Friday, February 5, 2016

Luke 11:29-36 People of Light?

29 As the crowds were increasing, He began to say, “This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah. 

Gathering a crowd, according to Jesus, isn't necessarily always a good thing. Any time a long cherished 'thing' is given away for free a crowd will gather. Any time promises are made that appeal to our natural lusts or basic sense of human rights, attendance will grow.  In this current political season we see the evidence of this. Celebrity worship leads many to suspend disbelief and to embrace the glitter. Rhetoric that encourages our natural prejudices, tickles our extremes views of 'me'-centered freedom, and/or energizes our penchant for conspiracy theories, will almost always win the spiritually mindless masses. 

The real test of loyalty comes when followers are asked to make a sacrifice for the sake of others. This does not mean donating to some political war chest, but the surrender of self for the benefit of your neighbor. Verbal commitments without a willingness to actually make a sacrifice that under girds one's profession of faith expose our self-deception. Jesus unveiled the hearts of those who made great professions of faith with their mouths, yet their hearts were far from him (Mt 15:8; Jn 6:26-66). Without the surrender of the heart, words alone are insufficient to effect a real revolution within the soul, never mind within our community.

The Jewish leaders were looking for tangible proof indicating which way the proverbial wind was blowing. They were unwilling to sacrifice anything in order to follow Jesus unless they could find absolute proof that God was truly behind him and would protect them from any harm. In other words, they wanted an iron-clad guarantee they would not suffer loss by following him. They didn't want to lose their positions of power by being duped by an impostor. They had already witnessed a long line of false Messiahs. They refused to trust their own eyes. For some, this was a legitimate concern, while for many others it was a mere smoke-screen hiding their corrupt hearts.

Being a 'chosen people' (Dt 14:2) doesn't automatically insist they are a saved people. Having been given the 'light' doesn't mean one has received the light. Faithfulness to the rituals and laws of one's religion is not equivalent to spirituality. Genuine faith, authenticity of belief, always originates from a heart that is unreservedly committed to the indwelling of the Spirit of God. 

30 For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 

What was the 'sign of Jonah' to the Ninevites?

The prophet Jonah was commissioned by God to tell the people of Nineveh to repent of their evil ways in order to avoid being destroyed. Jonah, though, was apparently afraid no one would believe him or that the Gentiles there would harm him, so he ran away, got on a ship, and eventually got himself thrown overboard and ended up spending 3 days in the belly of a sea creature before being vomited on shore. That harrowing experience elicited a decided change in Jonah's attitude, yet it was a progressive change that would require yet another intervention by God.

The point in this reference is that the people of Jesus' day were rebellious against God. They were not inclined to listen to the message of Jesus, yet God chose to give them another chance to repent. That 'chance' would be the resurrection of Jesus after spending three days in the tomb. That would be God's most convincing 'sign' that Jesus was the Son of God, the long awaited Messiah. Sadly, the Gentiles were the ones who mostly responded to the message of Jesus, not the Jews. This is what later irked Jonah. The Ninevites, decidedly non-Jews, responded to the message he delivered to them from God, leading God to not destroy Nineveh, which Jonah feared would lead many Ninevites to conclude that he was a false prophet.

Too much over-thinking on Jonah's behalf. Living in Christ simply means, listening to and obeying the voice of God and leaving the results up to heaven. Simple obedience leads to peace and joy. Rationalizations lead to anxieties, such as we learned from the story of Martha.

What would it take for you to completely surrender your life to Christ? What would you need to see, hear, or experience to settle your faith in Jesus? Like the people of Judea, is there a 'sign' you require before you will choose to fully believe? Or, like Jonah, what experience would you need to endure before you will yield your will to God's will?

31 The Queen of the South will rise up with the men of this generation at the judgment and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 

The 8th century BC (2 Kg 14:25 - 788 BC) Gentiles living in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh surprisingly received the message of Jonah and repented, sparing their city from destruction - at least until 612 BC. Similarly, the Gentile Queen of the South (the Queen of Sheba - 1 Kgs 10:1; in 10th century BC) assumed by many to be from south Arabia (Yemen), traveled from her distant country all the way to Jerusalem to hear the wisdom of Solomon (who reigned from 970-931 BC), yet the chosen people of God were not as motivated to hear and to obey the word of God as proclaimed by Jesus - One who was 'greater than Solomon'. Thus the rebuke. They had far more evidence of God's presence than did the Queen of Sheba, yet they refused to seek Him out.

But why? Were the people of Jesus' time more distracted by the temptations and cares of the world than were the people of South Arabia? Were they more carnally oriented? What about the people of today?

32 The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 

Why is human nature so plagued with a contrarian spirit? Why is it proverbial that the grass always appears greener on the other side of the fence? Why is it often far more difficult for a religiously raised person to grasp the true point of their religion than someone not raised within that religion? Was the bible text, 'train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it' (Prv 22:6), more of a promised blessing or commentary on the sinful nature of man?

Assuming that verse 32 is rhetorical, do you think it was effective in persuading more Jews to believe in him? Why did the Jews find it so difficult to accept the message of Jesus, yet the Gentiles found it so inviting? Did the Jews believe they already knew all there was to know about God? Did they fall into the fatal void of believing they already 'had the truth'?

It seems the more strongly we cling to tangible, 'this world' rituals the more difficult it becomes to embrace spiritual truths within our own religion. It is often easier to become enthralled with something entirely different than to be enticed by 'something better' from within our childhood faith. Often our natural need to belong obstructs our desire for something better. Similarly, the many unfulfilled promises from our childhood 'faith' tend to inoculate us against believing in religion as anything more than a cultural glue that is useful only in that it holds our particular tribe together.

There are consequences, though, to our understandable religious 'stuckness'. Yet, if we don't realize what is happening to us and take the necessary actions to better our spiritual situation - regardless of the hassle and pain - we jeopardize our ability to live in peace and joy in this existence. 

33 “No one, after lighting a lamp, puts it away in a cellar nor under a basket, but on the lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light. 34 The eye is the lamp of your body; when your eye is clear, your whole body also is full of light; but when it is bad, your body also is full of darkness. 35 Then watch out that the light in you is not darkness. 

There are so many different ways to look at this verse. Here are several interpretations: (1) Was Jesus speaking about himself as the one who lights lamps in human hearts and hoped that everyone would see the living evidence? (2) Was Jesus referring to those who claimed they had the light, yet the facts clearly revealed they didn't? (3) Was Jesus speaking universally - meaning that he is the undeniable, omnipotent light of the world and he will not be satisfied until every soul reflects his light? (4) Was Jesus simply saying that his light was so wonderful that if anyone received it they couldn't help but share it with others? (5) Was Jesus speaking dichotomously - that one either lived in the light or one didn't, that there could be no in-between?  And/or (6) was Jesus cautioning his follower to not assume that they had the light merely because they were Jews? In other words, a dark angel can manifest as an angel of light, so beware.

What did Jesus mean when he said 'the eye is the lamp of your body'? If you choose to be a life-long learner, open yourself to the truths set before you. You will see the light and your whole being will be blessed. On the other hand, if you choose to only see that which conforms to what you already know and/or appeals to your natural lusts, you will remain spiritually dead, in unending darkness.

'Watch out', Jesus said, 'that the light in you isn't darkness'. How can light be darkness? I think Jesus was speaking here about self-deception. In other words, we think we are in the light, but are actually abiding in darkness. We think we see, but are blind. We think we walk in the truth, but we are moving forward with erroneous notions (Is 5:20).

