Sermon on the Mount #4: Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics. That’s where Pastor John began Sunday’s message. It’s a big word that most of us are probably not very familiar with. While the word may be unfamiliar to many of us, its impact has touched all of our lives in one way or another. It means simply, the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.” What any of us know or understand about the Bible has come to us through the filters of many different interpretations. It was the same for Jesus’ first followers, except their “bible,” at that point, did not include what we call the “New Testament” today. They had the Hebrew Scriptures, and they had scribes and Pharisees to interpret for them what the words meant and how they were to be applied.

Long before Jesus sat down to teach the sermon on the mount, there was another man on another mountain. It was Moses and the mountain was Mt. Sinai, where he met with God and was given what became the Ten Commandments, the Law. These Ten Commandments were given from God to his people in love as a comprehensive framework for how to love God and each other. As Brian Zahnd writes in his Lenten devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus,

“The first four of the the Ten Commandments are intended to form Israel in right relationship with God, or what we call worship. The final six commandments are intended to form Israel in right relationship with one another, or what we call justice.”

Instead of adhering to God’s exhortation to the ways of love, the people expanded it and broke it into subsets of laws and conditions. The commandments grew from ten God-given laws to 613 different regulations. Around the 613 regulations there were thousands of comments to explain them. How were the people to know what they were to do, how they were to follow the Law? As Pastor John shared with us Sunday, they needed interpreters, designated men, set apart to attend to the interpretation of the many amendments to God’s original commandments. Enter the scribes and Pharisees… These teachers were set apart to interpret ALL of the laws and regulations FOR the people. What the people learned as “God’s Law” came through the hermeneutics of the scribes and Pharisees. This elevated these leaders in the Jewish culture. The people needed them so that they could correctly understand the words of God.

But there was a problem. The leaders had missed the the original intent of the law. They had missed the intended focus. The focus was never supposed to be on the Law itself as a checklist to be completed. The focus was to be on the God of love who gave it to them as a way to protect them from the disease of self and the effects of living in opposition to God’s way of love. This brings us to this week’s text, Matthew 5:17-20:

“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. For truly I tell you, 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. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus goes up on a mountain and sits down to teach his growing number of followers. He begins to teach them how they are to be, as citizens of his kingdom; he tells them that, in living his way, they will be salt and light to the world. He follows that up with this week’s passage about the Law that they held so dear. In the midst of what may have sounded to the people like new commandments, perhaps replacing what they had learned as God’s Law, Jesus says otherwise. I imagine the people were confused–what Jesus was teaching sounded nothing like what they had been taught all their lives from their scribes and teachers of the law. This is precisely why Jesus says what he does. He knows they have learned the law in a way that missed the mark of its original intent. He knows that the focus had become the laws themselves rather than the God who gave the law to them. So he addresses it in these four verses, and we get to see the law through the hermeneutics of Jesus and how his interpretation differs from that of the scribes and Pharisees.

He begins by saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law…” According to Strong’s Greek Lexicon, the word abolish in this passage is katalyo, which means “to destroy, break down, dissolve.” Its root words mean “to loose, unbind, set free, break apart, set apart.” Jesus did not come to set them free or unbind them from the original Law. He came instead, he says, to fulfill them. Please bear with me as we dig into what the word fulfill means here. I know not everyone gets as excited as I do about the definitions of words, but this one is important to our understanding of this text. And it’s pretty fascinating, too!

The word translated fulfill comes from the Greek pleroo, meaning “to complete, fill to the full, cause to abound; to fill to the top: so that nothing shall be wanting to full measure, fill to the brim; to consummate, render perfect and complete in every particular, to carry through to the end; to bring to realization.” A deeper look reveals that the root of pleroo is plebes, which means “to fill up hollow vessels; to thoroughly permeate the soul.”

When I read these definitions, it sets off fireworks in my mind! When Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law, he is essentially saying that he came to bring the Law to life! To “cause to abound” implies the action of fruit-bearing. To consummate is to bring together, to connect and make one of two. He came to connect the Law to himself, to Love; to complete the people’s partial understanding of the law and its intent so that in uniting one to the other, fruit would be born in abundance. And this fulfillment Jesus brought would fill up the places left hollow by the law and “thoroughly permeate their souls.” Jesus’ intention was not to set them free from the bindings of God’s original Law, but rather to tie the Law to himself and expand it into a way of being, as God originally intended. As Romans 10:4 states:

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

The Law as a checklist has its limits. Where the words of the Law end, Jesus steps in to show us what it looks like to live as a kingdom-dweller. In Beth Moore’s gorgeous new book, Chasing Vines, she writes,

“John’s Gospel tells us that “the law was given through Moses” and “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). But lest the graced ones misinterpret these words, grace didn’t break the law of Moses, like stone tablets thrown into worthless fragments. Grace loosed the law of love from its limits.”

