Monday, May 22, 2017

"Light of the World"

When I think back to my childhood, I remember many times when my mother turned on the light. There were times when I was afraid of the dark, and she turned on the light to make the darkness flee. Then she got a broom and chased all the monsters out of my closet so that I’d feel safe. The light that she brought meant security. Then on birthdays, when Mom lit candles on cakes, the light that she brought meant celebration. Often after bedtime, I’d be huddling under my blankets with my own little flashlight, reading a book when I was supposed to be sleeping. When she’d come into the room and switch on the ceiling light, it would reveal not just what I’d been up to, but also that I’d been trying to hide it. In this case, the light that she turned on meant the discovery of sin, and subsequent judgment. In these three cases, Mom was the bringer of light. In today’s scripture, Jesus reveals Himself not just as the bringer of light, but as The Light of the World.

In John 8:12, Jesus was in the Temple. “Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, ‘I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.’”[i] What does He mean by this? The Temple itself was called The Light of the World, in part because of a huge candelabra that stood as its central lamp.[ii] Constructed with seven branches emerging from a trunk at the middle, the lamps at the ends of the branches made the metal bush to burn like the image of God that spoke to Moses in the wilderness. When Jesus said, “I am the light of the world,” He was saying, “I am the burning bush. I am the voice that spoke to Moses, and I am the light that still shines.”

The seven branches of the candlestick represent the seven spirits of God (Revelation 4:5), and the seven festivals in the Jewish Calendar. The Messiah is said to be the fulfillment of the feasts of Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, Pentecost, Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles. John 7:2 says this took place during the Feast of Tabernacles, which is represented by the central lamp in the candlestick—higher than the others. Many Bible scholars believe Jesus was born at the Feast of Tabernacles, rather than on Christmas, a holiday of later invention. In some respects, this would mean that Jesus was looking at the lamp and saying, “Look—my birthday candles!”[iii]

Jesus came to shine light on people’s darkness. He is the candle and the lamp stand all rolled into one! John 1:4-5 says, “The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” Like my mom bringing light, Jesus’ light casts out spiritual darkness. Sometimes that light means security and peace. Other times, it means celebration, and still other times, it illuminates sin in our lives, highlighting our need to repent. The difference is that while my mom turned on the light, Jesus said that He is the light.

So, how can we understand Jesus as the Light of the World? Imagine the sun burning in the sky, with the sun’s rays shining down on the earth. There’s no difference between the sun itself and the sun’s rays—they’re made up of the same stuff. The sun is the source of the light, and the rays are the light. This is the same as God the Father, who is the Source, shining the Christ light down upon us. There’s no difference in essence between the Father and Christ, but Jesus is that beam of God, shone down upon the earth. If the Father is like the sun in the sky, and Jesus is the light, then the Holy Spirit would be like the act of seeing. Seeing happens when that light interacts with the human eye. In the same way, the Holy Spirit acts when the light of Christ is received in our souls. The Holy Spirit makes God a verb, causing us to respond to the action of God.

This is why Jesus said, “Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is unhealthy, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is (Matthew 6:22-23)!” This “eye” is symbolic of the soul. When your soul is healthy, the whole body is filled with the Light of the World. But when your soul is unhealthy, your whole body is filled with darkness. Some people think they have light—like me using my own little flashlight to read. But using that pen light was actually still relative darkness—just a dim glow that was actually an act of rebellion against bedtime. When we think we have light but are still in rebellion, our souls are in darkness indeed. Instead of darkness, Jesus wants us to open our souls that we might have the light of life. Jesus doesn’t judge—but sheds light on our lives to let our own deeds show themselves for what they are. Then, He calls us to choose the light over our own relative darkness.

After we choose that light, God wants us to pass it on. In Luke 11:33, Jesus said, “No one lights a lamp and then hides it or puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where its light can be seen by all who enter the house.” Parents pass it on to children, who pass it on to the next generation. Believers share it with people in darkness, who come to the light and turn on the light for others. I pray that you, too, will become a bringer of the Light of the World.