36 If therefore your whole body is full of light, with no dark part in it, it will be wholly illumined, as when the lamp illumines you with its rays.”

Here is the ideal to shoot for - to live in the wisdom of God 24/7. In other words, when we choose to walk in the Spirit, fully yielding our hearts to God, the light of eternal truth penetrates our inherited and cultivated darkness, increasingly illuminating every element of our mortal being. A miracle occurs - we are born anew. We become a new creation. The Spirit washes over us and the unclean are cleansed. The scales of spiritual blindness are removed and we become spiritually sighted. We are gifted with the Father's eyes, viewing all things from the cosmic perspective as Kingdom citizens. We become people of light.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Luke 11:14-28 A House Divided

14 And He was casting out a demon, and it was mute; when the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke; and the crowds were amazed. 15 But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.” 16 Others, to test Him, were demanding of Him a sign from heaven. 

Not everything you may call 'good' is 'good' in my eyes. Not everything I may label as 'bad' is 'bad' in your eyes. Our culture, religion, education, life experiences, and even our genes work together to shape our preferences. While some folks are attracted to novelty, others are not. The former may embrace diversity and change without fear, while the latter may recoil in a panic attack.

As the story goes, Jesus cast a demon out of a man who was mute. Since the man was no longer mute after the demon was exorcised we may assume that he was mute as a consequence of being possessed. For many, Jesus' ability to heal this individual was simply 'amazing'.

Yet, predictably, some honestly viewed the act from another perspective. Such a performance of power by a man scared them. Somehow they had been led to believe that supernatural acts were demonic in nature. The fact is, most events in life that are beyond our understanding and have caused pain and suffering to humanity, are placed under the rubric of evil.

Another set of lookie-loos took an intentionally malicious approach to the situation. Seeing the crowd was divided, they pressed Jesus to prove that he was not Beelzebul.

Again, people naturally and sincerely divide on many issues in life. No harm, no foul. Yet there are those who leverage difference for personal gain. They are the ones who walk in darkness, yet disguise themselves as rational servants of truth, demons appearing as 'angels of light'.

17 But He knew their thoughts and said to them, “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and a house divided against itself falls. 18 If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. 19 And if I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? So they will be your judges. 20 But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 

An identical request can be presented with sincerity or malicious intent. For instance, the disciples asked for signs that would indicate the end of the age (Lk 21:7) and Jesus told them exactly what the signs would be. Others noted that Jesus performed many signs and placed their faith in him (Jn 6:14), while many others witnessed the same signs and refused to believe in him (Jn 12:37). Still others requested signs and were rebuked by Jesus for even asking (Mt 16:4). What made the difference between these people? Jesus 'knew their thoughts'. He read their hearts.

In communication research we are told that words tell us far less than the body language, tone of voice, and behavior (Mt 15:19; Lk 6:45; 12:34). The Spirit promises to give us the wisdom to 'lift the ink' and 'read' what may be the intent behind the words (Lk 2:35; Acts 1:24; 1 Cor 4:5; ). In this case, Jesus could see what was going on and addressed the issue straight on.

In response, Jesus said that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. His words were clearly double-edged. First, why would Satan cast out his own demons? That wouldn't make any sense, thus exonerating Jesus. Second, if the ability to cast out demons is a demonic gifts, then the children of the Pharisees - who also cast out demons - must also be possessed by Satan, thus indicting his accusers.

If Jesus' accusers didn't want their own words against Jesus to simultaneously indict their own children, they needed to reach a different conclusion about the source of Jesus' power. If his ability to cast out demons was not from Beelzebul, then the only other accepted source for such power had to be God. If his power truly came from God, then the kingdom of God had arrived. If the kingdom of God had arrived and it wasn't what they expected, then it was time for them to humbly rethink their theology of the kingdom.

21 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are undisturbed. 22 But when someone stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away from him all his armor on which he had relied and distributes his plunder. 

The religious leaders of Israel were the 'strong, fully armed men guarding their house'. No one dared say differently. Well, at least until Jesus arrived. He was stronger than they were. He overpowered them, removed their armor, and redistributed their wealth.

In the same sense, Satan was a strong, fully armed being guarding his own turf in this world - until Jesus came. Being stronger than the Devil, Jesus overpowered him, removed his armor, and empowered his disciples with the ability to do the same with each demon they encountered.

The phraseology of verses 21 and 22 is something Christians need to wrestle with, especially those who continue to live in fear in this world. If you meet an unarmed intruder with a knife, the next intruder will bring a bat. If you arm yourself with a bigger bat, the next intruder will know to bring a pistol. If you are yourself with a shotgun, the next intruder will know to bring two other friends each bearing a semi-automatic rifle. Etc, etc. Fear leads to an escalation of weapons since there will always be someone stronger.

"For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses." (2 Cor 10:3,4). See also Ephesians 6:10-18.

23 He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me, scatters. 

Having presented himself as the 'stronger man', the only One aligned with omnipotence, Jesus invites us to join him. There are no human devices sufficient in a battle against darkness. If we do not walk in the Spirit our old nature is at the mercy of Beelzebul. In other words, the greatest enemy of man is the unregenerate heart of man.

Why accumulate the weapons of man when you have access to the weapons of God? If we cling to the ways of the kingdom of men, we end up fighting against the ways of God. God is fighting to win our heart. If our heart is wedded to the kingdoms of men rather than the kingdom of God, we have effectively committed treason against Christ our King.

24 “When the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ 25 And when it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. 26 Then it goes and takes along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.” 

An interesting statement. Do 'unclean spirits' fear water? Or do they only fear 'holy water'? Was this thinking part of the reason behind baptisms by immersion? What about 'good spirits', like the angels? Are they unafraid of water? Do they also seek 'waterless places'? But aren't human being made mostly of water? Do 'unclean spirits' possess only land animals such as swine (Lk 8:32), but never fish?

The scriptures speak about being baptized by the Spirit. Water is a symbol of the Spirit. When the unclean spirits looked for 'dry' places, they were looking for human beings who were not filled with the Spirit. Wherever the Spirit of God is firmly rooted, unclean spirits cannot find a home.

If you've been cursed with an unclean spirit then when that spirit has been cast out, don't assume that's the end of the matter. The absence of the unclean spirit is merely temporary unless the Holy Spirit is given permanent residence. The only smart response to having been delivered from unclean spirits is to be wedded to the Holy spirit. He is our strength against all deceiving spirits.

There was, of course, that one incident when Jesus not only cast out an unclean spirit, but then commanded the unclean spirit to never return (Mk 9:25). The unclean spirit had ravaged the life of a young boy for years. In that particular case, Jesus placed a hedge around that child - at least until the boy matured enough to make his own choices. 

27 While Jesus was saying these things, one of the women in the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breasts at which You nursed.” 28 But He said, “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.”

Apparently celebrity worship has long been a weakness of human nature. Though Jesus worship began almost immediately, as noted in verse 27, Jesus would have none of it - even for his mother. He always pointed his and her admirers to the Father. Jesus proved to be the consummate contrarian.

Over a relatively short period of time, genuine faith conforms to the prevailing culture. If it weren't true, Christianity would be a rarity, not a point of prestige for contenders to any throne or political office. Jesus predicted that those who truly follow in his footsteps would suffer persecution, not cultural acceptance. To be sure, if a Christian is not persecuted, it is most likely not Christianity that has been adopted, rather some perversion of it. On the other hand, the fact that you are being persecuted is not by itself evidence that you are a genuine Christian.

