Matthew 01-Evolution of Church and State

Changing the interpretation of laws.

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:

Abraham was the father of Isaac,

Isaac the father of Jacob,

Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,

Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,

Perez the father of Hezron,

Hezron the father of Ram,

Ram the father of Amminadab,

Amminadab the father of Nahshon,

Nahshon the father of Salmon,

Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,

Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,

Obed the father of Jesse,

and Jesse the father of King David.

David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife,

Solomon the father of Rehoboam,

Rehoboam the father of Abijah,

Abijah the father of Asa,

Asa the father of Jehoshaphat,

Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram,

Jehoram the father of Uzziah,

Uzziah the father of Jotham,

Jotham the father of Ahaz,

Ahaz the father of Hezekiah,

10 Hezekiah the father of Manasseh,

Manasseh the father of Amon,

Amon the father of Josiah,

11 and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.

12 After the exile to Babylon:

Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel,

Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,

13 Zerubbabel the father of Abihud,

Abihud the father of Eliakim,

Eliakim the father of Azor,

14 Azor the father of Zadok,

Zadok the father of Akim,

Akim the father of Elihud,

15 Elihud the father of Eleazar,

Eleazar the father of Matthan,

Matthan the father of Jacob,

16 and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.

17 Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[g] (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Merry Christmas!  Look, look, we’re (kinda) talking about the birth of Jesus!  Actually, I have to apologize, this post isn’t very Christmas-y, but let’s say it’s how the Spirit moved me, so I’ll follow that lead.

My thoughts today actually come more from the introduction to Matthew than the passage itself.  In addition to reading the Bible I also love reading about the Bible, and that’s why I love my NIV study Bible, with it’s extensive notes, so much.  As you can probably guess from the thorough genealogy, Matthew is very interested in documenting persuasive proof that Jesus is the Messiah.  Really, Matthew can be seen as a legal statement in Jesus’ behalf.

The mixture of religion and law is an idea that bothers most Americans, but in truth religion and law have been influencing each other for most of human history, and the idea of a division is historically young.  Much of the Old Testament is concerned with laying down laws that were both spiritual and practical in nature.  Also, many OT prophetic accounts are written to mimic the way treaties were written contemporaneously. So the fact that Matthew arranges his gospel as a legal argument makes sense for his original readership-mainly, Jews of the 1st century AD.  According to my NIV study notes, Matthew is arranged into five main sections, some think to mirror the five books of the Pentateuch, with this genealogy as an appropriate introduction.  Additionally, Matthew makes the most references to OT scripture, citing it nine more times than the other gospels.  Mirroring the Pentateuch, a “who’s who” genealogy, and Old Testament references would all be persuasive arguments for a Jewish audience.

The nice thing about laws is that they can be interpreted.  Joseph, upon hearing Mary was pregnant out of wedlock with not his child, had the right to divorce her and have her publicly stoned.  Again, according to my NIV text notes, engagements at the time were much more binding than they are today, so yes, you could technically be divorced before you were even married.  But even before he found out exactly whose child it was, Joseph decided to interpret the law in a more humane manner. He was “faithful to the law” (1:19, and another appeal to original Jewish readership) but “did not want to expose her to public disgrace.”  That’s pretty big of Joseph.  I think a lot of people, finding evidence that their Betrothed cheated on them – because again, this is before the angel’s big revelation, so that has to be what Joseph is thinking – would make a bit more of stink.

Interpretation of the law can lead to change. Let’s pivot back to secular law for a bit.  Often times changes in law are contentious – sometimes it even leads to outright war – but they do change over time.  Pulling from America’s own history: slavery (except as punishment for a crime, I know, I know) is outlawed, women can vote, and we have free speech (the Bill of Rights are amendments to our Constitution, remember!).  At the time these were hot-button issues, but I think now just about everyone would agree that these are good ideas.  And we’ve tried some not so good ideas and gotten rid of them. Well, at least I think so.  Remember Prohibition? I, for one, am glad I can have my evening cocktail.

