The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm, Following Jesus: Conclusion

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“Then they came to Jericho.” The gospel writer Mark concludes his tenth chapter by relating Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem by way of Jericho. It’s no coincidence. Jesus has been illustrating for His followers the impossibility of humankind’s journey toward God without divine intervention. And now here is Jericho—Jericho, the city of impossible barriers.

The wall surrounding the Jericho of a millennium before Jesus’ time had been at least 14 metres high. It had presented an impossible barrier to anyone wanting to enter Canaan by that route. The inhabitants of the walled city were healthy, wealthy, and rather protective of their impossible barrier. Yet, as the story—and the Afro-American spiritual—goes, that barrier “came a tumblin’ down!” God had required His people to trust Him and to follow His instructions in order for the barrier to crumble.

But this was now Jericho of more than a millennium later. The city had been rebuilt a number of times. The Roman Empire owned it now, and Jesus was merely passing through its cobbled streets enroute to Jerusalem. His disciples and a large crowd surrounded Him, trying to hear a word from this unusual Rabbi.

A blind beggar sat by the roadside that day. From his perspective a crowd was a good thing: more opportunity to coax sympathetic passersby to contribute to his empty bowl. There might be enough to buy himself a proper meal if the crowd was generous. But even as the coins clattered into his bowl, Bartimaeus heard a name coming from the lips of many of the people; “Jesus.” Was this the reason for the throng? He had heard of the miracle-working man who had walked on water, healed the sick, and brought mad-men back to their senses. Many said these stories were impossible, but were they?

“Jesus, Son of David,” Bartimaeus began shouting, “have mercy on me!”

“Shut up, old man!” the nearest travelers hissed as they dropped their coins into his dish.

“Son of David,” Bartimaeus persisted, “have mercy on me!”

Jesus stopped.

And in that moment, the sound of old Jericho’s impossible walls beginning to crumble echoed in Bartimaeus’ ears. Would Jesus help a blind begging nobody like him?

“Call him,” Jesus commanded one of His closest followers.

“So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.

The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”

“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road” (Mark 10:49-52).

One man’s impossible barrier was demolished that day. The obstacle that had hounded this poor beggar was suddenly removed at a word from Jesus. Bartimaeus’ entire identity was transformed by that word, and he was free to do…anything now. Bartimaeus could have found his way home, taken up the family business, become a wealthy man, and built a high wall around his home and business. Never again would he be humiliated by self-important almsgivers. But instead, we’re told, he followed Jesus.

None of the gospel writers tell us any more about Bartimaeus. We’re left to our imaginations in his regard. We know he followed Jesus, and that is enough. We know Bartimaeus’ faith was in some way a part of the alchemy that Jesus used to break down this man’s most restricting barrier. And we know Bartimaeus took the opportunity to ally himself with Jesus. Perhaps that is all we need to know.

Maybe it makes our own personal stories more able to parallel Bartimaeus’. We all have barriers that keep us from following Jesus. Many of us have heard of things that have even turned us off of religion for good. But Jesus makes sure He passes every person’s way. Everyone gets the opportunity to call out to Him personally. Everyone with an ear open to hear Him has the chance to ignore the crowd, get past the distractions of their own barriers, and come to Him when He calls. And in that moment, with not much more than a micron of faith, we each have the opportunity to entrust ourselves to Him, to let Him heal us in His own way, to enable us to follow Him. The impossible paradigm is no longer impossible because Jesus calls us. It is His voice, His redeeming work, His limitless life that gives us what we truly need: relationship with Him. The impossible has become possible.

(Photo Credit: By RichTea, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13637163)

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The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 6

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Receiving the Gift

Wages, explains theologian Timothy Keller, are inherently different from gifts. To receive a wage, one must simply do an amount of work equal to the compensation. It’s an objective and transparent process. To receive a gift is more complex; accepting a gift means submitting to a narrative that may require a change of perspective.

For instance, if we perceive certain people to be dishonest or manipulative, we will be cautious about accepting a gift from them. In order to accept the gift we would have to have a change of heart, to believe we had misread them, or that they had now become genuine and generous. We must be certain that their gift will not be a Trojan Horse. Or, imagine a scenario where we had experienced class disparity; a gift offered might be seen by us as a slight, pointing to our inability to provide for ourselves. We’ve heard the classic explanation for refusal of this kind of gift: “I don’t take no charity!” In order for us to receive this gift, our pride would have to be replaced with simple thankfulness.

So while Christians commonly exult in spreading the news that God is the great giver of gifts (like salvation), there is a paradigm shift that must happen in an individual’s heart and mind in order for him or her to accept this news as good. If we look closely enough, we might even consider it an almost impossible paradigm shift.

In our passage in Mark 10 that we have been exploring, Jesus has been talking with His disciples about the criterion for entering ‘the kingdom of God’; Jesus explains that He Himself must be preeminent—first priority—in the life of anyone who wants to enter this kingdom. Then He offers the gift.

“No one who has left …(everything)…for me and the gospel will fail to receive…eternal life” (Mark 10:29,30). It is no coincidence that Jesus connects His matchless preeminence (“I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end!”) with the reception of the gift of eternal life (“…whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life”). They are both impossibly puzzling, inexplicable, and even peculiar. We are cautious about terms like preeminence and eternal life in the 21st century.

Perhaps hearing a definition of eternal life will help us. In John’s Gospel we get a chance to eavesdrop in on Jesus defining eternal life in a conversation with His Father. “Now this is eternal life:” He considers, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” What? Eternal life is simply knowing the Father and the Son? Intriguing. What is it about knowing them that transmits an extension to our mortal lives both now and beyond the grave?

Jesus helps us understand that too. He claims, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.”

Knowing the Father and the Son is the ultimate of network connections. If we know, have an integral relationship to, and connect on the deepest level with Jesus—who is the essence of Life—we become recipients of that life. His life extends to us something like a pregnant mother’s life and breath extends to her as yet unborn infant. It’s a sort of divine contagion, a breath-taking ride from the depths to the heights, a simple truth available only to those who simply trust Him.

Yes, the eternal life Jesus offers us is truly that, a gift. It is freely offered to each of us. But in another sense it is the most difficult gift to accept—not because of the nature of the Giver, but because of the nature of the getters. We are impossibly stubborn, too narrow-minded or broad-minded for our own good, and stuck in the mud of our unbending notions. Only His Holy Spirit can help us escape our almost impossible selves and say as one old sinner once said, “Lord…help my unbelief!”

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 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)