Twenty-eight Days With Jesus; Day 5

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Perfect.

We’ve heard some strange laws in our time and read of bizarre rules in other places. Apparently in Thailand it is illegal to step on money; in Samoa it is illegal to forget your wife’s birthday; and in France it is illegal to name a pig Napoleon. Every culture, every country and every club has its profusion of laws. The list, in fact, is endless. Have you ever wondered why?—why we need to have any laws at all?—why we can’t all get along?

When we spend time with other people we begin to notice something about ourselves: we don’t always see eye to eye on issues, and, (generally speaking, of course) in issues of differences, we tend to think our way is best. Think of an example—like, what should I wear today? That’s simple enough. If we were to ask a hundred people that question, we would likely get a hundred different answers. But in the end, we would choose for ourselves what to wear. Why? Because we fundamentally believe we are our own bosses. But of course it only takes multiplying ‘we’ by the billions of people that live and have lived on planet earth over its history and multiplying that by the number of possible conflicting ideas and we come up with nothing less than chaos if a consensus is required.

As Jesus began His public ministry in a tiny corner of earth under domination of the powerful Roman Empire, he started by talking about this fundamental state of mind we all have. He was speaking to Jews, primarily, because he was one Himself. The Jews were a people solidified through their law. Rather than being created by a committee, the law was God-given, inscribed by the divine finger on stone tablets. Remember them?

1.Worship no gods but God alone; 2.Neither make nor worship idols; 3.Do not misuse God’s name or reputation; 4.Rest every seventh day; 5.Honour your parents; 6.Do not murder; 7.Do not have extramarital sex; 8.Do not steal; 9.Do not slander others; 10.Do not crave others’ property or relationships.

That sounds clear. No one could mistake the meaning of the Big Ten. Yet fifteen hundred years later Jesus stood among the descendants of those who had received the Law. He saw the moral bankruptcy of the race He had been born into. Every command had been broken countless times over the centuries. Not one person had been able to keep the Law with the impeccable integrity it required. And it wasn’t only the Jews who had failed. They simply typified the common experience of every person on this planet.

What the teachers of the Jewish Law had engineered, though, was a means of twisting the true intent of the Law by adding a plethora of traditions to veil the deficiency. Instead of loving God with their whole heart, soul, strength and mind, and loving others as those made in the image of God, the Law had become legalistic. It had become a form for maintaining the status quo and perpetuating the hierarchy of power among the people.

Jesus enters this milieu and says something entirely different. Does He say ‘drop the façade and just do what feels right’? That’s what would make us all feel much better about the way we live our lives. No. The fifth chapter of the gospel of Matthew records Jesus saying something that turns our world upside down.

“Be perfect,” he instructs, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

What? That’s impossible! No one is perfect. No can attain that standard. Is Jesus a madman to even suggest the possibility?

No again. Jesus is the ultimate realist. He’s laying the cards on the table to show us our true reality. We are all far from perfect. We cannot get anywhere near pleasing God by keeping even the most rigorous of laws. What Jesus is saying is that He will transform people from the inside out by His indwelling Spirit. We cannot keep any law perfectly, but the Law of Christ—His perfect and powerful law of grace and love—can keep us.

He speaks to the Jews to show them that their law had become distorted; He speaks to us to show us that our own attempts at social and political and moral law have all become distorted too. Only He can redeem the shadow of what we call law to become the perfect solution of restored relationship with God and people. As we invite Jesus to rule in us we learn what that means in ways more relevant to each of our lives than any external law was ever able to do.

“To him who is able to keep you from falling,” invokes Jude, another New Testament writer, “and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.

(Picture Credit: [[File:Rembrandt – Moses with the Ten Commandments – Google Art Project.jpg|thumb|Rembrandt – Moses with the Ten Commandments – Google Art Project]])

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Twenty-eight Days with Jesus, Day 4

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OBEDIENT.

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit,” documents Matthew in his fourth chapter of the gospel named after him. We’ve encountered Jesus a chapter earlier explaining His life purpose to the sage, John, that He must “fulfill all righteousness.” There He was active and intentional. The integrity that would come to characterize everything we know about this amazing Man was first revealed there.

