Subversive Jesus

Subversive Jesus

John 2:13-22 (NIV) When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

 

The word subversive comes from Latin. “Sub” means from below and “vertere” means to turn. So, to subvert means to turn things upside-down, especially the established system or the status quo, from below.

In today’s story, Jesus turns tables upside down, but what he is effectively working towards is turning the entire economic and political system upside down.

The root for ethical behavior for the Israelite people was that God liberated them from slavery, and now their task was to do the same for others. God chose these people to be a light to the nations – to teach them the ways of God. They didn’t have a great track record, as you might already know. So, hundreds of years later, Jews from all over Israel were required to return to Jerusalem on the festival known as “Passover” to be reminded of that covenant promise. That promise was that God would be their God and they would be his people, and that they were to share this good news of a loving God with the rest of the world.

As an observant Jew, Jesus would have joined the 300,000 people who had crammed into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast. According to all gospel accounts, he enters the temple, sees the activities being performed there, and he gets angry!

In the temple courtyards, there’s a market of cattle, sheep, and other animals for sale. These animals have to be bought with the right kind of money – local currency, not Roman. Roman money has the face of the emperor on it, and the emperor calls himself a god. So to use Roman money would be idolatry for them. So there’s moneychangers there for that. And every one of them is trying to make a fast buck. All of them cared far more about how much money they could make and cared nothing for the people who were being ripped off, or for the temple as a shelter for their God, or the purpose of the Passover festival. Their focus wasn’t all that different from some people today, who care more about getting rich than helping their neighbour.

The animals were sold for the offerings made at the temple. That was the tradition. People were required to make sacrifices for a variety of festivals and rites. If you were wealthy you gave a large animal, like a cow or ox. If you were poor, you gave doves or pigeons. However, to ensure “unblemished” animals, you had to buy your animals at the gate of the temple where the prices were higher than in the countryside. And, as is typical, the costs tended to be felt more by the poor than the wealthy. To purchase one pair of doves outside the temple was the equivalent of two days’ wages. But the doves had to be inspected for quality control just inside the temple, and if your recently purchased animals were found to be in fact blemished, then you had to buy two more doves for the equivalent of 40 days’ wages!

The moneychangers were needed to change the money into usable local currency. The money changers were the banks in first century Palestine. Moneychangers were also corrupt and charged more than they should.

So a one day stay in Jerusalem during one of the three major festivals could cost between $3,000 and $4,000 dollars in today’s money, and Jews were required to attend at least one of them each year. None of it was illegal. They were business men operating within the law. But it took Jesus and a few radical rabbis to point out that the law itself was unjust. Just because it was legal didn’t make it right. Does that resonate with any of you?

Jesus entered Jerusalem expecting, or at least wanting, to see a celebration of what God had done during the Exodus – freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  Instead, he saw a corrupted system that maintained the economic caste system where the rich stayed rich and the poor stayed poor. Jesus had come to bring good news to the poor and that just isn’t good news. Naturally, his message was radical and unpopular with the rich.

So Jesus lost his cool. This account is the only violent act of Jesus that’s recorded in the gospels. It reminds us that there’s no “business as usual” with Jesus. He came to make the wrong right and that more often than not meant upsetting the status quo. His stated mission was to bring an upside-down Kingdom that would be good news for the poor and the oppressed (Lk 4:18). This Kingdom was not just a place to chill out in heaven after we die – but something that would come on earth as well (Mt 6:10).

The temple had started to look like just any old Jerusalem flea market, and so people were forgetting that to have faith was to believe that God’s house is most definitely not just any old place. Maybe Jesus wanted to shake people up so they could remember that to have faith is a radical thing that should make us radically different from those who do not have faith.

The goal was purification of the temple to restore its sacred purpose, as a place of prayer for all people, without manipulation or exploitation by the religious gatekeepers. We have religious gatekeepers in some churches today too– wearing the right clothes, behaving properly, your children being well-behaved, giving enough money into the offering, being involved in church groups, etc.

The cleansing of the temple is a stark warning against every false sense of security — against every nice-n-neat box we try to stick Jesus into for our own comfort. Jesus comes to challenge rather than to reinforce prejudices and illusions. He comes to make strange what religion makes safe and cozy. He never once says, “Understand me.” He says something far more radical. He says “Follow me.” People talk about Christianity being a religion. To me, religion is a set of rules you have to live by for God to love you – like going to church on Sundays and saying bedtime prayers. But that is not what Jesus/God wants – little robots who go through the motions. God wants to have a relationship with us as real people who love God and show that love by loving others. Jesus loved others. He said “Follow me.”

