Sunday, January 31, 2010

Father Abraham

You may not get a lot of enlightenment from this post. I just want to share some thoughts that have been in a holding pattern in my brain while we study Romans and Galatians. Here goes:

Isaiah 11:10 "In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious."

Paul quotes this passage in Romans 15:12 with a slight variation: "The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; the Gentiles will hope in him."Numbered List

You might ask, "why did Paul put "Gentiles" in his quote when it isn't in Isaiah?" It was in Isaiah. It just lies behind the word "nations." In the Hebrew Bible, the word nations often refers to those outside of the covenant promise; i.e. Gentiles. Paul was using the prophecy to explain that God's plan included all people; Jew and Gentile.

The question of the Post-Christ New Testament is: "Will Christianity be thrown open to everyone or did Jesus come only to save Jews?"

It's not a question to us today because we have over 1900 years of tradition and we are very comfortable with Jesus, God, the Bible, Sunday worship, and communion.

But have you ever really wondered what we are doing reading Jewish scriptures? The Old Testament wasn't written to us or for us. In fact, it's not a testament at all. It is a covenant. No one died for it, therefore it is not a testament. And why are we claiming our salvation in a Jewish Messiah; or why do we care about the 10 commandments; or why do we believe in the idea of one God over all other gods?

These are not ideas that Gentiles came to on their own. There were some righteous Gentiles in the Bible like the Synagogue building centurion of Capernaum in Luke 7 or Cornelius in Acts 10. However these men were influenced by the Jews around them. They acknowledged the God of the Hebrews but they were on the fringes of Judaism. The very best they could hope for was to be a proselyte; a Gentile convert to the Jewish world.

God chose to put His righteousness on display through Abraham's physical descendants. The Law of Moses was given as a condition of this special covenant relationship with Yahweh God. To the Gentile, this special relationship was not possible. To be called a child of God was not an option.

At least until God fulfilled His promise of Genesis 12.

Much of Paul's writing centers on God's master plan of making that "one new man" through the cross of Jesus Christ. It revealed the Master's plan of reconciling the entire world, all nations, to Himself.

To Ephesus he wrote: "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility." 2:13-15

To Galatia he wrote: "He redeemed us in order that the blessings given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit." 3:14

To Rome he wrote: "If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you." 11:17-18

The promise to Abraham was in part to his physical descendants; but how much more have we been blessed above simple land and family! The Jewish people had a relationship with God since their father Abraham walked in faith. That the Gentiles could share in this was more shocking than we in the 21st century can possibly imagine.

Paul says in Romans 4:16 "Therefore, the promise comes by faith so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring - not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all." Emphasis is mine.

It amazes me. I can call Abraham my father; not because I am a physical descendant, but by our shared faith in El Shaddai, God Almighty.

Hope you feel as special as I do. I am much more appreciative of my standing in faith now because I know of the "root" that supports me and the One who died to bring me into His family.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Soldier of the cross

Life in an Army barrack was a combination of brotherly camaraderie and social conformity, particularly if the year was 1971 and the country is South Vietnam.

The constant connection with the fellow soldiers in the platoon and the ever present threat from those outside drew the "brothers" into a tight, even if sometimes dysfunctional, family.

Six months spent on foreign land in a constantly hostile environment were the emotional equivalent to 20 years in a traditional family, so brothers they were indeed.

Perhaps when Jesus' brothers did not believe in him, it hurt more to the core than any fist, whip or nail? It is always those within arm's reach that are able to strike you on the cheek, after all.

One member of this unit was captured, not by an enemy, but by Jesus during his tour of duty. A 20 year old Corporal from Arkansas responded to the Gospel, captivated by the story of One who was willing to die in his stead.

The reaction to the Corporal giving his life to Jesus in the midst of warfare was met with some rejoicing but with much more disdain. The man who had swore, cheated, lied, mistreated, even killed, was now professing a new life in the one called Christ and that was met with scepticism and disbelief by his comrades.

But after his baptism, a new man arose. No more brawling, no more crude stories, no more foul language. The Corporal was expected to revert back to his old ways soon but after several weeks of fresh behavior, the cynicism turned to anger at his reluctance to join in with the rest of his unit in their carousing.

One night, after a day long march through battering rain and calf-deep mud that made boots weigh like cinder blocks, the unit returned to the barracks for much deserved rest. For this night, the rules of tidiness and precision were bent if not discarded altogether. The last two members of the unit to sleep were the Corporal and his Sergeant.

The Sergeant had seen the change in his subordinate and expected the show to stop any day now. He had seen others in the unit hurl insults to the Corporal's face and laughed behind his back while the Corporal did not return any scorn or take any revenge. Each night before bed, the Corporal could be heard whispering prayers from the foot of his bunk. And again tonight, in the near black of night, there at his bunk, on his knees praying was the Corporal.

