Uri, the Elder Brother

CC BY-NC, Jonathan Cohen, Flickr
CC BY-NC, Jonathan Cohen, Flickr

Among the best known parables is the story of the lost son. Here I only care to deal with the elder brother. And since that’s how we’ve only known him, let’s personalize the story a little and give both him and his younger brother a name. Uri will be the elder brother and Zev will be the younger one.

The Good Son

The entirety of Luke 15 is Jesus’s response to the Pharisees’ murmuring about his associating with the rotten apples of society. This is important to remember because he implies many things about the Pharisees in the lost son illustration.

As stories go, Uri’s is a little complex and sad. As for any scripture, we cannot make arguments or assumptions from silence, especially with parables; but I wonder some things about Uri. And since parables demand that we think contextually, follow along for a moment.

I am probably correct to assume that Uri loved Zev most of his life. I think he rallied to his father’s side when Zev started rebelling. Uri must have pleaded with his brother to not do something stupid by leaving; he knew Zev possessed a wild streak. Overall, I think Uri was a good son and a good brother.

Still, nobody was able to stop Zev; and for all anyone knew of him in the interim, he very well could have resurfaced with a caravan of riches. But when this wasn’t the case, indeed far from it, the moment revealed the character of Uri’s heart.

A Profile of Uri, the Elder Brother  

Uri was juridical, rule-oriented, and contractual. He colored inside the lines and had learned to do so very well. He deeply appreciated the reason for those lines. They were order and civility and justice that made the world turn.

But he was unyielding about compliance, his own and everyone else’s. Uri colored only in black and white, and he bore little tolerance for transgressors. He believed in swift and immediate reprimand. For him, love was defined in legal terms and breaking the law made one unlovable.

“It’s All Yours, Uri.”

In Uri’s mind, Zev’s departure was an unforgivable split Zev had created. His request for his inheritance was tantamount to wishing his father dead. So now that he’s back after having been beaten by life within an inch of his own, Uri can hardly control his contempt and disowns Zev. His father cannot convince him to join the party he should be co-hosting, not even with the sobering reminder that his brother hasn’t returned dead. But by Uri’s convictions, that would have served Zev right for what he had done.

(Ever met people like this?)

Further, Uri is beside himself that his dad should go to such lengths to welcome Zev back. It cuts him deeply: no hoopla was ever made over him. And he has worked his butt off for his dad. But Uri didn’t understand that he was the only one caring about his performance. His father loved him and owned a proud heart because all he possessed was under Uri’s management and discretion.

The question is how well Uri knows his father; the answer is not well at all.

Uri’s problem in the parable is that he doesn’t have his father’s heart and had never properly assessed his father’s character. Relationally, although he was the elder son, he lived more like a servant, even a foundling or an orphan. He worked for love that was already his. Nothing stopped him from having already hosted several of his own events, but his heart harbored incorrect assumptions about his father that limited his freedom.

The Father: Get to Know Him

Uri’s problem is the same lofty piousness that makes us no longer resemble our Father. Erroneous views about God that have been pushed on us and our own wrong theological conclusions all conflict us and burden what should be a vibrant father-son bond with duty and fear and resentment.

What’s really peculiar is that we’ll go on unaware of our problem until we encounter others in need of God’s love. Our relational deficiency will show itself for what it is: our prepotent need. And like a sputtering car, coughing and choking, we will spew a black smoke of toxins in the faces of those finally ready for fresh air.

Hopefully the Spirit will get us to see how we’ve made it our job to zealously defend and protect God from those who need him most; that we’ve too often forgotten all about the people we should love and opted instead for gracelessness and sanctimony, proving our lack of true religion more than anything.

In the end, let it not be that we have glamorized Jesus and his ministry to outcasts and cared little about following his example. Let it not be that we are all church and no Christ. Let it not be that our churches are Bible-themed social clubs. And worst, let us not affirm what outsiders and antagonists already think about us, that the church is irrelevant and outmoded.

We’ve gotta get this right. Uri’s problem is the most major point of the whole New Testament. His issue was never Zev; it was in the mirror. And the answer was in the father’s heart.

