Daring Faith: Living the Prayer of Jesus

In his 2016 book entitled Be Light, author Samuel Rodriguez tells the following story:

In 1957, a graduate student at Columbia University named Gordon Gould had been working with “pumping” atoms to higher energy states so they would emit light. As Gould elaborated his ideas and speculated about all the things that could be done with a concentrated beam of light, he realized he was onto something. In his notebook, he named the yet-to-be-invented device a LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation).

Sixty years later, we are still seeing the impact of this remarkable tool. Very recently, Lockheed Martin boasted about their new laser, a ground-based prototype system that burned through an entire car engine in a matter of seconds from over a mile away. The company called this laser system the most “efficient and lethal” version on the planet.

From a spiritual perspective, the laser represents the ultimate expression of the impact we can have in a world in need of light. If we are able to understand the stunning power of unity expressed in a laser beam and translate it into our own lives, we might have a greater impact on those around us than ever before.

There is indeed a “stunning power to unity.” And that’s our focus for today. Today we will focus on the prayer of Jesus in John 17, a prayer for unity.

Read John 17:1-5

In John’s Gospel, when Jesus talks about glory, it is always a reference to the cross. We’ll talk about this a bit more next week, but it’s important to point out here because Jesus prays for God to glorify Him in the events that are about to unfold. Several times in John’s Gospel, Jesus has made the statement, “My time has not yet come.” But now the time for His glorification has come as the events that lead to the cross begin to rapidly unfold. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “My greatest moment is when these forces think they’re killing me.” This is the glory of the cross.

Read John 17:6-11, 20-23

This is one of those prayers that functions as a sermon. You know the kind. It’s the kind of prayer your mother would pray when you and your siblings were bickering and arguing. She’d pray, “Lord, please help us to respect one another and treat people the way you want us to treat people!” Mom is praying, but she’s also preaching. That’s a sermon-prayer.

In John 17, Jesus delivers a sermon-prayer. And the focal point of this prayer is unity.

We could divide this prayer in John 17 into three sections:

  • V1-5, Jesus prays for Himself
  • V6-19, Jesus prays for the disciples
  • V20-26, Jesus prays for the church

Some scholars have noted that this prayer is a summary of the entire Gospel of John to this point. It contains many of John’s primary themes: Jesus’ obedience to the Father, the glorification of Jesus at the cross, the disciples’ mission to the world. Throughout the prayer, Jesus is praying for unity. He points out the unity that He and the Father share; he prays for the unity of his disciples, that they might be one as the Father and the Son are one; and Jesus echoes this same thought by praying that all believers would be in complete unity with one another.

The key to this kind of unity is Jesus himself.

At the time John’s Gospel was written, things were beginning to get rough for followers of Jesus. Persecution was mounting. Christians were divided over a variety of different things. With this in mind, it is easy to see why God would want John to record this particular prayer in his Gospel. When external stress mounts, it’s easy for us to begin bickering internally. Have you ever noticed a correlation between your stressful seasons at work and your snippiness toward your family? (If you’ve never noticed this, try asking your family members!) As the church faced persecution, this prayer is an important reminder that Jesus doesn’t want his followers turning on one another.

I have a friend who recently preached through this same passage and he had a memorable way of summarizing this: “God is glorified when His people are unified.” It’s a good line, not only because it’s memorable but because it gets to the heart of Jesus’ prayer. God is glorified when His people keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3).

In his sermon-prayer, Jesus tells us precisely why Christian unity is so important:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me…May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

(John 17:20-21, 23)

Our unity declares God’s mission of love to the world.

According to Jesus, our unity declares that the Father sent Jesus into the world. Our unity lets the world know about God’s love. How? If the love of God is great enough to unite all of us together, then others will know that God’s love is great enough for them, too. The idea is that our unity would declare God’s mission of love to the world, giving them something to believe in.

Unity among believers is modeled after the unity God shares within Himself, the unity of the Father and the Son. Jesus prays that all believers would be brought into complete unity – the word John uses here is a form of the Greek word telos, which refers to an end, a goal. Think of the way a telescope functions to bring close that which is far away. So, Jesus is praying that our unity would be “telescopic” – that our unity would bring God’s love near. He’s praying that we will embody in the present the kind of unity we will experience in the end, that heaven’s unity would be experienced now. In so doing, our unity becomes a Gospel declaration.

So, my friend is right: God is truly glorified when His people are unified to this degree.

As we can see, the stakes are quite high here. We’re responsible to declare the mission and love of God by the way we unite together as one. And we can also demonstrate these high stakes by taking up this postulate in the negative.

Our lack of unity contributes to the world’s unbelief.

