Saturday, December 29, 2018

On the fifth day of Christmas ...

Merry Christmas! Hope you are still enjoying the season and letting the joy and peace of it linger in your life a bit these days. I've been occupied with a few other things and abysmal about writing regular posts these days, but I've been listening to a delightful mix of Christmas tunes including the one referenced in this post from 2012. Thought I'd repost it here for your fifth-day-of-Christmas reading pleasure.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas Eve

I'm so often struck by the tension between the powers of this world and the way Jesus arrives. I was watching a movie the other night -- no, I won't recommend it -- that included a criminal who was studying economics reflecting that since retailers make about 50% of their profits in December, you'd think the government would institute another giving-based holiday around May or June. Christmas 2. Just for the profit. Incisive, and pushing the point that Jesus doesn't come to endorse the Way Things Are.

Each year I take a few minutes to appreciate a voice as unlikely as Jackson Browne's making exactly that point. Enjoy.

And Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A love-shaped life

I have written before in these pages about longing to have a life built around love. Scott Sauls does a powerful job of describing this life (what he calls here a "love-shaped life") and why it is so important for those who know Jesus. I'm intrigued by the distinction he makes between "resume virtues" and "eulogy virtues." This blog post is less about politics (though the title may make you think it is) and more about authentic discipleship. It's an excellent read.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Plenitude and pulchritude

Life has been full these last few days. My daughter from Seattle was here for a few days, and that time was delightfully packed with in-depth conversations, cutting and decorating a Christmas tree (she convinced me to actually have it inside the cabin this year, which turned out to be a good decision though I was dubious), and helping her get a resume and cover letter set up for a possible job ... then, wonderfully, having a positive response so that she actually had a phone interview while she was here, sitting up in my writing studio and jumping through hoops. It's such a joy to see the young woman she has become and watch her navigating her way in the world.

I also had my brother's dog here for a few days, and that was great fun as well. Callie is a laid back golden lab who loves to chase squirrels and has a lot of patience for being left at home for a few hours. (She's learned, even more than me, to value naps.) So having a dog becomes a good excuse for lots of long walks, for playing / wrestling on the carpet, for building fires and relaxing, for the delight of all these long trails through the snow. It's good.

Christmas activities abound around Decision Hills these days, of course. The children's Christmas program happened yesterday afternoon, so while the sun was setting I was out directing traffic and parking cars. Part of my not-so-secret delight in this event was sitting in the back of the packed sanctuary listening to some of the traditional carols and seeing children retelling the old, old story of Jesus' birth. Even as Herod, after the sack of Bethlehem and the slaughter of its infants, is in his spectacular death throes on the platform (something you rarely see in nativity stories these days, especially with the dramatic flair of this particular young Herod, while his gold-armored soldiers stood around looking helpless and he contorted and finally breathed his last on the steps of the platform) part of my mind was back at Faaberg in the days of my childhood, being a child and having this or that role in the Christmas program while proud parents in parkas looked on, while frost rimed the inside of the windows on especially cold years, while the Sunday School teachers stood in the back with an apple or a small bag of hard candy and caramel corn for each child after the program. Good memories, set to the strains of "Silent Night" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Angels We Have Heard On High" on the playlist in my mind. I love the traditional carols and the simple retelling of the biblical stories. There is a delightful incarnate beauty and a deep sense of community in those events as well -- the good will of humanity expressed in a tangible hug or gift or card, gratitude for the privilege of sharing life and ministry with people who have become so immeasurably dear. Community, partnership in ministry, the shared sense of both the gravitas and the hilaritas of this Jesus-following life -- these all come to the surface during these dark days of December, the temporal "thin place" of the downhill slope of Advent. 

My brother and sister-in-law came last night to retrieve their dog. We chiseled holes in the ice and he fished for a bit, but we are convinced that unlike the sweeping V's of northbound geese that swept over our heads, the fish have all flown south for the winter. Or in the words of the old Ole and Sven joke, "There are no fish under the ice." I left for the Christmas program while they continued their vain piscine pursuit, and then we sat long into the dark, lit by the Christmas tree lights, curled up on our various pieces of furniture watching football, eating venison and pork and cheese and chocolate and talking about all kinds of great topics. What a gift. This morning we filled up on biscuits and duck eggs and walked the property, through the various buildings and up past the crosses, around the north end where my grapes grew this summer and down through the RV sites and back up to my cabin. It's a light, sunny morning full of the crispness of a mid-December day in Minnesota.

It's just funny, I guess, how roller-coastery my life gets sometimes. On the solid, good foundation of living where I live and an outstanding collection of people who love me so well, I am prone to the all-too-Scandinavian downsides of the December dark. But when I look back objectively at the last few weeks I have to shake my head in an amazed appreciation of all that is so good. It's a great reminder during the long evenings, something to ponder with joy while I walk out to listen to the ice groan and crack as it swells and shrinks in the cold. The night skies are brilliant in this darkest season of the year -- good reminder of the lovely points of burning starlight God has placed in my life, and how grateful I am for every bit of it.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Luke 19:28-48

What seems at first glance like three distinct episodes -- Jesus' triumphal entry, his weeping over Jerusalem, and the cleansing of the temple -- are in fact closely related and provide key insights into Jesus' identity and mission.

Palm Sunday sermons frequently point out the kingly symbolism in Jesus' triumphal entry, and rightly so. Rarely, however, do we take note of what Luke is at pains to point out: Jesus is returning just like the ruler in the story Jesus just told. Luke tells us that the triumphal entry happens "when he had said these things" -- a clear arrow pointing back to that story. So Jesus is entering Jerusalem to take up his kingship, and he will be no more welcome than the ruler in the story. His followers recognize what Jesus is doing, at least in part, and they hail him as king.

As Jesus comes down the hill -- the same hillside where he will be arrested in a few days -- he looks across the Kidron Valley to the city of Jerusalem, and he weeps for this city that he loves. He looks ahead to the day forty years in the future when the Roman legions will tear Jerusalem's walls to the ground and burn its temple. He states clearly that the things that could make for peace are hidden from the eyes of his people. Thematically, it's not hard to summarize what Jesus is talking about here: repentance (see Luke 13) and recognizing him as God's chosen king are the main things required for Jesus' people to know peace. What will occur in the next few days -- Jesus' rejection, betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion -- fly in the face of Jesus' prescription.

Perhaps it's Jesus' rejection is understandable, given what he does next in his presumptive authority as king: He enters the temple and cleanses it, driving out those who own the temple franchise, who change money for temple coinage and sell authorized sacrifices to worshipers. In spite of this in-your-face action, Jesus continues to teach in the temple daily, almost daring the authorities to silence him. They take their plotting underground, and the stage is set for Jesus to be betrayed and arrested. However, first we get to hear some of the exchanges that happen between him and the temple authorities during this tumultuous week.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Like a voice longs ...

Full weekend. Officiated at a funeral yesterday with all that involves; preached at the morning services this morning (and will preach again Wednesday evening); had our final Alpha session, a "celebration" complete with open mic and people sharing what God has been doing in their lives on this last Alpha. All most excellent, the kind of good stuff that is exhausting but so very, very fulfilling. Lots to be thankful for tonight, including the fact that by the grace of God this cold has retreated to the extent that only occasionally do I descend into fits of coughing, and almost all the rest of the time I'm just fine. I'm even tempted to get out on stand for the next couple days and see if I can take a deer with my recurve. Had four does and fawns in my yard this afternoon, so I know they're still around.

Here's the sermon from this morning, talking about our identity in Christ based on Hebrews 12:1-2, if you're interested.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

A world that speaks

I walked out on the lake ice last night in the darkness. I'd been too long laid back in my recliner, hiding under a blanket full of snowy prints of deer and elk, drinking copious amounts of water and chaga and trying to kick the last shards of this cold. Even over Netflix, even over Pandora I could hear the lake speaking. It's amazing when the temperature starts to drop and the ice begins to crack; the sound reverberates across the landscape impossibly basso profundo, or cracks like a whip across the withers of a watery horse. It distracts like an intruder, demands to be heard. So I bundled up and walked out on the ice.

Cresting the ridge of sand down by the boathouse, walking by feel as my toes through pac boots found the waterline, then the flat ice that I could not see, I thought of Wendell Berry's poem:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and learn that the dark, too, blooms and sings
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Yard lights and headlights and Christmas lights across the far side of the ice didn't illuminate the snow in front of my feet, so I was walking by faith -- faith that it's been cold enough for all those open spots to freeze over, faith that the seven or eight feet of frigid water below me would stay below me and I would be allowed to walk on the water, faith that I would in fact return to my recliner this evening. There are no guarantees in this life.

I stood out there for twenty minutes, I suppose, and the ice went silent for a long while. Then a crack started far on the south end of the lake and I heard it travel, heard it work its way north, then east, until it came right across the entrance to my bay. A couple times the cracks came like rifle shots immediately under my feet, which made my heart leap and the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight out.

At one point I looked upward and there, working its way west, was Cygnus, the Northern Cross. That constellation and I have a long history, and it makes me smile to see it hanging above the earth, to see the change of seasons evident in where that swan is flying this month. It's an odd perspective to stand like that, to see my life in proportion to the endurance of that massive cross, the shape that hung in the evenings over Homer when he was writing the Iliad, over Abraham when he was first seeing Canaan. I'm a spark flying up from the fire, glowing for a few seconds. Cygnus hangs like eternity overhead.

