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A Fruitful Faith

If you drive by our house, you know that we have a large landscaped area surrounding a tree filled with azaleas and nandena. The ground is not perfect for azaleas, and none of them do well. The largest of the azaleas used to be sheltered from sun by a pine tree that fell during an ice storm several years ago. Since then, it has never been healthy. About five or six years ago, Kathy and I left on vacation for two weeks in mid-July. The person who was supposed to water them did not while the temperature was near or over 100 degrees. When we returned the largest azalea was a deep orange color. Jim Williams came over, looked at the problem, and offered to take it out. He did not think that it would ever bloom again, if it even survived.

images-3I decided to try to rescue the azalea and went on a program of watering and careful care of the plant. Amazingly, it survived. However, sure enough, it has never bloomed again. Some years, if the winter is very wet and mild, and if I fertilize it at exactly the right time, and if I water the plant all summer long, I get one or two blooms the next spring. Jim and Karen have moved, but everyone I consult gives me the same advice: “Pull the azalea out and plant a new one.” You see, azaleas are meant to flower, and an azalea that never blooms is not an azalea worth having. Someday, I will give up hope and and plant a new azalea.

God has planted his Holy Spirit in us by the power of Christ through faith. He intends us to bear fruit for his garden, the world. When we don’t do that, we are like my azalea—we are not doing the thing God intended us to do when he planted us. On the other hand, when we do bear fruit for his kingdom, we are bearing the fruit for which we were created.

The Story of A Fig Tree.

In this blog, I am looking at a text that comes from passages just before and just after the cleansing of the Temple. In the first reading, Jesus is on his way to the Temple when he stops near a fig tree. Hear the Word of God as it comes to us from the Gospel According to Mark:

imgres-3The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it (Mark 11:12-14).

Going on to Verse 20 we read:

images-4In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” (Mark 11:20-21).

This story is one of the most perplexing stories in the New Testament. It is one of the so-called, “Difficult Passages” because it seems odd for a number of reasons. Jesus is walking from Bethany to Jerusalem, a short Sabbath Day journey. It was morning, and Jesus was hungry. As Jesus walked from Bethany to Jerusalem, he saw a fig tree. When he got to the fig tree, Jesus saw nothing but leaves—no figs at all. However, this was not unexpected because it was early spring. Normally in Israel one would not expect there to be figs on a fig tree until much later in June. [1]

Luke tells a similar story, but in his story a landlord has a fig tree that has not born any fruit for three years. He asks his vinedresser to cut down the tree, somewhat like Jim Williams offered to take out my azalea. The landlord’s vinedresser begs for some time to rehabilitate the tree, just as I tried to rehabilitate my azalea. In fact, the reason I did so was that I remembered the story from Luke! (Luke 13:6-9).

Jesus Enacts a Story.

What is going on? How are we to understand what Jesus is doing? To gain a better understanding, let’s begin with a look at the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, prophets and others often use the metaphor of Israel as God’s vineyard to describe God’s people. [2] imgres-4In Isaiah, for example, Israel is described as a vineyard that only bears bad fruit (Isaiah 5:2). God poses the question concerning what he is to do with this vineyard. God answers that he will take away its hedge and burn it to the ground, destroying everything (v. 3-6). By this, Isaiah is prophesying the destruction of Israel.

In the episode of the cleansing of the temple, Jesus speaks of the corruption of temple religion, which had strayed from God’s intention for his temple to be a place of prayer (Mark 11:15-19). Surrounding the episode of the cleansing of the temple is this story of the fig tree. There are many ways of looking at this story, but to me the best interpretation is to look at the fig tree as the Jewish religion of Jesus’ day. Not only has temple religion not born the fruit for which it was intended, but God’s people also have not born the fruit God intended.

Many scholars think that this story is what they call an “enacted parable.” In the Old Testament, prophets would sometimes enact a story. For example, when Jeremiah wanted to prophesy the enslavement of Israel by the Babylonians, one of the things he did was to wear an ox’s yoke (Jeremiah 27:2).imgres-5 When he wanted to prophesy the breaking up of the nation of Israel, he breaks a pot (Jeremiah 19:1-15). God asked the prophet Ezekiel to take a clay tablet, draw a picture of the temple on it, and then lay siege to his picture of the city (Ezekiel 4:1-8). There are other very good examples in the prophets.

In an enacted parable, the teacher not only tells the story, he or she acts it out. In this case, Jesus sees a fig tree. Perhaps he knows that this particular fig tree never bears fruit. We don’t know. In any case, he curses the fig tree, then goes and cleanses the temple, and on the next day the fig tree is dead. In fact, the Temple was destroyed for the final time a few years later in 70 A.D. In my view, this story is not primarily about a fig tree; it is about God’s judgment on Israel for not bearing the fruit it was intended to bear.

God’s People as God’s Fruit Trees.

What does all this have to do with people like us in the 21st century? Just like the Jews, we are God’s people. He has planted us, his fig tree, in his vineyard, our world, in my case in that part of the vineyard called Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee. We were not planted where we are planted as a decoration like my azalea. We were planted to bear fruit. It does not matter if we move away, because God still wants us to bear fruit. We have just been planted in another part of God’s vineyard, and it is there that we must bear fruit.

imgres-6The fruit God wants us to bear is the fruit of the Kingdom of God. God wants us to be a part of his mission to the world to preach the good news, to bring people to faith, to disciple them diligently, and in our own personal lives to bear the fruit that God intends his people to bear. He wants us to be wise, loving, kind, peaceable, generous, etc. He does not intend us to just do this on Sundays, but every day, in every way, in everything we do.

In John, on the night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus says these famous words:

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples (John 15:5-8).

Earlier in this talk, he mentions that while he is the true vine, the Father is the gardener, and the gardener cuts off branches that do not bear fruit. Why? Because he planted the vine to bear fruit, which it is not doing. He also alerts us that even if we are bearing fruit, from time to time he prunes us so that we will bear even more fruit.

This has direct importance to us. First, God in his mercy has saved us and given us his Spirit so that we can bear fruit. If we do not bear fruit, we are not being the disciples God has called us to be. In fact, we are not being disciples at all! Second, although we have been saved by grace and not by works (Ephesians 2:9), God expects us to bear fruit both in our personal lives and in our ministry to those with whom we come into contact (Ephesians 2:10). From time to time when we are not bearing fruit, we are going to get pruned, whether we like it or not.

Bearing the Fruit of Faith.

God saved us to be fruitful both internally and externally. In other words, God expects us to change personally and to be a part of his mission to save others. First, God intends that our faith in Christ enable us to bear an internal fruit in the depths of our personality. In Galatians, he says:

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.imgres-7
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other
(Galatians 5:19-26).

Our Christian faith should result in letting go of the things in our personalities that are negative and replacing them with the Fruit of the Spirit. This does not happen magically, but spiritually as by grace we cooperate with God to put to death the negative and experience the positive of growing in Christ.

images-7Secondly, God intends us to bear fruit by reaching out to others in the name of Christ and sharing God’s love and God’s wisdom with them by the power of the Spirit. The Gospel of Mark, like all the Gospels, begins with Jesus coming to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God—the Good News that God loves us, died on a cross for us, rose from the dead for us, and desires to bring us and the entire world into his kingdom of wisdom and love (Mark 1:15). The Gospel of Mark, like all the gospels, ends with Jesus sending his disciples into the world to share this good news (Mark 16:15). The fruit Jesus wants us to bear is the fruit of a people who themselves are working to improve God’s lovely and potentially fruitful vineyard as a thing of wisdom, truth, love, and beauty.

Making the World A Better Place.

Every house we have owned, I have tried to improve and leave better than we found it. In particular, I have tried to leave the yard a bit better than I found it. In recent years, I have not worked in the yard as much as I wish, and I have not finished a few projects, especially in our back yard. Azalea-Flowers-Art-Print-White-Azaleas-Raindrops_artOne thing I hope to do soon is to fix some of the gardening issues in our back yard and do a bit more landscaping where it is needed. I don’t think God cares too much about this little project, but I am sure he appreciates it a little. How much more then, do you suppose God wishes we would leave our families, our neighborhoods, our city, and our church just a bit more fully representative of his Kingdom than we found it? In particular, I think, God wants us to grow in our own holiness and help others to experience the blessings of faith in Christ.

mother-holding-babyWhen Kathy and I went on our honeymoon, we had a great time. Kathy loves to go out, dance, and have fun. Surprisingly, about a week into our honeymoon all she wanted to do was sleep. When we got back, she still was very tired. When she went to the doctor, she discovered that we were having a baby. Why? Because love bears fruit. God wants us to bear spiritual fruit for his kingdom. That is why be planted us here.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] [1] James A. Brooks, “Mark” in The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1991), 181-183. Conservative commentators often try to explain that there were often pods on the fig trees this early in the spring, so perhaps Jesus noted that there were no such pods on this tree. Frankly, we cannot know if the tree deserved cursing. I suspect it must have. I think, however, that the reason the apostles remembered the incident is precisely because they did not undestand what Jesus was doing and it was a bit out of character.

[2] A vineyard is the most common symbol used for Israel in Scripture. God condemned Israel’s leaders because they “have destroyed my vineyard” (Jer. 12:10). In Psalm 80:8-16, Israel is “a vine out of Egypt” whom God brought out and planted in Palestine. In Jeremiah 2:21, God rebukes Israel in the same language he uses in Isaiah 5, “I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?” See, www.twoagespilgrims.com/pasigucrc/2011/05/11/the-unfruitful-vineyard-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-god (Downloaded March 4, 2015).

Amazing Love 2: Tough Love

Eternal God of Light: We praise you for our salvation. We cry out to you in times of need. We sing of your mercy in times of deliverance. Yet, too often, we do not praise you when you must correct us. God our Father, we confess, we don’t like it when you correct us in fatherly love. Forgive us.Amazing Love Main Graphic

All week long, I have have been pondering two events. The first occurred many, many years ago. My Dad was an F.B.I. agent. He was an unusual F.B.I. agent because he really did not like violence, guns, and many other aspects of police work. Dad entered the Navy in World War II and worked for the U.S. government the rest of his career. I think he might have preferred to be a rose grower, which he was. Nevertheless, as an old wrestler and football player, he could be tough as nails when circumstances required it.

I distinctly remember a day just about the time I was a senior in High School. The drug scene had just become popular in Springfield, Missouri, and I was a high school student getting ready to go off for college. I was invited to come to his study for a chat. Our chat turned out to be about drugs. He was opposed. As our conversation ended, he looked at me with this cold blue eyes, and said, “Just in case you don’t agree, I want you to know that if you ever get arrested for being drunk or on drugs, I am leaving you in jail until the trial is over.” I was aware that he meant every word he said.

Not long ago, I became aware of another story about another father. This father’s son had done something very wrong. That father complained about misconduct by the authorities, covered up for the son, allowed him to lie, and arranged for him to avoid the consequences of his actions. Which father do you suppose really loved his son? [1]

Last week, the blog was about God’s Amazing Love as shown in Jesus’ Servant Leadership. This week, the blog is about Tough Love. imgresLove does not mean being weak, or immoral, or covering up. Love always means doing the right thing. There are times when love cannot remain silent or accept what is happening. Every parent, every teacher, every leader knows this simple fact: there are times when love must be tough. To love is not to accept everything the beloved does. It is to do what is best for the beloved, even if what must be done is difficult or unpopular. God’s Amazing Love is not a weak love, but the strongest love there is. God’s love is never weak, never untruthful, never unwise, never unjust, never immoral. God’s love is shown to be God’s love precisely because all of the failures of human love are never found in the love of God. This can be tough for humans who want God to be a kind of co-dependent parent.

A Story of Tough Love.

One of the most mysterious incidents from Jesus’ life is the story of cleansing of the temple. On the surface, it may not seem that this incident is about love, but this story is about love when things are going deeply wrong. Here is the story:

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching (Mark 11:15-19).

 imgres-1Last week, we looked at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. On that first day of Holy Week, Jesus went into the Temple to look around (Mark 11:11). In this passage, we learn that Jesus did not like all that he saw. The next day, Jesus reentered the temple courts and drove out the moneychangers. Why did he do that? In our text, he announces that God intended his temple to be a place of prayer and the religious leaders have made it into a place of commerce (Mark 11:17). Behind this simple statement, there is a bit of history to know that explains why Jesus did not like what he saw.

The cleansing of the Temple occurred in the Court of the Gentiles, a place where people like you and me might be found. [2] Much of the Temple was off limits to non-Jews, but Gentiles could go as far as the Court of the Gentiles. Originally, it was intended that people from any nation could come there to pray. Over time, however, this particular place was made the center of the economic life of the temple. Money was exchanged and sacrificial animals were sold.

In Jesus’ day, the currency of Rome was the currency of commerce. In the temple, however, the temple tax and purchases were made in shekels. Therefore, money was changed from the currency of Rome or some other land to the currency of the Jews in the Court of the Gentiles. It will not surprise anyone who has changed money overseas to know that the exchange rate in the temple was not the best possible rate. In fact, it was a relatively high rate.

Second, sacrificial doves were sold in the temple. If you brought your own dove, it was inspected to be sure that it was without blemish. If you purchased one in the Temple Courts, it was by definition without blemish. Naturally, it was in the best interests of the managers of the Temple to examine doves brought into the temple very closely and reject them if they were not perfect. If the animal was not perfect, it was necessary to purchase a “perfect” temple bird. You can imagine many people had to buy a dove to replace one that did not past muster. The price for these doves was higher than outside the temple grounds. [3]

Jesus was the visible representative of God, and God does not only love, God is just. God would not allow the temple to be run like this without doing something about it, and so Jesus did something. [4] He cleansed the temple, overturning tables, and driving out those who were misusing the Temple for an unfair economic gain. If we skip to the end of today’s text, we learn that this was the very event from the last week of Jesus’ life that caused the religious establishment to look for a way to kill Jesus (Mark 4:18).

Love When Things Aren’t Right.

The problem with the Jewish religion of Jesus’ time can be the problem of our faith today. God intended his people to be a light to all nations, and his temple to be a place of worship for all nations. The Jewish leaders had made it their private place of profit. We can forget that we are intended to be a light to the nations in our cities and neighborhoods, and our churches are intended by God to be places where all are welcome. God intended the Jewish people to be a priestly people, and his priests to be their representative as they demonstrated the character of God to the world. God intends that his church be the same. As Peter put it, we are to be, “… a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, to declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). In every era, God’s people are to bear God’s wisdom and love to the world.

imgres-2When God’s people and God’s Church fail to be bearers of God’s wisdom and love to the world, we fail to be the people God calls us to be. When we fail to be the people God intends us to be and refuse to change, sooner or later, usually after a long time when we think we are getting away with it, God’s tough love is shown.

The Love of God the Father.

In Hebrews 12, the author reminds his readers that God’s love is a parental love—only better. As the author describes the discipline of God, writing:

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:7-11).

images-1The love of God is the love of a loving parent. All parents discipline their children. Every human parent has disciplined a child in a way that, in retrospect, was shortsighted, harsh, or unfair. God, on the other hand, never disciplines in this way. God disciplines us so that we can be better, more holy, more like Jesus.

This discipline, like any discipline, is not pleasant, but it is good for us. In the passage we are studying, the Jews had allowed the temple worship to become something it was never intended to be. In so doing, they had drifted from God’s intention for the Temple and for God’s people. Jesus’ overturning of the tables, and injunction that the temple was to be a place of prayer not a “den of thieves” was not an act of human anger or piqué. It was an act of love.

Unfortunately, the Jews responded as we too often respond—with anger and rage. Instead of changing, they decided to kill Jesus. Sometimes, God disciplines us in ways we do not like. He overturns the carefully constructed tables in the temple of our life. When God does this, we have a choice: We can rage against God, harden our hearts, refuse to change, and suffer; or, we can humble ourselves, listen to God, change, and grow in godliness.

This has a meaning for our churches. We are called to make of God’s church, and especially of our particular church, what God wants it to be—a place of prayer for all the people of our area. If we do not do that, God is not going to bless us, because we will not be doing the right thing. If we refuse to change, we are refusing to grow in Christlikeness.

A lot of people my age have a hard time understanding and accepting the changes in our society that impact the church. I am old enough to wish we were back in then days of my youth before postmodernism, before screens in worship, before Biblical interpretation became so much more difficult for preachers, before the morals of our society began to change to that proclaiming the gospel became so much more risky than ever before. But our nation has changed, and perhaps it is a good thing. Perhaps God is calling us to return to being a place of refuge, a place of prayer, a place of quiet and mercy for people. If we run from God by running from our church or run from God because of the scariness of our society, we won’t be doing the right thing. The right thing is to make our congregations a “Place of Prayer for All Peoples.” [5]

Outside of our religious and church lives, this text has direct meaning for our personal lives. Parents, grandparents, teachers, pastors, political leaders, and others are given to us to help us become the people we were intended to be. The Bible, our church, and the leadership of our church were given to us to help us become the people we were intended to be. To become wise and loving, as God is wise and loving, whatever our age, we must listen to the voice of God and to those who can help us become the people God intended us to be. Sometimes we will immediately agree with that voice. Sometimes it may be many years before we understand what God was doing when he overturned our carefully laid plan for our lives, our established way of doing things, our easy, worldly habits and customs.

Real Tough Love is…..

