Friday, January 27, 2017

Gravity and Other Laws of Physics ...

People like to argue over opinions, but few question facts like gravity, at least without paying the price.  It does not take a physicist to understand the simple law of gravity.  Even a two-year-old begins to understand, if I jump up, I will come back down again.  It is said Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity when an apple fell from a tree and hit his head.  But then, how does a figure from the middle-ages get to claim something my two-year-old child understood on his first journey down, from a jump he made going up?  Seems to me, many 2-year-olds made this self-same discovery since Cain and Able were playing just outside of Eden.  Now taking credit for the obvious, that is entirely another matter.  Sounds like a wonderfully English thing to do.  And Americans have had no hesitation in inheriting this fine English trait, with which we add the concept of “abundance” and there you have it.  Everyone gets gravity, almost nobody understands democracy.
But there are few debates (outside of the world of physics and the study thereof) about the notion of gravity.  Common folks, from children to senior citizens, just understand what gravity does, and what happens when we try to defy it.  There is little sense in arguing that gravity does not exist, because people simply throw apples at you, until you change your mind, or at least until you be quiet about your lunacy.  Some things just are.  They exist despite our opinions about them.  They can be easily understood by the masses.  And they spark little debate.  This kind of commonly accepted fact can be used to great effect, when discussing more seemingly complex topics.  Discussing salvation for example; were I to compare something about salvation to gravity, since gravity is well understood, perhaps the point I am making about salvation might be equally well understood.  Enter Jesus.
Nearly 2000+ years ago, Jesus had a ton of people following Him around.  Perhaps not a ton, perhaps a legion, or maybe many legions.  The term ton may be well understood today, but it lacks the kind of comparison a Roman would have been keenly aware of in this day and time.  Suffice it to say, the crowd following Jesus was spread across the entire side of a mountain.  And His sermon had begun from near the top of it.  Jesus began by listing a state of blessing, few listeners could agree with, let alone understand.  His expressions were deep, they were profound.  These were teachings no member of the Sanhedrin had ever offered.  The sermon being done in a place no Pharisee had ever thought to preach at.  This was new.  His words might be interpreted, and then re-interpreted for 2 millennia to come, as Christians debated what it means to be blessed.  Something more basic was needed.  Something more akin to gravity.
Matthew records what followed in his gospel in chapter five picking up in verse 13 saying … “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.”  Let’s talk about food.  Everybody eats.  And nearly everybody knows what salt tastes like, or at least what salt is supposed to taste like.  Even little kids and animals seem to get this concept.  But what happens when your salt, no longer tastes like salt?  What happens when your salt is nothing more than a white grainy powder with no taste at all, and with our collective luck, all the same health detriments that tasty salt still had?  Would you keep using it?  Would you keep putting the dead no-taste-salt on the food you were trying to season?  Would your two-year-old still eat it?  No.  You would ditch the stuff down the drain.  If you were American, you would take the empty container back to Walmart and scream at the sales lady until she gives you a new one, and a gift card for the added luxury of hearing you scream.  But the bottom line is, you would not use a worthless pile of white tasteless grains on your food.
This is what Jesus has just stated for His audience.  But here is where the analogy of crappy salt and a people who do not understand what salvation is, begins to form.  People who know Jesus, become different people.  Jesus does not change.  But you do.  The more time you spend with Jesus the tastier you get.  Just going to Temple, or church in our case, does not make you tasty, it just makes you a white grainy powder no one wants to use.  The container does not make the salt, salty.  The Creator of salt does. 
Hanging out with other pasty white grainy tasteless people does not improve the flavor of your salt, it just makes a sad statement about how much wasted salt there is in the land of Christianity.  A bunch of white tasteless power talking about religious “stuff” with another bunch of white tasteless powder is a waste of breath.  But learning from Jesus what Jesus has to say, that is an entirely different matter.  Jesus is not just a concept.  He digs in to your life.  He gets in to your business.  He digs down, and begins to work on areas of your life you do not want anyone else to know even exist.  But that is what Jesus does.  He gets in there and begins to make things better.  He gets in there and changes how you think, who you love, how you love, and what you want.  You become someone else.  You start getting very tasty.  At that point, church is over, and salvation has begun.
Salt is either worth using, or it’s not.  Jesus continues in verse 14 saying … “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. [verse 15] Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. [verse 16] Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”  The light of a candle in a dark place is not camouflage, it is the opposite of camouflage.  Everybody sitting in darkness will immediately see the light of a candle.  They may not see everything else there is in the room, but they will surely see the fire burning on the candle.  This is one of those gravity kinds of things.  Light fills darkness and few debate the nature of this idea.
So how does this apply to salvation?  Jesus changes who you are.  In short, He puts a passion in you, you have yet to even understand before He does it.  He makes you passionate about other people.  He makes you love them, truly care about their lives.  To the point where you forget to care about your own life.  You get so wrapped up in how others feel, you forget to take care of you, and somehow God takes care of you without even needing to ask.  But that passion for others, makes you different than who you were.  And believe me, people notice.  The guy or girl at the other end of you loving, really notices.  Whether a former enemy, a homeless person on the street, a person just down the pew from you in “church”, or a family member who has never seen you like this before.  People notice.  The fire of your love is like a candle in a dark room.  It chases darkness out, and draws attention.  And the question is … where did it come from?
