Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

February 18, 2009 Rejections

READ: Matthew 13:53-14:12
53 And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, 54 and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? 55 Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things? 57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household. 58 And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief. 1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, 2 and he said to his servants, This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him. 3 For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, 4 because John had been saying to him, It is not lawful for you to have her. 5 And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. 6 But when Herod's birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, 7 so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter. 9 And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. 10 He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, 11 and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. 12 And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.

THE great short-sighted thing that one human being can do to another is to decide what they are like and not let them change or grow. In close relationships this tends toward co-dependency. We've all seen the sad caricature of a person who never marries because their sick parent "needs" them to get through life. In the 1991 release Only the Lonely, John Candy's Danny is a 40 year old man still living with his over-protective over-bearing Irish mother, played by Maureen O'Hara. But it isn't just mama who can't let Danny grow up. All of the other characters in the small world of a Chicago beat cop have Danny pigeonholed too. Danny's relationship with a polish undertaker's daughter is what it finally takes to force Danny to make a man's decision. It is a beautiful movie, and I highly recommend it.

It shouldn't surprise us that when Jesus, the now-famous rabbi returns to Nazareth he experiences the same treatment. "Is this not the carpenter's son?" The unmistakable inference is that Jesus could not possibly have acquired the wisdom he has, much less accomplish the miracles, as the son of a carpenter.

What the people of Nazareth rejected was not Jesus. They rejected the healings, the teaching, and the wonders that could have been theirs if they had only been able to see Jesus in another light.

I honestly can not imagine what must have been going through John the Baptist's mind when the guards came to put him to death. It was so sudden and unprovoked. One thing is for sure, he was unaware of the politics that had his life in the balance just one flight above him. But politics had never been very important to John. From the time he first baptized the residents of Jerusalem in the Jordan river John was marking himself as someone who stood outside the government and its corruption. What got John killed was not that he defied the government. It was that he told truth to the government.

The inner workings of the family of the Herods are complex enough to rival any Hollywood depiction. Suffice it to say that Herodias married two of her uncles in her lifetime and divorced the first only when it became obvious that he was not to become king. We are shocked today at the idea of someone wedding their uncle, but in Israel of that day it was not illegal. What was illegal was divorce and remarriage. What we are not shocked at is a marriage of political convenience.

Notice, in fact, that even though John was operating outside the political system, he still had managed to gain enough of a following that he had the king's ear. He did not have to oppose the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias publicly. It was enough that he had said such a thing to the king privately. And Herod, whatever the motives behind his actions were (love or weakness or a combination of both), had John arrested and put in prison.

John was rejected from being a prophet simply because he was speaking prophetically.


February 17, 2009 As You Liken It

READ: Matthew 13:44-52
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls,
46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind.
48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad.
49 So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous
50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

51 “Have you understood all these things? They said to him, Yes.
52 And he said to them, Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

Okay class... can anyone tell me what a "scribe" does?

Yep. **pat pat**. Good. A "scribe" writes things down.

Now that that is out of the way, have you ever noticed that Jesus seems to often lump the Scribes and the Pharisees together when he's pronouncing class judgment? I wouldn't say I've done an exhaustive search yet, but I don't think there is a single example I could cite of Jesus saying something nice about the Pharisees or even intimates they could do something good. The closest we ever get is the discovery that Nicodemus was a Pharisee who also believed in Jesus. He and another member of the ruling council (probably also from the party of the Pharisees) named Joseph were the ones who buried Jesus.

But here is Jesus saying that a scribe can be good. That's because scribes weren't a political party, they were a function. A young man became a scribe while studying to be a rabbi. Remember that rabbis were those who knew Tanakh (the complete Hebrew Scriptures -- our Old Testament) and the Midrash (the body of interpretations of the OT) the best. They were also responsible for memorizing what we might call oral legal briefs as handed down by famous rabbis over the years and which were later written down and called the Mishnah. I don't know if you've ever tried to memorize a large portion of a book, but it isn't like memorizing a script for the theater. One of the best ways to memorize and keep the information sharp in your head is to transcribe the work by hand. And so these scribes did just that (and little else during their waking hours) as they worked toward becoming rabbis themselves.

