It makes sense that Hanukah always falls around the same time as Christmas. Hanukah is the festival of lights commemorating the cleansing of the Temple after the Maccabean revolt. The centerpiece of the celebration is a 9 light candelabra called a Menorah. Not to be outdone, we who celebrate Christmas scoff at a measly 9 lights. We hang lights on our houses, our bushes and the walkways to our front door. Which by the way has a spotlight directed on it. Come inside and we have put hundreds of lights on strings and wrapped them around our Christmas trees like we are getting them ready to “sleep with the fishes”. It’s an all out wattage extravaganza. And it should be.
The birth of Jesus was announced by a star of all things. Isaiah wrote 600 years earlier, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. Those who dwell in the shadows, a light has dawned on them”.
As a rule I love light. Light shows things as they are for good or ill. It can show me the way home on a dark and starless night and it can show me the stains on my carpet that I didn’t know were there. Light doesn’t lie.
The light from the star guided the Magi to Bethlehem. Jesus would later emerge from the manger as a light himself.
In Genesis when Adam and Eve sinned they hid in the bushes. Sin has been making all of us hide ever since.
If you are ever going to find your way back to God you must start by coming out from behind the bushes and into the light. That light will show you what you are really like. He will show you stains you didn’t know were there. But He will also show you the way home.
So go ahead and go crazy with the Christmas lights. Wrap them around every bush you see and remind yourself if it wasn’t for the Light of the world you would still be hiding in the bushes.
The word hypocrite is over used. It’s supposed to mean someone who says one thing and does another. Michael Corleone punishing his son for beating someone up on the playground would be hypocritical. “You should have just made him an offer he couldn’t refuse”.
But hypocrite has come to mean someone who doesn’t live up to a standard they aspire to. Pick a Christian, any Christian. That’s not a hypocrite, it’s just a failure. The problem is the standard is so high because Jesus set the bar.
Jesus most famous sermon is called, The Sermon on the Mount. In that sermon Jesus creates the highest moral standard in the world. Other religious leaders had set what is now known as “The Silver Rule”. Do not do to others what you would not want done to you. Ok, that’s tough enough but it just means I have to stay away from doing bad things to you. I should not cut you off in traffic or race up the lane that will close in a mile and play chicken until you let me in. Jesus ups the ante in the Sermon on the Mount to the “Golden Rule”. Do unto others what you want them to do unto you. That means I have to let you out into traffic even if you don’t give me the appreciation wave. (Always give the appreciation wave. It doesn’t cost anything and it makes me feel really good. A double wave makes me feel like a saint)
Other religious leaders said to love your neighbors. Jesus says to love your enemies. Others would say to limit your retaliation. Stay within justice which is eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Jesus would say to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, pray for those who persecute you. The whole sermon is pretty much of a downer if you are a normal human being.
It’s one thing to teach these things and it’s quite a different thing to live them. I know. I’m a preacher.
Jesus sits in a chair and when soldiers line up to take swings at him he doesn’t even lift his arm to fend off the blows. As a centurion centers a nail at the base of his hand and raises a hammer to drive it through, Jesus cries out. He doesn’t cry out a curse, he cries a prayer that God would forgive the soldier for his ignorance in following orders.
I always think it’s interesting. Go up to someone at work and tell them they remind you of Muhammad and you will get a confused look. Tell them they remind you of Jesus and it will be the nicest thing anyone has said to them in a month. The reason is no matter how you define a hypocrite, Jesus Christ was not one. He lived it. And he did it better than anyone ever has or ever will.
Turtles are all defense. They don’t have much of an offense so in that way they are a lot like the Browns. When I write about a current event I know I’m dating the blog. The good news about commenting on the Browns is that chances are things will not change within my lifetime. Bummer.
Anyway, back to turtles. They may not have much offense but it’s hard to beat their defense. They pull everything in and just “turtle up”. Predators paw them and may knock them around a little but they remain safe and sound. At every threat their response is the same because it works every time. After the danger passes they ever so slowly begin to come out of their shell and move again.
