Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Scandalous Gospel - A Scandalous Secret, pt. 3

By Timothy Howe

Recognize Jesus as the true Messiah through these 3 pursuits.
This week, I have written about recognizing Jesus as the true Messiah through 2 different pursuits - (1) Pursue a personal relationship, not personal blessings and (2) Pursue personal sacrifice, not personal benefit.

The two pursuits are sequential. One is much more willing to pursue sacrifice after he or she has established a relationship with another. I am much more willing to sacrifice for the people closest to me.  It is vital that we establish a relationship and that we are willing to offer personal sacrifice to nurture that relationship and to accomplish purpose within it. I would suggest that a third pursuit should follow.

3.  Pursue personal spiritual growth, not personal spiritual hype.
We live in a world where image is often more important than substance. We all want to be seen as important. This is true in all areas of life, no less true for many people in areas of spiritual concern. Many people want to appear to be spiritual, but are not willing to invest in the hard work of being a daily disciple of Jesus and thus exchange true spiritual growth for cheap “spirituality.” This leads many people to experience false spiritual emotions that supplant genuine spiritual development. It is far too easy to mistake spiritual "feel-goodism" for spiritual depth. Yet, Jesus calls His disciples to daily growth.

Pursue an Endeavor with Vigor
This summer my family went on vacation back to the Mediterranean where we once lived. It was a refreshing and wonderful time for my wife and I to retrace some wonderful memories. We stayed in the fishing village pictured here. Our hotel was a short 5 minute walk from this small port. We watched the boats going in and out. The fisherman returned early each morning with their catch ready to sell at the market; not an easy task. They have to find their catch hidden under the sea and then bring it back to land and hope to find a buyer. This is all hard work and none of it comes about by happenstance. They have to pursue this endeavor with vigor if they hope to be successful. It costs them something to accomplish their goals. They must first nurture a relationship with the sea so as to know how to approach the task and then they must be willing to make real sacrifices in terms of time and effort if they want to be successful. Even as they establish this relationship and make the necessary sacrifices they must also grow as fisherman. 

Pursue Perfection with Steadfastness
The same truths that govern the endeavors of the fishermen discussed above are true in our spiritual journey. I do not know anyone who believes that they "have arrived" when it comes to spiritual maturity. James tells us in James 1:4 

   And let steadfastness have its full effect, 
     that you may be perfect and complete, 
     lacking in nothing. (James 1:4 ESV)

This concept of being perfect and complete does not mean that we must be without all faults. James is speaking about a spiritual maturity that each person must strive for if they are true disciples of Jesus. This is not easy, though. We must pursue spiritual maturity with a constant steadfastness. It is a constant working out of who God wants us to be, day by day. I believe the best way to do this is through spiritual disciples. One should establish a regular and consistent life of habit in the areas of prayer, scripture reading, scriptural study, meditation, worship, devotion, fasting, generosity, and so on. As we do this, we give ourselves the greatest tools to become spiritually mature.

The Not-so Nefarious Substitutes
But I have watched many people experience a spiritual "mountain experience" and think that they have attained the highest degree of spirituality. I must confess that I, too, have fallen prey to this. We go to a conference, hear a message, experience a powerful spiritual emotion and confuse it with true steadfast discipleship. These substitutes are tricky because they are not nefarious, sinful or evil. They are often useful and powerful tools in moving us in the right direction towards spiritual growth, especially if we have been stuck in a spiritual rut for some time. But they should be motivators towards, not replacements of true spiritual growth. And true spiritual growth is what it will take for us to achieve spiritual maturity.

What do you want?
What will you pursue? To best answer that, first assess what you want out of your spiritual life. Do you want occasional spiritual headiness, or you do you want true spiritual maturity? If it is the latter, seek spiritual growth and you will recognize the true Messiah who told the disciples to conceal His secret for a time.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Scandalous Gospel - A Scandalous Secret, pt. 2

By Timothy Howe
Pursue personal sacrifice, not personal benefit.

