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.


Monday, January 31, 2011

Jesus and Superman

Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
(Mark 7:31-37 ESV)

I find increasingly that when I read certain parts of the Gospels I have to shake myself to get images of George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, and Tom Welling out of my head.   And it doesn’t help that I’m 55 and live in the cultural frozen wasteland that is Southern New Hampshire.  Having run out of new releases to watch while our fireplace consumes cord after cord of wood, I finally sunk to a new low and pulled out Superman: The Movie (1978). 

There is a really interesting piece of backstory to the Superman franchise.  It is something Superman’s father says to him (via holographic image in the ’78 movie).  “It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history.”  Any question of identification I might have between Superman and Jesus goes out the window with that one.  Jesus is the great interferer with human history.  As Galatians 4:4 says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”  When Jesus was born in Bethlehem he interfered with human history in a big way.  I don’t think I need to document this any further.

Beyond that, remember that Superman never spoke to crowds (other than perhaps at a supermarket opening, but that was really George Reeves playing Superman); Superman had no disciples; Superman never healed anyone that I know of (though he did use his X-ray vision to guide a doctor or two, if I recall correctly). 

So why the comparison?   Probably because it is a whole lot easier for us to conceive of a man who has great powers “beyond those of mortal men,” because of genetic mutation (X-Men), cruel accident, or simply because they came from another planet than it is for us to conceive of God Incarnate.  The only really fair comparison between Superman and Jesus is the sinless nature of both.  Superman is such a good man that we cannot imagine him making a mistake or having his judgment clouded by lust, greed, or some other defect.  Well… Mario Puzo’s version of Superman demonstrates the slightest dark side.  And I know I’ll get dozens of notes of correction from people devoted to Superman comics.  But the classic 50’s TV Superman is a reversal on Roman and Greek mythology.  The gods were gods tempted and often succumbing to human sin.  Superman is a man tempted to be so good that we assign god-like attributes to him. 

But neither is Jesus, at least not Jesus unmuddled by all the comic book pictorials we have confused him with.  That’s the problem.  We wanted Superman, who flies in from nowhere and saves the day.  What we got was the Second person of the Trinity who does not heal because he is a doctor.  He heals because he has life in himself.  We wanted someone who changes the course of mighty rivers and bends steel in his bear hands.   What we got was someone who changes hearts and bends boundaries.  We wanted someone who could see through walls.  We got someone who can see into lives.  We wanted someone who could fly.  We got someone who can raise the dead. 

Yes, I read stories like the healing of the deaf and dumb man (in Mark 7), and the skeptic in me looks at Superman and says there’s about as much chance that Jesus actually healed the man the way the account has it, as there is that Superman could catch bullets in his teeth.  God forgive me for such a lack of trust.  You see, Superman has never showed up when I was in dire straits.  But Jesus has.  And my every interaction with him convinces me that he is able to heal the blind, the deaf, the lame, and that he has brought life to my body and soul also. 


Sunday, January 30, 2011

Lord's Day Message: The Beatitudes

Dear Friends,
This is a reworking of a Morning Watch post from December, as the Lectionary for today was the same, and this seemed the best way of bringing the material to the congregation.  If you read the earlier post, you'll find significant differences, though the overall idea is the same.  Remember, you can always find us at

Yours in Christ,


Lord’s Day Message, January 30, 2011
Immanuel Community Church, Concord, NH

As we continue our look at the normative expectations God has of every Christian, the Nine Calls of the Christian as we are defining them, we’ve arrived at the very core of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship.  We’re also just about half-way through this series.  This week and next week we’ll be looking at Jesus’ teaching from the beginning of Sermon on the Mount.  So these two messages are probably the most critical in terms of what you and I cannot dispense with and still call ourselves Christians. 

The Sermon on the Mount, and especially the opening section that we call The Beatitudes offers a wonderful moment of drama.  Matthew 5:1 says, “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.”

Now, I think most of us generally pass right over this scene-setter because we want to get to the good stuff.  But without understanding the setting and the people involved, we cannot comprehend that Jesus is not just being poetic or hypothetical with the Beatitudes.  What he is about to share is a practical framework for Christian life and ethics.  And what we have to grapple with in these coming verses is that Jesus actually meant what he said; he actually did what he talked about; and he actually expects every person who wants to be called “disciple” to do the same.

Setting and Characters
The scene is a hillside just north of Capernaum, the resort and fishing community where Jesus was living and where he began his ministry in earnest. There are two groups of people here on the hillside.  The first is the crowds.  Matthew 4 and Luke 6 tell us the several places these people came from: Some came from Syria, a part of the old Selucid Empire, now under Roman rule.  Syria did not have primarily a Jewish population. 

