Thy Kingdom Come

Second Sunday After Pentecost

The following is a lightly edited transcript of my June 18 sermon. (You can find the audio here.) Whenever the UMC General Conference rolls around, it’s time for amateur hour in local churches, and this year I had the privilege of delivering the Sunday message in my church. This is something my younger self never would have dreamed would have happened. I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition, which taught that women should not be pastors. (To be fair to the Baptists, I also was told that NASA didn’t allow female astronauts.) Not only that, but as a natural and somewhat nerdy introvert, I was extremely anxious and self-conscious about any kind of public speaking. The fact that I was (a) asked to speak and (b) wanted to speak is, I think, a testament to the power of the Holy Spirit working to transform the hearts and minds of both individuals and the corporate body known as the Church.

I am grateful to my church for allowing me the opportunity to speak, and to my husband Mike and son Nathan for singing “You Raise Me Up” as a preface to my thoughts on one of my favorite topics, the Kingdom of God.

The Reading from the Gospel for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 9:35- 10:15

Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. [Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

“Sometimes I think I glimpse eternity.”
What does it mean to glimpse eternity? Is it like looking into the untempered schism of the temporal vortex, seeing all that was and is ever will be at once? I think eternity is less about time than it is about God.

Sometimes things happen that give us a little peek into an alternate universe. We see the world not as it is, but the way it ought to be, the way I think God intended it to be.
Maye you’ve seen a Facebook meme that asks which fictional alternate universe you’d rather live in. the choices include Oz, Wonderland, Middle Earth, Narnia, Westeros, or Hogwarts. I don’t know about you, but I’d probably go with none of the above. I’d like to choose the Kingdom of God. (Well, okay. Narnia comes pretty close, especially at the end of the last book. Who would want to go to Westeros, anyway? It reminds me of that other place Jesus sometimes mentioned, the one where you definitely don’t want to go.)

So, what is this alternate universe called the Kingdom of God? The Israelite prophets talked quite a lot about it, sometimes using beautiful poetic metaphors.

1. The kingdom of God is a place of peace, security, and abundance. No one goes hungry or is homeless. There is no crime and no war.
“Then they will hammer their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks; Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they train for war. Each of them will sit under his vine And under his fig tree, With no one to make them afraid,”- Micah 4:3-4
2. The kingdom of God is a place where all enjoy good health and long life. Lives are not cut short by diseases like cancer. No one loses a child to SIDS. Nobody dies because they don’t have access to medical care.
“Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child; the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.” Isaiah 65:20 
“Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.” Ezekiel 47:12
3. The kingdom of God is a place where humans live in harmony with nature.
“In that day I will also make a covenant for them With the beasts of the field, The birds of the sky And the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword and war from the land, And will make them lie down in safety. Hosea 2:18
“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” Isaiah 11:6
4. The kingdom of God is full of God’s presence.
“My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Ezekiel 37:12
“ The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” Habakkuk 2:14
“”But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD. Jeremiah 31:33-34

Who wouldn’t want to live in that kind of alternate universe?

The Jewish people of Jesus’s day had been looking forward to the coming of the kingdom of God for centuries. And finally Jesus appears and tells them the time is here. As he prepares to begin his ministry, he tells the people of his home synagogue in Nazareth:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then He rolled up the scroll, returned it to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on Him, and He began by saying, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”…

Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God a lot more after that: 14 times in Mark, 32 times in Luke, 24 times in Matthew if you count Matthew’s preferential use of  the term “kingdom of heaven”. Since Matthew was Jewish (Mark and Luke were Gentiles) he was probably uncomfortable saying the name of God aloud. However from the parallel passages in Luke and Mark it’s pretty clear Matthew is talking about the same thing: that is, the reign of God, the place where God’s will is done on earth as it is heaven and everything that once went wrong is made right.

In today’s Scripture passage, Jesus is going about proclaiming the good news of the nearness of the kingdom. He looks out at a crowd of people and is overcome by compassion. They are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  Life was difficult and unpredictable for first century Jews. They were under Rome’s thumb. The government wasn’t helping. The religious authorities weren’t helping either. They were more concerned with seeing that purity laws- don’t touch, don’t taste, don’t handle- were properly observed than with doing things that would actually improve people’s lives. The image that comes to my mind here is animals being penned up in a confined area, panicking and running this way and that at the touch of a cattle prod. It’s such a different image than the one in Psalm 23 where the good shepherd leads his sheep by still waters into green pastures.

