest yet to come.
  • Don’t worry about your significance in the world. God has already taken care of that. Just go on and live your life in him.
More random thoughts ...

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Christ is Revealed in the Temple

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“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. (Malachi 3:1-4)
In the book of Malachi, the Lord speaks of two messengers who would come. The first is “my messenger.” This is John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the second messenger. The second is “the messenger of the covenant,” who is Jesus the Messiah, the Christ. He would come suddenly into his temple and those who were seeking him would see him. He would be a refiner’s fire to purify his people like silver or gold, turning them once again to the Lord.

In the Gospel, we learn that Christ was revealed in the temple in an unexpected way. This important event is known as the Presentation of the Lord and is celebrated every February 2nd, forty days after Christmas. The story is recorded in Luke 2.
When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:22-24)
Joseph and Mary came to perform what was required by the Law of Moses. They would consecrate Jesus to the Lord, just as all parents of firstborn sons would do. For that occasion, they would sacrifice a pair of doves, one as a burnt offering and the other as a sin offering. It was all perfectly according to custom — except that what happened next was quite out of the ordinary.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. (Luke 2:22-27)
Simeon had long waited for the Christ to be revealed and the consolation of Israel to begin. In fact, the Lord had promised him that he would witness it before he departed this life. Now that time had suddenly come upon him and, being led by the Holy Spirit, he immediately recognized Jesus for who he was.
When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. (Luke 2:27-33)
Joseph and Mary had not expected to hear such wonderful words of revelation that day concerning their son, and coming from the lips of a stranger. Nor were they prepared for what Simeon said next.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35)
Jesus would be the dividing line in Israel between those who would fall and those who would rise. There would be those who rejected him and those who repented and received him. There would be a sign of contradiction, the cross. There would be those who would crucify him and those who would take up their crosses and follow him. How they responded to him, whether in faith or unbelief, would reveal their hearts. Jesus would be, in the words of Malachi, a “refiner’s fire,” cleansing his people and reconciling them to the Father.

But there were also words for Mary, concerning her own soul, that she would be pierced as she witnessed the rejection and suffering her son. It would be a very deep sorrow. They were somber words but necessary for the great rejoicing that would follow as God’s salvation was made known to the nations. The author of Hebrews understood both the necessity of all this suffering as well as the resulting joy, and so the following passage is also read on this day:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Amazed and Furious

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The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

“Alas, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”

But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.

Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:4-10)
Jeremiah was called of the Lord to be a prophet while yet a young man — “too young,” he protested. Being a prophet is a tricky undertaking, a dangerous occupation with many opportunities to be heavy with fear and in dire need of escape. But the Lord promised, “I am with you and will rescue you.”

The outstretched hand of God touched Jeremiah’s reluctant lips, and now the message that came from Jeremiah’s mouth would be God’s own words, full of divine power and authority. Jeremiah would need that because Jeremiah’s message would not be a welcome one. Neither kings nor kingdoms take kindly to being uprooted, torn down, destroyed or overthrown. But there was much wickedness in the land and many hearts that needed to be changed before God could rebuild and plant again, for God cannot bless anything that does not come from him, that does not originate from his love.

Now jump forward several hundred years. It is a Sabbath and Jesus is standing at the lectern of the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown. The text is Isaiah 61, about the year of divine favor on the people of Israel, and the day of vengeance on their oppressors. Jesus reads it, leaving off the part about the vengeance, then sits down to teach.
He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. (Luke 4:21-22)
There is an ambiguity here. Although the NIV says “all spoke well of him,” the underlying Greek text speaks simply of bearing witness, which could be either for or against Jesus. The people were “amazed,” which, again, could be taken in a positive or negative way. It was the “gracious words” Jesus spoke that was at the center of their reaction.

We should think they would have been glad for the graciousness of Jesus’ message, but it was the part he left out that was the object of their disquiet. They were glad to hear about the year of God’s favor on Israel, but they also wanted to hear about the day of God’s vengeance on the Gentiles. And Jesus did not go there. His words left God’s grace open to the Gentiles as well as towards Israel.

So the crowd began to question. “Who is this? Isn’t he the son of Joseph? Isn’t he the carpenter’s son? By what authority does he speak this way?” They would use their imagined familiarity with Jesus against him, to discount his words. But Jesus knew exactly what they were up to.
Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed — only Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:23-27)
Did they need to see miracles before they would accept this hometown son as a true prophet of God? That is not how true prophets work, and that is not how Jesus works. Faith does not come by seeing miracles but by hearing the word of God. The people of Nazareth were not ready to receive Jesus’ words, so they were not ready to believe his miracles.

The reason Jesus’ message was so gracious and open-ended was because God had often showed his mercy to Gentiles. In Elijah’s day, Israel was a faithless generation, unwilling to receive the word of the Lord. When famine came, it was only a pagan widow of Sidon who believed the prophet and received a miraculous provision. The story was much the same in the time of Elisha, and it was only Naaman, a Syrian general, who believed the prophet and was cleansed of leprosy.

These examples would have had a hard bite in Nazareth because Sidon and Syria were especially loathed by the Jews. Yet God showed mercy on these despised ones because they were willing to trust him. The real question, however, was whether the people of Nazareth were willing to trust God even if he intended to be gracious towards the pagans. The answer quickly appeared.
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. (Luke 4:28-30)
The people were seething. They did not want to hear of a God who would show mercy on their enemies, and they would have no part with a prophet who would teach such things — away with him. The soil of their hearts was hard and unyielding, not good ground for the seed of the kingdom, not yet ready for the building and planting Messiah came to do. So Jesus went on his way, passing quietly through the crowd, whether by miraculous disappearance or the power of his presence. Either way, God was with him and rescued him.