Living the Life

The end of Matthew 4 tells us of Jesus’ call to four of his disciples and about his activity in Galilee. In this passage we see four fishermen leave their known lives and livelihood to commit to Jesus. It’s worth noting that this event occurs after Jesus being rejected in Nazareth and after he has already encountered some of these people before. It most likely occurred in conjunction with the events of Luke 5. Jesus’ call, for a Rabbi, was not unusual. It was quite the norm for a Rabbi to draw around him a circle of young men that he could teach and train and that they would follow him and spend time with him learning as they went.  So far, everything is kind of normal. Now what isn’t normal is the type of people that Jesus is calling.

First, we will dispel with the myth that these people were poor. They weren’t wealthy but they weren’t peasants either. From the collection of the gospels, we can see that Peter and Andrew, James and John, along with their father, Zebedee, worked together in what was essentially a small fishing business. They had helpers and other workers, so James and John leaving would not put a strain on their father. Still, the blue-collar laboring sort who is more accustomed to the sea and the sun is not who you would expect to find around a Rabbi. So why did Jesus call these men?

First, they were in touch with the real world. They dealt with people and life, as believers it’s important that we don’t isolate ourselves from the world. Second, they knew hard work and diligence. The type of fishing they did was hard, grueling work that often went unrewarded. The life they would have as disciples would require devotion, dedication, and perseverance. The life of a Christian was never meant to be easy and the thought of difficulty should not turn us away. Third, they were ordinary. Peter was brash and bold. James and John were hotheaded, still they were vital to the work of the kingdom. Jesus never looks at anyone and says they don’t have the skills I need. Everywhere he looks, he sees someone who is a perfect fit for the kingdom. The Church should be the home of every person – every type of person and personality. It is in this way that God weaves a beautiful tapestry utilizing all the multicolored strands of humanity into a beautiful image of love.

With these new disciples so committed to him, what would they learn from their new master? In the synagogue, Jesus would teach the gospel of the kingdom and heal all manner of diseases and ailments to people far and wide. So, what is the message? God loves you and wants you to be part of your life. God is not distant and unfeeling, but loving, compassionate, and generous. He wants you to be a part of his family and he willing to give totally of himself to achieve that goal.

The work of the Christian is that we, like those early followers are to be fishing for men. How do we do that? By doing what Jesus did. We tell people about the good news, that God loves them and wants them to be a part of his family. God loves them just as they are and where they are, but he isn’t going to leave them there. Instead, he will turn them into images of Christ so they can share in all the blessings and fullness of heaven. But we don’t stop there. No, we continue, for it’s not enough just to tell people this; we must show them. How? By living it out. Be loving and caring and compassionate. Smile and be gracious. Be gentle and helpful. Be generous genuine. Remember Jesus sees everyone and says they have a place in the kingdom, so should we. In this way we become fishers of men (humanity) and show and share the love that has been outpoured by Christ on us. We point others back to him, so that they, too, can receive the fullness of the love of Heaven.

Happy Fishing!

Make a U-Turn

Following his time in the wilderness, Jesus begins his public ministry in Galilee. Matthew tells us rather briefly in Chapter 4, that following the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus went to Galilee and started preaching. His message: repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand. This is essentially the same message that John had been proclaiming. The main difference is that John was trying to prepare people for what was to come. Jesus is what was to come, so even though it’s the same message, it is much more poignant and powerful due its source.

It is suffice to say, repentance is an integral part of what it means to be a Christian. It is required in fact, and sadly it is also somewhat misunderstood. The easiest way I can describe it is, it is the act of recognizing you are headed in the wrong direction, stopping, turning around, and heading in the right direction. It is in fact making a U-turn with both your thoughts and actions. Whether we like it or not, we all must recognize that we are fallen creatures. We have sin-filled lives and do things that are outside of God’s will for our lives. With every step, we move further from God and his kingdom. The sooner we recognize that we are headed in the wrong direction, the better. This is in fact step one. The second step is almost as difficult. It’s stopping. We come up with all sorts of reasons why we can’t stop. “This is who I am”. True, but it’s not who you were meant to be. “I just can’t help it.” Maybe not, but Jesus can. “I don’t have time,” “I need to wait until the time is right,” “There isn’t any hope for me, I’m too far gone,” “It’s too hard,” or possibly worst of all, “It doesn’t really matter what I do”. All of these are lies fed us by the enemy to keep us heading down the wrong path even if we know we are going in the wrong direction.

