Monthly Archives: October 2011

What Do You “Have to Do”?

The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.  When the Lord learned of this, he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.
Now he had to go through Samaria.  So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.
John 4:1-6 (NIV)

“He had to go through Samaria.”  That phrase has always struck me as a little bit strange.  Samaria was right in between Judea to Galilee; the main highway ran right through it, so the most direct route would, of course, take Him right through Samaria.  At the same time, there were a lot of really pious people who would never take the direct route for any reason, because they considered Samaritans an impure people, and they believed that even setting foot in their territory would contaminate them.  These folks would cross the Jordan, bypass Samaria on the other side of the river, and then cross back over again.  It was a much longer route, but they figured it was worth the extra time to avoid the possibility of contamination.

But Jesus “had to go through Samaria.”

Jesus’ decision to move back north came about because His baptism ministry was starting to draw the unwanted attention of the Pharisees, because He had become even more popular than John.  So some figure that He needed to go through Samaria in order to get out of the area in a hurry.  But Jesus is never pictured as being in a hurry.  Not when He was escaping from a murderous crowd in Nazareth (he WALKED through the crowd and simply “went on His way” – Luke 4:30); not when He was going to Jairus’ house to save his daughter from dying (He paused on His way, apparently for several minutes, to validate the healing of the woman who had touch Him and had been cured of her bleeding – Mark 5:24-34); not even when He was headed to Jerusalem to accomplish His mission of laying down His life for our sins (He stopped along the way to eat lunch at Zacchaeus’ house, and took time out to heal Bartimaeus.).  Jesus was never in a hurry because He always worked on God’s timetable, and at moved at God’s pace.  He was never late, He was never early, and He was always right where He needed to be at precisely the time He needed to be there.

I firmly believe that Jesus “had to go through Samaria” because that was exactly where His Father wanted Him to be.  And He arrived for His “divine appointment” right on time.

The place was a well, right outside the town of Sychar, the old Biblical Shechem.  Nearby was the tomb where Joseph’s bones were brought from Egypt and buried (Joshua 24:32).  It was about noon when He arrived, and He was tired from the long walk and the heat of the day.  And so He sent His disciples into Sychar to buy some food, sat in the shade, and waited patiently for a woman to arrive for a conversation that was going to rock her life.

Today too many of us pass our days without ever thinking that God might have something that He wants us to do.  And so we make our plans, and then hurry through meals, hurry through traffic, hurry through life, hoping to get everything on our lists checked off.

What would it be like if we were to sit with God first thing in the morning, and then several times during the day, and find out where HE wanted us to go; what HE wanted us to do?  The narrative of our day might include lines like, “Fred had to go to the park to eat lunch,” or “Jan had to go to the grocery store,” or “Katie had to take the bus to work instead of driving.”  And then would follow the story of the divine appointment that God had set up for us in those places; the story of God using us to bring the Kingdom of Heaven into contact with someone whose life will never be the same again.

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The Hinge

“The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all.  He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony.  The man who has accepted it has certified that God is truthful.  For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit.  The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.  Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”
John 3:31-36 (NIV)

There are several verses in the New Testament that speak very clearly about who Jesus really is, and this is one of them!  Commentators differ as to whether this is a continuation of Jesus statement to Nicodemus, or if it is John’s commentary on their meeting.  But it really doesn’t matter, because this paragraph paints a wondrously clear picture of Jesus that totally agrees with the picture painted by both Jesus and John throughout John’s gospel.

Jesus wasn’t just this guy.  People from His day onward have tried to make of Him a mere mortal – a human being just like the rest of us, who maybe had a more religious temperament, and who did some pretty amazing things, but who was still just a person.  To think or teach that Jesus was anything more than that is very controversial these days, and it makes a lot of people very uncomfortable.  As long as we can restrict Jesus to simple humanity, even if His humanity was extraordinary in some ways, we are much more comfortable.

