Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name;
make known his deeds among the peoples!
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
tell of all his wondrous works! <br,
Psalm 105 is a celebration Continue reading Tell the good news
Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name;
make known his deeds among the peoples!
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
tell of all his wondrous works! <br,
Psalm 105 is a celebration Continue reading Tell the good news
Really good fiction may not be a true story, but the best fiction is always truth. For example, In the novel Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier, there is a startling and insightful commentary on the failure of self-identified Christians to live up to the faith we all profess. In the early nineteenth century, a Christian group offered to provide Cherokee Indians in the Blue Ridge mountains some Bible stories translated and written in the Cherokee syllabary. Before agreeing to the distribution of these stories, the Cherokee leader, Bear, asked for samples of Bible stories, which he heard with some interest. Describing the outcome, the author concludes the matter this way:
In the end, [Bear] said he judged the Bible to be a sound book. Nevertheless, he wondered why the white people were not better than they are, having had it for so long. He promised that just as soon as white people achieved Christianity, he would recommend it to his own folks. p. 21
Any Christian who has talked with very many people about what it means to be Christian has heard a similar response. Most people express it by saying that they don’t want to be Christians because of all the hypocrites in the church. They, like Bear, want all the people who claim to be Christians to “achieve” Christianity before they themselves undertake it.
Jesus warned Christians that this would be a problem when he told his disciples that their love for each other would be a mark of his reign in their lives. In another place he said that we should do good works in such a way that it made people praise God, not us. Jesus expected people to watch his followers and notice what they did and what they did not do. We should all be alert to the fact that our lives are viewed by people as the expression of our relationships with Christ, or the lack thereof. Christians regularly bemoan the fact that people who do not know Christ use imperfect Christians as an excuse to reject Him.
This is why all of us should be very careful to point to Christ, not ourselves. It is Christ we offer to people for their salvation, not ourselves. It isn’t even the church. The church, the family of Christ, is a good thing, but it isn’t Christ. People are not saved by the church; they are saved by Christ. Those who are saved by Christ fellowship with him and with other believers in the church.
People who reject Christ because of their issues with some of Christ’s followers are looking at the wrong standard. The only way we can hope to get past that problem is by seeking the character trait of humility. We know that John was right when he wrote, “what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is”(1 John 3:2 ESV). We know that we are not perfect.
When we invite people into Christ’s kingdom, we must point them to Christ, not to other Christians. Yet, we all are called to live a faithful testimony to Christ, and that means we must be as much like him as we can manage. People do not all mature at the same rate, so it takes longer for some people, but if we keep our own eyes on Jesus, all of us should certainly demonstrate growth, even if we don’t demonstrate perfection. We must resist the temptation to try to pretend we are anything but works in progress. One of the reasons churches traditionally have spires, arches, and lofty windows is that designers want them to point people’s attention away from earthly things to heavenly things.
When Christ was about to ascend to heaven, some of his followers gathered to be with him. Not one of them was a perfect example of what a Christian should be. Each was a flawed, but redeemed, individual. Jesus did not say, “When you become perfect, then go into all the world.” He said, “Go . . . and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV). Imperfect though we are, we are chosen. We, the imperfect, must go ahead and share with the world that good news that Christ died and is alive in order to save sinful, imperfect human beings. We don’t run ahead of sinners and cry out, “Follow me!” We walk beside them and say, “Let’s go to Jesus.”
By Katherine Harms, author of Oceans of Love available for Kindle at Amazon.com.
photo credit: 20140911-DSC02640 Teweksbury Abbey Gloucestershire.jpg via photopin (license)
Readings: Isaiah 35:4-9 Psalm 146 James 2:1-17 Mark 7:24-37
I have long been a fan of the lyrics of Pink Floyd, not because I advocate their way of life, but because those lyrics speak some powerful and harsh truths about the world. One of the great songs is “Us and Them,” in which the common acceptance of broken relationships in our culture is mourned. The gospel reading today relates to us the way Jesus addressed some of that brokenness.