Isn’t much of the world we live in the same today? There is such overwhelming need. What can we do about it? Where do we even start? If the “kingdom of God is near,” how do we find the entrance? Where’s our “wardrobe door,” or “Platform 9 ¾” to find it?
Here’s a hint. Jesus sends his disciples with the same message and tells them to do the same kind of things he has been doing. “The kingdom of God is near.” As John put it in his gospel, Jesus is the door. Jesus shows us the way. Go, and do.

There’s a saying that counselors sometimes use, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of feeling than to feel your way into a new way of acting. I think this is spiritually true as well. If we start acting like citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, it becomes more and more real to us. The barriers between this world and the alternate reality of the kingdom of God become thinner and thinner, and sometimes we even get to glimpse this state called “eternity.” Then when the time comes for us to step over the invisible barrier between earth and heaven, we’ll be prepared to live there without undergoing major culture shock. Furthermore, the more people who commit themselves to following the way of Jesus, the better our present world will become. We can be a part of God’s efforts to transform the world into a better place. The Kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed, says Jesus. It starts out so small, but grows into a huge plant with many branches that shelter life.

Instead of imagining that there’s no heaven like John Lennon suggested, let’s imagine what the world would be like if more people lived as citizens of heaven in the here-and-now. Imagine all the people living according to what Jesus said was the greatest commandment, and the Golden Rule.

Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

That’s exactly what Jesus tells the Twelve to go and do in today’s passage.
“As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,[a] drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”

Actions speak louder than words. As St Francis is reported to have said,
“Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

Or as John Wesley might have put it,
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as you ever can.

Let’s not get so hung up by the supernatural-ness of what Jesus and the Twelve were able to do that we miss the main point. Jesus did the things he did because he cared about people, and he wants us to do the same. Just because we can’t literally do those exact things doesn’t mean we can’t do something. And we are not limited to only doing the things on that list. God gave us both hearts to care and brains to figure out what we can do to meet human need.

Take a look at the green sheet of mission and ministry opportunities in your bulletin.

We may not be able to heal the sick or raise the dead in the way Jesus and the Twelve did, but there are many ways we can work to bring health and healing to people. What do you see on that green sheet that does that? Where else are there needs, and how can you help?. Have you ever thought that when you volunteer in caregiving or disability ministries, or support Midwestern University’s medical mission to Guatemala, that you are helping to bring the kingdom of God a little closer?
We may not be able to cleanse lepers the way jesus and the Twelve did, but there are many ways we can work to bring hope and wholeness to those who are excluded and marginalized. What do you see on that green sheet that does that? Where else are there needs, and how can you help?. Have you ever thought that when you volunteer at Justa Center or build homes with One Mission and Habitat for Humanity or buy Christmas gifts through Angel Tree, you are working to bring the Kingdom of God a little closer?
We may not be able to multiply loaves and fishes to feed a hungry crowd the way Jesus did, but there are many ways we can work to end hunger. What do you see on that green sheet that does that? Where else are there needs, and how can you help?. Have you ever thought that when you collect food for West Valley Community Pantry and Hart Pantry. or prepare snack bags for Justa Center, you are working to bring the Kingdom of God a little closer?
Now for the part about casting out demons. We don’t generally think in those terms today and when we read the Biblical descriptions of those kinds of healings, it often seems that those described as suffering from unclean spirits had some kind of physical or mental illness like epilepsy or schizophrenia. But again, that’s not the point. People were suffering, and Jesus did something about it. We all know people who are tormented by metaphorical demons like PTSD and addictions. Have you ever thought that organizations like AA and Soldiers Best Friend are working to bring the Kingdom of God a little closer?

There’s one more thing this passage says to me that I want to mention, and that’s that reciprocity is expected between the Twelve and the people of the towns they visit. The disciples are told not to take extra supplies for their journey because the people they are going to serve will want to take care of them. It’s a partnership, and Jesus goes so far as to say if there is no partnership, they cannot do the work he sent them to do. They are not supposed to go in there, knights in shining armor riding metaphorical white horses, thinking they have all the answers, and placing themselves in a superior position over the people they supposedly are coming to serve. Have any of you read James Michener’s “Hawaii” or Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible”? I was absolutely traumatized by the behavior and attitudes of the fictional missionaries in those books. They show us exactly what NOT to do. Part of being a citizen of the Kingdom of God is realizing our mutual dependence on each other. When St Francis wrote “it is in giving that we receive” he wasn’t kidding about being on the receiving end. Recently I learned of a Tongan saying, “It is a blessing to be a blessing”

Look again at the list of ministries and missions on the green sheet. And there are many, many more things people are doing that aren’t on this list, things people just do on their own. Blessings on all you who show kindness and compassion in so many places and so many ways. You are helping to bring the kingdom of God a little nearer. As we sang in our opening hymn earlier,

Lead on, O King eternal,
till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
and holiness shall whisper
the sweet amen of peace.
For not with swords loud clashing,
nor roll of stirring drums;
with deeds of love and mercy
the heavenly kingdom comes.