This country has a lot of work to do.  Sometimes I wish I could jump forward 300 years to see what the new issues of the day are.  I’m hoping that queer acceptance will just be a given.  Can you imagine if someone from 1692 Salem came to the present and ask us how we solved our witch problems?  That’s not (and never truly was) a problem, and I have hope that one day that will be true of gay marriage and the associated rights.  I also don’t know how gun control is going to play out, and it might get ugly, but I think in the end we’ll settle on the right decision.  Like I said, this country has made a lot of bad mistakes, but with good people fighting for what is right we keep moving forward, even if it’s slowly.

Let me step down off my political soap box and get back up on my religious one.  All this talk about laws and laws changing really does have to do with Bible study and finding love in the Bible, and here’s how: Interpretation changes. Laws, both secular and religious, change.  Jesus himself came to change the law.  He over-rode a whole covenant, which is some serious law upheaval.  All of the changes I’ve listed, both secular and religious, have lead to greater inclusion, greater acceptance.  Well, except for ending Prohibition, but I still think it’s a good one.

Maybe you’re not ready to have your laws changed.  That’s understandable – Joseph literally needed an angel from God to tell him to do so.  But we can all start by interpreting laws – secular and religious – a little more humanely. That was a conclusion Joseph came to all on his own.  And perhaps that first step of kindness is what will help us find God in ways we could never have imagined.  Joseph was the adopted father of Jesus, of God made man.  Our revelations probably won’t be of that magnitude, but they will still happen.  All we need to do is take that first step.

Isaiah 08-The Bible as a Stumbling Block

Keeping our hearts open to God’s light.

The Lord said to me, “Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” So I called in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me. Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.”

The Lord spoke to me again:

“Because this people has rejected
    the gently flowing waters of Shiloah
and rejoices over Rezin
    and the son of Remaliah,
therefore the Lord is about to bring against them
    the mighty floodwaters of the Euphrates—
    the king of Assyria with all his pomp.
It will overflow all its channels,
    run over all its banks
and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it,
    passing through it and reaching up to the neck.
Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land,
    Immanuel!”

Raise the war cry, you nations, and be shattered!
    Listen, all you distant lands.
Prepare for battle, and be shattered!
    Prepare for battle, and be shattered!
10 Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted;
    propose your plan, but it will not stand,
    for God is with us.

11 This is what the Lord says to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people:

12 “Do not call conspiracy
    everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear,
    and do not dread it.
13 The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
    he is the one you are to fear,
    he is the one you are to dread.
14 He will be a holy place;
    for both Israel and Judah he will be
a stone that causes people to stumble
    and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
    a trap and a snare.
15 Many of them will stumble;
    they will fall and be broken,
    they will be snared and captured.”

16 Bind up this testimony of warning
    and seal up God’s instruction among my disciples.
17 I will wait for the Lord,
    who is hiding his face from the descendants of Jacob.
I will put my trust in him.

18 Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.

19 When someone tells you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? 20 Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning. If anyone does not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. 21 Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. 22 Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.

Since this is our first dealing with Isaiah, here’s a very brief background before we dive into the text: Isaiah was a prophet writing during the decline of Israel and expansion of Assyria around 700 BC.  He took a wife (the prophetess), and had two sons, the second of whom is named here.  (His son’s name means “quick to plunder,” and is part of Isaiah’s prophecies.  How’s that for some family-name baggage?) The chunk of text this chapter comes from specifically is warning the King against certain alliances, and the wrath of God if Israel doesn’t listen.  But, the beauty of all these OT prophets is that their words transcend their time, hence they’re included in our Bible.  Yes, Isaiah was warning against the Assyrians, but he was also talking about the coming Messiah, and many of his messages (my favorite being for “complacent women” in another chapter) still have wisdom to share with us today, so let’s talk about it.

