Christianity 201

May 19, 2021

Walking the Path of the Rhythms of Jesus

Last year we uncovered the devotional page of Veterans United Home Loans (VU). Although a business — with over 3,000 employees in 28 locations — VU has a Faith & Community “department,” “formed in 2013 to allow people opportunities to have their lives enhanced through deepening faith and improving community—hopefully experiencing greater peace on both vertical and horizontal relational planes.” This time around the author is Brock Bondurant.

Go Back to Go Forward

Jeremiah 6:16 – Thus says Yahweh: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. …”.

Around the end of 2020, a friend of mine wrote a post on taking a slightly different approach to the New Year with a Scripture focus to guide her throughout the year instead of the usual setting of goals and resolutions. This really resonated with me. After reading her post, I set out to find that which would enliven me to personal renewal in 2021. So, when I read the sweet words of Matthew 11:28-30 on the eve of 2021, I found what would be my focus.

Come to me, Jesus said (Matt 11:28). I was extended an invitation to rest, to the renewal that my soul had been longing for. The question still echoes: What if I started from a place of rest? Thus my year began.

My mind and heart have long been captured by the essence of practicing the way of Jesus. In a culture of busy and hurry, practices or habits of Jesus provide rest and renewal through the ways of old instead of the anxiety that we’ve become accustomed to. The spiritual disciplines of the early Church seemed to provide that which my soul was thirsting for – rest and nearness to God – as I began to participate in habits that stir my affections for Jesus. Through the ancient practice of flipping your bible open to read whatever your finger lands on, I found this verse in Jeremiah:

Stand by the roads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.

I set out on my personal study of the way of Jesus and invited my church small group along for the ride, adding a new practice every couple of months. We asked for the ancient paths, where the good way is and found our answer in Jesus. Now, we simply need to walk in it – to practice the way of Jesus – to find rest for [our] souls. Because to accept Jesus’ invitation to come to him, to take his easy yoke upon us means to change our ways. We cannot continue in the way of the world and expect to find the rest that we long for. We must look back, to Jesus himself and live lives renewed by following his life rhythm. We have to go back to these ancient paths to go forward.

Jesus – God in the form of man – walked these ancient paths. He came to not only grant us salvation, but to show us a new way to live. He came as a human to show us the way that we were intended to be human. To become like Jesus, bearing all the fruits of the spirit, we must commit our lives to this way. To be more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, and so on, we must walk in His way. But what does that look like? Practices like prayer, Scripture study, time in silence & solitude, Sabbath, and worship with a community of believers. This is the new way – the easy yoke – that Jesus establishes and invites us into. These practices are, as Eugene Peterson describes them, unforced rhythms of grace (Matt 11-28-30 MSG).

I invite you to receive Jesus’ invitation to the new way. I invite you to stand, and look; to ask for the ancient paths – the ones where the good way is – and walk in it with me, with others – together. Looking to Jesus, let us go back to go forward.


Bonus devotional: At the same site, the same author looks at the prodigal son parable and that older son who, “although he was near in proximity, his heart was bent more towards earning his inheritance than it was towards loving the father.” Check out Homecoming.

May 5, 2021

He Could Have Spoken Complex Theology; He Chose Parables

If I had been planning more carefully, I would have posted this yesterday, which marked the two year anniversary of the passing of Rachel Held Evans. While Rachel graciously endured having a number of critics, for those of us who knew her spirit, she was a beautiful person and an insightful, realistic, gifted writer, who helped so many people who felt they were outside the family of God see that Christ had saved a place for them at the table.

To read at source, click the header which follows. (Yes, thankfully her blog posts are still there for all to enjoy.)

“Without a parable, he told them nothing…”

I’m blogging with the lectionary this year and this week’s reading comes from Matthew 13:24-43:

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!’

In the Gospel reading for this week, we learn that in the time between Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the events leading to his death and resurrection, the travelling teacher communicated through stories. Matthew goes so far as to say “without a parable he told them nothing.”

It is an astounding detail when you think about it: The God of all creation, the One who knows every corner of the cosmos and fathoms every mystery, the One who could answer every theological riddle and who, I suspect, chuckles at our volumes of guesses, our centuries of pompous philosophical tomes debating His nature, when present in the person of Jesus Christ, told stories.

  • Stories about farming.
  • Stories about kneading bread.
  • Stories about seeds and trees and birds.
  • Stories that somehow, in their ordinary profundity, “proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

Jesus, who certainly could have filled volumes, favored riddles to lectures, metaphors to propositions, everyday language, images, and humor to stiff religious pontification. In a strange burst of joy, Jesus even exclaimed, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

Religious education is good and important, certainly. But it’s not as important as paying attention. It’s not as important as seeking the Kingdom in the quotidian rhythms of the everyday. It’s not as important as obedience.

After all, Jesus didn’t come for the rich, the educated, or the right. Jesus came for those with listening ears and open eyes, those who are hungry for righteousness and thirsty for God, those comfortable with metaphors and similes and “almosts” and “not yets,” those content to understand without knowing fully, those with dirt in their fingernails and flour in their hair.

In Matthew 13, we encounter several parables all packed in together, each one worthy of a thousand different reflections. (The one about the seed that grows into a tree is one of my personal favorites.) Each of these parables features Jesus’ very favorite subject, the thing he spoke about more than any other: The Kingdom.

The Kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed, Jesus said, that grows into an enormous tree with branches wide and strong enough to make a home for all the birds. It is like a buried treasure, a delicious feast, or a net that catches an abundance of fish. The Kingdom is right here, Jesus said. It is present and yet hidden, immanent yet transcendent. The Kingdom isn’t some far off place you go where you die, the Kingdom is at hand—among us and beyond us, now and not-yet. It is the wheat growing in the midst of weeds, the yeast working its magic in the dough, the pearl germinating in a sepulchral shell. It can come and go in the twinkling of an eye, Jesus said. So pay attention; don’t miss it.

This Kingdom knows no geographic boundaries, no political parties, no single language or culture. It advances not through power and might, but through acts of love and joy and peace, missions of mercy and kindness and humility. This Kingdom has arrived, not with a trumpet’s sound but with a baby’s cries, not with the vanquishing of enemies but with the forgiving of them, not on the back of a war horse but on the back of a donkey, not with triumph and a conquest but with a death and a resurrection.

And yet there is more to this Kingdom that is still to come, Jesus said, and so we await a day when every tear will be wiped from every eye, when swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears shaped into a pruning hooks, when justice will cascade like a river down a mountain and righteousness like a never-ending stream, when people from every tribe and tongue and nation will live together in peace, when there will be no more death.

On this week when our newspapers reveal the ugly reality that evil and good grow alongside one another—in the world and even in our own hearts—the parable of the wheat and the weeds seems especially weighty. As reports of civilian casualties mount, we see that, just as Jesus warned, human attempts to “root out evil” on our own, by force, result in the destruction of innocent lives.

Every. Single. Time.

