A SEEKER’S STORY, Part 3

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Part 3: To Believe or Not To Believe (John 3:12-18)

“I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe;” Jesus challenged His nighttime visitor. “How then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” In this third look at a seeker’s shrouded visit to interrogate Jesus, we see the tables have been turned; Jesus now questions his examiner. He uses a rhetorical question to shed light on the real problem behind Nicodemus’ confusion – it is his refusal to believe. It is a challenge that transcends the moment in which it was asked.

Every one of us, here and now, is a recipient of that same question: “If you live life as if visible evidence is valid but invisible influences on life are suspect, how do you imagine you will have the capacity to understand eternal things?” It’s a good question for our empirical scientifically-based generation. We tend to make the assumption that scientific evidence bypasses and even negates the need for belief. In reality, though, there is a point at which we give mental assent to evidence before embracing that information as part of our domain, is there not? We believe a fact before we are willing to act according to it. Belief is an essential part of learning. It is the mortar for the brick construction of our life story.

Famous atheists would like us to believe (irony intended) that belief is an antiquated, self-destructive tool used only by fools and tyrants to access power. They lead us to believe that real, authentic, critical thinking occurs without the need for belief. They want us to believe that their form of thinking is without beliefs. Must we believe them?

Nicodemus, in fact, had earlier admitted a belief he held. He said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God…” He was willing to believe Jesus was a good man and a good teacher. That was easy. It required no investment of soul on his part to admit that. So why was he coming to see and question Jesus under cover of darkness this night? Did he suspect there was more to Jesus than just ‘good teacher’?

Jesus responds to Nicodemus by offering an explanation so clear and succinct it has become the pièce de résistance, the capstone treatise of the entire New Testament, if not the Bible. He says,

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Think those words through carefully.

For God so loved the world’—God’s love and compassion is directed to every soul on planet earth: that’s not only Nicodemus: it’s you and me and billions of others.

that he gave his one and only Son’—Jesus is the unique Son of God, not merely a good man or teacher, but fully God and fully man, the only one capable of paying the terrible moral debt humanity owed.

that whoever believes in him’—yes, belief is rational, foundational, essential and individual.

shall not perish but have eternal life.’—the new ‘born again’ spiritual life has literally no end. There will be no perishing or cessation of life when the physical body dies.

In Jesus we see a beautiful blend of ‘earthly things’ and ‘heavenly things’. He is God-with-us, and His offer of life comes with the condition that we believe in Him – the entrusting kind of belief that requires we ‘put all our eggs in one basket’. It’s all or nothing with Jesus. Start believing Him and there is no end to the changes that will begin to happen in every aspect of our lives. Belief is not for the faint of heart, but it’s everything for those who believe God could love them. Do you believe it?

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-19285-0002,_LPG_Niederndodeleben,_Gefl%C3%BCgelwart.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-19285-0002,_LPG_Niederndodeleben,_Gefl%C3%BCgelwart.jpg)

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A SEEKER’S STORY, Part 2

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 Understanding Truth (John 3:9-11)

“How can this be?” queried the dark stranger sitting with Jesus by the flickering flame of the lamp. We don’t hear the deep silence following that question, but I’m sure it was there. Nicodemus’ question was taking him along a passage of his mind he had previously barred himself from entering. He had never before let himself entertain the thought that his own matrix of spirituality was missing some important information. For a Pharisee, it was all ‘do and do, do and do’. The role and culture of the Pharisaical tradition was based on the rehearsal and practice of the oral Torah – thousands of laws prescribing the minutiae of daily life. Doing things a particular way comprised his religion’s understanding of relationship with Almighty God.

Jesus brings into the conversation a new understanding. He uses phrases like, “I tell you the truth”, and “do you not understand?” to introduce the concept of objective knowledge. He is saying that what you do must be based on truth, not on a collection of human-created rules or on denying that truth exists at all. Truth, Jesus adds, is God’s domain. Begin to absorb truth into the core of your being and your life story will take a new direction. Authenticity comes from aligning yourself with an ever-increasing knowledge of God, not with religious mandate.

As we begin to understand Jesus’ words we see the effect truth could have on our own life. Our own story has often been fraught with confusion because we act without full understanding, such as:

We fail to show compassion for others’ weaknesses because we do not fully appreciate our own.

We fail to forgive others because we do not grasp that we are equally guilty of offenses.

We fail to persevere in difficult relationships because we do not recognize that true love is patient, kind, not self-seeking or easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs.

We fail to submit ourselves to our Creator because we do not realize that His ways are the only means of ever experiencing true joy and fulfillment.

Jesus is a reliable teacher. We can trust that His discussion with Nicodemus was intended for our ears too. He is not limited by time and space. We, like Nicodemus, have much to learn in this adventure of living. Jesus has helped us see that our story is designed to contain two things, so far: firstly, a second birth – His Spirit within ours (John 3:1-8), and secondly, a deeper knowledge – Jesus Himself communicating that knowledge through the Bible (John 3:9-11). He’s making us an offer we have the right to refuse, but we will never find true fulfillment unless we accept. I’m accepting it. Are you?

