Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Jailhouse Rocks (Acts 16:16-40)

When I was little I didn't know who Elvis was until it was big news that he died.  Growing up, I had no idea he was such a revolutionary in the world of music and considered "The King" of rock and roll.  But in a related story, I do remember going to a Bands of America band camp in Whitewater, Wisconsin before my junior year in high school and of all the things that I learned and experienced at that camp, one moment sticks out to me.  There was a college jazz band that was made up of several of the camp staff members and they played a little concert for us.  All of the sudden, one of the guys grabs a mic and he and the band break out in this incredibly enthusiastic version of Jailhouse Rock.  The guy singing was all over the place and everybody in the bleachers was going nuts and having a great time.  It was in a gymnasium and kids came down out of the bleachers and started dancing. It was the night before the last day of the camp and we were all tired, but suddenly we were rejuvenated by this silly old Elvis song. But it wasn't just the song, it was the fun and the passion in which it was presented.  I couldn't tell you if it was secretly planned or if it was truly spontaneous, but it felt like we were all at a concert or a program and suddenly a party broke out.  As a teenager, I had never experienced anything like it.  It was awesome.

I think Elvis would've loved to have been at that event, because from what I know of Elvis, this is what he was all about.  Whenever he showed up, spontaneous celebrations and parties broke out.  Girls would scream with excitement at the sight of him.  Even though many criticized Elvis for what they thought were antics, moving his hips around and singing this music that people really couldn't categorize, all he was doing was what he really loved.  And what he loved was making his own kind of music and having a good time.  I'm sure Elvis caused many an argument around the family dinner table in the '50s and '60s.  Highly admired entertainers like Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan and even Frank Sinatra at one point or another expressed their dislike of his music and his performances, but what they couldn't deny was his passion and sincerity and the fact that regardless of the critics, the younger masses loved Elvis.  He was a phenomenon that couldn't be ignored.

Elvis didn't write the song Jailhouse Rock, but I think it personifies what his attitude might have been to his critics.  It's as if Elvis and the song are saying "You can criticize me.  You can try to put me in a cage, but me and my pals are gonna sing, dance and have a good time no matter what you do or say."  Sadly Elvis found himself in a self made cage at the end of his time on Earth as he lost his life in a battle with drug addiction. 

Now maybe you're wondering what Elvis has to do with Paul.  (As I write this, I'm wondering the same thing myself, but I do have a point in the making.)  In the Acts 16 passage, we find Paul and his cohorts on their way to prayer meeting with their new friends in Philippi.  Unlike Elvis, Paul wasn't being chased down by screaming teenage female groupies but he does have a screaming, demon possessed, fortune telling, slave woman following him around for days telling everyone who he and his friends were.  Paul gets so annoyed by her, he orders the demon to leave her.  This does not please her owners as they had been making a pretty penny on her fortune telling and that came to an abrupt end when Paul cast out the demon from her.  We also get a sense that Jews were not warmly welcomed in Philippi as part of the argument of the woman's owners was that these "Jews" were causing trouble.  It seems as though their ethnicity was emphasized and linked to the problem at hand.  We can also take notice that earlier in the chapter Jews were gathering by the river to have prayers, instead of in a Synagogue.  Synagogues could only be formed if there were 10 Jewish men within a community thus suggesting the Jewish population in Philippi was slim.

So with the mob in an uproar, they gave Paul and Silas a beating and threw them in jail.  But it wasn't just any old cell block, it was an inner cell complete with stocks to go around their ankles, wrists and possibly even their necks.  Yet at the midnight hour, one could've heard a couple of rousing voices singing Psalms in praise of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  This, to me, is where Paul is like Elvis, only better.  Paul and Silas have every right to be discouraged.  Earlier in chapter 16 it tells us that the Holy Spirit had blocked them twice from traveling to the east, but in a dream Paul had a vision of a man calling him to "come to Macedonia" and so they went west to Philippi.  Paul had patiently waited upon the Lord and followed his guidance.  They seemed to be making progress as Lydia and her family had given themselves to Christ. Yet now in the process of doing God's work and healing this woman of demon possession, they found themselves with bloody whip marks on their backs in the inner sanctum of a highly secured prison.  Could they not catch a break?  But Paul and Silas did not see it as a set back, but as an opportunity to worship.  Paul and Silas were saying in one voice "you can persecute us, whip us, throw us in jail but we are still going to do what we love, and that is to give praises to Christ, our Savior."  What happened next?  The Jailhouse started to Rock!  The cell door flew open, their stocks came loose and it appeared that the Lord had given them a way out.  Yet when the dust cleared and the Roman guard went for his sword to kill himself, they cried out to him pleading "Don't do that!  Your prisoners are still here."  The Roman guard was prepared to take his own life because he knew that if his prisoners escaped he would be forced to serve their sentence, which apparently was death or at least a sentence he was not prepared to face.  So out of the pit of despair, another was won for the Kingdom of Christ and his family as well.  It took no fancy speeches, no spiritual laws or scriptural quotations, but two trusting souls who having been shackled in a prison cell, but suddenly set free, valued the life and the soul of another over their own freedom.  Their actions of love spoke much louder than any words ever could.