Here, God is calling Isaiah to stand apart, to not be like the people of Judah or Jerusalem who have placed their trust in the wrong things. This distresses God.  These nations have “rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloah” (8:6), a stream in Jerusalem and also a metaphor for God’s love and gentle commandments.  As a punishment, God is allowing the King of Assyria, characterized as the “mighty floodwaters of the Euphrates,” (8:7) to attack Israel.  Isaiah allows for a ray of hope – not all will be lost because God is with us (also the meaning of Immanuel, another name for Jesus, and why I chose to read this chapter).

What I find most interesting is that God will cause not only opposing nations but his own people to stumble.  In 8:14 he says: “For both Israel and Judah he will be a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.  And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare.”  But isn’t God also our hope and salvation? 8:13 just affirmed “the Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy.” So why would our holy God make his own people stumble?

Here’s my take on it: I don’t think he’s causing us to stumble at all, I think it’s our own fault.  God’s commandments are based in love. Yes, even the Old Testament ones, and when we wield them like a weapon we misuse his gifts to us, and end up harming ourselves even more than those we set out to harm.  This gets back a little bit to reading the Bible holistically and in context.  It’s important to read the Bible for the greater truths of love and acceptance, practices that will bring us together, rather than getting hung up, or, if you will, stumbling upon, the passages that divide.  When a Christian says “I hate Muslims” or “Gays can’t be Christians” or “Women are less than men” because the Bible says so, they are stumbling.  The word of God has become a trap and a snare for them, because their heart isn’t open to His light.

Now, before anyone calls me a hypocrite for hating on conservative Christians with that last paragraph let me just state that I don’t hate them.  Also, I believe in their belief in God.  I just think they have a lot of spiritual maturing to do.  The reason I call them out so much is because their actions are leading to the harm of others.  Intolerant attitudes lead to inequitable societies, and this often leads to violence.  That is unacceptable.  Here’s another parenting metaphor for you. Let’s just assume I’ll have one per blog-post, shall we? You expect a small child to misbehave sometimes.  Maybe a lot of times.  That small child still loves you and you still love them.  But if that child starts hurting someone else, you’re going to step in and stop it, right?  I can’t go around putting conservative Christians in time-out until they’ve thought about what they’ve done, but my earnest hope is that all of us will become a little more thoughtful about our actions, and how they impact others.

The best way to change minds is to lead by example.  “Here am I,” Isaiah declares in 8:18, “and the children the Lord has given to me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty.” In these last few days of Advent, as we prepare for Jesus’ return, let us think about how we can be signs and symbols from the Lord Almighty.  I want to prepare a world for Him that is kind, and equitable, and worthy of returning to.  That starts with acceptance and love.  Big actions, like charity work, are great.  But kind words for a trying neighbor or coworker, holding the door for the woman in a headscarf, not staring condescendingly at the non-binary person in line…all of these seemingly little actions also add up and make the world a better place.  Through these mindful little actions,  the stone upon which we once stumbled can become the foundation for our Faith, and a platform from which we can be an example to all the world.

Matthew 14 – An example of Jesus’ Humanity

It’s not a moral or spiritual shortcoming to have fear, or doubt, or sorrow.

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted 10 and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. 12 John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus.

13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

29 “Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

34 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him 36 and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.

I love it when things like this happen – just last post I was talking about reading the Bible looking for Jesus’ humanity, and here is a perfect example.  You’ve probably heard of both miracles written here – feeding the crowd and walking on water, I certainly have, but I never paid attention to where they fell in the timeline of Jesus’ life.  They happen right after John the Baptist is beheaded. While both miracles are awe-inspiring, what really moved me upon this reading were the two small allusions to Jesus’ own personal grief.

