Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 18

On Becoming Great.

“Unless you change…” began the speaker in ‘TEDx’ style, “you will never enter…” He had caught his listeners’ attention. The murmuring had stopped and mouths had gone dry. The group had been discussing strategies for becoming uniquely, individually great. How could they achieve not only their personal best, they debated, but actually rise to the top, stand on the pinnacle of the new dominion, become the greatest?

“Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus bluntly pointed out, as recorded in Matthew chapter 18. In other words, continue clawing and grasping for power and you won’t even be a part of My kingdom, never mind great in it. His followers’ position in the kingdom of heaven was not at stake—their entrance was.

Looking into the stunned faces of His followers, I’m sure Jesus felt compassion for them in their stumbling progress; it was only human nature for them to follow the promptings of pride, the psyche of superiority, the inclination to put oneself first. They really had no idea what He meant by saying they must become like little children. He would have to spell it out more clearly.

“Whoever humbles himself like this child,” He explained, drawing a toddler toward Him, “is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Humbles himself. It wasn’t a new idea. His followers had been versed in the Law and the Prophets since their own childhood. They had memorized the prophet Micah’s instruction to, “act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Surely the prophet had not meant the humiliation of childishness, though, had he?

“And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me,” Jesus continued. “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

It was going from bad to worse. First, they would have no part in His kingdom. Now, they were good for nothing but Davey Jones’ locker. What did it all mean?

Jesus was saying that simple faith in God is not just best practice; it is only practice in God’s kingdom. Unless a person humbles and entrusts herself or himself unreservedly to God’s plans, as a child would her father, there is no spiritual heart beating beneath the physical exterior.

“BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS:” begins a telegram sent to the Walker children by their father in the 1930s fictional series, Swallows and Amazons. “IF NOT DUFFERS WON”T DROWN.” In other words, if you act with pride and its consequent foolishness, you really deserve the consequences of which you find yourself victim.

Pride says, “I’m in charge of me”, “it’s my life; I’ll do with it as I please”, and makes other similar claims. In contrast, childlike humility toward God says, “You are in charge of me”, “I will follow Your lead”, and the person lives by that premise. The two attitudes are worlds apart. In fact, Jesus is saying that we all have a natural bent toward the former attitude: we don’t want to be like children, having to trust another for the good times we envision our lives ought to contain. When we come of age, our tendency is to slough off the mantle of childlike faith we once had that believed in a good and loving Creator. Remember those days?

Jesus is giving a warning: Eternity with God, believe it or not, is real. Take it or leave it, but we had better not imagine we can make up the rules. We cannot experience true greatness without first submitting ourselves to the process that changes great duffers into child-hearted believers. It is a process. Child-hearts occasionally revert to duffer-blundering galoots. The great thing is to say to Jesus, “I’m sorry”, and “make me like You.”—true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy. That is Christ-like greatness.

And the great thing is that God is a Father unlike any other. He enfolds past-duffers into His great family in an embrace that turns them into children that reflect their Father’s greatness more than ever before. Let’s leave the life of a duffer behind. Together let’s become children on the journey that takes us great places.

(Photo Credit: By USAID – USAID, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10485032; CC BY-SA 3.0; 862878;By en:User:Steevven1 – URL: http://www.keysphotography.com/photopages/2007-03-04.php, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1746173)

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Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 17

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The Great Truth

“You are the Christ,” the Apostle Peter exclaims in Matthew chapter 16, “the Son of the living God.” This declaration stands as a pinnacle in the narrative of Jesus’ ministry on earth. Jesus—living God, the fulfillment of the ancient promise to mend the brokenness of our lives—was everything the Christ must be to heal this aching world. The truth of it had seared through the heavy mantle of human ignorance and the disciples would now be responsible to carry this torch far and wide.

But the orientation was not over yet. Truth has a way of taking us from one peak to another, and in Matthew chapter 17 we see Jesus take Peter and two other close companions up a high mountain by themselves. They would be privy to a pre-taste of the fulfillment of a prophecy spoken only six days earlier: “I tell you the truth,” Jesus had promised His close group of friends, “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

And there on a high mountain the glory of God the Son flared for a literal moment. We’re told Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light…a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

The bombardment upon the disciples’ senses knocked them face-first to the ground, terrified. Pure truth, like piercing light, is more than we can sometimes bear in these earth-bound bodies of ours. The three disciples had seen a glimpse of Jesus as He would appear far, far into earth’s future, “coming in his kingdom”—and His glory left them gasping for breath.

