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 2

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Identities.

“Good teacher,” asked a young man one day, running up to Jesus and falling on his knees before him, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

At first glance, we seem to be observing an individual who is a genuine seeker. His posture has communicated keen interest and even submission; his face has likely transmitted eagerness and enthusiasm; his words have articulated respect and resolve. What more could Jesus want in a seeker? Yet Jesus begins His response with a challenge.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”

Strange. The man has merely used a respectful form of address, and yet Jesus confronts the very first word that has come out of the man’s mouth. Why?

From our records of Jesus’ three years of ministry, His death and resurrection, Jesus does not routinely correct people’s usage of language, so why now? Why this word? The answer lies in Jesus’ correction of the mindset behind the man’s use of the word ‘good’.

Jesus already knows something about this young man that the young man himself does not know—that he is motivated by false identities and false loyalties. He sees Jesus as a teacher—a good one, yes, but just a teacher. This is one of the easiest identities for us to apply to Jesus. It allows us to show him respect as one who authentically tried to add his voice to help a hurting humanity; it allows us to learn from his compassionate disposition; it allows us to appear to be reasonable, inclusive and tolerant of him, as one of many good moral teachers this world has produced. But it also allows us to distance ourselves from real core life change—from a relationship with the Son of God. Teachers are significant and memorable, but they’re neither perfect nor eternal. They’re not God. But Jesus claims to be God.

Secondly, the young man sees himself as good—a good obedient son and a good obedient member of the Jewish religion. He hears the list of commandments Jesus recites, and checks them all off as done.

“You know the commandments:” reminds Jesus, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he declared (notice the young man has withdrawn the word good as he addresses Jesus this time), “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Wait. Has he really kept all the commands? Flawlessly? This young man has a self-identity issue happening here. He has defined goodness as something he has attained. He has already forgotten Jesus’ intelligence that “no one is good—except God alone.” Not only that, but he has failed to notice that within the list of the commandments to be followed Jesus has deliberately omitted the prime commandment contained in the Mosaic Law: “I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me”(Deut.5:7).

This is no coincidence. Jesus has been testing the young man. He has been trying to help the young man discern the state of his inner being, of his soul, of his relationship with the LORD his God. But the young man comes up empty. He completely forgets why the commandments exist. And the reason the young man has become distracted from the prime calling and purpose of human life is because he has found a replacement for God. He has found wealth.

Money, material possessions, and the power and social status that accompany the acquisition of wealth have bumped God into second place in the rich young man’s life. Perhaps it has happened so gradually he has not even been aware of it. He has conferred a false identity upon both wealth and God that inverses their true value and sovereignty.

Jesus has diagnosed the foolish rich young man’s heart condition from the moment the young man had come to Him. And now, Jesus offers the one prescription that will reverse the prognosis of spiritual decline into which the young man has fallen: dispose of the intruding god; jettison the cargo that is causing his ship to sink; eradicate the disease that is killing him. Give away his wealth.

Ah, say we. I’m not that wealthy. This doesn’t apply to me. But take a good hard look at how we identify ourselves. What two or three things are we most likely to want to communicate to others about ourselves overtly or covertly? Is it about our social position, our trendiness, our gender, our education or career, maybe even our identity as a victim of something? Anything with which we identify ourselves above our identity as worshipers of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a false identity, and Jesus says ‘Get rid of it! It’s destroying you and it’s destroying your relationship with God.

If this stirs our hearts, if it shakes anything within the core of our souls let’s do the impossible; let’s put God back into first position in our lives. It might hurt. It will mean a change of identities. But there is one thing we can know for absolute certain: it is good.

(Photo Credit: By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], File: False Identity Cards; via Wikimedia Commons)

WHO IS JESUS? #5

Sinless One.

Certain truths can be more intolerable to us than their corresponding falsehoods. For instance, accepting a rejection for promotion is more repugnant than assuring oneself that the hiring process was flawed. Or, learning to live with the effects of aging can be more frustrating than spending thousands of dollars trying to reverse those effects. A recent president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) found it more distasteful to be identified as a white woman of European descent than to falsely claim African-American heritage.  “I identify as black,” she claims.

As Jesus stations Himself to engage in a conversation with the hypocritical religious ruling class of His day, He claims something that infuriates them.

“I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come” (John 8:21). His listeners’ ears would have burned hearing that absolutely intolerable phrase— “you will die in your sin.” A flush of anger would have arisen up necks and merged with darkened faces. Not only had Jesus communicated a condemnation of their lifestyle (you sin— you die), but He had also deliberately conveyed a ‘holier than thou’ message.

Foreshadowing His own imminent death at their hands (“I am going away”), Jesus was not saying ‘like you, I too will die in my sin.’ Rather He contrasts Himself with all of humanity by claiming, “Where I go you cannot come.” He would die, but with not even a shadow of sin staining His person; contending to be uniquely sinless, He claims sole admittance to eternal life.

He is not saying that the concept of sin is passé. Jesus is not an early forerunner of today’s materialistic ideology that promotes tolerance of all personal choices, of the broad-mindedness that condones all pursuit of ‘trueness to self,’ of the rejection of the concept of sin.

He is saying, You are all sinners and will perish in never-ending death. I will die but will not perish because of my sinlessness. I possess the power of eternal life.

Now that standpoint is intolerable to many. To those who have never really explored Jesus’ claims about Himself it might even come as a shock. That perspective seems so illiberal and parochial—so old fashioned. Yet without that foundation to our understanding of Jesus we cannot move on to the offer He makes us. We must accept His sinlessness and its corollary—our sinfulness—if we want to avail ourselves of the eternal life that He possesses.

