The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 4

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Impossible?

Picture the largest indigenous land animal in your country—on the west coast of Canada it would be a grizzly bear. Now picture the smallest hole which technology of our day has devised—that would be the apertures made by UC Berkeley’s semiconductor laser that are smaller than a single protein molecule. Now, imagine you want to communicate a hyperbole to make a point. You might say something like, “That’s as likely as a Grizzly squeezing through a semiconductor laser aperture!” It would be unusual enough that you would be making your point (no pun intended).

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus making a similar comment—a first century Middle Eastern version of it. Jesus uses hyperbole to make a point, to catch His disciples’ attention, to correct a firmly held cultural belief. Jesus’ comment follows His interaction with the rich young man who has turned away, unwilling to redistribute his wealth, precursor to softening his heart to following Jesus.

“Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:23-27).

The problem was that Jewish culture equated wealth with spiritual blessing. It read Moses’ words, “God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to” (Deuteronomy 15:10) and made it into a holy grail. Wealth became a defining sign of God’s reward. The wealthier the Jews became, the more they ignored God’s words fore and aft of the ‘blessing.’ The commands, “do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother” (v.7), and “be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (v.11) had been disregarded. It is human nature to twist God’s words in such a way that it benefits oneself rather than obeying the true spirit of the command.

Jesus’ hyperbole was meant to bring that mindset to a screeching halt. The disciples are “amazed” and then “even more amazed” at his words. He is clearly explaining that we can neither earn our way to eternal life nor presume that our wealth, social status, or ethical standards give us a foot in the door to paradise. There is nothing we can do to position ourselves to deserve God’s blessing. No one can be saved.

Exactly, confirms Jesus. “With man this is impossible.”

But Jesus continues. There is hope because God turns the impossible into the possible. As in creation when He speaks His Word and everything from rainbows of light to species of life are created, His Word must be spoken for humanity’s salvation to occur. Jesus is the Word of God in the flesh, and it is He who makes salvation possible for each of us. He is the one who has spent the wealth of His perfect sinlessness to pay with His life-blood the debt of our moral bankruptcy. They unpayable bill has been paid in full.

No matter where we are at today—long-time followers of Jesus, cautious explorers of this thing called saving faith, or hard-nosed atheists—we are all on common ground. Not one of us can access any real paradise on our own. It’s impossible. But Jesus can and does. Jesus makes the impossible possible.

Be amazed an even more amazed. He has made eternity available to us.

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 3

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Love.

We left the rich young man after hearing Jesus give him the terrible diagnosis of his life: in order to follow Jesus he must discard his competing loyalties. In his case it was wealth. In our case it can be any one (or more) of a vast number of things: anything that puts something else before our loyalty to Christ.

But let’s go back one step in this story. The young man has just claimed he is living what he considers to be a good enough life; he maintains he has kept all the requirements of the Jewish Law. He wants confirmation from this rabbi that he can claim eternal life as his just deserts.

How does Jesus respond? Here in Mark 10:21, Mark describes Jesus’ reaction from a point of view that invites us right into Jesus’ heart. It is a moment that deserves our full attention, because it is the story of humanity in a nutshell. We, too, each live our lives by an ethical scale of sorts; we have either transposed it from the principles that our families, our traditions or our society have established, or we have created it from an eclectic collection of any of the above. We may even claim we reject any concept of right and wrong, but honestly, we don’t live that way do we? We all live by some internal classification system of right and wrong.

So here is Jesus, God in the flesh, the One whose character is the basis for all moral excellence —listening to this young man’s proud assertions that he has followed moral law to the letter. How will He respond? –By congratulating the young man? –By slamming him for his pride? –By laughing at him?

We’re told, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”

This is how Jesus looks at each of us. We may prattle on about how good we are, or we may keep silent about our personal convictions. We may regularly leave hints for others to observe and come to the conclusion that we are pretty good people. Or we may march in parades proudly displaying our ideologies and daring others to contradict us. It doesn’t matter. Jesus still looks at each of us and loves us. Does that mean He condones our self-made rules for living? No.

Jesus knew that not many days after this meeting with the rich young ruler He would be walking the path from Jerusalem’s Praetorium, his back in bleeding shreds from a scourging, his scalp dripping from the piercing, humiliating crown of thorns. He would be walking toward the most egregious form of execution the Roman Empire could devise, and He would be taking the punishment the totality of humanity deserves for the crux of our moral flaw—our hatred of God and His sovereignty. He would be buying our freedom from an eternity of self-destruction each of us face upon our own deaths. And it was in this knowledge that Jesus looked at the rich, self-satisfied young man and loved him.

