Monday, November 28, 2011
Monday, November 21, 2011
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Christian author Eugene Peterson has written many books and is perhaps best known for his translation/interpretation of the entire Bible. His work is extremely popular and many of you use it. It is called The Message.
As tremendously talented as he is at Greek and Hebrew and at the craft of writing, Peterson started out as a pastor, and still views himself primarily as a pastor. In the 1960’s his denomination, the Presbyterians, sent him to start up a new church in Maryland. What was then farm country is now DC-Baltimore urban sprawl. The denomination demonstrated vision in predicting a population boom. That boom happened, and Peterson’s church grew to be a strong, thriving, lasting congregation.
But the process of building it was spiritually draining on Eugene Peterson. He longed to help people know God and walk with God throughout their lives. The longer he was at the work of church planting, the less appealing church growth was for Peterson, because church growth involved numbers – number of baptisms, number of new members, number of dollars tithed. He celebrated when a person was born again, truly saved in a new found faith in Jesus Christ. He sensed though that his denomination was more interested in the numbers saved than the individual stories of actual people meeting God. He felt that this work of Church-planting and church growth was reflective of business models and success was determined the way businesses determine success. He wanted to be someone who cared for and grew souls. He felt the denomination wanted him to grow the Presbyterian brand of American Christianity.
He also thought the denomination did not care how he was doing personally. Part of his work was to file a report every month. The first page was statistics. How many calls had he made (this was church planting and he needed to bring people together to form a new congregation)? What was the worship attendance? The second page was to be devoted to Peterson’s personal, spiritual journey as he planted this church. He came to believe that the denominational leaders were only looking for measurable results. So they only read the first page of his report and ignored the subsequent which were much more personal and to Peterson more important.
To test his theory, that he was being ignored, Peterson got creative. In the next report, he filled out the numbers as he did each month. But on the personal reporting page, he wrote in detail about a long, slow slide into depression. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t pray, and had no zeal for his calling. He thought maybe he should consider quitting. Could they recommend a counselor? No response. Of course, this wasn’t true, but he wanted to test the leaders, and they failed the test.
So, he took it up a notch. The next month, he turned the reporting as usual, and then wrote on the second page his personal report. Again imagined, he developed a drinking problem. The congregation graciously ignored it, but one Sunday, one of the elders actually had to complete the sermon. So he felt he needed treatment. What did the denomination recommend? No response.
The next month, he fell into an affair. He was counseling a woman in an abusive marriage, but they ended up together, in one of the church pews. They were discovered by the ladies who came into arrange the flowers for Sunday morning. He thought that was it, but apparently in that community, swingers were admired. The next Sunday, attendance doubled.
It got to be great fun for Peterson and his wife, imagining new shocking things to write that his overseers never read because all they wanted was to see that the church was growing, people were being baptized, money was tithed, and the numbers were up. He wrote in another report that one very unorthodox scholar believed there was a psychedelic mushroom cult in 1st Palestine and Jesus was a part of it and He, Peterson, was going to introduce this drug-use as a part of the church’s worship. And he was changing the liturgy to fit the sex-crazed, drug-addicted culture in which he ministered. Never did he get any response.
The time came to meet with the denominational leaders in New York City. The church plant was successful and the church would now be on its own. The council thanked Peterson for his good work and faithful reporting. He thanked them for all the resources they provided including his paycheck. Then he asked why they had never read any of the personal reports. They assured him they had, but they were caught. He asked why they never sent recommendations when he was in trouble with alcohol. He asked why they didn’t recommend a therapist when he was depressed. On and on, and they had no answer, and they were shocked upon first hearing of the stories of sex and shrooms. Peterson writes, “Their faces were blank, and then confused – followed by a splendid vaudeville slapstick of buck-passing and excuse-making.”[i]
The leaders of the denomination got what they sought – a successful church in a growing area. Were they seeking the right thing? They completely missed a human being, a story, albeit a fictional story. Were they looking for the right thing? Are we?
I always say 30 was the most important birthday of my life because I stopped trying to be “cool,” and realized I never was “cool,” and never would be. It wasn’t really about my coolness one was or another. I started really liking myself, not in a arrogant or narcissistic way, but in a healthy way.