Jesus is not comfortable. Jesus always challenges. Always away from the status quo, away from comfort, into the messiness of life. Jesus says follow me – because he is already there in the mess, waiting for us to join him in the mission of making things right, of helping the poor and bringing down the rich, by ending oppression and laws that are unfair to the marginalized. We all have a role to play in that, no matter how small. We are called to follow Jesus into the messiness of life and to do something about it. Sometimes that includes getting angry, as we have seen Jesus do in today’s story.

What might this look like in your life? What is unjust in the system that you live in? What can you do to help change it? Where can you increase the love in this world? We all have a sphere of influence – what’s yours?

 

Wise Jesus

Matthew 4 1Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a]by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[b]

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “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.’[c]

7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’[e]

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

Footnotes:

  1. Matthew 4:1 The Greek for tempted can also mean tested.
  2. Matthew 4:4 Deut. 8:3
  3. Matthew 4:6 Psalm 91:11,12
  4. Matthew 4:7 Deut. 6:16
  5. Matthew 4:10 Deut. 6:13

Jesus had just been baptized – we talked about his baptism a little while ago. It ended with the heavens opening up and a dove coming down on Jesus and a voice saying that he was God’s beloved and that God was pleased with him.

Today’s story takes place immediately after the baptism. This story is a little different than some of the other stories in the Bible. It is not intended to be read literally. The devil is not a person type of figure with horns and a tail. I think the devil made himself into a caricature so that we wouldn’t take him seriously, even though we totally should. The devil can be thought of as the tempter sitting on our shoulder telling us to do the things we shouldn’t do. The devil is a spirit. So this is one of those stories that is true in its message, but not true in that it happened just like this in reality. A little like a story with a message. Temptation is a wrestling match with our conscience.

So immediately after his baptism, THE SPIRIT – the spirit of God, that other part of the Trinity – leads Jesus into the wilderness for testing – to see if he was ready for his ministry. Jesus prepares by fasting. God tests, and the devil tempts. Here, the devil is under the control of God. The 40 days are a common term in the Bible. 40 generally can be interpreted to mean “a long time.” So when the Israelites wandered in the desert after escaping slavery in Egypt, they wandered there for 40 years – or a very long time. Same here.

We have wilderness experiences too. Sometimes, these are orchestrated by God to test us. And just as with Jesus, these tests in the wilderness are not to punish us. But I believe that sometimes God tests us. Sometimes to see if we’re ready for next steps, to see if we’ve learned something. God does not tempt us. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

Another way to illustrate Jesus’ words “Lead us not into temptation” goes like this: you take your little children grocery shopping with you and you come to the candy aisle. You know that taking your children down that aisle will only stir up greediness in their hearts and lead to bouts of whining and wailing. In wisdom, you take another route—whatever you may have needed down the candy aisle will have to wait for another day. In this way you avert unpleasantness and you spare your children a trial. It’s recognizing that we naturally grasp for things that are not good for us and that God’s wisdom can stop our obnoxious bellyaching.

First temptation: Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread because he is hungry – how many of us would think that is reasonable? I would! But Jesus thought that maybe there was something more important than bread right then and there. He said that we don’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from God. We are alive not because we eat, but because God gives us life. He also said, “31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” [Matt 6] God is more important. For sure, Jesus fed thousands of people at other times, but here, he is not giving in to feeding his gut. Not now. In comparison, when the Israelites were in the desert, they grumbled loudly until God gave them manna – bread from heaven – as their daily food. They didn’t trust God to provide.

Second temptation: Then the devil took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem – he has no boundaries as to where he will tempt anyone. Note that we are not safe in church either. We can be tempted anywhere, any time and in any way. The devil quotes scripture out of the Bible to prove his point! But Jesus proves to be wiser. Jesus/God is the author of scripture and not only does Jesus know it inside out and backwards, but he also has the right interpretation of it. We don’t. We might want to test God, to see if we can manipulate him to do what we want. Honouring God excludes manipulation. Just like Jesus would be forcing God to protect him if he decided to jump. God doesn’t work like that. God is not a magician or a genie, someone who attracts followers with gimmicks and tricks. God asks us to trust him, that God is faithful and that he will give us what we need and always be with us and always, always love us.

The third test has to do with compromising. The devil offered Jesus worldly power if he would worship him. That’s just not happening with Jesus! But how often are we tempted that way? How often are we offered worldly power and we turn our back on God and God’s commands because we want that thing?

And when the test is over, God’s angels attend to him. He did well. He followed God’s commands. We do well too when we follow God’s commands. There are many places in the Bible where it says to “follow God’s commands so that it may go well with you” That is God’s desire. That is why we are called to love God, and our neighbour as ourselves. God wants our lives to go well. That is why Jesus came to live in the world – to show us what that looks like. He has his priorities lined up with God’s (he is one with him after all) Jesus is the embodiment/expression of the wisdom of God. Jesus is wise beyond all measure. Jesus is also known as “Logos”, or “the Word of God” – since we can’t physically see or hear God, and people a long time ago could in Jesus, we know this is true. The beautiful thing is that the Bible is also the word of God – the written word that tells us about the living Word. So even though the Bible isn’t complete like Jesus is, we can learn a lot of God’s wisdom from it. God’s wisdom given to us in the Bible is God’s gift to us – a roadmap/instruction manual for living life well. And when we take the Bible to heart, we will become more like Jesus, who is the heart of the Bible.

