Posts tagged ‘eternal life’

The God of New Beginnings

We follow a God who gives us a fresh, new start. From the moment we acknowledge Jesus as Lord, the lives we led up until that point are swept away.

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” 2 Corinthians 5:17

The apostle Peter knew the truth of this. Although he had followed Jesus for three years, learning from Him and witnessing signs and wonders, in Jesus’ darkest hour — the night before He was crucified — Peter denied even knowing Him and fled into the night. Yet after the Resurrection, Jesus did not condemn Peter. Instead, He saw that Peter could become the bulwark of the nascent Church, and gave him a second chance.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”  (John 21:15-17)

Our God is a God who gives us second chances. In my time in ministry, I’ve made mistakes that I thought there was no coming back from, yet God has given me the same second chance that He gave to Peter and so many other faithful servants throughout history. He is a God who delights in new beginnings.

What new beginnings does He have for you?

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And Now For Something Completely Different …

HOW A NICE JEWISH BOY FOUND JESUS IN THE YELLOW PAGES

This is the 100th post on A Heart That Burns, so I thought I would memorialize that by a different sort of post. I’d like to share my personal testimony of how I came to follow Jesus, and came to be involved with the Church of the Nazarene. May it give glory to God.

I was born into a Conservative Jewish household, and while I was still just a toddler, my family moved to Northern Illinois. There I spent most of my childhood. We attended a Conservative synagogue, and both my older brother and I went to Hebrew school and had bar mitzvahs (a rite of passage into manhood) at the age of 13. But oddly enough for all that, I don’t ever remember a single discussion my family had about God.

The year after my bar mitzvah we moved to Kentucky — not exactly known as a hotbed of Jewish cultural life — and as a result I had little further practice of my Judaism. As I entered high school I began to rebel against my parents and most other authorities in my life. By the time I was a sophomore I was in full-scale rebellion. I acted very tough, and looked it too — with long hair and a leather jacket. Inside I was scared. I hung out with the “wrong crowd”, and I was soon drinking, smoking, and doing as many drugs as I could. Through high school and college I continued to struggle with substance abuse and alcoholism, finally getting clean and sober right before graduation from college . I drifted from one thing to another, trying to find some focus for my life. I felt only confusion, rage, and turmoil inside of me. I was desperately unhappy, and in complete denial of that unhappiness.

By my mid-20’s something had to change. I had been out in the workplace for several years and had just taken a new job in a new city. I felt an urge to reconnect to my Jewish roots, so I decided to find a synagogue. Not knowing the city well, I opened up the Yellow Pages to see if I could find one that I felt able to locate easily. The one I picked said in its ad, “Messianic” and “Proclaiming Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah.” These things meant nothing to me at the time, but I sure had a surprise coming. Little did I know that I had just found Jesus in the Yellow Pages!

I still remember the first night at that synagogue. Imagine how shocked I was to find that I had ended up at a Messianic congregation — a place where there were Jewish and Gentile people who worshiped Jesus together! They called him “Yeshua,” his Hebrew name. The people I met on that very first night were like none I had ever known before. They were so warm and welcoming. They seemed to really be happy to meet me, and they were obviously at peace within themselves. I compared this to my own inner turmoil, and I wanted what they had!

I began attending the synagogue and studying the Bible. One day I was shown some verses from Isaiah 53. The words seemed to point clearly to Jesus. That night, for the first time ever, I got on my knees and prayed.

“God, ” I asked, “can this be true? Can Yeshua be the Messiah?” I prayed for almost two weeks, and then He answered my prayer. A few days later, in November, 1997, I prayed once again, this time to receive Jesus as my personal Savior and Lord. At last I had peace within, for the first time. I grew swiftly in my newfound faith, and continued to devour the Word. I soon felt that God was calling me to serve Him, and that it wasn’t enough merely that I as a Jew had come to know my Messiah — the Lord wanted me to tell other Jewish people about Jesus.

In late 1999 I began to pursue this call as a domestic missionary with the ministry of Jews for Jesus, the largest mission to Jews worldwide. For eight years I did street evangelism, led bible studies, discipled individual Jewish people, spoke frequently in churches on subjects such as the Feasts of Israel and Jewish evangelism, and traveled as a member of the ministry’s music/evangelism team. At the end of this time, due to the illness of a family member, my wife and I left Jews for Jesus.

We began to attend the local Church of the Nazarene, where the pastor strongly urged me to seek God as to whether His call on me was finished. Acknowledging that His call hadn’t ended, but the form of the call had changed, I began my current journey towards ordination as an elder in the Church of the Nazarene. I continue to praise Jesus daily for all He has already done in my life, and all that I know He will accomplish in the future.

Lifting Up the Hood: A Sermon on Revelation 12

The following is the manuscript of a sermon I preached on Sunday, August 7 at Faith Community Church of the Nazarene in Ashland City, TN. The actual sermon as preached had some slight deviation from this text.

