Contemplating the Menu of the Holy Thursday Meal

Menu

Tonight’s menu is more than a meal. It’s a reenactment of moments mirroring the salvation God has and is working out among His people.

Karpas (Parsley) – Soaked in salt water, this parsley evokes the tears that flow from eyes far too used to seeing the sad scene of slavery as they exhaustively look for God’s deliverance. Savor with sadness, tasting the tears still flowing from enslaved hearts around the world.

Maror (Celery) – Slavery is always a bitter experience, for slavery is a violation of the human spirit. When we eat the Maror, we taste that violation. We sense its bondage of our spirit and it’s manipulation of our will.  It leaves a bitter taste in our mouth, and it’s beneficial we taste it. It reminds us how slavery is something we should never want tasted again.

Haroset (Apple&Nuts) – Like the brick pits through which the slaves trudged and tramped, mixing and mingling the clay mortar with their own blood, sweat, and tears, the thick heaviness and chewiness of this dish reminds us how sorrowfully burdening slavery can be. While eating this encourages us to stay clear of anything cursed and cumbersome, the added sweetness of the dish also reminds us that from out of bitterness, God’s salvation brings a sweetness that brightens the eyes of our heart for life ahead.

Z’roa (Roast Lamb) – Sacrifice is the flavor of this delicacy. With the lamb’s lifeblood posted on the entrances of Israelite homes, it signaled that within this home, God’s salvation was being savored as they prepared themselves for freedom. Jesus would later embody this imagery by sacrificing himself as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). This dish serves to remind us that as sacrifice transfers life, God’s salvation transforms life.

Beitzah (Egg) – An egg is a simple majesty. Externally a hard, organic shell, it is what’s taking shape within that excites our anticipation. With eagerness we await until that joyous moment it boldly emerges and we blissfully behold a new life brimming with awe and wonder.  Like Christ rolled the stone away and emerged from the grave alive with Life, peel the shell, expose the egg, and enjoy it as one relishes new life.

Matzah (Bread) – This unleavened and crackery bread reminds us that salvation living discards the bloating ingredients that weigh us down and impede the get-up-and-go that new life brings. Like snack food for the road, we eat this bread in the hopes it encourages us to journey with Jesus with a bit of snap-and-crackle to our faithfulness. 

As you enjoy this meal with your congregation, may its story shape in you a joyful awareness for the salvation God has and is working out among His people so all the world may know His freedom.

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Advent IV: Hope in the Hill Country

country4Advent may be the story of hope, but not everyone shares that hopefulness. There’s something about this season that has a tendency to excavate long-buried hurts, ignored or untended wounds, and unresolved disputes and tensions. Though this season is saturated with hope, hope is still hard to detect. Hope has to be stirred, pondered, recognized, and enjoyed. Hope needs a place that gives it time to be nurtured, serenely and undisturbed.

Mary got herself to such a place after learning her relative Elizabeth was pregnant. Knowing her own unique situation, to which only Elizabeth could relate, Mary “went to the hill country” to visit, support, and rejoice with her relative, as they had both been recipients of God’s salvation hope.

As Mary arrived, something extraordinary happened. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s Spirit-filled greeting, her baby leapt inside her and she was filled with the Holy Spirit, fulfilling Gabriel’s promise. When God’s salvation saturates our awareness, it becomes the lenses through which we see all of life. Elizabeth saw this salvation-saturated reality in Mary and joyfully described it as “blessed”, saying to her: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”

The word “blessed” is frequently associated with material possessions, opportunities, or positive people in our lives; it is often used as a generalized expression for how good we have it. Elizabeth’s Spirit-filled exclamation restores “blessed” to the context which substantiates it—reality, impregnated and alive, with God’s salvation.

Mary’s response is likewise ecstatic with the holy hope growing in her mind and body: “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; for behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name. And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him.”

She continues to make much of the mighty God, reflecting upon the mighty deeds He did in days of old, implying how Israel’s salvation past is spilling over to bless Israel’s present. Salvation is not abstract. It doesn’t consist of the concepts we ritualize every Sunday morning, nor of our material possessions or relational bonds; it’s the blessed reality of God’s redemptive work infusing every aspect of who we are and where we are at, bringing us into the salvation story God has been telling all along. His story set in us, it reshapes our reality and opens our hearts, minds, and tongues to rejoice. If we can’t rejoice in God’s salvation reality, perhaps we’re afraid to embrace its hope. Such was Zacharias’ situation.

