Escaping the Performance Trap

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Luke 12 begins with Jesus saying, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” 

Yeast, as you probably know, is a  eukaryotic microorganism which is used as a raising agent in breadmaking  whereby a tiny amount is added to permeate a large lump of dough, changing the character of the whole.

Jesus is saying that one tiny, but highly specific attitude can transform the whole character of a person.

He calls it “the yeast of the Pharisees.

But what is that attitude that changes the character of the whole?

Jesus calls it “hypocrisy” (which fits in with the diatribe against hypocrites in the previous chapter) but there’s something else going on here apart from the customary understanding of hypocrites as not practising what they preach, being inconsistent and insincere.

In the first century AD, the word “hypocrite” was a term used in Greek theatre. It meant a playactor; someone acting  a part by putting on a  mask. The heart of Jesus’s warning here was against what we might call “the performance trap.”

You see, the Pharisees were not insincere or inconsistent people. They were deeply religious and concerned with getting it right. Jesus even commended their teaching on occasion.

But God’s purpose is that we have “truth in the inward parts.” It’s not that we act righteously but that we are righteous from the inside out. it’s not that we do a good job of acting out a role of righteousness, but that we would be genuinely transformed in our inner being.

The danger of putting on a show

That’s the danger of emphasising the “stage” aspect of a church, or putting the minister on a pedestal, or encouraging your young people to form a worship band that emphasises public performance at the expense of private integrity.

The Message (Matthew 6) identifies the problem well:

“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.

2-4 “When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘playactors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.”

Beware of the yeast of the Pharisee! God judges not on the basis of how we have performed but on who we are behind the mask. It was the word that God spoke to Samuel when he was looking over the sons of Jesse for a future king:  “...for the Lord sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.“(1 Sam 16:7)

The risk of forgetting who you are

The Performance Trap can snare you into a kind of self-deception. You start to believe your own act. In Luke 18 Jesus tells the story of a Pharisee and a tax collector in the temple, seeking God. Luke prefaces the story with this:  “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable…” Do you see how self-deceived you can become when you get caught in the Performance Trap? You believe your own press release!

According to the story, they sincerely believed that they were morally better than the people who were around them who did not keep the Law the way they did.

This creates a serious block to honesty and self-awareness. You are hardly likely to go to the doctor if you think that you’re well.

Hypocrisy Is The Opposite Of Faith.

The familiar word in Hebrews 11:6 is that “without faith it is impossible to please God...” But hypocrisy is the very opposite of faith.  The difference is in who Is doing the work. On the surface, there may appear to be little difference between hypocrisy and genuine faith. In hypocrisy, a man does what he thinks God wants him to do in his life. By faith, a man trusts and depends upon the grace of God working in his behalf to transform his inner being so that he might do what God would have him do in his life.

The difference is in who is doing the work; in the hypocrite it is self, in the faithful believer it is God.

My destiny Is determined by this distinction! A person’s salvation is not based on what he does, no matter how righteous it may appear. Certainly the life of the believer should reflect righteous living and righteous works, but it is Christ in us who brings these things about.“It is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose…” (Philippians 2:12-13)

Ultimately, we have to confront Matt 7:21-23: Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” 23 Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you.”

The way out of the performance trap is to make sure you know Jesus. It’s the main thing. It’s the only thing. What about your heart this morning? Are you just going through the motions or is Jesus real in your life?

Lord, I want to escape the performance trap.

So help me not to put on an act, even with myself. Help me in my pride not to allow my “showing off” to become a default position or my worship or prayer to become theatre.

Help me to stay honest, even if it means that you have to allow my deceptions to be uncovered, and “shouted from the rooftops.”

Make me real, Make me true; In what I think and feel and speak and do. You are the way that I want to go. You are the truth that I need to know. You are the life I mean to live.

In Jesus’s name, I pray for “truth in the inward parts.

