Beyond Comprehension

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Job 8:1-10, 20-22; Acts 10:17-33; John 7:14-36

By the time we get done with this bizarre election cycle, I get the sense I will know everything there is to know about Trump and Clinton.  I will have read all her emails, and I will have seen him take every possible stand on every issue that is possible defending each view point.

Sometimes I wonder if I know too much.  The 24 hour news cycle, with cameras following them and every Olympic athlete is almost too much.

Not so with Jesus.  No cameras or paparazzi following him.  In fact part of the story of the Gospel of John is now Jesus remains hidden – enshrouded in mystery.  Part of the awesomeness of God – and specifically Jesus – is that we don’t get it.

What I like about John’s words is the mystery and conundrum itself.  Not only are his words about Jesus difficult, but Jesus himself is elusive and confusing.  That’s part of the story!!!  People didn’t get him!  At times we see how hard that was for Jesus himself.

To me it is comforting to know that this is all above and beyond comprehension.  God is awesome and his love is unfathomable.  We get glimpses occasionally…if we are lucky.

I suppose I will spend lifetime trying to get to know God.

And that’s OK.

-Matt

Let the Feast Begin!

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Job 6:1,7:1-21; Acts 10:1-16; John 7:1-13

It was a cool, crisp evening in Jerusalem.  My friends and I decided after a long week of classes, to treat ourselves to a fancy dinner.  We walked to one of my favorite parts of town, right outside the Old City, and with a spectacular view of the Temple Mount lit in the background, we enjoyed a glorious meal, as so many of the meals in Israel are.  With the fresh produce and the trade routes that go through Israel, it is easy to find fresh, varied, top-quality in just about everything – from meats to cheeses to fresh produce.

I am hazy on a lot of the details of the meal, but I remember the stuffed Cornish hen and all the fresh vegetables.  After supper, with our palettes craving more, we longed for dessert.  I boldly ordered, also asking for coffee.

When dessert and coffee arrived, I asked the waiter, “Excuse me, sir, may I have some cream.”  The waiter glared at me, and in a move that would rarely happen in America, he barked back loudly, “Heavens NO!  No cream for you!!”  And he stomped off.

I was shocked!  Waiters don’t talk to customers like that in America, my internal script thought.  I turned to one of my Jewish friends and said, “What was that all about?”

“He is not going to let you break Kosher,” my friend quietly explained.  “You ate meat for dinner.  You won’t be getting cream now, you moron!  Why don’t you ask for some non-dairy creamer.  Would that be alright?”  This was also a reminder to me that staying Kosher was a lot more involved than avoiding pork and shellfish.

I didn’t really think about or understand the intricacies of his argument, I was still focused on the fact I had been yelled at by the waiter.  And I was thinking that staying Kosher was much more about Jews than about me as a Christian!  What did it matter?  That part I did not understand – the fact that no good Jew in Israel was going to aid in someone else breaking God’s law.

It is in that context that I encounter today’s passage in Acts, with Peter and Cornelius.  Peter is on the roof having this strange dream.  He is also hungry.  Heaven opens and a sheet is lowered on four corners.  In the sheet are all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.  “Get up, Peter; kill and eat,” says the Lord, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

So begins a new chapter for Christianity.  This passage is seen as the quintessential passage releasing us from the Kosher dietary restrictions.

This also marks a significant change for Peter.  He was the one who had been adamant about Christians first becoming Jews, and following all of the Old Testament Law.  Peter’s focus was on rules and restrictions – God had other plans.  Instead God declared that the Law had been fulfilled in Christ, and that we were to follow the Law of Love.  This, of course, means that the Old Testament remains intact, but it means a recasting of the vision of the Law back to its original purpose.

The Law is not meant for God, but for us – to help us live into loving God more and loving one another.

And this is when the true feast begins, doesn’t it?  When our table is more than just a table full of food, but a table full of love, then its power is truly understood.  When God’s Law becomes an instrument to call people together in love and fellowship, then we have begun to discover the true meaning of the law.

May the true feast begin for each one of us – a life where the table is open to love yourself and others and God in new ways!  Bon Appetit!

-Matt

Putting Grumbling to Good Use

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Job 6:1-4,8-15,21; Acts 9:32-43; John 6:60-71

Complaining is a pretty normal fact of life – feels pretty good when it is me getting something off my chest, but grating to deal with others who complain.

