Sheep and Goats

I can’t believe all the opinions I found about the goodness of sheep and the badness of goats trying to answer the question “What does Jesus have against goats?” I’ve got an answer. Nothing. According to the parable the Son of Man is not sorting sheep or goats. He is sorting people. They are simply divided the way a shepherd does. It’s a literary device. A simile. Through out the rest of the parable it is about those on the right or the left. You might recall in Exodus 12, when the original instructions for Passover were offered people were told they should choose a lamb of either a sheep or a goat.

Premised on how God has welcomed us, in the teachings of Jesus and the Apostle Paul, hospitality is presented as central to Christians’ life together. Today our culture reduces ‘hospitality’ to friendliness and private entertaining and with regard to the stranger, the indigent and the powerless, we have foisted this ancient obligation onto government and not for profit programs. Has genuine hospitality become a lost art? Christian hospitality remains a public and economic reality by which God re-creates us through the places and people we are given. Recovering this ancient tradition is essential in a world that has grown terrifyingly defensive and harsh.

Sarah Dylan Breuer says that all are invited to experience ‘salvation’ without precondition. And then goes on to answer the question “… what is salvation”? Both Jesus and Paul saw salvation not as merely a promise of a blessed afterlife. Salvation is something that starts today, and it’s about a certain kind of life — specifically, a life in community. And in both Jesus’ view and Paul’s, that’s not just any community, it’s a family. Jesus said that anyone who hears God’s word and does it is his sister or brother or mother (Mark 3:35). And the metaphor Paul most often uses for what we are as the Church, for who we are in Christ, is that we are sisters and brothers. Some modern translations have mangled that by employing the word “believers” for seeing the body of Christ of consisting of brothers and sisters. In other words, the invitation Jesus gives us is the invitation to relationship — with one another as much as with him and with the God who created us. Jesus’ invitation to us, his ragtag band of disciples from all nations, is to join God’s people. The invitation to join the community is issued to everyone. But the quality of life in the community — the extent to which our life together is an experience of members of one Body of Christ and a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven come to earth now — has a direct relationship to how we choose to live together once we accept Jesus’ invitation. That’s the invitation issued to us today. That’s the vision we’re called to claim as ours until it is realized for the world.

That’s the challenge of this parable spoken by Jesus.

Matthew 25:31-46

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

As this parable is structured several things are important to acknowledge. Jesus sets this parable in terms of the Pharisaic doctrine of the resurrection of the body and the eternal life of the soul with which the Jews of his day were familiar. It is set in the Kingdom of God, sometime after earthly life has concluded and all is said and done. There is no opportunity for any do-over or changes. There is no opportunity to make a defense or offer a list of reasons, excuses or alibis. The Son of Man does a basic sort of all humankind. Sheep on his right. Goats on his left.

I can’t believe all the opinions I found about the goodness of sheep and the badness of goats trying to answer the question “What does Jesus have against goats?” I’ve got an answer. Nothing. According to the parable the Son of Man is not sorting sheep or goats. He is sorting people. They are simply divided the way a shepherd does. It’s a literary device. A simile. Through out the rest of the parable it is about those on the right or the left. You might recall in Exodus 12, when the original instructions for passover were offered people were told they should choose a lamb of either a sheep or a goat.

The one of the throne pronounces sentences. To those on the right he says: ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’… And to those on the left he says ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;’. That seems awful unfair to us. We want to think that judgment would be a personal thing based on what we believe or our achievements or our intentions. That’s clearly not the picture Jesus paints in the parable.

In both cases the standard by which people were judged was either for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ or , for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Either you did nor did not respond to the needs of ‘The Son of Man’. That’s pretty simple.

Both neither those on the left or on the right have any conscious recollection of when they had or had not met the test. Both ask the same question: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison…?” Why was there no recall? Because the Son of Man wasn’t in the divine throne room sitting in judgment and wearing his robe. He was out in the world identifying with the indigent, unclean, struggling, mentally challenged, anxious, vulnerable, incarcerated, hungry, homeless and powerless. “…just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The least of these…

Could we really allow the Christ child, the boy born as king and the one appointed by God to judge the nations, to die of malnutrition in infancy in Africa, or have his hate kindled by living among the displaced being brutalized and depersonalized in a refugee camp knowing who this child is and just how little it would take to see him grow up and realize all he was created to be? Could we let a young girl have her life taken away in the sex trade or by spending her days fetching water rather than going to school, and her family suffering when the water she carries is causes illness? If we loved Jesus as much as we say we do, if we knew what we did and didn’t do for this family was what we did and didn’t do for the Christ? Or do we want to experience fellowship with Christ by serving and empowering the poor, outcast, and prisoners–the least of our world?

This invitation is not for after we die — then the chance to act is gone. It’s an invitation for this moment, this day, this generation. And, please, it’s not about avoiding punishment. It’s interesting to ask of his parable whether there were those on the left who had great intentions but failed to follow through and were there truly nasty people on the right who had unintentionally done the right thing. And what about this? Doesn’t this free us up from making decisions about who deserves our assistance and who doesn’t because they are in dire straits because of their own poor choices? I like the notion that those on the right didn’t do what they had done for praise or recognition nor did they do what they did out of obligation. Evidently they saw a need and met it, like George Mallory said of his climbing Everest, because it was there. There is no divine micromanagement of our lives.

What we do, the extent to which we respond to Jesus’ invitation not just to come into the House of God’s chosen people, but to live as one of the family, in relationship with and caring for the rest of the family, is the extent to which we experience eternal life, God’s just and peaceful kingdom, right here and now. It is in such community that we become aware of the needs of others. In Paul’s words, Christ’s risen life is the “first fruits,” and we are called to enjoy the full harvest of that abundant life. The goal is not justice. Justice alone leaves no room for mercy and grace. It’s hospitality. It’s sharing the extravagant grace of our creator. Do you want a taste of that? It’s there for you now, as abundant as are the opportunities to exercise compassion toward the least of Jesus’ sisters and brothers.

 

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I Gotta Robe, You’ve Gotta Robe…

Tepid, lukewarm, indifferent, cool, halfhearted, apathetic, unenthusiastic, perfunctory,  noncommittal…those are words to describe the one who was ejected. Too un-involved to slip on a party robe.  Could our response to the gracious invitation of God become jaded that way?  Oh, that’s a different word with synonyms like tired, bored and lacking enthusiasm.  Of course that is what typically follows having too much of something.  Imagine, having too much of God’s hospitality and grace.

Matthew 22:

The background for our lesson today is pretty heady.  Jesus had just chased the money changers out of the Temple and then had withdrawn to Bethany for the night.  The next morning he returned and the Gospel reads: “When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  The issue of authority continues up until today to be a huge issue for the professionally religious. But, before  Jesus answers he challenges them to answer his question first. “From where did the Baptism of John come, from heaven or men?”  Their answer was that they couldn’t tell, which was a way to cover up the fact the whatever they said would be used against them in the court of public opinion.

What follows are a couple of pretty brutal parables focused on the religious authorities. In one two sons were called to work in the father’s vineyard… one said he wouldn’t and did the other said he would and then didn’t. He chastised the leaders for their answer about which of  the two sons was the most righteous.   The next story was about those who operated a man’s vineyard on shares and in refusing to recompense the owner beat and killed the man sent to collect and then killed the owner’s son.  He asked the chief priests and elders what was required of the law.  Of course he used their answer to further show their hypocrisy. And that’s when they decided that Jesus was too much for them and that he needed to be incarcerated.  But, just like their unwillingness to answer Jesus’  first question to them, out of fear of the general public in that many considered Jesus a prophet, they did nothing.

Our  text takes up there.  Our modern translations simply say that Jesus, again, spoke to them in parables. Our word parable comes from the Greek  παραβολή (parabolē), meaning “comparison, illustration, analogy.”  It was the name Greek  rhetoricians gave to an illustration in the form of a brief fictional narrative. This one is not on the list of favorite New Testament parables….

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”

The king’s invitation list had been drawn up carefully and circulated. When all was prepared the king sent messengers to call those who had been invited. To a person, those he wanted to be there refused to come.  He sent different servants those who had been invited to say the time to come was at hand, explaining all he had done to make things ready. Making light of it some went to work others actually treated the king’s servants shamefully and actually killed them.  Angered, the king sent the army to kill the worst of the lot and destroy their city.