They came from Galilee, which was the whole northeastern part of First Century Israel.  If you were here last week, you heard the area called Galilee of the Gentiles because the ancient Jews who settled here around 1600 BC intermarried with the locals to produce a kind of half-way Judaism that allowed them to maintain the pagan practices of the Canaanites with whom they shared the land.  By Jesus’ day, the area may have had a Jewish plurality, but it was very much a melting pot.   

Some of the people on the hillside that day came from the area around Capernaum, including many non-Jews, especially those who lived east of the Jordan and in the north.   Some came from the Decapolis, a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in Judea and Syria, but way west of Capernaum.   The Decapolis cities were centers of Greek and Roman culture in a region that was otherwise Semitic. 
Some came from Jerusalem, which lies just into the southern third of the nation at the time and was the capital of Judea.  It was occupied mostly by Jews at the time, as was the rest of Judea, the whole of the southern kingdom.  And some came from “beyond the Jordan,” an area then called Peraea, in what is the modern-day Kingdom of Jordan.  Peraea is non-Jewish.  Finally, they came from Tyre, and Sidon, on the border of Syria – a very cosmopolitan area; very mixed in terms of culture and ethnic background. 

So… who was coming out to see Jesus?  Was the audience on this particular day a group of card-carrying Jews?  To be sure, it was not.  In most cases, these people have traveled a very long way, mostly in search of healing for various diseases. 

So here is this amazing scene: thousands of people, many of them poor, sick, and probably on the brink of starvation, who have left the little security they had at home to find out what this Jewish rabbi might possibly do for them.  Many probably died along the way trying to get here.  Many more will not live to see home again because they came.  And most of them are being tolerated at best, and hated at worst by the Jews in the area simply because they are of the goyim – the nations – the “everybody else.”  This isn’t mere bigotry.  This has been bred into these Jews because it is the only way to maintain the integrity of their culture.  All of them have climbed this small hill where, it has been rumored, Jesus is going to speak. 

Toward the top of the hill is a group of between 12 and 60 men and women, some of whom Jesus had only recently invited to be his disciples.  It is a great honor in the first century for a young Jewish male to be asked to be a disciple of a rabbi.  It means a lengthy time of teaching on top of the study of Torah and the rest of Holy Scripture that those invited by the rabbi were assumed to have already mastered.  But it is the only avenue to becoming a rabbi yourself; the only avenue to the honor and respect a rabbi receives.   Peter, John and James, Andrew, Philip, Matthew, and a few of the others had not mastered the teaching.  They were already adults working at trades in the area, and had no further hope of being tapped by a rabbi.  They were too old.  They were not good enough.  So when, weeks before, Jesus had gone around Capernaum and picked them, out of all real scholars and good students that were available to be his disciples, they had jumped at the chance.

At the top of the hill sits an unremarkable man.  He is unremarkable because he is not rich, he is not powerful, he has no political connections to speak of, and if you pass him on the street you will probably think nothing of him unless you have heard of the miracles that seem to follow him everywhere he goes.  This is, however, the first time he is to give a major message.  This is why the rabbi Joshua ben Joseph, Jesus, has come here.

There. That is Matthew 5, verse 1 in time and space. 

The last thing that must not be missed is a bit of placement.  Jesus will be preaching this day downhill, directly to, or perhaps we might even say through his disciples.  In order to speak to the crowds, he has to speak past the disciples.  While the message will be addressed to the general audience, it seems really clear that the people he wants to impact the most with the message are the ones sitting closest to him.  Because, let’s face it.  These disciples of his are not like most of the people who have shown up here to listen to the preacher.  It may be that the only middle-class working stiffs in the whole group were those 12-60 disciples.  They may have been among the few who could get up after the message was over and return to their homes and have dinner.  But we will discover this soon enough. 

Now, on this hillside these newly minted disciples of his who are made up of an almost an even split between fishermen and men climbing the ladder of religious leadership in a couple of different Jewish sects, are undoubtedly facing him.  Only one of them that we know of comes from a different background.  His name is Matthew.  He is wealthy because he was, until a few weeks ago, a tax collector by trade, he has been lived on the fringe of Jewish society because he is an aggressive, competitive man who has made himself wealthy by cheating poor people and by doing business with Rome.  We must not miss the fact that he is the one who years later will recount this scene on paper for us.  We are seeing Jesus preach primarily through his eyes and ears.

Matthew and the rest of the disciples cannot possibly be oblivious to the tremendous crowd sitting just behind and below them on the hill.  And with every word Jesus will speak, they will become more and more aware of who they are, and more and more aware of the challenge that is sitting just behind them.

Now that we know where we are and who is here, listen carefully, because verse 2 says, “he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

(vs. 3) Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  In Luke’s version it simply says, “Blessed are you poor…” I don’t know which one Jesus said that day or whether the two reports are of two different messages, or whether Matthew, years later, writing it down still couldn’t get over the bald economics of what Jesus was saying.  But for a rich man to hear that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor?  Don’t think for a moment, Matthew, that the poor are of secondary concern to Jesus.  And don’t think for a moment, Matthew, that Jesus is not telling you that they are not to be of practical concern to you. 

