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Posts Tagged ‘Messiah’

Bleeding on the Altar of Self-sacrifice

Humanity’s relationship with the divine has always been a miserable one.  In the Judeo-Christian system of belief, the fault is laid at the feet of the first couple, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden.  The shattering of an idyllic relationship with humankind’s Creator and surrounding creation was the result of their disobedience and rebellion.  Their offspring, right down to us who are alive today, still refers to that episode as “The Fall.”  A clear indication that something was lost.

Efforts by humanity to regain that privileged position with their Creator and with creation has resulted in a myriad of convoluted religious beliefs systems.  Of course, in the modern era, the idea that one can completely opt out of any and all religious belief systems is now an option.  Thus, atheism has become a religion and religious expression all its own.  However, for the majority of the world, some type of belief in a deity(ies) still exists.  It affects how life is conducted on every level of human existence.

One thing they seem to bear in common is some sort of system for sacrifice to appease their god(s) or spiritual beings (if they are animists).  There appears to be a human universal need to “pay for one’s sins” to gain approval from these divines.  A predominant idea throughout all religious systems is that reality involves more than just what can be seen.  There is a larger reality in the unseen world that affects what is going on in the seen world.

Where the Christian faith diverges from these other world religions is the view that a sacrifice is no longer needed (at least in the Protestant stream).  It begins with God’s revelation to the children of Israel, the Jews.  God, by his revelation through the ancient patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – then later Moses and then reaffirmed through the Prophets, set up a better sacrificial system.  More important, meaning and explanation accompanied the revelation for the sacrificial system that pointed to a time when sacrifices would no longer be needed.

The sacrifices of grains and animals really do not change the heart of humanity.  They only bear witness to the cost of our continued rebellion and disobedience to our Maker.  Thus, in God’s timing, He sent His son, Yeshua = Joshua/Jesus.  According to His divine plan, this God-man who lived a perfect life became a sacrifice for all of humanity and all of human sin.  Ironically, we killed him.

Our Jewish and Gentile fore-bearers unrighteously judged him, unjustly condemned him and then put him to death in a cruel fashion by crucifixion.  Nevertheless, because of the Son’s willing obedience to take all of humanity’s punishment, God raised him from the dead and restored him to his heavenly place of rule and authority.  A few hundred people testified to seeing him after dying and being buried.  We have their testimonies written down for us to digest, accept and believe or disbelieve.

One would think that this would be the end of the story – at least in the Christian realm.  But, no.  The story continues to unfold in human history.  There are many who reject the idea that one person, no matter how perfect, could die for another and that it would be enough to satisfy God’s demand for justice and judgment against human sin.  Still, there are many others who believe the story and accept the sacrifice of God’s son for their own sin.  They continually remind themselves of this by partaking in the Eucharist or Holy Communion.

Nevertheless, even among those who accept the story witnessed to by so many, believe upon it and choose to live their lives by it, there is a creeping attitude or idea that something more must be required.  So, Christians create their own altars for their own sacrifices hoping to add to what Christ already did upon the cross, in the grave and through the resurrection.  Even those who are children of the Protestant Reformation and think of themselves as holding to “evangelical” beliefs struggle with this issue.

This struggle is more particularly acute when Christians go through troubling times and hardships.  A whole “Christian” nation can take on this attitude in turbulent times.  We want to find a reason for our suffering – or bad turn of luck.  We too quickly turn back to a pagan view of God that determines we must have done something – sinned – to anger the deity and now he is poised against us.  So, we search for ways to satisfy the deity’s anger, appease it and regain its approval and blessing – or at least neutrality so as not to oppose us in our plans and desires for a peaceful and happy existence.

Pink Rhododendrun Flowers, Spring 2010

Pink Rhododendrun Flowers, Spring 2010 Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I was reminded of this troubling trend in our Christian history when I came across how many responded to the Black Death Plague – also called the Bubonic Plague – in Europe during the middle ages.  I have just finished reading John Man‘s book, “Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words.  He highlights in one chapter the actions of “the flagellants.”

The popular idea then, much as it is now, is that the God of the Bible promised not only salvation in the next life but also constant support in this one.  However, in the face of the troubling Black Death (Bubonic Plague) epidemic He seemed impotent, if not hostile towards humanity through the disease.  The explanation?  God must be angry and was clearly out to punish all of Europe and the Church – either actively or by neglect and indifference.  So, God must be somehow mollified.  This took many forms, of course, but one of the radical forms were the crazed devotees who marched from city to city through Europe lashing themselves with iron-tipped whips while crying out for God’s mercy.  Fellow devotees would then follow them moaning and dabbing themselves with the blood of the flagellants.

Another radical form was to find blame in someone else and make them pay the price.  While today the Church likes to look outside itself and blame homosexuals, pornography, gambling, liquor, liberal politicians and other spiritual “enemies”, the Church then chose to blame the Jews.  Already labeled as Christ-torturers and child-murders, all across Germany the rumor spread that they were also “well-poisoners.”  Thus, one series of many Jewish persecutions took place all across Europe.

