A God, A Rulebook, or Trustworthy Testimony

Bible open to John 5. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

Bible open to John 5. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

What am I talking about? The Bible, the Christian scriptures.

Some people treat the Bible as if it was the fourth member of the Godhead. Sometimes, it seems we are more zealous to defend a notion of what the Bible is than we are for God’s glory, God’s reputation in the world.

I think many view the Bible as a book of rules. Do these things and you will go to heaven. Don’t do these things and God will get you. Let the people into our community who keep the rules. Exclude the ones who don’t. Study hard so you know the rules. If you are creative, figure out ways to extend the rules to every situation, even ones never envisioned by the rules. Exclude those who don’t agree with your creative interpretations. Congratulate yourself on your diligence in study and rule-keeping. You are one of God’s star pupils.

Of course, that is only good if you are good at study and rule-keeping and many of us are honest enough to admit that we are not. So, should we just pack it in since we are in a mess with God anyway? I think that is how a number of people feel.

This Sunday, our church looked at John 5:19-46 together. Verses 39 and 40 suggest a very different reason for the scriptures:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life.These are the very Scriptures that testify about me,  yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Jesus is proposing that the Bible is neither God nor a rule book but rather testimony about himself that can be trusted. The central idea of the Bible is to help people find life through trusting and following Jesus. The Pharisees, who were great at battling for the Bible and devising ingenious rule-keeping strategies were missing the point. In fact they were so caught up in these things that they were refusing something better, real life, being connected to the God who made them through his Son who had come to them.

But, you say, there really are a lot of rules in the Bible. It sure looks like a rule book in places. What’s that all about? There are two ways to answer this. One is that the rules really reflect what God is like and what we need to be like to live with Him. They tell us we need God to do something both to wipe the slate clean from all the ways we break the rules, and to deal with our propensity to do the opposite of what God wants for us. That something is Jesus and the life he gives means both forgiveness for what we’ve done and the power to increasingly live differently.

The second answer is that the instructions and commands we find, especially those given by Jesus and in the New Testament are not rules but tell us how we might most faithfully and joyfully enter into the life Jesus has for us. They teach us how to love God and each other and to experience wholeness in our own selves.

There’s a good deal more that can be said about all this so if you have questions, leave them in the comments and let’s talk!

The real deal that I want to come back to is that the most important thing to look for when reading the Bible is how it points us toward Jesus. Earlier in the passage we see this is the Jesus who claims equality with the Father and to have been entrusted with the Father’s authority both to give life and to judge (verses 19-27). If that’s true, then there is no one more important to know!

So, if you are spiritually seeking, then it seems one of the most important questions you can ask as you read the Bible is, how does this testify to Jesus and what is this telling me about him? In some sense, all of the Bible does this, but I would suggest for newbie Bible readers that the gospels do this most clearly.

And for those who are Christ-followers, how are we viewing the Bible? Have we gotten caught up in some form of Bible wars? Are we congratulating ourselves on how well we keep the rules, or how much we know about the Bible? Or are we not paying much attention at all to what it says, depending on sermons to do that for us? What John says is that this book tells us who Jesus is and how we can find abundant life as we get to know and follow him better and better.

Going Deeper Question: How do you think about the Bible, and how are you interacting with it?

“Our Healing is in our Obedience”

Pieter Aertsen 1507/08 – 1575 The Healing of the Cripple of Bethesda

Pieter Aertsen 1507/08 – 1575
The Healing of the Cripple of Bethesda

“Our healing is in our obedience.”

I’ve been musing on this phrase ever since Rich [Hagopian, for those of you who don’t know my pastor] said this during this past Sunday’s message on the healing of the invalid at the pool of Bethesda in John 5:1-15.

The basic story is that Jesus comes upon this man who he has learned has been in this condition for 38 years. It was believed that if you could get into the water when it was stirred, you could be healed.

Jesus asks him, “do you want to be well?” The man never answers this searching question. Yet it had to be asked–you can get accustomed to being sick, having others care for you and so forth, to the point that healthy life is the scary thing.

Instead, the man gives the many reasons why he could not get into the pool before others. This provokes all kinds of questions and one wonders if this is a pretty lame excuse.

Jesus neither questions the answer or re-asks his original question. Jesus doesn’t blame or judge him. Instead, Jesus simply tells him to get up and take his mat with him. The man does what Jesus says, and in so doing, in the moment of obedience, finds himself healed. His healing is in his obedience. In doing what Jesus says, he finds he is able to walk.

