Preparing the Way: Matthew 3:3

This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.'”

Matthew 3:3 (NRSV)

Did you miss the Old Testament quotes?  Well, here you go.

This one comes to us by way of Isaiah 40:3.  The text is changed slightly in Matthew’s use, and it might influence the punctuation.

In the original reference, preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness is paralleled against “make straight in the desert a highway before our God.”  In other words, the voice is crying out to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness – the voice is not in the wilderness.  “In the wilderness” is where the way of the Lord is prepared.  “In the desert” is where His highway is prepared.

Matthew drops the bit about the desert, and thus the verse gets punctuated like we see, here, where the voice is crying in the wilderness, because the parallelism is gone.  How important this may be for interpretation is debatable, but we can understand it in light of Matthew likes to put some kind of literal hook in his Old Testament references.  Here, John the Baptist is in the wilderness.  To link him more closely with the reference, Matthew arranges the text to look more like what you see above.  John the Baptist is crying out in the wilderness, so we can hook into Isaiah’s passage if we look at it from the standpoint of Isaiah’s “voice” crying out in the wilderness.

Regardless, clearly the intent is to link John’s activity with what Isaiah is describing, and what he is describing is an event where Israel has paid for her sins by serving her time in Babylon, so it is time to bring the exile to an end.

If you read Isaiah 40-43, you’ll see some colorful imagery.  My favorite is possibly 41:14.  But all of it is directed to the fact that the Lord is coming to release Israel from her exile, and now is the time for her to be encouraged and lift up her head.

By the time we get to Isaiah 42, Israel is portrayed as God’s servant whose job will be to bring light to the nations.

So, in sum, the Isaiah passages tell us of a time of preparation in the wilderness to pave the way for the Lord’s deliverance of Israel.  By doing this, he re-forms Israel into a faithful servant whose job will be to roll healing and wisdom out to the nations.

In Mark’s Gospel, Malachi gets thrown in here, and the combined cast seems to be that John is paving the way for Jesus as faithful Israel.  In Matthew’s Gospel, we don’t get that facet.  Matthew, here, is primarily focused on the end of exile and God’s imminent deliverance, which matches up with the other references we’ve seen in Matthew so far.

But perhaps the bit in Isaiah 42 gives us a little insight into how this deliverance will be accomplished.  The salvation of Israel involves reforming her into a faithful servant – a servant whom Jesus already is and that he will make his people into.  The end of Israel’s first century exile will not come from an invading army like the end of the Babylonian exile – it will come from making her a new nation and setting her to the task of blessing and illuminating the nations.

And this is what Jesus provides.  Rome isn’t conquered by the sword of another empire; they are conquered by the faithful testimony of God’s people, up to and including martyrdom.  This is the picture of the people of God overthrowing the Beast we see in Revelation 12:10.  John the Baptist knows the deliverance is imminent, but this particular conquest may have some surprising features.

Consider This

  1. What weapons and tactics are available to Christians who struggle against a corrupt world system?  How do these differ from the weapons and tactics the world’s political powers use?
  2. If you belong to Christ, you haven’t just been delivered from something, but also to be something.  What does that mission look like for the church, today?

 

The Kingdom of Heaven: Matthew 3:1-2

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Matthew 3:1-2 (NRSV)

I thought I’d shake things up and stop just short of an Old Testament citation.

We are short of an Old Testament citation, but not an Old Testament concept.  John the Baptist gets no particular introduction.  It may be safe to assume Matthew’s readers, or the readers of the source material Matthew is using, are already aware of who he was.  Matthew will get us a little more insight into John’s activities in the next few verses, but he begins by introducing John with his message: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

Perhaps John has been reading the signs and knows this.  Perhaps God revealed it to him.  Perhaps it was some of both.  Matthew does not tell us any previous history about John or his parents or his relationship with Jesus.  But whatever the cause, John knows that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  It is imminent.  It is not something far off in the distant future, but a historical reality that has come right to the doorstep of Israel.

This is good news, of course.  We have seen from Matthew the prophetic expectations of the restoration of Israel of which Jesus is the herald and executor.  The kingdom of heaven (or kingdom of God) is about to invade the kingdom of Rome.  From the Old Testament, we have a pretty good idea of what this kingdom will be like – a kingdom of peace, justice, mercy, compassion, care, and security.  Shalom.  Incidentally, this is where Jerusalem gets its name – Jeru shalom – the city of peace.  Like the days of David and Solomon, the kingdom is very near.  The fallen tent of David is about to be restored.  The golden age – no, an even more golden golden age – is upon them.

But John does not dwell overmuch on that part of the message.  He is a preparer.  He is getting the people ready, and his instructions to them are to repent.

Repentance is something he calls the people to as a whole, and he tells his audience this is the proper response to the news that the kingdom of God is near.  By repentance, of course, he does not mean a private prayer asking forgiveness of sins, but a collective turning away from them.  He urges his audience to leave behind the ways of the Empire they live in and embrace the ways of the kingdom of God – the physical sign of this repentance will be baptism, which we’ll get into later.  But it’s important to know that this is what John means by repentance – turning away from a lifestyle of one kingdom to embrace the lifestyle of the kingdom of God.

