God’s Rule in an Unruly World

rabbisurfMost of you know, I’m a cartoonist who is serving as a pastor until the Lord fixes that. I’ve drawn a graphic novel for the web called “Rabbi Encounters”. You might enjoy reading chapter five, “Surf” (click the title to go there). It’s my rendition of the events that we’ll be reading this Sunday as we continue our study of Matthew – 14:22-36.

I believe this is an account of something that really happened. I also believe this actual event can read as a parable – a metaphor for a life of following Jesus.

The disciples follow Jesus’ instructions to get in the boat and go. Obeying Jesus, they find themselves caught in a storm and being (literally) tormented by the waves. What metaphor can you see in that? How does this correspond with your own life of faith? What can be learned?

When Jesus shows up the disciples are terrified. Why? To your knowledge, has anything like this happened before in the Bible, where someone has walked on water? Do you think any of the disciples expected to see Jesus out there? In what ways can you see a parallel of this in your own expectations about God and what He’s up to?

What do you think, was Peter right or wrong to ask Jesus to command him to walk on the water? Scholars seem to be divided about it. Do you think his lack of faith began when he had to have proof that it was really Jesus, or was it a bold move of faith to claim participation in the miracle?

When Peter is focused on the rising surf, he begins to sink. The lessons there are obvious. Something else to think about is: what was Jesus’ first response (not words necessarily) to Peter’s predicament? How does his response encourage you when you remember times where you’ve had “little faith”?

Those are just some things to consider before Sunday. What I’d really like you to do is read this whole section and read it as metaphor – use your imagination. What is the boat, the water, the storm, the destination? What can those be portraying to us about life and faith and most importantly, Jesus?

Hope to see you this Sunday!

Contrast of Empires

Image result for herod antipas john the baptist

I think the idea of the “kingdom of God” is one of the more difficult concepts for Christians to grasp. In my conversations with people, it often seems to be a primarily future construct. “One day, Jesus will return and set up his kingdom”. That’s true and I agree with that, but is that all there is to it? Jesus came on the scene announcing that the Kingdom of God was at hand, closing in, so to speak. The whole theology of the New Testament indicates that the kingdom of God is presently active and at work in this world, through the church. God’s kingdom can be described as God’s good rule – over our lives and over all creation – but the New Testament even indicates that it is God’s rule over the nations as well. But how does that work? How could they say that while Caesar still sat on the throne?

One way to understand it is to see that God’s rule is at work subversively, working right along side of the fallen world and human empires, showing a different way that ultimately leads us to the aforementioned conclusion of Christ’s return and restoration of all things.

That’s something we sort of see in our text we’ll be reading this Sunday as we continue our study in Matthew, reading chapter 14:1-21.

We’ll be reading this passage in two sections, v1-12 and then v13-21. In these two accounts we have what appears to be an intentional contrast. We have two different leaders – both of whom are called “King of the Jews”. Both stories contain an account of a feast of sorts. But the circumstances and outcomes of both stories are radically different. Here’s what I want you to do: Read through each section, back to back. Then go through and look for whatever connection you can see between them. Ask questions like: How did Herod seek to protect his kingdom compared to how Jesus went about advancing his? What practical differences were there between the two feasts ? What is Herod’s feast all about? What was the result of each feast and how did it differ?

Ask your own questions about the contrast. Then ask yourself the most important question of all: Which feast would I rather be attending? Does my answer correspond with the way I presently live my life?

It’s going to be a challenging, yet encouraging study (I hope) – see you Sunday!

What is Valuable?

Image result for looking at diamondHave you ever watched one of those shows like Antique Roadshow or even Pawnstars? People are always hopeful that the old Samurai sword they found in the attic or the vase that Aunt Edna willed to them will be worth a fortune. Sometimes they are evaluated highly…mostly they’re not.

Finding something of value is the theme for the passage we’ll be looking at this Sunday as we continue our study of Matthew, reading chapter 13:44-58.

The parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price carry on the prior theme of something hidden and unexpected (like that of the wheat and weeds, the mustard seed and the leaven), but now a new dimension is added: value. Jesus is trying to get across the great value of God’s in-breaking kingdom in comparison to all other things/religions/philosophies/pursuits of life. In what way do you understand God’s rule over your life and this world to be of value? How do you understand it to be the most valuable thing, if you do? What do you think it means to prioritize and value God’s kingdom more than anything else?

