You Have Heard It Said…Matthew 5:21-37

These days I find myself stunned by the things that are said.  I am not thinking about cursing, the four letter word kind.  I am thinking about the disinformation, lying, deception, spin and so on that are being used to justify what is wrong…make corrupt appear honest…take the things we were taught to be a sin and make them seem noble instead.  Since this is an election year, I will likely be spending much of the coming year stunned by what is said.  As is the case, humanity hasn’t changed from two thousand years ago.  We have simply refined our techniques and with social media become more devious and stunning.

Jesus was still giving the Sermon on the Mount in the reading.  He tackled the prickly topics of murder, adultery, divorce and oath taking.  His listeners would have likely been stunned.  Not because of how he was able to diminish these topics and how he rationalized a way around them, rather how he intensified them and left no room for spin.  We need to remember that Jesus told of the need to be more righteous than the Pharisees and teachers of the law to enter into the kingdom of heaven.  He also said that he came not to abolish the Law and prophets but to fulfill the words spoken through them.  Righteousness was so central to the importance of relationships.

You have heard it said…do not murder.  This seems very straight forward or is it?  Murder can be more than the ceasing of physical life.  Do you know of anyone whose career was ruined by personal attacks or vengeance?  Do you know of a reputation destroyed by disinformation?  Jesus warned that even calling someone “Fool” will make you liable for the fire of hell.  Now we all know people who are difficult to get along with in life.  Yet, Jesus advised that before we come to the alter go first and reconcile with our neighbor.  How we live in our relationships is how we live out our righteousness.

You have heard it said…do not commit adultery.  You have heard it said…anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.  These two are lumped together because they arise from the same problem which is the advantages and power of men over women.  Today misogyny is still alive and prominent.  The ‘Me Too’ movement shows how little things have changed over time.  Jesus warned that it would be better to be physically maimed than to continue in such behavior and be liable to the fire of hell.  How we live in our relationships is how we live out our righteousness.

You have heard it said…do not break your oath.  Who hasn’t known the hurt of broken promises?  Who hasn’t known what it is like to have trust destroyed because a promise was never kept?  Have you ever been swindled?  Have you ever been surprised by a person/business keeping their promise?  Finding integrity can be a challenge these days.  Jesus simply stated that our in relationships with others ‘yes’ should mean ‘yes’ and our ‘no’ should mean ‘no’ because anything else comes from the evil one.  How we live in our relationships is how we live out our righteousness.

These days we might be stunned by how disinformation and spin have become normalized in life.  Yet, Jesus will have none of it.  Righteousness is demanded and it is found in how we live out our relationships.

Peace.

You are Light. You are Salt. Matthew 5:13-20

These days we take salt for granted.  It is cheap.  However, this was not always the case.  In ancient times salt was highly valued.  At times, it was even used by the Romans as currency to pay soldiers and other officials.  Light is also taken for granted.  Flip a switch on the wall and a room is filled with light.  A satellite picture of the world quickly shows how lit up the night has become.  However it wasn’t that long ago when a single lighthouse stood as a beacon between a cargo ship and crashing rocks.  If power is ever lost in a storm, the familiar house now becomes a place of pitfalls and stubbed toes.

Jesus is continuing his Sermon on the Mount and he calls those present ‘Salt’ and ‘Light.’  We may not fully grasp what he was saying because of light and salt being so much a part of modern life.  He was calling them highly valued and important in the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus is also saying the same about us.

The people in Jesus’ audience weren’t what we call celebrities, they weren’t adorned in luxury or religious leaders basking in the flattery of others.  Along with the disciples, the people included the poor, the persecuted (or soon to be), those who dared to speak the truth (put a light) to the world’s darkness and who desperately hoped for God’s righteousness to be known.  The kingdom of heaven belonged to people like these.  Jesus called them ‘blessed.’  He also called them ‘salt’ and ‘light.’  What is important to note is that Jesus was speaking in the plural, not singular.  As a collective whole, they were ‘salt’ and ‘light.’  Today, we call that collective whole the church.

So what happens when the church is no longer pure in heart?  Meaning, it is willing to trade a seat in the kingdom for a place of prominence in the world?  What happens if it is no longer concerned for the poor, the grieving or oppressed?  What if it no longer shines a light on the darkness or perhaps even helps in the coverup?  It becomes like salt that has lost its value.  It has done the absurdity of lighting a candle only to put a lid on it to protect the darkness.

