Pagan Messiahs?

Unworthy. Ever felt that way? It seems there was an instructor to preachers who claimed that, “If God could speak through Balaam’s ass, He can speak through you.” Oddly, that never helped me much. It’s the challenge to believe that my worth is entirely founded on Jesus: dead, buried, and raised.

While I know that Jesus’ death atoned for my offenses toward my Creator, and I know His burial removed the safety of the enemy, and I know it is the power of His resurrection that empowers my walk with Him; I don’t always feel those things. This is no surprise to my Savior, so He preserves this odd poetic prophecy in Isaiah 45. It begins with this statement:

“This is what the LORD says to his chosen one,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I hold
in order to subdue nations before him,
and disarm kings,
to open doors before him,
so gates remain unclosed:
‘I will go before you
and level mountains.
Bronze doors I will shatter
and iron bars I will hack through. (Isaiah 45:1-2 NET)

In case you were curious, “chosen one” is actually the Hebrew word, messiah. You can see the Strong’s reference here. Notice that it has a special reference to “Cyrus”. That’s because this reference is weird. You might think that’s because God knows that Cyrus’ heart will change toward him, but those kings are Nebuchadnezzar and Darius, in Daniel. Cyrus’ heart is never said to have acknowledged the God of Israel.

As this poetic prophecy continues, Yahweh says He gives Cyrus a bunch of blessings to reveal Himself to him. Look at the following verses:

I will give you hidden treasures,
riches stashed away in secret places,
so you may recognize that I am the LORD,
the one who calls you by name, the God of Israel.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
Israel, my chosen one,
I call you by name
and give you a title of respect, even though you do not submit to me.
I am the LORD, I have no peer,
there is no God but me.
I arm you for battle, even though you do not recognize me. (Isaiah 45:3-5 NET)

God gives this pagan king “hidden treasures”, “title of respect” and “arms him for battle”, all this even though “you do not submit to me” and “you do not recognize me”. Why? “For the sake of my servant, Jacob, Israel my chosen one”. Unfortunately, the NET translators chose “chosen one” for both the Hebrew adjective “chosen” in verse 4, and “messiah” in verse 1. That’s not really helpful, in my opinion. Even so, it’s clear God uses this pagan king in spite of his lack of acknowledgement of the God of Israel.

The prophecy concludes with these verses:

I do this so people will recognize from east to west
that there is no God but me;
I am the LORD, I have no peer.
I am the one who forms light
and creates darkness;
the one who brings about peace
and creates calamity.
I am the LORD, who accomplishes all these things. (Isaiah 45:6-7 NET)

So we’re clear about this, when there is only one God, even evil has its source in Him. Which is why the verse has the line, “the One making peace and creating evil”. It almost never is translated that way, but check out the King James Version. And that’s not embarrassing, it’s true, and should give us encouragement.

Don’t focus on God creating “evil”, focus on the whole point of these two verses: There is no god (no Elohim) but Yahweh, He has no peer, no equal, no true rival. All things, whether we like them or not, have their ultimate source in Him. Which means, they also can be destroyed by Him. And yet, that’s not even the best part.

Now go back and read all seven verses together. Our Creator uses this boastful pagan king to accomplish His plan. Cyrus can boast, conquer, posture, threaten, do whatever, but, in the end, remains a tool of his Creator. And, so it is today.

In our country, some have celebrated the new president, some have lamented. Some were sure the previous guy was the “antichrist”, others think it’s the new guy. I look at Isaiah 45, and I think, who cares? As long as our Creator remains on His throne (no worries there), any ruler, of any type, will merely be His pawn, for His purposes. That view of history can be really unsettling, considering the horrific leaders who have marred the history of this world.

Closer to home, though, if my Master can use such kings, then, even with my flaws, He can use me. He can use you. Perhaps, you might say, the more flaws, the more He shines. Why? So that people, from the east to the west, will recognize that our Creator has no competitor. 

Okay, if I have no other purpose than that, that’ll work.

Asking the Tough Questions

Yesterday was Easter, or, more properly, Resurrection Day. It’s been a rough weekend. I have been moving all weekend, trying to shoehorn 3,000 sq. ft. of stuff into 1,900 sq. ft. of house. The church family lined up to help couldn’t because the weekend was already full of church events. So, Friday my wife and I loaded a truck with several tons of boxes, which were easy to fit, but heavy. We couldn’t unload it because the transaction didn’t record and we didn’t get the keys until late Friday afternoon.

Still, Friends helped unload on Saturday, friends helped again empty out and clean the house on Sunday. We had to move quickly because on Friday, my mom fell, and is in the ICU in southern California. We are leaving today to head south to be with her and my family. With all this swirling around in my head, worship was very emotional for me. And I went from there into the Bible study with the youth.