What do we do with this? How do you and I respond to this same Jesus who even now looks at you and me, and loves, loves, LOVES us? This is the quintessential issue of life. Nothing else matters but this. Jesus knows about our foolish attempts at morality (mostly used by us to earn a sense of self-esteem). He knows only His ransom-paying death and death-defying resurrection can supply us with the eternal life we all ultimately long for. And He longs to love us into His kingdom of eternity.

But it comes down to this: Do we look at Him and love Him in return?

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 2

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Identities.

“Good teacher,” asked a young man one day, running up to Jesus and falling on his knees before him, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

At first glance, we seem to be observing an individual who is a genuine seeker. His posture has communicated keen interest and even submission; his face has likely transmitted eagerness and enthusiasm; his words have articulated respect and resolve. What more could Jesus want in a seeker? Yet Jesus begins His response with a challenge.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”

Strange. The man has merely used a respectful form of address, and yet Jesus confronts the very first word that has come out of the man’s mouth. Why?

From our records of Jesus’ three years of ministry, His death and resurrection, Jesus does not routinely correct people’s usage of language, so why now? Why this word? The answer lies in Jesus’ correction of the mindset behind the man’s use of the word ‘good’.

Jesus already knows something about this young man that the young man himself does not know—that he is motivated by false identities and false loyalties. He sees Jesus as a teacher—a good one, yes, but just a teacher. This is one of the easiest identities for us to apply to Jesus. It allows us to show him respect as one who authentically tried to add his voice to help a hurting humanity; it allows us to learn from his compassionate disposition; it allows us to appear to be reasonable, inclusive and tolerant of him, as one of many good moral teachers this world has produced. But it also allows us to distance ourselves from real core life change—from a relationship with the Son of God. Teachers are significant and memorable, but they’re neither perfect nor eternal. They’re not God. But Jesus claims to be God.

Secondly, the young man sees himself as good—a good obedient son and a good obedient member of the Jewish religion. He hears the list of commandments Jesus recites, and checks them all off as done.

“You know the commandments:” reminds Jesus, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he declared (notice the young man has withdrawn the word good as he addresses Jesus this time), “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Wait. Has he really kept all the commands? Flawlessly? This young man has a self-identity issue happening here. He has defined goodness as something he has attained. He has already forgotten Jesus’ intelligence that “no one is good—except God alone.” Not only that, but he has failed to notice that within the list of the commandments to be followed Jesus has deliberately omitted the prime commandment contained in the Mosaic Law: “I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me”(Deut.5:7).

This is no coincidence. Jesus has been testing the young man. He has been trying to help the young man discern the state of his inner being, of his soul, of his relationship with the LORD his God. But the young man comes up empty. He completely forgets why the commandments exist. And the reason the young man has become distracted from the prime calling and purpose of human life is because he has found a replacement for God. He has found wealth.

Money, material possessions, and the power and social status that accompany the acquisition of wealth have bumped God into second place in the rich young man’s life. Perhaps it has happened so gradually he has not even been aware of it. He has conferred a false identity upon both wealth and God that inverses their true value and sovereignty.

Jesus has diagnosed the foolish rich young man’s heart condition from the moment the young man had come to Him. And now, Jesus offers the one prescription that will reverse the prognosis of spiritual decline into which the young man has fallen: dispose of the intruding god; jettison the cargo that is causing his ship to sink; eradicate the disease that is killing him. Give away his wealth.

Ah, say we. I’m not that wealthy. This doesn’t apply to me. But take a good hard look at how we identify ourselves. What two or three things are we most likely to want to communicate to others about ourselves overtly or covertly? Is it about our social position, our trendiness, our gender, our education or career, maybe even our identity as a victim of something? Anything with which we identify ourselves above our identity as worshipers of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a false identity, and Jesus says ‘Get rid of it! It’s destroying you and it’s destroying your relationship with God.

If this stirs our hearts, if it shakes anything within the core of our souls let’s do the impossible; let’s put God back into first position in our lives. It might hurt. It will mean a change of identities. But there is one thing we can know for absolute certain: it is good.