I don't know if we can say the jailer threw a party that night, but it says he fed Paul and Silas and He was filled with joy because of his new found friends and his new found Savior.  Perhaps this jailer became "the warden" who "threw a party in the county jail."  Maybe...maybe not, but I would bet many who came through his "Jailhouse" were "Rocked" by the gospel of Jesus Christ and the story of two men who miraculously had the chance to be set free from their cell, but instead chose to help set a jailer free for life and the life after.

    Jailhouse Rock            

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sometimes It's Good To Be a Dorcas (Acts 9:36-43)

My Senior year in high school I was in our school's production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  I played one of the brothers along with a group of my show choir buddies.  We were a bunch of fun loving guys who had a decent amount of talent and some affinity for acting (acting up is probably a more appropriate way to put it).  We had a blast!  In a couple of scenes, the brothers were suppose to get in a tussle with each other (as brothers tend to do).  So imagine seven high school guys having permission to carry on like professional wrestlers on stage.  These were, ofcourse, our favorite moments of the show and what we talked about the most.  I think back and realize how patient our director, Mrs. Petry, must have been with us.  How many times did she tell us to stop rough housing to no avail?  Anyway, the reason I bring this up has more to do with the brides than the brothers.  The girl who played opposite me was a good friend of mine so we had a lot of fun preparing for the production.  Part of our fun was making fun of her character's name which was Dorcas.  All of the brothers and brides were  named after people in the Bible.  (One brother was called Frank.  This was short for Frankincense because when he was born, he smelled so sweet.)  As teenagers, we were mostly Christian kids but had no context for "Dorcas."  All we knew is that it sounded a lot like Dork and we thought it was funny.  We wondered how anyone even in the olden days could even think of naming their kid "Dorcas."

The truth of the matter is the name Dorcas represents something beautiful and graceful.  It is the Greek word for gazelle.  As we get a glimpse of her life, it appears Dorcas is a beautiful person full of God's grace.  Acts 9:36 says Dorcas "was always doing good and helping the poor."  Later as Peter arrived on the scene, we see the widows who were mourning her showing him the robes she had made.  These were likely garments she planned to give to those poor and needy whom she so humbly served.  The passage does not tell us her marital status, but it seems likely she was a widow as there is no mention of a husband and it was widows who were mourning for her.  Dorcas brings to mind a picture of many great women in churches who humbly serve by quietly and faithfully sharing their gifts.  Maybe its that long serving and faithful Sunday School teacher you had or the woman who cooked for many church dinners.  Maybe she's the one who educated the church about the missionary work going on across the world or who faithfully gave her time at the local service organization.  I would imagine we could all think of someone like this who has influenced our faith in such a way.  We don't know Dorcas' age either, but I envision her as an older wiser lady.  This might not be the case, but she seems to have discovered what is most important in life.  So whether she was old or not she seems to be beyond her years in grace and wisdom.  She must have been considered a vital part of the group of believers gathered in Joppa to have the disciples there send for Peter in the midst of mourning for her.

We see no formal request of those who sent for Peter to raise Dorcas from the dead.  Perhaps they just wanted Peter there to honor her and mourn with them, but something about the life and witness of Dorcas moved Peter to pray for her to return to life from death.  This miracle would be remembered and have a huge impact on the people there as the scripture says in Acts 9:42, "This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord."

Luke (the author of Acts) is making an interesting transition here by sharing this account of Dorcas returning to life from death and the previous story about Aeneas' healing.  It's one of those "meanwhile, back at the ranch" moments.  We've gone from the most pivotal and important telling of Saul/Paul's conversion, to witness the work of the Holy Spirit in towns like Lydda and Joppa. Remember, Christians had been dispersed because of the threat that had come to them in Jerusalem.  Not only this, but these events were happening on a grass roots level.  People like Aeneas and Dorcas were just people seeking to be faithful to the call on their life that Jesus had given to them.  They were not destined to extraordinary mission and leadership as Paul was, but their stories had a part to play in the spreading of the Good News.  The Holy Spirit was preparing the people for what was next.  The tragedy of Stephen's death and the persecution of the early church had caused them to spread which turned out to be a good thing.  Ironically though, as Paul had been the leading contributor to cause the early Christians to spread, he was about to lead them to expand the Kingdom likely beyond what any of them could have imagined. (This makes me think of Romans 8:28)

Dorcas had an affinity for making clothes and a heart for the poor and she used this for the Kingdom.  She did it with such passion that as Peter heard the story of her life, he was moved to ask God to bring her back to life a while longer for the sake of the Kingdom.  As we consider Dorcas' story applying to our families, I hope this speaks to you concerning the cultivating of your children's gifts and talents. I know as a parent I long to see my children find special interests that bring them joy and help them grow as people, but I also hope to instill in them that every gift and talent can be used for God's kingdom.  If your child has an affinity for a certain sport, they can use that for God's kingdom. Encourage them to allow their relationship with Christ to permeate their interaction with teammates and even players from opposing teams.  Help them to discern the way they respond when they celebrate victories or work through difficult losses in light of their walk with God.  If your child has an affinity for music, art and/or dance, the same applies and can also be used for worship as well.  Maybe your child is just good at making friends.  Encourage that to be an influence of faith to others.  I doubt there is any affinity, if it is healthy, that can't be used for God's kingdom.  Obviously, this applies to us as well, not just our kids.  Maybe, the first step is to apply this in your own life.  Then, it might be easier to see it in the life of your children.  The Holy Spirit still works today as He did then, so prepare your hearts for how God might use you and your children, and don't ever be ashamed to be a Dorcas.               

