In this audio devotional (approx. 3 minutes long), I discuss what Jesus means when he says, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." He does not mean that teacher nearly entered heaven or is close to "being saved." Instead, he means the man is well on his way to assimilating kingdom values into his life. Are you?
One of my favorite shows is the X-Files. In season nine, a two-part episode called Nothing Important Happened Today concludes with a scene where Deputy Director Kersh is coyly trying to keep his agent on track with an investigation even while he wants to appear to be against the investigation. The exchange includes this dialogue:
KERSH: You ever hear of King George the Third?
DOGGETT: (Turning back toward KERSH) You answer my question!
KERSH: He was King of England when America declared Independence in 1776. King George the Third kept a diary. On July 4th 1776, he made an entry in it: "Nothing Important Happened Today."
DOGGETT: What [...] has that got to do with me?
KERSH: Revolutions start, things that change the world forever, and even kings can miss them if they're not paying attention.
Kersh's point was that small things happen that have larger significance, but if we're not paying attention to the larger picture, we're likely to miss it entirely.
Discipleship is a lot like this. We're called to a long, slow walk of obedience, always moving forward, keeping our focus on Jesus.
Jesus teaches a couple things about this. In Matthew 17:20, Jesus teaches about the importance of faith that is even as small as a mustard seed. With this faith, which many of us would consider to be little (and almost embarrassing), Jesus says you can even move mountains. Faith is determined by use and action, not by storage. You might think you have great faith, but only when it is called upon will you see how great your faith really is.
Jesus also teaches, in Matthew 25:31-46, about how seemingly small acts have eternal significance. In this passage, people are shocked to learn that through commission or omission of small acts of service to those in need that they either served or ignored Jesus himself! In this case, a small act of giving someone in need a cup of water had eternal significance!
As we live, we may think that the things we do (or don't do) have little meaning. But in the larger picture that God is painting with our lives, the smallest thing can end up having the largest impact.
Realize that to you, a small act that may not even be noticed at that time may deeply affect someone. You may feel at the end of the day as though "nothing important happened today." But recognize that through small acts you may change someone's life.
In this audio devotional (approx. 2.5 minutes long), I examine what Jesus meant when he told the teacher of the law in Mark 12:34 that he was "not far from the kingdom of God."
Psalm 126 points out that God restored the fortunes of Israel in returning them to their land from exile. The proper response was laughter and joy. Ultimately, the response of Israel became evangelistic, as their speech about God led the nations to proclaim the great things God did among Israel.
But there was ongoing work to be done as well, the repentance-with-tears that was part of the maintenance of the covenant.
Today, we should be joyful at the reversal of fortune God has enacted within us through Jesus. But we also should sow with tears, repenting daily to maintain our right standing with God, and weeping over the work still to be done. Then the joy we experience in part now will become fully present to us.
Sermon: Witnesses to the World (Psalm 126)
For Sunday, October 25, 2009.
Read Psalm 126, then meditate on these questions:
1. How has God restored you?
2. What parts of God's work, both inwardly and outwardly, do you weep over?
3. What joy do you anticipate? What joy do you experience now?
In an earlier post, I discussed how the ways we interpret and read the bible can actually conflict with the transforming power of the bible to shape us. That begs this question: What does it mean to take the bible seriously?
For example, if you believe that the whole goal of Christianity is to get worship and church organization "right", then you will look to emphasize those parts of the bible that speak to that issue (and there aren't many). But may I suggest that such an approach actually undermines the bible.
The bible itself does not set that out as a goal. The goal of the bible is that we would be formed as the people of God. In the Old Testament, this takes shape around God's character, and in the New, around Jesus himself. Thus Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 4:20, etc.
But the formation many seek is around the "right" Christian practices, specifically in worship. This, however, is a false goal and can become an idol. It also creates the scenario by which church members can be cold and frigid towards each other and do very little ministry but still think they are a biblical church.
To really do what the bible says, to take it seriously enough to actually obey it, we need to begin by reading the bible. This may sound like common sense, but too much supposed reading of the bible concentrates around reading select, favorite passages or in "studying" lists or booklets that organize and systematize the biblical materials into doctrines.
But the danger of actually reading the bible means you may come into contact with teachings that will challenge you! (This is also the joy of reading the bible!) This is what many want to avoid. They want a safe Christianity, something known, whereby they can "go to church" on Sunday and maybe on Wednesday, sit in the pew, consume religious projects, and go home without feeling that they need to do more. Perhaps they'll also look to be moral during the week.