Go, and do. Let’s “make it so!”

 

Ashes, Ashes; We All Fall Down

There’s an apocryphal origin story about the children’s game “Ring Around the Rosie”. The story goes that the rhyme accompanying the game originated in the time of the great black plague epidemics which more than decimated Europe during the Middle Ages.  There are several variations of the game and the story, but one version of the last line is “Ashes, ashes; we all fall down”, which supposedly signifies death due to plague.

According to the liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a time dedicated to introspection and repentance and remembrance of one’s mortality. “Dust you were, and to dust you will return”. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.  I didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, so the Ash Wednesday tradition of going to church in order to be reminded of the certainty of death and the need for repentance was quite alien to me when I first experienced it at fifty-something. In the Southern Baptist church, the realities of sin and death were a requisite part of every worship service. We were  frequently reminded of the vileness of our sinful natures, often warned that we could drop dead between one heartbeat and the next, and always offered an altar call whereby we could demonstrate our repentance publicly.  In fact, as I remember it, many Baptists looked down their noses a bit at Catholics, Episcopalians, and other churches which observed Lent for limiting the practice of repentance to once a year. We didn’t “give something up for Lent”, either. If you shouldn’t be doing it, you shouldn’t be doing it all year long, and in high school I noticed that the kind of things my friends tended to abstain from during Lent tended to be high calorie foods like bread and sweets, thus doing double duty as diet aids.

Probably partially due to my particular religious background, I never have been able to meaningfully engage in the Ash Wednesday ritual, nor in popular Lenten fasting practices. I tried the ashes-on-the-forehead thing once, and it felt artificial and odd. I gave up chocolate once for Lent; not only did I feel rather duplicitous; I didn’t even lose any weight. But also partially because of my Baptist upbringing, and likely because of my own personality, and certainly because of my age, I am no stranger to introspection and awareness of my both own mortality and moral failings. I don’t need a priest to remind me that “dust I was, dust I am, and to dust I will return”. Nor do I need to be reminded of the many ways I fall short; of the things I do that I shouldn’t do, the things I don’t do that I should do; and the mistakes I am constantly making even when I try to do the right thing. I think about that kind of stuff all the time. Add spiritual angst to all the “stuff’ that is going on in the world and in my personal life, and I can become overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. Then I feel guilty for that, too.

I have found it to be more spiritually rewarding, as well as psychologically healthy, when I stop ruminating and start doing. Sometimes this means attempting  a new spiritual practice; the two I have found most helpful in the past few years are meditation and writing. Sometimes this means attempting to let mindfulness of the needs of others lead me to new kinds of service projects.  There’s an interesting passage in Isaiah which seems to indicate that God may think along the same lines.   “Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed  and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD? “Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? “Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?… 

I think there’s a profound theological truth in the nursery rhyme. However you choose to look at it, we are mortal, made of ashes or dust or star-stuff, and someday we will die. “We all fall down”- we all make mistakes; no one is perfect and despite our best efforts, we err in ways that hurt ourselves and other people and the world in which we live. These are observations of reality that are true for theists and nontheists alike. The difference is for the Christian is that we understand death and failure differently. I understand death to be not an entropic dissolution into nothingness, but a transition much like birth. I understand that “missing the mark” is inevitable, but failure is not triumphant. God continues to work in us and through us error-prone human beings to effect positive change.

Ashes, ashes. We all fall down. But God is always there to pick us up.

 

Joshua, Jesus, Constantine, and Christ

It’s interesting to me that Joshua and Jesus have the same Hebrew name (יְהוֹשׁ֫וּעַ in Hebrew; Ἰησοῦς in Greek, meaning “Yahweh saves.” The meaning of the name accurately describes both Joshua and Jesus, but their approaches to carrying out God’s salvation were quite different. Joshua is portrayed as a military leader who led the conquest of Canaan, killing every man, woman, child, and animal in cities under the ban, along with those of his own people who did not follow those instructions to the letter. Jesus is the suffering servant and good shepherd who  taught nonviolence  and demonstrated God’s love by “dying for us while we were yet sinners.” The two approaches seem quite opposite to me, and I wrote about this in an earlier post on the book of Joshua. How exactly does God save? Through power and control, or through love and service?

