Tuesday, September 27, 2016

If You Had Been Here...

"Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died." John 11:21.

Her words, encased in anger and frustration, hurt Him. How could Jesus explain His long overdue arrival? Could she really understand the reason for His delay? Probably not.

Have you ever wondered how Jesus felt walking into that hornet's nest? His life was totally beyond His control. Words and actions reflected only those of His Father. Without explicit instructions to respond to Lazarus' illness, all Jesus knew was the sickness would not end in death, but would give glory to God.

I assumed that Jesus always had the complete heads-up on every situation, but I don't now. I believe He had to exercise the same faith we do which means being in the dark about the details most of the time.

Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered. Hebrews 5:8. This may have been one of those hard lessons.

Was He tempted to question His Fathers judgment in this case? I would have. Jesus spent enormous amounts of time and effort ministering to complete strangers, sometimes without so much as a "Thank you." Now, a close friend needed His help. He had the power, but lacked the permission from the Father to use it. The choices were to either follow His natural feelings or obey. He stayed put.

Two days later the "Go ahead" came. The disciples were less than enthusiastic; Judea was no longer a safe place. If Lazarus wasn't dying, but just asleep, he'd recover. Why put themselves in harm's way? Finally Jesus spoke plainly, "Lazarus in dead..." John 11:14.

The reception at Bethany was strained to the snapping point. His reputation as a friend was in serious jeopardy. Both Mary and Martha laid the responsibility for their brother's death squarely on His shoulders. The Lord's willingness and ability to heal were damaged. No one knew or would have understood the constraints of operating in strict obedience to His Father. No one also could have guessed that a widely held religious tradition was about to bite the dust.

Martha protested opening the grave; the smell would be awful. Everyone (in that culture) knew that the soul of the deceased remained in close proximity for only three days. This was the fourth day and Lazarus' soul was long gone. It was too late.

Jesus defied tradition. Lazarus' resurrection disproved a deeply entrenched belief. Still, the question of God's timing lingers. How would an immediate response to the situation have hurt anything? The outcome would have been the same.

Mary and Martha aren't the only ones caught in the conflict of God's seeming indifference to our needs. "If only You had been here:
            - the planes wouldn't have hit the Twin Towers;
            - Katrina wouldn't have destroyed New Orleans;
            - I wouldn't be a single parent;
            - this injustice would never have happened;
            - we wouldn't have gone bankrupt;
            - my mate wouldn't have died so soon."

Fill in the blank, the list is endless.

It is hard to continue to believe when you feel that God's really let you down. Maybe Jesus felt the same way when He wasn't allowed to immediately help Lazarus. When He finally could go His reputation as a friend was damaged, and his ability to minister doubted. It's hard to be misunderstood for obedience sake and not get upset.

Often God's timetable and agenda clashes with ours. Walking by faith is a challenge in the face of God's perceived indifference. We're tempted to question His judgment sans a clear explanation for His inactivity on our behalf.

How about you? When have you said to God," If only you had been here...."? How did He respond? If your situation, unlike Martha and Mary's didn't reverse, how did you handle it? Have you ever considered that the reason Jesus hasn't answered your prayer is a timing issue, not a lack of desire to help? If you're still upset with God for letting you down, what can you do to resolve the roadblock, reopen the lines of communication and regain your peace? Can you and God be friends again?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Why Can't We Be Friends?

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Matthew 5:17.

There are lessons Christians can learn from our Jewish brethren. One is the ability to strongly disagree, voice our opinions and still remain friends.

In his book, The Bible Tells Me So; Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It, Peter Enns writes:

"This story illustrates something Judaism seems to have a good handle on but that many Christians do not; debating each other, and debating God, is what God wants.

We can see the same sort of attitude in the rich tradition of Jewish medieval commentaries on the Bible. The sages of Judaism debate the meaning of Biblical passages, often arriving at contradictory explanations - and all of it was recorded and preserved as part of the sacred tradition, without any need to resolve the problem and arrive at a final answer.

...But killing the debate is what kills faith. The debate keeps the conversation at the center of the community.

