Tag Archives: Jesus

The Tears of Jesus

Will you make Jesus Christ cry or smile this week?
Will you break or console His heart?
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weptIt’s a trivia question that’s familiar to anyone who’s been around the church for any length of time – “What’s the shortest verse in the Bible?” “Jesus wept” we say, “John 11:35.” By definition, “trivia” is “a piece of information that’s of little value.” And that’s what we’ve done to John 11:35.  We’ve “trivialized” it.  We’ve reduced it to a Sunday School riddle, to a piece of amusing but unimportant information.  But to my way of thinking, “Jesus wept,” John 11:35 is one of the most important things that the New Testament tells us about Jesus Christ.

In the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday, right after Jesus told His disciples that He was the way, the truth, and the life, how we get to God, Philip, one of Christ’s very first disciples, made what must rank right up there with the great understatements of all times. “Just show us God,” he said, “and that will satisfy us” (John 14:9).  Really, Philip?  That’s all you want? To see God? That will make you happy?  We can’t hear the inflection of the voice in the things that Jesus said in the Gospels, but I can’t help but think that there’s just a little bit of exasperation when Jesus answered Philip with — “Have I been with you all this time, and you still don’t get it?” And then Jesus made the statement on which all of Christianity rests – “Whoever sees me sees God” (John 14:9). Explaining what this means, E. Stanley Jones said that just as our words are the expression of our thoughts, so Jesus Christ is the expression of God.

Just as we look up through a person’s words to understand their thoughts, so we look up through Jesus to know what. God is like that which we see in Jesus.  And if God is, then He is a good God and trustable.  I can ask for nothing better. (28-29)

So, what do the tears of Jesus tell us about who God is?

JesusWell, in John 11:35, the tears of Jesus tell us that God completely understands the pain that the death of a loved one produces in us. Jesus wept at the tomb of his good friend Lazarus.  Even though Jesus knew that He was on the verge of bringing him back from the dead, still Jesus wept as He stared the reality of His friend’s death in the face, and that’s because death is an enemy, the New Testament tells us, the last enemy to be destroyed (I Corinthians 15:25).  Even when death comes as the blessed release of a loved one from their suffering and struggle, death is still unnatural, not part of God’s original design for us as human beings.  It’s intrusive, destructive, and malevolent. That’s what the tears of Jesus tell us in John 11:35.   God doesn’t want us to die, and Jesus Christ came to see to it that we don’t have to. He’s the resurrection and the life, and whoever believes in Him, Jesus promised, though he dies, yet shall he live, in fact, whoever lives and believes in Him “shall never die” (John 11:25-26).  Imagine that, Pastor Ben Haden said, we who are Christians – we who believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior – we won’t be… we can’t be dead… not even for a minute!  That’s what the tears of Jesus mean in John 11:35, but this isn’t the only place in the Gospels where Jesus cried.  He wept on Palm Sunday as He approached Jerusalem for His final week (Luke 19:41-44)–

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying…
“You did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

glassHalfway down the Mount of Olives today, directly opposite the walls of Jerusalem, there’s a little church known as “Dominus Flevit” – Latin for “Our Lord wept.” This is where tradition tells us that Jesus Christ stopped on that first Palm Sunday to grieve the fact that “He came to His own home, and His own people received Him not” (John 1:11). The tears of Jesus in Luke 19:41 were the tears of rejection, the tears of unrequited love.  As Morton Kelsey used to say, “There’s something more powerful in this world than God is, and it’s us, for we have the power to keep God out of our lives should we choose to.” Jesus, it would seem, came to terms with this fact halfway down the Mount of Olives on His way into Jerusalem for the last time, and it caused Him to stop and weep.  His tears were the tears of God, in fact, those tears had flowed before.

Jeremiah 8 is where we’re told about the tears of God. The prophets of the Old Testament operated with a profound sense of — “Thus saith the Lord.”  They didn’t speak on their own initiative or from their own insight.  God put His thoughts in their hearts; His words in their mouths.  At least that’s the claim made by the Bible’s prophetic books.  And so, in the book of Jeremiah when we read –

For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn,
and dismay has taken hold of me…
O that my head were a spring of water
and my eyes a fountain of tears,

so that I might weep day and night for…
my poor people!

The right interpretive question for us to ask when hearing these verses is – “Who’s speaking?” Who is the “me,” and the “my,” and the “I”?  Is it Jeremiah speaking, or is it God?  Is this the anguish of Jeremiah for his people, or is it the anguish of God for His people? Are the tears these verses describe the tears of Jeremiah the prophet, or are they the tears of the God who sent the prophet? Christopher J.H. Wright in his commentary on the book of the prophet Jeremiah, after acknowledging the difficulty that interpreters have had trying to sort out the words of the prophet from the words of God in these verses, finally concluded that when they are read backwards from the – “thus saith the Lord” – in chapter 9, verse 3 back to what’s said in chapter 8, verses 18-22, that the “me” who speaks is “unquestionably God himself.”

