Lent: Resolution

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

 

John 9:1-41

 

“It Is Not God”

Every now and again you encounter something that allows you to see everything in a new light. As a pastor, I am often present with individuals and families in the immediate aftermath of such occasions.

Perhaps it is the birth of a child, or the death of a friend.

Perhaps it involves a deep betrayal by a relative, or a near-dump truck load of generosity and kindness heaped upon them by a stranger.

Perhaps it involves a radically-widening worldview after travel or a near experience.

But all of a sudden, everything is different. You just can’t go back to seeing the world in the same way—not anymore.

There have been a few times—rare times, for sure—but a few times where this dramatic change happened to me because of something I read. In these instances, the words I encountered reverberated so absolutely with truth, and the concepts that were communicated allowed me to see so clearly that it was like “scales” fell from my eyes, as Acts 9:18 describes when a blind Paul regained vision at last.

One of these reality-altering quotes came from the pen of Augustine of Hippo, one of the most important theologians of Christian history. While discussing God, Augustine, a Christian leader from around 400 AD, says:

“Why wonder that you do not understand? For if you understand, it is not God.”
(85 Serm. 117, 5: PL 38, 673.—cited by Pope John Paul II in Augustinum Hipponensem, 28 Aug 1986)

Now, maybe that seems like a lot and maybe that seems like nothing. Let me try to put it into more clear and current language for you. What Augustine is claiming is that everything we think about God is incomplete and faulty. Every profession we make about God has some inherent untruth to it.

Many talk of God as “father.” But God does not equal father and father does not equal God.

Many talk of God as “eternal.” Yet how are we finite beings supposed to comprehend the infinite?

Many talk of God as “creator.” Yet as creations we cannot even begin to imagine what this means.

Many talk of God as “love.” But even this is decidedly inadequate, because our experiences of imperfect love hinder our ability to comprehend God’s complete love for us.

All of these are metaphors—comparisons between someone we cannot comprehend (God) and things we can comprehend. As such, they are all imperfect and they will all fail some of us.

How (for instance) does a child of a deadbeat dad connect with God as “father”?

How does an abused spouse comprehend God as “love”?

How does a regularly shuffled-around foster kid comprehend God as “eternal”?

These metaphors break down. And when they do, they must be abandoned. But that doesn’t mean that I give up on God if I give up on the metaphor of “father.” Instead, I just lean on the many other metaphors to help me learn and live and grow.

What Augustine argues here is firmly anchored in the Bible itself. In 1Corinthians 13, Paul argues that “we know in part… but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears… Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1Corinthians 13:9-10, 12 NIV11).

You see, both Paul and Augustine are trying to help us resolve to hold our convictions cautiously. They want us to be open to new discoveries as our friendship with Jesus grows. They know all too well how assumptions and metaphors and prejudices can become intertwined into the fabric of faith, and that (if we are going to be following Jesus) we need to resolve to challenge and change our thinking on these old prejudices and assumptions.

Traditional “Wisdom” vs. Outsider Experience

Our Scripture text today provides us with a perfect illustration of this. Jesus and the Jewish leaders again go toe-to-toe, this time with a recently-healed blind man caught in the middle.

This story begins, however, with genuine theological inquiry. As we were made into curious and creative human beings, we have questions. How many of you have said (or heard someone say) something like: “I guess I’ll have to ask Jesus when I get to heaven”……yeah? The disciples have questions—and they realize they can ask Jesus right then and there. So they do.

In the traditional wisdom of their faith (which as a reminder is the traditional wisdom of our faith too), bad things are thought to be the result of bad choices:

A poor person is bad with money

A chronically unhealthy person has made bad health decisions

Someone who has been to prison deserves to be punished and ostracized

It just goes on and on:

A single mother must have been promiscuous

A lonely person must have made bad relationship choices

A hungry person hasn’t spent their money on the right things

We don’t often admit these prejudices within us, but a quick read of the news or a couple days in intentional self-awareness reveals they are the dominant patterns in our culture.

You see, we tend to operate under the assumption that everything works equally for everyone everywhere. It doesn’t, but that is just one of the many deceptions we buy into in our world and culture. We also believe (again falsely) that the world works like a vending machine: put your 55 cents in, push P6 and a Milky Way comes out. In terms of life, that formulaic mentality says if you do good you get good; if you do bad you get bad. And yes, that does happen—much of the time that happens. The Psalms and Proverbs in the Bible are testimonies to this reality; we could call it the “normal pattern.”

