Week 8: The Absurd Teacher?

A Year With Jesus: Matthew 5:1-16

Many people today will say that Jesus was a good teacher.

And many Christians who hear that will quickly reply with, “He wasn’t just a teacher!”

Well, that’s true. He was much more than a teacher. But he wasn’t anything less. And Matthew, perhaps more than any gospel writer, wanted his (primarily Jewish) audience to know that the man who called Himself the Messiah was a skilled rabbi.

The next 3 chapters in Matthew contain what is commonly¬†referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. Why? Because Jesus gave a sermon on a mount(aintop). ūüôā And while we may call Jesus a good teacher now, the people who heard Jesus that day may have walked away thinking he was an¬†absurd teacher.

True (and embarrassing!) story: Many years ago, when I was in college, I prided myself in believing all of the Bible’s truths… The problem was I didn’t know a whole lot of what was in the Bible. A friend of mine was working on a paper about the Sermon on the Mount. (Now I’m curious what class it was for.) They asked me what the Sermon on the Mount was about. I had no clue where it even was in the Bible. So I took an educated guess. “God’s love,” I replied. (In my defense, I was 90% convinced I was right. Everything in the Bible is either about God’s love or God’s wrath, right???)

Is the Sermon on the Mount about God’s love? Sure, you can make a case for that. But I think it’s primarily about a new way of living.

The people of Jesus’ day were guided by the Law (the rules of the Old Testament). Your¬†“goodness”, if you will, was all based on how you acted. I think with this sermon, Jesus wanted to get beyond the outward appearance and move to people’s¬†hearts. In many ways, the teachings He gives are way more challenging than the Law. But if followed, they are also more life-giving than the Law could ever be. That’s why I think people (especially the Pharisees, who were teachers of this sacred Law) may have found Jesus’ new way of looking at things more than a little absurd.

He begins with a series of blessings called the Beatitudes. But the people he blesses are not the people who fit the descriptions of a blessed person. Who does he consider blessed? Sad people. People who cry tears. People who are broken in spirit. Yes, Jesus says it’s okay to be sad. The church can learn a lot from this.

My favorite Beatitude might just be, “Blessed are those who are hungry and thirsty for what is right.¬†They will be filled.”¬†I’m sure this can be interpreted in quite a few ways. Here’s one way I look at it:

Blessed are those who feel defeated by their mistakes again and again, but get back up when they stumble. Blessed are those who¬†desire¬†to live rightly before God. Blessed are those who sincerely want to follow God, but don’t always get it right…

God is with you.

Questions to Ponder:

Would you consider Jesus to be a “good teacher”?

Which one of the Beatitudes (verses 3-11) do you feel most drawn to? How would you paraphrase it?

Please feel free to leave a comment!


Week 7: Giant Leaps Or Small Steps?

A Year With Jesus: Matthew 4:12-25

Note: I HIGHLY recommend you watch Andy Stanley’s sermon Fish Tricks to receive further insight into this passage. In fact, anything smart I say was probably taken from him!

In American Evangelism we place a high value on “saving souls”. I don’t think this is inherently¬†a bad thing, but it can become dangerous. I’ve heard stories of people feeling pressured by their church to present the Gospel to X number of people a week. For them, it’s all about getting as many people as possible to “cross the line of faith” so that they’ll stay out of hell and go to heaven one day.¬†They want people to take giant leaps. Jesus is only asking for small steps.

As Jesus begins his public ministry, he doesn’t talk about¬†going¬†anywhere. “The kingdom of heaven has come near,‚ÄĚ he says. Jesus was bringing heaven to earth, and he began inviting¬†people to join him in that.

Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee and he¬†sees Peter and Andrew fishing. He calls out to them, “Follow me!” and they drop everything and do. But why? Well, Matthew only gives us a small part of the story. If you want the full context of the story, I would again recommend watching that Andy Stanley video.

