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Monday, July 30, 2012

Divinity of Jesus: The Difference between Christian and Muslim Views


            The ocean is a big place.  We had a chance, as a family, to go to the beach earlier this summer.  For a second time in my life I was humbled by having to ask a fellow swimmer to help me out of a riptide.  It was pretty close to shore but it caught me.  Most people don’t like to need help and I felt especially small considering this wasn’t a place with w0rld-class surfing waves. 

            The ocean can do that – make one feel small.  In ancient times, the ocean was a place of industry; fishermen could make good money.  The ocean was the pathway to exploration.  What’s out there?  The ocean was the highway to commerce and the means by which people encountered one another.  Dominant armadas could enable empires to rule the world.

            The ocean was a also a source of mystery and fear.  What creatures lurk beneath the black depths?  How deep does it go?  There were no satellites, no light houses, no GPS, and no coast guard.  The ocean was seen as a place of danger and death. 

            When we were at the ocean and I was raucously riding the waves but also trying to stay close enough to the shore so I could handle any riptides, we looked out, far out to sea.  We watched fishing boats.  We tried to sight dolphins.  We think we saw one.  But the most amazing thing was a man, guy.  He was way, way out there, swimming for all his might.  He’s wasn’t swimming in.  He was swimming parallel to the shore.  I thought, who is this guy?  If he got a cramp or if he became complete exhausted, he was dead because he was so far out, no one could get to him.  In fact, it’s unlikely anyone would see him unless they were looking hard.  He must be a serious triathlete who does the iron-man competition. 

            As amazing as his stamina and strength are in swimming, even he is small next to the expanse of the ocean.  It is beautiful, breathtaking, and awe-inspiring.  And the ocean declares that Jesus is God. 

            Why is this declaration so important?  And why is it so important to do more than just say, “Jesus is God?”

            I write a blog and occasionally I write on the way Islam and Christianity co-exist in the world.  Sometimes this coexistence is a violent collision.  Sometimes it is a warm friendship.  In my writings I make it clear that I see the two faiths as fundamentally contradictory.  They cannot both be true because Isalm sees Jesus as a prophet.  To be sure, Muslims believe in most of the miracles reported in the New Testament.  Muslims revere Jesus.  Muslims love Jesus.

            However, Christians worship Jesus.  This is anathema to Isalm.  To say something is anathema is to say it is so detestably untrue it calls for damnation.  Muslims feel it is damnable to call Jesus ‘God’ because this is a direct assault on monotheism.  God alone is God, and in their view, to say that Jesus is God is to have a second God.

            Christians are as fiercely monotheistic as Muslims or Jews for that matter.  We believe there is one God.  And this one God exists in three forms and three manifestations and the three have a relationship with each other within the Godhead.  Father God, Son Jesus, Holy Spirit – one God; God is three in one.  It is utterly against Islam to say Jesus is God.  It is utterly essential to Christianity that we acknowledge Jesus as fully human and fully God. 

            The two religions can co-exist.  We can and should befriend Muslims.  We can and must love Muslims.  That love includes respecting their commitment to their faith.  Respect means if we want to invite a Muslim to consider Jesus, it has to be that, an invitation.  If he’s not interested, we still love him and respect him and honor him as a friend even when we’re completely convinced that he’s wrong about Jesus. 

            Along these lines Muslim readers have commented on my blog writings.  There is no way Jesus could be God, they say.  One reader linked me to a Muslim talk-show.  It’s a setting that skews younger, is hip, cool and the host had a guest who was a Christian pastor but then converted to Islam.  He was giving 10 reasons why Jesus could not be God.

            We can stop right here and just say, “Who cares.”  We think Jesus is God and he doesn’t so we think he is wrong.  There.  Now can we all just get on with our lives?  We can, sure, but if we take that kind of a shrug-of-the shoulder approach, then our faith is not a reasoned faith.  It is not a thought-out faith.  It is one we inherit, one we accept because it was given from people we trust, and it is one based on our emotions.  Our emotions tell us we are sinners who need Jesus; people we trust – authors of scripture, pastors, youth pastors, Sunday school teachers – tell us Jesus forgives us and we need Him.  And so by trust and by emotion we are Christ-followers. 

            That is all good and nothing I am saying negates that or detracts from it.  What I offer this morning adds to that emotional confession born out of a faith community and relationships with Christians and relationship with the Holy Spirit.  We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.  To Love God with the mind, I think includes a reasoned defense or explanation of why we believe what we believe to be true.  And this is where the ocean and Jesus’s demonstration in Mark’s gospel comes into the conversation.

