In ancient Rome the birthday of Emperors was proclaimed as good news. People worshiped them as gods. We are not much different, but politics is bad news. Even Christians focus overly much on political agendas and human beings who boast great things, but in reality have no answers. The world is run by highly intelligent, very well-educated people who don't have a clue, because the real problems and their solutions are spiritual in nature, not carnal. When writing his Gospel, Mark used language familiar to ancient people used to promote Roman Emperors, but instead of proclaiming political good news, he pointed the way to Christ. In contrast to this world's inability to solve its problems, "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" as it says in Mark 1:1 is real good news indeed.
How many baptisms are there in the Bible? Mark 1:1-8 mentions a baptism of repentance, a baptism in the Jordan and a baptism of the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere we read of a baptism of fire, the baptism of water, the baptism of repentance also called the baptism of John, baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is also like a washing (Acts 22:16) and a death (Romans 6:3-4). Jesus’ death on the cross is referred to as a baptism (Mark 10:38). It is tied in with spiritual circumcision (Colossians 2:11-15). Israel was baptized into Moses (1 Corinthians 10:2-5). Even though we find so many baptisms described, Paul reminded the Ephesians that there is essentially only one baptism (Ephesians 4:6). All Christians are baptized into Christ (Galatians 3:27).
Politics has changed over the millennia. We have tried autocracy, dictatorship, fascism, monarchy, aristocracy, patriarchalism, theocracy, plutocracy and various forms of democracy. Some may conclude that we are still under an idiocracy, government by fools, or a kratocracy, government by the strongest. Philosophers are already formulating the next great forms of human government, meritocracy (where the more intelligent lead), technocracy (where the more technically savvy lead), bankocracy (led by banks), corporatocracy (where corporations lead), uniocracy (where every bill is electronically submitted to public vote). There is one common thread to all forms of human government, human weakness. As long as we believe that we can solve our own problems we will continue to leave the true solution out, Jesus. Jesus’ coming will save the world when the culmination of all human efforts would lead to total destruction (Mark 13:24-37).
Advent is a time of hope for the world. It is not the next election, the next great political movement, the next great religious movement or even our favorite sports team winning the season. Passages such as Mark 13:24-37 reveal that the outcome of all human systems, even our own, is failure. It also reveals that ultimate justice for the downtrodden is not a political revolution. It also reveals that ultimate form of government is not found in any form of human government. It is not the political left or right. It is not in any of the leaders of this world. The great achievements of our time, whether in science, technology, space, medicine, engineering, transportation, communications or the Internet have not solved our most urgent human problems. In Christ’s advent there is the solution to all humanity’s problems.
What is Christmas? It is a great variety of things. It is about stress, gift-giving, sentimental moments, family time, a holiday with pagan origins, materialism, Santa Claus and retail sales. Early in Christian history, the Church saw in this time an opportunity for spreading the good news of the coming of Christ. Ever since then in the noise surrounding this time of year, that message still manages to get through. Even in Shinto Japan, department stores play music containing words of the gospel. In the midst of our Christmas frivolity is a serious message. Mark 13:24-37 points out how serious that message is. We need world peace. One of the main messages of Christmas is that he who came once will also come again in great power and glory to gather his chosen ones. He alone can bring peace.
Every generation of the church has predicted the second coming in their lifetimes. Even though they got the dates wrong, they were right in a way because Jesus will return someday. The problem with predictions is that we are clearly told in the Bible that nobody knows the day or hour (Mark 13:24-37). But, what if Jesus returned tonight, how different would our day be? That is the essence of the passage, to treat each day as if it were our last, because one day we will be right. Who would we speak to? Who would we give one last hug to? Who would we apologize to? What would we set right? What have we left undone? What kinds of prayers would we say? What would no longer have any importance and what would suddenly take on great importance?
We fear terrorism, economic collapse, political change, crime, government interference in our freedoms, the weather, climate change, and a host of other things. Yet, is all this bad news good news? Mark 13:24-37 is very clear that the good news of coming world peace is preceded by bad news. The fig tree is one of the last trees to bud around the end of spring indicating that summer is near. Today’s bad news actually indicates coming good news. Christ’s return is near. Bad news quickly gives way to great joy. The bad times just prior to Christ’s return immediately give way to the best news of human history. How do we prepare for that? Like firefighters prepare ahead of time, we must be ready. World events will require faith. Let’s draw near to God now while we have time.
