The True and Better Rock of Moses (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)

Jesus is not only the true and better Moses; he is also the true and better rock of Moses.  It was, of course, quite common to describe God as a “rock,” as we see from Moses’ own context:

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
just and upright is he. (Deuteronomy 32:4)

This same imagery would later be adopted by men like David, who proclaimed that “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:2).

So it’s only fitting that Jesus would be described in terms that rang similar to those of the Old Testament:

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)

What is Paul saying here?  Paul was, of course, addressing a people who had made an idol out of their ethnic heritage and religious tradition.  Israel could look back on their history and celebrate what God had done for their ancestors, but Paul reminds them that these things mean absolutely nothing apart from the Person to whom they point.  If Jesus is the true Rock, then the gospel challenges us to relinquish our trust on the unstable idols we cling to—even if that means letting go of our religious reputations.  The cross represents a new exodus, a new deliverance, not merely from the realm of political captivity but also the realm of sin and self and the subtle tyranny of the familiar.

Social scientist Peter Berger once wrote that the “demand to follow this figure of the crucified one…calls us to an exodus, not only out of Egypt of social mythology but also out of the Zion of religious security.  The exodus takes us out of our holy city, out past the scene of cross and resurrection, and beyond the desert in which God is waiting.  In this desert, all horizons are open.”

Moses struck the rock and water flowed from its side.  So too, was Jesus struck in the side by the soldier’s spear, and while observing the cross John watched as blood and water flowed down (John 19:34).  He is indeed the true Rock, from whom we find sustenance in the arid desert in which we currently reside.

What is this “water” meant to represent?  In John’s gospel, the “living water”—the same water he offers a woman by a well in Sychar (John 4)—represents the Holy Spirit.  At the Feast of Tabernacles—one of the Jews’ customary feasts—Jesus says:

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39)

In the desert God followed them through cloud and fire; now Jesus promises that God would reside with them personally through his Holy Spirit.

And Jesus is also the true and better Bread.  Moses and the Israelites famously ate manna and quail.  But Jesus comes to tell his people that no, he is the true Bread:

32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.  (John 6:32-35)

All of us will look to a thousand other sources for security and joy.  Only Jesus is the Rock (the source of our security) and the true Bread (the source of our satisfaction).  Nothing else truly satisfies.

“Our hearts are restless,” wrote a famous saint, “until they find rest in You.”  Indeed, our hearts are restless, they are hungry, they thirst.  But in Jesus we find satisfaction, and we find a call that stirs us beyond the borders of the familiar, and into a new exodus and toward a greater and better land of Promise.

 

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The true and better Moses (Hebrews 3-4)

For me, one of the most compelling things about Christianity is its coherence—that the pieces of God’s story come together to form a whole.  The Bible isn’t a bunch of different stories collected between two covers; it’s one story, from beginning to end, and it’s a story about Jesus.

THE EDGE OF PROMISE

As I was reading the story of Moses this past week, I was struck by the fact that though the Pentateuch (those first five books of the Bible) is so focused on Israel’s journey to the Promised Land, the people never actually get there.  Moses leads them to the border—though they never actually go in.  It isn’t until the book of Joshua that we see the people actually enter into God’s Promised Land.

The writer of Hebrews notes that neither Moses nor anyone in Israel’s great hall of fame truly experienced the full breadth of God’s promises:

39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:39-40)

This side of the resurrection, each of us is a sojourner, an exile, someone wandering toward God’s future yet never truly getting there—yet. 

We catch a hint of this as the book of Deuteronomy winds to a close:

And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him and did as the Lord had commanded Moses.

And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, 11 none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land,12 and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.  (Deuteronomy 34:10-12)

Israel, of course, had many prophets who followed Moses.  It may be that they regarded some of these prophets as more or less successful than one another, but ultimately Moses was the man most admired by God’s people.

Except, if we understand how these pieces fit together, then we must conclude that we need a prophet—a true and better Moses—to lead us not merely to the edge of God’s promises, but into them to see them fulfilled.

THE TRUE AND BETTER MOSES

Jesus is the true and better Moses.  The writer of Hebrews picks up on this exact theme, noting that while Moses served God as a servant, Jesus was faithful as a son:

3 Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, 2 who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house. 3 For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. 4 (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) 5 Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, 6 but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.

