The Unconventional Kingdom

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Have you ever had high expectations about something that didn’t quite get met? That can be really disappointing. We face a lot of disappointments in life, all of which extend from our own expectations. Have you ever been disappointed in God or his plan for your life? If we’re honest about it, there are a lot of times when God doesn’t seem to be responding or doing what we think he should be doing, right?

We’re going to be reading a section in Matthew’s gospel (chapter 11:1-19) where Jesus addresses some questions that John the Baptist throws at him from jail.

Why do you think John is asking Jesus if he’s really the One they’re waiting for? Consider where John is when asking this, compared to where Jesus is and has been (such as in Matthew 9:10). Also, consider what John declared Messiah’s mission to be. Can you understand his confusion?

Jesus doesn’t answer John by saying “Yes, I’m the Messiah, stop questioning me!”. Instead, what does he point to? Jesus quotes a lot of passages from Isaiah in his answer (Isa 26, 29, 61). John was waiting for Messiah to execute judgement on unfaithful Israel and Rome.  What does Jesus point to as the focus and evidence that God’s kingdom is indeed present and at work? How can that help us to understand the unexpected ways in which God works in our world? Where do you think our focus should be as the church?

Things get a little cryptic after that. Jesus reminds the crowd that they didn’t go out to the Jordan to look at a reed in the wind (possibly a disguised way of identifying Herod) or a kingly presence. They went to hear a prophet speaking for God. The greatest prophet, because he was standing at the threshold of God’s invading kingdom. Then Jesus says this strange thing about the kingdom suffering violence and the violent taking it by force. There are a multitude of ideas about what this means – I’m inclined to think it’s connected to the contrast between Herod and John. The representation of God’s kingdom (in the temple religion and in Herod’s assertion that he is king of the Jews) suffers because violent men try and use violent means to advance God’s purposes. What was the general expectation of the Messiah’s mission at that time? What did they think he was going to do? What did he end up doing, and how was it unconventional in terms of expectations?

Jesus then compares his critics to spoiled children who refuse to get on the same page and play the same game. They criticized John because he was too austere, they rejected Jesus because it looked like he was having too much fun. There was no pleasing them. So what does Jesus point to in answering his critics in v19? As Christians, we will always have people criticising or questioning our faith. Following Jesus’ lead, what should we be pointing to as evidence for consideration that God is indeed at work in our midst?

I’m really looking forward to digging into this text on Sunday! Hope to see you there!

Realities of the Mission

Image result for william marshall knightI’m currently reading a history book about William Marshall, considered by the author to be one of England’s greatest knights. He served under five different kings in his lifetime and fought in a multitude of battles and tournaments. During the reign of Richard the Lionheart, Richard was being held for ransom in Germany, being captured on his way home from the Crusades. Richard’s brother, Count John, had taken bold steps to usurp the kingdom for himself in Richard’s absence.

William Marshall was a man of the battlefield, but commissioned with representing Richard’s interests back in England. The subtleties and subterfuges of court were challenging for him and he spent a lot of his time trying to defuse tensions between himself and Count John. There came a time, however, when John crossed lines that William couldn’t accept and he had to identify himself as allied with Richard. He faced severe consequences as a result and found himself losing lands and titles and being pressed to the brink of civil war… until Richard finally returned and set the whole kingdom right.

That account made me think about the passage we’ll be reading in Matthew 10 this Sunday. Jesus continues to give instruction to the disciples he sends out, and this week he’ll be giving some grave warnings. It will not, unfortunately, be a happy, bouncy message.

Why do you think it’s necessary to be both shrewd and innocent (harmless)? What are the dangers of either of these in isolation?

When Jesus says he came to bring a sword, not peace, how do you reconcile that with his title as “Prince of Peace”? Where does the conflict describe originate from; who is the aggressor?

What do you fear losing most in this life? How can Jesus’ words about the sparrow ease your fears?

How would you describe the cost of identification with Christ? What challenges your commitment to Christ and the kingdom of God the most? How can we learn from these instructions so as to increase our commitment to the mission?

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

The Mission Instructions

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I remember teaching my kids to drive. In our house we were teaching a teenager to drive a car every year for four years. I blame the gray in my beard on that. Learning to drive is a rite of passage in our culture and I still remember it well. It’s one thing to be along for the ride as a care-free kid, it’s another when the keys are in your hands and steering that metal box flying down the road is up to you. It can be daunting at first, and it certainly isn’t something done lightly. A lot of instruction goes along with that responsibility.

Jesus’ disciples will experience something like that in our text for this Sunday, Matthew 10:1-15. Jesus will essentially be handing the keys of his ministry to his 12 closest followers and send them out to do what he has been doing. As I said, a daunting task that requires instruction. We’ll be reading Jesus’ instructions for the mission.

This event is called the “limited commission”, because it’s targeted at Israel only, in an limited region, and for a limited time. The “great commission” of chapter 28 will expand on this mission, but here we have the basic instructions laid out.