One of the problems of transcription work is that there's nothing original going on. You are absolutely bound to the text you are copying. In fact, until Guttenberg's day ALL transcription work, particularly that done on sacred texts was so carefully checked for accuracy that if one of the people checking the work found even the slightest error the entire page was thrown out and the scribe was told to start it over. Jesus is, therefore, saying something really revolutionary to these scribes. They had been trained in the letter of the law... or perhaps I should say they had been trained in the law of letters. What Jesus is telling them is that the Kingdom of Heaven demands of a person a kind of original thought that is exegetical (meaning "interpretive"). Yes, it is right to repeat the facts, the truths of the Word of God. It is also right to look deeply into that Word in order to find the hidden treasures that someone who is merely a scribe would pass right over because they weren't thinking beyond what was immediately on the page.


February 15, 2009 Seeds, Explained

READ: Matthew 13:36-43
36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.
37 He answered, The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man.
38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one,
39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels.
40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age.
41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers,
42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

Holy Metaphor, Batman.

Here is Jesus talking along in parables. In Matthew 13:34 it says, "All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable." So we have a veritable list of things that represent other things:

Sower = Son of Man (itself a metaphor for Jesus)
Field = world
good seed = children of the kingdom (itself a metaphor for The Church)
weeds = sons of the evil one
enemy sower = the devil
harvest = close of the age (itself a metphor for the end of the world, or depending on your view of the end times, the beginning of the millenium or whatever)
reapers = angels (ambiguous word in greek. can mean either angel or some sent agent)

So far, Jesus hasn't been all that clear about what he means. Even his explanation needs an explanation. But assuming we've got all our terms correct here, I'm left wondering why so many people assume hell to be a place that is an actual fiery furnace. Didn't the Word just say that Jesus wasn't saying anything without a parable? How about just adding to the list:

fiery furnace = hell

What we know about hell from other biblical sources is that it is a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, a place of outer darkness, a place of exclusion from the presence of God and the glory of his might, a place where the residents' "inner worm never dies", and where there is continually something eating-at-but-never-devouring them. Sort of reminds me of the Pit of Sarlac or whatever that thing was in Star Wars where you are digested over a period of 1000 years. So, given the other ways of expressing hell, I think a fiery furnace is probably a mild metaphor.


February 14, 2009 Mustard Seed

READ: Matthew 13:31-35
31 He put another parable before them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field.
32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

33 He told them another parable. The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.

34 All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable.
35 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:
I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.

I have always loved history. Probably this came as a result of the church my family was part of where I grew up celebrating their 300th anniversary in 1965 and 66. I was 10 at the time, and the celebration made a huge impact on me. As part of the year-long festivities the church was planning to produce a book (I still have a copy). About a year in advance they put out the word that if any member of the church could document that they were a direct descendant of one of the original "proprietors" of the Town of Greenwich, they could be in a picture that was to appear in the book.

The qualification had to do with this quote: "On February 5, 1664, the Seven Proprietors made a formal request to the General Assembly in Hartford to be allowed to separate from Stamford and to support its own minister and lay out its own lands. The Seven Proprietors were John MEAD, Jonathan RENALDS, John HOBBY, Joseph FERRIS, Joshua KNAPP, Angell HUSTED, and Jeffrey FERRIS." My father knew that his mother's birth name had been Ferris and that people from that family had been in Greenwich for a long time. We also had a Colegrove genealogy that included a couple of the other sir-names on the list. That meant we were probably good candidates for the picture. My mother decided to research the family, and was pretty quickly able to establish a direct link to Jeffrey Ferris. In time she would discover that when Dad's parents married he brought in 3 of the 7 and she brought in the other 4. As far as I know, that makes my sister, Tim, Beth, and me the only living people who can rightly claim that at one time their ancestors owned the entire Town of Greenwich.