Let’s face it, you don’t love like that today.  Maybe for someone, or even a few someone’s, but not like that for people you hardly knew, or hardly cared about before.  Those folks are bound to notice.  Because it was not there before, and now it is.  So where does it come from?  Well guess what, it doesn’t come from you.  If it did, it would be there today.  You cannot fake this kind of passion, it is too tiring to do.  But when it is real, when it is genuine, it comes with the energy you need to share it 24/7.  And the fire burns brightly, and people notice.  The question remains, where does it come?  The only explanation.  The only real answer is Jesus.  Jesus can put love in a heart of stone, and transform it to a heart of flesh.  Jesus can burn the apathy away, and replace it with a burning passion that just cannot sit still.  Once you catch fire, you begin to understand … this love does not come from you, it passes through you and originates in Jesus Christ.  You are just His candle, not the flame.  Jesus will always be the flame.  He just needs to put His fire into your vessel, and for that you must be willing to let Him transform you into one who wants it.
So most Christians are eager to hear this news, and get right into the waiting room of Jesus’ transformation area.  They are excited to hear they are going to be different.  But while they wait, and instead of submitting themselves, they decide to “live a little”.  If salvation is truly a gift from God, then perhaps we can accept that gift any old time.  Leave ourselves a little time to take care of number one, before we start getting all passionate about taking care of others.  And so begins the idea in the Christian’s head, that the law doesn’t matter anymore.  Love is what it is all about, so as long as I am loving me, and loving others, I should be OK.  Wrong.  Loving me leads to doing things to make me happy, most often at the expense of others.  Loving me, is not really loving at all.  The Law was given to point this physics based phenomenon out to us.
Jesus continues in verse 17 saying … “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. [verse 18] For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”  Ta-da!  The Law stands as a mirror to show us who we truly love.  When we love others we would not even think to lie to them, dishonor them, steal from them, hate them or kill them.  You would not even need a law, if these thoughts never came into your mind.  But they do.  The thoughts that would hurt another enter the mind, because we are too focused on pleasing ourselves.  I want what you have, so I would lie to you to get it, steal from you if I could, hurt you if I have to.  All of the actions that hurt others reveal that I love myself, not others.  We justify our misdeeds in any number of ways, but the revelation who we love is made clear by the Law.  It is why Jesus does not come to destroy our mirror, but to give us a new perspective when we look into it.  We become someone else, someone in harmony with the law, instead of at war with it.  The transformation changes who we love, others not us.
Jesus continues in verse 19 saying … “ Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. [verse 20] For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”  So Jesus makes a couple of points here.  Notice that breaking a commandment does not keep you “out” of the Kingdom of heaven.  Forgiveness covers our mistakes.  But it cannot make up for our opportunities we lose while breaking His Law, and loving only ourselves.  It is we who we punish when we love ourselves instead of letting Jesus make us passionate about loving others.  On the other hand, being in harmony with God’s law, understanding what it is like to truly be passionate about loving others, grants us every opportunity, and offers us a level of fulfillment we can hardly imagine today.
The second point Jesus makes and it is an important one … we cannot compare ourselves against other “people” to judge the state of our salvation.  Comparing yourself, even against a pastor or priest or Pharisee, does not make you one bit better off, or them one bit worse off.  It is like tasteless salt comparing grain sizes to determine who is better off, a big grain, or a little grain, both equally useless.  The religious intelligencia have their own problems to overcome.  They do not believe they need Jesus.  They believe intellect and a study of the Word can compensate for the lack of an intimate knowledge of Jesus.  They believe perfection can be achieved by force of will.  They only entertain partnerships with God where they do for themselves, and ask God to make up for the difference.  And they find no perfection, no relief from the desire to sin, and ultimately no salvation from themselves.  For they have dictated the terms of their salvation to be interlocked with self at the center of their Christian religion.  And these are the smart people.  Imagine the state of you and me.
But then … imagine the state of you and me.  Imagine what it would be like to be freed from who you are, by doing nothing more than letting Jesus free you from it.  Imagine becoming passionate about loving others not by “trying” to be passionate, but by letting Jesus reflect His love through you, instead of shutting it off to go do something else.  Imagine what it is like to have Jesus all up in your business.  Letting Jesus get to places you don’t want anyone else even knowing about.  Imagine knowing it is OK to let Jesus in there, because He makes all things new.  Imagine letting Jesus change how you think, who you love, how you love, and what you want.  You would be someone else.  And that would be a good thing.  A good thing for you, for those you love, for everybody.  You would be catching fire.  And once you get a taste of this, you won’t ever want to put it down.  You will reflect a fire, everyone else cannot help but see.  And that fire will consume everything about you, in a good way, in a great way.  Are you ready to let Jesus strike the match?
And the sermon was nowhere near finished yet …

Friday, January 20, 2017

Y'All Have a Blessed Day ...

And Bless your heart.  In the south Blessings seem to invade the language of today’s Christian.  From Blessed days, to Blessed hearts, to a half a dozen other blessed expressions; today’s Christian has adopted a “blessed” language as part of everyday speech.  But what does it mean?  In the very ancient days of this world’s history a “blessing” was something performed by a believing Father to their sons.  It was done in order from eldest to youngest.  It had a special meaning for all of them.  The first or largest portion was associated and given to the eldest.  But this was not just about the financial rewards associated with the blessing.  Esau wanted the financial rewards and power that accompanied his blessing.  Jacob in later life, wanted only a closeness with God that perhaps his Father could bequeath to him.  In turn, Jacob thought to bless his sons according to both tradition and to merit.  In point of fact, Joseph the second youngest of his sons, became leader over all from what transpired throughout his life, even outside of his father’s opportunity to bless him.
