Saturday, April 22, 2017

JESUS' ROUGH EDGES


I believe we usually read our Bibles too piously.  We treat the stories as though they were stiff morality tales with little if any human drama.  We seem to especially do this with the stories of Jesus.  We read the stories of His actions, we read His great teachings, but I feel we often fail to see His very real humanity, particularly as seen in His emotions.  When we read of His anger or sorrow, even His joy, we tend to think of these as the qualities of a deity and not as the emotions of a very real human being.
 
Uni and I were struck with his humanity the other morning during our reading of Matthew's Gospel.  An old story we'd read many times, but somehow we felt His emotions more in this reading.  The story is found in chapters 21-24 of Matthew's Gospel.
Jesus had entered the Jerusalem temple courtyard not long after His triumphal entry into the city and He was confronted by various groups with challenges as to His authority:  the chief priests, the scribes and elders - perhaps the whole Sanhedrin; then the Pharisees with the Herodians (a sycophantic political party); then the Sadducees.  All of these attempting to stump Him or find something with which to accuse Him.  Then the questions about the greatest commandment.  We can almost feel His impatience growing as He carefully answers, sometimes with a rebuke.  Then He turns the tables on them and hits them with a question they can't answer:  how can the Messiah be both David's son and David's Lord?  Of course they can't answer without conceding that the Messiah is both because He is God incarnate.  They are stumped!  Matthew tells us "no one was able to answer Him a word, neither did anyone question Him anymore from that day forward."  (Matthew 22:46)
And then it's Jesus' turn to really let loose.  He begins His tirade slowly and carefully at first, with a warning to both the crowds and His disciples, about the scribes and Pharisees - those expert teachers of the Law of Moses and its accumulated traditions.  He essentially tells his hearers, "Do as they say, but not as they do - they're a bunch of hypocrites!"  Then He turns to the scribes and Pharisees themselves and really blasts them!  He calls them every name in the book:  "hypocrites, blind guides, sons of Hell, sons of murderers, snakes, brood of vipers!"  We can feel the buildup of rage.  We can see the anger flashing in His eyes as He tells them that "all the guilt of all the blood of righteous persons murdered on earth" will be avenged on them.  (Matthew 23:35)
Pause for a moment.  Why was Jesus taking out His rage on these people?  He knew He was going to be crucified; He had already spoken of it a number of times.  But the leaders of the plot to murder Him were the chief priests, most of whom belonged to another party, the party of the Sadducees.  It would be those priests who would conspire with the Romans in His death.  Why didn't Jesus let His rage fall on them?  Was Jesus mistaken in His foresight of His crucifixion? No.
I suspect it was because Jesus was "theologically" more in tune with the Pharisaic party.  Perhaps He felt the priestly party was too far gone.  But the Pharisees were those who were perceived as the spiritual leaders and teachers of Israel.  They were closer to the truth and thus Jesus held them more accountable.
But immediately after this blistering tirade, we see what appears to be a total shift in Jesus' emotions.  After pronouncing His judgment, "Amen!  I'm telling you all, all these things will come upon this generation!" (Matthew 23:36), His rage turns into deep sorrow.  Perhaps the thought of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and of His people - the destruction that He had just foretold - had hit Him with unquenchable grief.
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who murders the prophets and stones those sent to her!  How often I've wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you didn't want me to.  Look, your house is left to you desolate.  For I'm telling you, you won't see me again until you say, 'blessed is the One who comes in the Name of the Lord!'"  (Matthew 27:37-39)
The tears of rage have become tears of sorrow.  Thought Matthew doesn't mention Jesus' weeping here, Luke tells us that He had wept over the city and uttered a similar lament as He approached it, on His triumphal entry.
Matthew omits the story of the widow's offering that Mark and Luke tell us occurs next (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4) but we can imagine the deep emotion still quivering in Him.
At this point Jesus leaves the temple precincts and we're told that His disciples point out to Him the beauty of the temple.  Were they attempting to  calm their Lord who was still trembling with a mixture of anger and grief?  Were they afraid?  The story continues with Jesus detailed predictions of the future destruction of Jerusalem.
I suspect that many of us are uncomfortable, even afraid, when we consider Jesus as filled with rage or sorrow.  He appears to have let His emotions take control.  That doesn't fit with our picture of "gentle Jesus, meek and mild" or of a halo-wearing, medieval- English- speaking saint.  He's too much like us!
But wasn't Jesus like us?  Didn't the Second Person of the Trinity become human like we are?  Yes, we're told that He was "without sin."  But we're not told that he was without emotion or without human weakness.  We want a nice Jesus, not one who flies off the handle or bursts into tears, not one with rough edges.  We want a two dimensional Jesus, not one as human as we are.
But there are some problems with our bland picture of Jesus.  First, it's not one that's in agreement with the facts.  Read the Gospels "again for the first time" (old corn-flakes' commercial).  You'll see a Jesus that defies our stereotypes.
Secondly, if we picture Jesus incorrectly, what does that do to our Christian life?  If we are to be imitators of Christ, if we are to do what Jesus would do, we need to get to know Him better as a human being and live as He did or would.  We may need to stop seeing the Christian life as just being nice and be unafraid to embarrass ourselves.
When was the last time you got angry and spoke out about hypocrisy or injustice?  When was the last time you wept over those you loved - your family - your neighbors - your country - your church - who were suffering the consequences of their own rejection of the truth?

