Tag Archives: Jesus

“If you love Me…”

The Sermon on the Mount and Christian Discipleship

sermon

Discipleship — actually following Jesus — is not optional in Christianity, or for Christians. It’s not an extra add-on like satellite radio in your car, or the premium channels in your cable package.  We can’t break the “Good Confession” that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and our Lord and Savior in half.  We can’t give Jesus our sins to be forgiven as Savior without Him, at the very same time, demanding to become the Lord of our lives.  Consider the Great Commission — Christ’s final marching orders to the church. “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel” Jesus told His first followers (Luke 14:47; Mark 16:15), “make disciples, baptize them in the name of the Father, he Son, and the Holy Spirit, teach them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

mennoMenno Simons, one of the Protestant Reformers who gets lost in all of the attention that Luther and Calvin get, understood better than they did what the connection is between believing the Gospel and becoming Christ’s disciples, between getting baptized and obeying all that Christ taught. Menno Simons taught that baptism is probably the least important thing that God commands us to do. Jesus Christ taught so many more important things – loving our neighbors, dying to self, serving the least of these.  But Menno Simons nevertheless insisted that people get baptized at the very beginning of their Christian lives because he viewed baptism as the first act of their obedience of faith.  Menno Simons understood that if a person agreed to be baptized because Jesus told them to do it, that he or she was someone who was already disposed to do whatever else could be shown to be something that Jesus Christ wanted them to do.

drownIt should come as no great surprise to learn that Menno Simons’ spiritual descendants – the Mennonites – more so than any other part of the Christian family today, have taken the actual living of the Sermon on the Mount most seriously. They get baptized to show their intention to be Christ’s disciples, to do whatever He commands, and they understand that the most comprehensive account of what Christ has commanded is the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s not just meant to be admired by us as an inspiring ideal.  The Sermon on the Mount is meant to be adopted as our working philosophy of life as Christians.

Now, if we are to do this – and our baptisms say that we should – then there are three things that we’ve got to keep in mind –

The first thing is understanding that living the Sermon on the Mount is not something that we do in order to become Christians, but rather it’s something that we do because we are Christians.  I like the way that Frank Thielman, a Professor of New Testament at Beeson Theological Seminary over in Birmingham, Alabama, puts it – “The Sermon on the Mount shows us what life should look like for a heart that has been melted and transformed by the Gospel of Grace.”

cupWe don’t gather at the Lord’s Table to hear the Sermon on the Mount read to us. No, we gather at the Lord’s Table to break bread in remembrance of Christ’s body broken for us, and to pour a cup in remembrance of Christ’s blood poured out for us.  This is what makes us Christians.  We are loved, forgiven, and accepted by Christ’s saving work when He died an atoning death on the cross and when He rose transformed and transforming from the Garden Tomb.  But a copy of the Sermon on the Mount should probably be put in our hands at the door of the church every Sunday morning when worship is over and we’re on our way back into the world as people who have been loved, forgiven, and accepted by the Savior.  The Sermon on the Mount is what a life of grateful obedience to Jesus Christ as Lord looks like.

applesThe second thing we need to keep in mind if we are going to live the Sermon on the Mount is understanding that it is not a set of rules that gets imposed on us from the outside, but is rather the shape of the desire that arises from the heart of someone who has been indwelt by Christ.  Living like this is not something that we have to do.  It’s something that we want to do. In Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talked about fruit and roots.  “Grapes are not gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles,” Jesus explained. “Sound trees bear good fruit; bad trees bear bad fruit” (Matthew 7:16-17).  Reflecting on this, John Piper writes –

Christians have to be loving. Christians have to be just. Christians have to be caring. The fruit of the Spirit really matter. We’re not Christians if we aren’t living differently than we would if we weren’t Christians.