Rather than ask them what question they had from the week, I had a set of questions from one of them from the week before. The questions came from Ephesians 4:1 – 

I, therefore, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called, (Ephesians 4:1 NET)

Here are the questions:

  1. What type of life is considered “worthy”?
  2. How can I develop such a life?
  3. Where does such a life come from? 3a. Are people born with it, do they DO certain things to have it, is it something given, or??
  4. What is the calling itself?
  5. How can someone “walk worthy” of such a calling? 5a. Is it even possible?
  6. What would such a “worthy” life look like practically lived out daily?
  7. How can you practice walking with god aside from praying and worshipping?
  8. How do you join God on his mission?

I don’t know adults who come up with such great questions. And I’m not sure this person came up with them on their own, but that’s what they claimed, so I’ll go with that.

To answer these questions, we continued on in Ephesians 4, clarifying elements that Paul used to try to explain these very questions. The questions break down into defining a few terms:

  1. Walk – What is our walk look like?
  2. Worthy – How do I show how much I value my Savior?
  3. Calling – What has my Savior called me to do/be?

Terms 1 through 3 are answered in verses 2 and 3. And the definition of 3 is continued in verses 4 through 6, but especially 4. The problem is that Paul really doesn’t define them in ways that we want. Instead, he refers to attitudes (humility, gentleness, patience, love) we are to have as we relate to other disciples. And then focuses on the singleness and superiority of our Savior.

So, the “walk” (or beliefs lived out in daily choices and actions) is characterized by the attitudes of humility, gentleness, patience, and love. The choice to live this way declares the value we place on our relationship with our Savior. It’s the calling that isn’t well defined, at least until you step back a bit. Verse four doesn’t help much:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you too were called to the one hope of your calling, (Ephesians 4:4 NET)

We are called to one hope of our calling. But what is the calling? The way I tried to help them grapple with it was by stepping back and seeing all of it as our calling. But that’s not really complete either. When Paul uses the term “hope” it generally is a reference to heaven.

So, if that were true here (and that isn’t certain, only possible), then the calling would be the “end game”, not just the journey. I suppose you can make a case that the whole of it, the walk here, and the walk there, are what we are called to. If that is the case, then the “walk” is the content of the call. Conveniently, our walk is described further from verse 17 through the end of the chapter, specifically in verses 25 through 32:

Therefore, having laid aside falsehood, each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, because we are members of one another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on the cause of your anger. Do not give the devil an opportunity. The one who steals must steal no longer; instead he must labor, doing good with his own hands, so that he will have something to share with the one who has need. You must let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth, but only what is beneficial for the building up of the one in need, that it would give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. You must put away all bitterness, anger, wrath, quarreling, and slanderous talk—indeed all malice. Instead, be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you. (Ephesians 4:25-32 NET)

This is one of my favorite “behavior lists” of Paul. This one plays off negatives with positives side-by-side. So, lay aside falsehood and speak the truth. Don’t steal, but work. Don’t speak unwholesome words, but beneficial ones, building up others. Put away bitterness, anger, wrath, quarreling and slander. Replace them with kindness, compassion, and forgiveness.

It is these sorts of things that form the boundaries and definition of our “walk”. These attitudes define the neighborhood in which we walk. As we walk before our Creator, we can be found walking with our Creator when this is what we behave like. When this is how others would describe us, then we know we are walking in a manner worthy of the amazing calling of our Creator. 

The thing is, they become true as we walk with Him. They don’t make us worthy to be in His presence. Only Jesus accomplishes that. These attitudes characterize someone who walks with their Creator, who walk with Him because of their Savior, and live in the joy of knowing they are One and same Person (or substance, with three Persons, for you staunch theologians). Basically, when we “hang out” with our Savior, we tend to be more like Him.

Mad Cow Disease

My internet is out at home. Thankfully, my business phone functions quite well as a mobile hotspot. It frustrates me when stuff is out of my control, I can’t fix it, don’t truly understand it, or simply have to wait, whether I understand it or not. I feel like I should be in a therapy group, introducing myself, “Hi, I’m Matt, and I’m a selfish whiner”, imagining the rest of the group replying, “Hi Matt…” I don’t think there’s a 12-step for that, though. There sure should be.

And yet, even though I dislike, intensely, wandering around my life without a map, my King has dropped me into a “Bible study” situation where I begin each session with, “what have you read, and what are your questions?” How terrifying is that? Yesterday, someone asked a question I truly thought I’d never hear, “What about that guy in the Bible who God turned into a beast?”

Can you just sense the palpable collision of synapses, with the imagined sounds of a 100-car pile up added for good measure? Where do you start trying to untangle everything that’s wrong with that question? There are absolutely no werewolves in  Scripture! NONE! My mind is racing around trying to guess what movie is being overlaid on top of some Scripture passage, twisted to fit a corrupt modern interpretation or adaptation.