Jesus may be speaking down a hillside through a small group of middle-class disciples to the poor.  But if the poor gain the kingdom of heaven, the clear implication for Matthew is that the only way for this tax collector to enter the kingdom of heaven is through the poor.   

The context of the scene leaves no other possibility.

(vs. 4) “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.  What are you going to do, Matthew, for those who have lost loved-ones along the way coming to hear this message?  Don’t think for a moment they are not your responsibility.  They are here.  Don’t think for a moment that you can wish them well and send them on their way.  It isn’t good enough to say to yourself that God will comfort them.  You must engage with them.  You must sit and learn their story.  You must comfort them.  The context of the scene leaves you no way around it. 

(vs. 5) “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  This gathering could so easily have become a riot.  The disciples could so easily have become a police barricade struggling to save their Master’s life against a well meaning, but insistent mob.  But the people sat down on the hillside that day and listened patiently and respectfully, even though many of them had heard that in order to be healed all they needed to do was touch Jesus. 

When he tempted Jesus, Satan offered him all the kingdoms of the earth if Jesus would only worship him.  But patience like the people had that day – a meekness that obeys the Master’s voice like a sheep does his shepherd?  That is the kind of people you want to pass the Kingdom of God along to. 

Matthew: All your ambition, all your striving to get ahead, all your political maneuvering won’t get you anywhere in a kingdom like this.  You wanted to build an inheritance.  Who were you going to pass it on to anyway?  The people you walked over to climb to the top?  This turns all your ambition on its head.  Now your only ambition must be to sit and listen to the Master, like the meek crowd waiting patiently behind you. 

The context of the scene leaves you nothing else to do.

(vs. 6) “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.  Luke’s account of this sermon leaves out the words “for righteousness.”  Did Jesus add those words that day, or writing years later, did Matthew realize that feeding the hungry and offering drink to the thirsty is righteousness?

On other days in other places Jesus will ask his disciples to feed crowds of this size with a few fish and some scant loaves of bread.  And they will do it.  But today there are hungry people right here.  And today Jesus is not going to perform that particular miracle because this is a lesson in linking your faith with practical ethics.  Matthew, when Jesus is finished preaching today, who is going home with you to enjoy your meal?

It is going to cost Peter, Andrew, James, and John as well.  They have a catch of fish back in town.  No time to sell them.  This is their whole income today.  And Matthew, do you still have money from your tax collections?  You give them something to eat.

The context of the scene – righteousness -- demands it.
(vs. 7) “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.  The person who is in a position to withhold mercy is a person who is in a position to exercise judgment.  

There is something that tends to happen when people gain a title.  It separates them from all the rest and so often gives them the idea they are in a position to judge.  And Matthew, you are not going to be able to do any of the rest of what Jesus has challenged you to do as long as you hold onto your title of tax collector or disciple or Pharisee or chosen, or pastor or deacon or church member.  Until you are willing to receive the mercy you need, you’ll never offer mercy.

The people on this hillside need to see hearts that have been forgiven of their hardness.  The people on this hillside need to see hearts of stone that have become hearts of flesh.  When you stand up after the message and turn around, don’t think for a moment that you can walk back through the crowd, do nothing, and use your title: tax collector or disciple or Pharisee or chosen, or pastor or deacon or church member as the excuse of why you didn’t engage with them. 

The context of the scene won’t allow you to.

(vs. 8) “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  We today don’t understand what it means to have a pure heart about something.  In the 21st century we have so divorced motive from action that we can talk about a person having a pure heart even though they sin by their actions.  “Oh, he meant well,” we say.  In the first century you only meant well when you did well. 

The people in the crowd behind Matthew didn’t come to make a statement, or to picket for a cause, or even to be religious.  You can do all those things with mixed motives.  Most of the people in this crowd simply came to be healed.  Their motive was absolutely pure on that point.  And before Jesus ever began this message, he met their need.   The phrase also doesn’t say, “blessed are those who see God, for it will make them pure in heart.”  You cannot come to God with mixed motives and with your pretenses in tact.

There is no pretense here on this hillside.  Here are people coming completely empty of all agenda but just to get to someone who might be able to heal them.  Here on this hillside this disciple is suddenly and embarrassingly stripped naked, his pockets empty, his heart broken, his false religiosity exposed. 

The context of the scene has devastated him.

(vs. 9) “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.  Just over your shoulder, Matthew, are groups of people that until today you would have been glad to have an argument with, and they with you. It is a group of pagans, half-breeds, Greeks, and a few zealous Jews, all of whom would be glad to stick a knife in your back because you are wealthy, because you are a tax collector, because your gain has been at their expense. 

