“I’m Just Saying…”

I’m a bit of a student of language. 

I always find it interesting when a certain phrase becomes commonplace.  This one is on the way out, but remember, “I know, right?”  Whenever you were talking with someone, and they agreed with what you’re saying, they often would say, “I know, right?” 

When I lived in the South, this was a good one.  “Bless his heart.” “Bless her heart.”  It was license to then say whatever you want.  Like this, “Bless his heart, but he’s as dumb as a rock.”

Now, it’s “I’m just saying.”  This usually follows a stinging criticism.  As in, “You’re a narcissist, egomaniac, and a control freak.  I’m just saying.”  (Some of you might recognize this as a description of a certain someone of a popular reality TV show.  Don’t judge.)  While “I’m just saying” wasn’t said there, it could have been.  It’s a curious phrase.  We tack it on, like it lessens the harshness of the words? 

Don’t judge again, but I have a bit of a sarcastic streak in me.  So when I hear someone say, “I”m just saying,” I kind of want to say: “Oh, I thought you were just being harsh and judgmental….but you’re saying that you’re just saying.”  What does that even mean?

We have a Christian equivalent.  When we want to harshly say something to someone, we can tack on, “Hey, I’m just speaking the truth in love.”  It comes from a portion of a verse in Ephesians 4.  It is totally taken out of context.  But if we’re honest, we like to do that with the Bible—take things out of context to suit our purposes. 

The whole context of the passage where Paul writes these words is much different than an interpersonal conflict.  Paul is writing to a group of believers in a city called Ephesus, modern day Turkey.  The believers in Jesus there are surrounded by all kinds of influences, including the city dedicated to the worship of the goddess Artemis.  In a fascinating story, you can read more about that in Acts 19–how Paul wanted to speak in front of a frenzied crowd chanting the name of Artemis! 

But Paul’s letter to the believers in Ephesus was meant to encourage them—to help them remember they indeed are adopted sons and daughters of God.  To encourage them to remain steadfast, growing in their knowledge and love of Jesus.  Paul wants to remind them of what they once were, so that they might not judge others.  And how the grace of God has made them new.  In the 4th chapter of the letter, Paul calls to the Ephesians to live out their identity, forgiving one another, growing together in maturity.  Each one, Paul says, is to use the gifts given to them for the greater community. 

Then, Paul decides to talk about babies, boats, and gamblers.

In a mixture of metaphors, Paul writes, “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teachings and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.”   First he talks about infants, or babies.  When a group of people commit themselves to using their God-given gifts for the greater good, bringing about unity and maturity, we will no longer be babies.  That metaphor didn’t seem to be enough, because Paul then talks about boats.  Boats in a storm are those tossed back and forth in a storm.  I reached out to a sailor in our congregation, and he told me that a boat without a direction is in trouble.  He wrote,

When a ship is not holding to a specific course it is simply at the mercy of the sea just like a piece of driftwood.

Finally, Paul talks about the cunning and craftiness of people.  The word Paul chooses for “cunning” is an interesting one.  It is the Greek word, “kubeia,” which literally means “dice-playing.”  The connotation here is a cheating gambler that loads the dice to deceive those playing. 

Paul, having spent time with believers in Ephesus, must have known the challenges they faced.  Being new to the faith, being without a course or direction, and perhaps being surrounded by those wanting to deceive them.  How do you stand in the face of all that?

Well, it is out of all that that Paul writes, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is Christ.”  The implications are many, and it’s pretty hard to justify using “speaking the truth in love” as a Christian version of “I’m just saying.”  Paul says we speak the truth in love—and in so doing, we will grow up to become a community that reflects Christ to the world.  Sure, we might speak the truth in love to someone else in our community, but the foundation is love, and the goal is maturity and growth. 

Let’s be honest.  Sometimes those that call on Christ are known way more for “just saying” things that aren’t done out of love at all.  In reading this passage again—perhaps Paul had in mind both an internal and external audience.  We speak the truth in love—to each other, and to the world.  I think that Paul is saying that when a group of people, growing and maturing together, becoming more like Jesus, using their gifts together—when that community speaks out of love, people will listen.  And maybe we will be known not only for our words, but the love of Jesus in us as we speak truth. 

Questions for individuals:  Have you ever had someone confront you in something, but did it in a way that was unloving?  How did you take that?  On the other hand, did you ever have someone that you knew loved you, confront you, and it moved you to do something about it?  How might that change the way you speak to others? 

Questions for children and families: Paul speaks of us “being tossed back and forth, blown by the wind.” As my sailor friend said, a boat gets tossed and could get damaged when it isn’t heading on a certain course.  Have a conversation as a family:  where are we heading as a family?  What is our goal?  (As fall is approaching, with schedules filling up, how might that goal shape how you spend your time?)

Questions for the workplace:  Look at Paul’s phrase again:  “Speaking the truth…in love.”  What kind of culture exists in your workplace?  Is it one in which criticisms and “feedback” are given without regard for one’s feelings, in unloving ways?  Or, is it one in which you feel appreciated, even loved, for who you are?  Is it unrealistic to recognize “the whole person” in the workplace—their needs, dreams, emotions, struggles, and the rest? 

When Jesus Meets Snapchat

[artist credit: Sermon on the Mount, by Juanita Cole Towery]

“Do we realize that our sons and daughters have grown up in a world of social media, which is inherently judgmental?”  I was listening to Dr. Tim Davis, the Executive Director of the department of Resilience and Leadership at the University of Virginia last week.  My ears perked up. I had been studying Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”  –Matthew 7:1

Dr. Davis went on briefly to explain how so many people have grown up with a daily ritual of posting something on a social media platform, and then waiting to see who likes, loves, retweets, or comments.  In essence, they are waiting to see how they are judged.  

Then, my wife sent me an article on how teens are using Snapchat, and how “streaks” are vital to sustaining friendships.

https://www.businessinsider.com/teens-explain-snapchat-streaks-why-theyre-so-addictive-and-important-to-friendships-2017-4

Some of us might not use social media that frequently, and might find ourselves saying, “Well, that’s just silly.”  But is it? There was a quote from Jules Spector, one of the teens interviewed, that struck me: 

“I think in some weird way it makes concrete a feeling of a friendship. Like, you can talk to someone every day, but a streak is physical evidence that you talk every day.”

This is simply today’s version of relationships feeling more real, more consistent.  In a digital age, is it any wonder that so many of us want some evidence of relationship?  

So what does Jesus have to say about all this?  If he says, “Don’t judge,” and social media is judgmental, do we give up on that?  Or, do we chalk up Jesus’ words to being outdated and irrelevant? (If we’re honest, we often do this, especially with the Sermon on the Mount—Matthew 5-7). 

When we dig deeper, we find Jesus’ words to be both convicting and life-giving.  

The Bible actually has a lot to say about being slow to judge.  And there is a similar refrain: be careful when you judge, because you do the same things.  

Hear these words from Romans 2:1:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.  

That refrain is present here in Matthew 7.  Jesus says we are to look at ourselves, the “plank” in our own eye, before we go to remove a little speck from another’s eye.  

Some of us might be wondering, “OK, so are we not to judge at all?  Isn’t there a place for discernment? Is it realistic to really walk through life without judging someone?”  

As we’ve mentioned before in this series on “How We Get Along” with others, is it likely that Jesus is not just handing down new laws to be obeyed.  “Don’t judge or else.” But, to get us to ask the question, “What kind of person would not judge so quickly?”  

