Trouble!

8920743461_37f24ff62f_n“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” John 14:1 NRSV

This is a verse with no relevance to any of us as we all have perfect lives, right? We all have perfect health, perfect relationships, and perfect families, and so no troubles, and no troubled hearts. Well truth be told there are many things that can cause our hearts to be troubled. In fact, even if the situations of our lives are not troubling, we can still experience a troubled heart as we fret over situations that may never happen. Troubled hearts are a relevant topic for us all. 

Troubled hearts are a relevant topic for the disciples in our passage. He has already told them that one of them would betray him, one of them would deny him, and all of them would fall away from him. Oh, and he would be killed. One can only imagine the kind of thoughts that would be troubling the hearts of the disciples as Jesus is arrested, falsely accused, beat up, mocked, and executed. They might obsess over how they had failed Jesus. They might obsess over the possibility that Jesus had failed them. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” 

But that is Friday and Saturday. Sunday comes and Jesus rises from the dead. That should be the end of all troubles, right? Wrong, following Jesus’ ascension to the Father, persecution breaks out against the Jesus followers and it does not go well for them. Study history and you will find much suffering for many Christians. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” Or as one Bible scholar translates it: “Keep trusting in God. Keep trusting in me.” 

But shouldn’t things always go well for those who worship God? Should not their prayers be answered? Isn’t God fixing things? Many well meaning Christians believe that yes, God does fix everything for the true believer, and yes, God does answer every prayer of a good Christian. So if things are broken in your life, or prayers are not being answered; confess more, pray more, be a better Christian.

But what does Jesus say? What did Jesus say to the disciples when thing were about to go oh, so wrong? “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Keep trusting in God, keep trusting also in me.” He does not say “now that you are following me, your life will be pain free,” but “do not let your hearts be troubled.” You do not say such a thing unless you know trouble is coming. He does not say “I have now fixed everything,” but “keep trusting in God, keep trusting in me.” You do not call for trust unless you know someone needs to wait. He does not say “today you will be with me in paradise,” but “I am going to prepare a place for you.” Well he did tell one believer that paradise would be his lot that very day, but we all know what came next.

Truth is, we are still living in a messy world. No matter how good a Jesus follower we are, no matter how deep our prayer lives are, no matter how all-encompassing our confession of sin is, we still live in a messy world.

Genesis chapter three outlines the result of the fall. The last time I checked, a Christian woman is as likely to experience pain in childbirth as any other. A Christian farmer needs to work just as hard as any other farmer to produce a potato. And all through history, Christians have been as likely to die as anyone else. This is the mess we live in. As we live in this mess we sometimes would rather treat the symptoms than seek the cure. Jesus does not promise to be a pill that will take away pain. He promises to be the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus meets our greatest need. He fills our biggest hole. He cures our greatest illness. He lifts us up from our hardest fall. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Keep trusting in God. Keep trusting in me.” Every pain we feel as a Jesus follower is temporary. Jesus dealt with our eternal problem.

But someone will object: “God does fix every problem in our lives in the here and now. If you are experiencing trouble, it is because you are not a good enough Christian.” But are you willing to say that to the apostle Paul?

with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. 24 Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. 28 And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:23-28 NRSV)

Paul responded to all these troubles, not by blaming himself or God, but with trust: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18 NRSV) 

Someone else will object: “God answers prayers with miracles, and if you are not receiving them, that is because you are not good enough.” I believe God does miracles today. But I also believe that miracles today serve the same purpose as the miracles of Jesus recorded for us in the New Testament. They point people to the fact that the Kingdom of God is near. They point to the fact that Jesus is the One through whom the Kingdom comes. Notice that in the New Testament, Jesus did not fix every problem of every person in every place. He still doesn’t. God does miracles, but He does not hand them out like candy. The Christian, no matter how devout or righteous, still lives in a messy world. A miracle is not the cure for a troubled heart. Trust is. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Keep trusting in God. Keep trusting in me.” 

I once took a girl sailing on Chemong Lake. Not being very windy we decided to drop the anchor and go for a swim. If you know Chemong Lake you will know that the middle of the lake is the best place to go swimming for all along the shores are icky, slimy, gross weeds. It came time to head in, and so I got back into the boat. My friend tried to do likewise, but failed. I tried to get her in, but to no avail. So she swam for a bit while I sailed alongside, until she became too tired. With my friend being too tired and my being too weak I had to do something. So I threw a line from the back of the boat and I towed her in. Now do you remember those weeds all along the shoreline? If you could have heard the screams of this poor girl as I pulled her through the weeds! The point is this. Don’t be surprised by the weeds. Trouble will come, even upon the very best Christian. But when they do, don’t let go of the rope. That God in His grace and love will get us to the shore is a sure thing.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Keep trusting in God. Keep trusting in me.”

photo credit: Bumpy Road Ahead White Bg via photopin (license)

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Listen to Him

11023400466_59d1155621_n2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them,  3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.  4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.  5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.  7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:2-7 NRSV emphasis mine)

The transfiguration of Jesus may seem strange to us, with dazzling clothes, and the appearance of Moses and Elijah, but as strange as it may seem, this is a very important moment with much to teach the follower of Jesus, both then, and today.

