The banquet table of God’s grace
Matthew 8: This man is the vanguard of many outsiders who will soon be coming from all directions.
In these early days of our Lord’s public ministry his popularity and reputation soars. He’s not only preaching the greatest message ever heard but he’s also performing miracle after miracle. His name’s on everyone’s lips. In Capernaum a Roman officer comes to ask Jesus to help his servant. This man, a conqueror, impresses us with his humility and his love for his slave. Even more impressive, though, is his faith. When Jesus offers to accompany the Roman to see his slave the Roman suggests that Jesus just give the command, then and there. Jesus is surprised at such a depth of faith from an “outsider.” Later in this same chapter he’ll chastise his Jewish disciples for being afraid in a storm; after all they’re supposed to know more about how God works. This officer, though, surprises Jesus with his simple trust. Not only does Jesus do a “long distance” act of healing, he also comments that this Roman soldier is among the first of what will be a flood of “outsiders” who’ll place their faith in him and be counted among heroes of the faith like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I love this story because it’s about me. You see, that Roman captain might have been one of the first, but I’m one of those who followed his lead. Jesus predicted this and now I’m one of the outsiders who have made their way to that “banquet table of grace.”
Take Away: How blessed to be invited to the banquet table of God’s grace.
One hundred percent
Matthew 7: The way to life – to God! – is vigorous and requires total attention.
A hitter in baseball might love the cheers of the fans and all the perks of being a star but when he’s in the batter’s box he’d better pay attention to business. Hitting a 95 mph fastball requires one’s full attention. Jesus calls people to radical commitment. Fishermen abandon the tools of their trade to follow him. Tax collectors pay back, with interest, padded tax collections. Rich people are told to give it all away and follow. How can we read this kind of stuff in the Bible and come away thinking that all God wants from us is a lukewarm, half-hearted relationship? If I’m going to be a disciple of Jesus I have to focus and commit. Living the Sermon on the Mount takes a lot more than an hour of church attendance each week. How in the world could anyone ever think otherwise? The payoff is wonderful, but the payout is huge: all of me for all of God. I’m the winner in that deal, but it’s still a deal I have to be willing to make.
Take Away: When it comes to living the Christian life it’s all or nothing.
Living in the present
Matthew 6: Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with anticipation. Part of the joy of Christmas is the “longing with hope” aspect of it that we highlight on the first Sunday of Advent each year. Still, there’s a danger of so looking forward to something in the future that we forget to live in the present. Life isn’t all about tomorrow, for good or bad. Life is lived in the present. It has no rewind or fast forward buttons. In this passage Jesus reminds us that God is with us “right now.” We remember wonderful blessings in the past and appreciate what the Lord did for us then. We also look to the future with confidence in faith that the same good, gracious God will be with us in that day. Still, it’s right now that’s most under my control. Not that I control the circumstances of right now, but I have some say about how I will live in those circumstances. So, one thing I gain from this passage is the reminder to live in this present moment; to appreciate the good things and to trust God with the not-so-good things. The other thing that comes to mind is the calm, certain assurance that God is, indeed, doing something “right now.” I may be praying for a great revival to come to my church, longing for that day to come. I may be looking forward to some major life event like the birth of a grandchild or some special anniversary. However, Jesus tells me that God is also doing things right here and right now. He’s working in my life, walking with me in these ordinary days of life. After all, the great mystery of Christmas is the incarnation, Emmanuel, God with us.
Take Away: I need to be more aware of the blessings of life right now and not always focusing on some future blessing.
The Perfect Sermon
Matthew 5: Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.
In one glorious Sermon Jesus sums up the life to which God calls us. In every word we hear pure gold. It’s in retrospect that I realize that this beautiful, perfectly constructed Sermon challenges me at every level of my life. This chapter of the Sermon touches on everything from how to be blessed, to heavy topics like murder, adultery and divorce. Jesus deals with the promises we make and our relationships with our enemies. Obviously, the religion he teaches isn’t merely about “me and God.” Just about every word in this perfect Sermon is about “me and you.” It concerns my relationship with people I like (and maybe like too much according to the section on adultery) and people I don’t like (I’m to settle things with my old enemy quickly before things get even worse). He sums up this first part of the Sermon by teaching me to live “generously and graciously.” Rather than protecting my turf I’m to think the best of people and be generous in my dealings with them. This pretty Sermon has teeth. It’s supposed to work out here in the real world. And, just so I clearly understand the measure of this gracious, generous life style, Jesus tells me that I’m to treat others in the same gracious, generous way God treats me. I need to spend a whole lot of time here at the Sermon on the Mount.
Take Away: The Christian life is as much about “me and you” as it’s about “God and me.”
