The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 9

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Puppet god?

The disciples were silent. Conversation among the twelve had risen and fallen like the undulations on the hilly landscape around them until Jesus had pulled them aside for a rest stop. Rather than refreshing them, Jesus had for a fourth time predicted His imminent betrayal and execution. That was a conversation-killing moment.

Their minds may have been racing but their tongues were silenced as they struggled to make sense of Jesus’ forewarning. ‘How could this terrible reversal be true?’ they must have wondered. Their understanding of the ancient Scriptures had led them to believe the Anointed One—Messiah—would be a conquering leader, the sovereign of a mighty and glorious kingdom; their historical subservience to the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans—to any earthly nation—would become but a distant memory. What glory! But this: the death of their leader, could it happen? They were speechless. Unbelievable or traumatic news often has that effect. For others, disturbing news opens the very floodgates of speech. Adrenaline can loosen tongues; words—long pent-up thoughts and feelings—rush out in unheeding cascades. This was the case for James and John, two of Jesus’ closest friends.

“Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us.”

“What is it? I’ll see what I can do.”

“Arrange it,” they said, “so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left.” (Mark 10:35-37 The Message).

It seems the two had been listening to Jesus. They had heard him say that those who had invested time and energy to follow Jesus would not fail to earn profits on that investment. It didn’t take much more than ambitious collusion for the two to agree that what they wanted was their share of the power and prestige when Jesus, by their interpretation, imminently overthrew the Roman Empire.

But their hearing had been more than a little selective. They had failed to take into consideration Jesus’ teaching and consistent modeling of humility and servanthood. This, not sought-out honour, was the criterion for sharing in the glory of God’s kingdom. James and John had been with Jesus when He had explained, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:34-36).

To their credit, it seems they recognized the sovereignty of Jesus and had unflinching faith that He was the long-awaited Messiah. They might even have been beginning to grasp the truth of His claim to be the Son of God—the eternally existing all-powerful One. Their request was a prototype prayer, of sorts. But they were missing a very important piece of the equation.

“Prayer,” explains Timothy Keller, “ is not a consumer tool. It is a Refiner’s fire.”

This is a good thought for us to ponder if we want to learn from James’ and John’s experience with Jesus. The request of the brothers illustrates our own tendency to develop a consumer mentality in our relationship with Jesus. When we defend our selfish prayers with the explanation “Jesus wants me to be happy!” we’ve short-changed ourselves. The divine plan for humanity is to be recreated in the vast completeness of Jesus’ likeness: not just happy, period, but happy and wise and good and just and compassionate and sensitive and true and noble and right and pure and lovely and admirable and excellent and…and the list goes on. It is inexhaustible. This is the eternity for which God created us, and—as the disciples would discover—for which Jesus would die for all humankind.

Jesus is not a puppet god. He’s not a genie in a bottle waiting to receive our wishes as his commands. He’s the One who offers us far more than that. He offers us escape from our selfish selves and entrance into a life of acceptance and companionship with Him as little by little He makes us like Himself. He wants us to approach Him with confidence knowing that He wants and will ensure our greatest good. So rather than saying, “Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us,” we can ask, “Jesus, what would you have us to do today, in this situation, that would best glorify You?” Then listen for His answer.

(Photo Credit: By John Leech – http://posner.library.cmu.edu/Posner/books/book.cgi?call=937_A138C_1850, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1064389)

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The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 8

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Astonished and Afraid.

“They were on their way up to Jerusalem with Jesus leading the way,” continues the Gospel writer John Mark, “and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. (Mark 10:32).

The road following the Jordan River valley southward toward Jericho and Jerusalem was little more than a narrow path tacked onto the side of a rocky hillside. Jesus was leading the way because it was single file width here. There was little talk. One misstep and a traveller would be slipping and tumbling down the steep rubble toward the riverbed and it would be a long hot climb back up to the path. So there was time for reflection.

