In her recent Wall Street Journal article (03/18/17), Peggy Noonan referred to ‘the observation that a great leader has more in common with an artist than an economist. Economists drill deep in narrow fields, but the artist’s view is more expansive; he’s more able to grasp the big picture, and see how it is changing’.
Any serious consideration of Jesus challenges us with the evidence that he is not just ‘a great leader’ but an exceptional one, who grasps life’s ‘big picture’.
H. G. Wells, historian, and author of books such as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, once remarked: ‘I am a historian. I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very centre of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history’.
In John’s Gospel, we read:
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
When Jesus said this he was in the Jerusalem temple for the Feast of Tabernacles. A feature of the festival was the lighting of four huge elevated bowls filled with oil. The light they gave was spectacular. They symbolized the great day of God’s Messiah.
Again his words “I am…” stand out. Again he claims to be one with the God who revealed his name to Moses as, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). As the light of the world Jesus invites everyone to come out of the darkness of self-absorption and turn to the true light that uniquely shines from God.
LIGHT AND TRUTH
Light is a metaphor for truth – which includes moral attitudes and actions. Later he tells us that he is committed to truth and is himself the truth (John 14:6). He also calls on us all to live in the light of his truth. When we think about it, we can’t experience great relationships at any level – with God or with another human being – unless they are framed in truth.
Because our age insists on political correctness and tolerance we easily lose the impact of Jesus’ imagery. We don’t see the moral darkness of life around us. Yet when we digest Jesus’ words here we feel the weight of how far we all fall short of the God standard.
Significantly, he promises us freedom: “…If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).
FREEDOM IS SOMETHING WE ALL LONG FOR
Yet, when we rightly understand it we see that freedom is not the absence of all constraints, but submission to the right constraints. It is not the rebellion that recognizes no authority, but the discernment that distinguishes legitimate authority. As someone observed, ‘true freedom is not the license to do as we please, but the liberty to do as we ought’.
We need to relearn this vital distinction, for we are all in danger of failing to observe the difference between exercising liberty and taking liberties. Jesus is telling us that true freedom is bound up with knowing him. This is why he wants us to continue in his word.
We’ve already noticed his insistence on our need to know the truth – about who God is and what he expects of his people. This truth is not just head knowledge. It is a knowledge that awakens, drives and frames our relationship with God and our relationships with one another, impacting our mind, conscience, will and heart. So, as with any relationship, we need to work at knowing God better through his special written self-revelation in the Bible.
Furthermore, as with any relationship, we need to persevere with it, even when things don’t seem to be going our way. Jesus is not asking us to join him in a one hundred yards sprint, but in the marathon of life. The extraordinary thing is that when we do this he, being the leader he is, frees us from our bondage to self-interest and sin and opens our lives up increasingly to develop a world-view through his lens, and so enjoy life as we were meant to live it.
Prayer – Almighty God, give us grace so that we may cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came amongst us in great humility: so that on the last day, when he comes again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, Advent – adapted)
© John G. Mason
We can think that to have doubts is to lack faith. But doubt is not the opposite of faith. To suggest that it is, is to confuse doubt with unbelief. Doubt is something only a believer can experience, for we can only doubt what we believe. Doubt is to belief, what temptation is to sin – a test.
In fact, in those times when we have to engage with doubt, honestly and frankly, we find our relationship with God grows stronger and more intimate as a result.
BREAD OF LIFE
One of Jesus’ extraordinary statements was that he could offer life: “Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life… has passed from death to life,” he said (John 5:24). How could he say this?
On one occasion he stunned everyone by producing sufficient food for a crowd of five thousand from five loaves and two fish. The time when Jesus performed this miracle was Passover – the time when everyone remembered God’s liberation of his people from Egypt. We can understand the crowd’s response, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” They saw Jesus as a modern-day Moses – someone who could free them from Roman rule. But, having a bigger and better plan, Jesus withdrew from them (John 6:15).
In fact, Jesus commented: “…You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:26-27).
There are two kinds of bread – bread for our physical bodies that will one day die; and bread for our spiritual existence that is destined to last forever. ‘You have seen a miracle,’ Jesus said, ‘but you do not see the sign.’
Jesus doesn’t just see empty stomachs, but empty souls, empty lives. The miracle of turning the loaves and fish into more than sufficient food to feed the crowd was a sign of Jesus’ capacity to feed our deeper spiritual need and give us life.
