Impossible Religion

The Impossible Religion: Purpose

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This reflection series,  “The Impossible Religion,” reveals five specific problems that people have with the gospel of Jesus. These impossibilities arise when Christianity is a religion to achieve, rather than simply the “good news” of grace and redemption that will naturally transform us. Christianity outside of Christ’s redemption is in fact impossible, but with God nothing is impossible. For the next five weeks, we’ll go through Scriptures from five different areas of the Bible in order to confront these impossibilities:

Impossible Purpose (Revelation 4)

The Book of Revelation is one of the most difficult books in the entire Bible to read and understand.  It is filled with symbolism that is not only hard for us to picture mentally, but hard for us to understand spiritually.  Amidst the creatures, events and objects found throughout John’s vision is one simple image repeated: a Lamb on a throne.

The lamb is actually absent from Chapter 4, appearing first in Chapter 5.  However, what we do see is that the throne in the vision is important and extremely valuable.  The throne is the centerpiece of heaven.  The throne is the reason for everything surrounding it.  Without the throne nothing else matters, and nothing else makes sense.

In the first section of this series we learned about the Nazirite vow, the vow of complete and unwavering devotion to the most-high God.  We also learned that the Nazirite, in a life of selfless sacrifice and devotion, was ever aware of the shortcomings of the human heart in the “Creator-Creation” relationship.  Although these individuals devoted themselves to living for God completely, they knew that regardless of all of the sacrifices, actions and words, they could never overcome sin through deeds of their own.  The presence of sin in a life of pure devotion is due to the broken original covenant between God and man. Something had to be done in order to reconcile the sin in each of us with the overwhelming presence and purity of God.

The way in which the ancient Israelites acknowledged this need was through animal sacrifices.

When I read the Bible for the first time I was caught up on certain issues that left me scratching my head in confusion and disbelief.  Certain things made sense and certain things were understandable, albeit foreign to me.  Animal sacrifices were one issue that I wrestled with, and I eventually resigned this area of scripture as a subject left in mystery.  I simply could not understand the need or purpose for such unthinkable amounts of animal death.

I love meat (and I actually love lamb). However, my animal-loving self sided with all of these helpless lambs being sacrificed for the sake of human sins.  It simply did not seem fair.

Imagine you pull out of a parking lot and scratch the car parked next to yours, causing visible damage.  As you evaluate the damage done to the other car, the owner of the damaged car arrives and sees that you are responsible for the damage. You have been caught as the responsible party, and prepare yourself for the repercussions.  But the owner spots a young child walking by and places the responsibility of paying for the damage on her (stay with me here). Now, the owner claims, it is the child’s responsibility to pay for the damage.

Naturally, we would protest and demand that the responsibility be placed back where it belongs, and to let the child go free.

This is how I viewed the lambs.  I felt that to put the mistakes of a man on the life of an innocent animal seemed cruel and unfair.  Until, that is, I found what awaited me on the hill called Golgotha.

There are many references to Jesus as a “lamb” in the Bible, whether directly or through implication.  John the Baptist referred to Jesus the first time he saw him as, the Lamb of God.  Isaiah referred to the Messiah as being, “led like a Lamb to the slaughter.” Also, Jesus hosted a Passover dinner with his disciples that distinctly required the presence of Lamb on the table to be served, however, at this particular Passover meal there was no Lamb to be found except Jesus saying that it was his duty to be “broken for them.”

The timing of Jesus’ execution was also interesting, given that on the Passover the Lamb was to be sacrificed by each family to remember the protective qualities of the Lamb’s blood on the doorframes during the Exodus that protected each Israelite from the plague of death and brought them into new life in the promised land.  Each sacrificed Lamb on Passover was to be sacrificed without defect or broken bones.  In an attempt to hasten the death of the criminals adorning the crosses on Golgotha, the knees of all but one were broken.  Jesus’ bones were left untouched. Not until I saw Jesus fulfill the role of the sacrificial Lamb did I gain perspective on the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament.

