Sunday, February 26, 2017

I believe in the Holy Spirit

A pastor teaching a communicant’s class asked the children to describe the Trinity. One boy gave this response:
Father—an old man with a white beard. Sits on a big, golden chair.
Son—a younger man with a brown beard. Likes to play with sheep.
God the Holy Ghost—a white sheet.”

Unfortunately, that remains the depth of many adults’ understanding of the Holy Spirit. For centuries, the church has talked little about Him. In the Apostles’ Creed, there is just one line on the Holy Spirit. But He is just as important as the Father and Son. He is the person of God that is inside of us.

In the book of Acts, the disciples were ready to go out into the world, but Jesus said wait. Don’t go without the Spirit. He was there, but they weren’t aware of Him. They thought it was just Jesus alone. They did not understand that Jesus had done miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” There are two words for power in Greek. One--exousia--means “authority.”  It is the power of the courts or the power of the law to order an action or to forbid it. But (as every parent knows) the power to order or forbid is not enough. You have to be able to enforce it.

The word used here is dynamis, as in “dynamic”, “dynamo,” and “dynamite.” It is actual power to make things happen. We may make rules and pass laws, but we need dynamite to make them happen. 

We don’t have that dynamite, but God does in the power of the Holy Spirit. He runs us, we don’t run Him. He is not some superpower we control—we are under His control. This is one of the unique claims of Christianity among world religions. God not only gives us laws to obey and tasks to do, but then He gives us the power through His indwelling Spirit to accomplish what He commands.

Before Pentecost, the entire church was a hundred and twenty people huddled together in an upper room, hiding from the people who had just crucified their leader. After Pentecost, they were so bold and powerful that they made three thousand converts in a single day. Before Pentecost, they were scared rabbits. After Pentecost, they were lions.  Before the coming of the Spirit, they could not even stand up to the ridicule of ordinary people. After Pentecost, they could stand before kings with confidence. Everything changed with the coming of the Holy Spirit. There were no professional speakers among them--just fishermen, tax collectors, ex-prostitutes, slaves, and even terrorists. Even so, when the Holy Spirit came upon them they shook the foundations of the world. 

Christians today often feel defeated in our personal lives. We want victory over sin, freedom from addictions, depression, guilt and despair, but we don’t get it. Many doubt they will amount to anything, because we fail to understand that it is not “our” witness that counts. It’s the Holy Spirit working through us that really makes the difference. 

Jesus said the disciples should stay in until they are baptized—that is, engulfed--by the Holy Spirit. Imagine standing on the beach when a tidal wave hits you. That’s what the Spirit does. When He comes, He engulfs you in His power.

Lately, I have been talking a lot about how God wants us to imitate Jesus in everything. This seems impossible, and so it is, unless the power of the Holy Spirit makes it possible. You can’t form yourself into Christ’s image, but the Spirit can. We just cooperate with the process. The Spirit does the work. 

In Joel 2: 28 God says, “I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh.” He didn’t say that God will pour out His Spirit on priests, scribes, prophets, or professional churchmen. He pours out His spirit on housewives, truck drivers, accountants, secretaries, children of anyone else who is willing to jump in front of the wave. He gives power to preach and witness, to love our enemies, and forgive those who hurt us, persevere in the face of temptation and overcome our shyness. He doesn’t just change the world--He changes you

How are we engulfed in the Holy Spirit? Before we answer, let’s get rid of an old and incorrect notion. That notion is this--you have to feel the Spirit for Him to fill you. There is no place in the Bible that says that we have to necessarily feel the Holy Spirit filling us. The Holy Spirit is inside of all Christians at all times, yet they don’t always feel Him.

Think about it like riding on an airplane. When the plane is in the air, you don’t feel the motion, yet you are flying hundreds of miles an hour whether you feel it or not. The issue isn’t whether we feel the Spirit, but whether we are on board. Christians don’t experience the Spirit not because they aren’t “feeling” it, but because they are afraid to get on the plane.  

