Chapter 53 – Matthew 17: Seeds and Mountains

sequoia-seed-on-fingertipsequoia tree

Grace that is ever mindful of the mind which can’t believe / It held back Abraham’s hand / Burned the altar down / And it can only work it out if we believe – Satellite Soul, Equal to the Fall, from the 1997 self-titled debut album

Jesus, Peter, John, and James have just descended the mountain after the transfiguration, when they are met by a large crowd, which has been waiting for them. One man in particular steps forward and addresses Jesus, saying that his son needs help but the disciples left behind couldn’t do anything for him (v. 15-16). Isn’t that strange since Jesus had fully equipped His followers (10:5-42) to handle matters such as these? And He might sound exasperated, to say the least, if you look at His words:

“You faithless and corrupt people! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me” (v. 17).

So the boy is brought before Jesus and He casts out the demon that has been torturing him. Later, His disciples ask privately why they couldn’t cast the demon out. Jesus’ answer? They didn’t have enough faith. He’s not chastising them. He’s encouraging them to increase their faith because they’re going to need it in their future ministry. And we can learn a lesson from this story.

If we follow the Christ, we’ve been empowered as well – just like the disciples – to do magnificent things in His name. But it requires faith, which is a funny thing. It’s not a blind belief as some people might think. It’s not even a passing desire as in, “I believe I’ll have another beer.” It’s stronger than that. Faith is rooted deeply in the trust that something is true, such as “God is bigger and more powerful than my problems”.  And Jesus explains to His disciples that it can be very tiny, like a mustard seed – the smallest known particle at that point in human history – and it is effective enough to move mountains.

Not literal mountains, mind you. But issues in your life that are significant enough to become a monumental problem.  Maybe it’s addiction. Maybe it’s a loss of income. Maybe it’s a medical issue or a relationship issue. Maybe it’s even a crisis of faith itself. None of us are immune from that.

“If you are facing a problem that seems as big and immoveable as a mountain, turn your eyes from the mountain and look to Christ for more faith. Only then will you be able to overcome the obstacles that may stand in your way” (Study Bible, p. 1579). Here’s the super important part: it’s a quality thing, not a quantity thing. I like that. I don’t have to do it on my own and I don’t have to be a superhero of the faith to overcome. He is aware of my hang ups. I simply have to be willing to believe. It’s a small shred of faith the size of an atomic particle in today’s world. Or the size of a giant sequoia seed (see images above).

The thing about sequoia trees is that their seeds are only released from the pine cones by a heat source, such as a forest fire. Imagine that. The very seed needed to grow one of the largest trees on the planet is born of adversity.

What’s standing in our way of having an open, thriving relationship with the creator of the universe? What is weighing us down? What mountains exist in our lives that need to be overcome and moved? Next time we need help, let us remember that often the largest plants come from the smallest seeds – and then let’s believe and get to work.

Chapter Fifty Two – Matthew 17: A Transfigured Moment

stormy-seas

It is He, the Messiah / Miracle man, part of the plan / It is He, the Messiah / Life in His hand / I understand it is He – Michael W. Smith,  Could He Be the Messiah, from the 1983 album “Project”

We come to the end of our first year on this blog and find ourselves at a curious point in Matthew’s gospel where he is not physically present for the story that begins chapter seventeen. The narrative found here (and also in Mark 9 and Luke 9) specifically points to only three disciples being privy to the events which are commonly known as the Transfiguration of Jesus (v. 1-2), and Matthew is not one of them. Moreover, Jesus specifically commands Peter, James and John (the three who were present) NOT to talk about what they experienced until AFTER He had been raised from the dead (v. 9).

Several things supposedly happen: 1) Jesus’ appearance changes greatly (v. 2); 2) suddenly Moses and Elijah appear (v. 3); 3) Peter sticks his foot in his mouth again (v. 4); and 4) God the Father speaks to the group, terrifying the disciples (v. 5).

I don’t know about you but I have lots of questions. If Peter, James, John and Jesus are the only ones on that mountain top, and nobody talks about it until much later, when and how does Matthew find out about what happens up there? Why does he choose to include an event he was not present for? Don’t other people find that suspicious? Maybe that’s not such a big deal since Matthew records the birth of Jesus and he wasn’t there for that either.

