Friday, December 30, 2016

And Lead Us Not Into Temptation ...

Gold tried in a fire is said to become pure, and even more brilliant in shine than it was before.  But from the perspective of the gold, not such a thrilling prospect.  The reward may be worth the upheaval of the journey, but that is hard to see at the beginning, and nearly impossible to see in the midst.  Gold, and humans, often see themselves as “good enough” in whatever condition they find themselves.  To enter the furnace in order to emerge finer still, is something almost none of us would choose to do.  So most often, the choice is made by fate, or by a design beyond our sight and imagination.  It makes logical sense to us that faith that has never been tested, is at best an unknown quantity.  Faith that has been through the crucible and emerged on the other side even more brilliant than before, is a faith that can be relied upon more than the untested one. 
Faith that is untested could prove fatal when it matters the most.  Faith that is untested could be discarded without formal notice; but by the aggregation of competing philosophies and theories that require no “constriction” of our desires and lives.  Discarded faith is often cast aside because the gold of our characters believes it is simply good enough.  Atheists are quick to tell you that “good” behavior requires no God to see it in action.  Good people are everywhere, and none require God to instantiate that good behavior.  In the world of the Atheist, there is no understanding of “temptation”.  There is only choice to do one thing or another.  Morality absent in the decision, or subjective in the decision.  Faith discarded.  Faith killed upon an altar of self-reliance.  Untested.  And finally un-needed.
But those Christians who examine this rarely think of themselves as candidates for a discarded faith.  And simultaneously we desire a life of ease, and free from the burdens that conflict with the world must inevitably bring.  So for us temptation continues to exist.  Temptation for those of faith represents decisions where the morality is known, one for service, one for selfish.  But despite our knowledge of which is which, our desire, long crafted in this world, longs for the selfish, despite knowing better.  We continue to want the wrong things.  So the hold they have on us is deep and abiding.  Chains of slavery masquerading as simple desires for little white elements of destruction.  They look innocuous.  But the tentacles of these desires that would lead us on the wrong path seem to reach as deep in us as our DNA.  Heredity or environment, matters not if the result is to find ourselves on the wrong side of temptation.  The pain we cause is real, remains, and spreads like a virus.
For the Savior of our world, without the repetition of failure, temptation was to be something epic and singular.  Unlike us, He was to face something we could not face.  Matthew begins his account in chapter four of his gospel picking up in verse 1 saying … “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.”  Context matters here.  Jesus has just been baptized.  His formal ministry has just begun.  It has been proclaimed by John the Baptist, and by the voice of the Father God Himself, and the Spirit in the form of a dove.  No greater public spectacle has been witnessed.  Jesus has just symbolically laid down His life in the waters and emerged purified before God ready to start a ministry.  And literally seconds later the first thing He must face is direction by the Spirit of God Himself to travel into the wilderness, away from the people, away from anything that could sustain a man, and prepare for temptation of the devil himself.
And silly Christians; we somehow think that emerging from the baptismal waters will insulate us from the devil’s temptations.  If anything, it intensifies the devils attempts to bring us back into the creatures who needed the baptismal waters in the first place.  Baptism is not the sealing of our faith, it is only a step in the journey of our faith.  Baptism does not keep temptation away from us, it invites the fury of Satan to see us returned to our former condition.  But the devil need not win.  Yet Jesus did not just stumble into temptation.  He was led to it.  He did not just decide to go face off with the devil and see who wins.  The Spirit of God literally drove Him into the desert to face His (or ours) worst fears.  Failure here would not result in a quick forgiveness.  Jesus was to be the instrument of forgiveness.  If Jesus messed up, there might not ever be forgiveness.  The pressure was to be enormous.
Matthew continues in verse 2 … “And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.”  The deck was to be stacked in Satan’s favor.  Starvation would drive the body of Jesus to a barely alive condition.  Hallucinations could be only the beginning.  To say he was hungry was the understatement of the millennia.  Most men would give anything they had to eat.  Esau’s test in a similar vein had come and gone with an entire birthright given away.  But the birthright here was the entire human race. 
Matthew continues in verse 3 saying … “And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.”  The argument of the Atheist is born.  This temptation was not about bread or hunger, this was about one thing … prove it.  “If”, notice the pronounced use of the word “if”; if you are the Son of God.  It does not even matter what follows next.  In the day of Jesus it was a temptation to use divine power on Himself, which Jesus never did throughout His life.  But in our day, it is to “fill in the blank”.  Atheists always promise reform of their beliefs and positions if our God just proves that He exists, in physical terms, in literal terms, in any kind of manner that requires zero faith.  Let faith remain dead, and furnish only a tangible means of proof that God is God.  For untested faith, discarded faith, it would lead only to the result it sees today.  Should any proof actually be provided, it would be discarded as “not enough”.  The lack of faith can always find an excuse NOT to believe.