Outside of the father son tradition, blessing was also used as a sort of divine good-luck-charm.  It’s opposite, the curse, was also used in a reverse or divine bad-luck-charm sort of way.  To be blessed by a prophet of God, was interpreted as getting the rain you need, in fertile soil you need, to grow crops you need, and have animals and children in abundance.  It meant good health, and good fortune.  In the case of Job, his incredible wealth was one-for-one associated with blessings from God.  Satan was able to curse Job (but not take his life), and Job lost everything a blessing might describe.  He lost his farms, crops, animals.  He even lost his children.  Then his own health.  This was a curse of enormous magnitude intended to get Job to turn around and curse God.  But Job did not.  He was more interested in finding out what he had done to warrant the curse, and why his loving God would allow this curse to befall him.  The answers of course were outside of the limited perspective of Job in this world, but of love that does not depend on rewards to obtain it.
But if blessings, and even cursing for that matter, depend on an element of the divine.  Then when we utter them, we are in effect offering a prayer that they become true on the object we associate with the blessings.  To treat a blessing so casually then is perhaps not such a good use of the term.  Take the expression “bless his heart” for example; are we asking that God give this person a healthy heart, one that withstands the horror of heart disease in our age, one that will be healthy enough to see this person to an old age.  Or rather, and more likely, are we taking the word blessing, putting it in a common expression, and making its meaning … meaningless.  The same could be said for the expression “have a blessed day”.  Do we infer that today will be wonderful, but tomorrow could be horrible, without a second dose of the blessed-day theory?  And what happens when more than one person says it to us, does our day get exponentially better for every time we hear the blessing?  Again, our use of the expression, seems more intent on identifying us as Christians, than on a meaningful use of the idea of blessing someone else.
Then there is the perspective of our Atheist friends, which corresponds to quite a few in our Christian ranks.  They believe that blessings do not exist.  If something good happens, you did it.  No God.  No divinity.  Just good old fashioned hard work, and opportunity, presented at the right time.  Quite a few Christians are willing to subscribe to the “I did it” philosophy.  Just listen to how they talk about the good things that occur in their lives.  The Atheist converse theory though is more opposite than you would think.  While no God exists for good things, God is to blame for every bad thing that occurs.  It is the Atheist familiar challenge to the existence of God.  If God exists, then why does this bad thing occur? Etc.  Christians too, seem all too eager to jump on this bandwagon as well.  A Christian contracts the disease of cancer, and immediately begins using language like … well, it must have been God’s will, etc.  In effect they blame God for just as much woe, as our Atheist friends do.
But the Bible does not refer to a blessing by accident, or just because we co-opt it into our everyday speech.  Beyond just the ordinary ways we use or associate the word blessing, Jesus Himself, gave us another way to think about it.  Matthew recorded one of the most famous sermons offered in the Bible, in what we now refer to as “The Beatitudes”.  You will note the word Beatitude was not the language Jesus used, it is our scholarly achievement of putting a group of blessings under the heading of one term.  Yay us!  Jesus used the word Blessed.  The context began as the fame of Jesus had spread from as north as Decapolis in Syria, to Jerusalem, from the regions of Galilee and Judaea, all the way to the Jordan river.  Massive numbers of people now sought Jesus to find healing from sin in their bodies.  And now that most were already healed, they sought further, a relief from the pain sin causes in their souls.  Jesus would oblige.
Matthew begins recording the event in his gospel in chapter five, picking up in verse 1 saying … “And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: [verse 2] And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,”  The number of people was great.  And once again, this sermon would not be offered within Temple walls, at least not the Temple constructed in Jerusalem.  It would be offered along the sides of a mountain.  Nature’s acoustics would serve the audio needs well, but the thundering voice of its Creator did not hurt either.  Words carried through the air, and combined with the convicting power of the Holy Spirit upon hearts would make the sermon even more powerful.  The leadership of the church would be offended.  Why would the Messiah not use the beautiful facilities that were available to Him within the confines of the Temple?  That is where this kind of thing was supposed to happen.
But before we get all self-righteous, why do we expect that “church” can only be conducted within the walls of our great constructed buildings dedicated to that purpose as well?  This sermon is living proof that buildings are NOT needed at all.  Attention is.  Willingness to hear is.  Contrite hearts are.  But four walls, not so much.  Then there is the day of this sermon.  YIKES!  We have no idea upon which day this sermon was preached at all.  This leaves all of us holy-day-centric Christians with a further dilemma.  If Jesus preached this sermon on “our” holy day, why wasn’t he in church, where he was supposed to be?  We start immediately joining the Sanhedrin in our way of thinking.  If this sermon did occur on our “Holy” day then Jesus is defacto stating we could be having church outdoors perhaps with far more effect than we do indoors.  The people would have been dressed casually.  It would have been comfort wear, not formal wear.  And there is no song-service recorded.  Neither is there an offering call recorded.  Not even a children’s story unless the words of Jesus could be understood by them as well (perhaps as it should be).
The entire structure of our holy-day-services had no basis in how Jesus worshipped and preached if this sermon was offered on our “holy” day.  So then, if it was not, if this sermon was offered on some other day, what does that imply?  It implies that people can learn from the mouth of Jesus on any day, and in any venue.  They do not really need a holy-day, like the way we use them.  Any time with Jesus becomes holy-time, because He is there, not because we constrict our activities to a list of do’s and don’ts handed down by tradition, and not impacting our hearts at all.  Jesus did not destroy the meaning of holy-day worship by offering this sermon.  The facts of this sermon, just cause us to re-examine how we use our time with God.  What makes that time important?  It is not the place.  It is not the building.  It is our willingness to hear the word of God where and when He offers it.  To prioritize hearing that word above going to restaurants, and theme parks, and movies, and malls … but instead to travel to a mountain with no wi-fi, and listen to Jesus speak with nothing else to do, and no regrets in doing it.
