Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Life Permanantly Marked by God

“Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven...Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it."
Matthew 10:32-33, 37-39

It wasn't that long ago that carnivals in America featured tattooed ladies in their so-called freak shows. While many people landed in carnival sideshows as a result of a birth defect or some physical abnormality or exception, this wasn't the case with tattooed ladies. They chose their physical abnormality and even endured pain to make their bodies permanently different. Now I am not trying to hold these women up as examples to live by, but if nothing else you have to respect their resolve. There were literally covered in tattoos in a culture that disapproved. They were permanently marked by their love of this lifestyle and they made no attempt to hide it.

In an odd sort of way, this reminds me of Christ. I know it is an unorthodox comparison, but stay with me. Like these ladies, Christ was permanently marked by His love. Even now as He sits at the right hand of God the Father in heaven, Christ still bears the scars in His body that prove His love for you. He made no attempt to hide this after His resurrection (John 20:24-29). On the contrary, His scars are trophies of His great victory over sin. These precious scars proclaim His glory to the whole world. In the same way a Christian's life ought to be permanently marked by his or her love for God. A person that is truly changed by the dumb-foundingly amazing love of God that he or she encounters in Christ should be irreparably changed. "Like a tattoo that can be seen at all times,"* Christians should be permanently marked by a changed life that is constantly visible. 

In the above passage of Scripture Christ is sending his twelve disciples out to minister. He has already told them that He is sending them out like "sheep among wolves" (Matthew 10:16) and that they will be beaten and arrested on His account (Matthew 10:17-19). He even says, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28). He isn't speaking of the Devil here, for only God has the power to cast into Hell. So Jesus makes clear that neither beating, nor threat of arrest, nor even death is a reason for a disciple of His to deny his commitment to Him. So imagine what He will say one day when you stand before Him and admit that you claimed to follow Him but were too scared to acknowledge Him publicly because you didn't want to be labeled a "freak" by your culture. What I wouldn't give for Christians today to have even half the backbone that these tattooed ladies had! Christ wasn't ashamed to be permanently marked by His love for you. How dare you be ashamed for your life to be publicly marked by your love for Him? Stop leading a double life. You should be as obviously Christian everyday of the week in every situation as you are on Sunday in church. 

But there is good news! Repentance is still available. Peter himself, the rock of the early church denied Christ, but was restored after repenting (John 18:15-26 & John 21). If today, the Lord has convicted you that you are leading a double life, examine your faith, repent, and proudly wear the marks of the Christian life. A public confession of Jesus is required for salvation (Romans 10:9 & Acts 2:38). If you are unwilling to claim Christ publicly, then He will not claim you as His own either.

For further reading...

*The title of this post and some of the rough concepts in it were loosely inspired by a youth Bible study series that I received for free entitled Inked: Marked for Life. You can learn more about this study here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Great Expectations

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”
Mark 2:18-22

A thread runs through these first two chapters of Mark that I have yet to point out, and that is that Jesus was offensive to many in His day, especially those of the religious elite. Since verse twenty-one of chapter one, Mark has been piling up one on top of the other, almost without a break, all of the offensive things Jesus has been doing. Allow me to give a quick summary. In 1:21-31, Jesus casts out a demon on the Sabbath in the synagogue and then follows it up by healing Simon Peter's mother-in-law later that afternoon (healing on the Sabbath would soon become a serious point of contention between Jesus and the Pharisees, see Mark 3:1-6.) In 1:41 He touches a man with leprosy. Then in chapter two, He claims to have the power to forgive sins (2:10), calls a tax collector as one of His twelve disciples (2:14), is found to be consorting and eating with sinners and tax collectors (2:15), and now it is discovered that His disciples are not fasting as often as the other religious men are.