Jesus was very direct.  He didn’t come to abolish the Law or the prophets but to fulfill God’s demand for righteousness spoken through them.  Jesus will go on in the following verses to explain what this involves as his sermon continues.  His teaching, life, death and resurrection has shown the God who comes to take an enslaved world and bring it to freedom.

The verses today conclude with Jesus warning that unless our righteousness exceeds the Pharisees and teachers of the law, we won’t be a part of the kingdom of heaven.  If anyone knew the Law and prophets, it would be the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.  Yet, there is a difference between knowing and being transformed.

There is the darkness of cynicism, division, manipulation, fearmongering, lies, etc., etc., etc.  At times, this seems so overwhelming.  Remember Jesus’ declaration: you are salt…you are light.

Peace.

Blessings Matthew 5:1-12

If you ask people what a blessed life looks like, you would get a perspective of life that is going well.  A person will say they are blessed because they enjoy good health.  Another will cite family and speak of them being a blessing.  Still another could describe living in a good neighborhood where they feel safe is a blessing.  So blessings in a way are about the parts of life that work well and bring us joy.  We direct our thankfulness toward God as the giver of such blessings.  So as we read from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we get a different perspective on blessings.  What Jesus calls a blessing, leaves us scratching our heads because they don’t fit on our list.

Jesus taught that the blessed are: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the merciful, those hungering and persecuted for righteousness, etc.  How can this be?  Well, we can try to rationalize his words and make them fit our world.  We might say that their suffering will change and become a blessing when they get their act together but Jesus didn’t say this.  Or that God sent this suffering as a way of testing and that blessing will come in the future.  Jesus didn’t say this.  We might pass this off as a future event, as being blessed someday in heaven but Jesus didn’t say this.  He said, “Blessed are…” meaning the blessings are now in the present.  So how do we reconcile Jesus’ view of blessings and our own?  We don’t.

The verses just before this tell of Jesus gathering disciples and preaching the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  His call is for life to be turned around and taken in a different direction.  A new way of understanding the world from God’s perspective has been brought near in Jesus.  So how does this work?  Well, the kingdom of heaven doesn’t belong to those parading the power of faith for all to see.  Instead, the kingdom of heaven belongs to those willing to admit the poverty of their faith.  Those that struggle for peace when ‘might is right’ seems to be the dominate belief, are the ones blessed to be called children of God.  Those insulted and persecuted for speaking truth in the face of power toward the pursuit of justice, walk in the same path as Jesus and the prophets of old.  The kingdom of heaven is also theirs.

So what does it mean to be blessed?  One perspective is to have life go well.  Jesus’ teaching of blessing is to conform our lives to God’s perspective which he lived out for us to see.  The two don’t always mix together well.  So how do we transform our understanding of blessing?  The prophet Micah gives us a start in the companion reading (Micah 6:1-8). “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Peace.

What Does Jesus do Now? Matthew 4:12-23

Jesus’ early years up to now have been surrounded by political turmoil.  Herod tries to eliminate him by having the children of Bethlehem slaughtered.  His family flees to Egypt for refuge.  Following his baptism, Jesus is tempted by the Devil in the wilderness to rely on his self-sufficiency…manipulate God to serve him by the use of Scripture…finally sell his soul for political power.  John the Baptist has been imprisoned for challenging Herod Antipas’ immoral conduct.  In response to this news, Jesus heads off to Galilee.  What is Jesus going to do now?

The political turmoil Jesus faced in many ways is not all that much different from what we face today or that has been faced by countless others through the centuries.  Politics is about power: obtaining and keeping it.  The methods include lies, silencing the opposition’s voice, fear, manipulation, division, etc.  So what does a person or the church do?  Do we look out for ourselves and go with the flow?  Do we alter the church’s message for influence or the power that comes with wealth?  Do we simply sell out?  These options aren’t all that promising or very hopeful.  In fact, they seem rather dreary.  Scripture calls these options darkness.  The way we do politics does seem really dark at times.