I reflected on my sympathy for the innocent lambs, and was confounded by the fact that hanging on the cross was not an animal, nothing in common with myself.  The sacrifice hanging on the cross was a human being.   This man understood the words of those who sacrificed him.   He understood the realities of the suffering and injustice he was facing.  Above all, he was slaughtered with love and prayers on his lips for those who deserved no such compassion.  He had no place being hung from a tree, and every right and reason to demand justice and freedom from such a responsibility.  Yet, the story unfolded differently: “the Lamb” remained silent.

In Revelation 4, we find a magnificent throne, adored and praised by all in its presence.  On the throne sits a Lamb who willfully gave his life for a creation that willfully chose to sacrifice him.  It is the throne toward which all Scripture points, and it is on the Lamb who occupies it that all creation rests.  Without the Lamb, without Jesus, Christianity is in fact an “impossible religion.”  Without Jesus we are instantly overburdened by the expectations of our faith.  Without Jesus, the standards are impossible to reflect in our daily lives.  Without Jesus, we will never trust this stranger God with our everything.  Without Jesus, we will never be changed by the claim of resurrection beyond momentary inspiration or habitual tradition.  Without Jesus, the purpose of our lives, why we are called to live the way we are, will ever remain unknown to us, and will collapse under doubt and distrust.

Christianity is not an impossible religion.  At its center is a God who came to us as Jesus Christ in order to share with us “the good news.”  This good news claims the power to transform a life that goes beyond our power to change ourselves.  Because of the slain Lamb, this “good news” claims things that no other religion dares to.  The God of creation lowered himself to be one with us.  He called himself Immanuel, God with us.

As the final hours of his life drew near, Jesus told Governor Pilate that “everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”  Christianity is impossible only if we refuse to listen to this truth.  If we choose to stop and listen to the message, Christianity has the power to achieve the impossible.

The Impossible Religion: Power

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This reflection series,  “The Impossible Religion,” reveals five specific problems that people have with the gospel of Jesus. These impossibilities arise when Christianity is a religion to achieve, rather than simply the “good news” of grace and redemption that will naturally transform us. Christianity outside of Christ’s redemption is in fact impossible, but with God nothing is impossible. For the next five weeks, we’ll go through Scriptures from five different areas of the Bible in order to confront these impossibilities:

 

Impossible Power (Mark 16)

In Mark 16, what Jesus had been promising all along had finally come true.  The stone was rolled away and what he foretold would happen actually happened.  He was risen.  He was the Christ.  He was who he said he was.

If, that is, you believe the Gospel account.

What happened on that third day is amazing, yet for many, impossible to believe.  The idea that Jesus could resurrect himself and then appear for forty days teaching, speaking, eating and living in human form seems like a myth or fairytale: fun to talk about but foolish to have faith in.

The world we live in simply does not work that way. When we die, we die.  But if you read the Gospel of Mark for fifteen chapters before reaching that final sixteenth chapter, you will have already encountered a Jesus who claims to be removed from this life and beyond our understanding of it.  Throughout each of the four gospels Jesus consistently tells us that he is “The Life.”

Initial reactions to the resurrection often take two forms, one from the side of belief and the other from non-belief. Both are incorrect in their foundations.

For many Christians, the reading of the Passion narrative, ending in the empty tomb, is a tradition to honor and a story to recite.  Reading about the Resurrection is similar to watching the end of “Sleeping Beauty.”  How nice, we think, how romantic. Wouldn’t it be nice if life were really like that?

To my knowledge, no one has ever finished watching “Sleeping Beauty” saying, “Isn’t it great that that happened!  How amazing! I wish I could have been there to see it!”  If someone were to react that way, we would respond to them in judgmental, sympathetic and annoyed disbelief.  We all know that “Sleeping Beauty” is a fairytale and we end the discussion there.  We aren’t wrong for doing so, because we know that the story doesn’t claim to be true and to change our lives forever.  It’s a story.  That’s it.

There are many self-professing Christians who read Mark 16 in the same way they watch “Sleeping Beauty.”  They read the story and feel nice and warm inside, but it never transcends the pages to impact their real lives.  The purpose of “Sleeping Beauty” is to entertain, to tell a made-up story.  The Gospels are different: they proclaim truth and promise change.  The apostle Paul confronts this attitude in 1 Corinthians 15, telling is that if the tomb wasn’t actually empty, if the Resurrection did not occur in fact, then everything we do as Christians is not only without purpose but is harmful, foolish and pitiful.  Living life under the belief that “Sleeping Beauty” is a true story would be something to be ashamed of, not proud.  No one, at least to my knowledge, has faced death joyfully professing confidence in the story of “Sleeping Beauty.”  Yet thousands, including eleven of the twelve original disciples of Jesus Christ, have died full of joy in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the story of the empty tomb.

