Tough Words

Luke 9:51-62

Tolerance is a catchword these days. Lord knows, we need tolerance. It is not all we need, but it is a good place to start.

Regarding the first part of today’s verses, Scottish theologian William Barclay asserts, “There is no passage in which Jesus so directly teaches the duty of tolerance as this.”

While passing through Samaria, the disciples wanted permission to deliver some tough words. The Samaritans in a particular village had refused to show Jesus and his followers any hospitality—not surprising when you consider how the two groups had been at odds for centuries. In short, the Jews considered the Samaritans half-breeds, the descendants of Jews who had mixed with invaders. Usually Jews avoided Samaria entirely. I suppose the Samaritans saw the Jews as a little uppity.

Feeling disrespected, James and John wanted Jesus to empower them to imitate Elijah, calling down fire from heaven, this time on a village of people rather than an altar. (They also likely had God’s ancient air strike on sinful Sodom and Gomorrah in mind.) We’re told Jesus rebuked the disciples, a “Let it go, already” coming directly from God’s Son.

His tolerant attitude was rooted in the somber task ahead of him. We are told Jesus had “set his face” toward Jerusalem. The point is so important it is repeated. This is Luke artfully saying Jesus was now certain his ministry was taking him toward torture and death on a cross. There was no other way out of sin and death for humanity.

Jesus was about to do a new thing. It would bring life, not death, for everyone, redemption free for the taking. And on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus would not have his redemptive ministry punctuated by a violent act.

The tolerance Jesus demonstrated marks the starting point for how we deal with others, particularly when others have opinions radically different from our own. Tolerance is the basis of civilization. We cannot have a truly modern society until people say, “We may disagree, but we’re not going to destroy each other.”

It is obvious people are struggling with this idea in many places now. Radical Islam is the most extreme example, built on the idea, “Disagree with me and die.” I’m reminded of ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s terrorist puppet: “Silence! I kill you!” The psychology of Dunham’s routine is pretty obvious: We’re nervously laughing at the very behavior that could destroy modern culture, hoping if we ridicule it, no one will want to behave that way.

Jesus was teaching the same lesson we learn in Luminary’s church-based karate class: If you can walk away, walk away. Words and ideas should not lead to violence. Jesus’ tolerance of the rude Samaritans and of sinners in general was a big shift in theology, an expanded understanding of God’s will.

Tolerance is something anyone in the world can learn. And for Christians, there’s an additional twist, some extra behaviors we must incorporate. In case you haven’t picked up on it in Scripture, we’re supposed to be helping grow the kingdom. Ephesians 1:22 tells us the church is now Christ’s body, “the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

To make the world a different place, we have to be a different people. This is where some tension arises in our lives as Christians. It’s easy to say, “Let’s all be tolerant,” sing “Kumbaya” and head for the house. Today’s text takes us further, though.

We’re told that as Jesus continued along the road, some would-be followers approached him. Finally, Jesus offered tough words, just not the kind the disciples had first sought permission to use.

His responses had a basic theme. Following Christ is going to be difficult. It may cost you home and family, assuming home and family prove to be in conflict with God’s kingdom. And there is truth to be told, the kind of truth people are not always ready to hear. Proclamations are calls to change! Again, people may kill you when they don’t like your ideas. The Jewish leaders killed Jesus because he was an ideological and political threat.

Regardless of the dangers, we are called to be holy examples in an unholy world, drawing people toward what is godly. Understanding God’s will requires much study and prayer. If you believe the Bible, then you from the earliest chapters have to believe our minds and bodies are too broken to fully grasp God’s will on our own. What feels right may be very wrong, simply because our minds and souls are a little fractured.We need guidance, from God’s written word and God’s Holy Spirit.

Intertwining tolerance and holiness can seem strange at first. Our instincts tell us they do not go together, but Christ made it clear they do. Using them together, we help the kingdom grow.

The featured image is the Monument of Tolerance in Jerusalem. Photo by Avishai Teicher, 2009, used with permission via Wikimedia Commons.

The Motherly Christ

Luke 13:31-35

I love Scripture that takes our traditional views and turns them upside down. Good guy Pharisees, God as mother, stuff like that.