Suddenly, across the room, another guy says, “Yeah, my mom was teaching us about that.” (more brain concussive activity, flashing red light in the corner of my eye, a winking “idiot light” – “danger! danger!”) “He had long hair and nails…like a cow or something.” Sudden flash of insight, relief and joy! Nebuchadnezzar! It was like Jesus calming the storm on Galilee, only in my soul. 

We spent the next 15 to 20 minutes going through Daniel 4, one of the only passages in Daniel, not written by Daniel. It is purportedly written by Nebuchadnezzar himself. And it is a fascinating story.

The account begins with King Nebby having a bad dream. It started well, with an impressive tree, but then the tree is cut down and the stump capped with iron and bronze. All the “wise men” of Babylon can’t (or are too afraid to) tell the king what it means, until Daniel shows up. He explains the dream, but then warns and encourages the king to desist in his “pride”. And he does, for about a year.

A year after the dream, King Nebby is on his roof looking at his “hanging gardens”, the splendor of Babylon, and starts extoling himself. Here’s how it reads:

Now all this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. After twelve months, he happened to be walking around on the battlements of the royal palace of Babylon. The king uttered these words: “Is this not the great Babylon that I have built for a royal residence by my own mighty strength and for my majestic honor?” While these words were still on the king’s lips, a voice came down from heaven: “It is hereby announced to you, King Nebuchadnezzar, that your kingdom has been removed from you! You will be driven from human society, and you will live with the wild animals. You will be fed grass like oxen, and seven periods of time will pass by for you before you understand that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms and gives them to whomever he wishes.”

Now in that very moment this pronouncement about Nebuchadnezzar came true. He was driven from human society, he ate grass like oxen, and his body became damp with the dew of the sky, until his hair became long like an eagle’s feathers, and his nails like a bird’s claws.

Daniel 4:28-33 NET

“Brag, brag, brag…mooo”. That’s pretty much how it went. When you look at the description of what he becomes, I can see the whole “beast-man” thing. It never occurred to me before, but leave it to the imagination of a bunch of young people to totally see something new (or new to me).

Pride is a constant problem for lots of people, and I count myself among them. Wanting control, to have a “map”, to know or understand, are all prideful responses to fear. But, I also have a sneaky evil suspicion that I’m somehow better than other people, that I have “it” figured out, and that others don’t. That’s not fear, it’s the “original sin” of selfish pride, self-centered godless arrogance. 

That selfish pride is what plagued King Nebby. He thought he had “arrived”. He had no fear, and that is a dangerous place to be. “Brag, brag, brag…moo”. That’s where anyone not facing their selfish pride authentically is headed. And my King knows it. So, he sent King Nebby a dream, He sent Daniel, and He knows there will be failure in spite of all that.

But there is also redemption:

But at the end of the appointed time I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked up toward heaven, and my sanity returned to me.
I extolled the Most High,
and I praised and glorified the one who lives forever.
For his authority is an everlasting authority,
and his kingdom extends from one generation to the next.
 All the inhabitants of the earth are regarded as nothing.
He does as he wishes with the army of heaven
and with those who inhabit the earth.
No one slaps his hand
and says to him, ‘What have you done?’
At that time my sanity returned to me. I was restored to the honor of my kingdom, and my splendor returned to me. My ministers and my nobles were seeking me out, and I was reinstated over my kingdom. I became even greater than before. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, for all his deeds are right and his ways are just. He is able to bring down those who live in pride.

Daniel 4:34-37 NET

Fortunately for me, pride is not necessarily terminal. The Creator of the universe seeks me in spite of my pride and restores me as I repent. It sometimes feels like a game of “Whack-a-Mole”, trying to keep the pride in the grave. But all my Master wants of me is to keep working at it. He restores me when I look to Him and praise Him. 

Have you ever felt like that?

Relating to Our Creator

The popular phrase, “It’s a relationship, not a religion” has always bothered me. Like teachings that claim Jesus would have gone to the cross had it been only me who was lost, something rubs me wrong with claims like that. I am processing an idea about why it bothers me. I think I know at least one reason.

My relationship with my wife and daughter, the two closest people to me, run into trouble when I have a false concept of who they are. When I don’t allow my daughter to grow up, when I see my wife the way I want her, not as she is, I am relating wrongly to them.

My daughter lives 5 hours from us, and we don’t hear everything that happens in her life. Sometimes, it seems we only hear the bad stuff. It’s easy for us to believe her life is all bad or tough, and we want to be the ones to rescue her. The truth is often very different. She often shares the good with her closest friends, rather than us.

