Matthew 3

Repent. The first word of the gospel.

The commentary made a good point that it sort of is and isn’t a pre-condition to faith.

Saying “leave Australia and go to Europe” is effectively no different from saying “go to Europe” because you can’t without leaving Australia. Ditto repentance is simply in the nature of truly coming to God.

John the Baptist is a populist prophet type, consciously styled on Elijah. He attracted a lot of attention. He sets up a clash very familiar from the OT prophets in which the powers-that-be are condemned.

So there are false sons and the true son. The Pharisees and Sadducees – theologians and priests stumble on the first word of the gospel because they believe they are sons of Abraham. Repentance is for people outside the religion.

John tells them in fiery terms that their claim to the covenant of Abraham guarantees them nothing.

Jesus, son of God, asks for John’s baptism of repentance. He doesn’t need it.

He doesn’t need to be on earth in human flesh, he doesn’t need to die for his own sin.

But he is here and he will be crucified and the spirit is with him and the father is pleased, because God is love.

I could be the baddies here. I read this and I’m pretty numb really. It’s been there since my earliest memories, I work with this stuff every day.

We’re never too good, too old, too “in” for repentance.

Matthew 2

The familiar events directly after Jesus’ birth. Wise men, slaughter of innocents, flight to Egypt, settling in Nazareth. Each event methodically linked to a prophesy it fulfills. Piling up an overwhelming case that Jesus is Messiah.

The interplay of agency and prophesy reminded me of exodus, where Pharaoh’s refusal to let the people go virtually alternates between “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” and”Pharaoh hardened his heart”.

The very strange visit of wise men happened in order to fulfill the prophesy, but Herod’s unspeakably cruel slaughter of the innocents was simply prophesied. Herod owns it.

The plot mechanics are very visible, but in this story Deus ex machina is literal. For me the Egypt loop has always been a tipping point. I mentioned yesterday the absence of an exodus pillar in the genealogy. How could I forget! There’s just so much in here. Like a checklist.

But Jesus’ birth is a messy disaster too. On the run, born into oppression and the worst political persecution, refugees, having to live in the boondocks. And kings of the Orient, with expensive gifts.

Like yesterday, where the royal bloodlines were blurred by grace, the promises of the conquering Messiah are undercut with humility and marginalisation.

I’m exhausted, yet stable, as I read this. We’ve had a recovering child on crutches and a big party to stage. I’ve been forgetting to enjoy life, succumbing to stress and unconfidence. Some great things have been happening this year.

God works with mess, just be trusting and obedient. Commit. Wholehearted.

Matthew 1

T’was grace that bought us safe thus far…

I’m having a break from reading Ezekiel to read a bit of Matthew. The first time I have ventured into the new testament for years.

Chapter one, first chapter of the new testament. What a moment!!! Sound the trumpets, prepare the feast. The story is not over, its coming to it’s climax! Yes?

Well it is, but the transition is not as dramatic as that, in fact quite the opposite, it’s much more about establishing continuity with the old testament.

I mean, way to start with a genealogy! We’ve already had so many. I’ve found it boring in the past, but after so much reading of the OT I actually found it comforting and rich. So much more so would the original jewish readers.

3 times 14 generations between the pillars of the narrative thus far: Abraham to David, David to exile, exile to Messiah. The only thing I’m missing is a link to exodus… Maybe that will come later.

I remember in genesis saying how the narrative of god’s intervention was the slenderest thread running though so much compromise, murk and cruelty.

Yes! It’s not a story of glorious bloodlines, it’s a story of grace.

You can’t help but notice a few women singled out in the chain of father to father. And what a crew.

Tamah, widowed, rejected and forgotten, had to pose as a prostitute to have a son with her own faithless substitute husband.

Rahab, actually was a prostitute, of Jericho. Chosen by faithful response, not race. That’s a tangential, ironic even, link to exodus!

Ruth, the Moabite, widow, the least likely but faithful responder to grace. Again contradicting a racial interpretation of the chosen people. The outsider, preparing all of us for acceptance into the family of Judah.

Bathsheba, not mentioned by name but singled out to remind us that the noblest part of Jesus’ line, David and Solomon, is mired in a nasty story murder, lust and sin.

So much seeming contradiction. The ultimate perhaps is that the chapter goes on to detail that the last link in the chain, Joseph, is not Jesus’ biological father, the holy spirit is.

The least, the rejected, the weak, the humble, outsiders, sinners, the failures of the powerful. These are God’s power players and power moves in saving the world.

