Hearing Jesus’ voice – and knowing it’s him

A rather revealing video has three youngish millennials yelling at a flock of nibbling sheep to get their attention. But the sheep show no interest at all, and keep nibbling, heads down. When the shepherd then appears and calls to the sheep, their heads immediately rise, nibbling stops, and the sheep come running to him. 

These sheep aren’t dumb at all. They know the voice of their shepherd when they hear it, and respond only to him. And that’s hugely important because they depend on their shepherd for a constant supply of food and protection. 

And it’s that analogy that Jesus uses in John 10 to describe his sheep – those who look to him as their shepherd to provide them with food and protection. And it has much to do with hearing and knowing his voice, verses 3 and 4: “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his sheep by name….and his sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” 

But how do sheep come to know their shepherd’s voice? By the shepherd talking to them, in a language all his own. It could be a loud sing-song voice, or weird animal sounds, or a “strange laughing call” as one observer put it, but the sheep take notice, because every word their shepherd speaks to them is for their benefit. 

And isn’t that the reason Jesus gives for following him and listening to his voice too, when he says in verse 10, “I have come that my sheep may have life, and have it to the full”?  

Take into account that “life to the full” for sheep in first century Palestine meant surviving very nicely on little tufts of grass poking up through the rocks in the desert wilderness, because that was the only place sheep were allowed to roam and eat. But a good shepherd knew where those tufts of grass were, and his sheep could get their fill of them every day. And in having to follow their shepherd closely for those precious tufts, it meant he was close by to protect them too. So even though life for both sheep and shepherd seemed tough in a desert wilderness, in the hands of a good shepherd it worked brilliantly in meeting the sheep’s needs “to the full.” 

And that’s the promise we have for trusting in Jesus as our shepherd and hearing his voice. But how do we know it’s his voice we’re hearing, and not the voice of some impostor – like the “thieves that come only to steal, kill and destroy,” that Jesus talked about in verse 10? 

Jesus’ answer to that is in verse 14, when he says “I know my sheep and my sheep know me” – and both points are extremely important in the relationship between sheep and their shepherd. 

For a shepherd to “know his sheep” he has to know each sheep’s personality, which he shows in the names he gives them. Sheep have a wide variety of personality types, from cute to downright ornery, so there are lots of names to choose from, like “Touchy” for the sensitive one, or “Butt head” for the bully. 

And Jesus also “calls his sheep by name,” verse 3. So, does he have names for us that fit our personalities too – just like we have affectionate nick names for our kids?  

As parents we also adjust our treatment of each child according to his or her personality. So do good shepherds with their sheep. I watched one shepherd make sure his most hesitant sheep got its dose of food by feeding it first, which the shepherd needed to do because the bully sheep in the flock grabbed the bucket out of his hand, and even got the bucket stuck over its head.  

So Jesus knows his sheep, but his sheep have come to know him too. How? According to Jesus it’s by an ongoing process, which he describes in verse 9: “I am the gate, whoever enters through me will be kept safe. He will come in and go out, and find pasture.” He’s describing exactly what it was like for sheep in the desert hills. Every night they’d be corralled in an open space surrounded by walls with an opening at one end that had a door, or gate, through which the sheep would enter for protection at night, and then exit through to “find pasture” during the day.  

Jesus says he’s that door, or gate, so it’s through him we constantly enter and exit for protection and “finding pasture.” And the only way we come to know he’ll do that for us is to trust him. Sheep have to do that with their shepherd, and so do we. And that takes time. But it’s after we’ve experienced again and again how he keeps us safe from evil and fed on the pasture of his word that we come to know him. It’s the old adage of “trust him, and see.” 

And Jesus guarantees he’ll be a shepherd to us. We then learn by trusting him day in and day out that he is that perfect shepherd. It starts with listening to his voice, speaking to us so personally through his word, and it continues to the point we recognize his voice so well we won’t be caught out by, or even take the slightest notice of, an impostor.    

”What kind of answer is that?” 

What would I, or even could I, say to the grieving families of those who had relatives murdered by the Nova Scotia shooter? Or to those who wonder why God would allow such a horrible thing to happen? And what would I say to my kids too, or to anybody’s children for that matter, why the God I believe in allows good people to be killed? Where’s the “good news” we preach in all this?

What a dilemma, because if I can’t answer those questions as a Christian, people have a right to ask, “Well, what’s the point of Christianity, then?” If Christians can’t come up with decent answers to these pressing questions, then why turn to Christians for answers to anything? 

