A Kingdom Life of Turning Aside

Just Sitting Together

I’m sitting this morning in a busy Starbucks — one of the places I frequent in the mornings before classes. At the big table, a group of teenagers does more talking about love interests than working on homework. Two middle-aged couples sit outside, talking and laughing in the gorgeous fall morning. Three professionals drinking lattes are clearly hammering out the details of a business deal at another outside table. And a few earbud-laden individuals are scattered throughout the coffee shop. Starbucks Order OnlineBut the vast majority of the people flowing in and out are picking up orders they placed online. They walk in briskly, talking or texting, most sporting earbuds. They grab their coffee from a “Get your mobile orders here” area, some along with a paper bag full of breakfast they clearly plan to eat in the car on the way to … something. Maybe they notice those who are behind them as they race in the door, and prevent it from slamming in their faces. Maybe they call out a quick “Thank you” for their order … to nobody in particular. And occasionally the barista even responds. But I’d estimate that a solid 90% of these transactions occur without one person uttering a single, solitary word to another human being. Even when they have to wait — GASP! — for their online order to appear, they stand alone waiting for their name to be called, buds in ears, face in phone. Alone. Waiting. In some cases, visibly (or even audibly) impatient.

Time Delay ExpresswayMy grandfather on my mom’s side has been dead for many years now, but I have many wonderful memories of him. One time when I was a boy, maybe 13 or so years old. I was standing with him on his back porch. From our vantage point, we could just see through the trees the hundreds of cars racing by on the nearby expressway — built near his house decades after the house itself was constructed. My grandfather (in his 80’s at the time) stared in silence for a while at the cars racing by, and then said softly to nobody in particular, “Where is everyone going in such a hurry?” I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.

He had a point … and that was 30 years ago. It seems to me that Chicago’s terrifyingly-high-speed expressways, crowded drive-thrus, online ordering and microwaved breakfasts hastily gobbled out of little paper bags while navigating the afore-mentioned terrifying expressways all beg the same question my grandfather asked, “Where is everyone going in such a hurry?”

Jesus didn’t live like that.

Man Racing Through LifeI know, I know; life was different in those days. There weren’t any drive-thrus or smartphones back then, but the tendencies of the human heart haven’t changed. Online ordering is just the latest phenomenon with the power to impact our lives for good or ill. And I contend that it’s the latest factor in the ongoing trend to disconnect us from one another and dehumanize us. It seems to me that people love to confidently declare technology to be neutral, and I suppose I can’t argue the point philosophically. But I also can’t help but feel a deep sense of loss watching all these people race in and out of here, carefully avoiding all human interaction.

What’s wrong with ordering my coffee online and racing in while on a call to pick it up? Well, nothing in and of itself, I guess. But if this is representative of a life packed with activity … always moving … always racing to something … with blinders firmly affixed … focused on making the next light or getting around the car in front of me which is only going 10 mph over the speed limit … with no time to turn aside when the Holy Spirit whispers something in my ear … assuming I’d be able to hear Him anyway through the noise in my earbuds … etc …

Then that life is in danger.Caution Danger Ahead

Not of failing to get it all done.
Not of being late to the office.
But of missing out on the Kingdom of God.

Jesus proclaimed that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). God’s Kingdom brings with it a new kind of citizenship … a new kind of life … a life of worship, obedience, and walking with God as His child … a life of what I call “turning aside.” Jesus modeled this kind of life for His followers and He calls us to it still today. And I’m quite sure He expects that kind of life to characterize His followers despite the development of Starbucks, expressways, mobile ordering, and the rest.

What does it mean to turn aside?

At it’s heart, the life of turning aside is a life of love and margin. It means we care enough about God and our neighbors, and have built space enough into our lives, to be able to see what’s happening around us and respond to it. In the early stages of its development, this life reacts to what it observes in the other lives around it … even when that reaction isn’t on today’s agenda. Then, as we become more like Jesus, the lives around us increasingly become today’s agenda.

In other words, the one who knows and loves Jesus isn’t going anywhere important enough to prevent her from diverting a little time from the day’s agenda to love her neighbor. And as she becomes more like Jesus, loving her neighbor increasingly becomes her day’s agenda.

What did this look like for Jesus?

A prostitute washes Jesus' feetIf there was ever a person important enough, and doing work important enough, to walk by the needs of others to “stay on task,” it was Jesus. Particularly in the Gospel of Mark, we see Jesus portrayed as a man of action … always on the move. But we never see Jesus too busy to turn aside. And if we watch Him long enough, we clearly see that the people around Him are the mission.

Jesus enjoyed a very full and active career as an itinerate preacher (Mark 1:39). His days were so full and the demands others placed on Him were so great that He had to get up “very early in the morning, while it was still dark” and “withdraw to a desolate place” in order to pray (1:35) — which, by the way, is the most important and profound form of “turning aside” in the Christian life.

Jesus traveled all over Palestine. He always had somewhere to be. But He was never too busy teaching people about the Kingdom of God (Mark 4:26-32, 12:1-12; c.f. Matthew 13, and many more) to pray over children (Mark 10:13-16) or heal a lifelong cripple (2:1-12), to cast out demons (5:1-17) or rebuke hypocritical religious leaders who were oppressing the sheep they were called to Shepherd (12:37-40).

Let’s zoom in on a couple specific examples…

Lepers and Prostitutes

Jesus heals a leperIn Jesus’ day, lepers “unclean.” They weren’t even allowed near “normal” folk. So, when we see Jesus healing lepers (Mark 1:40-42), we know that Jesus sought out, or at least actively condoned, the encounter. The same is true for prostitutes (14:3-9), for gentiles (7:14ff), and for women (7:24-30). Good Jewish boys like Jesus were expected not to associate with any of these people. Nonetheless, Jesus clearly spent a lot of time on the wrong side of the tracks. Successful, influential rabbis don’t accidentally end up hanging out in leper colonies, ghettos and red-light districts. That requires a hefty portion of intentionally turning aside.

Little Girls and Sick Women

In another instance, a man named Jairus, one of the rulers of the synagogue, asks Jesus to heal his daughter, who is deathly ill (Mark 5:21ff). Jesus walks away from a day of teaching in the synagogue, and follows the man home to heal his sick little girl. But on the way, He gets interrupted again — this time by an woman with a bleeding disorder. The woman touches the hem of Jesus’ robe, and is healed. But Jesus isn’t satisfied with just healing her. Rather than continuing on his way down the crowded street like a man on a mission, Jesus stops His whole entourage to love on and speak into the life of this woman. Then he continues on to Jairus’ house, and raises his daughter from the dead.

Jesus Raises Jairus' DaughterJesus didn’t start His day with any of this on the agenda. The Spirit brought interruptions which Jesus welcomed into His life.

First, Jairus interrupts Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue, and Jesus leaves with him. He could have been too busy “doing church.” He could have said, “I’m sorry; I’ll pray for you.” He could even have phoned in healing from a distance (c.f. Mark 7:24-30; Luke 7:1-10), but He didn’t. He deviated from His agenda, and went to the man’s house to help him and his family.

Second, He interrupted His journey to talk to a sick woman. And although she is the bottom of the cultural food chain (an unclean woman), He takes time for her and makes all the men, including Jairus (an important religious leader), wait for that. Again, it’s not a speed healing (or one ordered online), it’s one that involves relationship … Jesus takes the time to speak with her about her faith.

So, Jesus was willing to interrupt His plans — undoubtedly good plans — to turn aside and care for others who came into His life needing help. He built space enough into His life (margin) to notice people around Him and act on what He saw (love). Is that because He wasn’t busy? No. It was because He perceived Himself to be a servant and His life to be available to the Spirit of God. He gave the Spirit the authority to interrupt His plans and perspective, then He listened and obeyed.

As an aside, both the woman (who was bleeding) and the girl (who was dead) Jesus cared for were ceremonially unclean. It’s hard for us, in our culture, to understand the significance of that, but interacting with them would have been as shocking as letting a prostitute wash His feet. Jesus, a well-renown Jewish Rabbi, is actually touching (GASP!) lepers, bleeding women, and dead little girls. Talk about flagrantly disregarding cultural expectations! If “turning aside” is adopting a “love God, love your neighbor” agenda instead of a “get ahead in this world” agenda, then this too is a great example.

As Well as All the Rest of Us

Because I can’t help myself, I also have to mention that the incarnation itself — leading to the cross — is the ultimate act of turning aside…

Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
(Philippians 2:6-8)

In every conceivable way, Jesus’ life is the ultimate model for us of humility and service.

What does “turning aside” look like for us?

None of us is busier or more important that Jesus was. And the bottom line is that God has called us to a life of turning aside (see Matthew 25:31ff).

Accident Modern Good Samaritan

See Luke 10:25-37

I get that we have meetings to get to at work, but that doesn’t make it okay to race past the homeless guy while on the phone every single day for years. Consider moving tomorrow’s meeting by 30 minutes, buying the guy a Big Mac (2 for $5 these days), and listening to his story for a few min while he eats it.