But this passage tells us very clearly that, even though Jesus was in fact a genuine human being very much like us, He was at the same time infinitely more than that.  Jesus didn’t come from the earth, like we do.  He wasn’t simply the product of good genetics.  He came from above.  And because He came from above, He is above all (John’s code for “God”).  In a nutshell, John is telling us that Jesus is the boss.  What He says goes.  And He is the ultimate authority for all things God.  When He tells us about heaven, it’s not mere theological speculation on His part, just one opinion among the billions of opinions out there.  Instead, it is the truth spoken directly from the lips of someone for whom heaven is their hometown!

The sad fact is that even though Jesus knew first-hand what He was talking about when He shared with people the truths about God, and heaven, and sin, and hell, very, very few people were willing to accept what He was telling them.  Just like Nicodemus, they all showed a frustrating closedness to the truths that He was presenting to them; a seeming inability to understand what He was saying.  Part of that was because, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14 NIV)  Even Nicodemus and the teachers of Israel were spiritually dead, so many of the things that Jesus said, they found impossible to understand.

The key to understanding the amazing spiritual truths that Jesus taught hinges on Jesus Himself!  If we are willing to believe that He really is who He says He is (the Son of God in the flesh), that He really did what He said He came to do (to die to pay the price for our sins), then our spirits will suddenly come alive, and those great spiritual truths will start to come into focus.  If we reject Jesus, His person and His work, then we will never come close to understanding the things that He said, and we will end up experiencing God’s wrath instead of eternal life.

Jesus said in more than one place that we human beings are like sheep.  I have owned a couple of sheep, and I have to tell you that that’s not a compliment.  Sheep are not very smart.  They are shortsighted and impulsive, and can be very willful to boot, and those characteristics continually seem to land them in situations that the shepherd has to rescue them from.

Even though it’s not a very complimentary picture, it’s all too true of us.  Especially with regards to spiritual things, we are not very smart.  And so, Jesus made the key to the kingdom really simple, accessible to whoever really wants to come in:  Simply believe in Jesus.  When we are willing to believe wholeheartedly in the Messenger, the message will suddenly become crystal clear.

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Growing and Going Away

After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized.  Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were constantly coming to be baptized.  (This was before John was put in prison.)  An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing.  They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan–the one you testified about–well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
To this John replied, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.  You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’  The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.  He must become greater; I must become less.
John 3:22-30 (NIV)

It’s actually a pretty common story in corporate America:  The man that you trained for your company ends up getting promoted to a position above you.  The woman that you helped with a big project gets a bonus because of it, while you are overlooked.  In those kinds of situations it is understandable, maybe even human nature, to feel hurt and resentful.

But on the other end of the spectrum, we have John the baptizer.  Clear back in chapter 1 of this gospel John made it very clear to those who came to check him out that he was not the Messiah.  He was not Elijah descended from heaven.  He was not the foretold prophet.  Instead, he identified himself as merely a voice calling out, “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord.”

John’s role had been given to his father by the angel Gabriel even before he was born:  “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.  He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.  Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God.  And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous–to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:13-17 NIV)

John understood this role from the very beginning, and he fulfilled it, carrying out the command of the Lord to the very letter, never shirking his responsibility, and never seeking glory for himself.  In a very real sense, his only concern was that he was faithful in carrying out the job that God had given for him to do.  He knew that this job, preparing the way for the Messiah, turning the people’s hearts back to God so that they would be ready when He showed up, was a vital job.  But he also knew from the very beginning that he was no more than the opening act.  The real star of the show was Jesus, and John’s job was never to make a name for himself; it was just to get things ready for Him.

I love John’s final statement in this passage:  “He must become greater; I must become less.”  John understood that his part in the show was just about over.  He had opened the door for Jesus, and had announced Him as clearly as he could.  Now, as Jesus took center stage, it was time for John to fade into the wings.  I don’t know if John understood that the time was very near for him to actually depart from earth itself, but even if he did I don’t think that would have caused him a moments grief.  He had done his job, and had done it with his whole life.  When he arrived at God’s throne in heaven, he would expect to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21 NIV)

Even though twenty centuries have passed since John the Baptist came out of the wilderness to baptize and prepare people for the coming of Jesus, he is a great role model for us today.  Just like him, God actually has a calling for each and every one of His people, a role for each of us to play every day of our lives.  These days it is very common to talk about a calling for pastors, but the Bible knows nothing of this distinction between clergy and laity.  Instead, it tells us that each person in the body of Christ is expected to be an active part of His body.  Each person has a calling that God has placed on his or her life that He expects us to fulfill, whether our assigned role is to be an eye or an ear or a floating rib.  And our job is to listen for His call, and then devote all of our energy, our whole lives, to living it out.

