Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Sermon that Created a Fury

I was reading this morning from Luke 4:14-30, the account of the very first synagogue teaching of Jesus. According to Luke's chronology, this was the very first public action of Jesus following His baptism and the temptation in the wilderness. The location was Nazareth, a sparsely settled village in Galilee - the town in which Jesus grew up.

Picture the setting. It is the evening of Shabbat (Friday night for us). A small group of men walk silently toward the small synagogue. They enter and sit on stone benches that lined the walls. From the Ark, a leather-bound scroll was handed to Jesus for He was to be the designated reader of the Scriptures that day. The scroll was of the prophet Isaiah. Carefully Jesus unrolled the scroll until He came to Isaiah 61:1-2 (you must remember there were no chapter or verse divisions in Jesus' day). Jesus read the text, gave it back to the one attending the Ark, and sat down. Then Jesus uttered a one sentence commentary: Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Luke tells us the people were amazed.

Perhaps, encouraged by those in attendance, Jesus elaborated upon a quote He may have heard upon His return to Nazareth. You can read this in verses 23-27. Drawing upon two familiar stories from the Old Testament, Jesus reminds His listeners that the Sidonian widow and the Syrian captain had experienced the grace of God...not the people living within Israel.

Suddenly the amazement turned to fury. Compliments became complaints. Acceptance became rejection even to the point of plotting Jesus' death. Why this change in attitude? The words Jesus read were what people wanted to hear - God would do something for them. The commentary of Jesus was not what they wanted to hear - God would also do something for the Gentiles. That synagogue audience is not unlike many church congregations today. Congregants clamor for what they want to hear. They want God to do something for them but at no costs to themselves. But, when the subject turns to what God really wants them to hear...rejection is the only alternative.

The prophet is without honor in his own town. The validity of that truth lies not with the prophet, but with the people of the town. To be cast out of Nazareth - and to our knowledge Jesus never returned there - did not diminish the ministry of Jesus, but the people of Nazareth certainly missed out on what God might have done through them.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

To divide or not to divide...ah, that's the Jerusalem Question

In my blog this week I thought I would bring you up to date on what is happening with the status of the government in Israel and the dialogues between the Palestinians and the Israelis especially as it concerns Jerusalem. (By the way, let me recommend a powerful book for your reading. It is titled, Fight for Jerusalem, and was written by Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. You might remember that a few weeks ago I had written and stated that it appeared the government of Prime Minister Olmert was on the verge of collapse. One party within his fragile coalition had withdrawn and it appeared a second party was also leaving. But that party, called Shas - the party of the religiously conservative and orthodox - has remained. In spite of various calls for its departure, the Shas leadership has remained steadfast. The leadership has insisted that they will bolt from the Olmert government when the division of Jerusalem becomes a topic for discussion with the Palestinians.

But, there is the rub. President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and Israeli Foreign Minister Livni have been conducting secret negotiating sessions regarding the "core issues" leading to a 2-State settlement. Both have admitted to various newspaper organizations that the subject of the division of Jerusalem has been discussed. However, the Prime Minister's office has denied those reports. It is obvious that someone is not telling the truth. From what I have been reading, I am convinced that the subject of Jerusalem has not only been discussed, but that the division of the city will become a reality perhaps as early as sometime next year; that is, unless the Israeli people - who overwhelmingly have voiced their opposition to a divided Jerusalem - act.

That brings us back to that religiously conservative Shas party. If they would exit the Olmert coalition, then the Israeli government would collapse as Olmert would no longer have a majority of votes in the Knesset. Two things could then happen. First, Olmert's party - known as Kadima - could choose new leadership and try to form a new coalition; or second, national elections could be called and a new government put into place. According to latest Israeli polls, if new elections were held, the Likud party would emerge victorious and Benjamin Netanyahu would become Prime Minister.

Jerusalem is the key. The city God has chosen upon which to have His name dwell is of utmost importance. It is certainly a place that will bear watching these next weeks and months. I will keep my eyes focused there and will report to you from time to time what God is doing there. In the meanwhile I challenge you to remember the responsibilities to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6).