I entitled today’s message “Tough Love” because most all of us have heard the term and can remember this message just from its title. However, real tough love is not what we may immediately think it is. It is not necessarily about being “tough” at all. It is about being courageous. Real love is not about feelings, emotions, human desire, or even what we call “parental love.” Real love is doing all that can be done for the beloved whatever the personal cost. It is doing the right thing, not just the popular, or easy, or instinctual thing. Real love is not cut off from what is true, right, good, just, or equitable. Real love is doing what truth, or righteousness, or goodness, or justice, or equity demand at personal cost.

The parent that never disciplines a child does not love the child. He or she is weak. Going back to my initial illustration, my Dad was more loving for treating me harshly about a potential problem than the man who facilitated his son’s dishonesty. I am confident at the moment his son felt better about his dad then I felt about mine. But almost half a century later, having avoided a number of possible mistakes because of my parents discipline, I am glad they were mine—and I am sorry for those whose parents covered up for their failures to do homework, their speeding, their driving after drinking, their drug use, etc.

One more illustration may help. When I was young, I had a math teacher who really did not like me and did not treat me fairly. She actually ruined my love for math. When we get together, my friends always remark on how unfair this teacher was to me in seventh grade. She gave me terrible grades—and they were unjust. My parents did not have any better a feeling about this person than I did. But their advice has never left me since that day. “Chris, you are going to deal with a lot of people in life, some of them are going to be unfair. You just have to make this teacher happy.” I got one year of bad grades and a lifetime of good advice.

Kathy has taught in private schools a lot during our marriage. I cannot tell how many times notes have been written to parents explaining that homework was not being done, tests were not being completed, and grades were not good. In one school, there were all sorts of procedures that had to done before someone could receive a really low grade. I cannot tell you how many parents come at the last moment blaming a teacher for their child’s not doing their homework and getting a bad grade. Every time this happens, I think back on my parents, and I am glad that they never defended me for failing to do homework, for skipping class, for not doing assignments, or for any of the many other mistakes that I made that by the time I entered college had narrowed my academic potential dramatically. Wisely, and lovingly, they made me pay the consequences, and ever so slowly, I became a good and even diligent student.

Real Love Costs the Lover

At the end of our text, the Chief Priests and teachers of the law determined to have Jesus killed. I think it likely that Jesus understood that his actions were going to have repercussions. In fact, I think he knew very well they might lead to an early death. However, love demanded that Jesus point out the problem of temple worship, and he did. One way to know if our actions are in accordance with God’s love is to ask a simple question: “What is this costing me?” Jesus was willing to pay the cost of his love—his life. images-2This is why John can say in one of his letters, This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). Real love is never a costless love for the lover. Love costs, and the most Amazing Love of all, cost the savior of the world his life. It cost God the incarnation of the Word, the rejection of his Son, and a commitment to bear all the sins of the world. God’s love was real love. This is why John can say in one of his letters, This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). Real love is never a costless love for the lover. Love costs, and the most Amazing Love of all, cost God his Only Begotten Son.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This story is a combination of several stories, only one of which did I learn of recently. It is true in the sense that it happens all the time. At the end of the blog, I talk about teachers and parents excusing their children’s academic failure by blaming it on someone else. It is an example of the same phenomenon.

[2] James A. Brooks, “Mark” in The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1991), 185.

[3] See, William Barclay, “Mark” in The Daily Bible Study Series rev. ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975), 272-275.

[4] Jesus foretold that the temple would be destroyed—and it was. This is but one instance of the reality that God is not hasty, and God allows our sin to continue for a time, sometimes a long time. But there is justice for people, for nations, and for other groups.

[5] In the Greek, the word translated “Nations” comes from the root word, “Ethnos,” which more properly means, all “ethnic people groups.” This word does not refer to geographical areas but to people groups.

Amazing Love: The Love of a Servant Leader

I do not usually use this blog to work on a book or research project I am working, but this week is an exception. I am currently trying to turn a dissertation into a book for Christian and other leaders—a project I hope to complete in the next couple of years. In writing this dissertation some years ago, I decided to focus on the spirituality of leadership. The techniques and personality traits that make a good leader vary from organization to organization and congregation to congregation depending on a number of factors, not the least of which include size and complexity. However, it is my belief that the spiritual characteristics of good leaders remain the same. We must all learn to love and lead like Jesus.  In this work, just as in the two others I’ve written, I am exploring the unity of wisdom and love that we find in God and which is revealed in Jesus.Amazing Love Main Graphic

Each of the Gospels spends about a third of their total words describing the last week of Jesus’ life. It is as if the way that they organized their gospels was intended to reflect the surpassing importance of his last week, arrest, death, and resurrection. If we are to fully understand who Jesus was and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, then we must think carefully about the last week of his life as he experienced first approval, then opposition, rejection, betrayal, arrest, unfair prosecution, and death. This week, I am focused on the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and what it shows us about the love of God and about the character of Christian leadership

Some time ago, I was reading an article about the contemporary church. In America, we spend a lot of sermon and teaching time showing how the Christian life is the “Abundant Life.” We spend a lot of time showing how Christian faith makes life in this world better and more complete. We have Christian exercise and diet classes designed to see that we live longer and healthier. We have books on Christian sexuality proclaiming that our faith will make our love life better. We want a happy church and a happy faith. As a result, pastors seldom preach on the verse “If anyone would be my disciple, let them take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). The writer went on to say, “It should not surprise us that people desert the church the moment there is any suffering involved in the Christian life. We have misled them about its fundamental nature. We have preached a Christianity without the Cross.”

If we examine the last week of Jesus’ life carefully, we see the true character of God’s self-giving, Christ-like love as Jesus showed that love to us in the most dramatic possible way. We see that suffering for others, far from being something we can and should avoid, is something we must accept as an inevitable part of the Christian life. If we believe that Jesus incarnated the character of God fully in human form, then we are left with an understanding that no part of Christian life, including Christian leadership, can be conducted without its share of cross bearing. In fact, the love of God shown on the cross is at the center of Christian leadership. And, if God is the God of all creation, then this same love is at the center of great secular leadership as well.

Jesus Revealed as David’s Heir

imgresIn Mark chapter 11, the beginning of Jesus’ last week is described this way:

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’” They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve. (Mark 11:1-11).

 In our church, almost every Palm Sunday, we read or hear these verses at some point in the service. We even act them out with the children. I always think that it is sad that we don’t read them earlier in Lent because the story of Jesus joy-filled entry into Jerusalem and the Easter story of his resurrection always dominate Easter week in a Protestant congregation with lots of children. Our Easter begins with the joy of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and ends with the Empty Tomb. We don’t spend much time thinking about what lies in between. Frequently, the cross is an after-thought, except for the few diligent and often older members that attend a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service. Unfortunately an Easter without the cross represents only half the Gospel. It is not even half the Gospel, for it forgets that Christ came to bear the sins of the world—a world which did then, and does now, reject his gracious offer of forgiveness of sin and new life.

Leaders in the Ancient World and in Our World

There are certain articles you can be sure you will see in magazines and newspapers every so often. Not long ago, I looked at a magazine with an article purporting to give important new information on Jesus. It was a rehash of information that has been talked about for over a hundred years.  imagesAnother inevitable kind of article in election years, and at other times, includes those decrying the lack of leadership in America. It is true. There has been a decline in leadership in America and in the West for a long, long time. However, this complaint can mask the continuity between our leaders and leaders throughout history. The world has always produced more bad and mediocre leaders than wise, loving, great, and good ones.

Many years ago, I read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. [1] What struck me was the fact that, from the beginning of the empire until its fall,  a period of hundreds of years, there were relatively few good emperors. By the time most of the New Testament was written, the empire was often in the hands of poor, corrupt, and often-insane leaders. Gibbon described the decline in leadership as follows:

The manly pride of the Romans … left to the vanity of the East the forms and ceremonies of ostentatious greatness. However, when they lost even the semblance of those virtues which were derived from their ancient freedom, the simplicity of Roman manners was … corrupted by the stately affectation of the courts of Asia. The distinctions of personal merit and influence, so conspicuous in a republic, so feeble and obscure under a monarchy, were abolished by the despotism of the emperors….” [2]

In Jesus’ day, as in our day, leaders often excelled at the art of the politics of power and flattery. Pontius Pilate was just such a man—a friend of the Emperor, a capable administrator, but lacking in true virtue. [3] imgres-1 He was known to be corrupt and weak. Pilate, like most of the Roman governors was addicted to power and the perquisites and symbols that come with power. Like most of the Roman bureaucracy, he was out of touch with the reality of the lives of the common people. We, therefore, should not be surprised that our leaders are often mere politicians, addicted to power, surrounded by increasingly meaningless symbols of power, and unaware and unconcerned with the problems of the common, average person.

A Biblical Symbol of Humility

David began his kingship as a soldier who had once been a shepherd. Although in his later years, he was corrupted by his power, he still had the love and respect of the common people. Near the end of his life, one of his sons, Adonijah, attempted to prematurely become king. Adonijah had a better claim to the throne than Solomon, but David had promised his favorite wife, Bathseba that her son would sit on his throne. So David had Solomon placed on a mule, and enter the city of Jerusalem where he was made king. This action, filled with symbolism of service and humility, was part of the expected entry of a new king into the city. [4]

The prophet Zechariah prophesied that the Messiah would enter the city in just such a way: as follows:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, your king coming unto you; he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon a donkey, even upon a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zechariah 9:9).

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte Flandrin c. 1842The Messiah would not ride into the city on a white charger, like a conquering hero, but on a donkey as a servant king. Jesus’ entry was a part of the revelation that he was the expected Messiah.

Jesus: The First Servant Leader

Jesus may have been the expected Messiah, but his nature was completely unexpected. The people who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem that Palm Sunday so many years ago still expected Jesus to turn out to be a military leader, a king like other kings, and a deliver from the centuries of oppression they had endured under the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Medes, Greeks, and Romans. They expected Jesus to found a kingdom that looked pretty much like the other kingdoms around them, only better. But that is not what God intended and not what Jesus did. This is a lesson we need to learn today. The Kingdom of God is not the United States of America, only better. It is something completely different that dwells in the hearts and minds of those who follow the God of Wisdom and Love. Our human kingdoms can be made better, more reflective of God’s love and wisdom, but they cannot be made into the Kingdom of God. Only God can create the Kingdom of God, and he has chosen to do so using only the power of wisdom and self-giving love.

When James and John came to him asking that they be designated as leaders due special honor because of their association with him, Jesus replied that they had no idea what they were asking (Mark 10:38). When the other of his disciples were furious at James and John, Jesus gave them a teaching about what it means to be a leader in Jesus’ kingdom:

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:42-45).

Jesus came to be a leader. In fact, he came to be long awaited Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace for whom the Jews waited (Isaiah 9:6). He came to establish a kingdom that would never end (v. 7). He also came to reveal God’s love and serve in love—not just any kind of love but the self-giving, merciful, sacrificial love of God to save a lost world he would show the world the very next Friday as he died on the Cross. As a leader, Jesus was still the God of Wisdom and Love he incarnated, and his kingdom and kingship could, therefore, not look anything like our kingdoms or our kings and rulers.

Everything Jesus did he did embodying the All Wise, All Powerful, All Merciful love of God. He came in love as one of us. He called his disciples (and us) in love to follow him. He communicated his message in love, revealing that all the laws and all the messages of goodness of all the ages could be reduced to loving God and loving others with the agape love of God. Even when Jesus rebuked the disciples, as he did from time to time, he rebuked them in love. Finally, in love he empowered them by his Holy Spirit, just as he gifts and empowers us by his Holy Spirit.

At the root of Jesus’ leadership, and at the root of any Christian idea of leadership is God’s character, and the Bible teaches us that God is love (I John 4:8). Furthermore, God is not just any old kind of love, but a love that loves us while we are still far from God. “This is love,” John says, “not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (v. 10). A Christian who is a leader is to be a disciple of the one who said, “If anyone would come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

What this Means for Us

For the last several months, a group of our elders and a few others have been meeting and thinking about what it means to be a leader in our church. They have been thinking about this question in light of our commitment to become a more intentional discipling church. It has taken them about a year and a half or two years to think through this important question and what it means for the selection and training of new leaders for our congregation. Interestingly enough, they were able to reduce this very complex subject to a single graphic in addition to producing a curriculum and other materials.Leadership Medallion Final

To be a Christian leader is first of all to be a Christian. We have to hear the voice of Jesus calling and saying to us, “Come and follow me” (Mark 1:17). To be a Christian is more than believing that Jesus is the Son of God; it is following Jesus and trying to be like Jesus day after day. It is praying, reading our Bibles, exercising our wills, and in every way trying to become like the one we, like Peter, proclaim to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Mark 8:29).

Then, as we grow in Christ, we begin to model Christ for others. This means that as we grow in Christ we reach the point where other people can see the character and person of Jesus in us as we react to our day-to-day problems. We begin to be a person that others look to as they seek to walk the Christian walk and live as Christians. This can last a long, long time as slowly but surely God transforms our character in prayer, Bible Study, service, and other elements of the Christian life.

Finally, we begin to mentor others in the Christian life. A mentor is someone who helps another person achieve a goal, gain a skill, or deserve a position. A mentor is a Christian leader who is also involved in helping another person become a Christian leader. Too many leaders, Christian and otherwise, cling to a position of leadership until they are too old to do anything else but give up and never mentor another to replace them. I think that generations of Presbyterians have been guilty of this, and it is part of the reason that the Presbyterian Church is in such disarray.

We cannot mentor another person unless we ourselves have taken the time to learn what we intend to mentor them to be. We cannot mentor another person unless we understand our Christian duty to the future to prepare another generation of leaders. Finally, we will never mentor anyone until we have learned to love that person unconditionally. In the beginning, it is always easier to do something yourself than to train another person. But, like raising children, unless we think we can live forever, we must do so in love—love for the person and love for the church or family of which we are a part.

Conclusion

Anyone who has read any of my books or any long selection of sermons knows that I am committed to seeing the Word of God as revealed in Christ as the ultimate revelation of the wisdom and love of God—what I sometimes call a Deep Light and Deep Love. By this term I mean a wisdom and love that is deeper than anything found in this created universe, because it finds its source in the being and character of God. [5]Centered Living image

Christians as leaders, not just in our churches but also in our day-to-day lives must embody a kind of leadership that is founded on the leadership of Christ. He is the source of the only really enduring leadership there is or can be. To do this, we must first look at the leadership Jesus embodied—and that leads us straight to a love revealed on the cross.

[1] Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York, NY: Random House: Modern Library Paperback Ed., 2003).

[2] Id, at Chapter 17.

[3] Pilate was a friend of the emperor, or at least his wife was a friend of the emperor, from whom he received his appointment as prefect. He served a relatively long time, indicating that he was a capable person. The Jews felt that he was unfeeling and insensitive to the Jewish people. Eventually, he was removed from office. The gospel accounts portray him as aware of the injustice that is being done to Jesus, but unwilling to face Jewish disapproval and possible appeal to Caesar if he releases someone who claims to be a king. See, Ronald F. Youngblood, ed. “Pilate” in Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary Rev. Ed. (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1995,1986).

[4] The entire incident is portrayed in First Kings 1:1-53.

[5] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed. (Memphis, TN Permisio Por Favor/Book Surge, 2014).

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Discipleship In Stormy Times

imgresThat day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:35-41).

Years ago, a group of young men set sail one morning from Galveston Bay near Houston. They intended to enjoy a day of sailing. The day began with a clear bright blue sky. They made good time to the mouth of the Galveston Bay and out into the Gulf of Mexico. You can imagine that they were swapping stories about their businesses and families. Suddenly, the situation changed. A storm came up quickly and unexpectedly. The light of day became dark as night. The gentle swells turned into waves. They could not see other boats around them. What began as a simple day sailing trip turned into a frightening experience. Many years later when the story was recounted to me, I could still detect the fear in the voice of my friend. My friend said that he had never been this scared in all his life.

Hard times require a deep faith. This reminder is important to us today. Hardly a week goes by when someone does not send me an article about the difficulty of Christian life in America. Recently, I’ve been reading a book written just after President Reagan’s Presidency. The book discusses the remarkable religious revival that preceded his election, and the emergence of Christian faith as a force in politics after a long absence. I’ve been smiling as I read the book because the author seems to assume that this religious resurgence was going to be a permanent part of American politics. Today, as in the 1960’s, religion seems to be losing influence. This has many Christians depressed. Nearly every meeting I attend has some seminar on the gradual shrinking of the church in America. This phenomenon, which used to be limited to what we sometimes call “Old Line” denominations, has more recently impacted churches across the board in America. The question for us is, “Can we remain faithful and strong in our discipleship during stressful times?” I think we can.

Jesus Calms the Storm

 The Story of the Calming of the Sea completes a section of Mark in which Jesus intensively teaches and heals. As mentioned over the past several weeks, Jesus took time to explain to the disciples in detail the Parable of the Four Soils. He even warned them that, when difficult times come, it is hard for those without a deep faith to endure. Then, unexpectedly the disciples are faced with a test of their faith. They go sailing on the Sea of Galilee and are caught in a great storm. They lack faith in Jesus and are rebuked by him as he calms the storm.

images-1

This story comes at an important time in the life of the disciples. Jesus had been revealed to them as a person of great charisma, as a doer of mighty deeds of healing and exorcism, as a teacher of unusual wisdom, and as the one who will usher in the Kingdom of God. Jesus has spent special time with them and given them special teaching. You can imagine that the disciples were filled with energy, but also tired from the ceaseless activity of their ministry. Today we would say, “They were living on adrenalin.” When the disciples set sail with Jesus, you can imagine that they were looking forward to the short day sail to the region on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, as well as to some well-deserved rest.