            The ex-Muslim turned youth pastor gives 10 reasons why Jesus never says he is God.  We might say, “Oh yes he does say it.  He says, ‘the father and I are one,’ in John 10:30.”  Be careful with that response.  Remember, this Muslim was a Christian.  He knows many of the references on which we base our belief that Jesus is God.  He looks at that and says, ‘wait a minute.   That means Jesus and God are united, one in purpose, not one in being.  In those terms, God and I are also one because I am united with God.’  He makes this point pretty clearly.  His articulation is not good but his arguments have logic.  Many of the standard verses we use to show that Jesus is God are well-known to Muslims and they have a ready refutation. 

            The host of the talk show says, “If Jesus was really God, why doesn’t he say, ‘I am God?’”  A few years, this very question troubled me, and I went searching for that verse, and it’s not in there.  It’s not in John’s gospel, the primary source for Jesus’ “I am” statements.  It is not in the other gospels.  Why doesn’t Jesus say, “I am God”?

            We need to be able to answer that.  The world is shrinking.  It’s not just in college towns and big cities.  Across America people are setting up homes, people who do not have a Protestant or Catholic worldview.  We can stay isolated, stick to spending time with people who think like us and talk like us.  But if we do that, we dare not call ourselves Christ-followers.  He calls us beyond our familiar circles and once we step out of our comfort zones and into conversations and friendships with people who see the world total differently, we have to be prepared to say why we think what we think.  “Jesus is God.” 

            Why do we think so?  Did he say that?  Not in those words. 

            The statement would have been absurd to the ears of the first century Jew Palestine.  So instead of saying, “I am God,” Jesus said things only God can say.  Jesus did things only God will do.  And Jesus received things only God can receive.  In this way, there was no mistake.  Everyone around him understood him to be claiming to be God; otherwise, they would not have killed him. 

            I am thankful for David Garland’s commentary on Mark’s Gospel.  Before reading it, I always thought the place to look for declarations of Jesus’ divinity was the Gospel of John.

            In Mark 6, Jesus is rejected by his old neighbors in his home town of Nazareth.  Herod, the Jewish King, a puppet of Rome, imprisons and executes John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and the prophet whose preaching and practice of baptism paved the way for Jesus’ ministry.  On a remote hillside, Jesus feeds 5000 people by miraculously multiplying one person’s lunch. 

            Then he does something very human.  He sends the disciples off on their boat out into the Sea of Galilee.  And in isolation, he prays.  Human beings pray to God.  Jesus was exceptional as a human being and he was 100% human.  His wisdom was supreme; his prayer life incredible; and his love perfect.

            While he was praying, the disciples were out to sea and straining against the wind.  This is different than what we read in Mark 4.  There the windstorm was so fierce, it kicked up the waves to the point that the boat was swamped and in real danger of sinking.  In that situation, Jesus commanded the storm to be silent and it obeyed.  That account illustrates the same truth this one does, but the circumstances are different.  There Jesus was in the boat and the disciples were about to die.  Here in Mark 6, the disciples are not going to die, but they’re also not making progress.  They’re straining at the oars against the power of the mighty sea and the uncontrollable wind.  As he’s praying, he sees them.  This must have been a vision.  Still, this is a human thing.  Peter, Paul and many others had visions while praying.  The clincher is what Jesus does next.

            Alone on the land, praying, in a vision, Jesus sees the disciples as they row at night, and he walks on the sea.  Who does that?  Who just walks across the water?  Jews in the first century would have had a ready answer that they would have accepted without question.  Thinking back to their scripture, they would remember the prophet Habakkuk.  “Was your wrath against the rivers, O Lord?  Or your anger against the rivers or your rage against the sea?  … You trampled the sea with your horses” (Habakkuk 3:8a-b, 15a).

            They would remember the book of Job where God says to Job, “Who shut for the doors of the sea? … Have you entered the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep” (Job 38:8a, 16).  Who?  God.  God walks on the sea.  People were terrified of the unseen depths, but God walks in the recesses of the deep at His pleasure.  At His pleasure, he shuts the sea as you or I would shut a door.

            The disciples and later, Mark’s first readers would remember Psalm 107.  “They saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep.  For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.  … He made the storm be still and the waves of the sea were hushed” (107:24-24, 29).  Ancient Israelites spoke in scripture; “it was written;” “as the prophets said;” “Moses wrote.”  This is how they conveyed ideas and understood the world.  So, in these terms, Jesus made very clear statements and some of his statements came through actions.

            Note the end of Mark 6, verse 48.  Jesus is walking on the water and it says he intended to pass them by.  He didn’t.  They were terrified and he got into the boat to calm them.  They had not been terrified by the wind.  They strained against but did not fear it.  But a man walking on the water sent them into heart-thumping panic and Jesus came to them.  But his intention was to pass by.  Why?

