04 December 2016

Lectionary Reflection—04 December 2016

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:

The voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”

John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.

People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that’s coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, ‘Abraham’s our father.’ I tell you that God’s able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who’s coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He’ll baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He’ll clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he’ll burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”

I don’t know about you, but this passage for the second Sunday of Advent is very foreboding. I mean, John’s speaking truth to power and he’s not holding back. But let’s break it down because there’s a lot going on.

The first thing that stands out is John’s proclamation, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” Now just an aside; Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven” is synonymous with “kingdom of God” in the other Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Scholars believe that “Matthew” used “heaven” instead of “God” because he was a Jew writing to a Jewish audience. And, for a lot of Jews, writing “God” was too sacred to use. To this day we’ll see “G_d” or “G-d” in a lot of Jewish writings. All of this to say that “Matthew” is not talking about going to heaven as a lot of people think. No; he’s talking about the same thing the Old Testament promised and the New Testament proclaimed—God’s promised Realm (Kingdom) was finally arriving.

Notice John said, “Here comes the kingdom of heaven/God!” It wasn’t coming someday in the future, but right then. That’s why he was baptising people; the time to get ready had come. That’s why he’s telling them to “change [their] hearts and lives.” Not for something that might come someday but for something that was just about to be revealed in their presence, in their lifetime.

This changing of one’s life brings me to the next point. It’s not about saying one’s changed but proving it by one’s actions. When the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John, he told them, “Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives” (emphasis added). Our faith, our belief, must be accompanied by faithful action or it’s not true faith. In the book of James, it’s written—

My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it?…faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity…Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action…faith [is] made complete by…faithful actions…So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone…As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead (James 2.14-26; adapted).

In other words, people are identified by their actions. Jesus said—

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they’re vicious wolves. You’ll know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, you’ll know them by their fruit (Matthew 7.15-20; adapted).

That last bit sounds familiar doesn’t it. It’s just what John said above when he was talking to the Pharisees and Sadducees. In this charged political climate we’ve seen people claiming they’re “good trees” but their “fruit” is “rotten.” In the words of James, their actions don’t represent the faith they claim to have. People who’ve truly changed their hearts and lives don’t spout racial slurs or spray paint threatening messages on churches or threaten others with violence. They don’t think it’s okay to objectify women or treat minorities as non-human. Jesus said, “You’ll know them by their fruit.” He also said, “[What] goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight” (Matthew 15.18; adapted). In another place he said, “A good person produces good from the good treasury of the inner self, while an evil person produces evil from the evil treasury of the inner self. The inner self overflows with words that are spoken” (Luke 6.45; adapted). And James would say that this overflow of one’s inner self includes one’s actions.

The next thing Matthew points out is John’s attire. As I’ve stated elsewhere, this is Matthew’s way of letting the reader know that John the Baptist was somehow Elijah who was to usher in Yahweh’s return to Israel (see Malachi 4 and my post about it). But when would Yahweh return? John gave the Pharisees, Sadducees, and us some clues that it was a lot sooner than anyone could’ve imagined. He told them that the “angry judgment” was “coming soon.” How soon?

The ax is already at the root of the trees…The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He’ll clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he’ll burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out” (verses 10 and 12).

In other words, God’s “angry judgment” had already started. The tools of judgment were already in Yahweh’s hands and he already started to clean up. That’s why John’s message was so urgent. The “angry judgment” of Yahweh was imminent and, therefore, people needed to “change [their] hearts and lives” (repent) and “produce fruit” (faithful actions) that proved their change. Talk was cheap. One must show that one had changed before the “angry judgment” of Yahweh came crashing upon the city, the temple, and its people.

So, the question comes rushing to the fore—

What’s all of this got to do with Advent?

Honestly, I don’t know. I suppose the purpose of passages is to emphasise our need to prepare for the coming of God. And while the passage does have that type of message, it’s completely and thoroughly about God’s “angry judgment” that was soon to come upon first century Israel. Are we, then, to take the inclusion of this passage to mean that God’s “angry judgment” is once again about to come upon us? Hardly. As I’ve stated, the entirety of God’s “angry judgment” within the New Testament was focused upon first century Israel and has already been fulfilled (see my series on New Testament eschatology for a more in-depth study of the subject).

So what can we take away from this passage?

