Sunday, November 30, 2014

Knowing Jesus - and His Teachings

"Do you know Jesus?" This is the question many evangelists ask when proselytizing. Usually, it's the first one they ask.

Most of us do know OF Jesus, even if only from hearing about him in our childhood.

But it's actually a very dangerous question, because it implies that KNOWING about Jesus is enough.

Mere knowledge ABOUT a teacher isn't the same as knowing the teacher's lessons, nor does knowing them mean we have committed to following those lessons, just that we know about the teacher.

Knowing Jesus is the beginning of our faith. Coming to know the teachings and path Jesus lays out for us is our faith's completion.

It is in following the teachings of this teacher, Jesus, that we find peace, and our lives become spiritually abundant.

We cannot stop at simply "knowing" Jesus' name, or merely give verbal assent to the stories surrounding him, or believing that calling his name out loud carries a magical, mystical power of some sort. We must also learn that it is by hearing AND doing what Jesus teaches that we are saved from sin and grow within us a spiritually abundant life.

If we neither know nor do the teachings of Jesus, we're not "saved." For those who claim to know him but do not follow his teachings does not know him at all (John 13:17; Matt. 7:24; 1 John 2:4.)

Jesus says if we love him, we will obey his teachings; and Jesus teaches us to live completely for God and completely for others. In this, WE become complete.

Calling out "Lord, Lord" (that is: "Master, Master) and speaking vain words to God in Jesus' name do not save us either here or in the afterlife, says Jesus.

We gain eternal life - and an abundant Spiritual life - by knowing God's Moral Laws and doing them in Spirit and in Truth. Love of God and love of Others is the core of Jesus' teaching on Love, and summarized the teachings of the Jewish prophets and Law. (Matt. 19:17; 22:40; Luke 10:26-28.)

The example of Jesus shows us the life to which we can aspire, and his righteousness is the criterion by which we are judged by God (Matt. 16:27.)

Jesus arrived at perfect obedience by doing all things for which he was sent by his Father, and has shown by his example that we are all able to obey God. He calls us to do all that he has done - and MORE! (John 14:12)

If we call Jesus our Master and trust his words, then our deeds will reflect his example, bringing us an abundant Spiritual life.

We are called to serve others selflessly, seek God's forgiveness constantly, and give of ourselves to others endlessly. Jesus was chosen by God to be His prophetic spokesman; a perfect example for us in life and death of what God wishes us to be. He has called on us to follow him in all things.

This example of Jesus is a gift from God, assuring us that we, too may live the way God wishes us to live.

That is the message Jesus delivered to us as the Gospel (“Beneficial Message.”) There are no further mysteries, no creeds based on complicated Greek philosophies, no man-made dogma based on Lawyerly speculations or endless debates about others mens' imagined interpretations about his life.

Jesus calls us to put his teachings into practice, lest we build our houses of faith on the shifting sands of mere words and empty praise.

Let us go out into the world and serve Jesus and our fellow human beings, bringing in the Kingdom of God with each act of Righteousness!

Because by our acts, the world will learn that we do know Jesus!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Jonah and God’s Mercy #JesusFollowers

Jesus spoke frequently of God's mercy, forgiveness and our need for repentance. No story in the Hebrew Scriptures better illustrates this than the story of Jonah.

Jonah the Prophet was sent by God to Nineveh, to call on them to forsake their evil ways and repent. Jonah (after famously fleeing and being brought back on track by a whale) does as he is commanded and Nineveh actually repents, turning to God in true and genuine repentance, seeking forgiveness for their sins.

In this parable of God's mercy, Jonah, now a successful prophet, is furious with God, because he believes he was made to look like a chump for calling down God's wrath. He complains to God that, "I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" and that he KNEW that God would be merciful to them if they repented from their sins (Jonah 4:1.) And Jonah was correct.

The story of Jonah, like the ministry of Jesus, illustrates God's unlimited mercy and forgiveness. Both are available to us when we repent of our sins and choose to follow God's path of Righteousness instead.