 

 

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Who made me a judge or divider? (Luke 12)

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Jesus talked constantly about the kingdom, about God’s rule, setting things right. And he constantly criticised the Pharisees for their nit-picking attention to detail while neglecting “the weightier matters” of justice, mercy and love.

But then comes someone from the crowd of listeners who says: “Master, tell my brother to divide the inheritance fairly.” (Luke 12: 13-15) And, surprisingly, Jesus refuses to interfere in the quarrel or to take part in it at all. In the old version -which is rather good here- he says “Man, who made me a judge or a divider between you?”

Don’t you find that astonishing? Surely it’s exactly the sort of situation calling for justice, mercy and love? Isn’t it? I can’t imagine Solomon having any difficulty. WWSD?

And yet Jesus implied that it was not his role to interfere.

What do you think? Was it, or wasn’t it?

To consider the point in a broader way, take a step back and think about a statement like “Christianity has nothing to do with politics.”

The notion rests on a basis which is partly wrong, partly right.

On one level it’s a false assertion. It’s like saying meteorology has nothing to do with architecture. Of course, there’s no direct association, but the reason they don’t build igloos in Dublin is that some really clever people have discovered that the prevailing meteorological conditions do not allow for the design and build of such structures!

So weather conditions have nothing to do with the principles of architecture directly. But indirectly, there’s plenty of connection. You’d be crazy not to consider the climate in which you build.

And that which the air is to architecture, the life of the Spirit is to politics.

It is the very atmosphere of every issue that comes into the political arena. Directly, it determines nothing – indirectly, it conditions every problem that can arise. Ultimately, there is no split between “sacred” and “secular.” This is God’s world and “The kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ.”

And yet, as much as the assertion is false, it is also true. Christianity and politics are different things. And, in this sense, Jesus refused to get involved in the legality of an inheritance.

He wasn’t Robin Hood, taking a proactive role in the equitable division of funds!

He simply spoke God’s word against oppression. It was a judge’s part to decide what oppression was. It was not his role to determine the boundaries of civil right, nor to lay down the rules of inheritance. Of course there was a spiritual and moral principle involved in this question. But his mission could not be downgraded into legal advice.

So what did he say?

Jesus laid down the principle “Render unto Caesar the things that be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which are God’s;” and urged us to figure out what that meant in the day-to-day stuff.

It is, specifically, our role before God to figure out what justice, mercy and truth, dictate. But he would not decide whether in this definite case this or that brother had justice on his side.

We are responsible to figure it out ourselves based on the principle of love.

This is the life of the Spirit. It’s always people not projects. It’s the people who make political decisions…not the decisions themselves. Not this party or that party. God calls us to behave like family and leaves us to figure it out.

Do you see what this means?

It means that the kingdom is never based on a system of rules but on a principle of relationship. The kingdom of God is not based on outward laws but inward connection -family. So he calls to the brothers to figure it out, in love, with mutual fairness, and not the Law (even the law of what Jesus said).

Think about it: Suppose that both of the brothers were wrong in different ways. Supposing one was a bully, grabbing all the money, and the other was greedy, desiring it all. But to take from one selfish brother in order to give to another selfish brother, what spiritual gain would there have been in this?

Or what if the one with the inheritance was wrong, and the guy who had come to Jesus was right? Well, to take the property from the unjust and give it to the just might be, and was, the duty of a civil judge; but it was not Christ’s role, nor any gain to the cause of Christ.

He’s just not bothered about this stuff! It’s irrelevant – or at most a very secondary issue.

Why so? Because God does not reward His servants with inheritances, with lands, houses, gold and fancy cars! “The kingdom of God is NOT meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

Another thing. And this is deliciously unpopular to say: in the choice between the Haves and the Have-nots, he refused to be the friend of one, because He was the friend of both!

He never was the champion of one class, because he was the champion of humanity.

OK, let’s assume that the questioner had been treated badly in the inheritance conflict (or, at least, he thought himself so); Jesus frequently taught about the heart-condition which would have made his brother put things right with him. “If you have anything against your brother…” But Jesus refused to take his part against his brother, just because he was his brother. This is family business, not civil law!