But even C.S. Lewis had trouble answering why his wife had to die from cancer at age 45 after only four years of marriage, leaving him with her two young boys to bring up as well. None of it made sense to him. So he went looking for answers, and there’s a poignant scene in the movie Shadowlands (starring Joss Ackland as C. S. Lewis, not Anthony Hopkins), when Lewis storms out after his wife’s funeral and shouts at Harry the vicar who’s just said, “it’s only faith that makes sense of times like these,” to which Lewis replies, “No, I’m sorry, Harry, but it won’t do. This is a mess, and that’s all there is to it.” 

But what kind of answer is that? Imagine saying that at a funeral: “Let’s just face it, folks, what happened in this person’s death is a mess, and that’s all there is to it.” But if that’s all that Lewis – with his immense brain power and knowledge of Scripture and the resurrection – could come up with in answer to why God allows premature death and horrible things to happen to good people, where does that leave the rest of us in what we say to the bereaved? 

We probably feel some pressing need to say something comforting and meaningful, but what? So I’ve been wondering of late how Jesus would answer the inevitable and justifiable questions raised by a premature or shocking death that doesn’t make any sense to people either? 

And that’s when Luke 24 came to my rescue, because to two despondent disciples shuffling along the road to Emmaus, Jesus’ shocking premature death did not make sense either. He wasn’t supposed to die (verse 21). Everything about Jesus had raised the hope “that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (verse 21). And even the news that Jesus had been seen alive again wasn’t enough to settle their minds. It was all so frustratingly confusing. In Lewis’s words “it was a mess, and that’s all there was to it.” 

So what did Jesus do? Well, here he was, freshly resurrected from the dead, the most dramatic event in the history of humanity, he’s just been given total authority over everything in the entire universe by his Father, and he’s just celebrated a victory parade in heaven over all his adversaries. And what does he do? He joins two men on their walk. And he doesn’t swoop down in a fiery chariot with an army of angels either; he’s dressed as a fellow traveller, and he asks a couple of questions that get the two men to voice their troubles while he listens attentively. 

We see Jesus, then, zooming in on these two men with their inevitable and justifiable questions in a clear demonstration of what his resurrection had now opened up to us humans. It was exactly what Jesus had promised to do too, when he told his disciples in John 14:18, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” 

But look how he came to them. In all the billion things he could have done, now that he’d been resurrected and had the power to shake the world to its roots, he focuses on two men having trouble finding answers to questions troubling them, by being there for them, because this is where he wanted to be. Not up in heaven chucking lightning bolts, but down here again in the mess of life with us. 

And there was my answer to those deeply troubled by shocking and premature death. It’s not talking about the resurrection coming in the future, but what the resurrected Jesus will do for us now. He will come to us, and in such a way he draws out our questions and provides us with answers. And all we need do is see him in that light, exactly as revealed in Luke 24, that Jesus is at his resurrected happiest settling our minds personally.

He loves being with us, happily knocking on our door every morning looking forward to spending the day with us, and answering any questions we may have, because he promised that too: “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” And what better than being able to ask for answers to deeply troubling questions? 

It doesn’t change the obvious, that life now really is a mess and that’s all there is to it, but we now have the resurrected Jesus doing what he loves most. It’s travelling along our road with us, knowing what we’re thinking, and settling our troubled thoughts. And to those who say, “Yeah, but, what kind of answer is that?” I can only say, “Try him and see.”  

“So, what has Jesus’ resurrection done for you, Dad?” 

It’s a question my kids have every right to ask me: “Hey, you’re a Christian, Dad, so everything you believe hinges on Jesus being raised from the dead, so what obvious difference has his resurrection made in your life?”

And other than their Mother, who better to ask? Here am I, their Dad, an average chap who’s spent most of his life steeped in Christianity, so what have I got to show for it that might just make them say, “Well, yeah man, that makes sense; cool”?  

Can I explain, then, how the resurrection of Jesus has played out in my life in terms that would be easy for my kids to understand and relate to – and maybe come up with some dramatic evidence for them too? 

So I went back to what happened right after Jesus was resurrected to see if there were any helpful clues there, because surely that was the best time of all for Jesus to introduce the differences his resurrection would create. He was fresh out of the grave, causing a massive ripple that dead people could actually come back to life again, so it’s obvious that people would want to know what on earth was going on, and what dramatic things might happen next.