The Sea of Galilee is an interesting inland sea. As the Jordan River flows southward from its headwaters in the north of Israel near the Lebanon border, it falls some 700 feet below sea level into a basin that forms the sea itself. Due to the hills surrounding the lake, the sea can experience rapid temperature changes, as well as wind changes. This can result in extremely violent and unexpected storms. [1] Jesus and his disciples were caught in just such a storm.

I think most of us have observed that storms of life can come at unexpected times and in unexpected ways. They often come during periods just after we have endured a time of peak performance or stress. I have observed that, at times when I am already tired from Christmas or Easter, there can be particularly difficult issues at Advent. In business, many businessmen and women have seen how often when they are tired and ready for a rest, there are problems at work. Often, just when we think we have a problem solved within our families, with our spouse, or in some other relationship, and are looking forward to smooth sailing, we enter a time of anxiety and stress.

Sometimes the Storms of Life are Perfect Storms

In the year 2000, one of the most successful movies was called, “The Perfect Storm”. [2] The Perfect Storm is based upon an actual incident in which a New England fishing vessel was sunk when it was trapped between two weather fronts and a hurricane, forming a so-called “Perfect Storm.” perfect-stormThe story begins with a sea captain played by George Clooney returning from a fishing voyage with less than success. He is in a difficult period of failure. Although it is late in the season, the captain persuades the crew to return to sea for one last fishing trip before winter comes. Due to difficulties on the trip, they decide that they must return although they know that to do so they will pass through a storm. It is a fateful decision. Caught between a hurricane and two fronts, the ship is tossed in 40-foot waves and finally turns over and sinks with all lives lost.

This is the kind of experience the disciples were having—and it is the kind of experience we all have from time to time. When we have economic hard times, there are stresses on marriages, budgets, families, children, churches, and society itself. Sometimes in the life of you and me, the various negative factors in the environment around us combine into what seems to us to be an emotional, physical, and spiritual perfect storm. It is scary, and the longer it lasts, and the tireder we get, the harder it is to retain our faith in the midst of the troubles. Sometimes we misjudge the size of the storm we are just about to enter. Therefore, we must understand how to survive a “Perfect Storm.”

Keys to staying Afloat in a Perfect Storm

Around the year 1633, the painter Rembrandt painted a picture of the story of Jesus Calming the Sea. The picture is one of the most famous in art history.images Rembrandt pictures Jesus and the twelve disciples in the boat. He even puts himself in the picture as the 13th disciple, representing all of us. In the picture, Rembrandt depicts how people react in a storm. There is a man with the rudder  desperately trying to keep the boat pointed into the waves so it does not capsize. There are four experienced sailors, perhaps Peter, Andrew, James and John, trying to take down the sails and fix the ropes that have come apart in the storm to keep the wind from capsizing the boat and breaking the mast. Another disciple has his head over the rail about to lose his lunch. Other disciples are holding on for dear life. Two disciples are waking Jesus and complaining about his sleeping through the storm. As Rembrandt pictures the scene, no one is looking at Jesus.

The picture intends to give us some clues taken from the story to show us how the disciples might have reacted and how we might react as a kind of warning. While it is a good thing that the disciples who know how to sail are trying to save the ship, it is probably not a good thing that they are not even looking at Jesus. The disciples who are berating Jesus are not doing anything constructive. The best thing we can do in a Perfect Storm is keep our eyes on Scripture and upon Jesus and try as best we can to navigate the storm with the wisdom and strength of God. Even more importantly, when we take our eyes off Christ, we may be implicitly admitting that we are not fully sure of the love and mercy of God in this situation.

A second lesson that we need to remember is this: Continuing to do the things that got us into the storm in the first place are not likely to get us out. One of the underlying themes of the movie The Perfect Storm is that for all of the positive character traits of George Clooney, he is leading his men to a watery grave because of his human pride and ego. So often, as parents, spouses, workers, business owners, and citizens, we continue to try to do the very same things that got us into the storm in the first place. Unconsciously, we may be attempting to prove we were right all along or that our approach to the problem is right. Frequently, this is a big mistake. The first thing we need to do in a storm is look God right in the face and be willing to change. We need to have faith that the God who led us into the storm will get us out. The fact that Jesus was asleep is a sign that Jesus trusts God his Father to either rescue him from the storm or to bring good from the storm that sunk the ship of his life. Jesus can sleep because he has faith.

Over Aggressiveness is Never the Best Strategy in a Perfect Storm

One of the most famous incidents of the Second World War is an event sometimes called “Halsey’s Typhoon,” although it was actually two hurricanes. In December of 1944, through a confluence of errors, not all of which were the fault of Admiral Halsey, Admiral “Bull” Halsey sailed the entire Third Fleet right into the Center of a huge typhoon.USS_Cowpens_(CVL-25)_during_Typhoon_Cobra In the end, 790 men were killed, 100 aircraft were lost, three ships were sunk, and many ships were damaged, some very seriously. The losses were more extensive than the losses of the American Fleet at the Battle of Midway. The losses were so serious that America’s most famous sailor had to endure a Court of Inquiry. About six months later, Admiral Halsey sent his fleet into another hurricane with additional serious damage to the fleet. This time after a court of inquiry Halsey was reassigned. His defect as a leader was described in both instances as over-aggressiveness. Let’s be clear, Admiral Halsey was the most famous fighting admiral of World War II. He was one of only four five star admirals (Fleet Admirals) in American history. He was a great leader. Unfortunately, tired after four years of war and near the end of his career, he allowed the military virtue of aggressiveness to become his downfall.

Psychologists talk a lot about the Fight or Flight Syndrome. All of us, male and female, old and young, when threatened tend to aggressively do what we think will work to bring the success, joy and happiness we desire. Often it is a response we have made to stress over and over again during our lives, and which we should know will not work. The Story of the Jesus Calming the Storm reminds us that for disciples, this is not the right move. A calm, sure, faith in God, and a wise, loving response to the problem is always the better choice.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Harpers Bible Dictionary (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985), 330.

[2] William D. Wittliff, wr. The Perfect Storm dir. Wolfgang Peterson. Produced by Paul Weinstein, Wolfgang Peterson, Gail Katz staring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, based upon The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger (June 30, 2000). My description is based upon the wikipedia article about the movie. Not upon the actual events upon which the movie is based.

Having a Fertile Heart


images-2Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times
(Mark 4:8).

In one of her recent books, Beth Moore describes a trip she and her husband took to Angola. While they were in Angola, they saw children with signs of malnutrition. One sign of malnutrition in Africa is when the normally dark hair of the children turns blonde. In Angola, they saw many, many blonde children. In some villages, the farmers were so poor that they ate their seed for planting. Therefore, the crops were habitually bad. Beth Moore sees an analogy between physical hunger in Africa and the spiritual hunger in America. Too often, Christians go to church and receive the Word of God, eating spiritual food, without sowing it for a harvest. Here is the way she puts it:

“Some just eat the seed and never sow it for a harvest. You want examples? Why have many of us heard hundreds of messages on freedom, done every line of Bible studies like Breaking Free, wept over them, been blessed by them and even memorized parts of them, yet remain in captivity? Because we ate the seed instead of sowing it. Why have many of us read books on forgiving people, known the teachings were true and right, cried over them, marked them with our highlighters, yet remain in our bitterness? Because we ate the seed instead of sowing it. Why have we repeatedly heard how Christ has forgiven our sinful pasts, and sobbed with gratitude over the grace of it, yet we remain in bondage to condemnation? Because we ate the seed instead of sowing it.”  [1]

parables-2-sower-5This blog completes a series on the parable of the four soils by talking about being fertile and the harvest Christ can reap from our hearts if we will only give him open, humble, faithful, and fertile hearts. God is always sowing his Word into our hearts. God is always seeking to fill us with his love and grace. The question is, “Are we open to the growth of God in our hearts?” “Are we ready to allow God to grow a crop of love and wisdom in our hearts, sometimes in unexpected ways?” “Are we ready to stop just eating and bear fruit?”

For the last month, the “Parable of the Four Soils” has been at the center of each weekly article. The parable is about a farmer who is sowing seed in a First Century Galilean farm. Unlike many of his parables, Jesus took time out to explain the parable and the New Testament writers recorded his explanation. He began and ended the parable with the injunction to “Listen.” We began looking at the seed that falls on the rocky path. Nothing can grow on rock. Seed falling on a rocky path is eaten by birds (4:4). Some human hearts are like this soil. The good news cannot find any root, and the Evil One comes and takes the seed away (4:15). We looked at the rocky, shallow soil. Such soil permits some growth, but growth cannot last because the ground is shallow (4:5). Some people are like this spiritually: At the beginning they are enthusiastic; but, when hard times come, they have no depth, and their faith dies (4:17). Some seed is like seed that falls among thorns. Such seed cannot grow. Any growth is choked out by the thorns (4:7). People dominated by the worries of life, by the desire for wealth, and by other desires, are like this soil. Their faith is choked to death by their thorny heart (4:18-19).

The Good Soil

At the end of the parable, Jesus tells us that some of God’s good seed falls on the good soil—and it produces a crop, thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and sometimes even a hundred fold (4:8). A fertile human heart is like this soil: when the word of God falls upon it, it bears a crop of faith (4:20).

images My great grandfather on Mom’s side was a farmer in Muncie, Indiana. He traveled over into Illinois, to just west of Muncie, Illinois, where he bought 160 acres of land, which he and his son farmed all of their lives, and which my uncle and cousin have farmed all of their lives. My mother, who grew up on and near the farm, was exceedingly proud of it. The topsoil in that particular part of Illinois is some of the best farmland in America. Year in and year out, in good years and bad years, this little farm produces a crop. Some years are great. Some years are not so great, but there is always a crop. Why? Because the topsoil is some of the deepest, richest topsoil in America.

The human heart is like this topsoil. If we have humble hearts (the word “humble” comes from the Latin word for soil), if we pray diligently both talking and listening to God, if we allow the Word of God to enter our lives in Scripture and in the presence of Christ, if we allow God’s Grace to transform us, and if we reach out in loving service to others, then we have a heart that will grow a crop for God.

The parable warns us that the Kingdom of God does not automatically grow in our hearts nor is it automatically felt in our lives. For the Word to grow in our lives, we must have hearts open to God. Our minds, our emotions, our will, our bodies, and our unique human spirit must be open to the Word and Sprit of God, so that we grow to become more like God, which means becoming more like the Lord Jesus Christ.

Wisdom literature always begins with the injunction, “The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom.” I another work I have defined this “Fear of the Lord” as a Deep Respect and Awe.” [2] When we are open to God and revere God for who God is, we become open to the growth of his Word in our lives. When we become humble before God, the Kingdom of God finds a place to grow in our lives, as we trust in God and the Way of Christ in forming our character and guiding our actions. The result is a wonderful, fundamental change in our personalities and in the way we live and relate to other people.

The Good Seed

In any kind of farming, it is true as the old proverb says, “You reap what you sow.” No one ever sowed corn and got tomatoes. The kind of spiritual crop we will ultimately reap in the spiritual life depends on the seed we sow. If we sow the seed of God’s Word, if we sow the seed of the Good News of God’s love and mercy for the human race, if sow the Good News of the Kingdom of God, if we sow a seed of the kind of self-giving love God showed on the Cross, then we will certainly reap a crop that reflects the character of God and God’s intention fort the human race. In fact, the Kingdom of God grows up right in our hearts.imgres

As we mentioned a few weeks ago, the seed in this passage is the Word of God Jesus came embodying in his life, and which God desires to be embodied in our lives. God desires us to become little Christ’s, filled with God’s Spirit and bearing a crop for Him. Receiving Christ is not the end of the journey of faith; it is its beginning. The life of discipleship is the gradual growth in our lives of God’s Kingdom and character. The point of coming to Christ is to become a disciple and to grow, change, mature, and deepen all the days of our lives.

There is a passage from Revelation, which reads like this:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:1-2).

imgres-2These words, from the last chapter of Revelation, show God’s intention for the lives of the Apostles and for our lives. We are to be little trees of life drawing our spiritual sustenance from God by the power of the Holy Spirit, the water of life. And, we are to bear fruit—fruit that will heal our lives, the lives of those closest to us, and even the lives of those we hardly ever meet, even to all the nations of the world. The growth of the kingdom in our lives has consequences for everyone around us and for the entire world. What we do in our homes, in our families, and among our acquaintances has eternal consequences for us an for our world. Love is just that powerful.

The Incredible Growth

You might be thinking, “How can I possibly become a person who bears a crop like that?” “I am so broken or so immature or I’ve done so many things wrong, how could this possibly apply to me?” If you are a person like this, perhaps the way Jesus concludes this teaching in this area might be helpful. A little further in Mark, we read this:

imgres-3Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade (Mark 4:30-32).

Jesus is saying that the power of God is such that a very small seed of the Kingdom planted in your heart can grow and grow and become a great tree of faith—in fact it can become such a fruitful tree of life in you that your life will actually and really be a healing not just for you but for everyone your life touches.

As I have been thinking about this blog over the past week or so, I have been remembering trips to my grandfather’s farm. One of the things I remember is a certain smell in the springtime. Early in the spring, the farmers till the soil and prepare the soil for planting. If a spring rain occurs just as the soil has been tilled, there is a particular smell in the air. It is the fresh, fertile smell of soil just before the crop is planted.

Today, they don’t plant like they did in Jesus’ day. Modern computerized farming techniques permit farmers to place each seed just where they want it to be to maximize yield. If you were to drive by sometime in late April or May, you would not see a thing. But, if you drive by that farm in late July or August, the corn will be taller than a man, and the fields will be green with a harvest for miles and miles and miles.imgres-4

The Kingdom of God is like this. When you’ve opened, softened, deepened, and fertilized your heart, you will smell something wonderful—but you won’t see the fruit. You won’t even see the seed. Later, sometimes months and years later, when you look, you will see the seed of God’s grace.

Just before the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jesus says the following:

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come (Mark 4:26-29).

If you allow God to plant the kingdom in your heart, one day you will look back and see the crop—a crop that when it is harvested, you will not believe or understand or how it could happen in your life. In the beginning, faith looks like an awfully small, insignificant seed. Later on, it will be the largest crop you can imagine! It will be a crop of personal healing, of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your own character, and it will have sown itself into countless lives around you.

The Cross is the Tree of Life for Us.

searchIn John, Jesus puts it this way: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). In the end, whatever crop any of us manages to sow and reap is dependent upon another sower—one who sowed his life for us. The final message of the Gospel is not a message for today. We will meditate on this message later in Lent. The hardest lesson of the Gospel is this: Those would enter the Kingdom of God and have their hearts and lives transformed, must take up a cross and follow the One who went to the Cross for us. The Kingdom begins with faith, but it grows with love—not just any kind of love, but a love that gives and gives beyond any human wisdom. It was that love God showed us on the Cross, and it is that love which finally transforms our lives.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Beth Moore, Stepping Up: A Journey through the Psalms of Ascent (Nashville, TN: Lifeway Publishing, 2007), 81.

[2] G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed. (Cordova, TN: Shiloh Publishing, 2010, 2014) and Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

Avoid Being Choked By Thorns

imgres-1Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. (Mark 4:3-9).

 I find gardening frustrating. There are several facts of life about gardens that I don’t particularly like. Among them is this simple fact: Weeds are easier to grow than flowers. No matter how well you prepare the soil, no matter how much fertilizer you put in the ground, no matter how-well tilled your garden is, sooner or later the weeds begin to take over—and when they do, they choke out everything else. I don’t know why God could not have created a world in which the flowers crowd out the weeds in my garden. It makes perfect sense to me, anyway.

In the Midsouth, we are so used to Bermuda lawns that we forget that in other parts of the country Bermuda is thought of as a weed! When it gets into a border, or a flowerbed, it is almost impossible to get out, and it eventually will take over the garden. Just across the street and the pond from our yard is a wooded area. This wooded area has poison ivy in it. The poison ivy gets into my yard every spring, and I have to eradicate it. There are also thorns in the woods. The variety of thorns we have are not particularly bushy, but they have a deep tap root and are almost impossible to get out of the garden once they have become established. I have several pretty large azaleas in my front yard and in two of them these thorns have managed to get well-established. The root system of the thorns is intertwined with the root system of the azaleas and it is almost impossible to keep the thorns from choking out the plant. Every spring, I fight another year of the never-ending battle between the azalea grower and the thorns. I guarantee you if I stopped fighting for five years, the thorns would win.

The same phenomenon is true in the spiritual life. It is far easier to develop negative spiritual qualities than positive ones. If we are not vigilant in rooting out the thorns in our spiritual life, sooner or later they will come to dominate us.

The Parable of the Four Soils

This is the third blog in a series of four blogs on the “Parable of the Four Soils” from Mark. In this parable, Jesus describes the human heart as like four soils, hard, rocky and shallow, dominated by thorns, and fertile.

Two weeks ago, we talked about the problem of hardness of heart—a heart so hard that the Gospel simply cannot find a home. Last week, we talked about the shallow, rocky heart—a heart in which the gospel finds a home for a time, but when hard times come and growth is necessary, that person’s heart is too shallow for faith to take root and grow. Today, we are talking about the third problem—the cluttered and thorn-filled heart where faith can grow for a while but is eventually choked out.