Jesus begins in verse 3 saying … “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Why was this one first?  We already know there are quite a few more coming.  Why was being poor in spirit, being humble, the first thing on the mind of Christ?  Perhaps because entry into the kingdom of heaven depends upon that characteristic.  Now here is where it gets tricky.  The verse is not a curse.  It does not say that without humility you CANNOT get in to the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is a blessing.  It says, those who are humble enough to seek Jesus for their salvation, and their perfection, are ALREADY in the kingdom of heaven.  The word Blessed is not intended as a future promise, it is intended as a current recognition of where you are.  It is not a guarantee you will remain there, only an expression of cause and effect that got you there, and will keep you there.  You are blessed not because of who you are, but because of where you are, and why you are there.  Humility that leads to submission to Jesus is the lynchpin of our salvation, of being saved from ourselves, and finding something more in the here and now within the Kingdom of heaven.  No waiting required.
Jesus continues in verse 4 saying … “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”  This one seems odd, and it was the number two item on the mind of Christ.  Why sadness?  Why mourning?  Did Jesus mean this just in general, or did He have something specific in mind?  In a spiritual context, they that mourn, might be we who understand the weight of our sins, and the pain our sins cause to those we love, and how those circles of pain seem to never stop reverberating through the circle of lives they touch.  To know that pain, causes sadness, it causes mourning.  We repent for a reason.  We want a stop to our sins.  Not just the action of our sins, but the desire to perform them at all.  We want freedom from them.  And Jesus says we are Blessed, for we shall be comforted.  The process of salvation works.  For those who bear great sadness over what they have done, or are doing, there is hope.  The gift of salvation is a gift.  It is the only comfort for those who wish to see sin no more.  And it is real.  Be blessed you who mourn.  Understand your comfort is already working within you.  Jesus is already freeing you from the sin that causes you to mourn, as only He alone can do.
Jesus continues in verse 5 saying … “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”  First, why would I want the earth?  All of scripture informs me that the earth is not my home.  Unless, perhaps the earth Jesus is speaking of, is the re-created earth.  Perhaps the third thing on the mind of Christ is a re-iteration of the first and second things, a humility that drives one to seek God, results in rewards both here and now, and on an eternal basis our minds can hardly comprehend.  Jesus continues in verse 6 saying … “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”  Another reference to salvation.  Another reference to perfection.  To hunger after righteousness is to be filled by Christ.  The people on that mountain were not there to hear Peter speak.  This was not about hearing great disciples, apostles, or modern day ministers and popes.  The people on that mountain were there to hear God.  And it is only God who can fill the hunger for righteousness.  We do not fill ourselves or each other.
Jesus then turns to a description of love as He continues in verse 7 saying … “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”  This is not a promise of tit-for-tat.  This is not about Karma.  This is about a description of a characteristic of love itself.  To offer mercy, is to grant it to someone who does NOT deserve it.  Love forgives.  Love has no need to forgive the righteous, but instead it forgives the wicked.  The forgiveness it offers does more than just release the guilty from his responsibility, it releases the wronged one from the burden of hate, resentment, and revenge.  The one who offers forgiveness and mercy is the one freed from the memory of the act that harmed him.  Mercy given, is mercy already understood, already received, already part of who you are.
Jesus continues in verse 8 saying … “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.”  The entirety of the commandment law could be summarized in the idea of “pure in heart”.  One who loves, one who bears no malice, does not think to lie to another, to steal from them, to hate, or kill, or dishonor them.  One who is pure in heart thinks only how he could make their lives better than they are.  One who is pure in heart, invests the imagination into making life better, making life outstanding, not thinking of self, but only of others.  In this we come to see God, to see God for who God is, to reflect God through who he re-makes us to become.
Jesus continues in verse 9 saying … “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”  As Jesus concludes His mini-definition of what it is like to love, He offers the trait of peacemaker in the list.  Nowhere in the commandment law is this trait specifically listed, yet it is on the mind of Christ as He speaks to the multitudes who are not yet able to forgive or forget.  Those who know what it is to love, understand why peace is more important than gain, or honor, or self-imposed restrictions.  To seek peace is be known as the children of God.  The war in heaven happened, not because our God did not seek peace, but because Satan would not have it.  War with evil may always be inevitable.  But war between those who call themselves by the name of God should ALWAYS be avoidable.  It is ever our honor to seek peace, we are blessed as we do.
Then Jesus turns, to what inevitably happens when you love, in a world steeped in hate as He continues in verse 10 saying … “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  When you love, others will persecute you for it.  The expression no good deed goes unpunished has truth in it.  Your motives will be questioned.  Your deeds of love discarded as selfish, and self-serving.  Your anguish over the salvation of another, discarded as unneeded and unwanted.  But residence in the Kingdom of Heaven does not preclude you from this persecution, it only offers you another perspective on why it occurs.
