John 5:39-47 – Against Vainglory

Christ and Pharisee by Russian artist Ivan Filichev, 1993

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.

“I’m not interested in crowd approval. And do you know why? Because I know you and your crowds. I know that love, especially God’s love, is not on your working agenda. I came with the authority of my Father, and you either dismiss me or avoid me. If another came, acting self-important, you would welcome him with open arms. How do you expect to get anywhere with God when you spend all your time jockeying for position with each other, ranking your rivals and ignoring God?

“But don’t think I’m going to accuse you before my Father. Moses, in whom you put so much stock, is your accuser. If you believed, really believed, what Moses said, you would believe me. He wrote of me. If you won’t take seriously what he wrote, how can I expect you to take seriously what I speak?” (MSG)

I like kids, even Junior High kids. They have not yet learned how to mask their honesty (like Senior High kids). Have a conversation with any early adolescent (other than your own kid) and you will likely get an unfiltered and unvarnished take on whatever topic you are discussing together. If the subject of celebrities comes up, they can quickly rattle off their favorites. There is a reason for that; they are very much in touch with wanting to be impressive, to stand out, even to be famous someday.

I have long contended that if you want to gauge a society’s true values, talk to a young adolescent. They just happen to have an emerging awareness of the world but not yet the sophistication to hide their true thoughts from others. Junior High age kids pretty much reflect what most adults are thinking but would never dare say out loud. After all, why lose prestige in the eyes of others who think I am wonderful? Better not to rock the boat, we reason.

“Vainglory” is an old out-of-style word which few people use anymore, yet perfectly captures exactly what Jesus was talking about when it came to people being unable to discern his divinity. Wherever and whenever you find an inordinate focus on wanting attention, seeking to impress others, and desiring celebrity status, there you will see vainglory digging its talons into a society.

Vainglory is just what it sounds like: an almost narcissistic self-absorption into one’s need for importance and attention so that the personal vanity blocks being able to see others right in front of them. In placing so much energy into becoming a celebrity among peers, the vainglorious person’s vanity fogs them from reality and the truth of another.

Conversely, we are to seek the glory which comes from God. Since so many are programmed to seek honor from others, it can be quite the undertaking to turn the hunt into finding our identity and fame as persons in the image of God. Our Gospel lesson today says our reorientation program begins with faith in Jesus Christ. It is the first step toward the unmasking of egomania and soliciting God’s favor.

The sixteenth-century Reformer, John Calvin, said that “a person is only prepared to obey the heavenly teaching when he is convinced that the chief thing to be sought in all of life is God’s approval.”

Thus, the appropriate response to vainglory is to fly like a bat of hell to the heavenly mercy of God. There is no shame in wanting honor; its just a matter of where we go looking for it. Faith is crippled when we keep trying to discern which way the wind is blowing. Both our identity and our sanity will eventually blow away. However, if we cease prioritizing worldly recognition and cancel our membership in the mutual admiration club, then our conscience clears enough to let divine grace fill our souls with the love of God in Christ.

Give me Jesus and that will be enough, thank you very much. As for recognition and attention, to be adored by the Savior is all I really need. Because at the end of the day, after the hurt of being ignored, overlooked, and forgotten, Jesus is standing at the door knocking, eager to come into the house and grace me with the gift of acceptance, approval, and admiration.

O Lord, in the name of Jesus Christ your Son our God, give me the love which never ceases, that will light my soul with divine grace so that I might be satisfied in you and lessen the darkness of the world. Lord Jesus, I seek your presence and glory. May I see you, desire you, look on you in love, and long after you, for your sake. Amen.

Titus 2:7-8, 11-15 – “Yes” to Grace

Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:18)

In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you. (NIV)

It is grace which teaches us, enabling and ennobling us to forsake ungodliness and embrace hope. Grace is the scandalous and radical blessing of mercy, forgiveness, and love to those undeserving of it. Judgment is no teacher; it only condemns with criticism leading to self-contempt. Grace inoculates us from the self-despising words of the inner critic, whereas the judgmental voice heaps derision upon the soul and agrees with anyone who comes along and ridicules, despises, or scorns us.

God’s grace in Christ is redemptive. It challenges the notion we are not enough in comparison to others. Grace makes us better instead of telling us we should be better. The redeemed person, made over with abundant grace, accepts herself as a precious child of God, and so, becomes impervious to the critical rejection of others. After all, she has been received and adopted by the Lord of all. Grace enables us to advocate for ourselves and others, since we have an Advocate alongside us continually.

