Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Enormous Pop Quiz

Jesus knew the end was coming.  What was this end?  Well, just the judgment of all humanity, the final determination of the destiny of every individual.

And the problem was, no one was ready.

The judgment wasn't based on how many sacrifices one made, how often someone went to church, whether they signed the correct doctrinal statement, or if they were nice people.  It was based on one thing alone-- how merciful we were to Gods's people, especially those in the most serious need.

Well, many people don't really have the opportunity to help folks like this, and many others think that God is so petty as to determine eternal judgment based on how far a person walked on the Sabbath or whether they refrained from masturbating.   So Jesus determined to establish a test.  He would send out evangelists, who had a pretty simple, short sermon: The kingdom of God is coming.  They would clearly be poor and in need, they would have no wallets, no baggage, no food.  To pass the test, all people had to do is to meet the needs of these testers.  If they don't feed or give them shelter, they fail the test.

This is the same test today.  Jesus sends out his people all over the world, and all we have to do is care for their basic needs, and we are good.  Who are these people?  Well, there are a few desperately poor pastors and evangelists who should be helped.  Also Christians who give everything to the poor and so become poor themselves-- they count.  But also the beggars.  The millions of beggars who are also God's people.

Did you know that a large percentage of the homeless are people doing their best to follow Jesus?  They love God and appreciate him.  Sure, many of them are weak, some of them are mentally ill and all of them are desperately poor.  But they are God's chosen apostles.  And they were sent to test you.

When you see a beggar hold a cardboard sign that says "God bless" that isn't some evil person seeking to steal your money-- that is an apostle sent by Jesus to test you.  You might give them something to eat.  You might give them some change.  You might go the extra mile and carry socks or hand warmers in your car to give them.  You might be very generous and offer them a place to stay overnight, perhaps a motel room.  But if you do nothing... if you reject God's opportunity to show mercy...

"Judgment will be merciless on those who do not show mercy" James 2:13

Sending Out Apostles

Jesus knew that he would not be with his disciples forever.  He had to prepare them to be on their own and to face the difficulties that he had to face.  All night long, Jesus prayed to the Father, asking him for guidance.  In the morning, Jesus called all of his disciples to him and he chose 12 of them to be apostles, or “sent ones”—representatives of Jesus.  Among the twelve was Simon—whom he called “Rock”,  James and John—whom he called “sons of thunder”, Andrew—who was Simon’s brother, Matthew Levi (the toll gatherer), Nathaniel, Phillip, and Judas Iscariot.  Jesus specifically chose 12 to represent the twelve tribes of Israel.

            After he chose these twelve, he placed his hands on them and appointed them as representatives of him.  He gave them the power to command unclean spirits in his name, and told them to go out to heal, cast out demons and to preach the coming of God’s kingdom.

            As he sent them, he told them, “Take nothing with you.  No money, no extra clothes, no food.  The laborer is worthy of his hire—the people I send you to will care for your needs.  When you go into any town, go to the elders and give them your message.  Then heal those who need healing.  Also, listen to see if you can find a man of peace who lives in that town.  When you find such a man, ask him to stay in his house.  If someone welcomes you, all is well, and give that house a blessing of peace.  Stay in that house the whole time you are in the town.  Eat there, sleep there, teach there and pray there.  If they listen to you, allow your peace to remain on the house.

            “But if no one in the whole town welcomes you—even though they heard your message and saw the works of God by your hands—then testify against that town.  Wipe the dust of that down from your feet, and it will be held against that town on the final day before God.  I tell you the truth, it would be better for Sodom on the final day than for that town!  If they persecute you in one town, run away and go to another one.

            “There will be many who are against you as you go out.  I came not to bring peace among God’s people, but a knife of division.  The prophets said that ‘Brother will hand a brother over to be killed, and a father will be against his children and a mother against her daughter.’  This is what I am bringing.  You will be hated because of my name, but the one who remains following me until the end will be saved.  If they hated me, they will hate you.  If they listen to me, they will listen to you as well.

            “But not everyone will hate you.  There will be many who help you and offer assistance.  Whoever is not against you is for you.  Even if someone offers you a cup of cold water because you are my disciple, that one will not lose their reward.  The one who receives a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.  The one who receives a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward.

            “And on the final day, the Son of man will come to earth to judge all the world.  And all peoples will be separated into two.  The King will then say to those on his right, ‘Welcome to my kingdom!  You will gain all the reward of God because you have helped me when I was hungry and sick and weak, when I was naked and when I was in prison.’  And these righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, what do you mean?  When did we help you?’  And he will say to them, ‘When you helped my brothers—my disciples who came in my name—you helped me.  Enjoy your new life!.’ 

            “And then the King will turn to those on his left and say, ‘Get away from me, you workers of evil!  Go to the fire prepared for the devil and his spirits!  For you refused to help me when I was hungry and sick and weak.’  And they will say, ‘Lord, when did we refuse to help?’  The King will reply, ‘When you refused to help my brothers, even the least of them, then you refused to help me.’  And these will go to eternal fire, but the righteous to eternal life.”

