Friday, April 28, 2017

Majoring in God's Majors

These are reflections from my quiet time with God today. I explain quiet time here.
Look: “After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?’ ‘Yes, he does,’ he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. ‘What do you think, Simon?’ he asked. ‘From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?’ ‘From others,’ Peter answered. ‘Then the children are exempt,’ Jesus said to him. ‘But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.’” (Matthew 17:24-27)

This is another one of those passages that I’ve allowed to slide past my consciousness. In my mind, I think, I connected it to the question about paying the Roman tax which resulted in Jesus telling us to, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”

But this is an entirely different issue, though probably raised, as the other one was, by opponents trying to “get the goods on Jesus.”

The temple tax of two drachmas per year was owed by every Jewish male. The proceeds went to support the operation of the temple. Two drachmas represented two days’ wages for the typical laborer.

Peter is asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the the temple tax?” Apparently without caring or knowing about the real answer, Peter says that Jesus does.

I suppose that Peter thought that was the end of it. But when Jesus and the disciples come “into the house” (House often is a codeword in Matthew for the assembled people of God, the Church), Jesus, in the know, asks Peter a seemingly hypothetical question: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?” When Peter rightly answers, “From others,” Jesus says that means that the children are exempt. Then He tells Peter to throw his fishing line into the lake, then open the mouth of the first fish he catches to find four drachma, two for Jesus’ temple tax and two for Peter’s. Jesus does this, He says “so that we may not cause offense.”

I’m not entirely clear here: Is Jesus calling Himself the Child of the great King, God the Father? Or is He calling disciples like Peter children of God through Christ the King? I suppose that either or both of the interpretations is possible and it may not ultimately matter.

But several points are clear.

One, Jesus as the King is exempt from the taxes and all other temporal obligations imposed by earthly kings, even the “earthly authorities” who run the temple. So, Jesus may not, in fact, have paid the tax that Peter so breezily assured the two-drachma tax collectors that Jesus paid. The disciples may have been exempt by Jesus’ reason as well, since they were “children of the King.” As Christians, we also exempt from any coerced “tax” to support Christ’s Church. (This makes the preferred status of “state Churches” in Europe dubious, to say the least.) I take it that Jesus has not paid this tax.

Two, Jesus has, to use a bad pun, “bigger fish to fry” than to dispute over whether He needs to pay the temple tax. So, to avoid giving offense to those for whom this is a big deal, Jesus pays the tax.

In other words, if Jesus not paying the temple tax was going to be an impediment to people following Him, He would pay the temple tax. 
The gospel is offensive enough to human sensibilities--the gospel that God took on flesh in Jesus and offers new and everlasting life to all who repent and believe in Jesus. There’s no point in creating artificial, tangential reasons for offending people when what we really want is for them to know Jesus Christ as their God, Savior, and Lord. So, Jesus tells Peter after making the point that He doesn’t “owe” the tax (and maybe His followers don’t either), to pay the tax.

Three, Jesus covers Peter’s temple tax obligation. The point here has nothing to do with financial obligations. Jesus isn’t commending a “prosperity gospel” here, because money isn’t what this entire incident is about. He IS NOT saying, "Believe in Me and I'll make you prosperous."

What Jesus is doing here is paying the price for Peter’s obligations. In this sense, it becomes a foretaste of what Jesus will do on the cross. He pays the penalty that we owe God for our sins. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us...He redeemed us [or bought us out slavery to sin and death] in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” (Galatians 3:13-15)

All Peter had to do was receive the gift of two drachma that covered his temple tax obligation.

Peter could have said, “That’s ridiculous! Whoever heard of a four drachma coin landing in the mouth of a fish?” (Although I can think of a man who landed in the mouth of a fish!) Peter could have thought, "I don’t trust such nonsense. I’ll just scrounge together the four drachma and pay it myself." He could have gone to Judas, the treasurer of the group, for the money needed and the whole bone of contention would be erased.

But we have no record of Peter, who often messed up and failed to trust Jesus, doing anything but what Jesus directed.

When we trust Jesus, He pays our debts for sin.

Listen: Lord, what do You want to teach me on all of this, because it’s rich?

One thing, I think, is for me to refrain from doing anything or saying anything that gives undue offense. This doesn’t mean that I should be a mealy-mouth. It means that I should stick to the gospel and stick to loving You and loving others. Even that will cause offense; but if people are offended by Your gospel, so be it. I just need to get out of the way and not offend them because of me, my words, my faults. As Your ambassador, I need to speak Your words and not my own, lest people think I’m speaking in Your name when I’m not.