Yesterday I wrote concerning the question, "Doesn't it seem odd that Jesus would not want people to know who He was and embrace His role as the Messiah?" Remember how Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and he was preparing the disciples for what would happen once he arrived. It was at this time that we stumble across a scandalous secret - Jesus was the Messiah but did not seem to want people to recognize that fact. The reason is that Jesus want people to recognize Him as the true Messiah, not someone from whom one could extract personal gain.  

Recognize Jesus as the true Messiah through these 3 pursuits.
We saw the first pursuit that we should have in our effort to recognize Jesus as the true Messiah:  Pursue a personal relationship, not personal blessings.
Today, I want to consider to another pursuit that will permit us to recognize Jesus as the true Messiah in our lives. 

2. Pursue personal sacrifice, not personal benefit.
Jesus described to the disciples what they should expect if they wanted to follow Him. Jesus required sacrifice of His disciples. He asked them to be willing to make personal sacrifices. Leaders of most movements - religious, political, social, cultural, sportive, etc. - entice their followers by elaborating on what's in it for them. They tell of what benefits the prospective member should expect if they join that cause, organization or movement. 

Jesus was different. He taught that those who truly want to follow Him must be willing to make sacrifices, great sacrifices. His followers would lose respect. His followers would lose financial gain. His followers would lose friends. His followers would lose family. His followers would often lose their very lives. 

And what Jesus declared to His earliest disciples has continued to ring true throughout the ages. Followers of Jesus throughout most of history have sacrificed much, often all. It is only in the last couple of centuries that this has changed in some places in the world, most notably in the West. In Europe and the USA, being a follower of Jesus does not cost much. In reality, the benefits outweigh the sacrifices in most cases. This is still not true in much of the world today. Yet, isn't it interesting that where Christianity has gotten comfortable is precisely where it appears to be in demise. Where it is hard to be a Christian is where one witnesses its greatest growth!

I believe that there is a direct correlation in the willingness of Jesus' disciples to pursue sacrifice and the growth of His church.

Are you pursuing personal sacrifice or personal benefit from the Messiah?

Tomorrow, we'll consider another crucial pursuit for those who want to recognize Jesus as the true Messiah.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Scandalous Gospel - A Scandalous Secret

by Timothy Howe

     And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him
Mark 8:30 ESV

This command comes from Jesus just after the disciples openly declared Him to be the Messiah. A similar statement is found in several locations throughout the gospel of Mark. Jesus told a leper to not tell others about his cleansing (1:44) and unclean spirits to not make known who He was (3:12). Doesn't it seem odd that Jesus would not want people to know who He was and embrace His role as the Messiah? The answer to this question comes with understanding the timing and the purpose of that recognition. 

Mark 8 comes on the heals of vast crowds gathering to hear Jesus' teachings and expecting to see miracles. One the miracles included feeding 4000 hungry people with just a small portion of food - some bread and a few small fish. The reason that people gathered around Jesus seemed to be for very self-serving purposes. Jesus was about to raise the stakes for those who would follow Him. 

On to Jerusalem
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. He knew what awaited Him there. He would try to prepare the disciples for the impending suffering and abuse he would receive at the hands of the authorities that they would witness. It was with this understanding that He performed miracles and taught great messages. If the disciples were going to survive as true disciples, then their faith would have to be of greater substance than hoping in personal gain on account of following Jesus. 

The Scandalous Secret
Here is the scandalous secret - Jesus was the Messiah. Why was it scandalous? First of all, it would seem that a messiah would certainly have wanted people to recognize him. Secondly, wouldn't a messiah have used his miraculous powers to entice followers to join his cause? Yet, Jesus was different. He wanted people to follow Him for different reasons. He wanted them to embrace Him as the True Messiah, not some performer of parlor tricks. Furthermore, I believe that He desires the same for us today. There are many reasons that people come to accept the teachings and requirements of Jesus. I would strongly encourage each person to check their motives and determine if they are pursuing Jesus for proper motives or for personal gain. 

Examine the following question: 
How can we know if we are pursuing Jesus with a pure heart, 
     not for selfish gain?

