Thursday, December 5, 2019

Who is the Lord?

As Jesus approached Jerusalem for what would be the final time, He sent His disciples ahead of Him into town to bring back a colt for Him to ride in on. He told them where they would find the colt and just to untie it and bring it to Him. If anyone asked what they were doing, He told them to say, "The Lord needs it." 

Which is cool, I guess, as long as you understand that "the Lord" means "Jesus." 

And there's no guarantee that everyone did. Whenever you see someone standing on the side of the road trying to figure out what all the hubbub is, someone tells them it's "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus of Nazareth is here! Jesus of Nazareth is passing by! The blind men cry out, "Son of David!" And even when Jesus is riding that colt into the town, the persons throwing down palm leaves are yelling, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" Not, "Blessed is the Lord who comes!" 

So even the crowds aren't getting that "Jesus is the Lord." Not yet, anyway. 

In fact, to say that you were giving anything to the Lord in that time meant that you were taking it to the Temple as a sacrifice. Which is weird, since there was no ritual Old Testament sacrifice of a donkey...that I know of. But still, if you see someone untying your colt and saying, "The Lord needs it," the first thing that's popping into your head is that these weirdos are going to take your colt to the priest and sacrifice it on the altar. Your colt. Their sacrifice. Not a lot of colt owners are going to go for that. Not a lot of them are going to say, "Oh, yeah, sure. Go ahead."

Now, the disciples could have said, "my Lord needs it," which would reference whoever it was that they were serving as their Lord. That sort of thing would have happened all the time in a society where servanthood was common. But that's not what they said. They said, "the Lord needs it."

And then, they just showed back up with a colt. 

It's another one of those things that you really have to stop and think about how the people of the time would have heard it as it was playing out. Nobody would have heard, "Rabbi Jesus needs this colt." They couldn't have fathomed or understood what it meant to these men that "the Lord" needs it. Yet somehow, the disciples come back with it anyway, and Jesus fulfills yet another prophecy. 

It makes you wonder who owned that colt, what they knew, what was on their heart, what they thought was going on or was going to happen.

It makes you wonder what you'd do if you heard something that didn't make sense, except that you knew that it somehow came from God. Imagine a man untying your colt, and all he tells you is, "The Lord needs it." Even knowing who the Lord is, don't you have questions? Or would you just let it go? Would "the Lord needs it" be enough for you? 

Could it be?

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Holding Back

Jesus, You love me, right? 

It's the foundation of many prayers, the kind of innocent-sounding question meant to set the stage for something a bit more diabolical. It's the start of a logic train that ends with something like, "Jesus, if You love me like You say You do, then You ought to give me this precious thing that I want, oughtn't You? It's just so precious a thing...." 

It's the kind of prayer we're prone to praying, especially when we want something. Especially when we want something that we think is something "good." Jesus wants to give us good things, so He ought to give us good things. And the best way to get Him to give us the good things that we want is to get Him to promise to give us good things before we ask for whatever it is that's on our minds. 

No backsies. 

This is exactly what James and John did when they came to Jesus with their bold requests, like wanting to sit at His right and His left in the Kingdom. They came to Jesus and they said, "Hey. We've got something on our minds, something we've been thinking about for awhile now. And it's a good thing, a really good thing. It will be very good for us. We want You to give us whatever it is we ask for, knowing that we've already told You it's a good thing. Will You give us what we ask for, Jesus?" 

Because of course, at this point, if Jesus says yes, they're in. They can ask for anything, and He's bound to give it to them. He has to. He's committed. It's everything we want our prayers to be - guaranteed fulfilled before we even ask because, hey, we're only asking for good things here. 

But Jesus isn't falling for it. He never does. He doesn't say no, because of course that's a problem. That sets up a Jesus who says He doesn't want to give you good things, and we can't have that. But He doesn't say yes, either. He knows better than to lock Himself into an unknown agreement with a fallen human heart. 

What Jesus says is, tell Me more. Tell Me what it is that you want Me to give you. Tell Me what's so "good" that you just had to ask Me for it. 

In other words, Jesus asks, "What is good?" 

The answer in James's and John's case is what is so often is in our case - it's something that would be good for them, in the sense that they would come into a deal of esteem and power and prestige and honor and so forth, but it's not a thing that is good in and of itself. It's not objectively good, and it's certainly not even subjectively good for anyone but James and John. (And us, if we're asking.) 

That's why Jesus asked for more. What is this "good" that you speak of? What's "good" to you? Is it good just because it gets you something that you want, or is it good for the sake of goodness? Is it good from behind your eyes, or is it still good from the outside looking in? How do you understand what good is? 

Because He'll give you what is good, but I'm telling you - that ain't it. 

And we know that it isn't. We confess that ourselves when we try to get Jesus to commit before we even tell Him what it is. When we start keeping secrets and dancing around our desires, trying to paint them in a certain light by putting just the right sort of angle on it, we know it's not really good. We know it's not really God-pleasing. We know it's not something that Jesus would give us in His right mind; that's why we're trying to get Him out of His right mind and into some sort of obligation. 

But Jesus never falls for it. And thank God He doesn't. 

So just start with what you want. Just start with what you're asking for. If it's good, He'll already know it's good, and He's all about giving you good things. If it's not good, if it's not really something that's truly, objectively good, you're never going to back Him into a corner on it. 

"But You love me, Jesus, don't You?" 

Precisely, He does. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Hope for Healing

While we're on the subject of demons, let's talk about the demonaic for a minute. This is the naked guy in the graveyard that Jesus finds when He crosses to the other side of the sea. Mark tells us that this man has been bound with chains that he keeps breaking off, yelling and screaming like a madman, and no one can subdue him. 

Which raises the question...how does he keep getting chains on him, then? 

How does a raving lunatic, an absolute maniac, keep finding himself in chains if no one can subdue him? Who's holding him down to put chains on him in the first place, chains he keeps breaking? And then, who's coming back to do it again? 

The truth is that a guy like that, he has to submit himself to the chains. He has to let them do it to him. And I bet after awhile, he even started begging them. 

See, that's what hope does. 

This guy is completely out of control. He feels it. He knows that he's not in his right mind, and he's nowhere near the person he once was or the person that he wants to be. He's lost it. And the only way he can think of to get it back is to somehow control himself, but he can't. He must be controlled. He must be chained. He must, for a moment, be able to stop the downward spiral and get some semblance of control back, even if it has to come from the outside. So he lets himself be chained, hoping that if he can just calm things down, just for a minute, his whole world can change. 

It's easy to think that he wasn't even in there any more, that the demons took so much control of his soul that he, as a person, was long gone. It's easy for us to think that about anyone, really. We look at those who struggle with mental illness, and we think there's not even a person in there any more. All we see is the struggle. We look at the addict, and all we see is the struggle. We look at disease, and all we see is the struggle. The person is gone, overtaken by whatever's taken over them. 

But I tell you - I have never met anyone, no matter how far "gone," who wasn't somewhere in their own soul. I've never met anyone so overcome by brokenness, burden, disease, addiction, grief, demons, whatever, that wasn't in there somewhere, scratching and clawing and trying to get out. Or at least to hold onto themselves. To hold onto whatever sliver of who they were that they have left. In my own darkest moments, I knew...I knew there was this part of me that hadn't died yet, and it was all I could do to keep her, but I was determined to do so. 

This demonaic, for whatever we think of him, had something left of himself. Something he was desperate to hold onto. Desperate enough that he kept letting himself be chained, if for no other reason than that it would limit his ability to be the person he didn't want to be. It would stop him, for a time, from hurting himself or hurting others or doing wrong. It was the only way he knew to hold onto himself. 

