NO MYSTERY

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, for he taught with real authority—quite unlike their teachers of religious law. [Matthew 7:28-29 (NLT)]

southern fleabaneA friend sent me a meditation written by a well-known Christian writer and asked me what I thought. Unfortunately, I couldn’t say because I couldn’t understand it. As I struggled to make sense of the author’s words, I remembered a gifted gentleman at our northern church who would occasionally give the sermon when our pastor was absent. Every time he spoke, I vowed to pay close attention so I could decipher his message. With his vast vocabulary, immense Biblical knowledge, and deep faith, one would think I could have taken something away from his sermons. Sadly, I never did—he always left me bewildered and confused! Why, I wonder, do some pastors, theologians and Christian writers make faith and our relationship with God so incredibly mysterious and difficult to understand?

During worship last week, the soloist sang “Yes, my Jesus Loves Me,” a beautiful song based on the well-known children’s hymn. Before starting her sermon, the pastor thanked the singer and then told the congregation that if we took nothing away from the service other than the knowledge that Jesus loves us, we will have taken away all that we needed to know! Now, there’s a preacher who knows how to put her message in words we all can understand!

When I couldn’t comprehend a sermon or a Christian writer’s words, I used to think something was wrong with me—my faith wasn’t deep enough or I was stupid. Just because we’re not as learned, philosophical or pensive as others, however, doesn’t mean we have less faith and it certainly doesn’t mean we’re stupid! Being a follower of Christ doesn’t require some secret knowledge and there’s nothing wrong with us if we don’t always understand what a pastor says or a theologian writes. God didn’t make all of us deep thinkers; then again, He didn’t have to! His message isn’t intended for a select few religious scholars and intellectuals. When Jesus gave His “Sermon on the Mount,” He wasn’t speaking to the priests, Pharisees and sages; he was speaking to a crowd of Jews and Gentiles who were ordinary people like you and me. His message was simple, straightforward, heartfelt, and God-breathed. What is known as the “mystery of God” is His plan of salvation through Jesus and there is nothing mysterious, baffling or cryptic about it.

Let us never disparage our faith because we’re not learned or academically trained. Moreover, let us never allow our amateur status keep us from sharing the gospel message. Jesus spent His time with common people, not religious scholars and intellectuals. Peter, the rock on which the Christian church is built, was a fisherman, as were most of the disciples. The Apostle Paul, as a Pharisee, was the only theologian in the group! What mattered was that they loved Jesus and spread His message far and wide. If all anyone knows after speaking with us is that Jesus loves them, they’ve taken away a powerful message, indeed!

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. [John 3:16-17 (NLT)]

I want them to be encouraged and knit together by strong ties of love. I want them to have complete confidence that they understand God’s mysterious plan, which is Christ himself. In him lie hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. [Colossians 2:2-3 (NLT)]

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THE PRICE IS RIGHT (Naaman – Part 2)

And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, but the only one healed was Naaman, a Syrian. [Luke 4:27 (NCV)]

Fish Creek Falls - SteamboatA friend of ours has several jewelry stores in Colorado. When he opened a store in a posh resort town, he priced his goods as he always has: reasonably. To his chagrin, plenty of wealthy shoppers came into his shop but no purchases were made. After three days of disappointment, he re-tagged everything with higher prices. The following day, instead of leaving empty-handed, most shoppers left carrying pricy purchases (and they continue to do so today). Apparently, his rich customers believe affordable means second-rate or shoddy and that quality only comes with an exorbitant price tag.

When Naaman, the commander of the king of Aram’s army, was afflicted with leprosy, he was told that a prophet in Samaria could heal him. Rather than go to the prophet, he went to Israel’s king and offered 750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, and ten sets of clothing for a cure. The king, of course, could do nothing for the man but Elisha sent a message requesting the leper be sent to him. Rather than the prophet, it was Elisha’s messenger who greeted him with instructions to wash in the Jordan River seven times. A celebrated warrior, Naaman expected an impressive cure, if not from the king, at least from the prophet himself—not a servant’s directions to bathe in a dirty little river. Failing to understand how washing in the Jordan would heal him when the great rivers of Damascus couldn’t, Naaman left in indignation. When his officers convinced him to give the simple solution a try, he was miraculously healed and Naaman returned to Elisha. Convinced in the power of Israel’s God, he offered the prophet the lavish gifts brought from Aram. Elisha politely refused; God’s grace was not for sale!

Are we a little like those wealthy Colorado shoppers or Naaman? Do we tend to associate an item’s worth with its price tag, rarity, or the complexity of getting it? Let’s not make that mistake with God’s gift of grace; it’s free and incredibly simple to receive! Jesus has already paid for our salvation; it’s ours just for the asking and washing in the water of the Spirit is even easier than washing in the Jordan. Nevertheless, while grace is free, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, grace is never cheap!

