Christianity 201

December 18, 2020

The Birth of Jesus is a Study in Contrasts

At different eras in the Christian Church there have been different emphases in preaching. In the last several years, this has been evidenced in the Christmas narrative.

Emphasis #1 – No place to stay

With our current awareness of social justice issues, homelessness is a problem in our world — even in some quite affluent countries — to which the church must respond. So we often hear emphasis on Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem with no place to stay but a barn.

Without considering the (literally) hundreds of views on this, I currently lean to the idea that the night lodging for the animals may have been more of an annex to the house; in other words, not even an out-building. The phrase (Luke 2:7) “for there was no room for them in the inn” is not unique to the KJV, but the CJB has “there was no space for them in the living-quarters;” the NIV states, “there was no guest room available for them;” while you have to love the ambiguity of the NLV, “There was no room for them in the place where people stay for the night.” Young’s Literal Translation reads, “there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber.” But other respected versions such as NET and NASB stay with “the inn.”

I also reject the idea that they arrived in Bethlehem without any contact persons; not knowing anyone. If this was Joseph’s ancestral home, (“because he belonged to the house and line of David” 2:7) then he had relatives there, even if they were distant relatives. Remember this occurred in a society where tribe, family, clan, etc. mattered.

But we do tend to seize on the plight of Mary and Joseph, and in no small measure this is completely appropriate, as Jesus was born in an unexpected place (due to “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken…” 2:1) and in less than ideal circumstances (the not-inn, not-guest-room; and the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy.)

Emphasis #2 – Exile to Egypt

This is the preaching emphasis that Jesus was a refugee. We know that they left abruptly for Egypt (Matthew 2:13) and that in at least one, and probably two dreams Joseph is counseled that it is safe to make an adjusted return to Israel (2: 19-23); but we know absolutely nothing about their time in Egypt, though novelists like to speculate on this time.

With countries like Germany and Canada opening their doors wide to Middle East refugees in the last decade, it’s easy to see why this can be a highlighted subject in contemporary preaching.

Not Emphasized – Honor and Fabulous Gifts!

The story isn’t all bleak. Any contemporary emphasis on one element of the story is going to cause lesser emphasis on another, but Jesus, to use a game show phrase, does receive “cash and fabulous prizes” when the kings/wise men/astrologers come to visit. They recognize that something special is taking place; they come to pay homage; and they don’t arrive empty-handed. Matthew’s Gospel tells us,

Matt.2.1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem… …10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

So we see that they bow down and worship him.

I’m sure that thinking of Gabriel’s announcement,

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” Luke 1:32-33

Joseph and Mary looked at each other and said, ‘Ah…That’s more like it;’ when in fact the exile is just around the next bend.

Gabriel’s words and the honor of the kings/wise men/astrologers is indicative of a long-time eternal destiny; a time to come when Revelation 11:15 states.

The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.”

This text is familiar to us at this time of year as part of the lyrics to “Hallelujah” from Handel’s Messiah, but as climactic as that song is at the end of Part II, it is with these words from Revelation 5:12 that the oratorio ends;

In a loud voice they were saying: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”

This should be the ultimate emphasis of our preaching in our churches and our sharing of the Christmas narrative individually to those with whom we come in contact.

May 18, 2020

Drawing a Crowd Isn’t a Problem: It’s More Complicated

Previous generations didn’t have the word, “megachurch.” Of course they didn’t have “televangelist” either. There were indeed large churches, however and there were preachers (George Whitefield is a good example) who preached to thousands — in the outdoors, no less — without the benefit of sound equipment. But we tend to look back favorably on those days, believing it was a matter of substance over style.

Today, we have popular preachers whose television ministries have huge followings and whose close-up pictures are plastered on the front cover of their books. (No, not just that one; I’m thinking of about six.)

The general conclusion at which people arrive is that they are getting those followers because they are saying what people want to hear. On close examination, it’s true that many of the hooks of their sermons and books are positive motivational sayings that also work on posters and coffee mugs.