Jesus, come fill our lives with the newness You promise. Embed truth in our deepest being by Your Spirit within us, guiding us every step of the way. Help us live lives consistent with the truth that You love all people. What a gift!

(Photo Credit: WIkimedia Commons, Maksim)

A SEEKER’S STORY, Part 1

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Strange Analogy (John 3:1-8)

Two men sat in the dark, one small oil lamp casting upward shadows on their faces. The one had arrived secretively, a dark robe draping his face to avoid recognition. He felt the piercing eyes of the other probing deep into his soul.

“The miracles you do…” began the visitor, “…Rabbi, you must be a teacher who has come from God.” His voice trailed away in confusion.

The rabbi looked searchingly at his nighttime guest. He knew more of this man Nicodemus than the man knew of himself.

“Do you want to know the truth?” Jesus began. “You cannot truly understand the thoughts and ways of God unless you allow yourself to be born all over again.” He let the truth of the strange analogy sink into the consciousness of his shadowy friend.

“Impossible!” Nicodemas exploded in exasperation, refusing to open his mind to the deeper meaning of Jesus’ words. “How could I, an old man, re-enter my mother’s womb and be born a second time?”

I’m sure Jesus smiled. His visitor was a well-educated man; he was easily capable of thinking abstract existential thoughts. But here, when the moment of truth would require him to fully relinquish his mindset of superiority, he balked. His pride recoiled at the idea of giving up everything he had painstakingly worked for – the honour of being a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council and Israel’s teacher – to start anew as a baby would.

This is perhaps the biggest stumbling block in coming to Jesus. The phrase ‘born again’ is an analogy relevant to every one of us, but it irks us. It means that we bring nothing to the table but our will. It requires us to be completely submissive to God’s Spirit in anticipation of a gift we cannot provide ourselves: spiritual life. This life cannot be accessed by meditation, karma, good works or good luck. We cannot enter into it through the natural processes of physical life or physical death.

It is God’s Spirit that gives birth to our spirit.

As we take a moment to consider this thought we will likely have one of three responses:

We will be thankful – a great sense of gratitude will fill our hearts and minds as we acknowledge that, yes, we have accessed that gift; we have a new life and we are growing daily to be more like Jesus by God’s grace.

Or we will be resentful – we will reject the idea that we need an external source of life, one that comes with a set of guidelines for how we must live it.

Or we will be resolute – we will realize that today, here and now, is the moment offered us by the Sovereign loving God to bow our will and receive that new life. It is our birth day.

Nicodemus’ reaction, I believe, was beginning to transition from the second to the third response. It’s hard to hear the nuance of emphasis when the words are only in print. But I think I hear a softening, an opening of the heart, a willingness to believe. Do you?

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. His longing for authentic relevant relationship with God was beginning to rise stronger than his long-nurtured pride. Born again; it was a strange analogy, but it rung true.

 

(Photo Credit: “”Diyo” oil lamp” by Sam Shrestha – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%22Diyo%22_oil_lamp.jpg#mediaviewer/File:%22Diyo%22_oil_lamp.jpg)

MARKETPLACE LIVES

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Jesus was making a scene. His disciples stood in the margins in open-mouthed wonder at the chaotic spectacle.

“Get these out of here!” he roared, scattering coins and overturning tables, “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”

There was nothing meek and mild about this Jesus. He was not communicating a passive take-me-or-leave-me invitation to those he confronted. Bringing order back from chaos is never the time for tranquility. It’s the time for resolve and focus and intention. And this was no trivial fray. This was the temple.

The temple of God, in first century Jerusalem, was the most sacred and honoured location the Jewish people recognized. At least, it used to be. But the religious leaders, the priests and professors of Mosaic law, had started twisting it for their own personal gain. They had seen a way to turn a profit and were making a day of it.

Vendors of livestock had set up pens in the courtyard where sheep and cattle jostled against each other. The smell of manure and urine mingled with the bawling of the livestock; their owners prodded them with goads, broadcasting their merits to the crowds of involuntary customers. The new twist on an old law required the everyday man to purchase his gift for God at exorbitantly inflated prices or leave empty-handed. He had no way of making peace with God.

I believe this is what infuriated Jesus. The people were like a sheep whose shepherds had become hungry wolves.

His Father’s house was designed to be a house of prayer for the nations. The courtyard was supposed to have been an access point for Jews and non-Jews to approach God. The temple was an entrance for seekers to find hope and peace and relationship with God. I believe Jesus is no less concerned today. But where is the temple?

“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” challenges the apostle Paul of the early Corinthian believers (I Cor. 3:16). We need to reconstruct that in our minds. The specifications and regulations and celebrations for which the temple was the centrepiece, were a symbol and prototype of the role of all believers in Christ. God’s presence now resides within us — our lives are the courtyard through which others will find Him too.

