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“Wanted, Not Worthless”

foundWhen I was just starting seminary back in 1976, there was a national evangelistic campaign that featured yellow bumper stickers that boldly announced “I found it!” “It” was salvation – redemption, the forgiveness of sins, life eternal and abundant. On the bulletin board outside the dining hall where students posted announcements and advertisements, someone plastered one of these yellow “I found it!” bumper stickers, and others in the community took this as an invitation to comment, a chance to come up with some facetious slogans of their own.  It started innocently enough with a simple question– “What is it?” That got the ball rolling. “If you find it, please turn it into the office immediately,” one said, and that was followed with a – “No, I found it — it’s mine now.” “Well, if you found it, then you can have it because I don’t want it!” was answered with – “Well, you may have found it, but I never lost it.” And so it went day after day until finally one day someone posted – “He found me.”

sheepDr. George Eldon Ladd, the world class New Testament scholar who taught at that school was famous for saying that the only truly “new element” in Jesus Christ’s teachings about God was that He was a “seeking God” — a God who “takes the initiative to seek out the sinner, to bring the lost into the blessing of His reign” (80).  The Pharisees of Jesus’ day taught that while God “was always [at least theoretically] willing to take the first step towards us, that in actual practice the initiative was almost always left up to the sinner to return to God.” The people in Jesus’ day thought that it was up to them to find God, but Jesus Christ said that it’s God who actually comes to find us, so that whoever posted – “He found me!” –clearly understood Dr. Ladd’s point.  In fact, I sometimes wondered if it wasn’t Dr. Ladd himself who posted it!  And where Dr. Ladd said that he found this great truth of God seeking the sinner most clearly was in the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke.  There are three parables about God seeking and saving the lost in Luke chapter 15.  The first one is the Parable of the Lost Lamb.  And the truth that this parable firmly establishes is the idea that what gets lost gets sought!  The shepherd doesn’t scold, or shame, or spank his little lamb for getting lost; no, he just went after it and brought it back home again joyfully.

Jonathan Dahl’s father died 30 years ago. On his death bed, Jonathan’s father made a final request of him. “Find Jeff” he said.  Jeff was the oldest boy in the Dahl family, and he had vanished one hot August afternoon six years before his father died.  Strung out on drugs after years of failed rehabs, Jeff exploded when his parents refused to give him $35.  He smashed some furniture, kicked in a car door, and threatened to burn down the house.  His father told him to leave, to just go and not come back.  And Jeff did.  He left and had not been seen or heard from by anybody in his family after that day.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

jeffJeff was the oldest and brightest son of an IBM executive who lived in Darien, Connecticut. Jeff was absolutely adored by his kid brother Jonathan.  Jeff was the kind of big brother who would stop to tie his little brother’s shoes at the bus stop, sit with him during lunch in the school cafeteria, and play with him after school.  Jeff was a good athlete and a great student.  Some of his poems were published when he was still in Middle School.  He won trophies for swimming and tennis. He had a steady girlfriend and a full tuition scholarship to college.   Jeff Dahl was every parent’s dream, the picture of success.  He was bright, popular, and gifted — a kid full of promise.

It was when he was a freshman at college that Jeff began experimenting with drugs. It changed him.  He became moody and withdrawn, disinterested and unmotivated. To buy drugs he started stealing things.  He got into trouble with the law, and that’s when he began an endless cycle of drug treatment programs.  During one of these hospitalizations he was diagnosed with a mental illness that’s characterized by uncontrollable urges and sudden emotional outbursts. But the doctors weren’t really sure if Jeff’s behavioral problems were caused by his drug problem or by his mental illness.  They said they needed Jeff to be drug free for six months to know for sure.  Jeff never was drug free for six months.

Jeff was 27 years old when he got kicked out of the family. Later, when things calmed down a bit, Jeff’s father regretted what he’d said to him. He knew that if Jeff had cancer, or had become a paraplegic, that he would never have thrown him out. But Jeff was gone. He’d vanished without a trace.  And then Jeff’s dad got sick himself, and as he lay dying, he made his final request – “Find Jeff.”