So how do we receive the Holy Spirit? We can’t rush Him. He comes in his own way and time.  Meanwhile, there are some things we can do to prepare. They are the same things the disciples did between the ascension and Pentecost. 

First, we submit to Him. Shut up and sit down. Be still. Jesus calls this “waiting.” Waiting on the Lord is more than just sitting back. It is realizing who is in control, and waiting for orders. The biggest reason we fail to obtain the power of the Holy Spirit is because we are too anxious that we are not doing enough, when in reality we are already doing too much. 

We have this idea that we should be doing “something.” But what we do doesn’t matter, unless the Holy Spirit is already working through us. The Bible says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  When we are busy with our own plans, we lose our focus, and make a god out of our own activities. Our impatient, fleshly approach to the work of God constantly calls us to say, “But we have to be doing something.” But this isn’t guidance, its panic. Our relationship to God must begin in stillness and silence.   

 Think about what lifeguards are taught. They are told to be careful approaching a drowning person, because they are usually panicked and reaching out in every direction for something to hold onto. In this state they are dangerous to themselves and anyone near them. They must wait until they stop thrashing around, until their energy is exhausted. Only then can he get close enough to save them. 

The same is true of the Spirit. A person who is overly desperate, who thinks that he must do anything and everything next isn’t being still. A person who is screaming can’t also be listening.  Only when we learn to sit in stillness, waiting before the Lord, can we be led by Him. Sit still so He can move us. Don’t do anything, don’t even make plans to do anything, until you have mastered the art of holy listening.

Second, we seek the Holy Spirit. While we sit still, we pray. After Jesus left, the first thing the disciples did was to go into the upper room and pray for the Spirit. They asked for the Spirit, and they got Him. We don’t get the Spirit by reading another book, going to another revival, or watching a television program. We don’t get Him by good intentions. We must ask until we receive. Luke 11:13 says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Before you pray for your loved ones, your church, the world, or anything else, ask for the Holy Spirit. Let Him lead you, and He will. If you have the Holy Spirit, you will be able to ask for all the rest with greater effectiveness. Paul says that we don’t even know how we should pray, but that the Holy Spirit will pray through us. That’s more effective than our prayers.

Third, we release the past. Releasing the past means we release our sins, our hurts, and our ideas. Think of the Spirit as a wave, and ourselves as a boat. The past is like an anchor that keeps us in place. The wave may rock us, but unless we release the anchor it will not move us.

Releasing our old sins is really the same as forsaking our false gods. Addictions are basically idols. We form habits of conformity to some behavior or substance, as a way of coping with problems. For a drug addict, every needle is a prayer to a false god, pleading for temporary relief from their loneliness. Repentance is recognizing that God is the one who can solve our problems, and seeking to look to Him, instead of our abilities, or someone else. We turn from our old gods and turn to the real One. 

Releasing our old hurts means forgiving those who have hurt us. Forgiveness is a conscious decision not to seek retribution or to allow their hurts to govern our actions. It isn’t feeling—it’s a choice to let go.

Releasing old ideas means being willing to change our traditions and approaches. We learn a lot from tradition, but when our old ways of thinking become more important than the move of the Spirit, we become prisoners of the past. Someone once remarked that the last seven words of the church are, “We never did it this way before.” That’s the last seven words of our spiritual growth too. Jesus said we can’t put new wine in old wineskins. When the Spirit comes, He creates new paths. Traditions are helpful and constructive, unless we treat them as an idol, then they keep us from following the Spirit.

Fourth, we rely on the Spirit to move. Think of our lives as a ship. But we aren’t a rowboat, we are a sailing ship, and the Spirit is the wind. The Spirit is what pushes us where we need to go. When we ignore the Spirit, we are rowing when we need to sail. Again, think of the Christian life as surfing. The surfer swims against the tide to get out where the waves are, but then power of the wave carries him home. We must put effort into submission, seeking, and releasing, but then we must seize the wave of the Spirit when we see it. At first, this seems strange. But in time, we increasingly become aware that the Spirit is leading us. Sometimes, His leading comes with a bang, and sometimes with a whisper. But the Spirit comes and God’s power moves.

