Sunday, March 30, 2008

Refined (First Peter 1:3-9)

Some parts of the Bible remind us that its writers lived in places and cultures very different from our own.

Peter’s letters show the differences pretty clearly. Here, he writes about believers suffering trials for their faith. People in our culture and society have never really suffered trials like the one’s he talks about.

In later centuries, the Romans would crack down hard on Christians because their faith stood against many of the things Roman society was based on. We hear about these more often, and it’s where we get our images of believers being thrown into the arena to be torn apart by lions and such.

But even when Peter wrote, sometime in the 60s or 70s, the Christian faith caused problems for its believers. A Roman official who wants to know more about faith in “this Chrestus” some spoke about selects two believers and questions them under torture to learn what he wants to know. Even though Christians proclaimed and explained their faith at every opportunity, he believed they had to be tortured in order to reveal the full truth.

Of course, persecution like this could happen to anyone who wasn’t a Roman citizen, so Christians weren’t unique. But Peter concerned himself with their persecution and trial, because he wanted to encourage and strengthen them in their faith.

He does so by comparing their trial to the process of refining gold. Gold dug from the ground has many other things mixed with it. Only by melting it down could these other metals and materials be burned away or separated so that pure gold remained. When Christians faced trials, the result was that some of their impurities, whatever they were, “burned away” as well. They clung all the harder to their faith because they understood that in the end, it was all they could depend on.

Today, most of the Christians in our culture don’t face persecution. At worst, we face some speed bumps. We might tell a Christian from China, say, that we are persecuted people in our land because we can’t start our school day with a corporate prayer. “Oh?” he asks. “What happens to you if you do?”

“We get told not to.”

“Ah. When I was giving away Bibles – giving, not selling – I was arrested and put in prison.”

And there are other people who face worse than that, as we know. My point is that we don’t face much difficulty in our faith in our culture, and it seems like even the difficulties we do face, we try to reduce or get rid of.

According to Peter, we really shouldn’t care about them. If anything, we should look at them as a way to strengthen and purify our faith. OK, so Hollywood can’t seem to make a movie with Christians in it unless they’re Catholic (because the shirts and cathedrals and incense and stuff all look better on film) or psychotic (because even though they claim that voice they hear is God, we all know that people who hear voices are nuts). Often they’re both.

Such movies and TV shows make it harder for us as Christians – we have to overcome the stereotypes they produce in order to share the gospel or speak to people about faith. We have to explain that not every Christian wears a funny shirt or shouts the King James Bible while beating some sinner unconscious so he’ll repent.

If we listen to Peter, we won’t complain about that extra step so much as we’ll see it as the chance not to rely on movies or the culture at large to shape and share our faith. We’ll rely on God and we’ll know our faith roots in him, not in all the cultural short cuts we think we should be able to depend on.

We have to understand our faith involves some work. If we listen to Peter, we rejoice when we have to work harder at it, because we know the end result will be a stronger faith. That’s the faith that will spread and take real hold in other people, because they will see it make real changes in our lives.

As Christians, one of our missions on this earth is the reproduction of our faith. And we all know that reproduction involves work. Yes, some of that work is a lot of fun, but it’s still work that we have to do ourselves without relying on someone else to do it for us.

God wants us to give ourselves to him completely. Sometimes that means what we give him has to be shaken out and refined. Rarely is that part of the process easy.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Faithful, One Hundred Per Cent (Matthew 28:1-10)

Sometimes people have the idea that Jesus’ death was pointless.

Truthfully, if we value Jesus only for his ethical teachings or for his message about the love of God, then this question is tough to answer. Many people suggest that Jesus saw himself like a prophet of the old Hebrew kingdoms, speaking truth about oppression and injustice to the powerful people. This Jesus concerns himself with ethical issues, about things that people do and the way that they do them.

He may not have wanted to be killed, but he might have figured on some kind of confrontation. He knew that prophetic messages targeted powerful people and those powerful people would take serious steps to maintain their wealth and positions. By his sacrifice, God might awaken people’s consciences and they might decide to follow God’s law again.

Similar ideas suggest Jesus came to demonstrate God had no barriers between himself and people. Whether they were poor, sick, handicapped, righteous, sinners or whatever, God loved them all equally. He wouldn’t tolerate any human divisions and barriers that people might set up. Again, an unpopular message with the folks on the upper side of those barriers and something that might spur them to quiet the messenger.

And if Jesus were to die to prove his point, or even if his death proved that point whether he planned it or not, well, that would make sense. But if he came back after being dead, then what kind of sacrifice had he really made?