But Jesus doesn’t do anything dramatic next. He simply says to his disciples, “Don’t be afraid” in Matthew 28:10, “Peace be with you” in Luke 24:36, and he gives his disciples the authority to forgive and not forgive in John 20:23.

In response to this amazing miracle of his resurrection, then, Jesus wants three things to happen to his disciples: that first of all they have no fear, that secondly they experience peace of mind, and thirdly that they make forgiveness their priority. And because this was now the resurrected Jesus speaking he clearly meant what he said, and because of his resurrection he clearly had the power to make all three possible. 

So if I’d been there at Jesus’ resurrection I would have heard him say all three of those things to me, and therefore that he intended them to happen to me too as one of his disciples, as a direct result of his resurrection. Have those three things happened to me too, then?  

Well, I’d never actually thought about it in those terms before, but I have to admit that, looking back over the last fifty plus years since knowing about Jesus’ resurrection, I have called out to him many times to calm my fears and give me peace during times of overwhelming stress, and dozens of times I’ve been answered, and each time a “life-saver.”  

But what about the third one – making forgiveness my priority? Well, that’s been a life-saver too, because I’ve been shafted, lied about and accused falsely during my years in the church, that made me so angry and resentful that several times I was ready to give up on life and God, and seriously consider leaving the church.  

But Jesus, during the most excruciatingly agonizing time in his life, said, “Forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” And for me to be able to say that too has been a life-saver for me. I don’t want to even think what my life would have been like if I’d been stuck with hurts and offences I couldn’t forgive. 

I can say with total conviction, then, that those three things – calming my fears, peace of mind and being able to forgive – have saved my life, my marriage, my relationship with my kids, and my mental state and sanity in situations where I could have done irreparable damage. 

So, what has Jesus’ resurrection done for me in terms that are easy to understand and relate to? It’s in those three areas, all of which have been life-savers for me, again and again. They lifted me out of the doldrums, and perhaps even from death. In Jesus’ resurrection, therefore, I’ve experienced being raised from the dead too. And what better proof of his resurrection can I give my kids than that? 

Hooray for “doubting Thomases…”

In John 20:25 Thomas wasn’t going to believe what the other disciples said about seeing the dead Jesus alive again “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side.” 

It was a risky move on his part, because who likes being around someone who stands up for himself and refuses to go along with the crowd? Who likes being around someone who’s always questioning what everybody else is excited about? I remember in High School when several of my buddies discovered how easy and exciting it was to shoplift goods from a store, how annoying the party pooper was who kept asking questions like, “Yeah, but – what if we get caught?” 

But in reality the party pooper played an enormously important part in making the rest of us teenage boneheads take a brief moment to put our brains in gear before going into action. It takes courage too, because once a group momentum gets started the party pooper is not appreciated. He’s derided, picked on and isolated, and probably called all sort of derogatory names. Recall those men who refused to fight in the last great war – and put up excellent arguments for doing so too – but were pilloried in their towns and villages as cowards and traitors for deserting their country and countrymen. But Britain’s  most decorated enlisted soldier in WW1 was a conscientious objector who never fired a shot.  

And what if more Christians in both world wars had stood up and said. “No, we’re not going to fight unless you can prove from Scripture that God supports the killing of one’s fellow man”? Would there have been a war at all? And what if more Christians had challenged the obvious corruption and muddle-headed ideas in the church through the ages too? Would there have been a need for Luther? And we remember Luther too, don’t we, for standing up to the bully. And aren’t we thankful he did too, because he brought the reform that was so desperately needed in Christianity.

Luther wasn’t perfect in his own life either, of course, nor were the conscientious objectors in war, nor was Thomas, and nor’s the chap who stands up against a bully. A questioner can be really pig-headed and so negative all the time that no one wants to be around him. Maybe there’s some arrogance and rebellion tucked away in there too, that prevents him ever being able to happily join a group or a team, or a church. 

But Jesus chose Thomas.    

And Jesus knew what he was in for in choosing Thomas too, because he prayed all night in the choosing of his disciples. Perhaps he knew how negatively Thomas would react to his resurrection. Thomas would obviously want proof before he believed. And why shouldn’t he, when there’d be millions of Thomases to follow through the ages, who would deeply appreciate knowing their questioning, doubting, critical thinking minds are no problem for Jesus at all, and that Jesus can make use of anyone?

No one’s personality is a problem for Jesus, because he can take that raw material in their personality and make use of it. He doesn’t knock it out of the person, as if it’s some kind of anathema to Christianity, or a black sheep among all the lily white ones. He chose Thomas in his raw state on purpose, because Thomas would play an enormously important part in all church history to follow, providing courage and tenacity to those who would see huge cracks in traditional Christianity and not be afraid to reveal them. 