Matthew 4: I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.
I almost wish Jesus hadn’t used the words he used concerning “fishing for men.” Generally speaking, our view of fishing is different than was theirs. These men fish for a living. Today, the average person fishes for fun. We use rods and reels and try to trick the unsuspecting fish into taking the bait. When we catch a big fish we take a picture so we can show our friends our catch. For us it’s sport, a nice pastime. Reaching the lost isn’t about sport and we aren’t to try to trick the lost into the Kingdom of God. Our motivation is the love and compassion for the lost that flows through our lives. The problem isn’t that Jesus said the wrong thing as much as it is that we filter it through our own experience. The result is sometimes less than he intended.
Take Away: Evangelism is about love and compassion and concern and not about “catching people.”
Mathew 3: Jesus came up…God’s Spirit…descended…a voice… “This is my Son.”
For a brief moment in time John’s light shines brighter than all others. His rough appearance and demeanor only add to his mystique and people can’t get enough of him. John spends a lot of time talking about repentance but he also proclaims the coming of the Messiah. On this day it all comes together. His cousin, Jesus, makes his way to the riverside and asks to be baptized. With uncharacteristic timidity John backs down, acknowledging that Jesus is closer to God than he is. If there’s any baptizing to be done, it’s Jesus who should baptize him. When Jesus insists, John yields and the result is a moment frozen in time. Jesus comes up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descends, and the Voice of the Father is heard. You might call this a “Trinity moment.” That’s not to say that this event solves the mystery of the Person of Jesus once and for all. For hundreds of years at the beginning of Christianity godly people will struggle with the divinity/humanity of the Lord. This passage will remain a big player in that discussion. Somehow, we have Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Father all acting in individual, complementary ways. Somehow, Jesus, Holy Spirit, and Father are one. Finally, after centuries of debate the Church arrived at the doctrine of the Trinity: Three in One. That isn’t to say the Church came up with a simple, easy to understand explanation of it all. Rather, it’s just an effort at stating a mystery and, really, in the end, it’s simply a matter of faith.
Take Away: Ultimately our religion and specifics concerning it are about faith and not about proof.
Church of the Nazarene
Matthew 2: He shall be called a Nazarene
I like to think about the little mysteries of the Bible and Matthew’s comment that Joseph’s moving his family to the town of Nazareth, thus making Jesus a “Nazarene” is a fulfillment of prophecy is one such mystery. There’s no record of such a prophecy being stated, yet Matthew seems quite confident that pointing his readers to this is yet another proof of the Messiah-ship of Jesus. I’ve found a couple of explanations to this. Some people think it has to do with the similarity of “Nazarene” to a Hebrew word meaning “Branch.” Use of that term is found in the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. It has to do with the Messiah’s being a descendent of David. The other idea has to do with the prophecies concerning the Messiah’s being despised and rejected. The connection is that Nazareth is considered to be a backward, unimportant place that could only produce backward, unimportant people. There’s a danger in overstating the standing (or lack there-of) of Nazareth here. It’s not as though it’s thought of as a bad place. It’s more of a “no place” than it’s a “bad place.” From the point of view of the religious scholars of that day, Nazareth and a hundred other small towns don’t qualify as a place worthy of consideration. Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be overlooked and rejected…a sort of “Nazarene.” Whatever the answer to this little riddle, Matthew thinks it should help people decide, along with the rest of his Gospel, that Jesus, is, indeed, the Messiah of God.
Take Away: We don’t have to solve every mystery of the Bible, sometimes they just add a bit of spice to our study of it.
Matthew 1: Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream.
Matthew begins the story of Jesus with genealogy, father to father to father. He then continues writing from the masculine perspective as he tells us of the God-sent dream of Joseph. Mary’s pregnant but it’s okay. God’s behind all this, sending the Savior into the world. To Joseph’s credit, he believes the message of the dream and moves forward in faith, never looking back. There are a lot of “dream stories” in the Bible. Way back in the book of Genesis Joseph has message-dreams and also interprets the dreams of others. Daniel’s story is similar, and later on Paul will be directed in a dream by the Holy Spirit concerning his missionary journey. In spite of these, and many other stories, we don’t often think about God communicating to us in dreams. I understand that we now have the written Word of God and that probably accounts for less emphasis on dream messages. Still, I wonder if our own lack of expectation might choke off the possibility of God speaking to us in this way. While I’m not ready to jump off the cliff on this one, I do want to be open to whatever word the Lord might have for me. Maybe bedtime prayers should include not only a request for the Lord’s protection while we sleep but a promise to take seriously anything the Lord might have to say to us through our dreams.
Take Away: I want to be open to hear the Voice of God in whatever way he might speak to me.