Make yourself at home
Mark 2: I’m here inviting the sin-sick, not the spiritually-fat.
One of the early disciples is Levi, son of Alphaeus, otherwise known as Matthew. After becoming a
follower of Jesus, Levi throws a party in the Lord’s honor. He invites all his friends to come to the feast and to meet Jesus. Apparently, Jesus is right at home with this crowd and that catches the attention of some of the religious leaders. In their opinion and practice, holy people don’t associate with sinners out of fear that some of their sin might rub off on them. It would be one thing for Jesus to shake his finger in their faces, telling them what bad people they are. However, Jesus apparently actually likes these people and is at home with them. He tells them that he’s like a doctor who lovingly cares for his patients and ends up spending more time with sick people than healthy people. I wonder what role I play in this story. On one hand, I’m one of Levi’s friends, unworthy of being loved by God yet loved still. On the other hand, I fear I’m one of the religious leaders who are quite comfortable hanging out with other religious folk, but not really at home with spiritually needy people. The real goal is to be more like Jesus who loves people and is willing to make himself at home with even sinners that he might show them the way to God. Every time I say, “I just don’t know anyone who doesn’t go to church” I identify with the religious leaders rather than with Jesus.
The Water Baptizer and the Spirit Baptizer
Mark 1: His baptism – a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit – will change you from the inside out.
Mark’s gospel is a high speed, breath taking race through the life of Jesus. No “Song of Mary” here and no manger scene. In this story Jesus explodes onto the world scene out in the wilderness at one of John the Baptist’s riverside revival meetings. The “water Baptizer” instantly recognizes Jesus as the Lamb of God, and willingly steps aside for this “Spirit baptizer.” Jesus changes people, John says, “from the inside out.” The Gospel writer believes that the promise of real, heart-based change will draw spiritually hungry people like me into his story. No more playing at religion and hungering for transformation that’s forever beyond my reach. The one I read about here is the real deal. Every person who wants something more than what’s found by following the rules and trying to find God is drawn to the promise of change — real change — from the inside out. This Jesus is worthy of my allegiance.
Take Away: Jesus is the answer to the great hunger in people’s lives.
This angel got the job all the angels wanted
Matthew 28: He rolled back the stone and then sat on it.
This angel is pretty cool. He’s supernatural, coming down out of heaven. He’s majestic with shafts of light blazing out of him. He’s powerful, rolling away the stone. Then, what does he do? He has a seat on the stone he speaks calmly and reassuringly and matter-of-factly to the women. It’s almost as though they don’t know whether to bow down to him or invite him out for breakfast. Then the resurrected Jesus makes his appearance. It’s the same way. Here’s the victor over death, freshly raised from the grave; yet he greats them with a cheery “good morning” as though they are just old friends who happen to meet at the mall. The women, though, know just what to do in this case. They bow before him. Jesus, still in an apparent light hearted mood tells them not to be afraid, but to go and tell the disciples that “plan A” is still in order and they’re to meet him at the designated spot in Galilee. This first Easter morning is awesome — holy. It’s also happy, joyous, and just a little light hearted. It’s an interesting balance and the Church should do all it can to capture this wonderful mixture as it proclaims the resurrection of Jesus.
Take Away: It’s the resurrection that makes Christianity the happy, hope-filled religion that it is.
Matthew 27: Many bodies of believers asleep in their graves were raised.
Like any normal person, I don’t enjoy reading about the crucifixion. I understand that it’s the finest display of God’s love possible and that my hope of salvation is right here in this event. Still knowing it is all real causes me to read quickly. I don’t want to linger here. Matthew states a detail that the other writers leave out. I haven’t thought much about this “resurrection” because, as I say, I’m generally hurrying on to Easter morning. However, Matthew says that as Jesus breathes his last that there’s an earthquake that opens some sealed tombs. Godly people buried there come forth, alive! Apparently, these are not the long dead, but, like Lazarus, are people laid to rest more recently. Residents of Jerusalem know them and respect them as people of God. Matthew tells us that this “mini-resurrection” can be confirmed by many who saw them. With that, the story hurries on to the burial of our Lord and then, hallelujah, to the empty tomb. We don’t know who these saints are, what they do and say, or what becomes of them. I know I’ve probably seen too much special effect filled TV but I can’t help but imagine a spiritual tsunami being triggered by Christ’s death on the cross. In my mind’s eye I see a shock wave emanating from the cross that’s so powerful that when it reaches graves of recent dead believers that they’re brought back to life. After all, the cross is all about death and life. A “spill over,” if you please, of the cross is this “back to life” event reported only by Matthew.