But at its core, Christianity claims that Jesus came to do more than proclaim a message. Of course, he did proclaim one – and one that featured more than a few of the things I mentioned up above. He did speak out against people who used wealth or knowledge or powerful position to take advantage of people who didn’t have those things. He did speak out against the idea that God liked certain kinds of people more than others. He did tell people God loved them. And it sure as heck ticked off those powerful folks who were on top of the heap and set them against him.

That, of course, is not all that he did. He did not just come with a message, he also came to be a message. He came not simply to proclaim God’s salvation, but to be God’s salvation.

In such a case, the crucifixion needs the resurrection in order to matter. Part of Jesus’ message, like I said, was the proclamation that God was with everyone everywhere. God asked people to acknowledge that truth and live it out in their everyday lives. Whether they were rich or poor, Gentile or Jew, male or female, didn’t matter. God simply asked them to display faith in him, trust him and live as he desired.

Such faith knew only one enemy – uncertainty. People might want to believe God was with them when their lives weren’t so great or when they faced real problems, but fear and doubt could block them. Jesus, in what he said and what he did, reassured them their faith was not misplaced.

More or less, we do that a lot for each other. Our testimonies of our own faith and our own experiences help those who go through the same thing we went through. In fact, even though each of us different experiences, when we add up all of humanity we can find the testimony of God standing by people in any situation.

Except one.

Christ claims God never deserts us, even in the life beyond this one. And we don’t have anyone’s testimony to reassure us. Even folks with stories of those visions they have when they’re clinically dead were only gone for minutes, maybe a couple of hours at most. And medical techniques were used on them the whole time they were gone, keeping their bodies from breaking down. None of these stories comes from someone gone for as long as 30 hours, the time from Friday afternoon when Jesus died to sometime early Sunday morning when he rose.

By rising, Jesus demonstrates that we can believe God is present beyond this life and beyond anything we know, because he has gone through that before us.

Before Horton the elephant heard a Who, he sat on an egg for a lazy Mayzie-bird who abandoned her nest. Despite ridicule, awful weather, threats of death and being kidnapped into a circus, Horton sat on that nest because he promised he would – “I meant what I said and I said what I meant…and an elephant’s faithful, one hundred per cent.”

On Easter morning, the Jesus who told us that God is with us no matter what tells us all, “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant…and your God is faithful, one hundred per cent.”

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Wanted: Clues for Disciples (John 11:1-45)

Most of the time we see the disciples interacting with Jesus, we see them not getting it.

Doesn’t matter what “it” is. Maybe it’s other people proclaiming the word of God. Maybe it’s a village that won’t let Jesus enter. Maybe it’s a parable. Maybe it’s the question of their status in the group and how that’s determined.

As different as all those things are, they all share a common factor: A group of disciples that seems to lack clue one about what Jesus does, teaches or is here to do. Lazarus’ story is little different.

Jesus waits two days and then sets out for Bethany, which is near Jerusalem. Before leaving, he tries to tell the disciples about Lazarus by saying Lazarus has fallen asleep. The disciples suggest that if he is sleeping, he may be on the road to recovery. OK, Jesus says. I mean he’s dead.

Look closely at this exchange. The disciples worry that the religious leaders will try to kill Jesus again. He tells them about Lazarus’ condition – while he is in a village two days away. Any hints in there? Like maybe a guy who can sense death at a distance can handle himself against a group of temple goons? No? OK, we’ll move on.

At Bethany, Lazarus’ sister Martha confronts Jesus. If he had come when they called, Lazarus would not have died. “But even now I know that God will do whatever you ask of him.” Martha seems to have a better handle on Jesus than the disciples. Even though she doesn’t allow for the possibility than a man who can miraculously heal deathly illness might be able to do so from a distance if he can do it in person, she keeps her faith that Jesus might still do something.

I think this intrigues Jesus. “Your brother will rise again,” he tells her. “He will rise in the resurrection on the last day,” Martha says. “I’m that resurrection,” Jesus tells her. “Those who believe in me will not die, and even if they ‘die,’ they will still live.” He asks Martha if she believes this and she says she does.

Then she fetches her sister, and the conversation kind of repeats, and Jesus asks to be taken to the tomb. While there he weeps.

Observers believe Jesus weeps because of his great love for Lazarus. But that Greek word we read as “disturbed” or “deeply moved” comes from a word that means “to snort in anger.” If you read Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrase, it talks about “the anger welling up in him again.” Although probably sad, Jesus was also frustrated. I think one of the other comments by onlookers tells us why.

“If he healed the blind, could he not have healed him?” some ask. John doesn’t tell us if Jesus looked at them and said, “Well, duh,” but I expect he might have wanted to.

These people have seen and heard how he can heal. They have seen and heard the miracles he can do. They have heard him teach about himself as the redeemer, the Messiah sent from God, and they still think death will block him from doing what he has been sent here to do. In his Explanatory Notes on this verse, John Wesley says, “What a strange mixture of faith and unbelief!”

So Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the tomb, demonstrating that not even death can stand in the way of his work. And maybe a couple more people watching now “get it” about who he is, like Martha does.

What I talk about when I say “getting it” seems pretty simple to me. Jesus is either the Messiah or he’s not. If he is, then what he said about who he is and why he came matters to me. He said he’s that resurrection in the last day, a resurrection made flesh and blood. I can trust that or not. I trust him that even though things might look hopeless and I might face my own death, it’s not the end. Or I don’t trust him and I believe that what I’ve got here on this earth is all there is.

I pick one or I pick the other.

As near as I can figure, only one of those two paths continues beyond the tomb. So that’s the one I pick. And I work as hard as I can on figuring out what that choice means for how I live my life. Maybe then I’ll get it.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Insanity is...(First Samuel 16:1-13)

As the saying goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Samuel, usually a man of vision and perception, has a small dose of insanity here as he seeks a new king to replace Saul. Saul began well, but something about the power of ruling has corroded his soul, and he has set himself against God one too may times. So God rejected him, meaning that once Saul dies, his line will not inherit the throne.

At God’s direction, Samuel now seeks for a new king, among the sons of Jesse the Bethlehemite. God’s choice might cause some questions – Jesse’s grandmother was the Moabite woman Ruth, so his bloodline is not pure Israelite. And Bethlehem isn’t really much of anyplace – it’s not where the smart king-shopper browses for a new selection.

Yet God directs Samuel there, and provides him a cover story in case Saul hears about it and moves to protect his interests the old fashioned way – killing all enemies and potential enemies before they can cause him trouble.

The Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce is not exactly happy to see the renowned prophet and leader. They know that Samuel brings the potential for serious trouble to their village. Politically, he can pose a threat to Saul and religiously, he has power Saul can’t match. Has he come to Bethlehem to start a revolt against the king? Whether he has or not, Saul might decide the region is troublesome and “pacify” it.

Fortunately, Samuel has come in peace, for religious reasons. He plans to offer a sacrifice and he invites the town leaders to prepare themselves so they can join in. Jesse is among those leaders. The young men are presented to the great leader, and Jesse’s sons are part of that. It’s all fairly ordinary, and only Samuel and the Lord know that the Lord has special plans for one of Jesse’s sons.

The parade of sons begins, and Samuel believes the eldest is the obvious choice. He looks every inch a king, tall and commanding. But God says no. In fact, he says no to every one of Jesse’s sons, though they all have noble bearing and seem like natural leaders. Though they may look like kings to Samuel, the Lord does not see what he is looking for.

Is there another son, Samuel asks. Are these all the young men?

No, there is the youngest, David, who has been left to watch the sheep while the grownups are busy. Go get him, Samuel says.

I suspect that by now, Samuel knows who he is to anoint, but the Lord confirms it when David arrives. We learn that David is a good-looking young man, but he still looks more boy than man. He would be no one’s obvious choice for a king.

When Samuel thinks of a king, he has a certain picture in mind, and he looks for that picture in the sons of Jesse whom he meets. But the qualifications he’s using have been proven not to work. Tall? Hey, Saul was tall. Noble and kingly? Hey, Saul looked good in the robes and wears the crown well. He can fill the role of the king pretty well – remember he began with success.

If the choice had been Samuel’s, he would have picked a man who seemed as qualified for the job as Saul had seemed. But God saw something in each man that disqualified him. Would Eliab have been another Saul? Or Shammah? Or the others? We don’t know. What we do know is that God decided Israel’s second king would not be like its first.

Samuel would do the same thing people had always done when they sought leaders. Look for the people who looked like leaders or acted like leaders. Sometimes that works. But sometimes it doesn’t, and if we listen to what God said to Samuel, we learn that whether or not it works has little to do with those outward appearances and qualifications.

You’d think Samuel – the child born to a woman whose many years of barrenness were ended with her prayer to the Lord – would remember this. But he doesn’t.

We should, though. We should remember that when God chooses to act, a lot of times he chooses to do so in a way that makes no sense to any of us. Sure, he might do the expected, but whether he moves the way we anticipate or something else entirely seems to have very little to do with whether or not what he wants done gets done.

Rather than remake the world with a word once his creation has damaged it, he chooses to allow the men and women he has made a second chance. Rather than blasting his enemies out of existence with a look, he chooses to allow them a shot at redemption.

When he makes his move to begin his work of redemption, he chooses a little nobody from nowheresville, the teenager Mary, makes her pregnant before she’s married and then let her and her husband try to bring up the boy that’ll turn into a man who’ll save the world.

And rather than go with the rich and powerful, the swift and strong, the eloquent and learned to bring his message around this world, he picks…us.