For those of us who are insiders, we immediately default to the phrase itching ears. This is drawn from 2 Timothy 4:3

For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. (NLT)

This true, probably more true now than ever, but the challenge for Christians today is that everyone who drives by a church with an overflowing parking lot is likely to jump to conclusions and declare that church liberal in their theology or empty of doctrines; or infer that people only go there for the music.

It’s true that Jesus warned his disciples they were not going to win a popularity contest. In Matthew 7: 13-14 he tells his disciples,

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (NIV)

and then immediately makes a statement about false teachers.

Jesus had his own fall from popularity when he began what I call the tough teachings and others call the “hard sayings.” A month ago I referred to “the ominously verse-referenced” John 6:66

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (NIV)

Many of you grew up in churches where you were told you were part of “the chosen few” a reference to Matthew 22:14

“For many are called, but few are chosen.” (ESV)

Jesus told his disciples that they would experience rejection in some places. In Matthew 10:14 he is saying,

If any household or town refuses to welcome you or listen to your message, shake its dust from your feet as you leave.  (NLT)

In other words, there is, at least in Evangelicalism, a mindset that says that we are a tiny remnant, and by extrapolation is suspicious of large crowds.

But there are exceptions.

I think of an American pastor who since Christmas has been walking his church through some very challenging sermons; raising the bar when it comes to expectations for both compassionate service and lifestyle evangelism. But he’s not off in a corner doing this, it’s one of the top ten churches in the U.S.

I think of two Canadian pastors, from two very different eras, who have a giftedness when it comes to taking Bible passage “A” and showing people how it relates to Bible passage “B.” I’ve seen both of them preach before thousands of people. It was far from “itching ears;” you had to work hard just to keep up with the note-taking, which is challenging when you’re sitting there with your mouth open going, “Wow!”

I think of Nicodemus who we characterize as coming to Jesus in secret. I was always taught that was the reason for his nighttime visit in John 3. But lately I read that the rabbis set aside the early evening for further discussion. He was coming back for the Q. and A. part of the teaching. He wanted more. I find him to be representative of people in the crowd who were there for all the right reasons. (Compare his motivation to that of Felix in Acts 24:25-26.) The itching ears crowd don’t come back for the evening service, the Tuesday morning Bible study, or the midweek prayer meeting.

The website Knowing Jesus has come up with more than 30 good examples of Jesus being surrounded by crowds. True, the Bible tells us that some of them were simply there for the miracle spectacle or the free lunches, but I’m sure that many of them were drawn to Jesus for greater, higher reasons. (There’s a limit to how many hours people will listen to teaching in order to get a fish sandwich lunch.)

So where did all this come from today? A friend posted this on Facebook. I’ve decided to delete the original author’s name.

His words appear deep, meaningful and mature, but indirectly he is lashing out against individuals or movements which are left unnamed. He’s implying that everyone who is drawing a big crowd is doing so at the expense of preaching the Word. I suspect his words land with people who are already on-side, so I don’t really get the point of posting things like this at all.

Furthermore, the inference is that the sign of a successful ministry is suffering, hardship and opposition.

Like so many things in scripture, there is a balance to be found.

In Matthew 5:14 +16, we find Jesus saying

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden”
“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
(NASB)

If all you experience is suffering, hardship and opposition, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing everything right, but rather, it could be you’re doing something seriously wrong.

Oswald Smith wrote the hymn which begins:

There is joy in serving Jesus
As I journey on my way
Joy that fills my heart with praises
Every hour and every day

I really hope that’s your experience as well.

May 15, 2020

People in the Gospel Stories: Beware of Classifications!

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NIV.Mark.12.28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

One of the highlights of doing Christianity 201 is the times each month when I get to introduce you to a writer for the first time. Lily Pierce calls her site Retrospective Lily and she is a gifted writer who also deals with an unusual disability. I always encourage you not to read these here but to click the links and visit the various websites, but if you click the header below today you also get pictures! Enjoy this article.

