Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Matthew 3

"I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
~Matthew 3:11

John the Baptist heralds the coming of the Messiah. Such a simple fact, and yet such a profound one. One site goes so far to proclaim that "Christianity begins with John the Baptist". This hyperbolic statement, nonetheless, has some merit to it. The radical breach of the Incarnation changed Mary and Joseph's lives forever, but God the Father ordained Joseph as foster father and Mary as mother to the growing child Jesus. John's ministry begins the unveiling of Jesus' divinity - an ongoing process that began with Jesus' baptism and ended with His resurrection.

My annotated NAB points out that nearly thirty years have passed since the end of Matthew 2, when Joseph hears of Herod's death and moves Mary and the toddler Jesus out of Egypt to Nazareth. Both the Father and the Son waited patiently, knowing that the time had not yet come to fulfill the divine plan.

When John comes, he says, "Repent!" The Jews hear him, confess their sins, reform their lives, and submit to his baptism in the Jordan River. Baptism was a common practice among the Essenes, and some scholars speculate that John, with his ascetic lifestyle, was himself an Essene. But why baptism now? John does not call the Jews to repent for their own sakes; rather, he says, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!" (v.2). The baptism of John makes no sense apart from the imminent public ministry of the Messiah. Hence, he warns the Pharisees who seek him not to boast of their Abrahamic descent (v.9), for one man greater than Abraham already walks among them.

And so John, protesting his own insufficiency for the task, baptizes his cousin Jesus. The heavens open, the Holy Spirit rushes upon Jesus (as it did upon the young King David when Samuel anointed him), and God the Father announces His pleasure with His Son. With John's baptism, Jesus has passed the first test of his young life: growing to maturity in submission to his Father's will. But a far greater test awaits him.

Tonight's prayer: Jesus, you submitted to baptism by John in the Jordan River not because you needed to be cleansed, but so your plan for our salvation could be fulfilled. We are full of sinfulness and hypocrisy, just like the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to John. But, because you persuaded John to baptize you in water, we are beneficiaries of your baptism in the Holy Spirit. Kindle a fire in our hearts so that we may be continually cleansed by the living flame of the Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Matthew 2

"On coming to the house, they [the Magi] saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him."
~ Matthew 2:11a

O exalted faith of the Magi! Jesus, newly born, "one healthy, little giggling, dribbling baby boy" according to Dave Matthews, would not be a fit subject of worship in respectable Jewish thought; the Levitical priesthood waited for the Messiah to come in power, but Jesus came in weakness. Fittingly enough, then, the first ones to worship Jesus as God Himself are obscure men "from the East" (v.1) who appear nowhere else in the Gospels. They alone recognized God's sign of the star when all Israel remained ignorant.

Even worse, tradition holds that the Magi were astrologers - a disreputable practice in first-century Judaism. The Pharisees absolutely forbade it, based on an expansive reading of Deuteronomy 18:10-13. In his very infancy, Jesus drew near to him outcasts and lawbreakers, just as he would do during his public ministry.

The Magi's visit, however, has an unforeseen consequence: King Herod hears of the birth of the Messiah. This leads to an extraordinary scene (vs. 4-5). Herod urgently asks, "Where is the Messiah to be born?" The chief priests and teachers of the law nonchalantly answer him, "Oh, in Bethlehem." Unlike the Jews of Jerusalem, Herod, to his credit, understands that the Messiah might well be in his midst. To his everlasting shame (and, quite possibly, to his eternal torment), Herod's gut reaction is to kill him.

Of course, God's plan triumphs over Herod's petty scheming. The Magi hear and heed a dream to return home by another route. Joseph, as in Chapter 1, hears an angel's call to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt, where the family remains for several months. But all is not well; Herod, though the Messiah eludes his grasp, pitilessly slaughters all the boys of Bethlehem two years old and younger (v.16). Herod's decision to deny Jesus'
Messianic reality causes an act of senseless, tyrannical brutality.

Tonight's prayer: Almighty God, you give all humans have one of three choices: to remain ignorant of the Messiah like the chief priests and scholars of Jewish law, to know him and reject him like King Herod, or to know him and worship him like the Magi. Help us to adopt the humility of the Magi, who traveled hundreds of miles just to kneel and give good gifts before our Lord and Savior in the cradle. As we go forth and do your Son's work, let us be overjoyed by your presence (v.10). Amen.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Matthew 1

"All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'The virgin will be with child and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel', which means, 'God with us'."

~Matthew 1:22-23

The Gospel of Matthew begins with Jesus' genealogy. Philip Yancey's fantastic book The Jesus I Never Knew tells how King Herod ordered a genealogical survey for himself. Dissatisfied with the base social status of his ancestors, he destroyed the survey.

Matthew's genealogy is not so simple. He calls Jesus "the son of David, the son of Abraham", begins with Abraham, then traces down through the house of Judah and the royal Davidic line. But - after the Babylonian exile - the list consists of fathers and sons unknown to history. This Messiah would not be born in regal pomp. Instead, Matthew finishes with a humble carpenter named Joseph, the pivotal man of the chapter.

Joseph finds his fiancee, Mary, pregnant. Under Mosaic law, he could have had Mary (and the child) stoned to death. Instead, he decides to break the engagement - not much better, for Mary would have returned to her family with the stigma of an unplanned, unexplainable pregnancy. Malcolm Muggeridge, among others, has argued that a 2007 C.E. incarnation of Mary might have been coerced into an abortion.

At this critical point, God defends His own living integrity in Mary's womb. He sends an angel to Joseph, telling him about Mary's supernatural conception and his own mission as foster father to the Messiah. Joseph obediently "did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him" (v. 24).

Tonight's prayer: Joseph exposed himself to shame and ridicule for the sake of the woman he loved greatly and the God he loved still more. Let me not turn away from the narrow path because I may be put to worldly shame. You do not see as the world sees, and your spiritual rewards far surpass fleshly pleasures (v.25). Amen.

Readers, welcome!

I came to believe in Jesus as Messiah and Lord through countless human agents of the Holy Spirit. My parents, Dave and Kathie, taught me goodness, discipline, and the value of frequent reception of the Lord's Supper. They also instilled a love of knowledge into me that has only strengthened with the passage of time. My one sibling, my younger brother Nathan, taught me that being an intellectual and being a generous person are distinct attributes. My girlfriend, Sally, a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Ukraine, taught me to cling to God's Word, to find solace and inspiration in it, to read it often and lovingly, and to let it sanctify me through the transformative power of the Spirit.

Within my family, I would be remiss to omit the example of my grandmothers: Elenore Lenart (who is with God) and Joanne Ardanowski (who retired today after fifteen years as Christian service director in her church).

The Gospels - the church's only authentic records of Jesus' life - are my point of entry into all the rest of Scripture. Together, they are divided into 89 chapters (28 in Matthew, 16 in Mark, 24 in Luke, 21 in John). There are 91 days from today to August 1, so I will blog a chapter per day, with two days left in reserve.

Tonight, the beginning: Matthew, chapter 1.