The banquet was ready and those the king preferred to attend had proven themselves unworthy of his hospitality.  That’s were that well rehearsed line is spoken “9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

We’d really like it if Jesus’ parable ended there.  In the face of rejection by the preferred the banquet hall was filled with those caught up in a status free sweep of the community, the good and bad alike.  Were it to end there it would be this great story about the King’s universal  generosity, hospitality and welcome to all. In Luke’s version the first people caught up in the drag net were the poor, maimed and blind and lame but not being enough to fill the banquet hall the servants were told ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in that my house may be filled.’

That’s not how Matthew’s version ends.  You have to wonder what Matthew had in mind when he concluded the parable the way he did.

The banquet hall is packed with people not originally invited.  And one person in the whole gathering was not wearing a wedding garment.  When the king asked how he got in without the garment he didn’t know what to say.  The king had him tossed out.  Only one out of all those who packed the banquet hall was expelled.

In trying to make sense of this, Fred Craddock, some years ago, suggested that Matthew,  in writing the conclusion to Jesus’ parable, was aware of how easily grace can melt into permissiveness and wanted to warn the church against losing the distinction between accepting all persons and condoning all behavior.  All are invited to God’s banquet but there is more required than just having a belly button.

Another person wrote that she couldn’t sleep nights after reading this parable until she learned that it was the responsibility of the host to provide the wedding garment. The failure of the one tossed from the party was that he didn’t put on what had been provide him.

In Rom 13:12 the Apostle Paul wrote: The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.  In Ephesians six he counseled his readers to “Put on the full armor of God “ and then described each piece. But in Jesus’ parable in Matthew this wasn’t armor, armor for protection or of illumination.  This amounted to simply slipping into a robe that was provided.  It was part of being fully engaged in the celebration.  Coming in and consuming the banquet wasn’t just about good nutrition – it was about celebrating the king’s son’s wedding.

Tepid, lukewarm, indifferent, cool, halfhearted, apathetic, unenthusiastic, perfunctory,  noncommittal…those are words to describe the one who was ejected. Too un-involved to slip on a party robe.  Could our response to the gracious invitation of God become jaded that way?  Oh, that’s a different word with synonyms like tired, bored and lacking enthusiasm.  Of course that is what typically follows having too much of something.  Imagine, having too much of God’s hospitality and grace.

There’s a bit of African American spirituality that seems appropriate. It goes:

I’ve got a robe, you’ve got a robe, All of God’s children got a robe;
When I get to Heaven, goin’ to put on my robe, Goin’ to shout all over God’s Heav’n.

Refrain:
Heav’n, Heav’n, Ev’rybody talking ’bout heav’n ain’t going there,
Heav’n, Heav’n, Goin’ to shout all over God’s Heav’n.

 

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The Evil Eye

In a culture built on “rights” and “justice,” there seems to be little room for generosity and abundance. No one can receive more than others. Envy rules. In this the tremendous place envy plays both in our economic dealings and in our dealings with God are revealed.

Matthew 20:1-16

The “parable of the laborers in the vineyard” is unique to Matthew.  One traditional interpretation of this parable has been to focus on the very last verse where it says “the last will be first…,” and insist on understanding the parable as a statement about the gift of eternal life as the ultimate equalizer, that will be granted to all “laborers in the vineyard.”  But there may be a more practical application that might require a different title.

From our contemporary context, this parable brings to mind issues of immigration and daily laborers. What is “fair” for those who work among us as migrant workers or labor in the various service industries which supporting our highly educated professional class and our technologically-driven economic complex? And, what is it to us if the minimum wage rises to assist those workers on the lowest end of our economic system?

It is fascinating that even after two thousand years this parable in Matthew 20 still arouses indignation in some people.

20“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

To cut to the chase Jesus says the Kingdom of heaven is like this very responsible landowner.  More than anyone else he is critically aware that he can’t make wine from grapes on the vine.  He knows that he is in business.  He negotiates a usual days wage and sends those who were available out into his vineyard. He goes to the labor pool at nine but this time he doesn’t  negotiate with them he simply says “I’ll pay you what’s right!” He is desperate for more hands and he needs them now.  He does the same at noon and three.  Too much sun, to much rain, too little sun, too little rain and too long ripe on the vines cuts into his income.  He hires. He hires every available pair of hands to pick his grapes.  We shouldn’t miss the reality that his is not the only vineyard in the valley that needs pickers at the same time.  At this point he is in competition with the other wine producers who need the same help at the same time.  He is desperate. He goes out at five, with only a hour left to work.  I also think he may be thinking ahead, planning the work that’s needed the next day.  He needs all the hands he can get. But beyond that this vineyard owner is part of the fabric of the Jewish society in which Jesus lives and teaches.  Derived from the written and oral Torah there is a standard covenant of employer/employee relations from which Conservative Jews and Conservative Jewish institutions operate.  It is a commitment to treat their workers with dignity and respect; pay their employees a living wage and not knowingly put them at risk of injury or death. Employees, in turn, are expected to do their best work and treat their employers with the same dignity and respect due them.  This is a special relationship in which both employers and employees feel that their work in ‘sacred’ and they are involved in a partnership with God in the work of creation.In Leviticus and Deuteronomy the Torah specifies that one must pay a worker on the day that he completes his work. In Jesus’ parable the manager is sent out to pay the daily laborers – not for the hours they worked but a day’s wages.  The underlying principle is that a day worker needs a day’s wage to meet his family’s needs.  Paying less than that leaves the worker and his family destitute.   The Torah recognizes that often a worker is in urgent need of his wages; he needs to feed himself and/or his family. To postpone paying him may cause him distress and, in some cases, death.   In addition, by keeping this patter we train ourselves to be compassionate and kind. This, in turn, prepares us to accept God’s goodness to us.

This is a hard concept for us.  Jesus’ parable holds up for all to see a responsible business person. We are expected to live our values in the ways in which we care for members of our communities, in our choices about how to spend time and money, and in other aspects of our communal lives.  Conservative Jews do that because they believe that their commitments to individuals within their communities, their children, and to the principles of their system are not theoretical constructs. Low-wage workers are members of our communities.  If we are to live our values in our business practices, we will be considerate in determining how much to pay these employees and how to treat them.

Did you catch that last Sunday evening on Downtown Abbey when the Jewish family was asked whether it was hard for them, being Jewish, to get good employees?  The response was, “We are Jews and we pay well.”

That’s a pretty high bar.  Jesus started his story saying that the landowner and vineyard operator was like the Kingdom of God. In that, he meets his obligations and provides a model for others in the community.  Every worker gets a daily wage, not based on the hours worked but based on their need.

Then there are the grumblers.  Speaking of those who were paid a day’s wage but had worked fewer hours they said to the landowner “you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” And yes, that is exactly what he had done.  He paid each and everyone a living wage.

Rhetorically the landowner pleads: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? And of course in our culture the answer to that,  is ‘no’.  You can’t open a pot store next to an elementary school.  You can’t have topless baristas serving coffee in some neighbourhoods.  The owner’s property does not belong to him; it belongs to the community. Ask the people in Nebraska who are in court over pipeline proponents and their claims of imminent domain. Here, everyone gets only what is just. No room for generosity is allowed. All ownership that would allow for generosity is unjust.

In a culture built on “rights” and “justice,” there seems to be little room for generosity and abundance. No one can receive more than others. Envy rules. In this the tremendous place envy plays both in our economic dealings and in our dealings with God are revealed.  Is it true that there is more rejoicing over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine who need no repentance. We can lose the Kingdom of Heaven if we are just but begrudge generosity to others. Must God in dealing with us be only just? Must we blame God if God is more than just? Must we be more than just?

In the divine owner’s contract with us, we must accept one condition, namely, His generosity. Many a just man refuses it.

