Sunday, August 31, 2014

Party-animal Jesus (No, Seriously)

When I'm considering a product on Amazon, I always read the most positive and negative reviews. The two extremes reveal a lot. If a negative review says, "I HATE this vacuum cleaner because even though it's affordable, and cleans well, it doesn't have a cappuccino machine attachment!" Then I know, okay, I should get the vacuum.

Here's what the grumblers said about Jesus: "Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!" And another time, "The disciples of John fast often and pray frequently. The disciples of the Pharisees do the same, but your disciples are always eating and drinking." In other words, the grumblers were upset with Jesus because so many people felt comfortable around him. >-<

Jesus was fun to be around. We know that because of everyone who flocked to him: tax collectors invited him to their party, sinners wanted to share a meal with him, blue-collar workers would drop their nets to follow and become disciples. Can you imagine the kinds of conversations they must have had around the dinner table?

I'm fascinated by the way Jesus is perceived by his enemies, and the way he is perceived by his friends. One of his very best friends was a guy named Peter. Well, actually, we call him Peter but that's not the name he was born with. Jesus gave him the nickname Peter, which means 'The Rock,' during a time when Peter was being anything but stable and dependable.

So why would Jesus give a nickname like that to his friend? We have two interpretive choices: Either Jesus was being cruel by pointing out Peter's shortcomings. But that doesn't vibe with everything else we know about Jesus' character and his friendship with Peter. OR this is a peek into the type of friendship that Jesus and Peter shared. They were close enough friends that they could have an inside joke. It's like calling a fat guy 'slim.' Jesus knew who Peter was and who Peter would become.

It matters that Jesus was funny.

1. Because otherwise parts of the Bible make no sense.

If you think Jesus is always super-serious, then many stories are going to sit flat on the page. Or worse, they'll entirely confuse you. Theologian Elton Trueblood wrote a book called 'The Humor of Christ' and here's what he had to say about Jesus:

"There are numerous passages... which are practically incomprehensible when regarded as sober prose, but which are luminous once we become liberated from the gratuitous assumption that Christ never joked... Once we realize that Christ was not always engaged in pious talk, we have made an enormous step on the road to understanding."

One example of a story that would be incomprehensible with a super-serious Jesus is the exchange found in Mark 7:24-30 (it's actually told in Matthew 15 as well). I could write a whole post on this passage so I may have to save it for another time.

2. Because Jesus calls us to be joy-filled and good-humored.

We're not called to be like the humorless Pharisees, we're called to be full of praise, in awe of God's grace, and able to give a reason for the hope that we have in Christ Jesus. At one point in the Bible it's described like this: you know how happy a person is when they've been forgiven a large debt? [I think of the end of the movie It's a Wonderful Life] The weight of the world has been lifted off that person's shoulders. They skip down the sidewalk, whistling, so thankful for all that's been done for them! That's how we're called to live as believers. Jesus came to give us life, and life to the full.

3. Because having fun with Jesus is the Gospel message.

We sometimes say, "Jesus died on the cross to forgive your sins." But that's only half the reason! We're not just saved FROM, we're saved FOR. In the same way Jesus died and then rose again, we're called to let go of our old self-focused lives, and experience a new Jesus-centered life. Life is never the same after you've had an encounter with the living God.

The humorless are deeply offended by this Gospel message. It doesn't seem fair that God would show so much grace towards imperfect persons. They're writing their negative review, "Sure, Jesus can do the miraculous, and he rose from the dead, and he offers a relationship with the Triune God. But do you see who he ate lunch with yesterday!?"

Friday, August 29, 2014

Jesus is Funny (Parables and Similes)

I ended my last entry with a mention of funny images in the Bible. The words "funny" and "Bible" don't usually appear in the same sentence. But really they should! Check out some of the images Jesus shared:

     Building house upon the sand instead of the rock
     Mustard seed growing into a big tree
     Parents giving their child a stone instead of bread
     Putting a lamp under a basket
     A camel through the eye of a needle
     Straining a gnat out of soup and then swallowing a camel
     Washing the outside of a cup but leaving the inside dirty
     Pointing out a splinter in another's eye when you have a plank in yours

We've been trained to think of these in very serious ways. But try to suspend your training for just a second and consider how absurd these would have been to the first audiences.

