Blessed are the offensive, for they are like Jesus.

Maybe Jesus really is the One.  If he is, John the Baptist needs to know.

Sitting in prison (see Luke 7), it became John’s driving question.  Is this guy the one?  Either he is and is worth dying for, or he is a lunatic in which case we need to keep looking. Maybe find someone who ticks off fewer people.  John sends a few of his students to Jesus to ask the question.  Before anyone gets further down the road, they need fresh assurances.

Those disciples of John find Jesus and ask him who exactly he is and he says, “You tell John this. You tell him the blind see, the lame walk, people are hearing good news about the Kingdom of God for a change, and it is downright scandalous. And God bless the ones who are not offended by that.”

I love Jesus for that response. There he was, standing in the middle of a marketplace healing people and talking to people and loving people. And the whole time, he gets it that healing and preaching and doing the work of the Kingdom is probably offending more people than it is attracting. Jesus gets the irrationality of that. He gets the danger of it. Jesus gets the weirdness of it. Of how easy it is to heal someone and offend someone in the same breath. Maybe even the same person.

Jesus gets that sometimes people will do their very best and will give their all and will pour out their hearts and will still offend someone. Will offend someone they had no idea they were offending. Will offend someone they don’t even know … period. Because good news isn’t good for those who would rather not be whole.

Jesus gets it that in this life, there will be offense taken and hot air blown and houses battered. There will be battles fought in spiritual places and mean spirits coming after us, who plan to huff and puff and blow us down. You’d better have a strong foundation, Jesus says. You’d better make sure you dig down deep and build your house on the rock. Otherwise, you’ll be blown away by all those offended spirits.

Blessed is the one who is not offended by that. The odd one. The rare one. The crazy one.

And I want to thank Jesus for all the ways he so beautifully speaks directly into my life, just by the way he lived his. I want to thank him for all the things he gives me permission to feel and say and live. Thank you, Jesus, for telling me before I needed to know it that sometimes I will offend people just like you did. And that it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m offensive … at least not every time. It might simply mean that — like you — I unlatched a Kingdom gate when someone wasn’t ready to walk through it.

Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.

Blessed is Jesus. What a friend.

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Thank you, Jesus.

“The word became flesh,” John wrote, “and lived among us and we beheld his glory.”

God — perfect in every detail — decided to be normal and called it glorious. He gave himself the powerlessness of an infant. He needed diapers. And milk. And comfort. He cried.

(Never mind what the Christmas carol says: “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”  Its a sweet thought, but really? Of course he cried! That was his glory — that he was willing to experience fully what we know as life.)

He had birthdays and good days and sick days and down days. He did boy things, like wrestle and throw rocks and run. He laughed and cried and got angry and tired and hungry. He made friends. And when he grew up, he looked like a man and acted like a man … so completely … that almost nobody knew he was God. John the Baptist had to point him out to us. He looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold!  The Lamb of God!”

And even then, no one took that seriously. Or almost no one.

For the sake of Jesus being everything God intended, he set aside all the authority of a god and  experienced the world he created by becoming small enough to walk through it. The one thing that transferred from heaven to earth was love. Jesus loved people the way only God can.

He took on our limitations so he could experience pain as we do and show us how to be unafraid of it. Love came down to walk with us through our worst, to grieve our limits and weaknesses with us so he could restore our stories.

At just the right time, the Bible says the Word became flesh. And in light of that grace-soaked truth, the only holiday greeting that makes sense is, “Thank you.”

Safiyah Fosua, who has a book of meditations called Mother Wit has a wonderful bit about this idea of God with us:

“What must it have been like, Jesus, to leave your home in glory to come to a place like this? … What must it have been like, Jesus, to limit yourself to flesh? After being Spirit for all of that time, how did it feel to hunger, to weep, to plead, to bleed? You walked up and down dusty roads, slept on the ground, and prayed all night long for me. I thank you for tasting a multitude of miseries so that you could really understand my petty moans and complaints.

“Thank you, Jesus, for enduring a family that often did not understand you, and for enduring the rejection of hometowns. I even thank you for letting them call you crazy! Now, I don’t feel so alone. Lord, thank you for loving Peter, and reclaiming Mary of Magdalene. In them I am reassured of your love for me. Thank you for opening eyes that had been sightless, and for restoring the sick to their families. Thank you for raising dead folks like me. Thank you, Jesus, for coming to us on that first Christmas morning.”

For showing us how to overcome … thank you, Jesus.

For being the perfect servant of God … thank you, Jesus.

