Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Call to the Church to Grow Up

Most of us who have become disciples of Jesus have probably done so, at least initially, because of what we thought Christ and his Church could offer us.  We found a community that cared for us in a way that no other had.  A friend shared with us the work that God had done in their life and the joy they felt.  We thought going to church would make our parents happy or make our children more well behaved.  Or maybe we just thought heaven sounded better than hell.  As a broken and sinful people our initial reasons for seeking God will likely be mostly selfish so those reasons aren't necessarily a bad place to start but they would be an awful places to stay.

In his letter to the church at Ephesus it seems most likely that Paul is not writing to Christians who are just getting started in the faith.  According to Acts 20, Paul spent three years ministering among the Ephesians "declaring the whole counsel of God to them".  These are not babes in Christ.  Paul has instructed them thoroughly and has left behind a faithful and well established church.  Therefore, when we read the letter to the Ephesians we should recognize that we are not dealing with milk but with solid food.  In it is not only the gospel message but instructions about the consequences of that message for one's life.  Ephesians is for the Christian who is ready to mature in the faith.  Ephesians is a call to grow up.

That call begins with the first words after the letter's obligatory greeting, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ".  Those words begin a sentence that is so long that it must be broken into multiple sentences in our English translations but in Greek runs continuously from v.3-14.  In that one long sentence a theme is repeated:

  • Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
  • who has blessed us in Christ
  • just as He chose us
  • He predestined us
  • according to His good pleasure
  • into the praise of His glorious grace
  • in whom we have redemption
  • according to the riches of His grace
  • which he lavished on us
  • making known to us the mystery of his will
  • according to his good please
  • which he planned
  • in whom we have an inheritance 
  • having been predestined according to his plan
  • so that we might be to the praise of his glory
  • in whom also you heard the word of truth
  • in whom you believed and were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit
  • to the praise of His glory
Repeatedly, it is God who acts.  God is the author of our salvation.  It is God who is to be blessed.  God set the plan of redemption in motion. Twice we are told that God did all this according to his good pleasure. Three times we are told everything that God has done for us is "to the praise of His glory".  There is no question we receive many benefits in the salvation that God has provided for us in Jesus Christ, many of which are listed in these verses.  But salvation is not primarily about us.  It is all about God.  All the benefits we receive in salvation are only meant to turn more honor, glory, and praise to God.  The mature Christian recognizes that salvation and the Church and growing up in Christ are about giving glory to God.  

But how many of us actually approach Church that way?  Sure, none of us would be so bold as to actually say that Church is all about us but just think about the ways that we talk about Church.  Think about the reasons why people, and not just any people but people we assume to be mature Christians because they have been in church for decades, leave a church: they don't like the worship style, they don't get along with the pastor, they don't like certain changes that were made.  And then they go shopping for a church that suits them and their own personal preferences: one that will keep their kids entertained, sings the right songs, where the pastor doesn't preach too long, and they are never asked to get too involved or sacrifice too much.

I'm not saying there is never a legitimate reason to leave a church.  I am saying that I think as Americans we are extremely skilled consumers.  We are quite efficient at getting what we think we need at minimal cost to ourselves.  In fact, I think we are such talented consumers that we begin to approach all parts of life that way, seeing things for what we can get out of them.  So we treat churches not so differently from grocery stores; we'll go to the one with the best service and the lowest cost until they raise their prices or change something we don't like and then we'll go to the one across town.  And we think there is nothing wrong with that because we think that churches, like grocery stores, are here to meet our needs, to serve us, and to do whatever they can to win and keep our loyalty which is really no loyalty at all.  

To the Church in America, to my brothers and sisters in Christ, to my own congregation, hear God's call through his Word: GROW UP!  