Jesus refers to Nineveh and their repentance during his ministry, saying, "The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment and condemn the people living today, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah. But look, something greater than Jonah is here!" (Luke 11:30.)

The men of Nineveh were held up by Jesus as examples for those in Judea who were acting in unrighteous ways.

God asks Jonah after his outburst, "Is it right for you to be angry?" (4:4) And it's a good question, and one that's still relevant. Because like Jonah, some modern Christians are very angry with God for being too generous with His mercy and forgiveness.

And yet, God has mercy on those whom HE chooses to have mercy. James writes, "Mercy triumphs over judgment." (James 2:13)

The truth is, God isn't bound by OUR ideas of Justice and Condemnation. God's ways are not OUR ways. While we may  decide that some people do not deserve God's mercy, and must first "pay a price" for falling short of His high standards, God does not condemn based on our whims or theories about who is "in" and who is "out" of his loving embrace, either now or eternally.

"I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy," God tells Moses. "And I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion." (Ex. 33:19)

The Hebrew Bible, consistent with the teachings of Jesus, tell us we may ALL return to God when we forsake evil and turn back to God's holy path of Righteous living.

"Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon" (Isaiah 55:7) Isaiah told the children of Israel to turn back to God, against Whom they had deeply and greatly revolted (Isaiah 31:6.)

The people of Jesus' day were also revolting against God, and Judean society was to pay a heavy price for that rebellion within just 40 years of Jesus' preaching (Mark 13:30.)

The wisdom of God is that we may forsake our sins and repent, then we will find God's mercy waiting for us (Prov. 28:13.) And if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9.)

What does God require of us? Mercy. Jesus says those who seek mercy shall have it (Matt. 5:7) and in turn we are called to "Be merciful" just as our Father in Heaven is merciful. And as we are forgiven and receive mercy, we are called upon to forgive others and have mercy upon others (Luke 6:36-37.)

But wait - can God just show mercy to us - without retribution or payment? Just like that? Yes.

God isn't the elected leader of a government we created, nor is He bound by rules we think He must follow. No one should say, "God cannot show mercy because He is bound be laws to be unmerciful." or, "We must pay a price before we get mercy from God." No, God's mercy transcends His judgment, when we repent with a pure heart and genuineness. All the Hebrew Scriptures and our Master, Jesus, testify clearly to this wonderful Truth.

God requires nothing but our genuine repentance to "earn" his mercy. Hosea and Jesus both inform us that God requires "mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6; Matt. 9:13; Matt. 12:7) The Prophet Micah says we are to "love Mercy" (6:6)

We are blessed to know a God Who does not curse us with other's sins, and Who freely grants mercy to the repentant!

King David writes: "When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away Through my groaning all day long." But, "I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the LORD GOD,' and You forgave the iniquity of my sin." (Psalm 32.)

Having received the mercy of God, we are called by our Master, Jesus to show mercy to others. We show in our service to others - the widow, the orphan, the hungry, the homeless, the destitute and the suffering - that we understand what God's mercy means to us. And because we have the example of this man, Jesus, who achieved God's Standard of excellence, we know we are capable of doing what God asks of us.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Did Jesus Promise His Followers Material Prosperity?

A passage in the Gospel of Luke gives many today the idea that Jesus teaches us that God wants us to be rich – and if we only give out money (to others, especially to Evangelical Christian ministers) – then God will make us rich, too!

Luke 6:38 reads: "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

This has become a very popular “proof text” to show that God indeed wants us to become wealthy in this life as a sign of His blessing and “favor” above other people.

But those who assert this are not at all hearing the plain (and clear) words God’s chosen, anointed one, Jesus.

In fact, taken in context, Jesus was speaking of reciprocity – doing to others as we would have others do to (and for) us:

"Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

This is a call to serve and give to others both equally and generously, and for us to serve and give to those who are serving US just as generously – without judgment or condemnation. How wrong it is to turn this into a "Return on Investment" scheme in which we contractually force God into paying us when we give his ministers money!

