It’s Sunday and still early. Armed with nothing more than a lightweight throw and a steaming cup of coffee, I venture out onto my back porch to enjoy the sunrise. I marvel first at the stillness, broken occasionally by 5 or 6 different bird calls and a nearby rooster’s crow. A quiet ‘moo’ interjects itself every so often. Splashes of color begin to paint the back forty off my deck. If a leaf is disturbed, it is by the rare squirrel scampering through the tree limbs. An odd experience, Fairview without wind. For one of the few times in my life I live on a plateau. Every road into Fairview goes up, consequently, it’s one of the windiest places I’ve lived, making the morning stillness that much more exceptional.
I marvel at the peace I find myself wrapped in. Peace in the midst of a world gone mad. The most annoying sound I hear these days is television news – almost exclusively devoted to politics. The debates pierce my ear like the unwelcome call of the crow amidst the other, more pleasing bird songs in my back woods. Here’s a little tidbit I’ve learned about Fairview: there are large colonies of carrion birds living here – significantly more than other areas like it. I guess it’s a good place for them since I am assaulted by the musky smell of dead skunk on a weekly basis. One day a friend and I were out walking and happened upon a flock of vultures feeding on something in the road. Big enough to feed a flock of that size, it must have been a deer, although we didn’t get close enough to see. Without discussion, we simply backed up until we felt safe enough to turn around and retrace our path outta there. Upside is, the dead stuff doesn’t hang around long enough to really get in the way.
All this talk of vultures reminds me of a puzzling Scripture passage I am just beginning to unravel. (A woodpecker is beating out its song on a tree, like a knocking wake-up call, only more rhythmic. I’m reminded of the syncopated beat skills of my daughter on her djembe: a drummer with a different beat…) Most people make the assumption that Matthew 24 is about the ‘end times’, but even a cursory reading of the chapter reveals that Jesus was talking about lots of times – some of His ‘predictions’ would happen not 40 years after he spoke them, while some had happened long before Jesus graced the sod and would continue on long after He left it. Catastrophic events like earthquakes, war, and famine were nothing new to history or the disciples He was teaching. But maybe that was His point – life will go on until the end of the Age, just as it has since the beginning of creation. I think that is one of the central messages Jesus came to give us: Even though our hearts have been changed from within, the chaos without goes on. The heart-change doesn’t stop the chaos, but it does give us an ability to live differently in the midst of it. Kind of like my peaceful back forty in the midst of wall-street riots and the screams of politicians continually vying for power. Maybe my back yard is a picture of the human heart at rest in Christ in the midst of a dog-eat-dog world.
Matthew 24: 23-31: Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you in advance. So if they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them. For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the son of man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
So I got to thinking about this section, specifically vs. 28. The meaning of the vivid picture of carrion feeding on corpses has long eluded me. As I gaze through the trees, a couple of things start making sense. Clearly Jesus is contrasting His coming with the rise of false leaders. We’ve turned “Jesus Christ” into a name, but “Christ” wasn’t a name. The word “Christ” means Messiah and Messiah simply means ‘anointed.’ The Hebrew people understood the word anointed to indicate a redeemer – one who would rescue Israel from her oppressors. So the first warning Jesus gives is that fake (often self-proclaimed) Messiahs – redeemers, anointed ones, ones ‘chosen by God’ – were going to come. In fact, that had been happening since before Jesus was born. Many of the disciples were former Zealots, a sect of Jews dedicated to ending Roman oppression. They were constantly looking for a Messiah, an anointed one, a Christ – a leader who would deliver them politically and give the Jews back their earthly kingdom. It was Judas’s misguided belief that Jesus was going to do exactly that which led to his betrayal. Anyway, many such leaders rose and fell in those days. It’s interesting to note that Matthew began this chapter with Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple. Here’s what Wikipedia had to say about Zealots and the Temple’s destruction:
According to Josephus, the Zealots followed John of Gischala, who had fought the Romans in Galilee, escaped, came to Jerusalem, and then inspired the locals to a fanatical position that led to the Temple’s destruction. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zealotry
Did you get that? False leaders – Messiahs, Christs – led to the destruction of the Temple. Their terrorist ways were such a threat to the Roman Empire in that region that the only solution was to take away the center of their devotion – the Temple. The real problem with Zealots is they are looking for freedom without. Jesus came to bring us freedom within.