This is a call to be reminded that salvation, the Church, and growing up in Christ are not about us, not about what we like and don't like, not about our comfort, and not about how we can better be served.   It is about us serving God and serving others with his love so that we might bring honor and glory to the holy God who created us and redeemed us for himself.  Church is not about you and it is not about me.  It is about the blessed God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Two Kingdoms

In Matthew 2:13-23, we are given a story that none of the other gospel writers tells.  It is the story of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary fleeing to Egypt and it gives a unique window into Matthew's understanding of Jesus right at the beginning of his gospel.

Matthew tells us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told Joseph to flee to Egypt because king Herod was about to search for Jesus to destroy him.  Joseph obediently follows the command and flees to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod.  Matthew then adds the comment that "This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet 'Out of Egypt I called my son.'"

This quotation comes from Hosea 11 and in that context has nothing to do with Jesus or the expected Messiah.  In fact, the "son" that God speaks of in Hosea is Israel whom God delivered from Egypt in the Exodus.  In Hosea 11, God speaks through the prophet about how he delivered these people and how he loved them.  God loved Israel like his own child but the more that he loved them the more they turned away from him.  In fact, they kept turning away from God so much that just like a father would discipline a child he loves so God also has to discipline Israel to get their attention.  So God allows them to be defeated by Assyria and to be made slaves once again.

Not coincidentally, the other Old Testament quotation in this passage in Matthew comes from precisely that time period in Israel's history.  Jeremiah 31:15 speaks about the people of Israel weeping over the destruction of their land and their families.  They have been laid waste by Assyria and Babylon.  All God's people have been taken into captivity and they face a hopelessness in their exile, a fear that they will cease to exist as a people.  And in that circumstance, God comforts them and says that he will one day restore them and not only that but he will one day make a new covenant with them where he will write his law on their hearts so that they won't be rebellious any more.

And Matthew tells us that this prophesy from Jeremiah was fulfilled when Herod ordered all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two to be murdered.  We can see in both the quotations from Hosea and Jeremiah that Matthew does not use these prophecies in a merely predictive way.  Matthew is not saying that Jesus meets some kind of prophetic checklist for what it means to be Messiah.  Instead, he is saying "Look, this story is like that story.  What God is doing in Jesus is like what God did in those times."  In other words, by telling us that Jesus' family fled to Egypt and that God called his Son out of Egypt, Matthew wants us to see a parallel between the Exodus, the great deliverance of Israel, and what God is going to do in this child Jesus.  And by quoting Jeremiah's words about the exile, words which are followed by God's promise of deliverance from that exile, Matthew wants us to see a parallel between what God did in the deliverance of Israel from exile in Babylon and what God is going to do in this boy Jesus.  Matthew is hinting to us right here at the beginning of his story that this new born child is going to deliver Israel from its slavery just as God did in the Exodus and the return from Exile.  This infant is going to be the new king of a new Israel.  

There is just one problem with all of that.  There is already a king in Israel.  His name is Herod and he doesn't think Israel needs delivering.  In fact, he is quite happy with the way things are since he is the one in power and he would like to keep it that way.  The last thing Herod needs is some upstart kid trying to step in on the power that he has worked so hard to gain and keep.  Herod will do whatever is necessary to hold on to the power that he has... even ordering every male child in the little town of Bethlehem to be murdered in cold blood.  In fact, other historical records tells us that Herod even had three of his own sons killed so as to insure his continued reign as king.  Of course, Herod was not especially unusual for his time.  Many in the Roman Empire acted this way, doing whatever they had to in order to insure that they kept the power they had.

And so, right here only two chapters into Matthew's gospel, before Jesus has even had a chance to grow up, we find that his kingdom is already in conflict with, already threatening the kingdoms of this world.  Matthew presents to us these two kingdoms and we must choose one or the other.  On the one hand, we have Jesus and his kingdom which stands for all of those things that we talk about this time of year; peace, love, joy, hope.  And all that sounds very nice and appealing to us.  But on the other hand, we see that there is this other kingdom.  The kingdom of Herod, the kingdom of this world.  Matthew lays bare for us that this kingdom is built on nothing other than fear, violence, greed, and power lust.  This kingdom is built on the murder of innocent children.  We are repulsed by this kingdom and yet part of us finds it necessary, pragmatic, realistic, whatever you want to call it because we can see that this kingdom holds all the weapons, all the power, all the influence.  So we are confronted with a choice: the kingdom of the helpless infant or the kingdom of the savage Herod?