Jesus’ temptations have to do with the cultural reality of his day: food security, power, and compromise. Our temptations look very different than those of Jesus because we live in a very different world; the pressures from our culture to conform are very different. But the underlying temptation is the same. The temptation to treat God as less than God, to not fully trust Him, to make compromises with the ways of the world.

God loves you so much, God tells us how to live so that we will do well. It is our choice to obey or disobey. There are consequences either way – good and bad. If we all lived and loved perfectly, the way God loves us, our world would be like God’s kingdom. That is why Jesus said, when he first started his ministry, “to repent, because the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Remember the word repent? What song did we sing to remember? (Hokey Pokey) Because Jesus came to earth to show us what it looked like to follow the spirit of the Law instead of the letter of the law, we see a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven. We get a taste of what that is like. When we make choices that align with Jesus, we experience real joy, even in hardship.

The apostle Paul was famous for saying things like that. He talks about joy all the time, even when he is in jail waiting to be killed. He is not defined by his circumstances, and neither are we! Our hard times, our suffering, does not define us. We are children of God, loved no matter what. Jesus died for our sake. Jesus had said to his disciples one day, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus laid down his life for all of us. Knowing that makes all of life easier, even joyful. Listening to Jesus, becoming wise like him, makes our lives go well, as God intended from the very beginning.

Compassionate Jesus

The Woman caught in Adultery

John 8:2-11   2 Early in the morning Jesus came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Jesus was teaching the crowds at the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus attracts people with his wisdom and compassion. People from all over are drawn to him. This makes other people jealous. They want to be in the limelight, they think that their points of view are better. They do what they can to reclaim center stage. So they purposefully disrupt Jesus’ teaching at the temple. They bring a woman into their midst, one who was caught in the very act of adultery. She’s most likely not dressed properly. Likely freaked out and scared to death. She knew as well as they did what the consequence was for getting caught – death by stoning. Jesus knew that too.

But the quote-unquote religious people reminded Jesus anyway what the Law said for this situation and tried to trick Jesus. They said, “Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.” But Jesus knew that this is only half of what the Law of Moses said. In the Old Testament, the part of the Bible that took place before Jesus was born, in the book called Deuteronomy, chapter 22, verse 22 “If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. So where was the man? I’m pretty sure it takes 2 people to commit adultery. Was it possibly one of them? Had one of the accusers slept with her in order to trap her in the act, so they’d have a pawn with whom they could trap Jesus?

The point is though that there is no accused man there. The scribes and Pharisees only brought the woman. They didn’t follow all of the law. The man was absent and eyewitnesses weren’t called. Technically they could not stone her because they didn’t meet all the requirements. Obedience to the Law of Moses in this instance actually meant letting the woman go! Their plan was flawed from the start. But they pressed on regardless.

So the trap they set for Jesus is as follows: If Jesus were to say that the woman should be stoned, then he would get in trouble with the Romans, who had taken away the Jewish people’s right to capital punishment. Only Romans could execute people these days, and you didn’t want to get on their wrong side. But if Jesus said to let the woman go free, to be consistent with his message of God’s love and mercy, Jesus would be transgressing the Law of Moses the way they saw it.

Remember last time we met, we talked about Jesus coming to fulfill the Law, and not to get rid of it. He came to take the Law that had made people legalistic and hard and show them that the Law was intended to bring love and compassion into the society. So Jesus couldn’t very well just dismiss the Law if he had come to fulfill it, right? Of course Jesus upholds the Law of Moses; he is God; he is part of the team that wrote the law in the first place. Yes, the woman was caught in adultery, but there is neither the guy she was with nor eye witnesses. Her case wouldn’t even stand in court and Jesus knows it.

Jesus, of course, also knew they had come to trap him. But Jesus is much smarter than them. For Jesus, for God, the world looks different than it does for us. We like to divide things into opposites: white and black, rich and poor, straight and gay, male and female, right and wrong. But God doesn’t see the world in these terms. God sees human beings, all intimately loved. All of us beautiful, broken, flawed sinners, but most importantly, deeply loved. That is how God sees everyone! That is how God sees the woman and the crowds who come to hear him and even the scribes and Pharisees.