UNBELIEF AND DOUBT
In John 6:60-69 we read: When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”
Jesus was a controversial figure. As people came to know him better they were strongly divided in their opinions about him. So, whereas they had begun to come to him in thousands when they saw and experienced his amazing healing powers, large numbers turned away from him when he challenged them with the deeper issues of life and what he had to offer. Number crunchers today might say his ministry was a failure.
Disbelief and doubts arose when Jesus said of himself, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). In the conversation that follows, it is clear that Jesus’ hearers didn’t get it when he contrasted the experience of life now – one that perishes – and the experience of life eternal.
‘Which life is the one really worth working for?’ is his challenging question. But his hearers then, as we can be today, were too focused on life now and finding political solutions.
As the crowds departed, Jesus challenged the Twelve: “Do you also wish to go away?” We can feel the intense sadness of the moment for him. It is a sadness that all faithful ministers of God’s Word experience when people refuse to listen to God’s truth.
Responding on behalf of the Twelve, Peter said, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” It’s the response of someone who, as we see elsewhere has real doubts, but who by God’s grace, believes.
Collect – Almighty God, we confess that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: keep us outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, so that we may be defended from all adversities that may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, Lent 2 – adapted)
© John G. Mason
Everyone has regrets. We regret the words we let fly and never live down; the opportunities we messed up or ones we never took up; relationships we let slip and ones we should never have begun. There are all those past actions for which ‘redemption’ seems impossible.
The playwright Arthur Miller, put it this way, ‘Maybe all one can do, is hope to end up with the right regrets’. A woman at a well in Samaria two thousand years ago would have agreed.
Like us, she longed for happiness but it had eluded her. Five failed marriages testified to that. Thinking that love and marriage would give her life meaning and happiness, she thought that each new man was Mr. Right. But each time she made the same mistake. Her life was a mess. She felt insecure, lonely, and dissatisfied.
But there came a day when her life was transformed through a conversation with a Jewish man. Transgressing social taboos, Jesus initiated a conversation with her through a simple request for water from the well. He didn’t talk about her life or matters of faith – at least to begin with. Rather he spoke then, as he speaks to us today, with concern and respect. However, it wasn’t long before he took the conversation further by speaking about living water. It opened up the opportunity to talk about her regrets.
In John 4:12-15 we read:
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus offered her water that would satisfy her deep inner spiritual thirst. He was saying that he is the answer to the regrets and emptiness that gnaw our souls.
Most of us aren’t willing to acknowledge this – and the woman that day was no exception. We pretend we’re doing well, but the reality is that we often live closer to despair than we admit. So we endeavor to offset our sense of emptiness by filling our social calendar, making money, being ‘a success’, even pursuing sexual adventure. But it never works.
No matter how successful we are, no matter how intense the emotional relationships we might experience, nothing can be a substitute for the relationship with God for which we were made. If we are going to find Jesus’ answer to our regrets, first we have to acknowledge our need.
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet…” (John 4:16-19)
Suddenly she realized that Jesus, whom she had taken for a progressive Jewish man, was nothing less than a prophet with supernatural knowledge of her sin. She knew enough about religion to realize that she was being challenged to sort out her relationship with God.
The big question was where to do this–the temple in Jerusalem, or a house of worship in Samaria? Jesus’s response is, in today’s world, politically incorrect: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:22-24).
Only when we receive the spiritual life that Jesus brings us can we become true worshippers of God, beneficiaries of this living water. It involves a heart response to Jesus.
The woman responded, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us”. Jesus’s words are breath-taking, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” – literally, ‘I who am speaking to you, I am’ (John 4:26).
Twelve hundred years before, God had revealed his name to Moses: “I am that I am that is my name”. Jesus was not just claiming to be the Messiah but to be one with God.
The water he promised would not just quench her thirst for real life, but would bring her into a deep, satisfying, and eternal friendship with the one true, creator-redeemer God.
© John G. Mason
March heralds the coming of spring in the northern hemisphere. In the northern latitudes, long winter nights give way to the light of extended days and budding new life. In the traditional Christian calendar, today is Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.
For some Lent is a ‘Refresh’ season, a time for special reflection on the God whose nature, as The Book of Common Prayer puts it, ‘is always to have mercy’. Indeed, as the 16th century Reformers rediscovered five hundred years ago, God is not only merciful, it is his grace working within us that enables us to turn to Jesus Christ in heartfelt repentance and faith as our only Lord and Savior.
