Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 2 February 2023. Today’s topic: Don’t Happen Every Day

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  Matthew 3:16-17

It’s not every day you get physical manifestations of all three persons of the trinity.   There, by the Jordan River, stood Jesus, the physical Son of God.   There, like a dove, was the physical Spirit of God.   There, in the voice from heaven, spoke the Father of God.   That’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment.   This was clearly something special, and it was special for many reasons.

The Father, Son, and Spirit were telling people to pay attention.  It was highly unusual, and it built on the unique nature of the moment.   John had been baptizing people in the river for months, maybe years.   Nothing like this had ever happened.   God wanted to get our attention, so He did this.  “But wait, there’s more,” He might have said as soon as Jesus came up from under the water.

They were establishing Jesus’ bona fides.  The Father Himself identified Jesus as His Son.  He wasn’t just the carpenter from Nazareth.   He wasn’t just another prophet, or another desert preacher, or a talented rabbi.   He was God Immanuel, with a special life for a special mission.

They were giving us proof.   They clearly identified Jesus as God’s Son, His only Son.   Further, they identified heaven as real.   Only a real place could open.   Only real beings could do all this.

They were doing a miracle, something to be remembered.  God wanted people to remember all this, to know it was significant and would mean something for the rest of time.  Nothing like this had ever happened before, or since.  Centuries later, we’re still talking about it.  

They were equipping Jesus for what was to come.  This was the start of Jesus’ earthly ministry.   Immediately after this, He went further into the desert and stayed there for 40 days.   He took neither food nor water, and when He was at His weakest point, Satan appeared to tempt Him.   Sure, Jesus was God, but as a man, all this would have been extremely debilitating.   This moment by the river gave Him strength to endure the trials Satan had Him endure, then the trials of the years ahead.

They were being God.  Only God could do all this.   And He did it for the benefit of the people there watching.   He did it so they would know who He is, and so they would talk about it.   He did it so we would know.  Things like these events don’t happen every day.

For more reading:  Isaiah 11:2, Isaiah 42:1, Ezekiel 1:1, John 1:51, Acts 7:56, Acts 10:11, Revelation 4:1, Revelation 19:11, Matthew 4:1

God, You are magnificent.   Praise to You for what you did at Your baptism, for these accounts.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 1 February 2023. Today’s topic: But Wait! There’s More!

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.  Matthew 3:13-15

Jesus shows up, John tries to stop Him from being baptized, and Jesus says, “it’s all good, bro.”  But wait, there’s more!  Seriously, there really is.

Jesus explains to His confused cousin that the reason they’re doing this thing – baptizing God, who doesn’t need to be baptized – is because it’s proper and it’s right and it’s time.  https://www.gotquestions.org/fulfill-all-righteousness.html gives a great explanation, one we need when we live in a time so far removed from Jesus’ own.  

It was a way to affirm – and announce – that Jesus is the Messiah.  In a way, this moment passed the baton of leadership of the faith from John the pre-Messiah prophet to Jesus, the actual Messiah.   Don’t forget that the famous, eclectic desert preacher had become famous, as much for his eccentricity as for his confrontational message.   John never claimed to be the Messiah, but those who listened to him thought he could be.   Or at least could be heralding the Messiah’s approach.

That would have been big news at the time.   The Jews expected the Messiah to lead a political and military revolt to overthrow Rome; to return God’s chosen people to their position of prominence.   The Jews had been a scattered, now conquered, people for over 400 years.   The long-awaited and anxiously expected Messiah would set things right, would deliver Israel from its captors, and would free the people from their yoke of subjugation to the sinful world.

And that’s what Jesus did, except He didn’t do any of it the way they expected.  John had been alluding to this, that the Messiah would winnow them, separate them, call them to account for what they had said and done.  Yet they soon found out that the expectations of the crowd were different from the intentions of the incarnate Son of God.