I need to refrain from any behavior that might destroy my credibility for fulfilling my one mission, making disciples.

I need to refrain from any behavior that might keep me from being the one thing You call me to be, a disciple.

I suspect that this is part of why Jesus says, “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37)

Secondly, as a pastor, I need to refrain from laying obligations that You don’t command onto people or even to seem to do so. I’m not conscious of ever having done this with people; but this is an important cautionary lesson.

The temple tax was a kind of work. Yes, giving is part of the Christian life. But whatever giving we do to the cause of Christ in the world should be rendered joyfully, as an outgrowth of a maturing relationship with Jesus, not because someone from the Church reminds us to pay our “temple tax.”

Thirdly, I need to be more trusting. When Jesus told Peter to sink his line into the lake, catch a fish, and pull a four-drachma coin from the fish’s mouth, the record indicates that Peter did just that. There’s no indication that, even when Jesus was tried on trumped-up charges before Pilate, that Jesus’ payment of the temple tax was in dispute.

I need to trust what Jesus tells me to do and who He tells me to be. I need to trust His answers to my prayers, whether the answers are yes, no, or wait. I need to trust that I am forgiven not because of my works but because of what Jesus has done for me on the cross and from the empty tomb.

Respond: Lord, today, help me to major in the majors. Help me to not pursue my own agenda or seek affirmation for myself or the things I want, but help me to only pursue Your agenda, give You glory through my interactions with others, and only say those things needed to help people experience Your concern and love. In Jesus’ name.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Monday, April 24, 2017

Living in the New Creation (AUDIO)

Here. (During the course of the message, several examples of ancient and modern eight-sided baptismal fonts were shared.)

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This message was shared during yesterday's worship services.]

Living in the New Creation

John 20:19-31
Our gospel lesson for the Second Sunday of Easter recounts two incidents that happen within the space of a week. The first happens on the evening of the very first Easter, the Sunday on which Jesus rose from the dead. The second happens one week later. Because this lesson comes up every year, it may be worn from familiarity. But let’s ask God to help us to experience it in a fresh, new way this morning.

Freshness and newness, in fact, fill our lesson. Newness is what it’s all about!

John tells us that the first incident happens “On the evening of the first day of the week.”

The phrasing is a deliberate reference to the first creation account in Genesis, which tells us that God created in seven days.

The ancient rabbis taught that the human fall into sin happened on the seventh day. And for centuries, they had looked ahead to a “new day” or an “eighth day,” when God would create anew and that perfect peace--the perfect shalom--that existed between God and His creation on the first through sixth days would be restored.

It’s for this reason that many ancient and contemporary baptismal fonts are eight-sided. Here's a sampling of what I mean...

When a person is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God makes them part of the new creation secured through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The baptized are ushered into the perfect shalom of God’s eighth day, the first, only, and eternal day of the new creation, the eighth day that never ends.

It’s from this understanding of things that Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “...if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

As Jesus’ disciples huddled behind locked doors on the evening of the first Easter Sunday, they had no idea that the new creation had begun. They were still quaking in fear before the old creation.

Take a look at our lesson, starting at verse 19: “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”

In the new creation, the Word made flesh, Jesus, is no longer constrained by the limitations of humanity that He once voluntarily accepted to meet us where we live. This goes beyond being able to walk through walls (although that’s pretty cool). Now, Jesus moves freely between time and eternity, flesh and spirit, so that all who believe in Him have the peace of knowing that not even death can hold us down.

Like our Savior, beyond the gates of death, we will live untethered from death, untethered from fear.

And we can experience that eternal reality even now as Jesus comes to us in His Word, in the sacraments, and in the fellowship of Christian believers.

How confident, hopeful, at peace, and without fear are we to be? Back to our lesson, starting at verse 21: “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! [‘Here’s My shalom,’ Jesus is saying.] As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’”

We should be confident, hopeful, at peace, and without fear, first of all, because Jesus breathed on them. He breathes on us.

Jesus infuses us with the very life of God, when we are baptized children of God and when we trust Christ and His promises of new life, forgiven sin, constant presence, and eternity.

Jesus breathing on us echoes what God did at the creation of the first man, as recounted in Genesis 2:7, part of that book's second creation account: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

In the Old Testament Hebrew, the word translated as breath, ruach, can also mean wind or Spirit. The same is true of the Greek word, pneuma.

Jesus breathes the pure breath of heaven, the Holy Spirit, into all who believe. He makes all who believe in Him brand new. Why shouldn’t we be at peace, confident, hopeful?