Complaining seems to abound in our passages for today, Old and New Testaments alike.  First, in Job, after a very stirring argument from Job’s friend Eliphaz that Job has sinned, Job rebuts his friend declaring that his complaining to God is just.  Those of you that know Job, you know that Job is right!  He hasn’t sinned.  This is the conundrum of his dilemma.  Job is suffering for no reason, and as part of the Wisdom literature, we are faced with this complexity of understanding the human condition, which is a mystery.

What we encounter in Job is a God who listens to Job’s request – who seriously engages with Job and walks with him in the midst of suffering.  In many ways, Jesus does similar things in the gospel of John, walking with the disciples along their journey to greater understanding.

But Jesus does something a bit different – he confronts their complaining.  The disciples, after hearing Jesus speak about flesh to eat and blood to drink, they complain to Jesus: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  And what do you think Jesus did?  Did he change his message?  Did he dumb it down so people could understand?

No.  He stays on point.  Jesus stands up to the confrontation and the complaining and does not give in.  “Does this offend you?” he asks, “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?  It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

What we realize is that Jesus will not compromise the truth for what is convenient or causes the smallest stir.

This is a key lesson for us to learn as Americans.  So often we fall into the trap of people-pleasing.  We do it in our jobs; we do it in our relationships; we do it in our neighborhoods.  We think that the problem will go away if we upset the least amount of people.  The problem is that often this is succumbing to the bully.  Just like the bully was able to control the weaker kid in 1st grade, now the mob has become the bully, even at the risk of the truth.  What we often realize is that by ignoring the problem, it got worse in our trying to placate it.

We are not called to be meek and mild, compliant to the point of losing our values.  Jesus didn’t.  He compromised not even an inch.  Of course he died for it.  And we must be ready for the same – for people to not like us, perhaps even dismiss us, or hate us.  But when it comes to standing up for God’s truth, there is no compromise.

And here is what I know of God’s truth – God wants us to stand up for the poor, the weak, the helpless, the widows and orphans, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the uninsured.  We see this all over in the Bible, and all over in Jesus’ ministry.  God wants us to break the mold of the elite and privileged and declare the world to be God’s beloved children and spread that love throughout the land.

And people will hate us for this.  They will hate us because it threatens their power, their wealth, their truth.  But our Truth is one that will last, and we need not fear.

-Matt

Listening to God in the 21st Century

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Job 4:1,5:1-11,17-21,26-27; Acts 9:19b-31; John 6:52-59

Sometimes reading and understanding Scripture can be difficult.  Today is a good example, with pretty gruesome words in John’s gospel, with Jesus talking about “drinking his blood” and “eating his flesh”.

John’s “Bread of Heaven” talk is more like a theological treatise.  Sometimes I wonder if outsiders to our faith really know some of the radical stuff within our holy texts.  Today is a text for insiders.  It contains some troubling words: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  He says the phrase “eat my flesh” four times I believe.  No wonder early Christians faced rumors of secret meetings where they engaged in cannibalism and child sacrifice!

What a graphic way to describe Communion!  Provocative and in contradiction to the Old Testament Laws, it pushes the disciples and the Jews to the edge of trying to understand Jesus.

They, like we, come with baggage.  They are not listening with the right ears.  All they are hearing is cannibalism.  They are hearing about eating flesh that still has blood in it.  Blood is life, and it is not to touch the lips of any good Jew.  So what is Jesus talking about?

Well, hindsight is such a privileged position, isn’t it?  We know he is referring to the bread and wine of communion.  But that doesn’t change the fact that this teaching was difficult and the Jews and disciples were struggling to understand.

How often is that the case for us?  It is hard to hear the Word of God, because of the coded language, difficult subject matter, and twists and turns.  It is hard for us to hear anything in 2016 that doesn’t fit our cultural expectations.  We live in a world bombarded by technology, and by many voices.  We also live in a time of choices, where if we don’t like what we hear, we simply UNFOLLOW them on Twitter, UNFRIEND them on Facebook, or change the channel back to FoxNews or MSNBC when we don’t like what we are hearing on PBS or NPR.