Matthew continues in verse 4 saying … “But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”  Let us not lose sight of the subtlety of this challenge to His identity.  Jesus does not directly argue with the chief of all Atheists.  Instead He turns to scripture, to the Word of God, to answer.  Jesus recites scripture to Satan.  Our response to our Atheist friends should not be a direct argument with their logic and assumptions.  It should be to put the salvation of our friends squarely into the mouth of God.  We should call out to our God to save our friends, lift them up before the throne of God, that He may save them.  We in effect give God permission to answer our prayers even if the Atheists would never reach out on his own.  This mechanism may be responsible for more converted souls into His kingdom than we will ever know.
Matthew continues in verse 5 saying … “Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple,”  In this gesture the devil reveals he is a creature beyond the limits of humanity.  The devil has supernatural abilities, from the perspective of men.  Perhaps Satan hoped that this gesture might affirm his disguise of being cloaked in light, trying to impersonate a heavenly angel and servant of God.  As he still comes to us.  Satan does not appear to the believer as a cloven hoofed, red painted, forked tail creature with horns.  That imagery might work in a renaissance painting, but in modern society this image provides him with nothing but cover to appear as a creature of light.  Satan is not interested in clarity, he is the master of obfuscation.  He tells you to do what you want to do, and then tells you it is the right thing to do, that God wants you to do it.  Just like he is doing to Jesus so many years ago.
Matthew continues in verse 6 saying … “And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. [verse 7] Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”  This is a second challenge to the identity of God.  The word “if” prominently used.  This time Satan challenges Jesus as the Son of God, but also challenges that God will uphold the promises He has offered in scripture.  It is a double insult.  But it remains so terribly effective in our day.  We pursue a course we know we should not.  Then once down the evil path, we call on God to save us from the consequences of our actions, and expect Him to do it, and blame Him if He does not.
While God has promised to protect us from forces beyond our sight, and dangers that Satan would otherwise pose to us.  God has not promised to protect us from our own stupidity.  When we disregard common sense, the laws of physics, and the word of God … we put ourselves in a place where we should expect normal results, not ones influenced by the power of God.  It is not that God cannot protect us, but it is that “we” are “tempting” God to save us.  Mercy, is not the same thing as expectation.  Pity, is not the same thing as expectation.  God is not to blame for the stupidity of our choices, though often His love for us finds a way to save us in spite of ourselves.
Matthew continues in verse 8 saying … “Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; [verse 9] And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”  Satan no longer care to challenge the identity of Jesus, now all he cares about is “who” we worship.  Turn your eyes away from God.  Worship self.  Just once.  How bad could it be?  One time for all this.  He offers the Atheist freedom from the restraints that religion imposes.  He offers the Christian a fulfillment of the texts that imply they must “do” something to be saved beyond accept the gift of God.  He offers Jesus an easy way out.  No pain, no death, just compliance and all this is yours.  But his offer was a lie.  And his offers are still a lie.
Matthew continues in verse 10 saying … “Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. [verse 11] Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.”  We would like to picture a victorious Christ, full of strength and vigor telling Satan off, driving him away, and hiking back down the mountain to begin picking up disciples.  But this is not how it was.  Human frailty insured it.  An emaciated, starving, to the point of death, Jesus uses His last ounce of strength to resist for the final time the temptations of Satan.  Satan does not leave Him because he was driven away.  He leaves Jesus because there are no more temptations left to offer.  Nothing left to say.  Jesus will not be defeated by the temptations man succumbed to.
After these words, Jesus collapses.  And now the promises of God are fulfilled in the heart break of heaven.  Angels who were veiled from Him, now appear in full glory bringing food, water, and love to the Savior who without their aid might have died on the spot.  They revive the broken body of man, ever compliant with the direction of the Spirit.  Jesus has not run from temptation as Jonah might have done.  He has not lost trust in God as Adam did.  He offers Himself here, even to the point of His life as few others did.  Whatever the challenge He has neither shrunk from it, or been defeated by it.  It is the gold tried in the fire.  He was in all pointed tempted as we are.  But without our failures.  Jesus wanted different things.  We need different wants as well.
Temptations remain effective against us, because we still want the wrong things.  We need different desires.  We need ones put within us by Jesus Christ.  Not ones we think up ourselves, but one’s placed within us by a divine hand.  This can only happen when we let go of our desires to Jesus Christ.  When we surrender what we “want” to Jesus, He can take them from us.  He breaks our chains of slavery, and in their place puts desires we “should” have, and come to appreciate very much.  Over time, we come to learn that what He puts in us to want, are the best things to want.  We cannot trust ourselves, or our desires.  But we can trust Him fully with our salvation, and our characters.  We can trust Him to save our Atheist friends and family we lift up to Him in prayer, as we trust Him to save us, and our Christian brothers and sisters who we also lift up to Him in prayer.