The Gospel of Matthew (referring to Isaiah 9:1-4) tells that people living in darkness have seen a great light and that those living in the shadow of death a light has shined upon them.  Jesus is that light.  The message Jesus announced was enough for the brothers Simon (Peter) and Andrew along with the brothers James and John to leave everything behind and take a chance on something new.  Jesus’ message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

Repent often has the negative connection of judgment and punishment.  Repent can also be positive.  Repent really is turning around and taking life in a different direction.  Matthew uses ‘kingdom of heaven’ instead of ‘kingdom of God.’  Using ‘kingdom of heaven’ gives the impression not so much of a place but a concept.  So when Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,” he was saying, “turn your life around and grab hold of a new idea which is different as light shining in darkness.”

Currently, the political battle rages on with Republican vs. Democrat and conservative vs. liberal.  The resulting division in this land leaves us feeling as though we really are in darkness.  When tempted by the Devil to opt into the world’s ways, Jesus chose to be the light that shines in the darkness: the kingdom of heaven.  His life, death and  resurrection has brought to us this light which will unfold in the following verses of Matthew.  So how did Jesus start out being a light in the darkness?  He brought healing to all who came to him.

Peace.

Pointing Out Jesus John 1:29-42

Evangelism is one of those words that strikes a little fear (or maybe a lot) in the heart of Christians.  Maybe the fear arises out of rejection from past attempts.  Maybe the fear comes from possibly not knowing all the answers that could be asked.  Maybe the fear and possibly the biggest reason of all is that we aren’t sure who Jesus is in the first place.  Sure, we know the titles: Lord, Savior, Lamb of God, etc.  However, do we know what the titles mean for life and their consequences?  If we use a politically charged word like “Lord,” how then do we relate to those wanting to push political agendas?  Is Jesus the giver of power and wealth to those managing to get life straightened out?  Is Jesus the One coming with a purifying fire and judgment or with welcome to the sinner and compassion for the outcast?  The church season is Epiphany which is about revealing Jesus and making him known.  The best gift we can give to ourselves in Epiphany might be to take the effort and move beyond simply knowing the titles to understand the impact of the ones we use.  Then, conform to who we say Jesus is in life.

In the reading out of John, John the Baptist sees Jesus passing by and points him out saying, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  This happened again the next day.  The result was that a few disciples wanted to know where Jesus was staying.  In other words, they were wanting to learn more from Jesus himself.  Jesus’ response was simple, “Come and see.”

When John the Baptist pointed Jesus out from the crowd, he was giving to Jesus more than a title, “Lamb of God.”  He was doing more than showing God’s sacrifice so we don’t have to continue sacrificing lambs.  John the Baptist was pointing out Jesus as the One taking away our rebellion from God and the consequences.  Knowing a title is nice.  Not having to sacrifice lambs is a relief.  Knowing Jesus as the One where our rebellion against God comes to an end is life changing which is why it takes a lifetime to know Jesus by heeding his invitation to “Come and see.”

Epiphany is about making Jesus known to the world.  This is more than having a title to stick on him.  If we are to make Jesus known, we must know him too.  How do we do this?  We take him up on his invitation, “Come and see.”

Peace.

AHA! Matthew 3:13-17

Every so often we all get those “AHA” moments.  All of a sudden we get it.  What seemed beyond comprehension, we now understand.  What we couldn’t recognize has now become obvious.  These times when the light bulb goes on we call an epiphany.  In the church, this is the season called ‘Epiphany.’  The readings assigned are to help us have one of those “AHA” moments about Jesus.  The reading for this Sunday is the baptism of Jesus.

The first couple chapters of Matthew have given us some background with a genealogy, Joseph’s struggling with the news of Mary’s pregnancy, the Magi, Herod’s desire to kill the baby Jesus and the family fleeing to Egypt for refuge.  Now with the adult Jesus being baptized by John at the Jordan river we read Jesus’ first words, “…it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”

Righteousness is a relationship word. The word carries with it the understanding of fidelity and promise keeping.  If we call a relationship “right”, it is because falsehood has not found a place.  So when Jesus was baptized by John (a baptism in preparation for welcoming the coming of God’s reign), righteousness was being fulfilled.  God was keeping the promise of establishing his reign over a rebellious world.  God was bringing salvation from darkness.  As Jesus came out of the water, the Holy Spirit descended like a dove with a heavenly voice saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  These words were for the bystanders and for us to have that “AHA” moment.

The search continues to find the savior bringing us salvation.  We look to business leaders, celebrities and politics but they don’t bring God’s righteousness.  So often we are left with those serving only their own interests or who leave us in the darkness of our greed, animosity, division and struggle for power.  This is not salvation.  Righteousness is not experienced.