Jews were burned on a wooden scaffold in the churchyard in Strasbourg.  This was replicated in almost all of the cities along the Rhine river.  In Antwerp and Brussels, entire Jewish communities were slain.  In Erfurt, 3,000 perished as sacrifices for the cause of the Black Plague.  In Worms and Frankfurt, instead of facing the same fate, the Jews chose to go out in Masada-like fashion and committed mass suicide.  In Mainz, Germany, 100 were burned outside of St. Quentin’s Church on St. Bartholomew’s day.  All were ultimately sacrifices to attempt to appease “God’s” anger and restore deserved blessing and peace to Europe.

While reading about these sad episodes in human history, I could not help but think that we really have not come that far in the Christian faith.  There is still a propensity to want to “pay back” God for our sin.  When bad things happen, Christian too often look for a cause-and-effect.  We want an explanation; preferably an understandable one.  The fact remains that there often is not one.  God remains God and does not need to explain his actions or non-actions to us.  His goodness comes to those who deserve it and those who do not.  Likewise, bad things visit humanity indiscriminately – to good people and bad people.

Christians often think that their faith in God somehow gives them a “Club Membership” to a trouble-free life.  So, when disease, tragedy, disaster or unexpected death visit us, we think that our “Membership Dues” must not be paid up.  We think we must “sacrifice” something to get back in to the “Club” of God’s favor.  How wrong!

As a spiritual leader in churches, I have witnessed good Christian people go through all kinds of agony trying to find an explanation for why bad things happen to them.  Early on in my spiritual journey, I always thought that I owed them and explanation.  After all, I am the one who went to Bible School and Seminary.  I should have the answers, right?  What a relief to finally come to the conclusion that I do not.  And I do not have to have “the answer(s).”  The fact is that most of the time, there is no answer.

And perhaps that is just the point.  When God remains distant and in the shadows of human tragedy and suffering, it may be that He is there to witness our faith in action when it is needed most.  After all, no one really knows what they truly believe until they are put under the stress of a trial or spiritual test.  It is then that what we truly believe in our hearts – our souls – really comes out and is evident to us and all those around us.  It is then that we discover the real bankruptcy of our “faith” or when we realize how very vibrant and real our faith truly is for us.

At any rate, faith in what God accomplished through the Messiah should be sufficient for us.  There is nothing more that we can add to his sacrificial death or resurrection.  We cannot create another altar and offer our own sacrifices upon it.  There is no other altar, no other sacrifice and no other payment necessary to appease God’s wrath.  He only accepts his son, Jesus the Messiah.  No other.  Only those who come to him through what his son did are received by him.  There is no other way.

So, the next time you feel the tug to “offer a sacrifice” to please God, remember that He has already made one for you.  There is nothing more that you can offer.  There is no trophy, no price, no sacrifice anyone can offer to God where they will be able to say to Him, “Look what I have offered to you!  Are you not pleased with me?  Don’t you owe it to me to bless me and always keep me happy now?”  Such an approach is a bankrupt one.  It fails to recognize the cost of His son’s sacrifice and is an affront to Him.

If you are finding yourself bleeding on the altar of self-sacrifice because you thought you could earn God’s favor, it is time to get off of it and be set free.  No amount of guilt, hand-wringing, praying, fasting, giving, worrying, church attendance or any other spiritual flagellation will earn you any credits in His account book until you learn to accept and live in the forgiveness and grace freely given to you through Christ.  Like so many before me, I too have often “beat myself up” mentally and spiritually thinking that everything that went wrong was my fault and that I must have done something to displease God.  I have learned to recognize that as a subtle spiritual lie of the enemy of my soul, the devil.  He would have me do anything but accept and live freely in what Christ accomplished.

After all, self-sacrifice is just another form of self-worship.  Self-worship is what caused Satan’s downfall in the first place.  By attempting to make our own sacrifices and meet God on our terms, we are only attempting to do what Satan did before His fall from heaven.  Only God dictates the terms for the satisfaction of divine judgment and justice.  Otherwise, He would not be God.  So, He has provided the answer or solution.  He has already established the altar and received the sacrifice.  It is time for us to stop bleeding on the altar of our self-sacrifices and worship at the throne of grace and mercy.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Something that atheists cannot explain adequately is the presence of evil.  Their paradigm lacks an explanation for why good people suffer.  The materialistic determinism that guides most atheists’ belief system is an inadequate philosophical system when it comes to instructing us about the unexplainable, the mysterious or metaphysical. Our supposed evolutionary progress has not produced a more enlightened species; just the same bent toward evil only now loaded down with better technology.

Materialistic determinism in its most basic form says that reality is only what can be explained by our senses and measured according to mathematical and scientific theories.  On top of this, since we are bound by physical laws, our existence is predetermined and there is no use attempting to explain it, reason it or make meaning of it; especially with any sort of spiritual language.  There is no real hope for any kind of salvation per se.  Existence is a meaningless mix of biological material thrown in to a heartless universe established and maintained by a matrix of physical laws.

Unfortunately, the popular theology of many contemporary Christians is also inadequate in explain the presence of evil in the world.  It is often oversimplified or too personalized to be of any meaning to those who are really suffering.  Either everything evil is blamed on Satan and personal demons or it is denied all together and ignored.  Neither approach is healthy, helpful nor biblical.

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 2008

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 2008 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The biblical story of human disobedience and rebellion in Genesis gives us the best framework for understanding the presence of evil and its effect upon humanity, creation and all the relationships between the two.  The Bible acknowledges the presence of evil as a product of humanity’s own fallen nature; that is fallen from what God originally intended.  It also acknowledges the genesis of evil in a particular being who has spread his deception, lies and rebellion throughout all of humanity.