There’s some wisdom for us in the recollection of that moment. Truth is more magnificent than we often give it credit for. It is not some tidy little prescription that we can package in a pillbox and dispense as needed. We cannot wrap it around our little fingers and make it do for us as we please. Truth is as searing as a laser beam; it pierces, ignites, seals and reveals whatever it is aimed toward. It is faultless in reaching its target. Truth is God’s domain.

But truth is not only apparent on mountaintops. It extends into the valleys too. And so, Jesus reached down and touched His three companions, giving them courage, lifting them up, and explaining that they needed to walk alongside him through a deep valley. Before reclaiming the glory of being the Son of God, Jesus needed to complete the task given Him as the Son of Man: He must first suffer a humiliating death at the hands of darkness-driven men and take upon Himself the penalty each human owes the God of Truth and Justice.

This truth was harder for the disciples to accept than the bright-and-shining-revelation-of-Christ truth they had just witnessed. It always is. We much prefer the glory of triumph to the prospect of dogged perseverance. As humans we seem to have a particular aversion to suffering. We will do much to avoid it. Yet Christ was tenacious in his resolve to move forward in the Father’s plan for Him to suffer. Why? Because the great truth is that He had to suffer, to die an agonizing death in order to confront the laws of the moral universe that demanded a settlement for our human rebellion—for every time we’ve said, “It’s my life!”

We’re told, “the disciples were filled with grief.” They were torn by Christ’s news that He would be betrayed, killed and on the third day raised to life. It was natural to grieve. They didn’t want Jesus to suffer and they certainly didn’t want to share in the suffering by losing their Lord and Mentor. It was truth’s deep valley. But did you notice what they had failed to hear? The suffering would lead to glorious, triumphant Life. The truth of the valley would give way to the truth of the most magnificent peak—life unending. The Christ, the Son of the living God does the impossible to give you and me a second chance for the kind of life He designed us to have.

Why?—Simply because Jesus loves us. His love is deeper than the deepest valley, fiercer than hell’s scorching inferno, brighter than sun’s piercing rays, and higher than the highest heaven. He loved us through His own death and resurrection to save us from a suffering we know nothing about, and instead give us an eternity of love.

“For I am convinced,” pondered the Apostle Paul in a letter to later Christ-followers, “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That is a Great Truth.

(Photo Credit: By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands – Into the sun, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34928418)

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 16

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Disintegrating the Big Lie

Adolf Hitler and his Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels are credited with exploring and defining the “Big Lie”—a propaganda tool for harnessing public support of Nazi Germany’s war effort. The Big Lie said, “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” By the time World War II ended sixty million people—3% of the 1940 world population—had died as a direct result of that tool. But don’t be deceived into thinking that was the first or even the last time the Big Lie has been used.

“Be careful,” Jesus warned His disciples. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). This wasn’t about bread. It wasn’t about diet, culture or even religion. It was a warning about deceptive power; it was a caution about a sham, a strategy as old as earth itself of misleading hapless individuals into bondage. Jesus used the term yeast as a metaphor for the Big Lie, to help people like us understand what we are up against—something that spreads insidiously and overtakes everything it touches.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were Jewish sects that sought to rule the people through a well-developed religion-masked dictatorship. They used their form of the Big Lie to build lives of power for themselves at the expense of others.

There are other forms of the Lie: life is a Clockwork Universe set in motion by a benevolent force (Deism); life is defined by the visible and the reasonable (Naturalism); life is realizing oneself as the centre of the universe (New Age spirituality); and life is not about truth but about finding meaning (Postmodernism).

The Big Lie is what destroys the paradise of communion between each of us and our Creator by telling us we can be fulfilled without Him. The Big Lie is what keeps each of us in a bondage that wrecks our relationships, hinders our peace of mind, corrupts good intentions, and cripples our ability to be in right relationship with God.

