Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Parable of Lost Sheep and "Bad" Friends

Robin McMillan and I share the distinction of having preached at each other’s churches--but we’ve never met. Like ships passing in the night, we are both passionately in pursuit of the King and his kingdom, but we’ve never put into the same port at the same time. Robin is the pastor at Queen City Church in Charlotte, NC. He’s a man brimming with personal experiences with God: stories to tell and life to share. He blogs here and Tweets there. Check him out!

The parable of the lost sheep is one of a trilogy of stories found in Luke 15 that Jesus used in response to the Pharisees’ criticism of His choices of friends and social interactions. The New Testament reveals that some called Jesus a wine bibber and a glutton, others accused Him of being the illicit child of an immoral mother. He wasn’t from the right tribe, the right town, or the right school; he didn’t have the right doctrine as far as they were concerned. Jesus had no shortage of critics.
The Pharisees criticized Jesus for both eating with and receiving tax collectors and sinners. Jesus responded by telling the story of a shepherd who had 100 sheep, and one of them ran off. Jesus assumed each of the Pharisees should leave the 99 for the 1 by saying, “What man of you having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” -- thereby identifying both himself and the Pharisees as shepherds, a despised occupation in their culture.
This parable doesn’t only locate the darkness in the hearts of the Pharisees, it identifies some in my heart as well. Most business men would cut their 1% loss and rejoice over still having 99% on hand. That would be my own business sense because that’s good business: it’s just not love, and certainly not the heart of God!
So far, what has Jesus done in just a few short sentences? Concluded that the Pharisees should identify with shepherds; revealed their self-centeredness and pride; and reframed their personal responsibility as ministers. Can anyone say “Ouch?”
Jesus also assumed some responsibility for the one sheep’s condition… “if he [the shepherd] loses one” (Luke 15:3). That’s a different approach than placing all the blame on the sheep for having run off!
Jesus said that a good shepherd would find the sheep and lay it on his shoulders, rejoicing. That’s not the normal response He knew to be present in the Hebrew culture, nor in ours today. I have heard (and others have taught) that the reason the shepherd put the sheep on his shoulders and carried him home was because the norm was for the shepherd to break the lamb’s leg for running off, to teach him a lesson. If we did the same with our children we would be put in jail or the Department of Social Services would come get our children! He put him on His shoulders because lost sheep are often paralyzed with fear and the only hope of getting home would be if someone picked them up and carried them. Jesus said a good shepherd would do so ‘rejoicing’!
Heaven’s joy is based on the returning of lost sheep to their true home, the shepherd’s house. Heaven rejoices more over one returning lamb than ninety-nine who need no repentance. Too bad there are no such ninety-nine who need no repentance. No one needs 'no repentance'. We all have needed to repent at one time or another, or maybe even more than that.
God is a good businessman. He knows the way to secure the hearts of the ninety-nine is leave them for love of the one. That one could have been you or me. In so doing He builds a house of love and honor that has the potential to shake the world and reveal the heart of God. The heart of God is thus revealed in this short four-verse parable. It begins to fulfill the prayer of Jesus in a dynamic way; “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” That's our calling. That's our challenge. That's our joy.
(For insights and inspiration I offer much gratitude to Kenneth E. Bailey and his book: The Cross and the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle East Peasants.)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Your Top Five, My Top Five, and What's Ahead

I’m a sucker for year-end recap articles, are you? If I find an article, The Top Ten Migrating Insects of 2011, I’ll read it! So here is the Students of Jesus 2011Rewind: your top five, my top five, guest posts, comments, Brangelina, and more!
Your Top Five for 2011:

Discovering the Word of God ~ Actually written in November of 2010, for some reason this post reignited in September and has been active nearly every day since. Maybe it’s the picture.

13 Thanksgiving Meditations ~ Another 2010 post, but since I love Thanksgiving more than Christmas or Easter, I’m happy this one’s alive and kicking. This year I wrote a snarky, satirical piece about Thanksgiving. Not even my Mom read it.

When Famous Christians are Gay ~ Yes, the top three posts in 2011 were all from 2010. Google drives this post on and on, apparently because a lot of people search famous, gay, and Christian.

Why Don’t North American Christians Raise the Dead? ~ At last, a 2011 post! This is an important discussion because it is so rarely brought up. A large number of people I meet simply doubt the facts of this story as I reported it. My personal feelings? If following Jesus is only an intellectual exercise, please count me out because I’m not smart enough.

The Tension of Love and Mystery: Why We Don’t Have to Know it All ~ If we really worship the all-knowing transcendent God of the universe, he’s probably not impressed with out intellect. What, then, does impress him?
My Top Five for 2011
~Or~ You’ll Break My Heart If You Don’t Like These:

The Distance Between Me and God ~ (It’s actually a two-fer, Part Two is here). Nearly every day I meet believers who feel the Father is far away from them. But how can a God who is everywhere be far away? And how do we make room for him?

