Matthew 10

Salvation in a cup of water.

The last chapter ended with a quote from Jesus longing for workers to spread his message. It segues into him sending out the disciples as proxies in this chapter.

It’s a lean evangelistic organisation, low on infrastructure, and with zero budget.

Big on action. Big on trusting that God, who knows when each sparrow falls and how many hairs are on your head, won’t let you starve; won’t let you get tongue tied.

His instructions veer from tender to uncomfortably savage.

Expect rejection and betrayal. Work/life balance is summarised by “not peace but a sword”, that will cut apart families.

It’s low on theology. Their message is that “the kingdom heaven has come near”. They heal and drive out demons. The people who are going to, will get it. And don’t persist teaching if they don’t get it; move on.

The people are profoundly misled, the message has to cut through. Growing up with the devil running their house, they resemble him.

But any response will do. Even a person who just offers them a cup of water will not lose their reward.

It’s nothing much like our church, but the expected negativity is a lot like our world. That’s not necessarily damning of the church, but its notable how much he’s emphasising an awareness of the spiritual dimension lying close to the surface in all our interactions.

Part of the difference is that Jesus was time poor. I’m closing in on double his life span. He had stuff to do, which made their ministry of necessity itinerant. I have multi decade relationships in communities.

The lean-ness and the sensitivity to response seems to me like he’s preparing the disciples to be in a sort of spiritual mindful state. Present in the moment with their wits about them to read that spiritual dimension.

It’s mind-bending teaching.

Hebrews talks a lot about entering into god’s rest. But on earth that rest is alert, awake. On the upside, heaven is nearer and less complex than you would think. It’s always there in the background of your interactions.

Joy of part time employment… I wrote this entry from a cosy cafe during a storm, one of my all time favourite scenarios. Salvation in a cup of coffee?

Matthew 7

There’s a whole extra chapter of sermon on the mount. Who knew?

All these phrases are so well known to Christians, many are part of common culture.

This chapter has:

  • not judging the speck in your brother’s eye when you have a log in yours.
  • Pearls before swine.
  • Ask, seek and knock (Jesus is ready and waiting for you).
  • Do unto others…
  • The wide gate and the narrow gate.
  • Jesus warning of false prophets, to whom he’ll say “I never knew you”.  And
  • the foolish or wise builder who build on sand or rock.

Reading them, I had an odd experience of being distracted by old hurts. Partly a symptom of working in a Christian organisation.

I used “ask, seek and knock” as the framework for a major project that I was dumped from. I thought it was some of the best work I had done, but it was buried.

That started me on the path, as I read through, of casting myself as the victim of Jesus’ scenarios: my boss should have taken the log out of his eye. My pearls were before swine. If the tables were turned, I wouldn’t have treated them so badly…

I’m feeling sorry for myself, thrown out of my job when the economic situation is so bad. Feeling too old, tired and unconfident for another job change.

A day has passed, and I’ve read it again with the hurt subsided. There’s no way around it, I was being the person Jesus was criticising. I was judging, pointing to the speck in someone else’s eye.

The familiarity of the phrases belies the strangeness of Jesus’ flow of ideas, which undermine all my defences.

It jumps from our personal interactions to the search for God and back (Judge not, lest you be judged… ask seek knock … therefore, do unto others…).

There is a deep connection and flow between how we treat each other and deepening our relationship with God. There is an immediacy of god’s presence in our interactions, and of our interactions in God’s presence.

It also jumps disturbingly between the abundant generosity of god’s love (if earthly fathers love their children, how much more will your heavenly father) …and the rarity and difficulty of it (small and narrow is the gate that leads to life, few will find it)

There are false prophets and deceivers at every turn.

Jesus, you’re messing with me.

Of course you are!

Having shown me my pride, and thrown me from pillar to post, there at the bottom of the chapter is the rock, the word of God, Jesus’ words. All other ground is sinking sand.

Uniting it all is that humble swallowing of our pride, our acceptance that Jesus is king. Christianity is not a performance test, it is an acceptance test. Ask, seek, knock. Is all it takes.

The wide gate is our instincts, our incredibly strong addiction to looking out for number #1, as I did on the first read through. So many wise guys think they have life sussed. But they are flowing with the mainstream through that wide, obvious, self serving gate.

Jesus blesses victims of injustice, the beatitudes at the start said that. But how easily did I cling to my hurt greedily, as a debt the world owes me. As a blinder to my own need for God.

At a certain point we are accountable for choosing to listen to false prophets’ shortcuts and lies, because God has equipped us all with the ability to detect our own spiritual b.s.

The rock. Let it break you, let it support you.

Give me wisdom, father, as I use this time to order my thoughts, and do the work ahead of me. Give me humility as I prioritise my objectives. Guide and guard my interactions. Take away the prickles, help me focus on letting generosity flow into my interactions.

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.

Ezekiel 36

“He’s got the whole world in his hands”

It’s the start of the sugar. Reading the prophets, there’s so much death and destruction, you hang out for the sweet stuff.

The land has been emptied, but this is about hope for the mountains. Hope starts with the land itself.

