This is Love Displayed

When did you first hear about the death of Jesus? When did you hear the word “crucified” for the first time? What were you told it all meant?

Who told you about Jesus? How did you feel then? How did it form your beliefs, or challenge them? What is your theology built upon?

I invite you to go back to the beginning. To your first memories of the story of Jesus dying on the cross. Spend a minute remembering, reconnecting yourself to that time in your life. Whether you consider yourself a follower of Jesus or not, I assume you’ve heard about him. Go back there… whether it was 50 years ago or 5 minutes ago, think back to how you were introduced to this story…

We looked at Mark’s account of the crucifixion story on Sunday (Mark 15:21-32). I think it’s safe to say that the story has become very familiar to most of us. As has the way in which we hear it. For most of us, we heard something about Jesus as children. And our understanding of who he is, who God is, and who we are in light of the story began to develop upon that first hearing. Whether we were aware of it or not, those earliest messages were lodged deeply into our minds, and all future messages would be either accepted or rejected based on how they aligned or competed with what we heard first.

So… What did you hear? And, how have your beliefs been built around what you first heard? Has your understanding grown or changed? Do you cling to one right way to believe? How do you feel when your beliefs are challenged or threatened? When someone presents a worldview that is completely contrary to what you believe to be the “right” way? What if I told you were wrong? About all of it? Is your heart beating faster even now, as you read these words? Yes?

Then you know how many felt when they encountered Jesus’ preaching. That feeling in your chest, the heat that is climbing up your neck and into your cheeks–the crowds that Jesus spoke to during his ministry could relate. Those who shouted “Crucify him!” probably felt the same heat–a heat that led to anger, rage, and eventually, violence and murder.

I know the feeling–I think it’s safe to say that we all do. It’s easy to get caught up in dualistic thinking. Black and white, right and wrong… And once we “know” what is “right”, we will defend it–often, at all costs–against what we, by default, deem “wrong”.

Before Jesus began his ministry, the Jewish people knew what was right. They lived according to the Law of Moses, the ten commandments, and the other 600+ commandments that were written into the Hebrew scriptures. They were highly religious people who were waiting for their promised Messiah–the one who would come and fulfill all of their expectations. He would be a conquering king who would free them from Roman oppression. He would enact retributive justice against their enemies and his military might and political power would be superior to any the world had ever seen. Never mind that prophecy painted a picture of a humble, servant king–they had heard from their earliest days that a king was coming who would rescue them. And so they waited, longing for this king.

Jesus burst onto the scene proclaiming an upside-down kingdom in which the meek, humble, poor, broken, sick, and marginalized were elevated while the rich, powerful, and righteous were brought low.

The blood of many boiled. Their hearts raced. Their palms got sweaty. The lump of rebuttal grew in their throats until it exploded–over and over again–in anger and accusation. Never mind that it was the son of God challenging their beliefs–the sky could have split and the blinding light of a thousand angels could have descended around them and many still would not have changed their minds. These people saw Jesus turn water to wine, heal the crippled and the lepers, raise people from the dead… Why was none of this sufficient to move their understanding? Because…their beliefs were too important to their identity… To their livelihoods... To their maintaining their power and credibility. To their alignment with the “right” side of the argument. Jesus didn’t fall in line with what they’d always been taught, with how they’d always done things before, with the laws and sub-laws, with their understanding and their priorities & agendas–so they had to come against him with everything they could muster. Because… if they were right, that meant Jesus was wrong.

I think it’s possible that we cling to our understanding of the “Easter” story in a similar way…

The story of Jesus’ death is foundational to our faith, so we cling to a rigid understanding that we heard–probably as children–and we refuse to bend our ear to hear the story afresh, to consider that there may be more to the story than what we’ve grafted into our teaching and our learning.

Pastor John suggested in Sunday’s message that we’ve focused on the “price paid” and lost sight of “love displayed”. I agree. We have built for ourselves a transactional faith, a punitive system, a “tit-for-tat” understanding. We, as humans, have a ravenous desire to make sense of things… humanity has always had this desire. Even though many of us have committed to memory, “Lean not on your own understanding…”, this is exactly what we do. And our understanding, like that of the first hearers of Jesus’ message, is so terribly incomplete. Biased. Filled with expectations and selfish motivations. Infantile in regard to the higher thoughts and ways of our trinitarian God. When something doesn’t make sense to us, we grasp at plausible explanations, we use terminology we understand, and we minimize the mysterious to fit into our iron-clad boxes of belief. Until we experience something so other, so beyond, that it explodes our boxes and wakes us up to what we couldn’t see before.

I think this happens over and over again as we journey with Jesus… I think it is the only way we grow beyond ourselves…

Jesus knew that those in the crowd on the day of his crucifixion were trapped in iron-clad boxes built of tradition, law, power, nationalism, control, fear, violence, retribution… He knew they expected a powerful king to ride in on a magnificent white horse and rescue them.

He did come to rescue them. And us. And all of humanity. But not in the way that anyone expected…

In verses 31-32 of chapter 15, Mark writes:

“…the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”

They did see something that day, something that, through the ages, would compel many to believe. But they didn’t know what they were seeing, and what they thought they saw wasn’t what they wanted to see. They wanted to see power and might displayed, a display that would have fulfilled their expectations of a strong king…

We have been taught to see a suffering savior, whose blood made a way for our forgiveness and salvation, whose death for our sin pacified an angry God whose ability to forgive depended on the shedding of blood. Seeing this way satisfies our transactional, punitive, retributive, dualistic understanding. In a world where the strong and powerful rule, where violence is controlled by larger displays of violence and military might, a “price paid” understanding of the cross wins the day. It satisfies our need for vengeance and justice.

And it minimizes the extravagant love of our God. 

When we focus on the “price paid”, as many of our hymns and worship songs, as well as many sermons–old and new–do, we lose sight of the “love displayed”. What the crowd around Jesus actually saw–without being aware of what they were seeing–was the self-emptying love of a Creator who allowed himself to be tortured and murdered by his creation. They saw one who far exceeded their expectations of a powerful king, because only self-sacrificing love could look out from the cross with forgiveness in his eyes. They saw the only force powerful enough to change the course of our violent humanity–an unabashed display of perfect love. As they called out in mocking tones for Jesus to break free from the bondage they had put him in, they didn’t realize that his refusal to come down meant they could be freed from their bondage–bondage to the kingdoms of this world and all of the violence it causes.

This is what they saw–but they couldn’t see it in the moment. 

So…what do we see when we look at the cross? Do we see the price paid or the love displayed? Our answer determines how we see God, how we see others, how we see ourselves… If we are to follow Jesus, to live into his likeness as we grow in him, then it matters how we see this monumental event.

What do I see today? Self-emptying love, an extravagant love that neither plays the victim nor creates victims, but is willing to lay one’s own life down to show that there is another way to live. I see that restoration is more beautiful and more loving than retribution. That justice is actually Shalom–a return to wholeness, to all things being set right according to the restorative nature of our creator. This is what I see today. Am I right? I don’t know. But seeing this way… it is changing me. It is changing how I see God, how I understand the kingdom Jesus came to deliver to our hurting world, how I see those around me, and how I understand my own role as a Christ-follower. Self-emptying love is not a watered-down understanding of the cross–not to me. To me, it is the most demanding, most beautiful, most connected way to live this life. It makes me kinder, more loving, and I hope, more like the Jesus who keeps showing me how to do it. 

What do you see? How does what you see guide your life? Your interactions? Your decisions? Is what you see the same as it was all those years ago, when you first heard the story of the Jesus on the cross? Or has your understanding changed? There isn’t a right or wrong way to answer these questions. We are all going to see a little differently because we are unique creations and we each relate differently to our creator. That’s what makes community so beautiful, so vibrant–the unique perspectives we each bring that challenge our biases, our assumptions, our expectations, our world views. Somewhere along the way, this became threatening and we stopped asking questions. We decided that if we didn’t all see exactly the same way on every point that gave our group our identity, the defectors were wrong, heretical, and doomed to our idea of hell. This is the mindset that led to the murder of our Jesus. It’s what leads to praying for and enacting violence and murder upon our “enemies” today…

Jesus showed us a different way… will we see it? Do we have eyes to see his love displayed?

–Laura

Mark 15: 21-32, our passage from Sunday, begins with Simon from Cyrene being drug into the madness that was happening as Jesus was on his way to be crucified. Nothing in the passage suggests that Simon was even watching;  Mark words it like this: He was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. (v. 21)  Simon was sucked into the story and couldn’t escape. Do you ever wonder what he must have been thinking? The violence of the world affects all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. Somehow, either by being willing participants, silent observers or those just trying to pass by, we can’t escape the madness of the world’s systems. The only solution to all of the crazy is the love of God displayed, which stands in stark contrast to the ways of the world.

Laura emphasized God’s love on display as the focus of Jesus’ crucifixion. I agree with her and believe that to focus on the love of the cross is to open the door to abundant life living.  The thread that weaves itself throughout all of scripture is that God loves his creation. He loves us; the desire of his heart is that we know how loved we are and then respond to that love by learning to love ourselves and others as his fearfully and wonderfully made masterpieces.   (Eph 2:10; Ps 139:14).

Choosing to focus on the extravagant, unfathomable display of God’s love contrasting it against the horrors of the crucifixion scene changes everything, including us.

Jesus himself said: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)

Romans 5:8 tells us: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

While we were still sinners. While all those who were perpetrating all of the madness of his mock trial, false charges and crucifixion, God was demonstrating his love for them. While we live our self-absorbed, personal agenda, me-first lives, God demonstrates his own love for us.

One of the most familiar Bible verses of all time tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16).

Asking Laura’s question from above, what portions of those three verses have you been conditioned to emphasize? For me, it’s “lay down his life”, “sinners”, “whoever believes”. However, I think if we begin to emphasize God’s love, we will see a different kind of fruit than we are currently seeing.

As Pastor John was preaching, I was struck by the religious leaders conversation amongst themselves. In verse 32, as they continue to support their own superiority and moral authority they say to one another Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.  

That we may see and believe. That we may see and believe. That we may see and believe. That he do it our way according to our expectations, meeting our approval.

According to Strong’s Concordance, the word believe means to commit oneself to. I recently read that in early Christianity the understanding of the word “believe” was to give one’s heart to. Pause there for a second; think about some verses you know that incorporate the word believe and substitute “give your heart to”, or “commit oneself to”.

So, after all that the Pharisees and teachers of the law had seen in Jesus’ earthly life, they continued to mock him by saying let him come down, save himself, and we’ll commit ourselves to him…ha!  They had no intention of committing themselves and their hearts to him, proven by the fact that after the resurrection they created all kinds of conspiracy theories and lies in order to maintain their position of power.

In today’s western Christianity, oftentimes to believe means to submit yourself to a system of doctrinal phrases. You can Google search lots of churches these days. Most of them will have a page that says “What we believe” or “Statement of faith”–something like that. Most of those pages are a list of doctrinal statements.  I don’t know what every church’s doctrinal page says, but wouldn’t it be beautiful if one of them said: We have given our hearts to the truth that God is love, that he loves you, he loves us, he loves everyone in the world and he wants us to live Spirit empowered lives that demonstrate his love to everyone everywhere.

Emphasizing God’s love for us, in us and through us would change everything.

During the Easter season, there are those who will pray at the foot of the cross and watch movies about the crucifixion in order to be reminded of how depraved they are in their flesh, and how much Jesus suffered for them. I’m not denying that we all have issues, but I think if we stay stuck year after year in our own depravity our focus tends to remain on ourselves.  What have we given our hearts to?  Our own depravity or the love of God who highly esteems us, who has made us new and has called us his beloved children?

Last week I included a quote at the end of my portion of the blog that I am going to include again–who knows– it may appear next week too:

Clare of Assisi…saw in the tragic death of Jesus our own human capacity for violence and yet, our great capacity for love…Discovering ourselves in the mirror of the cross can empower us to love beyond the needs of the ego or the need for self-gratification. We love despite our fragile flaws when we see ourselves loved by One greater than ourselves. In the mirror of the cross we see what it means to share in divine power. To find oneself in the mirror of the cross is to see the world not from the foot of the cross but from the cross itself. How we see is how we love…” (Delio, Making All Things New).

I tried to do that this week, to look at people from the vantage point of the cross. One moment was especially interesting. I was on a train with a man who was either psychotic or very high. He wanted to sit near us, and truthfully, it was a little unnerving when he asked if he was welcome there. His behavior was unpredictable, but all of a sudden I was reminded to look at him from the vantage point of the cross. What would Jesus be thinking about this guy?  Immediately my heart moved from fear to compassion. I said a prayer for him, and could feel my entire insides softening toward him. To see the world from the cross itself, the display of God’s love, changes everything.

Is our focus on wrath or love, retribution or restoration, self or others, punishment or forgiveness, depravity or fullness, fear or peace, the kingdom of this world or the kingdom of God?

How we see is how we love.

–Luanne

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Grace (Like Never Before)

This week, we jumped back into Mark to continue exploring the stories of Jesus and how, when he showed up, he began to do things differently–like they had never been done before. We’ve taken a long look at joy, compassion, forgiveness, and hope. This week, we turned our attention to grace. This concept may have been the most shocking one of all, because it stood as an affront to everything they’d been taught–their entire way of life under the law. In the gospel of John, John writes it this way:

“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”     (John 1:17)

But the people around Jesus, especially those who had built their lives upon the law, struggled to see this beautiful new way of being that Jesus brought into the world. The story we looked at on Sunday highlights the Pharisees’ focus on the law, and their lack of understanding about grace…

One Sabbath day as Jesus was walking through some grainfields, his disciples began breaking off heads of grain to eat. But the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?”  Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He went into the house of God (during the days when Abiathar was high priest) and broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. He also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!” (Mark 2:23-28)

We find this story immediately following the one in which the Pharisees questioned Jesus about why his disciples weren’t fasting. Do you recall how that story ended, the words that Jesus said? He said, in verse 22,

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.”

We have already seen, in the first two chapters of Mark’s gospel, Jesus introduce a whole new way of thinking and a whole new way of being in the world. He calls it the kingdom–and he takes his listeners one step further with every encounter they witness. The stories build upon each other (Jesus is a brilliant teacher!), but few were able to listen and learn in such a way that they could follow the plot line. In the verse above, Jesus eluded to the new that he brought into the world not being able to fit within the old containers they were accustomed to. John 1:17, the verse I started with, highlights the tension. The old way was the law of Moses. The new way, the way of the kingdom, included the perfect balance of grace and truth–grace that is only possible through Jesus, outside of the constraints of religious laws and rituals.

The Pharisees, though, weren’t interested in the new wine Jesus was offering…

…And sometimes we aren’t, either.

It’s not fun to look for ourselves in the personalities we’ve come to disdain on the pages of scripture. We’d much rather see ourselves in the faces of those Jesus healed, in his disciples who (albeit, imperfectly a lot of the time) followed him, and sometimes, in Jesus, himself. But if we’re honest, we might look a little more like the religious elite of the day–those who were considered expert and accurate expositors of the law. Those who followed Jesus and his disciples around looking for one misstep, pointing out each failure, and highlighting all the places the less-informed were falling short–

Those who really did not understand the power and the gift of grace.