The True Story ~ I’m pretty sure if we understand why the Father tells us stories we will quit arguing over the “facts” about the Bible. (Plus, I like the picture on this one)

The Single-File Parade ~ I write about dreams: some dreams I’ve actually had, and others I want to have. We should all have a dream like this.

The Case of the Really Short Skirt ~ Yes, it really happened, although when picked this story up, many comments accused me of making the whole thing up. I wish I had.

Lazarus Quenby and the Reasonable Dinner Party ~ First, I love the name Lazarus Quenby. Second, I used a fragment from a short story I wrote 30 years ago. Perhaps I should write fiction?

What I Saw at Church ~ In one fashion or another, I saw every bit of this in a single Sunday. And, yes, this the sixth link, even though I said five. That’s just you’d expect from a narcissist, isn’t it?
Most Popular Guest Post: 
My Ugly/Beautiful Whore/Mother Church ~ Caleb Neff had something to say, and the tabloid-style headline didn’t hurt, either.
Most Comments:
Why Don’t North American Christians Raise the Dead? ~ Another shameful, attention-getting headline. 
Best Metaphor:
What if Your Money’s No Good? ~ It has the added advantage of also being true.
The One I Wish I Hadn’t Written ~ All the book reviews. It’s really not in the center of what I do.
What’s ahead for 2012? Every Saturday: other writers will blog about the parables of Jesus. New voices, fresh perspective, and best of all--you don’t have to read my writing!
What are your choices for best or worst?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Journey of the Magi

During this Advent season we’ve looked at Mary, Joseph, Zechariah and the shepherds. For the final Christmas post of 2011, I want to share with you my favorite Christmas poem. It’s the perfect example of a sanctified imagination encountering the scripture: nothing trite or easy here, just art in service of the Lord of Glory. Merry Christmas, friends.

Journey of the Magi
~ T.S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Ten Short Life-Lessons from Mary of Nazareth

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee,  to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1: 26-38)
Ten Life-Lessons from Mary of Nazareth:
In the sixth month . . . God’s clock was already ticking when the angel came to Mary. Just because God announces something to me doesn’t mean it began with me.
. . . pledged to be married . . . We have our plans. God has his.
. . . you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you . . . Notice the connection between His favor and His presence. How could it be otherwise?
. . . Mary was greatly troubled at his words . . . When his favor is upon us it can be unsettling.
. . . You will be with child . . . Sometimes we enlist in the puposes of God, sometimes we are drafted.
How will this be? . . . There is a world of difference between asking God “how” and asking him “why.”
The Holy Spirit will come upon you . . . When God answers the “how” question, this is the usual way He starts.
For nothing is impossible with God . . . You heard him.
I am the Lord’s servant . . . Even though Mary was drafted, she responds with a willing heart. It would make all the difference over the next 30 years.
Then the angel left her . . . There are times when we have angelic help, and there are times when we are on our own.
Merry Christmas, friends! 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Parable of the Old Man's Vineyard

If you blog long enough you end up meeting great people. Shawn Smucker is the friend of a friend of a friend--and I met that friend via blogging. Shawn, his wife, and four kids live in Paradise, literally (Paradise, PA--although I smell a tourism board at work somewhere). Everything I know about Shawn I know through the magic of the Interwebs, but I can tell you this: I like what I know, and if you check out his blog or follow him on the Twitter you will like it, too. 

