Jesus Wants to Save Christians

Matthew 3:1-9
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We have been talking about how to read the Bible because too often Christians read the Bible in ways to justify behaviors, attitudes, and actions that fail to reflect the grace and peace of Christ. If you have been with us for the past couple weeks, together we’ve traveled from Exodus to Sinai to Jerusalem to Babylon.

In Exodus, God hears the cry of the oppressed, because God always hears our cries, and God responds with liberation and love.

This week I was a part of a continuing eduction event on preaching and our speaker was New Testament scholar Dr. Amy-Jill Levine. Dr. Levine is unique as a New Testament scholar because she is Jewish. During one of her lectures, Dr. Levine reminded us of a story from the Talmud, the book of Rabbinic teaching about the stories of the scripture, and it’s a story that shows the depth of love that God has for all people.

Exodus is a story of liberation, but it is also a story of Egyptians drowning.

It is a difficult story, because if God is liberation, if God is love, how could God be a part of something like this?

As the story goes, after Moses and the people cross the Red Sea and step between those walls of water that are separated so they can finally live into the freedom that God wants for them, those same walls of water crash down upon the Egyptians and they drown and they die. As this is happening in the book of Exodus, Moses starts to sing a song of celebration and we can understand why Moses sings a song of victory, but this victory came at a heavy cost.

In the Talmud, there is a story from the Rabbis that says as Moses sang, the angels started to join in the song, they wanted to be a part of the celebration. But as these angels sang with Moses, they noticed that God wasn’t singing. An angel asks God why they aren’t singing with Moses and God says to the angel, “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying” (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b).

The God of the Bible has always been the God of all people with a love, grace, and peace that is extended to everyone.

This is what we see as we move from the exodus to the covenant at Sinai. At Sinai, God says to the people, if you follow my ways you will be my most precious possession, a royal priesthood and a holy nation. God makes this covenant, this vow, to be with the people so that they can share this grace and peace of God to everyone, everywhere.

Israel becomes a holy nation, but things start to shift with Solomon. Things move from living into the hope of Eden to creating a new Egypt. Solomon builds a temple to the God that freed them from slavery, and Solomon builds that temple using slave labor. Solomon amasses wealth and power and privilege, but as they do, they become a new kind of Pharaoh causing the oppression that created the cries in Egypt.

It’s this injustice that brings about the Exile and by the rivers of Babylon the people hang up their harps and weep because how could they sing songs of praise and celebration in a strange land? They are oppressed, they are beaten down, they are enslaved, and they cry out, trusting that God always hears the cries of the oppressed and responds with liberation and love.

There is the hope of a new exodus, an exodus not simply from a place but from the sins and the systems that create exile. We don’t merely need freedom from Egypt or Babylon, we need liberation from stain on our hearts that leads us away from the promise of Eden. It is this hope, this promise, that fills the prophets with an imagination of a new kind of Moses, a leader that would begin this exodus. But a new Moses isn’t enough, this leader anointed by God, this messiah, would be king, would be lord, but not like Solomon, they would be a servant, they would be a new and greater descendent of David creating a kin-dom instead of a kingdom – the glory of Jerusalem, the covenant that God made at Sinai would be extended to everyone, everywhere.

As you may know, the Bible that we have has two halves, two testaments. Sometimes it’s called the Hebrew Scriptures, most often it is called the Old Testament, and our Jewish friends call it the Tanakh. The Old Testament is called the Old Testament because it’s older than the New Testament. And let’s remember that old doesn’t mean bad or useless or unnecessary. The music of Beethoven is old, but it’s still inspiring, the comedy of the Three Stooges is old, but it’s still hilarious.

The Christian Old Testament ends with the book of Malachi. Malachi is what we call a minor prophet and by minor we don’t mean insignificant, we mean that they didn’t write as much as Jeremiah or Isaiah. These are some of the last words from the book of Malachi at the end of the Old Testament, “Remember the Instruction from Moses, my servant, to whom I gave Instruction and rules for all Israel at Horeb. Look, I am sending Elijah the prophet to you, before the great and terrifying day of the LORD arrives. Turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of children to their parents…” (Malachi 4:4-6).