I get that we’ve got a lot going on at home and with homework and kids’ sports schedule (etc), but that doesn’t make it okay to not know our neighbors’ names (let alone a few details about their lives). Consider going for a walk before dinner tonight and stopping to talk to someone for just one minute — something more than a “hi” and a wave. This weekend, make cookies and take them to the neighbors on either side you, and apologize that it’s taken you 8 years (or whatever) to welcome yourself to the neighborhood. See where it goes!

Visiting the Sick

See Matthew 8:1-17

Throw a block party. Get coffee with someone. Invite a coworker to lunch. Really listen to your child’s day. Schedule one less meeting/day next week, so you can make extra trips to the water cooler. Learn names. Ask about their kids. Visit a person from church you know is sick. Take someone a meal.

Or here’s a crazy idea… Ask someone who they think Jesus is or what they’ve done with God in their lives. Maybe you could start with the barista at Starbucks (whether or not you ordered your latte online).

The sky’s the limit. But to do any of it, we need margin and love — the space and willingness to notice and act. God would give us both, but only if we put down some of the things already in our hands. This will cost you something, but it will be worth it.

Make it a point tomorrow to notice the people you’re racing by. Ask God to give you a sense of the value of their immortal souls. Then ask Him for the grace and strength to begin to make different choices — to buy love for these people at the cost of other things in your life which are less important. This is the life of turning aside … the life that values others over our agendas … the life in which the Kingdom of God has come and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven …

The life that it a lot like Jesus.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.  -Jesus (Mark 8:34-35)


Image Credit:
1) Just sitting together – Cornerstones for Parents
2) Starbucks mobile ordering – Starbucks Newsroom
3) Time-delayed expressway – Techcrunch.com
4) Business man running – LinkedIn article “Is it worthwhile to be in a hurry?” by Viktoria Palffy
5) Danger ahead – Day Trading Academy
6) A prostitute weeps on Jesus’ feet (see Mark 14:3-9) – 1517 The Legacy Project
7) Modern Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37) – Scary Mommy blog
8) Visiting the sick (see Matthew 8:1-17) – LDS Media Library
9) Jesus cleanses a leper – Tell the Lord Thank You blog
10) Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter – Principles of Jesus Christ blog
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Only the Empty will be Full

A sermon manuscript on Luke 18:9-30, prepared for Life Bridge Community Church
(recorded audio | sermon notes)

Only the Empty will be Full

Introduction

A few years back, I wanted to put together a special dinner for my wife Faith for her birthday. I had dinner planned, but I wanted something really great for desert. So, on one of my many birthday-preparation errands, I’m standing in CostCo holding a big, beautiful strawberry cheesecake in my hands thinking, “CostCo cheesecake … that’s special, right?! And only $10 (or whatever it was back then). Score!”

Costco Strawberry CheesecakeFortunately, the guardian angel of happy marriages reminded me that Faith might feel a little more loved and special if I chose a dessert she likes … something like tiramisu, which is her favorite dessert, not cheesecake, which is one of my favorite desserts. So, I put the cheesecake down, and started looking for tiramisu.

Tiramisu

And here’s where I got in trouble. I thought, “If buying Faith tiramisu is good, then making her tiramisu will be amazing.” So, I did some quick homework on my phone looking up tiramisu recipes, and headed off to a smaller-than-CostCo-sized grocery store to buy the ingredients. A couple hours and $60 of ingredients later, I’m standing in our kitchen intensely focused on creating my very first tiramisu masterpiece. But this thing was fancy! It required ingredients I had never heard of. It involved dozens of non-trivial steps. I’m whipping and separating and doing other things to ingredients that I don’t understand and had never heard. The recipe even called for baking utensils we didn’t own. But no worries, I’m a smart guy and I’m determined. So, I improvised and worked hard and eventually … and we’re talking another couple of hours later … the oven timer chimed to indicate my baby was ready! I dropped my book, raced excitedly to the oven, and pulled out … a Pyrex vat of sweet soup with lady finger floaters.

It was totally inedible, and we literally ended up throwing it away.

Sad Panda

As it turns out, I didn’t have the right ingredients, I didn’t have the right utensils, and I didn’t have the skill to interact with them properly anyway. Then I tried to substitute improvisation and hard work for the right skills and tools, and that made things worse. I had bitten off more than I could chew, and disaster had resulted.

So now, on Faith’s birthday, I have a standing date with one of our favorite Italian restaurants, where I purchase take-out tiramisu, baked by a professional, and it’s absolutely perfect every time.

And as silly as that story is, I think it begins to illustrate what God is teaching us in the passage today. So, keep my failed tiramisu experiment in mind, let’s pray, and then we’ll dig into God’s word together.

Prayer for Illumination

Father in heaven, thank you for calling us together today under the priceless instruction of your word. None of us in this room needs my knowledge or skill or ability this morning. What we need is you. Speak to us. Open our hearts to see you and comprehend your truth and to obey your word. Many of us have heard the stories we’ll be discussing many times. Protect us, Lord, from carelessness and over-familiarity and distraction in these next moments. Cause us to attend carefully to your word and to take it seriously!

Holy Spirit, fall afresh on us. Do in us what we cannot do for ourselves, that we me might take your word to heart and put it into practice. We submit ourselves to you today that you might be glorified in us. Have your way in this message and in this service and in our lives, we pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Invitation to turn to the passage

If you don’t have your bibles open to Luke 18, please get God’s word in front of you now. Again, our Scripture for today is Luke 18:9-30. Please follow along for yourself as we work through this passage.

Primary Claim Statement

If I were to boil today’s message down into a single sentence, it would be this:

Those who fill themselves, God will truly empty; those who empty themselves, God will truly fill.

Organizational Sentence

I believe Luke is showing us three scenes from the life of Jesus which teach this principle in different ways. So, we’ll walk through each scene, consider the audience, the characters, and what Jesus is teaching in each, and then pull it all together and apply it to our lives.

Ready? Let’s dive in.

Scene 1: Only the Humble will be Exalted

Parable: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector – You can’t make yourself righteous

He (Jesus) told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went down to his house justified, rather than the other (the Pharisee). For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14 ESV)

The Audience

Here, Luke explicitly tell us (in v9) that Jesus is speaking to “some who trusted in their own righteousness, and treated others with contempt.” We get the picture of a group of people who spend their days secure in the confident assurance that a) they’re the right kind of people, and b) others are the wrong kind of people.

The Characters

The Pharisee

In case we’re having trouble visualizing the kind of person for whom Jesus intended this story, the Pharisee in the story provides us with a clear example. In Jesus’ day, a Pharisee was a leader in both the local synagogue and the community at large. The modern equivalent might be someone who is both an elder in the church and who serves on the city council. He might even be a prominent leader in the business community. In any event, this is the kind of person of whom people take note when he walks down Main Street. Everyone expects great things from him. Young people about town want to be like him when they grow up. Etc.

He’s also done good things with his life, and avoided many of the sinful choices that have tripped up others.

The problem is that he knows it.

In fact, he feels good enough about his life that he is totally justified in his own mind to be standing in judgment over the other person who happens to be at temple with him this afternoon.

The Tax Collector

This guy is a tax collector. Frankly, people in Jesus’ day viewed tax collectors pretty much as the scum of the earth. In that time, if you were an unscrupulous person who wanted an easy way to amass wealth and power could petition Rome and bid on the position of local tax collector: “If you make me the tax collector in Galilee, I’ll get you 100 talents from this town every year.” If you’re the highest bidder (and/or bribe or blackmail the right people), then you get the job. So, with Rome’s blessing and the support of the military, you now have a blank check to squeeze as much as you can out of your local town – as long as Rome gets their 100 talents a year. Maybe you can pillage your friends and neighbors for 300 talents, and if you do, you get to keep the rest. Now that is a lucrative business! And there’s nothing that says you have to charge everyone the same amount, so you are free to adopt special friends-and-family discounts for one person while arbitrarily gouging the next.

And the icing on the cake is that this guy is betraying his fellow Jews to the Gentile Roman oppressors who invaded his homeland, and getting rich in the process.

To put it mildly, the people originally listening to this story absolutely hated tax collectors.

The Scene

So, what happens in Jesus’ parable? The Pharisee a pious Jew, is the good guy here. He draws up to his fully height, squares his shoulders, and basks before the Lord in his own personal righteousness.

“I’m such a great guy. I’m so well-respected in this community. And I’ve done such great things for God. In fact, how convenient that God has brought along this tax collector to highlight the contrast between my good choices and his bad ones.”