In the tradition of Old Testament prophets, John knows something that we’ll get both barrels of when the Pharisees and Sadducees show up – the arrival of the kingdom of God means the judgment of the existing powers.  Like her days in Babylon, many in Israel have assimilated themselves into the world order of a corrupt religious power under the thumb of a corrupt political power.  They have found a home there.  And by becoming part of that system, they will share the fate of that system, which is total dismantling when the King arrives.

And so John tells his people to repent.  Give up the ways of being in this world and embrace the ways of being of the kingdom come.  By doing so, you will enjoy the good news of the coming kingdom and not find yourself cast out with the old world system whose power is shattered and has no more place.  The stone that shatters all worldly powers is rolling downhill, and you don’t want to be at the bottom of that hill.  You want to be behind the stone and follow in its train.

For us, the coming of the kingdom of God as Matthew and John expected it happened a long time ago.  The book of Revelation puts us well past the destruction of the Beast and the Harlot as the Apostle John knew them.  But there is still a resurrection and a new creation – a renewal of all things to match the extent of Jesus’ domain – every inch of every thing.

When that happens, there will not be any room for the powers of the old creation.  War, death, evil, oppression – those things are destined for the lake of fire, never to trouble the children of mankind again.  There will only be room for new creation.

And we must ask ourselves – are we prepared for that event?  Will we find that we are ushered into this new creation with hardly a hiccup because we are already living in it, provisionally, today?  Or will we find that we have, perhaps without even thinking about it, allied ourselves to the things that are passing away?  Will we find that there is no place for us, because we have built our lives around idols and powers that have no place in God’s world?  Will we find ourselves outside the gates of that creation?

I’m not going to lie to you; I don’t really know how all of that is going to pan out, exactly.  I don’t know what God’s final ruling on all that is going to be as far as individuals are concerned.  It’s His prerogative.  He gets to forgive and save whoever He wants whenever He wants whyever He wants.  It’s always been His creation, and so are we.

But what I do know is that there are a set of things that will be refined, renewed, and made perfect for the world to come, and there are a set of things that will just be done away with.  I know that we can ally with one or the other, but not both, and I know the heartbeat of God is for all His children to pursue Him and His dream for the world, and I know injustice and evil will have no place in this dream.

The good news has a sobering side to it as well, doesn’t it?  The kingdom of God is at hand!  Get out of your old kingdom before it collapses.

Consider This

  1. How does John the Baptist’s portrayal of repentance inform your own repentance?  We are told we can always ask God for forgiveness, but is repentance more than only that?
  2. Various scriptures give us insight into the kinds of things that do not belong in God’s kingdom of shalom.  Are we ensconced in any of those things?  Are there even things in that category that aren’t overtly sinful?

The Nazarene: Matthew 2:23

There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Matthew 2:23 (NRSV)

Ok, well, now Matthew is just trolling us.

It’s bad enough he had to stop every two sentences to give us an Old Testament reference.  And we almost didn’t stick with him when he decided to use one that referred to the wrong location and wasn’t a reference in the future.  But now he’s finally done it.  He’s quoted an Old Testament reference that doesn’t even exist.

Say what you like about the inadequacies of proof-texting; at least the texts generally exist.  This is in a whole different league.  Matthew has become the Michael Jordan of misapplying the Old Testament.

Or so it would seem.

Scholars have tried to explain this – the quote that wasn’t there – with theories ranging from Old Testament texts that we no longer have to the Hebrew word being “shoot” or “branch” to a reference to a Nazirite vow to Matthew sort of summarizing some verses that maybe would give the idea Jesus was a Nazarene.

To make matters more complicated, Matthew provides a reasonably detailed backstory for how Jesus ended up in Nazareth involving Joseph fleeing from the reign of Herod Archelaus.  Archelaus is not the same Herod who ordered the babies killed – he’s the son, and the Jews do not like him at all.  According to Josephus, they make all kinds of demands before he’s confirmed as king of the Jews, and when he sends a delegation to settle the unrest, the Jews stone them to death and get right back to living their lives.  Archelaus responds by sending the whole army and killing 3000 Jews in the Temple.

Luke, by contrast, has a much more pedestrian story of Joseph being from Nazareth, they go to Bethlehem for the census, then they go back home.

What’s with the need for Matthew to unpack this weird little political intrigue to “fulfill” a verse that doesn’t even exist?

Obviously, there are no easy answers, here.  But here’s what I suspect.

I’m going to go with Jerome on this one, at least part way.  I think the Nazarene thing probably encompasses the Messianic references to the “branch” (ne’tser) and its root “shoot” (neser).  Matthew says this bit was spoken by the prophets – plural – and the branch/shoot/root image is used several times in Old Testament messianic expectation as well as inter-testamental writings and writings of the Qumran community.

