THE SEED OF THINGS TO COME

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If the Human Genome Project (HGP) teaches us anything, it is that there is more to existence than meets the eye. When we look in the mirror we are seeing one hundred trillion cells put together into a neat package called ‘me’ that walks, talks, thinks and moves in the distinct manner we do. The 2.7 billion dollars that went into the HGP allowed researchers to discover the complexity of the human genetic infrastructure that is hidden in every one of our cells. You and I don’t see that in ourselves on a daily basis, but we’d be foolish to refute it. The scientists know it, but we just have to believe it. Everything that can be seen about us, our physical make-up, how we appear, what our bodies look like, goes by the term phenotype; those are our observable traits. They don’t come out of nothing. They develop directly from our genotype – the blueprint that directs development from our conception through to our birth, on into adulthood, even into how we age. It is not random; our genotype codes for our phenotype with a complexity and order that is breath-taking.

We sense it most tangibly at the birth of a baby; we see unveiled the expression of the unique genotype of this newborn human, and it brings us great joy. But what about the other end of this amazing journey of human life? What about the day, many years later, when that baby has become an old man or woman and breathes his or her last? Does the genotype/phenotype reality just end there?

In the second half of his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul reveals an understanding of genetics that is far ahead of his time. He talks about genomes of species.

“When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another…”

In other words, God creates the genotype/phenotype process. It’s part of what is described in the Genesis account of creation’s day’s end: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”

But Paul doesn’t stop at the physical genotype/phenotype phenomenon. In fact he’s quite blunt in saying we are foolish if we think that is all there is. He says that our physical phenotype – our body as we see it – houses more than a merely physical genotype. It is a seed of things to come. The new birth that comes when we turn in trust toward Jesus’ redeeming work for our soul creates in us a spiritual genotype; we have a new genome that cannot be discovered by any collection of researchers regardless of billions of dollars spent.

This genotype will not find its phenotypical expression until we undergo physical death. It’s a sowing of a seed, of sorts. It’s a planting that leaves those of us left behind either wondering or in wonder. The germination of this seed will not be visible in this earthly realm, because it is moving into a new realm; it’s a realm where the perishable becomes imperishable, the dishonourable becomes glorious, the weak powerful, and the natural spiritual.

“And,” observes Paul, “just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.” That is Jesus. That is where our hope finds its source and its fulfillment. It is the seed of things to come, things that are not visible now because we just don’t have the phenotypical eyes to see what our future eyes will see. Paul closes the chapter by summarizing, “then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’.”

Our earthly genotype is fraught with the problem of death. But our spiritual genotype goes the needed step further so that we can realize what we were made for. Our lives here and now are just the seed. Yes, we must care well for that seed, not because of how it looks now, but because of what’s inside it; it is designed to become so much more. Let’s stop dressing that seed up like it’s only this present life that is reality. Jesus led the way. Let’s follow in His footsteps and be the seed we were designed to be.

(Photo Credit: Vinayaraj, Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

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RULE OF THUMB

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A hill has suddenly arisen out of nowhere and I’m in a gear better fit for a downhill fly. I think this is the story of my life. I’m on a new bike. It’s light and it’s fast, and the gears respond to a gossamer touch of their flashy levers. The trouble is, the levers are in places I’m unfamiliar with, four locations using thumbs and forefingers in combinations to make front and rear sprockets move up or down as needed. And I’m on a hill about to grind to a halt if I don’t find the right gear soon.

It’s the story of my life because I’ve discovered I live best when I’ve narrowed down God’s lessons for me into simple phrases. If it gets too complex, I simply revert to my natural set point; selfishness, pride, and vanity are waiting like the temptation to get off my bike and walk when the hill looms too large.

I’ve learned my left thumb is the most important digit when approaching a steep hill on this new bike. Pressing the lever nearest that thumb is the single most important choice I can make to enable this swishy new bike to do its job for me on that irksome slope. And I’ve learned a few rule-of-thumb lessons in life too.

I’ve learned that an appetite for God is best developed when I’ve suffered. When I’ve experienced the deepest disappointments I’ve found myself most desperate for God. I begin to see that time alone with Him in His Word and in prayer is the first and best thing I can do with my day, and the best place to deal with the problem of suffering.

I’ve learned that the backbone of prayer is in the request that God’s will be done in my life. Reading books like The Practice of the Presence of God (by Brother Lawrence) and Letters by a Modern Mystic (by Frank Laubach) have narrowed my focus toward more regular dialogue with God through prayer. And I’ve learned that dialogue must be various versions of “Thy will be done”.

