I grew up in a family with rules to keep us safe. To keep us from addictions, we didn’t drink, smoke, or gamble. To keep us from sexual temptation, we didn’t dance or go to movies. We were to read our Bibles and pray every day, with no work or sport on Sundays. To be holy meant to be separate from “the world.”
To be honest, I didn’t feel I was missing out. It was a rural setting, already socially isolated. It was a happy home, with parents who genuinely loved God and lived that love in our family. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
But as I grew up, I began to understand that, for adults, our rules didn’t live up to what they advertised. The rules tried to shelter us from outside influences, when the problem is within.
I’m blown away by the relational intelligence Jesus used in managing people, even those who threatened his leadership. He’d upset some locals through table fellowship with sinners, but a whole new threat level arrives when Pharisees and Bible teachers from Jerusalem come to undermine him (Matthew 15:1-2). To anyone who knows where the story is headed, this feels ominous.
Matthew 7:21–29 (NIV) 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.
Jesus’ kingship is Matthew’s dominant theme. From the introductory sentence (“anointed ruler, son of David”) to the culminating declaration (“all authority in heaven and earth”), the kingdom of God is here because the king is here.
Matthew contrasts the world’s true king with our existing rulers. Herod built fortresses to defend his kingship and armies to enforce his decrees. He used prisons to silence critics like John the Baptist. Yet, Matthew shows remarkable empathy for Herod: Herod didn’t want to kill John; he was trapped by forces beyond himself (Matthew 14:9).
I love the way Matthew juxtaposes the earthly ruler’s party for himself in his palace (14:1-12) with the heavenly king’s provision for his people in the wilderness (14:13-21). Jesus is the Son who listens to his Father (14:23). That’s why he has authority to calm not only the earth but the unruly sea (14:24-32). His followers see him as the Son with the eternal sovereign’s authority (14:33).
The crowds also recognized Jesus as he returned to Gennesaret on the northwest shore of Galilee. The men in charge of this town sent messengers to notify everyone of his arrival. They honoured him as a person of significance, the reaction appropriate for a royal visitor or a representative of God.
Who benefits from Jesus’ kingship? (No, it’s not “everyone.”)
Jesus launched his most famous sermon with promises of blessing. Who were they for? What was he promising?
Was he telling those of us who are privileged and blessed how to be our best selves, how to be more blessing? Or was he promising that the world under his kingship would be different, that those who had missed out would finally be blessed?
Some disasters are manmade. We hurt each other in our families, businesses, and communities. We’re harmed by war, racism, the injustices of power. We also face disasters beyond human control: cyclones, earthquakes, pandemics. Which kind does Jesus save us from?
Before the printing press, few people had a Bible of their own. It was a shared book. People read together. The Old Testament was the Jewish community’s story. New Testament letters were for churches. The Gospels were communal memories, reflected in the way the Synoptics use identical phrases to tell Jesus’ story.
Then the printing press gave us each a Bible of our own. Reading it as a private book, we fragmented into 40,000+ denominations. There are people in our culture who promote the notion that a text can mean whatever a reader wants (reader-response theory).
Today we tend to read the Bible alone. I bring the Bible into my private world, searching for spiritual guidance for my life. I identify each character with my struggles, glossing over the bigger story of the faithful Father who reigns across the families and generations. Almost imperceptibly, I am the centre of my universe.
It was the perfect site for a wedding: a quaint old church, perhaps the oldest in our state. Two nights before, the couple arrived for a practice. The chapel was open but unattended, so they went in and began arranging things. They didn’t know what the baptismal font was, so they were just moving it out of the way when the aged priest stormed in. To this day I can still hear the angry crescendo of his livid voice.
A priest is a representative of God. This priest was the image of an angry God waiting in the wings for you to do something wrong so he could pounce. Is God like that?
The Bible does speak of God’s anger. This week a small group leader asked about Ephesians 2:3b: Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. Is God angry with us?
It could have been today’s news: Daniel describes superpowers mistreating people of Jewish ethnicity. But he saw a higher power running the world.
What is the message of the Book of Daniel? It’s not disconnected stories of lion’s dens and fiery furnaces. It’s not a mysterious code for dating the end of the world.
Daniel wrestles with, “Who runs the world?” This was no theoretical question, given that Babylon had taken over Jerusalem. Could the kingdoms of this world implement God’s rule? Or would the restoration of God’s reign require divine intervention? And how do God’s people cope in dark times?
This podcast (32 minutes) surveys the message of Daniel — the restoration of God’s kingship in a world gone wrong.
If Jewish people find their identity in Jacob, why do Christians focus on Abraham?
Conversations make you think, especially conversations with people who see things differently to you.
Last year, I was chatting with a Rabbi about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She knew Christians emphasize Abraham, but for Jewish people the emphasis falls on the third person of the patriarchal triad. Jewish identity is children of Israel — literally, descendants of Jacob. The man Jacob was Israel in the first generation.
That’s why the name Jacob regularly referred to the nation of Israel in later generations, especially in poetic passages. The nation is not Abraham, but it is Jacob. Examples: Psalm 53 6 … let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad! Isaiah 43 1… he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel …
In the Psalms and latter prophets (Psalms – Malachi), Abraham’s name appears only 11 times, while Jacob’s name appears 127 times. The nation’s identity was primarily in Jacob, not Abraham.
What God is doing is effective: it will transform the world.
You might think it’s always off, but Eurovision really is off this year (2020).
That didn’t stop a Dutch team using a computer to generate a new Eurovision song. They fed it input from previous Eurovision hits and from social commentary site Reddit. Reportedly, it wrote a song “that crescendos as a robotic voice urges listeners to ‘kill the government, kill the system.’”
Artificial Intelligence (AI) doesn’t create those ideas. It reflects what people say. There must be quite a few anarchists reacting to the oppression and systemic injustice in the world for AI to produce that song.
Unfortunately, many of us in church don’t think of sin like that. I think of sin as my faults, the ones for which I need forgiveness, because that’s how I get saved. We lose the world-transforming power of the gospel when we reduce it to a story about me and how I can get my forgiveness. Sin isn’t just a problem in each individual. It’s the oppressive power that dominates the world, causing all the wars, all the social devastation, all the problems the anarchists react to.
Jesus acknowledged the oppressive power of sin, but offered a very different solution. The problem with “kill the government, kill the system” is that it adds fuel to the fire, feeding the cycle of violence. Jesus’ radical idea was to replace the cycle of violence (the power of sin) with God’s reign.