Matthew 12:43-45 – True Repentance

Freedom by Zenos Frudakis in Philiadelphia, Pennsylvania

Jesus said, “When an evil spirit comes out of a person, it travels through dry places looking for a place to rest, but it finds none. So, it says, ‘I will go back to the home I left.’ When it comes back, it finds that home still empty. It is all neat and clean. Then the evil spirit goes out and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself. They all go and live there, and that person has even more trouble than before. It is the same way with the evil people who live today.” (ERV) 

Nature abhors a vacuum. A tilled plot of soil will be overtaken with weeds if nothing is planted and nurtured in the turned-over dirt. The pecking order of a brood of chickens cannot handle the death of the top hen without filling the position almost immediately. And, in the spiritual realm, the exorcising of a demon will not simply leave a person empty of evil – his/her life will be filled with something in its place. 

Today’s Gospel story, told by Jesus, about the man who is delivered from an unclean spirit, is a powerful and simple narrative on the necessity of true repentance. Genuine freedom is more than getting rid of something bad and destructive; the evil must be replaced with something good and useful. That is, biblical repentance is both a turning away from ungodliness and an embrace of righteousness.

We are delivered from evil so that we can start living into the righteousness and peace intended for us. 

For example, the Apostle Paul exhorted the Ephesian believers to not only stop stealing but also to get a job and start sharing with others. They were not only to stop lying and using their tongues for gossip and slander and start using their words to speak truth that builds up others. (Ephesians 4:25-32) 

The spiritual principle is the same as the nature principle: A empty vacuum will always be filled. The man who did not fill his life with God ended up having a problem with evil seven times greater than when he started. 

If anything, or anyone, is emptied of its unhealthy elements and practices, it is imperative that the hole be immediately filled with healthy disciplines for life. 

Whether dealing with addictions, bad habits, or any kind of evil influence, a two-pronged approach is needed for its eradication. We expel the evil by replacing it with godliness. The man struggling with pornography or adultery must not only stop the behavior but take up the mantle of being a champion for women’s issues. The woman who has no healthy boundaries and allows herself to be used and abused must not only separate from the problem or person but adopt her identity in Christ as a precious child of God and enforce righteous limitations.   

None of these examples are meant to be simplistic answers to complex situations. Rather, they illustrate why so many people do not experience freedom and continue to have even greater enslavement to their passions and sufferings. 

Freedom is realized through replacing old practices with new disciplines that directly attack the old. 

We all have needs. How we get those needs met is often a mixed bag of both legitimate and illegitimate ways. In a perfect world, everyone would be aware of their needs and be able to express them to one another without shame, anxiety, or anger. Since we live on a blemished fallen planet, we end up trying to meet our needs indirectly through hustling for love, hoarding resources, and controlling others – all harmful ways which destroys souls and relationships. 

So, unless we focus on positively meeting our needs, we must go a step beyond dropping a toxic relationship, cutting up a credit card, or saying “no” to another responsibility. We often get into our mess to begin with because we are out of touch with ourselves and our needs. We need affection and encouragement, and there is no shame in needing this. We need security and safety, and there is no problem in acquiring this. There are some things we need to control, and that is okay. 

If we fail to address our needs, we might do the necessary work of deliverance, then turn right around and become worse off than before by filling the empty place of our lives with:  

  • Being all things to all people, as if we were the Messiah.  
  • Being successful so that we stay ahead of being needy.  
  • Pulling inside ourselves and trusting nobody.  
  • Distancing from our needs and pretending they are not there.  
  • Being continually vigilant so that we are never hurt that way again.  
  • Keeping a positive spin on everything, as if there is no negative stuff in the world.  
  • Challenging other’s opinions and behaviors to keep the focus off our needs.  
  • Becoming a wallflower so that we can never be the brunt of someone else’s vitriol or evil. 

Instead, we can let Jesus fill the emptiness with love, purpose, peace, joy, attention, and grace. Christ is the Savior who delivers us from evil, and the Holy Spirit is the Sanctifier who carefully applies the work of salvation to our lives.