            Moses, the greatest of prophets wanted to see God.  God set Moses in the cleft of a rock, and passed by and Moses saw God’s backside glory.  Elijah, the great prophet in the book of 1st Kings, the one who never died but was just taken up to Heaven in a Chariot of Fire, got so depressed in his fear he was suicidal.  Again, God set him in a cave, and in silence passed by him.  Who are the Old Testament two prophets who join Jesus on the mount of transfiguration in Mark 9?  Moses and Elijah. 

            The disciples out on the sea were not in trouble in the sense of needing Jesus to save them from imminent death.  He didn’t need to walk on water to save them.  He walked on the water so they could see that God was passing by again.  The final verse of this section says their hearts were hardened.  Shortly after this, James, John, and Peter, would come with Jesus to a mountain top where Moses and Elijah visited from the Heavenly beyond to watch God pass by. 

            When Moses asks God’s name in Exodus 3, God says, “I am.”  That is God’s self-identification.  In Greek, that phrase is rendered “ego emi.”  Ego emi” from Greek to English can be rendered, “It is I,” or “It is me,” or “I am.”  Knowing this, it is pretty clear in John’s Gospel that Jesus is saying “I am” to indicate that he is the same God who visited Moses and named himself “I am.”  I never paid attention to “I am” statements from Jesus in the other Gospels.  But, here, on the sea, a place of dread and terror, the disciples see what sailors fear most, a phantasm, a ghostly creature come to take then to death.

            To their fear, Jesus says, “Take heart, Ego emi, it is I, I am.”  In Mark’s symbolic world, no clearer declaration can be made.  Mark’s gospel shouts that Jesus is God in human flesh, to be followed and worshiped.  To hear Jesus say, “I am God,” you have to turn to Revelation 1:17.  At the end of the verse he says, “I am the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the living one.”  That is a direct reference to God in apocalyptic language, and Jesus makes that reference to himself.

            Some skeptics won’t be satisfied by such evidence and that’s just the nature of things.  Muslim friends will believe Jesus walked on the water and say it didn’t mean he was God.  Jewish friends will deny that it really happened.  Modernists and naturalists will say it could not have happened and thus it is just a legend.  When Mark wrote it, he did not believe he was writing a legend.  He believed he was describing how Jesus demonstrated for his disciple who he was and is. 

            This is who we worship and follow.  This is the Lord, the master of our lives.  We are in service to Him for eternity.  This is our creator, redeemer, protector, defender, and savior, the one who forgives us of all sin, and makes us new each day.  All that we are depends on who He is.  And thus we submit ourselves to Him completely.


Monday, July 23, 2012

Driven by Compassion

At the end of the week, this past week, the headlines told of an awful tragedy.  A gun man walked into a crowded theater in Colorado and began shooting.  This was front page news, but not in Burgas, a city in the Eastern European nation of Bulgaria.  There, the big story was a terrorist attack.  A suicide bomber blew up a crowded bus.  And in Iraq, the big news was the seizure of border stations along the Syrian border by rebel militia groups.

            Where you live determines what you would call the biggest news of the day.  Everything I mentioned would fall in the category of bad news.  Horrific; awful; tragic; depressing. 

            As followers of Christ, we are called beyond our own lives.  We have our individual problems which are significant.  Our individual stories are stories of faith.  We are also a body of believers, bonded together in Jesus.  As individual disciples and as a body, we are called to respond to the happenings of the world, elections, wars, random violence, weather patterns (like extreme drought) and natural disasters.  When chaos is unleashed and humanity panics, people look to the church because they’re looking for someone – anyone – to help bring order and reveal meaning in all that goes on.

            We’re in our 3rd week of seeing Jesus in the pages of Mark’s gospel.  In today’s passage, we find a key component, not the only one, but an important aspect of a Christ-follower’s response to a world afflicted with suffering, chaos, fear, and hurt. 

            We pick the story up with Jesus and the disciples on the move again.  This time the location is not specifically named, nor is the exact spot important.  What catches our attention is Jesus’ care for his disciples.  A lot has happened.  His popularity is at its peak.  Mobs overwhelm him and them.  He has endowed the 12 with his miraculous powers, and he knows that as they cure diseases and defeat demons, crowds would come upon them just like the do on him.  “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile,” Jesus tells his friends and followers. 

            They get in the boat, a sure way to separate from the crowd that hungers for every word that falls from Jesus’ lips just as much as they long for every wonder he performs.  The thing is, when Jesus works miracles, he’s not performing.  He’s revealing God’s love and he does this through his inclusion of people who are rejected everywhere else.  He does it through a radical new understanding of the Law that sees it as a door to God and not a burden that keeps people under heel.  And he does it through his ceaseless sharing of grace and mercy.  But he gets tired.  The disciples are tired.  They need down time. 