Look, for instance, at Isaiah 10-11.  In this passage, God brings Assyria to end the oppression of Israel by, get this, other Israelites.  Iniquitous decrees, neglect of the poor, injustice – these are the accusations Isaiah levels against Israel.  To deliver the weak and oppressed, in comes Assyria.

But it turns out Assyria is also terrible and, in this environment, faithful Israel repents and cries out to the Lord, and the Lord delivers them from Assyria and leads them into a restored kingdom of Shalom led by the one spoken of in Isaiah 11.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch (neser) shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

Isaiah 11:1-3 (NRSV), interlinear Hebrew mine

Isaiah seems to be the only book fond of this specific word, but it shows up in Isaiah in at least two other places most likely not all written by the same person or at least at the same time.  Further, this image of the Messiah is all over the prophets, even if the particular word is not used.

We have seen over and over again Matthew summoning up an Old Testament passage to give meaning to the event of Jesus, and he loves to tie it together with some literal hook.  In this case, the literal hook is Jesus being from Nazareth.  The Branch is from Branch City.

And, as we’ve also seen many times, we have the theme of faithful Israel suffering under an oppressor and the promised deliverance and restoration by God.

So, there’s a sense in which all those theories may be somewhat correct (except maybe the Nazirite thing, in my opinion).  It’s a summary.  It’s not an allusion to one specific passage, but rather a collection, and that collection are the passages that emphasize God’s servant as the Branch raised up to deliver Israel and give her – a repentant, purified, and restored Israel – a glorious kingdom of shalom.  Jesus is super that, and you know it has to be him, because he’s from Branchville (Nazareth).

I encourage you to look at previous posts to see how, even in just a couple of chapters, this theme of the imminent deliverance and restoration of Israel by God through Jesus is just used almost non-stop in this Gospel.  Matthew will bring it up again, and again, and again, hammering it in every three sentences, seems like.  It’s important to him, and as people trying to really hear Matthew, it should be important to us.  But I don’t want to keep repeating myself on the topic – I lack Matthew’s inspiration in several senses of the word.

Suffice it to say that this is something Jesus did accomplish, and the fact that you and I are now full members of the people of God and our destination is new creation is because of it.

Consider This

  1. Do you think you could get away in a sermon with quoting an Old Testament verse that didn’t exist?  Let’s not try it.
  2. Two other passages in Isaiah that use this word are Isaiah 14:19 and 60:21.  What do these passages, in context, contribute to our understanding of Jesus as the Branch?
  3. The purpose of the Branch in Isaiah 11 is to create a kingdom of shalom.  In what ways should the church embody this and work toward it?  What is your calling in this?

A Voice in Ramah: Matthew 2:16-17

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Matthew 2:16-17 (NRSV)

My dad loves two shows: Frazier, and Everybody Loves Raymond.  He’s not quite as bad about this, now, but there was a period in there where, anytime you talked to my father, he was bound to quote one of those shows.  This occasionally still happens, but there was a period where it was guaranteed to happen, possibly several times.

I am beginning to feel this way about Matthew and the Old Testament.  You wonder if anything will come from Matthew’s pen where he doesn’t feel like he has to go, “It’s just like that time in the Old Testament when….”  You almost want to assure him that his Gospel is very good, and he really doesn’t have to find some Old Testament corollary for every single thing he says.

In this particular instance, you really feel the stretch.  In today’s citation, the portion Matthew quotes is not only in the wrong location, but it’s not a prophecy.  At least the other citations were set in the future.  This particular one is specifically about the condition of Israel at the time it was written.

This quote comes to us from Jeremiah 31.  It is part of a word given to Jeremiah to speak to the exiles in Babylon.  In it, God promises (granted, in the future) that He will restore Israel and end their exile.

The passage in question is verses 15-17:

Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.

Jeremiah 31:15-17 (NRSV)

Ramah was a processing city for Jerusalem captives taken to Babylon.  If you were captured by Babylon in the invasion, you got held in Ramah for a period of time, then a group of you were carted off to Babylon to live the rest of your days as exiles as prisoners.

The prophecy in Jeremiah is not that Ramah will weep at some point in the future, but rather that her present weeping will come to an end when the Lord brings the exiles back in the future.

So, if Matthew is trying to say that Jeremiah predicted a time when Ramah would weep in the future, and this is when Herod had all the infants killed, this would be some fairly suspect exegesis.  Bethlehem is not Ramah, and Jeremiah quite clearly situates Ramah’s condition as present weeping.  The future component is that God will stop the weeping by returning the exiles.

However, we must also take into account that Matthew isn’t dumb.  He knows Bethlehem isn’t Ramah, and he knows the sadness of Ramah was not some future prophecy.  Why, then, can he speak about that passage being fulfilled in Herod’s first century edict about infants in Jerusalem?

I think it’s because, once again, Matthew isn’t saying, “Jeremiah 31 is a prediction of what’s happening, now.”  But rather, he’s saying, “What’s happening now can be explained by Jeremiah 31.  This right here, this is super-that.  This is that text in its fullest sense.”