More questions: How did they recognize Moses and Elijah? Both men lived hundreds of years apart and no one present (save Jesus, if He is God) was alive when either of them walked the earth. Does Jesus make introductions? If so, what was that moment like?

It’s a very odd story. Matthew records that Jesus gets deep into conversation with Moses and Elijah (v. 3). It’s a relationship matter and one we should value more in our current society of only staring at our cell phones. The footnotes of my Study Bible mention that in “God’s world, interactions count highly…Good conversations act as training for eternity” (p. 1578).

In any event, we’re not told what they were talking about nor why only these two great old testament figures show up. Why not King David? Or Daniel? Or Ruth? The footnotes also state that “Moses and Elijah were the two greatest prophets in the Old Testament. Moses represents the law, or the old covenant. He wrote the Pentateuch…Elijah represents the prophets who foretold the coming Messiah…Moses’ and Elijah’s presence with Jesus confirmed Jesus’ messianic mission: to fulfill God’s law and the words of God’s prophets” (p. 1578). So there’s that.

Maybe the focus should be on Peter, the only disciple recorded as having spoken up during this whole event. He probably should be worshipping the Christ, instead he’s making useless suggestions for building temporary tabernacles – one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. In a sense, he’s trying to make the moment more permanent. And aren’t we all like that? We want to keep our mountaintop experiences going and set up residence. Can you imagine if he had been allowed to build his monuments? What an archeological find that would be for later.

But still, Peter wrongly suggests memorializing the moment. God the Father interrupts and refocuses the disciples. He speaks in order to give authority to the words of Jesus much like He did on Mount Sinai when Moses was given the law (Exodus 19:9). As a result, all three of the disciples fall face down (hey, they are worshipping after all!) and when they look up again, Elijah and Moses are gone. It’s just Jesus, touching them; reassuring them that everything is ok. And isn’t that just like Him?

All in all, I’m not quite sure what can be gleaned from this strange narrative other than this Jesus guy is one unique Being. I don’t know of anybody else in human history who glows, talks with physical manifestations of dead people, and gets props from a bodiless voice in the heavens. He almost sounds like He should be a Shakespearean character. But He’s not. And this story is just one more piece of evidence to add to the growing pile that He is who He claims to be.  Maybe that’s why Matthew includes it. He’s building an airtight case for a Messiah with his Jewish audience.

As if Jesus could be someone else.

A Christmas Pause

The night is winding down. Gifts have been exchanged and opened. Dinner has been cooked and consumed. I’m on my second piece of pie, grateful for drawstring sweatpants.  And family. And friends. And for life eternal.

I sit here and I reflect back on all the build-up. Seems a waste to have Christmas for only one day. It should be a week-long event, at least. The music. The lights. The decorations. The spirit of goodwill and peace. I’m not ready to let any of that go just yet because there’s a change in the calendar date.

There’s so much to this holiday. For some people, they take the word of a teenage girl that she’s never had sex yet she’s pregnant with the Son of God. God steps down from His throne in the heavens and puts on flesh. When He ceases to be a fetus and is born, it’s in a unsanitary stable filled with animals. Some of the first visitors to welcome this baby are among the lowest of the low in social circles. He didn’t come with fanfare. He didn’t have royal parents. And when the ruler of His day does find out about His birth, He’s forced to flee for His life as a refugee to a foreign country.

He doesn’t go to the finest schools. His earthly father is a tradesman who raises Him knowing He’s not his son. When He grows up, He becomes a homeless man rejected by the religious elite. Sounds like a great Christmas story, right?

And yet it’s all true. This is who God is. He’s definitely not who modern screen-writers would use as a model for heroism.

Or a savior.

So on this day, no matter what you believe or don’t believe, no matter how tall or short you are, whether your hair is curly or straight, no matter your ethnic and socioeconomic background, wherever you call home tonight – I just want to wish you peace and joy. If you find they exist in your corner of the world tonight it’s because those are the gifts He came to bring. I hope they last you all year long. Merry Christmas.

