Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dangerous Faith: Saying No to Jesus

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'" "Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy."

Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth…
Mark 10:17-22

Today we encounter the anti-example in our series “Dangerous Faith.” Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler is recorded in three of the four gospels and carries important implications for the modern church.

It should be noted that this young man comes to Jesus in all sincerity. In fact, he runs to Christ and kneels at His feet in earnestness to ask his question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He is desperate to find that which he lacks—certainty of his place in the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ response to his question is interesting and puzzling. He points the young ruler to the Mosaic Law, specifically to the last half of the Ten Commandments. Jesus seems to be telling this young ruler that he can inherit eternal life by keeping the law. Isn't this inconsistent with the rest of Christ’s teaching? Why didn’t Jesus tell him “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (John 3:36)?

Jesus sometimes said things that are hard to understand. When we encounter these hard sayings of our Lord, it is important that we stop and dig deeper to discover what he meant. Is Christ saying that all you need to do to receive eternal life is keep half of the Ten Commandments? I don’t think so, and I’ll explain why. Jesus’ response would have been fairly typical and expected in his day. I believe that Jesus knew His answer was not completely satisfactory, but He wanted to know if the young ruler knew that. Plus, this also served Jesus' purpose in helping the rich young ruler see where his true problem lay.

Jesus pointed the young man to the second half of the Ten Commandments which deals directly with how we interact with other people. The rich young ruler quickly brushes this aside saying that he has kept all of these commands from childhood and yet he knows that he still lacks something. This would ground his problem soundly in the area covered in the first half of the Commandments…his relationship with God.

It is only now that the young man can see where his problem lies that Christ offers a true solution to the problem and issues a call. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." Again, Christ’s response leaves the modern day Christian staggering. How are we to interpret this? Does this mean that in order to become a Christian you have to renounce all your earthly possessions?

Once again we must delve deeper if we are to understand Christ’s difficult saying. First, notice that Christ issues a call to discipleship to this young man. The passage of Scripture says that Jesus looked at him and loved him. Christ saw something special in this young man, so in the same way that He had called each of the twelve disciples to follow him, Christ looks at this young man and says, “Follow me.” The New Testament only records Christ saying this to two men outside of the original twelve, so this is very special indeed. The rich young ruler responds in sadness though. He thought selling all his possessions was too high a price to pay.

This brings us to the reason why Christ told the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions in the first place. The first of the Ten Commandments is “You shall have no other gods before me.” Christ looked into this young man’s heart and could see that his wealth was a hindrance to his relationship with God, so He asked him to set it aside. In pointing the rich man to his problem, Jesus is not giving a general teaching that all should be expected to follow, but rather is showing this one man what was impeding his relationship with the Lord: his wealth.

Although Christ’s message to the young man may not apply to us literally, its application most certainly extends to us figuratively. Christ is making a very clear statement that following Him as a disciple means laying everything at the foot of the cross. He asked the rich young ruler to give away his riches because they were preventing his spiritual growth, but He could just as easily ask any of us to do the same. Being a Christian is about declaring Christ as Lord of your life. Declaring Him Lord makes you His servant. All that you have, your very breath, belongs to Him and is at His disposal. Such is the relationship between God and His people. 

For those of us who have heard the Holy Spirit's call this is easy. We have seen the goodness of our God. He has proved His love for us in Christ's death. We trust Him with our lives more than we trust ourselves. Though we do not always understand His methods, we trust that He is in control. All things work together for our good and for His glory. Surrendering your whole life to a God like that isn't as hard as you might think. 

For further reading this week:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dangerous Faith: When God Makes You Look Bad*

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"—which means, "God with us."

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Matthew 1:18-25

We don’t know very much about the man who raised Jesus as his own son. Scripture tells us that Joseph was a carpenter and that he was engaged to a young woman when he found out that she was pregnant. By Jewish law, he should have divorced Mary publicly and had her stoned to death for adultery, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. Certainly, Mary must have told him of her visit from the angel Gabriel and that the child in her womb was put there by God. Joseph must have struggled to believe her. In the end, virgin birth was simply more than he could fathom. He decided to divorce Mary quietly to save her the embarrassment and probable stoning of a public divorce. It was then that God spoke into Joseph’s situation. The Lord sent an angel to him in a dream who confirmed Mary’s story and told him to take her as his wife. It is in Joseph’s response to this dream that his true character is revealed. “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him…”

What a verse! What dangerous faith!

Now, if you’re thinking that it doesn’t seem like much to you, there’s good reason for that. It’s easy to read over a passage of Scripture like this and remain unmoved. We are accustomed to movies, books, and plays that explain in great detail what each character is feeling so that we can understand the power the circumstances have on the character’s life. Oftentimes though, the Bible doesn’t do this. 