Now some people may seem to have callings that are more important, or more attractive, or higher profile than ours; sometimes we may end up working in the background, doing the thankless jobs and without any public recognition for all of the giving of our time and energy.  But the recognition and the glamour are not the point of fulfilling God’s calling on our lives.  When John said, “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete,” he was telling us that, even though he never got top billing, and even though his job was being rapidly eclipsed by Jesus, serving God by being who we are supposed to be is the greatest joy imaginable.

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The Crossroad

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.  This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.  Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.  But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
John 3:17-21 (NIV)

The Jewish people believed that when the Messiah came, one of His main jobs would be to destroy the gentiles, and to exalt the nation of Israel to the heights that they had reached during the glory days of Solomon.  But Jesus the Messiah, when He did show up, clearly taught that that wasn’t the case.  And one of the main reasons for that NOT being one of His jobs was that God really doesn’t divide people up the way that we divide ourselves up!

In the Jewish worldview, the people of the earth were divided into two very unequal parts:  the much smaller part was the Jewish people; the other part was “the nations” (or, using the Latin word, “the gentiles”).  The general idea was that God had chosen the Jewish people for Himself, and had therefore rejected the gentiles.  Of course gentiles could convert, go through all the ceremonies to become Jewish, but if they didn’t then they were totally rejected by God, and He really had no use for them except to destroy them at some point in the future.

But the worldview that Jesus was painting here for Nicodemus was very different.  In this worldview, God actually loved the whole world (John 3:16), not just a small subset of humanity.  And, because of that love, He sent His one and only Son, not to condemn the vast majority of humanity, but to save them.  Far from wanting to destroy the people, He actually came to take their deserved destruction upon Himself, suffering the death and separation from God that they, both Jew and gentile, deserved for their rebellion against God.

The fly in the ointment, though, is a pesky little thing called “free will.”  God gave us free will clear back when He created Adam and Eve in His own image.  It is the part of us that makes us free moral agents, able to make decisions about what we will or will not do, and then fully responsible for the consequences of our actions.  Some people have wondered why God didn’t just make people so that they would automatically obey Him.  But imagine if you built a robot for yourself that, every hour on the hour would walk up to you and drone, “I love you!”  Wouldn’t that just warm your heart and make you feel good all over?  No, at least not for very long.  After a while, it would even get old, because you know that it’s not real.  The robot doesn’t really love you, it’s only doing what it was programmed to do.

It’s the same way with people.  The thing that makes obedience to God’s commands so special is that we could just as easily choose to NOT obey.  The downside of free will is that people can and often do choose to disobey God, to not love Him, to wander off into the far country.

Jesus taught that, at His coming, the people of the world were at a crossroads.  Light had come into the world, and the people of the world were going to end up essentially judging themselves based on their response to the light.  They could turn wholeheartedly to the light, in which case they would be saved; or they could turn away from Him, choosing to stay in the dark which cloaked their evil deeds, in which case they would end up condemning themselves to eternal separation from God.

The concept that God didn’t send Jesus to condemn the world, but to save the world is really good news!  Indeed, it is THE Good News of the Gospel.  But underneath this song of joy is a counter-melody in a minor key.  God understood from the very beginning that way too many people would choose to live in their own self-imposed darkness instead of coming into the light of life, and they would end up dooming themselves by their choice.  But that is most decidedly NOT what God wants.  2 Peter 3:9 (NIV) tells us, referring to the delay in Jesus’ return, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  That longing for everyone to come to repentance is the very heartbeat of God; the longing that moved Him to give His everything for us, so that we can ALL become His people.

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