First, 14:13: “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” Isn’t this our first instinct when we feel loss?  When I lost my cousin, who was just six weeks younger than me, I was doing my study abroad in Italy.  I was walking to my first class of the day with a friend and my cell rang.  It was mom, which was immediately confusing because it would only be about 4 am her time.  She told me what happened, and all I could think about was getting away, out of the street where all these people were.  I just dropped my stuff and turned back to the apartment.  Fortunately my friend was there to gather it all up for me, but I think if I had been alone I would have done the same thing – just focused on getting away as quickly as possible.  And that was just a crowded street where no one was seeking me out. I can only imagine how much more Jesus felt the need to have a moment alone when everyone around him is constantly calling his name.

Second, in 14:23: “He went up a mountainside by himself to pray.” Again, he is seeking comfort.  Have you ever prayed in sorrow? Even angrily? That totally counts.  We don’t know what his words were, if they were angry, or full of loss, or seeking guidance, but I certainly can imagine any or all three of those.  Also, I love that he went up a mountainside to pray – into the solace of nature.  Sometimes if I’m getting overwhelmed I’ll leave the girls with my husband (or if he’s not here, in front of an Elmo’s World) and just step outside to be alone for a few minutes.  It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or freezing cold or dark, just being outside and hearing the wind in the trees or looking at the sky seems to help, and it often leads me to prayer.  So I love seeing that Jesus seeks out nature as a part of his spiritual practice, as well.

Writing this post, I’ve come to a realization.  I’ve only read nine chapters so far, and three of my posts have been about either doubt or grief.  Doubt seems like the opposite of faith, but here it is, all over the Bible.  Grief is the opposite of joy, something we’re “supposed” to have if we believe in Jesus, but it looks like even Jesus grieves.  There are a lot of passages in the Bible (we’ll get to them) that basically say “do not worry” or “stop crying,” and personally I’ve always felt I’ve come up short in my own Faith when I give into doubt or grief, but now I’m beginning to think not so much.

I think God recognizes our human emotions.  I use a lot of parenting analogies because God is our Father and also I’m in the thick of small-child parenting, but they work well, so here’s another:  I know Marienne is afraid of getting her hair washed.  She hates the water over her head.  Now, I know that it’s not going to hurt her and there’s nothing to really worry about, but I also recognize her fear as something real to her.  I try to help her overcome her fear, but I don’t belittle it.  I think that is the lesson we can take away here. It’s not a moral or spiritual shortcoming to have fear, or doubt, or sorrow.  God knows our hearts, and is here to show us we do not need to be afraid, but only when we are ready to learn that lesson.  Marienne will eventually grow out of hating hair-washing.  Maybe one day we’ll all grow out of being doubtful.  But both processes are a journey, and there is no need to rush things.

***

I’m going to bounce back and forth a bit in readings the next week or so.  Sunday is still in Advent, so I’ll read Isaiah 8, where Immanuel (another name for Jesus) is listed in prophecy.  Then back to Matthew 1 on Wednesday since we’ll officially be in the 12 days of Christmas, then back to Isaiah 9 with another Jesus prophecy.  Then on the last Sunday of the year I’ll jump back to Matthew 2, and we’ll have rounded out the early chapters of Matthew.

Matthew 11-Jesus speaks to John the Baptist

Even John the Baptist had worries and doubts.

After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces.Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 Whoever has ears, let them hear.

16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.[e] For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

One of the beautiful things about Jesus is that he can be many things to many people.  For example, I have a friend who taps into the mystical side of Jesus and is a big believer in the laying on of hands to heal sickness in Jesus’ name.  I feel awkward doing that, but by no means do I think she is wrong or weird to do so – that’s her Jesus.  At least at this time in my life (who knows what will change down the road), I’m more interested in finding the humanity in Jesus.  He’s a BFD, like, the BFD, and I find that overwhelming sometimes.  I in no way want to downplay his divinity, but I just find his human side easier to identify with.  All this to say, I often read the Bible, especially the New Testament, searching for little tidbits that speak to the living, breathing person being written about.  The one who got hungry, and tired, and annoyed, who had friends with whom to share joys and sorrows, who doubted, and who may have been a little bit like me.