Stay Low: A Spiritual Life Lesson

"Suffer the Children to Come to Me" by Carl Bloch, Frederiksborg Palace, Copenhagen (Domain)
“Suffer the Children to Come to Me” by Carl Bloch, Frederiksborg Palace, Copenhagen (Domain)

That Sunday morning was too hot and muggy for anything. But that’s summer in Japan. I and a newly-arrived co-worker had a half-mile hike to the church after a short train ride. Without a cloud in sight, the sun was merciless and exacerbated the strain of the uphill trek; we walked fast to end the baking quicker. This was my first church service since my own arrival two months earlier.

When we arrived, sweating and exhausted, we couldn’t figure out what we were seeing. We had already been met by running water and now we saw why. Everyone was outside standing around a long bamboo chute with water running through it…not the usual Sunday doings. Someone at the upper end dropped noodles in the water, and people with chopsticks—a pair of which I was quickly handed—feverishly grabbed at them to catch and eat. The summer tradition is called nagashi-somen and everyone was having fun.

I knew I was gonna like this church.

Almost immediately I met the pastor, Bo Dellming. He was a tall, jolly fellow, the very idea of the word “parson”. That day was the beginning of a meaningful pastoral relationship with Bo; I continued attending the church from then on.

Bo & Kerstin Dellming
Bo & Kerstin Dellming

Good and Faithful Servants

After accepting Christ in his early 20’s, Bo, a Swede, determined that he owed God his life and decided to attend Bible school. Upon graduating—it’s funny to hear him tell it—he discovered an ad in the local newspaper calling for people to serve God on the mission field in Japan. He knew nothing about Japan, but this soldier had found an opportunity to serve. So throwing all caution to heaven, Bo became a missionary in Japan and never looked back.

That’s been over 50 years now.

Kerstin, his wife, also Swedish, hails from a ministry family. Her parents were missionaries in China, and her father was a Bible translator there.

The Dellmings have long since mastered Japanese and have unceasingly forged ministry in the spiritually dark country. In addition to raising their own family, a few generations strong now, the Dellmings have built a devoted congregation and a charming Swedish-inspired church and parsonage complex in Fuji City, which is Takaoka Chapel/Fuji Christian Center.

Stabbed with Love

Pastor Dellming is a compassionate man and it shows in his teaching and leadership. Whenever I was with him, I saw Jesus—plain and simple. No one has emulated Christ more to me. He is certainly a soldier for Christ but the kind devils don’t expect: the ones who love the hell out of people. Don’t discount that type of warfare. It’s real, although the enlistment is small.

Pastor Dellming preaching
Pastor Dellming preaching

Pastor Dellming did something one Sunday so simple yet impressionable to me that it brought tears to my eyes, as it does this moment reflecting on it.

In Japan some churches will provide a small supper to attendants after the service; at Takaoka Chapel this was usually a curry rice dish and at other times it might be a full lunch. Moreover, it was always a pleasant time of fellowship. Thus, once the service ended, all the chairs would be moved to the sides and two long table rows would be created for all who remained to eat.

This particular Sunday there were many people at the supper and lots of children. After Pastor Dellming returned from greeting some outside the church, I recall him walking in beaming like Santa and playing with the small children. He loved them and they loved him.

He looked at me and remarked how they liked to ride on his back; and straightway this not-so-young man dropped to his knees and let the kids hop on for a trip through the open church. What humility!, I thought. I tingled with joy watching it happen and could hear Jesus rebuking the disciples—“Don’t you dare deny them from approaching me!”

Me and the Dellmings
Me and the Dellmings

You Who Would Be Great

It was one of the best things Pastor Bo gave me, a lesson on humility. No matter how high God takes you, Michael, be like a child. This from a man who would only see how much more was left for him to do for Christ.

Jesus, responding to the disciple’s griping, answered the question of greatness in the kingdom by calling a child over and declaring, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven…whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom” (Matt. 18:3-4).