Like it or not, this parable challenges, (perhaps even mocks), our notion of “precision airstrikes,” of getting rid of the “bad guys” without hurting the “good guys.” The fact is, we don’t see the world as God sees it. We are not equipped to call the shots on who deserves to live and who deserves to die, who is evil and who is good—especially when, if we’re honest, we can feel both impulses coursing through our own bloodstreams.

While we could certainly digress into an eschatological conversation about exactly what Jesus means when he talks about throwing evildoers into the fire, the instructive call of this parable remains the same: to let God do the farming. God is the judge—not you, not me, not kings, not presidents.

“Without a parable, he told them nothing.”

Yet still we struggle to understand. Still we struggle to obey.

Two-thousand years after Matthew recorded these parables about seeds and wheat and yeast, we’re still combing our theology books for answers. We’re still talking about airstrikes and minimizing civilian casualties. We’re still seeking power and vengeance, knowledge and stuff.

In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle tells of a young woman who told the author, “I read A Wrinkle in Time when I was eight or nine. I didn’t understand it, but I knew what it was about.”

That’s often how I feel about the parables of Jesus. I don’t understand them exactly, but I know what they’re about.

L’Engle concludes: “…One does not have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding—that intellectual understanding which we are so fond of—there is a feeling of rightness, of knowing, knowing things which you are not yet able to understand…As long as we know what it’s about, then we can have the courage to go wherever we are asked to go, even if we fear that the road may take us through danger and pain.”

The God of the universe has beckoned us into His lap to tell us a story, to teach us to pay attention.

Let those with ears hear.

April 20, 2021

“Don’t Be Afraid” – Not Comforting Words; It’s a Request

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:29 pm
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The title I gave our version of today’s devotional is my reaction to how this impacted me. It reminded me that the request Jesus made bordered on inappropriate, at least in terms of what you say to someone who has suffered great loss…

Today we return to Kristen Larson who writes at Abide.Trust.Believe. Click her title for it which follows and read this at her site.

Just Have Faith

But Jesus overheard them and said to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid. Just have faith.”
Mark 5:36

I have been putting off writing about this for a while, because the truth is I just don’t understand it half as well as I’d like to. I don’t understand how Jesus could tell Jairus don’t be afraid. Especially given the news Jairus had just received.

Let me set the stage…

Jesus had just arrived in Capernaum after being on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and a large crowed had already gathered around him by the time Jairus arrived. Jairus was the leader at a local synagogue whose daughter, only 12 years old, was at home dying. Having heard that Jesus was in the area, he found the crowd and fought his way through it to reach Jesus. He then fell at his feet, pleading with him to come and lay hands on her so she might live.

Can you imagine the relief Jairus must have felt when Jesus, the man who worked miracles, agreed to go with him to his home?

But on the way there, a woman interrupted the procession by reaching out to touch Jesus’s robe. This in itself is an amazing story, but for now I want to focus on the fact that Jarius was forced to wait while this other woman took precious time away from Jesus getting to his little girl. And as he was watching Jesus speak to this woman, the terrible news he feared arrived: his daughter had died.

This is where my faith is challenged. Because Jesus didn’t weep with Jairus. He didn’t console him. He simply said, “Don’t be afraid. Just have faith.” But the thing was…his daughter had died. She was gone. In that single moment, the fear of her death became a horrible reality.

This is where I struggle. Because I can’t help but put myself in the shoes of Jairus. What if I had gotten news that my husband died and Jesus told me, don’t be afraid. Just have faith? I feel like I’d want to slap him. My grief would be more than I could bear. How could I not be afraid? How could I possibly have faith? This is a hypothetical situation for me, but it wasn’t for Jairus. And it isn’t for many people I know. So the big question is, how can this be encouraging? How can this be what Jesus tells Jairus? How can it put to rest my own fears of the future?

I don’t know. But I do know that Jesus said it – and it was recorded for us for a reason. And I also know that Colossians 1:15 says that “[Jesus] Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.” If I believe that, and I do, I have to believe that even in the face of death and worst fears come true…we’re to trust Him.

Even though I don’t understand this and it feels like an impossible thing to ask of someone, the fact that Jesus said it means it warrants my time thinking about it and praying about it.

There is so much of God I do not understand. But I really do want to be a person who’s first instinct is to trust His word and act on it, find comfort in it, and discover His heart through it. I believe that good things lie on the other side of our obedience – especially when we obey without fully understanding.

My hope is that in the face of fear, both life threatening and none, my knee-jerk reaction will not be panic, but trust. I want my heart to be ruled by Him alone. I want his peace, which passes understanding. I want to be less like the people of the world, and more like the heroes of the bible – who took God seriously.

The bible doesn’t tell us how Jairus responded to what Jesus said. So I don’t know if he was full of faith or if he fell apart. But Jesus went to his house and healed that little girl – she lived again.

I know this isn’t the way all our stories end. How I wish it was. But I do wonder what is on the other side of our faith when we face these kind of horrifying situations. It encourages me to think about how much stock I put into what God asks of me.

This kind of soul searching and asking these kinds of questions is hard…but I think it’s well worth the undertaking.

 

April 3, 2021

Below the Surface: Look for the Symbol in the Miracle

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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NIV.John.2.3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons…

…11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

The most miraculous thing Jesus ever did was to conquer death, which we celebrate this Easter weekend. At the other end of the narrative, we have his first miracle at a wedding. These bookend that aspect of his life and they have much in common.

Today we have a book excerpt for you from The Problem of Jesus: Answering a Skeptic’s Challenges to the Scandal of Jesus (Zondervan, 2021) by Canadian pastor Mark Clark. (A sequel to The Problem of God.)


Bringing about revelation of God that leads to saving faith is one of the stated purposes of miracles the gospel writers tell us about. Jesus did miracles to reveal to the world what he came to do. Again, we see this in the miracle mentioned earlier, the turning of water into wine. John 2:6 tells us that there were six stone jars filled with water and then gives their purpose, which is the key to uncovering the meaning of the miracle: they were “for the Jewish rites of purification.” Why did John include this detail? Because John’s larger purpose was to show us through this miracle that the Jewish observance and ritual of purification was being upstaged and superseded by Jesus. This phase of history, where humankind connected with God through religious observance of rituals, was coming to an end. It was being fulfilled by Jesus and what he was doing in the world. Jesus was doing something new, and he was saying, “I am the new wine.” Religion was giving way to relationship.

Here we find the scandal of Jesus’ miracles, the real problem Jesus was creating. What he was saying was like a cultural hand grenade, upending centuries of tradition and belief. this would have been extremely offensive and controversial to John’s audience. How do I know? When I was in Israel a few years ago, I had the unique privilege of preaching in front of one of these big stone water jars at Cana in Galilee, where this miracle took place historically. The jar was up to my waist and must have been two or three feet wide at the mouth. My audience was a collection of tourists standing around as well as our Jewish tour guide, Abraham.

I explained what the story of the water being turned to wine was about, and later Abraham pulled me aside and asked, “Are you serious about what you said back there?” I said, Yes, of course,” He said, “I’ve done this tour with two hundred Christian groups, and I’ve never heard any of them get up and say what you just said. Do you really think that that’s what Jesus was trying to say?”