But now we see Jesus allowing Himself to be led. This is an important concept, and Matthew does not flinch from recording it. To be led is to follow the direction and orders of another. It is to deliberately put oneself at the mercy of another’s plans, to fulfill their purposes for you. This is what Jesus did.

Now, we ought to take note that His obedience was not a weak passivity that allowed Himself to be used by any and all. His obedience was focused wholly on the Father’s will as communicated to Him by the Holy Spirit. He was purposing to accomplish the task that He, as one of the three members of the triune God, had determined before time needed to be accomplished.

But His role of Immanuel, God with us in the flesh, meant that this determination to fulfill what He intended would come crashing head first against a barrier. He would need to personally experience the daunting interference of the devil—fallen angel, disobedient messenger and tempter of humans.

The ‘temptation of Jesus’, as recorded here in Matthew’s account is famous. We know the devil presents to Jesus three opportunities for a quick fix for Jesus’ situation as earthbound God-man: the tempter points out that stones could become warm bread at a word from the fasting Jesus—why should the Son of God (said with a sneer) be hungry? He then challenges Jesus to fling Himself off the peak of the temple of Jerusalem whereupon obedient angels would surely rescue Him—why should His minions not serve the Son of God? Satan’s grand finale is to offer Jesus the wealth and splendor of the world’s kingdoms if only Jesus would worship him for a moment—why should the creator of all not enjoy the wealth of His creation?

Yet Jesus is not daunted. He walks through barriers with an ease that belies the strength it takes to remain obedient to a true cause when every voice seems to point the other way. His answers to the tempter reflect His commitment to obey His Father, Truth itself. He points back to the Word of God, truths and commands recorded in Scriptures. And with that, the devil sullenly leaves Him.

C.S. Lewis offers us a useful thought on what this temptation would have meant for Jesus: “A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.”

So as we observe Jesus in this record of the devil’s attempt to tempt Him, we may recognize the epiphany we’ve been given. It’s a two-fold revelation. It’s an epiphany in terms of it revealing a moment when ‘you suddenly feel you understand or become conscious of something that is very important to you’ (credit to Cambridge Dictionaries Online for this definition). We realize that even when we are weakened by the strongest reasons tempting us to disown Him, the strength to remain true to God is accessible to us through Jesus’ own strength living in us. There is no temptation that is beyond Christ’s ability to help us spurn. Because of His obedience, we can be obedient too.

And secondly, it’s an epiphany in the more literal sense: a manifestation of the divine nature of Christ there in the dust and dirt of life on troubled planet earth. It wasn’t the end of the story, though. The writer of another segment of Scripture tells us about the attitude of Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

That is what obedience results in when rightly placed. This is Jesus. And this is what God wants for us.

(Photo Credit: “Jules Guérin. The Wilderness of Judea . 1910” by Jules Guérin (1866-1946)Book author: Robert Smythe Hichens – Robert Smythe Hichens, The Holy Land, 1910 p.175. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jules_Gu%C3%A9rin._The_Wilderness_of_Judea_._1910.jpg#/media/File:Jules_Gu%C3%A9rin._The_Wilderness_of_Judea_._1910.jpg)

Twenty-eight Days with Jesus; Day 3

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INTEGRITY

First impressions stay with us. They persist as a sort of foundation for everything else we come to know about a person, a place or a thing. They become the backdrop and milieu upon which we build all new information we learn.

When the author of the gospel of Matthew describes the first scenario involving Jesus as an adult, quoting the first of Jesus’ words he chose to record of Him, it makes an impression. It should. Here in the third chapter of Matthew—our Day 3 of twenty-eight days exploring the life of Jesus—we learn something foundational about Jesus. A character trait emerges that means everything to our understanding of this unique man.

We are also introduced to the religious leaders of the day. We first see them arriving at a remote desert location to ferret out the source of a grassroots movement. They are concerned an ascetic in the desert might dilute their power over the local people. There, on the banks of the Jordan River where it snakes its way through dry and dusty hills, they find an earthy hermit-like character called John. He’s performing a ritual of cleansing that had started a millennium and a half earlier as a result of an understanding of God’s great holiness.