However, unlike most world religions, the biblical view of good versus evil does not put God and Satan on equal terms.  God and Satan are not the universal ‘ying’ and ‘yang’ of existence.  In other words, no absolute dualism between God and Satan exists within Scripture.  This is made particularly clear in the story of the Messiah.  When God’s son comes to earth he confronts evil and its effects, each time winning the battle.  The ultimate battle is won when he defeats death and the grave itself by returning to life to rule and reign over his creation once again.  He is now crowned as the victor!

But wait.  Then why does sin and evil still exist in the world?  A helpful illustration of this may be found in one offered by Ken Blue, a contributor The Perspectives Reader:  Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.  I came across his article while taking the Perspectives course a short while ago.  I found it a helpful illustration.

There is a great example in our recent human history that illustrates for us how a war already won could continue to be fought.  During World War II, the allied invasion called “D-Day” saw hundreds of thousands of allied troops landing at Normandy beach.  Their purpose and the goal of that effort was to establish and secure a beachhead on the European mainland.  When this was successfully accomplished, military experts understood that ultimate victory was established for the allies.  Nevertheless, many more bloody battles, some of them very costly, would be fought before the celebration of final victory could be realized: “V-E Day” (Victory in Europe Day).

For the purposes of Ken Blue’s illustration, “D-Day” in God’s war with evil and against the Evil One occurred with the death and resurrection of Christ.  This assured his final victory.  However, there are still battles being waged until “V-E Day” when the celebration of ultimate victory will begin with the return of the conquering Messiah.

Until that time, it is up to his true followers to be engaged in undoing the work of evil and the Evil One.  Many of these battles will be costly.  In some places, blood will be shed.  However, it is the mission of the Church to take the war to the enemy’s soil, establish beachheads and continue the fight until there is ultimate victory – liberation for all the captives.  Our enemy knows that the war is lost.  However, the Evil One with all his devices and deceptions will fight to take as much of God’s creation with him as possible.

So, while there are two Kingdom’s at war, one is already declared the ultimate victor.  The other already knows its time will come to an end.  The mission of every follower of the Conquering King is to be engaged in the battle through pray and sacrifice until the day of celebration.  More than anyone, they should understand why evil is present in the world.  More than anyone, they should be engaged in the mission of doing something about it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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The Easter celebration will soon be upon us.  I prefer to call it Resurrection Sunday or Resurrection Celebration.  Whatever you prefer to call it, it is a time to commemorate Passover.  This is the most important holiday for Christians and religious Jews.  What God instituted in these two events changed the course of history forever.

Passover remembers Israel’s physical redemption from slavery in Egypt.  The Passover meal is full of wonderful symbolism.  The house is purged of all leaven.  Leaven, which is natural born yeast, is a symbol of sin.  It is everywhere.  Therefore, a careful and thorough cleaning of the house takes place.  Then, special candles and dinnerware used only for Passover is set on a table.

Ceremonial food is used as sensory aids to tell the story of God delivering Israel from bondage and slavery in Egypt.  Egypt symbolizes humankind’s bondage and slavery to Satan’s work and sin.  Each prayer and song during the Passover celebration has a special message in the story.  It is a holy night.

God commanded that three main Passover symbols be used in the ceremony.  He called for a sacrificial lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread.  Each has its own unique significance in retelling the story of God’s salvation of Israel from slavery.

Since there is no Temple to offer the sacrificial lamb, chicken is now used.  Because of this substitution, the Passover ceremony presently centers around the unleavened bread, called matzo.  It is usually displayed in three pieces in an ornate bag on the Passover table.

The middle matzo is taken out of the bag, broken in two, and then one of the broken pieces is put back in the bag and hidden, or buried, under a cushion.  It is brought out from being buried or hidden and distributed at the end of the meal.  Often this is accompanied by any children present looking for the hidden matzo piece; a practice that may have later led to the “Easter Egg Hunt.”

The matzo is a cracker-like wafer is about seven inches square and is made without yeast or salt.  It is also striped and perforated with tiny holes.

Why such a bland bread at such an important meal?  It is to remember when Israel fled Egypt so fast that they did not have time to bake regular bread.  Simple water and flour was used for bread in the dramatic escape from Egypt.  The matzo, then, serves as a powerful reminder of God’s delivering power to those in the Jewish faith.

Indian Heaven Wilderness Trail, Fall 2001

Indian Heaven Wilderness Trail, Fall 2001 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The importance of the Passover matzo bread is even more meaningful to Christians.  At the Passover meal, Jesus the Messiah took the matzo, broke it, and then proclaimed, “This is my body which is broken for you.”  It is a powerful reminder to Christians of the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s foretelling of the coming Suffering Servant and Messiah.

The Passover bread is untainted by leaven, the biblical picture of sin.  The Messiah, too, had no sin in his life.  Matzo is also striped and pierced; a picture of the suffering Messiah who was striped with Roman lashes and pierced in his hands and feet by nails, and in his side by a spear.

During a similar Passover celebration, just like the one coming up soon, Jesus one time proclaimed, “I am the bread of life; the one that comes to me will never hunger” (John 6:35).  For the Christian, Jesus fulfills all the meaning of the Passover bread.  God through his son Jesus the Messiah, delivers us from bondage to sin.