For Christians, the Old Testament ends with a reference to Moses, a reminder of deliverance and covenant, and Malachi includes a reference to Elijah, to the tradition and the hopes of the prophets to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord, with the heats of parents turning towards their children and the children turning their hearts towards their parents to bring an end to the generational struggles. As Amanda Gorman so beautiful and powerful proclaimed in their poem, ‘The Hill we Climb’:
“We will not be turned around

or interrupted by intimidation

because we know our inaction and inertia

will be the inheritance of the next generation

Our blunders become their burdens”

We saw last week in the story of Solomon the consequences of inaction and inertia and we know from the story of our nation how our blunders become their burdens. But the hope at the very end of the Old Testament is that we will break this cycle, we will find a new way forward, their is this new and greater exodus that is bring us all into the dream that God has for everyone, everywhere.

After the Babylonian exile, the people return to Jerusalem and they rebuild the temple, but it’s just not the same. As the prophet Haggai put’s it, “Who among you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Doesn’t it appear as nothing to you?” (Haggai 2:3) and yet, the prophet continues, “This house will be more glorious than its predecessor, says the LORD of heavenly forces. I will provide prosperity in this place…” (Haggai 2:9).

There is hope, there is optimism, things might not be what they used to be, but they can somehow be better because God is with us. And yet, even though they are not in Babylon anymore, even though they have picked up their harps and returned to Jerusalem, things have changed. Empires rise and fall and now Rome, not Babylon is the superpower of the day, occupying Israel, not exiling them.

The new temple is built in Jerusalem, but next door to the temple the Romans build the Praetorium, a military complex that is just a little bit taller than the temple to remind everyone who is in change.

Imagine growing up in Jerusalem. You know the stories, you were slaves in Egypt, liberated by God, with your people God made a covenant, and you lost it all, but God was faithful and still believed so much in your people that God said your nation could be the light of the world.

Wouldn’t you start to wonder what all these Roman soldiers are doing in your city?

This is what’s going on at the start of the first century in Israel. There is occupation, oppression and shame in the air because the people are home, and yet, they’re in a new kind of exile.

This brings us to our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said: The voice of one shouting in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.” Matthew 3:1-3

There are four Gospels in the New Testament, four ways of telling the story of Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection, and what’s interesting about these four stories is that they all start with the same quote from the prophet Isaiah (Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:2-3, Luke 3:4-6, and John 1:23).

Of all the ways these different writers could have told the story of Jesus, they all decided to quote from Isaiah 40:3 and the announcement of a new exodus.

Later in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus meets a Canaanite woman who is crying out for mercy, for hope and healing for hear daughter, and this woman says to Jesus, “show me mercy, Son of David.” (Matthew 15:21-28).

In the Gospel of Mark, a beggar is sitting on the side of the road and when they heard that Jesus was walking by this beggar cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, show me mercy!” (Mark 10:46-52).

The Gospel of Luke shares a story of a blind man sitting on the side of the road and they cry out to Jesus, “Son of David, show me mercy!” (Luke 18:35-43).

Throughout the Gospels, people cry out to Jesus, and Jesus hears their cry. As the sick, the suffering, the struggling cry out, “Son of David” they’re not just crying, they’re also asking a question – what kind of son of David are you? Can you hear us, or are you like Solomon?

The poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed and forgotten in Jesus’ day used this term, “son of David” because it carried a lot of emotional and spiritual and political weight. To say “son of David’ was to bring up all the pain of exile, oppression and loss, and it was to cling to to hope and deferred dream of a new and greater exodus.

One of the ways that Christians read the Bible wrong is by thinking that they can separate the New Testament from its Jewish origins. To be blunt, Jesus was Jewish and never called himself a Christian. The same can be said for the vast majority of all of Jesus’ first followers. Paul wrestles with this in the early Jesus movement, because it’s mostly Jewish, but non-Jewish persons are starting to follow Jesus as well. Paul is so passionate about his faith that Paul wonders why their friends and neighbors don’t see things the same way that he does. For Paul, it’s obvious, Jesus is Lord, Paul can’t help but see Jesus bringing about this new exodus, leading us into the hopes and dreams of God, extending the covenant at Sinai to all people everywhere, but other first century Jews see things differently, and Paul struggles with what that means.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul spends two chapters wondering what all this means, and in the end Paul writes, “So I ask you, has God rejected [God’s] people? Absolutely not! I’m an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, from the Benjamin. God hasn’t rejected [God’s] people…” (Romans 11:1-2). A few verses latter, Paul bluntly writes, “all Israel will be saved.” (Romans 11:26).

