Day 1- Humbled Together

The BeginningWhat is the classic conversion story regarding faith?  Is there such a thing?  Can it be run “by the numbers” like a formula?  In Christianity, there are patterns of surrender, but it is best not to see it through a mechanical lens.

An important factor is that Jesus never shamed anyone towards the surrender of conversion.  Shame does not work since it is sort of another flavor for fear and the scriptures teach us that, “perfect love pushes out fear” (1 John 4:12).  Shame and legalism complicate the search for Jesus in ways that take us from simplicity, or in other words, the basics of love.

There is a story I like about the famous American football coach Vince Lombardi.  His team lost a game once that he felt would not have got away from them if they had stayed rooted in the fundamentals of the game.  He then had the next several days full of drills that a high school foot ball team would do.  The re-rooting had to happen.  One can be refreshed on the mission by renewing their perspective of what started them on mission.  Love is the basics and at the heart of the mission.

Such was the case for Jesus the winter before the Cross.  He had been in Jerusalem twice in the last three months or so.  Shame and legalism were the themes of his adversaries and they rejected his love out of principle.

He went back across the Jordan to the place where John first baptized, and there he remained.  Many came to him and said, “John performed no sign, but everything John said about this man was true.” And many there began to believe in him (John 10:40-42).

The Jordan River was full of  the meaning of conversion for the Jewish people.  Just as Moses parted the Red Sea in leaving Egypt, Joshua parted the waters of the Jordan as the people of Israel entered the Promised Land.  It had been seen as a place of going from slavery to the full benefits of being children of promise.  Being children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob meant a context of covenant with God as a person.  To go from one level of relationship with God to a higher one is part of what covenant means.  It means more than “What I have is yours” but “I am yours”.  In the thoughts and feelings of Jesus one can imagine in this later stage of his public life something like nostalgia on how he began ministry before at the baptism by John.  That was where a model of Christian conversion began to be lived out and modeled in one fateful week in part by Jesus himself.

Three years before, the soil of John’s ministry was a prime place for Christ and the community he founded and would begin its foundation in an act and sign of repentance.  One could call the people being baptized as going to the “Church of John” in that with his baptism they were saying they loved God more than their sins and were ready for God’s kingdom to come in fulness. This was a hunger for God’s grace that they could come and receive while putting aside the dirt of the weary journey. The baptism of repentance is good in an admitted need for God.  It is like the 12 Step model in admitting that you have become powerless and cannot manage your life alone. It is even admitting your wrongs and their very nature.  Such admission is the beginning of wisdom but not conversion in fulness: a conversion of the heart.

For Christ and his followers, this had other contexts and those contexts were of fulfillment partly in experiencing the beginnings of the Church which Jesus would found.  Jesus was proclaimed by John to be the Lamb of God and baptizer in the Holy Spirit.  Some who saw him being baptized heard a voice in the baptism that this was the Son of God.  It was in this scene that some began to believe in him and among them two who would become apostles.

Of the pilgrims mentioned above, it is worth considering what they were thinking.  John said that Jesus must increase and he would decrease.  That was significant but still lacked something.  There were no stumbling blocks in the crowd in Jordan.  They had not heard the harder truths yet.  They also did not know what it would be like to have a continued relationship personally with Jesus in tandem with such hard truths.  Does that make their belief in Jesus meaningless?  Not necessarily.  It just means that they believed with obedience to the point that they could with what they knew.  But the call of the price of discipleship would come soon enough like it does to anyone who takes the daring step of seeing Jesus as more than just a nice guy to believe in a savior like hero.  The core message of Christianity is that Jesus is Lord.

One can look at the epistle to the Hebrews which speaks of the foundations of personal conversion, encountering God in His covenantal nature and eternal view.  Below is a general outline for salvation from ones conversion into eternity within in the context of community.

“Therefore, let us leave behind the basic teaching about Christ and advance to maturity, without laying the foundation all over again: repentance from dead works and faith in God, instruction about baptisms and laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. (Hebrews 6:2)

So what is it like to do those things in an experience that is ideal and clear?  One can see in other scenes in the gospels how a conversion to Jesus is murky with condemnation and cynicism.  What I will address next are ways Jesus can show up when the heart of the person is ready, the context is ideal and still have healthy skepticism come along for the ride.  With that in mind, I concentrate on the first 7 days  where Jesus sheds the garb of a carpenter and steps up in the public favor of the Father and models conversion for the world to follow.