Take Away: Christ’s death on the cross was powerful in ways we can hardly grasp.
Church camp commitment
Matthew 26: I’m ready. Do it your way.
When I was growing up a high point of my summers was attending church camp. I loved playing ball and taking hikes and all the other things associated with camp. The ministry at children’s camp focused on the plan of salvation. Many children first gave their hearts to Jesus at camp. At teen camp, though, the focus was more on full surrender, sanctification, accepting a call to the ministry. Teens, more than any other group, grasp the idea of radical commitment. Still, there was a sort of insider’s secret shared by “old timers” like me who had been going to camp through our childhood years. It worked something like this: the Lord will ask you if you’re willing to be a missionary or a pastor but it’s just a test. Once you say “yes” and mean it with all your heart, he won’t actually call you. With that tidbit of information buried in one’s mind, even a sincere seeker had a little bit easier time making a full surrender. When I work with teens I still see in them a willingness to go all out in their commitment to the Lord. Adults carry baggage (jobs, bills to pay, family responsibilities) that has to be sorted through so it’s a more thoughtful process for them. However, adults also have a more realistic attitude concerning what it means to sign on the dotted line. If I commit myself to making monthly mortgage payments I’m really going to have to pay them; there’s nothing theoretical about it! When I see Jesus praying in the Garden I hear him making a full commitment to do his Father’s will. No doubt, Jesus is emotional at this point but there’s more. He knows that this “yes” is the real deal. With his eyes wide open Jesus commits to go to the cross. His full commitment to do the Father’s will both challenges and instructs me as I live the Christian life.
Take Away: The call to full surrender is a real call and needs to be taken seriously.
A little dirty, but no worse for wear
Matthew 25: It’s criminal to live cautiously like that!
A wealthy man is going on a long trip and in preparation for leaving he assigns three trusted servants to handle his investments for him while he’s gone. He doesn’t take his assets and divide them by three. Instead, he entrusts his servants with differing amounts based on their capabilities of handling such responsibilities. The most gifted (and trusted) servant comes through with flying colors. The next servant does just as well with the smaller amount placed under his control. The third servant, though, is a miserable failure. He wasn’t considered to be especially capable in the first place, but the wealthy man took that into consideration by giving him less responsibility. The third servant, though, doesn’t even try. He hides the money and waits for the day of accounting. This approach angers the wealthy man and it’s the undoing of the third servant who’s thrown out. He isn’t fired because he didn’t do as well with his money as did the first servant. Rather, he’s thrown out for doing nothing with the resources placed in his hands. In the Kingdom of God, we’re valued based on our faithfulness rather than our capability. Had the most gifted servant hidden the larger amount placed in his care he would have been the one thrown out. Had this third servant returned with even meager interest he would have been commended for a job well done. The thing that concerns me today isn’t that I see some who have greater ability and more high profile positions in the Kingdom of God. My concern is that I be faithful with what the Lord has given me. I don’t want to face God with empty hands.
Take Away: What must I do to be a good steward of what God has placed in my hands?
When it feels like the end of the world
Matthew 24: This is no sign of the end.
The “end times” information given in Matthew 24 is hard to understand. Some of it has to do with the generation Jesus is addressing in this moment. Jesus says, “I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for all of you.” Some of the stuff in this chapter has already happened. Still, we know that there’s been no trumpet blast and we haven’t seen the “one taken-one left” event take place. Part of the mix is that some events that feel as though they must be part of the end of the world are just common history. Jesus says reports of war, famine, and earthquakes aren’t signs of the “big event.” Of course, for those in the middle of a bombing, or facing starvation, or experiencing a major earthquake it may very likely be “the end.” However, when we hear of such things (and hopefully respond with Christ-like compassion to them) we’re not to panic, thinking “this is it.” Instead, God’s people are to trust him to be with us when we experience the painful side of life. We’re to stay true to the Lord even when we face opposition, and take advantage of the opportunity offered by unwelcome events to share the Good News with those who are desperate for some good news. I know it’s easy for me to sit in a comfortable chair and write this stuff and not so easy when the world feels like it’s coming apart. Still, if our faith is what we say it is and if it does for us what we say it does, it has to hold up even in the middle of the chaos the world sometimes throws our way.