The last question was for the workers and us : Or are you envious because I am generous?  How do you respond to that?  The literal Greek is “Is your eye evil because I am good?”   Reference to the “evil eye” (ophthalmos poneros) suggested a deeper problem than meets our eye. As Jesus taught in the 6th chapter “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy your whole body will be full of darkness”. In this account, the “evil eye” was the opposite of generosity.  In both Islamic and Jewish cultures the ‘evil eye’ is taken quite seriously.  It’s about regretting the good fortune of another.  It’s about jealousy, greed and  stinginess.
So our  parable is really not about the “laborers in the vineyard.” In fact, this is not even a story about the productivity of the vineyard. We hear the complaints of those who have toiled all day long, but the story was really not about them either.  Rather, Jesus’ parable highlights the generosity of God.  God, the ultimate “landowner,” will use what has always belonged to the Creator for the good of all, even if humans fail to view the world through God’s eyes. In Jesus words in the fifth chapter God’s perfection is exemplified in God’s rain on the just and the unjust. The landowner’s question in the parable is Jesus’ punchline: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

 

 

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Being the Called Out Ones

Reconciliation and acceptance is meant to be at the core of who we are, and to be honest with you, if we can’t do it between ourselves in the church, how can we ever be agents of reconciliation in the world? Right here, Jesus gives a clear blue-print for how our community of faith might be a holy place where holy relationships might flourish. And, it’s something that we need to practice until it is so ingrained in our DNA, we can’t imagine living another way.

Our text from Matthew 18 is bracketed by parables and teaching on how we are to see ourselves in relation to others. Preceding the passage we read that Jesus responded to the question of who’s the greatest in the Kingdom by calling a child into the gathering. It was a clear call to humility and self deprecation and a warning about placing “a stumbling block” in the way of someone less prominent. Next comes the story of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in order to restore a wayward lamb. The story emphasizes the value of every person. No one is expendable.

In the narrative immediately following our text Jesus tells Peter that the requirement of seeking reconciliation is beyond calculation. And added to that we hear the scathing story of the unforgiving servant which makes the point that God, from whom we have received grace, expects us to extend that grace to others. It’s more than mere forgiveness. We can actually take pride in how forgiving we’ve been. It can give us the notion that we are a step above another in righteousness. Forgiveness must come from the heart. Which takes us to our text. I’m reading from the New Revised Standard Version. It is an update of the American Standard Version.

15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Some versions of Matthew have shown their King James heritage and have been less than helpful in getting to the heart of the intended message. Several other translations put new light on this passage.

First of all we need to note that this version translates the word for the “called out” as “the church”. According to the chronology of Matthew’s gospel Jesus is instructing the diverse group of persons who were accepted by him as disciples. At best the “called out” consists of the diverse gathering of those who have been following Rabbi Jesus. He calls them, “the called out”, that’s the literal translation of the word eclessia that has been translated as the assembly or ‘the church’. There was no such thing as ‘the church’ at that time.

The character of the ‘twelve’ was quite diverse. Tradition tells us that the core of this movement to reveal the new activity of God consisted of the twelve men. What adds to our confusion is that different lists in the New Testament included different persons. Some would suggest that the number was significant as a symbol of the new Israel and not to be taken in its numerically literal sense. We know that, though not listed among the males, women were part of this core. The first evangelists were, in fact, women. Those who followed Jesus represent the whole of the economic and social levels of the day. The group included journeymen, zealots, and Roman collaborators. What could possibly hold just a diverse group together?

We all have different ideas about what is a sin. Modern versions of the New Testament translate the Greek word ‘hamartia’ as “sin”. In Classic Greek it means to err. The word has migrated into English to describe a fatal flaw, an inherent defect or shortcoming, in the hero of a tragedy. We’ve often noted that the Greek word means ‘missing the mark’ as in shooting an arrow toward a target. It simply means ‘missing’.
Modern versions substitute the phrase “another member of the church” for the Greek which says that the person in question is your brother or sister. This substitution obscures from us the familial relationship Jesus intends to exist among the ‘called out’ ones. This person isn’t just some other person, it’s your sister or your brother.

Next, modern versions further confuse things when it adds ‘against you’ to the Greek. It’s not there. If we include “against you” the emphasis is on the personal nature of the offense. If we follow the best Greek manuscripts the focus is on what the other person did to offend.

So. Let’s try the first verse this way: “If a brother or sister among the called out is missing, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

“…go and show him his shortcoming and maybe how it effects you. The goal is to restore the relationship with your brother or sister. It’s a very private intervention aimed at reconciliation. I’d suggest it requires substantial prayer and thoughtful preparation. This is the most discreet and least threatening possible intervention. It protects them against unnecessary embarrassment, permitting reconciliation before the issue becomes general knowledge.

So, the text suggests step two if the first step failed. The first step was to confront the Christian brother or sister individually. Step two is to take witnesses for one more face-to-face confrontation. “But if he doesn’t listen, take one or two more with you.” The requirement for two or three witnesses comes from Torah law (Deuteronomy 19:15. This protects people against unfair accusations. The church is to be deliberate, careful, and fair in its discipline. If the conflict cannot be resolved during this second intervention, the “one or two others” will serve as witnesses before the church. Their testimony will help the church to understand the problem and to establish a remedy.

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the ‘called out.’ If he refuses to hear the assembly also, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.”

On the one hand, the phrase “let him be to you” is singular not “you-all.” The fact that “you” is singular in verses 15-17 and plural in verses 18-20 suggests that the advice to treat the offender as “a Gentile and a tax collector” is given as guidance for the person who began this intervention without resolution rather than the whole church. Of course, I couldn’t help wonder how Matthew himself would have received this word. In this view followers of Rabbi Jesus who can’t resolve a conflict with a brother or sister should just avoid each other.

From a corporate perspective the object is to restore an erring brother or sister to the fellowship, faith and practice of the group. Failing that, the advice is to relate to the person as an outsider –– a person of no faith –– spiritually dead. While it appears that the church is forcing the offender outside its circle, it is, in reality, only acknowledging publicly that the offender has already placed him/herself outside its circle. Should the body of the faithful ceases to be a marked by forgiveness, grace, and mercy you well could say that it ceases to be a church in any discernible fashion.

The last three verses of this passage are scary in their implications. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Jesus says ‘listen up’. Jesus warns us that we dare not thumb our nose at the church. He says the body of the faithful have the authority that he previously gave to Peter. “Bind” and “loose” have to do with forbidden or permitted activities. They also have to do with who is and is not part of the body of Christ. When he saysthat if two of you will agree…For where two or three are gathered together in my name” he is referring to Jewish worship practices which require the presence of at least ten adult Jewish males to hold a public worship. The Mishnah says, “But if two sit together and words of the law are gathered between them, the Divine Presence rests between them” (Aboth 3:2). Jesus chooses this latter standard of two persons, but makes no mention of adult males. Two or three! A person can pray alone, as Jesus demonstrated, but coming together in Jesus’ name multiplies the power. This minimal requirement should be an encouragement to us. And here’s the good part. Jesus says “there I am in their midst” (v. 20). In the beginning chapter this Gospel says, “They shall call his name Immanuel, which is being interpreted, ‘God with us’ ” (1:23). The Gospel will conclude with Jesus’ promise to be with us always (28:20). Here Jesus promises to be with every group of two or more who gather in his name.

Reconciliation and acceptance is meant to be at the core of who we are, and to be honest with you, if we can’t do it between ourselves in the church, how can we ever be agents of reconciliation in the world? Right here, Jesus gives a clear blue-print for how our community of faith might be a holy place where holy relationships might flourish. And, it’s something that we need to practice until it is so ingrained in our DNA, we can’t imagine living another way.

Because, for Jesus, there isn’t another way.

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How So?

The verse does not simply say God loved the world. It says, “God so loved the world.” Our question should be ‘How So?’ That little word so (houto) means “in this manner.” We prefer our English translations such as “God loved the world so much,” but that obscures the implications of the phrase.  It literally speaks of how God loved us, not how much God loves us. The message of the text is this: “In this manner God loved the world” or “This is how God loved the world.”

John 3:16 is the greatest text for Valentine’s Day. Its ability to pop up anywhere and everywhere—from lips of little children to signs in football stadiums—distinguishes it as the most well-known passage in Scripture; rightfully so, for John 3:16 succinctly summarizes the central message of the Bible.  It is the gospel in a nutshell.

In a real sense, if you edited down the Bible to this one verse, you would still have enough gospel to save the world. John 3:16 declares what every human heart—whether we admit it or not– knows—wants to hear and needs to hear: God loves you! In fact, as Augustine said, God loves each of us as if there was only one of us to love.

John 3:16 plainly makes one of the most awesome claims of the New Testament: God loves the whole world. This statement is remarkable for several reasons.

God is a lover. Jesus said so. This goes against the prevailing notions of God. Many people think God is angry. We see God as a God of wrath, but we misinterpret that wrath in terms of our humanness rather than God’s holiness. Thus, we view God as a tyrant, a cosmic killjoy, an angry parent sitting in the heavenly throne room belt in hand waiting for the disobedient sinner to come through the door. Others view God as indifferent. They think God does not and cannot care about the world or anyone in it.

