Empty Warnings Undeterring

Just at that time some Pharisees approached, saying to Him, “Go away, leave here, for Herod wants to kill You.”  And He said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I reach My goal.’  Nevertheless I must journey on today and tomorrow and the next day; for it cannot be that a prophet would perish outside of Jerusalem.  O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it!  “Behold, your house is left to you desolate; and I say to you, you will not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!'” (Luke 13:31-35 NASB)

When I was a kid and my family would be going on a long vacation, occasionally I was allowed to pack my own bag my way.  It was only when it didn’t matter whether I brought enough socks and underwear though.  My bag inevitably ended up with lots of stuff that made no sense and served little to no purpose.  But I had an explanation for everything that was in there.  It made sense to me.  In a way, Luke’s preservation of this dialogue of Jesus is like my child-travel bag.

Luke is clearer here than in other places about the timing connecting back to what came before.  More than one Pharisee comes to Jesus with the warning, and the warning sounds like they care about Jesus.  Jesus’ response is to call Herod a fox (and not in a cute sense), and then proceed to delineate His itinerary of healing and exorcisms over the next three days until He reaches His goal.  And I have to ask whether Jesus is giving a clue to the “3-Days-In-The-Grave” thing coming up quickly; where He is in the grave today, the next day, and the following day rises from the dead.

But then Jesus goes on to lament over Jerusalem even though He’s not there yet.  He will do it again once He arrives, but here laments about how unreceptive the city has been to her God and His prophets and messengers.  How long has Jesus desired to gather her children as a hen gathers her chicks?  It’s possible Jesus is describing much more than His earthly life time, though the ones hearing Him wouldn’t have understood that.  “But you would not have it” is a sad commentary on a city whose claim to fame is as the “Place where God placed His Name.”  The commentary is to become an epitaph, as is clear in Jesus’ prophesy over the city when He arrives.

This last statement about the city though, I think, is a foreshadowing of the Triumphal Entry, and not some end-time reference.  This prophecy is really about the city receiving Him, but at the same time, foreshadows His eventual rejection.  It only takes a few days to come to be, so it’s not a prophecy of some future yet to be.  And the quote within it is from Psalm 118, which also sounds like a hodge-podge of praise about God and to God.  Psalm 118 is where we find “The stone which the builders rejected has become the corner stone.”  It’s where we find “This is the day the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  And then, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

It’s a weird statement from a weird Psalm.  The context doesn’t really illuminate why Jesus would use it here.  What did it mean to the Pharisees?  What did it mean to the disciples?  Does this Psalm refer to some event in the minds of first-century Jews?  Not that I’m aware, which means little really.  I am more inclined to believe Jesus is simply foreshadowing the day He arrives in Jerusalem.  Perhaps these same Pharisees who have lied about Herod will be there, see the entry, and remember this statement.  Who knows.  And yes, they lied about Herod.

So what is my lesson, my take-away from this?  Jesus doesn’t subscribe to my illusions.  He isn’t fooled by those things I use to fool myself and others.  Jesus sees through them, through their distractions and focus’ on His purpose, His plan and goal.  He will not be deterred from Jerusalem, and the cross, the grave, and the empty tomb.  So, I also need to be honest about my illusions.  I need to learn what the Pharisees did not.  Why not learn from Jesus?  Unlike them, I know He’s God, shouldn’t I listen to God?  Why not share Jesus’ focus, purpose, plan, and goal?   Do I have better ones?  Not letting the distractions of warnings, fears, empty and hollow fears, is the necessary approach to life with Jesus.  But like Peter, the wind and wave distract me from walking on water.  The hollow warnings of those seeking my destruction draw my attention.  The ridiculous and the easy distract from the beautiful and difficult.  Jesus was undeterred in His pursuit of the cross.  I can be undeterred in my pursuit of His goal for my life.

What do you learn from this passage?

Striving For The Narrow Door

“Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.  Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open up to us!’ then He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from.’  Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets’;  and He will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you are from; DEPART FROM ME, ALL YOU EVILDOERS.’  In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being thrown out.”  (Luke 13:24-28 NASB)

We quote that it is by grace we are saved, not works.  And this is true, and extremely important.  Yet the Apostle Paul was very clear about how hard he worked for his salvation (see Philippians 3).  He knew he was saved, that he couldn’t trade his salvation even for his own people, and he knew that he was loved and excepted by Jesus.  But he worked in the Kingdom of God as if he wasn’t.  He worked, as it were, for his salvation.

