Jesus changes everything.

Think about the impact of one child’s birth in Bethlehem on the world we live in today. It is stunning to remember just how radically that one life has altered human history.

Jesus’ take on the value of life changed how we value children. Google “Jesus and children” and you’ll find a menu of articles, some of them claiming that Jesus basically invented children, in the sense that he defined them as people of worth. Before the culture of Christ permeated the Roman world, children were considered property, not people. They were used as slaves, often for sex, and infants were left on the street to die. Baby girls were left more often which meant more boys than girls, which meant more tension among adults and more abuse of women. When Jesus gave children value, the paradigm shift was global. And to think God did it by sending a baby, so we could no longer question what God really thinks about children and about the value of life.

Let’s talk about women. Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This was a radical statement, and it flowed out of Jesus’ own treatment of women. He made sure there was a place for them in the story of God. Women were with the disciples as they traveled. Women funded ministry. Women were last at the cross, first at the tomb and first to be told to go and tell the others. Jesus offered a paradigm that values women, children, the poor, the oppressed, the ones who never knew they had the favor of God. That changed everything.

And that changed education. Here’s what happens when people start thinking of other people as people. The next step is an improvement in basic human rights, beginning with education. One of the most radical social statements of Paul was his permission he gave women to learn (1 Timothy 2;11). It meant admitting that women had potential beyond their ability to bear children. And as Christianity progressed, schools became part of the Great Commission. Some of the finest academic institutions in the world were begun by Christians. Literacy is a Christian value. Global literacy was introduced with the movable press, and the first book printed on the Gutenberg press? The Bible.

Christianity opened us up to love. Jesus gave us a charge to love the hard ones — those who are sick and in prison and those who are poor. We’re told over and over in the Bible to make room in our hearts and lives for widows and orphans. This led to the development of what we now call hospitals. One of the early Councils of church leaders (the Council of Nyssa) made it a standard that every church should be attached to a place that cares for sick and poor people.

Jesus made humility and forgiveness cool. Philippians 2 explains the crucifixion and its value of humility in such clear terms. He humbled himself even unto death as a way of serving humanity and that personality trait changed the way a hierarchical world valued humility as a virtue. Conan the Barbarian was once famously asked, “What is best in life?” This was his answer: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.” In contrast, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43). Hannah Arendt, a professor at Princeton, goes so far as to say that, “The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth.” That is quite a claim.

Jesus changed the way we value people. The hymn Amazing Grace was written by John Newton, a slave trader who became a Christian as a result of a miracle on his ship. He continued to trade in slaves for years after his conversion but eventually God changed his heart, and he wrote a scathing pamphlet read by every member of the British Parliament, entitled, “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade.” He said, “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” It was a Christian emperor who banned gladiator fights, and it has been Christian missionaries who have helped humans end the practice of cannibalism.

Christians have made some of the most profound scientific discoveries. One of the biggest misconceptions of our faith that somehow science and Christianity stand in opposition to each other, when in fact, Christianity promotes the idea of a rational God as Intelligent Designer. We consider our God the inventor of the scientific laws discovered by Christian scientists — Galileo, Keppler, Boyle, Pascal, Pasteur, Newton, Schaeffer. Stanley Jaki was a physicist who famously developed the theory that, “modern scientific inquiry cannot only exist alongside religion, but that modern science only could have arisen within a Christian society.” Francis Bacon said he practiced science as a way to learn more about God. He wrote, “A little philosophy inclines man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy brings men’s minds about to religion.”

What Christians believe has fundamentally changed the course of human history. The change was in process with the Jewish people, but Jesus — the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — changed everything. And because of that, our day to day circumstances are not the ground of our hope. The only circumstances in which we can place hope are the circumstances surrounding the birth, death & resurrection of Jesus, and on our acceptance of those circumstances. If we place our hope in anything else, we set ourselves up for disappointment.

This is the message of Christmas. It is a message to the world that our Messiah has come and his coming changes everything at the most basic level. This baby changes my value, changes my capacity for forgiveness, changes my personality, changes my potential for understanding the world around me. This Son of God has chosen to reside in my heart, and in the hearts of all who invite him, and claiming that as my hope … changes everything.

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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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Why Christmas Is Worth It

At our downtown ministry this week, I watched a precious soul rock an invisible baby while “Away in a Manger” was being sung and I was overwhelmed by the values of God and his preference for the poor.

It is completely antithetical to our human nature to seek after and invest in the hidden places where the poorest of the poor live and yet this is the very heart of God. He refuses to forget the ones forgotten by the world: the almost-hermit with decades-old depression, the woman who rocks an imaginary baby, the mentally ill one who changed names two or three times in the course of an evening, the one who celebrated her approval for section-eight housing as if it were good news to be poor enough to need rental assistance.

Jesus doesn’t forget them.

In fact, he looks for the ones who look like him and the prophet tells me, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Which means we are left to learn how to love the unattractive, to desire the company of the undesirable. We are also left to wrestle with an uncomfortable truth: To enter into the heart of Jesus is to submit to hidden, unglamorous work.

When Isaiah was deep into the work of penning a weighty bit of prophecy about the coming Messiah, he took time to describe how this Redeemer would deal with people. He said He would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick.