Finally Jesus concludes the results of the end of all things as He wraps up this section in verse 11 saying … “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.  [verse 12] Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”  Suffering for the name of Jesus was new to the Jews.  The Jews had long awaited the Messiah.  To accept that Jesus was Him, was sure to bring condemnation from those who rejected this idea.  It still does.  Whether from Atheists who do not believe, or Islamists who believe only that Jesus was a prophet, or Christians who prefer to think self solves all problems – persecution comes.  Every other form of religion will reject Jesus and our belief in Him, because Jesus offers the only mechanism to be saved, from self.  Every other religion thrives on self.  It is this difference that brings the persecution, and creates the hinge upon which salvation hangs.
What Jesus has just outlined is not the promise of a blessing in future tense.  He does not make casual but instead profound use of the word.  Nor does Jesus state that people who lived a long time before you were blessed (past tense) and it is something you can never see in your own life.  What Jesus outlines instead is a recognition of a blessed state when you embrace humility, purity, love.  He warns us in advance that persecution will come.  And He offers us the hope, that when bad things happen to us from the fury of Satan, we are to take comfort, recognize we are blessed already, and that our eternal salvation is as sure as our present one within the process of being remade.  Jesus does not reserve our transformation to some future date, just as He does not reserve our state of blessed to the future either.  They are both present.  They are both immediate.  They begin with our humility, our submission right here and now, and they have no end in the eternity He offers behind it.
And this was only the beginning of the sermon …

Friday, January 13, 2017

The "A" Team ...

When a difficult task stands before you, a wise approach to accomplish it, is to select a team that is able to contribute a set of unique skills that when combined are able to meet nearly any task of any size.  In professional sports this team of athletes is referred to as “starters” or if the need is singular, then special teams.  In the military, teams are assembled like this within the special forces branches, and only elite, albeit different soldiers are used.  In the business world, the moniker the “A” team is still sometimes used.  It refers an organization’s best and brightest.  It represents the folks who are most likely to overcome any difficulty, rely upon each other’s strengths, offset each other’s weaknesses, and march on to victory.  So in the spiritual world, why would we expect to see anything different?
Imagine the magnitude of the task that stood before Jesus at the outset of His ministry.  Jesus must change the perception of God in the eyes of the people.  He has this task to do not just for Gentiles who believe in many gods, but for Israelites who believe in a vindicate, rules-obsessed God.  Jesus must change the way an entire nation views how to interpret scripture.  For even though they call themselves by His name, and the name of His Father, they have twisted scripture to fit the doctrines of debate, and in so doing have squeezed the love completely out of it.  How like us.  Jesus must demonstrate to all people the intentions of He and His Father in tangible ways, erasing the pain of sin, inside their hearts and minds, and outside in the defects sin brings by bad choices, heredity, and misfortune of Satan’s rage.  To heal a sin sick world, crying from pain of disease, deformity, and even possession will be no small task.   And while Jesus takes on this work, He must remain spotless (no shortcuts), and He must groom His followers to become a church that will stand the test of time and fury of a Roman empire, and Jewish religion, that will stand against it.
What Jesus needs is an “A” team.  Both then and now, Jesus needs a few followers that can assist Him in these tasks, and make the work of redemption easier by example, and by action, and by personal testimony.  So who should Jesus select?  From a decidedly human perspective, our minds would immediately turn to the great spiritual leaders who have lived in our past, or perhaps are still carrying on great missions today.  We think of pastors of large churches, or leaders of large conferences.  We think of singers who have international acclaim, and have toured the world over.  We think of miracle workers, who have performed great acts of healing, most of them on television. 
Our thinking is not much different, than the church leadership thought in the days of Jesus on earth.  The Sanhedrin was waiting on the call.  They expected that when the Messiah emerged, He would immediately come to them for assistance.  After all, who better than they to provide spiritual guidance in matters of doctrine.  They were the established leaders of the people in all matters of the Temple and of religion in that day.  Any doctrine outside of their blessing was heresy.  So any teacher outside of their order must by definition be a heretic.  And besides, these men, were just waiting on the call.  They had every intention of responding when it came.  But it didn’t.  At least not the way they thought it should.
Quietly, that is to say, without any formal pronouncements from the Temple order, or solicitations of the same; Jesus had come to earth.  Even the angels who burst into song at His birth because they could hold their voices no longer, found an audience of humble shepherds in the fields, not priests in the Temple.  The same star that guided men from half way across the world, went unnoticed by the Sanhedrin.  The voice of the Father Himself, and appearance of the Spirit in the form of a dove, were heard at the river Jordan, during a practice the priests discarded as unnecessary, but God obviously did not.  For all the sacrificial system of the Temple, a simple humbling of the heart, was worth more to God.  And it was that.  It was humility that all but had disappeared in the hearts of those who “knew” the word of God, and who studied it without ceasing, yet loved very little.
They, and we, have become proud of our accumulated religious knowledge.  The Sanhedrin, and the modern Christian, await the call of God as if God owes it to us.  After all, we have read so much, learned so much, done so much “mission” oriented work.  The fact that we do not know how to love, and who to love, does not even cross our minds.  We are too obsessed with a perfection we intend to achieve, either completely alone, or in some sort of “partnership” with God, where we do “our” part, and then He makes up the meager difference.  Although in truth these “partnerships” produce nothing more than excuses for our continued imperfection, and a chance to blame God because we continue to fail.  Albeit, we take pride in our rich spiritual history, and claim it as our own, though contribute very little to it.  We are spiritually wealthy in our own eyes, and now only await the official call of God, to put His seal on our life’s work.  So it was then.  So it is now.  How little has changed.