Paul never renounces their Jewish faith and Paul never sees Judaism as something that was in the past that should be forsaken and forgotten, even more than that Paul never assumes that the Jewish people that don’t follow Jesus are lost or rejected by God, because Paul trusts that God’s grace is sufficient and God’s love will always be faithful.

In the letters of Paul, it’s clear that he disagrees with a lot of people. In the letter to the Galatians, Paul is so angry that Paul writes, “I wish that the ones who are upsetting you would castrate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12). Paul is upset, Paul is angry, Paul thinks some people have completely missed the plot, which, of course, never happens in any church, organization, or family.

As Christians, when we read the Bible we have to remember that the story of our faith is not simply our story. As a Jewish person, Jesus knew the narrative arc of the scriptures, Jesus knew the hopes and dreams of the prophets, Jesus knew and sought to live out the covenant as Sinai which is why, when Jesus is asked what matters most, Jesus quotes the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Jesus didn’t come up with love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 6:4, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength” just like Jesus quoted from Leviticus 19:18, “you must love your neighbor as yourself”.

When we read the Gospels, we have to remember that they were written by Jewish authors that knew and deeply cared for their Jewish faith, and in the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus, they saw the fulfillment and the hope of the new exodus for them and for everyone else.

This is why, in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the way…” (John 14:6) which is a reference to what John the Baptist says in our reading today, which is itself a reference to what Isaiah said about the new exodus, people will find a way out of exile if they follow the way.

As Jesus describes the way in the Gospels, Jesus speaks about a new kind of kingdom, a hope, a dream, a future, a present reality that is within us, but is also waiting for us in the future, that is among us, that is near, and that is still to come.

The writers of the Gospels try to make it clear – this is the new son of David that is leading a new exodus for everyone, bringing liberation for everybody, everywhere.

Jesus claims that this message, this hope, the new exodus that we are entering into will be shared in the whole word (Matthew 13:38, 24:14, 26:13 and John 12:19)

Jesus is insistent that his life and teachings will lead to the renewal of all things (Matthew 11:27, 19:28, Mark 9:12, Luke 10:22, John 1:3, 13:3). The most inclusive and expansive words that could be used in the first century to say that all people can be a part of the movement of God, that all people can enter into the hope and the promise that God shared at Sinai, they are said by Jesus as Jesus describes his mission.

The Gospels tell us how word begins to spread about Jesus, anticipation and hope abounds as Jesus travels from place to place, teaching, healing, comforting and challenging, insisting that God is doing something new. Massive crowds follow Jesus, some people give up everything to follow Jesus, children sing about Jesus as a son of David, and then, in an instant, as Jesus says, “It is finished.” (John 19:30).

Jesus is arrested, tried as a criminal for committing treason against the Roman Empire, and then Jesus is killed on a Roman cross.

In the Gospel of Luke, there is a story of two disciples walking back to their hometown after Jesus has died. We don’t know much about them, but I imagine that they walked slowly, that they were not in a hurry to hear anyone say, “I told you so”. They dropped everything to follow Jesus but now they are walking back home because what they thought might happen didn’t happen and apparently who they thought Jesus was, Jesus wasn’t.

As they walk back home, in the midst of their disappointment, another traveler starts to walk with them and asks these folks what they are talking about. These travels are shocked by the question and ask, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?” (Luke 24:18).

In their disappointment, these travelers are surprised that someone missed the news. They go on to explain what they had hoped, how they believed Jesus was the one the prophets spoke of, that they longed for a new exodus, but Jesus was sentenced to death and was crucified by Rome. The travelers then tell their new friend that some of Jesus’ closest followers claim that Jesus’ tomb is empty, that others are claiming Jesus has appeared to them, but as far as they are concerned, it’s over.