Somehow, belief in the cross is easier than belief in the empty tomb.  However, to stop at the cross makes the life of Jesus the story of a failed and dishonest teacher that does not deserve our attention or worship.   There are many other teachers and wise men throughout history who did not make the outrageous claims of deity that Jesus did, and if he were not actually who he said he was we could follow the teachings of any one of them.  However, to believe in the empty tomb means to acknowledge the life of Jesus Christ as he proclaimed it.  He called himself “the way, the truth, the life,” even “the resurrection and the life,” and to believe in Jesus Christ means to believe in life beyond the tomb.

For non-believers, the main difficulty in believing in the empty tomb originates with distrust in the Gospels.  This distrust which I myself displayed for many years comes from ignorance in the facts behind the four Gospel narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Non-believers see the Gospels as simply legends that were written many years after Jesus died, and the stories, including the Resurrection, came out of the desire to create a version of Jesus that was more what the writers wanted him to be and less what he actually claimed to be.

If one takes this view of the Gospels, we have to ask several questions.  First, when were the Gospels written?  Given the span of time separating the death of Jesus and the first account of the Gospels, was there sufficient time for “myth” or “legend” to arise?  What would be the motivation for the writers to write such an account the way they did?  Lastly, what if any incentive would there be in doing that for them personally?

First up is the issue of time.  According to the most current historical and archaeological research, the general consensus is that they were written much closer to the life of Jesus than what most people believe.   Since we are focusing on the Gospel of Mark it is sensible to discuss the most widely accepted view in its original date of composition.

Most scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was written close to 20-25 years after the death of Jesus.  For those of us outside the historical evidence arena, this might still seem like a long time passed beyond the actual events being recorded.  However, when we look at the written accounts of prominent historical figures, like Alexander the Great, we find that the earliest account of his life was written close to 300 years after Alexander’s death.  Yet, we believe that Alexander the Great lived and did the things we are taught he did.  1 Corinthians 15 has Paul receiving the story of Jesus– living, teaching, being crucified and rising from the dead on the third day– within five years of the crucifixion.  Five years!  In the historical context, that is barely a moment. To recount stories with accuracy given such a short period of elapsed time between the actual events and the recording of them is more than plausible.

Secondly, we must consider motivation and incentive.  How would writing the Gospels affect the lives of the authors as individuals?  Some imagine 21st century televangelists with white-toothed smiles and expensive suits, lining his pockets.  From this perspective, the motivation to write these stories would be to materially benefit their own lives. But this is to completely neglect the realities of their world.  For these men, to identify as a Christian was a death sentence.

To be Christian during the time when the Gospels were written meant to be threatened from all sides.  Due to the horrifying persecution from men like Nero or Diocletian, Christians were motivated to construct the catacombs in Rome and the tunnel dwellings of Cappadocia, where they could feel at least a small sense of security in their worship and Christian lives. It is in this environment that the Gospel writers wrote their “stories.”

Not only were they heavily judged and persecuted outside of Israel, they were also fought from within as their Jewish brethren attempted for years to squelch the worship of Jesus Christ.  Eventually one of the most notable preachers of the Gospel, Paul started as a prominent persecutor of the church.   We now know through the historical records that all but one disciple of Jesus were executed for their belief and continued support of the Christian church and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

By writing the Gospels, these people were literally risking their lives, and many lost their lives.

No matter who you are, your life will be defined by what you believe about the empty tomb.  Those who believe will understand that not even death is to be feared.  Those who do not see this world as all there really is.   The power of the Resurrection of Jesus is there for everyone to see and find, but the question to each person is, do you want to find it?