She continues a few pages later,

“Jesus isn’t impressed by love in word but not in deed (1 John 3:18). In Jesus’ reckoning, when it comes to love, confession without action is pretention.”

This leads us into what is, perhaps, the most difficult part of this week’s passage, the last verse. Here it is again, to refresh our memories:

“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I imagine the mouths in the crowd, if they weren’t wide by this point, fell open as they heard these words. What was the teacher telling them? The Pharisees and teachers of the  law were the most righteous among them, and this Jesus guy was telling them they had to be more righteous than them? Talk about unrealistic expectations! I wonder if any of them stood up to leave at this point, discouraged by the impossibility of meeting Jesus’ requirements.

Fortunately for the crowd that day, Jesus wasn’t finished yet. The words in verse 20 weren’t the last in the discourse, they were said to set up what would come next. He is about to expand and deepen their understanding of the individual laws they followed. As Beth wrote, “Grace loosed the law of love from its limits,” and the people were about to hear exactly what that means. But we’ll get into that next week. For now, let’s dive into the troublesome verse and see what there is for us to glean…

First, it’s important to note that when Jesus says “…you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven,” he is not talking about eternal destiny. As we have discussed at length previously, the kingdom Jesus repeatedly talks about is here and now. The Greek definitions of the words in this particular verse mean, “the kingdom realm; not to be confused with an actual kingdom, but rather the right or authority to rule (…) the encompassing, vaulted expanse of the sky and universe and all things visible in it.” He is telling them that if their righteousness is not greater than that of their “teachers” they’ll have no right to rule or teach with any authority in his kingdom. He is simultaneously disqualifying those who had been elevated as the only ones authorized to speak on the law and calling his hearers to live at a higher level than that of these leaders.

What is this higher level he calls them to?

“. . .unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law…”

As we have written about previously, the word righteousness is translated from the Greek dikaiosynē, derived from the root word dikē, which means “equitable, just.”  I wrote these words two weeks ago,

There are many occurrences of the word righteousness in our English translations of the Bible that originally meant justice, equity–which is a fuller understanding of exactly what Pastor John talked about: being rightly related to God, which will always include being rightly related to all others.

So Jesus is exhorting his listeners to be more equitable and just than their teachers, to be rightly related to God and others in a different way than what had been modeled for them. What had been modeled for them is what Beth talked about in the quote I included above: pretention--a whole lot of lip-service without action driven by love. The focus had shifted from God and his way of love to the words that made up the commandments and the 613 addendums to the 10 original laws. These added words also kept the powerful in charge and the weak in check. Jesus came to flip all of that on its head.

One more word definition, and then I’ll wrap this thing up… The word translated “surpasses” is from the Greek perisseuo. It means “to superabound, beyond measure; to exceed a fixed number of measure; to exist and abound in abundance.” Its root word means “beyond; on the other side; farther.”

I find this beautiful. Jesus says to the crowd, essentially:

When you bring together the words of the law you have been taught with the ways of being I am teaching you and you connect the two with my love, your fruit will abound. This is what it means to let your light shine. It’s not about knowing the letter of all 613 laws. But it’s not about abolishing the commandments they came from, either. It is about viewing them in my light, and reflecting them, in love, to the world around you. Real righteousness is not what you have been taught. It’s more. It goes further. Because it is driven by love. 

Pastor John said, “Let Jesus author our faith.” Our faith is not authored by the words of hundreds of by-laws. Nor by the words of men that took liberties with and manipulated God’s original laws. No…

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:2) We look to Jesus, and invite him to write the story his way. He is, after all, the way, the truth, the life–the light for all humankind. He is the one who shows us what it means to live according to the laws of love, and how living like that fulfills every law God gave us to follow.

–Laura

Laura did a beautiful job of helping us understand what Jesus means when he says: “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.”

She wrote: When Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law, he is essentially saying that he came to bring the Law to life! … He came to connect the Law to himself, to Love …Jesus’ intention was not to set them free from the bindings of God’s original Law, but rather to tie the Law to himself and expand it into a way of being, as God originally intended.

If you’ve read our blog for any length of time you know that we write over and over God. Is. Love. God’s nature, God’s essence is love. Love is who God has always been and who God always will be. Until the time of Jesus, it might have been confusing to know exactly what that meant; however, the Apostle Paul tells us in Colossians 1:15 Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation. 

John the Apostle wrote the same thing when he said: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. 

Jesus himself said: Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)

So God, in the form of Jesus came to fulfill the law–to bring the law to life.