"Above and Below"

Lynn Malone shares the following about how…

we seem to live in two different worlds, the rich and the poor. A striking example is shared by Brett Blair, a pastor in the Kentucky Annual Conference. Blair shared that some years ago before the death of Mother Theresa, a television special depicted the grim human conditions that were a part of her daily life. It showed all the horror of the slums of Calcutta and her love for these destitute people. The producer interviewed her as she made her rounds in that dreadful place. Throughout the program commercials interrupted the flow of the discussion. Here is the sequence of the topics and commercials: lepers (bikinis for sale); mass starvation (designer jeans); agonizing poverty (fur coats); abandoned babies (ice cream sundaes) the dying (diamond watches).  The irony was so apparent. Two different worlds were on display--the world of the poor and the world of the affluent.[i]

            In the same way that this world seems to be divided between the rich and poor, the Bible makes it clear that there are two realms: above and below.  Psalm 103:11 says, “For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.”  Isaiah 55:9 says, “For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”  Unfortunately this has led to a lot of artistic depictions of heaven being in the clouds, or even in outer space.  Rather than thinking of heaven as another place far away in the clouds, Jesus revolutionizes spiritual thinking by declaring, “the Kingdom of Heaven is near (Matthew 3:2; 4:17).”  So while Jesus uses the language of “above and below,” we know that this locational language is merely symbolic for two planes of existence.
            Ephesians 4:9[ii] says, “Notice that it says ‘he ascended.’ This clearly means that Christ also descended to our lowly world.”  When John 1:14 says, “So the Word became human and made his home among us,” it literally depicts Jesus moving from the heavenly, spiritual kingdom, to the earthly realm.  Not only is heaven where Jesus came from, but Jesus makes a place for us there.  In John 14:1-4, Jesus says to His disciples:

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me.  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...”

            But while Jesus promises Heaven to those who believe in Him, He says something else to those who don’t.  In John 8:21, 23-24, Jesus says, “You cannot come where I am going… You are from below; I am from above. You belong to this world; I do not. That is why I said that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am who I claim to be, you will die in your sins.” 
            Jesus said that there are two worlds—above and below.  The way to enter eternal life (the upper world, the heavenly realm) is to trust the love and grace of God that Christ demonstrates by His life, and by His death.  Through the cross, Jesus was literally suspended between heaven and earth—bridging the gap between the Lord above and the people below.  In John 8:28, Jesus says, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man on the cross, then you will understand that I am he.”  Yes, it was when Jesus was lifted up that the Roman centurion declared, “This man truly was the Son of God (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39)!” 
This declaration of faith is the beginning of salvation, the first step toward a transformation that results in a heavenly mind and eternal life.  In Romans 8:5-6, Paul says, “Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit.  So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace.”  Being saved is more than just getting a ticket to heaven.  It’s allowing yourself to be controlled by the Holy Spirit so that you can say as Jesus does, “I do nothing on my own but say only what the Father taught me... For I always do what pleases him (John 8:28-29).”
I love the story by J.M. Barrie of Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up—who had a form of everlasting youth or eternal life.  He flies into the Darling’s nursery window to make friends and invite Wendy, Michael and John to adventure with him.  Teaching them to fly, he tells them, “All you need is faith and trust, and a little bit of pixie dust.”  Learning to fly as he does, they follow him to Neverland by following “the second star to the right, and straight on ‘til morning.”  There, they join the Lost Boys who have been saved by Pan, and together they meet mermaids, engage with Indians, and battle buccaneers.  Peter Pan is a Christlike character who reminds us that if we have faith and trust, we too can fly.  We can change our place of residence, becoming people of another world, joining those who were lost but now are found.  Following Christ, we can live without fear of loss or defeat.  In fact, we can even stare death in the face and say as Pan did and say, “To die will be an awfully big adventure!”
Jesus’ message to believers and unbelievers is clear:  Those who place their trust in Him may go where He goes.  They become people of the heavenly realm, of everlasting life.  You activate this salvation by faith that leads to a new way of thinking.  Through this new way of Christ, let us learn to fly, remembering that “letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace.”

[ii] All scripture quotations are taken from the NLT.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

"Condemning or Condoning"

            Years ago, I had the privilege of baptizing a young man in prison.  Once I was talking with him, and he was expressing his sorrow for the thing he had done.  I told him, “Most of us have at some point in time done things that we could have gone to jail for.  Then I told him of some things I did as a teenager.  The only difference between him and me is that he got caught, and I never did.  Every one of us have messed up in our lives--it's just that some of us get into more trouble for it than others.  Jesus offers forgiveness for all.  In today’s scripture we see that Jesus is not soft on sin, but He is big on grace!
In John 8:1-11 we find Jesus teaching in the Temple.  Sometime during the night, the scribes and Pharisees had caught a woman in the act of adultery. In front of the crowds they brought her to Jesus.  “’Teacher,’ they said to Jesus, ‘this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say (vv. 4-5)?’”[i]  This put Jesus in quite an uncomfortable position.  Jesus always taught about the grace and forgiveness of God, while the Pharisees and scribes always taught about God’s vengeance and anger.  In truth, the Bible talks about both of these things.  Sin does anger God.  But God also desires to show mercy.  So which of these two things should he show today?  If Jesus showed too much mercy, the Pharisees would say he was violating the law which called for her execution.  But if he gave her swift justice without mercy, he would violate his own teachings of grace.  What would he say?  Jesus wanted to show that He’s not soft on sin, but He is big on grace.