Once we become aware that we aren’t where we need to be, we must stop. Thirdly, we must turn around and head in the right direction. Again, there is no point in waiting for the perfect spot, time, or occasion for turning around. We need to do it as soon as possible. The sooner, the better. No excuses, no stammering, no self-esteem building justification. Simply stop, turn around, and start moving again. This isn’t easy, but thankfully we don’t do it alone. Once we start moving in the right direction, Jesus will walk with us every step of the way. Through all the rough patches, pot holes, hills, valleys, everywhere. The process doesn’t end there; We have to keep evaluating and assessing. Am I still going in the right direction? Have I taken the exit I shouldn’t have? Have I allowed the world to distract me and veered off the road? If so, just get back on and continue on. Remember, the true assessment isn’t how well I’ve stayed on the path; it’s that I have focused on Christ and continued to pursue Him no matter what.

So where are you in life today? Are you headed where God wants you to go? Are you actively pursuing him? If not, stop, turn around, and head towards him. He is right there waiting for you, to walk with you. Remember the kingdom of heaven is near. The Holy Spirit awaits to go with you, and you will never have to walk alone.

Passing the Test

Continuing where we left off, we will look at the next two tests / temptations that Satan faced Jesus with in the wilderness. It’s also worth noting that Matthew and Luke reverse these in order. This is more about audience than accuracy. They both record the same facts, just one places the scene at the temple before the scene with the Kingdoms. Matthew was emphasizing the Kingship and Lordship of Jesus by going from smaller (the bread) to largest (the whole world) where as Luke seems to be pointing more towards the relationship between Jesus and more Jewish claims. Since we are focusing on Matthew 4, we will stick with his order of events. In addition we must remember that this whole scene had to be related by Jesus to his disciples. Matthew was an eye witness whereas Luke got his information second hand at a later time. Both tell the same story in a slightly different way, which is what one expects when dealing with such information.

The scene at the temple is what a Jewish person was expecting of their messiah. He would appear on top of the temple and descend. By doing this Jesus would stun the crowd and leave no doubt about who he was. So why didn’t he do it? Simple, his kingdom was not about flash and show. He wasn’t going to pull some big stunt just to draw a crowd. The what? The people would want even bigger and flashier demonstrations of power. God parted the Red sea and the Israelite’s didn’t believe or have faith, so why would a man jumping off the temple safely be any different? Later, Jesus would raise people from the dead and yet they wouldn’t believe. No, if people were going to follow Jesus, it would be because they loved him, not because he entertained or wowed them. It’s a reminder that the life of a Christian is not always flashy or impressive, and sometimes can be down-right tedious. Following the rules isn’t very sexy or glamorous, but it is important. The emphasis is doing things because they need done, not so one gets attention. How much would actually get done in this world if no one cared who got the credit?

The final scene takes us up to a mountain and before the kingdoms of the world. Jesus can have it all, obtain his goal of the world following him, if he will only bend a little, just one knee, and he can have it all. Again this is what the Jewish people expected. A messiah that would dominate the world. So why not? Again, simple. The world means little if you aren’t aligned with the creator. Satan only has power because he has been allowed it. Man’s decision to ignore God led to a curse that still reverberates today and gives Satan a chance. People can follow him if they choose, but beware the consequences. Jesus knows that if he breaks from God, all is lost. Sure, having a level of power may be fun and think of what he could do if he was in charge and everyone had to listen to him, but it’s simply not worth it. Jesus’ kingdom was not one where might makes right, but where love conquers. It’s not as easy or as fast, but it’s more lasting. Is it easier to do something for someone you love or simply because you have to? Not a difficult question. It also would have meant compromise. Compromise in itself is not bad or wrong, but there are some things on which we just cannot compromise. God is one of them. If you walk away from him, you really have nothing left. You may gain the world, but you will lose your soul. One is temporary and fleeting, the other is eternal. Which one is worth more? How much would you sell it for?

