Friday, December 23, 2011

A Christmas Meditation from John

I love the Gospel of John. I’ve been immersed in it for about 6 months now, leading my Sunday School class through a year long study of this book. It’s full of theological and practical truth, and gives us a unique look at Jesus. There’s lots of stuff in John that is not in any of the other Gospels. It’s been well worth the time spent studying it.

The book begins with what I think is a powerful passage on the promise of Christmas, well worth looking at as we come up on the big day this weekend. It’s not the traditional Christmas story. It’s not about how Jesus was born, and has nothing to do with angels or wise men. There is no manger scene, no cattle lowing, and no swaddling clothes. But we do learn something important about Christmas, about the coming of Emmanuel. What does it mean that God became a man? That’s what the first chapter of John is all about.

Notice how it begins:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:1-5

We learn essential truth about the Word in these first five verses. He was from the beginning. He was with God. He was God, from the beginning. He created everything, which means he himself was not created. He holds in his hands life, which shines like a light into the darkness, giving that life to men. As we read these verses, we ought to be able to feel the weight of what is being said here. If you were reading this for the first time, you might be thinking at this point, “Whatever this Word is, John believes it to be the most powerful, most incredible, most unbelievable, being in the entire universe.” Eternal? Creator? Life? Light? None of these are small things, and John says he’s all of them.

John talks about John the Baptist for a few verses, and how he was not the light, but only a witness to the light, before getting back to what this Word, who is light, has done. Look in what he says next:

“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.  But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” – John 1:9-13

Whatever this light was, it came. The same light that made the world came into the world. Not everyone will receive him, but those who do will become children of God! What an amazing thing to imagine. They will become God’s children, not through anything they do, not by willing themselves to be better people, but through the power of the Word who was from the beginning, and was with God, and was God! The most powerful being in the universe came to shine his light into the world, and make men sons of God! He came to give them a brand new start, a brand new birth! What an amazing thing to consider!

But it gets even better! This passage is building to a crescendo. As you read this, and you consider it this Christmas, let your heart leap with the excitement of what is being said. The Word is eternal. He is creator. He is light. He is life. And he has come, to share that light with others. So the question is this: how does this happen? And John answers it in such a stunning way that it ought to stop us in our tracks. We ought to hear what John says as if we are hearing it for the first time, feel it like we could have never imagined such a thing. How has God come to accomplish this plan of his?

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14

What? Became flesh? Dwelt among us? Could this possibly be true? Could this Word, who was from the beginning, and with God and was God; who was light and life, have actually become a man? Is it possible that the most powerful being in the universe walked this earth as a human being? His plan to give humanity life, to come on this mission, involved him actually becoming one of us? He has come for us, by becoming one of us! This means that (gulp) God has been seen by someone? He’s been spotted? John is saying that he has looked into the eyes of God himself? What was it like? It was full of glory, grace and truth. Oh what good news! In verse 16, John says we have received “grace upon grace.” If you’ll be honest with yourself, and you look at the world, you will realize that the story of Christmas, the story of God coming to the earth, could very easily not be a happy story. When you see what the world is like, you can easily imagine that God would come to earth, and bring with him a sword, and judge the world. But instead, he brought with him, not just grace, but grace upon grace. This is what we need, what we really need.

Now, the implications of this are simply enormous. Frankly, enormous is not a big enough word. There is no way to possibly describe the full length and breadth and width of the implications of God becoming one of us, coming to us with glory and grace and truth . . . and grace! But John gives us a major hint as to what it means as he wraps up this opening session of his Gospel. Notice what he says next:

“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.” - John 1:18

Get what’s being said here about what it means that the Word became flesh, that this Jesus, the Son of God, has come down from Heaven and become one of us. From the beginning of time, until the time Jesus came, no one had ever seen God. A few people, like Moses, caught tiny little glimpses. But that was it. From the beginning of time, until Christmas, 2,000 years ago, no one had been able to truly know or understand who God actually was. But when the Word – Jesus – put on flesh, and walked around on this earth for 33 years, and lived his life and died for our sins, and rose from the grave, he made known who God was. This is the story of Christmas. We know who God is, because he came in the flesh and showed himself to us. He shined his light into this world, by becoming one of us, so that we could become like him. How does that happen? How are we transformed from what we are now, into God has planned for us? By simply looking to this Jesus, looking upon this Jesus, we are changed into what he has planned for us. Paul put it this way: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”  (1 Corinthians 3:18) So we look upon this Jesus, who revealed who God is to us, and we are transformed by it. We are changed by it. We see his glory, we begin to understand his truth, we are given his grace, upon grace, and we are transformed by it.

