Monday, March 2, 2015

Get Behind Me, Satan

Passage: Mark 8:27-33

At a certain point in his ministry, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am.” They give various responses: “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 
Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say I am?”
Peter alone responds, “You are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of God!”

The very next thing Jesus tells them is that he is going to be arrested, abused by the religious authorities, and killed. Peter, outraged, takes Jesus aside and tells him to stop talking such nonsense. Jesus looks Peter in the eye and says, “Get behind me, Satan!”
What has Peter done to deserve such a dressing-down?

The name “Satan” means adversary. Throughout the Bible the term is used as a proper name for the fallen angel who is God’s arch-enemy. But it’s also used for anyone who opposes God’s way. God’s plan of redemption for all humanity hinges on Jesus’ arrest; torture; death and resurrection. It has to happen. But who can blame Peter for wanting to prevent it?

Jesus, apparently. Why? Because Peter has allowed what Peter wants to get in the way of what God wants. It turns out everyone – even the disciple closest to Jesus – has the potential to be a satan – an adversary of God. All it takes is placing what we want ahead of what the Lord wants. How does one guard against becoming a unwitting adversary? Know Jesus well enough to know what he wants. Know yourself well enough to know what you want. And love the Lord enough to sacrifice what you want for what he wants. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015


Passage: Mark 8:14-21

Jesus comes to bring heaven to earth. Jesus constantly trains his disciples to look for and perceive the stuff of heaven. He invites them to live life on a higher plain. They keep crashing back to earth.

At a certain point Jesus says, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” Jesus uses food and drink as metaphors for the guiding philosophies and, by extension, the sources of life his disciples place at the center of their lives. The Pharisees use God’s word and authority as a means of gaining power, influence, and security. Their “leaven” is the promise that, if you ascribe to their brand of religion, everything will be okay. But if you consume their leaven, you unwittingly feed their power. Herod’s power resides in economic and military strength. He promises security if you devote yourself to his regime. Jesus warns his disciples against “consuming” belief systems that offer false sources of sustenance and inadequate grounds for hope. Both the Pharisees and Herod depend on their constituents’ preoccupation with the needs of the body. They pray on people’s fear of “not enough” food or protection to fuel their own power.

The disciples are, in this moment, so preoccupied with the fact they didn’t pack a lunch that they miss Jesus’ meaning entirely. Which is ironic because Jesus, the day before, caused lunch to materialize for 5,000 people. Lunch is not a worry for Jesus. The disciples think Jesus is talking about “leaven” as a way of chiding them for not thinking enough about food. In fact Jesus is doing just the opposite. He’s saying, “If you live your life preoccupied with provision and protection, you will sell yourself to the wrong people and feed the wrong power.” Jesus persistently invites his disciples to “set their minds on things above.” And Jesus sets them free to do so by promising that, if they “seek first God’s Kingdom”, all their earthly needs will be met.

How much Jesus disciples – in every time and place – have in common. How quick we are to consume the leaven of political voices that say, “Enough gold and enough guns will keep you safe.” How quick we are to consume the leaven of a brand of religion that says, “If you’re good enough, God will give you everything you want.” We’re still thinking about lunch. Still preoccupied with provision and protection and still subject to whatever person or power seems most likely to deliver it. Jesus says to us, “Beware the leaven of that political party; of this religious movement; of that cultural trend.” Look for the leaven of life; be nourished by the bread of heaven. Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness. He’ll take care of the rest. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Day of the LORD

Put on sackcloth, you priests, and mourn; wail, you who minister before the altar.
Come, spend the night in sackcloth, you who minister before my God;
for the grain offerings and drink offerings are withheld from the house of your God.
Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly.
Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.
Alas for that day!
For the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty.
(Joel 1:13-15)

A persistent theme of the Old Testament Prophets is “The Day of the LORD” – the moment in history when God shows up in person and makes everything right. God’s people assumed they’d be the primary beneficiaries of God’s restorative action. In the course of making the world right, God would do away with the evildoers and restore the fortunes of his chosen people. The words of the prophets disabuse God’s people of any such illusion. Amos writes, “Woe to you who long for the Day of the LORD. Why do you long for the Day of the LORD – that day is darkness, not light!” The prophets confront their people with the fundamental error we all make: assuming that what’s wrong with the world is all those other people. Assuming that God’s on our side. Assuming that justice should always flow our way. The prophets warn God’s people that they’re on the wrong side of justice.