7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,

“Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
on the day of testing in the wilderness,
9 where your fathers put me to the test
and saw my works for forty years.
10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation,
and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart;
they have not known my ways.’
11 As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’” (Hebrews 3:3-11)

You may recall that Moses and the Israelites had previously doubted God and refused to enter the land when they saw the Canaanites there.  Their fear—their disbelief—condemned them to their wandering (Numbers 13-14).  They did not at that time get to experience God’s rest, a lesson the writer of Hebrews uses to illustrate the consequences of not turning our focus to Christ.

Jesus promises a better rest, not found only in the land but in the eternal splendor of God’s renewed and restored Kingdom.  The writer of Hebrews takes the word “rest,” applying it not only to the Promised Land of Israel’s history but to the promises of God’s eternal future:

8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. (Hebrews 4:8-11)

Jesus is the true and better Moses, whose obedience leads us all into a new world of promise, a renewed and restored creation where perfect joy and perfect justice flow like the fabled milk and honey of Israel’s dreams.

In today’s political and social climate, there are many things that engender fear and disbelief.  But hope engenders hope, and by looking toward God’s glorious future, we are reminded that the battle scars we bear are not exceptions or setbacks to God’s great promise—they are the very reasons for it.  And so we turn, this day and always, to the true and better Moses, to the Savior whose obedience leads us onward into the very heart of promise.

God’s “appalling” mercy (Deuteronomy 34)

“You cannot conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone, the appalling…strangeness of the mercy of God.”  Graham Greene wrote these words about the fictional characters of his novel Brighton Rock, words meant to underscore God’s unfathomable grace toward even those who’d turned his back on Him.  As a novelist, Greene tended to see something redemptive about the pure love of impure people.  As Christ-followers, we both affirm and challenge this idea: that God does indeed extend an “appalling” mercy toward the broken, though never on the purity of our love, but the purity of his own.

We should therefore view Moses’ mistake not merely as an example of human error, but also of divine grace, of an “appalling” mercy that reminds us of the incredible compassion of God.

We should recall that Moses’ crime went deeper than merely striking a rock he was commanded to speak to.  No; his condemnation was for his failure to uphold the Lord as holy (Numbers 20:12).

But if we read our Old Testament carefully, we should note that Moses is hardly the first to commit such a transgression.  Remember Nadab and Abihu?  These were the sons of Aaron, men who earned their place in history as the men who offered “strange fire” before the Lord:

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.  (Leviticus 10:1-3)

Don’t miss the reason this penalty falls on them.  God says that he “will be sanctified,” that is, his name will be made holy.  Aaron’s sons disregarded the Lord’s command and did what seemed right in their own eyes.  They failed to uphold the holiness of God.  Moses disregarded the Lord’s command and did what seemed right in his own eyes.  He failed to uphold the holiness of God.

I wonder if this ever crossed Aaron’s mind when he saw what Moses was doing.  Was he remembering his sons?  Did he feel the tears on his cheeks all over again?

But Moses would not share the same fate.  Though barred from entering the Promised Land, Moses would be permitted to see its borders:

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, 2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, 3 the Negeb, and the Plain, that is, the Valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar.

And the Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.”

So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord, 6 and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day. Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated. 8 And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. Then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended. (Deuteronomy 34:1-8)

Make no mistake: the reason the author describes Moses’ ongoing vitality was to remove any suggestion that Moses died of natural causes.  His remains were never recovered, most immediately to ensure that even in death Moses never entered the land, but perhaps also to prevent anyone from building a shrine to the memory of a mere man.

Moses’ life was supernaturally taken to fulfill God’s earlier promise.  But Moses also died with the vision of God’s promise laid before him in hill and in valley.  Obviously, Moses did not write down the details of his own death.  Though Moses is the author of the Pentateuch—those first five books of the Bible—a later editor felt it necessary for future readers to know of Moses’ fate, a fate both tragic and merciful, of grace and justice mingled sweet.

Through the progress of God’s revealed story, we know that Moses lost his earthly rewards but not his eternal destiny.  Moses appears alongside Elijah in front of Jesus and his closest followers.  Some even believe Moses will be one of the two witnesses described in Revelation 11.  And regardless of where Moses’ dust now resides, it will one day be gathered together that he might join Israel in the Promised Land when God restores his creation.