This was a crucible for Jesus.  This was a fire experience.  It was not a casual Sunday drive through the park (or the desert).  It was a life threatening, dangerous fire, that could have consumed the hope of the human race.  It was a fire no one would choose to go through.  And it carved a memory in Him He could not forget.  When asked later by His disciples to teach them how to pray, the words … and lead us not into temptation … are included.  These words were not just part of some formula.  They were a reflection of these 40 days of hunger and temptation in the desert of His ministry.  No one would choose to be led there.  And so He reminds us to ask God, please not to be led into this kind of fire. 
Our faith will be tested.  But as our desires change, perhaps temptation will no longer be the mechanism of test.  Perhaps then only trust will remain the trying fire.  Do we trust that our God strong enough to save this Atheist who wants nothing to do with Him?  Do I trust God completely with my own salvation?  After all my track record is not that good.  Nevertheless; Lead us not …

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The First Revelation of Ministry ...

The first of anything is always unprecedented.  Sounds like common sense, but the idea of “unprecedented” has more of an impact on us, than just the word “first” sometimes.  The term unprecedented by nature then is used rarely, because it is experienced rarely.  The first time a president elect chooses to use Twitter instead of the main stream media has been unprecedented as an example.  The level of crisis in Aleppo Syria is unprecedented to the residents who live there.  And on the plus side, the birth of our Savior was unprecedented as well.  No virgins ever gave birth before that.  Satan may have done his best to counterfeit this characteristic of the Gospel in other pagan religions.  But the real event, the real virgin birth was unprecedented.  It didn’t hurt to have angelic choirs, magi from the East, and a dedicated star leading the way either.  All of these supporting events insured the unprecedented nature of God entering our earth in human form.
But while many miraculous events marked the birth and youth of Jesus, the main event had yet to begin.  The ministry of Jesus was on the doorstep.  John the Baptist had been preaching about it with a fervency that could not be matched.  The Holy Spirit was blessing the ministry of John, convicting his listeners of their need to repent and come to God, symbolically through baptism, and now possibly literally through human contact with Jesus.  As with His birth, the counterfeit events Satan created in other pagan religions were not going to come close to the real thing.  All the deities of Satan demanded things of man for their favor; Jesus would be the only God who offered things to man, even to His enemies.  The real ministry of Jesus was about to be unveiled and it was truly going to be a first.  It was truly going to be unprecedented.
So how does the unveiling take place?  An event this glorious is sure to begin at the Temple in Jerusalem, in front of the High Priest and the assembly of the Sanhedrin.  All of Jerusalem would be called to attend, well at least, anyone who was anyone in polite society, would be called to attend.  Jesus would submit His authority to the Priesthood and the Sanhedrin.  They would give Him His marching orders, and discuss how soon Rome was to be evicted from Israel.  Then the existing leadership would start making plans about which leadership positions they wanted in the new government Jesus was sure to form.  After all, Jesus was going to need good lieutenants and counselors, in order to maintain order in the provinces.  This was certainly the view of those who led the church in the days of Christ.  But it was not the way of Jesus, or of His Father.  They had different ideas.
First must come the ratification of the ministry of John the Baptist.  The same nut, who called the Priests vipers, and had a message of shock and awe for church leadership, was to be validated by Jesus before Jesus did a single thing on His own formally.  That did not make any sense to the Sanhedrin.  But it made perfect sense to those who heard the message of Elijah in the words of John, and the power of the Holy Spirit that Isaiah had predicted.  God was moving near the Jordan river.  Not moving the waters, but stirring the hearts to repentance.  The announcements of the proximity of Jesus that John made every day were not the empty rattling’s of a homeless crazy.  They were a prophecy of the Truth, who was soon to be among them.
So Jesus begins His ministry without pomp or circumstance.  He foregoes the formality of the Temple, and the authority of the Sanhedrin, and looks for a place and a man of abject humility.  And there he finds his cousin, a willing servant of the most high God.  Matthew begins his account in chapter three of his Gospel picking up in verse 13 saying … “Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.”  Say What?!  From the point of view of church leadership this move makes zero sense.  And frankly from our perspective some 2000 years later a lot of questions emerge as well.
First, Jesus had no sin to be baptized from.  He had no need of repentance because He lived a perfect life.  So why request this act that would have no real meaning for Himself?  Second, for those who care about perceptions, the audience standing near was sure to interpret this move as Jesus being no different than they were.  But He was different.  He was God.  They were not.  There could not be a bigger difference, yet doing this action would cause them to think, He was just one of them.  It is a bit deceptive if all you judge actions upon is their appearances.  How many of us still judge so?