The old man bends over and picks up a handful of soil. Fertile soil. He runs it through his finger – it crumbles and falls heavily to the ground. The sound is like the pounding of the first raindrops.
All around him, activity: carts arriving with stone, hammers pounding boards together, and men shouting to one another. A high stone wall rises against the horizon. Inside it, huge green leaves drape down over the tiniest orbs: the beginnings of grapes. A tower rises in the center, overlooks the vineyard and the stone wall and the surrounding countryside. It is like the eye of God, the center of the universe.
The old man owns the vineyard, but something leads him away. Something demands his attention elsewhere. He leases the land to a group of farmers; they are eager to make their fortune on this man’s fully prepared estate. They don’t have to spend a penny – everything is ready. The crop is even planted. All they have to do is harvest it.
The old man leaves.
* * * * *
Months later, the harvest. The old man cannot return – perhaps he is frail. Perhaps he has many such vineyards and cannot be everywhere at once. In any case, he sends three of his most trusted servants to collect his share of the grapes.
The farmers stand in the tower they did not build, looking out over the vineyard they did not plant, surrounded by a wall of stones they did not hew. They see the servants approaching from a long way off. Perhaps they are worried that the old man is coming back to end the lease. Perhaps they have gotten used to their newfound wealth, having made no initial investment. 
They meet the servants outside the stone wall. They beat the first one until he can only watch. They kill the next one instantly. But they surround the third servant and begin the slow work of murder by stoning until he is nothing but a hunk of bloody meat and exposed bone, his heart still beating. Then they draw closer and throw stones at his head until he dies, his skull crushed. 
The farmers walk back inside the stone wall. The beaten servant returns to the old man. His is a slow, painful journey.
* * * * *
The old man sends more servants. Perhaps if they see that he is persistent, and that he can come in greater numbers, they will simply give him his fair share.
But the farmers have gone too far. They cannot reverse their course. When this new batch of servants arrives, the farmers beat some, kill others. Blood forms small pools on the road leading up to the vineyard. The bodies draw flies. Inside, the farmers continue to harvest the grapes, their fingers stained by the juice.
* * * * *
The old man stares out from his house, far from the vineyard. He ponders the news – more servants killed. Still no payment. The sun sets, yellows and reds and oranges streaking across the sky. He can walk away, count the venture as lost. Or he can still try to reconcile with them.
He calls out to a servant who approaches with humility.
“Yes, my Lord?”
The old man pauses, and as the sky slips toward darkness, he whispers something. He does not tell the servant to gather an ever larger contingent. He does not tell the servant to send for mercenaries by which he will win back his vineyard. No, he asks for something different.
“Bring me my son.”
* * * * *
Sending his son is not a power play, at least not in the brute force sense of power. The son is not some special forces operative planning on sneaking in and killing them all in their sleep. He is not leading a group of soldiers. He is going alone.  
His father sends him in hopes that the farmers will be reminded. Who owns this vineyard? Who built the stone wall? The tower? To whom does all of this belong? The old man is hoping that the farmers will see his son as the embodiment of himself, and that they will respect his son as they respected him before he left.
But as the son approaches, the farmer’s meet him outside the stone wall. There is a moment of silence as the son stares at the men. They kill him without remorse.
The old man has no other heir to take over his estate, they reason. We can own the vineyard. 
The son lies dead outside the vineyard. It is finished. Or so the farmers believe.
* * * * *
What will the old man do to the farmers? Jesus asked the leaders.
He’ll kill them and lease the vineyard to those who give him his fair share, they exclaimed.
So I tell you, Jesus said, that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to people who do the things God wants in his kingdom.
* * * * *
What do I say to God when he asks me to return these things that have always been his? Do I trust him with my children? With my money? With my dreams?
Am I prepared to do the things he asks me to do, even when it involves giving my most precious possessions back to him?
Offering, and not acquisition, has always formed the entrance to the kingdom.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Nine Silent Months, One Prophetic Song

Everywhere you look in the Christmas narratives you will find life-lessons for students of Jesus. The stories of Christmas are also the stuff of the Kingdom of God. For example, consider an out-of-the-way old man named Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. His story is also a part of the Christmas saga.
One day he goes to work, encounters an angel, and receives the best news of his life. But it’s too good to be true, so he’s not sure if he can trust his heart to happiness. He voiced his fears. The angel who delivered good news to him was mildly offended at Zechariah’s inability to enter into joy and hope. This angel--Gabriel--came straight from the presence of God, where the only news is good news. Gabriel’s response to fear and doubt is instructive: keep silent until the promise comes to pass. Gabriel gave Zechariah an assignment: keep silent for nine months and meditate on the work of God.
Nine months and eight days later, Zechariah’s voice returned. What would you say after nine months of meditating on the goodness of God? Zechariah’s first words are recoded in Luke 1: 67-80. This passage is a grand hymn to the faithfulness--and the purposes--of God.
Nine months of reflection. Nine months to consider the work of God. Nine months to travel from doubt to insight; from fear to hope. Consider the lessons of nine moths of prayer and reflection. They were not only lessons for Zechariah, they are questions for us:
  • Zechariah was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” His perspective had shifted from the everyday to the presence of God (v 67). The presence of God transforms the everyday into eternity. How would our lives change if eternity was constantly at hand?
  • The God of Israel is in the business of redemption, both personally and corporately (vs 68-71). Zechariah and Elizabeth were only aware of their own childless life. It was the extent of their vision. When the God of Heaven answered, he included this childless couple in the grand story of redemption. God not only answered their hearts’ cry, he drafted them into the plan. How cool is that?
  • God’s saving action demonstrates his faithfulness to all generations, from Abraham forward (vs 72-73). God sees all of humanity before him at any given moment. His actions today may bless us and keep promises made centuries ago. Have we realized his kindness today may also complete the hope of ages past?
  • The purpose of God’s saving action is so that we can “serve him without fear” (v74). This is the stuff of soaring sermons and exhortations. Even in our day God’s people find themselves hemmed in by fear: fear of man, fear of the future, fear of their own inadequacies. How would our lives be changed if we could live outside of the fears common to man? 
  • John the Baptist’s ministry was solely to prepare the way for another (v76). This view of ministry is fast fading from our communities. Many ministries faithfully serve others, but how many of us view ministry as releasing someone else to be the star?
  • Isaiah’s fingerprints are all over the Zechariah’s final words (vs 77-79). In his nine months of silence Zechariah was not alone with his own thoughts. His personal reflections were informed by the witness of scripture. What better way to interpret our own situation?
  • Finally, the baby was only eight days old. There was a lifetime to be lived; Zechariah’s work was just beginning (v80). When God’s promises come to pass we could be tempted to think of it as an ending. How many of us see the fulfillment of God’s promise as the beginning instead of the end?
Elizabeth’s child was not the only thing gestated during those nine months. Zechariah’s prophetic insight was birthed after it came to full term, and we are the better for it today.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Flash, Dazzle, and the Quiet Sign