But the “A” team for Jesus was not to be found in the Temple, or ranks of the Sanhedrin, nor perhaps in the hearts of the modern Christian who yet refuses to humble himself no matter the size of his ministry.  The “A” team for Jesus was to be found in the least likely of suspects.  Jesus had already picked up the mantle of John the Baptist.  Jesus was preaching his gospel message of repentance, and was baptizing in the same river John did.  As for disciples, the “A” team so to speak, Matthew was not there when they were first picked.  He did not see it first hand, but he reported on it, from collective recollections he heard. 
His account begins in chapter four of his gospel picking up in verse 18 saying … “And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. [verse 19] And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. [verse 20] And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.”  The disciple John provides a better first person account, revealing more details that it was he and Andrew, who were already disciples of John the Baptist.  That when Jesus appeared, John directed them to follow Him, as Jesus was the Messiah.  It was John and Andrew who raced to their respective homes, and told their respective brothers, about the discovery of the Messiah.  And then it was Jesus who follows as Matthew records above.
Matthew continues in verse 21 saying … “And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them. [verse 22] And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him.”  Fishermen.  After all the preconceived ideas about who Jesus would select for His “A” team, He picks four fishermen.  He could choose to do so again today.  Though the methods have evolved, the profession remains even till our day.  Can you imagine if the fate of modern Christianity, is still resting in the hands of common, ordinary fishermen.  Not the preachers.  Not the teachers, or singers, or miracle workers.  Especially not the conference leaders, but instead the entire fate of Christianity continues to reside in the hands of fishermen along our coasts.  It is unthinkable, in every mind, but the mind of Christ.  Perhaps in our day, Jesus might expand His selections of an “A” team but limit it only to any other truly blue collar position in life.  Still unthinkable, even to them, but NOT to Jesus Christ.  He not only thought it, He picked it.
The stain on the face of the Sanhedrin could not have been brighter.  To be overlooked in favor of illiterate fishermen, who had only a baby’s view of the scriptures, was inconceivable.  This very pick, puts Jesus in the fake Messiah column.  Because surely no “real” Messiah would start out like this, and then pick these idiots as His “A” team when SO MANY better qualified candidates exist right here in the Temple, and center of the established religious leadership of the day.  It’s like trying to start a baseball team, and walking right by the Hall of Famers and picking the janitor, hot dog stand guy, and ladies working to clean the bathrooms instead.  Only an idiot would ever do that right, so if Jesus did it, that makes Him an … but hold the phone.  If Jesus is God, and we know He is, then it may be that our ideas of “qualifications” that are all twisted around, just like those of the Sanhedrin.
What Jesus needed was and is, men who are willing to admit, they do not know everything, in fact, they know very little.  Jesus needs humility in us, so that He can actually teach us, the right things, the right ways, in the right time.  He can’t do that, if we refuse to let Him, because we ALREADY know what we need to know.  Our submission to Jesus then, is the hallmark trait of an “A” team member for His purposes.  He does not need us to lead at all.  He has that covered.  Instead, He needs us to play, understanding we have NO skills, and He will provide them to us, when and how we need them.  Imagine what it takes for the janitor lady who normally cleans the bathrooms to step up to the mound against true “professionals”.  That takes faith.  That takes trust.  That does NOT take confidence, it takes dependence and humility.  It is our confidence that has been our problem all along.  We put our confidence in us, in the accumulated knowledge and work we have done for Jesus.  Instead of putting our confidence in knowing we know nothing, and he knows everything.  We can solve zero problems, but He can solve every problem.  Our lack of humility, and misplaced confidence, keeps us out of the real game entirely.
And what does Jesus do right after picking this team?  Matthew continues in verse 23 saying … “And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people. [verse 24] And his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatick, and those that had the palsy; and he healed them. [verse 25] And there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judaea, and from beyond Jordan.”  Jesus does what Jesus always does, and what Jesus was meant to do.  The better question is, how did this “A” team “help” Jesus do what Jesus does?  In point of fact they did not.  They were there as witnesses, not as participants, at least not yet.
It turns out the job of an “A” teamer for Jesus may also be quite a bit different than we thought as well.  Instead of jumping right in and offering their opinions to folks.  They were a bit dumb-founded as they watched God do, what God has always wanted to do for us, and through us, and sometimes in spite of us.  Watching God work is staggering, both then and now.  Same God, who wants to do the same work.  Jesus is every bit as interested in healing the sick now, as He was then.  The modern Christian is the one all twisted around, because we pray weak prayers questioning the will of God, or we take credit for what He does, as if it only happened because we prayed at all.  Neither condition was a problem in the days of Jesus.  Jesus healed, without any prompting from His disciples at all.  Jesus healed because that is what Jesus does.  He restores men to God, and to the image He intended for them to be in.  Peter did not have to pray to get Him started.  Peter just had to step aside and watch Him go.
It is we who have lost confidence in the will of our God.  We now sometimes believe it must be His will when calamity strikes (instead of most often a cause and effect relationship between choices to sin, and the results of pain that sin inevitably brings with it).  But then you ask, how else could bad things happen to the innocent?  I answer, Satan has not disappeared or gotten tired of playing.  He is every bit the unflinching animal he ever was, and will inflict as much pain as he can.  In addition, when I choose to smoke, and I get cancer, that is not God’s will for my choice or its result.  That is cause and effect.  And when my unborn child suffers because my second-hand smoke penetrates his mother and gives him grief in the womb.  That is also NOT the will of God, but the result of my choices, and their results.  Modern Christians are all too keen on passing off responsibilities we should own to our God, and then wonder why the unbeliever questions His character. 