Matthew continues in verse 14 saying … “But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?”  Look closely here as John knows Jesus to be the Son of God immediately, without hesitation, and without doubt.  John is not wrestling with the identity of Jesus.  John knows full well that Jesus is the Messiah.  Not because he read about it in a book.  Not because he was related to Jesus by blood.  Not because of the conditions of His unprecedented birth.  John knows Jesus to be God, because the light of divinity shines through the eyes of Jesus as they stare right through John to the depths of his very soul.  John’s response is to further humble himself.  John wants Jesus to baptize him, preferably with Holy Fire, but water will do too.  At a minimum Jesus has this all backwards.
Matthew continues in verse 15 saying … “And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.”  Interesting the choice of the word suffer.  He might have used the term, humor me.  He might have commanded John, but He did not, instead He pleads with John for patience and acquiescence.  He gives John the reason, that this tradition is part of the fulfillment of all righteousness.  And there it is.  The real motive of Jesus begins to emerge.  Those witnesses on the banks of the Jordan river, were in no less need of baptism after the arrival of Jesus than they were before it.  Our need continues.  Our embrace of the symbolism continues.  Jesus does not eradicate the practice of baptism, He endorses it personally by example.
There are those modern Christians who believe they need make no public display of the embrace of humility and service to our Lord.  They believe that “what is in their hearts” is enough.  Yet across the New Testament church, baptism becomes the entry, the gateway to the faith.  The outpouring of the Holy Spirit happens after baptism.  Though I am certain His ministry occurs across our lifetimes.  Jesus does not get baptized because He needs it.  He does it because we need it.  We will need it later, even after His work for us on this earth reaches its fulfillment.  There is always need for repentance.  There is always need for humility.  There is always need for submission.
And the ministry of John the Baptist is validated and ratified in no higher a way.  God Himself, ratifies John’s message and its continued need.  John does not go home after this encounter with Christ.  He does not resign and go on a tour to Disneyland.  Instead he is even more committed, even more energized.  If Jesus had ignored John, that continuation may have never had its fervor.  But then the unprecedented happens.
Matthew continues in verse 16 saying … “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: [verse 17] And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  This is the definition of unprecedented.  No other baptism went like this one.  No other baptizee came up out of the water and found the heavens opened up, the Spirit of God descending in the form of a dove, and very voice of the Father God saying these words.  God the Father Himself bears witness to the identity of His own very loved Son.  God the Father Himself declares in front of all who are there, who Jesus is.
The ministry of John is ratified.  But even more important, the ministry of Jesus is revealed to begin, by His own Father in heaven.  What John has foretold is reality.  It is their reality.  It is our reality.  This was more than a first.  This was a one time only event.  The coming of the Messiah was now.  The fulfillment of the prophecy given to Adam and Eve, given to Noah, given to Abraham, Moses, David, and countless others has reached its zenith.  For 4000 years humanity has waited for this.  We have waited for an encounter with God.  And sadly, some of us, are still waiting.  Not because our God is unwilling to reach us, but because we have substituted the worship of self in His place.  We preach the gospel of self, of self reliance, instead of submission to Jesus.
There is no need of baptism, when submission has been fully discarded.  The mirror makes no demands on our humility.  It asks us only to serve the image we find in it.  But Jesus offers us so much more.  Jesus offers us an escape from that image, and a journey towards something bigger than we have ever dreamed of.  Our self imposed limitations have kept us enslaved to mediocrity at best, and depravity at worst, when what Jesus offers us is a perfection we have not even imagined.  Perfect health.  Perfect minds.  And a Perfect ability to love unencumbered by slavery to self, and the image in the mirror.
Matthew makes no comparison between Old and New Testaments in this passage, because there was no reference that could have encompassed it.  Unprecedented leaves Matthew only reporting what he has seen.  And this was only the beginning …

Friday, December 9, 2016

Fire and Brimstone, with a Twist [part two] ...

You should have known better.  Are there any more condemning words than those?  And so much the worse when they are true.  Sometimes it is even our job to know better.  And when those words strike the deepest chord; is when we did know better, and made our choices in spite of knowing better.  Those kinds of decisions and actions, of doing something in spite of knowing better, reflect a hardness alive and well in our hearts. 
Behavior like this in a child seems more forgivable.  Perhaps a child with minimal personal experience chooses to do something they know they should not, for the personal experience of having done so.  As their parent, we hate this; not because it hurts us from the suffering of that action, but because it hurts us to see our children suffer from the hurt of that action.  It hurts a parent to see their child suffer.  When the child suffers from bad decisions, we still suffer.  When the child suffers from bad decisions, and they are fully equipped with the knowledge of what would happen, we still suffer.  Our love of our child, will always lead us to suffer when our child suffers.  What we as parents want, is for our child never to suffer.
