Sunday, March 6, 2016

Why Jesus Put Up With the Devil

Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness
by Tissot
Now we are about half way through the period of lent. Last Sunday we looked at the Gospel of Mark's very brief, terse account of Jesus' 40 days in the desert.  This time we'll look at Matthew's account, where he tells of the epic battle between the Son of God and the Father of lies.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus put up with the Devil in the wilderness at all? Being God he could, after all, have simply blown him away. That's what we humans would expect. I've asked the theologian known as Gregory the Great to give his viewpoint on this question.


Then the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the Devil. After spending forty days and nights without food, Jesus was hungry. Then the Devil came to him and said, “If you are God's Son, order these stones to turn into bread.”

 But Jesus answered, “The scripture says, ‘Human beings cannot live on bread alone, but need every word that God speaks.’”

Then the Devil took Jesus to Jerusalem, the Holy City, set him on the highest point of the Temple, and said to him, “If you are God's Son, throw yourself down, for the scripture says,

‘God will give orders to his angels about you;
they will hold you up with their hands,
so that not even your feet
will be hurt on the stones.’” 

Jesus answered, “But the scripture also says, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Then the Devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in all their greatness. “All this I will give you,” the Devil said, “if you kneel down and worship me.”

Then Jesus answered, “Go away, Satan! The scripture says, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!’”

(Matthew 4.1 - 10, GNB)

But there is something else we have to consider in this temptation of the Lord, dearly beloved. When the Lord was tempted by the devil, he answered him with the commands of sacred Scripture. 
By the Word that he was, he could have easily plunged his tempter into the abyss.
But he did not reveal the power of his might, but he only brought forth the precepts of Scripture. This was to give us an example of his patience, so that as often as we suffer something from vicious persons we should be aroused to teach rather than to exact revenge.  
Consider how great God’s patience is, how great our impatience. When we are provoked by some injury or threatened harm, or moved to rage, we seek revenge as far as possible. When we are unable to obtain it, we make our threats. 
But the Lord endured the devil’s opposition, and he answered him with nothing except words of meekness. He put up with one he could have punished, so that this might all the more redound to his praise. He overcame his enemy not by destroying him but by suffering him for a while.

Gregory the Great (c. AD 540–604)
Forty Gospel Homilies 16.2–3.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Greatest Trial?

Temptation in the Wilderness
What I like to do here on Sundays is present a small portion of the Bible and then let some especially wise members of the Christian Movement talk to us about it. 

Since it is Lent and Jesus-followers around the world are reliving the 40 days he fasted in the desert, why not turn our minds to Mark's brief, enigmatic description of that event. Matthew and Luke describe Jesus' titanic struggle with the Devil during that time (John doesn't mention it all). 

But this is all Mark says...

At once the Spirit made him go into the desert, where he stayed forty days, being tempted by Satan. Wild animals were there also, but angels came and helped him.

Gospel of Mark 1.12 - 13, GNB


When you think about it, maybe hunger wasn't his most agonizing trial there in the wilderness. Maybe there was something worse...

You see how the Spirit led him, not into a city or public arena, but into a wilderness. In this desolate place, the Spirit extended the devil an occasion to test him, not only by hunger, but also by loneliness, for it is there most especially that the devil assails us, when he sees us left alone and by ourselves. In this same way did he also confront Eve in the beginning, having caught her alone and apart from her husband.

John Chrysostom (AD 349 – 407)
The Gospel of St. Matthew, Homily 13.1

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Bible This Year

Jerome Studies Scripture
Art by Lowgan
At the start of each year for the last few of them my wife and I begin using new Bible translations for our daily studies. We do this in hopes that the unfamiliar words will perhaps shake us loose from an unexamined assumption now and then. I also use the translation here as much as possible for the same reason.

Last year we both tried The Voice, a very interesting Bible that uses out-of-the-ordinary wording and page design to force you to think about what you're reading. If you want a translation that's as far from the King James Version as possible, that's the one for you.

The year before that I used the little-known Easy to Read Version (ERV), which became one of my all time favorites.  It can be tricky to extract the meaning from the Bible's foreign languages (hebrew and greek) and put it accurately into english, especially simple, commonplace english. But the ERV translators have a knack for doing just that and are so good at it that I kept finding myself smiling at how well they rendered this or that verse.

For 2016 I wanted to use the New Jerusalem Bible, a translation near and dear to my heart. In fact I actually am using it for my personal studies, but unfortunately it's one of the few Bibles BibleGateway -- to which I link all this blog's scriptures -- doesn't have. In fact nobody online does, with the sole exception of, but theirs is homely, drowning in ads, and very awkward to use.

So this year I finally chose the venerable Good News Bible to be the 2nd translation on Authentic Light. I've used the GNB off and on for years and owned several copies (that fell apart), but I've never really been enthused about it. However it has this one irritating habit: whenever I read a scripture and think, "You know, a better way to translate that verse would be..."  the Good News Bible frequently has already translated it that way. You may have noticed that I quoted it a couple of times on my Wednesday post.

Translating "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil," (Matthew 5.17) as "I have not come to do away with them, but to make their teachings come true" is just exactly right.

