Tuesday, June 26, 2018

I Want My Kingdom, And I Want It Now! (6)

If you've been following along, you are probably seeing that Jesus, this great spiritual teacher, is a little different than what you expected.  He was not just the "meek and mild" doe-eyed Jesus of the movies.  He had a huge heart for weary, discouraged, and broken people, but very little tolerance for religious people.  Despite his obvious love for the hurting and the poor and "sinners," it is amazing how the "mob mentality" can sweep people up and encourage them to do things they otherwise would not do.  In our last post, we saw how the people of Jesus’ day responded when Jesus didn’t organize an army, didn’t lead a political coup, and didn’t set up an earthly kingdom.  They were furious!  “How dare he!?  Who does he think he is?”  And there is the big question.  Who exactly was Jesus?  Either he has some special right to tell us that our kingdoms are failing and his is the only one that really matters, or he is just another religious do-gooder we can either listen to or ignore, but either way, we get to pick and choose what part of his teaching we like and which parts we don’t.  You may have noticed that Jesus is often referred to as “Jesus Christ.”  Is that his last name, “Christ?”  No.  It’s a title.  In that way I might be referred to as “Dave Pastor.”  “Pastor” is what I do and, in some sense, who I am. The word “Christ” is used in that way, and in the language of Jesus’ day, it was the same word as “Messiah (Just as, for example, "bien" in Spanish means "good" in English.  They mean exactly the same thing).  Jesus didn’t claim to be just any messiah/christ, but The Messiah, the long-awaited messenger from God who had come to set his people free and to set all of mankind free.  But there was a twist.  Not only did Jesus claim to be The Messiah, he also claimed to be God, in the flesh.[1]  That, coupled with his unpopular view of the Kingdom, was simply more than the people of his day could take.  He was unwilling to lead an armed rebellion, and now he was claiming to be God Himself.  Would it surprise you to know that the people of Jesus day responded to him exactly like people today, “spiritual but not religious” people? The audacity of his claims and the disappointment surrounding his idea of the kingdom were simply more than they/we can bear.  So how do you respond to someone like that, someone who acts like they call the shots, someone that demands something of us that we may or may not want to do?  We kill him.  And we move on to build our own kingdoms our way, using some of the nice things Jesus taught when we need them, but all this talk of repentance and kingdoms and deity are just too much.  You may be thinking, “I would never kill someone I disagreed with!”  Perhaps not.  But we all reach a point where we tire of hearing someone demand something of us that we are unwilling to do.  Eventually, the actual claims of Jesus are like nails on a chalkboard.  “Stop!”  Are we really that different from the people of Jesus’ day who raised their fists in the air and demanded, “Crucify him?!”[2] 

[1] Jesus repeatedly claimed to be God!  This absolutely infuriated the religious professionals of His day.  They fully acknowledged that He possessed incredible authority, the power to perform miracles, and that He lived an exemplary life.  It was precisely because He CHALLENGED AND CRITICIZED PHONY RELIGION that they simply could not stomach His claims.
[2] Mark 15:6-15

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Where Is the Washed-Out Bridge? (5)

We've learned that the core of Jesus' teaching began with the word "repent!"  It means to "turn around."  You were invited to imagine driving towards a bridge that had been washed out and hearing someone by the side of the road shout "repent" as you drove by.  Stay on your current path, and disaster awaits you!  Turn around and instead, head for "the Kingdom."  We've learned that the people of Jesus' day were filled with expectations regarding "the Kingdom."  But the Kingdom that Jesus taught about looked very little like what they wanted.  Their response?  Murder.  Is it that hard to imagine that when a leader fails to deliver what is expected, that people respond violently? 