This chapter doesn’t speak so much to Jesus’ humanity as to John the Baptist’s, which really struck me, because he’s another I’ve always thought of “more than” me.  Jesus even says in this chapter “there has not risen anyone higher than John the Baptist.” (11:11) Yet Jesus also says “he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he [John the Baptist].”  Just to be clear, Jesus isn’t trashing John, its just that John is part of the old covenant, and Jesus ushers in a new covenant with God.  And this passage is all about Jesus conveying that message to what must have been a worried John.

As the beginning of the chapter informs us, John is in prison at the time of this event.  It gets into the details of why elsewhere, but basically he was saying stuff about the king’s wife that they didn’t like.  He’s in jail because he displeased the king.  His whole mission has been to prepare the way for one greater than him, and here he is, stuck in prison.  He knows Jesus is out there (he’s already baptized him), and he suspects Jesus is the one for whom he was preparing.  If I were John, I’d be suffering a moment of doubt right now. Out there is the person who is supposed to usher in a new age, change the world, and here John is, the main messenger of the age, languishing in prison.  What thoughts might have been going through his head, with all that time to just sit and think in a dreary cell.  “Is Jesus actually the Messiah? Has all my work been for nothing? Why am I still stuck here? Is there more I need to do? How will I do it from here? Did I understand God right?”

So John sends his disciples to straight up ask Jesus if he is the one they’ve all been waiting for.  And Jesus whole response is an acknowledgement of John’s job well done to completion.  First, Jesus addresses John (through his disciples) directly.  To paraphrase 11:4-6: “Look at all these miracles, dude.  Don’t lose faith.”  Jesus is recognizing John may be feeling a little discouraged right now and bolstering him.

Then, as John’s people were leaving, Jesus turns to the crowd.  This next section of Jesus’ speech seems to speak not only to the crowd, but to John.  “What did you go out in the desert to see?” He asks both parties in 11:7, “A prophet?” For the crowd, that means John the Baptist.  For John, I think it means Jesus.  Then, Jesus publicly affirms John’s importance, within earshot of John’s disciples.  “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you,” Jesus quotes from Malachi.  I love that quote.  It acknowledges both John’s and his own importance, and I think it is a quote John would appreciate hearing.

Most of the rest of the chapter can be read as giving John validation and closure.  Again, Jesus isn’t knocking John’s work saying those in the kingdom of heaven are more important, he’s saying “look, the old order is over.  You’ve done it, you’ve brought it to a close.  Now I’m here to start the new one.” He calls John the new Elijah (11:14, and high praise), and denounces those who didn’t listen to him (11:18), and calls woe unto the cities that don’t repent.  John was all about repentance, and I like to think it’s Jesus way of not only speaking to the crowd, but conveying a special message to John, one that basically says, “You did all you could, buddy.  Some people just don’t get it, and it’s not on you.”

Jesus closes by praising God and offering a sweet, gentle, comforting invitation to follow him.  Of course those words are for us, but could they also be especially for John? Why not? “Come to me, all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest.” (11:29) Start to finish, this was a message for John.

And I can only imagine how John must have felt receiving it. Here he was, worry, worry, worrying in his cell, and Jesus sends him an answer to all his questions, asked and unasked.  I’m here. You did it. You may rest. If this isn’t an example of Jesus’ love then I don’t know what is.  I find it comforting as well, to know that Jesus loves us just this much, if not even more so.

Matthew 03-The Bible in Context

Advice for reading through uncomfortable passages.

 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

So far the subtitle of this blog could be “leaning into your discomfort.” Now here comes John the Baptist, talking about repentance, which I’ve always thought of as an uncomfortable act.  People used to self-flagellate and wear hair shirts as a way of repenting. Yikes.  Now I’ve never done that, but my general conception of repentance has been an idea of feeling really sorry. But my beloved NIV footnotes describes repentance as “a radical change in one’s life as a whole.”  And that sounds like a much healthier and more effective definition than mine, and way better than whipping you’re own back bloody.  But even so, radical change, in the sense of repentance, requires examining our current beliefs and actions, and sometimes that can be uncomfortable.