The burden of this request fell squarely on Jonathan’s shoulders, Jeff’s little brother.   A writer for the Wall Street Journal who travelled the country chasing stories, Jonathan was in the best position to conduct the search.  And so Jonathan would add an extra day or two onto every trip he took for business so that he could poke around the kind of places where homeless people were likely to be known – shelters, police stations, public libraries, churches with ministries to street people.  Flashing Jeff’s picture to the people in those places, Jonathan would ask, “Do you know him?” “Have you seen him?” In every city he visited, Jonathan would call every Jeff Dahl he found listed in the phone book, hoping against hope that he might just accidently stumble upon his brother. At one homeless shelter he visited somebody finally recognized Jeff’s picture and told him that he thought that he’d gone to Colorado with some friends. Jonathan booked the first flight to Denver he could find.  When he got there, Jonathan tracked down the mother of one of Jeff’s friends, and he got the name of a clerk at an X rated bookstore who know Jeff really well.  After a long conversation with that guy late into the night, Jonathan finally got a phone number, and he sensed that his long search was nearly over.

Jonathan drove around Denver the rest of that night in his rented car waiting for the sun to come up. At dawn he found a pay phone at a convenience store and punched in the number that he had been given.  The phone rang once, twice, three times.  Finally a groggy voice answered – “Yeah,” it said, “What do you want?” Jonathan panicked and hung up without saying a word.  It was Jeff’s voice.  He’d done it.  He’d found his brother.  But after all the years, through all the pain, what was he going to say?  He dialed the number again, and when it got picked up at the other end, Jonathan quickly said, “Jeff, this is your brother Jonathan. I love you.  We miss you. Please come home.”  There was a long pause, and the sound of sobbing.

Luke 19:10 is one of the Gospel’s purpose statements, Jesus telling His disciples why He’d come and what He was there to do – “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” This verse is the punch line to the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho who climbed up in a Sycamore tree to try to see Jesus who was passing by that day.  Zacchaeus was “lost.” He’d betrayed his people, denied his identity, and sold his soul.  It had made him rich, and it had left him isolated, inhabiting the margins of society, estranged from his people and their God.

parnellJonathan Parnell takes Zacchaeus climbing up the tree to get to Jesus as a symbol of all the ways that we as human beings try to get right with God in our own strength and by our own effort. It’s popular to talk about the spiritual life as a ladder that we have got to climb in order to get into God’s presence and to win God’s favor. “Religion tells us to seek. We are advised to climb trees like Zacchaeus, to depend upon our own exertion for any hope of ascending to the divine.  We are told to bridge the gap by our effort.  If you want salvation, they say, seek it.”  And then one day Jesus comes to town and says, “Hurry up and come down” (19:5).  He’s the seeker.  He’s the Savior.  Zacchaeus didn’t find Jesus by climbing up the tree. Jesus found Zacchaeus by telling him to come down out of the tree and going home with him. “Our seeking – our trying to reach the divine on our own – is silenced when we learn that the divine has reached down to us… by becoming one of us. Here we are, spinning our wheels in hopes of getting to God, and then God… comes to get us. 

“Lost” doesn’t mean “worthless” but “wanted.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “passed over” but “pursued.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “inferior” but “valuable.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “loathed” but “loved.”
“The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, wherever you’ve gotten yourself off to, whatever you’ve gotten yourself into, He’ll come. He’s already looking for you.  And when He finds you, what He’s going to say is – “I love you. We miss you. Please come home.” DBS+

 

 

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“Are you saved?”

edwardsI can still remember reading Jonathan Edward’s (1703 – 1758) sermon – “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” – in an American literature anthology when I was in high school, and being absolutely horrified by it.

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you… God’s wrath towards you burns like fire; God looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire…”

 When I was in the 11th grade, I didn’t think that I was nearly as bad a person as that sermon said I was, and I didn’t think that God was nearly as mean and awful as that sermon made Him out to be.  And if this is what I, someone who actually believed in God and regularly went to church thought about what Jonathan Edwards said in his sermon, then, I wondered, what would an unchurched unbeliever think? I’ve since found it.  If getting “saved” involves the view of God and self that Jonathan Edwards described in his sermon, then they’re just not having it.  But what if getting “saved” doesn’t involve Jonathan Edward’s view of God or self at all?

Back in the day, when students at Yale University would tell Dr. George Buttrick (1892 – 1980), Dean of the Chapel, that they weren’t coming to his services “because they didn’t believe in God anymore,” his standard response was always to say -“Tell me more about this God you don’t believe in anymore because I probably don’t believe in that God either!” And this makes me think that before rejecting “saved” talk because of the spiritual offense of what Jonathan Edwards famously did with it, maybe it should first be wrenched from his grip so that we might look at it from another vantage point.

The New Testament word for “saved” means to be “rescued,” “delivered,” “kept from harm.” It was a word that assumed that there was something or someone powerful out there that’s threatening people; someone or something that’s trying really hard to destroy them.  And the New Testament word for “Savior” was the title given in the ancient world to anyone who was able to keep people from that something or someone actually harming them.  Generals who won great military victories were called “saviors” in the ancient world.  So were ship captains who navigated terrible storms and brought their passengers and cargo safely to port, as were wealthy benefactors who rebuilt cites after natural disasters, as were rulers who brought stability and prosperity to their states.  We do the same thing.  A “Savior” is someone who “saves” people from something horrible that’s happening to them.