And it's how, when Jesus sets him free, we see a man completely transformed, just like that. What he's held onto, he gets to hold again, and in the blink of an eye, he's clothed and sitting in his right mind, begging to follow Jesus. The fullness of the hope that he's fought to hold onto is now his, and all it takes is that little bit...just that little bit...and he's got it. Just like that. 

It's the story of more of us than we care to admit, than we care to confess. We're so clouded by...all these things, whatever they are. And we're just...holding on. We're holding onto whatever we can, whatever little bit of ourselves we've got. That's hope. That's what hope does. It makes us hold on.

Because we believe that we can be that again, that we can be us. That we can be ourselves. That we can be free of whatever it is that's holding us back. 

And you know what? We can. 

That's Jesus.

That's what Jesus does. 

Monday, December 2, 2019

Made Known

Have you heard the way the demons respond to Jesus in the Gospels? They're always shouting and calling Him the "Son of Man" and so forth. And every time, Jesus tells them loudly and clearly to shut up. Shut up, He says. Stop calling Me that. Stop saying that. 

It's a little weird. I mean, we read these texts and think that it can't really hurt for anyone and everyone (and everything) to declare who Jesus is. The more the people hear it, from the more places, the more likely they are to believe, right? Check it - even the demons know His name. That's pretty cool. 

So you would think telling them to shut up wouldn't be His first reaction. You'd think maybe He'd say, hey, listen to this. The demons know who I am. You'd think He would want the people to hear it from wherever they could, as often as they could, until they "got it." After all, at some point, the voices grow so numerous that you can't ignore them any more. But that's not what Jesus wants. 

Jesus, you see, doesn't want the demons to make Him known; He wants to make Himself known.

He wants to be the one controlling the flow of that information. He wants to make sure what's going out is coming across the way it's supposed to. He wants to make sure that whoever hears it knows what it means...and what it doesn't mean. He makes a name for Himself in this world by what He does and doesn't do. The demons do not get to name Him. 

It's a lesson we could really use. Because I'm telling you - a lot of us let our demons name us. A lot of us have lost control of the information of our own story, and we aren't making ourselves known any more; we're being made known, often by things we'd rather not define us. 

It's a tough place to be. All it takes is one little insecurity and bam...that's who you are for the rest of your life, it seems. All the things you ever do right get overshadowed by one thing you do wrong, and all of a sudden, the voices just seem to multiply. From out of nowhere, they're screaming to the world who are you and you don't know what to do about it. 

Jesus knows what to do. Tell them loudly and clearly to shut up. 

Shut up. It's just that simple. Shut your mouth. This world doesn't control your story; you do. It doesn't define your reputation; you do. Your sin isn't who you are; grace is. If you want this world to know who you are, who you really are, it's up to you to tell them. You can't wait on some naked guy in a cemetery to start screaming it from his demon-brain; you've got to out and tell them. 

And when you do, you control the flow of information. You determine what others see of you. You determine what they conceive of you. You let them know, plainly, who you are without all of the other voices screaming in their ear. 

That's important. Do you know how much it changes the story of Jesus if you heard about Him from a demon? How does the demon even know His name? He must associate with demons! He must have some affiliation with them! They're on a first-name basis, and they even call Him the Christ, so somewhere, there's a den of demons and Jesus, isn't there?

We know that there's not, but you wouldn't be faulted for thinking that if all you've got is the testimony of the demon. That's why Jesus keeps telling them to shut up. They can't reveal who He really is; they're only going to confuse the crowds. Jesus is the only one who can reveal who He is. He's the one who's got the fullness of His story. Everyone else just has a part of it. 

The same is true with me and you. We're the ones who've got the fullness of our story; everyone else just has bits and pieces of it, bits and pieces that can never paint an accurate picture of who we are and who we were created to be. (Except, of course, God, who has even more fullness of it than we've got.) 

So go out and define yourself. Tell the world who you are. Show them. Live it out. And tell your demons to just shut up. It's not up to them to make you known. 

It's up to you. 

Be who God created  you to be, to the fullest of your wildest imagination. And let it be known. Somewhere years ago, I caught a quote that went something like this, and it remains true: let the world feel the full weight of who you are...and let them deal with it. 

Friday, November 29, 2019

Old Patches and New Wineskins

Jesus is known for painting more than a few word pictures, trying to get the common person to understand what it is that He's talking about. And when He talks about what it means to live under the new law, to live this radical new way that He's demonstrating and calling us to, He uses the images of patches and wineskins - things very common to the people of His time. 

And He says, no one puts a new patch on an old coat because the new patch will shrink and tear, and you'll be worse off than before. And no one pours new wine into an old wineskin, for it will burst and ruin both. In Luke's version, He adds that no one who has had the old wine wants new anyway, for they say that the old wine is better (and anyone who drinks wine apparently knows this, for it is better when it is aged). 

It's not really a...great...sales pitch for the new things that He wants to do among them, and it can be a little bit of a confusing passage to read when you're trying to figure out what it is He's saying about the radical new life to which He is calling them. Is He saying that His way isn't better? That the law is better than grace? 

Actually, that's not what He's saying at all. He's speaking in reverse from the promise here, and that's what makes it so confusing for most of us. He's speaking to those who have the law and love the law, and He's telling them how hard it will be for them to accept what it is that He's preaching - namely, grace. 

See, grace is the new patch that's going to tear apart their old coat. If they try to just weave it into the fabrics that they already have, it won't work. They can't keep the law and have grace, too. 

Grace is the new wine that will burst their old wineskins; they simply can't hold it. Under the law, there is no room for grace, only mercy. And only then, sparingly and by an act of heart. This free grace, this getting what you do not deserve, it can't be conceptualized by the law because the law is give-and-take, one-for-one, tit-for-tat, if-this-then-that. Grace doesn't work that way, and filled with grace, the law explodes. 

And what He's also saying is that for those who have the law and love the law, like their favorite cold coats and delicious old wine, will truly struggle with grace. They won't want it. It won't taste right on their palate. They'll try a little here or there, maybe, but what they'll conclude is that it just isn't as good. It will not, to them, have the same deep, rich flavor as the law they have always known and loved. 

Now, that's true even if you're not a Pharisee. It's true even if you are, say, a modern-day young Christian trying to figure this all out. I think it's the hardest thing about becoming a person who lives under grace (and who lives by grace). 

Our whole world is transactional, even our relationships. Just like the law, everything we know about this world is give-and-take, one-for-one, tit-for-tat, if-this-then-that. Everything. Everything we do has some kind of cost to it, some kind of limit put in place for how we can acquire and use and give and receive and whatever it is. Even when it comes to living with one another. We think, oh sure, I'll help old so-and-so, because one day, I'm going to need help and others will help me. It's the law, unwritten and unspoken, but we live by it every day. 

Then we come to this place where Jesus says this...this is not law. This is not transactional. And it's hard for us to fathom it. We can't conceptualize of something like grace in our current framework. That's why most of us spend our Christian lives trying to earn it. It's why we work so hard to make sure God favors us. It's why we hold ourselves so accountable to sin as failure, not as transgression but as failure. Because we haven't lived up to our side of the transaction, and in not doing so, we think we've lost it all. We spend even our faithful lives laboring to "keep" Jesus, when He's told us plainly already that that won't work. That His grace bursts our old wineskins. That His love tears our old coats. 

It's why so many leave the faith; they can never get past the law to get there. They can never get past that limited understanding that tells them they have to earn it, and they spend their entire lives feeling like failures and wondering why they keep doing this to themselves. Why they can't just get Jesus "right." Why they can't just be "better." They conclude they're never going to be better, never going to get their end of the transaction right, so they walk away. Better to be lost than be defeated. 

