He Will Be Called: Prince of Peace

Five days until Christmas (as I write this), and the to-do list is getting longer rather than shorter. This happens every year. I have grand schemes of all the things I’ll bake, all the gifts I’ll make by hand, and the traditions on which we’ll follow-through. And every year, I do less than the year before. “Lacking” had become the theme of my Christmas. With my sense of lacking comes discontent: all the thoughts of how I should be better, how we should be doing more God-ish stuff and less simply surviving, how I should be making better memories for my children than rushing to finish the laundry so we can pack for trips to the grandparents. There’s little we can call “peaceful” in these days. (Although a teenager who likes to wrap presents does help.)

When the people of Judah lost their king to the Babylonian conquerors, they also lost their queen, along with all the princes and princesses. There were no literal princes in their courts, and no peace in their hearts. I imagine shalom, that ubiquitous Hebrew word for peace which means far more than “absence of war,” felt foreign to those trudging, defeated masses making their way toward Babylon. Continue reading

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He Will Be Called: Everlasting Father

This will be our second Christmas without my father. Hopefully, this one will be easier than last year. My father was a good man, and a good father, but he wasn’t perfect. And while his soul is everlasting (Praise God, I know my dad is in heaven!), his presence with me was not.

As the nation of Judah trudged into Babylonian captivity, many had lost their fathers, grandfathers, husbands, and sons to the war in which Judah was defeated. Perhaps some of the survivors barely had time to bury their loved ones, much less mourn, before the forced march began. Isaiah’s prophecy promised a time when they would no longer fight, when “every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire” (Isaiah 9:5). But in the moment, they knew the sorrow of great loss.

Did their hearts sting when they remembered the prophecy? Continue reading

The Gross Inequality of Generosity

Now we come to what may be the most difficult passage on generosity in the Bible. So difficult, in fact, that the Holy Spirit didn’t remind me of it or highlight it back in January when I took up this year-long study. I don’t think I could have handled it then. A few days ago, while reading the Sermon on the Mount, I tried to breeze through another of Jesus’ “You have heard that it was said…but I tell you…” sections. But the Spirit stopped me in my tracks.

“This is about generosity!” my heart screamed.

“Oh no,” my mind replied. What do you think?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” Matthew 5:38-41

Is there any way this passage isn’t about generosity? Because I don’t like it. My fleshly side is pushing back hard.

We consider
vengeance
a right.

We call it justice, but what we really want when we’re wronged is revenge. We consider vengeance a right, along with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness“Eye for an eye,” we say, thinking our biblical reference justifies our anger.

“But I tell you…” Jesus says, freezing us in our tracks. In this passage, He gives three examples of generosity toward an antagonist. An antagonist. That means our opponents, our bullies, our enemies.

Turn the Other Cheek

The image here is that kind of slap such as in the Victorian era, when a man might slap another man with his gloves. It’s talking about insults.

If someone insults you, don’t try to block him/her from doing it again. Allow a second insult without retaliation. What about a third? Or a fourth? Even though we only have two cheeks, I think Jesus would say “yes.” The insults may smart, like the gloves to the face, but they don’t cause permanent injury. We forgive.

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:21-22

Can I experience repeated insult without retaliation? Can I be generous with my forgiveness and endurance?  This kind of attitude demands extreme humility and equally extreme confidence in one’s identity in Christ such that I don’t have to defend myself or my honor.

Give Him the Shirt Off Your Back

Jewish law prohibited a lender from taking someone’s coat as collateral, even for a short-term loan (NIV Study Bible notes on Matthew 5:40). But they could take the shirt beneath the coat. Jesus said, instead of arguing, give the coat along with the shirt.

Jesus calls us to give
back more than is due.

The contemporary response to being sued is to counter-sue, or before you call in the lawyers, to accuse those who accuse us. Instead, Jesus calls us go beyond dropping the complaint–to give more than is demanded, to make reparations beyond equality, even to the point of personal sacrifice. He calls us to keep peace even if it brings us shame, like walking around shirtless and coatless would shame us.

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  –Romans 12:18

Can I be generous with peace-keeping? I’ll need to prioritize peace over my personal needs and even my rights.

Go the Extra Mile

Roman soldiers could force bystanders into service for short periods of time. (Think of Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross in Matthew 27:32). I don’t know how far they could legally force a person to carry their equipment, but imagine someone continuing to walk beside the soldier beyond the legal limit. Imagine the opportunities to talk about one’s faith in that second mile!

Jesus calls us beyond
equality to generosity.

Maybe your boss makes you work late. Maybe your neighbor keeps you out at the mailbox to talk about her problems for half an hour. Maybe your brother buys you a cheap Christmas gift every year. There are many situations in which Jesus pulls us down that second mile, beyond equality to generosity. In those moments, we have incredible freedom to talk about Him.

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
    if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
    and the Lord will reward you.  –Proverbs 25:21-22

Can I be generous (with time, money, or effort) in excess? I’ll need to stop keeping score.

Jesus did it, just like Isaiah said He would.