Some Christians use the term “Third Way” when they talk about Jesus. God’s way is a third way. Not this way or that way, not black and white, but God’s way. And God’s way is different than we often think. Jesus isn’t concerned with winning an argument. Jesus is on the business of winning souls, of showing God’s love. So he doesn’t even enter the argument. Instead, he does nothing. He write in the sand. Very curious. He ignores the accusers, the woman, and the crowds. He hunches down and writes in the sand. The story doesn’t tell us what he writes, so that’s not important. The scribes and Pharisees didn’t like the turn of events. They kept badgering him. So finally, Jesus looked up and told them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Why would he say that? Has he just declared open season?

What has Jesus done by saying that? So those who had set up this trap for Jesus were likely thinking along these lines: Who gets to throw the first stone? Can there be a second stone without a first one? Who is sinless among us? No one? Really? Absolutely no one? Ok, now we’ve been outwitted. If none of us can throw a stone, then what? How can Jesus even say that? He just called everyone a sinner! (Surprise! We are all sinners)

The apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans that the wages of sin is death. Death is what you earn by sinning. And absolutely every human being falls in that category.  The scribes and Pharisees come to the realization that they too are sinners. They too deserve to die, just like the woman. Just like all of us. But that’s not the way of Jesus. Jesus is all about love and compassion and life. He wants a relationship with all of us. Jesus/God loves us like a mother loves her baby. Only perfectly. We all know we’re not perfect mothers, but God is. AND God wants nothing more than for us to also love Him.

So Jesus lets the Pharisees go. And the scribes. He extends them grace and mercy. Even after what they tried to do to the woman and to Jesus! He doesn’t condemn them. Through his silence, they take the time to think about it, and they realised that they were no better than this woman. They know they are not right with God. One by one they leave. They all leave and by leaving, they all admit that they are sinners.

And so the woman is left alone with Jesus. It doesn’t say, but I wonder if the crowd is still there – the crowd that Jesus had been teaching earlier. I wonder if they all witnessed the departure of the scribes and Pharisees, their admition of being sinners. I wonder what that means to them. What they are to do with that knowledge. I wonder if that means we’re all in that same boat, whether we are religious, whether we try to be good, or whether we get caught doing something we know is bad. We are all in the same boat. And like Paul said, what you deserve is punishment.

But then, Jesus says that he doesn’t condemn the woman either. The only person there who could have thrown the first stone because he is sinless doesn’t go there either. He tells her to go and not sin anymore. .Jesus grants pardon, not acquittal, since the call to leave off sinning shows he knew she was indeed guilty. He gave her her life. He wants her to live, not die. God is all about life, not death. In the mind of God, righteousness and justice are grounded in grace. Whenever grace is removed, we are left with the heartless hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Jesus Christ didn’t overturn the Law. Instead, He re-established righteousness (being right with God) on the basis of grace. He told the woman to stop sinning so that she would be right with God.

Remember last time we did the Hokey Pokey? Why did we do that? To give the kids an idea of what turning around looks like. That’s what Jesus/God calls us to do. To turn around, to change our thinking from black and white to consider mercy and grace in our everyday living, just like Jesus did for this woman. To follow the Law, but through the eyes of Jesus. To love God, to love our neighbour, and to love ourselves because we are infinitely loved by the one who made us. We are lovable, beautiful sinners whose sins have been covered. They don’t affect our relationship with God because Jesus removed that barrier between us. All we need to do is believe that Jesus has broken down that barrier, to feel the love of God, and to love God back. Loving God is revealed through our love for others and ourselves. How simple and how beautiful.

Jesus says to you … and to us … Go and sin no more. I have written a new identity and a new future for you in the dust and dirt of this life.

Understood rather than condemned. Saved rather than stoned. Sin exposed yet covered in His love. – How about you?

 

 

 

 

Divine Jesus

[Based on the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 3]

Surely you have heard of baptism? What is that all about? Jews practiced baptism as well as Christians. It’s an age-old practice. – So Christians continued this practice. Different Christian churches do it differently – some dunk your whole self, some sprinkle a little water on the head. But all baptism is symbolic – it stands for something. It stands for a desire to change.

The NIV says to ‘repent’. It means to turn around, to go in the opposite direction, The Message translation says to ‘change your life.’ It is a deliberate turning from one way of living to another. From sin to righteousness. (We’ll talk more about that word in a bit). The original Greek word meant to change one’s mind – the Greeks were big thinkers. But the Hebrew word – the language of the Jewish people – has more heart than head meaning – for them, ‘repent’ meant to change one’s heart, one’s will, and one’s behaviour. It was a top-to-bottom change.

So why did Jesus get baptised then?

Jesus had no need to be baptized—just as he had no need to be born, to suffer, or to die—but he did all that in order to reveal himself to us, to show God to us. The baptism, in other words, was a sign for the world. When Jesus came to the Jordan River, he came as the son of a carpenter. But the proclamation of the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove showed him to be far more than a mere carpenter. He was officially and for all to see identified as the Son of God, the Messiah, the Saviour.