The politics of the Middle-East is on this hillside.  And the hatred goes both ways.  Until today a gathering like this would have been cause enough for you to fight; cause enough for you to start a war.   But there is no reason to start a war or to fight in a war or to support a war ever, anywhere from this day forward.  Why?  Because, if all the other things Jesus has said to this point aren’t practical enough for you, then consider this, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7)  No, you are not your Master.  But today he is asking you to meet life as he does.  And you will never be able to forget today, when so many of your “enemies” were gathered with you on this hillside.  And you won’t be able to forget the Lord’s mercy and kindness toward you.

The context of the scene means that you will be a peacemaker.

(vs. 10) “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Here on this hillside, gathered around you are people who have each been persecuted at some point for the sake of political expediency.  Here are people who have been persecuted because they didn’t fit into someone’s cultural or religious mold.  Here are people who have been persecuted as wrong-doers because of people who had “the Law” all nailed down.  But Matthew, if you do all the things we just talked about, they will persecute you because your life toward God will be an offense to your Jewish leaders; your life toward God will threaten the Roman authorities; your life toward God will seem ridiculous to all who place partisan interest and self first. 

Don’t forget the context of the scene.  You will need to remember it when they begin to persecute you.

(vs. 11-12) “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  It isn’t enough that you do what is right.  The Pharisees have made stock-and-trade out of that for years.  Just doing the right thing isn’t enough because it always ends in cold legalism.   Just up the hill from you sits the one whom your soul loves.  He is not just rabbi to you.  His words to you are life

You are ready now in a way you weren’t before today to give everything to know what he knows and do what he does.   Your relationship with him gives you the reason to do all that he has talked about here on this hillside.  Your relationship with him gives you the ability to bless when others revile you, to bless when others persecute you, to respond kindly when others speak evil of you, to gently speak truth when other speak lies about you.  Your relationship with him gives you a hunger you never knew before, a thirst for his words and to be in his presence.   

You look around you one more time and realize that in all of them: the Poor, the Mourning, the Meek, the Hungry, the Thirty, the Merciful, the Pure, the Peacemakers – in all of them -- HE is the context of the scene. 


Questions for Action:

What will I do to engage with the poor?

What will I do to engage with someone who is mourning?

How will I demonstrate meekness?

With whom will I share my food and drink?

To whom will I extend mercy?   From whom do I need to receive mercy?

What motives or actions are blocking me from seeing God?

How will I become a peacemaker?  Is there someone I need to make peace with?

What needs to change in my life that will put the kingdom of heaven first?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

In the Morning

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.
(Psalm 139:17-18 ESV)

Jama and I stayed overnight last night with Tim, Alice, and River (our grandson) in Boston.  This morning I am the first one up in the house.  Well, not really.  River is 6 weeks old today, and he gets up anytime he needs something!  

The lectionary this morning was Psalm 139.  I haven't printed the whole of it, because it is long.  But this phrase in particular jumped out at me.  

When River wakes up he knows that Mom or Dad will come and attend to him immediately.  This is natural to him.  We actually have to learn not to trust.  In a family where all things are in order, the child will continue to trust Mom and Dad even as the more difficult lessons of life come.  River will learn, as consciousness grows in him, that Mom and Dad are not God, but God is God.  For now, though, the thoughts of his parents are precious to him.  They are so vast he cannot even conceive of them.  He might as well be trying to count sand.  

We act very sophisticated sometimes.  I'm sure God laughs at it.  Last weekend Jama and I went to a traditional Irish session (folk musicians playing around a table in a pub).  Sessions are always informal affairs, and in Ireland, very much family affairs.  At this particular session there was a small girl, no more than 7 or 8.  She spent the entire evening pretending she was one of the performers in Riverdance, I think.  In her mind she was the most elegant step dancer that ever was.  I told Jama that I thought that when the people at the tables applauded, she must be figuring it is all for her.  

That's how we must seem to God when we start spouting theology.  It isn't that we have the concepts wrong.  We may even have things quite right.  It is the quasi-adult attitude with which we come to him that is so humorous.  And those of us who fancy ourselves "theologians" are dancing like the little girl, and I think we theologians all expect the people are watching us and that all the accolades are because of our profound thoughts.

Wouldn't it be great if I could regain the innocence of that little girl!  Wouldn't it be awesome if I could trust like River does.  The girl wasn't actually thinking about the people at all.   The beauty of childhood abandon is that it is unpretentious.  It is not thought out.  There is no reason to it.  It is just joyful response.  The infant doesn't think, "How precious is my Mother.  How vast to me are her thoughts."  River simply needs milk or changing or burping.  And Mom or Dad (or as often as we can, Grandma and Grandpa) come and supply his need.  The supply is as vast as the grains of sand on a seashore!  And River has no worries, no concerns.  We may assign those emotions to him when he grimaces, but that is anthropomorphizing on our part.  I often speak for infants, like in the old movie Look Who's Talking.  But River is just trusting with the same abandon with which the little girl danced.