If our unity declares God’s mission of love to the world, what do we declare when we aren’t unified? What does our discord declare? If our unity is intended to bring God’s mission of love near, our lack of unity can have a catastrophic effect in our world.

Every church split sets back the preaching of the Gospel in that community more than we’ll ever know. Every time the followers of Jesus rip each other to shreds, someone who doesn’t believe walks away, never to return. I can imagine someone saying, “I can get that kind of ugliness and nastiness anywhere. I’m done with this.” If our unity gives the world something to believe in, Christian discord contributes to disbelief.

God is glorified when His people are unified. The statement also prompts us to ask, “Who is glorified when God’s people are NOT unified?” I think we know the answer.

What is the greatest threat to Christian unity?

If our unity matters this much to Jesus – so much so that He was praying about it hours before His crucifixion – then we would do well to guard ourselves against threats to our unity. What would you consider to be the greatest threat to Christian unity?

I put this question before my friends this week. As you might imagine, there were a variety of answers. Here are just a few:

  • “Fear. When we can’t be real for fear of judgment, or we fear others aren’t real with us, resentment sets in and divides us.”
  • “Feeling like you are the only one with that problem.”
  • “For me – it’s not what – it’s who? Satan is the father of all lies – the great deceiver. Disunity is one of his preferred weapons because it gives us a perceived enemy while taking our eyes off the most legitimate threat of all.”
  • “The coalescing of Biblical truth with social norms.”
  • “Political differences.”
  • “Silence. The enemy doesn’t want us to communicate on any level. He likes it when we are safe in our Holy huddles.”
  • “Lack of love.”
  • “Sin.”

Clearly there are some serious threats to our unity in Christ. But among my friends, one answer was repeated more than any other. Some called it “selfishness” while others called it “pride”, but in the end most of my friends said the same thing. My own selfish pride is the greatest threat to Christian unity.

An author named Alan Redpath once wrote, “The secret of every discord in Christian homes and communities and churches is that we seek our own way and our own glory.” This is true. When we collectively seek the glory that Jesus speaks of here in John 17 – the glory of the cross – rather than our own glory, unity is the natural result. But when we seek our own way and our own glory, we live out the tragic refrain from the book of Judges: Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. When this happens, unity in Christ erodes.

There’s a story attributed to G.K. Chesterton, probably because he wrote a book titled, What’s Wrong with the World? Someone wrote to the Times of London and simply asked, “What is wrong with the world?” Chesterton, it was said, famously wrote back the following reply:

Dear Sir,

I am.


G.K. Chesterton

In like fashion, in response to the question “What is the greatest threat to Christian unity?”, my answer is the same as Chesterton’s: “I am.” My own selfishness is the greatest threat to experiencing the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17.

Let’s put it this way: Who determines how the prayer of Jesus is answered?

Well, the Father must have something to say about all of this, otherwise Jesus wouldn’t pray to Him about it. So, we can’t leave Him out of our answer. But we are also forced to recognize our own culpability here. Again this is a sermon-prayer, so the “sermon part” is on us. Let’s face it: if you and I get crossways with one another, then we bear the responsibility to work that out and reconcile in the name of Christ. Whether you and I get along is up to the two of us.

That means that we help determine the degree to which the prayer of Jesus is answered. We help determine the outcome.

Picture Jesus praying these words. In the final moments before the guard come to take him away, Jesus is concerned with the way you and I treat one another. He’s concerned with the way this church treats that church. Picture Jesus asking that “the stunning power of unity” would be demonstrated in the church that bears His name.

This week’s dare: think long and hard about your relationships. Are you in conflict with a brother or sister in Christ? As much as it depends on you, are you living at peace with everyone (Rom. 12:18)? Or are you sowing seeds of discord in the body of Christ? If you’re sowing those seeds of discord, the Biblical word for that action is strong: anti-Christ. You are actively working to subvert the very thing that Jesus is praying for in John 17. And when you set yourself up against the work of Christ, the biblical word for that is anti-Christ. I hope that language makes you uncomfortable, because it should.

May we dare to live out the prayer of Jesus, that the world might know of God’s mission of love. God is glorified when His people are unified.

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Daring Faith: The Holy Spirit

It was the first day of school for Dan Lear’s three kids. In a scramble to get his boys to class on time, the Seattle lawyer wound up parking in a space he probably should have avoided. “There was a fire hydrant, but the curb wasn’t painted and the fire hydrant was painted a kind of a funny color. And so I thought – and maybe it was wishful thinking – but I thought I would be OK to park there,” he says.

Sure enough, Lear returned to find a parking ticket on his windshield. Not wanting to deal with it immediately, Lear went home and put the ticket on his refrigerator door. That’s when someone told him about DoNotPay, a free online “robot lawyer.”