Because Jesus is the Son of God, he doesn’t need to change – he’s already God! I think that is why John the Baptist (not John the gospel writer) had a hard time with it and asked Jesus to baptise him instead.) John knew he wasn’t perfect, but that Jesus was.

Jesus told John to baptise him “to fulfill all righteousness.” (MSG: God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.)

It took me years to understand the word ‘righteousness.’ But I believe that to put it simply, it means ‘being right with God.’ So Jesus fulfilling all righteousness by being baptized means that he will be right with God if he does this. Jesus fulfills The Law by being baptized.

We talked a lot about doing what The Law says last time, when we were talking about Jesus’ presentation in the temple as an infant – his parents did everything that the law prescribed, and that made them ‘right with God.’ The Law is in essence the 10 Commandments. – Loving God, not having idols, not murdering people, or lying, or being envious, honouring your parents, etc. God gave those laws to the ancient Israelites after they left slavery behind in Egypt. God gave those laws to them because he loved them. God knows that if we follow his laws, then life will be good, there will be peace on earth as it is in heaven. The laws were to set people free, not to burden them.

We don’t have to look very far to know that isn’t the way the world is, right? People still murder, lie, and don’t obey God’s laws. Jesus was well aware of that in his own time too, as was John the Baptist. Look at the way John speaks to the Pharisees and Sadducees. He calls them snakes – that was not a compliment then either. These people were those who allegedly followed The Law better than anyone else. But John and Jesus saw right through them. Because the biggest problem with them was that they followed the letter of the law, but their heart wasn’t in it. Their heart was off in the opposite direction – hell bound! They had changed the law from something beautiful, that was freeing and life-giving to something burdensome and condemning. They added details so that nobody could manage it. And they got to decide who did well and who failed – not God.

Jesus insisted on being baptized to fulfill the law – to do what the law prescribed, even though technically he didn’t need to for the forgiveness of sin. But he wanted to follow God’s law as an example for the rest of us. Jesus lived to be an example for everyone – how to live righteously, how to live ‘right with God’ so that we might live life well! So that we too might have peace and love and joy!

So there is a conundrum here. If the Pharisees and the Sadducees were the best at following The Law that God had given Moses, but they were called snakes, and yet Jesus sets the example for us by following the law – what gives?

That’s where the Hebrew understanding of the word ‘repent’ makes a big difference. Remember that the Greek word meant to change one’s mind but in Hebrew, ‘repent’ meant to change one’s heart, one’s will, and one’s behaviour – that top-to-bottom, through-and-through change. The Pharisees and the Sadducees did not have a change of heart. It was all in their heads. They followed the law ruthlessly, and they were cruel and hateful all while following the letter of the law. That was not God’s intent.

Some Christians believe that Jesus did away with the law. But that is not true either. In Ezekiel chapter 11, a prophet who lived hundreds of years before Jesus, it is written, “I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.”

Jesus told his followers, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). Matthew 5:17-18 CEV (contemporary English) “Don’t suppose that I came to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I did not come to do away with them, but to give them their full meaning. Heaven and earth may disappear. But I promise you that not even a period or comma will ever disappear from the Law. Everything written in it must happen.” Jesus did not come to this earth to oppose the law. His goal was to fulfill it. He revered it, loved it, and obeyed it perfectly. The law’s divine design, God’s design, will accomplish the purpose for which it was given – kingdom living.

Jesus fulfilled all of the law. Both in His life and in His teaching, Jesus fulfilled the law. He demonstrated God’s law by His perfect example and gave it its full meaning. He emphasized its deep underlying principles and the need for total commitment to it rather than mere external acknowledgment and obedience (like the Pharisees and the Sadducees). Jesus explains that until God’s plan to glorify humanity in His Kingdom is completely accomplished (second coming), that is, as long as there are still human beings, God’s law as given in the Bible is still necessary. Those who follow Christ and desire to be in His Kingdom are obligated to obey and uphold God’s law.

When Jesus was being tested one time, a lawyer asked him what the greatest commandment was. He was, of course, referring to the 10 Commandments. Jesus responded with” You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

To love God with all your heart, soul and might is to keep the Ten Commandments –not the letter of the Law but the spirit of the Law. If we love God with all our heart, soul and might, we will not have other Gods before Him, worship idols, or take His name in vain or deny God the quality time of Praise and Worship He wants from us on His Holy day. No! If we love our neighbour as ourselves, we will respect our parents, not murder, not sleep with another’s spouse, or steal, lie or covet anything that belongs to your neighbour. It is clear that if you love God with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself you are keeping the Ten Commandments. This is why Jesus said that all of the law hangs on these two Commandments.

