Matthew 11:20-24 – “C’mon, Man!”

Jesus angry
“Christ in Majesty” by Polish artist Jan Henryk de Rosen at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” (NIV)

Today’s New Testament lesson from the Gospel of Matthew, recounting the words of Jesus, are not filled with unicorns and butterflies, to say the least. We might be somewhat unfamiliar with these not so famous, maybe even infamous, words from our Lord. Before Jesus tells who is accepted in the kingdom of God (Matthew 11:28-30) he tells us who is not accepted. These scathing words are specifically leveled to the towns in which Christ had performed his ministry of healing and miracles.

We need to hear the hard words of Jesus. Up to this point in Matthew’s Gospel, he has laid out the birth narrative of incarnation in chapters 1-2; the preparation for Christ’s ministry in baptism and being sent to the desert in chapters 3-4; Christ’s teaching on what constitutes a genuine follower of God, the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7; and, chapters 8-10, recording ten miracles which were meant to demonstrate that the kingdom of God has broken into history in the person of Jesus Christ. In chapter 11, Jesus begins leveling a rebuke to the crowd who had observed his ministry and did nothing in response to his works.

For Jesus, the height of hubris was to simply ignore his righteous works of gracious teaching and benevolent healing.

If you are not a fan of Monday Night Football, let me explain a pre-game segment each week during the season called, “C’mon, man!” Each commentator picks out a bonehead play from the previous week that would cause someone to shake their head in dismay and say “c’mon, man!” They are typically situations where the player’s head just was not in the game and they ended up, in some cases, costing their team points or even the game.

Cmon man

Reading Christ’s words sounds a lot like Jesus picking out the towns in which he performed his miracles, and saying to them: “C’mon, man!”  “You saw me cleanse a man from leprosy, heal paralyzed people and a woman with a chronic disease, calm a great storm, exorcise demons from people, give sight to the blind and speech to the mute. You saw all of this, but it has not changed you one bit. You still live the same way you always have and have not come to me as the source of your deliverance… “C’mon, man!”

Notice that Jesus’ denunciation comes not because he was experiencing opposition or persecution; he was denouncing them for their bonehead lack of response and refusal to change their lives to conform to what they were seeing right in front of their faces. The crowd heard his teaching and saw his miracles, and it had no effect on them. So, Jesus gave them a great big “C’mon, man!” Judgment becomes the lot of someone who is unaffected and unresponsive to the vast sea of human need around them, viewing Jesus as just another voice, and living a life of mediocrity in the face of opportunity.

So, what would the segment “C’mon, man!” look like today? What would Jesus say to us? Keep in mind we are people with access to Christ’s teaching. We have the Sermon on the Mount to read, study, meditate upon, and live by – yet, too many [Christians] don’t take the time to examine it with the intent of seeing Jesus and allowing him to change their lives… “C’mon, man!”

The Holy Spirit has been provided, who is the power source of the Christian life. We possess all the resources of grace necessary to step into this world and make a difference, yet so many do nothing but occupy a place in the pew [or couch] because they are too afraid to sacrifice their time in meaningful ministry… “C’mon, man!”

There are neighbors, relatives, and co-workers who are lost and lonely, in need of the kind of grace Jesus gives, yet too many of us are oblivious to them and instead are constantly worried about things that, in the end, don’t really matter at all… “C’mon, man!”

We have opportunities to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ through a vast array of available ministries, yet many do not take the chance to change and be spiritually stretched… “C’mon, man!”

Today the words of Jesus are right in front of our faces, and some of us will have the audacity to read them and remain unchanged, unchallenged, and unresponsive… “C’mon, man!”

If our highest values in life are sameness, stability, and security, we may very well, at the least, miss Jesus altogether, and, at worst, find ourselves under his condemnation. These verses are for those whom Jesus has become all too familiar, as if he is just another piece of furniture in the living room – the coffee table with a dusty Bible resting on it.

Perhaps this post may seem a bit out of place on a website which promotes itself as caring. I would like to think of it as obnoxiously caring. I trust you will accept today’s writing and the words of Jesus as caring enough to confront. There are times when Mid-West nice gets us nowhere and we must have hard conversations. Yes, conversations, and not verbal rockets launched from one group to another. Jesus did not denounce from a distance; he did it up close and personal. Furthermore, he was specific and not generic about why he was speaking in the way he did.

