Monday, September 14, 2015

Jesus is Fire...

Matthew 3:11, NRSV, I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

It's fun to find the opposites of things, some are obvious, far and near which we all learned from Grover on Sesame Street. Friends and enemies, of course we could claim the middle ground is the confusing “frenemy”. Some are more difficult, what is the opposite of fluff? What's the opposite of cantaloupes?

A pair of dynamic of opposites is presented here in Matthew 3, water and fire. Water cools, quenches, floods, engulfs, sustains and nourishes. Fire burns, consumes, destroys, refines, and eliminates all the impurities for the purity that is inside to show through.

John is presented as the water, Jesus as the fire. This is an interesting comparison, John is baptizing with water but he says that one is coming that will baptize with fire. But if you look through the gospels you will see that Jesus never baptized….so what is the meaning here?

I suppose it depends on what we mean by baptism doesn't it? Some people will say baptism comes from the Greek meaning “to immerse”. Others will say it means to “pour over” and others will show support for both. I will be honest here, if Greek scholars are still in debate over this, and they know Greek, I doubt I will settle it since I don't know it at all.

I think we can say this though, baptism seems to be an important event. John is particular about who he baptizes, even turning people away, see vs. 7-8 of this chapter. Jesus is baptized and it is a watershed moment, when he begins His public ministry and He doesn't have just anyone perform it, he has John do the honors. Jesus commands believers to baptize as one of the ongoing rites of the church.

If John is water we can compare him to water in this way, water is perishable, it dries up, you can have a flood but it will dissipate at some point. The flood waters that come, have a source and when that source dies down, the waters begin to slowly subside, they do not build in intensity. Once the source is cut off, you have no more raging storm to battle just the aftermath.

If Jesus is fire then you have a very different comparison. Fire burns until it runs out of oxygen or fuel to burn. Fire jumps and spreads and grows bigger, even if you dig trenches and wet the fuel, fire is utterly destructive, destroying everything in it's path. There is no clean up after a fire, there is only destruction and building something new.

But what does come after fire is new growth. The fire puts nutrients into the soil which allow for the first buds of new trees, plants and flowers to slowly make their way though. Out of the destruction, out of the utter death of everything, comes new life.

That's where the Holy Spirit comes in and that's why Jesus is bringing Him because there is no growth without the Holy Spirit, there is no awakening the soil, there is no speaking to the dead, “grow, live, breathe!” without the breath of God.

And just like man was first made out of dirt, we are made out of ashes and breathed into by God...that, my friends, is why Jesus is fire.  

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Forgive Me Not

Love is not a victory march. It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah...”
-Leonard Cohen

Matthew 11:28-30 NRSV. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

A very poignant lesson on forgiveness lurks in Matthew 11. If you are familiar with the Bible at all you are probably familiar with all the verses we love to quote on forgiveness, but maybe this one isn't quoted in that context as much. Maybe you've heard this in the context of the maxim, “Let go and let God”, which is not a thing, by the way. It's empty talk that Christians use when they don't actually have anything meaningful to say or can't think of anything to say. There's certainly nothing Biblical about it.

So let's peruse the passage shall we? The beginning of chapter Jesus and His disciples split and Jesus is spending some time on his own. John's disciples encounter him and bring some questions from John, that would be John the Baptist. He has his doubts, he's maybe discouraged or unsure, a smidgen on the hesitant side.

Instead of answering them directly, Jesus points them to actions He has done and things that are happening throughout the community, “the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed”-vs. 4-6.
Jesus is effectively telling the disciples and John, and all the other listeners around him, look at what I've done but also and possibly more importantly, “go and talk to the lepers who are no longer lepers, the blind who now see, the lame who now walk the same roads we do”. Jesus is inviting them to investigate the testimony of others that have encountered him and decide for themselves. He doesn't give them a direct answer of “yes”.

I'll spare you a detailed exegesis of the rest of the chapter but suffice to say vs. 7-24 are full of strong words from Jesus. He praises John but basically affirms John's suffering and doesn't dismiss it, He then points to all the evidence that has been given to the people He has been talking to and pronounces judgments on them if they do not accept his words as truth.

The last section in this chapter dovetails off all this and brings it to a conclusion. The song lyric from Panic at the Disco seems to fit the sentiment nicely, “All you sinners stand up, sing hallelujah”. The last few verses are a wonderful breath of fresh air compared to the previous verses. So why does Jesus say these things? He doesn't say them to affirm that our troubles will be light when we follow him, this is no, “follow Jesus and never be sad or depressed” card. What Jesus seems to be reinforcing is that his message frees the heart and that freedom will spill over into your actions. We still have struggles, we will still have aches and pains, long nights and difficult days. But Jesus speaks to the matter of the most importance, the burden of the heart and the afflictions that pile up on it, that burden of the soul that can only be lifted by Jesus. But you know what's interesting about this passage? Jesus talked about the things He had done, pointing to Him, they took direct intervention and action. May we do the same in our community so people can see what a forgiven theology looks like in action.

I thought about why forgiveness is so hard in our culture, because there's two affects or emotions that people fear the most, and it's shame and grief...I thought faith would say, 'I'll take away the pain and discomfort'. But what it ended up saying was, 'I'll sit with you in it'. -Brene Brown