The real question is how does this fruit get produced in us? Jesus said that the kind of fruit we produce depends entirely on the kind of tree we are. And this means that the behaviors of discipleship that the Sermon on the Mount describe – the fruit – can’t be forced on us by some kind of external authority, but rather have to be formed in us by an inward transformation. The key to living the Sermon on the Mount is being a Christian -having a heart indwelt by Christ.

yogaBut even then, it’s not going to be easy, or automatic. That’s the third thing that we need to understand if we’re going to start living the Sermon on the Mount. E. Stanley Jones said that living the life of the Sermon on the Mount is sort of like trying to walk after you’ve sat for a long time with your legs folded up underneath you. At first it feels painful and completely unnatural, something impossible to do. But after a while, with a little effort and movement, nothing else feels right. And then it dawns on us that this is the right way to live, the truest and most satisfying way of being a human being. This is the kind of life that we were built for, and when we finally realize this then no other way of living will ever be possible for us again.

kempisIn his 15th century spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a’ Kempis explained that one of the real keys to making progress in the Christian life was to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord each day as if it were the very first day of our Christian lives. Don’t start the day by congratulating yourself on any sort of imagined spiritual progress that you think you might have made, but instead consciously seek the help of Jesus who is your Savior as you continue to grow in your experience of Jesus who intends to be your Lord. It’s only by “doing what He told us to do, loving what He loves, and living by His word” (J. Ligon Duncan) that we show ourselves to be His disciples, and Biblically there’s no other way for us to be in a right relationship with Him. As A.W. Tozer put it – “It is altogether doubtful whether a person can be saved who comes to Christ for His help but who has no intention of obeying Him.” “If you love Me,” Jesus said, “then you will do what I tell you.” DBS +

 

 

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Jesus, Friend of Sinners

In the October 1, 2004 issue of Christianity Today Jonathan David Taylor wrote an article (“Smugglings Cats for a Gay Celebrity”) about his experience as a Christian College student volunteering at the AIDS Hospice in Southern California where Lance Loud, an icon of gay culture, was dying. In the course of their relationship Jonathan realized that Lance was not his school service project; Lance had become his friend.  Jonathan certainly wanted Lance to know the grace of God in Jesus Christ, in fact, he says that he prayed about it all the time, but Jonathan says that he realized that he was not there to “save” Lance, but simply to love Lance. If his love pointed to God’s love in Jesus Christ, then great, he truly hoped it did, but the truth of the matter was that he was going to love Lance whether or not he ever became a Christian, and the shape that love took in Lance’s closing days were two little kittens.

When that article got published, Jonathan was taken to the woodshed by some of Christianity Today’s readers.  What was a good Christian like Jonathan doing being nice to a gay man like Lance Loud, they demanded to know.  Why didn’t Jonathan just share the Gospel with him, and if he didn’t repent and believe, move on, shaking the dust from his feet?  And Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, says that he heard an echo of our Scripture lesson this morning from Luke chapter 5 in the things that these Christians were saying about Jonathan and his friendship with Lance.

Levi gave a great banquet for Jesus in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”  [5:29-30]

Blog1One of the names that Jesus was given in the Gospels was the “friend of sinners” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34).  Jesus got this name for doing things like singling out Levi, a tax collector who would have been viewed in his time and place as one of the vilest of offenders to both God and his community, and Jesus called Levi to follow Him.  Luke 5:27-32  is the flagship of Gospel texts about Jesus’ friendships with the kind of people that polite society and its religious leaders shunned – Prostitutes, Tax Collectors, Samaritans, Gentiles… sinners.  In fact, later in the Gospel of Luke, the preface to some of the most famous parables that Jesus told – the Parable of the Lost Coin, the Parable of the Lost Lamb, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son – accented this fact –

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  So he told them [these] parable(s)… (15:1-3) 

It’s a curious thing to me that Jesus had this reputation for being so welcoming of Blog2sinners, and that His church today doesn’t.  When he was doing his research for his book – What’s So Amazing about Grace, Philip Yancey says that he conducted an informal survey whenever he travelled on an airplane.  In informal conversations with his seatmates he would ask them, “What comes to mind when I say ‘Christian’?”  And he says that he heard “judgmental,” “narrow,” “hateful,” “bigoted,” “backwards,” and “ignorant” all the time, but never a word about grace — not even once.  “Apparently grace is not the aroma that Christians give off in the world,” Philip Yancey wrote (31).