My wife has “issues”. She has amazing strengths, talents, gifts, and skills. She also struggles in areas, sometimes in her walk with her Savior. In general terms, she’s just like everyone else, including me. So, when I make decisions, react, or act without considering all of who she is, or without consulting her, I am liable to make a bad “relational” decision, action, or reaction. Again, this is generally true for all of us.

Not only are these example not unusual, they are truly common. We know we need, should, or will work on our earthly relationships. How common is it for us to do the same with our Creator? How common is it for us to try to get to know Him truly, as He is? It’s not easy work, and there are dangers.

Relationships are messy. So, when we use some version of a claim to have a “relationship” with our Savior, we should expect it to be messy, and not entirely on our part. Think about WHO we have that relationship with. He is not your spouse, nor your parent or child. We may use those terms as metaphors, but they are not adequate descriptions.

In the vacuum of our understanding of our Creator, we tend to “fill in the blanks” on our own. The truth is often very different than our imagination. Consider just the crazy difference between how we imagine our Savior, and someone capable of forming stars and galaxies with the spoken word. Those two things are very different. And we sort of fill in the blanks in between. But with what?

In this context, this passage may apply to us:

To whom can you compare God?
To what image can you liken him?
A craftsman casts an idol;
a metalsmith overlays it with gold
and forges silver chains for it.
To make a contribution one selects wood that will not rot;
he then seeks a skilled craftsman
to make an idol that will not fall over.

Isaiah 40:18-20 NET

We skip right through these passages, assuming they don’t apply to us, the dangers described are no our dangers. The truth may be more unsettling. Think through the pragmatic elements described. The idol is more “tangible”, the idol is propped up so it doesn’t totter, the wood that won’t rot, it’s gold-plated, silver chains.

We like to worship a “good god”. But what do we mean by that? Is God still good when my circumstances aren’t? We say that God is loving, or God is love. But when we hurt, when disaster or catastrophe strikes, do we still think of God as loving? 

And those may be when our Savior shines the brightest for you. So, is your Savior the one who caused a man to be born blind for His glory? Do you worship a Creator who heals a guy who shows no faith or interest in following Him, and yet, doesn’t heal everyone? Do you praise the God who destroyed everyone the planet, except a single family? 

Sure, we love to quote Jeremiah 29:11, but what about 1 through 10? Are we willing to consider the One with plans for us but leaves us in captivity? Are you willing to worship Job’s God? When we say “God is good, all the time” and echo back, “And all the time, God is good”, do we have in mind the God brining disaster on cities (Amos 3:6). 

I’ll bring it up again, Jephthah, after the Spirt of Yahweh came upon him, offered God whatever came through his door first. His daughter came through the door and, though it wrecked him, he offered her up. He gave God the choice, and God chose his only daughter. And the faith of Jephthah (see Hebrews 11:32) was present in his daughter, who submitted willingly to the sacrifice. And before you claim Jephthah was wrong, consider Hebrews 11. And consider God required the same of Abraham with Isaac. There God changed his mind, but up to that point, His command and its effect remained on Abraham. What if the order had not changed?

Will you worship your Savior knowing these things about Him? Consider the parable of the Kingdom in Matthew 22:1-14, the king is harsh and that is heaven. Consider the parable of of the Ten Minas in Luke 19:11-27, especially verse 27. This is heaven. Is this what you look forward to, Who you worship? Is your Savior truly good, as you define the word? When you think of God as love, what do you have in mind? Is it these things?

You have probably guessed where I’m going with this. The uncomfortable reality is that, unless we worship our Creator as He has revealed Himself, we worship idols. As the nation of Israel suffered for this sin, so will we. Consider how Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven—only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many powerful deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’

Matthew 7:21-23 NET

Did you notice that, even though they prophesied, cast out demons, and did many powerful deeds in your name, they were cast out. Tremble. This is the sort of thing that should help us “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”. Is your Savior your “friend”? Okay, but consider that means you are close, very close to the most dangerous being in existence. 

It is with good reason that James calls us to weep and wail before our Creator (James 4:4-10). I suppose instead of “fearless” we should dive into the truths of God in spite of fear. Stand near Him, trembling and nearly wetting our pants. Be unsure about whether to embrace, fall on our face, or bow our heads before Him. Stutter and stammer in our words to Him because we are in awe of Him. 

So, is it still “about a relationship, not about a religion”? If, for you, it is, then be sure you are relating to the right God, not some god which only exists in your imagination. Religion, whatever that means for you, may help remind you of the awe of your Creator. On the other hand, religion, if it’s only rote, separates and insulates you from your Savior. 

Both approaches have dangers and flaws. And both approaches can be correct. Each can serve to deepen the other and give meaning to the other. Maybe our “call to worship” should sound more like this:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this who darkens counsel
with words without knowledge?
Get ready for a difficult task like a man;
I will question you
and you will inform me.