Saturday, March 4, 2017

A CHILD OF IMMIGRANTS

"They're bringing drugs.  They're bringing crime.  They're rapists.  And some, I assume, are good people."  Donald Trump, 6/16/2015

"I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security  to create an office to serve American Victims.  The office is called VOICE - Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement.  We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media and silenced by special interests."  Donald Trump, 2/27/2017

"Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid.  As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal."  We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes."  When the "Know-Nothings get control it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics."  When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country, where they make no pretense of loving liberty - to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy. Abraham Lincoln, 8/24/1855.

Abraham Lincoln could not have known about the "progress in degeneracy" of our day.  And though the particular groups he was speaking of may have changed somewhat (though not completely), the "degeneracy" is still progressing.  We have elected as our president a man who freely preaches racism and xenophobia in a manner no president has in my lifetime and who has attempted to block the entry of immigrants in various ways.

And when in his speech to congress Donald Trump advocated an office to particularly discriminate against immigrants as a criminal group, his groupies, of course were elated.  But sadly the media - whom he had already labeled as "fake news" and "the enemy of the American people" - simply spoke of his speech as "more presidential."  No one seemed to give a ____ about his making xenophobia a national priority and creating an office to promote it!

Why aren't we angry?  Why aren't American Christians speaking out?   Why aren't our political leaders of both parties speaking out?  I am a child of immigrants; most Americans (all the white ones) are, unless they are immigrants themselves.  Why don't these pronouncements bother us?

My mother came to this country as a child with her parents and older siblings, from Austria.  Her parents - my grandparents - got here just before the First World War.  In a few years America would be at war with their native land.  Were they refugees, fleeing war?  I don't know, but I suspect so.

My father's family came to America from England in the 1600's.  I suspect they were Puritans, as they settled in Massachusetts and almost all had biblical names.  (There were also names like, Thankful, Mercy and Deliverance.)  As Puritans they would have been fleeing their homeland for religious reasons.  And, of course, they would have landed on our shores without official clearance from the residents who had preceded them thousands of years earlier.

So what right have I as a child of immigrants to cheer the closing of our borders and the stigmatizing of immigrants?

As a follower of Jesus, how should I look at this question?   I believe that a look at the biblical story shows a long history of immigrants and refugees

We could go back to the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis.  There we find the story of Abraham, called by God to leave his home in Ur and go to the land of Canaan.  And when there he fled to Egypt because of famine.  The rest of the Book is filled with tales of flight by Abraham and his son Isaac, then Jacob, then Joseph - the whole family of Israel.  And then there is the story of Ruth, a refugee from her homeland to Israel.  And on and on.  The Old Testament is one continuous narrative of flight and migration.