However, at 10 years old, I got it into my mind that I wanted to be cool and that meant I had to be friends with certain people. My real best friends, Michael and Doug, were too familiar to be cool enough. I don’t know why, but I thought Earl was the coolest kid in our class. So when we had sprinting races in gym class, Earl asked me to let him keep pace. I was about the fastest sprinter in that class, which, when you think about it is pretty cool. But I couldn’t see that through my Earl-envy. Earl asked me to ease up and I did because, it’s Earl. I finished in fourth place, not first. The phys-ed teacher chewed me out. He knew I was fast and he knew I was placating my “cool friend.” He didn’t like me jeopardizing my potential for the sake of popularity.
Later, Doug, my real friend, was coming for a sleepover. I convinced him and my mom that we had to invite Earl. So, Doug and I went with Earl to Earl’s house so he could get his sleeping bag. My mom was crystal clear. Earl lived on the other side of Rochester Road. She said, “Don’t cross that road. Wait at the road for Earl to get his stuff and then the three of you walk back.”
As soon as were out of sight of my house, I said, “Hey, we’re going to Earl’s.” Doug said, “Your mom said not to cross Rochester.” But Earl lived on the other side and Earl was cool and I wanted to be cool. That’s what I was looking for! My mom certainly wasn’t cool. And Doug’s coolness factor was in doubt because he wanted to listen to my mom, not Earl.
So we broke the rules and went to Earl’s house and starting walking back and everything was fine until, just on the wrong side of Rochester, we were surrounded by Larry Padget’s gang. Larry was going to have some fun, bullying me around and there wasn’t much I could do about it. Larry took his time in this cruel tormenting game. Right about the time he was going to move from petty taunting to the rearrangement of my face, my dad rode up on bike to see why were taking so long.
He ran Larry’s gang off. Then he told me I had to go confess my disobedience. I wish he had just killed me on the spot. I swear when my mom got that yard stick, it sounded like a light saber being opened. And I learned that Earl wasn’t so “cool,” and being “cool” wasn’t so great.
It took another 20 years before I finally understood – I had been seeking the wrong thing. I didn’t like myself because I tried to live up to false ideal, idols I had created. I was a mostly happy person, but I didn’t find deep inner joy, joy that comes in good and bad times, until I stopped trying to advance myself and started looking to something else as the deepest longing of my life.
I’ll get to that, but I don’t want to jump ahead. What is it we long for? What do we seek? Success that can be measured and show me to be more successful than my cousin or my Father or the guy who was my nemesis in high school? Does my own joy depend on me being better than someone else? What do we seek? To be the best church around – not just a community of faith, but one that is better in some measurable way than other communities of faith? What are we looking for, longing for?
Jesus miraculously cured a man on the Sabbath day, and as he did, he declared himself to be greater than the temple (Mt. 12:6). Upon hearing this “the Pharisees went out and plotted against him, how they might destroy him” (12:14). Later, after entering Jerusalem, with Jesus’ popularity at a fever pitch, the leaders in the temple cannot stand it. “The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Him to death, because they were afraid of the people” (Luke 22:2). And finally, with Jesus arrested, betrayed by Judas and dragged in chains to the home of the high priest, “The chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus” (Mt. 22:59).
The group that condemned Jesus the night of his arrest, the night before the crucifixion was a diverse bunch. Pharisees on the council concerned themselves with the pure practice of Torah religion. Men of the book and of the law, they could not believe God would send a Messiah who did the things Jesus did, befriending tax collectors, violating the intricacies of Sabbath law for the sake of blessing wounded people, and showing mercy to Gentiles. The Sadducees on the council clashed with Jesus over the theology of resurrection. They also chafed at Jesus’ unapologetic critique of their hypocritical approach to religious leadership. And the chief priest himself, contended with Jesus because Jesus claimed authority over the temple and thus over the interpretation of and practice of faith in Israel. Furthermore, the chief priests and temple elders feared Jesus’ bold preaching would eventually rile up the Roman overlords and perhaps Rome would react against all Jews, not just those of the Jesus sect. For these reasons and many, many more, these disparate groups who were usually at odds with one another all came together seeking the same thing – the death of Jesus.
Normally these religious leaders weren’t murderers. How could their inner longings become so distorted that they actually felt this solution, one that is ultimate and unchangeable, was the right one? They most certainly would have depicted themselves as the heroes if they had written the history of Jerusalem in 30AD. How do good people become villains?
