Rushing into the Lake

When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” Some distance from them a large herd of pigs was feeding. The demons begged Jesus, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.” He said to them, “Go!” So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region. – Matthew 8:28‭-‬34

Today’s passage is a bookend to the last water-related pass in Matthew 8:18‭-‬27. On the other side of the lake Jesus met a religious teacher and crowds of followers, while on this side He meets two demon-possessed dudes terrorizing the tombs. What an interesting juxtaposition of people and perspectives.

I don’t recall a lot of direct discussion of demon possession from my float through the old testament. It seems like the evil discussed there was more disguised or hidden behind human actions, events, and decisions. The evil forces here are not able to hide when Jesus shows up. The demons know He has power over them and they are really afraid. They would rather be sent into swine than to face Jesus face to face. Things don’t end well for the pigs or the demons.

There is an interesting sense here that the spiritual realm, both good and bad has been more tangibly revealed by the arrival of Jesus. Interestingly, it was water that ultimately killed the pigs and the demons. What would have happened if these demons had fallen on their knees and asked for forgiveness? Can a demon be redeemed? I have no clue.

This revealing of things unseen, the spiritual realm, reminds me of a part of C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In that book the main characters land on an island that appears to be uninhabited, but they soon realize they are surrounded by the inhabitants, but the inhabitants have been made invisible. The danger and consequences of crossing these invisible creatures soon becomes apparent when a spear appears from an unseen hand and almost skewers Edmond. In the end the unseen creatures turn out to be more silly than sinister, but the process of making them seen makes a magician and Aslan, the Christ figure, visible as well.

I think the main take home point I am getting from this passage is similar to the C.S Lewis story. There are many spiritual forces, good and bad, that surround us every day and we ignore them at our peril. We rarely have the clarity about spiritual matters that was present when Jesus walked along this lake near Galilee. So how do we follow and keep up with Jesus amidst all these swirling spiritual currents?

It seems like if we want to keep up with Jesus, as modern-day God-followers, we must keep a sharp lookout for things unseen, keep ourselves in spiritual and physical shape so we are prepared to go where he is going, and be prepared for there to be a much bigger world than the one right in front of us. We must avoid the evil unseen and seek out the goodness and blessings that are sometimes hard to see.

Prayer: God reveal Yourself to us and help us to guard our hearts from unseen evil.

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The waves obey him!

When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” – Matthew 8:18‭-‬27

This passage is a very familiar stretch of the river. It is often depicted in art and Sunday school lessons. It paints a dramatic picture of Jesus in direct control of nature, “even the wind and the waves obey him!” Of course God directed nature many times before in the old testament but this is the first time in the new testament.

The passage begins with Jesus receiving commitments from a cadre of new followers beside the Lake before crossing the lake. The first follower to step forward is a “teacher of the law”. Presumably a Pharisees, or a Sadducee.  He is more than willing to follow this upstart from Galilee.  Jesus’ response to this prospective follower is a bit odd.  Jesus says “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

I think I have always assumed Jesus was talking about needing a place to stay for the night, but as I read it again I wonder if there is more to this odd response.  He is describing animals that are cared for by God, Foxes and birds, and then He refers to himself as having no place to lay His head.  I wondering if this is a hint about the sense of separation that Jesus laments about later in Matthew 27:45, “From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lemasabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).  This is funny water to be sure and I will not pretend to fully understand how could God be separated from God, but it seems that was the case.

I guess the whole concept of God becoming a man, a Godly condensate, is equally hard to understand from a human perspective, but I am convinced that God did indeed become “an old king with a new suit”. This new king is both different and the same as the “old king” described in the old testament.  The added dimension is that God is with them, Emmanuel, in a tangible way that they can relate to and in fact physically follow for a time. 

I am not sure there is any human analogue for what God is doing here.  The closest, albeit imperfect, analogy I can come up with is if I decided to “become” a cat so that I could understand my cats better.  It would be very hard to walk like a cat, eat cat food, and behave like a cat in my human body.  I am sure there would be times in my odd adventure when I would yearn for human food and activities.  I think it some strange way that is what God is doing here.  He has voluntarily limited Himself for a time in order to save us from becoming lost in this land of oblivion

Enough of this floundering about in deep water.  I am confident that some day I will understand or at least be at peace about this amazing act of Love that God is doing here.  Now we come to the scene that Hollywood loves.  Jesus is in the boat with His disciples and a storm is threatening to swamp the boat.  Jesus is sleeping much to the chagrin of His disciples who are scared out of their skins that they are going to drown.  There is certainly a physical reality that Jesus is demonstrating His dominion over here, but I am not sure that is the main point.  