But remember: everything does not work equally for everyone. And so there are always those whose experience falls outside the norm. For some of us, this fuels the question of why bad things happen to good people. But in other circumstances, it takes a strong resolution to not prejudge those experiencing bad.

Take, for instance, Proverbs 10:4: “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” There are, no doubt, those in poverty because of their own carelessness; and there are, no doubt, those who are rich due to their personal diligence and care.

But there are also many who are rich on account of someone else’s diligence, a problem described as a “great evil” multiple times in Ecclesiastes (cf. 6:1-2). And there are those who are held down by poverty no matter how diligent they may be with their meager resources. While these “exceptions” may have been outside the norm two-and-a-half thousand years ago, I’m not so sure today. But they remain places of tension and prejudice where we as followers of Jesus must resolve to challenge and change our thinking.

The Healing

In John 9, the disciples see a man who has been blind since birth. He poses for them a theological conundrum—a challenge to that “normal pattern” of life. If misfortune is the result of sin, then his blindness has to be the result of sin. But if he has been blind since he was born, how could he have sinned? He didn’t have the chance, did he? Or is this (they wonder) a case of God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation,” as Exodus 20:5 describes?

Jesus, in his characteristic way, rejects both their theological solutions: his blindness was not the result of his own sin, nor of his parents: “but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” In other words, Jesus says: “Neither, you doofs. But watch while I take what you see as a handicap and turn it into something amazing and beautiful.”

Jesus then paints his eyes with the custard filling from a mud pie, and tells the man to wash it off. When he does, he can see—for the first time in his life.

The Backlash

But our story does not stop there. And that’s because this isn’t a story about theological inquiry; it is about prejudices and the destructive assumptions we make about people less fortunate than ourselves.

This man—now healed—goes back to his life. And the people who know him cannot believe their eyes. They won’t even admit it is the same person. (You know, in the same token—it’s a terrible consequence of our own blindness when we cannot allow the people around us to be better than they once were).

To each inquirer, the man tells his story. Eventually—with unstated purposes—they bring him to the Pharisees—the religious leaders. They too query him, but quickly dismiss him as a liar. Their reasoning is explained in a long, circular argument that exposes their own prejudice. Here’s what they say:

The healing happened on the Sabbath, so whoever did the healing broke the Sabbath

Whoever breaks the Sabbath is a sinner.

And obviously God would not give the power to heal to a sinner.

So that means—even though they have an obviously seeing person in front of them—they decide he has lied about the whole thing.

This inquiry—or perhaps by now we should say “witch hunt”—then escalates. The man’s parents are even questioned. They establish this is their son, that he was in fact born blind, but they cannot explain anything else. So the man is brought before them again and grilled some more.

The man, now sounding a bit peeved, offers some pretty powerful words of testimony that Jesus must be from God. But the blindness and prejudice of the Pharisees here overpower him. This time they dismiss everything he has said because he was “born in utter sin” and thus has nothing of value to offer. And then they throw him out—literally!—like yesterday’s garbage.

The Aftermath

These Jewish leaders are so blinded by their prejudices and assumptions that they cannot see what is right in front of them—a blind person seeing. They cannot and will not accept it because it does not line up with what they expect.

It’s hard to read this story and not to pity them.

It’s also curious to me that the disciples don’t weigh back in down the line. Like the Jewish leaders, they too had their assumptions and prejudices challenged by Jesus and this once-blind man. Maybe they were open to the teachable moment? We don’t really know.

What we do know is that Jesus sought this man out later on. He might be the only person healed by Jesus that he intentionally checks up on. I find that intriguing. Perhaps it is those who are wounded and damaged by this kind of stick-in-the-mud thinking that most need our care and concern. I don’t know. But Jesus does seek him out.

Starting in v.35, we read that Jesus sought out the man after having heard that “they had cast him out.” Here, one who is marginalized by the religious voices of the world is deliberately sought out by the Presence and Incarnation of God. Here (again, rarely) Jesus wants the man to understand who Jesus is so he can live in hope and fulfillment of God’s love. Yet even this tender moment is again spoiled by the blindness of prejudice, as the Jewish leaders hear and react with vehemence against the man and Jesus.

