Day 107: Matthew 11:16-17

Now, to what can I compare the people of this day?  They are like children sitting in the market place.  One group shouts to the other, “ We played wedding music for you, but you wouldn’t dance!  We sang funeral songs, but you wouldn’t cry!”

[A crowd has gathered to hear what Jesus has to say about John the Baptist, who has been arrested by King Herod.]

What Jesus is describing here is dysfunctional community.  The people are out of touch with each other.  They are self-absorbed and living, in their own little worlds, oblivious to what’s going on around them.  There is no cooperation, no empathy, no connection, no love.  In short, these people have no emotional intelligence.

My pastor Tom Rogers is very interested in the concept of emotional intelligence, which he asserts is a very important part of successful living.  If he reads this he will be very happy to know that Jesus agrees.

Here’s a brief description of emotional intelligence from About.com:

The ability to express and control our own emotions is important, but so is our ability to understand, interpret, and respond to the emotions of others. Imagine a world where you couldn’t understand when a friend was feeling sad or when a co-worker was angry. Psychologists refer to this ability as emotional intelligence, and some experts even suggest that it can be more important than IQ.

Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to the ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions. Some researchers suggest that emotional intelligence can be learned and strengthened, while others claim it is an inborn characteristic.

Since 1990, Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer have been the leading researchers on emotional intelligence. In their influential article “Emotional Intelligence,” they defined emotional intelligence as, “the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions”

Here’s a little chart I found online that’s kind of helpful:

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Peter Salovey believes that emotional intelligence is as important as IQ and personality in successful living.

 “I think in the coming decade we will see well-conducted research demonstrating that emotional skills and competencies predict positive outcomes at home with one’s family, in school, and at work. The real challenge is to show that emotional intelligence matters over-and-above psychological constructs that have been measured for decades like personality and IQ. I believe that emotional intelligence holds this promise.” (“Emotional What?” EQ Today)

 Finally, here are excerpts from an article published by the American Psychological Association entitled, “Emotional Intelligence for a Better Community” that stresses the importance of emotional intelligence in the effort to a better world.

 If we identified the most effective community activists, we would find that they have many of the qualities associated with emotional intelligence”–which he defined as the ability to perceive, express and manage one’s own emotions and those of others.

The conceptual and methodological tools of community psychology can help us better understand how to create more emotionally intelligent settings,” he said. “I believe that is the greatest challenge facing not only our field, but our society today.” (http://www.apa.org/monitor/dec01/emotional.aspx)

Remember that it was Jesus who gave us the Golden Rule (Day 59).  He says that when we act out of true empathy and emotional intelligence we are doing God’s will: “Do for others what you want them to do for you; this is the meaning of the Law of Moses and of the teachings of the prophets.”  You can’t implement the Golden Rule successfully without emotional intelligence.

Jesus says that the people of his day have no emotional intelligence.  They are all shouting and doing their own thing and playing their own music and no one is paying any attention to anyone else.  Insensitivity.  Egocentrism.  Self interest.  Isolation. Dysfunction. They can’t connect.

So once again, “science” might do well to pay attention to the teachings of Jesus.  He seems to be a couple of thousand years ahead of his time.  Emotional intelligence – another great concept illuminated by the words of Jesus.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 106: Matthew 11:15

Listen, then, if you have ears.

[A crowd has gathered to hear what Jesus has to say about John the Baptist, who has been arrested by King Herod.]

Jesus repeats this phrase several times throughout the Gospels – “Listen if you have ears.”  OK, he knows we all have ears, right?  At least most of us do.  I’m sure Jesus is just like everyone else – when he talks to someone he appreciates being heard.  And like most super smart people with revolutionary ideas, he’s probably used to getting blank stares.  Or that deer in the headlights look.  As in what the heck is he talking about….

Jesus wants people to listen not only with their ears, but with their brains.  He wants them to make an effort to understand what he’s saying.  The Bible is full of examples where people don’t want to listen to what God is saying, either because they are unwilling or because they are just plain lazy.

Listening is not a passive activity.  We have to choose to listen.  Psalm 58 expresses an unfavorable view of people who choose to close their minds and ears:

Evildoers go wrong all their lives; they tell lies from the day they are born. They are full of poison like snakes; they stop up their ears like a deaf cobra, which does not hear the voice of the snake charmer, or the chant of the clever magician (Psalm 58:3-5).

Listening to God’s word through the Law of Moses is more important than the pagan-based sacrificial offerings that Jesus and the prophets warned against.