When God talks about justice, he’s not talking primarily about crime and punishment. He’s talking about making life right. And that’s where everyone’s culpable. Everyone holds a narrow view of justice – one that serves one set of interests while ignoring many others. The prophets confront God’s people with perpetuating economic, political and religious policies that protect a privileged majority and persistently push others to the margins. All the while priding themselves in their moral purity and self-sufficiency.

Through his prophets God tells his people, “You may be comfortable. But I will not rest as long as there single parents and children going to bed hungry; as long as there are displaced people who are homeless and unemployed; as long as there are people who have to resort to crime because you’ve given them no dignified way to support themselves.” God tells his people, “Don’t come to me with token words of worship or pleas for assistance if there are people in your world whose voices you’ve silenced or cries you’ve ignored.” God’s justice is sweeping and world-renewing. Justice is bad news for the beneficiaries of injustice.

But it’s good news for those who have suffered injustice; who have protested injustice; who have set aside their privilege and taken their place alongside those who mourn injustice.

We can split hairs about what’s injustice and what isn’t. About what destructive attitudes and policies are justified and which are not. Our rhetoric may protect us now. But it will not stand up in the cosmic court of Almighty God. He is coming to make it right once and for all.

There’s one way to take the terror out of the Day of the Lord. It’s to choose justice now. To leverage your power and privilege on behalf of someone who has none. To call injustice injustice. And to abandon your way for God’s way. A way that affirms the dignity and humanity of every person; a way that promises the means of life to everyone, and fights to protect them; a way that places everyone on equal footing in a place of equal importance in the economy of God’s love and the new order of God’s Kingdom. If that sounds bad to you, you may need to heed the prophets’ warning about the Day of the LORD. But if it sounds right – like the way it’s supposed to be – then take heart. The Lord has come. He is even now redeeming our seemingly irredeemable world and reconciling our seemingly irreconcilable differences. Justice will come; justice and mercy will consummate their long-distance relationship; the wrong we so desperately want to be made right will be made right. Don’t give up. The Lord will have his day.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lord, Lord

Passage: Matthew 7:15-23

In a memorable sequence of the final season of Six Feet Under, character David Fisher picks up a charming young hitchhiker. It doesn’t take long for David to learn why “Don’t pick up the hitchhiker” is such a tried-and-true TV trope. The young man pulls a gun; gets David to drive him all over town; robs him and leaves him alone and terrorized in an alley. David spends weeks dealing with post-traumatic stress. Then, miraculously, his abductor is arrested for another crime. David has the opportunity to confront him. David sits across the table from his shackled tormentor. And the young man says, “David, I’m so glad you came to visit me. Did you miss me?”
“Miss you?”
“Well, yeah. Aren’t we friends? Don’t you remember what a good time we had?”
“Good time? You threatened to kill me!”
“Oh, I was just having fun.”
“I’m leaving.”
“Well, didn’t you at least bring me something?”
The young hitchhiker is so pathologically self-centered that he has no understanding or regard for his victim’s feelings. And no real recognition of the real person sitting across from him.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that at the end of time people will come to him claiming to have a relationship with him. When in reality no such relationship existed. They’ll say, “Lord – my lord; my buddy – didn’t we have good times together? Look – I performed miracles in your name. I cast out demons!” Jesus will say, “Get away from me - I never knew you!”

So what does it mean to know Jesus? Isn’t claiming him as Savior enough? Isn’t declaring him your official religion enough? Isn’t it enough to go to church and say your prayers and read the Bible? Apparently not.

