Genesis: A Revelation

This morning we begin a three week series in Genesis ch’s 1-3. No doubt your curiosity will be aroused about what ‘my position’ will be on the relationship of Gen 1 to evolutionary theory. There are basically four views which Christians make. The first is to reject evolution and assert that the world came into being in six literal days. The second, assert that the evolutionary view negates Gen 1 and therefore science has proved it wrong. The third is to attempt to blend them together in many ingenious ways (Days become evolutionary epochs.) This does no justice to either Gen 1, or the contribution of evolutionary theory. Basically all three views miss what was obvious to the people of God who lived before the development in the 17th and 18th century in the West when the scientific world view developed and a precise, literal reading of literature (including a religious text like Gen 1) began to dominate.

This brings us to a fourth view: Gen 1 is a theological document, virtually a type of creed. It states truths which cannot be scientifically confirmed; but truths which are grasped only by intuition, the result of God’s revelation. Gen 1 tells us that the God who creates this world is the same God who later redeems Israel and revels himself to them as the LORD. Gen 1 states that humanity is not an evolutionary accident, but the pinnacle of God’s work; we are made in his image. This confers value on all of us, irrespective of gender, race or type. In contrast, the ancient kings asserted they were made in the image of their god who protected their cities.

Importantly, Gen 1 teaches us that the gods of the ancient world, the sun, moon and stars which were believed to control human destiny, were created by God. (They are not given names to show God’s power over them.) It is he who controls their destiny and ours. Another teaching of Gen 1 is this creation is good. Christianity is therefore not about escaping from this world, but living in it with our Creator.

Temptations and their Purpose

The three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness have passed from being a biblical story into the realm of folklore. Movie producers have found them a fertile ground to create an image of Christ as a disturbed, almost madman who undergoes hallucinations. The temptations were recast in the movie, ‘Jesus of Montreal’ (1989) to feature a modern Jesus being tempted by a publicity agent, who seeing his charisma, tempted him with the offer that he could become a TV star, with cooking shows, books and on speaking circuits. The empty materialism offered was quickly unmasked by Jesus, refused and then overcome. And there are the vivid, sometimes lurid art works of the Middle Ages, of images of Jesus fighting off the Devil. All these miss the point.

He is tempted after his baptism to ‘battle harden’ him (a phrase the army uses), to prepare him for his ministry when he will be tempted to take the easy road and avoid the cross. Second, the response by Jesus to the temptations are instructive for us. He saw them for what they were and then justified his response by quoting Scripture three times. Note that each time he quoted from Deuteronomy – which recounts Israel’s experience of their wilderness temptations and the Lord’s instruction to them. Third, he draws upon the right Scripture for the right situation. Often when we face a problem, we use Scripture with the right motive, but with the wrong text resulting in theological confusion. Jesus had been trained in the use of God’s word and it protected him.

Now Everything Had Changed

This Sunday we celebrate the transfiguration of Christ on what is traditionally believed to be Mt Carmel (Lk 9:28-36). Everything remained the same for the three disciples present. He was still human and their friend, but now everything had changed. They had seen his glory. He was, as his miracles had suggested, God in flesh. Furthermore, his teaching about his coming suffering, death and resurrection just before his transfiguration, now had to be taken seriously (Lk 9:21-26). His death would be for a purpose and that purpose has been the central reason for the church’s existence from then on.  Even after we are glorified (Rom 8:18-25), we will still  be singing praises to God the Father and the Son, for his infinite gift of his Son that we glimpse in the transfiguration of Christ.

The transfiguration exploded the disciples expectations of just seeing things as they are, thinking nothing else is possible. We can do the same. We can assume that our emphasis of Christianity or our understanding of it, is the true one. The transfiguration blew that assumption up too for the disciples. Now they knew without doubt, that Jesus’ teaching about his coming suffering, death and resurrection was going to happen, and it would be for a purpose (Luke 9:31). They are told by God’s voice, no less, to ‘listen to him’, (Jesus) not the religious leaders of their day which offered a different messiah (Luke 9:35). We too, are invited to see things differently and be changed. 

Loving our Enemies

Does Jesus expect us to do the impossible in our dealings with people? He tells his followers: love your enemies, pray for those who mistreat you; if someone seizes your necessities like a coat, give them more – like your inner clothing as well (Luke 6:27-31).

Just as we have frowned in disbelief, caught our breath and then worked out how we can minimise or even evade the literal meaning of what he has just said, he then unloads even more demands which seem unlikely to be realistic.

He puts his finger on three of our common expectations that we have in our dealings with others. It is no credit to us if we love those who love us. Nor is it a demonstration of our ‘love of neighbour’, when we do good to those who do good to us, or we lend to those we expect repayment. Jesus points out even your average, happy, secular person will do the same (Lk 6:34). If I love those who love me, what’s so good about that? Everyone does that.