“I am haunted by waters,” Norman MacLean wrote, as he spun the tale of his family’s life and tragedy in Missoula, Montana in the early 20th century. His was a family who shared a passion for fly fishing, especially on the waters of the Big Blackfoot River, and their tragedy was the brutal murder of MacLean’s brother. As he grappled with loss and pain, MacLean reflected on how the river played a central role in his family story, remarking: “The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”

In any era, stories do more than just entertain. They can teach us right behavior, correct values, and proper morals. Our stories can show rather than tell the difference between good and evil, paint a picture of what makes a hero, give an avenue for catharsis, and inspire hope in the midst of helplessness. There are stories we remember our entire lives because they reach deep down inside of us and touch something in our innermost being. Such stories stay with us because they speak to us of truths greater than ourselves.

  • The orphan farm girl is stranded in a land so very far from where she belongs, traveling with three odd companions. She’s just trying to get to the wizard who can send her home while her partners want respectively, a brain, a heart, and some courage. In the end all four will find that within each of them is enough wisdom, love, and bravery to conquer any challenge.
  • With the destruction of the ship imminent, the science officer exposes himself to a lethal dose of radiation so that by his sacrifice, the rest of the crew can make it to safety. Blinded and dying, he tells his best friend, the captain of the ship, not to grieve for him, that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.
  • The young woman stole her crippled father’s armor and weapons and left in the middle of the night, pretending to be a son so her father wouldn’t have to answer the Emperor’s call to fight the invaders. Learning to be a soldier almost killed her, but she somehow survived. With luck, ingenuity, and the help of the other soldiers who came to respect her, she defeated the invading army and saved her whole country.

Today let’s explore a story that you and I are already a part of. It’s a story that began an eternity before any of us were born, and is cosmic in scale. Its ending has been written, but no one knows when it will happen.

A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days. And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world–he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.  (Revelation 12:1-17)

I wonder, have any of you have ever had car trouble while taking a long trip? I recall such a trip, during one of my summers off in college. I was on my way to a conference for the music fraternity I was involved with as a music education major. It was about a five-hour drive, and after the first couple of hours I began to notice that my car seemed to be a bit underpowered when I was taking some of the larger hills. Shortly after that, a strange noise began to emanate from the engine: fuh flup. Fuh flup flup flap flap fuh flap flap CLONK. With the engine dead, I had to pull over to the side of the road. I knew before I even got out of the driver’s seat that whatever this was, it wasn’t good, but as with any car trouble, I couldn’t know for certain how bad the situation was until I lifted up the hood and saw what was underneath.

In Revelation 12, we find the author John lifting up the hood of the car so that his audience – brother and sister Christians in the churches of Asia Minor – could find out just how bad the situation they were in really was. Mind you, they already knew it wasn’t good. They knew they were in trouble. John’s audience lived in the midst of the Roman Empire at a time when being a Christian wasn’t just frowned upon – it was illegal. The seven churches of Asia Minor, whom John had named earlier in Revelation, were experiencing suffering and persecution due to their faith in Jesus Christ, because they refused to worship the Emperor of Rome as divine.

Listen. Can you hear the signs of trouble? Fuh flup. Fuh flup flup flup.

These churches in Revelation daily faced a flood of images and propaganda that were intrinsic to the Roman worldview, to Roman imperial power, and to pagan religions. They were suffering for their faith, and they were suffering economically as well. The cult of emperor worship acted like a trade union, and you couldn’t get membership in the union unless you worshipped the emperor. If you didn’t belong to the union, you couldn’t even do business. It was economic exclusion. The Christians to whom John wrote were grappling with the grim reality that the famed pax Romana – the peace of Rome – came at great cost to the mass of people in the Empire. Rome was controlling and oppressing every aspect of their lives, from the economic to the spiritual.

And the problems they faced were going to get a lot worse: fuh flup. Flup flup flap flap.

The Revelation was meant to give hope to faithful believers in the midst of persecution and suffering. John needed his readers to get a look under the hood of the car, and to see what the situation really was. He needed them to achiever a greater perspective, and see that their suffering on earth was part of a bigger picture, which spanned the heavens and the earth alike.

John did this by weaving together images and stories that were familiar to his audience in Asia Minor, in order to demonstrate superior Christian truths. He began with a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, crying out in the agony of birth. Her child is described as one who will rule the nations with a rod of iron, which was a very well known Messianic reference from Psalm 2:9. It would be easy to conclude from this that the woman must be the Messiah’s mother, and it’s true that the passage contains elements of the birth narrative of Jesus, which we find elsewhere in the New Testament. Jesus’ mother Mary had to flee from those who sought her infant son’s death. John has something more than just Mary, the mother of Jesus in mind, in order to help his readers understand their own place in the order of things.