Jesus was reflecting on His journey’s goal: Jerusalem, where the necessary step of His redemptive plan for humanity would take place—His painful, wrath-absorbing execution. The disciples were perhaps reflecting on Jesus’ words at their last rest stop, “the first will be last, and the last first.” What did Jesus mean by that? He was an astonishing teacher and they forever seemed to be one step behind Him in understanding what He was all about. His view of the kingdom of God was almost impossibly opposed to everything they had been taught. If religion, wealth, and ambition were barriers to entering God’s kingdom, how did one enter it?

The crowd following behind the disciples was the last in line, and we’re simply told they were afraid. What fears motivated their reflections? Were they afraid of the consequences to Jesus returning to Jerusalem where the religious leaders had made it clear they would kill Him? Were they afraid of the implications of being associated with this wanted man? Were they afraid of their own inner turmoil as they thought about their own failings, and of Jesus’ statement that it is impossible to save oneself from the eternal consequences of those failings? They were afraid, yet they followed, perhaps from a distance, both attracted and repelled by the teachings of this strange man.

There must have been a widening in the path, because we’re told Jesus now stopped to say something to His twelve disciples. Perhaps the path rose up to a plateau from which the temple mount of Jerusalem could be seen in the distance, and on this wide plateau the disciples could gather around Him and hear what He had to say. Perhaps the following crowd had slowed its pace back on the narrow path and had fallen far behind. This message was for His twelve close friends only.

Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise

This wasn’t the first time Jesus had predicted His own execution. The gospel-writer John Mark records at least three other times when Jesus had revealed to His twelve disciples the traumatic twist His death would take. He had used words like ‘suffer’ and ‘rejected’, and one of those times His close disciple Peter had tried to rebuke Him—to say, ‘Impossible! You are the Messiah! You are the promised Leader of God’s glorious kingdom!’

Yet Jesus was again repeating His prediction, adding this time the betrayal aspect that would shock at least eleven of the twelve disciples. And for a third time Jesus also revealed that His death would be only Part A of the great redemptive act God’s love had planned for humanity; Part B would be Jesus’ resurrection—His conquest of death’s mortal grip on life. But it all seemed to go over their heads again this day. They were silent.

And that is often how we are when Jesus wants to speak into our hearts and lives. We’re astonished or we’re just silent. We’re distracted by visions we’ve created in our own minds about how life will unfold, how success will come our way, how things will pan out. But Jesus still speaks. He takes you and me aside and speaks into our hearts through His Word, the Bible, telling us what we need to know for today to give us hope and strength. There may be suffering in our day, but there is always the rising out of the dust of that suffering because of Jesus and the life He offers. So let’s step aside with Jesus today; let’s read His Word and hear His voice. Let’s respond to Him through prayer and then step back onto the path with Him as our leader. That’s what Jesus is offering.

WHAT TO EXPECT IF YOU MEET JESUS TODAY

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Part 3: Partnership

Contemporary leadership-training programmes have shifted their views on how leaders must lead. They’ve called for a major reversal; they’ve moved camp, pulled a u-turn, switched their modus operandi. Rather than lording it over their underlings, the modern leader now understands that collaboration is the key to leadership. Leaders must integrate and coordinate their most valuable resource, people, to create an organization-moving synergy. They could have come up with the idea sooner by watching how Jesus leads.

As Jesus introduces Himself to the first four disciples in Luke chapter 5, He sets the stage carefully. He draws a crowd, teaches them the word of God, takes an intermission to catch the disciples’ attention through a private miracle, and then makes His primary appeal. He invites the four into partnership. He summons them into God’s great business of life-transformation and gives them the vision, the objective, the holy grail of their role, saying, “from now on you will catch men.”

That’s how Jesus leads. It’s how He called all twelve disciples. It’s how He and they sent others out into the far reaches of the Roman Empire at the time. And it’s how what we now call the gospel has permeated throughout the planet. It’s about partnership.