Great idea! Let’s contrast this with the tax collector. In contrast with the Pharisee, he’s on his knees off at a distance. He won’t come all the way up to the altar or even look up to heaven. He’s literally beating himself up. He’s ashamed and sad. Maybe he feels trapped or regrets his life, but doesn’t see a way out. Maybe he knows he’s weak and corruptible and just not strong enough to “be good” … like that Pharisee over there. Maybe it was just last night that God used someone or something to finally get through to him after all these years, and now he’s kneeling at the door of the temple in true repentance at long last. We don’t know. But what we do know is that right now, at this moment, he is acutely aware of his sin and asking God to have mercy on him.

Jesus, watching this drama unfold, turns to us to explain it. We would expect Him to set the Pharisee up as a good example and condemn the sinful choices of the tax collector. But Jesus doesn’t say what we’d expect Him to. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. He declares that the tax collector “went down to his house justified” (note the perfect passive form), and implies by contrast that the Pharisee will not.

The Lesson

Doesn’t that seem completely backwards? I mean for someone who doesn’t know Jesus very well, this sounds utterly ridiculous. And even those of us who have walked with Jesus for a long time – if we’re really honest – might be tempted to see this as unjust somehow.

From a bunch of different angles, the Pharisee has done everything right and the tax collector has done everything wrong. Is Jesus seriously telling us that God discounts all the good works this Pharisee has done just because he got a little cocky about it? … and that all this betraying, thieving tax collector has to do is show up at God’s house and beg him for mercy, and somehow all is forgiven?

Yes. That’s pretty much exactly what Jesus is saying. Look at the way He ends the story. He flatly tells us its moral,

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

But how does this work? Why is it true?

1. No one can earn God’s approval, except Jesus

First, because no one can earn God’s approval, except Jesus. One of the reasons we’re so taken aback by this story is that we think God should be grading on a curve. Because we judge the Pharisee to be “better than” the tax collector, we think God should too. But He doesn’t. In God’s economy, there’s “perfect” and there’s “not perfect.” That’s it! Every grade is pass-fail. There are no curves or scales or shades of gray. Whatever it looks like on the surface, everyone fails the perfection “test,” so there is no one who is good enough for God. Period.

Put another way, the anyone who tries to build a life of righteousness and worthiness before God, does not in fact have the ability or the ingredients or the utensils to do so. You might think you do, but you don’t. Even if we’re smart, improvise and work hard – just like I did trying to make Tiramisu for Faith – in the end, we just don’t have what it takes to build a heaven-bound, godly life. If we want that life, we must receive it from Jesus. He is the only one qualified to create that life in us. Just like I learned my lesson, gave up trying to make Tiramisu, and now get it from a professional, so we must learn our lesson, give up trying to build a life worthy of God, and receive that life from Him.

2. We don’t take the cross seriously enough

Secondly, I think we find Jesus’ assessment of this scenario to be shocking and disconcerting, because we don’t take the cross seriously enough. The reality is that Jesus’ sacrifice is the only way to God.

Like the Pharisee, it’s possible to walk around expressing to God in our hearts that we’re amazing and that He owes us for all our great deeds and hard work. But this attitude communicates that the cross of Christ is unnecessary. It tells God that we’ve got this life handled on our own. We are exalting ourselves. And if we do, then God will pour out all our righteous deeds and consider them worthless compared to His brilliant holiness and the profound value of Jesus’ sacrifice.

Meanwhile, the Tax Collector is a much better role model for us. He knows he has nothing to offer God. He is humbled. He acknowledges his emptiness before God, and calls out to God for mercy. And therefore (assuming it is genuine), Jesus says He will receive it. He is empty, so God will fill him up. This is the life of the Christ-follower … to acknowledge that we don’t have what it takes to be what God wants us to be. Only God can create in us the life we were meant to have.

We don’t look to our good works to please God and empower us to live the Christian life; we look to God’s Spirit to empower us because Christ gave His life for us.

Why bother?

One other question before we move on to the next section of the text…

Does all this mean that the Pharisee’s good deeds are somehow invalidated? Does it mean that he shouldn’t have bothered to make good choices? Should he have chosen a life of laziness or even sin, because it’s all up to God anyway?

Absolutely not! In fact, Scripture teaches us that God saves us explicitly so that we will do good works … so much so that He planned them for us before the creation of the world (Ephesians 2:10).

[Animation: Because the way we love God … and because it’s about the heart]
The point is that Jesus is focused on the heart. The Pharisee’s problem isn’t in doing righteous deeds, but in trusting in his righteous deeds, in assuming that he has made himself great by his righteous deeds, and in his readiness to condemn others as unworthy and beneath him because they lack his righteous deeds. His focus is in entirely the wrong place. It’s not wrong to do right, it’s wrong to believe that doing right earns God’s love or makes you better than others or gives you the right to condemn them.

The real danger the Pharisee is flirting with here is dismissing Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as unnecessary, and considering the tax collector to be outside the reach of that same sacrifice. In contrast, the true redeeming quality of the tax collector is that he has thrown himself, as bad as he is, on God’s mercy.

The question for us is the same as it is for them: Do we really believe that the sacrifice Jesus made is our only hope to go down to our homes today justified? Can we truly say that we’re trusting Jesus, not ourselves, for the everyday conduct of our lives?

If we chase after righteousness on our own, we will not catch it. If we trust our own righteousness to hold us up, it will not do to. But if we chase Jesus and put our full weight on Him, then no matter what else it costs us, God will fill us until we are unimaginably full … adopted, enjoying heavenly citizenship, and reclining with God at His table forever.

Working hard to be righteous isn’t our goal.
The Christian life is about Jesus’ righteousness, not mine.

Scene 2: Only the Simple will be Made Wise

Parable: Jesus Blesses the Children

Let the Children Come – You can’t make yourself wise

Look back at the passage, vv15-17…

Now they were bringing even infants to him (Jesus) that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to Him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the Kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
(Luke 18:15-17 ESV)

The Audience

Jesus’ disciples are the audience of this second scene. It’s not just the 12 disciples closest to Jesus, but probably a much larger crowd around him.

The Characters

The Parents and the “Clever” Disciples”

This crowd breaks down into two groups. Some are bringing their small children to Jesus that He might bless them and pray for them. Others are trying to screen Jesus’ calls, and stop group 1 from “bothering” Jesus.

Jesus

Then there’s Jesus, who rebukes this second group of disciples and encourages the first. Jesus is neither too busy nor too important for the children or for their anxious parents.

The Children

And that brings us to the children themselves. They aren’t portrayed here as taking much initiative; rather, they’re kind of dragged along by their parents to see Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t say that the Kingdom of God belongs to the parents of little children who bring their kids to receive a blessing. He says that the only way to enter His Kingdom is to be like the children themselves.

The Scene

So, what does that mean? What’s really going on here?

First, we see a group of disciples – parents – coming to a local Rabbi in search of a blessing for their children. This was commonplace in Jesus’ day.

Second, we see a group of disciples who feel they are in a position to manage Jesus’ schedule and control who comes to Him. They see themselves as having the inside track compared to the others in the crowd, and on their own initiative, they just start turning people away. Jesus is too important. He’s too busy. He’s got time for me, but not for you. He’s let me into His circle, but now that I’m on the inside, the circle is full.

Now, it shouldn’t surprise us that they get themselves in trouble speaking for God here. And that’s exactly what happens. Jesus makes it clear that His time is for everyone. His Kingdom doesn’t have self-appointed insiders or membership qualifications that exclude certain groups of people. And the result is that the kids and their parents are blessed, and the other disciples learn a valuable lesson.

The Lesson

But here again, and I love this about Jesus, the lesson they learn isn’t what you might expect it to be. Jesus doesn’t stop at rebuking the disciples or at making sure the kids feel welcome. Instead, as usual, He uses this opportunity to make a profound (and profoundly unexpected) statement about the nature of the Kingdom of God. Not just, “don’t turn the children away” or “don’t presume to speak for me,” but “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

Why not? What does this mean? I think this is an intentional contrast between the children and the disciples who were turning their parents away. These folks thought they were smart enough to manage the Kingdom and its purposes. But the children aren’t trying to be clever or manage anything. They’re simple. I can picture their eyes sparkling as they sit on Jesus’ lap and He engages them in conversation and laughs with them and makes funny faces and prays for them. They don’t know what it means that He’s a prophet. They’re not trying to control everything going on. They just love being with Jesus.

Little children just want to be with their fathers

Little children have a whole different way of looking at the world. They don’t try to figure out what mom and dad do at work all day or how they’re going to make mortgage payments. Little children just want to sit on your lap or listen to a story or snuggle in bed or play a game. Little children just want to be with their fathers.

And that’s God’s vision for us as well. God isn’t looking for quasi-equal partners or department managers or a competent ministerial staff. He wants to adopt rebellious street kids and make them children of the King. The problem is that we don’t see ourselves as simple and dependent children, but as mature adults who have moved out, are independent, and have everything under control in our own right.