That in and of itself isn’t any huge revelation.  I think most Christians of any stripe talking about repentance are expecting it to go hand in hand with at least a little bit of self examination.  But if we’re talking about radical changes in behavior through self examination, let’s talk about some radical evolution of thought at the same time, and how reading the Bible in context can guide us on our spiritual journeys of radical change.

I listened to a new podcast for the first time ever last night, called The Bible for Normal People.  In the episode I listened to, host Pete Enns brought up the fact that the Bible needs to be read in context.  To paraphrase, he reminds us that the Bible pre-supposes cultural norms that simply aren’t true for most people today.  Just recently I’ve had two brief comment/social media discussions about the importance of Biblical context, and even touched upon it a few posts back, in Malachi 02. Basically, it’s important to remember that while the Bible is a divinely inspired book, it was still written by humans.  Well-intentioned and seeking God, for sure, but fallible and imperfect nonetheless.  They were influenced by the culture of their time.  Sometimes that means that rules and cultural norms that applied to them simply aren’t applicable today, such as polygamy and slavery, which Pete Enns listed as examples.  So it’s important to remember that when we read certain passages, especially those dealing with rules and behavior.

Let me be clear-I’m not advocating a complete rejection of all Christian ideals and traditions.  Far from it.  What I am advocating for is doing away with dogmatic rule-following for the sake of rule-following.  In this chapter John the Baptist does the same thing, calling out the Pharisees and Sadducees in 3:7-10.  The Pharisees and the Sadducees were two influential and educated groups of Jewish society who were strict rule-followers, and tended to be separatist and elitist – not really things Jesus will be down with when he gets into his ministry.

In order to not be like the Pharisees and Sadducees, I think we need to dig deeper into the Bible than just the surface meanings of the texts, and look for the universal truths. I believe that our primary responsibility is one of love and acceptance, and to find Biblical proof of that I started this blog.  The Bible is a vibrant treasure trove of guidance, and to see it as static does it a disservice.  It is there to be used as a tool in our spiritual journey, as we examine our thoughts and actions to see if they are in keeping with Christ’s true teachings.  The Bible was at one time used to provide justification for slavery.  You don’t see many advocates for that, anymore, and yet the Bible hasn’t been thrown out. Changing our minds on topics like gay marriage, women in the priesthood, and more doesn’t mean that we’re throwing away the Bible.  As long as we are thoughtful in our opinions, seeking God as we form them and reading the Bible for it’s deeper truths, then I see no problem with new interpretations.

Self examination can be really uncomfortable.  So can repentance.  But it doesn’t have to mean the end of joy and love.  Instead, it can be the starting point for it.  Next time you read something in the Bible that makes you uncomfortable (the verses that get my hackles up are always the ones admonishing women to be subservient), examine it.  Remember the context in which those verses were written, and look for the greater truth.  Doing so will bring you into deeper conversation with God, into a deeper knowledge of yourself, and into a deeper knowledge of your own faith.

***

I’m totally not ignoring Jesus’ first lines of the Bible, like literally the first words he ever speaks, as our Bible is arranged.  I just really like the telling of this story in Mark even better, so I want to discuss it a little later on, and keep the focus of this blog post on reading the Bible in context.  Don’t worry, he talks a lot in Matthew 11 and we’ll discuss what he says next post.

Psalm 126 – Faith in Times of Doubt

Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
    like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.

 

Isn’t this a beautiful psalm?  I think it sounds like Shakespeare.  He used dreams and dreaming in so much of his own writing.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is basically one giant dream.  The first half, especially, sounds like something a triumphant heroine would say in closing.  So now I’m wondering if Shakespeare had any favorite psalms.  If I had to take a guess, I would think this to be one of them.