To be clear on theology, Jesus was not a convert.  But Jesus made a point in these first days of going public to show what conversion looks like.  The unveiling of Jesus as the wisdom and power of God is not an enigma but a mystery that the humble can always at least get the gist of.  One such humble person was John son of Zechariah baptizing people along the Jordan River.  To a great extent, if one gets his lens, one greatly gets who Jesus is and offers.  It is that Jesus atones for the sins of the world.  Even the worst.

  In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea [and] saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” …… At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. (Matthew 3:1,5).

Repent- A wise man with a dramatic addiction recovery story said that if he meets someone like he used to be that has a history of bad character and cannot describe their own turning point then he hesitates to trust them.  Conversion is a choice and is a turning point.

the kingdom of heaven is at hand!–  Conversion is towards a constant relationship that it rooted in heaven.  It is not about politics, culture or any other schemas that humans conjure up.  God is above the fray and his purest state of kingdom starts and ends in heaven but can be grasped on earth.

baptized by him…. as they acknowledged their sins-  Conversion is a redemption process and is meant for a healthy community context.  The call to Christ, is a call to community.  It is no surprise that in many early Christian communities the norm was for some to stand up to confess sins and receive the grace of the forgiveness in the name of Christ at a church meeting.  Even looking at today in 12 Step meetings there is a confessional quality as someone says “I am…..and I am a(n)…. “  While 12 Step is an honest program, Christianity is more than that.

To know the call of Jesus is to have the norm of knowing that call from honesty into change.  In that, we can all be works in progress. Such is the beauty of the Savior’s work on all who seek him in a community of loved sinners coming out of the shame of our failings.  We are all hungry for that even if we do not know it.

Mary–Warrior Queen (Forget Xena)

Annunciation

It takes two perfect people to have the perfect relationship. Some spouses will compliment the other one saying that the other person’s perfection makes it happen.  That sounds sweet, but it is not entirely accurate when humanity is involved but not so if one is divine.   But if one is divine and changes the setting for the human involved then the whole dynamic is different.

Such is the case in the Bible when one comes to Mary.  Here we see the most perfect collaboration between the infinite God, through an angel, and a finite, specially touched human.  She was specifically a young woman in an age where women were not highly esteemed.  But in relationship to God, she is empowered in a faith journey that is not for cowards of either gender.

There is another part to the historical backdrop in the Bible before getting to Mary: unfaithfulness.  God’s people in the Old Testament were described as unfaithful but struggled righteously and unrighteously.  God starts things anew with someone in Mary that had a context of being faithful to God and called to be on the offense.

  “And he [Gabriel] came to her and said, ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.  And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”(Luke 1:27-33).

Hail [Rejoice]— The “Hail” is not a casual “hi”.  If one looks at the correspondence of the first century between highly esteemed officials, this word is used only to someone of notable, royal distinction.  Mary had that going on as one set aside by the King of the Universe for a special station in life.

Yet from an Old Testament perspective there is a Zion, or Davidic dynasty, connection.  The following verse from Pope Benedict XVI is pointed out also with that same greek word, “Rejoice, daughter of Zion; shout, Israel…the king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst” (Zephaniah 14-17).  Pope Benedict also states, “The essential reason for the daughter of Zion to rejoice is stated in the text itself; ‘the Lord is in your midst’.  Literally it says: ‘he is in your womb’ (Pope Benedixt XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives).  What is being heralded in just that word alone is like a shorthand for God’s kingdom to come—- and is coming now.

Full of Grace—  The original Greek is Kecharitomene, the perfect passive participle, shows a “completeness with a permanent result. Kecharitomene denotes continuance of a completed action” (H. W. Smyth, Greek Grammar [Harvard Univ Press, 1968], p. 108-109, sec 1852:b; also Blass and DeBrunner, p. 175).  Or, as I have seen in my journey into the Catholic Church, she was too full of grace to have room for anything else.  Therefore, to me, she stands as the perfect prototype as the Theortokos (God-bearer) for what the Bride of Christ is supposed to be.  The words I have commenting on here and others to come in the infancy era of Jesus indicated she was without sin.  The Early Church Fathers were unanimous on this point.

So here we have royalty for a grand scale and grace with even grander ramifications all set for an expanding influence as demonstrated by—-

The Lord is with you…she was greatly troubled—-  This is not a goose bump phrase. This phrase in the Old Testament was for servants of God like Moses, Joshua and David who would go into the land promised to them by covenant.  They were used by God for natural warfare for that level of revelation.  Mary was to be used, launched by covenant, to expand God’s influence through a spiritual warfare but at that moment she did not know that.  She just knew that this greeting indicated a level and form of influence beyond what she would think was her humble state in life could handle.  So there was some fear there.