This is the fourth story found in the second chapter of Mark. In each story we’ve seen the Pharisees in close proximity to Jesus and his followers, and repeatedly questioning them. First, they questioned Jesus’ authority in their minds when Jesus forgave the paralytic. Then, they questioned Jesus’ followers about why he would eat with tax collectors and sinners after the calling of Levi. Notice that they asked his followers about him, rather than asking Jesus himself. After that, they questioned Jesus about why his followers weren’t fasting in the way others were. Again, they didn’t go to the ones their questions were about–this time they went to Jesus regarding his followers. And here, in the final story in this chapter, they question Jesus about his followers again, this time making sure he sees what they see:

“…the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?”

They begin their accusation with the word ‘Look’, alerting Jesus to what they are finding fault with, in case he is somehow unaware of the lawbreakers in his midst…

Pastor John said on Sunday, “Why were the Pharisees watching?” It’s an interesting question, especially as we look deeper into the story. The Pharisees were the religious elite, the teachers of Mosaic law as well as other traditional laws not found in the scriptures. Their strict adherence to laws regarding fasting, purity of food, and the observance of the Sabbath set them apart. Their focus was on the rules and the traditions–especially in regard to the holiness of the Sabbath. The one original law, “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” (Exodus 20:8, NLT), had become 39 individual laws. In the disciples grain-picking actions, they had broken four of the 39 laws.

The really sad part of this is, the Sabbath was given to humanity by God as a gift–not as a burden or a ritual. It was intended to be a day of rest, a day with no work, for the purpose of resetting our focus and connecting with our Creator. We see in this story that it had become something very different to the religious elite of that day. It had become a day of duty, ritual, rules, and control. The Pharisees may have been resting from their regular jobs that they held in society, but they were in full-blown work mode when it came to their religious duties. They weren’t resting and focusing on God. They were focused instead on the rules, and on critiquing and judging the followers of Jesus (and probably everyone else, too), pointing out the ways in which others were falling short of the law.

Sometimes, our attention to the law is the very thing that causes us to break it…

Jesus responded to their question. He responded a few different ways… He reminded them of a story that they certainly knew, about David, one of their hero-Kings. And then he said this:

 “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!”

He reminded them of the original intention behind the Sabbath commandment–rest from work and time to connect, refocus. He flipped what had become their script regarding the rules about this holy day. And then he tells them plainly that he has authority–even over the laws that they held so dear. Because he brought into our world new wine–the wine of the kingdom, wine that could not be held within the containers of the law–especially the impossible laws that had been added by the religious to God’s original instructions for his people. And this kingdom ushered in an era where grace would take over where the law had failed; where grace would make up for shortcomings and failures, and all the ways we could never get it right.

How sad that their focus on the traditions they held as sacred and holy prevented the Pharisees from seeing the Holy one standing among them…

How heartbreaking that religious duty and rule-following had so consumed their hearts and minds that their vision had become clouded with judgement and accusation, and they could not experience–much less offer–the extravagant beauty of grace…

Can we see ourselves making the same kinds of mistakes? Can we identify where church obligations and rule-following have become our focus, and ripped our vision away from the One we say we’re serving? Can we be honest about our judgement and critiques of other followers of Jesus who practice their faith differently than we do? Rigid respect of rituals will replace relationship–every time. Relationship with others–those we are to love–and relationship with Jesus–the One who calls us to that higher love and empowers us to live it.

We may not readily identify as those who hold fast to rituals and traditions, but many of us are consumed and controlled by our understanding of how things should be done–or how they’ve always been done before. We’ve talked since the first week of this series about the importance of being willing to “repent”–to change our minds. And this week, we have the same opportunity. To set aside our incomplete understanding and align our thinking with the mind of Christ. To allow his Holy Spirit to renew our minds. To accept that growing things change–and if we’re willing to embrace that, we’ll be changed day by day into those who look more and more like the One we follow.

Are we brave enough to take an honest look at ourselves, friends? To see where we look more like the ones focused on the law than like the One who offers grace? I pray that we can do this. I believe we have to do this–for the sake of the Church of Jesus everywhere, and for the sake of our witness to the world around us…

–Laura

I love what Laura wrote. Every word. We so easily forget how powerful grace is. We appoint ourselves as judge and ruler forgetting that in the new wineskin there is no place for that. Many in our church family have been through a study that begins by reminding us that there were two trees in the Garden of Eden–the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil leads to death. Jesus came to bring life, and in His life there is no room for judgement. That’s not our role in His Kingdom. Our role is to love God, to love ourselves with godly love, and to love all others as we carry this message of love everywhere we go. We get to choose which tree to live from, and sometimes we (I) swing back and forth between those trees multiple times in a quick minute. However, I’m probably not alone in being able to recognize that there is different fruit both in and around me based on which tree I choose to eat from.

What does that have to do with the message of grace?  Everything. I think that we all have a tendency to want the 39 rules that make everything black and white–do this, don’t do that. It feels easier to us that way. But it requires zero faith. We can follow rules without having any real relationship with God; however, life doesn’t happen in black and white–there’s a whole lot of gray, a whole lot that we don’t understand and will never understand. We’ve tried to systemize theology and tie it up in a nice neat explainable plan. I don’t think it’s that simple…

I was having a conversation with someone that my son was dating who said we have to learn to offer grace in the gray.  That phrase has stuck with me. Grace in the gray. God’s grace allows us connection with Him, the grace I extend towards others allows for connection with them. I feel fairly confident that picket lines, hateful comments, and feelings of superiority have not drawn people toward the love of God. Love extended, no matter the circumstance, has. We’ve got to do better.

A few days ago, a man with white supremacist ideology entered a mosque in New Zealand during prayer time and killed (as of this moment) 50 people.  That’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil at it’s worst. The shooter thought that he and his ideology were good, that those who were praying in the mosque were evil, and that to kill them was a good thing to do. Last night I watched a video of Jews in New York lining the sidewalk outside of a mosque holding signs letting their Muslim neighbors know that they stood with them, that they love them, that they care. It’s easy for me to see which action will change the world for the better. It’s easy for me to see which action looks more like Jesus. Grace is love in action, and it showed up on that sidewalk between two faith groups that the world would like for us to believe hate one another. A few months ago when someone with white supremacist ideology shot Jewish people in the Tree of Life Synagogue, their Muslim neighbors showed up with signs, and support, and love. Grace is love in action. A year and a half ago, after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, a white supremacist’s life was changed because, as he spewed hate toward black clergy people, they responded by telling him that they loved him, that God loved him, and they attended to his injuries. A few days after the rally he sought out an African-American neighbor for a conversation, which eventually led to a friendship and a relationship with Christ. He is now trying to share the message of love with other people enslaved to white supremacy. Grace is when love shows up with feet, and hands, and heart, and tears, and joy, and solidarity, without judging, full of forgiveness, full of grace and truth. And what is truth? Jesus. Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that He himself is the way, the truth, and the life. God’s truth looks like Jesus. It doesn’t look like anger. It doesn’t look like condemnation. It looks like Jesus.

Sabbath is a gift of grace. Sabbath is a gift of life. Our culture doesn’t receive this gift well. In 2010 I attended an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality conference in Queens, New York, and one of the sessions was on the beauty and the importance of Sabbath. I found myself longing for it and purchased a book about it. For a season, I very intentionally set aside time on Saturday from noon on to “Sabbath”.  I loved it. The author of the book that I read (I’m not home so I can’t reference the book or author), was in Israel with her husband and talked about how beautiful the Sabbath day was there. No commercial businesses were open but parks were full of families having picnics, couples strolling by lakes, groups of friends fellowshipping and communing with one another. It was a day of community and connection. Sabbath begins on Friday evening and goes until Saturday evening, so on Friday evening they would have had their time to light candles and connect with God. There is a lot of beauty in that rhythm.

One of the things that I learned is that our work is never done. Sabbath doesn’t begin when all of our projects are neatly wrapped up. Sabbath is an awareness that the world will not stop turning if I don’t get my work finished. Sabbath is a surrender of my “to do” list, an acknowledgement that it is God who is sovereign and in control, and it’s okay for me to stop. It’s life giving to stop and enjoy God and those He has placed in my life. I believe that if we figure out how to have a few hours of Sabbath for rest, connection, and enjoyment, that we will become more grace-filled people.

Psalm 23 reminds us that God makes us to lie down in green pastures, he leads us beside quiet waters, he restores our souls. Grace comes from people whose souls have been restored by resting with (and enjoying ) God.

The ways of Jesus, those beautiful, gray, incomprehensible, grace-filled, faith requiring,  life-giving ways that we will never fully understand, will change the world for the better. Are we willing to let go of all of the “rules”—except for the rule of love—and move forward in the rhythm of grace?

–Luanne

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JOY II (Like Never Before)

Joy. We found it last week–unnamed as such, yet present in a story that connected fasting with a wedding celebration, fabric, and wineskins. We began looking at what joy is–and what it isn’t. Here’s an excerpt from last week’s post to remind you where we ended up:

The rituals, the structures, the traditions, the way we’ve always understood and done it before–these will never bring us into joy unless we allow them to carry us into the presence of Jesus. In his presence, there is fullness of joy. Joy is an experience of the presence of our King, and cannot be experienced apart from him. JOY (Like Never Before)

Joy cannot be experienced apart from Jesus. Last week Pastor John laid the foundation for our understanding of joy, and this week Pastor Beau built upon it. Our exploration of joy took us away from the book of Mark for a week and into a story found only in the book of Luke. More than likely, you are familiar with this story in Luke 19:1-10. It is the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. If you don’t remember the actual story, maybe these lyrics will jog your memory:

“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, And a wee little man was he… He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see…”

Do you remember the song? Likely, many of us sang it as children. Pastor Beau pointed out that while the song serves its purpose to help us remember the story, we have sadly reduced this complex, beautiful story into a sing-along song. And we’ve probably missed some key points.

Take a moment to read the story the way Luke recorded it in his gospel:

Jesus entered Jericho and made his way through the town. There was a man there named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region, and he had become very rich. He tried to get a look at Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way. When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.”  Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy. But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled. Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

There are so many directions to go in discussion of this story, but our focus this week is joy, so we’ll start there. The word joy shows up about midway through the story. In some translations, the word joy is replaced with words like gladness or excitement, but the original Greek word in this passage is “chairo”, which does mean “joy” or “rejoice”.  When does joy show up in the story? When Jesus shows up, sees Zacchaeus–the one who was desperate to see Him, calls him by name, and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Pastor Beau highlighted for us that “The joy didn’t come until Jesus showed up.” Zacchaeus had been living a joyless existence–we’ll look at why in a moment–but as soon as Jesus showed up, joy was present, too. In his presence there is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11)–Wherever you find Jesus, you find joy also.

But what about the others who were with Jesus? Those in the crowd? Their response to Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus was not joyful. The text tells us that they were “displeased”, and that they “grumbled”. How is this possible if there is fullness of joy in Jesus’ presence? In another gospel, the book of Matthew, Jesus addresses a similar situation:

For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But                    blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. (Matthew 13:15-16 NIV)

The crowd was with Jesus physically, but they couldn’t see him or hear him the way Zacchaeus was able to. Because Zacchaeus was looking for him. He was desperate to see this One he had heard so much about. I imagine he had ideas about him, ponderings… But the crowd had expectations. We know this because the parable Jesus tells immediately after the story of Zacchaeus is told to address the crowd’s expectation that He would, in his power and glory, soon set up an earthly kingdom that would defeat their political and military enemies. Their expectations got in the way of them seeing and hearing him rightly. So when he spoke and acted in ways that were contrary to their expectations, their response was one of anger and confusion–not joy.

In this particular story, I think the peoples’ anger hinged not so much on Jesus choosing to stop to talk with Zacchaeus, but on one of the words Jesus chose to use. We have learned as we’ve studied the ministry of Jesus that nothing he says or does is by accident. His words are carefully chosen–always. In this story, Jesus uses a word that shows up as “must” in our English translations. This one tiny word packed a punch in the original language. When Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today”, he is saying, “it is necessary, right and proper, a necessity of duty and equity for me to come to your house today. 

Right? Proper? Did Jesus know who he was talking to? Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector. A filthy sinner guilty of grievous crimes. A thief among thieves. Certainly it’s not right or proper for Jesus to dine with his kind… I imagine they bristled. Maybe their mouths fell open and they took a step back. While these words may have agitated and confused them, I belief it was the sense of equity that the word carried that stirred the crowd’s anger most of all.

We haven’t written about equity in a while, but it is crucial that we understand what it is if we want to see the bigger picture of the upside-down kingdom of Jesus. Equity is the quality of being impartial, doing whatever it takes to set things right for each one individually. It is not equality. Equality treats every person the same regardless of circumstance. Equality can create further injustice, whereas equity is synonymous with biblical justice–the justice that is about wholeness and making things right, the restorative justice that is at the heart of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom.

So when the crowd heard Jesus speak a word that implied the necessity of setting things right for Zacchaeus–the one who acted unjustly (and with impunity) toward their community, they were mad. They had in mind the kind of justice that we broken humans have a proclivity toward–the retributive kind. This desire for retributive justice is what fueled the people’s expectation of Jesus setting up a powerful, enemy-crushing kingdom rather than the one he actually brought with him.

Back to Zacchaeus… his joy was uncontainable. He hurried to the ground and hosted Jesus in his home. We even see Jesus’ equitable treatment of him extend through Zacchaeus as he changed his mind about how he’d been living and vowed to set things right with those he’d treated unjustly.

This is the power of the presence of Jesus.

An encounter with him changes everything. Zacchaeus had been living a life of marked by stealing from others. And it was stealing any sense of joy he may have had prior. Pastor Beau told us there are five “Joy Stealers” present in this story. Maybe some of these are familiar to us, too…

Secrets: What we think/say/do that no one else sees; what you decide isn’t necessary to share. Zacchaeus made up charges as he taxed his community. How he came up with each charge was hidden from them.

Separation: Being pushed out or isolated from your family, friends, community; a sense of being disconnected from what you were once connected to. It feels like rejection or abandonment, and once it happens, it can get historical when it happens again. Zacchaeus lived a life of isolation from everyone in his community. He lived among them, but was not included as one of them. He was more than disconnected–he was hated.

Shadows: Different than separation. You live in the shadows when you refuse to step in. This is a place of invisibility, a life of being unseen. It is hiding who you are, backing out of the picture and refusing to let others in. (Side note that Beau highlighted: Jesus is always willing to step into the shadows to find you. Always.)

Shame: This one is connected to all the others, and can cause you to move into the shadows. Shame is when you form a negative identity (who you are) based on your mistakes (what you’ve done). It’s complex, and it is brutal. It is trying to separate yourself from what God sees in you. Interestingly, Zacchaeus’ name means “pure”. Not a word that anyone would have chosen to describe the life he was living before he saw Jesus. But what he’d been doing didn’t define him–it wasn’t his identity. After meeting Jesus, he lived into the meaning of his name.

Status Quo: The antithesis of growth. Sameness. No change. Living in the status quo, holding tightly to “normal” can feel safer than changing. Change is hard. It’s scary. It means stepping out of our own neat and tidy boxes into a space where Jesus can reframe the picture we see. Sometimes, we can trick ourselves into thinking that there is joy in our static, unmoving, safe existence. But there can’t be. Because life with Jesus is ever-changing, always growing, and completely uncontainable. We simply cannot box him in. If we try, we end up following (and worshiping) our idea of him and the safety that we’ve slapped his name on as “blessing” or “favor” rather than following Jesus himself.