Conclusion

This is a roller coaster of a chapter. In it we have curiosity, hope, disgrace, kindness, healing, a power struggle, a revelation, and some lines drawn in the sand. We read it and feel all the feels, yet when it concludes we don’t know really what we feel anymore. Is it a melancholy hope? A silver-lined tragedy? We are unclear.

And I think part of why we are unclear is because it so illustrates some of the broken pieces within us. I started this morning with that quote from Augustine of Hippo, and I think it might be helpful to hear it again now.

If you understand, it is not God.

The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day mistook the “dim reflection” of their own understanding for absolute truth. They were so certain of what they thought they could see that they completely missed it when the actual Messiah, God-incarnate Jesus the Christ, was standing right in front of them.

In the same way, when we become so rigid and inflexible about the convictions we hold, we risk missing the eyes of Jesus in the stranger in front of us.

This Lent, let us resolve to change our thinking on old prejudices and assumptions. Let us follow the path of our Savior.

Lent: Redemption

 

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

John 4:5-42

 

Redemption

On this third Sunday in Lent, we continue our exploration of the theme: “Advancing the Kingdom; Resisting the World.” Recognizing that our citizenship is with God’s Kingdom (as Paul reminds us in Philippians 3:20), we are exploring the ways that this reality forces us to resist the ways of the world, fighting against the dominant pressures and impulses of our culture.

On March 5, we read about Jesus’ temptation, and we explored that pull within us that misdirects us away from God’s path. Like Jesus, we recognize that citizens of God’s Kingdom advance that Kingdom when we resist the ways of the world.

On March 12, we looked to Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus—those famous words “You must be born again.” These words and others there in John 3 remind us that we need to undergo a complete reformation of our thinking—a complete rebirth into God’s ways—so we will reflect the Savior of the World.

Today, we come to another familiar text—the encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well, wherein Jesus speaks of the living water that abolishes thirst forever. In this text, as we will see, Jesus models how to engage people in a redemptive way—in a way that allows them to see and experience God’s love for them.

The Samaritan Problem

This is one of those texts of the Bible (however) that I think preachers get weary of preaching. Our problem is that we are so distant from the cultural norms, the prejudices and privileges, and the realities of history that this story just doesn’t have much… oompf… unless these things are explained in depth.

In this way, it’s similar to the parable of the Good Samaritan—it’s a fantastic story, but we preachers usually end up spending half or more of our time trying to paint a picture of how the Jews were prejudiced against the Samaritans. We describe history and bias, we encourage you to think of someone you’d see as your enemy, and we engage in all sorts of oratorial acrobatics in order to help our hearers appreciate how radical these teachings and encounters of Jesus truly are.

Today I just want to cut to the chase. Everything Jesus does here is radical. Let’s just take that as a given. The kindness he extends is a radical kindness. The acceptance he offers is a radical acceptance. The welcome he volunteers is a radical welcome.

And somehow—all taken together—we end up with something that we call redemption.

Now don’t get frightened; I’m not going to use a bunch of ten-dollar theological words. In fact, most of our theological words—things like justification, propitiation, atonement, regeneration, sanctification—these are all big, fancy words we use to express our big, fancy theological ideas about the very, very simple reality of God’s love. God’s love is a redeeming love. To redeem something is to compensate for the bad parts. And that is what God—in and through God’s love—accomplishes in us. The bad parts of us are overcome and we are made to be good again—and in this we see the fulfillment of God’s desires in our initial creation from way back in Genesis.

So how does Jesus demonstrate redemption for us here? Well, there are four elements in this story—four pieces of how God through Jesus engages this woman. When we take these four things together, we end up with a model for how we can advance God’s Kingdom by participating in the redemption of others.

1. God meets us where we are

The first piece is this: God meets us where we are. Here in John 4, Jesus meets the woman in her own context and on her own terms.

Jesus does not (of course) hole up in his synagogue in Nazareth expecting that folks needing redemption will come to him. No, as the gospels demonstrate, most of the folks Jesus offers redemption to don’t even think they need it—not at first.

Have you ever been where you don’t belong? In the pursuit of auto parts, custom glass for old cars, or good food heard about on “Check Please!” (a Chicago-local PBS restaurant program), my father seemed to regularly drag me into parts of town where I just didn’t belong. And that’s not just me saying it—I vividly recall locals menacingly telling me that I was in the wrong part of town a time or two. But there were things he taught me about how to be out of your comfort zone and still be ok.

One of the biggest lessons was that people pick up on how you feel.