To know Jesus is to embrace him for all he is. Jesus is not just the embodiment of God’s love. Jesus is not just the means of God’s saving grace. Jesus is also the human expression of the full extent of God’s power and majesty. To know Jesus is to come face to face with almighty God. The place from which to start responding to Jesus is on your knees.

To have a relationship with Jesus is to place him at the center of your life. To set aside every other value and priority in favor of him. To set aside even your self. You can do important and even sensational things in the name of Christ or for the cause of Christianity. All while serving yourself – your need for recognition and praise; your need for significance and status. If you are at the center of your life, you can’t possibly know Jesus. Because to know him is make him your everything.

According to Jesus, the true test of whether you know him is obedience. To submit every part of your life to his scrutiny and his will. Jesus says,
Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

But when we offer Jesus our lives, he gives us his. A life of abundance and adventure and true peace now. And a life that cannot be taken away, even by death. Call Jesus Lord. And let him be Lord – Lord of your world, and Lord of your life. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Loving Enemies

Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount summarizes Jesus’ most well-known and least-loved teachings. I say least-loved because the stuff Jesus tells us to do feels almost impossible. Most difficult is what Jesus tells us to do with enemies. Love ‘em. Pray for them. Seek what’s best for them and appeal to God on their behalf. Enemies are by definition people whose best interests we don’t have at heart. People whom we want God to give exactly what they deserve.

In Philippians 1, the Apostle Paul gives us a brief glimpse of Jesus’ new, love ethic in action. He writes this from a prison cell:
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.

Paul’s hope, among other things, is that even those who imprison him will come to know Jesus as Savior. Paul sees the agents of his suffering and oppression – his enemies – through a lens not of anger and hatred, but mercy and grace. How is this possible?
Because Paul is well aware that this is the way his enemy treated him. Paul began his life as Saul of Tarsus – hater of Jesus and persecutor of the church. It was when Paul was in the process of hunting down Christians that Christ came to him in person and offered him redemption. Paul articulates it this way in 1 Timothy 1:
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.

Paul prays that his enemies will experience the same mercy and salvation he experienced at the hands of Jesus. Although we often think differently, we were to Jesus what Saul of Tarsus was to Jesus: natural enemies. We were to Jesus what our enemies are to us. Jesus refused to give us what we deserve. So doing Jesus ushers us in to a new reality. One in which our greatest hope is to see our enemies redeemed by the grace and love that redeemed us. One in which God’s goal for us is the fulfillment of humanity’s oldest dream: to be reconciled to God, and to one another.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Trouble With Shepherds

Throughout Scripture God uses the term “sheep” to describe his people. If you know anything about sheep you recognize that this isn’t a compliment. Sheep are stupid, nearly defenseless creatures that, left to their own devices, would die horrible premature deaths. Sheep need to be shepherded – they need to be guided, protected, nurtured and corrected by someone whose perspective and insight far surpasses their own. Although sheep often make life difficult for those entrusted with their care, they will submit to the commanding presence of a shepherd.

However this vulnerability makes sheep highly susceptible to abuse. Sheep are completely at the mercy of their shepherds. If a shepherd is neglectful, sheep wander into crevasses and swamps, fall prey to predators, or exhaust their grazing land and go hungry. If a shepherd is abusive, sheep become an outlet for his anger or even his next meal. An inadequate shepherd treats the sheep as though they exist to meet his needs.

For much of their history, God’s people live under the watch of “shepherds” – prophets, priests and kings who represent God’s authority and provide much-needed direction and protection. But not all these shepherds serve their God-given role and a God-honoring way. Like sheep, God’s people are highly susceptible to abuse and neglect. God’s shepherds, as often as not, use God’s people to meet their own needs. The people’s response is always to look for a better shepherd – a more honest prophet; a more selfless priest; a more honorable king. In the end each proves to be as fallible as the last. Through his prophet Ezekiel, God condemns the bad shepherds of Israel, and confronts his people’s na├»ve willingness to simply give themselves to anyone in a fancy suit who tells them what they want to hear.