Jesus was able to endure these because he is intimately in tune with the Father and remained focused on God and what God wanted. Not what was easy, not allowing the ends to justify the means, but simply doing what God said and allowing that to govern every step, every choice. Many would say, “But yeah, he’s Jesus, what chance do I have?” If you are a child of the king, a very similar one. You, too, have been baptized by the spirit and so filled. You, too, have a direct line to the Father. You, too, are never far from Jesus. It’s not easy; it wasn’t for him, and yes, because of the fallen world, and our inherent brokenness, we are going to get it wrong. But as we are reminded, there is nothing we are tempted in that is not common to man and God will always provide a means of escape. For us, the question is do we have the faith to trust God and not ourselves?

Tempted and Tried

As the fourth chapter of Matthew opens, we see Jesus being led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit so that he can be tempted / tested by Satan. This poses a ton of questions for us, not all of which we have answers for. Nevertheless, we can draw some conclusions from this fact alone. First, this process was something that Jesus had to go through, and it would not be easy. He doesn’t just get a free pass because he is Jesus. Second, when we experience tests and temptations and trials, God may not be causing them, but he is allowing them. (See James 1:2,3). Just as Jesus was able to resist temptation, so too are we. We are provided, by God, an escape, if we look for it (See James 1:13). Another interesting point is that the word used here (4:1) for tempt, which appears 39 times in the new testament is more commonly translated to test, such as when the Pharisees asked Jesus a question “testing” him and a related word is used in James 1:2 as “trial.”

Through these temptations Jesus is given an option of demonstrating just what type of Messiah he is going to be and if he is going to follow the way of the Father or the way of the world. Each test presents a different challenge and how both Jesus and Satan respond to each tells us much about both. It’s also to be remembered that this testing follows 40 days of fasting on the part of Jesus. Whether this was a literal 40-day period or a phrase meaning a given length of time, the result is the same. Jesus had spent a length of time alone in the wilderness with his Father preparing for his public ministry. While there would be times when Jesus would go out by himself, never again are we told in the gospels about such a time as this. By the end he was physically weak due to the fasting, as we are reminded of his humanity, and it is no wonder that Satan would choose a time such as this to try Jesus. It is often when we find ourselves at a low point that the Devil will come at us, hoping to exploit our frailty.  Jesus had spent this time in perfect communion with the Father and thus they were linked, as only the Father and Son could be in the God head. It is another point that Satan will often try to disrupt that link we have between ourselves and God, and the closer we move toward God, the more Satan will try and pull or push us away.

The first test…. turn the stone into bread. Not much of a test, Jesus is hungry, and Jesus can command nature and we know that later he will supernaturally feed the multitude with fish and bread. So why would Jesus not do this and why is it a test at all? First, because it would be selfish and based on personal gain and benefit. Jesus is alone. This isn’t about having compassion on the multitude which have gathered. This isn’t about providing for starving persons as God did in the wilderness with manna, but about satisfying personal want. Secondly, it points to the idea of impressing people by giving them stuff – buying their vote, if you will. Sure, Jesus could get people to rally to his side if he gave them free food, or free stuff to meet their material needs, but that doesn’t do anything for their heart. After all, what we have in this world is not permanent and Jesus is looking to give people eternity. We are also reminded that even though God did feed the Israelite’s in the wilderness, it did not build faith. They ultimately wanted more and grumbled over their meager provisions, forgetting that they were previously worried about starving. Jesus reminds the Devil that people need more than bread, they need God. Let us remember the same when we are tempted to give up on God because we don’t have all we “want” or think we need, rather that God has given us far more in his son who died for us. God wants us to love him because he is (just as he loves us) not because of what he can do for us (give us bread, grant wishes). Jesus as a messiah was going to meet peoples’ deepest need for a restored relationship with God, not simply buy their affection. Don’t let Satan fool us into believing material prosperity equals happiness, fulfillment, or joy. All the world has to offer will be left behind one day. As Jesus would later say, what good does it do to gain the world but lose your soul?

Behold the Son

In the second half of the third chapter of Matthew, he recounts the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Of course, for many, rises the question of why Jesus “needed” to be baptized or why did he want to be? The answer to that, I believe, is tied in who Jesus was and what he was about. Obviously Jesus did not need to repent as John had called others to do. Even John knew this when he attempted to dissuade Jesus, still Jesus persisted…but why?