An acquaintance once told me that since childhood he “outgrew God.” Do we no longer need God to sustain our lives? He is not absent. Perhaps at Advent we remember Christ’s first and second comings, but forget his presence, thinking that he is absent and that we no longer need his daily providence. Places like Mark 13:24-37 speak of his second coming in clouds with great power and glory. But, Jesus came, comes and is coming. How? Advent celebrates Jesus first coming, his birth as God with us. But it also celebrates his present coming, his mysterious presence with us in communion and his gracious daily saving of our lives. And it also celebrates his final coming as judge, at death and at the end of the age. Is Christ absent? He is as close as our every heartbeat.
According to some experts, the Gospel of Mark was compiled immediately after the Jewish War of 66-70 AD. The temple was destroyed and Jewish patriots were crushed. Though the prophecy in Mark 13:24-37 was made prior to the Jewish War, Mark was possibly influenced in his emphasis by the recent abuses of a human government. After such a national tragedy hope was needed. Jesus is in charge of the cosmos, not the brutal Roman rulers. This prophecy is not about any hopes for a kinder human government. There is no such hope in any human government. The prophecy is about the only real hope for all our problems, God establishing his government through Christ in a new age. Jesus gave a foretaste of it by healing, teaching and caring for the poor. That’s why we pray thy kingdom come.
There is a lot of talk today about failed states, usually meaning either the historic failure of Communism or in more recent times, countries which have failed economically. But, if the truth be known all countries are failed states. That’s why in the democratic world we regularly fire failed leaders and elect new ones. If previous leaders had not failed we would have passed laws to keep them in office. But, all human states have failed. We have failed to curb greed, stop crime, solve poverty, steady inflation, cure diseases, prevent child abuse and reverse climate change. According to Mark 13:24-37, before the second coming, states will fail to prevent worldwide catastrophe. At the same time, it is good news, because at the Second Coming, Jesus will bring an end to all failed states and introduce peace at last.
Where is salvation? If we listen to the deception of television advertising too long we may be inclined to believe that salvation is in the latest fashion fad, pharmaceutical drug, diet or other product that is over-hyped and under-delivers. If we listen to certain televangelists, we may believe that salvation is available in false promises of health and wealth for sending “seed money” to them. If we listen to the entertainment industry too long, we may believe that salvation is to be found in easy sex, big cars and aberrant lifestyles. If we listen to the deception of politics we may believe that salvation is either on the left or the right. In the end, it all leads to great calamities like those mentioned in Mark 13:24-37, but the next chapter of human history reveals true salvation in Jesus.
In Mark 13:5, 9, 23, 33-36 a warning is repeated over and over. Take heed! Be on guard! Watch out! Be alert! Each time it is a warning against deception, persecution and the neglect of prayer. In our comfortable western churches we sleep and slumber. We are a complacent community, doing our small bit for God on Sunday and little more. We get distracted by petty church politics and arguments over trivia, yet we must awake! There’s work to be done, our Father’s work! Spiritual warfare is all around us. The world is about to explode and we must get busy with the Lord’s work. Our job is not to worry about such world woes, which God in his wisdom will allow. Our job is to watch, pray, to be about our Father’s work and endure to the end.
In Luke 18:11 we see the wrong kind of thanksgiving, filled with pride and arrogance. It is the kind of thanksgiving we hear people pray sometimes even in church. It is praying like, “Thank you God that we are the best.” Such lack of humility is a kind of self-delusion, a lack of willingness to face the truth. In Luke 17:11-19 is the exact opposite, the right kind of thanksgiving. It is exuberant, enthusiastic and demonstrative thanksgiving. How many of our more reserved church members go wild when their favorite sports team wins, but express unenthusiastic, halfhearted and passionless thanks to God, unlike the Samaritan who gave thanks? Psalm 107:1, 8, 15, 21, 31 helps us see the right kind of thanks. We thank God for he and his goodness, unfailing love and wonderful deeds for humanity.
In Luke 17:11-19 and 18:11 contrasts two thanksgiving prayers, a Jewish Pharisee and a Samaritan leper. Samaria contained a mixed-race people who only recognized the books of Moses. There was racial and religious tension between the two groups. Luke recorded James and John wanting to punish them, the Good Samaritan story and this thankful Samaritan. He also wrote Acts and recorded Philip’s Gospel work in Samaria. The Pharisee was physically pure. The Samaritan was unclean. The Pharisee believed he was better than everyone else. The Samaritan knew he was not. The Pharisee gave thanks in the holy temple. The Samaritan was on a road but also at Jesus’ feet. The Pharisee was thankful for what he has done. The Samaritan was thankful for what Jesus had done. The Pharisee praised himself. The Samaritan praised Jesus. What about us?