From any rational, human perspective, it seems absurd to pledge or allegiance to anything other than the Herod kingdom.  As much as we are repulsed by its method, we know that it holds all the power in this world.  After all, how can you possibly build any kind of kingdom on an infant who himself is fleeing from Herod?  In fact, I think John describes the situation well for us in Revelation 12.  There John describes a sign he sees in heaven: a pregnant woman giving birth to a male child, "one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron".  And there standing before the woman is a great dragon who is waiting to devour the child the moment the woman gives birth.  Undoubtedly, this imagery in Revelation is multifaceted in its meaning but at the very least we can hear the parallel between the dragon who wishes to devour this woman's child and Herod who hopes to devour Jesus by the sword.

John and the churches to which he was writing knew this tension between these two kingdoms well because they constantly lived in the war between them.  They had pledged their allegiance to Jesus, to the kingdom built on this male child who would rule the nations but on the other hand they had to continue to make a living in that other kingdom, the Roman Empire with its Herods and Red Dragons and all the violence they could create.  I'm sure there were times when these early Christians felt like they were the child about to be swallowed by the great red dragon; that Israel their mother had given birth to the Church only to have them gobbled up by the power of the Roman empire.

The truth is, we face the same dilemma, the same tension.  While we may not face the persecution that John's church's faced, we certainly face the same pressure to compromise with the kingdoms of this world.  We see the kingdom of Jesus and we want to follow that way.  Maybe we have even pledged our allegiance to it but then we see all the power that Herod and his kingdom hold and we feel like our faith is about to be devoured by a great red dragon.

Or to bring it back to our story in Matthew, we find ourselves in a position like that of Joseph.  I have to imagine that Joseph must have said "You want me to what?!" more than once to the messenger of the Lord that appeared to him repeatedly.  It wasn't enough that Joseph was instructed to take responsibility for a child that he knew wasn't his own, now he had to flee all the way to Egypt to protect it and he could only come back when God told him it was safe?  Have you ever thought about how differently this story could have gone?  Joseph could have reasoned this wasn't his kid anyway, taken him to one of Herod's men, said here is the one you are looking for, just take him and you don't have to kill all the other male children in Bethlehem.  Not only would Joseph no longer have the social stigma of having a child that everyone else thought was illegitimate, he would also have the continuing gratitude of all the other mothers in Bethlehem for saving their sons and maybe Herod would have even thrown him some kind of reward for being such a loyal subject.  Instead, Joseph repeatedly trusts God even when it sets him at odds with the vast might of the Roman Empire.  Joseph chooses the kingdom of this helpless little boy over the kingdom of this world.  God calls us to this same radical trust.  He calls us to pledge our allegiance to the kingdom built on Jesus even while the Herods of the world do all the destruction and violence they can.  As I said before, from a merely human perspective this call will always seems like a foolish and naive one.  But in the rest of Revelation 12, John gives us the heavenly perspective on the matter.  There John tells the churches of Asia Minor and tells us that the dragon and his angels have already been defeated.  A loud voice in heaven proclaims
"Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.  And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death."
John goes on to tell us that when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth he pursued the woman who gave birth to the child and when he is unable to capture her he goes off to make war against the rest of her offspring, "on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus."  John acknowledges that in this world the dragon has power to inflict all kinds of pain and violence on the saints of God but John is in essence telling us that all the pain and violence Satan can bring is actually good news for us.  It is good news because it represents the death throes of his kingdom.  Satan thrashes about so violently in our world because he knows he has been defeated and wants to inflict whatever damage he can in the short time that he has left.  In John's view, things like Herod's slaughter of innocent children, things like the holocaust, things like the genocides of Rwanda, Congo, and the Sudan, tragedies like Haiti, the pain we feel in our bodies, the illnesses and deaths of loved ones that we so painfully mourn, while undeniably tragic are also sure signs of Satan's defeat.  They are signs that the days of the dragon, of the Herods, of the kingdoms of this world are numbered because the kingdom of that baby boy born in a manger has already prevailed.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