The shame of our past, the struggles of the present, and the stress of a perceived future all begin to melt next to the warm and purifying fire of grace. Jesus has snatched us back. We belong to God. Eager to be upright and holy in all things, and patiently waiting for the return of Christ, every good thing Christians are and do is because of grace.

The grace of God empowers us to choose the good and eschew the bad. It lifts us with encouraging love and support while simultaneously strengthening our faith to chuck the ungodliness. It is imperative we get interested in the truth of grace as it pertains to self. In fact, the Apostle Paul began his letter to Titus with an emphasis on what is true:

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness— in the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time. (Titus 1:1-2, NIV)

God is gracious. God is true. Therefore, grace is truth. The believer leans into and relies upon the unmerited and undeserved mercy and kindness of God, who does not merely speak truth but is truth itself. “I am the truth,” Jesus said to his disciples, as the very embodiment of honesty and veracity. (John 14:6)

There is a significant difference between doing good because of arm-twisting and living a godly life because of grace. Being cajoled into living the straight-and-narrow is accomplished typically through shaming another to the point of conformity. This is not the way of Christ. Grace bestows renegade love to extravagant sinners. Such a gift is so incredibly overwhelming that gratitude with delightful duty is the typical response.

Furthermore, grace is to be the example given to others. The Christian’s life is to be a model of saying “no” to unconscionable behavior and “yes” to a mindful righteousness which has awareness of the ways of grace. Like changing a filthy set of clothes, we are to put off self-condemning lies and put on the grace of the Lord Jesus. We are to put off the old ratty garments of judgmentalism and put on the new clean raiment given by Christ which is worthy of a royal child of God. Well, of course, we do not deserve this – which is why it is grace.

God is shaping and forming a people of grace in faith communities, distinct from and in stark contrast to judgmental persons in unjust structures of the world – a holy people, a special and treasured possession of the Lord, committed to observing divine ways of grace. (Deuteronomy 26:16-19)

Grace is one-way love. Watch other people you respect as examples and consider their happiness. You will see it over and over: one-way love lifts-up. One-way love cures. One-way love transforms. It is the change agent of life.

Almighty God and ever-present Lord of grace, you have brought me in safety to this new day. Preserve me with your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity. And in all I do today, direct me to the fulfilling of your gracious purposes through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 – Always and Forever

My Lord, you have been our home forever and ever.
You were God before the mountains were born,
    before the earth and the world were made.
    You have always been and will always be God!

You bring people into this world,
    and you change them into dust again.
To you, a thousand years is like yesterday,
    like a few hours in the night.
Our life is like a dream that ends when morning comes.
We are like grass
    that grows and looks so fresh in the morning,
    but in the evening it is dry and dying.

Lord, come back to us.
    Be kind to your servants….
Fill us with your love every morning.
    Let us be happy and enjoy our lives.
For years you have made life hard for us and have given us many troubles.
    Now make us happy for just as long.
Let your servants see the wonderful things you can do for them.
    And let their children see your glory.
Lord, our God, be kind to us.
    Make everything we do successful.
    Yes, make it all successful. (ERV)

Holy Scripture is first and foremost a collection of writings about God. There are times we may become too focused on ourselves – our fears, inadequacies, weaknesses, failures – and lose sight of God’s huge immensity. Today’s psalm helps reorient us back again to the grand Sovereign of the universe. There is a decidedly theistic worldview espoused and embedded in the psalm. It is a cosmology dominated by the largeness of a Creator who is pictured as completely in control of creation.

When it comes to us, our lives are often a weird and complex concoction of fear and joy which could combust at any time. We swing from high to low, and low to high. If we are on an even keel, it is often only because we are currently in the middle of swaying from one extreme to another. Even the seemingly consistent introverts know this – it just happens to all take place inside their vast inner world instead of on the outside for all to see.

Psalm 90 grants us a grand vision of God to anchor and steady us through the vicissitudes of life. The high and transcendent God is also close and imminently near. Because of divine transcendence and immanence, nothing gets by God. The Lord Almighty always knows the score. And God is ready to graciously dispense kindness, mercy, and steadfast love to us in daily need of it.