It seems to me that this speaks to those critical moments where we face the choice to trust and follow Jesus in some critical area of obedience, or not. On the one hand, we often can come up with many reasons why we haven’t been able to follow up until now. On the other hand, we sometimes want all kinds of assurances and proofs that Jesus will heal us, help us, be with us, before we follow.

And like this incident, there will be times where none of it matters.

The only thing in those moments is, will we trust that Jesus knows what he is doing enough to do what he says? Sometimes, that is all he will give us and we can only find whether he is true by obeying him.

Probably in my own life, the area where I’ve most been challenged by this is in the matter of giving. It seems crazy, mathematically at least, to set aside a portion of my salary each month for kingdom purposes and to somehow believe that what remains (especially after Uncle Sam gets his chunk!) will be enough. There is no way to know that will be the case before you do it! Yet the crazy paradox is that it is the times when I’ve not been faithful in giving where I’ve felt the most financially stressed. Leaning into giving and generosity, as crazy as it seems, has been the thing that has helped heal me from being obsessed about having “enough.” My healing in the areas of worry about money has been in obedience.

And God has taken care of us through 36-plus years of marriage, and sometimes miraculously, such as the time when we were facing $2000 in unreimbursed medical bills, and the same day we added this up we received a gift of $2000 from someone who said God had told them to send us a check.

I continue to face these moments where I simply have to decide, will I trust Jesus enough to do what he says, laying aside my excuses and not asking for any proofs (which really don’t make obedience easier).

What about you? It might be that the place where you find it hard to trust and obey is the very place where Jesus can bring healing as you obey. What does “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” look like for you?

This blog also appears on Smoky Row Brethren Church’s Going Deeper blog.

The Great Disruption

Disruptions.

I don’t like them. I’m a creature of routine, compulsively so my wife might say. In our Christmas Eve service last night, our pastor reflected on the giant disruption that the coming of Jesus represented. Among other things his coming:

Nativity holy family

  • Nearly wrecked the marriage plans of Mary and Joseph.
  • Disrupted the life of the family in Bethlehem who hosted them (see my post reviewing Open Hearts in Bethlehem for more on this).
  • Broke into the quiet night of shepherds.
  • Sent the Magi on a journey following a strange star.
  • Enraged Herod the King, threatened by a possible rival.
  • Led to a sojourn as an undocumented immigrant in Egypt.
  • Led eventually to a new numbering of years around the “thought to be” year of his birth.

His life was pretty disruptive as well as he:

  • Defied temptations to comfort, power, and acclaim.
  • Broke the power of illness and evil in countless lives.
  • Drove the money-changers from the “house of prayer for the nations.”
  • Challenged a religious system that divided one people into “law keepers” and “sinners” offering no hope for the latter.
  • Defied the messianic expectations of crowds and disciples to break a more oppressive power than Rome and win a greater victory.

I cannot celebrate Christmas without celebrating the “great disruption” of my life by this child, servant king. It is easy for me to focus on the parts of that disruption that I like — the forgiveness of sins, the love of God, the hope of eternal life. That’s a lot better than alienation and hopelessness. But this is a disruption that calls me out of self-centeredness to the love of God and others. It disrupts my checkbook, my comfort, my politics, and my associations. It disrupts the “either-or” ways of dividing the world into “us” and “them”, a world of “allies” and “enemies”. Sometimes it means not being understood by any of the people who love these divisions.

Our sentimental ideas of peace on earth have little to do with the shalom of God. To get lions to lie down with lambs represents the disruption of a predatory system. Exalting the humble and humbling the proud represents the disruption of systems of power, privilege, injustice and economic disparity.

This Christmas I’m praying that the coming of King Jesus will disrupt the racial divisions and wounds of our land. Maybe the disruption in my life will begin with some of my friends who I will not join in the litanies of “what is wrong with them.” Frankly, the disruption of Jesus makes me far more aware of the “logs” in my own eye that I need help getting rid of. Maybe the disrupting shalom of Jesus’s coming is meant to bring the quiet that cuts off our blathering, defending and denouncing in mid-sentence. What difference might it make to our national conversation if some of us would just shut up and listen?

It doesn’t seem very “Christmas-y” to wish you disruptions in your life. Yet, to say “come Lord Jesus” seems to be an invitation to life-giving disruption. Neither as individuals nor as a nation can we be all we are meant to be without such disruptions. And so this Christmas day I say “come, Lord Jesus!”