How would I know that I had arrived at that same abandon with God?  It wouldn't be because I had some profound theological thought and wrote a best-seller about it.  I would know that I had arrived at child-like abandon when, upon awaking in the morning, he was my first thought.

Still, still with Thee, when purple morning breaketh,
When the bird waketh, and the shadows flee;
Fairer than morning, lovelier than daylight,
Dawns the sweet consciousness, I am with Thee.
(Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1812-1896)


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

At the Point of a Knife

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.

For some time prior to this event, one of the splinter groups running around the church was a bunch colloquially called “The Circumcision Party,” though they were kind of like today’s Tea Party, a loose coalition who believe a set of things rather than a specific sect, strictly speaking.  This particular group taught that you had to follow the Law as well as Christ, and that Gentiles would have to become practicing Jews first before they could become Christians.

But Peter’s (Cephas's) vision, reported in Acts 10:1-18 made it clear that the gospel was indeed to go in an unrestricted way into all the world.  The Circumcision Party represented in germ form the worst of what Christianity became soon after 312 AD, traditionally the year Constantine converted to Christianity.  What exactly it was that Constantine converted to is in question, but one thing is sure, it wasn’t Christ.  The fact is that the faith as Jesus communicated it and as the Apostolic generation lived was is pretty much sunk the moment we began to call it ChristianITY. 

In his excitingly dangerous book Mere Discipleship (Brazos Press2008), Lee C. Camp writes that there are “two different ways of construing ‘Christianity’: the Christendom reflex, in which Christianity is a ‘religion’; or an emphasis upon discipleship, in which Christianity is ‘the Way’ to be taken with deadly seriousness.”

Generations of Evangelical believers have intoned that “salvation is not because of our works,” and this is true.  But the great failure of the Evangelical Movement has been precisely that we defined what it means to be a Christian via tightly prescribed doctrine, and therefore, very much by works.  Oh, we told people that all they had to do to be saved was say the Sinner’s Prayer.  But then we went on to insist that, “by their doctrine shall ye know them,” rather than “by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16, say Amen) And so the movement devolved into an internal war over doctrine rather than over whether Jesus really intended us to DO what he said and did.  Your salvation does not depend on your works.  But it very much depends on JESUS’ work.  And if the life of the average believer does not look very much like the life of the one he or she claims as Master, the question has to be asked whether that person has experienced conversion in the smallest degree.

In saying this I do not in any way mean to apply some moral or character test to those who claim to believe.  If I did, we’d all fail.  But the “basics” of the Christian life turn out to be more about the agape love of God, about compassion, about faithfulness, about the poor, about meekness and gentleness, than about whether you had a quiet time today or went to Bible study last Thursday.  Those globals, what Galatians goes on to call the Fruit of the Spirit, are the test of what you will never arrive at unless you know Christ and honor him in your heart and with your life.

What Peter and many of his contemporaries ran afoul of was the “hypocrisy” of a Christianity where  discipleship separated being from doing.  That kind of religion always ends in the Law, because it is so much easier to define what you are by rules and regulations, by making the most important thing what you know, or think you know about God, rather than making the most important thing the God you know. 

And so, for the Circumcision Party, discipleship ended at the point of the mohel’s knife.  For the church of the middle-ages discipleship ended when we compelled people to repent or face execution.  For the church of the late 20th century, discipleship ended in a classroom the moment we took discipleship out of the streets and began to teach it from books.  If you really want to be true to Galatians 2:20, if Christ is to live in you, he must live through you.  Do you want to be crucified with Christ, or simply make sure your circumcision was done properly?



Monday, January 24, 2011

Consider the Poor

            Blessed is the one who considers the poor!
                        In the day of trouble the LORD delivers him;
            the LORD protects him and keeps him alive;
                        he is called blessed in the land;
                        you do not give him up to the will of his enemies.
            The LORD sustains him on his sickbed;
                        in his illness you restore him to full health.

            As for me, I said, “O LORD, be gracious to me;
                        heal me, for I have sinned against you!”
 (Psalm 41:1-4 ESV)

You really don’t want to miss what is being said here.  It took me three readings before I was able to sort out the “hes” and “whos” of this one.  The opening statement of Psalm 41 says that a person who “considers” the poor is blessed. 

What does it mean, to consider?  I considered going hiking when I got up this morning, but it is -7 on the thermometer, and I’ve got some of the aches and pains that go with being 55 years old, so I didn’t go hiking.  But I considered it.  Does that mean that I will gain muscle and lose weight today for having considered taking a long walk?

Of course not.   The only way a person benefits from exercise is to actually DO it. 