And what happens when you get a bad egg?  No parent ever wants to admit, that their little Johnny has grown up to be a bad egg, even if Johnny has become a serial killer.  But it happens.  And perhaps worse than a serial killer, is a leader in the “right” church, teaching all the “right” things, to those who do not understand, but completely devoid of love.  At least a serial killer only murders the body.  But a religious leader has the potential to murder the soul, kill hope, and portray an image of God that resembles Satan instead. 
Who would want to serve a God that looks so much like Satan?  And who would want to serve a God, when all His servants are so mean, or so apathetic, or so hopeless?  And His servants, employed in His ministry, are the very ones who should know better.  But too many don’t.  And still our heavenly parent looks to redeem what causes Him so much grief, and destroys so many other of His children.  Our Heavenly Father looks to redeem bad eggs, even ones that should know better, even ones that continue to do so much harm, from the pulpit.
John the Baptist had a message for these religious leaders.  Keep in mind these leaders had the right Bible.  They were not Hindu’s or Buddhists, or pagans.  These were Jews, and considered the top leaders of their faith.  These were Jews who had access to scripture, and debated it for a living, and in all their spare time.  They were supposed to be upright.  They were supposed to know more about the Bible than any other living person on planet earth.  Nobody was supposed to know more than them.  Nobody.  These men could have been a shining example of what love for others looks like in the flesh.  But they were not.  They were serial killers of hope in the pulpit instead.  They were obsessed with offerings, tithe, and the financial wealth they would bring.  They were obsessed with “control” over the faith, over doctrines.  They were obsessed with keeping the church pure.  Sound familiar?
As we read the message of John the Baptist for the religious leadership back then, let us instead apply it to ourselves as we should know better as well.  Matthew continues his account of the fire and brimstone preaching of John in chapter three of his gospel picking up in verse 7 saying … “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  Am I the snake John pleads with?  Do I slither between the pews, acting just interested enough in my neighbor to fool them into thinking I care for them, but maintaining my heart of stone within?  Is this the plight of my generation, and the one to come, and the one behind?  What wrath does John speak of? 
This was a message of shock and awe.  John was talking straight to people who demanded respect and he offered them none.  They were snakes to him.  They were snakes for what they did to the flock of God.  And then beyond the insult of calling them snakes, John throws the end of days in their face.  John brings up the judgment past, and the flames as destiny for them.  This was beyond unthinkable.  How could I be a snake when I only try to do good?  How many people rationalize their religion with just such a question?  They never seek perfection, believing it impossible.  They are right.  For perfection is only possible when Jesus does the work of transformation within us. 
But instead of seeking Jesus, we choose to continue to do the work of perfection upon ourselves, by ourselves.  We talk of partnerships with God, but this is deception.  It is only an excuse to do work ourselves, and then blame God because we cannot finish it.  We are snakes obsessed with control over our salvation.  We are snakes spreading a gospel of self-salvation to all who will listen, but this gospel leads only to flames of destiny.  We call the gospel of self, truth, when it is the farthest thing from it.  And in so doing we pave a highway to flames, instead of freedom.
Matthew continues in verse 8 saying … “Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:”  Time to let our deeds reflect our reality.  We are not to try to do good works.  We are to submit, be transformed, and develop a passion for others that cannot sit still.  A transformed heart loves others so much it cannot sit still, it must reach out in love to help them.  A transformed heart would never think to allow the words that proceed from the mouth to ever be interpreted as hateful, judgmental, or condemnatory.  Words that flow from a transformed heart are pure love, pure support, and ever point to Jesus as the only way to find salvation.  The fruits we are to bring are NOT our own.  They are fruits of the Spirit.  They are gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit to be employed in the tireless ministry of God.  These fruits show all who look that our heart is ever filled with repentance and love.  These fruits alone are worthy to bring.  Our fruits, our skills, our offerings are as the offering of Cain, based in self, and reflective of snake behavior.
Matthew continues the admonitions of John in verse 9 saying … “And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.”  John the Baptist at last removes the only surety Israelites had, he takes away the relevance of their ancestry.  The faith of Abraham belongs only to him.  It does not belong to those men who have no faith in God for their salvation some 2000 years later.  It is no different with us.  Our church fathers may have had great faith, and done great deeds in the eyes of the Lord.  But their faith belongs only to them, not to us, if our actions do not reflect the transformed heart that drives this kind of passion.  John the Baptist makes no excuses for them.  They will each face eternity for what they have done, for what they have believed.  Transformation is personal.  What my wife experiences is not my own.  What my mother believes is of no consequence to me.  My heart must be transformed by Jesus, or my heart remains in the provinces of snakes.