I'm boring you with this tale because of what Jesus says about the mustard seed. The first people to live in Greenwich were not, it seems, very concerned with honoring Christ. From 1640 to 1664 the nearest church -- and therefore, the nearest town was in Stamford, and in those days you'd have to be very faithful indeed to want to travel five miles to go to worship. In pre-Revolutionary New England, what made a town a town was that it had an "orthodox ministry" (ie: Congregational). In most places the town hall WAS the Congregational meetinghouse. Remarkably, in some places this tradition of having town meeting in the church building persisted into the 20th century. So, quite literally, the town grew up and lived in the shade of the mighty tree that was the local church.

According to the latest census data, Greenwich, CT is one of the wealthiest towns in the USA, ranks 12th on the list of most desirable places to live, and is home to about 61,000 people who have
John Mead, Jonathan Renalds, John Hobby, Joseph Ferris, Joshua Knapp, Angell Husted, and Jeffrey Ferris to thank for there being a Town of Greenwich because their first was a Church in Greenwich.

I wish I could say that The Church in Greenwich has been such a faithful witness to the gospel that today a large part of the population of the town are active, growing believers and that the sweet aroma of Christ rests on the whole place. Unfortunately, if you look up Greenwich on Wikipedia the article begins with this: "
Greenwich is a town in Fairfield County, Connecticut, United States. As of the 2000 census, the town had a total population of 61,101. It is home to many hedge funds and other financial service companies that have left Manhattan."

Still, the mustard plant is one of the easiest to grow and can be planted almost
anywhere. It nearly always makes a huge yield. As I look out the window
of the only "going"church in Nottingham, NH, I wonder if this might not be a
good place to scatter some mustard seeds.


Monday, February 23, 2009

February 12, 2009 The Sower and the Seed

READ: Matthew 13:1-30
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears, [1] let him hear.”

10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

“‘You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.

15 For this people's heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. [2] 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds [3] among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants [4] of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

The more I learn about the Kingdom of Heaven the harder the teaching is to listen to. I always, always, always used to think that what Jesus was teaching in the Parable of the Sower (vs. 1-23) was a word for all of us would-be evangelists. The idea is that we're going to go OUT and preach to people and some aren't going to understand the message, some will receive it with joy at first but will fall away when hard times come, some will endure for a while but when it comes to giving up certain sins/extravagences they fall away, and a few (we're always told a VERY few) will receive the word and come IN to become members of our church.

But we have to place the first parable in the proper context along with the second. Now admittedly, Jesus probably never told these two parables at the same time to the same audience. But for interpretations' sake you have to look at the "body of work" of what Jesus said and judge each piece against the whole. That's what you would do with an modern author whose meaning was hard to discover. That's what you need to do with Jesus, whose clear intent isn't to separate evangelism from discipleship, outreach from membership.

What we need to know is that from the very beginning there are always going to be people listening to the word -- in church and out -- who don't get it. When the crowds gathered around him in such numbers that he had to go preach from a BOAT to be heard, there were people of all four types present. In the early church there were people of all four types present. In the church of the Reformation there were people of all four types present. In any congregation in any church in any place in the world there are people of all four types present all the time. That's why Jesus tells the second parable.

It would be easy to take the position that The Church is for The Redeemed and that we need to guard carefully who we let in for more than a visit. And surely, from the earliest days of The Church there have been standards for membership, guarded by the classes we offer and the qualifications we impose. But if Jesus is saying what it appears he is here: that The Church is always going to be made up of people who have received the message and are growing AND people who have not received the message and are nothing more, in the end, than dead wood in the forest, then it is not a question of whether we will grant membership to some weeds. That we will do that is certain. It is rather one of the secrets of the Kingdom that the four soils are present everywhere and at all times and that Jesus is sowing the seed (people) on all kinds of soils at all times.

This Sunday we're going to think together about the idea of re-imagining The Church as a parish of the old Roman Catholic type and begin to realize that Nottingham Congregational Christian Church is not nearly as small as we may think it. Ours is a parish with some 4,000 members, of which roughly 150 (including children) have spent some time in the parish meetinghouse in the past year or two, and of which about 75 have stated publicly that they desire a close bond of belonging with one another, and of which about a dozen are actively leading the life of the parish.