Because what we have in the narrative is a tyrannical power over Israel who has taken their children.  It’s Herod.  It’s the Roman Empire specifically as they exist in the local power structures run through collaborators like the Empire-appointed Herod and the Empire-appointed High Priest.  This power is the Babylon of Matthew’s narrative.  The oppression of this power takes Israel’s sons into captivity, quite literally.  And as Matthew likes to do, he puts some teeth in the comparison by drawing out a very literal facet – Herod kills Israelite babies.  Even Babylon didn’t do that.  Much.  Probably.  Herod is quite literally taking Israel’s sons from her.

In Matthew’s eyes, Bethlehem becomes the Ramah that even Ramah never was.  It’s super-Ramah.  It’s a Ramah experience so much more horrible and complete than the actual, original Ramah.

But we also know from the Old Testament that God hears the weeping.  He hears the weeping, and He acts to save.  Jeremiah 30-31 are a bold promise of the liberation and restoration of Israel.  In this picture, recalcitrant Israel repents.  Her heart turns back to God.  The image is conflates both Israel’s repentance and restoration – you can’t really read Jeremiah and come away with a crystal-clear idea of which one of those things happens first – and that’s probably intentional because it’s all part of the same package.  The restored Israel will turn away from her sins and other gods and become wholly YHWH’s, and YHWH will deliver, protect, and glorify them.  It’s the Sinai covenant brought to its eschaton.

This is what we get in Matthew’s Jesus.  The killing of the infants sets up the weeping of God’s people, and it is the prelude to the promised act of deliverance and restoration.  Yes, God did this for the people of Jeremiah’s day.  Persia conquered Babylon and the exiles returned and restored Jerusalem.  But in Matthew’s mind, there was more to come, and what he is witnessing is even more That than That ever was.

If you put yourself in the shoes of the first century Israelite, something like an edict that kills the babies in Bethlehem is a horror – a flagrant abuse of Imperial power to protect itself in a catalog of other atrocities.  But Matthew wants you to know that this is the weeping that comes before the dancing.  The weeping that comes from the oppressor is coming to an end in Jesus Christ.

We are not under the oppression of the Roman Empire.  Unless you happen to live in Rome, then I guess you might feel that way.  But we are part of the great renewal.  There is a sense in which, if you are a follower of Jesus, you are an answer to the prayers of a captive Israel.  Not your works, but your existence.  In you, God is restoring His people and, through His people, the whole world.

Consider This

  1. In what ways are the church in general and you in specific called to be a remedy to the damage and excesses of the world?  What “weeping” ought we to be reversing with restoration?

Sunday Meditations: Sermons

What makes for a good sermon?

Should sermons be a certain length of time?  Should they be entertaining?  Should they challenge us with something to do?  Should they be an exposition of a biblical text?  Should they be about a topic?  Current events?  Should they be the main feature of Sunday morning worship as they are in evangelical Protestant churches, or should they be one feature among many as they tend to be in other church traditions?

Some of those questions are really about the nature of worship in general, but assuming that we agree that a sermon should be in the mix somewhere, how do we tell if one is good?  Or, maybe more pointedly, what is it a sermon-giver should be trying to do when they produce a sermon?

I don’t know that there’s a completely objective way to answer that.  If we look to sermons in Scripture, none of them look very much like what people do today when they give sermons.  If you’re Jesus, you can even get away with, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” cue the invitational hymn.

Most, if not all, of what we might call sermons in the Bible look more like appeals to Israel’s history to impress upon the audience that they, as Israelites, have killed the Messiah, but the Messiah is alive and now the world is about to change – quite badly for the people who had him killed.

That’s not really much of an option for us, either.  Any sermon audience today is not going to have had anything to do with the execution of Jesus, and that sort of takes the teeth out of the whole, “This Jesus you have crucified, God has made him Lord and Christ” point that seems to be so popular in the sermons described in Acts.  Perhaps the sermon to the Athenians in Acts 17 might come closer to something we’d expect, although the context there is not a sermon given to believers, and I shudder to think what most denominations would do to their pastors if any of them started a sermon talking about how God was the father of us all and they just needed the God they were worshiping in ignorance explained to them.  You probably wouldn’t last in many denominations suggesting that Muslims worship the true God in ignorance, much less pagans.

We do have epistles written to believers.  Are those sermons?  It seems like they were expected to be read in these early Christian church/synagogues.  If early Christian worship looked anything like first century Jewish worship, readings were part of that, optionally followed by additional teaching or instruction.  In that sense, worship may have relegated the sermon to a relatively short period of time in among the other elements of worship.

There seems to be a conviction of early Judaism that just being exposed to the Scriptures in worship was potent enough.  And maybe we could learn something from that in our own sermons.  Maybe we don’t always need a long sermon.  Maybe we don’t always need a sermon.  But whatever you say, it ought to be shoring up the reading you just did and not the other way around.

