On Driving Through the Beatitudes

Fellow travelers,

Writing about the Beatitudes has been harder than I thought. If “repentance is a U-turn on the road of life” then the first two Beatitudes are the ones that tell us we’re mentally and emotionally going the wrong way. I’ve worried about the tone of some of those posts compared to the short, daily encouragement posts from earlier.

However, if you’re still following along, quoted below is a peek at drafts from next week’s posts. Turning the car around is hard but it’s not enough. However there is light ahead:

“If misunderstood, the first two Beatitudes alone can leave us in a place where we’re a mess and the world is a terrible place and there’s nothing we can do about any of it…
But God promises that there is work for each of us to do: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10). ‘Blessed are the meek’ promises a way forward – for every person in their own way as guided by God’s benevolent will.”

Getting in Gear
The working title for Monday is “When You’re Stuck in Second Gear,” and yes I’ll soon be referencing the theme song from the TV show Friends.

Although I’ve learned many of the things I’m writing about over many years, I’m still learning as we go, and have never tried to put any of it into a cohesive whole. For example, in hindsight I think the post I’m planning for Monday should have been the first one in the “meek” section, but it includes things I hadn’t thought of before today. Maybe someday, I’ll re-edit the whole thing but for now it is what it is! A big part of why I write is to force myself to think more but also to turn that knowledge into loving action. I hope that if you take this journey with me, it helps you find what “Driving Toward Morning” looks like for you. Even if it’s awkward along the way.

Thanks for reading!

4 8 15 16 23 42 – Blessed are the Meek #3

Do you ever feel that God has appointed a task to you that you can’t see the point of?  These opening verses refer back to previous posts about Jesus asking Martha to move the stone away from the opening of Lazarus’ grave, and also to the man who was given only one talent to put to work for his Master’s benefit:
“Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” – John 11:39
He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’” – Matthew 25:24-25

As we continue a series on the Beatitudes with the third Beatitude “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth[1] I am reminded of the mid-2000’s TV series Lost, where character Desmond Hume is trapped on a mysterious island and enters a code into a computer every 108 minutes.  He does it – even in the middle of the night – because he was told he is “saving the world” by someone he trusts.  When the code – 4 8 15 16 23 42 – is entered on time nothing happens except the re-setting of a clock to 108 minutes.  “The numbers” are referenced over and over again in the show, individually or all together, and seem to have a mystic power over events.  The number of minutes allowed to enter the code – 108 – is the sum of the six numbers.  Even fans seemed to believe “the numbers” had power – there was a boom in playing them in the lottery.

As other characters find Desmond and ask questions, the numbers and the button become a case study of faith versus reason.  Why is he doing this?  Eventually, the button isn’t pushed on two occasions and the consequences are very serious indeed, but this lesson is only learned by failing to act on faith.  While initially faith demands that Desmond enter the numbers over and over again, the two failures show that there was a reason behind Desmond’s faith even if he didn’t know it.  It wasn’t pointless after all.  However, failure isn’t always the best way to learn to be meek.

Every Talent Matters
In a story told by Jesus in Matthew 25:14-30, a man entrusts his servants with some money (the “talents” in the story were a large unit of currency, and the word later came to mean a natural or special ability): five to one servant, two to the next, and one to the last servant.  The first two servants use their “talents” to bring in more for their master, but the last buries the money in the ground to keep it safe.  This servant might have been thinking: “What’s the point?  The other guy has five talents, and with that I might be able to do something.  But with only one…Why bother?”  But if the master’s intent was to keep the talent safe, why would he give it to a servant?  It was only after some time, when the master returned from a journey, that the servant learned the consequence of his inactivity.  The servant is cast out and his talent is given to the better servant.

Waiting until we have more to offer, more to do, or a better sense of the possible consequences is like burying our talent in the sand and therefore determining for ourselves that it does not matter and there is no point.  In the words of “Shy Away” by twenty øne piløts, you “manifest a ceiling when you shy away.”  Whatever purpose God has for our talents – in their exact amounts and types – it wasn’t for us to bury them.  The meek servants who took what they had and worked for their master’s interest, were rewarded.  “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.[2]

For me personally – sometimes I put off, or want to give up, writing because it seems pointless – who reads this anyway?  But it’s what I currently feel compelled to offer.  Blogging may seem a strange thing to do, but it’s better than burying these ideas in the ground and hoping a fruit tree magically pops up.  I don’t know what will happen when I do or don’t write, but I know a refusal to be meek to our Lord has consequences.  Sometimes we aren’t sure why, but we know Who is asking.