How is it that God’s people haven’t changed all that much? We continue to fall for preachers and leaders who shine up nicely and talk a good game. We buy into celebrity preachers and TV personalities who tell us the version of God’s Word that best fits our agendas. And then we recoil in shock and horror when they take the money and run, take up with the church secretary, or otherwise demonstrate that in the end, we were serving them instead of the other way around. They seemed so nice; they sounded so convincing; how could I have so badly misjudged them?

Through Ezekiel God promises a solution. He says,
I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.
God tells his people, “You will no longer, haphazardly, bounce from one bad shepherd to the next. I will shepherd you myself.” But how?
In his Gospel, John introduces a God who “takes on flesh and makes his dwelling among us.” Jesus – God in person – recalls Ezekiel’s promise, saying,
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 

Jesus invites us to familiarize ourselves with his voice. We benefit from the guidance of brothers and sisters gifted with wisdom and knowledge of God’s word. But we are all fellow sheep. Our only shepherd is the only good shepherd – the one who lays down his life for us. Arm yourself against self-professed shepherds who will use you for their own ends – in the form of book proceeds, donation checks, or “likes” on social media. Get to know the voice of the Good Shepherd, who gives himself unreservedly for you. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

For the Sake of My Name

Passage: Ezekiel 20:1-20

The prophet Ezekiel has a job no one wants. It’s his job to explain to his people – the people of God – exactly why their life has unraveled. The cause, it turns out, is their serial unfaithfulness to God himself. Through Ezekiel, God reminds his people that he’s given them one second chance after another, after another. They have disregarded his overtures of love and forgiveness; they have disregarded his warnings; and now they will face the consequences of repeatedly choosing their way over God’s.

What most outrages God is the fact that all of his instructions and all of his interventions have been for his people’s benefit. God should have abandoned his people long ago – right after the first time they rejected God in favor of the idols and indulgences of their pagan neighbors. Again and again God has shown them grace, and offered another chance to get it right. Why has God – often labeled a harsh judge – shown so much leniency?

Because as much as God cares about his chosen people, he has a purpose in mind for them that is greater than their comfort and their care. In fact God’s purpose in choosing Israel was to reveal himself, through their life as a nation, to the rest of the world. God refuses to let his people fall at the hands of other nations because those nations must see that, however flawed and weak the Israelites, their God is beyond compare.

God tells Ezekiel:
…the people of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not follow my decrees but rejected my laws—by which the person who obeys them will live—and they utterly desecrated my Sabbaths. So I said I would pour out my wrath on them and destroy them in the wilderness. But for the sake of my name I did what would keep it from being profaned in the eyes of the nations in whose sight I had brought them out. 
God’s work through the Israelites can only benefit them. Even God’s Law – which seems like an exacting imposition on them – is intended to shape their life for optimal flourishing. But regardless of their rejection of God and his way, God accomplishes his purposes through the Israelites. The Israelites are exiled to Babylon as a consequence for their unfaithfulness. Yet during this time God uses Israelites to reveals himself to the kings of the pagan Empire – through Daniel; Esther; Nehemiah and many others. God does preserve a remnant of his people. And centuries later, true to God’s promise, the Savior of all humanity is born to them.

God perpetually works on behalf of his chosen people. But more importantly, God perpetually works on behalf of all people. So that even when we as God’s people reject God’s overtures of love and his intervention on our behalf, God has his way. He continues to claim us by the blood of Jesus Christ. And he continues to show his grace and glory to an unbelieving world. Make no mistake. Everything God does is, first and foremost, for the sake of his name. When we appeal to God’s grace, we do so with an eye for God’s glory. When we ask God to bless us in specific ways, we remember that God always answers our prayers in a way that points to him. May we who belong to God be, like God, committed first to the glory of his name.