Think about how close that comes to saying that we will ascend the mountain and make ourselves like the Most-High (Isaiah 14:13-14). Beware! God delights in using the simple things in this world to confound the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). God might very well pour out all our self-inflated “knowledge,” so that He can teach us who He really is on His terms. And if we’re too sure of our maturity, we might even find that we have no share in the Kingdom we think we know so much about.

Instead, let’s learn from these children, and simply come to Jesus. Because if our joy comes from just being with Jesus rather than trying to figure everything out all the time… If we make a point of letting Him figure out the hard stuff and simply trust Him to get it right… Then, Jesus says, the Kingdom of Heaven is for us.

Working hard to be wise isn’t our goal.
The Christian life is about Jesus’ wisdom, not mine.

Scene 3: Only the Poor will be Made Rich

Parable: The Rich Young Ruler walks away from Jesus

The Rich Young Ruler walks away from Jesus – You can’t make yourself rich

Moving on to the last story in our passage. Look at vv18-25…

A ruler asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery. Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And [the ruler] said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when [the other man] heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:18-25 ESV)

The Audience

Again, the audience here is Jesus’ disciples. There are probably also at least some “disciples” gathered around the ruler as well, waiting to see what answer Jesus gives to his questions.

The Characters

The Ruler

So, who is the “ruler” Luke mentions? First, he seems to respect Jesus and be His follower at some level. I don’t get the impression that he’s been sent by the Jewish Elders to trap Jesus with trick questions. In fact, in Mark’s version of this story (c.f. Mark 10:17-30), the man “ran up and knelt before Jesus” to ask this question. So I think his question is genuine; he’s one disciple among many. But he’s no commoner. He’s a “ruler” of some kind, a secular leader, and the text clearly says that he is “extremely rich” (v23). Matthew (c.f. 19:16-29) adds that he is also young. So, he’s rich, young and enjoys significant earthly authority.

Jesus

The other person in the scene is Jesus Himself, who, from an earthly perspective, has very little of the wealth and power the other man enjoys. Of course, we know that Jesus enjoys supreme authority, and the “rich, young ruler” must have at least some inkling of that authority, because he has come to get an answer from Jesus to a burning question.

The Setup

I suspect this young man, whom the world would say has it all, has come to Jesus to ask this question because he is haunted by the fear that “having it all” isn’t enough. It’s conjecture, but I think in his mind, he sees Jesus as the one holding the keys to unlock his next conquest. I can imagine his listening to Jesus teach, thinking, “Surely as gifted as I am, Jesus can teach me how to get in on this Kingdom of God thing.” I think the man fundamentally believes that his earthly wealth (and prestige and power) are the tools he will use to amass for himself heavenly wealth (and prestige and power), and wants Jesus to tell him how to do that.

But it doesn’t work that way.

The Scene

As He so often does, Jesus cuts straight through the man’s faulty reasoning, and gets directly to the heart of the matter. When Jesus explains that only God is good and references the ten commandments, what I hear Him saying is that a) the Kingdom of God requires perfection, b) perfection requires obedience to the Law, and c) obedience to the Law is unattainable by human effort. In other words, the man asks Jesus how to secure eternal life, and Jesus is telling him, “Nobody can secure for themselves eternal life. You can only receive it if God gives it to you.”

But the guy doesn’t get it. He hears Jesus listing the ten commandments, and I imagine he’s thinking to himself, “Check. Check. Me. That’s me. Oh, I’m really close on this one. Etc.” He’s perfectly happy with his own achievements in all these areas, and he assumes God is too. I’m sure for a brief moment he’s thinking, “Maybe attaining this eternal life thing won’t be that hard. Sounds like I’ve already got a big piece of this sown up (having never murdered anyone, etc.)!”

The Lesson

But then Jesus drops the bomb. And whatever elation this man is feeling evaporates instantly. Rather than showing him how to take his success to the next level, Jesus explains that the secret to going forward in the Kingdom of Heaven is going backwards on earth. The man thinks that his current wealth and power are the platform on which he will build a tower to heaven. (That sounds familiar; see Genesis 11:1-9). But Jesus tells him that no tower he could build on earth can reach heaven or will remain in eternity. Instead, what would really benefit him is to dismantle what he’s already built, give it all away, and then follow Jesus. THEN, God will make eternal life accessible to the man completely and totally out of Jesus’ resources, not his.

So, as He watches the other man walk away dejected, Jesus clearly spells out what we should be taking away from this exchange. He says, “how difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

The difficult truth is that earthly wealth is not helpful in attaining heavenly wealth; in fact, it’s likely to be a hindrance. In this world, it’s easy to fill ourselves with earthly riches that cannot last because we don’t understand what true wealth really is. Jesus corrects our thinking. He explains that to take care of the poor and follow Jesus … that is the real treasure. But the rich, young ruler can’t accept that. He’s too enamored with what he already holds in his hands, so when Jesus offers to hand him something of far greater value … eternal value, he is unable to receive it. His assumption is that he can have it all, but he’s wrong. And our culture says the same thing; it’s wrong too. We assume that we can add eternal life onto the pile of all the material possessions and experiences that we “have to have” in this life.

But the truth is that you can’t have it all. Jesus would encourage us to reconsider what we “have to have.”

Now, I’ve heard it said that “it’s not a problem to own things; rather, it’s a problem when your things own you.” This sounds good, and I would say it’s probably true. But the problem with this line of thinking is the deceptiveness of the human heart (c.f. Jeremiah 17:9-10). We fail to appreciate just how weak and sinful we really are. The reality is that it’s much easier for your things to own you than you think it is.

Put another way, it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for you to accumulate earthly treasure and escape its owning you and interfering with your accumulation of heavenly treasure.

Working hard to be rich isn’t our goal.
The Christian life is about Jesus’ riches, not mine.

Conclusion

I’d like to take the remaining time we have together this morning to consider three questions which I hope will help us apply all this to our lives.

1.   Does this square with the broader teaching of Scripture?

First, I consider this to be a challenging passage. I find it convicting, and spent a lot of time wrestling with it as I prepared this message. Particularly in circumstances like that, when the message is hard and it’s tempting to want to get out from under the glare of the light Scripture shines on our hearts, this is an important question to ask. How should I understand this passage in context of the broader teaching of Scripture? Does it square?

Obviously, I think it does, or I wouldn’t be up here talking about it. In fact, this “humble yourself so that God can exalt you” concept pervades Jesus’ teaching in the gospels, and shows up throughout the rest of Scripture as well. Obviously, we don’t have time to track down and study each of these threads, but I encourage you to do so. Especially if you’re skeptical. I know what we’ve talked about today is downright offensive to our American cultural sensibilities, so it wouldn’t surprise me if some of you weren’t feeling a little uncertain or uncomfortable. That’s great! I hope it leads you to dig into God’s word and study these things for yourself. I would encourage you always to test what you hear me or anyone else by the Word of God, the People of God and the Spirit of God, in that order. To that end, you have in your bulletin a starting point for a study in the Gospel of Matthew to get the ball rolling.*

2.   Where am I in these stories?

Secondly, a vital step in applying these concepts is to see ourselves in these stories.

Especially if you’ve been a Christian for a long time, I think it’s easy to assume this message is for someone else. I think it’s also possible to be so deeply ensconced in a particular worldview or to be confident that you’ve got your life under control. Maybe we’re tempted to read these stories as moral lessons or metaphors, not as something demanding our immediate attention and sober response. In other words, it’s possible to brush a message like this aside as not applicable, not practical, or not realistic.

But here’s the rub…

This mindset is exactly the danger Jesus is warning us against in these parables.

The bad news is that we’re all in these stories. These three stories show us the everyday challenge of every person’s life. And if you reject that statement… If you can’t see yourself in these scenes, then that’s really bad news. Because it’s the person who doesn’t think this message applies to him is the person who most urgently needs to hear it.

But the good news is that God’s divine power has granted to us everything we need pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). We are radically dependent on God for everything that matters. And God will come through for us, if we cast our cares on Him. So, once you do see yourself in these scenes, and you come to Jesus, you’ll find that He’s enough for you.

3.   What do I do now?

That leads us to my final question. A former pastor of mine used to ask the question, “What will now be the manner of your life with regard to these things?” I love that question, and it too is essential for application.

To answer it, let’s look at the last few verses of today’s passage, starting in v26…

Those who heard [all this] said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” Then Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” And Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come … eternal life.”
(Luke 18:26-30 ESV)

The disciples are asking Jesus the same question we’re asking, “What do we do now?” They have just heard the same message we have … and they’re concerned. But Jesus sums up this entire message with a single statement. He declares, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

This may sound like a non-answer, but I think it’s an amazing answer. Think about all the religious activities Jesus could have prescribed. But what task could he have given Peter in response to that question that Peter would have been able to achieve? None! This is exactly what we’ve been talking about all morning. Peter’s righteousness, his wisdom, and his wealth … they won’t help Peter check any box you could name to be saved. Peter’s salvation … eternal life … all the things that really matter … they don’t depend on Peter and his ability to execute some instruction Jesus might have given him. They depend on Jesus. He’s saying, “What is impossible with you, Peter, is possible with me.”

