Blessed, happy…

The hillside that looks down to the Sea of Galilee from the Mount called the Mount of Beatitudes, or Mt. Eremos in Israel.

 

We started the day at the top of Mt. Arbel. The Master had taken us up the night before. At daybreak, we watched a gorgeous sunrise over the Sea!  Mt. Arbel is His favorite “get away from it all” spot. You can get a view of the whole lake from there.

We had spent much of the past few weeks all around this northern part of the Galilee. He had chosen 12 of us to be His closest followers, His talmudim. Many of us grew up around here, working the sea for fish and the land for grain.

As we journeyed down towards the shore, He warned us about the expected crowds today. There was something in His heart that He needed to tell the people… If people were going to receive any kind of physical healing from Him, they were going to hear why He healed first.  He told us of the story when He taught in the synagogue in Nazareth… when the reading from the Prophets for that day was from Isaiah. He affirmed the reason He had come… to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoner and recovery of sight for the blind… to set the oppressed free.

And now today, today would be the day when the Teacher revealed His yoke, His perspective, His views on the Law. And today, he would set the whole tone for the next year and a half of ministry…

As He began to teach, He did so just like He was in a synagogue. He sat down on a rock. And He preached with such authority.

“Blessed, happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven,” He began.

“Blessed, happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

“Blessed, happy are those who are meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 6:3-5).

With each blessing, more and more people made their way to the field below Him. He continued…

“Blessed, happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed, happy are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed, happy are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 6:6-8).

His voice echoed off the hillside and fisherman pulled their boats onto the shore to hear more.

“Blessed, happy are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed, happy are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 6:9-12).

The Master spoke for quite some time… I looked around as the crowd continued to increase. People elbowed each other to see His face. They wiped their brows as the warmth of the day increased. “Who was this?” I heard them murmur to each other.

He watched as fishermen on the shore began to pack their catch in salt to preserve it. “You are the salt of the earth,” He assured us. “But if the salt loses it saltiness, how can it be salty again?” (Matthew 6:13).

He looked east toward Hippos across the sea and proclaimed, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:14-16).

He then began to illustrate His views on Torah, His yoke, by noting what other teachers of the Law have to say… He would start by saying, “You have heard it said… “ and then He would add, “but I say to you…” It was His way of bringing grace and life to the Laws of Moses. For example, He said: “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.” (Matthew 6:43-45).

Some in the growing crowd were mesmerized by these teachings. Others were puzzled as this man appeared to be a learned rabbi, but was questioning much of everything we all knew of the Law.

He taught on murder, adultery, divorce, prayer and fasting. He summed up the Law and the Prophets with this straightforward statement: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12).

The topic that spoke most to my heart? Anxiety. I will admit, I’m a worrier. And yet, as He looked at the flowers in bloom on this very hillside, and saw the birds flying through the treetops, the Master urged us:

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:25-34).

 As He concluded this powerful, yet simple message, the crowd was amazed. I looked at the others with a smile, humbled that He had chosen us to be His disciples… and wondering what else we might learn in the days and weeks to come as we followed our rabbi.

Some of the thoughts, perhaps, of one of the 12, as he remembered that day where Yeshua first spoke those words.

_____

There are so many amazing teachings in this, the first of Jesus’ public teachings. As we see often, Jesus flips many of the norms and teachings of old on their heads. You are blessed when you are poor in spirit. It’s okay to mourn. Be hungry for righteousness not the Law. Be a peacemaker. Don’t worry when you are persecuted, or when you are hungry or naked. Seek first the Kingdom. Be salt. Be light. Treat others as you want to be treated. This is how you are to pray.

He was going “on the record” … establishing His yoke, His ways, His views on Torah. And ultimately, Matthew 11:30: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

So, say “Yes!” to the Law. But, more importantly, say “Yes!” to Grace. Say “Yes!” to the way of Yeshua. He spoke with the bold and loving authority of God.  This message is for everyone. Jew and Gentile alike. Believer and unbeliever. For those who heard it first-hand on a hillside along the banks of the Sea of Galilee as He spoke it – Matthew says in 7:28 that the crowds were amazed!”

AND the timeless message is for us today. Can we be amazed again? I hope so!

 

[1] Friedrich Hauck, “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament,” as cited in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, by Kenneth E. Bailey, © 2008, p. 68.

 

(c) 2019 Rich Ronald.

You May Have Failed, but You Are Not a Failure.

Sunrise. Breakfast with Jesus.