The question at hand isn't "are there weeds among us?" The question is whether those whom Christ is calling (and they are present in all four groups above) are effectively tending the garden of the 4000. Are they fertilizing, planting, watering, pruning, tending, and harvesting -- being the hands and feet of the Master Gardener -- that the whole garden may grow.

Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
All it takes is a rake and hoe
And a piece of fertile ground
Inch by inch, row by row
Someone bless these seeds I sow
Someone warm them from below
til the rains come tumbling down.
-- David Mallett, 1978

February 11, 2009 Two Houses

READ: Matthew 12:43-50
43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none.
44 Then it says, I will return to my house from which I came. And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order.
45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.

46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him.
48 But he replied to the man who told him, Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?
49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, Here are my mother and my brothers!
50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.

Last night Jama and I watched the epic movie Legends of the Fall -- appropriate considering that Brad Pitt was up for an Oscar. In case you've never seen it, Legends is the story of a single father and his three sons living in Montana in the first part of the 20th century. The introduction of a love interest into one of the young men's lives ends up, as an Indian narrator observes, being "the stone upon which all of them were broken." Tragedy strikes one after another in the family. One son dies in WWI, the father has a stroke, a second son goes mad for a time, and the third son becomes a congressman (and isn't that a tragedy?) One of the sons finally asks his father, "Is the entire family cursed because of what I did?" No. The failure is not his. Theirs was the story of a family who never cleaned the house of its demons. After the one son died in the war the girl was supposed to go back east where she came from. But one situation after another kept her in Montana, and the rest is history... er... legend. Sometimes there is a toxicity in relationships and systems; maybe even locations, that just makes everyone feel doomed. What is called for is a complete change. What is called for is a repentance. Not just sorrow. Not just feeling bad for what has happened. Repentance is a turning from; a walking away from; a never going back to.

Strange, isn't it, that in the midst of talking about a house doomed because the occupants won't do anything more than just sweep and wait for the demon to return Jesus is asked about his own house? "Your mother and brothers are outside and want to see you," is introduced into the narrative. And Jesus reply? "whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." How does a house become a house of God instead of a house of the Devil? Quite simply it happens when every occupant chooses to do the will of the Father. Jesus is not saying that this will protect your family from trouble, harm, or even struggles. But when the presence of the Spirit of Christ is in each member these things will work themselves out in time and the whole will result in praise to God.


February 10, 2009 Trees and Fruit

READ: Matthew 12:33-42
33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit.
34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.
36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak,
37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.
39 But he answered them, An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
41 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.

When I was young (usually the words "and foolish" go with "young") I was terribly insecure about being "me" in public. I was very aware that I just didn't know the right thing to say in most situations, and it made me very nervous. The more nervous I got that I might say the wrong thing, the more likely it was that was exactly what was about to happen. It was like some horrid self-fulfilling prophecy, and I felt sure I was doomed to have repeated experiences where I would open my mouth and flies would come out. Invariably these moments would make me feel even more foolish than I already imagined I was.

One evening when I was dating Jama we went to a restaurant in New Haven for dinner. Our table wasn't ready, so we went to sit at the bar. This was a very unnatural experience for me. I don't know if she knows this even now, but that was only the second time in my LIFE I had ever sat at a bar. The first time was on a first (and last) date with a girl I really liked when I was in graduate school in Ohio. But she was into the singles scene and I really didn't know how to have a drink with a friend. Eh... I was geeky and awkward.

Anyway, we sat down at the bar... the bartender approached us... and maybe it was because I wasn't comfortable in a bar or because I wasn't comfortable with a girl or because I wasn't comfortable in public or just because I was young and foolish, but I instantly said, "You're ugly" to the bartender. It was the worst example I can imagine of this sort of thing, and it made me wonder if I had Turrett's Syndrome or something.

But things like that aren't said in malice. I was, and am still mortified that I could have ever said anything so ungracious. My heart broke within me at the thought of it, and it was hard to recover from the incident. I'm just not a cruel person.