Digging deeper, scholars on this passage say something interesting.  Namely, that Jesus is not saying to never judge, but to examine our hearts to see if we have a certain kind of judging spirit:

“What our Lord means to condemn is a censorious and fault-finding spirit.  A readiness to blame others for trifling offenses or matters of indifference, a habit of passing rash and hasty judgments, a disposition to magnify the errors and infirmities of our neighbors and make the worst of them—this is what our Lord forbids.”  JC Ryle

And again, “In short, the unnoticed log is often the critical spirit itself.”  Dale Bruner

This is the convicting part for me.  How often do I find myself judging others with a critical, fault-finding spirit?  How quickly can I dismiss a person, squash an idea, make unfounded assumptions, and more?  

This is the life-giving part.  Jesus is offering a way out. Actually, Jesus is pointing to a way of life where I am set free from such tendencies.  First look at the plank in my life, he says. When I find myself thinking or saying judgmental things about others, can I immediately look at times I have said or thought similar things?  When I find myself judging someone else’s behavior, can I immediately look at times when I have done something similar? When I do this, does my attitude change towards others?

So what about social media in all of this?  What might Jesus say about all of that? First, I wonder if he might long for people to be set free from finding affirmation and identity in how many likes and loves they get.  It only lasts as long as you see it. And it only creates in us a desire to get more the next time. (True confession: If you don’t think I look at how many views I get on these blog posts, you’re wrong!).  Second, I wonder if he would want us to be less judgmental and harsh about the things we see and read there. Have you ever written a post, an email, a letter in anger and then regretted it later? And finally, that we would understand the generations that have grown up with a way of relating that has been inherently judgmental, and be a un-hypocritical people that points the way to a love that is unconditional.  

Questions for individuals:  If there is a person that you are too critical towards, who is it?  How helpful do you think your critical words are to them? Can you picture yourself asking for forgiveness from them, and honestly asking them if you have ever hurt them with your words?  If there is a group of people that you are critical towards, who is it? Is there something you might not be seeing about them, that is true about yourself?  

Questions for kids and families:  When I was growing up, kids were often judged by things like this:  how good they were at sports, how good they were at games on the playground, how good they were at school, how they dressed, who they hung out with, and a lot more.  Talk with your family about the things you think kids are judged on today, and if you feel judged. What do you think Jesus might have to say about those things?

Questions for the workplace:  Perhaps the place you work uses “evaluations” or “assessments,” and you either are in charge of giving them, or you receive them regularly.  In either case, you are called upon to judge others, or be judged. How can these be done in a way that is less “fault-finding,” and more constructive, or help you grow, or help you grow others?

When Jesus Meets Snapchat

[artist credit: Sermon on the Mount by Juanita Cole Towery]

“Do we realize that our sons and daughters have grown up in a world of social media, which is inherently judgmental?”  I was listening to Dr. Tim Davis, the Executive Director of the department of Resilience and Leadership at the University of Virginia last week.  My ears perked up. I had been studying Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”  

Dr. Davis went on briefly to explain how so many people have grown up with a daily ritual of posting something on a social media platform, and then waiting to see who likes, loves, retweets, or comments.  In essence, they are waiting to see how they are judged.  

Then, my wife sent me an article on how teens are using Snapchat, and how “streaks” are vital to sustaining friendships.

https://www.businessinsider.com/teens-explain-snapchat-streaks-why-theyre-so-addictive-and-important-to-friendships-2017-4

Some of us might not use social media that frequently, and might find ourselves saying, “Well, that’s just silly.”  But is it? There was a quote from Jules Spector, one of the teens interviewed, that struck me: 

“I think in some weird way it makes concrete a feeling of a friendship. Like, you can talk to someone every day, but a streak is physical evidence that you talk every day.”

This is simply today’s version of relationships feeling more real, more consistent.  In a digital age, is it any wonder that so many of us want some evidence of relationship?  

So what does Jesus have to say about all this?  If he says, “Don’t judge,” and social media is judgmental, do we give up on that?  Or, do we chalk up Jesus’ words to being outdated and irrelevant? (If we’re honest, we often do this, especially with the Sermon on the Mount—Matthew 5-7). 

When we dig deeper, we find Jesus’ words to be both convicting and life-giving.  

The Bible actually has a lot to say about being slow to judge.  And there is a similar refrain: be careful when you judge, because you do the same things.  

Hear these words from Romans 2:1:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.  

That refrain is present here in Matthew 7.  Jesus says we are to look at ourselves, the “plank” in our own eye, before we go to remove a little speck from another’s eye.  

Some of us might be wondering, “OK, so are we not to judge at all?  Isn’t there a place for discernment? Is it realistic to really walk through life without judging someone?”  

As we’ve mentioned before in this series on “How We Get Along” with others, is it likely that Jesus is not just handing down new laws to be obeyed.  “Don’t judge or else.” But, to get us to ask the question, “What kind of person would not judge so quickly?”  

Digging deeper, scholars on this passage say something interesting.  Namely, that Jesus is not saying to never judge, but to examine our hearts to see if we have a certain kind of judging spirit:

“What our Lord means to condemn is a censorious and fault-finding spirit.  A readiness to blame others for trifling offenses or matters of indifference, a habit of passing rash and hasty judgments, a disposition to magnify the errors and infirmities of our neighbors and make the worst of them—this is what our Lord forbids.”  JC Ryle, Crossway Bible Commentary

And again, “In short, the unnoticed log is often the critical spirit itself.”  Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary

This is the convicting part for me.  How often do I find myself judging others with a critical, fault-finding spirit?  How quickly can I dismiss a person, squash an idea, make unfounded assumptions, and more?  

This is the life-giving part.  Jesus is offering a way out. Actually, Jesus is pointing to a way of life where I am set free from such tendencies.  First look at the plank in my life, he says. When I find myself thinking or saying judgmental things about others, can I immediately look at times I have said or thought similar things?  When I find myself judging someone else’s behavior, can I immediately look at times when I have done something similar? When I do this, does my attitude change towards others?

So what about social media in all of this?  What might Jesus say about all of that? First, I wonder if he might long for people to be set free from finding affirmation and identity in how many likes and loves they get.  It only lasts as long as you see it. And it only creates in us a desire to get more the next time. (True confession: If you don’t think I look at how many views I get on these blog posts, you’re wrong!).  Second, I wonder if he would want us to be less judgmental and harsh about the things we see and read there. Have you ever written a post, an email, a letter in anger and then regretted it later? And finally, that we would understand the generations that have grown up with a way of relating that has been inherently judgmental, and be a un-hypocritical people that points the way to a love that is unconditional.  

Questions for individuals:  If there is a person that you are too critical towards, who is it?  How helpful do you think your critical words are to them? Can you picture yourself asking for forgiveness from them, and honestly asking them if you have ever hurt them with your words?  If there is a group of people that you are critical towards, who is it? Is there something you might not be seeing about them, that is true about yourself?  

Questions for kids and families:  When I was growing up, kids were often judged by things like this:  how good they were at sports, how good they were at games on the playground, how good they were at school, how they dressed, who they hung out with, and a lot more.  Talk with your family about the things you think kids are judged on today, and if you feel judged. What do you think Jesus might have to say about those things?