The Pharisees Aren’t the Bad Guys & the Disciples Aren’t the Good Guys

Pharisees, scribes, chief priests–these are the bad guys in the story of Jesus’s life and death. And the disciples, who followed Jesus throughout His ministry, are the good guys. Hmm…is that true? I wonder if we are drastically oversimplifying both the gospel and human nature by viewing these characters in a black-and-white manner. Today’s post explores the nuance in the Pharisees, the disciples, and people in general.

Antagonists: religious officials (?)

Repeatedly throughout all four gospels, Jesus expresses disdain for the Jewish religious officials of the time. He is grieved and repulsed by their cold-heartedness and hypocrisy, which He boldly calls out and condemns. They care more about their social status than their neighbor; they cling to the letter of the law (Law of Moses) while disregarding the spirit of the law. Back before the Babylonian Exile (long before Jesus is born), God speaks through the major prophets of the Old Testament, insisting that burnt offerings mean nothing if people’s hearts are far from His.

Scribes knew the law well enough to contract legal documents (marriage, loan, inheritance, etc.). Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, formed after the Exile referenced above and the later return to Jerusalem, were comprised of men who wanted to “return to the law.” This goal is noble in light of the idolatry and injustice that had incurred God’s wrath. Essentially, they wanted to repent, be reconciled with God, and follow Him.

Had they followed the spirit of the law as well as the letter (boils down to being just and loving with everyone, especially the poor and needy), the religious officials SHOULD & WOULD have served as great allies in the gospels. They were more committed to God and His ways than anyone in society…”on paper,” as they say. However, those serving these roles succumbed to corrupt motives and bankrupt morals. A very gradual perversion must’ve happened over the course of generations, as memories of the Exile faded into the past. [Reminiscent of what kept happening with the Hebrews through the entire OT, eh? I wonder if the whole “gradual perversion” concept applies to American politicians…ahem…back to the topic at hand.] By the time Jesus came, religious officials had risen to a great position in society with much privilege, power, and glory.

I think we should approach our understanding of the religious officials with nuance. Yes, they are generally antagonistic in the gospels…but we should acknowledge that, at least theoretically, they are very knowledgeable of and loyal to God. And, as much as I’ve used the pronoun “they,” I hope there were outliers–people who worked for/in the temple because they genuinely loved God. As I read Mark 12 the other day, I looked on a certain exchange with new eyes. A scribe asks Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus tells him to love God and his neighbor. The scribe replies, “These commandments are greater than all the law put together.” Jesus proclaims, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Protagonists: disciples (?)

The disciples are Jesus’s most faithful followers during His life. Giving credit where credit is due, it’s amazing how they drop what they’re doing and go when He calls them. [Irony: the religious officials reject Jesus, yet uneducated working-class people follow Him.] Up to the crucifixion, they stick with Jesus through all His travels and teachings–even that one time in John 6 when He tells people to drink His blood and eat His flesh to receive eternal life (spoiler alert: it wasn’t a popular statement). 😉

I can’t categorize the disciples as “the good guys,” though. Through much of the gospels, their heads are thicker than molasses. They don’t intuitively understand Jesus’s mysterious, holy words and actions; they need parables explained to them, they illustrate lack of faith several times, and they cannot comprehend His foreshadowings of the future. Those shortcomings could all be chocked up to their lack of education, but there’s more…

Amazingly, the disciples actually have something in common with the religious officials: vanity. After the disciples witness so much of Jesus’s miracles and teachings, in which He helps helpless people and preaches humility and generosity, the disciples have the AUDACITY to argue with each other about who is the greatest among them…after Jesus outright says/demonstrates, multiple times, that the first will be last. Seriously?! As most of us know, one of the disciples, Judas, lights the match that starts the ticking time bomb to Jesus’s death. Peter, the rock of the early church in Acts, denies Jesus three times as He’s on His way to be tortured. Gah! It’s borderline comical how seemingly unworthy the disciples are. But Jesus chooses these hard-headed, flawed men to be the apostles. [What do you think that says of God’s ability to use each of us? And don’t even get me started on every other character in the Bible.]