Rendered mute for doubting God’s promise, Zacharias silently waited at his home in the hill country for Elizabeth to give birth. When that day finally came, her neighbors and relatives rejoiced with her, celebrating God’s great mercy upon her. Later at the child’s circumcision, they were going to name the child after his father. When Elizabeth objected, they asked Zacharias his decision; he wrote “His name is John.” Zacharias’ reality was finally in consensus with what God was doing. Finally allowed to speak, his first words in nine months sang the praises of God. Like Elizabeth and Mary, filled with the Holy Spirit, Zacharias saw and declared the blessed reality of God’s salvation hope: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant.”

Holding his son, and seeing him through God’s hope-infusing eyes, Zacharias prophesies “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the LORD to prepare His ways; to give to His people the knowledge of salvation.”

As he reflects on his son’s role in God’s salvation story, which would return hope to Israel’s midst, rumors of hope begin to publicly circulate: “Fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea. All who heard them kept them in mind, saying, ‘What then will this child turn out to be?’”

The hill country is isolated, quiet, slow, natural, yet unpredictable and wild.  The hill country casts us into chaos that quickly reminds us we are not in charge. It’s a place that removes our claws from the illusion of control and forces us to acknowledge we are a small part of something bigger.  That’s when the hill country fosters contemplation. Igniting the imagination, it becomes a place where hope can be planted, take root, and grow with anticipation into something wondrously alive with all of God’s worth. Zacharias’ ninth months of silence at home in the hill country gave him both the time and place to nurture his imagination with the wonder of God, as anticipation of His salvation hope refashioned his once hopeless heart—hope that now makes the hill country inhabitants wonder what is going on.

There are many these days wondering what is going on, what the world is coming to, what is worth doing. Advent implores us to pause, and rest our minds and bodies upon God’s peace.  If an actual hill country or getaway is undoable, it would greatly benefit us to turn off the TV and the noise, the tech-toys—slow down—surround ourselves with silence, and ponder the wondrous salvation God has brought into our world.  If we take time to let our imaginations slowly and savoringly stroll through Scripture, we will begin to recognize that life looks different, that reality is alive with something fulfilling. In this season of hope, let us literally, actually take time to receive God’s salvation, perceive it for the blessed reality it is, and find rejuvenation in its joyfulness.

Advent III: The Substance of God’s Salvation Hope

angel3Coming. That is what Advent means. More specifically it means Someone is coming. And He’s bringing Something with Him. The angel Gabriel has already conveyed rumors concerning the nature of this coming when telling Zacharias his son will be “a forerunner” to the Messiah. It is now time to confirm the rumors of hope with reports of good news. To an ordinary girl in an ordinary town, Gabriel now proclaims something extraordinary.

In the town of Nazareth, as a young Mary enters a room, Gabriel appears and says “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Perplexed, Mary can only ponder what will come next. Then Gabriel announces good news of salvation: “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”

Thus far in these reflections upon the season of Advent and its story of hope, we’ve examined the settings into which God’s salvation will be placed, but now we turn our attention to the substance of God’s salvation and it is defined here both in the sense of Someone who is coming, and Something that is coming with Him. The substance of God’s salvation is a King and His Kingdom.

After God delivered Israel from Egypt, He revealed who and what they were to be: “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

By giving Israel laws for righteous living, God’s desire for every Israelite was to cultivate a righteous character so as to create a culture of holiness, a people whose entire lives bear witness to a historical and communal reality being born in the delightful submission to sovereign LORD. This is the holy, royal reality God has always pursued for His people. But generations later, this is not what they resembled. Determined to be “like all the other nations”, Israel ambitiously asked for a king. God gave them one, a tragic trial run. Then David came to the throne. Though quite imperfect, David was a man after God’s heart. Ultimately God made David a promise that “someone will always sit on David’s throne”. Sadly none of the subsequent kings came close to pursuing God’s heart as David had. Israel gradually and fractionally faded into shadows.

But Gabriel’s words to Mary reveal God is still authoring His salvation story. The reality of God’s redemptive reign was still coming and its initial advent would be witnessed in the birth of its king. The good news of God’s kingdom is so much more than just a solution to sin or an eternal destination; it’s a redemptive reality encompassing the whole of humanity, redefining history, people, purposes, values, culture, and mission in the holistic submissiveness to its King. When this frames our understanding of God’s salvation, we begin to see we are not just saved from something, but we are also saved for something. This is the substance of our salvation hope.