In other words, be teachable. Don’t get caught up in your own hype. We are nothing; God is everything. Divest yourself of empty ambition and seek only to serve him and as fully as you can. Learn that the highest place in God will always be at the feet of Jesus.

 Pastor Dellming passed away in October 2016. His wife Kerstin survivies. 

Rabbi Yeshua Ends U.S. Tour

Boston, MA – Today marked the final public appearance of Rabbi Yeshua on his first U.S. tour. Rabbi Yeshua began his religious crusade in San Diego on June 14th and for two weeks traveled extensively across the country. His meetings largely included preaching, teaching, and personal ministry.

The popular 30 year-old rabbi from Jerusalem is greatly admired by many but controversial to others. He has claimed to be divine. His ministry has several confirmed reports of physical healings, miracles, and heavenly manifestations.

While in the States, Rabbi Yeshua led a massive preaching campaign about the “kingdom of God.” He claims that he is from Heaven and has come to offer humans forgiveness of their sins and reconciliation to God.

CC BY-NC, DM, Flickr
CC BY-NC, DM, Flickr

Rabbi Yeshua hosted 16 public meetings that filled the nation’s largest arenas and stadiums. Some of the meetings were broadcast nationally. Two million people crowded the Lake Michigan waterfront in Chicago to hear him last week.

On Friday Rabbi Yeshua was welcomed to the White House by President Bernal.

It was the smaller, unannounced meetings, however, that took many Americans by surprise. Rabbi Yeshua showed up in parks and town squares greeting people and teaching. The Rabbi did announce unplanned events on social media when he was visiting college towns. He has a strong youth following.

Reaction to Rabbi Yeshua in the religious community has been mixed. Many religious leaders believe his message and miracles to be true, but few believe he is the “Son of God.” There are also those who say the Rabbi is a fraud and refuse to believe any of his claims.

Most people say that he is a good person and is very generous to others.

Rabbi Yeshua drew scores of celebrities and politicians to his events. Many have responded positively to him. Most notably, actor Jeffrey Derulis made a public profession of faith in the Rabbi after he says his brother was healed of melanoma by him.

Rabbi Yeshua will address the United Nations General Assembly in September.

The Many Faces of Jesus

CC BY-NC-ND, glonann, Flickr
CC BY-NC-ND, glonann, Flickr

Jesus…all of our favorite person in the Bible—don’t you love him? But what was he like? Only a relative few ever met him. If you’re like me, reading the Gospels is exciting because he’s a pretty charismatic guy. But it’s also an imaginative experience because you wonder about his personality.

Side note: for most of us, within 50 years we all will have met him!

Thus, we’re left relying on the biographies, the Gospels. They help us piece together things about his character and piety, but that’s about all, although “all” is the basis of everything we believe, pretty amazing. To have influenced 12 men to shake the world for God, Jesus must have possessed incredible personality apart from his divine gifts.

So on a lighter note today, I’ve put together nine standout qualities that I notice about Jesus; and, at the risk of appearing sacrilegious, I’m going to reinvent him in the character traits of those we see almost daily. This is my take on Jesus.

#1 – Jesus was Unassuming, like Brad Pitt

CC BY-SA, Blake Nelson Boyd, Wikimedia Commons
CC BY-SA, Blake Nelson Boyd, Wikimedia Commons

Many refer to this quality as meekness. I sense that Jesus was not just a gentle and kind person, but that he didn’t seek to draw attention to himself. So, you ask, why in the world Brad Pitt? Well although the ladies and media make a big deal over him, I’ve never seen Pitt feed his ego the way we ogle him. Instead, he keeps out of our attention and has a reputable humanitarian record. I think Jesus was like this. It was never about him but his Father and the kingdom until it was imperative that the people knew who he was.

#2 – Jesus was Down-to-Earth, like Hugh Jackman 

CC BY-SA, Grant Brummett, Wikimedia Commons
CC BY-SA, Grant Brummett, Wikimedia Commons

I think Jesus was very approachable. I don’t think he took himself too seriously either. I like to think that he and the disciples cracked up sometimes and had fun together. Hugh Jackman…well this is his reputation: a good guy and a good sport. As I often say, we need to rephrase the question and ask why sinners wanted to be around Jesus. Yes, he went to them but they loved him back.