With the exception of today, over the Wednesdays during Lent, I plan to touch on the ‘I am…’ sayings of Jesus that we read in John’s Gospel.
While reading the last page of a book before you get to it is not something I generally encourage, let me make an exception. Before we start to look into John’s Gospel it is helpful to know the purpose of his writing. We find it in 20:31: These things are written so that you may know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. Keep this in mind
John 1:1-5: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…
John 1:9-14: The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth….
With his opening verses, the gospel writer John introduces us to ‘the Word’. He tells us who the Word is and from where he comes; we learn that he is truly God (1:1), eternal (1:2), the creator of all things and the source of our existence (1:3); he opens our eyes as well as opening the way to the spiritual dimension of life (1:4). He was God, and yet with God – by himself the Word is not the full complement of the Godhead.
With such a philosophical preamble, John’s words become alarmingly and shockingly tangible! In verse 14 he tells us that the Word of God, whose very nature and existence is eternally divine, has taken on human form. John is telling us that he and his fellow apostles saw what Moses had only glimpsed: namely, the glory of God personified. For the first time in history, God had revealed himself in person. The grace and truth of God had become incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ.
But there is an ironic tragedy: left to ourselves we reject the Word and his light. We prefer to live in the darkness of self-obsession. We need God’s work of grace within us to open our eyes to the truth (1:5-13).
In his opening section (1:1-14), John introduces us to a counterintuitive idea: the religion of the Bible is not about our search for God, but God’s search for us. He is telling us of a ladder that God has let down from heaven to us (1:51). Christianity is not a religion of our discovery, but of God’s initiative. It is not about our attainment, but God in his mercy, reaching out to us. It is not about our research, but God’s revelation. It is a religion, not of works, but of God’s grace.
Ash Wednesday prayer: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts, so that we, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
© John G. Mason
Why do appalling things happen? The reality of pain and suffering is probably one of the key reasons many people insist that God doesn’t exist.
Their line of thinking follows this simple syllogism: ‘A God who is all-powerful and all-loving would use his vast resources to end suffering and pain for his creatures. BUT, suffering and pain exist. Therefore a God who is all-powerful and all-loving does not exist’.
At first sight this reasoning makes sense.
However, consider the response by philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, who conclude not that God does not exist, but that a God who is all-powerful and all-loving has a bigger plan.
Having created us, not as robots but in his image, God has given us the capacity of choice and with it the potential to turn from him and experience the consequential suffering. However, as Jesus’ Parable of ‘The Prodigal Son’ tells us, the very experience of suffering and pain can bring us to our senses and our need to turn back to God.
HOW TO RESPOND
So, let’s consider how we might respond to our questioning or even cynical family and friends.
Wake up. It may sound harsh, but we need to recognize that none of us deserves any good thing from God. We deserve judgment rather than mercy. Nevertheless, God desires that we come to him. Sometimes he uses the tragedies of life, not so much because he is especially angry with one person or group, but rather as a wake-up call. We need to sort out our relationship with our Creator while there is time (see Luke 13:1-5; 2 Peter 3:8-10). CS Lewis spoke of suffering as ‘God’s megaphone’.
Justice. We often overlook the fact that it is God’s ultimate plan to uphold all truth and justice. A good and perfectly just God is behind the universe. One day he will bring us all into his courtroom. Perfect justice will be done – as we read for example, in Luke 12:1-7.
Failures. Suffering sometimes occurs because of the disobedience of God’s people. We can blame society for making a mess of its relationship with God, but we also need to ask ourselves, ‘To what extent are we or the church to blame?’ We may respond to the world’s injustices or poverty by mailing a check to a Christian care program, but we give little heed to the thought that we may have contributed to the ills of others through the inconsistencies of our life or the public disagreements we have with one another. Too often there has been a failure in times of change to make church truly welcoming, forgiving, and joyful.
Transformation. In the meantime, it is God’s desire that we grow up in our relationship with him. It follows that some of our experiences of pain will occur because of God’s disciplining hand (Hebrews 12:3-13). Furthermore, there may be occasions when, for reasons hidden to us, God has given us a special place in participating in Christ’s share of suffering for the sake of others (Romans 5:1-5; 8:17ff; Colossians 1:24-27).