But who and where are those people today when we need them? Christianity as a whole has been painting itself into a corner for ages, with its huge buildings requiring massive amounts of money to preserve, and its weird, outdated rituals and traditions that have made the church irrelevant and abhorrent to at least two generations of youngsters, and its myriad number of splits and divisions that have made the church look like a bunch of squabbling brats. 

But who has dared stand up as a conscientious objector? Who has dared stand up against the bully of mainline Christianity that demands adherence to its ridiculous beliefs about heaven and hell? Where are the Thomases and the Luthers who say, “I’m not darkening the door of a church again, unless there’s a willingness of the church to put aside tradition and outdated ritual and all the other idols the church worships, and it seeks unity of belief from Scripture alone?”  

Hooray, therefore, for the Thomases to come who will challenge, question and perhaps even dismantle this creaking old relic of a.church, and install the desperate improvements it needs. Unless, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic gets to us first, because in the state the church is now in, even a million Thomases could not make a dent in stifling church tradition. But a pandemic can, and it has. Perhaps we could call this Covid-19 crisis the “Thomas Pandemic,” therefore, because of the much needed reformation it is bringing into the church.  

Jesus’ resurrection: when the new creation began 

But if a “new creation” did truly start with Jesus’ resurrection, why aren’t we seeing huge changes in our world for the better? Jesus also said – right after his resurrection in Matthew 28:18 – that “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” So he’s had the power to make huge changes, but where are they? And in Colossians 2:15 his “triumph on the cross” had “disarmed the powers and authorities” and “made a public spectacle of them” like a victorious Roman general parading his defeated enemies through the streets of Rome, but where do we see those defeated enemies today? Evil is still rampant.

So if the world hasn’t changed much for the better since Jesus’ resurrection, what has changed, if anything?

There’s a clue in John 20:17 when the resurrected Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 

Well, that was different, because only moments before that – when Jesus calls out to Mary by name and she recognizes him – she blurts out, ”Rabboni,” and in brackets it says: “which means Teacher.”

So up to this point Mary sees herself as Jesus’ student. She loves him dearly, but there’s still that respectful distance between a student and teacher. Did she catch what Jesus had just said in verss 17, then, about the Father being “your” Father?  

This was extraordinary, because never in the gospel accounts had the Father been the Father to anyone but Jesus. Jesus had called his disciples his “brothers” before, because they all worshipped the same God, but never had Jesus said, “My Father is your Father too.” The relationship between the Father and Jesus had been reserved for Jesus alone. Only Jesus was called “My beloved Son” by the Father, no one else.

But here was Jesus telling his disciples that his Father was now their Father too. Their relationship with God was now as much Father and son as the Father and Jesus were Father and Son. They could now address God as “Father,” just like Jesus had been doing. Jesus had hinted at such a relationship in the Lord’s Prayer which began with “Our Father,” but that was acknowledging we’re all God’s children, rather than a clear statement that we have the same relationship with God that Jesus had. 

So verse 17 was a watershed moment, when the relationship between humans and God was no longer teacher and student, it was Father and son – or in Mary’s case, Father and daughter. And because God was now their Father as well as Jesus’ Father, it literally made the disciples Jesus’ “brothers” (verse 17), and Mary his sister. 

And this was the great change that Jesus’ resurrection made. It elevated us humans to the point we can look upon and address God as our Father. The evidence we’re looking for, then, that the new creation began with Jesus’ resurrection is in the new creation we humans have become, who catch on to what Jesus said to Mary in verse 17.  

It takes us back to the Garden of Eden and the relationship with God we had back then, when he walked and talked with that first man, gave him charge of his creation, had the man care for his beautiful oasis in Eden and name the animals. It was a lovely open relationship we had with God, but we lost it. 

How significant, then, that our relationship with God was restored in another garden at Jesus’ resurrection, and two angels were present at that restoration too, just as two angels were present in the Garden of Eden at the loss of that relationship. It pictures so well what God made possible for us through Jesus’ resurrection, and how it’s all about our relationship with God being restored to what it could have been in Eden, and how that relationship now changes us.   

So it’s not changes in the planet that Jesus’ resurrection began, it’s the change of relationship between us and God, and what that new relationship does in changing us. So that one day, when God gives us charge of his creation again, we will bring about a vastly new creation to what we see today. 