Disappointed pilgrims observed over the years that the mountains of Israel are no great shakes. It’s quite a harsh, stony, dusty land.

But god’s blessing will make it bloom, will return the people and have them flourish.

Rain will cleanse the land of spiritual betrayal, the idols. Rain, beautiful rain. We don’t get that any more here.

The people’s hard hearts will be replaced with hearts of flesh. Beating, living hearts.

In every sense metaphorical and literal, God’s wonderful unique creative power of life will abound.

Oh dear God, our land is not beyond your blessing, our hearts are not beyond caring.

As it dries, bakes and burns more than we’ve ever known, and we argue and blame, and build more coal mines.

Give us hearts of flesh, send sweet rain to wash us of our idols.

I wrote a song that used this passage for the chorus and Ephesians 4 for the verse.  Goodness me, I’m a try hard! Almost 15 years ago now. Not one of my best,  but the beating heart and the anticipation of the rain are there.

 

Ezekiel 27

Oblivion mocks us.

A lament for Tyre, the flourishing city destined for oblivion.

It details its sophistication. A functioning trading place, producing and distributing things of beauty. There is a magnificence to the whole system by which an economy thrives and supports whole communities. Creating places of tenderness, safety and delight.

Their mastery of the sea was the key to their brilliance. All so poignant that it would claim it all, drown it. Their magnificence serves to further emphasise the horror of their destruction.

The imprint of the divine is in our creativity, our pattern making, our ordering of the chaos. But the curse of death is on us, the chaos wins.

That’s all resonating with me in ways I can’t quite articulate.

The stress of a normal December, taking stock. While being reminded constantly of our breaking environment and our societies inability to find consensus on all sorts of facts these days.

Knowing whole towns are being destroyed by fire, which we judge each day by how thick is the pall of smoke in the direction we are looking.

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.

Matthew 4

From where you are, towards God.

These chapters are so jam packed.

We have Christ’s temptation, starting to preach (“repent, the kingdom is near”), calling disciples, and establishing his public program: teaching in synagogues, proclaiming the kingdom, healing the sick.

He starts to get fame.

The temptation setting is so weird and extreme. In the desert, starving, zooming here and there being shown visions by the devil. But the temptations are so ordinary.

They are how I’d run his ministry of global salvation.

Self care, get a good salary. You don’t need to be distracted thinking about where your next meal is coming from.

Networking. Make contacts, find influencers who will help your mission. Your people need to talk to their people, fundraising, professionalism, structure… Lobbyists, voting blocks.

Show us the power. You’re God, we’ve got to get the message out there with some concrete demonstrations. PR events.

Stability, influence, fame.

Instead he lives a small life. He networks with… err, calls with little introduction… some fishermen, just the random people where he is. He limps through on charity and community support, couch surfing, to sustain his ministry.

He gets fame as a healer as well as itinerant preacher. But he deliberately undermines it and slows it down at first, because he knows any fame without power and connections will lead to the confrontation that will have him killed. He starts away from the populated centres.

His top line message is such a short form gospel: repent, the kingdom is near.

We’ve seen so many places in the old testament where simply responding, recognising God’s voice and moving towards it, wanting to hear it, welcoming it with positivity; is all God wants. The gospel has variable theological content.

I think again of Rahab, who was of Jesus’ line, mentioned as a hero in Hebrews. Saved because she recognised God, somehow, in her brush with the kingdom, the Jewish spies. She responded by helping them.

And those disciples. Was their gospel presentation simply “follow me”? Were they the only ones called or the only ones who responded?

You may end up being Billy Graham, you may end up being Joe Blogs. That isn’t the point.

Small lives, advancing the kingdom in words and in deeds.

Ezekiel 11

Flip the script!

In this chapter the vision of the past 11 chapters all comes into focus.

Ezekiel is far from Israel, carted away by invaders from Babylon. He’s feeling deserted by God.

No. The foreign land is God’s sanctuary, he’s actually one of those who are marked as God’s child.

His vision of Jerusalem shows the idolatrous sun worshippers in the temple. They would agree that the likes of Ezekiel are the losers.

They describe themselves with an only semi-comprehensible metaphor of a cooking pot. The gist seems to be: we are where it’s at, we’re cooking, we’re the choice cuts, not the scraps who have been rejected.

They feel safe, protected within the city. But they are not.

So the vision is good for Ezekiel, bad for those still in the city. God has flipped the script in their near history, by marking the seemingly unlucky ones as in fact the first to be saved from the destruction of Jerusalem.

And in the meta revelation of his character, he’s talked about making our hearts his dwelling, turning hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. Great verse! He’s not in a building, he’s in our hearts. And he’s literally showing that by destroying the temple, and blessing Ezekiel, who is seemingly remote from God, with this vision showing that God is right with him.

My emotions are regrettably out of sync with this book. This chapter is the first one with any hope. I’ve been quite happy and upbeat while reading all the doom and gloom, and now there is a ray of hope in the book I’m sad.