What we must remember is that the Bible is a compilation of texts - the most recent of which was  written almost two thousand years ago. The Bible was written to a different civilization with utterly different methods of story telling and that it has gone through a series of translations to reach us today. So, we must train ourselves to read between the lines. We must be careful not to add to or take away from God’s Holy Scripture, but we cannot understand these stories devoid of emotion. We have to breathe life into these stories to make them understandable. This requires a slow and purposeful reading of the text. It requires stopping to consider how each person must have felt and how we ourselves might feel in their situation.

Joseph must have known that no one would believe their story. He would either be regarded as a fool who had married a woman in spite of her unfaithfulness or as a sinner who had impregnated his wife prior to their marriage. But Scripture skips right over all of this without a word. It says simply that God spoke, and Joseph obeyed. I wish it was that simple in my own life! Too often I complicate my walk with the Lord by cluttering the situation with my feelings and thoughts and desires. In the end, it really is as simple as this passage makes it out to be. God speaks. We obey. This simple formula holds the secret to intimacy with God.

For Joseph, following this formula meant ruining his reputation. The Jews were looking for a Messiah that would overthrow the Roman government with military might and institute a golden era of prosperity in Israel’s history. None of the Jews were expecting a virgin birth, and they had very little reason to believe in such a wild notion. Certainly, it must have been popular opinion that either Mary had committed adultery or that Joseph and Mary had Jesus out of wedlock (and this was no light offense in those days). There would have been a significant stigma hovering over Mary and Joseph. This stigma may have even extended to Christ himself. Might Jesus have been called a bastard as a child? Might he have been called the son of a whore? We have no way of knowing, but it is certainly possible that Jesus knew first-hand what it means to suffer ridicule at the hands of mean-spirited children.

Thankfully, Joseph was willing to sacrifice his reputation for God’s purposes. As J.R. Briggs put it “[Joseph] knew he was participating in God’s bigger story and that the story was not about him and his life and his reputation.” Joseph succeeded where many others have failed. It’s easy to follow God when it makes us look good to do so; it’s hard when it makes us look like a fool. John 12:37 & 42-43 bears witness to this:
Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him… Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.
Too often, we are like these religious leaders. The weight of public opinion prevents us from doing God’s will. What a drastic miscalculation to value man’s opinion over God’s! Many of us would not have been willing to pay the price as readily as Joseph was. Even though none of us will find ourselves in exactly Joseph's situation, Scripture tells us that we will be asked to suffer for Christ. Philippians 1:29 says:
For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him…
There are several readily available examples of this in Scripture. Joseph isn’t the only one who lost his reputation in the service of the Lord. The prophet Jeremiah is commonly known as the weeping prophet. The Lord only gave him messages of impending judgment for the people of Israel his whole career. Jeremiah was extremely unpopular because of his message of gloom and doom. He lived to see this judgment and was carried away into captivity by Babylon along with all the Jews who had failed to heed his warnings. God told the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute to symbolize his relationship with idolatrous Israel. Noah was mocked for over a hundred years before the flood actually came and he was vindicated. So, don’t think that this won’t happen to you. God is working a great act of redemption in our world and “it has been granted to you…not only to believe [in Christ], but also to suffer for him.”

In your walk with the Lord, sooner or later, you will be asked  to do something that makes you unpopular, or makes you look foolish, or that makes you look downright stupid. Place this simple formula that Joseph followed in your heart. God speaks. We obey. This is the secret to intimacy with God. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15). So, the question is, what are you willing to suffer for the cause of Christ? Are you willing to be Christ’s fool…or will you settle for the world’s praise?

* (This part of our series is heavily influenced by a book entitled When God says Jump: Biblical Stories that Inspire You to Risk Big by J.R. Briggs.)

For further reading this week:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dangerous Faith: Speaking Up*

The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, "There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

"Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him."

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, "As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity."

Then Nathan said to David, "You are the man!”
2 Samuel 12:1-7

The above passage of scripture is God’s response to David’s affair with Bathsheba and eventual murder of her husband (to get the whole story read II Samuel 11-18). Most of you probably remember the story of David and Bathsheba; but since the mind tends to lose important details over time, allow me to refresh your memory.

King David was out for a walk on the palace roof one night when he happened to see an attractive woman bathing on a nearby rooftop. He discovered that the woman was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, a soldier in his army who was away at war. Even though David knew that she was married, he was stricken by her beauty. He sent for her to be brought to him, and he slept with her. Not long after, Bathsheba sent word to King David that she was pregnant. David wanted to cover up his sin, so he devised a plan to get Uriah to come home from the war on leave that way Uriah would sleep with his wife and the child would appear to be his. David sent for Uriah to be brought to him so that he could give the king a report on the progress of the war. After Uriah gave his report, David sent him home for the night thinking that he had solved his problem. But Uriah did not go home that night; he chose instead to sleep at the gate of the palace with the king’s servants. When David questioned Uriah about why he had refused to go home, Uriah replied that he did not think it was right for him to go home and eat and drink and lie with his wife when the ark of the Lord and Israel’s army were sleeping in the open field. Uriah was a righteous man. The next night David got Uriah drunk before sending him home, but once again Uriah, even in his drunken state, refused and slept at the palace gate. As a last ditch effort, David sent Uriah back to the war carrying a sealed letter instructing Joab (his commanding officer) to place Uriah on the front lines of battle and then withdraw the troops around him to ensure that Uriah would be killed. Joab followed orders and Uriah died. After Bathsheeba’s time of mourning was complete, David took her to be his wife. The Lord was displeased with what David had done.  