And I think this maybe gives us a vector for thinking about sermons.  In the 21st century, we are separated from the world of those texts by at least two millennia.  By contrast, we are only separated from William Shakespeare by about 400 years, and we often need a little help to understand what’s going on.  We would expect we’d need some help understanding very ancient texts and we’d expect that help would need to cover more instructional ground than a first century rabbi reading from the Torah would.

But the main thing is that what you say needs to facilitate the encounter with the word.

This, I think, is something we don’t always see in sermons like “3 Steps to a Marriage God Blesses” and “Learning to Trust God from the Life of Amaziah.”  There seems to be a trend that can sometimes drive sermons that looks like one of the following:

  1. The biblical text on its own is not relevant.  I need to figure out a way to make it relevant by making it about a modern issue/concern.
  2. The biblical text made me think of some spiritual insights, so I’m going to share those spiritual insights.

The things that can make these trends slip under your radar is that, usually, the things that a person is saying are true.  They are not saying false things from the pulpit.  The question is whether or not those things actually put you in closer contact with the text, or whether or not they abstract it from you.  Let’s not talk about the text; let’s talk about these other things that are textish.  Let’s talk about the giant Philistines in your life.  Let’s talk about your Red Seas.  Let’s talk about how godly and intentional Daniel’s parents must have been to raise a son like that.  Let’s talk about how Peter is always putting his foot in his mouth, and don’t we all do that, sometimes?

None of those things actually help us encounter the text.  Those things may all be true, and they may be useful thoughts the text inspired in the speaker, and they may even help us process some ramifications of the text, but they do not bring us closer to the text itself.  Instead, quite unintentionally, they may have the effect of saying, “Don’t worry about the actual text.   Let me give you some text-inspired thoughts.”

And maybe there is a place for that in sermons.  Maybe we do need help making practical applications or drawing out a personal meaning of the text.  But if that’s all a sermon is, have I heard the true Word of God who speaks to me through those Scriptures?  Is that the kerygma?

I fully admit a lot of this may just be my own personal preferences, and I can take that criticism.  I mean, I just made that criticism of myself.  But from my own experiences, I’ve found the most powerful sermons are the ones that take me to stand before the Scripture and uncover its raw, pulsing force.  I don’t always appreciate it like I should when it happens.

Out of Egypt: Matthew 2:14-15

14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

Matthew 2:14-15 (NRSV)

In Matthewtown, you can’t pull out of your driveway without running into an Old Testament reference.

As always, it behooves us to look at the quote’s original meaning so we can get a handle on why Matthew uses it, here.  Presumably, he has more going on that just the bare fact that, in both cases, someone came out of Egypt.

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.

Hosea 11:1-2 (NRSV)

Hosea 10 is about God’s sad decision to bring down the kingdom of Israel because of her persistent breaking of the covenant, alliances with other nations, and worship of their gods (who did not bring Israel out of Egypt).  God wanted her to be the New Creation, but instead, she has become Old Creation – no difference between her and the other nations.  In Hosea 11, almost like a parent, God sadly remembers how much He loved Israel and brought her out of Egypt, how He raised her like a father, but also how He was betrayed.  Even in the midst of God’s anguish very evident in this heartbreaking passage, we do see glimpses of hope, especially for the future of Judah who will carry on the tradition of faithful Israel.

The situation surely fits Matthew’s story.  Long after Hosea’s day, even the salt of Judah had lost its saltiness, and God had brought them under the Roman Empire just like He had with Assyria so many years prior.  I would say that the backdrops are similar.

However…

The part Matthew quotes is the part about God calling His son out of Egypt, and he clearly wants to underscore this piece of it for Jesus’ story because Jesus, well, actually comes out of Egypt.  In Hosea, this is also a reference back to the past – God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt.

In Egypt, Israel was under the oppression of a foreign empire, but God delivered them out of Egypt, united them, married them with an eternal pledge, gave them His law, and vowed to fulfill in them the promise He had made to Abraham so long ago.  This people would be the reboot.  He calls them out of Egypt into a new kingdom and a new identity as led by a new leader – Moses.

I have to give Andrew Perriman credit for pointing this out, that to really appreciate why Matthew will apply these things to Jesus, we have to get back to the starting point, and when we do, we will notice that Matthew is paving the way to tell us a new Exodus story with a new Moses and a new Israel.

This story will have a baptism, a temptation in the wilderness, a law given from a mountaintop, raging seas calmed, bread from heaven, followers who leave everything behind, skirmishes with the surrounding nations, and a sphere of the kingdom around Jesus Christ in which the world Israel was supposed to be working for becomes real – a world of healing, forgiveness, faithful obedience, love, justice, care for the weak, provision for the needy, and even little children have nothing to fear.  In fact, the original Moses actually shows up to talk to Jesus about it in Matthew 17.

Only this time, as Matthew has Jesus re-walking the path of Moses and Israel, Jesus will not break his covenant.  Jesus will stay obedient despite temptation.  He will never be assimilated into the world’s power structure.  He will retain His unique obedience, mission, and faithfulness through suffering and into death itself – the Sea of Reeds that destroys his enemies, but parts to allow him safely through – the faithful people that God will save.