For the Christian, the three wafers symbolize the three persons of the Triune Godhead – the Trinity.  Jesus, the middle person, was taken from his special place in heaven, revealed to us, broken for our deliverance, buried, raised to new life, and was taken up to heaven, returning to his rightful place, and he will one day return and reveal himself again to set up his kingdom.

Bread is the universal food of the world.  Jesus the Messiah is the bread, spiritual food, we need to have spiritual life.  He said, “It is my Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven.  For the bread of God is the one who comes down out of heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33).

This Passover and Resurrection Celebration let us break bread together.  Take time to purge your house and life through repentance and the forgiveness offered through the sacrifice of the Suffering Messiah and Servant of God, Jesus.  Remember the former life you once lived.  Give thanks to God for his deliverance through his son, Jesus.  And, with all your heart, seek the One who was dead but is now alive and sitting at the right hand of the Father in Heaven.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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One of the surprising recurring themes in the Bible regards how often God’s people miss the point of God’s purposes while those far from God grasp it.  For instance, for all their study of Old Testament scriptures and religious disciplines, the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day completely missed the arrival of the Messiah and his Kingdom.  Meanwhile, those they considered “sinners” – tax collectors, drunkards, prostitutes, the demon possessed, the leprous, Samaritans, Canaanites, and Romans – welcomed the Messiah.

When Jesus went to a well-to-do religious man’s house for dinner, the man did not receive Jesus with the usual custom and courtesy expected at the time and in that culture – he did not have Jesus’ feet washed.  It was like saying to Jesus, “Come again when you can’t stay so long.”  The only point for inviting Jesus was to test him to see if he really qualified to be a teacher or rabbi.  This was despite the fact that Jesus openly taught and performed miracles for everyone to witness.

A sinner surprised the man and his dinner guests by showing up and washing Jesus’ feet.  Never mind that she inserted herself where she was not invited.  She was qualified on no spiritual terms to be in this host’s home, let alone touching a man who is supposed to be righteous and a teacher.  She does not qualify because she works in the sex industry; she is a prostitute – a modern day equivalent of a street walker, pole dancer and stripper.

The self-righteous host is put off not only by this sinful woman’s intrusion (What would the neighbor’s say!?) but also by the fact that Jesus appears to be unfazed.  He doubts Jesus’ credentials on the spot.  If Jesus was really a prophet or true teacher of the Law, he would know “what kind of woman” was touching him and defiling him.  This supposed saint, for all his prayers, religious education, and spiritual devotion missed a personal visit from the One that he and all of Israel had been longing for since time unmemorable – the long-awaited Messiah.  However, the sinner did not.

The sinful woman wept over her sin as she sat at Jesus’ feet and used her tears and her hair to wash Jesus’ feet; the same beautiful hair that she had used time and again to allure her clients into her web of manipulation and sin.  The same hair men lusted to touch and that invited them to so much more.

Her hair, the object of her worldly beauty and pride, became a dirty towel stained and streaked from the filthy feet and smelly toes of the promised Messiah.  The heaving and sobbing woman was an unwelcome spectacle and distraction to the dinner host and his guests as much as the unwanted Messiah.  Her pitiful condition grew as her hair matted in dirty clumps and her face streaked with tears and makeup.  To such well-off and proper folks, the woman and Jesus made a despicable scene that only repulsed them further.

It is then, I imagine, at the height of social discomfort, that Jesus used the occasion to point out how often sinners surpass “saints.”  He looked to the prideful host and religious leader and said, “You never welcomed me.  This woman [whom you consider full of sin and unworthy] has not stopped welcoming me. The one forgiven little, loves little.  But the one forgiven of so much, loves greatly.”

Flowering Plant, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, Summer 2009

Flowering Plant, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Jonah is another case in point.  The prophet is called of God to be used by God to go preach the message of judgment, forgiveness, and salvation.  The only problem?  It is to people he considers enemies and “heathen.”  God wanted him to go to the Assyrians’ capitol, Nineveh.  They had brutalized the nation of Israel.  Jonah did not just see them as beyond God’s love but also undeserving of God’s love.

Instead of obeying God’s command, Jonah decides to run from God and his mission.  In the middle of a storm, the heathen sailors are scared out of their wits.  They discern amongst themselves that it must be some kind of divine retribution and began to pray to their gods.  It was of no avail.  The storm continued to rage.  Meanwhile, Jonah slept uncaring and unaware of the danger they were all in.

When the sailors finally awaken Jonah to the imminent threat, Jonah understands what may be going on.  He coughs up the real reason for his story and tells the sailors that, for them to be saved from divine judgment, they must throw him overboard.  Unwillingly, the sailors obey the word of Jonah and are saved!  Barely able to contain themselves, they give God praise for their salvation.  Interestingly, their obedience and resulting worship of God surpassed Jonah’s – an Israelite and prophet of God.  It seems that they are more open to God and his message than God’s own messenger.

However, the irony does not stop there.  Tired of the stench and torture of riding in the belly of a great fish, Jonah repents and asks for God’s help – after three days.  (He is either a very stubborn man or a slow learner in God’s school of discipline.)  After being delivered upon a Mediterranean beach somewhere, Jonah obediently, but still reluctantly, goes to Nineveh.  He preaches God’s message of soon coming judgment, repentance, and forgiveness.  The people hear the message and turn to God and repent.