            The mob travels faster.  When Jesus and the disciples arrive at the location of their prayer retreat, we see a throng waiting for them. What does Jesus do?  Get back in the boat?  Mark writes, “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them” (v.34).  Get the highlighter out, underline verse 34, and on your notes session in the worship bulletin, write that Mark 6:34 is one of the most important verses in the entire Gospel.  Confronted by the crowd he wanted to escape, Jesus was filled with compassion.

Someone is traumatized because they go to be entertained by the comic book violence of Batman on the screen and instead have to deal with real life, senseless violence right in their face.  Do we love them? Even when we don’t have the words or the energy, do we reach out to them and walk with as Jesus does?  Do we, as compassion literally means, “suffer with” them?

A nation, Iraq, beleaguered and broken by a decades of war and tyranny is now trying to get it together, and it’s neighbor, Syria is bringing her war onto Iraqi grounds.  And Iran and Israel are trying to fight their own battles and Iraq is right in the middle.  How does the church – you, me, churches all round – respond?  With compassion?  A compassionate response could take on many forms from care for refugees to financial contribution to Christian ministries to political advocacy.  It begins with prayer.  Do we pray for Iraq?

Or Iran?  Or Bulgaria?  Or Israel?  Or victims of drought in our own nation?  Or victims of insidious combination of drought and terrorism in Somalia?  Are we gripped by the Spirit to pray compassionately?

“As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them.”  Why?  Why did they need Jesus so much?  Mark’s narrative continues.  “They were like sheep without a shepherd.”  If I were in that crowd, I might not like being characterized that way.  Americans have self-sufficiency woven into our worldview.  The pioneer spirit and protestant work ethic on which our nation stands say that we are never meek, directionless sheep.  By our will and courage, we’ll find a way.  The truth is our nation is great, but sin has been around longer.  We as a nation and as individuals are fallen and will fall short of God’s glory just as that hungering crowd fell short in Mark 6.  We may not like it, but we are often also sheep without any guidance or protection against wolves that would use our greed, our sense of independence, and our pride to devour us. 

In describing those around Jesus in this way, Mark reaches back to the prophet Ezekiel.  He wrote,

              Ezekiel 34 New Living Translation (NLT)

34 Then this message came to me from the Lord: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the  shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign Lord: What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep? 3 You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. 4 You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty. 5 So my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. 6 They have wandered through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them.

7 “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, you abandoned my flock and left them to be attacked by every wild animal. And though you were my shepherds, you didn’t search for my sheep when they were lost. You took care of yourselves and left the sheep to starve. 9 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord. 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I now consider these shepherds my enemies, and I will hold them responsible for what has happened to my flock. I will take away their right to feed the flock, and I will stop them from feeding themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths; the sheep will no longer be their prey.

Jesus came to seek out and save the lost, to rescue the sheep who were being devoured.   Yes, he and the disciples were tired, but they were needed.  So compassion ruled and he welcomed the crowd and began to teach them.  Mark says he taught many things until late into the day.  The crowd, captivated by Jesus’ gentle but unquestioned authority, drank in his words without thought of provisions. 

The disciples finally had to interrupt him to say, “Hey, enough compassion for now.  It’s supper time.  We’re kind of compassioned-out.  Send them away.  They can fill up the Cracker Barrel and the Chik-Fil-A.  They can sit around and discuss your great teachings.  Send them away so they can eat and we can have some peace.” 

But Jesus wasn’t compassioned-out.  He was full of compassion.  He was driven by deep love for people who were hurting spiritually, politically, emotionally, and physically.  Jesus never runs out of compassion.  He runs on compassion.  It fuels him and comes from him.

Mark 1, Peter’s mother-in-law cannot perform hospitality her most crucial service as a first century lady of the house.  She’s down with a fever.  Jesus takes her tenderly by the hand and lifts to her feet.  By the time she’s standing, the weakness and sickness is gone and she’s 100%, ready to do her thing. 

Also in Mark 1, a leper runs to Jesus.  Lepers were, by law, to keep their distance.  In approaching, this one broke the rules, but his disease made him so desperate, he did not care.  Seeing him, Jesus was moved with pity.  He healed the leprosy (1:41).

In Mark 2, Jesus is surrounded by tax collectors, those in Israel who were treated as hated turncoats because they collected taxes for Rome.  Jesus never minimized the base sin in the crowd at the party that surely included gamblers and prostitutes.  He saw the very shepherdless sheep Ezekiel lamented.  In response to the Pharisees who complained about the company he kept, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (2:17).  Jesus saw sin as an evil disease that puts sons and daughters of God in harm’s way.  He came to cure us of what ails us because he loves us.