A robot lawyer is a computer program that uses artificial intelligence to ask the same questions as a flesh-and-blood lawyer about certain legal issues, in this case, parking tickets. The DoNotPay robot lawyer has helped drivers overturn more than 200,000 parking tickets in London, New York, and Seattle. The site’s creator claims a 60% success rate advocating for frustrated motorists. So Lear logged in and the DoNotPay “robot” asked him a series of questions – like where the ticket was issued and a description of what happened. Within minutes, he had a 500-word letter of appeal to send to the city.

The verdict? Lear’s citation was eventually dismissed. Another case won by the robot lawyer!

Robot lawyers might be able to handle your parking tickets, but I doubt you’d trust the legal counsel of a machine if you were ever in real trouble. If you find yourself in serious legal trouble, you want the best attorney representing you, counseling you, and advocating on your behalf.

John talks more about the Holy Spirit than any other Gospel writer. One of the interesting things is that he uses lawyer language to describe the Holy Spirit.

He uses the Greek word paraclete, which was often used by ancient Greek writers to denote a legal advisor. The word describes one who comes close beside another. Such a legal advocate is capable of making proper judgment because of his proximity to the situation. Paraclete is often translated one of two different ways in our English Bibles:

  • Advocate: one who speaks up for another, one who pleads your case. When you’re in trouble, you want a good advocate to represent you. You want someone who can clearly and compellingly articulate your claim. And who better to speak up for us, defend us, advocate for us than The Holy Spirit! I feel better already!
  • Counselor: similar legal application. A counselor is one who advises, gives wise counsel. Additionally, we go to therapists because we believe they can give counsel that helps, counsel that lightens our load. Wise counsel is always comforting, which is why paraclete is also sometimes translated as “comforter.” The comfort He provides is the result of the counsel He gives.

This is what Jesus teaches us about the Holy Spirit in John 14-16.

Read John 14:15-21, 25-27; 16:6-13

Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “another Counselor (Paraclete).” Another? If the Holy Spirit is “another” Counselor, it stands to reason that Jesus is the first Counselor. (John says as much in 1 John 2:1 when he says Jesus is our paraclete, speaking to the Father in our defense.) In the absence of Christ’s physical presence with His people, He gives the Spirit to function as another Counselor, providing the same wisdom and instruction Christ himself imparted.

Jesus also calls the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of truth.” This is why His presence in our lives is tied to obedience. Jesus begins by saying, ”If you love me, you will obey what I command,” (14:15). We’re wrong to think of Christianity as “easy”, as if Jesus doesn’t demand something of us. I’m afraid that too often we think being a Christian only requires pleasant feelings of love without any sort of action to prove it. But that’s not true. There are over 1,000 commands in the New Testament, which, according to this verse, are to be obeyed by those who love Jesus. To be obedient is to live truthfully in light of what Jesus demands.

Jesus promises that the Spirit will live with and be in His followers: The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you (14:17). This is an important promise because Jesus has already told the disciples that He must leave (14:1-4). Understandably, this disturbs the disciples; we can picture them asking one another, “What will we do when Jesus is gone?” But Jesus promises that he won’t leave them as orphans: I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you (14:18).

Why do you think Jesus makes this promise? Why does He specify that He will not leave his followers as orphans? Jesus says this because fear of abandonment is a universal fear. Jesus knows that they are struggling with his imminent departure and the events of the next few hours will continue to bear that out. When Jesus is taken into custody, Simon Peter denies Him. John is the only one of the Twelve present at the crucifixion. By Sunday, they’re huddled together in the upper room with the doors locked. Removing Jesus accomplished precisely what the satanic forces intended: it’s crippled the movement with fear. Jesus is gone and the disciples are afraid.

And I’m willing to bet that at the lowest points in your life, your experience felt similar to this. You lost your job and you wondered if God was ignoring your prayers for a new one. Your child was sick and you felt like you were going through it alone. In your grief and anguish, you felt that fear of abandonment rise up on the inside.

The Bible is clear about this: Satan does his best work in isolation. From the very beginning in the garden right up to this very moment, Satan operates best when he can get you alone, when he can get you to feel like you’re on an island, when he can make you think that you’re the only one with your particular struggle. If he can get you alone, away from the wisdom of God’s Word and away from good spiritual influences, Satan has you right where he wants you. He does his best work in isolation. The Bible says this clearly and consistently.

But the Bible is equally clear about this: God’s people are never alone. In both the Old and New Testaments, God says, Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. That’s not a promise with an expiration date. Never means never! Jesus tells his disciples that they won’t be orphaned; rather, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit to be His presence with them into the future. And that’s a promise that applies to us as well!