Jesus simply asked these fishermen to follow him. Not to believe in him. Not even to trust him. But simply to follow him, and see what a life following him would lead to.

“Follow me.”

The word¬†follow¬†is important, but perhaps more important is the word¬†me. I think today people get confused about what is really¬†at the center of Christianity…

It’s not about following a certain pastor.
It’s not about following a certain political party.
It’s not about following a list of rules.
It’s not even about following the Bible.

It’s about following Jesus, and seeing where it leads.

And man, from the moment these nobody fishermen followed him, they were in for a wild ride.

Jesus went all over Galilee. There he taught in the synagogues. He preached the good news of God’s kingdom. He healed every illness and sickness the people had. News about him spread all over Syria.

They saw him teach like no other. They saw him heal like no other. And they saw him love like no other. And it was only the beginning of the adventure.

Questions to Ponder:

Why do you think Peter and Andrew decided to follow Jesus?

Do you think it’s possible for someone to follow Jesus while still having doubts about him?

Please feel free to leave a comment!

Week 6: Twisted Scripture

A Year With Jesus: Matthew 4:1-11

What is something that Christians and non-Christians have in common?

We all have the tendency to use the Bible to advance our own agenda. (We also have a lot more in common, by the way!)

The temptation of Jesus (by none other than the devil himself) is a fascinating account and one that can be approached from multiple angles. But here’s the angle I’m most intrigued¬†with: the devil wielded Scripture against Jesus in an attempt to take him down.

Psalm 91 is a psalm about finding rest and safety in God. The devil quotes a very small portion of it to tempt Jesus to test God. Come on, Jesus. Prove to me that you really have faith in your Father.

A Bible verse (or verses) ripped out of context is a very dangerous thing. Take the oft-quoted Jeremiah 29:11, for example:

For I know the plans I have for you,‚ÄĚ declares the Lord, ‚Äúplans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

That verse is quickly thrown out to offer encouragement to someone going through a difficult time. If not quoted responsibly, however, it can quickly be misinterpreted as a prosperity message. If you just have enough faith, good things will start happening. The truth is, God¬†is¬†offering hope in this verse. But he’s offering it in the context of a very long period of trials. Look at the verse that comes immediately before it (verse 10):

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.

How come we leave that off the plaques and coffee mugs? We literally quote God mid-sentence!

The whole “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” argument that some Christians use is not only irresponsible, but I believe it’s also showing a disrespect for God’s Word. When we select verses and rip them out of their¬†context to support what we already believe to be true (or want to be true), we begin to use God for our¬†own convenience. When we insist, for instance, that the earth HAD TO BE created in 6 literal days, it leaves no room for nuance, no room for different interpretations, and no room for the Spirit to work in our hearts. (By the way, before I continue, let me just say I’m totally guilty of this. I constantly find myself judging others for what I perceive to be a wrong interpretation of Scripture.)

On the other side of the equation, I’ve seen non-Christians cherry-pick verses to make believers look like fools. It’s very easy to take a verse, rip it from its historical, cultural, and literary context and make all kind of wild accusations about what Christians believe. I believe this is also irresponsible. (Another “by the way” caveat: I’m not talking about non-Christians who have genuine concerns/questions/problems with the Bible. I¬†believe that real concerns should always be addressed in a safe environment.)

In the end, Jesus beat the devil at his own game. For each lie the devil threw at him, Jesus had a proper understanding of the truth. Scripture is indeed powerful. Old Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

I pray that I use the power of God’s Word responsibly, and not simply to advance my own agenda.¬†

Questions to Ponder:

Where do you see the Bible most used as a “weapon” today?

Have you ever had one interpretation of a Bible verse (or verses) only to have it change over time?

Please feel free to leave a comment!

Week 5: A Diet of Locusts, Honey, & Humility

A Year With Jesus: Matthew 3

And with the flip of a page, years and years pass by.