This is how Jesus understood the greatest commandment - listen to what God says and just do it, whatever the consequences. Whenever we are listening to anyone or anything other than God, we've strayed from the way of Jesus. Whatever usurps our primary focus, distracts us from God. If belief and obedience to the will of God is not our first and best choice at all times, we set ourselves up for deception. More precisely, we will be deceived. Peace and joy comes from believing in God.

"Blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it."

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Luke 11:1-13 Teach Us To Pray

It happened that while Jesus was praying in a certain place, after He had finished, one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John also taught his disciples.” 

The disciples of Jesus who had previously been disciples of John the Baptist, wanted Jesus to do as John had done - to teach them 'how to pray'. Luke's version of this prayer differs somewhat from Matthew's (Mt 6:5-15).

First, this is a significant insight into the work of John as he prepared the way for the coming Messiah. In other words, preparing people to receive Jesus included teaching them to talk with God and to know what to pray for.

Second, the disciples themselves recognized this kind of instruction as essential to their success in ministry.

Third, 'how to pray' is something that can be, and must be, taught. Many of us grow up with erroneous notions about how, when, where, and what to pray.

Fourth, their request suggests there are more effective methods of prayer and less effective methods. Perhaps Jesus' disciples recognized that the way they were praying was not yielding the kind of results seen in response to the way Jesus prayed. The disciples were not asking Jesus to teach them John's particular methods of prayer, but to 'do' what John did - to instruct them about prayer.

What had they noticed about Jesus' manner of prayer that had elicited their request? Had they imagined he received power and wisdom because he knew the right words to use in prayer? Were there certain rituals involved in his prayer routines that weren't immediately obvious (Mt 6:7)? Does our posture in prayer, the time(s) of day we choose to pray, or type of location from which we pray make our prayers more or less effective?  

2 And He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. 3 ‘Give us each day our daily bread. 4 ‘And forgive us our sins, For we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.’” 

In answer to their request, Jesus began his response by redirecting their attention to the first great commandment - to love God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength: 'Father, hallowed be your name.' Hallowed means to honor, respect, revere, and treat as holy. That is the 'practice' of the first great commandment. God is not a vending machine in which anyone can insert the required coin and receive the desired product. If we truly wish to know how to pray we need to know to whom we are praying, what it means to make a request of God, and have made a decision to be in relationship with him.

The kingdom of God was already 'near', suggesting that this element of prayer was also designed to take the petitioner's primary focus away from dependence upon the kingdom of men and to address God as citizens of heaven's kingdom. This change in citizenship orientation dramatically shifts the nature of our prayer requests.

The third element in effective prayer is to be attentive to the 'here and now'. "Give us each day our daily bread."

The fourth element is to humbly acknowledge that we are a work in progress, that we all sin, and thus we all require God's grace. In light of that humble opinion of ourselves we pay forward the mercy we receive to 'everyone' we meet.

The last element of Jesus' instruction regarding prayer was to put a check on our motives for prayer. In other words, will the nature of our prayer request help us to 'be neighbor' to others or are we thinking selfishly? We need the Spirit to protect us from our natural inclinations.

Would you ask for help from someone you didn't respect and trust? Probably not, which was why Jesus began his lesson on praying by inviting his disciples to ask themselves if they really loved God with all their being.

5 Then He said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; 6 for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and from inside he answers and says, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 

So, exactly how does prayer work? Well, it's like this...  As Jesus told a story to answer the lawyer's question re: 'who is my neighbor?', he also used a story to further illustrate the way prayer works.

'Suppose you had a friend (Gk. 'philos')...' Typically a friend is someone who truly cares about you as a person. A friend is usually someone who pretty much knows what makes you 'tick', someone who sees you as you really are, yet loves you just as you are. A genuine friendship is one in which you may be vulnerable - openly and honestly sharing your thoughts and feelings. Friendship is a relationship where there is mutual respect, trust, and forgiveness.

A friend may demonstrate all the elements found in Jesus definition of 'neighbor', yet may or may not be a 'neighbor' in the Christian 'agape' sense to everyone. In other words, a friendship can be very selective and dependent on mutuality (phileo love). God loves everyone in the agape 'neighbor' sense of love, yet God may also love certain individuals in the phileo 'friendship' sense of love as well (Jas 2:23; Ex 33:11; Jn 16:27).

Curiously, in this story the person's 'friend' feels free to say 'no' to the request, yet the individual making the request feels free to persist with his friend until he receives what he wants. The implication is not that God is a fickle friend who is often too preoccupied with more self-centered things. Jesus was not implying that we must corner God and demand a response from him because it is the 'squeaky wheel' that gets any attention. Rather, perhaps he was saying that friendships are complicated and messy at times, yet they allow for inconvenience. Friends permit friends to be persistent, to press an issue that might not have been so readily understood by the other at first.  
8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs. 9 “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 

A friendship is not a relationship of co-dependence. In other words, friends don't just jump up and do whatever the other person wants whenever something is demanded. Friends don't just say 'yes' to everything. That wouldn't be friendship, but some kind of pseudo-friendship, a dysfunctional relationship masquerading as a friendship.

Notice in this story that the persistence of the man making the request doesn't awaken anger in his friend who feels coerced to do something he doesn't want to do. Rather, the persistence of the first man reveals the genuineness of his need. Despite the inconvenience, a true friend recognizes the request is not frivolous, but important, so he got up and gave his friend 'as much as he needed' no matter how inconvenient it was for him.

Friends respect each others boundaries, yet friends also realize circumstances change things. They don't take advantage of each other, yet they know they can depend upon each other to go the extra mile if there is an emergency.

So, is the point in this story that God can only be moved to act on our behalf when we are doggedly persistent? Or is the point that God is often inconvenienced by our petty human solicitations? No. The point is, we have God's permission - as our Friend - to come boldly before him at any time, day or night, and confidently expect to receive what we truly need (Heb 10:19-22). But is that really true? If I pray correctly, will I receive whatever I really need to survive in this world?

10 For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened. 11 Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? 12 Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? 

If we were to lift these three verses from their rightful context in Luke chapters 1-10 we might understandably believe that God is some cosmic vending machine. Yet Luke made it clear that Jesus went from village to village proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of men. The 'everyone who asks, receives', is a lesson directed toward kingdom of God people. The answer to prayer is one that is directly connected with the kingdom of God, not with the natural needs common to the kingdoms of men.

In order to grasp his actual intent we need to pay attention to his contrasts - a snake verses a fish or a scorpion verses an egg. He chose symbols of death and contrasted them with symbols of life. In other words, if we ask for 'life' will God merely feed our 'body of death' (Rom 7:24), or will he grant us 'something better' - life eternal (Jn 6:33)? If so, from the divine perspective, what is a truly good gift? 

13 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”

Luke's statement in verse 13 nicely clarifies the intent of verses 10-12. When most of us read, 'everyone who asks, receives..' we naturally think in material terms - food, water, housing, clothing, wealth, etc. Yet if we take into consideration the larger context that Luke has created, we discover that God is primarily thinking about eternal, spiritual things - otherwise why would the followers of Christ be willing to even lay down their lives for him?
Jesus, as usual, illustrated the spiritual by referencing the temporal. He was not thereby suggesting that our requests of God should be focused on the temporal, rather he was directing our thinking to the truly best gift that God can ever give to people.

The gift Jesus most desires to hear his disciples ask for is the gift of the Spirit, not a new car, a well-stocked food pantry, a mate, or to win the lottery (Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:7,13; Act 1:4; 2:33; 1 Jn 2:27). In order to successfully live in this world, yet not be of this world, requires walking in the Spirit (Rom 8:4; 13:14; Gal 5:16, 25). Ask and you shall receive - Him. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Luke 10:38-42 Sister Act

38 Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. 