Life among the Thorns

In Spanish, the word for “Footpath” is “Sendera.” One day, years and years ago, I went hunting on a ranch on the north side of the King Ranch in South Texas. sendero-1Large bushes, some of them thorn bushes taller than a man’s head, cover the land. In order to get from place to place, someone had bulldozed paths through the bushes called “Senderas” by which a person or jeep could get from one place to another. There were some smaller paths that animals had made in the predominate brush. (I had a frightening encounter with a havalina, which is a kind of wild pig, in one of these Sendera’s.) These thorn bushes were all the plant growth there was in places they took over, because once it was overgrown with the brush, light could not reach the ground and everything else was killed. The thorns and brush choked out every other kind of growth.

In the Holy Land in Jesus’ day, some of the land was sometimes covered with bushes, what Jesus calls “thorns,” because these bushes did have thorns on them. If land were left unattended for any length of time, these thorny bushes would take over a field. The way farmers tried to control the thorns was to burn the ground after each harvest. This would burn any thorns to the ground. However, in the spring, the thorns would take over again, and if a farmer were not careful, they would choke out a crop. [1]

imgres As I mentioned in the first blog, this parable is significant because Jesus explains the parable in detail to his disciples, and that explanation is found in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Here is how Jesus explains the parable in Mark:

Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. (Mark 4:15-19)

 So we see that Jesus sees the thorns as representing (1) the worries of this life, (2) the deceitfulness of wealth, and the (3) desire for pleasureable things. This is one of those cases when the Bible might as well have been written yesterday. These same things choke out our faith today.

When our staff met this week, Cindy immediately took us to the first thing on the list: worry. So often, when reading a list that includes greed and desire, we shift our attention immediately to those things as potential thorns. This is unfortunate because “the worries of this life” are more common ways in which our faith is choked to death. What are the “worries of this life?” The worries of this life are all the things that you and I legitimately worry about taken beyond the point where there is anything productive in our worries. For example, we all legitimately worry about our children. It begins to choke our faith when we worry and worry without trusting that God will take care of them once we’ve done the best we can. We worry about our work. We all worry about having enough money when we grow old. We legitimately worry about a lot of things. When we continue to worry once we’ve done all we can do, our worry begins to choke out our faith. I could go on and on because there are as many worries of this life as there are things to worry about!

The second thing Jesus mentions is the deceitfulness of wealth. I think that the only way we can get a handle on this in our society is to think about what was wealth in the ancient world. Wealth in the ancient world did not include stocks, bonds, investments in hedge funds, gold futures, 401k plans, IRA’s, or any such things. In Jesus’ day a wealthy person owned his own home, and it would have been nicer than most but not nearly as nice as most of our homes, had a reserve of food of some amount, and had accumulated some silver or gold items. This was wealth in the ancient world.

Over and over again, the Bible makes two comments about wealth being deceitful. First, it promises a life without the worries of the common person—but it never delivers (Proverbs 11:28). The wealthy worry just like the poor. Second, it promises a security it cannot give. Proverbs warns us that wealth can flee away (Proverbs 25:3). As we begin trusting in riches and in power we come to trust in an idol—in something that will, in the end, leave us empty. Having enough is important. However, we cannot focus all of our attention and time on making money. It cannot be our ultimate source of security in life.

Finally, we can allow the good things of this life, the pleasures of this life, to gradually choke out our faith. Once again, these pleasures are not bad things in themselves. They become thorns that choke out our faith when they take up too much of time and energy. I don’t want to belabor the point—and there are a thousand possible illustrations. Perhaps just one in one area will give us some idea of how good things can become bad things when taken to excess. Let’s suppose I have a hobby, like sailing. (It is a safe bet that most people in Memphis do not spend a lot of the time sailing!). I purchase a small boat that I can afford and I begin sailing. Pretty soon, I am leaving work early on Friday, taking of all day Saturday and Sunday to sail my little boat. I begin to buy extra equipment for my little boat, and I must take classes to qualify as an expert in the use of all of them. One day, I decide I need a bigger boat, and after a while a still bigger boat. What was once a hobby to help me relax from work has now become a huge distraction. I no longer have time for church, for my family, for friendships, or for God. My little boat has become a big thorn bush. This same analysis applies in every area in which there are pleasures of life we can legitimately enjoy or let them dominate our lives.

Clearing out the Thorns

If we are going to be able to allow the garden of our hearts to grow in discipleship, we have to get the thorns under control. This can be hard because as I said at the beginning, thorns are not necessarily bad in themselves; they just take too much of our time, talent, money, and energy, sapping us of the ability to bear fruit for God. In some ways, the easiest thorns to get rid of are the worst: if I am an alcoholic or a drug addict, I know I must get rid of my alcoholism before I can grow in Christ. It is not so easy to see the necessity if I am a workaholic. Working hard is a good thing. Therefore, it can be hard to see when it has become something demonic. Golf or exercise, or any hobby is a good thing. It can be hard to see when it is taking up too much of my time, money, and energy. Some thorns need to be eradicated; some thorns just need to be controlled.

new phone day 027One of my worst thorn problems in my front yard is, as I said earlier, in my azaleas. I cannot get the root system for these thorns completely out of my yard. However, I have learned that what I can do is control the thorns by cutting them back as far as possible the minute they come up and I can see them. The thorns don’t threaten the azaleas because I have stunted their growth. Our dealings with thorns can be the same. There are thorns, like the allure of pleasures and riches that we cannot entirely eliminate, but we can get them under constant control. We can prevent them from dominating our lives.

Life in a Thornless Field

One day in those Sendera’s in South Texas, I went down a winding path looking for a javelina or a deer.  imgres-2After a few twists and turns on the path, I was pretty well lost—and I had a hard time finding my way out. As I mentioned before, the bushes, some which were thorny, were taller than my head and it could be dark inside the path. There was always the danger that you would turn the next corner and face a charging animal (which never happened). Not only do the thorns choke out the spiritual life within us, they also cause us to lose our sense of spiritual direction.

One of the benefits of cutting out the thorns from our lives and burning them to the roots is that we can gain a clear vision of what God is calling us to do and to be. We have a clear set of priorities—with God firmly implanted in first place. And, because we have God in first place, it gets a whole lot easier to put everything else in the proper place as well. Pretty soon, we have a kind of peace, not a peace in the sense of no possible worries, but a peace in the sense of having done the best we can possibly do.

Not long ago, I went to a professional about a problem common among people my age. I was worried about the problem and had taken a lot of steps to solve the problem over the years. After our consultation was over, and I and done what was asked of me, I felt a kind of peace. I had done all that I knew to do about the problem. Now, the future is in the hands of God. I’ve done my part, and all I need to do is to keep doing my part. If it doesn’t work out, I’ve done my best.

The peace we get from getting the thorns out of our lives is the peace of having done the best we can do. We may still wish we had a bit more money, more things, more pleasures, etc. However, we have them in the proper place; and, we can no longer be seriously shaken by our desires. With God first in our lives, we have plenty of time and money left for secondary things—and these secondary things no longer dominate us the way they used to. There is something liberating about this.

An Important Key to Fruitful Discipleship: Get Rid of the Thorns

This week our text really asks us to do two things: First take an inventory of the thorns in our lives. Secondly, we must perform what I call a “thornectomy” on them. No two of us have exactly the same thorns. For some people, things are thorns that barely bother others. However, we all have thorns in the garden of our heart that can and will crush out faith if we let them grow. If we are to be the disciples God calls us to be, one of the first things we must do is cut the thorns out of our lives or burn them to the ground so that they no longer choke our faith to death.

Copyright G. Christopher Scruggs, 2015, All Rights Reserved

[1] William Barclay, “Mark” in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1975), 96.

The Sower and Shallow Ground

imgres“Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” Then Jesus said, ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear’” (Mark 4:3-9).

When we moved to Brownsville, Tennessee, we lived in a home with very shallow topsoil and a lot of clay underneath. It was almost an acre. One winter, we decided to purchase a pine tree that would grow in the midsouth as a Christmas tree and then plant it in our yard. A group of men in the church helped move the very heavy tree in and out of the house, a farmer with a backhoe helped dig a hole of the correct size and depth, and we planted the tree at the recommended time of year. It was dead by August 1. The soil was just too shallow and poor to support the tree. Over the time we lived in the house, we had a similar problem with every non-irrigated foot of our yard. Each time we planted anything less hardy than privet, it looked good for a short time, and then when the weather got hot and dry as it does in mid-summer, it died.

Last week, we began a series of sermons concerning the Parable of the Four Soils. The parable is about a farmer that sows seed in a field. Some falls on ground that is packed hard and filled with rocks. Nothing ever grows there. Some seed falls on what is called “rocky ground,” that is soil where the topsoil is not deep enough and rich enough to allow the plant to receive nutrients when the weather is hot and dry. Some soil falls in among the thorns. Some soil falls in the places where there is deep topsoil.parables-2-sower-5

In the parable, God is the sower, the Word is the seed, and we are various soils. Last week, we talked about what it means to have a heart so hard that nothing, not even the Word of God, can penetrate it. This is is the worst condition we can be in. When our hearts are hard, we do not even allow God to enter into our being. We don’t respond to the Gospel. The Word of God, the Wisdom of God, and the Grace of God are simply eaten away by the Evil One.

Soil in Jesus’ Day and In Ours

Years ago, I had an opportunity to travel to Israel. A retired Baptist pastor, beloved in Brownsville, led a trip to Israel every few years. He lived across the street from the Presbyterian Church, and his next-door neighbor was one of our members, an elderly lady who loved her neighbor and our church. As this retired pastor entered his 80’s, his friends had mostly died, and so he had trouble filling up his last trip to the Holy Land. In addition, he had fallen off his roof and had several pins in his legs and hip. Our Session asked if I would go along to help fill up the trip. The congregation offered to help with the costs, and so I went. We landed in Tel Aviv late one night. After clearing customs, we got on a bus and traveled north of Tel Aviv to a hotel in a beautiful place on the Mediterranean Sea area called “Natanya.”

ranchmainThe next day, we got up and traveled first to Haifa and then south to Nazareth. At one point, we crossed from Israel to the West Bank. In some places, unimproved land in Israel and the West Bank reminds me of the Hill Country of Texas. It is filled with rocks with very little topsoil. A few rugged trees and grasses can live in the soil, but most of it can intermittently be just barren rocky soil.

Jesus, of course, had walked the “hill country” of the Galilee from one side to the other. He was very familiar with rocky, shallow soil. One characteristic of this soil is that it is shallow, rocky, and poor. In the winter and spring when there is some rain grass and a few hardy plants can grow, but when the sun gets hot the water in the soil evaporates, and almost any crop dies.

We sometimes read our Bibles and think of what a religious people the ancient Jews must have been. Scholars think otherwise. There is a passage in II Chronicles that alerts us to the fact that, from the time of the prophet Samuel until the days of Josiah, Passover was rarely, if ever, celebrated by the average people or by the leaders of Israel. Only a few folks probably continued to celebrate the feast. [1] It faded from most people’s memory. The writer James Michener wrote a famous novel about ancient Israel called The Source. [2] I remember being kind of disturbed by his portrayal of the Jewish people in the ancient world. He pictured them as only partially captured by the religion of Moses, and continually intermixing with the native religions. It was not until I got to seminary that I learned that this is probably true. The Jews could have a very shallow faith.

The ancient Jews were not unlike us. They were busy and often had all the worries people have. Discipleship takes time and energy, and they did not always have the time and energy. They lived in a culture in which there were many non-Jews, most of whom worshiped fertility gods and goddesses. Over time, many Jews only paid only nominal attention to the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus would have known many such people. They had some connection to the faith of Israel, but when the crops were bad, they visited the pagan shrines, performed the ancient fertility rites, and hoped for the best. Their faith was a shallow faith.imgres-1

We laugh each Christmas and Easter about “Christmas and Easter Christians.” The truth is, however, that the problem with contemporary Christianity is a bit deeper than just those who rarely attend. All of us some of the time, and a few of us most of the time, are content to be shallow Christians. We are unprepared for the heat of the trials that come into every human life. When trials come, we don’t have the depth to meet them.

What Prevents Your Soil from Being Deep?

When I began thinking about this blog, I thought it would be hard. First of all, Americans in general don’t like to be called shallow. There is something in our psyche that rebels against that particular charge. Second, I don’t normally think of myself as a shallow person. I can relate to hardness of heart and thorns a lot easier than I can relate to shallow soil. (At least I could before I began to write this sermon.) Therefore, I began to think of the ways in which I can be a shallow Christian. Interestingly, it was not long before it was much easier to to think of myself as spiritually shallow.

Perhaps it will help to think about what it means to be shallow soil. Literally, our text reads “rocky ground.” The land in Springfield Missouri is really rocky and my father was a gardener. I am very familiar with the need to remove rocks from soil. Whenever my father would extend his garden or plant a new one, one of the things we most needed was a pick age. The ground around Springfield is filled with rocks, some of them so big you have to break them to get them out of the ground. Planting a garden meant getting rid of rocks.

imagesI used to travel to Lexington Kentucky to attend Asbury Theological Seminary. In order to shave a few miles off my journey, I would take a short cut that took me through the horse country outside of Lexington. I used to wonder at the fields where those thoroughbreds graze: they were greener and had fewer weeds than my front lawn! Interestingly, it was not the grass that first attracted me. It was the wonderful, lovely rock walls lining the fields for miles. Where do suppose those rock walls came from? They came from the fields. The farmers who originally farmed that land, removed the rocks, and worked the soil until the land was able to grow that lovely grass.

In order to have good soil, you have to remove the rocks and deepen the topsoil. It may, therefore, be important for us to ask the question, “What are the rocks in our spiritual topsoil?” One of the most important things Christians can do to make our spiritual topsoil better is remove the rocks. The biggest rocks in our field are sins we have never confessed, never repented of, never gotten out of our lives. We all have such sins. These are the sins we kind of like and don’t want to stop. We may occasionally feel bad about them. We may confess them in the sense that we know they are there. But, we have never really and truly repented and removed them.

We might ask if we, like many ancient Jews, have shallow commitment that simply will not withstand the pressures of hard times. In order to sustain our faith through the many, many difficult times of life, we have to be committed. The word in the Bible we translate “faith” does not mean simply believing that Jesus was the Son of God. It includes the element of trust. We have to believe in our minds and in the depth of our hearts, so that we live and act on the basis of our faith. Our faith is like a marriage: we must be committed to God and to his Word absolutely and without compromise.

We can also ask if we lack will power. marathonYou know, I have never run a Marathon. I have a medical reason I sometimes give, but the truth may be that I just do not have the will power to do the level of necessary training. I don’t want to get up at 5:30 every morning week after week, month after month and run several miles. The spiritual life is not a sprint. It is a Marathon, and it takes will power. You have to get up and be a disciple even when it is cold or hot and you don’t feel like it.

The life of discipleship also takes endurance and conditioning. I don’t watch a lot of sports, but here is what I can tell you—most experts will tell you that the difference between the best athletes and the average athletes is not usually native talent. Once you get to the professional level or the highest college level, all the athletes are extremely talented. It is conditioning that makes the difference. It is conditioning that produces the endurance athletes need. It is keeping on keeping on every day in the conditioning process and not letting up. Endurance is the single most important thing in a Marathon—and it is important in our spiritual life.

The difference between Mother Teresa and most of us is not native talent. It is practice. It is being a disciple in good times and in bad, in rainy seasons and dry seasons, in times of growth and times of stagnation. It is being a better disciple tomorrow than I was today, day after day, month after month, year after year. When we do that, we grow as disciples and we bear a crop for God.

Improving Your Topsoil

Many, many years ago, I backpacked across Europe. One day, high in the Swiss Alps, I stopped because something smelled really bad. In the field just down the road a farmer was emptying his septic tank, spraying the accumulated waste into his field using a giant hose. For generations, every spring and early summer the farmers in Switzerland have been emptying their septic tanks and fertilizing their fields. After a few hundred years of this, you have some really great fields.images-1

This fall, we had the opportunity to visit Italy for a wedding. The land in Italy in the area we were in is very interesting. I have told many people, the land outside the window of our room was so lovely, I thought I was in a scene from the Lord of the Rings where Tolkien describes Hobbiton in my copy of the Fellowship of the Ring. [3] It looked just like the cover of my old copy from college. Interestingly, the land is often kind of rocky and poor near where we were. However, generations of farmers have tilled and improved that soil. They have built little walls to keep erosion down, fertilized, hoed, and deepened the soil year after year for generations until it contains lovely olive groves and vineyards. Good farmers are always improving their soil. Great farmers of the past did so year after year, after year.

If we want the soil of our souls to be deep, fertile, and lovely, we are going to have to go about the task of improving the soil. We are all sinners. We all have rocks in our souls. We all will have some “rocky sin” in our lives until the day of our death. But we can have deeper spiritual soil than we have today. Actually, God has made it pretty simple, if not pretty easy. Here are a few simple tips.

First, get rid of those rocks. It really helps to form the habit of reviewing each day and asking what you think you did best and worst. If you have a temper, or a rash tongue, or a tendency to drink a bit too much, or whatever, I can assure you that reminding yourself daily that you wish you had done something a bit differently is a wonderful way to keep your mind on the rock in your spiritual life you want to remove. [4]

Pray for yourself, your family, your friends, and your co-workers—everyone you know. Pray for the Holy Spirit to enter your life in a new way. Read your Bible daily and join some small group of folks who are getting together to let the Word of God transform them. Finally, find a place to serve. Service changes you outside and inside. We need also to remember that part of serving is sowing. In the Parable, God is the Sower, Christ is the Sower, the Apostles are the Sower—and we are the sower. Our primary duty as Christians is to sow the Word of God into the lives people day in and day out.

