Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Intimacy, Mary, and Uninvited Guests

The birth of a child is typically a supremely intimate and family oriented event.  You can almost imagine concentric circles surrounding the birth of a child that indicate just how close those in each circle are to the new born child.  Of course, the first circle includes really only the child and mother, as they have already been connected for months but very close to this circle is the one that also includes the father.  Then the next circle might include siblings of the new born child and proud grandparents.  In many instances, these may be followed by aunts and uncles and other extended family.  It is usually only after this that very close friends of the family are allowed to see the child.  Of course, not every birth works out just this way.  The birth of my own children did not since we are so far from so much of our family.  But even in the endless variations on this scenario, there is a strong sense that one must be invited into this intimate circle to see this new life and it would be considered very odd if a mere acquaintance showed up uninvited during this intimate family occasion.

Enter the shepherds.  Can you imagine?!  You've just welcomed your first child into the world, you are still gazing into the child's eyes, amazed at the wonder of this new life.  You are still adjusting to this new reality that has been gifted to you.  You want nothing other than to remain undisturbed, memorizing every feature of this child's face, responding to every little movement or noise.  This is a still, quiet moment; peaceful in the deepest sense of that word.  And all of a sudden a gang of smelly shepherds....SHEPHERDS!... straight from the field bust in and ruin the moment.  And they are loud!  They won't stop going on about some vision they've seen.  They just keep yammering about how amazing it is!  Then they come over and want to see the child; with their nasty, been working with animals all night hands and their ragged, dirty clothes, they want to see YOUR BABY; your weak, precious, helpless, fragile, new born baby.  As if that's not enough, they start telling YOU how great YOUR new kid is going to be.  THE AUDACITY!  "I know how great he is, he's MY kid after all, thank you very much."  Then they leave just as noisily as they came, still talking about the angels they saw and how excited they are about the birth of your child.

These shepherds are outsiders.  They don't belong here.  Don't they know they aren't part of the family?  Don't they know they weren't invited?  They've broken into a circle far more intimate than is their place.

But rather than rejecting the shepherds and having Joseph send them away, "Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart."

The truth is this was not the first and would not be the last time that someone would speak to Mary about her son in this way.  Before Jesus was born, Mary's relative Elizabeth said "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!".  Upon Jesus' presentation in the Temple, Simeon tells Mary "this child is appointed for the falling and rising of many in Israel."  The same day, the prophetess Anna speaks about Jesus to those who were waiting for the redemption of Israel.  One would normally assume that a mother is the expert on her own children but apparently there is much that Mary needs to hear about her son from others that barely know him.

In many ways, this is a foreshadowing of a larger theme that runs throughout the Gospel of Luke.  Repeatedly, those we would not expect to find in those inner circles of intimacy with Jesus and his kingdom are precisely the ones who come bursting in and Jesus does not turn them away.  In the parable of the banquet, those who were invited to the party refuse to come, so the lame, blind, and crippled are invited in their place.  In the parable of the good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite who should be examples of holiness make their way to the other side of the road avoiding the man in need while a Samaritan (read: hated outsider) acts with the kind of compassion Jesus calls neighborly.  In the parable of the prodigal son, it is the younger son who has lived foolishly and squandered his father's wealth whose return is celebrated in love while his older brother stands out in the field, filled with contempt.  When Jesus heals ten lepers, it is only (yet another hated) Samaritan who returns to give thanks for what Jesus has done for him.  This scenario plays out so frequently in the Gospel of Luke that one could argue these should not even be seen as anomalies or exceptions but the rule itself.  Its not that a few outsiders happened to sneak in with the rest by accident but that the very way of God's kingdom is to make the outsider an insider.  This is what grace is, after all; finding ourselves in a far more intimate circle than we deserve.

This should humble us in a couple of ways.  First, we should be reminded of what we easily forget after 2000 years of Christianity; that as gentiles, we are all outsiders in the story of Jesus.  We are the Samaritan, the younger son, the shepherds.  We do not belong in this very Jewish story.  We are only a part of this family because Jesus has graciously made room for us in his circle.

But now that the grace of Christ has provided a way in for us, we should remember a second thing; that just because we are now "in" doesn't mean that this kingdom has stopped being for those who are "out".  To put it frankly, the temptation for any of us who have been Christians for very long is to see ourselves as closer to Jesus than others who are newer at church or don't do all the pious things we do or etc, etc.  Then the next temptation is to let them know it; to let them know, however subtly, that we are spiritually superior, that they really don't belong in this intimate circle with Jesus like we do, and that they need to get in line and pay their dues before they can be a part of this family.  But if Luke is right about Jesus and his kingdom, it would seem the exact opposite is true.  It is the paradox of this kingdom that we find ourselves closest to Jesus when we are closest to those who seem furthest from him.

So we find once again that Mary is a superb model for us of what it means to participate in this kingdom.  In a very significant sense we can say that no one has ever been closer, more intimate with Jesus than Mary.  There is no human being who has a more rightful claim to being in the inner-most circle with Jesus than his own mother, no one who can presume to know Jesus better.  Yet when lowly shepherds who know nothing of her or her family or her new born boy show up uninvited in her first intimate moments with her son, she does not shew them away but listens to the message they claim was spoken by angels and treasures up their words, pondering them in her heart.

Of course, most churches today don't shew away visitors.  But many do a pretty good job of letting them know where they stand.  We greet people with an enthusiastic welcome, inviting them back next week and all is great until they do something a little different that intrudes on our intimate time with Jesus and changes what has made this place comfortable for us.  Then we let them know (often subtly and unintentionally but sometimes bluntly) that this this is our church, that we are the ones who know how things are done around here, that we are the ones with the gospel answers, and they can conform or leave.  What if instead we recognized that Jesus wants us to make room for them (which may make things a little less comfortable for us) just as Jesus made room for us?  What if we considered that they might be able to tell us something about Jesus just as those shepherds did for Mary?  Maybe rather than seeing them as intruding on our intimate time with Jesus we could treasure them, not merely as an addition to our church but as people, and ponder what it is that Jesus might be teaching us through them.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Unanswered Questions

Psalm 89 begins with the words of a cheery tune we sang often in the church I attended growing up.
"I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever, I will sing.... and with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations."  
Those words are basically the whole song.  It was a simple and upbeat chorus that led us in praising God for all the ways he had blessed our lives and the life of our church.  Although it begins with these same words, Psalm 89 is really anything but simple and upbeat.  It is actually one of the longest and most sobering of all the Psalms.

The first 37 verses of the Psalm continue with these words of praise.  V. 3-4 celebrate the covenant that God has made with David while v.5-18 praise Yahweh as the Lord of nature and history.  God is declared to be great both by the heavens and earth he has created as well as by his faithfulness to the people of Israel.  Then in v. 19, the Psalmist returns again specifically to God's covenant with David.  He recalls the promise that God has made to Israel through David that one of David's descendants will always be on Israel's throne (v.29, 2 Samuel 7).  But in v.38, the Psalm takes a dark turn.
"But now you have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed."  
The following verses go on to describe the king's crown being defiled in the dust and the city walls laying in ruins.  Israel's foes are exalted while Israel itself is scorned and plundered.  V. 46 asks the oft repeated question of the Psalms:
"How long, O Lord?  Will you hide your face forever?  How long will your wrath burn like fire?"
It is very likely that this Psalm refers to the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem and the removal of the Davidic king of Israel that results.  This is a time when the people of Israel would have suffered military defeat and the political powerlessness and economic exploitation that would naturally accompany such a defeat.  But Psalm 89 makes clear that this was more than just a political or economic problem; it was a theological one.

The deposing of the Davidic king was a theological problem for Israel because it directly contradicted the promise of God that a descendant of David would always sit on Israel's throne.  This in turn seemed to leave Israel with limited options in its beliefs about Yahweh; either God was powerless against the might of the Babylonians or God simply didn't bother to keep his promises.

I imagine that most of us have faced similar circumstances; perhaps not the invasion of an army and the destruction of our city but nonetheless circumstances that cause us to wonder what God is up to.  We pray and pray and nothing happens and we wonder aloud to God "Are you incompetent or do you just not care about me?  Are you hiding from me, God?  How long will this go on?"  Sometimes we even try to soothe ourselves with simple answers like "God has a plan" or "God is testing me".  There can be a degree of truth in those statements but part of what is interesting about Psalm 89 is that it doesn't offer any answers.  This Psalm ends with a series of unanswered questions and cries for God to remember his people.

Is there room in our faith for unanswered questions?  As I think about our gospel reading for next Sunday, I have to imagine that Mary had a few unanswered questions after her angelic visitation.  She did, of course, have one question answered:  "How will this be, since I am a virgin?"... yet another instance of God's promise seeming to contradict current reality.  Gabriel responds that the Holy Spirit will come upon her.  To me, at least, that seems like the kind of answer that only leads to a lot more questions.

