Monday, December 4, 2017

A Christmas Carol # 1: "Ghosts of Christmas Past"

Christmastime is here. Time for decorations and singing, parties and gifts and laughter. Growing up, one of my favorite traditions was when my mom and dad would gather us together and read Christmas stories like The Little Match Girl and The Gift of the Magi. My favorite was Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. Everyone knows the story of the miserly and mean Ebenezer Scrooge, and how he declared Christmas to be a humbug. Scrooge was visited by three ghosts, with an eye toward changing not just his attitude toward Christmas, but his heart toward his fellow human beings. The first ghost to appear was called the Ghost of Christmas Past. As the mysterious figure took Scrooge’s hand, he flew him over London and back into the old man’s history. Together they revisited Christmases from Scrooge’s boyhood, and when he was a young man. Some of those memories were pleasant and others were sorrowful. Perhaps as you prepare to celebrate Christmas this year, you find yourself visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, and you are flooded with a mix of emotions.

Maybe, like Scrooge, you remember festive parties and elaborate celebrations. Here at the beginning of the holiday season, your ghosts of Christmas past may fill you with eager anticipation of joyful events you’re planning just around the corner. Or, it could be that these ghosts that bring pleasant memories are also bittersweet, because while you recollect the good times, this year’s Christmas isn’t going to be quite as grand. Maybe remembering a happy past simply makes you sad for the way your present situation is going. Sometimes the ghosts of Christmas past can evoke good things, but these can put you in a negative mindset if you allow the past to create unrealistic expectations of the present.

Or, maybe, like Scrooge, your Christmases had a lot of negative mixed in with the positive. The old man revisited feelings of abandonment during the holdiays, emotions of rejection and lost love. These things contributed to his decision that Christmas was a humbug, and that love and compassion were a sign of weakness. Perhaps you, too, have experienced tragedy or sorrow during the Christmas season. Years ago, you lost a loved one during this time, and it has colored your experience of the holiday today. Maybe you remember abuse that you suffered or poverty endured during Christmas, and it has put a damper on your ability to celebrate the Lord’s birth.

Whether the ghosts of Christmas past are pleasant or painful, the Bible has a word of encouragement for you today. In Isaiah 43:1[i], God says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” God wants you to know that you are precious and special—even if you think you are the opposite. Just as the spiritual powers in Dickens’ book thought that even Scrooge was worth redeeming, so God believes that even you are worth saving. This is why God says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you (43:2).” Though the waters of emotion may come like a flood, God is there with you, holding you up and keeping you from drowning. In verses 4-5, God says, “You are precious and honored in my sight, and…I love you…Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” What an amazing thing, to discover that despite the sorrows of your past, God knows everything about you and loves you anyway!

Maybe you’ve had a difficult past, and you know a lot about pain and suffering. God wants you to know something about Him. Verses 10-11 say:

“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.
I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior.

It may be true that without the pain of your past, you wouldn’t be in this humbug of a condition right now. But without that pain and without that condition, you’d never be in the position of looking to God as the One who made you, loves you, and saves you. Even if the past’s pain is your fault, because of mistakes and failures of your own making, God wants to redeem your past and give you a future. In verse 25, God says, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.”

As long as you dwell on the past, you can’t experience a renewed present or a hopeful future. Captivity to the past will always stifle new growth. Whether it’s fond reminiscences of the “good old days,” or present paralysis based on past pain, the voice of God speaks words of hope:

“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland (43:18-19).”

What does it mean, to “forget the former things?” Is God saying to forget the loved ones whose memory makes the holidays so difficult? Is God saying we should repress memories of past pain? No—but God is telling you not to dwell on the past or be dominated by it to the degree that you can’t see blessing in the present or hope for the future. Instead, trust the One who makes streams in the desert.

In Dickens’ story, the Ghost of Christmas Past is described like a candle, bearing a cap that looks like a candle snufter. Though Scrooge wants to put the cap on the ghost’s head, the ghost explains that this will extinguish it and that Scrooge must look on the memories rather than snuffing the out. Eventually, though, Scrooge has seen enough and wrestles the cap onto the ghost’s head, ending the visit. Even so, though the ghost is gone, hopeful light glows from beneath the cap. Even so, you need your memories of the past to make you who you are. You don’t snuff out your past when you refuse to be captivated by it. You honor it, but trust the God of the present to set you free.

[i] All scripture quotations are taken from the NIV.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

"Peace and Grace"

Recently, I read the following story about fear:

One summer night during a severe thunderstorm a mother was tucking her small son into bed. She was about to turn the light off when he asked in a trembling voice, "Mommy, will you stay with me all night?" Smiling, the mother gave him a warm, reassuring hug and said tenderly, "I can't dear. I have to sleep in Daddy's room." A long silence followed. At last it was broken by a shaky voice saying, "The big sissy!"[i]

Everybody’s afraid of something—some danger either real or imagined. The good news is that Jesus comes not only to calm our fears, but to bring us to a point of real peace. He doesn’t simply soothe us as a mother reassuring her child, but empowers us to live in victory. At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples are hiding out, fearing that the same ones who arrested and crucified Jesus might come after them next. Suddenly, Jesus appears among them and says, “Peace be with you.”[ii] Then, almost immediately later, he says it again. Later, the next day, he does the same thing and again says, “Peace be with you.”[iii] Three times in eight verses, Jesus says these three words, which in Hebrew is simply, “Shalom.”