Jesus was headed for Jerusalem—in Luke, his final destination always seems clear—and some Pharisees stopped him to warn him not to go there. The king wants you dead, they said.

Jesus spent so much time chastising the Pharisees that we forget there were good men among this religious group, some who wanted to follow him, if only in secret. In fact, the Jews have a collection of wisdom writings known as the Talmud, and in these writings there are descriptions of seven types of Pharisees, one positive, six negative.

The negative ones had nicknames. In one way or another, Jesus went after every type in his discourses, much to the delight of his audiences. And frankly, they may call themselves Christians and not Pharisees, but it is not hard to find these same types among our churches today:

  • The Shoulder Pharisees. These men wore their good deeds “on their shoulders” to be seen by others.
  • The Wait-a-little Pharisees. They always found a good excuse to put off a good deed until tomorrow.
  • The Bruised or Bleeding Pharisees. No rabbi (a scholarly Jewish teacher) was supposed to be seen talking to a woman on the street. Some would not even look at a woman, closing their eyes and consequently slamming into walls, doors, trees, or whatever else was in the path. They thought their wounds were evidence of extraordinary piety.
  • The Hump-backed Pharisees. They cringed and pretended to be humble, but were generally faking it. Who knew you could take pride in humility?
  • The Ever-Reckoning Pharisees. They were always adding up their good deeds as if keeping a balance sheet for God.
  • The Timid or Fearing Pharisees. They were terrified of the wrath of God. The poet Robert Burns once wrote of people not helped but haunted by their religion, and these men would fall into that category of believer.

And finally, there were the God-loving Pharisees, who tried to live like their ancestor Abraham, exhibiting faith and charity. Nicodemus in the Gospel of John comes to mind, drawn to Jesus (if only at night) and eventually helping with Jesus’ burial. Some of these good Pharisees must have been the ones who wanted to warn Jesus.

Jesus would not be dissuaded from continuing, though. I would condense his answer to, “Watch me work.” And yet, a tone of despair—motherly despair—crept in. Jerusalem was the child gone bad, the one the Christ so desperately wanted to protect, covering and sheltering the city’s people from what was to come. (We can never forget the destruction to come four decades later, destruction Jesus foresaw.)

Normally, we use masculine language for God, and divinity clearly resided in the male form of Jesus. We use such language with good reason. One of the great metaphors running through Scripture is that of the husband God pursuing the unfaithful, undeserving bride, humanity. It’s a metaphor worth preserving in our use of language.

God is not exclusively male, however. We are reminded that what is best in both men and women—particularly, our ability to love—exists fully and perfectly in God. Yes, God is capable of providing everything our imperfect fathers cannot, but God equally can mother us more perfectly than any woman. There are numerous examples of God as mother in the Old Testament, too.

That motherly instinct seems to have been shining through in Jesus as he looked toward Jerusalem, a place in which he clearly delighted. He was not a city boy, but he loved the city and all it represented. It was, after all, the center of God’s promises to the Jewish people, its temple more of a home to Jesus than anyplace he had lived. And yet, he knew the city and its residents would bring about his death.

Unable to protect the recalcitrant city in the great plan that was unfolding, he instead used that coming death to spread his arms out on the cross and shelter us all, making eternal life possible. If we choose to stay under Christ’s protection, death cannot truly swoop in and take us—eternal life is ours.

A Lost Generation

Go looking for God, and you may get an unexpected result. There’s a good chance you will find your real identity.

The conquered, beaten-down Jews of Nehemiah’s day certainly had lost all sense of who they were. Their once-great city of Jerusalem lay in ruins, abandoned with no wall to protect it. Nehemiah had been living in exile as cupbearer to the conquering king.

It was a role of trust, a role that eventually allowed him to gain permission from the king to rebuild Jerusalem and restore some sense of belonging for the scattered people of God. The best of the Jews had been carried away to distant capitals; the rest had been left defenseless among their enemies, people who despised and abused them.

To get the full story, I would suggest you read all of the book of Nehemiah. Suffice it to say his task was a difficult one. Over time, he managed to organize the Jews there, overcoming intimidation, murder plots, and the constant threat of attack by surrounding tribes who hated the Jews of old and did not want to see them re-establish a foothold in Jerusalem.