Here was a man who was religiously living under the idea that purification jars were still necessary in relating to God, and I was able to clarify what Jesus was saying. he began to grasp the idea that one phase of God’s work was over and a new had begun, and it hit him hard. As it should hit all of us. You can see why the miracles Jesus did were powerful, not only for the activity itself, but for what it meant about God and God’s work in the world. Jesus was not just healing people or doing marvellous things. He was more than a doctor or a magician. In every miracle, he was reinforcing what he taught: “I’m replacing everything the temple and all of the purification rituals ever meant or were used for. I’m here–and I’m shutting it all down.”

You can understand why Jesus’ audience often got angry with him. Jesus claimed to be bringing about a new era, or as John said, “The law was giving through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). With Jesus came a cosmic shift in how God related to the world, for Jesus was bringing creation back to what it was intended to be before sin and death.

What does this mean for you and me? It means that miracles are an invitation to all of us, God’s invitation to enter in and experience restoration at a personal level.

pp167-169


Excerpted from The Problem of Jesus: Answering a Skeptic’s Challenges to the Scandal of Jesus ©2021 by Mark Clark and used by permission of Zondervan Publishing.  Learn more at  zondervan.com


Watch a 90-second video with Mark introducing the book:

 

 

April 1, 2021

The Sin of Power: The Deadliest of the 7 Deadly Sins

by Clarke Dixon

Of all the 7 deadly sins, the sin of power must be the worst. It has brought greater destruction into our world than the other seven which are listed as pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth. Wait, the sin of power is not one of the 7 deadly sins?! People with power must have came up with the list. That is one of the problems; people in power don’t see the sin in their power.

We often talk about the power of sin, today we are thinking about the sin of power.

In the events of Holy Week, between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, between the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and his crucifixion, we see the sin of power.

In the background there is a constant power struggle between Rome and the Judeans. When Jesus comes along, all the powers-that-be gang up against Jesus.

It begins with the religious leaders who want to overpower Jesus. All along they have been speaking against Jesus, trying to keep the people from following him. Jesus teaches with authority, much better than they do. Jesus does really good, helpful things, like heal people. They don’t seem to be as helpful.

Already you can imagine the jealousy. Jesus is a carpenter, what does he know compared to the educated religious elites? According to his teaching, quite a lot!

Worse, Jesus doesn’t obey the religious leaders. They say “no healing on a Sabbath.” Jesus heals on a Sabbath, and not just once.

Worst of all, Jesus goes around claiming to do what only God can do; forgive people. Who does he think he is?

This is what happens to us when we commit the sin of power, we become blinded to God. The religious leaders could not see in Jesus what many people were seeing in Jesus, namely; God is with us, or at least with Jesus, in some remarkable way.

It gets worse. As a power play to get Pilate to do their bidding, the religious leaders claim their greatest allegiance:

They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.”

John 19:15 (NRSV)

This is the lowest point a leader of God’s people could sink to, shouting “we have no king but Caesar.” What happened to God’s promise of a king? What happened to the Scriptural witness that God was the true king?

That is what happens to us when we commit the sin of power, we forget God.

We may wonder, how can a Christian ever become abusive? The people of God can become abusive because power blinds us to God and makes us forget Him.

If it begins with the religious leaders, the sin of power continues with Pilate:

He took Jesus back into the headquarters again and asked him, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave no answer. “Why don’t you talk to me?” Pilate demanded. “Don’t you realize that I have the power to release you or crucify you?”

John 19:9-10 (NLT)

Pilate is claiming to have significant power over Jesus here, the power of life and death. Jesus sets the record straight:

Then Jesus said, “You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above.

John 19:11 (NLT)

This is what happens when we commit the sin of power, we overstep our God-given authority. When we overstep our God given authority we move from taking responsibility for people, to becoming abusive against them. Authority can be a beautiful, life-giving thing. It can also get ugly.

In the game of chess between the Romans and the Jews, the King becomes a pawn:

The soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they put a purple robe on him. “Hail! King of the Jews!” they mocked, as they slapped him across the face.

Pilate went outside again and said to the people, “I am going to bring him out to you now, but understand clearly that I find him not guilty.” Then Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. And Pilate said, “Look, here is the man!”

John 19:2-5 (NLT)

We easily get the idea that the Romans are mocking Jesus here with the crown of thorns, the purple robe, and the mock worship. What we can easily miss is how they are also mocking the Jewish people. In mocking Jesus as a most pathetic king, they are really mocking the Jewish people as a most pathetic nation. This continues through to the crucifixion with Pilate posting the charge against Jesus “the king of the Jews.” That was a slam against the Jews and the religious leaders knew it, and hated it.

This is what happens to us when we commit the sin of power, we belittle others. We mock them, we find ways of making them appear pathetic, of making ourselves look superior. We win. Of course we win, for they are losers. The sin of power puts us in that mindset, it clouds our perception of others.

Perhaps the most powerful of all are the soldiers who pull the trigger, or in this case, hammer the nails. They are the ones trained in the art of enforcing power.

They would not have carried through with their grim sin of power if it had not all begun in the minds of the Jewish religious leaders. If the religious leaders wanted to keep their power, they had better deal with their Jesus problem. The religious leaders would not have been able to carry out their sin of power without Pilate. If Pilate wanted to keep his power, he had better deal with this Jesus problem who had now become his problem. Then the soldiers carried out the sin of power when they hammered in the nails and raised the cross. If the soldiers wanted to keep their privileged positions of power, they had better deal with this Jesus problem who had now become their problem.

This is what happens to us when we commit the sin of power, we become complicit in killing.

When we commit the sin of power, we become complicit in the killing of people’s dignity, freedom, innocence, dreams, aspirations, mental health, and faith. Sometimes it really does become deadly.

Jesus, in entering Jerusalem on a donkey the way he did, enters Jerusalem in a way that says “I am the rightful king here. I am the one in charge.” Publicly he has been quiet about his all along. Evil demons who knew his identity better than anyone were told to keep quiet. When Peter expressed that Jesus is the Messiah, the disciples were told to be quiet. Little wonder, when Jesus is public about his identity as the Messiah, as the rightful king, he is killed in less than a week.

Yet here he is, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus is a different kind of king of a different kind of kingdom. And being the rightful king he took his place, not on a throne, but on a cross.

The religious leaders together with the Roman leaders committed the sin of power. Jesus was different, he broke the power of sin. 

Jesus could have overpowered all who opposed him. As a famous song points out, he could have called 10,000 angels, not just to rescue him, but to destroy his enemies.

Instead he took the nails.

Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.

Luke 23:34 (KJV)

Instead of destroying his enemies, Jesus loved them, giving them the opportunity to be reconciled. Are we learning to love our enemies the way Jesus loved his? Are we learning to love our enemies the way Jesus loves us?

Are we stuck in our all-too-human ways of committing the sin of power against others, or has the power of sin been undone by the power of God’s love?