Job 38:1-3 NET

Times of Change

“Some things change, some don’t” I suppose the saying goes. Perhaps it is more of a cliche. We set our clocks forward an hour, entering into a tradition I would love to see die. That is a change of which I’m no fan. I’ve lived in two states that refuse to do so, and loved living in both. Okay, one was Hawaii, and it was a long time ago, but still.

While the time changed, the tradition of changing time did not. Something changed, something didn’t. One thing that has changed is how I teach a class for youth at my church. I let them ask anything about the Bible. I don’t prepare, there’s no notes, no plan (there’s a backup plan just in case). Right after we pray, I ask, “What have you read, and what are your questions.”

It’s not a class where we find a lot of answers. It’s not about what I know. It’s about their search, and encouraging their search through the Scriptures. I try and help them either find answers, or be okay without them. I challenge them to fearlessly explore the weirdness of our Creator and Savior. 

One of the things I do in this class is attempt to connect the world in which Scripture was written with the world in which we live. “The more things change, the more they stay the same” or something like that. I point out that, instead of worshipping idols made of stone and wood, people today worship idols of wealth and popularity. 

One of them brought up Psalm 1:1:

How blessed is the one who does not follow the advice of the wicked,
or stand in the pathway with sinners,
or sit in the assembly of scoffers.

Psalms 1:1 NET

She asked, “Aren’t we supposed to be around them to be a witness?” That’s both an excuse, and also a reality. Churches have so separated us from the world through shame (how dare you be found in such a place/with such people), that we, as disciples of Jesus, can no longer reach those who need Him.

On the other hand, people, especially younger people, have used “reaching the lost” as an excuse to “hang out” with people who are more of an influence on them than they are being on the “lost”. I referred her to Paul’s quote of a Greek poet in 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Do not be deceived, ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.'”

So, I gave them a guideline: who is influencing who? But that’s not really adequate is it? It’s not just about influence, it’s about how deeply we connect with those who are outside the family of faith. There is a danger here for me, in particular, because I find “lost people” somewhat refreshing in their views of “saved people”.

The truth is that few “lost people” really enjoy a talk about God, at least with me. That could be my problem, I admit. Even so, it’s something I have to confess when I find myself drawn to “hang out” with them. If I’m pretty sure God will not come up, why do I want to be around them?

So, which is it? Have times changed and now we should add those outside the faith to our circle of friends? Are times still dangerous and we should isolate ourselves from the world? Or is there some ground between these two where we can be lights in this wicked and perverse society (Philippians 2:15)?

I suppose, if we, like Paul, wrap our lives around the upward call of our Savior, then everyone around us will will be influenced by us, rather than we by them. And somewhere in that amorphous middle ground, we may find that we too, like Paul, will become all things to all people so that by all means we might win some (1 Corinthians 9:21-22).

Young people like concrete answers. I wish I had them. My continual mantra seems to be “walk with your Savior, and do what you can to encourage the walk of others.” I suppose if we do that, the rest, more or less, takes care of itself. I suppose. Sounds easy doesn’t? 

Why So Mysterious?

In working with young people, I love the questions they ask. Some are simply the most insightful stuff I have heard. Some of the questions are repeats of stuff I’ve studied before, and the review is really helpful. And some questions are those asked by just about every student of Scripture at some point.

It was one of those necessary questions asked by every student that came up yesterday. She referred to Colossians 1:26, where Paul refers to a “mystery”, hidden from the ages and generations, but now revealed. “What mystery?” It’s a great question because Paul uses that term fairly inconsistently.

The context of Paul’s statement is this:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body—for the sake of his body, the church—what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. I became a servant of the church according to the stewardship from God—given to me for you—in order to complete the word of God, that is, the mystery that has been kept hidden from ages and generations, but has now been revealed to his saints. God wanted to make known to them the glorious riches of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim him by instructing and teaching all people with all wisdom so that we may present every person mature in Christ. Toward this goal I also labor, struggling according to his power that powerfully works in me.

Colossians 1:24-29 NET (emphasis mine)

So, if you do a search of Paul’s use of “mystery” in his writings, you find that he does use it in several letters. When you examine each instance, it quickly becomes clear that he doesn’t use it to refer to the same thing, or at least not precisely the same thing. It always has to do with salvation through Jesus, but there seems to be some element which is “mysterious”.

Here, in Colossians, the mystery seems to be “Christ in you, the hope of glory”, at least according to the NET translation. Most modern translations have something very similar, but there is a possible connection to Gentiles. It seems that this “mystery” is Christ in Gentiles, that they have a hope of glory.