When our hearts and minds are full of God, there is no place for the demons to get in. 

True repentance equally forsakes evil and embraces righteousness; replaces the unhealthy with the healthy; jettisons the illegitimate and seeks the legitimate; and puts away unnecessary suffering and pursues peace and joy in the Spirit.  

O God, I no longer want to live with saying I’m sorry and going right back to the old pig slop of sin. I cannot change on my own.  I need Jesus to both take away the sin and give me a new life of living for him.  Lead me not into temptation but deliver me from evil Help me to make choices that put to death the old way of life, and the courage to live into my forgiveness in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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.

Exodus 3:16-25 – A Great Reversal

Moses and the Children of Israel by Richard McBee
“Moses and the Children of Israel” by Richard McBee

“Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.’ 

“The elders of Israel will listen to you. Then you and the elders are to go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God.’ But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So, I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go. 

“And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so, you will plunder the Egyptians.” (NIV) 

Moses spent forty years in the back side of the desert tending sheep. The first forty years were lived in the most powerful place on earth at the time, Egypt. Although Moses had a privileged position, he forsook his place to be in solidarity with the enslaved Israelites. With a skewed sense of timing and method, he slew a cruel Egyptian, and was forced to flee into the desert. 

The time eventually became ripe, and God was on the move. At eighty years old, God called Moses out of the desert and back to Egypt. The deliverance was going to be accomplished according to God’s designs and purposes, and not from the impetuous actions of a younger Moses. God knew exactly what he was doing and put Moses on a course which would strike at the heart of imperial Egypt and bring freedom to millions of slaves. 

Today’s story is laced thick with divine promises. After all, it is the promises of God which give people hope and a future. Referring to himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Lord connects the generations-long covenant promise to the Israelites and reminded them they are not forgotten. God’s covenant has neither disappeared nor changed; it still exists. While the Jews were languishing in slavery, God was not aloof but watching – carefully inspecting, caring, and paying close attention. 

The inheritance of the Promised Land was coming, and it would be realized. God affirmed the covenant, knowing the plans he has for them – plans to give them abundance and joy. And God knew full well that dislodging the Israelites from Egypt would take some work, since Pharaoh relied so heavily on slave labor to support his massive imperial state. 

You, like me, have likely noticed that God tends to move rather slow by our standards. We might question and wonder about so much injustice going unabated for so long. Yet, that is our perspective of things, not God’s. Whereas we often have our own self-interest at mind, the Lord has the concern of an entire world. God is patient and long-suffering, providing full opportunity for both individual and national repentance. The Lord is on the lookout for people to amend their errant ways and return to their true purpose for living. He only judges at the proper time. 

And when that time comes, look out! Nothing can stand in the way of God’s good plans for the earth. The ancient Egyptians had built an empire on the backs of slavery, and everything went into supporting the power and wealth of the state. God was not okay with this situation. As he had done many times before, the Lord would thoroughly dismantle and destroy the powerful system of oppression. God is the expert at flip-flopping the status of people – the slaves become free, and the free are bound; the hated become favored, and those who enjoyed all the perks of power and privilege become the despised. 

Embracing God’s upside-down kingdom means advocating for justice, righteousness, and holiness for all people, not just a select few whom I like. Jesus, over 1,500 years after Moses and the exodus from Egypt, had this to say: 

“Those who are last now will someday be first, and those who are first now will someday be last.” (Matthew 20:16, NCV) 

“Blessed are you who are poor, 
    for yours is the kingdom of God. 
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, 
    for you will be filled. 
“Blessed are you who weep now, 
    for you will laugh. 

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 

“But woe to you who are rich, 
    for you have received your consolation. 
“Woe to you who are full now, 
    for you will be hungry. 
“Woe to you who are laughing now, 
    for you will mourn and weep. 

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-26, NRSV) 

And the Apostle Paul said to the Church: 

“For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!” (2 Corinthians 4:17, NLT) 

The New Testament references are not meant to sanitize or put a positive spin on the very real suffering that so many people have endured both past and present. It is, however, meant to lift-up the reality that we have a sure and certain hope. Our trust in the promises and presence of God will eventually be realized and gives shape to how we live today in persistent prayers with patience and perseverance. 