And when you accept the reality of this promise – when you take God at His word that never means never – the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life becomes the source of your peace.

Jesus says, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you, (14:27). This peace – the peace of Christ – is directly linked to the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life. In the same verse, Jesus goes on to say, Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. Why? Because troubles and fears are the enemies of peace and Jesus has already given us His peace through the presence of His Spirit.

When you fixate on your troubles and focus on your fears, there is a spiritual struggle that takes place within you. On the one hand there’s Jesus who, through the power of His Spirit living within you, is striving to bear the fruit of peace in you. And yet, on the other hand, you have the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12) working to subvert the gospel of peace by heightening our fears and tempting us to fixate on our troubles.

This is why the idea of the fruit of the Spirit is important. Gal. 5:22 says the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This fruit is evidence of the Spirit’s presence in our lives. If you’re not more loving, more joyous, more peaceful today than you were before you became a Christian, then there’s something going on to thwart that fruit. There’s some sort of toxic thought pattern or behavior or feeling that is running contrary to the Spirit’s work. The Spirit is trying to help, but you’re actively working against that. And then we blame God because there’s no fruit being born in our lives?!? And the whole while, we’re dumping toxic pesticides on the fruit the Spirit is trying to bear.

When we do this, we’re quenching the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19). So for those of us whose hearts are deeply troubled today, for those who are gripped by fear, these words from Jesus are a reminder of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to believers. According to Jesus, the Holy Spirit’s role is to condemn the world of sin. In this light, the Spirit functions as a prosecuting attorney. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment, (16:8). The legal language here is pointed at the Spirit’s prosecution and conviction of sin. The Holy Spirit shows people their sin in order to bring them to repentance.

But when we respond in repentance, the Holy Spirit operates at a different level. The Spirit becomes our Advocate, not prosecuting but rather speaking up on our behalf. The Spirit becomes God’s gift of comfort and counsel to us. Jesus says it is better for Him to leave so that we might have the Holy Spirit. If given a choice, most of us would probably choose the physical Jesus. But Christ’s presence on earth was limited to one place at a time. But now, through the gift of the Spirit, He lives with and in every believer in the world.

This week’s dare: take time to sit with a passage of Scripture. Find a story about Jesus and invite the Spirit to guide you to the deeper meaning of that passage for your life. Listen to the Spirit’s counsel and instruction as you read through God’s Word, then faithfully live in light of the command of Jesus.

What Jesus intends as a gift of comfort and counsel has become a source of controversy today. The primary work of the HS is to bear witness to Jesus. Some Christians want to make the HS central – but even the HS doesn’t want to make the HS central. The HS wants to make Jesus central.

With that in mind, we close with the promise of Jesus, Because I live, you also will live (14:19). 

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Daring Faith: I Was Blind But Now I See

In 2013, I made a choice to believe in the resurrection.

Two years earlier, my father-in-law, Alan Shates, was diagnosed with ALS, a disease for which there is no known cure. As we watched this disease slowly strip Alan of his life, we prayed that the end would come quickly. But I found myself doing a lot of thinking. I asked, “Do I really believe all this resurrection stuff?”

Of course, I had professed to believe in the resurrection years before. I’ve heard countless sermons on the resurrection of Jesus. I know Jesus said in John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life.” I’ve read these words, even preached these words. But reading and preaching these words are altogether different than actually believing in them, than “faithing” in them.

Because believing these words…well, that changes everything.

When we “faith” in Jesus as the resurrection and the life, we no longer grieve as those who have no hope. We trust in the promise of someday, the promise of eternal life. But to faith in Jesus as the resurrection and the life is to find eternal life today as well. Belief in the resurrection means that we cannot garb ourselves in grave clothes any longer because we have experienced resurrection power in the present. And again, that power makes all the difference.

Believing in these words helps me perpetually take off the grave clothes of grief and despair. Sure, there are times when I find those articles of clothing draped over my shoulders again – because this is our natural reaction when we lose someone we love. But belief in Jesus gifts me with the power to choose, the power to set aside the grave clothes and to be arrayed in Christ.

Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Take off the grave clothes.

Today, we will focus on a man whose name means “God is my help.” He probably never realized the full truth of his name until the day he took off his own grave clothes. This man is Lazarus and his story is found in John 11.

As the chapter begins, we learn that Lazarus is sick. He lives in Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem, a suburb of the big city. His sisters, Mary and Martha, send word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” The Gospels indicate that Jesus was especially close to this family. But when he hears that Lazarus is sick, Jesus doesn’t immediately set out for Bethany.

V4, When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Of course, Jesus is right. Lazarus’s illness doesn’t end in death; it actually leads through death to what lies on the other side. In the case of Lazarus, what lies on the other side of death is new life in Jesus.