I'd been restless all day, restless with unfulfilled longings and unrequited dreams and old wounds, restless with the shards of this slowly retreating cold hanging like lead weights in my chest, restless with questions about futures and possibilities. I'd been wishing for phone calls and emails and text messages, for unexpected visitors showing up at the door, but my day had been silent and solitary in a necessary but uncomfortable way. I turned back to the shore and through the oaks I could see the lamp, my reading lamp next to the recliner, like a beacon through the picture window, summoning me to warmth and life. By starlight I walked back along my tracks, stumbling up the shore, unused to uneven ground, climbed the hill through the trees by feel of the rising ground, the dry leaves and roots under my feet. In the yellow glare of my porch light I saw pressed down on top of the impermanent snow a fresh set of prints, a coyote that had walked alongside my cabin, hunting alone in the snow. Stared a moment toward the forest, pondering his trail.

The front door opened into a rush of warmth and welcome, the smells of a cabin in winter. Unbundle the necessaries -- overcoat, hat, gloves, boots. I stood at the sink, surveyed my kitchen, washed the day's dishes, stood peering out the glass into the cold, looking over that coyote's tracks, stood perched between temperate summer indoors and the December cold on the other side of my windowpane. Turned off the light of my reading lamp. Turned toward the lake again, looking out my living room window. Stood for just a moment feeling the ice through the darkness, hearing again its boom and crack, and went content to bed.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Luke 19:11-27

This parable sometimes suffers from familiarity. We think we understand it: God gives us gifts, and we are to use them well. Good enough, so far as it goes; but there is a lot of depth and backstory we miss if we make Jesus' complex story here into a simple fable with a moral.

In Jesus' world and time, the idea of a nobleman going to a far country to receive kingship was all too familiar. The various Herods for a couple generations had been seeking the favor of their Roman overlords to receive kingship, governorship, tetrarchy, or whatever other scraps Rome was willing to dispense. They had survived civil war, palace revolutions, and changes in the political winds by currying Roman favor. And they were summarily resented and even hated by their Judean subjects. Josephus tells us that when Herod the Great was dying, about the time the child Jesus was learning to walk, he imprisoned dozens of the most valuable and beloved men in Israel in a stadium with orders that at the moment of his death they should be executed -- for the simple reason that he wanted people to grieve when he died. Fortunately the order was never carried out, but it gives insight into the relationship between Jesus' people and their government. The idea of a hated king who went to a far country to negotiate the terms of his rule would have been all too familiar to Jesus' hearers.

Luke tells us that Jesus tells this story precisely to counter the assumption that the kingdom is coming immediately. It's tempting to make the parable into an allegory, and to a certain extent this is helpful. But more often than not, we imagine Jesus returning in our time to hold us accountable for our work or lack thereof. Helpful from a motivational point of view, perhaps; but Jesus is speaking about his own "crowning," his own taking up authority that is about to happen at Jerusalem. Luke also tells us this when he mentions that they are "near Jerusalem." Jesus' hearers are assuming, still, a political victory, a coming coronation that will in some form exalt them all. In spite of Jesus' previous statements, they are not anticipating the cross, though Jesus is.

An intriguing aspect to the parable is that the citizens send a delegation after the nobleman to protest his rule. Is Jesus saying that we do this to God? We don't want Jesus to rule over us, so we protest to God about the way he's running his empire. We don't want to follow a crucified, shamed Messiah. We don't want to take up our crosses and follow. "God, I just want to be victorious!" Like the third servant with his handkerchief-wrapped coin, we want to avoid risk and simply reap rewards.

Possibly the most important part of this parable is that Jesus gives us insight into how we view God, and how God honors our perceptions. The third servant launches into a detailed description of his master: "You are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and you reap what you did not sow." Surprisingly the master just rolls with it. "You knew, did you, that I am like that? Well, I will judge you by your own words." What is your perception of God? What do you assume about God's character, and how accurate are your assumptions? Do you assume God is disappointed in you? Waiting for you to shape up? Angry because you've failed? You will receive the judgment of these inaccurate assumptions. Our failure is not usually in doing something wrong, but in failing to know the heart of God accurately. Verse 26 gets at the heart of this. Have you noticed how some people seem to enjoy the "green pastures" of the psalm no matter what is happening in their lives? They navigate challenges and difficulties with a deep sense of being blessed and favored by God, even in the midst of hardship. This is because they have come to know God's character -- his measureless love and tenderness for them, the fact that he is in fact for them, that they are beloved by him.

The next few chapters of Luke's gospel will set the stage for us to know God in this way -- to know his loving, self-giving heart in its fullness.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Luke 19:1-10

Frogs are low and slow, awkward and cold and clammy. Once upon a time there was a frog, the froggiest of them all, and he lived unpleasantly in his frogginess. Until, that is, the day when a beautiful princess picked him up, kissed him full on his froggy lips and ZAP! Suddenly he was a handsome prince. Not perfect, of course, and struggling to work out the details of princely existence, but transformed nonetheless.

What is the task of the church? To kiss frogs, of course.

Trouble is, most churches are built to keep frogs out. If you've ever been a frog, you know how hard it is to gain entrance to churches with their perfect-seeming people, plush carpets, careful moral codes, and general intolerance for the eating of insects. Stop being a frog, they seem to say, and we might let you come inside.

But Jesus. Jesus stops the parade through Jericho and turns to the froggiest of them all, Zacchaeus the tax collector, and says "I'm staying at your house today." At the end of the story, Jesus sums up his mission perhaps as succinctly as he ever does: The Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost.

To kiss frogs.

If we doubt this mission has been handed on to us, look at the end of John's gospel. "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." It's actually fairly simple. As Jesus was to Zacchaeus' world, so the church is to be to this world in which we exist, putting into practice what Jesus achieved. Or, to mix in a wholly different metaphor, to play the music that Jesus wrote. 

If you're still a frog, there's hope. And if in some measure you've been kissed, transformed by the caress of love into a prince or princess yourself (though I daresay you still crave the occasional housefly) your task is to love Jesus who is transforming you, and to watch with compassion for frogs who need kissing.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Luke 18:31-43

It might seem odd to put these two sections of Luke 18 together, but this is important.

In verses 31-34, Jesus lays out a graphic description of what is about to happen to him: betrayal, arrest, torture, death, resurrection. We, like the disciples, are not inclined toward the redemption of suffering. We would rather avoid suffering and experience victory without loss or pain. In essence, this is what it means that the disciples "did not grasp what was said." They had come to know Jesus as king, as Messiah, and they assumed that his dogged progress toward Jerusalem was a procession toward enthronement. Sure, there might be battles, but Jesus would be victorious. There might be resistance, but they were confident in Jesus' ability to sweep away every power. Hadn't they seen him heal the blind, cast out demons, feed the multitude? Jesus could do anything!

Our natural human inclination is to put our heroes up on pedestals. We want Mighty Mouse crying out, "Here I come to save the day!" We prefer Superman, faster than a speeding bullet, rather than a crucified Messiah. The strongest evidence of our fallen, broken human condition is that we so completely mistake the nature of love for ourselves, for others, and for God. The nature of God is to love, and love by its very nature takes the pain of the beloved into itself. This is not a codependent syndrome, but a redemptive suffering. Isaiah nailed this when he said six hundred years before, "By his stripes we are healed." Love does not march into battle victorious, but it enters into pain and brings healing. Love by nature requires vulnerability, and vulnerability by definition includes the possibility of being wounded ourselves. To love is to be vulnerable, and without that vulnerability there is no possibility of intimacy and little possibility of relationship. We underestimate the brokenness of creation -- including ourselves -- and therefore mistake the nature of God's victorious love. The cross is not an exception in the life of God; it is the nature of redemptive love, always and forever. Love as the chief character quality of God is written into the fabric of the universe, deeper than the laws of thermodynamics or gravity or 'an eye for an eye.' Sin turns us away from this truth, turns us toward cheap victories that don't cost our suffering, turn us away from the necessity of sitting patient with pain while it does its work. Like Inigo Montoya at the top of the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride, we hate waiting.  So we mistakenly see suffering as the opposite of God's love, while more often than not suffering becomes the necessary groundwork for God's love to become known in a greater, deeper way.

On the heels of Jesus' words about his impending torture and death, he encounters a blind beggar. Here is the victorious healing, the supernatural sign. But see how the beggar cries out in his desperate condition, in spite of opposition from the crowd. The people see themselves as part of a victory procession, a royal parade toward coronation -- little do they know what Jesus' throne will actually be and what crown he will actually wear -- and the last thing they want to be bothered with is the spectacle of a blind man who wants attention. In subtle and obvious ways, we put our suffering out of sight so we don't have to deal with it. The aging go to nursing homes; the dead go to funeral homes; the sick stay home from work; we don't talk about depression in polite company; we all pop pills to take the edge off our pain, and when we get addicted to our painkillers we hide away in rehab centers. But Jesus stops the parade and summons the blind man, in fact commands the people to deal with his blindness directly by guiding him to Jesus.

What to do with these verses? The place to start is sitting by the road, watching what looks to us like a victorious parade passing by. Have you experienced life this way? Everyone else seems to have their act together. They are successfully following a victorious Messiah en route to his coronation, and there you sit in your blindness, in your suffering, in your incapacity. Don't accept the illusion that this is a victory parade, from glory into glory. Realize the nature of the Love that is passing by -- that Jesus goes to the cross for this deluded multitude, and for the sake of the city that will approve of his crucifixion, as well as for you. Cry out to Jesus in the place of your suffering, and don't let the crowd's misconceptions silence you. "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" He will not fail to hear your cries. He may use your suffering to confront those who simply want to march up to Jerusalem for a party. He will enter into your suffering and stand with you in compassion. And he will bring healing, because he loves you. In that, in the healing, he will invite you to enter into suffering -- not just your own, but others' -- and stand with a broken world in love.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Luke 18:18-30

This incident as recorded by Luke is so full of richness and subtlety that we often miss. There are layers upon layers of meaning and allusion here to be unpacked, and we won't get to all of them by any means. But let's take a stab.