And so is it with us.

Give up trying to be enough

Jesus is inviting us here to fundamentally reevaluate what truly matters in life. If you’re working hard at some imagined answer to Peter’s question… If you’re pouring yourself into being good enough or smart enough or rich enough for God (or anything or anyone else), it’s time to let that go. It’s so easy to make our lives all about what we can build. But Jesus is exactly saying that this approach won’t work. Life isn’t about being strong and in control.

The Christian life isn’t about building our lives, it’s about submitting to God, so that He can build His life in us. It’s about being with God – walking with Him in the garden in the cool of the day. Therefore, Jesus invites us to set down all the things we have in your hands, and just run to Him. We will stand amazed at what He builds in and through us.

Choose to trust God

But, notice that Peter isn’t really satisfied with Jesus’ answer. He just can’t help himself; he has to remind Jesus that he has worked hard and given up a lot to follow Him. And so he blurts out (I love Peter!),

See, we have left our homes and followed you.

I think he’s thinking, “What if I surrender all these things and find out that somehow it wasn’t worth it or it wasn’t good enough?” You may be thinking the same thing. That’s a very human thought. But again, a fixation on being enough is exactly the wrong approach. Jesus is enough so that we don’t have to be. The question is whether or not we will choose to trust God. Because Jesus would say the same thing to us that He said to Peter,

Truly, I say to you, there is not one person in this room who will leave anything behind, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in return, in this age, and in the age to come … eternal life. (Luke 18:29-30, paraphrased)

Closing Prayer

Let’s pray.

Father, there’s something in us that desperately wants control. We want to build our own lives, and realize our own dreams, and figure out the world on our own terms, and be sufficient out of our own resources. We want to see ourselves as strong, when we’re weak. And we confess that we too often fail to submit our lives to you and simply trust that you are in control of every facet of our lives and our world.

Instead of achievement, Lord, you have given us the task of relationship … to worship you and walk with you and listen to your voice and follow where you lead us. Everything else will flow out of that. As we go forth today, help us to remember that. Do in us what only you can do, Lord. And we’ll trust you to do it, in Jesus’ name.

And all God’s people said, “Amen.”


* — Study resources (just a starting point):

Some passages in Matthew’s gospel to consider: Matt 5:1-11, 43-48; 6:1-4, 16-34; 7:15-23; 10:1-33; 13:44-46; 16:21ff; 18:1-6, 21-35; 19:13ff; 20:20-28; 23:1-36; 25:14-30

Other passages to consider as well (just to list a few): Ps 37:16-17; Prov 25:6-7, 27, 27:2; Joh 5:44; Eccl 5:10; Acts 4:12, 8:1-40; Rom 3:1-31, 12:9ff; Eph 2:1-10; Phil 2:1-13; 1 Tim 1:15-16, 6:10-19; Titus 3:4-7; Heb 13:5; 1 Pet 5:6-11


Image credit:
1) Only the empty will be full – Dan Pongetti
2) Strawberry Cheesecake – WeHeartIt.com – Posted by @CandyBead
3) Tiramisu – RecipeTinEats.com
4) Sad Panda – KnowYourMeems.com
5) The Pharisee and the Tax Collector – Watch Tower Online Library
6) Jesus and the Children – YouTube
7) The Rich, Young Ruler walks away – Yeshua His Name blog
Posted in Bible Stories, Sermon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ugandan Shillings For Sale

Currency Exchange

Just when you thought you’d read the last update about Uganda… But this has become such a comedy of errors that I couldn’t resist sharing.

Uganda’s currency is the Ugandan Shilling (UGX). When I visited, the conversion rate was approximately 3,500 UGX to 1 USD. I traded in a couple hundred bucks to have plenty of spending and giving money, and returned home with 232,000 UGX (approximately $65). I assumed that would be easy to exchange back into dollars, but…

The first full day we were in the country, we stopped at a local hotel in Kampala and exchanged our money there. I think our team leader had a relationship with the people who owned that particular currency exchange. She is originally from Uganda and has brought teams over several times. In any event, I had no trouble exchanging cash into shillings, and I even got a pretty reasonable rate.

We then traveled all over and were in country for 15 days (read more), but at no point was there an opportunity to convert this money back into dollars. For the duration of the trip, I had assumed that we would go back to the currency exchange before leaving and buy back dollars on our way back to the States. That, or we’d exchange at O’Hare when we arrived. But we did neither. There was no time scheduled into the trip for either activity. But as I sat on the shuttle back to TIU from O’Hare (after returning home), No big deal, though. After all, O’Hare will charge you the highest possible fees on what is likely an already-bad exchange rate, so I figured I’d find a bank (mine or otherwise), and get’er’done. In any event, I wasn’t worried.

Ugandan Shillings

A month or so after getting back, I set aside an hour to visit a local Chase bank (my bank, but a different branch; I was running errands in another suburb). I figured I’d get this simple task knocked off my todo list. I walked in, asked to exchange money, and was asked to wait for a personal banker. So far, so good.

Restricted currency?

Chase BankWhile still in line, the “concierge” — what else do you call the guy standing around in the lobby asking you how you are and directing you to the right place to do whatever it is you came to do? — struck up what I’m sure he thought would be small talk.

Well-educated, professional banker guy: What currency do you want to purchase? (I guess he assumed I was going to somewhere, not returning from somewhere.)

Jeff: I’m recently returned from Uganda, so I need to exchange Ugandan Shillings for dollars.

IMF LogoBanker guy: Ug-a-where’s-that?

Jeff: Uganda. In E. Africa.

Banker guy: Oh yeah! What’s their currency?

Jeff: Ugandan Shillings.

Banker guy: I’ll check to see if we exchange that.

Jeff (getting nervous): Okaaaaay.

Banker guy (returning a few minutes later after conferring with the powers that be): I’m sorry, we don’t exchange that currency. Uganda is on some crazy list of countries which aren’t economically stable enough for any bank in the US to trade their currency.

Sadly, I can’t remember the name of the list. Some acronym. Not IMF Article 14 countries, but sounded like something similar. At any rate, he insisted that Uganda’s currency was restricted, which sounded funny to me, because UGX is probably one of the most stable currencies in the whole of Africa. So if they are restricted, everyone in that whole region would be restricted. And I bought them, so why can’t I sell them?

At any rate, Chase was a bust.

Not on the Bank of America list, anyway

I jumped back in the car, and proceeded with more errands. But the longer I thought about it, the more I thought that was ridiculous. So, the next Chase Bank I saw (still not the one by my house, but…), I pulled in there too. This person at least knew that the problem wasn’t some restrictions list. Rather, he said, Chase uses Bank of America’s service, and BoA does not trade UGX.

Jeff: Why not?

Second Chase banker guy: That’s a great question, but I have no idea. In fact, we even looked up the Bank of America Foreign Currency FAQ, but that was of no help. Amazingly, BoA evidently supports 138 currencies (there are a total of 180 world currencies), but not Ugandan shillings.

Jeff: Any suggestions?

Banker guy: Try 5/3 Bank. They do weird things.

Jeff: Okaaaaaaay.

I know! A competing bank!

Google maps got me to 53 in the next town over. I went in there, and the personal banker I talked to was more like the first Chase guy.

Third banker guy: We don’t do it, and I have no idea why.

Jeff: What service do you use? BoA’s?

Banker guy: Remind me what a bank is again.

Jeff: Sighs explosively on his way out the door

Maybe a Currency Exchange?

Now I’m sitting in my car thinking, “It’s probably not worth it, and I’ve already spent too much time on this. But I can’t give up now!”

So, I start searching the web. First really obvious search: exchange uganda shillings for dollars. I’m brilliant, right? Here are the results:

UGX Search

These look good at first glance, but if you dig in, what you’ll find is that every site listed tells you what the exchange rate would be, but no site listed will actually do the exchange. I guess, in the eyes of the Western world, converting UGX to USD is a purely theoretical exercise. Well, I’m sure if Warren Buffet wanted to, he’d be good. But not me.

Finally, I looked up the nearest Currency Exchange. I had resisted doing so until this point, because I figured these would have the worst possible exchange rate. But if nobody else will even do it…

Jeff: Works through the phone tree at site #1

Grumpy currency exchange lady: What do you want?!

Jeff: Do you exchange Ugandan shillings for dollars?

Grumpy currency exchange lady: We don’t. Call our headquarters branch downtown. They’re the only ones that even remotely might be able to help you.

Jeff: Okaaaaaaay.

No problem. I called the mother ship in Chicago, and worked through an even bigger phone tree…

Jeff: Finally, a human being.

Expertly-grumpy currency exchange lady: What do you want?!

Jeff: Please tell me you exchange Ugandan shillings!

Currency exchange lady: Get out a here, kid. You’ve got no future!