Chapter Fifty One – Matthew 16: An Eternal Perspective

cross_cradle1

CHORUS: Rejoice, o world, your Savior has come
Through the love of a virgin’s womb
Son of God, Son of man, born that we may have life
You were born that we may have life

Verse 2: A throne in a manger, the cross in a cradle
The hidden revealing this glorious plan
Of a Child who would suffer, a Child who would conquer
The sin of every woman, the sin of every man

REPEAT CHORUS – Chris Tomlin, Born That We May Have Life, from the 2009 album “Glory in the Highest: Christmas Songs of Worship”

 You know, of all the disciples, I tend to identify the most with the one Jesus called Peter. His real name is Simon and he’s a former fisherman turned follower of the Christ. He has a brother, Andrew, who also used to fish but who also one of the original twelve. Peter’s life can be a roller coaster: up one minute (like when he declares Jesus to be the Messiah and the Son of God) and lows (like we’re about to examine in this chapter).

Peter must have been feeling pretty good after his pronouncement because he received high praise from Jesus, who said He would build His church through this disciple’s life. What a great honor. From lowly, stinky fisherman to founder of the eternal family of God. Wow. No one else was ever going to get this distinction in human history. If I had been Peter, my pride would be soaring sky high.

And then comes the (seemingly) inevitable crash back down to earth. Peter sticks his foot in his mouth big time. First he is praised by Jesus and now he is being disciplined; chastised even. In front of everybody. How humiliating. What exactly happened?

After Peter says out-loud that he believes Jesus in the Son of the one true God, this same Jesus begins a peculiar habit of predicting that bad things are going to happen to Him. Specifically, that during an upcoming trip to Jerusalem, He would suffer horrible treatment and be killed by the religious elite I know the Pharisees and their gang aren’t exactly Team Jesus, but to actually kill Him? Paranoid much? What a “downer” of a message. Who wants to hear that? And not just once, but over and over? Why don’t we get back to the nice, tidy parables and healing people and just move on from all this doom and gloom?

I’m sure it became disconcerting to the disciples. I mean, no one wants to see their leader and friend exterminated. So Peter speaks up, trying to protect Jesus and cheer Him up. This famous disciple says such a thing should never happen to the Son of God! He even uses the expression, “Heaven forbid!”

So what is the problem with this?

In His wilderness temptations, Satan had told Jesus that He could achieve greatness without dying (4:9), but the problem is that Jesus was born to die. It’s literally the reason He came to earth and took on flesh. You see, without His death to pay for our sins, all of mankind is lost; eternally separated from God. It’s something that happened shortly after creation. Pastor Max Lucado writes something to the effect that as the apple core was hitting the ground in the Garden of Eden, Jesus was in heaven making preparations for His time on earth. You see, only the perfect man can pay the price for all of human-kind’s imperfection. Jesus was telling His disciples part of THE PLAN and they were having none of it. That’s why Jesus responds the way He does to Peter. He calls him Satan and tells him to basically get out of His way.

He tells Peter his perspective is not an eternal one, and that’s the only one that counts in this scenario. It must have felt like a slap in the face to the disciple. His good intentions were, in fact, paving the way to hell.

You see, the eternal perspective always needs to take precedence. So when Jesus shares that perspective with His disciples, or with us, we need to pay close attention to it no matter what it looks like.  Even if it seems downright painful, unpleasant, undesirable, and ugly. In the light of eternity, it’s our saving grace. Unlike Peter, we need to be willing to travel that road and not try to slide off the path.

If you are already a follower, you know that sometimes life gets downright awful and miserable at times. It’s not always fun. It’s not always pretty. It can feel like hell. But we need to remember the bigger picture which, in all honesty, we may not see at the moment.  Hang in there. I say this for myself as much as for anybody who’s read this far because in the moment, I tend to focus on all the pain and unpleasantness. And like Peter, all I want to do is escape and get back to happier times.