Luke simply identifies the questioner as a "ruler." The Greek is "archon" -- a generic term for anyone in power, not specifying office or authority. It's the same word Paul uses a few places where he might be referring to Roman authorities (up to and including Caesar) or spiritual powers (angels, demons and the like, especially those given authority over specific geographic regions) or several other possibilities of "powers." Combined with the Greek word "polis," or 'city,' Luke uses this word to refer to the bureaucratic officials of Thessalonica in Acts 17 -- the "politarchs." So we don't know much about the man who questions Jesus except that he has authority, power of some kind. Through the story we will learn more, but this is enough to start with.

Having power changes people. If you have been in a situation where you have power, you know that you have a sense of agency, of capability, of the ability to make decisive changes. If you have been in a place where you have no power, on the other hand, you feel like a victim, like there's literally nothing you can do to influence your situation. The contrast couldn't be more stark. The fact that this man is a ruler, that he has authority and power in some measure, shapes everything that happens between him and Jesus.

"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" He doesn't ask "Who should I beg for eternal life?" or "How is eternal life given?" The question implies that he can make things happen, which is interesting -- because even he frames the issue as an issue of inheritance. By definition inheriting something is at least partially beyond one's control. There is a deep and rich theology in the New Testament of our inheriting eternal life through the death of Jesus. Paul is especially good at this in Romans, but here the ruler seems to think he can influence the execution of Jesus' will (puns intended).

Jesus plays along, eventually, but first he needs to call out the man's assumption: Why has the man addressed him as "Good Teacher"? The ruler uses the word "agathe" which means ethically, morally, or spiritually good. It's not just good as in "I'm having a good day" or "that was a good meal" but rather the deeper sense of "You are a good person" or "That was a good thing to do." It carries some weight. It's right up against the word "holy," and Jesus focuses on it for just a moment. Why, he asks the ruler, did you use that term to describe me? "No one is good but God alone." To the ruler this must have seemed like a rebuke in the moment. However to the disciples standing nearby (who had for some time been growing into this understanding) and to us reading later, it is obvious that the ruler has glimpsed something of Jesus' true nature. Jesus is, in fact, the God who is good. Goodness, uprightness, righteousness are his essence.

Before we can spiral down the rabbit hole into that topic, however, Jesus moves right along. He says, in effect, you already know the answer. Here is a basic recitation of the Law. What Jesus does not say here is critically important. He cites five of the Ten Commandments, and every one he cites comes from the later part of that list -- the commandments that apply to relationships between humans. He doesn't cite the first few that have to do with loving God above all others. And note that Jesus doesn't say that keeping the commandments will give the man eternal life. (It is extremely interesting to contrast Mark and Luke's versions of this story with Matthew's -- Matthew being written to a primarily Jewish audience who understood the Law as Torah, as a covenant like a marriage covenant, as a relational guideline to living in love with God, rather than a rigid set of ethical expectations as the gentiles and much later the Reformers would have it. As post-Reformation gentile Christians in the 21st century, we usually read these words through those filters and have a hard time getting back to the subtleties of a Jewish understanding of the Law per Matthew's version. Luke is often a better version for us to understand because, written to a gentile audience, it removes the need for at least one layer of required trans-cultural translation.) Jesus here is indeed a Good Teacher, and in this case he is -- at least partially -- setting up his student by revealing what the student has already understood: Though he has lived according to the rules all his adult life, he still lacks something.

Sell all that you have. Jesus speaks incisively into the man's soul, diagnosing his particular idolatry. This is not an eternal principle to be rigidly applied across the board, though so many of us are in bondage to our worldly wealth that it often seems like it. To generalize Jesus' directive here might require us to ask something like, "What owns you?" What most possesses you? What is too dear to give up? What is that treasure that pins the location of your heart? We all have idolatries that keep us from leaping to follow Jesus. Do you know yours?

To put a different twist on things here, we might say the ruler is teetering on the verge of falling in love with Jesus. He is captivated by the beauty and goodness he sees in this Messiah, and he longs to have what Jesus seems to possess -- eternal life. But like the young Ebenezer Scrooge confronted with the possibility of life-changing love, the ruler cannot escape the clutches of his hunger for wealth. Jesus stands before the ruler and implicitly says, "I have what you lack. Let go of what holds you back and come with me." A generation later the author of Hebrews will lay this before us explicitly (Hebrews 12:1-2). "Let us lay aside every weight and the sin which clings so close and look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith" -- this is the choice that confronts the ruler. And sorrowing, he chooses his idolatry.

Jesus sees his sorrow and recognizes it for what it is. We sometimes speak as if freedom -- political or spiritual -- is simply a beautiful gift that is obviously better than any kind of bondage. However, as Ursula K. LeGuin has written:
"Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward toward the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it." 
In Jesus' day as in ours, people saw wealth as a mark of God's favor. Who hasn't envied a Bill Gates? Who hasn't wished at some point to win the lottery? Jesus explicitly states what the wealthy learn by hard experience: Having too much is no gift. The strings of wealth and possessions and properties and even human relationships can tie us too much to this world and its ways. Peter (v. 28) seems to be looking to Jesus for reassurance -- we've left our homes. Have we done better than this ruler? Jesus affirms the choice Peter and the other disciples have made. Jesus himself is the treasure worth selling all else; he is the one relationship worth having. And having him, casting all aside to have him, we receive back again riches beyond measure, relationships of depth and quality that heal and enrich our hearts, family and community and love and so much more.

Trouble is, the losses look so fearful from the ruler's side. Death looks like a terrible ending from our perspective. Resurrection and all that goes with it seems like a myth, a dream. Love seems like an impossibility. But the risen Jesus stands as witness to the reality of abundant life -- not just for some distant eternity in a far-off heaven, but starting here and now, sucking the marrow out of the bones of this existence as we live into the reality of following him.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Luke 18:9-17

I've become convinced that having the right answers is one of the biggest obstacles to a relationship with God. Don't get me wrong, I desperately want to have the right answers, just like you do. Unresolved questions are restless things, stirring us in uncomfortable ways that don't feel pleasant or peaceful. Answers are solid, certain, complete, safe.

The Pharisee in Jesus' story has the answers. He knows what's right, and he lives by those solid rules. He's grateful to have the answers, and to have the capability of living by them. He's doing things right, and he knows it, and it's comforting.

The tax collector in the story, on the other hand, has no such certainty. He is inadequate and needs mercy. Have you ever been in that place of needing mercy? It's a powerless, fearful, vulnerable place. Jesus affirms this man's vulnerability and inadequacy and powerlessness.

Similarly, the children in Jesus' example -- and not just children, Luke tells us, but even infants -- are also powerless and vulnerable. There's nothing more tragic in our minds than a child, all innocence and delight and openness and joy, that is victimized and hurt. We are rightly indignant when such horrific things happen. But Jesus says it's their very vulnerability and powerlessness that makes them an example of how we come into the kingdom of God. If we think for just a moment, we will see that this is not just sentiment, but it is absolute truth. This is the ironclad principle of the universe: If you come to God in your own power, in your own capacity and capability, you cannot come under God's rule. The kingdom of God is about God's sovereignty and control, not yours. It is about your trust in a good, good Father.

Often God brings us into that place of trust and vulnerability by asking us questions. I've been reading through 1 Kings in the mornings, and this morning I read the story of Elijah after his showdown with the priests of Baal, running for his life into the wilderness trying to avoid Jezebel's murderous intentions. He came to the mountain of God and hid himself in a cave, and God asked him a question: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" Elijah gives an answer full of his own identity and certainty about his condition. Then God does an interesting thing: He reveals his power. Wind, earthquake, fire pass before the mouth of the cave, and Elijah does not engage. But when the sound of a "crushing silence" as one of my seminary professors read it, or a "low whisper" as the ESV translates it, shows up, Elijah recognizes the presence of God. Yet God's low whisper asks Elijah the same exact question a second time, and Elijah recites the same self-pitying answer a second time. Elijah, in his burned out state, can't see the possibility of change. In mercy, God decommissions Elijah and transitions his ministry to Elisha. "What are you doing here?" might seem like a simple question, but it reveals Elijah's heart. What questions is God asking? Seemingly simple questions can be the root of powerful opportunities. What do you really want? What's most important to you? What are the hurts you bear? What brings you joy? God love to ask us questions that push us back just a bit into that off-balance place where we can be a little vulnerable before him, where the possibility of change becomes real.

If you want another example, look at the last few chapters of the book of Job, when after dozens of chapters of eloquent speculation, God finally shows up before Job and -- you guessed it -- asks him questions. "Stand before me like a man," God demands, "and I will question you."

Recognizing that we have more questions than answers might be one good way to do what Jesus recommends here -- to "humble ourselves." Humanly speaking, this is not our first inclination. But it is a sure entry point into the kingdom where God (not us) reigns supreme.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Luke 18:1-8

Though we often tend to be idealists when it comes to the Christian life, Jesus is not. We want to say, "God will take care of you" or "It will all come out right in the end" or "Everything happens for a reason." While those statements may be theologically correct, the life of faith doesn't always feel like the Right Answers.

Jesus is a realist. He understands what life is really like for those who live in a sin-broken world and need to trust daily that God is good and that he is in control of our challenging circumstances, our disappointments, and our unfulfilled longings. That's what this parable is about.