These things, too, are further examples of God’s “appalling” mercy.  Appalling because it defies our simply expectation of cause and effect.  And appalling that we, too, might be the recipients of God’s great grace.  That God should die that I might live is an appalling form of mercy, that the righteous should die for sinners like us should never cease to take us aback with its shocking strangeness.  To be given, like Moses, even the smallest glimpse of God’s eternal promise—well, this too is appallingly strange.  Every other major religion relies on the steadfast rules of cause and effect.  The gospel is greater and stranger than that.

Every one of us has made mistakes.  Every one of us has failed to uphold God as holy.  Yet as long as our trust is in the forgiveness offered through the cross, then we, too, might experience God’s appalling mercy, a mercy that lifts us out of the darkness of our shame, and lifts our eyes to a greater horizon ahead.

My will be done (Numbers 20)

Is there any greater lie that we tell so routinely as: “I accept these terms and conditions?”  Every so often one of my computer programs will undergo some routine software update and, after finishing, will ask that I reaffirm my commitment to their terms and conditions.  Except, like most sane human beings, I have no time whatsoever to scroll through the multi-page document.  I just hit “accept” so I can keep on truckin’, as if Steve Jobs is working from beyond the grave to make liars of us all.

No one reads those terms and conditions.  I think technically the Apple corporation has power of attorney over me.  Except I wouldn’t know, because I just hit “accept” without ever reading the agreement.

God is ferociously and wonderfully holy.  His righteous character provokes our allegiance.  In the story of the exodus, God uses Moses to redeem his people from Egyptian captivity, and uses Moses to lead his people to the Promised Land.  This, as we said, is the central focus of the “Pentateuch,” the first five books of the Old Testament.

Along Israel’s journey, God provides for his people, often using Moses as his instrument for doing so.  In one scene, God commands Moses to strike a rock to produce water for the people (Exodus 17:5-6).  Later, God issues the same command, though with a slight variation:

2 Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. 3 And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! 4 Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? 5 And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.” 6 Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them, 7 and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 8 “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.”9 And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him. (Numbers 20:2-9)

Moses is now commanded not to strike the rock, but to speak to the rock.  But here’s what happened:

10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.  12 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” 13 These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and through them he showed himself holy. (Numbers 20:10-13)

Moses did not adhere to the terms and conditions.  He struck the rock, contrary to God’s earlier commands.  His penalty?  He would not be permitted to enter the Promised Land.  The penalty sounds devastating, until we again consider the ferocious and awe-inspiring character of God, a God who offers grace yet still demands obedience from his followers—especially those he uses as leaders.

In fact, if we look closely, we find that Moses drifted off course in several areas of leadership:

  • He rebuked the people harshly (v. 10)
  • He took credit for what God was doing (v. 10—“shall we bring water…?”)
  • He lost his temper (v. 11)
  • He disobeyed God (v. 11)

The sum total reveals a lack of trust and a lack of acknowledgment of the true holiness of God.

C.S. Lewis once famously wrote that when we stand before God, there are two and only two kinds of people in the world: those who humbly say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those who proudly say, “My will be done.”  Though a faithful servant, in this moment of his life, Moses took the latter course.  And there will be times when we do the same.

It’s easy to drift into selfishness, isn’t it?  If you’re wondering what this might look like for you, think of it this way: have you ever caught yourself saying or thinking one of the following?

  • I expect credit for my accomplishments.
  • I wish other people wouldn’t get in my way.
  • What I ignore today can be handled tomorrow.

All of us are prone to moments of selfishness and weakness, but the cumulative effect of these thoughts causes us to drift away from holiness and toward our own happiness.  And there is no greater tragedy than self-interest.

And here’s where it gets a little more frightening: Moses’ way of doing things didn’t result in immediate failure.  He was successful.  Water really did come out of the rock.  His consequences lay ahead of him.  I think what this means is there will be times in our lives when we are operating outside the boundaries of God’s character—and things will go just fine.  People may even speak well of us.  But inside we will be sickly and selfish, the consequences of which will eventually leave us desiccated and empty.

This is why the idea of “drifting” is so important. No one drifts toward holiness.  All of us, on our own, drift toward center, drift toward self.  This is why we need the gospel.  The cross shatters our illusions of greatness; it reveals to us the ugliness of our deepest depravity.  But when the cross shatters our wrong self-image, it replaces it with the image of the Son.  In Christ we are granted the power once again to be bent toward God and toward neighbor; we are set free to serve a greater master, and once again experience the power to love someone else.  The cross beckons us to surrender the idol of self-interest, and enables us to finally utter, “Thy will be done.”