The companion verses from Isaiah 42:1-9 has God declaring his servant…in whom God delights…on whom the Spirit will rest.  This chosen servant of God will not be a braggart or crush the life of someone barely holding on to life.  He will bring justice (another relationship word).  He will be a light: for the nations to recognize the darkness…for us in our blindness…to bring freedom to those in the prison of darkness.  Upon this one alone will God’s glory reside.  Upon this chosen one, God’s righteousness toward us is fulfilled.

Jesus was baptized by John and as he came out of the water the Holy Spirit like a dove descended on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Peace.

 

The Word that Communicates John 1:1-18

We communicate through all sorts of ways.  A smile, scowl, hand gesture, ‘the look’, emoji, act of kindness are all ways that we can communicate to others.  These help convey emotions like anger, joy or frustration but are limited.  We use medium like Twitter, smartphone, Facebook, email, YouTube, texting, etc. to help us in passing on news and ideas to others.  These medium have no power without the use of simple, basic words.  The use of words is how we communicate with each other.  Noun, verb, adverb, tense, etc. are how we fully express ourselves and relate to others.

The opening verses to the Gospel of John tell us about someone called the Word.  We are told that from the very beginning the Word was with God and was God.  Furthermore, all of creation came into being through this Word.  If we want to know about God, then the Word is the noun, verb, adverb, tense, etc. expressing God’s nature to us and relationship with us.  So who or what is this Word?

Well, even though we owe our very existence to the Word, we have rejected it.  The law which Moses passed down we love to call and use as God’s Word to control and berate others.  However, the Word is grace upon grace and truth.  To the darkness of the world with its revenge, assassinations, violence and slavery, the Word is a light that shines of life and the darkness won’t extinguish it.  Social media may be used to attack, degrade our humanity, demand perfection that is unattainable but belief (a gift from the Holy Spirit) in the name of the Word gives us the capacity to be declared children of God.  Once again, who or what is this Word?

Well, words are used to communicate.  The Word is God in the flesh come to be with us.  The Word is God showing to us what humanity was created to be.  The Word has come to be a light that exposes our darkness.  The Word is what took our rejection and murderous cross so that we could know the grace upon grace that raises life out of death.

John the Baptist stood alongside the Jordan River and pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Jesus is this Word that is the full expression of God to us.  So if you want to know the truth of God’s nature, look to the words of the Gospel of John as they continue to point to Jesus.

Peace.

Threatened By A Baby Matthew 2:13-23

Less than a week ago we celebrated the birth of Jesus.  We sang hymns that tell of news bringing joy to the world.  We sang about mangers and angels and shepherds and Mary.  Christmas comes with a great crescendo and then it is back to life as we know it.  In a few days children return to school.  After taking a couple days of vacation, it is back to work.  Christmas with the baby Jesus in a manger surrounded by adoring parents, shepherds and docile animals is easily sentimentalized.  We gladly take the comforting news of ‘God with us’ but we quickly ignore the challenge and judgment that ‘God with us’ entails.  Matthew jolts us to reality with Joseph and Mary taking Jesus to seek refuge in Egypt.  Matthew also described what happens when rulers feel threatened.  In this case, the poor suffer and the innocent are killed.  Christmas is about Jesus’ birth.  The following Sunday is about the world with its Herods.

Magi had come to Herod to find the one born ‘King of the Jews.’  Herod and his grasp on power felt threatened.  He wanted the Magi to return and give the location so he too could worship – Herod lied.  The Magi didn’t return to give Herod what he wanted to learn.  Thrown into a rage Herod ordered the massacre of Bethlehem’s children.  Only Matthew records the history of this brutality but it was well within Herod’s normal behavior.  Bethlehem was a small bump in the road town outside of Jerusalem.  Such news wouldn’t have caused a stir in the region but it would have caused parents to fear a little more for their children’s well being.

The Christmas message is truly good news.  Each Christmas we are reminded that in Jesus, the God of mercy and love has come to live with us.  The Christmas message is also that in Jesus, God has entered this world with those forced to flee for refuge…under the lies and fear…in solidarity with the powerless often paying the price of the world’s brutality.

So celebrate the good news that is Christmas of ‘God with us.’  Also celebrate that God has come for those under the brutality of the world’s Herods.  The world’s salvation has truly come, born to us.

Peace.