Philip told the story about a friend of his who was in church with her daughter one Sunday morning when the minister’s wife approached her and said, “I hear that you’re getting a divorce.  I can’t understand why a Christian would ever do such a thing.”  This was the first and virtually the only time that the minister’s wife had ever spoken to Philip’s friend, and she was stunned by the brusque rebuke that she was given with her daughter standing right there beside her.  “The pain of it was that my husband and I both love Jesus,” she explained, “but our marriage was broken beyond mending.”  What Philip’s friend desperately needed in that moment was not to be scolded by the minister’s wife, but rather to be gathered up in her arms, and to hear – “I am so sorry.”  That would have been the more Christ-like thing to do.  In the Gospels broken, wounded, guilty people ran to Jesus for comfort and refuge.  But today they run away from His church because they fear that all they are going to get from us is rejection and condemnation. In their experience, Christians use their Bibles to beat them up.  And it’s true, part of what we have in our Bibles as Christians is a moral compass that we believe was given to us by God.  

Blog3We operate with a Biblical sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, and there’s a real fear in many of us who are Christians that if we don’t speak up and speak out when we see behaviors and attitudes that we think are contrary to what God has told us are right that we will be guilty of condoning sin.  And so Christians get known for their wagging fingers, their disapproving looks, and their harsh words.  This takes two distinct forms in the church today. Traditionalist Christians tend to focus on matters of personal morality.  They are especially vocal about questions of sexual behavior, and are most concerned about what is perceived to be a loosening of well-known and long-established standards.  Progressive Christians, on the other hand, tend to focus on matters of social justice.  They are especially vocal and most concerned about the failures of our society to deliver on the promises of liberty and justice for all.  And both kinds of Christians, each in their own way, can wind up scolding those they have judged to be the sinners — those who are not abiding by the God-given moral standards, be they personal or social. We think that this is what will change a person.  We think that once a person has been publicly scolded and shamed, that they will morally come to their senses, straighten up, and begin to fly right.  This is the rationale for hell-fire and brimstone preaching.  Just point an accusatory finger at people and tell them that because of what they are doing wrong in their personal lives, or because of their perpetration of, or complicity with the injustices of society at large, that they have sinned and fallen short of God’s expectations. I suspect that we’ve all been stiff-armed by somebody at some time in this way, and if you’re like me, then it didn’t change you at all, it just made you mad.  Instead of effecting any kind of significant change in you, it just made you even more spiritually and morally resistant to change.

Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of our “Disciples” spiritual tradition, recognized Blog4this.  He said that when people are told that they are sinners that it’s not really news to them. The pointing finger and the accusatory tone only confirm what they already suspect about themselves somewhere deep inside – that they are a sore disappointment to God in so many ways. Alexander Campbell said that the only thing that has the power to break through this self-loathing and that can initiate the kind of moral and spiritual change that we all so desperately need is “the full demonstration and proof of a single proposition… that God is love.”   And when, and where, and how this “full demonstration and proof” that God is love occurred was in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It was His friendship with sinners in life, and His atonement for sin in death, that is the power of God to change us, and the whole world.

This was the theological argument that made me a Disciple 45 years ago, and that has kept me a Disciple ever since.  It’s the value we affirm as a church by our open table.  When we begin with the premise that the love of God includes everybody, then we are going to find it increasingly difficult to exclude anybody.  We’re going to meet people where they are, love them as they are, and let God’s grace do its work in them, and us.

Jonathan David Taylor will tell you that he doesn’t know if their unexpected friendship changed anything in, or about, Lance Loud.  But he is quick to say that it changed him. His unexpected friendship with Lance Loud brought healing to his own fear and prejudice toward people who are gay, and it took him deeper into the heart of God that was revealed in Jesus Christ.  The people who make us crazy are the people God expects us to love.  Get ready.  That’s where Jesus Christ is going to take us when we say we want to follow Him.  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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The Hopes and Fears of all the Years

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Genesis chapter 35 is where Bethlehem gets mentioned in the Bible for the first time. Ordinarily, when we hear about Bethlehem we hear about its connection with David.

Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. (Luke 2:4)

This is an important plank in the argument that the New Testament builds about Jesus being the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah promised throughout the Old Testament. Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem because He was the son of David (Matthew 1:1), and Bethlehem was David’s hometown.  But long before Bethlehem got associated with David in the story of salvation that the Bible tells, Bethlehem had an association with Rachel, the second wife, but first love of the Patriarch Jacob, and one of David’s great ancestors.

holylandOn my first trip to the Holy Land some thirty years ago, long before the partition and the scar of the wall that now separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem had been built, we stopped at a little domed shrine on the outskirts of Bethlehem on our way to see the Church of the Holy Nativity. It was Rachel’s Tomb, the traditional site of her burial, and it was crowded with people, especially women, who had come there to sit and ponder, weep and to pray.  The way Genesis 35 tells the story, Rachel died in childbirth on the road just outside of Bethlehem as Jacob and his household were making their way to Hebron, back to the home of his fathers.  Jacob buried Rachel right there on that lonely road outside of Bethlehem and erected a pillar over her grave as a memorial, and Jewish tradition says that from that moment on her grave became holy ground, a special place of prayer, especially for people who were discouraged, or distressed, or despairing.