We don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood. All we really have is Dr. Luke’s account of¬†Home Alone: Lost in Jerusalem. Matthew jumps from Mary & Joseph settling down in Nazareth with their child to Jesus and his cousin John being all grow’d up.

John the Baptist (or John “The Baptizer”, which I think would make an awesome pro-wrestling name) is an interesting character. The more I read about him the more I see things in his life that I want to imitate. I don’t think I’d do very well on his diet of locusts and wild honey, but I can learn a thing or two from his humility.

John was a rockstar. The people loved him. He had disciples. He boldly spoke up against the “religious elites” of his day. He warned them against making the claim that they were God’s “favorites” simply because their family tree sparkled and shined more than others.

And, perhaps most importantly, Jesus spoke highly of his cousin. He once said to a crowd of people, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John.”¬†Among those born of women, huh? Well, that sounds like quite a lot of people…

And yet, in the midst of all that, John was incredibly humble. The purpose of his life was to point others toward Jesus. He called himself unworthy to carry Jesus’ sandals. Jesus had to reassure John that it was okay to baptize Him.

What kept John so humble and Jesus-focused? Was it something in the honey? I don’t know. I wonder if it had anything to do with how much time he actually spent with Jesus. The gospels don’t say how much time they spent together as kids. But if they did hang out at all, John had the unique opportunity to spend time with Jesus before Jesus entered into the public eye.

Matthew ends this chapter with these words:

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he came up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened. Jesus saw the Spirit of God coming down on him like a dove. A voice from heaven said, ‚ÄúThis is my Son, and I love him. I am very pleased with him.‚ÄĚ

I am sure that in this moment, John was looking on with joy.

Questions to Ponder:

What do you think kept John so humble?

The Pharisees looked to their ancestry to feel superior to others. What are you most tempted to look to? 

Please feel free to leave a comment!

Week 4: King Me!

A Year With Jesus: Matthew 2:13-23

As a kid, I had a (very) short tenure as a checkers player. The most exciting part of the game for me was when I reached the other side of the board and triumphantly shouted, “King me!” It meant I¬†had the power to go in whatever direction I wanted on the board. No restrictions!

Tears For Fears had it right when they said,¬†Everybody Wants To Rule The World.¬†If you’re like me you might be thinking, “Uh, no… There’s no way I’d want to be in charge of this whole world!” Well, maybe not the whole world. But I at least want to be in charge of¬†my¬†little world.

King Herod, as we saw last week, grows jealous of a baby. Not just any baby, of course, but Jesus, who he sees as a threat to his power. And when he fails to locate Jesus, he does something horrific. He ordered all the boys two years old and under to be killed.¬†This is a part of the Christmas story that we rarely mention. Yes, Herod was hoping that Jesus would be among the babies killed, but I’m sure there was also an element of spite to his order. I’m angry, so everyone suffers.

Our own grasps to hold on to power may not exhibit themselves in such an extreme way, but they are there. There are times when the “Lil’ King” in me rears its ugly Herod-like head…

When I’m in a meeting at work and I think I’m the smartest person in the room.

When my defensiveness leads me to attack and belittle others.

When I feel I deserve something because of how great I am.

When I refuse to listen to others because they disagree with me.

When constructive criticism leaves me feeling insecure.

When I need to be the one to decide what we’re doing, where we’re eating (yes, a big one for me!), and how the day is going to play out.

It is during these times that I can’t wait to yell “king me!” and get the final word. (I just can’t wait to be king…)

A few sentences after Herod carries out his heinous act, Matthew writes the three words that change everything:

After Herod died…

And just like that, Herod is dead. And God’s plan of salvation and redemption continues on, unthwarted. There are some things even a king cannot control. But in his trails, Herod leaves behind a sad legacy.

In a way, we are all little kings. We all have influence over something or someone. And we can choose to wield that power for the benefit of ourselves and our egos (as I so often do). Or we can look to Jesus, who did not use his power for his own advantage but to serve others.