Don’t seek emotional fulfillment. Don’t seek results. Don’t seek great insights into how things happen. All these things will come to us if we just seek the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will lead us into all things if we get still, seek Him, release our past and rely on His power.  

Blessed - Matthew 5: 1

Over the next few weeks (with the exception of Palm Sunday and Easter) we are going to find out what the Sermon of the Mount says and what it means. The first part we will be discussing is the Beatitudes. 

A beatitude is a “blessing” statement, where we are pronouncing God’s blessing on people. They are found all through the Scriptures. It is a statement that God is on someone’s side.

Scholars who study beatitudes say that they fall into two groups. The first group describes the blessing of people who are blessed because of what they have done or perceived. Psalm 1 for example, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked.” In this case we are blessed, because we aren’t among the wicked. It also describes the blessing of those who work hard, live clean, and prosper because of it. It’s easy to see why a person who eats healthy and exercises an hour a day will be blessed with good health. We say that if we tithe, go to church, or get baptized, then God will bless us
The second group of beatitudes describes people who are blessed in spite of what they have done or how they are perceived. In these statements what comes after the blessed doesn’t cause the blessing, but just the opposite. It is ordinarily something that means we are not blessed. When Jesus tells us to bless those who curse us, He does not mean we bless people because they curse us, but in spite of the way they treat us. When God says, “Blessed is the man whose transgression is covered.” He doesn’t mean we should go out and commit some whopping big sin, so we can be blessed. A person who sins against God doesn’t deserve a blessing, but we should bless them anyway. Neither is a person who is sick “blessed,” because of sickness. The blessing of God is in spite of our condition, not because of it. It is rather in spite of our sins that God blesses us as an act of grace.

So, which kind of blessing are the Beatitudes? Are the poor blessed because of their poverty, or in spite of it? Does being poor, bereaved, or persecuted make us blessed?

Consider the people who were hearing Jesus on that day. They were a crowd who knew how unblessed they were. If they didn’t, then their rabbis would have informed them. Most rabbis of the day believed in a form of the “prosperity” gospel. If you had money and health, then it was because you did something to deserve it. If you were poor or sick, then you must have sinned. Since most people were poor and sick, they believed that God was against them. They had to endure the self-satisfied smugness of the elite, who were assured of their own righteousness, because they were blessed. Their smugness was like salt poured into the wounds of the poor and downcast. It still is, for the have-nots who live in the presence of the haves. There is no way these people could have seen themselves as blessed. But now the Kingdom of God had come and things were going to be different.

 Now the people who were not blessed would have something that the others didn’t. They would have the Kingdom, and the Kingdom was going to be different and better than anything the rich ever had.
Most interpreters of the beatitudes infer that there is some connection between the things mentioned and the blessing of God. But the blessing of God isn’t because we are poor or meek, or mourning but in spite of it.

Some people teach, that being poor is somehow a blessing. If we can’t be poor, then we need to be poor “in spirit.” But what exactly does that mean? Does that mean we ought to think we are poor, even if we aren’t? But if you’ve ever been poor, you know that’s nonsense. There is nothing blessed about being homeless, or not having money to eat or pay your bills. As far as the “In spirit” part that Matthew includes, which some confuse with humility disappears when we look at Luke 6, where Jesus just says “poor”.  Poverty is a wretched state—it isn’t a blessing. Those who try to convince you that somehow poverty itself is a blessing have in all likelihood never had to endure it.

I worked as a volunteer in an emergency assistance center interviewing people who needed help with food and rent. On the first day, I met an elderly woman who had worked hard all her life. Her husband had died and her social security was not enough to support her. According to the laws of the state, she was allotted only sixteen dollars a month in food stamps. It broke her heart to even ask for help, and it broke my heart, too. We cried together, I’ll never forget the hurt pride of that woman--the utter despair on her face to come begging for food. There was nothing “blessed” about that. 