Like the Hawaiian “Aloha,” this greeting can mean more than one thing. It can mean both “hello” and “goodbye,” and, “I wish you peace.” But Jesus’ word to the disciples is more than simply a salutation or even a heartfelt desire. Jesus is imparting peace to them, just the same as He spoke peace to the wind and the waves and calmed the storm. This peace is a gift that is ours to receive as well, when we’re hunkered down and hiding out.

How does this peace take hold? It’s a mere sentiment without the activating force Jesus bestows when He says, “Receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:22).” When the Holy Spirit enters you, God transforms your life in such a way that you not only feel peaceful, but you become peace. Just as Jesus was Peace in the flesh, so the believer who is filled with the Spirit also embodies peace, not just for herself but for others. Instead of personal peace, it’s meant to be shared.

Jesus’ next statement flows from that kind of peace and peacemaking love. “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven (John 20:23.” The disciples had a lot of people to forgive. For example, there were the Romans who crucified Jesus, the Jewish leaders who arranged it, Judas who betrayed Him, and Peter who denied Him. Not to mention that they all needed to learn to forgive themselves for abandoning Him. Perhaps you have a long list of people who you need to forgive, too. Jesus forgave the whole world’s sins when He hung on the cross, and now He gives you the ability to do it, too. God’s grace is ours when we receive it, but God expects us to extend that same grace to others. Greedy grace is when you receive God’s forgiveness and are unwilling to share it. But grace is meant to be shared.

I have read many commentators who say that in the above verse, Jesus gives believers the authority to grant God’s forgiveness, or to withhold God’s grace from people. As if somehow we can determine who God will forgive! Nothing could be further from the truth! God’s grace is GOD’S grace, and God gives it to all who receive it. In fact, the story of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) tells us that you can’t call yourself a Christian if you are ungracious to others. So, if Jesus isn’t giving us permission to refuse grace to people, what is He saying?

When you withhold forgiveness, you’re hurting yourself as much as the other person, if not more. You are the one keeping yourself in bondage. In His resurrection power, Jesus grants real peace to your life. This can only take hold with the Holy Spirit at the reins. If the Spirit is in control, you are naturally going to give the same grace you have received. In fact, you can’t have peace unless you do. So, when Jesus says, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven.” He is saying that not only are they set free, but you are as well. When He says, “If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven,” He reminds you that to the same degree that you keep others bound, you yourself are bound. Grace is something you must receive if you want peace, but you’ll never have peace until you become a giver and not just a receiver.

Finally, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you (John 20:21).” The Lord turns personal peace and greedy grace into our mutual mission. In the Greek, Jesus literally says, “I am sending y’all.” All of you. Not one of you is excluded from the mission of God. In the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus brings light and John the Baptist testifies to that light. Now in in the final chapter, Jesus says we all are called as witnesses to the light. Jesus, the Lamb of God, takes away the sin of the world—and YOU are a voice crying in the wilderness. You can know some peace by receiving God’s grace through Jesus. You can only know ultimate peace when you share God’s grace by giving it to others. I’m reminded of a saying I learned as a child, “Love is a basket of five loaves and two fish. It’s never enough until you start to give it away.” Peace and grace work the same way. Too many Christians want Jesus to simply comfort us like mom in the storm. But peace and grace are real things to receive and give—if only we’ll trust the One who does the giving.

[i] Original source unknown.  October 12, 2017.
[ii] Quoted scriptures are taken from the NLT.
[iii] Jn 20:19, 21, 26.

"Go, Tell!"

          Recently, I read a little story by S. Briscoe, about keeping quiet instead of sharing faith:

Feeling a concern for witnessing can mean that you will have to stand up and be counted, and this can bring some degree of abuse.  Years ago I was praying with one of my children at bedtime, and I asked him if he had any problems we should pray about.  He couldn't think of any, even though I could think of a number! Rather unwisely, I pressed the point and asked, "Don't you have any problems at school?" "No," he replied quite firmly. "Don't the kids give you a hard time because you're a Christian?" Again the answer was "No." Thinking back to my own traumatic school days, I said, "But kids always give you a hard time if you let them know you're a Christian." His reply was frank beyond belief: "All the more reason you don't let them know!" And quite happily he turned over to sleep. 
With the refreshing candor of the very young, he had put into words the practical reasons why many Christians don't witness. They don't want to take the consequences.[i] 
            Many Christians have reasons for not sharing their fath with other people.  Among these reasons, they tell themselves that they are too young or too old, and thus nobody will listen to them.  Or, they tell say that their past or present mistakes may taint their witness.  Still others say they are afraid of failure or rejection, while others are actually afraid of success—because that means they’ll be responsible for following up and discipling a new believer.  Mary Magdelene might have had these and more objections to testifying about her Savior, yet she was the first that Jesus told to tell the Good News of His resurrection.