Over the years I have said many unguarded things to people. I still fear those moments, though I think that as you get older you do learn to curb your tongue just a little. I've told you this story because I want you to have a model for what Jesus is saying in this passage. It isn't the person who says stupid things without thinking that Jesus is chiding. It is the person who is cruel and knows they are cruel and doesn't care that they are cruel Jesus is after. It is the person who does not learn from their error or who does what they do with evil intent: this is the person Jesus has a harsh word for here.

Really, the end of a person of evil intent is that they are done in by their own words. God doesn't have to condemn any of us. We do it to ourselves because we refuse to listen, grow, or learn. I dare say there are a large number of Bible-believing inflexible evangelicals who will be sharing Hell with all the other "sinners" they had hard words for. But we'll need to wait about 10 chapters to hear more on that. For now it is enough to say, "You want a SIGN?" Be careful what you ask for.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

February 9, 2009 The Chosen Servant

READ: Matthew 12:15-32
15 Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all 16 and ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: 18 Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. 19 He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; 20 a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; 21 and in his name the Gentiles will hope. 22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, Can this be the Son of David? 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons. 25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or how can someone enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

Until this very moment I was always troubled by Jesus telling people to keep his identity secret. Sort of reminds me of Superman trying to make sure no one found out he was actually Clark Kent. I just couldn't see the reason. First off, Jesus doesn't duck into a phone booth and come out with a red S on his outfit. Second, he's doing all this right in full view of everyone. Don't make him known? Pshaw... that's the rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth.

The story doesn't work like that, however. From the very start of Jesus' public ministry people were asking if this might be the promised Messiah. Our problem with understanding this is that we're looking backward at Jesus. We can't say the word "Messiah" without thinking of him. But they were looking forward and hoping in Messiah. Many, many teachers, healers, would-be prophets had come already in Jesus' day claiming to be Messiah, and there would be more after. The time simply was right for Messiah's coming.

It wasn't like it is today where every few years some crack-pot proclaims the end of the world or that California is going to fall off into the Pacific. Many faithful people of Jesus' day had read the Scriptures carefully and were convinced that Messiah would appear in their lifetime. Consider Simeon waiting in the temple because he had been told by God that he would not die before he saw the Lord's Christ.

It wasn't the miracles Jesus wanted kept secret. What he was asking was for those he healed not to spread the word that this was the Christ. From the very beginning this is what he was telling people to wait for. At his first miracle in Cana Jesus says so his own mother, "Woman, what do you have to do with me? My time has not yet come."

We might ask, "How come?" Here is Jesus. Let's get on with the coronation! But that wouldn't have been right. Jesus was waiting for THE moment, what the Word calls "the fullness of time". He could only save his people on a cross, outside of Jerusalem, at the Passover, in a particular year in a particular way. Any other way would not have satisfied the judgment of God, the justice of God, the righteousness of God, or especially, the love of God. It is like Jesus was Radar O'Riley of the old M*A*S*H series saying, "Wait for it..."


Friday, February 13, 2009

February 7, 2009 The Sabbath and Work, Part 2

READ: Matthew 12:9-14
9 He went on from there and entered their synagogue.
10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?—so that they might accuse him.
11 He said to them, Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?
12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.
13 Then he said to the man, Stretch out your hand. And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other.
14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

One of the best ways to get yourself fired is to demonstrate just what a fool the boss is in front of an audience. But even worse than that would be having the boss know that you know more than he or she does and then having them set up the situation that'll get you fired. That's exactly what happened in this passage.

There is something in human nature here. We just don't have the humility to let someone else know more than we do. Pastors are especially prone to this. Everyone expects us to really know God, to be really knowledgeable about theology and philosophy and all things religious. We imagine ourselves to be the most educated in our congregations on these subjects. We also project out to our people that we really know what we're doing. So when someone comes to substitute preach for us we want them to be interesting, but not too interesting; a good preacher, but not too good. We don't want to be shown up.

What could have saved the Pharisees becoming fixed on destroying Jesus? The only thing I can think of is if they had been trained in humility by whoever discipled them. But no. They were trained to "strut their stuff". Just like most pastors today, the Pharisees were experts at one-upsmanship. It is so hard to be upstaged and genuinely smile in admiration of the person who did it. As the Scripture says, "rejoice with those who rejoice."