Jewish tradition says that when Joseph got sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, as the caravan that was heading to Egypt passed by Bethlehem, that Joseph escaped and ran to his mother’s grave where he cried out in fear and was given hope in the promise that the Lord would always be with him no matter what. “Consoled and strengthened,” that tradition says that “Joseph voluntarily returned to the caravan” with “the courage he needed to face the future.”  Later Jewish tradition says that when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and carried off the Jews into their 70 years of exile after the destruction of the Temple, the dispirited captives passed by Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem, and when they saw it, that their fears and sadness were immediately met by its witness to God’s faithfulness to His promises. In fact, Jewish tradition says that Rachel was deliberately buried by Jacob on the road outside of Bethlehem and not in Bethlehem itself so that later on when God’s people were being carried off into captivity that they would pass by it and remember the covenant that God made and kept with His people. [Dovid Rossoff, “Tomb of our Matriarch Rachel.” http://www.jewishmag.com].

motherIt’s appropriate that the memory of Rachel would elicit this kind of response. You see, Rachel is remembered and celebrated in the Jewish tradition as one of the Bible’s great mothers, and significantly, one of the words that gets translated “mercy” in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word for “womb.” In the Bible the mercy of God gets compared to the tender and tenacious love of a mother that will not let her children go. And so in the book of the prophet Isaiah, God asks “Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb?” And then God says – “Even should a human mother forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15).  Think of the finest, strongest love of a mother that you have ever seen, and then understand that God loves you even more than that!  Knowing that they were loved by God with a mother’s love like this, it was only natural that the tomb of one of Israel’s most revered mothers would become an important place for our spiritual parents, the Jews, to pray, especially when they were in trouble and needed some reassurance that God was still there for them, and that He still cared about them.  For generations, Jews have made pilgrimages to Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem when they got to the end of their ropes, when they have felt alone and afraid in the universe, when the have been unsure of where God is or what God is doing, uncertain even if God was there, or if He cared. They went to Bethlehem looking for some tangible connection with the God of history and promise, and they found it in the story of their mother Rachel and in their remembrance of God’s “womb” love for her children.

nativityThe Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” contains what just might be my favorite line from a Christmas carol – “…the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I am intrigued by this idea of Bethlehem being the place where our hopes and fears as human beings meet. I find this to be a really meaningful way to think and talk about the meaning of Christmas. We come to Bethlehem each year as Christians for the very same reason that our spiritual parents, the Jews, go to Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem — to get some proof that we have not been forsaken or forgotten. And it’s in the story of another mother that gets told from a manger in Bethlehem in the middle of a dark night that we get our assurance that we are not alone in our dark nights or abandoned to our fears.  As the Swiss Theologian Emil Brunner (1889 – 1966) wrote in his book “Our Faith” in the chapter on “Prayer” –

sinisterAs children lost in a woods, are fearful of the sinister darkness – and then, suddenly, hearing a sound from the somber blackness, a familiar voice, a loving, seeking, helping voice, their mother’s voice — so prayer is our reply to the voice from the Word of God in Jesus Christ which suddenly cries out to us in the mysterious, dark universe. It is the Father calling us out of the world’s darkness. He calls us, seeks us, wants to bring us to Himself. “Where are you, my child?” Our prayers mean “Here I am. Father. I was afraid until you called. Since you have spoken, I am afraid no longer. Come, I am waiting for you, take me, lead me by the hand through the dark terrifying world.” It is a tremendous moment when a man hears this voice and knows he is safe. God is at hand!

Merry Christmas!