When he was just a little boy the preacher David Pratte says that he and some of his neighborhood friends built some rickety rafts to float down the drainage ditch in front of their homes after a big storm (https://www.gospelway.com).  A neighbor warned them that the ditch was deep, that the current was fast, and that the water was muddy. “It’s dangerous boys” he told them. “You could drown if you fall in,” and David almost did.

raftWhen his raft predictably capsized, David struggled to get to the shore, but he couldn’t get a good grip on the slippery bank and he kept being pulled away and under by the swift current. When he finally slipped exhausted beneath the dark water for what he thought was the last time, that neighbor heard the commotion from his house, ran just as fast as he could to the ditch and jumped in fully clothed.  He couldn’t see where David was in the muddy swirling water, but he just happened to kick him when he jumped in, and so he was able to reach down and pull David up and out to safety. You saved my life,” David kept repeating to that man that day, “you saved my life.” And to this day David will tell you that he thinks of that man as his “savior,” and the story that the Bible tells us is the story of how God does this for us as human beings.  He jumps into our lives, and into our world, to pull us out of the trouble we’re in.

The Gospel is not as complicated as we sometimes make it out to be. We’re made for fellowship with God, but that intimacy got shattered when we chose to cut God out of our lives, and then everything else in our world began spinning out of control because God was no longer at its center holding everything in good balance and proper orbit.  Seeing the damage we’d done, and understanding the trouble we were in, God began the slow and deliberate process of making His way back into our lives.

Now, when we talk about getting “saved,” I believe that what we’re talking about is God doing this hard work of fixing what’s broken, of repairing what’s gone awry, of restoring us to a right relationship with Himself.  Some Christians, like Jonathan Edwards, when talking about salvation put the emphasis on the negative impact that all of the bad things we do have on God.  What we do wrong makes God mad, and so getting “saved” means escaping His punishment. But there are other Christians who, when talking about salvation, put the emphasis instead on the negative impact that all of the bad things we do have on us.  It makes God sad to see the way we struggle and suffer, and so getting “saved” means that God steps in to help make things better.

LouiseI like to read mysteries, and one of my favorite series are the books that the Canadian author Louise Penney writes about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the provincial police force of Quebec, and the quirky little village where he lives with his wife and friends – Three Pines. Armand Gamache is one of the wisest literary characters that I have the pleasure of knowing, and he is forever saying that there are four sentences that we all need to learn how to say as human beings — “I don’t know.” “I need help.” “I’m sorry.”  And “I was wrong.” It’s gotten so that now when people ask me why I think they need to be “saved,” I think in Inspector Gamache’s terms –

  • People need to be “saved” because we need help. As the folks in recovery know all too well – we are powerless over so many things, and our lives are unmanageable in so many ways, and only a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity and stability. Unlike Jonathan Edwards, my emphasis when thinking and talking about salvation is not that we’re bad and that God is mad, but that we’re in trouble and need God’s help.
  • We also need “saving” because there’s just so much that we don’t know. We don’t really know who we are, or what it is that we finally want. And we aren’t really sure about who God is, or what it is that He finally wants. Thus is why the book of Proverbs begins with the declaration that “reverence for God is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7). Jesus meant the same thing when He said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and then everything else in your life will start to sort out for you” (Matthew 6:33). When the fact of God’s existence and the truth God’s being gets fully reestablished in our lives, then we have a firm place to stand, and a sure foundation from which operate.
  • And finally, we need “saving” because we’re frequently wrong and we’re often sorry. I know I’m guilty about some of the things that I’ve done in my life, and I’m deeply ashamed of the kind of person that I know I can be at times. You may have seen that bumper sticker that says – “I want to be the person my dog thinks I am.” Well, I’ve got cats and I’m not sure that they even give me a thought except when they want to be fed. So, for me, it’s different.   I want to be the kind of person that I know God created me to be, that Jesus Christ has made possible for me to become again by dying and rising for me, and that the Holy Spirit is right now empowering me – bit by bit and day by day – to actually become.

When I hear the word “salvation” these days, I don’t primarily think about a God who needs to be appeased because He’s mad at us for being sinners, but rather, I think about a God who’s steadily, relentlessly making His way towards us, at great personal cost to Himself, because He knows we’re in trouble, in desperate need to help, and He loves us.