His description of the woman dressed in the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, and twelve stars in her crown hearkens to Genesis 37:9, where Joseph describes a dream in which sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down to him. Although the image of the twelve stars in the woman’s crown would have been familiar to John’s original readers as pagan images corresponding to the 12 zodiac signs, the symbolic connection he makes is to Joseph and his eleven brothers, the twelve children of Israel. The twelve sons – later the Twelve Tribes — represent all of Israel, God’s chosen people. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets described Israel as a bride, and the Lord as her husband, as when the Lord told Hosea, “I will betroth you to me forever.” (Hosea 2:19) It was out of this Chosen People that Jesus the Messiah came, through whose work in the past God birthed the Church itself. John wanted the Christians of Asia Minor to remember that they too were part of the universal community of God’s people.

The tribulations that the brethren faced were part of a battle that was being waged not just on earth but also in the heavens themselves. John identifies the chief opponent in this battle as a great red dragon, which menaces the woman – the people of God – and threatens to devour her child, the Messiah. This image of the red dragon is taken from Babylonian mythology and was familiar to the churches of Asia Minor, coming as they did from backgrounds steeped in pagan religions and legends. With this image of the dragon tied to Satan, the serpent in the Garden, the message is that the power that threatens the people of God is not the earthly authority of Rome. Although Rome is a tireless promoter of its own glory and supremacy, the Empire is ultimately merely an agent and tool of that power. That power is Satan; the Word of God tells us that he waged a war in heaven and that he was cast down to the earth.

The engine, people, is screaming now: FLUP FLUP FLUP FLAP CLONK!

The dragon was thrown down to earth, and he pursued the woman. In his anger, the dragon came after the people of God, after the Body of Christ. Everything that the Christians of Asia Minor had patiently endured – the persecution, the economic and social marginalization – was a measure of something more vast. The apostle Paul was very explicit about the nature of this battle, writing to the church in Ephesus: “we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12)

John was drawing the attention of the brethren to awareness of a more immense and supernatural reality outside of their everyday lives. Their pain and distress was a consequence of a cosmic battle, a battle that Satan lost in the heavens but continued here on earth. Revelation is very clear that the devil has come down to earth with great wrath, and that all those who keep the commands of God and who give testimony of the salvation of Jesus Christ are the targets of his anger. Now that is awful news. I can imagine that faced with such tidings the temptation for those churches must have been strong to simply pack it in, join the union, and assimilate into the wickedness of the culture around them.

But John didn’t just lift up the hood and tell them the obvious, “guess what, the engine is seized on the car, people!” The engine was seized, just like the engine of my car seized during my trip to the conference. Yet John had fantastic news for his brothers and sisters. Beginning in verse 10, a loud voice in heaven announces that the salvation and the power and the kingdom of God have come, that the authority of His Messiah is proclaimed! Yes, there was suffering and pain, but that suffering and pain was the last desperate lashing out of an enemy who was already conquered.

Do you understand what it means when the text tells us that Satan was conquered by the blood of the Lamb? It means that when Christ died on the cross, the wily old dragon thought he had scored a victory, but it was the furthest thing from it. The very act that had all the powers of evil chuckling and gloating was the means by which evil was vanquished, for when Christ died on the cross and ascended to Heaven, He prevailed over anything that sin and evil could ever do.

It is not just Christ victorious over Satan that Revelation depicts, but Christ’s people victorious as well. That victory comes first and foremost through His death and Resurrection, but in sharing in His resurrection, John says that their testimony of His salvation has helped to conquer Satan. John points his readers to the victory achieved by the shed blood of Christians who would not renounce their faith in the Lord Jesus even when the price for that was their own life. These are Christian martyrs whom John describes, men and woman who placed fidelity to Christ above worldly peace, financial security, or personal safety. They have conquered Satan’s sway over them through their loyalty to a principle laid out in John 12:25, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Do you understand the significance of the good news that John was sending to Asia Minor? Yes, the engine of the car has seized, and it feels like you’re stranded all alone by the side of the road. But you have the best roadside assistance you can get – you have the Lord Jesus Christ, who will not only never leave you or forsake you, but he is going to replace your engine with a new engine, one that will never stop running!

I wonder, sometimes, if we don’t have difficulty placing ourselves into stories. I wonder if when it comes to a passage like this, we get so focused on understanding what it says that we miss that the story hasn’t ended yet, and that we’re part of it. You and I ride in the same car of which John lifted up the hood. It’s true, John was writing to specific Christians in specific churches, but we too are his brothers and sisters. We too are part of the Body of Christ, united together across all the centuries by the saving grace of God expressed through the death of Jesus on the cross.

It’s perhaps hard for Christians today, particularly Western Christians, to relate to the idea of being persecuted for their religious faith. In this nation, Christians have been blessed in that as a body we have never been prevented from following Jesus. It might be even harder for us to relate to economic exclusion or social marginalization due to Jesus. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that there is not real suffering and pain among Christians today, as many grapple with a poor economy and high unemployment.