For me it’s about people who follow Jesus producing “good fruit.” There’s a very clear warning here about thinking we’re God’s children just because we “believe in Jesus.” John’s contemporaries thought something similar to this and he said not to count on that. God, he said, could make children from the stones of the earth (no belief required). As James said, “faith [alone] can’t save anyone.” Our faith is “made complete by faithful actions.” We must, therefore, ask ourselves, “Does my faith in Christ make me more Christ-like? Do my actions truly represent my faith in Jesus of Nazareth? Or do they represent my own will and desires? When others look at me, are they reminded of Christ?” These, my friends, are hard questions that require a lot of prayer and meditation. I pray that God’s Spirit will rest upon us as we wrestle with them.



~~~
In the Love of the Three in One,


Br. Jack+, LC

20 November 2016

Lectionary Reflection—20 November 2016

We also pray that you’ll be strengthened with all his glorious power so you’ll have all the endurance and patience you need. May you be filled with joy, always thanking the Father. He’s enabled you to share in the inheritance that belongs to his people, who live in the light. For he’s rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins.

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.
He existed before anything was created
and is supreme over all creation,
for through him God created everything
in the heavenly realms and on earth.
He made the things we can see
and the things we can’t see—
such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers,
and authorities in the unseen world.
Everything was created through him and for him.
He existed before anything else,
and he holds all creation together.
Christ is also the head of the church,
which is his body.
He’s the beginning,
supreme over all who rise from the dead.
So he’s first in everything.
For God in all his fullness
was pleased to live in Christ,
and through him God reconciled
everything to himself.
He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth
by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.

This is one of those passages that people just don’t seem to wrap their heads around. It’s so uplifting, so life-affirming, that people just can’t really believe Paul said what he said. Let’s see if we can break it down a bit.

“[God’s] enabled you to share in the inheritance…” This is an interesting statement to make, don’t you think? The Greek word Paul used, translated here as “enabled,” is ἱκανόω (hikanoō) and it means “to make sufficient or competent, qualify” (MOUNCE). In other words, we’re just average. What God’s given, or enabled, in the followers of Jesus at Colossae isn’t something extraordinary but just ordinary. Plain. Sufficient. That means there’s really not that much difference between them and the rest of humanity. This can be extrapolated to us today. There’s nothing “special” about followers of Jesus today; we’re just like everyone else. In fact, elsewhere Paul states that people who follow Jesus are the last one’s people would pick out of a crowd for becoming anything exceptional (1 Cor. 1.27-28). Nothing, that is, except this…

“…[God has] rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son…” There’s an eschatological element to this statement. That is, Jesus proclaimed that the Gospel was the coming of God’s Kingdom (Mark 1.15). God’s Kingdom began on Resurrection Sunday (the “first day” of New Creation; John 20) and was finally established with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Between the resurrection and 70 CE, there were two ages—two creations, two kingdoms—the “kingdom of darkness” and the “Kingdom of light” or “the Kingdom of [God’s] dear Son.” The people who followed Jesus during this interim period, Paul said, were “transferred” from the “kingdom of darkness” to the “kingdom of [God’s] dear Son.”

But this, too, can be extended to us today. It goes back to something I’ve said a couple of times recently and I’m starting to see it more and more—people who follow Jesus now are priest for the rest of humanity (God’s children) and creation (part of God’s Realm) until the time when all humanity and creation is perfectly restored (see here for more on this topic). We’re the ones who bring Christ to our sisters and brothers and to take their pain, concerns, praise, and repentance before God. While God’s Kingdom has been firmly established, it’s still expanding. It’s a kingdom that “has no end” (see Luke 1.33; cf. Isaiah 9.7; 2 Samuel 7:13, 16; Daniel 7:14, 27). In other words, we’re part of God’s kingdom now to be God’s co-workers until the whole earth is filled with people who know God like the water fills the sea (Isaiah 11.9; cf. Habakkuk 2.14).

The reason Paul can say these truly incredible things is because—

“[Jesus] purchased our freedom and forgave our sins.”

Let that sink in.

Look at the past tense verbs.

When Jesus said, “It’s finished” (John 19.30), he meant it. That’s why, in the passage above, Paul can go on to say that God has reconciled (again, past tense) everything and made peace with everything. It’s all been done! This is how we can say, without any speculation, that all people are now part of God’s family (though, they may not even know it yet) and that all creation is now moving toward the day when heaven and earth become one (Revelation 21.1-5).