An inheritance of promises and mercy. Of grace.

Saviour, if of Zion’s city
I, through grace, a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in thy Name:
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s children know.

Thank you!

Ezekiel 19

The theologically correct response to bad leadership.

It’s a lament, a song expressing sadness over the last Kings of Israel. I think it is part prophesy, as one king had not experienced the failure of his leadership yet.

The first two are compared to lion cubs that fall into traps, and the third to a fruitful vine that, ironically is burned to uselessness by a fire lit by a staff made of is own wood.

The change of metaphor signifies that the first two Kings, Jehoahaz and Jehoiachin were not of the line of David.

The lament calls them Princes of Judah, as opposed to the third, Zedekiah, who is described as of the vine from the glory days of David and Solomon, when the southern kingdom of Judah and Israel were one.

They are all Kings that I just wrote off as pathetic when I read Kings and Chronicles. But to the Israelites who lived though the cruel 3 month reign of Jehoahaz, he was the leader, he briefly represented hope. King is a role which parallels in many ways that of God.

Sadness, singing of how far things are from right. That is a good response to the failure of human leadership.

Anger can galvanise you to action… occasionally. But it must subside to indignation and outrage to be effective, because it only harms you in the long run to live in the grip of the emotion of anger. Surely.

Lament is the start of the process of pointing the frustrations of this wrongness back to God.

They hoped in these kings in some small way, or at very least were poignantly reminded of a time when they could trust in them.

I feel it strongest when narratives won’t be neat. When dumb decisions are made. When you can see the happy ending but it won’t just fall into place, whether it’s affecting you or others. The sadness of the fall.

Ezekiel 18

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In Adam all die, the doctrine of original sin means we’re all going to fall short of God’s glory.

It’s a kind of curse, and heresies based on this doctrine embellish the idea of the cursed generations. Bad seeds, bad blood, karma being revisited on the children of bad people.

Grace blows apart original sin. At any time we can throw ourselves on God and ask for the renewal of our hearts.

This chapter is about how we need to take responsibility for our own response to God… to Jesus, for us. We can’t use the idea of original sin to blame Adam for our evil, and certainly not some superstitious curse.

Here sin is exemplified by a list of practical life attitudes. Personal morality: not cheating, fair with money, obedience to the true God. And community building: sharing with the disadvantaged, not being oppressive. It’s written in a mixture of poetry and prose. It’s designed for teaching.

Our sin is our’s alone, our responsibility. But more significantly it’s a freedom. We can choose to turn to God, we can do it daily, we can do it with clarity:

Rid yourselves of all the offences you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!

No need to stay cursed.

Ezekiel 17

Ezekiel is, I’m starting to think the prophet with the most love. The visions don’t hide the horror befalling Israel, but the end point of God’s love winning in the end is repeated more, I think, than in other major prophets. Just a theory.

This prophesy is quite precise about Zedekiah’s reign. He was virtually the last, pathetic king of Judah. He was a puppet king of the Babylonians, but tried a power move of betraying them by relying on a deal with Egypt to protect against them. It was a dumb move that I think made the sacking of Jerusalem necessary.

These political moves are compared to Eagles carrying twigs of Cedar trees -Israel being the twigs. An uncertain propagation strategy compared to flourishing next to a sustaining River.

It ends with a vision of the kingdom of God which Jesus referred to, as a great flourishing tree, full of birds, providing shade and comfort.

At the end of all these alarming analogies of the last few chapters: the cedar twig carried off by Eagles, the prostitute, the dead vine; are promises of God’s salvation.

I’ve read a lot of dire prophesy, and many stories of death and destruction to get this far in the Bible. Maybe I’m just getting de-sensitised to it.

Maybe it was the hopelessness of Ezekiel’s audience, already political captives, learning of the situation at home worsening. There is a lot of grace here. Hope despite everything.

It’s what is so appealing about the Bible: yes there is a reason we have spiritual longings as well as fleshly desires There is a God. The one constant, and God is a God of love.

Jesus is love in human flesh. In a world of evil, against all odds, God’s kingdom is established.

Ezekiel 16

Love and despair.

This is a bitter attack in words that God has put in Ezekiel’s mouth. And we today are probably more deserving of it.

Also, as unsparing as it is, there is a depth of love in there.

Were doing a series of analogies to illustrate how God sees the Israelites.

This one is of a prostitute. God talks about the rescue of Israel from Egypt like saving a baby abandoned in a field, and the glory of Solomon and David as like giving the abandoned child all the advantages in life.