Take-aways

The religious officials are flawed men, and so are the disciples. The religious officials are supposed to follow God but fall prey to pride and greed. The disciples are supposed to follow Jesus but can’t wrap their minds around His purpose and message. God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit are the good guys; Satan/death/sin are the bad guys. And the others in the story, just like us today, are just guys–with potential to be good, bad, and usually some of both.

As we appreciate the shades of grey in the gospels, may we acknowledge the shades of grey in ourselves and others. Maybe we view ourselves as good–but no one is perfect. Maybe another person did something bad–but they can still repent and change. And, as the featured image depicts, we can all be pig’s butts sometimes (extra grace required).

Thanks for reading! What’s your two cents? Have you learned something or seen something in a different light after reading this? Do you appreciate the ridiculously flimsy connection between the post and the featured image? Let me know in the comments. 🙂

P.S. It’s hard to buy into notions that the Bible was “made up” because, if it were only written as “a tool to control people” or something similar, why in God’s name would someone write the story and the characters to be so morally complex? Ha! Really, though.

April 26, 2020

The Sacrifice Industry

My wife has been busy uploading fresh content each week for the church’s YouTube channel. They aim to have four new elements each week; she does a short devotional video and a song video; and the pastor does a short sermon and one of his pre-lockdown messages which has never been uploaded before is added to their channel.

She asked me if I would consider doing a devotional. It wasn’t something I had ever considered.

I think it’s important not to try to take on the mantle of deep theological exposition, but rather, to begin with (a) what you know or (b) what you’ve experienced.

One passage which has always stood out to me is Hebrews 10: 11-12.

11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God  NIV

In other words, these actions had to be performed on a repeated basis, as seen in contrast to Christ’s ‘once for all’ sacrifice.

It’s hard to read this, with its vivid description of priests performing the same sacrifices on a recurring basis and not think of the time Jesus intersected directly with those facilitating worship in the scene we normally call, “Jesus cleanses the temple;” or perhaps a progressive translation might use the header, “Jesus throws a fit.” It’s not pretty. He was truly going up against a “sacrifice industry.”

The story is told in all four gospel accounts. (4 links provided for those who wish to compare.) The synoptics place this toward the end of the story, while John places it in chapter two. Does this mean this happened more than once? Some Bible scholars say yes, others say that John wanted to introduce the story earlier to demonstrate the “clout” or “authority” with which Jesus ministered.

I mentioned in the video I recorded that among the other things we do, my wife and I own a Christian bookstore. Many of these sprang out of what were called ‘Christian supply stores’ with a variety of materials for sale to facilitate worship. Today, the focus is more on books and music, but a few vestiges of those days remain, and one staple for the last 50 years, has been disposable communion cups.

They come in a box of 1,000 which sells for $19.99 U.S. That means that every time a church of 100 people has a communion service, the store made a $2.00 sale. For a church of 50 people, that would be $1.00. Not exactly high finance. [Not that I’m letting the Christian publishing industry off the hook; there are other stories to be told, like VBS which is a multi-million dollar industry just in itself.]

However, what was going on in the temple was closer to robbery. Most people who grew up in the story know this it as “Jesus vs. The Money-changers.” If you’ve ever traveled, you know all about currency exchange. In this case, visitors who came a great distance, and weren’t able to bring a lamb with them would buy one, only after converting their money to temple currency.

But what about the people who lived more locally and were able to bring a lamb with them? Were they equally ripped off?

The lambs were supposed to be without spot, wrinkle or blemish. I recently heard that those in charge would at those lambs and find them to be somewhat lacking. They’d smile and say, “But we have one which is perfect we’ll sell you instead.” I don’t know how much give-and-take happened at this stage, since the families would have chosen their lamb with great care, but eventually, weary from travel and up against a system they couldn’t fight, they would cave in.

But later, the lamb that they bought — which wasn’t deficient — would be sold to someone else.