God Is With Us Matthew 1:18-25

Christmas is only a few days away but we are still in the season of Advent.  The time continues for us to consider the coming of God to be with us.  Including, the responsibilities and consequences that are a result of God’s arrival.  What usually happens when we consider Immanuel (God with us), we assume that God is coming on our terms.  God is coming to bless my business.  God is coming to make the country powerful.  God is coming to thrash my enemy.  Yes, the coming of God does bring to us blessing.  Yet as we prepare to receive the Christ child, we do so not on our terms but on God’s terms.  This is the only way the blessing can be received.

These verses from Matthew might seem a few days early.  They are Matthew’s description of Jesus’ birth.  Two points are made by Matthew.  One is about Jesus’ identity.  The other is the reaction of Joseph to the news of Mary’s pregnancy.

Joseph lived in a culture where the worst thing you could do was to bring shame upon the family.  Mary was betrothed to him.  In those days marriage was a two step process.  The first step was betrothal.  The second step was the husband at a later date taking his wife to his home to be his wife.  During the betrothal step the woman was considered the man’s wife.  So the news of Mary’s pregnancy was sure to bring shame upon Joseph and the future marriage.  Joseph chose to dismiss her (break off the betrothal) in the least shameful way possible.  Later in a dream, an angel told Joseph to keep Mary as his wife.  Mary’s pregnancy was Immanuel (God with us) and Joseph was to name the baby Jesus because he would save us from our sins.  Joseph did as the angel advised and welcomed Immanuel – God’s flesh and blood presence into the world.  He did this regardless of the cultural consequences.

Joseph lived in a time where kings and rulers were not opposed to blurring the line between humanity and divinity.  Matthew wanted to clear up any confusion here.  The claim of divinity was not through a position of human power.  The presence of divinity was not the result of human declaration.  Immanuel is God’s action to be with us.

So here we are a couple days from Christmas.  The challenge for us is to prepare ourselves to receive ‘God with us.’  How will we do this?  According to our expectations or upon our declaration?  Or in Jesus, who was not ashamed of our flesh and blood…not ashamed of the cross…in order to bring us forgiveness and a resurrected life?  How will we receive him?

Peace.

Is Jesus the One? Matthew 11:2-11

The message for the Third Sunday in Advent turns raw.  The reality is that the question being asked is our question as well.  Is Jesus the one we should look to solve all our problems or do we need to look in another direction?  Is Jesus the one to bring the day of Lord which is the reign of God?  Or, what politician can we turn to who will bring God’s blessings?  Which corporate CEO can we turn to who will restore paradise on earth?  What latest technological advancement is coming that will elevate humanity above the mess we keep making in and on the earth?

Last week John the Baptist was so sure and confident.  He railed against the leadership calling them ‘vipers.’  The people were strongly urged to repent and to be baptized in preparation for the coming of One who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  John challenged Herod’s unethical conduct and ended up in prison.  Soon his head will be fetched as a party favor and for revenge.  Suddenly John’s boldness turned to doubt.  John pointed to Jesus but he didn’t live up to expectations.  Now a prisoner, John asks, “Is Jesus the One?”

The message for today is raw because it cuts deep to our own doubts.  Where do we look for that strong, decisive and charismatic leader, who: restores us to an idealized past…leads us to an utopian future…takes away all of our enemies…makes sure we end up on top?  This question has been on humanity’s lips for thousands of years.

Jesus responds to John’s question by referencing the Year of the Lord’s Favor, the Year of Jubilee, when salvation and freedom is brought to all (Isaiah 61:1-2).  Jesus was healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, raising the dead and the poor heard good news.  We are blessed if Jesus’ ways don’t offend us.  We are blessed as the ways of God that bring life are welcomed; instead of a reinforcing the ways of human power.

After all, why did the people go out to listen to John in the first place?  See the scenery?  Look at a person of wealth and power?  No, they came to listen to a prophet.  They came to listen to a word from God.  Isn’t that what we are really listening for in our questioning – a word from God that speaks of salvation?

Jesus brought a radically different understanding of how God’s salvation will be brought to this world.  This radical way is glimpsed when the sick are cared for…good news is heard in the place of empty promises…the poor are lifted up rather than being used for better profits…death is overcome by resurrection.  We are blessed if Jesus’ ways of bringing the kingdom of heaven don’t offend us.

Peace.