            Later, Jesus also sent out seventy more apostles, for he said, “The harvest is huge, but there are few workers.  All of you, pray that the Lord will send out more workers to prepare the kingdom!”  When the seventy returned, they exclaimed, “Lord, even the demons do as we command!”  And Jesus replied to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.  But don’t be happy because you can command demons—be glad because your names are written in heaven to enter God’s kingdom!”

John the Baptist

John the Baptist was unique—there was no one like him ever.  He was the last prophet of ancient Judaism.  He was the first to baptize people who were already in God’s community to restore the community to God.  He preached repentance for the sake of preparing the community for God’s coming.  He proclaimed that the chosen one of God was coming.  And he was the one who saw Jesus as the chosen one of God and prepared him for his ministry by baptizing him.  He, alone of all humans other than Jesus, heard the voice of God proclaim Jesus as God’s Son.  And he and Jesus connected in many ways over the years of Jesus’ ministry

John was preaching and baptizing as usual.  He was telling all of those who thought they were God’s people to repent. He said, “Why are you coming to me?  Who warned you to flee from God’s wrath?  The axe is at the root of the tree, soon it will fall.  And every tree that does not bear fruit will be burned.  Why do you call yourselves children of Abraham?  God could raise up descendents of Abraham from the stones like you.  You are only a child of Abraham if you act like him!” 

Many came to him, asking him how they should act differently.  He told the tax-gatherers, “Take only what you have been appointed, cheat no one.”  He told the soldiers, “Don’t harm people, don’t accuse people, and be content with your wages.”  He told everyone, “Be kind to your neighbor.  If you have extra clothes or food and you see someone who has need, give your extra to them.”

Some came from Jerusalem to investigate John, and asked him, “Who are you?  Are you Elijah, or the prophet or the Christ?”  John said, “I am none of these.  I am a prophet in the way of Isaiah, who said, ‘I am a voice crying in the wilderness.  Make straight the way of the Lord.  Every valley will be filled, every mountain will be brought down.  And all flesh will see the salvation of God.’”

John also spoke against the leaders of the Jews, especially Herod Antipas, who married his brother’s wife in opposition to Moses’ law.  Herod’s wife, Herodias, was furious, and she insisted that Herod arrest John.  He sent his soldiers and arrested John, but John’s disciples could still visit John and learn from him.  Herod secretly visited John and listened to John’s teachings.

At one point, John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him, “Are you really the one who is to come?  Are you really the Christ?  Or should we wait for another?”  Jesus just told the followers of John to come with him for a day.  At the end of the day, Jesus spoke to the disciples of John and said, “Now you can go back to John and report to him.  Tell him what you have seen: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the poor have the gospel preached to them.  This is just as the prophets have said would happen on the final day.  The one who does not lose their faith in me is blessed by God.”

After the disciples of John left, Jesus spoke to his own disciples.  “You all went out to John to see him and to be baptized by him.  Why?  Did you go to see a rich man, so you could be like him?  Did you go to see a ruler, to be impressed by him?  No, for to see these kind of people you would have gone to mansions.  Of course, you went to see a prophet of God—a rough man with rough clothing and speech.  But he was more than a prophet, he was the greatest man who lived.  Yet, even the least of the citizens of God’s kingdom is greater than he.”

After this, Herod held a great party and invited some of the most important men in Israel.  To entertain the men, Herod’s niece (also his step-daughter) danced for all of them.  Herod was so greatly pleased by this dance, that he made a rash promise: “You may have anything you wish—up to half of my kingdom.”  Salome, Herod’s step-daughter, couldn’t think of anything she wanted, so she asked her mother, Herodias.  Herodias gave her an answer, and Salome repeated it to Herod, “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter!”  Herod was upset—he didn’t want to kill God’s prophet.  But he also didn’t want to be humiliated in front of his important guests.  So he commanded John’s head to be offered to Salome.  When receiving his head, Salome gave it to her mother.

When Jesus heard that John was dead, he separated himself from the people and mourned.  And a rumor went around that Jesus was John raised from the dead—and Herod feared that it might be true.

The disciples asked Jesus, “If the kingdom of God is coming so soon, why hasn’t Elijah appeared?  The word of God says that he would come to prepare the kingdom.”  Jesus replied, “If you can accept it, Elijah has come, and evil men has done with him as they liked.  In fact, John came in the spirit of Elijah, and he is the promised prophet to come.”

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What Jesus Taught

Matthew and Luke have two versions of Jesus' great sermon.  Matthew's is the most famous version, called the Sermon on the Mount, (found in chapters 5-7) and Luke's is called the Sermon on the Plain (in chapter 6, beginning at verse 19).  Although they have slightly different content, they have the same outline and are basically the sermon that Jesus taught all throughout his ministry.  Matthew added much more, and gave a different sense to the sermon.  He gives the sense that Jesus is a new Moses, standing at the mountain, giving a new law.