The story is the baby boy in the manger. But the truth is that God became a man. The Word became flesh. Don’t forget it this Christmas.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jesus and Tim Tebow, Part 3

This is the third part in a series on life and faith, that was triggered by a segment I recently did on Tim Tebow at WMOX radio. You can read parts 1 and 2 here and also here.

I am Tim Tebow. And you are Tim Tebow. We are all Tim Tebow. No, most of us will never set foot on an NFL football field for any reason; much less lead a game winning drive, (or a bunch of them, for that matter.) But there is one major thing that we all have in common with the budding star quarterback for the Denver Broncos. We have been given a vocation in which we are supposed to glorify God.

Now, I am neither a theologian, nor a son of a theologian, but I think that this idea of vocation is one of that has been greatly under-discussed in our churches today. How do I best glorify God in my work? Whether I am an NFL quarterback, or a TV news anchor, or an engineer, or a nurse, or a stay at home mom, I have been given a sphere of influence through my work, and I am to work in that sphere, to the best of my abilities, as an act of worship to Jesus.


Now, we need to be careful when we talk this way. Lots of people have encountered the “Jesus guy,” at their place of work. He or she is the person with the Bible verse screen saver, and the Bible on his desk, who is too “holy” to speak to his co-workers, except to call them out on their sin or decry the ills of society, or “witness” to them. Think Angela on “The Office.” The only thing her co-workers know about her faith there is that it seems to keep her in a constant state of “stick-up-her-behindedness.” The worst thing about these kinds of “Jesus people,” at work, is that they rarely, if ever, do any actual work. They make life harder on everyone else in more ways than one. So this is not who you want to be. But you do want to be someone who works to the glory of God. Paul made it very clear: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31) That “whatever you do,” most certainly includes your job.

Here are a few things I try to keep in mind while I work, in an attempt to do it as an act of worship. Let me say from the beginning, that I do none of these perfectly. I fail often. I’m thankful for a forgiving Jesus.

1 – My main job as a Christian at work is to do the very best job I can do. This means showing up for work on time, working while I’m here, getting my work done in a prompt manner, being a team player, and producing quality, in whatever it is I’m doing. If I don’t do this, if other people at work see me as someone who’s trying to slack, then they’re not going to care about anything else. If I’m making work harder for my co-workers, because I’m not carrying my weight, then I have failed in my vocation. Now, there are times when it is possible that being the very best at work might come in conflict with my faith. I think these times are generally rarer than we think. But there may be times when being good at my job means spending too much time away from my family, or missing too much church. I’ve never worked in a place where I was asked to do something that I found morally questionable, but if it ever happened, I would be forced to choose doing the right thing over being the “good” employee.

2 – I must have a good attitude. This is easier some days than others. It’s quite natural for us to have days when we just don’t feel like coming to work. But this must be overcome. I’ve known, and have Christian co-workers who have terrible attitudes about their jobs and about life. If you complain all the time, you will probably draw a lot of people to you. Everyone loves to complain about their jobs. Misery loves company. People will come to you. But they will not respect you. And when there comes an appropriate time to share Christ with them, you will not have the credentials. But if you constantly work hard and don’t complain, people will notice. It might not happen quickly, but eventually it will be noticed. It’s amazing how easy it is to be considered a good worker, and become well-liked, if you keep your mouth shut and do your job.

3 – Look for appropriate times and places to share your faith. Now, this is going to be different for everyone. There is a time and place for this, and it is not when everyone is working. If you are a pastor, and you’ve never held a job in the real world, this may be hard to understand. But people don’t really want to hear about Jesus when they’re trying to do their jobs. They mainly want to get their work done and go home. The guy who is constantly talking about Jesus while others are trying to finish up the payroll project is not going to be very well liked. I work in a job with people from different parts of the country, and in some instances, the world. They are great people, and I have, for the most part, great relationships with them. And they know about my faith. It is no secret. But if I tried to share the Romans Road with some of these people, they would look at me like I just passed gas. I’m in it for the long haul with them, and trust God and his providence to provide the right opportunities. If you are paying attention, and looking for opportunities, they will arrive. But please don’t do this if you aren’t doing steps 1 and 2!