Of course, we know how the story goes.  We know that Mary will give birth and that Jesus will minister, be crucified, and resurrected.  So the temptation for us is to have all the answers, to skip ahead and say everything all at once.  It is, after all, a story worth telling.  But what if the waiting for the story to unfold is a critical part of the story?  What if by rushing to the end with all our reasons and explanations we've actually failed to hear the story rightly?  What if we left church this Sunday recognizing that most of our lives don't fit into neat pre-packaged answers and instead realized how often we find ourselves in Mary's position; finding our faith in the midst of unanswered questions, clinging to the promise that in all of our uncertainty the power of the Most High will overshadow us.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Hope of a World Set Right

Psalm 85 bears a lot of resemblance to the Psalm (80) from which I preached last week.  Both are Psalms in which the Psalmist cries out to God for deliverance.  Both ask how long it will be before God restores the people of Israel whom he has punished for their sin.  Psalm 85, however, adds an element that Psalm 80 lacks.  Whereas Psalm 80 ends by repeating its cry for deliverance, Psalm 85 ends by describing the characteristics of the deliverance for which Israel hopes.  In order to describe this deliverance and restoration, the Psalmist makes us of some of the richest and most deeply meaningful words in all of Israel's theological vocabulary.

Hesed:  Often translated mercy, steadfast love, faithfulness, loyalty, loving-kindness.  This word reflects a profound sense of faithfulness, often even a faithfulness beyond what might be expected under normal circumstances.  There is a sense that someone who exhibits hesed is one who has willingly bound themselves to the fate of another.  As a result, it is most often used to refer to God's continuing faithfulness to Israel, a faithfulness that continues even in the midst of Israel's unfaithfulness (thus the connotations of mercy and kindness).  It is sometimes used to describe human faithfulness lived in accordance with God's faithfulness.

Emet:  Often translated faith, faithfulness, truth.  This word carries a connotation of firmness or standing fast in the face of adversity.  Since it can also be translated faithfulness, it obviously has some overlap in meaning with hesed.  However, emet is more often used describe human faith/faithfulness in response to God's faithfulness which is usually described as hesed.  Emet is probably the closest Hebrew equivalent to the Greek word pistis which is translated as faith/faithfulness in the New Testament.

Tsedek:  Usually translated as righteousness.  In its most basic sense, this word carries the meaning of moral uprightness.  However, its use throughout the Old Testament demonstrates that it does not refer to some universally recognized moral code.  Instead, it more specifically refers to uprightness in regard to God's covenant with Israel.  The perfect example of this is the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38.  In that story Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute in order to get her father-in-law Judah to sleep with her, obviously an act we would consider morally reprehensible.  However, she does this because her two previous husbands (both sons of Judah) had died before she had any children.  According to the laws of Israel, the third son was supposed to raise up offspring for his dead brothers with Tamar.  However, seeing that his first sons did not fare well with Tamar, Judah holds back his third son from Tamar, fearing that he may die as well.  Judah thereby violates the law of Israel.  Tamar, in contrast, goes to great lengths to fulfill the law, posing as a prostitute so that she will still become pregnant by a relative of her dead husbands.  While we may find this story odd, it illustrates the meaning of righteousness as loyalty to God's covenant law at any cost because by the end of the story when Judah realizes what has happened he concludes "She (Tamar) is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Selah."  Since much of Israel's law had to do with one's covenant obligations to the poor and oppressed, tsedek also took on a strong connotation of justice (mishpat in Hebrew) without being reduced to a mere synonym.  This can be seen even more clearly in the New Testament where the Greek word usually translated as righteousness (dikaiosune) shares a root with the word for justice (dikaios).  In its deepest and most profound sense, this word speaks to God's ability to accomplish his purposes in the midst of our broken world; God's setting right a world gone wrong.

Shalom:  Usually translated as peace.  This peace can mean safety or absence of strife but it often describes more than just an absence of danger or war.  Shalom speaks to completeness, wholeness, harmony, fulfillment, and even health.  To be at shalom is to be in right relationship with God, neighbor, and one's self.  That is why Shalom  is so often paired with Tsedek in Scripture.  To live in accoradance with God's covenant law (tsedek) is to be in right relationship with God and others.  Conversely, an absence of open conflict in which injustice is perpetuated is not shalom but simply another attempt at human manipulation and control. True righteousness is the only way to true peace.

In the final verses of Psalm 85, this abundantly rich vocabulary is meshed together.  Hesed and emet meet.  Tsedek and shalom kiss each other.  Emet springs up from the ground while tsedek bends down from heaven.  The Lord gives what is good and the land produces its fruit.  Its as if we are to picture God's righteousness raining down from heaven causing human faithfulness to spring up like a great harvest in response to that rain.  This is how the Psalmist describes Israel's hope, the hope of what God can do in our world.  It is found at the crossroads of justice and peace, at the intersection of God's faithfulness and faithful human response to God's righteousness.  It is the hope that God's overwhelming mercy can set us right and set right our world as well.  

Monday, November 21, 2011

Of Fast Food and Advent

"Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved."  Psalm 80:3
 This is the resounding cry of Psalm 80.  It is a cry of deliverance repeated again in v. 7 and 19.  In between those verses the Psalmist recalls God's faithfulness to Israel.  God took his vine, Israel, out of Egypt, cleared ground for it, planted it, provided for it in every way and this vine grew and filled the land.  But now, the Psalmist says, God has broken down the wall that protected his vine and any passer-by or wild boar can pluck away or trample its fruit.  So the Psalmist cries out to God to restore Israel, wondering how long it will be until God hears this cry.

It seems likely that this cry of deliverance is in regard to the attack of the Assyrian army on Samaria in 721 B.C.  (since only Northern tribes are mentioned in v.2 and the Greek version of this Psalm even includes "on account of the Assyrians" in the title).  If that is the case then the answer to the Psalmist's question of "How long?" is a really long time, longer than the Psalmists own life.  That's because the people of Israel were not delivered from the Assyrian onslaught.  Instead, they were taken into exile and did not return home until 538 B.C.  Although it's impossible to say for sure when this Psalm was written in relation to Israel's exile, I think its fair to say that the "How long?" of this Psalm was being asked and prayed by the people of Israel for all of those nearly 200 years.

There is a sense in which this cry for deliverance must also be the Church's cry, especially in this season of Advent.  This is to be a season of waiting and hopeful expectation for us; a season in which we remember Israel's long, painfully long wait for deliverance as expressed in this Psalm.  And yet, how can this be our cry?  In a culture of I-want-what-I want-and-I-want-it-now, where I can have a hamburger in minutes or any book or movie in the world displayed on the screen in front of us in seconds and when it doesn't work that way we wonder what's gone wrong, how can we learn to wait on God?  Shouldn't God's answers be at least as fast Google's?

I'll be the first to admit that I enjoy these advances in technology as much as anyone.  But that is precisely why the need for the Church to take up this cry is all the more pressing.  The idea of having the world at our fingertips is so seductive that its not long before we begin to act as if anything worth having should be immediately available to said fingertips and if its not then its not worth the time it takes to find it.  The truth is that the Church is already a part of this culture of instant gratification.  We already expect God to conform to these standards and when he doesn't we usually just give up looking and satisfy ourselves with whatever else is more immediately available and easily manipulated to our own needs.

So the Church must take up this cry for God to deliver us precisely because we ourselves are so immersed in this sea of instantaneousness that only God can pluck us out, we can not save ourselves.  We must recognize the long term costs of our fast food spirituality and seek sustenance around the Lord's table.  We must pray "Restore us, O God, to be your people of patience and trust; let your face shine that we may be saved from our own ingenuity in meeting our own needs."  And then we must wait ...and pray...and wait.... and perhaps in waiting for God's deliverance we will find that God is delivering us in our waiting.

Monday, November 14, 2011

King of the Least

Matthew 25:31-46 fascinates me for a couple of reasons.  One of those reasons is that in this scene of final judgment where Jesus describes himself separating the sheep from the goats, that is, those who will inherit his kingdom from those who will not, there is no mention of faith in Christ.  So often when we talk about final judgment, heaven and hell, etc., the first criteria that is mentioned is believing in Jesus as the Christ, trusting in Christ for our salvation.  But in this passage, faith, trust, and belief (which are all really the same word in Greek, pistis) are never mentioned.  Instead, the separating is done based on how the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned were treated.  No other criteria is brought to bear in this judgment.  In this passage, it is solely a matter of how those being judged treated "the least of these".

I'm not suggesting that salvation is really earned by our works after all or that we should throw the language of faith, trust, and belief out of our theological vocabulary simply because it is not used in this passage.  But I do think it is more than noteworthy that Jesus is able to talk about the final judgment without using those terms; something most evangelical Christians seem incapable of doing.  I am suggesting that a passage like this one should cause us to pause and reconsider what we mean when use words like faith, belief, and trust.

Even though the word faith (pistis) is not used in this passage, I think Jesus' (and Matthew's) audience still would have recognized pistis in the examples of compassion that Jesus mentions.  That's because pistis not only means faith but also faithfulness.  One is the other.  There was no need for two separate words because they are not two separate things.  Faith is faithfulness.  To really believe something is to live like it.  To place our trust in Jesus is to live like Jesus lived and if we are not living like Jesus then we do not really have faith in him, regardless of what we think about the inner life of our minds and hearts.  To think, as we often seem to in the Church, that "believing" (by which we usually mean something having to do only with thoughts and attitudes) is the critical element to being Christian while serving the least of these is just an optional add on for really saintly people is to divide in two something that is really one.  It is to misunderstand what the New Testament writers mean by the word "faith".