Just about every human being who has lived long enough learns to “turtle up”. We do it when we feel threatened or hurt. We do it sometimes just because we don’t particularly like someone and we will do what we need to do to avoid them.
One of the things I love about Jesus is he never “turtles up”. Ever. When the Pharisees are itching for a fight Jesus stands and waits for their best shot. Lepers made everyone with a self-preservation instinct turtle up. Not Jesus. Instead of running away Jesus would walk right up to them and grab their face in his hands.
Here’s an epiphany. You make some people turtle up. I don’t know who. You may not either but make no mistake, everyone doesn’t love it when you’re walking toward them. Even people who usually love you may have times when they roll their eyes and want to run. Not Jesus.
Isn’t that great news? Jesus doesn’t run away when you come looking for him. Think for a minute about how deep and fascinating Jesus is and how fast his mind must work. Think about a person in your life who loves to talk to you about themselves and you find them so boorish it makes you want to scream. That must be the way we all are to Jesus. And yet when we make the slightest move toward him he smiles and loves spending time with us. If anyone had a right to turtle up it would be him but he never does. Go to him now and see. Whatever you want to talk to him about he will listen. So great is his love.
On February 25, 1964 Sonny Liston was slated to fight a brash, young newcomer named Cassius Clay. Liston nicknamed “The Bear” was expected to make quick work of the kid. In fact, many sportswriters thought it was criminal and Liston would end up maiming or even killing Clay. There was an ambulance waiting right outside the arena to take Clay to the hospital after the beating.
At the weigh-in Clay had snapped. It seemed the whole ordeal had him completely undone. He screamed and lunged wide-eyed at Liston. Handlers restrained him and finally the officials led him away still screaming and pointing at a baffled Sonny Liston. Most thought fear had gotten the best of young Clay and the terror manifested itself in raw emotion at the weigh in. An hour later Clay sat completely composed with reporter Howard Cosell. Cosell asked him about what had happened at the weigh in. Clay looked at him with his eyes dancing and said simply, “Only a fool’s not afraid of a crazy man”. The whole thing had been an act by the fighter who would later change his name to Muhammad Ali. Ali knew men and he knew acting crazy would instill fear even in the heart of the one they called “The Bear”.
In Luke 8 Jesus steps out of a boat into an area called Garesene. A man possessed came crawling out from the rocks. He was more than crazy. Try to picture the scene in your mind. This is the Exorcist in real life. It is the shell of a man but the shell is not empty. It is filled with a darkness, a wild and pure hatred that comes not from this world. There is a fear that comes from stumbling across a wild creature. It is a different kind of fear altogether that floods your soul when that which is not supposed to be wild leaps at you from the shadows.
Jesus stands unshaken. Earlier in the chapter he had rebuked a storm while seasoned fishermen fought back tears of panic. Now he stands toe to toe with a storm of a different kind. It is a spiritual storm of malevolence that few have ever seen. Jesus looks at the man gashed and bleeding with his eyes wild and his hair gnarled and says evenly, “What is your name”? The darkness spits at Jesus and screams, “Legion”. Jesus says, “Come out”.
There is not a hint of fear in Jesus. His command makes Legion buckle and begin to beg for mercy.
It ends up Ali was wrong. There is One who is not afraid of a crazy man and he is no fool. His name is Jesus and he is the One who can keep you in His perfect peace today.
Angels have always been the closest to the Glory. They are His messengers and as such were created to withstand the most. I saw a photo once of a man standing on the edge of an active volcano. He was dressed from head to toe in protective gear. The lava bubbled white hot just below his feet. The lava itself seemed alive and wild and unconcerned. The camera zoomed back and the man looked tiny standing proudly on the edge and amazed he could get so close to what seemed like the center of the earth. Moses was instructed to place molten Cherubim on top of the Ark of the Covenant. The Cherubim are cast with their wings covering their feet and their faces. They bow before the Glory like the man standing at the edge of liquid fire.