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. … Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again…It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life…what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. [ Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. [Ephesians 2:8-9 (NLT)]

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IN THE DARK

And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. [John 3:19-20 (NLT)]

sunriseAlthough demons had no trouble recognizing Jesus, the people who were most knowledgeable about Scripture and best knew the Messianic prophecies often seemed blind to what was before them. In fact, even after hearing Jesus speak and watching Him heal, the Pharisees and scribes accused Him of being a demon. Why did they refuse to see what was right in front of them?

Of the people who recognized Jesus as the promised Messiah, only a few were what would have been called religious. The devout Simeon and Anna knew the Messiah when Jesus came to the temple as a baby yet, twelve years later, no one in the temple recognized Him as anything more than a perceptive intelligent boy. Most of the others who recognized Jesus were secular people who knew they were flawed and in need of Him: the woman at the well, the Gentile woman with a demon-possessed daughter, the prostitute who washed His feet, the blind Bartimaeus, the corrupt publicans Zacchaeus and Matthew, Mary Magdalene, the lepers, the adulterous woman, and the paralyzed man and his friends. On that dark Friday, rather than a religious scholar, it was one of the Roman soldiers who’d nailed Jesus to the cross and a thief hanging beside Him who testified to His true identity.

Just as sunlight reveals fingerprints on the window and dust on the table, the Light of the World revealed the sins of the world. Without light, a zircon can pretend to be a diamond, stainless can pass for sterling, and a designer knock-off can be mistaken for the real thing. In the darkness, hypocrisy, deceit and legalism can pass for righteousness, morality and piety. Until it recognizes what it actually is, corruption can call itself integrity, wickedness can say it’s virtue, and arrogance can profess humility. Those unwilling to see their own sinfulness and need for salvation rejected Jesus—the one without sin. Not wanting to see what the Light revealed, they chose to remain in the dark. Those who admitted their sins knew they were in the dark and welcomed the Light. Recognizing their need for Jesus, they accepted Him and received healing, mercy, forgiveness, and everlasting life.

Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” [John 8:12 (NLT)]

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. [John 1:10-12 (NLT)]

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TABLE SCRAPS

Her little girl was possessed by an evil spirit, and she begged him to cast out the demon from her daughter. Since she was a Gentile, born in Syrian Phoenicia, Jesus told her, “First I should feed the children—my own family, the Jews. It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.” [Mark 7:25b-27 (NLT)]

dogYears ago, I often baby sat my granddaughter and dog sat my son’s dog at the same time. The grand in her highchair would push her food around the tray while trying to feed herself. Since fine motor skills are lacking in toddlers, a fair amount of whatever she was eating would end up on the floor. What my grand didn’t get in her mouth became a feast for the dog who waited patiently beneath her for the bits and pieces that fell.

I think of my grand and the dog whenever I read about Jesus and the mother of the demon-possessed girl. When this Gentile woman begged Jesus to help her, He gave her an odd reply. At first look, Jesus seems to insult her by comparing her to a dog. A derogatory term often used by Jews for Gentiles, His response seems very un-Jesuslike. Although the word Jesus used can also translate as “little dog” or “puppy” rather than mangy mutt, a dog is a dog and His response seems harsh. He’d never withheld healing before this, why now? Where was His compassion and love?

As unfeeling as it seems, Jesus’s response was correct. Parents would never take food from their children’s mouths and then throw it to the dogs (regardless of whether they are pedigree puppies or wild strays). I never would have fed the dog first and given my grand whatever was left in the dog bowl. My priority was feeding my granddaughter and Jesus’s priority was giving his message to the Jews; Israel was to come before any Gentile nation. The woman, however, didn’t take offense. She humbly agreed with Him; in effect, she said, “You’re right! I may be a dog because I’m not a Jew, but I’m like the little dog that waits under the table for scraps.” Jesus came as a Jew to be the King of the Jews and yet His own people couldn’t recognize the promised Messiah. This Gentile woman, however, knew Him. She was just asking for a scrap from the man who’d fed a multitude with next to nothing and ended up with leftovers. She knew that even the smallest crumb of His grace would be enough to heal her daughter.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus says, “Good answer!” and the child is instantly healed. Is it because the determined mother’s logic convinced Jesus to change His mind? On the other hand, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “Your faith is great.” Is the healing because she passed a test of faith? Perhaps, it was both. After all, stumbling blocks are often put before us to test both our determination and faith in God. Could their exchange also have been a lesson for the disciples who would shortly be spreading the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles? This was prophesized centuries earlier when God told Abraham, “All the families will be blessed through you.” Their exchange shows that it is determined faith, not Jewishness, that brings the blessings of God.