As Nehemiah and those who rallied around him rebuilt Jerusalem’s destroyed wall and its gates, they often had to work with swords strapped to sides or a weapon in one hand. And yet, they rebuilt the wall in 52 days, an accomplishment even their enemies considered miraculous. Nearly 50,000 Jews and their livestock poured into the city.

It was not too much later that the process of discovery began. The people gathered to hear the word of God, and they were distraught at what had been forgotten over the long captivity. That moment of discovery is recorded in Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10. Over a day, it is likely they heard the story of creation; they once again learned of the fall. They heard how God established them as a separate, chosen, holy people through Abraham.

They heard what God had done for their ancestors through Moses after the Israelites had fallen into captivity in Egypt. There were stories of miracles, all evidence of God’s great love. And there were detailed explanations of God’s covenant with them and God’s law for them, and they realized how far they had strayed, how godless they had become. Exploring God’s word that day proved to be a life-changing journey for them.

From God’s word, they remembered how to worship, and began to do so again, celebrating forgotten festivals and re-telling forgotten stories. They confessed their sins to God and sought mercy.

As different as we are today, it is a pattern we can follow. It can be a bit of a shock to discover how far we’ve strayed from God, but as we become Bible-exploring people, we find our true selves. Like Nehemiah’s Jews, one of the first lessons we learn in Genesis is that we are made in our creator’s image, meaning we were designed to reflect God’s nature and God’s will. Know God and we know what should come natural for us.

Knowing God and consequently knowing ourselves seems difficult for one reason alone. Sin remains in the world and in us. Upon hearing what God’s word had to say about God’s expectations of them, Nehemiah’s Jews realized they had suffered mightily because they had stopped acting as God would have them act. They had fallen into sin, and they wept. A sense of brokenness and loss always precedes redemption.

The interpreters of the word, knowing God’s word, had an interesting response, however. They told the people not to weep. The Jews of Jerusalem once again saw God for who God is, and they were in worship! The priest Ezra and the Levites knew that God’s grace would once again shine through their darkness, and joy would be restored.

We see them understanding and experiencing the same kind of forgiving, loving grace ultimately expressed in Jesus Christ, God among us in flesh. Christ came to bring us face-to-face with our need for God.

When we look to Christ, we sometimes don’t like what we see in ourselves. But I tell you today, do not weep, but rejoice—in turning to Christ, you find eternal life and take important steps toward holiness in this life. In Christ God offers us new hope and a new identity.

We become the people we would have been had sin never entered the world.

When God Gets Personal

Jeremiah 31:27-34

These seem like trying times.

There’s the U.S. government, of course. I don’t have to go into more detail for you to understand what I mean. I don’t even have to make any partisan statements. One thing everyone can agree on: something’s broken, and that brokenness triggers suspicion and fear.

As a pastor, I would also say that October more and more is a difficult month for people. I don’t know why; maybe it’s the change of seasons. Other pastors have noticed a change in attitudes around this time, too. People, even church people, act out in anger more, saying or doing things they probably regret later.

I have wondered if the depressing, overarching theme of the month causes some of these disturbances of the soul. I’m personally not crazy about October because Halloween has become such a big deal in our culture, and I feel during the month that I’m constantly inundated with zombies and bloody, evil imagery. If NBC doesn’t stop running those promos for “Dracula” soon, I’m going to have to stop watching the network.

It could be a lot worse, though. As my son is fond of saying, those are all “First World problems.” We’re not surrounded by our enemies, under siege and starving, awaiting an attack that is going to lead to mass slaughter. That’s the situation people have repeatedly found themselves in throughout history; in particular, that’s the position the prophet Jeremiah and the people of Jerusalem found themselves in about 600 years before Jesus Christ was born.

This story is remarkable because of what God said through Jeremiah in the midst of this impending doom. I also love the way Jeremiah personally responded to God’s promises.

Jerusalem clearly was going to fall to the invading Babylonian Empire. In his role as prophet, Jeremiah had said as much, and it did happen. Before the fall, Jewish King Zedekiah imprisoned Jeremiah for daring to say so.