            In John 20, Mary was the first of the disciples to go to the tomb after Jesus’ burial.  Though other gospels name a group of women, John mentions only Mary, so we can assume she lead the way.  Arriving to anoint Jesus’ body for burial, she found the tomb empty.  Assuming someone had stolen His body, Mary ran to tell the disciples.  They responded tentatively, sending Peter and John as a contingent, perhaps in case the Romans had laid a trap for all of them.  After the men investigated the crime scene, Jesus chose to appear privately to Mary.  Not only did He show her that He had been resurrected, but He also told her He would ascend to God.  Then He said, “…Go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God (John 20:17).’”  So, Mary went and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and gave them His message.

            Like many Christians today, Mary could have given all sorts of reasons why she was uncomfortable sharing the Good News about Jesus.  First, she could have said, “I’m only a woman.”  It amazes me how many people in the twenty-first century still disqualify women from full service in the church, all because of a few misunderstood passages of scripture.  Yet, Jesus was a liberator of women.  The Bible is full of heroines, many of whom spoke for God, took up arms, or performed acts of courage for the sake of the faith.  Regardless, many churches and denominations limit the kinds of service and ministry a person may have, based on antiquated views of gender.  In Mary’s day it would have made sense for her to raise the objection that she couldn’t instruct the disciples because she was, after all, a woman.  Women were considered incapable of deep spiritual understanding, and were not allowed to teach men.  Nevertheless, Jesus trusted her to be His messenger, and she answered His call with faithfulness.  If Mary could say yes to sharing her faith, and didn’t let gender become an obstacle, then neither should gender be an obstacle when you are, or anyone else is, called to share faith.

            Mary might have shrunk from obedience to Christ because her tainted past made her feel unworthy.  No, I’m not talking about the rumors that Mary had been a prostitute before becoming a disciple.  Actually, there’s no mention in the Bible of Mary having loose morals at all.  That misinformation was spread by Pope Gregory I (540-604 AD), when he mingled the stories of the unnamed penitent woman in Luke 7:36-50, Mary of Bethany (Luke 10:38-42), and Mary Magdelene.  Some have even falsely identified her with the woman caught in adultery in John 8.  Yet the Bible never says anything about her ever being a prostitute, or having loose morals.  It does say that prior to her becoming a disciple, Jesus cast seven demons out of Mary (Luke 8:2).  Though no details are given as to the nature of this demonic experience, Mary could have felt ashamed that something about her had invited demonic presence.  She might have thought that, though Jesus had cleansed her, her past disqualified her from service.  Yet once Jesus freed her from this bondage, He clearly viewed her as worthy to accept His call.  In the same way, many Christians doubt their own capacity for ministry based on their tainted past.  They make excuses why their history prohibits them from service, or why others may not accept their witness or testimony because of their past.  But when Jesus cleanses you, He also declares your worthiness to speak for Him.

            Just as Jesus told Mary to go and tell the Good News, He calls you to do the same.  It should be something you can’t contain, something that no excuse can prevent.  Your witness should simply leak out of you, uncontrollably declaring the joy you’ve found. 

Many years ago some men were panning for gold in Montana, and one of them found an unusual stone. Breaking it open, he was excited to see that it contained gold. Working eagerly, the men soon discovered an abundance of the precious metal. Happily, they began shouting with delight, "We've found it! We've found gold! We're rich!" They had to interrupt their celebrating, though, to go into a nearby town and stock up on supplies. Before they left camp, the men agreed not to tell a soul about their find. Indeed, no one breathed a word about it to anyone while they were in town. Much to their dismay, however, when they were about to return, hundreds of men were prepared to follow them. When they asked the crowd to tell who "squealed," the reply came, "No one had to. Your faces showed it!"[ii]

            So our faces should show the joy we have because of Jesus’ great love for us.  Witnessing shouldn’t have to be something you’re told to do—it should be something you can’t keep from doing.  Even though Mary may have considered herself an unlikely evangelist, she did not make excuses.  Instead, she jumped at the chance to go and tell people the Good News.  For whatever reason, you might consider yourself unlikely as well.  But God wants you to go and tell people what Jesus has done for you.

[i] S. Briscoe.  Getting Into God. p. 88.  October 3, 2017.
[ii] Original Source Unknown.  October 3, 2017.

Monday, November 6, 2017

"Prophecy Fulfilled"

            With the solar eclipse, hurricanes, rising sea levels, political and social unrest, many people have been asking me about biblical prophecy.  They want to know if these things are signs of the times.  To which I reply as the apostle Paul did.  While he thought that Jesus would return anytime, he remained vague, saying, “For you know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed (Romans 13:11).”[i]  That’s because Jesus Himself warned us not to try to predict the end, telling us that “no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows (Matthew 24:36).”  But that doesn’t stop some people from trying.  It seems like there’s always one doomsday forecaster or another trying to find some obscure prophecy, and attaching a date to it.  Recently, David Meade predicted that the alignment of Virgo and Leo on September 23, 2017, would signal the beginning of the end.[ii]  Yet that date has come and gone, with no sign of the apocalypse.  Meade should have taken Jesus’ advice before trying to figure out a date.

            The fact that there are crackpots predicting the end of the world does not, however, mean that we should discount all prophecy.  The Old Testament is filled with predictions of the Messiah (perhaps over 300 of them!) that find their fulfillment in Jesus. As we continue our study through the book of John, we come across some of these fulfilled prophecies.  John 19:23-24 tells the story of the crucifixion and how…

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they divided his clothes among the four of them. They also took his robe, but it was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.  So they said, “Rather than tearing it apart, let’s throw dice for it.” This fulfilled the Scripture that says, “They divided my garments among themselves and threw dice for my clothing.” So that is what they did.