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
 “Glory to God in the highest,
   and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (Luke 2: 8-15)
Some jobs involve tedious repetition, day-after-day. In the case of these shepherds the repetition was night-after-night. I’ve never been a shepherd, but  I imagine the night shift could get pretty boring. The same co-workers, the same sheep, the same fields.
Luke’s gospel describes the one night where the sameness was interrupted. First an angel appears out of nowhere. Then the shepherds are surrounded by the shining glory of God, much like what Moses experienced. Finally, the very fabric of the sky is pulled back like a curtain, revealing a host of other-worldly creatures in full-on praise and worship. That’s not a normal night.
Yet in this account is an amazing contradiction that captures our attention and invites us to consider the value system of Heaven. In the midst of the supernatural announcement we find this incongruous sentence: “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby . . . ”
What? Angelic visitation is not the sign of God’s work? Nor is the visible, shining presence of God? The sky-rending heavenly choir is not sign enough? Well actually, no. The implied lesson of the annunciation is that God’s signs are sometimes so natural we might well miss the true wonder of his work.
There has never been a greater sign of God’s goodness, grace, creativity or power than the night he became human. But we humans crave the spectacular. We think the “sign” must be eye-poppingly supernatural. We are impressed by flash and dazzle while frequently the work of God is going on quietly, naturally, right before our eyes.
This week, we will see the sign, or look for the flash?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Parable of the Lost Tree Ornament

My friend Amy Durham and I go back at least a decade--maybe more. She puts the multi into multi-talented: mother of three, wife of one, musician, teacher, and writer of “paranormal teen fiction.” She’s J.K. Rowling waiting to be found, only better. Amy is a charter member of the Vineyard Writer’s Group in my hometown (no, you don’t have to go to the Vineyard to join in). Every couple of weeks she shows up and dazzles us with her work, plus plenty of encouragement and direction for the rest. I’m thrilled you get to meet her. She blogs here and tweets there

Tonight my two youngest sons and I put the Christmas tree up. It’s a joyous time of course, as little folks always get excited about the holiday decorations. As they were pulling the ornaments from the box and sticking them on the tree with great speed, I began to wonder… “Where is my nativity ornament?” It’s a nice little wooden ornament, carved from one thin piece of wood to look like Mary and baby Jesus. To anyone else it might seem ordinary, nothing all that special.  It has no sparkly stuff, no bright colors, nothing that would set it apart from the other beautifully crafted ornaments in my supply. But I remember buying that ornament at Marlow Woodcuts in Americus, Kansas. I remember walking through the shop, staring in awe at the intricate carvings--both large and small--created by the craftspeople there. I remember the very special people I was with on the day I bought that ornament. I remember the picture my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and I posed for outside the shop that afternoon.  
It took some time, and some digging in the ornament box, but I finally came across that little nativity ornament. I hung it, as I always do, in a place about eye-level for me, so that when I walk past the tree I can glance over at it, think about that place, that day, those people. I gave it a place of honor.
I didn’t shout “I found it” when I located it near the bottom of the box, though there was a part of me that wanted to. Because for all its ordinariness and nothing-specialness, I was so happy to see it, to touch it, to place it on my tree.
There are hundreds of little moments like that in my life, in your life, in everyone’s life: when a lost item is found, when something we thought was long gone is suddenly there in front of us. There’s a little spark of joy that ignites inside us in those moments, a smile that begins somewhere in the vicinity of our hearts and spreads outward. The joy of finding never really goes away, no matter how many times something goes missing, only to be found again.
I imagine it’s just that way for the Father, multiplied about a million times over, when he “finds” another lost one. I imagine the spark of joy in his heart is more like an inferno of delight when another person comes to know Him in that redeeming, life-changing way. In just the same way that I experienced excitement at finding that ornament, I believe the Father’s smile beams bright and brilliant each time His love captures a new heart. And just like I remember the day I bought that ornament, the people I was with, the picture that we took that day, the Father’s intimate knowledge of each heart gives Him the same opportunity for those sweet memories to bloom.
He illustrates this for us in Luke 15:8-10, where He describes a woman who searches the whole house over for a lost coin, inviting her neighbors to come rejoice with her after she finds it. Even though she had nine other coins, her joy at finding the one that was lost inspired a party!
Those people who frustrate me: like the person who blocks the entire aisle at the grocery store to stop and have a lengthy conversation with someone else, the kid who despite my best efforts will not be quiet and respectful in my classroom, anyone with the last name Kardashian who bombards the media with materialism and self-interest--all of these people create the same joy in the Father’s heart that my little wooden Christmas tree ornament created for me. I remind myself of this often, that my perspective on people is not the only one that matters, if it matters at all. Because there is a smile in the Father’s heart that is reserved for just those folks, and His smile at finding them will be even more brilliant than the one I had when I hung that ornament on my tree.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Four Lessons from Joseph of Nazareth