The other aspect of this passage that fascinates me is the equation of Christ the King with the least of these.  It is Christ who says "I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger....".  The righteous are surprised by this, saying "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink...?".  And Jesus says "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the lease of these my brothers, you did it to me."  What we do (or don't do) for the least of these is what we do for Christ.  I often feel that if I could get this single idea through my thick head and dull heart, I would live very differently.  If I could only see Christ in each person I encounter, no matter how much they frustrate me or hurt me, regardless of their appearance or need, it would make all the difference in the way I relate to people.  If in every conversation and interaction I could stay grounded in the reality that the person before me is an image of God...

Mother Theresa, who knew something about living this passage, said "When you touch the poor, you touch Christ.  When you are touched by the poor, you are touched by Christ."  Do you really long to know Christ?  Spend time with the hungry, sick, immigrant, and imprisoned and Christ has promised we will find him there.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Thieves, Comfort, and Security

In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul writes about how "the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night".  Here, Paul uses the phrase "day of the Lord" to refer to the return of Christ.  However, it is worth nothing that this is not a phrase Paul simply made up.  It is one used regularly in the Old Testament (see Isaiah 13:6, Ezekiel 13:5, Joel 1:15, 2:1, 2:31, 4:14, Amos 5:18, Zephaniah 1:14, Obadiah 15, Malachi 3:1-2) to speak of a day of judgement and God's justice being fulfilled.  The coming of the Lord is often pronounced as a fearful message for those who have opposed God but it is a hopeful one for those who have heeded his commands.  This is the case because the day of the Lord means the establishment of God's reign and righteousness which in turn means the defense of the needy and the casting out of the oppressor.  Paul believes that all the promises/curses associated with the day of the Lord will be fulfilled by Jesus when establishes God's kingdom in its fullness.

I mentioned briefly last week that Paul's description of the day of the Lord being like a thief in the night does not mean that it will be secret, it will not come and go stealthily unnoticed.  Paul's words in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, as well as the descriptions of this day by the prophets, make it very clear that it will be an obvious and publicly observable event.  Instead, this metaphor speaks to its suddenness and unexpectedness and its demand for constant watchfulness.  One never knows when a thief might try to break in.  Additionally, while we might take reasonable precautions to keep thieves out (locks, gates, alarm systems, etc) any of those precautions might be defeated by a thief that is determined enough.  There is no advance preparation that can be guaranteed to keep out the thief and provide complete safety and invulnerability.  The only fail safe is to keep constant vigil.  Paul says the day of the Lord is like this; there is no time for sleeping or drunkenness, no time in which we can rest on the merits of what we have already done.  The Christian life demands continual watchfulness; a constant seeking after God.

Paul continues to strike at this illusion of security in 5:3 when he says "While people are saying "There is peace and security then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman...".  Commentators on this verse will point out that other historical documents of the period suggest that "peace and security" was sort of a slogan of the Roman Empire.  It was Caesar and his empire who had provided peace and security for the world.  Paul, then, seems to be undercutting not only the Thessalonians individual attempts to provide peace and security for themselves but also their attempt to do so by finding their identity with the Roman narrative.  Paul is challenging them to trust in a crucified messiah rather than placing their trust in a vast empire that had spanned the known world and promised to provide everything for everyone.

Such a challenge is ripe with implications for the Church in America.  The world has never seen a group of Christians as comfortable as we are, who have enjoyed as much peace and security as we have.  The problem with being comfortable is that it makes it very easy to fall asleep, very difficult to remain watchful.  What is worse is that most of us have bought into the narrative that it is our nation that has provided these things for us.  Paul calls us to a different narrative; a story where we find our peace and security in God alone, even when that peace and security may not provide comfort, and to keep watch, constantly being vigilant for the Spirit's leading.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

New Podcast

I wanted to make sure that my many, many faithful listeners know (all 3 of you) that my sermon podcasts have moved. is ceasing operation Dec. 1 so I've moved my podcast over to podomatic.  The new address is  The good news is I think this podcast site works better with iTunes than my old one did.  Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Resurrection Rather Than Rapture

The content of Paul's writing in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 suggests that one of the primary reasons for Paul's letter to the church at Thessalonica was because of their concern for those in their congregation who had died.  Repeatedly in these verses, Paul speaks of "those who have fallen asleep".  It seems there was a concern among the Thessalonians that those Christians who died before Christ's return might have missed out on the salvation they had been promised.  This leads Paul to reassure the Thessalonians that those who die in Christ will be raised from the dead just as Christ was raised.  Paul describes the coming of the Lord this way:
"For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord."  
These verses have often been used to support an idea known as "the rapture".  The rapture refers to the idea that before Christ's return to earth every Christian in the world will suddenly be taken up into heaven.  It has been popularized in my lifetime by the Left Behind book and movie series in which a pile of clothes is the only thing left of Christians who have been raptured by God to heaven to be with the Lord.  This is usually thought to happen secretively; without any warning, every Christian will simply vanish.  There are a number of reasons I don't think rapture is a biblical or theologically sound idea but for now I'll limit myself only to why I don't think this passage from Thessalonians is speaking about rapture.

One thing is very clear in this passage; there is nothing secretive about Christ's return in itself.   Those who think of the rapture as a secretive event where everyone will wake up the next morning and notice that all the Christians are gone are often thinking of Paul's language in the next chapter of Thessalonians where Paul compares Christ's return to the coming of a "thief in the night".  However, the purpose of that metaphor is not to say that Christ's coming will be quiet and unknown but that the timing of his coming is unknown.  No one knows when he will come just like no one knows when a thief might break into their house.  However, Paul's language in chapter 4 makes it clear that when Christ comes it will be an event that can not be missed: a cry of command, the voice of an archangel, the sound of God's trumpet, the raising of the dead.  Those all seem to indicate a very public event that can not be ignored. This holds true even if these images are a metaphor like the "thief in the night" imagery since the point of the metaphor is that something easily observable and unmistakable is taking place.  In fact, if we take 2 Thessalonians into consideration along with this passage, it seems very clearly that much of the intent of Paul's language here is to reassure the Thessalonian Christians that the Lord's coming is something that will be obvious and that they can't miss.  While Paul may not be able to describe the return of the Lord exactly or say when it will be, he assures the Thessalonians that they will know when they see it.

But what of Paul's language in the next verse where he speaks of being "caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air"?  Doesn't that sound like Paul is talking about rapture?  It probably does if we already have the idea of rapture in mind when we come to this verse.  However, it seems unlikely that Paul's audience would have understood him that way for at least two very significant reasons.  First, the idea of rapture is a young one in the history of the Church.  It was first widely published by a man named John Nelson Darby in the mid-1800's.  If rapture is the obvious way of understanding this passage then its difficult to see why the all the Christians who lived in the 1800 years of Christianity prior to Darby didn't understand Paul this way.

Even more significant is that the words translated as "to meet" (eis apantesin in Greek) in the phrase "to meet the Lord in the air" are not just generic for any meeting of any kind.  It is a technical phrase that was used in Greco-Roman culture for the meeting of a city delegation with a VIP or dignitary who was visiting that city.  In this custom, the delegation of important and influential people from the city would go outside the city gates to meet and welcome the visiting dignitary.  The purpose, of course, was to welcome them into the city, not remain outside of it or go somewhere else.  The very reason for the delegation was to honor this great person as they entered their city.  It seems very likely that as people living in this Greco-Roman culture that the Thessalonians would have heard Paul making an allusion to this specific practice.  In that case, the purpose of the meeting with the Lord in the air is not so that Christians can continue on to heaven but so that they can welcome Jesus to earth where his reign and kingdom will now be established in its fullness.  

What is most important, however, is that we recognize that Paul's theological reflection on Christ's return in these verses is not mere speculation about the future.  Instead, these are words of comfort to those who are grieving in the midst of death.  Paul is not helping the Thessalonians make a timeline chart of the end of days. He is writing to a people who have been confronted with the death of their loved ones and are wondering how that death relates to their new faith in Christ as Lord.  Interestingly, Paul's words of comfort say nothing of heaven or going to a better place.  Instead, Paul's hope for those who have died is that the same power which raised Jesus from the dead will raise them as well so that they can participate in the kingdom of righteousness and peace which Jesus will establish.  The Christian hope is ultimately not that we will escape the evils of this world but that God will purify this world of its evil and make all things new.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Blameless in Holiness

Although Paul praises the Thessalonians for their exemplary faith, it is also very clear from the rest of the letter that their faith is not yet complete, they have not "arrived" in spite of their "faith that has gone forth everywhere."  Paul urges them on to something more.