V5-6, Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days. This is an important detail and it will help us make sense of all that follows: Jesus loves Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. John says this right here, right up front, so that it’s never in question. And yet, Lazarus still suffered. Martha and Mary still endured heartache and grief. And the fact remains that Jesus did not rush to their side to spare them this pain.

We can extrapolate an essential truth from this: when we go through hard times, we should not assume that this is an indication that God doesn’t love us. Jesus loves this family, yet they endure pain, sorrow, and grief. And John’s up-front point should not be lost on us: God’s love toward us is unwavering, even in the wake of our own adversity and pain.

In John 2, we read about Jesus saving the day at a wedding in Cana. Here in John 11, Jesus crashes a funeral in Bethany and turns this hour of grief into a cause for celebration.

Read John 11:17-22

By the time Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days. In such a warm climate, a dead body would decompose quickly, so the burial took place soon after death. This rules out any sort of “accidental” burial wherein Lazarus was only presumed to be dead. After four days, his body had no doubt begun to decompose.

When Martha hears that Jesus has come near, she goes out to meet him. Martha is probably best known for being too busy with the food preparation to sit down and talk with Jesus in Luke 10. But here we find her leaving the house to talk with Him, while her sister Mary stays at home. Martha has a unique opportunity here, the chance to speak directly to Jesus in her grief. And she says rather pointedly, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I wonder how many of us have said the same thing: “Lord, if you were where you said you’d be, this wouldn’t have happened. My loved one would still be here!” When I was less mature in my faith, I said such things to God.

But we probably shouldn’t be too hard on Martha, for she turns right around and says, “But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask.” She believes that Jesus, had he been present, would have acted to preserve Lazarus’s life. And she says as much. But then she shifts gears by saying, “But you’re here now…and God will give you whatever you ask.”

But let’s see how Jesus responds:

Read John 11:23-27

Here we find Jesus having yet another theological conversation with a woman. Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.” At first, I don’t think Martha really understands what Jesus is saying. Perhaps she thinks Jesus is saying the sort of things we say to one another in our grief: you know, things like, “He’s in a better place,” or “You’ll see him again.” When Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again,” Martha replies by saying, “Yes, he’ll rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Martha is affirming the Pharisaic position on resurrection.

But that’s not what Jesus is actually saying. He’s not trying to placate Martha by pushing out her hope to some yet-to-be-realized horizon. No, he wants to know what Martha believes RIGHT NOW: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Remember our discussion from a few weeks back, that “faith” is not a noun in John’s Gospel but always a verb? After declaring to be the resurrection and the life, Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this; do you faith this?”

And Martha replies, “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” Why is Martha best known as a kitchen busybody? THIS is her big moment, the moment for which she should be remembered! In many respects, she’s the hero of the story – apart from Jesus, of course! If you know how the story ends, you know we can’t say much about Lazarus. He may be the man who died and lived to tell about it, but he doesn’t even have a single line in this episode. But Martha is a woman of deep faith. Even / especially in her pain, she clings to the essential truth about Jesus.

Mary, meanwhile, is at the home, likely engaged in the Jewish custom of sitting in mourning, also called “sitting shi’vah.” The word “shi’vah” means seven; following a death, it was Jewish custom for family members to stay home for a period of seven days. They would wear black clothing to represent the darkness of grief that enveloped their hearts. And they would customarily sit on a low stool or box as a demonstration that they had been “brought low” by their grief. When John tells us Mary stayed home, it’s very likely that she stayed home to observe the practice of sitting shi’vah.

Martha returns from speaking with Jesus and now we find Mary going to Him.

Read John 11:32-35

Mary reiterates Martha’s comment: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And it says that Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and troubled (v33) when he sees Mary weeping. The first of these verbs may include an element of anger or indignation; it has a connotation with the idea of “thunder.” The second verb carries the idea of being emotionally disturbed, distraught. These two verbs combine to describe the deepest sort of human emotion. Even the one who is himself the resurrection and the life is deeply unsettled by human grief and death.

And this is where we come across the shortest verse in the Bible, Jesus wept. It’s true that this is the shortest verse but it also contains the greatest depth. Can you fathom the eternal Son of God weeping over the separation caused by the death of a friend? Earthly pain CAN and DOES move the heart of God!

Twice John tells us that Jesus was deeply moved by Martha and Mary’s grief. That tells me that God doesn’t want us to miss this point: when we hurt, God hurts. When we weep, God weeps. Our pain thunders in His heart. And the ultimate demonstration of this is about to unfold.

