Sunday, May 26, 2013

Jesus: Our Example, Sent from God

Jesus went out preaching as a prophet and as a perfect example in life and death of what God wishes us to be, and called on us to follow him in all things. That is it. That is the Gospel (“Beneficial Message.”) Period. No further mysteries, no complicated Greek philosophies, no man-made, Lawyerly speculations or endless debates about others’ interpretations of Jesus' words or imagined interpretations about him. It's AMAZINGLY simple.

And yet, there are those who wish to complicate this simple message, to make it into a vast, philosophical tangle that only THEY can explain to the rest of us. But there’s a problem with their plan. Jesus spoke simply and powerfully about his mission from God and about how we were to respond to it.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 4:17)

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel." (Mark 1:15)

“For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. ... If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” (John 13:15, 17)

Jesus spoke to challenge us and calls us today to be examples in his name. And he, himself, was a moral exemplar that we are to follow.

“He who has seen me has seen the Father,” isn't a call to put Jesus on an equal plane with God – as if we could never do what he did. It was Jesus telling us that when we see him, we see through a glass CLEARLY, right through to God, whom Jesus said was his God as well as ours.

This Father, our God, chose and sent Jesus to be His Anointed Prophet and to proclaim a Good and Beneficial Message (Gospel) to us (Luke 4:18) that we would know through his teachings, life and death, we should know it can be done by a human being.

By becoming Jesus Followers, we accept the challenge Jesus gives to us to take up our cross and follow him in pursuit of God’s righteousness.

As God’s chosen Spokesman, Jesus authoritatively calls us to take up his challenge and to follow his example.

Jesus lived, taught and died as a pure moral example for us, so that we should follow him and be made perfect in Righteousness though observance of the Commandments. We do this with God’s help and a reliance on God’s holy Spirit. And we are required, on this journey of Faith, to always seek God's forgiveness for our faults and failures as we strive towards this perfect expression of Righteousness God's Anointed Son, Jesus, has modeled for us.

Let no one say this is too difficult of a task, that we are not equipped to do it. God granted us Reason, a free will and great moral abilities, and is with us always to strengthen and encourage and equip us. Jesus himself prayed to God to renew his strength and face the persecution he faced because he dared to confront the religious leaders of his day.

Let us go and do likewise.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Outsmarting God, so we can continue to sin

Amazingly, Christians believe they can fool God. And what’s worse, they believe they can outsmart Him!

Many actually think they can force God to forgive their sins by simply telling Him about them – as if He didn't know already! – and then CONTINUE committing the same sins with impunity, over and over and over again. Forever! And we expect God to forgive us every single time!

The problem is that Jesus, the man God anointed and sent to us, called on us to repent of our sins and be Righteous.  To repent means to understand that we are sinning, and that we will not do it again. Jesus calls on us to be Born Again in Righteousness. That means we must repent of our sins, and instead of committing sins, we must perform acts of Righteousness, as our Master Jesus commanded.

To be Born Again means to repent of all past sins, and to not do them again. But unless we  understand that sins are ACTS, and not an inborn genetic condition that cannot be changed (or that it is somehow God’s responsibility to do the changing FOR us) we may be led to believe that we cannot help but sin.

This leads many to falsely expect God, our Father, to accept our genetic condition (being sinners) as something beyond our ability to change. That we are to remain “just as we are,” and that we can be “saved” while continuing to sin. However, this is faulty reasoning based on centuries of faulty, man-made theology.

Jesus tells us God wishes us to repent of our sins – to be sorry that we committed them, and to cease committing the act of sinning. But without a change in our behavior, there is no repentance. Without repentance, we are not following Jesus or serving God.

But isn't it true that, “Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven”? No. This is the ultimate cop-out. It’s a slogan that gives us the right to continue to sin, sometimes grievously, after becoming Christians, in the hope that God doesn't notice our continuing sin, or (worse) that He condones it because we cannot help it.

Unfortunately for most Christians who believe these things, they aren't Biblical.