In 2:12, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of his own presence along with Silvanus and Timothy among them.  "we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God who calls you into his own kingdom and glory".  "Walk" is used almost as a synonym of "live" in scripture. When Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to "walk in a manner worthy of God" he is saying that the Thessalonians whole lives should reflect the holiness of the God who has called them.

Throughout chapter 3, Paul is expressing his desires to be with the Thessalonians so as to continue to encourage them in their faith.  In 3:10, he says specifically that his desire to be with the Thessalonians is so that "we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith", again implying that there is something the Thessalonians are missing.  This chapter concludes with a prayer that God may make the Thessalonians "increase and abound in love for one another and for all... so that we may establish your hearts blameless in holiness".

In 4:3, Paul again urges this need for holiness upon the Thessalonians saying "For this is the will of God, your santification..." ("santification" coming from the same Greek root as holy, holiness).  Again in 4:7, "For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness."  Finally, in 5:23 Paul prays, "Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Clearly, Paul is concerned for the holiness/sanctification of the Thessalonians throughout his letter to them.  But what does Paul mean by these words?  To answer that question thoroughly would certainly take more than a single blog post.  But there are a few things that stand out about Paul's use of those terms in Thessalonians.

1)It is God who sanctifies and make holy....  Paul's prayer in 3:13 and 5:23 is not that the Thessalonians would make themselves holy but that God would establish their hearts blameless in holiness and sanctify them completely.  Holiness is not a human accomplishment but an act of God.

2).... but we also have a responsibility to our holy calling.  Even though it is God who makes us holy, Paul makes it clear in his admonitions to the Thessalonians that we have a responsibility to live in step with what God has already done.

3)Our sanctification is our salvation...  We often talk about being "saved" (by which we usually mean having our sins forgiven) and then later being "sanctified" (by which we usually mean being freed from the power of sin).  But Paul talks about sanctification as something God does as the beginning of our salvation.  To be saved is to be set apart for God's purposes (which is the most common meaning of sanctification in the Old Testament).  In 1:9, Paul describes the Thessalonians salvation as having "turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God", echoing the language of Ezekiel 36 in which Israel is cleansed from its idol worship in order to return to Yahweh.  Holiness is not something added onto salvation.  It is the very means and purpose of salvation.

4)...but it is also more than just having our sins forgiven.  Although our sanctification begins with the forgiveness of our sins, Paul clearly expects more than simply this for the Thessalonians.  Paul prays that the Thessalonians will be sanctified entirely, indicating that Paul expects that God can do something more in the lives of the Thessalonians than has already been done.

5)This sanctification is bodily....  Sanctification is often talked about as something God does in the heart.  That is certainly true.  But in saying it that way, we shouldn't miss the fact that this "heart-cleansing" has very physical implications.  When Paul describes sanctification as the will of God in 4:3, he immediately goes on to talk about sexual relations - the most bodily, physical of acts.  The point here is that if we think holiness is only about "good intentions" or "the spiritual" or what's "on the inside" to the neglect of what we do with and to our own bodies, the bodies of the others, or our material resources then we haven't yet understood Paul's (and God's) call to holiness.  Sanctification is a work of God in the heart but it is a work that leads to very physical consequences.

6) ...and communal.  Holiness is not merely (or even primarily) individual in nature. It is worth noting that as Paul is discussing sexual relations in 4:3-8, in 4:6 the reason he gives for abstaining from sexual immorality is so "that no one transgresses and wrongs his brother in this matter".   Paul's concern here is not merely inappropriate sexual relations in themselves but that such relationships will tear at the fabric of the community of faith.   Likewise, when Paul prays for the Thessalonians holiness in 3:13, it is intertwined with the prayer that their love would abound for "one another and for all".  While the call to holiness certainly has consequences for an individual's lifestyle, Paul's emphasizes that holiness concerns our life together.  The holiness and love of God is reflected in our relationships of holy love with one another.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Born out of Weakness

Paul begins his letter to the Thessalonians with great praise for what God has done among them.  He rejoices over the Thessalonians "work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ".  He also recalls how the Holy Spirit came among them with power and conviction; evidence that they had been chosen by God to receive the gospel.  Furthermore, the Church at Thessalonica appears to have been the model church of the region as Paul says they "became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia" and that their "faith in God has gone forth everywhere".

Remarkably (but not surprisingly if one is familiar with Paul's pattern of ministry), this incredible Church was founded in Paul's weakness and humiliation.  Paul writes in 2:2 that he and his co-ministers had come to the Thessalonians after suffering and being shamefully treated in Philippi.  It seems likely that this refers to the episode in Acts 16 where Paul is imprisoned, freed by God through an earthquake, baptizes the jailer and his household, and then demands to be escorted out of the city by the magistrates.  Acts 17 then tells us that Paul went on to Thessalonica only to face much opposition there as well.  The picture of Paul's preaching in Thessalonica, then, is one of a man who has been repeatedly rejected and humiliated but refuses to stop preaching.

And a church, a healthy church, an exemplary church is born out of that preaching.  No glitz.  No glamor. No big production or impressive display.  Quite the opposite.  The power of God's Word is made all the more evident by Paul's weakness.  Paul says his preaching among the Thessalonians was gentle, "like a nursing mother taking care of her own children".  This nurturing image continues in the next verse as Paul says "we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves."

Perhaps the second of these is the harder of the two for many Christians these days.  I know many people in my church are eager to share the gospel.  I'm not share how many of us are eager to share ourselves; to give up our free/family time to spend time with a neighbor, to get tangled up in our co-worker's complicated problems, to see the drunk down the street as a person rather than a threat.

To keep sharing the Word and sharing ourselves.  Can Church really be so simple?  It may be a testament to just how far we have gone astray to think that it had to be anything else.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Blessed Possibilities

Matthew tells us in chapter 5 of his gospel concerning Jesus "Seeing the crowds, he went up on a mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.  And he opened his mouth and taught them...."  This begins what is often referred to as The Sermon on the Mount.  It is in this sermon that we hear Jesus repeatedly say "You have heard that it was said....but I say to you..."; again and again Jesus references a command of Jewish law only to add to it an even more strict command.  "Don't murder?  Of course! But don't be angry either.  Don't commit adultery?  Don't even lust!"  Scholars tell us that Matthew's portrayal of Jesus ascending a mountain and speaking a new law is meant to remind us of Moses who ascended Mt. Sinai and received the Law from God.  Matthew is using the example of Moses to help us understand who Jesus is.  Jesus is the new lawgiver, or more precisely, Jesus is the lawgiver he has always been because he is the God who gave the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai who has now taken on human flesh.  He is the one who will "fulfill" the law as he says in v. 17.

But Jesus "fulfilling" of the law seems to take it to a level that is impossible to keep.  Not only does Jesus command us not to be angry and lustful.  He also says "that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery".  And later he says "You have heard that it was said 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,'  But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.  But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well."  Jesus then sums up this new commands by saying "You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect."

Jesus can't be serious about this, can he?  Divorce and re-marriage is adultery?  Don't resist evil and violent people?  Be perfect?  Surely Jesus realizes that he is asking the impossible, right?

I actually think Jesus does realize the impossibility of what he is commanding in these verses... though probably not in the way we might expect.  Objections to the idea of living out the Sermon on the Mount almost always stem from the impractically of such a life.  "Lust and anger are just part of being human. How can two people who are miserable stay together?  Doesn't Jesus know what would happen if we didn't fight back against evil people?  That's just not how the world works!"  And so Jesus is written off as an idealistic dreamer (or in significant portions of the Christian tradition as the giver of the impossible law which drives us to his mercy).

I think Jesus knew quite well that his words in the Sermon on the Mount didn't describe the way the world works.  In fact, I think he knew it so well that he knew the workings of the world would result in his own crucifixion.  In the world as it stands, the commands Jesus gives would indeed be impossible which is why I believe Jesus is doing more in the Sermon on the Mount than giving a "new law".  Jesus is announcing a new world.  

I believe that is what Jesus is doing in the verses commonly called the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11).  We often approach these verses as if they are law as well.  We interpret them to mean that if we want to be blessed then we must be poor in spirit, mourning, meek, merciful, pure in heart peacemakers who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  So we make the Beatitudes a list of Christian virtues.  But these verses are not imperative.  They are indicative.  Jesus is not commanding anything.  He is proclaiming.

In fact, Jesus is proclaiming in these verses things that seem to be contrary to reality.  Those who mourn are blessed?  The poor, the meek, and merciful are blessed?  It seems those are precisely the kind of people who aren't blessed in our world; the kind of people who are constantly taken advantage of.  And again, that's precisely the point!  Jesus isn't describing the way the world works.  Jesus is describing how his renewed world will work.  Jesus isn't describing the kingdoms of the world.  He is proclaiming his own kingdom; a kingdom that turns power and influence upside down, a kingdom where those who mourn will be comforted and those who are merciful will be shown mercy.  This is not command.  It is promise.  The beatitudes are Jesus' promise that the world will not always be as it is now; that might will not always make right, that the weak will not always be mistreated but that one day Jesus will rule over a kingdom marked by genuine justice and peace, a kingdom where the not-so-blessed of this world will be blessed.