The answer to this question is found in how we pursue Jesus.
Recognize Jesus as the true Messiah through these 3 pursuits.

1.      Pursue a personal relationship, not personal blessings.
People get involved in religious practices for many reasons. For some people, it is tradition. For others it is for peace of mind. Other go to church because Mom expects them to do so. One of the most common reasons that people get involved in religious activity is due to the desire for personal blessings.

Blessings are great. I want blessings in my life. I want all those around me to have as many blessings as possible. The Scriptures are replete with God's blessings in both the Old and New Testament. The Aaronic Blessing in Numbers 6:24-26 is one of the most beautiful in the Bible and Ephesians 1:3 reminds us that Christ has blessed us all with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.

Yet, blessings should not be the main focus of our religious intention. Jesus wants us to know Him via a personal relationship. People wanted Jesus to give them blessings, yet they ignored the greatest blessing that He wanted to give them - Himself. Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus? Do you spend time with Jesus every day? Do you take time to get to know Him. 

"Depart from me, I never knew you"
Matthew 7:21-23 speaks of people who expect to get into heaven because they have done religious works. Some of these people will have done truly remarkable things designated as "mighty works." Yet Jesus shockingly tells them "I never knew you; depart from me you workers of lawlessness" (Mt 7:23b ESV). Knowing Christ is so much more important than being blessed by Christ. Are you seeking to know Him? Are you pursuing a personal relationship with Him, not just seeking His blessings?

We will consider two more pursuits this week. As we do, let each of us daily ask ourselves, "What is our true religious motivation?" Are we seeking to connect with the Divine and fulfill His purpose for our lives?

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Scandalous Gospel - Scandalous Behavior

by Timothy Howe

Jesus, a different sort of Messiah
Matthew 8-9 emphasizes the authority of Jesus as the Messiah through his miracles and teachings. Yet much of what Jesus does and says is at odds with what people expected. Jesus did not cater to the religious elite; he ministered to the marginalized and crossed barriers to touch those who had previously been left without important spiritual status. 

Hanging out with sinners
In Matthew 9:9-13, we encounter a story in which Jesus dared to eat dinner with a tax collector, someone who was held in the same esteem as a prostitute. The term most associated with "tax collector" in the New Testament is "sinner." That indicates how despised these people were. And the appropriate attitude toward sinners, at least according to those who were "spiritual," was avoidance. Jesus did something different. Instead of avoiding the sinners, he hung out with them. 

The religious authorities challenged Jesus on this. Well, they really weren't so bold. They challenged Jesus' disciples on this. But Jesus overheard them and responded anyway. And he tells us in Matthew 9:12,

     Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.

Jesus came to help sick people, not hang out with those not in need of his forgiveness. This is ironic since, in reality, we all need his forgiveness. Jesus' behavior was considered scandalous. This would likely play a great part in his rejection by the religious elite. Yet, He continue to behave scandalously for the sake of a gospel that He intended rather than one they expected.

How do we see others?
I would challenge each of us to consider how we treat those around us who are less than perfect, ignoring our own imperfections for a moment. This starts with how we see them. A few years ago, I received laser eye surgery that took me from being blind as a bat to seeing better than 20/20. It was as if I received a new pair of eyes. The same should have happened to each of us as we came to know the mercy of God through our Christian faith. We should view the world differently, including seeing others. How do we see others? Do we see them as Jesus does? Do we see them as in need of a physician? Are we willing to be that physician? 
When you come to Christ you receive a new pair of classes, with new lenses that cause you to see things unlike you did before – better, clearer, more vividly and mostly importantly, correctly. 

Behave scandalously 
I believe that every Christian should behave scandalously for the sake of the Gospel because of his or her new spiritual lenses. How do we do this? I suggest we do so by changing our focus to a focus that our new spiritual lenses give us.

Focus more on people than deeds.
Jesus focused on people more than deeds.  Jesus recognized that He was dealing with a person. Every person was initially created in the image of God. Our failings push us away from God, but we must continue to cling to the hope of the redemption of the person regardless of his or her deeds. We do this by spending time with people.  Jesus spent time with people. 