The truth is, they think - like so many of us think - that the old way would be better. It would make more sense to us, we could live faith better, if it was transactional just like everything else. If we could stake it on what we do, on how well we do it, on how faithful we are. If it were tit-for-tat, if it were if-this-then-that. 

Grace would be better if, like the law, we were in charge of administering it. As it is, it just blows everything up. 

And that's what Jesus said. He said it would be hard for us to get it. He said it would wreck everything we know and love. He said a lot of us wouldn't be able to understand. He said a lot of us would struggle. 

He also said it would be worth it. So worth it that He was willing to die just to show us. 

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Thankful, Grateful, Blessed

What are you thankful for?

It's a question you'll be asked at least once today, probably more. It is, after all, the center of this feast of which we are about to partake, but it's a question that feels...well...cheap, and we know it the moment we start to answer. 

It feels cheap not because it's cheap in itself, but because we, as a culture, have cheapened it. We don't really know what thankfulness is any more, not in the biblical sense, and so when most of us hear this question, what we really hear is, "Tell me about some of the good things in your life." 

We also call these "blessings." 

But is thankfulness, true thankfulness, really about the good things? Is it meant to center your heart on what's going right in your world, on all the things that are working out for you right now, on the stuff you're enjoying about living in this fallen flesh? Is thankfulness about your perspective, what you're willing to see...or is it something more?

The way we answer this question, we put all of the focus on ourselves. On our stuff. On our lives. Even when we say that we're thankful for God, what we're really saying is that we're thankful that we have God in our lives, that He does so much for us. It's still all about us, even though we've said His name. 

No wonder it feels so cheap. 

What we have to remember is that thankfulness is not a perspective; it's not about what we see or how we conceptualize our life in categories like good and bad, blessing and curse, working and not working. Thankfulness is a posture; it's about how we approach our life, about how we live it. It requires not a tremendous joy and celebration of what is "good," but a genuine, deep humility toward what is real.

Read that again: True thankfulness, the holy kind of thankfulness that God wants us to cultivate in our hearts, does not begin in joy, but in humility. 

It's not about what we have or don't have, what God is doing or not doing, what we hope for or don't hope for. It's about how we orient ourselves to all of it, to both sides of the coin, to the highs and the lows. The world, we think, is asking for just our highs today, but God - as He always does - is asking for our heart. 

What are you thankful for? It's a tough question to answer without feeling like we're whitewashing over something, like we're painting a picture without all of the colors of the real life we're living. It's cheap...but it doesn't have to be. 

Humble yourself. Change your posture. Reorient the way you're living toward your life or, at the very least, honestly examine it. Start on your knees and look up - not in superficial joy, but in awe and wonder. For you live this life in the flesh, but by the Spirit, it is more. Beyond your wildest imagination or anything you could fathom. 

So be thankful, truly thankful. And the best way to do that is not to merely confess all of the good things you've got going for you right now, but to live like it. To live like God loves you, not in your highs, but in your heart. 

Because He does, you know. He loves you so, so very much.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Hand-in-Hand

Two men will be out working in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be tending together in the house; one will be taken, and one will be left. This is the picture Jesus paints when He talks about what it will be like on the day that He returns, when God comes to set right all the broken things in this world. And He is making a distinction here between believers and unbelievers, between the righteous and the unrighteous, between those justified by faith and those not. We get that. 

What we skim right over, what we read without comprehending, what is right before our very eyes that we easily miss, is what else He says without saying it here: there ought to be no separation in this world between believers and unbelievers, righteous and unrighteous, justified and not. 

If two men are working in a field and one is taken and one is left, the one living by faith is working hand-in-hand with the one not. If two women are tending in the house together and one is taken and one is left, the believer toils alongside the unbeliever. In the same space. Close enough to know what happens to the one and what happens to the other. Close enough to see plainly. Close as brothers.

A lot of us think that we're better off surrounding ourselves with Christian friends. That we ought to center our lives around being with other persons who believe exactly the same as we do. We're ready to write off and to excommunicate anyone who doesn't take our faith seriously for themselves, and we have convinced ourselves that this is the better way. 

As if, when that day comes, the "church" is going to be some kind of bus stop for the rapture, and if we're not all together with one another right there, we're going to miss our ride. As if, if we were caught in the presence of the unbelievers, we might be mistaken for one and left behind. 

But that's not what Jesus says. What Jesus says is that, side-by-side, hand-in-hand...one is taken and one is left. So we need not fear being "in the world," so long as we remember we are not "of the world." 

And the truth is, it's good for us to be among unbelievers. It's good for the righteous to spend time with the unrighteous. It's good for us to put our faith in a place where it is tested, for when it is tested, it becomes more authentic. It becomes more secure. It becomes more real. 

Faith is all nice and pretty, but when you come to the place where you actually have to use it, it becomes breathtaking. 

Not only that, but how should we ever expect the unrighteous to become righteous or the unbeliever to believer if we have separated ourselves from them and refuse to toil in their fields? I say that as a former unrighteous unbeliever who owes her faith to someone who was willing to come hand-in-hand with me, who was willing to work in the same field for a time. Had we met Jesus then, he would have been taken and I would have been left, but because of his willingness to be right there, may we both be taken. 

We don't have to fear the world. We don't have to cut ourselves off. We don't have to hole up in our churches and make sure we're at the right stop when the bus comes. Our God who raises the dead to life, who makes the blind see, who makes the deaf hear, who makes the mute speak, is more than capable of finding us wherever we are. 

So let's be out in the field...together with the unbeliever. Let's be tending the house...together with the unrighteous. Let's be justified living with the unjustified. Let's be hand-in-hand with brothers we haven't met yet, side-by-side with sisters we don't know. Let's be where we can see what's happening with one another, for when we are, we both shall see Jesus more clearly. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

A Hill Outside the Holy City

Yesterday, I wrote about some famous words that Jesus spoke. And as I was writing, I wrote about how He carried His Cross on His shoulders to a hill outside of the holy city to die a criminal's (disgraceful) death. 

And it got me thinking.

It got me thinking about how much of our lives we invest in the "good" things, in the "holy" places, if you will. About how we love the bright, shiny, sacred things of worship and all the rich depth that goes along with a place like that.

Jerusalem was that place. The entire history of God's people centered on Jerusalem. It's where the Temple was. It's where the palace was. It's where they fought wars and lost battles and went into exile and returned home. So much of the significant parts of the story of God's people was tied to Jerusalem, and it was where they expected everything else to happen, too. 

In other words, it made perfect sense to them that Jesus would happen in Jerusalem. Which is why it was such a point of contention whether there was a place for Him there or not. (If they made a place for Him, they'd have to confess He was the Promise; if they could keep Him out of Jerusalem, they could deny it.) 

So, then, it's interesting that Jesus dies - the most holy, sacred act that has ever occurred on the face of the planet - just outside the city, not in it. Just outside, looking back over Jerusalem. Just outside, a little obscure place on a little obscure hill set aside for unholy things. 

Do you know that we, too, often do the most holy things in the most unholy places?

We don't think about it. We build our legacy in holy places, in clean churches and contemporary programs and small group gatherings with friends, and we let these things define us. We let them define not only us, but our geography. Our stories center around our holy things.

But I'm telling you, it's a farce. It's false. It's one of the ways that our culture has crept in and cleaned up our Christianity. It's one of the ways this world has convinced us that we ought to appraise our own lives. 

The truth is that our legacy is built in unholy places, in the gutters of life. Where the rabble roam. Where the criminals are crucified. Where faith is really put to the test. 