The brutal fact is, God himself breaks down in agonizing sorrow (8:18). God is crushed (8:21)… God dissolves in tears (9:1)… God holds his head in his hands, and sobbing through the tears says – “My people, my people, my poor, poor people.” (127)

We can break God’s heart. We can make Christ cry.  We can grieve the Holy Spirit.

bookOur Catholic brothers and sisters have an entire devotional tradition that’s based on this idea. It’s called “consoling the heart of Jesus,” and it goes back to a 17th century French nun who said that while she was meditating on the death of Christ on the cross one day that she had a vision of His heart and heard a voice saying, “Behold this heart which loves so much yet is so little loved.” At the center of “Consoling Spirituality” is the realization that our indifference, our ingratitude, our inattentiveness, and our irreverence makes God incredibly sad.  Christ’s heart aches because so many for whom He’s dying ignore His goodness and love. “Behold this heart which loves so much yet is so little loved.” This is not just a Catholic idea.

kennedyG. A. Studdert Kennedy was a much beloved Church of England minister during WW 1. He won the Military Cross for bravery in his service to the wounded during the war, and then when the war was over, he threw himself into the ministry of the church with the same energy and passion, especially with the inner city poor of England. Never healthy, he pushed himself in his service of Christ to the point of physical exhaustion, and in 1929, just short of his 46th birthday, G.A. Studdert Kennedy died. A poet as well as a pastor, G.A. Studdert Kennedy’s poem “Indifference” is probably his best known –

When Jesus came to Golgotha they hanged Him on a tree,
They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Birmingham they simply passed Him by,
They never hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.

Still Jesus cried, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,”
And still it rained the wintry rain that drenched Him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall and cried for Calvary.

It’s said that Christ would rather be rejected than ignored. In the book of Revelation the Risen Glorious Christ told the Christians in Laodicea that they were neither “hot” nor “cold” – indifferent.

So because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of My mouth! (3:15-16)

Jesus stopped to weep on His way into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday not because of the cross that was waiting for him there at the end of Holy week, but because He knew that what He was going to do on that cross was something that could so easily ignored by the people for whom He was doing it. “Behold this heart which loves so much yet is so little loved.”

In the Gospel of John, right after the miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000, Jesus gave His Bread of Life discourse, and it proved to be something of a watershed moment in His ministry. Because of what Jesus said about being the bread from heaven that must be consumed by people who are desiring eternal life, many in the crowd of fans who were just following Him for the show and the snacks turned away from Jesus because they found what He was saying to be too confusing, too demanding, and too disturbing.  And John tells us that as the crowd thinned, Jesus turned to His disciples, to the people who had been with Him from the very beginning, and asked – “Are you going to leave me now too?” Again, we can’t hear the inflection in the words that Jesus spoke in the Gospels, still, I hear sorrow.  And Peter answered – “Lord, to whom we can go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (6:66-69).

“Consoling Spirituality” is nothing more and nothing less than us telling the sorrowful Christ that we aren’t leaving Him, that we know He has the words of eternal life, and that we believe He is the Holy One of God. If Christ is hurt by our rejection, then surely Christ is bolstered by our devotion.  In fact, Robert Boyd Munger said that we can make God smile (84). In a 1986 interview, this pastoral giant said that all he ever wanted from the Lord in return for his more than 60 year ministry on the West Coast was His smile. “If I know you’re there and you’re pleased,” he said, “that’s all I need.” So, if it’s our inattentiveness, indifference, ingratitude, and irreverence that grieves Christ, then it’s our attentiveness, responsiveness, gratitude, and reverence that pleases Him.

So, will you spend time in Scripture this week reading again the story of Christ’s
passion, about how He died and was raised for you?

Will you gather with the community of faith to offer God praise and thanks
for what He has done for us and our salvation?

Will you spend some time talking to God from your heart about
where you are right now in your life and what it is that He wants for you?

 And will you find some specific and concrete ways to take up your cross
and follow Christ on the way of self-sacrifice and service?

This is the week for paying attention, giving thanks, taking take up our crosses, and making God smile. DBS +

 

 

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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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“Well Done Thou Good & Faithful Servant” (Part 4)

William Franklin Graham Jr.
(November 7, 1918 – February 21, 2018)

coffin

“The Next Billy Graham”
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Now that Billy is gone, a question that is being actively, and even urgently, discussed by many Evangelicals is – “Who’s next?” Who is going to step up now to take his place as the great unifying voice and public spokesperson for this diverse “conversionist” (Lives need to be transformed through being “born-again” and undertaking a lifelong process of following Jesus), “activist” (The Gospel needs to be actively demonstrated through lives of witness and service), “Biblicist” (The Bible is our highest authority in matters of Christian faith and practice), and “Crucicentric” (a focus on the cross of Christ as the basis of our redemption and reconciliation) community called “Evangelicals”?