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Things of God or Things of Men

One of the interesting places Village Schools tours visit while in Israel is the road to Caesarea Philippi. The road is winding and steep. And the caverns of Caesarea Philippi still have a sense of the mysterious, just as they did in the days of Jesus. It was along this roadway that Jesus asked a very practical, yet very personal question of His disciples. "Who am I?" The responses were many. The disciples had been paying attention to what the crowds had been saying. Then Peter declares with unabated voice - "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus affirmed this declaration.

What becomes very interesting is what happened after Peter's declaration. Jesus begins to prepare His disciples for what would happen when they returned to Jerusalem. He would suffer and die and be raised after three days. Did the disciples want to hear those words? Of course not. In fact, Peter became offended by them, and became offensive himself when he said to Jesus that what Jesus had said would not happen. We applaud Peter for his dedication and his zeal. But, if Jesus was who he had just proclaimed Him to be, then Peter should have yielded to what Jesus said.

In reading Mark's account of this story, I was halted by the words of Jesus to Peter. You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men (Mark 8:33). How does a person go about making distinction between the things of God and the things of men? What are the things of God? What are the things of men? I think we can answer the last question first - the things of men are those events, desires, wishes that fulfill who we are. Most often they are founded upon selfish ambitions. The goals may be good, but the attitude is self-serving. On the other hand, the things of God are those desires, wishes, dreams that enable us to better understand who He is. Peter did not want Jesus to die - a lofty and admirable aspiration. But it was wrong! Peter needed to yield to the desires of God. And so do I. Daily I must ask myself: Max, am I truly seeking the things of God today, or just those things of men that will satisfy my selfish will?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

To Tell...Or Not To Tell

Have you ever read a portion of Scripture and then scratched your head and wondered why a person said or did something that appeared to not make sense? I read this morning in Mark 5, a passage that contains some powerful miracles performed by Jesus. Yet, as I read, I wondered at a seeming contradiction between what Jesus told the now-healed demoniac of Gadara and what He told the parents of the young girl raised from the dead. Somehow, at first reading, it just did not make sense.

First, concerning the demoniac who lived among the tombs in the country of Gadara, located on the southeastern side of the Sea of Galilee. You remember the story. Jesus casts out the demons that had tormented this man for years. The demons asked permission to enter into a herd of pigs, then hurled the pigs into the Sea where they were drowned. This act caused quite a stir - first for the man who was healed, then for the pig-herders, and finally for the people in the area. The response of the crowd was of more concern over a bunch of drowned pigs than of rejoicing over a man who had been restored to sanity. The man himself asked permission to follow Jesus. Jesus told him, "no," but then commanded him to go and tell everyone what had happened. He was freed to proclaim as often as he desired his story. Jesus set no boundaries upon his testimony.

Second, the miracle of the raising of Jairus' daughter from the dead was one of the mightiest acts Jesus ever did. Perhaps this happened in the vicinity of Capernaum. The reality was this: the girl had died. Everyone in the community knew this. It was not a secret. When Jesus arrived at the home, the public mourning had already begun. Yet Jesus enters the room where she laid in preparation for burial. Gently He calls her back to life. Then Jesus told them something that seems absolutely absurd - they were to tell no one about what had happened. Doesn't that seem strange? Were they to keep the girl in the house all the time? How would they answer questions? And, the Bible tells us the girl was twelve - almost a teenager - and I remember how teenaged girls love to talk. Jesus did set boundaries upon their testimony.

The more I pondered this statement in Mark 5:43 today, the more I came to understand that Jesus did not give this commandment for silence to create hardships. I believe He did it to protect this impressionable young girl and her very public family. It was to shield the girl from what I call, "the Britney Syndrome" today. Would people know? Absolutely! But Jesus was telling them not to elevate the young girl to the status of an icon. The focus was to be upon Jesus.

So, here is what God shared with me today. In the telling of my story, I must be careful not to elevate myself to the position of prominence. I must keep the focus upon Jesus, for my life is really an expression of His story.