I’ve learned that faith is sometimes hard work and comes with a cost. Richard Foster’s Devotional Classics and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship remind me that it is costly grace at work in my life that will make me finally like Jesus. This grace is epitomized in Paul’s verse to the Romans (8:28) that shocks me by saying, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him”. It means that God turns my weaknesses into something of eternal value; Jesus redeems all the disappointments, disciplines, ups and downs of my life for good.

So I’m riding this bike smoothly up the hill that almost had me walking. I remembered the rule of thumb just in time, and I’m in the prettiest first gear I ever felt. But it’s easier gearing down to first on a new bike than living the Spirit-filled life with success. I need to remember that suffering and disappointments are God’s invitation to come into closer relationship with Him. I need to remember that prayer is foremost about letting God have His will in my life. And I need to remember that God often works His good into my life when the hills are the most daunting. Those are the simple rules of thumb that God has taught me on this journey of life.

(Photo Credit: Andreas Werner, Wikimedia Commons)

KINGDOM OUTLOOK: Part 4

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Temptation Three (Matthew 4:1-11)

Finally the devil takes Jesus to a vantage point on an unnamed mountaintop to present his crowning proposal. We’re told he “showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” Satan knows he’s not showing Jesus anything He hasn’t already seen; the devil has no originality – rather his power lies in twisting the truth. Like an evil inoculation, the father of lies attempts to inject his ‘noeema’, his godless ideas and suggestions, into in the mind of Jesus. His scheme is designed to encourage genetically modified half-truths to infect and colonize within his victims so that they are unable to recognize the temptation.

“All this I will give you,” offers the devil with unveiled pride, “if you will bow down and worship me.” the blatant arrogance of Satan’s temptation is appalling. He offers the kingdoms of the world to the Maker of heaven and earth. The cosmos Satan controls is other than that made by the Son of God; the world system under the devil’s influence is characterized by “principles of force, greed, selfishness, ambition, and pleasure (which is) often outwardly religious, scientific, cultured, and elegant; but seething with national and commercial rivalries and ambitions.”[1]

This temptation tests the very foundations of every person’s character: Jesus’, yours, and mine. Who of us, other than Jesus, has been able to avoid being motivated by pleasure, ambition, selfishness or greed? Yet Satan regards these motives to be worship of him. It’s a chilling thought. So as Jesus deftly averts Satan’s needle-like aim, He becomes an example and help for us in avoiding similar temptations. We can discover the foundation of Jesus’ moral strength by taking a closer look at His response to the temptation.

“Away from me, Satan!” He commands. He uses a similar invective some time later with His disciple Peter; Peter attempts to dissuade Jesus from pursuing a sacrificial death, and Jesus recognizes this same temptation to adopt the devil’s worldview.

“You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men,” He observes. Peter has fallen prey to Satan’s influence, thinking by his principles rather than by God’s.

And there we are likely to fall too. Satan’s third temptation seeks to keep us bound and gagged by a deception that our best happiness lies in pursuing our own way, following our own bent, doing what we will. Here is where splendour lies, we think. Filtering choices through this mindset deranges the noble beginnings God designed us to display. The things of men obliterate any thought of the things of God.

It is here that we see, as in everything about His life on earth, that Jesus submits Himself to the process of the temptation, without falling to it, for our benefit. It is not random; it is not even ultimately under the control of the tempter. Jesus walks through this temptation experience in obedience to the Father, in order to benefit every follower of His. His suffering benefits our faith if we learn from it.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews explains, “because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

We are given strength to face Satan’s old temptations by looking to Jesus at God’s throne of grace, in our times of need. Jesus has put Himself in our shoes so that we can walk in His and be relieved of ongoing failures. Prayer, an attitude of humility, a dependence on God’s Word, and an alertness to the lies of this world system will be the means of our protection. We don’t need the splendor Satan offers. We have God.

“O LORD my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty.” (Psalm 104:1)

[1] Footnote on kosmos from the NIV Bible, Rev.13:8

(Photo Credit: Martin G. Conde, Wikimedia Commons)

KINGDOM OUTLOOK: Part 3

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Temptation Two (Matthew 4:1-11)

The tempter isn’t done. Round one has gone to Jesus – He has resisted the first temptation to satisfy his own appetite at the expense of His relationship with the Father; He has practiced what He preaches and has applied the power of God’s Word to douse the fire of Satan’s first temptation.

Now Satan shifts tactics. He tries to wield Scripture for his own benefit – anything to destroy the Son of God whom he perceives is capable of frustrating the evil one’s suffocating grip on humanity. We’re told the devil’s second temptation occurs in Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish culture, atop the temple’s highest peak. Perhaps it is in the dead of night, a time in which the dark one likes to work his lies.

