Whip-Wielding, Table-Turning Messiah

For most folks, “Gentle Jesus” is the image we carry of the Messiah. The whip-wielding, table-turning, angry Jesus who cleanses the temple seems to be an aberration. When Jesus finds that the noise of livestock and clatter of coins is louder than the prayers; when he sees that the name of God is being used for personal gain, he gets angry, righteously angry. We do the same kind of things today. So, what does “cleansing the temple” mean for us?

Forsaken

When most of us think about spiritual things, we think of self-improvement, or happiness, or success. Faith should lead to joy and glory. Religion should help us avoid the “bad things” in life. The scriptural witness however, doesn’t support these notions. Instead, Jesus invites Peter to follow to the cross. Peter doesn’t want to go. Psalm 22 begins with the words, “My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?” – the dying words of Jesus. The psalm answers this lament by pivoting to praise and the promises of God from this heart-wrenching lament.  In the midst of our suffering, we don’t reject God, but embrace God all the more.

 

copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2018

Unholy Spirits – Mark 1:21-28

When we hear stories about Jesus casting out demons, I’m not sure we know quite what to do with them. Is this possession as illustrated by Hollywood, complete with spinning heads, shaking beds, and evil voices? Or is it just an ancient way of pointing out what they did not understand – mental illness, convulsions or some other such disease? Those kinds of questions obscure two basic truths of these strange stories. First, evil exists and if we are not “possessed” by the Holy Spirit, we are likely to be possessed by something unholy. When I see a world full of violence, abuse, horrific stories of awful deeds done by humans to humans, even children, I find myself asking “What possesses people to do these things?” And there it is – something that drives us to rob life, liberty and peace from others takes our identity as holy people away. Second, fascination with what is unholy in these stories often leads us away from the central truth – God in Christ, revealed in Jesus has power to cast out the unholy and grant peace and life in its place.

Come & See – A Sermon on John 1:35-51

The very first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel according to John is a question: “What are you looking for?” Most of us would be able to come up with some kind of spiritual shopping list for Jesus: Prosperity, health, forgiveness, assurance of life after death. The question is, do we really know what we want, what we need? The Jesus presented in John’s gospel knows his followers better than they know themselves. God in Christ, the Word made flesh, invites us to “Come and see.” Maybe what we will see is more than we can imagine. Maybe what we can see is not just God standing before us. Maybe in this Messiah we will see ourselves, our real selves, for the very first time.

Christian Tourists

Every year I spend time asking folks what they would like to learn about in the adult classes I teach. Every year one of the most requested topics is: “How do I live my faith in daily (real) life?” Part of me rejoices at this, because it is what people who profess to follow Jesus should be asking about. Another part of me sighs. I sigh because, while I have graduate degrees is divinity, theology, and preaching, none of these make me an expert on following Jesus. As a pastor, I’m on the same road you travel when it come to living my faith. In some cases, I may be down the road another exit or so, but I’m still working at it right with you. I also sigh because I know that folks are not always going to like the answer to the question.

This week, in our adult class (which meets at 7:15 PM Wednesdays) we looked at how we live in a world that has trained us to demand quick fixes, easy formulas, and immediate results. Eugene Peterson, in his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, observes:

Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments. It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. (16)

The result of the instant, quick fix mindset is that we “play” at living our faith. We make it an extracurricular activity, an option. The phrase, “I’m spiritual, but not religious” is all the rage today. Frankly, I worry that if I hear it again, I’m going to be sick. It is not that I don’t understand that the empty traditions and rote practice of a religion can rob it of its spiritual center. I get that. But, I suspect most often this is another way of saying, “I want to be spiritual in a quick and easy way that does not intrude on my life.”

Peterson thinks that the problem we have in this world where “busy” is the stock answer to the question, “How are you?” is that we have become Christian tourists:

Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure. (16)

We go to church, when we have time, to fit in a little spirituality to our already planned and scripted lives. Like planning a trip to the lake, we plan to set aside time to go look at the stained glass and strange people you can find at church. We leave no more (maybe less) affected than a trip to Mt. Rushmore or an amusement park. Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt.

Following Jesus is not, however, a tourist opportunity. The two words used to describe followers of Jesus most often are disciple and pilgrim. The first denotes a long-term relationship between master and teacher. Peterson notes: Disciple (mathētēs) says we are people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. (17) Wow, living faith in daily life takes a lifetime devoted to Jesus!