It is assumed, but not definitively stated in this particular passage, that Jesus had arrived in vicinity of Jerusalem and the village he entered was Bethany, located near the Mount of Olives (Mk 11:1; Jn 11:1,18).

As the story goes, at some point after arriving, Martha was the one who invited Jesus into her home and then did everything possible to make his stay comfortable. This, of course, raises several questions. Had this village been one of the places the 70 disciples entered to prepare for Jesus' arrival? Had the disciples previously arranged for Jesus to stay at the home of Martha? Or, had Jesus himself known this family from previous visits to Jerusalem?

Neither Lazarus or any other men were mentioned by Luke as having also been residents of that home. Had Jesus accepted Martha's invitation despite the fact that two women lived there? Did other disciples of Jesus remain with him while he was there? Surely the home of Martha and Mary was not expansive enough to hold all twelve disciples, not to mention the 70.

Luke simply mentioned that 'Jesus' was welcomed into the home of these two women, leaving our anxious questions of propriety unanswered. This may be mildly vexing to twenty-first century followers of Jesus in that we already know of several incidents when Jesus permitted himself to be alone with a woman and/or to be touched by a woman in a manner that raised eyebrows even in his day (Jn 4:1-26; Jn 12:1-8; Lk 8:1-8).

The fact that Jesus was not fearful to be in the presence of women is informative. First, it means his motives were pure. Second, it means women felt safe in his presence. Third, it means women were not treated as second-rate citizens or objects, but as valued people. Where did that kind of thinking come from? The answer to that question is answered by the 'rest of this story'.    

39 She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. 

Jesus had recently counseled a lawyer to go forth and 'become' a better neighbor. It seems evident from Luke's portrayal of the incident that no matter what we 'do' we are not 'neighbor' until God truly has our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. With God in charge of all that we are we behave differently in this world than those who have never been born from above.

Martha gave her whole being to her self-imposed task of serving others. Her life purpose was found in serving others. Thus she busied herself doing good things 'for' Jesus  as a 'man'. Unfortunately, having assumed she was doing what Jesus most needed and would be most pleased with, her efforts took her away 'from' Jesus. Martha didn't stop to consider what this particular 'Man' really wanted. Rather, she imposed her own culturally inculcated ideas upon him, assuming she knew what was best for him. She exemplified the old maxim, 'the way to hell is paved with good intentions'. We may do many things 'for' God without knowing God (Mt 7:21). We may do many things in God's name without knowing God (Acts 19:15).

Mary, on the other hand, stuck close to Jesus, seeing much more than a man. She did not permit anything to distract her attention from him. She wanted to absorb every word he said as if her life depended upon it. In position, posture, and attitude Mary had grasped the importance of the first great commandment. If we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength we are far less likely to be distracted and/or to act with confirmation bias. We will listen for the Spirit's voice rather than to any other voice speaking from within us. We will see past our cultural mores and be receptive to 'something better' - no matter what others might think. In this way Mary was being 'neighbor' to Jesus.  She both discerned and served 'his' deepest need with her whole heart. He had not come into this world - nor into their home - to be ministered to, but to minister (Mt 20:28), to give life (Jn 10:10), to give light (Jn 12:46), and to bear witness to the truth (Jn 18:37). Apparently, Mary grasped that truth while her sister did not.

There is an important lesson in Mary's example about being 'neighbor' to others. Being neighbor isn't only about doing physically necessary things for others, but in discerning their psychological and spiritual needs and/or calling as well. Martha assumed Jesus' greatest need was for a roof over his head and for food to eat. She attempted to fulfill the requirements of his humanity with excellence, yet in doing so she neglected to truly honor him as an individual.

Mary was a 'noticer'. Led by the Spirit, she discerned the uniqueness of that particular man.  She noticed that Jesus' had not accepted their hospitality simply to have a place to rest and to be served a good meal, but to share himself. For Martha, Jesus was an honored guest who presented her with an opportunity to demonstrate her competencies. For Mary, Jesus was a precious teacher who would guide her into a deeper spiritual experience.

Martha was distracted by conforming her activities to her own chosen life commandment - to serve others to the best of her ability. Mary was guided by a very different life commandment - to increasingly experience the breath and length, height and depth, of God's love for mankind (Eph 3:18). In other words, Martha's internal mantra kept her focused on the temporal realm, while Mary's internal mantra kept her focused on the spiritual realm - the kingdom of heaven.

What is your loudest internal mantra? To 'where' and to 'what' does it drive you? How do the 'voices' within you guide what you think, do, and say? Are you open to hear a different voice, a peculiar heaven-sent 'drummer'? Are you willing to 'not keep pace with your companions', as Henry David Thoreau once wrote? 

40 But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” 

As noted previously, (Lk 11:36) Christianity isn't just about going about and 'doing' good, but about 'doing good from being good'. That said, 'good' still remains 'good', regardless of motives. Yet doing good because 'good' is important to do often elicits an unsavory question among the recipients of that 'good'. In other words, doing good for goodness sake without having a genuine 'neighbor' heart, comes across to recipients of your good deeds as tokenism. People who do good simply as the right thing to do, often become emotionless and robotic in their good doings. A good 'act' often presents as more valued by the 'doer' than the person being served.

Christian proponents of 'social justice' programs often decry the bad rap Martha frequently receives from preachers. Yet there is a biblical reason for exalting Mary over Martha.  Eisegetical renderings of Luke 10:38-42 miss the salient point of the Christian gospel. Doing good things for our neighbor is the 'second' great commandment. It is 'second' for an important reason. Without the first - loving God with all that we are - we become a 'Martha' rather than a 'Mary'. Without the first commandment we are more apt to see others as objects to please for self-serving reasons, rather than as persons of eternal value even - if they are our sworn enemies. Again, God's ways are not our ways (Is 55:6-9).

Notice how this played out with Martha. First, Martha looked inwardly, rather than at Jesus. She determined what 'she' could do best as her 'sacrifice/offering' for him. You might want to review two other stories from Matthew's gospel that also illustrate this same point (Mt 9:9-13; 12:1-7).

Second, Martha judged her sister quite harshly for not 'doing' as Martha was doing. As soon as I judge others for not doing what I think they ought to do I have unwittingly taken the second commandment out of it's context in the first - a red flag that the problem is not 'other', but with 'me'.

Third, Martha actually became angry with the very person she was attempting to honor through her service to him. She justified her anger because she had determined she was 'doing a good thing'. This was not far removed from the way Judas thought. When we designate our task as 'good', without first being 'good' in heart, we blindly pursue a path where we permit the ends to justify the means.

Finally, Martha then tried to 'use' the Lord to force her sister into seeing as she saw the world. Using religion as a hammer to conform others to our own way of thinking is always a denial of God - even if we are not conscious of the fact.

We often hear the complaint, 'but I did it from my heart' or 'I did it sincerely'. No doubt that claim is true, but have we first determined, 'who has our heart (Lk 6:45)?' It is not sufficient merely to 'do' good from the heart if the heart is set on satisfying its own needs: assuaging guilt, avoiding shame, or seeking to earn acceptance. Martha was distracted from Jesus by following her own worried heart (Lk 8:14), while Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus finding peace by yielding her whole heart to him (Lk 8:15). 