Our environment is polluted, our air, water, and earth, because of the greed sin promotes, and the choices our forefathers, and we ourselves continue to make.  When disaster arises from environmental disturbances that come up, they too are NOT the will of God, but the results of what man has done to himself, and what Satan makes worse from his efforts.  You will notice in these texts, that Jesus does not go around creating earthquakes, and tornadoes, and otherwise judging and killing the wicked.  That is unthinkable to what we know about Jesus.  You will also note, that Jesus does not go around creating terminal diseases in the innocent, and using terminal disease to judge the wicked.  In fact that is NOT what Jesus does, or ever did.  That is what sin does, and always did.  Jesus ends the pain of those things.  Jesus restores humanity to what He intended for it.  He does not create misery in order for people to run to Him to avoid it.  That is not love.  That is fear.  And fear does not change lives or motives, it only puts things in perspective for a moment.  Then life resumes just as it was.  Love however, changes things forever.
Jesus ends suffering, He does not cause it.  The “A” team witnessed this, over and over and over again until it was drilled into their minds and hearts.  They became so confident over time, that THIS was the will of God, to end suffering.  And later they would be able to see God do it, even after Jesus had left this world.  They knew it was still Him.  They knew it had nothing to do with themselves, only everything to do with ending the suffering of the person in need.  The “A” team saw God in action.  The “A” team had their own perceptions of God changed.  The “A” team were humble enough to allow this to occur.  Are you ready to join that team?  Or do you already know, everything you need to know?

Friday, January 6, 2017

A Barren Field? A Tired Message? ...

What do our assumptions tell us about our witnessing?  Somehow in the United States, Christians have a view of the world that “mission” lies in a remote village, in a far corner of the globe; a place without electricity, internet, and exposure to traditional missionaries.  We fund endeavors to reach such places from the comfort of our church facilities here in the US.  And we lose the idea of local mission.  The Gospel here in the US, to an audience of the affluent, or the middle class; has either already been preached. or is expected to have little impact.  Missionaries in our country no longer carry that name.  We call them Evangelists.  And they generally move from region to region, with accompanying marketing campaigns.  But the message our evangelism tries there is not the simple gospel, it is one of prophetic interpretations, or fear of the end of days.  We assume shock and awe are the only ways to reach the hardened hearts of Americans long exposed to Christianity, and long hardened to receiving it.
So by comparison, our success in foreign missions, in areas overseas that have had little exposure to the Bible and the Gospel, have much better results, than the work in our own neighborhoods.  People in our back yard are tired of the same old message, and same old messengers.  Fear may put seats in a pew for a while, but inevitably unchanged hearts, and untransformed messengers, tend to pull them right back out again over time.  We begin to assume the United States, and well developed European countries have become a barren land.  Our consumer is tired of the same old advertising.  Our consumer is tired of the visible hypocrisy.  Our consumer is tired of the seemingly infinite number of brands with minimal distinctions, that from the point of view of the non-believer, look horribly unimportant, and no reason to separate the body of Christ.  Even though that is exactly what supposed Christians do when they do not agree on a “critical” doctrine.  And our consumer’s reluctance … is well founded.
But in truth, it is not so much our doctrines that are unattractive.  Our beliefs are not the real reason we drive away the unbelievers.  Our lives, and our way of living is.  Our Gospel is all twisted around.  We define our hope and our way to live in His perfection, as ONLY something that can be achieved AFTER death, or in a far-off future where the Second Coming occurs, and everything is falling apart at the seams.  And we define Hell as a punishment baked in flames that torture the wicked FOR everything they have done, and only again AFTER death, in a far-off future even past the Second Coming when “judgment” is meted out by a vengeful God bent on our destruction.  But the truth, the real Gospel is neither of these.
John the Baptist had it right.  The kingdom of God is at hand, meaning, it is here.  The Kingdom of God is in the here and the now.  It is a way of transformation that impacts your current life, and the way you currently live it.  It is the basis of a testimony only you can carry, about how Jesus took the sin from you, took the desire to sin from you, and replaced it with a passionate love for others, you can now, no longer live without.  This transformation is a road to perfection in the here and now.  No waiting.  No future, far-off thing, but right now, at hand, for you.  Embrace it, and the hypocrisy of calling yourself a Christian dissolves into the reality of being a Christian.  All of the sudden, your life looks different than those who still refuse the hope right in front of them.  All of the sudden, there is a difference in the life of the messenger.  Hypocrisy on the decline.  Hypocrisy becoming an endangered species.
John the Baptist had it right.  Repent.  Submit yourself to something greater than yourself.  Humble your ego to Jesus and realize you could indeed be living better.  Understand that what you repent from is THE punishment all of us want to avoid.  Hurting self.  Hurting others.  Hurting God because we engage in the love of self that lies at foundation of the definition of every sin, is the problem.  It causes us to hurt everything around us.  It damages our lives, cuts them short, and makes existence less than it could be.  THAT is the definition of Hell.  Not some far off punishment for what we HAVE done.  Hell is the punishment that comes from what we ARE doing, in the here and now.  The pain we cause, the ripple effects that it spreads are the Hell we would all avoid if we could choose to.  But our choice is locked up in 6000 years of bad genetics, and bad choices of our ancestors.  Our very DNA is presupposed to the desires and behaviors we are unable to escape from ourselves.  Repentance only reminds us of this reality, and points us to a divine source able to re-write our very DNA to avoid the Hell we must otherwise endure.
