Luke 9:18-27 – Jesus Makes All the Difference

Christ the Redeemer, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Peter answered, “God’s Messiah.”

Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” (New International Version)

In my work as both a church pastor and hospital chaplain, not to mention just being a regular guy, I rarely encounter people who characterize Christians as setting self-interest aside to follow Jesus completely with humble ministry which is willing to suffer on behalf of others.

Instead, I daily interact with folks who have long left the Church with stories of Christians squelching genuine questions about God and faith; being judgmental toward others who are not like them; having a hypocritical double-standard approach to most issues; and verbally abusing individuals who don’t conform to their cultural ideas and biblical interpretations.

We need Christians who make a difference in this world. We need Jesus.   

A right and real confession of Jesus by his Church speaks a relevant word into the culture; proclaims the gospel of grace (not judgment); and consistently and lives what it believes.

Confessing Jesus as Lord makes all the difference.

After interacting with a lot of people on their ministry journeys, Jesus asked two questions of his disciples: “Who do people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?” Out of all the questions we can ask people, these are two good ones: “Who do others say Jesus is?” and “Who do you say Jesus is?”  

The disciples gave a variety of answers, which is to be expected. Today, you will also get variegated answers, such as, Jesus is a good teacher, a model humanitarian, a myth or a legend. A few times I’ve been told that Jesus was an alien from another planet. My all-time personal favorite response is that Jesus was a nudist and that if we all just took off our clothes, there would be peace in the world.

Although the disciples are sometimes clueless, Peter as the spokesperson, gave an insightful answer: “You are God’s Messiah.” 

Messiah or Christ literally means, “The Answer.”  Peter confessed Jesus as being The Answer, the person for whom it all comes down to. Peter may not have fully understood what he was saying, but he said it, nevertheless.

Being called by God makes all the difference.

“The Answer” was revealed to Peter by the heavenly Father. Faith in Jesus Christ is a gift given to us by God.

“My Father has entrusted everything to me. No one truly knows the Son except the Father, and no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Matthew 11:27, NLT)

Peter was blessed – not because he did anything to deserve it – but because of sheer grace. It was revealed to Peter who Jesus really is, The Answer. We know who God is and who Jesus is by revelation, by God’s gracious self-revealing to people. Scripture is God’s revelation, a self-disclosure. It is through Scripture that we know. 

Revelation isn’t just a matter of waiting for some spiritual zap to occur, in which God bonks me in the brain and deposits the knowledge and understanding of who Jesus is. 

Peter put himself in a position to know by obeying the voice of Jesus to follow him. Then, Peter got to know Jesus over time.

Since it took years of being with Jesus for Peter and the other disciples to make a right confession of faith, then we need to have a great deal of patience for others, as well as ourselves. Others need time to get to know us, they need some time in the Scriptures, and they need some time with Jesus, too.

People do not typically come to a right confession of Jesus without having spent a good deal of time around us and within Holy Scripture.

Denying self, taking up our cross, and following Jesus makes all the difference.

God chooses to use you and me. The Lord only knows why. We are most certainly an imperfect people. Yet, it seems that our imperfections are the very thing God keeps using to reveal Jesus to others. Another way to put the matter is this: Genuine openness and vulnerability is needed, and not perfection or keeping up a tidy appearance.

Most people aren’t crazy about the word “vulnerable.”  We might expect openness in others yet have no intention of being vulnerable ourselves. If you have ever poured out your heart to someone or a group of people and only got blank stares in return; sincerely loved someone and they did not love you back; shared your genuine thoughts on something important to you and received only criticism; well then, we may believe vulnerability is a bad thing and not worth the emotional effort.

However, Jesus became vulnerable – descending from heaven, submitting to the machinations of evil persons, and exposed on a cruel cross. (Philippians 2:5-11)

In the Gospel of John, Mary displayed vulnerability in pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair, all the while exposing her true feelings for her Lord. In return, Mary got pushback and criticism from Judas. But Jesus upheld Mary’s actions and told Judas to leave her alone. (John 12:1-8).

In the Psalms, even a cursory reading reveals a boatload of vulnerability on the part of the psalmists. They were unafraid to explore the depth of human emotion, misery, joy, and praise of God.