But who is to say who suffers most--a person who is poor through poverty, or a rich person who suffers from addiction, depression, or mental illness?

“Blessed are those who mourn.” Have you ever lost a loved one?  Did you enjoy it?  I don’t think so! It would be cruel to say that we have to go around emulating people who have lost their parents or their spouses so that God will comfort us! 

In Jesus’ day, the life expectancy was around thirty-five years of age. Most of that was due to an infant mortality rate close to fifty percent. Half of all women died in childbirth. If you lived past birth, sixty was considered a ripe old age. Grief and mourning was an almost constant state in that society. The prayer, “If I die before I wake” was a serious prayer, even for young children. It was made worse by a religious community which taught that death in childhood was a curse on the parents. 

“Blessed are the meek.” Don’t confuse this with the spiritual virtue of humility. He was talking about those who were low on the socio-economic scale. If you were a peasant, or if you not a Roman citizen, you had no protection under the law. 

“Blessed are the peacemakers.” We could read this as saying that this is a blessing, because instead of a blessing in spite of, but I don’t think so. Being a peacemaker is dangerous—when you try it, both sides shoot at you! There is a reason that people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King were assassinated.  Being a peacemaker means that people on both sides hate you.

“Blessed are the pure in heart.” Have you ever known the difficulty of trying to be pure in heart?  The Pharisees tried to be pure in heart, but they failed miserably. When a person tries to be holier than the people around them, they are ridiculed, reviled, and held up as “holy Joes” “hypocrites” or “holier than thou”.  There is no one more unpopular in any group than people who want to stay pure when everyone else is sullying themselves with sin.  It doesn’t matter whether or not they really are doing this, it is the perception that is so painful. It doesn’t even matter whether or not they are right in the way they are doing it. Can you imagine how hard it is for a devout Muslim woman to wear a hijab, when all her Christian neighbors think she is a terrorist for doing it? It’s a hard life.

“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst.” Which person hungers and thirsts for righteousness more—a saint or a sinner? When we really mess up, it’s like being thrown into a cesspool of regret. Don’t tell me it’s a blessing to be there—it’s not. Self-proclaimed saints don’t hunger for righteousness.
Prostitutes, drug addicts, and alcoholics do. “Good” people think they know what it is like to be sinners, but we really have no idea!  But even if we are so sanctified that we agonize inside every time we miss church, we are pitiful people. It is no blessing to be so obsessed with our own sins that we can’t get over them.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted.” I cannot imagine how many Christians would keep their faith if being a Christian meant losing the freedom or the right to keep their families. Many would fall away. Those who are persecuted are certainly not happy. Right now, there is a missionary named Andrew Brunson, sitting in a Turkish prison with twenty Muslims awaiting trial on a trumped-up charge, when his only crime is being a Christian missionary. Just one country away in northern Iraq Christians are being decapitated and crucified. I would hardly call them blessed, though.

The conditions of life are not what causes us to be blessed or not blessed, but our participation in the Kingdom is. Jesus does not raise the question of how we got into our present state of misery, but he promises that the Kingdom of God can be ours, even when we are suffering. This is the opposite of the Pharisees, who claimed that contentment, popularity and financial ease are a sign of God’s blessings, and that those who have them are in God’s favor. Such people are living in the kingdom of men, not the kingdom of God. Wherever you are in life, whatever you are going though, you can find help, when you enter the kingdom of God. When you enter the Kingdom by making Jesus your ruler, you will find a whole new way of living that doesn’t depend on what you had before. The kingdom of God can be yours.

Rich people already think they have the kingdom. They feel great! Poor people think they have been denied the kingdom, because they don’t have what rich men have, so they try to take it from the rich. But Jesus says it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor. This is a new world order, not a continuation of the old one.