One of the words used by Christians for the partaking of the bread and wine is Eucharist. It comes from the Greek word for what Jesus did that night he instituted one of Christianity’s most sacred rituals, he gave thanks (Matthew 26:27). The Greek word for thanks is from eucharisteo. It is in one sense a thanksgiving “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup.” Thanksgiving is part and parcel of the Christian life every day of the year, not just once a week or once a year. Praise and thanksgiving are vital parts of Christian worship. In the story of the thankful Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19) we can see how only one demonstrated any thanks. The other nine may have been thankful in heart, but they did not show it. In worshiping God we also give thanks.
In the story of the thankful Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19), ten were healed but only one was pronounced saved by his faith. Were the other nine healed apart from their own faith? Without thankfulness are we not completely well, even though our disease is cured? Is giving praise to God part of being completely healed or saved and not just physical healing alone? Could it be that faith is part of being completely well? Could it be that without thanksgiving our faith is not complete? Could it be that there is a spiritual component to wellness that goes beyond mere physical healing alone? Could it be that complete wellness includes body, mind and spirit? Jesus saves us now from earthly troubles and forever from death. Eternal salvation is pictured in the Bible as eternal healing, wellness far beyond medical science?
Amos was a prophet with a dire warning to any nation which tramples on the heads of the poor and denies justice to the oppressed. (Amos 2:7) Excuses are hollow justifications for greed and selfishness. While the selfish party, the poor continue to suffer. They oppress the poor and crush the needy and say, 'Bring us some drinks!' (Amos 4:1) Campaign contributions are bribes, an assumed obligation to do the donor's bidding. Our politicians oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in our courts (Amos 5:12). Amos issues a dire warning against any nation or people who stomp all over the needy and the poor of the land (Amos 8:4). That nation is cursed by God and will be punished. He echoes Matthew’s message (25:31-46) to relieve the poor.
The setting for the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46) is the last judgment at the great white throne (Revelation 20:11-15). Is that judgment according to what people said or did? Words are cheap. True faith is revealed in action by deeds. The judgment is of all the nations, not just the Church. Matthew’s six examples represent human suffering. Other passages include widows and orphans while the Good Samaritan looked after an injured man. Notice that when speaking of all nations, Jesus uses the term brothers and sisters. What does the Holy Spirit say to us? Do we see the suffering as brothers and sisters? Do we have hearts of charity towards those in need? Following Jesus Christ our Savior is to participate in salvation of the world including saving the suffering as we are able.
Does the Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) teach salvation by works? God was kind to us, not because of any good deeds we may have done. By the washing of regeneration in baptism, we were born from above. With our new birth, the Holy Spirit transforms our lives by giving us participation in God’s loving nature. As Christians we are sanctified by faith (Acts 26:18) and by the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). Good works are evidence of a sanctified life (1 Thessalonians 4:1-7) and faith without works is dead (James 2:26). Saving faith is a living faith shining with the bright light of good works (Matthew 5:16) including good deeds like helping the needy. So works don’t save us but they are visible evidence of a living faith.
Jesus’ Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) is a serious warning personally and nationally. How does it translate to our responsibilities as Christians? How does that work in our national politics? How does that translate to our support for welfare? When we look at a homeless person do we see Jesus? The word for “stranger” is really “foreigner” in Greek. How does that translate to the way we view immigrants personally and nationally? When we look at a Mexican, do we see Jesus? How does looking after the sick translate to health care reform? How does it translate to hospital and prison visits or is that just for pastors? What are legitimate complications and what are just excuses? Is our response to the Gospel evidence of a living faith with good deeds or a dead faith without works?
|The Poor Will Be Glad:|
Joining the Revolution to
Lift the World
Out of Poverty
An acquaintance of mine was involved in church sponsored relief in Florida after a destructive hurricane. He noticed how some churches also had large crews to repair their church buildings. Once they had repaired those buildings they packed up and left. My friend and his team stayed on to look after the needs of people. This is a part of the Gospel that’s easy to miss. It is described in Matthew 25:31-46. Repairing church buildings while people outside are hungry, thirsty, in need of clothing, in need of hospitality, sick, and in need of a visit is a woeful example of our Christian calling. Is it time for some of us to repent? Is it time to get out of our holy places and live the Gospel on our streets by clothing and feeding Jesus Christ in the needy?
|The Social Gospel|
Some Christians criticize the idea of a social gospel as an excuse for liberalism. But that is not completely true. Social responsibility is a part of the complete message of the Gospel. Probably one of the best places to go to understand that is Matthew 25:31-46. This important passage deepens Jesus' descriptions of being a light in Matthew 5:13-16 where he described it as good works, and Matthew 25:1-13 where he described the need to have oil to light our lamps. Good works certainly entail pious deeds such as prayer. However, good works also involve deeds of charity such as feeding and clothing the poor. This side of good works is what some term the social gospel. When this “social gospel” is spurned as liberal it becomes an excuse for not obeying Jesus Christ in social responsibility.