Maybe we need the person who will stand up and say they are finally learning patience by being among a group of really annoying co-workers. Perhaps instead of laboring so hard to keep our thoughts and emotions in check, we need a church environment that lends itself to a person bawling their eyes out, while others just sit and cry with them.

That kind of vulnerability won’t happen unless we ourselves are real with God, who is never fooled by our deceitful hearts. Our evil-radar might be carefully attuned to others’ sin, but we are woefully inept at identifying the blackness within ourselves.

Jesus became completely exposed, naked, abandoned, alone and vulnerable on a cruel cross. Yet, instead of being shamed by the whole thing, Jesus scorned the shaming power of his crucifixion and embraced the suffering as the means of victory for our salvation. 

Vulnerability might seem ugly, but it turns whatever it touches into beauty. God can change our weakest, worst, and most shameful places into incredible strength and newfound love.

The broken and despised, the struggling and the lost, are the ones worthy of God’s kingdom. 

Whenever we are too afraid to walk into the mud of people’s lives, including our own, and are enamored instead with every spiritual shiny thing that comes along, we may have lost sight of our Lord, whom we are to imitate in his vulnerability. 

Christians don’t  have all the answers. But we do know the One who knows all things.

Methinks people will be drawn to Jesus when they observe Christians forsaking the path of the self-righteous prick, in favor of the humble servant who loses their life, only to find it.

John 12:1-11 – Broken and Poured Out

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So, the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him. (NIV)

Jack Klugman as Quincy, M.E. (1976-1983)

When I was a kid there was a show on TV called “Quincy.” Quincy was a coroner. Every episode was him performing an autopsy on someone who appeared to have a rather normal death. But Quincy always found something suspicious and spent his time prying into people’s lives to confirm his investigation. His boss and the police chief would chide and warn him saying, “Leave it alone, Quincy.” Quincy’s typical response was: “But I can’t leave it alone. There’s more here than what meets the eye!”

Indeed, the Apostle John was the Quincy of his ancient generation. In his gospel there is always more going on than what meets the eye. There are double-meanings, sometimes even triple-meanings to the events unfolding.  There are deeply symbolic encounters, as well as tangible events serving as almost metaphors pointing to the spiritual.

Mary, a woman with a sordid background, had her life transformed through meeting Jesus.

Near the end of Christ’s life, as he was about to enter Jerusalem and be arrested, tried, tortured, and killed, Mary sensed what was happening. In fact, she was aware of what was happening when others did not. Mary’s own brokenness cracked open to her the true reality of life.

The surface event itself is a touching and tender moment in history. This woman, whom everyone knew as a damaged person, took a high-end perfume, and broke the entire thing open. She then proceeded to anoint Christ’s feet with it. You can imagine the aroma filling the house with an expensive perfume for all to smell.  Giving what she had to Jesus, Mary demonstrated the path of true discipleship.

But there’s more here than what meets the eye. Let’s observe some of John’s expert autopsy work:

  • The broken jar of perfume shows us the brokenness of Mary and our need to be broken. (Matthew 5:3-4)
  • Mary used an extraordinary amount of perfume, picturing her overflowing love for Jesus. (John 20:1-18)
  • Mary applied the perfume to Jesus with her hair; hair is culturally symbolic for submission and respect. (1 Corinthians 11:14)
  • The perfume directs us to the death of Jesus. (John 19:38-42)
  • The perfume highlights for us the aroma of Christ to the world. (2 Corinthians 2:15-17)
  • There is more to Judas than his words about perfume; he is not actually concerned for the poor. (Matthew 26:15)
  • Judas and Mary serve as spiritual contrasts: Mary opens herself to the sweet aroma of Christ; Judas just plain stinks.
  • The perfume presents a powerful picture of the upcoming death of Christ, for those with eyes to see; he was broken and poured out for our salvation. (Luke 23:26-27:12)

Christianity was never meant to be a surface religion which merely runs skin deep. The follower of Christ is meant for deep personal transformation, inside and out, so that there is genuine healing, spiritual health, and authentic concern for the poor and needy. 

Keeping up appearances is what the Judas’s of this world do. But the Mary’s among us dramatically point others to Jesus with their tears, humility, openness, and love.