And that’s when we’ll see the huge changes in our world for the better. 

What a journey: our death for his life

In the blog before this one the title was “his death for our life,” meaning Jesus died on the cross so we can have eternal life, the best deal ever. So, assuming we have enough sense to believe it, what happens next? 

A journey now begins, where instead of it being “his death for our life,” it becomes “our death for his life.” Or as Paul phrased it in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” So this journey we’re on involves us dying. We’re as “crucified” as Jesus was on the cross. We’re that dead. 

And the reason we’re that dead is so Jesus can live his life in us. And there is no greater journey a human can take in this life than that. That’s because Christ’s life in us “is the hope of glory,” as Paul phrased it in Colossians 1:27. It means we can taste of eternal life now. We don’t have to wait until the resurrection of our bodies to experience eternal life; we can actually begin to experience it in our present lifetime now. 

It’s the great “heavenly gift” Paul talked about in Hebrews 6:4-5, that enables us to “taste the powers of the coming age” now. The Christians in Hebrews had tasted it. So had the Galatians in Galatians 3:5. So had Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9 when he talked about “Christ’s power resting on me.” It’s what inspired his “hope of glory.” because he was already experiencing that power and glory of eternal life awaiting him in the future in his daily life as well.   

He even stated outright in Colossians 3:1 that we’ve already been “raised with Christ” and “our life is now hidden with Christ in God,” verse 2, so of course we can experience “now” what eternal life is.   

But how is it possible now? In verse 3, Paul answers that in three words: “For you died.” So experiencing eternal life in the here and now involves us dying in the here and now too. We need to die for Christ to live his life in us. That’s our journey in this life now. But how do we die now, exactly? Do we die physically, or what? 

Fortunately, Paul immediately explains how we die in verse 5: we “Put to death whatever belongs to our earthly nature.” So it’s things within our nature that have to die, things like “sexual promiscuity, impurity, lust, doing whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it, and grabbing whatever attracts your fancy” (verse 5, The Message). It’s getting rid of our “bad temper, irritability, meanness, profanity, dirty talk” (verse 8), and putting a total stop to “lying to each other,” because we’re “done with that old life. It’s like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes we’ve stripped off and put in the fire” (verse 9). 

But that doesn’t happen overnight, does it? So it’s a journey we’re on, involving “taking off our old self and putting on a new self…in the image of our Creator” (verses 9-10). It’s travelling along a road that isn’t shaped by things and feelings anymore, it’s a life of knowing what our Creator is like and becoming more and more like him. 

So more and more Christ becomes ”our life,” verse 4. We’re gradually filling up our closet with a whole set of new clothes, the kind of things Jesus was well known for in his human lifetime, like “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (verse 12). And we steadily become more “even-tempered, content with second place, and we forgive others as quickly and completely as the Master forgave us. And regardless of what else we put on, we wear love. It’s our basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it” (verses 13-14).  

And with Christ’s life in us, his peace now fills us too, which is something to be thankful for, because relationships can become strained so easily nowadays. He fills us with his wisdom too – also much needed in this crazy world. And all thanks to our Father who made all these things possible through his Son (verses 15-17).

It’s “our death for his life,” a journey that clothes us in a whole new wardrobe of peace, wisdom and love, so we can experience eternal life now. It’s quite the journey we’re on, and we can experience being on it every day too.   

What a deal: his death for our life

I’ve often wondered why God would give us eternal life because his Son died. It’s a great deal for us, all right, because we get eternal life given to us for what Jesus did. We have no hand in it at all. 

But how can the death of Jesus be enough for God to grant us life forever?We’re talking about rebellious humans here, who destroyed our potential for eternal life right out of the starting gate. We weren’t the least bit interested in living forever either. We much preferred the serpent’s deal, of doing whatever we want in this life and then dying. 

You couldn’t come up with anything more stupid, short sighted and pig-headed than that. So why would God even want us around forever, especially after offering us the best deal ever, and we rejected it? It takes me back to the first time I was offered a free drive in a Go-Kart. At eleven years old I couldn’t have dreamt a better dream than that. But I turned it down. I said, “No, I don’t want to drive it.” What was I thinking? How could I be so stupid? Why refuse the best offer I’d ever had? But I did. 

So I wouldn’t blame the chap who offered me the free drive for giving up on me totally and never offering me a free drive again. But what if he’d said to me: “Look, Sonny Jim, how about I die for you? Would you take the Kart for a drive then?” 