How does righteousness become corrupted to the point that we who consider ourselves faithful come to produce evil? Doesn’t it start when we long for something less than the very best thing?
The Presbyterians weren’t wrong to want to have a thriving, growing church in Western Maryland. But at the cost of neglecting the souls who were transformed in those churches and neglecting the lives of the pastors they sent to oversee those churches …
I wasn’t wrong to want to be friends with Earl. I was wrong to use Earl to make think of myself as cool. It’s a mistake I repeated too many times in my teenage years and into my 20’s.
Religious leaders aren’t wrong to seek out the pure practice of faith in worship and daily living. Religion scholars are not in the wrong when they strive mightily for the right understanding of scripture. But when preachers and priests and theologians and scholars get so caught up in their own rightness that they miss the presence of God when they are the very ones who ought to be pointing out the presence of God …
What are we longing for?
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem” (Mt. 2:1). These were Magi from Persia, and they knew Judaism well. In 6th century BC, many Jews were forced into slavery in Babylon (modern day Iraq) and Persia (modern day Iran). When Cyrus permitted Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem, thousands of Jews returned, but just as many remained for they had lives there. They lived in harmony with the Persians. The Magi took a special interest in these Hebrews.
In this era, unlike today, science and religious knowledge worked hand-in-hand to discover truth. These Magi studied the stars as well as the prophecies of many ancient religions. So when God spoke the birth of Jesus through natural phenomenon, a star, they were the ones to notice. They knew this was of God – the God of the Jews.
Assuming the King of the Jews would want to see prophecy fulfilled as much they, gentiles, they went to Herod “asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage’” (2:2). We have come to pay him homage.
They came to worship. They longed to bow before the God who produced this wondrous star. I believe these Iranians – that what Persians are – unique people in history discovered in themselves the longing God puts in all of us, the longing to worship Him. Many people replace that longing by seeking popularity, success, power, knowledge, satisfaction in romantic love or career or relationships; we cannot be fulfilled until those things are all set beneath this one thing – the deep desire the pay homage to God.
Departing from Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, the Magi
set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
[i] E. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids, MI, 1992), p.79.
Monday, November 14, 2011
Is Jesus who We Want Him to Be? (Matthew 26:47-50; John 3:25-30)
Why did Judas Iscariot do that? He was paid 30 coins to hand Jesus over to the chief priests. Thirty coins, a paltry sum! Why, did he really betray Jesus?
Each gospel was written at least 30 years after the resurrection. The story was burned into the memory of the core members of the early church before it was written and circulated, and in that story, Judas was the betrayer and nothing more. Whatever good he did in his life was forgotten. This is clear in the way the Gospel writers portray him. He’s always listed as Judas who betrayed Jesus. Didn’t they all flee? Didn’t Peter deny? Didn’t Thomas doubt? Judas is singled out by Gospel writers for special blame, cast as one of the villains of the story by the storytellers. Are they being fair?
There’s always more to the story. Matthew 10 says Jesus sent out his 12 disciples in pairs and he gave them the power to cast out demons and miraculously heal diseases. Jesus endowed the disciples with the power of the Spirit – all 12 of them. That includes Judas. Knowing Judas as he did, Jesus still blessed him and trusted him as he did the others on this miracle-working mission. Along with the other disciples, Judas was able, on that specific mission, to do the very things that Jesus did. It would have been appropriate to refer to him as the Apostle Judas.
We don’t ever see him that way, though, do we? He’s the betrayer, not the apostle. Apostle Peter, Apostle Paul, Apostle John – it just rolls off the tongue. But Apostle Judas? No, that’s not how he’s remembered.
Judas Iscariot – he’s the crook among the disciples. On top of all the gospel authors telling their stories with him as a turncoat from the very first mention of his name, John’s gospel adds to the negative light cast on this unfortunate person. A woman came and anointed Jesus with costly perfume. All the gospel writers report that the disciples criticized the woman and criticized Jesus for receiving her lavish, impractical offering. Only in John’s Gospel is Judas specified as the vocal critic who is all too willing to challenge Jesus.