Jeff (sobbing): You don’t have to be so grumpy about it.

Currency exchange lady: You want friendly, talk to my cousin at the DMV.

*click*

Net-net… No luck at the currency exchange.

Help me O’Hare Int’l Airport, you’re my only hope

Okay, what I should have done in the first place… Knock it out at O’Hare and take the hit on the exchange rate.

As it turns out, I had to pick up my wife at the airport as she returned home from an international trip a couple weeks later. Surely, this will get the job done, even if it’s at a terrible exchange rate. So, the day finally came… I’m on my way to pick her up at the international terminal, and she called saying she’s ready to go.

Jeff: Can you walk over to the currency exchange and ask if they exchange shillings? I’ve got them right here, and I’ll run in to exchange them when I pick you up.

My amazing wife: Of course, my dear! (walking over to the nearest currency exchange lady) Do you exchange Ugandan shillings? It would make my husband SO happy if you do.

Grumpy airport currency exchange lady: Ug-a-what’s-that?

Jeff (listening over the phone while driving): double face palm

Guy next to me in traffic: honks angrily

My amazing wife (to me): Let’s never speak of Ugandan shillings again.

Yeah. Totally on board with that.

The moral of the story

Moral? There ain’t no… Wait. I guess there is a moral… DO NOT leave a third world country with their currency still in your pocket. Convert it back there or give it away. But don’t come home with it.

There is, in fact, a happy ending to this story. I thought I was just going to have to eat the $65. But as it turns out, our team lead from my trip to Uganda — who is a native Ugandan and returns home at least once a year — was willing to buy back my shillings. So, the plan is to make the exchange when I get back to school in a few weeks. Woohoo! God bless you, Amanda!

That was easy.


Image credit:
1) Main image ???
2) Ugandan shillings — Buzz Kenya
3) IMF logo — IMF site
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Lord, it belongs not to my care

Walking with Jesus

Lord, it belongs not to my care
Whether I die or live;
To love and serve Thee is my share,
And this Thy grace must give.

If life be long, I will be glad,
That I may long obey;
If short, yet why should I be sad
To welcome endless day?

Christ leads me through no darker rooms
Than He went through before;
He that unto God’s kingdom comes
Must enter by this door.

Come, Lord, when grace hath made me meet
Thy blessed face to see;
For if Thy work on earth be sweet
What will Thy glory be!

Then I shall end my sad complaints
And weary sinful days,
And join with the triumphant saints
That sing my Savior’s praise.

My knowledge of that life is small,
The eye of faith is dim;
But ’tis enough that Christ knows all,
And I shall be with Him.

— Richard Baxter (1615-1691)

I had never heard this hymn before, but I encountered it recently in J. I. Packer‘s amazing book Knowing God, where he quotes the first two stanzas. I was curious, so I hunted down the full lyrics. This hymn is so powerful, and absolutely packed with rock-solid theology. I’m in love!

Think about some of what Baxter is saying here, which (by the way) he dedicated to his wife who had demonstrated godly perseverance through what was reported to be a brutally difficult illness…

His purpose for me

If life be long, I will be glad that I may long obey…

It is my place in this world to know God, to glorify God, to delight in God, and to obey God. If I live a long life on earth, it is not for my benefit, but rather so that I might serve God longer, better, more fully. Life isn’t about me. It’s certainly not about my happiness or my fulfillment or my consumption of the things that I desire. It is about steadfastness in my obedience to God (that is to say, my love for God) over a lifetime.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)

His destiny for me

If short, yet why should I be sad to welcome endless day?

We tend to think of this life as an exercise in “grab all you can while you have the chance.” But in reality, this life is nothing compared to what God has planned for His kids. Moments after we die, we will struggle even to remember what the fuss was all about in this life — promotions, possessions, problems, posturing, and the like. And for the Christ-follower, we shouldn’t have to wait for the next life for the things of earth to grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things… (Philippians 3:8)

His way made for me

We enter the Kingdom of God through Jesus, the only door (John 10:7-11). And on the way, He asks far less of me than He Himself gave for me. But that doesn’t mean that He demand everything. He bids me to come and die — to trade all this world has to offer (not much, really, by comparison) for citizenship in His Kingdom and fellowship in His family (Matthew 16:24-26).

this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

His sufficiency for me

My knowledge of that life is small, the eye of faith is dim;
But ’tis enough that Christ knows all, and I shall be with Him.

We really can’t imagine heaven (1 Corinthians 2:9). We don’t really know what we will someday be, but — spoiler alert! — we know that we will be like Jesus (1 John 3:1-2). And we know the way to that new life only to the extent that we know the One who leads us to it (John 14:4-7). And for those you know and trust Him, who have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, that’s enough.

Posted in Psalms, Music and Worship | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Sum of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Catechism

jesus-teaching

I wrote this last fall and had originally intended to publish it then. Better late than never, I guess. It is the result of significant reading and study for one of the core systematic theology classes in the M.Div curriculum at TEDS, specifically focused on anthropology (the study of human being), christology (the study of Christ), and soteriology (the study of salvation). This “paper” is formatted as a “catechism,” which is a book of instruction in the Christian typically organized in question-answer format. We were given the questions, and expected to write succinct answers that would be of use in training Christians in some key aspects of the faith. I had to be succinct (there are always word count limits on these things), so some of the answers are a little more terse than I would like. But the fact is that many books have been written on each question. Either way, I’m not going to rewrite it; rather, I’m publishing it pretty much as I turned it in.

Hope you find it interesting and useful. I’d love questions / discussion!


1. What is the Gospel?

The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 6:23b)
See also: Mark 1:15; John 10:10; Col 1:12-14

The Gospel is the unparalleled good news about what God is doing for us in Christ, specifically that His incarnate life, death and resurrection make it possible for fallen, sinful people to be reconciled to Him in true, abundant and eternal life. The Messiah, Jesus, has established a new Kingdom in which He reigns over a new regenerate and perfected humanity. He invites all people in all places throughout all of history to become citizens of His kingdom by turning from their sin, believing on Christ, being declared righteous before God, being joined to Him in intimate and eternal fellowship, and being renewed in His image.

2. What is the nature of sin?

Sin is lawlessness. (1 John 3:4b)
See also: Rom 1:20-25; Ex 20:1-20; 1 John 1:8

Both in the act of creation and in His spoken commands, God reveals His character (nature) and expectations (law). Human beings are uniquely empowered to choose to act in harmony or discord with God’s nature and to obey or disobey God’s law. Sin is the conscious choice to live in discord and disobedience. It is rebellion and lawlessness, betrayal of God, and an implicit rejection of the true, abundant and eternal life for which human beings were designed by their Creator; the fundamental denial of reality.

3. What are the consequences of sin?

The wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23a)
See also: Isa 53:6a; Eph 2:1-3; Rom 7:14ff

The consequences of sin are manifested broadly in creation and particularly in human beings. Beginning with Adam and Eve and proceeding through every generation, the rebellion and lawlessness of humankind has established our guilt before God (status), corrupted our nature so as to incline our hearts toward evil (habitus), and manifested itself in continuous sinful choices (actus). In each, we live in discord with God’s nature and in disobedience of God’s law, and if left unhealed, our sin separates us from God and poisons the created realm. Therefore, decay and death reign in this world, such that the natural result of unregenerate life is death and eternal separation from God.

4. Why am I implicated in Adam’s sin?

Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. (Romans 5:12)
See also: Eccl 7:20; 1 John 1:7; Eph 2:1-3; Jer 17:9

As representative and biological head of humankind, Adam represented all of humanity in his sin. Moreover, because human beings are individual persons who share a single human nature – a dim reflection of the Triune God, who is a complex unity of three individual Persons who share a single divine nature – Adam’s fall brought condemnation (status) and corruption (habitus) not only upon his own individual person but upon the whole of human nature, which he shares with all people in all places throughout all of history. Thus, in a real sense, all of humanity was present in Adam’s sin by virtue of our shared nature.

5. What did Jesus’ death accomplish?

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Cor 5:17)
See also: Eph 2:19-20; Isa 53:4-6; Rom 6:1-10; 1 Cor 15:20-28

In His incarnation, the Son fully assumes our human nature, but remains – by His divine, perfect righteousness – uncorrupted by it. Then, having lived in perfect harmony with God’s nature and in perfect obedience to God’s law, Jesus freely became the atoning sacrifice for all humanity, paying an infinite price for humanity’s transgression against God’s infinite righteousness. Because all who have been elected by God and responded in saving faith are joined to Christ, we are transported with Him through death (out of imperishable humanity and the clutches of sin) into new imperishable life. This results in:

  • Redemption – Christ pays the ransom required to liberate us from bondage,
  • Propitiation – God’s just wrath is turned away,
  • Expiation – we are cleansed from sin,
  • Justification – we are declared righteous,
  • Reconciliation – hostility between God and man is abolished,
  • Adoption – we are legally transferred from Adam’s old family to God’s new one,
  • Sending the Spirit,
  • Sanctification – indwelling, transformational work of the Spirit,
  • Establishment the Church,
  • Cosmic victory; Christ defeats death and evil spiritual powers in all creation.