So, may you be able to pray this prayer of repentance today with heartfelt conviction:

Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Sovereign Lord of the universe, Creator of humanity, we, your unfaithful children, are sorry for our sins and the lives that we have lived apart from your grace. We sincerely believe and confess in our hearts that only through the precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, can we obtain your forgiveness.

We repent that: in thought, word, and deed, we have committed serious offences against you and our neighbors. Through spiritual laziness and prideful lust for power, we have provoked hatred, division, despair, and hurt within our communities.

Through our greed, deceit, and indifference, we have inflicted serious damage, unnecessary conflict, and aggravated destruction to those different than us.

Through our selfishness, insensitivity, and bias (both conscious and unconscious) we have encouraged and emboldened those who inflict hurt, pain, and sorrow on those who are already oppressed and poor.

In the name of religion, doctrine, and even of Christ himself, we have wounded fellow believers and those who genuinely pursue a faith different than ours. In stubbornness, pride, and arrogance, we have caused division and strife within your church and among your people.

Mercifully send your Holy Spirit, the Spirit of order and comfort, to cleanse us from all unrighteousness; to restore in us true faith in Christ which brings truth, peace and harmony; and, to help us walk together with our brothers and sisters in the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, to the glory of your name. Amen.

Matthew 12:38-42 – A Changed Life

Ichthys
The ichthys (pronounced ick-thoos) is an early Christian symbol of new life in Jesus Christ.

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here. (NIV)

I say at the outset:

The greatest miracle, the best evidence of God’s work in the world, is a changed life.

Yes, both personal and corporate transformation – not a rearranging or a tweeking of habits – but a wholesale change of heart. New life is new life, and not a reconstituted life.

For many folks, when it comes to any discussion of change and transformation, it is a focus on others changing. Other people need to see things rightly; others who must bend their lives and organizations to how I believe things need to be. As you can tell, putting it in writing and laying it bear sounds an awful lot like pride and hubris. And, it is.

The need for repentance is for everyone, not just a select few or others for whom we believe need to change.

Jesus made waves with many people by hob-nobbing with the least, the lost, and the lowly. Christ actively sought such people out, and healed many of them from sickness, disease, and sin so that they would be united with God and no longer remain on the fringes of society.

Some within the religious establishment of the day did not take the healing ministry of Jesus into consideration because they were not in the transformation business. So, healing miracles which created new life did nothing for them. Jesus was not flexing any real Messiah muscle for them and improving their designs to see Gentiles get beat up and kicked out of Palestine. They even went so far as to ascribe Jesus’ healings as the work of the devil. They wanted a sign from heaven that would authenticate proper Messiah credentials.

Jesus responded by essentially saying there is already a sign that exists, the sign of Jonah. As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, so Jesus would be in the earth for three days and nights. The death and resurrection of Jesus is needed, and when faced with this information, the only appropriate response is repentance, a complete U-turn, to a changed life. Jesus brought up the Queen of the South to make the same point: When the ancient Ninevites, who were a sinful people, encountered the person of Jonah, they repented; when the Queen encountered the person of Solomon, she changed.

Therefore, how much more should we change when encountering the person of Christ?

Jesus himself is the sign. Jonah was in the belly of a whale. He was all but dead. But God caused the whale to belch up Jonah, and he went out as a changed man. The experience of having stomach fluids work on a person for three days and nights, some scholars point out that Jonah would have been both spiritually and physically different – bleached completely white and an incredible sight to see!

The whole point of bringing up this sign of Jonah was to communicate the great need for repentance when faced with Jesus, his life, his teaching, his ministry. The appropriate response to Jesus is a changed life.

Jesus was looking for status quo malcontents, and a desire for transformation and new life.

The process of change is hardwired into all creation – from seasons of the year to the seasons of people’s lives – all are designed for a sustained process of time to revolutionize us.

Jesus modeled this for us. He switched his address of heaven and moved into our neighborhood in order to bring us new life. As the Master of conversion, Jesus always extends the invitation to change. All he asks is to let God do the work of change within us, be patient with the construction of the soul he is doing and persist with daily routines of faith individually and with one another.

It pleases Jesus and it is the heart of God to realize new life. Change for change’s sake is not the point. Change that reflects the values of God is the point. And in order to know that, we must hear the Scriptures, and we must pray to seek the mind and heart of God.