Zacchaeus sees Jesus. Hears him speak his name. And in a moment, he trades in all these joy-stealers for the fullness of joy found in Jesus alone.

It’s important to note that we don’t have evidence in these verses of Zacchaeus acknowledging his many sins and asking for forgiveness prior to his salvation. We do see that he changes his mind (repents) and decides to make amends, but that’s all we are given. Yet… Jesus says, “salvation has come to your house today”. This is one of many stories that Luke includes in his gospel that stands in opposition to a formulaic plan for forgiveness and salvation. And it’s interesting to ponder. We don’t have time to dive into theological debate here, but I think passages like this one challenge us to look outside of the theological structure we were handed and explore for ourselves what the often familiar words mean.

Jesus gives us one more thing to chew on in this story before he moves on. He says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” This is fascinating, because again, if we take a closer look, it challenges some of what we think we “know”. Pastor Beau asked us to remember the parables of the lost coin, lost sheep, lost son… In all of these stories, the word “lost” implies prior possession. These things belonged to the one who was looking for them. Before they were lost. While they were lost. After they were found. Being lost didn’t remove their belonging. I’m not going to walk that out further this week–I’ve already written a lot of words. But I hope all of us will think about it, pray about it, and read Jesus’ words with fresh eyes–eyes that are seeking him rather than focused on our expectations of him. 

Where have you lost your way? What is stealing your joy? Look up at Jesus. He’s already looking for you.

–Laura

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JOY (Like Never Before)

Once when John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, some people came to Jesus and asked, “Why don’t your disciples fast like John’s disciples and the Pharisees do?”  Jesus replied, “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. “Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.” (Mark 2:18-22, NLT)

This short passage, which can appear a bit confusing at first glance, was the foundation for this week’s message. These five verses, Pastor John asserted, point us to joy–and show us the danger in making our religious rituals our focus.

Some people came to Jesus and asked… Who were these people who questioned Jesus? Our passage doesn’t identify them. Some translations use the word “confronted” rather than “questioned”, which could give us a clue about who they were. I think it’s also pertinent to our discussion to glance back at the previous passage and to look ahead to what comes next–setting these five verses in context will help us see what’s going on.

Last week, we read the story of the calling of Levi (Matthew), and the subsequent meal Jesus shared with him and his friends–the other tax collectors and sinners. When the Pharisees saw his blatant disregard for the Jewish laws and customs, they attempted to sow seeds of doubt among his disciples, questioning them about why their leader would do such a thing.

This week, just a few short verses later, we see “some people” questioning Jesus about why his disciples don’t observe the ritual of fasting that John’s (this is John the baptizer, Jesus’ cousin) disciples and the Pharisees observe regularly.

If we look ahead to the verses that follow this week’s passage, we see the Pharisees question Jesus again–this time regarding what they considered to be his disciples breaking the law of the Sabbath by picking grain. After this encounter, we see Jesus heal a man’s hand on the Sabbath–once again disregarding a tradition that had become a burdensome rule to follow.

All of these encounters happen within nineteen verses. Jesus calls a tax collector as a disciple. Jesus eats with “unclean sinners”. Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. Jesus’ disciples pick grain on the Sabbath. Jesus heals on the Sabbath.

And those who had made a life of keeping and enforcing the rules and rituals of that day had a big problem with what they saw as an affront to their traditions and laws. They wanted to silence this new voice that had exploded onto the scene; they wanted to catch him, defraud him, expose him… Somewhere along the way, they had forgotten that the rituals (which, as Pastor John pointed out, are not inherently bad things) were designed to point to–not to become–the real focus. Their traditions were originally intended to keep them aware of the God they served, and focused on his presence among them. Instead, it was their traditions that kept them from recognizing the presence of God sitting among them, as one of them.

In this week’s passage, “some people” asked Jesus a question regarding fasting, a ritual that the Pharisees had begun to observe twice a week–with very visible displays of their extreme devotion to “God”. Jesus answers their question a few different ways:

 “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. 

He employs here an example that a Jewish audience would absolutely understand. A Jewish wedding was the culmination of great anticipation, and it was enjoyed by friends and family during a week-long celebration. The friends of the bridegroom shared in the couple’s joy–a joy that was made complete by their union, and celebrated in their presence. In the gospel of John, John the baptizer uses the same example when his disciples realize (with jealousy, confusion, and frustration) that Jesus’ following is growing larger than John’s. In chapter 3, verses 28-30, we read John’s response to his disciples’ concerns:

You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”

Both Jesus and his cousin John use the context of a wedding to describe the relationship between Jesus and his followers (what we now call the Church). Jesus was telling those who would listen: I am the groom and I am here. Now. Present with my collective bride. And my followers, the friends of the bridegroom? They can’t fast now, because they are celebrating the arrival of me, the groom, who has come to live among you and to bring you into union with my ways–the ways of my new kingdom that has arrived.

In the text, we don’t see Jesus giving them any time to react or respond before he launches into his next two examples:

“Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.”

We see Jesus, in these two examples, expand upon the first. He is doing here what we’ve seen him do throughout this study in Mark. He is inviting his hearers to change their way of thinking, to become aware of who he is and of the new kingdom that has now come. He distinguishes the new from the old not by calling the old “bad”, but by explaining–again, in terms they would understand–that the old ways could not contain the new. The old cloth of exclusive laws that had defined the Jewish culture up to that point was not compatible with the new, inclusive kingdom ways. The old wineskins that had held the wine of self-promoting ritual and tradition could not hold the new wine of upside-down, self-sacrificing love for God and all others.

His answer to their question was a progression. Why didn’t his disciples fast like the others? First, they recognized Jesus as the one they’d all been waiting for, and their joy was complete in his presence. He was there, among them, living life with them. Fasting was intended as a way to focus on God, a way to show devotion to him over the things of this world. And now Jesus, God in human flesh, was with them! Focusing on him meant being with him, listening to him, learning from him–to fast while he was in their presence would have been unthinkable. Secondly, because they recognized him as the groom–as the one they’d been waiting for–they were participating in the new way of living that he was teaching them. (The laws of this kingdom–love of God and love of others–were not new for Jesus. The way of self-giving love has always been the way of the trinitarian God among us. We couldn’t seem to grasp that, though, so Jesus came to show us what has always been his way…) Jesus was explaining to them that the original focus of their old rituals and traditions was present among them. But because their focus had shifted away from God and onto the rituals themselves, their old cloth was shrunken and could not be merged with the new fabric of his kingdom. Their old wineskins had lost their elasticity and had become hard and brittle. They could not hold the new, rich, full-bodied wine of the kingdom without exploding into pieces.

He was showing them a picture of their hearts and minds… They had shrunken. They’d become hard and brittle, unable to expand or bend. I see the example of the wineskin as yet another invitation from Jesus to those who continued to question him. He let them know that the new wine he came to bring would burst the old, would completely replace it.

Wouldn’t it have been beautiful if they had asked him for it? If they had said yes to this new wine and let it explode their immovable hearts and minds into a million pieces so that bendable, elastic flesh could grow where all the stone had been? 

Some of them did. Later, many stories down the road, we read the story of one such Pharisee, whose heart and mind were exploded by the new wine of the kingdom. We know him as Paul. These are his own words:

 You have heard of my career and former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to hunt down and persecute the church of God extensively and [with fanatical zeal] tried [my best] to destroy it. And [you have heard how] I surpassed many of my contemporaries among my countrymen in [my advanced study of the laws of] Judaism, as I was extremely loyal to the traditions of my ancestors. (Galatians 1:13-14, AMP)

Paul cared about the traditions and rituals more than anyone. He was consumed with zeal for the law. But we know him now as an apostle, as the author of much of what we call our New Testament. So what happened? What changed his mind? Once again, here are Paul’s own words:

The Gospel I preach to you is no human invention. No man gave it to me, no man taught it to me; it came to me as a direct revelation from Jesus Christ(Galatians 1:11-12, J.B. Phillips)

Paul experienced the presence of Jesus Christ himself. And rather than cling to the rituals and laws that he had been so focused on, he let the new wine of Jesus and his kingdom explode his old ways of thinking and being in the world into something brand new. And later, he would pen these words, that we have referred to a few times throughout this series:

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13, NIV)

Hope. Peace. JOY…

Paul, when his focus shifted from the rituals and laws themselves to the One they were designed to point to, found that these–hope, peace, and joy–among many other things, are found only in the Presence of Jesus. They are cultivated by the power of the Spirit within us, but we cannot encounter them outside of the presence of the One who defines them.

We sang these words on Sunday:

I have nothing more than all you offer me;
I have nothing else that’s of worth to me.
I love you Lord, you rescued me
You are all I want. You’re all I need.

The rituals, the structures, the traditions, the way we’ve always understood and done it before–these will never bring us into joy unless we allow them to carry us into the presence of Jesus. In his presence, there is fullness of joy. Joy is an experience of the presence of our King, and cannot be experienced apart from him. No ritual–regardless of how good and how holy it may be–can bring us real joy. Only Jesus can do that. Our joy has to be in him–not in anything we do for him. If we try to find him in what we do, we’ll end up detached and discouraged. He is here. Now. His kingdom lives and breathes among us. His disciples were experiencing the fullness of that truth as he lived and breathed among them. We can, too. If we realize that there is nothing else worth having apart from him, nothing more than what he offers to us. If he is all we want, we’ll find that he really is all we need. And our joy will be made complete in him.

What rituals are you clinging to, as though they can bring you joy? What old wineskins are you drinking from? Where do you need the new wine of Jesus’ kingdom to pour in and burst old ways of thinking and being in the world? I pray that we will all become more aware of what we’re focusing on; and if we find our focus is anywhere but on Jesus, I pray we’ll be brave enough to change.

–Laura

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Selah

“Let Me teach you something about what you think you know.”

There were many lines from Pastor Beau’s message on Sunday that stood out to me, but this one most of all. He was recapping the story of Jesus calling the first disciples in Mark 1 and commenting on the words Jesus said to these men. When he saw Simon (Peter) and Andrew fishing, Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” (Mark 1:17, NLT) In other words, “I know you fish for a living, but there’s more to learn about fishing. You know a lot about it—it’s your livelihood—but what you think you know only scratches the surface of what I can teach you.”

As Beau talked to us about this, I couldn’t help but think about another verse. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul writes these words:

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. (NLT)

Paul understood that in everything, we are only seeing a partial picture. I think it’s pertinent to mention that this particular verse falls within the famous “love chapter” that is so often quoted at weddings. This verse, in which Paul admits his own incomplete understanding is directly followed by one thing that he is absolutely certain of—the enduring greatness of love above all other things. I believe that what we’ve been learning from Jesus in the book of Mark as we study what he said and did during his ministry absolutely confirms Paul’s assertion about the greatness of love. It also confirms how imperfect our vision is, and how much we need to be transformed by Jesus so that we can see the way he sees.

For the last six weeks, we’ve been traveling what, to many of us, is a very familiar road. These are the gospel “stories” that more than a few of us grew up hearing. Yet… we are seeing things we’ve never seen before. Pastor John has taken a small section of verses each of the last six weeks and taken us deeper into the familiar stories, stories we thought we knew. As we’ve listened to these messages, Jesus has shown up to teach us something new about what we thought we had figured out.

On Sunday, Pastor Beau brought us a “Selah” moment. A pause, if you will. His intention was to slow down and recap what we’ve been learning, to combine the individual images that have been painted for us over the last six weeks into one big picture that connects them all. He reminded us of what we’ve been learning, reiterated the main points, and offered us a bit of his own thoughts and perspective.

You know what happened during this “Selah” message?

Jesus showed up to teach me something more about things I thought I knew.

Through Beau’s teaching and through the presence of the Holy Spirit, my heart was filled with new insight, and I learned new things even as we recapped the new things we’ve learned these last weeks. There were still things we had missed, more to learn from Jesus in depths we thought we’d fully plumbed. How was there still more?

Because Jesus is brilliant, as Beau said on Sunday. In fact, Beau commented that the word “brilliant” doesn’t come close to defining Jesus—he said the only word that really describes Jesus is, well, “Jesus”. Brilliant only scratches the surface. Which is why, friends, it’s so important that we slow down and let him teach us. When have I last checked what’s in my suitcase as I walk out my journey of faith? Do I even know what I’m carrying? Do you know what you’re carrying? Have we packed in our bags rules we learned in Sunday School? Maybe our parents’ faith is in there. Are our bags full of “righteous anger” and judgement? Did love of neighbor ever make it in? How about love? Compassion? Forgiveness? Are we carrying fear and shame in our bags because we were taught that we would only ever be “unclean”, like the leper in our story from a couple of weeks ago? What have we packed? I think somewhere in each of our bags is some form of the belief that we know the “truth” and that our way of believing is “right”. We walk through life believing that there are some things we pretty much have figured out.

Jesus is speaking to each of us, just like he spoke to his first disciples, “Let me teach you something about what you think you know.”

Paul understood that until the day his finite human body crossed into the eternal, he would only ever see imperfectly. He knew a whole lot about a whole of things. But he remained teachable—fully dependent on the only One whose teaching had ever transformed his soul. We have the same opportunity. But it requires from us a willingness to admit that maybe we’ve packed some things in our bag that don’t belong there and omitted some necessities along the way. And it means acknowledging that we can not possibly expect to get it all right and have it all figured out while we walk the earth in our finite bodies. Not because we are defective or lacking some essential part of our make-up. But because we are disciples of One whose brilliance we cannot contain within any man-made boxes, One whose thoughts and ways are beyond what our limited humanity can fathom. This should not make us feel sad, frustrated, or disappointed. On the contrary, this knowledge can lead us into freedom, delight, and childlike expectation as we continue to be enlightened and enchanted by this Teacher whom we follow.

Sometimes our pride, our desire to be right and respected as wise gets in the way… Sometimes, we’re not content to introduce others to our brilliant Teacher so that they can follow Him alongside us… because what we actually want is for them to follow us. The more followers we have, the bigger our platform becomes. The bigger our platform gets, the more sure we become about what we know. And we get more and more addicted to our own greatness. So we run after the next big thing, then the bigger thing, and so on…

This brings me to one of the things Jesus showed me on Sunday, one of the things I hadn’t paused to see before…

Jesus began his ministry in front of large crowds, traveling from town to town and teaching to packed out synagogues. As his ministry grew, however, his platform got smaller. As he got more proximate to individuals and more personal with his connections, he lived a more isolated and lonely life. As his name got bigger, his opportunities in public became fewer.

Seems a little backwards, doesn’t it?

We often resent small beginnings but see them as a means to an end—an end that is bigger and more visible than wherever we had to start. We long for our platforms—and our number of followers—to grow, because somehow that will show that we’ve “made it”, that we are important.

Not so with Jesus. He started at the pinnacle—as the Word that spoke Creation, who had only ever known the communion of the Trinity and the full-faced love and intimacy that they shared. The Beloved of the Almighty, shrouded in glory and love and light.

Then he chose to get smaller.

He was born a helpless baby in a dirty manger to a poor, unmarried couple. The limitless King of Heaven willingly stepped into the confines of newborn flesh, willingly breathed in the air and dust His very mouth created. Coming to us was a huge step down from where He started.

At least when he was born, a star appeared and angels sang—Magi traveled to him bearing fine gifts fit for a King. But then he lived thirty years in absolute obscurity in nowhere Nazareth. If you could get lower than being born in a manger in Bethlehem, this was it. Another step down.