But notice, God didn’t speak to David Himself. He did not appear in a thundering cloud. Nor did He appear in a windstorm. Rather, He sent His servant, Nathan, to speak on His behalf. And that pretty much sums up the job description for an Old Testament prophet. Prophets were God’s mouthpieces. They said whatever God told them to say to whomever God told them to say it. In short, they spoke the truth—good or bad. They predicted victories and they predicted defeats. The proclaimed good health and they proclaimed death and disease. They spoke to Kings both Jewish and Pagan. They spoke with the authority of God; His hand was heavy upon them.

Can you imagine being one of God’s prophets? Can you imagine being called to speak God’s words (good or bad) to powerful kings and peasants alike? Put yourself in Nathan’s shoes. He had to walk up to the man who by Jewish standards was the greatest king of all time and call him out on his sin? Nathan had no way of knowing how David would respond to this rebuke. David could have had him killed in an instant. In fact, David could have had him and his whole family killed in an instant. I imagine that Nathan was at least a little bit afraid.

But if he was afraid, then why did he do it? What gave Nathan the courage to step out and live his faith so dangerously for the Lord? Simply put, I think that Nathan feared the Lord more then he feared King David. Nathan served a King that was much greater than David—a King who truly had the power to sustain Nathan’s life or to take it away. Nathan knew that the only thing more dangerous for him than obeying God in his situation was disobeying God, so he stepped out on faith and obeyed the Lord’s command. He confronted the king.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that God has appointed you as a prophet and that you need to go around telling everybody how sinful they are. You probably wouldn’t be very popular or effective if you did that.

What I am saying is that God has called us as Christians to live in community and sometimes that requires “speaking up when we want to shut up” as J.R. Briggs put it. Confrontation is never easy, especially in our comfort-centered culture. Most of us would rather pretend the problem isn’t there and hope it goes away than actually confront someone about it. But sometimes confrontation is necessary in the family of God. We have to be bold enough to “speak the truth in love” to one another (Ephesians 4:15). It takes a dangerous love to be willing to risk losing a friendship, but sometimes it is worth that risk when you know a friend is in danger of being swallowed up in their sin. And it takes a dangerous love to listen while a friend confronts you with your sin, but sometimes that is what it takes to wake us up to the seriousness of our actions. 

The Bible says that we as a group of believers make up the body of Christ. In this body, Christ is the head and we are the different parts, each with our own function and calling. Sometimes we lack the perspective to look at our own lives and see when sin is preventing us from performing that function, and sometimes we even lack the ability to see the complete devastation that our sin will inevitably bring upon us if we don’t repent. Sometimes a good kick in the pants is just what the doctor ordered, and most of the time it takes someone who loves you enough to endure your defensiveness and anger to deliver that kick.

So if you have friends that are willing to speak the truth in love to you, then cherish them. If you don’t, then perhaps you need to enlist some. I challenge you to approach one or more of your friends this week and give them an open-ended invitation to ask you hard questions about your faith walk. Give them the right to challenge you and to confront you with your sin before it gets out of hand. James chapter five commands us to “confess our sins to each other,” and this is exactly what I am challenging you to do. I am challenging you to live in community with other Christians in such a way that you are willing to confess your sins to one another, hold one another accountable for your sins, and confront one another when one of you is slipping into sin. And I leave you with a James 5:20. “Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”

I pray that you would find Christian friends with whom you could be boldly honest concerning your sin, so that you can experience Christian community in the way that God intended it to be experienced.     

*(This part of our series is heavily influenced by a book entitled When God says Jump: Biblical Stories that Inspire You to Risk Big by J.R. Briggs.)

For further reading this week:
  • II Samuel 11-18: Read the whole story of David’s sin and punishment.
  • Proverbs 27:17: Accountable relationships with other Christians help us to mature. 
  • James 5:16-20: Confess your sins one to another. 
  • Ephesians 4:1-16: The body of Christ needs your contribution through the special gifts God has given you.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Dangerous Faith: Traitors for Christ

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see…By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
Hebrews 11:1, 31

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do…You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
James 2:14-18, 24-26

Do you remember the story of Rahab the prostitute? I know… it’s been a long time. Let me refresh your memory.