Do not be afraid, Mary… you have found favor with God. — Mary was full of grace but Gabriel elaborated that God’s favor for her and her mission was for that grace to overflow by the direct hand of God with one undeniable fact—  the source and summit of the grace and favor for her was external to her in God.

Gabriel— then gives her a micro-blueprint of the gospel and what church is supposed to be like.

you will conceive—  as the angel unfold’s God’s plan for her life there is a connection to the Incarnation.

you shall call his name Jesus—- Jesus means “God saves”.   The Incarnation means salvation is some way yet to be revealed.

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High;—-  Here is the framework in that it will be in the pattern of David as the throne is from David.

and of his kingdom there will be no end——  The declaration of God Incarnate and being savior of the world happens within a framework of a kingdom that has no end and thus a continuation.

On the devotional side, how can a modern person relate to these lofty subjects?  Well, we know through the rest of the story that Mary cooperated with a kingdom that is personal, holistic, authoritative and beyond our early lives.  These are ways that God initiates to us for full participation.  But in some ways our calling is not as good as Mary’s in that moment.  She was to carry God in her womb.  If we respond in the same humility to the gospel of the kingdom, we carry Jesus in our hearts. Could that be better?  Could that be possible?  What’s stopping you?

The Narrow Gate And Finding Life

narrowgate

My terms versus other’s terms.  Interesting contest and at a primal level I am drawn to root for the former and not the latter in my relationship with anyone or anything in my point of contact. Being a tourist can be a good case in point.

For the first time in almost thirty years I went to Disneyland this year and was struck by the gate I had to go through.  They searched my bags to make sure I brought no outside food so I could be a consumer of their products on their terms.  They also had to have an eye on weapons so I could not be a danger.  Part of the price of admission with some of it being because of 19 men on planes one Tuesday morning in America.

But what about the vendors?  They would not have to go through that checkpoint.  They could go through a vendor gate and not be under the same standard because they would be going in as an equal to a great extent.  Their gate would be wide and works as a metaphor for the relationship being more open.

As Jesus drew closer to closing the famous Sermon on The Mount, He addresses this in part on how the hearer sees themselves before God but also in respect to how one sees themselves in the spiritual environment that Jesus declaring: the Kingdom of Heaven.

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few (Matthew 7:13-14).

This isn’t Disneyland.  It’s more expensive.  For a small family you could be looking in the thousands of dollars.  To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be formed away from a selfish agenda and the following citations will illustrate that point.

From the Ignatius Study Bible we see the gate explained as, “…smaller gates permitted only pedestrian traffic [as opposed to “caravans of people and animals]” (Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch).  Ignatius goes on to note that “The Jerusalem Temple had a series of gates that prohibited entry for the unqualified;only a privileged few had close access to God”.

So the themes in the background is that for a narrow gate coming into a fortified city one needs to be a pedestrian who is not an equal vendor to it and baggage would need to be left behind.  From the temple one is is not encumbered and is elite after going through many steps.

the road broad that leads to destruction—- This is important because if one tries to be an equal with God things do not turn out so well.  Insisting that our baggage of what is contraband should follow a life of holiness is presumptuous and wrong.  Typical things that qualify would be anything that opposes God’s ways.  If one wants a hint I suggest looking at my prior blogs through this series of Sermon On The Mount or just reading the verses and prayerfully considering what they say.

How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life.—- At this risk of over-repeating myself, “When is a train most free?  On it’s tracks”.  This is to say that we are made for  structure and to deny that structure is like tipping a train on its side and calling it “free”.  They way to life is very structured and very personal.  Society would be well informed to consider this when hearing, “I am spiritual but not religious”.  This could be translated from BS-ese to “I like fiery judgment with ketchup on top!”

And those who find it are few— Jesus is not being a downer.  Yes it is rare for someone, of their own initiative, to seek out the message of Jesus in some way.  But it does not end there.

Saul of Tarsus does not seek out Jesus but Jesus finds him, blinds him and calls him to be in the same side that he persecuted.  Life of the true kind in God finds us.  God expressed in Jesus of Nazareth indeed is the definition of life.

But if one is partly to very informed of what it is to follow Jesus then who finds who?  It does not have to be one or the other with everybody.  The encounter with life can be you on the path or Jesus reaching to you in varying proportions.  In that sense there is a beauty in the mystery of the gospel being applied to ones life.  What is not a mystery in this passage is that to follow Jesus is about surrender in place of a meeting of equals.

What is stopping us? Pet ideologies?  Rejection from loved ones?  General pride?  It is not worth it.  Following Jesus can cost us everything but it is worth the price.