We get the Christmas story from the scriptures. What we know of the birth of Jesus comes to from the inspired words of the gospels. These passages, found in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke, are some of the most well-known Bible verses in history.
Like countless other believers around the world, as I prepare for the Christmas season I will read these passages again and again. They are familiar and comforting, and perhaps that’s the problem: because I have come to these passages so often, I am tempted to think that there is nothing new for the Holy Spirit to reveal through these words. That would be a mistake, because the Bible narrative of the birth of Christ is not only inspired storytelling but also useful for training in right relationship with God. What better way to prepare for Christmas than to go deeper in our relationship with the Father?
The birth narratives--like all scripture--are food for students of Jesus. These passages are filled with challenges to our faith, and filled with the encouragement we need to grow in God. Today I would like to share just four observations from the life of Joseph of Nazareth, the man trusted by God to raise the Savior of the world.
1). Poor Joseph--God didn’t get his approval before acting. Can you imagine the real-life shock of these words: “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1: 18) Mary received an angelic visitation and the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Joseph received the worst news of his life. God “drafted” Joseph into a difficult position--would the Almighty ever do the same to us? Have we ever considered the implications of God’s sovereignty? If we affirm that we belong to him are we willing to be drafted as Joseph was?
2). The narrative reveals the actions of a righteous man. In his confusion and pain, Joseph’s first concern was for Mary, he “did not want to expose her to public disgrace.” (1: 19) How many of us would have this priority? Perhaps this is why the scripture labels Joseph a “righteous man.” Scripture is demonstrating what true righteousness looks like in action. It’s revealing as well that the scripture describes Joseph's righteousness not in terms of his relationship to God, but in terms of his relationship to Mary. True righteousness extends two directions--toward God and man.
3). Joseph resisted the urge to act rashly. Even in his concern for Mary and her reputation he was still determined to divorce her (in modern terms, "break the engagement"). Yet the narrative reveals that he took time to consider his actions. When Joseph was faced with the impossible, he did not rush to judgment. The scriptures do not indicate how long he waited, but he took time to consider his actions. And in that period of time, Joseph positioned himself to hear from God in a most unusual manner:
4). God gave Joseph a dream, a dream that would change his life forever. “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.’” This must’ve been some dream, or Joseph must’ve been some righteous man, or both. Engagement, unexpected pregnancy, and an out-of-this-world explanation would be enough to give anyone dreams. But God chose a dream as the means to provide divine direction, and Joseph recognized the dream as God’s personal leading. In fact, dreams are mentioned no fewer than four times in Matthew 1 & 2. I believe scripture is teaching us that God can and does guide his children through dreams. Imagine: in an emotionally charged situation, just when we would be tempted to ignore our dreams as a product of our subconscious, God is present: leading, directing, and guiding--through dreams. By the way, there is no indication that Joseph heard anything else from God until after the baby was born. He remained faithful to God’s instructions for months, all based on one dream!
The Christmas season offers an opportunity to anyone who would become a student of Jesus. Can we imagine ourselves in these situations? Between Matthew and Luke's gospels the cast of Christmas characters is pretty large: Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, Anna, the Magi and shepherds. They are the stuff of Christmas pageants, and cheesy dramas. They are also the stuff of God’s instruction to his disciples.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Monday's Meditation: When the Right Answer is Not Enough

