Week 29 – Maturing the Vision

The year was 1788.  The Constitution had just been ratified, and this radical new idea of a democratic, representative government called the United States of America was forming.  But some clarity was needed.

On one hand you had the Federalists, who maintained that because of national security and international credibility, this new government needed a strong federal arm, that would have as much or more power than the states had individually.  The Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, argued that putting too much power in the hands of the federal government rather than the states would be tantamount to making the President another King, which was precisely the problem they were trying to address.

So, the conundrum:  how to keep the federal government from becoming too powerful, while giving the states the autonomy they needed, and protecting the rights of individual citizens from an overly aggressive commonwealth.

The answer was the Bill of Rights, or the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which provided for enough checks and balances to satisfy the Anti-Federalists.  Now individual rights such as freedom of religion, due process, unreasonable search and seizure, trial by jury, excessive punishment and the right to bear arms were in place.

What happened?  The vision of this new venture of democratic government needed maturing.  It needed to be fleshed out in practical terms so people understood how to apply its new principles in everyday life.

Chapter 29 does precisely that.  This chapter in The Story is by far the longest chapter, but it matures the vision as Paul lays out the practical elements of the Christian life in his letters to the embryonic, emerging churches of the first century.  Jesus had brought a radical, unexpected vision that challenged people to think in terms of spiritual transformation rather than political upheaval.  The key principles of His teachings were still there:

  • Love God and your neighbors as yourself.
  • Lose your life in order to find it.
  • Become a servant.

But how did Christianity work if the person who I’m commanded to love has just divorced me, or taken me to court?  How do you bring Jews and Gentiles into one Kingdom, when each has a totally different frame of reference?  Since Jesus was a Jew, do you have to become a Jew first before becoming a Christian?  And what do we do now with the Law?  Just toss it after all these years?  What happens when people start taking this new religion and, as humans are prone to do, use it for their own ends?

It’s not an exact parallel, of course, but this chapter in the Story, in a way, serves as a set of instructions and clarifications to the gospel much like the amendments to the Constitution elucidate and illuminate the principles on which we were founded.

This was especially important because as we see in Acts, God’s plan was not to keep the church in a cloistered biosphere, a pristine environment where it could be kept safe from the influences of the world.  Quite the opposite:  the church was supposed to go change the world by engaging with it, influencing it, and making disciples of all nations by going, baptizing and teaching.

What we’re looking for today are themes that are interwoven throughout the writings of Paul as he visits, addresses, equips, reprimands and encourages these new believers.

Jewish converts already understood sin, God, and the long history of His work in their lives.  But Gentile converts began at square one.  So Paul adapted his methods of teaching, depending on his audience.  His letters to each church reveal a wide array of problems; but while he addressed each church differently, there are some common threads that run throughout his letters – issues that do not surprise us, knowing the nature of the new organism that was being created.

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Week 28 – Acts: A Book of Transitions

When you come right down to it, aren’t we all in an in-between place?  We know that we are foreigners in a strange land, and our real home lies elsewhere.  But in each of our Lower Stories, we frequently find ourselves saying, “In the meantime…at least for now…”  Some of us are in an in-between time professionally; some are recovering from wounds, professional, emotional or spiritual, and need an in-between place to heal, to re-equip ourselves for the journey ahead.  Some of us are in an adjustment time that requires we rearrange our priorities, because we suddenly find ourselves with children, or maybe without children, or maybe without a job.

If you think you might currently be an in-between person in an in-between time, then Acts is just the book for you.  In this book, Luke chronicles the passage from one era to another, and all the things that change in this revolution called Christianity.

In this book, we have deserters turning into outspoken, single-minded preachers.  We have a brief time of waiting followed by a stunning moment of empowerment and conviction.  We have a New Community that shared everything, sacrificed for each other and had favor with outsiders.

We see these previously frightened disciples now performing some of the same miracles Jesus did, and then being thankful that they had the privilege of suffering for Jesus’ name.  We have a man named Stephen selected because he was “full of the Holy Spirit” and wise, who tragically became the first martyr for this new movement.  We see his death as a catalyst to persecution that drove the gospel message out of Jerusalem and into Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth.  We see a dyed-in-the-wool, foam-at-the-mouth legalist like Saul have a literal come-to-Jesus moment, and then be commissioned to be the uttermost parts of the earth mouthpiece.  We see eyes opened and paradigms destroyed as Peter and Cornelius form the first Odd Couple and thereby open salvation to the Gentiles, which paved the way for Paul to then go to those uttermost places and preach the Gospel.