6. For whom did Christ suffer and die?

Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear … to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Heb 9:28)
See also: Rom 9:6-29; 2 Tim 2:10; Rev 17:14

In one sense, Christ’s death makes provision (the possibility of salvation) for all of humanity; however, in another sense Christ’s death makes application (the actuality of salvation) only for the elect. Whereas God’s desire is that all people would be saved, it is fundamentally impossible simultaneously to save all human beings while ensuring the sovereignty of human choice. Therefore, only the elect can be saved, so Christ’s death is ultimately only for the elect.

7. Who are the elect?

[God] chose us in Him before the foundation of the world … predestined us for adoption to Himself as [children] through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will
(Eph 1:4-5)

See also: Eph 1:4-5; Rom 8:29-30; 2 Thes 2:13

“The elect” are a specific group of human beings who have been sovereignly and secretly chosen by God before the creation of the world to be saved – united with God, adopted into His family, and made citizens in His kingdom.

We affirm that, because God always and only acts in complete harmony with His perfect love, goodness, justice and power, His approach to human history constitutes a redemptive system than which none more effective or efficient can be conceived. We also affirm the mysterious compatibility of God’s sovereign election unto salvation with man’s responsibility to meaningfully choose Him — to personally appropriate God’s grace through saving faith.

We deny that God arbitrarily or capriciously chooses people to be saved while others are callously left to perish. We affirm instead that God chooses individuals to be saved in order to maximize His glory, maximally communicate His goodness, and the redemptive reach of His Kingdom, so that God is proven perfectly just in His choice.

8. What is grace?

It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. (Eph 2:8)
See also: Eph 1:7-14; Titus 2:11-14

Grace is the unmerited favor of God – to receive from God what we do not deserve and could not earn. First, to all humankind, God extends common grace, by creating and sustaining the life of sinful beings in a beautiful world in which God dramatically restrains the effect of sin. However, to the elect alone, God also extends saving grace, which rescues them from death unto new life in Christ. We affirm that human beings cannot earn or merit the favor of God manifested in these graces, both of which are the outpouring of God’s undeserved love. We also affirm the irresistibility of God’s grace, acknowledging that human beings can no more refuse God’s grace than they can earn its benefits.

9. What is saving faith?

“The time has come,” Jesus said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)
See also: Rom 4:13ff; 1 John 1:9; Jas 2:14ff

Saving faith is the human response to God’s irresistible grace. It is the inevitable outworking of God’s election and necessary for salvation. Saving faith consists in the human choice, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to repent and believe the gospel. To repent is to reject and turn from sin in order to live in harmony with God’s nature and obedience to God’s law. By this, believers submit to God’s work in uniting us with Christ. To believe is to know God, to cultivate a personal trust in Him, and to put one’s weight down on His promises. By this, believers purposefully abide in a life-giving union with Christ. We affirm the active, ongoing nature of these choices – not single moments of decision or evidenced in words, but demonstrated in a lifetime of active decision.

We affirm that God’s saving grace is a precondition for man’s saving faith and that man’s saving faith is in response to God’s electing grace. We therefore affirm that God elects individuals to be saved in such a way that the same individuals freely choose Christ, as a consequence of God’s election. We deny that God’s election is an imposition of His will upon the elect, that election is a result of God’s foreknowledge of human choice, or that human choice is in any sense a prerequisite for God’s election.

10. What is union with Christ?

Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable… For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. (1 Cor 15:50, 53)
See also: Eph 2:4-7; John 15:4-7; 1 John 4:13

Adam is the original head of humanity. His rebellion against God corrupted human nature and made death inevitable for all people, apart from God’s grace. Jesus Christ became man and defeated death in order to inaugurate a new humanity, whose nature is unstained by Adam’s sin. Christ’s atoning sacrifice makes it possible for all those who have been elected by God and responded in saving faith to be rescued from our union with Adam in his perishing nature, and united with Christ in his imperishable nature. By this union we receive the most significant benefit of salvation, which is Christ Himself. Because we share Christ’s new nature, it can well be said that we live in Christ, and because we are indwelled by God’s Spirit, Christ lives in us. Likely, the closest human metaphor is marriage, in which a man and a woman become “one flesh” in intimate communion with one another.
We deny, however, any comingling or ontological confusion of the Person of Christ and the individual believer. We also deny that this union in any sense results in the believer’s absorption into God, the diminishing of human being, or equality with God.

11. How, through justification, can sinners be deemed righteous?

Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them. (Rom 4:7-8; c.f. Ps 32:1-2)
See also: Rom 1:16-17, 3:20-30, 8:1-4; Phil 3:9

Jesus Christ led a life of perfect harmony with God’s nature and perfect obedience to God’s law. Although He alone in history deserves thus to be declared righteous before God, He instead took upon Himself the death and separation from God which are the penalties God justly requires for our sin. Because of His sinless life and infinite righteousness, Christ’s undeserved death can be accounted the atoning sacrifice and full payment for the sins of all people in all places throughout all of history. Therefore, all those who have been elected by God and responded in saving faith are declared blameless by God (status), receiving the righteousness of Christ. As a result, we have been united with Christ, and enjoy a new nature (habitus) which is free from bondage to sin and threat of death.

12. What is sanctification and what does it have to do with the Holy Spirit?

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. (2 Cor 3:18a)
See also: Rom 6:15-22; 2 Pet 1:3-11

All who have been elected by God and responded in saving faith undergo daily surgery at the hands of the Holy Spirit, as He works in our hearts and lives to increasingly realize our identity in Christ. To that end, the Spirit matures our love for God, grows our capacity to live in harmony with our new nature, and increases our obedience to God’s law. Although perfect conformation into the image of Christ is the ideal, the Spirit’s refining work is fully realized only upon our final resurrection and glorification in the Kingdom of God. In the meantime, the Spirit changes us to increasingly realize our new natures (habitus) and to love and serve God in growing Christlikeness (actus).


Image credit:
1) Jesus teaching – TalkOfJesus.com
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Three Theological Reflections After Uganda

Kingdom Reflections

I went to Uganda with two objectives. First, to engage and learn from the people there. I wanted to meet them, be exposed to their culture, and generally expand my knowledge of people who are far away and very different from me. Additionally, if God were to call my family to teach or pastor in the majority world, we are committed to saying “yes.” But we – especially I; my wife spent a summer in Guatemala in her 20’s – really have very limited knowledge or experience with which to know what we’d be saying “yes” to. So, my second objective was to increase that knowledge and experience. What would it be like to be a pastor or seminary professor in Uganda or a place like it?

I feel these goals were met, at least on a limited basis. I did meet lots of wonderful people, learn about the place, and experience the culture. And I definitely have a much better sense of what we’d be getting ourselves into if God were to send us there when I graduate from seminary. As an important aside, I don’t feel called in that direction at all. If anything, my time in Uganda pushed me closer to accepting the idea that God might be calling us to pastoral ministry here in the States. I think my role could be to help people in this culture to question their assumptions about who God is, who they are, and about the Kingdom of God.

Einstein QuestionsWhat I didn’t really count on when I left for Uganda was that I would come home with some deeply-probing new questions. Of course, I looked for the theological implications attached to and underpinning my experiences while preparing and while I was in-country, but I wasn’t really expecting my theological reflections to fall into totally different categories than the questions that were pressing on me as I was preparing to go. I guess I should have expected that, but I didn’t. What can I say, I’m a bit slow.

Instead, when I got home, I found I was spending a lot of mental cycles on three specific questions. Having devoted a few weeks of thought and prayer to them, I’d like to share my current thoughts. They will no doubt continue to evolve, but here’s where God’s got my head and my heart at the moment…

1. What is success?

SuccessGod’s definition and the world’s definition of “success” don’t exactly align. Let’s talk about terms like success, development, and contentment. and how they really apply to our lives and to the experiences I had in Uganda. And let’s analyze some practical, real-world situations to test our theories.

Read more about success

2. How does Matthew 25:31ff relate to my trip to Uganda?

Sheep and GoatsJesus once told a story about two groups of people – those who go out of their way to care for others, and those who do not. He calls them “sheep and goats,” respectively, and is explicit about the Shepherd’s separating the two groups – one to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34), and the other to be sent away “cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v41). So, Jesus is deadly serious (as usual), and makes it clear that the stakes are high (as usual). And how, in this story, does the Good Shepherd distinguish between the sheep and the goats, between those who will inherit life and those who will be eternally punished? And how does this story relate to my trip to Uganda?