If you’re not a follower, that’s ok. You can change your mind on that at any moment. I just wouldn’t advise waiting very long because life is a funny thing: we never know when it’s about to run out. Sometimes it ends quite unexpectedly and unforeseeably. If you ever do decide this Jesus guy is pretty interesting and maybe worth living like, just be forewarned it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. Chances are, it may be quite dark. The only good news is that even if it is you now don’t go through any of it alone. Jesus is right there – for all the good and for all the bad. We can turn to Him at any time and give our grief to Him. He promises to carry the load with us. If that sounds like something you want to do, message me in the comments or send me an email at bluferret@yahoo.com.  It would be my honor to share with you exactly how to ask Jesus to walk with you.

This is a great time of year for it. In fact, He’s the reason for the season. Go back and read chapters 1-3 of this blog. While Jesus wasn’t born in the month we came to know as December, we do celebrate His birth. The really cool thing about this God is that He took on flesh and lived among us for several decades. He literally was born so that we may have life. The pastor I mentioned earlier, Max Lucado, wrote an entire book about it and it’s very neat to read. It’s called God Came Near and you can find it on Amazon or wherever you buy your books.

Anyway, message me if you want. Say Hi. Let me know what’s up in your life. I’d like to know. After all, if you read this blog at all you hear about me enough. I’d like to hear about you. And while we’re at it – share your eternal perspective. A perspective you can only have with Jesus because He’s the only one that gives it. Merry Christmas.

 

Chapter Fifty – Matthew 16: The Ultimate Question

glowing???

The storm’s approaching / I’m standing high and dry / Firmly planted on the Rock that is higher than I…I am on the Rock, the sure foundation…I am on the Rock, His revelation / I am on the Rock, though the winds may blow and though the floods may grow I shall not be moved – Petra, I Am On the Rock, from the 1990 album “Beyond Belief”

One of the major questions that floats among the stories of the gospel accounts demands to know who Jesus is. It stands to reason that if you can answer that question, you can explain how He is able to do the things He does. It’s a question that still echoes through the corridors of time to today. It ranks up there with other existential inquiries such as “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” I would argue, though, that to answer who this Jesus character is aids in answering all the other questions.

So far, Jesus has been telling people in Matthew’s gospel account to keep His identity a secret and not tell others about the conclusions they have reached. Why? Psychologists have speculated that the best way to get people talking about something it to insist that they don’t talk about it at all. Maybe that’s the angle Jesus is taking here. Maybe it’s something else. I don’t know. In any event, at this point in chapter sixteen, Jesus raises the question Himself and asks His disciples what they’ve heard others saying about Him (v. 13).

The disciples answer with the great names of prophets from ages past: John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah. Someone like that. One thing is for certain: Jesus isn’t fishing for compliments here. He has a definite agenda to asking this question based on the question He asks next.

“But who do you say I am?” (v. 15).

There it is. That’s the heart of the conversation. That’s what He really wants to know. It’s not that He isn’t aware of what others are saying about Him. He already knows what others think. He is deliberately confronting His own disciples and probing them for their take on His identity. It’s almost like He’s saying, “That’s nice they think I’m Elijah or Jeremiah but who do you say I am?”

That’s the question He asks of all of us sooner or later, and our response determines our destiny in the next life. There are only a handful of possibilities for an answer. Theologian C.S. Lewis stated we can only reach one of four conclusions and they all start with the letter “L”.

  • He is a Legend – He never really existed. He’s a mythological figure like Zeus or Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. One would have to ignore historically verified documents that state otherwise to hold this position.
  • He is a Liar – He allowed Himself to be called the Son of God and claimed equal footing with God knowing He was full of crap and none of it was true.
  • He is a Lunatic – He allowed Himself to be called the Son of God and claimed equal footing with God, when He wasn’t, but was delusional enough to believe it was true which makes Him crazy.
  • He is Lord – He allowed Himself to be called the Son of God and claimed equal footing with God because it’s all true.

The apostle Peter, perhaps my most favorite disciple because I completely identify with the roller coaster that His life represents during His time with Jesus, blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). As a result, Jesus calls Peter blessed because God had revealed that information to him. Then He goes on to say that He will establish His church upon this rock (petra – a play on the name of Peter). It’s a sign that at least the early church will be built on a firm foundation (Himself, the Christ).