You do not want sacrifices and offerings; you do not ask for animals burned whole on the altar or for sacrifices to take away sins.  Instead, you have given me ears to hear you, and so I answered, “Here I am; your instructions for me are in the book of the Law (Psalm 40:6-7).

 In Zechariah 7:8-13, the God says that we need to listen with both our ears and our hearts.

The Lord gave this message to Zechariah: “Long ago I gave these commands to my people: ‘You must see that justice is done, and must show kindness and mercy to one another. Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners who live among you, or anyone else in need. And do not plan ways of harming one another.’

“But my people stubbornly refused to listen. They closed their minds and made their hearts as hard as rock. Because they would not listen to the teaching which I sent through the prophets who lived long ago, I became very angry. Because they did not listen when I spoke, I did not answer when they prayed.”

The following excerpts from Psalm 119 reinforce the idea that it takes effort to understand God’s will. It’s not just a matter of memorizing a bunch of rules. Obedience to God requires understanding with both the mind and the heart.  It involves intentionality and active engagement:

I praise you, O Lord; teach me your ways.    I will repeat aloud all the laws you have given.  I study your instructions; I examine your teachings.  Open my eyes, so that I may see the wonderful truths in your law. My heart aches with longing; I want to know your judgments at all times. Your instructions give me pleasure; they are my advisers. Help me to understand your laws, and I will meditate on your wonderful teachings. I have chosen to be obedient; I have paid attention to your judgments. Teach me, Lord, the meaning of your laws, and I will obey them at all times. Explain your law to me, and I will obey it; I will keep it with all my heart. Keep me from paying attention to what is worthless; be good to me, as you have promised.

Jesus doesn’t want what he is saying to go in one ear and out the other.  Jesus challenges his followers to heed the call of the prophets and dive into a deep relationship with God.  Jesus wants to elevate religious life from the mindless activity of dragging livestock to a sacrificial altar to engagement with God through prayer and study and discernment.  Jesus wants everyone to listen to him with their ears, and listen to God with their hearts.  He wants all of us to have a true, authentic, lively, dynamic relationship with God.

Even today many people want to have a religious life that releases them from having to do anything for themselves.  They are constantly looking around for someone to tell them what to do, and then they get mad or confused when they hear various people saying different things.  They don’t want to think for themselves. They don’t want to work at having the kind of relationship with God that Jesus wants them to have.  They don’t want to listen to the voice of God.

Jesus wants people to hear and see and understand.  He wants them to think.  He wants them to be civilized. He wants them to be reasoned. He wants them to be open to what God wants at any given time and place.

So Jesus says we all have ears and we need to use them.  We also have minds and hearts, and both need to be engaged in our relationship with both Jesus and God.  Through doing this blog I’m finding that the words of Jesus are loaded with meaning and truth and deserve to be studied. I have ears and I’m trying to listen, but it’s hard to keep up with someone as wise and brilliant as Jesus.  It requires full engagement and lots of meditation.

We all need to make room in our lives for a moment of quiet time now and then so we can listen to what God has to say.  The way I look at it, God is continuously speaking to all of us. He’s like a radio station that never stops broadcasting.  We are all like little radios.  All we have to do is set our dials to the right station and we can tune into the God channel.  It’s nonstop talk radio.  All you have to do is turn on and tune in.  And pay attention to what’s being said. So listen, then, if you have ears.

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What does this scripture say to you?

Day 105: Matthew 11:13-14

Until the time of John [the Baptist] all the prophets and the Law of Moses spoke about the Kingdom; and if you are willing to believe their message, John is Elijah, whose coming was predicted.

[A crowd has gathered to hear what Jesus has to say about John the Baptist, who has been arrested by King Herod.]

Good old Elijah, one of the great heroes of the Old Testament.  Be aware that when you hear a Jew talking about the “second coming” they aren’t talking about Jesus.  They are talking about Elijah.

Long after the time of Elijah had left the earth, the prophet Malachi predicted that Elijah would return before an anticipated “great and terrible” day of judgment.

The Lord Almighty says, “The day is coming when all proud and evil people will burn like straw. On that day they will burn up, and there will be nothing left of them.  But for you who obey me, my saving power will rise on you like the sun and bring healing like the sun’s rays. You will be as free and happy as calves let out of a stall.  On the day when I act, you will overcome the wicked, and they will be like dust under your feet.