Perhaps we might even be committing the deadliest of the deadly sins by trying to rid ourselves of God. That is a sin of power. A desire to rid ourselves of God leads to separation from God, now and especially into eternity. That is the power of sin. But we can be forgiven through Jesus, reconciled to God. We can go from enemy to family. That is the power of God’s love.


The full sermon can be watched on its own or as part of this “online worship expression Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada.


Today Christianity 201 begins year twelve! Thank you for joining us each day.

March 21, 2021

Rome’s Only Weakness Was Israel’s Greatest Strength

The Pharisees were watching Jesus closely, but the Romans were watching the Pharisees (and all the Jewish people) closely as well. Here’s why.

During the time of Christ’s birth, childhood, teaching ministry and death, Israel’s history and Rome’s history are intersecting or overlapping. You can’t read the gospel accounts without somewhere seeing the presence of Rome, and in some respects it looked like Rome was everything that Israel wasn’t. For example:

  • The Roman Empire was big. When Luke records, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed;” we can easily dismiss that the phrase all the world is hyperbole. Were people in China taxed? No. But the Roman empire was, like the guy says in the used car commercial I see every night before the news, “H-U-U-U-G-E.”
  • The Roman Empire was rich. We just mentioned taxation. Maybe Rome didn’t invent it, but the perfected it to both an art and a science. Matthew 22 speaks to the coinage used and the taxation, “[Jesus said] “Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s…” And of course we remember that, among others, Matthew and Zacchaeus worked in the multi-level, tax franchise system.
  • The Roman Empire was powerful. The entire narrative of Christ’s life takes place against the backdrop of Roman occupation. Many translations of Matthew 5:41 make it clear that when Jesus says, “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two;” the whoever or the someone is a Roman soldier. During the key events that we’ve just remembered at Easter, it a soldier who compels a passerby to help — “As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross.” (Matthew 27:32) and a soldier who speaks to Christ’s identity after his death: “When the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him, saw the way He breathed His last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!‘”

But Rome had some weaknesses, one of which is that as a family run business the empire was unstable. The fear of insurrection from within no doubt created some insecurities.

So if we want to think of this in terms of a balance sheet we have something looks like this:

Roman Empire

It’s because of this insecurity that Rome’s leadership found the little territory at the east end of the Mediterranean so troublesome. Why did they need to worry? In terms of the above criteria:

  • Israel wasn’t big
  • Israel wasn’t rich
  • Israel wasn’t powerful

And yet, Israel’s army had a history of defeating its enemies against unbelievable odds. They were a feisty lot of people whose Levitical laws compelled them to not assimilate to their surrounding neighbors (or occupying forces) but to maintain a distinct identity. While other nations had crumbled and vanished, Israel had a long, proud history and its people could trace their ancestry back to Adam.

This is one aspect of Jewish tradition that is affirmed in Christian teachings today:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:2 ESV)

Therefore, Rome’s only weakness was Israel’s greatest strength: Their longstanding stable history that had even survived occupation. (To look at some well known early history, think of the time of Moses, or the famine period at the time of Joseph.)

How does all this apply to us today?

We should identify with Israel. 1 Cor. 1:26 depicts the early church this way:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.

I’ve deliberately held off on our key verse for the day (often at the top of these readings) until the very end and here it is:

Those who do wickedly against the covenant he shall corrupt with flattery; but the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits. ~Daniel 11:32 NKJV
The king of the North will tell lies to God’s people. Those who have not obeyed God will be ruined. But there will be some who know God and obey him. They will be strong and fight back. (ICB)
Israel would never be absorbed, they would never be assimilated.
Today, neither should we. The surrounding culture is big, it’s powerful and it controls a lot of wealth. But it’s built on a crumbling foundation. We are the opposite: small, not powerful and not wealthy but we draw our source; our life from God Himself.

 

March 8, 2021

Jesus Changes Everything

In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.” – Luke 8:25b

Today we’re paying a return visit to Practical Theology Today. The writer is Curt Hinkle.

Get Used to Different

If you haven’t watched The Chosen yet, I highly recommend it. The developers of the project hoped to create a “binge-worthy” series and they seem to have accomplished their intent. I had a fever several weeks ago, was self-quarantined for a few days, and I binge-watched the entire first season (eight episodes). It is well done! They really do a good job of depicting the humanity of Jesus as well as his likely interactions with the people, especially his followers.

The creators did an especially nice job of surmising the interactions between the disciples themselves. Of particular interest was the interplay of the fishermen (Simon, Andrew, James, and John) with Matthew (Levi), the Israelite, turned traitor, tax collector for the occupying Romans. There was no love loss. When Jesus invited Matthew to follow him, Simon questioned the action, “What are you doing? Do you have any idea what this guy has done?” Simon, after reminding Jesus what this guy was a tax collector, said, “I don’t get it” to which Jesus responded, “You didn’t get it when I chose you, either.” Simon’s response: “But this is different. He’s a tax collector.” Jesus’ retort has become my favorite line in the series so far – “Get used to different.”

 Get used to different – an understatement to say the least. As I read through the gospels, I try to imagine what was going through the minds of those first-century followers. Almost everything Jesus did and said was different. I picture them huddled together, collectively trying to make sense of what was happening.

I recently read Luke’s account of Jesus calming the storm prior to a visit to the Gentile region on the East side of the Sea of Galilee (Luke 8:22-39). To this point, the disciples suspected they might be following the Messiah, the anointed one of God that would rescue the nation of Israel from the Roman Gentile dogs. But Jesus seemed to do things differently than they expected of a messiah and the trip across the lake didn’t ease their confusion. When Jesus said, “Let’s go across to the other side of the lake,” I could picture the disciples discussing among themselves, “Serious? The other side? That’s Gentile country. They are different over there.” Get used to different!

As they crossed the lake (about the size of Lake Mille Lacs in Minnesota), Jesus fell asleep and a storm blew in. After being abruptly awakened by the disciples, Jesus calmed the raging storm and they continued their journey across the lake. Though the disciples marveled at what they had just witnessed, it left them fearfully asking, “Who then is this…?” We think he might be the Messiah, but messiahs don’t calm storms. Messiahs position themselves to overthrow pagan kingdoms. This is different. Get used to different!

Landing on the the other side of the lake, Jesus and his disciples were immediately met by a naked man who lived among the tombs and was possessed by a Legion of demons (Who, by the way, knew exactly who Jesus was – “Son of the Most High God.”). Cleanliness was core to the first century Jewish religious customs. What we see in this narrative is uncleanliness at every turn – an unclean (naked) man, with unclean spirits who lived among unclean tombs in an unclean territory where they raised unclean hogs. Any respectable rabbi (and presumably a messiah) would have gotten back in the boat and left. I picture the disciples huddled on the shoreline next to the boat, again asking “Who then is this…? This is really different than we expected.” Get used to different! *

In what ways might we need to get used to different? As Christ followers, I think we need to be OK with different. I think we need to learn to expect different. In fact, as Christ-followers, I suspect that God wants us to step into different. The late Howard Hendricks used to suggest that we should always be involved in something that stretches our thinking and comfort – something different than we are used to. Different drives us to God and causes us to rely on the Holy Spirit. Different leads to transformation. If we are serious about following Jesus, I suspect we need to…

Get Used to Different!