It's in the loss and the grief and the brokenness and the anger and the forgiveness and the hope and the despair and the doubt and the questions and the agony and the defeat. It's in the trials more than it is in the triumphs. It's on the little obscure hills looking over the great, grand places - the little hills where you can cry out at the top of your lungs and all of five persons are going to hear you; the rest of the world is just going to go about its business. 

And really, we know that's true. If you've lived this life at all, you know it. We want to pretend our lives are clean and pretty and pristine, but none of us actually live there. None of us live even the majority of our lives in the holy places; we live them in places we have to make holy by what we do there. 

Little hills outside the city where we die a criminal's (disgraceful) death. But with the hope - and the promise - of resurrection moving in the whispers, all eyes waiting to see.... 

Monday, November 25, 2019

Your Cross

If you've been around here long enough, you know that I'm all for reading the Bible in context. Not our context, but its context. And that raises an interesting question concerning one of the most famous statements Jesus ever made:

You must take up your cross and follow Me.

We read this passage - and we quote this passage - and it makes perfect sense to us because we understand how Jesus carried His Cross on His shoulders and walked to a hill just outside of the holy city to die a criminal's (disgraceful) death. 

But here's the thing - Jesus didn't say these words after He carried His Cross on His shoulders and walked to a hill just outside of the holy city to die a criminal's (disgraceful) death. He said them before

Way before. Matthew has Him speaking these words as early as chapter 10 - less than halfway through the Gospel. Jesus's death on a Cross wasn't even on the radar of the disciples to whom He was speaking. And how could it be? It wasn't even on their radar when it was actually happening. They couldn't fathom it even while it was going on. How could they have possibly understood these words so far before that fateful Passover?

So then, we have to go back and ask - how did the disciples who heard these words comprehend them at the time? 

Maybe they didn't. Maybe it was just one of those things that Jesus said - like many things that Jesus probably said - that the disciples just let slide, just shrugged off, just accepted as one of those "Jesus" things that didn't make any sense, so they just let Him say it and let it go. 

Textual critics of the Bible might say that it's the Gospel-writer's artistic expression to put those words in that particular spot, that it just makes sense for those words to be there and no one should question it. After all, the Gospels were written after the Resurrection, so stuff like that just made sense. The author didn't think twice about it. 

Except that raises the question of why the author would remember those words and would put them before the Cross if Jesus had not spoken those words memorably before the Cross. I mean, if you're making an artistic choice, those are powerful, profound words to put somewhere in the Great Commission, right along with making disciples of all nations. They're great as parting words, just before Jesus goes away again. Not in chapter 10 when He's right in the middle of ministry and hasn't even had eyes on Golgotha yet. This kind of textual criticism, though popular, just raises more questions than it answers. This is one example of how it does that. 

It's possible the disciples understood the reference to crucifixion and a criminal's death, even if they didn't connect it with Jesus. They were expecting a revolution from their Promised King, and that would make them rebels in the Roman Empire - men suited perfectly for crucifixion, especially if the revolution were at all bloody to start with. Maybe they were thinking that Jesus was talking about a revolution that was going to put them on the outs with the Romans and make them criminals and targets. Maybe they thought they were going to die and make a statement. 

It's important to think about this kind of thing because I'm telling you, when the disciples heard these words, they did not hear them the way that we hear them. They did not hear them the way that we quote them. I've given a few possibilities for how they heard them, but there are certainly more. The point is that we have to consider it because we can't understand the heart of the Scriptures, especially when it comes to Jesus, if we don't put the words in their time first and know how they were spoken and how they were received. These words, like many others, meant something different to them. 

If we can figure out what that was, we might find that they mean something different to us, too. Something that God may have been trying to tell us all along.... 

Friday, November 22, 2019

A Fruitful Seed

Most of us are familiar with the parable of the seed sown on the four types of ground - there is seed that is snatched away, seed that grows but doesn't develop roots, seed that is choked out by thorns all around it, and good seed, which produces an abundant harvest. 

But here's the thing about the good seed that we don't often think about and don't even hear preached all that much - it produces enough to feed a lot of hungry people. 

What we often think is that the good seed just becomes beautiful and abundant. Everyone passing by looks at it with awe and wonder, exclaiming, "Oh my! What a good and beautiful field that is, growing all of that abundance! How blessed it must be!" And we want to be good fruit so that when everyone looks at us, they see good fruit and they are in awe and amazed at what good fruit that we are. A hundred times anything that we ought to be on our own! We have become an abundance because of the blessing of the good Lord who loves us! 

That's not what the parable says, though. Not once does the parable say how impressed everyone else will be at the crop of the good seed. Not once does it say how the spectators will marvel at the glorious goodness of the harvest. Not once. 

What it says is that a lot of hungry people will be able to eat off that good seed. 

And that really changes the way we have to think about our own faith, doesn't it? Your faith is not abundant so that others will be impressed by how beautiful it is or how glorious you look; your faith is abundant because it is meant to nourish others. You're not supposed to build storehouses; you're supposed to set tables. 

Most of us don't lean that way. We want our faith to be a reflection on us. We want others to see how good we are because, well, look at us. We're downright abundant. We want others to see our joy and our blessedness and our crop and think what good seed we are. 

But our faith was never meant to be a reflection on us; it was meant to be a reflection on Him. It was never meant to show others how good we are, but how good He is. He is the one who is downright abundant. He is the source of our joy and blessedness. 

Imagine things the other way, just for a minute. Imagine if you weren't good soil. Imagine if your life was getting choked out by thorns, just to borrow an example from the parable. Wouldn't you want someone with a harvest to share? Wouldn't you want a crop that has more than it could have ever imagined to give you more than you can hope for from where you're at?

That's what it is - it is blessed beyond imagination sharing with despaired beyond hope. It's the sharing not of food, but of sustenance - the kind of hope that sustains the soul. It's setting tables not to feed, really, but to welcome. To make a place for those whose soil is just not in season, to make this their season. 

Sure, we could stand up, puff out our chests, and say, look how beautiful I am. Such good soil

But that's not what good soil is for. 

Let us sit down, thresh wheat together, and say, look how beautiful God is. Such a good God

Because we have what it takes to feed a lot of hungry people. And that's what the crop is for. 

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Hypocrites and Sinners

There's a difference between hypocrites and sinners. The world doesn't want you to think that. They want you to think that anyone who says one thing and does another is a hypocrite - they have intentionally done whatever it is in an effort to place themselves above even their own rules. It's kind of like every time an accident happens and the public cries out to file charges against somebody - there are no accidents any more, because there are no sinners; only hypocrites. There are only persons who think they're "special" and the rules don't apply to them. So let's hold everyone accountable.

But the truth is much more complicated than that (although to be honest, that's pretty complicated, too, because we're holding everyone accountable for everything and that gets pretty messy; just look at some of the innocence issues coming out). 

It's more complicated than that because most of us aren't really hypocrites; we're just sinners. We're just persons who have fallen short of the standards that we've set for ourselves or that we've accepted for ourselves, in the case of the Christian faith. We're just persons who are trying, really trying, to do right and somehow still getting it wrong. We're just persons who mess up from time to time, not because we intend to or because we think it doesn't matter, but just because we do. We're not perfect. 

Our imperfections don't make us hypocrites. They make us sinners.

Jesus gets on the Pharisees a lot about this very thing. They talk a big game, always having all of the rules and regulations and judgments to go about, but very rarely living by them themselves or holding themselves to the same standards. Even when they aren't about rules, it shows in other ways, and we're prone to think that every time we see Pharisees in Scripture, they're hypocrites, but maybe that's not the case. Maybe sometimes, they're just sinners. 