            This fulfills a prophecy in Psalm 22:18, which says, “They divide my garments among themselves and throw dice for my clothing.”  Then, we see the fulfillment of Psalm 22:17, “I can count all my bones,” together with Psalm 34:20, which says, “For the LORD protects the bones of the righteous; not one of them is broken!”  These come to fruition in John 19:31-33, which says:

It was the day of preparation, and the Jewish leaders didn’t want the bodies hanging there the next day, which was the Sabbath (and a very special Sabbath, because it was Passover week). So they asked Pilate to hasten their deaths by ordering that their legs be broken. Then their bodies could be taken down.  So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the two men crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead, so they didn’t break his legs.

Psalm 22:14 also says, “My life is poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.  My heart is like wax, melting within me.”  This parallels John 19:34-37:

One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out. (This report is from an eyewitness giving an accurate account. He speaks the truth so that you also may continue to believe. These things happened in fulfillment of the Scriptures that say, “Not one of his bones will be broken,”and “They will look on the one they pierced.”

            Finally, we have a prophecy that says, “He had done no wrong and had never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man's grave (Isaiah 53:9).”  This finds its fulfillment in John 19:38-42, which reads:

Afterward Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a secret disciple of Jesus (because he feared the Jewish leaders), asked Pilate for permission to take down Jesus’ body. When Pilate gave permission, Joseph came and took the body away. With him came Nicodemus, the man who had come to Jesus at night. He brought about seventy-five pounds of perfumed ointment made from myrrh and aloes. Following Jewish burial custom, they wrapped Jesus’ body with the spices in long sheets of linen cloth. The place of crucifixion was near a garden, where there was a new tomb, never used before. And so, because it was the day of preparation for the Jewish Passover and since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

               Generations before Jesus was crucified and buried like a criminal yet given a rich man’s grave, it was foretold by Isaiah through a prophecy from God.  A thousand years before Jesus hung on the cross, David predicted the flow water, his pierced hands and feet (Psalm 22:16), his intact bones, and the soldiers gambling for his clothing.  Why is so much detail given through prophecy and later fulfilled in Jesus’ death?  So that the evidence will be overwhelming, that Jesus is who he says he is.  So that, after examining all the prophecies of the Messiah, along with their fulfillments in Jesus[iii], you too might believe and say as the Roman centurion at the crucifixion, “This man truly was the Son of God (Mark 15:39)!”

            When you read predictions made by people like David Meade, be careful.  When you hear preachers talking about how an event in the news is the fulfillment of scripture, be cautious.  While interest in the End Times can be fascinating, it’s better to focus on the greatest subject of prophecy found in the Bible—the atoning work of Jesus, done for us on the cross.  In that respect the Bible interprets itself, and demonstrates how Jesus is the both the subject and fulfillment of prophecy, and how by God’s grace we can put our trust in him.

[i] All scripture quotations are taken from the NLT.
[ii] “Biblical signs in tonight’s sky?” By Christopher M. Graney in ASTRONOMY ESSENTIALS | HUMAN WORLD | September 23, 2017  September 28, 2017.
[iii]  September 28, 2017. 

"A Game of Thrones"

            In George R. R. Martin’s novels, A Game of Thrones, which has become an HBO television series, the nobles from the Seven Kingdoms of the continent of Westeros battle it out to determine which family will emerge victorious and sit on the Iron Throne.  Meanwhile, wildlings from the north of Westeros, driven by need and an advancing army of the dead, also prepare to attack.  Across the Narrow Sea, a new queen rises, backed by her own forces and the power of three dragons.  Martin’s sweeping fantasy epic is marked by constant intrigue, murders, lies, betrayals, and couplings of many kinds.  In a titular quote, Cersei Lannister says, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.  There is no middle ground.”

            A lot of people feel this way about the thrones they protect.  They feel like their lives depend on their upwardly mobile career, their influence on the school board, or the little territories they control in the local church or civic organizations.  For these folks, winning is everything, and control is what it’s all about.  Toward the end of John’s Gospel, powerful players strut and fret their hour upon the stage, determined to keep their thrones and defend their power in the face of a new threat—a Carpenter from Nazareth, whom many people called the King of the Jews.

            As in Martin’s books, the priesthood in John’s Gospel is both corrupt and just as interested in wielding political power as they are leading the people spiritually.  Jealous of Jesus’ popularity, incensed by His unorthodox teaching, and threatened by the fear of a failed revolt against the Romans, the High Priest decides it’s better to have Jesus killed than allow Him to continue.  Jesus is betrayed and arrested, then tried by the High Priest.  After that, Jesus is sent to Governor Pilate, who is reluctant to pass sentence because he is afraid of the real power—not the religious leaders or even the soldiers he commands—but the people.  Yet, Pilate is between a rock and a hard place, because he must also answer to Rome.  In Pilate’s inquisition of Jesus in chapter eighteen, the reader observes, “With all this talk of kingdoms and thrones, it doesn’t look like the one who has the power is really in charge.” 