* If you know the story, you know that Jesus drove the legion of demons from the man. Jesus was not defiled by the unclean man in his unclean setting. Instead “the holy contagion of Jesus rescued and transformed the man,” borrowing from Jim Edwards (Edwards, J. R. (2015). The gospel according to Luke, p. 249).


From Thinking Out Loud:

What if the books of the New Testament were arranged somewhat differently? If people can have fantasy sports teams, I figured I could imagine an edition of the NT with the books in a different order. Click here to read.

December 21, 2020

Jesus: A Paradox and an Oxymoron

Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.
 – 1 Corinthians 1:27 NLT

This is our third time looking at what I consider a significant book dealing exhaustively with various aspects of the life of Jesus. Jesus: A Theography was written in 2012 by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola.

A Culture of Paradox

Great power resides in the small, spare, simple.

A box cutter brought down a skyscraper and nearly bankrupted a nation.
A pamphlet on common sense sparked a revolution.
A song about overcoming changed the world.
A little town birthed the Messiah.
And a small room on the lower level (a dirty room called a stable) cradled the Son of God.

Little is large if God is in it.

■■■

In the Bible, Jesus always comes in surround sound. If you hear only one thing, you aren’t hearing Jesus. It is a sign of Jesus’ greatness that one thing can be said about Him and the opposite be true at the same time. Jesus is a paradox and an oxymoron rolled into one.

That makes Christianity a culture of paradox. Swiss theologian Emil Brunner pegged it right: “The hallmark of logical inconsistency clings to all genuine pronouncements of faith.”

The Living Water gospel is a cocktail of opposites, a paradoxical brew of hydrogen and oxygen, fire and wind, “Lord I believe” and “help my unbelief,” as well as…

Come and live. Come and die.
Be as wise as serpents, innocent as doves.
My yoke is easy, my burden is light.
You want to be first? Be last.
You want to find yourself? Lose yourself.
You want to be famous? Be humble.
The Prince of Peace came bringing a sword.
Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.

Jesus never tried to unknot His contradictions. Rather, he used these knots as rungs in the ladder to enable us to climb higher in truth and revelation.

What brings the opposites together and connects them is the sign of the cross. The Bible in general (and John’s gospel in particular) is sometimes called the Book of Signs. But the sign above all signs is the cross, which brings together the vertical and the horizontal. Jesus’ love is agape love. Agape love is made of two dimensions: love of God and love of neighbour. The horizontal and the vertical go hand in hand. How do you show love of God, love of neighbour, and vice versa?

The gospel goes parabolic beginning with Jesus’ birth, where God works little large with the whole of faith encapsulated in a very small package: one little act of love. Jesus is the definitive localization of the Creator’s universality. The incarnation is the original “small is big.”

■■■

Look again at the babe from Bethlehem and see a King who was destined to redefine power, glory, and peace. And he would do it by subverting the kingdoms of this world by a cross–an instrument made of the same material that composed the manger into which He was born: wood. Even so, God’s glory was revealed not in the manger but on the cross. And therein lay His destiny.


Excerpted from pages 52, 53-54, 71; This 448-page hardcover is a steal at $19.99 US; learn more at ThomasNelson.com.


Previous excerpts from Jesus: A Theography here at C201:

April, 2013: Intricacies in the Jesus Narrative.
May, 2013: Jesus is the New Temple.


For my friends in the UK and in Ontario and Quebec, Canada (which is 61.5% of all Canadians):

I know announcements of increased lock-downs are discouraging. I felt impressed today to share the song You Are by the band Sonic Flood which is based on Psalm 91. When I checked however, I found that we did that already, during the last lock-down in April. Still, I felt someone here needs to hear this, so check out A Psalm We All Need Right Now.

November 27, 2020

Following Jesus, but with Reservations, Pessimism and Doubts

In one of the original pieces here six months ago, I re-classified the twelve apostles into some different categories, including “final week disappointments” consisting of “Peter’s denial, Judas’ betrayal, and Thomas’ doubt.” We often hear sermons on the similarities and contrasts between the first two, but Thomas usually doesn’t get included in this grouping.

You know the story. Thomas misses out on that initial resurrection celebration because he just can’t take in the possibility.

At Joyful Heart Renewal Ministries, Dr. Ralph Wilson notes

…Thomas is a pessimist. Some people rejoice to see a glass half full, but Thomas sees it half empty. Oh, he’s full courage, but also possesses a streak of fatalism. Once, when Jesus and his disciples hear about their friend Lazarus’s death near Jerusalem, the center of Jesus’ opposition, Thomas comments darkly, “Yes, let’s go there that we might die with him.” His words are almost prophetic.

Soon, his world falls apart. Thomas sees his Master arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and he flees for his life. On Good Friday he watches at a distance as they spike his Friend to a cross on the Roman killing grounds of Golgotha. As Jesus’ life drains away, so does Thomas’s hope.

On Saturday he is in shock. On Sunday he is so disillusioned that he doesn’t gather with his fellow disciples for an evening meal. Thomas is dazed, hurt, bitter — and lashing out. Monday morning, the disciples go looking for Thomas and tell him what has happened in his absence…

Thomas, at least in this moment in the narrative, is both a follower and a skeptic. And it’s safe to say his skepticism is winning the day on that Monday.

NIV.Jn.20.24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

He is basically saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Does that remind you of a verse of scripture?

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
 – Hebrews 11:1 NASB

or perhaps

For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?
 – Romans 8:24 NIV

We have to recognize that some of this is just the way Thomas is wired. It’s his temperament; his default setting; his basic character. The website for the Jesus Film Project notes that:

…At one point Jesus tells the disciples:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:1–4, NIV)

Naturally, the disciples don’t necessarily understand what He’s talking about. And it’s Thomas that asks Him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way” (John 14:5, NIV)?…

So was Thomas a “doubting Thomas?” The Enduring Word Bible Commentary says no. You’re thinking, wait? No?

…Thomas is often known as Doubting Thomas, a title that misstates his error and ignores what became of him. Here we could say that Thomas didn’t doubt; he plainly and strongly refused to believe.

· Thomas refused the believe the testimony of many witnesses and reliable witnesses.

· Thomas made an extreme demand for evidence; evidence of not only sight but of touch, and to repeatedly touch the multiple wounds of Jesus.

The same commentary, quoting McLaren’s Commentary notes:

Thomas did the very worst thing that a melancholy man can do, went away to brood in a corner by himself, and so to exaggerate all his idiosyncrasies, to distort the proportion of the truth, and hug his despair, by separating himself from his fellows. Therefore he lost what they got, the sight of the Lord.

And as a result, he misses out. He misses out on the “Peace be with you” blessing noted earlier in John 20, and he misses out on that moment when something bigger happens:

He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Thomas imposes a lot of conditions on what it would take to believe. Enduring Word quotes Leon Morris:

[A]nother possibility should not be overlooked, namely that he was so shocked by the tragedy of the crucifixion that he did not find it easy to think of its consequences as being annulled.