______ and Believe

Are you curious about the missing word in this title? It is a word we often associate with “turn or burn” street preachers. It’s not a word we tend to use in “polite company” (whatever that is!). It is the word, along with “believe” that distinguished the tax collectors and the prostitutes from the religious elite that our pastor talked about in a message on the parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21:28-32. It is the word “repent.

The tax collectors and prostitutes are likened by Jesus to a son who refuses to work in his father’s vineyard but then changes his mind and goes to work. The religious elite are compared to a son who says he will go and work in the vineyard but never shows up. I can personally imagine the religious elite railing on Jesus saying, “Look at all we do. We lead worship, we teach the people, we work hard in maintaining the building whereas all these people did was change their minds and believed in you after living really seedy lives. And you have the nerve to compare us to disobedient sons!”

I can sympathize with these guys because I don’t often think about how hard it is to admit that I’m on the wrong path and change my mind and embrace a different way of life, or even a different way of thinking. That’s what both John the Baptist and Jesus were saying to both the “sinners” and the “religious elite.” That’s what it means to repent. It means doing a 180 degree turn in my thinking and actions. This was brought home to me recently when I read a post on “Books that changed my mind.” I had to honestly admit that I couldn’t think of a book that “changed” my mind, although I can think of books that have influenced my thinking and that I’ve deeply appreciated. For that matter, how many of us have changed our minds about our politics, or even what our favorite pizza is?

I can imagine these religious elite folks hearing John the Baptist or even Jesus and going through the motions of repenting and believing and calling up the appropriate religious emotions. After all, “repent and believe” was a part of the religious lingo they’ve learned from Moses and the prophets. But they refused to hear and believe the invitation in “repent and believe” that urged them to give up their elaborate religious system to welcome their King and come to his parties (actually, they did sometimes but mostly to find fault).

If change is so hard, I wonder then why the tax collectors and prostitutes were so willing to change and to believe the invitation to enter the kingdom? I can’t help but wonder if part of this is that they know their lives aren’t OK and perhaps long ago had given up hope that they’d be included in any plan of God other than their destruction–and then along comes this astounding figure of Jesus (and John before him) who said that being part of God’s kingdom was for them if they’d stop doing life their way and trust in Jesus’s way of doing life.

One of the things we say about those who get older is that they become “set in their ways.” Guilty as charged! There are patterns of life, of speaking, of thinking, and yes, patterns of self-seeking, and sin that are part of how I do life. Yet the truth of the matter is that I have the temerity to serve in a Christian ministry, even in a leadership role in that ministry! I desperately need the word of “repent and believe” or I can easily start thinking that my religious performance, my years of service, my degrees and recognitions, or even the size of my library (!) are what make me special. I can be that religious elite!

Repentance and belief do not mean the radical transformation of all these patterns overnight or even by the end of a life. Rich helpfully observed that the tax collectors and prostitutes who repented may not have been able to leave their work, particularly the prostitutes who might be enslaved to a pimp. The tax collectors had obligations to Rome. A change of mind may not always mean a change of situation and it may be that the first changes Jesus wants to work in us may have nothing to do with the things we think need changing! It may mean that I become more gracious toward the failings of others having faced the failings in my own life!

Am I tolerating or excusing sin by saying this? I could be, but repentance is to embrace the obedience that trustingly follows Jesus and mourns my sin. And belief is daring to trust in an acceptance into God’s kingdom that rests not on religious performance or “sin management’. How repentance changes things is that I stop pretending to be better than I am and admit that I am probably worse off than I think, and yet for all that radically loved and accepted by God because of Jesus.

I guess if I had to choose a way to be “set” in as I get older, it is the way of repentance and belief! How about you?

This blog first appeared on my church’s Going Deeper Blog on November 19, 2014.

When Shrewd is Good

To be called “shrewd” is often a back-handed compliment. Images of used car dealers in plaid jackets or oily snake oil salesmen run through my mind. One definition I came across said “given to wily and artful ways or dealing.” One often gets the idea that shrewdness involves something a bit shady, but clever.

© Nennanenna | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

© Nennanenna | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

This past Sunday, Rich preached on the parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16:1-15. He finds out that he’s going to lose his job because he wasted the master’s possessions. So, to have some place to go after he gets fired, he calls the master’s debtors in and reduces their debts from 20 to 50 percent. When the master finds out, he commends him as a shrewd operator. Jesus in turn says worldly guys like this are shrewder than the people of light when it comes to using money (verse 8).