Play Your Own Numbers
Jesus has not asked me (and probably not you) to enter “4 8 15 16 23 42” into a computer or to move a stone from a tomb, but He knows exactly what He wants us to do, to become, and how He wants to impact others through us.  There are specific needs He wants only us to meet, including our own needs for meaning and joy.  We should never just copy someone else’s “numbers,” but seek our own.  If Lost fans won the lottery with those numbers, they would have to share the prize, but if each won playing their own way their prize would be much bigger.  Likewise, I believe the eternal reward is higher when you play the numbers – and only the numbers – God gave you personally[3].

Consider God’s personal instructions to you as your own lottery ticket, or the most important treasure you will ever have:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field…
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” – Matthew 13:44-45

Being meek is not a matter of how much one has to offer but knowing who you offer it to and being faithful to that master’s interests.  It is not a matter of knowing why, but a matter of trusting the One who asks you to be meek.  He is the King of the Kingdom.

Finally, just because the consequences aren’t obvious to you doesn’t mean there aren’t any:
“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” – Guardian angel Clarence Oddbody, in It’s a Wonderful Life

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

[1] Matthew 5:5
[2] Matthew 25:29
[3] Is it stretching the point to say what happened to Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1-3 resulted from them trying to “make up their own numbers”?

The Benevolent Incarnation – Blessed are the Meek #2

And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day.” – Deuteronomy 6:24
I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” – Isaiah 42:8

In part 1 on Jesus’ statement that “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5), I wrote about one of my favorite movies, The Matrix, and how Agent Smith thought mankind stinks and he only wants them to obey his rules so he can be left alone.  Also in that movie, Neo fights to free mankind from rules so they can be “free” even if that freedom does nothing to address that they stink.  Agent Smith was the “malevolent incarnation,” and Neo the “ambivalent incarnation.”

By now you probably anticipated that Jesus is the “benevolent incarnation,” but to show what that means we return to the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (last discussed in detail here).  A messenger came to Jesus telling Him that Lazarus was ill, but instead of returning to Bethany immediately to help, Jesus intentionally delayed in coming until Lazarus had been dead for four days.  Jesus knew all along that He would immediately raise Lazarus, but nobody else knew that and He found everyone in mourning.  Martha heard Jesus’ hints but thought Lazarus would have a future “resurrection on the last day.”[1]

Then, one of my favorite verses in the Bible: “Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” – John 11:39

In this one exchange we see the contrast of Jesus to both Agent Smith and to Neo:

  • The odor does not keep Jesus from loving His people.  He does not even comment on it but responds “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”[2]  He did not become human to tell us we stink and how he can’t stand being with us, as Agent Smith did.  He was willing to live among us in order to bring us to a better place, to be with Him.
  • His rule is for the good of Lazarus, Martha, all the witnesses to this event, and everyone hearing the story today.  When Jesus tells Martha to move the stone, He isn’t bullying her or oppressing her, but He is giving her a command.  For Lazarus to come out of the tomb the stone needs to be moved, and Jesus is asking her to participate in a good work.  Likewise, Jesus asks us to do many things, some listed explicitly in the Bible and others spoken to our conscience.  All these rules are there to generate good works, as all His rules are expressions of “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”, and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[3]  Therefore He is being neither malevolent nor ambivalent.  As a benevolent God, Jesus cares about what we do because He knows what is good and bad for us.  Unless we agree with what He knows is good and bad, we are actively rejecting the cure for our odor, the Christ who is “the resurrection and the life.”[4]
  • His rule brings Him glory, and Him alone.  Jesus delayed in coming to raise Lazarus specifically “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it[5]  The entire situation was set up to deliver the lesson that as our Creator and Lord, He deserves all the credit.

In the opening verses, we see that His rules are “for our good always” (Deuteronomy 6:24), and also that He says, “my glory I give to no other” (Isaiah 42:8).  In my church, prayers often end with “for our good and your glory, Amen.”  I find that it’s often harder to give up the glory than it is to realize which path is the right one.  But as I wrote in the last post of the series, “the value of meekness depends on who or what you are meek towards.”  So giving Him the glory is just awareness that we are meek because He is worthy of our meekness.