Plus it's the script of my all-time favorite Jesus film, The Gospel of John. You can really see what an effective version it is in that movie, with people acting it out.

So for this year, the Good News Bible it is.  Always backed up, as usual, by my primary version, the NET Bible.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Why Do Christians Do Lent?

So here we are in the middle of the 40 days of self-denial members of the Christian Movement call "Lent." During this time we re-enact in a small way the 40 days Jesus fasted in the wilderness at the start of his mission. But why did Jesus fast 40 days? Why are imitating him? Here's one reason.

Only three people in the entire Bible are recorded as fasting for 40 days: Moses (Book of Exodus, chapter 34 verse 28Good News Bible), Elijah (First Book of Kings, chapter 19 verse 8, GNB), and Jesus. These three men marked the most important epochs in the history of the people of God. Even Abraham was never called upon to fast 40 days, important as he was.

The Lineage

The traditional mountain in Palestine where
Jesus fasted 40 days
Moses instituted the "Old Covenant" between God and his nation and gave the Law to the children of Israel. This was the pattern of life God wanted them to follow and, we find out later, a pointer to virtually every aspect of Jesus' later work. Moses' fast occurred right at this crucial point in the story.

Elijah was seen as the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. The main job of Israel's prophets, incidentally, was to call the people back to the Law God had given them through Moses. His fast came at Israel's lowest point up to that time, when it appeared (to him) that he was the last believer in Yahweh the God of Israel -- and he was about to be killed too! At Sinai, when his fast was done, God renewed and recommissioned Elijah.

As Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth was the culmination of God's plan and superseded everything Moses and Elijah had done. He pointed this out as bluntly and plainly as possible: "The Law of Moses and the writings of the prophets were in effect up to the time of John the Baptist; since then the Good News about the Kingdom of God is being told, and everyone forces their way in," (Gospel of Luke, chapter 16 verse 16).

Moses and the Law
Jesus fasted the same length of time as Moses and Elijah to show he stood in their spiritual lineage, which he was destined to transcend. Not destroy it; there is a continuity in God's ways. But to "fulfill" it, to make it all come true (Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5 verse 17, GNB). From here on out the Kingdom of God was present in the person of its King and all the things Moses and Elijah -- "The Law and the Prophets" -- stood for were subsumed and fulfilled in the Messiah: " And Jesus explained to them what was said about himself in all the Scriptures, beginning with the books of Moses and the writings of all the prophets," (Gospel of Luke, chapter 24 verse 27, GNB).

We see this pictured in a single image during Jesus' transfiguration: Moses, giver of the Law, and Elijah, the master prophet of Israel, stand in glory with their Messiah and speak of his upcoming supreme victory over evil on the cross in Jerusalem. One of them, Moses perhaps, calls it Jesus' "exodus," fulfilling the one Moses had led:
"Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him. They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus' departure (in Greek, "exodon"), which he would achieve in Jerusalem," (Gospel of Luke, chapter 9 verses 30-31).

What About Us?

But what about us? Why do we ordinary, everyday Christians fast (in a much less agonizing way) for 40 days like Moses, Elijah, and Jesus did? Lots of reasons, but one of the most important is this: Because we are not ordinary and everyday. The Messiah has inducted us into his Movement and we have sworn allegiance to him, which means we are now part of that same spiritual lineage as he (and they) are. He is our head and we are his body (Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 1 verses 22-23, GNB). We are the Kingdom here and now, just as he was.

We don't merely act on Christ's behalf, we act as Christ -- as his personal way to permeate, transform, and eventually conquer the world. We are him to this world. Over the millennia Christ's Movement has found one of the most useful ways to become more like Jesus is to live our way through the events of his life each year, as we discussed in this post from 2011.

By imitating Jesus' 40 day fast we stand in the same line as Jesus, Elijah, and Moses did. We fast 40 days because Jesus fasted 40 days and we are his body. Doing this year by year melds the body ever closer to the head. Or, to reverse the image, keeping lent each year enables the world to see the head more clearly through the body.

Frankly, if we take it seriously, the 40 days fast prods us to stand up and openly state that, "Why yes, as a matter of fact I am part of Christ's body in this world!" With Jesus there was never any doubt what he was up to. We, on the other hand, can fit in a little too well and all unawares sink into a gentle anonymity. But when we come into work with a big smudgy ash cross on your forehead, or have to fumble for an explanation at lunch as to why we're not eating meat right now or must let all our friends know we won't be on Facebook for over a month, that can prompt awkward questions.

But that's ok because, after all, we're just the latest generation of that famous spiritual lineage.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Same Old, Same Old With the Son of God

Photo by Adam Jones
"On the 5th Day of Christmas my true love gave to me... downtime."

In the version of the Christian calendar followed in the western world this is the 5th Day of Christmas -- the one where your supposed to get those famous "five golden rings." But despite that, there are no holy feasts today, no commemorations like the one I mentioned the other day marking the first martyrdom in the Christian Movement. If you happen to be a big fan of Thomas Becket this would be the day you remember him, though it has nothing to do with Christmas (although he was yet another martyr...).