The traveler that these two just shared their story with responds in an odd way. They don’t have any empathy for their disappointment, there is no sympathy for their heartache, the stranger says, “You foolish people!” (Luke 24:25) The stranger goes on to say, “Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about.” (Luke 24:25).

The next time you are on a flight and have a conversation with a stranger, and they tell you a heart wrenching story of loss and disappointment, call them a dull fool and see what happens.

The frustration that this stranger has with the two trailers isn’t that they believed in the hopes of the prophets, that they followed Jesus but now death puts an end to those plans. The stranger asks, “Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26).

For those disciples that were traveling home, Jesus death was the end of hope and the beginning of their heartache. But for their fellow traveler, Jesus death wasn’t the end of hope, it was the expansion of hope.

Luke writes that the stranger then starts to explain why Jesus had to suffer, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets” (Luke 24:27). What Luke doesn’t tell us is what the stranger said.

We don’t know if Jesus told them about the myth of redemptive violence. From the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis, we see violence escalate and spread. Evil continually takes the form of violence and the use of more violence does not stop the use of violence, it only spreads.

On the night Jesus was arrested, Jesus was surrounded by a group of soldiers with swords and clubs. One of Jesus’ disciples takes out their sword and starts swinging, but Jesus tells them to put down the sword because, “All those who use the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52).

As the traveler tells the story from Moses to the Prophets, is it possible that they say the only way to break this cycle of violence is to absorb it, to resist ever using violence even if it means bearing it all. Isaiah wrote of a suffering servant (Isaiah 42) the kind that would be beaten and broken only to say, “Forgive them, God, they still don’t get it”.

Or is it possible that the stranger starts to tell their fellow travelers about exodus, about exile, about how we have moved further and further east of Eden and found ourselves in Egypt, drifting away from the dreams of God? Did this stranger start to talk about a new and greater exodus, one that wouldn’t liberate us from a place, but from the sins that still haunt our hearts?

Maybe the stranger told their new friends about Adam, about the beginning and temptation luring Adam away from God. What if the stranger told these travelers about the hope of a new Adam, a fresh start that would redeem and renew all of creation?

I love that we don’t know what the stranger said, all we know is that as these three walked and talked, as they explored the stories of scripture, they began to find hope, they saw a new exodus unfold within them, and they recognized that even here, even now, God is up to something.

Isn’t amazing that in Jesus’ day, people could read, study and discuss the scriptures, but not get the story right? People could even say they were followers of Jesus and completely miss the point, which must be a bit like walking with someone for a few hours, only to discover that while you were with them, you couldn’t see who they really are.

The stranger, of course, is Jesus and it is long past time for American Christianity to let Jesus be the stranger once again. You can go to any number of churches where pastors like me will tell you that Jesus is whomever you need Jesus to be, and you can walk down those roads and miss seeing Jesus the whole time.

May we be surprised by Jesus as we learn to read these stories through the lens of Christ. May our hearts and minds be open to the hope and promise of this new exodus so that Jesus can lead us out of exile and into God’s future of redemption. May we see ourselves in this continued story of God’s expansive love. And next week, we will see how this grace and peace continues to expand all around us.

January 25 – 30, 2021

Click on the day to expand the guide.

Monday

Read – 1 John 1:1-5

Notice -Throughout the New Testament, authors claim to be either direct witnesses or they had interviewed and talked with those that knew Christ. Scholar N. T. Wright described John’s claim: “The very idea of God’s new life becoming a person…is so enormous, so breathtaking….That which was from the beginning—pause and think about that for a moment—which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have gazed at—pause again: your own eyes? You didn’t just glimpse it, you gazed at it? Yes, says John, and what’s more our hands have handled —you touched it, this Life? You touched him? You handled him? Yes, repeats John: we heard, saw and touched this from-the-beginning Life. We knew him. We were his friends.” We might not have the same direct contact and connection that is claimed in 1 John, but how have you gazed at God’s life among us? How have you seen, touched, experienced, and known grace and peace?

Pray – God, sometimes I think of Jesus as a kind of idealized figure. Guide me as I study and reflect on the witness of people who said they actually knew Jesus so I can know Jesus as well. Amen.