#3 – Jesus was Eccentric, like Johnny Depp

CC BY-SA, Caroline Bonarde Ucci, Wikimedia Commons
CC BY-SA, Caroline Bonarde Ucci, Wikimedia Commons

C’mon, or am I the only one who’s noticed this? In the Gospels Jesus is “THE MAN with the plan,” but he’s just a little…different sometimes, especially with the disciples. You can sense it in their confused inquiries. When Jesus predicted his death and spoke prophetically of his great return, it wasn’t the easiest thing for them to digest. It didn’t make sense: How could someone who used the power of God at will end so horribly? His otherworldliness must have seemed a little odd. And speaking of odd, just think of Johnny Depp; and if that doesn’t do it, remember him in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”!

#4 – Jesus was Brooding, like Jim Caviezel

CC BY-SA, Ewen Roberts, Wikimedia Commons
CC BY-SA, Ewen Roberts, Wikimedia Commons

Intense. Serious. Observant. Pensive. In his head. Introverted. It seems Jesus retreated to privacy not just to pray, but also to recharge. I understand this because I’m this way. People often misunderstand this type whom they deem anti-social and quiet, which is not accurate. We love spending time with others, but alone time is essential to that experience. If you know Jim Caviezel—who portrayed Christ in The Passion (top), himself a devout Christian—you know that he’s the epitome of this quality.

#5 – Jesus Loved People, like Cory Booker

CC BY-SA, David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons
CC BY-SA, David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons

If you are familiar with Cory Booker’s political career, then you know that people are his No. 1 priority. His leadership and commitment as mayor to the betterment of Newark was transformational and impressive, to say the least. Jesus loved people. He not only cared about their souls; he was concerned about their total well-being, which is implied in the biblical concept of salvation. Remember his concern for the people, their hunger and fatigue, after they had followed to hear him preach? He demonstrates to us how to cherish one another and models a proper humanity.

#6 – Jesus was Smart, like Denzel Washington

CC BY-SA, Faulkenauge, Wikimedia Commons
CC BY-SA, Faulkenauge, Wikimedia Commons

Not necessarily intellectual and genius, but savvy and street smart. The Pharisees and members of the Council would do everything to trip up Jesus, but he was never outwitted. Yes, some of it was the Spirit of God in him, but I also think he was adroit and possessed a keen mind. Some of his rejoinders are astonishing. No wonder he had to dash away from the temple officials! Denzel…cool, calm, and collected God-fearing man—but perceptive.

#7 – Jesus was Articulate, like Bono

CC BY-SA, David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons
CC BY-SA, David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons

When I say articulate, I don’t just mean well-spoken; I mean abreast of the issues, contributing to the important matters of his time, and in that way influential. I like that Jesus resisted the status quo, that he made the real issue a point of contention when others simply refused to rock the boat. Bono has probably gained more fame today as an activist and philanthropist than as the frontman for U2. He forces us to see what is important and needs attention.

#8 – Jesus was Fit, like Carter Oosterhouse

CC BY-SA, Rorincent, Wikimedia Commons
CC BY-SA, Rorincent, Wikimedia Commons

Skillfully so. He assumed his trade as a craftsman-mason, or carpenter, from his father Joseph and that probably kept him lean and agile. Certainly he required some measure of fitness to travel and preach like he did. Now, you didn’t think I meant fit as in sexy, vain, muscles-for-no-reason “fit”, did you? Then you understand why Carter Oosterhouse is a good choice.

#9 – And my Jesus looks sorta like this Israeli guy, but not all “modely”

Nir LaviSee him in his tunic, cloak, and headdress; his belt and sandals. See him through the eyes of the widow at Nain coming to show you compassion. Picture him standing before an impressive crowd teaching, Mary off to his side remembering back 30 years when Gabriel startled her with the news. How do you see Jesus?