As we’ve seen above (vs. 26) he does see the risen Jesus. Eight. Days. Later.

Finally!

Then follows his confession; his affirmation; the statement that has major impact because it’s the words of someone who formerly did not believe:

NIV.Jn.20.28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Dr. Wilson says,

“Doubting Thomas” utters the greatest confession of faith recorded anywhere in the Bible.

The Enduring Word commentary notes that the final part of verse 29, which begins “blessed are” is a beatitude, but then quotes Spurgeon on ways we can miss that blessing:

· When we demand for a voice, a vision, a revelation to prove our faith.
· When we demand for some special circumstances to prove our faith.
· When we demand for some ecstatic experience.
· When we demand for an answer to every difficult question or objection.
· When we demand what men think of as success in our work of Jesus.
· When we demand that others support us in our faith.

Are you a doubting Thomas? You may not think so, but if we’re honest, most of us, even on our best days, harbor misgivings about some aspect of the faith, or its relevance to our personal situation. We’re like parent who comes to Jesus with concern for a gravely ill son:

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
 – Mark 9:24 NKJV

At those times our prayer should be

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
 – Luke 17:5 NIV

or in the NLT

The apostles said to the Lord, “Show us how to increase our faith.”

 

 

 

October 13, 2020

If He Builds It, They Will Come

Forgive the Field of Dreams reference, but at least we can’t be accused of siphoning readers away from the primary site of today’s discussion.

This is our fourth time visiting the blog Preacher Pollard but our first time with Dale Pollard. This is one of those topics that deals with the context and background of the life of the incarnate Christ. Click through (on the title below) to read more from Dale, Neal and others.

“Was Jesus Really A Carpenter?”

Dale Pollard

  • “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, brother of James, Joses, and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us? And they took offense at Him. Then Jesus said ‘a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown among relatives and those of his household.”Mark 6:4
  • “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenters son?”Matthew 13:54
  • Was Jesus a carpenter and were these fair questions to ask Him?

      Let’s examine FOUR quick factors:

Factor 1 – LOCATION: Nazareth was located 3 miles from Sepphoris which at the time was developing quickly as part of Herod   Antipas beautification project. It would eventually be known as “The Jewel Of All Galilee.” Jesus would have witnessed and perhaps helped his father cut stone in the quarry that was half way between Nazareth and the developing city.

Factor 2DEMAND – In the days of Jesus there weren’t many trees in the area, and there still aren’t many today. To try and make a living working with a material that wasn’t readily available or even used much would be difficult.

Factor 3 LANGUAGE – “Tekton” simply means “builder” The Messiah was a handyman, and the spiritual connections in your mind may  already be forming.

Factor 4 – SCRIPTURE – Luke 20:17ff – Jesus tells the parable about the wicked tenants, after Jesus is questioned about His authority in the temple by the scribes/chief priests, He looks at them and says “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” quoting from Psalm 118.

Again quoted by Peter as he defends himself in front of religious leaders in Acts 4 “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you the builders.” It was a reference to David’s lineage to the  Messiah and it would have been familiar to Jewish stone builders.

So with this in mind, let’s revisit the questions asked by those in Jesus’ hometown

  1. Where did this man get this wisdom?

A. Their perspective: “You’re the son of a common builder. He didn’t teach you these things, he taught you to build.”

B. The reality: It wasn’t wisdom from Joseph, it was His heavenly fathers wisdom. But Joseph, no matter how talented he was in his craft, did not teach Him to build…

1. A ship that would carry Christians safely into eternity, he may have taught Jesus to  work with stones, but he no idea that on a rock He’d build His church.

2. He did not teach Him to build a home that would last for all eternity, but that’s what Jesus is building now!

3. He didn’t teach Him to build a walkway that would bridge the gap of separation between God and man, but He did.

2. Where did He get these miraculous abilities?

A. Their perspective: “You’re the son of a common builder. You’re performing things with your hands that the hands of a common builder can’t perform!”

B. The reality: Jesus is the master builder. The only one that could claim to build things out of the very stones and pieces of wood He spoke into existence.

What does all this mean?

1. In the hands of the Master builder, you can be something better.

2. In the hands of the master builder, you can be somewhere better.

3. If you’re broken, you can be fixed. If you’re not a child of God, your life is broken.

4. You can be something better than you are. Your imperfections can be made perfect through the blood of Christ.

5. You can be somewhere better. You can be In good standing with the God above. You could be In a loving family bound for glory— the home built by God.

September 18, 2020

Four Things You Need When Considering Education Choices

One glance at today’s headline and you’ll see it’s a bit more “practical” than what we normally do here. However, these are times when many families are at a crossroads, and the “four things” are straight out of scripture, a checklist so obvious that I think it’s easy for many parents to miss it, because many are bewildered about what’s taking place in our schools.

Not surprisingly, today’s post comes from a parenting blog and one that is new to us. Wattsup with Kids is written by Tracy Watts. (I’ll give you a few seconds to make the connection!) As we say daily, click the header below and read this at her site and then take a few minutes to look around at other articles.

[Not a parent? Check out this post by Tracy on Trying to Do Everything in the Will of God. It’s more similar to what we normally share here!]

Simplicity and Direction

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. ~ Luke 2:52

In all the myriad of choices, stresses, and concerns of education this fall lies this verse. Here in first century Palestine, without electricity, Amazon.com or even running water, Jesus grows and develops (as any child should). And how did he grow? This verse lists four categories:

  1. Wisdom (Mental? Intellectual? Spiritual? I think the answer is probably yes 😊)
  2. Stature (physical growth and skills)
  3. In favor with God (spiritual growth)
  4. In favor with man (social growth)

I find much comfort from this verse. We see here both simplicity and direction. In an age of endless options, we hold in our hands simple truth: Do I provide opportunity for my child to grow his mind and wisdom? Do I provide opportunity and sustenance to grow physically? Do I provide time where I impart the love of God and the truths of the Bible – both in explicit teaching as well as in the “teachable” moments throughout the day? And do I provide opportunity for him to practice kindness and love to others?

Sometimes, we get lost stressing about things that are not actually important. We worry about things that God has not placed in our hands. We need to lay aside these weights, like the Hebrews author says

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. ~ Hebrews 12:1-2

Stretching before us is an entire season of tomorrows, seemingly filled with worry and doom, judgement and criticism. God does not ask us to live weeks or months at a time. He gives us one day, one hour, one moment at a time. Choose God’s direction and simplicity. Choose what is more – eternity. Live in today, point your feet heavenward, and take someone else by the hand to go there too.

Dear one, leave tomorrow to God – it belongs to Him anyway.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. ~ Matthew 6:33-34

September 8, 2020

Looking for Lepers

Today we’re highlighting a new author, Lydia Shearin, who writes at Soli Deo Gloria. Because this was slightly edited for length, you’re encouraged to click the title below and read this excellent article at her site.