Others view God as temperamental. They spend their lives trying to earn it. This produces a legalism, which results in either despondency or pride, but never reveals the true love of God. John 3:16 stands against all these misinterpretations of God’s attitude toward us and declares God loves us. 1st John 4:8 says, “God is love.” God personifies love. If fact, if it has to do with God, it has to do with love.
Mercy is God’s forgiving love.
Grace is God’s undeserved love.
Peace is God’s comforting love.
The will of God is God’s unerring love.
Providence is God’s caring love.
The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s proven love.
Sanctification is God’s nurturing love.
Heaven is God’s rewarding love.
Eternity is God’s unending love.
The Universal Scope of the Love
It had to have been mind blowing for Nicodemus to hear that God loves the world.  He had grown up believing that God only loved Israel.  But the verse claims God does not love just certain groups, races or nations. God loves everybody. God doesn’t exclusively love Christians. God loves the world. What a truth!

And just as amazing the breadth of this simple verse forces us to look not just beyond our own race but beyond our species and even broader at this planet we call home and the universe in which it spins.

The fundamental point of John 3:16 is that God loves the world. If the point of the most famous verse in the Bible is that God loves you, why is it that so many people live as if there is no God? At the same time, many who call themselves followers of Christ often question God’s love for them. In spite of all the publicity that John 3:16 gives to this truth, how is it that so many of us do not really know the true love of God?

In his book The Five Love Languages Gary Chapman argues that people communicate love differently. Each person has a natural and distinct way in which he or she gives and/or receives love. Physical affection, verbal expression, acts of service, providing, giving gifts, opening opportunities, and spending time are some of the common love languages.

There are couples who obviously love one another but each feels unloved. They haven’t understood the others’ love language. He, in his way, demonstrates  his love by slaving at a job he hates. She receives love by how much time he spends with her. So, he feels unloved because she doesn’t appreciate his bread winning efforts. She feels unloved because he doesn’t spend more quality time with her. They love one another, but they are not speaking the same love language. Could this be why we do not understand the love of God?

The truth of God’s love is hidden with the nature of God’s love. We hear about the fact of God’s love in the words of John 3:16 but the verse speaks to us about the manner of God’s love.  You can live under a dark cloud of divine abandonment while the light of John 3:16 shines the light of God’s love in your face if you do not know how God communicates His love for you.

The verse does not simply say God loved the world. It says, “God so loved the world.” Our question should be ‘How So?’ That little word so (houto) means “in this manner.” We prefer our English translations such as “God loved the world so much,” but that obscures the implications of the phrase.  It literally speaks of how God loved us, not how much God loves us. The message of the text is this: “In this manner God loved the world” or “This is how God loved the world.”

John 3:16 is about how God says, “I love you.” What’s the answer? Here it is: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son.” John 3:16 does not teach that God loves us so much that He would do anything for us. Rather, it teaches us that God loved us by doing something specific for us: He gave! You cannot know the love of God without embracing it in terms of the gift He gave to communicate His love for us.  John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

All human beings are God’s children through creation. but our New Testament writers insist  that Jesus  is God’s Son uniquely because He is the only begotten Son of the Father.  In other words, there is nobody like Jesus. Nobody was born like Jesus. Nobody lived like Jesus. When John 3:16 says God loved us by giving His only begotten Son.  Theologians have argued for the last two thousand years what that means.  It may best be said by the author of II Corinthians “Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift!”

For most people there are three characteristics about God that seem essential to us.  First, God is holy. It means God is not like us. God is set apart, completely unique, totally different, morally excellent and without any speck of darkness whatsoever.  That is un-doubtably our needing that in God. Second, we want to believe God to be just. That is, God judges on the basis of a righteous standard. God judges by the standard of His own holy character. Holding these two attributes of God are big trouble to us. God is holy. We are not. It fits our persuasive purposes to believe that some day, you will have to answer to God for how you have lived your life.

Here is the best news: God is love. “For God so loved the world, He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Recently one of the leaders of one of the largest churches in America stirred the pot when she said  “when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God – I mean, that’s one way to look at it – we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. “So I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?”  Promoters of the prosperity gospel tell us that God wants us to be healthy, wealthy and happy.

I wonder how that works for Christians in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and North Korea today.  2014 saw twice as many Christians martyred than the year before.

To believe in someone one or something is to have faith in it or them, to follow them.  Early in Jesus’ ministry he told his disciples that if they would follow him, their rabbi, they would have to take up their own cross – note that this occurred about two and a half years before the leaders of the popular religion saw Jesus’ message as such a threat that they used the powers of the civil authorities to kill him.  Our cross and his cross are not the same but they come from the same source, a willingness to follow Rabbi Jesus and live in a way that challenges the world.

With that in mind we can put away our images of some imagined court room or theories of ransom paid to a personification of evil.  or  you are a criminal. The closing portion of John 3:16 states “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” The benefits of God’s gift are only received through faith. Jesus made this point with his references to Numbers 21. The story of Moses, the children of Israel and the bronzed serpent. It is a story of the children of Israel’s rebellion against God. It is a story of judgment as the Lord sent fiery serpents into the camp. It is a story of grace as God provided an undeserved way of salvation, but it is also a story of faith as those who obeyed the word and looked to the uplifted serpent were saved.  Words like faith and belief are based in a concept of trust.  Despite our acts of disobedience, rebellion and rejection God never stops loving us.

We can all see ourselves in that story.  It’s easy to believe that due to the consequences of poor judgment or our outright nastiness God’s judgment already has bitten us.  Not so.  Jesus himself said “he makes his sun rise on both evil and good people, and he lets rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  But the fact that you too will inevitably die, like every other living entity in the world that God created will die, is not punishment.  It is part of our humanity for which we are grateful.  You eventually, inevitably. will die. It’s no curse.  And there is no divine inoculation from natural death.

Yes, like Nicodemus, we need to be born from above, that is we need to raise our sights from the things of this world, taking our cue from Jesus who early on told his disciples that to follow him they must take up their own cross, a willingness to find their life in trusting God and loving what God loves. That’s what following Jesus meant throughout Jesus ministry. Life eternal, living life in God’s kingdom begins the moment you put your trust in Jesus Christ. It introduces you to a new quality of life. Second Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”  This life isn’t a test we have to pass.  It is this moment .  The greatest love song is the world goes:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong. They are weak, but He is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.
The Bible tells me so.

 

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Standing in the Disciple’s Sandals

Standing in the Disciple’s Sandals.

Matthew 14:13-21

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.  When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.

Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples,

and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.

And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

This is such a familiar story that it’s hard to hear anything new in it.  Even so, while for the most part these are not ‘original’ thoughts on this story, these are what come to mind today…

When Jesus said ‘go and make disciples’ he was addressing people, like himself, who were Jews communicating in a Semitic dialect.  They fully understood what the word disciple meant.  For us, our struggle is that that over a couple thousand years and through translations into various languages and dialects what the disciples of Jesus day understood has changed.  What did the word disciple mean to the followers of Jesus in that day and time?  The story plainly shows that there was a great difference between the disciples and the thousands of men, women and children who had pursued Jesus to that remote sea shore.

Today, we have board certified surgeons, licensed electricians, biochemists. psychologists and psychiatrists, school teachers and college professors. Common to each profession are long periods of study, training, mentoring, on the job training and continuing education.  In each case the person has placed themselves under the oversight of another or others who have established proficiency in an area of interest.

In Jesus day it was the Rabbi who was person with established proficiency in the area of how by doing the right things one would honor God.  Scrupulous behavior was the standard for being a ‘righteous person’ not the condition of one’s heart.  The Rabbi was the authority to interpret the oral and written law for the living of a righteous life – defining what behavior did or did not please God.

A person allowed to become ‘a disciple’ of a Rabbi agreed to totally submit to the rabbi’s authority in all ares of interpreting the Torah for his life.  This was something all observant Jewish young mem wanted to do.  As a result, each disciple came to a rabbinic relationship with a desire and willingness to surrender to the authority of the whole law as interpreted by his Rabbi.

The group of students would discuss in depth their Rabbi’s view of the meaning of Torah on a particular aspect of life.   The oral tradition was needed to accompany the written Law, because the Torah alone, with its 613 commandments, was an insufficent guide to Jewish life.  They would memorize most of the written Torah and learn from the Talmud and Mishna about how those words were interpreted.

