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Entries in discipleship (33)

The Four Lessons from Joseph of Nazareth

We get the Christmas story from the scriptures. What we know of the birth of Jesus comes to from the inspired words of the gospels. These passages, found in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke, are some of the most well-known Bible verses in history.
Like countless other believers around the world, as I prepare for the Christmas season I will read these passages again and again. They are familiar and comforting, and perhaps that’s the problem: because I have come to these passages so often, I am tempted to think that there is nothing new for the Holy Spirit to reveal through these words. That would be a mistake, because the Bible narrative of the birth of Christ is not only inspired storytelling but also useful for training in right relationship with God. What better way to prepare for Christmas than to go deeper in our relationship with the Father?
The birth narratives--like all scripture--are food for students of Jesus. These passages are filled with challenges to our faith, and filled with the encouragement we need to grow in God. Today I would like to share just four observations from the life of Joseph of Nazareth, the man trusted by God to raise the Savior of the world.
1). Poor Joseph--God didn’t get his approval before acting. Can you imagine the real-life shock of these words: “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1: 18) Mary received an angelic visitation and the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Joseph received the worst news of his life. God “drafted” Joseph into a difficult position--would the Almighty ever do the same to us? Have we ever considered the implications of God’s sovereignty? If we affirm that we belong to him are we willing to be drafted as Joseph was?
2). The narrative reveals the actions of a righteous man. In his confusion and pain, Joseph’s first concern was for Mary, he “did not want to expose her to public disgrace.” (1: 19) How many of us would have this priority? Perhaps this is why the scripture labels Joseph a “righteous man.” Scripture is demonstrating what true righteousness looks like in action. It’s revealing as well that the scripture describes Joseph's righteousness not in terms of his relationship to God, but in terms of his relationship to Mary. True righteousness extends two directions--toward God and man.
3). Joseph resisted the urge to act rashly. Even in his concern for Mary and her reputation he was still determined to divorce her (in modern terms, "break the engagement"). Yet the narrative reveals that he took time to consider his actions. When Joseph was faced with the impossible, he did not rush to judgment. The scriptures do not indicate how long he waited, but he took time to consider his actions. And in that period of time, Joseph positioned himself to hear from God in a most unusual manner:
4). God gave Joseph a dream, a dream that would change his life forever. “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.’” This must’ve been some dream, or Joseph must’ve been some righteous man, or both. Engagement, unexpected pregnancy, and an out-of-this-world explanation would be enough to give anyone dreams. But God chose a dream as the means to provide divine direction, and Joseph recognized the dream as God’s personal leading. In fact, dreams are mentioned no fewer than four times in Matthew 1 & 2. I believe scripture is teaching us that God can and does guide his children through dreams. Imagine: in an emotionally charged situation, just when we would be tempted to ignore our dreams as a product of our subconscious, God is present: leading, directing, and guiding--through dreams. By the way, there is no indication that Joseph heard anything else from God until after the baby was born. He remained faithful to God’s instructions for months, all based on one dream!
The Christmas season offers an opportunity to anyone who would become a student of Jesus. Can we imagine ourselves in these situations? Between Matthew and Luke's gospels the cast of Christmas characters is pretty large: Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, Anna, the Magi and shepherds. They are the stuff of Christmas pageants, and cheesy dramas. They are also the stuff of God’s instruction to his disciples.