So if you’re somewhere and you feel out of place, you’re likely to look out of place.

If you feel embarrassed about being somewhere, people will see that.

Eventually I came to see that if I could accept being somewhere, I no longer stuck out like a sore thumb. I didn’t have to change anything except my willingness to be somewhere and see other people as regular people like me.

This is how Jesus begins our story. As a Jew, he has little business in Samaria. It should be out of Jesus’ comfort zone. As the disciples’ reaction in v.27 demonstrates, there are people there his friends think he should avoid.

But God always meets us where we are. So Jesus goes to Samaria—where he doesn’t belong—and he talks to someone he shouldn’t talk to.

Now, it shouldn’t surprise us that getting out of our comfort zone is the first step toward participating in the redemption of others. After all, when Jesus issues what we call the Great Commission in Matthew 28, going is a prerequisite to everything else; it must happen before the disciple-making, baptizing, and teaching.

God always meets us where we are.

2. God offers us welcome

Second, God offers us welcome. In this particular story, Jesus extends welcome to the woman by speaking with her as though there were no obstacles between them.

According to the rules of his world:

  • He shouldn’t speak to a Samaritan
  • He shouldn’t speak to a woman without her husband present
  • He can’t drink after a Samaritan without then being excluded from worship

But not only does Jesus speak to her—he initiates the conversation.

You ever think about this? A pastor named Anna Carter Florence got me thinking about this… She says:

What rules is Jesus breaking to talk with us? What social conventions is he disregarding? What lines is he stepping across, in order to speak about what truly matters, and what may save our life? …What traditions or customs or conventions might Jesus have to cross in order to speak to you? (in Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 2, p.95)

Think about it. Jesus is not breaking the rules because he is desperately thirsty. He is doing so because he loves so deeply and fully. He breaks the rules because redemption requires the kind of welcome that only happens when you look beyond the boulders and minefield between you and someone God loves.

God offers us welcome.

3. God offers us acceptance

Third, God offers us acceptance. As this story tells us—as the woman’s testimony rings out—Jesus knows everything about her but does not condemn her. In her words, “He told me everything I have ever done” (John 4:39).

This story invariably reminds me of another. In a couple chapters further in (John 8), Jesus encounters another nameless woman—this time, a woman caught in sin. The gospel writer clearly indicates that she is being abused—manipulated—used as a weapon against Jesus, that they might bring him down. Their motivation is not the keeping of the law, but power and control.

They pretend to request Jesus to declare her fate. If he says to free her, he is breaking the Law—he is violating their religious customs and acting against what the Bible says. But if he says that she is to die, they believe it will render his movement impotent.

Do you remember how Jesus responds? He tells them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7 NIV11). Even though hers was a clear case of right and wrong, and even though the punishment was black-and-white, Jesus refused to condemn her. Even after her accusers faded away, Jesus did not issue a punishment for her sin, but he offered the grace of a new beginning: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).

You know how ready we are to condemn other people? I can demonstrate it for you real quickly. Back in our scripture reading—in John 4:18—the bombshell revelation that Jesus exposes is that this woman has “had five husbands, and the one [she has] now is not [her] husband.” This is her sin, right? That’s what I’ve been told my whole life by pastors, Sunday School teachers, study bible notes, and seemingly everyone else.

But you know what? They’re all wrong. We’re all wrong. Because we’re judging a person according to the standards and expectations of our own culture, even though theirs was different.

In her own context, this woman at the well has little to nothing to do with her marital status. In her world, she is property—property that has been used and cast out time and time again. Men have married her for whatever reasons, and they have divorced her as soon as their whims changed. She has no power to stand up; she has no power to resist; she has no ability to choose differently. We condemn this woman as a sinner even though the only sin is being done to her. Just as with the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well is being victimized by the men around her for their own selfish gain.

What Jesus exposes is not her sin, but the one thing that the one thing she is most ashamed of—her abuse. But just as we read last week, Jesus did not come “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

In order to redeem us, God offers us acceptance—as we are, and without condemnation.

4. God gifts us in kindness

Lastly, God gifts us in kindness. In John 4, Jesus gifts the woman with an offer of living water, with knowledge of the Messiah, and with insight into true worship.

In kindness, Jesus brings her into this expansion of God’s spiritual health coverage—now broadened to encompass everyone, everywhere—no matter where they were born, their ethnicity, their economics, their gender, or any other obstacle.