One would think that this would be Jonah’s opportunity to rejoice.  An enemy of Israel had accepted the God of Israel and received salvation.  However, just the opposite is true.  Instead of praising and worshipping God for such a miracle, Jonah goes to a nearby hilltop overlooking Nineveh to pout.  Jonah is mad at God.

When God sends a large plant to give Jonah shade, Jonah is glad for it.  When the shade plant dies, Jonah gets angry with God again.  He is more angry over the demise of a plant than the possible demise of lost souls.  He has more compassion for a plant he neither planted nor cared for than he has for a people that God placed upon the earth.

The one who pleaded for God’s mercy in the belly of a great fish and received it becomes angry at this same God who showed mercy to another people.  He could not stand the thought of God extending the same salvation he received to people he deemed to be unworthy of mercy and salvation.  God was treating those outside his covenant with Abraham the same as those within the covenant of Abraham.  And there is the rub for both Jonah and Jesus’ religious host.  The One who included them in a covenant of blessing and salvation also wants to include those who appear hostile or even unredeemable.  God’s inclusion and invitation is greater than theirs.

I must admit my own tendency to be like Jonah or that rich religious host.  Smugly, I assume and presume that God’s grace and blessings are for me.  After all, I like to “claim them” as my own and walk in them.  I have been taught that throughout my Christian journey.  However, I forget that God’s work of grace and salvation is for all people – inside and outside the covenant.  God’s desire is to show the world that he is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending [judgment]” (Jonah 4:2).

Unwittingly, my assumption and presumption lend itself to a blind arrogance on my part.  I think that I have the inside track and have my “spiritual act” together, when in reality I may be farther away from God than the nearest sinner who is broken hearted over his or her sin.  Too often, I have pridefully approached God’s throne of grace and mercy and, when asked to confess my sin, have replied, “Let me think…ah…nope…got nothing.”  And then rejoice that my life is not the mess of “those sinners” around me.

I might as well be in Jonah’s place, asleep in the bow of a boat in the middle of a storm of judgment.  I can really be that spiritually unplugged and numb.  Broken and weeping sinners in repentance surpass me in spiritual awareness.  A visitation from the One I am looking for goes right past me and I miss the opportunity.  Worse yet, the One I say I live for and proudly proclaim to spiritually lost people visits them and I doubt their salvation and whether they really “got saved.”  I remain wary of whether God is really working to change their lives.  I suspect their claims to being blessed by the Lord.

Thankfully, God has not given up on working in people like me.  He is still interested in transforming doubtful, depressive, peevish, prideful, irritable, and obstinate Jonahs and religious people.  It may be time to take some lessons from newly redeemed sinners around me on humility and thankfulness.  Perhaps I can learn again the “joy of salvation” from “a gracious and compassionate God.”  At any rate, this “saint” has some catching up to do with the “sinners” around me.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Wells Deep Enough To Get Living Water

During his ministry here on earth, Jesus was always a lot harder on religious people than he was on the spiritually lost and forsaken.  His ministry was frustrated more often by the attitudes of the religious people around him than those who were far from God and synagogue.  Sometimes, he could not perform miracles among them.  For the most part, his mission and message was not accepted by them.

The ones who should have known better and been most ready to receive his works and words rejected them and him.  In other words, the religious folks who thought they could see were really spiritually blind and didn’t know it.  Alternatively, those in spiritual darkness and blind were the ones to “see a great light” as it “shown upon them” (Isa. 9:2).  The irony of this should not be lost to us today.

I often wonder what kind of reception Jesus would receive among the religious folks who inhabit our churches today.  Would we be ready for him or miss him?  Would we recognize him?  Would we accept his challenging words and unconventional works?  Would he find faith and freedom among us to work miracles or a place where he “could not work any miracles” (Mark 6:5)?

Robert Beringer, in Turning Points, tells the story about a little boy who got separated from his parents in a large shopping center.  The Security Department quickly located the child and took him to an office, while the frantic parents were paged over the public address system.  One of the security guards got a large ice cream cone for the boy.  When his parents arrived at the office, there was their little son happily eating his ice cream.  Suddenly, as his parents embraced him, the child burst into tears.  One of the security guards said, “Gosh, I guess he didn’t know he was lost until he was found!”

Beringer goes on to point out, “There are many who are bored, burned out, lonely, and empty.  Many people have tried to substitute the accumulation of things for good relationships, but no matter how much they get, something is still missing in life.  Their pipe does not go down deep enough to draw living water, and they feel lost.”

Sadly, that describes too many people in the church today: “bored, burned out, lonely, and empty.”  In our materialistic society, we have been duped into thinking that filling up our lives with more things or filling our lives with more activities will bring satisfaction and substance to our lives.  Meanwhile, Jesus is left standing on the periphery at our hearts’ doors knocking.  Like the little boy, we do not know that we are lost.  Like the religious people of Jesus day, we do not realize what we are missing because of our spiritual blindness.

Orange Rose Bud, 2009

Orange Rose Bud, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

In the apostle John’s book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, two of the letters written to the seven churches are telling.  To the church in Ephesus, Jesus condemned them for leaving their first love.  He invited them to “remember, repent, and return” (2:5) to loving him first so that their spiritual light and life would continue in the world.