Jesus is alive and well and fully capable of doing His work without His people. But for some divine reason He wants to include every generation of His followers to participate in this grand scheme of His to ‘catch men (and women, young and old)’. It makes sense, really. As our Creator, He has invested a fair amount of timeless creative energy into each of us. He has gifted us with unique abilities, one-of-a-kind combinations of mindset, focus, skills and perspective that make us exactly what He wants for His organization, no matter how little we have valued ourselves. And He doesn’t stop there.

Jesus is not only concerned about adding numbers to His association. He’s consumed by the idea of personal development for His co-workers. Unbelievable as it may seem, He directs all the profits of His business back into people in order to make them….perfect. It’s what the company is all about. The Father wants to create a place where individuals – you and I – become everything we were designed to be, and are able to fully enjoy relationship with Him and with our co-workers. That’s the vision in a nutshell.

But no one said it would be easy. The partnership Jesus calls us into is stimulating and life-changing, but it is also demanding. We are no longer masters of our own destiny, desires or decision – we have a leader whom we must follow at all costs, and His vision trumps our lesser ones. We also have guidelines to which we must submit the vagaries of our minds and bodies. We tend to be a capricious lot, a bit eccentric and unpredictable. We revert back to our own style of ‘fishing’ when our faith wanes. Jesus is pretty clear that He wants us to be transformed from the inside out and it will take His Spirit indwelling us, our own determination to learn from His Word, and a resolution, as partners, to follow His lead.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, T.K. Naliaka)

DANIEL: PATTERN FOR PRAYER #4

TRUST

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Machiavelli was wrong. He asserted that a leader should choose to be followed out of fear rather than trust, the former being stronger than the latter. His Renaissance of thought could have benefitted him better by observing Daniel’s description of his three noteworthy young friends; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego reveal how trust, rather than fear, made them the finest examples of dependable followers.

Daniel has modeled how RESOLVE, AWE, AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT are integral parts of a pattern for prayer worth reproducing in our lives. Now, in chapter 3, he adds TRUST to the growing collection. Each is a precious stone to be applied to our ballast of prayer. Go ahead. Read the chapter. It’s gripping.

Trust must have a worthy object upon which to anchor. God is that trustworthy object. Daniel’s friends trust in three traits of God’s unchanging character to be relevant to their situation.

They trust in God’s ABILITY to answer any prayer: “the God we serve is able to save us”. (Note: I have borrowed some of these thoughts from Beth Moore’s study on the Book of Daniel). They understand He is able to rescue them from the flames. In that case the flames, or the king’s wrath, might miraculously cool and be extinguished.  The trial could be avoided. God is able to do it. God is also able to rescue them through the flames. He may use the trial to transform and perfect them as they experience the challenging situation. Or, He may rescue them in the flames. They might experience their mortal end and move on to meet their heavenly Maker as a result of the trial. God’s power is sufficient for any of these methods of intervention. We can trust Him to decide.

Secondly, they trust in God’s WILLINGNESS to answer their prayers: “and he will rescue us from you hand, O king”. God is intensely willing to be involved in their lives and in the lives of any who follow Him. He is highly motivated to be actively working through many means to bring about the end He desires for our lives. He is willing because He loves us so much. We can trust Him for that.

And thirdly, they trust God’s GOODNESS toward those who pray to Him. The youths had appealed to God’s mercy in an earlier episode, and they had seen God’s goodness toward them in His answer to that prayer. Goodness is often viewed better with hindsight as we begin to see how God’s ways work together for good to those that love Him. We can trust that He is good.

Deep trust is transformational. It does something to us that makes us completely different people from our natural bent. Trust makes us strong. We become people of conviction, focus and determination. Isaiah quotes God as revealing, “…in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isa. 30:15). We become people fearless of earthly consequences because we are convinced that worshiping God alone is our very best option.

As we enter into petitionary prayer it is essential to remind ourselves of God’s character. Do we believe He is able? Do we believe He is willing? Do we believe He is good? Are we convinced that God orchestrates the best ultimate outcome for us, regardless of the difficulties we may need to endure? That is trust.

Machiavelli missed out on the greatest truth available to humanity. Trust gives us the strength we need to follow the leadership of the Most High God. Are you ready for the experience?