Jesus wants us to move beyond doing things for others out of selfinterest or our expectation that we will be repaid in some way. (It’s only fair that they should we think.) We are to lend  (even to our enemies), without expecting them to give anything back (6:35). Why? Why are we expected to ‘go the extra mile’? (Matt 5:41)

Because we are to express by our treatment of others, what our heavenly Father’s treatment is of all people. He is merciful and kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (6:35) Our sense of fairness is not the same as God’s. Our values are to mirror those of our Lord, who gave himself to sinners and loved his enemies (1 Peter 2:12, 21). 

Sermon on the Plain

This morning’s Gospel reading is traditionally called, ‘the Sermon on the Plain’, because Luke reports that Jesus came down to deliver his sermon on ‘a plain’ (Lk 6:17). Much of the material in the sermon is identical to ‘the Sermon on the Mount’ which is in Matthew’s gospel (Matt ch’s 5-7). However, subtle, but significant differences of emphasis exist between Luke and Matthew’s accounts. Each reflects the interest by the Gospel writer to present Jesus as either a rabbi who is superior to Moses (Matthew’s account), or the prophet teaching his disciples how they are to live as one of his followers in a society which is rich, powerful and persecuting them (Lk 6:22, 24, 26). For example, Luke contrasts those who are poor (6:20), with the rich who Jesus denounces. In contrast, Matthew’s account has ‘the poor in spirit’ (Matt 5:3).

What is significant in Luke’s presentation is that Jesus’ teaching is addressed to the broader group of disciples who are contrasted with the crowd (6:20). His teaching is therefore for those on the inside, who have heard the call to follow and not the general public. He makes a shocking contrast between the rich and poor and pronounces judgement on the rich in four ‘woes’ (6:24-26). The ‘blessings’ are upon, and also it should be noted, for the poor, the hungry, those who weep in despair and those who are marginalised (6:20-22). This is Jesus being the prophet. He has announced that a division is already being made between these two groups and he has shown his hand. Judgement is coming on the rich who do not respect God’s poor yet claim to be God’s people (see also James 5:1-6).

Belonging and Believing

Simply put, being a disciple of Jesus isn’t about behaviour modification. Christianity is not a self-help program to happiness or perfection. If that were the case, we are going to be failures, because I don’t know anyone who is sinless. Yet often our church culture pushes behaviour modification as the primary goal of our faith. We expect people and our society to accept our values as norms when they are not.

Reading the gospels I am struck by how often Jesus invited people to belong to him first. He entered into relationships with others, regardless of where they were spiritually or morally. He did not discriminate against what part of society they belonged to. He ate with people who were the outsiders of their society and befriended tax collectors, prostitutes, the despised rich (like Zacchaeus), or foreigners like the woman from Syria. Once they felt a sense that they could “belong”, Jesus then invited them to follow him, to “believe”. After they chose to believe, he would ask them to “become transformed” by the values he taught and demonstrated. These values are ones like sacrifice, sharing, compassion for the outsider and foreigner; patience, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. (Gal 5:22). This behaviour is an expression of living out the reality of God’s kingdom in daily life. It is also an expression of the abundant and fruitful life from the Holy Spirit living out in us.

Today’s story of Jesus calling his first disciples in Luke 5:1-11, demonstrates this process to belong, believe and be transformed by Jesus.

History, not Myth

“. . . the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (Luke 3:2) Luke begins the story about the ministry of John the Baptist – and that of Jesus of Nazareth – by telling us that it is in the 15th year of a Roman Caesar, Tiberius, who is no doubt busy governing his expanding empire. Then Luke cites the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate as another person of note. Pilate is probably too busy trying to quell the frequent outbreaks of insurrection and riots of the unruly Jewish people he governed. Herod – the son of Herod the Great, along with his brother Philip, are then mentioned and finally the high priest Annas and his son in-law Caiphas in Jerusalem are also identified. These last two men are probably busy working out how to maximise their profits from the pilgrims who came each year to the temple in Jerusalem. Yet it was during this specific period of Roman and Jewish history that the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah. Luke shows us that both Roman and Jewish history are intertwined with God’s inbreaking revelation. John’s announcement that it was time to prepare for God’s new work of salvation has occurred in a real time and in a real place. Why is it important for Luke to locate the events he narrates in real history? Very simply, Christianity is unlike the Roman and Greek gods who have no historical basis; they are myths. Myths are very appealing, especially when they are sugar coated to make it easy for children to swallow. They sprout up in every generation as an easy solution to an inability to trust God’s truth. One modern myth often recycled around an election period, is that a strong economy will save us, or make us happy. It won’t. Only Christ provides the salvation we seek.

“Are You ‘A King’?”