Jesus is quick to point out that God, not Pilate, is in charge.  “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36[i]).”  Even so, Jesus is brutally treated, and in a real-life scene that rivals the violence of George R.R. Martin’s books, he is scourged so badly that the flesh is ripped from His back.

            In chapter nineteen, the game of thrones continues, with Pilate and the people trying to figure out who’s really in charge.  In a mockery of majesty, Roman soldiers press a crown of thorns on Jesus’ brow, set a purple robe on him, slap him across the face, and shout, “Hail, King of the Jews!”  Even though he sits on the throne, Pilate lets the people tell him what to do as they shout for Jesus’ crucifixion.  Never mind that only Roman law could call for the death penalty—and even then, for criminal actions and not religious opinions—Pilate allows the priests to tell him, “By our law he ought to die because he called himself the Son of God (v. 7).” 

The Bible says that when they say this, Pilate becomes more frightened than ever, because while he had known the people were demanding the crucifixion of a heretic, he had no idea that they were asking him to kill a god.  So he asks Jesus where He is from.  But Jesus does not answer.  Pilate asks, “Why don’t you talk to me?...Don’t you realize that I have the power to release you or crucify you (v. 10)?”

Jesus replies, “You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above (v. 11).”  With this one statement, Jesus shows that He may be beaten, but He is not defeated.  The One who seems powerless is about to take His throne on the cross.  The thorns He wears are more valuable than gold, because while He already was the Son of God, this crown earns Him the title of Savior.  Pilate may have at his disposal a legion of soldiers, but if His Father had willed it, Jesus could have commanded a legion of angels to come to His aid.  The priests may have influence, the people may have power, but God is in control.

But, still the game of thrones goes on, with only one of its players knowing the final score.  The religious leaders remind Pilate that if he lets Jesus go, he is no friend of Caesar’s.  Pilate feels the weight of the Roman crown bearing down on him, but he also fears the people—so he lets them decide.  They call for Jesus’ execution, and the governor capitulates, even though he finds no fault with the accused.  They take Jesus away and crucify Him.  Pilate has a sign placed above Jesus’ head that reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews (v. 19).” 

Again, the game of thrones continues.  The religious leaders that Pilate’s inscription actually labels Jesus as their king.  They can’t quite tell if he’s being sarcastic or serious, so they offer a correction.  “Change it from ‘The King of the Jews’ to ‘He said, I am King of the Jews (v. 21).’”  Pilate retorts, “No, what I have written, I have written (v. 22).”  So Jesus, already recognized as Son of God by many, is crowned, enthroned on the cross, and literally declared to be royalty by a representative of the greatest empire the world has ever known.  The game of thrones is complete—In what looks like defeat, Jesus has triumphed.  Cersei Lannister said, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”  But Jesus has done both!

In this game, Jesus proves that when each player thinks they have the power, the religious leaders, the people, the soldiers, and Pilate are really living a farce.  In fact, God is maneuvering for the win.  The Bible says it’s all about Jesus, not us.  “Through [Jesus]God created…the things we can see and the things we can’t see— such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him (Colossians 1:16).”  Because it’s all about Jesus, Revelation 4:10 depicts twenty-four rulers casting their crowns at His feet, and rejecting their own glory. In our lives, we must be careful lest we think too highly of our own position and power as well.  Don’t even bother trying to play the game of thrones, setting yourself up as if you’re in control—because God is on the throne.  Instead, trust the One who was willing to bear the scourge, the thorns, and the cross for you.  Let Him be the King of your life.

[i] All scripture quotations are from the NLT.

"What is Truth?"

            Earlier this week, many people enjoyed the day off in remembrance of Columbus Day.  The famous Looney Toons cartoon depicts Columbus trying to convince King Ferdinand of Spain that the earth is “round, like the apple.”  The king responds, “She’s flat, like the panake.”  Columbus retorts, “She’s a’round, like my head!”  In response, the king hits Columbus on the head with a mallet and says, “She’s flat like your head!”  The Looney Toons version of the story (which many of us learned as historical fact), depicts Columbus claiming the earth to be round, unlike most in Christendom, making him a hero for proving a new theory about physics and geography.  Actually, most people in the late fifteenth century already knew the earth was round—it was the circumference of the earth that was in question.  In fact, it was fiction author Washington Irving (Rip Van Winkle, Legend of Sleepy Hollow), who depicted church leaders warning Columbus that he might sail off the end of the earth.  This comes from literary myth, not history.[i]
            Even today, many want to paint Christians as being ignorant, anti-education, and anti-science.  The term “flat-earther” has been used to describe creationists and others with a conservative standpoint.  Yet, the Bible doesn’t teach that the earth is flat.  In fact, Isaiah 40:22 (Douay-Rheims Bible) says of God, “It is he that sitteth upon the globe of the earth.”  “Also, Luke 17:34-36 depicts Christ's Second Coming as happening while some are asleep at night and others are working at day-time activities in the field—an indication of a rotating Earth with day and night at the same time.”[ii]  The fact is that there are many places where the Bible and science agree.  This should bolster our faith and give us confidence.  Yet many people try to make the Bible speak as if it’s a scientific textbook when its purpose isn’t to teach science at all.  Attempts to try to make the Bible say what it’s not trying to say simply discredit the source of our faith. 