“You brood of vipers!” challenges the baptizer, honing in on the Jewish leaders with his piercing eyes and voice as they descend the hill. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” He turns his back on them in blatant disgust. The crowds that had come to the waters in humbleness look on in disbelief.

“I baptize you with water for repentance,” explains the camel-hair-robed sage, turning to those who had come with sincerity to the water’s edge. “But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry.”

Perhaps this very day, or at the least not too many days later—we’re not told which—Jesus arrives at John’s river-baptismal. Perhaps he takes his place in the queue or maybe he is there earlier than any of the others at dawn’s break, the desert night’s chill still on the sand.

John tries to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Why should the sinless Son of God submit Himself to a rite of cleansing?

Jesus answers, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” So, we’re told, John consented. He baptized the Holy One and was one of those who heard a Voice from heaven thunder, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

There is a theme in this chapter that runs like a golden thread through the characters to whom we are introduced. It’s about integrity. The unorthodox John who understands his role as one who would “in the desert prepare the way for the LORD”—we see his integrity in his humble admission of need for purity in contrast to Jesus at the river’s edge; the proud Pharisees and Sadducees, arriving to quash this upstart revival of people tired of living meaningless lives—we see the leaders’ lack of integrity in their deficiency of what John calls ‘fruit’, evidence of humility toward God, compassion and mercy toward their followers; the crowds, ‘sheep without a shepherd’, people like you and me who realize that God is holy and we are not—people who are willing to open their hearts to be changed so that their outward lives will be transformed; and we see Jesus—the One whose primary goal was to “fulfill all righteousness”, to live a perfect, sinless, obedient to-the-Father life of integrity in the keeping of a promise made millennia earlier. That promise was to be the seed that would develop fruit to bless all people everywhere.

The perfectly complete integrity of Jesus is the only hope for humankind. By it we may accept God’s forgiveness. By it we may enter into a new life and hope. And by it we may resource integrity growing from the inside out of our own lives day by day.

This ‘Day 3’ message calls out to us from Matthew’s gospel with piercing clarity and truth. We know deep inside we fail miserably every day in our attempts to live with integrity, when we try it on our own. Yet, as Matthew tells us, there is One who is for us, will live in us and through us if we are willing. Let’s come to Jesus, the completely righteous Son who longs to live His integrity through us with only a word from us—yes.

(Photo Credit: “ArugotRiver” by Maglanist at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ArugotRiver.jpg#/media/File:ArugotRiver.jpg)

Twenty-eight Days with Jesus; Day 2

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No Surprises.

We all love a good surprise: a twenty dollar bill discovered in the pocket of a long-unused item of clothing, an unexpected gift of something we truly need, a raise in pay, a sunny day when the forecast is for rain. When our dreams become reality and we must reorient ourselves to the happy truth—that’s a good surprise.

But equally possible are the bad surprises: unexpected expenses, sudden inconveniences, and unannounced visits of one’s least favourite relatives; vehicles needing repairs, bodies needing repairs and relationships needing repairs. When our nightmares become reality and we must adjust to the unhappy situation—those are bad surprises.

As Matthew narrates the second chapter of his biography of the life of Jesus, something becomes exceedingly clear: Jesus’ life was neither an accident, a whim, nor a surprise. God had been planning this event for a very long time.

To Mary and Joseph, though, the earthly parents who were tasked with raising Jesus like any other child, it was a rocky beginning. Everything seemed to be going wrong. Having to travel during Mary’s final days of pregnancy due to a governmental decree of census-taking had forced the couple to be in the unlikely town of Bethlehem when the baby Jesus was born—far from the comforts of home and family. Not long after, the young trio was constrained to flee the country due to the sweeping infanticide decreed by Herod the Great, tetrarch of Galilee. Again, Mary and Joseph must have been troubled over the surprising circumstances that seemed to war against a quiet, peaceful existence. Finally, as recorded in the second chapter of the gospel of Matthew, the young couple and baby detoured from returning to Judea because of a third dictator, and chose instead the small town of Nazareth in which to settle. It had been a tumultuous beginning for the infant Jesus. Life had been full of menacing surprises already. Mary and Joseph must have wondered, ‘where is God in the midst of all this?’