Finally, his ministry began. His cousin, John, prepared the way and proclaimed his greatness. The voice of God thundered from the heavens at his baptism. He was beginning to teach, to gain followers, to fill the synagogues with people eager to hear his voice and to be healed by his touch. People were beginning to wonder if he might be the one they’d been waiting for. They began to get excited about the Kingdom he might establish among them. Things were looking up—

Until he got proximate to one leper. He knew what it would cost him to touch this man, to enter in to his suffering. It would change the trajectory of his whole ministry—no longer would he be welcome in the synagogues. His platform would get smaller, even while his renown would grow.

And he chose to touch him anyway. Because the kingdom he carried, the one he proclaimed as “here and now” is an upside-down kingdom. He would never satisfy the peoples’ expectations for a political superpower kind of kingdom that would rule with violence and vengeance over their enemies. No. His kingdom, his way of “ruling” would continue to cost him—not only his platform, but his very life.

He knew the cost. And he chose it anyway. And because he didn’t perform to earn the next big platform, because he chose the lonely places, the hurting people, the way of compassion and sacrificial love, His name and renown remain unmatched to this day. And we grasp for words to try to describe his greatness…

We long for reach, for influence, for followers. We long to grow our platforms and make a name for ourselves. Maybe Jesus wants to teach us something about the way we define success—in ministry and otherwise. His platform got smaller and smaller the more he loved and went against what those of his day thought they “knew” to be right. What do you think you know? Is it possible that there’s more to learn?

There are a few more things I learned on Sunday that I hadn’t seen before, adjustments that needed to be made in the way I think and understand. I was going to write about more of them, but it’s about time I wrap this up. I’ll finish with this… When Jesus spoke forgiveness and healing over the paralytic who was lowered through the roof of the house where he was teaching; when he allowed the disruption to redirect his teaching to all who were present, Mark tells us, They were all amazed and praised God, exclaiming, “We’ve never seen anything like this before!” (Mark 2:12b) Everyone in that home learned something new that day—about things they already thought they knew. From the man on the mat to the disciples, to the religious leaders occupying the front-row seats, they all left that house changed. Because brilliant Jesus got personal and proximate to each of them and invited them to learn.

Our brilliant Jesus gets personal and proximate to each of us as well. He is inviting us to set aside our “wisdom” and to examine what we’ve put in our bags. He calls out to us the same way he called to his first followers…

“Let me teach you something about what you think you know.”

Will we let him?

–Laura

I love the question that Laura asked us:

What do you think you know? Is it possible that there’s more to learn?

Is it possible that there’s more to learn? My answer to that question is a huge, resounding yes!!! It renews my desire to give the Holy Spirit full access to every part of me.

When I was a child and gave my life to Jesus, my dad said the following when he was presenting me before the church– he said, “Luanne is giving as much of herself as she can to as much of Jesus as she understands.”  That phrase has stuck with with me, and this morning as I write, it came back in full force. Isn’t this the daily journey? My understanding of Jesus is deeper than it was when I was nine years old, and because He is who He is, I will never fully understand Him, which is the beauty of it all. It’s a relationship that will never grow stale, as long as I continue to knock, to ask, to seek, and grow. And when He reveals new things to me, will I give as much of myself as I am able to give (I want that to be all of me!) to the new revelation, the new understanding of Jesus? Yes. There is always more to learn.

When Peter, Andrew, James, and John left their fishing boats behind, they were following what they knew of Jesus in that moment. Scripture is kind to us and shows us some of their blunders along the way, but in the book of Acts we see men who are very different from who they were at the first part of the book of Mark–and they continued to give as much of themselves as they could to as much of Jesus as they understood, which eventually cost three of the four of them their lives.

Before they walked personally with Jesus, they thought they knew what God was about. They “knew” that women and Gentiles were inferior, that lepers and paralytics were being punished and had no place in the religious system, that there were rules to follow in order to stay in God’s good graces, and that religious power was not to be questioned. Then, God in flesh took them under His wing for three years in the form of Jesus and every bit of what they thought they knew was changed. Every bit of it was “like never before”. And they were teachable. Are we?

Pastor Beau used the analogy of foundations. In Jesus day, the foundation of a building was not under the ground, the cornerstone upon which everything else would be built was visible. In our day, foundations are dug below the dirt, they remain hidden. Sometimes they don’t stand the test of time, they get cracks in them, or begin to “settle” in ways that make the entire structure built upon them unstable. Do our spiritual foundations have cracks in them? Do they need to be inspected? Do we need to do some wrestling with our foundations? Are we built upon Jesus, our cornerstone, or something else?

The Apostle Peter, the one who began as a fisherman, quoting the prophet Isaiah wrote in his first letter:

“’See, I lay a stone in Zion,  a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’ Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’” .           (1st Peter 2:6-7)

Do we trust our chosen, precious,  like never before Savior–or do we reject Him? Do we trust that his Kingdom is here right now? Do we trust His spiritual, intellectual, and physical authority? Do we trust Him enough to be teachable, intentional, available? Do we trust Him enough to  remember that compassion means to connect ourselves to those who are suffering as if we ourselves are suffering? Do we trust Him enough to touch the untouchable? Do we trust Him enough for forgiveness to be as natural to us as breathing? Do we trust Him enough to lovingly challenge the religious culture of the day? Do we trust Him enough to let our attitude toward all people be one of love? Do we trust Him enough to let Him live through us? Do we trust Him enough to be misunderstood?  Is He our precious cornerstone? Do we believe that His ways are right? Do we trust Him enough to live like Him and to be like never before people? What foundation are we building on?

I’m going to throw out some current events, not to be controversial but to give us opportunity to let the Holy Spirit examine our hearts. Transformation requires intentionality. Let’s be intentional in knowing where we land, and why we land there. If something makes us squirm or feel defensive, let’s sit with and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth.  Let’s wrestle with which foundation we land on in each of these situations–is it Jesus our cornerstone, or something man made that is vulnerable to cracks?  The situation at our border, people seeking asylum, children living in cages, refugees and immigrants as a whole–which foundation? Women who have had abortions–which foundation? Our politicians and the way they model how to treat people–which foundation? The LGBTQ community-which foundation? Muslims–which foundation? The injustices that our fellow citizens who represent our nation’s ethnic minorities try to raise awareness of–which foundation?  Families who’ve lost children to gun violence–which foundation?  Hurting, angry disenfranchised white males who become mass shooters–which foundation? Religious leaders who’ve used their power to sexually abuse others and the cover ups that have followed–which foundation? If Jesus were standing right here in the flesh, where would he be? Let’s wrestle. Let’s let Him teach us. He is not Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or Tea Party –He is Jesus. He is not American–He is Jesus. He is not Baptist or Catholic, or Methodist, or Episcopalian, or non-denominational–He is Jesus. The only way He can be described, as Laura highlighted above, is by Himself. Jesus is Jesus.

Pastor Beau reminded us that Jesus will never ever, ever use His authority and power to be abusive–ever. His authority and power teach us how to fight battles in the spiritual realm. His way of relating to people teaches us how to relate to people–and that even as he pushed back against the thoughts of the religious leaders, he wasn’t taking jabs at them; he was giving them opportunities to change their way of thinking (repenting) about who God is and what His mission is. He loved them all. He loves us all. He. Is. Love.

Beau reminded us that the ministry of Jesus was a monumental shift between the Old Testament and New Testament which can also be called Old Covenant and New Covenant. Jesus came to establish a New Covenant–a covenant in His blood. A new wine skin into which the old wine could not be poured.  New. Different. Like never before.

In John 18:36 Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom is not of this world.

In Luke 17:21 Jesus tells his followers that the Kingdom is within us.

We can’t miss this if we are going to live as like never before people. The Kingdom that is not of this world is within usthis very Kingdom that Jesus taught us to pray would come to earth, the very Kingdom that takes over the world and becomes the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah (Rev. 11:15)-this Kingdom is our mission. This is what we are to be about. His Kingdom coming on earth, His will being done on earth.

Every current event that I listed above would not exist if His Kingdom was reigning here. There would be no need to seek asylum, there would be no need to escape violence, there would be no “us and them”, there would be no abortion because women and children would be cared for by all of us, there would be no violence at all, there would be no injustice, no disenfranchised, no hate, no abuse of power, no pre-judging (also known as prejudice), no hateful rhetoric–there would be love. His kind of love. 

The Apostle Peter told us:  “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual houseto be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1st. Peter 2:5). 

We are living stones being built on the foundation of Jesus, our cornerstone. Jesus told the religious leaders of His day “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” (Mt. 9:13 NLT)

Knowing that we are all in this together, that none of us is righteous in our own strength–the spiritual sacrifice which we are to offer to God is mercy. Mercy is a noun which means kindness, compassion, especially toward those undeserving of it,  and whose synonyms include grace, favor, goodness, gentleness, tenderness, love. (www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/mercy). We are all undeserving of His mercy, yet we have received it and continue to receive it in overflowing abundance from our like never before Jesus. Do we, in turn,  offer mercy as a spiritual sacrifice to the people of the world?

As we pause in our series for this Selah moment, may we reflect on what we’ve heard so far, may we be committed to presenting our like never before Savior to the world around us by being like never before followers of the one who lives in us.

Let’s enter in like never before.

–Luanne

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Like Never Before: Forgiveness

As we continue our series through the Gospel of Mark and discover how Jesus did things like never before, we get to experience his encounters with real people who were seen and touched and loved by him while he was here in the flesh. These are beautiful encounters that are packed with more nuance than we will ever be able to grasp. Our encounter in Mark 2:1-12 is one of these.

Last week, we looked at Jesus’ compassion in his encounter with the leper. We saw how in that encounter, Jesus actually exchanged places with the leper. The leper went away healed. Jesus, because he had touched the leper, stayed in solitary and lonely places.

This week’s encounter finds Jesus heading back home to Capernaum.  He no longer goes to the synagogue to teach like he had done before. Instead, he goes to a house, and as was the case when he was in solitary and lonely places-the people came to him, so the house was full and the space outside the house was full. As Jesus was sharing his message with those gathered in the house, four friends of a paralyzed man tried to get their friend to Jesus. They realized that they were not going to be able to carry him through the crowd, so they came up with a plan. They climbed the stairs to the roof, dismantled the roof, and lowered their friend to the feet of Jesus.

There are so many things that I love about this moment. One, the faith and determination that the friends demonstrated; Jesus was in town and they were not going to miss this opportunity. Two, they dismantled the roof of the house and made a hole large enough to lower their friend and his mat through the roof. Picture in your mind the crowded house, Jesus teaching, and all of a sudden debris begins to fall on them as the hole in the roof appears. I wonder if Jesus laughed. I imagine that he was delighted with this demonstration of friendship and of faith. I imagine the homeowner wasn’t quite as thrilled.

And then, the like never before happens…

But before we get to that part of the story, let’s look at three biblical mindsets.

Romans 12:2 addresses a fixed mindset–it’s our default mindset. Scripture challenges us  to get rid of that mindset and replace it with a new one. I like the way that J.B. Phillips words it, he says, Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within…, the NIV says Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…the NLT states it this way, Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.  

We are getting ready to encounter some fixed mindsets in our story, and fixed mindsets have a tendency to be reactive. We can probably all think of someone, or maybe even ourselves, who have reactive tendencies. Is it because our mindsets are fixed?

The second mindset is one that “leans toward” that bends toward a certain direction. Philippians 2:5 demonstrates this one when it says,  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus (NIV). Pastor John put it this way, he said let the leanings of your mind lean in the same direction as the mind of Jesus. As long as we know Jesus well enough to see how he treated people, we can know that his mind is not self-serving, that it always leans in the direction of love.

The third mindset is highlighted in 1 Corinthians 14:20 which states do not be children in your thinking… in your thinking be mature. (ESV)  In this verse, the word for thinking comes from the word “diaphragm” which is the membrane in the body that helps us breathe. Breathing is natural to us, we don’t focus on it a great deal. Thinking is natural to us, we don’t focus on it a great deal, yet our mindset–which can be as natural to us as breathing, needs to be transformed so that our mindset becomes like that of Jesus–he wants his mindset in us to be as natural as breathing.

Back to Mark 2.  The friends of the paralyzed man lower him down and he lands in front of Jesus. It would have been impossible for the people in the house to ignore this moment. Do you wonder how they were responding? Were they talking about it, or has this moment rendered them silent? Were they laughing or were they mad? We know that there are “teachers of the law” in close proximity. (How did they get the front seats in this crowded house?)

Before the paralyzed man has said a word, Jesus said to him, “Your sins are forgiven.” Hmmm. What must the paralytic have been thinking in that moment? Is that why his friends went to such great lengths to get him to Jesus?  What is going on here?

Jesus knows our greatest need, and Jesus often times acts in unpredictable ways. In just a moment we are going to get to the part of the story where we know that Jesus knew the thoughts of the teachers of the law. Did he know the thoughts of the paralytic man? Was the man thinking to himself, “I’m not worthy to be in the presence of Jesus?” “I’m not worthy to be the center of attention?”  “I shouldn’t be here?”  We don’t know. But what if that was the case, and Jesus was addressing that mindset by letting the man know that nothing in his life was being held against him, that he could let go of guilt and shame, and that Jesus deemed him forgiven and worthy to be exactly where he was in that moment. If, as was the religious custom of the day, the man was being blamed for being a paralytic because of his sins, Jesus was taking care of that mindset as well.

However, the fixed mindset of the teachers of the law couldn’t see the beauty of the moment. Some of them were thinking to themselves  “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

So Jesus in his brilliance, but I also think in his love for the teachers of the law, addresses them in their own language.

They thought, “Why does this fellow talk like that?”  Jesus responds “Why are you thinking like that?”  Question for question.

They thought “He’s blaspheming!” (For a charge of blasphemy to be brought against someone, the blasphemous words had to be spoken.) Jesus responded, Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?

They thought, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus responded, want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. So he said to the man,  “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”

There is so much packed in these verses. When Jesus spoke forgiveness to the paralytic man, he was breathing out what is natural for him. His nature is love, His nature is forgiveness. His ministry is reconciliation. The man did not ask for forgiveness, he didn’t have to jump through a number of religious hoops to receive forgiveness–Jesus just spoke it over him–because Jesus has authority on earth to forgive sins. All of them. And He has offered this gift to all of us. No one is excluded. And then he demonstrated his authority over the things of earth by physically healing the man. The man became the living parable that the authority of Jesus to forgive us changes our lives.

Jesus has the unique ability to be fully present with the people he encounters. He was fully present with the paralytic man–but he was also fully present with the teachers of the law. He was for all of them. He met the paralytic man where he was. He also met the teachers of the law where they were. He used questions, reasoning, and logic–their language– to address their thoughts.

Before the man was lowered, Jesus had been sharing his message with those gathered in the house. Earlier in the book of Mark, we learn that the message of Jesus was “Repent”–which literally means ” change your mind…get a new mind”, “because the kingdom of heaven is here.”  So to the group in the house, including the religious authorities of the day–the men who interpreted the religious law for the common people–Jesus is saying there is a new way to think about God. He is full of love, He is ready to forgive, He is here, and He is changing things.