“I Love That Line!” by Guest Writer Lisa A. Tuttle

CC BY, VinothChandar, Flickr
CC BY, VinothChandar, Flickr

This is the first post in the “I Love That Line!” series that features writers’ reflections on their favorite Christmas carols. Lisa A. Tuttle, aka “Sparky”, writer of Hey Sparky! What Time Is It?, reflects on a verse from “Welcome to Our World.”

Okay, call me a sap, but I love Christmas music. Old English carols, traditional church carols, holiday pop music—I like it all.

Well except for that song “Christmas Shoes”.  It brings out my “Grinchiness.” And although the spell checker indicates “Grinchiness” is not a word, I can spell it and use it in a sentence—and admit to it. You know exactly what I mean. So “Stink! Stank! Stunk!” on you, Spellcheck, and fiddle-dee-dee! and fa-la-la!

Anyway, other than the aforementioned song about holiday footwear for deceased family members, I like it all. Typically, I like the older songs a bit more than the newer ones; but that’s a generalization, not a rule. That detail was broken eleven years ago…big-time.

Welcome, Lord Jesus

In July of 2002, a CD was released by a new artist. Oddly enough, he included a single Christmas song on his otherwise non-holiday recording.

I will never forget the first time I heard it. I got goose bumps listening to this song with lullaby for a tune, sung by a voice that felt like warm honey. The words were simple yet powerful and unlike anything I’d heard before. It stirred a deep aching in me and brought tears to my eyes. All these years later, it still has that effect on me.

The song is “Welcome to Our World” by Chris Rice.

The lyrics of this song are beautiful and replete with a haunting sweetness. The last stanza explains why Jesus came and what it meant for him to do so.

 “So wrap our injured flesh around you;
Breathe our air and walk our sod.
Rob our sin and make us holy,
Perfect Son of God.”

Identified with Us

The Delight of Heaven laid aside the glory of his deity to become a baby and assume our human frailties.

My frailties.

Instead of being worshipped and adored by angels, he became surrounded by rough-skinned, wounded-hearted humans. He wrapped himself in an earth suit prone to breakage and damage.

It’s a mind-blowing thought that God could now be bitten by a fire ant or drink contaminated water and spend the next week running to the waste pit. He could get a sore throat or drop something heavy on his toe and lose his toenail. He could get one of those maddening itches in the middle of his back, the kind you can never reach and isn’t really satisfied by scratching anyway.

Somehow this both comforts me and offends me. I’m offended because I know who he is and what he deserved. A smelly stable birth doesn’t qualify. A fallen body doesn’t qualify. The company of bitter religious men doesn’t qualify. A government hostile to his people doesn’t qualify.

Jesus, the Humble Servant

Yet Jesus knew it would be that way and he came anyway. In the most helpless, dependent form possible, he came and then lived among us submitting to the processes of the human body, soul, and spirit. He didn’t skip puberty; he didn’t skip the mean kids on the playground; he didn’t skip catching colds; he didn’t skip outgrowing his shoes.

He became one of us and never once threw down his “God Card”, not even when he was surrounded by aggressors and betrayers who closed their eyes to the wonder of what a man rightly related to God could do. The signs, wonders, and miracles he showed them meant nothing to them when his goodness threatened their personal religious kingdoms.

When darkness prompted those same aggressors and betrayers to publicly accuse, humiliate, torment, and kill him, he didn’t fight them; instead he voluntarily gave up his very life-breath—and made an incomprehensibly amazing transaction.

Born to Save

Jesus took our diseases, grief, and death-destiny and gave us in return his holiness, cleanness, and honored heavenly position. He made a way to the Father for us that cannot be cancelled or blocked by darkness. He robbed the power of sin leaving it destitute and slack-jawed; and he watched as all that is good and perfect about him was transferred to us as a gift. Ours is an identity we could not achieve for ourselves.

But on that first day when Mary held him, grunting and squeaking in her arms, who could have known any of this?

Indeed, welcome to our world.

Read more by Lisa at her blog Hey Sparky! What Time Is It? 