Tuesday

Read Luke 1:1-4

Notice – Similar to our criminal justice system today, first-century readers attached great importance to the testimony of eyewitnesses. The author of Luke sees themselves a bit like an investigative reporter, taking the stories of the eyewitnesses and what has been handed down to us to put together an orderly account of what it means to say Jesus is Lord. Luke was also writing, most likely, for non-Jewish coverts to the way of Christ. Luke has to explain things in a way that will make sense to these persons. Think about how you talk about faith and Jesus. How do you try to explain things in a way that makes sense? How, even when we have an orderly account, can we still leave space in our story for the mystery, awe, and wonder of God with us?

Pray – Jesus, like the author of Luke, I want to know the meaning of your life. I want to trust this account of your story so that I can be a part of it. Help me to live with and to know the glory of God. Amen.

Wednesday

Read Acts 2:22-33

Notice -The author of Luke and Acts likely wrote these texts sometime in the between the years 70 and 80. In our reading today, Peter claims “we are all witnesses”. The text has Peter make this claim about two months after the death and resurrection of Christ, with Luke writing about this event 30 to 40 years later, meaning that there would have been persons alive to credit these claims. Peter anchored his beliefs about Jesus firmly in specific facts (“you yourselves know this”—verse 22, and “we are all witnesses”—verse 33). Does it seem likely to you that the Christian faith could have spread throughout a hostile Roman empire if Rome could have easily shown that its claims were false? What was it about Christ that so inspired these first followers, knowing that what Rome did to Jesus, Rome could just as easily do to them?

Pray – Lord God, Peter preached that you had acted decisively, in Jesus, to defeat evil. Give me the vision to live each day confident that ultimately the wrong shall fail and love will prevail. Amen.

Thursday

Read Acts 10:34-43

Notice – Peter was invited to tell a Roman centurion and his staff about his faith in Jesus. One important way Rome demanded that citizens in its empire show their allegiance was to say, formally, “Caesar is Lord.” Picture the scene as Peter declared to this group of Roman soldiers, “This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all!” (verse 36) What “lords” has Jesus challenged and dethroned in your life? Some believers criticized Peter for sharing the faith with a foreigner who was serving in the occupying Roman army (cf. Acts 11:3). But Peter was confident that he was doing what God wanted him to do. What leads you to believe that God still calls Christ followers to reach out? What gifts and contacts can you employ to be a part of this movement of God’s love?

Pray – God, I’m 2,000 years too late to witness firsthand the events of Jesus’ earthly life. But I see what you are doing in my life, and in the lives of others—and those are facts, too. Give me courage to be a faithful witness to your work. Amen.

Friday

Read – 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Notice – In the first-century there were many different views about what life after death could be, if anything at all. Within Judaism, the Pharisees believed in a resurrection of the dead, but the Sadducees did not. In the Greek and Roman world there were stories about ghosts and apparitions, but they did not view that as coming back to life. With this in mind, what do you think of Paul’s confidence in directing people to living witnesses who said, “Jesus died—and then I met and talked with him alive again”? At times, people want to say, “Jesus and the early Christians taught some beautiful ideas, but they were mistaken about Jesus being God.” In verses 3 and 4, Paul identified the concrete events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as “most important,” rather than any set of abstract ideas. To what extent is your faith grounded in history, in the facts of Jesus’ life?

Pray – O God, I live two millennia after the events Paul and the early Christians witnessed. That distance in time can become a barrier to belief. I thank you that you moved your people to record their confident witness to speak to me, too. Amen.

Saturday

Read Hebrews 1:1-3

Notice -Many political and religious leaders challenged Rome’s power. The Romans crucified most of them. In every case except in the case of the followers of Christ, when the leader died, the movement died, too. Jesus’ followers were bolder and more confident than ever after his death. They wrote letters and books about why that was—they were convinced that their leader had defeated death, and was alive and guiding them. Whether you find that easy or hard to believe, the fact of their activity and writings is historical evidence to be taken seriously. Jesus is a crucial figure in human history—it’s worth the effort to learn as much about what really happened as possible. When have you felt guided by God? How is Christ inspiring you to continue this movement of grace and peace?

Pray – Lord Jesus, sometimes I find faith easy, but sometimes I find it hard. I ask you to be present with me, to help me discern how I can find the reality of you amid all of the claims and confusion that surround your story. Amen.

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