Matthew 23:29-36 – “Woe Is Me!”

Ethiopian Jesus
Jesus, from an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, c.1750 C.E.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So, you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! 

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore, I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you; all this will come on this generation. (NIV) 

I almost feel the need to place a warning label on this blog post: “The writer has determined that a careful reading of this Scripture is dangerous to those who think their current state of Christianity is just fine.”  Jesus stands in a long line of Old Testament prophets as the ultimate prophesier calling the people to see things as they really are and come back to the God of all, not the God of their own making. 

I feel yet another warning is warranted, knowing from years of experience that there is an Enemy of our souls: The dark forces of this world will try every which way to get us to believe these words of Jesus are for other people, not me or you – that you and I are okay and that this is for “those” people [probably ones we don’t like] who are clearly deluded. We, however, are simply fine.   

We all need these words from Jesus and to let them speak to us. Christ’s scathing and damning critique was leveled against a distorted spirituality, a false Christianity, a controlling leadership that stifled and snuffed-out the true worship of God. Jesus pronounced seven woes on the religiously pious spiritual brokers of his day. Today’s Gospel lectionary contains only the seventh woe. This woe, along with the rest, are not directed toward the irreligious or the spiritually lackadaisical folks among us – the woes are aimed squarely at the religiously committed. 

Ethiopian Orthodox Jesus
Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of Jesus

The word “woe” literally means “disaster” “calamity” and “misery.” Jesus pronounced a woe against ultra-religious persons who were obsessed with respecting the tombs and the graves of the ancient prophets. It was considered a terrible travesty to walk on such a grave, even accidentally. The concern about it would be something like today’s respect given to the American flag by many people. 

Here is what Jesus is getting at with his woe on those being so concerned with the tombs of the prophets: Honoring dead people and inanimate objects like graves while ignoring live people is not good. Respecting dead people of the past means nothing if we simultaneously ignore the live people right in front of us. For Jesus, one of the surest ways to hell is to give credence to Christian leaders long dead while flippantly disregarding the prophet or pastor presently in our lives who is taking pains to communicate God’s will and care for God’s people right now. 

Jesus knew quite well the telltale signs of hypocrisy: 1) hypocrites don’t practice what they preach; 2) hypocrites keep other people out of God’s kingdom; 3) hypocrites focus on externals; and, 4) hypocrites major on the minors. Hypocrisy, however, never has the last word – grace does. The final word to everything is God’s grace.  

For all of Christ’s severe words, his heart was filled with a love and a longing for his wayward people. Jesus died for the ungodly with deep concern, intention, and hope that everyone would come to know the true worship of God – filled with an abundance of mercy for the penitent sinner. 

When the prophet Isaiah experienced a vision of God his response was “woe is me!” (Isaiah 6:1-5). The appropriate response to today’s Gospel lesson is repentance – to see and turn from our own propensity toward spiritual and/or religious pride and the tendency to view the “other” as needing to repent, but not me.  

Let us, then, come to the cross of Jesus Christ and there find the grace which absolves us from such sin. Let us approach the empty tomb and find Christ’s resurrecting power of transformation. Let us approach the ascended Christ on the throne with both humility and confidence. Let us intercede for a world which desperately needs the peace of Christ. 

Lord Jesus Christ, you prayed that we would be one as you and your Father are one. We confess our resistance to your prayer. We have failed to maintain the unity of the Spirit. We have broken the bond of peace. For the times we have not listened to each other, when we have spoken in anger, haste, or fear, we are sorry. For the times we have not loved each other, when we have competed, or insulted or judged each other, we are sorry. For the harm that our disunity has done to our witness to the Gospel, we are sorry. Have mercy on us, we pray. Restore us to friendship with you and with one another, through the power of your Spirit. Lord, grant your grace for repentance to spiritual charlatans and victimizers; and, give your power to those distressed and victimized for forgiveness of their abusers, so that all of us together may strive to break the chains of oppression and show the peace of Christ in the world. Amen. 