So, while everyone expects Jews to have this hope of glory, that the Messiah would come for them, that Jesus affects salvation for Gentiles is supposed to surprise everyone. Context is important here. Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches seeks to correct, rather roughly, erroneous teaching that the Gentiles had to follow the Jewish law to be saved.

Considering this, it makes a lot of sense that Paul would refer to the salvation through faith in Jesus as a mystery. It clearly was to some people, namely those teaching this false doctrine of “circumcision for salvation”.

What about Jesus saving His human creatures is a mystery to you? It’s a weird question, like “what don’t you know?”, but it is worth spending some time considering. For instance, are there people you functionally consider beyond the reach of Jesus? Allow me to be more pointed, who, in your community, are you intentionally leaving out of your community of faith?

Before you let yourself off the hook, think through who attends, who is among you weekly, who serve in worship, who help with various elements of the worship service, teach or participate in groups. And then, consider who do not attend weekly, who are not serving, participating, or leading. And then, why are they not? What would it take for them to consider themselves a part of your community?

You see, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. We blow right passed this reference to “mystery” without considering that, like these “Judiasers” were creating barriers for Gentiles, we also create barriers for people. How should they dress, how should they look, speak, laugh, where should they live, what should they drive, or how often should they bathe?

I’m really struggling with this because I’m in a class challenging me to address poverty through relationships. I’m being challenged to view myself as impoverished, just as much, if not more, than those I seek to help. I’m being challenged to consider the attitude with which I minister, and I’m painfully aware that pride and arrogance, so much a part of our culture, pollutes my own service to my King.

So, let’s clarify the mystery of why we are such mopes, flailing about, trying to serve those who have so much to offer us, as if we have nothing to learn from them. Jesus wants to purify us as much as cleanse them. He seeks our hearts as He seeks theirs. So, let’s set ourselves up to learn, relationally, from those with fewer material goods, as we share with them the riches of the grace we have found in Jesus.

A Parable About Something Else

How often are you experiencing stress over things you cannot control? When was the last time you experienced peace releasing something which was not your responsibility? And don’t you just love it when someone you’re asking for help says, “That’s not my job” (okay, maybe not that one so much).

Jesus tells us to “take His yoke upon us”, because His burden is light and His yoke is easy. If you think about it, that’s a strange way to describe a yoke of any kind. And yet, He does. It’s one of the best ways He can describe our walk with Him, as opposed to our walk, blindly, in the dark.

One of the things you may be taking on yourself, which is not yours to take, is the responsibility of “saving” others. We are to reach out to others, to be a light of our Savior’s glory, and give explanations of our hope in Him. We are to be a witness to His existence, His love, and His desire for others.

We are not the “savior”, Jesus is the Savior. We are not their creator, our Father is our Creator. We are not one loving our family beyond measure. It may not feel like it, there is a measure to our love for anyone. Jesus’ love is immeasurable. It is the work of the Spirit of Jesus which changes lives.

He also said, “The kingdom of God is like someone who spreads seed on the ground. He goes to sleep and gets up, night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. By itself the soil produces a crop, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. And when the grain is ripe, he sends in the sickle because the harvest has come.”

Mark 4:26-29 NET

The parable of the sower, previously, in this chapter had the “seed” being the “word”, or Jesus’ preaching. So, it is probably meant to be the same here. Rather than focusing on the soils, here the focus is on the responsibilities or duties for growing the seed. The seed may produce 30, 60, or 100 times what was sown, but how does that happen?

The breakdown of how this all happens can be viewed this way:

  1. The sower (us) sows the seed (the word)
  2. The we rise and sleep, day to day
  3. The word sprouts and grows, we do not know how
  4. The soil (hearer) by itself produces the grain in stages
  5. We harvest (disciple) the word

That’s not the only way to view this parable. This way borrows the imagery and meaning from the Parable of the Soils, which is a good place to start. Although, some of the elements may not be exact correlations.

The soil producing “by itself” may reflect the unseen work of the Holy Spirit, more than any particular quality of the soil. But, think through the parable of the soils. It seems to be a quality of the soil which makes it more effective for growing. So, the Holy Spirit works in all who hear, but some are more receptive to Him than others.

Either way, the sower, you and I, we are spectators more than agents in this parable. Jesus doesn’t point out the work of the sower after sowing. It is probably understood, but our Savior has another point to make. He wants to emphasize that it’s not about the sower. It’s not about the sower’s work beyond sowing and harvesting. The sower “doesn’t know how” the seed grows.

It’s not about you. How refreshing. It’s not about how you hammer away at someone with the words of Jesus. It’s not about how intensely you love them, how consistently you preach to them, how clearly you articulate the truth of the good news. It’s not about you.

So, scatter seed. There are different soils, and some of it is good soil. Even on good soil, much will happen you cannot see, and do not understand. That’s a “feature”, not a “flaw” to sowing seed. Share the good news, and leave room for the Spirit of our Savior to work. Don’t aim at the “good soil”, chances are we are not good judges of soil. Just sow away.