But in the meantime, in this time between the times, in the tension of the "Blessed are...for they will be...", Jesus calls upon us to to be a community where the impossibility of the Sermon on the Mount becomes a reality.  Not because we are especially moral people who try harder.  Not because we've discovered that Jesus' commands are really practical after all.  But because of the resurrection.  Because the one who gives this law is also the one who accomplishes our Exodus.  Because in the raising of Jesus from the dead, God has said "Behold, I am making all things new."  Because the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is able to make us new as well.  Because we believe there is a kingdom that is coming that doesn't play by the world's rules and that kingdom is already being made a reality in us.  Because we are by virtue of what we will be.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Beauty of Submission

"....submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ." - Ephesians 5:21

            Submission has become sort of a dirty word in our culture.  We often associate it with phrases like "being beaten into submission".  In other words, submission is seen as something that is forced on a weak person or group by a more powerful person or group.  One gender, race, or group is told they must submit to another.  Submission is seen as synonymous with oppression and injustice or at the very least, support of the status quo. 
            But the truth is that submission, when it is rightly understood not as something forced upon us but as a willful choice to put another's needs ahead of our own, is an essential part of every relationship.  Think about the relationships in your own life.  They are all built, to varying degrees, upon mutual submission.  Our best friendships are often those in which we find a person who is often thinking of our needs but for whose sake we also are happy to put our needs aside.  Usually, a friendship in which one person is always submitting and the other is always getting their way doesn't last long as a friendship.  Likewise, the relationship between a husband and wife is a constant give and take with each spouse mutually submitting to the other, each working to accommodate the other. 
            Of course, if the couple has children, they both learn to submit their own needs to the needs of the children.  This is not a submission forced on the parents by a more powerful party.  In fact, the child is too weak and helpless to make anyone do anything.  The parents submission of their own needs to that of the child is not coerced but is done out of love and a recognition of their responsibility as parents.  Of course, as the child grows older, they too must begin to learn that the world does not revolve around them, that there are times when they will need to put someone else's needs ahead of their own.  In fact, it might not be an overstatement to say that the journey from childhood through adolescence to maturity is a movement from self-centeredness to submission. 
            Churches are like any other relationship in this way.  We can only exist as a community as we are willing to submit to one another, putting what we want aside to give others the opportunity to grow in Christ.   This doesn't mean that one person or group should always get their way, expecting others to submit but that we should all be mutually submitting to one another, each giving up something that is important to us so that others might be able to share in this life with Christ.  In fact, just as the mature parent is the one who submits willingly to the needs of a child out of love for the child, the mature Christian is not the one who demands that things been done his or her way.  Instead, Christian maturity is exhibited by those who are willing to submit and sacrifice the most for the sake of another's growth in Christ. 
            Perhaps most telling is that Paul says that this submission to one another is done out of reverence for Christ.  Our submission to one another in the Church is not merely a principle for getting along with one another.  It is a testimony to the love of Christ at work in our lives.  To put it simply: to be a part of a community of faith means things will not always be done as we would like.  However, as we continue to love and participate in that community, submitting our own preferences to the needs of others, we testify to the reality that, as the Church, we are more than merely a collection of individuals.  Instead, we are called to be a community that is faithful image of God's love.  

Monday, September 26, 2011

Rejects Turned Gatekeepers

"There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower..."  
"Ah yes,  Isaiah 5."  thought the religious leaders to themselves.  "We know it well.  Israel is God's vineyard; a vineyard in which God has invested heavily, giving it every chance for success.  God has provided Israel with Torah, a land to live in, and the Temple to nurture its growth much as a vineyard owner might invest in his vineyard."
"...and leased it to tenants and went into another country."  
"Finally, Jesus is recognizing our authority a little bit.  We are those tenants.  God has entrusted his vineyard to us and we are caring for it by making sure radicals like this Jesus don't come in a destroy the harvest which God intends to reap and which we have worked so hard to protect."
"When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit.  And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another."
"What? Wait a second.  We wouldn't do that!  That's how the pagans treat us!"
"Again he sent other servants, more than the first.  And they did the same to them.  Finally, he sent his son to them, saying 'They will respect my son.'"
"Yes, the Messiah will set things right just like David did.  He'll teach those pagans to mistreat servants of God like us!"
 "But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir.  Come, let us kill him and his inheritance.  And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him  When therefore, the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"
"He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons!"  
"Have you never read in the Scriptures:  The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing and it is marvelous in our eyes?"
"Why, of course, we've read Psalm 118.  We've been reciting it all week in preparation for the Passover along with the other Hallel Psalms.  Israel, faithful Israelites like us, are the stone which the nations rejected but which God chose to build into a holy nation.  Why would Jesus bring that up?"
"Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits."
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard this parable, they perceived that he was speaking about them.  They realized that they were the tenants after all as they had thought and that Jesus was calling himself the Messiah.  Jesus was aligning himself with the long line of prophets, God's servants, that Israel had rejected because he would be rejected like them.  But Jesus believed that God would vindicate him and those faithful Israelites who stood with him, taking the stone which the religious leaders had rejected and making it the chief cornerstone of his kingdom.  Jesus' claim made the chief priests and the Pharisees mad enough that they wanted to arrest him, ironically demonstrating that they were ready to act exactly like the tenants he had just portrayed them to be.  However, they were kept from doing so at the time because they feared the crowds who held that Jesus was a prophet.

In the Church, we also call ourselves the rejected whom the Lord has saved, that is, sinners saved by grace. But the story that Jesus tells turns Psalm 118 upside down.  It shows how easily those who regard themselves as "the stone the builders rejected" can become the very ones doing the rejecting.  Jesus declares that when we treat the grace we have received as mandate to become gatekeepers, then we have failed to bear the fruit he desires and the vineyard will be taken from us and given to those who will produce its fruit.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Taking a Hatchet to the Church

The religious authorities come to Jesus while he is teaching in the Temple and ask him a question we would likely ask in their situation.  "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?".  Read here:  "Who do you think you are?!"  I say we would ask this in their situation because Jesus has just been in the Temple overturning the tables of money changers  (Matthew 21:12-32). He had done this on top of breaking Sabbath rules and spending time with religious misfits.  What would we say to someone who came in our church and just started ripping up pews and overturning coffee tables?  "Who do you think you are?  What do you think gives you the right to do this?"

Jesus responds by saying that he will answer their question if they will answer a question of his own first.  "John's baptism:  was it of God or merely human?"  The religious leaders are politically calculating in their response.  They know if they say from heaven then they should have believed John but if they say merely human then they will lose popularity with the crowds that regard John as a prophet.  So they answer simply "We don't know."  Jesus refuses to answer their question either.

If the story stopped at this point, then we might assume that Jesus was simply using the question about John to avoid the questioning of the religious leaders.  But interestingly, Jesus doesn't drop his line of questioning when the elders and chief priests demonstrate their captivity to popular opinion.  Instead, he tells a story of a Father who asks two of his children to go to work in his vineyard.  The fist child says no but later goes anyway.  The second child says yes but doesn't go.  Jesus asks "Which of the two did the will of the Father?"   The answer is clear.  The first child did even though they said no initially.  Jesus now brings the conversation back to John the baptist again.
"Truly I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.  For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.  And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him."  
What is it that is so important about John's baptism to this question of Jesus' authority?  For one thing, John was always pointing to Jesus.  John's message was about one who was coming after him that was greater than him and who would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  Therefore, a large part of what Jesus is saying in Matthew 21 is that if the religious leaders had accepted John's message then they would have accepted Jesus as well.  Jesus says that is why the tax collectors and prostitutes go ahead of the chief priests and elder into Jesus' kingdom; they accepted John's baptism and the religious leaders did not.  However, I think there is a little more going on here.  In Matthew 3, we hear this about John's message and baptism
"But when he saw many of the pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them 'You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.  And do not presume to say to yourselves , 'We have Abraham as our father, for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.  Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.  Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."  
John's message is one of repentance and bearing fruit in keeping with that repentance.  In other words, John is calling people away from the typical ways of doing religion (after all, he is dunking people in a dirty river out in the sticks away from the Temple and the holy city with all of its accepted religious institutions) and calling them to live lives that bear the fruit of God's love.  Furthermore, he says that any tree which does not bear this fruit will be cut down.

What is fascinating about this is that in Matthew 21, right between Jesus' overturning of the tables in the Temple and his conversation with the religious leaders about his authority to do so, is a story about Jesus cursing a tree because it wasn't bearing fruit!  Jesus actually wasn't evading the question of authority at all.  He was pointing back to John's message of repentance because that was the key to understanding why Jesus exercised his authority as he did in the Temple.  The Temple was a religious tree that wasn't bearing the fruit of God's love as God had meant for it too.  So Jesus took the hatchet to it just as John had said he would.