As the Scriptures tell us, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.” Jew and Gentile are the same in this respect. They have the same Lord, who gives generously to all who call on him. For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” [Romans 10:11-13 (NLT)]

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ATTRIBUTES AND ESSENCE

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:21-24 NLT]

Riger SwallowtailI can be a good person, be good-natured or be good at something (like Scrabble or bridge). I can look good, feel good, do good and even smell good. Nevertheless, I am not wholly good; try as I might, I cannot be goodness personified. The same goes for love; although I can be in love, love someone or something, act loving, profess my love, and be loved, I cannot be love.

If the piano piece is easy enough and I practice long enough, I can play it perfectly. I usually can bake perfect chocolate chip cookies, make perfect buttermilk pancakes, and choose the perfect gift for my husband but I am not (and never will be) perfect. As for righteousness—I can distinguish righteousness from wickedness, have righteous indignation, act righteously and feel both righteous and self-righteous. Nevertheless, I am not righteousness.

I can recognize wisdom, act wisely, and, on occasion, even give wise counsel, but I am not wisdom. I can know the truth, discern between truth and falsehood and, most of the time, speak the truth, but I am not truth.

Although we are made in God’s image and share some characteristics with Him, we share them only to a limited extent. We love inadequately, even our best efforts are imperfect, our sense of justice is flawed, our wisdom is unreliable, and our truth is slanted. On the other hand, God just doesn’t do good, love wholly, perform flawlessly, act righteously, advise wisely and speak the truth—He actually is goodness, love, perfection, righteousness, wisdom and truth. He is all that and more!

Heavenly Father, although made in your image, we are flawed humans and can never fully be like you. Help us as we battle our sinful natures; may your Holy Spirit fill us so that we grow more like you each day.

Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits Thou hast given me,
For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly. [St. Richard of Chichester]

So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. [2 Corinthians 3:18 (NLT)]

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

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AT HIS TABLE

water lilies You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. [Psalm 23:5 (HCSB)]

The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? [1 Corinthians 10:16 (HCSB)]

In my younger and more energetic days, I often entertained with large formal dinner parties. I’d start days in advance to prepare the table by getting out the extra leaves and pads to extend the table full length, gathering up the extra chairs, and ironing out the creases in the damask tablecloth before laying it on the table. From the storage cupboard in the basement, I’d haul up the crystal salad plates and Lenox china that were my mother’s and the hand-painted Bavarian service plates and Czechoslovakian dessert plates that had belonged to her mother. I’d spend hours polishing the silverware and serving pieces. The service plates were set out, the silverware laid, the crystal wine and water goblets carefully placed at each setting, and the napkins artfully folded. I’d polish up the candlesticks, put in fresh candles, get flowers from the florist, and create what I hoped would be the perfect centerpiece. All of that preparation was just for the table; there was plenty more work to do in the kitchen. I’d spend days perusing recipes, planning the menu, making lists, purchasing food and preparing it all. I loved doing it because I loved the people for whom I did it. Nevertheless, as nice as my guests were and as much as they enjoyed themselves, I’m not sure they truly appreciated how much effort went into everything that went on that table.

Yesterday was Communion Sunday at our northern church. As I approached the Lord’s Table, I wondered if I genuinely appreciate all that He did to prepare that table of blessings for me. Do I truly value His gift of body and blood? It cost Him far more than a few days of work. The price He paid was far greater than any I ever paid for lobster, prime rib, artisan cheese, imported olive oil, chestnuts, or exotic mushrooms. I thought of Him washing the feet of the disciples and of His anguish as he prayed alone in the garden. I thought of His disappointment at Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, and the disciples’ desertion. I thought of His silence in front of Caiaphas and Pilate, His flogging and mocking at the hands of the Roman soldiers, His arduous walk to Golgotha, and His suffering on Calvary. He may have been God but He was in a man’s body and suffered and died as a man for you and for me. Yet, Jesus welcomes us, sinners all, to come to His table and share in His gifts.

I’d like to think my guests never left my table hungry; nevertheless, I know they were hungry by the next morning. When we come to the table Jesus set for us, we will never again be hungry. Thank you, Jesus.

Jesus Christ, host of this meal, you have given us not only this bread and cup, but your very self, that we may feast on your great love. Filled again by these signs of your grace, may we hunger for your reign of justice, may we thirst for your way of peace, for you are Lord forevermore. Amen. [Lutheran Book of Worship]

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them. “No one who comes to Me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in Me will ever be thirsty again. … I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” [John 6:35,51 (HCSB)]

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