In kindness, Jesus gifts us with his presence as he became a human and lived with us.

In kindness, Jesus gifts us with his example of how we humans were made to be.

In kindness, Jesus gifts us with his teachings that instruct us in the way we are to go.

In kindness, Jesus offers healing and grace to those he encounters.

In kindness, Jesus shares his life with the disciples and calls even us today to be his friends.

In kindness, Jesus offers his life to save our own.

Kindness is at the heart of the Golden Rule (Luke 6:31). It is one of the first actions used to define love in 1Corinthians (13:4). It could describe all the actions by those welcomed to the Kingdom in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25). It seems to be rule #1 for Jesus’ followers: Be kind.

In order to redeem us, God gifts us in kindness. And Jesus instructs us to do the same for others.

Conclusion

In fact, all of these dimensions are actions of Jesus that we are to replicate in our own lives and relationships. The way Jesus interacts with this unnamed “woman at the well” provides us with a model for how we are to interact with others. If we are to participate in God’s mission—in the redemption of the world—then

we too will meet people where they are, instead of forcing them to come to us

we too will offer a welcome that treats people as though there are no barriers between us

we too will offer acceptance of a person regardless of what we know of their past actions or what has been done to them

we too will gift people with kindness and grace

If we are following Jesus—if we are going to participate in God’s redemptive plan—if we are going to advance God’s Kingdom—then this is who we will be. We will be redemptive people.

Who will you be?

 

Lent: Reformation

 

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

John 3:1-17

 

Old Dog; New Tricks

That we were able to celebrate and partner in a baby dedication this morning is serendipitous for us this morning. It has meant that things such as “birth” and “life” and “community” are fresh in our minds as we heard today’s scripture reading.

As we look at this little girl and marvel at the miracle of her birth—of our own birth—our bodies—our own creation—we cannot help but be drawn (like Nicodemus) to Jesus’ teachings of new birth.

How can someone as old and jaded as me become so new and fresh again?

How does someone so set in his ways become a blank slate?

Is it possible for someone who forgets so much to become a sponge that remembers everything?

Can an old dog indeed learn new tricks?

To Nicodemus—and to our skepticism—Jesus responds with a resounding ” YES!!” Yes we can.

Yet despite this encouragement—and very much like Nicodemus—we get hung up on the literal, technical aspects of how it happens instead of simply trusting and following our Savior in the reformation of our entire being.

The Story

As we read the story here in John, we encounter Nicodemus: an important Jewish man who recognizes Jesus for who he is—an important teacher who has “come from God.” He expresses no doubt about Jesus’ divine origins or that Jesus is someone we need to listen to and learn form. But just as he makes this profession of faith, Jesus seemingly cuts him off—cutting to the chase—getting to the heart of what Nicodemus needs to know: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

The Bible does not tell us that Nicodemus asked about the Kingdom of God. It does not tell us Nicodemus asked anything at all. But somehow, Jesus knew what this meeting was about. In recognizing Jesus, Nicodemus knows he is the Messiah—the Christ. But being a person of faith, Nicodemus also recognizes that Jesus—the Messiah—didn’t appear in the way they anticipated and he doesn’t act like everyone thought he would. Jesus knows that in realizing he got these things wrong, Nicodemus is likely questioning everything.

For many of us, our faith is fragile like a house of cards or a game of Jenga—pull out one or two of the wrong pieces and the rest might come crashing down. Pull out enough, and even the strongest among us will plunge into doubt and reevaluation.

And when people of faith start questioning, we almost always end up in the same place where Jesus apparently found Nicodemus: “How then are we saved?”

Please recognize that the question Jesus addresses is not: “How do we get to heaven?”

The NT speaks of heaven as the God-realm; it is the place where the dead go to be with God until the resurrection takes place. It is not, however, our final destination. The Kingdom of God that everyone wants to see and get into—that is our final destination—the fully-transformed heavens and earth, united (as if) in marriage, where we as our fully resurrected selves will live and serve and work with Christ our king forever and ever.

We are saved, Jesus says, by being born again.

Metaphor

Now almost without exception, Jesus uses analogies and parables to describe theological realities. Instead of speaking in terms of propitiation or justification or theosis or some other theological language, Jesus prefers to employ metaphor—something we can understand (in part) if we will use our God-given imaginations, yet something that will quickly break down if we try to turn it into a systematic theology.

