Parable of the Weeds (sermon)

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Below is a teaching I gave from Matthew 13:24-30 on the parable of the weeds and the wheat. Christ’s teaching is quite a fascinating commentary on the nature of the kingdom in this age, of Satan’s schemes, and of how Christ deals with the reality of evil inside his church. It is an incredibly practical teaching as well. Hope you enjoy the listen!

Jesus and the Kingdom (sermon)

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Icon of the Theophony (Baptism of Christ). Christ is baptized as a sinner in order to identify with and assume the covenantal responsibility of Israel. 

This is a teaching on Matthew chapters 3-4 on the coming of the kingdom of heaven. The chapters center on John the Baptist’s preaching about the coming of Christ and his kingdom, and on the baptism and temptation of Christ.

I show from this passage that Christ comes to assume the covenantal responsibility of Israel in order to restore the lost kingdom so that the world would be blessed, and that our response to the kingdom should be repentance and trust.

What is Prayer?

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I’ve asked this question to myself too many times to ask. I know what prayer involves: petition, thanksgiving, etc. But, what is it? 

Eugene Peterson has a helpful answer to this question in his Working the Angles: Peterson says simply that prayer is “answering speech”. He explains what that means:

[P]rayer is never the first word; it is always the second word. God has the first word. Prayer is answering speech; it is not primarily “address” but “response.” Essential to the practice of prayer is to fully realize this secondary quality. It is especially important in the pastoral practice of prayer since pastors are so frequently placed in positions in which it appears that our prayers have an initiating energy in them, the holy words that legitimize and bless the secular prose of committee work or community discussion or getting well or growing up…

[But] the first word is God’s word. Prayer is a human word and is never the first word, never the primary word, never the initiating and shaping word simply because we are never first, never primary.  (Kindle loc 450-453, 466-471)

For Peterson, prayer is not a human initiative toward God: it is not man attempting to begin a conversation with an aloof God. Rather, prayer is a response to the first initiation of God’s own word to mankind. Prayer is a logical response to God’s condescension and communication with us.

Peterson goes on to explain that the best way to pray is first to listen! God talks and acts first, then we respond. And so listening to God’s communication to us is how we learn talk to him. And of course, listening to God entails reading his divinely inspired Word: it is there that we hear his speech, see his acts, see his gracious iniative. And it’s there that we can respond.

Peterson also puts his finger on something when he says that rather than seeing prayer as “answering speech”, we are tempted to see prayer as the “first word”, something that “gets God’s attention”, something that “makes God act”. In other words, it is our temptation to see our own words as something that can initiate God’s response to us. This is dangerous, he says, because it makes human beings the “first cause”. In fact, Peterson will go so far as to call this mindset “closet Pelagianism”!

Jesus himself warned against the thought that prayer is something that “gets God’s attention”. Jesus says in Matthew 6:7-8:

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him

Frederick Bruner, commenting on this verse, says:

[A common] misconception of prayer that Jesus attacks is believing there must be much of it before it works… Some pagan convictions taught that the gods are reluctant to hear prayers unless prayers are long, and that only when the petitioner has proven oneself sincere by spending time in confession, praise, or even quiet do the divinities listen… (Christbook I, 289)

The thought during Jesus’ time was that in order to get the gods to listen, one must pray a lot and yell and get their attention; and then finally will the gods lend an ear (recall to mind the story of the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, who went to such lengths as to cut themselves to gain the gods’ attention).

But what Jesus says is that “the Father already knows what you need before you ask” (v. 8)! What is implied in this statement is that God, your Father, knows and cares, and is already attentive. You don’t need to “pray much” for him to listen; you don’t need to initiate the conversation. Jesus denounces this thought that the human must initiate through prayer to get God’s care and attention. God the Father already knows what you need, and already cares. Rather, prayer is a response to God’s Fatherly care and love!

So then, prayer is a response to the loving care of Father who already knows and is already concerned with your needs. It is a response to what he has already said and done. 

His Blood Be Upon Us

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In Matthew 27, Matthew accounts the harrowing story of the Jews’ rejection and handing-over of Jesus to the Roman authorities. Pilate, convinced of Jesus’ innocence, said to the Jewish people: “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves” (v. 24). In a rather brash response, “all the people answered”, saying, “His blood be on us and upon our children” (v. 25).

His blood be on us and our children? This verse is shocking to say the least. What does it mean? Unfortunately, many have used it as an opportunity for anti-Semitism and persecution of the Jewish people. Not least because “all the people”, literlly “all of Israel” and her proceeding generations, called Jesus’ blood on herself. What could Matthew mean to communicate by this verse?