There was more to Jeremiah’s prophecies, however. He also related promises from God that still resonate in our lives today. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord.” Those are the words marking the beginnings of these promises.

First, the Lord said, the time of tearing down and punishing what had become a divided, disobedient children of God would end. The people of Israel would return to their homes. And not only that, a new way of relating to God would begin. Rather than being judged as a nation, each person would be judged individually for his or her sins. That is the point of the “sour grapes” verses.

Second, that new way of relating to God would lead to a new covenant, a deeply personal one. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” Jeremiah said on God’s behalf. There also was a third promise that Jerusalem will one day be remade into a holy place, “sacred to the Lord,” never again to be “uprooted or overthrown.”

Jeremiah even put his money where his mouth was. A cousin came to him, wanting Jeremiah to buy a field in Anathoth, their hometown. Imagine paying valuable silver for a piece of land just as a foreign army is about to take all the land around you—on its face, the transaction looked quite foolish.

Jeremiah bought the field to make a point, however. God’s promises are trustworthy. The land would one day be returned to the Israelites. Jeremiah had the deed of purchase sealed in an earthenware jar so he or his descendants could one day prove ownership of the field in question.

And God’s promises were fulfilled—in fact, they are still being fulfilled—in astounding ways.

For us, these promises were fulfilled most importantly through Jesus Christ. Jesus’ life and death on the cross established that promised personal relationship for us. When Jesus died for our sins, we once again had a path to God. Believe in the effectiveness of his Son’s death and resurrection, and we are once again able to go to a holy God despite our sins.

And there’s more. When we enter that relationship, God’s Holy Spirit begins to work within us. That’s as personal as a relationship can be, God’s Spirit whispering to our spirits. Such interaction changes us and shapes us, re-making us into what God intended us to be.

Those promises from God carried Jeremiah and the children of Israel through conquest and captivity, sustaining them until they were returned to the land. And they likely were clueless as to just how far God would go. The Christ who would come centuries later, and how he would actually make salvation possible for all, was beyond their imaginations.

We should fare much better as we face our First World problems, particularly when we consider the knowledge we have about how God is making all things new. We can look to the Bible for sustenance; we can look to our hearts to see what God is doing, assuming we have faithfully let God in.

Jeremiah’s words are a lesson for any trying times.

Life Inside the Gate

Luke 19:29-40

Declaring Jesus king is easy when we’re outside the city gate, marveling at the signs and wonders we have seen, cheering with a like-minded crowd.

The hard part is doing the same inside the city gate, Jesus’ destination. This is where enemies gather and plot, where evil seems to have the upper hand, where our reputations and our very lives seem to be at stake.

Most Christians have an outside-the-gate moment. The truth seems so clear; Jesus makes himself very visible. He is in charge. He is our hope. It’s easy to lift up words of blessing, declaring his kingdom is present. We baptized two young men Sunday at Cassidy UMC, and I pray they had such an experience. I pray they continue to see God walking with them.

They and we need to remember, however, that the real test comes when we as Christ’s followers must live inside the gate, when the situation becomes muddled. Because let me tell you, who’s winning in the battle of good vs. evil can be incredibly unclear at times. That’s just the nature of the time in which we live, the time of waiting, where we look to the skies and say, “Jesus, where are you?”

Jesus’ followers found themselves very confused when the Temple plotters finally schemed a way to get Jesus arrested. We find ourselves similarly confused when we see the church seemingly bound, looking like its glory days are behind, ready to fall to secularism.

Jesus’ followers found themselves in despair when their leader went to the cross, naked and bleeding, dying the most shameful death possible. It was over, over, over. We know what it’s like to be in situations where it seems all over, too. The deaths of those around us, particularly those untimely deaths, can seem so final. A marriage ends, and our sense of trust is vanquished. We don’t reach the heights in life we imagined in our youth, and we’re sure all our dreams were for nothing.

That’s life inside the gate. And it’s how we live inside the gate that defines how fully we believe.

It’s okay to weep. It’s okay to feel an occasional tremor of doubt or fear. But can we cling to hope? Can we carry within us a sense of assurance that what we’ve been promised is real?

