Marvel Movies, Meta-Communication and the Sermon on the Mount

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Matthew 5:48 (MSG)

Wendy and I went on a date earlier this week to see Logan, the latest movie from the increasingly prolific Marvel franchise. We generally enjoy what Marvel puts out, but Logan took the usually entertaining action story to a new level. It even made Wendy cry. All week long Wendy has been muttering, “Oh my gosh. A Marvel movie made me cry.

And, that was what made Logan a different action film. All week long Wendy and I have been discussing why we found Logan to be a different kind of action film. We’ve been trying to step back and understand what the writers did to reach our emotions as well as our adrenal glands.

From the very beginning the writers revealed our heroes Wolverine, Charles Xavier, and Caliban in weakness, neediness, fear and frailty. This catches us off guard. We’re so used to seeing them in their confidence delivering pithy action movie lines as braggadocio. Add to our threatened, all-too-human heroes a cute, emotionally torn little girl and innocent children on the run for their lives. Mix in antagonists who, rather than silly comic book evil, seem like the truly evil people who actually appear in our morning headlines and you have a “comic book” movie that takes things to a different level than we’ve experienced before. (Attention parents: The “R” rating also means the producers took the violent action, language and one needless second of nudity to a new level as well).

As an amateur writer and professional communicator I’ve learned to look at and analyze communication from a contextual perspective. Most of us get mired in the details of what is being communicated. I tend to pull back and look at the larger picture. Scholars call it meta-communication.

In this morning’s chapter we wade into one of the most famous messages ever delivered. It’s called Jesus “Sermon on the Mount.” Even for non-religious types who have never darkened the door of a church or cracked open a Bible,  the words and metaphors Jesus delivered in this message have become part of our everyday vocabulary:

  • Turn the other cheek
  • Light of the world
  • City on a hill
  • Salt of the earth

As I read today’s chapter I could easily get mired in the abundance of inspired teaching. Virtually every line and verse could be its own blog post. But, I found myself unconsciously doing what I do with Marvel movies. I stepped back to look at the bigger picture of how Jesus was communicating at a broader level.

Jesus starts out with an attention grabber. He lists those who are “blessed” in God’s economy and the list looks nothing like we expect it to look. We tend to think of those who are rich, strong, powerful, healthy, educated, famous, connected, athletic, and popular as “blessed.” Jesus’ list starts with “poor” and goes on to list the grieving, meek, merciful, pure, peacemakers and persecuted.

Having grabbed our attention by saying what we didn’t expect to hear, Jesus goes on to tell His listeners that we are the vehicle through which God’s kingdom will advance in this world. We are the light. We are the preservative. He doesn’t qualify it. He doesn’t limit it. He doesn’t add a litmus test. Every one of his listeners is included. This is in stark contrast to our commonly held belief that God’s work is reserved for ministers, pastors, seminary graduates, religious types, “good” people and those who don’t struggle, sin and avoid church like the plague.

So this is a different kind of message than the “toe the line and follow all the rules or you’re going to hell stuff.” Does this mean that all the rules don’t matter anymore? Does Jesus mean that those ten commands I’m so bad at and all that other stuff are obsolete and out the window?

Jesus anticipates this question and answers it with an affirmative, “No way.” But he then ups the ante and changes the discussion. We tend to think of religion in a set of behavioral rules and judgmental “don’ts” that we humans use as our self-righteous measuring stick. Jesus changes the conversation. It’s not about avoiding the legalistic “don’ts” but demonstrating the heart motivated “dos” that He is calling us to:

Not “don’t murder, but “do treat people with love and respect.”

Not “treat others the way they treated me” but “treat others the way you would have like to have been treated.”

Not get revenge, but choose to forgive and give people another chance.

Not “hate my enemies” but “show my enemies real love, patience, kindness, and self-control.”

