March 27th, 2013: The Thirty-Seventh Day of Lent

March 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

“…For he taught with real authority—quite unlike their teachers of religious law.”

~Matthew 7.29~

Here, the gospel writer tells us why Christ’s teaching amazed the audience so much – because of the authority that Christ taught with. Every teacher of the Law based their teaching on some kind of authority, whether that was another teacher or the Law itself. However, Christ’s authority comes from someplace entirely different – the authority given to him to judge, as we saw in vs. 21-23.

Craig Keener, in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, said the following regarding the crowd and Christ’s authority: “What amazed them so much about Jesus’ teaching was not his use of proverbs, parables, hyperboles, and other standard pedagogic devices of his day; what astonished them was his claim to authority…With greater authority than the scribes who expound the law, greater authority than Moses who gave it, the authority indeed of the one who will judge humanity on the final day, Jesus declares God’s word, and the people recognize that he speaks with authority unlike their other teachers.” (Matthew, pgs. 256-7)

The audience knew that this was not “business as usual.” Not just another sermon or homily – this was something completely different. Christ presented the Kingdom of Heaven in a nutshell for all who would listen, not some expansion on an ancient code of law. This teaching occupied a different plane of significance, and his audience knew it.

This verse should challenge those who see the Bible and Christ’s teaching as just another set of good rules to live by. What we find in the Bible surpasses what we read in self-improvement books or works of pop psychology. Some of those may have benefit, but here, in God’s Word, we find words that lead to the Kingdom of Heaven – words that lead to eternal life.

Lord Christ, I confess that I have devalued your teaching and placed it on a level with other works that claim to make life better. However, your words do more – your words lead to eternal life. Please don’t let me get stuck stuffing my mind with half-truths that don’t matter in the long run, but help me to remain focused on you. Amen. 

March 26th, 2013: The Thirty-Sixth Day of Lent

March 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

“When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching,”

~Matthew 7.28~

Here, the gospel writer tells us that Jesus has concluded his teaching. By our contemporary standards, this is a rough close. There’s no nice conclusion, no feel-good anecdote, no ending prayer… Just a warning of judgment and a call to hear and obey. Can you imagine this kind of ending to a sermon today? The crowd would start squirming in the pew right around the beginning of the teaching on judgment (if not long before), waiting for some feel-good antidote to the harsh message. Instead, they get a brief parable, after which the preacher abruptly walks off the stage. The audience sits in stunned, awkward, uncomfortable silence as the heavy moment lingers.

Christ’s audience likely felt the same way. These people knew the Law – Jewish upbringing included extensive training in the Torah. They would have been familiar with teaching scenarios. Some of them may have been experts on the Law themselves. Yet, Christ’s teaching awed those who heard it.

Tomorrow, we’ll read about why Christ’s teaching awed the audience. Today, let’s think about our own reaction to Christ’s words. When we hear the Bible read in church, when we read it for ourselves, when we meditate on it, are we struck with awe? Or do we find it to be so familiar and “biblical” that it’s lost its punch?

Lord Christ, I confess that I have allowed your words to become old and stale. From this moment on, please help me to see your eternal truths with new and fresh eyes. May your Word challenge, refresh, and awe your people. Amen. 

March 25th, 2013: The Thirty-Fifth Day of Lent

March 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

“When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.’”

~Matthew 7.27~

Christ’s final words in the Sermon on the Mount again make use of storm imagery – torrential rains, unstoppable floods, and destructive winds. The fate of a house built by a foolish person can be easily guessed – it cannot withstand the forces of nature. In this parable, we can interpret this to mean that if one builds a life upon a foundation other than the teaching of Christ, then the integrity (structural in the parable, spiritual in our interpretation) of that person’s life will collapse when the unexpected storm of Judgment Day arrives.

Remember the people who will cry Christ’s name and recite all their great and mighty deeds before Jesus in vs. 21-23? They represent people who built their houses on sand. Another scary thought – such great and mighty deeds as exorcisms, miracles, and prophecies can be built on shoddy, unstable, worthless ground. Christ points to hearing and doing his teaching as the way to enter his Kingdom. No other way will do.

Speaking of judgment always makes us uncomfortable; it should. We should never allow the idea of the fate of our eternal souls before Almighty God to become a warm, fuzzy, impotent thought. However, we can have assurance of salvation, and Christ wants us to have this. This is the reason for this final parable; as much as it speaks of judgment, it also speaks of stability. This is akin to a college professor telling you precisely what will be on the final exam; and not only that, but giving you the best way to study. Armed with this knowledge, you still can fail; but by applying the knowledge, you can rest assured of your place within Christ’s eternal Kingdom.

It’s always helpful to look at the “bookends” of a passage of Scripture, for they shed light on the material in the middle. The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes, which show us the realities of the Kingdom of Heaven; after hearing of these realities, we look for them throughout the teaching that follows. Now, this final parable shows us that hearing and obeying Christ’s teaching places us within his Kingdom. Well, where do we begin to look for such teaching? The best place to start is the teaching that immediately precedes this parable – the Sermon on the Mount.

This ends Christ’s teaching. We still will look at a couple of verses that speak to the response of the audience, but this parable is the last thing that Christ says in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a fitting end – the teaching of the Master culminating with a strong call to hear and obey.

Lord Christ, thank you for your teaching which shows the way to eternal life. Thank you for the realities of your Kingdom, which we can seek even now. Thank you for your love which is willing to challenge us out of our complacency, uncomfortable as it is. Amen. 

 

March 24th, 2013: The Sixth Sunday of Lent

March 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 

On Sundays, this blog will take a “break” from the normal pattern of Scripture and reflection. This year, our Sunday focus will be the Jesus Prayer. I’d encourage you to consciously pray this prayer on Sundays, as often as you feel the need. In this space each week, we’ll discuss a different truth that the prayer teaches us. In previous weeks, we’ve discussed this prayer in light of the its different elements. We’ve looked at what it means to address Christ as “Lord” and as the “Son of God.”

We’ve discussed the request for mercy and our own status as sinners. When we tie this all together, we find a prayer that elevates Christ to his proper position in glory while recognizing our own broken existence. The prayer also challenges us to ask Christ for help with the full belief that he can and will come to our aid. This prayer brings us into line with God’s will to redeem his creation, and unites us with all who pray accordingly. Not bad for twelve words!

The Orthodox tradition believes that repetition of this prayer helps to seal it into one’s identity and living. Several exercises and tools  have been developed to help one meditate upon this prayer, such as prayer ropes, breathing exercises, and emphasizing different sections of the prayer for each repetition. As one employs these practices, the prayer becomes a greater part of his or her being and helps open doors to a changed life.

Many aids have been employed by those praying this prayer: Orthodox prayer ropes, breathing exercises, and emphasizing different words for each repetition, to name a few. Some may feel uncomfortable with some of these things, but that should not stop them from seeking out ways to combat distraction within times of prayer. Many find journals and controlled environments to be helpful, as well as dedicated times of day. However you pray, it’s always good to be intentional – with both how you pray and what you pray. The Jesus prayer is a wonderful “what to pray.” As we enter Holy Week, let’s think intentionally about “how to pray.”

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 

 

March 23rd, 2013: The Thirty-Fourth Day of Lent

March 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

“But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand.”

~Matthew 7.26~

Christ now covers the other alternative. What is it like to hear teaching and not obey it? It’s like someone who attempts to build a house without a foundation. The ridiculousness of such a thought would have been immediately apparent to Christ’s followers, and remains obvious to us today.

One thing to note here is that Christ separates hearing and obedience. Knowing about foundations doesn’t do much good if they don’t get built. Christ says the same thing about his teaching; knowing what he preaches isn’t worth anything if his teaching is not obeyed.

This verse strikes close to home. We often devote much time to “hearing.” We read the Bible, pray, attend worship services, hear sermons, attend Bible studies, and read blogs. These are all good things, but they all fall in the “hearing” category. It remains up to us, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to put wheels on what we are learning so that we can obey.

No mistake about it, practical application of Christ’s teaching can be quite difficult. Yet, if we do not obey Christ, we live in foolishness. None of us would willingly and purposefully build a house on unstable ground, but we somehow find ways to ignore or minimize Christ’s hard teachings for us. Unstable ground; foolishness.

Now is a good time for us to consider the ways in which we hear but fail to obey. What have we heard that we chose to forget? To ignore? What have we heard that we have hesitated on? How is that “still, small” voice speaking to us now?

Lord Christ, I confess that I hear and I don’t obey. Please convict me of my lack of willingness to obey, and give me the grace to follow wherever you lead. Amen. 

March 22nd, 2013: The Thirty-Third Day of Lent

March 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

“Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock.”

~Matthew 7.25~

Christ continues his teaching imagery. Many in Christ’s audience had experience with the rainy season and the potential disasters that it brought, so this picture would have been one that made a good deal of sense to his audience. One can picture many people in the audience nodding in agreement with Christ’s words. Yesterday, we discussed Christ’s teaching being the solid bedrock, the firm foundation upon which we should build our Christian life. Hearing and doing God’s will through Christ’s teaching has a big part to play in this. But how do we interpret the rain, floodwaters, and winds – the storm?

Many of us have probably heard the storm in this parable equated with the “storms of life.” Troubles, tough times, situations that challenge our faith usually get referenced here. However, when considering the context, this interpretation may fall short of Christ’s meaning. Seeing as the previous teaching section referenced the Day of Judgment, this parable may refer not just a storm or storms, but the storm – the storm of Judgment Day itself.

When seen this way, the parable takes on greater weight and falls into line with its immediate context. True, everyone will weather storms that life brings from time to time; and, yes, Christ’s teaching will provide firm support and guidance in those situations. However, everyone will also experience this final storm of Christ’s judgment; here, only the firm foundation of hearing and doing Christ’s teaching will allow one to weather the blast and enter Christ’s Kingdom.

This series of teachings also challenges what we think about Christ. It’s common in our time to soften Christ’s message, often with the best of intentions. We want to make it seem more appealing and inclusive, less condemning. The idea here is that if we take the hard edges off of Christ’s words, then more people will want to embrace him. Unfortunately, it’s not up to us to make such decisions. We cannot get by with saying that there are many ways to eternal life, or that Christ is a lenient judge who pats us on the back when we do well and winks at our sin when we fail. We cannot believe that Christ does not have the authority and power to decide who is a citizen in his Kingdom and who is not. His own words do not let us soften the message.

For us to “buy in” to the message being preached here, we must believe that Christ provides us with the way to enter his Kingdom; we must also believe that Christ has the authority and power to judge whether we have heard and done his teachings properly, or if we were just playing the game for our own sakes. He wants us to be on solid ground, which is why he’s telling us things that are hard to hear. We need to hear them.

Lord Christ, thank you for your teachings that challenge me. Help me to build on solid ground – by hearing and doing your words, for nothing else will do. Amen. 

March 21st, 2013: The Thirty-Second Day of Lent

March 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

 “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock.”

~Matthew 7.24~

After speaking about the coming judgment, Christ turns to the topic of teaching – specifically, his own teaching. We have already seen that his teaching accurately shows us the will of God the Father. Since Christ knows those who do the will of the Father, we must pay careful mind to not only know, but to carry out Christ’s teaching.

With this in mind, Christ employs some imagery here to help us understand. Dry locations within the nation of Israel would experience flash floods during the rainy season. Homes needed to be anchored to bedrock in order to avoid being swept away. Christ employs a bit of construction common sense to get his point across; building one’s home on anything other than solid ground would have been seen as folly.

How do we start building on bedrock? We listen to Christ’s teaching. Listening here means more than simply hearing words; it means to integrate the learning into one’s being. Christ mentions following as a point of emphasis; his language is similar to our phrase, “Listen and listen good!” or, “Do this and do it right!” It may sound redundant to some, but it brings the point home: simply knowing the information isn’t enough. One must live out what they know.

This opens up a parable that we’ve probably heard before: the contrast between building one’s house upon solid ground and upon sand. However, with our study of the Sermon on the Mount, we have the ability to see this within context. This parable closes up a section of teaching that covers the realities of the Kingdom of Heaven; it also immediately follows on the heels of a rather frightening teaching on judgment. With these things in mind, perhaps we will be able to see this teaching with fresh eyes.

Today, let’s contemplate “solid ground.” Hearing and doing Christ’s teaching is wise; it’s a hallmark of being a citizen of God’s Kingdom. What is the solid ground present in your life now? What areas need to be built on solid ground?

Lord Christ, thank you for your teaching that prepares us to be judged in your eyes alone. Help me to not only hear, but also to do what you teach. Amen. 

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