            Science is the search for fact, and religion is the quest for truth.  Science uses the scientific method, which works repeated experiments until a theory is proven or disproven and fact established.  Religion uses a different method—that of finding God within the Bible, creation, and the inner self—to discover ultimate Truth (with a capital T).  Faith and reason are not mutually exclusive, as many believe.  Too many religious people discount science, and too many scientific people abandon faith.  In reality, it’s when we use our brains in church and our faith in the classroom that we become the most well-rounded people, able to understand fact and truth.

            In John 18:19-24, 28-40, fact and fiction are figured, and truth is put on trial.  When Jesus stands before the High Priest, He knows he’s condemned even before the trial.  He knows that false witnesses have trumped up charges, so He says in verse 23 (NLT), “If I said anything wrong, you must prove it. But if I’m speaking the truth, why are you beating me?” Jesus stands for Truth, but His accusers want nothing to do with the Truth.  They want only to prove about Jesus the things that they erroneously believe.

            Later, on trial before Pilate, the Roman governor investigates whether there’s anything behind Jesus’ charge of treason.  Pilate cares nothing for the charges of blasphemy—these are accusations based on the Jewish religion, about which he knows next to nothing and cares even less.  But Pilate’s job is to determine the facts of the case.  Does Jesus, indeed, claim to be the King of the Jews?  Verses 37-40 (NLT) say:

Pilate said, “So you are a king?”

Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.”

“What is truth?” Pilate asked. Then he went out again to the people and told them, “He is not guilty of any crime. But you have a custom of asking me to release one prisoner each year at Passover. Would you like me to release this ‘King of the Jews’?”

But they shouted back, “No! Not this man. We want Barabbas!” (Barabbas was a revolutionary.)

            Pilate’s powerful words, “What is truth?” still ring clearly today.  It is, perhaps, one of the biggest questions of this generation.  It seems like ultimate and objective Truth is hard to find in an age of uncertainty and rhetoric.  In a time when the President talks about “fake news,” we must wonder if there’s a source of “real news” anywhere.  If conservatives only watch Fox, and liberals only watch MSNBC, then it seems like both groups are looking for “news” stories that simply support their preconceived notions.  Like the people who conducted Jesus’ trial, we’re often far less interested in discovering the truth than we are having our opinions reinforced.  But perhaps Fact and the Truth are out there, for those who use both their faith and their brains.  In fact, good Christians must employ both their intellect as well as their belief if we are to understand God and our world.

            While it’s untrue that the Church ever taught that the world was flat, it is true that we believed in a geocentric, rather than heliocentric solar system.  In 1543, Copernicus was made famous by teaching the theory of the Roman Ptolemy, who believed, contrary to popular opinion, that the earth orbited the Sun instead of the other way around.  Later, Galileo adopted both the opinions of Ptolemy and Copernicus.  Adding the evidence that he gathered with his invention, the telescope, Galileo began to teach as fact that the sun is the center of the solar system.  In response, the Roman Catholic Church subjected him to the Inquisition.  Journalist Alan Cowell writes:

Summoned to Rome for trial by the Inquisition one year later, Galileo defended himself by saying that scientific research and the Christian faith were not mutually exclusive and that study of the natural world would promote understanding and interpretation of the scriptures. But his views were judged "false and erroneous." Aging, ailing and threatened with torture by the Inquisition, Galileo recanted on April 30, 1633.

Because of his advanced years, he was permitted house arrest in Siena. Legend has it that as Galileo rose from kneeling before his inquisitors, he murmured, "e pur, si muove" -- "even so, it does move."[iii]

            Interestingly, Galileo remained condemned by the church until Pope John Paul II issued a retraction in 1992.  Even though so much evidence pointed to the fact that Galileo was right, the Church was more interested in their version of the Truth which said that if humanity is the crowning point of creation, then it must be at the physical center, and therefore the sun must revolve around the earth.  That theology, plus Joshua 10:13 which records a day when the sun stood still in the sky, made the Church sure of this “truth,” which was nothing more than a misunderstanding of the scriptures and a denial of objective fact.

            Today, if the Church is going to survive in an era when people are searching for the Truth, we would do well to also be on the side of fact.  We must make sure that we don’t check our brains at the door when we enter the sanctuary.  We must also be certain not to check our faith at the door when we enter the classroom.  Galileo was right—science and faith are not mutually exclusive, and we can learn about God from observing creation.  Whether it’s in the science classroom or in the news room, whether we’re in church or anywhere else, let’s see if we can look for fact instead of fiction.  Instead of washing our hands of the Truth like Pilate did, let’s embrace Truth in all its forms, so God can speak to us, and through us, to a searching generation.

[ii] “Who Invented the Idea of a Flat Earth?”  October 11, 2017.
[iii] Cowell, Alan.  “After 350 Years, Vatican Says Galileo Was Right: It Moves”  The New York Times.  October 31, 1992.  September 8, 2017.