Like going to a Marvel movie and experiencing something I didn’t expect, this morning I’m struck at how very different Jesus message really is. It reveals that the ways of God run in opposite directions than the ways of this world. God’s kingdom operates far differently than we are lulled into thinking by the flaws in what we may have been taught and our earth-bound paradigms . The economy of God’s kingdom works on a completely different set of principles than what we’re used to grappling with in the day-to-day marketplace of this world. What Jesus is communicating is different. If I get mired in the minutiae of my preconceived notions and foundational prejudices, I just might miss what He’s really saying.

He’s calling me to be different, too.

Featured image courtesy of 75933558@N00 via Flickr

 

Temptation’s Basic Appetites Playbook

Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.”
Matthew 4:1-3 (MSG)

Wendy and I spent a few days at the lake this week opening the place up in preparation for summer fun with family and friends. I keep the basics I need at the lake so that I don’t have to pack clothes back and forth each time. So it was that I went to put on a pair of “summer” jeans for a trip into town and had to face an undeniable fact. Ugh. Once again my winter appetite has gotten the best of me.

Oh it’s the holidays. Just a little bit more.

Family potluck. Haven’t had that in ages. I’ll have another helping.

Man that’s tasty. I’ll take two. They’re small.”

One thing I’ve learned along my life journey is that our spiritual enemy has a very thin playbook for tripping us up, and it begins with turning our own basic appetites against us. It has been that way from the beginning:

When the woman  [Eve] saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food (appetite of indulging our flesh) and pleasing to the eye (appetite for acquiring shiny things that strike our fancy), and also desirable for gaining wisdom (appetite for feeling superior), she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

In today’s chapter Jesus has arrived on the scene to address messy at its core, and the first thing He must do is face the same spiritual test as Adam and Eve, who started the mess in the first place.

You’re hungry. Turn these stones to bread and indulge the natural appetite of your flesh.”

Throw yourself off the pinnacle and let your angels catch you. Indulge your appetite to proudly prove yourself and your power to me.”

See the kingdoms of the world? I can give them to you, and indulge your appetite to acquire all the shiny new things you could possibly desire.”

Each time, Jesus responded to the temptations of appetite with God’s Words spoken, as we like to say, by heart. His appetite for the Word and for relationship with the Father and Holy Spirit had been fed and nurtured so that when the enemy opened his basic temptation playbook, Jesus’ appetites of flesh were checked by His willful obedience to the appetites of the Spirit.

This morning I have to confess that I have indulged my basic appetites for food (meaning I have regularly eaten too much) and sloth (meaning I haven’t exercised) more than I care to admit over the past several months. As Wendy and I discussed this on our drive home from the lake yesterday we acknowledged that this happens time and time again because I simply want to do what I want to do. I want to eat what I want eat, as much as I want to eat it, whenever I feel like it eating it. Add the appetite of willful pride to my appetite for food and drink. Welcome back to the Garden. As I said, the enemy’s playbook is pretty thin.

As a follower of Jesus, I’m also reminded this morning of my need to follow Jesus’ example in the most basic of things. Time for me to feed and nurture my appetite for communion with Christ, my appetite for consuming His Word and seeking after the things of the Spirit. When I do that, I know that I am better able to face the temptation of all the other appetites.

 

Firing a Warning Shot Across Religion’s Bow

But when [John the Baptist] 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.”
Matthew 3:7-10

As Jesus appeared on the scene, the political landscape in the land of Palestine was a complex one. The Roman Empire occupied the territory and the occupational forces maintained law and order. Rome maintained regional civil ruler which gave the residents of the area a local authority. Herod the Great died a few years after he slaughtered all the baby boys of Bethlehem, and his rule was divided between his sons. If you were Jewish, however, your life and religion was subject to the authority of the High Priest and religious leaders who managed the Temple in Jerusalem. It operated much like a city-state under Roman authority. The temple had its own currency (thus the need for the money changers that Jesus would throw out) and economy.

Both Rome and Herod knew that the Jewish people held allegiance to their religion above any civil ruler. They’d been living under one foreign power or another for over 500 years. Medes, Persians, Greeks, and Romans had all occupied their land. The Jewish people had no allegiance to any of them. They High Priest and religious leaders ruled their people through their intricate system of laws and held the power of salvation by cutting people off from making their sacrifices or deeming their sacrifices unacceptable. Religion had become a powerful racket.