The spotless lamb of course is a type of Jesus, who was without sin.

[Pardon me for one brief tangent: If you grew up in church you’ve probably heard the phrase ‘without spot, blemish or wrinkle’ used in reference to the church. How does the description switch to us when it’s supposed to be about Him? The answer is that this is what it means when God imputes to us the righteousness of Christ. The phrase occurs in Ephesians 5:27 and is referring to sanctification. We now return to our devotional, in progress.]

So Jesus does what Jesus does, and he clears the temple in what is called a prophetic act. The whole system, or to use the language I’m using today, the whole sacrifice industry is about to come to an end, and (in the synoptic accounts, speaking just later) Jesus says as much when he says, “It is finished.”

And then in the economy of the language used in the Book of Hebrews, we’re reminded that this ended in him sitting “in the place of honor” (NLT) at God’s right hand.


In the video, I said that would normally be the end of the story, but it occurred to me that YouTube being what it is there are people who have never come under the covering of what Jesus did, and I encouraged them to contact the church hosting the video.

Of course, the internet being what it is, there may be people reading this here who have never asked God to include them under the covering of his sacrifice. If that’s the case, use the contact form (lower part of the page) here so we can help you discern the next steps you need to take.

 

 

 

 

December 19, 2019

A Christmas Reflection on a New Father’s First Words

Uppermost in Heart and Mind

by Clarke Dixon

What is the first thing a new father wants to talk about? Zechariah was unable to speak for nine months or so during his wife, Elizabeth’s, pregnancy. This is no ordinary pregnancy for he and his wife Elizabeth are quite elderly, well past the child-bearing years, and they have not been able to have children. This was no ordinary child for God spoke of the special calling upon him. He would become known as John the Baptist. Zechariah knew how special this all was. So what does he say?

We might expect Zechariah to gush over this new baby boy, and he does gush, but not over his own child. He gushes over someone else’s, a child yet to be born:

67 Then his father, Zechariah, was filled with the Holy Spirit and gave this prophecy:
68 “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has visited and redeemed his people.
69 He has sent us a mighty Savior
from the royal line of his servant David,
70 just as he promised
through his holy prophets long ago.
71 Now we will be saved from our enemies
and from all who hate us.
72 He has been merciful to our ancestors
by remembering his sacred covenant—
73 the covenant he swore with an oath
to our ancestor Abraham.
74 We have been rescued from our enemies
so we can serve God without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness
for as long as we live. Luke 1:67-75 (NLT)

With all Zechariah could talk about; the excitement of being a new father, Elizabeth bearing a child safely in her elderly years, his son John and the amazing things promised about him, Zechariah talks about Jesus first. Even when he gets around to talking about his son John, he does so only briefly:

76 “And you, my little son,
will be called the prophet of the Most High,
because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
77 You will tell his people how to find salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
78 Because of God’s tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace.” Luke 1:76-79 (NLT)

Zechariah starts talking forgiveness and immediately gets back to talking about the expected arrival of Jesus! Zechariah talks about Jesus first, and most.

It is fitting that Zechariah should focus on Jesus. Being filled with the Holy Spirit (see verse 67), Zechariah puts the focus on whom God wants the focus. Zechariah’s prophecy centres on the theme of rescue by God. This will be done through Jesus, not John. Jesus was uppermost in Zechariah’s heart and mind. Even upon the birth of his own child, Zechariah could not stop talking about Jesus.

What is uppermost in our hearts and minds? What, or whom, can we not stop talking about?

We sometimes have favourite themes within Christianity. Some love to talk about obedience, some love to talk about justice, some love to talk about the end of the world, some love to talk about systematic theology. All these things are important to talk about, but do we talk about Jesus first, and most?