Maybe sometimes, they've just fallen short. It's a really grey area, but it's important. We think of the Pharisees as rule-keepers, as guys who are overly focused on what's right and what's wrong, to the point that they miss so often what is good. But what if, for a lot of them, they truly believe this is what is good and they're just doing their best? 

That's what we don't have a lot of in today's world - a belief that most everyone is just doing their best. We, of course, are doing our best, but that other person? They clearly aren't even trying. 

Here's what makes it hard, but also so important: if we're all hypocrites, if everyone is 100% responsible for every failing that they have, if we can sue and charge and imprison and fine and destroy everyone who ever makes a mistake, then the standards are black and white and we have control. We have control because we have judgment. We can say with absolute certainty (we think) what is right and what is wrong (even though, ironically, that has proven to be more difficult as time goes by). 

But if we're sinners, that takes grace. That requires believing that everyone is doing their best and being willing to let some things go, not because they're unimportant but because they're...well, they just are. They are just things that happen from time to time, not because the rules don't apply but because life is hard. Because life is busy. Because we are multi-dimensional human beings all trying to do our best but coming up short sometimes. It requires grace, and grace requires humility because it takes us being willing to look at ourselves and use the same standards we have for us for others. It requires confessing that we're just as likely to screw up and just as likely to long for grace, so we extend it to others. 

That's not easy. It's simple, but it's not easy, and most of us aren't willing to take the hard road of grace. 

Ironically, that makes us hypocrites. Doesn't it? 

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

What A Friend

Our present culture has made it more difficult for us to understand the unique relationship that Jesus had with the disciples - and that the disciples had with Him. 

In our world, we're connected to one another all the time. At the tips of our fingers, we have names and numbers and contacts and likes and networks that keep us tied together in a certain sort of way, but it's a weird sort of way. It really levels the playing field because in the same feed, we're seeing news from friends, from family, from the person that sat next to us in homeroom 20 years ago, from neighbors, from the church, etc. and it makes it seem like everyone is on the same level, everyone's in the same web of connectedness. These are my people; these are my "friends." 

And we even describe them as such. I have 376 "friends," we say, but honestly - how many are true friends? 

In tough times, 90%+ of your Facebook feed isn't coming over to sit in the basement and eat ice cream with you. 60%+ aren't showing up at the funeral of your loved one. About 40% will tell you happy birthday, if social media reminds them when they aren't too busy to take a few seconds. A few of my friends have launched fundraisers, and maybe 5% contribute. Oh yeah, we're connected, but we're not "friends." 

But this has changed the way we think about it when Jesus says things like, "I no longer call you servants; I call you friends." Or even "I call you brothers." Jesus is always talking about His disciples being guests at the wedding or closer yet, sons in the bridegroom's chambers - brothers. He's always talking about how close He is with them, and that is what their intimate eyewitness testimony is supposed to clue us into, but in our world where we are connected, but not close, we've lost what that means. 

We think maybe it means something like this was Jesus's team. Like any of our favorite professional sports teams, these are the guys who "played Gospel" together. They wore the same uniform and trotted out onto the same field and every once in awhile, Quarterback Jesus tossed them the ball and let them run it on in. 

And while teams are a little bit closer than our mere acquaintance networks on the interweb, they still don't guarantee the same things as friends or brothers. 

Friends and brothers, they're there. They're there in the good times and the bad times, when you're having a late fall bonfire and when you're burying your dad. They're there when life is overwhelming and you just need to cry a little or when a door breaks wide open and you need to celebrate. They're there when you're sick and when you're well. They're there for it all. 

Friends and brothers are the ones who share your stories because they're right there in the thick of them, too. They don't talk about them as passive third-party observers who heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend who saw it on a wall somewhere. They're the kind of persons whose interjections always start with "Remember that time we..." and it is a we because you've got stories together. 

I think we miss that when we read the Gospels. I think we miss just how together the disciples and Jesus are with one another. I think we miss what it's like to actually sit around that table and break bread. To actually be in that boat in the middle of a storm. To actually walk those roads. To actually cast out those demons. I don't think we understand what it means when Peter, James, and John climbed an actual mountain with an actual Jesus and saw Him actually transformed before their very eyes. I think we miss all that because in our world, to be friends is just to know somebody's name. 

But true friends know much more than that; they know your stories. Because they're part of them. 

We have to get our sanctified imaginations in gear and start reading these Gospels with eyes to see the very real friendships that existed, the very real nature of the relationship that Jesus had with His disciples...and that they had with Him. Why? Why does that matter?

Because it's the relationship He wants to have with us. And the one we're supposed to have with each other. 

When we get to Heaven, we're supposed to be able to look around at the whole host, Christ included, and start every one of our stories with, "Remember that time we...." But in order to do that, we have to recapture our "we" first. We have to remember what it means to be friends, to be brothers. To be His friends, His brothers. Sons in the bridegroom's chamber. 

Just like the disciples were. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

An Unfaithful God

And here we are. Does the law permit a man to divorce his wife if she is unfaithful...or if he is? We know from the examples given in Scripture that unfaithful women were stoned, not divorced, and we know that Jesus teaches on this. But it's important beyond what we read on the surface of it.

Remember that the law was designed to teach the people how to live as a faithful people before God. And marriage was often the image used for the relationship between God and His people; it still is. Christ is the groom, and we are His bride. 

So what does that mean for unfaithfulness? 

If a man is allowed to divorce his wife because she is unfaithful to him, then God is allowed to stop loving you when you are unfaithful. He's allowed to break up with you. Can you imagine a universe in which everything you know about God is true, but He is also permitted to stop loving you? It's unfathomable. 

He even said so much Himself when He commanded Hosea to take an unfaithful wife. He was making a bold statement. No matter your infidelity, He will never stop - He can never stop - loving you. 

But the promise goes even deeper than this, because if a man is allowed to divorce his wife because of his own unfaithfulness, then that, too, is a promise that God is making to His people. If He, the Lord, ever becomes unfaithful to you, He will set you free to pursue other gods. He will write off His own covenant and let you go. 

So in saying that a man can never divorce his wife except in the case of his own unfaithfulness, God is saying that no matter the ups and downs, no matter how rocky things get, no matter what's going on, He remains in this covenant with you and you remain His people. Until and unless He breaks His own vow, you're His...and He's yours. 

In other words, what He's saying with every breath is that He will never break His vow. He will never renege on His covenant. And if, for some unfathomable reason, He does, He will set you free. 

And we see this, too, over and over in Scripture, where women are on the outs with their men for one reason or another and become favored by God. Where one wife is loved and the other, loved less, and God grants the less-loved woman the fertile womb in order to remind her husband of his love for her. Where God says plainly that if for some reason, you come to be upset with your wife, you're not allowed to just leave her; you have to keep her. Where He says that she's yours forever and can never leave your house; you have to take care of her, even on the days when you don't want to. 

You have to keep loving her even when you don't love her very much, and God gives you every reason to do that...because that's what He does. He keeps on loving His people even when it doesn't seem He should love them very much, when they don't seem very lovable. 

So these statements on adultery and divorce are important, not just for the ways they teach us to live with each other, but for the ways they teach us that we live with God. Whenever we read sections of Scripture like this, we have to keep an eye out for what they reveal about God's covenant with us because that's what it's all about. That's what He wants us to see. And if He ever stops loving us...

Well, He won't. 

Monday, November 18, 2019

An Unfaithful Woman

While it's a little early still for Christmas, our journey through the Bible this year brings us now into the New Testament, which puts us into the Gospels and the life of Christ. And it is while Christ is teaching on the mountain that something new about the old law jumps out at me.