My bank app has a very helpful summary of money in and money out that showed me we’ve been living beyond our means. I kind of knew it was true, but seeing it laid out there in black and white was a shock. I’ve already gone broke once and it was very stressful, so it made me alarmed. Bought up a lot of ongoing inadequacies.

But I have to look at the good side: things are far from dire, I can respond.

So maybe there is some sort of connection: this vision in my bank app enables me to flip the script. I’ll pray.

Ezekiel 4

Ezekiel is relieved from talking by God until told otherwise… He just has to do, errr… One or two other things.

Street theatre time!!! Can’t be a major prophet without it!

Though this is in his house, more like an art installation. Presumably word of mouth among the Israelites would spread, and they’d all come and see this bizarre display.

There is a picture of Jerusalem drawn in clay, with model armies and ramparts laying seige to it. This mirrors the real seige of Jerusalem simultaneously occuring in Israel.

Ezekiel and the other exiles he lived with in Babylon had been taken in an earlier, minor attack. The destruction of the temple and the removal of most of the people had not occurred yet.

He’s to lay on his left side, tied with ropes, for 390 days, symbolising him bearing the sin of Israel. He faces the clay model but with an iron frying pan between him and Jerusalem, symbolising beseiging the city.

He eats only special recipe loaves cooked over burning cow dung. God wanted human dung, but Ezekiel negotiated him to cow. Symbolises the defiled food the people of Jerusalem will eat in exile.

It doesn’t mention toilet breaks, but God is merciful.

After 390 days he does another 40 to bear the sins of Judah, which is an interesting ratio. Would have thought it was tilted more the other way. I suppose Israel just lasted longer.

So this display goes on for over a year. Everyone would have know about it. Ezekiel failed to preach when God gave him the chance. It’s like God said “OK we can do this the easy way, or the hard way…” Ezekiel probably regretted his choice…

The other day I was contemplating the salvation army flag, a Burgundy with gold banner with a star and the slogan “blood and fire”. I love that. I think it was also street theatre.

William Booth had these quasi military squads parade through town in uniforms of their own design, with brass, to gain maximum attention, holding flags saying simply “blood and fire”! Surely the ambiguity was intentional…

They entered places they were completely unknown seeming like a proto-fascist Guerilla junta seeming to threaten to slaughter you and burn your house down!

And as soon as you ask “what is this blood and fire about?”, which of course many will, the conversation turns straight to Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice and God indwelling in your heart! Boom.

Powerful, blunt, loud, provocative, weird, can’t ignore. As a gospel communicator, in an organisation with such a tradition, it’s very inspiring! And totally in the spirit of scriptures such as this.

Makes me think about my church too. The stereotypical Anglican village church, now in the middle of a bustling urban suburb, very prominent siting…

Of course, I’m making it sound fun. Ezekiel’s message was painful and utterly serious. It was about the destruction of hope. But the self-advertising power of it, the scale and commitment of going for a year with it. It’s extraordinary!

Ezekiel 3

Ezekiel’s preparation for ministry is elaborate because God knows the message is hard and Ezekiel is not up to the task. The chapter is God doing everything he can to help Ezekiel to make brave choices.

The Israelite people, carted away from Israel into exile in Babylon, no doubt feel abandoned: that God wasn’t real. Or if they do still believe, his plans make no sense.

So Ezekiel coming and telling them “God is very disappointed and angry with you” is highly likely to make him a target for much of their bitterness and misery.

First he eats the scroll of God’s word he got yesterday. It tastes sweet like honey (didn’t The Psalms say the law was sweeter than honey? Hmmmm… Mind you I called it a poison pill yesterday!)

God promises him hardness to match the hardness of the people. So he has the word inside, and the armour of God outside.

The spirit lifts him and the great glorious contraption of wheels and winged creatures delivers him to the people.

Ezekiel is full of bitterness and anger… At God I’m thinking. For seven days he sits among them, deeply distressed. No message.

It’s what I would have done I think, I’m also a coward. It’s why being a writer suits me so well. Giving other people the scripts to deliver.

God takes him out of there into the desert and ratchets up the pressure with the watchman argument: if the people reject your message, it’s on them. If the people never hear your message, that’s on you.

You are simply the watchman, your only job is to warn them of danger, even if you know they’ll reject it.

It ends with a weird scene of Ezekiel being tied up in his own house, unable to leave, and God making him unable to speak.

If you won’t use your legs and tongue for my mission, God’s seems to be saying, how about you don’t use them for anything else for a while!

At this point is it were me, I would start to be persuaded. It a theme from all the major prophets, God knows being a prophet is his suckiest job. He knows a normal person will find it almost impossible.

So it’s quite a threatening chapter to read. Please God, I don’t want to be a prophet!

I’m reminded of our discussions about the best sign to put out the front of our church.

I suggested “lay down your burdens” which was a big hit. Talking about comfort in a very abstract way. It did start some conversations, engagement with our community, it must be said. I certainly intended the any engagement that occurred would lead to a less abstract message in time.

The next one is probably going to be “Jesus loves you”. Still positive, but it confronts head on that Christianity is about responding to Jesus.

If we ever take that out, we aren’t being watchmen.