 

It was ten days after the resurrection. Another day had passed. Like the previous ones, we pondered what to do next. Last thing we remember was Jesus telling us to wait. So, we had waited. And frankly, the waiting was boring. Today, I decided to do something different. Today my restlessness got the best of me. So, today, I decided to return to that with which I was very familiar.

“I’m going fishing,” I told the others.

It was just after midnight, when the Sea of Galilee typically teemed with active, easy to catch fish.

Thomas, the sons of Thunder and two others joined me. It was fun to go back to something we had once enjoyed regularly. The past few months, even the past three years, had all been such a blur. Jesus had turned our world upside down. We had been fishing… but for new souls, new converts, not Tilapia and Herring.

There was something joyful and peaceful about the repetitious nature of throwing our nets out and bringing them back in… And yet, as the moon passed from one end of the horizon to the other, that peace and joy turned to angst and frustration. We caught nothing. Absolutely nothing! All night long. Here I am… a fisherman… Sure, I’ve been away from this day to day life since we were on the mission with Jesus… but, this is in my blood… same with James and John… My mind raced back to the night Jesus was arrested… I felt like such a failure then, too!

At daybreak we saw a man on the shore. He asked about our luck with the nets. I hid my face as John told him we had caught nothing. The stranger told us to try the right side of the boat; we’d find our fish there.  That riled me up even more! “Right side of the boat. Left side of the boat. What difference does it make? Are we going to listen to some guy on the shore?” I queried to no one in particular. Thomas urged us to give it try… Thomas!

So, we cast our nets out the right side of the boat. You wouldn’t believe the haul of fish that weighed our nets down! The seven of us couldn’t even bring them on-board. Who was the stranger on shore? Could he have something to do with this? Nah…

Just then the dawning light of the new day shown right on the man. John looked out over the water and recognized the figure. He shouted, “It’s the Lord!” My heart skipped more than a beat or two as I plunged into the icy water and swam as fast as I could towards the shore! Jesus helped me out of the water and we enjoyed a laugh-filled embrace.

The others met Jesus around the fire as I pulled the net ashore and laid out all of the fish… 153! What an amazing catch. We enjoyed a breakfast together with fish that He had already caught. It was such a joy to be with Him again!

He took me aside and asked me three questions… well, it was the same question, but He asked it three times. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” That caught me off guard. He hadn’t called me by my birth name in three years! Of course I loved him! With each affirmation He asked me to take care of and feed the sheep He was leaving in my care. By the third time I realized what He was doing… I looked over at the others around the camp fire and remembered the last time I warmed my hands at a fire and the shame I felt at rejecting Him to a servant girl. I fell at His knees and wept… Three times I denied I knew Him. Three times He asked if I loved Him. Three times He commanded me to tend to His sheep. He was asking me to join the ranks of shepherds like Abraham, Moses and David.

Along that sandy beach, in the middle of a pile of flopping fish and the distant stare of my best friends… I was humbled, broken, really. He was recommissioning me as He did that day back at Caesarea Philippi, when He last called me “Simon” and the first time I truly confessed that He was the Messiah, the Son of Living God.

__________

Some of the words, actions and thoughts perhaps of Simon Peter, from John 21.

 

We have all failed at something, right? For some of us… it might be many, many things…  Maybe you’ve failed at a job or a career. I have. Maybe you’ve failed at a being a friend. I have. Maybe you’ve failed your parents, your spouse, your kids. I have. Maybe you feel like you have failed God. I have. But hear me: you might have failed at something. But God says you are NOT a failure!

The steps of good men are directed by the Lord. He delights in each step they take. If they fall, it isn’t fatal, for the Lord holds them with his hand. Psalm 37:23-24 (NLT)

I don’t understand why I act the way I do. I don’t do what I know is right. I do the things I hate.  What a miserable person I am. Who will rescue me from this body that is doomed to die? Thank God! Jesus Christ will rescue me. Romans 7:15, 24-25 (MSG)

So, here is Peter… he feels like a failure. He denied Jesus. And now he can’t even fish anymore! Yet he’s been fishing his whole life, right? But, he was now trying to do it on his own terms.

Jesus gets his attention in a big way, right?!  As if to say… “Peter, you’re not a fisherman any more… you tried… all night long you tried… but you couldn’t catch anything without me… and that’s because I’ve got a greater purpose for you now!”

It’s morning… a new day has dawned… for Peter and for all of us. Each new day is a new day to start afresh. Peter recognized the Lord. And he leaped out of the boat and swam to Jesus to be with the Lord. It was a simple step. Like throwing the nets out of the other side of the boat.