God Almighty, we desire to be transformed by you and allow the life of Jesus to be expressed through us. We desire to walk in the light of your spirit. Reveal to us those things in our life that need to be made anew. Allow us to discern between flesh and spirit so that we can choose a healthy holy path. Continue to give us spiritual awareness. Transform us into something new altogether. May our old life and way disappear, and our new life emerge for the blessing of the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Click I Will Rise by Chris Tomlin as we continue in this season of Eastertide with its focus on new life.

Speaking to Dry Bones

I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.  He [God] asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  –Ezekiel 37:2-3

Ezekiel dry bones
Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones by Richard McBee

Folks around the world are quickly developing a new common language, becoming familiar with and using terms like social distancing, quarantine, shelter at home, and abundance of caution.  Our collective situation may easily create anxiety, and, so, parch our souls and leave our spirits dry.

There is, however, a God who can breathe new life into us and move us to renewed ways of thought and emotion.  The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel’s vision is a promise and a hope of resurrection, of revival.  No matter what our situation or who we are, we are all a displaced people – cast out of Eden and in need of restoration.  We, along with the ancient Israelites for whom he addressed, are in exile and long to return to our true home with God.  Along with St. Augustine we declare:

St Augustine quote

There are dry bones lying around – parched places in need of being reinvigorated.  Maybe you are experiencing the dry bones of hopelessness and despondency.  Maybe you are in a dark night of the soul where all of life seems like one shadowy oblivious hole.  Maybe you are wondering if God is really listening or is there at all because of the dry bones around you.  One thing for sure: Everything is upside-down right now; it is different.  At the first of the year, we didn’t see these current circumstances happening to us.  And, yet, these difficult times have much to teach us.

Let me share with you a “dry bones” experience from my own life.  Fifteen years-ago me and my family were in a car accident.  I was traveling on a highway in rural Iowa, and a small car on a gravel road blew through the stop sign without even slowing down.  There was nothing I could do.  I plowed into the rear quarter panel of the oncoming car, and it literally spun like a top off the highway and came to a stop.  Both the driver and his passenger were not injured.

Two of my three daughters were in the very back seat of our minivan (which I had just bought only a month before) with my wife and dog as front seat passengers.  The minivan was totaled.  My girls were not harmed.  However, my wife tore her shoulder’s rotator cuff protecting the dog and had an agonizing surgery to repair it.  My lower back was injured, yet, not in a way which surgery could repair it.  To this day I live with a kind of constant low-level aggravation of my spine.  Most days it’s not bad, maybe one or two on the pain scale.  On a bad day, I can barely walk across the room and need a cane to get around.

I have played the scene of the accident in my mind hundreds of times.  I have thought time and again about what I could have done to prevent it.  Honestly, there was no way to avoid it.  I thought about the fact that if we just would have left a minute earlier or a minute later from my parents’ house from where we were visiting, all would be fine.  Yet, I know that kind of thinking is a fool’s errand.  I have pondered every possible scenario in my head and have gotten nowhere.

It also took me awhile to forgive the young man who was driving the other car.  He changed my life, and not in a good way.  Although his insurance took care of everything and he was sorrowful about the incident, I was understandably angry for a long time.  I did, over time, come to the point of forgiving him.

Through the years I have learned to live with the limitations imposed on me.  I have now accepted the low-level aggravation of my back as part of my life.  On occasion, I sometimes can’t help but think of how my life would be today if I hadn’t been in that stupid accident.

About five years ago I was doing my usual routine morning prayers.  And God brought the accident to my mind.  I said to God, “Lord, we’ve been through this accident hundreds of times together.  I don’t want to think about it anymore.  Why are you bringing this up now?”

I’m not sure I really wanted an answer, but God brought it up because he knew I was finally ready to get his perspective on the accident.  Out of the hundreds of times I went over that accident in my mind, the one perspective I never took was that of the young man – the other driver.  God invited me to take a distinct viewpoint from the other driver.  So, I did.  I know that intersection like the back of my hand, so it wasn’t a hard exercise.