In Mark 5, he meets another woman, sick, bleeding, cast out from society.  The law called her untouchable, unclean, unworthy.  Jesus called her “daughter.”  This forgotten, stepped on woman was a daughter of God in the eyes of the compassionate one.

In two other healing miracles, one with a deaf mute, and another with a blind man, Jesus could see that the healing was going to be an involved process.  It included rubbing mud on the blind man’s eyes and spitting on the mute man’s tongue.  Knowing this and knowing that the diseases would be attributed to sin by some legalists; in other words, the deaf mute and the blind man would not only suffer their maladies but be blamed for them; knowing this, Jesus first took both individuals, again by the hand, away from the crowd.  Not only did he heal these illnesses.  He preserved the dignity and restored these lost souls to society. 

Jesus was driven by compassion.  Jesus we have to send the crowd away so they can eat.

No.  The teaching I give comes from God and if the people hear it and heed it they will understand that in my coming the Kingdom has arrived.  A kingdom where the rejected are welcomed and compassion and love are the rule. No.  No one is sent away.  You feed them.

We know what happens next.  The disciples protest and Jesus takes a meal of 5 pieces of pita bread and a few fish, and he feeds 5000 people and there are 12 baskets of leftovers. 

Flipping over to Mark 8, it happens again.  The circumstances there are slightly different, but again, Jesus takes the food from an individual’s meal, miraculously multiplies it, and feeds thousands.   

People were so desperate for what Jesus had they would follow him.  He was on the move, so to keep up, they had to move.  They may have meant traveling without making adequate preparation and then being caught in the wilderness with no food.  Jesus, driven by compassion as he always was, determined to teach the truths of the Kingdom of God would not allow hunger to distract his followers any more than he allowed storms at sea to consume the 12 disciples. 

I think miracles can still happen, but I don’t know when.  It’s the Holy Spirit’s call, not ours.  But, whether miracles happen our not, the body of Christ, the church, is to be driven by compassion every bit as much as he was.  Middle class Americans living high-tech, educated, affluent lives may feel like we have it all together.  But then we have a week where people die going to the movies.  That reminds us of our history of senseless violence.  Drought and heat remind us that we’ll never be more powerful than the weather and when it is dangerously bad, it can hurt us.  News from wars and terrorism from around the world remind us that the chaos of sin is all around us and no matter how independent we want to feel, in truth, we need Jesus like never before. 

Can the church command miracles with ease of Jesus?  Not every time.  I have never worked a miracle.  But you and I, we can be driven by compassion as he was.  We can show his love even it means standing with someone who is suffering. We don’t know what to do, so we stand with them as long as we need to.  In coming alongside, God shows us what forms compassion takes. 

Jesus is the compassionate one.  If we want to see Him, we go where there is pain and we love those who hurt.  When we do, we realize He is in us, working through us.  And in our compassion, which is His compassion in us, the world sees the Kingdom of God.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Astonished by Jesus

            Our family, especially Henry, has fallen in love with the game of Monopoly.  Our version is not the traditional one, with Boardwalk and Park Place.  Ours is NFL Monopoly.  You buy NFL teams, and if you get a monopoly, you put not houses, but locker rooms on it. 

            So, we’re playing the other day, and where Henry is sitting, across from the window, his line of vision is right into the backyard.  Casually, he says, “I see a deer.”  We didn’t pay attention.  He was nonchalant, but then he said it again, smiling.  I looked up.  O wow, a deer is in the yard. 

            I know just about everybody sees them around here.  It reminds me of a time I went hiking in the national park a 90 minute drive west of Washington DC when I lived in that area.  I hiked all day and saw no wildlife.  Upon returning to DC, I drove downtown, and within the District, I saw three dear.

            After Henry’s second announcement we all looked up, and I said quickly, “Igor.”  My oldest son sprang into action, running to the backyard.  He made this shrill high pitched noise, scaring the deer out of our yard.  Cruel? 

Two days earlier, we made a family event of watching the deer munch fallen apples from our apple tree.  The apples are typically worm-ridden and too tart for our tastes, so we’re happy to share with our hooved friends.  As we quietly watched the graceful creature enjoy the apple, my wife Candy said out of the corner of her mouth, with a bit of an edge, “This is fine.  But if that deer gets near my tomatoes.” 

When Henry spotted the deer while Igor landed Free Parking (again!), that pesky varmint was enjoying a garden salad.  (Notice how they go from graceful beauty to pesky varmint just by changing their choice of fruits?)  By running the deer off, Igor was doing exactly what his mom told him to do.  And it only happened because Henry saw and spoke on what he saw.  He was a faithful witness and his testimony made a difference.