“If you are the Son of God,” he sneers with devilish trickery, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”

To be a bona fide temptation, there must be something in this suggestion that will appeal to Jesus. Perhaps, in His physically weakened condition from fasting there is nothing He’d rather have right now than the legions of angels who had attended Him in heaven’s realm, come and whisk Him away from the travail of His earthly task.

We are told in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that in coming to earth, Jesus, “being in very nature God… made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.” Perhaps this contrast is what the tempter wants to spotlight.

You deserve to be served, if you are as special as you say, Satan goads. He takes God’s words, written by an ancient psalmist, and challenges Jesus with them. Ironically, Jesus does deserve to be served. He is God incarnate. If anyone should have the right to fling Himself from the highest peak of the temple and be lifted up on angel’s wings it’s Him. Yet, He resists. He has a higher calling than immediate gratification. He has in mind obedience to the Father in order to complete a greater rescue than that which the devil has just suggested. At the right time Jesus will be raised onto a cross above the heads of the people; His lifeless body will be pulled from the nails that have held him so that it can be buried deep in a tomb. Satan will foolishly imagine he has routed the people’s only hope…until the Son of God rises to storm Hell’s gates and open Heaven’s doors to all people who follow Him.

Here is where we come in, we who would be followers of this amazing man, the Son of God, Jesus. We will find moments when temptation is whispered into our ears by the same liar who tried to sway Jesus. We will hear the words, “You deserve…” and fill in the blank with any number of things. We deserve respect; we deserve attention; we deserve the right to life, liberty, happiness, free choice, self-realization, and anything else that comes to mind. So we fling ourselves mindlessly before the opportunities this world offers, foolishly expecting God and His angels to bless, without scrutinizing the source of the idea.

Jesus’ quiet response to this temptation is, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” His role as model for us shows us that we, too, while of inestimable value to God who created us for His glory, are to take on the nature of servants. We are to humbly face life’s challenges, its ups and downs, not manipulating God’s power for our purposes, but accepting every situation as having redemptive value. This means that even the difficult, painful, and unpleasant moments in life can be transforming experiences for our eternal souls and for His glory. The temptation to take the easy way out is a lie of Satan. Never let him have the satisfaction of a successful deception. The true Spirit of Jesus within us is greater than the liar that is without. Let’s tune our ears to His voice and tune out the tempter’s proposals. Round two goes to Jesus.

(Photo Credit: http://www.byunewtestamentcommentary.com)

KINGDOM OUTLOOK: Part 2

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Temptation One (Matthew 4:1-11)

Julian Altman’s deathbed confession was admirable: the Stradivarius violin with which he had entertained presidents and politicians for decades was not his; he had stolen it from Carnegie Hall in 1936 at intermission, after the performing virtuoso had replaced it with a Guarneri. The sense of guilt of Altman’s crime had hounded him for forty-nine years and his regret was finally stronger than his greed.

Caving in to temptations is like that, isn’t it? What seems enticing and alluring at first leaves us withered and ashamed eventually. The shining carrot held out before us turns to sawdust in our mouth, and worse: the path we veer onto leads us away from the path of God and away from real living.

When Matthew recounts for us the temptation of Jesus early on in his ministry, we are given a singular glimpse into the workings of temptation, the methodology of the tempter, and the response of the Man on whom the rescue of mankind depends. It is a window whose shutters are opened for our benefit. Through it we see how light overcomes darkness, and how we can walk in that light, because we know about temptation too, don’t we?

We find Jesus here having fasted forty days and nights and we’re told in classic understatement, “He was hungry.” Matthew might have said ‘ravenous’ or even ‘starving’, but we get the point. He is physically weak from the past six weeks’ spiritual retreat and Satan knows to make his move; the tempter’s goal is to remove from the world our one and only hope for the recovery of our race from his deadly grip, and he will try any trick of his trade.

“If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread,” challenges the liar. The temptation suggests that Jesus should act independently of the Father. It counsels Him to see Himself as the solution to His problems, to rely solely on Himself to turn His weakness into strength. Envision the bread in those stones, whispers the tempter; it’s in you to do it.

“No!” responds Jesus. True life comes “from the mouth of God”, not from bread, He answers through parched lips. Jesus is modeling for us His commitment to unity with the Father. He will not be drawn away from dependence upon that relationship. It is everything to Him. It is life itself.

We can learn much from that response. This world’s mantra cries ‘look to yourself! You are the source of your strength,’ it cajoles. New Age spirituality falls to that temptation; so does Wall Street sagacity. It can be made to sound reasonable, viable, and even enviable. Many of the bright minds and bodies of this world have espoused this creed and have eaten the bread they have created. The spotlight of fame and wealth that has accompanied their rise to the podiums of the world does not shine onto their souls, though. There we would see what the tempter hopes will stay hidden until he has duped many more into listening to his sweet temptations.