Well, now I’d think he was insane, not me, because why would he need to die? Why would such a drastic measure be necessary? And why would he be willing to die to give me another chance at all, when it was clear I was completely bonkers for refusing his original offer?  

But it would have told me something wonderful, that he wanted me to experience the thrill of driving a Go-Kart so much he was willing to go that far to get me to drive it. He knew how much I’d love driving that Kart once I was in it, but to get someone as stubborn and stupid as me into the Kart would clearly take drastic measures. Really drastic measures.

It reminded me of the king who turned down the best offer any human had ever been given since the Garden of Eden. It’s in Isaiah 7:10, when God says to King Ahaz of Judah, “Ask for a sign from your God. Ask anything. Be extravagant. Ask for the moon!” Go on, ask for whatever your heart desires. But what does Ahaz say in reply? “No, I could never do that.”

What was the stupid man thinking? This was God speaking, with all the powers of nuclear energy tripled a billion times at his disposal, enough to fulfill the greatest of human dreams, and this silly little man turns him down. 

But instead of God exploding into a thousand pieces, he says to Ahaz, “Well, I’m going to give you a sign anyway,” and out came the prophecy of Immanuel, who one day would die for the likes of Ahaz and all those like him who would love eternal life once they had it, but hadn’t enough sense to want it when it was offered to them. 

Immanuel, therefore, becomes God’s way of saying, “If I die for you, would you accept my offer of eternal life then?” But rather than wait for our answer he died for us anyway. There was no point in God waiting for us to make a decision, though, because we’d already made it in the Garden of Eden and, except for a few people in the Old Testament, we showed no signs of taking up his offer since the Garden of Eden either. So God takes a detour right round our stupid, short-sighted, pig-headedness and does the shocking act of actually dying for us, to show us how much he wants us to experience eternal life, because he knows how much we’ll love it once we’ve got it.  

But getting us to that point of accepting his offer would require drastic measures. and in human terms there is nothing more drastic than death, and especially someone dying for other people’s stupidity. And God took that most drastic of measures, willingly.

Such a death didn’t only justify him giving us eternal life, it also showed how much God wants us to experience the thrill of eternal life. His death for our eternal life, the best deal there has ever been. So who on earth would be stupid enough to say, “Not for me”?  

How do we get the correct picture of God?

The first time a wind of hurricane force with a tornado howled into town it scared the wits right out of me. I knelt by the toilet, heart thumping, begging God to protect us, keep our roof intact, and our trees rooted. The sky took on an ominous green colour, the house creaked, and my prized birch tree bent way past its central axis. I thought it was a goner, and maybe we were too.   

My picture of God at that moment was very simple: he was my answer to a desperate need. Whether he was trinitarian or omniscient as well as immanent – or any other major theological argument that had rocked the church for centuries – took a very distant back seat to raw survival. My prayer did not include a long introduction letting God know I trusted his will over mine either; it was just one sentence: “Father, please save us,” which I hoped included saving my prized birch tree, and saving the house. 

I cannot condemn the Jews in the first century, therefore – when they “heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem” in John 12:12 – for shouting out to him, “Hosanna,” in verse 13, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” It was a quote right out of Psalm 118:25-26, where the meaning of the word  “Hosanna” was given in verse 25, “O Lord, save us.” 

It was for that one simple reason that the Jews “took palm branches and went out to meet Jesus, shouting, ‘Hosanna.’” They believed Jesus had come to save them. It was the reason he existed. And by “saved” they meant save them from death, or raise them from the dead, just like he’d raised Lazarus from the dead a few days earlier (John 12:17-18). Jesus was just the hero they were looking for, a miracle worker who would raise their nation back to the life they’d been dreaming about for nearly five hundred years. At last, the Lord had come to save them. 

And I can’t blame them for thinking that either, because I’d looked to the Lord as that hurricane howled for the same reason. And so did my 11 year old daughter who had an exam coming up, which she hadn’t taken the time to study sufficiently for. She asked God to save her, to get her a passing grade, because wasn’t that what God was for? He was there to get you out of a pickle, to save the day when you were in trouble, or as Psalm 118:26 phrased it, “O Lord, grant us success.” God could easily get her a passing grade, in other words.

And yes he could, just as Jesus could have galloped down the Mount of Olives on a snorting great white horse, accompanied by legions of angels, and with a whooping a war cry sliced his way through every enemy the Jews had. But instead he came down the hillside on a little grey donkey clopping its way, head down, at walking speed. And instead of my daughter passing her exam with flying colours, she failed. 