 

 

“Summer Slide” (Hebrews 11:23-29)

It’s called the “Summer Slide” or “Summer Learning Loss.”  If you’re a parent or an educator, you’ve probably experienced it.  When kids leave school for the summer, they tend to lose the information they gained over the year.  Some studies report that when measuring verbal and math skills, some students lose as much as 2-3 grade levels of ability in only three months.

Yikes.  I mean, how long have you or I been out of school now?  Probably a lot longer than three months.  We’ve forgotten a lot.  A lot. 

Educators and professionals report that there are specific strategies for helping children overcome the summer slide—mainly by finding simple ways the brain working over the summer:

“As simple as it sounds, reading books can reverse the summer slide in literacy skills for even the poorest children. Richard Allington, a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and his colleagues found that giving kids 12 books to read over the summer was as effective as summer school in raising the students’ reading scores….Another study…found that regardless of family income, the effect of reading four to five books over the summer was large enough to prevent a decline in reading-achievement scores from the spring to the fall. Kim’s other finding: children who said they had easy access to books over the summer ended up reading more. So seasonal alarm bells aside, the best way to push back against the summer slide is with your library card.”[1]

Here’s where we’re heading: the “summer slide” can happen to any of us, and I’m not just talking about your ability to help your kids with their math homework.  I’m talking about our spiritual lives.  While faith isn’t about developing a “skill set” like reading or math, there’s a rhythm and a pattern to our walk with God that, when broken, has ripple effects for most of the rest of our lives.

No one’s saying that it’s wrong to take a summer vacation.  No one’s saying it’s wrong to enjoy some time off at your beach house or on the boat.  What we want, however, is for each of us to be as intentional with our spiritual habits as we are about our recreational habits.

This week we’re going to look at Moses, whose shining example is tainted by a single great mistake.  In the book of Hebrews, the unnamed author lists Moses among the many great “heroes” of the faith:

23 By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.

24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.

27 By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.

28 By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.

29 By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned.  (Hebrews 11:23-29)

We probably all have an image of Moses from the old Charlton Heston movie.  It is through Moses that God reaches into human history to rescue his people from Egyptian slavery.  This movement out of Egypt—an event we know as the “exodus”—became symbolic of the way that God redeems all his people from the slavery and bondage of sin.

So it is fitting that the writer of Hebrews should use Moses as an example of the kind of faith that we should strive for.  But as we will see, Moses’ record was hardly spotless.  What lessons might we learn?

  • First, we recognize that God’s perfect plan always comes about through imperfect people. All of us are deeply flawed.  It is equally fitting, then, that the writer of Hebrews directs our thoughts to Moses’ faithfulness rather than Moses’ failure.
  • Second, we recognize that God is gracious. Moses’ failure resulted in God’s discipline, but not his full wrath.  Moses is counted among the heroes of faith, and even supernaturally appears alongside Elijah on Jesus’ mount of transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8), so it’s clear that Moses never lost his salvation.
  • Third, these great achievements should also remind us that there are none so great that may not have a moment of failure.  When we find ourselves at our most successful, those may the times when we are most vulnerable.

In the days ahead, we’ll see how the frustrations of leadership prompted Moses to “drift” from his steadfast course—even in a seemingly subtle way.  And it may also reveal the way our own heart attitudes can cause us to drift from holiness in search of our own happiness.

 

[1] Annie Murphy, “Do Kids Really Have ‘Summer Learning Loss?’” Time.com, July 1, 2013, http://ideas.time.com/2013/07/01/do-kids-really-have-summer-learning-loss/

New Sermon Series Begins This Sunday: “Drift”

Sitting on a raft or relaxing on an inner tube in a lazy body of water, it might not seem like one is moving whatsoever. After a time, without an identified point of reference to continually look back to upon the shore, one might find himself having quietly and unnoticeably drifted rather far away.

Without diligence and an intentional commitment to remain focused upon a stable point of reference, this may happen to us spiritually. Imperceptibly, weeks have gone by without observing disciplines like biblical connection and prayerful dependence. Now adrift, we realize we are not as close to the solid ground of fellowship with Christ that will sustain us in difficulty.