John concludes his warning in even starker language in verse 10 saying … “And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.”  Our ancestry is terminated.  From this day forth, each man will face his fate, based on the submission to Jesus Christ he has pursued.  John was preaching of the nearness of God in human form.  John was saying it is here, it is now.  Now is the time to abandon trust in self, trust in self-made interpretations of the law, and instead seek the author of the law.  Every prophecy ever given could be rightly interpreted by the God who was walking the streets of Nazareth and the roads of Galilee.  No more need for majority opinion, each leader could seek the author Himself.  What remains in the province of snakes after this opportunity was destined for the flames that will someday purge the earth of all evil.
John then shifts the focus even more squarely upon Jesus as the only way to avoid this fate as Matthew continues in verse 11 saying … “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:”  Here is where the twist re-emerges even for bad eggs, even for vipers, even for me.  The offer of baptism unto repentance is freely offered to ALL of these same men.  Notice, John never once calls out any of them for the specific sins he knows they are guilty of.  Notice, that John only continued to offer repentance, and to starkly make them aware that even as religious leaders, they need it too.  Perhaps their need is greater than all.  And now he offers a promise, and a prophecy.  John foretells of the baptism of the Holy Spirit by fire to all who believe.  John is offering this promise and this prophecy to these very men.  These vipers could become baptized by the same Holy Spirit that would baptize the other followers and disciples of Christ. 
Think of this offer for a minute.  Not only is God interested in the redemption of these men, He is willing to restore them to what proper leadership means in the New church, in the New faith.  If anyone was less deserving it is these very men, yet it is to these men who God appeals to.  To receive this offer, one must only embrace humility and submit before Jesus who is right around the corner.  Think of the freedom of that embrace.  All your questions answered.  All your words motivated by the Holy Spirit from that day forward. 
A new gospel.  A new method of preaching and teaching by testimony, instead of by intellectual awareness.  They are each and all offered a personal experience with God on earth.  This is not fire and brimstone, this is heaven reaching out to each of them.  This is not the punishment that vipers deserve, it is the honor of becoming a participant in the ministry to redeem others.  This is not a message of fire and brimstone based on fear to motivate, only shock and awe to awaken how desperate the need is.  And it is ONLY this way of frank speech within the leadership of the church.  As it is in ours, never intended for the common sinner.
John then describes Jesus as more than God in human form, but God in eternal form as Matthew continues in verse 12 saying … “Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”  The God of eternal judgment is also the God of eternal redemption.  To refuse to allow our salvation from Jesus, is to embrace self to try to find the same result.  But self can only fail at salvation.  Only Jesus can succeed at that work, at the work of perfecting us from us, saving us from us. 
Should we refuse to trust Him, refuse to accept His gift of salvation to us, we are destined to become the chaff of eternal history.  The mercy of God to extend time to try to save every last soul that can be saved is not infinite.  Time will one day reach its end, and the days of sin have been numbered.  The method of escape is so easy, and so clear.  It should be best understood by those in ministry.  Yet John shows us, that those in ministry often have the greatest need.  Learning to be devoid of self, to forego trusting in self to save, is sometimes hardest for those involved in religious things.
John the Baptist has said harsh things.  He has preached fire and brimstone, but only to the leadership of the church to wake them up to their great need.  But his twist has ever been the hope of Jesus Christ.  Even to those bad eggs who should have known better, and most deserve condemnation, John has offered none.  Instead he offers continued opportunity to be baptized not only to repentance, but with fire by the Holy Spirit in days to come.  That is quite a twist, and it is one we should all seek.  And then, if only to add heaven’s stamp of approval on the ministry of John, Jesus would enter the scene …

Friday, December 2, 2016

Fire and Brimstone, with a Twist [part one] ...

Perception is tough in the eyes of the blind.  How do you know where you are, or what you need if your eyesight is impaired?  But to complicate it, what if you only choose to be blind, simply choose not to see.  Look at it another way.  How do you get help? - You ask for it.  But when you are certain you need no help, you are nearly certain not to ask.  And the perception of someone else, that you are in desperate need of help, is meaningless unless you share that same perception, recognize your need, and ask for the help that will resolve the matter.  This is the splinter that resides in the eyes of the sinner; that they have forgotten their need, or choose not to see it.  And this is the tree-trunk that resides in the eyes of the modern Christian; that they believe it is their job to convict of sin, when only the Holy Spirit can do that.  So how do we save both the sinner, and the modern Christian, who refuse to see their need?  Short answer is; we don’t, but Jesus does.