Winning the Lottery
I’ll close with one illustration: Would you rather have someone deliver tomorrow’s newspaper to you with the winning lottery numbers, or would you rather work eternally on a system to try and predict them but never win?  Rejecting God’s truth and trying to make our own is like choosing the second option.  I too often would rather get credit for losing than win but not get credit for it, and I suspect I’m not the only one.  Picking the second option has replaced God in the hearts of many, from the inscription across the Pantheon in Rome, a temple to the many gods they claimed to serve (“M AGRIPPA L F COS TERTIVM FECIT”, which loosely means “Marcus Agrippa built this”[6]) to Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way” or Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life.”

If we accept that Jesus is our God, that He is benevolent and that His rule is for our good and His glory, then we win the best prize every time – eternal life in a perfect world.  Every sacrifice we make is worth it, and we end up being the person we were created to be, full of joy and peace and love.  If we choose a malevolent or ambivalent lord to follow, not only do we lose the prize, but we have to take the credit for losing it.  These ‘lords’ often don’t even claim to have the prize, just abstractions like “freedom” or “order.”  In Jesus, the winning lottery ticket has been offered to us all along, but we didn’t want to admit where we got it from, or that its prize was more important than what we thought we wanted.

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

[1] John 11:24
[2] John 11:40
[3] From Matthew 22:37 and 39
[4] John 11:25
[5] John 11:4b
[6] When I visited Rome in 2003, I learned that the Catholic Church, when building St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, removed the gold from above the entrance to the Parthenon and used it in the Basilica.  Only exposed, rotten wood planks remain where the gold was removed.  While St. Peter’s drive the Protestant Reformation since it was largely funded with the ‘indulgences’ that launched Martin Luther’s protest, the transfer of this gold was an obvious rebuke to the pantheism of the old Roman Empire.

Malevolent and Ambivalent Incarnations- Blessed are the Meek #1

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” – Jeremiah 17:9
And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:32

Finally, we continue the series on the Beatitudes, the opening statements from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, with Matthew 5:5 – “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  This one is particularly tough to write about because meekness has such a negative meaning to many people.  Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines meek[1] primarily as what you are not: courageous and strong.  It even references the first Beatitude accidentally, saying that being meek is being “deficient in spirit.”  But as we saw in Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  The dictionary gives an example of “a meek child dominated by his brothers.”  A good way to start this series on “Blessed are the meek” comes from one of my favorite movies, but unfortunately one which has little to do with Christian truth.

The Malevolent Incarnation
In The Matrix, humanity has been imprisoned inside a computer simulation by artificially intelligent machines.  A group of rebels are fighting within and without the simulation to free humanity, and the machines created super-powered Agents to track down and destroy rebels within the Matrix, which is what the simulated world is called.  These Agents hate the Matrix, which to humanity is their “real” world.  Hugo Weaving plays Agent Smith, the main Agent in the story, who says:

“I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it. It’s — it’s repulsive! Isn’t it? I must get out of here. I must get free…”

Agent Smith is a “Malevolent Incarnation,” an artificial intelligence who took on human form to represent the rulers of the Matrix, and his job was to make sure humanity stayed enslaved, which required brutally suppressing any rebellion.  What Smith couldn’t stand however was “the smell”!  His biggest motivation was to get the rebels in line so he could leave the world behind.  Agent Smith’s objective was to keep mankind imprisoned in a set of rules.

The Ambivalent Incarnation
Set against Agent Smith in the story is Neo, played by Keanu Reeves (“whoa!”), who wants to liberate mankind from rules altogether.  At the end of the movie, he says to the rulers of the Matrix: “I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible.”  The contrast of these characters is a thinly veiled expression of atheistic Marxism, which argues that rules (particularly religious ones) exist only as an expression of power, particularly the power of “oppressors” which must be overthrown.

It’s no wonder why meekness has a negative association for many people, if authority figures are portrayed as malevolent oppressors, and our heroes are ambivalent, requiring nothing of us, so we can avoid being meek, pursuing whatever we want (even if it leaves an odor).  It is also undeniable that many rulers throughout history, including religious ones, have been malevolent.  Therefore, freedom good; rules bad.  Simple.

