Matthew 11

#nofilter

Jesus is hard to understand because we have so many filters. That’s why children find it easier.

I think of this chapter as about the filters, and Jesus showing us how great love, grace and relationships are designed to be when the filters are stripped away.

Because God is relational. 3 in one. Here it’s like Jesus is constantly texting the father.

John the Baptist gets wind of Jesus’ ministry in prison. His disciples ask Jesus if he’s it, is there something else?

No hint of motives. Was John gently directing his disciples towards Jesus’? Was he disappointed? Was Jesus more low-key than he expected?

No hint either of whether John was satisfied by the answer. It makes no difference because Jesus knows what he is doing. He simply announces what has been described an extra beatitude:

Blessed are those who are not offended by me

John is the last and greatest prophet, but that way of knowing God is a filter. The commentary said it’s like the brightest night is still darker than the dullest day. With Jesus, a new day has come.

And Jesus let’s fly at those who try to build their own comprehension to suit themselves, on top of partial revelation. He calls it a violent raid on the kingdom of God.

When fuller revelation and understanding is freely available, religious practices and other theories of knowledge can perversely operate to obscure God.

I think.. it’s a tricky passage!

Jesus comments on the spin people put on him and John… That John was too hard and critical and Jesus is too lush and compromised by mixing with corrupt people. Watch this space, he says: “wisdom is proved right by its deeds”.

He gets really angry about the towns, including his home that saw lot of miracles but were indifferent.

That’s when he does a check-in with the father in prayer, and mollifies his anger by rejoicing at what a leveller god’s love is.

Some of the simplest people get it from the smallest hint, and some of the most sophisticated struggle to grasp it when it’s right under their noses. And that’s how God likes it to be. You’ve got to strip away the baggage and unlearn.

He talks about the open and filter-free relationship he has with the father. And then he invites us in.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

v 28-30

His anger with the indifferent towns is ultimately the frustration of compassion for them. The way of struggle and complexity, of reaching forward in the dark like the prophets, or following leaders who are as blind as you are, they are gone. We can come direct to Jesus. The “message” translation called it the unforced rhythms of grace.

There is work to be done, sure, but relatively Jesus’ work it’s like rest from the struggle of not knowing Jesus.

His claims are astonishing. If you want to regard him simply as a great teacher, he is preposterously arrogant. He claims to be gentle and lowly of heart, …and able to choose who will know God.

It only works if he is God. If so, yes, God is humble, gentle, inviting us in, freely sacrificing himself so we know simple, abundant love.

All kind of sad and wintry here. I applied for some jobs yesterday. Its all in God’s hands.

Zephaniah 2

God is not political.

The chapter is a list of peoples who I’ve never heard of outside biblical times, who Zephaniah prophesies will never be heard of again. Got that right.

There is an appeal to the humble within Jerusalem to gather, gather together and seek the Lord.

Zephaniah was Jeremiah’s teacher. Along with a female prophet, Huldah, they were very effective. Zephaniah was a descendant of Hezekiah, a former king and had the ear of Josiah, the last god-fearing king before Jerusalem fell. Josiah’s spiritual reforms, surely influenced by this trio, honoured the scriptures, threw out the idols and restored the temple and the Passover.

But it remained god’s plan for Jerusalem to fall at the hands of Babylon. God is not political.

This is a week where Trump managed to shock, quite a feat for someone so routinely appalling. During protests over police brutality that killed George Floyd, Trump had protests around a church violently cleared, so he could hold aloft a Bible in a photo op out the front of the church.

Early signs are that it may have backfired. He just may have finally split Christian evangelicals, a staggering 84% of whom voted him in. I was stuck by this quote from one Christian academic:

“Here’s a good rule of thumb, looking back through history, whenever you see someone in authority using the Bible to justify law and order, it ends badly.”

John Fea, professor of American history at Messiah College

While often co-opted to political agendas, God refuses to take sides. No nation has a monopoly on righteousness or evil. But the humble within them, the remnants, gather and seek the lord. And it makes all the difference, over and over again.