Perhaps one of the most famous “fire and brimstone” preachers in scripture was John the Baptist (at least if you only read Matthew’s account).  John preached “repentance”.  But is repentance condemnatory, or redemptive?  John calls sinners to repentance; he does not burst into their lives, pointing out their sins, and reminding them of how wrong each sin is from heaven’s accounting point of view.  Actually, he makes no accusation at all about “which” sin any of his listeners might be committing.  Instead John focuses only on the “need” to repent.  “Which” sins we have committed, the ones we know we should not have done, is a silent matter between us and God.  It is the Holy Spirit that calls those desires, actions and motives to mind.  It is the Holy Spirit who would see us freed from our bondage to them, not continually enslaved to them.  But there goes that funny thing of perception once again.
The Holy Spirit sees the sin in us for what it truly is; an addiction to self-love we are powerless to break.  Even if our hands can be held in check, our hearts cannot.  We still want to sin.  And very often we do what we want.  When we see we are unable to fix the cycle of sin, when we recognize our need, then FINALLY Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit is able to free us from those desires, motives and actions that otherwise enslave us.  But the perception of sin as enslaving is one the divine understands.  The human perception of sin is often not the same.  We see sin as some sort of fun-house, we don’t want to lose.  We see the lack of sin as boredom squared.  A life without any disobedience is the life of some goody-two-shoes we would simply not want.  So we cling to our sins, figuring we can always give them up in our future.  But that future never arrives.  Even though we do not seem to evolve, our sin does.  Sin does change over time in that it gets worse.  We hurt others more, we hurt ourselves more, and we hurt God more (because He loves us and hates seeing us do this to ourselves).
The trick for saving sinners then, is to simply expose them to the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit takes over from there.  But here is where performing this work gets tricky.  Most modern Christians believe it is their job to preach the word; defining those terms as condemning and judging others who are clearly sinners for the sins they commit.  We believe our job is to enlighten these ignorant sinners about the sins they commit, as if they could not see them themselves.  We believe that only through our careful enlightenment and public exposure of their sins, will the sinner ever desire to leave those sins behind (I would guess through embarrassment of public ridicule as this plan has not been well thought out).  While we ourselves still cling to the pet-sins in our own lives, we are quick to condemn the same ones in the lives of others.  Our entire “gospel” then becomes pointing out sins in others.  No love.  No redemption.  No method of actually getting rid of those sins, but then, how could we offer something we have never experienced.  So when you boil it down; we offer, no hope.  At least, no hope for living differently in this world.  We bundle up forgiveness and sell the prospects of life in the next world.  In this one, only condemnation for the crap in your life.
So to save our modern Christian, we need to recognize our need of an entirely different gospel.  The new gospel does not depend on you or me.  The new gospel depends only on Jesus.  If work needs to get done, then Jesus must do it.  In us, for us, in spite of us.  We keep pointing at Jesus, and Jesus takes over from there.  Jesus deals with the sins, the desires to sin, and sometimes our continued failures in sin.  The best way to point to Jesus is to love, not to focus on sin.  Loving someone gives them a reason to change, not a reason to rebel.  Loving someone in spite of what they do, gives them an example of forgiveness, not an ethereal explanation of it.  But loving like this is hard.  Well at least, it is hard with an unchanged heart.  Time to go to Jesus again.  Time to seek an entirely different heart and subsequently different perspective.  Fear just does not do the job.  But love does.  So let’s examine the ministry of John the Baptist (from the perspective of Matthew) and see what kind of twist he puts in the reputation he carries for one of the loudest and most famous hellfire and brimstone preachers.
Matthew begins his account in chapter three of his gospel picking up in verse 1 saying … “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, [verse 2] And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Matthew has skipped forward through the youthful years of Jesus and is now right at the public start of His ministry.  John the Baptist is actually the cousin of Jesus and just coincidentally follows the customs of the Nazarene’s with his own hair.  John is what we would call an ultra-conservative in appearance and manner.  Thus far, a perfect candidate for hellfire and brimstone preaching.  But the twist is in his message.  It is a simple one.  John calls for repentance.  John also offers a reason why repentance is so important at this time in earth’s history; because the kingdom of God is at hand.  God is about to be with us.  God will be in human form, and in point of fact, he has already been with us for nearly 30 years with only minimal notice.  So why is the message of John different?  Because John is declaring that God will be revealed to all of us very shortly.  Proximity with God.  The ability to see God, talk to God, and have the eyes of God look right through you.