But wait, there’s more!  In indirectly, and still publicly, assuming His role as Messiah, Jesus blessed John with further legitimacy.  Jesus’ submitting to John’s baptism showed He was God appearing as one of us.  God was blessing John as John was blessing Jesus.  In doing so, it was as if He was saying, “everything John said was true.”   That’s when things really started to change.   This was the public start of Jesus’ ministry, and the beginning of the end of John’s.  What happened next would confer the personal blessing of the Father on the entire event: a rare and beautiful miracle.   You guessed it:   but wait, there’s more!   Much, much more, indeed.

For more reading:  Matthew 3:16

Lord Jesus, all praise to You for being baptized, to fulfill all righteousness for our sake.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 31 January 2023. Today’s topic: Stuck

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  Matthew 3:13-14

I love this about John the Baptist.   He’s like you and me.  

Me, I’m stuck on myself.  Sometimes, I just can’t get past me.  It’s such a pervasive problem that I get stuck in my pre-conceptions about things.   Most of them come back to me, how I perceive things, what I think about things, what I know, what I feel or believe.   Me. 

You:  you don’t like having your conventional wisdom challenged.  You’re comfortable in what you know, the world around you.   You don’t like having the boat rocked too much, and when people say or do things that upset your apple cart, well, brother (or sister) that ain’t cool.  It has taken a whole life to build this up, and it just won’t do to have it all mixed up, turned upside-down, and scattered on the floor.   You…and me (again).

The two of us:  we do things that we think, and hope, are right.   Among the many wrong things, sins, we do, we also work hard to do things that are right.   How do we know what’s right?  Because that’s what we’re taught.   All law, all sense of right and wrong, everything that even unbelievers think is right, comes from our knowledge of God and what HE says is right.   Most of us try to do what’s right, or at least think we do.  That’s us.

Here, John was stuck in what he thought he knew, that God couldn’t wade into our world of sin and still be God.   It was a fundamental truth on which John had built his life.   He wasn’t God; his cousin, Jesus, was.   In a way, he put Jesus on a pedestal, and deservedly so because Jesus IS God, is worthy of worship, is holy and righteous and the source of all right and all the things God should be.  That’s Jesus.  When Jesus showed up to be baptized with the sinners who needed to be there, John tried to stop Him.  I can understand that.   John is like you and me, or we are like John.  He realized Jesus had no sin in Him, and John’s locust-and-honey-fed brain couldn’t compute why this was happening.  He’s a little like Zechariah, his dad, who couldn’t get over what he thought he knew when the angel showed up with news.

Just like us.   In the next verse, Jesus says “why,” and it all makes sense.  Maybe John would have figured it out eventually; maybe we would, too.   But I suspect not.   I suspect that, without some divine assistance, just like Zechariah and us, John would simply have found himself stuck.

For more reading:  Matthew 3:15

Lord Jesus, I need to you un-stick my understanding.   I don’t always ‘get’ things.   Help me to understand Your word and Your holy purposes.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 30 January 2023. Today’s topic: He Chose To

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.  Matthew 3:13

This is one of the most understated, profound sentences ever written.  

Jesus.   The Son of God.   One of the Trinity.   Immanuel, which means “God with us.”   Fully man and fully God.   He was a human being while willingly putting aside many of His divine attributes.

Jesus came from Galilee.  This same Jesus journeyed to this remote desert location to see the eccentric preacher (who was his earthly cousin).   It wasn’t a short trip; Galilee would have been several days’ journey.   Jesus did it anyway.  He walked; He camped; He got dirty and tired and hungry; He met other people along the way.

Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan.   He went to the same place that throngs of other people went.   He wasn’t the majestic king who would one day enter Jerusalem to applause and praise.   Here, Jesus was a commoner who went out into the desert, through hostile territory, to the place where everyone else was going.

Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized.   Jesus, who had no sin, went to undergo this ceremonial washing of sins.  People were being baptized to remind them that God would wash away their sins and they would be spiritually clean for the rest of their lives.   People NEEDED to be baptized because they, like us, were chock full of envy, lust, anger, indifference, and all manner of things that separated them from God.   Through baptism, God made a way to remind people that He loved them (and us) and wanted to bridge the gap between Him and us.   Jesus chose this.

Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.  John was the same man who said that God would come to winnow people like grain on the threshing floor.   That the leaders of religion were snakes, hell-bent on controlling people.  John was right in saying all this, yet Jesus went to John to be baptized.   He who didn’t need to be baptized by the desert firebrand was willingly baptized like everyone else.

Jesus didn’t have to come here because He didn’t have to save us from the consequences of our sins.   He could have just wiped our slate clean and started over, but He didn’t.  Instead, He chose to live the kind of lives we do, including being baptized.   Sinners need baptism to remind us that, with God’s help, we can repent and change and stop doing the sinful things we do.   Jesus didn’t need any of that…but He chose it.   He chose it so we could relate to Him.   Allah wouldn’t choose that; neither did the Buddha, or a thousand Hindu gods.   Jesus did.  Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John because He profoundly chose to for you and me.

For more reading:  Mark 1:4, Matthew 3:14

Lord Jesus, all praise to You and only You for Your tender mercy.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 26 January 2023. Today’s topic: Winnowing

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:11

John the Baptist uses another metaphor to tell the Pharisees and Sadducees to get their act together.

These days, farmers harvest wheat with giant threshing machines.   They drive into a field of ripe wheat and, when they leave, the field is harvested.   Machines cut down the plants, shake out the wheat kernels, crush up the remains, and discard the chaff onto the field.   There, it rots into the ground and is tilled under next season.  In fact, the invention of threshing machines (in the 1800s) revolutionized society.   Around the same time, equipment was invented to produce fine flour.  For the first time, bread and wheat products could be mass-produced because processing became easier.   In a proof that capitalism succeeds, larger amounts of food became more available (and cheaper) to more people, which increased populations, productivity, wages, and improved nutrition (and public health) while reducing waste and effort:  all because someone (Cyrus McCormick) invented a machine that made it easier to harvest wheat. 

That’s not how it was in John the Baptist’s time.   With the process being entirely manual, large amounts of grain couldn’t be grown.  Before threshing machines, wheat had to be harvested by hand.   Workers would use scythes to cut the wheat, which was gathered into sheaves, then brought into barns to dry.  After drying, the wheat had to be winnowed.  This was usually done on a threshing floor, which was a flat structure specifically built for processing grain.   People used large, pointed winnowing forks to separate the wheat.   They would also beat it, releasing the kernels, which were then shaken and filtered.   This released remaining middlings (wheat husks) and chaff, which were then gathered up and burned.  All of this, while necessary, was inefficient, expending great effort and waste just to harvest a limited amount of grain.

Now, go beyond the metaphor.  Imagine people being a wheat crop, then imagine the end of time, when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead.   Picture Him separating those who believed in Him from those who didn’t:  just like winnowing grain on the threshing floor.   Or being processed through a threshing machine.   It’s pretty intimidating, maybe even terrifying.  If you are the desired crop – the wheat-crop of believers – you’re kept and made into something new and wonderful.   If you’re the undesired leftovers – unbelievers – you’re destined for fire, thrown out to be burned.

What’s your option?   The same as the one John the Baptist implored to the Pharisees and Sadducees:   repent and believe.   Give your life and everything you are over to Jesus and follow Him.   Do it now, while we grow in the field.  When the harvest comes, who will you be?

For more reading:  Isaiah 4:4, Mark 1:4 & 8, Acts 2:3-4, Matthew 3:12

Lord, I believe in You alone!   I want to be in Your good crop.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 25 January 2023. Today’s topic: Pruning Filthy Rags

The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.   Matthew 3:10.