Jesus told his followers the whole story of his time inside the gate before he ever climbed on that donkey. He said he had to go to Jerusalem, die, and then on the third day be raised to life. And on the third day—well, I’ll bite my tongue for now. That’s a story for next week, isn’t it? The disciples simply needed to believe and remember what Jesus had told them.

Jesus has told us the whole story of his time inside human history, too. He has told us he will come again. He has told us our pain and the brokenness of the world are only temporary, that they will be put away for good one day if only we believe.

Courage—have courage. We look forward not just to Easter 2013, but to the great Easter, when all is set right. We will rejoice not just in Christ’s resurrection, but in our very own, and our joy will overcome all sorrow.

City of the Blind

Mark 11:1-11

The story of Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem proves it is possible to celebrate the right person for all the wrong reasons.

Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a colt. People lined the road, covering it with their cloaks and palm branches and crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

In other words, they greeted him as a king. In our day, we know this was appropriate. As people who understand the full story, we know that God in flesh, the very source of salvation, rode before them.

But at the same time, we must remember that the cheering crowd and the disciples who walked with Jesus were blind. The people were blind to what was about to happen, to the way salvation would be made possible.

Their blindness didn’t happen because Jesus had left them in the dark. Three times he had told his followers the truth: that the Messiah must be condemned, mocked, humiliated and killed before rising from the dead on the third day.

No one wanted to see this picture he had painted, however. Instead, prestige, power and instant gratification were on the minds of Jesus’ followers.

Jesus told the truth about where the colt was leading him, but not long before the ride, James and John instead tried to maneuver themselves into seats alongside the earthly throne they believed Jesus would soon occupy. I want to scream across 2,000 years and warn them, “Open your eyes, see what’s coming—blood and violence and a cross splintered by nails driven through flesh.”

Jesus told the truth about the road ahead of him, but during the ride, the crowds that would abandon him in just a few short days cheered him onward, believing he would conquer both the corrupt Jewish leaders and their Roman puppet masters. If only they could have seen Jesus’ humiliation and suffering to come at the hands of these earthly powers.

Jesus told the truth about the need for the Messiah’s death and resurrection, but not long after the ride, even nature failed him. Hungry as he left Jerusalem for the evening, the creator of the universe rightly expected a part of his creation, a fig tree, to provide him sustenance. The tree failed to see to the needs of the one for whom it was made, and withered under the creator’s curse.

Everyone had something he or she wanted from Jesus, but no one for a moment seemed to consider what God wanted through Jesus. What God wanted was a complete and total solution to the problem of sin, a repair to the gap between God and the people made in God’s image. God didn’t want Jesus to storm a fortress. He wanted Jesus to retake and ultimately remake the universe.

This solution goes beyond earthly kingdoms, beyond who gets which title once Jesus takes control. It’s a solution no human could see because no human could imagine how far God was willing to go to redeem us and live in harmony with us.

We do know something of the mind of the man who rode that colt into Jerusalem. Philippians 2:5-11 helps. Here, we see the infinite mind humbled, reduced and emptied of any sense of entitlement.

The crowds cheered, but Christ knew he rode toward death. Did the trip into Jerusalem at any time give Jesus a clear view of Golgotha? The cry of “hosanna” must have contrasted sharply with the shout Jesus knew would come just a few days later—”Crucify him!”

But as I’ve said, the people lining the road and walking with Jesus could not see what was in the mind of Christ, and even his closest disciples refused to hear his words. They wanted what they wanted, standing as a cheering mass, thinking they knew everything but actually knowing nothing of God’s plan.

To understand, they would first have to wonder at a stone rolled away from a tomb and see a battered and broken body restored to life. Only the cross and the resurrection would allow them to “come to themselves,” to borrow a phrase from the parable of the prodigal son.

Let me ask you this:

Do you really grasp what God has done through Jesus? Do you know he rode to his death for you, for your sins, the sins committed years ago, the sins committed yesterday, the sins still to come?

Do you cheer and cry hosanna for the right reasons? Do you cry hosanna with every moment of your life, conforming yourself to the one who has saved you? Is your life now his?

Thank God for Easter Sunday and the blindness it heals.