Jesus is not, note, saying that God is actually like this unjust judge. Rather, Jesus is saying that sometimes our experience feels like God is behaving this way. We may feel like we have been storming the gates of heaven in prayer and still we are stuck, frustrated, disappointed, longing. Jesus' answer? Don't quit. Don't give up. Continue to lay your needs before God. Continue to pester God with your needs. Continue to pray, partly at least because the act of praying is an implicit acknowledgement that God is in fact sovereign.

The Bible is full of examples of those who trusted God, often for unbearably long periods of time, to fulfill his promises. How long did Abraham wait for a legitimate heir? How long did David hide in caves? How long did Moses herd sheep in the wilderness?

There are so many great examples of believers who have endured challenging circumstances that tested their faith, but one of the most potent for me is Dietrich Bonhoeffer's collection, Letters and Papers from Prison. As Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Gestapo during World War Two, he waited for positive word about the plots he'd helped foment against Hitler. He waited for news about his parents and the rest of his family. He waited to have any contact with his beloved, to whom he had very recently become engaged. Reading his reflections is an amazing pendulum swing between hope and despair, faith and frustration.

If you are in a place of waiting, a place of frustration, a place of longing, ponder Jesus' words here. He's saying even if you are suffering, don't give up. Trusting in God can take the shape of persistent prayer. Allow yourself to believe in the face of the immediate evidence that God is good, that he is bringing his promises to fruition for your good and his glory.

Friday, November 23, 2018

More chewing

I'm continuing to chew on the story in 1 Kings 13 and its context. I think what engages me more than anything in this story -- aside from the fact that it's fascinating, and it's almost never talked about -- is that it highlights a very real question for those of us who are serious about following Jesus in a biblical way:

How do you discern God's direction?

The prophet from Judah hears a word from God. Okay. But as noted in the last post, he doesn't have a black-and-white Bible to go to in order to test it, and God seems okay with that. In fact, God seems okay with that lack throughout the Bible. Apparently God thinks his Spirit is capable of communicating and directing.

The prophet from Bethel lies outright. What motivates him? It doesn't really matter. Maybe it's civic pride. Maybe it's an effort to protect his king. Maybe he's trying to test the authenticity of the Judean prophet's word, which is what the text seems to do with the whole story when all is said and done. Maybe he's just a mean old man.

How would the story look different if the Judean prophet had "done it right"? What seems to be expected of him in the story? It seems like -- and this is not necessarily clear, but it seems to be the case -- he is expected to obey the clear word of God he's received to go to Bethel, pronounce his message of destruction, not eat or drink, and return by a different route. If he had done just that, the story at least implies things would have gone well for him.

So think about this for a minute: He is supposed to be obedient to the word he's heard from God and disregard 1) the witness of another prophet; 2) a revelation (false, but he doesn't know that) given by an angel; 3) the conventions of hospitality that were absolute in his culture.

Has God ever called you to take a stand? Can you sympathize with the Judean prophet who finds himself completely isolated in this regard?

Martin Luther said late in his life that during the height of the Reformation, the greatest temptation to abandon biblical truth for him consisted in this question: Is it possible, Martin, that you alone are right and all of Christendom is wrong? He nearly abandoned all his convictions because he found himself required to take a stand alone.

I believe God wants us to know his character and his voice so well that we trust him, even when other voices contradict. I'm not advocating that we all should simply listen to the voices in our heads to the exclusion of all else. But over and over in the Bible, being able to hear and discern the voice of the Spirit is critically important. Jesus said his sheep know his voice (John 10). Paul wrote about the Spirit in our hearts bearing witness (Romans 8 among others). This idea permeates the New Testament. But as Lily Tomlin said, it's fine for you to talk to God; but if God talks to you, we say you're crazy.

I worry that we have perhaps settled for a corporate, policy-laden, rule-bound version of Christianity rather than the Spirit-driven journey of listening for Jesus' voice and following his leading.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

A disturbing detour

I've been reading my way through 1 Kings lately. Spent a couple months savoring the stories in 1-2 Samuel, and for a couple weeks I've been in 1 Kings. Today I read 1 Kings 13, and as always, this story disturbs me greatly.

Basically it's the story of a prophet from Judah who comes to Bethel, the worship center for the northern kingdom of Israel, and speaks a word of judgment from God on the religious practices of Israel. You see, Jeroboam -- who was set up as king in Israel by God when Solomon's son Rehoboam turned out to be a jerk -- had crafted a couple golden calves (sound familiar?) and set them up at Dan in the north and Bethel in the south so that his people wouldn't go to Jerusalem (the capital city of Judah) to worship. God sends a prophet from Judah with very specific instructions to go speak a word against what Jeroboam has done. The prophet does so, and continues to obey God's word.

So far all this makes sense.

Now, there's a prophet in Bethel who (long story) lies to the prophet of Judah and gets him to disobey God's word by saying he has a more recent, more authoritative, more spiritual revelation. So the prophet from Judah disobeys, which basically means coming back to Bethel and eating a meal. Then the prophet from Bethel says, "Ha! You're going to die because you disobeyed!" The prophet from Judah goes on his way and gets killed by a lion. Not making this up. THEN the prophet from Bethel goes far out of his way to honor the prophet from Judah (what?), buries him in his own tomb and gives his sons instructions that when he dies, he should be buried right next to that guy whom he deceived.


Take a look for just a moment at a few of the wild dynamics in this story. (By the way, I'm guessing none of us have EVER heard a sermon on this story. It's way too complicated to preach. That doesn't mean it's not important. It's incredibly important; most of us just don't have a clue it's in the Bible.) So. Dynamics.

  1. Jeroboam has founded his kingdom on the promise of God. (This happens earlier in 1 Kings.) Jeroboam is God's chosen king for the northern kingdom of Israel, but Jeroboam makes an expedient decision about the religious life of his people, creating local worship centers to protect his political power. Not to draw too fine a parallel, but how many of our churches are built on authentic promises of God, authentic interpretations of God's word, but we have compromised ourselves in order to protect our political power through expedient decision making? 
  2. God speaks a word to the prophet from Judah that frankly puts his life in danger. This seems to be the reason why the guy is not to return by the same route after delivering his message -- people will want to ambush and kill him for the judgment he speaks. The prophet is boldly obedient, resolute in the face of resistance, and he takes this wild word from God to heart. Question: Does God still speak this way? If not, why not? Remember that this prophet doesn't have a trove of written scripture he can go to in order to test the word he receives from God. He does, however, have a Levitical priesthood that had some basic laws drawn up that would have condemned Jeroboam's religious practices.
  3. When the prophet from Judah is in Bethel, he has no one to back him up. He's totally solo. He has to cling completely to what he thought he heard God say in the face of incredible resistance. We don't know, but we can imagine, that maybe he had support back in Judah. He might have had a band of prophets he prayed and prophesied with. That seems to have been fairly common. Or he might have had reinforcement from the Levitical priests in Jerusalem who would have recognized the wrong in Jeroboam's worship practices. But when he's on assignment, he is totally isolated.
  4. The prophet from Bethel takes advantage of this. He comes alongside, says, "Hey, I'm a prophet, too, and God has given me another word for you ..." and he convinces the prophet from Judah to compromise what he's heard. He is flat-out lying, but the younger prophet doesn't know this yet. So by giving in to spiritual counsel from what looks like a teammate and compromising what he's heard from God, he participates in his own destruction. 
This story is leading me into far more questions than answers. What do you do if you think you've heard a word from God, but that very word seems to isolate you? What do you do with feedback from people who look like teammates? Is there a difference between how the Spirit of God operated pre-Pentecost versus today? What does it mean to be guided by the Holy Spirit -- to be, as Len Sweet calls it, a "pneumanaut"?

I'm going to park here for a day or two and reread this text. Lots of questions. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Luke 17:20-37

This is another section of the Bible that we tend to read in a very self-centered fashion. I can't tell you how many sermons and studies and teachings I've heard about this, inspiring an adrenaline rush of "Jesus is coming back at any moment, and he'll take one person out of bed and leave their roommate!" It's led to songs like Larry Norman's "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" (very catchy) and some frankly abusive teaching that has inspired terror in order to motivate people to true conversion. It's the classic "If you died tonight ..." question that is provocative to think about, but notice -- and I think this is critically important -- that Jesus doesn't ever inspire conversions based on that kind of tactic.

So what's Jesus getting at in this section? Let's make a few observations.

First, remember that "the kingdom of God" is not about some future heaven, but rather it is about the present day rule of God in the lives of believers, looking ahead to a future fulfillment. It's about God's kingship. So verses 20-21 are extremely important. There's an intentional linguistic pun in the text based on the fact that the second person singular and plural are identical in Greek. In other words, Jesus is saying both "the kingdom of God is within you" (singular) AND "the kingdom of God is among you all" (plural). There is an internal, individually spiritual dimension to God's rule. There is also a relational, corporate reality to God's rule. Both are key parts of the kingship of God in our lives.

Then Jesus begins to teach his disciples some difficult things about what life will be like in their future. (Remember we have to try to discern what these words meant to their original hearers before we import them wholesale into our lives.) Jesus and the disciples are traveling toward Jerusalem. At this stage, they are likely on the east side of the Jordan River, traveling the road that followed the floodplain southward from Galilee (crossing along the border of Samaria), then crossing the river and moving southward. They'll re-cross the river near Jericho, as we see in 18:35, and begin the long climb up into the hills where Jerusalem is located.