Jesus says here to “strive to enter”; to work hard, get sweaty.  He’s talking about the Kingdom of God, and He says many will seek to enter, in the future, not necessarily now.  But then, in the future it will be too late.  The door will be shut, and the master of the house (I’m thinking God) will not recognize their origin, where they are from.  The thing they think gets them in, their origin, will not be recognized.  There will be those who thought that because Jesus taught in their streets, and because they ate with Him, they should be obvious shoe-in’s for the Kingdom, yet are shut out.

The key here, which is different than the key in the parallel in Matthew 7, is that the narrow door is found through striving.  But the what keeps those outside on the outside is that they did not really know Jesus.  He taught in their streets, they ate with Him, but didn’t know Him.  They figured it was enough that they hang out with Him from time to time, but it wasn’t.  He refused to recognize where they were from, and even calls them those who work unrighteousness (perform deeds contrary to righteousness or outside a relationship with God).  This should shake us up.  It scare the willies out me.

The Kingdom of God is found through striving to enter the narrow door.  It may not be popular right now, but it will be; after it’s too late.  Having heard the gospel isn’t enough.  Having shared a meal with Jesus isn’t enough.  The question plaguing me is how hard am I striving for that narrow door?  Does my life look like Paul’s?  Do I push on for the upward call of Christ?  Or am I mired in the things of this world?  Do I get so distracted by work, family, and even “church” that my relationship with my Master becomes another set of tasks?  I ate with Him, check that off.  I heard a sermon, check that off.  I did whatever, check that off.  What have I done to get into His presence?  And having been in His presence, what distracted me, and how hard am I trying to get back there?

Yes, my relationship with my family is important.  My relationship with my wife is primary among all my other human relationships  I have on earth.  And I do need to characterize Jesus as I relate to others.  But don’t I also in doing so have to do as He did in those relationships?  Jesus wasn’t “nice” to everyone.  He wasn’t, and it doesn’t take much study to see that.  Jesus didn’t try to please everyone, didn’t accommodate His preaching to everyone, didn’t tell some to repent but not others lest He offend them.  He said, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”  In other words, “Change your mind to agree with God’s mind because His authority over all things is coming.”  The truth is that a day is coming when the narrow door will be shut.  Those inside the door will be the ones who strove to please their Maker.  Don’t my neighbors need to know that?

I see a scary passage here.  What do you see?

Kingdom Starter

And again He said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?  It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.” (Luke 13:20-21 NASB)

I have this weird drive to know how stuff works.  It’s almost a mania with me.  So, drinking coffee morphed into roasting it.  Owning a firearm morphed into reloading ammunition.  And then came this drive to discover how to make my favorite type of bread, sourdough.  I couldn’t find a recipe to use in a bread machine that also used starter.  So, I experimented and found one.  Then I moved to an elevation of 4,000 feet and had to reinvent the recipe for “high altitude”.  But I’ve always had a problem with sourdough starter.

Sourdough starter is somewhat like owning a pet; a needy, selfish, stinky, moody pet.  I think “Bill the Cat” when I think of such pets; Garfield on the Adkin’s Diet.  But the bread it produces is amazing.  While in Alaska, I picked up a sourdough starter “kit” with a book on the history of the stuff.  In it I learned something I’d never really imagined.  Sourdough starter became popular because it was easy to use and therefore made transporting and keeping yeast very easy.  Yeast, as it turns out, is free-floating through the air – everywhere.  I doubted this, but went through their process for making starter, and it worked!  Here in the high desert of Nevada I found the air full of yeast!  Well, okay, not full exactly, but it is there nonetheless.

Now, about this “yeast” or “leaven” referred to in this oblique obfuscating parable; it literally refers to a lump of dough already full of yeast.  It’s how the ancients kept their yeast ready to go without having to wait for “air-yeast” to find its way into the dough.  That’s right, it was a dough “starter” or “sponge”.  Which makes sense because they couldn’t go down to the local supermarket and get a packet of bread yeast.  They had to have some way to control the leavening process, and their method was what we call a starter.  Do any of you remember the “Friendship Bread” craze from the 80’s and 90’s?  It’s like that, but without the vast amounts of sugar.

So, the Kingdom of God is like this sourdough starter…I’m having trouble not still thinking of Bill the Cat.  It’s like this starter.  How?  The qualities of the Kingdom of God spread.  The woman added the leaven to 3 measures of flour and it all became leavened.  The qualities spread to whatever was added to it.  It shares it’s qualities with those it comes into contact.  Honestly, I’m not sure how else to understand this.  It’s not an exhaustive theological work by Jesus expounding the qualities of Life with our Creator, it’s simply a statement that this Kingdom He has been proclaiming shares its qualities with those with whom it comes into contact.