At this time of the year, in part where we claim He is the reason for the season, who do you say He is? Upon what are you building your life? My late maternal grandfather used to “witness” to friends by saying, “If I’m wrong about Jesus, there’s nothing to worry about. But, if I’m right, Jesus makes all the difference”.  It’s not just about what’s beyond the grave, if anything, but also about the here and now. I would assert there is nothing better than starting a new year with a new direction in life. It’s easier than dieting and promising to exercise more. Like Peter, it’s simply determining the answer to a question Jesus is still asking, “Who am I?”

Chapter Forty Nine – Matthew 16: Beware the Yeast

yeast

Time is no friend to the ones who wait
For daylight to come
Time looks the same at the ones who hate
And the ones that do nothing

  • Derek Webb, Black Eye, from the 2009 album “Stockholm Syndrome”

Jesus is alone on the other side of the lake with the disciples after His latest encounter with the Pharisees and religious leaders, when Matthew records that the disciples were concerned they hadn’t brought any bread with them. Then Jesus makes a very strange statement: “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (v. 6). What the what?

Even the disciples are confused and Jesus patiently explains He is not talking about bread bread. He even uses the examples of feeding the 5,000 and feeding the 4,000 to underscore their physical needs in the form of bread can easily be met at any time. Somehow, they come to understand “that he wasn’t speaking about the yeast in bread, but about the deceptive teaching” (v. 12) of the religious elite.

Jesus uses yeast, the main ingredient in helping bread to rise, “as an example of how a small amount of evil can affect a large group of people. The wrong teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees were leading many people astray” (Study Bible, p. 1576). And the same thing is happening today across America.

Current religious leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr., Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Franklin Graham and others have sold their soul in support of our immoral President and his administration, while mega-church preachers like Joel Osteen proclaim a gospel of prosperity that somehow manages to only make them rich (as if being materially rich is our main spiritual goal in life). Both groups are seriously wrong and teaching incorrect doctrine. But as bad as these men are for the spiritual health and reputation of the church, the church itself refuses to call these people out on their bullshit. The church stands by and does nothing to rebuke them but instead continues to embrace their ideology which makes it fully complicit in the evil being spread. As a result, the message of the Christ suffers and is rendered ineffective in the world.

So what can be done? We can support leaders both in the church and in politics who LIVE the attributes of Jesus. People who support social justice. People who welcome refugees. People who strive to unify rather than divide. People who are concerned about lifting the poor up instead of stepping on them. People who seek to serve the least of these  – the homeless, the food insecure, the forgotten – on a DAILY basis rather than a once a month cause at best. People who put their time and money into the cause of “others” rather than themselves. People who stand against immorality and call falsehood by its name. People who are truly “pro-life” for ALL people, not just the unborn. Get the idea? In other words, people who are Christian in their ideology AND the way they live, not in name only. Because that is what is happening now – and a lost world recognizes it and wants nothing to do with us.

Remember, Jesus said you can tell a tree by the kind of fruit it bears (Matthew 7:15-20). You can tell what kind of people they are by their actions. It’s not hard. This is a crisis that is completely solvable but it is up to us, the members of the church to stand up and speak out, since so many leaders are compromised.  Right now, as Jesus warned, the yeast is ruining the bread. Like the song lyrics above state, time is not the friend of those of us who choose to wait out the problem in hopes that it will resolve itself. We must demand better of our leaders. We must hold them accountable. It’s not just the future of the church at stake. It’s also the eternity of millions of people who need to see truth and grace lived out, not just spoken about from ivory towers.

Beware the yeast of the religious leaders of our day. Don’t just listening to what they say, carefully examine the way they live their lives. They are more concerned today with power and wealth than with actually living out the attributes of Christ to a lost world. Remember, Jesus reached out to the marginalized. He lifted up the broken. He blessed those who welcomed the stranger. If America were truly a Christian nation – we wouldn’t have hungry children because we would honor life by making sure they were adequately fed instead of cutting government assistance for them. If America were truly a Christian nation – we wouldn’t be over-run by rape culture or domestic violence. We wouldn’t have an opioid epidemic on our hands. We wouldn’t need a Black Lives Matter movement or a March For Our Lives movement. We wouldn’t have Nazis marching in our streets.

But America is not a Christian nation because it is not led by Christians. Those men listed above? They are Christians in name only. It’s time to rid ourselves of the yeast before it completely ruins us.