Our land is not barren.  Our old gospel of self merely leads to barren results.  A new gospel based entirely upon Jesus and our submission to Him, leads to new results entirely.  And “mission” becomes the image in your mirror, and at the extensions of your own front yard.  The field is no longer barren, but yearning to know this kind of transformative truth.  Our consumer is not waiting to hear these words, but to see them acted out in your own life.  Our consumer is not waiting for you to preach about what you have seen others do, but to witness with a first-person testimony about how they work in your life.  Perfection is not the tale.  But the journey to perfection decisively is the real story you can relay.  And the only way it could have been achieved or started began with a simple concept that John the Baptist so forcefully preached all those years ago, namely … Repent.
But don’t just take my word for it.  Let us examine what Matthew recalls about the opening of the ministry of Jesus Christ.  Just after the great temptational fire, and near death experience in the desert.  Jesus recovers.  You would expect Him to now, finally, head to Jerusalem to be blessed by the current church leadership.  At least that is what the current church leadership expected.  Without their blessing, all His efforts were sure to be fruitless, or heretical.  But Jesus saw His Father as the Real church leadership.  And He was most interested in keeping the real Gospel alive.  The Gospel John started, not the one based on doctrinal debate found in the Temple.
So Matthew begins in chapter four of his gospel, picking up in verse 12 saying … “ Now when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, he departed into Galilee; [verse 13] And leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim:”  Jesus hears that John has been cast into prison by Herod Antipas.  And the first thing He does, is to travel into largely Gentile territory, into tribes considered Samaritan land.  The ten tribes of Israel had dishonored God by breaking with Judah and Benjamin.  The kingdom of Israel had been split in two from that time on.  The north had its own kings, its own temple, and its own ideas about worship free of the order at Jerusalem.  The south remained traditional, if not always faithful.  But all fell to the hand of Nebuchadnezzar and the captivity.  And all were returned by Cyrus some years later.  Even then, the north was regarded as lesser-than from its history.  A reputation they were somewhat content to carry.
Jesus however, immediately breaks down these kinds of barriers.  He travels first to what every Jew in the south would call barren land spiritually.  He goes to tribal areas of Zebulun, and Naphtali.  There is no barren land in the mind of Jesus.  Matthew continues in verse 14 saying … “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, [verse 15] The land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; [verse 16] The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up.”  Matthew is ever cognizant that his gospel is to bridge the Old and New Testaments through the life of Christ.  He calls us to remember the prophecies that bring hope to the Samaritans as much as to the Jews of the south.
You would think, that a study of Isaiah, might help reduce the prejudice of the time.  If the Messiah was to bring His great light into barren territory, then perhaps the territory was not so barren after all.  Perhaps all it needed was to see truth, instead of see religion packaged as truth, but absent any love in the process.  Flash forward 2000 years.  American Christians are very good at packaging doctrine, rolling it up into the brand management of a particular denomination, and then attempting to sell only that version to the listening ear.  But this approach seems only nominally effective at stealing one Christian from one brand and making him loyal to another.  It is because we lack passion for others, that we would leave unbelievers to their fate, while we argue among ourselves as to who is the Samaritan, and who is the purist.
But there is truth greater than our distinctions, upon which all of salvation is based, and all of hell is avoided in the here and now where the Kingdom of God is at hand.  And Matthew identifies it for us as he continues in verse 17 saying … “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Jesus Himself continues the ministry of John the Baptist.  The need for that message did not disappear at His first arrival, and it does not disappear throughout His ministry, after His sacrifice, or after His ascension.  The need remains.  Because the mechanism for how we are transformed remains, and immediacy of the impact upon how we live remains.  Repent.  And why you ask?  Why the immediacy?  Because the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
This is not a statement about our mortality.  It is a statement about our transformation.  This is a statement, a truth, about how the REAL gospel works.  It is based on Jesus, and our submission to Him.  It identifies a continued need to repent, to submit to a higher power than ourselves, to Jesus Christ who alone is The Truth, and can save us from us.  The sin we would otherwise long to commit, can be taken from us, not just the actions but the longing itself.  The hell we cause ourselves, the separation from God we choose to endure need not be so.  All of it can be repaired right here and right now.  No future waiting.  Right now.  At hand.  Today. Tonight. Tomorrow.  No after death, end of the road, promise when so much time is wasted between now and then.  That is the message Jesus Himself continued to teach from the start to the end of His ministry.  It is the real gospel, that leads to real results.  It transforms a life, and makes that life a living witness, with a living testimony, unique to a single person.
Lands we thought barren, were not actually barren to a real gospel, only barren to a religion without any real results.  Lives lived without the pain sin causes.  Lives lived that are happier, and passionate about others, are not founded in wealth and ease, but in reformation Jesus alone can bring.  It is not about looking like pilgrims, living in some sort of twisted self-denial.  It is about looking like someone who knows something others just do not seem to know … because they do.  That kind of passion cannot be faked.  That kind of happiness cannot faked.  It is the “faking” that has been the problem all along.  Real Christianity is based on a real different right here, right now.  The Kingdom of God is at hand.  It still is.  It is still waiting to be reflected in your life, my life, and the lives who sit in pain all around us.  THAT is a truth the entire world longs to hear.  Perhaps even those who sit beside us in pews that we only see once a week.  But for certain in the lives we know are suffering from the pain sin causes us all.  THAT is a new gospel, that is brand new and yet more than 2000 years old.
The gospel of self we have been preaching, needs to be replaced with a gospel of Jesus that yields a reason to change, and the only mechanism by which change can come.