As holiness people, I do think that we can relate to being excluded or marginalized due to our beliefs. As a church in the Wesleyan tradition, we Nazarenes strive to be holy people in a world that does not value holiness. This often prohibits us from full participation in popular culture. We have historically taken a stance of abstinence due to the harmful consequences on human life that alcohol can have, setting us apart from a dominant culture in which social drinking is an accepted norm. As Nazarenes, we desire to choose what our Manual calls, “the high road of holy living” when it comes to entertainment. This excludes us from watching many movies or television shows, due to their glorification of violence, sensuality, and the profane. The cost of giving in to what our culture says is OK is the same cost the churches of Revelation faced: to turn away from God and His standards.

What’s your story today, my friends? Are you suffering, haunted by the memory of tragedies in your lives? Or are you facing obstacles right now that seem insurmountable and hopeless? Take heart. You are part of the same battle, and facing the same enemy today that the Christians of Asia Minor faced in the first century. Satan continues to focus his wrath on all who follow the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus. Revelation 12 tells us that Satan knows that his time is short, and his wrath is directed against us until Jesus returns, hoping to turn as many away from Christ as he can. Be encouraged by the same words that John used to encourage his afflicted fellows: we have conquered by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of the testimony of those who will not be turned from Jesus Christ even though it cost them their lives. For now have come the salvation and the power and kingdom of our God and the authority of His Messiah, who died to give you eternal life.

The Cost of Following Jesus, Part Three

This is the conclusion of a three-part series.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer defined cheap grace, he also defined its opposite: costly grace. I’d ask your indulgence as I read once more from Bonhoeffer:

“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

“Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow Him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Is there a cost to follow Jesus? Oh yes indeed, there is. Jesus intentionally put the rich young ruler in a position in which answering the call of God would have made it would be impossible to go back to the ruler’s old life.  He was asking him to sever all ties with his past and make an irrevocable decision to follow Christ.  The rich young ruler, like many today, seemed to want to try out the call and see if the conditions suited his fancy, then decide later whether or not to stay with Jesus.  No. There is no real cost to a decision such as that. You risk nothing. Truly following Jesus means risking everything you have and everything that you are.

I cannot tell you how many times during my years as a missionary to the Jews that I experienced heart wrenching moments of watching those whom I had ministered to count the cost of deciding to follow Jesus – a cost that for some included the rejection of their families, the loss of jobs, and the censure of their entire community! I think particularly of a young Jewish man named Alan whom I ministered to for most of a year. We met weekly to study Scripture, and was I spurred to pray for Alan often as I judged that he had made such progress that I thought he would surely give himself to Christ at any moment. This hope of mine was crushed one day when Alan confessed to me that while he had come to believe that all I had taught him was true, and that Jesus was most likely the Messiah, he could not follow him. “If I follow Jesus, I’ll lose my family and everything else, and I just can’t do that.” Alan was stuck at a terrible place: the crossroads of truth and convenience. In time I got past my disappointment in his choice, and returned to praying that God would move him past that crossroads. Alan made a choice much like that of the young ruler.

The cost that Jesus would have us pay to follow Him is to abandon our focus on ourselves and on earthly things. “Go, sell what you have,” He tells the young ruler, “give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” The cost of following Him and becoming like Him is to fix our gaze on heavenly things. That cost is achieved by allowing God to take away the heart we have and replace it with a new heart. A heart that beats for Him! A heart that yearns not for the things of this world, but that yearns for the same things that the Lord yearns for! It means giving up who we are in our sinfulness, and becoming new creatures who exist to serve His purposes, not our own selfish ambitions and desires.

The apostle Paul spoke to this idea when writing to the church in Philippi, stating,

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed-not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence-continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”  Philippians 2:12-13

When Paul says to “work out your salvation,” please understand that he is not suggesting that anyone through some effort on their part can earn God’s salvation. The key to what he means is contained in verse 13, “for it is God who works in you.” Paul was admonishing the Philippians to live lives that made their salvation in Christ obvious – and he wanted them to remember that this could only happen if they allowed God to be at work in their lives, causing their will to conform to His will, causing them to desire that their actions would directed towards God’s purposes.

God will not take up residence within you, His Holy Spirit cannot tabernacle within you, if sin remains in you. If you have withheld a part of yourself from Him and sin therefore remains, how can you possibly expect that Jesus will take up residence within you and transform you from the inside? If you have professed yourself a Christian, and yet are still holding onto something from your past, please understand that by keeping your whole heart from Him you are grieving the Lord by blocking the work of His Spirit in your life. The things you hide from other people, the secret sins you’ve never confessed to another person, that patch of darkness you’ve harbored in your heart … they are all seen and understood by the Lord. He is able to cleanse you of them. It is His desire that you turn them over to Him so that he might heal you and cause you to grow to Christian maturity.