To answer that we have to remember why Jesus came in the first place. This was the word made flesh and the perfect revelation of God to man of himself. This was also going to be the perfect and final sacrifice for man. In order that Jesus could do all those things, he had to be one that experienced all man had and was intimately identified with him so that anyone – absolutely anyone – could approach him. This is the whole reason he was born in a Roman backwater like Bethlehem in a stable rather than a palace in Jerusalem or Rome. This is why shepherds were told before kings. In being baptized, Jesus didn’t hold himself above other people or the righteous elite as he rightfully could have done. Instead, he said, I’m one of you. This is the humility of Jesus on display where as Paul said even though he was God this was not something he strove after or sought to claim essentially. He wasn’t trying to wow people or impress them or show off…he wanted to be someone you would invite over without worrying about cleaning up first and to do that, he had to be relate-able. This is because while he is absolutely the messiah, he also comes as a servant (Isaiah 42) not was a warrior or champion.

The second piece is what happens next. Afterwards, we see the Holy Spirit descend as a dove – either literal or figurative, doesn’t matter- and God the Father speaks, this is MY SON. We must never forget no matter how relate-able Jesus is, he is always God-The SON. He isn’t just another man, a wise teacher, a wise Holy Man, a purveyor of ethical teachings and thoughts. He is no Buddha or Confucius; he is God incarnate, fully human and fully divine. This means he has the ability to do what everyone else only talks about or points at. In no other faith does God himself bring about salvation. It is always left up to us mortals to struggle and strive and hope beyond hope that just maybe if we work hard enough the we might make it into whatever paradise happens to be. Christianity is different. Jesus comes to say, no you can’t do it on your own, no matter how hard you work. Let me do it. Trust in me, believe in me, follow me. Cast your burden down and take up My Yoke.

This is perhaps the more important aspect of what we are to do. Whether the road is easy or rough, the load heavy or light, the stress at stroke level or not…we must always look up the Son. By focusing on him we can achieve what we are meant to…the abundant life in full relationship with God. This isn’t about “letting go and letting God.” We are reminded too often of the struggle, the fight, the race, the spiritual war we are in. This is about being focused on what really matters. Not letting the world pull us down when we have the Son, who has already done all the heavy lifting for us. Now it’s not a maybe or a chance; it is a sure bet. When life gets rough, remember to always look to the Son. He will not fail nor falter…and all he did, he did for you are…because he loves you totally, unconditionally, and absolutely. No one else can ever promise this, but Jesus did and does. If you don’t know him yet, I encourage you to spend less time looking at the world and more time beholding the Son.

Along Came John

As the third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew opens, we are introduced to John the Baptist. Unlike Luke, Matthew provides no background for him; we just learn that he was preaching in the wilderness and baptizing people in the Jordan. His scant description and Old Testament quotations establish him as the first true prophet to speak to the Jews in 400 years since Malachi. With his location, description, and message, he is established by Matthew to be the embodiment of the prophet Elijah whom it was said would be sent by God to prepare for the Coming Messiah. Indeed, John seems to understand this as in his message he refers to the one that is coming after him that shall be far greater than he is. For the Jewish people in the surrounding area, alarm bells are ringing as the signs are starting to come together for the long-awaited Messiah.

Before I get down the historical rabbit hole of the background to this moment, I want to spend some time with his message to the people. In this interaction we see his call on people to repent, to be baptized, and to be ready for the coming Kingdom of God. He also calls out the religious and civic leaders of the day (Pharisees and Sadducees) for their apparent hypocrisy. His call on them to bear the fruits of repentance is like Jesus’ call that while they lived outwardly pious lives, inwardly they were devoid of a true relationship with God. It is a reminder that mere formalism or adherence to doctrine does not save.

John, like most Jews of his day, believed that the coming Day of the Lord would be a terrible ordeal where the righteous and the unrighteous would be separated and those found outside the pale would be destroyed, while those inside the kingdom would be rewarded and vindicated for their years of faithfulness. Thus, John’s call to true repentance, not just going to Temple and making a sacrifice, but truly changing one’s life to reflect a changed heart and mind.

The act of repentance has three parts. First, one has to admit one is in the wrong. This can be most difficult for some and is a barrier to many. We must recognize that we are going against God. This isn’t about breaking man’s law or our own law, but God’s law and any time we do that, we are in the wrong, regardless of how we feel about it. Second, is to be sorry or remorseful that one is guilty as such. Many people are upset that they got caught doing something wrong, not that it was wrong to begin with. Third, is to live the remainder of life striving not to repeat the offense. This is also very difficult and there will be failure at this, but the idea is not to give up, but to keep on striving. For us, since we live on this side of the cross, this is made much more bearable because of the Holy Spirit, and even John recognized this fact.