The bible can be very dangerous--it calls us to more. It calls us to come out of ourselves; it rebukes us; it confronts us; it affirms us; and all this, sometimes even in the same passage!
In Mark 10:46-52, the gospel relates the story of Bartimaeus, the blind man who called out to Jesus, against the wishes of the crowd, until Jesus finally answered him. When Jesus called him, he cast off his cloak so he would be unhindered as he made his way to Jesus, seeking mercy.
This story challenges me in a deep way, as I wrestle with these questions: Would I rather sit on the sidelines and solve my problem myself? Do I have the courage to admit my weakness to Jesus? Do I have the courage to cry out to him around other people who will see my weakness? Do I really see that I need mercy? Can I overcome my need to see the problems in others in order to see where I truly lack? Will I keep calling out to Jesus until he responds? Will I cast off whatever holds me back from going to him?
These questions confront and challenge me. I'm affirmed in my faith but challenged to step up and out. Real bible reading does this to us. But we have to read.
To take the bible seriously, we need to read it, read whole sections of it (not just verses), and work our way through books of it, both Old and New Testaments.
Then we must do the most dangerous thing of all--apply it!
I wrote this blog post several months ago to provide preachers with four daily steps to streamline their sermon preparation. I'm republishing it as a PDF for you to download and print out. It will be most useful for preachers and teachers, but it also contains tips that will be helpful for anyone who reads the bible.
PDF: 4 Steps for Sermon Prep
I'm reading a really good book by Frank Viola called Finding Organic Church. I'm not a fan of the words "organic" and "viral"; they're overrused to describe processes that, to me, seem self-evident. But Frank's book is good and could rightly be called Finding Biblical Church. After all, that's what he's really after. And let's be honest--that's what we really need, because most traditional churches just aren't biblical.
That's not to say they're un-biblical. Rather, what many traditional churches are is extra-biblical. There's a difference. Extra-biblical refers to things that are outside the bible (i.e., owning buildings and many functions of ministry) while un-biblical refers to things that are actually opposed to the bible (blending Christian worship with pagan worship, for example).
Problems creep in when churches confuse their extra-biblical traditions (which are not wrong in and of themselves) with actual biblical teaching. I submit that this is a very real problem we need to be careful of. I further submit that the Church of Christ is particularly prone to this danger.
Examples of this confusing of extra-biblical traditions with biblical teaching are the so-called "5 Steps of Salvation" and "5 Acts of Worship." These catalogues of teaching are useful and helpful as summaries of biblical teaching, but since scripture nowhere presents these in such helpful lists, we must see them for what they are--traditions we have created to systematize things the bible itself does not systematize. Are they wrong? No--they correctly summarize key teachings from the bible. But are they "biblical"? Not if we are going to "speak where the bible speaks and be silent where the bible is silent." These lists are not un-biblical though; just extra-biblical.
We're prone to this danger for two reasons, in my opinion, both based on the way we interpret the bible. We have been taught an approach to interpreting the bible that is not spelled out in the bible itself. Does this mean that the way we read and interpret the bible is wrong? Again, no--but it does mean we need to be careful with the bible.
For example, the old "command, example, an necessary inference" is useful--but very vague and open. Which commands? Which examples? And "necessary inference" becomes a catch-all for whatever we want to see in the bible to bind on someone else.
Our way of reading and interpreting the bible forces principles of intrepretation onto the text that the text itself does not demand. It also runs the risk of creating a new law out of the new covenant rather than creating the conditions for grace to be revealed into our lives.
Frank Viola's book, Finding Organic Church, is helping me re-learn what the bible actually teaches about "church." And that's a good thing. A church can do no better than to go to the bible looking for bibical answers to biblical questions. Our task is to struggle with scripture in its fullness, to hear the old stories from the bible, the prophetic experiences, the deep laments of the psalms, the drama of the gospels, and the wisdom of the letters.
We lose this grander narrative when we try to systematize and organize the bible into categories and lists.
The bible teaches us as we allow it to. We need to read, study, and meditate--all with a movement towards obedience in our lives. This is how we find a biblical church--not by extracting things out of the bible to put into practice, but by being shaped and formed by the bible in all of its beauty, chaos, and truth.