To understand it well we will want to notice the many references back to the Old Testament. The event occurs on a mountain, which reminds us of God giving the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Also we have the radiance of Jesus, reminding us of the radiance of Moses’ face when he had spent time in God’s presence (see Exodus 34:29,35). We also have Peter’s reaction, which though most translations have as a statement, some Biblical scholars think should be a question: “Is it right for us to be here?” The Israelites were not to go up Mount Sinai with Moses, for God is holy and they were not. Peter may be reflecting that same concern of getting too close to where God’s presence and glory is being made manifest. Then there is Peter’s suggestion of building shelters or “booths.” The word for shelter can also be translated as “tabernacle,” and part of the intent of the tabernacle was to shield the people from the glory of God while God’s presence was among them. And of course we have the presence of two key figures from the Old testament, Moses and Elijah. These are very key as Moses represents the Law, and Elijah represents the prophets. Both the law and the prophets are associated with God’s speaking to the people and His expectation of their obedience.

So what has this to do with my life today?

First, the transfiguration gives clarity to the identity of Jesus. The disciples knew that there was something special about Jesus. And many people today think there is something special about Jesus, but when asked what that is, they will talk about his great ethics, or his inspirational compassion and love of peace. But that does not capture it, for that quaint view of Jesus is not amazing enough. Consider how amazing it would have been for Peter, James, and John, to find themselves standing with Moses and Elijah. These were two key heroes of the people, representing the law and prophets. Yet God does not introduce Moses with “here is my servant, Moses. Listen to him,” nor Elijah with “here is my spokesperson Elijah, listen to him.” No, for there is one of even greater importance standing among them: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7 NRSV). As amazing as standing in the presence of Moses or Elijah would be, it is not as amazing as standing in the presence of Jesus. Though Moses and Elijah could reflect the glory of God, Jesus is the source. Though Moses and Elijah could call people to repentance, Jesus is the One who redeems the one who repents. Far too many Christians today do not have an amazing enough understanding of who Jesus is. Let the transfiguration amaze us.

Second, the transfiguration gives clarity as to how to live as a Christian. Some people become Christians, but it is as if they are taking up religion. They want to know the rules, they want to fit into the denominational subculture, they want to be like everyone else in the religion. But Christianity is not taking up a religion, it is entering into relationship with God through a person, Jesus Christ, in the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Entering into relationship with Jesus is not taking up religion, but taking up the cross and following Jesus in the way of the cross. It is not being like other religious people, but becoming like Jesus. Being a follower of Jesus means: paying attention to the teaching of Jesus, paying attention to the example of Jesus, and paying attention to the example of the early Christians as they followed the teaching and example of Jesus. All this is recorded for us in God’s Word. In short, we are to “listen to him.”

Third, the transfiguration provides a response to certain accusations being made against Christianity. In our day we seem to be seeing a rise in violent militant Islam and many are saying that Christianity could be as likely to turn violent. People will point to passages from the Old Testament as proof. However, when people compare Christianity with Islam in this way they are really comparing apples and oranges with the conclusion of “we are all fruit after all.” Or comparing cashews with almonds and concluding “we are all nuts.” However, if you are allergic to cashews and not almonds, knowing the difference becomes very important. It is important to know the difference between Islam and Christianity on this point.

When a Christian turns to violence, he or she is not paying attention to the teaching of Jesus, the example of Jesus, or the example of the early Christians and how they follow the teaching and example of Jesus. He or she is not expressing the Christian faith, but rather a sinful heart. We are not thinking here of those times that violence may be a matter of national or personal security; that is a deep topic worth mining. That Christians have turned to violence is not in dispute. That the turning to violence is an expression of Christianity is. We are to “listen to him.” Rip out of context whatever passages you want from the Old Testament, we are to “listen to him.”

When a Muslim turns to violence, we are grateful that he or she (but typically he) is in the minority of Muslims. However, the militant Muslim can point to the teaching of Muhammed, the example of Muhammed, and the example of the early Muslims. Each has violence. Thankfully this is a minority view, but it is a possible view which the militant Muslim can defend theologically, and use to radicalize others. This is happening. The militant Christian cannot defend a violent expression of Christianity. We are to “listen to him.” When we do that we pick up a cross, not a sword.

photo credit: Image taken from page 21 of ‘The Sacred Gift. A series of meditations upon Scripture subjects. Secondseries’ via photopin (license)

Faith Is . . .