Questions for the workplace:  Perhaps the place you work uses “evaluations” or “assessments,” and you either are in charge of giving them, or you receive them regularly.  In either case, you are called upon to judge others, or be judged. How can these be done in a way that is less “fault-finding,” and more constructive, or help you grow, or help you grow others?

How To Get Along…by “Bear-ing”.

We are in our second week of our series on “How to Get Along.” Last week, we saw how vital it was to Jesus to teach us to take the initiative of reconciliation (Matthew 5:23). Perhaps my “radar” is up to look in Scripture for how many things there are for us to consider when it comes to our relationships with one another.  In Colossians 3:12-17, the apostle Paul is writing to a community of followers of Jesus. He uses this language of “putting off and putting on” to communicate what a new life of listening and obeying Jesus looks like. After strongly telling them to put to death certain things, he then mentions putting away or “putting off” these things:

anger, rage, malice, slander, obscene talk, and lying.  

I look at each of these words and see how each one is tied to our relationships with one another.  Sure, we can get “angry with the world,” or even angry with God for our lot in life. But primarily, we are angry at one another.  Our rage has a target—sometimes intended, sometimes unintended—and that target is usually another person. We have malice towards another, we slander someone else.  Our obscene talk is directed at someone else. And finally, we can lie to ourselves, but we more often lie to others.

This life of following Jesus is intensely relational.  

New Testament scholar Donald Guthrie calls these things we must put off, “social irritants.”  To be honest, when I first read these words, I chuckled to myself. “Um, with all due respect, I think they are more than irritants.”  But I looked up the definition, and it speaks of two kinds of irritants:  things that cause inflammation and discomfort in the body; and, something that is a continual annoyance or distraction.  

As someone who deals with a disease that can cause persistent inflammation in my body (celiac disease), I reflected a bit more on that definition.  I know I have undertaken all kinds of things in my life to reduce inflammation. Diet, lifestyle, exercise, supplements. I was given a diagnosis, and told that fighting inflammation is key.  So I began that fight.

Do I fight against these “social irritants” of anger, rage, slander and the rest in the same way?  Have I changed the “diet of my thought life,” changed how I live, have I sought out “exercises” and “supplements” for my life that might free me from such things as these?  Or, have I begun to love nursing my anger and can’t imagine a life without it?

Fortunately, Paul gives what Guthrie calls “social ointments” to begin healing those irritants.  He says we are to put on the following things:

compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and love.  

There is too much here in each of these words to fit in this space.  So I want to specifically focus on this verse:

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.   —Colossians 3:13

A variety of English translations translate this verse differently.  “Bear” with someone literally means to be patient. “Grievance” means you blame someone else for something.  We live in a world where our patience is constantly tested, and we are tempted to blame at every turn. Is Paul saying that we simply “stop being impatient,” and “stop blaming”?

It’s important to remember something here.  Last week, I said Jesus in Matthew 5 is not necessarily saying “Don’t be angry.”  He painted a picture of what someone would do if they were the kind of person who sought out reconciliation first, even in the midst of something important.  In the same way, we all know that it is very difficult to read “Be patient,” and just do that.

Instead, what if we began to ask ourselves, “How can I become the kind of person who is more patient, and quick to forgive?”  

One place to start is where Paul ends this verse:  

“Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”  

Read that again.  

Think about what that means.  For what has the Lord forgiven you?  Is it little, or is it much?

When I ask that question, I can’t help but think of a story we find in the gospels.  When Jesus is invited to dinner in the home of a man named Simon, a woman who had a less-than-perfect reputation came.  She begins to wet the feet of Jesus with her tears, and anoints his feet with expensive perfume. Simon assumes Jesus doesn’t know the woman’s reputation, and slanders Jesus’ reputation in his heart—“he must not be a prophet.”  Jesus somehow knows what Simon is thinking. He tells him a parable of two people—one whom owed much, one whom owed little. Both debts are forgiven, and Jesus gets Simon to answer the question: “Which will love the moneylender more?”  Simon answers, “The one who had the bigger debt canceled.” Jesus then turns the attention back to the woman, effectively saying, “Whoever is forgiven much, loves much,” or loves with extravagance.

The point is clear.  When we have in view how much we have been forgiven, we are on a pathway to show the extravagance of love that Jesus has for us.    

When you begin to think about all that the Lord has forgiven you, and THEN you look at the person against whom you have a complaint, does your perspective change?  

I will end with this.  This section of the letter ends with Paul writing these words:  

“Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

What does it mean to “do all things” in the name of Jesus?

Donald Guthrie offers this:

“In the New Testament church this would be regarded as no mere superstitious uttering of the name as a magical formula in the manner of many contemporary heathen cults, but as a recognition of the Lordship of Christ in everything.”  Donald Guthrie, The New Bible Commentary [emphasis mine].  

Questions for you:  Guthrie writes about the early church learning to recognize the Lordship of Christ in everything.  When you think of Jesus as Lord, do you think He is Lord over every area of your life? What parts of your day, what parts of your week, your schedule, your thoughts, priorities and dreams is Jesus a part of, and where is He absent?  What would it look like for you to include Him in those places?

Against whom might you have a complaint?  Whom might Jesus be calling you to forgive?  Could you be more patient with them? Has Jesus forgiven you of anything similar to which you are blaming the other?

Questions for children and families:  Talk amongst yourselves about the times when it is hard to be patient.  Perhaps it was waiting in line for a turn on a ride, getting to your destination on a road trip, or when you would finally get dessert.  How quickly did you find yourself getting angry, speaking poorly about someone, blaming someone, or even lying to get what you wanted? What would being patient look like instead?  What would it look like to forgive people in those circumstances instead?

Questions for your workplace:  In your place of work, how many times have you seen examples of anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language, or lying?  How many times have you promoted those things with your own words? Speaking things that verge on slander of a co-worker or boss, a client or customer, a parent, teacher, or someone else?  Where might compassion, kindness, forgiveness, or patience have a place in your workplace? What would be the risks? What would be the rewards? What would it look like if love brought unity, and peace ruled, with the people you work alongside?

How To Get Along

Believe it or not, Jesus has a lot of things to say to those who claim to follow Him about how to get along. In fact, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), considered by many to be the most profound spiritual teaching ever written, contains multiple references to how we are to handle conflict, whether we are to seek revenge, how we make promises to one another, and more.

This past spring, I took the opportunity to audit a class offered by Fuller Seminary. It was entitled, “One Body, Many Frustrations: A Systems Approach to Conflict in Congregations.” It was taught by Cameron Lee, a long time member of the faculty at Fuller, a licensed marriage and family therapist. A “systems approach” is nothing more than a recognition that every group can begin to behave as a “system,” like a system in the body—the circulatory system, the respiratory system, etc. In fact, when the apostle Paul refers to the church as the “body of Christ,” we can see that within the body are multiple systems. Each of those systems behave in a certain way because of how they were created and designed, and they depend on one another (as Paul points out in I Corinthians 12).

In a community of people like the church, those systems, Professor Lee taught us, were created by shared stories, feelings and memories that go with those stories, and the rules, structures, and policies that came out of those stories and feelings, and so on. Conflict naturally comes when new decisions, or people unfamiliar with the history and rules, come into relationship with the existing systems. Because we are always changing, reforming as a church, conflict is inevitable. So, how do we get along with one another when conflict comes?