Read more about love, sheep and Uganda

3. What can the Western Church do for Ugandan?

New Map of the Christian WorldMany people think of Christianity as a European religion. But that’s simply not the case. Many people also think of countries like the USA as brimming with abundance, needing to give, give, give, and countries like Uganda as impoverished and sorely lacking. Consequently, many in the West (with stellar motives!) feel they need to rush to the aid of the rest of the world. But I’m not sure it’s really that simple. I think we might need a new map of the world.

Read more about new maps and global theology

Conclusion

If you actually followed each of these links, then we’ve covered a lot of ground. Thanks for sticking with me.

I sincerely hope you haven’t read all this thinking that I’m in any way anti-American or anti-Church or trying to be overly critical of the West. That’s not my goal; nor do I feel those kinds of things. But I do think that we need some perspective, and many of us (myself included) need to be jarred out of our tidy, snug comfort zones from time to time. It’s so easy, in all our luxury and peace and (false?) sense of security, to cruise through life on autopilot or to draw a sense of comfort or superiority from exactly the wrong things. But it isn’t our expressways or healthcare or paychecks or technology or creature comforts that make one successful or secure or that really means much of anything in the final analysis. Ultimately, it’s our obedience to God, and our worship of God, and our love for God and people that matters. It’s not what we possess, but Who possesses us. And we need to think through the implications of these truths, which is what I’ve tried to at least begin doing here.

God used my trip to Uganda to teach me about Himself and about others who are different from me, but I’m still learning. I have a long way to go. Thank you for sharing the journey with me. I can’t wait to see what new experiences and lessons await on the next leg of it.

In the meantime, may God bless us all as we travel.


Image credit:
1) Reflected castle – PACE reflections
2) Questions – Exam Professor
3) Success – The Odyssey Online
4) Sheep and goats – Adapting to Change and Growth
5) Christian world map – Maps on the Web
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Uganda Theological Reflection #3: A New Map of the World

New Map of the Christian World

After I returned home from my short-term missions trip to Uganda, an insightful member of my church asked me, “What can the American church do for the church in Uganda?” Great question! Having spent time reflecting since then, I thought I’d share a few comments here in response to his question.

Trade in realism

Big-fish-small-fishFirst, I’ve heard it said that the Church in the West suffers from a superiority complex while the Church in other parts of the world suffers from an inferiority complex. Many African Christians (and churches) fit this stereotype, and certainly many American Christians do too. So, I would say that the first thing the Church in the West can do for the Church in the majority world is to make room for them to draw up a seat at the table. And the best thing the Church in a place like Uganda can do is to expect that place to be there, grab a chair, pull it up to the table, and contribute.

Work together

I would encourage Ugandans to actively study and write theology, and I’d encourage Westerns to joyfully read it and give them feedback. And vice versa. Work on books together. Study and teach together in each other’s schools. Preach in each other’s churches. Get to know each other. Share your gifts. Think of yourselves as the single family  that you really are (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). The theological perspective of someone who grew up in Mbale is no more or less important than the theological perspective of someone who grew up in Chicago. There is only one God and one Spirit, who lives and reigns and indwells the lives of both of them (Ephesians 4:1-6), and who is far too big for any one cultural history to be an adequate lens through which to glimpse His glory.

Grow in humility

Even so, when I was in Uganda, the locals there were so eager for us to open the Scriptures to them. They were so humble, continually focused on how much they had to receive from us. Here in the States, I have so rarely witnessed that kind of eagerness to hear the word preached or that level of humility demonstrated in receiving it. If anything, what I most often experience is a sense of “yeah, I already know that” or “what’s your point?” or “let’s fight about something tertiary and trivial.” But in Uganda, it was an ongoing sense of, “I’m so glad you’re here to teach me” and “I can’t wait to learn from you.”

Sure, that plays to my ego, but I wonder if it’s a realistic appreciation of who knows what. I wonder if they might be overestimating me and underestimating themselves. Yes, I’m in seminary and studying under some of the finest theological minds in the whole world, but they’re the ones walking with God every day in dry and difficult places, pouring their hearts out in prayer, and learning to really depend on the Lord. My steadily-increasing knowledge can be so theoretical and esoteric at times. Theirs, most emphatically, is not.

And don’t forget that a) the only way for us to know anything about God is that He reveals it to us, and that b) God reveals Himself however and to whomever He wishes. Sure, He can and does use a ton of formal study for that purpose, but that’s not all He uses. How much diligent theological study preceded the burning bush in Moses’ life? Now, you tell me, where is one more likely to encounter a burning bush like that in this world — on Trinity’s campus or in the slums of Namatala?

Learn that we’re following God, not vice versa

footprints-following-dadWe in the West need to stop assuming that we know God better than anyone else in the world because we have more churches or more resources or a lingering sense of the rule of law (or whatever) than other nations. We need to stop acting like we somehow take God with us when we go somewhere. I suspect that many Christians in Uganda are closer to God than many who would claim the name of Christ here in the States may ever be. By and large, the Christians in Uganda have learned how to pray. They know what it means to be the Church. Many of them spend their days and nights crying out to God for daily bread or to heal a child, trusting God to provide what they cannot provide themselves. Broadly speaking, they are living in submission and dependence and, frankly, joy. Most of us in the West, on the other hand, have no idea what it means to pray for daily bread, because we have a week’s worth of bread in the cupboard and years’ worth in the bank. We fundamentally believe we can provide for ourselves and create our own individual utopias. And we work really hard every day to pull it off, completely ignoring (for the most part) God’s explicit warnings that life doesn’t work like that. Here in the West, there isn’t always that much difference between the way an atheist works and the way a Christian works, while in Uganda they’re so pumped about the gospel that they’re routinely giving their businesses names like “God is Awesome Boutique” and “Jesus Saves Bookstore.” And I submit that very few Christians in America have a mature, committed, biblical view of the Church.

Learn from them

In Uganda, they dance and shout and cry when they worship, while many of us stand still and sing in monotones. Personalities are diverse, but I can’t help but wonder if it has more to do with the fact that they actually know God, so their joy is much harder to suppress or contain.

We are too busy to care for the people around us or even share a meal together with someone from church outside our immediate group of friends or not on a designated small group night. Meanwhile, in Uganda, Christians depend on one another every day. The church where I preached in Namatala was conducting a weeklong fast that week, so they were going to be eating and praying together (after fasting all day) every single night that week … and that was after 5-6 hours together on Sunday. Try making that announcement at your next small group meeting! We are distracted by many things, but they spend a lot of time and energy on what truly matters.

And if you were to compare the % of annual salary American Christians give to their local church to the % given by Ugandans, how do you think that would turn out? I searched for comparative global statistics, but didn’t find them … just a bunch of articles about how giving in the US is meager and getting meager-er. Nonetheless, I think it’d be pretty safe to assume we Westerners aren’t leading the charge here.

Bottom line… maybe they should be sending missionaries over here.

Welcome them to the party

woman-welcoming-guestsI guess my point is that the American Church shouldn’t be thinking it terms of going overseas to rescue the poor people of Uganda. In many of the ways that really matter, they’re far richer than we are. And we don’t take Jesus to them. To be honest, I think they need to re-introduce Jesus to many of us.

If we’re going to engage them at all (and we should!), the Church in the West should welcome the growing branch of our family in the South and East into the global theological community with open arms. Provide moral support and encouragement. Pray for them. Spur them on to love and good works (and good theology)!

Be a faithful big brother

We’re like a big brother who has grown lethargic and cynical, a little lazy and kinda full of ourselves. First thing we need to do is stop feeling so superior. Even setting aside the fact that those who think they’re first are going to end up last in the Kingdom (Matthew 20:16), the truth is that in many ways they’re ahead of us. Let’s humble ourselves, and come to realize that our baby sister has grown up. She’s now a beautiful, smart, capable young woman, who needs our encouragement to come fully into her own, not our cynicism or arrogance or condescending supervision.

older-brotherYes, we still have much to teach, but we also have much to learn. Let’s tackle the boundless and glorious project of theology together. Let’s tell our sister every chance we get that she doesn’t have to be more like us to be beautiful. She’s already beautiful. She doesn’t have to do everything the way we do it to be successful. She’s already more successful than we are in some key areas (see my first theological reflection). And let’s exhibit half the eagerness (and the grace!) to learn from her that she consistently exhibits in her desire to learn from us. We’re older, but I’m not sure we’re wiser. And what sibling worth his salt thinks he’s “better” than his little sister?

The West has achieved much in the last handful of centuries. There are many ways in which we’ve honored God and served this world. But whatever we are and whatever we’ve achieved, we got that way by walking with God and by soaking in God’s grace, not because we’re “wiser” or “better” or have more stuff. And whatever our Father did for us, He’s doing for His other kids as well — wherever they’re from. It just might not look the same as it did for us. For anyone who has ever observed how different siblings can be, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.


Image credit:
1) Christian world map – Maps on the Web
2) Big Fish, Small Fish – What Michael Likes
3) Child following dad – Teacher For Jesus
4) Welcome! – Open Church
5) Siblings – Thought Catalog
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