Humility is measured by degree. If you are a street sweeper and you lose your job and must move out of your shanty house it undoubtedly makes life tougher but the fall is not great. You have only fallen from the bottom rung to the floor. But if you are wealthy beyond reason and lose it all in the stock market then the fall is very great. Some in that position have chosen to die rather than live on the floor.
Gabriel is an angel who stands closer than most to the Glory. He has stood for eons covering his eyes but hearing the thunder of Eternal Love and Power and Person. He was the one sent to Zacharias to make the announcement that the Glory was coming to earth. When Zacharias found the tiniest part of the plan unbelievable, Gabriel seemed to take tremendous offence. You can imagine why. Gabriel, the messenger, had left the Presence of the Glory with a message he could not begin to comprehend. The One he could not gaze at for a moment was going to descend and push that Glory into flesh. Gabriel had no idea how that could be but it was not his to ponder, he only had a message to deliver.
Gabriel would later go to Mary to tell her the Glory would become a baby inside of her. The Fire that no created being had ever come close enough to touch would become a baby.
Humility is by degree. Glory had to become nothing. So much nothing that Mary held his head in her hands when she picked Him up since He could not hold it up Himself.
Gabriel would make his final appearance to some shepherds out in a field the night Mary cried out and gave birth. The angels gathered in force and shouted the only thing they knew for sure. GLORY!!
The Glory had become Emmanuel, God with us, and that’s the 7th reason I love Him so.
I like movies about ridiculously smart people. Most of them are fictitious but it really doesn’t matter to me. I love it when Sherlock Holmes pieces together the smallest observations like a giant jig saw puzzle. Or when Will played by Matt Damon blows away the arrogant Harvard grad student in a Boston bar in Good Will Hunting.
But the best is probably in the movie Limitless. It might be because I’m not a genius and I’ll never be Sherlock Holmes so the idea of a pill that could give me access to 100% of my brain is a very intriguing story line. Bradley Cooper is a below average writer who stumbles onto to this pill that allows him to fill up the gap between potential and reality. Imagine having no margin of potential, being completely maxed out. At the end of the movie Bradley Cooper is face to face with his nemesis Robert De Niro, who is a very bright and clever man himself. De Niro thinks he’s got Cooper right where he wants him. Had they been playing chess, De Niro would have said “check” and smiled a smug smile thinking he was just a few moves from putting him away. Cooper looks at him with his crystal blue eyes (I have to keep reminding my wife that his eyes are definitely not real- those are contacts)dancing like De Niro has just asked him to play. Cooper then dismantles De Niro with a paragraph that ends with, “You will always be 10 steps behind me”. It’s a very cool scene and one that wraps the movie up well.
I just read Mark 12 today. It’s a chapter that shows the brilliance of Jesus. The Pharisees send a pack of lawyers to try to trip Jesus up with a tax question. If you think things are politically charged today, Obama and the Tea Party have nothing on first century politics. They asked their question and announced to all around, “Check”. Jesus’ eyes danced and he asked if someone had a coin. It took him all of a sentence to put them in checkmate. Next came some seminary grads who put a favorite question from their crankiest and brightest professor. If a woman was widowed several times throughout her life then who would her husband be in heaven. They asked their question and then high fived each other knowing they had given Jesus an impossible question for him to answer. Jesus looks down with a half smile and says gently, “You guys are wrong in ways you will hardly be able to understand. Now listen carefully and I will talk slowly”. It was a rout and all the crowd knew it to be so.
Find a brilliant person and you can trust what they say in their particular field. Find the most brilliant person who ever walked the planet and you can trust them with your life. Jesus is someone I learned to trust many years ago and he continues to amaze me.
Anger is a lot like fire. It’s pretty dangerous and painful to everyone around if it breaks out. But without it the world becomes a very different place. As a rule, human beings are not very good with anger.