Over the next six weeks, we’re going to look at just a few of Jesus’ sayings in the gospel of Matthew, and Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus. In the guide below, I hope to ask each week some questions for reflection for us as individuals. And, that families with kids could ask these in their homes, perhaps around the dinner table. Finally, those at work could imagine how these teachings might play out in the workplace. Feel free to adapt any of these as you wish. My hope is that we might be changed by the word of God in these passages, through the conviction and comfort of the Holy Spirit. And we might learn how to get along in the way of Jesus.

Week 1

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Jesus, Matthew 5:23

Would you leave your own wedding, at the moment of the vows, and go and meet with someone that you knew was angry with you? That is the analogy that Dallas Willard gives in his book, The Divine Conspiracy, to explain the weight of Jesus’ words here. We are removed from the context of the ritual of offering gifts at the altar of a temple. But Willard argues that the picture that Jesus was painting was one that would be familiar with the crowd. The ritual of offering your gift at the altar was an elaborate one. There were certain rules, certain expectations, and one of those expectations was that nothing would interrupt this sacred ceremony.

First, it is important that we set the context of this famous sermon of Jesus, named the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7). Jesus begins with “beatitudes,” a description of who really is well-off in God’s kingdom. It is not who we think. Jesus turns the common thinking of his day upside-down by saying it is the poor, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the peacemakers, and the pure in heart. And, those who are still hungering and thirsting after right relationship—with God, and with others. Jesus is telling the crowd, and us, that God sees the down-and-out, those suffering, those who know they aren’t in control, those who are seeking God and wanting to live in peace with others. And in that condition, not because of their condition, but IN that condition, that God’s presence and power are available.

Next, Jesus says that his hearers are salt and light in the world. Those who will live by these teachings of his will be those that add flavor to the world, help preserve it from rotting (the use of salt in Jesus’ day), and will illuminate all that is good, true, and beautiful. Then, Jesus tells us why he is here. Not to abolish the laws of God, but to show what fulfillment of those laws really looks like.

It is out of all of this teaching that Jesus then moves to this passage. It is interesting to note that Jesus begins his most famous teaching by stressing the importance of relationship with one another. This passage we are looking at comes in the context of a commandment not to murder. It is one of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20. Jesus pushes us all past a cursory obedience to that commandment to reveal the source of murder: anger. Jesus is showing us that it from the well of anger that murder comes, and we must drain the water from that well. So we must become the kind of person that is not mastered by anger.

Jesus then uses this illustration in Matthew 5:23 to show what that would look like. The person who builds their house on the teachings of Jesus would be one who, in the midst of performing a religious or cultural ritual, would see that the more important thing would be reconciliation with a friend, relative, co-worker, or neighbor.

Willard, again in The Divine Conspiracy, makes it a point to emphasize this about Jesus’ teaching. The point is not that we do these things. Rather, we embark upon the journey to become the kind of person who would do these things.

He writes, “Now just think of what the quality of life and character must be in a person who would routinely interrupt sacred rituals to pursue reconciliation with a fellow human being. What kind of thought life, what feeling tones and moods, what habits of body and mind, what kinds of deliberations and choices would you find in such a person? When you answer these questions, you will have a vision of the true “rightness beyond” that is at home in God’s kingdom of power and love.” (Divine Conspiracy, 156)

May we embark on a journey to be at home in God’s kingdom of power and love, and learn to truly get along.

Questions for reflection:

Willard mentions “quality of life and character,” “thought life, feeling tones and moods,” and “habits of body and mind” that might enable someone to do what Jesus describes in Matthew 5:23. What comes to mind when you read those words? Which of those might be lacking in your own life? What might Jesus be calling you to give up, or to add, to lean into Him to become that kind of person?

Questions for families and kids:

What are the situations at home, or at school, that you find causing fights among you? Are you holding onto any grudges with someone else? What might Jesus say to you about those grudges?

Questions for your work:

I’m picturing here a boss holding a meeting to announce a big development in the company—perhaps the launching of a new product. Can you imagine the boss stopping the presentation and telling everyone he or she needed to reconcile with a co-worker first? What would that communicate to those present at the meeting? What would you think about the character of that boss?

Choosing Our Own Adventures

When I was a kid, I remember reading the “choose your own adventure” books by R.A. Montgomery. If you missed out, they went like this: You were the main character of the story, as a deep sea diver looking for Atlantis, or a mountain climber looking for the elusive Abominable Snowman, or a space explorer–you get the idea. At pivotal points in the story, you had the opportunity to choose. To follow a guide, to stay and fight, or try and escape. Depending on what you chose, you either found the lost city, or worse, fell to a certain death. The beauty of these books was that some of them, while only a little over one hundred pages long, had something like over forty possible endings.

Have you ever thought about what your life could have been, had you not made certain choices?

Life is a series of choices.  But sometimes we feel we are not free to make the choices we want to make.

For the last several weeks, at our church we’ve been looking at a letter from a man named Paul, who ended up writing the majority of the New Testament letters.  Something happened in his life that apparently brought him to a place of freedom.  He later writes in this letter, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1)

In this letter, Paul seemed to be free from a lot of things that consume our thinking: free from others’ opinions of him, free from pleasing others, and now, free from what he once was. Paul seems to want to make his readers know this truth:

God loves us as we are…
and wants to set us free from what we were.

There is an honest tension here.  When you read the Bible honestly, you see that it is an invitation from God to move a person, and a people—from what they were into what they were meant to be.  Now the difficult part is this:  When someone comes to us and says, I want to move you from where you are to where you need to be, we resist.  We might think they are trying to sell us something. Or, we can interpret that as a message that they don’t accept us as we are. 

But that isn’t what God is saying.  He loves us with an everlasting love.

While we were still apart from God—enemies of God—Jesus came for us.  He so loved the world He sent His only son for us.  His love is beyond words—it is a sacrificial love—as Jesus laid down his life so that we might be set free.  God doesn’t wait until we clean up our lives before accepting us and loving us. He loves us as we are.

AND YET—there is something greater he is inviting us into.  He wants to set us free from the things that still enslave us.  Maybe it is regret from our past, or ongoing struggles in our present.  This is why he says, “Follow me.”  Not just once, but for the rest of our lives.

This is important for us to grasp. If we don’t get this–the invitation from God to learn from Jesus, be changed by him, and join in his work (see Bobby Harrington’s definition at discipleship.org)–our faith will stay stagnant.  Jesus can remain only a Savior who you turn to when you do something wrong.  Nothing else. 

Paul had a greater vision of who Jesus was.  Where did that come from? Let’s look at his remarkable conversion, found in the book of Acts, chapter 9:

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

In short, Paul had an experience seeing the risen Jesus Christ.  Ever wondered what would have happened if he had decided this was just a dream?  That he was hallucinating?  Like the “choose your own adventure” books:

If Paul thinks it is a dream, go to page 23.  If Paul believes it is real, turn to page 24. 

Obviously, Paul believed that what he saw and heard on that day—on the road to Damascus—was real.  And true.  And that Jesus was worth reorienting his entire life around.

He didn’t just say, “Wow, Jesus took care of all the bad things I used to do.”  He goes and spends time with Peter, the man who spent three years walking with Jesus.  Paul learns from him the eyewitness accounts of what Jesus did, some of which we get to read in the gospels. 