Acts is a book of transitions

  • Ministry of Jesus to ministry of apostles
  • Hiding to boldness
  • Presence of Jesus to presence of Holy Spirit
  • Old covenant to New
  • Israel as God’s chief witness to the Church
  • The place of worship from synagogues to churches in homes
  • Jews to Gentiles
  • Circumcision to baptism (Acts 10)
  • Jerusalem to rest of world
  • Law to grace

Week 27: He Is Risen

They were ashamed, afraid, and absent.  Mere hours after they pledged never to leave Jesus—even to die with Him—the Eleven were nowhere near the cross as the sun began to set.  But the Roman soldiers were still there, and pierced his side to prove Jesus was very, very dead.  Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were an unlikely duo show up at the cross.  These two members of the Sanhedrin shed their secret discipleship and took responsibility for burying Jesus’ body.  Wrapping Him in enough spices for a king, they laid him in a nearby tomb.  Remembering Jesus’ words, the Jewish authorities and Pilate secured the tomb and posted a guard there to keep the 3-day resurrection story from gaining any traction.

Early Sunday morning, a small band of faithful women carrying spices approached His tomb, wondering who could remove the rock that sealed the entrance.  Imagine their shock as an angel announced to them that Jesus was not there, “He is risen, just as He said!”  Hearing the news, Peter and John sprinted to the tomb.  They, too, found it empty.  As Mary Magdalene remained there weeping, Jesus appeared to her.

Later the same day, an unrecognized Jesus approached two downcast disciples on the road to Emmaus.  They said all of Jerusalem was abuzz with the events of the last three days, and the One whom they had trusted to redeem Israel had been crucified, and they were disappointed.  Some silly women even had an unbelievable angelic vision, and the tomb was empty.  With all these confusing stories, what’s a guy to do except head home to Emmaus?  Jesus admonished the two for their unbelief, and then He used Moses and the Prophets to teach them about the Messiah.  After eating with them, when their eyes were opened and they recognized Him, He disappeared from their sight.  But they finally got it!  With a lot of tutoring, they finally got it!  So they headed back to Jerusalem at full speed to report their experience to the Eleven.  Then Jesus appeared to them as well, and after assuring them He was not a ghost, He did the same thing again:  He re-explained the Old Testament in light of all that had happened, and opened their minds so they too finally understood.

This brings us to our point:  We’ve got to see the big picture.

What Jesus did, both for the disciples headed to Emmaus, and for the Eleven, was to tell them “The Story” – he put in perspective everything that had happened so they could understand the purpose for which he had died, and then raised.  Because they had seen Jesus through the lens of the Messiah they wanted and expected, these events made no sense at all.  A military or political Deliverer would never make his demise the point of his mission.

But Jesus took them to “hot-air balloon level” to see the big picture.  He helped them see that Israel had never kept the Law very well even on their best days.  And when they didn’t, they had this makeshift, stopgap mechanism to cleanse people of their sins, which had to be repeated over and over again.  It never quite did the job, but it was a precursor to a once-for-all, permanent atonement.  This one-time sacrifice wouldn’t just address the problem of sins over the last year, but would provide forgiveness prospectively, covering all the sins you would commit in the future, justifying the believer once for all time.

What he had done was to put everything they knew from Jewish historical writings into context and a frame of reference that made sense to them.  As He told them “The Story”, the light bulbs over their heads started going off.

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Week 26: The Cross: The Hour of Darkness

Claude Harmon, a great golf instructor, had this advice for other golf instructors: “Whenever someone comes to you to learn to play golf, you will see in their swing ten different problems. Your job as their teacher is to find the one that causes the other nine.”

When we look at the world we can easily see ten problems, but what is the one that causes the other nine? With all the problems in the world, is there one that causes the others? The Bible gives a resounding, “Yes!”Jesusdealt with the particular problem, the fountainhead of all others, on the cross. When the problem was addressed,Jesusdeclared, “It is finished.” The question comes to us, “What was finished?” What happened on the cross that makes the cross such a big deal? In The Story we find an answer to this question—Matthew27:41-42. Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said,  ‘He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him.'”

The assessment of Jesus’ death on the cross by the religious leaders was correct. Jesus could not both save himself and save us also.  He could save himself and leave us in eternal jeopardy, or  He could save us and lose his own life on the cross. The algorithm of God is that God restores life to the world by the death of his Son.

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Week 24 – Recalibration, Part Two

In chapter 24, Jesus continues Part Two of His mission of recalibrating everyone’s view of what a Messiah should be.  But this time, he tells stories – parables – that start to inform people about “The Kingdom.”  This is next on your outline:  He tells stories about the Kingdom.  But surprisingly, He doesn’t describe this new kingdom as a political upheaval, or a re-ordering of society, or renewed global empire other countries would have to reckon with.