Making Disciples Makes Me

The astounding news of the gospel of the Kingdom is that we’ve been called to look like Jesus. I’m gratified when Christians begin to realize spiritual formation is possible. They begin to pursue their destiny in Christ. But there is a second part of our destiny in Jesus: we have been called to not only be disciples, we’ve been called to make disciples as well.
You might think: “this is a no-brainer, you’re talking about evangelism.”  But it’s not so easy. For many, the Great Commission in Matthew 28: 16-20 has been a call to evangelism. The problem is, evangelism in North America has consisted chiefly of proclaiming the gospel of “Go-to-heaven-when-you-die.”  The substance of most evangelism focuses upon the price Jesus paid for our redemption and the new birth required to receive his free gift. When there is a new decision for Christ, the follow-up may encourage converts to find and attend a local church, but that is not making disciples.  
Other believers, the kind who readily embrace spiritual formation, focus on the call to become like Jesus. They embrace the disciplines capable of changing their lives without looking beyond their own welfare in God. But what if the task of making disciples is central to our calling to become like Jesus? What if we are called to the kind of evangelism that causes us to say, "Be imitators of me, just as I also am of  Christ"? (I Corinthians 11:1) How would that change our walk with God? How effective would our "evangelism" become?
Jesus modeled every aspect of life with God. Sometimes we miss one of the most obvious aspects of his example: he called and trained others. His personal influence drew them closer to the Father, and after three years of intensive life-sharing he released them into the care of the Father and the Spirit. His command at the end of Matthew’s gospel and the evidence of the book of Acts reveals that he expects us to do the same.
Following Jesus means discipleship. It’s the path to Christlikeness. Part of this path is the change worked in us when we pour our lives into others: both will find themselves changed day-by-day into the image of their common Master.

Follow the Loser

The class held about thirty students. A class that size guarantees a mix of sleepers, zombies, texters and those rare few who participate in discussion. We spent the whole hour talking about the words of Jesus, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Is is possible? Can we really become like God? Was Jesus serious? 
One student seemed to pay particular attention but hadn’t spoken up once during the period. I decided to draw her into the discussion: “We’re just about done for today. Tiffanie, you’ve been listening hard but haven’t offered your opinion. Why don’t you have the last word?”
She shifted in her seat uncomfortably and said, “I don’t know if He was serious, but one thing’s for sure: you ain’t Jesus.”
She got that right.
Yet somehow Jesus asks us to lift our vision higher--high enough to see the possibilities of becoming like our Heavenly Father. That’s a problem: how are we to become like him? The problem grows deeper when we discover that he has ordained the use of imperfect and frail human beings to shape others into the image of Christ. 
Most believers quickly jump to the defense of their own shortcomings with the excuse, “I’m not Jesus.” Of course not. Who could be? So deeply do we hold the conviction that we cannot measure up, it also becomes our handy defense to keep other believers at arms length--far enough away to prevent them from effectively shaping us into the image of Jesus.
We welcome the idea that--someday--we will be conformed to the image of Christ. We‘re a little fuzzier on how, exactly, that happens. The answer is both obvious and surprising: the Father uses other people to fashion us into the pattern of Christ.
For many Christians, this is a frightening prospect. This conversation could happen at nearly any church between an earnest disciple and a pastor:
“You're trying to change me!” complains the disciple.
“You don't think you need to change?” asks the pastor.
“Well, yes, but not by you!”
In other words, we acknowledge our need of Christlikeness but feel no one is qualified to help effect the change.
How does our perfect Lord expect imperfect people to shape others into his image? The hyper-spiritual answer is usually, “No one can do that: He has to do it, by his Spirit.” Such an answer sounds spiritual, but ignores that God has chosen to much of his work through other people.
“Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.”
The Apostle Paul had little trouble offering himself as an example of the path to spiritual transformation. Was he proud, or practical? His words appear at the end of a long theological discussion about whether the Christians of that day should eat meet offered to pagan idols (1 Corinthians 10 & 11). The real issue was whether these believers would judge one another over the choices they made. Sound familiar? Finally, after looking at all sides of the question, Paul got practical: “Look, just do what I do.” He could offer himself as an example not because he was so smart, but because he could demonstrate how to live in peace among Christians of differing opinion. The unspoken message is that Christlikeness is not a matter of opinion, but of how we live out our life with one another. Having examples helps: not amount of theology can replace the need for a living example.
Paul had no trouble suggesting that Timothy should follow his example: “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose . . . But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it” (2 Timothy 3: 10 & 14) And this is from Paul, who earlier described himself to Timothy as “the foremost of sinners!”
What about us? Do we have someone to imitate? Before we jump in with the spiritual answer, I imitate Jesus, perhaps we should consider if Jesus himself has not given us someone a little closer to home as an intermediate step. Who can I imitate? It worked for Timothy, and it worked for Paul.
I can almost hear the voice of that girl from my classroom: “One thing’s for sure: you ain’t Paul, either!”