The people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt for 400 years until the Lord raised up Moses and delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh. They crossed the Red Sea on dry ground and entered the desert where God brought them to Mt. Sinai and gave them the Ten Commandments. He promised that they would be His people and He would be their God. Then He led them to the Promised Land—a land flowing with milk and honey that He had promised to their father Abraham. When they arrived at the Promised Land, Moses sent out twelve spies. You probably remember that only two of the twelve (Joshua and Caleb) brought back a positive report and believed that God could and would indeed give this land to Israel. The other ten doubted that God could make good on His promise. So, the Lord made Israel wander in the desert for forty years. That entire generation, save Joshua and Caleb, would not enter the Promised Land. Even Moses himself never set foot on that precious soil because he had displeased the Lord (see Numbers 20:1-13 & Deut 34:1-8). Instead, he died on Mt. Nebo and Joshua became Israel’s new leader.

That brings us to the story of Rahab. Joshua has just taken over as leader. The people of Israel are back at the edge of the Promised Land ready to take possession of it, and Joshua sends out two spies. They go and check out a city named Jericho that is well-known for its fortified walls. While in the city they stay with a woman named Rahab, a prostitute (interestingly enough some scholars argue that she may have simply been an innkeeper because the words for innkeeper and prostitute were very similar in Hebrew). When the King finds out that some Israelites had been spotted in his city and that they were seen staying with Rahab the prostitute/innkeeper, he immediately sent guards to Rahab’s house to seize them. (Apparently the news of Israel’s crossing the Red Sea on dry ground and defeating the Amorites had spread throughout the land and struck fear in everyone’s hearts.) But Rahab hid the spies and sent the guards off in the wrong direction. To explain to the spies why she helped them Rahab says, “I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you… for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:9 and 11b). Then she asked the spies to swear to spare her life and the lives of all her family when they come take possession of the land. The spies agreed and Rahab let them down by a rope from her window. They returned to tell Joshua all that they had heard and were encouraged by Rahab’s testimony.  Shortly thereafter the people of Israel marched into the Promised Land and defeated Jericho and Rahab and all her family were spared.

So why are we talking about this obscure Old Testament story of Rahab? Well, because the New Testament seems to think she is worth talking about. Notice that Rahab is the only woman mentioned by name as one who had faith in the great faith chapter, Hebrews 11. The apostle James also mentions her along with the great father of our faith, Abraham, as an example of justification by faith in action. Not only that, but we also find out in Matthew 1 that this Rahab, whether she was indeed a prostitute or just simply an innkeeper, is an ancestor of Jesus Christ himself. So the real question is, what did Rahab get right that we need to imitate?

Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as being “certain of what of we do not see.” From the account in Joshua 2 it is clear that Rahab is certain of two things that she does not see. First, she is certain that Israel’s God was going to give the Promised Land to them. Second, she was certain that Israel’s God was the true God of heaven and earth. She had faith in Israel’s God, and she hadn’t really even encountered Him. Hearing testimony of the great miracles that He was working on His people’s behalf was enough. She believed. But James rightly points out that Rahab did more than just believe; she acted on her faith. She was so certain of these two things that she was willing to wager her life on them. She was willing to betray her king, her city, and all the people in it (save her family) in order to be in right relationship with the one, true God. She was a traitor for Christ.

I want to ask you two questions. First, does your faith work? James says that “faith without works is dead.” If you have a living faith, then it will produce action in your life. It is this “living faith” that is dangerous. It is this type of faith that brings about change in our world and lights hearts on fire for the Lord. Do you have a living active faith? If not, then you should ask God to renew and revive your faith. We serve the originator of all life. It was He who breathed life into Adam and Eve’s lifeless forms, and He can breathe life into your lifeless faith if you ask Him to.

Second, are you willing to be a traitor for Christ? (Be careful! You need to really pay attention here or you are going to misunderstand what I mean.) Rahab valued being in right relationship with God more than she valued anything else…even her own life. She knew that if the king’s guards found out that she had lied, then she would be killed. But she feared God more than death. She valued God above all else. She was willing to turn her back on everyone and everything else in order to follow Him. The Bible teaches us that this world is at odds with the world to come. And I John tells us that “if anyone loves the world, then the love of the Father is not in him.” That seems really harsh, but the truth is that because our world is at odds with God’s new creation we are often made to choose between the two. And here’s the point. When put in that situation what will you choose? Are you willing to “betray” this world in order to be a citizen of the next? Are you willing to choose God over any and everything in this world that could compete for your time or passion? That’s what it means to be a traitor for Christ. You choose Christ over all else. You choose Christ over anything that comes between you and He, because you value Him more than all else. And that is the type of reckless abandon and singleness of passion that pleases God and brings about true change in our world.   

For further reading this week…