Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Zits and All

It's easy for us to believe, at times, that we're alone in the world, that no one really understands us.  Most teenagers go through this; their thinking begins to mature, they start having different ideas than their parents and the result is often the feeling of being the only one who thinks like they do.

Guess what:  God knows this too, and he has already solved it!  Remember when the Son "became human and made his home among us" (John 1:14)?  The Orthodox Study Bible puts it this way:  "Most of us ask ourselves at one time or another, 'Does anyone else in all the world understand me?'  The Incarnation -- the 'enfleshment' of the Son of God answers that question once and for all -- with a resounding Yes!" 

Jesus, the Son of God in human flesh, had to go through learning to walk and talk, learning to read and write, relating to other kids and to adults, and learning his true path in life.  He went through adolescence (did he have zits?) and learning a trade with his stepfather, Joseph; and suffered through the same "nobody understands me" that we do -- only on a more massive scale!  After all, nobody was really going to believe he was the Son of God (at least not in his own neighborhood; see Luke 4:20-30).

He did more than that.  He experienced rejection, bullying, and unfair accusations.  In fact, he took on every form of pain, in one way or another, that we experience.  He was tempted by every human temptation, yet he never gave in to sin. And his whole nation rejected him.  Even his disciples deserted him (Matt. 26:56).  In Isaiah 53, the prophet tells the story of the "Suffering Servant" who was to come:  "He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief...it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down...he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins.  He was beaten so we could be whole."  That was Jesus. 

Jesus understands.  When nobody else understands, Jesus understands.  Because he does, the Father understands.  And the Father has completely accepted us -- zits and all -- because of how his Son came to be with us, lived perfectly for us, and then gave himself a perfect sacrifice for all our anger, doubt, fear, lust, envy and every other sin we've ever committed.  Every one of our sins is wiped away because of the blood of Jesus, and we're given a whole new life because he was resurrected from death.  Jesus understands the struggles we go through every day to follow him, and he accepts us as his brothers and sisters -- zits and all. 

Have you surrendered your whole life to him?  If not, isn't it about time you did? 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The King Is Coming!

(Note:  For serial readers of this blog, we're taking a brief break from "Understanding God" in order to address themes found in what's commonly called the Easter season.  We'll resume the series in two weeks.)

It's no secret in any of the four Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) that Jesus knew he was the Son of God and Son of Man.  And he knew he was going to be rejected and then killed by his own people -- like Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob, had been betrayed and sold into slavery by his brothers (Genesis 37 tells that story).  Jesus' focus on Jerusalem for that final conflict begins in chapter 9 (of 24 chapters) in Luke's Gospel, and Luke selected and recorded each of the events, parables and sayings from chapter 9 to chapter 22 to create that context.  (Try reading those chapters in that light, and see what you learn.)

Many different themes are inter-woven here.  One is the political climate of a Jewish nation conquered by a foreign power and hungry for freedom, so they look for a political savior to set them free.  Another is the climate of major groups (Pharisees and Saducees, primarily) teaching the populace how to obey the word of God but largely missing the point, and polluting their teaching by their hypocrisy.  A third is the poverty and discouragement of the general populace, oppressed by both the Roman overlords and the religious establishment, and hoping for the long-promised Messiah will come and provide food, healing and freedom for them. A fourth theme is how Jesus responds to each of these realities and how the people react to him in return. 

In Luke 19:28-48, the story of Jesus' "Triumphal Entry" as it's called, shows several of these themes.  The people showed they were expecting a king (verse 38, taken from Psalm 118:26).  But rather than entering as a conquering political king on a big war horse with trumpets and heralds, he rode in on a young donkey, humbly, accepting the praise of the people even though they were mistaken in why they acclaimed him.  Jesus tells the Pharisees not to be jealous (verses 39-40) and then weeps over the condition of Jerusalem, expressing his sorrow over their spiritual blindness and stubbornness (verses 41-44).  Finally, he faces the hypocrisy of the temple rulers who put barriers in front of the worshippers for their own benefit, and clears the place out, symbolically making way for his own perfect sacrifice to come in a few days. 

Today, let's ask ourselves, in humility:  which of these people do we most resemble?  Are we political Christians who want to take over our country with a religious agenda and throw unbelievers from power?  Do we think we have all the spiritual answers, and look down our noses at those who disagree with us?  Do we think that Christianity is a way to get ahead financially, and that being a member of a church will solve our problems (or that the church is supposed to provide for us)? 

Or, do we more closely resemble Jesus?  He came to die so we can have life, and our response to him is that we should "live for him and not for (our)selves" (2 Cor. 5:14-15).  His humility and self-sacrifice show us the way to follow him by serving him and others.  Today, let's resolve to consciously follow Jesus by looking at the needs of others above our own, thinking of others more than ourselves, and instead of speaking only of our own wants, humbly asking him for his words of comfort and peace to others.  Which will you do today?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Understanding God, Part 4: Joseph

The book of Genesis is written, first of all, to the Israelite nation coming out of Egypt, explaining their origins. The stories of their ancestors, the genealogies and the soap-opera lives they all led, had lessons galore for Israel if they would listen.  But when we try to learn also, the problem is that we speak a different language and live in a different culture, so we don't always get it.  Let's look at the birth of Joseph today for an example of hidden lessons in the words and stories that point, in one way or another, to our Savior Jesus.

Joseph's mother, Rachel, is loved by her husband, Jacob, more than he loves his first wife -- who is also Rachel's older sister Leah.  Leah bears four sons in a row while Rachel can't have children.  (Lots more soap-opera drama occurs in the story, including both women trying to gain more children by having Jacob sleep with their female slaves.)  An immediate lesson here for the Israelites was not to be petty and jealous like their ancestors, although of course they were anyway.  God shows favor to Leah, who is rejected by her husband, by giving her sons including Judah (King David's ancestor, and thus Jesus' forefather) and Levi (the tribe of priests of Israel). 

Rachel and Leah keep trying to manipulate their husband in order to have more children, so that each can have the advantage over the other -- in that culture, a woman's ability to give children, especially sons, to her husband was the main source of her honor.  Finally, however, God gives Rachel a son, Joseph, by His favor and not because of her manipulation and jealousy.  Should this tell us something about trusting God to provide for us, instead of trying to make things happen by force?  Hmmm...

Look also at the words Rachel uses in Genesis 30:23-24, describing her son Joseph: "God has removed my disgrace...May the LORD add yet another son."  The Hebrew word for "removed" is 'asaph' and the word for "add" is 'yoseph' which is the same as the name "Yoseph".  So there are some literary puns going on that the English translation doesn't give us. 

One additional lesson is possible here.  Jesus, the Son of God in the flesh, was born by God's divine action to Mary, a descendent of King David.  His birth was by God's favor to Mary (Luke 1:30) as Joseph's was to Rachel.  Jesus came to take away all sin (2 Cor. 5:14-19), not just the shame of having no children but the shame we receive by turning away from God and trying to manipulate life into giving us what we want.  In Christ, God has "removed" all the bad and "added" to us all we need:  "By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence." (2 Peter 1:3, in the context of God's gifts to us through his Son Jesus).   And through Jesus, God has "added" many more children to Himself.

I've tried to make life come out my way, by my own hard work and by manipulating others.  Have you?  Today, let's decide to turn our backs on jealousy, self-will and controlling others; and rest instead in God's perfect provision for us, in his own time and way.  We'll be surprised by how well it turns out!