God Wants Us to be Deep.

You remember my trip to the Holy Land? I forgot to mention a little fact. At one point we crossed a border. On one side of the border, the land was wasteland. images-2Within just a few yards, we saw oranges, grapes, grapefruit, and all kinds of crops. What made the difference? One one side no one improved the soil, never irrigated, never fertilized, never added new humus, never improved the soil. On the other side they did.

Jesus told us this parable to teach us that we need to be sure that the soil of our souls is deep enough so that the seed of faith doesn’t just pop up and die, but has room to grow and prosper, even in hard times. To do this we must get rid of the rocks of sin, pray, read our Bibles daily, and serve others in love. This is the key to having a deep heart.

Prayer: God of Wisdom and Love: Thank you for this wonderful parable of the human heart. You came to show us what we were intended to be and to give us a glimpse of the wonders of your Kingdom. You call us to enter this kingdom of wisdom and love as little children. Help us to hear this story with the ears of little children and to understand in the depth of our souls its meaning for our lives. In Jesus Name, Amen.

 

Copyright, 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] II Chronicles 35:12 reads: “The Passover had not been observed like this in Israel since the days of the prophet Samuel; and none of the kings of Israel had ever celebrated such a Passover as did Josiah, with the priests, the Levites and all Judah and Israel who were there with the people of Jerusalem.

[2] James A. Michener, The Source (New York, NY: Marjay Books, 1963).

[3] J.R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York, Ballantine Books, 1965).

[4] One of the best ways to do this is to have the habit of examining yourself daily. A common so-called examen is one attributed to St. Ignatius: It goes something like this: 1. Become aware of God’s presence. 2. Review the day with gratitude. 3. Pay attention to your emotions. 4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it. 5. Look toward tomorrow. See more at: http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/#sthash.zzhGUx24.dpuf

Are you on the Path or in the Field?

“Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” Then Jesus said, ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear’” (Mark 4:3-9).

parables-2-sower-5About four months ago, Kathy sent me a note concerning a discipleship program she wanted to help begin at our church. For several years, I have been pondering how we could have a more vital local evangelism and discipleship program. Because we are involved in Living Waters for the World, I have pondered how we might develop a more intentional evangelism program for our Living Waters installations. Because our church has an active local and international missions program, I have wondered how we might do something in the area of evangelism and discipleship that was truly international–something that would work in America and overseas. As I began to read about the program Kathy sent me, I became very excited, because it seemed to me that it potentially answered these questions.

Part of the program Kathy sent to me is built upon the “Parable of the Four Soils” found in all three of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Immediately, the idea came to me for a four-week sermon series entitled, “What Kind of Soil are You?” Once the staff got their mind around the idea of four sermons on one parable of Jesus, they suggested that we change the title to “The Four Soils: Working in God’s Field.” For the next few blogs, will be looking at one aspect of the Parable of the Four Soils and then talking about how this parable challenges us as we grow as disciples in Christ.

I think it was about thirty-five years ago that I first read this parable as a new Christian. I’ve now read it many, many times through many phases of life. This story, which is absolutely one of the most important of Jesus’ parables, challenges and enlightens every Christian in every phase of the Christian life. I have experienced times when my life looked like each of these soils, and I hope the next weeks will help readers think about how they can become better disciples of Christ in 2015.

Jesus often taught in parables—seemingly simple stories that, properly understood, open up the reality of God and God’s Word in new and powerful ways. Some people can pass over the parables just because they seem so simple. This is a great mistake. When I was a new Christian, I liked the clear passages of the teachings of Jesus and Paul because they helped me the most. These days, I like the parables more and more. Twenty years as a preacher have shown me how hard it is to be simple and clear. Twenty years as a preacher has taught me that the most profound lessons cannot really be taught propositionally. They must be taught in such a way that they enter the heart of the person. Jesus was a master of this art.

imagesThe philosopher Soren Kierkegaard talked about the importance of indirect communication. Direct communication is when we state a proposition or lesson clearly and didactically. We leave the reader no choice but to accept or reject what we are saying. There is a place for this kind of teaching. There is, however, another kind of communication. This kind of communication we may call “indirect communication.” Here we leave the reader open to understand the story or concept in different ways. In his book, Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard tells and retells the story of Abraham and Isaac in different ways, all the while making the reader think about Abraham and his faith, and how unusual this faith was. [1] By this method, he hoped to help the reader—and all of us—come to a deeper understanding of Christian faith. This is exactly what Jesus is doing in his parables.

The Battle Between Farmers and Birds

In Mark, the Parable of the Four Soils is found after Jesus has been introduced as the One who brings the Kingdom and the Good News of the Kingdom to Israel. By this time, he had gained a certain amount of notoriety and opposition to his teaching had begun to develop. The parable is set near Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee. The crowd that came to see him was so large that he got into a boat and began to teach (Mark 4:1-2). One can imagine that in the crowd there were those who wanted to know more and those who really came to criticize Jesus.

Jesus tells a pretty simple story about a first century Jewish farmer. It is very possible that, as Jesus was teaching, he looked up and saw a farmer sowing seed and told the parable as a farmer was actually doing exactly what he described. [2] If this interpretation is true, Jesus was both using a story and an object example to reinforce his teaching and to support the memories of his listeners.

In Jesus’ day, fields were crudely prepared. imgres A farmer would go through his field, remove rocks and other impediments to growth, rough the ground, clear thorns and weeds, and then sow seeds by hand. Many of the fields around Jesus would have had paths running through them, perhaps running from the Sea of Galilee up into the hills beyond. A farmer might walk down one of these paths sowing seed by hand. As he threw the seed, the wind would catch some of it and blow the seed back on the path. Other of the seed would travel out, some to the very perimeter of the little field. After sowing, a good farmer would then cover the seed as best he could with dirt to prevent birds from eating most of next year’s crop. Some of the seed, however, fell right on the path where it could not possibly grow. There, the land was filled with rocks and the dirt beaten hard as concrete by passing feet. Nothing could live there. Therefore, whatever was left on the path sooner or later was going to be eaten by the birds.

imgresWhen I was thinking about this parable, I had two images in mind almost immediately. The first was the Alfred Hitchcock movie “The Birds.” [3] If you remember the movie, you will recall that the movie depicts a town in California that is suddenly attacked by swarms of birds who try to injure and even kill human beings. It was very scary! It turns out that Hitchcock’s use of birds as a main character in a horror movie is not without precedent. Jesus does the same thing! It turns out that the Bible just occasionally uses birds, and especially black birds, as a symbol for evil. [4]

The second memory was a memory of reading Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven” when I was in Junior High or High School. We all remember the constant dark refrain in the poem, “Nevermore!” The  poe__s_raven_by_twistedsynapses-d3keb3lRaven in that poem was really pretty scary. The poem ends with the Raven depicted as a demon like creature. It reads like this:

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil – prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us – by that God we both adore –
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore –
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting – “Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore! Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken! Leave my loneliness unbroken! – quit the bust above my door! Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!” Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor Shall be lifted – nevermore!” [5]

Jesus, when he explained the parable to his disciples, identified the birds with the Evil One, Satan, or the Devil who prevents and devours human connection with God if at all possible (Matthew 13:19; Mark 4:15; Luke 8:12). This identification must have some common resonance in the human psyche. We all have a kind of fear of irrational creatures that can peck at us and harm us. images-1 For farmers, until quite recently, birds were predators that might eat up a crop if not scared away by the farmer with scarecrows and the like. In Jesus’ day, no farmer would have wanted to see birds near his field eating his seed or his crop. We are not supposed to like these birds or the idea that we might be like the seed that falls on the rocky path. This is a place no sane human wants to be or should be.

The Battle in our Hearts

The parable, then, portrays a battle between God and the Evil One, a battle that is being fought on level of the human heart. God is constantly sowing his message of love, mercy and grace into our lives and into our hearts. The question is not, “Does God love us?” The question is, “Are we open to the message of God’s love?”

Over and over again in the Bible we are told that God is interested in the heart. For example, In Proverbs, the writers often talk about the importance of the heart:

“My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity. Let love and faithfulness never leave you;  bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:1-6 [emphasis added]).

In Jeremiah, when the prophet speaks of what God will do when the Messiah comes with the Kingdom says: “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:32-33). In Ezekiel, God makes it even plainer when the prophet says, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).

hard-heartAs we mentioned more than once in the wisdom series, the human heart in the Old Testament is more than an organ for pumping blood to the organs of the body. It is the human person at the depth of the being of the human soul. It is the unique combination of our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual being. It is what makes “us” us. One reason why Jesus uses parables is that he is after more than how we think. He is after a change of heart. He wants us to change our entire orientation toward reality. He wants to change how we think, act, feel, and how our thoughts, emotions, and actions impact our personhood.

The Prophets and Wise Men of Israel recognized that the human race has a heart problem. We are all subject to hardness of heart, towards God, towards family members and friends, and towards other people. Jesus tells this parable to warn us that one of the problems we human beings can have is to have hard hearts. Therefore, when God sows some seed of the Spirit, some seed of Grace, some seed of his Kingdom, some seed of his Love, into our lives, one thing we can and often do is to harden our hearts and reject what is being offered us.

Most Christians understand that it is never an excuse to say, “The Devil made me do it.” There may be times in my life when the Devil made me do it, but in each of those times I can look back and see that Chris was cooperating with the Devil in some way. The fact that we are being tempted, the fact that we face overwhelming spiritual opposition, the fact that our faith does not seem to be bringing us the life we hoped for and desire, does not excuse our bad or faithless behavior. Our best bet when tempted is not to harden our hearts, not to reject the love of God, and to be sure that the seed of God’s word falls in a field ready for it to grow in.

Jesus, the Parable, and Us

This Parable of the Four Soils is not easy for a number of reasons. In the parable, we see in the person of the farmer the person of God, who sends his message of grace by prophets and others. We also see Jesus who has been sent by God to share the good news of the Kingdom, as he just told is in Mark 1:15. [6] Finally, we see the figure of those who shared the Word with us and those with whom we share the Word. The farmer is God, Jesus, and each person from the days of Jesus until now who ever shared the Good News with another person. [7]

The Seed is the Word of God, the Good News of God’s love for the human race: of God’s forgiveness for our sins in Christ,  in the love of God showed on the cross, and in the salvation and New Life we can have in Christ. The Seed is that in us that can result in a crop of love, peace, godliness and joy in our lives. We might think of Galatians in this regard where Paul says:

imgres-1“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:19:24).

The Evil One wants us to harden our hearts to the things of the Spirit so that we will be concentrated on the things of the flesh and miss out on the blessings of God. God wants us to be filled with the seed of his spirit and grow in the fruit on the spirit can give: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

I think most of us can think of times in our lives and areas of our lives when and where our hearts have been less than receptive to God. We are not to judge, but most of us, I think, can think of people we have known whose fundamental problem was a hard heart. Jesus warns us that there is a God and there is an Evil One. The Evil One can and does try as best he can to kill any hope of spiritual growth in us. I don’t know about you, but I have experienced times when I just made a resolution to avoid a temptation—and right after that resolution, I was tempted! At such times it is good not to have a hard heart.images-2

This problem of hard hearts can give us pause as we share the gospel with others. No one likes to be rejected. The parable gives us a kind of answer to this problem. The Sower knows that some of the seed is going to fall along the path. The birds will in fact eat some of the seed. Nevertheless, the sower sows. As Disciples of Christ, we too must sow knowing that not all the seed we sow will bear fruit. One of the commentaries I read quotes an inscription from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London that reads: ““Fear not to sow because of birds!” [8]

January 2015: Reflecting on Our Walk with Christ

I am excited to be able to take one whole year and concentrate on what it means to be a better disciple of Jesus Christ. When Kathy and I begin a trip, we take out maps and think about the journey we will take. Then, Kathy begins to get maps of specific places and perhaps books and brochures about the places we will see. When I begin looking at the map I always begin by finding Memphis and tracing the journey. We all begin somewhere and the best way not to get lost is to figure out where we are and where we are going right at the beginning.

We are all beginning the journey of 2015, and our own personal journey of the coming year. It is a good idea to begin with a time of centering on the truth of where exactly we are on the journey. Some of us are at the very beginning of the life of faith. Some of us are halfway through our discipleship journey. Some of us are near the end. We are all somewhere on the journey of discipleship.

Our hearts are also somewhere in some condition. I have been through times when my heart was hard, shallow, thorn-encrusted, and fertile. This week in staff meeting, I made the comment that each one of us—each human being—is a strange combination of hardness, shallowness, thorniness, and depth. I think we all find ourselves in more than one place in the parable. That is a good kind of taking stock as well. It is good to ask, “Where am I hard, shallow, cluttered with desire, deep and fertile.

The purpose of this taking stock is not just to take stock. God is not interested in our reaching some mental idea of where we are on the journey of discipleship. Looking at a map is part of taking a journey. It is part of beginning the journey of the year to come with a commitment to developing a soft, deep, fertile heart, filled with seeds of God’s love and growing a great crop of fruits of the spirit in our own lives and in the lives of others.

Prayer: God of Wisdom and Love: Thank you for this wonderful parable of the human heart. You came to show us what we were intended to be and to give us a glimpse of the wonders of your Kingdom. You call us to enter this kingdom of wisdom and love as little children. Help us to hear this story with the ears of little children and to understand in the depth of our souls its meaning for our lives. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (London, ENG: Penguin Books, 1983).

[2] William Barclay, “Mark” in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1975), 88ff.

[3]The Birds”, wr. Evan Hunter, dr. Alfred Hitchcock, based on the novel by Dauphne Du Muaurier starring Rod Taylor and Tippy Hendren (1963).

[4] This parable is not the only place in Scripture in which birds are used as symbols for evil. Revelation 8: 2 reads: “And [an angel] cried mightily with a loud voice, saying Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and has become a habitation of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird!” This is not a univocal idea, however. Doves for example, are often used as symbols of the Holy Spirit.

[5] Edgar Allen Poe, “The Raven” https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome instant&ion=1&espv= 2&es_th=1&ie=UTF 8#q=the+raven+poem+text&revid=1280564404 (Downloaded January 8, 2015). Poe in writing of a raven is drawing upon our human fear of beasts that might peck and kill in a moment of irrationality. Birds, like parrots can speak, and thus appear almost human or possessed by a demon while still being brutes.

[6] Mark 1:15 reads, “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

[7] If one surveys commentaries and sermons on the parable, one finds writers and preachers focusing on each one of these alternatives.

[8] This quote is found in Hallford E. Luccock, “Exposition” in Volume 7: The Interpreters Bible: The Gospel According to St. Mark George Buttrick, ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1951), 696. The inscription is found on a bronze tablet found in the cathedral in memory of Canon Samuel Barnet who worked in London’s east end for many years.

He Came to Make Disciples

Most of us do not know the name “Benjamin Graham.” He was born in England, came to the United States of America, went into business, and ultimately wrote a book with the scintillating title, Security Analysis. [1] Graham, along with his co-author, David Dodd, whom even fewer people know, was the father of what we call, “Value Investing.” One of his disciples has name we all know—Warren Buffett.imgres

Today, most people have forgotten the name Chuck Noll. Football people call him “the forgotten coach.” He coached only one team, the Pittsburg Steelers. Nevertheless, Chuck Noll coached some of the most famous players in NFL history. He coached Jack Lambert, “Mean Joe Green,” Jack Hamm, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swan, John Stallworth and many players who made NFL history. He developed the famous “Steel Curtain” defense. When he became head coach the Steelers had only played in one post-season game in 36 years. He took them to four Superbowls.imgres-1

Most of us do not know the name Mary Mahoney, but she was a famous nurse. Mahoney worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children before she was accepted to the hospital’s nursing school at the age of thirty-three. Mary Mahoney was black when black nurses were unheard of. She was a source of inspiration and opened doors for generations of nurses. [2]Mary_Eliza_Mahoney

Everyone is a disciple of someone. All of us owe our attainments to someone who cared enough to help us accomplish what we have accomplished in life. This morning, we are visiting about the most important discipleship opportunity any of us will ever have, the opportunity to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The Wisdom of Following Jesus.

On Epiphany Sunday, Christians remember the coming of the wise men (or Magi) to see the Baby Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12). As you might expect from someone who wrote a book on wisdom literature, the story of the wise men is one of my favorites. Sometime before or just after Jesus was born, a group of wise men far to the east of Israel looked into the sky and saw a star. After consulting astrological charts, they determined that the star was a sign that a new king had been born, a king of the Jews who lived in Palestine to the West. They set out to confirm their theory. First, they went to Jerusalem where they saw King Herod. Herod, however, had no new child. After consulting experts on the Old Testament, they learned that the child was probably born in Bethlehem in Judea. The wise men set off and continued following the star to where the baby was. They worshiped the child. They were the first Gentiles, non-Jews, to worship Jesus.

imgres-2The story was placed in our Bible partially as a testimony to the accuracy of the prophesies of the Messiah and prove that Jesus was the Messiah. Partially they are included in Scripture to reflect the understanding of the early Christians that, while Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, he is also the savior of Jews and Gentiles alike.