This Exodus has already been walked.  There is no great Empire looming over most of our heads, and even if there were, there’s no particular reason to think our story would play out in the same way.  We do not live in an age of contingency where our faithfulness to the end will move God to deliver His people.  That was something Jesus did, and that part of God’s great story has been completed.

No, we live on this side of that Exodus, where the Spirit has been poured out and resurrection has been won, not just for Jesus, but for those who faithfully followed him into death.

Even so, Jews and Gentiles have been brought together and given the Spirit so that we might continue a very ancient task of bringing renewal and restoration to the world around us.  And we got here because of Jesus’ Exodus.  That story is the prologue to our story.  That New Creation Bubble that surrounded Jesus surrounds each of us, and what are we doing with it?  Does it look like New Creation in our area, or does it look like everywhere else?  Are we going to leave Egypt, or are we going to become Egyptians?

(No offense to the modern nation of Egypt or her people.  This is the problem with symbolism based in ancient Near-Eastern history.)

Consider This

  1. I mentioned some events in the Gospel of Matthew that had parallels in the Exodus.  What others come to your mind?  What meaning is added for you to those events knowing that they have a connection to the Exodus?
  2. Unlike Israel, the people of God do not have a specific nation, and the few times that has happened in history have not gone well.  What does it mean to be the continuation of God’s people in the world under our present circumstances?

The State of the Experiment

I started the “Letters to the Next Creation” project for a few reasons.

One is that I had (have) been coming to appreciate the meaning that biblical writings had for their original audience.  Getting into these meanings is an imprecise process that is heavily historical and, to borrow a metaphor Doug Moo shared at Park Woods, rearranges a number of the puzzle pieces.  I had a personal need to get this stuff out of my head and somewhere where I could work with it and wander down thought paths and see where it took me.

Another reason is that I have found so much more power and impact in my reading of the Scriptures by incorporating this perspective that I wanted to share it and make it bigger.  This is especially true because, outside the realm of biblical scholarship, you don’t hear a lot about this stuff.  I wanted to try to bridge the gap I perceived.  That gap separates us from the original world of the text, and that gap also separates that knowledge from our own stories, meanings, and applications.

So, I thought a good way to combine these various purposes to be to try to make a quasi-devotional and put it up so that, not only could I work through these things for myself, but other people might find it useful as well.  Not that my insights are any great shakes, but it might provoke thought in areas that we don’t always think about when we read our Bibles.  It’s one of the reasons this blog is anonymous to the outside world and doesn’t allow comments.  Who I am and what I think are just not that important, but the material is out there, and if it edifies anyone in any way, that’s great.

To help me, I told a small number of people in my life who share similar interests and know me well enough not to write up my mistakes as deliberate heresies (although unintentional heresy is always a possibility) or understand my thoughts at the time I wrote them as bedrock commitments I would go to the stake for.  These people share their feedback with me and, in fact, may be the only people who ever read this post.  So, thanks guys.

Recently, one of them pointed out that, in my zeal for sharing, I have been confrontational perhaps where I did not mean to be.  My tone had gone beyond the point of sharing my thoughts to basically condemning any other thoughts as wrong.  He cited specific examples, and I have to agree.

So, first, let me repent for things that I’ve written in the past that sounded like I was trying to pick a fight or condemning out of hand traditional views.  That is not the way anyone in the kingdom of God should deal with others, nor is it an accurate reflection of what I actually think.  I don’t think everyone is wrong but me, and in fact, the opposite is quite likely true in many cases.

But whenever a brother or sister points these things out, I believe the proper response is not to wallow in it, but to use it as an opportunity to make things right and do better in the future.  So, to that end, I’ve gone back through previous posts and tried to sand off the rough edges.  I still want to say what I think, but I don’t need to invite conflict.  Rather than go after “false views,” I just want to share what’s on my mind and heart and leave it to the reader to decide what’s worth keeping and what’s worth rejecting, both in the things I say and the possible implications they might have for our traditional defaults.  You may want to review some of those posts to see what they sound like when I’m less of a jerk.

Also, to help with the aspect of making thoughtful connections, I’ve added a “Consider This” section to each post with some questions to spur your thinking on the reading.

I’ve slowed the output of posts so I could catch up with doing some of these things, and they are done, so I should be back to near-daily production soon.  Thanks for staying with it.

Outsiders: Matthew 2:11

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Matthew 2:11 (NRSV)

As I read this whole episode in Matthew 2 about the magi who come from the East, I’m struck by the fact that they really have no reason to do this.

They are outside of Judea in some foreign land.  By the practice of astrology, they see that a new king of the Jews is to be born.  For some reason, this motivates them to come and pay homage.  They are “overwhelmed with joy” when they find the birthplace (2:10).  And they have brought rich gifts.

On our side of these events, this doesn’t raise much of a question.  Of course the birth of Jesus is the biggest deal there is.  Why wouldn’t people from other nations show up?  We wonder why there aren’t more, and the absence of a large, powerful audience is marked up to the humility of Christ’s birth.