For bringing justice to the nations … thank you, Jesus.

For being a visible sign of God’s grace … thank you, Jesus.

For being our hope … thank you, Jesus.

For being God’s promise for the people … thank you, Jesus.

For being a light in this dark world … thank you, Jesus.

For being King of Kings and Lord of Lords … thank you, Jesus.

Thank you.

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Brokering Hope in a Barren World

“Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.” Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! 20 But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born.” – Luke 1:18-20

I just love Gabriel’s grittiness. I love his righteous indignation, and even the hint of impatience with Zechariah’s inability to see beyond the room in which he stands. Gabriel does not appreciate being questioned. You hear echoes in his response of God’s conversation with Job. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much.” Evidently, citizens of the Kingdom do not suffer ignorance or short memories well.

Do you realize who you are talking to? I am Gabriel! I have announced some of the greatest cosmic moves in the history of the world. And now you are going to doubt me? Just who do you think you are?

A good question, because Zechariah is a priest. He should know better. He surely knows the scriptures well enough to have detected a theme of barrenness and late-life births as one of the more prominent themes. God has used barrenness over and over to hint at great reversals designed to move his cosmic plan forward.

Consider these:

  • Sarah was nearly 100 before she had a child.
  • Rebekah was barren until Isaac prayed.
  • Rachel, Jacob’s wife, was was described as barren until she finally had Joseph, who delivered Israel from the barrenness of a famine.
  • Manoah’s wife was barren until she had Samson, who delivered Israel.
  • Ruth, Boaz’s wife, was barren (widowed) until she had Obed, who begat Jesse, who begat David who was the king out of whose lineage Jesus would come.
  • Then there was Moses, who was barren of speech. And the Shunnamite woman who had no oil or food.

And then there was Hannah. Her husband was Elkanah and he had two wives. Hannah was his favorite but she had no children, and it was killing her. She cried out to God in her despair. She wrestled with God over this. She hated her situation. But she hung in there with God. She refused to let go of him. Eventually God gave her the desire of her heart. She had a child named Samuel who would grow up to become the prophet-priest who would anoint Saul to be king. Saul would raise up David in his household and David would eventually become king. Out of his lineage the Messiah would be born.

Hannah’s hope became Israel’s salvation.

In God’s economy, barrenness always points toward hope. Barren people who bear children are breeders of hope. Barren people who wait prove the power of hope. Barren people who never conceive prove that God is faithful even in the deserts. By their willingness to hang in there with God, never mind the circumstances, they prove there is life in the desert … purpose in the desert.

Even more, barrenness has the potential to reframe our hunger so that it leads toward something other-worldly.

I am part of a group walking through the book of Revelation and this week, we spent time white-boarding everything the final chapters of Revelation teach us about the character of Heaven. We listed the kinds of things we love most, along with the awe and wonder of John’s vision. It stoked our yearnings and led us back to barrenness. What if one of the purposes of barrenness is to show us how to hunger for something we can never realize in this life?

What if barrenness can be redeemed by being reframed?

Those who have suffered the deep, aching loss of life without children, or the deep, aching loss of a child taken too soon from this life, may know better than most how to hunger deeply for something we won’t see this side of Heaven. Others of us may have children but still suffer from unfulfilled dreams, lost loves, thorns in the flesh we can’t fix. What if the redeemed purpose of those deep longings and unfulfilled dreams is to stretch us more earnestly toward the Kingdom of God, where all pain and tears have ceased, where all longings are finally, fully realized?

What if barrenness is redeemed when the hunger it produces is refocused on Heaven?

Isaiah seems to hint at this idea when he writes, “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy …” Paul picks up on this line from the prophet when he talks about the “Jerusalem Above” and our place in God’s family as children of the promise. There is certainly the sense in the biblical narrative that hungers can become holy when they turn toward the Kingdom.

If John’s charge was “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” then perhaps this is the substance of readiness: to become so hungry, so thirsty, so moved by the thought of the Kingdom to come that nothing short of that can possibly satisfy us.

Nothing.

As Advent begins, we are in the position again of making ready a people prepared for the next coming of our Lord. Remember that. Our work is to side with those waiting to catch a break, with those frustrated by unfulfilled dreams, with those grieving losses, and to cast among them an imagination that reframes their hungers so that the Kingdom is exposed, so that the second coming becomes their passion.

This is the work of the Church at Advent. It is to become what Carl Medearis calls a “hope broker.”