The Scribes and Pharisees were doing the best they knew how with “dead” law, but Jesus wasn’t impressed with their interpretation. He said to them: What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either. (Mt 23:13) .  Jesus is emphatically saying–guys you are missing the whole point and you and all those you influence are shut out of God’s realm as a result!

On another occasion Jesus said to them: You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (Jn. 5:39)

Does he say the same to us?  If the law–the knowledge of good and evil, the do’s and don’ts, the who’s in and who’s out drives us, then Jesus is not the center of our faith. If he and his ways are not the cornerstone of our lives, we are missing the point. I want to say this very, very carefully. If you read our blog, you know that we have a high view of scripture. We study it, we read it, we let the Holy Spirit speak to us through it, but scripture is not God. It is inspired and it is unlike any other book–but it is not our life source. Jesus is our life source…we study scripture to get to know the living Word–Jesus.

If we don’t come to the living Jesus and don’t look at all of scripture through the lens of the God of love as revealed in Jesus, we have a tendency to get mean and very black and white in our way of thinking. That’s the kind of attitude that led to Jesus’ frustration with the Pharisees when he told them that they shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. Are we doing that?

Laura reminded us that the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus is speaking of is not the after-life. It’s the Kingdom that is right here among us. She wrote: “the kingdom realm; (is) not to be confused with an actual kingdom, but rather the right or authority to rule….”  I’ve read before that it is the place where God reigns–which is any place where we are doing things his way. The kingdom of Heaven, the realm of Heaven, is where God’s will is being done on earth. (May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven) If that’s a new thought, remember that Jesus himself said in John 17:3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. It all starts right here. And ultimately God’s will is that we love like He loves. 

So Jesus’ purpose in fulfilling the Law and the Prophets is to show us how to live in God’s kingdom right here, with the door wide open for anyone else to come in. This goes against our natural tendency, and we’re not alone.

In the Old Testament, the prophet Jonah got mad at God for his “open door” policy. He didn’t want the Ninevites to be accepted by God. In the New Testament, there were those who tried to impose circumcision according to Jewish law on Gentiles who were coming into the kingdom. Paul told them Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. (Gal 6:15) .  Peter had a vision from God during his prayer time on a roof, where God lowered a sheet in front of him with all kinds of “unclean” animals on it and told Peter to kill and eat them. Peter said: “Surely not, Lord…I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” To which God replied (3 times) “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10: 14-15) . Peter could have refused–after all, his tradition and the law he had grown up with taught him that to touch unclean things was a sin–yet here was the living God saying–nope. It’s not about that.

Shortly after the vision, Peter had the opportunity to share the love of Jesus with a group of Gentiles.  Peter’s takeaway:  I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism…And it wasn’t just Peter that was blown away by God’s acceptance of outsiders: The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. (Taken from Acts 10: 44-48)

So, what are the Law and the Prophets that Jesus came to fulfill? They are certainly not tablets of stone. The Lord tells us through the prophet Jeremiah: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer. 31:33)  And through the Prophet Ezekiel he says: And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh. (Ez. 11:19)  And the Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Corinth says: You show that you are a letter from Christ…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Cor 3:3)

Let’s be “one-hearted” letters of Christ to the world. What would the heart of the living fulfillment of the law and the prophets in Christ say to them? Who would it include? How would it be presented? Would we, like Peter’s companions, be astonished at who God welcomes, or do we know that the fulfillment of the law and the prophets means everyone, exactly as they are, can enter in?

–Luanne

Reflections – blog | Trinity Presbyterian Church | of the Orthodox ...

Limits: Freedom to Choose

The story of King Herod and John the Baptizer isn’t very fun to read. We don’t get to breathe a sigh of relief at the end of it as things are set right and pain is redeemed, because in this story, it’s not. It’s a story about a man who had a lot of power and the freedom to make a lot of choices without being questioned. Most of his choices were terrible, and nearly all of them were influenced by the desires and opinions of others. He even acted against his own convictions–after all, he had an image to preserve, a reputation to hold up.

The end of the passage we studied last week told us that Jesus’s disciples did what he sent them out to do: they healed people and drove out demons in his name. In the first verse of this week’s passage (Mark 6:14-29), Mark begins by telling us that “King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known.” King Herod’s reaction to what he heard was, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” And then we get to read the whole story about the events that led to the beheading of John.

Why was this King Herod’s initial reaction to hearing about Jesus and his disciples? It likely had something to do with the word about–he hadn’t met Jesus, he didn’t know him. He had heard about him. And what he heard reminded him of someone else. Someone whose death he was responsible for. Perhaps his reaction was what it was because he had a guilty conscience. Maybe he was very aware of his wrongdoing, and maybe he was afraid of the consequences.

If we’re honest, when we read this story we can’t escape the reality of sin or the truth that, while most of us haven’t had someone killed, Herod’s string of bad decisions feels a little too familiar.