Focus more on opportunities than circumstances.
Jesus focused on expectations more than on life circumstances. It is easy to judge people in difficult circumstances and play the blame game, explaining how they got to this low-point. But just because someone is at a low-point in life does not mean that it is there final destination. Many people have turned their lives around. We should focus on what opportunities can do for someone more than his or her present circumstance. Jesus spent time on the unexpected. He healed and helped the marginalized. He called the rejected. And he created a fantastic team that would change the world out of these "rejects". He recognized that there were greater opportunities than their current circumstances suggested.

Focus more on future potential than past failures.
Jesus focused on future potential because He could see what was in the heart of people and what was the content of their character. Do we judge people correctly? Do we let their past failures determine what we think they are capable of? Jesus was not satisfied with what people had done. He raised expectations.

Focus more on mercy than on religious activity.
Jesus had seen enough religious activity. He criticized people who came and demonstrated how holy they were at the temple, but did not have a real heart after God. Jesus pointed out that he came to offer mercy, not sacrifice. This must be our message. This is the hope of the gospel. This is the purpose of evangelism. We must bring mercy to people, not more religious activity. Religious duty will not get anyone into heaven or into good graces with God. Only His mercy does both. Will we offer His mercy to those around us?

What is God's mercy? 
     “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, 
     he gave the right to become children of God.”  John 1:12

Have you received, believed, and become a child of God?
Will you lead others to receive, believe, and become children of God?

Friday, October 12, 2012

When Life Happens - Unexpectedly

by Timothy Howe

Tom & Tim surrounded by a sea of gold and green
I love baseball. Recently, my brother and I attended the last baseball game of the regular season for the Texas Rangers. The game was played in Oakland. It was our birthday and we both love baseball, so it was a perfect idea. We had not been together on our birthday in 15 years. This was going to be a treat. 

When we initially planned on going to the game, we fully expected it to be a meaningless one in terms of how the results would affect the 2012 baseball season. The Texas Rangers had led the division pretty substantially for much of the season and the only serious perceived threat was their rival from Southern California, the Los Angeles Angels. 

We were just going to this game for fun.

Then things got interesting. The Rangers finished the season with a lackluster performance while the Oakland A's, their perceived non-threatening but feel good story of Northern California, kept winning when no one expected them to. And they kept winning. Then they swept the next-to-last series in the season to put them one game behind Texas with 3 games left to play head-to-head. If Oakland won all three games they would win the division and not Texas, the season-long favorite. 

Oakland won the first two games of the series.

October 3 - the last game of the season. And it matters. Whoever wins this game, wins the division. This was not expected to happen. But it did. So, now we are two Ranger fans in a sea of gold and green. We are proud for the A's. I live in the Bay Area and have pulled for the A's all season. (But shhh!, don't tell my co-worker, she's an A's fan and its a source of fun between us.) They have been the feel good story of baseball. But I really wanted Texas to win the game.

Texas jumped out to an early lead, but the comeback A's, something they have been dubbed this year due to their penchant for winning late in games, charged back in the late innings of the game and won the game decisively; and with it - the pennant.  So, hat's off to the victorious opponents. 

I am reminded, yet again, that life often does not turn out like we hope or expect. Things might be going extremely well and then take a swift tack (the case of the Rangers) or things might be going less than perfect and then improve drastically (the case of the A's). 

Very few of us mind any unexpected upswings. Most all of us would prefer to avoid the downswings. I wish one team had one a game, and I am happy for the team which did. Unfortunately most of life's problems are a lot bigger than whether or not your team won or lost a game. 

What will be your response to unexpected changes in life. Do you have the deep inner peace that helps each person through the most difficult times in life? Do you have the confidence to know that tomorrow will be another day and that we will get up and make it through it?

You can find a peace and confidence regardless of what life throws at you. My confidence rests in the Lord. 

Proverbs 3:25-26 tells us 

              Do not be afraid of sudden panic
                 or of the storm that strikes the wicked;
              for the Lord will be your confidence
                 and will keep your foot from being caught.

I pray that you find confidence in the Lord today.