Thursday, February 12, 2009

February 6, 2009 The Sabbath and Work

READ: Matthew 12:1-8
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

Here is the dilemma: according to Hebrew law, you're not supposed to work on the Sabbath. We would say, "Sure, and Jesus disciples weren't fishing." Ah, but the definition of work in those days extended to anything that might possibly result in someone being fed. In a subsistence economy work made food, not money. So, for Jesus disciples to pluck grains and begin to eat them on a Sabbath was forbidden. But, as Jesus pointed out, there is a sense in which priests violate this law every week because there is bread involved in the temple service. Just as in our communion today, someone has to pick up the bread and distribute it.

What is the solution? You'll find it cryptically given to us in verse 8. The "Son of Man" (Jesus) is Lord of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not Lord over the Son of Man.

I have a dear friend in Christ who was denied ordination in a denomination because he said he would do his laundry on Sunday. Really now. Let's get the definition of work and the definition of the Sabbath right.



February 5, 2009 Rest

READ: Matthew 11:25-30
25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Something I didn't 'get' until just this moment is that we're being given an open window into Jesus' own life with his Father. I was sitting here about to write some thoughts and I saw the quote, "I thank you, Father..." Oh! what a great, deep breath we need to take and slow our hearts down before God. A large part of us wants to go diving into doing, doing, doing for God. But there's something that has to precede that: being with the Father.

I have to assume that the quote actually should end at the beginning of verse 27. We just get this tiny moment with Jesus and the Father. I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

Then the voice changes and Jesus is speaking to us about his relationship with God. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

The voice changes yet again. Jesus is speaking directly to us. 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

There is the pattern for our devotional life vs. our interaction with the world. We must be in conversation with God before we can speak to the world about the conversation and then finally invite them into the conversation.

Don't wait another minute! Go to the Father right now and tell him what's going on. Then, and this is certainly contrary to the lie that is going around, TELL someone about your conversation with God. The lie is that religion is private. If so, how does anyone ever come to know Christ? And after you tell them about the conversation, invite them into the conversation with you. You'd be surprised at how many people really want to pray. They just haven't been given the opportunity.


February 4, 2009 Woe

READ: Matthew 11:20-24
Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”

Well, I -- I think that it -- that it
wasn't enough just to want to see Uncle
Henry and Auntie Em -- and it's that -- if
I ever go looking for my heart's desire
again, I won't look any further than my own
backyard. Because if it isn't there, I
never really lost it to begin with! Is
that right?


That's all it is!

But that's so easy! I should have thought
of it for you.

The theology of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is so seminal in us that
it even appears in Hollywood. Before Dorothy can go home, she has to repent of
the sin that brought her into Oz in the first place. Running away from home is
something most children do at some point. Most don't actually follow through
with it, but they will pack a small bag and walk down to the end of the street
when Mom or Dad won't let them have their own way. This is a picture of our
sin toward God and how it works itself out. Call it Dorothy in Oz or the Parable
of the Lost Son or what have you, it is us saying "I don't need you, God. I can
do life on my own very nicely, and will if you'll just give me the chance."

How sad, then, that all of us end up feeding on corn husks from the hogs in a far-
away country rather than in an idyllic place (albeit inhabited by at least one
really awful witch) like Oz.

But there is where Jesus really comes in. Even in his lament over Capernaum,
Corazin and Bethsaida he is aware that not every person in those cities is doomed.
John, James, Andrew, and Peter at least were from Capernaum. 5000 were fed in Corazin.
A legion of demons was cast out of a man over in Bethsaida. No, even the depths of our
unrepentantly black hearts, Jesus is at work drawing us to himself.

Have you wandered like Dorothy? Is your theme-song this lyric from Fiddler on the Roof?

How can I hope to make you understand
Why I do, what I do,
Why I must travel to a distant land
Far from the home I love?

Once I was happily content to be
As I was, where I was
Close to the people who are close to me
Here in the home I love...