Serving the Least in
a Consumer Culture
of the Nations
What is it about sheep and goats that Jesus used them in Matthew 25:31-46 as a parable for those who would be saved and those not? Sheep farming requires intensive animal husbandry. Sheep require continual work. On the other hand, they are easy to work with because they are gentle and quiet. Goats on the other hand, are more independent and don’t require so much intensive animal husbandry. They are not as easily herded as sheep and they stink. When together in a flock, goats will domineer over the sheep and often butt them out of the way to reach food. However, they are not harmful predators like wolves, so do they stay with the flock to be separated out later? Is that exactly what Jesus will do at the judgment? Can selfish and stinking personalities stay for now?
of the Nations
and the Hope
of the Poor
Jesus did not give us the privilege of hardheartedness towards the poor (Matthew 25:31-46). Half of Americans will experience poverty at some time. Declining unions have led to reductions in everyone’s wages. Now a quarter of Americans earn poverty-level incomes. People without a high school diploma are 3 to 5 times more likely to be poor than college graduates. Fathers leaving their families makes it 3 to 4 times more likely for them to be poor. Only about a third of disabled people are able to find work. Women experiencing domestic abuse are twice as likely to to be unemployed. Women, minorities, children, immigrants, the disabled and female-headed households face far greater poverty rates. Loss of job, declining wages, poor education, fathers leaving, having children and disability are major causes of poverty. Our job is to feed the hungry.
Source: Rynell, Amy. CAUSES OF POVERTY: Findings from Recent Research. The Heartland Alliance. Mid-America Institute on Poverty. 2008.
A wedding tradition at this time in history was for the bridegroom to prepare a home by building an addition onto his parents’ home or a free-standing home. It could take a year of preparation, but when the bridegroom was ready, he came for his bride. The scenario in Matthew 25:1-13 is that the bridegroom was ready at midnight on a certain day. The virgins were perhaps what we would call bridesmaids, who were to light the way with their lamps as the bridegroom took his bride in procession to the place where they were to be married. The picture is of 5 smart girls who were prepared and 5 silly girls who were not. The bridegroom has prepared to be with the woman he passionately loves, the Church. Who has their lamps ready to join the wedding procession?
Does keeping watch mean to frantically watch world events worried about every terrorist plot or rumor of war, to lack sleep and be constantly on alert for potentially fulfilled prophecies? Such an interpretation seems to contradict the context of Matthew’s sleeping virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). Can we safely follow Jesus’ suggestion to rest or Sabbath in him (Matthew 11:28)? The virgins in the parable are admonished to keep oil in their lamps not be “arisen” or constantly awake as a word-study ignoring the context might imply. Matthew’s account of keeping watch does not seem imply a restlessness, but being ready even while we rest in Christ. The spiritual preparation in this parable implies an individual duty that nobody else can do for us. It is a readiness that involves knowing God, or more precisely, him knowing us, and readiness.
The Right Way
Which science is more important in surviving an earthquake, prediction or preparation? If we were able to predict with certainty that an earthquake would come to Los Angeles, California mid afternoon tomorrow, how many lives might be saved? Perhaps a number would evacuate the city. Many may not. On the other hand, if we were able to construct buildings, utilities and distribution methods that could withstand the strongest earthquakes, many more could be saved? Of course we cannot yet predict earthquakes and neither can we predict the day or the hour of Christ’s return. Many false prophets have predicted the date of his return perhaps every generation for the past 2,000 years. Few have admitted their error. They failed to understand the Bible. Many scriptures including Matthew 25:1-13 teach that such prediction is fruitless but preparation is vital.
|Good News and Good Works:|
A Theology for
the Whole Gospel
Part of Christianity is a waiting game. We are waiting for Jesus to return. While we wait, what should we be doing? Matthew 25:1-13 begins to address this question. The two imperatives for us in this text are that we should make sure that we have enough oil and that Jesus knows us. What is the oil? Is it the oil of joy (Hebrews 1:9), the oil of healing (James 5:14) or the Holy Spirit (1 Samuel 16:13)? Certainly the Holy Spirit plays a central role in the life of any Christian. Luther believed it pictures faith. Does the end of the chapter provide an answer in context? It encourages good works of charity towards the hungry, thirsty, foreigners, unclothed, sick and imprisoned; the light of good deeds is sustained by the oil (Matthew 5:13-16).