To the church in Laodicea, Jesus condemned them for their spiritual apathy and arrogance.  They thought that they had it all together – “rich, successful, and in need of nothing” – when they were really “pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).  Jesus invited them to be “zealous and repent” (v. 19) because those he loves he will “rebuke and chasten” (v. 20).

This challenge to the church today became even more real to me when I ministered in India near Visakhapatnam and Rajamundri.  Before I left, there were many Americans who wanted to know if it was true that miracles were easier to witness overseas.  They carry the nagging feeling that somehow the mission field of America is more difficult than the mission field elsewhere in the world.  I do not believe it is.  I believe that there are no barriers for the work of God to be done except for the zeal and faith of God’s people.

If the work of the Gospel and its accompanying signs, wonders, and miracles are more prominent in other places; it is because the church there goes “down deep enough to draw living water.”  They are still vitally and vibrantly connected to the “Source of Life”.  At different times in its history, the American church has had the same connection to her Lord and Savior.  Like the American church, the church overseas struggles against the same declination towards spiritual apathy and arrogance that causes spiritual blindness.

However, in India, for the most part I saw a church strong and vibrant.  I believe it witnessed the Lord confirming his Word with signs, wonders, and miracles because it “dug wells deep enough to draw Living Water” by:

  1. A regular practice of “waiting upon the Lord” in prayer.  Like the church in the book of Acts, believers in India devoted themselves to prayer – lots of prayer and waiting upon the Lord.  Then, fearlessly offering prayer for anyone in need and willing.
  2. A regular practice of proclaiming the Gospel in market places.  Like the New Testament church, believers in India boldly preached and shared the Gospel in the public market places – even right in front of Hindu temples!  They regularly invited their neighbors over to their houses to share Jesus and love them.
  3. A regular practice of serving the orphan, the widow, and the poor.  They are more than will to prove their ministry through their generosity to the saints and everyone else (2 Cor. 9:13).  Their ministries of compassion open doors of opportunity to not only preach Christ but pray for the sick and oppressed.

These things place the Indian believers in a position where God’s grace and power must show up.  Then his Kingdom is built on nothing but his Word and his power.  There is a simple desperation in the life of the church that depends upon the Word and power of the Lord.  Ministry is simple: prayer, preach, and provide for the poor.

Wherever the church puts their faith into practice like this; the Lord shows up to work among his people – whether in India or America.  The American church’s nagging sense that it has lost something in connection with the Gospel of Jesus Christ may be the Lord knocking at the door just as he did in Ephesus and Laodicea.

The question is, will we return to our “first love” and the works we did at first – such as devoting ourselves to prayer, sharing the Gospel in the public market places, and providing for the poor?  Each of these practices places us in a unique position where we need the Lord to answer, show up, and provide.

On the other hand, are we too rich, too full, and too satisfied to hear the knocking at our door?  Whether Jesus shows up depends upon us.  It may be time to dig our wells deeper to draw upon the Living Water the Lord offers to those who are spiritually thirsty.  Perhaps we can take some “well digging” lessons from our brothers and sisters in churches such as those I visited in India.  Now is the time to start digging!

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr.  (2010)

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This is a re-post of thoughts about worship that I had posted to my Facebook page this last summer (06-07-09).  I was going through old files on my computer and came across this again.  It  struck me as still so very appropriate for my life.  Before deleting it off my files, I thought I would post it here.

Unexpected things may over take you when gathered in worship of  the resurrected Messiah Jesus.  It does not happen often but, when the unexpected happens in the midst what is regularly expected and routine, a person cannot help but feeling that God revealed something special.  That is something of what happened to me this past Sunday.

Now, I have had opportunity to lead church services – more than I can number.  In fact, for the past several years, it has been a rare thing for me to be just a part of the congregation.  Lately, however, my worship experience has been as a non-leader, giving me an appreciation of the “other side of the pulpit”.  I sing amidst the congregation now.  I admit that I’m enjoying the freedom from always having the “leaders hat” on.

There, however, is a draw back from not having to lead week in and week out.  Duty supersedes attitude and feelings for the leader who models worship of God to the congregation.  As such, a positive reinforcement of worship because of leadership position is placed upon the worship leader.  In other words, I’ve come to realize that the position of leading and “performing” worship for others is good.

The tricky part is the expectation of pastors and worship leaders to think that the average person in the congregation will have the same sense of duty.  We spuriously expect everyone to have the same commitment and service towards worshipping God – week in and week out.  In fact, without the restraint of a leadership role, I’ve noticed that my attitude and service of worship can be lacking from one week to the next.

This past Sunday was a particularly “down” day in my worship performance.  The worship team at my church was doing a wonderful job.  Extremely talented, their love for God shines through their voices, instruments, and raised hands.  So, the fault was not with the choice of songs, bad instrumentation, or distracting performance.  I take the blame – 100%.  I was just in a spiritual funk.  Then the Lord gently shook me in two ways.

First was the young man next to me.  He is a developmentally disabled young adult.  He is a definition of kinetic energy with his constant jerks and twitches.  During the greeting time, he turned to me and loudly said, “Hi!  Good to see ya’!”  And, before I could return a kind, “Good morning!”, he was already turned around and greeting other people with the same brevity.  I smiled.  It was probably more of a condescending grin that offered some pity for the poor young man who lacked acceptable social graces.