Beyond Scripture’s difficult subject matter, often we are simply distracted.  There are so many competing for our ears.  Even as you read this Morning Reflection, I am guessing there are 20 more tweets that have arrived, begging for your attention, 3 more emails awaiting action from you, and your boss is looking over your shoulder wondering why you are taking 2 minutes for God’s Word.

The fact is at the end of the day God is above all these words and worries.  God is bigger than all of this.  I am called only to sit in God’s presence and enjoy and glean what I can from the Almighty.  I am not called to understand, but to breathe deeply of our risen Savior – to be washed in his blood – to be filled with his Spirit.

So listen intently for God today.  Rest in God’s Words for you today.  Cherish them.  Don’t pass by them casually like a Tweet that is here today and gone tomorrow.  Come back to God’s Word often, and find a deep truth beyond the words, that knits your life into the life of love provided to us by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

-Matt

Bread of Life

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Job 2:1-13; Acts 9:1-9; John 6:27-40

The gospel of John is one big book of metaphors.  Today highlights one of the central ones: I am the Bread of Life.  It was not Moses who gave the people bread from heaven, but God.  “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” Jesus said.

“Give us this bread!” the disciples respond.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  These series of “I AM” statements in John explore the identity of a Messiah that we are only beginning to know in the 6th chapter of John.  The richness of his identity is confounding and complex.  It is mysterious and deep.  Almost exclusively though, it emphasized Jesus’ role as the true giver of life.

We discover in this gospel that Jesus is more than just a nice guy – more than a great rabbi – more than a prophet.  Jesus is someone very special – the Messiah – but more so, a Messiah we did not expect.  Here in John’s gospel, he is both expanding and turning on its head the expected role many thought the Messiah would take.

Wrapped in this idea of being the bread of life, there are three verbs which seem to interconnect.  Coming to Jesus, seeing and believing seem to be essential keys.  This too expands the metaphor.  It is not enough to just “eat” the Bread of Life (such as at Communion), but that we must see and believe this Bread.

This open the imagination.  Believe how?  Believe what he says?  Believe what he does?  Believe in the signs?  The works?  This is what makes the metaphor good.  We are left to ponder it in our own hearts – play with the possibilities of how God is at work in our imaginations, indeed in our very lives.

May the richness of John’s Gospel wash over you.  May you find depth to the love that Christ has for you, and may it radiate forth into your day, that through Christ you may be life and bread and hope for others.

-Matt

Can You Pass the Test?

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Job 1:1-22; Acts 8:26-40; John 6:16-27

I’m sure you know someone who is going through a time of testing.  Family life, the stress of relationships, or the end of one – life can be almost too much to bear sometimes.  Many these days have dire employment or financial stresses looming over them.  Sometimes life feels like a test.  We thought we were done with tests after school ended, but alas….

Today’s readings include the beginning of the book of Job.  The drama of Job’s extreme suffering has perplexed and amazed for centuries.  Here is a blameless man, upright and respected, a God-fearing man who has turned from evil.  And the sufferings he goes through are unbelievable.  Living life is a test for Job.

We get to know a little about him today: He has seven sons and three daughters.  He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and VERY many servants.  OK, we get the point.  He is very rich.

In a traditional motif, Satan is presented as God’s right hand man.  (Instead, in the Bible, Satan is often presented as an instrument for God.  Satan’s job from God is to test and tempt and to discover true intentions of people.  He is the Accuser, and it indicates an office of some sort, as if Satan is in the imperial service of the Lord.  (This stands in the face of the cartoon version many have as Satan with a pitchfork, and fire, and in charge of all things evil.  It’s a fun little image – it’s just not biblical.  If you are one who sees God in charge of Heaven and Satan is in charge of Hell, you may want to read your Bible a bit more and stop believing in the boogieman!)

It is obvious the Lord has blessed Job, and God wonders if he has been tested.  “The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job?  There is no one like him…. Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing?”

The stage is set, and Satan goes out to test Job.  The test is to see if he will curse the Almighty.  In today’s story he loses his property, namely all the animals, and his children are killed.

If, at this point you are like me, you are wondering why God seems so mean.  Job doesn’t even fall into that trap.  “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”  But really, doesn’t this seem a bit harsh?  Just to play a game with someone’s life because you want to test him?