There’s a verse in Isaiah that is a stark reminder of what John was inferring here.  The prophet says that even the best things we think, say, and do in life are like filthy rags in God’s sight. God is holy and we aren’t.   He doesn’t make us unholy:  the sins we choose do that.   But, because we’ve chosen unholiness, we’re filthy.  Our sins are fit only for the trash, or to be burned up.  Like filthy rags.

What do you do with orchard trees that don’t produce fruit?   You get rid of them.   You cut them down and burn them up so you can use that spot to plant a new tree that will grow fruit.  Part of orchard and vineyard management is to cut down plants that aren’t producing.   Weak plants become susceptible to disease and infect other healthy ones.

Another part of managing growing fruit is pruning.   There’s an art to pruning.   You can’t just willy nilly start cutting.   There are specific places, angles, and distances that are best for pruning because the point of pruning unproductive branches is to strengthen the whole plant.   Like unproductive plants, unproductive vines and branches become weak, susceptible to disease and bug infestation.   They drain energy out of the whole plant.  A careful gardener takes time to responsibly prune where he needs to, so that the pruned plant can come through the cutting trauma to become even stronger.   To produce better fruit.

You know where this is going.

Admit it.   There are people we know who are spiritually unproductive; they might even be us.   They hear the Word but don’t put it into practice.   Or, worse, they ignore the word, act contrary to it.   No, I’m not trying to be a prude; I’ve been guilty of this myself.  Sometimes our words and actions fail to produce good fruits of faith.   Sometimes our words and actions make others susceptible to the disease of sin.  Filthy rags to be pruned.

Jesus is a great pruner.   He’s a master farmer.   He can see which trees are dead and which ones will produce more if they’re pruned.  The ones that won’t produce good fruit, even if they’re shiny and pretty, are little more than filthy rags.   They’re fit only for the anguish of being dug up, cut apart, discarded and burned.   Is that me?   Is that you?   Friend, it’s a good question to ask.

John the Baptist asked it.   Even more, he already knew the answer where the self-important religious leaders were concerned.   Like his cousin, Jesus, John got out his pruning shears and started to cut.

For more reading:  Isaiah 64;6, Luke 3:9, Luke 13:6-9, John 15:2 & 6, Matthew 3:11

Lord, prune me so I might grow for You.   May I never be unproductive, or dead inside, or lead others astray.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 24 November 2023. Today’s topic: Stones in the Road

And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.  Matthew 3:9

John the Baptist continued to lay it on the Pharisees and Sadducees who showed up to watch him.   One of their most reliable defenses was to say “we are children of Abraham,” meaning “we are chosen by God.”   As you’ll remember, God promised to deliver all people through Abraham and his descendants, the Jews.  

In other words, the Pharisees were ‘those people’ who would attack you, then run back to hide behind some façade, saying “I’m untouchable.   You can’t get me!”   Na na na na boo boo.  Whatever.  John was having none of it.  His response was “don’t think you’re so big that God doesn’t see you as the insignificant things you are.”

Never forget this:   God doesn’t need us.   He doesn’t need our sins, and our baggage, and our disobedience, and our arrogance.   God doesn’t need us to think we can earn our way into heaven.  And God doesn’t need us to prove that we’re better than other people so that He will love us more, or choose us more than “them.”   God doesn’t need these headaches. If we don’t cut the mustard, God can replace us.

But He wants us.   He wants each one of us so much that He was eager to humble Himself and come here, to the Third Rock, full of sinful baggage-laden humans who hated each other as much as we disobeyed Him.  He wants us because He loves us because He’s God and we aren’t and it’s in His true nature to share that love through mercy and His means of grace.   He wants us each to know Him and love Him back, and to share in His unending blessings forever.   He wants us enough to die for us, because He did.

But He also sees us as we are.   And, because He doesn’t need us, even though He loves us and wants us, if He so chooses, He can make new people to love and revere Him out of stones in the road.   Or dead leaves in your yard.   Or a bag of concrete at Home Depot.   Or even out of thin air.   God is God and He can do anything.   ANYTHING.

