Matthew 17:22-27 – Because We Can

When they came together in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

“Yes, he does,” he replied.

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”

“From others,” Peter answered.

“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” (NIV)

In ancient times, the Jerusalem Temple was designed to serve as the bridge between God and humanity. It was the place where God “came down” and accepted the offerings of the priests on behalf of the people. In Christian theology, Jesus came to this world to become the permanent bridge and the eternal temple.

Jesus saw himself as the ultimate connector who spans the great expanse between God and people. Christ ascended to heaven and gave the Spirit to his people, the Body of Christ. Basic Christian ecclesiology recognizes the Church (both individual Christians and the Church universal) as the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the continuing presence of Jesus on this earth. Jesus, Spirit, and Church are inextricably bonded with divine superglue to engage in the mission of being God’s Temple – the place of connection between the human and the divine.

Jesus used the situation of a question asked about taxes and the Temple to speak and illustrate the value and import of connecting with both God and others.

Why did Jesus pay the temple tax?

A “drachma” was about a day’s wage. In the time of Christ, there was a two-drachma tax which was levied by the Jewish authorities on every male Jew between the ages of 20-50. The tax was implemented to support the temple building and all the services that went into it.

The temple tax was not compulsory, so typically, the tax collectors did not impose it on the poor – which is why the collectors asked Peter whether Jesus pays the tax or not, because Jesus was poor. Jesus paid the temple tax out of humility, even though he was exempt, so to not offend and cause unnecessary scandal. Said another way, Jesus and his disciples did not have to pay the tax but instead chose to use their freedom for the benefit of others.

There is freedom in Christ. Yet, because of love, and a focus on need instead of rights, we can choose to use our freedom to serve larger purposes than just our own interests. The Apostle Paul later framed it this way:

It is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:5-8, NIV)  

We exist to serve more than ourselves. God has purchased and adopted us through the death of Christ; we are now the Temple of the Spirit. We can emulate the Savior and choose humility to serve others. A logical question arises about all this: If I do this and focus on responsible service instead of rights, then how am I going to make ends meet?  Is any of this realistic or practical?

How did Jesus pay the temple tax?

Jesus cares about supplying needs. Jesus can and does take care of people who choose to give for the benefit of others. Jesus told Peter the fisherman to go out and fish. A crazy thing happened – Peter found not only a two-drachma coin to cover the annual tax but a four-drachma coin to cover both Jesus and Peter’s tax!  This was a powerful lesson about God’s abundant grace. 

As God’s people, we not only believe in the miraculous; we depend on miracles. We can bank on Jesus supplying our need. This is not a health and wealth gospel. Jesus was monetarily poor, so I am not sure how anyone can justify that God wants all believers to be financially rich.

There was once a man I knew who only had $100 to his name. He got to know another man who needed a suit for his job. The man with a $100 gave it all to the man who needed the suit. That man is alive and well today with all his needs met. He is not rich. However, he is quite happy. If we never need a miracle, we have never given of ourselves enough to need one.

Peter was a fisherman, so Jesus told him to fish and there was a miracle. Sometimes we might get the wrongheaded notion we must do something way outside of our given giftedness. God created each person with a unique intellect, abilities, and strengths and so, we are to use them to affect a miracle – just as Peter did.

We can have a big picture view of our shared humanity without narrow provincial views which are unable to see the vast scope of human need. And so, we can trust God to use us for divine purposes. We can exercise faith in the miraculous for both ourselves and others. We can embrace Christ’s mission in this world to such a degree that we would never consider living any other way. May we do it because we can.