And this was His spirit always. The Pharisees thought to commit him to a side when they asked whether it was lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not. But he would take no side as the Christ: neither the part of the Government against the tax-payers, nor the part of the tax-payers against the Government.

Of course, it’s a common thing to hear of human rights issues – and how can those issues be wrong? And yet, this verse speaks to that.

It reminds us to be cautious about pitting one class against another, or one section of the world against another.  For many years the Bible was used to defend rank and wealth – even slavery! And it was all dead flat wrong! But neither is it poor against the rich. The Bible takes neither the part of the poor against the rich exclusively, nor that of the rich against the poor.

The point that this passage makes is revolutionary. Worldly principles do not apply where is a real, deep, true brotherhood.

If these men were really brothers -at a heart level – then there would not be an issue. That was the challenge with which Jesus left them.

 

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Encountering the Truth

 

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What tone of voice did Pilate use, when he asked Jesus “What is truth?” (in John 19), I wonder.

He was certainly confused, judging from the way he dodged between Jesus and his accusers, in and out of the palace, looking for answers and finding only invective (on the one hand) and silence on the other. He may have even been half-convinced by his wife’s dream (“Have nothing to do with this innocent man“) and by the quiet dignity of the prisoner before him.

I wonder if there was an element of the sneering banter that you get from a TV commentator, the highly-polished man-of-the-world, dripping with fake sincerity. Pilate was highly educated, cultured, cosmopolitan. He was one of the movers and shakers, a key representative of the most powerful people in the world. Surely then, he would have been condescending, ready to ridicule the claims of some wild-looking preacher from the backwoods.

And yet he prevaricates. He dithers. He pronounces Jesus innocent and then allows his crucifixion. What is truth, Pilate?

There was a political truth, which was that the Roman province of Judaea was a disaster waiting to happen, and that the religious extremists must be conciliated whenever possible.

There was a moral truth, which was that Jesus was clearly innocent, and Pilate should set him free.

There was the truth of expedience, that Pilate’s career would suffer from adverse criticism (“This man is not Caesar’s friend“).

But the Truth itself was standing in front of him, and he didn’t recognize it! He was too worldly to recognize it. He was too indecisive to respond to it. He was too cowardly to follow through on the convictions of his own conscience. He was lost in a world of phony handshakes and media soundbites. It’s our world too.

Pilate was awash with uncertainty. He tried to free Jesus – he risked his reputation – and pron0unced him innocent. There was awe of the prisoner and fear of the situation. And a dash of mockery and self-contempt?

He listened to the people and priests and returned to Jesus. He witnesses the ferocity on the one hand and the beauty on the other, balancing between them…. how do I answer the question of truth?

He’s a man of the world with no religious education but he can recognise superficial charges, and superficial slanders.

And out of that mood, when he hears Jesus speak of a kingdom of the truth, he gives a sad, bitter, sarcastic sigh, “What is truth?” Who knows any thing about it?  It wasn’t a joke, nor was it a question. He goes on to say, “I find no fault in Him.” Maybe there was a sarcasm there , but that bitter sarcasm that hides anxiety in a sneer.

And so for us he encapsulates one who encounters the truth, but can’t handle it.

He was too indecisive to know the truth. He blames the priests – and then says that all responsibility is his own: washes his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person. You see to it.” And then – “Do you not know that I have power to crucify you, and power to release you?” He pronounces Jesus innocent; and then, has him whipped: yields Him up to be crucified, and then tries to save Him.

Here is a man who knows the right and does the wrong – not willing to do an act of injustice if he can avoid it, but hesitating to prevent it, for fear of a charge against himself – hands tied by past guilt and personal danger. How could such a man be certain about any thing? He’s a wimp. A leaf on the wind. “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” “He that is of the truth, hears the voice of truth.” To the untrue man all things are untrue. To the up and down man, who can not know his own mind, all things seem alterable, changeful, unfixed;

He was false to his own convictions. He had a feeling that Jesus was innocent. Instead of acting on that, he talks and talks himself into uncertainty. ….Now it’s ok to think things over and to reconsider priorities. It’s good to check yourself. (What do we  believe?).