Loving your neighbour as yourself was not a “new” commandment and existed from the beginning but the level of love they needed to practise to be imitators of Christ was new in that they loved one another as Jesus loved them to the point of also being prepared to lay down their lives for each other as Jesus did for them and the whole world. So we find that Jesus not only magnified the law with what He spoke of in Matthew chapter 5 but He also taught that we need to demonstrate the same self-sacrificing love that he did – pretty difficult, I’d say! That is the mark of a true Christian. (BTW, none of us are that good, and God knows it)

Non-Christians often complain that Christians have all these rules that stifle life. Don’t do this, don’t do that. That is not the spirit of the law. God gave the laws to increase love in the world. To make the world a better place for everyone. Imagine if everyone loved their neighbour as themselves – there would be no stealing, no murder, no war, but instead there would be love, peace, and joy. God’s law, when practiced in the spirit that it was given in, brings peace, joy and love. That is why Jesus got baptized – in obedience to the law, to show us that the law is a beautiful thing, that it is life-giving!

Sign 6: Do You See?

John, Chapter 9 (all of it)

The disciples ask why the man is blind – they want to place blame. Jesus says it’s nobody’s fault. So that means that bad things happen for no reason, not because that person or his parents are sinners and are getting punished. The reason why he is blind is so that God can demonstrate that God exists and is involved in human lives. God through Jesus gives sight to the blind. Undisputed. Therefore, God exists. Everyone in the story agrees that only God can make the blind see. This blind man saw. Therefore, the only conclusion that can logically berawn is that God exists and that Jesus is from God/is God.

We can be like the Pharisees who don’t acknowledge that a miracle occurred. They only see that Jesus broke their Sabbath rules and therefore, they conclude that he cannot be the Son of God, that he is a sinner. They can’t imagine that there is a higher calling than obeying all their rules – that healing a blind person takes priority. That love is more important than rules. That doing the right thing and rejoicing over miracles trumps counting your steps. God said to keep the Sabbath holy. Who said that giving sight to the blind doesn’t fit that category? Jesus said God made the Sabath for us, it is a gift that is meant to restore us. Mark 2:27 says “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.” The Sabbath was a day to take it slower, to listen for God in life. To notice miracles. Not to count your steps and make sure you’re not doing anything you shouldn’t be doing according to human rules. The Sabbath was not about rule keeping, it was about taking a day of rest. A time to reconnect with yourself, with your family, and a time to sit back and take notice of God in your life.

So my word for this year is PAUSE. It is exactly about that – Sabbath keeping – because it’s something I don’t do well. And the challenge is to not beat myself up about it, because it isn’t about keeping rules. It’s about being, and being still. Looking for God in the ordinary events of the day. Noticing everyday miracles. Opening up to the possibility that God loves you and wants the best for you and is actively involved in your life already. Praying to God to helps with that. So at the beginning of this year, to help with pausing, I started a prayer journal. I started writing down some prayers. I try to have a quiet time in the mornings, and sometimes it actually happens. So I sit down and think about what I want God to change in my life and in the lives of other people and I write those things down. I don’t make it a thing I “have to do” so it’s not like the Pharisees “have to do list”. Then I revisit the notes I’ve made and on the opposite page, if something has worked itself out, I write that down too. And more often than not, I realize that prayers are answered. Some sooner, others later, and others not yet, or I haven’t realized that the answer was something other than what I was waiting for. All of this helps me to pause, which helps me to see God in the world. Otherwise, I’d be blind like the Pharisees. They only see the rules, they don’t see God at work. That’s what Jesus was talking about at the end of the story – when they asked, “Does that mean you’re calling us blind?” That’s exactly what he was saying.

Sign 5: Jesus Comes in the Middle of the Storm

John 6 15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

  • Jesus spent time alone in prayer to recharge. This is important for us as well.
  • The disciples rowing in the storm were already afraid to die before Jesus came to them. It is highly likely that they couldn’t swim.
  • Everyone back then knew for a certainty that walking on water is only something someone divine can do: Jesus walking on the water is a clear sign to them that Jesus is divine, that is, he is God. This sign, therefore, gives clear evidence to those hearing this story that prove that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, with power and authority equal with God the Father
  • Jesus walked on the water to show His disciples that the very thing they feared, the raging sea, was just a set of steps for Him to come to them.
  • Jesus was testing the disciples’ faith once again, they were in a position where there was nothing more they could do themselves to get out of this disaster on the sea.

This is the definitive miracle that caused the disciples to believe in him.

The disciples needed multiple miracles in order to “get it” that Jesus was God and was from God, that he had come to save the world from evil, not from the Romans.