Just one Touch

I have heard people say that the COVID-19 pandemic has been the hardest on extroverts, who have been forced into social isolation by quarantine, and I know many introverts who would debate that statement, but I think we can all agree that there is one group of people who have been hit especially hard by all of the social distancing and safety measures:

Huggers.

We all know at least one of these people who thrive off of physical touch, and will hug anyone and everyone, from their friends and family to the grocery store clerk. To these people, hugs are the best way to communicate greeting, farewell, joy, empathy, sadness, and many more emotions…

…I can’t deny that there is something special about our sense of touch. Have you ever noticed how many different emotions we can communicate through a simple touch on the arm, or a squeeze of the hand? As humans, I don’t think that God intended for us to live 6ft apart from each other. We were meant to be spiritually, emotionally, and physically connected to one another.

As I was pondering these things this morning, I was reminded of a powerful story found in three of the Gospels (Mark 1:40-45, Matthew 8:1-4, and Luke 5:12-16); The story of a leper that Jesus healed. Here is Luke’s version of the story:

While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

Luke 5:12-16

I believe this is such a powerful story because it shows us the character of Jesus, and gives us insight into how he reacts to us when we bring him our brokenness.

At first glance, this my seem like just one of the many healing stories in the Bible, but for the Jews, Jesus’ response to the leper carries a whole different meaning. For him to reach out and touch a leper would have been shocking, to say the least, and ungodly, to say the worst. To understand this, we have to understand how serious having leprosy was in Jewish times. In those days, leprosy had no cure. You could not just grab some prescription anti-itch cream and put it on. People did not realize that the disease was caused by a bacterial infection that could be easily spread, but they did know that it was very contagious, and so lepers were avoided at all costs. Because leprosy seemed to appear out of the blue, a person who had leprosy was often considered to be stricken and punished by God himself.

If you go back to the Old Testament and read Leviticus 13, you will see that there was a rigorous process to figure out if someone had leprosy, and the chapter lists some of the symptoms to watch out for. I will spare you the nauseating details in case some of you are eating lunch, but trust me when I say that it was bad. Regardless, at the end of that chapter, we get a picture of what life would have been like for a leper:

 “Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.”

Leviticus 13:45-46

If a person was found to have a skin disease, they were to be isolated outside of normal society. They couldn’t work, no one could visit them, and no one could touch them. Because of the nature of the disease, they were either in pain or in an unbearable state of numbness all the time, and they had to depend on the generosity of others for their daily food and money. Not only that, their appearance was a badge of shame, as they were required to tear their clothes, wear their hair unkempt and call out that they were ill so that no one would come near them. Imagine if we did that today with other ailments. Imagine having to walk into a grocery store shouting, “Move everybody, lady with cancer coming through!” or “Don’t come near me, I have Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicavolcanoconiosis!” (yes, that is a real disease)   Imagine not being able to see your loved ones or hug your children for years.

In this context, Jesus’ choice to touch the leper was unimaginably shocking, but also so loving. Imagine, after not being able to touch anyone for years, the first touch you feel is that of your savior. that’s powerful. You can be sure that that leper never forgot Jesus’s touch.

But that is not all. There is another deeper, spiritual level to the story. Not only did Jesus heal the man’s body, I believe he forgave the man’s sin and healed his soul as well. That’s a big statement; let me explain. You may have noticed that after Jesus proclaimed the words, “Be clean” over the leper, he commanded the man to go and offer the sacrifices commanded by Moses for cleansing. Why? Not to receive spiritual or physical cleansing (he had already received that), but as “a testimony to them [the priests, scribes and pharisees]”…

…So when Jesus touched the man, he brought him ceremonial cleansing as well as physical cleansing. Yay! But there is one caveat: Anyone who touched a leper was considered to be defiled. In Leviticus 5:3-6 it says:

3 or if they touch human uncleanness (anything that would make them unclean) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt; 4 or if anyone thoughtlessly takes an oath to do anything, whether good or evil (in any matter one might carelessly swear about) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt— 5 when anyone becomes aware that they are guilty in any of these matters, they must confess in what way they have sinned. 6 As a penalty for the sin they have committed, they must bring to the Lord a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for them for their sin.” 

According to the law of Moses, If a Jew touches someone who is unclean, he defiles himself and must offer a sin offering to the Lord to be right with him. So when Jesus touched this leper, he literally took upon himself the man’s uncleanliness. Now, although the man has become ceremonially clean from Jesus’ healing touch, Jesus would be considered by the priests and other Jews to be ceremonially unclean. He would not be able to have full communion with God in the temple until he had made the correct sacrifices for sin. But we know something that the Jews of that time didn’t know: Jesus didn’t need to make sacrifices to be reconciled with God after touching the man’s uncleanliness, because he was the sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world! Nevertheless, bearing all these factors in mind, it was a deliberate and conscious choice by Jesus to touch this man!

How easy would it have been for Jesus to simply call out to the man from a distance, “You are healed”? He had healed people from a distance before; he would later heal the centurion’s slave from a different part of the city. No one would have thought anything if Jesus stood back at a safe distance and spoke healing over him. The man would have still rejoiced, and the people would have still been amazed. But for this man, love meant reaching out and touching him. Love meant taking the man’s filth onto himself.

How often does God treat us the same way? When we bring ourselves to him, with all of our filth and sin and shame, does God turn away in horror? Does he stand at a safe distance from us and shout “Be Clean”? No. When we fall before his feet with nothing but lust, pride, envy and all the other infectious sins that we bear, he reaches out and pulls us close. He touches us, and takes all of our uncleanliness upon himself so that we can be clean before God.

Praise God we have a savior who is not afraid to get his hands dirty!

Yet we as Christians are often so unlike our Savior. We are quick to judge, but loath to lift a finger to help. When we encounter broken people with messy lives we say, “I don’t want to get into all of that.” We hide behind the walls of our church buildings and proclaim a gospel of radical love that we don’t live, while outside our doors there are hurting people who need the touch of a Savior. When God brings hurting, messy, unbeleivers into our lives, we try to love them from a distance, secretly worrying that their ways will rub off on us and our children.

Well guess what, Christians: Real love is messy.

If you want the Lord to use you to touch people, you must first get close enough to them to touch them yourself. And I don’t mean just physically close enough- I’m talking about removing some of the emotional “protection” barriers we put up and really loving people. And yes, they might curse a lot. And yes, they might have a drinking problem. And yes, you might loose some money, or “waste” some time, or get a little hurt, but love always costs something and if we want to be like Jesus we need to learn to accept the cost.

So my question for you today is this: Who is the leper in your life?

May 24, 2020

For the Twelve, Answering the Call Came with Risk

Two weeks ago we looked at The Twelve Disciples. I’ve been continuing to think about them in the days which followed…

I wonder what I might have done in their shoes. A decade ago, a popular Christian speaker said these guys, like other Hebrew boys, might have dreamed of being selected to follow a Rabbi. Only “the best of the best of the best” were chosen. These guys were (for the most part) plying trades and weren’t on any Rabbi’s short list. Their life trajectory was headed in another direction.