The Impossible Religion: Trust

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This reflection series,  “The Impossible Religion,” reveals five specific problems that people have with the gospel of Jesus. These impossibilities arise when Christianity is a religion to achieve, rather than simply the “good news” of grace and redemption that will naturally transform us. Christianity outside of Christ’s redemption is in fact impossible, but with God nothing is impossible. For the next five weeks, we’ll go through Scriptures from five different areas of the Bible in order to confront these impossibilities:

Impossible Trust (Malachi 3)

In studying the Bible with people of various levels of faith, I encounter various levels of opposition to the Gospel and to God.  One of the main reasons people resist the Gospel is that they don’t trust God, and thus don’t trust the Gospel.

The Bible is clear about what God desires, and what he desires is echoed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  He is not interested in a two-hour block of your Sunday schedule to accommodate worship, fellowship and Bible study.  He wants everything.  When most people hear that, their eyes widen in suspicious disbelief.  This is an understandable reaction to such a request. To feel this initially is not wrong by any means.

Imagine yourself walking down the street. A stranger approaches you and says, “I want everything you own right now! I want your family, your possessions, your dreams, your deepest thoughts, your time, everything!”  Our natural reaction to that person would be similar if someone were trying to rob us in broad daylight.  Interestingly, robbery is what God is charging us with in Malachi 3.  Where we feel that God is demanding everything, leaving us with nothing of our own, God views our stubbornness to give back what was his in the first place as equally unjust.  However, only one of these perspectives views the other as a stranger and not an ally.  We view God as a mysterious figure demanding more than we want to give him, but he views us as children whom he has provided for who refuse to acknowledge his provision.

We humans are extremely protective beings.  We know what belongs to us and we know what we have to do to protect our possessions.  We also know that it is wrong for someone to take something that does not belong to them.

The reaction to God’s demand for “everything” is determined by whether we view God as friend or foe. The more we come to see God as he truly is, as a friend and not a foe, the more willingly and naturally we will allow him access to all of our belongings without hesitation or suspicion.

We don’t trust strangers because we know nothing about them, or about their interests and intentions. With this perception of God, the suspicious reaction to the request for “everything” is then quite natural.  To react otherwise would be naïve and dangerous and rather unnatural.  One of the first lessons that parents teach their children about going out in public is, “Don’t talk to strangers!”  Is this because our parents want us to grow to be anti-social and reclusive?  Hopefully not.  On the contrary, it is to protect us from being harmed. It is no surprise that we instinctively react with suspicion when we read that to follow Jesus means to deny ourselves and find ourselves in him alone by committing everything to him.

Many people have self-created ideas of God, perhaps formulated from their experiences of “Church” and “Christians.”  Perhaps they have mistakenly followed the path of least resistance that, to our current culture, is the online landscape of blogs and websites where everyone is an authority.  Perhaps they read one passage of the Bible dealing with gardens, snakes, sacrifices, etc. and concluded that Christianity was not for them.  Regardless of the influence, everyone has an idea of God that leads each person to relate to God in different ways.  The danger or our self-created ideas that come only from experience is that in forming them we often disregard the source of our understanding of God’s character.

In the Bible, one finds the uncompromised nature of God. With this portrait of God one can confidently and fairly arrive at the truest picture of who God, and not others, says he is.  Unfortunately, to do so leads down the undesirable path of actually sitting down and reading the Bible, which is long and often difficult to understand.  However, it is only by this method that one can finally meet the “stranger” personally and understand his interests and intentions.

By reading the scriptures we can come to realize the identity of this stranger who requests “everything,” and what he wants to do with our “everything.” What we find might surprise some.  The reality laid out in the Bible is that this stranger is no stranger at all.  He is a father who has known us longer than we have even considered him.  He always has our best interests in mind.  He specifically designed every aspect of our characters.  He is a father that delights in us and delights in our existence, and always desires to give us more.

In Malachi 3 we learn that God does not want to take from us, but rather desires to give us more than we ask for.  In fact, we learn in this passage that he actually wants to shock us with how much he plans to give us.   We read that he simply wants us to test this promise and then experience the realities of the promise fulfilled.  God doesn’t need your money for himself.  He doesn’t need money.  He doesn’t need your time because he is bored or lonely.  He doesn’t need your dreams because he wants to deprive us of satisfaction. The only reason he desires everything from you is because only when he has full access to your heart will he be able to release the potential of your existence that he created from the beginning.  Only upon receiving your “everything” will he know that you trust him with “anything.”

