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.

Psalm 2

God laughs at nations who conspire against him. Certainly numerous regimes have declared Christianity dead down the years, and yet it’s still roughly one third of humanity.

I looked at the most Christian countries by percentage. Greece, Romania, Venezuela, Ecuador, East Timor. They don’t have much in common – its a cross cultural religion for sure.

We discussed the kingdom of God at our homegroup the other day. It is invisible. It’s organic, modeled on the endless replenishment of nature… Seeds fall randomly, many of them fail, but many grow while no one is looking, and any small seed can become a mighty tree.

To people who find it, it is of inestimable value – a pearl of great price, a stash worth buying a whole field for.

It is now. In parallel to the ambitious earthly kingdoms, claiming people in every nation. It is in our hearts, and growing as we tell and live Jesus’ love.

And it will be in the future. When only the eternal part of us remains, and the universe reverts to unalloyed splendor, as all the tears are wiped away.

It doesn’t say who wrote the psalm. Back in the day, it was as if it was about Israel’s power. But if so it turned out somewhat overstated, compared to how Israel fared.

Hebrews would explicitly identify Jesus as the son of God referred to, which is unsettling, as the son speaks in the first person here. The psalm is, in a way, by Jesus.

Sharing a joke with the father about the various earthly kingdoms plotting and planning their glory. It tells them how to be wise.

Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.

Ends with the first reference of so many in psalms to God being a blessed refuge.

This is how I think it is. This is why I don’t go crazy with fear. This refuge is my calm.

Psalm 119

Here we go, the longest chapter in the Bible.

22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Jewish alphabet, and each about the law, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. I should have read this first, it’s a phenomenal sales pitch for the law.

It’s a prayer, addressed from one individual to God, full of intimate and vulnerable language.

One line summaries of each stanza:

  • You’ll be blessed, aka not forsaken, if you follow the law.
  • Meditate on, delight in, seek & follow the law to stay pure and true
  • Help me keep longing for the law, don’t let me become like the cynics around me
  • I’m low and sorrowful, may the law give me understanding and strength
  • Keep me learning & focused on what is right, the worthless things don’t bring life
  • I’ll boldly and freely speak the law to Kings: keep your promises of love and salvation
  • I’m mercilessly mocked for keeping the law, but my hope comes from you who promises life
  • You are all I need Lord, the world is about your love, the wicked can bind me but won’t change me
  • You taught me though affliction, I had strayed, but now I value the law more than gold.
  • You made me who I am, an example to others, a target for the wicked; and your love comforts me
  • I’m fainting from waiting, blind from looking for your promise, save me from persecution so I can love you more
  • Your word is eternal, boundless perfection, it saved my life before and will again.
  • The law is sweeter than honey, it made me wiser than enemies, teachers and elders
  • Your law lights a path though constant danger, and I’m determined to keep it ’til the end.
  • Only the law is solid, everything else is a delusion that will come to nothing.
  • I’ve lived your law and I’m under attack, it’s time to act on your promises Lord!
  • Your law is wonderful unfolding light. I’m confident of deliverence and cry over disobedience.
  • I’m exhausted, people ignore you, but the lasting rightness of your law withstands all tests.
  • The wicked are near, but so are you Lord day and night, and your word will last.
  • I love you Lord, unlike the wicked, show me compassion
  • Kings persecute me but I obey and praise you all day, and I have peace – how I love your law!
  • I’ve strayed, but not forgotten your law, hear me, save me and so I can continue to praise you.

Some things that struck me:

It’s like a portrait of the god revealed in Jesus. I remember the sense of God’s compassion and justice coming from so many of the laws, as well as weird rules about skin diseases etc. But here we have the full character of God revealed to this person through the law. Gives resonance to Jesus’ claim to be the fulfillment of the law, it was always pointing his direction.

It’s a detailed picture of the life of a believer. Aware you aren’t perfect. Determined to be obedient, aware of God’s love and relying on his truth, compassion and steadfastness. Finding peace under attack, being grateful for God even in hard times and the sense of revelation continuing to unfold to moments of overwhelming joy.

I liked how it is so intimate, the private prayers of one believer, but clearly with the acrostic structure designed as a teaching tool, an encouragement for many. It’s testimony, not doctrine, and so powerful for that, as the personal feelings about God aggregate.

For all that it is feeling a bit inadequate to my circumstances this morning. My frustration with my oldest son boiled over into ugly anger last night that is unresolved, and is a long ongoing drag on his and everyone’s mental health and happiness. I struggle so profoundly to come to terms with it.

His 27th birthday a week or so ago, with the prospect of him maybe never launching into a life outside his room, and perhaps the death of my fondly remembered youth group aquaintance feed into the feelings of dissatisfaction I’ve been having of late.