I Am What I Am

            Recently, I was reminded of an old story that I’ve heard many times, and perhaps you have, too.  The version told by one comedian says that an old man and his grandson had a donkey named Hiney that they needed to take to market.  So they set out with the boy on the donkey’s back and the grandfather walking.  They came across a lady who criticized, “I can’t believe that boy making the old man walk!”  So they grandfather took the boy off, and sat on the donkey himself.  Later, they passed a man who remarked, “That old man is so selfish, not sharing the ride with his boy!”  So the grandfather pulled the boy up on the donkey’s back and together they rode on.  Some time later, they passed a girl who said, “Those cruel people are going to break that poor donkey’s back—they ought to give him a ride, instead!”  So they climbed down and hoisted the donkey on their backs together.  Pretty soon they came to a rope bridge.  By the time they got to the middle, the wind picked up and the bridge swayed and caused them to lose their balance.  Over the donkey went, and fell to her death.  And the moral of the story is, if you try to please everybody, you’ll lose your Hiney!

            In this age of political correctness, we are told that the best thing to do is please everybody, and offend nobody.  But the truth is, in a society as diverse as ours, it’s impossible to please everybody—and if you try, you’ll lose your hiney.  So the best thing is to quit trying to be politically correct, and be true to who you are—your core personality and your beliefs.  Be kind about it as you’re being yourself, though.  Don’t intentionally be offensive as you defend your faith.  James 1:26[i] says, “If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless.”  Proverbs 12:18 tells us, “Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing.”  So many scriptures remind us to make sure that our words are loving and kind—but kindness and political correctness are two different things.  Political correctness tries to please everybody, and that’s impossible.  So be true to who you are, and speak boldly for your faith.

            John 18:1-18, 25-27 gives us two contrasting examples—one of Jesus who is true to Himself, and one of Peter who denies his core beliefs.  When the Pharisees and soldiers came to arrest Jesus with swords, clubs, and torches in their hands, Jesus knew he would be delivered up for crucifixion.  He knew how severe the consequences would be for identifying himself.  Yet, three times He did so, saying, “I am He (verse 5)...I am He…I am the one you want (verse 8).”  , “As Jesus said ‘I am he,’ they all drew back and fell to the ground (verse 6)!”  I believe this happened for two reasons. 

First, because When Jesus says, “I Am,” He is speaking the name of God as given to Moses at the Burning Bush: “I Am Who I Am (Exodus 3:14).”  But He is not just speaking the name as anybody else would—He, God Himself, I Am, incarnate in Jesus, is speaking His own name.  And the power of that is so great that it knocks everyone back.  Here we see Philippians 2:10, which says that “every knee should bow,” coming to literal fulfillment.  And one day, not just a hoard of oppressors but the whole earth will bow before His name. 

Second, I believe that the testimony of any believer is a powerful thing.  When we say, “I am who I am, and I refuse to hide, regardless of the consequences,” the forces of darkness are thrown backwards.  Note that Jesus never said anything unkind, but clearly states the truth in an inoffensive way.  They are thrown back by the power of it, not by any offensive words that Jesus uses.  Too often we Christians see the world coming with swords and clubs and torches, and we respond from the flesh rather than from the spirit.  We return insult for insult, injury for injury, and in doing so we earn a bad name for believers.  While we shouldn’t give in to political correctness, we should stand for the truth in plain speech and loving action.  Only that will cause the world to stagger back in light of the truth.

In contrast to Jesus, who remained true to Himself and spoke the truth in love, Peter denied his core beliefs and his identity as a disciple.  Just Jesus identified Himself three times, Peter denied who he was as a follower of Christ three times.  “The woman asked Peter, ‘You’re not one of that man’s disciples, are you?’  ‘No,’ he said, ‘I am not (v. 17).’”  Later, “as Simon Peter was standing by the fire warming himself, they asked him again, ‘You’re not one of his disciples, are you?’  He denied it, saying, ‘No, I am not (v. 25).’”  Finally, “one of the household slaves of the high priest…asked, ‘Didn’t I see you out there in the olive grove with Jesus?’ Again Peter denied it. And immediately a rooster crowed (vv. 26-27).”  Peter caved in to the pressures of political correctness, denied who he was, and in the process denied his Lord.  When he realized what he had done, he wept bitterly and likely remained in that miserable state until Jesus restored him after the resurrection.

Today, so many people in our culture have misconceptions about what Christianity really is that many believers feel pressure to deny or apologize for their faith.  So-called Christians who behave in ungodly and unloving ways have swayed public opinion and made them judge all Christians in light of the extreme few.  But instead of being like Peter who covered up his faith, true believers need to shine a light of Christlike behavior and godly love.  Like Jesus, we need to say, “I am what I am,” even if it gets us in trouble.  Today, I wonder, how many Jesus-followers are willing to put their necks on the line to stand firmly for the love of God?

In October of 1555, Protestants Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were martyred for their faith by the English crown, which was Catholic at the time.  As both burned at the stake, Latimer was consumed by smoke and died painlessly, but Ridley’s pyre was made of green wood and made him simmer rather than burning him outright.  Latimer’s last words were ones of encouragement to his friend: “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as shall never be put out.” 