On that ominous note, let’s look again at the first word in Jesus’ teaching.  We are getting a better idea of what he meant by the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom that we should turn toward, a spiritual, not physical Kingdom.  But what exactly was he warning us to turn from, to "repent" from?  You’ve probably already guessed.  It is another kingdom.  This other kingdom has many things in common with the kingdom that the people of Jesus’ day wanted.  This kingdom is built on human power.  This kingdom is selfish, promoting the interests of ourselves and others like us.  This kingdom is one that we can easily access with our five senses.  In short, this kingdom is the one that each of us builds around ourselves.  It is a personal kingdom that promises to provide all the things that a traditional kingdom provides; safety, security, comfort, control, a sense of belonging, etc.  But each of our kingdoms is completely unique in one critical sense—each of these kingdoms has a different king.  Each of the kingdoms that you and I build to help us answer the big questions in life has someone sitting on the throne that promises to make us happy.  Each of these kingdoms is ruled by someone that we are comfortable with and confident in.  That person?  You.  And me.  You on your throne, and me on mine.  Because of his great love for us, Jesus is warning us that this kingdom, the one that you and I are building around ourselves, will always fail to deliver on what is promised. Of course,  it feels good to be in control!  It feels good to call the shots!  But for many of us, we know that something is missing.  We know that the very security we seek, the happiness that we long for, the freedom from anxiety and the strength to endure tough times is just not there.  Worst of all, we know that, despite our best efforts, we still fail in life, sometime miserably, and we don’t know where to go with the pain and the guilt that seems to surround us.  Of course, there are some of us who are doing “just fine.”  We cruise through life without a care in the world—everything is “puppies and rainbows.”  Really?  Never a doubt?  Never a longing for “something more?”  Never a time when you concede that you are just sick and tired of being sick and tired?  The fact is, at least according to Jesus, that we are all headed for disaster.  Our own personal kingdoms are failing us, which often prompts us to drive faster and longer, while all the while there is that pesky man, standing by the roadside, shouting “Repent!”  THAT is at the heart of the message of Jesus.  His great love and his great commitment to do whatever was necessary to save us, is what compelled him to say those words.  And what he did next was even more shocking than the message he came to bring.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Which Kingdom Is Coming? (Part 4)

(Be sure to read previous posts to get caught up).
So we have established that what Jesus taught was not what most people think.  In fact, the core of His teaching was something radical, shot through with expectations for spiritual people.  "Repent!  The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (or "here")."  For the people of Jesus’ day, the word “kingdom” was a loaded term.  Hundreds of years before Jesus was born, the Jewish people had been promised a new kingdom.  Their greatest political leader, a man named David, was a powerful warrior king.  He consolidated his rule and expanded the territory of the Jews like never before.  The Jewish people, also called Israelites (see note #2 below), enjoyed freedom and safety.  But that safety and freedom was short-lived.  After David died, Israel began a long, slow cultural decline that ended in their being taken over by a foreign nation.  Thus began a long period of one foreign power after another ruling over Israel.  Like any people, they hated it.  They wanted their own kingdom, ruled by their own people.  For hundreds of years they clung to the promise that someday, a descendant of David would come and save them, a “Messiah.”  Just like David, this new king would defeat the enemies of Israel and restore the glory days of old.  Their “Bible,” which we call the Old Testament, is filled with such promises.  But there was a problem.  These promises pointed away from a traditional, earthly kingdom, to a different kind of kingdom.  This new kingdom would begin on the inside of each person and extend outward.  This new kingdom, which the Messiah would bring about, would be a kingdom unlike any other, a “spiritual” kingdom, that would change hearts.  And the most radical part of this new kingdom?  It would be composed of people from every color, every language, every nation on earth!  It would no longer be a political reality with borders and a capital city, because it would extend throughout the entire world!  This is part of what Jesus meant by the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven.” Any person could become a citizen of this new kingdom, regardless of where you were born, what color you were, how much money you had or what your social standing was.  Wouldn’t you think that the idea of a “spiritual” kingdom would appeal to people who wanted to be spiritual, but not religious?  No.  At least not in Jesus’ day.[1] In fact, it didn’t sit well with them at all!  They were living under the rule of yet another foreign power, the Roman empire.  And the people of Jesus day felt special, because they were direct descendants of the man who founded the kingdom of Israel, a man named Abraham.[2]  They wanted to relive the victories of king David. Although God had chosen them long ago to be His people, God made it very clear that He was blessing them so that they could in turn bring the message of forgiveness and redemption to every nation in the world.[3]  By the time Jesus arrived, the Jewish people had completely exchanged the original idea of the Kingdom of Heaven with an earthly kingdom, with them at the top.  And they were so hopeful when Jesus came on the scene!  He fit the bill perfectly; he was a direct descendant of the original king David, he was charismatic and had a commanding presence, and he seemed to be able to do miraculous things that would be the envy of any great military leader.[4]  And to top it all off, the very words they had longed to hear for centuries came falling from his lips: “the Kingdom is at hand.”  Finally!  Rome will be defeated, Israel will once again rule the world, and peace and safety and prosperity will return.  But as Jesus began his teaching ministry, he kept saying and doing things that did not fit with their idea of the kingdom.  In fact, the kingdom that Jesus spoke of didn’t look anything like the kingdom they wanted.  The result?  Murder.