Practically speaking, believing this has some very real consequences for me –

  • First of all, I know that every single person I meet every day, all day, is in some kind of trouble. The fact is, we all need “saving.” As Dr. Charles Kemp, my professor of Pastoral Care at Brite Divinity School 40 years ago constantly told us – “Always be gentle and kind to people because everyone is carrying a heavy burden of some sort.”
  • And second, I know that every single person I meet is someone for whom Christ died (I Corinthians 8:11). Jesus Christ is the way God makes His approach to us in our need, and it’s what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross and then by getting up out of that borrowed tomb that is how God deals with all of those forces in our lives and this world that seek to work us woe. Jesus Christ is how God jumps into the deep, dark, swirling waters that are pulling us under to pull us up and out.

It was hard for me to see the face, and heart, of the God I knew in Jesus Christ in the things that Jonathan Edwards said about Him in his famous sermon. But rather than throwing the theological baby out of the homiletical bathwater that he was using, I discovered that there are other, better ways of Biblically thinking and talking about the saving work of God in Jesus Christ than the one Jonathan Edwards chose to develop.

Christianity is a religion of salvation. Jesus Christ is the Savior.  Christians are people who have been saved.  And it matters, it really matters, that we who know this firsthand in our own experience of it by faith to then think and talk about it in ways that emphasize God’s goodness and grace in a world where suffering, struggling people are desperately seeking help and hope. DBS+

 

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“Thoughts & Prayers” and “Pastoral Malpratice”, Part 3

thoughts

Part 3

The second crucial conversation that a commitment to “thoughts & prayers” involves us in as Christians is the one that we have with God about the things that can be shown to be what the Bible teaches. This is the third step in the process that Richard Hayes identifies as being what it means to take the Bible seriously. We’ve got to relate the truth of what the ancient texts say to the reality and demands of our contemporary circumstances and situations. As Dr. Hayes explains –

Even if we should succeed in giving some satisfactory synthetic account of the New Testament’s ethical content, we will still find ourselves perched on the edge of a daunting abyss: the temporal and cultural distance between ourselves and the text.

There’s a familiar distinction that often gets drawn between the “letter” of a Biblical text and its “spirit” based largely on John 6:63 where Jesus says – The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life,” and on 2 Corinthians 3:4 where Paul describes the new covenant that comes to us not as a written code that kills but “in the Spirit who gives life.” And while I would not want to drive too deep a wedge between the “letter” and the “spirit” of a Biblical text, I fully appreciate the difference between wanting to know the “letter” of a Biblical text so that I can be intellectually informed, and wanting to experience the “spirit” of a Biblical text so that I might be spiritually transformed.

George Whitefield (1714 – 1770), the Anglican cleric who’s powerful preaching ministry did so much to stir the fires of the 18th century Evangelical Revival in both Great Britain and the American Colonies, explained –

I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books, and praying over, if possible, every line and word. This proved meat indeed and drink indeed to my soul. I daily received fresh life, light and power from above.

In my mind this is the perfect description of the second crucial conversation that a serious commitment to “thoughts & prayers” will generate in us as Christians. Once we know what’s in the Bible, then we’ve got to come to terms with how it actually applies to us and our lives, and that involves a prayerful conversation with God about what it is that we find in the Bible.

I remember singing the James Russel Lowell lyric in the classic hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation” from the 1953 Disciple hymnal (the best one we ever produced) when I was in Christian College and serving my first few churches in the Pacific Northwest –

“New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.”

It’s not that God’s truth changes, but the contexts, both personal and social, to which those ancient truths must speak certainly do. We ask questions today that the Bible never anticipated. We face situations now that the Bible did not foresee. Go to the concordance in the back of your Bible right now and look up every reference to assault rifles, school shootings, and the Second Amendment, and you will find none. But this doesn’t mean that the Bible is devoid of wisdom to guide us, or that it is without good counsel to instruct us as we seek solutions to contemporary problems.

We may not have chapters and verses to which we can turn to settle a question, but we do have principles that are deeply informed by the weight of the Biblical witness, and that can be prayerfully discerned by paying attention to the Spirit’s promptings in our minds, and by listening to the Spirit’s small still voice whispering in our hearts. As John Robinson (1576 – 1625), the Pastor to the Pilgrims in Holland told them in his farewell address as they left for the New World – the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word.” And it’s the second crucial conversation that a commitment to “thoughts & prayers” generates – the one that takes place between a Christian and God about what’s in the Bible – that’s when, and where, and how we find that truth and see that light.