In my early 20’s I focused mainly on the writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul appealed to my analytical mind. In my mid-20’s I began reading the Gospels more because they are easier than Paul’s letters to read in Greek. In doing so I rediscovered Jesus! Paul would have us go back to Jesus too! I forget who said it, and the exact wording, but to give a rough quote: “the Bible is not the treasure, it is the treasure map. Jesus is the treasure.” Paul would agree. Jesus was Paul’s main focus. Paul knew that Jesus was the treasure. Likewise, Zechariah might say “my son John is not the treasure. John is the treasure map. Jesus is the treasure.” Jesus was uppermost in Zechariah’s heart and mind. Is Jesus uppermost in ours?

What is uppermost in the hearts and minds of people around us? What do they like to talk about?

When it comes to Christianity, they may want to talk about abuse in churches. Unfortunately it has happened, and still happens. Confess that, but talk about Jesus. Jesus-centred people don’t abuse, but want to help. They may want to talk about how Christianity was responsible for dark moments in history. Yes, sometimes Christians have created dark spaces, but talk about Jesus. Jesus brings light and healing to people living in dark spaces. They may want to talk about ethics and how Christians often can not agree on what’s right and what’s wrong. Yes, that is sometimes true, but also talk about Jesus and the ethic of love. We disagree over ethics because love is creative and not a blind following of rules. They may want to talk about theology and how Christians disagree on doctrine. Yes, that is often true, but talk about Jesus. We are united in and through Jesus, not our uniformity of thought. Whatever there is to talk about, learn from Zechariah, and keep talking about Jesus.

People, ourselves included, may want to talk about a messy Christmas, whether a result of a terrible situation, or sour relationships. Yes, Christmas can be difficult, but talk about Jesus. Let a messy Christmas be a commemoration of that first Christmas which itself was horribly messy. There was no room at the inn, Herod was violent. Things got messy for Jesus as he faced constant opposition during his life. He was arrested. That was messy. He was given a mock trial. That was messy. A crown of thorns was thrust upon his head. That was messy. He was crucified. It doesn’t get any messier than that. Talk about Jesus and how through him, God stepped into a mess, to deal with the mess we’re in.

We often hear the slogan, “put Christ back into Christmas.” We need to put Christ back into Christianity. I’m sure you are finished your Christmas shopping by now and ready to focus on New Year’s resolutions. Here’s a good one; commit to seeing Jesus in 20/20 in 2020. All the Bible is important, but let all the Bible point you to Jesus. Perhaps we might commit to reading from the Gospels every day.* If we, like Zechariah, have Jesus uppermost in our hearts and minds, we will be more likely to talk about him. Good news is worth sharing. Zechariah knew that. Do we?


* If you are interested in reading through the Gospels with a daily email reminder, you may be interested in the reading plan found here.

Commit to seeing Jesus in 20/20 in 2020

March 30, 2016

How Easter Explodes a Religious Myth

•••by Clarke Dixon

Christianity, and religion itself, is often seen to be something helpful. So, for example, it can provide a crutch for those moments you may feel weak. It can provide a belief system for those moments that you need to know there is more to life than what you can see. It can be something you pay attention to for a few moments in a day for the sake of your spiritual health, kind of like an exercise program for your soul. It can provide a good dose of morality for your day.

All these things are helpful, but they all have something in common: they relegate Christianity to the sidelines of your life. They make Christianity something that you can put on the back burner until the time comes you might have need of it. Worse, they turn Christianity into something optional, so that if your spiritual and religious needs are met some other way, then okay, leave church attendance and Jesus following for those who are into that kind of thing. Easter Sunday explodes the myth that Christianity is a religion that can exist on the sidelines of our lives. How so?

It is often claimed that the early Christians invented a religion that had not too much to do with the actual historical Jesus. However, in our recent sermon series we have been looking at how the writers of the four Gospels were either eyewitnesses themselves (Matthew, John) or were very intimately connected with eyewitnesses of the events and key Person they describe (Mark, Luke). Additionally the Gospels were written not long after the events described, indeed early enough that what was written could be checked against what eyewitnesses were saying. Now let us venture beyond the Gospels to consider something that was written even earlier by Paul. In fact many Biblical scholars conclude that Paul was quoting an oral tradition that went back even earlier, possibly a baptismal affirmation. I have highlighted the possible “confessional”:

Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. 3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1st Corinthians 15:2-8 emphasis mine)

The earliest traditions about Jesus were not about his being a good teacher, with later traditions adding in the supernatural bits. The earliest traditions point to the supernatural, in fact they speak of the resurrection of Jesus. As Paul points out to the Christians he is writing to in Corinth, most of those who had seen Jesus following his death and resurrection were still alive – so you can still check the story out with them.