[1] Jesus lived in Israel from between 1 A.D. and 35 A. D.
[2] Abram, or Abraham was a member of an ethnic group known as "Hebrews." He was the first person that the God of the Bible called apart to be the father of His special, chosen people.  God promised that he would create a great nation of people from this one man.  The world's 3 greatest religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity trace their roots directly to Abraham, who lived around 2500 B.C.  Abraham's grandson, Jacob, had his name changed by God to "Israel" and from then onward, his descendants became known as "Israelites."  
[3] The actual words that God spoke to Abraham (Abram) are recorded in the first book of the Bible, Genesis chapter 12, verses 1-3. In the promise that God made to Abraham, He made it clear that He was blessing Abraham so that "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."  
[4] Jesus' closest friends and followers recorded many events in which Jesus defied the laws of nature by performing miracles.  From a military standpoint, 2 types of  miracles stand out.  On more than one occasion, Jesus raised people from the dead, and more than once, he fed large groups of people (numbering in the thousands) with only a few pieces of bread and a couple of dried fish.  Can you imagine the military advantage that an army would have if they never needed to resupply their troops with food, and if those killed in battle could be raised from the dead?!  Any army would love to have such a leader.  They would be invincible!

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Unpacking The Preacher, & Picking The Right Kingdom

(Be sure to read previous posts to help the following posts make sense!)
Maybe you’re already offended.  Jesus’ teaching starts abruptly with a word we don’t often hear today; “Repent!”  It sounds like something a TV preacher from the Old Time Gospel Hour would shout at you while wagging his finger and thumping his Bible.  But that word is more of a warning than a dis.  It literally means to “turn around.”  If you were driving your car on a foggy night toward a bridge that had been washed away, and I was standing on the edge of the street, I might yell “repent” as you drove by.  Rather than condemning you, I would be warning you that there was danger ahead.  And that is at the heart of why Jesus began his public teaching ministry with that word, repent— “watch out!  Danger ahead!  Turn around!  Stop heading in that direction and start heading in a new direction!”  Don’t misunderstand.  It is a stern warning.  There is an “edge” to that word that can’t and shouldn’t be missed.  It presumes that the person shouting the warning knows something you don’t.  It also presumes that the person shouting not only sees the danger, but they also have a good idea of a better alternative route.  So, why does Jesus introduce us to his teaching in such an abrupt and at the same time, confident way?

Not only is the word “repent” a little old-fashioned, but the word “kingdom” is not something that most of us can identify with, at least not most Americans.  We don’t have a king, nonetheless a kingdom.  But most of us get the idea.  A kingdom is a place, a territory.  It has borders and is composed of people or citizens.  It has a government with people that call the shots. It provides its people with an Identity that distinguishes them from other people from other countries or kingdoms.  It usually has its own currency, and it provides its citizens with the things they need to live comfortably.  In short, a kingdom is where you live, and how you live.  After starting with the word “repent” Jesus then gives the answer to what he is urging us to turn/repent from, as well as what he wants us to turn to.  He wants us to turn away from one kingdom and turn toward another. While he may not be clear yet about which kingdom he wants us to turn from, he is crystal clear on the one he wants us to turn toward—the kingdom of “heaven.” But that still leaves Jesus with a lot of explaining to do—He first needs to explain what kingdom he is urging us to turn away from, and what exactly he means by turning to the “kingdom of heaven?”