So. Let’s talk about sin.

What is sin, exactly? It is commonly associated with other words like condemnation, guilt, shame, exposure, evil, bad, wrong… I’m sure most of us could add a few more to that list. It’s a common assumption that sin entered the human experience in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. What is less commonly known is that the word “sin” doesn’t show up until a couple of chapters later. And it doesn’t show up as an action. Its described more like a temptation, almost a persona…

Cain and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve, both gave offerings of their labor to God. Most of our English translations say something like “God looked with favor on Abel’s sacrifice but did not look with favor on Cain’s.” If you look at the original language and the root words, it’s pretty difficult to make a case for the word “favor” showing up in the passage at all. The definitions of the original words basically say “God looked at Abel’s (and the word used for “looked” here has more negative connotations than it does positive, though it does have both) and he didn’t look at Cain’s.” It really doesn’t say anything about “how” God looked or didn’t look. I mention this not because I’m some kind of scholar–I am definitely not a theologian. I mention it because we all heave projections onto our God sometimes that make him look nothing like who he really is. What we do know is that Cain took it personally, however it happened.

J.D. Myers, in his book Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, writes:

“Sin is first mentioned in the Bible when Cain becomes angry at his brother Abel and enters into rivalry with him. God warns Cain that sin is crouching at his door, seeking to devour him. (Gen. 4:7) …Sin is first introduced and defined in the Bible as the cycle of imitative desire leading to rivalry, blame, scapegoating, and violence.”

This description makes me think of James 1:14-16:

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.” (NLT)

Cain was jealous of whatever he thought his brother had. His desire was to win, to be better. His desire led him straight into the arms of sin. Sin’s desire was to have Cain–to consume him–and their union gave birth to violent actions which led to Abel’s death.

Maybe you’ve heard sin described as “missing the mark”. The bible makes a pretty strong case for this particular definition. But missing the mark of what? Perfection? Holiness? Godliness? I’m not sure–the Bible doesn’t directly tell us. But I really like the way Myers describes it in the book I cited above:

“Sin is living inhuman lives; lives that do not treat others as human beings made in the image of God, and lives that do not live up to our full potential as human beings in God’s image. Sin causes us to live as less than human.”

That feels like a good description of “missing the mark” to me. It certainly applies to the actions of Cain and King Herod. Sadly, it applies to many of my own choices, too…

Pastor John told us a few things about sin. He told us that sin is arrogant. It leads us to believe that we’re somehow beyond or above its consequences. It gets our attention–either through guilt or through shame. It seems rational at the time. It tells us we’re somehow in the right, or justified. So we deny what we’ve done and we minimize the impact of our actions. It begins to shape how we think. And with every step we take toward sin’s invitation, we become more and more consumed by it. Sin tells us that we are our own god. We are above consequence, and we are in control. It becomes agonizing over time, despite the lies we tell ourselves, and it begins to weigh us down. We forget who we are and whose we are, and we feel far from home. We begin to identify ourselves as bad, and we become convinced that something is inherently wrong with us. 

Herein lies the limit. We limit our own ability to experience the ever-present love of our God when we fall into the murderous embrace of sin. Sin wants to destroy us–not by sending us to the flames of some kind of hell. By encasing us in a cloak of lies that prevents us from feeling the love of the one who has never–and, hear me, will never–turn away from us. Sin doesn’t actually succeed at keeping us from God. But it limits our ability to sense and to know his love. We miss out on the experiential knowing of the withness of Jesus because we project our own guilt and shame onto our relationship with him. And so we hide. We run. We pull sin’s arms tightly around us to shield us from the wrath we imagine is coming…

But the only wrath that comes our way comes as the natural consequences of our actions.

The wrath is never from the one who made us, loves us, and never stops coming for us. There is no place so far that his presence won’t meet us there. Even if we make our bed in the place of the dead, he’s there. (Psalm 139)

His hand never, ever stops reaching for us. Sin doesn’t keep God from us. Ever. In the book A More Christlike God, Brad Jersak writes:

“Even when we turn away from God, he is always there, confronting us with his love. God is always toward us. Always for us. He comes, not as a condemning judge, but as a great physician… God never turns away from humanity. God is perfectly revealed in Jesus. When did Jesus ever turn away from sinful humanity and say, “I am too holy and perfect to look on your sin?” Did Jesus ever do anything like that? No. The Pharisees did that. They were too holy and turned away. God is like Jesus, not like a Pharisee. The gospel is this: when we turn away, he turns toward us. When we run away, he confronts us with his love. When we murder God, he confronts us with his mercy and forgiveness.”