 “Remember the teachings of my servant Moses, the laws and commands which I gave him at Mount Sinai for all the people of Israel to obey.

 “But before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes, I will send you the prophet Elijah.  He will bring fathers and children together again; otherwise I would have to come and destroy your country.” (Malachi 4:1-6).

Even today the Jews set a place for Elijah at the Passover meal each year.  They are still waiting.

Elijah lived after the time of Moses, David, and Solomon and you can find his story in the book of I Kings, starting at Chapter 17.  At this time King Ahab ruled over Israel.  Ahab was one of the really bad kings of Israel who had no respect whatsoever for God’s laws.  To make matters worse, he married Jezebel, arguably the nastiest woman in the Bible.  She worshipped the god Baal and the goddess Asherah, so Ahab built a temple and altar so everyone could worship Jezebel’s gods in the proper manner.  She hated the God of Israel and killed many of the prophets.  Those who escaped her grasp were forced to flee to the countryside and live in caves.

Elijah came in from the wilderness, kind of like John the Baptist.  Like John, he wore clothing made of animal skins, and his hair and beard were long and unkempt.  He came before King Ahab and told him that God was going to impose a drought on Ahab’s kingdom, which started immediately thereafter and lasted more than three years.   The drought ended only after there was a great showdown between the prophets of Baal and Elijah, the prophet of God.  It was awesome. 

The challenge was to see which god would send down fire to his altar and consume the sacrifice of an ox.  The 450 prophets of Baal set up their altar and called out to their god but there was no response.  Elijah laughed at them, threw his ox on God’s altar, poured 4 barrels of water on the altar until it was soaking wet, and prayed to God.  Suddenly fire fell from the sky and consumed the sacrifice, the water, and even the altar itself including the stone.  All of it zapped by God’s holy fire.  Nothing left.  Vaporized.  The people all turned against the prophets of Baal and became worshippers of the true God.  It was definitely the high point of Elijah’s ministry.  And then to everyone’s joy the rain came and the drought was over.  Jezebel spent years unsuccessfully trying to kill Elijah but she was eventually thrown off a wall and eaten by dogs.  Elijah, on the other hand, didn’t die.  He swept away into heaven in a whirlwind on a fiery chariot, never to be seen again.  He truly went out in a blaze of glory.

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Elijah calling down fire from heaven.

 Elijah performed or witnessed many other miracles during his lifetime.

  • He turned a handful of meal and a little oil into a never ending food supply for a starving widow and her son.
  • He raised a boy from the dead.
  • An angel provided him with fire, bread and water when he was forced to hide in the desert.
  • He talked directly with God on Mt. Sinai just like Moses.
  • He accurately predicted the disastrous fates all of King Ahab’s family.
  • He mentored Elisha, who followed him and performed many more miracles.

It seems like John the Baptist and Elijah had a few things in common:

  • They dressed the same.
  • They called for the people to turn away from sins and false gods and faithfully obey God.
  • They confronted the Kings of their day about their sins.

On the other hand, John didn’t perform any miracles and he certainly wasn’t whisked away to heaven in a whirlwind.

So, back to the scripture, Jesus says, “Until the time of John all the prophets and the Law of Moses spoke about the Kingdom; and if you are willing to believe their message, John is Elijah, whose coming was predicted.”

To me he is not making a definitive statement that John is Elijah. I think this is a challenge to the crowd.  Jesus invites people to be obedient to God’s law and the teachings of the prophets.  If they choose to do this on the basis of John’s ministry, then John is Elijah to them.  If they choose to be disobedient to the law and teachings, then John is not Elijah to them. That’s the way I read it.

Interestingly enough, this is one of several passages that highlight the Jewish belief in reincarnation.  Jews of Jesus’ time believed in the possibility of both the resurrection of the body and reincarnation into another body after death.  They are still waiting for a reincarnation of Elijah that will be a sign of that judgment day that is still apparently yet to come.

If anybody deserves to get a second go at things it would be Elijah.  He had a pretty rough time the first time around, but God was with him all the way.  He’s one of those heroes of the faith that I’d really like to meet.  And it would be totally cool to go back in time and see that fire from heaven zap that altar or witness that heavenly whirlwind that took Elijah away.  Awesome.  Don’t let anyone tell you that nothing exciting happens in the Old Testament.  They must not know about Elijah.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 104: Matthew 11:12

From the time John preached his message until this very day the Kingdom of heaven has suffered violent attacks, and violent men try to seize it.