Praying for wisdom. I suppose the life of the writer of the psalm was as challenging. The lives of others often seems simpler from the outside. He said God’s law was enough, his portion, but it doesn’t feel it today.

I need to say some of this stuff to him.

Isaiah 42

Complex chapter. Isaiah is like a symphony, or a film score. 

It has a bunch of themes, more and more as it goes on, and they keep returning and combining to push the story forward with ever more nuance. 

The layers get to be too many to describe, especially for a non-scholar like me. 

But like a good piece of music it has a cumulative emotional flow that unifies the complexity.

This chapter introduces the servant, beloved of the New testament writers who see it fulfilled in Jesus.

We learn that the servant will be God’s delight, will be for all nations, will be gentle in manner and in action, not breaking the “bruised reeds”, those already beaten and damaged.

Some of the themes that come back are the desserts being made flat, the world being recreated, inverted in fact so that rivers become islands. 

God as victor, a strong man; and then as (re)creator, a woman in labour. 

The emptiness of idols and Gods judgement being the actual reason for the present suffering, to which he seems to be deaf and blind. 

So in these themes, love and judgement, chaos and gentleness, time and eternity weave together.

Isaiah is taking God’s revelation to places it has not gone before. He’s witnessing first hand the trauma of literal earthly blessing of the chosen people and the specific nation of Israel failing beyond hope of return. 

Out of that pain, as is so often the case, our deaf ears can start to hear about the Messiah, and we can start to see with spiritual eyes.

And the message is comfort, courage and love.

2 Kings 2

Elijah’s ministry ends, Elisha’s starts.

The books are called Kings but should perhaps have been called Prophets.

This chapter seems like a climax of the coming of them as the leaders of the people and carriers of God’s message.

The larger kingdom has seemed like a disaster, all the kings of Israel have been God hating. But it’s given rise to the greatest leader yet. It’s a pattern of God to pull his largest victories out of seemingly his greatest setbacks.

The Old testament could be seen as a series of proto Christs. These are people who are earthly examples of the character of God, and through whom much revelation of God’s power and salvation come.

We had Joseph in Genesis, when the chosen people were just one family.

Moses led the event that made them a nation, their greatest leader, so close to God

Gideon and perhaps Deborah in the era of the judges.

David clearly, the good king, the poet of salvation.

Now Elijah/Elisha, they are almost like one continuous leader. The hope of salvation has passed from kings to prophets.

They tour groups of prophets. A pro-Jehovah religious renaissance is breaking out all over. They all recognise that this is goodbye to Elijah, God is speaking to all of them.

He does signs of Moses. Parting the sea and walking on dry land.

Goes one more, doesn’t die. The chariot of fire that takes him to heaven is the most extraordinary miracle of the Bible so far.

Unlike all the others I can’t recall anything obviously bad being recorded about Elijah. Very Christ like.

At the end of the book Elisha, carrying on alone calls on another sign of Moses, making water drinkable.

He goes to the main centre of calf worship and the visit stirs up a large crowd of unruly youths, who mock him and who he curses. Bears come and their attack breaks up the riot. (Apparently they didn’t necessarily die in a close reading of the text.)

Deuteronomy 28

Blessings and curses. If the Israelites stay true to God, they will prosper, and if they don’t they will be cursed.

The nation would know both, they prospered under kings David and Solomon. But they abandoned God every which way, and knew all the curses as well, even the degradation of canabalism, which must have seemed like an absurdly theoretical curse as they came into the promised land, came true during a seize of Jerusalem in kings 2.

In their poetry and philosophy they would increasingly question the connection between blessing and behaviour. A regular refrain in the psalms is “hey God, why are the evil people prospering?”

By the time Jesus pronounces blessings and curses he talks about hypocrisy and arrogance versus sincere and humble seeking of God.

Turns out the rules were never about being good enough to earn God’s favour, they were about understanding God and the nature of his love, and our need for it.

Showing people God’s love at some point means them understanding their need for it.

Zechariah 6

Apparently the visions are coming to an end, I’ll miss them.

Today we have a vision of four horsemen fanning out from God across the world. They are of different colors but we aren’t told what the colors mean. Of course four horsemen turn up in Revelation to announce the end times. Commentators talk about tribulation and judgement from these horses, and I’m not saying they are wrong, but it’s not explicit in the passage. To me its enough that its about god’s control and presence across the world.

These visions are working to encourage the newly returned Jews in Jerusalem, but not allowing a limited geographical view of God, it keeps expanding beyond the walls.

Ditto the vision of Joshua crowned as priest and king. It’s literally promising god’s blessing of a revitalised temple worship, but reaching way bigger to messianic proportions. The two trees spoken of yesterday are linked to the vision of one person, the branch, who brings harmony between the two, and will be clothed in Majesty and glory. It’s the Messiah, seen as he is for eternity, in his glorious heavenly state, not the humble man Jesus who we will meet later when he comes to earth.