Revelation 3:1-6 – Remember

Sardis
Ruins from the ancient city of Sardis, the capital of the kingdom of Lydia, in present day western Turkey.

“To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (NIV)

When Christians think of biblical epistles (letters) to churches, the Apostle Paul might immediately come to mind. Yet, contained within the first three chapters of Revelation are seven succinct letters to seven different churches.  What makes these short bursts of exhortation so powerful is that they come from Jesus himself.  Yes, that Jesus – the Lord Jesus Christ, the head of the church.  So, it seems to me that Christ’s observations about the church carry more weight than anybody else’s thoughts.

And the thoughts of Christ were about how far the church was from completing the work of God. So, Jesus gave a pointed admonition, almost like a parent trying to awaken a teenager in the morning. “Wake up!” said Jesus because he found the church’s obedience incomplete and lacking strength. If this were the Apostle Paul talking, he would likely have framed it this way: “You have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

Our Lord went directly to the heart of the church’s life… that is, death.  The stark reality is that these statements from Jesus remain penetrating and relevant for today’s church. So, what is to be done about the situation of spiritual death and dryness in the church?  Jesus did not leave the church hanging but in a few compact words let them know exactly what they are to do to remedy their spiritual malady: Remember. Obey. Repent.

The Seven Churches of Asia - York Minster
The Seven Churches of Asia, stained glass window in York Minster, England.

Sometimes, if not many times, we may tend to forget the things we need to remember and remember the things we are to forget. We are to follow God in his pattern of remembering and forgetting. God has said:

I wipe away your sins because of who I am. And so, I will forget the wrongs you have done. (Isaiah 43:25, CEV)

I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins. (Jeremiah 31:34, CEB)

I will forget their sins and never again remember the evil they have done. (Hebrews 10:17, ERV)

When it comes to those who have wronged us, we are to emulate God’s grace, mercy, and kindness through forgiveness. To “forget” does not mean performing a personal lobotomy but simply not to hold an offense against another by continually bringing it to mind. On the other hand, God remembers his promises to his people. Likewise, we are to constantly bear in mind what God has put before us to remember:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26, NRSV)

We are to have an abiding remembrance of the Lord Jesus, the very person who spoke to the church hundreds of years ago. It is in those times when we become distressed that we must center our memory on Christ:

We must focus on Jesus, the source and goal of our faith. He saw the joy ahead of him, so he endured death on the cross and ignored the disgrace it brought him. (Hebrews 12:2, GW)

Remembering Jesus Christ sets us on the path to fulfilling the work of God and completing that which has been given us to do. This is precisely why I choose to follow the Church Year and remember time by having it centered around the life and ministry of Jesus.

Always think about Jesus Christ. He was brought back to life and is a descendant of David. This is the Good News that I tell others. (2 Timothy 2:8, GW)

I have been a constant example of how you can help those in need by working hard. You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35, NLT)

Let us remember together in prayer:

Awesome Lord Jesus, your words penetrate to the core my being.  Strengthen me by the continuing presence of yourself through the Holy Spirit so that my every thought, word, and deed is done in your holy Name. Kindle in my heart a vision of your love and shine the light of your victory over sin, death, and hell over this dark world. Continually take me to yourself; keep me in your wounds and mindful of your presence so that I shall fulfill all the will of God for my life through your divine enabling. Amen.

Matthew 8:14-17 – A Changed Life

Jesus Heals Peters Mother In Law
A mosaic of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, from a Byzantine Church, c.1100 C.E.

When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“He took up our infirmities
    and bore our diseases.” (NIV)

One of the great realities we run headlong into with the New Testament Gospels is that Jesus has the authority to heal and transform the world… and me. Forty-one years ago, today, I experienced the reviving and revolutionizing work of Jesus Christ. I realize not everyone has a specific time they can point to when God does something miraculous, and I also do not expect that everyone’s experience of the divine must conform or be like my own. No, my encounter with God was just that, mine alone. Yet, I hope you find some encouragement and solace in my brief story.