But Matthew, like any good biographer, had time to dig deeper and discover some interesting information that fills in a few more details for us—details that Mary and Joseph may not have noticed initially.

“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,” Matthew quotes the prophet Micah of the 8th century B.C., “ are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.” The all-knowing God had seen the future events that would cause His Son’s birth to occur in Bethlehem, and had left the clue for generations to ponder.

“Out of Egypt,” Matthew proceeds to quote Hosea, another ancient prophet and mouthpiece of God, “I called my son.” Again, surprising circumstances in Mary, Joseph and Jesus’ life, like their escape from Herod, refugee status in Egypt, and return to Israel, were no surprise to God; they were seen, contemplated, and used by God to realize purposes that only God knew were necessary.

Matthew then gives us the third and final evidence for his premise that nothing is a surprise to the All-knowing One: Matthew tells us the prophet Isaiah, speaking of the awaited Messiah, observes, “He will be called a Nazarene.”

The truth suggested by this evidence is that God is not surprised by either the worst or the best of events that come into people’s lives. He sees all of time in His ever-present state. Matthew’s disclosures lead us to understand something of great importance, of great relevance for our own lives. Just as the Father was not surprised by difficult circumstances that would threaten His own incarnate Son from the earliest days of His journey on earth as a human, He is not surprised by events that surprise us. He knows the difficult situations this troubled world will bring upon us at times. He sees the sorrows and tragedies we face. And in His great wisdom, He chooses to use those difficulties to make us new people, stronger people; people with character traits more like His Son Jesus.

Listen to what a later Biblical writer explains, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the first-born among many brothers” (Romans 8:28).

The lesson for us is clear: Since nothing surprises God, we can rest in knowing there are no ‘worst case scenarios’ for us. Our purpose is simply to love Him and entrust ourselves to Him in every situation, and leave the good outcomes to Him. Ever-present with us, God will be faithful to give us the strength to face life’s surprises with courage and peace. He did it for Jesus and He will do it for us. Count on it.

(Photo Credit: [[File:UAE Beware of road surprises – Flickr – woody1778a.jpg|thumb|UAE Beware of road surprises – Flickr – woody1778a]])

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus

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Day 1: Riddle Explained

We all love a riddle. Author J.R.R. Tolkien gives us one in the story of The Hobbit when Bilbo Baggins and Gollum contend in a battle of wits. “Thirty white horses on a red hill,” begins Bilbo, “first they champ, then they stamp, then they stand still.”

The answer is teeth.

Riddling goes back a long way. Norse mythology included riddles such as this: “Four hang, four sprang, two point the way, two to ward off dogs, one dangles after, always rather dirty. What am I?” Familiarity with a more agricultural environment might help with this one. The answer is: a cow.

There are riddles in the Bible too. Samson’s riddle (“Out of the eater something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet”—answer: honey from a honeycomb built in the carcass of a dead lion), posed to his Philistine wedding party, became the unhappy cause of the failure of his new marriage. But only one riddle has had the power to change the story of earth and its inhabitants for unimaginable good.

Isaiah, prophet of the eighth century B.C., spoke of a “sign” that would signal God’s plan to bring freedom to earth’s inhabitants. “The virgin will be with child,” he began, “and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Many of us have heard this riddle so often it fails to carry the impact it would have had to those first listeners. There are two puzzling situations described: a pregnant virgin, and a child called “God” (Immanuel meaning “God with us”).

In the opening verses of Matthew’s account of the life and times of Jesus, this ancient riddle is remembered. The virgin is a girl named Mary. The embryo growing in her womb is not only a product of chromosomes contributed by the Holy Spirit, but the baby boy is God Himself, come in the flesh to experience humanity firsthand. The riddle is explained after eight hundred years.

But even in the first scene of Matthew’s gospel account of the life and times of Jesus a new riddle is announced. It is delivered to Joseph, the young man who will take Mary home as his wife, fully knowing of her pregnant condition and trusting she is still a virgin. This riddle is meant to console him, no doubt. It’s not the fairy-tale beginning of a marriage he had imagined when he first dreamed of wedding this girl. Joseph’s plans have been sidelined by God’s bigger plan for Joseph’s role as husband and foster father. Joseph is directed to prepare to name the baby boy ‘Yeshua’ (‘Jesus’ in English) because the name means ‘the LORD saves’—“because he will save his people from their sins.”