The Spectacle of Grace

CC BY, the bbp, Flickr
CC BY, the bbp, Flickr

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. (Luke 2:8-9, NLT) 

God hides big messages in plain sight.

The announcement to the shepherds is my favorite divine encounter story in the Bible. It is obviously a bucolic scene, but there is also featured an enjoyable contrast of rustic earthiness and divine splendor, not unlike the satisfaction of creamy and crumbly in the mouth.

The glory of a single angel is apparently enough to frighten folk stiff. That’s the case throughout scripture, and it was the case with the shepherds. But then all heaven broke loose and the sky filled with the heavenly emissaries shouting praises to God, creating what had to be an overwhelming and spectacular scene of grace-come-to-earth.

I hope God will let us relive these events one day. This one is at the top of my list.

But what about that big message, you said? We know it wasn’t about the angels and the scene itself. And although the angels heralded the birth of the Savior, this isn’t the big message I want you to see. Instead, it deals with…the rustic earthiness and crumbly nature of the recipients: the shepherds.

Life of the Scorned

I’m certain there were many events and incidents the Holy Spirit could have included in the Bible and did not (cf. John 21:25). But I’m glad this particular one made it in.

You see, shepherds were not an esteemed bunch; their reputation was more akin to tax collectors. Although many folk in the Bible, from Abraham to David to Amos, were shepherds and the task was common and respectable for a period of time, the occupation gradually lost its noble standing.

Many shepherds were cheats and thieves and their actions stereotyped the vocation. Society viewed shepherds as untrustworthy and incompetent, second-class citizens; and they were not allowed to hold judicial office or serve as witnesses in court—just like tax collectors.

The youngest son in the home usually tended the sheep. The elder sons would move on to help the father plow, sow, and harvest, so the younger boy would be left with the sheep. If you’ll recall, David was the youngest of his family; and do you remember the scorn he met from his brother Eliab on the battlefield: “What are you doing around here anyway…What about those few sheep you’re supposed to be taking care of?” (1 Sam. 17:28).

Leveled Playing Fields

God preserves this birth announcement for us and with it delivers an enormous message about human social stratification from his point of view. For God has entrusted outcasts and the marginalized with the prize of first knowing that a Savior has come for them and everyone.

Understand, this encounter did not offer these shepherds more reason to know this Messiah would be a spiritual deliverer as opposed to the political one they anticipated. Contrarily, it would have convinced them that he was indeed the long awaited ruler. Signs affirmed the presence and help of Jehovah to the Jews. The revelation of grace and spiritual truth would come later through Jesus himself. Yet this symbolic event serves a bigger point to us.

And this truth is that God’s grace and immense love is all-inclusive, not about caste and class and petty human divisions that disenfranchise and diminish in our eyes the glory of God in one another. Each of us, regardless of our status, morally identifies with the shepherds’ odious reputation and shares the same guilt in God’s eyes. Nonetheless, by grace we stand tall, shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest, and beside Christ in the presence of the Father.

Grace, a Battering Ram

We like to portray grace as sweet and refined—and it is that; but, like the Word of God John was instructed to eat (Rev. 10:9), it can be both sweet to the mouth and bitter to the belly. It is possible to live infatuated with God until his precepts judge and demolish our sinfully convenient and self-serving configurations.

Thus, God chose not to make his announcement to kings and officials, who with this information could conceivably engineer a plan to further their own power, wealth, and corruption—again leaving those with the greatest need with nothing and being deprived.

Instead, God spared no expense in pomp and gallantry on a few men with nothing more to lose in life and so erects an earthly kingdom from the floor-up.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:26-31, NIV)

More on this topic in “People of Your Kind!”

Crazy Faith

CC BY-NC-ND, Calcutta Rescue, Flickr 90-year old man with leprosy in Calcutta who regularly visits the clinic to have his wounds dressed. Many leprous look much worse.
CC BY-NC-ND, Calcutta Rescue, Flickr

Faith is never common sense. This is where we sometimes get mixed-up. We can think we’re demonstrating faith for things that, with time and brainpower, we can figure out. You know: God, I trust you for money for…when we know a check is coming and auntie told us to simply call if we ever needed help.