I was probably the least likely person to become a follower of Jesus, let alone to have shown any promise toward the pastoral and religious life. I had serious reservations about the veracity of faith, the relevance of church, and the importance of religion. Although, outwardly, my family made attending our local church mandatory, inwardly, I felt the entire Christianity thing to be boring, irrelevant, and contrived. I was much more likely to behave passive-aggressively than piously.

But I began to rethink and revisit my doubts and epistemic assumptions about all things God and Christianity. The love of Christians around me stirred the internal upheaval. I had come to view the world as a cruel place and saw other people through jaded lenses. Relationships were for me a necessary evil. So, when love and grace entered my orbit, it threw me into sort of an existential angst. Having come to settled-thinking in my understanding of a dark world and having learned to navigate it with the tools of sarcasm and skepticism, genuineness and authenticity were a complete monkey wrench in my cosmology.

To put the whole matter succinctly, Jesus touched me. My small sin-sick heart was healed and enlarged. I walked away completely changed. I cannot accurately say what happened any more than I could tell you how a transplant doctor puts a new heart into the chest of a person. I can only speak to the results: newfound joy instead of nihilism; new desires to bless others and the world instead of looking for ways to disengage from people; new speech and wanting to edify and encourage people instead of sly words of putting others down; and, perhaps most surprising of all (to me) a thoroughly new desire to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Pastor Tim

The love of God in Christ made all the difference for me – and still does, all these years later. I stand in a long Christian tradition of outsiders and misfits entering the kingdom of God through spiritual metamorphosis – going all the way back to today’s story of Jesus healing and transforming.

In the first century, Jewish women were not allowed as far inside the temple as Jewish men.  Lepers could not go in, at all.  Centurions and Gentiles could only get into the outer court, emphasizing that they were outsiders.  In the synagogue service, women sat in the back, under the balcony. There were pious men who would pray, not in a spirit of humility, but thanking God they were not women.  In this healing account of a woman, no one asks Jesus for healing; he just walks into a house and heals Peter’s mother-in-law just because he wants to!

Christ’s authority, concern, and healing power even extended to the demonic realm. It perhaps goes without saying that most people would not want to hang-out with demonized people who carry a load of problems and sickness with them; they are yet another example of the classic outsiders.  If we take seriously that Jesus is our model for ministry, then we need to take passages like this seriously and connect with outsiders and bring them to Jesus.

The Old Testament quote comes from Isaiah 53:4. Sickness relates to sin – not always personal sin, but from living in a fallen and fundamentally broken world.  In other words, when the biblical text says that Jesus took up our infirmities and carried our diseases, it is saying that Christ takes our sin upon himself. His healing acts are tied to the cross.  There is new life and spiritual health in the cross of Jesus Christ.  We come to the foot of the cross as spiritual beggars, looking for grace and mercy in our time of need because Jesus has the authority to extend healing and deliverance from every sin and every sickness and every problem known to people.

Through Jesus Christ there is and can be healing for damaged emotions, broken hearts, pain-ridden bodies, and sin-sick souls. There shall be joy through mourning. There is life through death. A new day will dawn, carrying fresh grace and unique mercies for the journey ahead. Behind it all is the God who is still in the business of renewing minds and hearts, and reforming attitudes and actions through extravagant and inexhaustible love.

God of all creation forgive my foolish thoughts and errant ways; clothe me in my right mind; and, calm my troubled heart. My soul is off, and I cannot seem to find my balance, so I stumble and worry constantly. Give me the strength and clarity of mind to find my purpose and walk the path you have laid out for me. I trust your love, God, and know that you will heal this stress, and mend my spirit. Just as the sun rises each day against the dark of night, bring me clarity with the light of God, through Jesus Christ, Savior and 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.