My Part to Play

Perhaps it’s just me who wants to have an impact. I wish I could honestly claim that I want that purely for the betterment of others, but I want to have an impact for selfish reasons. Perhaps not only selfish reasons, but they make up part of my thinking and desire to have an impact.

In the “culture” or “economy” of the “Kingdom of God”, it’s not about me, but about the King. The King loves me, He has my back, and I am at His service. He calls me to wait, worship, and walk before Him. And my life is all about Him, in reality. In my imagination, I hold out hope for a “leading role”.

In the “Parable of the Soils” (Matthew 13:1-9, Mark 4:1-9, Luke 8:4-8), Jesus describes a “sower sowing seed”. In the parable, the seed is the word, Jesus’ preaching. The soils are those who hear (“The one with ears to hear, let him hear”). The different soils represent the different ways people receive what Jesus teaches.

A parable, only in Mark also has a sower sowing seed. If the elements relate the same way, then this parable tells the story of the part played by the sower.

He also said, “The kingdom of God is like someone who spreads seed on the ground. He goes to sleep and gets up, night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. By itself the soil produces a crop, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. And when the grain is ripe, he sends in the sickle because the harvest has come.”

Mark 4:26-29 NET

This parable is about the seed growth, but also about the part played by the sower. You and I, we are sowers. We spread about the teachings of Jesus to those who might actually hear. Those who hear, the “good soil”, produce up to a 100-fold of what is sown by you and I. But we don’t make them produce.

Did you catch the phrase in the middle of the parable, “…, though he does not know how.” Even though the “farmer” plows, plants, waters, and tends the crop, he truly doesn’t make it grow. I thought this might be different for modern farms but it isn’t. They still depend on the things they can’t control, like the amount of rain and snow fall in a year.

We try so hard to control our part in the Kingdom of our Savior. Or we avoid His Kingdom because we want to spend our time where we can “have an impact”. We desperately want this world, “our world”, to be about us. And it’s not. What a relief.

I don’t have to be good enough, know enough, or even have mad skills. That’s great, because I don’t have any of those three. And even if I did, it still wouldn’t be about me. I can’t possibly know enough to “save” anyone. It doesn’t work that way. Jesus died for us. He didn’t take an exam for us.

Good enough? I can’t get through a day without being a jerk. And my Savior sits with me anyway, pats my leg as He stands, and says, “Come on, let’s go for a walk.” Really? Why would the One forming stars want to go on a walk with me? I’m a jerk. I’m selfish. And yet, we walk.

What are you? Have you caught that the truth that the Kingdom of God is not about you is the good news? That is the “word” we sow. That the kingdom is about the King, and not about us, our politics, our philosophy, our religion, or our “mad skills” is the content of the word.

Jesus died and rose for us. Jesus did that. He is the central character in this play. Our world, your world, is about Him. It is about Him loving you, how He enables, empowers, and protects your walk with your Creator. It’s about Him. The seed grows, though we are completely in the dark about how.

I walk with my Creator. No other feature to my life truly matters. You can walk with your Creator. No other feature of your life truly matters.

So, scatter seed. Pitch it out there. Sure, it will fall among thorns, you know what it’s like to have thorns in your life. Some may fall on rocky ground. You know how hard it can be to find depth in your life. Some may fall on the hard ground, and be stolen.

But some will fall on good ground. And, when it does, go ahead and do your due diligence. But, the point will still be your Savior’s work in a person’s life. Relax into the peace and joy of all this being about the One who does know enough, is good enough, and Who has “mad skills” we could never imagine.

Perhaps the “Parable of the Secretly Growing Seed” will lead us into authentic worship, into peace, and into joy. When He pats your leg as He stands, and invites you to go for a walk, go. Don’t worry about the seed. He’s got it taken care of.

The Measure of a Person

What is important to you? By what standard do you evaluate others? On what do you base your choices?

There are a couple of places in Scripture where it seems that our Savior uses a measure with us that we choose to use with others. So, what we do to, or with, others, He does to, or with, us. Does that sound weird? Okay, here’s one:

“For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins.”

Matthew 6:14-15 NET

This statement is so important, Matthew quotes Jesus saying something like it again in Matthew 18:35. It should be a very sobering thought. Like the second greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, there’s a balance between ourselves and others in the eyes of our Savior.

Here’s another of those “tit-for-tat” sort of comments by Jesus:

And he said to them, “Take care about what you hear. The measure you use will be the measure you receive, and more will be added to you. For whoever has will be given more, but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”

Mark 4:24-25 NET

Only this one has another strange element to it, “whoever has more will receive more, and whoever has little will lose what they have.” That’s just weird. If you have never thought so, have you really thought about it? It is antithetical to the popular approach to society. That’s the opposite direction of redistributed wealth preached by our society.