If we are to avoid the peril of self-sufficiency, our answer every time must be ‘No!” We must insist, especially in moments of our greatest weakness, that our strength, our hope and our life come only from God. We must resist the temptation to rely on ourselves, to take matters into our own hands, and to set aside the power of God to make room for the power of self.

“Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,” Jesus quotes; He uses this truth, mouthed half a millennium earlier by Moses, to snap the twig that dangles the tempter’s first carrot. We do well to attend. Our first lesson draws us to reject self-dependence. Only by relying on God, His words and His ways can we avoid this all-too-common temptation.

One down. Two to go.

(Photo Credit: Koernerbroetchen, Wikimedia Commons)

KINGDOM OUTLOOK: Part 1

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New Vision (Matthew 3)

We all need vision. I don’t mean eyesight, although that helps. We all need a purpose in life, a raison d’etre, a sense of accomplishing something beyond ourselves that makes an impact on this world. And sometimes, when we’ve been on track and life is going fine, we suddenly find everything turning topsy-turvy; we don’t know what we’re about anymore.

John is feeling that. He’s been on task for thirty years, carrying the mantle God placed upon him years ago. He knows he’s a forerunner of the long-awaited Jewish Messiah and he wants to discharge his assignment thoroughly. He speaks with the authority of one who is confident in his role. That’s where we find John near the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. And that might be where we find ourselves – not in John’s role, but ensconced in our own routines. We know how we like to spend our free time, how to transition to our work roles with the least amount of discomfort, and how to maintain a sense of purpose in our lives. We believe we’re justified in our lifestyle choices because we think they reflect who we uniquely are.

John is the epitome of unique; his role has become a sort of cross between a boot camp sergeant and a campaign GOTV coordinator. He’s as abrasive as coarse-grit sandpaper, stripping layers of self-satisfied complacency off anyone who dares to come within earshot of him. The Jordan River has become a cold-tank dip-stripper, a platform for calling the masses to repent, revamp and revise. Even the pious he calls a “brood of vipers”; no one is safe within a furlong of the man. Until he meets Jesus at the river.

“Baptize me”, Jesus requests. Stunned, John tries to deter him. John’s baptism has been one of repentance, of admission of sinfulness and broken relationship before God. John knows this man is unique; this Man is God-in-flesh goodness – for Him there is not one iota of a thought, word or act from which to repent. John has no idea how to proceed. He has no blueprint from which to draw. He’s being asked to step into a role of ministry for which he is entirely unprepared. He becomes hopelessly aware of his own sinfulness, inadequacy, and ineptitude.

“I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” he questions.

That’s a good question. It’s the kind of question we must ask Jesus too. It’s a request for vision, really. It’s a new level of humility that sees Jesus moving us constantly into new phases of our remaking; the vision we have of the cameo for which we’ve been cast needs rejigging. Jesus will not let us settle into routines of complacency when once we’ve heard and responded to His call. His kingdom is too vast for that. His vision for our transformation too far exceeds our own hopes for what we will become to let us settle for mediocrity. Jesus explains it in simple terms.

“Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus is explaining that He has a plan for this world. It’s a good plan and many will benefit by it. It will mean listening carefully to what He calls us to do. The spirit of the law is always more subtle than the letter of the law, but it is the Spirit, not the letter, that gives life.

So John does baptize Jesus after all. He dips Him into Jordan’s cool waters, not quite understanding how it will fulfill all righteousness, but obeying anyway. Time seems to stand still as Jesus rests submerged underwater. But as John lifts Him up, water streaming off His face and hair, heaven seems to open before them. The very Spirit of God descends and lights like a dove on Jesus’ shoulders and the Father’s voice thunders His approval.

We most likely won’t experience what John did; no two lives are the same. God has a way of working in your life and mine that mimics none other. But if we are faithful to listen carefully for and to His voice, to accept the quirks in life as opportunities to obey Him, He will fulfill all righteousness. He will use us in ways we would never expect, giving us new vision for each new step.

Are we just on the cusp of faith? He knows that. Are we long-time followers of Him? He knows that too. Is our vision of Him too small for the idea we’ve had in the past? He’s happy to help us with that. Trusting Jesus means admitting we don’t know exactly how this life works, how to make the most of opportunities and relationships, or even how to find God. It means entrusting our deepest selves to His plans, even if they look like a change of plans to us. He is faithful. He will do it if we will grasp what He offers. It’s all part of the kingdom outlook.