Different jobs provide different opportunities and ways to share your faith. Tim Tebow has different avenues and different ways he can share his faith than you do, or I do. It is not appropriate for me to pray as I begin my newscast, at least not live on the air. It is not appropriate for me to “sneak Jesus,” into my stories, as I once heard a Christian reporter say she tries to do. But with the Holy Spirit’s help, there are certainly ways to make my faith known, and share the Gospel with my co-workers.

Tim Tebow has a sphere of influence of millions. I am fortunate enough to have a sphere of thousands. You may only have a sphere of influence of dozens, or ones. That’s fine. God has given you an opportunity to glorify him through your work, in the same way he’s given Tebow that opportunity. Take it. Use it. Glorify him.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Jesus and Tim Tebow, Part 2

This is the second part of a series on life and faith, that was triggered by a recent segment I did on WMOX Radio about Tim Tebow. See part 1 here.

One of the questions that inevitably comes up in any discussion of public faith is this: why do people get offended when someone puts their faith on display? Why should it bother others that someone is unashamed about their faith? Why should others want him to shut up? Why do they care? He should be able to practice and express his faith in any way he wants! Why would someone get offended by that? Now, I think sometimes we misconstrue honest questions and legitimate concerns with offense. But I think there are times when non-believers in Jesus do get offended over how a person expresses their faith publicly. And if not offended, they often, at the very least, think it is over the top.

Before I go any further, I also think some non-believers might have legitimate concerns about the way they see people living out their faith in the public arena. Christians far too often don’t look very Christ-like, even when, and sometimes especially when, they’re professing to be with Jesus in the public eye. We are all too often prone to legalism and judgmentalism. And we must do better. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening with Tim Tebow. He’s in many ways been a role model for how to live for Jesus in the public eye. And for some, that is still offensive. So, what’s going on here? Why does this bother people so?

The answer to this question is actually pretty simple. And non-believers seem to get this much more than many believers do. I can’t believe we have missed this. But we need to get it. I’ve heard one too many people say, “I don’t see anything offensive at all about Christianity.” Let me make this clear. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Gospel of Jesus is incredibly offensive. The Apostle Paul talked about “the offense of the Cross.” (Galatians 5:11) He also says it is foolishness to unbelievers. Jesus told us that all men would hate us because we followed him. We need to understand that this is what we signed up for. If you became a Christian thinking that everyone would love you, and your friends would stay with you, and those who don’t believe would embrace you, and that you could say whatever you wanted to, and that people would smile and think, “That’s nice,” you were misled, or you misunderstood. That is not what this is about.

Christianity makes a radical claim that cannot be avoided. We tell the world that we have a corner on the truth of God. We say that God can only be found through the Jesus who was God from the beginning, and then put on flesh and walked the earth, before dying a bloody death for the sins of the world, and then raising himself from the grave. We tell people that Jesus demands their total allegiance, above home, above family, above friends, above country, above everything that they know and hold dear. We tell people that they are radically sinful, and have no chance except to allow God to fix them, without their help. It is offensive.. It is foolishness. It is obscene. It is radical. But it is also true, and it is also life. And far too often, because we’ve grown up in the Bible belt, and we’ve heard this story from the time we were in diapers, and we’ve lived lives of relative ease, we forget this. We forget how this message, time and again, has gotten people laughed at, and persecuted, and cast aside as idiots, and killed.

When Tim Tebow “Tebows,” when he takes his knee and bows his head, or when you pray, you are both doing more than a private act of worship. You are declaring your allegiance. You are telling the world that you hate the things it loves. You are telling the world that it is in rebellion against its creator, and you have joined the other side. Tim Tebow is making his allegiances clear, and those who are offended by it understand that. The question is whether or not we who are believers do. Do you realize what you have gotten yourself into? This is not a pizza party.

One other thing – what are we as believers to do when people are offended? Well, first of all, we should not return their offense with offense of our own. We should expect this. It should not offend us. We know that their only chance is what our only chance is – the ability of the Gospel to change our hearts. It’s likely that some of these people are our friends, or even our family. At the very worst, they are our enemies. And our Savior has given us only one command as to how we treat enemies. I hope you know what that is.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Jesus and Tim Tebow, Part 1

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts on life and faith, that was triggered by a recent segment I did on WMOX radio about Tim Tebow . . .