John the Baptist was a prophet, an outsider, and a troublemaker for the status quo. People flocked to the wasteland outside of Jerusalem to hear him preach a message that resonated with those marginalized by the Righteous Racket of the Temple’s power brokers. John told people to change their hearts, to repent of their sins, and he washed them in the waters of the Jordan rather than insisting they go pay exorbitant currency exchange rates to purchase “official” temple goods for sacrifice at the Temple. In other words, the more popular he became, the more he cut into Temple profits and represented a potential for uprising that threatened the power of the Sanhedrin’s powerful syndicate.

So, the High Priest sends envoys to check out this vagabond upstart. John wastes no time. He fires a prophetic shot across their bow. One is coming who will change everything. Tectonic plates in the spiritual realm are going to shift and the Temple’s racket will be no more. The first shot in a conflict is fired which will ultimately lead those same religious racketeers to pay 30 pieces of silver for Jesus’ betrayal and they will stop at nothing until He is executed.

Yet, just like Herod the Great in yesterday’s chapter, in God’s economy those who stop at nothing to cling to power will ultimately find it slipping from their grasp. The Jesus they executed would not stay in the grave, and His followers would “turn the world upside down” within a generation. At the end of that same generation the Romans would destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, and with it they would torch all of the Jewish genealogical records. If you can’t substantiate who is from which tribe then you can’t determine who the Levites are, or who descended from Aaron and qualified as a priest. The Temple and its sacrificial system were no more.

Come gather around people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
And if your breath to you is worth saving
Then you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changing

featured photo courtesy WallyG via Flickr

Contrasting Rulers

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
Matthew 2:16

In recent weeks the world watched on video tape as two females approached the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jon Un in a Malaysian airport and, wiping a nerve agent on his face, assassinated him. This is the dark side of worldly power, and it has been this way since people began ruling over one another. Once you ascend to power you have to figure out a way to stay there, which means eliminating those who might try to take your place.

What a powerful contrast Matthew provides us in today’s chapter. Herod had qualities not unlike the North Korean dictator. A regional monarch put into power by the Roman Senate, Herod “the Great” murdered his own wife, three sons, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, his uncle and many others whom he suspected might try to rob him of his position and power.

Contrast this with the infant Jesus, who…

had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. Philippians 2:5-8 (MSG)

This morning I’m thinking about my place in this world. It’s easy, even in relatively small ways, to succumb to the desire to gain,  keep, and cling the things this world has to offer. As a follower of Jesus, the example I’m given is to embrace an eternal mystery of kenosis: in order to have anything of eternal value, I must let go of everything and empty myself.

Herod’s slaughter of the boys of Bethlehem, commonly referred to as “the massacre of the innocents,” stands as a horrific testament to the lengths one minor regional ruler will go to maintain his addiction to power, and it stands in stark contrast to the baby who emptied Himself of omnipotence to show us a better way.

I’m continuing to seek after the way of empty.

Messy

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
Matthew 1:18-19 (NIV)

I had a great aunt, my grandmother’s sister, whom I adored as a child. There is no doubt, however, that Aunt Nita was an uppity-priss and a prude. I wasn’t around her often, and she was always kind to me, so I was always quick to find her eccentricities charming and silly. For my grandmother and her sister, their eldest sister could be downright intolerable. Aunt Nita presented an air of sophisticated aristocracy which belied the humble, very messy truth of her family’s story. Interestingly, she nevertheless researched and shared those messy family stories in writing, for which I am forever grateful.

I have come to appreciate that life is commonly messy. Even for those like Aunt Nita who enjoy projecting the image of spit-shine propriety, the truth behind the facade is rarely that clean or polished.

Joseph was a good man. He was a hard working carpenter. He was faithful, upstanding and lived life by the book. Then his betrothed comes to him with a wild story about an angel and a positive pregnancy test. Joseph had not signed up for this kind of mess. There would be the public scandal of his girlfriend pregnant before the wedding. And what about that pregnancy? Joseph was a rule follower. He knew he’d not slept with Mary. And, while Mary was not the kind of girl to make up fantasies to cover her mistakes, this story was a little hard to swallow.