Interestingly, this puts Jesus and his followers geographically near the place where Lot escaped the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. That may be what prompted the conversation Luke records here. Remember, though, that Jesus is looking ahead to two cataclysmic events. First is his own crucifixion, coming up in a few short weeks. Second is that a generation from now, the city of Jerusalem will be destroyed by the Roman armies who will surround it, lay siege to it, and eventually burn the city and the temple. These two events are beyond-comprehension devastating for Jesus' immediate audience. Jesus uses figurative language to communicate how devastating these events will be. First the crucifixion will devastate his followers, throwing their movement into absolute chaos, then (at the time of his resurrection) transforming this movement into something none of them could imagine right now. Then, a generation later, as the news of Jesus' resurrection is spreading outward from Jerusalem into the whole Roman world and beyond, the Jews will rise up in revolt against the Romans and suffer the terrible consequences as Vespasian and his son Titus come with the legions to destroy anyone who would proclaim their independence from Caesar. It's not surprising that Jesus would end this section by saying, in answer to his disciples' question, "Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather." His own soon-to-be-crucified body and the corpse of burned Jerusalem are both held in this cryptic statement.

Is it realistic to think that Jesus' words here are intended to be more figurative than literal? Think about the way we use language. A decisive political victory is a "landslide." A mass of refugees is a "flood." When public sympathies are changing we say "the tide is turning." An individual or a set of circumstances that seems a bit chaotic and high-energy is a "whirlwind." We do this all the time -- but because these are normal expressions for us, we don't think anything of it. Jesus is doing much the same thing, using common apocalyptic expressions here to help his people understand a bit of what's coming, and to prepare them for the challenging days ahead.

What do we do about applying these things to ourselves? It's certainly not a bad thing to hear these texts as warnings to be ready for whatever cataclysms might come. Jesus has spoken that message over and over again already, especially in chapter 13 where he tells his followers to live in an attitude of repentance. Make peace with God and tend to your human relationships. Be ready. Don't get embroiled in the concerns of daily life and miss the fragile nature of this existence. Watch for what God is doing and be ready to change your plans when God calls you to something new.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Luke 17:11-19

This text is often used for Thanksgiving worship services, focusing on the one man (a Samaritan) who returns to give thanks to Jesus for his healing. A couple reflections on this fairly straightforward story:

First, it is interesting that a debilitating disease breaks down the social mores that keep Jews from associating with Samaritans. The nine Jews were apparently content having this Samaritan with them, and vice versa. Yet we know (see John 4, for example) that Jews and Samaritans didn't associate. We see this in daily life, that terrible tragedies can bring people together and create bonds of commonality and understanding that would be impossible without a crisis.

Second, our status as "insiders" may well keep us from Jesus. Though these nine Jews are lepers and therefore outcasts, they still in some measure live in bondage to the expectations of their tradition. So when Jesus tells them to go show themselves to the priests, that hierarchy and authority structure takes immediate priority in their lives. The Samaritan, on the other hand, is far enough from the temple structures and systems that he recognizes that it is important for him to return to thank Jesus. The Samaritans had their own temple, their own priesthood, their own laws that required the same kind of obedience, but this man is already living as an outsider to his own cultural systems by associating with these Jews. Perhaps that gave him enough perspective to recognize Jesus more fully.

Third, the nine are simply being obedient to Jesus' words, but they fail to recognize the priority of a grateful relationship with Jesus. Once they were healed, it would have been entirely appropriate for them -- as it was for the Samaritan -- to return and thank Jesus before then proceeding to fulfill the law by showing themselves to the priests. It's about love and gratitude. A case study in similar contrasts happens in John's gospel, where John carefully lays out a subtle comparison between the cripple who is healed in John 5, who ungratefully goes on to rat out Jesus to the authorities, and the blind man who is healed in John 9 and then stands up to the authorities as a witness to the authority and goodness of Jesus.

Fourth, Jesus seems to affirm the Samaritan in his disobedience. But a theme throughout the New Testament (and indeed, reading carefully, through the Old Testament as well) is that Jesus becomes the new temple and the new priesthood. He is both the locus where we meet God and the intermediary for that meeting. This is the theme of Stephen's sermon in Acts 7 that ends with him being stoned by the Jewish authorities who desperately wanted to protect the temple and their hierarchy. So when the Samaritan returns to Jesus and recognizes in him the goodness and presence of God, Jesus releases him from the need to go to the temple and to the priests. This is the essence of Jesus statement that "your faith" -- in other words, your relationship of trust with God through Jesus -- "has made you well."

So what about us? Do we remain encumbered in the structures and assumptions of old power systems and miss what God is doing in and around us? Do we use Jesus for our own ends, but remain in bondage to our old wineskins? Often we fear the newness that truly surrendering to Jesus might mean. We fear the breakage of those old wineskins. And if, as seems to be happening in many traditionally oriented churches today, God begins to simply allow them the consequences of their own bondage to traditional assumptions and structures and they begin to wane, those who maintain those loyalties are gripped by resentment, fear and bitterness. It's true in our personal lives as well. We cling to our old habits when they are clearly not working for us anymore, because we are afraid of anything new -- and the pain of change is greater than the pain of dysfunctional habits.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Luke 17:1-10

The kingdom of God Jesus came to proclaim is an upside-down kingdom. Power as we understand it doesn't work right here. Neither does control. It is a kingdom built on God's ways, not our ways. As Jesus has revealed his Father's heart in chapter 15 and called us to the task of stewardship -- managing our resources well in light of the Father's character -- so now he begins to apply that to our interpersonal relationships.

Don't lose the context here. Jesus is still in tremendous tension with the Jewish leaders who have just condemned him. Yet we know that some of those same Jewish leaders became his followers. John's gospel tells us specifically that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus worked their way around to becoming disciples of Jesus. Have you ever had to forgive someone who at one point stood with your enemies? Have you had to release the wrongs done to you? Jesus recognizes both the seriousness of causing someone else to stumble -- sin is no joke -- and also the absolute imperative of God's kingdom of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not a blanket statement or a universal principle. It is excruciating: literally, from the cross. Forgiveness is the painful work of releasing the one who has hurt you, the one whose sin is real, the one whose fault is so obvious to you.

In the not too distant past I've heard through the grapevine of people who have been so angry at me that they say I am beyond forgiveness. I'm not surprised. I've also had people who have said and done things that have damaged me beyond what I can even calculate. On both sides of that coin, Jesus stands in between, mediating broken relationships, calling all sides to drop the hatchet and do the hard work of forgiveness.

Understand, we are not yet talking about reconciliation. That is a further step. Sometimes it's possible and sometimes it's not. But forgiveness is not an option -- not if we want to be healthy. We will not do ourselves or anyone else any good if we say "I will hold on to this hurt, nurse this grudge, maintain this condemnation." As the wag has said, that's like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.

Reconciliation is a topic for another day. But Jesus calls us not to step into a position of authority that doesn't belong to us. We all love to be judge and jury. It's a human instinct, a reflex. It feels like justice at first, but it only leads to bitterness. When you've been hurt, the kingdom-of-God practice is to release the hurt to the Father, to let him have it rather than hanging onto it yourself. The New Testament is absolutely full of this, beginning with Jesus on the cross saying "Father, forgive them ..."

The heart of this surrender (and it is a surrender) is recognizing our role. We are servants in this kingdom, not judges. We are waiters, not executioners. Humility, in other words, is not an option in this kingdom.

How can you become humble? Only, only by getting your focus off yourself. Turn your eyes upon Jesus, as the song says. Let go of the hurts. Let go of the shame. Let go of the desire for vengeance. Let go of the will to control. Focus on his face. Focus on his words. Focus on his grace. Take up the servant's task he has set before you and do it with all your will. Lose yourself in it.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A week nobody else has

My mom used to say, "All I want is a week nobody else has." When she said that, she was usually talking about tasks and projects she wanted to complete. I think if I could schedule such a thing, I'd certainly do it this time of year, not to focus on projects but to enjoy this beautiful season. The last few days of October and the first few days of November are so full of good things, and every year I struggle to fit it all in.

Some of these things are like clockwork -- the whitetail rut kicks in about now, and big bucks get a lot less secretive and start appearing in daylight. I'm seeing pictures of big bucks taken by people I know, and I've even seen some activity around here. Pretty exciting. Still don't have any fresh venison in the freezer, but we'll get there. Bowhunting these days is a delight, especially on crisp days when the deer make a ton of noise moving through the woods, and they seem okay with that. Hunting season is usually (this year is no exception) a good excuse for a lightning trip north to the farm where I grew up, and though the last few years (this year is no exception) don't allow enough time for leisurely hunting, it's a chance to be back at the farm, drive past Faaberg Lutheran Church, maybe stop in the cemetery and say hi to Mom & Dad, walk the woods and the farm where I grew up, and hopefully fill the freezer.

In my part of the world, deer hunting is a big deal. There's an excitement to early November that wraps up as many people as football season. The young lady cashiering behind the counter at the store yesterday couldn't stop talking about how this is her first year deer hunting, and she's so excited. Kind of fun.

Speaking of football, we're in that mid-range of the season when the Vikings haven't eliminated themselves from playoff hopes yet. It's a time of optimism in Minnesota, and people aren't ashamed to yell "SKOL!" out loud. Spending Sunday afternoons wrapped up in a blanket on the couch with the remote and a bowl of popcorn watching a game while hope still thrives -- that's a delectable gift.

Another delight that's a little more variable, timing-wise, is the appearance of the first snowflakes of the year. We've had a couple snow showers already, but daytime temps are still firmly above freezing, which is good. There's time to clean up leaves, finish fall projects, etc. Satisfying stuff.