God truly forgives and forgets our sins – when we stop committing them. King David in the Psalms pleads with God to forgive him, and we learn that after this, God calls him Righteous. David wasn't righteous because he was the King, nor was “Righteous” a title given to him when he became king, a gift given by God without strings attached. No, he was righteous because of his repentance and right conduct thereafter. Those who want to show David as a perpetual sinner (and use out-of-context “proof texts” to do so) forget that he repented, and that he was called Righteous by God.

Instead of “casting our cares upon” God, and expecting God to do all the work, perhaps we should be fearful of even approaching God before setting things right with our fellow human beings.

Isaiah says God calls on us to, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good.” (1:17)

Jesus taught us that if we hate our brother or sister, we should not attempt to come to God in worship, because we are not “right” with others. He said, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”  (Matt. 5:23-24)

And John (whose letters are often so perfectly in accord with the teachings of Jesus) said in the first letter that hatred of our brothers and sisters is just as bad as murders. (1 John 3:15)

The one who sins with reckless abandon and who does not serve their brothers and sisters is not a follower of Jesus, but a wolf among the sheep.

The Church that bears the name of Christ Jesus must be in the business of perfecting those who claim to follow Jesus, and must encourage Jesus Followers to commit themselves to stop sinning. To admit that we will always be sinners is, while technically true, since we will always fall short of the goal Jesus set with his life and ministry, this cannot be legitimately used as an excuse to continue sinning.

The Church must preach the perfect teachings of Jesus as a goal to which we can all aspire, rather than a Gospel of Constant Sinning, which Jesus condemns. This is the great failing of Christendom today, but it can be corrected by remembering Jesus’ call to us all to become perfect, just as God is perfect. That he accomplished this goal, and was just a human as we are, means that it can be achieved.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Prodigal Son: Repenting and Returning to the Father

The story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-24) isn't preached much anymore, and there are some good reasons for that. The story, if you've forgotten it, is about a man with two sons, the elder son who was righteous and the younger one who left the path of righteousness, but later returned.

The unrighteous son demanded his part of the inheritance, and left his father and brother to live in another city. There, the prodigal son squandered it all in reckless living (prodigal, meaning one who spends recklessly.) Coming to his senses, he returned, humbly, to his father's house, and was welcomed back with open arms by his father, who rejoiced at his return.

The parable, of course, is about repentance and returning to our Heavenly Father, who will forgive all who turn back to Him. But the message contains elements that are rather damning ones for today’s Christians, and for whom the story contains some uncomfortable truths.

For many Christians today, the story goes like this: "The younger son continued to live recklessly, seeing no need to return to his father. Instead, he continually praised his father and his father’s son (his brother) by name every day to everyone who would listen, and felt that was enough. After all, he said, 'I'm not perfect, just forgiven.'"

While this is how many would like the story to end, it’s not how God, our Father, operates. He requires us to repent of our sinful actions.

Jesus was sent by his Father (who is also our Father) and we, the younger son, are being called to respond like the Prodigal Son did – with repentance and humility, returning to the Father and begging for forgiveness. God will forgive our sins, but we must first act upon His calling and His offer to receive us again with open arms. Without repentance, there is no forgiveness, nor is there eternal salvation.

Jesus was sent to call the Prodigals among us back to repentance. We are all called to plead on the Father’s behalf, urging the Prodigals to return to righteousness.

Jesus, who was chosen and adopted by God and sent out to be His spokesman and prophet, commanded us to be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect. Jesus calls us to pursue righteousness, to do Good Works in the name of God, Whom we should love with our entire being, and to love and serve our neighbors exactly as we love ourselves.

We must take him at his word. He was not “joking” with us or teasing us as if we could never do what he commanded. We are literally being called to not live like the Prodigal Son, recklessly and without the need to do good and righteous Works.

We may not throw up our hands in despair, claiming we cannot do the Good Works and live the righteous life we are commanded to live, nor are we to vainly throw rags of praise at God while failing to seek the righteousness His Son calls us to seek.  That the older son in the story remained faithful to the father proves that one may indeed be righteous; a fact that shows that it can be done. Those who are not ill do not require a physician.

Jesus tells us that we are morally able to do Good Works, and that those among us who have become ill by living unrighteously need to seek a physician by returning to the Father.