This is the riddle that concerns us today. Day One of coming alongside the earthly life of Jesus finds every one of us transported into the midst of the riddle concerning Him. We are the people. Every person is an integral part of the race of humanity created by God, and according to the riddle we need to be saved. We are on some downward spiral to destruction apart from what Jesus came to accomplish for us.

Subsequent days of exploring Matthew’s biography of Jesus will show us more—will help us observe what is recorded about Jesus’ life, show us how He lived, tell us what He actually said. Why are we interested? Because those who discover the truth behind the best of riddles have gained wisdom that is of great value in life; the riddle concerning Jesus and us is no ordinary riddle.

Jesus, grant us the grace to understand the riddle of your intentions for us, we the people You have created. Enable us to have hearts fully open to grasping the truth of your life; give us minds open to insight into our own situation of needing to be saved. We call on You to inhabit our twenty-eight day journey alongside You. Amen.

(Photo Credit: “Laughing Boy” by Josh Giovo from USA – Little Bugger. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Laughing_Boy.jpg#/media/File:Laughing_Boy.jpg)

News That Moves Us

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Terrorist attacks on Paris. Syrian refugees. Lufthansa pilot-forced airliner crash. The top news stories of 2015 have been about tragedies. When we hear about calamities and catastrophes, we are shocked; we are shaken out of our own comfortable routines and forced to pay attention to the hardships and extremities of others. The response of many countries to help resettle Syrian refugees forced from their own war-torn country shows that some news moves us enough to cause us to act.

It’s worth taking a look at this phenomenon—not necessarily of the refugee situation, or of attacks of some people against others—but of news that moves us. What is it about certain news that causes us to be willing to change our routines, our norms, and even our foundational goals for the sake of others? What is it that causes us to make a paradigm shift in our thinking and behaviour as a result of some news?

I believe news only changes us when we see its relevance to our own lives. When we see or hear news that rings true and that strikes a resonating chord with us, we are changed. Our thinking changes, our emotions often express that change, and our behaviours change.

The Bible talks about this same phenomenon.

God made a promise thousands of years ago to the human race. It was spoken specifically to Abraham but it referred to every one of us who would ever live. That promise was the epitome of news. The bottom line of what God said to Abraham was, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

This wasn’t a vague blessing bestowed by a benevolent but somewhat passive divine being upon His vast creation. It was news that God had begun a series of intricately timed occurrences that would culminate in an outrageous event: His own incarnation as one of us—for the express purpose of rescue. Why rescue? Think hard and deep.

Think about life. Think about the times you’ve messed up—we all have. Think about what it could be like if it was perfect. God designed life to be perfect for us, but we are a rebellious lot, to be truthful. We need someone to rescue us from ourselves, and Jesus is that Someone.

If that news strikes home, if it pierces to your very soul and is more relevant to you than anything else on this planet, then you’ve heard news that will move you. It will move you to entrust the remainder of your days and your eternity to Him. It will move you admit daily that you fall short of His hopes for you, but it will allow you to submit yourself to His gracious work changing your character to become like His—true and honest and good. It will move you to love God and love your neighbour in ever-expanding ways.

Sadly, not every one of us will benefit from this news. Like the many who ignore the plight of Syrian refugees, turn a blind eye to the hurting in the world, or give nothing more than a passing glance at the real cause of this world’s turmoil, the good news of Jesus will not take root in everyone’s lives. God gives us a choice. He presents it as news in the best way each of us can understand and leaves the response to us.

Honestly, our worst response is to reject the offer, to ignore it, to try some other means of finding relief from our troubles or to hide them altogether. But our best response is just to simply trust Him—to say it, to think on it and to act on it. That’s when God’s good news moves us the way it was intended to.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That’s amazing news.

(Photo Credit: “International newspaper, Rome May 2005”. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:International_newspaper,_Rome_May_2005.jpg#/media/File:International_newspaper,_Rome_May_2005.jpg)