The narrator’s editorial comments make it clear that Judas is a hopelessly fallen character from the outset and throughout in the story of Jesus. We’re all sinners. Each New Testament book and especially the Gospels make that clear. Each human being, each reader, each one of us, has sin sticking to us, and our only hope is forgiveness and salvation that we receive as a free gift of God given in the person of his Son, God in the flesh, Jesus, the Messiah. That’s crystal clear. What is equally clear is we have hope because of Jesus. But somehow, because of his specific sin, Judas did not.
So, we can distance ourselves from Judas. I commit my sins and you commit yours, but we weren’t the ones who betrayed Christ. We aren’t that bad, are we?
I have to go back to that moment in the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas led a band of armed ruffians. He called out the title of highest respect, ‘Rabbi,’ and gave the display of honor so appreciated in the Middle East, the kiss. Why? Why did Judas betray Jesus?
Maybe it really was for 30 pieces of silver. John’s Gospel says he was greedy and had his hand in the till. He wouldn’t be the first person involved in a revival movement that was stained with greed and financial corruption. Sadly, the pages of Christianity Today magazine and other media outlets are often reporting on Christian leaders who fall from grace because they cheated the church, took money that wasn’t theirs. And there are many who don’t steal money, but are simply paid exorbitant salaries and after some time come to think they worth the six figure incomes they receive. At 22 years old, when I first said I wanted to go into vocational ministry and believed I was being called to be a pastor; two different pastors gave the same advice, not knowing what the other had said. Watch out for women and money. I thought it was strange, unspiritual advice, definitely not what I expected. Now, 20 years later, I know why they said it. Sexual temptation and greed are things that destroy followers of Jesus Christ. Maybe we try to read too much Judas’ motives for betrayal. Maybe it was a simple a case of old fashioned greed – 30 coins for the life of Jesus.
Maybe it was more than that. Maybe Judas believed what the Gospel of John tells us he said. Maybe he was, sort of, concerned about the needy. Maybe Judas was a pragmatist who saw 300 denarii worth of coins wasted on perfume that was poured over Jesus, and the excess truly irritated him. He might have stolen some of that money, but he also might have truly given a lot of it to help poorer people. Human beings are that twisted and torn. Made in the image of God, we can show great compassion. And in the next moment, fallen sinners in the heritage of Adam and Eve, we turn around and hurt others. Maybe Judas, blind to his own sin and also blind to who Jesus really was, was annoyed at the generous worship shown by the woman who anointed Jesus.
We could speculate further. In Matthew 10, when Jesus sends out his 12 on the mission of miraculous healing and exorcism, Judas is paired with Simon the Zealot. The Zealots were a revolutionary group that wanted to take up arms and drive Rome out of Israel with military force. Maybe Judas was also a Zealot or at least sympathetic to their cause. Maybe he turned Jesus into the authorities because he thought his action would provoke a violent uprising. I am certain Judas did not know Jesus would be crucified. I am positive that in his own mind, he wasn’t sending Jesus to death. I am not clear on Judas’ motive, but I am sure he was surprised by how things turned out.
Whatever his motive, Jesus wasn’t who Judas wanted him to be. Judas did not truly see Jesus as master worthy of complete respect and loyalty, or else he would not have stolen from him. Judas did not accept Jesus as Lord, or else he would not have objected to worship of him and in fact he would have joined in the adoration of Jesus as Peter and the women disciples expressed at different times. Judas did not trust Jesus as leader or trust that Jesus knew what was best, or else he would not have betrayed him. He would not have tried to force Jesus’ hand. Whatever drove Judas; Jesus was not who Judas wanted him to be.
Who do we want Jesus to be? Personal Lord and Savior! No, Jesus is not my personal Lord. Jesus is not mine at all, or yours. I am his. He is the possessor and we the possessions. He is the master and we the servants. Jesus is not our personal god to turn to when we need him. He’s Lord of the universe and our story must conform to His. He is not to be fit into our lives where it works for us. We are to be fully committed to Him.