I think that sometimes we all believe that we must take a giant, Grand Caynon leap of faith in order for us to be right with God. No, it’s as simple as turning from left to right… or just running to Jesus.

“Apart from me, you can do nothing,” Jesus had told them all in the Upper Room (John 15:5).

It’s the same for you and me.

 

(c) 2018. Rich Ronald.

The Madman of the Decapolis

The view from the Tombs. Sunset on the Sea of Galilee. Photo taken by the author, June 2013.

My name is Kyros. My family is from the Decapolis. My father is a teacher. My brother is a soldier. I was studying to be a teacher as well. Our family is close. We enjoyed good times together. Rome has treated us well. Some of the publicans have asked my father to enter politics. He would be good at that.

My story is simple, really. And, yet, for some reason, many in our region say it is extraordinary. I was a typical kid growing up. Studied hard. Played hard. I guess the turning point in my story starts on a night a few years ago. I was 18 and desired to prove my manliness. One night some of my friends and I hired a slave girl. It was innocent fun at first. But something about it was controlling… even though it was out of control. That first night led to night after night… you know that Rome is known for such wild parties.  It really consumed me… every day I’d make plans for the night….

And then the guilt came… it ripped me up inside, but I tried not to let others see that side of me.  Soon the behavior was controlling me… and the guilt was consuming… something I just could not handle. I would easily fly into fits of rage. My friend Lychas tried to help, but I would tell him to “Shut Up!” and I often followed the verbal abuse with a punch or two.  Then I would feel guilty and ask him to forgive me. Which he would… but then I would engage in more immoral behavior… and feel guilty all over again.

I moved to the tombs.  I found solace in just being alone… and cutting myself. I thought if I punished myself it would make the guilt go away. But it only made things worse. One day Lychas came to visit and this supernatural power came over me. I threw a large bolder at him and almost killed him. My best friend. He brought ten men with him the next time and they chained me up for my own good.  As soon as they left, again this power came over me and I broke the chains and then engaged in more immoral behavior.  I was a mess. Something was inside of me.  No, many things were inside of me. They controlled my feelings. They controlled my thoughts. Yes, they even controlled my actions. I could never get free. My only freedom was found in continuing to fly into fits of rage and hurting myself.

How did I get like this? It drove me mad. Why I was once a decent citizen of the Decapolis. My family was respectable… I was planning to be a teacher, like my dad.  Now, I was Crazy Kyros, the naked mad man of the tombs.

One day, there was this terrible raging storm on the Sea. I loved it! I shouted to the lightening to strike me and it did! And I was filled with power and rage. But then suddenly, in an instant, it got calm… and I saw this small little fishing boat breaking through the mist of what was left of the storm… it came up on shore. There were maybe 8 or 10 people in it.  A man got out and walked right up the hill to see me at the tombs. He asked me my name and the demons in me told him my name was Legions, not Kyros, for there were many of them living inside of me. With compassion in his eyes I had never seen, he commanded the tormentors living inside me to leave. I spoke, but it was not me, nor my voice. “Can we go into those pigs?” There were 2,000 pigs grazing in the fields around the tombs. The man said “yes” and before I knew it I collapsed to the ground and I heard the pigs stampeding over me and over the cliff and drowning in the sea.

I was physically spent, but not sure why. He sat down next to me. He ran his hand through my hair and touched my shoulder. I still cannot put words together to describe the sudden peace I felt. I had no immoral desires any longer. There was no need to hurt myself. There was no rage. There was only peace. I washed myself for the first time in months. He gave me clothes to put on.

Somehow, word spread to town… I think it was the pig shepherds… people came to see me and were very confused. I just felt peaceful.  As he climbed back into the boat, the man told me his name was Yeshua… Jesus. I begged him to let me go with him. But he told me to return to my family and tell them my story.

I did. My first stop was the home of Lychas. He couldn’t believe it was me. Then we ran to my parents’ home. My father also was full of disbelief.  But when my mother entered the room and her eyes caught mine, she smiled and shouted and cried and jumped up and down all at the same time. I told them all about Jesus.

Together, every day now, we start our day by praising the God of Israel. I cannot fully express my thanksgiving to the one I now call Master.

It’s been a year since that day and we have heard that he’s coming back to our town next week. The people are already preparing for his visit. They want to bring the lame and the deaf and the sick to him. I’m sure he will set them all free… just like he did for me.

My interpretation of the story in Mark 5.
(c) 2013. Rich Ronald.