Then Jesus appears. He invites them to basically ‘stop what you’re doing and follow me.’ And out of the blue,

Matt.4.20.NIV At once they left their nets and followed him. (See three different gospel accounts.)

It was an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Or could they?

Today, most of us would not consider taking a job without investigating the potential employer. What is their reputation? How is their stock price doing? What are the working conditions?

Similarly, none of us would enroll in a program of education (which is closer to what they were doing) unless we knew that upon completion, the certificate or degree was actually recognized; that it truly meant something. (The accreditation process facilitates some of that investigation for us today.)

Would they accept not knowing all the facts? Apparently so.

First, they were signing up with a peripatetic teacher.

Don’t let the big word scare you, it’s similar to itinerant and simply means “traveling from place to place.” Jesus the teacher was not attached to a synagogue. Being schooled with him didn’t mean an actual school, but rather wandering from place to place, sometimes eating on the road by biting the heads off the grain in nearby fields (and getting into arguments over so doing.) See Matthew 12 for that story, but don’t miss verse 8 where Matthew adds the phrase “Going on from that place…” to emphasize the traveling ministry. Even his long discourse in the last quarter of John’s gospel is delivered while walking from the upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane.)

(A big shoutout here to anyone who has ever slept in their car, or at the side of the road. I’ve done both, but not lately. That’s the idea conveyed here, although the twelve plus Jesus were sometimes billeted in the homes of supporters in various towns.)

When one of the scribes considers following him, Jesus utters his famous “foxes have holes” line which The Message renders as,

Matt.8.20.MSG Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”

Second, Jesus wasn’t trained by a rabbi they knew.

There was a strict process here. One rabbi trains a group of students (as Jesus is doing) and then they wash, rinse and repeat. (Couldn’t resist.) But you always know, at least in name, the person your rabbi sat under for his training.

So Jesus commences his ministry, and the crowd (specifically, elders, scribes and chief priests) ask him who has commissioned him in ministry; who has authorized him to preach. In our day, being ordained or being a commended minister carries with it the concept of accountability.

Mark.11.28.NLT They demanded, “By what authority are you doing all these things? Who gave you the right to do them?”

repeated in Luke,

Luke.20.1-2.NASB On one of the days while He was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders confronted Him, and they spoke, saying to Him, “Tell us by what authority You are doing these things, or who is the one who gave You this authority?”

Most readers here would quickly say that Jesus’ ministry is confirmed by his Father. More than once in the gospel accounts we find the “voice from heaven” speaking. (A good topic for another study!) But the disciples would be risking their own reputation following a teacher whose own schooling doesn’t have earthly verification.

In balance however, we need to remind ourselves that the miracles Jesus performs validate his teaching. Things ‘no one could do unless…’ Nicodemus gets this when he says,

John.3.2b.NIV “…For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Third, there are lingering questions as to the legitimacy of Christ’s birth.

In a world without user names and passwords, people would have a longer memory for stories, and while Joseph and Mary weren’t celebrities, their story is the hard-to-forget type which would make great fodder for the tabloids and TMZ.

So when Jesus begins teaching, they ask

Mark.6.3a Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son…?”

they don’t simply mean, ‘Isn’t this the boy next door?’ but rather are dredging up a host of other memories which would recall the earlier scandalous story where Mary finds herself pregnant.

In another story where the authority or power of Jesus’ teaching is questioned, the Jews to which he is speaking come back with an indirect, but hard-hitting shot at Jesus

John.8.41b.NIV We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”

Commentators have suggested that this phrase can be translated, “We’re not bastards!” It’s a direct allusion to Jesus’ parentage.

Knowing these three things, would we accept the call?

I will leave that question open.

There are three applications we can take from this:

  1. Following Jesus may take us to unexpected places, it might involve sacrifice, and may result in experiencing less than optimal conditions.
  2. The path of discipleship may mean unconventional employment, perhaps even contradicting the norms of standard vocational ministry.
  3. Following Jesus the Nazarene may impact our own personal reputation; we will need to simply not care what people think of us or Him.

 



May 10, 2020

Christocentric Conversation

I want to know Christ–yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings
Phil 3:10 (NIV)

For we are not proclaiming ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves because of Jesus.
2 Cor. 4:5 (HCSB)

And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.
I Cor. 15:14 (NLT)

So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.
1 Cor. 1:2 (NLT)

Christ means everything to me in this life, and when I die I’ll have even more.
Phil 1:21 (GW)

For it is in closest union with Him that we live and move and have our being…
Acts 17:48a (Weymouth)

Now this is eternal life–that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent.
John 17:3 (NET)

He must increase, but I must decrease
John 3:30 (var.)

If you get to know someone over a period of time you should start to see an emerging pattern of the values they hold to be important. But sometimes, after ten years of writing and editing Christianity 201, I’ll discover a topic which is very near and dear to me which I’ve never covered here. Or I’ll be speaking with someone with whom I’ve had dozens of conversations, and they’ll tell me I never mentioned that particular term before.

One such word is: Christocentric.

It’s a preacher word, to be sure, and I’m not a preacher; but I believe strongly in Christ-centered preaching, when even with a particularly obscure Old Testament passage, the pastor infuses the message with the Christological element or application. The same is true of my preference for Christ-centered worship songs, and Christ-centered fellowship.

A few years ago, I got to test my commitment to that ideal.

It was a simple discussion with a man who is a member of a Christian denomination that many of my friends would say doesn’t represent “the real thing.” We talked about various things, and many spiritual practices and doctrines were mentioned which had the potential to easily hijack the discussion, or prove to be red herrings that would have simply consumed much time and yielded nothing productive.

So I kept coming back to the things Jesus said and the things Jesus taught. That’s actually not easy for me because I’m a sucker for all those other debate subjects. I love a good argument. There. I said it.

But it wasn’t the time or place. It was a time to focus on Jesus, and draw the conversation back to Jesus every time it threatened to go off in a different direction. I even explained my strategy out loud a few times; something to this effect: No one will be won to Christ by clever argument or reasoned persuasion or skillful rhetoric; but rather, they will be compelled to follow only when they have looked directly into the face of Jesus and been won by His love.

It was the best conversation of this type I’ve had; and I think the feeling was mutual, especially inasmuch as we ran 90 minutes. He was in 70’s and I probably should have offered him a chair, but he was as caught up in the discussion as I was. But I had to work hard to keep the discussion from going off the rails.

And He continued by questioning them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Mark 8:29 (NASB)

…So again, today’s word is “Christocentric” meaning Christ-focused. Take this word and make it yours and then whenever it’s your turn to control the conversation, bring the focus back to Jesus. Ask people the question below.  The way people answer this speaks volumes as to their relationship to the Lord. But, sometimes the tables are turned, so always be ready to give your answer to this question:

What do you think about the Messiah?
Matthew 22:42 NIV

What do you think about the Christ?
Matthew 22:42 NET


Jesus at the Center – Israel Houghton – Studio version.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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