I like it that Jesus got angry. I remember Mark Driscoll saying he was relieved to find out that Jesus wasn’t all meek and mild. He said he could never worship someone if he felt he could take him in a street fight. I agree. I like it that Jesus was a little scary. Maybe more than a little. At one point the Jewish rulers sent a squad of goons to pick Jesus up and bring him in. They came back empty handed and sheepishly said, “No one talks like that guy talks”. I think of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone. After the shoot out at the OK Corral the town Marshall announces that Wyatt is under arrest. Wyatt looks at him and says, “I don’t think I’m going to let you arrest me today Marshall”. It seems like Jesus had that kind of power in his voice at times.
The anger of Jesus reminds me that he is good. What I mean is that Jesus isn’t just nice. A really nice guy may not be a good man. He could just be weak and because he has no options he is really nice. But Jesus is wild and scary at times. I like it that he is powerful, his anger can blaze but it is his goodness that makes him safe.
One of the times when Jesus is angry is in the story of Lazarus. It’s hard to see in the story when you read it in English but it comes out in the original Greek.
Twice in the story it says that Jesus was deeply troubled. The first time is when he sees Mary and Martha grieving. Even though he knows he is going to raise him from the dead it seems their grief is contagious and he breaks down and weeps with them. The second time is just before he tells them to roll away the stone. The Greek word used there is only used one other time in the New Testament. The word is difficult to translate into English. The translators usually say he was “deeply moved” but the word might be better translated “he snorted”. But the word is also charged with emotion and the emotion is rage. Think of a middle linebacker getting ready for the ball to be snapped. Jesus rage is aimed at death and all the sin that causes death. He snorts and then heads toward the grave of Lazarus like a gladiator. He screams out to death to let his friend go. Later Jesus will fight death again and break his back once and for all.
Jesus anger reminds me that under the right circumstances he will fight. It reminds me that he will fight for me. Anyone else’s anger makes me feel unsafe but even the anger of Jesus is a comfort and that’s the fifth reason I love him.
There are a lot of times I don’t understand the disciples. At least I don’t want to be able to identify with them. Peter thought he knew better than Jesus and actually rebuked Jesus for talking about dying on the cross. Peter had witnessed way too much to think he could possibly be in the position to correct Jesus and yet there he is poking his finger in Jesus’ chest and telling him off. That’s just silly and I don’t see myself doing that.
But there’s a scene in Matthew where some parents are bringing their children to Jesus and the disciples spring into action. It’s actually a very brief story that only takes up 3 verses. Parents are trying to push their kids up to Jesus presumably to get Jesus to bless them. The disciples explain that Jesus has bigger fish to fry and they need to take the kids to the nursery around the corner. Jesus sees the commotion out of the corner of his eye and steps in and before you know it the kids are climbing on Jesus lap and belly laughing with the King.
I grew up in church and when I was little we learned a song titled, “Jesus Loves the Little Children”. I can sing it still. It was the only song I can remember that told me Jesus liked me even when I was little. Before I felt like I had anything to offer him.
I’m at the stage in my life where I am with little children again. They are my grandchildren. Liam is four and Connor is two. Liam is to the point where he can tell a knock, knock joke. Of course the punchline is always “I’m a CHICKEN!” followed by hilarious laughter. Connor is like a talking doll where the wiring is a little messed up so you can only follow about every other sentence. He spends most of his time repeating stuff to me I can’t possibly understand and he just gets louder and slower like an American speaking English to someone from another country.
My point is that children require a tremendous amount of energy and time. That’s why the disciples tried to keep them away from Jesus. To say that Jesus was busy is a pretty gross understatement. And yet, in my mind’s eye I see him getting down on his knees and opening his arms to have little children run to him. Children have a sixth sense about adults too. They can smell someone who acts like they love kids but only at a distance. Here they ran to Jesus because they knew he really loved them. They had nothing to offer him but bad knock, knock jokes and garbled sentences. But this they knew, Jesus Christ loved the little children. He always has. He loved you before you had anything to offer him. You and I can come to him like the children we are and that’s the fourth reason I love him so.