A time when this may especially happen is when we are out of sync with life rhythms … you know, like the summer.

The second summer sermon series that begins this week is called “Drift,” and it follows rather naturally upon the heels of the “Rooted” series. Drifting is what can happen when our roots are weak or our connection to the Vine is comprised.

We are going to look at some very famous biblical characters who, for all of their commendable traits and deeds, found themselves at a juncture of life to be “adrift” and disconnected. We will be looking at Moses, Elijah, Jonathan, Jonah, Solomon, and Peter.

We will have some devotional writings to accompany these studies, beginning each Monday. Maybe not every week will have five writings, but there will be some resources we trust will help you stay more anchored, even while enjoying the pleasantries of the summer months.

Tracing it ALL Back to the Roots

We will call an end to our “Rooted” series with these few words today. Many of you have spoken to me of particularly enjoying this theme. And it is a good one … as I’ve said a couple of times, it is near the center of the kernel of it all (to use another agrarian reference).

Let’s just think back through some of our themes of the past seven weeks …

–           The soils – is your heart condition that of the good soil? Is it more than just a hobby with this faith thing, something you’ll lose interest in over time or with persecution?

–           The roots of the tree – are your roots deep into a steady source of nourishment, like a tree by the river?

–           Abiding in the vine – are you well-connected to Christ and truth, or do you honestly throw down your own alternate roots system?

–           And related to growing among the tares and weeds – are you growing fruitfully even in a cross-cultural setting?

So, in summary, what do we do?  We remain rooted. We grow and produce fruit. We seek to influence the field around us. We wait patiently for a final day when all the wrong is set right.

As I shared at the end on Sunday … What I can tell you after approaching 40 years (as a pastor) of having a front row seat in the lives of other people is this: there is a categorical difference in those who are rooted, versus those you can simply see really don’t have a faith component in their lives to fall upon as a resource in times of crises.

You need to be a “prepper” – being prepared for whatever this crazy world brings at you. And preparation is defined as being rooted in God and in his Word, and anything less is a foolish mistake with disaster written all over it.

So, be rooted, don’t be a casual fan. And don’t be a weed in the wheat field.  Check your roots, nourish them, and think intentionally about producing fruit in your life and through your service.  That is a winning plan.

Is it real; Is it Authentic? (Matthew 13)

I am sure we have all seen the popular antiques-oriented TV Show called “Pawn Stars” that features a pawn shop / antiques store in Las Vegas. Or perhaps you’ve seen another, less dramatic program called “Antiques Road Show.” On both occasions, ordinary people are bringing antique items for professional evaluation, and hopefully for a big payday. An expert examines the items carefully for genuine authenticity. Within this industry are many fakes and reproductions, things that appear to be genuine but are in fact rather worthless by comparison to the real deal.

We need to understand that there is a great deal of counterfeit around us in the world of faith and religion – involving people, teachings, movements, and energies, etc.  And whereas the counterfeit is not going to be rooted out from amongst us until the very end, we can look, learn, and evaluate what is true and what is fake.

As we have noted about the parable of the wheat and weeds, the story is not complicated.  But what does this teaching mean for us today?  I think the major challenge for us, as it has been throughout this series, is to ask yourself if you are truly rooted in the right soil of God’s Word and truth. And beyond that, how deep are your roots, how well are you being nourished through those roots, and are you seeing an increasing display of fruit (proof of true life in Christ) through your life?

Satan is the master deceiver. The entire problem of sin originated when evil slithered into the garden and fooled one of the original parents of the human race, and we’ve been paying for that ever since – with the ultimate debt of that wrong only being able to be paid by someone else, in whom we trust as the core message of the gospel.

But in terms of the “enemy” in the story – the Devil – let’s think of some of the things that Satan has replicated and counterfeited over the years. What are these tares among the wheat?

Counterfeit Plan and Vision for the World – Satan has had quite a long career, from leading a revolt of one-third of the angels in eternity past against God … to the Garden of Eden … to Pharaoh trying to kill the Jews … to Herod seeking the Christ-child … to the temptations of Jesus … to thousands of other incidents down to our own day. He is the ruler of another kingdom that is doomed in the end, but he fights with an intensity even beyond ISIS.

Counterfeit Religious Workers – Paul wrote about his ministry challenges in 2 Corinthians 11:26, saying … I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.  These false believers and teachers were pretty much everywhere he went and in every church – tares among the wheat.