Then the serial rejection of God for the idols of Canaan as like becoming a prostitute.

The chapter ends though, with God promising his covenant to them anyway. Their punishment amounts to their deep humiliation when they accept God’s saving grace despite their actions. Gods love is extraordinary in the context of his awareness of human evil specifically directed towards him.

I thought, we have had more advantages lavished on us than David or Solomon ever did, and more of God’s truth revealed in Jesus than the ancient Israelites ever had, and yet we are just as faithless.

The Christians, those who aren’t completely corrupt, are like the remnant within Israel. The small group of those who ‘get it’.

Though to the extent we leave the world uninformed of God’s love by being weak and passionless, the humiliation of those who reject God surely passes somewhat to those who don’t effectively preach him.

It’s not without consequence, cheap grace, and God is saying it will be revisited on us as deep painful shame.

We are doing people a service if they at least know what we are telling them about God. Even if they reject it, they own their own rejection.

And God here seems to hold out some hope of them finding his love, even through the pain of facing their evil towards him.

Ezekiel 15

An analogy for how little use Israel is to God. Unlike a tree, a vine is no use for wood. The wood of a vine is all weak, thin and twisty. It is useless dead.

Vines have to be alive, producing, connected to the sources of life.

So with us.

Frail as summer’s flower we flourish,
Blows the wind and it is gone;
But while mortals rise and perish
God endures unchanging on

We can decouple from God and not notice the change straight away, like cut flowers.

I pray for those I know who want to decouple from God. Some are very close to me and I love them very much.

Ezekiel 14

I’ve taken ages to read this chapter! I’ve had a lot of ideas and projects in my head. Every time I start to read it, my mind flies off somewhere else.

It’s about God’s toughness, it’s about calling out what needs to be called out.

Israelite leaders have assimilated to life in Babylon. Then Ezekiel turns up with his year long art installation about the judgement of Jerusalem. Clearly it can’t be ignored, so they come to him to see what he has to say.

They get no word of Jerusalem or prophesy from the Lord other than the condemnation of their own hypocrisy and idolatry.

I read about Greta Thunberg, the 17 year old climate change activist who lead a protest outside the white house, but when invited to speak to the president refused, because she doesn’t speak to people who don’t accept the science.

That’s where Ezekiel is at here. And if he does prophesy to them, he’ll be complicit in their idolatry.

Then there is a lacerating image of the four judgements God is bringing on Jerusalem: sword, plague, wild beasts and famine.

Noah Daniel and Job would barely get out with their own life from any one of these, let alone save anyone else, let alone all four judgements at once.

Yet when Ezekiel and the others already in Babylon see the new exiles, the ones who do get out, they will understand. They will understand that God’s is in control.

I have a somewhat careering sense all of the plans and projects around. My family faces end of year stress. Years can be a marker of challenges and lack of progress, as much as opportunity. I have a to do list that feels well beyond me.

But things could be a lot, a lot worse and God could still be in control. I need to let the word of the Lord determine what first things will come first.

Ezekiel 13

These chapters are each a “word of the Lord” and end with “then you you know that I am Lord”, a phrase I associate with an almighty thud, like an anvil falling in a Warner brothers cartoon.

Today’s will be the exposure of false prophets, the ones who are selling comfort and peace.

Those are good things, unless they are works of the imagination that mislead people, give them false hope, are motivated by being invested in the power and wealth structures of the status quo, and lead people to act against their own best interests.

Climate change deniers come to mind, in the modern world.

In the church I suppose wishy washy theology comes to mind, people who know more than they let on about the love of Jesus, because of the gospel’s tendency to divide opinion. There are some prices too high for a positive vibe.

And I don’t say that easily, as someone who values it more than many.

A lot of the chapter is taken up with a wall metaphor. Very apt, considering they lived in a walled city under threat of siege.

God talks about the folly of whitewashing over weaknesses to gain false comfort, rather than acknowledging risk and danger, and actually making a strong wall.

As someone who has always lived in old houses in a termite prone area, I know all about walls that are held together just by paint. It’s amazing how plausible they can look, and how easily they crumble.

I got cathartic with my boss at work yesterday at our regular meeting, and it felt like such a good thing. I’m a conflict avoider, and he’s worse! He wasn’t going to raise it. But I jumped in at the end. We’ve been struggling, and the whitewash of smiley patter just hasn’t been cutting it.

I think we strengthened the wall, I hope so.