Like honest and responsible bible readers today, Nicodemus struggles with this imagery of new birth. When he hears “born again,” he wants to take Jesus literally. How can we enter into the womb a second time? It is impossible—inconceivable, we might even say. But Jesus does not allow Nicodemus—or us—to dismiss such realities simply because our world says they cannot be.

Passive

There’s another dimension here too; it’s not just that we readily try to dismiss Jesus’ teachings when we take him literally. I think (like Nicodemus) we want to take Jesus literally because it puts us in a more passive role.

If you’ve ever witnessed a birth—especially the birth of your own child—there’s no doubt who’s doing all the work. Despite stress and physical exhaustion, it’s not the father. It’s not the baby, either—babies are born tired because they have fought being born. The real work is done by the mother. All the work is done by the mother. Even the doula or doctor or other medical personnel can only encourage and coach the mother through the majority of the birth process.

If we (like Nicodemus) take Jesus literally here, then the process of being “born again” is something that happens to us. It is not something we participate in. It is not something we have a responsibility for. By taking Jesus literally, Nicodemus (as do we) cause his analogy to immediately break down and cease to function as Jesus intended it to.

Instead, the kind of new birth that Jesus describes here and elsewhere is an active pursuit. “Born again” involves an ongoing process of being born into God’s ways—actively partnering with God in the reforming of our thinking, our being, and everything we do.

Resembling our Parent

This understanding of new birth as a reformation of who we are fits quite closely with what Jesus actually intended with the analogy. Even though they knew nothing of genetics in the first century, they knew a lot about breeding animals. They knew how to get favorable traits among livestock and how to weed out the unfavorable ones. They knew that a child (of any species) tended to look like its parents.

In our first birth, we are born to parents who are in and of the world. We resemble them physically, but (in most circumstances) we also come to resemble them in terms of values, practices, and even employment (at least until our recent era).

In the kind of birthing Jesus talks about, we will resemble not our earthly parents, but our heavenly one. By being “born of the Spirit,” we are born into God’s ways, God’s values, God’s practices, and God’s likeness. Being “born again” is Jesus’ way of talking about the complete reformation of one’s self that Paul describes in Galatians. In the second chapter there, Paul says: “I have been crucified with Christ—I am no longer alive, but Christ is living in me; and whatever life I have left in this failing body I live by the faithfulness of God’s Son, the One who loves me and gave His body on the cross for me” (Galatians 2:20 VOICE).

The way into God’s Kingdom involves being born into God’s ways—being “crucified with Christ”—so that our lives resemble not our own priorities and desires and failings, but the priorities and desires of our gracious and loving God. We live in such complete obedience and submission to God that when people encounter us, they will see Jesus.

Wrap Up

That’s a tall order, I know. But it is what “discipleship” means. It is what being a “follower of Jesus” means. We must consciously choose each moment of every day:

to become “like little children” (Mark 10:15)

to “take up our cross and follow him” (Mark 8:34)

to “sell all we have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21)

to “love our enemies” (Matthew 5:44)

to become “servant of all” (Mark 9:35)

and to remember that: “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down their life for their friends” (John 15:13).

If you’re going to call yourself by his name (if you are going to call yourself a “Christian”) you’ve got to resemble Christ or else you will slander him.

And don’t worry, God knows that this reformation—this transformation—will not be complete in this lifetime. God knows that transformation will not be complete until the day of Jesus’ return. For 1John 3:2 assures us: “when he appears we shall be like him” (ESV). Our transformation will be complete as we become perfect reflectors of our God and Savior—our thinking being fully reformed, and being born (at last) into God’s ways.

As we watch this little girl grow and mature over the years, we will no doubt see her grow into resemblance of her loving mother and father. May she—and all our young folk—stand as reminders and challenges to us all that we are to resemble our loving Parent in heaven, most fully revealed through our Savior Jesus the Christ.

Amen.

Lent: Rejection

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

 

Matthew 4:1-11

 

Rejection

It’s a familiar text and story that we have before us today. Jesus, having just been baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist, is whisked away to the wilderness where he experiences a period of preparation, discernment, and temptation. The gospel accounts pay the most attention to the last hours of this isolating-yet-constructive experience of our Savior, as he—like any and every other human being that has ever lived—experiences pressures that could very well reroute his life away from the narrow path of God’s Kingdom.