41 But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; 

Those who champion Martha must entirely dismiss verse 41. Martha's life was chock full with a myriad of vexing anxieties. Her worries distracted her from the 'cure' Jesus came into this world to gift us with. Mary, on the other hand, and within the same house, found deliverance from all that sought to steal away her joy and peace (Lk 1:53).

Martha wrestled with her own restlessness, yet apart from the very Deliverer she had invited into her home. She blamed her sister for increasing her worries. Mary wisely refused to be distracted from Jesus simply to please her sister's concerns. Perhaps she had learned that the best way to truly love her sister was to first love the Lord - the source of all true wisdom and genuine love.

Though Martha was miffed at both Jesus and her sister, attempts to reduce her anxious heart by participating in her dysfunction were deemed contraindicated. The home of Mary and Martha would become far more peaceful if Mary became of 'person of peace' rather than if Mary allowed herself to be sucked into a co-dependent relationship with her sister. 

42 but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

How can we get this 'loving one's neighbor' command right? Jesus answered that question in no uncertain terms. 'Only one thing is necessary', and Mary had figured it out and had chosen correctly. We must first love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. If 'love for God' is not the foundation for everything that makes us 'tick', then we will never really grasp how to 'love our neighbor'.

But wait. What's love for God got to do with loving one's neighbor? The answer can be found in our surrender to God. When God has been given all our heart, mind, soul, and strength there is nothing left for 'us' to manage. Until the Spirit is given full reign in our life our attempts to 'love others' will always be unwittingly polluted with self-serving motives, bad attitudes hidden behind a plastic smile, and confirmation-biased thinking. Though none of this is instantly excised when we yield our lives to Christ, the Spirit is given the authority to reveal our inner contradictions in such a manner that gives us an opportunity to put a check on our old nature.

'Doing good to others' can be hazardous to our spiritual health if the 'act' is not compelled by a Spirit-controlled heart. If I've lost my 'joy and peace from believing' it should be a clue that I've shifted my 'believing' from Christ back to self. Choose to keep the 2nd commandment deeply embedded in and vitally connected to the first great commandment.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Luke 10:21-37 Am I Neighbor?

21 At that very time He rejoiced greatly in the Holy Spirit, and said, “I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight. 22 All things have been handed over to Me by My Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” 

If our previous assumptions were correct - that the joy expressed by the 70 was possible because they had truly given their hearts to Jesus, obeyed his voice, served the people, and gave him the glory in all their accomplishments - then Jesus had reason to rejoice in the Spirit, thanking his heavenly Father. The 70 weren't mere fly-by-night disciples. They were the 'real McCoy'.

That being said, Jesus referred to his disciples as spiritual 'infants'. In other words, they were just beginning a life by faith. They were new born. The so-called 'wise and intelligent' were not, actually, as wise as even these fledgling disciples. The worldly wise who depended on their own wits to secure success in this world did not have access to infinite power and eternal wisdom that the Spirit provided to even the 'infant' disciple without any formal education, wealth, or position of power in this world.

The truth was not 'hidden' from the worldly wise and intelligent out of heavenly meanness, but only because they refused the light when offered. If we choose to remain in darkness even when light is available, whose fault is it? The Son of God will reveal the Father to whosoever chooses to believe in him - or at least has opened their heart to the pricks of the Spirit.

Regarding 'truth' - it is not a thing that is finally grasped, but a Person with whom we develop an eternally growing relationship with. Jesus is the Truth. Truth is not the static dead letter of law, but the dynamic interaction with the Almighty. Eternal 'truth' is constantly unfolding simply, yet obviously, because it is 'eternal'. If Jesus is the Truth and he is the Creator God then to imagine that we 'have' the truth that can be captured in words on a piece of paper is to deny Christ's divinity. To imagine that the truth is contained by scripture alone is to deny Christ's resurrection. All other religions base their beliefs on the written words of a long dead 'prophet'. Their words are 'dead' because their 'prophets' are dead. Christianity proclaims a risen Lord who is constantly guiding his disciples moment by moment through his Spirit. Because Christ is God and Christ is the truth, the truth is never fully known or owned by any believer, rather He is grasped more and more throughout this mortal life and then in eternal life.

23 Turning to the disciples, He said privately, “Blessed are the eyes which see the things you see, 24 for I say to you, that many prophets and kings wished to see the things which you see, and did not see them, and to hear the things which you hear, and did not hear them.” 

Jesus first thanked his Father for his disciples. He then encouraged his disciples to continue in their faith walk. 'Blessed are the eyes which see the things you see.' His disciples had gained spiritual sight which was evidence of their heart surrender. They 'saw' through the Father's eyes. They 'saw' their others as God sees each person. They served the need of each person they met as led by the Spirit.

Jesus had already noted the difference between those who could 'see' and those who couldn't (Lk 10:10-12). He had also noted that some, like Tyre and Sidon, had not been able to 'see' what many Jewish villages were blessed to see (Lk 10:13,14). Here, in verses 23 and 24, Jesus made clear that even many prophets and kings 'wished' they could have witnessed and heard the things the disciples of Jesus were blessed to both see and hear.

Was Jesus suggesting the prophets and kings of the past didn't have 'spiritual sight', or was he simply confirming they longed to see and hear the Messiah they knew - through visions - would eventually come? I think the latter is perhaps what he was referring to. This may seem a bit unfair to us today. Why did God not reveal himself more clearly to the ancient prophets and kings? Why did God delay the Messiah's first coming? Then again, why has the second coming of Christ also taken so long? The disciples of Jesus from the first century until now have longed to see him return in glory just as believers in God before the incarnation longed to see the promised Messiah's first coming.

Yes, the disciples surrounding Jesus were blessed by all they saw and heard. Yet, as wonderful as it was to have personally heard Jesus teach and witnessed his miracles, God was interested in something even more important, something that was revealed in these next few verses.

25 And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” 

Perhaps beguiled by the security of his position in society and with unwavering conviction that he already knew the answer to his own question, a teacher of the Law unwittingly tested the One to whom the Law pointed. To the lawyer's initial delight, Jesus played along, granting the lawyer the opportunity to state the obvious for all to hear and to, presumably, applaud.

There may be several reasons for why Luke added this story at this place in his gospel. One reason may have been to again remind the followers of Jesus that we are not saved by knowledge - no matter how much knowledge we have nor how accurate our knowledge. In other words, we may be factually correct in what we understand, yet still not possess the truth. We may say the right words, yet not understand their true meaning. The Law, as this particular lawyer was about to learn, justifies no one (Acts 13:39; Rom 3:20,28; Gal 2:16; 3:11; 5:4). Eternal life is inherited by those who have the Author of life installed as King of their heart (Jn 1:1-17). Knowing facts is not the same as knowing the truth. The truth is not a set of objective facts, but an eternal Being. To have the truth is to have an ever maturing relationship with the eternal, Creator God.

27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” 29 But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus declared the lawyer's answer to be factually 'correct'. End of story? Not quite. As many school children learn, our answers can be right and wrong at the same time. A child may write the correct answer to a math problem, yet his answer may be marked wrong, simply because the directions required him to show his work. The teacher may have been checking to see how the child reasoned through a problem in order to reach the right answer, not merely that he wrote down the right answer.

Similarly, Jesus could see that the lawyer had memorized the correct answer, but did the lawyer understand 'why' that was the correct answer and 'what' meaning that answer should have for the way he lived his life each day?