I know what I would have said, if I had been there: “Where’s the guy?”  I mean, think about it—in order to catch the woman IN THE ACT of adultery, she would have had to be WITH somebody, right?  So why had they dragged her away to put her to death, and let the man go?  Pharisees prided themselves on their law-keeping, yet the verse they quoted in Deuteronomy 22:22 says, “If a man is discovered committing adultery, both he and the woman must die. In this way, you will purge Israel of such evil.” Could it be that the man was one of the Pharisees? 

Well, I wasn’t there to challenge this, and that’s not what Jesus said.  Instead, he carefully considered the binary choice they had presented to him: Should he condemn her to death or condone her sin?  Often, when people want to trap you, they will present you with a binary choice.  Often, when the devil wants to put you in a tough spot, he will make it seem like there are only two options.  You may be in that same situation, when it comes to your temptation to judge others.  You may feel like you have a choice between condoning or condemning.  But Jesus listened to the Holy Spirit, presented a third option that neither condoned her sin, but didn’t condemn her either.

Without saying a word, he bent down and began writing in the dirt.  What was he writing?  Everybody gathered around to see.  Now the Bible doesn’t tell us what Jesus wrote, but it does give us the effect of what Jesus wrote and said.  See, Jesus had divine insight, and had access to God’s all-seeing eye.  One preacher I heard suggested that Jesus was writing the names of all the girlfriends of the Pharisees—those names they didn’t want their wives to know.  Then Jesus stood up and told them that they should keep the Law of Moses, which said that the woman should be stoned.  (In this way he protected his integrity by maintaining the Law.)  But, he added a word of mercy.  “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone.”  The Bible says that the scribes and Pharisees left one at a time, beginning with the oldest first.  Why did the oldest leave first?  They had probably had more time to sin, and had more of a list being written on the ground.  Jesus had defeated those who tried to trap him, and saved the life of a girl who had been caught in her sin.

            Today I ask you, which character in this story do you most identify with?  Do you see yourself in the role of this woman, who had been caught in the very act of her sin?  All of us at some time or another are guilty of breaking God's law.  Some have committed this same sin that she committed.  Others are guilty of different crimes.  But all of us stand before God tainted with the stain of sin.  When the devil accuses us, we are ashamed and want to hide our faces.  But Jesus is the one who does not condemn.  He always forgives those who turn to him for mercy.

            Or maybe you identify the most with the pharisees and scribes in this story.  Maybe you've caught someone in the act of committing a crime or a sin against you.  Has someone you know betrayed you and now you want justice done?  Then you need to learn the lesson of this story:  There's a difference between justice and vengeance.  God is a god of justice.  And with God, being merciful is always better than being just.  You see, Jesus is not soft on sin, but He is big on grace!

            Or it could be that Jesus’ predicament reminds you of a situation you are in today.  Maybe people go to you whenever big decisions need to be made.  Maybe you sometimes feel trapped between what people think you should do, and what God wants you to do.  If that's the case, then you need to pray that like Jesus, you might be given the wisdom of God to handle all the challenge of calling sin “sin” on the one hand, and yet reserving condemnation on the other hand, trusting that God is God and you are not.

            You know, those Pharisees who so readily quoted from Deuteronomy 22:22 would have done well to read the whole chapter.  They were quick to practice the law of condemnation, but Jesus was following God’s commands by practicing a higher law—the law of mercy.  Verses 1-4 talk about the responsibility of a person who finds a wandering sheep or ox or goat that belongs to his neighbor.  Maybe the animal has even collapsed on the road.  The law of mercy says it’s your responsibility not to ignore that poor animal’s plight, but to take it under your protection and return it to its master.  If God could care so much for a wandering beast, how much more does God care for an erring man or woman!  Instead of condemning this woman, Jesus took her under his protection, showed her mercy, and restored her to God.  Jesus did this not because he is soft on sin, but because he is big on grace!

            Life constantly provides opportunities for failure and for success.  Sometimes life presents you with temptations that you choose to follow to their sinful outcomes.  Jesus speaks the same words he spoke to the woman who was caught in the act of adultery:  "Neither do I [condemn you].  Go, and sin no more (John 8:11)."  He doesn’t condemn; He doesn’t condone.  Instead, He chooses to atone—and that act of divine mercy makes all the difference.

[i] All scripture quotations taken from the NLT.