We are like an addict who feels totally fulfilled, yet to the outside is completely in need of care, incapable of helping ourselves efficiently.  God wants us to be free to experience a life of pure satisfaction that we cannot possibly fathom given our current state.  In the gospels, Jesus echoes this promise when he tells the disciples that none who left everything would not receive one hundred times more in return.

Jesus told his disciples that he does not give as the world gives.  So to understand God’s promise as a guarantee of financial or material exchange is to completely misunderstand the teaching.  What Jesus promises us is that when we give him access to our entire being, he will unleash desires of the heart that go beyond a one hundred dollar bill in the wallet.  He will release desires of the heart that we try each day of our life to satisfy.  He is the bank that we deposit our life savings in, that promises to yield an interest that is unparalleled and unfathomable.  He is the promise that will always be fulfilled.  What we learn from Malachi 3 is that it is up to us to test him on this radical promise.

The Impossible Religion: Standards

This reflection series,  “The Impossible Religion,” reveals five specific problems that people have with the gospel of Jesus. These impossibilities arise when Christianity is a religion to achieve, rather than simply the “good news” of grace and redemption that will naturally transform us. Christianity outside of Christ’s redemption is in fact impossible, but with God nothing is impossible. For the next five weeks, we’ll go through Scriptures from five different areas of the Bible in order to confront these impossibilities:

  • Impossible Devotion
  • Impossible Standards
  • Impossible Trust
  • Impossible Power
  • Impossible Purpose

Impossible Standards (Proverbs 31)

Whenever I read the book of Proverbs, I always start pen in hand, intent on underlining “the good parts.” But every time, I quickly realize that to underline “the good parts” would find me underlining the entire book.  In 1 Kings we read about the gift of wisdom granted to King Solomon and the proverbs are proof of that gift.  The wisdom in the book of Proverbs is unique, different from anything else.

The Proverbs do not necessarily strike us as “impossible” as we read the sayings and feel intrigued, rebuked or encouraged.  That comes when we attempt to put these perfect words into practice in our admittedly imperfect lives.  The sayings in real-time and real-life swiftly transition from wise words in private to a burden too heavy to bear in public.  When faced with the challenges of this world, whether riches, anger, impatience, or pain, we tend to shake off “the good parts” as we indulge in our truly natural “human nature” and err on the side of the sinful flesh.

Throughout the entire book of Proverbs, Wisdom is depicted as a woman.  This woman of wisdom cries out to the passing pedestrians on the street, pleading with them to listen to her. All the while, she is challenged by an opposing voice from the opposite side of the street, also in the form of a woman, however, not a woman depicting wisdom and righteousness but rather “foolishness” or sin.  Throughout the entire book of Proverbs this woman of wisdom pleads for the people to listen, often to no avail.  It is her voice that we are meant to hear as we read the Proverbs and her words that we find perfect at one moment and burdensome at others.

The difficulty in taking advice stems from lack of trust in the source.  As we listen to the advice we are constantly evaluating the source giving the advice while perhaps making snap-judgments along the way.  “Does this person have a right to advise me?”  “What do they know about this?”  “Who are they to talk?”  It is from this mindset that we make our decision whether to follow the advice or not.

The proverbs are potent and almost hypnotic, small bursts of wisdom that captivate with their clarity. We chuckle from time to time as we read, saying things like, “That’s so true.”  But when the time comes to practice the sayings in our daily life, we take offense at the words and the source due to their unrealistic standards.  We don’t like to look like failures, and when we compare our lives to the wisdom of Proverbs, we often do. It’s easy to feel like a failure when confronted with the perfect advice and standard of Wisdom embodied.

Proverbs 31, the final chapter of Proverbs, is particularly fascinating: we finally get to meet the source of the sayings and words. At last, we meet this “woman of wisdom.”  Not only does she have wise sayings to offer us, she is, more importantly, an individual that puts the words into practice.  For all intents and purposes, she is perfect.