Three times he experiences the pull of this world, forces that would draw him away from the path of God’s Kingdom—forces that are still very present and very powerful in our world today. These are the forces of the world—the empire, if you will—that we too will need to learn to reject, if we are to remain on the path of God’s Kingdom, following the footsteps of Jesus our leader.

1. Miracle of Bread

As Matthew tells the story, the first temptation faced by Jesus—the first strong pull of the way of the world—is to turn stones into bread. The temptation here is more than miracle—it is to be a savior of people’s immediate needs—and thus to be needed by them.

Now when we see folks hungry, God is pretty clear that we should be working and sacrificing to meet their needs (cf. Isa 58, 1John 3:17, Matthew 25, and many other places). But as Jesus reveals in John 6, he did not come to end physical hunger but to become the Bread of Life, through whom we obtain abundant and everlasting life.

The temptation that Jesus faces here in the desert is the temptation to be needed by others. And Christ could have done this. Jesus could have come as our high-and-mighty Savior, turning stones into bread, purifying the waters of the world, renewing creation, and saving us from ourselves by taking away the free will that we were given when formed of the dust of the earth.

And honestly, some days that sounds pretty good. But it only sounds good because of how we’ve been brainwashed by the culture and powers of our world. Jesus himself knows it to be a false promise—that it doesn’t really work that way, and that it couldn’t work that way.

And so Jesus rejects this pull that the world imposes on him, and he chooses the way of God’s Kingdom.

Instead of appearing as our high-and-mighty Savior, Jesus is born as yet another apparently insignificant Jewish baby.

Instead of crushing our free will, Christ enters into our broken human condition, engages with the lowest and least of society and the world, and extends sacrificial love to all.

Instead of being our “white knight,” Jesus accompanies us through the valley of the shadow of death, supporting and encouraging us. Becoming human like us and with us, he walks with us and guides us toward salvation through relationship with God.

The pull of the world is to make sure others need us—to ourselves become the saviors who brings culture/enlightenment/protection to the weak heathens around us. This was, in fact (and quite sadly), the way the Christian church performed missionary activity for quite some time. Identifying with a savior instead of those Jesus loves (those in need of salvation), we infiltrated and destroyed entire cultures in the name of evangelism. We tried to force our own way of faith upon people instead of meeting them where they were, which was what Jesus himself did. And in the process, we Christians became complicit in some of the most violent and unjust systems that continue even to this day.

To follow the Kingdom way of Jesus is to reject these impulses to be needed and to save. Instead, we follow the example of Jesus Christ to love sacrificially, remembering his teaching that “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV).

The cause of Christ is advanced—the Kingdom of God is expanded and made more complete in this world when we identify with the broken, the forgotten, the abused, the abandoned, the addicted, the imprisoned, the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, and the powerless. If we cannot learn to love them for the sheer purpose of loving them, then we are not following the example of Christ in rejecting the empire of this world in favor of God’s Kingdom.

2. Miracle of the Superman

After this first temptation in Matt 4, Jesus is tempted to play Superman—to perform amazing supernatural feats that are guaranteed to impress and garner positive attention. If only Jesus would use his abilities to bring himself fame—if only he would amaze and entertain the easily-impressed masses—then he would have a platform to carry his message throughout the world. That is his temptation. That is the pull of the world.

But this, too, is rejected by Jesus. It is rejected because it involves—once again—playing by the rules of this world instead of the rules of God’s Kingdom. To seek to impress people and cultivate fame is one of the more powerful forces this world wields within us. Yet (as Jesus knows), fame is an empty promise; it never leads us to the expected fulfillment.

Yet there is so much we do in order to impress—in order to ensure people think well of us. When we meet new people, we change our introduction of ourselves so they will accept us. So many of our untruths—our lies and deceptions—are fueled by the fear that we won’t be accepted, or that we need to impress. Instead of “count[ing] others more significant than [our]selves,” as the Kingdom way of Jesus instructs (Phil 2:3), the way of the world (the pull we feel within us) is to prove ourselves superior to everyone we meet, no matter the deception or violence it entails.

If we are to reject the pull of the empire around us and follow the way of God’s Kingdom, we will practice a disciplined humility, instead of a false pride. One early Christian voice, a man aptly nicknamed “the Shepherd,” offered this recommendation: “Behave as if you were a stranger, and wherever you are, do not expect your words to have any influence and you will be at peace” (Abba Poemen).