John 2

Water into Wine

This is a flashback from the calling of the disciples to Jesus’ first miracle.  It follows Jesus dramatic promise to Nathaniel “Jesus’ first miracle. “Very truly I tell you,[i] you[j] will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”  Changing water into wine, so glad its there, and its striking in so many ways.

  • Always been amazed at such an obviously magical miracle.  Its the power of god the creator to be able to make a substance from scratch that is the product of human agency and time for maturation.  The narrative makes a point of how good it is, a subtle quality.  Its almost like God showing off… you think you are so clever… certainly an awsome demonstration of God’s power in terms of degree of difficulty.
  • Such a trivial purpose on the face of it… more grog at a wedding. So human and banal.
  • Such a story of joy, celebration and indulgence.  Such an affirmation of human character.. having parties and drinking to be merry, its what we do.
  • The strange dialogue between mother and son.  That Mary suggested Jesus do something stimulates the imagination of what it must have been like being his mother, knowing he was messiah, God.
  • His obedience to her despite expressing reluctance.  The Gospels report this strange serendipitous nature of Jesus that he will often put the situation before the mission.  He responds to random circumstances in a loving generous way that is off task, and says so, but goes ahead regardless.  This is God, not what you’d expect.
  • The generosity of the miracle: 6 jars of 30 gallons, top quality.  180 gallons, seriously?

What do I learn?  God is love, god is abundance, god has style. Our “humaness” which is often pitted against God as Humanism is a reflection of the character of God, like a rebellious child who damns his parents with echos of phrases and logic that they themselves have taught him. Praying today for a good outcome from confusing, stress inducing job interviews. No offers yet, two very different positions, quite in need of trust and calm.  Very unsettling. 

Don’t make Jesus angry…

Now a flashforward to the last weeks of Jesus’ life. John’s obvious arrangement of Jesus’ life events for meaning rather than chronology makes you pay close attention to the editing. In chapter 1 we have a potted history of the universe and mankind; the mesiah arrives, calls his team and promises we’ll see heaven opened… and we get party Jesus and now angry Jesus.

Jesus’ reason for not wanting to do the wine miracle was that its wasn’t his time. This is more what his “time” looks like, though he is still holding back to a degree.  Trying very hard to get up the noses of the poiwerful and self rightoues, corrupt religious authorities.  This action is probably what got him killed, the claim about building the temple in three days was certainly quoted at his trial.

Jesus was a nobody to them, it took a huge chaotic symbolic disrespectful gesture like this to even get them to give him the time of day. Contrast the woman at the well, marginalised reviled, so aware of her fallen status.  Jesus had her full attention just by daring to say “hello”.  I imagine he would have been ignored by the hierarchy for anything less than this chaotic open affront. But he got their attention.

His message is that the presence of God has moved. The temple is now him. And the sacrificial system is now him.  So all those high margin doves they were selling are worthless to God. They don’t get that  he is talking in metaphors.  John makes it clear that even the disciples only figured it out after the resurrection.

Jesus’ reticence is a linking point of the two stories.  Sometimes it seems like a trap, his method.  The messiah comes but is very cagey about proving his power, he speaks in metaphors, doesn’t trust the general public with clear talk about his true nature, but then makes a big deal about being rejected.

It seems unfair – could he make it easier to believe in him? I think the secrecy and distrustfulness is an act of grace. Jesus spends his ministry buying time.  He could have been killed a hundred times. Just reading the scriptures with the wrong emphasis was enough to turn his home synagogue crowd into a lynch mob. Claiming to be messiah was a recipe for a short life. He had a dangerous mission to manage the uncontrollable evil around him to die the way he did.  All of our existence still is God buying time, managing and not intervening by destroying the sin of the world to give us a chance to repent.

The two stories are mainly placed to show Jesus is heaven opened and angels descending and ascending, fulfilling the claim at the end of the first chapter.

Its a claim that recalls Jacobs ladder, the vision of a bridge in Genesis between God and man with endless access up and down.  So we are confronted right off the bat with magical Jesus: if you want to believe in a great teacher only, not a divine being, stop reading.  And we are confronted with the one who brings God to man.  If you want to believe the temple is the location of God, forget it.  The reference to Jacob’s ladder is a reminder that God never was limited to a building either before or after Jesus. He is God, he is the Way.

The chapter ends with an interesting passage on how distrustful Jesus is – he knows our black hearts.

Very troubled by my second interview for job today.  The lightness and confidence i had about the process seems to have drained away, and I feel destined to fail at every aspect of it.  This is dangerous thinking for me particularly, though I should expect it as I have had a long history of screwiness about jobs and am coming back to it from a long holiday.  My brother John is also very sick with a mysterious disease, also troubling me.  So pray for calm in both… that ladder to heaven is still open, may angels descend and ascend today.