[A crowd has gathered to hear what Jesus has to say about John the Baptist, who has been arrested by King Herod.]

At the time that Jesus spoke these words to the crowd, John the Baptist was sitting in a prison cell waiting to die.  This was only one of many violent attacks by violent groups who were part of the political landscape in Jesus day.

The Herods

“Herod the Great” was elected King of the Jews by the Roman Senate in 40 BC and ruled until shortly after Jesus was born.  Herod the Great grew up practicing the Jewish religion, but he was not considered to be a real Jew by the Jews of Judea because of his Nabatean heritage and his decadent lifestyle.  He was known for expanding the Second Temple in Jerusalem, subsequently the Temple that Jesus visited during his lifetime was known as “Herod’s Temple.”   Herod the Great was also known for murdering many members of his family, including his wife.   Because of all of these things most Jewish religious leaders did not approve of him and did not believe in the legitimacy of his title, although they didn’t seem to mind the Temple improvements.  It was Herod the Great who learned about the birth of Jesus from the “wise men” from the East (3 kings), sought to kill Jesus, and forced the holy family to flee to Egypt and stay there until Jesus was a young boy (Matthew Chapter 2).

When Herod the Great died, the Romans divided his kingdom among his three sons. Herod Antipas was appointed king of Galilee and Peraea where Jesus lived out most of his life.  He is best known for marrying his brother’s ex-wife Herodias in violation of Jewish law.  John the Baptist publicly condemned this relationship and was subsequently arrested.  The story of John the Baptist’s death is told in Matthew 14:3-12.

For Herod had earlier ordered John’s arrest, and he had him tied up and put in prison. He had done this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. For some time John the Baptist had told Herod, “It isn’t right for you to be married to Herodias!” Herod wanted to kill him, but he was afraid of the Jewish people, because they considered John to be a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced in front of the whole group. Herod was so pleased that he promised her, “I swear that I will give you anything you ask for!”

At her mother’s suggestion she asked him, “Give me here and now the head of John the Baptist on a plate!”

The king was sad, but because of the promise he had made in front of all his guests he gave orders that her wish be granted. So he had John beheaded in prison. The head was brought in on a plate and given to the girl, who took it to her mother. John’s disciples came, carried away his body, and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.

Poor John the Baptist, his untimely end the result of sexual misconduct, lust, revenge, and violence in the hearts of both men and women.

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Herod meets an unfortunate end.

 The Zealots

The zealotry movement in the time of Jesus sought to incite the Jews to overthrow the Roman occupation army and its leaders through violence.  The leader of this movement was named Judas (of Gamala or Galilee), not to be confused by the Judas who betrayed Jesus to the Romans.

The zealots claimed that God alone was the ruler of Israel and that all other leaders should be overthrown.  They resented Roman taxation and targeted both Romans and Greeks who lived in the area.

After the death of Jesus the Zealots had a leading role in the capture of Jerusalem, but they held it only 4 years before the Romans retaliated by destroying both Jerusalem and the Temple.

In the Talmud, the Zealots are the non-religious (not following the religious leaders), and are also called the Biryonim meaning “boorish”, “wild”, or “ruffians”, and are condemned for their aggression, their unwillingness to compromise to save the survivors of besieged Jerusalem, and their blind militarism against the Rabbis’ opinion to seek treaties for peace. They are further blamed for having contributed to the demise of Jerusalem and the Second Temple, and of ensuring Rome’s retributions and stranglehold on Judea. (from Wikipedia).

A violent group, for sure, seeking to advance the Jewish nation through violence.

Roman Army

Although relations with the Roman occupation force were pretty good during the time of Jesus, things got bad later after the Jewish Revolt described above.  It was the Roman Army that destroyed the Temple and forced the people of Jerusalem to flee in the wake of the destruction of their great city.  Interestingly enough, the Roman Empire was eventually defeated by the savage northern European tribes, another violent group.

So Jesus isn’t just “prophesying” in this scripture.  He was surrounded by violent forces, but was promoting pacifist solutions to the predicament of the Jews.

Time Marches On

So time marches on.  Crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, warmongers, abortionist killers, on and on.  But no good comes from violence.

I do believe that the world is slowly becoming a less violent place as the Kingdom of God continues to unfold.  However there still is a lot of work to do.

Today, for example, we have the “Guns and God” folks.  According to the Christian Gun Owner website at http://www.christiangunowner.com/ gun ownership is sacred:

There is a huge American community of Christians who know that this country was founded on the principles of the Bible and under the guiding hand of an almighty God. That community believes that the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights were a result of that guidance.