Glenn Penton writes about this. In the days of Isaiah, shepherds would pass the time out in the fields by making a simple flute out of a reed. It was something to do, but also a kind of protection. They’d play it at night to let predators know that the sheep were not alone out there. But a reed flute being played by a boy-shepherd is not going to last long. It gets bent, stepped on, bruised.
Rather than trying to save a broken flute, the shepherd would toss it and make a new one. Same with their candles. They’d make cheap candles by floating a piece of flax in oil. Flax makes a great flame but when the oil gets low, the flax falls over into the oil and then you just get smoke. It is easier to make a new candle than to fish out a smoldering flax and repair it.

God told Isaiah we would know the Messiah by the way he treats the broken reeds and damaged wicks — the ones with personality disorders and bi-polar conditions and divorce and addiction and poverty. From the world’s perspective, reeds and wicks are disposable. “Toss these, and get new ones.” That is the world’s take on those who are banged up, stepped on, bruised, face down and smoldering.

Not so in the Kingdom of God. The true Messiah sees hope in even the most hopeless souls and by His power makes all things new. He specializes in the reclamation of bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. He makes things and people work again.

And this is what makes Christmas worth doing. Because at its core, it is so much more than warm feelings, family dinners and big gifts. Christmas is God stepping in when all hope seems lost to rescue the ones the world would just as soon give up on.

Lest I sound more holy than I am, I have to admit that this fact grates against all my unholy ambitions. It is also the very source of my sanctification. God has told me the path to righteousness. It is to love justice, do mercy, walk humbly … to fall in love with the people who break his heart. He wants my work to bear his image. This is tough spiritual work for ambitious people but it turns out to be the only option if his heart is my hope.

This is the only path that makes the anxiety and busy-ness of Christmas worth the trouble. So I pray for you and me both that in this season, we will learn what it really means to embody the very heart of Christ, to do the hidden work of incarnational ministry, to allow ourselves nothing less than that which builds the Kingdom on earth.

 

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Jesus is a friend of sinners (and Jesus is a friend of mine).

I’m thinking about a first-century gathering. Jesus is at somebody’s house and he is laughing. It is a deep belly laugh. Someone has just said something (maybe about the irony of Levi the tax collector hanging out with a spiritual teacher) and Jesus thinks its funny.

And it is kind of funny how people end up at a table with Jesus. They come in all kinds of ways, as many ways as there are people. Sometimes they come broken, and sometimes — like Levi, who learned from the best of them how to cheat people out of money — they don’t realize what they’ve been missing until Jesus shows up.

This gathering at someone’s house is news. It is odd that it would be news that Jesus is eating at dinner with friends; nonetheless, the religious leaders have someone looking in on this little gathering to see who’s there. They count heads and take names and go back to their people to report what they see. “Jesus is at Levi’s house,” they say.

And eyes roll.

“The food is not kosher. These people are not ceremonially clean. I doubt any of them could quote from the holy scriptures.”

More eye rolling.

That’s how people with a religious spirit do it. They judge everything so it is almost impossible to be okay by their standards.

Jesus does not get their standards. He just doesn’t get it. And when they call him out on it — when they call him on these picky little charges, like meeting with sinners — he says, “It’s like you’re treating a hangnail when a person has cancer. Where is the grace for what is? Don’t you see that when I go into these gatherings, I’m not looking for students to grade. I’m looking for friends to walk with.”

And with friends (you can just hear Jesus say it) you start with what is.

Four times in three verses, Mark mentions that Jesus is at this gathering with sinners. When a word is repeated in the Bible, pay attention. When it is mentioned four times, it means something: Jesus is a friend of sinners.

Which means that Jesus doesn’t save people from sinning. He saves us as sinners.

That is great news for us, but a problem for people with the wrong attitude toward sin. People with a religious spirit don’t just have a problem with sinners. They have a problem with saviors, too. Some people have a problem with how Jesus chooses to solve problems. He doesn’t do it by ignoring sin, nor does he do it by running from sin. He does it by leaning in.

In response to our sin, God leaned in. Jesus, who we believe to be the Son of God, gave up His place as God to become a man. Isaiah 53 says it was the will of the Lord to crush him and Isaiah 61 tells us God did it this way for the sake of poor, bound-up captives. People imprisoned by all manner of brokenness. Jesus healed sick people, gave sight to blind people, raised a few dead people and fed a lot of hungry people.

And Jesus ate with sinners.

The whole time he was showing the mercy and compassion of God, he preached this good news about how redemption works. It is God leaning in, being unafraid of our demons, our diseases, our sicknesses, our poor spiritual sight. Over all our sin, Jesus pronounced the Kingdom of God, inviting us to enter in and be forgiven of our sins and made holy by a sinless sacrifice.

Jesus was that sinless sacrifice. Because he’d lived this sinless life, he became what they called in the old system of sacrifices a spotless lamb. Jesus willingly gave himself to this. He allowed a group of men who were against everything he stood for — who peeked in on his small groups and judged him for leaning in and letting people start where they are — to arrest him, because he called his brand of compassion the very holiness of God.

And that is the Jesus who invited a group of sinners to sit around in a circle with him to enjoy each other and to find their redemption not in who they were but in who he is. Which means we are forgiven of everything we’re not … because of everything Jesus is.

Hallelujah.

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