In His most famous sermon, Jesus talks about adultery and divorce. See, the law of Moses permitted a man to divorce his wife in the case of sexual immorality (unfaithfulness), and we say, well, yes. If she cheated on him, he ought to be able to divorce her. Jesus even seems to affirm this when He says that any man who divorces his wife, except in the case of sexual immorality, commits adultery. 

Except...

Except that later in the life of Jesus, we will see a woman caught in adultery - caught in sexual immorality - and the price is not divorce; it's death. That's what the law said. Any woman caught in the act of sexual immorality should be stoned to death. In fact, if you read the Old Testament, there are ways to figure out if the woman has been unfaithful or sexually immoral, and if she has, to stone her. 

If the price of sexual immorality for a woman is death, then is it the man's sexual immorality that justifies his divorcing her? 

It raises all kinds of tricky questions, especially for those of us who grew up interpreting the Bible in a gender equality society. Our Scriptures have been re-interpreted for us to insert women into the mix as often as possible and to make things seem equal when in the reality of the culture that we're reading about, they weren't. 

We think the sexual immorality thing goes both ways, but does it? In a society where women were considered property, where they were sold into marriages arranged by their fathers, where there were often multiple wives and concubines involved - even for a people to whom God said a man and a woman would leave their fathers and mothers and be cleaved together - are we really going to say that women were given this one fair and equal right, to divorce their husbands based on marital infidelity? What even is marital infidelity to a woman who is one of many wives? 

It's complicated.

But what we do know is that when we actually see an unfaithful woman in Scripture, nobody wants to divorce her; they want to stone her. When we see woman caught in adultery, the crowds don't encourage the man to sign papers; they pick up rocks. Maybe death was more honorable than divorce. 

The implications go even beyond this, but this is just a starter point to get you thinking about this idea. If the law permits divorce in the case of an unfaithful woman, why wasn't that provision actually used for unfaithful women? If, on the other hand, the law permits a man to divorce his wife if he is maritally unfaithful....

Stay tuned tomorrow. This gets interesting. 

Friday, November 15, 2019

Horns of the Beast

Let's face it: some of the visions of the prophets are just plain weird, from Elijah all the way up to John in Revelation, it's a lot of bizarre language and images that are used to describe what God is doing or what God is going to do. 

One of the more frequent images used by God through the prophets is that of a beast with horns. A certain beast with a certain number of horns, that sometimes grow more horns and then the horns take on a life of their own and become rampaging horns or whatever. Beasts and horns: it's a Bible thing. 

And we could get into what all of that means, how the horns are interpreted to be kingdoms or kings, leaders of people or peoples themselves who come to authority for a time, times, and half a time (whatever that means) until they get replaced by other kingdoms or kings, leaders or peoples. And on and on and on it goes. 

Until...

Zechariah. 

And now, we start bringing...Jesus...into the mix.

See, Zechariah is having one of these visions that's so common to prophets. He has before his sanctified sight an image of a beast with a number of horns, just as so many prophets before and after him will see. He's even got horsemen patrolling the earth (chapters 1 and 6, which ought to bring to mind some images from Revelation, but I digress). The difference in Zechariah's prophecy is what happens to those horns.

In this prophecy, craftsmen come and take care of the horns that traumatized and ravaged Israel and Judah (Zechariah 1). 

Craftsmen like...say...carpenters?

Ah, you see where I'm going with this. Right here, Zechariah is identifying the nations that have come against and splintered God's people, and he wraps it up with a craftsman who is going to put those nations in their place. The prophecy ties up in the Messiah in a way that you can't possibly understand unless you know the Carpenter is coming. Jesus is exactly the kind of skilled workman who can take the horns of this beast in His hands and "take care" of it. 

Little things that you read right by a thousand times until once, just once, it jumps off the page at you and you can never forget it. Just thought I'd share. 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Day of the Lord

If you've ever read any of the Old Testament descriptions of the "Day of the Lord" that is coming, you've probably had this thought: 

I don't want to be here for that. 

And really, a lot of the New Testament descriptions aren't that different. We've cleaned them up real nice, talking about that moment when Jesus comes back and all of the believers are swept up into the sky and welcomed into fluffy clouds before the earth explodes or something, destroying all of the sinners. 

But if you actually look, even Jesus says that day is going to be terrifying and that you'd better hope you're not busy when it happens because it's going to take everything you've got. Our nice, cleaned-up version says it all happens in the blink of an eye - here, and then there; alive, and then live forever - but Jesus says you'd better have everything you need with you and not have to turn back to get something. Which means...the day of the Lord is not some mystical blink, but a real day that you're going to have to live through. A journey you're going to have to go on. 

A battle you're going to have to fight.

That's what the Scriptures most often portray it as - a great, epic battle. A fight. A war. A lot of fire and swords and bloodshed, a lot of lives laid on the ground. Victory and defeat, and you're there for them both. Darkness and storms and trials and tribulations and famine and wandering and...well, you've read it. You get the point. It's terrifying. Of course you think you don't want to be here for that. 

As Christians of a certain era, we wonder how that can possibly be. How can a God of love come back in a day of bloodshed and torment? Why is the "Day of the Lord," which the people of God have always looked forward to, so terrifying? (And yes, even though it's terrifying, they have always looked forward to it. They have even prayed fervently for its coming.) It doesn't mesh with the God-of-good-feelings that we've come to know in our day and age. It doesn't gel with peace and love and forgiveness. 

Here's what we have to remember: for the people of God who gave us these visions, this was everyday life. This was what they knew. The people of God spent almost of their lives fighting, moving in on enemy nations and having enemy nations move in on them. Their entire existence was framed in battle and bloodshed, in darkness and storms and siege ramps, in death and famine and wandering. In the same way that we think God is coming back in one big love-fest because we live in a time of peaceful love and good things, the people for whom life was constant war could see God coming only in war, in one final, epic battle that would put the weapons down for good. For good. 

So what does that mean? Does that mean the Day of the Lord won't be as bloody, dark, and horrendous as the biblical writers would leave us to believe? That their vision of such a thing was tainted by the lives they lived? Well, if we're going to say that, then we ought to say just as well that the Day of the Lord won't be as loving and peaceful and easy as we would lead ourselves to believe, for our vision, too, is tainted by the lives we live. 

Maybe we should just be thankful that the lives we lead are so dramatically far from war and bloodshed that we've lost our frame of reference for such a thing. There's probably some validity in that. 

The truth is, I don't know. But when I think about this, I think about how God gives us a vision for things of Him that we can understand because it comes looking like so many of the things that we already know. And I think it's important that we catch God's vision, whatever it is, because He's trying to tell us something. 

But we have to be careful because sometimes, we give ourselves visions for things of God based on what we know, and that's not the same thing. It's like I said above - we've all got this cleaned-up vision of an instantaneous love-in, of peace and good vibes and soft, fluffy clouds - and we got that vision because that's the age that we live in, but that's not, and never has been, the vision of God. We gave that one to ourselves. Just look at how it contrasts with Jesus's own words on the matter. 

It is best, then, that we pray and ask God to open our eyes, ask God to show us what it is He wants us to see, ask Him to reveal what it is He wants us to know. And the Day of the Lord? It's coming. It's something we ought to be thinking about. Let's pray for God to give us a vision of that day that our eyes can see. And let's take His Word for it...not ours. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Rocky Places

Have you ever seen video of those animals - I think they're goats? - that just bound and leap around on the rocky sides of mountains? That just prance around like there's nothing going on, even though one wrong step could send them tumbling over the side? That don't seem to be phased at all when those rocks start to crumble and slide under their feet? They're so graceful, in the most ungraceful places.

What if I told you that you are a mountain goat? 