I think that the main point here is not that Jesus can control the weather, it it is that Jesus can intervene equally in the physical and spiritual realms.  The physical “storm” that the disciples find themselves in seems more dire and consequential spiritual storm swirling around them unseen and sometimes unnoticed. I think they will learn throughout the time they are engaged in experiential learning with Jesus that things almost always have a spiritual dimension.

I suspect that the disciples in the boat felt a bit like the Israelites felt as they awaited the Messiah amid what seemed to them endless storms of sacrifices and conflict.  From their perspective God was “sleeping” while a storm raged around them.  God was not really asleep then and He is not really asleep here either.

Prayer: God You are not really asleep when we encounter life’s storms. Help us to trust You to intervene in both the physical and spiritual realms.

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Foundation on the Rock

Impact of Hurricane Lane on Wailuku River, Hawaii

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. – Matthew 7:24‭-‬29

This passage holds special meaning to me both as a geomorphologist who studies rivers and a homeowner whose house is in fact built on sand. Fortunately for me our house is built on a very old sand dune which is pretty stable and not in any real danger of washing away because we are not near any streams. Jesus is summarizing his teaching goals and style in this passage. He just provided scaffolding in words of wisdom and soon the people who heard these words will be called to put them into practice through experience.

The same river that deposits sand along a river can erode that same sand and cause great damage if you build your home in a place prone to erosion. The solution Jesus provides here is to build your house on rock rather than highly erodible sand. Note that His solution is not to stay away from the River (God) to avoid calamity. It is to have the proper posture and perspective when the inevitable floods occur.

Rivers naturally flood, it is part of their proper and healthy function. Floodplains are the “relief valve” that allows flooding to occur without creating permanent damage.  Floodplains are actually created by the very flooding for which they serve as a “relief valve”. When humans build levees, dams, and weirs it is like plugging the pressure outlet on a pressure cooker. It usually does not end well for the river or those seeking to control it.  Rivers that flow over bedrock tend to be very stable and do not move during floods. That is not to say that floods on bedrock rivers are not damaging and dangerous, but the rivers do not move as a result of the floods.

Jesus says “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house”. Problems and trials will come, it is how we prepare for these inevitable floods and storms that determines our ability to weather them. So how does one prepare? It sounds fairly simple as Jesus explains it, we need to “hears these words” and “put them into practice”. Easy right…..not so much.

Ability to hear Jesus’ words is usually a function of listening and paying attention. The “words” that God has for us sometimes come in an attention grabbing two-by-four to the head, and sometimes they come as a subtle whisper. Jesus’ words are the intellectual infrastructure on which we are to base our lives and our actions.

Our heads, filled “words”, are to channel our hearts to put these words into practice. This is the harder part for many people, including Jesus’ disciples, and me. I think the reason it is hard is because it requires interpretation and deep understanding of the underlying truths of Jesus’. In the book the Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis the two main characters are given a set of “signs” or clues about a task that Aslan (the Christ figure) has given them. Complicating matters is that only one of the two adventurers (Jill) was able to hear the signs from Aslan.  Here is what Aslan says to her about the signs:

“But, first, remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs.”  – C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair

God is saying something similar to those listening here.  We must try very hard to listen and learn the “signs” (words) whatever “strange things” (read storms and rain) happen. Fortunately for us God has sent a “helper”, the Holy Spirit, to help with both the hearing and the application of Jesus’ teaching.

Prayer: God help us to be good listeners and learners so we can apply Your wisdom and build our lives on a firm foundation.

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Rain Barrels

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:43‭-‬48

Today’s passage is part of the “sermon on the mount” which contains some of the most profound and paradoxical teachings of Jesus. The style of teaching in this case is expository rather than experiential. The teaching here are hard and often run counter to our earthly intuitions,

In many ways this is, to use a pedagogical concept, scaffolding for the later experiential teaching that Jesus will be doing. These statements provide many of the reasons why Jesus acted the way He did when He encountered people or problems.  Jesus knows that the disciples and other followers will be able draw from these deep waters of wisdom as they experience challenging, and often counter-intuitive, ways of living and loving people – both the righteous and the unrighteous.

This is where the water-related part of the passage comes in, when Jesus says “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” This could be taken several ways. It is a response to the age old philosophical question “why do bad things happen to good people?” and the other side of this coin “why do bad people sometimes seem to prosper”. Rain has come up many times in my float exploring water in the bible.  I thought it would be good to go back and reflect on these passages to see if it sheds light on this passage.