~~~
In the Love of the Three in One,


Br. Jack+, LC

11 November 2016

A Question…(Part 4)

I was recently asked about my view of seeing all people as God’s children. As my response became quite long, I opted to create a mini-series about it. This is Part 4. Part 1 can be found here.

God’s Promise of Rescue
There are several passages in the Bible that speak of God’s promise to save “all” and restore creation. Here are but a few:

1 Tim. 2.3-6: God our savior…wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. There’s one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the human Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a payment to set all people free. (The Greek word translated here as “wants” is θέλω (thelō) and it means to exercise the will.)

1 John 2.2: He’s God’s way of dealing with our sins, not only ours but the sins of the whole world (cf. John 1.29).

1 Tim. 4.10: We work and struggle for this: “Our hope is set on the living God, who is the savior of all people, especially those who believe.”

John 12.47: “I didn’t come to judge the world but to save it.” (Jesus is literally saying, “I came to save the world.”)

John 4.42: “…we’ve heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world.”

1 John 4.14: We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the savior of the world.

John 12.32: “…When I’m lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.”

Romans 5.18, 21: Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone…So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus the Christ our Lord. (The question is: “God’s ‘wonderful grace” now rules over who? Well, ‘just as sin ruled over all people…now God’s wonderful grace rules’ over all people.”)

1 Cor. 15.22: In the same way that everyone dies in Adam, so also everyone will be given life in Christ.

I could go on and on. The testimony of Scripture is two fold—those who believe now, and everyone else believing later. This is how I can say that everyone is now God’s children. It’s the same way that the Calvinist can say with absolute certainty that “all the elect” are God’s children. While she doesn’t know who the elect are, that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still God’s children, even if they don’t yet know it themselves.

Calvinism
This last bit leads me to Calvinism and my issues with it. But I’ve been wrestling with the acronym, TULIP, for some time now. I do take comfort in some of it but other parts of it either go too far or not far enough. Let me explain.

I completely reject Total Depravity (the “T”). While I understand Calvin doesn’t mean that people are completely or absolutely depraved, I reject the idea that they’re depraved at all at their deepest level. At humanity’s deepest level is the image of God and the Light of God that darkness (sin) can never eradicate (Genesis 1.26ff; John 1.4-5).

Concerning Unconditional Election (the “U”), I have to say I agree with the notion that God chooses whom God wants to and that it’s not based on any merit within the individual, but election is not unto salvation alone but unto service (1 Pet. 2.9; Rev. 1.5-6). Again, this ties into the idea that people who follow Jesus in this life are priests. Their called to believe now for the sake of others and creation. It’s a real change in the way we think of priesthood but models itself after Israel and their priests.

And here’s my biggest issue—Limited Atonement (the “L”). Let me plainly say: There’s no limitation to the atonement. What’s limited is our interpretation of the atonement. This is where both the Arminian and Calvinist systems fail. They fail because they start from the standpoint that God sends people (or people send themselves) to “hell” where they’ll be consciously tormented for all eternity. Both camps hold this as absolute truth. And, therefore, since that’s (supposedly) true, they both had to do something with the other truth—the atonement actually and thoroughly saves people. So, as you know, the Arminian stated that one’s salvation was based on one’s freedom to choose it while the Calvinist stated that one’s salvation was based on God’s freedom to choose who’s saved. But they’re both wrong. Just as the blood of the goat took away the sin of ancient Israel so, too, did the blood of Christ take away the sin of the world (John 1.29; 1 John 2.2; see my list above).

However, I don’t really have a problem with Irresistible Grace (the “I”) or Perseverance of the Saints (the “P). It’s because of Calvinism, of God’s Sovereignty, that I thoroughly believe that all people are now (mystically) God’s people and that one day all people will come to God and actually be God’s people, whether in this life or the next. That the Grace of God is mightier than any sin that so easily besets us. And, more importantly, I believe God’s Love has already won!

Well, I hope you enjoyed this little mini-series. I’m sure it will probably spawn a whole lot of questions! I just hope I explained myself well enough. It’s the first time I’ve really tried to put into words what’s going on in my head on this subject.



~~~
In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC