Archive | December 2021

May We Be Fertile Soil

Jesus spoke often in parables.  A parable is like a metaphor, fable or analogy that makes people think—that makes people draw the connection between the story and their life.

Matthew 13 records many of Jesus’ parables.  The first is a parable having to do with a sower, seeds and various kinds of soil.  In the parable, a farmer sows seeds, tossing them around rather indiscriminately.  Some seeds land on the path where they become easy pickings for the birds.  Other seeds fall on rocky ground.  William Barclay explains, “The stony ground was not ground filled with stones; it was what was common in Palestine, a thin skin of earth on top of an underlying shelf of limestone rock.  The earth might be only a very few inches deep before the rock was reached.  On such ground the seed would…germinate quickly, because the ground grew speedily warm with the heat of the sun.  But there was no depth of earth and when it sent down its roots in search of nourishment and moisture, it would meet only the rock, and would be starved to death, and quite unable to withstand the heat of the sun.”  Other seeds fall among thorns which choke the farmer’s grain when it begins to grow.  Yet other seeds fall in good soil, and they produce grain thirtyfold, sixtyfold, or even a hundredfold. 

This is a story that was intended to get the people thinking about the connection between the story and their lives.  But when the disciples have trouble figuring out the meaning of the parable, Jesus explains it to them.  Jesus tells them that the seed is the message of the kingdom of God, which Jesus is spreading quite indiscriminately throughout Judea.  Some people hear the message, but their hearts are not open to it, so it is easily snatched away from them before it penetrates into their soul.  Other people hear the message and get excited about it and start to grow, but the depth of their souls is shallow so the roots cannot go down very deep.  Therefore, as soon as troubles fall upon them, their faith withers and dies.  Other people hear the message, but they are deeply entangled in the cares of this life, worrying about their personal pleasures and popularity.  Their obsession with the things of this world chokes away their faith. But some people listen to the message of God’s kingdom with open and receptive hearts.  The message takes root in their hearts, and they produce a rich spiritual harvest. 

What is the point of this parable?  Why did Jesus tell it to the crowd that day?  Why is it in our Bibles for us to read?

The point of this parable is that how we respond to Jesus’ words matters greatly.  How we respond to Christ’s words determines whether our faith flourishes, and whether or not our lives produce any spiritual fruit. 

Jesus does not want his words to get plucked away from our hearts before they have a chance to change us.  He does not want us to receive his word joyfully for only a short time; he wants his words to establish roots in us so that our faith can last through the scorching conditions of life.  He does not want the cares of this world to choke away God’s work in us.  He wants us to bear spiritual fruit in our lives.

E. Schuyler English tells the story of a man in Long Island, New York, who bought an expensive barometer, but when he brought it home the arrow seemed to be stuck, pointing to the section marked “Hurricane.”  The man shook the barometer, but the indicator remained stuck on “Hurricane.”  He wrote a scorching letter to the store where he had purchased the barometer and dropped it in the mailbox on his way to work in New York City.  That evening, the man returned to Long Island to find that the barometer was missing…and so was his home.  By not heeding the message of the barometer, that man lost his house.  If we do not heed the words of Christ, we may lose our faith and/or any meaningful spiritual growth.

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The Kingdom of God has come near

Jesus began his public ministry with an announcement that initially thrilled the people of Judea but later frustrated them.  He proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!”

To a people who lived under the domination of an unwanted foreign army, and who lived on stories of David’s great conquests and Solomon’s wonderful kingdom, an announcement that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near brought to their hearts the prophets’ promise that God would restore the nation of Israel.  But during the course of Jesus’ ministry, excitement over Jesus bringing in such a kingdom began to deteriorate. 

Philip Yancey remarks, “Zealots stood at the edge of Jesus’ audience, armed and well-organized guerrillas spoiling for a fight against Rome, but to their consternation, the signal for revolt never came.  In time, Jesus’ pattern of behavior disappointed all who sought a leader in the traditional mold.  He tended to flee from, rather than cater to, large groups.  He insulted the memory of Israel’s glory days, comparing King Solomon to a common day lily.  The one time a crowd tried to crown him king by force, he mysteriously withdrew.  And when Peter finally did wield a sword on his behalf, Jesus healed the victim’s wounds. 

“To the crowds’ dismay, it became clear that Jesus was talking about a strangely different kind of kingdom.  The Jews wanted what people have always wanted from a visible kingdom: a chicken in every pot, full employment, a strong army to deter invaders.  Jesus announced a kingdom that meant denying yourself, taking up a cross, renouncing wealth, even loving your enemies.  As he elaborated, the crowd’s expectations crumbled….

“The word kingdom meant one thing to Jesus and quite another to the crowd.  Jesus was rejected, in large part, because he did not measure up to a national image of what a Messiah was supposed to look like.” (The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 241-242)

What did Jesus have in mind when he proclaimed that “the kingdom of God has come near”?

The Aramaic word for “kingdom,” malkut, refers not so much to a geographical area or to the people inhabiting such a realm as to the activity of the king himself.  “Kingdom” in Aramaic has more to do with the king’s exercise of sovereign power.

By declaring that “the kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus was declaring that the king had arrived in Palestine and that his rule and his ways were about to be revealed.  Jesus went about exerting his authority over evil and over the brokenness of this world, and he went about revealing his ways of grace and compassion and goodness.

Since Jesus came to assert his authority and his ways in this world, the word that followed the announcement of the arriving kingdom was naturally the command to repent, to turn from the way in which we had been going to the way in which the King is going.

William Barclay writes, “‘Repent!’ he said.  ‘Turn from your own ways, and turn to God….  Reverse your direction, and stop walking away from God and begin walking towards God.’  That command had become urgently necessary because the reign of God was about to begin.  Eternity had invaded time; God had invaded earth in Jesus Christ, and therefore it was of paramount importance that a person should choose the right side and the right direction.” (Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew, p. 76)

Wherever the king establishes his reign, his ways are to be followed.  If King Jesus has established his reign in our soul, we should repent of going our own way so as to follow his way of love, compassion, goodness and faith.

Love Begins with Being Loved

When Jesus came up from the water following His baptism Mark reports that heaven was opened and the Spirit of God descended like a dove, alighting on Him, and a voice from heaven declared, “You are My Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Visibly and audibly, God affirmed his affection and his love for his Son. 

He presented no condition, ‘I will love you if you complete this assignment well.’

He expressed no doubt, ‘Are you sure you’re ready for this?’

He voiced no hesitation, ‘Well, Son, you are about to get started on a crucial mission; I hope you can keep your focus.’

He exhibited no distraction, ‘Just a minute, Son, I’ve got to settle a storm and answer a few prayers, then I’ll get back to you.’

He gave no preemptive lecture, ‘Now let me remind you that you are human now as well as divine, and you will face many temptations.  Don’t cause me to be disappointed in you.’

What we find here is a clear and certain affirmation of the Father’s love for the Son, expressed visibly and audibly.

Before Jesus does anything that could be considered worthy of such a compliment—before he heals anyone, before he feeds the crowd, before he teaches anything, before he does anything to show God’s power or love—God declares that he is well pleased with Jesus.

The Father does not hold off on this compliment, waiting until Jesus at least makes it safely through 40 days of temptation.  The Father just blurts it out before Jesus does anything worthwhile—anything that I would declare deserving of a compliment.

The Father’s words of endearment are not contingent on any success or accomplishment on Jesus’ part.  The words of endearment are contingent on only one thing: the love that has existed for eternity within the Trinity.

Forever Jesus has lived within the love of the Father and the Spirit.  Forevermore Jesus will continue to live within the love of the Father and the Spirit.  It is out of this eternal love that the Father declares, “You are My Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  It is out of this eternal love that the Spirit alights upon Jesus in the form of a dove. 

The Christian message of the Trinity is not merely theological catechism but is the DNA of love: From before the creation of the dimension of time, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have lived in love.  Throughout eternity the Father enjoys the love of the Son and the Spirit; the Spirit enjoys the love of the Father and the Son; and the Son enjoys the love of the Father and the Spirit.  God lives in love, so God loves! 

No wonder the angels sang on the night of Jesus’ birth.  It was not just to impart good tidings to the earth; it was because the messengers of God could do no less than to express the Father’s delight at the arrival of his Son in human form!

No wonder, a decade later, Joseph and Mary found Jesus in the temple when he was ‘lost’ from their company.  The most natural thing for him to do was to seek the company of his Father in whom he delights.

No wonder Jesus often withdrew by himself to pray.  He was continually delighting in that connection with his Father and with the Spirit.

No wonder, at his baptism, the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended like a dove alighting on him, with a voice from heaven booming, “This is My Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.”

This audible and visible expressions of the Father’s and the Spirit’s love for the Son are the natural outflow of the love within the Trinity, and they set the tone for Jesus’ earthly ministry: He genuinely and deeply loved because he was genuinely and deeply loved.  Love flows out of being loved.  Being loved results in love.

Interestingly, though, the very next person to speak to Jesus gave to Him an entirely different message—a message filled with conditions with a nudge to Jesus to prove his worth.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke each report that immediately after Jesus’ baptism—and the Father’s affirmation of love for the Son—Jesus went into the desert where he was tempted by the devil. 

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”  In other words, the devil said to him, ‘If you want to be considered worthy of affirmation and love, prove your identity; accomplish something meaningful to show who you are.’

Then the devil took Jesus to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple, and he said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.  For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”  In other words, the devil said to him, ‘If you want to be considered worthy of affirmation and love, prove your trust in your Father.  Do something bold enough to show God that you trust him.’

Finally, the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, and he said to Jesus, “All this I will give you if you will bow down and worship me.”  In other words, the devil said to him, ‘If you want to be considered worthy of affirmation and love, you need sufficient acquisitions and power and prominence.’

The Father’s words to the Son were free of conditions, hesitation, doubt, distraction, or preemptive lectures.  The devil’s temptations are full of conditions.  They are full of doubts.  They call upon Jesus to prove himself. 

Such temptations often prove to be successful in our lives because we are not so well grounded in the Father’s love as the Son is.  We fall to the temptation to try to prove our worth or our identity or even our faith.  We cave into the temptation to try to show that we have made sufficient accomplishments or that we have acquired enough possessions, power, or prominence.  We succumb to these temptations because we do not know as fully as Jesus did that we are loved fully and unconditionally by the Father. 

Because Jesus fully knew that he was fully loved, he withstood the temptations to prove himself.  Because Jesus fully knew that he was fully loved, he was able to live and love fully.