God of all abundance and grace, help us to find firm ground in a shaky economy. Provide jobs for the unemployed; give us strength and peace when anxiety and worry come knocking; grant us patience when things look bleak; and, bring us the serenity of your presence so that we can do your will for the salvation of others through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 133 – The Blessing of Unity and Harmony

Ascend to Jerusalem by Dan Livni
“Ascend to Jerusalem” by Dan Livni

Oh, how wonderful, how pleasing it is
when God’s people all come together as one!
It is like the sweet-smelling oil that is poured over the high priest’s head,
that runs down his beard flowing over his robes.
It is like a gentle rain from Mount Hermon falling on Mount Zion.
It is there that the Lord has promised his blessing of eternal life. (ERV)

Unity, solidarity, and harmony are a beautiful blessing. Disunity, division, and fragmentation are an ugly curse. Within all families and faith communities are a diverse bunch of people – which brings the potential of both wonderful fellowship and disagreeing fights.

Today’s reading is a psalm of ascent. It is one of a group of psalms the Israelites would say and sing together as they made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and ascended the temple mount to worship the Lord. Their common purpose and shared experience led to a blessed unity among all the worshipers.

The metaphors the psalm uses are meant to convey the feeling and impact of a unified people’s blessing as one harmonious bunch. The reference to oil communicates abundance and extravagant blessing beyond expectation. The gentle rain or the dew pictures the giving of life to a parched landscape. The psalm is a celebration of life’s simple pleasures, enjoyed with friends and family.

People created in the image of God are hard-wired for community. Rather than existing in isolation, doing our own thing, and keeping to ourselves, the Lord’s intention for humans is to be close enough to one another to rejoice with those experiencing joy and to weep with those mourning a loss. True community requires unity and harmony.

To live in harmony with one another means we regard everyone the same way by not playing favorites, being condescending, or giving more weight to one group more than another. It is a willingness to interact, work, and play with all kinds of people – not just those whom we like or help us get ahead in life. We are designed by our Creator to live and work together in common purposes. In fact, it takes a great deal of effort.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:2-3, NIV).

Think about what we have in Christ: the encouragement he has brought us, the comfort of his love, our sharing in his Spirit, and the mercy and kindness he has shown us. If you enjoy these blessings, then do what will make my joy complete: Agree with each other and show your love for each other. Be united in your goals and in the way you think. In whatever you do, do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Be humble, and honor others more than yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but care about the lives of others too (Philippians 2:1-4, ERV). 

If we desire the enjoyment of blessed relationships we will engage in genuine conversation, focused listening, and equal dialogue; simply stating opinions at each other will not do the trick.

Yes, we are to work at unity and harmony because we can have a nasty tendency to think better of ourselves than what is true, and of others what is not so good.  We might inflate our positive qualities and abilities, especially in comparison to other people.  Numerous research studies have revealed the propensity to overestimate ourselves.

For example, when one research study asked a million high school students how well they got along with their peers, none of the students rated themselves below average. As a matter of fact, 60% of students believed they were in the top 10%; and, 25% rated themselves in the top 1%.

College professors were just as biased about their abilities – 2% rated themselves below average; 10% were average and 63% were above average, while 25% rated themselves as truly exceptional. Of course, this is statistically impossible. One researcher summarized the data this way: “It’s the great contradiction: the average person believes he is a better person than the average person.”

Christian psychologist Mark McMinn contends that this study reveals our pride. He writes, “One of the clearest conclusions of social science research is that we are proud. We think better of ourselves than we really are, we see our faults in faint black and white rather than in vivid color, and we assume the worst in others while assuming the best in ourselves.”

Where sinful pride rules, disharmony runs amok within a community. The acid test of harmonious love is how we treat the lowly. One of the great preachers in church history, St. John Chrysostom (the fourth century Bishop of Constantinople) had this to say:

“If a poor man comes into your church behave like him and do not put on airs because of your riches.  In Christ there is no rich or poor.  Do not be ashamed of him because of his outward dress but receive him because of his inward faith.  If you see him in sorrow, do not hesitate to comfort him, and if he is prospering, do not feel shy about sharing in his pleasure.  If you think you are a great person, then think others are also.  If you think they are humble and lowly, then think the same of yourself.”