Bullies are back in the news. For years moms have sent their little ones off to school armed with the half truth, “Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you”. The whole truth is that sticks and stones will break your bones but words can cut your soul to shreds. Of course that would be some pretty lousy encouragement to give to your little one as they head off to face the cold cruel world. But now bullies have entered the cyber world and exposed the fact that words are weapons every bit as lethal as sticks or stones. Stories abound of cyber bullies pushing victims to suicide using nothing but words.
There is a famous story of Jesus in the gospel of John. Religious bullies had dragged a woman out into the middle of a crowd. She had been caught in the act of adultery. Of course it takes two to tango so to speak so one wonders where the man had slinked off to and why he wasn’t being dragged before the crowd with his paramour. The bullies threw this woman before Jesus and demanded he either uphold the Mosaic law of pure justice or equivocate and lose his standing as a man of God. I call them bullies because they were using the woman only as a prop to trap Jesus. If it cost her life then that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Their callousness toward the woman is almost unimaginable.
Jesus stands silently looking over the scene. One gets the feeling that time stood still and everything went quiet with the exception of the stifled sobs of the woman. Then Jesus knelt down and began to draw in the sand with his finger. No one recorded what he drew but one thing became clear. He was putting himself between the mob and the woman. Slowly the bullies dispersed from the oldest to the youngest.
This is one of the reasons I love Jesus. Jesus stands between the woman and her accusers and draws a line in the sand. Anyone who stands between a bully and a victim quickly becomes the target. Jesus essentially says, “To get to her you’re going to have to go through me”.
And that becomes the theme of Jesus’ life. He takes a lot of heat for saying that the only way to the Father is through him. He also stands between you and all your accusers and says, “To get to them you must go through me”. That costs him his life and gave you life eternal. I love Jesus because he drew a line in the sand for me.
I’m reading the gospels again and they remind me of why I love Jesus. You really don’t even have to read a whole gospel to begin to see what makes Jesus so extraordinary. Today I stopped at the eighth chapter of Matthew and wanted to go no further. Matthew starts his gospel off slow with one of the two accounts we have of Jesus birth. But by the fifth chapter he is in a dead sprint as he records what we know as the Sermon on the Mount. By all accounts it is some of the most spell binding teaching the world has ever heard and even in an irreligious world we use sayings from the sermon some 2000 years after it was preached. “Go the extra mile”, “Turn the other cheek”, “The salt of the earth”, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” are just a few sayings everyone in your neighborhood would still recognize. If all Jesus did was teach he still would have been one of the most influential people who ever lived. But it’s in the first few verses of chapter 8 where Jesus begins to steal my heart.
“When he came down from the mountain great crowds followed him. And behold a leper came to him and knelt before him saying, ‘Lord, if you are willing you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him saying,’I will; be clean.’”
Leprosy was perhaps the most dreaded disease of the ancient world. It was a slow deterioration. A leper would literally fall apart. And from the time the first spot appeared until the gruesome end he would be utterly and completely alone. They called them untouchables because it was against the law to touch them or be touched by them.
A leper yelled to Jesus with faith and hope quivering in his voice. Jesus would soon calm a storm with a word. He could have spoken the healing from a distance but he didn’t. He walked calmly over to the man who was falling apart at the seams and took his crumbling face in his hands, looked him in the eyes, and said, “Hear me clearly. I am willing. You are clean”. And of course he was.
Jesus walks away from the leper and goes on something of a touching spree. It finally ends when he heals two blind men. He heals them by touching their eyes so the first thing they ever see are his two hands. I love that.
Jesus didn’t have to touch any of us but he did. When we get to finally see him you have to know that it’s not just his voice we will hear. We will feel his hands and it won’t surprise me at all if it feels like his hands are first thing we’ve ever really seen.