John knew that, and he wasn’t afraid to remind the big-in-the-head leaders of religion that, for all their knowledge and self-congratulation, they were nothing compared to the God who can do anything.  John never sugar-coated his messages, and he cared little for the political correctness of his day.   John knew his life was blessed by the God of all possibilities, who could make new people out of stones in the road or dust in the wind.   God can do that still, today.

For more reading:  Luke 3:8, Matthew 3:10

Lord, You can do anything.   Nothing is impossible for You.   I trust You always and follow You only.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 23 January 2023. Today’s topic: Sugar-Coating and the Dallas Cowboys

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  Matthew 3:7-8

Don’t you love people who refuse to sugar-coat the truth?  If you play a mediocre football game (hello Dallas Cowboys), sportscasters will immediately let you know.   If you run a shoddy political campaign, the media will viciously say so.   If you make a big mistake, a good friend or family member will (or should) tell you.

If you want to prominently call out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of the day, you do what John the Baptist did.   You don’t candy-coat things; you don’t throw softballs; you don’t mince words.   You tell the hypocrites that they are hypocrites, then how to set it right.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were the religious leaders of Judaism.   Like the elites of any time, they thought much of themselves.   They were well-educated, well-dressed, well-financed, and well-known.   Did they worship God better than anyone else?   Why of course!   You could have just asked them and they’d have told you so, you dirty sinner.

John the Baptist?   Weirdo.   Dirty, smelly, strange man.   Passionate about Adonai, for sure, but my wasn’t he a sight!   Did you see those animal rags he wore?   And how about those locusts he had for lunch!   I bet he wasn’t even classically trained.   His followers?   Oh the smell!

So why, then, did the Pharisees and Sadducees travel all that way out into the desert anyway?   Did they honestly want to repent?   Had they heard about this eccentric prophet and wanted to see for themselves?   Were they worried that this voice calling in the desert was a threat to their power base?   Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it could be a little of all three.

But let’s also embrace the truth that John knew them better than we, and John called them a pack of venomous snakes.   John had spent months, maybe even years, preaching repentance to the throngs who made the long journey out to see him.  He consistently preached that God’s wrath was coming, that there would be divine consequences for who didn’t honestly believe in Him.   John talked about it all the time.   Since he wasn’t one to brook foolishness, when he saw the puffed-up fools of Jewish leadership, he called them out and told them to repent.   After all, puffed-up fool or not, God loved them, too.

Just like us.

Just like the elites of today, even the Dallas Cowboys, who now have an off-season to assess why they aren’t going to the Super Bowl.   Will they repent (or seriously practice) and produce fruit?   Will we?   I know what John the Baptist might say, and he wouldn’t sugar-coat it.

For more reading:  Mark 1:7-8, Luke 3:7-9, Romans 1:18, Acts 26:20, Matthew 3:9

Lord, bless people to repent and produce fruit for You.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 19 January 2023. Today’s topic: 105 Miles

People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.  Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.  Matthew 3:5-6

It wasn’t an easy thing to travel in antiquity.  Some rode horses, or donkeys, or in carts.   Some rode in chariots, or were carried in litters.  But most walked.   Remember that when you learn that, according to https://www.distancesto.com/il/jerusalem-to-jordan-river/history/847809.html, the Jordan River is 105 miles from Jerusalem.   By car, that’s about a 90-minute drive, but cars have only been around for since the late 1800s.

When was the last time you walked 105 miles?   Most people don’t walk 105 miles in a week.   A 20-minute mile is a brisk but still leisurely pace to walk.   That means you walk three miles in an hour.  At that pace it would take you 35 hours to walk from Jerusalem to the Jordan.  Break that up into 10 hours a day of walking (because it wouldn’t have been safe to walk at night), and it’s a 3 ½ day walk from the Temple to the Jordan River, where John the Baptist preached.  You camped in the open overnight because there weren’t enough inns for all who traveled.  Robbers were everywhere.