Who do we want Jesus to be? The one who answers our prayers? Yes, but also no. Yes, we are to pray without ceasing, in all circumstances. Yes, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are interested in the most intimate and small details of our lives. Yes, Jesus answers our prayers. Yes, we are to take all things to him in prayer. Yes! Yes! Yes! However, Jesus is not the divine wish-come-true, the one who gives whatever we want. Jesus is not a catalogue. In prayer, we seek God’s will. There has to be more to our prayer life than simply asking for things. And when we ask for things, we have to be prepared for what God gives. When we ask to have the thorn removed from our side, we have to be prepared to hear as Paul did, “My grace is sufficient.” And we have to accept that, as Paul did, thorn and all. When we ask that this cup be taken from us, we have to be prepared to drink it as Jesus did. He didn’t want to be crucified, and he asked God for a way out. But he finished that prayer saying, “Not my will be yours be done.”
Who do we want Jesus to be? The one who makes us right and others wrong? We’re with Jesus and the world isn’t or “they” aren’t. Is that how we see it? The Muslims, the Communists, the Fascists, the Liberals, the Occupiers, the Tea Partiers … who would we “they” are? Jesus is for us, and against them. Jesus is the one who justifies us as we live for ourselves. Is that how we see it? Be careful! Bible scholars universally identify Pharisees as the conservatives and the scripture experts. In the world of the New Testament, the Pharisees were the Biblical fundamentalists, and Jesus was constantly refuting them, challenging them, and offering an alternative to the way they said one should live. Yes, it is true, Jesus justifies us, but on his terms not ours. Too many Christians create their own picture of the good life and then slap Jesus’ name on it like a bumper sticker. With the “Jesus tag,” they justify a materialistic, self-serving, hypocritical life. If that’s how we see Jesus, we need to go back again and read the depictions of judgment in the New Testament and also the conditions for which one falls under judgment. Matthew 25 and Luke 16 are good starting points.
Who do we want Jesus to be? Personal Savior? Buddy? Prayer answerer? Label to justify the lives we’ve decided to live? Whatever else we might say about Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus, we can know this. Jesus wasn’t who Judas wanted him to be because Jesus doesn’t conform to man’s expectations. Not Judas’ expectations or the Pharisees’. Not your expectations or mine. He won’t be who the world says he should be or who the church says he should be. I think the issue with Judas has to do with conformity. We might not each do what Judas did, but do we conform to Jesus’ ways or do we want Jesus to conform to our expectations?
In another New Testament person, John the Baptist, we find another posture to be taken toward Jesus. It comes up in a conversation between John and his disciples, who perceived that Jesus was competing with John for followers. Note how John sees it when his most faithful followers show concern over Jesus’ rising popularity.
In what situation would we say that our own decrease actually makes us happy, fulfilled? In America today, the most popular sport, by far, is professional football. And the most admired people in the NFL are those who seen as ultra-competitive. Commentators speak in admiring tones when the describe the coach or player is so pathologically competitive that he wants to win at any and everything – checkers, ping pong, everything! He wants to win at all costs. He’s obsessed with winning. We love our NFL and we put on a pedestal the greatest winners.
Now here comes John the Baptist saying Jesus must increase, but I must decrease. John doesn’t care if the Lions beat the Bears next week. John is happy with his own decline for the sake of Jesus’ exaltation. Put more simply, John wants people to forget about him and turn to Jesus. He couldn’t be any clearer about that.
John gets what he wants. His life comes to an end when, after languishing in Herod’s prison, he is beheaded. Everyone who puts Jesus first and dies to self in order to glorify does not die a martyr’s death, but everyone who claims to be a passionately devoted follower of Jesus has to be ready to do just that.
It is a matter of how we approach Jesus. Do we come to him hoping he will be who we want him to be? Or do we come as broken sinners? Do we come seeing him as a loving God who welcomes us with open arms and offers complete forgiveness? In approaching that way, do we have the humility to die to self that we might be made new? Not “a new, improved, better me” that we hear about on diet ads and in self-help books; do we come with such complete surrender that Jesus takes over our lives and we are made new?
Judas died a horrible, lonely death. He was forgotten by all except to be remembered as a betrayer. At the judgment, he will, to his own horror, see openly what he failed to see in his time with Jesus. John also died a horrible, lonely death, but before he did, in this life, he saw the ascension of Jesus, and his joy was made complete. At the final judgment, he will come and see what he already testified to in his life – the love and the reign of Jesus. Then, John will hear these words. “Well done good and faithful one. Enter into the joy of your master.”
May we let go of roles we’d like Jesus to fulfill. May we instead be given eyes to see who Jesus is and when we see Him, may we give ourselves to Him in total surrender.