The image of the star is an image of the light of God coming into our dark world with all the wisdom and love God can give us. The earliest name for Christians was “People of the Way.” Jesus came to show us a Way of Life, what wisdom writers called “The Path of Life”—a path leading to health and wholeness, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. To be a disciple of Jesus is to follow the path of Wisdom and Love he lived out among us. It is to become the people God intended us to be.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells the new Christians to “shine like stars” in a dark world (Philippians 2:14). Earlier in Daniel, the prophet is told by God that those who serve the Messiah will shine like stars with these words: Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. (Daniel 12:3) we were meant to shine with the light of the Gospel in our own day and time, just as those in the New Testament were asked to shine with God’s truth in their own time.

He Came to Call Disciples.

As might be expected of wisdom in human form, when Jesus came, he invested himself in people, and especially in those around him who were his closest disciples. Jesus, when he came, formed a community of people who lived and worked together to learn, live, and share the Good News of God’s love for all people. It appears that first Jesus called his inner circle: Peter, Andrew, James, and John. In chapter 2 of Mark, we learn that Jesus called others, even hated tax collectors, to be disciples. When Jesus called Levi (or Matthew) to follow him, we are told that he also immediately got up and followed Jesus. The call of Jesus is to all kinds of people, and that includes us. He called us that we might call others, that the world might finally come to live in the light of God’s love, reflecting that light in the life of every human being.imgres-3

Later in Mark 3, we learn that there were twelve disciples who were at the very center of Jesus’ ministry. Mark lists the names:

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him (Mark 3:13-19).

The twelve were important because they symbolized the Twelve Tribes of Israel and God’s continuing ministry to his Old Testament people. However, we know that the Twelve were not the only disciples. We know that there were also seventy people who followed Jesus and who provided important help for his ministry (Luke 10:1-24). We also know that there were at least 500 people who were disciples and to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:6). We know that there were men and women called to be his disciples. Some of the women had important rolls in supporting his ministry (Luke 8:1-3). Paul, when he writes his letters almost always ends with notes to specific people (See for example, Romans 16). Paul, you see, like Jesus was interested in specific people—and making of them disciples who would share the gospel.

I don’t know about you, but I find lists of names of people I don’t know, like the genealogies of the Old Testament, pretty boring. There is, however, an important lesson embedded in the listing of the names and numbers: God calls real people. Jesus called real, specific people to follow him. This is important for us for a very simple reason: God has also called us to follow him. Jesus came to call people to follow him—and we are among the people so called.

Jesus Calls Us for a Purpose.

Not only does Jesus call Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow him, but he also tells them just exactly why he called them. He called them to be “fishers of men” (Mark 1:17). We always think of evangelism as being Fishers of Men. This lets those of us who are not fishermen off the hook. This is unfortunate. I think if Jesus had called teachers, he would have said, “I will make you teachers of human beings.” If he had called nurses, he would have said, “I will make you healers of human beings.” If he had called musicians, he would have said, “I will make you minstrels of the good news of God.” God told fishermen to be fishers of men. He wanted them so share the wisdom and love of god that he embodied just as they were with the skills and abilities they had! The same is true of us.

imgres-4Right here we come to a problem with our understanding of what it means to be a disciple. When you ask Americans if they believe in God, a substantial majority of them will say, “Yes.” When you ask them what religion they profess, most will say, “Christianity.” If you ask them if they are followers of Jesus, most of those will say, “Yes.” If you ask them how often have you shared your faith, invited another person to church, or made another person a disciple of Jesus, only a very small percentage will answer, “I have.” Most Christians in America have never invited another person to church much less shared their faith or been instrumental in another conversion. If you ask American Christians to describe their life-style, the life-style they describe is most likely exactly like the lifestyle of their non-Christian friends and neighbors. Most Christians in America live pretty much like everyone else around them.

This might have been O.K. in our parent’s generation. It might have been O.K. when most people believed in God, went to Christian churches, and at least thought they were trying to follow Christ. In our culture, it is not O.K. We live in what is a “post-Christian culture”—that is a culture in which the cultural leaders, the intelligentsia, the artists and writers are not generally Christians. Not long ago, I was watching a television show and decided to learn about the star. He or she listed her religious preference as “Pagan.” All I can tell you is that, in 1955 or so when I first noticed what was going on around me, no one told anyone that his or her religious preference was pagan. They might act like pagans, but they would not proclaim themselves to be pagans.

If we are going to be disciples of Jesus, we have to think about what that means in our culture, in our time, and in our age and be willing to be different. In other words, we cannot just talk about Christian faith and Christian morals, and debate who is right. We have to live out the life of a disciple just as close as we can to the lives of the best disciples of the past. To do this we all need to be in close relationships of love and nurture with other Christians as we are discipled and as we disciple others.

New Year’s Resolution

I am not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. I have found that they either reflect things I intend to do anyway or things I won’t do anyway. Nevertheless, each year I do think about a few resolutions. As I look back on resolutions of the past, I can see that the few of them I kept have made a difference in my life. If you have not made any New Year’s Resolutions, here are a few suggestions of some resolutions to become a better and more impactful disciple of Jesus:

  1. Be Regular in Worship. Christians always worshiped on Sundays. Make worship a priority. The fact is that almost no one who abandons worship continues to embody the wisdom and love of God for very long.
  2. Share your Faith with Friends. The Great Commission was to “Go make disciples.” The Church does not exist for itself, but for the world that needs to find the Path of Life.
  3. Live a Life of Love. The Great Commandment was to share God’s self-giving, agape love with the world. Resolve this year to share the Deep, Deep Love of Christ with others.
  4. Read the Bible Daily. We will only be wise and live wisely in the Way of Christ if we know what that way entails. The habit of daily Bible reading and devotional study is central to successful Christian living.
  5. Devote Yourself to Your Family. This fall in our Path of Life Study, we saw how weak the American family is. This year resolve to find one significant way to strengthen your family. [3]
  6. Take a Day of Rest. All of the Ten Commandments are important. However, in our society remembering to make time for Sunday to be a day of rest is more important than ever.
  7. Have a Close Personal Friend who is also trying to live out the gospel. This past week, I was with an old friend for a short period of time. We are both in late middle age. Our children are either grown or almost grown. We have the same struggles and uncertainties concerning our future. There have been times when he came to me for advice. There have been times when I came to him for advice. There are times when I have suggested a Christian response to a problem to him, and there are times when he has suggested a Christian response to a problem to me. We write each other an email about once a week or so. We all need a Spiritual Friend, a mentor, and a person who is on the journey of walking with Jesus and with whom we can share our journey.

imgres-5Each person has to determine their own New Year’s Resolutions. However, I think if we all made a list something like the list above, we would find that next New Year’s day would find us happier, healthier, and more filled with the wisdom and love of God as well as the joy of his Presence than ever before.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Benjamin Graham & Dared Dodd, Security Analysis (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1934).

[2] Maria Timarchi, “10 Most Famous Nurses in History” http://health.howstuffworks.com/medicine/ healthcare/ 10-most-famous-nurses-in-history.htm#page=2 (Downloaded December 14, 2014).

[3] The sermon on which this blog is based was also the final sermon related to the Path of Life study of our congregation. G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Wipf & Stock, 2014) and Path of Life: An Eight Week Devotional Study (Shiloh Publishing, 2014). A bit of the sermon makes the point made in the final chapter of Path of Life.

He Came to Be God with Us

imgresThis Christmas Season, our congregation has been thinking about answers to the question, “Why He Came”. Over and over again in Scripture, we are told why Jesus came. His life, miracles, teachings, death and resurrection all reveal a purpose being worked out. Christians believe that Jesus was not simply another in a long line of martyrs for peace, justice and the like who fell afoul of the rulers of his day and were killed. Jesus was different. His conception, birth, childhood and adult life all were directed towards a specific mission. On the cross, when he cried out, “It is finished” we believe he was stating that he had now done what he came to do. He had been the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. Before that, he had demonstrated the wisdom, love, and power of God in a unique way. The utterance, “It is finished” was the statement of a man who has accomplished what he set out to do. He had been God with us.

Matthew often shares something about Jesus, then quotes the Old Testament and says something like, “This happened so that this passage of the Old Testament might be fulfilled.” In this blog, I am looking at just a few of many prophesies that Jesus fulfilled.

In Genesis 3, God tells the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). As Adam and Eve were being punished for their sin in the Garden of Eden, God prophesied that one would come who would undo the curse of sin and crush the head of the Evil One. Christians believe that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy. In his sacrificial death, the power of Satan, the Accuser of the human race, was defeated.

imagesLater in Genesis, 49 Jacob says of his son, Judah, “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his” (Gen. 49:10). In this passage Jacob prophesies that it will not be from his eldest son from whom Israel’s leader would come nor would it be from Joseph his favorite son, but from Judah. Jesus came to fulfill this prophecy. David came from the line of Judah, as did Jesus.

David was promised that he would always have an heir on the Throne of Israel. On the other hand, he was also promised that, if he or his family were unfaithful to God, the crown would be taken from his house. In the birth of Jesus, born of the House and Linage of David, both prophecies were fulfilled. Jesus was the true heir of David, always and in all ways faithful to God. He is the everlasting heir to David!

Psalm 72, a royal psalm, says of the heir of David, “May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him” (Psalm 72:11). Christians believe that, in the coming of the Wise Men, this prophecy was fulfilled.

In Isaiah, we are told that “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:11). At Christmas, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus, whom Christians have always celebrated as fulfilling that prophesy—Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and he has always been referred to as Immanuel, which means, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).

images-2 The Prophet Micah said, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:10). Thus, it was prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem in Judea, a small village a few miles outside of Jerusalem. The Messiah would not be just another man, but one “of ancient origin”—the eternal Word of God was with God at the creation and by whom and through whom all things were made. Tonight, we celebrate the birth of Jesus in just that place, born in Bethlehem, fulfilling this prophecy. He is a human son of Bethlehem, and he is the Eternal Son of God.

In Isaiah 9, we are told “In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:1-2). In this passage, we learn that the Messiah will come from the Galilee. Jesus was raised in Nazareth in this exact area of Israel, fulfilling this prophecy.

imgres In this same chapter we are told, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:6-7). Here we learn that the Messiah will reign on David’s throne and be called “Wonderful Counselor,” “Mighty God,” “Everlasting Father,” “Prince of Peace.” We are told that his kingdom will grow and grow, and last forever. Jesus came to fulfill these prophecies. Since the coming of Jesus and the birth of the church at Pentecost, Jesus has been and is called by all these names, and the Kingdom of his disciples continues to grow.

images-3One of the most precious promises of Isaiah reads: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isaiah 11:1-4). Here we are told that Spirit of God will rest upon the Messiah in a special way so that he has understanding, power and justice in a special way. Jesus came to fulfill this prophecy. Over and over again in the Gospels we see Jesus as one filled with the Spirit like no one before or since with great power and with a love for the least of these. Such a life could only come from God. Such a life could only be God with us.

images-4Isaiah 42 foretells that the Messiah will be a different sort of leader when he says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged until he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope” (Isaiah 42:1-4). We are told in Isaiah 42 that God will raise up a servant who will be filed with God’s Spirit and act in gentleness and kindness with complete justice for all. In Jesus, we saw revealed the true nature of servant leadership in the person of one who sacrifices self and selfish ambition for others, seeks justice for all, and will not be satisfied until everyone receives justice. This servant was to be a true and great teacher—one who teaches the true nature of God and godliness. Jesus came to fulfill these prophecies.

images-1Finally, the prophet Isaiah foretold that the Messiah would be a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, that he would bear our sorrows, and that he would be the source of our healing. Isaiah put it this way: “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4-6). Jesus came to fulfill these prophecies. He was one who was rejected by others, suffered for our sins, whose punishment was for us, and by whose wounds we are healed.IMG_0091

These and other, similar passages tell us that one reason Jesus came was to fulfill the promises of God. He came to be God with Us, the always-faithful God who is and always will be God with us. In Christ, God took on human form and dwelt among us “Full of Grace and Truth” so that we might see in human form what God intended us to be like as his children, made in his image, and filled with his Spirit. On Christmas Eve we celebrate God’s faithfulness to his promises given over hundreds of years to prophets and others—promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

We live in challenging times. We all face or will face difficult circumstances. We have fears about the future. Whatever our circumstances, in the faithful God, Jesus Christ, who has fulfilled all the promises of God and of the Prophets, we can find hope and our anchor for all of our days and all of our circumstances. This Christmas Season, as our church looked at our theme, “Why He Came,” we saw that Jesus came to inaugurate God’s kingdom of peace, to forgive our sins, to heal us, to preach and to be Good News, to fulfill the prophesies of the Old Testament, to give us new life, and to call us to be his disciples.

At Christmas, we pause for a few moments in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives to rest in the assurance that he has come, he did come, he is here, and he will come again. He will come into our lives again and again with mercy and grace, as we need him to come. He will come at the end of history to complete God’s will for the heavens and the earth. He comes quietly. He comes unexpectedly. He comes without pomp and circumstance. He comes as a servant. He comes to us as a lowly, rejected savior, never forcing his way, but always working in love. He comes to us, just as he came on that night so long ago. He comes as a quiet voice, as a loving touch, as a humble and unexpected guest. He comes and comes, if only we will let him into our hearts.

Amen

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

He Came to Bring Good News

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people (Luke 2:10).

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7). 

imagesA few weeks ago, some of our members ran the St. Jude’s Marathon. Have you ever wondered how a long run came to be known as a “Marathon?” It got me thinking about the word, Marathon and how the race got its name. In the year 490 B.C. a famous battle was fought on the plans of Marathon near Athens, Greece. King Darius of Persia decided to invade and conquer Greece, which was an emerging power and threated the Persian dominance of the ancient Middle East. He sent an armada to invade some Aegean islands, conquer Athens, and then invade the rest of Greece. The Athenian army met the invaders on the Plain of Marathon. The Greeks were outnumbered and outgunned. They could not hope to defeat the large cavalry of the Persian army. The Greek commander reinforced his flanks so as to draw the Persians towards the center of the battlefield, and then ordered a general attack. In a classic envelopment, the Greeks surrounded and defeated the Persian army.

imgresIn order to advise the waiting Athenians of his victory, the Greek commander sent his fastest runner, Philippides, to bring news to Athens of the victory. According to legend, Philippides, who had already run 140 miles to Sparta, ran back to Athens, announced the victory, collapsed, and died. The modern marathon, 26 miles, 385 yards is based on this legendary event.

If we were to describe Philippides in Greek, we might call him an “Uangleos,” or “Bringer of Good News.” Another English word might be “Herald” or “Bringer of Glad Tidings.” The underlying word is also the Greek word from which we get our English word “Angel” The word “Good News” comes from a Greek Word, “Euangellion,” from which we get the words “Good News,” “Gospel,” and “Evangelism. When the angels appear to the Shepherds in Luke they proclaimed: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Jesus was sent and anointed by God for the specific purpose of preaching and proclaiming Good News to the people of Israel, and through them, to us. In fact, as we shall see, he was the Good News and, therefore, his birth is Good News!

Good News in Isaiah

The visions of the prophet Isaiah included visions of the future of Israel from the time of the Assyrians until the end of the world as described in Revelation, which often quotes Isaiah. In Isaiah 55, the prophet proclaims a message of hope the captives in Babylon:

ComeWhoAreThirsty“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David. See, I have made him a witness to the peoples, a ruler and commander of the peoples. … Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. (Isaiah 55:1-7).

It was a part of Old Testament faith that sins must be paid for either by suffering or by sacrifice. This part of Isaiah is taken up with their restoration to the land of Judah and the end of their exile in Babylon. Surprisingly, Isaiah does not proclaim, “Do this: Make this sacrifice and you will be freed from the consequences of your sins.” He says that God will provide a savior and a salvation that will be free—“without cost!” God’s kingdom will come. The Messiah will come. Salvation will come. Israel will be lifted up. And, it is all going to be free. God intends to give mercy and forgiveness for free.

This is the Good News Jesus proclaimed and which we continue to proclaim: God acted in Jesus Christ to fulfill the promise made to David, to raise up a Savior for his people. God acted in Christ to provide for us a free salvation out of his sheer mercy and grace. By the merits of Christ, and his life, death, and resurrection, we can be healed, forgiven, and restored to the unique image God placed in one of us. This is the Good News whose coming we celebrate at Christmas.

Unbelievable Good News

In Mark, we are told that, right at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus came proclaiming this Good News (Mark 1:14-15). Luke gives us a deeper look at an incident from early in his ministry where he returned home and taught in the synagogue. He tells the story this way:

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.  He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:14-21).