God With Us

The words of Isaiah 7:14 are probably some of the most well known in the book Isaiah.
"Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel."   
This is almost certainly the case not because of their original context in Isaiah but because Matthew quotes them in the first chapter of his gospel to refer to the birth of Jesus.  However, if we read Isaiah 7 as a whole we can see clearly that this prophecy is not one that Isaiah expected to be fulfilled hundreds of years later.  It was a prophecy for his own time.  Isaiah was speaking about a child that would be born very soon.

Isaiah 7 begins by telling us that King Rezin of Syria and King Pekah of Israel marched against Jerusalem the capital of Judah where Ahaz was king and Isaiah a prophet.  Isaiah doesn't give us any details as to why the kings of Israel and Syria wanted to make war with Judah but considering the historical context of the time we can make a guess.  The mighty nation of Assyria was a threat to all of three these nations but was likely a more immediate threat to Syria and Israel due to their geographic location.  So its seems likely that Rezin and Pekah were trying to intimidate Ahaz in to forming a political and military alliance with them against Assyria, something Ahaz had been hesitant to do.

Whatever the reason for their advance, Isaiah tells us that Ahaz and the people of Judah were exceedingly fearful, their hearts were shaken "as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind", when they heard that these two armies were approaching their capital.  Isaiah tells Ahaz that however intimidated he may be, God's command is not to make this alliance with Syria and Israel.  Instead, Ahaz is to stand firm in his faith and trust that God will deliver him.  In fact, God even offers Ahaz a sign through the prophet Isaiah as assurance of what God has promised.  Ahaz refuses the sign claiming that he doesn't wish to test God but Isaiah says that he will be given a sign anyway.  That sign is the child that is promised in Isaiah 7:14.  Isaiah says that this child will be born and before he is old enough to understand right from wrong the two nations which Ahaz fears will be laid waste.  This child is given the name Immanuel because his birth was a sign that God (el) was with the people of Judah (Immanu meaning "with us").

Of course, Matthew was not unaware of all of this when he decided to quote Isaiah 7:14 in his writing of the gospel.  He knew that the child of which Isaiah spoke was one that would be born in Isaiah's day and not his own and Matthew was not trying to negate that original meaning.  Nor do I think Matthew was simply looking for any Old Testament prophecy about the birth of a child which he could then use to show that Jesus' birth was really predicted hundreds of year earlier, regardless of the original context of that verse.

Instead, by quoting this verse, I believe Matthew wants us to see the story of Isaiah and Ahaz in the story of Jesus.  Matthew's quoting of Isaiah 7:14 is not about prediction or proving that Jesus is the Messiah.  It is Matthew's way of saying this story is like that story; this story I am telling about Jesus is like that story of God delivering Judah from its enemies, it is a story of "God with us".  In Isaiah, the birth of Immanuel served as a sign, a real physical reminder of God's promise to deliver his people if they would trust in Him.  In Matthew's gospel, he wishes to show us that the birth of Jesus is a sign, a real physical reminder of God's promise to deliver his people if they would trust in Him.

Of course, Matthew will go on to show throughout the rest of his gospel that he means the quoting of this verse from Isaiah in ways even more radical than this.  Matthew reveals to us that Jesus is not merely a sign of God with us as Immanuel was only a sign in Isaiah but that Jesus himself is in fact God with us, the very presence of God himself in human flesh.  As God was with the people of Judah to deliver them from their enemies, so God became even more present among us by taking on our own flesh in order to deliver us from our worst enemies; sin and death.