It is first good to consider what Joseph Ratzinger said of this verse in his Jesus of Nazareth: namely, that the blood of Christ “speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation” (p 187). What Ratzinger means to say is that the blood of Jesus “cleanses us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:7); it washes, it makes new. It doesn’t condemn or call for vengeance. From this point of view, rather than condemning themselves, the Jews rather ironically and unknowingly invited the cleansing blood of Christ upon themselves. In this way then, Israel was unwittingly offering an atoning sacrifice — the true atoning sacrifice — to God on their own behalf! They were offering the Lamb of God!

Taken a level deeper, this account of the Jews “swearing blood upon themselves” brings to mind something significant from the Exodus account. In Exodus 24, after Israel’s redemption from Egypt,  Moses was commanded by God to make several sacrifices; and after making the sacrifices, Moses was then told to throw half the blood “against the altar” and half “on the people” (v. 7-8). What this did was signify a “blood bond” between God and the people. The sacrifice atoned for sin, and the blood thrown on the people signified that Israel had become God’s “kin”; God’s own son.

What it seems Matthew is doing in chapter 27 is rather ironically recreating this Exodus blood-bond: the people, in calling Christ’s blood upon themselves, unknowingly signified Christ as the sacrifice which would in turn create a new covenant-bond between God and Israel. 

In this way then, Matthew is communicating in his own creative way, that Christ was redeeming and reconstituting a new Israel in himself, by his sacrifice. The old covenant Israel apostatized; but Christ as the true Lamb, redeemed and returned Israel to God as his own “kin” in and through himself!

 Why the Virgin Birth?

One of the more peculiar teachings of the Christian faith, affirmed throughout all of the creeds, is the fact that Christ was born of the virgin Mary. Meaning, Mary had not had any relations before she gave birth to Christ.

Both Matthew and Luke agree on this fact. In Luke’s account, the angel Gabriel announces that Mary will birth a child. Mary, not being married, rightly asks: “How can this be, since I am still a virgin?” (Lk 1:34). Gabriel answers: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God” (v. 35).

Matthew’s account is similar. He adds the detail the her virginal birth is in fulfillment of prophecy: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (Mt 1:23).

There is not much more information about the virgin birth in the epistles. Some say that Paul alludes to it in Galatians 4:4, or that John references Mary in Revelation 13. But there are not really any more details about this. It is simply stated in the gospel accounts.

Many have speculated, with such scarce reference in the New Testament, what is the purpose of the virgin birth? Or, to say it another way: did Mary have to be a virgin to give birth to Christ? Was there some necessity to it? Did the virginal birth, as some presume, in some way preserve the divinity of Christ? Or preserve the sinlessness of Christ?

Frederick Bruner has an interesting examination of the doctrine in his commentary on Matthew, Christbook. His estimation is that the reason for the virgin cannot be found in preserving Christ’s divinity or sinlessness. He aptly points out:

If the first Adam — whoever he was — came into being without two human parents and yet was truly human, why could not Jesus the last Adam be without a single human parent and still be truly human? “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14) (pp 39)

In other words, Jesus could come into the world in really any way he wanted, and be fully God and fully man, sinless. God, after all, is omnipotent!

So then, why the virginal birth? Bruner cites Karl Barth, saying:

The virgin birth teaches an immensely important doctrinal truth: that in human salvation “the initiative is wholly with God”. The doctrine of the virgin birth, in a striking metaphor, stands “on guard” before the door of the mystery of Jesus’ divinely wrought salvation — only God can work salvation, and this is exactly what the Christmas stories’ virgin birth teaches with a dramatic eloquence. (pp 40)

In other words, the incarnation of Christ is a complete work of God. Because she was a virgin, Mary was merely a recipient of God’s grace. Man had nothing to do with it.

Joseph Ratzinger, in his Introduction to Christianity, agrees with this. He says:

The Virgin Birth is not a lesson in asceticism, nor does it belong directly to the doctrine of Jesus’ divine Sonship; it is first to last a theology of grace, a proclamation of how salvation comes to us: in the simplicity of acceptance,as the voluntary gift of the love that redeems the world… In Jesus, God has placed, in the midst of barren, hopeless mankind, a new beginning that is not a product of human history but a gift from above. (pp 278)

Because of this, Ratzinger concludes that Mary herself is an image of the church. He says:

As the true “daughter of Zion”, Mary is the image of the Church, the image of believing man, who can come to salvation and to himself only through the gift of love — through grace.

I think that Bruner and Ratzinger both get to the bottom of the doctrine of the virginal birth: it is an action of grace. A unilateral action of God in which man is passive, having nothing to contribute. All is grace!