Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Matthew 3: God's gracious dealings

(Mat 3:1-17 NASB) - (1) Now in those days John the Baptist came,preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, (2) "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (3) For this is the one referred toby Isaiah the prophet when he said, "THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, 'MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT!'" (4) Now John himself had a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. (5) Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; (6) and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. (7) But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (8) "Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; (9) and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. (10) "The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (11) "As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (12) "His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." (13) Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. (14) But John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?" (15) But Jesus answering said to him, "Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he permitted Him. (16) After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, (17) and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."
(Matthew 3 NASB)

The Hebrew for John means "God has dealt graciously."

As I study Matthew 3, I see how significant this name is for the forerunner of the Messiah. Coming as the first prophet to speak after 400 years of silence, John's message of repentance, the nearness of the kingdom of God, and a judgment to come might sound a lot like "tough love". Yet his very name was a reminder to his primarily Jewish audience that God has, indeed, dealt graciously.

For the Jewish people, it was also intended as a reminder that God's gracious dealings in the past were the best way to know His character - a heart of mercy. Everything that He commanded was for them. So the call through John to "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" was a call for a heart change that embraced a way of living that resulted in a change of mind, heart, and life. It was for their benefit, because God as their Maker knew what was best and what would only bring harm. He wanted shalom - peace and wholeness - for them, because His kingdom had come near them. Just as the priests purified themselves to enter the holy of holies, so His people needed God to purify them for the coming kingdom.

God also reminded them of His graciousness in not meeting their kingdom expectations. For Matthew, "Kingdom of heaven" is used to refer to the rule of God that transcends political nations. As A.T. Robertson notes, "it points fundamentally to God's rule, not to the realm over which He rules." Although this would prove to be one of the hardest teachings for them to swallow - even His closest apostles wouldn't get it until the Holy Spirit came upon them in Acts - it really was gracious. "It is too small a thing", God told the Messiah in Isaiah 49:6, "that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth." Jesus didn't come to save Israel from Rome; He came to save all of us from the clutches of the enemy of our souls!

So how does one whose very name means "God has dealt graciously" approach ministry when he was bringing this "tough love" message to people with a quite different conception of the kingdom of heaven than God's? By preaching a message that I have summarized with the title "It's time for Authentic Faith." I always take notes in sermons, and so the "bullet points" I noted from John's message in Matthew 3 are:
  • God's kingdom has come near - prepare for the Lord by repenting. 
  • Live consistently with the repentance you claim- this is fruitfulness. 
  • Reject the tendency to lean on a spiritual heritage instead of a personal faith. 
  • God is looking for fruitful faith. 
  • Baptism for repentance comes first, then baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. 
  • Jesus brings this baptism along with judgment. He will separate the real (wheat) from the fake (chaff). 
Many responded to this message - and like most in ministry, John had his detractors as well. But none of that mattered the day He showed up. The day Jesus came to John to be baptized. With all his understanding of Scripture and anointing by God for the ministry as a forerunner, John still didn't get why Jesus needed to be baptized. Face to face with the very One whose graciousness lended John his name, John became the first to try to stop Jesus from doing something that He simply had to do.

The words "tried to stop" literally mean "would have hindered" - involving strong protests on John's part. Later on Peter would try to stop Jesus from talking about the cross (Mark 8:27-33). The incarnation wasn't just about Jesus' birth - it was about Him entering into our lives, our world - about Him identifying with the people He came to save and following that identification all the way to the cross. From a human perspective, Jesus' actions were radical, maybe a bit eccentric, but ultimately honorable. To this day "holy" men and women in various religious traditions make sacrifices and some even die. But for the Messiah - God in the flesh, Jesus Himself - to not only step into our world but identify with sinners through a baptism of repentance -- that was almost incomprehensible. John rightly realized that the tables should be turned. Like Isaiah in the holy of holies (Isaiah 6), John's encounter with God left him humbled.

The shocking incomprehension of the incarnation - that God would bring Himself to our level and identify with His creation in very tangible ways - is also its beauty. Because when God took on flesh and came to walk with sinners and yet retain perfect holiness, He brought to earth the graciousness and mercy that were in God's heart all along. The Fall so corrupted man that even our view of God is skewed. Jesus came to set that right - all the way to the cross. As Adrian Rodgers has so aptly said, "The cross didn't change God's heart; it revealed it."