If you have never truly given lordship of your life over to Jesus, you can have no idea of what it means to have Him cleanse your sin, to heal you of all the brokenness in you. In 1997, at the time I first came to know Jesus, there is no other way to describe what I was other than an unqualified mess. I had come through alcohol. I had come through drugs. I had come through one failed relationship after another. I had come to grips with the fact that I just wasn’t any good at my chosen career. I was just plain miserable. But on the day I met Jesus, I gave all of that pain and misery over to Him, and He opened wide His arms and simply said to me, “Welcome home.” From that moment on, although I have had trials and tribulations in life, none of them have ever been more than momentary clouds on the horizon because in dying to the life I led and allowing Christ to live within me, for the first time I experienced God’s  shalom, the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Even as the young ruler trudged away in sorrow, Peter looked at the Lord and said, “We have left everything and followed you.” There’s a question in this statement, and the question is, “Did we make the sacrifice that this rich young ruler wouldn’t?” Jesus’ response recognizes that Peter and the other disciples did make a sacrifice of their lives – a sacrifice Jesus measures in houses, in brothers or sisters or mothers or fathers, in children and lands – for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel. Not only does he affirm that they have made the right choice, but Jesus goes on to indicate that those who are faithful to Him, even amidst persecutions, will be rewarded. Rewarded with what?

“that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 NRSV

Is there a cost to following Jesus? As I wrap up, I don’t want to keep beating the same drum.  But if you say you are following Jesus, and your life hasn’t changed, I want to challenge you to ask yourself why. If you call yourself a follower of Christ and yet your life doesn’t reflect Him, it begs the question of whether you’ve truly turned your back on your own sin and thrown yourself entirely on the mercy of God. Maybe you’re thinking that there are things in your life you’ve done that God can’t forgive. Maybe there places of darkness you’ve wandered into where you think His light can’t reach. People, understand that the cost to follow Jesus is not about following rules. It’s not about managing your sin. It’s about saying to God, “Here I am, you can have all of me.” That’s the cost of following Jesus. That’s what it takes.

Have you paid that cost? Are you willing to pay it? Who are you living for? Are you living for Jesus, or are you living for yourself? Do you find yourself in possession of a cheap grace or a costly grace? When God calls, will you cast down your nets – as some of the disciples did – and follow Him, or will you walk away downhearted as the rich young ruler, unwilling to give all of your heart to Him so that he can give you a new one?

* All quotes or information regarding Dietrich Bonhoeffer were drawn from The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,  1959, Simon & Schuster

** All quotes or information regarding Richard Wurmbrand were drawn from Jesus Freaks, dc Talk & Voice of The Martyrs, 1999, Albury Publishing

The Cost of Following Jesus, Part One

This is the first part of a two to three-part series.

I did not have an interest in music – other than listening to it – until I was a  sophomore in high school, and then I dived into the deep end of the pool. In  the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I  learned to play saxophone, and then during my junior year of high school I  more or less taught myself to play guitar. The guitar I learned to play on was  a beat up old classical guitar loaned me by a friend, but I never think of that  as my first guitar.  My first guitar was an acoustic/electric Takamine, with a  glossy black finish and white detailing. I named the guitar Johnson, after a  famous blues musician, and I paid $600.00 for him at Currier’s Music Store,  which even today seems to me an enormous sum for a 17-year-old to spend  on anything. I paid $600.00, but that doesn’t begin to describe what I really  paid for that guitar. The real cost was a sacrifice of time spent with friends while I worked odd jobs. The cost was not having the money for getting a bite to eat with the gang I hung out with, or not being able to buy a new biker jacket, or a t-shirt from one of the bands I liked. The cost was staying in my room at home instead of cruising because I didn’t want to waste money on gasoline for my car that I could put towards my guitar. Johnson was costly, people.

I think that the generation in which I have found myself born is one that for the most part has never understood the true cost of things. It’s a generation that feels a huge sense of entitlement, and whatever it is that we’re supposed to be entitled to, we want it NOW, without any waiting! In previous generations this was not so. My late grandfather lived through the Depression, and until the illness which eventually killed him, seemed physically incapabable of inactivity for so much as a day. He spent most of his adult life as a bus driver in New York City, and continued to drive a school bus after his retirement. Even when he eventually stopped driving, he was constantly working, whether it was making some small repair in his home, or building some small item for a neighbor. Those who have come before us understood a connection between desiring something – whether it was tangible, such as food, or intangible, such as knowledge – and the price required to acquire it, a connection that seems more tenuous as time progresses. The blacksmith at his forge was standing there because he had served an apprenticeship of 7 or more years, an apprenticeship measured in his own sweat, and blood, and tears. The doctor treating patients walks the corridors of a hospital because he has served a different sort of apprenticeship of 8-10 years, years of endless studies and sleepless nights spent as an intern before being allowed to don the white jacket proclaiming him as a healer. The professor at a university is entitled to his podium in the lecture because he has gone through 4 years of undergraduate work, followed by 4-6 years of graduate studies, followed perhaps by yet more years of study and work on a doctoral dissertation which he must then defend before a panel of experts in his field of study. There was a price which the blacksmith, the doctor, and the professor paid to earn their place in society.