The lawyer, though, wasn't through with his questions. He had another question, one that permitted Jesus to expose the insufficiency of the lawyer's thinking. Jesus' response to the lawyer's answer included an intentional provocation. He didn't merely say, 'yes, you have answered correctly.' Rather, Jesus added, 'do this and you will live.' That response apparently unnerved the lawyer. Jesus challenged him to not merely 'believe' something, but to 'do' something. In return, the lawyer felt he must justify himself for 'believing' without 'doing'.

Interestingly, the lawyer didn't ask 'how to love God with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind. He, again, assumed that he did because he was a lawyer. Yet the Spirit seemed to have nicely pricked his conscience regarding 'how to love his neighbor'. He knew he did not love others as himself, because 'legally' he was only to love his neighbors, yet it was unclear who could be considered a neighbor. When we don't know God's love, we are inclined to parse the law. Since he hadn't found an absolute legal definition for 'neighbor', he felt he was therefore not obligated to love others.

Jesus responded by giving the lawyer a story that revealed the nature of love rather than the requested definition for 'neighbor'. In fact, the lawyer's question turned out not to be the right question to begin with.

30 Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. 31 And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, 34 and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ 

Some questions are best answered with a story. Exact answers may not only present an opportunity for judgmental black and white thinking, but they also tend to elicit the opposite extreme - rationalizing (Rom 7:7-11). We briefly considered this in last week's study when Jesus said, 'whoever listens to you, listens to me..' If Jesus had been referring to exact theological statements rather than to the more broad commandment to love your neighbors, the seventy would not have returned from their mission full of joy.

Love for neighbor can be revealed in incalculable ways, a point this parable nicely and memorably illustrates. I suppose Jesus could have answered the lawyer's question by saying, 'the person who lives on either side of your house', or 'everyone who attends your synagogue', or 'all the people in Capernaum', or 'all Jews', or even 'all human beings'. But Jesus chose not to define neighbor as much as to reveal the heart of the person who 'is' neighbor. No wonder the first great commandment requires full-soul surrender to the only One who can change the human heart by imparting His divine nature to compete with our human nature (Gal 5:16,17; Eph 4:24; 2 Pet 1:4).

36 Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” 37 And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”

The Samaritan was willing to notice another's need; feel compassion for that person; interrupt his own plans; get personally involved; sacrifice his time, effort, and money; seek the assistance of others; and then to go the extra mile to follow up on the man's condition and meet any further needs. These actions did not arise from the self-centered, corrupt nature of man. Rather, some other 'nature' was at work in the heart of the Samaritan.

Jesus asked for the lawyer's opinion regarding which one of the three 'proved to be' a neighbor to the helpless man? The Greek word for 'proved to be', is 'ginomai'. Luke used this word more often than any other NT author. He used it 77 times in this gospel and 91 times in Acts. It means to become, to happen, to occur, or to take place. In other words to walk the talk, to make it real rather than merely to know the idea. The Samaritan demonstrated genuine compassion to the stranger in need - no questions asked. He was 'neighbor' to the stranger in that he acted in love for the person right in front of him.

We can't discern a 'neighbor' unless we 'are' a neighbor. We can't love a neighbor unless we are 'neighbor' (Gk 'plesion') - a person of compassion to anyone who we find in need. In asking 'who is my neighbor' the lawyer finally realized he had asked the wrong question. Jesus turned the lawyer's question around suggesting that his question ought to have been,  'Lord, how can I have the heart of a neighbor?'

The last words Jesus said to the lawyer were, 'go and do the same'. A neighbor isn't someone who lives geographically near you. No one is your neighbor unless and until you have a 'neighbor heart' - compassion for anyone you meet. The person next to you is merely an object to you until your heart has been changed.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Luke 10:10-20 Heaven or Hell?

10 But whatever city you enter and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your city which clings to our feet we wipe off in protest against you; yet be sure of this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I say to you, it will be more tolerable in that day for Sodom than for that city. 

Sometimes we meet people who truly are interested in what we have to say. Sometimes we meet folks who politely listen to what we share with them, but aren't really interested. Sometimes people listen and agree and at other times people honestly listen yet remain unconvinced. A person may politely listen with an open mind or politely listen with a closed mind.

Then there are those who won't even let you speak. They don't care to hear anything you have to say - good or bad. Sometimes you will even be turned away by those who are suffering, even when you have come with the cure they need and may even want. The door may be quickly and rudely slammed in your face - with prejudice. The reason for rejection may be your gender, age, ethnicity, personality, race, or even because of the way you part your hair. Of course, you may be rejected because something else is happening at that moment in their life and they genuinely have no emotional energy left to hear what you have to say, no matter how important it may be. Yet at a later time they may be more than glad to receive you and to hear you out.

Rejection at the corporate level is of a very different order. When a community rejects you without a hearing it is usually a apt sign that it is time to move on. Yet, according to Jesus, first lodge a protest. Why? Because there actually may be people in that community who would have liked to have heard what you came to say, but their representative leaders obstructed your entry, dashing any opportunity to reach those who would have joyfully welcomed you if given the chance. The reason behind your protest is the same reason Jesus responded harshly to the Pharisees and scribes. When leaders, particularly religious leaders, act like 'satan' - blocking innocent others from seeing God - then they must be rebuked. When church leaders stand as obstacles to the gospel, protest the 'spiritual injustice'.

Sodom, according to Jesus (per the gospels), was a somewhat similar story. The city, of course, wasn't Jewish or Christian, yet its leaders obstructed the 'light' from heaven - the angelic visitors - from shining in their city. The leaders kept the other residents from knowing the truth about God. That seriously miffed heaven and the whole city suffered the anger of God as a result. Why were all punished when the majority had been led astray by their leaders? Or were they all complicit in the evil of their leaders?

There were a few exceptions. Lot was at the gate into Sodom. He was there to greet visitors and to invite them to dinner at his home. Maybe this was one reason why Jesus said it would be more tolerable for Sodom in the day of judgment (Gk. krisis) than for a city where no one greeted messengers sent by God. Despite the evil of Sodom, the people of Sodom had permitted Lot and his family to live there. A second reason for a lesser final judgment on Sodom may be because the kind of light that Jesus brought into the world wasn't available to anyone in Abraham's time. Even Abraham was declared righteous through faith despite a lifestyle that was a far cry from that which Jesus demanded of his followers centuries later.

The context suggests there will still be a future judgment inflicted on Sodom, even though Sodom suffered a cataclysmic judgment in ancient times. Why another judgment? Will the last judgment be more 'existential' in nature? Will there be a 'second chance' for the residents of Sodom? The context intimates there will be degrees of judgment at the final hour. Really? The final judgment will be more 'tolerable' for some than for others? What might that mean?  

13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had been performed in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the judgment than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will be brought down to Hades! 

Again, Jesus inserted the notion of 'tolerability' at final judgment. In fact, he went further to suggest that Tyre and Sidon 'would have repented' if they have had the witness of Christ's miracles presented to them.

Would God really condemn people in judgment for rejecting Him while knowing if they had been given just a tad more 'light' they would have repented? If a person would sincerely repent if given more accurate information, wouldn't that please heaven? On the other hand, was Jesus hinting that there is a second chance in judgment?

This also raises the question, why would God not have given sufficient 'light' to those who lived before Christ? And, why did God wait for so many millennia before sending Christ if knowing Christ was the only means to enter heaven?

Does God judge people based on their response to the 'light' they have, irrespective of how they may have responded had they been given additional light?