Hosea 6

A friend of mine who is a salvation army officer told me a story about preaching while dealing with her son discovering he was going blind. She described the experience as her own words sounding to her like “blah blah blah”.

This is a beautiful chapter.

By the way, it’s striking how much is prophesy is poetry. Very little prose. Advertising copy counts as poetry these days I suppose, but it’s not the go-to form for press conferences. Trump, funnily enough, talks in a poetic kind of way: not factually accurate, but full of resonance and emotional truth for his supporters. He is always a salesman. And God must always “sell” his message of love to us, because we have skeptical hearts.

First section is a picture and promise of god’s love. Short term, healing, restoring, reviving. Described as a three day process, that people have said parallels Easter.

Then living in god’s presence, compared to the sun rising and seasonal rains in winter and in spring.

Beautiful. Then a section on the emptiness of Israel. It is despairing. Their love for god is like morning mist or disappearing dew compared to the constancy of the seasons in the previous passages. They fall back into the prostitution of other god’s so fast.

That is why God must use the cutting words of the prophets. Priests are likened to bandits, lying in wait to trap travelers. Key verse:

I desire mercy, not sacrifice,

    and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.

V6

Which leads me back to my friend, who was sufficiently spooked by the experience of preaching her hollow sermon that she stepped back from teaching for a while.

The externals are meaningless if the inside is hollow. The pandemic is exhausting my brain. And I’m still a sinner, as it turns out. But God can forgive if I stay alive to the Spirit. Stay alive.

I pray about my response, focus. Don’t obsess on information to the extent that it overwhelms my mind. Stay in the moment with the Lord and with those around me.

And lord, keep the vulnerable safe.

Hosea 4

Aboriginal people at work were explaining totems to me. You don’t eat your totem. To my friend’s mob, kangaroos were sacred. So as well as being a complex tapestry of different languages and countries, this culture saw Australia as a tapestry of different animal sanctuaries.

That blew my mind a bit. It’s abundance thinking, recognising that, as long as you don’t get greedy, the regenerative machine of God’s creation will provide enough for all forever. A practical way of ensuring God’s will is done on earth as in heaven: God gave us all these animals. If you respect that gift enough to never kill all of any one kind, you’ll have them forever. And that is personally expressed through being bought up having an empathic affinity with a particular animal.

Today’s passage is about the corruption and greed of all Israel. God won’t allow them to point fingers at each other. You’re all equally bad, the passage says.

It explains God’s choice of prostitution to make the point, because the religious practises they had adopted in defiance of God’s revelation literally involved a lot of prostitution. Their spirituality and their economy was built on it. Sacred and secular, almost everyone complicit in this deep corruption of their society.

I say almost everyone, because the prophesy will not allow the double standard of victim blaming:

“I will not punish your daughters

    when they turn to prostitution,

nor your daughters-in-law

    when they commit adultery,

because the men themselves consort with harlots”

V14

Very clear that Hosea’s story was not about “slut shaming” Gomer, wife and prostitute, but exposing the exploitative patriarchy she was born into.

I thought: our society isn’t as bad as that. There is a lot of good. We aren’t as corrupt as Israel was. And I don’t know the answer. But I’ll tell you, greed is on the up and up.

Look at toilet paper. When the history of the 2020 pandemic is told, the ridiculous toilet paper crisis in Australia may be forgotten.

But you can’t find it anywhere. Most Australians seemingly decided that the way to stock up for the possibility of 2 weeks of quarantine was to buy about a years worth of toilet paper, so the shops are currently empty of it.

This is not abundance thinking, it’s selfish greed, admittedly fuelled by panic. But the toilet paper thing seems like a prophetic symbol worthy of the old testament in a world where inequality is dramatically rising, and political movements based on xenophobia keep winning elections.

God promises that the world does have enough for everybody, if we can just be less greedy. But still, greed is rampant.

And sexual exploitation is in this weird place. It’s more harshly condemned than ever in my lifetime, via #metoo and the demarginalising of all kinds of sexual preferences. But at the same time the internet swirls with unprecedented access to it. But I suppose no weirder than the contradiction of Hosea’s marriage. Plus ca change..