There is always a hand that is extended toward us, no matter where we are or what heinous thing we have done. In reality, there is no “coming back” into God’s presence. Because there is nowhere his presence is not. There is only the choice to yield to the already-there God, letting his hand pull us from the churning belly of sin, and allowing ourselves to be absorbed into the love that is–and always has been–our home. Or there is the choice not to. Our choices can limit our ability to experience that extravagant love–but our choices can never remove us from the presence of the one who is with us, wherever we go.

–Laura

I love every word that Laura wrote and don’t have much to add; however, when she was speaking of Cain and Able, she includes this quote from J. D. Myers:

“Sin is first mentioned in the Bible when Cain becomes angry at his brother Abel and enters into rivalry with him.

The word rivalry jumped out at me. I think our western consumeristic mindset leads us to live in a constant state of rivalry.  The definition of rivalry is: competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.  It’s a mindset that we are permeated with, but which will eventually erode our souls. 

Every advertisement that we see, every person that we compare ourselves with, every time we spend money that we don’t have to purchase something because we want it, or because it’s the “in” thing and we don’t want to be left out, every time we hustle for our worth and try to make ourselves indispensable to another human being, every time we pre-judge another person without knowing them at all, every time we treat (or even think) of someone else with disdain, every time we feel envious of what another has, or feel “less than”, every time we harbor bitterness because of what we think someone else deserves, every time we go along with the crowd against our own convictions–like Herod did–it’s all based in some sort of competition to be liked, to be accepted, to be superior…

That’s what Cain was feeling when he felt inferior to his brother. God, in his goodness, came to Cain and said to him  “sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:7). Then Cain had a choice to make.

That scripture reminds me of the scripture in Luke 22:31-32 when Jesus tells Peter that Peter will deny him. Jesus says: Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you (plural) as wheat.  But I have prayed for you (singular), Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  

Again, we see the warning, and the promise that Jesus is right there waiting with open arms through the season of our poor choices, and at the moment of our repentance. He does not reject us–ever.

Remembering that the word repentance literally means to change our mind removes the fear of condemnation. Repentance, in some circles, sounds like an awful thing, a condemning thing–yet Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world. (John 3:17)And he tells us through the Apostle John that …perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. (1 John 4:18 NLT).  

Last week, author Jonathan Martin tweeted “to repent is to remember: to remember who you are, to remember who God has always said you are; to recognize, to know, again; to come to yourself; to be who you’ve always been, but not allowed yourself to be.”

If we allow ourselves to see ourselves as unique, one of a kind, beloved image-bearers of God–fully known and fully loved, and learn to see others in that same way–rivalry falls to the wayside.

King Herod was loved by God. King Herod made a series of bad choices, beginning, in this account, with marrying his brother’s wife, which led to the prophet John the Baptist pointing out his immoral behavior, which led to John’s arrest.  Herod’s wife hated John and wanted him dead, but Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. (Mark 6:20)  Herod threw a party, his step-daughter danced in front of his guests and he was so pleased he promised her anything she wanted–up to half his kingdom. She asked her mother what she should ask for, her mother wanted John the Baptist beheaded–the daughter asked Herod for John’s head. The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her…(Mark 6:26)

Even in Herod’s series of people-pleasing poor choices, God loved him. It’s interesting to read the detail that John’s message puzzled Herod, yet he liked to listen to him. I believe God was drawing Herod to himself through John.

We all make poor choices. We all compare ourselves to others. We all “miss the mark”. We all have a tendency to think that we will not reap the consequences of our poor choices. We all rationalize our actions. We all push God away. We all separate ourselves from experiencing the fullness of God’s love. But God never stops loving us. God never pushes us away. God never leaves us. God never turns his back on us.

This week’s limit….we limit our experience of God’s unconditional love in our lives when we choose to “let sin master us”, when we choose to follow our own desires, when we choose to please others against our own convictions, when we choose to diminish ourselves or puff up ourselves in comparison to others, when we let our thought lives run amuck, but God…he never limits his love for us. It is a constant, it is his very character…God is love.

I read this quote the other day–I don’t know who gets the credit for it, but I love it:

                          “Jesus told the story of the prodigal son to make a simple point:                     never mind what you’ve done, just come home.”

This is the heart of our God–just come home. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. Don’t be afraid. None of us is going to do life perfectly. We all fall short. And in the mind-blowing way of our God–His perfect love is there to receive us with open arms–always. 

–Luanne

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Limits

God has limits.

What?

Our God is limitless, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful… but we have a unique capacity to limit our limitless God.

How does that statement hit you?

I think before we get into this too much further, it would be helpful to define what a “limit” is. The Oxford Dictionary defines a limit as: a point or level beyond which something does not or may not extend or pass; a restriction on the size or amount of something permissible or possible.