We might wonder how knowing that this woman practices the sayings is any help to us. “Good for her, but we still feel like the loser.” The only way to have confidence in advice is to trust the source, and to see the source likewise practicing the advice.  One of the things that hurts the church the most is that Christians fail to “practice what they preach.”  It is because of this careless, irresponsible and hypocritical approach to the Gospel that many avoid church, fall away from the church, or in general fall apart.  Superficial belief and worship was what most offended Jesus during his three-year ministry.  The idea that people tailored religion to fit their lifestyle led Jesus to call out the religious crowd, not the outcast sinners, as the hypocrites.

When it comes to practicing wisdom and these “perfect words,” the only way we can have confidence that we average people can reflect this wisdom is to understand the source.  In Proverbs 31 we meet the woman of wisdom.  However, as we know, this woman is not real, she is a literary device created to embody the sayings and to relate the words to us in a way we could understand. The true source of our wisdom is the “teacher of all teachers” and “shepherd of all shepherds.”  He is the one that said the sheep listen to his voice.  He is the one that promised and delivered the impossible.  He told us that we cannot do it alone, and that to attempt to reflect the wisdom of the proverbs using our own effort is futile.  With him, through him will we be awed by the wisdom, and ultimately overcome and transformed by it.  The voice of Jesus, the one that spoke the truth and is the true voice of wisdom that we can confidently follow.

The Impossible Religion: Devotion

This reflection series,  “The Impossible Religion,” reveals five specific problems that people have with the gospel of Jesus. These impossibilities arise when Christianity is a religion to achieve, rather than simply the “good news” of grace and redemption that will naturally transform us. Christianity outside of Christ’s redemption is in fact impossible, but with God nothing is impossible. For the next five weeks, we’ll go through Scriptures from five different areas of the Bible in order to confront these impossibilities:

  • Impossible Devotion
  • Impossible Standards
  • Impossible Trust
  • Impossible Power
  • Impossible Purpose

Impossible Devotion (Numbers 6)

This particular chapter in the book of Numbers, found in the first five books of the Bible, also known as “the Torah,” discusses a particular vow taken by some, but not all, Israelites.  This vow was “the vow of the Nazirite.”

For the purpose of time we will not discuss the details of the vow in depth. The main idea is that it was a vow of extreme devotion to God.

To many people, Christianity is where you “try your best.” But, deep down, we do this with a prepared surrender to the idea that we cannot achieve the devotion to God that is not merely suggested, but expected.  This rebellion and resignation arises out of a distinct misunderstanding of Christianity and the relationship to God depicted in the scriptures.  This rebellious resignation implies that the purpose of Christianity is to try your best, out of your own power, to please an impossible-to-please deity.

The problem with this perception is that, throughout the entire Bible, God speaks directly to his people, telling them that if they don’t want to serve him, if they don’t want to worship him, if they don’t want to love him, then there is no place for half-hearted attempts.

The Nazirite vow was chosen, not compulsory.  God did not demand this life from all of his people.  However, the heart of the Nazirite vow is a life that God’s people should ultimately desire.  The life of the Nazirite was one of complete and utter devotion to a God that deserved such worship and commitment. The Nazirite understood that living this way was the only way to justify the balance of what God had already done and what we could never do.  The Nazirite vow revealed a commitment to God that seems unrealistic: a level of self-denial that is offensive to some and impossible to the rest.

The only way in which to desire such a vow, such a life, and the only way by which to maintain this level of devotion is to understand the reason behind the choice to take it.

Taking a Nazirite vow does not mean that you try harder than the rest and therefore will receive greater praise from the creator.  Rather, the individual perceived this option as the choice that would best honor the relationship between a “Creator” and his “Creation.”  Taking a vow like that only arises out of the knowledge and understanding that anything less would be unworthy worship and service given God’s sacrifice for us already.

Being a Christian with the commitment like a Nazirite is impossible, if one approaches Christianity from the perspective that following God is simply something to add to your repertoire of good deeds and characteristics.  The vow is impossible from the “point-earning” perspective.

The only way that this level of devotion is possible and, more importantly, acceptable to God, is if it is born out of a new identity that surrenders the heart totally to God, the only one worthy of such praise.  Only a person remade in the image of Christ can willingly and wholeheartedly undertake such a vow.