There is no question as to this is exactly what Jesus was doing, giving a new law.  But in a sense, Jesus was giving a commentary on every law book that ever existed.  Matthew's version gives us a specific look at Moses' law, with Jesus contrasting his interpretation of Moses with other teachers of Moses.  But every law book is commented on by Jesus' sermon, every church manual, every policy book for every government or corporation.

There are a few basic themes in the sermon:

First, that God is on the side of the outcast and poor, not the powerful.  Jesus emphasizes in both sermons that it is the poor, the hungry, the persecuted, the meek that are granted God's blessings, not the wildly religious or those well-off.  Thus, if we are to gain God's favor, we are better off to be lowly than to be great and religious.

Second, Jesus emphasizes that all laws are to be marginalized by love.  Mercy, love, compassion, forgiveness are going to survive to the next age, while judgment and vengeance will not.  If we want to survive, we must focus on love, not on our limited notions of "justice".

Finally, Jesus emphasizes obedience.  Not obedience to the specific laws of men, but obedience to the higher law that He is teaching.  If we do not follow the higher law, then being a good citizen, a good mother, a good employee on earth will mean nothing in the long run.

In the end, the whole of what Jesus said can be summarized like this:

If you want to be on the in track with God, be a rebel for love.  Be punished for loving too much.  Get rejected because you had compassion.  In the end, you will benefit, because God is a God of justice for the unfairly harmed.

Jesus' Great Sermon

As Jesus taught, he found that most people—although they had been taught the Bible from their youth—didn’t understand what God wanted them to do.  They didn’t understand about God’s righteousness or the life He wanted all of his people to live.  So Jesus taught it to them in a way they could understand.

Jesus gathered people together in every place he could and taught them.  He set his disciples up front and spoke to them, but even those who did not follow him listened:

“If you are poor and oppressed and living a miserable life—you are so lucky!  On the final day, God will grant you his reward of life and land and peace.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake—you who are rejected by people, and shut out and hated and beaten for the sake of the Son of Man and for the gospel—because you will receive God’s kingdom.

“You know that you have to do what is right in order to gain God’s kingdom.  But it’s harder than you think.  There are people out there who are trying to get your focus off of God’s law.  Some people say that if you don’t murder, that’s good enough.  But I say that even speaking your hate against someone else will be punished like murder.  Some say that if you divorce, its okay.  But I say that since divorce damages so many people, you should never do it.  Some say that to rebel against an evil authority is okay.  But I say that you need to let authorities do whatever punishment they wish to you, and allow God to punish them.

            “The general rule most people live by is: do good to your friends and hurt those who hurt you.  But I say, do good to those who hurt you.  Pray blessings on those who hate you.  Offer benefits to those who despise you.  If anyone insults you, speak well of them.  We do this because the Father is our example—he gives life and peace even to those who never thank him or who do evil.  So we need to love everyone, do good to everyone—even as our Father has mercy on everyone. 

            “In this way, we shouldn’t judge other people, we should rather forgive them.  We shouldn’t withhold blessings from people because we don’t like what they do, or what they look like—we should rather give to everyone in need.  If we judge people, we will be judged by God.  But if we assume that people are doing things from a right motivation, unless we have proof, then God will have mercy on us. 

            “We all know that God wants us to pray to him, to give to the poor and to fast sometimes.  But if we do these things to be rewarded by people, then we will receive no reward from God.  If we give to the poor so we can have it written off on our taxes, or so that we can impress everyone with how much we give—then we will receive nothing from God.  But if we give in secret so that no one else knows except God knows that we’ve done it, then we will be rewarded by God in front of everyone. 

            “If we pray only in front of other people, hoping that they will notice our excellent prayers and how long they are, then we will gain no reward from God.  But if we pray in a way that no one else knows, then we will gain our reward for that prayer from God in front of everyone.  Even so, we shouldn’t pray on and on, as if our prayers will only be heard because we talk a lot. 

Rather, pray like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, may your name be made holy.   Bring your kingdom to earth so that your command will be accomplished on earth just as it is in heaven. Give us today all that we need. Please wipe out our sins against you, even as we do not hold sins done against us. Let us never fall away from you—deliver us from trials that turn us away from you.’

If you forgive those who have done wrong against you, your Father in heaven will listen to you and forgive you.  But if you fail to forgive those who turn away from their sin against you, your sins before God will be held against you as well.

            “Some people think that my commands aren’t so important.  They think they can call me ‘Lord’ and follow their own ideas of what it means to be ‘good.’  But anyone who calls me ‘Lord’ but does not do what I say will gain no reward from the Father.  On that final day, there will be many who say, ‘Lord, didn’t we do miracles in your name?’  And, ‘Lord, didn’t we go to church every week?”  And I will say, ‘Get away from me.  I never knew you.’

            “And so those who hear my words—like you are hearing right now—and do what I say, they will be like a child who build a castle out of stone.  A terrible storm came up one night, but the next day the castle still stood, because it was made of solid material.  But those who hear my words—like you are hearing right now—and do not do what I say, they will be like a child who build his castle out of sand.  A terrible storm came up that night, and the castle melted away with nothing left.”

All the people listened to Jesus’ words, and they were amazed at how he taught.