Monday, March 11, 2013

Lost and Found (Luke 15:11-32)

Are there any better known teachings of Jesus than the Parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan?  They no doubt belong on Jesus' greatest hits album along with the Lord's Prayer, the Great Commission, the Beaditudes and John 3:16 to name a few, and clearly there are no better known parables.  Nothing teaches like a story because nothing comes closer to real life experience for the listener, which I hope we can all agree is the greatest teacher.  We can visualize a story.  We can put ourselves in the story.  The storyteller doesn't have to tell us what the most imporant thing is that we should take from the story.  He or she can leave that up to the individual.  Some storytellers may give us a moral or explain the story from their point of view, but much of the time Jesus liked to let his listener soak it in and allow the listener to ponder it for themself.     

The Prodigal son fits the mold of a story that teaches without need of commentary.  Parents can relate well to the struggles of parenthood and children with different needs and personalities.  We all can probably gravitate one way or another to either the prodigal son or the "loyal" son especially if we have siblings.  We can relate to the Prodigal in terms of having a swing of emotions in regards to our parents, especially if we look back on our adolscense and/or young adulthood.  One moment we may despise them and after sowing some wild oats we realize how much we really need them and appreciate what they've done for us. 

As we dive into the story there are some contextual things to consider. It was tradition that the oldest son receive a double portion of the Father's estate.  Thus what the youngest received would've been 1/3 of his father's posessions.  Also, what the youngest son was essentially saying to his father by asking for his inheritance was "I wish you were dead and I don't want to wait any longer for that to be the case."  This is how Jesus' listeners would have perceived this request.  The young son was asking to be disowned.  Also for the Jews, the idea of having a job feeding pigs was way beyond reproach. To contemplate actually eating from the scraps of the hog trough would doubly churn any stomach of a Jewish person in that day and age (not that it wouldn't churn the stomach of any person in general).  It was unheard of.  Not only was it disgusting but culturally unacceptable as the Kosher life did not allow for the consumption of pork.  Another few notable details of context involves the son's return.  It was undignified for an elder Jewish man to run, so this expression of the father would be viewed as one of uncontrollable joy.  Also, to put a ring on the son's finger and shoes on his feet means he is restored as a son.  The ring was the signature of the family.  If you've seen Ben Hur, perhaps you remember when he saved the Roman Captain and eventually came to be considered a part of his family, The official gave him a ring to signify Ben Hur was his adopted son.  This was no different in the Jewish culture.  Also, shoes were for family.  Servants went barefoot.

Barclay said "this has been called the greatest short story in the world." (The Study Bible Series - Luke by William Barclay p. 204)  The layers of this story are beyond compare.  We can first and foremost see that the Father in the story is our Heavenly Father and the length of his forgiveness and redemption are boundless.  We must also note this is the third of three parables dealing with the lost.  Barclay tells us that Jesus telling us three different stories of being lost tells us that the level and reason for being lost does not matter.  The Father will still go to great distances to find us. It doesn't matter if it's due to our aimless wanderings (lost sheep), through circumstances beyond our control (lost coin) or blatant rebellion (prodigal son), those lost being found is always worth celebration to God.

       N.T. Wright takes the representation a step deeper by saying the Prodigal Son represents the Nation of Israel returning from exile many years after the natons downfall.  Many viewed themselves still in exile as they had returned to thier homeland to be ruled by a foreign govt. (Rome).  Many were waiting for a second Exodus where they would return to the glory days when they received the promised land.  Christ was bringing that opportunity through his life, death and ressurection.  This new kingdom Christ brought was a homecoming opportuity for the Jews and was reason to celebrate.  At the same time the older son represents the Pharisees whose idea of faith is like that of being a slave to a master.  Notice the older son's attitude, claiming he's been "slaving away" for his father.  His relationship with his father was much like the Pharisees who viewed faith as upholding rules and regulations in order to receive God's inheritance.  The older son could be viewed as just as guilty as the younger son for his life had become joyless labor waiting for his inheritance.  His life seemed  absent of love and gratitude for his father.  Jesus is trying to offer an olive branch to the Pharisees here by saying "It's not too late to join the celebration."  (Luke for Everyone by N.T. Wright p. 188)

I want us to notice one more thing Jesus does here.  He leaves the story unresolved to some extent.  We are not told that they live happily ever after.  We do not see if and how the older brother deals with his younger brother's return.  We don't see if the prodigal son's repentance sticks.  I believe Jesus does this on purpose.  Why?  So that we can keep talking and thinking about it after the story has been told.  This is why a story like this one can take on another life of its own.  This is the masterful gift of Jesus as teacher at work. 