Jesus does not look like a king to Pilate (John 18: 33-37). He lacks the customary signs of kingship: purple clothing, insignia; a ring, standard bearers and an army at his disposal. Pilate concludes that nothing Jesus has said warrants crucifixion. Instead, Pilate attempts to provide a way out for the Jewish leaders to reverse their decision so that they will not lose face. Pilate makes the offer to release one of his captives as was the custom preceding the Passover festival. The crowd however, demand the release of Barabbas, a terrorist. As a further concession to the Jews, and in a final attempt to prevent Jesus being crucified, Pilate has Jesus flogged and mocked as a pretend king (Jn 19:1-3). Following this punishment, Jesus is paraded before the crowd and Pilate declares that Jesus is innocent. But the crowd will not accept this. They demand his crucifixion on the basis that Jesus had claimed to the be the Son of God. This claim which Jesus did not deny (Lk 22:70), challenged Caesar’s counterclaim to be the son of God and therefore justified Jesus’ execution. So Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified.

The background for Jesus’ claim to be the king of God’s kingdom rests on two theological ‘traditions’ or teachings. The first is better known: Jesus is a descendent of king David and the fulfilment of the promises made to David that an heir of his would sit on his throne for ever. The second tradition is less known and less understood. Jesus is the heavenly being which Daniel saw in his vision-dream (Daniel 7:9-14). This person is given authority, power and receives the worship of the heavenly court and its people. This indicates this ‘being’ is divine and equal to God. Daniel notes also that this person looks like a ‘son of man’, a Hebrew expression which means he is like a man.

It is this expression ‘the son of Man’, that Jesus uses the most throughout the Gospels to indicate how he understood himself and his mission. He is not just any old king, but a king not of this world or realm. He is the creator King who rules over all people and the creation. And he will be born at Christmas, in obscurity, fully human and fully devine.

Signs of the Times

Periodically the Church gets caught up in a frenzy of excitement about the return of Christ. For example, wide-eyed friars of about 1000 AD spread the hysteria across Europe that the end of the world was near and God’s judgment was coming. The reason? Because many believed the ‘one thousand year reign of Christ’ mentioned in Rev 20:1-6 was ending.

Biblical passages like our reading this morning from Mark 13:1-11 can be turned into a chart marking successive stages of what is about to occur. Biblical imagery, especially the obscure or symbolic imagery of Revelation and Daniel is often linked to Mark 13, to demonstrate that current political and economic events are the fulfilment of these predictive elements of the Bible. The disciples were also curious about the future. Several times they asked Jesus when he would return (Matt 24:3; Mk 13:4; Acts 1:6). The early Christians also wondered (1 Thess 5:1; 2 Thess 2:1ff).

A fixation on certain events which suggest the immediacy of Christ’s return can lead to the promotion that ‘The End’ is now near. It can also promote negative opinions about those whose fate is unclear. Easy dichotomies are built: insiders/outsiders, True/False, God/Satan.

As our faith recognises the signs as they occur (and they will), we are again and again reminded of why the disciples and early church were given this teaching. It was (i) to warn that false teachers will try to deceive them (13:5-6); (ii) to expect opposition, persecution and hate (13:9, 13). (iii) to assure them they will be enabled by the Holy Spirit to testify for their faith (13:11); (iv) to remember their commission: the gospel was to be preached to all the nations (Mk 13:10; Acts 1:7-8); (v) that only those who endure to the end are saved (13:13). In short, it is a teaching for today.

Seeing Things from God’s Perspective

An unnamed widow shuffles along, pushed along by the crowd behind her, swarming into the temple of Jerusalem.  Crouched on the sidelines is Jesus, watching silently as the people mill around, throwing in their offering into the temple treasury.   His disciples stand around, disinterested, bored and ready to find a tavern to eat and drink in. The woman, back bent with age, stoops and places two little copper coins in the timber opening of the large boxes. She slinks away, inconspicuously. Almost immediately following her, a well-dressed man comes. He is one of many that Jesus has noticed every few minutes who come along. The well-dressed man slows his walk in order to slow the pace of the crowd down. He flamboyantly spreads his arms out to gain their attention and slows the line of people behind him further. Then he dramatically undoes the cord of his purse and pulls out his coins. Using his left hand, he pulls back the right sleeve of his cloak and throws the money in while looking around for the crowd’s recognition.   Jesus feels sick in his stomach.

Jesus stands, briskly looks about, catches the eye of his disciples and summons them. They haven’t seen that look in his eyes for several days now – in fact, not since they came to Jerusalem when Jesus cleaned out the temple with a whip. And he’s got it now (Mk 11:15). They quickly assemble around him – something might happen. He might explode like he had done earlier.

“Did you see that widow just now?” he asks. Some of his disciples look perplexed, others are hollow eyed; some look even bored. He continues: “She has put into the treasury all the money she had. But see these rich people,” indicating with his hand, “they give out of the abundance of their wealth. It cost them nothing to do this.” With that, the sermon had ended. Their hearts had been lacerated; their world expanded to see things from God’s perspective.

It is the inconspicuous, small amount of money given in the economy of God, which makes the most sense (cents?).  It is the sacrificial and inconspicuous act of a woman anointing Jesus with expensive perfume, that makes sense (Mk 14:1-11).  It is the inconspicuous act of care and hospitality by a Samaritan that makes sense (Mk 10:25-37).