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The whole pacifism, turn the other cheek thing that Jesus wants us to buy into is a hard sell to many violence-loving, gun-toting Americans.  I’m not necessarily against guns.  I grew up with guns and was a member of the Junior NRA.  Living in a remote farmhouse in the country, we always figured a gun was a necessity in case there was a rabid animal or something like that. I am very grateful that there are police officers who bear the responsibility of carrying guns to keep the peace.  I am, however, against a mentality that elevates weapons to a God-given right.  I’m against equating the American Constitution with the Bible.  I’m against a mentality that substitutes faith in God for faith in guns.  That’s gun idolatry.  Guns can’t keep you safe.  Only God can keep you safe.

Like the Zealots in the time of Jesus, gun-worshipping Christians can do a lot more harm than good when it comes to advancing the Kingdom of God.  Just for clarity, Jesus was a pacifist who did not believe in the use of weapons either to defend himself or to achieve his personal or political objectives. It’s an essential element of his message.  Jesus would not want to be misrepresented on this issue.  It’s ludicrous.  We cannot shoot our way into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Violence is not allowed in the Kingdom of God and violence will not get us there.

There was a quiet, unassuming elderly woman named Helen at our church in Chicago who told me about an experience she had.  Helen was tending a store when a man with a gun came in and threatened her.  Her response was compassion.  Helen asked the man what in the world had happened to him that led him to this.  She told him that she felt bad that he was apparently driven to do what he was doing. She said that if he really needed to kill her it was OK, because she was looking forward to meeting Jesus.  Helen meant what she said. The man hesitated, turned and fled.  And the Kingdom of God took two steps forward.

When it comes to the Kingdom of God, violent men are still trying to seize it by force, but there are a lot of little old ladies out there who are busy taking it back for the Lord with faith, wisdom, and the power of prayer.

What does this scripture say to you?

 

Day 103: Matthew 11:11

I assure you that John the Baptist is greater than any man who has ever lived.  But he who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than John.

[A crowd has gathered to hear what Jesus has to say about John the Baptist, who has been arrested by King Herod.]

John the Baptist – one of the most beloved characters in Christianity.  After all, who doesn’t love baptisms – all those cute babies dressed in fluffy white outfits while the pastor drips a little water on their heads.  Who is cuter – the one who smiles or the one who cries?  And then there is the great John the Baptist controversy – were those “locusts” he ate bugs or tree pods?  Did John the Baptist really eat bugs?  Another lively Christian debate.

What do we know about John the Baptist?

  • John the Baptist preached repentance.  He wanted people to change their ways to prepare for the Kingdom of Heaven.  He wanted them to get serious about obeying Jewish law.

At that time John the Baptist came to the desert of Judea and started preaching. “Turn away from your sins,” he said, “because the Kingdom of heaven is near!”  (Matthew 3:1-2).

  • John dressed and ate like a wild man.

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair; he wore a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matthew 3:4).

  •  John was popular guy. He gained famed for baptizing people for remission of sin.  This was the ritual cleansing component of his ministry. Baptism enabled them to give up their burden of sin and start over again.

People came to him from Jerusalem, from the whole province of Judea, and from all over the country near the Jordan River. They confessed their sins, and he baptized them in the Jordan. (Matthew 3:5-6).

  • John didn’t like the Pharisees and the religious authorities of the day.  Nope, not one little bit.  And he wasn’t shy about letting them know how he felt.  Indeed, he was a bit of a loose cannon. He called them snakes and threatened them with metaphorical axes (Matthew 3:7-10).

When John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him to be baptized, he said to them, “You snakes—who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send? Do those things that will show that you have turned from your sins. And don’t think you can escape punishment by saying that Abraham is your ancestor. I tell you that God can take these rocks and make descendants for Abraham! The ax is ready to cut down the trees at the roots; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire.

  • John confronted not only religious authorities, but political ones as well.   His public condemnation of King Herod’s incestuous marriage was the reason he was arrested and later executed. (Matthew 14:3-5).

For Herod had earlier ordered John’s arrest, and he had him tied up and put in prison. He had done this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. For some time John the Baptist had told Herod, “It isn’t right for you to be married to Herodias!”

  • John believed that he was the ‘messenger’ who was tasked with preparing the way for “the one” who was prophesied by Isaiah (See Day 101).  He believed he was preparing the way for Jesus or someone like him (Matthew 3:11-12).