The idea that we can do away with serious “thoughts & prayers” in the urgency of the demand for meaningful “policy & change” is an ignorant argument at best, and a dangerous argument at worst. And for those of us who are in the “thoughts & prayers” business to give the impression that “thoughts & prayers” are unnecessary and irrelevant is foolishness at best, and unfaithfulness at worst. It’s only as we do our “thoughts & prayers” work with integrity and intentionality as people of faith that we will have anything helpful to say in the public conversation about “policy & change.” DBS +

 

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“Thoughts & Prayers” and “Pastoral Malpratice”, Part 2

thoughts

Part 2

More than just some pious drivel, I find that a commitment to “thoughts & prayers” involves me in two crucial conversations. The first one is the conversation that is Scripture itself.

What we have in the Bible are a series of serious conversations about scared subjects. The Hebrew Scriptures, or “First” Testament, are in a serious conversation with the Christian Scriptures, or “Later” Testament, about what God is doing. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are in a serious conversation with the Gospel of Mark about what Jesus did, and what it means, and the Gospel of John jumps in later to have an important conversation with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke about who Jesus is, and why He matters. Paul is in a conversation with James about the meaning of saving faith. Peter and Jude are in a conversation with each other about what faithfulness looks like in oppositional times. And the Book of Revelation is in an important conversation with all of the other books in the Christian collection about how God in Jesus Christ is finally going to complete His work of salvation begun in the Incarnation 2,000 years ago.

A real commitment to “thoughts & prayers” is a commitment to eavesdropping on the conversations that are already going on in the Bible on any given subject long enough to get a good sense of what’s at stake from God’s point of view, and to understand what faithful alternatives are actually open to us. The New Testament scholar Richard Hayes says that the first two steps that are involved in this process of taking the Bible seriously are – first, to read the texts carefully (a “descriptive” task) and, second, to look for the coherence that exists between them (a “synthetic” task). The first task is making sure that you have all of the relevant pieces of the puzzle that you are working on, and the second task is trying to figure out how they all fit together. The fact of the matter is that we all tend to proof text our preconceived positions when we open our Bibles. We know what we already think, and so we selectively go to the Bible looking for those verses that support it while discounting any verses that we might come across that don’t. The approach that Richard Hayes describes as “faithful” begins instead with a gathering of all of the relevant texts rightly understood in their proper literary, historical, and theological contexts.

For instance, in the Bible’s conversation about social violence, someone following Dr. Hayes’ approach is going to have to bring the sixth commandment about not killing (Exodus 20:13) into conversation with the Noahide commandment (“Noahidism” is a monotheistic ideology within Rabbinic Judaism that says that non-Jews are not obligated to convert to Judaism, but that they are required to observe the Seven Laws of Noah) to kill those who kill (Genesis 9:6). The Prophet Joel’s instruction to “beat your plowshares into swords” (3:10) is going to have to be put into conversation with the Prophet Isaiah’s instruction to “beat your swords into plowshares” (2:4). Jesus’ instruction to His disciples to put away their swords (Matthew 26:52) is going to have to be brought into conversation with His instruction to buy swords (Luke 22:36). And the angel’s announcement at His birth that Jesus is the bringer of peace (Luke 2:14) is going to have to be brought into conversation with Jesus’ own protest that He came “not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). And this just scratches the surface.

The first crucial conversation that a commitment to “thoughts & prayers” involves us in as Christians is the one that Scripture has within itself – one text arguing with another text; one idea grappling with another idea; one truth challenging another truth. Every significant thing that the Bible teaches involves us in just this sort of complicated thinking – God is three and one; Jesus is fully God and fully human; the Kingdom has already come and is not yet here; we are saved by faith without works, but faith without works is dead; God is sovereign and we are free; the Bible is the Word of God and a thoroughly human word. It’s only as we wrestle with the Bible’s “furious opposites” that we begin to gain the mind of Christ, and start to think God’s thoughts after Him. But this doesn’t happen without being in conversation with God, and so tomorrow we’ll look at praying… DBS +

 

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The Crushing Place

olivepressThe word “Gethsemane” literally means “the place of the olive press.” Olive oil was essential to life in ancient Israel, and the way that it was produced was by putting the harvested and pitted olives into a great big stone trough and then rolling another enormous stone back and forth over them, crushing them and extracting their oil.  The Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus went to pray on the night that He was betrayed was an olive grove, and there would have been just such a press nearby.  The symbolism is obvious.