Well, wonderful for the Kingdom.  Way to go, sharing is so important, what a wonderful thing for it to do…except that if I’m part of this Kingdom, sharing the duties of serving the King (what Kingdom doesn’t have a King?), then I’m sharing my qualities.  I’m part of what is being shared, part of the effect.  And I suppose the question I need to ask myself (perhaps you could ask yourself as well), am I sharing good qualities or bad ones?  And yes, that can happen.

Making bread with a starter is actually pretty cool.  But like all bread making, rules have to be followed.  And like baking or cooking in general, things that aren’t supposed to be ingredients can get into a dish.  So, while the effect of “rising” still occurs, if I’m also adding in some of my rebellious qualities, the bread may look fine, but taste really bad.  I once forgot salt.  NEVER do that.  I once added too much salt.  Yeah, bad idea as well.  Salt ended up being the thing I had to really adjust more than any other ingredient to get my recipe right.  I got the flour pretty quickly, the starter, was basically the same, the other things like baking soda and so on were also fairly easy.  Salt was my downfall for so long.

So, what am I, as part of my Master’s Kingdom, adding to the lives of those around me?  Do they smell and enjoy the aroma of my Master’s presence?  Or does my odor still permeate a bit too far?  The beautiful thing is that the closer I get to my Master, the less of me there is to influence those around me, and the more of Him they see.  The goal is to be transformed into His image.  But I have to be transformed.  I don’t do it, He does.  I just get close to Him so He can.  He won’t grab me and force me to be anything.

What do you learn from this obscure parable?

Mustard Seed Kingdom

So He was saying, “What is the kingdom of God like, and to what shall I compare it?  It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and threw into his own garden; and it grew and became a tree, and THE BIRDS OF THE AIR NESTED IN ITS BRANCHES.”  (Luke 13:18-19 NASB)

Ah, parables; those “earthly stories” with “heavenly meanings” (sure).  Luke especially of all the gospel writers has preserved sayings of Jesus that really seem incomprehensible.  Here we have a simile parable where the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.  “Oh?” you reply, “how is the Kingdom of God like a mustard seed?” To which Jesus answers, “A man took and threw it into his own garden and it grew into a tree where birds nested.”

Oh sure, can’t you see it now? The Kingdom of God is thrown into a “personal garden” to grow into a…well, some big form of a natural transformation, and lots of…well, someone comes to live in it.  Oh certainly, it’s all clear to me now…or obscure, or so convoluted I have no idea what Jesus meant.  And it’s so short, it’s hard to try and fill in the details from a context or other elements in the story.

So, here’s my “spin” on this one: The mustard seed = “the Kingdom of God” (duh, He actually said that one); the “man” is God; the “personal garden” is the world we live in, perhaps especially Israel; the “tree” is a depiction of the exponential transformation in shape and size of the Kingdom once “planted”; and the “birds of the air” are unexpected guests or recipients, perhaps Gentiles.  I say “unexpected” because you would expect the fruit of the tree or the tree to be some source of something productive (however they make mustard from it, but without pork, what would they use it for?).  Instead of some “fruit” from the tree, it becomes a place for birds to next.

There is often an oblique reference in the margin of reference Bibles to Ezekiel 17:23, but the “birds of every kind” really aren’t well defined there either, but are often thought of as Gentiles.  The “trees” seem to be nations or empires, or some other political or people entity.  But if I follow the rough correspondence of elements of the parable out, then the meaning does seem to fit Jesus’ conclusion of verses 24-30 which claims the Kingdom will be enjoyed by Gentiles with the Patriarchs, and not so much by those to whom Jesus preached.

The Kingdom of God seems small, but expands rapidly into something more immense but also used for a different purpose.  I don’t think that this “nesting” purpose excludes using the resulting tree for obtaining mustard though, just that it includes a wider purpose than the expected one.  The birds weren’t chased off, but welcomed, as if they were supposed to be there.

While it’s possible Luke worded or included this parable for his Gentile readers, it’s also cannot be ignored that Jesus said this to expressly distress His Jewish listeners.  He wanted them to become uncomfortable that they were missing the very thing they had waited so long, with such expectation, to obtain.  Here it was passing them by, and they didn’t even realize it.  “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!”  “Do what? It’s where? What do you mean?”  And so it went.