If we actually listen to Jesus, he speaks clearly to us about wealth – and in fact, he speaks about wealth and poverty perhaps more than on any other topic. 

"And he said to them, 'Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his  possessions.'" (Luke 12:15) 

Is that a clear message about seeking wealth and earthly possessions? How frequently Evangelical pastors forget to quote THIS verse!

"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Matthew 6:19-21

The message begins: “DO NOT lay up for yourselves treasures on earth.” Is that a message that tells us we will be showered with wealth in this life? Clearly, it’s not the money we acquire, it’s the goodness in our hearts and the purity of our actions that "lay up treasure" in Heaven.

And when the one we call “Master” says, “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24) how much clearer does he have to be?

Jesus also told a Rich Man who asked what he must do to be saved (after telling him to obey the commandments) to sell his possessions (Mark 10:17-22.) What would a well-off family today think when told they must do this to be Saved? Can you imagine how surprised they would be!

And yet, many church-attenders today have been taught by their pastors that if they think positive thoughts, have a lot of faith, and “name and claim” the material goods they desire, God will instantly give these things to them.

But we are not told by Jesus to “name and claim” riches in the name of God. This is magic, not the God-centered faith Jesus preached. Instead, Jesus says repeatedly and plainly that we should not put our trust in earthly riches, NOR SHOULD WE SEEK THEM, instead seeking the Kingdom of God and praying that we may bring God’s Righteousness into our own lives, and on this earth.

What Jesus preached was consistent with the Wisdom of the Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures.

"Whoever trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf." we learn from the Proverbs (11:28.)

The Pslamist writes, "Though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them" (Psalm 62:10.) And warns about those who, "trust their riches and brag about their abundant wealth" (Psalm 49:6.) and warns against "the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth" (Psalm 52:7.)

Jesus and the Hebrew Bible instead both call us to be rich in Righteous ACTIONS, even if we are poor in our finances. Jesus and Scripture both teach that riches are judged by what we accrue in Heaven, not on earth. And both teach that poverty in spirit is worse than poverty in material wealth. In fact, material wealth often gets in the way of spiritual wealth.

Calling upon God for money, and measuring God’s "favor" and blessings by the money we acquire from God makes God into a Heavenly ATM machine, where we get whatever we wish and our desires are gratified, instantly. 

Whenever Jesus opens his mouth, his message negates this gross parody of God’s Kingdom.

Let us serve God with abundant spiritual Riches, loving God and our fellow human beings as Jesus calls us to do for the sake of God’s Kingdom. As we do this, we will grow eternally in Heavenly Riches that will never fade away and rust and moth cannot never touch.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Re-Thinking "Church"

The feelings of holiness and joy we have when we're in church for one day a week should match the way we live our lives the other six days.

But if we see holiness and joy as commodities we load up into our minds during church, rather than things we are called upon to express through our actions during the week, we're missing the point of church.

God knows us intimately, and knows of what we are capable, and when we need encouragement and wisdom to achieve His will, God stands ready to help us. In the same way, we must be always ready, too, to help our neighbors.

This Earth is not a dreary waiting room, where we sit patiently, anticipating death and a heavenly reward. The world is not a global funeral home, it's our first home, a place for joyful service, spiritual growth and a celebration of God's gifts.

The church also is our home, where we encourage and love one another, in preparation for joyful service to those outside our spiritual family as well as those within it. Church is the place where we encourage each other to become better and more whole and perfect.

Church is a wasted hour if it merely entertains the bored, reassures the lazy, and soothes the comfortable. 

In church, we are not the audience, God is. This is something we cannot forget.

A church gathering fails if it doesn't focus its worship on God, challenge people to love and serve God and our neighbors, and call them to Good Works and Righteousness that become physical acts of Light and Salt to the world. It should be a place in which we enrich our spiritual lives and also rededicate our entire Being to serve God and others in His name with our hands, as well as our mouths.