It seems that Jesus didn't live up to the expectations of those in His day. How can it be then that the church teaches that Jesus was perfect? Simple. Jesus always lived up to God's expectations. He didn't always live up to man's expectations. You see God only required the Israelites to fast one time a year on the Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 16:1-34), but the Pharisees had taken to fasting Monday and Thursday of every week.* This was a man made tradition. (Interestingly enough Lane posits that John's disciples may have been fasting as "an expression of repentance designed specifically to hasten the coming of the time of redemption" or the Messiah.) It is obvious then, that Jesus and His disciples had no reason to fast, especially if the fasts were designed to hasten the coming of the Messiah. That would be like fasting at a wedding feast, Jesus says. The Messiah has come! This should be a time of rejoicing, not of mourning.

From the beginning of Mark, Jesus' message has been that "The time has come; the kingdom of God has come near." This new situation in the world calls for a new ordering of our lives. The old traditions cannot contain this new and amazing thing that God is doing in Christ. Jesus likens it to putting a patch made of new cloth on a garment made of old cloth. The old cloth has already shrunk, but the cloth in the patch, being new, has not. Therefore, when the garment is laundered the patch will shrink and create a worse tear in the garment than was there originally. Similarly, Jesus says that you don't put new wine in old wineskins. As the grape juice in wine ferments it expands. New wineskins are elastic enough to expand with the wine, but old skins have already expanded once and are no longer elastic. If you put new wine in an old skin, the wine will expand beyond the ability of the skin and burst it. So too, Jesus is telling His contemporaries that their old ways of thinking about God and His kingdom are not big enough to contain all that God is doing now. They need a new paradigm...a new way of thinking about God's work in the world and His redemption of fallen man.

This passage is a good reminder that sometimes (only sometimes) when we don't live up to the expectations of the people around us, that says more about their expectations than it does about us. It is also a good warning against placing a higher priority on our traditions than on the Word of God? What personal preferences do you place a higher priority on than what the Bible actually says? Do you need to ask God to change your way of thinking so that you can better understand all that He is doing in our world now? Lord, make us new that we might be able to expand with Your work in this world as it ever expands to the ends of the earth and the coming of the age!

For further reading...

  • John 12:42-43- Some of the saddest words in all the Bible! Whose expectations are you trying to meet?
  • Matthew 15:1-9- Jesus points out a tradition of men that they were placing above the Bible. I have often wondered in what ways we do the same in our own day. 

*Lane, William L., The Gospel of MarkThe New International Commentary on the New Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, MI. 1974. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Crisis of Courage

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.... 

[God gives the Ten Commandments.]

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.
Exodus 19:16-19 & 20:18-21

We have a crisis of courage in our churches today. Our pews are filled with men and women who are brave enough to serve in the military, to debate the finer points of law in a courtroom, and even to work in dangerous professions like building sky scrapers; but these very same men and women when it comes time to for them to pray publicly, share some truth from God's Word, or speak to someone about the good news of Jesus shrink from the challenge. We are simply not brave enough to do this. 

Many of us are like the Israelites standing at the foot of the mountain that day. When we get too close to God, or when He asks us to do things that are scary, we find ourselves unable to stand our ground before His mighty presence or before His calling on our lives; so we back away. It doesn't seem wrong to us because all those around us are doing the same. However there are a few very important exceptions. There are those among us who like Moses have the faith necessary to stand their ground before this great and terrible presence of God. These men and women like Moses are often called not merely to stand at the foot of the mountain, but to go beyond all human reason, beyond the bounds of courage, to climb the mountain. Like Moses, these men and women often ascend into the heart of the storm, toward the presence of God Himself. They embrace their greater calling, as we shrink in fear from our simple calling to stand at the foot of the mountain. These rare few like Moses follow far beyond what we dare do or are even called to do.

While it is true that we shouldn't go beyond our calling, we should always seek to say yes to God. Too many of us have drawn clear boundaries around what we are and are not willing to do for our faith. We may not have actually voiced these things to God, but those around us know. We use phrases like "evangelism just isn't my spiritual gift" to explain away why we feel it is okay to say no to God... to say no to the things He has commanded us to do. We say things like, "public speaking really terrifies me," or "I'm afraid I will mess up."  Too often these are simply excuses that we use to explain away why we are unwilling to go further. 