According to Him, the mantra of the followers of these false messiahs was, “We’ve found the christ – he’s here or he’s there. In the wilderness, in the inner room, we have found him, come and see.” Now look at the contrast of Jesus’ coming: “For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be.” Here’s what I know about lightning: 1. You can see it for yourself; and if you miss the flash, you’re gonna hear the thunder soon enough. 2. Lightning cannot be contained. Look at how Jesus described this lightning flash: “from the east … even to the west.” In other words, His coming, His presence, will be out in the open and it will reach around the globe. This contrasts the claim, only here (in this church), or only there (if you believe this way), implying we have to go where these supposed messiahs/christs reside. Jesus is bigger than buildings, programs, and even our limited belief systems; in fact. He’s WAY bigger. Last I checked, He came to us, met us at our point of need (thus the word ‘incarnation’). Jesus didn’t command the sinners and tax collectors to high-tail it into the synagogues (you know, the religious structures they were banned from entering), no, He went to them, to marketplaces and bars, to parties, homes, and the streets where they lived out their exile. Jesus experienced their world – but more than that, He met them there. 3. Lightning cannot be controlled. C.S. Lewis said it best, “He’s not a tame lion.” Far from it – He’s out of control!! Out of our control, anyway. I don’t know about you, but when I see lightning strikes coming closer, I run for cover. Isn’t it interesting that He compared His coming to lightning – one of the scariest and most volatile of nature’s wonders? The real marvel is that we try and box that lightning in. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic.
With that as background, I’d like to bring it back to the vultures and corpses that have been puzzling me all these years. It seems to me that Jesus is saying people can be like vultures.
Vultures gather in packs where they can feed, and what they eat is dead.
I’ve been walking with Jesus for going on 33 years now and I have literally seen it all. Well, all that Western Christianity has to offer. I’ve seen more so-called ‘anointed’ men than you can shake a stick at, and for the most part the message they bring is Law. Maybe they haven’t heard, the letter of the Law kills. What they are offering is already dead. Being in Christian leadership has given me perhaps a different perspective than some of my readers. What you may not know is that the politics of the church aren’t all that different from the republicans slinging mud at the democrats and vice versa (John Piper’s response to Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, is a good example of that kind of nonsense). In fact, I’ve said for many years now, “No one can hurt you like the church.” Being chewed up and spit out by sheep and wolves alike has kind of become our family’s M.O., and it feels a whole lot like death. For me, no more. Funny thing is, it wasn’t bitterness that led me out the door, but pure weariness. I exhausted myself and my resources running to and fro following this and that move of God (“in the wilderness … in the inner room”), where, in the end, I found only death. This morning in my wooded back yard, I discovered a shiny rainbow of leaves in the midst of the peaceful Presence of the Holy Spirit, free from the clamor of men telling me what and how I should believe. If only they understood the mystery of diversity that God built into the fabric of the universe itself, maybe they would realize the arrogance of their claims to Truth, to being ‘anointed’, to knowing ‘the way’. Maybe one day the false will realize their falseness and all will become well with the world, at peace, like my back yard.
Until that day, I don’t know about you, but I’m weary of the self-proclaimed messiahs, promising me health, wealth, and happiness (focused on the outer man, not the inner one where real change happens – the hidden spaces of the human heart – where only love signifies). I’m tired of being told I should be under a pastor’s authority, when Jesus clearly said, “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.” (Matthew 23:8-9) According to Jesus, no man on earth has claim to any authority over me, and His words teach me that the hierarchical structure of the church (laity vs. clergy) is not His will, for all that powerful men claim otherwise. In Matthew 20 Jesus went so far as to blast apart our idea of pastoral church authority altogether:
But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. 26 It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.
As usual the traditions of men trump the words of Jesus.
To the sheep John had this to say in I John 2:27: “As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him.” I can still hear the call of the carrion crows: “The worship in this church is anointed … or: we know the way of salvation – come follow us!” The still, small voice I hear inside the vastness of my eternal self tells me a very different story… all about lightning and vultures and corpses.