Keep that definition in mind as we continue…

So far in Mark we have seen Jesus talk about the kingdom being here, now; teach about the kingdom–what it is and how it grows; and show those around him his authority as he enacts the values of the kingdom in the lives of those around him. The passage we looked at on Sunday shows us that we have the ability to put limits on what God can do based on our willingness or unwillingness to participate in the values of kingdom living. Living in the flow of the kingdom includes a posture of belief, trust, and ultimately hope in the one we believe in.

This is not the posture Jesus encountered in this week’s passage. Mark chapter 6 begins by telling us that Jesus left there (where he had just raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead), and went to his hometown.

Pastor John talked about coming home, and about what “home” means. He said that there is an expectation that home is where we get to be ourselves–a safe place, a place of grace. It’s a place where we can be honest about our successes (and failures) openly, a place where our wins can be celebrated in a different way. It’s a place where we can expect to be known and seen, and there’s a measure of vulnerability allowed without condemnation.

I’m going to pause here… Because I know that description of “home” might be painful to read for some. It was painful for me to hear, and painful to write out. Home isn’t always a safe, welcoming place, and sometimes it can feel like the last place we can be our real selves. Sometimes, home is where we feel the least seen and the most overlooked. I have felt this deep pain, as I’m sure many of you have. And you know what? Jesus did, too.

When Jesus went home following a series of mind-blowing miracles, he went with a new reputation, and with quite the following. Perhaps he thought that his community would accept him now, in a way they hadn’t before.

He wasn’t given a warm welcome.

He walked into a place that had been permeated by a posture of unbelief–it only takes one or two negative, unbelieving hearts to change the atmosphere of a place–and he was met with doubts, presumptions, and criticism. Let’s look at the story:

Jesus left that part of the country and returned with his disciples to Nazareth, his hometown. The next Sabbath he began teaching in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. They asked, “Where did he get all this wisdom and the power to perform such miracles?” Then they scoffed, “He’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. And his sisters live right here among us.” They were deeply offended and refused to believe in him. Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his relatives and his own family.” And because of their unbelief, he couldn’t do any miracles among them except to place his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. (Mark 6:1-6, NLT, emphasis mine)

Jesus went home and began to teach. And the text tells us that the people were “amazed”. The same word was used to describe the reaction of people when they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons in his right mind again, as well as to describe their reaction to Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter from the dead. People were “amazed” or, in some of our translations, “astonished”. I decided to look up these occurrences of the word “amazed”, to see if they were all the same word in the original language. Here is what I found…

In the story of the man called “Legion” (Mark 5:20), amazed is translated from the Greek “thaumazo”. It means “to wonder at, to marvel” and its root means “to look closely at, to behold.”

In the story of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:42), the original word is “existemi”. This word means “to amaze, astonish, throw into wonderment“, and can also mean “to be out of one’s mind.”

In this week’s story (Mark 6:2), “amazed” is translated from the word “ekplesso”. It means “to strike out, drive out, expel by a blow; to strike with panic, shock”. In the first two stories, “amaze” means similar things. Not so with this story. The people’s amazement at Jesus here is the kind that is passive. They were struck by the things Jesus taught, in a way that caused shock and panic among them, in a way that felt like a blow. A blow to what? We’re not told. But it could have been to their own egos, to their understanding, to their idea of Jesus… Whatever “blow” they were struck by, we’re told that they scoffed and were deeply offended. The word translated “offense” comes from the Greek word “skandalizo”. It looks a lot our English “scandalized”, doesn’t it? (Our English word is, in fact, derived from this original Greek term.) It means “to cause a person to distrust or desert; to put a stumbling block in the way, to cause one to unjustly judge another.”

Their unbelief caused them to scandalize Jesus in their own minds. They were leaning on their own understanding, and what they thought they knew placed limits on what Jesus could have done in their midst… This is why the exhortation of Proverbs 3:5-6 is so important to listen to. I love the way the Message paraphrase puts it:

Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
    don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
    he’s the one who will keep you on track.
Don’t assume that you know it all.

Jesus’s community assumed that they knew everything about him. They knew whose kid he was, they had meals with his siblings. They knew his trade and they knew his place in society.

But they didn’t leave room in their hearts to get to know him. The real Jesus. They had a story in their heads and it took up all the space where kingdom values could have been heard and understood. They chose to doubt, rather than believe. And so, Jesus couldn’t do any miracles among them because of their unbelief.

This in no way means that he didn’t have the power to do the same miracles there that he had done elsewhere. In fact, the text tells us that he did perform some healing miracles while he was there. He could do them, and he did do them. It’s right there in the passage. But it wouldn’t have mattered how grand the miracles were or how many he performed–their hearts were set up against him. Their posture of unbelief discounted every truth about him in their minds, and the culture in that town was hostile to the kingdom.