But there is a lesson in this day. After all, even life with the newborn Son of God wasn't a miracle-a-minute. There were no doubt weeks and months where nothing happened outside of ordinary, droning, peasant family life. Even the fact that they were refugees in Egypt for some time wouldn't have altered the mundaneness of the life of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus much.

Days like the 5th Day of Christmas, which basically just tick off time in the commemoration of Jesus' young life, help bring home the reality of all this. They hint that, despite all the wonders that swirl around the Holy Family at crucial moments, they were much more like us with all our prosaic concerns than we may think. As the Gospel of Luke tells us a little later on, most of Jesus' early life could be described this way: "The little boy Jesus was developing into a mature young man, full of wisdom. God was blessing him," (Luke, chapter 2 verse 40, ERV).

But that's to be expected. It is in legends and fairy tales that miracles happen every minute; here we are dealing with history. It just happens to be history in which God is with us.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Ramifications of Christmas

Stoning of St. Stephen, by Rembrandt
Even though his feast day is not technically connected with Christmas, it's interesting to me that the first day after it is the day Jesus' followers commemorate the execution of Stephen, the Christian Movement's first martyr. Today is the 'Feast of Stephen,' which usually only surfaces in our minds when we sing Good King Wenceslas.

Perhaps it's just a coincidence that Stephen is celebrated here, but it serves as a none-too-subtle reminder that the Messiah wasn't born yesterday to bring us bright baubles and candy canes; this is serious business.

Serious Business

Let's rehearse what happened here. The power-brokers back then were not terribly happy with Jesus' early followers. Stephen was one of the major exponents of what we stood for and, as the story goes, when his opponents couldn't out-debate him they simply accused him of "speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God." In short order Stephen was " seized... and brought... before the council," (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6 verses 11 - 12, ).

In his defense Stephen delivered a long and rather blunt speech showing point by point that his people had an abysmal record of obeying God and now had capped it off by crucifying their own Messiah. His listeners did not take it well:
Upon hearing this, his audience could contain themselves no longer. They boiled in fury at Stephen; they clenched their jaws and ground their teeth. But Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit. Gazing upward into heaven, he saw something they couldn’t see: the glory of God, and Jesus standing at His right hand.
Stephen: Look, I see the heavens opening! I see the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God! 
At this, they covered their ears and started shouting. The whole crowd rushed at Stephen, converged on him, dragged him out of the city, and stoned him. They laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul, while they were pelting Stephen with rocks. 
Stephen (as rocks fell upon him): Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Then he knelt in prayer, shouting at the top of his lungs, 
Stephen: Lord, do not hold this evil against them! 
Those were his final words; then he fell asleep in death.

One may fault Stephen for tactlessness but not for lack of courage. Jesus offered his people a revolutionary way to be rescued from Rome, rescued from sin, rescued from failing repeatedly to fulfill the mission God had created them for. Even at this late date, when they had utterly failed to recognize their Messiah and turned him over to the Romans for a hideous execution, Jesus' offer still stood. Israel could still fall in behind their King. Stephen saw his duty clear and decided his best shot at shaking up the august leaders of his people was to rub their noses in the truth of what they'd done.

It got him killed, with many more to come.

First of Many

The line of martyrs with Stephen at its head has by no means come to an end. On this Feast of Stephen googling "latest attacks on christians" immediately brings up a story in USA Today reporting that, "Christmas attacks by Muslim rebels in Christian villages in the southern Philippines left at least 14 people dead." The numbers of Christians in the middle east are rapidly decreasing as they do their best to escape barbaric treatment. But don't think (as so many tend to) that it's purely a problem with radical muslim extremists. Open Doors, a group that monitors Christian persecution, reports that the country most hostile to Jesus of Nazareth's followers is North Korea.

In the comfortable, hermetically sealed western world we inhabit it's easy to assume the days of Christians being martyred for their faith is long past, that it may have happened back in "barbaric" Roman times, but not today. It's particularly easy when we are warm and full from the traditional holiday buying binge.

The Feast of Stephen helps us remember right after Christmas that that's not quite the case.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Right Time

But when the right time came, God sent his Son, who was born from a woman and lived under the law. God did this so that he could buy the freedom of those who were under the law. God’s purpose was to make us his children.

Letter to the Galatians 4.4-5 (ERV)


Astronomers never tire of telling us how unimaginably vast the universe (or perhaps the multiverse) is, and how small and insignificant we are by comparison. And they are right. It's true with time as well: The 'big bang' happened about 13.8 billion years ago. Compared to that, the whole of human existence is just a blip.

The Christian Movement has no quibble with that. In fact, we've always held that the God we deal with is infinite and eternal. That puts the multiverse in the same relative position to God as the Earth is to it.

Yet out of all that unfathomable vastness came this. In the most insignificant corner of our insignificant planet the infinite God became the most insignificant of people -- a peasant girl's baby.

And why? He spells it out plain: God's purpose was to make us his children.

In eternity, beyond all time and space, that is what concerned the infinite God. And on this day, Christmas day, he did something about it.

It was the right time.