A quick search of my blog revealed 198 references to “rain” so far. The first occurrence is in Genesis 2:5-6 when streams came up before there was rain on the earth and the hydrologic cycle had begun. When I floated past that passage I was mainly interested in thinking about the ways that this description could be viewed from a scientific perspective.  As I look back another possible metaphorical meaning has occurred to me. In many references “rain” has represented the spiritual world of God intersecting the physical world here on earth. If one thinks of the Genesis passage as a spiritual metaphor then it could be describing the beginning of the “spiritual cycle“, the beginning of the “rain” being described in this passage by Jesus.

God’s rain can be scary, deadly, refreshing, and cleansing. In almost all of the rain references it seems there is a deeper meaning that God is trying to get across about the hidden spiritual world around us, that is just a vaporous and invisible as the moisture in the air.  We feel its presence just like we can sense when it is a humid or dry day. What Jesus is trying to get across through this teaching, and others in the beatitudes, is that we can only be successful in our search for the Kingdom of God if we allow God to reveal and refresh us with His “rain” into our lives.

I have reflected before about how God is like water, an elemental God, and Jesus is His Godly condensate here on earth.  So when Jesus says that “God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” He is saying that He sends Himself for everyone, both the lovable and the unlovable.  Jesus did an amazing job of modeling this kind of love for His disciples and for all those who are trying to follow His way to the Kingdom of God. His way is hard.  It is hard to love someone who is not only unlovable, but may in fact actually return your love with hate (our enemies).

The only way to do this is to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  How can we be perfected by God? I think the only way is to allow ourselves to be “stripped down to soul” so God can rebuild us in His image.  We have to become “rain barrels” for God’s love and spirit.

Prayer: God help us to receive Your Holy Spirit and Son so that we can become better at receiving the hard teachings that shape our souls.

 

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A Great Light

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” – Matthew 4:12‭-‬17

For some reason I have always thought that Jesus left after John the Baptist was arrested because there was some sort of conflict or competition between their ministries. I am not sure where I got this idea, but as I read this passage I am pretty sure I had it wrong. It sounds more like Jesus was being careful to prepare his disciples and his ministry before it became too well known and things became more difficult.

So Jesus withdraws to Capernaum along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. I explored this area using Google Earth and what is interesting is that the location that Google thinks is Capernaum is basically a farm with very few people living there. In fact the whole region along the Sea of Galilee seems strangely devoid of people and development. It would seem like in this region people would tend to live near this great “way of the sea” as it is described here.

The location where Jesus began his life and ministry after being baptized by John is both interesting and intriguing. It is described as “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”. This passage is quoting Isaiah 9:1-2. When I went back to see what I wrote about this passage I discovered that I had somehow floated by this water-related passage without reflecting on it. It is a ways back up the river so I will reflect on it here instead.

There are several details about this description that are interesting to me. The first part talks about two specific locations, the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali. These were apparently named for sons of Jacob that settled in this region. I am not sure if their mention has any special significance here. The second part “the way of the sea” is really interesting and may have deeper meaning that it first appears. The “sea” was used metaphorically throughout the old testament to represent the great spiritual expanse that surrounds our corporeal bodies here on earth. So to say that Jesus retired to the “way of the sea” was a way of alluding to the coming confluence between the spiritual and physical worlds that occurred through Jesus.

It is also interesting that the passage refers specifically to gentiles, “Galilee of the Gentiles”. I think this is an allusion to the inclusion that Jesus would practice and preach about. He came not just for the people of Israel, but for all of us that are “beyond the Jordan”. People willing to cross “the river that no one could cross” with God’s help.

The last part is not about water, but light, another interesting metaphor used throughout the Bible. Light has a way of getting everywhere that is exposed to its rays. Jesus has certainly been a light for me when times were hard.

Lest we miss the point of all these meanings and metaphors Matthew provides the Cliff Notes version of Jesus’ message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” No need to spend out lives searching and striving to find God. He found us.

Prayer: God thank You for finding us and providing Your Light to show the Way.

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Heaven was Opened

Jesus baptism site along the Jordan River

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. 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 3:13‭-‬17

This passage marks the beginning of Jesus’ overt sharing about the coming Kingdom of God and His role in bringing this about. Jesus has traveled to the Jordan River from Galilee, which is the region near the Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Kinneret. John understands who this young man from Galilee is and what His role will be in the future. He felt uncomfortable baptizing Jesus because he knew that Jesus was in fact the long awaited Messiah.  God in the flesh.

Jesus explains this seeming paradox to John by saying “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”. These are the first words of Jesus recorded by Matthew so it is probably worth a closer look. It strikes me that there are three parts to Jesus’ explanation: 1) Let it be so now; 2) it is proper for us to do this; 3) to fulfill all righteousness.