Then, get this, he goes to Damascus—the very place he was headed when the risen Jesus showed up.  Damascus—the place where he was known to be an enemy of the gospel.  And he begins to preach that Jesus is God’s Son—alive, risen—and worth following.  Forget what is behind, Paul says.  Follow Jesus.

And so what Paul once was changes.   He knows what was being said about him now:

They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”  And they praised God because of me.   Galatians 1:23-24

What would be said about you?  The man—the woman—who used to…now is…. 

I’m a part of a group of pastors that meet together monthly. At a recent gathering, one of the pastors asked this question: How do you know when you are lined up with the heart of God? After various responses, this is what I said: “When instead of anger I find myself responding with gentleness and compassion.  When instead of despair I find myself holding on to hope.  When instead of just trying to make people happy I find myself speaking the truth in love.” In other words, when I see a change taking place: from what I once was, to what God is inviting me to be.

So how do we get there?  

How do we really embark on this journey of being changed by God?
The journey to discovering God’s love, and where we need to be set free cannot always be done alone. Most churches offer all kinds of opportunities: small groups, mentors, classes. But I remember my earliest part of my own growth was with a group of my peers in high school. We just got together and studied a book together. We weren’t part of one church, but were classmates trying to figure out how to follow Jesus as 17-year olds. We were in the midst of making decisions for our future, and trying to figure out how to turn to Jesus to help with the struggles we had.

What about you? Can you think of one thing you are struggling with right now, that a year from now you’d like to be able to say, “That’s who I used to be.  But Jesus has changed that.”

Spoiler alert: in book #2 of the choose your own adventure series, Journey Under the Sea, you are a deep sea adventurer, seeking the lost city of Atlantis. You dive down deep into the ocean, go through a grotto, and discover a strange group of people, with a different language. They tell you (through an interpreter) that they are enslaved to a wicked king. You have to make some difficult choices. They ask for your help. If you help, if you then ask for their help, you end up leading a revolt to overthrow the evil king. And the book ends with, “You and the people are free.”

In some ways, that adventure is like what it’s like to join a church.  You are seeking.  You find a group of people that is also looking to be set free.  This group of people–church people–at first seem different, with a different language and everything. You have to make hard choices to join them.  But in the end, you, and the people, find yourself living free. 

God loves us as we are, but wants to set us free from what we once were.

Esther Mae Jones and The Greyhound Bus Ride

Over twenty years ago now, when I was a seminary student in New Jersey, my girlfriend (now my wife!) lived in Virginia.  To go and see her, I often took a Greyhound bus.  On one particular trip, I sat next to a woman who introduced herself as Evangelist Esther Mae Jones.  I remember her to be a small fiery African American woman, with graying hair, wire rimmed glasses, with a lunch neatly placed on her lap.  We chatted for a bit, and I told her where I was going.  “To see my girlfriend,” I said.  “You’re going to marry that woman,” she said.  We had been dating about nine months at that point, so I wasn’t sure what to make of the prediction. 

But she was right.  We’ve been married twenty one years now.

We talked some more.  I told her I was a seminary student.  She had all sorts of warnings for me about that.  Not to let my education get in the way of what God might want to do, not to get distracted by all kinds of theories and teachings.  Then she got to teaching herself.  She told me to write these things down.  “Do it!” she said.  I remember getting out a yellow post-it pad, and began writing.  She watched me to make sure I got these things right.

“The only thing that God cannot do is fail.”

“Let God do it for you.”

We need to hear those wise words from Esther Mae Jones.  God cannot fail.  And He will do it for you.

I think Esther Mae Jones and the apostle Paul would have been friends.  Especially that last part:  Let God do it for you.  Because that is another way of saying what Paul said to the churches in Galatia.

He writes,

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!

Strong words for Paul.  He is extremely concerned that some folks have come into the very place where Paul preached freedom for people, telling them they needed to do some other things to really be accepted into God’s family. 

I was listening to another sermon on this, and was reminded that  Paul is a man who claims to have seen a resurrected Jesus Christ.  We have to decide if he is deluded, if he hallucinated, or is a real eyewitness of truth.  For this man goes on to write more letters, and his letter helped shape this movement of following Jesus.  He went on to suffer hardship for this message:  beatings, shipwrecks, imprisonment.  Ultimately, according to at least two traditions:  he was beheaded by the emperor Nero. 

At the end of the day, we need to decide if he’s telling the truth.

Paul is frustrated that the Galatians are “trading in” the greatest news for a different gospel.  The greatest news is that Jesus has secured their salvation through the cross as a free gift from God. It’s Jesus and nothing else.  That’s a lot of church words, but I’ll explain more in a future post. 

Why were they doing that?  Why were they trading that good news in?

Paul says some others have come in to “trouble and distort” the gospel that was preached to them.  The word “trouble” means to stir or shake up.  I thought about the things that “stir” or “shake” our belief that God is for us and with us.  First and foremost, pain and suffering.  When we experience pain and suffering, we often attempt to control our situation, and can often fall into impatience, hijacking perhaps what God wants to do in His timing.

Think about that:  you believe something being taught to you.  You receive it, embrace it.  It becomes a part of who you are.  You experience joy because of it.  A sense that it is right and true and good.  You feel hope.  And then something bad happens.  Sickness, an accident.  You lose something or someone.  And then someone comes and tells you, “Well, that’s because you were believing that message; let me tell you how to get out of that predicament.”

And the message they try and sell you isn’t all wrong.  In fact, parts of it sound like the other message.  It just distorts some things.

The word “distort” brings to mind one of those carnival mirrors.  It distorts the picture of who we are.   So too does a “gospel” that says you have to do all of these things to stay right with God.  

The basic “distortion” Paul was wanting to point out was any message that proclaimed:   “Jesus and…”  In Paul’s day, it was believe in Jesus, AND Obey these rituals.  Believe in Jesus AND Obey these days and seasons.  Believe in Jesus AND Obey these dietary laws.

We hear some of that in the New Testament and can dismiss those things because they’re not a part of our culture.  But what about this…

Well, the way you really show your devotion to Jesus is through serving here.  

The way you really show that you’re serious about your faith is if you volunteer.  

Or give money. 

Or go to this class, this program, this retreat, embrace this discipline, that discipline, on and on and on.

I wonder sometimes if some of you have feel that way when you go to church.  I don’t think it is the intent of some churches to do that.  I know my hope is to create a space for people to discover the person of Jesus, and become a life long follower of His.  To know His grace and love.  I believe when we begin to do that, we’ll join Him in His already existing mission of transformation of our neighborhood, our city, and the world.  But I wonder if sometimes people hear something different. 

There’s a subtle difference between a message that says, “We’re offering these things because it might be a pathway for you to grow in this relationship with Jesus;” and, “You need to do these things to really be accepted by Jesus, and be a part of us.”

Paul feels very strongly about this.  He says that if anyone–even an angel from heaven–is preaching something like that latter message, that they should be cursed.

This word curse is the Greek word  anathema. The first definition I came across in a dictionary was  “a votive offering set up in a temple.” “Devoted to the divinity”–either consecrated or accursed. In other words, Paul was saying, “Let them be devoted to God–for Him to deal with them.”  By the way, Paul says he would wish himself were accursed from Christ for the sake of his brothers in Romans 9:3.

So this is a serious message:  We do not need to turn to earning God’s love or favor; it is by grace we have been saved.

