Matthew 17:14-20

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Matthew 17

14 And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, 15 said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has seizures and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” 17 And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

 Have you heard about the chicken cannon and the airplane window? I first heard this when I was a kid in school. My dad told me about it and we had a good laugh. Here is one rendition of the story:

In an issue of Meat & Poultry magazine, editors quoted from “Feathers,” the publication of the California Poultry Industry Federation, telling the following story:

The US Federal Aviation Administration has a unique device for testing the strength of windshields on airplanes. The device is a gun that launches a dead chicken at a plane’s windshield at approximately the speed the plane flies.

The theory is that if the windshield doesn’t crack from the carcass impact, it’ll survive a real collision with a bird during flight.

It seems the British were very interested in this and wanted to test a windshield on a brand new, speedy locomotive they’re developing.

They borrowed FAA’s chicken launcher, loaded the chicken and fired.

The ballistic chicken shattered the windshield, broke the engineer’s chair and embedded itself in the back wall of the engine’s cab. The British were stunned and asked the FAA to recheck the test to see if everything was done correctly.

The FAA reviewed the test thoroughly and had one recommendation: “Use a thawed chicken.”[1]

To my sadness but not to my surprise, Snopes concludes that this story is not true, though the story did in fact appear in Meat & Poultry magazine!

The humor of the story rests in the shocking ineptitude of those who would fire a frozen chicken out of the cannon! After all, planes do not frequently encounter frozen birds.

Ineptitude can be funny…usually when somebody else is demonstrating it!

It can also be frustrating.

It can also be tragic.

Matthew 17 provides us with an example of ineptitude which was both tragic and frustrating and not funny in the least. We are tempted to judge the disciples who demonstrated this ineptitude…until we realize that we frequently do the same.

The story is about the disciples’ inability to cast out a demon and heal a struggling boy. This episode has much to say to us. It also has much to say about us.

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Hebrews 17:1-19

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Hebrews 7:1-19

1 For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever. See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, 10 for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him. 11 Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? 12 For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. 13 For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. 14 For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. 15 This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, 16 who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. 17 For it is witnessed of him, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” 18 For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness 19 (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.

I would like to call upon us today to remember, celebrate, and then live out of a keen awareness of the greatness and superiority of Jesus. Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola have rightly complained of the low view of Jesus one sometimes finds in churches. They write:

            But if the truth be told, we have been handed a shrink-wrapped Jesus.  Christ has become our once-a-week Mascot.  We rally around him on Sunday mornings, selfishly reaching for all we can get from Him – goodies and gifts, all for us.  But then we push Him off to the sidelines the rest of the week.[1]

Clearly this type of approach to Jesus simply will not do. He is worthy of more honor than this. He will receive more honor than this! The writer of Hebrews is determined for his readers to understand this: Jesus is greatest and there is no greater. To help us understand this he now moves to an extensive teaching about Jesus as our great high priest. As he does this, he will interact with the story of the mysterious figure Melchizedek. Two passages are necessary for us to understand what the writer is doing here. The first is Genesis 14 which tells the basic story of Melchizedek.

17 After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). 18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) 19 And he blessed him and said,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; 20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

So there is the basic historical narrative about the person of Melchizedek and his interaction with Abraham. The second text is a prophecy that one to come would be in Melchizedek’s order. This is found in Psalm 110.

1 The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The Lord sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies! Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours.The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”

These two passages lay the foundation for what follows in the book of Hebrews, and particularly in Hebrews 7.

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Hebrews 6:13-20

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Hebrews 6:13-20

13 For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” 15 And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. 17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.

I want to challenge you, dare you, to do something today. This dare will sound very naïve to some of you. It will sound potentially “tone deaf” to others. Some will possibly even find it offensive. I suspect a good many will hear this challenge and think, “Impossible. It cannot be done.” And yet, I challenge you nonetheless.

Here is the challenge: I challenge you, I dare you, to hope.

I dare you to hope!

I dare you to be the kind of person who, after the group has rehashed the latest tragedy or scandal or catastrophe, walks away only to have those left say, “You know, there is something about her. She listens. She understands. She does not downplay or dismiss what is happening. But she always, inevitably, says something hopeful. And she does not seem to just be saying it. She seems to actually have hope!”

I dare you to hope!

And I dare you to have a solid, unmovable, certain hope.

Syntyche D. Dahou has written of how the French language has two different words for hope.