We cannot function apart from harmony. Consider a tuning fork. It delivers a true pitch by two tines vibrating together. Muffle either side, even a little, and the note disappears. Neither tine individually produces the pure note. Only when both tines vibrate is the correct pitch heard.  Harmony is not a matter of give and take and compromise to make each other happy or satisfied.  Harmony comes through a common mission and purpose which engages in shared experiences of loving and caring for others.

My Christian convictions and tradition tell me that the Word of God is applied by the Spirit of God through the people of God.  We are to embrace community.  We are to do life together.  We are to view everyone as my brother or sister. After all, we are our brother’s keeper.

So, let us ascend the hill of the Lord together. Let us worship God together with glad and sincere hearts. Let us be mindful of all our brothers and sisters, no matter who they are.

 

Psalm 126 – Spiritual Farming

farming

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them. (NIV)

A biblical phrase many people are familiar with is, “You reap what you sow.” Although the saying is typically referred to in the context of avoiding poor decisions (Galatians 6:7) the principle is woven throughout Holy Scripture in other scenarios, as well, as it is here in today’s psalm.

Sowing and reaping are, of course, agricultural terms. Farmers and gardeners tend to the soil through tilling, planting, cultivating, weeding, and eventually harvesting. The images of farming and the growth of plants serve as fitting metaphors for the spiritual life. Growth does not occur quickly. Instead, constant and vigilant attention to spirituality eventually brings a harvest of good works and godly attitudes.

Jesus said, “My food is to do what the one who sent me wants me to do. My food is to finish the work that he gave me to do.” (John 4:34, ERV)

In our Western society of wanting everything immediately, this is a difficult principle to grasp. We may think that when we sin, and lightning does not strike us right away, that what we did must not have been so bad. However, eventually our implanted seeds will sprout and become visible to all.  Conversely, we might believe that when we dedicate ourselves to service and see no immediate results that we must be doing something wrong. So, we easily become discouraged and give up.

Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love. Break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you. (Hosea 10:12, NRSV)

Yet, the psalmist reminds us of the necessity of patience.  Just as it takes continual watering to reap a harvest in the field, so the Christian’s life of weeping and tears, of tilling deeply into the things of God, is necessary to spot a sprout, see growth, and finally bear fruit.  Thus, the tedious cultivating and weeding of our souls is the task before us. If we are patient and consistent, we will realize a harvest of righteousness.

Jesus taught his Beatitudes to help us understand that righteousness, peace, and joy come through being in touch with our poverty of spirit; mourning over personal and corporate sin; becoming humble and meek; hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Only through the blood, sweat, and tears of spiritual agony will we come through to the deep happiness of seeing the Lord accomplish great things in our lives.  In other words, joy is neither cheap nor easy.  It is the fruit of many tears.

Spiritual farming involves sound practices of sowing and reaping. There is suffering before glory, tears before joy, lament before healing. Just as a farmer cannot take short-cuts in the planting and cultivating process if he wants to have a bounteous and delicious harvest, so there is no getting around the painful work of grieving our changes and losses. Avoiding the hard work of spiritual farming leads to a bogus harvest where we bite into a fresh ear of sweet corn only to discover a mouthful of worms.

Remember this: The person who plants a little will have a small harvest, but the person who plants a lot will have a big harvest. (2 Corinthians 9:6, NCV)

The bulk of our lives are played out in the space between sowing and reaping. Just as the farmer plants and waits, attentive to the land and the weather until the time of harvest, so we exist mostly in a time of patience. So, we pray, recalling past harvests and anticipating that with God’s good help we will enjoy abundance. This in-between time is often characterized by tears.

As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. (Luke 7:38, NIV)

I grew up on an Iowa farm. I only saw my father cry twice in my life. The first time, I was just a boy, two days after my eighth birthday – a devastating hailstorm destroyed the crops that had been planted just six weeks before. Despite farm equipment and technological savvy, the farmer is still at the mercy of the weather.