It is fascinating also, that Paul does not mention that Jesus first revealed Himself to the women by the empty tomb. The fact that women were the first eyewitnesses is somewhat embarrassing to the still very patriarchal society of that day. In that time and place if you wanted to invent a religion based on a fabricated resurrection, you would not call upon women to be the first witnesses. Nor would you call upon Mark and Luke to write Gospels. These things speak to the genuine nature of the eyewitness testimony.

These eyewitnesses of the Risen Jesus were not going about trying to start a new religion. They were going about telling everyone about all they had seen. They were not fabricating Jesus, they were responding to Him. They responded with repentance. They responded with prayer and lots of it. They responded with reading the scriptures they had at that time, what we call the Old Testament, with their eyes open to seeing Jesus in them. They responded with sharing the Good News of all that had happened and with all that God was doing and had promised to yet do. Christianity from the get go was not a new religion, but a response to the Person of Jesus the Messiah. It was not a thing to practice, but a Person to know. The earliest Christians were not aware of “taking up religion,” but they were very aware of taking up a cross to follow Jesus. They responded to the evidence of God’s love with love. Christianity was not something “helpful” for them, it was something real and true.

On Easter Sunday we celebrated a baptism in our church. In Baptist circles, baptism is a profession of faith. In baptism one is not saying “I am taking up religion,” or “I am joining this church or that denomination.” Neither is one saying “I am perfect.” Baptism shows the desire, not to take up religion, but to take up a cross and follow Jesus who died and rose again in a very real display of God’s love.

Religion is something that can be put on the back burner. Perhaps many should be taking their religion off the back burner and putting it where I put all the meals I have burned over the years, the garbage bin. Jesus is someOne who died and rose again. He cannot be sidelined. He belongs neither on the back burner nor in the bin. Jesus belongs at the center of our lives. Easter Sunday confirms that fact. And as the early Christians showed by moving their worship from the Sabbath, Saturday, to the day Jesus rose from the dead, every Sunday is Easter Sunday.


Read more from Clarke at Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon

February 9, 2013

The One Who Will Judge is Non-Judgmental

I believe in God,
the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended into hell;
on the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting. Amen

~Apostles Creed  (see also a musical adaptation)

This week we went to an event that featured Steve Geyer, who was billed as a comedian, but really shared his heart for over two hours in a much more pastoral sense.

In one section he spoke about the surprising and unexpected things that take place in the earthly ministry of Jesus; things where the events and people and situations get turned on their heads, including the time Jesus is anointed with perfume by an uninvited guest to a party.

Three gospels carry this story. Mark  (chapter 14) who is usually much more concise gives us more than Matthew

Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them.

Luke 7 is considered to be a different story that took place at a different time, but is a similar story that includes a parable that Jesus teaches:

36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”

“Tell me, teacher,” he said.

41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.

44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

As Steve Geyer referred briefly to this story he said,

“The One who will judge the earth is non-judgmental.”

That phrase really hit me. Here we see another example of the contrast between “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild;” (itself not a fully accurate rendering of the earthly ministry of Jesus) and the one who sits at God’s right hand from where “he will come to judge the living and the dead.” Mercy contrasted with justice. God’s love versus God’s judgment.

John 5:24 “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. 25 Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.

Acts 10:39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Matthew 25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.

Jesus pours out love and compassion to so many in the gospel narratives, but just as a parent gently loves a child, so also does a parent not hesitate to bring rebuke, correction and discipline. (See this link for an interesting parallel between that and the work of the scriptures in our lives.) God’s justice must be satisfied, and yet, as I ponder Steve’s statement, I see even there a justice that is tempered by mercy and grace.