We probably wouldn't be too happy with someone who came into our church and started turning everything upside down but the truth is that this is precisely what Jesus wants to do.  There area all kinds of trees in our churches that aren't bearing the fruit of God's love and Jesus is more than willing to chop them down in order to make room for his house to be a house of prayer once again, for it to be a place where the blind and the lame are healed, a place where children sing "Hosanna to the Son of David!".  Are we prepared to have Jesus take a hatchet to our church if that is what it takes to truly be his disciples?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Kingdom of Grace

A wealthy man comes to Jesus asking what he must do to have eternal life.  After the man says that he has kept all the commandments since his youth, Jesus tells him to go and sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus.  This causes the young man to go away sad because he had great wealth.

While the disciples marvel at Jesus' words about the extreme incompatibility between wealth and being his disciples, they also seem to be sort of encouraged by it.  Peter replies in Matthew 19:27, "See, we have left everything and followed you.  What then will we have?"  In other words, Peter recognizes that he has done the very thing that Jesus told this wealthy man to do.  So he wants to know what reward he will receive in return.  And Jesus doesn't rebuke Peter for his thinking here.  He doesn't tell Peter that his focus is on the wrong things.  In fact, Jesus says that the twelve apostles will sit on twelve thrones with Jesus in his kingdom and that everyone who has left family and possessions for Jesus sake will receive a hundred times what they have lost and receive eternal life.  Sounds like a pretty sweet deal.

But then Jesus tells a story....

Its the kind of story Jesus seems to be fond of telling, the kind that gets under our skin.

The story is one about a landowner who went out to hire workers to work in his field.  He hired some first thing in the morning and agreed to pay them a denarius for a day's work.  The landowner went out again around 9 a.m. and again around noon and 3 p.m. each time agreeing to pay the workers a wage that was just.  He finally went out around 5 p.m., when one would think the work day was nearly done, and made the same agreement with even more workers.  At the end of the day, the landowner instructed his foreman to pay the workers in reverse order.  As it turned out, the foreman paid those who had come at the end of the day a denarius.  When those who had been working all day saw this, they expected to receive more.  But they too received a denarius.

These workers grumbled against the landowner and who could blame them?  Doesn't he know how this works?  Who of us, if we had been working faithfully in a career for many years and saw someone fresh out of college who had never done anything receive the same salary as us their first day of work, wouldn't be furiously upset by the injustice of it all?

There are obviously a lot of good reasons why hard work and a lifetime of experience should be rewarded in the work place.  The only problem is most of us have to spend so much time in that kind of environment that we begin to think that everything in life should work that way...even the Church.  Sure we want new Christians in our congregation but only as long as they realize that the Church runs by our rules because we are the ones who have been here for decades and worked hard to make this place what it is.

But Jesus says that his kingdom isn't like corporate America.  His kingdom is like this landowner.  It is a kingdom determined not by our hard work and long tenure, although those will be rewarded, but a kingdom determined by the compassion and mercy of its king.  It is a kingdom of grace.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Confessing in Caesarea Philippi

It is probably not coincidence that it is in Caesarea Philippi that Jesus questions his disciples about his identity.  The name itself tells us quite a bit about this city.  It bears both a name from Roman government (Caesar) and Jewish royalty (Philip, son of Herod the Great).  In it, stood a temple built for Caesar by Herod the Great.  It is a city that represents not only power, but specifically Rome's seemingly unconquerable power and the collusion of Jewish leadership with it.  In other words, this city is probably representative of just about everything that 12 Jewish men might be hoping a Messiah would deliver them from.  And it is here that Jesus asks "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"

The disciples share with Jesus a quick synopsis of public opinion regarding him.  "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."  While we often think of these as the wrong answer as compared to Peter's confession two verses later, they are actually instructive in themselves.  Jesus' ministry looked very much like those of these prophets.  He went around speaking God's word to the people of Israel much like Jeremiah and the prophets, performing powerful signs and miracles like Elijah, and living an unsettled existence somewhat like John the Baptist.  Jesus often compares his own ministry to the prophets in that he will be rejected as they were.  So its not that these answers are so much wrong as incomplete.  Jesus is certainly "a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people" but he is also more than that.

Jesus now turns the question to the disciples themselves.  "But who do you say that I am?"  Peter, probably eager to distinguish himself, answers "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."  Now what was incomplete in the crowds understanding of Jesus has been made complete in Peter's confession.  Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son that God has chosen to be Israel's deliverer.  Peter's confession has hit the bull's eye of Christ's identity; so much so that Jesus says this was revealed to Peter by God, not by human deduction.  Indeed, Jesus proclaims that Peter (whose name means "rock") is the rock on which Christ will build his Church, a Church so powerful that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  (If you are a fan of Lord of the Rings, just picture Aragorn and his army standing before the gates of Mordor.)  This Church, of which Peter is the foundation, apparently even has the ability to impact heaven through its earthly ministry (whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven...).

But for all that Peter gets right (and Matthew's certainly wants us to see that his confession really is significant), there is still much he does not understand.  The very next thing that Jesus does after affirming Peter's confession of him as the Christ is to begin to talk about his suffering and death.  Understandably, Peter takes Jesus aside to remind him that he can't talk like this.  After all, it was just settled that Jesus was the Messiah which means he is a conquering hero, not someone who will suffer and die.  But Jesus knows he is going to be an entirely different kind of Messiah, one who will look much more like Jeremiah than David.  So he tells his disciples not only that he will die but that if they truly want to follow him they must deny themselves and take up their own cross as well.

Monuments to power fill our own world.  Often these powers are so overwhelming that we feel our only hope is either collusion or open conflict.  In the midst of these monuments of power, Jesus question to us is whether or not we know him.  Of course, we think that we do.  While our culture may label him as merely a prophet like others, we know that he is more, that is the Christ the Son of the living God.  But then the real challenge when Jesus wants to show us what he means by that word "Christ" and what he means when he call us "disciples".   This Messiah and his followers will not be defined but yet another monument of power but by one of a weakness.  To truly confess Jesus, to truly know who Jesus is, is take up our own cross, our own denial and follow him in a life of sacrifice and service.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Pattern of Promise

Throughout the book of Genesis, God's promises, which is to say God's plan of redemption for our world, have been continually at risk.  God's promise first came to Abraham in Genesis 12 as a promise that Abraham would be the father of a great nation and that God would make his name great and make him a blessing.  In the simple reality of Abraham's aging, this promise comes to be at risk for Abraham grows old without having an heir.  It's difficult to become the father of a great nation if you aren't even the father of one child.  But out of the deadness of Sarah's womb and Abraham's old age, God brings forth life, a son, and therefore new possibility for his promise.

The promise is set at risk again as God calls upon Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, this very same son who was so graciously and miraculously given.  There is no hint in this story that it has a forgone conclusion.  It is only after Abraham shows he is willing to sacrifice Isaac that God says "now I know that you fear God".  What if Abraham fails to trust God?  Will that nullify the promise of God?  What if Abraham does trust and actually kills his son?  How will God fulfill his promise with Isaac dead?  But out of this conflict between God's command and God's promise arises a new future in which God's promise can continue.

Abraham's son Isaac marries Rebekah and they have two children, Esau and Jacob.  Perhaps we begin to think now that the promise is well on its way; the family lineage from Abraham is continuing and gaining strength.  However, the relationship between Esau and Jacob is characterized by struggle and conflict even within their mother's womb.  We come to know Jacob as a deceiver and con-artist whose only real goal is self-preservation and advancement.  As such, Jacob poses a new kind of challenge to the promise of God.  Can God really fulfill his promises to Abraham and Isaac through a person like Jacob?  If the fulfillment of God's promise earlier depended so much on Abraham's obedience, will not Jacob's complete lack of moral character and total inattention to God force God to find someone else to work with, thereby abandoning his promise to Abraham?  Apparently not.  God makes the same promises to Jacob that he made to Abraham and Isaac and God keeps those promises despite Jacob's character (or lack thereof).

Twelve sons are born to Jacob, who is now renamed Israel, and so the picture of Israel as the mighty nation promised to Abraham begins to come into view.  These twelve sons are the patriarchs of Israel.  But rather than the promises of God being established firmly in these twelve, the promise now faces what might be its greatest risk yet.  For this is a family torn apart, even driven close to murder, by favoritism and jealousy.  Joseph is Jacob's favorite son and he makes no attempts to hide this favoritism but actually flaunts it by giving him a special robe that was more than just a piece of clothing; it was a designation of this son's status.  Add to this the fact that Joseph was the second youngest of the twelve sons (and for some time the youngest since it seems Benjamin was not born until much later) and Joseph's propensity for grandiose dreams in which he played a role superior to his brothers, it becomes easy to see how Joseph's brothers "hated him and could not speak peacefully to him."  As a result, Joseph's brothers begin to plot his death, only swerving from that plan because they decide it would be better to profit from their brother than to simply kill him and so they sell him into slavery.  Again, the promise of God is in serious trouble.  God had spoken to Joseph in dreams just as he had spoken to his father Jacob in dreams but now instead of those grandiose dreams being fulfilled, Joseph had become a slave.  Moreover, how was God to raise up a great and holy nation out of a family like this one; a family willing to sell their own brother into slavery?