Hiding inside the Christmas story are a thousand meditations. God reveals his ways. He’s faithful. He’s sneaky. He’s a risk-taker, he is unpredictable, he hides his work in plain sight, he comes right on time yet it’s when you least expect it. A teenage girl in the story observed, “he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
This year my favorite Christmas meditation regarding the ways of God? It’s not enough to get the right answer.
Matthew’s gospel tells the familiar story of three outsiders who find their way into the very presence of God even while the religious experts of Israel demonstrate surprisingly little regard for discovery:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
"'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
   who will shepherd my people Israel.'"
 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
The story is so familiar we could be excused for missing one of those meditations hiding inside the narrative we know so well.
Have you ever noticed? These rich pagan astrologers had only the faintest understanding of the birth of a new King, yet they traveled great distances to pay him homage. As they neared their destination they stopped at the center of Israel’s religious life and asked the “experts” for help. The experts answered the question correctly, but not one of the scholars packed his bag and went with the Magi.
These Magi, strangers to the the covenant of Moses, were willing to act on the merest bit of information. They traveled far. The chief priests and scribes, who had all the revelation of Israel at their fingertips, would not even travel six miles to worship their own Messiah.
It’s not enough to get the right answer. The know-it-alls did not find their way to the feet of the Christ child.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Parable of the Incomprehensible Parable

Jennifer Luitwieler is my cyber-buddy. I'm pretty sure we could BFF's if I liked to run long distances at the expense of great personal pain, but I don't so we aren't. She's intelligent, unpredictable, and for some reason known only to her, has chosen to make her home in Oklahoma. I'm hoping the seven readers of Students of Jesus will not hold that against her. She's the author of Run With Me: An Accidental Runner and the Power of Poo. (I told you: unpredictable. And no, I will not run with her). She also has a unpredictable blog, or you can follow her on the Twitter.

When Ray asked for reflections on the parables, I thought he couldn’t have given an easier assignment. Those of us who grew up marinating in scriptures might feel like those particular wells have been mined dry. I thought I would dash off a few luminous paragraphs and let the people stand in silent awe. Then I did the goofy thing. I chose a parable that’s always been a challenge for me to wrap my puny human brain around. 
Luke 19:11-27 always throws me for a loop. The long and the short of it is that a wicked ruler was leaving his estate to be awarded a new kingdom. His servants disliked him so much they campaigned against him. But he still got the job. Before he left, he entrusted some money to a few servants, mandating they take care of what was his. Two servants invested the money and earned a return. One servant held onto the cash and returned it to the master when he arrived home. 
Every time I read this passage, I think the ending will change. I cross my fingers and hope that the guy who did as he was instructed, who took care of the money, will be praised. Every time, at the end, I’m hit with a bucket of cold reality.  I want to stomp my foot because that is just not fair. 
I don’t get it. I don’t get how the guy who strictly obeyed got the tongue lashing. I don’t get why this unjust man was being given even more to steward. I don’t get the way the parable ends: Jesus tells the disciples that those who have will be given more, and those who have nothing will be stripped even of that. 
What the what?
Parables are designed to be tough lessons disguised as palatable stories about a friend. You know, where Jesus tells us something sort of ugly about the human condition but it’s easier to digest because we’re given a little word picture. Like a spoonful of sugar with the Nyquil. Parables are meant to be comprehensible. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. A good guy. A bad guy. A lesson. Even a way to make it not about us, if we try hard enough. 
There are two strategies we can employ to help us with scripture we don’t understand. We can use my old stand by: chosen ignorance. I used to avoid this parable, precisely because it remained to resolutely incomprehensible. If I just pretended it wasn’t there, then I didn’t have to worry about what it meant. That is a tried and true strategy, one that many of us have in our toolboxes. Problem is, it won’t work forever. 
The other strategy we can use, one which proves worthwhile in uncovering scriptural truths, is to actually….study it. Which is why I chose to focus on this parable; because I needed to struggle with it.  I read the parable in context, in Luke, just prior to the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. I flipped around looking at words and phrases, chasing sentences on the rabbit path in the garden of God’s word. 
Guess what? I still don’t understand it. I’m still wrestling with this passage. And that’s a good thing. God is big enough to handle my doubt. Thankfully, he is so strong that my understanding is not required for my redemption. He is able to withstand my perplexity. The more time I spent thinking about this passage, the more drawn into his Word I became, never a bad thing. In this case, I continue on the path toward understanding, choosing not to ignore the things I just don’t get. Because God is big enough to wrestle.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Was Jesus Numerically Challenged?