My favorite answer is the one that Russell Moore, the President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, offers.  He writes –

Whenever I start to get discouraged about the future of the church, I remember the last conversation I had with the Evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry… Several of us were lamenting the miserable shape of the church… We asked Dr. Henry if he saw any hope in the coming generation of evangelicals, and I will never forget his reply.

“Of course, there is hope for the next generation of evangelicals,” he said. “But the leaders of the next generation might not be coming from the current evangelical establishment. They are probably still pagans… Who knew that Saul of Tarsus was going to be the great apostle to the Gentiles?” he asked us. “Who knew that God would raise up a C.S. Lewis or a Charles Colson? They were both unbelievers who, once saved by the grace of God, were mighty warriors for the faith…” And then he said, “The next Billy Graham might very well be passed out drunk in a fraternity house right now.”

I actually hope he or she is, because this is the truth to which Billy Graham devoted his entire life, that – “The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16), and that – “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). What would be more fitting than for the next Billy Graham to be someone whose life gets suddenly and powerfully transformed in this way by the Gospel that Billy himself preached and trusted so faithfully for so many years?  DBS+

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“Well Done Thou Good & Faithful Servant” (Part 3)

William Franklin Graham Jr.
(November 7, 1918 – February 21, 2018)

MLK

 “Two Giants; Two Perspectives; One Gospel” ________________________________________________________________________________________

One of my favorite explorations of the true significance of Billy Graham and his ministry was what Loren Mead of the Alban Institute wrote about him in his 1994 book Transforming Congregations for the Future (Alban Institute Publication) –

Growing up as a Christian in the South… I was exposed to two giants of faith. Although most people around me had an aversion to at least one of the two, from my earliest exposure to them I understood that both were evangelists and both were giants…. Both were Southerners and Protestants like me, so I felt regional kinship with them. One was black; the other is white. Both were Baptists… Over the years I watched them, learned from them, and admired them…

Martin Luther King, Jr., represented the prophetic strand of our heritage, standing strong against oppression. Many people in the white culture in which I grew up, people I cared about, thought he was the tool of the devil.  Others thought the sun rose and fell on him.  As a child of my culture, I started out with the former group and had to do some growing to discover that he was a true prophet for me. One of the treasures of my life is the worn copy of the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” that I found in my father’s effects after his death.   I did not know what my father thought of Martin Luther King, Jr., until I found that letter filled with my father’s appreciate marginal notes.  Billy Graham is the other giant.  The people with whom I normally consort – generally leaning liberal in politics and theology – have such low regard for him that I rarely bring up his name in their company.  With those folks I keep Billy Graham as my private closet saint! (32)

This background set up Dr. Mead’s point –

For years I accepted the fact that my admiration of the two defied rationality; what they were was more important than whether or not they fit into my categories. [It was] Struggling with their different gifts as evangelists, however, that led me beyond traditional ways of thinking.  If both of them were evangelists; if both of them were bearers of good tidings, then our definitions are simply inadequate.  Evangelists are not just one thing and always the same.  The truth is more complex than is comfortable.  My first clue came when I recognized that King and Graham were speaking the same Gospel, but that each had a different target.   They saw the bad news differently… [In King and Graham] I was facing two people, each of whom was committed to the Gospel, but each of whom saw a different kind of bad news.

Billy Graham speaks to the bad news he sees as he looks at the human condition. He sees human beings turned away from God, people who separate themselves by their actions or their values, and build barriers against God’s presence in their lives… That is the bad news that Billy Graham addresses with his good news.  He proclaims that human beings do not have to be condemned to separation and death.  He speaks the message that Christ through His cross and resurrection has broken down the walls of separation…

King saw a very different dimension of bad news. He saw corporate systems whereby one group takes oppressive power over another, destroying the humanity of both the oppressor and the oppressed… To that specific bad news King preached good news that was quite different from that preached by Graham.  He saw and proclaimed that God’s love means liberation not only of the soul, but also of human society.  King demonstrated that both the oppressed and the oppressor can enter into liberation, and that indeed one party cannot be freed without the other. (33-34)

Loren Mead could hold both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Billy Graham in his head and heart because he had a view of the Gospel that saw it as being big enough to be able to address more than just one question and that could solve more than just one problem at a time. As Dr. Mead concluded, “King’s way of stating the good news is very different from Graham’s, yet both are grounded in the story of Jesus.” Billy Graham’s admirers need to be told that their Gospel is Biblically incomplete if they can’t admire Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his perspective too, just as Dr. King’s admirers need to be told the same thing about their Gospel if they can’t, or won’t, make room for Billy Graham’s ministry and perspective as well.  Our Gospel is big enough for both; our Gospel requires both. DBS+

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“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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