In our social landscape of fragmented human ecology, our first step toward wholeness and integrity begins with a posture of giving everything we have – body, soul, and spirit – to the Lord Jesus. Methinks Quincy was on to something.

Loving Lord Jesus, my Savior, and my friend, you have gone before us and pioneered deliverance from an empty way of life and into a life of grace and gratitude. May I and all your followers emulate the path of Mary and realize the true freedom which comes from emptying oneself out for you. Amen.

Psalm 107:1-16 – The Necessity of Telling Our Secrets

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
    those he redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
    from the east and from the west,
    from the north and from the south.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
    finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty,
    their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress;
he led them by a straight way,
    until they reached an inhabited town.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wonderful works to humankind.
For he satisfies the thirsty,
    and the hungry he fills with good things.

Some sat in darkness and in gloom,
    prisoners in misery and in irons,
for they had rebelled against the words of God,
    and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor;
    they fell down, with no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he saved them from their distress;
he brought them out of darkness and gloom,
    and broke their bonds asunder.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wonderful works to humankind.
For he shatters the doors of bronze,
    and cuts in two the bars of iron. (NRSV)

The psalmist calls upon others to give thanks to the good Lord who shows enduring love to people. The psalmist furthermore exhorts those who have been redeemed to say so, to declare God’s praises for delivering them from trouble. 

Whatever the circumstances and however difficult the experiences may have been, the believer is not to remain in silence but is to publicly thank God.

Speaking our spiritual stories to others is important for those who share them, and for those who listen, so that the community of the redeemed will be strengthened in their faith and emboldened to share with others. Far too many Christians are reticent to talk about what God has done or is doing in their lives. Shame, embarrassment, or a host of other reasons might prevent us from being vulnerable enough to let others in on God’s deep work within us. But the psalmist does not let us off the hook, even if we feel we are not articulate or are too afraid to speak.

We all likely have had the privilege of hearing another person share their heart and experience of hardship and God’s deliverance. It was uplifting, encouraging, and helpful. So, let’s not keep our stories to ourselves. Stories are meant to be told, not hidden. 

Bringing to light our faith journey is healing for all, as well as declaring the light of Jesus to the world.

Author Frederick Buechner wrote a book several years ago entitled, “Telling Secrets.” Buechner tells of his own experience of keeping some stories inside and never letting them see the light of day. One of those stories was growing up with an alcoholic father and all the other stories that went along with that singular story. It was only in finally telling the family secret of alcoholism that he discovered a better path forward to healing and blessing. He writes:

“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets, too, because it makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own.”

“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it, the chances are you will recognize that, in many ways, it is also your story. It is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”

Shame is like a vampire. It lives in the shadows, thirsting for and feeding upon secrets.

But when our stories are told and see the light of day, the vampire of shame is destroyed by the bright rays of truth and vulnerability. We then become open to genuine relationships without propping up a false self to pose for others. We place ourselves in a position to receive and give love. In short, we can meaningfully connect with both God and others because we found our voice and told our story.

Great God of deliverance, I praise you that I have a story to tell of your grace and faithfulness. Help me to tell of your mercy in my life so that the name of Jesus will be exalted, and that your people might be built up in the faith.  Amen.

God in the Flesh

The Word Became Flesh by Guatemalan painter Hyatt Moore

In the biggest cities of the world, like Mexico City, and Manilla, there are huge garbage dumps that cover several square miles. On top of these heaps of waste there live thousands of families who have made this their home. Each day they send their kids out to forage for scraps so they can have something to eat and survive.  Few others tread where these families are.  Yet, there are believers who make the journey and try to bring the gospel of grace and mercy to such a place.

As incredible and sad a situation that this is, it is incomparable to the journey from heaven to earth that Jesus made. Christ came to the sin-soaked dump of this world, to us who were living on a heap of garbage and entered our lives to save us from our wretched condition. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, frames the Gospel of John 1:14 this way:

The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.

Jesus did not merely appear to be human; he is human. The Christ of God, enjoying unhindered fellowship within the Godhead of Father, Son, and Spirit, became like us and lived with all the same things we face from day to day.  He “tabernacled” with us, using the imagery of God’s presence with the ancient Israelites (Exodus 25-31, 35-40). Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us.