Here’s an example why that was the case. Exodus 20:8, the fourth commandment says “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy.” That makes it clear that the Sabbath is an important holy day.  Yet when you look for specifics in the written scriptures that regulate how to observe the day all you find are injunctions against lighting a fire, going away from your dwelling, cutting down a tree, plowing or harvesting. Would merely refraining from these specific activities fulfill the commandment to make the Sabbath holy?  Jewish Sabbath rituals, including reciting the kiddush and reading of the weekly Torah portion are not found in written scripture but in the oral law.   Studying their rabbi’s view of the written and oral law to comprehend God’s way for the conduct of their life was the main task of a disciple. The issue was not what specific words were found in the scroll but rather what did it mean and how was it to be lived out.

In this intimate relationship the rabbi would ask questions of the disciple as he closely observed the their daily life, or the disciple would initiate a discussion by raising an issue or asking a question based on some aspect of his daily life.   A disciple would expect the rabbi’s consistent and persistent question, “Why did you do that?” The emphasis was always on behavior, not just the imparting of wisdom and related interpretive information. In this interactive manner, the rabbis functioned to clear up gray areas of understanding and difficult areas of textual interpretation for their disciples.

Real life questions were the fodder for these sessions. A real-life question regarding marriage might be, “Can I divorce my wife if…” Another regarding tax collectors would be, “If I know my taxes are going to oppress our people, should I pay them?” The rabbi would authoritatively address such daily practical concerns around righteous living as defined and interpreted by the rabbi.  As part of this how-should-we-live interactive process, the disciples would debate various rabbinic interpretations of a real life issue. This might involve weeks of dialogue and debate. However, when the rabbi ultimately declared his authoritative interpretation on an issue, all further debate ceased. His declared interpretation was now binding on his disciples’ lives for the rest of their days. As such, the rabbi was the lens through which every life issue was viewed.

By always asking questions, the rabbis were concentrating on developing discernment in the mind of the disciple, not the imparting of “how to” formulas. Notions of three principles of prayer or four steps to prosperity would be abhorrent to a first-century rabbi.

Disciples had a deep desire to emulate their rabbi. This often included imitating how and what their rabbi ate, how he observed the Sabbath, what he liked and disliked, as well as his mannerisms, prejudices and preferences. A story is told of one disciple who so wanted to emulate his rabbi that he hid in the rabbi’s bedchamber. That way he would be better able to emulate with his own future wife how the rabbi was intimate with his wife.

The first-century disciple willingly submitted to his rabbi’s interpretive authority regarding what pleased God in every area of his life. Thus, to say you were a disciple in the name of Gamaliel, meant that you totally surrendered your life to Gamaliel’s way of interpreting the whole law. As a result, you conformed all of your life’s behavior to his interpretations.  There was a passion together with zeal to give up any and all of their preconceived notions of how to live one’s life and then to embrace the behavior that their rabbi deemed best to honor God. It was a radical, willing, and totally conforming submission to the interpretive authority of their rabbi.

I can’t imagine a more practical question than Jesus’ disciples raised with him that evening by the remote lake shore.  They weren’t telling Jesus anything he didn’t know when they said that it was late and the people were growing hungry.  It was a way to raise the real question. Rabbi, these people have needs that need to be met.  “What would please God?” they wanted to know. Their best solution they had come up with was to send them to villages in the area so they could find food to eat.

“No”, Rabbi Jesus said. “You give them something to eat”.

This is where this passage gets uncomfortable for us.   I know what it feels like to be told, “You give them something to eat…” and to feel as though there is so little to give, it’s hardly worth starting to prepare the meal.

Of course this story in Matthew’s telling occurs right after Jesus hears about the gruesome and pointless death of his cousin, John the Baptist.  It would make perfect sense that, in response to this horrific news, Jesus was trying to escape the crowds to mourn. I can’t imagine a more appropriate moment to seek such solitude. But it wasn’t going to happen.  The word was out. Jesus has something to offer that can’t be found anywhere else.  The crowds with their sick and suffering in tow catch up with him.  And then they don’t leave.  Like unexpected guests with no manners, they don’t leave.  And a handful of disciples are left to carry out the ministry of hospitality which Jesus personifies.

And there it is.  Opportunities to be about the work to which Jesus calls us don’t necessarily come at convenient times.  Matter of fact they are most likely to come when we are most tired or sad or fearful for the future.  More times than not all there is to do is just start doing that to which Jesus calls us.  Most times we are unable to see the ending — in fact most of the time we surely can’t — but if we don’t at least start, we will certainly never get there.  For the disciples in this story, the only logical thing to do was to send that hungry crowd away.  They could not, at first, have fathomed the possibility that all those growling stomachs could be satisfied with what began as five loaves and two fish. But they trusted Jesus enough to hand what they had to him and pretty soon it was a party.

This really is a story about scarcity and abundance.  I live in a time and place where it is seldom that I worry about a scarcity of food. That is not true, of course, for all of my neighbors — but it is true for most of the people I interact with much of the time.  I can’t remember where I read it recently but it was a quotation from a woman who said “I can’t think of anything else until I know from where my next meal is coming.”

And what about the guy at the back of the crowd. The one who hardly knows why he is there. There is no big screen projection to give him a sense of what is going on down front.    He only hears what’s going on because the one in front of him is telling him.  In fact, he may never fully comprehend or appreciate the actual source of the meal he is enjoying. He may never realize it is actually a gift from God’s own hand.  But that doesn’t make it any less so. Indeed, I wonder how many moments in how many days I am like that.  A lot, I would expect.  I need to remember that and give thanks even when I can’t quite put it all together.

And there is this, too.  How does one end up with more than that with which one started? Twelve baskets full.  How does that happen?

 

 

 

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Temptations

Matthew 4:1-11 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

According to Matthew the confrontation he reports between Jesus and Satan didn’t just happened. He is very clear, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.” It was intentional. Was it a “Boot Camp” experience, designed to train Jesus or to test his metal against the wiles of Satan? How you answer that question says a lot about who you see Jesus to be.

Matthew tells us is that Jesus’ temptation came at breakfast, literally. This is a direct contradiction of how Luke tells his story. With Luke, the temptations lasted for forty days. We are going to throw in our lot with Matthew and say that Jesus wasn’t tempted for forty days and forty nights. The temptations came at the conclusion of his fast, when he was famished, at a point of extreme vulnerability.

There is a lot we don’t know about Jesus’ fast. There is the rare and inadequately supported report of a victim of torture actually surviving forty days without food. Putting Jesus in that category of robust humanity isn’t a struggle for many. For others, Jesus is super human anyway and it isn’t an issue. But for many of us the fact of Jesus’ humanity is in question. It’s known that Ghandi survived twenty one days of living without food but he consumed water. But a good place for us to begin is to consider what was going on with Jesus and his intentional fast. It’s not a stretch. Most religions in the world recommend fasting.

There are impassioned prose writers who say that the number forty signifies God’s judgment of one sort or another somehow implying that Jesus’ was being judged by his temptations. Others simply shrug their shoulders and say that nothing is clear about the biblical use of the number forty other than it is what it is, a period of time other than another way of saying a long time. Some neuro-scientists get excited about the Gamma frequency of 40 Hz and its relationship to the human brains’ operating frequency which is also the frequency of middle ‘c’ on the piano key board.