Jesus’ “crushing hours,” the place He went to struggle with the weight of doing God’s will, was the place of an olive press.  This was a time of real testing and a place of real struggle for Christ. “My soul is very sorrowful,” He told his disciples, “even to death” (Matthew 26:38), as He begged them to remain there and watch with Him. “Abba, Father,” He prayed, “all things are possible to thee, remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mark 14:36).  And in a detail that only appears in some of the ancient manuscripts that we have of the Gospel of Luke – “being in agony, Jesus prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to upon the ground” (22:44).  It’s a powerful word picture.  Just like the oil being extracted from the olives through crushing in the press in that garden where Jesus prayed, Luke was telling us that the life of Jesus was being extracted from Him through the crushing experience of wrestling with God’s will.

fatherWhat God the Father asked of His only begotten Son that night long ago in the garden was a unique part of His work of redemption. This will never be a part of our experience.  We can’t do what He did.  We can only receive the benefit of it by faith.  But the Gethsemane experience of heaviness, that feeling of the moral and spiritual weight of the choices that are constantly in front of us, that’s always going to be a part of our experience as Christians, and Jesus knew it, which is why I think that the very first thing He said to His disciples when they got to the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of His testing was – “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (22:40).

The Greek word translated “temptation” here is a word that means “to test,” “to try,” “to prove.”

It may be used in a positive sense as in the case of Job, who said in the midst of his trail, “When the Lord has tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (23:10).  Or it may be used in a negative sense: to tempt toward evil. (Ron Ritchie)

And the point is that this is going to be our experience as followers of Jesus Christ. We’re going to find ourselves in our own Gethsemanes constantly.   Every single day is crowded with choices great and small, and as Christians we’re going to make these choices acutely aware that there is always more than just one will that’s pulling at us.  There’s that adversarial something that crouches at the door of our lives just waiting to spring (Genesis 4:7).  There’s our own will, what it is that we think we want for ourselves. And then there’s the Lord who has a vital interest in everything we think, say and do as His disciples.  Paul told the Corinthians that the love of Christ “constrained” him (2 Corinthians 5:14).  The word that Paul used for “constrain” is a word that literally means to “press hard together,” and suddenly we’re back in Gethsemane, at the crushing place.  Faithfulness is all about this struggle of wills.  Every decision we make as Christians is made in the push and pull of these forces.  We will constantly feel the weight of them, and it’s always going to hard.  There’s simply no escaping it if Jesus is your Lord.

When we say “yes” to Jesus when he asks to be the Lord of our lives and worlds, Gethsemane becomes our home address.  It’s where we’re going to live the rest of our lives.  It’s in this crushing place of the contest of wills that we are going to find ourselves tested and changed, and through the experience, it’s where we’ll discover the best ways to cooperate with the God who’s will is one day going to be done on earth as it is in heaven.   And it all starts when, with Jesus in the place of the olive press where lots of different forces all seek to master us, we can pray – “Not what I will, but what will… not what I want, but what you want…” DBS +

 

 

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Beloved

beloved
The great temptation of the church in an era of challenge and decline like the one that we currently find ourselves in is to want to pull back and take care of ourselves rather than to turn outward in Christ’s mission of extending God’s compassion to anyone and everyone who has been kicked to the curb and told that they don’t matter. And because this is just such an era of challenge and decline for churches like ours, the Jesus I believe we really need right now is the Jesus who meets us in the Gospel of Luke.

jesusesThe Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is the Messiah of God’s complete faithfulness. The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is the Son of God’s mighty purpose and power. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel is the Son of Man whose compassion draws the least, the last, and the lost into the embrace of God’s inclusive love.  And the Jesus of John’s Gospel is the Word of God made flesh who comes to offer us the gift of eternal life.

I know all of these Jesuses.
I believe in all of these Jesuses.
I need all of these Jesuses.

When I struggle with knowing what’s true and who it is that I can finally trust, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew I really need. When the days grow dark and it feels like chaos is winning the fight, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark I really need.  When loved ones die and I am confronted with the fact of my own mortality, I find that what I really need is the Jesus of the Gospel of John.  And when I am tempted to pull back into the cocoon of myself to pursue my own private interests and to seek my own selfish well-being, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Luke I really need.  The most important thing for a church like ours to rediscover and then proclaim in a mean era when people are increasingly picking sides, drawing lines, and building barriers to keep others out is that we are God’s “beloved” — we are — all of us — God’s “beloved.” And this is precisely what the Jesus of the Gospel of Luke makes clear to me.