Take Away: Not every horrible event is a sign that it’s the end of the world, but even in horrible events we can respond with compassion and hope as a people of God.
Letting the Pharisees have it
Matthew 23: They talk a good line, but they don’t live it.
This is the chapter in which Jesus nails the Pharisees. In line after line he pronounces judgment on them. They, who know more about the Laws of the Old Testament than anyone else, have strained all the grace and mercy out of it, leaving only a brittle, unyielding, damning crust. They load people down with all that while stripping away the every essence of God. Rather than pointing the way to a living relationship with a good, loving, and gracious God they point to rules and regulations and assured failure and doom. To say it gently, Jesus thinks these rule-making, burden-loading, grace-denying individuals are bad people. We Christians need to pay careful attention to this. We understand that living in the Lord means that we abstain from some things and pursue others. However, if that approach becomes the dominant one; if keeping all the rules becomes the definition of who we are in God; if we come to believe that “knowing about” God is our primary calling, then we’ve taken a dangerous step toward the religion of the Pharisees. In contrast to that brittle religion our Lord pictures God’s desire for people as being like that of the mother hen who extends her embrace to her chicks. If we lose sight of that and make the “hard side” the main element of our relationship with the Lord we have more in common with the Pharisees than we might want to think.
Take Away: Christianity is more about love and grace and mercy than it is about knowing all the right things and keeping a list of rules.
The undressed guest
Matthew 22: How dare you come in here looking like that!
I pretty much get the story of the wedding feast. Those who are invited but make excuses are the “insiders” to the Kingdom, in the case of the parable, it’s the religious leaders and the Jewish people in general who are the intended guests. They turn away, each more interested in doing their own thing than coming to the banquet prepared by the Lord. Upon their refusal to come the invitation list is broadened to what might be thought of as a “second tier.” Then, when even these don’t come, the king opens the doors for all who will come. That’s good news for the “outsiders” like me. The one part I’ve never grasped is the part about the “undressed guest.” That part of the story feels like an afterthought and I’ve generally breezed on past it to the next event. Now, though, I’ve done a bit of reading and I think I have a better handle on the “clothes problem.” A king, like the one in the story, would be well aware that people off the street wouldn’t have the customary white robes to wear to a formal feast like this one. Common people of that day likely had only one set of clothing and even if they did have something more fancy whatever it was would come up far short of the dress code for big formal wedding feast at the palace. However, the king had a large supply of white robes for just such an occasion. As each guest arrived the servants would dress them for the feast. When the king looks at the crowd and spots one man who sticks out like a sore thumb it means that he refused to wear the robe that was supplied to him. With this in mind, I realize that the “undressed guest” part of the story is crucial to the parable. Not only has the Lord, in Jesus, invited outsiders to come, he also makes us worthy to come. Here I see that the Lord’s invitation to me really is “Just as I am” but that when I do respond, he doesn’t leave me as he finds me. Instantly, he goes to work remaking me into the person he calls me to be. If I refuse his work in my life, I’m like the “undressed guest” who gets “uninvited” to the wedding feast.
Take Away: The Lord not only forgives sins; he also transforms sinners.
Is your testimony brighter than your life?
Matthew 21: He answered, “Sure, glad to.” But he never went.
Jesus tells us the story of two sons. Both are given the same directions from their father. The first son turns his father down. Then, thinking better of it, does what his father asked. The second son immediately says he’ll obey but then never gets around to it. The key question is “Which of the two sons did what the father asked?” Everyone knows the answer. I fear that people raised in church are in danger of being “easy yes” folks. The very fact that they know what it’s all about, that they know the answers to all the Sunday School questions, and can slip into “church mode” without a thought places them, above others, in danger of playing the role of the second son. For others, there has to be a conscious admission that their first response to God was the wrong one. They have to make a radical change in their lives. However, for “insiders” the seeming “yes” on the surface of their lives blurs spiritual reality for them. I, for one, don’t want to live my life merely giving lip service to God. I want to be committed to him and living in obedience to him at every level. I’d rather that my life shine brighter than my testimony than have things the other way around.
Take Away: Living the Christian life requires more than mere lip service.