Jesus brought the kingdom into that town, the same way he carried it everywhere he went. But it wasn’t received. And without a place for kingdom seeds to grow, any work he did among them would have been futile. He could not force the kingdom to grow and expand in a place where it was not welcomed. There was no posture of belief, no willingness to join Jesus in his kingdom work, no trust–there was only contempt and doubt and unbelief. And so, because we have a good God who chooses to move through us–imperfect and, sometimes unwilling, vessels–Jesus faced limits in his hometown.

This story stands in stark contrast to the story of the woman that Jesus named “Daughter” and commended for her faith just days before, and to the story of Jairus coming to Jesus in faith on behalf of his dying daughter. In these stories, we saw great faith, and we saw Jesus respond to it with miracles of healing.

Am I saying that if we have enough faith, we’ll get our miracle every time? No. I’m not. And I don’t believe that’s what Pastor John was saying either. We know that sometimes faith is strong, and thousands believe together for a miracle that doesn’t come. We see examples of this when we hear about miscarriages, cancer, chronic illness and pain, depression, despair so deep it leads to suicide–despite fervent prayers and belief that God could change those stories–but for some reason he doesn’t. I would never say that any of these losses, any of this pain is a result of a lack of faith. I’ve watched faithful followers of Jesus battle bravely and hang onto every last shred of hope for their miracle–some of them are still with us, healed; some are no longer here.

I know there’s not a formula to faith and miracles. But choosing to live in the ways of the kingdom–holding onto hope, choosing to trust, believing that God always CAN–even if he doesn’t always show up the way we’re hoping he will, keeps our hearts and minds open to the movement of God in and around us. If we live this way, we live in a way that allows us to see and experience all that he is able to do–if we’re willing to bring his kingdom to bear alongside him…

There is one more occurrence of “amazed” I want to touch on… Mark 6:6 tells us that Jesus was amazed at their unbelief. Which “amazed” do you think he was?

It’s “thaumazo”, the same one used in the story of the man who was possessed. It’s the one that means “to wonder at, to marvel; to look closely, behold.” It would have made sense for Jesus’s amazement to be like that of his community–like he’d been struck by a blow. But it touches my heart in a deep place that this wasn’t Jesus’s response. He looked closely, beheld these people who were his family, his community–these ones who scoffed at and rejected him–and he chose not to take the same posture. He didn’t scandalize them in his mind. He beheld them with his kingdom eyes. I think maybe in that moment he saw beyond, into the days that were yet to come, days when many from his community–including his brother James–would not only change their posture to one of belief, but would become leaders of the early church.

Kingdom vision never wears lenses of hopelessness or disbelief. In the kingdom, there is no lost cause, no situation that can’t be changed. And here, even on a day when his heart must have ached from the pain of rejection, we see our Jesus choose an unexpected way, a kingdom way, of seeing those around him. What if we chose a posture that always believes, always hopes, always perseveres, always trusts, always loves? How would that kind of posture change the way we see the world–and the way the world sees us?

–Laura

A dozen or so years ago, Bible study author and teacher Beth Moore offered her first on-line study. I lived in Brazil at the time and was excited to be able to participate in the study from my home there. The title of the study was “Believing God”. It rocked my world. I have gone on to do/lead that study five more times. The thing making that study so profound for me was a seemingly small shift in a common phrase, which made all the difference in the world. Rather than “I believe in God”,  the phrase became I believe God. The study was built on these tenets:

God is who he says he is.

God can do what he says he can do.

I am who God says I am.

I can do all things through Christ.

I’m believing God. (Beth Moore)

Our belief doesn’t manipulate God into doing what we want him to do, but it does provide an open channel for God’s activity to flow–or as Laura wrote–for God to bring the kingdom here.

Last night a storm passed through our city. The power went out at my house for 2 1/2 hours. The power source was still available, many houses in town still had power, but something had happened in my part of town that caused the flow of that power to be interrupted. Unbelief is like that. It doesn’t diminish the power of God in any way. However, it can block the flow of that power.

I can’t pretend to understand this mystery, but God in his great love has allowed us to be partners with him in bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. As in any relationship, if one of the partners chooses to disengage, the effectiveness of the partnership suffers.

Our belief that God is who he says he is and can do what he says he can do is vitally important in kingdom work. In the Old Testament book of Numbers, as God was getting ready to lead his people into the land he was giving them,  Moses and Aaron sent twelve men on a scouting mission to bring back a report. They came back with amazing produce and a confirmation that yes, this was a good land; however, ten of the twelve said but we can’t. There are too many obstacles, too many people who are stronger than we are, it’s impossible. The result of their unbelief–their negative report:

That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud.  All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness!  Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?”And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”  Numbers 14:1

Joshua and Caleb, who believed God could do what he said he could do, said:

If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us.  Only do not rebel against the Lord.  (Numbers 14:8)

God was giving them a gift. Instead, one bad report led an entire community into despair and worst-case scenario thinking. The consequence of their unbelief was that they did not get to see the land God was giving to them. They wandered for forty years until all of them but Joshua and Caleb had died, and the two who believed–who also suffered the consequences of the unbelief of their comrades–were able to move into the promised land.