So is Jesus saying its OK to cut corners to make a little extra? No, the point is that this guy in his own way used money to make friends. Rich talked about the idea that for Christians, are we as good at faithfully using money for the blessing of others as the shrewd manager was in using money to make friends. The truth is we can only use money to serve God or be mastered by money where it becomes our god (verse 13).

So often, we avoid talking about money in church because such talk is either a prelude to a guilt trip or to an appeal to put more in the offering plate. In the midst of all that, it seems we miss the incredible opportunity for joy in the use of whatever money we have.

Rich talked about the creative people who figure out not only how to pay their bills but delight in finding ways to use their money to care for others. What is interesting to me is that these are the happiest people I know. They don’t always have a pile of money. But they love having an extra person at the table, or surprising someone with a gift they really need. They always seem to have enough to give. This is when shrewd is good.

I’ve known some people who have real gifts, or just plain opportunity to make a pile of money. They are entrepreneurs. One of the coolest things I’ve seen are some people I’ve known like this who get really excited by figuring out ways to use this money, or even multiply this money through the investment of others in advancing the kingdom of Jesus. This is when shrewd is good.

One friend has created a business with the help of investors that employs ex-prisoners in janitorial jobs in office buildings, giving them skills, a work record, and, if they are receptive, the gospel. Others have invested in micro-lending that enables people to expand businesses, and is a key to helping women escape the threats of violence and trafficking. Another believing friend uses investment skills and Christian principles to help wealthy clients develop family “mission statements” about the use of their wealth and plans for how wealth will be intelligently passed along from one generation to the next without spoiling the children rotten. This is when shrewd is good.

Rich asked us several questions at the end including the challenge to ask someone else to tell us, “how concerned with money do you think I am?” One that I might add is “how do you think about money?” Are you thinking about how much of it you have and how you can get more, or are you thinking about ways that you can use what you have so that someone else can experience the goodness of God’s kingdom? I’m not sure we can get away from thinking about money in this life. It seems to me that the real question is whether we are thinking of money as on trust to us from God and looking for ways to use it for the good of people and the glory of God. This is when shrewd is good.

The Unsung Hero of Christmas

Joseph often strikes me as the unsung hero of the Christmas story. Of course the greatest hero is the Christ child, the Incarnate One who enters our world as a helpless babe for our salvation. And there is Mary, who receives Gabriel’s message with the words, “I am the servant of the Lord” even though the thing asked of her meant the possibility of being seen as an unwed mother and of having been unfaithful to Joseph, her betrothed. It is she who carries this child, who births him in difficult circumstances, and whose own heart will also be pierced as she one day beholds her crucified son. In most of our Christmas carols, however, Joseph gets less “air time” than the angels, the wise men, the shepherds or even the mythical drummer boy!

nativity_edited

Joseph is known for what he did not do. He did not denounce Mary or even put her away quietly. He took her as wife and, to leave the matter beyond question, did not have relations with her (a model of the possibility of restraint in our sexualized culture!).

What he did do is obey the angelic command and believe the declaration that this child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that he would save his people from sin. His belief and obedience carried them to Bethlehem, to Egypt, by roundabout ways to Nazareth. He raised the young boy, likely teaching him carpentry because Jesus is referred to both as the carpenter’s son and the carpenter whose father was Joseph. He and Mary anxiously searched for him after their visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 and Jesus stayed behind to converse with the religious teachers. This is the last we hear of Joseph alive.

Joseph, to me, represents everyday faithfulness, the behind the scenes kind of faithfulness that is usually only noticed by its absence. He does what needs to be done, whether finding an alternative to guest rooms, getting the family out of danger, and supporting a family and mentoring a son in a physically exacting and demanding trade. Carpentry likely included construction work as well as craftsmanship. And one also wonders if he had a role in teaching his son the scriptures, perhaps in conjunction with synagogue life.

It strikes me that Joseph might be the kind of hero we need to pay more attention to in our celebrity-driven culture, both outside and inside the church. We often seem to want to spend more time giving adulation to these celebrities, or if we are particularly ambitious, trying to become one of them. Joseph’s life calls us to a different path, the path of resolute but quiet belief worked out in love for those around us, obedience to God’s commands even when these don’t make sense (something that happens sooner or later for anyone who follows Christ), and the diligent stewardship of what is entrusted to us.

Joseph often seems a “bit player” in the Christmas story. Yet without him, there would be no story. And isn’t that the way it is for most of us? Isn’t it the case that the people who have had the greatest impact in our lives are usually not celebrities but likely those whose names will never appear in history books? Who has been a Joseph to you? And for whom can you be a Joseph?

Merry Christmas!