Jesus comes to people in the storms of life. Jesus may not come at the time we think He should, because He knows when we need Him the most. Jesus had waited until the boat was as far from land as possible, when all their hope was gone. Often we fear the difficult experiences of life such as illness, loss of loved ones, and financial hardships only to discover that these experiences can bring Jesus closer to us.

So why didn’t they recognize Jesus? Because they weren’t looking for Him. Had they been waiting by faith, they would have known Him instantly. Instead, they jumped to the false conclusion that he was a ghost. The point is this: fear and faith cannot live in the same heart, because fear often blinds us to God’s presence.

We sometimes say that God is love. In 1 John, he writes that perfect love casts out fear – fear and love can’t co-exist.

1 John 4:17-18 (MSG) God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.

1 John 4:18 (NIV) There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

The fear/love is a spectrum. The more fear you have, the less love is possible. The more love you have, the more you lose the fear. You grow in trusting God that he will be with you in times of trouble. God doesn’t take the trouble away, but walks you through it. Remember the Footprints Poem: “When you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

Sign 4: Bread of Life

People followed Jesus like paparazzi – they wanted to see the miracles because miracles are exciting. Jesus might have wanted some alone time with his disciples, maybe to teach them, or to pray. But the crowds just kept showing up. Jesus doesn’t send them away. He shows them compassion. He knows they’d be hungry and works on feeding them – notice how much grace is present in these actions alone.

Jesus asks Philip, one of his disciples, where they could buy a LOT of bread, not if. Philip has been with him for months. He’s seen what Jesus is capable of, like at the wedding at Cana, where he turned gallons and gallons of water into wine. And yet, he does not show any faith in Jesus’ abilities to work a miracle.

Maybe Andrew shows a little greater faith. He finds a boy with a peasant’s lunch. Barley bread was definitely poor people’s food. He brings this food to Jesus just in case he can do something with it. It’s not very much at all. But just possibly, better than nothing. [When we bring what we have to Jesus and hand it over to him, Jesus can work miracles with that too. Jesus can take anything and turn it into something amazing.]

Jesus turned 5 loaves and 2 fish into enough food for 5000 plus people. Everyone is fed, they had as much as they wanted. And there were 12 baskets of leftovers! Extravagant generosity! Only the Creator himself could “play” with the very stuff of creation and pull this off.

The people clued in that something miraculous had happened in the feeding. They were waiting for a prophet that was promised to them by Moses who was to set them free. They figured that this miracle working Jesus just might be their man. If he can do something like this, then he can certainly free them from Roman oppression. They do not realize that the freedom Jesus brings is not from Roman oppression, but from the oppression of sin. He leaves quietly to evade them. He didn’t come to be involved in the politics of the world. He did say that his kingdom is not of this world.

Not many of the people who witnessed this miracle came to believe in Jesus as the son of God. They saw a man who had powers and they wanted to use those powers for their own benefit. We sometimes think of God as a miracle working genie too.

But Jesus was not going to be their kind of king, he did not come to deliver them from the Romans. They were faithful people, because when they saw the miracle, they knew he was from God, and “from God” meant to them a mighty prophet like Moses, who would deliver them from Rome and restore Israel to glory just as Moses had delivered the Israelites from Egypt.

 

Going deeper:

We have already learned that the Gospel of John has symbolism all through it. Scholars have studied it extensively. Much of what John writes has deeper meanings. Let’s begin with the leftovers. Why does Jesus care to pick them up? Who are they for, when everyone is full? Why 12 baskets?

There are other places in the Bible where 12 is significant.

In the Old Testament in the Book of Genesis, Isaac has 12 sons who became the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel – God used them to build a nation.

In the New Testament, Jesus picked 12 disciples who were fishermen and tax collectors, essentially nobodies, who became the foundation of Christianity.

Now there are 12 baskets of leftovers that Jesus cares enough to gather up. Not only is nothing wasted in God’s kingdom, but God actually builds his kingdom from that which the world considers useless and throws out.

[What or who do we consider as useless? They are needed to keep, and build a future on…]

This miracle is only a sign of Jesus’ salvation but it is not the same thing. Jesus does not want to be made a king who will just keep producing more wonder bread because Jesus knows that in the long run the business of eating and drinking is quite literally a dead end. Bread or food in general does not keep us alive forever. The people who saw the miracle failed to notice the spiritual significance of it. What they want from Jesus is more of the things he has offered. More food, or more wine, or more healings. And so they want to come and make him their king.

Jesus has supplied for their material needs and material needs are important. But this is not what Jesus came to do, and the glory he will reveal is not the glory of another political regime, not even the most effective and benevolent political regime the world has ever seen. So Jesus withdraws. He refuses to be king on their terms. His word to these faithful people was hard to take; he said “No.” No to all their ambitions and delusions of power and control.

[Jesus said no to the people when they wanted to make him king by force – what do you think about that?]