I baptize you with water to show that you have repented, but the one who will come after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He is much greater than I am; and I am not good enough even to carry his sandals. He has his winnowing shovel with him to thresh out all the grain. He will gather his wheat into his barn, but he will burn the chaff in a fire that never goes out.”

The History of Baptism

Some form of ritual purification or cleansing, is a common practice of all major world religions.  It is usually required before the worship of their deity.

  • Bahá’í wash their hands and faces before the recitation of prayers
  • Buddhists cleanse in a special basin when they visit Buddhist temples.  Ritual purification is also part of their tea ceremonies.
  • Hindus do a lot of ritual purification, including full body bathing in holy rivers like the Ganges. This kind of purification is generally done before any festival and it is also practiced after someone dies.  Hindus touch and sip water while reciting prayers.  Water is sprinkled over people before they are married.  A lesser-known practice is ritual bathing substances other than water like milk, honey, ghee, or rosewater before the installation of religious or political leaders.
  • One of the ritual purification rituals of the Native Americans is the use of a sauna, known as a sweatlodge, as preparation for various ceremonies.  They also believe that smudge sticks have a purifying effect.  Some tribes use water daily for ritual cleansing, while other reserve this as a preparation for special events.
  • Muslims use water purification as a preparation for prayer.  Some groups require cleansing before holding the Qur’an.  They are also allowed to do “dry ablution” with sand or earth if water isn’t available.
  • In Shinto, ritual purification must be performed at a waterfall or other running water.  Clothing is worn during the purification process.

The baptism performed by John had its roots in Jewish practice:

Baptism has similarities to Tvilah, a Jewish purification ritual of immersing in water, which is required for, among other things, conversion to Judaism, but which differs in being repeatable, while baptism is to be performed only once. John the Baptist, who is considered a forerunner to Christianity, used baptism as the central sacrament of his messianic movement. Christians consider Jesus to have instituted the sacrament of baptism, though whether Jesus intended to institute a continuing, organized church is a matter of dispute among scholars. (From Wikipedia).

The pastor of my church says that you should remember your baptism every time you shower.  Let’s face it.  Taking a good bath or shower can definitely be a spiritual experience.  It feels really good and gets you in that relaxed prayerful mindset.  I have had many good revelations while soaking in the tub.

The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?

Now that we have some background, let’s get back to the scripture.  For both John and Jesus, the main thing wasn’t what they were doing.  The main thing wasn’t baptism or healing or preaching or gathering disciples.  The main thing wasn’t the water or the ritual cleansing. The main thing was to promote the Kingdom of Heaven/Kingdom of God.  It was their passion, that God’s reign should be established on the earth.  Jesus refers to “the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven” later in Matthew 18:4 when he says, The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven is the one who humbles himself and becomes like this child.

I think Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of Heaven will be so wonderful that even the greatest person on earth can’t really imagine its glories.  It will be a whole new ballgame.  We know from Isaiah Chapter 65 that it will be a very peaceful place, where lions and lambs lie down together, and John wasn’t exactly a peaceful kind of guy.  He was pretty confrontational.   Maybe when people get to heaven all their rough edges get smoothed out when they experience immersion in the glorious presence of God.  Maybe at death we are baptized into God himself and transformed by his glory.  The ultimate baptism.

Jesus says that John is great, but he doesn’t want his followers to make the mistake of turning John into an idol or a god. He wants them to remember that John is just a man. I think Jesus is telling them, “Keep your eyes on the prize, folks.  We’ve got a long way to go.  It’s not about me or John.  It’s about God’s kingdom unfolding here on earth.  It’s about God.”

With Jesus, it was always about God.  But he really liked and respected John.  He says John is the greatest man who ever lived.  Jesus may have said that John would be one of the least in the Kingdom of Heaven, but here on earth John surely had a premier place heart of Jesus because they both wanted the same thing. They were both 100% sold out for their God.

John the Baptist in the Bible – a raw, angry, crude, driven, scary prophet who was beheaded for his ideals.

John the Baptist in Church – comical bug-eating, baby-loving baptizer and Jesus promoter.  Comical sidekick and announcer, like Guillermo on Jimmy Kimmel or Ed McMahon on Johnny Carson.

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My husband John with his beloved John the Baptist puppet.