Even though today’s story may not be exactly in all four gospels, I did a check to see what teachings/stories are found in all four gospels:

  • Feeding the 5,000
  • Identification of the betrayer at the Last Supper
  • Jesus prays in Gethsemane
  • Peter’s denials
  • various elements of the death and resurrection

Scriptures quoted today are NIV; all underlinings in the creed and Bible verses added.

October 19, 2010

Prodigal Son: Seeing Yourself in the Story

It seems lately, every time I turn on the computer or pick up a book or magazine, I’m reading someone’s take on the story of the wayward son.   This simple narrative is multi-dimensional; a richness and depth bubbles under the surface awaiting discovery.

Here’s blogger Michael Krahn‘s take on it which he titled:

8 Traits Of An Older Brother

In our haste to name things, we often call the parable found in Luke 15 “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” but the parable is as much about the older brother as it is the younger. In fact some (like Tim Keller) would argue that it is actually MORE about the older brother.

If you grew up in the church – like I did – you are probably more like the older brother. Here is a list of traits that I can certainly identify with.

1. We think highly of ourselves

We think so highly of ourselves that we expect God to think like us instead of the other way around. Grace doesn’t work according to our logic. It doesn’t make sense to us that it does two things simultaneously:

1.     It overlooks wrong
2.    While it transforms repentant sinners

“It can’t do both – it’s not fair!  Prodigals can come back but we should never forget what they’ve done. If we do they’ll think they can do it again without consequence!”

2. We have a “good reputation”

We’re thought of (by others and ourselves) as “good”… not having major faults… not really struggling with sin. The reality is that we’re just better at hiding these things.

3. We take pride in our consistency

We’ve been here the whole time, going to church! We’ve had to sit through all the poorly performed worship songs, all the badly delivered sermons. Those prodigals need to do the same before we can see them as equals!

4. We save our freedom for future reward

Prodigals use their freedom to experience and consume. This is the path of self-discovery. Their thinking is that unused freedom is wasted freedom.

Older brothers resist using their freedom.  Instead we save it up, thinking of it as an investment that will compound like money saved inside a mutual fund, doubling in size every 10 years or so. Our thinking is that freedom used NOW is freedom wasted and that by saving and sacrificing now we’ll have more and will be able to get more later than we ever could now. Self-denial now in exchange for lavish self-indulgence later.

5. We need prodigals to make us look better

Older brothers need prodigals because they provide us with an easy comparison to rise above. “Your extravagant sin makes me look better – it takes the attention off my minor faults. Thank you!”

When the father says, “He was dead but now he’s alive!” we mutter, “I wish he was still dead. It was better for me that way.”

6. We harbor unacknowledged envy

When the prodigal returns, his life is turned upside-down because he discovers that his father loves by different rules than he does. He has been out doing all the things that the older brother, in truth, would also love to be doing but doesn’t because he believes he is storing up extra grace for himself.

Is this perhaps one reason why we too react badly when a prodigal returns? Do we harbor some envy at the life of wine, women, and song (or “wine coolers, firemen, and dance music” for the ladies) they’ve experienced?

It causes us to question: What has all my self-denial been good for?!?!

7. We think God owes us

Because of this we sometimes see grace as a bit of a rip-off. Partly because we don’t think we need very much of it, but also because grace dictates that obedience can never be a way to obtain rights.

If your perception of your relationship with God is that you think you’ve earned something or that you’ve done so much good that God owes you something, you are in danger. This is typical older brother thinking.

8. We are likely to be punitive

We take a punitive position on prodigals. We say that they need to pay for what they’ve done – in essence to pay their way up to our status level. But that’s not the way grace works. If it did it wouldn’t be grace.

On the rare occasion that a prodigal returns, do they see in you a father waiting with open arms or the scowling face of an older brother?

by Michael Krahn.