So our spiritual health is patchy perhaps, but not great, not at all.

Prophesy is about being God’s presence. WWJD. We’re good for toilet paper.

Hosea 1

I always love to read about the “Street theatre” symbolic signs that prophets are asked to do.

But of all of them, surely Hosea required the deepest commitment, being told to marry a prostitute, and give his children miserable names like “not loved” and “not my people”. A commentator speculated that his son “not my people” may have indeed not been his biological son, and perhaps the child bore no family resemblance.

His third child was named “Jezreel”, which I gather would be a bit like a Chinese person calling their child “Tiananmen Square”. Jezreel was the site of a massacre that established the ruling king Jeroboham II.

Hosea’s prophetic ministry was in the northern kingdom, Israel, after the “promised land” split into two nations. The northern kingdom was generally less faithful to God, and didn’t include Jerusalem, where the temple was.

The book covers a tumultuous period from peaceful prosperity to the conquering and exile of the nation.

As the book starts, and Hosea sets out to live this symbolic life, it would have seemed to the average inhabitant of Israel like nothing is wrong. The prosperity and stability of the Solomon years, pre split, are continuing.

But spiritually, the nation is corrupt at the core. Hosea is a canary in a coal mine. And his near term prophesy rapidly came to be, with the fall of about 7 kings in his lifetime, and then the nation as a whole.

Another feature of the prophesy book genre is what I’ve called the sugar, the promises of blessing after the hardship which are some of the most exultant passages in all scripture. This chapter rushes to it.

From oblivious shallow prosperity, to the shock lifestyle message of God’s judgement, to a promise of restoration. The promise echoes the covenant with Moses, that Israel and Judah will be united again as God’s people, of immeasurable number like the sands on the seashore.

In 11 verses.

Work is still awful, about to start the third week of my 3 week’s notice of being made redundant, which, rather than being paid up front, I am serving out.

If I work from home or if I go into the office, it’s equally depressing. I have a couple of tasks to do that I would usually find enjoyable. But I feel like life has trained me not to relax into work.

It’s as if you got a mouse and electrified their food, and their exercise wheel and their sleeping corner, so that every normal activity was negatively reinforced with jabs of pain. I wander restlessly wondering what to do.

I’m embarrassed how selfish I feel, but I also resent the morality that tells me not to feel sorry for myself. So as well as not knowing what to do, I don’t know what to think.

There’s that destructive urge, like after a hurtful romantic break up, that to move on is letting them win. But you know you will rapidly get to a place where no one in your life has patience with you nurturing your hurt any more.

Sigh.

There are some days, in my grand Bible reading method, where my mood and the message in the passage seen magnificently mismatched. No word of application is coming to me. But I do feel encouraged to pray.

Ezekiel 22

This is an early exile group in Babylon, and Ezekiel is a source of God-given news about Jerusalem. It’s all bad.

This chapter has a brutal picture of a corrupt society. The powerful are depicted as a savage bunch of wild animals that tear people and social order apart to satisfy their appetites.

The priesthood is painted as whitewashing the greed and self dealing of the powerful for the own advantage, with no care for the average people.

The test of a society is it’s treatment of the vulnerable: poor, needy and foreigners. Jerusalem’s are robbed, extorted and denied justice.

We have these things called lobbyists. Persuading the government who are supposed to represent us to instead serve the interests of the coal lobby, or the stock market. Inequality is tangibly rising in so many Western democracies. More and more people are locked out of home ownership. The picture of Jerusalem might be worse in some ways, but we have some pretty big ills.

There’s a messianic word at the end about someone who could stand in the gap between Jerusalem and God’s wrath.

So we get away with it? Now Jesus is here? What is the accountability? This question fuels my addiction to U.S. politics. How long, lord, how long?

Matthew 7

Swallow your pride. God’s will be done. Switch off your worry. That was the thrust of Jesus’ sermon so far.

Today’s third part of the sermon on the mount is full of warning and promise. It’s for those who have heard or started to hear, God’s truth.