In v 1-4, Jesus sends them out as “apostles” – it’s the first time this designation is used. It basically means someone sent…by Jesus, in this case. V1 tells us where they get the ability to do this mission, where does it come from? When you look at the list of apostles, what stories about them come to mind? What are their credentials and backgrounds that we’re aware of? Does this tell you anything about who Jesus is willing to send?

When you read the instructions of v5-8a, what feelings are inspired? Is the tone angry, threatening, confrontational? How would you describe the tone and atmosphere of this mission?

Jesus draws very specific boundaries in terms of provisions the disciples should take or receive in V8b-10. Why do you think he is doing that? What lessons should the church today take from those instructions?

In v11-15 Jesus talks about finding people who are willing to listen to the message (worthy) and staying with them. Why doesn’t he want his disciples going from house to house? If people reject the message, he instructs them to shake the dust from their feet. Do you think he means that literally? Why do you believe he gives that instruction instead of telling them to force the issue when the stakes are so high?

Hope to see you this Sunday!

A Faith Observed

Have you ever felt desperate in life? It’s a rhetorical question because if you’re reading this you’re human which means you live on earth and earth has a way of squeezing us into desperate situations. In our times desperation we will usually go all over the place looking for something or someone who can give us a glimmer of hope. That’s just the nature of desperation…and it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

This Sunday we’ll be reading Matthew 9:18-38 and we’ll discover some desperate people who go to the right place in their time of crisis. As we read about these people, we’ll be looking at what it was that moved them to seek help from Jesus. We’ll look at their faith, what Jesus said about faith, and what this can all mean in our own lives.

The synagogue ruler, the hemorrhaging woman and the two blind men all have their stories told in succession. Their expressions of faith are risky, scandalous and bold, but they are also desperate. How does Jesus respond to their desperation? What sort of attitude does he seem to have towards all of these individuals? Do you think of desperation as a positive or negative motive for coming to God for help, and why?

When Jesus casts out a demon and a man was able to communicate when he hadn’t been able to before – what are the two reactions recorded? If both groups of people saw the same miracle, what kept the Pharisees from believing Jesus’ power was from God?

The chapter culminates with a summary of what Jesus is up to with the Kingdom Project – and then we see his compassion for the multitudes who are oppressed by religion, but not cared for by a Shepherd. He clearly is inviting us into the activity of harvesting a ripened field…but what does that metaphor mean to you? How do you believe we can be used in this “harvesting” activity?

Sorry for the late post – looking forward to Sunday!  Hope to see you then!

God’s Healing Rule

  • Image result for taxmanWhat are your first thoughts when you read the letters IRS together? Do you have negative or positive feelings about this agency? That’s sort of a rhetorical question, I don’t know many people who get the warm and fuzzies when it comes to our government tax agency. As John Oliver says, “It’s no wonder people hate the IRS. They’re unavoidable, they often function poorly and they combine things we hate the most: losing money and math.”

Things were no different in the world of Israel in the first century. Actually, tax collectors were probably hated more intensely in that context. They were considered traitors for collecting money from the hated Roman oppressors. Add to that the propensity of tax collectors to overcharge people who had no recourse for objection and we can see why tax collectors were lumped in with murderers, robbers and prostitutes.

That’s what makes Jesus’ actions and words so alarming in the section of Matthew we’ll be reading this Sunday – Matthew 9:9-17.

In v9-13 we find the invitation given to Matthew the taxman to become a disciple of Jesus. We wonder if Jesus knew Matthew beforehand and how much Matt knew about Jesus to accept this offer so suddenly. The party afterwards is where the main action develops. What does it say that Jesus is doing at the party? Is he lecturing people about ethics and occupations? Is he handing out tracts? What is he doing according to v10? Sharing a meal was a powerful statement in that culture and time. It meant acceptance and connection. People who ate together were considered a part of each other. Do you see what is perplexing the Pharisees now?

What do you think Jesus’ answer means in v11-13? What does the focus of his mission seem to be on? What is it that the Pharisees focus on? What should we learn from this?

In v14-15, John the Baptist’s disciples seem confused by Jesus’ behavior as well. John taught his followers fasting as a way to encourage God to send his kingdom and end the days of exile. The Pharisees taught that tradition as well. But here is Jesus who seems to be eating a lot (its one of the main thing Luke’s gospel portrays Jesus as doing). Jesus’ answer points to himself as an important part of what it is that John’s disciples were waiting for. What do you think he’s saying?

v16-17 provide two word pictures that contrast something rigid with something flexible. Jesus is contrasting the work of God’s kingdom coming through him with what came before. What came before? What do you think the new wine is, and what is the value of a flexible structure around it?

This should prove to be an intriguing study- hope to see you Sunday!