And then we read in the Gospel of Matthew of Jesus, the Son of God, who himself became a refugee from the murderous campaign of Herod the Great.

" ... an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, 'Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.'  So Joseph got up and took the child and his mother by night and took off for Egypt, and he stayed there until Herod's death."  Matthew 2:13-15

But it's not only the stories about immigrants in the Bible that we need to look at - it's the commands.  Over and over in the Old Testament we find commands aimed at the Israelites regarding the "stranger" or alien (some translations use the word "immigrant.")  A few:

"You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."  Exodus 22:20; 23:9

"When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.  The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt:  I am the LORD your God."  Leviticus 19:33, 34

Over and over the prophets rant against Israel's oppression of "the stranger" along with her other sins that brought judgment on the nation.

And when Jesus foretells His return as the Son of Man to judge the nations, it is not their sexual misbehavior or their violence which make up the criteria for judgment, but their treatment or mistreatment of certain groups:  the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner.  Matthew 25:31-46

Add to all this, the fact that we who follow Jesus Christ are addressed as "aliens and strangers" (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11).  While we may or may not be citizens of this land," our citizenship is in Heaven, from where we are eagerly expecting a Savior - the Lord Jesus Christ!" (Philippians 3:20)  How can we not identify with those others who are also "aliens and strangers?"

So we who are both Americans and followers of Jesus, should be appalled at the "progress in degeneracy" our nation is following.  Things will probably get worse before they get better.  We need to speak out and do our part to welcome "the stranger" even though we may be going against official policy.

"We must obey God rather than man."  Acts 5:29

Thursday, February 16, 2017

JESUS WAS A RADICAL

The term "radical" is certainly in vogue, whether used as a noun or an adjective.  TV newspersons and pundits, comedians, the social media, whether of the right or left, love throwing this word around; usually - though not always - negatively to describe those with whom they disagree.  "The radical right," "the radical left."  Our former president as well as a presidential candidate, was criticized for not using the phrase "radical Islam" to describe middle eastern terrorists.

Then I saw a meme on Facebook - a photo of a Klan rally with the words "Radical Christianity" on it in bold letters.  My immediate reaction was to comment, "NO!  These people know nothing of what it means to follow Jesus." Then I started pondering the definition of the word "Radical" and what "radical Christianity" would really be.  My conclusions:
            No, the Klan is not radical Christianity!  (It's neither radical nor Christianity.)
            Radical Christianity is what every Christian should strive for!
            Jesus Himself was radical - a radical - perhaps the most radical human being who ever lived!

Before the reader picks up stones, I ask you to hear me out.  First, we should seek to define what a radical is; what does the word mean?  My dictionary (Merriam- Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition) gives a number of definitions which seem almost contradictory.  I believe the following are relevant:

radical (adj.)  [...from Latin radic, - radix root ...]
1:  of, relating to, or proceeding from a root ...
2:  of or relating to the origin:  FUNDAMENTAL
3a:  marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional:  EXTREME
  b:  tending or disposed to make extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions or institutions ...

radical (noun)
1b:  a basic principle:  FOUNDATION ... 
3:  one who is radical

How can one word convey both the ideas of getting back to the root and of departing from tradition?  I'm not sure how it can, but I see both definitions in the person of Jesus as He is portrayed in the Gospels - as He walked this earth as the God-man 2,000 years ago and as He preached and taught.  He was radical.

He was radical in His ethics and in His ethical demands.  They were, to use Mr. Webster's word "marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional."  They were "tending or disposed to make extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions or institutions ... "  Look at His sermon as recorded in Matthew, chapters 5 through 7:

"You've heard that it was said to the ancients, 'You shall not commit murder ....'  But I say to you that anyone who hates his brother, will be guilty of judgment." (5:21, 22)

"You've heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.'  But I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman so as to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart."  (5:27, 28)

And on and on with ethical demands that seem to "depart from the traditional."  Read the whole sermon.  Yet a close reading of these radical demands and their Old Testament precedents should bring us to conclude that He was taking us back to "the root," or as He says elsewhere, to "the Spirit of the (Old Testament) Law."