There, in the house of the Father, we will be accepted with open arms. 

Scripture Cited:

And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. Luke 15:11-24

Art: The Return of the Prodigal Son; Francesco Bassano the Younger (1559-1592)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Proper Perspective on God

Getting the proper perspective on God, our Heavenly Father, is crucial to getting a proper perspective on our how we are to live our Spiritual lives.

Unfortunately, most Christians have an extremely warped perspective of God, and want to make Him into OUR Servant, rather than US being God's servants, as He commands us to be through His Son and Prophet, Jesus.

The hard truth is, God cannot be our wish-granter, or our personal ATM Card, or our personal Genie who must obey our every whim, as most Christians want Him to be.

No, God isn't here to serve US, we're here to serve HIM and to serve our fellow human beings in His name. That's all, and nothing more.

When we seek Riches and Fame and other "stuff" from God, we turn His Will on its head and make ourselves the center of the Universe, rather than God.

God shows no partiality and accepts no bribes (Deut. 10:17) He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matt. 5:45) He shows no partiality to princes, nor regards the rich above the poor, for they all are the work of His hands. (Job 34:19)

In truth, our promises to God and our actions for God are far more important than His promises TO us.

God is not our personal doorman, who (at our bidding) "opens doors" to better jobs, perfect mates, or more expensive cars.

If we are so VAIN that we envision God "arranging" opportunities for us so that we may be physically gratified, we must blame Him when he fails to do so, or throw up our hands and say "well, we just don't understand," which is a philosophical rationalization designed to explain God's failure to cater to our every whim and perceived need.

In fact, when we pray, we're not to heap up a "wish list" of all our wants and desires to God, as if God was a Heavenly Santa Claus who rewards us with toys. Jesus tells us God knows what we need, and those needs aren't physical tools for our personal gratification, they are entirely Spiritual.

Are we, therefore, NOT "blessed" by God? Surely we are! But those blessings are necessarily SPIRITUAL ones. God gives us comfort, hope and wisdom to do what is right. If any of us lack wisdom, we should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to us. (James 1:5)

And the knowledge of God and His Son's life and example are definitely blessings. After this, we see our lives with fresh eyes and we choose with the wisdom that comes from God alone (Job 28:23) becoming more righteous in His sight.

But to envision a God as some kind of "Great Manipulator" that grants wishes and makes things happen or not happen for us is to believe in a capricious and shallow being, not a God of wisdom and righteousness. But sadly, this is the God believed in by tens of millions of souls who are putting their faith in a magic genie to make everyone's problems come out "right," leading to them failing to pursue the Kingdom as a result. God's Kingdom is one in which He requires US to be His hands and eyes, and to serve others on His behalf.

And what about wealth and health and the Gospel of Prosperity?

Jesus was pretty clear: wealth and health and Earthly success is NOT to be used as a sign of God's blessings, and God’s Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36.) Nature rains and shines on both the good and the evil indiscriminately (Matt. 5:45.) God is not in the hurricane or the flood (1 Kings 19:11-12.) God is in the hands of the rescue workers and in the compassion of the doctors who tend to the sick. God is not in the angry boss who fires you or treats you badly. God is working through the co-worker and spouse who comforts and encourages you. And God is also there to draw upon as an inexhaustible spiritual well, His spirit never ceasing.

God definitely gives us spiritual gifts. He enables us to endure poverty and handle the temptations of wealth, but He shouldn't be demoted to a coin-operated "gimme goodies" machine for our physical gratification. That's a warped understanding of God.

Jesus specifically tells us that we must not pray to God for material things of any kind. God knows what we need, and it's not STUFF that will rot or rust (Matt. 6:19-20.) What we truly need is the spiritual integrity to deal courageously with whatever comes our way - and the knowledge that God will not be throwing it our way or moving it out of our way, because that would be turning God into OUR personal servant, and is simply a false understanding of God - even if many, many pastors of Christendom are teaching it with pretty words behind their expensive pulpits in their expensive church buildings.

Those who hear such things should pray to God for wisdom and discernment (James 1:5,) and they will receive it abundantly, as with all spiritual strength for which they ask God.