This is a gruesome reminder from the not-too-distant past, that sometimes believers pay with their lives for faithfulness to Christ.  Certainly, Peter was afraid that he, too, could be martyred if he publicly aligned with Jesus.  But Jesus Himself was not afraid to say, “I Am what I Am,” even though He knew it would mean His death.  What will you do, when they ask what you believe?  In Matthew 10:32-33, Jesus said, “Everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.”  This doesn’t mean being obnoxious about your religion, but it does mean being true to your faith, and to your Lord.  Political correctness says that we shouldn’t ever offend anyone—but if you try to please everybody, you lose your hiney.  Try not to offend your neighbors if you can, out of kindness, not political correctness.  But it’s better to please God and remain faithful to Jesus.  Only then can we light a candle and set it on a stand, so its brightness can outshine the darkness of this world.

[i] Scripture quotations are taken from the NLT.

The Gospel According to Jesus

          Not long ago, I came across a little story about a man considering the meaning of eternal life:

Thinking of the fullness and duration of this wonderful life, W. B. Hinson, a great preacher of a past generation, spoke from his own experience just before he died. He said, "I remember a year ago when a doctor told me, 'You have an illness from which you won't recover.' I walked out to where I live 5 miles from Portland, Oregon, and I looked across at that mountain that I love. I looked at the river in which I rejoice, and I looked at the stately trees that are always God's own poetry to my soul. Then in the evening I looked up into the great sky where God was lighting His lamps, and I said, ' I may not see you many more times, but Mountain, I shall be alive when you are gone; and River, I shall be alive when you cease running toward the sea; and Stars, I shall be alive when you have fallen from your sockets in the great down pulling of the material universe!' "[i]

            So often, Christians use the term “eternal life” to mean a life of never-ending duration after we pass from this world to the next.  And it does mean that.  W.B. Hinson anticipated this kind of everlasting existence.  But when Jesus uses the term, He means this and more.  In John 17, we find Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer,” which is full of the Lord’s intentions and prayers for His followers.  In this, we find that the Gospel according to Jesus reveals not just a life of eternal duration, but eternal quality.

            In verses 2b-3, Jesus addresses God the Father, but refers to Himself in the third person, saying that Jesus “gives eternal life to each one you [the Father] have given him.  And this is the way to have eternal life—to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth.”[ii]  So to Jesus, eternal life is simply this: knowing God through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  Jesus spends the rest of His prayer asking God for some blessings for His people.  The Good News of Jesus is that God wants you to not only live forever, but also to experience unity, joy, holiness, and eventually to live with Him in Heaven.

            Eternal life means unity for Jesus-followers.  In verse 11, Jesus asks the Father, “Protect them by the power of your name so that they will be united just as we are.”  In verse 21, Jesus continues, “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.”  Then in verse 23, Jesus says, “I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”  Jesus’ desire for the Church is that each of its members be as united with one another as Christ is with the Father.  Too many churches are divided, one faction against another, or the people against the pastor, or this congregation or denomination against another.  The world is divisive enough as it is—the church certainly shouldn’t be.  Jesus wants us to be perfectly one with each other.

In verse 13, Jesus prays, “I told them many things while I was with them in this world so they would be filled with my joy.”  This joy is part of eternal life.  I mean, who would want to live forever, if you’re not joyful?  Everlasting life with a sour, bitter, hateful, unforgiving heart wouldn’t be heaven—it’d be hell!  Joy is one of the ways you know a person has the Holy Spirit moving in their life (Galatians 5:22-23).  Those who call themselves Christians but who lack joy in their lives may be saved, but they aren’t going to enjoy their salvation very much.  Joy is the result of opening your heart to allow the Holy Spirit to transform you from the inside.

Jesus continues to pray for this eternal quality of life for His followers in verse 17: “Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth.”  Some Bible translations have Jesus asking God to “sanctify them” by God’s truth.  This “truth” is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which sanctifies a person from the inside out.  This holiness is not an external avoidance of that which defiles, but a separation from things that get in the way of life and fruitfulness in God’s order.  Led by the word of truth, believers walk in step with Jesus.

Finally, Jesus prays, “Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am (verse 24).”  This is connected to Jesus’ earlier statement, “There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am (John 14:2-3).”  At this point, He gets to what we always think of when we use the phrase “eternal life.”  We generally mean “forever in heaven.”  Yes—Jesus promises this to the people He saves.  And we can rejoice in the anticipation of this gift.

But the Gospel according to Jesus means something more than simply “getting saved,” if by that we mean going to heaven and avoiding hell.  The Good News of Jesus is that our lives might take on an eternal quality, not just quantity.  Jesus asked the Father that, with this everlasting mindset, we might experience unity, joy, and holiness, and that one day we might enjoy the benefits of heaven.  Jesus means all these things when He uses the expression, “eternal life.” 

There are three huge gates that lead into the Cathedral of Milan. Over one gate there is an inscription in marble under a beautiful flower bouquet that says, "The things that please are temporary." Over the second gate, there is a cross with this inscription: "The things that disturb us are temporary." However, over the central gate, there is a big inscription saying, "Eternal are the important ones."[iii]

            Jesus says, “And this is the way to have eternal life--to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth (John 17:3).”  I pray that you’ll know His eternal life—that you’ll choose not the things that are temporary but the important things that are eternal.  And I pray that this everlasting life for you will be one not just of never-ending duration, but of perpetual holiness and wholeness.  This is the Gospel according to Jesus.

[ii] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.
[iii] Unknown source.  August 24, 2017.