You can change opinions or points of view but there are eternal rights and wrongs.

Woe to the man who moves boundary stones.”  Pilate was false to his conscience. His conviction was that Jesus was innocent. It was not a matter of speculation : they are persecuting a guiltless man. Every charge has fallen to the ground. And he hesitates to be true.

He was too worldly to recognise the truth

He was a public man. He knew life on a shallow level, and had never committed to a spiritual ideal. It was fashionable tobe sceptical, It still is.

And yet he was merciful, kind-hearted and tolerant:“So youre a king?” Was he playing to the crowd? A little flippant?

And now this awful encounter when he finds his worldly façade stripped away. And the fearful thought like the ground opening beneath him that this man could be the real thing. He says “What is truth?” and here is Truth in front of him.

To such a character Jesus would not explain His truth. He gave no reply: He held His peace. Jesus knew all about pearls before swine. “The natural man cannot receive the things of the spirit.”

But what about the priests? Pilate wasn’t sure, but they knew that Jesus was innocent. A man once said “Why, what evil has he done?” . And they pounced on him. And here they ready themselves to pounce on Pilate in the same way. Bigots insisting on their version of the truth.  “If you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend.”

And the crowd roar their approval (like at Stalin’s show trials). This is what bigotry does: it creates cowards, claims to infallibility, it means they insist you stop thinking… just do what I say. turning private opinion into civil crime: and they make skeptics of the acute intellects which, like Pilate, see through their fallacies, and like Pilate too, dare not go on….

Doctrine can become something to bully people with. It doesn’t matter WHAT the doctrine, it’s how you believe it. And how you live it. And faced with it people become fanatics or sceptics… not believers.

So how do we find the truth? And What should Jesus have answered? Trouble is, as soon as you label it then it becomes an IT, a substantival Thing that can phariseed into dogma.

The truth is like a sea washing around the shore… principles, an inward life, the life of the spirit. How could his question be answered except by a LIFE

The words which I speak unto you, they are truth, and they are life.” How could Pilate’s question be answered except by a Life? The truth, then, which Pilate wanted – which you want, and I want – is not philosophical propositions, but truth of inward life. Truth for me: Truth enough to guide me in this fog- enough to teach me how to live and how to die.

How? By hearing from God for yourself (like a guide up the mountain, a specialist doctor Ultimately you HAVE to think for yourself.

But stay humble. Remember: no man is infallible By staying teachable Arguments to see who wins?? Christ would not argue with Pilate. And Pilate missed the answer to his question. “The meek will He guide in judgment.”

By acting on your conscience  This was Christ’s rule – “If any man will do His will….”  Do the right. Some things are clear in the fog. Do it. Love kindness. Give. Make it simple. Live seriously, and you will know the answer to “What is truth?” To believe is to commit yourself to action.

It occurs to me now that it wasn’t Jesus on trial at all, but Pilate.

When Jesus confronted Pilate as Truth incarnate, there were only two possible outcomes. Either the Truth would be crucified, or Pilate would have denied himself, taken up his cross, and followed Jesus.

Which would you have chosen?

 

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“Now as for what is inside you…” Jesus on Hypocrisy (Luke 11)

 

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Spurgeon once said, with his characteristic good sense and robust humour, “When you see a great deal of religion displayed in his shop window, you may depend on it, that he keeps a very small stock of it within.”

It’s a rather worrying observation for me, speaking as a church leader. I get a little bothered by all that “religion” in the shop window of my life. Sometimes I have to put the “Closed” sign up and just make sure I pray as much as I preach; and that I never get fooled into thinking that I’m here to sort people out.

As someone said: “People are mysteries to be explored, not problems to be solved.”