But Jesus had come to earth for one express purpose: to disintegrate the Big Lie. Taking His disciples aside Jesus asked them two questions: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and “Who do you say I am?” To the first question they gave a list of responses they had heard people surmising Jesus’ identity to be—essentially a good man, even a prophet, a charismatic leader with a charismatic message. To the second question came one bold response from the plucky but sometimes impetuous disciple Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In other words, You are God in the flesh; You are the One promised who would destroy the Big Lie and its attending curse upon humanity.

“Blessed are you (!)” Jesus rejoices upon hearing Peter’s answer. The timeless truth of Peter’s confession—a truth more solid than any weapon—sent a fatal blow to the foundations of the Big Lie. “(T)his was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” explained Jesus “…and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:17,18).

Truth—solid, unflinching, rational, God-indwelling truth—is the ultimate victor. The Big Lie is on the way out. Its days are numbered. It has been measured by the One who knows the beginning from the end, and it has been found wanting. Jesus, God incarnate, the way, the truth and the life created us for so much more than lies.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy”—this is what the Big Lie does to us; let’s not be deceived. Lies can mask themselves to appear as we want them to, but they ultimately only destroy us. “I have come,” continues Jesus, “that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). That is the purpose of truth, to give us more life than we could conceivably imagine.

Today, we are faced with this day’s challenge: to remain under the deadly influence of the Big Lie in all its chameleon-like expressions, or to listen to God revealing the rock of Truth to us through His Word, the Bible, and through the invincible life of Jesus Christ. To experience truth’s life-transforming power is to be changed by it.

…or is it just easier to believe the Big Lie?…

 

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 15

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Nature or Nurture?

There is a debate within psychology concerning you and me. Are we the product of our genetic/biological pre-wiring, some ask, or do our behaviours stem from external influences in our environment? Is it nature or nurture that makes us do what we do? Francis Galton (a contemporary and cousin of Charles Darwin) was convinced it was all nature, suggesting society could be improved by “better breeding.” Studies such as Bandura’s ‘Bobo Doll Experiment’ of the mid-twentieth century supported the theory that social behaviour is learned entirely through observation and imitation. Current thought is that neither heredity nor the environment act alone to make us behave the way we do—but rather they interact in a complex manner not yet fully understood.

In the fifteenth chapter of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus faced a similar controversy. With clarity that was both unorthodox and unflinching, He challenged the Jewish teachers of the day who had come to Him with acrid criticism.

“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” demanded the Pharisees. “They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

This may sound anything but significant to us, but to theses Jews tradition was everything (Remember Tevye in ‘The Fiddler on the Roof’?). Jewish life was orchestrated around a complex regimen of rituals known as the kashrut or kosher law, including symbolic washing of hands before eating. The Jewish teachers were censuring Jesus for allowing—perhaps even leading—His followers to violate what was most sacred to them: tradition.

“And why do you break the command of God,” countered Jesus, “for the sake of your tradition?”

Jesus went on to give them an example of their hypocrisy and injustice. He quoted the fifth commandment given to the people by God—“honour your father and mother,” a clear, straightforward command. Yet, he observed, you ‘teachers of the law’ have twisted your expectations of the people so that they must support you financially rather than supporting their aged and needy parents. What kind of tradition is that?

But He was not done with them yet. He wanted to help them escape from the corruption and delusion to which their external traditions had bound them. Without internal transformation tradition was only lip service.

“Listen and understand,” Jesus articulated carefully. “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean’.”

We may not understand at first how shocking and offensive this comment would have been to the Jews—to any Jew. He was saying that all the Jewish traditions that require cleanliness—the kosher and traditional cleansing rituals—are misused and misunderstood if people think by observing them they become ‘righteous.’ The core problem of humanity is not dirty hands or germs ingested when eating pork. It is a foundational problem of the heart.

“Don’t you see,” added Jesus, “that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”

Jesus is making a very clear statement about humanity’s condition in relationship to God. He’s saying that the nature of each of us is to reject God’s authority over our lives. All of us have deep within us a core of rebellion against God. Do you see that in your heart? I see it in mine. God is more concerned with that inner bent of heart than clean or dirty hands, good or evil deeds. The only solution—if we want to have that core problem corrected—is what Jesus offers. He offers the great exchange: we give up our autonomy, and He takes the rap for our sin. The kind of freedom we need comes at a cost.