These images teach us about deeper truths, sure, but they also elicit a smile when we actually picture what Jesus is describing.

Still not convinced that Jesus told jokes? Well let's look at what Jesus said about the Pharisees. These guys were the very definition of humorless. Their goal was to create enough rules that they would be guaranteed "good," and guarantee all non-Pharisees as being not good enough.

Jesus had a great time poking fun of these guys. He made fun of the way the Pharisees prayed; we get this image of the Pharisees scrunching their faces and clenching really hard to squeeze out their prayer. Jesus made fun of the way they tithed; it is crazy to think of someone tithing out of their spice rack.

Probably my favorite little exchange, though, comes from Mark 7. And to fully appreciate this joke, you have to understand the concept of corban. Corban is when some money or resources were set aside to later give to God. This tradition was just fine for most Jewish believers but the Pharisees had taken corban to a strange new extreme. Basically, picture going to your friend and asking for $10 and the friend says, "Oh, eeps, well I would, but the thing is that I plan on giving God $10 in about 5 years. So I can't loan you money to buy a sandwich right now."  That's basically what the Pharisees were doing.

Jesus teases the Pharisees by explaining to them that food is great for everyone when it comes from the outside. But if you keep it to yourself, what comes from the inside is no longer good. Oh, snap! Now if you're like me, or like the 12 disciples, then we missed the joke. But the Pharisees sure got it. They were enraged.

The disciples, a little later, pulled Jesus aside to ask why the Pharisees got so upset. Jesus explains the joke and in Mark 7:19 even spells out that he was talking about feces. Haha, basically, Jesus was saying, "Those Pharisees are obsessed with staying ritually clean but they are full of crap." That's funny.

Stay tuned for my next post which will look at Jesus being funny with his disciples, and, why it even matters that Jesus was funny.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Bible (tl;dr)

Let's face it: the Bible isn't always easy to read. There are parts that seem dry, outdated, or downright confusing. Many well-intentioned readers have planned to go cover to cover, only to get bogged down in a section like Leviticus.

Yet the stories of the Bible are meant to come alive, to jump off the page, and give us a clear picture of how God can be found in our lives. We are meant to open the Scriptures and discover the truth of phrases like, "All Scripture is God-breathed," and, "The Word of God is living and active." (2 Tim 3:16 and Heb. 4:12).

Why the disconnect? Well, in my previous post I shared about a humorous exchange between Jesus and Nathanael. Here are 4 reasons why it's hard to access the humor of the Bible:

1. We are separated by culture.

We pack ourselves into stuffy sanctuaries and share Scripture like it's a classroom lecture hall. But think about where and how these Bible stories were first shared: in the hustle and bustle of a Middle Eastern marketplace, or out in the open countryside. People didn't have time for boring stories. No wonder the early rabbis were such great storytellers! And Jesus was part of that dynamic, oral culture.

2. We are separated by time.

Have you ever tried to look at political cartoons from the past? The jokes no longer make sense. In fact, you may feel old looking at this old cartoons because there are entire generations of kids who won't recognize the political figures. The same is true of some of the jokes in the Bible; unless we learn about the 1st century society, we will miss the punchlines.

3. We're separated by language.

While we certainly can trust the modern English translations of the Bible, we still need to recognize that not everything can be translated exactly. Sometimes a word has shades of meaning in one language that it doesn't have in another. If you're confused by a verse, don't worry, research a little or ask a pastor you trust.  [or send me a message -- I'm a nerd when it comes to translation and linguistics]

4. We're separated by familiarity.

People in the first century were able to hear those New Testament passages for the very first time. Inventive wording caught people by surprise. Images popped and grabbed attention. Nowadays we have these same phrases plastered across bumper stickers and coffee mugs. We have forgotten how absurd, silly, and unexpected some of these original stories were. My next post will explore some of these silly, unexpected images.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Jesus is Hilarious (John 1:43-51)

Have you noticed how movies about Jesus always portray him as deeply serious? These film versions act as if every statement he uttered was breathy and didactic. But is that the Jesus we see in the Bible? Or as Christians know him?