Examine your heart and mind on this:  How many of you are hearing that message and saying “Yes Yes I know.  But I have to do this too…”

Paul would cry out and say “No!”  If you begin to believe that, you begin to leave Jesus behind, in essence saying He is not enough.  He says he’s astonished that the Galatians are “deserting” the one who called them live in grace…God’s free gift.

Jesus is enough.  He is more than enough.  At the core of our faith is a belief that He came to be with us and for us.  To have a relationship with us–we do that through prayer, through studying His words, through learning from one another.  Don’t abandon that relationship by believing you have to do something more to earn His acceptance and love.

I was thinking this: 

“The good news is so good that we try to be good, or do good, to stay good. But we don’t have to.”

Esther Mae Jones would say:  Let God do it for you.

God loves you.  Let Him do this for you.  He has set you free.

Free from others’ opinions of us…

I was in fourth grade when I first started wearing glasses.  I was in fourth grade when the girl I had a crush on said to me, “I don’t like your glasses.”  I remember saying, my 10 year old heart hurting, “Well don’t look at them then!”  It sounded like I was confident in that moment, but I wasn’t. 

The fact is that we can remember people’s words and people’s opinions, especially when those opinions have something to do with us:  what we look like, what we wear, what we do for a living, what we said.  So my story of my 4th grade crush crushing my heart with a few words might be a silly example.  But people’s words hurt, and people’s opinions hurt.  (Otherwise I wouldn’t remember it nearly forty years later!) 

But what would it look like to not be worried so much about others’ opinions of us.  If there was a security in our identity—

The author Henri Nouwen says we have a tendency to believe three lies about our identity.

I am what I have,

I am what I do,

and I am what other people say or think about me.   

Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life

There is a book we are studying at my church, a letter written to a group of churches in Galatia (modern day Turkey). This letter to the Galatians addresses these lies in different ways. 

The man who wrote the letter was first known as Saul.  We are introduced to him in the New Testament in the book of Acts, and discover that he once persecuted followers of Jesus.  But in the 9th chapter of Acts, Saul becomes Paul, when he has an encounter with the risen-from-the dead Jesus.

Author and pastor Eugene Peterson puts who Paul was this way: 

 “Paul believed the lie that God was against everyone who deviated from a certain path.  He believed the lie and so was against everyone who didn’t follow the path.  As he lived out this lie, he became obsessed.  Paul’s idea of God was that he was an angry bachelor uncle, impatient with the antics of romping and undisciplined children.  Paul’s response, along with many others, was to shut up the children and make them sit in a corner until they learned to behave in such a way that they wouldn’t disturb the old man, and if they wouldn’t shut up, send them off to boarding school.” Eugene Peterson, Traveling Light

So, if this wasn’t what God was like—an angry bachelor uncle—what was God like?  Peterson goes on…

 “God was not against but for. This truth about God came to Paul in the person of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ showed him that he had had it all wrong, that what he had followed was a ‘gospel contrary.’ He convinced him that God is on our side; he persuaded him that sin is not God’s excuse to get rid of us, but the occasion for entering our lives and setting us free.” Eugene Peterson, Traveling Light  

Sure enough, this idea of being “set free” shows up in Paul’s first sermon in Acts,  preached to one of the churches in the region of Galatia.

 “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”Acts 13:38-39 ESV

Paul preached to the churches in Galatia:  we’ve been set free. 

We have to understand that this is a radical claim.  And Paul heard that others had come up to stir up division in the churches, and they did it by trying to disparage the character of Paul.  Saying that Paul had just gotten this idea of being set free from some other teachers, and he was passing it off as his own.

That is why Paul begins the introduction to his letter to the Galatians by emphatically stating:  I’m an apostle:  One sent by God—but I’m sent not by men, but by God Himself. 


Now when we hear someone say those kinds of things now—God sent me, God told me—we get skeptical.  And rightly so.  And the only way we can test to see if this is true is by seeing if what is being taught and said holds up.  Does this gospel of freedom stand the test of time.  Does it produce what it is meant to produce?  Is the one delivering the message trustworthy?  Does their life match up with what is being taught?

In another letter to a church, Paul talked about how he shared his life and message deeply with others, and when he heard that others were saying negative things about him, his only defense was this:  “Remember how we were like a mother to you—gentle among you.  Remember how we were like a father to you, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy…”  [see I Thessalonians 2:7 and following) In other words, remember how I lived among you.

Paul is simply saying:  look at what others are saying about me.  Then remember how I lived among you.

We should probably do this with the people who lead us and teach us.  Does the teaching stand the test of time?  Is it proven somewhere?  Can we test it somehow?  And, does the person doing the teaching—do they live in such a way that seems trustworthy? 

Paul knew there were critics, and seemed to expect them.  He knew that what he was saying would not just “ruffle feathers,” but make people vehemently angry.

Back to the boy in the glasses.  When I think back to those years, I see a young boy that desperately wanted to be liked.  And that is still within me today.  But over time, I’ve discovered that it’s a greater thing to be loved:  by my wife of 21 years, by my children, and most of all, by the God who says “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”  Not everyone will like me..  I will probably always be misunderstood, misinterpreted, accused of things, and more.  People won’t like me for a variety of reasons.  But I cling to the fact that I am loved.  I share that with you because I believe someone else needs to hear that today.  You’re working so hard to manage everyone’s expectations of you, trying to fit in, trying to be liked—you need to hear, as I do, that you’re loved.

I think that is what Paul is saying in Galatians.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll hear him say it more and more.  He knows people are saying that his message and teaching—he just stole it from other people, he’s just saying what other people told him to say.  To all of that Paul insists that he is sent from God, and comes out of the love of God.

Now:  on to why I wanted to study this book, this letter written centuries ago.  Noticed how divided we are in our world today.  By race, by class, by political affiliation.  Even within the church—the followers of Jesus have divided themselves by how we think about baptism, the Lord’s supper, music, what we wear, how it is people come to know Christ.  What happened in Genesis when God created the heavens and earth; what will happen when Jesus returns.  With so much division and hatred everywhere, it is a dark time. 

Underneath the book of Galatians is division.  Between Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians—different races, different ethnic groups.  There was fighting, arguing, and division. 

One group saying to another, “to really be a follower of Christ you have to be like us.”  [Any of that sound familiar…anywhere?]

To all of that Paul says rubbish.  Hogwash.  Fill in your strong-word-of-choice.

And we’ll discover that he is well aware of the division, and what others are saying about him.  He knows who called him, he knows who rescued him, and he knows who gave him this commission to preach good news.  And he knows that the gospel:  that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, came to rescue us from our sins through his death on the cross, and was raised back to life as a promise of our new life here and in the life to come.  We receive all of this as a gift—it is God’s grace.  We don’t earn it, we don’t have to work or add to it. 

That should unify us all.  Nothing more, nothing less. 

“According to Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection mean that this God is now building a new family, a single family, a family with no divisions, no separate races, no one-table-for-Jews-and-another-for-Gentiles nonsense. Jews believed that when the Messiah came he would be Lord of all the world; so, Paul argues, he’d have to have just one family. ” NT Wright, Galatians For Everyone

We are a new family.  One family.  Gathered around one table.  Unified by one true gospel. 

God came to be with us, so that he could be for us. 

Remember Eugene Peterson’s words again:

“Sin is not God’s excuse to get rid of us.  It is the occasion of entering our lives and setting us free.”