The first part is letting John, and everyone nearby, know that this baptism by John is a beginning; even more radical changes are coming. John is clearly pushing the Pharisees and the Sadducees to rebuild the temple, but this time using some of the unsavory “adopted stones” that he was baptizing in the Jordan River. Jesus will take this one step further by selecting and training twelve unlikely and imperfect followers to deliver His message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to the world.

The second part is getting at whether John should even being doing what he is doing, in essence baptizing God. Since God is the asking Him to do it it is probably OK, but I can see how John would be potentially confused and conflicted. God is asking Him to do something which must have seemed somewhat blasphemous and scandalous. This is just the beginning of the scandalous changes and claims that accompany Jesus. Changes that will make many who encounter Jesus very uncomfortable. Jesus was a radical called for radical changes both in the lives of those that choose to follow Him and the ones that were supposed to be leading people to God.

The last part of the explanation is an intimation that there is an underlying spiritual reality and laws that even God must abide by on this earth.  This “righteousness” that Jesus is referring to in my mind means repentance and cleansing from sins. Much of the old testament was concerned with how one could become clean, and stay clean, so that they could be in God’s presence. This is the beginning of a new way to enter God’s presence, no entrails or animal legs required. All that is required is a choice to wade into the One River and following the Living Water wherever He leads.

At the end of this passage God makes it clear that He has arrived in the form of this man Jesus “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.” All the three manifestations of God, The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are present as the “Heavens are opened.”

This opening of the heavens will be for all people and for all time. There will be no requirement or need for a temple built of stones because God will be with us, first as Jesus, then as the Holy Spirit and Christ in us. Jesus waded into Jordan River, and into this Land of Oblivion, so that we could get across the river that no one could cross.

Prayer: God thank You for sending Your Son to show us the way of righteousness and the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

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Adopted Stones

Me “adopting” a pile of stones at the site of the Winter Olympic Games in Whistler BC, Canada

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. 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. 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. “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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 3:7‭-‬12

John goes a little “off the rails” in this passage when the religious leaders (Pharisees and Sadducees) come to the place at the Jordan River where His is baptizing those who are willing to heed the previous signposts and repent of their sins. He calls these leaders a “brood of vipers!”, which conjures in my mind a den or pile of poisonous snakes.

I have had my share of experiences with snakes, some of which were venomous.  Thankfully none of my encounters has resulted in being bitten or exposed to the venom of these snakes. I think perhaps one of my most harrowing memories about snakes is when we I was working as an exploration geologist near Salmon, ID.  We were looking for gold on a ranch north of town and were concerned about encountering rattlesnakes instead of gold.  We asked the owner of the ranch if there were many rattlesnakes in the area and he responded that there were hardly any.

One of the first days out on the ranch three or four of us were walking up a hillside talking about rocks and mapping when we came upon a large boulder with a small cave or hollow beneath it.  As we approached the boulder we heard something that sounded like a swarm of bees.  When we got closer and could see into the dark pit we realized it was not a swarm of bees, but rather a swarm of snakes!  There were snakes of all sizes and shapes congregating in this pit to keep warm in the chilly weather of early spring in the mountains of Idaho. It was truly an Indiana Jones experience I will never forget.  I, like Indiana, do not like snakes. Looking back we did a rather cowardly thing and killed most of these snakes so they would not emerge and bite us later in the summer. I wish we had come up with some other solution.

But I digress, back to the Jordan River, John the Baptist, and his “brood of vipers”.  The religious leaders were spreading all sorts of venom (bad fruit) when they were supposed to be bearing good fruit and attracting people to seek and find the God who sees them. Their reason for doing this was apparently that they felt in some way entitled because of their ancestry. They were the decedents of Abraham, and God’s chosen people, a legacy they were quick to remind everyone about.

Their focus was fundamentally on themselves and their position rather than the God that made the promise to Abraham in the first place and was the reason their power and position even existed. The consequences of their moral myopia is not so good for the religious leaders, but a good thing for all those not born into the Jewish faith or nationality, “I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 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.” John is implying that a time is coming, and in fact has arrived, when God will adopt other “children” who choose to bear good fruit.

Then comes the water-related reference, “I baptize you with water for repentance.” John is using water to symbolize a change in the souls of those willing to repent and begin to bear good fruit for God. He shows all his cards and reveals that he is not the long-awaited Messiah, but He is coming soon. He will baptize in a different way, with the Holy Spirit.  God Himself will come and be with us.

This is a great thing for all of us “adopted stones”, but not so good for those who have chosen to take another path, “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.” Better to be children than chaff in my book. God gives us all the choice of being “wheat” or “chaff”. He is about to arrive and start the threshing process, a process that continues to this day as people choose to pursue God or other priorities in their lives.

Prayer: God thank You for adopting us “stones” so that we can share in the inheritance of your Holy Spirit.

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