The parable of the dragnet leaves the world of agriculture and sets us out to sea. Once again, we have something hidden yet productive as our motif. Why do you think its important that Jesus describes the indiscriminate nature of the net in that it gathers all kinds of fish? What about this story reveals the value of God’s rule to you?

The parable of the old and new treasure seems to be making a closing point to the line of thought we’ve been on. What do you think the old and the new treasure represents in this story? How does this fit into your understanding of how God’s kingdom is at work in your life and this world? How can something old shed light on something new, and visa versa? How did we see that being played out in Jesus’ ministry and later in that of the church?

At the end of the chapter there is yet another story of Jesus being rejected. It sort of plays out in the narrative what was implied in the stories of the wheat and weeds and the dragnet. Why did the people of Nazareth reject Jesus? Based on the last line of this chapter – what is it that ultimately informs our sense of Jesus’ value?

This will be a challenging and, I think, interesting excursion through the stories Jesus tells us. Hope to see you on Sunday!

 

 

 

 

Ears to Hear

Have you ever found yourself talking to someone only to discover that they really weren’t listening? Ladies, I’m obviously asking you. It can be frustrating in a conversation; it can be devastating spiritually, when  God is trying to communicate and people don’t seem to listen.

That is going to be the dominant theme of the text we’ll be examining this Sunday as we continue our way through the Gospel of Matthew, reading chapter 13:1-23.

This is the beginning of a series of teachings Jesus gives, and he gives them all in parables. It is very significant that Jesus taught through the use of stories that represented a larger truth. What do you think is significant about his use of parables.

When his disciples ask him why he’s teaching people through these unexplained riddles, Jesus gives an answer that is as cryptic as the parables themselves, and somewhat disturbing. He indicates that the parables are a means of hiding the arrival of God’s kingdom from certain types of people. Who is it that Jesus seems to have in mind in this warning? Why do you think they are unable to hear what it is Jesus is saying, or see what it is that is happening? What lesson can we take from this as the 21st Century American church?

Jesus only explains two of his parables, this one and the one after this. In his explanation, he tells us plainly that the seeds represent the news of God’s kingdom arriving through Jesus and the soils represent the hearts and lives of people. Some hear and embrace the possibilities of God’s rule over life and it produces varying amounts of fruit. Some hear and are interested, but lose interest as everyday life crowds out the importance of what God is doing in their hearts. Others hear and are stoked, but its shallow emotionalism so that when things get difficult or demanding, they bail out. Worst of all, there are those who are like hard-packed dirt on a well-trodden path – who won’t allow the news of God’s rule get anywhere near their hearts because it doesn’t fit with what they’ve already assumed about life.

Think about this: Jesus was talking about people who were pretty religious already. He’s not necessarily talking about the pagan Romans, but most likely the pious Jews. How do we evaluate what this story means to us in our journey of faith? Do you think its possible to have all of these types of soil represented in one life? Is it possible they are represented in your life? How can we hear with an intent to embrace what God says in his gospel? What can make us more receptive to His word?

This will be a challenging study – hope to see you this Sunday!

Polarized

polarized I know that we talk a lot about how, politically, our nation has become polarized.  Still, people who find that they don’t fit neatly into either polar position can opt to choose a third way – either by voting for a third candidate or not voting at all. Now, I’m not going to comment or even speculate on the efficiency or responsibility of those options, because regardless of a person’s opinion about the matter, a third way does exist.

That, however, is not what I’m going to write about.

In our text we’ll be reading this Sunday, Matthew 12:22-37, Jesus presents what seems to be an extremely polarized view of the world. A world where there are only two choices to be made concerning two different kingdoms, and the stakes are way beyond mere political platform or policy. It’s a fairly uncomfortable passage, but it’s there, and we need to wrestle around with it and see how it will shape our lives.

As you read the text from v22-24 you see right away that Jesus has a polarizing effect on people. There are two very distinct opinions forming about him. Jesus will latch onto that and develop a picture of the world in stark contrasts between good and evil.

Jesus’ counter argument from v25-30 starts with a logical premise that brings to the surface the dualistic view of this world. There is a kingdom of our enemy, the devil, and there is a kingdom of God. He clearly portrays these at odds with each other and in conflict. His logic is pretty simple: why would the devil be working at cross purposes against himself? Which reveals something about the nature of Jesus’ mission. In fact, v29 pretty much describes what Jesus is up to. Who do you think the “strong man” is? What is the house and what is the plunder that is taken (put it in the context of what started this whole thing in v22 – the healing of the demon possessed man)?