And Jesus was always merciful with broken people and merciless with pretend people. His stock-taking was rigorous. Luke 11 contains a string of criticisms against the “shopkeepers” with a load of glossy stuff on display, but with very little in the stock cupboard of their spiritual lives.

His first target is the Pharisee:

“A Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. 38 But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.”

There’s a huge emphasis on that word “Surprised.” It suggests condescension and moral oneupmanship. Imagine someone treading muddy boots on to your white carpet, and saying: “I didn’t think it necessary to take them off” and you raise your eyebrows and say, faintly, “Oh really?” That’s the flavour of the passive aggressive insult that is being offered to Jesus here.

But Jesus doesn’t do passive-aggressive. He can’t be belittled because his love and truthfulness are sincere and complete. All his stock is on display. It’s top quality and inexhaustible.

So don’t read this next bit as an attack but as the strongest kind of challenge – the challenge to be as real as Jesus- to be truthful about who you are, face your inadequacy and seek help for change.

So here he goes: 

“Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But now as for what is inside you – be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.”

Does your inside and your outside match? Do you have a public and a private life that are at odds? Jesus doesn’t pause for an answer (because the answer is always “No!”). Instead, he offers an immediate strategy for self-renewal. “As for what is inside you – be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” What does that mean? Well, partly, I think it means “Stop being so self-obsessed!” Even your religiousness can be self-centred, self-important and self-directed.

So just get over your sweet self and be generous to “the poor.

Then Jesus pushes the agenda of what “over-religiousness” might look like:

42 ‘Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practised the latter without leaving the former undone.”

Notice that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being precise about how you tithe (that’s the meaning of the of the phrase “a tenth“),  but it is secondary- a long way secondary!- from “justice and the love of God.” And what is “justice and the love of God“? In this passage you can make a start by being generous to the poor -an activity that makes  all things “clean for you.” That is to say, this is the real “purity” that God seeks, not the skin-deep stuff you acquire underneath a tap!

But Jesus hasn’t finished. As he continues, he acquires his second target: the Expert in the Law.

‘Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the market-places. ‘Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.’ One of the experts in the law answered him, ‘Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.’

Generally speaking, if the Pharisees were concerned about ritual cleanliness, food hygiene and social propriety, the “Expert in the Law” was more narrowly concerned with the interpretation of the ancient codes. So they got the posh seats and the courteous hellos. All a bit silly. Why? Because -suggested Jesus- when these people doff their caps at you, they don’t know what you’re like inside. They’re walking over a whole box of bones, a closet full of skeletons, a blob of corruption.

And this only bothers you if you want to pretend that it just ain’t so.

But it is.

And the whining reply: ‘Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.’ 

But Jesus isn’t done:   ‘And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them…. ‘Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.’”

This is the consequence of hypocrisy. Once you drive a wedge between your real self and your pretend self, you are unable to help anyone else. All your energy gets sucked into continuing the charade of your own importance. 

And what happened next, after this scorching blast of honesty?

When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions,  waiting to catch him in something he might say.” (Luke 11: 37-54)

And the scene closes with a growing momentum of hatred that will one day fuel the cries of “Crucify him!” outside Pilate’s palace.

But what about us? Jesus leaves us with only two options: to continue in the delusion that we are ok (which quickly sharpens into a refusal to let God speak into our lives); or to face our own hypocrisy, acknowledge the shamefulness of our secret selves…

And repent. Give it to Jesus. Say sorry from your heart. And let it go. 

Jesus died on the cross. That death was produced -as we’ve just seen- by antagonism towards his truthfulness. But when Jesus died he made an “open display” of what such viscious hypocrisy produces. He exposed it, like a wound that has to be exposd, cleaned and cauterised before it can be healed.

He died for my sin so that I might no longer live in it.

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“A body full of light” (Luke 11)

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Jesus talks of having a body “full of light.” It sounds absolutely wonderful, like  a week in a spa resort or the spiritual equivalent of a fat-free diet.

So what did he mean? (And how can I get one?)