The Ancients knew this.  For a First Century Jew, to consider the poor meant to actually do something for them.  Remember, this was a time when there were no organized social service agencies, no government programs, no checks to write that would absolve you from getting off your couch.  If you lived in the First Century and  considered the poor, you went to them and did something.  Your own hand had to touch theirs.

This morning is a good day to consider the poor if you live in the Northeast.  Yes, there are social service agencies.  But there are poor people almost everywhere these days: 

Do you know for sure if your neighbors have enough fuel for their furnace?  Most of us could probably afford one extra delivery of fuel this winter.  I know, it would “hurt.”  You might have to eat pasta for a couple of weeks – though I doubt most of us would even feel the loss.   

There’s a Somali refugee man I see almost every time I drive to the grocery store.  He walks along US 4, I assume either going to work or the grocery store.  I don’t need to go all the way to Lee for groceries today, but I think I will.  If I see him, I need to stop and offer him a ride.   Yes, I know.  How do I know the man is honest?  What if he took advantage of me?   
Jama asked me yesterday if our son Tim and his wife Alice, who live in Boston, might know of anyone who needs boots or a winter coat.  Yes, there are social service agencies.  But how hard would it be for me to stop at Wal-Mart and buy someone a pair of boots and a coat?  I even have the resource to drive to Boston to deliver them.  Now that’s a terribly inefficient way to serve the poor, isn’t it?  Wasn’t Jesus dying on the cross was a terribly inefficient way to love me?

Those are just a few ideas.  I’ll bet if you ponder for a moment you can think of a ton more ways to consider the poor, even if it is utilizing one of those social service agencies.

The way the passage above ends is telling.  We don’t gain from offering ourselves to the poor.  Even if it is just an offer; even if all we get to do is call some agency and put our name out there; even if we have to get in line to serve dinner at the local soup kitchen, it still opens our eyes to our own sickness and need and causes us to cry out to God about our own sin.  And that is gain enough.

At least consider it.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Lord's Day Message: Called to Follow

The Call to Follow
Immanuel Community Church
Sunday, January 23, 2011

(Matthew 4:12-23 ESV)
Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

            “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
                        the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
            the people dwelling in darkness
                        have seen a great light,
            and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
                        on them a light has dawned.”

            From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
            While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
            And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.

We’ve spent the last couple of weeks building an understanding that the Call of the Christian is the normal work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer.  This is pretty heavy stuff for most Christians today to take in.  That’s because the church in the 20th century failed to teach these things as normative.  Whether you want to explain these things as simply the action and evidence of the Holy Spirit in the heart of a believer or whether you want to explain them as specific expectations that God has for every person who comes to know him, these are things that, when the church is being the church, will flow from the life of believer to believer and from believer to unbeliever, and ultimately change the world.

Now, volumes and volumes have been written over the years on what it means to follow Jesus.  In fact, the greatest divisions the church has ever seen were over this central question. There isn’t time in this message to go over the whole history of this.  I’d love to share it with you, though.  So if you will ask me at coffee hour this morning, we can make this the topic of our table talk.   What I will say right now is that every time the church has attempted to make the message of the gospel appealing to the world, we have disengaged from the Call to Follow Jesus, even though that was exactly what we thought we were doing.

So what we want to look at this morning is NORMATIVE – it is how God means for discipleship to work.   And it is also SHOCKING, because the church has failed to teach it without compromise over the years, so this is going to sound foreign and perhaps a little harsh to you.  I wish there was some way of padding this and making it easier to present, but I don’t know any way to. 

The way Matthew outlines it for us here, we are called to Follow where the Darkness is Deepest; called to Follow where the Kingdom is Nearest; called to Follow where the Choice is Hardest; and called to Follow where the Risk is Greatest. 

Follow where the Darkness is Deepest
Matthew 4 begins by giving us what looks like a piece of background, almost an itinerary of Jesus’ doings to bring us up to a particular point in the narrative.  Matthew writes:  Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

            “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
                        the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
            the people dwelling in darkness
                        have seen a great light,
            and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
                        on them a light has dawned.”

But this is no mere itinerary.  Matthew is telling us why Jesus left Judea.  After John the Baptist was arrested, the climate, in terms of the area being ready to receive the Gospel message had changed in Judea, so Jesus withdrew back into the region where he had grown up.  It wasn’t that he was afraid of what might happen or was trying to be politically savvy.  Judea simply wasn’t yet prepared for what he was called to say and do.

The area around Capernaum really has a wonderfully colorful history.  In ancient times it was inhabited by the Canaanites, a pagan people who worshipped a pantheon of gods.  Around 1400 BC, when Israel was instructed by God to enter the Land, God gave regions to each of the 12 tribes, representing the 12 sons of Jacob.  The northeastern-most two of these regions belonged to the tribe of Zebulun and the tribe of Naphtali. 