The Sergeant was ready for this to end. He pulled off one of his mud-caked boots and hurled it at the Corporal, hitting him in the shoulder. "Start praying for your God to get us out of here!" the Sergeant mockingly called. The Corporal continued his prayer. Furious that his attack had gone seemingly unnoticed, the Sargent pulled off the other boot and flung it as well, striking the Corporal against his temple. The Corporal was knocked to the floor, but rose only back to his knees to continue his prayer.

The Sergeant said nothing, just returned to his private quarters and collapsed on his bed. "What brain damage does this man have that he won't even throw my boots back at me?" the man thought as he drifted off to sleep.

Reveille broke the silence of the camp the next morning and as the Sergeant opened his door to hit the showers, his feet tripped over something outside his door. He had to blink his eyes clear to see the offending object, but when he saw them, his heart sank.

His boots. Last night muddy and disgusting; but now polished and clean.

Indeed some of Christ's commands defy our intuition. It makes sense to strike back against one who has struck you. It makes sense for a man to love himself most instead of others. It makes sense to require an eye for an eye and to demand justice when you have been wronged.

But the Christ follower, when he or she truly follows in the dust of His feet, will be a light in the darkness and salt in the midst of a bland and insipid world.

What have you done for others that have made them look twice at you or think that you might be brain damaged? Do you stand out? Do you dare to?

Will you be willing to wash the boots of a persecutor? Would you pray for an insulter? Would you give a drink of water to someone who stole yours? Could you follow after the one who prayed for his executioners? I ask again, do you dare?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Tears of Jesus 2

In Matthew 21, Jesus is approaching Jerusalem from Jericho. He has raised Lazarus from the dead at Bethany and is now about to enter Bethphage. Bethphage is extremely significant because of its proximity to Jerusalem.

In the Torah, there are travel restrictions on how far you can walk on Shabbat (Sabbath). The rabbis took Exodus 16:29, “Everyone is to stay where he is on the seventh day; no one is to go out,” not to mean confinement to a person’s house, but to that person’s city. Inside the city, there was no restriction placed on how far you could walk. If you wanted to go outside your city, a journey on the Sabbath day was not to exceed 2000 cubits (approximately 1 kilometer).

That was all nice and neat when people lived inside city walls. But when populations grew and people began to build houses outside the city and live in the “suburbs,” what restrictions should Sabbath place on travel? If I lived just outside the walls of Jerusalem, could I walk into the city without restriction? Could I walk outside the walls without restriction? Where does the city “stop” and “start?” The solution that the Rabbis came up with was to extend the boundaries of the cities outside the city walls to include the “suburbs” and in places like Chorazin, Capernaum, and especially Jerusalem, they set up landmarks that said, in essence, “Welcome to Jerusalem!” It was from that point that the “city” began. If you lived inside the city, your Sabbath walk was unrestricted; but if you went outside the “boundary,” you had to start counting your cubits! Bethphage was the spot that the Rabbis picked for the “welcome to Jerusalem” sign. It was the point where Jerusalem began.

This is very important to understand why Jesus stops here and tells two of His talmidim (disciples) to go into the city and get Him a donkey. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell this story because of how significant an event it is. Jesus has walked for 95 miles from the Sea of Galilee and now, on the threshold of Jerusalem says, “Peter, Andrew, go get me a donkey."

Jesus is making a very loud and very clear proclamation of who He Is. But the donkey is just the exclamation point on His proclamation. Jesus is practically shouting with His actions.

The main road from Galilee to Jerusalem followed the Jordan river and the Rift Valley south until you get to Jericho. Then you turn West and go up, about 3000 feet up, into the Judean wilderness. The people remembered Isaiah 40:3; “A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”

It was important also that Jesus came from the East. The people expected the Messiah would come from the East because God’s presence always comes from the East. When the Temple was dedicated, God’s spirit came from the East. North was the "death" direction. The Temple faced East so it could face God. The Temple sacrifices came onto the altar from the North. Jesus, when He was led away to be crucified, was lead out of the city to the north. This was very important to completely fulfill the prophecies of the Messiah. And here comes Jesus, he is coming from the East, from the wilderness, from Jericho where he raised a man from the dead! People would have been buzzing about the one who was coming from Galilee.

Another important thing that made this day special was that this was lamb selection day. In the tradition of Exodus 12:3, four days before the Passover each family would select a lamb for their sacrifice. It would have been the most busy day in Jerusalem leading up to the coming Passover feast. Jesus did not arrive in Jerusalem on that day by coincidence. No way. It all ties in to this powerful visual picture that Jesus is painting with His actions. He is saying “Pick me! I am the Lamb of God!”