Well, before we get to that, let’s look at that context. It’s a familiar passage, for the most part. Jesus is speaking:

“No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light. 34 Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy,  your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy,  your body also is full of darkness. 35 See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness. 36 Therefore, if your whole body is full of light, and no part of it dark, it will be just as full of light as when a lamp shines its light on you.’” (Luke 11: 33-36)

First we have the picture of a lit lamp and the rather crazy notion of hiding it somewhere. No one would be so foolish. The whole point and purpose of the lamp is to offer guidance and safe passage through a confusing obstacle course.

Otherwise we’re talking lego bricks underfoot and bruised shins. And that’s not pretty!

And then Jesus says something surprising: “Your eye is the lamp of your body.” That is to say: the way you look at things determines whether or not you have the safe passage or the confusing obstacle course.

If the eye is healthy (literally: “single“), the whole body will be full of light. But if the eye is unhealthy, the body will be full of darkness.

In other words: How you see reality determines whether you are in the dark or not.

So what is the good eye that gives so much light and the bad eye that leaves us in the dark?

1.It’s a discerning eye

A clue is found in Matthew 20:15. Jesus has just said, in one of his stories, that men who worked one hour will be paid the same as those who worked all day, because the master is merciful, and besides, they all agreed to their wage. Those who worked all day grumbled that the men who worked one hour were paid too much. Jesus responded with the same words found here “Is your eye bad because I am good?

What is bad about their eye? What’s bad is that their eye does not see the mercy of the master as beautiful. They see it as ugly. They don’t see reality for what it is.

They do not have an eye that can see mercy as more precious than money.

Now bring that understanding of the “bad eye” back to Luke 11 and let it determine the meaning of the “good eye.” What would the good eye be that fills us with light? It would be an eye that sees the Master’s generosity as more precious than money. The good eye sees God and his ways as the great Treasure in life, not money.

You have a good eye if you look on heaven and love to maximize the reward of God’s fellowship there. You have a good eye if you look at Master-money and Master-God and see Master-God as infinitely more valuable. In other words, a “good eye” is a valuing eye, a discerning eye, a treasuring eye.

It doesn’t just perceive what is true and false. It sees beauty and ugliness, it senses value and worthlessness, it discerns what is really desirable and what is undesirable.

The seeing of the good eye is not neutral. When it sees God, it sees God-as-beautiful. It sees God-as-desirable.

That is why the good eye leads to the way of light: laying up treasures in heaven, and serving God not money. The good eye is a single eye. It has one Treasure. God. When that happens in your life, you are full of light.

2. It’s a focused eye

Someone sent me this quote, the other day: “Whenever you want to achieve something, keep your eyes open, concentrate and make sure you know exactly what it is you want. No one can hit their target with their eyes closed.”

And, more succinctly, Steve Jobs said “Focusing is about saying No.”  In order to drive south, you say no to driving north. In order to seek the good, you refuse the bad.

So what does that mean in the moral movement of our lives?

In Titus 2:11-14, it is laid out. The lamp is lit, the way is clear to discern the good and the bad. And your “body is full of light“:

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”

Eager to do what is good? That’s the last thing I think the passage underlines. It’s so serious that I hesitate to say it, but Jesus said it, so it mustn’t be fudged. Here it is: “See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness.”

Right now you are making moral decisions. You can’t help it. Every choice that you make is a spiritual step. You are a spiritual being. You were made that way.

And if you choose away from God, you choose darkness. You choose the path of the lego bricks and the bruised shins, the confusing obstacle course of life. But you needn’t do so! The grace of God has appeared in Christ and enabled you to say no!

In the rather stately and wonderful language of Deuteronomy 30, there is outlined the choice that lies before me and you:

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today,that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you and your children may live, by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days.”

Choose life. Let your body fill with light.

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What is the “Sign of Jonah”? (Luke 11)

 

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Jesus was inundated with demands by carping critics to “prove” himself or to perform miracles on request, much as the media today would gather round a “Miracle Crusade” today, notebooks in hand, scepticism and prurience at the ready.