DBS +

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“Crystal Ball Polishers” and the Blessed Hope

“Crystal Ball Polishers” and the Blessed Hope

The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
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Titus 2:11-13

meadeDavid Meade, a “Christian Numerologist,” recently predicted that the “Rapture” was scheduled for Saturday, September 23.  Now, the “Rapture” is the belief of some Christians – many of them right here in Texas – that Jesus Christ will secretly remove the church from the world before the Tribulation, the final period of human testing before the Second Coming and Final Judgment, begins.  The “Rapture” is not the Second Coming itself, but is rather just a prelude to it. This is a fine point of distinction in the minds of many.  Most hear “Rapture,” and think – the Second Coming and the end of the world. Eschatological (the study of last things) details and distinctions blend and blur in the popular imagination. And so, when David Meade said that the “Rapture” was Biblically scheduled for September 23rd, most people heard it as that’s when he thought that the world was going to end. When I heard him talk like this, it felt like déjà vu all over again for me.  And then, when it didn’t happen as he said that it would, and Mr. Meade began to make some quick recalculations to account for the delay, I felt like I had seen this movie before.

You see, a number of early Christian teachers believed that Jesus Christ would return in the year 500. Later, the year 1000 captured the end-times imagination of lots and lots of churchmen, just as the year 2000 did in our more recent past.  Joachim of Fiore, an Italian Catholic mystic, said that he believed that the world was going to end in 1260. Thomas Müntzer, an Anabaptist Reformation radical, said that he thought that the end-time events were all scheduled to begin in 1525. William Miller, an early Adventist, taught that Christ was coming back in October 1844, and Charles Taze Russell of the Jehovah’s Witnesses said that he believed that it would happen in 1874. The late Harold Camping, a well-known fundamentalist radio Bible teacher, said that he believed that Jesus was coming back in September of 1994.  And then, when it didn’t happen, he quickly recalculated and rescheduled the Second Coming for 2011.  Meanwhile, Edgar Whisenant, a rival radio Bible teacher, was just as sure that it was all going to happen in 1988.

There has been no shortage of predictions like these in the long history of the church.

earthWhen I was in high school, Hal Lindsey’s best-selling book The Late Great Planet Earth was all the rage.  If you read the “Left Behind” series then you got in narrative form what Hal Lindsey taught in The Late Great Planet Earth. We carefully went through this book page by page, detail by detail at more than one of the Bible Studies that I attended back in the early 1970’s.  I know firsthand the sense of power — and relief — that comes from thinking that you’ve got some inside information about the impending end of the world.  But I also discovered pretty quickly in those days just how speculative these timetables of the last day can be, and just how ridiculous the arguments can become between those who hold rival theories about the proper sequence of the events at the end of time, and just how obnoxious some Christians can be about what they think is going to happen next.

The day I get left on a highway shoulder while my friend got a ride from a van full of Jesus People who sorted out the acceptable hitchhikers from the unacceptable ones by conducting a kind of roadside inquisition of the eschatological convictions and conclusions of those requesting a ride from them, was the day that I decided to consciously come at the Bible’s teachings about God’s future promises for the church and the world in a way that was different from all of the calculations, and speculations, and arguments that engaged so many of the Christians that I knew back then.

I certainly wasn’t prepared to jettison my belief in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ itself because of all the petty and pushy ways that I saw other Christians holding this doctrine. The New Testament was just too clear, and too insistent, about Christ coming again for me to be able to dismiss this whole idea as just being crazy, or merely symbolic, or of secondary importance.  George Eldon Ladd’s observation that Christ’s saving work will be forever incomplete apart from Christ’s personal, glorious, triumphal return was, and still is, pretty persuasive to me. “At the center of redemption past is Christ on the cross,” he used to say, “and at the center of redemption future is Christ returning in glory.” And so, without letting go of the content of Christianity’s cosmic hope as it finds its standard expression in the church’s historic Creeds – “I believe that He shall come again… with glory… to judge the quick and the dead… Whose kingdom shall have no end” – I did want to get beyond the timetables, charts, and arguments.  And it was the great St. Augustine who showed me how to do this.

saint“He who loves the coming of the Lord is not he who affirms it far off, nor is it he who says that it is near,” St. Augustine carefully explained, “It is he who, whether it be far or near, awaits it with sincere faith, steadfast hope, and fervent love.” This idea was further advanced in me by Dr. William Richardson’s insistence when I was one of his students in Christian College that whenever the New Testament talks about the end times and Christ’s Second Coming, that it’s not to fuel speculation but rather to ground our hope and to promote our Christian living. “New Testament eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) is ethical” I often heard him say, and I think that’s right.  This is why every time the New Testament talks about the future tense of our salvation, it is immediately followed by an exhortation to faithfulness.

