Notes from the desert: total discipleship.

I am amazed by the first disciples of Jesus.  I recently re-read the stories of their call in the early pages of the gospels and considered the simplicity of their responses.  These men were not normal, or at least there was something totally abnormal about the incidents in which they surrendered so instantly to follow a man whom they did not know.  What made these men abandon there entire livelihood and personal connections in such a radical way, and with such unreserve?

Immediately they left their nets and followed Him… (Matthew 4:20)

Something about Jesus was so totally irresistible.

What is even more remarkable is that this seems to have been the expectation with which Jesus approached each one.  Consider for a moment what Jesus said to a disciple whose name we are never given, who in response to the call of the Lord said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.”

Follow me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead. (Matthew 8:22)

I think that in the modern world, we offer much more trivial excuses for our delay to respond to the call of Jesus.  We say that we have an appointment, that our schedule is full, or that we want a few more minutes browsing Youtube, Facebook, etc.  We want to see the oh-so important final episode of our favourite tv subscriptions on Netflix.  We say this with our hearts every time we choose these comforts over His voice.  But Jesus was not satisfied even with the request to be present at the funeral of this disciple’s father.  Instead, He uses the man’s response to illustrate the absolute demands of His call, and the emptiness of a life without it.  Jesus calls everything which pulls us away from an immediate and total acceptance of His call ‘dead’.  And everyone whose life is made up of a life apart from following Him, He also calls ‘dead’.  That is stunning.  Are you totally submitted to Jesus’ leadership?  If not, He says you are dead, and living among the dead.  There is no room left for reserve in His call.

In the modern day, we accommodate a very half-hearted approach to Christianity.  We ‘encourage’ new believers not to be ‘too extreme’ and to stay ‘balanced’.  But there is nothing even slightly balanced about Jesus’ command to follow Him.

He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. (Matthew 10:37)

If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. (Luke 14:26)

The call of Jesus is the call to reject all competing affections, personal and material.  It is the call to hate and refuse to be drawn aside by everything in our lives that wrestles with His call.  Saying yes to His call to follow requires that we refuse everything else.  It is not possible to simply live.  Every part of life must be lived through Him.  Anything less amounts to a rejection of His call.

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:24)

There seems to be a very prevalent attitude that we can have Jesus as a convenient and helpful addition to our lives, which can otherwise remain essentially unchanged.  This is a fundamental misunderstanding.  The call of Jesus has to be an interruption.  Things cannot continue as they were on any level.  There must be a death.  Everything must initially be put to an end, and then there must be a subsequent holy upheaval.  Everything must be disturbed and reordered.  All our associations in life prior to the call of Jesus essentially master us.  When the perfect Master invites us to be mastered by Him, we must despise all of our old masters.  We must count them, and ourselves as dead.

We often try to have many leaders and many masters in our lives – the most dominant one being self.  I think this is the source of much of our sense of entitlement, which in itself amounts to no less than rebellion.  We still think we are entitled to our opinions.  We still think we are entitled to our decisions and our place in the world’s social structures.  But Jesus says, ‘Come and die that you may live!’

This same sense of entitlement often causes us to refuse God’s heart and our prayers become weak and selfish.  We are stuck in the affections of the world, and do not see that things that constantly break His heart – abortion, human trafficking, antisemitism and the global maligning of Israel, divorce, extreme poverty and epidemics that steal the lives of millions.  Where is the gospel’s outworking?  Too often it is bowed at the knees of comfort and complacency, or even legitimate natural affections which are given a place higher than His heart.

I am reminded of the cry of Elijah on Mount Carmel, “If Baal is God, then follow Him!”  But Baal is not God.  He is a deaf and dumb idol that cannot speak and cannot hear – he can give no remedy to the desperate need of the world for Jesus.  It is time to call an end to Christianity that tries to dip its sore feet into the soothing waters of salvation after a long day working for Baal.