Read John 11:38-44

Jesus brings Lazarus back to life with a simple prayer and a command. He prays – not by bowing his head but by looking up to the heavens – and thanks the Father for hearing him. And then Jesus calls out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” It was Augustine who said, “Jesus had to call out Lazarus by name, for if he didn’t, all the dead would’ve come out of their graves!” Jesus, the eternal Word of God, is mighty to deliver Lazarus from death back to life.

The raising of Lazarus is a sign pointing to Jesus as the source of new life. We should use our language precisely here: Lazarus was not resurrected, not in the Christian sense of the term. Lazarus was resuscitated, but not resurrected. What’s the difference? Well, Lazarus – along with Jairus’s daughter, the son of the Shunammite woman, Dorcas, Eutychus, and every other Bible character who was raised from the dead – they all died again eventually. But as the firstfruits of the resurrection, Jesus Christ lives to this day. His heart still beats because He lives. The raising of Lazarus is merely a sign pointing to the deeper reality of Christ’s resurrection.

Even so, as we noted last week, miracles are only signs to those who are willing to see them as such. In the next chapter, John tells us that the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him. Just take a minute to let that soak in. Lazarus died. Jesus raised him from the dead. So the chief priests come up with this brilliant plan to kill Lazarus. Do you see a problem with this strategy? On account of Lazarus, many are choosing to “faith” in Jesus, so the chief priests simply decide to destroy the evidence. Again, miracles are only signs to those who are willing to see them.

When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, his final words are important: take off the grave clothes. Grave clothes simply aren’t fitting for someone who has experienced new life in Jesus.

What grave clothes do you need to take off?

  • Have you worn the grave clothes of grief for far too long? Depression? Worry? Anger? Regret? Hopelessness? Are you still wearing the reeking garments of bitterness even now, years after the fact?
  • Are you clothing yourself with garments that undermine your new life in Christ? Garments like pornography? Sexual immorality? Gossip? Racism? Pride?
  • Do you look for comfort in the flimsy, tattered rags of a substance addiction, or an illicit behavior, or an unhealthy relationship?

When we open our eyes to Jesus, we find that our closets are absolutely filled with grave clothes. And unfortunately, some of those articles fit us all too well.

But hear these words today as words of grace. Take off the grave clothes and be clothed in Christ, for He is the resurrection and the life.

To faith in this changes everything.

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Hope Against Hope

Re-posting from this date in 2014. These words are even more resonant today than they were when I originally wrote them three years ago.

already & not yet

It was a Saturday. We were planning to go to Nashville that day to see her. She’d been hospitalized there for several days and we’d planned for me to finish up the school week and then go see her on Saturday. I had just finished getting ready when my sister and brother-in-law arrived at the house. We were supposed to ride to the hospital together.

But one look at my sister’s bloodshot eyes and I knew that it was too late.

The date was March 26, 1994. It was the day my mother passed away.

Myrna Little JasonIn the 20 years since her passing, I’ve written quite a bit about my mother’s impact on my life. I’ve written about her compassionate spirit that compelled her to a 20-year career teaching inner-city students. I wrote about my embarrassment when, as a 15-year-old, a church member told me I looked just like her

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Creation Care

Today our family drove through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s our first visit to the park since the wildfires ravaged the area last fall, claiming the lives of more than a dozen people and causing property damage and destruction in the hundreds of millions. As we approached the Chimney Tops Trail, we passed several areas of fire damage. A hush fell over our whole family as we observed, intrinsically aware of what we were seeing.

After a while, we began to talk a bit about what had happened, particularly that the fire was intentionally started by humans. That led to a much broader discussion, one we’ve had a few times over the years, about the importance of human stewardship and creation care.

I’ve written about this before, particularly from a theological perspective, and received pushback from some of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I remember one snarky exchange where a commenter quipped, “The words ‘creation care’ aren’t in my Bible!” While the phrase itself may not be found in the Scriptures, the concept is deeply ingrained in the biblical narrative. And it pains me that so many of us have missed this.

With all of this fresh on my mind, I’ll be making a series of posts this week on the Christian call to care for creation derived from our status as God’s image bearers. If you’re interested, you might like to peruse this post from 2008 as a primer for my thoughts.

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Daring Faith: Believing is Seeing

Game 1 of the 1988 World Series pitted the Oakland A’s vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers. The A’s were heavy favorites to win the Series, having won 104 games in the regular season followed by a sweep of the Red Sox in the League Championship Series. But the key moment in the World Series occurred in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1. Trailing 4-3, the Dodgers had a runner on base with two outs when they sent Kirk Gibson to the plate as a pinch hitter.

Gibson was the Dodgers’ best offensive threat, having led the team in home runs that season. But Gibson had been hobbled with leg injuries that limited him to pinch-hitting duty in the Series. So with his team down to their last at-bat, manager Tommy LaSorda sent Gibson to the plate to face the A’s relief ace, Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley. And in storybook fashion, on a 3-2 backdoor slider, Gibson had perhaps the most memorable moment in World Series history as he homered to give the Dodgers a Game 1 victory.