But lives lived by that reality do begin to notice something: autonomy becomes increasing dependence upon God; selfishness gradually gives way to compassion for others; emotional chaos and confusion are more and more replaced by peace that passes understanding; internal commitment becomes authentic outward expressions of truth and goodness.

So we’re left with a choice. We can ride with the easy idea that if we do a few good deeds we can be ‘good enough’ for God. Or we can admit and accept what Jesus offers: a new heart. What do we want—external or internal?

(Photo credit: By T.K. Naliaka – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36622513)

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 14

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More Than Human.

Why do children love a good superhero? Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, and Spiderman have enthralled generations of modern children. Tales are told of super powers righting the wrongs done by evil villains and natural disasters. Even ancient civilizations had their tales of valiant characters—Greek gods and goddesses, heroes of myths, sagas, and legends.

I suggest that each one of us enters life with a natural credulity for the supernatural; our artless innocence is wired to believe a cosmic champion will make the wrongs of this world right. Is there more fact than fiction to this yearning for a greater-than-human victor to enter our lives?

As the first century writer Matthew pens his fourteenth chapter he touches that chord in us. He shows us evidence that this man Jesus is not merely a man; He is truly man but He is also much more than human.

On the day chronicled in Matthew chapter 14, when Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been beheaded at the whim of Herod Antipas, Jesus “withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” He needed to mourn and He needed respite from the crowds that often surrounded Him. His closest friends, the Twelve, were with Him and they saw the depth of His sorrow at losing His friend to death’s dark blow. This enemy—death—was the foe Jesus had come to vanquish and He understood the significance of its venom much more fully than did those around Him.

Alas, as Jesus and His disciples landed on the far shore, the ‘solitary place’ was teeming with people who had skirted the lakeshore on foot. Crowds draw a crowd, and the people wanted a healer. His own grief must wait; seeing them, He “had compassion on them and healed their sick.”

Hours later, as the last broken mind and body was restored to vigorous health, Jesus’ disciples approached Him. “Send the crowds away,” they suggested. The sun was approaching the western horizon. They were getting hungry and the crowd of thousands was beginning to feel like a liability to the disciples.

“They do not need to go away,” answered Jesus. “You give them something to eat.”

Us?’ the disciples must have wondered in disbelief. The shore and hillside was literally thick with people—men, women, and children by the thousands. The disciples could not imagine what Jesus was talking about. ‘Who had the resources to feed this mass?’ they were thinking.

Then Jesus took a boy’s offering of five small loaves of bread and two fish. Thanking His heavenly Father, Jesus broke the loaves and gave the pieces to the Twelve to pass to the people. ‘How far will that go?’ the disciples must have wondered. Yet as they obeyed, reaching into their baskets to share with family after family, the supply met the demand. How long this took we’re not told, but it must have been long enough to work a miracle in the hearts of those Twelve men. Disbelief and confusion turned to surprise and joy, perhaps even repentance and awe—the mighty power of the God-man Jesus was feeding not only stomachs but also hearts and souls. When the last person was fed and satisfied the disciples’ baskets were finally empty.

The lesson Jesus’ disciples learned that day was yet another building- block in the foundation of a new perspective the Twelve were acquiring. Jesus was no ordinary man—the disciples were becoming more and more convinced of that. Simon Peter would later put that growing conviction into words claiming, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” in response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15,16).

So we come back to the present, the here-and-now of your life and mine. Who do we say Jesus is—a good man, a teacher, a kind and compassionate people-person? Yes, that is all true; it is a beginning, but let’s not end there. We need the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. When the Father places the thought on our hearts that the Son is more than man—He is God in the flesh—we must own that truth, apply it to everything we think, say and do. It changes everything.

That is what we are created for. That is the yearning we’ve had since we were children. Jesus is the superhero we have longed for, the valiant righter of wrongs who has the resources to speak everything we need into our lives. Let’s entrust ourselves to Him today in every aspect of our day. He is trustworthy because He is more than a man—He is God.

(Photo Credit: By Wegmann – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12632456)