The appropriate response to such a God is to number our days so that we may become wise. When we appropriate and incorporate a healthy theology into our lives, we learn to measure ourselves in fresh ways and live consistently moral lives with wholeness and integrity. Therefore, a regular regimen of the psalms is important to always have before us a stout view of God who always and forever exists as our heart’s truest home.

Mighty God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, satisfy me in the morning with your constant love so that I might rejoice and be glad all day, every day. Let your favor rest upon me and establish the work of my hands for the glory of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit reign as one God, now and forever. Amen.

Matthew 17:22-27 – Because We Can

When they came together in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

“Yes, he does,” he replied.

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”

“From others,” Peter answered.

“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” (NIV)

In ancient times, the Jerusalem Temple was designed to serve as the bridge between God and humanity. It was the place where God “came down” and accepted the offerings of the priests on behalf of the people. In Christian theology, Jesus came to this world to become the permanent bridge and the eternal temple.

Jesus saw himself as the ultimate connector who spans the great expanse between God and people. Christ ascended to heaven and gave the Spirit to his people, the Body of Christ. Basic Christian ecclesiology recognizes the Church (both individual Christians and the Church universal) as the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the continuing presence of Jesus on this earth. Jesus, Spirit, and Church are inextricably bonded with divine superglue to engage in the mission of being God’s Temple – the place of connection between the human and the divine.

Jesus used the situation of a question asked about taxes and the Temple to speak and illustrate the value and import of connecting with both God and others.

Why did Jesus pay the temple tax?

A “drachma” was about a day’s wage. In the time of Christ, there was a two-drachma tax which was levied by the Jewish authorities on every male Jew between the ages of 20-50. The tax was implemented to support the temple building and all the services that went into it.

The temple tax was not compulsory, so typically, the tax collectors did not impose it on the poor – which is why the collectors asked Peter whether Jesus pays the tax or not, because Jesus was poor. Jesus paid the temple tax out of humility, even though he was exempt, so to not offend and cause unnecessary scandal. Said another way, Jesus and his disciples did not have to pay the tax but instead chose to use their freedom for the benefit of others.

There is freedom in Christ. Yet, because of love, and a focus on need instead of rights, we can choose to use our freedom to serve larger purposes than just our own interests. The Apostle Paul later framed it this way:

It is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:5-8, NIV)  

We exist to serve more than ourselves. God has purchased and adopted us through the death of Christ; we are now the Temple of the Spirit. We can emulate the Savior and choose humility to serve others. A logical question arises about all this: If I do this and focus on responsible service instead of rights, then how am I going to make ends meet?  Is any of this realistic or practical?

How did Jesus pay the temple tax?

Jesus cares about supplying needs. Jesus can and does take care of people who choose to give for the benefit of others. Jesus told Peter the fisherman to go out and fish. A crazy thing happened – Peter found not only a two-drachma coin to cover the annual tax but a four-drachma coin to cover both Jesus and Peter’s tax!  This was a powerful lesson about God’s abundant grace. 

As God’s people, we not only believe in the miraculous; we depend on miracles. We can bank on Jesus supplying our need. This is not a health and wealth gospel. Jesus was monetarily poor, so I am not sure how anyone can justify that God wants all believers to be financially rich.

There was once a man I knew who only had $100 to his name. He got to know another man who needed a suit for his job. The man with a $100 gave it all to the man who needed the suit. That man is alive and well today with all his needs met. He is not rich. However, he is quite happy. If we never need a miracle, we have never given of ourselves enough to need one.

Peter was a fisherman, so Jesus told him to fish and there was a miracle. Sometimes we might get the wrongheaded notion we must do something way outside of our given giftedness. God created each person with a unique intellect, abilities, and strengths and so, we are to use them to affect a miracle – just as Peter did.

We can have a big picture view of our shared humanity without narrow provincial views which are unable to see the vast scope of human need. And so, we can trust God to use us for divine purposes. We can exercise faith in the miraculous for both ourselves and others. We can embrace Christ’s mission in this world to such a degree that we would never consider living any other way. May we do it because we can.

God of all abundance and grace, help us to find firm ground in a shaky economy. Provide jobs for the unemployed; give us strength and peace when anxiety and worry come knocking; grant us patience when things look bleak; and, bring us the serenity of your presence so that we can do your will for the salvation of others through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.