Questions to Ponder:

What do you think drove Herod to take such a drastic measure?

When is the “Lil’ King” in you most prone to take over in your life?

Please feel free to leave a comment!

Week 3: Upside-Down God

A Year With Jesus: Matthew 2:1-12

One of the most eye-opening teachings I ever heard regarding the Wise Men (or Magi, as they’re called) came from Summit’s very own Zach Van Dyke this past Christmas season. I had heard the standard points before: There was an unknown number of Magi, not three as the Nativity scene implies (that rumor probably started because they brought¬†three gifts¬†with them). And, speaking of the Nativity scene, the Magi shouldn’t even be there. They arrived at the house where Mary and Joseph were staying months and months later. But here’s something I hadn’t really considered:

The Magi¬†were “outsiders” to the faith. They were astrologers, and astrology was clearly forbidden in the Old Testament. They believed in signs and omens. They were people that “good church people” would shake their heads and wag¬†their fingers at. And yet God met them where they were. He spoke to them in a language they could understand (a star in a sky). And these outsiders became one of the first people (second only to lowly, dirty, stinky shepherds) to worship Jesus.

Meanwhile, Herod, the King of Judea, goes into a jealous rage and concocts a plan to kill Jesus. The Wise Men want no part of it and give Herod the slip, which, as we’ll cover next week, sends Herod into an even angrier rage and leads to one of the saddest parts of the story.

And so Jesus hasn’t even uttered a word yet (except for maybe some cute baby gurgles) and already he is turning the world upside down. As Matthew continues his story, this theme plays out again and again. A few chapters later, Jesus will give his first public sermon and give the people a completely new way of looking at the law. And we’ll see that the “good church people” of the day often find themselves on the outside of Jesus’ ministry. Not because Jesus puts them there, but because that’s where they decide they want to be. And yet the “outsiders” are often the ones who accept Jesus’ invitation.

I think Christians (of which I am one) sometimes put God in a box. We know the way he communicates with people. We know what outsiders look like. We know what insiders look like. We know what outsiders look like when they are ready to be insiders. And we know exactly how we are to reach them. And yet, God broke all the expectations when he put that star in the sky to guide the Magi.

As we saw from the beginning of Matthew, Jesus came for all people. This includes people who we think are too “out there” to ever come to Jesus.

Questions to Ponder:

Have you ever felt like an “outsider” around Christians?

If you are a Christian, have you ever treated someone as if they were beyond the grace of Jesus?

Photo Credit: Broken Light Photography

Week 2: The Surreal Life

A Year With Jesus: Matthew 1:18-25.

In Mrs. Doubtfire, one of my favorite comedies, Robin Williams’ character finds himself in a stage of life that he never expected. In one scene, after being reprimanded by his boss, he ponders, “Have you ever wished you could freeze frame a single moment of your day, look at it and say, ‘This is not my life’?”

I think we all face moments of “surrealness” in our lives. They can be in the context of both positive and negative experiences.

Sometimes you think to yourself,¬†“Wow! How did I get here?!”

Other times it’s, “Ugh! How did I get here???”

I’m pretty sure Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, faced one of these moments in this week’s reading.

The Book of Luke tells us the “Christmas story” from the perspective of Mary. Matthew, on the other hand, shows us Joseph’s point of view. Joseph was a good man. But he wasn’t a perfect man. (That honor was reserved for his son. ūüôā ) It’s true, he was more honorable than probably most men put it his position. When he found out that Mary was pregnant, Matthew tells us, “He did not want to put her to shame in public. So he planned to divorce her quietly.”

But I wonder, did Joseph listen to Mary’s side of the story? Or did he just decide to cut his losses and move on? Or, if he did let Mary tell her side, was there any part of him that wanted to believe it was true? But how could it be?

And as all this is churning in Joseph’s mind, he gets a visit from an angel, who confirms that Mary’s side of the story is true. He invites Joseph to be part of Jesus’ story. Don‚Äôt be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.¬†And, in the midst of all the surrealness, Joseph accepts.