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Keeping The Main Thing The Main Thing

In our last post, we suggested that the main thing that Jesus taught was "shocking." We don't normally associate that word with Jesus!  Jesus is meek and mild, sweet and kind--kind of like a religious Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. He was a great religious do-gooder who founded the largest religion in the world, right?  So, how could what he taught be "shocking?"  The truth is that Jesus was probably one of, if not THE most polarizing figures in all of human history.  He is reported to have said and done amazing, even controversial things.  Those reports came from dozens of people who spent a lot of time with Jesus.  For more than 3 years, these people slept, ate, walked with and talked with Jesus.  Most of them kept “diaries,” or written accounts of their experiences.  Many of those accounts survive today in what the followers of Jesus call “the Bible.”  Obviously, It would make sense to learn what those people recorded as being at the heart of what Jesus taught.  After all, they were there! Three of them, Matthew, Mark, and Luke reported hearing the same thing:  Upon learning that Jesus' cousin, John, had been arrested and thrown in jail, “from that time, Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”[1]  Seriously? That’s it?  That’s the main thing Jesus came to explain?  "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand?"  Yes.  Even a casual look at the teachings of Jesus reveal that he went to great lengths to explain exactly what he meant by those words and especially, “The Kingdom.”  He even instructed his closest friends and followers to teach the same thing wherever they went![2]  If we understand what Jesus meant by those words, then our pursuit of being “spiritual but not religious” will take a giant step forward.  Not to mention that, if we understand what Jesus meant by those words, the chances are pretty good that our lives will take on new meaning, that our lives will be filled with greater purpose, and that we will experience more joy, more happiness, more freedom from fear and anxiety than we ever imagined possible.  So, what did Jesus mean by preaching a message that can be summarized in that one sentence; “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand?”  And what, exactly, does a statement like that say about what Jesus expects of us?  For that matter, why does Jesus have the right to expect anything at all from us?  Again, if you want to be truly spiritual, wouldn’t it make sense to dig a little deeper?

[1]  For the remainder of these posts, I'm going to footnote a number of things.  Most of the time, it will be passages from the Bible.  If you are not familiar with the Bible, or if you don't have one, I want to encourage you to get one.  If you would like one but cannot afford it (sounds like you just got busted and are being read your rights!! lol), I'd be happy to provide you with one.  Just contact the church and we'll get a hard copy to you.   You can always check online to look up these references.  Just Google the following words and check it out!  I think you'll be amazed.  Matthew 4:17; 4:23; 10:7; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:43; Acts 1:3;
[2] Matthew 10:7; Acts 28:30-31.  In the three short biographies of Jesus' life written by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Kingdom is mentioned or discussed almost 120 times.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

A Great Spiritual Teacher, For the Spiritual But Not Religious?

“I’m spiritual, but not religious.”  You’ve probably heard that before.  Maybe you’ve even said it yourself.  If that’s true of you, then it’s undeniable that sooner or later, you’re going to have to deal with Jesus.  He is, after all, one of the most “spiritual” people who ever lived.  He was, by most people’s standards, a good man.  In fact, many “spiritual” people want to “just get back to the teachings of Jesus.”  That’s probably what most of us mean by saying “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”  “I don’t want to get caught up in all that religious mumbo-jumbo, all the rituals and doctrines--Church attendance, sacraments, pot-lucks, “stand-up, sit down,” sing a song, say a prayer, wash, rinse, repeat—"Just tell me what Jesus said, and if we all took his teachings to heart, the world would be a much better place.”  Of course, we would also want to look at the teachings of Mohammed and the Dali Lama, and spiritual teachers who have come and gone.  But for some reason, most “spiritual” people keep coming back around to Jesus.  After all, he did teach many good things.  But if you were asked, “what was the main thing that Jesus taught,” what would you say?  What was at the very center of everything Jesus said and did?  Maybe you would cite the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Or maybe you would guess that Jesus’ teaching was mainly about love.  Or perhaps it was about God.  Would it surprise you to know that, although Jesus spoke about all those things, none of them were at the center of what he came to teach?  “So why does that matter” you may ask?  “Why is what Jesus taught that important, to me or anyone else?”  Well, if you want to be “spiritual” then knowing what one of the greatest spiritual teachers taught would be important.  And what if the heart of what he taught indicated that he EXPECTED something of us, of you?  Wouldn’t you want to know what that was?  While there are lots of answers to why it’s important, the most significant one is this:  ALL of life’s biggest questions; why am I here, what is the meaning of life, how can I be truly happy, they all hinge upon getting the answer to that first question right— “what was the main thing that Jesus came to teach?”  The answer will shock you.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

When God Stopped Being “Abba”

The Significance of the Father Forsaking the Son

Have you ever been overwhelmed by sorrow?  Can you remember a time when you heard news that was so terrifying or so painful that you found yourself overwhelmed with mind-numbing, soul-searing, heart-rending pain?  Have you ever been emotionally ambushed by an experience or encounter that left you feeling completely alone and isolated?  While those questions may qualify as rhetorical, there is another related but different question that does not:  Did God, the Father, really abandon His Son when He was on the cross?  And why does it matter? 