Chapter Forty Eight – Matthew 16: A Cold Heart

cold heart

Don’t let your heart be hardened / Don’t let your love grow cold / May it always stay so childlike / May it never grow too old – Petra, Don’t Let Your Heart Be Hardened, from the 1987 album “This Means War!”

The Pharisees and other religious leaders are at it again: demanding the Christ give them a sign to prove He is who He says He is. This time, however, they think they’ve outdone themselves. They demand a specific sign. One they think He can’t perform. A “sign from heaven” (v. 1). I don’t know exactly what they were looking for. Did they want the sun to turn black? Or for a star to fall from the sky? Did they want a plague of locusts to blanket the horizon? No one knows. It could have been anything. Maybe they purposefully left it open-ended just to bait Him into responding.

You see, the religious leaders of His day tried to “explain away Jesus’ other miracles as sleight of hand, coincidence, or use of evil power, but they believed only God could do a sign in the sky. This, they were sure, would be a feat beyond Jesus’ power” (Study Bible, p. 1575).  One thing is clear: Jesus was having none of it, as usual.

He never minces words, this Jesus fellow. He tells them they know how to interpret the weather but they have no clue how to read the sign of the times (v. 2-3). He calls them an “evil, adulterous generation” (v. 4) and tells them the only sign He will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah, who was in the belly of the great fish for three days. What? They probably had no clue how to interpret the last part of this comment. What was He trying to say?

This is the second time Jesus has told them He would only give them this sign (see 12:38-42), and He was referring to His death and resurrection when he said it. It’s a prediction. And surely there is no greater way to prove you are God than to die and bring yourself back to life. Right?

But the Pharisees and the religious leaders missed it because they had cold hearts. Here Jesus is willing to give them a sign greater than the one they are asking for, and they didn’t get it. Oh, He could have done as they wanted. So why didn’t He? Why be cryptic with them? Most biblical scholars believe that Jesus didn’t perform on command because He knew they still wouldn’t believe in Him anyway; that they had already made up their minds that He was NOT God so it wouldn’t have done any good to give them what they wanted. “He knew that even a miracle in the sky would not convince them he was the Messiah” (Study Bible, p. 1575).

And all of that just goes to show how gracious God really is. Sure, He could have forced them to believe in Him, but that’s just not His style. I sure would have been tempted to take this route. Not Jesus. He never forces Himself on people. Is it possible to do something miraculous in the heavens? Of course. But when hearts are hard, He doesn’t demand they soften to Him. Which is why we, as believers, shouldn’t force Jesus on others either. Instead, go above and beyond their expectations in how we live our lives. Give them more than they ask for, just like Jesus did with the Pharisees.

There are some people today who say they would believe if they only saw a miracle, just like the religious leaders of His day. But Jesus knows miracles don’t convince the skeptical. The disciple John would record in his gospel that Jesus would say people are blessed when they believe without seeing proof (20:29). Which begs the question: which are you?

Are you the kind of person waiting around for a miracle to happen before you commit? “Do you doubt Christ because you haven’t seen a miracle? Do you expect God to prove himself to you personally before you believe?…We have miracles recorded in the Old and New Testaments, 2,000 years of church history, and the witness of thousands. With all this evidence, those who won’t believe are either too proud or too stubborn” (Study Bible, p. 1576). There’s a great series of books by a man named Josh McDowell called Evidence Which Demands a Verdict. Each volume lays out the direct evidence for believing in Scripture in a simple, methodical way. They lay to rest the doubts and questions that many people have today when it comes to Christianity.

But don’t take my word for it. Investigate for yourself: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_9?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=evidence+that+demands+a+verdict&sprefix=Evidence+%2Cstripbooks%2C186&crid=3HKRN63BQUH72

Or maybe you know someone who would benefit from reading this book. It would make a great holiday present. Either way, the choice is yours. Investigate or don’t. Jesus will still be Jesus no matter who believes in Him and who doesn’t. And we have the benefit of being on this side of the sign of Jonah. The grave is empty. The rest is history. Remain childlike. Don’t be like the religious leaders. Don’t let your heart grow cold.