It isn’t where we come from, that causes God to bless us, but where we are going. It isn’t the place where we now live that makes us blessed or not blessed. It is the place of Christ in our hearts. The kingdom of God has come to establish God’s peace in our hearts, despite our current circumstances.

If Jesus were speaking to us today, He might not talk in the same categories. He may say “Blessed are the fat, because in the Kingdom, they will have their appetites satisfied.” “Blessed are the divorced, because in the Kingdom, they will have their loneliness met.” “Blessed are the addicted, because in the Kingdom, they can find freedom from addiction.” “Blessed are the outlaws, because they can find their way back to being law-abiding.” “Blessed are the refugees and the homeless, because they can find a home in Christ.”

Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God. It is His kingdom to offer. Peace will not come until we are inside the Kingdom. Without obedience to the Lord, none of the blessings of the Kingdom is ours. But when we make Jesus our Lord, He will give us a life that will keep blessing us, no matter what.

Monday, February 13, 2017

I Believe in Pontius Pilate - Luke 3: 1-2

In the Apostle’s Creed, only three human beings are mentioned by name. The main one is Jesus, of course. The Virgin Mary is the second one. The third is Pontius Pilate.

Amazing, isn’t it?  Every Sunday in every church that regularly uses the Apostles Creed, millions of people recite the name—not only of Jesus and Mary—but of Pontius Pilate! Of all the people we could name on a weekly basis, Pilate would be the last to deserve it! 

In no way does Pilate deserve the honor. He was the fifth prefect of the province of Palestine under the Roman Empire from 26 to 36 A. D. He was known for his cruelty. He deeply offended the Jews, and was removed from office after numerous complaints to the Emperor Tiberius. The Roman writer Philo described him as a vindictive man with a furious temper. He gives several examples. He placed Roman symbols and shields on the wall of the fortress Antonia, so they could be seen from inside the temple. He did this just to irritate the Jews.  Another time he took money from the temple treasury to build an aqueduct. When the Jews gathered to complain, he ordered his troops to beat and kill Jews randomly. Philo wrote of "his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity."

What happened to Pilate is unknown. It is said that he committed suicide about two years after being deposed. The emperor at the time was Caligula, who was criminally insane and who regularly commanded noblemen to commit suicide and give him all their money. If that was what happened to Pilate, most people who knew him would say it was poetic justice. 

So why is his name preserved in the Apostles Creed? Only one reason—because he was governor at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.

In those days there was no standard system of historical dating like we have today. Dates were given by the reigns of rulers. So when the Creed says he “suffered under Pontius Pilate” it meant that Jesus died between 26 and 36 AD.
The date of the crucifixion is hugely important to the Christian, because Christianity is the one and only historical faith. It is what makes our Christian faith different from the other religions of the world. Our faith depends on historical events being true. If Jesus wasn’t crucified during the reign of Pontius Pilate, then our whole faith is a lie. 

This is not true of most religions. Buddhism does not depend on Buddha being a real, nor does it care when Buddha lived. Buddhism is a set of philosophical and moral teachings. In fact, many Buddhists insist that it is not a religion at all, but a philosophy. In Hinduism, there are many myths and legends, but a Hindu doesn’t have to believe any of them. It doesn’t matter to him when or if any historical figure actually lived. Whether a story is real or fictional doesn’t matter in Hinduism. It can be symbolic of something else. Buddhism and Hinduism believe the world is cyclical, that it has no beginning or end, so history is irrelevant anyway.

Islam and Judaism are based on historical events, but not in the same way Christianity is. They believe there was a creation and will be an end of the world. When looking at the details of their founders, the actual details of their lives are not as important as their systems of belief. In Islam, the details of Mohammed’s life are unimportant. The stories of Mohammed’s life were written two or three hundred years after his death and are not considered entirely accurate by Muslim scholars.  The Quran does not report on the history of Mohammed. If the Exodus never occurred, it would not change Judaism. They follow the Laws of Moses, not the life of Moses. To the Jews and Muslims, their holy books are like Shakespeare’s plays. If someone wrote them, it wouldn’t matter. It is what the books say that matters.

But Christianity is different. It is based on history.  If Jesus never lived, if He never died on the cross and was resurrected, then Christianity is a lie. Without these events, there can be no Christianity. 
Listen the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: 13-19,

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Without one the resurrection of Jesus, which happened in the reign of Pontius Pilate, Christianity falls apart. With the death and resurrection, Christianity is the one true religion, and the basis for all life. The resurrection of Jesus is not just a fable, nor is it a metaphor for something else. It is true. All of Christian teaching relies on this.

We have always liked good stories, especially if they can be used to teach moral lessons. We still read Aesop’s fables. Most of the myths the ancients told about gods and goddesses were not actually believed, they were just good stories. People used the myths and legends of Theseus or Hercules to explain moral truths. Our common stories give us a common language.

We still use good stories to teach lessons. You don’t have to believe it to be true. If I called someone a Mr. Spock or Darth Vader, most of you would know what I was talking about.

Take a book like Lord of the Rings. It’s a well-written piece of fiction which paints a wonderful picture of perseverance, the dangers of power, and so forth. But it’s just fiction. Yet we can use the story to teach many great truths. Lifeway Books sold a video series called, “The Andy Griffith Bible Study” where they teach truths from old Andy Griffith shows. They also has a “Beverly Hillbillies Bible Study.”  No one says that those TV shows were true, just because they could be used to teach lessons.

But when we say the Creed, we confess that it cannot be said of the stories of Jesus. It really happened in the reign of Pontius Pilate. He was really conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin named Mary.

Unbelievers respect Jesus--they just don’t believe in Him. They can enjoy the stories as pretty fables, intended to teach moral lessons. In their minds Jesus is a symbol of sacrifice and commitment. They like the story, they just don’t believe He is God, or that He was resurrected. To them, it doesn’t matter whether or not He actually suffered in the time of Pontius Pilate. He is just a story, no different from Frodo or Harry Potter.

But the New Testament writers never intended to give us the luxury of respect without belief. That is what made the Romans so mad at Christians. If they had just offered Jesus as one more example of mythology, no one would have minded Christianity.  But the Christians insisted. That He was a real man who was a real God. They gave enough details in the Bible to nail down when and where it happened.  They mention people and places who could be verified. When Jesus rose, Luke mentions people who saw it. He mentions historical events that happened at the same time. That is so we can verify what he said.

The Book of Mormon contains tales of Jews in the New World. It mentions people and places that supposedly existed. Yet not a single place or person has been independently verified. But we can go today to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Rome. We can see the records of Pontius Pilate as well as of Jesus. 

On my first trip to Israel, the first day we traveled by bus to Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee. As we traveled though the Jezreel valley, I looked up and saw a road sign. It said “Nazareth--3 km.”  When I saw it, something broke inside me. Here is was. For thirty years, I’d been preaching about Jesus of Nazareth, now, here was the real place, and my doubts dissolved. It was all true. Here it was, and I suddenly felt secure, knowing that I was this close to seeing it. 

The writers go out of their way to link the story to history. Jesus’ birth is in the reign of Caesar Augustus. Jesus death is in the reign of Tiberius.   When Luke begins his narrative of Jesus’ life in Luke 3, he uses six different rulers’ names and reigns to nail down the time of John the Baptist to 30 AD.

Jesus is real, He is not fictional. If we think it all a fantasy, and not reality, then believing in Jesus won’t do us any more good than believing in Harry Potter. 

But if He is real, then several things follow. First, we can’t make Jesus into whatever we want.  Our goal must be to portray Him accurately. We can be creative in our interpretations, but we must be always true to who He actually is. We can’t “reinvent” Him as if He were a fictional character. We must become like He was, not make Him into our own image.