The Gospel involves getting to know Christ and becoming a shining light. What is that light? It is good works (Matthew 5:13-16). Certainly acts of piety (praying, Bible reading, church attendance, good morality, etc.) are important, but is that all of good works? How important are acts of charity to the Gospel? A complete explanation of what good works means is a part of the Gospel that we can easily miss. Matthew 25:1-13 begins to address that question, but it is more fully answered at the end of Matthew 25. We’ll discuss that another time. For now, let’s discuss the importance of letting our light shine completely. Defining good works as acts of piety alone is incomplete. We have four Gospels to reveal more completely what Jesus taught so that we don’t miss the fullness of the Gospel.
the social gospel
Can we teach an authentic Christian gospel without living an authentic Christian life? In theological terms must not orthodoxy (right teaching) include orthopraxy (right living)? In Matthew 25:1-13 Jesus encouraged us to DO something, to buy oil for our lamps rather than just sit around waiting for a heavenly oil delivery. What does it mean to buy this spiritual oil? Jesus divided what Christians DO (orthopraxy) into two areas: loving God and loving our neighbor. In practice, love for God is incomplete without love for neighbor. Acts of piety like weekly worship and daily prayers are one way to actively love God. Acts of mercy like feeding the poor are one way to actively love our neighbors. Can right teaching and right practice be separated? Jesus told the Pharisees that their orthodoxy without orthopraxy was hypocrisy (Matthew 23:1-12).
In Matthew 25:1-13 Jesus told the lazy bridesmaids, “I know you not.” It is a shocking statement to believers! If Jesus does not know us what can we do? People get to know each other by spending time with each other. Do we make every effort to know God and allow him to know us? What are some ways that we can “buy oil” and allow God to get to know us? When people spend time together, they talk, listen and do things together. Many Christians pray, read the Bible and meditate on it. But the end of the same chapter shows that Jesus is also hungry, thirsty, a foreigner, unclothed, sick and imprisoned. Do we know Jesus by serving the needy? Where is Jesus in our community? Are we with him allowing him to get to know us?
The Greatest Commandment of all is the most important universal principle and is found in most religions. It is the command to love, and covers two important areas, we are to love God and love neighbor. Rick Warren reworded these great principles into worship and ministry. John Wesley and others reworded them into acts of piety and acts of mercy. Such good works are the light of the world that Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 25:1-13 Jesus began a much deeper discussion, expanding the Great Commandments. When we consider acts of love for God we also need to consider another very important question, does God know us? How does God get to know us except as we take time to pray? Knowing means a personal relationship. Knowing means time spent with one another.
The Parable of the Ten Virgins is partly about olive oil (Matthew 25:1-13). It lit lamps, fueling the light of good deeds causing others to glorify God (Matthew 5:15-16). It was an offering and fueled a continual light in the tabernacle and the temple (Numbers 4:16). It was used to bake holy bread and the main ingredient in holy anointing oil (Exodus 30:22-31). Olive oil was used in numerous sacrifices. It was used for the healing of the sick (James 5:14) and symbolizes the Holy Spirit (1 Samuel 16:13). The five foolish virgins gave an inferior offering, with no fuel for their Christian light they were neglecting good deeds which would include the care of the sick and neglected spiritual things. Blessed is the one who remains awake and spiritually clothed (Revelation 16:15).
The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) has relevance to the letters to 7 churches of Revelation 2-3. If you have a red-letter Bible, you will notice these are also words of Jesus. Victorious Ephesians are rewarded with rights to the tree of life. Smyrnan overcomers will not be hurt by the second death. Victorious Pergamenians will receive hidden manna and a special reward. Thyatiran overcomers will receive power over nations. Victorious Sardians will be dressed in white and listed in the book of life. Philadelphian overcomers will be pillars in God’s temple. Victorious Laodiceans will be given positions with Christ on his throne. It seems that some of these churches are only given eternal life while others also have great positions over nations, in the temple or at the very throne of Christ based upon what they overcame.
the Glory of God:
The Bible's Teaching on
the Moral Goodness
Private capitalism in the hands of greedy people causes gross inequities and class warfare. Private capitalism in the hands of people who love God and neighbor blesses everyone. That reality may help us to understand what the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) is all about. The honorable means to wealth is hard work, but for Jews under Roman occupation the means to wealth was by corruption and oppressing the poor. Wealth today can also be gotten by good and evil means and also be used for loving or selfish purposes. Why does the parable reward those who produce more spiritually for the kingdom of God? Because the parable is not about greedy capitalism, but kingdom capitalism. God knows that those who produce more spiritually will love him and their neighbors most, and be the most willing to share.
|The Faith of Leap:|
Theology of Risk,
Adventure & Courage