Even if you only have an inkling, some fragment of it that excites your spiritual longing; ask, seek and knock until you find more. Be seeking and doing God’s will.

It will be much easier not to. Many don’t, most in fact. And since the first step is swallowing your pride, don’t expect them to admit it. You’ll encounter false prophets and false disciples.

You’ll need brilliant discernment. We are all sinners, only God can judge – work on your own sin rather than judging others for theirs.

But be aware and steer clear of the wolves in sheep’s clothing who are presenting as the answer but don’t want to do God’s will.

Look at their fruit… more than their theology? Words are easier to fake than actions I suppose. And think carefully. They hear gods truth but it’s like pearls being given to a pig.

At the end of the sermon the people are astonished at Jesus’authority in teaching, so it’s pretty clear for that context these “pig” teachers are their usual teachers. What an insult.

It ends with the wise man building on the rock, which is Jesus’ words. And Jesus words? Seek God’s will.

It’s arguably circular: our work is to build solid houses in rock, and store treasure in heaven based on seeking and doing God’s will. And what is god’s will? That god’s will be done.

But at the heart of it is our inability to be righteous before God, and how that plays out into our life. It’s about honesty before God, and becoming agents, not blockers, of God’s love.

I do feel burdened by worry caused by my own inability to trust God and act. I feel very called on to act, very unequal to task. Give me strength.

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.

Ezekiel 8

Ezekiel sees visions of idolatry in the temple. It’s a condemnation of fake religion, hypocrisy. It’s when your symbols and structures of faith have no actual faith happening in them.

You expect the idolatry to be outside the church, oppositional to it, not in the centre, where God should be.

I came to it off reading an article which linked the current generational distaste for churches with trumpian evangelical politics, drawing parallels to the Protestant revolution and the French revolution.

Why People Hate Religion https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/30/opinion/trump-religion.html.

It’s way easy, of course, to blend into the mix of everything wrong with Christians everything that you don’t personally like God saying to you.

And politics is an overly simple lens – Christians are more nuanced than progressive-always-good, conservative-always-bad.

I get tired of the attitude from non Christian friends of being able to barely tolerate us feeding some poor people, as long as we never ever say anything gody. It’s about Jesus,ok?

But too many people, for too many reasons, look at the church and see a vision like Ezekiel saw in this chapter. Worshipping lies, money, sex and power.

Job 5

Very conventional wisdom. Eliphaz continues his advice to Job, and it is so familiar. He has this oblique, passive aggressive way of not directly accusing Job of being more of a sinner than he will admit, but just leaving it hanging there.

You know: God’s punishment doesn’t come from nowhere… He is a God of justice… Don’t despise God’s punishment… We should accept God’s discipline and learn from it…

I’ll be interested to see how Job defends himself, because this sort of attack is so slippery. It’s comes from a strong assumption of who Job is, but if Job says ‘what are you saying I’ve done wrong?’ Eliphaz could easily say ‘nothing!’ grrr!

Reminds me of my aunty Joan, bless her, gone now and basically a wonderful person and loads of fun.

But she did have this thing of stopping to deliver little sermons. I’d just switch off as soon as it started, refusing to hear it almost on principle, and just nod and hope it would finish soon, so things could get back to being normal.

Happens with my kids too, sometimes when I try to inject Christianity into the mix. I know it’s clumsy, like a lead balloon as soon as I start talking.

It’s to do with a lack of shared experience. Failure to judge the moment, not salt in season. Just putting Christian platitudes into a random conversation, no matter how accurate and correct, in the absence of a genuine relationship, is empty.

St Paul would say love is the missing element here, Eliphaz has become a banging gong.

I think Eliphaz’s argument is ultimately self protecting too. It so tempting to divide ourselves into victims and comforters, vulnerable and strong. If we can be the advisor, the helper the fixer, the preacher, it protects us from the role of weakling, out of control, broken, foolish.

Jesus became all those things even less deservedly than Job, for us. He was deep down in the weeds, with us, alongside us, sharing it. That’s the example.