When they took over the land, these two tribes not only failed to drive the Canaanites off what was now their property, but they intentionally intermarried with them and, in what would probably be called a hip ecumenical move today, worshipped not only Yahweh, but also the Baals and the Asheroth, the pagan gods of the region.  Though God spoke boldly to them for seven hundred years both through prophetic words and through the evidence of what happens when lives are lived faithful to him and when they are not, neither the people of Zebulun nor the people of Naphtali ever really embraced the Hebrew God fully.  The result was that the region came to be known as Galilee of the Gentiles.  Gentiles.  Goyim.  “Everybody Else.”    

By the time of Christ, Galilee, and Capernaum especially were resort areas, and quite cosmopolitan.  Capernaum sits right on the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee, and makes a wonderful place for a holiday. And surely the Jews who lived there had long ago learned not just to tolerate idol worship, but to enjoy the benefits of having these pagan practices living side-by-side with theirs.  It was economically and culturally smart to do it.  So, when Jesus withdrew into Galilee of the Gentiles, he was not only going somewhere culturally familiar to him (since he grew up in the Galilee region), he was going into an area where the spiritual darkness was deep.  

Another thing to notice is that Jesus didn’t go there on some kind of preaching mission.  As we said last week, Jesus was no vagabond hippie.  The Call to Follow is the call to go and live in a place; to know and be known by the people there; and to live the message under the spotlight of community.  The text says that Jesus went and lived in Capernaum by the sea.  They might as well have said that Jesus had gone to live in Chatham on the Cape, or at Alton Bay on the Lake. 

But let’s not make a mistake here.  Even though Capernaum was a cosmopolitan melting pot and quite hip, the passage also says that he preached in the synagogues there.  So if you’re going to go where the darkness is deepest, you are going to Follow Jesus into the church as it is in a cosmopolitan setting.  If you are going to go where the darkness is deepest, the first shock your system is going to have to absorb is that Following Jesus means going into a thoroughly paganized church.
            Romans 1:21 says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”  And in Ephesians 1:18 Paul writes, “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”

The darkness, it turns out, is often greatest IN the church.  “The people who dwelt in darkness,” it turns out, is us.  And this cuts across all denominational lines, across all theological distinctives.   WE, it turns out, are the ones who live the most pagan lives among pagan people.  What could be more pagan than to keep silent when you are with those of differing beliefs because at the root of it you have been taught that all is one and you don’t want to offend anyone?  We Christians today, liberal, conservative, Calvinist and Arminian, though we may call ourselves evangelical, are not evangelistic because we have adopted the pagan belief that pluralism in religion is good.  “Let others alone to believe what they will.  Jesus is okay for me, but it isn’t nice to impose my religious position on others.  So given the choice, I’ll keep silent, thanks.” 

The prophecy of Isaiah is not a prophecy directed to Gentiles.  It is a prophecy directed to Jews… in the synagogues… in Capernaum… where Jesus lived; Jews who should have known God, but had forgotten him. 

We who want to see Jesus have to follow him into the Capernaums of our day, into the cities and resort towns where the challenge to speak the word of God and live the word of God in public is the greatest because that’s where the darkness is greatest. 

Those who came before us did us a favor.  This church is already in Concord.  But we need to plant ourselves in Concord.  It would be better for us, for the city, and especially for the gospel if we had our church business meetings down at the Cheers Bar and at the Green Olive and worshipped the Lord together over at Boloco and in the CafĂ© at Borders.  The churches of Concord need to have their small groups meet at the Public Library and in the lobby of the Holiday Inn; not because it is provocative or hip to do that.  We need to do it because that’s where Jesus is because that’s where the darkness is and we need to follow Jesus where he is going.

And there are other dark places here too.  There is an apartment building so close to this church you could throw a rock at it and hit a window in the darkness.  We need to find how we can turn our lights on in such a way that that apartment building is bathed in the light of Christ.  Do any of you happen to live in that apartment building?  How many of you have been over there in the last six months?  Did you know there was a family here two weeks ago who live there?  How many of you sat and had a conversation with them during coffee hour?   What would happen if Jesus called you to move there and live there with your family.  Would you go?

Are… you… willing… to follow Jesus where the darkness is deepest?
Follow where the Kingdom is nearest
The second thing we find in the passage goes hand in glove with the first.  If we are Called to Follow where the Darkness is Deepest.  We’re also Called to Follow where the Kingdom is Nearest.  And thank God for that.