Yea, I know the girl was in love. But, even for a really handsome guy, let's weigh
this out. Siberia in winter vs. Home and family. Hmmm... something REALLY special
must have come along for her to leave all that.

Has your heart been drawn away from "home" by some wanderlust or by the promise of
a better love? Jesus wants you to be at home with him. Are you afraid you have
wandered too far and God won't want you back? He is standing right beside you saying
"there's no place like home." As hard as it is to believe from where you sit, God
passionately wants you to be with him. But there's no wizard who will carry you
back in a hot air balloon. There's only one way "home."


Friday, February 6, 2009

February 3, 2009 Politics

READ: Matthew 11:1-19
When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities.

2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers [1] are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? A man [2] dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? [3] Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written,

“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, [4] and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, [5] let him hear.

16 “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,

17 “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” [6]

To say I don't like politics in the church would be an understatement. Inuendo, intrigue, inference, and all the other words beginning with "I" demonstrate how self-centered we humans really are. When John sent his disciples to Jesus with their political question, they were asking on behalf of their leader who was in prison if everything he had done in his ministry had been for naught. "Are you the one we're looking for, or should be look for someone else?"

There's something really horribly disturbing about prophets: they have to be right 100% of the time if they're going to say, "Thus says the Lord." John knew this. He knew who Jesus was. Why then, did his disciples even have to ask? I think Jesus' answer is the key. Notice he doesn't say, "Yea... that's me." In fact, he doesn't reference himself at all. He points to the work of his ministry. "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them." That is the answer to their question. But there's more.

Jesus' next statement is so politically charged we are taken aback by it. "And blessed is the one who is not offended by me." He's saying, "Look, in your hearts you're blaming me for why your leader is in prison. But look at what he is giving his life for: lame beggars walking? The poor having good news preached to them? That's awesome. Don't be upset. John knows." And he goes on to give a testimonial about John that would bless anyone's heart because John went out and DID in response to what he believed.

The reason the church gets all caught up in internal politicking is because we are way too worried that some stand we take will offend someone. So we check out and check out and check out to make sure no one will be upset and by the time we're ready to do ANYTHING we have no heart left to do it at all. John never got in Jesus' way even from prison. Jesus never questioned any of John's actions. Nor does John himself question any of Jesus' actions. What was important to them both was bringing salvation in all its fullness to the people they loved. And that is what Jesus expects us in his church to do.


February 2, 2009 Rewards

READ: Matthew 10:40-42
40 “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.
41 The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person's reward.
42 And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.

Oh Evangelicals! I think we need to seriously rethink a few of our common terms. I don't know how long we've hung our theological hat on "receiving Christ" as the way people become Christians -- the only reference I can think of that specifically mentions it is in Romans 3:25, "Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins."

There are two problems with making Romans 3:25 into a doctrinal statement: 1) when WE say the verse I think our 21st century western ears are hearing "I...I...I..." but that's not the context. Paul is talking about the distinction between Jew and "Greek". The context of the passage is corporate, not individual. This is much more a verse like the first half of John 3:16, "For God so loved the cosmos -- the world, the people in the world, and much less like the second half, "that whoever believes in him..."

Is there an individual dimension to faith? Of course. But individuals can't expect to experience faith separate from community. Outside of community, faith is merely a proposition. "I believe these things in principle and would put them into action if ever there was a place and people who would challenge my beliefs."

Challenge? Yes! The mere fact that Jesus talks about someone giving a cup of cold water in his name means there must be others who won't give a cup, or even a single ounce. When I first came in contact with Christians who took the Word of God seriously -- my terminology is intentional so as not to divide the sheep from the goats along liberal and conservative lines -- they were challenging me to receive Christ, when in reality the question was whether I would receive them.

I first heard the gospel preached at a Josh McDowell rally at U-Conn in the fall of 1974. I remember after the meeting taking two friends of mine aside and tearing them apart for believing in a literal hell and for thinking there was a God anywhere who would ever judge anyone. Man, I was angry! But it wasn't many days before I found myself at one of their club meetings, listening (albeit with a cynical ear) to more of the same. I wasn't there because I believed in Jesus. I was there because these people had been truly kind to me and had taken me seriously in the midst of what I perceived to be a scary, lonely environment. Before I could receive Christ I had to receive those he had sent. And doesn't Paul say the same in Romans 10:14? "But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?"