The family applications here are numerous but I have two that seem to rise to the top for me.  First, I think any stories we can use to teach our children are priceless.  This includes the stories of our own lives and how children can learn from our experiences, good or bad.  So many times we wish we could just implant values into our children.  We may lecture them on right and wrong, but stories help them internalize those values.  Stories give them characters to relate to.  Hannah (my oldest daughter) is always asking me to tell her a story when she goes to bed.  (Often it seems a stall tactic to stay up a little longer)  When it isn't too late I try to tell her one.  Sometimes I make it long and drawn out so she will fall to sleep as I'm telling it.  Sometimes I try tell her a story to help her learn a lesson.  Regardless, as I said before, nothing teaches quite like a story. 

Second, are we modeling unconditional love for our children as the Father of the Prodigal did?  I know that often the biggest things that hinder me as a parent are my pride and my sensitivities.  I too often allow my selfish emotions to overtake me when dealing with my children.  One of them throws a fit and/or refuses to do something and my thought immediately is "how dare you treat me like that?"  Then I show my anger, instead of having a firm but calm corrective response.  Many times we forgive our children but with a catch.  We put our children on permanent probation.  I don't know if this is right or not.  Perhaps it's just human instinct or the need to control.  All I know is I often feel I'm far away from loving my children the way God loves me.  Children need punishment/consequences for their misbehaviors, but then shouldn't that should be it?  Time served and no grudges held, but it's never that clean, is it?  Thank God for grace, a grace available to redeem us and our families every day.  I know I haven't resolved the issue of showing children unconditional love as God shows us?  Part of it is I don't know the answers, but like Jesus maybe its good to leave it open ended so you can wrestle with and pray about it too.      

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Blessings and Woe, Wait a Minute! (Luke 6:18-26)

The passage for this week tackles Luke's version of the Beatitudes.  His version's a little different than Matthew's.  Matthew offers us 9 statements concerning who is blessed while Luke offers us 4 blessings followed by 4 "woes" which contrast with the blessings.  For example, Luke 6:20 quotes Jesus as saying "blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" while 6:24 says "but woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort."  Jesus goes on to say the hungry are blessed but woe to the well fed.  Then, those who weep are blessed but woe to those who laugh now.  Finally, you are blessed when men hate you but woe to you if men speak well of you.

Initially, you might respond to this as I did.  I felt convicted to say woe unto me.  I don't think of myself as rich, but by the world's standards I am.  Most of us in the middle class of America are much better off than an overwhelming majority of the world's population so by the world's standards, we are rich.  If you know me, you know that by no means am I going hungry nor does anyone enjoy laughing and joking more than I.  Finally, I am one who likes to be liked.  I consider it a good thing to be well spoken of.  Should I be full of woe?  My second response is not "Woe unto me" but "Woe, wait a minute!"  When did I become so accursed?  Yet, I believe there's something deeper at work here.

I believe it's safe to say that Jesus' words here are at the least puzzling, especially if we try to view them only literally.  I think we can agree that Jesus does not wish on anyone a constant state of poverty, hunger, constantly weeping and/or being hated because they are following Him.  Nor is Jesus saying every rich, well fed, happy go lucky and well liked person is destined for hell.  The question for Jesus is where do we find our true contentment?  What in this world can truly satisfy us?              

Ofcourse, when I am puzzled by scripture, I turn to my good friends like William Barclay and N.T. Wright who have already put their thoughts about these scriptures down on paper for me to study.  Barclay describes these verses as "bombshells" and "challenges."  He goes further to say that Luke 6:24 is key to this passage. The translation he offers reads like this: "But woe to you who are rich because you have all the comfort you are going to get."  The key here is chasing after what the world values will bring instant gratification, but the rewards you will receive will end there.  To the contrary, pursuing a Godly worldview may cause you to be poor, hungry, sad and hated, but the rewards will be much greater in heaven.  (The Gospel of Luke by William Barclay from the The Daily Study Bible Series - p. 76)

N.T. Wright ascribes that Jesus is wanting  to turn people's world view upside down, or perhaps the world's view is upside down and Jesus is merely wanting to correct it. (Luke for Eveyone by N.T. Wright - p. 71-72) Wright and Barclay are telling us similar things here.  The bottom line is living a life that follows Christ should look, feel and be different than the one culture promotes.  We can follow the world's pursuits, but in the end we will realize that what the world offers as a reward is temporary at best. 

Two real life illustrations come to mind of how these truths have revealed themselves to me.  If you know me, you are aware that I enjoy sports quite a bit.  While I do admire professional athletes for their God given abilities and their drive to be the best in their given sport, I know many of them sometimes fall hard, especially in spiritual matters.  We watch pro athletes pursue championships in their given sport.  They work and work toward this goal, some never achieve it.  A few do and for a brief period of time, once they have acquired the championship, they are able to enjoy it.  But the reality is that joy lasts only for a brief time.  What then?  I don't pretend to know what goes through the mind and the emotions of a professional world champion, but I would imagine after it's over they realize how fleeting the glory of being a champion is.  Some recommit to working hard to regaining that experience again, but I would gather that many after having experienced it ask themslves the question, "Is this all there is?  There has to be more.  I thought my elation in being a champion would not fade so quickly."  I've heard stories such as these that have led athletes to fall and fall hard.  Some, through the experience of falling so hard, came to know Christ.  They had experienced all the world could offer and realized how empty the world's rewards really are.  Jim Carrey of all people said "I wish everyone could experience being rich and famous, so they'd see it wasn't the answer to anything."  I bet you never thought Jim Carrey could sound so much like Jesus.