Second, we must accept that what He is, God is. He was the true manifestation of God in human form. If we want to be like God we must look to Jesus. If we want to please God, we must think and act like Jesus. 
Third, He makes a difference in the real world. Our problem is not that we pray too much, but not enough. God’s interference in history shows us that He is involved in the world, and remains involved. He cares if we have a job or not, if we are sick or well, or if our marriages work out. 

Fourth, if He can make a difference, then we can make a difference. We are backed by the power of a real God, who intervened in human history, and continues to do so. 

Philosophers, poets, intellectual, and dreamers must all bend to reality. In our dreams, we may think we are invulnerable, but if we stand in a real road in front of a real truck we will be just as dead. Jesus hung on a real cross in a real country called Jerusalem in 33 AD, and rose from a real tomb in a real hill in Jerusalem. Jesus is not just a fable. He is real, and He is your Lord.  

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Who is Jesus?

" For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”

1 Timothy 2: 5-6
 “Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord.” Apostles Creed

We don’t all have to be nutritionists, but someone needs to be. There’s a lot of junk food, and junk advice about food in the world. If we didn’t pay attention to what we eat, we’d wind up malnourished, obese, or poisoned. We don’t all need to be accountants either, but someone does. We don’t all need to be doctors, either, but we need well-trained doctors. Without them, we might die.

If this is true about nutrition, finances, and medicine, isn’t it also true about spiritual things? Our souls are more important than food or money.  There’s a popular idea that what we believe doesn’t matter, so long as we believe in something!  Would you listen to a nutritionist who said, “It doesn’t matter what you eat, so long as you eat,” or an accountant who says, “It doesn’t matter where you put your money, so long as you invest?” We should expect the same kind of integrity and training for those who feed our souls as we do of those who feed our bodies. 

Spiritual mistakes, like medical or financial mistakes don’t show up quickly, but emerge over time. The long term results of bad theology hurts us in the end.  

And there is no place in the church where bad theology does more damage than in our discussions of who Jesus was. 

There are a lot of false versions of Jesus around. One of them we’ll call “Santa Jesus.” This false Jesus is all love, but no Lord. He gives us comfort and presents, but makes no demands. He’s the gentle shepherd who carries lambs on his shoulders and plays with children, is incompatible with the angry Jesus who drove out the moneychangers.

Then there’s “Biker Jesus”.  He’s the opposite of Santa Jesus--a tough, angry rebel who came to town to stir up trouble. Those who envision Jesus this way ignore the fact that He actually sat down with His enemies without condemning them, offering forgiveness even to the people who murdered Him. Jesus didn’t win the world with his fists (though He could have), but by His sacrificial death. Jesus was a suffering servant, not an action hero.

Then there’s “Super Jesus” a strange visitor from another world with miraculous powers. This false Jesus and invulnerable to human pain and temptation. Would Superboy, as a child worry about stubbing his toe or getting a spanking?  Why would this false Jesus be worried about the cross?  Yet Jesus did experience pain and anxiety just like the rest of us.

Then there is the “Rebel Jesus.” They see Jesus as a political revolutionary, putting together a band of followers who will overthrow the world, ready to start a fight to clean up injustice. This false view ignores the fact that Jesus lived among one of the most unjust regimes in history, namely the Roman Empire, yet never mentioned its worst injustices such as slavery, infanticide, homelessness,  political corruption, and others.

All these views of Jesus are still with us, and many who reject Jesus are not rejecting the real Jesus, but distorted misinterpretations. The real Jesus was someone else entirely.

The middle section of the Apostles Creed begins with three titles for Jesus ---the Christ, the only begotten Son, and our Lord. These titles are relational. They tell us how He relates to the world, to God, and to ourselves.   

1. Christ. “Christ” was not His last name. It means “messiah” or “Anointed leader.”

When Jesus was alone with His disciples, he asked them a question in Matthew 16: 13-16---“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He replied, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter gave the answer for them all, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

“Christ” (in Hebrew “messiah”) is a leader who is going to solve all our problems. When Obama was elected, many people thought he was going to be their messiah. They mistakenly believed that the government would pay off their debts, empty the ghetto, give free health care for all, and bring world peace. Now Trump is president, some people talk as if he is the messiah who will save us from Isis, runaway debt and illegal immigration. It’s too early to tell, of course, but I think neither Obama nor Trump are the Christ or the antichrist. There’s only one messiah and that’s Jesus.