If we can figure it out, it’s probably not faith.

Now before you stand me down, I’m fully aware that faith is necessary to sustain every part of our lives, including our general well-being. Faith is not a “crisis-only” apparatus, although some people view it that way. Our very awareness of God comes through faith and by it we are born anew.

Yet Jesus spends a great deal of time drilling faith lessons into the disciples. I’m talking about faith to trust when situations are beyond all hope. And usually when the teacher keeps talking about a certain thing, it means the subject is important and will be seen again.

A Simple Command

Hebrews 11:1 is the Bible’s hallmark denotation on faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (NASB). God thought it really important that we were clear about this. An incident with Jesus in Luke 17 richly explains faith and this great verse.

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem from the Galilee region and encountered a band of lepers. This is indeed the story of the ten that were healed with one returning to say thanks, but I only care to deal with the first half of the story. These lepers would have been calling aloud to all passersby; it was required by law due to their contagious disease, which had separated them from society.

But when they knew that Jesus was present, they cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” There is no indication that Jesus drew near to these folk or talked in-depth with them, although we cannot know; instead, he gives them a simple command: “Go show yourselves to the priests.”

They would need to present themselves before the priest, as detailed in Leviticus 14, whenever they could prove that their leprosy was cured and to be restored back into society. We are told nothing more of the initial encounter.

The Ease of Faith

Common sense folk have tantrums at moments like this one. They’re like Thomas for whom seeing was believing. What do you mean, “Go show yourselves to the priests?” You’ve gotta do something and make this better! It’s why we want your help. But they miss the point of what they’ve implied.

Admittedly, Jesus’s command is a glaring lesson on faith, and reading it makes things go off inside me—just like this passage: “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water. And He said, ‘Come!’” (*mind explodes*) You see, faith is an invitation into the supernatural that truly matters when situations are dire: God, I trust you for money because I lost my job—and now it’s the local food pantry and possible foreclosure.

Shockingly, what God requires at these times is our full confidence in him and for us to rest and accept the reality of our petitions granted—and what a chore that presents to us and all our striving. But that is the only posture of faith.

And this makes all the difference between two people on the same pew because one is trusting God for mere results while the other is just trusting God. Those who rely on God must “believe that He is”—or acknowledge more than his existence but the deeper aspect of it, that he is good and merciful such that it compels them to draw near to him.

John expresses this clearly: “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:14-15).

Faith is about more than getting God’s stuff; it’s about getting to know God.

What the Lepers Teach

Jesus gives them a command that doesn’t make any common sense, but options don’t matter when you’re desperate (unless you have leprosy and your name is Naaman, remember him?) They probably knew Jesus was a twinge eccentric, and a 60-plus mile hike down to Jerusalem would be putting full trust in him.

But something happened and, from the sense of the text, it wasn’t long after they met Jesus: “And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back…” These ten trusted Jesus so much that his words alone were enough evidence of their cure. It is the same quality of faith the centurion demonstrates (Matt. 8) at which Jesus himself marvels.

We cannot know if any of the lepers bore lingering doubts or if the miracle occurred for them individually as they each decided to truly believe. Certainly they had already tried various unhelpful remedies, so it couldn’t have hurt to do what Jesus commanded, which reminds me of another set of lepers, the four in 2 Kings 7, who also got it right: “Why sit we here until we die?”

And when our situations have walled us in and circumstances are blackest bleak, we too will cry out to Jesus and he’ll offer us a similar challenge. The only question we must then assess will be how well we trust him.

Also on this topic: Our ConfessionGetting Faith Right, and When the Bottom Falls Out

Probing the Parable of the Ten Virgins

CC BY-NC, Waiting For The Word, Flickr
CC BY-NC, Waiting For The Word, Flickr

I am a booklover. I own hundreds of books and have read just as many. I don’t have a favorite one because their subjects are so diverse and interesting. But the two that stand above the rest for me are the Bible and the dictionary. (Yes, I’m one of those people!) It only follows that I am infatuated with words. I love how words work and grasp that they are important to knowledge.