We were returned to our places with music and invited to stand for singing worship to our Lord and Savior.  The typical high-energy first song rang out.  Somehow, it just didn’t capture my attention or heart.  I sang the song.  But the words tumbled out of my mouth hollow and lifeless.  Something was missing.  Nevertheless, I continued standing and following along with the rest of the congregation.  It is what we do after all.

Rarely in a contemporary worship service is a song sung just once through.  Our worship team played the bridge and we started a second time into the song.  It was at that moment that my pew neighbor broke out with enthusiasm in song.  Mind you, he cannot carry a tune; at least that I heard.  Yet, at the top of his lungs and with both hands shot into the air he sang worship to God.  He was giving it his all, to say the least.

Our worship team continued on with their next songs.  My friend, accept for regular moments of distraction and uncontrolled movement, lifted his hands into the air with others.  He sang with all his heart.  I’m sure that more finely tuned musical ears around me thought the sound was painful.  For me, it was convicting.

A developmentally challenged young man, for whom a moment before I pompously felt pity, schooled me in worship.  He wasn’t leading, but he was following.  And he did it with all his heart, all his strength, and all his mind.  I could not muster as much.

It was then that the Lord shook me the first time and said, “That young man loves me – a LOT.  How much do you love me?  What will you bring me to show your love?  What sacrifice do you have to give in worship?”  I was humbled.  I began to follow the example of my young personal worship trainer sent from the Lord next to me.  In that moment, I understood that in the Kingdom of God, he was the whole one.  I was the spiritually developmentally disabled one.  I stirred my own heart in worship to God.

Towards the end of our worship time, I felt renewed.  I sensed the presence of the Lord and his great love.  Our pastor came to the front to lead us into Communion – the Lord’s Supper.  He gave instructions and the invitation to receive the bread and juice.

Moss and Fungus on Tree, Walhalla, North Dakota, October 2004

Moss and Fungus on Tree, Walhalla, North Dakota, October 2004 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

In our church, the congregants come forward to receive communion.  The communion servers work in teams; often as husbands and wives, but not always.  The first communion server breaks off a piece of bread and hands it to the worshipper saying, “This is Christ’s body broken for you.”  Then, the second server holds out the cup for the worshipper to dip the bread into the juice saying, “This is Christ’s blood shed for you.”  The worshipper then eats the juice soaked piece of bread and returns to his or her seat.

It is not unusual to see emotions shared during communion.  So many people receiving it once again experience the grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love of God.  It can be overpowering.  It often moves more than one person to tears.

However, on this occasion, I could not but help noticing one of the servers.  She could not stop weeping as she broke off tiny pieces of bread and said, “This is Christ’s body broken for you”.  “This is Christ’s body broken for you.”  Over and over again.  Worshipper after worshipper.  The tears flowed as she broke the bread.  She understood the significance of the simple act she was going through – person after person.

It was then that the Lord shook me the second time and pointed out, “That daughter of mine understands the cost of this supper.  Because of that, she loves me – a LOT!  Do you love me that much?  How will you show me that you love me?  How thankful are you for what I have done for you?”  Once again, humbled by the example before me and the Lord’s gentle prodding, I was reminded that what I bring to worship the Lord is as important when I’m following the leader as when I’m leading the followers.

Both worship and communion were served fresh and made new to me this past Sunday.  I am thankful the Lord shook me awake so I didn’t miss any of it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Truck Stop Jesus

One would have expected a different plan to introduce an important person; even if that person was a baby.  Historically, after all, royal births were always accompanied by fanfare and celebration.  Every important dignitary in the world is notified and invited to the event.  When the savior of the world arrived little more than 2,000 years ago, maybe someone made a mistake and got the address wrong.  Not only that, but they forgot to get reservations.  The young couple was left out in the cold to give birth to their child among animals and all that accompanies animals posted in a barn.  These would not be the first sights and sounds that I would have wanted any of my children to have as their first experience in this world.  Jesus’ birth was so radically different than the antiseptic world we live in today.  It leaves the modern individual amazed he survived his first year.

The irony and mystery of Jesus’ birth is that it was planned ahead of time to take place just the way it unfolded.  Prophets hundreds of years before had already laid out how this baby boy was going to come into the world.  The details they left for others to figure out, who were some of the wisest people on earth by the way, did not include royal privilege, birth in a capital city or any of the other things that would normally accompany the birth of someone important.  There was no golden spoon privilege for this messianic figure.

Imagine a modern day set of new parents caught far away from any hospital, family or friends when the expectant baby decides to come into the world.  Not only that, but now the birthing plan, carefully prepared hospital bag for mother and baby and new born baby clothes are all forgotten.  The fact of the matter is that even for 1st century Joseph and Mary the conditions of the birth of their child were far less than desirable.  Any parent of any socio-economic class at any time in history would have hoped for better.

Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea.  Bethlehem, the city of ancient king David’s origin, was not an important city on the world map 2,000 years ago.  It still is not in today’s political or economic world.  It was more like a modern day truck stop on the way to a major city – Jerusalem.  Today it is a walled-up small city that survives on the arrival of tourists who come to ogle the supposed site of Jesus’ birth.  It is a battle-scarred town divided by deep religious factions that only seems to know peace once a year.  In Jesus’ day, Bethlehem was not prominent.  Its history was more storied than its present.