And yet, in the attempt of Joseph's brothers to kill his God-given dreams, they have actually put the fulfillment of those dreams in motion.  Joseph's being sold into slavery is what will bring him into Egypt which, through a series of events involving more dreams, is what will ultimately allow him to become known to Pharaoh and thereby become the powerful man he dreamed he would be.  By Genesis 45, the story has come full circle.  The same brothers who sold Joseph into slavery now come to him in a position of humility, needing the grain which only he can supply.  Joseph aptly sums up his story in Genesis 50:20 by saying to his brothers "you meant evil against me but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive".  One again, the promise of God has not failed.

Even with Joseph in charge, the promise of God does not rest safe and secure.  For Joseph will eventually die and the eighth verse of Exodus tells us that "there arose a new king over Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph."  This will lead to the entirety of Joseph's descendants being enslaved, again causing us to wonder if this where the promise of God will come to an end.  But like the story of Joseph himself, the enslavement of his descendants is only setting the stage for God to bring life where their seems only death, for God to create a new future for the people of his promise.  God delivers the people from their slavery in Egypt and thereby makes them the nation he had long ago promised to Abraham.  The story of God's promise is the story of God making a future that seems impossible in the present.  That is, in fact, why it is promise at all.  It is not merely an accumulation of human events.  It is God's speech made real in our world.

Thus the Joseph story is especially adept at highlighting a theme that has run through Genesis and continues on through the rest of scripture: that God's promises will be kept, God's will will be done.  Which is NOT the same thing as saying that God's will is always done in every circumstance or that everything that happens is the will of God.  All kinds of things happen in our world that are not willed by God.  God does not will slavery, rape, famine, and genocide.  No, what the story of Joseph and many of the stories in Genesis teach us is not that God willed everything that happened but that God will accomplish what he desires one way or another in spite of all that happens against his will.  There is nothing in scripture that indicates that God willed Jacob to be the kind of man he was or that God willed the jealousy and hatred that existed among Joseph's brothers but God was able to work through it to bring his promises to fruition in spite of those things.      This is not determinism but, in fact, its opposite: hope, a hope that God can bring wholeness even out of our brokenness and faithlessness.  It is a hope that where our past and present seem impossible the word of God can speak a new future into existence in which God's promise can prevail.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Wrestling God

Jacob has heard that his brother Esau is on the way to meet him with 400 men.  Considering how Jacob and Esau last parted ways, with Esau planning on killing Jacob because of his deception, this is not good news.  Jacob, as always, seeks to gain an advantage in this situation.  For one, he begins to pray.  But this is no pious prayer that God's will be done.  This is an urgent pleading that God will remember his promises to Jacob.  Jacob knows he is in trouble and he hopes that God will help him in a situation that he is not sure he can manage on his own.  Jacob hedges his bets though in case God doesn't come through for him.  He divides all that he has into multiple gifts for his brother while Jacob himself stays behind hoping to ameliorate Esau's anger before they meet face to face.

However, Jacob will have to meet a much more serious opponent face to face before he meets Esau.  Not unlike the story of Jacob's ladder in Genesis 28, God again shows up in Jacob's life during the dark of night.  We hear that they wrestle each other all night and that this God in human form must throw Jacob's hip out of socket in order to win the fight.  Even then Jacob will not let his opponent go.  He demands a blessing from his opponent before he will let him leave.  As always, Jacob is seeking gain for himself.  In fact, he even asks his opponent his name, yet another attempt to grasp control since knowing one's name was thought to be a form of power in the ancient world.  God refuses to give his name but does give Jacob the blessing he seeks.

This story in Genesis 32:22-32 has to be one of the most intriguing stories in scripture.  It raises all kinds of questions that our often simplistic, stale, black-and-white, easy answer approach to scripture can not answer. The most obvious question this text raises is how it is that Jacob, a mere man, is able to wrestle with God at all, much less all night and apparently wrestle God to at least a draw if not an outright victory for Jacob?  Who is this Jacob who can pull off such a feat?

But I wonder if the most significant statement in this story is not one about Jacob but one about God; not that Jacob is able to wrestle with God but that God would wrestle with Jacob.  This is a man who has shown no interest in God until confronted with the fear of seeing his brother Esau again.  In spite of that, God keeps trying to get into his life.  God blesses Jacob.  He appears to him in a dream and binds himself to him with the same promises he made to his father and grandfather.  But still Jacob is content to be blessed by God rather than really know God.  But now, God wants to get into Jacob's life so badly that he shows up in human form and physically wrestles with him.  Here is a God so desperate to get into Jacob's life that he is willing to take on human flesh and even be defeated in that flesh in order to be present in Jacob's life.  Who is this God who would pull of such a feat?

Here we are, a people who are often less than righteous, less than completely honest, a people often seeking our own gain, going about our daily business, just trying to survive, seldom turning to God except in times of fear and desperate need.  Into the darkness of our world steps a man whose identity we question only because we lack the light to see him for who he is; a man from whom we demand blessing, signs, and miracles only to have him remind us that it is we who need a new name and the transformation that comes with it.  It is only after he wrestles with us, in our flesh and all its brokenness and weakness, even being willing to be defeated by us on a cross, that we come to realize that it is God himself with whom we have been striving and supposedly prevailed.

The God who wrestled with Jacob, who is Jesus Christ, is the God who continues to strive with us even now. Even as we are blessed by him, we often ignore him.  Even as we ignore him, he still wants to get into our lives.  So he waits for the quiet and still, maybe even those dark and fearful moments of our lives, and in the inky blackness the Spirit of God strives with our Spirit.  Even as he grips our soul and we grasp blindly at him seeking blessing for ourselves, he remains hidden and unrecognizable, unable to be boxed in by our propensity to name and label and thereby limit, define, and control.  Even as we seek to subdue this mysterious stranger who dares to insert himself into our life in this way, he reminds us that it is not more blessing but a new name, a new existence, a new birth that we really need.  Like any birth, this one involves pain and even some scarring.  Such an encounter with the living God will surely not leave our walk unchanged.  It may even cause us to limp.  But we will come away knowing the God who strives.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Results or Relationship

Genesis 29 tells the story of Jacob meeting Rachel and eventually marrying her and her sister, Leah.  In some ways, this story sounds similar to a story just a few chapters earlier in Genesis 24.  In that chapter, Abraham sends a servant to find a wife for his son.  The servant meets Rebekah at a well and knows that she is the one for Isaac when she draws water for him and his camels. Rebekah and Abraham's servant then go and report all that happens to Laban (Rebekah's brother and Rachel's father).  Likewise, the story of Jacob and Rachel's meeting takes place at a well, the watering of animals is significant to the story, and the meeting is ultimately reported back to Laban. However, it seems the similarities in these stories really serve to highlight the differences of these two characters.

Abraham's sending of his servant is a story of trust.  Abraham states that the Lord "will send his angel before" his servant in order to guide him and ensure that he finds the proper wife for Isaac.  The story, indeed, unfolds in this way.  The servant's prayer is answered, Rebekah willingly goes with him, and the story concludes by noting that Isaac was comforted by Rebekah's presence.

These elements of trust in God to provide are absent from the story of Jacob.  Instead, Jacob is portrayed as taking matters into his own hands.  Rather than waiting for the right woman to come along to provide water, Jacob provides water for Rachel's flocks.  (This is a clear demonstration of strength on Jacob's part since he rolls away from the mouth of the well by himself the stone which the other shepherds say they can not move until all the shepherds have gathered to move it together.)   Jacob also does not propose the matter of marriage with Rachel to Laban as guidance from God.  Instead, he offers it as a business contract; Jacob will work seven years for Rachel.  When those seven years are complete, Jacob demands that Rachel be given to him as if he has earned her.  Of course, things don't turn out quite that smoothly.  Instead, Laban shows that Jacob is not the only one capable of deception.  He throws a party and gives his oldest daughter, Leah, to Jacob instead of Rachel.  Somehow Jacob manages to have intercourse with her without noticing that it is not the woman he has been pining over for seven years.  In the morning, he realizes it is Leah and he becomes angry with Laban who says he must work another seven years if he wishes to marry Rachel as well.

At this point, it would be easy for me to say that this story demonstrates yet again why we should trust God instead of trying to be in charge of our own lives.  It's tempting to say that if we will trust God as Abraham did then things will always go smoothly for us as they did for Abraham's servant and if we try to carry out our own agenda then we will run into problems as Jacob did.  While there is probably some truth captured in that statement, it is not a whole truth.  It doesn't do justice to the experience of those who have placed their trust in God and find that things still often do not go so smoothly.  And I don't think it does justice to this story in its context either.  After all, even though Isaac is initially comforted by Rebekah's presence, it is this same Rebekah who will incite Jacob to steal his brother's blessing, causing Isaac tremendous discomfort in his old age.  Likewise, while Laban and his daughters will cause Jacob tremendous anxiety along the way, they (and their maidservants) do ultimately give him 12 sons (as well as some daughters) which would have been counted as a tremendous blessing in this culture.  Additionally, these 12 sons are the fulfillment of the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; they are the 12 patriarchs of Israel.