But if you think about it from a historical angle, a better question might be why anyone showed up at all.  Do these magi just go around visiting kings? We know what the big deal of Jesus’ birth is to us, but what was it to them?

Part of that answer may be a theme that’s present in all the Gospels to some extent or another – the tendency of “outsiders” to recognize Jesus for who he is versus the tendency of his own people not to recognize this (or recognize it and get extremely upset).  The Gospels are littered with these little stories about sinners, Gentiles, lepers, and even Roman soldiers recognizing and believing in who Jesus is and what he’s trying to do – all the while the vast majority of Israel is wildly unpredictable when it comes to this.

Another part of that answer might be political prudence.  For instance, when the Maccabean revolt in 164 BCE threw off the Seleucids, some of them just kept right on fighting, expanding their territory into Perea in the East.  Perhaps these magi from the East recognized that this king of the Jews could be capable of doing something similar.  Perhaps they saw a second Maccabean-like revolt coming, and they wanted to be on good terms with this coming king, just in case.  As we’ve seen, they showed up at the palace in Jerusalem, apparently unaware that being born “king of the Jews” meant anything other than what it said on the tin.

But thinking about why these foreign emissaries would even care about Jesus’ birth leads me to consider why anyone, including myself, should have cared outside first century Jews longing for the restoration of Israel.

As we deal with this question, we need to be aware that we’ve also inherited something our Greco-Roman theological forefathers did: discard all the Jewish theology, history, and concerns and make the story about something more relevant to a non-Jewish world: a cosmic clash between good and evil / God and Satan, the eternal destination of my immortal soul – themes that transcend the historical particulars of the Gospels.  If you do this, both I and the magi have a reason to care because the story of Jesus isn’t about the deliverance and restoration of Israel; it’s about the spiritual welfare of all mankind and/or the victory of Good in the cosmos.

But in doing that, they may have left behind some important truths that need dusting off.  Those narratives given to us by those early Hellenistic theologians are narratives that came sort of late in the game compared to the history of interpretation that came before them.  The New Testament portrays even the inclusion of the Gentiles as a radical, new period in the history of God’s people, so it’s hard to say that Jesus’ immediate significance to Matthew at the time would have had such abstract, far reaching borders.

And yet, the magi come and pay homage.  And yet, the Roman solider asks for healing.  And yet, the Samaritan woman tells everyone the Messiah has come.  Why do they do this?  Why should I do this?

In the Old Testament, the restoration of Israel is good news for everybody.  It is Israel’s mission to be a blessing to the Gentiles as well as guides leading them to worship of the God who made the heavens and the earth.  The end of the Old Testament views the ideal situation for the world being Israel under a faithful king ruling the rest of the nations in benevolence.  The nations get to enjoy good lives under a good kingdom in a peaceful world, and they are reconciled to the true God from whom they have been separated for so long.

As we look at these errant outsiders in the Gospels, they have different reasons to hope for this future, but they are all united in the sense that they all get something out of it.  Jesus completing the messianic and eschatological hopes for Israel means something good for them, whether it is the end of their persecution by Israel’s persecutors (or Israel, herself), the chance for true worship of the true God, healing for their families, the end of war – whatever it is.

But the radically new innovation that comes about specifically because of Jesus Christ is that the dividing lines between Jew and Gentile are torn down as far as God is concerned.  Gentiles in Acts receive the same promised Holy Spirit that Jews receive, even though the Holy Spirit was never promised to them, much to the astonishment of the Jewish apostles.  Gentiles prophesy in YHVH’s name.  Gentiles naturally start doing the things the Torah requires even though they have never heard a single verse of the Torah.  Gentiles become heirs of the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  And why is this?  Because the dividing wall of commands and ordinances has been torn down in the death of Jesus to make one nation out of the two (Eph. 2:11-16).

What does this mean?  It means that Jesus reconciles both Jews and Gentiles to a God they have strayed from.  It means that both inherit the promises, mission, and destiny God gave our forefathers in the desert.  It means that the new creation is for all of us, and the great gospel to the Gentiles in the first century was: if you will forfeit your allegiance to the powers that God opposes and ally yourself to king Jesus, you will escape the judgment coming on those very powers.  You will be treated as the oppressed, not the oppressors.  You will be delivered, vindicated, and rewarded regardless of your past actions.  Everything the kingdom of God has to offer is yours, even though you have come to it so late.

And this is why I care about the birth of Jesus.  Because of him, I can be reconciled to a God that my forefathers left (or possibly never knew) millennia ago.  Because of him, the promises are for me.  Because of him, I am part of God’s great dream for the world – to fill it with His image.  Because of him, I can wait for the new creation with joy even as I work to present that new creation now in my present circumstances.

I don’t need to make Jesus’ story be about me.  I can find my story in his.