One of the reasons many first century Jews had such a hard time accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah is that he did not fulfill their expectations of a conquering military hero who would toss the Roman bullies out of Israel and re-establish a Davidic dynasty. Instead of using his divine superpowers to control people and perhaps strike a few of them dead, he healed the sick and fed the hungry. Instead of living in luxury in a palace and demanding obeisance from cowed subjects, he lived the lifestyle of a homeless itinerant teacher who told his followers that the first shall be last and “the greatest among you shall be your servant”   Instead of calling down ten thousand angels to rescue him and strike down those who tortured and mocked him, he prayed “Father, forgive them.” Paul makes the contrast clear in his letter to the Philippians when he describes Jesus as someone “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;  rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

It’s pretty clear to me that most of the early Christians tried to apply the example and teachings of Jesus to their own lives and situations.  In fact, that’s where the descriptor “Christian” came from, and it was not originally meant as a compliment. “Christians” were people whose first loyalty was to Christ, not Caesar, and that was a very dangerous thing to do in the Roman Empire. “Christians” also tried to emulate the behavior of Jesus in their interactions with others, and that was considered a very foolish thing to do. In spite of, and probably also partially because of, continuing antipathy from those in positions of power, the faith continued to spread throughout the Roman Empire.

By the turn of the fourth century, political factions threatened to split the Roman Empire into East and West components, with several contenders jockeying for power on both sides. There were two schools of thought on the part of these would-be emperors on how to deal with the exponential growth of Christianity: doubling down on persecution, or assimilation.  In 312 AD,  legend has it that Constantine, one of the contenders for the Western throne, had a dream of a cross and the words “In this sign you will conquer”. He directed his soldiers to paint their shields with a sign of the cross, the battle went his way, and he converted to Christianity. Although the historical jury is out as to whether his conversion was genuine or practical, Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, and assimilation began. The persecuted were now the powerful, and Constantine was their Joshua, the hand of God who saved them and led them into the promised land.

However, in the retrospect of centuries, it seems to me that Constantine’s conversion was one of the most spiritually dangerous things that ever happened to the church. Those in power generally want to stay in power, and the threat of hellfire and damnation became quite a useful  tool to ensure forced obedience. Christianity and Christendom are not the same thing. Christians are followers of Christ, whose ultimate loyalty is to God alone. Christendom is a conflation of Christianity and empire, and its subjects have divided loyalties. The way of Christ is the way of love and service. The way of empire is the way of power and control. Where Christ transforms, empire compels. They are not compatible. There’s a (probably apocryphal) quote attributed to Gandhi, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians.” I can’t help but think that the Christians to whom Gandhi was referring were more ambassadors for Christendom than ambassadors for Christ.

Joshua is recorded as saying in his farewell speech to the Israelite people, Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house I will serve the Lord.” Jesus warned his followers, “No one can serve two masters.” Which will it be, the way of power and control or the way of love and service? The way of Constantine or the way of Christ?

As for me and my house, I choose Christ.

 

 

 

 

Hebrews: We Can See Clearly Now

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.  He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,  having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Hebrews differs from the other New Testament letters in that it bears no salutation. We don’t really know who wrote it, to whom it was written, or when it was written. Based on internal references, many scholars speculate that it was written for second-generation Christians living in the lull between active persecutions by Nero and Domitian. The author seems to have been very familiar with both Platonic philosophy and the Hebrew scriptures, for he references both frequently in his arguments.  Various names have been proposed as its author, including Paul, Luke, Barnabas, Apollos, and Priscilla and Aquilla. I find the latter suggestion especially intriguing, as its proponents speculate that the reason the letter itself doesn’t tell us who wrote it is because it was written by a woman, which if known might have caused it to be dismissed.

The main message I get out of Hebrews is that if we want to know God, we need to look to Jesus.  God has been reaching out to human beings for millennia, trying to get through to us in all kinds of ways. From the dawn of human sentience, many people have managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of a partial picture of God, or to hear a faint echo of his message of love. But until the coming of Jesus, no one person has seen or heard clearly. Want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. Want to connect with God? That happens through Jesus, too. Jesus is the lens through which we can see and know God most clearly.