Counterfeit Gospel Message – In Galatians 1:6-8 Paul wrote to the readers about their declension from the truth: I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!  This was not another gospel of the same type, but another categorically different gospel message with no authenticity at all. There have been false gospel messages that distort the truth pretty much right from the beginning of the Christian era. And they are rampant in our day.

Counterfeit Righteousness – The entire book of Romans essentially argues for a righteousness in Christ versus a righteousness that is a natural sense of obligation arising from guilt – fed by the Evil One. This promotes the sense that you have to work and earn it on your own, by your goodness and deeds, to make it to God. This is another gospel.

Counterfeit Church – These have existed practically from the beginning, having some marks and symbols and statements that speak of the truth, but that at the end of the day preach a message totally the opposite of the truth. And a worldwide counterfeit church arises in the end times, being under the False Prophet who draws the attention of the world to worship the Beast, the Anti-Christ. And speaking of that fellow …

Counterfeit Christ at the End of Time – We live in scary times. We wonder and speculate how events play into last times narratives – stuff like the European Union / Worldwide financial crises / the rise of terror worldwide / even this past week – events in Nice, France and the political fallout from instability in Turkey… related to that country’s critical place in the world, associations with Russia and their leadership’s affinity toward radical Islam, etc.

So it is frustrating to have to live and grow in the context of so many weeds that choke out the message and advance of God’s Kingdom, even as we seek to be faithful in the clutter and confusion of it all. But it won’t always be this way, and that is the big idea. There is a harvest in the end and a judgment that ensues.

We cannot fix the world around us. God may use us and our testimony and service to convert some of the nearby weeds – God is able to do stuff like that and change their entire DNA from a weed to a wheat, right down to the roots and seeds. It really is new life when that happens. But our main responsibility is not to fix the world, but to remain faithful in the midst of the diversity and competing values systems. Be rooted!

Is it a Weed or a Wheat? (Matthew 13)

I am sure we have all had experiences with gardens or flower beds where we are uncertain as to what are the weeds that need to be pulled out and what are the flowers or plants we want to keep. I’ve always had this fear that I’m pulling up the wrong stuff and thereby cultivating a full crop of weeds! It all looks alike, especially at the beginning of the season.

The passage for our theme this week is from Matthew 13, commonly known as the parable of the wheat and the tares. Tares are essentially weeds that grew in the wheat.

We tend to divide the world into who’s “good” and who’s “bad” categories, but in our passage today, Jesus tells his followers that the wheat and tares will grow together. This means that around us today we may find many different kinds of worldviews and religious values systems all existing simultaneously, even very different and variant forms of “Christianity.”  It’s tempting to want to see our own culture and faith beliefs system triumph now, but Jesus says that this will not happen until the end.  Until then, we live “cross-culturally,” taking God’s message to a pluralistic world.

Here is the parable from Matthew 13 …

24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

This story of weeds in a wheat field would have been a clear and vivid picture to a first-century mind in an agricultural region and economy. In Israel/Palestine, there is a particularly annoying plant called “darnel” that can grow wild in the midst of a wheat field. It is a noxious plant that you really don’t want mixed with the good crop.

Especially to the untrained eye, or to anyone not paying close attention at the beginning of the growing season, the two plants look much alike. Yesterday in church, I showed side-by-side pictures of wheat and darnel in the early stages of development and asked for a show of hands as to which pictured weeds and which was wheat. The larger number of people guessed incorrectly. (Always fearful of inadvertent copy write infringement, I am hesitant to put such photos online.) And then I displayed a picture at the time of harvest of a field with both, and the differences were clearly obvious.

So at the end of the season, the weeds were more clearly visible, more easily separated and used for the only thing they were good for – fuel.

So, that was a great story. And immediately Jesus launches into two other parables: one about the mustard seed and another about the effects of yeast in dough.

And we can just imagine his disciples standing around each other and maybe one of them saying to another, “Is it just me, or did you also not understand exactly what that story about the wheat and tares was all about?”   And I can imagine an answer coming back to the first guy, “Well, I’m not sure I caught it all either… so maybe we should ask him to clearly explain it.”