I’m ending this one with a picture of my husband with the John the Baptist puppet that he created and used every year during Advent.  Larger than life, a little comical, a bit scary, definitely crude.  I used to think it was weird, but now I think maybe he got it just about right.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 102 – Matthew 11:7-10

When you went out to John [the Baptist] in the desert, what did you expect to see?  A blade of grass bending in the wind?  What did you go out to see?  A man dressed up in fancy clothes?  People who dress like that live in palaces!  Tell me, what did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes indeed, but you saw much more than a prophet.  For the scripture says: “God said, I will send my messenger ahead of you to open the way for you.”

[A crowd has gathered to hear what Jesus has to say about John the Baptist, who has been arrested by King Herod.]

If there is one thing that can really trip us up it’s our expectations. If there’s something we don’t know, our imaginations go to work and make something up.  We can create entire scenarios in our minds, which can be fun or even comforting.  The challenge is to let go of our imaginings when they don’t conform to reality.

In this scripture Jesus challenged a curious crowd red to examine their expectations about John.  He challenges them to look beyond the superficial and obvious.  He warns them against judging by appearances.

First, he asked them if they expected to see “A blade of grass bending in the wind.”  This, I believe, is a reference to the prophetic word in Isaiah 58:4-6.  In this scripture Isaiah tells the people that their practice of fasting is ineffective because it doesn’t result in the kind of social changes that God really wants:

Your fasting makes you violent, and you quarrel and fight. Do you think this kind of fasting will make me listen to your prayers? When you fast, you make yourselves suffer; you bow your heads low like a blade of grass and spread out sackcloth and ashes to lie on. Is that what you call fasting? Do you think I will be pleased with that?  “The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free (Isaiah 58:4-6).

Jesus asked them if they expected John to be putting on a big show of repentance like the people in this scripture.  He warns the people about evaluating on the appearance of religious piety.  He challenges them to look beyond John’s spiritual practices and listen to his message of liberation.

Next, Jesus asked the crowd whether they expected to see someone in fancy clothes.  He tells them that money and earthly power are not an indication that someone is a messenger from God.  He says that a person in fancy clothes would never be wandering around out in the desert baptizing ordinary people.  A person in fancy clothes would be sitting around in his palace; he would not be out doing ministry.  A person in fancy clothes would be more interested in building up his own kingdom than God’s.

Finally, Jesus asked the crowd if they expected to see a prophet.  John certainly looks like a prophet.  Jesus tells them, however, that they need to look beyond the physical.  He says that if they look at John with spiritual eyes they will see that John is the messenger who was foretold by Malachi:

The Lord Almighty answers, “I will send my messenger to prepare the way for me. Then the Lord you are looking for will suddenly come to his Temple. The messenger you long to see will come and proclaim my covenant.” (Malachi 3:1).

Sometimes we can be blinded by our expectations, especially when we get lazy and start judging by appearances.  If we want to faithfully follow God we have to put our expectations aside and keep an open mind.  If we aren’t careful we can miss a visitation of God.

Looking back, I remember a highly anticipated United Methodist Women’s meeting at our church in Chicago where expectations got in the way of reality.  This meeting was a special one because the president had arranged for our district shepherdess to come and speak to us about all sorts of wonderful things.  There was a lot of preparation for this meeting, and everything had to be just so.

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Granville UMC United Methodist Women around 1991.

The tension began to mount when the meeting started and the shepherdess had not arrived. Finally, when the meeting could be delayed no longer and it was time for the speaker to begin, the president got up and explained that there would not be a program today because the shepherdess had not arrived.

“Here I am,” said a voice from the back.  Everyone turned around and watched as she slowly shuffled to the lectern.  It seems that everyone ignored our shepherdess when she came in.  She was easy ignore.  She was a little African American woman, probably in her 70s, slightly bent with age.  Her clothing was shabby and she was toting a couple of shopping bags.  The shepherdess for the Chicago Northwestern District of the United Methodist Women looked like a bag lady.

It turns out she was a very good speaker and she shared about what the UMW was doing in various churches throughout the district.  She also gave a great devotional and led an awesome prayer.  She was a good shepherdess even though she didn’t look the part.  The women at the church expected a white person, probably in a pastel business suit. With pearls.  And carefully styled white hair. And a briefcase.  Their expectations didn’t match up with reality.

Jesus challenges the crowd to examine their expectations and accept John for who he really was.  So who was John the Baptist? What was all that baptizing about?  Was he the first person to baptize people?