But Church is more than a building. In fact, when its only viewed as a building, we see only the mere composition of a structure rather than on the One Whom it is meant to honor.

We are told by God's chosen Son, Jesus, that we are to serve and love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and all of our strength. Putting others first, even to our own detriment (or to the detriment of a more comfortable building in which to worship) is the calling we are sent out to proclaim to others.

Should we not view the church in the same way? A church focused on a celebrity pastor, selling trinkets, or on the next multi-million dollar expansion project seems far from the Kingdom of God of which Jesus spoke.

THAT Kingdom, for which Jesus was commissioned by God and for which Jesus sent others out into Judea and the world, was focused on serving the poor, the widow, the orphan, the suffering, the hungry, the naked, and the oppressed.

Do mega-churches and expensive buildings and well-paid ministers and entertaining bands advance this Kingdom, or ignore it? Does all of Christendom's emphasis on the Self and seeking material gain that rusts and fades away advance the Kingdom? Or should we re-evaluate what "Church" means in the context of the one who founded it, Jesus?

We follow Jesus in joyful sacrifice, even if that means sacrificing our shiny new buildings and our comfort.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

When Trials Come Our Way

We can be assured that in this world, we will face trials and troubles, conflict and chaos. But we know that God will always be with us as a source of comfort and strength.

We are confronted with unpleasant and angry people, at work and in our families.

We are torn by indecision and conflict, both within ourselves and among others.

We are given chances to lives immorally and treat others unjustly.

And we are faced with challenges that threaten our passion for righteousness and goodness.

But God is with us as our source of strength and wisdom, to guide us in times of trouble.

"Don't be afraid," God assures us. "because I'm with you, don't be anxious, because I am your God. I keep on strengthening you; I'm truly helping you. I'm surely upholding you with my victorious right hand." (Isaiah 41:10)

Our God "gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak" (Is. 40:29.)

Jesus, the one whom God chose to be our example and teacher in all things, says we can call upon God in prayer when we need strength, peace and comfort.

To hope for a life of ease, without any problems and a guarantee of wealth,  power, health and fame is not the Way Jesus promises us. Instead, Jesus tells us what the Prophets of old told us, that we are not alone because we have God with us.

We are to find peace not in a vague IDEA of Jesus, but in the life, message and death of this man that God chose and sent out to us as a supreme example.

Jesus says, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid." (John 14:27)

And, further, he says, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)

Peace, or "shalom," was, and remains, a greeting for the Jewish people. It signals that God's peace is with us, and that we may take comfort in God's sheltering arms.

The Psalmist assures us that, "Yahweh is my strength and my shield. My heart has trusted in Him, and I am helped. Therefore my heart greatly rejoices. With my song I will thank Him." (Psalm 28:7)

James the Brother of Jesus says trials and troubles strengthen us and make us more perfect (James 1:2-4.) Wisdom is freely given from God, if we ask for it in faith, he says (1:5.)

We may call upon God for wisdom in our times of need, knowing He provides us with all we ask of Him (Matt. 7:7.)

We are urged by Jesus to "remain steadfast" and "endure to the end" (Mark 13:13) seeking after Heavenly treasure when we go to God in prayer (Matt. 6:20; 6:33)

Again, Jesus calls us to hear his words and understand them, bearing fruit and harvesting good works in this world. But when we allow his words to fall on rocky soil, "when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word" that person "immediately" falls away (Matt. 13:20-23.) We must instead by firmly rooted in the teachings of Jesus and the knowledge that God has given us through him and through the Scriptures.

And as the winds of turmoil beat against our lives, if we remain planted firmly in the rock of Jesus' teachings, we will prevail against them. (Matt. 7:24-27)

When we trust in God and follow the one whom He has chosen, we need never fear whatever the world throws at us, because we can endure to the end.