The new covenant that Jesus introduced fulfilled all the requirements of the law in Him. Jesus forgave the paralytic man before he ever went to the cross–he has the authority to forgive- period–and he does not withhold his forgiveness from anyone. He demonstrated his authority to the teachers of the law, to the crowd in the house, to the friends of the paralytic man who were watching from the roof, to the man who was forgiven and healed, and to you. You can know, beyond a shadow of any doubt,  that God is for you. You can be free from legalism and rules. You can be free from the fixed mindset of this world, including the fixed mindset of religious systems. Every single moment in your life that has not measured up to the perfection of God is forgiven, so that, you can have an organic, real, personal relationship with a God who loves you more than you will ever comprehend. You don’t have to do anything to earn it.  Will you allow your mind to think the way Jesus thinks? Will you allow the Spirit to so totally change your mind, mold your mind, transform your mind,  that Christ’s way of thinking becomes as natural to you as breathing? Will you embrace God’s for-give-ness that He demonstrated in His give-for you?  And will you join him in giving for others?

The beautiful result of the rest of our encounter with the paralytic man was, He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this before!”

May we be such pure reflections of the heart, the mind, the sensitivity, feelings, intellect and actions of Jesus that the world sees the beauty of God through us and draws close to Him in praise, because they’ve never encountered anything like Him before…

–Luanne

Last week when we looked at the story of Jesus healing the leper, we remarked that as Jesus touched him, the kingdom came and invaded the life of the leper. In that story, it was a touch from Jesus that caused a collision of the heavens and earth. This week, it was Jesus’ words that carried the weight of the kingdom. His words, unprovoked, gushed out into the paralytic’s reality–and changed his life forever. Luanne wrote:

“The man did not ask for forgiveness, he didn’t have to jump through a number of religious hoops to receive forgiveness–Jesus just spoke it over him…”

Pastor John told us on Sunday that Jesus’ forgiveness of the paralyzed man says nothing about the heart of the man (we have no idea where his heart was) but that it says everything about the heart of Jesus. Luanne wrote about the heart of Jesus being for everyone who was present. His awareness and his focus were on the paralytic AND on everyone else in the room… the owners of the home, the friends on the roof, the teachers of the law in the front row, the others among them who needed healing. He was aware of all of them, and He chose his words accordingly.

I wonder what he was teaching about, what stories he might have been telling, before the roof began to open above them… Surely Jesus knew the thoughts of those around him before the paralytic entered the room. Perhaps his words to the man carried even more impact than we can know based on the record of the story that we have in our Bibles. We know that his thoughts are higher than ours, as are His ways, which, like Luanne said above, are often unpredictable. Regardless of what he’d been talking about, he chose to respond to this interruption by breathing out forgiveness. Forgiveness that was not asked for, earned, merited in any way, or sacrificed for… He washed away this man’s shortcomings not with blood, but with his breath. The same mouth that spoke creation spoke forgiveness. And he had (as he has now) full authority to do so. This is a big deal, and worthy of further study, but I’ll leave you to ponder and pursue that further on your own, if you so desire.

This kingdom collision moment stirred up the crowd. Jesus’ declaration of forgiveness set the minds of the teachers of the law (and probably the minds of everyone else, too) ablaze with questions. What we see in this story from these religious men is the picture of where their minds were fixed.

Luanne wrote about the three different definitions of “mind” that Pastor John spoke to us about on Sunday. The first one referenced is the fixed mindset, the one that is our default. This one is a fortified structure–it’s solid and largely unmoving, as the word “fixed” would infer. Both John and Luanne explained that this is the mindset that needs to be changed, renewed, transformed.

As I thought about this fixed, rigid, frame of mind, I found myself thinking about Ezekiel 36:26:

 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

When I looked into this verse a little more deeply, I found that the Hebrew word that is translated “heart” in this verse is the word “leb.” This little word is used over 500 times in the Hebrew scriptures. It is translated “heart” in most cases, but it is translated “mind” or “understanding” a combined 22 times. The definition of the word is interesting… It means “inner person: mind, will, heart, understanding, soul, thinking, knowledge, inclination, determination of will”, and is also used widely to mean “the center” of anything. The Greek English Lexicon of the NT based on Semantic Domains states that the “Hebrew term ‘leb’, though literally meaning ‘heart’, refers primarily to the mind.”

I don’t know about you, but I find this pretty captivating… especially if we replace the word heart in Ezekiel 36:26 with our understanding of what the original word referenced, the idea of the mind.

It gets better. The Hebrew word “leb” has a Greek equivalent that we see all over the New Testament. This word is “kardia”. It is one of many words that is translated “heart” in the NT, and it shows up twice in this week’s passage–both in reference to the teachers of the law:

But some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts (kardia)…    (Mark 2:6)

Immediately Jesus, aware in His spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves, said to them, “Why are you reasoning about these things in your            hearts (kardia)?” (Mark 2:8)

I am using the NASB because it is a more direct translation, but it is very interesting if you read through different translations of these verses how interchangeably the words “heart” and “thinking” are used.

Though we know Jesus was able to speak Greek (evidenced by His exchanges with the woman with the demon-possessed child in Matthew 14, as well as His conversations with Pontius Pilate), it is generally agreed upon by historians and theologians that he most likely spoke Aramaic, a sister language to Hebrew. More than likely, given his audience in this week’s passage, he was speaking Aramaic. So we don’t know exactly what words he used. What we know is that whatever words he used, the Greek word that translators chose in these two passages for “heart” is the one that is the equivalent to the Hebrew “leb”. I apologize if I’m being too much of a word-nerd here, but I find this fascinating…

These teachers of the law were working from a fixed, rigid framework–let’s say, a mindset that was set in stone. We know that it is this frame of mind that needs to be changed to become like the mind of Jesus. And when Jesus addresses these men, he uses a word that they would have recognized as interchangeable with the word from the scripture in Ezekiel. Could it be that he was offering to remove their hearts/minds/centers of being that were set in stone and replace them with hearts/minds/centers of being that were instead made of flesh? Able to bend, move, lean toward him rather than away? Is this part of how Jesus was loving these teachers of the law in his midst whilst loving the paralytic into the freedom of forgiveness? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that, like Luanne expressed above, Jesus is always FOR everyone. All of us. Period. So I don’t find it a stretch to imagine that in this moment, Jesus himself was offering to replace their fixed mindsets, inviting them to adopt his way of thinking in place of  their own rigid ones.

This is such an important thing for all of us to understand, to grasp, to see in ourselves. Luanne wrote, “…our mindset–which can be as natural to us as breathing, needs to be transformed so that our mindset becomes like that of Jesus–he wants his mindset in us to be as natural as breathing.” If we are to be vessels that carry the kingdom of Jesus to the world around us, we have to be disciples of Jesus, learning from him constantly, being made more like him every step of the way. This is what the renewing of our minds, and being transformed is all about. Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy, says it this way:

“And as a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God. This is the crucial idea. That means, we recall, how to live within the range of God’s effective will, his life flowing through mine. Another important way of putting this is to say that I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live my life if he were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner that he did all that he did… I am learning from Jesus how to lead my life, my whole life, my real life.” 

I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live my life if he were I… 

Since I read that passage a couple of weeks ago, that one line won’t leave my consciousness. How would Jesus live my life–in every moment–if he were me? It changes my responses. It refocuses my mind and priorities. It helps me let go and forgive when I don’t want to. It makes me take notice of others who do this well, those around me that I can learn from.

And it reminds me to simply pay attention. How did Jesus live? What did he do and say? How did he love? In this week’s story, we read of how forgiveness is as natural as breathing to Jesus. And we know that we are to be transformed more and more into his likeness. But forgiveness doesn’t always come so easily to us… How are we to get there?

We have to breathe in what Jesus breathes out so that it can then live within us and grow within our hearts and minds. It’s like CPR for our souls. When we inhale the life-giving love and forgiveness of Jesus, we inhale the kingdom. As the kingdom lives and breathes within us, we become more like Jesus, so that we can grow into people to whom forgiveness is as natural as breathing. And then we can exhale this life, love, forgiveness–the ways of the kingdom–to those around us.

As we move forward, I pray that we learn to ask ourselves how Jesus would live our lives if he were us. And I hope that we’ll learn to let our minds lean toward him, to bend toward his way of thinking. Let’s ask him to replace our hearts/minds/centers of being that are fixed and stony with hearts and minds of flesh that are able to love and forgive the way he does. Let’s ask him. His response to us is as natural as breathing for him. We can trust him to exhale love and forgiveness–the kingdom life–into our lives just like he did for those he encountered in our story this week. And as we breathe him in, we’ll grow into people who can love and forgive like never before.

–Laura

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Compassion (Like Never Before)

Leper.

What comes to mind as you read that word?

Leprosy isn’t a disease we hear much about today. Only a handful of cases are diagnosed in the United States each year, and with modern medicine, it is absolutely curable. But it wasn’t always that way…

During the time that Jesus walked in human skin, leprosy was a death sentence. It was terminal–there was no cure. But worse than the death sentence was the life sentence it carried… We picked up our story of Jesus in Mark 1:40-45 this week. These verses tell us the story of a leper. Consider this man’s reality with me for a moment…

We don’t know his name, or who he was before the leprosy. We know nothing of the life he’d lived before. He had been banished from human contact, with no hope of being touched by anyone again. Perhaps he’d been a husband, a father. If so, his family was now to regard him as though he were dead–even while he lived. Never again would he embrace his wife or hold his children. In fact, his wife may have already remarried, as she would have been regarded as a widow…

Even if someone dared to touch him, he wouldn’t feel it–the disease affected his nerve endings and destroyed his ability to feel. His leprosy made him numb. For the rest of his life… He was sentenced to a life in the shadows–and even there, people would avoid him, because they believed even his shadow was contagious. He was sentenced to a life of shame and obscurity, and who he used to be mattered not. From here on out, his identity was “leper” and “unclean”. If he dared come near a town, he’d be obligated to shout out that word to warn people to stay away. “Unclean! Unclean!” This was his name now. He lived his life as the walking dead.

Rejected. Unclean. Isolated. Ashamed. Lonely. Broken. Numb. Disgraced. Discarded. Forgotten. Unnamed. Untouchable. Hopeless…

He would live alone. And then die alone. Would anyone notice he was gone? Likely not, for his life ended the day his leprosy appeared. He had been dead to them–all of them–since then.

But Jesus…

Maybe the leper had heard rumors of this man from passers by… Maybe another leper had spoken of him… We don’t know how this man knew about Jesus, but he’d heard enough to recognize when he came near. And one day, as Jesus was traveling throughout the region of Galilee, preaching, healing, and casting out demons, this leper fell at Jesus’ feet. He knelt before the One he had heard of, grasping at hope and brimming with belief…

“If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean,” he said. (Mark 1:40b, NLT)

Somehow, he knew Jesus could cure the incurable. He believed in His ability to restore him to health.

But maybe he wouldn’t want to…

The paralyzed, blind, demon-possessed, and otherwise afflicted had experienced healing at the hands of Jesus. But him? A leper who was already regarded as dead to his community? Maybe Jesus wouldn’t go that far.

“If you are willing…”

I can picture his eyes, pleading, daring to hope–but wide with a bit of fear… Was he crying? Did he look at the ground, or did he glance at the eyes looking back at him? If he did, did he see the deep pools of Jesus’ eyes fill as the emotion within Him surfaced? The vulnerability of this moment–for both men–causes me to pause, to linger, to imagine what each of them might have been feeling…

Have you ever pleaded with anyone? Knowing they had the power to help you, the ability to meet your need, if only they wanted to? Has anyone ever pleaded with you that way? Do you know the desperation of a moment like this one?

Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be healed!” (Mark 1:41, NLT)

Compassion… Pastor John spoke of compassion as the deepest of human expressions. It is a feeling that originates in the gut, more specifically in the bowels. Something deep within feels the suffering of another. It is more than coming alongside one who is suffering. It isn’t a surface emotion, like sympathy; it doesn’t carry the condescension of pity, and it doesn’t remain detached like empathy. It is entering into the suffering of another as though it was happening to you.

Jesus was filled with compassion for this man, moved by it. In this moment, it was as if he became a leper, too, and felt the hopelessness, the sorrow, the depth of his agony… Again, I imagine Jesus’ eyes as He entered into this man’s existence, knowing the man’s rejection and loneliness would transfer to Him as He granted this request… Did His chest tighten as He realized that what He felt for this man–the rejection and isolation that was headed His way as soon as people heard the news of his healing–would pale in comparison to the rejection, betrayal, and death that He would soon feel? As His compassion and deep love for humanity led Him to the end of His own life on this earth?

I don’t know the answers to the many questions this story provokes. But I do know that Jesus didn’t hesitate. Didn’t count the cost and weigh His options, though the cost to His very well-being would be extremely high. His response was not an emotionally driven knee-jerk reaction, though His emotions were absolutely in play during this interaction. How do I know this? Because of what the word “willing” means here…

In the Greek, the word is distinguished as “an active option”, and differentiated from “subjective impulse”. It means “to will, have in mind, intend; be resolved or determined, to purpose; to desire, to wish; to love; to like to do a thing, be fond of doing; to take delight in, have pleasure.”

When Jesus said He was willing, it wasn’t a flippant decision. It wasn’t a begrudging yes. It was an expression of deep love and purpose, something He was delighted to do, something that–while the cost to Himself would be very high–He was determined to do.

And He didn’t only say the words. He reached out and touched the man… 

Can you even imagine this moment?

We don’t know how long this man had suffered. How many days, months, years it had been since anyone reached out to touch him… He clearly believed that Jesus was able to heal him. But to be seen, heard, and then touched by the Jewish rabbi/God-man? Touched by this One who knew and understood that to touch him was to violate every social, medical, and religious law, rule, and recommendation regarding people of his kind? I imagine the thought didn’t even cross his mind.

Can you picture the shock on his face as the hand of Jesus moved his direction? Did he flinch, or try to move out of the way so he wouldn’t contaminate Jesus? Did he gasp or try to say something? Did he even see it coming, this collision of heaven and earth? Or was he staring at the ground, ashamed of his need and afraid of the response he would receive? We aren’t given details of the interaction, so we’re left to wonder… Did Jesus gently lift the man’s chin so he could see the love on His face as He voiced His willingness? Did He tenderly cup his face in both hands? Did he reach for his hands and lift him to his feet? Leprosy had robbed this man of the ability to feel touch. Did Jesus’ hands linger on him until he could feel the warmth of the Healer’s hands break through his numbness?

I don’t know. But every possible scenario causes my breath to catch in my chest…

Sweet Jesus, how beautiful you are… How kind… 

Touching him let the leper know that Jesus was willing to accept the cost of compassion. And it would cost Him everything, as it was the beginning of the violence and rejection Jesus would face at the hands of those He came to heal… Touching him told the leper that Jesus was willing to take his place, to share his pain, to connect with him. This went far beyond concern. Jesus got proximate to this man. He took the time to look and see beyond the surface, to listen so that He could really hear. He set aside the “wisdom” of the culture around Him that said this man might as well be dead, that he was hopeless, and beyond the reach of mercy. He chose to engage deeply enough to feel the full extent of this leper’s pain. He got close enough to smell the stench of his disease–and He continued to move toward him, not away. Because compassion takes us all the way. All the way into the pain of the one in front of us. Beyond the judgments, assumptions, and invisible walls of separation. Compassion takes us beyond our comfort zones and often, right into a danger zone. And then it takes us further… Jesus touched him…

The nuance of this story is lost on us if we move through it too quickly. Take a moment to place yourself there. If you had a front-row seat to this interaction, what would you see? Hear? Feel?