When Jesus finished reading, he gave the scroll back to the attendant and sat down in silence. Everyone looked at him, wondering what he was going to say. What he said was amazing: “Today this prophesy has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). The people were taken aback. The people began to say to one another, “Who does this guy think he is?” “Isn’t this the Son of Joseph the carpenter?” (v. 22). “Isn’t this the son of Mary his wife?” Eventually, they even got mad at him because of his message and drove him out of town, almost killing him (v. 28-30).

images-2Not long ago, I saw a movie in which the end of World War II was depicted. Most us have seen pictures of the great celebrations in London and New York that broke out when the Second World War was over. People had been anticipating the end of the war for months. From the time that the allies landed at Normandy, people looked forward to the day the war would end. After the Allied Armies crossed the Rhine River, the expectations grew and grew. People started stockpiling champaign and food for the inevitable celebration. But, there were others who could hardly believe that the war would end. They kept expecting something bad to happen. Even after the announcement was made there were soldiers and citizens from both sides who could hardly believe it was true. Some soldiers continued to fight. Months later, many Japanese soldiers continued to fight. In fact, the last Japanese soldier did not surrender until 1974, almost 30 years after the war was over! [1] Jesus’ hometown friends were like those who could not believe the good news of the end of World War II—they had been waiting so long, they could not believe that their waiting was over.

images-3At Christmas we celebrate God’s coming into the world to defeat the powers of evil, sin, and death. On Good Friday, we believe Jesus won that victory for us on the Cross. On Easter, we believe God proclaimed this vindication and the defeat of sin and death by the Resurrection. If we will only lay down our arms and surrender to God, there will be peace. Too many of us just can hardly believe it is true. We are like Hiroo Onada, the Japanese soldier. We just keep fighting and fighting, not realizing that the war is over. Nevertheless, the reason we party at Christmas and Easter is because it is true: God has won our victory on the cross if only we will accept his free offer of grace.

Being Good News

imgres-1A litte longer rendition of the passsage from Isaiah 61 Jesus read is as follows:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations (Isaiah 61:1-4).

If we listen carefully to the text, we realize that there are two movements to the text. First, Isaiah talks about the Spirit of God coming upon the prophet to proclaim good news of release to those who are captives. He proclaims the freedom of those in captive to the powers of this world.

Then Isaiah moves on to speak of what “They” (the freed captives of Israel) will be and do: “They” will be crowned. “They” will become righteous oaks. “They” will be planting of God to display his splendor. “They” will restore cities. “They” will rebuild ruins. In this passage, Isaiah is talking about the liberated Jews, and by the power of the Resurrection, Jesus is talking about us.

Those who hear the Good News and are filled with the Spirit of God are going to be empowered to change the world. He meant to include us in this promise—all who hear the Good News and respond to God’s grace will themselves become Good News just like Jesus. God does not just want us to hear Good News. He wants us to be Good News. By the power of the Spirit, we can be Good News to others by what we say and do!

images-4Some of you know that each year I go away near Thanksgiving to pray about Christmas and about the general direction of Advent for the year to come. For the past two years, I have gone to a Catholic retreat center in San Antonio. The center is in the city, so people wander in and out of the grounds and nearby church all day long. It takes a while to get used to the silence of the retreat center, so ordinarily; I go on a walk or run to get acclimated to silence and the retreat itself. This year, as I was running on the grounds the first afternoon, I came near a meditation pool that is surrounded by a little wall and garden. There was a man covered with tattoos kneeling by the pool crying as hard as a man could possibly cry.

I had seen the man a little earlier as I left the guesthouse praying in another location and wondered at the time what was going on with him. I kept on going for a few moments, but in the end, I felt I should go back. (I am not a priest, and I was not sure I should interfere.) I walked up to the man, sat down beside him, and asked, “Is there something wrong?” There was. The man’s father had died. The man, I think, felt guilty about the relationship he had with his father. We just sat and talked for a while. I gave him what assurance I could that his father was O.K. and that God would forgive him for any argument they had before he died. After a time, I asked to pray with the man, who by now was no longer crying. As I finished praying, he said, “Are you a priest?” “No,” “I said, I am just a guy.” A little later, I saw him leave with his wife or girl friend. They were walking hand in hand.

In this particular instance, I did nothing more than anyone could have done. I was actually glad I was not a priest, just another guy. For in that moment, I was a little Christ, just an ordinary disciple, giving Good News to another human being who needed to hear the Good News of the God who came to give us Salvation. It is that same Good News we celebrate this coming week.

Amen

[1] Hiroo Onoda (March 19, 1922 – January 16, 2014) was an Imperial Japanese Army intelligence officer who fought in World War II and did not surrender in 1945. In 1974, his former commander traveled from Japan to personally issue orders relieving him from duty.

 

He Came to Heal Us

They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.  The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them. That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was (Mark 1:21-29).

imgresEvery so often, an old Rock Hudson movie called the “Magnificent Obsession” is shown on television. The Magnificent Obsession is based on a novel written by Lloyd C. Douglas. It is the story of a rich playboy, Bob Merrick, whose reckless speed-boating inadvertently causes the death of a beloved doctor. It turns out that this beloved doctor has very little money because of his habit of giving it away. The playboy also inadvertently causes the blindness of the doctor’s wife, played by Jane Wyman. The only way Bob Merrick can hope to undo the damage that he as done is to become a surgeon himself, which he does. Along the way he falls in love with the now-blind widow of the famous doctor. After years of struggle, the now famous surgeon, Bob Merrick, saves the life of the wife of the person he killed, and the movie comes to a happy ending. The movie and book are examples of a genre of secular retellings of the message of the Bible that were popular in America in the early 20th Century. [1] The message is one of sin, forgiveness, renewal, and two healed lives by the power of God’s Spirit.

This morning we are thinking about the fact that Jesus came to heal our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. Healing is an important subject for Christians. Jesus came as a healer. One name he has been given throughout history is, “The Great Physician.” From the earliest days, Christians have prayed for healings and believed that certain people have a special gift of healing. From the earliest days of the church, Christians have been interested in healing. For example, there was a great epidemic around the year 260 A. D. Here is what Dionysius of Alexandria said concerning the Christian response:

Most of the Christians in our city showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of others. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending their every need, helping and comforting them — and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pain. [2]

The God of Healing

The first Christians would not have been the least bit surprised that Jesus was a healer. When Jesus went to Levi’s home for dinner, the religious leaders complained that he was consorting with sinners. In response, Jesus admonished them that it was not the healthy that need a doctor but the sick (Mark 2:17). This tells us that Jesus was acquainted with doctors. In addition, in the ancient world very few people would have been surprised at what we would call “faith healers,” who could heal others in ways that seemed mystical. Jesus was just such a person. He had the power of healing.

In the Old Testament, one name for God is “Jehovah Rapha” or the “God Who Heals.” The Hebrew word can mean the healing of a person, a relationship, a community, or a nation. It can involve spiritual healing, emotional healing, communal healing, even a national healing. [3] The God of Israel is a God who heals everyone and every kind of illness or brokenness there is or can be. Where things are out of joint, Jehovah Rapha, the God Who Heals, has the power to put them right.

One sign of the Messiah’ reign was to be healing. In Isaiah 35, the time of the healing and restoration of Israel is described like this:

Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert (Isaiah 35:3-6).

The coming of the Messiah was to be the coming of a healer and time of healing for creation, for individuals, and for human society.

The Healing Power of Jesus

imgres-1All the Gospels are unanimous in teaching that Jesus was a healer. All four Gospels devote substantial attention to Jesus’ healing ministry. About twenty percent of the Gospels are taken up with healings. Out of almost 4000 verses in the four Gospels, over seven hundred concern his healing of physical and mental illness or the resurrection of the dead. [4] Luke, who was a doctor, shows an unusual interest in the healings of Jesus and often provides details that the other gospel writers did not think important.

John, when he wrote his gospel, saw in the miracles of Jesus generally and in the healing miracles specifically, signs that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel and God in human form, the Word of God in human flesh. In fact, he calls the miracles “signs.” A sign is something that signifies or stands for something else. In the case of Jesus’ miracles and healings, the events themselves carry a deeper meaning: They signify that God was present in Christ. The signs are clues so to speak that God is present in Christ.

This week, I posted the following as the meditation of the week of Facebook: “In Jesus’ healings and exorcisms, we come to a major issue for people who do not believe in miracles and a major reason why Jesus came: He came that creation might become new and be healed of the effects of sin, brokenness, and finitude. In his eternal kingdom, there ‘will be no more sorrow, nor mourning nor pain.’ Even the last enemy, death, is to be defeated. Faced with the God of Life in human form, those things that oppose God’s eternal life and wholeness must flee—and people are healed.” When Jesus came, when the Kingdom comes, the impact of sin, disease, and death end.

The Healings of Mark

imgres-2One aspect of Mark is the attention it pays to what Jesus does as opposed to what Jesus says. The long sermons of Matthew, Luke, and John are largely absent from Mark. If those who believe that Mark is based on Peter’s preaching are correct, there may be a good reason for this: The hyperactive, not always reflective Peter, the Big Fisherman, was more interested in what Jesus did than what he said. Matthew the tax collector and Luke the doctor were educated men much more interested in the teachings of the Messiah. For Peter, the most important thing was the actions, the mighty deeds, and the confrontations with the leaders of Israel that marked Jesus public life.

Therefore, right at the beginning of his book, Mark sets out the fact that Jesus was a healer. According to Mark, right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, after calling Peter, Andrew, James, and John, he came home to Capernaum to teach. As was his custom, he went to the synagogue, or their church house, and gave a message that was so unusual, that the people were amazed. Jesus, unlike the teachers of the law, did not rely on long quotes from the law or other rabbi’s. He taught as one with personal authority. As he was preaching, a man with an evil spirit cried out on behalf of the spirit, “Jesus, Son of God, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24).

In Aramaic, the collective word for demons means, “Ones Who Do Harm.” [5] This demonic, speaking for the entire demonic world, confesses that the man, Jesus of Nazareth, is in fact, the Holy One of God. Jesus, in a mighty act of power, silences and casts out the demon. Later on, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever (v. 29-31). By that evening, the events of the day have been so widely recorded in Capernaum that people from the village and surrounding area being Jesus sick and demon possessed people and he heals them all (v. 32-34).

In both word and deed, Jesus spoke and acted as one with authority, that is to say, Jesus spoke as if he had both the right and the power or ability to speak, heal, and cast out demons. By his words and mighty deeds, he claims and exhibits God’s power, including the power to break into history and bring about a healed state of affairs—a state of affairs Jesus called the “Kingdom of God” (Mark 1:17). [6] This pattern of Jesus teaching in mighty ways and then demonstrating the power of God in healings occurs over and over again in Mark. [7] Jesus heals demons (v. 1:29), skin diseases (v. 40), paralysis (2:3-4), fever (v. 1:31), and blindness (10:46-52).

What Does This Mean for Us?

We live in a nation with a very sophisticated medical. It is no mistake or coincidence that many of the hospitals of our nation and other nations carry the names of Catholic saints, or Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, and others. Jesus came to heal and his followers have been healers and supporters of healing ever since. In the West, we are accustomed to healings by doctors, many of whom are not Christians. We forget how our wonderful healthcare systems began. Perhaps more importantly, we forget the role God plays in healing. We forget (until we are in big trouble) that in every age people cry out for Jehovah Rapha.

For those who have difficulty with the idea of miracles and healings, the best explanation I can give is this: Miracles are not so much a suspension of the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, and the like as they are a revelation in specific circumstances of a deeper rationality in and beyond the universe—a rationality that is not always revealed to us, but with which we do occasionally come into contact. It is obvious that our contact with this reality is not constant, does not guarantee that every prayer for a miracle will be answered, and is in some sense a ” personal contact with a personal rationality.” This is why we pray to God for a miracle: We sense that an answer is not automatic and is outside of our control, much like other people cannot be automatically controlled by our words or requests. We are asking another intelligence with its own ideas, agenda, desires, and will to answer our prayers. In so doing, we recognize that this Person is infinitely different from us and in some ways infinitely superior. Therefore, we throw ourselves upon his mercy in answering or not answering any particular prayer. Nevertheless, because God is Absolute Wisdom and Love, we trust that, whatever the answer, in some way all things are being worked together for the good (Romans 8:28).

At staff meeting this week, I told a story I’m sure I’ve mentioned to the congregation before. When our Clara was born, the tear duct for one of her eyes was closed. The pediatrician instructed us to massage it, saying that, most likely, it would eventually open. By the time she was seven months old, he told us that, if it did not open on its own, we would probably need to have it surgically opened before she was ten or eleven months old. In 1986, the main reason we dreaded an operation was the risk of anesthesia on a baby, though there were other worries. For months, friends and relatives prayed that Clara’s tear duct would open. The surgery was finally scheduled. The day before it was to happen Kathy canceled it saying that she did not have a peace about it. That same afternoon, Kathy was driving home our maid, Cuca, who was a charismatic Mexican believer. When they stopped for an errand and Kathy got out of the car, Cuca massaged Clara’s eye and prayed in tongues for God to heal Clara’s eye, as was her custom. When Kathy returned to the car, Cuca told her what she had done and the tear duct was open! The next day, when the surgery should have happened, the tear duct was still open!! I am sure that a non-believer could find a reasonable explanation, even chance, to explain away the facts. All I can say is that her father and mother believed then and now that she was healed. Like the blind man in John, all we can say is that we had a daughter with a closed tear duct that is now open (John 9:28).

Every month at Advent we have a healing service in the chapel. We have this service for a simple reason: We believe that Jesus came as the Great Physician to reveal for us the nature of God—and God is Jehovah Rapha, the God who heals. That is why Jesus came—to usher in a new world and to heal the old world, including us, of all its sin, sickness, and brokenness.

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Magnificent Obsession, wr. Robert Blees, dir. Douglas Sirk, staring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, based on the 1929 novel, The Magnificent Obsession (1954).

 

[2] This quote was found in an article on the internet at huron2.aaps.k12.mi.us/smitha/HUM/PDF/Growth-of-Chr.pdf (downloaded December 10, 2014).

 

[3] In certain translations of the Old Testament “Jehovah” is used for the unspeakable name of God, “YHWH.” Jehovah Rapha simply means, the “God who Heals” or the “Healing God. “Rapha” is a feminine noun that refers to the source or remedy of an illness, physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual.

[4] Gary Wiens, The Healing Ministry of Jesus International House of Prayer Northwest, www.ihopnw.org (Downloaded December 10, 2014).

[5] See, William Barclay, “The Gospel of Mark” in The Daily Bible Study rev. ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975), 34.

[6] The term “exousia” means both the authority to do an act and the power of its performance. In the political sphere, a king has both the authority to punish misdeeds and the power to inflict the punishment he has determined just. In the New Testament, this is the power Jesus possesses to a divine degree—his power is effective even over and against death. See, Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament abridged ed. trans. Geoffrey Bromily (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1985), 238-240.

[7] By my count, there are at least eighteen healings in Mark.

He Came to Forgive our Sins

images-1Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:3-12).

Most Christians remember a time when they did something wrong, something that involved sin, when they experienced a kind of new life when they asked for forgiveness. Forgiveness is central to the Christian experience of God’s grace. Last week, we talked about the fact that Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Near the end of the sermon, we were reminded that Jesus explained that the way we enter the kingdom of God is to repent, believe, and receive the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:15). This repentance is an act of turning away from our sins and receiving the forgiveness of God.

Friday December 5th was a First Friday Prayer Day. There was also a Prayer Vigil at the House of Prayer in Memphis that Kathy and I attended with Don Kerns, who leads our Arlington congregation. This particular prayer vigil was held to celebrate the anniversaries of the Renewal Weekends our congregation helped sponsor in West Memphis, Arkansas and Arlington, Tennessee. While we were there, Don shared some of the things that have happened in Arlington since the vigil. One story he told was especially meaningful. One Sunday this past year while Don was preaching a man came into the church, came down to the front row, and began to mutter and pray. After interrupting the service a couple of times and being assured that the congregation wanted to help him, he got up and left. Several of the men followed him outside and convinced him to come with them to the fellowship hall. For those of you who have not been to Arlington, there is no door between the sanctuary and the Fellowship Hall, just a hallway. The congregation could hear the noise of the conversation. The story is complicated, but the person was an alcoholic and felt that he had done things that could not be forgiven. Don and the men of the church assured him that he could be forgiven, and they began working with the man. Today, he is sober.

The Story of the Man with Friends of Faith

Healing of the Paralytic Man Mark 2:1-5Like most people of my generation, I have a memory of a Sunday School picture of this story used as a teaching aid when we were children. In the picture, Jesus stands in a home teaching. Above Jesus, you can see that some men have created a hole in the flat roof of a Palestinian home and are lowering a friend to the feet of Jesus. In the picture, Jesus is beginning a conversation with the man. The story goes like this: Jesus was teaching in Capernaum, where he had a home. When the people of the village learned that Jesus was back, they gathered to hear him preach. Apparently, he had made a local reputation by his first sermons, exorcisms, and healings.

Some men of the area had a friend who was paralyzed. They decided to bring him to Jesus, but they could not get into the tiny home. Therefore, they walked up on the roof. This may seem odd to us, but many homes in Jesus’ day had steps to the roof, and people often slept or relaxed on the roof during the hot summer months. These flat roofs usually consisted of beams, with brush laid between them, and the entire thing covered with mud, something like what we would call “adobe.” It was not difficult to dig a hole in such a roof. [1] This is exactly what the men did. Then, they lowered the man to the feet of Jesus. When Jesus saw the faith of the man’s friends, Jesus said to the man, “Your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:6).

This was disturbing to the religious professionals who were present. According to Jewish law, only God could forgive sins. Jesus was a traveling, itinerant rabbi, not even a priest or scribe or Pharisee. Clearly, he should not be forgiving sins. They began to accuse him of blasphemy in their minds. Jesus realized what they were thinking, and asked a question, “What is harder to do forgive a person’s sins or heal the person?” Obviously, from a human point of view it is easier to forgive sins. No special power is needed to say, “I forgive you.”

In order to prove that he has the power of God, Jesus said to the man, “Get up, take up your mat, and go home” (v. 11), and that is exactly what the man did. Everyone was amazed because Jesus demonstrated both wisdom, the power of God to forgive, and healing power they felt came from God alone.