So here's my crazy conclusion from all that.  The primary difference between Abraham and Jacob wasn't the results of their lives but their relationship with God.  Or to put it another way, the results of their lives were not a measure of their relationship with God.  Abraham's closer relationship with God didn't automatically mean he was more blessed than Jacob.  Jacob was actually blessed by God tremendously despite the fact that he showed no interest in having the kind of relationship with God that his grandfather had.  Abraham knew God, walked intimately with God, knew the presence of God and that was its own blessing much greater than than any blessing Jacob would ever know.  Jacob, on the other hand, knew the blessings of God but never really seemed to know God and seemed to be perfectly content with that.

I think this is a point worth making because I think most Christians and churches in America today are much more like Jacob than we are like Abraham.  We too often equate God's blessing with knowing God himself and experiencing his presence.  We assume that if an individual is blessed or a church is growing then "they must be doing something right".  We assume that God would not bless a person or a church unless they really knew God but the story of Jacob demonstrates that this is not always true.  Indeed, Jacob shows us that God can bless and bless and bless a person and that person still not be drawn any closer to God.  They simply go on enjoying the blessing but they miss out on the relationship, the intimate presence of God that Abraham came to know in his life.  As the Church, we have to ask ourselves whether or not really knowing God, experiencing his presence, being in intimate relationship with him is actually more important to us than whatever blessing God might pour out on us along the way.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Reflecting on NYC

Twelve years ago I went to Nazarene Youth Congress in Toronto, Canada as a student entering my senior year of high school.  In addition to being a lot of fun and an overall spectacular event, this was a time when God spoke to me.  It was one of the first of many nudges toward a call to ministry.

Last week, three of our teens, our NYI president, and myself attended Nazarene Youth Conference in Louisville, Kentucky.  Although I had shared with others several times how impactful NYC had been in my own life and how I believed it would do the same for our teens who were going, I had no such expectations for myself this time around.  After all, I figured, this was a teen focused event and I am now nearly 30.  I have experienced 7 years of theological education, 4 years of pastoral ministry, and ordination as an elder in the Church of the Nazarene since I was a student at NYC, not to mention the normal growth and maturity one expects to gain from 12 years of life, 8 years of marriage, having 2 children, and living in 4 different states.  Not that all of this makes me "old and wise" by any stretch of the imagination.  It is simply to say that there are many ways in which I am not the same person I was 12 years ago.  This was a teen event and I am no longer a teen nor am I especially in tune with youth culture.  My sole purpose in going was to be present with our teens and to see what God would do in their lives.  

But I guess when God decides he is going to show up and work in the lives of those who are present, it doesn't really matter if you are part of the "target audience".  My expectations no longer mattered.  The event organizers' expectation didn't matter.  It only mattered that God was present.  And God was present.  For some brief, sweet, almost dream-like moments the glory of heaven was manifested in a basketball arena in Louisville, KY.  I went for our teens.  I left having experienced God's presence in a way that I have not for a very long time.

Much like 12 years ago, this NYC was more a nudge down a path where God has already been leading than it was any kind of final word.  I was not given a blue print for the rest of my life or some radical new direction for my congregation.  I simply got to experience the intimate presence of God and that was enough.  For months now, I have been begging God in prayer to pour out his Holy Spirit in fresh and undeniable ways on our congregation; to make his presence among us evident.  I'm honestly not even sure what I expect that to look like.  I just know I am hungry for God to show up and do something, to transform lives in the way I believe it is possible for only God to do, to demonstrate that God's Word and God's Spirit really can create and shape a holy people.  I have been longing for something to happen that can not be attributed to me or the work of our church but only to a movement of God, something that can only be called revival.  I believe that is what I witnessed in Louisville last week.  This certainly hasn't satisfied the longing I've had for God to do something in our church and our town.  Instead, it is yet another nudge down the path to trust that God can and will work among his people if we will continue to seek.

I suppose that in my moments of greatest honesty I would admit that at the center of my low expectations coming into last week was a fear; a fear that runs much deeper than the realization that I'm not quite as a young as I used to be.  It was a fear that perhaps I was more naive 12 years ago than I would like to admit; that maybe 12 years ago it was more the hugeness of the event that was talking than the voice of God, that maybe there was more "smoke and mirrors" than I remembered and that now 12 years later I would see through the smoke and mirrors and be disappointed.  At this point in my life, my faith can not be a blind one.  I have seen too much in the Church that is fake and disingenuous.  I've had too many moments that caused me to roll my in eyes disgust and frustration at our attempts to be puppeteers rather than prophets.  As a result, I've sometimes become slow of heart to real and genuine movements of God.

But last week was different.  Yes, the music was exciting.  Yes, the worship services were technologically impressive.  Yes, there were emotionally charged moments.  Yes, the speakers were gifted communicators.  Yes, we were often tired and overworked.  And yes, I'm sure there were teens more concerned with members of the opposite sex than with what God was doing.  These are all things of which I am normally a little wary in worship, especially worship involving teens, since I think it can leave them vulnerable to emotional manipulation rather than the leading of the Spirit, a "worshiping" of the worship experience rather than worshiping God.  But last week was different.  While all of those elements were present, I believe God's Spirit was genuinely present as well.  There was no sense of pretension, no goal to whip the crowd into an emotional frenzy, no sense that if a certain number of people didn't come forward to pray then the night wasn't a success.  From the outset there was a freedom and depth of worship calling us to a life of service and sacrifice that said this was a movement not merely of light and sound and charged emotions but of the living God.  Quite in contrast to looking through smoke and mirrors and finding disappointment, last week I looked through the lights and loud music and found the face of God, the same God whose voice I heard 12 years ago.  Thanks be to God for showing up in Louisville, Kentucky last week and for letting this pastor be there to witness it.

Heaven in Unlikely Places

It is only three verses after the birth of Jacob and Esau that we begin to here about Jacob's conniving and self-serving ways.  Genesis 25:19-26 tells of the birth of Jacob and Esau.  Verses 27-28 give us a short summary about Esau and Jacob.  Verse 29 begins the story of Jacob bartering for Esau's birthright.  Jacob's story has barely gotten started and he is already portrayed to us as someone who is looking out for his own gain, trying to find the best angle to better himself.  His brother is hungry and rather than treating him as a brother he sees Esau as someone who has something he wants.  He refuses to share food with his brother until his brother gives up his birthright as the firstborn.  Of course, this trend continues in Genesis 27.  Jacob deceives his father Isaac in order to receive the blessing that should fall to Esau as the firstborn.  Isaac, being too old to see well, was easily deceived when Jacob put on his brother's clothes and used goat skin to make himself feel hairy like his brother.  So Jacob succeeds in obtaining both his brother's birthright and his blessing through questionable means.  Surely Jacob is not the kind of person through whom God plans to fulfill his promise to Abraham.  Surely God will look elsewhere.

As the story moves to Genesis 28, there has been no mention of any remorse or repentance on Jacob's part over what he has done.  In fact, his only concerns seems to be his own survival.  His mother has made up an excuse about him looking for a wife so that he can get away from home in order to avoid his own brother murdering him out of anger.  So in this chapter one who is a proven deceiver and con-artist and fleeing from his family out of concern for his own self preservation finds himself in a "certain place" that is so unimportant as to be unworthy of a name at this point in the story and the only reason he has stopped in this place is to get some rest.  There is nothing sacred about this person or this place or this journey or this activity.  Jacob could not be any less interested in God.  There is no reason for God to show up here.  

But as Jacob sleeps, he has a dream about a ladder that reaches from earth to heaven with the angels of God ascending and descending on this ladder.  And this is not just any dream filled with wishful thinking.  Scripture tells us that God speaks to Jacob in this dream explaining the meaning of the vision.  This is the God of Abraham and Isaac and this God is now extending the same promises to Jacob that he promised to Jacob's father and grandfather.  God promises to be with Jacob and to keep him until the promise of inheriting this land on which he sleeps is fulfilled.  God binds himself by these promises to a con artist who has spent no time or energy seeking God.  Heaven has come to earth in this most ordinary of places.  It is only after the dream of promises made by God that Jacob in turn promises himself to God, binding himself to be faithful to God if God will keep his promises.

Naturally, we wonder why God would do this.  Why make promises to a man who has only served himself?  Why should God reveal himself to one who was not even seeking?  Why bind yourself to a man who felt no bond even to his own brother?  What does God have to gain in this endeavor?  While it may be difficult to answer those questions in a satisfactory way, we do find that this is a pattern with God.  God is constantly showing up in places where we least expect, not least in the person of Jesus Christ.

The end of John 1 tells of Jesus' call to Philip and Nathanael.  Jesus calls Philip first who then goes and tells Nathanael about Jesus of Nazareth.  Nathanael is skeptical asking "Can anything good comes from Nazareth?"  However, upon meeting Jesus, Nathanael is quickly convinced of Jesus' messianic qualities.  But Jesus says to him "You will see greater things than these....Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."  Jesus is letting Nathanael know that just as heaven came to earth in that unlikely place where Jacob dreamed now heaven has come to earth in a whole new way in the unlikely place of this man from Nazareth.  The God revealed in Jesus Christ is a God who makes a habit of bringing heaven to unlikely places.