Jesus touched the untouchable… In that moment, as Pastor John told us on Sunday, the Kingdom came and invaded the life of this leper. I can’t articulate how much I love that. This story, contained in six short verses, shows us what the kingdom looks like. The way of the kingdom is the way of self-sacrificing love. If we haven’t allowed compassion to move us out beyond ourselves into love that chooses to identify with and take the place of another, we haven’t become carriers of the kingdom. The kingdom has come–Jesus brought it with Him and He modeled what it looks like over and over again. It is here, among us, inviting us to step into it, to carry it to every corner of this earth–but I think we sometimes have the wrong idea of what “Your kingdom come” actually means…

Kingdom love always co-suffers with the “other”–whoever that may be. Kingdom love doesn’t pick and choose who’s worthy to be invited in. Kingdom love doesn’t shame people to Jesus. Kingdom love doesn’t “truth” people to Jesus. Kingdom love doesn’t judge people to Jesus. Kingdom love wears the shoes of compassion–or it isn’t Kingdom love at all. 

Jesus showed us what Kingdom love looks like and what it does. It moves us to go. To go to the ones we’re told to disregard, to be afraid of, to ignore, to disdain, to stay away from. To the ones who could hurt us, infect us, and change our “status”. The Kingdom moves us to go to them, and to engage with their stories. It moves us to enter into their lives, knowing it will cost us. Kingdom love says, “I’ll take your place. My life, given for yours.”

In Jesus’ day, the leper represented the dirtiest of humanity. The leper’s level of “uncleanness” was second only to a decomposing corpse.

But Jesus… He changed everything. He brought the kingdom to this man, fully aware of the cost.

Who are the “lepers” of today? Who are we unwilling to engage with, unwilling to get proximate to? Who do we regard as “unclean”, “hopeless”, even… better off dead? Who do we judge from a distance, post about on social media, and see as less than human? Who, if we choose to enter into their lives and their pain, could cost us? Who are we unwilling to touch because the social, physical, financial, and professional risks are just too high? Who are we afraid of?

Is it the LGBTQ community? 

Women who have had abortions?

Undocumented immigrants?

Muslim refugees? 

Prisoners on death row?

The sick?

The elderly?

The disabled?

Democrats?

Republicans?

People who don’t look like you?

That estranged family member?

Yourself…?

Who are the lepers in your world? Who is hiding in the shadows, hopeless and rejected, asking, “Do I have worth?”, “Is there any hope for me?”, “Are you even willing to look at me, hear me, touch me?” What would it take for you to move toward that person, toward that group?

Jesus isn’t walking the earth in human skin today.

But His Church is.

The Kingdom invaded one leper’s life on an ordinary day that changed both his and Jesus’ life forever. We are invited, and called, as Kingdom-bearers, to be moved by compassion and love and carry that same Kingdom–the one that also invaded and transformed our lives on ordinary days–into the hardest places, to the most broken of lives.

Think constantly of those in prison as if you were prisoners at their side. Think too of all who suffer as if you shared their pain. (Hebrews 13:3, J.B. Phillips)

This verse calls us to remember those who suffer, to think about them constantly. This will cultivate our concern. But Jesus taught us by example that compassion is more than simply thinking of those who suffer. Compassion is concern that has learned how to walk, how to move and get proximate to those we think of and pray for. This is the way of the Kingdom. Walking in compassion identifies us with the One we call Savior.

Friends, we can carry healing, kingdom love to a hurting, dying world… Jesus has entrusted us to carry His kingdom–

Are we willing?

–Laura

A few years ago, I was walking to work and pondering the word “remember”. I was struck by the fact that the opposite of remember is not forget–the opposite is dismember. Hebrews 13:3, that Laura wrote above, in many other translations uses the word remember… The NLT version reads:

Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies. 

That verse is the very definition of the compassion Jesus modeled. We (I) too easily dismember ourselves from the pain of others–yet Jesus says connect yourself to others, re-member, attach yourself to them. Enter into their story with them. Feel with them. Suffer with them. Become them, as much as you are able to.

Compassion is greater than pity, which can be condescending.

                          Compassion is greater than sympathy, which can be superficial.

                                         Compassion is greater than empathy, which can be too distant.

                                                                           Compassion wants to take their place. 

Is anything about compassion easy? No. Compassion is self-sacrificing. Compassion is loving others so well that we are willing to exchange our lives for theirs. Compassion looks like Jesus.

Laura wrote beautifully about the leper’s encounter with Jesus–she slowed us down, put us in his shoes, caused us to think about what he may have been thinking, feeling, experiencing. Can you imagine what his life was like?

So here he is, this total outcast who is not supposed to come out of the shadows, yet he not only comes out of the shadows but approaches Jesus. Up until this moment  in the book of Mark, Jesus has been ministering to the masses. He’s been teaching in  synagogues, he’s been healing large numbers of people. But Jesus, (I love him so much), in this moment, becomes all about the one man.  The one. The one rejected, isolated, unclean, untouchable man.

Jesus touches him. I wonder if this man who couldn’t feel felt the touch of Jesus immediately, or if Jesus gave him a moment to see that he was being touched, even while he was still diseased, and gradually let the touch become felt?  The moment of Jesus’ touch makes me think of the verse God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8). While we are still diseased, he touches us, while we are still diseased, he takes our place. He didn’t heal the man first and then touch him. He touched him while he was still sick. He does this for us–do we do this for others? If he hadn’t/doesn’t love us in our brokenness, we have no chance to be in relationship with him. We cannot fix ourselves. And compassion like this is the proof of God’s love-if we are the carriers of His love to this broken world, what does compassion look like for us?

Compassion will cost us something. For Jesus, in this encounter, it cost him the ministry that he previously had. After Jesus asked the man not to tell anyone, but to go show himself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that were required as a testimony of his healing (vs. 44-45) the man did what we might do as well–he told everyone. The result was that Jesus could no longer enter a town openly, but stayed outside in lonely places. (vs. 45)The man, who had previously been isolated, banished to live outside in lonely places, was now free to be part of society again. Jesus was now the one living in lonely places.

There is so much in this encounter. So much. Many of us recognize that Jesus died in our place. He gave His life in exchange for ours–and we are grateful. But what He models in this story is that this very human earth life we live–he is willing to exchange for His.  I think this is a key point in what it means to be a Jesus-follower. If his life now lives in me, do I look like him?

In trying to think of people who model compassion, my mind kept going to the Ten Boom family, Christians who hid Jews in their home during World War 2. They were arrested–they knew all along that arrest was a possibility–but they were willing to show compassion, Jesus’ kind of compassion–the entering in and suffering with kind of compassion. Only one of the Ten Booms survived the concentration camp. Her name was Corrie, and she wrote an incredible book called “The Hiding Place” that tells their story.  They broke the laws of Nazi Germany in order to fulfill the law of Christ–“love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31),  and greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13). Which laws are most important to us?

The call for Jesus-followers— we are to be him by letting him live the life that he exchanged for ours through us.

We just finished our season of 21 Days of Prayer and Fasting, and this year many of the needs we were interceding for were heavy and hard. Friday night, as I was praying, a worship song that lifts Jesus up and recognizes that He is on the throne came on. It’s a song that I usually love, but Friday I could not sing it. Instead I was saying to Jesus, I know that you are on the throne–but right now I don’t need to feel that distance. I need to know that you are right here, right now, and that you hear our cries on behalf of these we are praying for. The need felt overwhelming to my heart and I was hurting for so many.

Saturday morning, our last time together for this season, communion was being served. As I was praying, my eyes kept being drawn to the bread and the juice. God reminded me that bread and juice come from the earth–they are elements of earth. He reminded me that Jesus–our bread, our wine–is fully present here, fully human even while being fully divine. I needed to be reminded of his humanity, and I was.

After Jesus went to live in lonely places, Mark concludes this encounter by telling us the people still came to him from everywhere. Jesus had proven that he is in this with us. He touched a leper. He is here. He will touch you, and give you the freedom to touch others–not just the ones who are easy to touch, but the ones who when you touch them, when you speak up for them, when you love them, it may cost you something. It’s the Jesus way–and nothing is more beautiful.

Love so amazing, so divine

                                                                      Demands my soul, 

                                 my life

                                                    my all…

                              (When I Survey, Isaac Watts)

Re–member.

–Luanne

Image result for compassion quote henri nouwen

 

Prayer (Like never Before)

Prayer. How does one even begin to understand it? There are entire books, lots of them, written about how to pray. I’ve read a number of them, I’ve tried a number of the different methods suggested in them. I’ve searched for the “right way” to pray. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to mess up prayer is not to pray.  I’ve let go of formulas, and just show up with a desire to connect with God. Some days I don’t pray a word, I just sit intentionally in God’s presence. Some days I pray with words. Some days I read scripture and converse with God as I read. Some days I intercede for the world and for people I know. Some days I journal. Some days I worship with music. Some days I read the prayers of others and make their words my own.  Most days I ask Jesus what He wants our time to look like that day. Sometimes I feel a strong sense of connection, some days not so much, but my “feelings” aren’t what my prayer life needs to be about. Connecting with my Father (which includes listening) is what prayer is about.

Sunday, in our Like Never Before series, Pastor John had us look at the prayer life of Jesus.  Last week we looked at Jesus’ authority and the long day that He’d experienced. He’d taught in the synagogue, driven out an impure spirit, healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and after dark when  “the whole town” showed up at the house, He healed many and drove out many evil spirits. (Mark 1:21-34). I imagine He was tired at the end of that day. How did he even get all of those people to finally go home so he and his disciples could rest? Do you ever think about things like that? I do.

However, the following day we learn that very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. (Mark 1:35). In that moment Jesus was showing us the the priority of His life–His desire to connect one on one with His Father, before any other distractions of the day called to Him.

I am an early morning pray-er. I’ve learned that, for me, starting my day with Jesus, before anyone else is up, works best. However, not everyone rises early and that’s okay. Prayer is not a legalistic activity. It’s not about the time of day–it’s about the connection. Prayer is about our need to connect with the One we are following. Prayer helps us to understand God’s will and God empowers us to carry out His will as we spend time with Him.

What Pastor John showed us Sunday about  Jesus’ prayer life are that His words and actions matched. He connected both soul and body to prayer. And He connected heaven and earth in prayer.

In Matthew 6:5-8,  Jesus teaches us some things about prayer. He says:

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
In other words–don’t pray to impress others, and just because someone prays out loud doesn’t mean they have an intimate relationship with God. We aren’t in a place to judge the hearts of others, but Jesus did tell us that we can have an idea based on the fruit of people’s lives. Is there evidence of Holy Spirit fruit?
Pastor John even reminded us not to say to people “I’m praying for you”,  or “I’ll pray for you”, and then not pray. Anything that makes us sound good, but not followed through with could be what Jesus was addressing, and our only reward will be that people think we’re great.  Jesus wants us to  spend some alone time with God–connect with Him in solitude–whether anyone else ever knows that we do that or not. And then He modeled exactly that in Mark when he left the house early to go pray. (Note: prayer is not legalistic and corporate prayer is absolutely something that the church does together; however, corporate prayer alone will not sustain us and help us grow.)
When Jesus left the house early, He was involving His physical body as well as His soul in the act of prayer. He got His physical body out of bed. He walked to a solitary place. He got Himself into a position of prayer, and he prayed. There was intention in what He did with His physical body. And then He connected His soul, the part of us that we can’t see–our thought life, our emotions, etc. with God. Pastor John pointed out that it was not outside obligation that caused Jesus to get up–it was the internal desire of His soul that wanted to connect with His Father that caused Him to move.
I find that the longer I walk with God the more I have that internal desire to connect with Him.  Without a doubt, there is some discipline involved in making time to connect with God, but once the discipline has been established, that time of connection becomes as life-giving as food and water. If you haven’t experienced that yet in your walk, don’t guilt yourself, just ask the Holy Spirit to give you the desire, and then follow through with intentionality. I can honestly say that I am not who I used to be. God has changed me, and it has been through my time with Him. I don’t know how He’s done it, but I know that He has. It is true that whatever we are doing with our physical bodies shows the priorities of our soul. Our inner life is reflected in our outward actions. If prayer becomes a priority, our lives will change.
Possibly my favorite part of prayer is that it connects heaven and earth. Jesus began His ministry by saying “the kingdom of heaven is here”. Somehow we’ve missed the significance of this in modern day Christianity. Our focus has become the after-life and we talk a lot about going to heaven when we die; however, that was not the message Jesus focused on, nor did the Apostles in the book of Acts. The message they preached is that God’s kingdom has come to us—right here, right now.   Jesus taught us to pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. He taught us to “Seek FIRST the kingdom of God”-right here, right now. Christianity is not about what happens after death, it is about life right here, right now. We have got to understand this! And, I’ll say it again, we have got to know the real Jesus in order to know what heaven on earth looks like.
I write these next statements gently, knowing that we all wrestle with making Jesus in our image, but we must be willing to recognize when we have done that and change our way of thinking to reflect who He has shown Himself to be.
If the Jesus you follow is connected to a political party, either one, He might not be the real Jesus. Jesus is connected to the “party” of the Kingdom of Heaven.
If the Jesus you follow is not concerned about people who are oppressed, who live in poverty, who live in danger, who are discriminated against, who are treated as less than, and who are unwelcome, He might not be the real Jesus. Remember the lepers, the women, the foreigners, the demon-possessed, the uneducated, the outcasts who were Jesus’ friends and ministry partners.
If the Jesus you follow favors your religious denomination, your nationality, your state, your education, your points of view, He might not be the real Jesus.
If the Jesus you follow is angry about “rights”–the right to pray in public, the right to post the 10 Commandments, or any other “rights”–He might not be the real Jesus. Jesus is gentle, and kind, and concerned about our transformation from the inside out.
Following the real Jesus means that we become like the real Jesus and the kind of people attracted to Him will be attracted to us.
How do we get to know the real Jesus? Connection through prayer, through the gospels, and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Seeking God in this way, leads us to what He says is eternal life. In John 17:3 Jesus prays Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.  
When we know Him, we know God’s will, which is to spread the message that the kingdom of heaven has come to earth, the love of God is available to everyone, we were created with divine purpose and can be part of His kingdom and its advancement on earth…and He’ll lead us every step of the way, showing us our next steps, just like the Father did with  Jesus while they were alone together.
Jesus, while he was still praying in that solitary place, was interrupted by the disciples who said  “Everyone is looking for you!” (Of course they were, Jesus had healed, and delivered people from demon possession the previous night –nothing like this had ever happened before.)  Yet, Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come. (Mark 1: 37-38)
I imagine the disciples were a little surprised by that. Yet Jesus, in His time with His Father, knew what to do next. I’m sure people were disappointed in Him–He didn’t do what they wanted. But He is Jesus. His life is all about the Father’s will, body and soul, words and actions, connecting heaven and earth–all fueled by connection with God through prayer, and He invites us to do the same. Will we enter in?
–Luanne
Luanne wrote, “It is true that whatever we are doing with our physical bodies shows the priorities of our soul. Our inner life is reflected in our outward actions. If prayer becomes a priority, our lives will change…”
What we do with our physical bodies shows the priorities of our soul With the exception of cases of physical disability that can prevent us from doing with our bodies what our souls long to do, I absolutely agree with this statement. We make time and space in our lives to do the things our souls prioritize. Even in the midst of life’s responsibilities and demands, we find a way to do the things our souls desire. It’s how we’re wired. Sometimes the wiring gets crossed though–we’ll come back to that in a minute…
During his message, Pastor John mentioned that whether Jesus needed to or not, His getting up early to pray showed us what He wanted to do–where His heart and His priorities were. We know He was fully God as well as fully man. So we could argue that He didn’t NEED to go away to connect with God. We don’t know for sure how that all worked. But to me, seeing that it’s what he wanted to do, what he longed to do, speaks deeply to my heart and reminds me of my own longing. We come into existence with eternity set in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and with an ache for “home” that we can’t really explain… In Jason Upton’s beautiful song, “Home to Me”, he articulates this ache a bit:
“…Before my lungs could breathe, I was alive in you;
Before my eyes were open, before my tongue could speak,
Before the bond was broken between you and me;
You were home to me…
You are where we all have come from,
You are where we long to go…”
Jason writes of a longing we all have, whether we’re aware of it or not. It’s the desire to live in the realm of the kingdom of the heavens, the kingdom Jesus brought to earth with Him–the kingdom that is absolutely available to us, if only we’ll make it a priority, like Jesus did, to plug into it. The last line of Upton’s song is,
“Let the way of Jesus lead us back where we belong.”
This is the opportunity we always have before us. The life of Jesus–His ways–will lead us where we belong, if we choose to follow Him. He showed us how to plug into the power source of His Kingdom. And it all begins with prayer. We are wired for it. But, like I mentioned above, sometimes our wiring gets crossed. We know that Jesus taught us to seek his Kingdom daily, to ask our Father for our daily bread… yet so often we settle for the bread of our yesterdays… And, I believe, this is what leads us to follow an idea of Jesus that is nothing like the real Jesus.
The concept of “daily bread” has cycled through my mind on repeat for about a week now…
I think we sometimes try to master the gift of daily provision. We try and hoard what we’ve been given today, and expect it to carry us into our tomorrows. We want our initial experience with Jesus to “cover” us, and to guarantee our eternity, without any further “plugging in” to His kingdom and His ways. We intuitively know that doing so will change us and our priorities–priorities that, along the way, have covered up our primal longing to connect with the Creator of our souls. But when we eat today’s bread tomorrow, and the next day, and on into the next month, year, decades, etc…, we end up eating stale, decomposing, bread. It makes us sick–and it leads us to follow a “Jesus” that doesn’t exist.
I’m not saying that the bread of yesterday was bad. It was what we needed then. It served it’s purpose for that day. It was intended to carry us to the next day, when we could again go to the source for that day’s bread. Bread doesn’t stay fresh for long. It molds, it rots, it gets stale, it decomposes. But Jesus is the bread of life, right? He won’t ever get stale or rotten, right? Right… IF we stay plugged into Him. But a taste of Jesus, a one-time experience of Jesus, in our imperfect human hands? That can absolutely “go bad” and decompose as the dirt of us mixes with the beauty of Him. This is where theologies that look nothing like His kingdom begin. We must go back to the source, daily, if we expect our relationship with God to stay fresh, and if we expect to grow into people who reflect the One we say we follow.
Luanne wrote, “I can honestly say that I am not who I used to be. God has changed me, and it has been through my time with Him. I don’t know how He’s done it, but I know that He has.” Coming to Jesus daily, knowing He is the daily bread we need, and seeking His kingdom first allows God to do His good work within us and change us in the way Luanne wrote about.
But eating old bread changes us, too. Plugging into our old understanding of Jesus, praying disconnected, formulaic prayers, doing religion for show–all of these are examples of what can happen when we try to make what we were given at first into what sustains us into eternity. We have to keep plugging into our Source. When we come to our God daily, hungry for the Bread of Life and thirsty for Living Water, we tap into the new wine of the kingdom of Jesus… We become familiar with His ways, and we begin to realize that His kingdom is exceedingly bigger and abundantly better than anything we’ve imagined. When this realization dawns on us, we stop trying to make today’s provision last into tomorrow, because we can’t wait for the fresh revelation tomorrow’s bread will bring. Continuing to return daily, remaining fixed in the presence of Jesus, will remind us of our own weakness and smallness as we encounter His power–the power of earth and heaven becoming one in His presence. We begin to see more and more of the heart of our God as we seek Him in prayer. Our own hearts expand, and so does our vision. We begin to see those around us, and we begin to see the stark contrast between the Kingdom of the heavens and the kingdoms of this world.
And… sometimes the presence we encounter in prayer is overwhelming. We know that choosing to follow this Kingdom path will lead us to rearrange our priorities, to be open to being changed at our core–and that can feel like too much. So we choose, sometimes, to choke down the rotting bread of yesterday and tells ourselves that’s good enough for this life. Our actions, words, and mindsets reveal the kind of bread we’re eating, as well as the priorities of our hearts. But we go on filling the ache for “home” with bread that, unbeknownst to us, is making us–and others–sick. Eating the old bread keeps us just full enough to check out, and allows us to mostly silence the cry of our souls for the bread of life that satisfies.
Eating the old bread doesn’t disqualify us from an eternity with Jesus–but it does render our present lives entirely useless for Kingdom purposes. It will keep us from experiencing the empowerment and freedom that only comes when we plug into the Kingdom. Plugging into the Kingdom happens when we follow the way of Jesus and connect with our God through prayer.
Have you been feasting on the maggoty bread of your yesterdays? Are you plugging into a source that has rewired your priorities? Take heart. There is fresh bread available for all of us. Is your heart not in it yet? Just move. Move toward God. He’s waiting for you. Ask Him for today’s bread. Let it carry you today. Then come back tomorrow and ask Him for that day’s bread. And the next day, and the next. The Bread of Life will fill you and heal the sickness of yesterday. And as you connect with “home”, your priorities will change. And you will change. There is no “right way” to pray, to connect with your Father. But Jesus did give us a model of where to begin. Let the way of Jesus lead us all back where we belong…
   Our Father in heaven,
        let Your name remain holy.
    Bring about Your kingdom.
    Manifest Your will here on earth,
        as it is manifest in heaven.
   Give us each day that day’s bread—no more, no less—
   And forgive us our debts
        as we forgive those who owe us something.
 Lead us not into temptation,
        but deliver us from evil.
(Matthew 6:9-13, VOICE)
–Laura
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Like Never Before #2

We began a new series last week called “Like Never Before”. We looked at Jesus’ words in Mark 1:14-15 where He told us what God is all about. He let us know that the time had come, the Kingdom of God had arrived in the here and now; He encouraged us to repent (change our minds) and believe the Good News (gospel). God is here, His Kingdom is here, He has come near. Good news indeed!

After telling us Jesus’ message, the next thing that Mark tells us is how Jesus called His first disciples (vs 16-20). And, as is always the case with Jesus, it didn’t look the way one might have expected. We sometimes become so familiar with the accounts of Jesus in scripture that we forget how radical His ways were. One would think that God in the flesh would look for followers in the temple, or among those who were well versed in the Torah, but that wasn’t His way. Is it possible that He went elsewhere because often times the religious think they already know everything there is to know about the ways of God? Could it be because the religious have expectations of how God is supposed to act–how He’s supposed to relate to sinners? Could it be that the religious don’t want their belief system messed with?  Could it be that they are comfortable with it the way it is? Could it be that  the religious struggle to believe that everyone counts in God’s kingdom?These are definitely attitudes for us to think about and guard against in our own journeys of faith.

So, Jesus, in His unorthodox way of doing things, took a walk along the seashore where there were common fishermen and He called out to them. First to Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew, then to John and his brother James. He invited them to come after Him and told them He would make them fishers of men.

Mark tells us that “at once” and “without delay” they dropped everything and followed Jesus. Stop and think for a moment how remarkable that whole scenario is. Jesus is inviting regular common laborers to join Him in His mission. They don’t have a clue what they are really getting themselves into, but they followed immediately. What does this tell us about the type of followers that Jesus is looking for?

Pastor John highlighted three things:

1. Trust. Jesus is looking for followers who will trust Him completely. He is looking for those who will go where He leads without having to know all the details. He is looking for those who will drop everything to be with Him and join Him in what He’s doing. Jesus says to these men in verse 17, “Come after me.”  

“Come after me” can be interpreted in two different ways: it can be the literal following–He goes ahead and we come after, or it can be intense pursuit. I think both are fitting.

Do we trust Him enough to go after Him with all that we have and all that we are wherever He leads?

We won’t do it perfectly. Peter was the first disciple called, and he denied Jesus a few years later. Even so,  Jesus didn’t leave Peter behind. He again went to Peter by the sea, fixed him breakfast, asked Peter if he loved him, and continued to invite Peter to be part of what He was doing.  Peter followed Jesus once again and was powerfully used by God after Jesus’ ascension. That should give all of us some hope. God is not after our perfection, but He is after our trust. Will we trust Him with our lives?

2. Teachable: Jesus says to Peter and Andrew–come follow me and I will teach you how to fish for people.  Jesus was telling them that he was going to teach them something new. He was going to turn them into something that they weren’t before. To be teachable, we must be willing to be changed. There is no growth without change. We have to be willing to let go of old positions, old understandings, old ways of thinking, and go with Jesus.

I think maybe this is one of the reasons that Jesus didn’t go to the religious. He went to men who had no religious baggage, and they were willing to let go of the familiar and learn something new. Again, I think there is much here for those of us who’ve been around church for awhile to think about. Jesus, later in His ministry, confronted the religious leaders and said to them: “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” (Mark 7:6-8 NLT)

That’s not to say that Jesus didn’t love the religious community. He wept over Jerusalem because they had rejected Him and the peace He offered (Luke 19:41) —  they were not teachable.

Are we teachable? Are we willing to wrestle with our own traditions to see if they line up with the teachings of Jesus? Are we willing to wrestle with cultural Christianity and get to the heart of the true message of Christ–the real good news that He Himself preached,  and not what we’ve turned it into? Are we willing to let the Holy Spirit take us deeper? Are we teachable?

3. Task-oriented: Jesus told his first followers what their purpose would be. He was going to make them “fishers of men”. In the days when Jesus walked the earth, the fishermen did not use a hook and bait–they used nets. They knew when to throw them, how to throw them, and how to bring them back in. They didn’t fish alone; they worked together. Fishing was their livelihood. If they didn’t fish, they didn’t eat. Their lives were totally about fishing.

Most of the fishermen/women I know today  fish recreationally. They use a hook, they use a lure, they basically trick the fish, then get it caught by the mouth and reel it in. Pastor John pointed out that, unfortunately, that’s how much of the church “fishes” for people. We bait and hook people with guilt and shame, and I’ll add fear, then reel them in on that line–which is never the way of Jesus. Lots of the bait and hook “fish” don’t stick around for the long haul, or they don’t get past thinking that God is mean and angry with them, and therefore never encounter the love and freedom that He has for them or the joy that can be found in Him.

A net holds fish, it doesn’t hook fish. Are we casting a net that attracts people to the God who loves them, or are we fishing through condemnation?  Jesus was incredibly attractive to the outcasts of the day. He valued them and let them know they were loved, wanted, worth spending time with, treasured. He did not manipulate people into His Kingdom. He is not an “us and them” kind of Savior. Is this the Jesus we show to the world?  Do we model the real Jesus who got in trouble because of who He hung out with, or do we model  the Pharisaical religious community who judged the world and those they perceived as “sinners” harshly? Again–things to think about.

Ultimately, what is it that Jesus wants us to be about?  He wants us to be about exactly what He was about–letting people know that God is here, His Kingdom is here, He loves us–all of us, He has new life and new purpose to give to us.  Whatever we’ve thought about God in the past, Jesus tells us to change our minds about it (repent),  because He is here full of all embracing, totally unconditional love–it’s His very nature–and that’s good news. And then He invites us to join Him in sharing this good news with everybody everywhere.

This is our call:

Go in MY authority that I am giving to YOU and make more disciples. Show them who I AM so they will believe in ME, so they will follow MY words, MY teachings. Let those who choose to come after ME proclaim I am their Lord through baptism. And know this, there will never be a day that I AM NOT WITH YOU. (Mt. 28:19-20 paraphrase)

Jesus tells us to follow His teachings and teach His teachings to others. To be a disciple means to be a student. Are we students who know our Teacher well enough to know His teachings, to trust Him, to let Him continue to teach us, and to give our lives for the task that He’s laid out before us so that others can become His students, experience His love, and join us in making more disciples? This, my friends, is how the world will be changed–one precious person at a time.

–Luanne

As I listened to the message on Sunday, I couldn’t help but think back over my life, and my own personal journey with Jesus. I love that Jesus went to the unlikely, those on the outside, to invite them to be his closest followers and friends. I love that He did things his own way, that He was radical, and that He always showed up in unexpected places. But I haven’t always loved these things about Jesus…and I don’t always love these things, even now.
At certain points in my life, I’ve been the fisherman willing to drop everything and follow Jesus as a trusting, teachable, task-oriented disciple. I’ve also been the religious one in the temple–a know-it-all Christian with expectations of how God will show up. For me, this wasn’t a “before and after” thing. I can look back over my life and see seasons when I was in one camp, and seasons when I was in the other. I hate that about me…
Within my one self, I am capable of religious bigotry, and I know that I’ve lived a good many of my total days as a prideful, judgmental “Christian”. I know that I’m capable of drifting back to that space in any given moment, too, under certain circumstances. I wish that wasn’t true. But it is.
It’s also true that as an eight-year-old girl, I ran to Jesus with reckless abandon. I fell in love with the beauty that only One possesses long before I had any sense of what falling in love even was. In that season? I was a trusting, teachable follower, and all I wanted was more of Jesus. I had a fair amount of religious baggage already, and it would rear its ugly head down the road, but Jesus had my whole heart. He had pursued me, called me, and I wanted to follow Him wherever He would lead me.
I could cite example after example of the times I’ve been the arrogant, privileged, religious, put-God-in-a-box, “in the know” “Christian”, too. The list is long. In fact, just this morning the Holy Spirit convicted me about an area where I’ve been acting this way, an area where I need to repent–change my way of thinking so that it aligns with Jesus’ way of seeing the situation.
I could also cite many examples of times I’ve felt like the outsider, the one on the sidelines, the one whose presence doesn’t matter at all. These are the times I’ve felt unseen, unworthy, unqualified, and just plain unloved.
Do you know what is so beautiful about Jesus? He comes to both versions of me (and all the versions in between) and issues the same invitation every time. I’m so grateful this is true. This is what I couldn’t stop thinking about as I pondered this message… How, so often, I’m not trusting Him. I’m not very teachable. And I lose my focus on the task at hand. And yet, He comes. He pursues me and He chooses me-even when I’m in the “wrong” camp. I’ll never get over the love of Jesus, the grace and mercy He continually extends to the mess of me…
I completely agree that Jesus was looking for those who would allow Him to make them into a particular kind of follower–those who would trust, who would be teachable, and who would be task-oriented. The story clearly shows us that. I just believe, based on my experience of who Jesus is, that He chooses all of us. I believe his invitation was the same to everyone He encountered as He walked the earth. The story of Jesus includes many interactions between Jesus and the religious. He ate meals with them, engaged in conversations with them, and invited at least a handful to follow Him, though, sadly,  most did not. I believe there must have been many times that He extended the invitation, because Jesus doesn’t change. If He invites ALL now, He invited, or chose, ALL then, too. We know that many of the religious elite eventually put their faith in Him, and were leaders in the early church after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. I’m certain that Jesus issued many invitations that didn’t make it into what we have come to know as Scripture, because not everything that happened was included. We know that. But because we know Jesus and we know that He came with a reckless, unchanging love and a desire to reconcile ALL people to Himself, we can safely assume that there was no one that He didn’t choose. None were worthy of being chosen. But He wanted all of them–and all of us–anyway.
I absolutely believe Jesus invited all–including the judgmental, arrogant, religious community–to follow Him. And that is good news for those of us who find ourselves in that camp today–or even just from time to time. He is always calling and pursuing. But as was the case for many in His day, sometimes we don’t hear the invitation for what it is. We have expectations of how Jesus will show up, what He will say, who He’ll consider worthy of His invitation. We choose to reject things that don’t line up with what we have come to believe is true, and in the process, we often reject Jesus Himself. We end up rejecting Him because we don’t recognize Him, and we’re unwilling to let Him “make us become” who we could be in His hands.
Our response to the invitation of Jesus is what reveals what’s in our hearts. Whether we find ourselves in a boat on the water or studying in the temple, the invitation is the same. We get to choose whether we want to follow or not. And when we choose to follow Him, we are trusting Him to cultivate the heart of a follower within us. It’s not something any of us innately possess that sets us apart from anyone else. It’s something Jesus grows within us as He makes us into people who are becoming more like Him. There is no formula to being chosen by Jesus. He’s already chosen all of us. He came to show us just how far Love will go, how much Love will sacrifice, and how the way of Love stands above all other ways of living life. And He’s invited all of us into that love as our new way of being in the world. As Luanne wrote above,
“He wants us to be about exactly what He was about–letting people know that God is here, His Kingdom is here, He loves us–all of us, He has new life and new purpose to give to us. Whatever we’ve thought about God in the past, Jesus tells us to change our minds about it (repent),  because He is here, full of all embracing, totally unconditional love–it’s His very nature–and that’s good news.”
Jesus is the good news. For all people. And He’s invited us to share that beautiful message with all people, everywhere. Will we leverage our lives, as He did, to make Him known? Will we live out the love of Jesus like never before?
–Laura
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Like Never Before-Week 1