The miracle of the gospel in present terms is in two kinds: the cup of cold water given is a miracle because it goes against our nature; the cup of cold water received is a miracle because it goes against our nature as well.

Dear Friend! Don't be an island of static belief today. Go... grab the nearest cup... find some cold water... find someone who needs the cold water you have... and pray they will receive the miracle of faith in Christ experienced in community.


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

January 31, 2009 Losses and Crosses

READ: Matthew 10:34-39
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

It is particularly disconcerting, don't you think, to discover that as a Christian, your greatest opponents might turn out to be those of your own household. If you look back a few verses you'll find that Jesus reinforces this thought by saying that members of your own house are probably the ones who will turn you in for loving Jesus.


Anyone who is a parent knows there is no guarantee that their children are going to grow up to follow Jesus. I wish I could tell you there is. And anyone who has become a believer in their youth apart from the comfort of a believing family can tell you there is no guarantee that your parents will ever come to know Christ just because you came to love him. Finally, there's no guarantee that just because you come to faith your spouse will. The painful truth is that each person is responsible before God for only one person. God has no "grandchildren", and there is no extended family "ticket" that will gain your loved-ones access to the throne of grace. Those you love the most in this world may well be unable to join you as you await the next.

I have prayed and prayed for some that I love deeply. And certainly, some of them have come to know Christ. But others have remained unrepentant to the end. Yet know this: Christ commands us to pray, not matter what the outcome. We don't pray to change God's mind. We pray that God might change our hearts. I think that's a foggy misquote from Mother Teresa. Also know that the least you can do for someone you love is not to pray for them. The most you can do for them is to pray daily for their salvation and their reconciliation with God.

So pray! Even if they persecute you and throw you out of the house, PRAY. God is responsible for their salvation. Your witness will sometimes be verbal, sometimes physical. And while you pray ask for God's wisdom on how to be a witness for him; how and when to open your mouth in his name. And if they persecute you? Be sure that they're persecuting Christ IN you, and aren't just angry because your halo is on too tight.


Monday, February 2, 2009

January 30, 2009 The Persecution

READ: Matthew 10:16-33
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

24 “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant [1] above his master. 25 It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign [2] those of his household.

26 “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. 28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. [3] 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? [4] And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.

I can't tell you how often I'll be sitting, minding my own business, and I'll start "hearing" all kinds of condemnation in my head. Here's a partial list:

You're not good enough
You're no believer
You're a failure
You're a sinner beyond help
You're a loser
You've blown it

Well... you get the idea. Some of that condemnation comes from the strangest places. When I was a child I saw a Porky Pig cartoon that scared me to my core. I know. Silly, isn't it? But in the cartoon there were these two men dressed in black who came from the Internal Revenue Service and kept showing up at Porky's door. Everywhere he went, there they were about to audit him. As a 5 year old I had no knowledge of what an audit was or even what the IRS is. I do remember the punchline of the cartoon though: Porky finally blows himself up and goes to hell. There, in the burning ruins (now wearing a devil's costume), Porky thinks he's finally gotten away from them. But there they are! Though I'm scrupulous about doing my taxes correctly, I still expect those two men from the IRS to show up at my door one day.

The fear is fear of judgment in each case. But Jesus tells us to have no fear of "them," whoever "they" are. I also have learned to fear my own tongue. I used to blurt out all kinds of things that form the background of most of the other condemnations that run around my head. And so it is particularly comforting to me to hear Jesus words of support, "do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you."

I know... I've never experienced what it really means to be brought up before men on account of Jesus. But I do know what it feels like to feel condemned by my own thoughts. And so I want to tell the powers, wherever they are in the heavenly places: "you have no authority here. Jesus is Lord of my life. Whatever sins I have committed, whatever deficiencies I may think I have, whatever is lacking in me, his name and on his authority have already saved me from. I know you are lying. Be gone, in Jesus' name!"

There now. That's better.