My other illustration takes a view from the other side of the perspective.  I have been a part of three different mission trips to Mexico.  The first one I took was in college when when a group of us from the University of Evansville helped repair a Methodist church in Nuevo Loredo.  The trip changed my life and helped to confirm my call to the ministry.  We slept on floors of church members and literally lived among the people for about 10 days.  We would eat meals at the pastor's house.  He had a modest home. It was maybe 1000 square feet.  We came to the realizaton that at least ten people lived there and they were sleeping in shifts so everyone could sleep in a bed at some point during a 24 hour period.  We worshiped several times with these people.  They were poor, but they fed us and treated us like royalty.  Their joy and their spirit was beyond compare.  They were thankful.  They were faithful.  They were real.  They were a living example of "blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God."

When it comes to our children, what are we teaching them to pursue.  Is it only earthly championships that will not last?  Or is it pointing them towards God's kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven?  Do they pursue growing their gifts and their talents strictly for self interest or do we help them to see a greater purpose for what God has given them?

If you are rich, well fed, quick to laugh and well liked, don't be discouraed by this passage.  Just know that all these things are not lasting and neither are their rewards.  What truly lasts are the things of God's kingdom.  May we daily seek to draw ever closer to it.               

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Purpose and Rejection (Luke 4:14-30)

Have you ever felt as though you had made some important self discovery?  Perhaps you felt God had given you a clarity of purpose and direction.  Then you went to share this with someone close to you and in the process of sharing your soul, you felt rejected by whoever you were sharing it with.  Perhaps they questioned the reality of what you were sharing.  You realized that they were skeptical of this new found discovery you had made about yourself.  Perhaps they had their own agenda for the direction they thought your life should take.  If you've ever felt that way, the good news is that Jesus can relate.  Let's look at how this is the case as we consider this passage in Luke 4.   

Our scripture this week picks up the story after Jesus had been tempted in the wilderness by the devil.  Luke 4:14-15 perhaps is one of those scriptures that moves the story along but suggests that a lot had already been happening in Jesus' ministry.  Yet Luke skips over some details to get to the juicy stuff.  It says Jesus had "returned to Galilee," his neck of the woods, if you will, and word was spreading of his ministry.  If we overlap the Gospels, it's likely that this is the time when Jesus turned the water into wine at the wedding at Cana as told in John.  This might be part of the buzz that had been circulating about him.  Perhaps word of this miracle had gone "viral" via word of mouth from person to person, village to village, etc..  He was also teaching in the synagogue and was being praised for his insights into the scripture.  You might say he was "trending" in the region of Galilee.

This is the context in which we find Jesus going to his home town synagogue in Nazareth.  Perhaps Mary and his siblings were there to greet him outside before services.  Imagine the scene. Everyone glad to see Jesus, the upstart itinerant Rabbi that everyone seemed to be talking about. His mother and siblings gleaming with pride.  Old friends welcomed him and gave him updates and asked how he was doing wanting to hear about his ministry. 

After all the glad handing those who could would enter the synagogue and services would begin.  According to Barclay, the Sabbath service at the synagogue would happen in three parts.  The first part was a time of prayer.  During the second part seven various scriptures would be read and translated, and finally various people would teach on the scriptures followed by discussion with the teacher and amongst the people.  Typically the synagogue would have a president but no paid clergy such as we might expect.  Again, according to Barclay "The president would invite any distinguished person present to speak."  On this day Jesus was recognized as that person.  (The Daily Study Bible Series - Luke Volume by William Barclay, pg.46) Apparently Jesus transitioned the Sabbath service from the 2nd part to the 3rd part.  Notice he was handed the scroll of Isaiah but he was allowed to choose the scripture.  You might think that by him sitting down as it says in Luke 4:20, that he was finished.  Yet in reality he was beginning, as tradition was for the teacher to sit down to teach. 