More accurately, Jesus has come to reveal that God’s essential character is loving and God’s essential desire is to be accessible and available to the people of God. It may not be what we want because we are so convinced that material possessions will make us happy. But it is what we need.

Then as now, we’re altogether too eager to settle for the quick fix. Holy patience insists we stick with Jesus over the long haul, following him all the way to a cross that is definitely not a quick fix, and it even looks like the end of everything. But only when we stay with Jesus that long do we actually discover that he is the beginning of everything.

A little bit later in chapter 6 of John, Jesus says “I am the bread of life.”

[Think about actual bread in your life – what role does it play? Think about bread in Jesus’ day – how might it have been different from today?]

Bread was an everyday staple – an essential item. So when Jesus says “I am the bread of life,” he means that he is essential for life – life in him, eternal life. None of Jesus is wasted. Also, Jesus is modeling a way to create the kingdom of God on earth. For genuine followers of Christ, that is our mission too – to continue doing what Jesus had started. A revolution of turning scarcity into abundance, and fear into love.

Jesus once told his followers, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” When Jesus says “I am the bread of life,” think about eating bread. It enters into your body, you digest it, and your body absorbs the nutrients. It becomes a part of you. Literally, “you are what you eat.” Jesus says “I am the bread of life.” When we internalize him spiritually the same way that we internalize food physically, then Jesus becomes a part of us, a part of our identity. At the same time, we become a part of Jesus and thereby we join him in eternal life. Jesus becomes a part of us, living in our hearts, as some people like to say, and we also become a part of Jesus – we inherit eternal life; we become a part of the Body of Christ. It goes both ways.

Jesus invites us in this passage into as intimate a relationship and communion with him as we can imagine, perhaps a communion and relationship that is even closer than we want!

[Whether you fully understand it or not, can you accept that Jesus is the one through whom God’s character and will are most fully revealed?]

Sign 3: Getting Unstuck

The Gospel of John 5:1-18

Have you ever been passed over? Have you ever been not good enough, not fast enough or just not enough to be picked? Did the teacher pick someone else? Or a friend didn’t pick you first for their team? Or you didn’t get that job… I think we’ve all been there. It doesn’t feel good. The guy in our story today had been too slow, too sick, for 38 years. Others always got the prize before him. Can you relate to that? But then Jesus came along and picked him. Just him. For no apparent reason, that day was that man’s lucky day.

From the man’s perspective, it started out as any other day. Then, a total stranger came up to him and asked him if he wanted to be healed. Then this guy told him to pick up his mat and walk. He hadn’t walked in 38 years. How ridiculous that command must have sounded to him! Maybe he had just the tiniest shred of hope left. Maybe he was just tired of lying there, watching everyone else getting into that pool before him. Maybe he felt a surge of strength flowing through his body. But he did what Jesus told him to do.

We’d like to be in this man’s spot on that day, wouldn’t we? When we feel like we’re stuck in one place for a long time and can’t seem to get unstuck, it would be so nice for Jesus to come along and just say, “Do you want to get unstuck?” This story gives us hope. Even after 38 years, this man got unstuck. Sometimes we get that lucky break too. God’s grace happens for anyone at any time. There’s nothing you need to do to deserve it. You just receive it and say, “Thank You, God!”

Let’s also look at what happened next.

There was a big problem with what Jesus did. Jesus healed this man on a Sabbath. That was a big no-no to some people in town. They believed that you shouldn’t do anything on a Sabbath. Including helping people. So they decided to give Jesus a hard time about doing the right thing. Sometimes that happens to us too, right? We do something that is good, something that is right, and we get in trouble by the people who make the rules. Like when we help a kid on the playground who is getting picked on but we’re supposed to line up because the bell rang, or stuff like that. Sometimes we do the right thing even when it’s against the rules, and sometimes we get in trouble for that. When that happens, we’re doing just what Jesus did for this crippled man. Not worrying about the rules and doing what is right.

During WWII, the people who were in power, the Nazis, decided that other people, especially Jewish and handicapped people, were not wanted. So they worked towards getting rid of them. That was very wrong. But because they were in power, they made the rules. So, many ordinary people broke the rules and helped these poor people to safety. They did the right thing. But it was very dangerous because the rule makers sometimes found out and then these people would also be in very big trouble. Again, these people did what Jesus did for this crippled man.

Where in our lives do we come across injustice that we can do something about?

Maybe we are being called to identify with Jesus, and not the cripple by the poolside. We might be a miracle in someone else’s life and get them unstuck. Whether that gets us into trouble or not.

We like to identify with the man who was healed – we need healing too.

We are always invited to identify with Jesus – to do good even if it might get us into trouble.

Sometimes we are like the rule makers – not considering all angles, just sticking to what we know the rules say, not acknowledging that rules sometimes get in the way of better things.