A.W. Tozer said that God is both "transcendentally personal" and "personally transcendent" - meaning that He is always separate from His creation, holy and uncorrupt, and yet unswervingly personal to each of His children. In the incarnation, transcendental met personal.

When we embrace that truth, we come face to face with who Jesus is. We see His holiness that certainly did not need to be baptized. And we see His heart of grace and mercy. We know that John's name reflected a deep truth - "God has dealt graciously."

Whatever you are facing today is subject to the character of this holy and gracious God. Like Job, we can bow in worship. Like David, we can pour out our hearts to Him in all the rawness of our emotions. And like John, we can know that He has dealt graciously with us, too.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Shocking Worship

(1) Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king,magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, (2) "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him." (3) When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. (4) Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. (5) They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: (6) 'AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH, ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH; FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL.'" (7) Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. (8) And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him." (9) After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. (10) When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. (11) After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (12) And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-12 NASB)

Matthew obviously wasn't writing to impress anyone.

By all accounts the most Jewish of the Gospels and likely written for a group of Jewish Christians, Matthew had nothing to gain, and much to lose, by reminding his audience of the pagan Gentile magicians who traveled far to worship Jesus. Coming as it does on the heels of the shocking genealogy of chapter 1, Matthew's worship emphasis flies in the face of Jewish notions of the day.: Hold those Gentiles who do keep the Law and become "God-fearers" at a distance. No closer than the Court of the Gentiles - that was the practice. Never mind that the Law prescribed that the Gentile who adopted fully the religion of Israel fell under the same religious laws as Israel (see for example Leviticus 17:8) and that Solomon had asked God to hear their prayers (1 Kings 8:41-43). First century Jewish religious leaders excluded Gentiles. Matthew gives them a special place in his Gospel.

The parallels between the magi's authentic worship and Herod's selfish request to worship are obvious. What's less obvious is how shocking the magi's visit really must have sounded on first century ears. Writing to believers who were still learning how to be the church, what it meant to have Jew and Gentile together in one body, Matthew tells us something significant about worship - something shocking.

Look at Matthew's story again. First, the magi were, well, magi. They were basically astrologers. They observed the stars and in this case, saw something unique. Second, the magi hadn't studied the Scriptures closely - they were "in the neighborhood", going to the capital city of Jerusalem, but didn't know that the prophecy for Messiah was that he would be born in Bethlehem. Finally, they don't have offerings that would normally be considered acceptable - no grain, no animals, no blood. They weren't even priests! They would likely not be allowed even in the Court of the Gentiles and would never see the holy of holies.

What they had was an earnest desire to see Jesus. Look again at the only words recorded from their lips, in verse 2: "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him."

This is worship?

Oh, absolutely. And this is where Matthew has much to teach us. He uses the more liturgical term for worship here - proskyneo. It's the Greek word used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) for "worship" or "bow down" - the formal worship in the temple, the bowing down before visible majesty. Interestingly, this word is rarely used in the New Testament. Only in the Gospels (where Jesus was physically present), Revelation (where the throne of God is present), Acts (where the temple was still a place of "worship"), and only twice in the epistles, both referencing the presence and power of God. The New Testament favors the word latreuo for worship - a word meaning serve, perhaps seen most clearly in Romans 12:1: "Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship."

Why the change in emphasis? John Piper fleshes this out beautifully in the revised edition of Let the Nations be Glad (a must-read for missions enthusiasts). He draws from John 4 to show that "in the New Testament worship is significantly de-institutionalized, de-localized, de-exernalized." He summarizes:
In Himself He would fulfill everything the temple stood for, especially the "place" where believers meet God. He diverted attention away from worship as a localized activity with outward forms and pointed toward a personal, spiritual experience with Himself at the center. Worship does not have to have a building, a priesthood, and a sacrificial system. It has to have the risen Jesus. (p. 217)
The magi didn't know much, but they knew they were looking for Jesus. Matthew uses the formal word for worship,  as they bow down before His visible presence, but the heart and soul of Jesus' later teaching to the Samaritan woman is pictured here with these magi: their shocking worship was just what He came to bring about. He came to create worshippers from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people group.

None of this is to diminish the role of Scripture and sound doctrine. Regular readers of this blog know how much I emphasize in-depth study of God's Word. Even the magi were sent in the specific right direction (to Bethlehem) by God's Word, not their astrological readings. But I believe we can learn from Matthew that God will meet people where they are, and when they sincerely are seeking Jesus, He will make sure to get them to Him. And He will welcome their worship with open arms as they continue to learn more about Him.