But knowing the natural order of things, Mary asks how this can be, considering she’s a virgin; Gabriel replies “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”

Come upon. Overshadow. In order for Advent to reveal God’s salvation story to the people and places of Earth, the salvation hope being brought must come from beyond. That is the whole supernatural nature of this Coming, that Earth is encountering Someone it has never seen before in a way it does not understand and cannot control. God lets us manage many things, but He will not permit it with salvation. God alone works salvation so God alone is on display and worshipped. We stand powerless before this salvation work in history as the mysterious supernatural God infuses the natural with all of His glory, majesty, and wonder, conceiving and cloaking Himself with a human form that is nevertheless divine. He would appear to all as just another son of man, yet be indeed the Son of God. God implants Himself into the natural order here so we can understand salvation rightly—the infinite incarnate.

To reassure Mary, Gabriel adds that Elizabeth, her elderly and barren relative, is sixth months pregnant with a son, to which he concludes “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Her humble response is exemplary: “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.”

This supernatural salvation puts us in our place; we add nothing to it and can take nothing from it. As Mary, we can only receive it and respond as willing participants in it as God powerfully performs it. In this Advent season, prayerfully ponder the coming of your King; may the hope it sets in your heart shape an awareness of how the redemptive reality of His Kingdom is good news for all the world. Peace of Christ to you.

Salvation is in Season

I don’t know about you all, but I for one am enjoying this fall weather. The fallen leaves giving off a golden glow, as one by one they turn the trees into skeletal silhouettes against the Autumn sun hanging in the sky like a bowl of burning fire; as the crispness of the air and the apples bring out the sweetness of the season, the plumpness of the pumpkins and the tartness of the cider refresh our sight and smell with a feast for the senses. Yet despite this scenic season, when we slow down to consider what Autumn actually is, it is really the early, on setting days of death.

Summer is done, the crops are harvested and what’s left are dry, withered shells and browned, crumpled stalks; the lifeless leaves cover our lawns awaiting bagging and burning. The warm air is fading away as the cold is setting in. Everything is going through a kind of death. But for those of us who understand how seasons affect agriculture, we know this autumn death we’re now witnessing, and later in Winter, is really just giving shape to what will become life later in the Spring and Summer. Whether it’s leaves, weeds, and seeds decomposing to fertilize the soil or the rains and snow adding moisture, it is death at work cultivating life.

Jesus himself incorporated this picture prior to his crucifixion; in a moment leading up to the “last supper”, Jesus told his disciples “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Death is often an uncomfortably grim topic; it feels so final and absolute. But Jesus’ death, as he illustrates in his comment, is only the beginning of something better. His death is the fertilization of a whole new season of life and fruitfulness. Christ-on-the-cross is cultivation of new creation. He is the root that gives fruit for a whole new vintage of salvation.

Much like our Autumn season, his is a beautiful death, one that put his glorious worth and value on display for all the world to behold and be saved.

As we stroll through these days and weeks of Autumn, let the beautiful death of this scenic season remind you of the life that is being given shape and how in Christ Jesus Life springs anew in each of us as we remember and rejoice in his resurrection bringing forth Life from a lifeless season.

Past Sorrow as Anticipation of Future Salvation | Matthew 2:14-23

As Matthew concludes Jesus’ birth narratives in the latter half of chapter 2, he references three prophetic fulfillments, which I will explore in chronological order.

The first occurs amidst a shockingly tragic moment.  Enraged the magi never returned to him with information on Jesus’ whereabouts, Herod orders all males in Bethlehem under age two to be slaughtered.  It’s every parent’s nightmare coming true in life-shattering horror.  There are no words to soothe such sadness.  It’s a kind of deep-cutting event that can completely redefine a community; a dark cloud of shock, anger, and bitterness could have very well hung over those homes and community for the rest of their lives.  I try imagining the fathers going to synagogue and trying to prayerfully mouth some semblance of the Psalms in an effort to find some glimmer of hope in their inexpressible sadness.  The only comment Matthew makes about this great tragedy is from Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.”