The Center of Christian Faith

imagesIn this story, Mark brings us to the center of Christian faith: In Jesus, God came to forgive sinners. Just a few verses later, in another confrontation at Levi’s house, when the teachers of the law see Jesus eating and drinking with sinners and complain, Jesus says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (v. 17). Paul, in reflecting on this says the following: “Here is a trustworthy saying, Christ came into the world to forgive sinners of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15). Over and over again in Scripture, Jesus forgives sins.

Early on, the Church Fathers determined that the revelation of Christ, and the writings of the New Testament did not invalidate the teachings and laws of the Old Testament. They did not abrogate the moral law. They did not create a situation in which sin did not matter or was not punished. [2] What Christianity added was the belief that we are not trapped in our sins, nor do we need to live with the shame and guilt of our sins, nor do we have to engage in constant, repetitive sacrifice for our sins. They can be forgiven—and Jesus came to reveal and make perfect that forgiveness.

Every so often someone comes to see a pastor and confesses some sin which they have committed, which they have confessed to God, and which they have lived beyond by a changed life. However, they cannot forgive themselves for what they have done. They just cannot believe that God could or would forgive this particular sin. When that happens, it is important to remind them that God promises to forgive our sins if we confess them, ask for forgiveness, and turn, or repent, and live the New Life Christ offers us.

This offer of forgiveness through the sacrificial death of a Savior may not seem logical to us; but it is evidence of a wisdom and logic deeper than human wisdom. It is a reflection of what C. S. Lewis calls, the “deeper magic.” [3] The Apostle Paul calls it the wisdom of God, which the world calls foolishness. He puts it this way:

Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:20-25).

The Suffering Servant

images-2Nevertheless, what bothers people most is the notion that our forgiveness is free. Sometimes when I talk to folks about this I like to say, “Your forgiveness is free; but it is not cheap.” There was a price to be paid far greater than our own amends and the self-control it has taken us to change our lifestyle. God himself in the person of the Word Made Flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, or Christ paid the price.

In Isaiah, the prophet, looking forward to the Messiah, describes him like this:

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:2-5).

The vision of Isaiah is a vision of a Messiah that is not a military or political leader. He is not the kind of person that looks good on TV and draws crowds based on charisma. He does not wear expensive suits and spend the weekends at Camp David. He is not what he was expected to be in Jewish folklore—a victorious military commander. He was a person the crowds rejected and misunderstood. He was not handsome, beautiful or majestic. He suffered and was acquainted with grief and suffering. He was not honored for his work. Yet, he was stricken for the transgressions and sins of his people. He was literally crushed by the burden of other people’s sin. He received the punishment he did not deserve—all for those who reject him.

Most people who have seen Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ are struck by the horror of the scourging and crucifixion. [4] We read by his stripes or wounds we are healed; but it is not until we see it that we fully understand the horror of what happened to Jesus on the Cross. This suffering is what Isaiah described. Our forgiveness and salvation may be free to us, but it was not free to God. In Christ, God came into the world to pay the price for our sins and our freedom from their bondage, now and forever.

When Jesus allowed himself to be captured and tried, and then appeared before Pontius Pilate, he delivered himself to the world system of his day and ours, to the “Powers and Principalities of this present dark age” of which Paul later speaks (Ephesians 6:12). The horror of Calvary and what preceded it is the response of the wisdom of God fully present in Christ who gives himself as a sacrifice for our sins in a way that no one could possibly have foreseen. [5]

He Came to Bear a Cross

Kathy and I have recently watched a lot of episodes of a TV show about a burned spy called “Burn Notice.” [6] The “hero,” Michael Weston, is a burned spy who is a kind of modern Robin Hood. Unfortunately, in his anxiety to clear his name, he is forever making mistakes. He betrays his mother, his girl friend, his best friend, his brother, and others. He even gets his brother killed as he tries to recover his job as a spy. After every mistake and betrayal he goes to someone he has wronged and says, “I am sorry.” I don’t think the writers really understood the statement they were making. Michael Weston does not change until the very end of the series. He is just “sorry.” His family and friends, who are often angry with him, being nice people, inevitably forgive him and go on.

imgresThis is not what the Bible means when it talks about repentance and forgiveness. Too many people think forgiveness is just saying “I’m sorry” over and over again to a God who forgives us like a co-dependent parent. This not what the Bible teaches. Our sin is serious. It has serious consequences for us and everyone around us. God came in Jesus and died for our sins sure enough. He came to see that the price for sins was paid in full, and we are debtors to the God who paid the price. If we are sorry and forgiven, then we have an obligation to respond in faith and gratitude to the God of Mercy who has forgiven us. Our response is to live differently than we lived before our forgiveness.

You see, behind the Christmas story is a sober reality: the Babe came to forgive sins—and he came to pay the price for the sins he came to forgive. It was not easy. It was not fun. It involved suffering and sorrow. He came, to forgive our sins, but he also paid the price for them. This reminds us that there is a moral universe in which sin is real and its consequences are real. The Bible teaches that, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The miracle of grace is the way that verse ends: “but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). When we give Christmas presents to our children at Christmas, they are free to them—but they are not free to us. Someone worked long and hard for the presents we receive. While we should celebrate Christmas and be happy in our celebration of our Savior’s birth, our celebration should not blind us to a sober reality: the cute baby in the manger came to be rejected, suffer, and die so that we could have a new life in the midst of the suffering we bring upon ourselves and others.

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, William Barclay, “The Gospel of Mark” in The Daily Bible Study Series rev. ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1954), 46-47.

[2] In Romans, Paul deals with the notion that the result of grace is that sin is without consequence when he says, “Do we nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31). In church history, what is at stake in the inclusion of the Jewish scriptures within the Bible is the continuing validity of the Old Testament witness to God and the Torah. Many modern Christians live as if this were not true.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1950), 159-160.

[4] The Passion of the Christ, wr. Benedict Fitzgerald & Mel Gibson, dir. Mel Gibson Starring James Patrick “Jim” Caviezel (2004).

[5] See, Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 8 which puts it this way, “The Lord Jesus, in His human nature thus united to the divine, was sanctified, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, above measure, having in Him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; in whom it pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell; to the end that, being holy, harmless, undefiled, and full of grace and truth, He might be thoroughly furnished to execute the office of a Mediator and Surety. Which office He took not unto Himself, but was thereunto called by His Father, who put all power and judgment into His hand, and gave Him commandment to execute the same. “This office the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertake; which that He might discharge, He was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfill it; endured most grievous torments immediately in His soul, and most painful sufferings in His body; was crucified, and died, was buried, and remained under the power of death, yet saw no corruption. On the third day He arose from the dead, with the same body in which He suffered, with which also he ascended into heaven, and there sits at the right hand of His Father, making intercession, and shall return, to judge men and angels, at the end of the world.

[6] Burn Notice Created by Matt Nix, starring Jeffrey Donovan, Gabrielle Anwar, and Bruce Campbell (2007-2013).

He Came to Bring God’s Kingdom

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).

 images-1Recently, one of our children sent me a video about a most incident of the First World War. We are far removed from the realities of World War I, but it was one of the most horrific wars in human history. It raged on from 1914 until 1918. For France, Germany, and England in particular, a generation of young people were killed, maimed, or otherwise impacted. By the end of the war, Russia had embraced Communism and the royal houses of Europe had forever lost their influence. The war saw the development and employment of new technologies, such as the submarine and the airplane, as well as terrible technologies that the world has tried to avoid since, like poisonous gas. By Christmas 1914, the war in France was bogged down to two opposing armies facing each other in trenches only yards apart.

imagesIn the days leading up to Christmas, soldiers began singing songs and exchanging gifts and pleasantries across the “no man’s land” that separated the opposing armies. On Christmas Eve, many units from both sides called an informal truce, crossed into no man’s land, roughhoused, exchanged small gifts, sang Christmas Carols, and returned to their own lines. [1] I believe that this incident illustrates the difference. Both sides, committed to a deadly war, believed they had a bond of love and membership in a kingdom that it some ways was bigger than the war they were fighting. In the midst of war, the Kingdom of God was present.

The Jewish Expectation

From the Babylonian Captivity until the coming of Christ, the Jewish people prayed for, hoped for, and often worked for the reestablishment of the kingdom of David. The prophets, including Isaiah, had visions of a time when God would restore the kingdom of David, place one of his descendants upon his throne, and institute a time of peace, justice, and plenty. Isaiah contains many prophecies that shaped the expectations of the Jews. This morning, we have already heard some of these expectations. The Messiah was to be a child king. He would lead the people of God. He would possess wisdom and be a wonderful counselor. He would be the Son of God, filled with the power of Jehovah God. He would live forever and be a father to his people. He would be a prince of peace, ushering in a world without war. He would be the true son of David. He would be just and righteous. [2]

4464In other passages, Isaiah predicts that the Messiah will be spirit-filled and have divine wisdom and understanding. He will respect and fear God without limitation. He will have a spirit of justice and see into the reality of things, not being misled by prejudice. He will care for the poor and needy as much as the rich and powerful. He will be faithful to God. He will conquer the world with his wisdom and teachings. He will institute a time of peace where the lions and the lambs will lay down together and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God. He will not only gather the remnant of Israel, but will also assemble the ten lost tribes of Israel. His teachings and his justice will be so compelling that the entire Gentile world will rally to his side rest in his peace. [3]

In other words, the ancient prophet saw day when not only the hopes and dreams of Israel, but the world’s hopes and dreams, our hopes and dreams would come true. War, famine, poverty, disease, and injustice—all the enemies of human life would be defeated.

The Kingdom Christ Brought

One day, more than 500 years after Isaiah first spoke these prophesies, a young rabbi from Nazareth, historically part of the tribal territory of Zebulon, the land of darkness, who currently lived in Capernaum, in the Galilee, came preaching that the Kingdom of God was at hand. His name was Jesus bar Joseph. When he came, he showed unusual devotion to God, unusual wisdom in his teachings and parables, and unusual power in the way he healed the sick, the lame, and the mentally ill. He also periodically made unusual claims. He proclaimed that the Day of the Lord the prophets had foretold was here. He proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was at hand—and he was its king. He even claimed that, in some mysterious way, he was the Kingdom of God. In other words, in him, the Kingdom of God was present. Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20-21). [4]

images-2He also made the astounding claim that the Kingdom of God could not only be in him and created by him, but it could be within each one of us. “The Kingdom of God is within you,” he said (Luke 17:21). In other words, the wisdom, the love, the peace, the power, the eternal life, which is the essence of the Kingdom of God, can be felt in each of our lives if only we will respond to the gracious call of Jesus, which is the Good News of the Gospel. It can, in fact, be with us each and every day of our lives.

This kingdom Jesus brings is not like the kingdoms of this earth. It is not like the Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire, the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, the Napoleonic Empire, the British Empire, the Nazi Empire, the Russian Empire, even the Pax Americana the world has enjoyed since 1945. These kingdoms are doomed to rise and fall. Jesus’ kingdom will not end. It does not end with our death, for we will be with him in paradise (Luke 23:43). At the end of history, he promises to come in an unimaginable way and finally defeat the foes of God, of Truth, of Justice, of Righteousness, and establish a perfect kingdom that will last forever—a kingdom in which there will be no more death, or disease, or war, or pain. [5]

A couple of times in our marriage, Kathy and I have gone to look at timeshare units. Often, the people who develop them offer free weekends, where you can come and live in a timeshare in, say, Destin, Florida for a few days, spend some time at the beach, and dream about what life would be like if you owned a timeshare. God is a bit like a Timeshare developer. We do not have to wait until heaven to have a kind of foretaste of the kingdom and experience for just a little while what God’s kingdom is like. Paul tells us that we Christians are already citizens of God’s kingdom, which is the Church of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:21). When we accept Christ as the king of our hearts, become a part of the Body of Christ, and begin to behave as Jesus behaved, we experience in a small way what heaven is like and what the Kingdom will be like when it comes.

The Kingdom Comes to Us

So, how can we become a part of God’s kingdom of wisdom, love, and peace? In today’s text, Jesus says, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). To be a part of God’s kingdom, the kingdom of Jesus, we have to repent. We must turn around, look at ourselves, recognize how far we really are from God, and then turn from the kingdoms of this world to his kingdom. We will never repent unless we believe, and so we must believe to enter the kingdom of God. In other words we must believe and put our trust in the gospel that Christ proclaimed: that God loves us, sent his son to die for us, wants us to be his children, part of his family, members of his kingdom (John 3:16). Once we have that kind of faith, we must listen to God in our hearts and his word, Holy Scripture—because God’s children listen and hear his voice (John 10:27). Finally, having become hearers of the word of God, we must also become doers of the word of God (Mark 3:35, James 1:22-27; Romans 2:13). If we repent, believe, listen, and obey, we will be a part of the body of Christ and experience with other believers a foretaste of what heaven will be like right here on this earth.

Why He Came.

579261When I fist saw the film clip about the Christmas Armistice of 1914 and read about it, my thought was simple: This is why Christ came and this is the difference Christ makes. Even in the midst of war, the combatants of the First World War living at the very end of Christendom (there would be no more Christmas armistices in a world committed to total war) knew there was something more important than the petty battles of earthly kingdoms. They loved their countries. The French loved France. The Germans loved Germany. The British loved Britain. Nevertheless, the doughboys of World War I believed that there was another kingdom to which they all belonged, an eternal kingdom of peace where men and women would beat their swords into ploughshares and the human race would make war no more (Isaiah 2:4). They knew in their hearts that their own kingdoms, as much as they loved them, were not the final kingdom. The final kingdom, the Kingdom of God, was greater than their worldly kingdoms.

This Christmas, all over the world there will be battlefields. Their will be wars and rumors of wars between Jews and Muslims, between Kurds, Arabs, and Persians, between Sunni’s and Shiites, between Muslims and Hindu’s, between Israel and Palestine, between Russia and the Ukraine, between Conservative Republicans and Liberal Democrats, but there will be no Christmas truce. In some cases, it will because the combatants live in lands that have forgotten the Good News of the Kingdom of God, though they once knew it. In some cases, there will be no truce because the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven has never entered the culture. So, this why he came—and this is why it matters that he came: He came that we might dwell in his kingdom of wisdom, love, and peace.

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] A link to a video can be found at http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/nov/13/sainsburys-christmas-advert-recreates-first-world-war-truceThere are many articles on the Internet about this incident. Sadly, the commanding generals of both sides discouraged this kind of behavior, and as the war grinded on the use of mustard gas and the bitter battles of the war the practice was largely discontinued.

[2] Isaiah 9:6-7.

[3] Isaiah 11:1-12.

[4] Jesus’ exact claim can be looked at in two different ways, both of which are a part of this sermon. The claim can be and seems to be both that Kingdom of God is in Him and can be within each of us. See, William Barclay, “The Gospel of Luke” in the Daily Bible Study Series rev. ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975), 220.

[5] See Revelation 21:1-6.

Living and Leading from the Center

Centered Living imageToday, I am posting to alert readers that I have now republished a Second Revised Edition of Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love. Frankly, I did not like the numerous typographical errors in the book and also wanted to slightly revise some of the wording. In the Preface to Second Edition  I note that it is four years since I finished the first edition. In the interim, some of the situations that pushed me to write the book have come to completion and new challenges and problems have arisen. The book is often a part of my early morning routine and a companion during times of stress and difficulty. What fascinates and encourages me is the utility of the book in working out problems, and especially problems that find their source in people and their conflicts.  I believe the book continues to prove its utility, at least in my life and work.

As I anticipated, there have been people who feel that the work is not sufficiently Christian. For those folks I can only say that I never read the book without an eye to places where I might have strayed from orthodox Christian faith. While it is true that “where words are many trespasses will not be lacking” (Proverbs 10:19).  I am satisfied that the work embodies an orthodox, Trinitarian theology. In any case, it is my intention that everything I write be such that the founders of the Christian faith and of the tradition of which I am a part would find the work faithfully Christian.

The second complaint has been I did not expound the doctrine of Grace sufficiently. This is true; however, if one reads carefully, one will see that grace is fundamental to the “Tao of Christ”—as Chapters 62 and 63 make clear.

Book Cover.pegFor those who prefer a specifically Christian working out of the implications of a wisdom approach to Christian faith and life, my book Path of Life attempts to confront the problems of contemporary society and its rejection of Christian faith and morals in one long sustained argument for the reality of Christian faith, morals, and wisdom. I would not have spent the time I spent writing the book if I did not think it made an important point for how contemporary Christians can best serve our culture.

Those who know me well know that I believe that it is important for the future of the church, of our society, of our families, and of our world that people, and especially those who have the ability and opportunity to influence others begin to recover the ancient wisdom of the Christian faith and some of the ancient wisdoms of the world. In the Preface, I state my belief that Christ is the Ultimate Truth, and when a person has come to that Truth, one is free  to see and adapt truth wherever one finds it. I put it this way, “When we have confidence in the truth of Christian faith, we are free to accept and value all truth. As the great Methodist missiologist E. Stanley Jones put it, ‘I was free, free to explore, to appropriate any good, any truth found elsewhere, for I belonged to the Truth, to Jesus Christ.'”[1]

I hope that some of my friends and readers will purchase and study the updated version of the book. It can be purchased at Amazon.Com. There is a link to the page on this blog site.

[1] E. Stanley Jones, A Song of Ascents (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1968), 92.

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.