The “Sign  of Jonah” was -paradoxically- Jesus’s refusal to give any sign at all. Here’s the context in Luke 11:

“As the crowds increased, Jesus said, ‘This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.”

So Jesus condemns the desire for a”sign” as an indicator of wickedness. Matthew’s parallel account of this passage is a little different. He adds the explanation that “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40) By contrast, Luke says simply, “For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation.”

That is to say, Jonah himself is the sign. Jonah, bleached bone-white by the acids in the fish’s stomach, a dead-man walking, speaking the word of God and calling a whole generation to repentance -that’s the only sign you’ll get.

And then Luke adds v31: that the “Queen of the South” (the Queen of Sheba) will be a witness for the prosecution when this generation is put on trial, “for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here.”

Do you see the connection? Jonah went to the ends of the earth -the pagan city of Nineveh, no less!- and they repented and turned to God. The Queen travelled from the farthest imaginable south because she desired wisdom from the king of Israel. And so both Nineveh and Sheba sought God but Israel itself has missed it.

John Gill put it like this: “This Heathen queen shall rise together with the men of the present generation among the Jews, stand in judgment with them, and against them; and that her conduct would be brought as an evidence against them, and be improved as an aggravation of their condemnation:”for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold a greater than Solomon is here:” The difference between them, and what aggravates the case is, that she was a Gentile that knew not God, they were Jews, his professing people; she came from afar, they were near, upon the spot, where Christ was, he was preaching in their streets, temple, and synagogues; she came to hear only natural or moral wisdom, but they might have heard spiritual and heavenly wisdom, with which eternal happiness is connected; she came to hear only a mere man, but they might have heard him who is the wisdom of God, and the only wise God, and our Saviour.”

Even their so-called “seeking for a sign” is a hypocrisy. The signs are plain to see, but they refuse to acknowledge them. Jesus sent a message to John the Baptist, languishing in prison, ““Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Luke 7:22) The signs are all there, if you choose to see them.

And don’t miss that word “pagan” that I slipped in a minute ago – Nineveh and Sheba are pagan outsiders who found God. Those sneering at Jesus for a sign are Jewish insiders. As John put it,”He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:11-12) 

And somehow, in this passage, Jesus does it again. He takes what is meant as an attack on his integrity and the purpose of his mission, and flips it around so that it becomes a challenge to his questioners to examine themselves.  

Ultimately miracles are not enough. Don’t get me wrong – I  love to see God moving in power, healing, delivering and tranforming lives.

But it’s so easy to become focused upon the miracles that you miss the God of the miracles.

These events, said Jesus are “signs” which point beyond themselves, just as a signpost does not constitute a journey but only helps you along it!

And so Jesus gave “the sign of Jonah.” At first, it seemed like a non-sign, a symbol of someone bringing a message from afar off, strangely cloaked in authority and calling for repentance. And Jesus challenges -rebukes- the demand for a “sign.” It’s a criticism, a judgement. But your very criticism of him becomes a criticism, a judgement, upon yourself. And the more you attack and snipe, the more you paint yourselves into a corner and inhibit your own moral movement.

You are burning the bridge over which you must pass.

And the sign gathers momentum. For one day soon Jesus’s preaching will be done and the day of opportunity for response over, and just as the fish swallowed Jonah  in the ancient tale, so death will swallow Jesus.

And even that will not be the end, but only a new sort of beginning. But if you would reach that destination, you need to follow the sign carefully.

 

 

 

 

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The Point of Decision (Luke 11)

 

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The Greek word for “judgement” is krisis. It carries the meaning of “deciding point.” If you decide, for example, to drive north, then you cannot also drive south. The one excludes the other. The moment you decide is a “crisis” of judgement and commits you to action.

And when people met Jesus, they found themselves forced to make a decision -a judgement- about him. Jesus  asked “Who do people say I am?”  by way of encouraging that decision. They had to decide who they thought he was. The thing was, you couldn’t stay neutral.It was like a war zone and you had to choose which side you were on. He claimed -at the very least- to speak for God; and so you had to decide whether that was true or false. If it was true, then they really needed to listen and obey!