Both stories in Mark 7:24-37 are about non-Jews. Jesus goes first to the “region of Tyre” and then into the “region of Decapolis.” It is sufficient to know that these were territories where the dominant population demographic was not Jew. The woman in the first story is clearly identified as “Syro-phoenician,” a term that Mark’s target audience in the first century would have immediately recognized as not a Jew. The man in the second story lives in Decapolis and has friends who care about him enough to bring him to Jesus. It is logical to conclude from his integration into the culture that he is not Jewish, either. In both stories, Jesus works healing just as he has been doing in the Jewish communities. As Jesus travels through these non-Jewish areas his message is the same message he has been preaching from the beginning – “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” We can hear that message behind these two miracles.
In these stories, Jesus preaches another message as well, to the Jews of his day, and to any of us who are inclined to view our own culture divisively. Many Christians today feel threatened by cultural restrictions that are building due to the increase in completely secular thinking coupled with a dramatic increase in immigrants who adhere to a wide variety of religions. The sense that Christian ideas and Christian values are not dominant in our culture has produced in many Christians an “Us and Them” mentality. This attitude is sometimes expressed in ugly confrontations. Jesus’ message to the Jews of his day, and his message to us today, spoken by his actions, not his words is the same message God spoke to ancient Israel. As Israel encamped around Mount Sinai, even before God had given them the Law in the Ten Commandments, God gave them a commission. He said, “The whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5b-6) The work of priests is to mediate between God and man, and the clear message of this statement is that God intended for Israel to tell everyone about him and to draw everyone into worship and service to him. The same message is repeated in Revelation when the book opens with this prayer: “To him [meaning Christ] who loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever. Amen.” (Revelation 1:5-6) When Jesus brought his message of healing and reconciliation to non-Jews, he brought his commission to all his followers. The commission of the church, like the commission to Israel at Sinai, is to be mediators between God and humankind throughout the world. We are to take the message of the kingdom to everyone.
Isaiah described what it was like for everyone who comes to the Lord. He said it was as if water had suddenly bubbled up in a desert. He talked about healing and about the joy someone would feel if he were cured of deafness and a speech impediment after a lifetime of suffering. Isaiah even said that in the place where God’s kingdom burst out there would be a highway for all his people where the redeemed could walk safely. Instead of a blessing to which everyone is invited, it almost sounds like something for “us” that shields us from “them.”
When Christians start feeling that the world is divided between us (Christians) and them (everybody else), it is easy to feel scorn for “them.” This is not God’s plan. The whole world is his creation. Every person is his unique creation for his own unique purpose. Not one person was excluded from God’s love when Christ died on the cross. As God’s priests, we are called to share the same message Jesus shared with Jews in Galilee and with a Syro-phoenician woman in the region of Tyre and with a handicapped man in the region of Decapolis: “The kingdom of God has come near.” The message is not a treasure to be held close to the chest of Christians, protected from the ridicule of secular thinkers and adherents of other religions. The message is a treasure that we must share with everyone. We, God’s priests, are called to tell the good news and let everyone know that the kingdom is for “them” as well as for “us.”
The book of Mark tells the story of Jesus’ early ministry in a way that sounds quite incredible. He goes from one miracle to another. He is a major celebrity. Townspeople welcome him as a star, and the religious leadership feels quite threatened by him.
In Mark 6:1-6, however, nobody feels threatened. In fact, nobody is impressed, either. In Nazareth, Jesus is not a celebrity. Jesus grew up in Nazareth. Everybody knew Mary and Joseph, and they knew that Jesus was the oldest of the children. In this text, people rattle off the names of Jesus’ brothers, they know his sisters are still in town, probably married, and they know that until he started wandering around the countryside, he worked as a carpenter. Despite all the rumors about miracles and exorcisms and healings, Jesus looks just the same to the residents of Nazareth as he ever looked when he was sawing pieces of lumber for his father.
It isn’t simply that they know him, however. They are at great pains not to be impressed. I think Nazareth was a lot like the town where my grandmother lived, the town where my dad grew up. When we visited there, all the men and women of my grandmother’s generation made sure we all knew that to them, my dad was not an important civil engineer with the highway department. To those ladies and gentlemen, he was that kid Billy that Doran used to take fishing on Peedee Ditch. He was the one who didn’t pay attention in Sunday School. My dad was an adult, but the people of his home town kept him humbled by the fact that they knew all about his childhood behavior. To them, he was no celebrity.