The language Luke used regarding heaven and Hades is directional in nature. Heaven appeared to be 'upward' (see v. 18) while Hades was located 'downward'. This implies a physical locality for both 'places' rather than merely being a state of existence/non-existence. Yet, at the same time, the Kingdom of Heaven was declared to be within us or at least always 'near' us. Is there both a physical kingdom of God (Rev 21:1,2) as well as a spiritual kingdom? If so, is there both a spiritual 'hell' as well as an actual hell - a place of eternal torment that exceeds being merely eternally non-existent such as simply being placed in a grave (Hades) after death?

From a more progressive Christian perspective grace assumes that God knows how to save all people from 'hell' - be it annihilation or eternal torment. In fact, the progressive Christian assumes the heaven/hell language of scripture either reflects the cultural beliefs of the times or were merely applied metaphorically. In other words, for the progressive Christian, grace really is grace. Any eternally existing Creator that can be called 'God' would not withhold truths from his created beings that would make it impossible for them to be 'saved'. Such an action would not be loving, compassionate, or full of grace and truth (Jn 1:1,14). In such a case, judgment would not be justice. Nor could eternal torment for those who had not come to faith ever be considered the act of a loving God.   

16 “The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me.” 

Community means the right to share your thoughts and feelings without insisting that others agree. It also assumes others have been willing to listen with an open mind. There is, according to research, greater intelligence and less chance to err where a diversity of perspectives is valued rather than where only uniformity of thought is permitted. Was Jesus, in verse 16, suggesting otherwise?

One can be misled by these verses if they are imagined outside of their context. In other words, we must first determine what it was that Jesus was saying in general before we can rightly determine what he meant in particular. Was he really commanding unity in uniformity and damnation to anyone who believed differently? Or did Jesus actually value and promote unity in diversity?

For example, there is a world of difference between expecting those who call themselves followers of Christ to love their neighbors vs to insist that all followers keep Friday sunset to Saturday sunset as the perpetual 7th day Sabbath. The former commands a way of life that allows for diversity of expression, while the latter demands adherence to a specific doctrinal belief. The former clearly embraces unity in diversity, while the latter only embraces unity in uniformity.

So, what was it that Jesus was teaching when he said, 'the one who listens to you listens to Me'?  Had he been teaching them a specific statement of religious beliefs or commanding them to love the world as God so loves the world (See Lk 9:2,6,16-17,44,48,50,56; 10:5,9)? Your answer to this question will determine they nature of your religious practice and the type of community you would form or choose to be part of.

If we 'listen to Jesus' (Lk 9:39) what will we 'hear' - a call to correct doctrine or a call to be compassionate? If the former, then the 70 on their return should have reported much rejection. If the latter, then the 70 on their return should have reported much success. 

17 The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.” 

The seventy went to each of the cities designated by Jesus and apparently prepared the way for his arrival, but didn't remain in those cities waiting for Jesus to arrive. In fact, Jesus did not begin his visit to the cities until the seventy returned. Note, no one was missing from the seventy who were sent out. None of them had run away or were killed by angry mobs who refused to hear the gospel of the kingdom. None of the seventy were depressed by rejection or had returned bruised from being stoned or beaten up. They discovered nothing but victory after joyful victory.

So, what had they done to 'prepare the way' for Jesus' arrival? What had they 'heard' from Jesus that they had then proclaimed in the cities? Had they preached specific theological doctrines or had they lived out their faith by compassionately healing the people and pointing them to Jesus and his kingdom?

Notice, the demons come under the power of OT scripture quoted to them nor chased away by sacrificial rituals. Rather, they became 'subject to' the disciple's commands 'at the name of Jesus'. The seventy acknowledged that their successes were because of Jesus. The demons were subject to them in His name, not because of their own names. The demons didn't obey them for any other reason except for being commanded in the name of Jesus.

What is implicit in Luke's gospel, yet not specifically stated by Luke, is that their success was not merely because they spoke in Jesus' name, but because the demons perceived the presence of Christ in their hearts. Recall the story found in Acts 19:11-17 that underscores this point. In other words, using the name of Jesus is not a magic wand. Using his name is only powerful when there is a heart-to-heart relationship with Jesus 'and' we are carrying out his expressed will. Even a relationship with Jesus, plus using his name, isn't sufficient, unless we are saying and doing what he has commanded and at the time and place he has directed. Implied in the relationship is having heard, listened to, and obeyed his command to you as an individual (Jn 21:22,23). 

18 And He said to them, “I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will injure you. 

Was Jesus speaking literally, figuratively, or prophetically?

Might Jesus have better said, 'I saw Satan running for his life'? Or, 'I saw Satan defeated wherever you worked in my name'? Why, though, did he instead say, 'I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning'? Doesn't that suggest Satan had been operating up til then from heaven? The way that Jesus said this also suggests that heaven was far away since his fall was fast like lightning, yet Jesus 'was watching him fall' - suggesting that it took time even at the speed of light. Too literal? Perhaps.

Maybe Jesus was only speaking figuratively. In other words, nothing could obstruct their work as long as they sincerely worked in His name by faith. How could that be true? Don't the disciples of Jesus meet obstacles all the time in this world? Aren't genuine followers of Jesus often exiled, jailed, or even killed?

Maybe, not only was Jesus figuratively speaking when he said he 'was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning', but was also figuratively speaking when he said, 'nothing will injure you'. Surely that is how the apostle Paul must have understood these words (2 Cor 6:1-10; 11:23-27; Rom 8:28-39). Although...

20 Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.”

Practically speaking we know that living out the Christian life is often very dangerous. Christians 'do get injured' and even may die simply because they believe in Christ. Yet they believe that death of the body isn't eternal death. Believers never really 'die'.

That being said, there was a literal reality to what Jesus said to the seventy. It wasn't all figurative. God did and does intervene in this world. Demons are cast out. People are healed. The disciples did have a supernatural 'hedge' placed around them as they labored in the 'harvest' (Ps 91; Job 1:10; 3:23). Yet, God's physical interventions in this world are always according to his wisdom. The time and place of miracles is never determined by man, regardless of his or her faith in God. Faith in God assumes we have surrendered 'time and place' for a miracle to God's discretion.

Thus, Christ taught, a miraculous victory over the enemy in this world is not be our cause for joy. Victory over the enemy is to be understood as a consequence of our faith in Christ, not the reason for our faith. It is destructive to faith to allow the cart before the horse. When our motivation for belief in Christ arises from our victories we become circumstance-driven followers of Christ. On the other hand, when our motivation for following Christ comes through faith alone - faith being the evidence of things unseen - then our discipleship is no longer circumstance dependent. We take him at his word, regardless of results in this world. Confident that our 'names are recorded in heaven' we live by faith in his grace. 'Faith' that is measurement dependent is not faith.

Our joy and peace comes from believing (Rom 15:13). We leave the matters of heaven and hell up to God.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Revisiting Luke's Christmas Story

The angel Gabriel said, 'behold, Mary, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David; and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end (Luke 1:31-33).

Another Christmas is upon us. Our neighborhood is beautifully lit each night with seasonally appropriate colors. Nicely wrapped gifts surround our artificial tree. A 4 foot inflatable Santa Claus adorns our neighbor's front lawn.

Seasonally appropriate lights? Artificial trees? Inflatable Santa Claus? Christ's Mass?

Where in scripture is all this written? Right, our 21st century 'Christmas' is less about the birth of Jesus and far more about an odd accumulation of sometimes silly traditions, increasingly hijacked by the marketplace in order to turn a profit. Too cynical? Maybe, but what culture has done to the good news of the incarnation of the Son of God is a far greater travesty than my commentary on our capitalistic culture. Yes? Well, maybe not.