Decades removed from the event when he writes these words, Matthew might be seeing something typical of Israel’s history playing out in this early moment of Jesus’ story.

The events of this Jeremiah text had already tragically happened centuries earlier.  When the culture of entrenched idolatrous indifference in the southern kingdom of Judah had climaxed, God brought the Babylonian Empire against them in judgment.  Jerusalem was destroyed, many of its citizens slaughtered, and the survivors were exiled to Babylon.  Departing Jerusalem, one of the first towns they passed through was Ramah; heartbroken over Jerusalem’s destruction and bereaved of their loved ones, they mournfully wandered through, wondering what the future held or if hope was possible after this, probably much like how the Bethlehem parents felt.  So as Matthew recounts this tragic event from which Jesus escaped, he may be interpreting it as an echo typical of Israel’s story.

While some prophecies can be fairly literal predictions of what will happen, other prophecies can be more typological, in that what is happening is a type of what has already happened.  New Testament scholar R.T. France clarifies typology as “the recognition of a correspondence between New and Old Testament events, based on a conviction of the unchanging character of the principles of God’s working, and a consequent understanding and description of the New Testament event in terms of the Old Testament model.”  I believe Matthew’s three prophetic references here are examples of typological prophecy.

The second prophetic passage occurs after Joseph, Mary, and the child have fled to Egypt, escaping Herod’s rage.  The text doesn’t detail how long they stayed there, but it was until Herod’s death, at which point an angel told Joseph to return to Israel, which Joseph did, exiting Egypt to enter the land of Israel.  Matthew again comments on these events with a prophetic reference from Hosea: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

Again the event spoken of had already taken place.  This time it’s the northern kingdom of Israel that had grown so idolatrously indifferent to what God had called them to be and would thus suffer the consequences of God’s judgment by the Assyrian Empire.  Perhaps as a disappointed parent might, God uses Hosea to recall how youthfully loveable Israel was when he initially called them out of Egypt, lamenting how their own rebellion has brought them to this judgment.  It’s a memory of God’s salvation amidst a moment of impending judgment; as tragic judgment approaches, Hosea’s thoughts turn to their past salvation from slavery, perhaps hoping that, even as judgment descends upon them, God’s salvation may one day return to Israel.

By quoting the Hosea text in the context of Jesus exiting Egypt and entering Israel, Matthew may be reframing the Exodus memory, that memory of past salvation Hosea recalled, as an anticipation of the impending salvation Jesus would bring upon the land and people of Israel.

Both of these cited prophecies were delivered at a time when the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel both underwent tragic consequences for their great idolatry and indifference; moments that shaped within the surviving remnant’s post-exilic mindset a shameful sense of what was historically typical for their people.  But what Matthew hopes his readers will observe in the text is that with God, salvation is also typical.

The third prophetic comment is actually not a prophecy at all, but more of a Messianic characterization built on other prophetic statements.  As Joseph, Mary, and Jesus settle in the city of Nazareth, Matthew comments “This was to fulfill what was spoke through the prophets: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’.”

These exact words are found nowhere in Scripture.  Two theories thrive here.  First, other Messianic prophecies say Messiah would be despised and rejected; in John 1:46, Nazareth seems to personify a sense of worthlessness.  The second theory is, since the word Nazareth is similar to the Hebrew word for branch, Matthew may possibly be alluding to the Isaiah 11:1 prophecy about a branch springing up from David’s line, bearing righteous fruit.

Considering the context already discussed, I think both theories are plausible.  Having been battered by God’s judgment and years of post-exilic shame, an atmosphere of worthlessness or despair permeates Israel, shaping much of how they perceive themselves.  Who can lift such a soul-crushing burden?  Only one who knows its weight himself.  To truly be Messiah, Jesus must empathize with the people, living life as they have, know what it is to be despised and stung with sorrow.  In doing so, Jesus is identified, not just with his own people, but with all humanity.  Jesus is one of us.  Only after he is identified with us can he be revealed as so much more.  The shameful history that has come to shape Israel’s downcast identity is the soil from out of which the righteous branch shall grow and produce a redemption that redefines everything.