I think the “Christmas story” has become so familiar to us (even among non-Christians) that we forget these characters – Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi – had no idea how any of their circumstances would play out. They didn’t have the luxury of knowing how their story would end.

They were in uncharted territory.¬†It wasn’t a common occurrence¬†for angels to appear in dreams and tell you who to marry. And people were quite aware of where babies came from. Even as Joseph made the decision to take Mary as his wife and become a surrogate father to her son, there had to be part of him that thought this was completely insane.¬†I’m sure in this surreal moment, Joseph thought to himself,¬†“Ugh! How did I get here???”

But I’m also sure that Joseph experienced another surreal moment in his life. Perhaps it was when he first held the baby in his arms. Or maybe it was when Jesus was 12, and Joseph and Mary lost Jesus (yes, they lost him!) and later found him in the temple teaching the teachers. Or maybe it was a moment when Joseph was teaching Jesus his trade of carpentry, and he realized that there was something very special¬†about his son.

And he may have thought to himself,¬†“Wow! How did I get here?!

Questions to Ponder:

Why do you think Joseph decided to follow the angel’s instructions?

Have you ever experienced a “surreal moment” in your life?

*Photo by Erik Johansson. (He has a ton of cool photography!)

A Walk With Jesus

Happy New Year!

I hope 2018 is off to a great start and you’re already eating better, working out more, and _____________________ (fill in whatever your thing is). I know I’m not! But I am excited about this year…

My church, Summit, has officially declared 2018 to be “A Year With Jesus”. I know, sounds a bit weird – isn’t every year a year with Jesus at a church? But all it means is that we’re being intentional about looking at the life and teachings of Jesus all year long. I’m excited because lately, it seems like Christianity has become synonymous¬†with everything BUT Jesus. I think this year will give us a chance to reconnect with¬†who we are supposed to be all about. And if you’re not a Christian and happen to drop in on any given Sunday, it will just give you a chance to take a walk with Jesus and get to know him.

I’ve decided to follow along with the “Jesus Year” on this blog. So here’s what I’m gonna do (I can use the word “gonna” in a blog post, right?!):

I’m going to blog my way through the Book of Matthew this year. The Book of Matthew is simply one of four written accounts we have of the life of Jesus (the others being Mark, Luke, and John. These accounts were later collected and combined into what is now referred to as the New Testament.). I found a 40-day reading plan for the Book of Matthew. But rather than do it in 40 days, I’m going to do it in 40 weeks.

Each week (I’m aiming for Fridays) I’ll post my thoughts on a section of Matthew. Now, I’m not a Bible scholar or theologian. I don’t have all the answers when it comes to Scripture. (Or anything!) Not even close. I’ll try my best to give accurate interpretations, but everything I post will be my opinion and my opinion alone. My main reason for doing this is to get to know Jesus a little better this year. And you’re invited to come along for the ride!

Feel free to join in the conversation and post comments (even if you disagree with me). I’m going to try including a “Question To Consider” at the end of each post. And if you wouldn’t consider yourself a Christian or follower of Jesus, you’re welcome to join in the conversation, too! I want this to be a safe place for everyone to process any thoughts they have.

Well, now that we have all the housekeeping out of the way, let’s begin!

… (On Friday, that is…)

Lent Day 20: I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot!

I have always been the type of person who would rather quit something than fail something. I feel that way even now with this blog. I made a commitment to blog every day of Lent (excluding Sundays). Last week was extremely busy and I missed 4 days. With each passing day it became easier to not write. Oh well, I thought. I failed. I considered abandoning this project all together. I considered being like the third servant in this story.

“Again, here is what the kingdom of heaven will be like. A man was going on a journey. He sent for his servants and put them in charge of his property. He gave $10,000 to one. He gave $4,000 to another. And he gave $2,000 to the third. The man gave each servant the amount of money he knew the servant could take care of. Then he went on his journey.