Today, I want us to consider a simple question: is there a cost to follow Jesus?

“And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” Peter began to say to him, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many that are first will be last, and the last first.”   Mark 10:17-31

Is there a cost to follow Jesus? As Christians, we tend not to think this is so. After all, He paid the price for us, did he not? He died on the cross for us, as a sacrifice for our sins. We didn’t do anything to earn that sacrifice, nor was there anything we could have done. It was a gift that God gave to all humanity – His own Son, brutally murdered that you and I might gain eternal life. The apostle Paul bids us knows that if we but confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved. Doesn’t sound like much cost to you and I, does it? The story of the rich young ruler, found in three of the four Gospels, teaches us differently. The moral of this tale is that following Jesus is costly.

Is there a cost to follow Jesus? As Christians, we tend not to think this is so. After all, HE paid the price for us, did he not? He died on the cross for us, as a sacrifice for our sins. We didn’t do anything to earn that sacrifice, nor was there anything we could have done. It was a gift that God gave to all humanity – His own Son, brutally murdered that you and I might gain eternal life. The apostle Paul bids us knows that if we but confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved. Doesn’t sound like much cost to you and I, does it? The story of the rich young ruler, found in three of the four Gospels, teaches us differently. The moral of this tale is that following Jesus is costly.

The rich young ruler is distinctive in the New Testament as being one of the few figures of authority who demonstrates legitimate interest and concern in the afterlife. The nature of his question to Jesus indicates that he had prior knowledge that Jesus was offering eternal life to those who followed him. Although there are those who question the ruler’s sincerity, he genuinely seems to want to know how he can gain salvation. Jesus’ answer treats the question sincerely; our Lord responds by quoting the Ten Commandments. He refers to commandments six through nine, and then cites the fifth commandment. As we examine the passage, note that all these are commandments dealing with relationships with other people. Know that in Jewish tradition, citing any portion of a passage implies the context of the entire passage. By citing commandments dealing with relationships with other men, Jesus by implication is also citing commandments dealing with relating to God. This is important in answering our question.

As sincere as the rich young ruler is, his response shows his misguidedness. “All these things I have kept since my youth,” he says, displaying a certainty that he has the ability to live a righteous life on his own. Although I don’t believe it to be arrogance, the young ruler displays a sort of boastfulness in his own piety, as if to say, “Look how long I’ve been keeping the commandments!” He’s misguided because he thinks that simply doing commandments is the way to a relationship with God. As someone who grew up in Judaism, and has brought the Gospel to the Jewish people, let me make something clear: it is not about doing the commandments. What was the one thing which Jesus told the young ruler he lacked? He was lacking a heart that was truly, wholly and completely given over to God. Jesus’ invitation to come and follow Him was a test of where the young ruler’s allegiance truly lay; it was a call for him to sacrifice his wealth for his faith. Understand that Jesus’ command to the young man is not a call for all people in all times to give up all they own, but it was God’s will for this ruler. He went away sad because the cost of following Jesus, the cost of eternal life, was all that the young ruler believed was important in this world. His reliance ultimately was not on the Lord; he drew comfort from his possessions rather than his God.

In part two of this series, we’ll discuss the price which some have paid for following Jesus. Look forward to some thoughts on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Richard Wurmbrand in particular.

How God Sees Death

I’m torn between sadness and joy today at the news that the father of a very dear friend of mine has lost a long battle with cancer. He went home to Jesus peacefully the day before yesterday. I’ve been thinking about it all day, how his last view on this earth would have been the family that loved him, and his next view would have been the face of his Creator, Whom he will spend eternity with. In the midst of thinking about this, John Meunier posted an entry on his blog, entitled God of the living. John makes some potent statements which minister to me:

“Death does not look the same to God as it does to us …  To God, we remain alive. To God those we love still live. Death is a doorway, not a dead end.”

On Mourning

I think it is fair to say that we live in a society that tries its best to avoid ever having to face the facts that people age and people die. All one has to do is look at beauty magazines on the newsstand or television ads for clinics offering cosmetic surgery and Botox injections to get the picture that ours  is a culture obsessed with a desperate and futile effort to stay young at all costs. This is ultimately a fear of death, and is understandable for those who don’t have the promise of eternal life in Jesus, but as Christians we should not share that fear.