V31-32 has had the effect of scaring some people, especially those new to the faith. They worry that Jesus is describing some poorly identified way to sin that can never be forgiven if committed. Have you ever worried about that? Just to put your mind at ease, that’s not what he’s trying to say. He’s talking about how the Pharisees were claiming that the devil was the source of Jesus’ work. If they reject Jesus and the salvation that’s offered, there’s no other way offered that provides forgiveness. To reject the work of the Holy Spirit through Jesus is to reject forgiveness by God – hence, forgiveness is withheld.

V33-37 deals primarily with our use of language. The words we speak and the way we communicate reveals something about ourselves. How can we see to it that the words we communicate are in harmony with the purposes of God’s kingdom in this world?

Hope to see you this Sunday!

The Folly of Mere Religion

Image result for elephant at a parking meterDid you know that according to a law in Orlando, if you leave an Elephant at a parking meter, you have to pay the full fee that you would pay for a car? Some insist that no such law ever existed, but others are adamant about it. It’s hard to say, but we do know that strange laws like that still remain in the layers of various states legislation. I love trying to imagine the context for coming up with laws like Missouri’s ban on driving with an uncaged bear in you car. It would be hard to discern the original intent behind a law like that.

Still, with any law, original intent is important. One of the constant themes of the New Testament, and especially the gospels, is this conflict we witness between those who insisted on pressing the letter of the Old Testament law, and Jesus who administered the spirit, or intent of it.

That’s something we’ll be considering in our text this Sunday as we read Matthew 12:1-21.

In v 1-8 Jesus defends his disciples against accusations of breaking the commands of Oral Law, the Talmud, which forbade harvesting and threshing wheat – which they applied to the actions of the disciples in this section. What do you think Jesus’ point is in referring to David eating the showbread of the Tabernacle? When Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” – what does that mean to you? How does this apply to your life of following Jesus? What do you think he means by calling himself the Lord of the Sabbath?

In the second story, the same issue of Sabbath keeping is at the center. Jesus responds to the inquiry about healing on the Sabbath with a hypothetical situation where someone’s sheep falls in a ditch – common sense dictated that it was a necessity to come the animal’s aid. Jesus states his point quite clearly – people matter more. But by going ahead and healing on the Sabbath, we realize what he means – people mean more than _______ – what?

V15-21 act as sort of a summary of these two events. They give us a picture of Jesus that is very different from the religious leaders and Pharisees of his time. Their emphasis was on domineering people through their religion. Based on these verses, what is Jesus’ emphasis, and what sort of atmosphere surrounds his triumph?

This is a great section of the gospel to explore! Hope to see you this Sunday!

 

Results of Response

breaking-bad-bookDo you remember those old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that were all the craze at one time? They had all these multiple endings that a person could arrive at simply by choosing how they would respond to certain events and circumstances. Like, for instance, in a story where terrorists take you and your classmates hostage you can choose to  give the terrorists your limited cooperation, all the while secretly getting information to the president and the army… Or you can give the terrorists your wholehearted cooperation and spend the rest of the book going to terrorist school and becoming a fully engaged radical extremist for a drug cartel….and no, I’m not making that up.

Anyway – the point is, our choices and responses effect the way life plays out, and never more so than when it comes to the kingdom of God. How we respond to God’s kingdom closing in on this world will have varying results in accordance with our response. That is something Jesus will highlight in the section of Matthew we’ll be reading this Sunday, Matthew 11:20-30.

Jesus gives some of his harshest rebukes outside of the religious leaders in v20-24. What is the repeated reason for their looming judgement? Do you think Jesus is angry with these people? What do you believe is motivating his words? What appears to be the result of rejecting God’s kingdom?

In v25-27 we see that everyone didn’t reject Jesus’ presentation of the kingdom. Who does it say it was revealed to? What do you think is significant in the contrast between the “children” and the “wise and understanding” ones? What implicit attitudinal response seems necessary for recognizing and embracing God’s rule through Christ?

Some of Jesus’ most beautiful words are spoken in v28-30. Here’s the thing – read them. Read them again. Read them from the Message version. Read those words out loud and hear them coming from Jesus to you, personally. Tell me how those words make you feel. What is the result of surrendering to God’s kingdom through Jesus?

This will be a great passage to dig into! Hope to see you Sunday!