As I think about Moses ascending that mountain, I remind myself that this is the same Moses who once trembled before a burning bush  and tried to say no to God's call on his life (Exodus 3:1-4:17). Now, not too long after that incident, Moses stands before a burning mountain unfazed and somehow finds the courage to ascend into the storm of God's presence and calling on His life. This assures us that God can and will supply you with the courage you need to say yes. Still, it is your choice. My experience tells me that it is those who find the courage to say yes and walk into the heart of the storm who are closest to God in this life. Those who do choose to say no to God will one day have to answer for it when they stand before the judge, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus followed God not only to this earth, not only to suffering, but also to the cross. He didn't say no. How dare we? Walk into the storm of God's will for your life today. Say yes.   

For further reading...
  • Exodus 3:1-4:17- Read about Moses' first encounter with God and how he tried to convince God to send someone else.  
  • Exodus 33:7-34:8- Read about the amazing nearness that Moses was blessed to experience with God.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Jesus and the Tax Man

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Mark 2:13-17

How interesting that Jesus calls as one of His chosen twelve, Levi, a man who was a tax collector. Now tax collectors are hated pretty much universally for obvious reasons, but in the first century there were extra reasons for the Jews to hate a man like Levi. The Roman Empire had conquered Israel and now they were taxing them. Levi, a Jew, had taken a job working for the Romans taxing his own people and giving that money to this occupying government. What is more, it was very often the case in that day that tax collectors would overcharge and pocket some of the excess (Luke 19:8). This Levi, also called Matthew*, was so hated as a tax collector that the Bible lumps him and the other tax collectors together with a social class of people that were known at that time simply as "sinners." Verse 15 tells us that many of these tax collectors and "sinners" followed Jesus.

When you stop to think about it, this is really surprising. If you were to imagine God coming to earth in human form, who would you expect Him to hang out with? Not sinners! Even by the Old Testament understanding the Messiah was expected to judge sinners harshly, not hang out with them. So how do we explain this? Well, Jesus explained it quite nicely in verse 17. In my opinion this is one of the all time mind-blowing statements in the history of the world. Jesus explains that He is like a doctor who has come to bring healing. It's the sick people who need to see the doctor, not those who are well.** It's clear that Jesus knew exactly what his purpose was, and He set about doing God's business. He came to "seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10).

What characterizes your interaction with lost people? Some Christians avoid the lost altogether. Like the Pharisees we turn our noses up at them. We create labels that we attach to them in a vain attempt to show our own perceived moral superiority. But this doesn't reflect the love of Christ, and it doesn't advance God's kingdom in our world at all. Other Christians embrace sinners, but they also run headlong after the same sinful pleasures as their lost friends. They emphasize their acceptance of lost people by living a lost lifestyle with them. But this type of behavior doesn't offer the true healing that Jesus came and died to offer. This healing comes only through repentance. Still others, following more closely in the footsteps of Christ, dedicate their lives to seeking and saving the lost. They embrace lost people by showing them the love of God for them that was made manifest in the cross of Christ. In so doing, they show the lost the true cost of their sin and urge them to repentance for the healing of their souls, for the glory of God, and for the exaltation of Christ our Savior. Could anything be more noble a passion than this? Praise God that Jesus came to seek and to save the lost! Praise God that He is still calling them to repentance today! And commit yourself to this most noble of endeavors while there is still time. Love lost people with the love of Christ.

For further reading...

  • Luke 19:1-10- Read another story about a tax collector whom Jesus befriended.
  • Matthew- Read some of Levi's account of the life of Christ. 

*Jesus not only takes this one tax collector Levi into his inner circle of twelve disciples, but Levi is also believed to have later authored the Gospel of Matthew.

**Of course, Jesus' statement is filled with irony. He came to bring a spiritual healing that everyone needed. We are all ill with sin. The difference was that the "sinners" and tax collectors knew they were sinners and were willing to admit it. They knew they needed Jesus' healing. The Pharisees weren't willing to admit their sin, and it is hard to be healed when you don't know and/or won't admit that you are sick.