We probably all agree that the salvation of the world is of higher importance than the salvation of the tomatoes.  There is greater urgency in seeing Jesus and giving faithful testimony related to Jesus and the Kingdom of God and the salvation God gives – salvation from sin and death for all people.  That salvation is missed if people never turn their attention to Jesus, never open their ears and hearts to His message, never submit their lives to Him and acknowledge Him as Lord, and never receive the forgiveness he accomplished and extends to us. 

As Paul writes in Romans 10, “How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him” (v.14)?  It matters tremendously that we see Jesus.  It is urgent that we speak of what we have seen and what we know. 

Walking through Mark’s Gospel, we follow Jesus from the Gentile region of the Garasenes across the Sea to Capernaum.  There he brings back to life the recently deceased daughter of a synagogue leader (5:39-42).  While walking in a crowded procession to perform this work of wonder, he heals a woman who had suffered from a blood flow problem that rendered her unclean.  For 12 years she had been expelled from synagogue and temple, and she was unwelcome in civil society through no fault of her own.  A touch from Jesus and she was well.

Word was spreads.  In Capernaum they all know Jesus had to be from God.  In that gentile region of the Garasenes, it is clear.  He defeated 1000 demons and restored the life of a tormented man.  On the way to the Garasenes, he stilled a raging storm at sea.  Everywhere Jesus went the calm and peace and joy and reign of God went.  Everything he touched was made well, transformed, and given new life.

Then, Jesus returns to his hometown.  The Bible is completely silent on the majority of Jesus’ life, from age 3-30.  There’s a blurb in Luke about the adolescent Jesus in the temple, but other than that, he was a nondescript tradesman in an out-of-the-way town.  At the start of Mark 6, he returned to that town. 

“On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue and many who heard him were astounded” (6:2).

Have you been astonished?  When I am, I talk about it.  I tell about it when I am mildly interested. A deer in the backyard – oh, that’s cool.  What if it were a tiger?  After making sure all the kids were inside I’d be talking – giving my witness to the police department, animal control, and then maybe CNN. 

Calming storms? The disciples were amazed and were talking about it.  Victory over 1000’s of demons?  People in the Garasenes and all over the Decapolis were buzzing.  Raising the dead?  Yeah, Jesus was on the mind and his name came from the lips of rich men and common folk alike in Capernaum.  But Nazareth?  Without even seeing miracles, just hearing him teaching, they were astounded.  They had never heard teaching with such authority, wisdom, and passion.  But they didn’t react as favorably as others did. 

Where did he get these ideas about the Kingdom of God?  What does it mean saying that it is time for the feast because the bridegroom is here and God’s kingdom had begun and there is forgiveness of sins?  He’s a carpenter!  My cousin is every bit the carpenter this Jesus ever was, and my cousin doesn’t talk about the kingdom of God.  He sticks to the workshop. 

O, they quickly jumped from astonishment to irritation to open scorn. 

They reduce Jesus by going to great length to say he is not anyone special.  They name his brothers, common folks all.  They refuse to deign to even name his sisters.  They disrespect his family by ignoring Joseph. 

Isn’t he Mary’s boy?

The derision and complete absence of faith is so palpable Mark writes, “He could do no deed of power there. … He was amazed by their unbelief” (v.5a, 6).  Astounded by his words, they responded by rejecting him.  And he was then astounded at how spiritually dead his old neighbors were. 

Don’t be troubled that Mark says he couldn’t work miracles among his own kin.  Barbara Brown Taylor explains that it was not a case where Jesus was rendered impotent.  Rather, he was lighting a spiritual fire in all that did, a signal that the Kingdom light was dawning.  But these particular synagogue goers weren’t open to God’s movement among them.  She writes, “If you have ever pressed a match to a pile of wet sticks, then you know what it was like.  It does not matter how strong your flame is.  What you need is something that will catch.”[i]

Are we fresh kindling ready to burst into flame?  Or are we wet sticks, soaked in bitterness?  Are we saturated in such sophistication – the wonders of 21st century technology and the answers of today’s science - that we have no room for miracles we cannot explain or control?  I love technology and am learning more about science, but I don’t love it when these things dilute faith or marginalize it.

Are we drenched with doubt, stress, burdens of the world that overwhelm us so we have no energy to receive and respond to the News that is both Good and New? 

Are we so familiar that we know Jesus too well, have heard the same old story too many times, so that we now lack ears to hear?  I love that stories from scripture like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan are known to the point that most anybody in society could reference them.  But has our thoughts on the Gospel rendered it so familiar and old hat that it is no longer seen as radical and life-changing?

Jesus is here every week.  This gathering of people who claim to be his followers, ‘little Christs,’ Christians – this gathering is the body of Christ, singing praise, proclaiming truth, and sharing agape love.  Jesus speaks here and wherever his body gathers.  This Bible is the living Word of God.  When it is read, Jesus speaks and shows what the Kingdom of God is.  Do we hear?  Can we see?  Will we tell? 