See where it’s no small thing to say “people went out to him from Jerusalem?”  People in the city, 3 ½ days away, heard of the eccentric preacher in the desert who preached that the kingdom of God was approaching.  That they were to make straight the paths in their lives so that the Son of Man might walk into them.   That the leaders of the church were corrupt.  

Would you walk three and a half days to hear someone say that?   Not only, but people were traveling that great distance to confess their sins, then be baptized. Me, I don’t like confessing my sins to other people anymore.   I understand how it feels good to let go of the bad things we’ve said and done.   Some of my sins are dark, nasty, cruel, and downright evil to God.  But, more and more, I don’t like talking about them, especially to strangers.   

These throngs of strangers were doing just that:   walking out into the desert to meet this strange teacher who taught that God would wash away their sins in the waters of Old Man Jordan, and that they could walk out of that water renewed.  Carrie Underwood sang it best: “there must be something in the water.”

Would you walk 105 miles, between three and four days under difficult conditions, to meet a wild stranger who could dunk you in the river just to declare that you’ve been saved?   Plenty of folks in John’s time did exactly that; plenty still do today.  Plenty more of us badly need it.

Lord Jesus, all praise to You for baptism, for our yearning to be forgiven and washed clean by you, no matter how long it takes to get to You.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 18 January 2023. Today’s topic: Back Then

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.  Matthew 3:4

When I was a kid, there was a craze for all things natural, wholesome, and pioneering.   Grizzly Adams, Ewell Gibbons, Across the Great Divide and The Wilderness Family, Jeremiah Johnson, The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, and exotic health foods:   there were countless movies, ads, and TV shows extolling modern America to return to simpler times. Nostalgia claimed things were simpler, less complex “back then,” and we could live longer, more fulfilling lives by living simpler, eating simpler, being simpler.  As Waylon and Willie said, “maybe it’s time we got back to the basics.”

Without ever going to Luckenbach, Texas, John the Baptist did that, long before Waylon, Willie, or the Waltons.  He lived in the desert, probably sleeping on rocks and in caves, and he probably owned few possessions.   He foraged for food, eating insects and honey; Ewell Gibbons didn’t do that.   And he wore clothes made of unrefined leather; Jeremiah Johnson may have been a trapper who wore leather, but he at least scraped off the hair.  As for the Wilderness Family, whatever.

Moreover, like the previous verses, Matthew describes John’s attire (clothes made of camel’s hair) to align him with Elijah, who also wore clothes that had animal hair on them (see 2 Kings 1).  This was to establish John’s bona fides as the inheritor of Ellijah’s mission to herald the Messiah.  As for locusts and wild honey, let’s just say I’d prefer to eat only one of those (no matter what the WEF wants for us).  Maybe Grizzly Adams ate them.  He could share them with Laura Ingalls.

No matter, this eccentric man was indeed the herald of Christ, preparing unbelievers for the time when they would see Jesus the Messiah in person.  Jesus would be God, would be Immanuel, meaning “God with us.”   He would be the one who would usher in the new age which, when you boiled away sin, would return people to simpler times.   We could be people who would personally know God once again, like Adam and Eve had known Him.   Not even the Waltons did that.

But they could.   So could we.   So could we by heeding John’s call to repent and be baptized.   To turn away from sin and follow Jesus instead.  To let Jesus chip away at our sinful exteriors and release the believer within who could then help lead others to Him as well.  To put off “modern” crazes that were really just window dressings on a grave.  To rely on God for everything:   the healthiest food of all.  At its core, this is the essence of getting back to the basic, simpler life back then. 

For more reading:  Leviticus 11:22, 2 Kings 1:8, Matthew 3:5

Lord, teach me to live simply by following You alone, to rely on You for all my needs and feeds.