Friday, December 03, 2010

Jesus Brings Comfort AND the Demand for Allegiance to Him

In studying the text for this coming Sunday's sermon, Matthew 3:1-12, just read this from New Testament scholar, N.T. "Tom" Wright:
Jesus'...mission was quite different from what people sometimes imagine; the comfort and healing of his kingdom-message was balanced by the stern and solemn warning that when God comes back he demands absolute allegiance.
Many people, including many pastors and theologians, seem to want the Jesus of comfort and healing, but not the Jesus Who demands are absolute allegiance. Truth is, like the rest of the human race, I'd rather that Jesus didn't demand my allegiance. I would rather that He not demand my utter acquiescence to His Lordship and His will.

It reminds me of a joke I heard Mel Brooks tell once on The Tonight Show. According to Brooks, God originally gave fifteen, not ten, commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. When the Israelites saw that, they immediately claimed that was too many commandments. So, Moses went back to the top of the mountain to renegotiate with God. When Moses came back, the Israelites asked, "Well?" "I've got some good news and some bad news for you," Moses told them. "The good news is, I got God down to ten commandments. The bad news is that the no-adultery one is still in there."*

Jesus has come, as the New Testament reminds us, to free us from the condemnation of God's Law, as embodied in the Ten Commandments. None of us is capable of keeping God's commands and, if it weren't for Jesus, we would all stand condemned and bound for hell. "The wages of sin is death," is how the apostle Paul puts it in the New Testament book of Romans. But Jesus, God in the flesh, took the punishment for our sins. He calls us to repent and believe in Him and so be spared the punishment we deserve.

Yet Jesus also insists God's commandments are not to be ignored:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-19)
The good news is that Jesus, the perfectly obedient representative of the human race, destroyed the power of God's law to condemn all who trust in Him. The bad news--or at least, what we may see as bad news if we choose to hold onto some sins that God commands us to turn away from--is that, in response to this enormous gift, we're not just to give our total allegiance to Jesus. We also are, out of our gratitude, to seek to live obedient lives. (God gives the Holy Spirit to help us in this quest. But that's another story.)

The problem for those of us who want some of Jesus, but not all of Jesus, is that Jesus can't be divided. I can't let His comfort, healing or grace into my life without letting that other part of Him--the God in the flesh Who commands me to follow Him alone and obey the commands of God--into my life as well.

The forgiveness, life, and blessings that come as free gifts--examples of what the New Testament, in its original Greek, calls charitas, grace--are absolutely free. We can do nothing to earn them.

But if we want to take them from Christ's hand, it will entail laying aside every other allegiance we have, whether to ourselves, our families, our jobs, our possessions, our countries, or anything else.

Each of these things will have their places in our personal priorities, their importance often changing depending on circumstances. But Jesus says that, if we're to have His comfort and life, none of them may take first place.

Consider this speech where Jesus' insistence on "absolute allegiance" to Him is given in "stern and solemn" tones:
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:25-33)
Jesus is not here commending the emotion of hatred. In Semitic languages like Aramaic, which Jesus spoke in everyday conversation, hate was a comparative word, a priority word. He is saying, "Unless you love Me more than you love your mother and father, husband or wife, etc., you can't be part of My kingdom." Those words are "stern and solemn" enough. But He is not commanding us to hate our relatives! (Or anybody else, for that matter.)

Some will wonder whether Jesus isn't exhibiting some kind of megalomania here, demanding allegiance to Him. Jesus once said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6). If Jesus is the only means through which the power of sin and death over our lives can be destroyed, it's hardly an act of arrogance on Jesus' part to insist on our allegiance to Him alone. If the only way for a drowning man to get to shore is to hold onto the lifeguard, you would hardly call the lifeguard arrogant for saying so to the thrashing victim.

Our problem, of course, is that we're control freaks. We want the Jesus Who will love us as we are, but we're not as keen to have the Jesus Who sets out to make changes in the lives of those He saves. But Jesus leaves us no choice in the matter: We will either have all of Jesus or we will have none of Jesus.

May God give me the grace, faith, and courage to choose all of Jesus every day. And if life with God is what you want, may God give you these things, too!

*You can read the real story of God giving the Ten Commandments and other commands to Moses in Exodus, chapters 19 to 24. Brooks later incorporated something of this joke into his movie, The History of the World, Part 3. Only there, his Moses held three tablets, one fell from his arms, and Moses announced that God had given "these fifteen...[one tablet falls] Oy! Ten commandments for all to obey!"

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