Unlike English, which uses the word hope broadly, the French language uses two words that derive from the word espérer (to hope): espoir and espérance. Both can first refer to something hoped for. In this sense, the word espoir usually refers to an uncertain object; that is, someone who hopes for something in this way does not have the certainty that it will happen (“I hope the weather will be nice tomorrow”). On the other hand, espérance describes what, rightly or wrongly, is hoped for or expected with certainty. It often refers to a philosophical or eschatological object (“I hope in the goodness of human beings”; “I hope for the return of Jesus Christ”).[1]

Yes, I am calling you to espérance, to a certain hope, a definite hope! But how can we do this? How can we have this kind of hope? Our text answers that question in two different ways.

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Matthew 17:1-13

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Matthew 17

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” 10 And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 11 He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

It is often said that scripture is the best commentary on scripture. I agree with that completely! In other words, the Bible informs the Bible and we should read each individual verse and chapter in relation to the whole. We should be “whole bible theologians.”

It is exciting, then, when we find in scripture a character from an earlier scene commenting later on the scene in which he appeared. This is the case with Peter’s comments on the transfiguration (as recorded in Matthew 17) in his first chapter of his own second letter. In 2 Peter 1:16-19 Peter comments on what it was like to be up on the Mount of Transfiguration. As such, we will allow his comments about the significance of what happened there to guide our reading of Matthew 17.

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Hebrews 6:4-12

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Hebrews 6:4-12

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

There is a quote that has stayed with me ever since I first heard it some years back. Samuel Beckett attributes it to St. Augustine but there is definitely some question of whether or not it was Augustine who actually said it. There is some evidence it was actually said by Robert Greene. Regardless, the statement had a profound impact on Beckett, and I can see why. Speaking of Jesus and the two criminals between whom He was crucified, Augustine/Greene said:

Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved.

Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.

I would like to take that fascinating statement—whoever said it!—and use it as a spectrum to help us understand what is happening in Hebrews 6:4-12. The spectrum of, on the one hand, a flippant and arrogant presumption of salvation regardless of the evidence or lack thereof of our lives, and, on the other hand, a kind of crippling despair that wonders whether or not our good God will actually save us in the end.

This text is one of the most difficult in all of scripture. That is no exaggeration!

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Matthew 16:24-28

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Matthew 16

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28 Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

We could learn a good bit from the old Scottish preacher Job McNeill. Listen:

Near the end of the nineteenth century, McNeill was scheduled to preach at a large evangelistic service in the English Midlands.  His father died a few days before this scheduled event and the funeral was planned for the very day of the revival services.

Those planning the services naturally assumed that McNeill would be unable to come speak to them since his father’s funeral would be that day.  McNeill himself actually considered not going to the services.  He contemplated sending a message informing the organizers of the revival that he would not be present.  But he did not send that message.  Listen to what Job McNeill said: “But I dared not send it, for this same Jesus stood by me, and seemed to say, ‘Now, look, I have you.  You go and preach the gospel to those people.  Whether would you rather bury the dead or raise the dead?’  And I went to preach.”[1]

Now I ask you: what makes a man behave like this? What makes a man skip his own father’s funeral to go preach instead? Did Job McNeill misunderstand what it means to be a son? I think not. Instead I think that Job McNeill understood what it means to be a disciple.

Matthew 16 concludes with Jesus defining the nature of the discipleship. We would do well to listen closely.

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Hebrews 5:11-6:3

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Hebrews 5:11-6:3

11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.

I have two older brothers, David and Condy. David is a couple of years older than Condy. My parents have long told the story of when they brought baby Condy home from the hospital.  David, his toddler older brother, was as fascinated by Condy as he was concerned about him. One morning my mother got up to get Condy out of his crib. When she looked in the crib she suddenly stopped and stared in disbelief. There in the crib lay baby Condy on his back. His eyes were wide open…but his eyes were all of his face that my mother could see! This was because the rest of his face was covered by a large biscuit leftover from the night before. There it was, the biscuit, balanced perfectly on Condy’s face who lay there, not crying or moving, staring up at my mother over the edge. She quickly removed the biscuit and then picked him up only to find my oldest brother David standing there. David explained that he had grown concerned about Condy in the night. Specifically he was concerned that Condy go hungry. So David had gotten out of bed in the night, gone into the kitchen, found a biscuit from dinner from the night before and then positioned it oh-so-carefully on Condy’s face.

I love that story. I love thinking about what that must have looked like! The charm of that story resides in a brother’s love for his younger brother. The humor of it resides in the fact that there is no conceivable way that baby Condy could have eaten that biscuit!