Then Jesus gives the proclamation "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."  In essence Jesus is proclaiming what he intends to do with his ministry.  He has set forth his purpose statement.  Jesus shares via Isaiah that he's come to do five things.  I believe he means these literally and figuratively.  The first is to "preach good news to the poor."  No matter how wealthy we are, we are all poor in something.  Whether we are financially poor, spiritually poor, morally poor, emotionally poor, physically poor, it doesn't matter.  Christ is bringing Good News to us.  The Good News comes in the form of his life, death and ressurection.  Second, he has come "to set the prisoners free."  Prisoners are not always behind literal bars but are trapped by many a figurative prison.  In that day, it was the prison of Roman rule, poverty, the legalism of the sanhedrin, not to mention any personal prison a person might be facing.  Third, he will "give sight to the blind."  Not only did Jesus literally do this, but also Jesus gave sight to those who had been blind to a truth they needed to realize.  He gave clarity of vision to those who had misunderstood what God really looked like.  The Sanhedrin view of God had clouded the vision the people had for Him.  Fourth, he came to release the oppressed.  According to to be oppressed means "to be burdened with cruel or unjust impositions or restraints; subject to a burdensome or harsh exercise of authority or power."  Clearly, the Jews were an oppressed people.  (See my comments above on setting the prisoners free.)  Finally, Jesus "proclaims the year of the Lord's favor."  Jesus is claiming that all of the hopes that God's people had been waiting for had arrived, and they had arrived in him, Jesus Christ.  These are Jesus' claims.  He has set forth his purpose, a purpose he fulfilled then and continues to be fulfilling today.

It's easy to mistakenly think that what caused Jesus' hometown to be upset was that he was claiming to be the Messiah, but if we look closely this isn't what was upsetting to them.  We must realize that the Jewish nation was anticipating the Messiah, hoping for the Messiah.  Barclay goes as far as to say that Galilee was a very progressive area in terms of innovations, politics, etc..  Barclay quotes the historian Josephus saying that Galilee was "ever ready to follow a leader who would begin an insurrection."  (The Daily Study Bible Series - Luke Volume by William Barclay, pg.45) So Jesus chose this passage that likely everyone knew was considered a passage that was linked to their long awaited Messiah.  Rumors of who Jesus was had likely already begun to spread and with them an undercurrent of "maybe Jesus is the one we've been waiting for." 

The passage says everyone was fixed on him and when he gave his proclamation from Isaiah.  The very next verse (4:22) says "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips."  They weren't upset.  They were hopeful and impressed.  Then some who hadn't yet connected the dots realized this was a local boy, "Joseph's son."  There was likely a buzz around the synagogue.  The discussion part of the service was taking place.  Just picture some old codgers back in the corner piecing together what they knew.  "He's Joseph's boy" says one.  "Well, I don't know about that but the word is he's been performing miracles, healings and has been teaching all over Galilee." says another.  "Well, if he's from here and he's possibly the Messiah and can perform miracles, how about giving us a sign?  Why doesn't he spread some miracles and wonders our way?"

All of this gives Jesus an opportunity to respond.  He answered the questions before they were asked of him.  The question he anticipated was basically "why don't you use your miraculous gifts for your own benefit and ours?"  It's ironic that what Nazareth wanted is similar to the temptations that Satan put before Jesus.  "Save yourself" and "Show us a sign" are themes that rear their ugly head throughout the Gospels and are they not familiar to cries we still hear and make today? 

Jesus response to these murmurings is what sets off the crowd.  We must remember that the nation of Israel was longing for a Messiah who would give them not only spiritual power but political and military power over their enemies.  Yet, Jesus points to two examples of the great prophets where God rescues foreigners, not Israelites.  According to N.T. Wright for those in the synagogue this would be "like someone in Brittain or France during WW II speaking of healing and restoration for Adolf Hitler."  (Luke for Everyone, N.T. Wright pg. 48)  If this is really the case, no wonder they were mad. This man with local connections was speaking traitorous words in their mind.  Yet when Jesus shared these words full of grace and truth he was not suprised his hometown wasn't ready to accept them.  Jesus knew they wouldn't before he spoke them.  He begins his answer to their perceived question with "no prophet is accepted in his hometown."  He knows he's about to stir up a hornet's nest. 

I had the opportunity out of college to apply to be the part time youth minister at my home church, Franklin FBC.  There had been times prior to that when I thought that working at my home church would've been awesome. But at the time when the pastor asked me if I was interested, my respnse was to quote Jesus saying "no prophet is accepted in his hometown."  At the time I knew I was likely going to become the Associate Pastor at Peru FBC, but really couldn't tell the pastor that yet.  As I look back at it though, I know it would've been very hard to feel comfortable working alongside the many people who had seen me grow up in the church.  If things hadn't gone well, it wouldn't have been good for my parents either. 

This leads me to our application as parents and leaders.  We may have preachers and prophets in our congregation.  My hope and prayer (and I hope yours too) is that our children catch a vision from God for their future whatever form that takes.  We must be careful how we lead them.  We might be tempted to steer them towards a safer direction, a more practical direction and in so doing we could hinder God's calling on their life.  Just like the town of Nazareth, we do this for selfish reasons to a certain extent because they are our children.  We want to be protectors and security blankets for our kids, but sometimes they need the exact opposite to truly follow God's leading.  Hopefully, if a young person has a true calling, nothing or no one will stand in the way of that.  Even if that's the case, would you rather be a help or a hindrance to a child's calling?  I think this applies to the big picture of kid's lives, as well as the smaller snap shots as well.  How often do we try to fix problems for our children when it might be the case that the current problem or struggle is an opportunity to help them solve their own problem in a way that will help them have a deeper and more trusting faith?  Do we help them fight their battles or do we fight their battles for them,?  I know I am as guilty as the next, but my hope is we are more purposeful with our opportunities to help our children grow a more trusting faith in Jesus.      