Like letters that symbolize sound units, words too are symbols for ideas, concepts, and things of concrete reality. They offer information and carry shades of meaning. They possess an inherent ability to raise the level of one’s intelligence. But in order to use words we must understand them, or they must be defined. To define a thing is to make it distinct or clear.

In the New Testament, we discover a spiritual example of this. John states with his very first sentence, “In the beginning was the Word.” John intended to explain the profound reasoning of God spoken into the gloominess of human depravity in the person of Jesus Christ. Hebrews 1:3 further describes Christ as the radiance of the glory of God and the icon, or representation, of the Godhead. This explains what Christ often told his hearers, that when they saw him they saw also the Father. Jesus defines what God is all about.

But words can be problematic, especially when we are not as sure of their definition as we could be. Often, in attempts to explain them, we use alternate meanings that fall short of a true definition. I must confess that faith is a concept for which the definition I am not always sure of as I’d like to be. It is a nebulous essence as tangible as grabbing a chunk of air. Defined enough for spiritual life and relationship, it retains enough of the mystery of God to hold us back in wonder of him and his doings.

Under the microscope of theology, one will observe that faith is a gift: none are born with it. And being a gift, faith is a gift of sight, for it is impossible that a dead soul should raise itself to life or an unregenerate person should think godly thoughts. But God shines his light upon the soul that it might live and, in living, ponder thoughts of him.

Fundamentally faith is belief—in God and the words of God (Rom. 10:17)—and belief is our light by which we spiritually see in a dark world.

The Apostle Paul comments on this in Ephesian 5:14 when he says, “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (KJV). He goes on to add in verses 15 and 16, “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”

In the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25, the marriage story is told of the bridegroom who was to return and the virgins who had to go out to meet him. Five were wise because they took extra oil in jars for their lamps, and five were foolish because they took no thought to do so. Moreover, what is important to see is that a qualitative decision had been made, particularly, by the wise virgins prior to all the other circumstances (and what they might symbolize) that occur in the text.

Here is a good resting place to discuss the wisdom faith brings. With faith comes the ability to see God and to walk according to his will. We develop tuning our hearts to his words and we learn to enjoy him. Most importantly, we mature to understand God’s motives, to know that he only loves us and wishes us no harm. Thereby, we gain discretion to know what he is doing without seeing the whole picture.

All of this is developed with persistence in the prayer closet. The prayer place is not only a routine the spiritual undertake, but also the believer’s intimate place with God. Prayer should encompass our endeavors to develop spiritual habits and discipline—and with it should be included a catalog of classic disciplines that leave us nothing less than naked before God. In the end the point is simple: personal holiness.

Hence we discover the problem with the unwise virgins and those without spiritual sight. They have not understood the responsibility that comes with a life of faith. To relate it to our first theme, they have critical problems defining faith and have never mastered its language. For many, their view of God has become distorted by indifference, suffering and hard times, offenses, vain philosophies, and other complexities until their spiritual enlightenment has been snuffed back into darkness.

The division between the wise and the unwise becomes very clear where it concerns the practical outflow of faith. How one carries out his or her belief is important. Many claim to be Christians but not all are devout. Everyone is not in the press to live holy. Not all strive against the tide of sin. Not all have in the river turned to swim upstream. In the end, one will abuse and ultimately lose what he or she doesn’t understand. This is why Jesus chastises the religious leaders in Matthew 16 that they were so able to predict the weather but didn’t have the sight to discern the signs of the times.

We cannot criticize the wise virgins as selfish or arrogant because they didn’t share their oil. Their attitude explains to us that forerunners in our spiritual walk can only take us so far in defining faith; to them we may be entirely grateful. But to mature in God will take a conscious effort to follow the way God leads for growth, personally.

The oil in the virgins’ lamps represented their personal conviction and an individual righteousness. It was personal holiness that could not be shared. It was their learnedness and literacy in the things of God—costly, labored for, unsharable, and, in the end, not worth the possibility of missing Christ.