“The servant who had received the $10,000 went at once and put his money to work. He earned $10,000 more. The one with the $4,000 earned $4,000 more. But the man who had received $2,000 went and dug a hole in the ground. He hid his master’s money in it.

“After a long time the master of those servants returned. He wanted to collect all the money they had earned. The man who had received $10,000 brought the other $10,000. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you trusted me with $10,000. See, I have earned $10,000 more.’

“His master replied, ‘You have done well, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“The man with $4,000 also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you trusted me with $4,000. See, I have earned $4,000 more.’

“His master replied, ‘You have done well, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“Then the man who had received $2,000 came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest where you have not planted. You gather crops where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid. I went out and hid your $2,000 in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

“His master replied, ‘You evil, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not planted? You knew that I gather crops where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money in the bank. When I returned, I would have received it back with interest.’

“Then his master commanded the other servants, ‘Take the $2,000 from him. Give it to the one who has $20,000. Everyone who has will be given more. He will have more than enough. And what about anyone who doesn’t have? Even what he has will be taken away from him. Throw that worthless servant outside. There in the darkness, people will sob and grind their teeth.’ –¬†Matthew 25:14-30

I have always been the type of person who would rather quit something than fail something. I feel that way even now with this blog. I made a commitment to blog every day of Lent (excluding Sundays). Last week was extremely busy and I missed 4 days. With each passing day it became easier to not write. Oh well, I thought. I failed. I considered abandoning this project all together. I considered being like the third servant in this story.

Again, I am no Bible scholar, but I don’t think the point of this story is a lesson on aggressive investing strategies. It’s not about money at all. (Most translations use the word “Talents” rather than a U.S. dollar amount. A talent was a unit of money but, as we know, covers any gift or ability God has entrusted us with). The third servant’s problem wasn’t that he failed to turn a profit, but that he failed to even try. He did not trust God with what he had been given.

This story has kind of a scary ending. The servant is thrown outside in the darkness. Is this a metaphor for hell? Are we to be thrown into hell for squandering our talents? No. From a Christian standpoint, we know this cannot be true. Our works aren’t what save us. As N.T. Wright says about this story:

“When Jesus speaks of someone being thrown into the darkness outside, where people weep and grind their teeth, we must never forget that he was himself on the way into the darkness.”

Yes, Jesus came to redeem our failures, so we can use our gifts freely and take risks. But he also came to redeem the times when we failed to try failing, because we were afraid to even try.

Lent Day 14: The Widow’s Mite

Jesus sat down across from the place where people put their temple offerings. He watched the crowd putting their money into the offering boxes. Many rich people threw large amounts into them.

But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins. They were worth much less than a penny.

Jesus asked his disciples to come to him. He said, “What I’m about to tell you is true. That poor widow has put more into the offering box than all the others. They all gave a lot because they are rich. But she gave even though she is poor. She put in everything she had. She gave all she had to live on.” –¬†Mark 12:41-44

J. Vernon McGee was an eccentric (I mean that in the best way possible) preacher who always had interesting anecdotes to tell. He once told of a pastor who held a meeting to raise funds to build a new church building. The pastor asked each congregant what they would like to contribute. He got to the wealthiest member of the church, a local businessman, and asked, “And what can we put you down for?”

The man hesitated and said, “Well, I could probably put in the widow’s mite.” (A “mite” is what the New King James Version of the Bible calls the copper coins;¬†very small copper coins worth a fraction of a penny.)

The pastor stood up excitedly and said, “Did ya hear that, everyone? Mr. Smith just said he’s going to fund the whole campaign! What a generous fellow!”

Mr. Smith immediately shot back at him. “What? I never said such a thing! I said I could give the widow’s mite!”

“Yes,” replied the pastor. “And that widow gave all she had!”

Jesus took notice of that widow. And we still talk about her today.