To both her and the Jews, Jesus was a terrible disappointment. She decided there and then she didn’t want anything more to do with him, and the Jews shouting “Hosanna” were heard later yelling, “Crucify him.” Their tune had totally changed, because their picture of God had been shattered when he didn’t “save” them as they’d hoped and wanted.

But “At first Jesus’ disciples did not understand” either, John 12:16, which is why they all deserted him too. It was “Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize” (same verse), that in his crucifixion, in which Jesus was glorified, was the correct picture of God.

Forget about passing exams and winning battles against enemies, or even protection against hurricanes. Jesus made it clear in John 12:25 what salvation is really about. It’s about “eternal life,” because that’s what God’s really after for us humans. It isn’t temporary “success,” it’s being able to live forever in a world where no hurricanes exist, no exams need passing, and no enemies need crushing.   

And that kind of world is impossible for us to create. It’s been impossible from the time God first created us. We could only be “saved” for such a world by Jesus’ death. Or as Jesus put it in John 12:24, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” 

Jesus’ death would produce more than just successes and protection in this “single seed” life of ours, because this life, no matter how safe and successful it has been, comes to an end. God had much more in mind. He had “many seeds,” a whole waving wheat field that extended way beyond just “getting through” this life as best we can and then dying. And he made that waving wheat field of eternal life possible for his beloved humans through Jesus’ death. 

How he managed to do that is the subject of another article, but knowing this is what God had in mind through Jesus is where the right picture of God begins. It wasn’t in Jesus entering Jerusalem as the great hero to save the Jews from their enemies in this life, it was in Jesus dying for them so that one day they could live an eternal life without an enemy in sight. Through Jesus God did for us what we dream of but could never create for ourselves, because that’s our God.

Covid 19 – What good does fasting do?

In Mark 9:29, Jesus says, “This kind can only come out by prayer,” with several Bible translations adding, “and fasting.”  

Whether fasting was included or not in what Jesus said there’s a story being told here in which the disciples, for the first time in their experience as Jesus’ disciples, cannot heal someone. Up to that point they’d “cured every kind of disease and sickness” with Jesus’ full authority, Matthew 10:1. And in Luke 10:1 Jesus had also sent out seventy others with the same power, who later “returned with joy” to report to Jesus that “even the demons submit to us in your name.” 

All they’d had to do was command demons and sicknesses in Jesus’ name to leave a person, and every time it had happened, no prayer or fasting needed. But then a man in Mark 9:17 brought his son to Jesus, telling Jesus that his son “is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. When the spirit seizes him, it throws him to the ground. My son foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid.” And in verse 22, this same evil spirit from the boy’s childhood had “often thrown him into fire or water to kill him.” But when the boy’s Dad had “asked Jesus’ disciples to drive out the spirit, they could not,” verse 18.  

The disciples had no clue as to why this had happened, as we see later in verse 28 when they “asked Jesus privately, ‘Why couldn’t we drive the evil spirit out?’” And that’s when Jesus replies, “This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting.” 

This was the first time Jesus included the need for prayer and fasting in casting out a demon. But why? Was it because the poor lad was being tormented by some sort of ‘super demon’, requiring extra power that only prayer and fasting could generate? Was that the lesson being taught here? 

Not in context it isn’t. The context is Jesus’ instant and emotional reaction in verse 19 to the disciples not being able to heal the boy. He yells out, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” 

This entire episode was orchestrated by God to highlight Israel’s greatest problem, taking note that “the teachers of the law” were present as well in verse 14, so even the leaders of Israel hadn’t a clue what to do for the boy either.

And the reason they hadn’t a clue was their lack of faith as a nation in the power and authority of Jesus over every illness and evil. They’d seen Jesus do incredible miracles, but instead of trusting he’d passed on that power to his disciples, the teachers of the law had “argued with them” verse 14. They’d grabbed the opportunity to downplay the disciples’ power because they hadn’t been able to heal the boy. 

Bad mistake, because Jesus flays the teachers of the law alive for not trusting him, and he extends it to the whole nation as well. Jesus’ frustration at their lack of faith boils over again too, when the boy’s Dad says to Jesus in verse 22, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “If you can?” Jesus replies – rather testily it sounds like – because he knows “Everything is possible for him who believes.”  

And at that point the lights go on in the Dad’s mind, because he yells out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” And there you have the lesson of this story. It’s not about praying and fasting for extra power to cast out some ‘super demon’, it’s praying and fasting for the help to overcome lack of faith. And that’s when fasting can do some good, in casting out the lack of faith that cannot trust in Jesus’ power yet.