(Photo Credit: By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], File: False Identity Cards; via Wikimedia Commons)

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 1

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Childlike Trust:

The most extreme thing any of us will ever do with our lives is not climbing Mount Everest. It will not be accomplished through transporting, transfiguring, transplanting or transgendering ourselves. It cannot result from changing our diets, changing our spouses, changing our habits, or changing the energy source for our vehicles. None of these attempts are radical enough. We need something bigger, deeper, broader and more difficult—maybe even impossible—to challenge the furthest limits of what we call extreme.

John Mark, the first century author of the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark, shows us how Jesus’ early disciples discovered the singularly extreme life of Jesus. People have investigated the life of this unforgettable Man since that time and have discovered something both attractive and daunting: Through a collection of paradoxes, Jesus calls people—at least, those who choose to follow Him—to an (almost) impossible paradigm. Some have called this paradigm the ‘upside down kingdom’ because of its antithetical value system compared to that of world culture. What does this (almost) impossible paradigm look like? Join me as we explore thirty-five verses in twelve parts from the middle of Mark chapter ten to begin to understand Jesus’ invitation to build truly extreme lives.

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them” (Mark 10: 13-16).

Simple trust. This is the message Jesus sends to any who would call themselves His followers. In this passage, we find Jesus’ disciples appointing themselves ready-made bodyguards for Jesus. They had begun to develop a picture in their minds of how the Messiah and His followers could establish God’s kingdom on earth. It would take power, planning, and mobilization of resources—all those things they had seen the Roman Empire using to conquer the lands surrounding the Mediterranean and beyond. They were on the lookout for threats to their mission. This day, the threat was coming from the fluff and rubble of society, a group of common people who had brought their toddlers to Jesus to be blessed, as a father would bless his offspring.

“Shoo! Away with you!” the disciples began to crow at the small cluster of families. To those who resisted, the disciples began using harsher rebukes. Didn’t these people understand how important Jesus was?

Notice Jesus’ reaction to His disciples’ misinformed deterrence of the children and their parents. He is “indignant”. He is perturbed, incensed and decidedly intolerant toward His disciples’ misconception of His mission. Jesus’ message and mission is not based on the paradigm of worldly power. To participate in God’s kingdom, responds Jesus, requires one to become “like a little child.” Not like a bodyguard, or a militant crusader? Not like a business organization, or a rising political party? These all have self-developed resources based on personal power and the desire to expand it. All a child has is simple trusting dependence.

A child looks to her caregivers with complete faith in their care. She learns that her trust must result in obedience—even when it doesn’t make sense from her limited perspective. She can’t have candy for breakfast, and she must go to sleep at bedtime; joy comes from relationship, and pain is an opportunity for comfort. A young child lives, feeds, breaths, and cries for help in complete trust of father and mother. This is the image Jesus wants to impress on His disciples’ minds and hearts—on yours and mine.

Be like little children, He counsels us. Imitate them. Let God truly be your Father in a way you have never experienced before. Everything else is the fluff and rubble of worldly kingdoms. This is the upside down nature of God’s extraordinary kingdom: The last will be first. Leaders will be servants. To live we must die to self. These are not options; they are the signs and necessary features of those who have been given an entirely new life by His transforming Spirit. This is the life of those who have been ‘born again’ and who have a new lease on life.

So go ahead. Come to Jesus in a new way today. It’s never too late. Experience the radical life of living as a child in the family of the Everlasting Father and find what it’s like to be a baby again—this time a baby by choice.

(Photo Credit: By Walter J. Pilsak, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19631163)

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 24 (Conclusion)

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‘Taw’

“How Should We Then Live?’ asks the provoking title of Francis Schaeffer’s documentary which bears the sub-title ‘The Rise and Fall of Western Thought and Culture.’ The documentary is an expression of Schaeffer’s defense of Presuppositional Apologetics—the view that Christian faith is the only basis for rational thought. Remove that basis and rational thought decays. It’s a bold presupposition, isn’t it?

We all make sense of our experiences from presuppositions we hold. That is why two observers seeing the same thing can come away with two very different impressions. These suppositions, inferences, even hunches create the worldviews through which we make sense of everything we observe. Christian faith, explains Presuppositional Apologetics, presupposes the universe, the Bible, and Jesus, the Son of God are divine revelations without which every other worldview is lacking essential information for rational human life. There are no neutral assumptions from which reason can arise. Only the assumptions that arise from God’s revelation provide us with full rational thought that leads to full flourishing life.