The call of Jesus is a death and rebirth, represented in the burial of the waters of Baptism.  May the work of the Cross take effect in every place in our hearts and lives that we serve the perfect Master with total devotion.  May our answer to the call of Jesus be like Elisha’s response to Elijah.  He was plowing with oxen when Elijah threw his mantle upon him.  It says that Elisha slaughtered the oxen, boiled their flesh and gave it to the people.  Elijah knew the heavy demand that he had placed on this man.  He said, ‘What have I done to you?’ (1 Kings 19:19-21).  We must know the intensity of the call which is given by Jesus.  If this kind of absolute service was demanded by Elijah, how much more is it demanded by the Saviour of the world and God Himself.  May the grace of God empower us to understand the costliness of His call, and to say a radical yes to that cost in the same way as the twelve, that God’s power may flow freely through our lives.

 

 

Advertisements

5 very slow, agonising steps to a life well-lived.

The world we live in is astonishingly fast.  Everything is fast.  Food is fast, the internet is fast, information is fast, media is fast, shopping is fast, travel is fast… and just about everything is available.  A westerner can have what he wants when he wants it more easily than he has ever been able to at any time in human history.  Attention spans are becoming shorter, and it seems like if information is going to be conveyed from one human being to another, it must be done in three minutes or less, using as few words of more than one syllable as possible – preferably on youtube.

It has reminded me (and I find I need to remind myself increasingly regularly) that there are no shortcuts with God.

God is slow.

Or at least slow from our perspective.  He rarely does things as fast as we want Him to, and when he does we tend to get really excited and call it a miracle, as if it was hard for Him in any way.  What surprises me is that it seems that in some things, not by any means all (I believe healing for instance, we should believe to receive NOW), God actually would rather that we wait or, better, persevere.

Keep on asking and it will be given you; keep on seeking and you will find; keep on knocking [reverently] and [the door] will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7 AMP)

What does God want here?  Does He want to see us beg and cry?  I don’t think so.  I think He is looking for the persistent faith of a child that believes their loving Father will answer so just keeps asking and reminding Him that they are there waiting and expecting.

God is faithful and He is looking for faithfulness in His children.  God is patient and He is looking for patience in His children.

But let endurance and steadfastness and patience have full play and do a thorough work, so that you may be [people] perfectly and fully developed [with no defects], lacking in nothing. (James 1:4 AMP)

…endurance (fortitude) develops maturity of character (approved faith and tried integrity). And character [of this sort] produces [the habit of] joyful and confident hope of eternal salvation. (Romans 5:4 AMP)

Perfection and completeness in anything only come with time.  This is true of human character maybe more than anything else in life.  If you are like me, you will know that overcoming your own failings seems to be the hardest and most agonising process.  But this is what God is looking for in those who have given there lives to Him; a willingness to change and be changed by Him.  He is interested in developing character – and He is prepared for the long haul.

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:1-2, NKJV)

Recently, I have been struck by the enormous quantity of 5-point plans that are flying around social media.  For whatever anyone would want in life, there seems to be someone who has developed a plan of ‘5 quick and easy steps’ to get there.  I laugh a little when I see these because I know that they can’t be true!  There are no ‘quick and easy’ steps to a life well lived.

Anyone who has done great things in life has done so through God, and there are no quick or easy steps to a relationship with God.  Like any relationship, it takes time and investment.  It develops through familiarity which develops slowly.  The renewal of the mind takes time in God’s Word.  It takes a lifetime.

So I present to you my alternative steps to a life well-lived.  I’m pretty convinced that if you do these things, you will live a fulfilled life and do great things.  Will it be easy?  I doubt it.  Will it be quick?  LOL.  Will it be worth it?  100% YES.

  1. Understand that there are NO shortcuts with God. 
  2. Cultivate a habitual, disciplined life of consistent PRAYER and Bible reading.
  3. Sincerely LOVE from the heart every person, every day.  
  4. Do the very BEST you can do in everything that you do.  
  5. Never, ever, under any circumstances, EVER give up.