The second word, pilgrim, Peterson points out, “tells us we are people who spend our lives going someplace, going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way, Jesus Christ. We realize that “this world is not my home” (17)

Following Jesus, which is what living your faith in daily life is all about, is not a quick, easy, instant process. It is a long-term relationship with a master, a teacher, a Lord named Jesus to whom we apprentice ourselves to be trained to be human beings, created in God’s image.

In the end, living or faith everyday is about loving God and loving others. It is about a lifelong journey that takes us deeper and deeper into the very heart of God.

love shoes

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book Being Disciples describes the daily living of Christians, the following of Jesus:

 

 “We follow him, not simply to the ends of the earth, to do his work and echo his service; we follow him to be next to the heart of the Father.” (13)

There are no shortcuts in the journey of discipleship. It is not a quick trip. But, God promises it to be a blessed and joyful journey. Just look who you get to follow!

 

copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2017

Following Jesus: Easy or Hard?

“In the course of Christian discipleship we discover that without Christ we were doing it the hard way and that with Christ we are doing it the easy way.

A man once told me that following Jesus never presented him any struggle. I was impressed. I mentioned that things like loving my enemies and forgiving people who had wronged me always gave me pause. He explained that those things were not the key parts of following Jesus. Then he proceeded to tell me about a Jesus he followed who I never encountered in Sunday School. Miraculously, his Jesus had never challenged him to think or act differently; never had changed his mind about anything. His very personal Jesus would be easy to follow.

This encoutner always makes me think of the story in Mark (10:17 ff) where a rich man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus tells him to follow the commandments – no murder, no lying, no adultery, honor his parents and the like. The man says, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” My (rather loose) translation of the Greek is, “That’s it? That’s easy-peasy ! Haven’t you got anything else?” The man is thinking that this Jesus is offering a pretty easy path. So, Jesus adds, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (10:21) Suddenly, the path to eternal life gets steeper, longer, and harder for the man. He turns back, unable to follow.

I would think that most folks, if we are honest, would say that following Jesus seems hard. There seems to be a lot of rules, demands, and requirements. The way of Jesus calls us to give up things we love; to change when we like things just the way they are. Like the rich man, we all have an idea about where we won’t follow Jesus. It is just too hard.

But what if we are looking at it all wrong?

wrench

One day, when I was a kid, I went out to the workbench in the garage and got busy building or fixing something (I don’t recall what it was). The task at hand called for me to drive a nail into a piece of wood. So, I found a nail and a tool for pounding – my father’s pipe wrench. I was wacking away at the nail, making very little progress, when my dad appeared and asked me, “What the heck are you doing?” I stated the obvious. “Pounding a nail.” He asked how it was going, and I had to admit that it was not going very well at all. He grabbed the wrench, handed me a hammer. I drove the nail in easily. He the told me never to hammer things with a wrench. He was a wise man. I was making something easy very hard.

Eugene Peterson, in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, insists that following Jesus is actually the easy way. What makes it seem hard is that we have been living the hard way for so long. We’ve been driving nails with a pipe wrench or screw driver and a hammer seems weird. He says, “In the course of Christian discipleship we discover that without Christ we were doing it the hard way and that with Christ we are doing it the easy way. It is not Christians who have it hard, but non-Christians.” (Peterson, Eugene H. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Kindle Locations 1427-1428). IVP Books. Kindle Edition.)

We are created in the image of God, but we spend lots of time fashioning ourselves into our own or someone else’s image. We have been shown what it means to be a human living in the image of God in Jesus Christ. We would rather find our own way, follow our own path instead of walking in his footsteps. We receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to stir our hearts to love and serve, to orient us in this world to the hope of God’s future. We ignore the voice within and listen to the voices of the world calling us to forsake our birthright. We are surrounded by a creation and creatures all dedicated to the same God, but, we treat them all as personal possessions.

Jesus beckons us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) 

It is the way of the world that kills, creates violence, and robs us of meaning and purpose. We were built for peace, the world drags us into conflict. We were built to love, but the world divides and conquers us through hate. We were built to live in community with others, the world calls us to go it alone.

We were made to follow Jesus. Maybe we just need to stop resisting; stop wacking nails with wrenches.

 

 

copyright © 2017, Timothy V. Olson

 

 

 

Give Me A Sign

A sermon on Matthew 16:13-20 

Perhaps we all wish that God would give us a sign; our own personal burning bush or miraculous deed that would chase away all fears and doubt. Signs and miracles, however, do not lead to faith. Faith comes from a much more trustworthy source. Jesus told Peter that it was this deep trust in God upon which the Church would rest. That kind of faith is available to you.

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