The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 7

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Inversity.

“But many who are first,” concludes Jesus, “will be last, and the last first.” His disciples have just finished walking through a morning of following Jesus. He is not an easy man to follow. Anticipating His next move is about as easy as understanding quantum theory—and “I think I can safely say,” explains Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, “that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

This ‘first-last, last-first’ paradox is Jesus’ summary of all that his disciples have experienced that morning. He’s trying to explain, ‘Every interaction we’ve had with people has displayed the disparity between what God esteems and what people prize. It has illustrated the reality that God’s value-system is fundamentally inverse—upside down and opposite—to what humankind naturally values.’ People live by maxims that Jesus says reveal their beliefs regarding how to get ahead, how to come out first in life. But these maxims, rather than moving toward God’s kingdom, glory, and true human fulfillment, move them step by inevitable step away from Him. First in earth’s economy is last in God’s. God puts stock in what has true and lasting significance. Take a look at how God’s stock is inverse to human maxims:

Human Maxim #1: ‘Reinforce the Survival of the Fittest motto.’ Human pride is given virtue status, while the weak, the unwanted, and those who are an inconvenience to society are sacrificed for the sake of others’ personal rights.

God Stock #1: ‘Man looks at outer appearances, but God looks at the heart.’ In contrast, God looks deep into our hearts to see what we really think and believe about Him. This criterion is what will ultimately determine fitness for eternity. He knows that pride is the surest means to self-destruction ever invented by mankind. God wants people to reach their true and glorious potential as creatures made in His image, but it can only be accomplished by heart-deep humility.

Human Maxim #2: ‘Use whatever power you have to be above as many other people as possible.’ This maxim says you must get the best education, snag the best jobs, take the best vacations, invest your money in the vehicles that have the best monetary returns, ensure your children rise above other people’s children in opportunities and life experiences, and then use social media to communicate to as many people as possible that you have done the above.

God Stock #2: ‘Invest in the human spirit, the organ that is capable of responding to relationship with God.’ In contrast, God says, use whatever power or resources you have to enable yourself and others to connect with your and their Maker and Redeemer. This glorifies God and is the only vehicle for true human joy and flourishing. Then, keep quiet about the part you’ve played in God’s tremendous project. God knows, and that is enough.

We could go on. The list of human maxims—the best-laid plans o’ mice and men—without fail falls short of the glorious plans God puts stock in. This is what Jesus means when He says, “many who are first will be last, and the last first”. And yet, there is hope for us. He says many as if to leave a gap open for us to slide our fingers into before the inevitable happens. He wants to offer us an opportunity to escape the mad maze of human maxims we so easily slip into. He is constantly doing this, inviting us to be last in the eyes of the world, to come to Him for rest from the maxims, and to trust Him that He will ultimately work all things out for our good. And today is where we start.

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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)

UPSIDE-DOWN LIVING (…continued)

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“…But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25).

The Nike slogan burns in her mind: Just Do It. Jesus’ Beatitudes are for doing. The mirror of self-revelation shows Susan she is proud in spirit, rather than submissive; she is comforted by physical luxury rather than by spiritual repentance; she seeks blessing by grasping rather than by relinquishing; she longs more for recognition than for righteousness; she finds herself more likely to judge others than extend mercy; she conveniently forgets to confess and repent of her idolatries; she procrastinates from her mission of peacemaking, and she insulates herself from the potential of persecution.

What then of Susan’s hopes and dreams? How does Jesus envision her living this opportunity of life He’s given her? What use of her skills, abilities and talents would be consistent with beatitudinal living?

See yourself as a grain of salt, replies Jesus. Alone, you will find life disappointing, disillusioning, un-blessed. You will be easily lost in this world. You were meant for so much more.

“You are the salt of the earth”, Jesus teaches. “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”

If Susan is serious about her relationship with God, she will heed the direction and the warning. She will begin to understand that she has been offered the rarest of opportunities. Her love for God will enable her to turn her world upside-down if she is willing to apply Jesus’ principles to her life. Reaching out to others, she will find herself affecting the hungers and thirsts of their lives. Her saltiness will bring out the true flavours of Christ’s life-sustaining body-bread life-food for which her world hungers. Her saltiness will leave them with a thirst for more.

But if she fails to accept and act upon the laws of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, Susan’s faith will be trampled and destroyed by godless men. She will fit into neither world. She will be as ineffective and unnatural as salt that has lost its saltiness. The stakes are high and Susan will only realize it as she learns from Jesus’ teachings, as she begins to live the upside-down gospel of Jesus.

Every one of us who have read the Beatitudes is a Susan. Having read Jesus’ words puts us, as James observes, into a position of choice. We are no longer ignorant of His will for us. We have looked into the mirror of His Word and seen ourselves as God sees us. If we are honest with ourselves, we have some ways to go before we are the sorts of people God envisions us to be. His Holy Spirit is hovering, waiting to begin today’s task of making upside-down kingdom-dwellers. He’s waiting for a word from us, a whispered prayer granting the Holy One access into our body, mind and spirit. What will today’s prayer be? ‘Lord, let me mourn’? Or ‘Lord, make me meek, become merciful, be pure’? Or ‘Lord, let me spread your message of peace’? The Beatitudes are a good place to start. Live them. Breathe them. Pray them. It will take more than one prayer to turn our lives upside-down. Today is a good day to begin.

UPSIDE-DOWN LIVING (Postscript to ‘Praying the Beatitudes’)

UPSIDE-DOWN LIVING

Postscript to Praying the Beatitudes

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Different. Radically different. That is what Jesus describes His followers as being from what the rituals of Judaism demanded. In the cool, fresh air of a mountainside retreat, Jesus sat among those who followed Him and taught His culturally strange message. He revealed to those who were serious about following Him the expectations of God for the people of God. He promised blessings and rewards for those who would dare to live the upside-down gospel Jesus Himself modeled.

Poor in spirit. Mourning. Meek. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Merciful. Pure in heart. Peacemaking. Persecuted.

The choice to embrace this strange way of living would make no sense unless there was a loving Father in heaven, a redeeming Son at His side, and an indwelling Holy Spirit, focused on transforming lives for eternal realms of glory. It makes the mind spin just thinking about the intense reality of things unseen. We can only enter into this strange reality by taking one of many subsequent deep, quavering breaths and whispering, “I believe”.

It must start with faith, because it’s all upside-down compared to this world’s ideas of how to live life.

It takes faith to embrace the mindset that present discomfort is an integral part of future joy. Let’s look at this world’s average person. Let’s call her Susan. Susan has a body, easily observable, a mind, a little less observable, and a spirit, more or less hidden.

Susan is wired to want to live. From infancy she knew instinctively that if anything impeded her likelihood of survival, she must react or fail to thrive. Hungry or thirsty? Cry. Abdominal cramping? Scream. Lonely? Tears of outrage. As she has matured and aged Susan has tempered her expressions of discomfort, but her basic reaction is unchanged: avoid discomfort to survive.

So when Jesus enters the scene, describing His ideas of embracing discomfort, Susan squirms. Is she to pursue an impoverished, submissive spirit, an other-focused mind, and a body that does not withdraw from persecutions? What about her own survival? Her first reaction to this unnatural anomaly is to recoil. She procrastinates applying the practices of the unseen kingdom. She agrees in principle but is loath to burn her bridges of comfort and materialism behind her. She prefers the perils of passivity to the embarrassment of extremism.

In His classic style of perfect timing, Jesus speaks up. He speaks into Susan’s life by turning black ink into red in the book of James, challenging her, “Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the Word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does: (James 1:22-25).

(to be continued…)