Near the end of his life, Henri Nouwen said that the central moment in the public ministry of Jesus as the Christ as far as he as concerned was His baptism in the Jordan by John when He heard the voice of God say – “You are my beloved.”  The last great theme of Henri Nouwen’s long and distinguished vocation as a spiritual teacher was the development of this idea that at the very center of the spiritual life for us as Christians is hearing the words – “You are my Beloved” – in “a deep way,” and then living out this truth as a contradiction to everything that the world believes.

belovedThe world says that our worth is determined by how we look, by what we weigh, by who we vote for, by where we live, by the level of our education and income, by who we love, by where we were born, by the color of our skin, or by any one of a hundred other things. But in the world our worth is always conditional.  It always depends on something else.  It’s something we have to deserve.  It’s something we have to be worthy of.  It’s something we have to earn.  But the Biblical word for “beloved” cuts through all of this and says that our worth is something that is established by God’s own determination and declaration instead.  The Biblical word for “beloved” is variant of the Biblical word “agape,” a word that refers to God’s love – a “deep, active, self-sacrificing, and absolutely unconditional” kind of love. To be “beloved” is literally to be “agape-ed.”

Jesus heard that He was “agape-ed” ~ “beloved” when He got baptized.  Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John to fully identify Himself with the people He came to seek and save, and so when God declared Him “Beloved” I believe that it wasn’t just a statement about Him alone, but rather it was a statement for, and about us all.  As one of the greatest theologians that the church has ever produced, a man named Athanasius (296 – 373), put it – “He [Jesus Christ] became what we are so that he might makes us what He is.” Getting into line with all those people who were being baptized was part of Jesus “becoming what we are,” and God’s declaration of Jesus as His “Beloved” child is part of Jesus “making us what He is.”

In a sermon that he preached at the Episcopal Cathedral in St. Louis at the beginning of January in 2011 [http://yourcathedral.blogspot.com/2011/01/you-are-my-beloved-sermon-for-feast-of.html] the Rev. Mike Kinman explained that the truth of “Beloved-ness” is a truth that moves in three directions at once.  First it moves inward. It’s first a word that gets spoken to each one of us individually. Once we’ve internalized this truth and feel it in our bones, then it starts to move outward.  You see, not only am I God’s beloved, but so are you, as is everyone in this beloved community we call the church.  So, in your imagination tattoo the word “Beloved” onto the forehead of every other Christian you meet – the Conservative ones and the Liberal ones, the Progressive ones and the Fundamentalist ones, the ones who are most like you and the ones who couldn’t be more different from you – and then frame every thought you have of them and every word you speak to them, or about them, by the fact that they are numbered among God’s “agape-ed.”  And once we’ve started treating each other around here, inside the four walls of the church, as “beloved,” then it’s time to open up the doors and take this show on the road.

John 3:16 doesn’t say that God so loved the church that He sent his only begotten Son, but that God so loved the world. It’s the whole world and everyone in it that’s “Beloved” by God.  There are no exceptions.  And so Rev. Kinman told his congregation that Christians are people who –

…through prayer and [Bible] study listen to God’s voice saying: “You are my beloved,” and who every day grow a little less fearful and a little more trusting that it is true. It’s being people who look at each other and see before anything else someone whom God adores. [And] Who every day try just a little bit harder to be a part of God adoring everyone else…

cupJesus heard God say that He was “Beloved” while standing in the waters of His baptism.  I think that where we are most likely to hear God say that we are His “Beloved” is at the Lord’s Table where bread is broken and a cup is poured in remembrance of Christ’s saving acts and in celebration of His continuing presence.  We come to the Lord’s Table to hear God say – “You are my Beloved.” And then we go from the Lord’s Table knowing that every person we meet is God’s “Beloved” too, and understanding that we may very well be the only people in the world with the power at that moment to tell them, and to show them, who they truly are – God’s “Beloved.”  DBS +

 

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The Week of the Two Babies

Babies

We’ve just come through the week of the two babies.  Two Sundays ago it was all about the baby Jesus.   Last Sunday it was another baby who demanded our attention — “Baby New Year.” A baby in a top hat, sash, and a diaper has been the symbol of New Year’s Day since the dawn of the 20th century when the Saturday Evening Post began putting a picture of a little baby on the cover of their year-end issues. The symbolism is clear.  The New Year arrives like a little baby who will age through the days of the coming year and after 12 months be old and withered in the end, like Father Time.

Carl Dennis, one of my favorite poets, saw these two babies – Jesus and the Baby New Year – with their respective celebrations just one week apart on the calendar as competitors of sorts.

More jubilant by far than many Christians
On the birthday of Jesus, [he wrote] the many pagans
Crowding into the square this New Year’s Eve,
Though by now they must realize that the baby
Whose birth they’re about to witness
Is doomed to grow old and die in a year,
Just as the last one did, and the one before,
Without a crumb of hope in a second coming.