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Old Testament Temptations (Luke 4: 1-13)

Please forgive me for my blog's brief Holiday hiatus.  I never thought I would call myself a creature of habit but I discover when I get out of the usual routine as Christmas vacation brought, is when I fail to keep in the habit of blog writing.

This week, the curriculum  brings us a little early to Jesus' temptation experience in the wilderness as found in Luke 4:1-13.  It feels early, at least to me as I associate the temptation account with the beginning of Lent.  Although, Lent is only a few weeks away.  Anyway, enough rambling about the church calendar.

One of the coolest things that I think happens when we study scripture is when we study a familiar passage again but discover a new insight we hadn't seen before.  Upon reading N.T.  Wright's commentary of Christ's temptation in the wilderness, he connects the passage to key moments of the Old Testament.  I've heard some of these connections made before.  For example, he suggests Jesus 40 days in the wilderness represents Israel's 40 yrs. in the wilderness. As well, Jesus being tempted by the devil is compared to Adam and Eve's temptation in the garden. But, if we step back and look at the whole passage I believe there are more O.T. connections to be made.  I believe this passage was not only a narrative to show Jesus was ready to begin his ministry to the people of Israel and then, through his apostles, to the entire world, but that Christ is the completion of the covenant that Old Testament Israel left incomplete.

God often seems to call his trusted servants to the wilderness to prepare them for what lies ahead.  He did this with Moses, The entire nation of Israel, King David, Elijah and John the Baptist to name a few.  Here we see the same happening with Jesus.  He has retreated and fasted for 40 days.  He is hungry, but unlike the Israelites, he does not complain of hunger or lash out in fear of dying as they did to Moses in the wilderness.

God called Jesus to the wilderness to prepare Him for ministry.  I'm sure the thought crossed Jesus' mind, "How do I reach them?  How do I bring them to my Father?"  He had the power of being God fully within him yet able to relate to our human condition by choosing to limit himself to the flesh.  We see Satan tempt Jesus' humanness with the notion of needing to put himself first.  Notice Satan's tactic of testing Jesus' authenticity.  Satan questions his very identity by phrasing his challenges "If you are the Son of God" at the beginning of every temptation.  First Satan tempts Jesus' flesh.  Satan tempts Jesus to use his supernatural ability to produce bread out of the rocks.  This reminds us of God giving the Israelites bread from heaven and water from a rock.  Satan isn't tempting Jesus with hunger as much as He is questioning Jesus' trust in Abba Father's ability to provide for His Son's needs.  This was the failure of Adam and Eve when Satan tempted them.  Satan played on their human desire to think they could be self sufficient and that God was keeping something from them, an all knowing knowledge they thought they deserved.  The question isn't whether Jesus is capable of turning the rock into bread.  It's weather he should or not in order to meet his own needs.  We can not relate to the temptation to turn rocks into bread, but we can relate to the temptation to "look out for #1."  Thus we can relate to Adam and Eve when they gave into the Devil's temptation by taking fruit from the forbidden tree.  To summarize Bruce Larson's thoughts, Satan's strategy is not to get us to an unbelief of God, but a lack of trusting God for what is best for us.  (Communicator's Commentary, Luke, N.T. - Volume 3, pg. 84) 

Next we see Satan tempting Jesus with power and success.  He takes Jesus to a "high place" where he could get a perspective on all the great kingdoms of the world.  Of course, at that time, the great power in the world was the Roman Empire.  Perhaps Jesus could even see the Tyrant Tiberius plotting his next calculated political scheme to gain more power and control and how it would cause harm to the common people whom his heart broke for.  Satan claimed authority over these kingdoms.  Did Jesus's heart break for Tiberius in hopes he would change his ways and repent from his political scheming?  I'm sure it did.  What about Kingdoms to come?  Did Satan flash the kingdom that would become the United States before Jesus eyes and offer him control of it?  (Just something to think about)

All Jesus had to do was worship Satan and he would have control.  Is this any different than the temptation of Israel in the Old Testament when they came to Samuel and said we want a King?  (See I Samuel 8) Israel wanted power, success and a kingdom like other nations around them had.  They could not simply live in covenant with God.  They could not handle the idea of theocracy.  And so we have this history of the Kings of Israel which for a time seemed to work under Saul, David and Solomon.  Of course, these three were not without their flaws. But after them, the Royal line of God's chosen people literally and figuratively went to Hell in a hand basket.  There were a few exceptions, but Israel giving into the temptation of power and success got them nowhere closer to the "kingdom" they desired.  They worshipped other Gods.  They strayed from the covenant.  Satan is tempting Jesus to do the same thing.  It's as if Satan is whispering in Jesus ear "Does it really matter how you get them to follow you as long as they follow you?  Who cares about the means as long as in the end, they are following your way."  Again, we will never be tempted with kingdoms as Satan tempted Jesus but how often are we tempted to compromise our values thinking that the ends will justify the means?