One must always remember this is Wisdom Literature.  Its purpose is to instruct and help us in daily living.  It is not meant to be a theological treatise on God’s fairness.  It is when we are meant to wrestle with our own frailty, limits, and finitude.

Just as this passage alternates between scenes in heaven and scenes on earth, so we are called to meditate on the whole universe in its order.  The questions it raises are much larger than just “What a bummer deal…is God a twerp?”

And so, as we travel through Job, I encourage us to focus on the larger questions the book raises.  Does virtue depend on a universe that operates on principles of reward and punishment?  Can “religious faith” survive in our world?  Do we believe in God because of “reward and punishment”?  Or for the right reasons?

Already I am impressed with Job.  He is in great grief – shaves his head, tears his robe – his children are dead!  And yet he still finds opportunity to bless the name of the Lord.  I tell the confirmation kids this when we are talking about how to pray.  I tell them if they are finding themselves without words to simply thank God for something, ask God for something, and say why. (That actually is a pretty simple but effective prayer right there!)

Sometimes I wish the same could be true for all of us.  When we get in a rut, get stressed at work, struggle to balance and juggle our home life – how would things transform themselves if we all regularly took a step back and thanked God for something.  And not just any old thing – but thanked God for some aspect of the current situation.  “Lord, my children are testing my patience today and I want to kill them right about now, but I am thankful they have their health, and that we have each other.”

I wonder what would happen.

-Matt

God’s New Thing

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Judges 18:16-31; Acts 8:14-25; John 6:1-15

With every day of ministry, I am reminded of one powerful fact: God is doing a new thing.  There is not a day that goes by that I am not in awe of God’s power and majesty.  I am humbled to be part of the church’s powerful transformation. Today’s reading in Acts witnesses to this new thing.

Our story is a continuation of yesterday’s story of Philip and Simon, the magician of Samaria who believes Philip.  By the end, we see the power of the Spirit of God in a whole new light!  Peter and John come to back up Philip.  Something amazing is happening – the text implies something “magical” – but this is God’s “magic” standing in antithesis to the secular magic of Simon whose profession has the goal of money.  New feats of God’s power, much like the amazing new world records we are seeing from our Olympic athletes – what is happening is extraordinary and unseen before.

There is an elevating of the Holy Spirit.  First, Peter and John come to this place knowing “that Samaria had accepted the word of God.”  In the same vein, they went down to pray for them “that they might receive the Holy Spirit” for they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  Spirit becomes the key ingredient.

As Peter and John lay hands on him and the others, they receive the Holy Spirit.  In what ensues, we learn a good bit about God’s power.  What set off this whole chapter of Acts was Simon declaring Philip as “This man is the power of God that is called Great.”  Now, through money, he is attempting to gain the same power, asking Peter and John, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”  Peter rebukes him, tells him to repent, give away his money, pray, and get his heart in the right place.

Time and time again we see Simon’s conversion incomplete.  Accepting God’s word wasn’t enough.  Being baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus wasn’t enough.  Having the Apostles baptize him also in the name of the Holy Spirit seemed to be enough, but then this whole exchange about money and needing to repent.  We see God’s power breaking forth in the context of apostolic power, and yet we see this Samaritan Simon struggling for that which is right.

How often do we feel we have the answers, only to realize God has more for us to work out?  When in our lives have we been seduced into thinking Jesus would fix it all, and we failed to see God at work all around us?  Have you ever dismissed repentance as part of the equation?  Where is God’s power at work in your life?

These are deep questions, and ones that seem to bubble to the surface in the book of Acts, for in it we see God at work in different and strange ways, and we are asked to re-evaluate our lives and challenge ourselves to live into God’s excellence all the more.

I see the Holy Spirit alive today in our churches.  Sometimes this brings discomfort, because along with the Holy Spirit comes change.  This is welcome to some, but others in the Church revolt against any change.  God’s “growing edge” for us is never easy.  Those who want things to return to the way things were in the 1960s this can seem very threatening.  Unpredictablility.  Ambiguity about what God wants.

The Church is not going to be like it was.  God is doing a new thing.  This is what Scripture teaches – that with each new generation God is doing new things, and he simply requires our allegiance.  Perhaps there is another Beatitude in here somewhere: Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be broken.  We best be ready for it.

-Matt