There is no numerical figure in scripture as pervasive as that of the number ‘forty’, especially ‘forty days and forty nights’. For quite a few years now I’ve wanted to host a retreat starting with the hour of Jesus’ crucifixion and concluding with Easter sunrise, a forty hour retreat. Of course the rains in Noah’s day fell for 40 days and nights (Genesis 7:4). Israel ate Manna for 40 years (Exodus 16:35). Moses was with God in the mount, 40 days and nights (Exodus 24:18). Moses was again with God 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 34:28). Moses led Israel from Egypt at age 80 (2 times 40), and after 40 years in the wilderness, died at 120 (3 times 40; Deuteronomy 34:7). The spies searched the land of Canaan for 40 days (Numbers 13:25). God made Israel wander for 40 years (Numbers 14:33-34). 40 stripes was the maximum whipping penalty (Deuteronomy 25:3). Three different times reported in Judges God allowed the land to rest for 40 years (Judges 3:11). Abdon (a judge in Israel) had 40 sons (Judges 12:14). Israel did evil; God gave them to an enemy for 40 years (Judges 13:1). Eli judged Israel for 40 years (1 Samuel 4:18). Goliath presented himself to Israel for 40 days (1 Samuel 17:16). Saul reigned for 40 years (Acts 13:21). Saul’s son was 40 when he began reign (2 Samuel 2:10). David reigned over Israel for 40 years (2 Samuel 5:4, 1 Kings 2:11). Solomon reigned same length as his father; 40 years (1 Kings 11:42). Jehoash (Joash) reigned 40 years in Jerusalem (2 Kings 12:1). The holy place of the temple was 40 cubits long (1 Kings 6:17). The size of lavers in Temple were forty baths (1 Kings 7:38). God gave Nineveh 40 days to repent (Jonah 3:4). The sockets of silver are in groups of 40 (Exodus 26:19 & 21). Elijah had one meal that gave him strength 40 days (1 Kings 19:8). Ezekiel bore the iniquity of the house of Judah for 40 days (Ezekiel 4:6). Egypt to be laid desolate for 40 years (Ezekiel 29:11-12). Ezekiel’s (symbolic) temple is 40 cubits long (Ezekiel 41:2). The courts in Ezekiel’s temple were 40 cubits long (Ezra 46:22). Jesus fasted 40 days and nights (Matthew 4:2). Jesus was tempted 40 days (Luke 4:2, Mark 1:13). Jesus remained on earth 40 days after resurrection (Acts 1:3). And then there is the relationship between the times of Jewish festivals and the 40 week period of human pregnancy.  So, “forty days and nights…”

Traditionally we have understood that there were three temptations:

  1. If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
  2. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
  3. the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

The first challenge is about Jesus simply employing the power, prestige and privileges that are his as ‘the Son of God’ to meet his own needs. Recently we read the passage where John the Baptist lashed out at the privileged Pharisees and Sadducees saying that “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” So why is this act of feeding oneself considered a temptation, a temptation from which Jesus turned away? I want to suggest that the issue is Jesus’ humanity and how he identifies himself. Is he able to survive without drawing upon divine resources? If God is able to raise up children for Abraham from stones, why not raising up loaves of bread from stones to meet the needs of a fleshly body?

Jesus’ reply was: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Our life is dependent on ‘every word’ that comes from the mouth of God including the creative word that brought stones into being. Even the stones have an intrinsic integrity. There is a huge environmental message in that. Far to easily can we fool ourselves into thinking that we can meet our most basic and simple needs and in the acquisition of which no one else is hurt, no one else is deprived, no one else is effected. In how we meet our needs, much less our wants, we are in a set of living relationships with all creation.  Were we to only eat fruit that falls of its own accord to the ground, our action interrupts the cycle of planting, germination, maturity and fruition.

So next, from the top of Herod’s Temple, Satan again challenges Jesus’ sense of identity. “Are you really who you think you are?” Satan asks. He quotes the Ninety First Psalm reminding Jesus again of his exceptionalness.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot. Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.

Do you believe that Jesus? “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus replies with a word of scripture of his own: “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” The response is from Deuteronomy 6. In Deuteronomy 5 Moses teaches the people what God had told him on the Mountain. It is a recitation of the Ten Commandments. Then, recorded at the first of Chapter 6 is Moses’ statement of the Shema “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

There is a brief recounting of Israel’s salvation history and then, in the sixteenth verse we find “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.”

As I was thinking about how Jesus handled this intense confrontation I wondered how equipped I am. Do I have an adequate command of the assurances offered in our scriptures to give me the necessary back bone to survive such an attack?

The third temptation puzzles us all. Making bread seemed relevant. The spectacular stunt we can understand. But after deflecting the first two challenges the last seems so glaringly obvious that Jesus would reject it.

Jesus is given a view of all the kingdoms of the world and Satan offers to give them to him on the one condition that Jesus worship him. Jesus doesn’t challenge Satan’s power to make the world such a gift. All the evidence in the gospels suggests that Jesus had no interest whatsoever in political power. In John 6, when it was offered to him he literally ran for the hills. So how can Satan’s offer be a temptation, be something attractive to Jesus?

Jesus doesn’t want political power, but this whole experience is preparing him for his ministry and he is considering various ways of approaching his task. He wants to influence people, he has a message that he wants people to hear. Perhaps here is where the devil’s suggestion becomes a little more plausible. He’s trying to get Jesus to keep his eyes fixed on all the kingdoms of the world. He’s trying to make him desire and go after as many followers as possible. He’s trying to get him to play the ratings game; to be guided, if you like, by opinion polls. He’s trying to make him desire success above all things. And it sounds so good and holy. What could be better than for Jesus to be THE influence, the guiding force over everyone on earth?

John Hemer, a British Catholic, asks, “But if Jesus does that how will he cope with his opposition? How will he cope when the Pharisees tell him he’s wrong, or when some of his own disciples tell him that his words are intolerable and leave him? (John 6: 66) Well, if he eyes are fixed on getting (and keeping) as many followers as possible might he tailor his message to suit his audience? He won’t do a complete about turn, he won’t deny anything he’s said or done so far, but would he make subtle changes in order to make his message more palatable? The Pharisees, after all, are hugely influential, there’s no point in alienating them when they can be such useful allies. So rather than heal on the Sabbath and court controversy, Jesus can heal on other days, he’s still healing after all. Rather than lose all those followers at Capernaum, he can call them back and explain his ministry in terms that are less offensive, more acceptable. No major changes, just tweaking the message here and there to make sure it hits its target audience.

If Jesus makes these little changes here and there, he will end up preaching not God’s truth but what his audience want God’s truth to be. What will be guiding him will not be the voice of God but the voice of sinful human beings, the values of sinful human institutions. Without even realizing it he will no longer be worshiping God, but the devil. And by worship we mean more than just an isolated religious act. The thing we worship is the thing which guides our lives, the thing that motivates us. If Jesus allows himself to be motivated by the desire for success, it will always be fallen human concerns which guide him. The Truth will then be whatever his listeners want to hear and that is tantamount to worshipping the devil.

All through Jesus’ public life we see the consequences of his coming unscathed through Satan’s challenges as he refuses to be swayed by public opinion or by threats or violence. Worshipping Satan isn’t necessarily a huge act of rebellion, but a series of small acts of accommodation. It is a constant temptation for us as Christians and the only sure antidote is the one Jesus gives: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”

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Another Way…

Matthew 2:13-23

Historical accounts of Herod the Great suggest a ruler who was wily enough to switch allegiances at the drop of a hat and, when politics demanded, pragmatic enough to execute his own children. He was a descendant of Esau, an Idumean, rather than an ethnic Jew, but according to the Roman Senate he was the uneqivocable “King of the Jews.”
Once he had eliminated all challenges to his claim on the throne Herod settled down to the business of governing. He built cities and fortresses, improved Jerusalem’s water supply, and, most famously, rebuilt and expanded Zerubable’s Temple, the Temple of Jesus’ youth. He was known for his “progressive agenda”. Yet today, because of Matthew’s story, we remember him mostly as the man who ordered the slaughter of the innocents, a plot which, Matthew says, the infant Jesus barely escaped by the flight to Egypt.

W. H. Auden, in his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, describes Herod as worried that a nacent King of the Jews, believed by some to be God Incarnate, threatened to destroy the reason, idealism and justice his progressive agenda had labored to advance. He has Herod say, “Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilization must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilization always has to call in these professional tidiers to whom it is all one whether it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate? Oh dear, why couldn’t this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can’t people be sensible? I don’t want to be horrid.”

What Herod couldn’t grasp was to him no god worthy of the name would be so disrespectful of his progressive agenda, nor so foolish as to become human, and therefore vulnerable. Auden again speaking for Herod: “…for me personally at this moment it would mean that God had given me the power to destroy God’s self. I refuse to be taken in. God could not play such a practical joke. Why should God dislike me so? I’ve worked like a slave. Ask anyone you like. I’ve read all the official documents without skipping. I’ve taken elocution lessons. I’ve hardly ever taken bribes. How dare God allow me to decide? I’ve tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven’t had sex for a month. I object. I’m a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.

I suspect all of us, in our own way, have trouble with an incarnate, vulnerable God who invites us to turn our life projects upside down and follow God to an uncertain end. We’ve all worked so hard, meant so well, sacrificed so much to trade away what we have coming for something so flimsy as faith. We all know Herod’s motivation, if not his power, from the inside.