But it’s not that simple.  When Neo destroys Agent Smith in the end, the audience cheers, but if Neo is the hero of a “world without rules”, where does his authority over Agent Smith come from?  Agent Smith should be Exhibit A that letting everyone live as they please leads directly to oppression by the powerful, because this ethic does nothing to cure self-interest.  It only encourages it.  Under Neo’s “world without rules,” who rules Agent Smith?  He rules himself, and as we know, he hates all of mankind.  Also, what if Neo turns into a malevolent oppressor?  His own ethical system does nothing to stop him, and he’s more powerful than everyone else.  In the famous Latin phrase: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  Who watches the watchmen?

Wonderful Counselor Redux
Merriam-Webster thinks being meek is undeniably a negative, but in reality, the value of meekness depends on who or what you are meek towards.  Do we often think about or realize who or what is guiding us?  We all submit to something, even if it’s our own desires, but is the thing we’re submitting to malevolent, ambivalent, or benevolent?  In my recent Christmas series, I wrote about Jesus as Wonderful Counselor (here).  I encourage you to read that if you have not already, or even read it again, because we are blessed by God through meekness because He is Wonderful. This series will expand on that post.

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/meek

Jesus is Indignant – Those Who Mourn #3

Today is part 3 of a series on the second Beatitude from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” – Matthew 5:4.  The first two are here and here. We begin with story of the resurrection of Lazarus by Jesus:

“Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” – John 11:39

Before this dead man Lazarus died, Jesus got a message that he was ill.  Lazarus was in Bethany, near Jerusalem, and Jesus was about a day’s journey away avoiding the Jewish leaders who sought to stone Him to death for claiming to be God (Jn 11:30 and elsewhere).  After saying “this illness does not lead to death[1], Jesus stayed away for two more days and after the time it took to travel to Bethany, He found Lazarus already “dead four days.”

Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus, were deep in mourning, along with many others who had come to mourn with them.  Then “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).  Reading this we might assume Jesus’ reason for weeping was the same as everyone else’s.  However, pastor and author Tim Keller notes that: “Both verses 33 and 38 say that while He was weeping with grief He was also snorting with anger.  Jesus could not have been weeping for Lazarus because He knew he was about to raise him from the dead.  What, then, was He so grieved and angry about?  He was furious at the sin and death that had ruined the creation and people He loved.”[2]

Jesus knows that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).  Since Adam and Eve, mankind has been facing, and mourning, the consequences.  From the repetition of “and he died” in the genealogy of Genesis 5 on, we are reminded of the result of missing the mark of God’s righteousness.  Nobody is more aware of this than Jesus.  As God, He understands our loss more deeply than we do, and He is indignant, consumed with righteous anger.

When Jesus got the message Lazarus was ill, He could have healed Him on the spot from a distance as He did the official’s son in John 4:46-54.  Instead, Jesus delayed in coming to raise Lazarus “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4b).  The miracle convinced many, but not everyone: “the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well[3] because so many were later believing in Jesus that they plotted to bury the evidence[4].

However, Jesus used the miracle to increase His disciples (and our) faith, particularly in times of loss and mourning.  Jesus taught Mary to replace her “if” statement “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died[5] with His statement “I am the resurrection and the life.”[6]  As man, He feels as we do, and in compassion for us He weeps.  He steps right into our suffering with us – the odor of death does not deter Him.  He knew He would have to die to save us from our suffering, and He willingly took it on.  “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” – Hebrews 4:15

Just as He could have healed Lazarus before he died, Jesus could return right now and take us to heaven, but He waits until His purpose (not ours) is fulfilled so that He may be glorified.  For now, we can know as Mary did that He is “the resurrection and the life,” rather than wonder “if” He could have come sooner.  Therefore, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” – Matthew 5:4.  In time, Jesus will fix it all.

With the next post in the series, we move to the next Beatitude in Matthew 5:5 – “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” – and we begin with that odor.

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

[1] John 11:4
[2] Keller, Timothy.  Making Sense of God (2016).  P. 164-5.
[3] John 12:10
[4] See also this earlier post
[5] John 11:32
[6] John 11:25