When We Expect God to do His Job

Poor, sickly Heinrich Heine

Heinrich Heine lay on his deathbed in 1856. The German poet called his bed “the mattress grave” because he had been confined there for eight years. Born Jewish, converted to Christianity, living in Paris with his wife and mistress, he spoke his last words: “Of course God will forgive me, it’s his job.”
Sometimes I just want forgiveness. I want to be sure I won’t be hit by a lightning bolt. I want assurance there is a way out of the mess I’ve made. I want a system I can depend on, one that guarantees the outcome: forgiven. 
I can find the Bible passage I need: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and send us away with the feeling that he has done his job.” (1 John 1:9, kind of) We want a God who is in the forgiveness business the way WalMart is in the cheap junk business: always open, ubiquitous, and always the low price. Always. We want the Jerusalem Temple system of sacrifice, except with as many locations as Starbucks, or more. 
The book of Hebrews describes the Old Testament system of sacrifice for sin. Hebrews explains there was a High Priest who represented all the people of Israel. Once a year this priest performed his duties and gained forgiveness for all the people--for one more year. The next year he would do it again. And again. And so on. The High Priest followed the Old Testament instructions to the letter, and the people of the nation found them selves forgiven. Again. And again.
I like to try to imagine the High Priest sitting down with the people one-on-one after the annual ritual of sacrifice:
“Look,” the High Priest asks the busy Jerusalem businessman. “Aren’t you tired of doing the same thing every year? Don’t you ever want to learn how to live a better life? To grow so close to God that we don’t have to do this again and again?”
“Not really,” answers the man. “I’m a sinner. It’s what I do. You’re the Priest--you cleanse me--it’s what you do. Why don’t we both just do our jobs? See you next year.”
The Old Testament system provided atonement but was incapable of changing the heart. Forget about a change of heart: I just need forgiveness. I suspect many Christians see Jesus as a WalMart version the High Priest. We’ve found a Savior who forgives and forgives, and forgives again.
It’s true: in Jesus there are springs of forgiveness without end. But there’s more. If we want more. There’s relationship, empowerment, wisdom, insight, guidance, and strength to break the pattern of sin-and-forgiveness, sin-and-forgiveness. To see the work of Jesus as only an endless offering for sin is to consign him to the Old Testament priesthood, which may have provided atonement but was incapable of pulling us up from our lives of selfishness, foolishness, and the folly of our own way.
But Jesus is of a greater priesthood, capable of altering us at the very core. Hebrews tells us that Jesus wasn’t even an Old Testament priest in the sense of those who worked at the Temple. Hebrews points us to the shadowy figure named Melchidedek, from the book of Genesis:
This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, the name Melchizedek means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. Hebrews 7:1-3)
This means Jesus offers something more than forgiveness. He offers right relationship and peace as well. In part, the message of Hebrews is about finding a way to break the sin-and-forgiveness cycle. What good is forgiveness if we remain the kind of people who are deeply broken in the center of our being? Who needs a priest who fixes up the outside of a person without repairing the inside? 
Many believers have come to expect nothing but forgiveness from Jesus. All the while he stands ready to make us a new creation. He is the kind of priest who wants to work from the inside out. He’s the best kind of Savior, then kind who can transform us from habitual sinners into sons and daughters of the Most High.
The Old Testament prophets tried again and again to warn the people of Israel not to trust in religious formulas or systems. They pointed to a personal God who wanted children of his own.
  • I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; (Ezekiel 36:26)
  • “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33)
  • Wait! There are too many examples to cite. You can trust me on this.
Over and over the prophets urged the people of Israel not to turn their relationship with God into a transaction. They cried out on God’s behalf, “I want relationship, not ritual.”
The powerful inclination of men, however, is to reduce the offer of new birth, new creation, new life and new relationship into nothing more than, “you do your job, and I’ll do mine.” How many of us do the same with Jesus? It’s the difference between getting what we want out of him, or whether he gets what he wants from us--a loving relationship built to last forever. 
If I can find my way out of WalMart, I’ll choose the relationship. How about you?