So here’s a first question for us: Now that Christmas is past and the New Year is upon us, how will you live in light of the vulnerable Incarnation? How much of your agenda will you part with to follow “Jesus the Savior…come for to die?”

In her book Amazing Grace: a Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris tells us that everything Herod does, he does out of fear. Fear can be a useful defense mechanism, but when a person is always on the defensive, like Herod, it becomes debilitating and self-defeating. Herod symbolizes the terrible destruction that fearful people leave in their wake, where they have exercised their power in furtive, pathetic, and futile attempts at self-preservation. A young mother carries a handgun for self protection and her two year old squeezes the trigger. A Sheriff takes his wife’s life “I didn’t kown the gun was loaded…” A freightened police officer iin a struggle with a mentally ill person shoots them in the back. Stories flood our news from Florida, Arizona, Idaho and even here at home.

The tradition of Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents”, offers an account of the tragic consequences of such defensive, self preserving fear. This brand of insecurity never leads to anything good. Herod is a case study that documents to truth of the first half of Proverbs 29:25: “The fear of others lays a snare, but the one who trusts in God rests secure.” It’s reflected in the flood of guns over sales counters.

In the process of fearing others, sadly, the one who fears seeks to douse the light of other lives and often succeeds. We could make a long list of the sufferings inflicted on others by those who in the past and today, on personal and international scales, are both powerful and paranoid. We hold to the faith that such fear cannot douse the light of the world we celebrate at Christmas. This passage forces us to stay real—paranoid insecurity is a persistent force.

Norris tells of preaching on Herod on Epiphany Sunday in a small country church in a poor area of an island in Hawaii from which tourists are warned to avoid, an area where those who served the tourist industry as maids and tour bus drivers could afford to live. That church had much to fear: alcoholism, drug addiction, rising property costs, and crime. The residents came to church for hope.

Norris pointed out that the sages who traveled so far to find Jesus were drawn to him as a sign of hope. This church, she told the congregation, is a sign of hope for the community. Its programs, its thrift store have become important community centers, signs of hope. The church represented “a lessening of fear’s shadowy power, an increase in the available light.” She continued to say that that’s what Christ’s coming celebrates: Christ’s light shed abroad into our lives. She ended her sermon by encouraging the congregation, like the ancient wise men, not return to Herod but to find another way. “leave Herod in his palace, surrounded by flatterers, all alone with his fear.” This is our second question, can we find another way?

James E. Lamkin wrote of what he called “The New Normal.” Over that last few weeks we’ve rehearshed one more time the ancient Christmas story with its’ awkward pregnancy and government mandated relocation. Then this couple become a nuclear family with the birth of a child followed by a series of holiday parties including farm animals, shepherds, angels and a mysterious delegation of astrologists. I’m guessing that it wasn’t too long before the Holy Family had had enough of Christmas. They must have been ready for things to get back to normal–whatever that is. But, as we all learn, they would never see normal again. This infant inaugurated a new normal.

Some say that it was after the Oklahoma City bombing, when we discovered what domestic terrorism could mean, that the phrase “new normal” first entered our language. It’s how we express our anxiety over global and local economic concerns, political and international disputes and technological uncertainties each accompanied by it’s own bitter residue of latent fear. And it is so personally threatening: a neighbor who was going to retire only to discover that the company took what was there’s into bankruptcy; the friend who was let go when the company downsized; the premature shot from an anxious police officer’s side arm; shrinking church attendance, budgets and staff.

We may prefer a different topic today… a different text on this second Sunday of Christmas and first on a new calendar . But the terrain of life changes quickly. Glory to God in the highest can nose dive to a new low in less than a human heartbeat. Even the Holy Family was not given the luxury of sleeping in heavenly peace for very long. No. An evil tyrant was on the loose going door-to-door looking for babies to kill. So flee!

If joy has felt illusive for you this holiday season, you are in good company. And yet we contend God’s power to save is greater than evil’s power to destroy. With any “new normal”—from prolonged family crises to financial fears to a haunting sense of uncertainty–grief and loss is a real reality even during Christmas.

But there’s this truth that wherever we find ourselves God has been there before us. Even in the land of the loss, even in far away Egypt, even in the “new normal,” it is not new to God. God has been there before us. Fascinating, isn’t it…that right off the bat, God’s own Son becomes a transient, homeless, migrant, alien. Within a few pages the baby will be all grown-up and we’ll hear him say, “Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Wherever we go God is nearby to fill full our often empty lives. So we ask of the evangelist: Matthew, tell the story when Jesus calmed the waters…we need it because it feels like we are about to drown. Matthew, tell us the story of Jesus bringing food to the wilderness…we need it because it feels like we are marooned and are lacking sustaining nourishment. Matthew, tell us the story of the fatigued fishermen who do their all-night-long-best and still catch nothing…we need it because we too have grown weary in well-doing and we have little to show for it.”

Wherever we go, whatever we feel, faithful people have found that God faithfully has been there, done that, and meets us there. The old prophet Isaiah (63:9) knew it to be true. He sang of God: “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” Even the testy times of life can be handled faithfully because of Christ. The writer of Hebrews (20:18) says, “Because he [Jesus] himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Kathlene Norris says that like the suffocating fear of Herod and there is another kind of fear, a life giving fear of the Lord, exemplified by Mary and Joseph which, as we are promised, is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Pr. 1:7). When we open the doors of our life, even just a crack, to allow the fear of the Lord to enter in, we have taken the first step in a lifelong process of exchanging the fear of Herod for the faith of Mary and Joseph.

The fear of the Lord is the Bible’s code word for a very different kind of fear. It is a full-bodied faith that includes trembling before the mystery of a transcendent God and trusting in the tenderness and faithfulness of an imminent God. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of our being able to say, with Mary, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). It is the source of Joseph’s wordless obedience (Mt 1:24) and Jesus’ words from the cross in Luke: “Into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46). The fear of the Lord opens us to the comfort and stamina God offers even in times of undeserved and profound suffering. The fear of the Lord is the impulse that shuts our self-righteous lips when we look upon the suffering or mistakes of others. It impels us, rather than to retreat in cold judgment, to reach out with comforting, capable hearts and hands.

When we put aside our paranoid, self-centered fears and embrace the fear of the Lord, we face the reality of an unknown future with the goods news that we are accompanied by a God who never abandons us. The shadows of fear are illuminated by the light—Immanuel, God with us!

So, here we sit with a New Year waiting to be explored and in our hearts we hold a Christmas story. A bizarre Christmas story – with foreign tyrants and heavy taxes and bloody swords and innocent suffering and homeless refugees. And, remarkably, prayerfully, God somehow uses this collage of odd images to fulfill a commitment to us. It can be stated so simply, it almost is embarrassing to say; but here it is: With our anxiety, loss and grief in one hand, and our gratitude in the other, we bask in God’s big promise to never leave us or forsake us.

Whatever this new year’s “new normal” brings our way–the good news is it is not new to God. And that is part of Christmas that should not stored away ’til next year but kept out in a prominent place in our lives. All-loving God, for your grace that hath brought us safe thus far, and for your grace that will lead us on, we say, “Thank You.” In Christ’s Name, Amen.

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Small Things

Matthew 2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod.

 

The rumor mill in International Relations always runs on high, making montains out of very small mole hills. I doubt it was much different in Palestine two thousand years ago in the era of Roman control. I recall during Richard Nixon’s presidency when Richard Post, an inveterate Cuba watcher, came storming into the office on Capitol Hill absolutely elated to report an apparent positive development in relations between Washington and Havana. After over a dozen years of recalitrance the Cuban Government’s newspaper Granma printed Nixon’s name with an X rather than a swastika. People who follow international relations live by Zechariah 4:10 “For who hath despised the day of small things?

That something big was happening that could make for enormous changes in the control of the trade routes around the eastern end of the Mediterranean hadn’t been lost on those who kept track of these things. Our English fails to give us insight into many great concepts especially when we’ve learned our geography from an North American perspective. Take how we’ve come to think of the Mediterranian, that small pond that holds Europe and Africa apart. It’s hard for us to remember that Med means the middle, terra is the whole earth. In the day our scriptures were written this body of water was the very middle of the earth and it was of great importance whatever power controlled the trade routes that carried goods from Egypt to Syria on the eastern end of the ocean.