A lot of us spend our lives just trying to manage our lives. We're sucked in by the hard places, mesmerized by the rocks. We can't stop looking at where we're stepping because it seems so dangerous, so precarious, so difficult to live the kinds of lives that we're living. 

And listen, we've all got our challenges. Whatever it is. For some, it's financial. For others, it's physical. Still others have relational struggles. We've all got our battles to fight, and most of us feel like we're falling. The rocks are big, but they're fragile. The dust is crumbling under our feet. The side of this mountain is starting to tumble, just as we think we've finally got hold on it. Just when we think maybe we're finally going to get there. 

Can I let you in on a little secret? It's not just your life that's like that. We're all living that life. 

Can I let you in on another little secret? There's not a person on the outside looking in who could walk your life the way that you are. Not one. If anyone, even those who think you're just stumbling around, could get a good look at the craggy terrain you're navigating, it wouldn't take long for you to begin looking to them just like one of those mountain goats. 

Yes, graceful

Go ahead. Laugh about that for a minute. It seems unfathomable, doesn't it? Here you are, stumbling and fumbling about as best you can, feeling the ground move beneath your feat, and I have the audacity to say you look graceful doing it. Ha! I know you feel anything but graceful. 

But this is the encouragement from Habakkuk. This is what God wants you to see. The prophet says that no matter what's going on in your life, God steadies your feet to walk in uneven places. Just like the mountain goat. God knows what your life is like, and He strengthens you to live it.

Regardless of what it feels like from the inside (and trust me, I know), if you ever saw video of yourself navigating your mountain - your rocky, sandy, crumbling, falling, struggling mountain - you'd see that you look downright graceful. 

By the grace of God. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Dream

Are you a dreamer? Are you someone who goes to bed at night and has visions of things to come, things past, things hoped for, things feared, things loved? Then you, my friend, are a person in whom something holy is at work. 

To dream requires something outside of the present moment. It requires something beyond what you know that you have. It takes imagination, the ability to see beyond what's right in front of you. It takes a willingness to look for what you cannot yet see. And I'm not just talking good dreams - all dreams require this. If you have bad dreams, fearful dreams, whatever, that requires an ability to look honestly at your own life and know fear, remorse, sorrow. 

These are all God-given things. These are holy things. These are sacred things. And if you don't believe me, turn to the prophet Micah, for it is his words I'm drawing from. 

In Micah 3, he says that those who are in darkness away from God don't dream. 

They don't dream. Those who find themselves in a place walled off from the light of God, in their darkness, they do not dream. When the sun sets and they close their eyes, there's no vision to paint a picture for them. Without God, they have no hope. No imagination. No honest reflection on their lives. And why should they? 

This is, I think, one of the greatest challenges for our culture right now. With so many turning away from God and focusing their entire lives on human ability or personal pleasure or whatever, we've lost our ability to dream. We can't see any more beyond our present circumstances or our limited scope, and we just don't dream. 

We don't think about the way things ought to be or even how things could be; we're stuck at the way things are. We don't think about whether we hurt someone yesterday or whether we should have done something differently; we've moved on from that and only have today. We don't think about what could be good and beautiful tomorrow; how can we? Today sucks every bit of life that we have to give it and leaves us nothing left for something like tomorrow. Here, now, today, this...it's all we've got when we don't have a God who gives us, truly, eternity. 

That's the gift. That's the blessed gift that He gives us. He gives us eternity, which gives us more than just our present. It gives us our past and His past and all of history and it gives us the future and His Promise and all the tomorrows we can think of. It gives us imagination and introspection and sorrow and hope and nostalgia and fear and the full range of human emotion and experience. That's the holy gift. It's something sacred. 

Apart from God, we don't have any of it. We just have darkness. And in darkness, we cannot dream. 

Close your eyes. What vision dances in your darkness? What dream stirs your heart? That's holy. That's sacred. That's God. 

Monday, November 11, 2019

An Angry Prophet

The story of Jonah ends in a rather weird way, with the prophet sulking under a withered plant because God poured out His mercy on a repentant people. Remember, God picked Jonah as a prophet; He saw something prophet-like about the young man. And yet...

It's hard to make sense of. Here is this guy who knows God and believes in Him, who is confident about the character of God. We know that because when God tries to send him to Nineveh in the first place, Jonah says, "No way, God. I know You. I know that You're just going to send me there and get all those wicked people to turn around so You can love them." 

He's not wrong. And yet...

And yet, he seems to have something against God being who He knows God to be. He doesn't want God to act mercifully on these people, although I'm sure he expects God to act mercifully toward him...and we even see him thankful for God's mercy, as we looked at on Friday. 

It could be that it's just a simple case of us vs. them, of wanting God's blessing all to yourself, of not wanting to share the good news with someone you don't think deserves it. Those Ninevites? They're wicked. They don't deserve mercy. They don't deserve the chance to turn around and live better lives. If they deserved it, they'd already have it, and they don't, so no dice. Maybe Jonah just wants God to stay with the people of God and let all the others fall away. After all, national rivalries were pretty big in the Old Testament, and we weren't hearing a lot of that Jesus-y "love your enemies" stuff yet (or were we?). 

Still, you have to wonder just what it is that makes Jonah so very angry when God does just what Jonah knew all along that God would do and rains down mercy on this repentant people. It's not just hurt feelings, kicking his toes in the sand or that sort of thing. It's not resignation. It's indignation; Jonah is hot over this. He's infuriated! 

I wonder if part of it isn't that when God made Nineveh right, He made Jonah wrong. 

He sent Jonah to proclaim His judgment on this people, to tell them all of the harsh things God was going to do to them because of their wicked ways. To call them sinners to their faces and condemn them, in no uncertain terms. That's the message that we see Jonah take. "God's going to destroy you. You're all about to die. And you deserve it. Sinners." 

Then, of course, God doesn't destroy them. They don't die. Yes, it's because they repented and changed their ways and gave themselves over to His mercy, but at this point, doesn't Jonah start to look something like a false prophet? If you repent and are spared before you even feel the heat of the fire, was it ever burning at all? Is Jonah truly a messenger of the Lord...or just some crazy guy who wandered through town one day? 

In other words, is Jonah's beef really just that God made him look like a fool? 

If so, there are a lot of us who have that beef. Or who could have it. Actually, there are a lot of us who have Jonah's whole story because we're afraid of this very thing. God is going to make us look like a fool, so whatever direction He tells us to go, we'll hop on a ship and head out to sea in some other direction. And then, if we turn back, it happens anyway and here we are, a fool. A moron. Someone who's naive. Who doesn't understand the way this world works. Who goes off spouting nonsense about God and love and grace and goodness without...what's that word?...perspective.

Oh, yes, I've had that moment. And to be honest with you, I've had that anger. I have had that absolute fury that just by doing what God told me to do, He's made me a fool. In front of everybody. 

But you know what? Every time I've had that moment, I find that if I can just push through it, just a little bit, and hold onto what I know about God - all the good, beautiful, gracious things that I know about this God who loves me and who I love - I come to the same conclusion every time:

I'll be a fool for Him. 

It's okay. It's absolutely okay. Every time I sit down and think about it, every time I question whether something makes sense, every time I wonder how something's going to work out, I decide that if whatever God's getting me to do makes me a fool, then so be it. I'll be a fool for Him. 

How about you? Will you be a fool for God? 

Friday, November 8, 2019

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

How do you suppose things look from inside a whale? Honestly. If you were to find yourself inside of a whale, is it the place you would think that things are finally working out for you, that you've got a bright future to look forward to, that you've got hope for whatever's coming next, that God is good

I don't think so. 