We must remember that the Apostle John and the other gospel writers were evangelists; they wrote so that people might believe in Jesus and come to see what God has done through joining them in this broken world. Another John, John the Baptist, had a sole purpose in life to be a witness of Jesus to others, to testify to the truth that Christ came to rescue us from our terrible condition.

The Apostle John saw Jesus interact with families in the dump. He knew what was happening, that God was coming to save the people. The way to reach people, who are so concerned for scurrying about their business and trying to survive apart from God, is through the incarnation – in testifying to what God has done in Christ and being sent as little incarnations entering people’s lives. 

In this way, believers are like the moon, not producing light ourselves, but in the middle of darkness, reflecting the light of the sun so that the earth may know that Jesus is coming. The mystery of the incarnation is that Jesus became human and descended to live among us.

Any birth is an incredible miracle. I was present at the births of all three of my daughters, and one of my grandsons. There is nothing quite like it. Life coming into the world for the very first time is an unparalleled mystery with an unmatched sense of majesty. Although childbirth involves pain, agony, and mess, it is all quickly forgotten amidst the joy of this little baby becoming alive to all that is around them.

What a crazy contradiction of a virgin having a child gestate in her womb and then giving birth! That is something more than a miracle. It is Divine accommodation or condescension in which God does the unimaginable and unthinkable in not only coming to earth but entering as a vulnerable human baby. The great and mighty Sovereign of the universe got down on all fours and descended far beneath such loftiness. God got off the throne and sat on the garbage heap with us.

God is so far above and beyond us that to be revealed and communicate to us, the Holy Trinity conspired to enter the earth by means of a baby. God came to us. The sixteenth century Reformer, John Calvin, framed the incarnation of Christ in these terms:

“God lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children. Such modes of expression… accommodate the knowledge of the divine to our feebleness. In doing so, God must, of course, stoop far below his proper height… Because our weakness cannot reach his height, any description which we receive of God must be lowered to our capacity to be intelligible… God voluntarily lowers himself not as he really is but as we conceive of him.”

Indeed, God coos at us and babbles baby-talk not because that is his language but so that we can understand. What is more, God became flesh and blood for us, so we can climb up into his lap or lean into him, just as John did with Jesus. (John 13:23-25)

The incarnation of Christ means God loves us so deeply and completely that Jesus became one of us to bring that love with skin on, in ways that truly communicate empathy, compassion, kindness, and goodness to people. This is grace, that God first conformed to us before we are conformed to Christ. God went to the greatest lengths possible to reach us, save us, and bring us into the life of the Trinity.

Jesus climbed into our skin to assure us that God understands and cares. Jesus also gets into our hearts and invites us to know God. Even though Christ said a lot of things that can be difficult to understand, the love of coming alongside another person communicates well in any language and culture. Jesus, full of both grace and truth, bent over backwards to speak and act in ways that say, “I love you.”

God got down and dirty with us. The Lord jumped into the fray of broken humanity. God connected Jesus to an umbilical cord, covered him in the muck of fetal afterbirth, and caused him to cry alongside the sorrows of humanity. None of this was illusion or appearance. It was real, just like us. The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews said this:

Since the children are made of flesh and blood, it is logical that the Savior took on flesh and blood to rescue them by his death. By embracing death, taking it into himself, he destroyed the Devil’s hold on death and freed all who cower through life, scared to death of death.

It is obvious, of course, that he did not go to all this trouble for angels. It was for people like us, children of Abraham. That is why he had to enter every detail of human life. Then, when he came before God as high priest to get rid of the people’s sins, he would have already experienced it all himself—all the pain, all the testing—and would be able to help where help was needed. (Hebrews 2:14-18, MSG)

God’s grace stretches out on the wide horizontal beam of the Cross with compassionate arms for the world. God’s truth goes down deep with the vertical beam of the cross to give stability for the world. The truth of Jesus Christ, the One who reveals God, is strong enough to support the wide beam of grace which stretches round the earth to bring deliverance from the garbage dump of sin, death, and hell.

May we rejoice and be glad in this reality, and may it move us to be used of God to save those on the sin heap of this world.