Consider This

  1. If “going to Hell” were no longer a factor, would you still follow Jesus?  What would Jesus mean to you without the threat of Hell?
  2. What does it mean for you, personally, and your church, corporately, to be the inheritors of Israel’s mission in the world?  What are the ways you can be a blessing and a light to the world around you?

Sunday Meditations: America

In Sunday School, today, I did an introduction to the book of Nehemiah.  We had to move in chairs, people were filed out the door, the youth had brought their friends – everyone wanted to know what Nehemiah had to say about their lives.

Actually, none of that happened except the first sentence.

As we looked at Nehemiah’s (out of chronological order) prayer in chapter 1, he confesses the corporate sin of Israel.  People in class picked up on this, but their trajectory took them to, “How come we don’t do this for America?”

Well, the primary reason is that America is not the continuation of the story of the people of God in the world.  It’s a nation in that popular club “The Nations” that are brought under the rule of Jesus Christ.  It is not the fulfillment of Old Testament Israel.  It may possibly be the fulfillment of Old Testament Babylon, not because America is especially bad, but because America is just another nation that God’s people happen to live in.

I hate to get into this, because I come off as being anti-American, and this is not true.  I prefer living here, I enjoy the freedoms and benefits, I served a term in the military that did not go well, I pay my taxes, and although I am intrigued by the idea of living in other countries and have visited several, I have no immediate plans to move to any of them.  Australia, for instance, has these terrible spiders, and you have to think about these things.

However, there needs to be a clear distinction between America and the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God exists in America as well as in virtually every other country on the globe.  But the kingdom of God is a counter-nation to whatever nation she finds herself in, and loyalty to that kingdom trumps all other affiliations and identities.

The Christian church in America struggles with these boundaries, and I’m not sure I have all the answers, but our cultural heritage has made those boundaries more porous than in, say, China.  In China, it’s quite obvious that being a Christian puts you in a community separate from your national government.  In America, those boundaries are hazy.

And our churches have to work through the haziness, and that process sometimes ends up in a kind of mishmash.  American flags end up in sanctuaries sitting across from the “Christian flag,” the fourth of July gets celebrated by churches in some ways, a lot of hay is made out of the American military, and at least a portion of what it means to be an evangelical Christian in America is also that you are, for the most part, a political conservative and likely to vote Republican.

There aren’t easy answers to this, and the fact is that the kingdom of God needs to be heavily at work in America for the blessing of America without becoming America, and this has never been easy for the people of God in any nation in any age.  An American soldier who rejects the values of the kingdom and lives out his life just trying to survive is not my brother, but a Palestinian Christian who takes care of the wounded in the name of Jesus after an Israeli air raid is my brother.  This can be a hard thing to apprehend, despite the fact that the calling out of the Lord Jesus into his kingdom clearly eclipses any other loyalties.

Veterans in America often need a lot of help and love.  They can be alone.  They can be unwanted.  They can carry a host of psychological, emotional, and spiritual problems based on what they’ve seen or what they had to do.  They are often unaware or for some reason do not qualify  for the services America tries to render to them, often ineffectively.  Several end up homeless.

So, on the one hand, there is a great need for the church to embrace veterans and give them love, community, and acceptance.  To help them work through their pain and help them take care of their bills.  To bring them into a kingdom where they can lay down the sword and become a part of healing and reconciliation to God, to themselves, and one another.

On the other hand, there is a danger that we become a de facto endorsement for America’s violence, as if it’s inherently good for Christians to sign up to go where America tells them to kill who America tells them to kill.

I say this carefully, because I am not trying to condemn Christians who are now or have been serving in the military.  I did as well.  We all have to find our own way through these issues, we’re not going to land in the same place, and far be it from me to take my own conclusions and declare them to be true or consistent Christianity for everyone else.

But I am illustrating how easy it is for God’s kingdom in America to identify itself with America instead of a counter-community who works for the blessing of Americans and the rest of the world.

I have no way to access this data, but I do wonder how many sermons so far in America have addressed the issue of the restrooms that transgendered people use versus how many sermons have addressed the issue of how the church treats transgendered people.  The first is an issue of American polity; the second is an issue of who we are, who we should be, and what we should be doing.

And this is why, if we’re going to find some sympathy with Nehemiah, we might pray over the sins of the church in America.  Have we become Babylon, such that we are indistinguishable from the nation we live in?  Have we fought using the enemy’s weapons?  Have we been motivated by greed?  Have we excluded people?  Have we told people who need clothes and food to get a job instead of clothing and feeding them?  Have we drawn a line in the sand about certain sins that we will deal with much more sanctimoniously than other sins?  Have we created obstacles to hurting Christians being transparent?  Have we taken judgment into our own hands?

One of the challenges the church in America has is how to define herself as not-America.

Intermission

My good friend, business partner, and brother in the Lord, Travis, made some really good suggestions about this little experiment I’m doing, so today is a brief pause from the regular publishing while I go back over previous posts and see where I can incorporate those suggestions.

I’m still trying to figure out what this is and how to do it, so expect some amount of changes, pivoting, etc. as I explore it, and thank you very much for keeping up with it.