Tomorrow I will look at what is known about John the Baptist, who, according to Jesus, was greater than any man who has ever lived.  Sounds like someone worth knowing about.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 101: Matthew 11:4-6

Go back and tell John [the Baptist] what you are hearing and seeing:  the blind can see, the lame can walk, those who suffer from dreaded skin diseases are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life, and the Good News is preached to the poor.

How happy are those who have no doubts about me!

The context for this is that John has been arrested. Although he is in prison, he is still in contact with his own disciples. (fyi Jesus was not the only one who had disciples).   John will soon be killed by King Herod, and he is looking for confirmation in these final hours of his life, that Jesus is indeed “the one” whose coming was foretold by the prophet Isaiah; the one who will bring justice and light to the earth (excerpts from Isaiah 42:1-7):

 The LORD says, “Here is my servant, whom I strengthen—The One I have filled him with my Spirit, and he will bring justice to every nation. He will not shout or raise his voice or make loud speeches in the streets. He will not break off a bent reed nor put out a flickering lamp. He will bring lasting justice to all. He will not lose hope or courage; he will establish justice on the earth. Distant lands eagerly wait for his teaching.” And now the LORD God says to his servant, “I, the LORD, have called you and given you power to see that justice is done on earth.  Through you I will make a covenant with all peoples; through you I will bring light to the nations.You will open the eyes of the blind and set free those who sit in dark prisons.

What a great image!  You can see why the Jewish people were eager to see this prophecy fulfilled!  In response to whether Jesus is indeed “the one” in this scripture, he tells John’s disciples to look around. He tells them to testify to John about all the miracles that are happening.  He tells them to evaluate what’s happening and judge for themselves whether the Old Testament prophecies are being fulfilled.  He knows that if they tell John that the blind can see, the lame can walk, and the deaf can hear, John will connect these miracles with another prophecy in Isaiah 35:1-6:

Give strength to hands that are tired and to knees that tremble with weakness. Tell everyone who is discouraged, “Be strong and don’t be afraid! God is coming to your rescue, coming to punish your enemies.” The blind will be able to see, and the deaf will hear.  The lame will leap and dance, and those who cannot speak will shout for joy.

I think that in today’s scripture Jesus is telling John to take heart because change is coming.  He is telling John that a new future is unfolding and that God is rescuing his people.  Another supportive scripture is Isaiah 29:18-24.

When that day comes, the deaf will be able to hear a book being read aloud, and the blind, who have been living in darkness, will open their eyes and see. Poor and humble people will once again find the happiness which the Lord, the holy God of Israel, gives.  It will be the end of those who oppress others and show contempt for God. Every sinner will be destroyed. God will destroy those who slander others, those who prevent the punishment of criminals, and those who tell lies to keep honest people from getting justice.

The prophet Isaiah, often quoted by Jesus and others in his time.

Jesus doesn’t defend or label himself or his ministry.  Instead, he simply sites the fruit of his ministry, which he says in the Sermon on the Mount is the true test of a prophet (See Day 61).  He says, “the blind can see, the lame can walk, those who suffer from dreaded skin diseases are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life, and the Good News is preached to the poor.”  He says God’s on the move and that’s what’s important!

Jesus is on a mission from God. He has come with the intent of fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecies and hastening the unfolding of the Kingdom of God here on earth.  Jesus says to have no doubts about him.  In this scripture Jesus says that he has been assigned the task of being “the one” that the Jews have been waiting for, “the one” whose coming was predicted by Isaiah.  God’s on the move and Jesus is the appointed agent of change, so he tells John to be at peace.  He says, “Don’t worry, be happy.”  Even though John’s in jail.  Even though both of them will soon be killed.  Have no doubts, Jesus says, because God is leading them on to a new and better day.  He says believing will make them happy; doubting will only make them sad.

Today the Kingdom of God continues to unfold.  Miracles continue, people are healthier than ever, the plight of the poor slowly improving, justice is gaining ground around the world, and people are still being raised from the dead (See Day 81). Jesus tells us all, “Don’t worry, be happy.”  God will never give up on us.  The Kingdom of God will continue to unfold and of those promises of Isaiah will eventually be fulfilled. God will continue to lead all who have the courage and wisdom to follow.  He will honor the faith of all who want to live in his Kingdom.  God will continue to lead us on through the life of Jesus.  He will continue to provide his own personal guidance through his Holy Spirit working in each of us. God is still on the move. Happy are those who have no doubts about it!

What does this scripture say to you?