A few days ago I stumbled across a sentence that has absolutely captured my attention. It’s from the blog of a nationally-known Evangelical pastor. The sentence is part of a longer blog post, and as such is not meant to stand entirely on its own, yet it set the stage for the rest of the post that celebrated what God had done in the past and the lessons the pastor had learned in the first 15 years of ministry. Near the very beginning of his post, he said:

“The fact that we’ve grown to over 12,000 people worshiping and serving each Sunday at 14 locations in four states is proof of God’s grace.” ~ A Nationally-known Evangelical Pastor
I read the quote several times. It bounced around in my head, making noise like two random and unrelated piano keys struck at the same time. I couldn’t read the rest of the article. Instead, I pasted the sentence on to my facebook and Twitter pages and asked my friends for their reactions. Here are a few samples:
  • It sounds like a dangerous presumption.
  • Yes, I do think it's by God's grace, but it sounds more like "12k people! 14 locations! 4 states! Ergo, I AM AWESOME!" Somebody's big fat ego peeked out behind what was probably a sincere attempt at giving God the glory, which is His alone. Darn.
  • The fact that I run circles around everyone shows that God is good. WhatdoyathinkofmeNOW?
  • Jesus only had a handful of people, no building, and no cash. How sad that by Western standards, he didn't do a great work.
  • More needs to be known . . . The numbers might be good, and might not be.
  • It sounds like a guy who wishes he could cage fight Jesus :)
  • The proof of God's grace is what the 12,000 people are doing Monday through Saturday.
  • Numbers alone are only proof of crowds gathering.
  • That quote isn't universally true, but it may very well be true of their situation. Numbers alone don't tell the whole story.
Now I’m asking for your help in sorting out my thoughts, which are a varied a bag of Skittles. Here, taste a few colors:
I’ve never met the megachurch pastor quoted above, but I believe him to be sincere. I trust his motives even if I do not understand his methods. The religious world of Christianity is filled with its share of competition and jealousy--I’m sure this man has been criticized unfairly and been the envy of others. I also wonder how he can appeal to a numeric accounting of the grace of God.
The Father isn’t against big numbers, because he loves the whole world, and that’s a pretty big number. On the day of Pentecost 3,000 were added to the church in a single day. That’s a pretty big number. John the Revelator looked into the heavens and saw the angelic host of heaven, “myriads of myriads, ten thousand times ten thousands.” According to my calculations that comes to, uh, give me a moment, uh . . . a pretty big number. God can count. He numbers the hairs on my head and calls the starry host into the night sky one by one. The biggest megachurch is yet to come, and I’ll be there without complaint.
Yet Jesus went about changing the world in a remarkably small way. A short life, few followers, and a handful of seed at the end. The resurrected Lord tossed the seed into the ground and said, “I’m outa here.” He left eleven un-cultured leaders, perhaps 120 people, no budget, no map, and no plan except “make disciples and teach them to obey.” The only asset they possessed was an imperishable seed. Any worldly accounting considered Jesus a failure and the ragtag collection of followers no threat to Jewish society, much less the nations of the world. Only in hindsight do we see the wisdom and grace of God revealed.
One of the largest churches in history was the Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, Turkey. Built for the glory of God in the 5th century, it housed Christian worship for a thousand years--until it became a mosque for 500 years. Today it is a museum. I’m pretty sure it’s a parable that’s been told very slowly. Thirty years ago the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California welcomed 10,000 worshippers and more than two million viewers each week. This year it filed for bankruptcy in its 46 million dollar debt.
Jesus didn’t do arithmetic. He did the higher level math. He engaged in human alchemy and turned human beings into living stones. He built good foundations and let the centuries gently press down on his church. The church he built will never change hands. It’s the only church that will last.

It’s the model I want to follow. I want to be the seed that falls into the ground and finds good soil. If I impact 30, 60, or a 100 people during my lifetime I’ll consider it a fruitful life. 
Can you help me sort through these thoughts? What is your opinion? What kind of church is evidence of the grace of God?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Monday's Meditation: His Plan, Our Choice