Little infants cannot eat big biscuits. Rather, they need milk. And yet, little babies should grow up to be able to eat biscuits…and even steak! A baby who can only stomach milk is cute. A grown person who will only drink milk and refuses to eat is a real and dangerous problem. This is the pint that the writer of Hebrews will make to his listeners at the end of Hebrews 5 and the beginning of Hebrews 6: we must move past spiritual milk to spiritual substance. We must grow. We must cut our spiritual teeth. Otherwise, we will forever be stymied in our growth and effectiveness for Jesus.

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Notes from the 2022 Annual Meeting of the North American Patristics Society

Screen Shot 2022-05-31 at 9.47.19 AMI thought I might archive my notes and scribbles from the annual NAPS meeting I attended last week. I suspect anybody foolish enough to glance at these will find them largely illegible. Ha! Regardless:

Notes from NAPS 2022

Program Guide pdf

 

 

Hebrews 5:1-10

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Hebrews 5:1-10

For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

Literature is replete with examples of broken, flawed priests, pastors, and ministers. A few examples come to mind. Think of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. Set in 1930s Mexico and the brutal persecution of the Catholic Church there, the story is about a deeply flawed unnamed priest that Graham calls a whisky priest because of his alcoholism. Even so, this priest is paradoxically the only priest who has not sold out and capitulated and taken a wife in order to avoid persecution. He is deeply flawed yet also struggling to be faithful. I think of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, which was influenced, as it turns out, by Greene and The Power and the Glory. There, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary priest is brutalized and persecuted alongside Japanese Christians in that country, finally officially renouncing his faith and yet seeking to hold on to the vestiges of it until the end. I think of Preacher Casey in The Grapes of Wrath who tells Tom Joad about how his hypocritical womanizing after preaching Jesus finally led him to conclude that sin does not even exist. And I think of America’s most notorious literary example of a deeply flawed, hypocritical preacher, Elmer Gantry, whose name has become a byword for all charlatan preachers.

And this barely scratches the surface. Time and time again one can find in our books and movies and television shows depictions of deeply broken priests and pastors. And these depictions inevitably demonstrate two very important truths: (1) human ministers are imperfect and (2) our hearts yearn for a perfect high priest. In fact, our very outrage at imperfect and hypocritical ministers reveals our great desire for and expectation of a high priest who is not imperfect and hypocritical. We grieve and rage over fallen ministers because we know our souls need a minister who is not fallen, who is not a hypocrite, who is not a charlatan.

And it is at this point that Hebrews 5 speaks deeply to our souls, for Hebrews 5 tells us that while, yes, earthly ministers are imperfect, we do have a perfect minister, a perfect priest, who has accomplished for us what no merely earthly priest could.

Theologian James Leo Garrett points out that “numerous theologians have utilized as an organizing pattern the ‘threefold office’ (munus triplex) of Christ, namely, as Prophet, Priest, and King. The concept of the threefold office is traceable to Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263-c.339), but the Protestant Reformers made its usage commonplace.”[1] Today we are going to begin unpacking the second element of the munus triplex: Christ the Priest.

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Hebrews 4:14-16

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Hebrews 4:14-16

14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 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. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

A July 10, 1920 New York Times headline cannot help but grab the attention. It reads, “PARES OFF HIS FLESH, GRAFTS IT ON WIFE; Chicago surgeon Avert Amputation of His Bride’s Leg by heroic Operation. TAKES NO ANESTHETIC Former Captain Overseas Shaves Off Cuticle with Razor—“Took Nerve,” He Admits.”

What on earth? Jimmy Draper explains:

            The story of Dr. Orlando P. Scott may help us to see how our Lord enters into our suffering. In the year 1919, he was the doctor on duty in a hospital where his wife was a patient. She had been involved in a tragic accident. While he was the only available physician, she needed immediate skin grafting to save her life. Without anesthesia, he stood and cut flesh from his own body to graft it into the body of his wife. He did so without noticeable pain because he was under an anesthesia from above. He was under the power of love, and he suffered with her as he operated under the anesthesia of love.[1]

It is a fascinating and arresting story. Think of the dynamics at work here: a person in authority is moved by deep love and compassion to heal somebody at their point of greatest need and brokenness through an act of painful self-sacrificial love.

There is something very gospel about that, is there not?

Theodore of Cyr, the 5th century theologian and bishop of Cyr, wrote of our text:

The believers at that time were subjected to constant billowing by trials; so he consoles them by bringing out that our high priest not only knows as God the weakness of our nature but also as man had experience of our sufferings, remaining unfamiliar with sin alone. Understanding this weakness of ours, he is saying, he both extends us appropriate help and when judging us he will take our weakness into account in delivering sentence.[2]

Let us dive into this profound and beautiful truth of the love of God in Christ.

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