Why I Changed Doctors Years Ago

A few years ago I had to find another doctor. My previous one couldn’t help me. He was able to diagnose the problem, but not able to suggest a remedy that would fix things once and for all. I kept going back to him week after week. My appointments began to sound like an old vaudeville routine:
“Your problem is you’re sick.”

“Of course I’m sick,” I replied. “That’s why I’m here.”
“Have you had this before?”
“You know I’ve had this before. I had it the last time I was here.”
“Well, you’ve got it again.”
I tried demonstrating the problem: “It hurts when I do this.”
“Well, don’t do that,” he advised.
“Doctor, is there any hope for me?”
“Of course there is. Take two aspirin. You’ll feel better when you’re dead.”
After 15 years of being told I was sick, always receiving the same prescription, and always coming back with the same complaint, I began to wonder if my doctor knew what he was talking about. I’m one of the lucky ones because it only took me 15 years to wonder what was going on.
OK . . . I made that up. But many of us have been returning to the same place, year after year, with the same problem. We are offered the same solution and we leave feeling as if there should be a better remedy available, but the professional assures us that we are on the right track. If you haven’t guessed already, the professional is not a doctor but a pastor, and the “doctor’s office” is our regular gathering for church.
Whether it is the repetition of liturgy separated from our daily experience, or it is the repetition of preaching that finds new ways to express the same old message, many followers of Jesus go to church only to experience what Yogi Berra called “Déjà vu all over again.” We are reminded of our sin and God’s grace toward that sin.
Of course this is correct: we are sinful, and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross pays the price for our redemption. And, of course, the grace of God should be celebrated and declared by the church. But grace, understood as the one-time event of redemption, is not the sole message the church or the full content of the gospel of the Kingdom of God. It is the common experience of church-goers to re-enact the drama of forgiveness each week, or to hear the gospel presented again and again as the call of God to wayward sinners to make things right. If the preaching ever varies from this content, then we are told that we need to carry this good news of God’s grace into our community so that others may be forgiven and redeemed.
This is a great challenge facing followers of Jesus today: we have a limited view of God’s grace. The grace of God, which is a reality greater than the human intellect can gasp and more accessible than the air we breathe, has been captured and domesticated for weekly use. To those of us who have been in church for some time, grace means that Christians have gotten a great deal. In church circles, grace has variously been defined as “not getting what we deserve,” or “God’s unmerited favor,” or “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” I am coming to see that all of these ideas about grace are true, but tell only half the truth.
The more I read the New Testament, the more all-encompassing grace becomes. Instead of presenting grace as a repeatable sin-cleansing bargain, the Bible seems to present a grace that continues to reach into our lives day after day and in more ways than we expect. The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote to a young pastor:
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:11-12)
What kind of grace is this? If grace means getting off scott-free, why is grace appearing to me and teaching me a new way to live? Most believers are very comfortable with “the grace that brings salvation,” but why would grace instruct us to “deny ungodliness?” Isn’t that a little judgmental? I thought God loved me just the way I am.
Apparently God’s grace is after more than wiping the slate clean week after week. The grace of God wants to teach us a new way to live. “God loves me just the way I am.” Everyone is comfortable with that statement, but how about this one: “God loves me so much he won’t let me stay just the way I am.” First his grace saves, then it teaches. I think everyone is OK with “being forgiven,” but perhaps we skip school when it comes time to learn how to deny ungodliness, deny worldly passions, live sensible and upright lives.
Richard Foster, a man who has spent his adult life encouraging Christians to grow in the grace of God, points out that the message of grace is something more than merely a means for gaining forgiveness. Sadly, many Christians have been taught that any effort to learn how to live a holy life right now runs counter to God’s forgiving grace. Many church-goers are told week after week that they are miserable sinners in need of the grace of forgiveness. They are told week after week that that there is nothing they can do apart from the grace of forgiveness. And, hearing the same message week after week, along with the same remedy, they remain in the same place. “Having been saved by grace,” Foster writes, “these people have been paralyzed by it.”
Do you have any examples of grace teaching you a new way to live?