He said the kingdom was like seed scattered on the ground – most people, like most soil,  won’t receive these seeds, but some will – and they’ll multiply and produce this radical idea over and over.  He said the kingdom is like a mustard seed:  seemingly small and insignificant, but when it finds that good soil, when it grasps this upside-down solution, it becomes the largest of all plants.

The point was this:  The Kingdom values people over process.

He said the kingdom values people over process so much, that it’s like the foolish shepherd who’d leave 99 safe sheep and look for one that was lost…like a woman who loses a coin and turns her house upside down…like a man who had two sons, and even though the younger was a greedy opportunist and a jerk, his father couldn’t wait for him to come back home.  That’s how important people are in this kingdom.

Just how important are people?  A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, attacked and left for dead.  Was it the clergy who helped?  No, it was someone you’d never expect:  a Samaritan, who wasn’t blinded by ethnicity and prejudice.  Who’s your neighbor?  Anyone who needs you.

Jesus was saying you may think I’m an odd kind of Messiah, but my kingdom is even more so.  Because you get to choose whether or not you belong – but once you decide, you can’t have it both ways…you can’t have two masters, or store up treasures here, or worry about where the next meal is coming from.

And one more thing:  once you hear this intriguing message, if it really captures you, put it in “Drive” and engage.  Hearing about this extreme philosophy, but keeping your life in neutral is like building sand castles – they’ll be gone with the next tide.  But put these uncommon principles into effect, and no one can shake your foundation.

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Week 23 – Recalibration, Part One

In Chapters 23-24 of The Story, Jesus’ mission is one of creative destruction.  At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he starts with a blank sheet of paper and reinvents the notion of a Messiah, a Deliverer.  But it turns out that was just one of his two missions.  As He makes his entrance on the scene, there were two critical missions that Jesus had to accomplish.

So today, we want you to hear everything in Chapters 23 and 24 in the context of the dual missions that Jesus had.  Everything that happens in these chapters falls under one of two key objectives:

  1. Shatter the notion of the long-awaited Messiah.
  2. To authenticate His dominion and authority over all other forces.

Both of these were absolutely critical.

Recalibration, Part One

First, at the outset of his ministry, everyone was looking in the wrong direction.  Israel was anticipating the Messiah would be a world leader, a military force, a revolutionary to restore political power and prominence as in the days of Solomon.  The Messiah had been anticipated, promised, and prophesied about for ages, so that now, the expectations for this Deliverer were huge.

But Jesus’ mission was so radically different, so counter-intuitive, he found, just like the executive at Hallmark, that he had to effectively start all over, first by destroying these popular characterizations of a man with a cape and a big “S” on his shirt.  He had to shatter and then recast and re-purpose this Messiah concept toward his true mission.

Second, he had to validate this new model by demonstrating his power over all obstacles, to authenticate that his absurd claims were actually true.

So, as we go through the events of these chapters, see everything through these lenses.  Watch as he simultaneously goes about these two goals:  authenticating and shattering.

First, we see John the Baptist, who definitely marched to a different drummer and, shall we say, lacked a sense of tact or a balanced diet.  John was the herald of the Focus of human history – but we have to ask, “Hey, where did they get this guy?”  Why him?   John answered their question:  “…the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”  In other words, I serve as a directional arrow, a sign pointing to the One whose sandals I am unfit to tie.

Now, if you were going to pick some sort of beacon to point people to Jesus, wouldn’t you want a very conspicuous one?  John was that hard-to-ignore eccentric that signaled Jesus’ presence – sort of like those people you see on the side of the street dressed like a mattress and waving a sign about a sale.  There’s someone close to our home that’s dressed like the Statue of Liberty that is this crazy person, doing calisthenics on the side of the road to advertise a tax preparation business.

That was John the Baptist – and for that matter, that’s what we are called to be:  a flare, a flag, a flashing yellow light, a semaphore that signals that the presence of Jesus is in whatever room we occupy.  If we are literally the body of Christ, then when we enter a room, it is as if Jesus entered the room.  John the Baptist’s mission was to never fail to point to Jesus.

And so right up front there’s Today’s Equipping PointNever fail to point people to Jesus.  Because when you walk in a room, He walks in a room.

Next we see his first miracle:  turning water into wine at a wedding.  This wasn’t an especially flashy first miracle…you’d think he’d have picked a more public, showy miracle that would at least elicit a golf clap from the crowd.  But instead, it was a behind-the-scenes, how-did-that-happen kind of miracle.

I can’t help but wonder why.  We’ll likely never know for sure, but my guess is that this is part of the shattering mission.  I think this miracle was the first attempt to recast the Deliverer not as a political animal, or even a party animal, but as the gracious and eternal bridegroom of the church – the One who provides even the wine, the One who watches over.  I believe this miracle was a significant symbol of the role that Jesus will play forever at the marriage feast of the Lamb when He gathers His bride, the church, to Him, and the relationship is consummated by drinking the last cup of the Passover in His presence.  Jesus the Messiah, recasting Himself as the husband and provider for His church, turns water into wine.