In your writing, preaching, living, testifying, may you so expose the hope found in Christ Jesus that those on this side of Heaven can’t help but yearn past the temporal toward the eternal.

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Violence in the Kingdom of God

From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. – Jesus (Matthew 11:12)

Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God all the time. He seemed always to be trying to get his people to see it, to grasp what it means to live in the Kingdom and have the Kingdom living within us.

In the verse above, he uses a Greek word for “violence” that can have one of two meanings, depending on how you use it. The word is biazetai. In this version, it is translated “suffered violence.”

From the time of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.

That’s one possible translation but there are other possibilities. Another valid option is this: “From the time of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing,” or “has been forcing its way in” while violent people take it by force.

So we’ve got two options here, depending on which voice we use (active or passive). Which is it? Is the Kingdom of God suffering passively, enduring the violence of a non-believing world until the day when it finally conquers? Or is the Kingdom of God actively, forcefully advancing — pushing through, refusing to take no for an answer, refusing to be laid aside by people who are surprised by the way it looks?

Refusing to be distracted by … us?

Which is it? Is the Kingdom of God suffering violence or forcefully advancing?

Tim Tennent says the answer is yes. It is both. The Kingdom of Heaven suffers the violence of people who don’t get who Jesus really is. The Kingdom suffers the violence of laziness, the violence of unbelief, of hard hearts and broken hearts. The Kingdom suffers the violence of the dark.

But the Kingdom never quits coming. It never gives up, never gives in, never lets go, never loses sight of the work. If you want to understand how the Kingdom of God forcefully advances, start with what Jesus told John’s followers in that same chapter of Matthew: The blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the possessed are set free and the good news is preached to the poor.

And people will be offended by that (some violently so), but blessed are the ones who aren’t.

That’s why John and his followers were asking questions. Because this isn’t what they expected. They — and we — want force to look like force. We want Jesus to kick butts and take names. But instead, a kingdom forcefully advancing looks more like normal people bringing good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming freedom to the captives, opening the prisons of those who are bound.

This is how the Kingdom comes. It comes in the willingness of God to make room and time for the gentle practice of caring for souls so that no one is left behind. It is one person handing a cup of cold water to someone else.

That’s the force of it, and for a lot of people, that’s an offense because it isn’t what we expect. But that, Jesus seems to say in Matthew 11, is how its done.

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God Heals Dis-grace.

I love the way Chonda Pierce teaches the creation story. She talks about how, in the story of Adam and Eve — before they sinned or ever talked to that serpent — the Bible says they were naked and unashamed. There was no sense of judgment or condemnation. No fear of rejection. No shame. Then came the temptation of Satan to be something they were not, and then that terrible fall from grace. That’s the moment a human first saw himself — herself — as somehow not good enough. That’s why they put clothes on. Shame compelled them to hide behind something.

It must have broken the Father’s heart to see his beautiful children experience such shame.

Dis-grace.

God came looking for them and since they were covered, he asked, “Where are you?” They answered, “We were afraid because we were naked, and so we hid ourselves.” God said (and you can just hear the grief in the question), “Who told you that you were naked? Who told you that you had something to be ashamed of? Who spoke that word into your life? Because that word is a lie.”

Don’t move too quickly past this truth: shame causes us to hide things. Shame sends us to dark places.

Shame is a lie.

Shame is the very word our Jesus has come to heal. He came to heal that word of dis-grace, thatdisgrace-and-grace2 lie that someone along the way has spoken into our lives to make us feel ashamed. The lie that because you are childless you are second-class or because you are broke, you’re worthless. It is the lie that makes us make a lot of money when it doesn’t come naturally to us to do so. It is the lie that leaves us tethered to jobs we don’t like, and relationships that aren’t healthy, and addictions that choke the life out of us. It is the lie that makes us expect too much of our kids, while we shrink back when we look in the mirror because we’re not who we think we ought to be.

Dis-grace.

God came to heal that. When John the Baptist’s father doubted God’s ability to give him a child, an angel indignantly struck him mute for a few months. “Take time to think about what you’re saying, Priest,” the angel seemed to say. So Zechariah did. In that season of silence, he contemplated the nature of a God who would both send a Redeemer and strike a man mute. When his son was finally born and Zechariah directed them to name him John — “God is full of grace” — he got his voice back.

Grace is the word that gives us our voice. It is the assurance that it is God’s work, not ours. God’s work, God’s word, God’s redemption, God’s plan, God’s grace.

In Christ, God has come to heal our dis-grace, and in him there is no shame at all. Hallelujah.

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