185330971_d11015dda0_nMany people have a cynical view of faith and they say that it is belief where there is no evidence, or worse, belief despite evidence to the contrary. Some will call it a “leap in the dark,” or as I recall one person having put it: “faith is believing things that just ‘aint so.” Some will turn to Hebrews 11:1 as confirmation that faith is quite blind: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (NRSV)

The first thing we want to notice is that far from being blind, there is quite a lot of evidence for the truth of Christianity. Here is a list of some of the evidence, which I cannot do justice to, but you can research further:

  • From the world of science, specifically cosmology, The Kalam Cosmological argument. Basically, what science teaches about the universe having a beginning fits well with what the Bible teaches about God.
  • From the world of science, The Fine Tuning Argument. There are constants, such as the force of gravity, that if they were different the universe would not be life permitting. Either we are very, very, very, very, very, very, very lucky that these constants are just so, or life is a result of design, which of course points to a Designer.
  • From the world of biology, the complexity of living organisms, actually the complexity even of a single cell, infers the existence of a Designer.
  • From the world of philosophy, the Ontological Argument. You just have to look this one up, I can’t even begin to give a summary of it.
  • From the world of philosophy and ethics, the Moral Argument. Most people will want to admit that there are actions that ought to be wrong for all people at all times in all places. For example, do you agree that child sacrifice is morally wrong, or should it be allowed as okay in certain cultures? The existence of objective moral standards points to a morality Maker. The alternative is grim indeed.
  • From the world of history, the resurrection of Jesus. The simplest and best explanation of the data (the death of Jesus, the near-empty tomb, the changed people who went around saying they had seen Jesus alive) is that Jesus rose from the dead.
  • From the world of history, the existence of the Bible. The simplest and best explanation of the existence of the multiple documents from multiple authors from many different times and places that make up a very unified and consistent Bible, is that God really was communicating with people. Further the existence of the documents that make up the New Testament is best explained by the fact that Jesus really did rise from the dead.
  • From the world of archaeology. Archaeological finds provide confirmation for many specific people, places, and events in the Bible and also for the general account of the way things were.
  • From the world of sociology, the fact that Christianity has been able to spread across the globe, usually quite peacefully. As one hymn writer put it: “Jesus, there’s just something about that name.” Add to this, the positive impact that Christianity has had upon the world.
  • From personal experience, the intuition many of us feel, the palpable experience of God’s presence that many of us feel, the experience of miracles that many of us have been witness to.

Perhaps not one of these arguments on their own is a knock-down argument for the truth of Christianity, and personal experience by itself should not always be trusted since we all know of people whose experience has included powerful delusions. However, all these things together provide “a cumulative case” as many apologists have put it. It is a case worth pursuing.

So if becoming a Christian believer is not about taking a blind leap in the dark, but rather is a reasonable step based on the evidence available, what is the author of Hebrews talking about with “the conviction of things not seen”? We can better discover this if we look at the examples given throughout the rest of Hebrews chapter 11. To make it easier, and this article shorter, let us take a test case and consider the Israelites during the exodus from Egypt: “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned” (Hebrews 11:29 NRSV). Did they have evidence of the existence and power of God? Yes, the path through the Sea was powerful evidence that God certainly exists. But before they “take the plunge” and begin walking, they also need to ask “Does God love us or is He leading us into a watery grave?” Faith is not just a matter of determining if God exists, it is also about whether we should trust Him or not. The Israelites had evidence that they should trust God, given the promises to the patriarchs, the plagues upon Egypt, and the cloud and fire keeping the pursuing Egyptians back. So they step out in faith and cross over, trusting God, who they cannot see, with their future, which they cannot see. Faith is the conviction of things not seen, but it is not blind.

Consider further the list of heroes who faced dire circumstances as related in verses 32-38. These are not examples of people believing in a religion despite the evidence, these are examples of people trusting God with their future despite their current circumstances. As one writer put it, faith is not just believing in God, but believing God. Faith is not blind but is the assurance of things hoped for.

We have already seen, in a very “scratch the surface” kind of way, that there is evidence for the truth of Christianity. But is there evidence that you and I can trust God? Yes:

  • Creation is not just evidence that God exists, but evidence that God is love. God could have wiped us out with a flood and enjoyed creation without us. But He chose to keep us in the picture and pursue relationship with us.
  • The Bible is evidence that God loves us. People communicate freely and fully when they are in love. God has been communicating with us and revealing Himself to us all along. He would not do this if He did not care.
  • Jesus is evidence of God’s love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16 NRSV).
  • The Holy Spirit is evidence of God’s love. God has made His presence with us and to us possible. This is evidence of love.

I would never ask a person to take a leap of faith in the dark and become a Christian. But I would ask them to examine the evidence for the truth of Christianity and take a reasonable step of faith. But this is not “taking up religion,” this is trusting God with your life and your future and so taking up your cross and following Jesus. You may not be able to see God, you may not be able to see the details of your future, you may not be able to see love, but that is okay for “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

photo credit: Hebrews Eleven Verse One via photopin (license)