But the challenge is there for me too.  And it’s there for you as well.  You, if you’re reading this, have an expectation of participation in the Kingdom of God, just like I do because I write this drivel.  But are we missing the Kingdom because it doesn’t fit our expected paradigm?  Who are we excluding whom God is including?  What are we doing or not doing that God is already at work to accomplish?  Are our heads up, looking about, seeking the work and will of our Master?  Mine is often absorbed in all sort of stuff, that while possibly important, is not the Kingdom nor of or about the King.  And that, my friends, needs to change.

What do you learn from this brief parable?

Life Saving Repentance

 “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any.  And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’  And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.'”  (Luke 13:5-9 NASB)

And so we have a warning from Jesus, to repent or perish.  In a sense it’s like saying life is short, but in another sense it’s like warning someone from a cliff.  The way it’s worded is as a warning that if things continue then the result will be destruction.  This isn’t an usual proclamation for Jesus, He began His teaching with “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near,” and gave that same message to His disciples on both “sending out” events.  Repentance is arguably the core of Jesus’ message.  But what does it mean?

Most of the time I’ve heard repentance described as “turning around and going the other way.”  Yet even this is overly simplistic.  Turn from what to what?  The word for “return” which is where we get this simple definition isn’t even the normal word for “repent”.  The normal word is “after thought” referring to a “change of mind afterwards”.  The mind or pattern of thinking about something changes.  Which is great, but still, from what to what?  And in verses 1-5, Jesus really doesn’t say from what to what.  But I believe He does give us a glimpse of what He wants in this parable.

The fig tree has a problem: It doesn’t produce figs as it should.  The conditions are good, the tree is the right sort, it’s in the right place, it’s just not making figs.  The owner says to cut it down and the gardener says to give it a year of even better treatment.  The question left hanging in the air, leaving us in suspense is, “will the tree produce figs, or will it perish?”.  So what is the change or turning from and to in this case?  Doing what we’re designed to do?  Being what we’re designed to be?

There is much in our culture that fights against design.  But our culture isn’t made up of the “people of God” either.  So it shouldn’t surprise us.  But when the “people of God” struggle against the design of their Creator, then there is a problem.  Jesus is speaking to Jews of the first century.  They considered themselves the “People of God”, and rightly so.  Scripture has declared the same thing in both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.  Yet, their Messiah shows up, and they rejected Him.  While this was wonderful news for Gentiles like me, it broke Jesus’ heart.  His people were not being what they were designed to be.

Flash forward a few thousand years, and ask the question, are followers of Jesus today being what they were designed to be?  It would be overly simplistic to answer for every church and every believer.  On the other hand, trends in the American culture seem to indicate an anemic influence of biblical values.  And the news seems to have no problem finding examples of those who claim to follow Jesus being better examples of moral evil rather than moral good.  It seems indistinct and difficult to change the course of all believers across the country, so how about me…and you?

Are we being what we’re designed to be?  Are we doing what we’re designed to do?  Are we fig trees bearing figs?  Or are we trying to produce peaches?  Are we trying to be evergreens?  Are we trying to be gazelles?  Are we unhappy with who or what God has designed us to be and are we trying to be “self-made” whatever?  Our culture tells us that we can be whatever we want, “anyone can be anything”.  Disney produced a movie to that effect this year, “Zootopia”.  I love that movie.  It’s about overcoming the confining cultural barriers and being whatever you want.  To an extent, I believe that myself.  But only to the extent that my culture seems very invested in me not being a devoted follower of Jesus.

So what will I do?  Will I resist my Savior’s design and purpose for me?  Will I fight my culture’s design and purpose for me?  Will I relent to my Master, or will I relent to my culture?  Will I choose a path laid out by my King, or the path everyone else is following?  Will I conform?  And if so, to whom or what?  There are plenty of competing philosophical positions out there to choose from, and it would be very “American” of me to decide on a “cafeteria plan” approach to them.  Why not be a reincarnated believer in the natural order established by aliens?  Literal “bear hug”, who’s with me? <cricket, cricket>

As we pursue an understanding of Scripture, and through the lens of Scripture, of God Himself, a very different “philosophy” comes into focus.  What we discover is a philosophy deviant from our culture, and everyone else’s too.  It’s not European, nor Asian, nor African, nor Native American, nor Polynesian. It’s not even some admixture of such cultures, even though that is a common claim.  It’s divine, and it’s different; and if I’m going to change at all, it will be from a human culture to what God describes in Scripture.  So, from my view through this particular “knothole”, repentance is “counter culture”; and therefore cool.

So what do you learn from this parable?