As the psalmist brings us to his concluding stanza of Psalm 119, he summarizes Scripture’s teaching on the personal nature of God. He connects his experience of God with the rational basis of human thought: the Scriptural revelation that God alone is worthy of worship, that God’s precepts alone are faithful guideposts for life, and that God has created one salvation, the ultimate solution to every human problem.

“May my cry come before you, O LORD; give me understanding according to your word. / May my supplication come before you; deliver me according to your promise. / May my lips overflow with praise, for you teach me your decrees. / May my tongue sing of your word, for all your commands are righteous. / May your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts. / I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight. / Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me. / I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands” (Psalm 19:169-176).

“Give me understanding according to your word,” pleads the psalmist. He is convinced that the wealth of wisdom (rational thought and the behaviours that arise from it) for the present, and hope for the future come from God. As modern thinkers, we may be tempted to think social consensus or political charters make Scriptural revelation obsolete. But can charters of rights and freedoms really trump the noble virtue God’s character and principles express? What about when society or nature and their current cohort of ‘freedoms’ and restrictions fail us?

The psalmist’s hope is in the Lord. “May your hand be ready to help me,” he prays, and “I long for your salvation…” So the psalmist guides us to look to the Hope of the Nations, the Lord’s salvation—Jesus—who alone offers a rational basis for believing that there is hope for us.

How ought we live each day in order to reflect the rational foundation of our faith? By coming to the Shepherd of our souls admitting we are “strayed…lost sheep” and “servant(s)”, and asking for His help to live lives of integrity, lives aligned with the truth of His revealed will. That is the message the psalmist has painstakingly taken 176 verses in twenty-two stanzas to communicate. Without God we are nothing. With His salvation we become everything He imagined. That’s more than epic. That’s rational.

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 23

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‘Sin and Shin’

The Vulcan hand salute is well known by Star Trek lovers. What few might know, though, is that Leonard Nimoy (a.k.a. Mr. Spock) borrowed the hand gesture from a Jewish priestly blessing, a blessing he had seen as a child performed in an orthodox synagogue. The blessing shapes both hands to represent the Hebrew letter Sin/Shin representing the initiating letter of God’s name, El Shaddai—Almighty God. It recognizes God’s omnipresence and His genius for affecting the lives of people.

“Always, everywhere, God is present,” observes A.W. Tozer, “and always He seeks to discover Himself to each one.” How does El Shaddai, the Almighty God, affect people’s lives—your life and mine? How does He discover Himself to each one? These are the questions the psalmist explores as he pens the stanza he entitles with the Hebrew letter ‘Sin and Shin’,

“Rulers persecute me without cause, but my heart trembles at your word. / I rejoice in your promise like one who finds great spoil. / I hate and abhor falsehood but I love your law. / Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws. / Great peace have they who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble. / I wait for your salvation, O LORD, and I follow your commands. / I obey your statutes, for I love them greatly. / I obey your precepts and your statutes, for all my ways are known to you”(Psalm 119:161-168).

Worldly regimes, observes the psalmist, tend to be fundamentally opposed to faith. Eventually, all ideologies—even those founded on rights and freedoms—degenerate into special, privileged interest groups using government power for opportunistic reasons. The God-centred worldview and practice of believers becomes abhorrent to worldly regimes, whose laws, bemoans the psalmist, “persecute me without cause.”

Yet something unexpected occurs within the man or woman of faith, something that has happened throughout history, regardless of the believer’s age, race, sex, or socioeconomic status when faced with persecution for their faith. They stand and rejoice in the Promise of God.

For one thing, God’s intentions for people are not to persecute them but to bring them good. God doesn’t rule by external pressure but by internally transforming people who joyfully submit to Him. His plans are to give us hope and an eternal future. This, says the psalmist, is the source of the believer’s joy. Persecution takes on as much importance as a tiresome insect.

For another thing, a relationship with God is based on reality, on deep, enduring truths, rather than on the falsehood, corruption, folly and situational ethics to which earthly rulers fall prey. God is the author of truly righteous laws because He made us and understands the core of our being.

More than that, God’s law is a law that produces in its adherents a deep, penetrating peace because it brings people into alignment with God’s ways—that which C.S. Lewis terms, ‘the grain of the universe.’ “Nothing,” insists the psalmist, “can make th(ose who love God’s law) stumble.” “Nothing,” concurs the Apostle Paul, “shall separate us from the love of God.”