Jesus is the messiah, but not the way the world thought. The underlying sickness in the world is spiritual, not political. Worldly messiahs fail because they offer worldly solutions to spiritual problems. The disparity of wealth in the world is not a problem if the rich weren’t greedy. If the poor weren’t jealous, it wouldn’t matter if the rich had more luxuries. If we could master lust, sexuality wouldn’t be an issue. Eating disorders come from vanity and gluttony. Political oppression comes from our desire to dominate others. One generation’s freedom fighters become the next generation’s oppressors, because inside dictators and rebels are made of the same sinful stuff.  They all prove false in the end. Whatever form of government we espouse, sinful people will still run the world. The true Christ must save people from their own sins before there can be permanent change to society.

2. “the only begotten Son.” This speaks of His relationship with God. “He is not a created creature--but God’s essence in human form. Colossians 1: 15-20 tells us:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. . .For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. . .”

He is also called the “Word,” the  self-expression in human form of God.

You don’t have to understand this--just accept it! He’s not a heavenly created being, like an archangel. He’s not a lesser god, like Greek mythology suggested. He’s not just a human being who got promoted to divinity, like the Roman emperors. He’s not a pure ray of divinity in a dirty world, like the Greek philosophers said. He is God, taking on human life, fully human and fully divine, living as an ordinary Galilean carpenter and preacher, the eternal expression of God on earth—God in as a real person.

Many people over the years have claimed to be God, to make themselves sound important. Jesus was God brought down to our level, to experience all the hopes, fears, and struggles of human flesh. He wasn’t frail flesh claiming divinity, but God daring to become frail flesh. God entered fully into creation so he could experience human existence; enduring birth, childhood, family life, friendship, hunger, thirst,  happiness,  celebration, suffering, torture, and death, so He could know firsthand our pain.

Brennan Manning, a Catholic priest, did something similar in a small way. To minister to prisoners, he became a voluntary prisoner. Only the warden knew. He did this so he could experience life inside the prison bars. He didn’t last very long at it. I couldn’t have endured it!  Yet Jesus lived a lifetime among us. You may love the homeless, but would you be homeless?  You may love your dog, but would you be a dog? This was an act of humility bigger than any we can imagine.

3. “Our Lord.”  This is His relationship to us. He is our Lord, not someone else’s.  Philippians 2:  9-11 says:

“Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

It’s interesting that the creed never mentions “saved” or “salvation.” Receiving Jesus as savior is just a prerequisite for receiving Him as Lord.  Salvation is the door do a new life, but we don’t live in the doorway, we enter the feast! We don’t hold weddings every day—we live in marriage. We don’t rejoice in forgiveness, we enter His service. 

We are not just saved—we are saved from something to something. We are saved from ourselves, our sins, and our foolish idolatry to become a subject of Jesus’ kingdom. Salvation implies submission. A drug addict saved from his addiction must still hold down a job and enter healthy relationships with others. If he can’t learn to submit to an employer he will not stay sober for long. He must submit to live.

What if we don’t treat Jesus as Lord, can we still be saved? If a person says to God, “Save me from my sins.”  If an adulterer asks his wife for forgiveness, but continues to live with another woman, should the woman take him back? If we ask God for forgiveness, yet continue to life in sin and idolatry, should we have any more right to be forgiven than an insincerely repentant cheating husband?  If you accept Jesus as your savior with no intention of making Him Lord, how can He really be either?

Notice the middle word in this phrase from the Creed--“only.” He’s the world’s only messiah, God’s only human expression and our only Lord. Is Jesus your only? He won’t take second place. Make Him your only, and all others things will be added to you. If we try to make Him less than our only, then we will miss out on everything else.