Most of the Pharisees never accessed the hidden offer in that so-offensive claim of Jesus. One or two did. They took the bad news along with the good. They understood and accepted the reality of Jesus’ sinlessness as the redeeming exchange for their own sinfulness and became recipients of Jesus’ gift of eternal life. Nicodemus was one of them and the Apostle Paul was another.

Here’s where we come in. How ought you and I to respond to this dichotomous news, this claim that Jesus is the Sinless One—eternally holier than us—and that we are dying in our sin?

If we accept that Jesus’ claim represents the magnificent intolerance of God to sin’s destructive presence and of God’s intention to ensure that the final end of it will be the death of death itself for those who entrust themselves to Him, our whole attitude to sin will change. We will by increments embrace a lifestyle that desires pure and holy living. We will respond more and more quickly to our conscience’s urgings to love God and to love the people around us like Jesus. We will choose to be more patient with people in our world; we will care for others’ needs to the point that our resources are more focused on them than ever before.

Rather than being offended by His claims, we can take comfort in Jesus’ sinlessness because it means He is the perfect lover of our soul and supplier to us of power to love others. One of the most beautiful epithets ever applied to Jesus—ironically by the self-righteous Pharisees themselves—was ‘Friend of “sinners”.’ May Jesus be that and much more to each of us as we have a fuller understanding of who He really is.

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #10

Prayer Acknowledging God’s Help (Paraphrasing Psalm 124)

Without You, God, without Your faithful, loving and all-powerful help, I would have been swallowed up alive by the enemy; the subtle attacks of the spirit of this age, the insinuation of the evil one—enemy of my soul—and my own foolish whims and rebellious plans would have engulfed me. Like a great and hungry wave they would have crashed over my head and drawn me into their deep watery grave, senseless, faithless, hopeless.

But You were there for me; You were and are and will be ever near, protecting my soul for Your eternal kingdom.

Somehow I sensed Your presence, believed what You said about me, and came to You for forgiveness. And what did I receive? Love—Your soul deep, ever-present, faithful compassion, calling me Your dear child.

Like a bird released from the fowler’s snare, I have escaped the deception and self-destruction I see all around me. I am breathless thinking about my narrow escape. May I never forget that my help is in Your Great Name, Jesus, O Maker of heaven and earth.

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #9

Prayer of a Servant (Paraphrasing Psalm 123)

I’m thinking of Your right to rule, God. My mind’s eye is looking through the heavens and catching Isaiah’s glimpse of You enthroned as King of Kings. This upward-looking attitude is a ready reminder that You are the Sovereign Ruler of this universe, and I am a creation of Yours. It is right that Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

As a creature before her Creator, as a servant before her Master, and as a child before her Father I come to You asking for Your mercy; this world that I live in has gone crazy. Everywhere I look in this culture around me—even in myself—I see evidences of pride and arrogance, foolish ‘wisdom’, impatience and contempt.

Please protect me from these negative and destructive attitudes. I’d rather have a servant’s heart than see myself become like the godless—rebellious against Your right to rule, proud and angry, lost, wounded and dangerous. Rejecting You is a slow soul suffocation, minds dulled to the horror of an eternity without You.

Have mercy on us, Lord. Protect us from that influence. Keep us always looking upward, aware of Your all-encompassing presence, breathing You like air, knowing You as our great and merciful God.

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #7

 Prayer Acknowledging God’s Providence (Paraphrase of Psalm 121)

Even though it’s an uphill climb, LORD, I’m on the high road and my sights are set higher than those beautiful mountains on the horizon. I have in You, LORD, a helper, a personal guide, and a companion here and now: God, Creator of the universe, my Maker.

This is how I see Your providence working: it shods my feet with crampons on the slippery slopes; it keeps You on the lookout for my good, day and night; it focuses Your infinite watch care on and over me—no exceptions; and it ensures nothing involving my life escapes Your notice.

You watch over those who entrust themselves to Your care. You stand between us and anything that might ultimately harm our souls, which are so precious to You. Your ongoing commitment ensures our ultimate good—whether we find ourselves in the valleys or on the mountaintops, whether in the shade or in full sunlight, we are never lost or hidden from You.

So I won’t distract myself by looking to the mountains for my help. I will look only to You. I’m relying on You to watch over my coming and going both now and forevermore.

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers

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#1: Desert Prayer (A Paraphrase of Isaiah 35)

God Almighty; Father of Hope, Spirit of Life, Son of Truth; Come into our desert places. Like a summer rain, flash flood the barren reaches of our souls. We are parched; You are glorious. When your healing truth fills the fissures of our hardened hearts, lives like soil soften; Your Word germinates and sprouts. Like a crocus we burst into bloom; our souls rejoice greatly and shout for joy.

We of feeble hands and shaking knees arise; fearful hearts are made courageous, blindness healed, deaf ears unstopped. We the lame leap like deer for joy. O gladness filling feet, ears, eyes and hearts! The mute will shout for joy as You, God, come to us.

Our hearts like desert sands—unlivable places—dusty, hot and dry have been burdened with the enemy’s lies. Come Living Water, gushing spring. Quench our thirst with Truth—Your deep, deep love for us. So grass and reeds and papyrus begin to grow, lush signs of life sprouting from places we thought not only barren but cursed. Our jackal-like fears are gone now; the ferocious beasts that haunted our souls are driven away by the light of Your Truth and Love.

We are like travelers who have finally found our way—Your Way of Holiness. O lift us up to journey upon the highway that leads to You. We are redeemed! Ransomed! Crowned and singing, we joyfully tread Your Way, creatures made new.

(Photo Credit: [[File:Spry Canyon (8119659047).jpg|thumb|Spry Canyon (8119659047)]])