We should also be confident, hopeful, at peace, and without fear because God, the almighty God of the universe, has entrusted us, His new creatures, with an important mission.

It’s the most important mission in the world. He’s given it to us even though, alone, we are completely unqualified to discharge it.

But Jesus fills us with His holy breath and then tells us that, in His name, we’re to proclaim His forgiveness to those who repent and believe and to proclaim God’s condemnation--in hopes that they will repent and believe--to those who balk at repentance and faith.

We’re to wield what Jesus calls elsewhere, “the keys of the kingdom.”

We’re to do so with humility and love. We’re to do this without confidence in ourselves, without a sense of superiority. Christians should never act "holier than thou"!

As followers of Jesus, you and I know that we are nothing without Jesus. We know that we have been saved not by our own goodness, but by what Jesus accomplished for us in His death and resurrection.

But Jesus gives us His Holy Spirit and says, effectively, “Act on My behalf, just as I have acted on behalf of My Father.”

Listen: When Jesus saves you from sin and death and then gives you the same mission He fulfilled on this earth, it doesn’t mean that your life on this earth will be easy. But it does mean that as long as you walk seeking to follow and share Christ each day, your life will be imbued with the same sense of possibility, peace, and hope that must have filled Adam when God breathed life into him.

Christian, Jesus says that you are a new creation. 

So that leads to some questions: What are you going to do about it? How many people are you going to invite to come along with you in experiencing the new life you have through Jesus?

And keep in mind that Jesus refuses to give up on anybody. He cares about everyone--from the most indifferent churchgoer to the most rabid atheist. He loves and died and rose for all people. He wants all people to believe that He “is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing...may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31).

All of which leads us to Thomas.

How many Thomases are there in your life?

How many times are we Thomases?

Keep in mind that, according to the original Greek in which John wrote his gospel, Jesus doesn’t describe Thomas the Apostle as a doubter; He says that Thomas is unbelieving.

How often do we regard the good news of Jesus or the promises of God with unbelief?

God’s Word tells us that it’s impossible for us to believe without the Holy Spirit’s breath giving life to our faith (2 Corinthians 12:3). Yet people can put up roadblocks to the Spirit and refuse to believe.
They either deem the message too good to be true or they’re so tied to the way things are in this old creation that they can’t imagine a new and better creation.

There are times when I preach or when I talk with people about Jesus that I can almost physically feel and see their resistance to the good news that we have in Christ’s death and resurrection. They prefer the things they know in this dying world to yielding their lives to a Savior they’ve never seen.

This happened again this past week during my mother's funeral. As I preached the good news of conquering death for us through Jesus' death and resurrection, I could see people resisting that message; their arms weren't folded, but their minds were closed. This was the posture of Thomas when the other disciples told him that they had seen the risen Jesus.

Verse 24: “Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’ A week later [The Greek in which John wrote this account actually says, “after eight days."] his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting [John says, in the Greek, that Jesus told Thomas, ‘Don’t be unbelieving.’] and believe.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”

Thomas, the unbelieving one, ends up making the most resounding confession of Jesus we find in all of John’s gospel: “My Lord and my God” he says to Jesus!

His confession is made all the more amazing when one considers Thomas’ track record.
  • It was Thomas who complained that Jesus was talking in riddles: ““Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5) 
  • And it was Thomas who sarcastically told the other disciples after Jesus had decided to go to Bethany, within the grasp of people who wanted to wipe out Jesus’ movement: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)
But now the unbeliever believed that Jesus is God, that Jesus is risen from the dead.

If there are people in your life who are like Thomas or if they’re tepid in their faith, distant from God, do not give up on them.

Pray for them.

Ask God to bring people into their lives who will invite them to come and see and know Jesus.

Ask God to for the opportunities to share your own life with Jesus with them.

In the meantime, live with the confidence and peace that is yours because, through your faith in Jesus, you have life in Jesus’ name; you’re part of the new creation!

I witnessed for Christ at the Kroger deli counter again this past week...and I wasn’t wearing my collar, so no "home team" advantage. The conversation started when I noticed a fellow customer was wearing a Buckeyes ball cap. We started with college football and ended with Jesus! God can use any entry point as a chance to help people to know the new life Jesus died and rose to give all people! Our task is to simply keep planting the seeds of the gospel in people's lives.

Make your mission the one that Jesus has given to every one of us, the mission that John tells us, in the last two verses of our lesson, animated his writing of the gospel. “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book,” John says. “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

We who belong to Jesus are ambassadors to this old creation from Christ’s new creation.

Live in peace and share Christ boldly! Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was the message for yesterday morning's worship services.]