But why would this psalm be suggested reading for Advent? My beloved NIV footnotes actually came up short (gasp!) on any clues.  But I found a clue when reading different versions of this psalm online.  And I’m so sorry I cannot remember which version or where exactly I found this note, because I really appreciated the insight and wanted to link it.  126:6 says “those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy.”  The whole reason they’re going out weeping is because they are using what grain they have left, the grain that they also eat, to plant.  Of course, you need to plant in order to have food in the long run, but if you don’t have enough grain to get you through the short run, what good is it?  So, as these farmers go out to their field, using up most of what’s left of their food supply, they have many troubles on their mind.  Can I make it to harvest? Will it be a good harvest? Will it rain enough? What if it rains too much, and there is a blight? What if there are locusts this year? A whole myriad of things can effect a harvest.

Planting becomes an act of Faith in a time of doubt.  These farmers may be weeping, but they do it anyway, and God rewards them with the joys of harvest.  Same with the streams of Negev, mentioned in 126:4.  This time my NIV footnotes came through for me.  Negev was a desert region (surprise, surprise) that had seasonal springs.  In the summer months they dried up, but in the winter months the waters returned.  So again, they require Faith through hardship of those who rely upon them.

What does this have to do with Advent?  Advent is a time of preparation, of waiting.  I for one can get anxious over preparations and waiting. This psalm is a reminder that on the other side of that anxiety is joy untold, we just have to have Faith.  Now this isn’t to say that Faith will cure life’s hardships.  One of my favorite church signs of all time said “God didn’t promise a smooth ride, but rather a soft landing.”  But if you go through life’s hardships knowing God is with you, believing in a joy that is so great you’ll think it can’t be real, you must be dreaming, then those hardships will be easier to bear.  It may feel like the world is against you.  Hell, maybe the world IS against you.  And it is okay to feel sad or overwhelmed or anxious or whatever.  Look at those farmers, they were weeping. But don’t stop planting that seed, building that tower, persevering through your act of Faith, because that is what lays the foundation for an outcome of joy.

***

Next week I’ll be reading about John the Baptist according to Matthew.  There’s three chapters where he is mentioned, so it’s perfect to round out the last full week of Advent.  These chapters are Matthew 3, 11, and 14, if you want to read along.

Malachi 02 – Love and Faith

A call to the true practices God asks of us.

“And now, you priests, this warning is for you. If you do not listen,and if you do not resolve to honor my name,” says the Lord Almighty, “I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not resolved to honor me.

“Because of you I will rebuke your descendants; I will smear on your faces the dung from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it. And you will know that I have sent you this warning so that my covenant with Levi may continue,” says the Lord Almighty. “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.

“For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,”says the Lord Almighty. “So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.”

10 Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another?

11 Judah has been unfaithful. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the Lord loves by marrying women who worship a foreign god. 12 As for the man who does this, whoever he may be, may the Lord remove him from the tents of Jacob—even though he brings an offering to the Lord Almighty.

13 Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. 14 You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.

15 Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.

16 “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty.

So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.

17 You have wearied the Lord with your words.

“How have we wearied him?” you ask.

By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”

I see this whole chapter as a call to the true practices that God asks of us, namely, love and faith, starting with our leaders.  Priests, of course, meant exactly that: the religious leaders of the day.  But today I think this message can apply to ministers, reverends, and really any thought leaders in and out of the church.  Don’t we want all our leaders “to preserve knowledge” and be someone from whom we can “seek instruction” (2:7)? The fact that leaders, by their very nature, are responsible for other people, makes it extra-important for them to be examples of love and faith, like Levi.

I love the palpable fondness for Levi in this chapter.  Honestly, I don’t know much about him, other than his tribe was the one selected out of all of Israel to be priests.  But the way he is written about here is so lovely.  I really want to have him over for coffee.  He walked with the Lord in “peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.” (2:6) Not only that, he had a holy “covenant of life and peace.” (2:5) So, he was peaceful and a good influence.  Sounds like the makings of a great friend.  Wouldn’t you want someone level-headed and helpful with whom you could discuss whatever may be troubling you?  Something about the way this passage is written just emanates a genuine love for the guy.  Described like this, he’s definitely a minister I’d listen to, and someone other leaders can live up to.