For those who followed such things, it somehow became known that a Prince of the Davidic monarchy had taken as wife a princess of the same lineage and that an heir was in the offing. It was one of those small things that peaked great interest. A new star was rising. From Egypt to Damascus – all the people of the levant understood the potential for being shed of the boot of Rome and sent a delegation to win favor.

Representatives of the Roman Empire were Romans and they believed the Roman theology. Rome was the eternal city and was expected to rule forever. They had the power in their military might that was very carefully spread to the ends of its reach. Being posted to Jerusalem was a social death sentence, it was to be banished from the courts of prestige and power. And no one in Rome paid any attention to what happened in the outlands.

Not so with those who were dependent on eastern mediterranean trade.

Typically emissaries would come to Palestine from the west, through Rome, and Roman officials would be alerted to their coming well in advance. So it came as a surprise to Herod to learn that a delegation from countries to the east, beyond the Empire’s control had boots on the ground in his territory. Since 1857 we’ve sung John Henry Hopkins lyrics of the three kings from the orient. It may have given us some wrong ideas. Every place to the east was called the orient. The Orient Express got it’s name from its destination, Istanbul which we understand as the beginning of the east or the orient. That’s not really the case. The text reads: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;

It wasn’t surprise that rose in Herod’s heart. It was fright! “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they asked. Scholarship suggests that Herod Antipas ruled Palestine later than the time of Jesus birth, it was his brother Archelaus. He was the ethnarch of Samaria, Judea and Idumea at the time of the Census of Quirinius. The whole story is rife with intra jewish prejudice and rivalry, ethnic and dynastic cleansing and palace intrigue. It’s helpful to understand that this particular Herod was on the throne when the whole of the Hasmonean dynasty was slaughtered by the Romans and in another incident over three thousand Jews were massacred. And this is the guy who the text says was frightened by the announcement of the three eastern dignitaries.

The passage of Matthew’s birth narrative tell us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. With litle warning Joseph is told to make a 600 mile trip to get the infant Jesus out of the reaches of Herod Archelaus. Most of us came to the conclusion that that is what became of the tribute provided by the visitors from the east. When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Regardless it certainly helps us understand the weight that Herod gave to the dynastic threat the birth of Jesus posed to his position and the hold Rome had over the territory.

Is there a lesson for us, about how we react to preceived threats to the loss of our privilege and position? How far do we go to maintain our sense of control over our world?

 

 

With the overthrow by Fidel Castro of the U.S. supported Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar in 1959, with the exception of Kennedy’s ill planned Bay of Pigs invasion, the CIA bombing of the plane returning the Cuban fencing team home from Venezuela and the Cuban’s shooting down a plane intent on rescuing a family seeking to flee the brutality of the Castro regime, relations between our two countries has been more of a comedic than substantial nature. It was two years after Castro threw the gambling and prostitution out of Havana and after the ill fated Bay of Pigs attempt to restore democracy and economic stablity to the island that Las Vegas became home to America’s appetite for decadence. Baseball has been one area in which the fifty year long embargo has not been enforced.

 

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Fear Not Joseph

Fear Not All You Josephs

It’s interesting that the infancy narrative in the Gospel of Matthew focuses more on Joseph than on Mary. The person who wrote this particular Gospel which was directed to Christians of Jewish descent wanted to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the prophets and comes through the line of David.

I’m guessing that as would any Jew Joseph was rather proud of the fact that he was a direct descendent of David. There are those who make the argument that Joseph wasn’t the simple carpenter presented to us by our bible stories. Ancestry records which have more recently come to light suggest that Joseph’s family of origin was wrapped up in great intrigue. Joseph the Carpenter was the son of Cleopatra of Jerusalem who was the fifth wife of Herod. She was the posthumously born daughter of Julius Caesar and Queen Cleopatra who the records indicate was ‘given to a foreign Prince’. According to these records Joseph was about twenty two years of age when we was told by the temple authorities that a young Davidian princess, Mary, was eligible for betrothal and marriage. But the upshot of all this ancestral posturing is that as a prince of the royal line of David, living in the time of Herod the Great was inherently dangerous. From this perspective Joseph knew fear from being part of a family many members of which were killed off because they were precieved as being challenges to the throne.

Thus the angel, acknowledging Joseph’s true lineage says, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife into your home.”

Do not be afraid. These words occur over and over in scripture seemingly whenever a human has an encounter with the Divine. The angel Gabriel first appeared in Daniel 10 and told Daniel not to be afraid. Gabriel is found in the Gospel of Luke telling the priest Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, not to be afraid. Those were also the Angel’s words to Mary. The shepherds were told by angels not to be afraid. Jesus told Simon Peter and his fishing mates not to be afraid after they almost broke their fishing nets when they listened to Jesus’ instructions. The three disciples were told not to be afraid when they heard the voice of God during the Transfiguration. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were told not to be afraid when they came upon the empty tomb. So, in Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is told “Do not be afraid.”

Joseph was told in a dream not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. What was he afraid of? We don’t know for sure, but it certainly had to do with Mary’s pregnancy. Those legends about Joseph’s ancestry where sibling rivals to positions of power and authority were ended with brutal murder might give him pause about taking a bride and who was expecting a child.

Then maybe Joseph was fearful of what other’s would say when a full term baby was born four or five months after the couple began their marriage. Perhaps Joseph was worried over what kind of woman this Mary was really like. After all, she was a young girl and, as far as Joseph initially knew, she was pregnant by someone else. Did he really want to risk the heartbreak she would inevitably bring upon him?

Or perhaps, Joseph’s fear was provoked by the religious authorities. What if he got caught protecting Mary and was accused of joining her in violating the Law of Moses? Wouldn’t he also be punished for protecting an abomination to God’s law and thus co-operating with the sin?

And maybe there was another reason why Joseph was afraid. Maybe he was afraid that he could not love this child as every child has a right to be loved. How could he love the child as a father. We hear this reading about Joseph’s concerns over and over, but we forget that on the human level, Joseph must have thought, “What a mess this is. And what a greater mess it will be if I complete this marriage and take Mary as my wife.”

But the angel said to Joseph in the dream, “Do not be afraid.” Joseph heard, “Trust God, for the child is special. And so is his mother. Do not be afraid. Trust God.” And Joseph put his complete trust in God. God would figure out how to deal with the gossip, how to deal with the Law of Moses, how to deal with Joseph’s concerns for the child. God would give him the ability to love the child as a father.

It was a matter of tradition that the father is responsible for giving the child a name. The meaning behind that practice was caught up in how Jews of the day thought about eternal life. And Joseph named the child Jesus. With the name, Joseph gives his own spirit and all he is to the child. At once, the child, Jesus, is son of God and son of Mary, but also, through the naming of the child by Joseph, he is the son of Joseph and, to top it all off, he is the son of David.

Fear is not the characteristic of a follower of Christ. At the heart of Christianity is trust. Confidence that God is at work. Like Mary and Joseph we live in a world that is a fearful place. Our whole lives must consist in efforts to love more and more as Jesus loved. To do this we need a gift from God. That gift is trust. We need to trust God to work things out. We have to trust the Lord to remove the fear that prevents us from taking risks and living in obedience. We have to trust that the will bring healing when in the act of obedience we take a step outside of ourselves and a step into love. So many of us are afraid, afraid to trust, afraid to love, afraid to risk. We need to trust God so we can make His Presence real for others.

Behold is the theme for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. God is working in our lives. When we are aware of this, when we behold His Presence, we can then bring his presence to others.

Christmas is not a time for fear. It is a time for love. We have to trust God to protect and develop our love. Can we love others as they deserve to be loved? Will we be hurt in return? These are the questions that Joseph asked himself as he stirred in his sleep. He heard an angel say, “Do not be afraid.” When Joseph took the step from fear to trust, the world beheld its Savior.

Perhaps, this Thursday, Christmas, or throughout this season, some of us will have to associate with someone we have had words with during the last year. This could be a neighbor, a relative or even a member of the inner circle of our family. We might worry, “If I am kind to that person, will I once more be spat upon? Will I be hurt again?” Sometimes we may have real reasons to fear. We only have to trust God and to love. For the one who calls us to love has given us the Gift of Love on Christmas Day.

We have been called to love. God will show us how to do it. Now, like Joseph, we need to name the child. We need to make Jesus an intimate part of our lives so that all that He is and all that we are may be one.

And behold! Behold the wonders that God’s love can work in our lives.

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