As Gibson rounded third headed for home, Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully commented, “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!” In fact, a wider-angle replay shows the stream of cars in the parking lot exiting the stadium, no doubt Dodger fans who hoped to beat the traffic and left the game early! Every little boy dreams of this scenario in the backyard – hitting a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth in the World Series. But for Gibson, the dream became reality. By the time he made it back to the clubhouse, one of the Dodger coaches had tape over Gibson’s locker with the name “Roy Hobbs” written in Sharpie. Jack Buck’s call of Gibson’s home run summarizes the moment well: “Unbelievable! I don’t believe what I just saw!”

As we continue our study on Daring Faith from the Gospel of John, we’ll be exploring the connection between believing and seeing. We’re talking about the kind of faith that has eyes to see not just the improbable, but the impossible. And in our passage today from John 9, some will echo Jack Buck’s words to tragic effect: “I don’t believe what I just saw!” But I want to draw your attention to the words of a nameless figure whose testimony about Jesus could serve as an epitaph for the faithful throughout history: I was blind but now I see (John 9:25). The real question: what will we choose to see and believe?

Read John 9:1-5 

Jesus and his disciples come across a man blind from birth. And the text says that Jesus sees him, which is an important detail. We live in a world where it’s easy to overlook people like this blind man; it’s all too easy to look past individuals who are disabled or hurting. But that’s not the case with Jesus. The text begins with this essential affirmation: Jesus sees the blind man, because Jesus always sees the overlooked and forgotten.

And the disciples ask, “Who sinned? This man or his parents?” This kind of binary thinking is rooted in a belief that suffering results from sin. The disciples assume that the man’s illness is the result of some sin, either his own (in the womb?) or his parents. But Jesus dismisses this idea, saying that this man’s blindness has occurred in order that the work of God might be displayed in his life. He goes on to say, we must do the work of him who sent me. Just as the Father sent Jesus, those who follow Jesus participate in the same work for which Jesus was sent. As a demonstration that he is the light of the world, Jesus miraculously heals the blind man. Let’s read about the healing.

Read John 9:6-9 

Jesus rubs mud on the man’s eyes and tells him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam, which means “sent.” This is significant: Jesus is doing the work of the one who sent him; and he sends the blind man to wash in the “Pool of the Sent.” And when this man goes back home (sent back home?) fully healed, his neighbors say, “Wait a minute? Isn’t this the blind man who used to beg for money?” And some of the people reply, “No, he just looks like that guy.”

And the whole time, the formerly blind man is saying, “No, I’m the guy! That’s me!” But his problems continue, even after he has been healed.

Read John 9:10-16

The blind man testifies that Jesus has healed him. But his neighbors determine to bring him before the Pharisees. The big problem here is that Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath. And according to the Pharisees, this proves that Jesus is NOT from God.

Some of the Jewish people of that time believed that if every Jewish person kept the Sabbath perfectly just one time, the end of the world would come. The Kingdom of God would be ushered in fully. This is helpful for us to keep in mind as we read about these “Sabbath controversies” in the Gospels. The Pharisees had good reasons for being so concerned over Sabbath observance.

But all of this is not to make excuses for the Pharisees. Their obsession with Sabbath practice that aligns with their interpretive view blinds them to what is right in front of them. When it comes to Jesus, blind people see and people who think they see are actually blind.

Read John 9:17-34 

Note the contrast between the daring faith of the healed man and the lack of faith demonstrated by his parents. The healed man consistently dares to speak up about Jesus. V25, Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see! He says “I don’t know” repeatedly in this text. Where is Jesus? I don’t know. Is Jesus a sinner? I don’t know. Daring faith isn’t about having all of the answers to every question. Often times, it’s simply living with the reality that there are certain questions we can’t answer. But he says, “Here’s what I do know: I couldn’t see and now I can!” Our man here has no choice but to speak boldly about what has happened to him.

But it’s different with his parents. They are gripped with fear, not faith. They’re quick to give the “right” answer because they are afraid of being cast out of the synagogue. Literally, the word used here is “de-synagogued.” In Judaism, there were degrees of synagogue excommunication. The lightest could be declared by one person and normally lasted seven days. The next usually required three people to declare and lasted thirty days, and people were required to stay four cubits (six feet) from the banished person. The most severe form was a ban of indefinite duration; persons under this ban were to be treated as if they were dead. Because the synagogue was central to every aspect of Jewish life, to be excommunicated like this was to suffer the most severe form of isolation.