And to get that point across, Jesus “rebuked the evil spirit,” and commanded it to come out of the boy and never enter him again. With a lot of shrieking and convulsions the demon leaves, and the boy lies there so still it looks like he’s dead. But Jesus takes hm by the hand and lifts him to his feet, and the boy stands on his own completely healed. 

The same story is told in Matthew 17, and Jesus summarizes it rather nicely when his disciples ask him in verse 19 why they couldn’t drive the demon out. It’s “because you have so little faith,” he replies. Faith is the issue here, the kind that believes “Nothing will be impossible for you,” verse 20. 

So, if I’m reading Jesus right here, he’s saying that all it takes is prayer and fasting for that kind of faith if we’re still lacking it. Well, think of the good we could do in the impossible situations the people we care for are going through in this virus crisis, if we believe no situation is impossible for Jesus to solve….      

Covid 19 – What is this virus crisis revealing about me (and about Jesus)? 

In John 11 sisters Martha and Mary “sent word to Jesus. ‘Lord, the one you love is sick,’” referring to their brother Lazarus. And it was true, Jesus did love the man, and loved his two sisters as well (verse 5).  

But instead of roaring off to visit them in their time of worry Jesus “stayed were he was for two more days” (verse 6), which was 50 miles away “across the Jordan” (John 10:40). So by the time the message got through to Jesus about Lazarus, and then finishing what he was doing across the Jordan, and then travelling the 50 miles back to the little village of Bethany two miles from Jerusalem, Lazarus had been four days dead already (John 11:17-18). 

But how does this connect with what this virus is revealing about me? It’s in the contrast between Martha’s and Mary’s reactions to Jesus when he arrives, and which of their two reactions I recognize most in me. 

The contrast begins when Martha hears Jesus is nearing Bethany and she “went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.” It’s the first hint of two very different reactions to Jesus in a time of personal crisis. Martha immediately sets out to confront Jesus and on meeting him she gets right to the point when she says in verse 21, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” To her, the loving Jesus she’d come to know surely wouldn’t have let a sorry thing like this happen.  

And isn’t that what a lot of people wonder about God, as to why he does things the way he does when he’s supposed to be so loving? And they don’t question lightly either. They really want to know why God works in such strange ways, and they hang on like bulldogs until they get a decent answer too.  

But that’s Martha, and she gets right to the point again when she says, “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” in verse 22. So she readily accepts there may be some greater purpose that God is fulfilling through Jesus here. She’s logical and trusting, but what possible benefit could there be in Jesus letting it go this far and not getting to Lazarus before he died?

And when Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again,” she readily accepts his answer, because she says: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” And even when Jesus asks if she believes that people who die aren’t really dead because of him, she accepts that too. 

This is one remarkable lady, because this is a major theological discussion going on here, and Jesus is more than willing to go along with it, because that’s Martha and how she thinks and reacts in a crisis. She trusts Jesus, oh yes, but she questions too, and I’m glad of that because I can’t help questioning God either. What possible benefit can there be, for instance, in letting this virus get so bad that even Christians are at risk and can’t get together? But I realize that’s me; I’m a Martha. But Martha being Martha didn’t bother Jesus, so I assume me being me doesn’t bother him either.  

To Mary next, because when she meets Jesus she says exactly the same thing to him that Martha did: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” but she says it weeping (verses 32-33). And she was so distraught at her brother dying that Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” to the point of weeping too (verses 33 and 35). 

Mary is a totally different personality. It would break her heart seeing the suffering this virus crisis is creating in people’s lives. She’s not looking for an explanation to it, she simply weeps, and so wrenching was her grief over Lazarus that Jesus just sobbed along with her. 

In a way I wish I could be more like Mary, more heart than head, but I’m not. And I’ve learnt that about myself in this crisis, because my mind seeks explanation. It needs scriptures to lean on. It’s why I could write six blogs in a week on Covid 19, each one a question, because I want answers, and answers for people like me.  

And good old Martha, she’s still questioning Jesus in verse 39, as to why on earth he’d want the stone to Lazarus’ tomb taken away, when a body four days dead is really beginning to smell already. But Jesus meets the need of her questioning mind with another theological explanation in verse 40. 

What I see in this “Tale of Two Sisters,” then, is how different we may be in how we react to a crisis, but how Jesus knows it and loves us so much he meets our need and feels what we feel. 

He really does become one of us, but oh so personally as well.