Let me lay my cards on the table from the beginning. I really like Tim Tebow. I like him for a number of reasons. Some of them are related to his faith, some of them are related to his football skills, and some of them are related to the how entertaining he has made this year’s NFL season, on and off the field. But generally speaking, I really like the guy, from what I have seen. He seems to be a guy who is doing his best to glorify God through his life as an NFL quarterback. I’m guessing he would be the same way if he was a dentist. But this season, and the way Tebow so publicly lives out his faith, have given us plenty to think about and talk about, when it comes to issues of the Christian life. Over the next several posts, I’m going to try to flesh out some of what I think about those issues. These posts won’t be mainly about Tebow. They’ll be mainly about the questions that I think arise from this apparently sincere Christian with a huge personality and an even bigger fan base, living out his faith in such a public way.

Let’s start here: are his public displays of devotion toward Jesus too much? Are they violations of Jesus’ commands to pray privately, and not publicly? Or is he simply being “salt and light” to the world? Is this what public Christian faith is supposed to look like? Is this the way all Christians ought to do it? Should I be “Tebowing” before I go to break every night? These are not unimportant questions. They’re the kinds of questions we should all ask, not about Tebow, but about ourselves.When people talk about Tebow, and his “public” prayers, they often bring up Matthew 6:5-6:
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

At first glance, the issue may seem pretty cut and dry. Jesus said don’t pray publicly, but to go in your room and shut the door and do it there. So keep your prayers private. But is that really what he said? Is that really what this passage means? I don’t think that’s exactly what it means. Jesus command to do our praying privately cannot be a complete prohibition on public prayer. How can we know that? Well, it’s simple. There are too many examples of public prayer in the Bible. There are numerous examples of Jesus’ praying publicly. One of them comes in John 11, a passage I’m currently studying as my Sunday School class works its way through John’s Gospel. Just before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he prayed the following:

“Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” – John 11:41-42

That’s an obvious public prayer. And Jesus did it. I could cite numerous other public prayers throughout the Bible, including Jesus on prayer on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) So it’s obvious that there is no blanket prohibition of these kinds of prayers. What to make of them then? Should we pray in public, or shouldn’t we? Is Tim Tebow being “salt and light,” or is he being “like the hypocrites?” I honestly don’t think there is any way of knowing. 

Let me explain. This passage in Matthew 6, in Jesus Sermon on the Mount, is not really a prohibition on public prayer. It’s a prohibition against hypocritical prayer. Notice the progression of what Jesus says. 1 – Don’t pray like the hypocrites. 2 – They love to pray on street corners, where they can be seen by others. So the question is not so much about where the hypocrites prayed, but what their motivation for that kind of praying was. They prayed on street corners because they loved to be seen by others. They loved what other people thought about them when they publicly prayed. They did it so people would think highly of them. And Jesus called them hypocrites. Why did he call them that? Because their public prayers were not a reflection of what their heart was really like. He called them “whitewashed tombs,” another time. Clean on the outside, rotten on the inside. Their public personas did not reflect their private realities. That’s the heart of hypocrisy, and that’s why their prayers were so disgusting to Jesus.

So what’s the takeaway here? I think it’s this: in comparison to your private prayer time, your public prayers ought to be limited and careful. You should check your motivations before you pray publicly. If you have prayed publicly very often, then you probably understand the temptation to pray as an exhibition for the people around you, rather than pray as an act of worship to God. So public prayer can be wrong, but it can also be “salt and light.” How do you know the difference? Maybe this: if you are tempted to pray in public because you want everyone to see how pious you are, then maybe you should avoid doing it altogether, to avoid breaking Jesus’ commands. But if you’re tempted not to pray in public, because you are afraid of what other people would think, then maybe you should do it, to practice being salt and light.

So what about Tebow? Which one is he doing? Is he praying like the Pharisees, or he being salt and light? It all goes back to his motivations for doing so. And I don’t know his motivations. Neither do you. Probably, it’s like all of us. We are a mix of motivations. Sometimes they are pure, and sometimes they are less than pure. Thankfully, because of the very Jesus who sets the rules, we are also given grace when our motivations aren’t exactly what they ought to be. I get that grace. So I’m going to give it to Tim Tebow.