I take a different view. Rather than competition for Christ, I find that Baby New Year with his message of growth and change is actually the perfect counterpoint to our tendency as Christians to linger too long at the manger.

We love Christmas. It pulls at our hearts. Christ the baby can be cuddled and cooed. We want to hold Him in our arms as he sleeps, and this is precisely the reason why we need Baby New Year to come along just a week after our visit to the Christmas crib with his urgent cry of “tempus fugit” – “time flies.” Halford Luccock, a Methodist minister who taught preaching at Yale Divinity School for a quarter of a century, warned about how our Christmas celebrations can actually become something of a liability to our Christianity. He said –

“[We can] become so entranced with the beautiful story of a baby in a manger that [we] miss the chief point of the story, and hence do not feel the compulsion which it lays on life. We can become so charmed with the story of a baby that we grow sentimental about it; it does not ask that we do anything about it; it does not demand any vital change in our way of thinking and living.”

And so Professor Luccock preached a famous Christmas sermon about how the baby Jesus did not remain a baby for very long. As significant as Christmas is, he insisted, it is far from the end of the story, and it is certainly not the bulk of the story. Christmas is just the story’s beginning. The baby Jesus grew up, and in his maturity we see a way of living that calls for a change in our own.  He asked –

“Is our Christmas only a story about a baby, or is it more, a deathless story about a person into whom the baby grew, who can redeem the world from its sins, and who calls us into partnership with his great and mighty purposes?”

You see, the baby grew up, and so must we. When Luke tells us that – “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (2:52)he was telling us that Jesus was a human being just like us who grew up just as we do.  And spiritually, because Jesus is the “new Adam,” the one who shows us the right way to live, the way God always intended us to live, I think that we can take the four categories of Jesus’ maturation as a human being that this verse describes – the intellectual, the physical, the spiritual, and the social – and use them as a way to plot and then keep track of our own maturation as human beings.

growthMy grandmother kept a record of my growth as a kid from year to year by making marks on a wall in her pantry right next to the marks of her other four grandchildren. And spiritually this is what Luke 2:52 does for us.  It tell us how Jesus grew up as a human being, and in doing this, it tells us about the different ways that we are to grow up as human beings as well.  We are in the season of New Year’s resolutions right now.  Many of us are considering the ways that we want to do better and to be better next year than we were last year.  I believe that this instinct is hardwired into us as human beings. We are built to grow, and according to Luke 2:52 the channels of our growth are going to be –

  • Intellectual because “Jesus steadily increased in wisdom.” The New Testament says that being a Christian is a matter of the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2), so the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “What difference is Jesus Christ making in my thinking?”
  • Physical because “Jesus steadily increased in stature.” The New Testament calls our bodies “Temples of the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 6:19), and then it commands us to “glorify God in our bodies” (I Corinthians 6:20), so the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “How does my physical life reflect my spiritual commitments and values?”
  • Spiritual because “Jesus steadily increased in favor with God.”  Every image that the New Testament uses to describe the spiritual life is an image of growth – a seed planted, sprouting and growing to the harvest, a building going up from a foundation, brick by brick to the roof, a footrace from the starting blocks, through the course to the finish line, a person growing from birth through childhood to adulthood, so the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “Where am I growing right now in my relationship with God?
  • Social because “Jesus steadily increased in favor with people.” The New Testament is very clear that we can’t love a God we don’t see if we aren’t loving the people around us that we do see (I John 4:20). So, the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “How am I getting along with others these days?”

clock

For most of my life I have prayed the same Order for Morning Prayer. In part, it says –

 O merciful God, confirm and strengthen us; that, as we grow in age, we may grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

I prayed these words when I was 12 years old. I prayed these words when I was 32 years old. I prayed these words when I was 52 years old. And I expect to still be praying these words when I am 72 years old. To live is to grow.  To live is to change.  This is not just a Christian truth, this is a human truth.  What makes it “Christian” is the direction that our growth as human beings takes.  As a Christian, I want to grow in grace as I grow in age, and what this aspiration means is that I know that I’m not finished yet.  I’m still very much a work in progress.  I’m still figuring out how Jesus Christ affects the way that I think, and how He determines what I do with my body, and how He makes it possible for me to relate to God, and how He informs the way that I treat you.  I was working on this when I was 12.  I was working on this when I was 32. I was working on this when I was 52.  And I expect to still be working on this when I am 72.  I expect to still be working on this when I am 72.

I find that this week of the two babies is my annual invitation to grow up in every way into Christ – intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially – and my timely reminder that I’m not finished yet. We’ve all still got some growing to do.  DBS +

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