Less tangible but no less important, we are poised at what I often think of as a "hinge" of the year when we turn the corner from the activity-rich summer and early fall into the relationship-rich season of holidays, family feasts, reconnecting with loved ones. Word to the wise: be intentional. Love endures all things, Paul tells us, but it takes maintenance as well. Schedule in face-time with those you haven't seen in a while. The next few weeks are some of the best times to reforge those connections.

Similarly, the "hinge" also includes a transition toward arts and charities making a bigger splash than they do in the summer. Look around -- the world is suddenly full of plays, concerts, galas, parties and fundraisers. Seems like they pop up this time of year like crazy, and it's a wonderful time to get connected to worthwhile stories, events and causes.

Outside my window this afternoon it's raining and gray. The trees are stark and bare, the water on the lake looks like steel. I find myself a little restless in the midst of it all -- tempted to give in to unease, to feel a little frantic like I'm missing something I should be doing. Instead I'm debating which of the six immediate options I should choose, how I should spend the rest of the afternoon and evening, what needs to be done and what I choose to do because it's simply the best. Work on a story I'm writing? Go sit on my tree stand in the rain and see if that eight pointer comes by again? Put in an old favorite movie? Invite a friend over and put those jalapeƱos on the grill, stuffed with cheese? Build a fire in the woodstove in the shop and start working on that oak table that's been on my mind? Oh, the options!

I don't have a week no one else has -- but like you, I have a bunch of weeks during this pinnacle of the year. I want to spend them well.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Luke 16:19-31

Three things to say about this parable, which closes out this section (chapters 15-16) of parables we've said are focused on stewardship: First we must know the heart of the Father, then we can figure out how to appropriately manage our worldly goods in light of who God is.

1. This parable is often cited as some kind of evidence of what the afterlife is like. I've heard in-depth teachings using this parable to explain that when we die, we are taken to a sort of holding area. Those who are good / God-pleasing / righteous / saved will go to a pleasant place called "Abraham's bosom" and those who are bad / condemned / unrighteous / unsaved will go to a place of temporary torment called "Hades" or something similar. Please understand that mapping out the afterlife is NOT Jesus' point here. That would be a little like reading Moby Dick as a whaling manual or watching Jeremiah Johnson to figure out how to be a good trapper. Yes, that element is in the story, but it's not even close to the point. The Bible is frustratingly, intentionally fuzzy and vague about questions of exactly what happens in the afterlife. Many cultures surrounding biblical ones had extensive writings on this topic -- the Egyptian "Book of the Dead" is the best example -- so one has to think this omission is intentional. Think about it a bit, and you'll see that it must very well be so. God doesn't want you to trust some road map of where you're headed after you die. He wants you to trust him, in this life and the next. We are to be like Peggy who, a couple days before she died, told me, "I figure all I have to do is die, and Jesus will take care of the rest." Sound wisdom.

2. Having laid the foundation of revealing the Father's heart in chapter 15, Jesus is now making explicit his advice in the first part of 16: We are to use our worldly goods to please God. The rich man (interestingly unnamed, though tradition sometimes names him Dives) uses his abundant wealth to indulge himself, ignoring the beggar at his gate. The first point of the story is that this self-indulgence is clearly against God's desire, and eventually the rich man will experience the consequence of his selfishness. We are not called to be like the younger son in chapter 15, squandering our resources on our own lusts. Nor are we to be like the elder son, selfishly hoarding those resources and never allowing ourselves to live like we are heirs of the estate. Instead, we are to manage our goods as a reflection of the Father's heart, who cares for the outcasts, the sick, the marginalized, the orphan and the widow and the slave and the prisoner and the blind and the lame. The problem with the rich man is not that he is selfish, but rather that his selfishness puts him directly in opposition to the Father's heart.

3. The end of the parable is one of those intriguing statements that must have puzzled people when Jesus first uttered it but came to be extremely important in the early church. As the first Christians after Pentecost tried to tell their fellow Jews about Jesus and his resurrection, they faced tremendous frustration and disappointment and some limited success. Throughout the New Testament we hear echoes of that frustration, longing for the Jewish people to recognize Jesus as their Messiah. Here Jesus foretells that frustration, saying that even if someone rises from the dead (as he will shortly do) those who are entrenched in their own structures of religious power and certainty (the old wineskins he has talked about before) will refuse to believe him. We live with the same frustration today.

So don't let's make this a parable about the structure of the afterlife and miss Jesus' point. In regard to questions about what happens after death, maybe we are wisest to cling to Deuteronomy 29:29, where Moses tells the people that the hidden things belong to God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever. In Jesus' resurrection, the heart of the Father that will not even be stopped in the face of death is revealed and victorious. We cling to that.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Screaming into the end of October

I'm probably due to post some kind of a life-update as well. Fall is in full swing, as evidenced by the amazingly gray, rainy day outside and the torrents of leaves in my yard. This time of year is always a delicious introspective creep around in the wet woods kind of season that makes me think about life, the universe, and everything.

So here are a few random details that have spurred great amounts of thought lately:

  • I had a large hawk in my back yard yesterday, pecking around in the leaves and looking for all the world like a chicken. I experienced a fanciful moment of vertigo wondering, if I could keep this going, what it would be like to keep laying hawks and sell their eggs. In possibly related news, I got a front row seat a couple days ago watching a beautiful red fox hunting mice just below my place.
  • I caught the largest largemouth bass of my life a few days ago, on a random jaunt in my canoe. Took a poor quality picture and let him go. I'm not huge on eating bass, and catching him came as a bit of a surprise, and I'm tending more toward catch-and-release (especially with bass) lately anyway. Loved the experience, though.
  • The whitetails are starting to transition toward the rut, which won't be in full swing for a couple weeks yet. But their patterns are changing, and I'm trying to read those patterns carefully. There have been no large bucks living on my 70 acres, but I'm hoping they'll be cruising through over these next couple weeks looking for receptive does. It gets to be an exciting time in the woods. I'm bringing out the arsenal of scents and grunt calls and fake-antler-rattling-noisemakers and having a ball. 
  • I went to the dentist the other day for the first time in five years. I was deeply curious to see what my extended experiment of owning my own dental hygiene produced. They fixed a little chip in one of my incisors and said my teeth looked great except for a tiny bit of tartar on the inside of my bottom teeth, and that I should schedule all kinds of professional cleanings at great expense. I declined. 
  • This weekend is the Holy Spirit Retreat for the Alpha course I've been leading. I'm excited. I have a great leadership team and it's going very, very well. It's fun to be leading Alpha again. 
  • I've been having more and more conversations about mid-sized home-based groups. A large part of my ministry-oriented work here is building those, and that relates closely to said Alpha course. We'll likely be launching two of these mid-sized groups in January. Can't wait. I'm more convinced than ever that this model (which is really just the book of Acts translated for our time) is one place where God is moving in powerful ways throughout the world. 
  • I've been struck lately by the fact that I haven't been to the Boundary Waters this summer. Not sure if I'll get there next summer either. I'm pinning high hopes on the summer of 2020. Living on a lake is good, but I miss that wilderness and all that goes with it. 
  • Writing continues to be a passion, though I have less to show for my efforts than I would like. I continue to play with short stories, and the one novel I'm currently working on is somewhere around 40,000 words. Not surprisingly it involves the Boundary Waters. 
  • I have great anticipation for the nearly three gallons of wild grape wine fermenting on my kitchen counter. It's mostly a grown-up science experiment, I suppose, not unlike the ten gallons of chokecherry wine a couple friends and I have produced, fermented, and now bottled. 

That's probably enough for now. Today promises to be a mix of mechanical projects (need to replace a squirrel-cage fan in one of the furnaces in our Youth Building), computer work (prepping projection and talks and preparing documents for the Holy Spirit Retreat) and a little bit of walking in the rainy woods (to check my fake scrapes designed to lure in big whitetail bucks). Hope you are having an equally delightful day!

Ponder-worthy, and Action-worthy

I've had this article up on my browser for about a week now. I've read through it a few times and find new things in it each time. Today I realized I had WAY too many windows open and decided to close it down. Then I read it again and decided to keep it up there a while longer. I'll close other stuff.

Hope you enjoy it as much as I have. And that it makes you as uncomfortable as it has made me. And that it provokes as much restlessness and eagerness in you as it has me.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Luke 16:14-18

Luke tells us here how the Pharisees reacted to Jesus' teaching. He describes them as "lovers of money" which, especially if we're right about all of chapters 15 and 16 being about stewardship -- how we manage what God has entrusted to us -- means they're going to react negatively to Jesus' specific teachings here.

In point of fact, how we see the heart of God (that is Jesus' main point in chapter 15, after all) matters. If we see God as a distant sovereign with high expectations, we will react accordingly. If we see God as an indulgent guy who winks at sin, we'll live like that. What the Pharisees apparently missed -- for all that they had right, and they had a lot of things right -- was the joyful heart of God that passionately loves sinners. If that passion for broken, hurting people is at the core of who God is (and the Bible is so clear about this) then our stewardship -- our management of our wealth and resources -- has to reflect that passion.

I'm seeing in a new way these days how these verses are connected to all that has gone before. I believe Jesus is so stern with the Pharisees because by focusing on the law, by managing their own morality and the morality of others, they have missed the heart of God. Jesus says that he himself, along with his proclaiming the kingdom, supersedes the Law and the Prophets, and so it transforms how we read them. Instead of doing what the Pharisees did and reading the Law and the Prophets as a rule book, we now read them as setting the foundation for Jesus' own appearance and the proclamation of his kingdom. The Law does not go away, Jesus is very clear. There are Christians who claim that Jesus' followers should not read the Old Testament -- but they have no biblical leg to stand on. But the reading of those books is transformed, and we rightly see them now through the lens of Jesus himself. Everything in the Old Covenant is preparing the way, laying the foundation, and pointing toward Jesus and his kingdom. That's Jesus' point as he lays the hearts of the Pharisees bare.