And then the angel visits Joseph. “You’re a good man, Joseph. You’re faithful, and you live life by the book. That’s why you’ve been chosen, and blessed, to walk with Mary through messy. That child in Mary’s womb? He’s here to address messy at its core.”

Along life’s journey I’ve noticed that many who claim to follow Jesus are a lot like my great Aunt Nita. We love to present a spit-shine image of perfection and propriety. I confess that I lived much of my own life that way. I was a lot like Joseph. Then I found out life is really messy and the polished, projected image melted in very public ways. Jesus gets that. In fact, that’s why Jesus came in the first place. Jesus’ very conception created its own messiness. If I’m not willing to be honest about my mess, I don’t ever come to fully know and appreciate the fullness of Jesus’ love and grace.

Dean Vander Well Turns 80!

We had a lot of fun yesterday as my siblings gathered to host an open house for our dad who celebrates his 80th birthday this coming Tuesday. Dad’s brother, Bud, traveled to Des Moines with his entire brood. Friends past and present joined us in the community room at the folk’s apartment to enjoy a bite of cake and share in celebrating our dad. Thanks to everyone for coming out and making it a special day.

When the open house was over the family headed to Noah’s Ark Restaurant, an old family favorite, to share some time together. Happy Birthday, Deano.

dad-vws-80th-birthday-at-noahs-ark-1

I Don’t Want to Ruin the Surprise

“As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
Isaiah 66:22-24 (NIV)

Today we end our long journey through Isaiah’s prophetic tome. Granted, it’s a long slog at 66 chapters. Yikes! We started in late September last year. Isaiah’s work ends with a vision of the end times. It’s what theologians call eschatology: the study of the end times and the final destiny of humankind. Once again, there are clear connections between Isaiah’s vision in today’s chapter and that of John in Revelation.

The study of eschatology has never been an exact science.  Intelligent, knowledgable, and sincere scholars have forever argued this theory and that theory regarding how all things are going to end. I was raised in the conservative protestant evangelical tradition to believe that Jesus would someday call all believers on earth to be “raptured” to heaven, triggering a seven-year tribulation of hell on earth, followed by the return of Jesus to earth, the imprisonment of Satan, and a 1,000 year reign of Christ, followed by a final battle and judgment in which the saved go to heaven and the unsaved go to hell.

There are countless other versions of the end times in which the same Biblical texts are interpreted a myriad of different ways. There are versions in which there is no rapture, or the rapture will happen half-way into the tribulation, or the rapture will happen after the seven years of tribulation. There are versions in which there is no 1,000 year reign, or perhaps the 1,000 year reign has all already happened, or perhaps it’s happening all right now, or perhaps it will never happen literally, or perhaps it will happen but with no real eternal damnation, or perhaps… you get the picture.

When I was younger I studied it all more fervently, presented my own interpretation more dogmatically, and took it all more seriously. The longer I’ve continued in my journey following Jesus the less important it has become to me. Please don’t read what I’m not writing. I will forever continue my journey into God’s Message and pursue Christ. I have just noticed along my journey that we who claim to follow Jesus have historically been quick to place too much importance on theological litmus tests at the expense of the only two things that Jesus Himself said were truly important.

This morning I’m thinking about Wendy. My wife hates when surprises are ruined. She will blissfully ignore hints, turn a blind eye, and put things out of her mind if she thinks that it might ruin what is intended to be an eventual surprise. When Jesus was asked about His return He deferred knowledge and said, basically, “it’s a surprise.” I think I’ve adopted Wendy’s attitude as my theological bent toward eschatology. It was obviously meant to be a surprise.

So, taking a cue from Wendy, I think I’ll let the whole end-time thing be the surprise Jesus intended. Today, I’ll just keep focused doing the two things Jesus said were important for me to do:

  • Love Him.
  • Love others (even Amillenialists)

chapter a day banner 2015

Just another wayfarer on life's journey, headed for Home. I'm carrying The Message, and I'm definitely waiting for Guffman.

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