Matthew says, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Mark’s version short-hands the whole account and simply says, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Listen to just a smattering of what Jesus had to say about the Kingdom of God.  John 16:16 “The Law and the Prophets were (preached) until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached.”  Luke 17:21, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” Matthew 12:28, “if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”  When some of John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus and asked him if he was the One whose coming was foretold by the prophets, Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.  And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  And let’s not forget the first-level prophecy uttered about Jesus before he was even born, “His name shall be called Immanuel, which means, God with us.”  (that’s Matthew 1:21).
What does all this mean?  Jesus’ wording here in Matthew 4 is absolutely so… provocative.  It practically SINGS.  “The time is fulfilled…”  That’s pregnancy language.  The word Jesus is using is how the ancients described a woman in labor.   “the kingdom of God is AT HAND.”  We talked about this a few weeks ago.  Disciple!  The kingdom of God isn’t in outer space somewhere where you may think God has heaven located.  The kingdom of God is right here.  The Kingdom of God is where Jesus is.
When Jesus walked on earth he could validly stick out his hand and say, “Kingdom of God, at your service.”  But if we accept as truth that Jesus is alive just as much today as he was in the first century, then the Call to Follow is a call to follow alongside of someone who is imminently HERE.   The Call to Follow is a call to go where the kingdom of God is nearest, and that means staying as close to Christ as you possibly can.   It means committing to following Christ wherever he goes.  If Jesus goes to the slums, you go to the slums.  If Jesus goes to visit your neighbor, you go to visit your neighbor.  If Christ goes to the nursing home, you go to the nursing home.  If Christ goes to offer love and reconciliation with the family member you’ve always had a hard relationship with, you go love and reconcile with that person. 
If the Call to Follow means Following where the Darkness is Deepest and where the Kingdom is Nearest, then it certainly means Following where the Choice is the Hardest.
Follow where the Choice is hardest
When Jesus walked past Simon and Andrew that day by the seashore he offered them the most difficult choice of their lives.  They were in a boat – their boat – and they were close in to the land, close enough that they could easily hear Jesus hail them from shore.  What Jesus said to them was, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  But what he might as well have said was, “You can’t hold onto two things at once.  Follow me and you’ll have to drop the net.” 

“Follow me and you’ll have to drop the net?”  This was their livelihood.  This was all either of them knew how to do to support themselves and their families.  You’ll notice neither of them asks, “Will I ever fish again?”.  You see, the moment you ask that question, you’ve already decided you aren’t following Jesus.  The terms of discipleship are this:  If Jesus says “follow me” and what you’re holding onto is a net, you drop the net and follow him.  If Jesus says “follow me” and what you’re holding onto is your money, you let go of the money and follow him.  If Jesus says “follow me” and what you’re holding onto is your family, you let go of your family and follow him.  If Jesus says “follow me” and what you’re holding onto is your health or your property or your reputation or your plans for the future, you let go of those things and follow him. 

Jesus went on a little farther and saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. 

This one stands out so clearly it almost runs you down.  Let’s read it the way Matthew means it.  “he saw James the son of ZEBEDEE and John his brother, in the boat with ZEBEDEE their FATHER, mending their nets, and he called them.  Immediately they left the boat and their FATHER and followed him. 

Mark 10:29-31 “Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
(Mark 10:29-31 ESV)

Do you see now what it was that James and John were holding onto?  Don’t be afraid of it. He is a good God, and he means it for your good.  James… John… You’ll see your father again.  You can’t hold onto him.  It will kill you spiritually.  Peter… Andrew… you’ll fish again.  But hold onto the net and you’ll never become a fisher of men like I want you to.  Following Jesus means making very real, very hard choices. 

Follow where the Risk is greatest
Finally, Jesus calls every person who follows him to go where the Risk is Greatest. 

And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.

This may not sound risky.  The way our “church ears” hear it, this almost sounds fun, like a vacation you’d be glad to go on with Jesus if he asked. 

It says he did three things.  First, he taught in their synagogues.  Second he proclaimed the gospel in the streets.  The word used here is one for public proclamation.  Third, he healed every disease and every affliction.  This sounds like fun until you realize that when Jesus taught the things we’ve just gone over in the synagogue, the response the leaders of the synagogue had was to test him, and then to put him out; to find some way to arrest him or put him to death.  And when he proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom in the streets they accused him of inciting anarchy against the state, and looked for some way to be rid of him.  And when he healed diseases and afflictions, the people marveled and clamored for more, yes.  But the spiritual powers of evil shuddered and said, “We know who you are, the holy one of God,” and sought for a way to destroy him.

If you take Jesus seriously in the things he said and did, if you strip away the sanitized picture Satan has convinced the church to deliver to you, you will see that if you teach these things in the synagogue, the church will hate you.  If you proclaim these things in the streets, the world will hate you.  If you heal every disease, the demons will hate you.  Ultimately, the Call to Follow means that you Follow where the Risk is Greatest.

Those are the terms of discipleship.  Follow where the Darkness is Deepest.  Follow where the Kingdom is Nearest.  Follow where the Choice is Hardest.  Follow where the Risk is Greatest.  What are you going to do?  Jesus is walking by.  Right now.  And he has just called out to you.  And he said, “Follow me.”