  • Jesus’ Olivet Discourse on last things in Matthew chapter 24 gets followed by the three parables of Matthew chapter 25: The parable of the ten wise virgins whose oil lamps were trimmed and ready for the bridegroom’s sudden arrival, and the ten whose lamps were not; the parable of the talents; and the parable of the sheep and the goats where we who are Christians are told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, shelter the homeless, and visit the imprisoned. These are all “call to action” parables.
  • After his detailed discussion in I Thessalonians chapter 4 about what will happen when Christ comes back, in I Thessalonians chapter 5 Paul told the Thessalonian Christians to therefore keep awake and to be sober (v. 6), to consistently live and love as children of the light and not of the darkness.
  • And writing about the most end-times oriented book of them all in the New Testament, and perhaps in the entire Bible, Darrell Johnson explains – “No other book, in all of human literature, crystallizes what it means to belong to and follow Jesus in this world… Revelation is not a crystal ball revealing esoteric secrets that enable us to escape the harsh realities of life on earth, but a down-to-earth manual on how to be a disciple of Christ facing the harsh realities of life on earth; in particular, how to do this the way Jesus did and does.”

For this reason, in the past 40 years, whenever somebody like a David Meade has come along overconfidently announcing some newfangled speculative theory about how and when the end times are going to unfold, as if it were a self-evident truth and a well-established fact, my mind instantly goes back to the wisdom that Stephen Travis shared in his very fine little book – The Jesus Hope (IVP – 1974) –

Whenever the Bible speaks about the Second Coming its purpose is to challenge us to action. When the Biblical writers refer to it, their purpose is not to give us a detailed explanation of the doctrine, but rather to relate it to some practical needs… (92)

Respect for the natural world, love, community, justice – these are some of the values which the Christian vision of the future puts before us to aim at in human society…. The church is to be a sign of God’s kingdom, pioneering things which are God’s future intention for all people. This is what the church at its best has always been.  Who pioneered mass education?  Who pioneered hospitals?  Who pioneered the abolition of slavery?  In each case Christians played a leading role in causing progressive change… As a pioneer of progress towards the will of God, the church is a sign of the coming reality of God’s kingdom. (125)

The saddest feature of so many books about Christian hope is their failure to show how the hope of Christ’s return is supposed to affect lives right now.   Books that were written to comfort God’s people (Daniel and Revelation) in the face of vicious persecution, have become a happy hunting ground for religious extremists.  Instead of being sources of hope and encouragement, they have become objects of idle speculation… (80)

We want to know the date of Christ’s return. We want God to give us some infallible sign that his coming is just around the corner.  We want God to deal with our unanswered questions about the future. (106)

But Christian hope is not this kind of escapism. On the contrary, hope is a powerful motive for positive Christian living and for social change.  Christian hope is not for tickling our minds but for changing our lives and for influencing society. (7)

It is hope that drives Christians into situations of conflict and squalor, of injustice and inhumanity… It is hope that drives Christians to mission, to service and sacrificial love. (126)

JesusI’m not particularly interested in anybody’s pet theory about how and when Christ will return. In a startling confession of his own ignorance, Jesus told His disciples – “…of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36). It’s my hunch that if by accident some wild-eyed enthusiast just happened to get the date of the Second Coming right and then started widely publicizing it, that God would immediately change the date just to show us who’s really in charge and calling the shots!  No, what the New Testament tells us about God’s future for us, and for all of creation, is not so that we can form discussion groups where we can sit around all day arguing over our favorite speculative theories about the times and seasons that are fixed by God’s authority alone.  I think that the New Testament has a very different purpose in telling us about God’s future salvation.

It is reported that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said that if he knew that the world was going to end tomorrow, that his duty today would still be to plant his garden and to collect the rent! The way we show our confidence in the promises that God makes in His Word about what’s coming for us and for all of creation tomorrow, is to start leaning by faith in the direction of the vision of that future with which we have been provided, and to start embodying its values right here and right now in this world where we live today.  We don’t need sensational announcements of impending doom.  What we need are hope-filled Christians making hope-shaped differences in the world informed by their hope-informed values and their hope-full vision of the future. DBS +

 

 

 

 

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