And yet, that's exactly where we find the prophet Jonah when he prays a prayer of thanksgiving to God. Inside the whale. 

Sure, he's not in the ocean any more. He's been saved from certain death-by-drowning in the recently-raging seas. God has plucked him out of the waves and given him refuge. But don't you think that the inside of a whale also looks kind of like certain death? It seems like the smallest possible thing to be thankful for - not drowning...even while you're still clearly dying. 

Most of us wouldn't even consider to thank God in a time like this. We'd wave our hands around and sarcastically say the words, maybe - thanks a lot, God - but we wouldn't mean them. In fact, most of us don't thank God until we're firmly on dry land. 

Not after the storm calms.

Not after we're rescued from the depths. 

Not while we're in the whale. 

We don't thank God until our prayers are fully answered, until all of the danger has passed, until we've gotten to where we want to be and set our feet on solid ground, until we're sure the other shoe isn't going to drop. Well, reasonably sure. We don't thank God until after He's rescued us. 

Yet send a fireman to pull us out of a burning building, and as soon as he takes us in his hands, we'll cry out by instinct, Thank you! Even if we're still surrounded by fire. 

What is it that makes us trust the fireman more than we trust God? Anything could happen in that house to keep us from getting to the door, but as soon as there's a hand on us, we get this overwhelming sense that we're safe. Put God's hand on us...and we're not quite sure. 

Anything could happen now, we think. There's a lot of space between here and there. Maybe God hasn't come to pull me out of the fire at all. And on and on and on we go with all of the reasons why God's saving grace is not worth a thank you until we have been wholly and fully saved by it. Until we're out of the fire. Until we're out of the whale. 

We could still die here, don't you know. In fact, we're certain of it. 

Say what you want about Jonah, about his unfaithfulness, about his pettiness, about his pouting, but he's got something on nearly all of us - Jonah knows how to say thank you in the middle of God's grace, even when he still doesn't know how it's going to work out. Jonah knows how to thank God when he feels His powerful hand on him, even if it hasn't delivered him yet. Jonah knows how to take inventory of where he's been and where he's at without becoming overly concerned with where he's going or where he would rather be and to thank God for what He's doing, rather than waiting to thank Him for what He's done. 

We could all use a little more of that. I know I could. 

So thank You, Lord. From the belly of the whale, thank You. 

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Sinners

We don't talk as much in the church about sin as we used to. It's become an unpalatable topic for most churches, frankly because it's become unpalatable for most Christians. In a world in which we consider ourselves to be primarily "good" people who don't do many "bad" things, the idea that we would be sinners is...hard to swallow. Me? A sinner? But I'm a "good" person! 

So we focus on getting our worship right, on getting our outreach right, on plugging into our programs and our communities so that everyone who comes to our church has a worship-ful experience and gets to hear about all the love and grace and wonder that is our God. 

Which is good, and it's true that is our God, but it's not our Savior. Our Savior's love and grace and mercy comes to sinners who need His atoning sacrifice. 

But...but...

No buts. However, let's be honest about this and say that it's not a new phenomenon. This whole idea of sinners in need of a savior has been a bit difficult for God's people since...well, since they became God's people and He started telling them about it. 

We can go all the way back to Amos and see a glimpse of this. The prophet is talking about the unfaithfulness and waywardness of the people of God, and what he says is that their worship is right, but their hearts are not grieved by sin. 

Read that again: they were worshiping exactly the way God had prescribed for them to worship, but their hearts were not grieved by sin, so they were missing something essential. 

We, too, are missing something essential when we neglect to remember that we, too, are sinners. To put it bluntly, we're missing our Christ. 

We don't preach the Cross any more. Maybe at Easter, but not on a "regular" Sunday. The single most identifiable act in the Christian faith, the turning point of God's relationship with His people, the very thing that our hearts ought to be turned toward, we've tuned out because it's...distasteful to us. Not only distasteful, but unnecessary. 

We can be good people without the Cross. All we need is Jesus. 

It strikes me that in writing a sentence like the one I just wrote, a lot of readers are likely going to say yes, of course. That's absolutely true. And it is. We can be good people with Jesus. But without the Cross, we can't be good people with Jesus eternally. Without the Cross, we're just nice human beings, not redeemed image-bearers of the Living God. Without the Cross, we're just making ourselves feel better, rather than actually being made better. 

I get that we're invested in our programs and our worship and our sermons and our music. I get that we're into outreach and doing good works in our communities. I get that we're basically "good" people doing "good" things and giving glory to God for it. But the greatest glory we can give to God is not our "good" lives, but our redeemed ones.

Even if our worship is perfectly right, if our hearts are not grieved by sin - by our sin - then we're missing something essential. 

We're missing our Savior. 

All for the sake of our "God." 

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Wandering

We know that the Bible is full of good news, and some of the most encouraging words in all the Bible come in Hosea 11, where we are told, "Judah still wanders with God." 

It's encouraging, at least to someone like me. You see, I'm one of those who still feels lost a lot of the time, and I'm pretty sure I'm not alone. Some days, I don't know where I'm going. Other days, it's hard to see where I've come from. Quite often, I don't even know where I'm at. It's hard to get my bearings on life in this fallen world, and just as soon as I think I've got something figured out, I look up and think to myself, "Didn't I already pass that tree once?"

Sometimes, I tell ya', it's like I'm just going in circles, hoping I end up somewhere, feeling like I'm in the middle of nowhere.

Amen?

And then, there are these words from the prophet: "Judah still wanders with God."

Judah had spent her time wandering with God in the wilderness with the rest of Israel. Between slavery in Egypt and milk and honey in the Promised Land, Judah took every crazy turn. She sculpted a calf to worship at the foot of the mountain, cried out for water, whined for meat and bread. She kept talking about going back to Egypt, where at least she knew where she was.

Then Judah settled in the Promised Land, taking the southern part of the kingdom of Israel. She came to the very place where God had led her, where God had taken her. She had everything God has promised - an abundant, life-giving, overflowing land of her own where she could settle and be at peace from the enemies God had enabled her to defeat. She broke free from sinful Israel and established her own king, trying to hold onto some semblance of righteousness even while the people of God as a whole were falling away. She was the promise within the promise of God, in her own land, in her own place.

And in a prophecy regarding the unfaithfulness of God's people, the lostness of His beloved, this little whisper of what hope still is: Judah still wanders with God.

This people lost, then found, then lost again still wanders with God. Wherever they are, they're not alone there. Whatever they've gotten wrong, they're still trying. They're holding onto whatever they have left of the faith that brought them this far, and they're doing it - out there in the middle of nowhere, neither past nor promise on the horizons, going in circles, wondering if they already passed that tree at least once...Judah is wandering with God.

So am I. I hope, so are you.

Because we think this whole faith thing is about where we're settled. We think we ought to have landed somewhere by now. We get down on ourselves when we feel our most lost, as if that's going to help anything. We think that if we're wandering, we've somehow gone astray...we've somehow forfeited everything.

But maybe, just maybe, it's not so dire. Maybe it's possible, even when we're wandering, to be wandering with God. Maybe, like Judah, we're not alone. Maybe, like Judah, we're still trying. Maybe, like Judah, we're holding onto whatever we have of the faith that brought us this far, and we're doing it. It's not pretty. It's not a straight line. I wouldn't really draw any maps off of this journey that we're on right now, but here we are, right in the thick of it, right in the middle of nowhere...with God. And isn't that something?

It is. It's something. Even in a place so hopelessly void of anything, so frustratingly full of nothing, that's something.

So if you're wandering right now, it's okay. Really. It's not as bad as it seems. Just...be like Judah.

Keep wandering with God.