So what to do with these few words about divorce in verse 18? This seems like such a non sequitur to us. The New Testament's teachings on divorce are nearly always taken out of context, and this verse is no exception. Why would this verse be sandwiched in between four parables about stewardship and the heart of God (15:1-16:13) and the story of the rich man and Lazarus that follows? Is this simply a pebble of Jesus' teaching that didn't fit elsewhere so Luke throws it in here?

No. We tend to import Jesus' words about divorce -- and the Bible's words about divorce in general -- into our own context with very little understanding of what they meant in biblical times and cultures. In the context to which Jesus was speaking, women had absolutely no rights. They couldn't own property, they couldn't inherit, they couldn't serve as witnesses in court. A woman whose husband divorced her had absolutely no recourse. There was, in fact, a lively debate among the Jewish teachers of Jesus' own day as to exactly how formal a divorce had to be. The school that said a man could divorce his wife "for any reason" claimed that if he was upset with her, or tired of her, or if she burned dinner some evening, all he had to do was say "I divorce you" three times, and she was out on the street. The more formal school that had a tiny little bit of sympathy for the plight of women stipulated that the man should give her a written certificate of divorce to prove that she had once been legitimately married and that there was some legitimate reason to dissolve the marriage before getting rid of her. Neither option gave the woman anything in the way of help or rights. Women were literally considered property, like cattle or land. A man could dispose of his property as he wished, as long as he observed the proprieties.

Jesus is, in fact, continuing his teaching about stewardship -- about property management. He is saying in effect that marriage (as the Bible clearly teaches) is a covenant relationship that is designed by God to reflect God's relationship with us (see for example Genesis 1:26-27 and Ephesians 5:21-33). And if that is true, the Pharisees' own attitudes about what was acceptable in the arena of divorce needed to be reexamined. "I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you" was a disgraceful way to treat a relationship designed to mirror God's love for his creation. The "letter of the law" interpretation of both schools of Jewish teachers, Jesus says, is not a legitimate way to end a marriage. Instead, it actively puts people in the position of breaking God's law.

What do we do with this? We no longer understand women as property. As the father of two brilliant,  beautiful daughters, I'm extremely thankful for this! It is important for us to understand marriage as a covenant, as a relationship designed by God to reflect his passionate love for creation. Nowhere is the brokenness of creation in light of sin more apparent than in the painful throes of a marriage relationship headed for divorce. Divorce is a painful reality, because sin is a painful reality. We should do all we can to create strong marriages and to strengthen those who are hurting without seeing divorce as an easy out. Absolutely. At times, hopefully rarely, a marriage relationship is so broken that it needs to come to an end. It has strayed so far from mirroring God's heart that continuing the broken relationship does more harm to the image of God than good, and efforts to get it back on track are unable to fix things.

And even in our day, we understand that property management is a huge issue in these situations. I've known too many couples who've moved in, bought a house together, etc. -- because they were "in love" -- without bothering to get married because it seems old fashioned or legalistic. But if that relationship goes bad, they start to see the legal issues involved in dissolving home ownership, etc., and how that painful process of dissolving a marriage is about so much more than just moving out. Breaking a marriage -- or any kind of covenant -- should be hard, and heartbreaking. The legal structure of divorce, as rough as it is, provides (or should) some measure of protection for each party.

Some of you who read this blog know that I'm a little over a year past my own separation and divorce. These issues hit close to home. I've spent a LOT of time in the past year prayerfully reading texts like this, pondering what the Bible says and why, on these issues -- not looking for loopholes, but because in all of this I want to know the heart of God, and experience both his grace and his conviction in their depth. I've also spent a ton of time looking at my own sins, and the patterns that should have been different in that marriage from the start a quarter century ago, and what I wish I'd done different over the years. It's been an uncomfortable time, especially as a Jesus-follower and as a public Christian leader. It's been devastating and humbling and eye-opening. It has also been hugely important. And I continue to process these difficult thoughts in prayer, in counseling, in conversations.

Marriage and divorce are enormous issues for today's church, as they have been throughout the centuries. I've had so many conversations with people in the past year who struggle with their own broken relationships. Some of those struggles (and I've experienced this as well) include ways the church shames people for their brokenness, wagging a moralistic finger at those who are in the middle of devastation and hurt.

But let's bring the conversation back to scripture here and see this particular verse in its context, where Jesus speaks it. Here, it's a stewardship issue. And stewardship is also a huge, huge issue for the church today. In his own context, Jesus is confronting a culture in which men experienced divorce as easy and painless, and women had no rights and lived at risk of offending their husbands. It was unjust, wrong on so many levels. Jesus rightly confronts it as part of his teaching on stewardship, of how we manage our lives and all the good gifts God has given us. He doesn't give us easy answers, but (again) he points us back to the heart of God and what it means to live in covenant with him.

That's the center of the next story he tells as well.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Luke 16:1-13

We go immediately from what is perhaps Jesus' most well known, most loved parable -- the parable of the Prodigal Son, as it's most often called -- to one of the least known, least understood, and frankly least loved parable -- that of the shrewd manager. Doesn't roll off the tongue quite the same way, does it?

There is an important continuity between these parables. Notice the audience. At the beginning of Luke 15, Luke tells us that the context for the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons is Jesus welcoming sinners and the Pharisees disapproving. At the beginning of Luke 16, Jesus turns to the disciples (though it's clear later that the Pharisees are still listening in) and begins to explain what it really means to be his follower. So we ignore this parable in chapter 16 at our peril.

In the parable of the lost sons and the parable of the shrewd manager, Jesus is dealing with questions of stewardship and our relationship to worldly wealth. The priority, laid out in the parable of the lost sons, is that we should know the Father's heart. In Luke 15, Jesus clearly told us that the Father is joyful, eager for relationship, determined to love sinners, running to the repentant. That is the Father's heart. In that context, we see a couple responses to wealth management.

The first is the younger son. He foolishly squanders his wealth for pleasure. No one would defend his spending habits in the parable. Yet how many of us, in more subtle ways, spend our resources for our own satisfaction? Whether it's buying a third home for our own enjoyment, a jet-ski because we want to play, or a Snickers bar in the grocery check out just because we feel like self-indulgence, how many of us set as our highest priority that we want to buy things to make ourselves feel good? That's the way of the younger son.

The way of the older son seems much better, at least at first glance. He has denied himself and kept his nose to the grindstone. Trouble is, his whole life is a resentful lie. He labors under the mistaken belief that he doesn't matter to the Father and he is in fact little better than a slave. His life is a grim, joyless existence and he lusts after -- and denies himself -- the wealth that to him is evidence of his Father's injustice. He has completely missed his Father's heart.

The shrewd manager in Luke 16 provides a third option that looks absolutely heinous at first glance. Jesus describes a despicable man without a shred of honesty who wheels and deals his way into self-protection. He cheats his master in order to provide for himself. And Jesus clearly says that his ways are the ways of the world, not the ways of the Father. Being a wheeler-dealer is not the solution.

But, Jesus seems to say -- and we must not miss this -- there's a subpoint under option three. What Jesus lifts up in the manager's conduct is that he used worldly wealth to make friends for himself because he knew a time was coming when he'd need protection. Jesus says, learn from the manager. A time is coming when you will need eternal protection. The things of this world will fade and die. So use the worldly wealth God provides in order to make friends who can help you out in your eternal needs. Who can help you in that way? God alone. So the moral of the story, according to Jesus, is that we should use worldly resources to make friends with God. Yes, it's a crass, self-centered way of looking at things. But we have to read this parable also in light of the heart of the Father Jesus has described so well in chapter 15. (Remember, again, that there were no chapter divisions in the first manuscripts -- so when Jesus is speaking and when Luke is writing, the story of the lost sons flows immediately into the story of the dishonest manager.)

The Father's heart makes all the difference. It is his longing to welcome us into his home, no matter how foolish we have been -- or how arrogant about our own work ethic. In either case, Jesus says, the Father's heart is to welcome you into his eternal dwelling, the party of the angels for repentant sinners. So, use your wealth -- rather than squandering it or serving it -- to serve the Father! Then at the end of the day the two of you -- along with the angels and so many other imperfect but repentant sinners -- can sit down, enjoy a glass of Cabernet, and talk about the day's projects.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Luke 15:11-32

This story -- the third in the series Jesus tells to make the same point in greater depth -- has rightfully been the subject of countless sermons, devotions, books, conversations. As just one example out of the multitude, I recommend Henri Nouwen's Return of the Prodigal as an excellent way into the story. The book is a slightly cleaned up version of a deeply difficult season in Nouwen's life when he felt himself alienated, cut off, much like the younger son in the story once the famine struck. It's a meditation on what it means to return to the Father and find yourself loved and welcomed. Nouwen later published his own more personal reflections on that season in the book The Inner Voice of Love. Both books are well worth your time, especially if you find yourself in a season of brokenness, repentance, or perhaps frustrated hope, needing to connect to the heart of a heavenly Father who seems absent but who, in reality, absolutely loves you.

That is the core of Jesus' story. As we said about the earlier stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin, the stories focus on the heart of the Father for those who are lost. This third story of the lost sons are told with subtlety and craft, showing Jesus at the pinnacle of his ability to communicate his Father's love in his words. Every detail of this story is worthy of reflection, and the deeper you dig the more you discover.