First, neither Jesus nor his disciples ever celebrated His birthday. Luke himself told us that after doing careful research he wrote his gospel to inform 'Theophilus' all about Jesus. The birth of Jesus was thoroughly noted without ever mentioning the need for an annual celebration of the event. There simply isn't any date for his birth nor command for an annual celebration of the event.

Second, since we don't know the date of Jesus' birth, there is no reason to find offense when the 'day' is celebrated - even with an inflatable Santa, trees, and/or candy canes and mistletoe. What's wrong with being distracted from the birth of Jesus by all these traditions when Jesus wasn't even born on December 25th? Can there really be a beef about a distraction from something that wasn't ever meant to exist in the first place? The commodification of a 'day' that superficially purports to be about the birth of Jesus, yet doesn't have any scriptural significance ought to be meaningless to Christians. No harm, no foul, right?

Third, the fact that Christ occasionally receives mention during this holiday at least gives some people pause - people who might otherwise have never thought about God's gift to the world. In other words, there is nothing about Christmas that needs to be fixed by Christians since there is nothing about celebrating the birth of Christ that is required by scripture. Christmas is an amalgamation of many things. Jesus simply makes a brief cameo.   

So, should we completely ignore the incarnation? Should our focus only be on the cross and the resurrection of Jesus? Is the birth of Christ really unimportant in Christian theology?

Though the actual birth date of Jesus is not known, his incarnation forms the very foundation of Christian theology. Jesus wasn't, according to scripture, merely a good man. Rather, he was and is the Creator God who became man in order to save man. Paul made it clear that if Jesus' death on the cross was not followed up by his subsequent resurrection then our faith is vain, pitiful, and even worthless because we have not been saved (1 Cor 15:12-19). But if Jesus was merely a man like us, would his death and resurrection be of any more efficacious than, say, the death and resurrection of Moses? Isn't the point in all this that Jesus was God who became man?

So, if all that is actually true, why weren't Christians told the exact date of Jesus' birth and instructed to celebrate it each year? The fact that God became flesh to reveal his love for man and his choice to save man from his sins should be a big, big deal to all of us, right?

Well, the birth of Jesus is celebrated, but in a manner that is far more important than by an annual, one day remembrance. In fact, each and every time a person chooses to receive Jesus into their heart, Jesus is born anew. More, each morning a believer chooses to walk in the gift of the Spirit - to walk in newness of life through faith in Christ - s/he celebrates the birth of Jesus within their heart. A changed life, lived out 24/7, is the best testimony to the incarnation - the birthday of Jesus.

As the Son of God was conceived in the womb of Mary, the Son of God is conceived in the heart of every believer. The throne of David is set up within the believer's heart as we become citizens of the Kingdom of God through our faith in Christ. 'Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God' (Jn 3:3).

The disciples of Christ should never be distracted by earthly things, since our citizenship is in the Kingdom of God where evil has no presence. The fruit of our heavenly citizenship is revealed within the kingdoms of men, but do not constitute the kingdom of God. Thus we have nothing to defend or to take offense at. So, enjoy Christmas as an earthly thing - such as it is - yet permit Christ to live out his life from your heart moment by moment (Col 1:10; 2:6,7; Eph 4:1).

And Mary said, 'my soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For he has had regard for the humble state of his bond slave; for behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me (Luke 1:46-49).

Having posited that the birth of Jesus is best remembered whenever a person is born anew, the next question is, 'how should we then celebrate a new birth experience?'

The new birth is a sacred event, one that the Catholic church acknowledges by the ritual of the 'mass' that remembers the sacrifice of Christ - thus Christ-mass. With that in mind, notice how Mary celebrated the promised birth of Jesus. Her whole being - her soul - was given to the exaltation of the Lord. Her spirit resonated with God. Her thinking was aligned with God's thinking. She humbled herself before the Lord.

In other words, if we choose to celebrate the birth of Christ, the example of Mary suggests that our celebration is best revealed in humble obedience and the surrender of our whole existence (soul) to the will of God. That is what is meant when theologians speak of the 'sanctified life'. Each day is effectively a celebration of Christmas whenever we choose to live by faith and are led by the Spirit (Rom 8:9-14).

On a very different note, when we think about the birth of Jesus, note who Mary said would be counted blessed. 'From this time on all generations will count me blessed.' Yikes. Should 'Christmas be a celebration of the mother of Jesus? Should our annual celebration be called Marymas?

We might also extrapolate from this yet another spiritual principle. If I choose to celebrate the birth of Christ in me, the best way to do so is to continually acknowledge those whom God has used to lead me into the kingdom of God - my spiritual mentors and even my earthly parents. An annual event that honors those who have led me to faith seems appropriate, yet to honor the Person of my faith demands far more than an annual celebration. It demands my life.

And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and she wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a feeding trough because there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).

Here again is another element in the celebration of Christ's birth. When Christ is birthed within us, we are delivered into his Kingdom. His kingdom is not the same as the kingdoms of this world. A kingdom person does not whine over his or her circumstances. Whatever  your circumstances, if Christ lives within you, you bring the kingdom of God near to all those around you (Lk 10:9). In other words, kingdom people are the most beautiful people in the world, whether they are laid in a feeding trough alongside farm animals or living in the splendor of a mansion.

Additionally, we not only celebrate the birth of Jesus by being content with whatever God has given to us, but by serving those who are in need. In other words, when we remember that there wasn't room in the inn for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus - providing a 'room in the inn' to those in need today is to provide a room for Jesus. As we serve the least among us, we serve Christ himself (Lk 9:48; Mt 25:34-40). That is the spirit of Christmas.

An angel of the Lord suddenly stood before some shepherds staying out in the fields..and said to them, 'do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a feeding trough. And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased (Luke 2:8-14).

The Christmas spirit is not a spirit of fear, but always one of trust in the Lord.

The Christmas spirit is one of great joy for all people, because it is about being delivered from that which enslaves us.

The Christmas spirit is about peace on earth. Peace requires honoring the humanity of others, looking past their idiosyncrasies, our differences of opinion, and even past the sins of others, just as God looks past our sins. We look at others in full expectation the Spirit will help us to discern the good God has already been doing in their heart (Phil 1:6).

The Christmas spirit is one of 'noticing' where God is at work - knowing that God is always at work in the life of each human being and in each and every circumstance of life. The delight of Christmas morning as we open a gift from a loved one pales in comparison with the joy we experience every day when we discern the gift of Jesus operating in our world. The born again citizen of the Kingdom of God wakes up each morning - not merely once each year on the morning of December 25th - with a grand sense of anticipation in discovering something new and better that God is doing in and around us.

When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, 'Let us go straight to Bethlehem then and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us. So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as he lay in the manger (Luke 2:15,16).

The real Christmas spirit involves being excited about the Gift, becoming singularly focused on the Gift, and quickening our pace toward the Gift. How many 'gifts' elicit that kind of response? How many 'gifts' not only elicit that response, but sustain a sense of awe in the 'gift' 24/7/365? There is only one such Gift - the Son of God. Every other gift pales in comparison to the true Gift.

When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them (Luke 2:17-20).

A gift that truly inspires us, also changes us. We are compelled to tell everyone we meet about it. Telling others about that kind of 'gift' shift attention away from all lesser 'gifts'. Folks are more willing to loosen their grip on what they have in order to receive the Gift that has so thoroughly recreated us. Describing the joy and peace we have received through the Gift of Christ being born within us, creates lasting wonder and deep contemplation in others.

This is the kind of Christmas Luke wanted the world to know about.