Jesus gave himself for our sins.  This is the gospel.  We don’t earn anything.  We are free. 

Free first from what others say and think.

Free from others’ perception of us.

Free at last from the sin that used to hold us, and free to live a new life because of Jesus.  

In the words of the honorable Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are:

Free at Last. Free at Last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.

Ready?

There is one question come Christmas time that I’ve found can make the vast majority of us grumble, or at least begin to run off a to-do list several pages long.  It’s a question that can make the cheeriest, Christmas-carol loving celebrator turn Grinchy. It’s this question:  “So, are you ready for Christmas?”

Ask that question, and most people will roll their eyes, and verbally scroll down their list of chores and things to do, or launch into tales of journeys to find that year’s elusive hot gift—remember Cabbage Patch kids?—more recently American Girl dolls? What is it this year?  I did a Google search, and here is one result:

Once in a while, you come across that organized friend—you know, the one who did their shopping months ago, getting the best deals–even 30% lower than your Black Friday bargain–and sending out Christmas cards early because they planned ahead and took the family picture on their summer vacation to Bora-Bora. 

You end the conversation as quickly as possible with that friend.

Our lives are already busy.  Our regular responsibilities often keep us running from one place to another.

And then Christmas comes and can make it feel worse.

What I think is sad about Christmas is that we feel pressure to add to our already busy lives this extra activity.  And, in the midst of that, we can easily lose the joy.  There is shopping to do, cards to send out, family pictures, family tradition to uphold, family picture to take—”Will everyone just stand still and smile for one moment?”—there are stocking stuffers, should I get the guy in the cubicle next to me a gift?

So most of us groan when someone asks us the question:  “Are you ready for Christmas?”

What if in the midst of our hectic running around, trying to make Christmas perfect—what if God had a message for us?  What if God wanted to tell us something?

What if He was saying something like this:  “I know you feel busy.   I know you have a lot to do.  But in the midst of your duties, I want to tell you something important.  Listen.”

Are you ready for God?

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to look at a few groups of eyewitnesses–eyewitnesses of the majesty of God coming to earth.  Two of them were just going about their lives when God came to tell them something.  Their names were Zechariah and Elizabeth.

Luke’s gospel begins by talking about eyewitnesses.  He opens his account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus like this:

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”

So the story begins with eyewitnesses to the story of God choosing people to tell His story to the world.

Here is the story:

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute.23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

Luke anchors his gospel in names and places.  Real names, real places.  Our faith is rooted in history.  Pastor and Bible teacher Alistair Begg says we would be wise to remember that the gospels revolve around three words:  history, divinity, and mystery.

Some history: Herod.  One of the most wicked kings history has ever known.  Killed his wife Marianne when he suspected she was plotting against him.  Also had three of his sons convicted in court of plotting against him, and they were sentenced to death by strangling.  Herod’s reputation was such that the Roman Emperor Augustus was quoted as saying, “It would be a better thing to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons.”

Into this region dominated by tyranny and wickedness, God came.

Luke’s gospel begins by subtly confronting the idea that good people should only have good things happen to them.  We’re introduced to a couple who have done right, but are holding onto the sadness of having no children.  But their names–Zechariah and Elizabeth–had meaning.

Zechariah’s name=The Lord Remembers.

Elizabeth=My God is An Absolutely Faithful One, OR, My God is An Oath

Zechariah and Elizabeth’s names in themselves are a sermon.  The Lord Remembers.  The Lord is absolutely faithful.

But the sadness of Elizabeth being barren goes way beyond what we might think.  Part of the culture that Elizabeth was in measured her worth by whether or not she could have children.  Because having someone preserve the family line was the only way for someone to leave a legacy–for the family to live on.  For people who may not believe in everlasting life, life continued through one’s children.

Can you picture what that might have meant for Elizabeth?  Waiting, trying, month after month, but never experiencing the joy of having a child?  Perhaps seeing the other women in the village whisper, cast judging looks?  Important to recognize that there were those that believed that barrenness was the result of some sin–that Elizabeth couldn’t have children because God was punishing her.

And yet, Zechariah and Elizabeth remain faithful–to each other, and apparently to God, because they are described as righteous and blameless in obeying God.

Zechariah is going about his duties as priest.  God sends an angel.  Tells him his prayer has been answered.  And that Elizabeth would bear him a son.  Zechariah asks a question, and Gabriel tells him he will be silent until his son comes.

There is irony here.  Bible scholars tell us that there were some 400 years of “silence,” the time between the last book of the Hebrew Bible, Malachi, and the beginning of the time of the gospels. 

The angel Gabriel comes to proclaim that God is doing something new.  Zechariah’s response:  “How can I be sure?”  Response:  silence.

Can we blame him?  When we haven’t heard from God in some time, isn’t our natural response to question whether it is really Him speaking?

I thought a bit about this whole silence thing.  A priest who can’t talk.  That’s a miracle if I ever saw one!  Perhaps attendance at services tripled during that week Zechariah was on duty.  Can you imagine the talk that went around during that time of Zechariah’s silence?  “Shortest services, ever,” they said.  “He can’t talk!  We’re out of there in ten minutes, tops.” 

Enough about Zechariah’s silence.  There is someone else affected by all this.

Elizabeth:  “God has taken away my reproach among people.”  The shame of her barrenness is no more.   

NT Wright writes, “The story is about much more than Zechariah’s joy at having a son at last, or Elisabeth’s exultation in being freed from the scorn of the mothers in the village. It is about the great fulfilment of God’s promises and purposes. But the needs, hopes and fears of ordinary people are not forgotten in this larger story, precisely because of who Israel’s God is—the God of lavish, self-giving love, as Luke will tell us in so many ways throughout his gospel. When this God acts on the large scale, he takes care of smaller human concerns as well. The drama which now takes centre stage is truly the story of God, the world, and every ordinary human being who has ever lived in it.”  NT Wright. Luke for Everyone

Such is the grace of God.  God’s purposes are ultimately fulfilled, and along the way, the human concerns of Zechariah and Elizabeth are answered and folded into God’s story.  

The whole story reminds us how important it is to God to prepare the way. The child Zechariah and Elizabeth will raise is not God’s Son and anointed king, the Messiah—he is the forerunner, the one who announces that God has come to save the world.  He is, in the words of Isaiah the prophet, the one who is a voice calling out in the wilderness—prepare the way for the Lord.

What I noticed:  In these two characters of Zechariah and Elizabeth:  Zechariah represents the priesthood.  The system of temple sacrifices.  That goes silent.

Elizabeth represents those that have been kept on the margins.  Ridiculed, living in shame.  As God’s plan unfolds, she is moved from the shadows to the center.

As Jesus began his ministry, that kind of thing happened much more.  Remember the woman, suffering on the margins of society because of her illness—who spend everything she had on doctors who made her worse.  She had the courage and faith to simply touch the hem of Jesus’ robe, and was healed.  And Jesus called out, “Who touched me.”  And the woman has been healed, and her shame is taken away.  She is known.

Elizabeth moves from the reproach and shame in her culture of being barren to bearing John the Baptist, the prophet who would bring many back to faith in God.

Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story is a glimpse into the gospel story.

The religious structures and systems will be brought down at the birth of Jesus.

The ones living in darkness and shame—they have seen a great light.

In the darkness, into an evil time, while people were going about their regular lives—God came.