3. Complete World Domination

This brings us to Jesus’ third temptation. Psychologists tell us there are two powerful desires within us that require constant management: control and power. In fact, most of our conflicts with one another come down to issues of power or control.

When we feel a loss of power in one area of life, we seek to exert power in another. I have seen many good folks do terrible harm to their families and churches because of an experience of powerlessness somewhere else.

In the same way, when we feel a loss of control in one area of life, we seek to control other people and things as a way of restoring balance. Along with power, such efforts to control others bring us great frustration and can result in great violence. The most dramatic example of this reassertion of power and control is domestic violence, but there are far more insidious ways we inflict power and control on people, as well.

There are times when we deceive ourselves into thinking we are helping them—saving them from themselves, perhaps. But here Jesus has that opportunity—he is offered complete world domination, to use however he sees fit. He could successfully take over the world, as Pinky and the Brain could never manage. He could end poverty, stop all wars, mete out true justice, ensure land is used responsibly and for the best purpose. He could redistribute populations to ease the burdens on creation that we generate when we clump up in cities, and to ensure reliable access to the necessary services that are harder to come by in rural areas. He could blend our red states and blue states into a royal purple, where he is to rule as king. With Jesus exerting ultimate power—with Jesus controlling everyone and everything—it seems like the world would be so much better, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it??

It might seem that way, but Jesus did not come to control us but to love us. Such it is for our life and mission as well. Even those times when it seems controlling others would be for their benefit, we are being deceived by the forces that want to break us down and destroy us. The way of Jesus—the way of God’s Kingdom—is not to control, but to love.

And the Bible tells us what that love looks like: willing, humble, self-sacrificing obedience. In 1John we find repeated over and over that we know we are walking with Jesus if we obey his commandments and if we love one another. These are (of course) one and the same, for Jesus tells us that the way of God’s kingdom is fulfilled when we love God and love one another—even our enemies.

So while the world pulls us toward trying to exert as much power and control over people and things as possible, we Christians must reject and fight against this notion. Like our example and savior Jesus, we must submit completely to God in order to purge our desire for power over others.

There’s an ancient story from the early years of Christianity that is symbolic of the kind of counter-cultural submission and obedience to God that Jesus demonstrates for us.

There was a Christian leader named Sylvanus, who was regarded as a wise fellow who closely walked Jesus’ path. Because of this, others were drawn to him as disciples or apprentices, seeking to be mentored by this sage. Trouble was that his disciples thought Sylvanus had a favorite disciple, a man named Mark. They got so jealous of Mark that they started causing trouble, and the other Christian leaders in the area showed up to correct Sylvanus, reminding him not to have favorites and all that.

When they showed up, however, Abba Sylvanus decided to show them around first—you know, give them the tour. As he passed the rooms of his disciples, he knocked on the door of each, calling out, “Brother, come out, I have work for you to do.” But none of them opened their doors right away.

When they came to Mark’s door, Abba Sylvanus had hardly finished speaking before the door was opened. He issued Mark some task to complete, and Mark went on his way. But Abba Sylvanus and his visitors went into Mark’s room. He’d been writing—copying a book—and was making the letter “O.” But when he heard Abba Sylvanus’ voice, he didn’t even finish that one letter, which is made of a single stroke of a pen.

The kind of obedience to God that Jesus demonstrates for us is immediate and complete. Jesus does not ask God to wait for him to finish what he’s doing—not even to finish that word or that letter. No, Jesus submits in complete obedience to God. He voluntarily chooses powerlessness. He voluntarily gives up control of his life and destiny. He voluntarily rejects these ways of the world.

And he does it on account of love.

1 + 1 + 1 = Empire

It’s important to understand these temptations individually—these “pulls” on our hearts by the powers of this world. But it is equally vital that we recognize them in combination as the core of an empire that is not God’s Kingdom. These forces are the building blocks of the social evils around us and throughout history.

If we do not reject this empire, we can have no part of God’s Kingdom. If we wish to follow the way of Jesus, we must reject the ways of this world. A house divided against itself cannot stand (Matthew 12:25).

Sisters and brothers—followers of Jesus and citizens of God’s kingdom—let us then reject the empire around us and follow Jesus’ kingdom example to love sacrificially, to humbly consider others more significant than ourselves, and to submit completely in obedience to God’s leading and desires.

In doing so, God’s kingdom will come, God’s will will be done, on earth, just as it is in heaven.

Amen.