He reminded the people that while he baptized with water, the one that was come would baptize with the Holy Spirit and Fire. This means that what the people were doing with him was purely symbolic. They were making a public statement about their commitment to a changed life, the same as baptism in the modern church, but what would happen when Christ comes in the picture is totally different. With the cross and the resurrection comes the Holy Spirit. This enables us to strive for a new life, not in our own power but with the assistance of God. Again, it doesn’t mean that we will never fail but it means that our striving is much more powerful. As I remind people, the primary role of the Christian is not to be super moral or pious, but it is to grow one’s relationship with God and as they do, the other parts will happen. Along the way God will be at work in our lives through the Holy Spirit and purifying us with his Holy Fire. It may, at times, be a painful process, but oh what a beautiful result in the end when we stand around the throne, rendered Holy and Blameless before our God and King.

John’s clarion call to all, regardless of background, regardless of rank, regardless of pedigree is a staunch reminder that one day we will all stand before the throne, and the time to prepare is now.

Following a Star

For many people the story of the “3” wise men is as much a part of Christmas as the manger and the Christmas Tree. Most of us have heard this story so many times we think there is nothing new in it for us and it’s all just a bit of nostalgia, like certain movies or ugly sweaters. Still there is much we don’t know, like how many wise men there were in total. The bible never gives a number; it just mentions three gifts. We also don’t know when they showed up, but by the time they did, the family was in a house, not in a stable so it was probably more like a year on or so after the birth. Then they probably weren’t really kings either, but astrologers. With the bad press that astrology gets in the bible it’s a wonder that Matthew would include them at all, but he did.

Rather than dig into all that speculation, I had a different line of thought this year concerning those wise men from so long ago. What was it about that star, or comet, or planetary alignment, or whatever it was that so struck them that they set out on what was likely a months long journey through the wilderness to find and honor this new born king? They weren’t Jewish in all likelihood so why choose to honor this king of the Jews? And why did they pay such attention to this star, which was most likely visible to everyone in that part of the world at least when seemingly no one else did? Alas, like many other questions, we don’t have any answers either. But we can make some educated guesses.

First, these were serious astrologers deeply interested in the movement of the heavens and the signs and wonders they may see there. These were no back alley fortune tellers but people who had been long instructed in all manner of heavenly bodies. So whatever they saw had to be awesome and unprecedented, as they not only identified it with a new king, but one they wanted to honor. So much so that they took a large chunk of time, got expensive and elaborate gifts, and set out to find this king. Imagine their surprise when they got to Jerusalem and no one knew what they were talking about. It wasn’t until a nervous King Herod asked his priest and scribes(lawyers) that the town of Bethlehem comes up. Herod gets nervous and the experts with all their head knowledge were indifferent. This leaves the wise men to set off to find the child.

So the question is, for you and I, have you seen any stars lately? Have you seen any messages from God, and make no mistake this was a message from God. Many people could and probably did see it, but only a select few responded. Which begs the question how many times does God send us a message to see if we will respond, or even notice? It may not be to you specifically, but in a way that deserves a response. And if you do see it, how do you respond? Herod responded with anger, that some child would come and threaten his position. Do we ever get angry with God that he may want to knock us off our peg and remind us we are the created not the creator? The experts responded with indifference. Do we ever just simply ignore God because we are too busy with our own lives and pursuits to follow after him? Or do we simply miss Him altogether as we seek our own way, a way that doesn’t include him, so we aren’t even scanning the horizon, but just trying to move forward.

The wise men were looking, as they always did. Astrology was their job after all, so they didn’t miss it. Then they took note of this exceptional sight, pondered its meaning, scanned sources, and determined they must act. So when God sends a message, how do we respond? How have you responded? How will you respond? Do we take the time from our lives to look for such a message, something general where God is calling people to act, to respond? If you saw such a star what would you do? Would you give it more than a passing glance or take a picture with your smart phone?

As we prepare for 2020, many people will make resolutions. Let us resolve to be on the look out for the stars that God may light in our lives. That our faith would be such that we wouldn’t just write them off, but respond, and be prepared to follow God where ever he wants us to go. You never know when that first step may lead you on an incredible journey and discover the most extraordinary thing, God himself.