So we skip down to verses 36-43 …

36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

So here are the component elements of the story

  • Farmer/Sower = Christ and the message of truth
  • Field = the people of the world
  • Good Seed = God’s people of the Kingdom
  • Weeds = the Evil One’s people
  • Enemy = the Devil
  • Harvest = judgment at the end of time
  • Harvesters = the angels
  • Results = separation of righteous and the evil

In tomorrow’s post, we will spend most of it on application and what difference this makes in our lives. But for today, let’s just note how applicable such passages are in the crazy world in which we live … in a world now where the news today is filled with the ambush deaths of more policemen, and where there is a new level of palatable fear in our country for the health and wellbeing of our nation.

The story in the text acknowledges that there are two kingdoms: God’s kingdom and an enemy – the Devil. The Wicked One is active and at work, sowing bad among the good. And though justice is not an immediate reality, the promise is that it is coming in a final day of judgment, of harvesting to two very different ends.

Until then, as wheat, as God’s people in his field, we grow and work to stay nourished and flourish onto fruition in a diverse and multifaceted context of worldviews and value systems. We stay rooted.

Let’s Go (John 15:12-17)

Unless you live under a rock—or just somewhere far removed from kids—you’ve probably been hearing a lot about the new craze called “Pokemon Go.”  I know I’m young (-ish), but I’m just a notch or two too old to have grown up during the height of Pokemon’s initial popularity, so I actually had to have someone explain what “Pokemon Go” is all about.  It’s actually all in the name: a “Pokemon” is a magical creature popularized by a card game (and related products) in Japan.  The “Go” part is where things get interesting.  You start by downloading the app to your phone or mobile device.  The app coordinates with GPS, so when you use the app you have a map of your neighborhood.  The map features markers in random locations that indicate where you find a Pokemon.  So while most games are played just by sitting still and using your thumbs, Pokemon Go requires you to physically travel to those locations.  So if my map shows a Pokemon over by the City Park, then I have to physically travel to the City Park.  Once I arrive at the location, the app allows me to find the Pokemon using the phone’s camera feature.  Looking at the screen, I can locate the Pokemon, at which point I am able to “catch” it.

You have to give the designers credit: here’s a game that’s actually getting people off the sofa and moving, and certainly blurring the usual boundaries that exist in neighborhoods as people share a love for a common quest.

On the other hand, I can’t help but laugh at the obvious modern parable: legions of people motivated to chase after things that aren’t real.  If that’s not a metaphor for the human condition, I don’t know what is.

We are, indeed, “prone to wander,” as the old hymn writer intoned.  Whether chasing Pokemon, chasing a fantasy relationship, wealth, career, what have you.  All the same, it seems that human beings were never meant to stand still.  Jesus himself describes faith as something of a journey, and those who take the narrow road find life.

In John, Jesus tells his followers that there is a new relationship that comes from “abiding.”  Staying close to Jesus changes our status before God:

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:12-17)

The contemporary world has reduced humans to mere consumers, or at least it tries to.  The modern world brought us from God’s image-bearers to mere homo sapiens, the latest model in a blind, evolutionary process.  The postmodern world has reduced us still further to homo ludens, “humans at play.”

The gospel restores our dignity by positioning us as agents of God’s kingdom, friends who are granted the privilege of sharing in the work that God is performing in the world around us.  It’s not for nothing that Adam’s original task was to tend the garden.  Now, the body of Christ is likewise called to “bear fruit.”  Pay very attention to this latter part of the text: verse 16 says that the Christian’s purpose is to “go and bear fruit.”  Go.  This is John’s version of the Great Commission.  Jesus came so that we may have “life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Now, Jesus tells his followers (tells us) that our mission is to cultivate that life in others.

To abide is to go.  To abide is to become a missional cultivator who connects others to the life-giving “Vine” of Christ.  Do we not believe that there is great joy to be found in that—perhaps even greater joy than a smart-phone game can produce?

A few years ago I found myself in the City Park here in Hagerstown.  It was a Saturday in the Springtime, and therefore slightly more crowded than usual.  On the sidewalk was a little girl riding her bicycle, and in her front basket she had a large pile of freshly-picked yellow dandelions.  She paused in front of me to hand me one, for which I thanked her.  She grinned excitedly and turned to her nearby parents, shouting: “Mommy! Mommy!  I gave the man a flower!”  There’s joy in going.  There’s joy in giving.  And there’s a difference, I think, between our childish pursuit of selfish fantasies, and a childlike capacity for wonder, and for grace.

Let’s go.