The same choice exists today.

In Luke 11, we see some people coming to that very crisis point, but choosing wrongly:

“Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. 15 But some of them said, ‘By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.’ 16 Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven.”

Do you see it? Jesus is displaying power, -astonishing, authoritative action- and so a response is forced upon the audience. They are forced to ask: “Where does this power come from?” But is it the power, say, of Martin Luther King, swaying the people with passionate eloquence as he calls for justice? Or is it the power of Hitler, awakening a dark racism that calls for blood?

The distinction is not always so pure and simple, you know. Sometimes you can’t easily distinguish between the two. At least at first.

Luke continues:

Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: ‘Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall.18 If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebul. 19 Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 20 But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

Jesus opens out this point of decision into the description of a war zone. And, as I said, there are no neutral zones, no non-combatants. It’s a war in which you are forced to choose sides. Good and Evil are locked into combat.When Jesus broke the chains of oppression over this man, he made a decisive attack from one side against the other.

But it’s vital now that you make the choice: Is this Hitler or MLK in action? To make the choice, you  have to understand what’s happening. The demonised are being set free. Even John the Baptist became uncertain, and sought reassurance that Jesus was who he said he was; and Jesus encouraged him to look at the fruit of what he was doing: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Luke 7:22)

So the next verses describe with crystal clarity just what Jesus is doing:

21 ‘When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. 22 But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armour in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder.”

The forces against which Jesus contends are personnified as “Beelzebul” (a term deriving from “Baal” (in 2 Kings 1:2-3, 6, 16) with a suffix variously understood to mean “Lord of the Flies” or “Master of the House.” This last phrase certainly fits the context here. But Jesus, whilst admitting the strength of the enemy, claims that his present actions prove his own greater strength.

The enemy’s armour is being stripped away and his plunder divided every time an oppressed person is set free! And again, it is no different today.

So, now, make your choice:

” ‘Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” You are either on the side of the gatherers or the scatterers. 

Either we are building, organizing, teaching, discipling … or  we are destroying. Either we are repairing, restoring… or we areallowing the certainty of entropy, decay and loss to have its full effect. Either we are advancing the kingdom, hastening the day… or we are delaying it.

Either we are part of the solution or part of the problem.

It’s interesting that the opposite is not spoken.  It is not, if you are not against me, that is okay with me, or some such construct. Further, we are not the judge of our condition, for it is Jesus who is the judge and arbiter.  In similar fashion Paul reminds us if God is for us, who can stand against us?

But, if we are not gathering with him, Jesus is not for us, but rather implies that he stands against us. In that case, it does not matter who else might be for us!

However, the paradox is that you and I do not work for God to be accepted by Him. That is religion. Rather it is, I am accepted by God, therefore I obey.  That is relationship.

But Jesus has more to say about the meaning of being a gatherer:

‘When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, “I will return to the house I left.” 25 When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. 26 Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.’

Again we see the image of a house, now lacking its previous occupant. The obvious truth is outlined, that a house needs an occupant who will care for it, or it will fall into disrepair. It is not enough to have the bad tenant evicted: the true Owner must be re-installed

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’” (Luke 11: 14-28)

Luke concludes the passage the way he began it, on the issue of choice and decision. If you acknowledge that Jesus is who he claims to be, then you take your stand with him. You examine the evidence of the newly liberated people around him, and you conclude that this is it! War has been declared and you have been called up! And you are a gatherer, restoring, collecting, fishing, harvesting – Jesus was never short of images! And you are part of that “someone stronger” who “attacks and overpowers” Satan divesting him of  his “armour” and dividing “up his plunder.”

When Peter saw, in a rare moment of spiritual insight, just who Jesus was, Jesus replied in words that we must understand for ourselves (as part of his body, his church):

 “And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock  I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

And all this waits on your choice. You are called into combat and the battle is on.

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