Bethlehem was a place that served the more impressive city of Jerusalem to the north.  Its trade in sheep, wool and grains provided for the needs of the much bigger and more important metropolis.  Bethlehem was a place one passed through on the way to Jerusalem.  It was rarely, if ever, a destination city.  On the trade route from Egypt, it served as a resting place for the traders.  The surrounding hills provided pasture for the sheep that were used in the temple sacrifices or kitchens of Jerusalem.  Bethlehem, “the house of bread”, also had rich fields surrounding it that provided the wheat and barley for Jerusalem’s bakeries and kitchens.

Like a modern day truck stop, then, traffic was always flowing in and out and through with goods on the way to the more important city of Jerusalem.  At the time of the census, when Joseph had to report to his ancestor’s hometown, Bethlehem, the already bustling city was packed.  The only space available was the equivalent of a small garage where some vehicles of transportation were parked.  Unfortunately, these eco-friendly vehicles would also leave their exhaust all over the floor of the place.

Cascades from Elk Pass Rest Area

Cascades from Elk Pass Rest Area ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Truck stops are never pretty places.  As much as I appreciate the Flying-J Travel Plazas, Pilot Travel Centers and TravelCenters of America, they are not places I ever intend to stay very long.   I am always just passing through.  On top of it, I would definitely not ever have dreamed of having a child at one of those places.  Perhaps it is for the purpose of avoiding having children at truck stops that doctors now discourage women from traveling during their final couple weeks of pregnancy.

Jerusalem was the capital city; the city of commerce and politics; the center of religion and learning.  Everything and anything important that happened took place in Jerusalem.  In the United States, it would be the equivalent of New York or Los Angeles.  In Europe, it would be the Paris or London.  In Asia, it would be the Tokyo or Beijing.  Anyone who wanted to be anybody made their way to Jerusalem, bought property, and hobnobbed with the rich and powerful.  Perhaps God did not get updated about conditions in Palestine during 1st century B.C./A.D.  I suspect, however, that he had a different plan and procedure than the one derived and practiced by humans since their arrival.

The birth of a messiah and savior would have been much more pronounced if I had been calling the shots.  Everyone on earth would have known that “God-in-the-flesh” had shown up on the scene to straighten out the crookedness of humankind’s ways.  It surely would not have been left up to a few foreign wisemen and local low-class shepherds to welcome the arrival of the most important figure in human history.  But then, I am not God.  This is not my creation.  It is not my story.  Plus, I suspect that God’s ways are directly counter intuitive to most of our human ways.

As it is, God might as well come in disguise. I mean, who among us would be apt to recognize his arrival today anymore than his contemporaries did then?  His economic class, education and means of arrival did not shout “God’s here!” in neon letters that is for sure.  Besides the angelic proclamation to lowly shepherds, no birth announcement cards were sent out.  Likewise, most scholars and religious leaders did not get the cryptic prophetic message left hundreds of years before by various writers of the Old Testament.  So, in a sense, when God sent a savior, he did it on the sly.

So, the most important birth of the most important human was scripted ahead of time to take place in obscurity – a couple of low socio-economic status and a shed on the back side of a truck stop served as the main characters and the setting.  As the story continues, things do not get any better.  Soon the couple was on the run from the law, spent a few years as illegal immigrants in a foreign country and only returned to their own home town years later.  The messiah grew up in obscurity and learned the family business.

This amazing story of truck stop Jesus violates our highest sensibilities of what we believe God is like.  We like to picture him in a Cathedral with mighty stone pillars and statutes, rich woods and tapestries, and lofty music.  I think, rather, that given Jesus’ birth record he would be just as out of place there as he would be at a Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue or Bloomingdales.  After all, we like our deities to remain “high and lifted up” – far above the corruption of lower class humanity.  We would rather have the name of our deity pronounced in the more lofty open throated English “Gawd” than the too familiar buddy-buddy name of Jesus.  Somehow, a god who would prefer blue-grass music to Mozart and Beethoven just does not meet our criteria for divinity.

I suspect that if we were to have to look for Jesus’ arrival today that we would be better off looking for him at a truck stop.  His neighbors are more likely to be migrant workers and trailer park inhabitants than a gated suburban community.  I suspect that his address would more likely be under a bridge, overpass or homeless shelter than in a 2,000 square foot house.  He would be more acquainted with the living conditions of foreigners in our land than the economic well-to-do and socially established.  As a religious reformer, his audience would more likely be among the illiterate and poorly educated working class than among the highly respected theologians and seminarians of our day.  His calloused carpenter hands would shake more gnarled and calloused hands than manicured ones.

In short, most of us might have a hard time relating to this truck stop birth of Jesus.  I suspect, however, that it is all part of God’s redemption scheme.  For those of us who think we are better off than others, we will need to get down on Jesus’ level and humble ourselves to accept him and his mission to the least, the last and the lost of this world.  To those among this latter group, he raises their vision, empowers their future and invites them to participate in his redemption story.  So, the next time you have a chance to stop in your travels at a truck stop, just think to yourself, “Maybe Jesus is here.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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