Are you ready?

This season we call Christmas is about God fulfilling His promises.  To be the God who rescues and redeems.  Who doesn’t forget our pain.  Who never leaves us alone.

The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is for all of us, just going about our already busy lives, who perhaps have given up on the idea that God might want to do something different.  Who might have stopped believing He would answer our prayers.  That all God really wanted from us was our duty, and not to complain about it.  To take our lot in life and just be happy we didn’t have it worse.

Into that, God says, “Watch this.”  Your prayers have been answered.  Your shame is taken away.”

You weren’t ready for that, were you?

Elton John, a young sprig, cedar fruit, birds of every kind, and the church.

I didn’t think I was ready.  And most days, I still don’t know if I am.

The year was 1998.  The song that lasted the longest that year at #1 on the Billboard music charts was Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.” The fashion was…well, if you Google “Fashion in 1998” the first hit will be an article in Glamour Magazine (if you didn’t get your copy in the mail) that is entitled:  “9 Fashion Trends from 1998 that are Just as Relevant in 2018.”  Take out your pens and pencils.  If you’re wearing “logo wear,” “microfloral dresses,” or small, symmetrical sunglasses, you’re trending.

Back to 1998…

In 1998 I graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary.  I had passed a series of ordination exams for the Presbyterian Church.  And I had interviewed in a variety of places, including Columbia, Missouri; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; San Antonio, Texas; and Chattanooga, Tennessee.  It was this campus ministry in Chattanooga that I felt God’s call.  And the leaders there called my wife and me, married a little over a year, to pastor this ministry that met on sixty folding chairs in a living room one block off of the University Tennessee-Chattanooga campus.

I wonder: What makes three years of studying Bible, Greek, Hebrew, church history, a handful of preaching classes, youth ministry classes, plus passing a few exams—what makes all of that make someone ready to lead a group of people?  What makes all of that qualify someone to teach the Word of God to a group of 18-22 year olds.  A group that over the next sixteen years would grow to over 400 people in worship and small group meetings.

I was twenty eight years old when I began serving in that ministry.  I was, in the words of the prophet Ezekiel—a tender young sprig.  I had only been a believer in Jesus for 12 years at that point.  And now leading a group of people in what it means to follow Jesus.

How many of us have found that God works just like that?  That the periods of growth in our lives come when we think we are not quite ready.

Can you think back on those times in your life when you were young at something or inexperienced at something—it all felt new and tender and vulnerable—and God, or a boss, or a coach, or someone else said, “I want you to go here and start this.  I want you to lead this.  I want you to serve here.”

I’m told that when you are wanting to transplant a vine, or a tree, you look for a new branch—one article I read said a branch less than a year old would work best.

Which brings me to this passage in Ezekiel 17:

22 Thus says the Lord God: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. 24 And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.”

Now all of this about a tender sprig growing into a strong cedar–what this text in Ezekiel 17 was about is a very specific situation.

What God was saying through Ezekiel then was about Israel, and the kingdom of Babylon that had put them in exile.  God’s people had experienced the king of Babylon coming to Jerusalem and snapping off a portion of God’s people like a sprig from a tree and taking them to a foreign land.  Here, God says He Himself will take a sprig…but instead of that sprig withering away, it will grow.

One of the things I love about God’s Word is that these words—written to a particular people, in a particular situation, for a particular purpose—these words are living and active—and the meaning then still has meaning now for us.

Jesus knew this.  He knew the Word of God, and many of the people he spoke to knew these Scriptures as well.  So when Jesus said the kingdom of God was like a mustard seed—would grow to the largest of garden plants so that birds of every kind would nest in its shade—when Jesus spoke those words and said “birds of every kind nesting in its shade,” do we think this was a coincidence?  One of the things we need to know about Jesus—that when he spoke, not a word was wasted.  Do we think for a moment that he wasn’t wanting to call others’ minds to these days of Ezekiel—so that when Jesus said “birds of every kind will nest in its shade,” those that knew Ezekiel’s prophecy would know that Jesus was talking about a kingdom–and a kingdom people.  A kingdom that reflects every kind of bird finding shelter under a strong tree.

What is God’s kingdom?  I think one of the best definitions I’ve ever heard was from Dallas Willard:  Where God’s will is being done.

“The Kingdom of God: It is present wherever what God wants done is done.”  (see more here)

Contrast that with our kingdom:  Where we strive to make what we want done done.  How much of our time and energy are spent trying to make our own kingdom grow?  Trying to arrange our lives in order to make our will be done as much as possible.  How is that working out for us?

Is it any wonder Jesus taught us to pray, “YOUR (God’s) kingdom come, YOUR (God’s) will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”?

Jesus in his parables sought to point out that God has always been about making His kingdom grow—by making His kingdom people grow.  So he used parables about seeds growing to large garden plants, nets and fish, weeds and wheat, and much more.

Back to Ezekiel, who has a parable of his own.

That strong tree begins with inauspicious beginnings.  A tender shoot.  But the Master Gardener, God Himself, is the one who takes the sprig.  NOTE: If you read all of Ezekiel 17, you’ll notice that kings are the ones who try and plant their own sprigs.  But here, God is the one who cuts and plants.  He knows what He is doing.  That might be the first principle for us desiring to make shade for others—let God do the planting.  Let God do the planting.  This sprig has been planted by God in a particular place—it grows.  With branches that spread out.  And it bears fruit— I had to look that up:  Does cedar really produce fruit?  I hadn’t seen it recently at a grocery store.  Well, I guess a cedar does bear fruit.  A dark blue berry that is usually eaten by squirrels and birds.  But Native Americans used it as an herbal remedy for arthritis and nausea.  Don’t try this at home.  In any case, the tender sprig becomes a strong cedar, spreading out its branches, bearing fruit, making shade for birds of every sort.

The church where I serve has been in the city of Sacramento for 150 years.  Fifty years ago, the elders and leadership of this church moved from a beautiful space at 36th and J Streets to plant something new here on Carlson and H Street.  Before that, 14th and O Street, where the first church was built at a cost of $500 with labor donated, and then rebuilt on 15th and O for $10,000.

Fremont Presbyterian 15th and O

Each of those moves in our history were inspired by God to grow something new, to give something new, to go somewhere new, to be something new.

Aren’t the words of Ezekiel for us as well?  That we are planted here to grow branches, bear fruit, so that birds of every kind—people of every culture, race, and language—can gather and find a home?

Will we continue to grow, to deepen our roots in this community and city?  Will we be a strong cedar, under which birds of every kind—people of every race, language, and culture—can gather and find shelter and hope?

As only God’s Word can do:  when you look at these verses through the lens of the gospels—the story of Jesus—we find remarkable parallels.

A man, a young shoot from the family line of King David.  Who the night before his death said, “Let this cup pass from me…but not my will be done, but yours be done.”  He was a man cut down in the prime of his life—tradition has it at age thirty-three.  A tender sprig placed up on the hard wood of a cross.  Lifted up and planted down upon a mountain in Israel.  A shameful death.  But that death has brought life.  Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection continues to grow in its depth, spreading out to all nations—as people from every nation, every culture, every language are finding forgiveness and grace.

The words spoken by the prophet Ezekiel are coming true:  All the trees of the field will know that I am the Lord.  May we join in God’s kingdom work by making shade for all peoples.  Amen.