Ending the debate, getting to the right answer is not the prime directive of spiritual life. You can tussle with each other and with God (and win!), and its all good. The back-and-forth with the Bible is where God is found. Enter the dialog and you find God waiting for you, laughing with delight, ready to be part of the back and forth."  pg. 241-242 Kindle version.

According to Enns, Jews know how to have a good no-holds-barred, knocked-down, dragged-out argument over Scripture, and walk away as friends. They willingly pose opposing viewpoints and allow individuals to draw their own conclusions. There's method to this seeming madness.

I heard a speaker address this very issue from personal experience. Born Jewish in Nigeria, he came to know Christ as a youth. Immigrating to the U.S., our educational system afforded him opportunities unavailable in his homeland. He went on to earn two PhD's simultaneously.

In seminary, he and a group of African students would meet to discuss their studies. Word got out that these sessions could get rowdy and soon other students  ask to sit in and observe.

To their horror, the African students disregarded Robert's Rules of Order completely. The debaters screamed at each other, and pounded the table while defending their positions. Finally, when the verbal brawl ended, the atmosphere shifted. Former opponents laughed, congratulated each other on a job well done and went out for coffee. Their audience was dumbfounded.

The speaker explained that the purpose of the sessions was not to prove others wrong and convert them to your way of thinking. The debate forced the participants to critically think through their beliefs; intelligently articulate their positions AND not permit divergent and opposing viewpoints to drive wedges between them. None expected an arrival at a single consensus - that wasn't the point. It was also no surprise that this group of students graduated at the top of their class.

Jesus' response in Matthew 5:17 was typical for a rabbinical debate of His day. These words were part of the common language employed during theological discussions that could get heated. So, what's the point?

Often believers, in regard to Scripture, don't handle differing viewpoints gracefully. We're quick to draw boundaries around our version of the Truth. Those outside the lines are flat out wrong and not welcomed in our camp. Jews have debated issues of faith much longer than Christians. They know how to agree to disagree, allow all sides of the argument a seat at the table, and still stay friends.

How about you? How to you react to someone whose beliefs are contrary to yours? How open are you to listen to opposing viewpoints of Scriptural issues, carefully listening to them without going ballistic? How do you think the Body of Christ could be strengthened if we chose to come together on the essential fundamentals of faith and not allow the ancillary issues to divide us?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Who Is The Least?

"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'" Matt. 25:45 NIV (emphasis mine.)

A lesson from Ted Dekker's excellent devotional, The Forgotten Way, captured my attention.

"Yeshua did not say, 'What you do to the least you do as if to me.' He said, 'What you do to the least you do to me.' As if He was, in some mysterious way, them." pg. 171.

Dekker explains that in Jesus' day poverty and sickness were considered direct results of someone's sin. Questioned by His disciples for the real reason behind a man's blindness Jesus responded. "Neither this man nor his parents sinned..." John 9:3.

To His audience, Jesus' identification with this element of society was "shocking and scandalous." The Forgotten Way, pg. 171.

In spite of his education, impressive credentials and pedigree, the Apostle Paul ranked himself as the least of the least. Categorizing himself as the chief of all  sinners in 1 Tim. 1:16. Paul wasn't alone. We're right there with him.

So the question is, as members of Christ's body, one with and in Him, "How do we mistreat Jesus when we mistreat ourselves and others?"

Our seamless integration with Christ as believers is a position we're largely ignorant of. Dekker writes that our union with Christ is a mystery that escapes our comprehension.

Westerners typically operate in rational, logical mindsets. Paradoxes, especially those of a Biblical kind, are very disturbing. The Oriental mind embraces these more readily, content to live with questions having no easy answers. In the West, we tend to ignore the unexplainable.

How we treat people (ourselves included), especially those we dislike/hate (ourselves included) has a direct bearing on Jesus, either good or bad. Therefore, how quickly should we be to level condemnation against anyone (ourselves included). Do we really wish to subject Jesus to additional abuse? That was the question Saul of Tarsus had to wrestle with.

"Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" Acts 9:4 (emphasis mine). Jesus had a question that demanded an answer.

Our indwelling Christ is love in its purest essence. We are without excuse. We're already equipped to exercise His love to others and to ourselves. Let's give Jesus the break He so richly deserves.

When this is posted, the U.S. will be in the final throes of a presidential election. Already there is much rhetoric and behavior on both sides that has been less than Presidential. (If you think this is bad, you should check out the founding fathers). Not only are the candidates responsible for this. The media and the public have contributed their fair share also.

Stop. Think. Remember.

Jesus didn't reduce the scope of the least to include only those with shared ideologies and beliefs. We should be more careful of our words and actions when the one we hurt is Christ Himself. None of us really know the true condition of anyone's heart (ourselves included), which is what God looks at.

Believers need to act/react with the love of God. Is it easy or fun, most of the time? No. As His body we should shift our focus off of doing things for Him and being Him to others.

How about you? How would you describe your union (being one with) Christ? How does this change any possible misconceptions that Christ is far off in Heaven as opposed to living in you personally? How do the words of Jesus concerning our treatment of others, and its impact on Him, cause you to reassess the way you speak and act toward those you deem the least?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Playing in the Dirt

"They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his fingers." John 8:6 (NIV).

What could be more annoying than having a perfectly good day rudely interrupted by religious busybodies? Never happen to you? Fear not, you'll have your chance.

Jesus' teaching session came to an abrupt halt with the arrival of the Behavior Police complete with a criminal in tow; a woman caught in the very act of adultery. Unless they had mind reading capabilities (which I seriously doubt), how does one single-handedly commit adultery? Where was her partner-in-crime? Inquiring minds want to know.

Who this woman was is a mystery. If her client was a prominent individual this dalliance could bring scandal and disgrace when discovered. Problem solved if the evidence conveniently disappeared. Was she just some poor prostitute whose customers were insignificant? The loss of her life could be a small price to pay for snaring the young, up-start rabbi in a heresy. We'll never know.

Hauling the woman through the streets, in what ever level of undress, the ecclesiastical storm troopers planted her in front of Jesus, readjusted their piety, and posed an innocent question...

"In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such woman. Now what do you say?" John 8:5.

As if they really cared.

Ignoring the accusers, Jesus the Righteous Judge, bent down and began to write on the ground, which in this time and culture wasn't unusual. Surrounded by lots of hot air and toxic fumes, it was a great move. Flummoxed by His response, or lack of one, the Moral Minority pelted Jesus with questions. What did He think? What would He do?

"When they kept questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, 'Let anyone of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. And he stooped down and wrote on the ground."
John 8: 7-8.

Touche! Put that in your pipe and puff it! Jesus knew, as well as these men, that Roman had removed the right of the Jews to inflict capital punishment for an infraction of their laws. Which was the greater sin, adultery or murder? Only the Roman procurator had the power to impose the death penalty, and then only after a fair hearing. Why not go ask Pilate?

Jesus left the Defenders of the Faith to draw their own conclusions deciding the woman's fate. One by one, starting with the oldest, the men slinked away leaving the woman with a Savior who liked playing in the dirt. The air cleared, Jesus arose.

"Jesus straightened up and asked her, 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?' 'No one sir,' she said. 'Then neither do I condemn you.' Jesus declared. 'Go now and leave you live of sin.'" John 8:10-11.

Scandalous. Before Him stood a woman whose sins He would one day suffer and die for. Jesus could have let her know just how much her actions were going to personally cost him, yet He let her off the hook. Rather than prescribe an elaborate plan of behavior modification, Jesus gave her simple instructions...stop it. While He could have dished out a hearty dose of come-uppance, Jesus served the woman a fresh taste of genuine love.

How about you? If you were to stumble and fall who do you think would treat you better - Jesus or other believers? As part of His body, what should be our response when another piece of the body fails - amputation or restoration? Does your answer to this last question hinge on which side of the equation you'd find yourself on? Jesus had no hesitation siding with mercy for those who mess up. Can we do any less?