 

Trust Him

How easy is it for you to trust someone? We may consider ourselves to be “trusting souls”, but the reality is we often find it difficult to place our trust in someone else. A lot of factors go into that – past experiences, our own sense of frailty when it comes to trustworthiness, and a host of other reasons go into our tentative approach to giving away our trust. It’s hard to trust others…and those are people we can SEE and examine and evaluate on a regular basis.  What about a God who hides himself (Isaiah 45:15)?

Still, that’s the whole thing when it comes to Scripture. We are continually called on to trust God – and in the New Testament, to trust God through Christ Jesus.

Last week we explored a solomn and sort of heavy section of Matthew which reminded us that following Jesus does not insulate us from the troubles that life can throw our way. But in case we were tempted to become fatalistic and slump in our chairs thinking that there’s just no hope no matter what…we have this weeks section.

We’ll be reading chapter 8:23 through chapter 9:8 this Sunday as we journey through the gospel of Matthew. The chapter break really shouldn’t be there, because this whole section belongs in a single grouping. Three areas where Jesus demonstrates his authority to encourage our trust in him, even as we follow him into potential hardships.

In chapter 8:23-27 we have the famous account of Jesus calming the storm. Whey do you think Jesus was sleeping? Have you ever felt like Jesus was sleeping while you were in dire straights? What does he ask his disciples? In our own storms of life, how can asking ourselves the question “why are you afraid?” help to orient our thinking and perspective?

In v28-34 Jesus heals two men who were demon possessed. How comfortable are you with the idea that there are demons on the loose in this world, taking possession of people sometimes? Our western culture mostly dismisses that notion as primitivism – but I thought this was an interesting article.

Jesus demonstrates his authority over evil. How does that develop our understanding of his words in the Lord’s Prayer “deliver us from evil” – and in what way can that inspire our trust? What should our response to evil be, in light of his authority over it?

Chapter 9:1-8 tells the story of Jesus healing the paralyzed man. Before he heals him, he forgives his sin. Then he demonstrates his authority to forgive sins by healing the man’s physical body. What does his authority to forgive sins inspire you to trust Him with? What did the paralyzed man do to deserve that declaration of forgiveness?

Troubles from without, in the natural world and the spiritual one, and troubles from within in the form of our own failures – Jesus has authority over them all. What will you trust Him with?

Hope to see you this Sunday!

The Costly Subversion

“I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” ~ C.S. Lewis

 

Old Lewis certainly had a strange way of trying to sell something. Then again, maybe he wasn’t interested in trying to sell something. Maybe he was trying to be sincerely honest about the faith he embraced and the journey it entails. Far too often we are presented with a gospel that obfuscates the reality that Lewis was trying to expose: Following Jesus is a costly endeavor. Jesus is often offered to a consumer culture as the ultimate solution to rid us of those problem stains. “Come to Jesus and he will make all your troubles go away”, while not overtly stated that way, is the gist of the message.

Contrast that with the passage we’ll be reading this Sunday in our study of the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 8:18-22.

Jesus sure has a warped sense of how to achieve church-growth, doesn’t he? I love how v18 reads in the Message: “When Jesus saw that a curious crowd was growing by the minute, he told his disciples to get him out of there to the other side of the lake.” Suddenly his ministry is becoming popular and attracting attention, and his response is to bail immediately. What do you believe is behind this strange move?

So far in Matthew’s gospel we’ve seen the subversive nature of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is turning expectations on their heads by challenging the very systems that were expecting his arrival. Everything he does and teaches seems to carry the intent of creating an upheaval of the status quo. This little section is no different.

When faced with sudden popularity, Jesus doesn’t begin the process of working the crowd and taking polls to see what will generate a greater favorability. He doesn’t try to drum up as many supporters as he can by offering give-aways or doing his best to present himself as culturally hip. Nope. He does his best to evade the masses who have only a surfaced curiosity, and when some do seek to commit themselves to him, he does his best to dissuade them!

Jesus was clearly not reading all the email articles that get sent to me. He’s doing it all wrong, at least according to the experts. And they are experts – they’ve grown gigantic, massive and wealthy churches.

v19-20 – Why do you think Jesus responds the way he does to the scribe who offers to commit himself to the cause? Jesus had places to sleep – he stayed with Lazarus in Bethany, he stayed at Peter’s house in Capernaum…and Peter had a house to stay at. There is some hyperbole in this, but there is a sharp, deeply cutting message in it, especially to 21st Century American Christians. What message do you get?

V21-22 – On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being “not at all” and 11 being “this goes to 11”, how harsh does Jesus’ response to the man who wants to bury his father seem to you? Why do you think Jesus would say that? What do you think the phrase “let the dead bury their dead” means?

By the way….my name is Rob, and I’ll be teaching this Sunday at Eastgate. What a happy passage to come back to, huh? Actually, I’m hoping you find it a refreshingly bold challenge, like I do. Hope to see you then!