He was radical in His political views.  When His disciples were arguing over who was the greatest among them, He said this:

"The kings of the nations lord it over them and those who exercise authority over them are called 'benefactors.'  But not so with you!  But the one who is greatest among you should become as the youngest and the one who leads as one who serves."  (Luke 22:25, 26)

He was radical in His religious views.  He had no respect for the religious leaders of His day.  He tore into them verbally, telling them that they "shut up the Kingdom of Heaven before peoples' faces" and told them that they weren't entering the Kingdom and they were keeping out those who wanted to enter.  (Matthew 23:13.  Again read the whole chapter.)

And He made radical demands of any who desired to follow Him.  He demanded that the disciple turn his back on all relationships, that he "take up his cross," that he "say goodbye to all that he has."  (Luke 14:25-27, 33)

Jesus was a radical by anyone's definition.  He was an extremist.  He was definitely not a conservative.

So then why are we who claim to be His followers anything but radical?  We are comfortable with the status quo.  We cozy up to those in power, whether religious or political.  We are more concerned about "family values" than about Jesus' values.  We even equate the words "Christian" and "conservative."  We are cautious and afraid.  We run our churches in the same manner as "the kings of the nations" do.
 
What happened?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

LIVING FOR JESUS IN TRUMP'S AMERICA

I haven't posted anything for quite a while.  After the election in November, I posted three angry rants for which I make no apology.  My feelings have not changed much since then except to go from anger to befuddlement.
 
I'm befuddled at the thinking of some persons I know, for whom I had had great respect - even some who had quite an influence on me in my life as a Christian.  And there were some others whom I had thought that I had influenced.  I've seen their posts and shares on social media and have wondered where they are coming from - an alternative universe?  They praise our new president Donald Trump as God's man for America.  They praise the "testimonies" of Trump's minions; they seem to see a new and brighter day for America - and apparently for the church.

Yet whenever I turn on the television news I see and hear a ranting, lying, racist, misogynistic, narcissistic bully, a man whose speech and behavior is completely opposed to every-thing a follower of Christ would stand for.  And his minions support him in  this.  We're told that the lies he used last week were actually the fault of the "news media" or someone else.  And, of course, we have this great new phrase, "Alternative facts."

I could go on and on about the bizarre looniness that our new president and his minions spout.  I could go on and on about my fears regarding his actions in the next few weeks and years, but all anyone has to do is turn on the news to hear and see this circus.  I am afraid for my country.

But America is not my greatest concern.  Our nation has gone off in the wrong direction many times in the past and so far we as a nation have survived.  And even if we don't, I realize God is sovereign.  And I realize that my hope is not in America.  It may be that we who follow Jesus will have to stand alone -  even in America!

My greatest concern is for the Church of Jesus Christ and my relationship to it.  I'm speaking of the total visible church - what Paul calls "the body of Christ" and to which I belong.  I cannot understand the fact that so many who claim to be followers of Christ are infatuated with a hateful, narcissistic playground bully.

I hope that the reader will understand - this post is not simply a rant against our president or a complaint about America.  It is an expression of the dilemma I - and many of my fellow American Christians face:  how do we live for Jesus in opposition to our ungodly national leaders and not find ourselves in opposition to the Church of which a great share are infatuated with these leaders - of which church we are a part?

There are some, I fear, who feel they should separate themselves from that Church.  But we can't if we belong to Jesus Christ.  We may separate from a particular organized group (and I have done that in the past) only to find the same situation in another group.  Do we isolate ourselves from others totally? We cannot do that.

I love the Church; I love the local group of which I am a member.  I have many Christian friends in this city and others all over the world with whom I communicate.  How am I to react when our conversation turns to their love affair with Trump?  Or when it turns to their hatred for our former President?  When I find it easier to talk with my unbelieving friends than with my brothers and sisters in Christ?

I know I am not alone, that there are many who have not drunk the Kool-Aid, who have  the same dilemma I have: following Jesus demands of us that we refuse to compromise truth and yet demands that we act in love.