The next two events are very significant because they happen back-to-back.  First, Jesus meets with an expert in the Law, the religious elite, the well-educated Nicodemus.  Jesus used a lot of confusing language, especially the part about being “born again.”  But his point was this:  whoever believes in Him is not condemned.  In other words, blessed is he who can look past the unexpectedness of a non-political Messiah and believe he is who he says he is.  Jesus told Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”  This is what John the Baptist was saying…this was the Upper Story:  everything points to Him.

Then, the very next conversation could not have been more different.  It was not at night with a scholar, but in the daytime, in Samaria, with a woman.  Jesus moves from esteemed professor to half-breed female in a foreign land.  And this time, instead of being “born again,” he speaks of “living water.”

These two consecutive events very clearly shatter the myths and preconceptions of a Superman Messiah.  He could not bookend two sequential conversations whose audiences were more different.  Jesus is deconstructing the Messiah complex and demonstrating that He is Lord of all, Savior of all:  the aristocracy and the riff-raff, male and female, Gentiles AND Jews, Democrats and Republicans, everybody.  He wastes absolutely no time in confounding expectations:  to Nicodemus, he says all there is, really, is faith – just believe.  To the woman, his message is essentially the same:  it’s not about worshipping on this mountain, or in Jerusalem – it’s a matter of the heart.  Just worship in Spirit and in truth.  That’s all – just believe.  Two very different conversations, one essential message.

But these two meetings do more than flabbergast their Messiah image – they also demonstrate His Lordship over Jews and Gentiles alike, and there are the first two blanks in the next section on your outline.  Jesus seamlessly transitions into His authenticity mission:  He is Lord, Ruler and Authority over the Jewish elite and Gentile outcasts.

Next, he demonstrates his authority over the god of this world.   The third proof of His Lordship was key:  even demons obeyed Him.

Next we see the fourth proof of his power and credibility:  Lord, Ruler and Authority over not just people and spirits, but also of illness.  From the fever of Peter’s mother-in-law, to the next man with leprosy, to the paralytic lowered through the roof, Jesus demonstrated there was no physical infirmity he could not overcome.

But then He went a step further.  As they lowered the paralytic through the hole in the roof, Jesus said to him, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  Now we have the fifth realm over which Jesus had authority:  spiritual sickness.  It’s one thing to heal a fever or leprosy – it’s quite another to speak what was considered blasphemy and presume to forgive sins…to heal those with spiritual fever.

And then what does he do next, but broaden his social circle once again, this time having dinner with a tax collector.

Do you see how he is systematically sabotaging every presupposition about this whole Messiah paradigm?  Remember again the dual missions:

  1. To authenticate His dominion and authority over all other forces; and
  2. Shatter the idea of the long-awaited Messiah.

Jesus is brilliantly accomplishing both missions concurrently:  He is cherry-picking the sacred cows over which he has power, while at the same time showing Himself to be a Messiah who was novel, unexpected, and extraordinary.

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Week 22 – The Time Has Come

Heaven had been very quiet for 400 years. No burning bushes. No pillars of fire or clouds of smoke.  No splitting seas. No visions. No dreams. No prophets.  No message from God…just silence.

Then, in a simple, unpretentious, quiet way, a word – but not just a word, The Word.  At the time, the event mattered only to a blue collar carpenter and his teenage bride.  There was no Doppler system on the planet sensitive enough to pick up this event.  The Richter scale didn’t even budge.  Not only did key event of human history have no buildup, no crescendo, no cymbals and cannons, there was no media, no paparazzi, no breaking news…not even a wedding shower.  Mary and Joseph weren’t registered at Babies R Us, there was no framed birth certificate, no small bassinet with a mobile over it playing Brahms’ Lullaby.  In fact, if it weren’t for some local shepherds and a couple of distant astrologers, no one else would have known.

But in fact, history had changed.  The Word of God had taken on flesh and blood and was first heard in a baby’s cry.  His birth was unspectacular, yet His presence dispelled darkness and cast an inescapable ray of light across history, past, present and future. God’s promises to Abraham and David had found fulfillment at long last.  Jesus would bless all nations and would take His rightful place on David’s throne.  It is this event to which everything thus far in The Story has pointed.

The main point for us to see this morning is this: God’s Upper Story intersects with our Lower Story at the birth of Jesus Christ, the God-man. 

  1. What detail of the birth of Christ has always particularly captured you?
  2. Are you encouraged or nervous that there is no place we are safe from God?
  3. How will you be vigilant today for Upper Story moments in your life?

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