Of course, this “measure used on others will be used on you” concept has a tag of “and more will be added” feature. That’s not exactly balanced. And, if you are particularly mean, should be even more sobering.

The context of the passage in Matthew 6 is prayer, specifically seeking forgiveness. The context in Matthew 18 is seeking forgiveness also. The context in Mark, though, is hearing and understanding parables. That seems different, yet, this concept of using our measure with us is used in both places.

We have an old cliche which says, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” The idea being that consequences follow our actions. Proverbs is full of this concept. Which, in a sense, is really all that God is saying to us (although read the accompanying parable in Matthew 18:21-35).

Here’s the thing: God, our Loving Savior, instigates the consequences. He is the One “punishing” with the standard we use with others. With the standard we judge, we will be judged (Matthew 7:1-2). The balance, or consequence, is thematic with Jesus, as it is in Proverbs. Which tells me my Creator thinks it is important.

We focus so much on the grace of our Savior, which saves us from our sins when we were incapable of saving ourselves. And we should. The grace of our Creator is truly Amazing as few things are. Along side that, let’s consider the “balance” used by our Savior.

So, when we are angry with another person, family, friend, or co-worker, let’s remember this balance. When we drive from point A to point B, let’s remember the balance with those on the road with us. When we deal with our kids, our siblings, our parents, let’s remember the balance.

I think the recent trend has been to teach “reaping and sowing” to get this idea across. It’s a good topic. It’s a vital life lesson. Keeping this in mind helps us grapple with the right deity, the One describing Himself in Scripture rather than one of our own imagination. And grapple we should. Let’s wrestle with God by the Jordan (Genesis 32:24-28)! We may walk away with a limp, but we will have a new name, and a blessing to go with it.

Balance. The center of our walk with our Creator and with our walk with others comes together on us. Like Jesus, let’s grow in favor with God and man.

Finding A Good Job

The sheer volume of employment services, applications, and supporting services can be overwhelming. I used to be a pastor, and I was surprised about how many sites there were to help pastors find churches, and vise versa. There is an entire industry centered around finding qualified employees and jobs.

You would think that, with such a robust industry connecting people with places to work, there would be no jobless people. But just because jobs exist, doesn’t mean finding a “good job” is easy.

I was recruited out of my first job with Thomson Reuters into my second. I didn’t look for it, it found me. When that position was eliminated during a reorganization, finding a good job where I lived wasn’t easy at all. Suddenly I was left with the challenge of finding any job. I love coffee, and wound up as a barista. From there I “graduated” to coffee roaster, a position I still hold with that company, even after I was rehired by Thomson Reuters.

So, good jobs aren’t impossible to find, but they’re not necessarily easy either. What if you were happily employed, family career, it paid well, your family was happy, and you were offered another job that would take you away from all that? It would depend on the job? Okay, how about one where you weren’t paid much, you had to travel constantly, your employer had no home and had to live with you sometimes, dealt with crowds constantly becoming mobs, and your employer intentionally moved from publicly popular, to a social pariah? Sound like a great job? 

Well, what if you were given specific responsibilities, though, authority, actually. Like this:

Now Jesus went up the mountain and called for those he wanted, and they came to him.  He appointed twelve so that they would be with him and he could send them to preach and to have authority to cast out demons.

Mark 3:13-15 NET

See, that sounds better, doesn’t it? Can you imagine the “headhunter” pitching that job to someone? “You’ll love it! It includes travel around Galilee, Phoenicia, Samaria, and Judea! There is public speaking involved, and you will be given the responsibility, with authority, to cast out demons! I mean, seriously, where could you find another opportunity like this?”

Let’s just leave out the sleeplessness, missing meals, and crowd control duties. The authority to cast out demons! Who doesn’t want that? It may sound great, but it does sort of make you a “first responder” of the spiritual type. And demons are no fun. Being a fireman or police officer may start to sound more appealing.

And let’s not forget public speaking, that is one of the greatest fears of people in our society. Most people would rather die than speak in public. Isn’t that awesome? No, not really at all.

So, proclaim that the Kingdom of God is at hand, cast out demons, and heal any disease as proof. That’s the job if a disciple. Oh, and travel everywhere to do it. 

Jesus called a strange group of people. And He called them for a strange job. So, consider the power involved in carrying out that job. What has your Savior called you to do? Where has He called you to go? Notice that “He called for those He wanted.” He had many to choose from, but He called these. And He calls you.

It may not be our dream job, but Kings rarely ask what we want. It may not seem possible, but it is our “Employer” who provides what is necessary. Our part is obedience, and confidence. It kind of gives me the willies.