And we will always be at the mercy of God. Because he is good, just, and fair, the Lord does great and benevolent things. To be blessed, we need to embrace the dog days of summer in all its banality and its tears until we reach the time of reaping. There is joy, and it is coming, if we do the work of spiritual farming and wait patiently.

Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the universe. Your word brings on the dusk of evening. Your wisdom creates both night and day. You determine the cycles of time. You arrange the succession of seasons and establish the stars in their heavenly courses. Living and eternal God, rule over us always by your mercy and grace. As the source of all goodness and growth, pour your blessing upon all things created, and upon you his children, that we may use all you have given us for the welfare of all people. God of the harvest, plant yourself so firmly in my soul that life and joy will result. Let my mouth be filled with laughter. I shout aloud the deep satisfaction that comes from having great things in my life, through Jesus my Lord. Amen.

Isaiah 25:6-9 – Celebrate!

village in front of the mountains
Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh on Pexels.com

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
    from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
    from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken. 

In that day they will say, 

“Surely this is our God;
    we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the Lord, we trusted in him;
    let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.” (NIV) 

Mountains are a prominent and symbolic part of Holy Scripture. Abraham sojourned to a mountain where the pinnacle of faith was exhibited. The Law was given on a mountain. Elijah met God on a mountain. Jesus preached the most famous sermon ever on a mountain. From such references, and more, we routinely refer to extraordinary events as “mountaintop experiences.”  

The mountain is a great contrast and antithesis to the valley of death below. It signifies God’s power and reign over all earthly rulersOn the mountain we enjoy a great feast of the soul, not to mention an actual meal full of celebration. After all, food and celebration always go together in God’s kingdom. 

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Whenever healing and/or emancipation happen, it is time for celebration. To celebrate significant events, and even to ritualize them so we remember them, is not only wise – it is much needed and vital to how we are wired as humans. The lack of celebration creates spiritual amnesia. When we need support in the future, we don’t recall the mighty acts of God. Yet, if we consistently practice celebration, the redemption experienced in the past is constantly fresh, like a sumptuous meal which is always before us. We can eat of it anytime we want. 

Banquets are rightly associated with hospitality, generosity, and fellowship. Meals in the ancient Near East culture were much more than utilitarian; eating together was (and, frankly, still is in most parts of the world) a deeply spiritual event which communicates acceptance, encouragement, and love to one another.  

God is the ultimate host. He throws the best parties. God ensures that there is plenty of food, fellowship, and fun. God’s joy knows no bounds. In the middle of a world beset with sadness, loss, and grief, God’s boundless generosity swallows up people’s disgrace and mourning. At God’s Table, no one cries alone; everyone is comforted; nobody walks away hungry; and, every person is waited upon, no matter who they are or where they have come from. Indeed, there is always room at the Table. 

Through Christ’s resurrection, “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54). Death no longer has any power to control, humiliate, or shame us into submission. Death’s threats are emptyThe Grim Reaper’s teeth have been pulled and his scythe has been broken. He is the party-pooper who is barred from entry. Conversely, there is life and abundance for all who ascend the mountain and feast with God at his Table. The invitation has gone out. The Table is spread. We need only to come. 

In the joy of your Son, Jesus Christ, through his mighty resurrection and in expectation of his coming again, we offer ourselves to you, Almighty God, as holy and living sacrifices. Together with all your people everywhere and in every age, we proclaim the mystery of the faith: 

Christ has died! 

Christ is risen! 

Christ will come again! 

Send your Holy Spirit upon us, we pray, that the bread which we break and the cup which we bless may be to us a sacred communion, a holy celebration of Christ’s body, blood, and victory over death. We declare: 

God has spoken! 

God has acted! 

God has provided! 

May you gather all into your hospitable and abundant kingdom; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy SpiritOne benevolent God, now and forever. Amen. 

Click Celebrate Jesus to keep the Easter songs coming in this season of celebrating new life.