Sometimes, maybe inadvertently, we think the courtyard is ours; we think we can do what we want with it, maybe even turn a profit – in a superficially religious sort of way to ease our consciences. We network for our glory rather than for God’s. We build relationships that serve our desires rather than seeking to include the hurting and lonely. We trade in comfort commodities rather than offering relief and consolation, truth and hope to the hopeless.

The solution is both simple and difficult. We must bring truth and love back into our private and public lives for Christ’s sake. We are called to make disciples, to serve the needy, to speak the truth.

Christ is the hope of the nations and we, as gatekeepers, are to have those gates swung wide in welcoming invitation.

“Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; Come before him with joyful songs. Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” –Psalm 100.

The invitation is for all.

(Photo Credit: George Gastin; CC BY-SA 3.0 )

YEARNING TO LIVE

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Twelve thousand times a day we indulge ourselves; we respond to the most compelling physical yearning we will ever feel. We breathe.

Every eight seconds, on average, we exhaust our brain’s supply of oxygen needed to regulate our body’s functioning. We consume the last of the oxygen that our heart requires to keep pumping, that our muscles need to keep moving, that numerous biochemical processes demand in order to make energy available to us. Sure, we can stretch that out every now and then by holding our breath for a particular reason, but we can’t do it for long. It’s enough to say that every few seconds when we inhale that delicious breath of air, we are satisfying a quintessential yearning to live.

But how often do we think about it? How often do we stop and focus on the serious brink of death we approach just prior to taking the next breath? There, we’ve done it again – we’ve taken another breath, this time less mindlessly than we usually do. From this place of greater awareness of the gracious endowment of our Creator, let’s think a little further and see how deeply He is, and wants to be, involved.

In the Genesis account of creation we find that “The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”(Genesis 2:7). That first breath came from God.

But it doesn’t stop there. When Jesus is referred to as the “life-giving spirit” (I Corinthians 15:45), that word spirit is ‘pneuma’ in the original language. It means ‘breath’ or ‘wind’ or ‘spirit’. The life-giving breath that sustains followers of Jesus is Jesus Himself. His Spirit surrounds us like air and permeates our inner being like the breath we breathe. The more we ‘breathe’ Him the greater becomes our longing to inhale Him again. We yearn to live the expansive eternal life our spirit was designed to live.

It can go the other way too, though. We can muffle our instinct to breathe that Holy Wind. We can, by degrees, suffocate that natural yearning to live the eternal life. We can interrupt that spiritual feedback loop that tries to alert us to the fact that we are becoming hypoxic, breathless, dangerously lacking in the spirit-life we truly need.

So let’s allow this huge reminder we ignore every day – our earthly air-breathing – to turn our thoughts to the spiritual breathing we need to be doing too. Breathe a prayer every time you notice you are inhaling earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere. Draw thoughts of Jesus deep within your spirit and let Him permeate your being. See if your spirit doesn’t warm to the flush of saturation with His presence. Breathe deep.

“…my soul pants for you, O God.” – Psalm 42:1

 

A CHANGE OF MIND

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I saw the first clue that Walter understood me when he nudged the bell hanging from the laundry room door. It was not a well-coordinated nudge; the bell barely jangled. But I happened to be with Walter, and I saw in that unsophisticated action a puppy that was beginning to think like me.

From birth, this golden bundle of energy was being raised to become a guide dog for a blind or autistic person. As long as he continued to think like a puppy, though, that goal would be unattainable. He needed to think like me. So when Walter allowed himself to be moved toward the door, his nose carefully directed to bump against the bell dozens of times a day prior to going outside, Walter was in the process of an amazing transformation.

The bell-ringing became the first of many incredible and useful tasks Walter would learn while he was with us. When he went on to his next level of training some eighteen months later, he was no ordinary dog.

I thought of that when I read these words today from the book of Romans: “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” (Rom.11:34).

Good question. Who could know the mind of the sovereign and eternal Creator? – surely not us, mere mortal bundles of energy and matter. And yet, somehow, strangely, God wants to do something incredible in and through us. He wants to transform us so that we will be able to think like Him. Don’t believe me?

Read on. “Take your everyday ordinary life,” says the apostle Paul in The Message version of Romans 12:1,2, “– your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”

When we start living every aspect of our everyday lives for God, we begin to foster habits that make us think differently. As we become more aware of recurring themes that show up in those actions – themes like: forgiving people who have hurt us, bringing good into others’ lives, being thankful for Jesus’ redeeming work on the cross – we begin to think like God. We’re on the same wavelength. We get why He sets certain goals and boundaries for our lives.

God knows what we are capable of, if only our thinking would change. He wants to enable us to live abundant and flourishing lives, lives only possible when we think like Him. He is present with us, right here deep inside and all around us, guiding us to speak and move and think in ways that transform us. It’s the everyday miracle God loves to do with people.

Walter and his litter mates have gone on to become amazing guide dogs for various people. They help their clients cross streets and descend escalators; they move them safely through crowded sidewalks and retrieve dropped keys and forgotten wallets. Every extraordinary act they accomplish is because they, as puppies, learned to behave and think like their masters.

So the answer to the question, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” is simple: Those who are in the process of having a change of mind. Does that describe you?