Finally, Satan tempts Jesus with his ability to make a spectacle of himself.  Satan is getting frustrated and desperate.  He tempts Jesus to get the people to follow him by showing them a miraculous sign of Jesus's power and God's protection by throwing himself off from the highest point of the Temple in front of everyone.  Then we see Satan make his most conniving move yet.  He uses God's word to reinforce his temptation.  To this point, Jesus has responded to Satan's temptations by quoting the Torah, more specifically Deuteronomy.  He has used his sword, the Word of God, to resist temptation.  But Satan twists the words of Psalm 91 to justify his temptation.  Satan, in essence is saying "God will not allow any harm to come to you so jump off the Temple and show everyone how powerful you really are."  We repeatedly see in the Old Testament, the people looking for a "sign" and God promising them a "sign."  So Satan is saying, give them what they want, what they have wanted for so many years, give them a sign that you are the Messiah.  Jesus once again quotes Deuteronomy and says "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." 

I believe Christ's response was enough for Satan to know at this point his temptations were futile and reason for him to wait until there was another "opportune time."  This is because Jesus had shown his resolve to Satan by making it clear to him there was no need fora spectacle.  Christ did not need to give them an unneeded miracle or sign (notice I said unneeded, because miracles and signs come in the context of need).  Why?  Because Jesus knew  "I am the sign."  Jesus is the sign that God had promised in the O. T..  Jesus had passed the test and overcame the flesh and Satan knew it.  Jesus had completed his preparation having a full understanding that He was the sign, the Messiah, the Son of God.  He knew it and so did Satan.  All Satan could do was walk away and look for another opportunity later.

It is no coincidence that this experience and these temptations so correlate with the Old Testament.  I believe when a Jewish person would read this they would have reason to say "This passage shows that Jesus did what our Forefathers could not."  Where Israel failed in history, Jesus did not.  Jesus is the fulfillment of all God has promised.  His time in the wilderness confirms that.

As you talk with young people about this scripture, my challenge is this: Help them to think about who they really trust.  Do they trust themselves and only themselves to care and provide for them or do they see evidence in their lives of how God truly provides?  Do they think success comes by cutting corners or do they trust that God has a plan for them they are called to patiently follow?  Do they believe Jesus is the Messiah or are they waiting for some sign of good fortune when the sign is right there in front of them?  How about you?  Who do you trust?  Do you want your kids to trust him?  Then seek to model a trusting faith for them and I challenge you to wrestle with these questions as well.



Thursday, December 20, 2012


The Following is a piece I wrote for our Revision service which focused on the theme of "Regifting." defines regift as the following – “to give an unwanted gift to someone else; to give as a gift something one previously received as a gift.”

If you think about it, every year in December the church goes about the business of regifting Jesus Christ.  We “reopen” the scriptures and are reminded of this account of the Virgin Mary and her fiancé, Joseph, traveling to Bethlehem for the census.  They are welcomed to town with the knowledge that there is no room in the inn and are ushered to a stable, a cliff cave, where they spend the night bringing the God child, this Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace into the world.  Shepherds come and behold the child and a year or so later Magi come bearing gifts.  Each year the church recounts this narrative, ”unwraps” this story, if you will, in hopes that people everywhere will be touched by the gift of God coming to Earth in the form of a child, a “Savior, which is Christ, the Lord.” 

But culture seems to regift this narrative the way the first part of the above definition expresses it, as an “unwanted gift” we’ve received that we need to give to someone else, but in a much more attractive, prettier package.  Culture seems to think this story of a virgin and a manger is very sweet and quaint yet views it just as that a story that doesn’t deeply change a person to be different all the time, just to be generous for a season and continue back into the same old routine after its done.  Also, culture feels the need to commercialize and propagandize this time of year that is based on this story of humble beginnings so causing many to feel Christmas has to look and feel a certain way for it to really be Christmas.  Culture says let’s regift this time of year so everyone is engrained to think from childhood more about what will be received than what God has given or what people will give.  Culture pushes us to make it about the perfect food and the perfect décor which seems to overshadow this narrative about God and Savior and humble beginnings in a manger.  Culture says “let’s put a big red bow and lots of evergreen on it to spruce up the whole thing.”  Plus the other version doesn’t profit Culture as much as Santa, Norman Rockwell, TV Christmas specials and the perfect Hallmark Ornament on the Christmas tree does.  Culture says “now doesn’t that humble narrative about baby Jesus look better after it’s been regifted to you in this nice pretty package?”

But God says “Nope, it looks perfect just the way I packaged it."

He says "I’m OK with your family traditions, your exchanging of presents, your parties and programs, but what matters most to Me is that you take this gift of my Son, Jesus, and accept Him.  Accept and trust my promise to you and then regift Him in the new life I have given you, in the Spirit I have given you, in the gifts and abilities I have given you, in the time and resources I have given you, so that more people would receive this gift and My Kingdom would grow on Earth as it is in Heaven.”  

You see, from God’s point of view, regifting is more like the second part of the definition “to give as a gift something one previously received as a gift.” In our minds “regifting” may have a somewhat negative connotation but for God, regifting is what Christmas is all about.  This is what Jesus coming to the Earth is all about.

This Christmas try not to worry about what culture tells you and don’t be afraid to say a resounding “yes” to regifting in the way God intended.

For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given;And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:6 (NKJV)