The first Sunday after Christmas marked a turning point, a launching-type moment. You could sense it in the air at church, feel it as we worshiped together, and hear it in the words Pastor John spoke to us. I’ve felt the stirring of the Spirit within me and I know I’m not the only one. God is shaking things up–so it’s fitting that our new series will take us down an old path… but through new eyes and with a new vision.

Our new series will take us through a good portion of the book of Mark. Pastor John has titled it “Like Never Before”, and those words carry a dual meaning. We will look at the ministry of Jesus–how He came and lived like no one ever had before. And we will be invited into becoming like this One we follow–letting His life indwell and transform us–in ways that we never have before, as we follow His lead to become the Church that He has always desired that we be.

This is what the Eternal One says, the One who does the impossible, the One who makes a path through the sea, a smooth road through tumultuous waters, Eternal One: Don’t revel only in the past, or spend all your time recounting the victories of days gone by. Watch closely: I am preparing something new; it’s happening now, even as I speak, and you’re about to see it. I am preparing a way through the desert; Waters will flow where there had been none. (Isaiah 43:16, 18-19 VOICE)

I came across this paraphrase of these verses this morning, and it felt so appropriate to include it here. When Jesus came to us with skin on–Emmanuel, God with us–He ushered in the new. He came as the answer, the fulfillment to the old covenant and the King of this new way that we’ll hear Him speak of over and over and over again–the way of the kingdom. His kingdom.

This week’s passage took us into the middle of the first chapter of Mark:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,”he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15, NIV)

Before we launch into these two rich verses, I want to touch on the first thirteen verses of this book. The very first words of the book of Mark, according to the NIV, read like this: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…” I want to note here–because we’ll come back to it later–that “good news” in this verse as well as in verse 14 above is translated from the Greek word “euaggelion”. This is the same word that is translated “gospel” at least 67 throughout what we call our new testament. Hang onto that and we’ll come back…

Mark 1: 2-8 chronicles the work of John the baptizer, the one who some thought was the Messiah, but who was actually the forerunner–the one who prepared the way for Jesus. Verses 9-11 record Jesus’ baptism by John, and verses 12 & 13 tell us of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Our series begins after that, as Jesus launches His ministry with bold, authoritative words. I included the NIV translation of these verses above; here is how J.B. Phillips says it:

It was after John’s arrest that Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, saying, “The time has come at last—the kingdom of God has arrived. You must change your hearts and minds and believe the good news.” (J.B. Phillips)

Jesus came proclaiming the “gospel”, the “good news”. The good news of what? Himself. Look back at Mark 1:1. Mark wrote “…the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah…” The good news was about Jesus.  What was it? Simply, He is here. Now. Messiah, God with us. The answer. The prophecy fulfilled. The King who had finally come to change everything and bring His kingdom to bear here, among us.

The “Gospel” was never meant to be a “sinner’s prayer”, a ticket to heaven or even, solely, our salvation. The Gospel, the good news, is: Jesus, the image of invisible God, God in the flesh came to us. He so loved us, valued us, desired relationship with us, that He came down into our grimy, broken existence to change everything. He, himself, IS salvation. To know Him is to experience salvation. But it doesn’t stop there–and that is what Pastor John brought to us on Sunday. Jesus absolutely saves us–no question about that. My life has been saved because I encountered this One who pursued me in my brokenness and won my heart with His extravagant love. But He does more than save us. He transforms us–from the inside out.

Mark 1:7-8 out of the Message paraphrase translates John the baptizer’s words like this:

As he [John] preached he said, “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out.” (emphasis mine)

When Jesus says in verse 15, “Repent and believe the good news!”, He is not saying, as we’ve so often been told, “Stop sinning and say the sinner’s prayer so you don’t go to hell!” No. He is inviting us into the process of transformation. As we study and search the record of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we’ll find many things, many different ways of doing things, and much that challenges us to do the seemingly impossible. What we won’t find anywhere in the story of His life on earth is Him offering a one-time salvation experience that stops with that moment. He wasn’t satisfied with a statement of belief that went nowhere. He wasn’t looking for the masses to declare that they’d accepted Him as Lord on the temple steps and then go home to return to life as usual. There are many mentions of the word “salvation” in various forms in our new testament, but most of those occurrences were post-resurrection, and not said by Jesus. In fact, if you read the words of Jesus, you’ll find that He speaks of “salvation” very few times. What He can’t stop talking about is the kingdom.

What is the kingdom? We could try to define it many different ways, and they would all probably be part of the whole picture. But the original Greek word is defined like this:

royal power, kingship, dominion, rule; not to be confused with an actual kingdom but rather the right or authority to rule over a kingdom–the royal power of Jesus as the triumphant Messiah

This is the kingdom Jesus speaks of in Mark chapter 1… His authority as God, His right to rule, and the power to do so. And He will spend the rest of His time on earth showing us what that kingdom looks like, and how it operates. And it’s like nothing anyone had seen before. His is an altogether different kingdom, unlike any that came before or any that would come after.

We’ll see the picture of this kingdom develop as our series continues. For now, in this week’s passage, Jesus tells us that this kingdom is “at hand”. I could jump up and down over what these words mean in the Greek!!! The word translated “at hand” is “eggizo“. It means, “to bring near, to join one thing to another“. It comes from the root word “eggys”, which means, “near: of place, position, and time”. And the root word of this word means, “to squeeze”.

So, if you’ll allow me to take a little bit of creative liberty, we could put it together like this:

“The kingdom, the triumphant rule of Jesus our Messiah, has been brought near. So near, in fact, that it has squeezed into our place, position and time to join together what had been previously separated–that is, the heavens and the earth.”

Jesus came as fully God and fully man, as one born of both heaven and earth, that the two realms might be joined together under His Lordship. “To join one thing to another” is used elsewhere in scripture to describe the union between husband and wife. It is an intimate oneness. This is the language Jesus used to talk about this kingdom that is now available to us through Him.

But He said something else right before he spoke this declaration about the Kingdom. He said, “Repent.” Earlier, I included the J.B. Phillips translation of our key verses. The word “repent” shows up differently in this translation. These are the words used in place of “repent”: “change your hearts and minds”. This is actually a far more accurate translation of what Jesus was saying than what we have come to understand the word repent to mean. To repent is to change the way we think. This is what Jesus was offering to His listeners in these verses. An invitation to change the way they thought about Him, about the prophecies of old and their expectations of how they would be fulfilled, and about what this new kingdom would look like.

Jesus is offering us the same invitation today…

Many of us have gotten stuck somewhere on our journey. Maybe we said the sinner’s prayer and stopped there. Maybe we learned a little and grew to a point, but life got in the way. Whatever our individual stories may be, we are all invited to change the way we think, to let Jesus transform our minds and grow us like never before. Transformation is always a product of the renewal of our minds. And it is essential to our becoming kingdom people who actually are growing into the image of the Jesus we follow…

William Paul Young writes in the Foreword to the book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God,

“If transformation is by the renewal of the mind and I have never changed my mind, then be assured I am actively resisting the work of the Holy Spirit in my life. Everyone who grows, changes. But it is hard work to change, to be open, to take the risk of trust. Change always involves death and resurrection, and both are uncomfortable. Death because it involves letting go of old ways of seeing, of abandoning sometimes precious prejudices. It means having to ask for forgiveness and humble ourselves. And resurrection is no easy process either; having to take risks of trust that were not required when everything seemed certain, agreeing with the new ways of seeing while not obliterating the people around you, some who told you what they thought was true but isn’t after all. Transformation is not easy; ask any butterfly.”

Transformation is not easy, that much is certainly true. But it is essential to our growth, to our learning to thrive, and to our becoming the people–and the Church–that actually look like the Jesus we say we follow. Transformation is at least as important as our initial salvation experience, if not more so–because transformation is the process in which we are joined so intimately with our King that his kingdom is conceived in and then born through us.

Church, are we willing to do things in a new way, in a way like never before, so that the world around us might see the Jesus that they’ve never been able to see before?

–Laura

I am very excited about this series, and I’m also very aware that those of us who know the stories of Christ can have a tendency to glaze over a bit and sit back comfortably thinking we’ve heard it before. We rob ourselves of the opportunity to be “wowed”, to let the Holy Spirit teach us something new, to be awestruck and further transformed into the likeness of Jesus.  I agree with Laura–we can all get a little stuck. Our Christianity becomes formulaic, it becomes about church attendance and Bible study, so, I too want to reiterate that  Christianity is about transformation (personal, corporate, societal etc.)–a beautiful process that will continue as long as we’re on planet earth, if we’ll let it.

I imagine most of you will agree with me, that these are difficult days in our nation. We are divided, polarized, angry, and hateful. Unfortunately, the church, primarily the white evangelical church is right in the middle of the “ugly”.  How did this happen? I think Brian McLaren is right when he says we reflect the image of the God we believe in. Who is God? What is He like? How does He treat you? How does He treat the people you don’t care for? Does He have favorites? Is He loving? Is He angry? Is He kind? Is He mean?

Your answers to these questions, and many others like them, will reveal what you believe about God. The question then becomes are you believing in the God who is fully revealed in Jesus. Does your view of God look like Jesus?  Because if you have seen the Son, you have seen the Father (John 14:9). Jesus is the image of the invisible God. (Col. 1:15) Does your God look like Jesus? Does your reflection of God look like Jesus? Is the image of God in you the image of Jesus? It’s key that we get this right.

As we head into this series “Like Never Before”,  let’s pay close attention to the God revealed in Jesus, beginning with Jesus’ words in Mark 1.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,”he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15, NIV)

The time has come...  God designed that planet earth would be governed by time. We all understand our lives in terms of seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years. God, who knows what He’s doing,  has designated times and seasons with specific purposes in mind. In the scriptural accounts of Jesus, we see many references to the time had come, or the time had not yet come…etc.  In Luke 2, we read about the birth of Christ and the time came for Mary to give birth. In her case, it meant that the months of pregnancy– of waiting –were over. She was going to get to see the face of her sweet baby, the face of God.  Jesus was ready to be born–it was time. God’s ordained time.

When Jesus proclaims “The time has come”…He is saying your long season of waiting is over. This is the birth of a new thing. I am going to show you the very face of God. All of time has been pointing to this moment. You will see His face in me. You will get to know Him in me. You will experience His heart in me. He will be fully revealed in me. THE time where everything changes forever has come. This simple statement is huge. Jesus is announcing a world altering event. Huge.

The kingdom of God has come near...I like the translations that say, The kingdom of God is at hand…. I like that because “near” can still be distant. I live near my place of work, but I drive to get there. At hand signifies I can reach out and grasp it right now. I currently have notebooks, pens, a throw pillow, my phone, my computer, lots of books, a lamp, and some Kleenex “at hand”.  The kingdom of God is at hand. It is readily available. You can reach out right where you are and grasp it. The dominion of God is here, available to you.

Jesus taught us to pray may your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. (Mt. 6:10), giving us the key as to what it looks like for His “at hand” Kingdom to be present here. When God’s will is being done, His Kingdom is here. I’m almost afraid to write that because His will has been interpreted so many different ways and many atrocities have happened/are happening in His name.  That’s why it is imperative that we know Jesus, the full revelation of God, who makes the ways and will of God very clear. Pastor John broke it down into very simple terms in our first service when he told us that  to pray “your Kingdom come” means that we want God’s love, grace, and mercy here, on planet earth--and I’ll add that it’s for everyone. We want God’s love, grace and mercy here, for everyone.

Repent. Laura wrote above that “repent” means to change your mind. It is the Greek word metanoia– which literally means to change one’s mind, a transformative change of heart, a conversion. Think about the process of the butterfly that Laura wrote about above…it goes through meta-morphasis. Total change. The Oxford dictionary says that the word conversion is “The process of changing or causing something to change from one form to another. ‘the conversion of food into body tissues'”.    

The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 12:2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.  The NLT version translates the phrase “renewing of your mind” to “by changing the way you think”.   And the result of not following the world’s ways by thinking a new way is that we’ll know God’s will–the ways of His Kingdom, His dominion, His reign–and we will be transformed and transforming into something new.

Believe the good news: What good news? Everything that Jesus has just said. Believe that the time is here, God’s Kingdom is here, you can be part of it–

You can be part of it. This is good news. In that day, the religious elite kept everyone else out. According to them, unless you looked like them, acted like them, had their education, were their gender (male), were part of their ethnic group, you were out. And they put all kind of demands on the “commoners” who wanted to be close to God, making it impossible, in their system, to be close. Jesus said—those days are over. God has come to you–the commoners. God loves you…you who think you’re not worthy of God’s love. He loves you. You who have been told you’re unclean–He loves you. You who have nothing to offer–He loves you. You who have made horrible choices and have tremendous regrets–He loves you. You who don’t really want anything to do with Him–He loves you.

Believe the good news–the gospel—the kingdom of God is here and Jesus is what God looks like. The time has come. Believe Him and then join Him in bringing His love, His grace, His mercy here…everywhere to everyone.

–Luanne

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