We are all shaped by our history.  We’ve all had moments that may mold in us a cynicism or downheartedness that redefines our perceptions of what we think is typical.  We may express these perceptions through learned phrases like “story of my life”, “just my luck”, or “it is what it is”.  We may be living according to a script in our heads that says our role is that of a worthless one or a sorrowful wretch or someone who has nothing to look forward to.  The role of Messiah, however, is meant to show us we’re reading the wrong script; that this story is about salvation.  Though life may teach us that sorrow is typical, Jesus shows us that with God, salvation is typical.  A part of learning to follow Jesus means adjusting the perceptions of our minds and hearts to the salvation reality embodied in Jesus.  I pray the eyes of your heart be saturated with the salvation permeating this world through the presence of Messiah Jesus.

Reacting to the Idea of Jesus | Matthew 2:1-12

Some time after Jesus’ birth, 1-2 years possibly, a star or comet appeared in the sky; interpreting it as the birth of a king, pagan astrologers followed it from the east until they came to Jerusalem where they inquired “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” 

Considering the political tension permeating Jerusalem, the notion these magi raised was troubling for Herod “and all Jerusalem”. When Herod inquired of Messiah’s birthplace, the chief priests and scribes cited Micah’s prophecy: “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel”.

The unmistakable Davidic imagery of ruler and shepherd are at the heart of the promised Messiah, and were the very concepts startling those hearing the magi’s inquiry. As a toddler, Jesus was no threat; but as an idea, he was like gasoline on a great fire. The incarnation was an incendiary idea; it still is. Consider the reactions we observe in the text.

Upon learning of Messiah’s birth, King Herod the Great is alarmed, presuming he could soon be deposed. Paranoid and provoked by such an idea, his response was to conspire and manipulate the magi, telling them to return and report to him once they had located the child so he, too, could worship him. When they did not return, however, having been warned by God in a dream, we later learn Herod vented his rage and fear with horrific hubris, ordering all Bethlehem males two and under to be mass slaughtered. The ruler/shepherd idea stoked his fear, pricked his pride, and suffering flowed.

When the chief priests and scribes heard Messiah may have just been born, their reaction seems practically nothing. If they were included in Matthew’s v4 comment of how all Jerusalem was troubled with Herod, they also would be stunned. If these chief priests were members of the Sadducees, they would have considered the Messiah role metaphorical; the birth of an actual child would therefore trouble their minds. The most Matthew mentions of them is providing Herod with the Scripture text referencing Messiah’s birth, but overall the text reveals no eagerness on the Jewish leaders’ part to search out this Chosen One for whom the Jews have spent much of their lives prayerfully waiting. While this text portrays them as fairly neutral, we know from Matthew’s later texts, however, the Jewish leaders switched out of neutral and chose to react to Jesus similar to how Herod once violently did. Eventually there is no neutrality when reacting to Jesus.

The reaction of the magi is perhaps the most interesting. These are Gentile pagans with no covenant relationship to the LORD, studying their zodiacs and scanning the sky; and while a lofty idea has captured their attention, they are allowed to see there is so much more to this idea, and this is what sets the magi apart from the others. “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

The magi were not satisfied with the idea of Jesus; they needed to pursue that star until they encountered Jesus.  Finally beholding boy Jesus as he actually was, their idea of him took on flesh.

One of our most common struggles in the faith concerns Jesus as idea versus Jesus as person. With Jesus as idea we can dissect him, rationalize, shrug him off, mold him in our image, use him as a good luck charm. With Jesus as person we have to deal with him as he actually is. We prefer Jesus as idea because we can control it. Jesus as person we have to follow. Jesus himself is like an incarnate crossroad who calls us to choose.

Like the chief priests and scribes, we can seem interested, speak “Christianese” or project a generalized spirituality, but ultimately go silent, until, that is, the person of Jesus becomes unavoidable.

Like Herod, misconceptions or hard-heartedness may cause us to perceive Jesus as a threat and reject him outright with hostility and derision or snubbing.

Or like the magi, wonder and contemplation fills our imaginations to overflow in a faith that will follow after the person Jesus.

Wonder and worship. This is how the pursuit of Jesus starts and is sustained. It captures our attention, inviting us to step off the sidelines to participate in how God’s salvation plays out in the person of Jesus. Wonder and worship calm our reactionary rage to receive him who gives what is far greater than what we were trying to keep for ourselves. As Matthew reveals how God’s salvation is beginning to bring in the Gentiles, these magi teach us something important about how discipleship plays out: wonder brings us to Jesus, and worship forms Jesus in us. As these magi returned to their eastern lands, salvation as person went with them.