How does a person access this uncommon relationship with God? By pursuing human law, by depending on personal rights, freedoms and identity? No. The psalmist says he waits; he follows, he obeys, and he loves everything about God. His confidence is not in his own devotion; it is in God’s devotion to him. God creates, God initiates the human-divine relationship, God loves, and God provides the salvation believers all come to recognize we need.

Which brings us always back to Jesus Christ, God-fully-contained-in-a-man, the One who personifies the “law” about which the psalmist cannot stop praising. Hearts that tremble before Jesus, who rejoice in Him, who love the core truth of Him and take Him as their sure salvation are hearts fully at peace. Come to Him and find the peace that breathes, “…all my ways are known to you.”

 

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 22

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‘Resh.’

If there is one thing God has communicated to us humans, it is that we matter. The most relevant piece of information we will ever be able to grasp is that you and I are immeasurably loved and valued by Him.

“(Our) shared core hunger,” writes Tony Schwartz in an article for the New York Times, “is for value…We each want desperately to matter, to feel a sense of worthiness.” It’s what he calls ‘The enduring hunt for personal value’. James Gilligan, who authored “Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic” after studying human violence for over 40 years, began to observe “the frequency with which I received the same answer when I asked prisoners…why they assaulted…someone. Time after time they would reply, ‘Because he disrespected me’.”

As the psalmist moves into the third-to-last stanza of the interminable one hundred and nineteenth psalm, his singular petition is that God—who has embedded an element of His own worth into each person—will express the ultimate act of valuing human life: to preserve it indefinitely.

“…Preserve my life according to your promise,” the psalmist appeals. “…Preserve my life according to your laws,” he adds, and “…Preserve my life, O LORD, according to your love.” What does he mean by promise, laws, and love as the mechanisms of preserving life—the psalmist’s life, or yours and mine for that matter?

Firstly, the promise the psalmist references goes back ages to the time of Abraham. Abraham was God’s handpicked individual to begin a nation and race of people to whom and through whom God would speak. At God’s chosen time some 1500 years later, when strange prophecies like a virgin birth came together with others in fulfillment, Jesus was born from that race. The promise made to Abraham was, in short, “You will be a blessing…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The promise of blessing was fulfilled not at Jesus’ birth, but at His death and resurrection, because with that moral ransom paid, Jesus made the eternal preservation of human life available to every person on this planet. That was the promise. That is what is available to each of us who have accepted Jesus as our ‘ransom-payer’; we will find eternal life with Jesus on the other side of this life. That is how the promise preserves lives.

Secondly, the laws the psalmist references go back fewer ages to the time of Moses. Moses was God’s handpicked individual to lead the nation that Abraham had fathered into the Promised Land. On that journey, Moses was also given the daunting task of teaching the nation that God is a God of integrity, and that He can only be in relationship with people who respect God’s authority to require that integrity to be developed in them. The laws were commands God clarified through Moses, commands like: “I am the LORD your God; you shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not covet.” Those two commands alone were enough to make it pretty clear that every human on planet earth was incapable of obeying God completely. That was fine because it turns out that “through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20). Consciousness of sin leads us to do one of two things: rebel further against God and make a grab for complete freedom from God’s presence, or submit to God in humble repentance, accepting God’s gift of forgiveness through Jesus, and access to His presence for eternity. That is how the laws both condemn and preserve lives.

And finally, the psalmist references the LORD’s love which covers both the span of eternity and of creation, of which this planet is a mere blip in time. God, who is three persons in one—Father, Spirit, and Son—exists in a unity described by perfect love. He is completely fulfilled in the expressions of love that bind the Trinity unsparingly, perfectly, and completely together. Yet somehow—in the greatest mystery of the ages—as God created the universe, He made humankind the pinnacle of His loving creative expression. To be in loving relationship with Him was the purpose God embedded into every man, woman and child. We are created in such a way that our greatest joy and fulfillment comes only through loving Him in return.

The psalmist was right. The promise, the laws, and God’s love, are the essential components of God’s great gift to us: the preservation of our lives for eternity. He values us immeasurably. He wants us to be in continuing existence with Him—in future bodies created to last forever—long after these present shadows of bodies have ceased to be preserved. So dig out a Bible. Begin again to pour through its pages and find out how God valuing our person is tied to His intention to preserve us for eternity. Come to this sanctuary of preservation.