Now imagine you are a typical Israelite in these days.  Chances are you are too poor to have the luxury of time to commit a wide variety of sins.  But poverty is no protection against the sins you are certain to have committed in spite of it.  You go to Temple.  You make sacrifice.  But you have never thought that God might be within talking distance.  You have never thought of having God be close enough to see you with human eyes, but divine insight.  If you are to greet God in person, you want to be ready to do it.  You want to be clean inside.  You want to be dipped into the waters, have your carnal nature symbolically die, and be resurrected a new creation.  A new creation unto your God, who has been so long desired.  None of this message has anything to do with toppling the Roman empire.  None of this message has anything to do with condemnation of you for what you do.  Instead it is an opportunity to make ready inside yourself for God.  It is open to everyone.  It is constant.  John is always preaching about it.  And when you are close, you feel the Holy Spirit convict your heart, and you long to make ready and be clean.
The message of repentance is not about judgment, it is about proximity with God on earth.  The message of repentance is not about punishment it is about reconciliation.  Your average sinner gets this.  Your average sinner has been exposed to the Holy Spirit through the ministry of John, without condemnation or judgment or public humiliation.  Matthew continues in verse 3 saying … “For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  Again Matthew ties together the Old Testament with the New in the life of Jesus Christ.  Isaiah foretold of the power of this message (referencing his book in chapter 40 and verse 3).  This proclamation would therefore be blessed by the Holy Spirit as the time for it was at hand.  Malachi (referencing chapter 4 and verse 5) would also foretell of it in the sending of Elijah before the end of time.  Jesus would later call reference to Malachi, in explaining the importance of the ministry of John, and how John’s ministry fulfills those words.
Matthew then goes on to describe John more fully and the results of his ministry among sinners picking up in verse 4 saying … “And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. [verse 5] Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, [verse 6] And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.”  John wore simple homemade clothing from things he could put together.  John ate bugs (large ugly ones) and likely dipped them in honey to enhance the taste.  His diet was desert fair, food his God would provide to him.  Matthew describes these things not as the reason people came to see him.  But to insure his readers understand John was not wearing priestly clothing of fine raiment, and eating a priestly diet of sacrificial meats and vegetables a priest could afford.  John was dirt poor.  His clothing and his food were poorer than those who came to see him.  Even beggars did better financially than John.  But John was taken care of by God.  While John did not have much, he had what he needed from his God.
Then there was the results of the ministry of John.  Word of mouth, spread quickly about John.  Not because he was some nut in the desert near the river preaching nutball theories.  But John’s ministry held spiritual blessing, and the Holy Spirit was present to all who would come to hear.  John was not preaching to make income, or himself famous.  John was preaching for his listeners, with the ecstatic news that God would soon be among them.  His words were loud and clear, and pierced right to the heart of those who came to hear.  When they went home at night, they told everyone they knew about what had happened to them.  They had been baptized in the river Jordan without a second thought.  In spite of how embarrassing it might have been they publicly declared and confessed their sins during the baptism because they were so moved by the Holy Spirit.  They came to John burdened, they left unburdened and made free by the power of the Holy Spirit.  This message was not to be missed.
So many modern preachers believe it is their duty, their responsibility, to reach the hearts of their listeners.  But it is not.  They offer only words.  It is the Holy Spirit that turns those simple words in the ears of the listener into life altering musings from the very throne of God Himself.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the listener is willing to give up his sins, begin his life over, and lay everything at the altar of our God.  They come burdened but leave free.  They come burdened but leave with a sense of hope.  No modern preacher accomplishes this feat, but the Holy Spirit cannot be denied in doing it. 
The difference between the results from one sermon to another is not the skill of the preacher, but the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to the listeners.  The preacher already knows the truth.  The listeners are revealed the Truth in a deeper way ONLY by the Holy Spirit, or not at all.  The preacher’s blessing is to offer the testimony of what Jesus has done for him.  The preacher is honored to participate.  But it is the Holy Spirit who drives ALL the results, not just some of them.  How often has the Holy Spirit been stifled, because the minister believes he can do it himself, with his great oratory skills, with his great PowerPoint overheads, and because he has achieved a level of fame in himself.  It is our taking the credit the stifles the flow of He who alone can accomplish what our feeble attempts never will.
Matthew has concluded his recollections of John’s ministry for the common sinners among us.  He has recited a brilliant ministry with stunning national results in changing the life of the common believer.  Israel had not seen this kind of ministry since the age of the prophets, and even they were not often focused on the common man.  This was unprecedented.  This could serve well the effort of a modern ministry or Christian as an example of public outreach.  John was steeped in humility.  John shunned all wealth, he took no offerings to support his ministry.  John was homeless.  John lived off the land and the mercy of God.  John’s ministry was blessed by the Holy Spirit.  John offered a way to become clean again.  John never called out any particular sinner’s sin, or publicly humiliated anyone.  John offered a way to be free, and many took him up on it.  John had twisted the rules of a fire and brimstone preacher quite a bit.  But this was for the common man, the common sinner, the common believer.
The message of John for the leadership of the church was something else entirely …