Their fear makes these parents weak, for when they are pressed, they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge Jesus as the source of their son’s healing. Imagine all the prayers they must’ve prayed for that child, praying and hoping that one day his sight would be restored. And then, when the prayer is finally answered…they can’t even bring themselves to acknowledge the one through whom the miracle came. They’re more worried about their social position than about their son. It’s as if John is saying, “Is getting kicked out of the synagogue really that awful? Wouldn’t it be worth getting kicked out of the synagogue to confess the truth that God healed your son?”

Daring faith is the counter to our fears. We see this illustrated in the contrast between the healed man and his parents.

Another point of contrast is the sight of the healed man over against the blindness of the Pharisees. The healed man repeats his story over and over. His neighbors say, “Isn’t this the man who was born blind?” And the blind man says, “Yes, that’s me! But Jesus put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I can see!” In front of the Pharisees, he says the same thing: “Jesus put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I can see.” All he can do is declare what Jesus has done for him – “Jesus has restored my sight!”

On the other hand, the Pharisees simply refuse to see the miraculous sign right in front of them. And this is another key theme in John’s Gospel: miracles are only signs to people who are ready to see them. Last week, we talked about the crowd that Jesus miraculously fed in the wilderness. They’ve witnessed something miraculous, yet when Jesus teaches them that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood, many of them turned away. They chose not to see the truth about Jesus.

And in much the same fashion, the Pharisees refuse to see this miraculous sign: a man, blind from birth, whose sight has been fully restored. The blind man continues to say, “I was blind but now I see!” And all the while, the Pharisee is saying, “I don’t believe what I’m seeing!” The blind man’s parents are blinded by their fear of the Pharisees, fear of excommunication. The Pharisees are blinded by their fear of losing control, their fear that Jesus doesn’t play by their interpretation of “keeping the Sabbath.” But the blind man is the only one who truly sees, because as we’ll see at the end of this story, he’s the only one willing to dare faith.

When it comes to Daring Faith, seeing isn’t always believing. But believing is always seeing.

The Pharisees have the blind man thrown out of the synagogue. His crime? Telling the truth about Jesus. But there’s a final scene in the story that’s crucial.

Read John 9:35-38 

Jesus finds this man who is once again an outcast. Whereas he was formerly an outcast because of his lack of vision, he is now an outcast precisely because he sees. But Jesus asks him a question, the question upon which all else rests: Do you believe in the Son of Man? Do you believe in the Messiah? The man replies earnestly, “Tell me about him so that I may believe in him.”

And Jesus replies, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.” The words “you have now seen him” have double impact – the man physically sees Jesus because of his healed eyes, but more importantly, he sees spiritually because he understands Jesus as the Messiah sent from God.

The man responds in the only way he knows. He says, “Lord, I believe,” and he worships Jesus. He may have been excommunicated from the synagogue, but he has found true worship. And his life will never be the same.

When Jesus healed this man, he sent him to the Pool of Siloam, which means “sent.” This man is later sent out of the synagogue by the Pharisees, but that’s not the real sending this text points toward. No, this blind man is sent out into the world to testify to the one who restored his sight. He’s sent into the same world we’re sent into, sent with the same message of sight and belief.

To see is to be sent.

And this man’s message has become a beloved expression of the Good News in the most popular hymn in the world. May the message of the blind man be our message as well: “I was blind but now I see.”

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Daring Faith: Christian Consumerism

In a recent study included in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, children were shown to overwhelmingly prefer the taste of food that comes in McDonald’s wrappers. In the study, preschool children sampled identical foods in packaging from McDonald’s and in matched but unbranded packaging. The children were then asked if the food tasted the same or if one tasted better. The unmarked foods lost the taste test every time. Even apple juice, carrots, and milk tasted better to the kids when taken from the familiar wrappings of the Golden Arches. One physician from Yale’s School of Medicine remarked, “This study demonstrates…that advertising literally brainwashes young children into a baseless preference for certain food products. Children, it seems, literally do judge a food by its cover. And they prefer the cover they know.”

Judging a food by its cover.” Our culture is proficient in teaching our children to think of themselves as consumers. But we should ask ourselves, “What exactly are we consuming?” Not just products, it seems, but brands themselves. It’s what’s on the outside – the wrapper – that sells, more so than what’s on the inside. It would seem that we’re often more interested in the external wrapper rather than true sustenance.

John 6 begins with the feeding of the 5,000. V2 indicates that the crowd followed him because he was healing the sick – not out of a deep faith commitment, the “trusting obedience” we’ve been talking about. But Jesus performs a miracle in their sight – he feeds the crowd with only five loaves of bread and two small fish. And the people declare in v14, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world,” alluding to the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18.

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