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. Isaiah 53:7

He didn’t open his mouth. He didn’t retaliate. He didn’t accuse. He didn’t return injury for insults. He “went the extra mile” when He prayed for His executioners (Luke 23:34).

Generosity doesn’t discriminate. The bullies, the adversaries, the enemies…they all need to see Jesus in us, too. This is a high, high calling. Honestly, I’m sitting back in my chair right now trying to grasp how my life is going to change with obedience in this area.

Nobody said generosity was going to reflect equality or personal rights and privileges. Sometimes, it’s the opposite. A tough take on Jesus’ idea of generosity, because now more than ever, my #generosity is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

What about you? Does this passage challenge your idea of generosity? What do you find difficult to swallow here? I’d appreciate your response in the comments below, and I always respond.

Seeking the King

Have you set out your nativity scene (or scenes) yet? Which people from the story are on your mind this Christmas? Every year, God brings one segment of the scene into the spotlight for me, and I find myself thinking about him/her/them throughout the holiday season.

This year for me, it’s the wise men. I know why. I recently started working for a nonprofit that supports internationals and the wise men were the first non-Jews…the first border-crossers…to worship Jesus.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  –Matthew 2:1-2

The magi came to worship him.

What’s east of Jerusalem? When I was a kid, I thought these guys were from China and places close to China. After all, the song says, “We three kings of Orient are…” To me, the Orient was where Oriental people lived. (No offense. It was the late 1970s. “Political Correctness” wasn’t a thing yet.) Little did I know that the Orient includes Arabia and that the “near East” was just as exotic as the “far East.”

Also, I thought they were kings. (The song is so wrong!!) They were more like Daniel and the guys who served with him: astrologers, scientists, magicians.

star-watchers
wise men
internationals
foreigners
strangers
seekers

Star-watchers from the near East. That’s Persia, southern Arabia, and Mesopotamia (NIV Study Bible notes for Matthew 2:1). These days, we know these areas as Iran, the Saudi Arabia/Yemen/Oman/U.A.E., and Syria.

They were internationals. And they worshiped Jesus as a king. Before anyone other than the shepherds of Judea realized it, these foreigners knew Jesus was something special.

I’ve written about all the characters in your nativity sets. Find the one the Holy Spirit has put on your mind this Christmas and dig into their story. You might learn something new. You might grow closer to “the one who has been born king of the Jews.”

Remember too, “King of the Jews” is what Pilate wrote on the placard above Jesus’ head when He hung on the cross (John 19:19).

The Cast of Christmas: Zechariah & Elizabeth

The Cast of Christmas: Mary

The Cast of Christmas: Joseph

The Cast of Christmas: Shepherds

The Cast of Christmas: Simeon

The Cast of Christmas: Wise Men

Wise men: the first internationals to worship Jesus, the first to recognize He was a king. My #NativitySet is #NotAboutMe via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Which “character” from the Christmas story is the Holy Spirit using in your life right now? Please tell us who and why in the comments in below. I would love to hear what’s on your mind!

He Will Be Called: Mighty God

My life feels out of control, especially as Christmas rolls toward us. The things I want to accomplish remain unfinished. I’m interrupted despite my best intentions. Things happen—like my computer losing my blog post last week. Sometimes I wish I could stomp my foot and make it all stop. Sometimes I wish I could conquer my own life.

As the people of Judah packed a few things to carry on their long walk to Babylon, I wonder if they felt the same way. (Except mine are first-world problems and their problems were far more like those of modern-day refugees.) I wonder if they began to question God’s potency. What happened to the Davidic line? And what of Jerusalem, about which God had said, “This is my resting place for ever and ever; here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it” (Psalm 132:14)? It laid in ruins.

God’s promises remained.

Still, God’s promises remained. Continue reading

He Will Be Called: Wonderful Counselor

Have you made plans for Christmas yet? I haven’t. I like to plan, but often my plans don’t come to fruition. Not so with God. When God plans something, it doesn’t change. God’s plans are so certain that the Old Testament authors speak of them in the past tense, what scholars call “the prophetic perfect.”

When God spoke to His people about His plans, however, He used future tense. We call them promises, and the Old Testament prophets gave us many of them. What a comfort it must have been for the Israelites to carry these promises into captivity in a foreign land! Continue reading

Judas Thaddaeus Jameson Asked a Question

There’s a disciple we don’t talk about much. The Gospel authors didn’t talk about him much either, so I guess we can be excused. Matthew and Mark call him Thaddaeus. Luke and John call him “Judas son of James”* or “Judas (not Judas Iscariot).” Yes, with the parentheses (Luke 6:16 and John 14:22, respectively). In other words, the other Judas.

It was such a common name; in fact, Jesus had a brother named Judas (Mark 6:3). Thaddaeus sounds like a Greek name to me,** so I’m guessing Matthew and Mark used this name (or nickname) to avoid the need for further definition. Matthew was obviously comfortable with alternate names since he’s also called Levi.

I would hate to be that other Judas.

On top of the confusion with his name, we only have one documented interaction between him and Jesus, and it doesn’t make our Judas/Thaddaeus look so good.

John 14:22-25. Continue reading