I imagined putting myself in the driver’s seat of his car.  I’m driving down the gravel road not paying attention to the fact that a stop sign is coming up.  I blow through the sign onto the highway and right in front of a minivan who slams on the brakes just enough to crush the rear quarter panel.  I spin out like a top and come to rest only a few feet from a huge Iowa grain elevator….

grain elevator

For the first time in my life I finally understood from a very different perspective.  God had a divine appointment for me that day.  You see, if I had not come along just when I did, that young man and his girlfriend would have blown through the stop sign and struck the grain elevator.  The impact would have killed them both instantly.

Suddenly, my attitude changed 180 degrees.  Previously, I had always thought about myself and my family.  I always considered my hardship and my change of life.  Now, I saw that God sent his servant to save two lives that day.  Had I not struck the young man’s car, causing him to spin and come to a rest unharmed, two people would have died.

From that time forward, every time my back acts up and effects how my life is lived, I’m reminded that it is a very small price to pay for the lives of two human beings.  God had me speak to the dry bones; and, the result was a revival of new thoughts and emotions.  This was such a dramatic change of thought and heart for me that it felt like a resurrection.

The biblical meaning of “repentance” is literally to have a change of mind – to see a different perspective.  The Bible invites us to view our lives with new lenses.  Our hurts and our pains, our sorrows and our sufferings, our changes and our limitations, are all part of something much bigger that God is doing in the world.  We are not always privy to his plans and purposes.  And, yet, God’s Word challenges us to take a perspective of the world, of humanity, and of ourselves that is counter to how we often think and feel.

It is a very small thing, right now in the admonitions to stay at home, to remain where we are.  Taking a mere one-sided view from my own perspective will bring frustration.  To see it from another angle as a temporary inconvenience, even with some permanent effects, which will save lives is a divine viewpoint.  To put it another way: We are speaking to dry bones.

Stay Home Save Lives

We might think and feel that we will be able to pursue God better without danger or hardship – that somehow difficulty is not to be part of the Christian life.  The dry bones exist, however, as an opportunity for God to give life.  That’s why Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s reaction to his exile in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia was to bless it, because it was there that, he said:

“I discovered that the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but in the development of the soul.”

God not only gives life; he restores life.  And this is an important truth to know and remember in the inevitable dry times of our lives.  God is not only a helper; he reanimates us from spiritual rigor mortis to lively resurrection through breathing on us.  And he does this for a reason.  Jesus came to his disciples after his resurrection and said, ‘“Peace be with you!  As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’  And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:20-21).  In other words, God resuscitates us for a purpose, so that we might be a blessing to the world.  Faith is not only a possession to keep, but a gift to give.  We glorify God in loving one another and loving the world as Jesus did.  God could have resurrected the bones without Ezekiel’s being a part of it.  Instead, the LORD used Ezekiel and had him participate in the revival by speaking to the bones.

Such a challenge to speak to the dry bones may seem overwhelming to us.  What do you do when your life is upended, even shattered – when such a profound change comes to you that it is impossible for your life to be as it was?  The questions and commands of God seemed totally absurd to Ezekiel, speaking to dead dry bones.  Maybe we ought to operate more in the realm of the absurd than in the realm of the safe routine.  Maybe we ought to expect our faith to be exercised and look for God to breathe new life into the dead and decaying.  To believe that something, someone, or even myself can change is to have internalized this amazing story of dry bones living again.

Our self-imposed graves cannot hold us because God is among us.  What we need more than anything in this world and in the church is a genuine heaven-sent, Spirit-breathed, glorious reanimation in which God sends his grace and raises the dead.

Perspective Changes Everything

perspective is everything

Today is one of my bad back days.  It’s days like today that remind me: perspective is everything.  You see, thirteen years-ago this coming May me and my family were in a car accident.  I was traveling on a highway in Iowa where we were living at the time, and a small car on a gravel road blew right through the stop sign without even slowing down.  There was nothing I could do.  I plowed into the rear quarter panel of the oncoming car, and it literally spun like a top off the highway and came to a stop.  Both the driver and his girlfriend passenger were not injured.

Two of my daughters were in the very back seat of our mini-van (which I had just bought only a month before), with my wife and dog as front seat passengers.  The car was totaled.  My girls were not harmed.  But my wife tore her shoulder’s rotator cuff protecting the dog and had to have an agonizing surgery to repair it.  My lower back was injured, but not in a way which surgery could repair.  To this day I live with chronic pain.  Some days it’s not bad, maybe a one or two on the pain scale.  But on my bad days I can barely walk across the room, and I need cane to get around.  Today is one of those days.