Answers? We also need to be honest and admit there will be times when we do not seem to have any intellectual answers to our suffering. Job’s questions, for example, were not answered in the strict sense. Instead, God himself asked Job a series of questions concerning his own majesty and nature (Job 38-41). Job’s response was to turn to God in humble repentance and wholehearted trust even though he didn’t receive all the answers (Job 42). We can compare Job’s experience with the way Joseph (Genesis 50:19, 20), and Jesus himself, exemplified a confidence that God would ultimately vindicate them (Romans 8:28-30).
We need to remember that God, in Jesus Christ, has experienced every agony that we experience. We may not always understand our plight or the plight of others, but we can be comforted and comfort others in the sure knowledge that God in Christ has tasted the agony of injustice, the pain of suffering, ignominy, and death (Hebrews 2:18). On the cross, when evil humankind crucified the sinless Son of God, when Jesus took evil on himself without retaliation, God bore the sin of those who turn to him. The cross of Christ gives us confidence that God has our best interests at heart. Jesus’ resurrection assures us of it.
In Romans 8:38 we read, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
© John G. Mason
Writing in The Wall Street Journal last week (02/09/17), Peggy Noonan wrote: Let’s step back from the daily chaos and look at a big, pressing question. Last fall at a defense forum a significant military figure was asked: If you could wave a magic wand, what is the one big thing you’d give the U.S. military right now?
We’d all been talking about the effects of the sequester and reform of the procurement system and I expected an answer along those lines. Instead, he said: We need to know what the U.S. government wants from us. We need to know the overarching plan because if there’s no higher plan we can’t make plans to meet the plan. This was freshly, bluntly put, and his answer came immediately, without pause.
The world is in crisis. The old order that more or less governed things after World War II has been swept away. The changed world that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall is also over.
We’ve been absorbing this for a while, since at least 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea. But what plan are we developing to approach the world as it is now?
It’s a very good question. However, it’s not my purpose to consider it as a political question, but rather as a biblical and theological one. Assuming there is a higher supernatural realm, that there is a good and all-powerful God who rules, is there a higher plan so that we can ‘make plans to meet the plan’?
A HIGHER PLAN
In a world where, despite every human attempt to change things for the better, injustice and suffering continue unabated, is there in fact ‘a higher plan’?
To answer the question we need to ask another question: Is there any evidence that there is a God who has a bigger plan? If so, what is it? The answer turns on the Person of Jesus.
In Colossians 2:13-15 we read: You, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.
Captives. The Bible sees history as divided into two great epochs. Before Jesus came there was the present age— the world. Now that Jesus has come a new epoch has begun—the age to come. For the present, this new epoch stands alongside the first. Yes, God has always been in control but the present age is in bondage to self-interest and evil. We are captive to moral laws we can’t keep.
Satan, the accuser, has power over us because he holds ready the file of our failures to present to God’s court of justice. And God, being righteous, has no alternative but to condemn us to death. Self-interest is treachery against him and a capital offense.
C.S. Lewis captures these elements in his Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe when Edmund betrayed Peter, Susan and Lucy, and Aslan himself. The white witch demanded Edmund’s life saying he had broken ‘the laws of the deep’. “His life is forfeit,” she shrieked.
THIS IS OUR CONDITION
Alienated from God we are in the power of spiritual forces we cannot defeat and are en route to a grave we can’t avoid. We are captive to the pain, suffering, and evil we have brought upon ourselves.
But then came Jesus. Paul tells us that Jesus smashed the bars of this spiritual prison of the present age when he died. He wiped out the moral debt of the laws we couldn’t obey and he disarmed the demonic powers we couldn’t overcome. Further, he abolished the death we couldn’t escape. The cross is where Jesus Christ has potentially turned our captivity into a glorious liberty.
God’s higher, bigger plan has been to destroy our hostility towards him and towards one another, and our subsequent suffering and pain. And he did it without destroying the enemy – you and me.
God’s plan is one we would never have dreamed of – God himself providing the means of restoring our true glory. No wonder Paul the Apostle wrote, The sufferings of this present age cannot be compared with the glory that is to be revealed (Romans 8:18).
When we begin to understand this bigger plan of God’s we come to see the ‘plans we need to make’ in a world that continues its giddy course of instability, injustice, and suffering.
It is more than time to play our part in reaching family, friends and many others with the good news that God has a plan for a world where there will be no more dying, no more tears, but one where there is true peace and lasting joy.
© John G. Mason