We often treat worship like a task, salvation as a transaction. Matthew's story of the magi reminds us that at the heart of worship lies a heart that seeks to find Jesus - nothing else matters. And Matthew lays the groundwork here for a salvation that is a lifestyle - a process that starts, grows, and bears fruit as we continually are drawn to "Him who has been born King of the Jews".

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Holding the Orne River Bridge

Last Sunday, as I try to do every year around the anniversary of D-Day to honor my grandfather's service in that epic battle, we watched "The Longest Day". For the first time I noticed the critical role of a small group of men in holding the Orne River Bridge.

Dropped into Normandy before the rest of the group, they had one objective: Capture and hold the bridge. The success of the entire mission was critical to this one task; without the bridge tanks and supplies could not get into Normandy. The men were charged to "hold until relieved" - no matter how long it took.

This scene left me reflecting on the strategic kingdom assignments God gives us. Sometimes we realize it; most often we don't. We wonder why we are "stuck" in a small area while what we perceive as the "real battle" rages elsewhere. We don't realize that God intends for us to hold the bridge to facilitate the ultimate victory.

Maybe you're fighting a spiritual battle at work. Maybe you're serving faithfully in the church nursery. Perhaps you are on the prayer team for a missionary you perceive as doing the "real work". God might call you into focusing on one person for years, developing a deep relationship for His purposes. From a kingdom perspective, you may just have an assignment within a unit that is holding a key bridge.

God puts together specialized "units" (churches) for His purposes. And He gives specific gifts to individuals in those churches to fulfill those purposes. But it all fits together in an amazing plan that only God can orchestrate.

The failure to hold the Orne River Bridge could have changed the course of history. If the Allieds had not taken Normandy, they may not have been in a position to liberate Europe and the concentration camps. Thankfully we will never know, because the men did hold the bridge and the invasion was a huge success. Though not without casualties, the men did indeed "hold until relieved" - mission accomplished.

Wherever God has placed you, He has a strategic plan in mind. Whether you see the big picture or not, trust that He does. Keep doing the last job He gave you to do - and ask for His grace to "hold until relieved".

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Learning to Rest

I've been on vacation the past two weeks. This isn't necessarily as exciting as it sounds, because my husband is in a new job and was working and for that reason and finances I didn't really go anywhere. However, I realized that this vacation has really been about teaching me to rest.

If you read this blog regularly you know that a little over a year ago when I finished my master's degree God called me into a season of rest. I've not exactly been doing nothing, but neither have I had the demands of parenting, caregiving, or school pressing on me either. I've been learning to live in the Hebrews 4 rest of faith. But it's been a tough year.

My job has been significantly busier, with so many more students on campus and some big changes in our departments. As a result, I've been worn out with not much left over at the end of the day. On top of that our campus hosted the Dalai Lama and all the student tickets went through our office, adding to what was already a crazy year. I've also been teaching Bible study weekly since August and preparing those lessons. And I guess because I didn't feel I had enough to do, I've been beating myself up over not blogging more :).

So I came into this vacation pretty tired. However, since I tend to live in a task-oriented mode, I came into it with a list of things to do. All I can say is, it's a good thing I took 2 weeks off. It took me a full week to realize that I really didn't have the emotional energy for that list....that I was gaining more strength from the change of pace and hanging out with friends I don't get to see often enough, from a couple of random day trips to see family, and from playing with Nelly.

All this has helped me learn to truly rest. The second week has been filled with much more of that sort of rest, along with some new recipes and plenty of "fun" (to me) reading and movies, feeding that cerebal side of my brain (is that redundant?). As I have reflected on these two weeks I've realized I want to approach my tasks in a more sustainable manner, and try to bring some of this rest into my daily life. I've reviewed some principles I let fall by the wayside and reminded myself of the priority of relationships.

God made me to be a task-oriented person. He knows what he wants to do in and through me. And yet ultimately it's not the tasks that He's about. This vacation has helped me learn to let tasks be a means to an end. Yes, a pleasantly arranged and clean home is good - but it's best when it facilitates relationships, when it blesses those who live here and those who visit with its atmosphere of peace and love. Bargain hunting is good - but it's best when it affords more money to fulfill God's kingdom purposes in the lives of others. And so on.

So I have one day left tomorrow. I plan to fully enjoy our church service and fellowship meal, and a date with my husband. I'll wake up early Monday and start getting caught up at work. And I hope that I can remember what God's been teaching me as I learn to rest in Him.