The visual image is staggering to me. Jesus is coming from the East, He is coming from the desert, He is coming on lamb selection day, but then he tops it all off by stopping at Bethphage to do one more thing. He needs a donkey. In Zechariah 9:9 it says, “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your King comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus could not have picked a passage from the Old Testament that would more encapsulate the fact that He was the King who would bring salvation.

In my opinion, if Jesus had continued walking into Jerusalem, no one would have paid any attention to Him. But the fact that He stopped at Bethphage, which was the threshold of Jerusalem, climbed on a donkey, and came on lamb selection day screams in a visual picture that Jesus was claiming to be the promised Messiah.

And the reaction of the crowd broke His heart.

The people understood the significance of what Jesus was doing because the next verses say that the crowds ahead of Him and behind Him began to shout “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” “Hosanna in the highest!”

Luke tells us “As He approached Jerusalem and saw the city, He wept over it.” Why? Why would Jesus cry over this? Isn’t this a sign that the people are finally recognizing that He is the Messiah? Why would Jesus say this: “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace; but now it is hidden from your eyes.”

The answer comes from understanding the significance of the word “Hosanna,” which is our English transliteration of the Hebrew words “hoshi’a na.” They come from Psalm 118, specifically verses 25-28 that include the process of bringing the sheaves on Sukkot (Tabernacles). On the seventh day of this feast, the Jewish people would entreat God to “save us” by sending water--by the coming of rain.

The word "Hosanna" had undertaken a new meaning in Jesus’ time. During the time of the Maccabees, which were about 180 years before Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, this word went from “Save us by giving us water” to “Save us from our pagan oppressors.” The Zealots in Jesus time, and to a lesser extent the Pharisees and the Essenes, would see Jesus not as a savior from their sins, but as a military leader ready to overthrow the Roman presence from God’s holy city.

This is amplified when the people grabbed palm branches (John 12:13). The palm branch was a symbol to the zealots the way that the American flag is to a U.S. Marine. It is the symbol of freedom. It embodied the feeling of those in Jerusalem who were ready to rise up and fight the hated Romans. And they cried “Hoshi’a na!” “Hoshi’a na!”

They saw Jesus as the one who would lead them in armed revolt. They saw a military leader that could not be defeated; and if you look at the life of Jesus, you can understand why. Here is a man who can heal the sick, multiply food, and raise the dead! I can imagine a zealot saying, “Under His leadership we will never get sick, we will never hunger, and we will never truly die! “We can fight the Romans day and night with this man! He is our ticket to freedom!”

They saw Jesus, but they missed why He was there. They were looking for a military leader, not the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. I think this misunderstanding is why, in Luke 19:41, “As He approached Jerusalem and saw the city, He wept over it.”

Do you remember when Jesus wept in John 11:35? Then it was the silent tears that run down the cheeks. Here in Luke, the Greek word is that of loud, uncontrollable sobbing. Jesus didn’t cry silently to Himself. He wept aloud over the people of the city.

I think it was because the people were looking for a freedom brought by military action. They wanted freedom on their terms. They wanted to control their own lives--not some foreign, pagan rulers. This was not the freedom that Jesus was sacrificially bringing. Jesus said as much in the next verses: “The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

Jesus looked into the future and saw the destruction of Jerusalem that would come in 70 AD when the Jews did rise up militarily, and He saw that it would be awful. He could see the suffering that would come to the people because they did not recognize Him and it broke His heart.

When Jesus sees you, does He see someone who recognizes Him for who He is? Do you see Him as the Messiah? The Lamb of God? The Lord of your life? Or, do you see Him as someone who exists to rid you of your oppressors? Is Jesus the one you turn to so you can have perfect health?

Do you pray for your life to be easier? Perhaps to not be surrounded by such annoying circumstances? Does God exist to serve you? If so, I believe that Jesus cries for you. It’s the uncontrollable sobbing of one who wasn’t recognized for who He Is.

Do you know who Jesus is? Is He to you the source of life? Do you know that He holds life in His hands? Do you see Him as the Lamb of God or do you see Him as a warm fuzzy feeling?

Jesus wants you to know that He cares for you. When you hurt, know that Jesus cries with you. But these are not those tears he cried of regret, they are the cries of One who loves you and feels your pain in His heart.

I think that it is significant that the two places in scripture where Jesus cried were at Bethany and Bethphage. The cities are right next door to each other and both on the Mount of Olives. To me, it is the Bible telling me that it is important to see Jesus for who He Is, like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus--not for who I wish Him to be.