During my Christian walk, I have shared in the grief felt by friends who have lost family members or others close to them. When we lose someone, it is right that we should mourn, even when we know that those we have lost are not lost at all, but are with Jesus right now. How should we as individuals and as a community of faith deal with death and mourning?

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” (John 11:1-3 RSV)

Thus he spoke, and then he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” (John 11:11-15 RSV)

Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. (John 11:17-19 RSV)

“Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Then Mary, when she came where Jesus was and saw him, fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (John 11:30-33 RSV)

There are some particular things that can be drawn from these passages. Notice that Lazarus is not a stranger to Jesus. He and his family, Mary and Martha, are people whom Jesus cares about and loves. This is not some anonymous death, but the passing of someone meaningful to Jesus. I want you to take note as well how these verse mark that many of the Jews in the area of Bethany had come to console Mary and Martha, and how they were weeping with Lazarus’ family. What we see in this passage is a communal participation in the process or discipline of mourning.

In the first century, as in Judaism today, this is a process that those losing loved ones are expected to engage in, a process in which the community participates. Within the Church today, I think this is something that can be glossed over, especially by the community. All too often, those in mourning are expected to move on with life as if they don’t feel sadness or loss, and are left by the community to grapple alone with those feelings. There are lessons to be learned from examining the rituals of how those in Jesus’s day mourned, rituals which Judaism continues to practice today. I am not suggesting that Christians need to begin practicing Judaism, but as a Jewish believer in Jesus I know from experience that Judaism contains disciplines from which Christians can glean practices that can make our own faith communities stronger.

The Judaism of Jesus’ day divided the bereavement process up into periods of decreasing intensity, to allow mourners to express their grief fully and gradually enter back into normal lives.  Jesus and the disciples arrived after Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days which means that they arrived after the first of these periods,  called in Hebrew aninut, meaning simply “burial.” This is the period after death and before burial, and during this time the bereaved are excused from any regular religious obligations. The sole duty is in preparing the body for burial. The community is not required to visit, feed, or comfort the mourner until after the burial, to allow the family to feel the full force of grief.

In Jesus’ day – and continuing to this day – respect for the dead took high priority. The body is never to be left alone, and every Jewish community has shomerim, those who will sit with the body until burial. Shomerim may not eat, drink, or perform one of the commandments from Torah in the presence of the dead. To do so would be considered mocking the dead, because the dead can no longer do these things.

Once the burial occurs, the family eats a special meal of condolence, which is  prepared by a close relative, near neighbor or friend. This meal traditionally consists of eggs, a symbol of life, and bread. The meal is for the family only, not for visitors. After this, the next period of mourning begins, during which the community is permitted to make condolence calls. This period is known as shiva, or “seven,” because it lasts one week after the burial. In the passage from John, Jesus and the disciples would have arrived in the midst of this period. We know this because the passage describes Lazarus as having been in the tomb for four days, and because of the references to Jews from the area who had come to console the family, and who were weeping with them. A family is said to “sit shiva” during this period, and this is a literal meaning. The family is permitted to sit only on low stools or on the floor. We can see this demonstrated in the Hebrew Scriptures in the book of Job, as Job’s friends join him in mourning the loss of his sons and daughters,

“And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” Job 2:13 RSV

Shiva is observed by parents, children, spouses and siblings of the deceased, preferably all together in the deceased’s home. Shiva begins on the day of burial and continues until the morning of the seventh day after burial. Mourners do not wear leather shoes, do not shave or cut their hair, do not wear cosmetics, do not work, and do not do things for comfort or pleasure, such as bathe, have sexual intercourse, put on fresh clothing, or study Scripture, with the exception of Scriptures related to mourning and grief. Mourners wear clothing that they rent, or tore, at the time of learning of the death or at the funeral. Mirrors in the house are covered, so that vanity will not be a concern in one’s grief. Since mourners do not leave the house during shiva except on the Sabbath, neighbors and friends gather at the mourner’s home to hold prayer services.

The community is expected to visit during this time to express condolences, and to bring food. It is considered commandment rooted in kindness and compassion to pay such a visit. There are a number of customary blessings which a visitor says when leaving a shiva visit, such as:

“May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”

“You should have no more tza’ar (pain)”

“May you have only simchas (celebrations)”

“We should hear only good news from each other”

Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead before the period of shiva was done, sparing his family the full process of mourning until (presumably) many years later. What would Mary and Martha have experienced at the time had Lazarus not come forth from his tomb? Following shiva would have been a period called shloshim, or “thirty.” During this 30-day period, the bereaved is still mourning, but begins to enter back into a normal life. They can return to work, to doing laundry, to doing the shopping, but must avoid large parties and celebrations, and cannot attend musical performances. They can attend a wedding only if it is for a close relative, and cannot take part in singing or dancing at the reception.