Jesus moves on from Nazareth.  Amazed by the lack of faith and stinging from the rejection from people who knew him best (or thought they did) he would hit the road and shine his light elsewhere.  He found more receptive places to share the truth of the Kingdom.   He won’t hang around groups that aren’t willing to see him, listen to him, and submit to Him as Lord and follow Him as Master. 

The Good News of the Kingdom of God revealed in Jesus Christ is for those who have “ears to hear.”  That New Testament phrase indicates people who listen openly and receptively.  We can listen with scrutiny as well.  I have probably close to a thousand pages from medical doctors, lawyers, archaeologists, theologians, and historians as they debate whether or not the resurrection truly happened.  By trust and by faith, I accept that Jesus was dead and rose to life.  As a critical thinker, it does no damage to my faith to examine the facts thoroughly.  Being scrutinizing and thinking critically do not damage our ability to have ears to hear. 

“Ears to hear, eyes to see” begins with our attitude.  We must approach the Word and approach God humbly and expectantly.  Our confidence in what God has done – the death and resurrection of Jesus; and our confidence in what God has given us – the Word and the Holy Spirit – this leads us to believe that whatever new things God does will be consistent with what God had done and will in fact be a continuation of it.  Thus, Mormonism or Islam which both claim to venerate Jesus would not be considered a new thing God has done because in these faiths, there is direct contradiction to what the New Testament says about Jesus.  They are not faithful witnesses.

To respond as a faithful witness to life, teaching, and Gospel of Jesus, we have to hear it, experience it, and share it.  God’s new work is the salvation of those who come to Him when they are introduced to him through our witness and testimony.

Mark immediately shares an example of this.  Jesus neighbors had rejected the carpenter they thought they knew, he walked away, and then he tested his disciples.  Had the 12 who had been through so much with him been listening, or were they also a pile of wet sticks unwilling to be ignited?

He sent them out in teams of two with no provisions – no food, no luggage, no money.  Don’t even bring an extra cloak.  Trust God for everything – warmth, nourishment, the words to say when you are confronted by demons from Hell – everything.  So often in Mark, the disciples’ mistakes are highlighted.  But, here, in 6:12, it says they went out and proclaimed that people needed to repent of sin, and people listened.  They cast demons out of the possessed.  They healed incurable sicknesses.  The very thing unbelief prevented in Nazareth, even when attempted by Jesus, the disciples accomplished as they covered many miles passing through the villages of Northern Israel. 

Two attitudes – “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt;” or, openness, “ears to hear.”  The Lord is going to introduce the world to His Kingdom ruled by Jesus, and he’ll use those who are awake to His newness to be the heralds.  Those who meet Jesus and are astonished and react to their amazement by repenting and coming to faith in Him are the heralds who will testify to all that God is doing.  God has no use for the “been there, done that” crowd. 

Next in Mark is the death of John the Baptist, the ultimate example of one who heard the call of God and responded with faith and action.  He preached the repentance Gospel even before Jesus, preaching in anticipation of Jesus, and eventually, was arrested.  Herod executed John, heard of all that Jesus and the disciples were doing, and was terrified that the Baptizer had come back to life. 

Our witness does not guarantee a good response.  Just because we hear Jesus, does not mean others will when we tell.  We tell in a way that shows Jesus’ love.  We try to tell so it will be heard.  The first time Henry spoke of the deer, he was ignored by Igor and me as Igor tried in every way he could think of to get me to sell him a monopoly.  Henry spoke up again and we reacted.  If we had not, the deer would have enjoyed some tomatoes and I would have had some explaining to do.

The people Jesus grew up with in Nazareth were amazed and astonished by him but their familiarity bred contempt and they dismissed him.  His disciples were equally amazed and they did what he said, and they were able to do what he did.  Later, when their delusions of grandeur and then their fears clouded their vision, they failed to have ears to hear.  After the resurrection, their hearing improved.

Herod, self-absorbed and hedonistic, was amazed as God spoke through John the Baptist, but in his lust for power, he couldn’t break down and submit to God.  He ultimately played the role of evil in the story.  John the Baptist had hears to hear and faith to respond.  It cost him his life as suffered the way his master suffered.  But John’s name now is exalted as one of the great men of faith in the history of the world.  He was even praised by Jesus himself. 

So here we are.  The body of Christ has gathered.  By his abundant grace, the word of God is in our hands.  His Holy Spirit hovers over our worship.  We can be astonished by Jesus.  What then?  What do we hear?  And what do we do with it?