Jesus was faced with the same problem. Mark writes that Jesus simply could not help the people of his home town. Why not? Because they had no faith. In Mark 5, Jesus healed a woman who merely touched his robe, because she had faith. Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, because when the little girl’s parents listened when Jesus said, “Do not fear; only believe.” The people of Nazareth had no faith in this carpenter-turned-rabbi, and they weren’t about to let him pull the wool over their eyes. They knew him.
Sadly, they did not know him. Their self-confident appraisal of Jesus shut down their ability to see who Jesus really was.
Our culture has the same problem. Lots of people think that Jesus is just another god in a pantheon of charlatans, idols and myths. They think they know all about religion. They think human beings have outgrown their need for faith, miracles and salvation. Our generation is too sophisticated to learn how to find Bible verses and name the twelve apostles. In the twenty-first century, people are busy trying to save the world from pollution and global warming. They feel that God is a needless dead weight from the primitive past. They are not impressed by people who talk about Jesus.
Christians living in the US today face the same problem Jesus faced in Nazareth when they try to talk to their friends about Christ. In fact, if they simply carry a Bible or wear a necklace with a cross pendant or suggest prayer in response to a national tragedy, they may encounter a stronger reaction than mere dismissal. They may encounter angry rejection at the very idea of trying to foist off such partisan behavior on other people. Recent events have shown Christians how completely secular our culture is becoming, all because people with no connection to any faith believe that people who have any faith whatsoever are ignorant, immature or perhaps a little crazy.
Our culture believes it is too well educated and too mature in its understanding of all things religious to swallow the idea that humans are sinful and need to be saved or that there could possibly be a God who cares about humans. In the face of such rejection it is hard for Christians to say or do anything that might persuade someone otherwise. Jesus could not do major miracles for the people of Nazareth because of their lack of faith.American Christians can hardly make a big impression on Americans who hold a secular worldview for the same reason.
We can learn something from the way Jesus handled the situation. He made himself available to Nazareth, and after they had enjoyed their condescending scorn, he simply continued to do what he had been doing before he arrived there. In fact, he multiplied his work by sending the disciples out to do the same thing. Jesus did not give up on people when they rejected him.
We must not give up either. Even though the American culture is trying very hard to shut down public expression of Christian faith, we who know Christ cannot take it personally. The culture is rejecting us because we are annoying “little Christs” just what the word Christian says we are. We have one calling, to be like Christ. We must forget about any insults to ourselves and go forward just as Jesus did telling the good news and loving people we meet along the way.
To the people of Nazareth, there was a contemptible familiarity about Jesus, a familiarity they could not see through to the truth. To us, secularism may appear to be contemptibly familiar, too, and we may simply not want to deal with it anymore. Jesus did not give up on people because of the scorn of Nazareth. Likewise, Christ does not call us to protect our own self-image and dismiss those who dismiss us. Christ calls us to tell the good news and make disciples even among those who reject us with the same condescension the people of Nazareth showed toward Jesus.
Sunday Readings: Genesis 3:8-15 Psalm 130 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 Mark 3:20-33
When we first read about Jesus in the book of Mark, it says that Jesus came into Galilee after the arrest of John the Baptist and his message was: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” John the Baptist had preached repentance, but he was not able to give people the good news that Jesus brought. It was good news to suffering people, but it was not good news to Satan. Jesus’ words announced that the war between good and evil, a clash between kingdoms battling for universal triumph, was on.
The kingdoms first clashed in the Garden of Eden. In that battle, Satan appeared to win. He deceived Eve. She lured Adam to join her. God’s supreme creation chose to reject his wisdom and do what felt good to them. It looked good, because Satan made it look good. Even as God pronounced judgment on his rebellious children, however, he served notice on Satan. In today’s Old Testament reading God says, “I will put enmity … between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head.” Those few little words were God’s promise of hope for humankind.