More than any other Bible event, the birth of Jesus bursts with prophetic destiny. The plan of the ages came to pass with the command of God as he enacted his divine strategy to save the world. The hope of the world would finally come to life in Bethlehem. Yet in our celebration of God’s redemptive plan we can often overlook the volitional role played by two everyday people who were ambushed by the grace of God.
What if Mary had said, “No, thank you” to the glad tidings delivered by Gabriel? What if Joseph followed through with his plan to divorce Mary and get on with his the rest of his life? Have we ever considered the possibility that either of them could’ve declined the honor? Most important: have we ever considered the risks endured by God Himself when he decided to use people in his plan?
Meditation is a path to understanding and insight. The creative and patient heart can discover the whispers of the Spirit just behind the inspired text. The what-if questions cannot be answered, but they are useful in reminding us that our choices matter. They matter before God calls us, when he calls us, and forever after we accept his call. Perhaps most of all, in Mary and Joseph we see the intersection of God’s sovereign will and human choice to embrace his plan.
Mary and Joseph were partners in the grace of God. They did not earn the positions to which they were called. Yet it’s still true that each of them embraced the everyday small choices that positioned them for the call of God. What if Mary had not stayed sexually pure? The sovereign plan of God would have been fulfilled, but in some other Jewish teenager. What if Joseph had decided not to listen to the angelic instruction and instead divorce Mary? The Father in Heaven would certainly have found a step-father before the birth of the Christ child. Or have we lulled ourselves into thinking that Mary and Joseph had no choice in God's great destiny for mankind?
Behind the text lay questions worth asking: How did Mary become the kind of person who could say yes with a whole heart? How did Joseph mature into a man who could make space and time to hear from God even in the face of his personal shock and pain? How could someone as deliberative as Joseph also be decisive when it came to protecting the Christ child from a murderous despot?
These questions are not about whether rule-keeping “qualified” or “disqualified” either of them, but rather what manner of life enabled them to discover and lay hold of God’s greatest design for them--and coincidentally, God’s greatest design for humanity. (There is a second lesson that we are who we are not only for ourselves, but for countless others unseen, but that’s for another day.)
While we can only speculate the answers such provocative questions, we can discover the deep truth that God does not treat human beings as mere puppets in the redemptive story. Any God gentle and caring enough to sacrifice his own son for a wicked world does not seem the type to force the hand of an unsuspecting couple in the tiny town of Nazareth. God the Father showed faith in them, and like all acts of faith, these divine choices were made at great risk. The sovereign God entrusted his son and his plan to very human agents. In you and me, he does so still today.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Parable to Make a King Cry

Welcome to week three of a new feature at Students of Jesus. Each Saturday you'll meet a guest-posting genius holding forth on one of the 46 parables found in the gospels. Despite popular opinion, parables were not simple stories told to make things easy to understand. Jesus used parables to shake our world view, and perhaps occasionally to destroy the wisdom of the wise. Come wrestle with us.

Jason Hood is that rarest of God's creation: a deep-thinking theologian who writes with style and good humor. He's also a bit of a contrarian, because he submitted an Old Testament parable, but we'll allow it because apparently Jesus read the Old Testament--who knew? Jason is a graduate of Rhodes College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Highland Theological College and the University of Aberdeen. Jason works as Scholar-in-Residence and director of Christ College Residency Program at Christ UMC. He blogs at SAET, or you can follow him at

Sometimes we treat the parables of Jesus as if they are simply putty for our fidgeting hands, sculpting their message however we wish. But that’s not the point of parables.
No parable does more to disabuse us of this approach than the parable Nathan tells David. I’m sure you know the story from 2 Samuel 11. King David should be leading the nation, but he’s not. He checks out porn and commits adultery (maybe rape). His target gets pregnant. Her husband is too good to take time off from the battle to enjoy her, so David resorts to murder: he arranges for a catastrophic military action that kills this good man and those he had the misfortune of standing next to him. As the dust settles, he shrugs and “encourages” his general with this gem of a line: “Hey, it's war. The sword sometimes gets people.”
Actually, it’s sin that kills people, spoils relationships, steals love and cars and reputations. And because we sin, we sometimes need a parable or two to kick us down to our knees in repentance.
Perhaps we could try this one: “There was a local pastor, and about all he had was his reputation. He took a few stands you didn’t agree with. And you felt it necessary to tear down his reputation and make him look little and ignorant in the eyes of more enlightened Christians...”
Maybe it’s not really a parable. But it’s a kick-in-the-teeth, and sometimes we need really hard words.
In the next chapter, God sends Nathan the prophet to David to tell him just such a parable. A rich guy with loads of sheep and cattle steals a wonderful little ewe lamb loved by another man, and kills him for good measure. David is incensed and demands that the man die.
Imagine Nathan the prophet's words in 12:7-10 being read by Samuel L. Jackson. “You ‘da man, David! You killed a man, David! I gave you all Israel and Judah—I’d have given you more! But No! You had to have that little ewe lamb!”
David gets it. He immediately confesses. At some point he writes Psalm 51 and promises to become a missionary (literally--read verses 13-15). Here's the sign of true religion: a broken and contrite heart. Not a good defense attorney. No cover-up, spin, image control; there’s no hitting refresh on our moral track record. There’s nothing to put to use but knees and lips.
Parables like Nathan’s only work if they kick us in the teeth, shaking us out of our rhythm of self-assurance and the complacence of immorality. And when they work as intended, they have a lasting impact. Note what happens to David and Bathsheba. According to 1 Chronicles 3, they name their third child Nathan. (Admit it: you thought genealogies were boring!)
I’ve never heard of a man naming a child after a pastor who kicked his butt. But maybe we need to revisit that trend, just like we need to revisit the parables.