Now, when this chapter was written society was a lot different than it is today.  Back then, religion dictated what you ate, what you wore, what you were allowed to do and when. Yes, this is technically still true today, and more so for some than others, but not to the same extent as it was back then.  For example, lots of people work on the Sabbath (or Sunday) and also go to Church.  Most people do some form of business with others outside of their faith and see no conflict.  Marriage is another example, one that is the focus of most of this chapter.

Now, in case you haven’t read the “About Me” page yet (which I suggest you do, so you know all my biases), I am in a dual faith marriage myself. Well, if I am to take Malachi at face value, by being in this dual-faith marriage I have “desecrated the sanctuary the Lord loves by marrying a [man] who worship[s] a foreign god.” (2:11) If I was living in the 5th century BC he’d probably be right.  Just as an aside, it wouldn’t happen, because I’d have little to no say in who I married, hence the masculine skew of this admonition, but I digress.  Back then, it was nearly impossible to maintain your faith without the cooperation of your whole household.  There were rituals that had to be followed, like clean and unclean food and clean and unclean times of a woman’s menstrual cycle, that, honestly, are so complicated that even someone with good intentions but no background in the faith would probably mess up.  And there is definitely the chance of a spouse influencing the other towards their own religion.  People convert all the time for marriage.

But I like to think that we, collectively as a species, are growing in the right direction in our Faith. I don’t think I’m in danger of committing a mortal sin by marrying my non-Christian. Let me tell you why by telling you a little about him.  What attracted me to my husband (besides his gorgeous green eyes and 6’3″ stature) was his discerning nature.  He sees through people’s bullshit. He does not offer false praise nor is taken in by flattery. He genuinely cares about things, and his actions support his feelings.  This is big reason why we quit what we were doing to become farmers – so we could be part of the solution in what we see as a dangerously flawed food system, one that, if left unchecked, will contribute to the ruin of the earth for our children.  At the risk of sounding totally sappy, his passion and heart were what drew me to him.

I’ll be the first to admit, it would be a LOT easier if we shared the same faith.  It is an issue we have to face on an ongoing basis in our marriage. Of course I’d be thrilled if my husband decided Christianity is for him, but neither of us are trying to convert the other, or, probably just as importantly, subvert the other’s faith. So, would I like it if he was a Christian?  Absolutely.  Do I believe God sees the love in his heart and claims him as His own? Even more so.

Hoping, as I do, that we are evolving in the right direction spiritually, I also think that it is also now safe to see all the talk about divorce in this chapter more allegorically than literally.  I don’t think God wants us to suffer in a miserable marriage, but I do think he wants us to love and cherish one another, hence all the condemnation of divorce here. When Malachi writes “the man who hates and divorces his wife…does violence to the one he should protect,” it is a call for all of us to treat those nearest to us a little kinder, even when it is hard.

Again, using my own marriage as an example, being kind to each other can be really damn hard sometimes.  I know I am not very lovable when I’m sick.  I’m a needy, whiny, uncooperative patient that tends to prolong an illness by starting full steam again too soon.  We’ve had many a fight over me feeling like I’m not getting enough help because (surprise!) my husband thought I was all better because I was doing everything I normally do.  A strong faith-even if it’s not one shared by your spouse but even more so if it is-can help you love and cherish one another. Knowing that God loves both me and my husband, knowing that we are both God’s own children, makes me want to do better when small emotions get a hold of me.  That’s not to say I don’t sometimes (okay, a lot of times) fall prey to being petty, annoying, or sometimes downright mean.  But when I do, I feel a spiritual need to apologize, to make right with my husband so I can be right with God.  And that, I think, is the takeaway: love and faith go hand in hand with kindness. So, I will spend this week seeing where God calls me to be kinder, not just to my husband, but to all those around me.