When Jesus showed up with his message that “the kingdom of God has come near,” Satan knew that his days were numbered. In fact, the image of Satan hearing Christ speak for the first time, recalls to us the image in the book of Revelation where the great dragon lashes out with his tail and stars fall.
In the Revelation story, the terrible dragon stood waiting for a son to be born, and as he waited, he twitched his tail, seemingly destroying stars as he did so. To be able to drag stars out of the sky made him appear powerful, but his seeming power was short-lived. The child escaped. Instead of devouring the child, the dragon was confronted with an army of angels, and soon he was utterly defeated. In the Revelation story, the dragon was thrown down to the earth. Ultimately the story says that he “went off to make war on … those who keep the commandments of God.” Using the imagery from that dragon story, it is easy to imagine that great dragon raging and lashing out with his tale when he hears Jesus speaking to people saying, “The kingdom of God has come near.” The clash of kingdoms had begun.
In Galilee, people who suffered mental illness, incurable diseases, social ostracism, fear, hunger, and hopelessness heard those words, and they came running to Jesus. Families and friends brought people who could not bring themselves. The excitement mounted. The crowds surged around Jesus, crowds of people who wanted to be healed, crowds of people who wanted to observe the healings, and crowds of people who wanted to figure out how this charlatan was pulling off such a masterful show. In the last category were quasi-religious leaders who could read and write for hire, who accused Jesus of complete fakery, of trying to lure people away from God to himself by working in cooperation with Satan.
When Jesus heard the accusation, he famously replied, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Yet this dramatic moment is sandwiched between the hints of some family conflict that raises a confusing image. The crowds drawn by the spectacle of healings and exorcisms were so huge Jesus could hardly get a moment to eat. His family made early attempts to rescue him, because people were starting to talk as if Jesus were the madman, not those he had healed. And the religious leadership joined in the fray. The family understandably wanted him to be safe and to take time for a little R&R. It is hard to know if they stood outside because they could not push through the crowd, or if they stood outside, because they were actually afraid to get too close to such a controversial figure, but whatever the reason, they remained at a distance. They sent a message to Jesus asking him to come to them, but Jesus responded by dismissing them. His earthly family was, therefore, immediately divided.
As if the obvious division were not enough, Jesus went one step further. He looked around at the people crowded close, watching his every move, listening intently to his every word. He looked at the people who needed healing, and he looked at the people who had brought patients for him to help. Mark doesn’t try to read his mind, but when I read his words, I conclude that his mind was thinking, “The kingdom of God has come near. I can’t take it away from those who need it.” Aloud Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” These are shocking words. His family only wanted what was best for him – some rest, some food, some quiet, maybe even some sleep. How harsh those words must have sounded.
Yet this is not the only time Jesus said such things. When Jesus was calling people to serve him, some made excuses. They had work to finish. They had parents to take care of. They wanted to get their rest and their sleep and just a little bite to eat before they headed out to follow Jesus. Jesus told them, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” In another place, Jesus said, “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” In today’s story, and in all these other instances, Jesus was talking about priorities. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important than doing the work God gives us to do. Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” We must put Christ above everything. He summed up this teaching one day when someone asked him what the most important commandment was. Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The Christ who tenderly looked down from the cross and made sure his mother would be cared for after his death, looked up from the center of a needy crowd and dismissed that same mother. Priorities.
So when Jesus’ mother and siblings showed up in the middle of his work, he wasn’t being petulant and egotistical. He was showing us where our priorities must lie. He was not rescinding the commandment to love and honor our parents. He had not lost his mind. He was busy fighting the battle with the kingdom of evil on behalf of people who needed to know that God’s kingdom was more important than anything else. It really was the pearl of great price. It really was worth more than life itself.
Because a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.
That is the real message. When we work for the kingdom of God, everything else is secondary, maybe even less than that. We must do the work God gives us and fill our place in the kingdom. We can’t be partly committed to the kingdom and partly devoted to our own comfort or to pleasing our parents or our children. The battle between good and evil demands full commitment. Jesus said it very simply, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
The kingdom of God has come near. God will not permit his kingdom to be weakened by half-hearted promises. If you want to be part of it, you must commit yourself to God alone.