Evangelical Christians have traditionally focused on the younger son because he fits the theological framework of evangelicalism so well. He has strayed, his sin catches up with him, he repents and returns to the Father and is welcomed into the household. It's a great story and countless conversion testimonies over the years echo its themes. But that is only part of Jesus' teaching here, because the literary structure of the story focuses on the older brother.

If we ask what Jesus' point was in telling this story, we cannot escape the conclusion that he was focused in the telling on the question of the older brother. The story ends very specifically without resolving the question: What will the older brother choose? In context, you can see why Jesus would tell it this way. The tax collectors and sinners have already welcomed him and recognize him for who he is: The incarnation of God's love for them, the Messiah who leads them to the Father, the King of a new kingdom ruled by God himself. They get it, both in the sense of perception and in the sense of receiving the benefits of Jesus' kingship. No, the question is what the religious leaders, the captains of moralism, will do. The end of the story leaves them standing outside the party, fuming about the unfairness of God in welcoming sinners and not rewarding good people. The father's final words in the story get at the heart of God, as we saw in the first two stories in this chapter: "It is right for us to celebrate," the father says to his older son.

But why is the older son angry? If you've ever been the older son, it's not hard to see. He has done everything right, sacrificing self-indulgence and walking the narrow line of good behavior. He has turned away from his own pleasures for the greater good time and again. He has kept his nose to the grindstone, and frankly he has little patience for those who are not as dedicated and self-disciplined and focused as he is.

Thing is, he is sentencing himself to live as a servant, not as a son. Read the story carefully and you'll see that the older son had received his inheritance as well, but he has failed to take up the authority and joy of his father. The father divided his inheritance between the two sons, yet the older son accusingly says, "You never even gave me a goat so that I might celebrate with my friends." The father's response, in essence, is "Son, the goats are all yours! Throw a party and celebrate!" It might just be that the older son's problem is not with his younger brother ("this son of yours") but with parties themselves. He doesn't know joy. He can't receive celebration into his heart.

What a tragedy, and yet how many Christians live there?

Has God found a way to let his joy trespass into your life? As we grow to adulthood, there is a necessary time of learning responsibility, and this learning militates against joy in some ways. So God eventually needs to break us down in order to impart joy into our lives. Without joy, without that hearty-partying exuberance of God's celebratory love, the gospel becomes a grim game of "thou shalt" and "thou shalt not." Like the older son, sometimes we are called not to take ourselves so seriously, to drop dead to our rigid images of ourselves and to come on into the party.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Luke 15:1-10

We're splitting this chapter up unfairly, as the three stories go together as a unit. Like any good joke about a lawyer, a doctor, and a minister, the punch line always develops off the third facet of the story. Jesus makes his main point in the story of the two sons after setting things up in the first two.

So what does Jesus set up in these ten verses, in stories of a lost sheep and a lost coin? The stories focus, of course, on the searching and the searcher and especially on the heart of the searcher. We may often miss Jesus' groundwork here: The shepherd lays the sheep on his shoulders "rejoicing." He calls his friends together and enjoins them to "Rejoice with me." And Jesus emphasizes that there is "joy in heaven." Similarly, the woman who finds her coin after a diligent search calls her friends and neighbors together and says, "Rejoice with me." And Jesus repeats that there is "joy in heaven" over a sinner who repents.

Can we miss the fact that God is joyful, and that his friends rejoice with him? Remember the context. Jesus is telling these stories while he's consorting with sinners, and the religious leadership is looking down their noses at the proceedings. Even before Jesus gets to his main point in the third example, it's clear that he's saying these religious leaders are not true friends of a rejoicing God. Their condemnation of these sinners means that they have mistaken the heart of God, or that they simply don't care about it. Their own standards of piety and performance exclude these sinful people -- and that's what matters. There is no joy in their carefully structured moralism.

Do you know the joyful heart of God? We so often bring baggage of our own -- performance anxiety, perfectionism, wounds from overbearing parents, discouragement from unrealistic standards we apply to ourselves -- and we project these things on to God, so we feel unacceptable. But this is not the heart of God. God is not looking at you and wishing you'd get your act together. If you are coming to him eager for fellowship, he is joyful. He rejoices. This is a God who throws a party when you come close to him!

We have to check ourselves, especially those of us who have been following Jesus for a long time. We have to check ourselves to make sure we are not aligning ourselves with the judgmental religious leaders, looking out at the world with an evaluative, condemning eye.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Luke 14:25-35

One of the silliest and most pervasive mistakes Christians make is that we take good secondary things and make them our first priorities. In doing this, we take our platforms and priorities to the extreme and find ourselves opposing Jesus and his agenda. Nowhere is this more true than in the whole area of "family values" and all that has gone with it for the last generation or so. Truth is, because we have decided that family values is part and parcel of Christianity, we don't know how to read this passage and others like it where Jesus seems to say negative things about family relationships and other "good" things.

Family relationships are critically important, make no mistake. Marriage, parenting, honoring one's parents and grandparents in word and action -- all of this is tremendously important. But it is not the core of Jesus' message, nor is it the gospel. As with any secondary priority, when these things are placed in first place, they become destructive idols that actually draw us away from Jesus.

Jesus' uncompromising agenda is that through him, people should know God. In order for that to be true, we need to recognize his superiority, his sovereignty -- and that includes his sovereignty over parents, children, spouses, etc. If you find yourself starting to object and say "Jesus would never demand anything that would draw me away from family," be cautious. You are well on your way to idolatry.

I'm not saying you should leave your family. Not at all. But if you hesitate on reading Jesus' words in this section of Luke 14, take that to him and talk it out. Would your parents, spouse, children, coworkers, boss -- would they say Jesus is your first priority, over and above your dedication to them? Can you say unequivocally that he is Lord and they are not?

Jesus knows that following him is costly. He gives several disturbing examples near the end of this chapter to show that not all of us will choose the economics of his lordship. Count the cost, he says. If you can't make the commitment, recognize that. Own it. Be realistic about it.

When marriages or parenting relationships are fully in line with Jesus' lordship, they are a tremendous blessing. In God's plan, for example, marriages should be joy-filled partnerships that glorify him, build signposts of his kingdom, and model for the world what the love of God looks like in all its exuberant joy, tender forgiveness, and passionate partnership. Even our marital conflicts ought to point back to the love of God, in his plan. There's lots more we could say about this. But when we assume that a marriage is a Good Thing and therefore we should sacrifice everything for it, even our connection with God and our sense of his leading, we have created a golden calf for our own worship. We do the same thing (so much) with children and with parents. Read the gospels, and you'll see that Jesus confronted people about each of these relationships -- he demands to be Lord, in every way, over every relationship.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, near the beginning of his final book Ethics, said that God's intention in the Garden of Eden was that we would know only him, and receive all other things through him. The problem of sin was that we chose to know good and evil apart from knowing God. One of the implications of this idea, that we know only God and all other things and relationships through God, is that Jesus becomes the intermediary between parents and children, between husband and wife -- that we don't have immediate relationships with anyone or anything, but we receive each relationship and each experience through Jesus.

This is what the hyperbolic language of "hating" father and mother, spouse and children, means in Luke 14. Jesus is not calling us to despise those people, but he will not be compromised in his lordship.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Luke 14:1-24

These verses seem to be three distinct units -- Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, he tells a parable in response to those who seat themselves in honor at a feast, and he goes on to tell another parable about a banquet. All three of these, however, are united by one basic idea -- there is a stark contrast between living under God's rule and recognizing him as sovereign, on the one hand, and living according to our own power games and desires for advancement on the other. Jesus calls out the authorities who justify preserving their own property on the Sabbath but say it's wrong to heal a man afflicted with dropsy, an abnormal buildup of fluids in the body, what more commonly today would be called "edema." Jesus graciously heals the man and ironically confronts his critics with the idea that this man is at least as valuable as an ox. Point for Jesus.

Then he calls out the social grasping of his audience, those who (like we have all done at one time or another) seek to advance themselves in social situations -- wanting to be that special friend, guest, etc., and positioning ourselves to be "honored" in this way. It really comes back to measuring ourselves according to what others think of us. Jesus says in effect (as he will demonstrate vividly to his disciples in a few short days, see the beginning of John 13) that if you know who you are in God's love, you don't have to worry about your social standing. If you are the beloved son or daughter of God, what does it matter whether you sit at the head table or back in the kitchen? It doesn't. Yet so often we posture and worry about where we stand with people, buying into the shame-based systems that kept the dropsy-afflicted man from being healed on the Sabbath.

What Jesus is doing here is redefining the power and application of God's love, and he goes on to state this theme even more radically in the third part of this section. His host has gained some basic idea of Jesus' "kingdom of God" and remarks how glorious it will be. Jesus contradicts him, saying instead: The kingdom of God is already in evidence around you -- here I am, the promised king -- and yet time after time people are rejecting me, rejecting my rule. Time after time people choose to live according to the systems and values of their shame-based human rules rather than knowing who they are as beloved sons and daughters of God. Like the seeds choked out in the soil that was crowded with thorns, they fill their lives with priorities, relationships, and concerns that are all about them and their own advancement rather than about Jesus' authority and kingship. So, Jesus says, the king -- in this case himself -- will turn away from those who reject him and pour out his favor, his love, his grace, his welcome on those who seem completely undeserving. In effect, Jesus is looking ahead to the scandalous invitation into God's love that will be expressed through the lives of his followers from his resurrection until the present.

And yet so often, those who should know Jesus' love and authority best create systems and hierarchies that protect ourselves and build walls to keep out those we don't like. Over and over again we see Jesus turning away from those who build their own kingdoms and turning to those who are pleased to know themselves as beloved sons and daughters of a gracious God -- not because they've met some standard, but because of who God is.