Again and again, the writer of Hebrews takes events described in the Hebrew Bible, and applies them to Jesus, sometimes giving them an entirely different meaning from that of their original context. That’s a fairly common technique for the biblical writers.  As history unfolds, old stories develop new layers of meaning. For example, when read in context Isaiah’s prophecy of “Behold, an almah (young woman or virgin) shall conceive and bear a son was clearly directed to King Ahaz, but the writer of Matthew takes this verse and applies it to Jesus. Jesus often had a tendency to put a new spin on old Scriptures by saying “you have heard it said (something) but I say (something else) Exodus 21:24 clearly prescribes an eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth payback for wrongs done, but Jesus commands his follows not to repay evil with evil, but with good.   People are still doing this today, even my most literally-minded, God-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it friends. Jeremiah 29:11  was clearly written as a promise to the Jewish exiles that they would one day return to their ancestral lands. Yet this version is particularly treasured as a personal promise by many, including myself, when going through difficult times.

There is nothing wrong with finding new layers of meaning in ancient texts. That’s part of what makes the Bible a living book to me. But the Bible itself is not the lens through which we should see God; Jesus is. The Bible can lead us to God, but it is not a fourth member of the Trinity. The “word of God” is not ossified words on a page, but Jesus. who is  “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart”.  We cannot say “the Bible clearly says” anything without understanding it through the lens of Jesus. Jesus is the lens that can, and will, bring everything into focus.

And that’s good news to me.

 

 

Luke: The Spirit of the Lord is On Me

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke shares with the other synoptic gospels an emphasis on the present reality of the Kingdom of God. However, Luke’s perspective on the central message of Jesus has a bit more of a social justice edge to it. It’s good news for some, but bad news for others.

The first chapter of Luke includes Mary’s song of praise to God, which includes such choice lines as “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” His version of the birth of Jesus differs from Matthew’s in that it includes details about Jesus’s manger birth “because there was no room in the inn” and angels appearing to shepherds  “living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night’. When Mary and Joseph present the infant Jesus at the Temple, the sacrifice they offer is what was stipulated for a poor family. Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming reign of God, and when the imprisoned John the Baptist wonders if it’s really true, he responds by saying “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. The Lukan version of the Beatitudes contains not only the blessings mentioned in Matthew, but also parallel woes. Then there’s the story of the rich man and Lazarus, as well as the rich fool and many other examples. Luke’s version of the good news has a definite “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” slant to it.

It’s interesting to me to read Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s memories of the same teachings and events side by side, and see how they are alike and how they are different. I can imagine Matthew as a seminary teacher, Mark as a street preacher, and Luke off leading a protest march somewhere. Their basic message is the same, but the details and what is included or excluded vary according to the unique perspective of each writer. That makes sense to me, because I see the same kind of selectivity going on in today’s Christ-followers. We all see through our own lenses, and have difficulty seeing through the lenses of others. Different people have different understandings about what the Bible means and different ideas about what to prioritize. Too often this can lead to a false pride in one’s own interpretations, and disdain for those of others. Insisting that the Bible can only be understood in one “correct” way is deadly to its ability to be a living book, one which can speak to human beings at their point of deepest need, in all places and at all times.

Here’s what I see as the basic message of Matthew, Mark, and Luke: Jesus travels the countryside, preaching that the Kingdom of God has arrived. He doesn’t just talk; he does good wherever he goes,  and he teaches his followers to do the same. Very quickly he comes into conflict with the religious authorities, who view him as heretical and dangerous, and are appalled by his growing popularity. Religious leaders conspire with political leaders, each for their own purposes, and kill him in order to put an end to his message and movement. On the third day following his crucifixion, Jesus’s tomb is empty and he appears to many of his followers, convincing them that he has been raised from the dead. He commissions his followers to continue his work, and assures them that he will be with them always.

The Kingdom of God has begun, and God invites us to join with him in working to make it a reality for everyone. Jesus has shown us the way.  God is with us always. Death is not the end of life. And that’s good news!

Matthew: Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“ A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

The New Testament begins with four books about the life and teachings of Jesus, each with its own unique perspective. These books are collectively known as “gospels” because their purpose is to proclaim the gospel, or “good news”, and they contain both stories about the life of Jesus and collections of his teachings. Most scholars believe that Mark, rather than Matthew, was the first of the gospels to be written, but in the traditional arrangement of the New Testament, Matthew is placed first.