The short answers are “yes” and “because we need to take sin seriously,” “because it says a great deal about the very nature of God,” and “because Christ’s affinity with and love for us is boundless.”  First, we need to understand the meaning of Jesus’ words “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”

In speaking those words, Jesus is quoting Psalm 22.  Amazingly, in the midst of the greatest pain of His life, Jesus’ heart turns to God’s word.  The question centers around the nature of the “forsakenness” that Jesus experienced.  Did the Father actually separate Himself from the Son at that moment? Was the mystery of the bond of the Trinity fractured in that instant? Was the eternal community of Father, Son and Spirit somehow ruptured, even for a moment?  No.  God can never stop being God, and God has always and will always exist as three, in one.  2 things shed light on what Jesus actually experienced that day on the cross; the Psalm itself and the actual words that Jesus used.

Just before his crucifixion, Jesus cried out to the Father.  Matthew 26:39 records,  "Going a little farther, He fell with His face to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as You will."  The word Jesus used for Father was “Abba,” a term of endearment, which we might translate “papa” or “daddy.”  As His life ebbed away, Christ again "called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last.”  (Luke 23:46)  Again, Jesus used the word “Abba.”  But in quoting Psalm 22, Christ used the more generic name for God, “El.”  “El” is the sovereign God, the judge and ruler of all the earth.  So what is Jesus saying in juxtaposing these 2 different addresses?

The forsakenness that Jesus experienced was not because His Father was not there, but because He WAS there, as the just Judge of the universe.  The Father was pouring out His just wrath upon all the sin that had defamed Him—past, present, and future sin—and in His role as Judge he drained the cup of His wrath to the dregs on the head of His Son.  The anguish and the overwhelming sense of isolation that Jesus experienced cannot be imagined.  He was desperately in need of succor.  In His anguish, Jesus cried out "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtheni?"  But He was doing more than just quoting a passage.  He understood that the Psalm itself defined his forsakenness.  

Like Jesus, the psalmist experienced the absence of the presence of God.  "O God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night but I find no rest...All who see me mock me; they wag their heads...they say "He trusts in the Lord, let Him deliver him...for trouble is near, and there is none to help...But you O Lord, do not be far off!  O you my help, come quickly to my aid!  Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog!  Save me...!"  But no help comes!  There is no answer!  “Abba” is far off!  There is no deliverance, no salvation, only silence.

It is precisely in this sense that Jesus experienced being forsaken.  Think back to those moments when you felt alone or isolated, when you felt the crushing weight of the consequences of sin, in your life or the lives of others.  Now magnify that a million fold and you will still not come close to feeling what our Savior felt in that moment.  What would compel both the Father and the Son to bear such a burden?  What would animate the God of all creation to be "pleased" in bruising His Son (Isaiah 53:10), and what would keep Jesus on the cross under the weight of the sins of mankind, when He could just as easily have stepped down?  

For the sake of glorifying His own name in loving sinners and reconciling them to Himself, for the sake of the joy that was set before Him, for the sake of  Their great love, the Father forsook and the Son was forsaken.  The greatness and grievous nature of our sin, is only eclipsed by the greatness and the gravity of God's great love for us, and that is captured perfectly in this mystifying and stunning moment when the Father turned His back on His Son.  "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinner, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). 

The pain experienced by BOTH Father and Son at that moment ought to drive us to our knees in worship.  Let the significance of that moment, when “Abba” released His grip on the Son, and “El” unleashed His just fury against sin seep into your heart.  In that moment, it was not nails that pinned Christ to the cross, it was obedience and love.  In that moment, the triune God never stopped being God, but the fullness of His glory and love were put on display in a way that will never be repeated.  Stand in awe.  Marvel.  Be afraid.  But above all, be filled, with the very presence of the God who IS love, and let that love abide in you and ooze from every pore of your body (I John 4:7-15).  For the sake of His forsakenness, the Son guarantees that you and I will never be forsaken again.  For the sake of His forsakenness, we can be confident that our cries of “Abba” will never fall on deaf ears.