[i] Taylor, Bread of Angels, Cowly Publications (Cambridge, MA, 1997), p.105.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Holiness - what a terrible, difficult concept

Below is a page from my journal.  I keep a notebook.  Each day, I read through a chapter or a few verses from the Bible.  Then, I write reflections.  This is not refined writing, but rather my immediate, raw comments.  I am currently in the book of Numbers, one of the places in scripture I rarely go.  I found today's reading difficult.  Here's what I wrote after reading Numbers 4:1-5:10.

In chapter 4, we see the specific details of three clans' work in the Tent of Meeting, the Kohathites, the Gershonites, and the Merarites.  Each grouping is assigned specifc tasks with the seemingly most serious assigned to the Kohathites.  Their service concerns the 'most holy things' (4:4).  The Kohathites carry the covered vessels for worship.  If they touch the holy things directly (by intention or by accident), they will die (4:15).  The Lord makes a point of telling Moses not to let the Kohathites die off from among the Levites (4:18).  Even looking at the holy things will bring death (4:20).

How completely troubling is this?  A point is made to preserve the Kohathites, but seemingly, only because of the holiness of their task.  It's OK if a few Kohathites die, but they as a group must not die off.  If's OK if other groups die off, but not the Kohathies.  Their task is too holy.

O dear God!  Please tell me I am too sensitive and I am reading thing wrongly.  As I read through Numbers, I am made aware of how unaware I am of your Holiness, and how much I don't understand the importance of holiness.  I am a pastor of a church, but I read Numbers, and I feel far from you, distant, and unknown.  I am supposed to be a spiritual leader, but as I read Numbers, I am aware of how much of a gentile I am, and how Holy Other you are.

In Numbers 5:1-13, the exile of lepers from the community, I wonder about Jesus and lepers.  He didn't kick them out.  He healed them.  In the mission of your holiness, O God, the mission that is running through Numbers, where is the compassion for lepers?  Are these poor, suffering people a defilement and nothing more?  God, what am I missing?  This seeming troubling and cruel.

Monday, July 9, 2012


Below are comments I made in my monthly report to our church leaders.  Ours is a healthy, small congregation of 125-175 participants.  We do great at welcoming and loving people who show up.  We need to improve in going out with the good news that Jesus is Lord.  Here are the comments I shared with our leaders:

You undoubtedly have noticed throughout this year a strong emphasis on Evangelism.  The reason for this is I believe God is calling us beyond where we are right now.  Currently, we have a good website.  People read it and want to attend our church.  When they come, they find an attractive building.  They are greeted by friendly people.  The music is engaging.  By the time the sermon starts, most guest have decided whether or not they will come back and considering making HillSong their church.  Research bears this out.  Many people will even stay at a church where there is some doctrinal disagreement if the people of the church are kind and welcoming.  That’s where we are.  We have a lot of first time visitors, about 5-8 every single week.  Many of them stay. 

However, we are not in the “get-them-into-HillSong” business.  A classic question for success is What business are you in?  The follow up question is how’s business?  I think our business is to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, His Kingdom has come, and all who repent can have abundant, eternal life in His name.  I think making that proclamation is the business we are in.  How’s business?  I am not sure.

The purpose of the current series in Mark’s gospel ( to proclaim the Kingdom; to proclaiming provocatively and confrontationally.  The purpose of the emphasis on evangelism is carrying our business efforts beyond our church walls.  Lost people/unsaved/unchurched need to know Jesus.  They won’t know Him if the only place we ever proclaim Him is from 11-12 on Sundays at our property.  Evangelism has to be a lifelong project for each of us and for all of us collectively, as a body.

How we proclaim is as important as that we proclaim it.  I encourage an approach that takes genuine interest in other people whether they ever turn to Jesus or not.  We love for the sake of God and out of obedience.  We do not love and we do not extend friendship for the sake of getting people to become Christians. We love.  We listen.  We care.  We do things to help people materially (give “helping hand” money, do “brush-with-kindness projects” etc.).  And we get to know the gospel so well and our lives are so saturated with scripture that in conversation and in the way we approach people, it naturally comes out in conversation that we love Jesus and He loves others to the point of dying for them. 

This is a comprehensive approach to evangelism – the whole church taking the whole Gospel to the whole world (including Culbreth Road, Southern Village, Carrboro, Pittsboro, Chatham Co. etc.).  It is done through ministries, outreach, projects, and in our individual lives.  It has to be what HillSong is about.  Our proclamation – Jesus is Lord, His Kingdom has come, and all people need Him desperately.  All who turn to Him in repentance receive forgiveness of sins and (eternal, abundant) life in His name.  We have to get this message to all who come.  And we have to get out into the community so we can take the message to those who don’t come (here or anywhere else), but desperately need Jesus.