When one remembers that the Bible strives to offer a theological rather than chronological perspective on history, the placement of Matthew as the first book of the New Testament is quite reasonable. Matthew is concerned with showing the reader than Jesus is the fulfillment of many prophecies. He often juxtaposes events in the life of Jesus with quotes from the Hebrew prophetic books, with the editorial comment “this event happened in fulfillment of this prophecy”. In this way Matthew provides a bridge from the Old to the New testaments. In one respect, he’s “preparing the way of the Lord” by showing thematic connections. It’s interesting to me that Matthew can get quite creative with these at times. He will quote a passage from Isaiah or one of the other prophets, which when read in its original context refers to one thing, and apply it to something different. For example, Jeremiah 31:15 describes Rachel weeping for her lost children, and in its original context was a poetic description of the depths of loss the Jewish exiles felt in Babylon. Matthew also sees the passage as applying to the bereaved mothers in Bethlehem after Herod’s infamous slaughter of the innocents.

Isaiah 40 describes a voice crying in the wilderness and urging preparations that should be made in anticipation of God’s intervention on behalf of his people. In Isaiah’s time, people would have understood this passage as a promise that God would devise a way to allow the exiled Jews to return to their ancestral lands. Matthew understands Isaiah’s description might also be applied to John the Baptist, who literally lived and preached in the wilderness, and whose call to repentance certainly served to prepare the way for Jesus. By interpreting familiar scriptures in new ways, Matthew attempts to show his readers that Jesus is both the continuation and completion of God’s redemptive efforts throughout history.

The Bible is often described as a “living” book. For me, that has meant that each time I read through it, it speaks to me in a different way. It also means that there is a lot of leeway for differing interpretations and understandings of how to apply its principles to one’s life. I can only imagine the flak Matthew probably received from those who did not think that their scriptures might apply to Jesus as well as ancient Israel. As Matthew understood it, the scriptures prepared the way for the coming of Jesus.  I think this is still true.

The Bible can lead us to God, but it isn’t God. God can best be understood through the life and teachings of Jesus. God isn’t a capricious, angry “sky god”, zapping all nonbelievers with bolts of lightning. And he isn’t Santa Claus, dispensing goodies to good boys and girls and lumps of coal to bad ones. God is like Jesus, and each time I read the stories of Jesus as he is remembered by the gospel writers, I gain a greater understanding of just what really good news that is.

 

Isaiah: A New Vision, a New Hope

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called t0 another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” 

Isaiah is one of my favorite Old Testament books, and seems to have been a favorite of many of the New Testament writers as well. According to Luke, Jesus begins his ministry with a quote from Isaiah, when he proclaims that “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” , and there are many other references to portions of Isaiah in the New Testament. I understand it as a composite book containing the observations and prognostications of more than one person, but having a unified theme. The book begins by identifying itself as being “the vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” However, beginning about chapter 40 the setting has clearly changed to the postexilic period, and the prophet even mentions Cyrus by name. Some explain the time shift with the theory that God somehow projected Isaiah ahead in time over a century, but I think that’s a real stretch. Generally speaking, the role of the prophet was not to foretell the future, but to “forth-tell” the present. Prophets observed what was going on in Israelite society, compared it to their understanding of how God wanted his people to live, and warned the people of the consequences that might ensue if they continued on their current course of behavior without correction.

Earlier prophets like Elijah and Elisha focused mainly on idolatry, but sometime in the eighth century there seems to have been a quantum shift in the nature of prophetic concerns. Faithfulness to God is still a major theme, but warnings against social injustice begin to appear with increasing frequency, especially in Amos and Isaiah.  God is seen as less concerned with proper ritual worship than how his worshipers are treating other people, especially marginalized populations. In fact, God is disgusted and angered by the sacrifices, music, and prayers of successful, self-centered people who ignore the needs of others.  Isaiah, in full mouthpiece-of-God prophetic mode, has God saying a few choice words to religious people who say all the right words and observe all the right protocols, but don’t do anything to mitigate the lives of those living in dire circumstances. For example:

“When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

 “Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.”

“Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” 

Isaiah issues dire warnings of the coming disasters that will fall upon Judah as a result of the people’s habitual sins against God and neighbor, but he also ecstatically envisions a restored and perfected kingdom in words of sublime poetry:

“The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain”

“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.”

“Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child”

Isaiah’s words reassure me that God is faithful, even when his people are not. God cares about all people, especially the “least of these”, those who suffer most in unjust, greedy societies. God is actively and continuously working to put right all that is wrong in the world, and someday he will succeed. And that’s good news to me.