So, may the Lord of all creation bless and protect you. May the Lord show you mercy and kindness in your affliction. And, may the Lord be good to you and give you peace. Amen. 

Luke 10:21-24 – Freedom and Blessing

Ethiopian Jesus 2
Ethiopian Orthodox depiction of Jesus teaching

Then Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the people who are wise and smart. But you have shown them to those who are like little children. Yes, Father, this is what you really wanted.

“My Father has given me all things. No one knows who the Son is, except the Father. And no one knows who the Father is, except the Son and those whom the Son chooses to tell.”

Then Jesus turned to his followers and said privately, “You are blessed to see what you now see. I tell you, many prophets and kings wanted to see what you now see, but they did not, and they wanted to hear what you now hear, but they did not.” (NCV)

A healthy view of Holy Scripture is to look at it as an unfolding drama of redemption. Ever since the fall of humanity, God has been on a rescue mission to reclaim, redeem, and restore people. This human project has obviously taken several millennia; and, it still has not reached its fulfillment.

The Christian tradition understands that the climax of victory and final restoration to our true state as humans will occur when Christ returns. By warning us that divine mysteries are hidden to some and revealed to others is Jesus’ way of cautioning us toward triumphalism and self-congratulation. Yes, redemption is a reality; and, it is also not a reality. It is both here and is coming. We are delivered from sin, death, and hell – and, we still labor against the evil machinations of systemic world problems, our own sinful nature, and a demonic realm which is looking for every opportunity to exploit sin’s residue upon the earth.

What this all means on a practical basis is that the good old days for some were the bad old days for others. History is always written by the winners and those in power. The hidden voices are typically squelched. The vision of Jesus is that all kinds of people, not just a certain segment of winners, should enjoy God’s favor.

There were ancient people who longed for spiritual and physical freedom. They looked forward into history and had the hope of Messiah and God’s promises being fulfilled. History is still unfolding. People yet remain locked in personal bondage and large swaths of humanity still experience oppression and a longing to enjoy blessings which others possess and take for granted.

On this Independence Day in the United States it is important that we recognize and hold together both the blessings of realized freedom along with the limits of others’ freedom. And, with this realization, we continue to actively work for all people and keep praying that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done, here on earth, as it is always done in heaven.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, circa 1852

So, today, I am lifting a voice from history which exemplifies the struggle of the black experience in America. The following is a small portion from a speech by the ex-slave Frederick Douglass orated on July 4, 1852, nine years before civil war, with President Millard Fillmore and many congressional politicians in attendance:

“The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced. What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloodier than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”

Because history is forever unfolding, freedom and blessing develop over time and come more powerfully to some than others. True spiritual discernment, with the awareness to labor on behalf of the common good, does not ultimately come through astute observation and superior intellect; it comes by divine revelation. God will both conceal and reveal according to divine purposes and not human agendas.

Christian spirituality cannot be reduced to praying a sinner’s prayer and then maintaining a holding pattern on earth until heaven. Rather, Jesus remains present in this world through the person of the Holy Spirit and is continually interceding on behalf of those who need freedom and blessing. As Christ’s Body, Christians are to be the hands and feet of Jesus, animated by the Spirit to bring God’s ethical and benevolent regime to those who need it most.

If we are blessed, we are to pass blessing on without prejudice. For the kingdom of God belongs to the poor in spirit.

Dear God, Creator of the universe and all that inhabit it, we come as your Church, and as individuals, in humble submission to your word and your way. God, you are the Alpha and Omega, The Almighty Judge and The Forgiver of All Sins, so we come with humility and contrition on behalf of generations past, present and those yet unborn. We ask that you forgive us and create in us a new spirit. Bind our hearts and send forth the healing power that you and you alone can give to us and this sin-sick world. Bring us into reconciliation with one another and restore us to your righteous and holy path. Amen.