The final formal period of mourning is called avelut, which is observed only for the death of a parent. This period lasts for twelve months after the burial. During that time, mourners continue to avoid parties, celebrations, theater, movies, and concerts. For eleven months of that period, starting at the time of burial, the mourner goes to the synagogue twice a day to recite a prayer known as the mourner’s Kaddish. This is the text of the Kaddish:

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and  for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

Now this is a curious prayer to be said when one is mourning. It doesn’t say anything at all about mourning or grief, in fact. Rather it is a prayer which extols God’s magnificence. This is important to understand about how we as individual Christians and we as the Church might approach grief and mourning. In Judaism, the Kaddish is a part of mourning which very much involves the community; one has to be in the synagogue to recite the prayer, not in the privacy of one’s home. The entire community sees the mourner there, and is therefore engaged in the discipline of grieving with them.

Judaism today includes a final ritual of mourning that is not part of the formal mourning process prescribed since the biblical period. This is a ritual know as Yartzeit, which is Yiddish for “time of year.” Each year, on the anniversary of the loved one’s death, the mourner commemorates the deceased by lighting a special candle which burns for 24 hours. The mourner also recites the Kaddish prayer at morning, noon, and night.

Thus far we’ve talked about mourning traditions that have grown out of Biblical traditions and continue today in Judaism. What of Christian mourning traditions? Are they primarily individual rituals, or are they communal?

Throughout most of Christian history, one of the most visual aspects of mourning has been the wearing of black clothing. This is a custom that continued for many centuries. Christian widows would often wear black for at least one year after the death of their husband, sometimes for up to four years. Even today, attendees at most funerals are likely to wear dark clothing of some sort, even if it is not black.  A custom which is still maintained today, particularly in Irish communities, is that of holding a wake, a ceremony in which people eat, share stories about the deceased, sing, and give support to the family of the deceased.

In the South,  where I have resided the past few years,  there are some traditions in which the community partakes to take part in the grieving process. The passing of a loved one is something that is frequently commemorated with a visitation service during which the community can pay their respects to the deceased and offer condolences to the family. Following the burial service, the community often gathers at the home of the deceased or elsewhere in order to share a meal. That funeral meal can mean a great deal to a family that is still in shock over their loss, and unable to think about practicalities such as cooking dinner for themselves. In her memoirs, It Ain’t All About The Cookin’, Southern hospitality diva Paula Deen devotes an entire chapter to funeral food, discussing the importance of food for a funeral being comfort food instead of fancy food. She even reveals that she always has an “emergency casserole” on hand in her freezer in case it’s needed for a funeral.

Mourning should be a discipline that helps us to move on with life in appropriate stages, after fully experiencing grief. My observation is that sometimes Christians don’t really know how to do this, because many of us are unused to engaging in regular spiritual disciplines.

The idea in the recitation of the Kaddish prayer, for example, is to continue to give praise to God even when the bereaved is unable to feel that praise, because the discipline of repeatedly offering the praise will eventually cause the mourner to remember the truth behind the praises. This reminds one of Peter Boehler’s famous words to John Wesley: “Preach faith till you have it.” How much more do we as Christians have access to truth, in the person of Jesus Christ? How much more should we be able to praise Him, as His Spirit is within us to strengthen and encourage us during a time of loss?

This is not to say that we should not understand and have compassion for the emotions suffered during the mourning process. My grandmother passed away over 6 years ago, and I still experience sadness each year at the anniversary of her death. A friend who lost his own grandmother not too long ago feels very depressed, and that is appropriate. It’s appropriate to feel what you feel when you are mourning – that might be depression, it might be anger, it might be disbelief, or even hatred. It’s also appropriate to talk or shout those feelings out to Jesus – He has experienced all the feelings that you as a human being have experience, and He can handle them.

What am I driving at in all of this? Without being irreverent, I am reminded of a line of dialogue from Star Trek II, my favorite of all of the Star Trek movies. In the particular scene I am thinking of a young Starfleet trainee, Lt. Saavik, complains to Captain Kirk that a simulator test involving a no-win scenario was not a fair evaluation of her command abilities. He reminds her that a no-win scenario is a possibility that all commanders face and then remarks to her, “how we face death is at least as important as how we face life.”

Death is an inevitability, but it is not the end. The Apostle Paul makes clear that the world we are in, and the suffering we experience, is not all there is.

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Romans 8:18 RSV

As individuals, Christians need not fear death. Jesus has promised us that all who follow Him will be given eternal life. If our departed ones were believers in Him, we can rejoice that He has promised that we will see them again before His throne. But regardless of whether those we grieve for were believers in Jesus, when we mourn we are engaged in commemorating all of the things that we enjoyed and loved about our departed ones. As individuals, we can praise God that He gave us the time we had in this world with them, even as we allow ourselves to experience the fullness of grief that they are no longer with us. As the Church, we can engage in a shared recollection of why the deceased was important to us, and assist the mourner to move through grieving back into normal life.

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