Consider the exchange Jesus has with Nathanael in the first chapter of John: When Nathanael's friends come to tell him they've found the Messiah, Nathanael responds, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"

Nathanael reacts like this because Nazareth is known as a backwater kind of place. I grew up in New York and it's similar to what we'd say, "Can anything good come out of New Jersey?" [And we were saying this even before The Jersey Shore aired]

If we view this scene as a deeply serious exchange, we may imagine Jesus walking up to Nathanael, wagging his finger, and gently chiding, "Tsk, tsk, Nathanael. I know your thoughts. Be serious and follow me." That's not what Jesus does at all.

Jesus responds, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" This is hilarious but it's easy to miss the punchline unless you know the back story. Before Israel was a nation, God named a guy Israel, whose birth name was Jacob. Jacob was a deceiver, constantly tricking his family, friends, and even kings. When he was young, for example, Jacob fooled his blind father into thinking Jacob was actually his hairy brother Esau. The father mistakingly gave the birthright to Jacob, which could not be undone.

Jesus' response could be paraphrased, "Hey guys, gather around and take a picture! I found a mythical creature: the first son of Jacob who isn't being deceptive!" Ha, this is a great comeback. Jesus responds to humor with more humor.

There are funny little exchanges like this throughout the entire Bible. One author said it well when he wrote, "The Bible is full of irony, wit, double entendre, paradox, epigrams, incongruity, hyperbole, absurdity, verbal subtleties, indirection, clever turns of phrases, and pungency of speech."

If you find a humorous moment/story in the Bible, message me and let me know. I'd love to hear your thoughts. My next post is going to be on what makes it difficult to access the humor of the Bible.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Young believers don't know any better

My friend just e-mailed me to say, "I was listening to the radio and heard that 80 to 90% of the people who share the word of Christ have been a Christian for less than 2 years. Where are the people who have believed longer?"

I have trouble fact-checking this statistic [if you can, please leave a comment] but I know the general observation is true.

Why? Why are the long-term-churched people holding back from sharing the good news of Jesus Christ? What is it about new believers that makes them so willing to share? As sad as I am that old timers are holding back, I am unbelievably excited that younger believers are sharing at such a high rate. What great news!

Here are three things young believers feel that go missing in the old timers:

1. Newness

If you recently began a relationship with Jesus then everything feels new and exciting. It's like the honeymoon phase of a romantic relationship. You love every minute of being with that person and you want to shout it from the mountaintops. Old timers get desensitized. They can finish the end of the verse before the liturgist shares it. The message feels obvious so why share it?

BUT here's the thing the old timers are missing: God's grace is infinite. We can never reach the end of new, fresh discoveries about God's character and His plan. If we're not experiencing newness in our faith it's because we stopped reaching for new experiences, new faithfulness, seeking God's presence around the bend. In other words, we settled.

Let's emulate these new believers and discover truths for the very first time. Let's be shaped by awe. Let's be faithful stewards of God's great mysteries.

2. Expectation

Someone who has been a believer less than 2 years might think, "A Christian shared the truth with me; that must be what Christians do. Since someone shared with me and it changed my life, I should share with others."

At what point does a churched person begin to believe the lie that evangelism is only for the special few? Old timers begin to think that only the pastor can pray, or the spiritually charged extroverts, or the Bible scholars with all the right answers.

Every believer has a story worth sharing. Get out there and be willing to give the reason for the hope that you have in Christ Jesus.

3. Diversity

If someone has been a believer for less than 2 years then chances are high they have a lot of non-Christian friends. When a person finds something life-changing, they want to share it with those who mean the most to them: friends, family, coworkers, and anyone else you want to encourage.

Many of us old-timers have fallen into the holy huddle. We get into our Christian cars and turn on the Christian radio to go have Christian picnics with Christian friends. Maybe, just maybe, we should extend our social circle. Because the world has a lot of interesting people and it's honestly more satisfying to be open and friendly with everyone.

Are you an "old-timer" who can't remember the last time you shared the message of Jesus with someone new? It's okay, be encouraged, and join the 80-90% my friend mentioned who are sharing the word of Christ.