20180226_154906_resized

I have played the scene of the accident in my mind hundreds of times.  I have thought time and again about what I could have done to prevent the accident.  But there was no way to avoid it.  I thought about the fact that if we just would have left a minute earlier or a minute later from my parents’ house from where we were visiting, all would be fine.  Yet, I know that kind of thinking is a fool’s errand.  I have pondered every possible scenario in my head and have gotten nowhere.

It also took me awhile to forgive the young man who was driving the other car.  He changed my life, and not in a good way.  Although his insurance took care of everything and he was very repentant about the whole thing, I was understandably mad for a long time.  I did, over time, come to the point of forgiving him.

Through the years I have learned to live with my limitations.  I have now accepted the pain as part of my life.  But, on occasion, I sometimes I can’t help but think of how my life would be today if I hadn’t been in that stupid accident.

About three years ago I was praying alone in the church for which I was a pastor.  And God brought the accident to my mind.  I said to God, “Lord, we’ve been through this accident hundreds of times together.  I don’t want to think about it anymore.  Why are you bringing this up now?”

I’m not sure I really wanted an answer, but God brought it up because he knew I was finally ready to get his perspective on the accident.  Out of the hundreds of times I went over that accident in my mind, the one perspective I never took was that of the young man – the other driver.  God invited me to take a different view, from the other driver.  So, I did.  I know that intersection like the back of my hand, so it wasn’t a hard exercise.

I put myself in the driver’s seat of his car.  I’m driving down the gravel road not paying attention to the fact that a stop sign is coming up.  I blow through the sign onto the highway and right in front of a minivan who slams on the brakes just enough to crush the rear quarter panel.  I spin out like a top and come to rest only a few feet from a huge Iowa grain elevator.

For the first time in my life I finally understood.  God had a divine appointment for me that day.  You see, if I had not come along just when I did, that young man and his girlfriend would have blown through the stop sign and struck that grain elevator.  It would have killed them both instantly.

perspective changes everything

Suddenly, my perspective changed 180 degrees.  Previously, I had always thought about myself and my family.  I always considered my hardship and my change of life.  But now I saw that God sent his servant to save two lives that day.  Had I not struck his car, causing him to spin and come to a rest unharmed, two people would have died.

Now, every time my back acts up, like today, and it effects how my life is lived, I’m reminded that it is a very small price to pay for the lives of two human beings.  Perspective is everything.

The biblical meaning of “repentance” is literally to have a change of mind – to see a different perspective.

The Bible invites us to view our lives with new lenses.  Our hurts and our pains, our sorrows and our sufferings, our changes and our limitations, are all part of something much bigger that God is doing in the world.  We are not always privy to his plans and purposes.  But his Word challenges us to take a perspective of the world, of humanity, and of ourselves that is counter to how we often think only about ourselves.

The thread of God’s moral perspective, his view of human ethics, runs through the entirety of the Bible.  The psalmist reminds us that this Word is good, sweet, and more precious than gold (Psalm 19).  The Apostle Paul reminds us that this Word is our wisdom to live by (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).  And Jesus, as the Word made flesh among us, lived that loving and gracious Word with perfect moral and ethical goodness.  The temple, as the place where God’s Word was read and observed, was not to be adulterated with the view of making a profit – which was why Jesus drove out the money-changers (John 2:13-22).  Later, after Jesus died and rose from death, his disciples gained a new perspective.  They remembered their master’s words and affirmed them as being the Word of God.  They believed.  Their repentance and faith changed the world.

20180226_155620

God is inviting us to take up his Word and see our lives, the lives of others, and every event and situation through that lens.  We are to see Jesus, not only as a great teacher, a moral and good person, and a loving healer – but also as Lord and Savior.  In a very small way I suffered so that someone else could live.  But Jesus suffered sin, death, and hell in our place so that you and I could live – so that we might have the eternal life of enjoyment with God forever.

Allow the Word of God to shape your lives and form your thinking today and every day.  You might not always know what God is doing, but you can be assured that everything he does is just, right, and good.

May you know Christ better in this season as you reflect upon our Lord’s great sacrifice on our behalf.  May you know the love of God the Father, the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.