When speaking of those who Moses led out of Egypt, Hebrews 3:19 tells us, they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.

I think it’s important to point out that while the Israelites were in the wilderness, God was still with them. He led them, he fed them, he provided water, he miraculously made their clothes and shoes last the entire time (Deuteronomy 29:5), he taught them, he did miracles on their behalf; he continued to love them, to speak to them through Moses,  to care for them. He was still the God who is love.

It’s also important to note what Laura wrote above: Am I saying that if we have enough faith, we’ll get our miracle every time? No. I’m not.  

Our belief doesn’t manipulate God into doing what we want him to do. God is God. His ways are higher than ours, his thoughts are higher than ours; unfortunately, suffering, sickness, violence, and death are part of life on this planet–and none of us escapes those things. Neither did Jesus.

However, our unbelief can keep us from fully experiencing all that God has for us, and can keep us from living in such a way that God’s supernatural activity in and around us is impeded.

Going back to the verses that Laura quoted above: Proverbs 3:5 in the NLT version reads like this:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding.

The word “trust” can be a noun or a verb. In its noun form it means: assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something; one in which confidence is placed.  In its verb form, it means: “to rely on–to believe, to place confidence in,  to commit or place in one’s care or keeping… (merriam-webster.com)

The people in Jesus’ hometown thought they knew him. They made assumptions. They created a culture of unbelief that permeated the whole town. They depended on their own understanding, their own knowledge, and from that place stood in a defensive posture and shut off the valve that could have changed their lives. They were not willing to place themselves in the care or keeping of Jesus. They were not willing to experience something new.

I’ll say it again–I don’t pretend to understand this mystery, but I believe it’s true. Our belief–the active verb kind of belief that allows God to move and work and meet us where we are, opens up the activity of heaven right here, right now. Our openness to God allows him to work through us without limits.

In the hard seasons, do I trust the character of God? When I don’t get my miracle do I trust the character of God? When everything feels dark and confusing do I trust the character of God? Do I believe God?

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who were thrown into a blazing hot fire said to King Nebuchadnezzar:  If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18)

They had no doubt that God is who he says he is, and they trusted him no matter the outcome. They refused to bow to any false god–the god of disappointment, the god of my own way, the god of discontent, the god of “I’ve served you faithfully and you let this happen to me?” or any other thing that we may find ourselves serving when we lean on our own understanding.

Of Beth Moore’s principles, the one where I’ve limited God the most is “I am who God says I am”. He has invited me into things that I feel incapable of–that I am incapable of apart from him. Sometimes I close the door and don’t move into those spaces because I’m afraid–I’m relying on my own understanding. Sometimes I take a deep breath and go for it–and Every. Single. Time. come away amazed at who God is.

There have been many times when God has asked me to stay in places that are hard– physical places, relational places, emotional places. I don’t like those places, yet when I believe God, I can have the faith to believe that he will redeem the pain and work it all toward his good purpose both in and through me.

There have been times that I’ve lost people I love to disease, to car accidents, or to friendships that changed over time. If I believe God, I can have the faith that even in these hard things, he is working. I can choose to trust, to commit myself to his care and keeping–even in seasons of grief, believing that he is God and he is love even as I beat my fists against his chest.

There have been times that I have seen God perform miracles, heal, save, transform, redeem, restore, come through when all hope seemed lost, and at those times it’s easy to see him, to believe him, to glorify him.  I believe that’s one of the reasons he asks us to keep our minds focused on lovely and excellent things, and to remember what he’s done for us. It helps us keep believing, even when we don’t understand what he’s doing.

When I’m in hard seasons, I oftentimes reflect on the disciples at the time of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. What was going through their minds? When it looked like all hope was lost, God the Son was carrying out a victorious mission. He died, passed through death, now holds the keys of death and hades, and rose again from the dead utterly defeating death.  Colossians 2:15 words it like this: And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.  What looked like total darkness and chaos, became our freedom–the verses right before 2:15 state: He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And then he made a public spectacle of the powers and authorities, disarming them forever!

What looked like the end was the new beginning…

Therefore:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart–don’t lean on your own knowledge or understanding. Believe God…

God is who he says he is. He can do what he says he can do. We are who he says we are. We can do all things through him. Let’s not limit what He can do by our unbelief; instead, let’s choose to believe our limitless God and watch him be amazing in our midst.

–Luanne

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