The Church’s schism of the heart.

My present view which only grows stronger is that the Church today is in possession of a schism of the heart.  Were it only a brokenness of heart, as we cry out to our Father in Sunday services and offer to Him in devotional times, then there might evidently be a grace which would flow though our brokenness with the Divine presence.  But as it stands it is a schism which has been labelled as a ‘holy’ and ‘contrite’ brokenness.

What am I talking about?  It presents itself in lives which are confounded: broken homes, broken marriages, broken bank accounts, broken bodies and (most tragic of all) broken churches.  Were it a brokenness of heart of which the Psalmist spoke, which is a yieldedness of being to Divine will, then what Paul spoke of himself would also be true of us today.

For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9 NKJV)

The truth is that most of the weakness and brokenness that the Church is enduring today is weak and only weak; broken and only broken.  The Divine presence is not active in divorce, bankruptcy or cancer any more than it is in hell itself.  We cry, ‘All things work together for good!’ and tuck ourselves into our cosy religious beds without any requirement for an earnest searching of our hearts for necessary change.

I would like to suggest to you that the cause of all the brokenness in the Church today goes to a schism at our roots.  This issue has been touched upon by much of the teaching about our identity as sons and daughters of God in Christ.  The miracle of salvation is supposed to uproot us and replant us.

[The Father] has DELIVERED and drawn us to Himself out of the control and the dominion of darkness and has TRANSFERRED us into the KINGDOM of the Son of His love,  (Colossians 1:13 AMP, emphasis added)

The essence of our redemption is found in an understanding of the kingdom into which we have been translated.  In this kingdom, we have rights and privileges that include freedom from all of those dynamics of brokenness that were described above.  It includes sonship.  We are no longer orphans in this new kingdom.  But we have neglected a full understanding of this kingdom, which was defined throughout the Old Testament in God’s first covenant people, Israel.

Paul again describes the process of salvation in Romans.

…you were CUT OUT of the olive tree which is WILD by nature, and were GRAFTED contrary to nature into a CULTIVATED olive tree…  (Romans 11:24 NKJV, emphasis added)

God spent over 1,500 years cultivating Israel, the olive tree referred to here, in His ways and His character.  He gave them the privilege of His presence, the privilege of sonship, the privileges of health and provision; all included under the blessing of a covenant of union with Himself.  A summary of the blessing God gave to Israel is found in Deuteronomy 28.  These privileges, in spite of Israel’s frequent rebellion, were guaranteed in the blood of Jesus to all who will accept Him (Galatians 3:13-14).

Yet most Christians, if they do not reject outright their covenant association with Israel in Jesus, are at least made very uncomfortable by it and try to minimise the significance of this association.  Truth be told, this is philosophical insanity.  You have been implanted into a new identity in which are held all your life and benefits, you even accept and affirm that your life is found in this new identity, and yet you reject this core identity!?

Every Christian, whether they like it or not has, in Jesus, become part of the ‘commonwealth of Israel’ (Ephesians 2).  This can be defined as the wealth held common as a gift from God to the nation of Israel.  I don’t for one minute suggest that gentile believers should pretend to be Jewish, but we need to embrace a unity of spiritual destiny and inheritance which we now possess with the nation of Israel.  Paul adjures all believers specifically in the book of Ephesians to remember this truth.

Therefore REMEMBER that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands—that at that time you were without Christ, being ALIENS from the COMMONWEALTH OF ISRAEL and strangers from the COVENANTS OF PROMISE, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been BROUGHT NEAR by the blood of Christ.  (Ephesians 2:11-13 NKJV, emphasis added)

In Jesus we have a new home, a new nation, a new family and a new inheritance.  This truth has often been expressed in preaching and teaching, but rarely has the further step been made to specify that this new home, nation, family and inheritance is Israel.

Whatever be the cause of our reluctance to embrace our association with ancient Israel, God’s plan is moving ahead and they are once more in the land to which God promised through His prophets that they would return.  We are nearing the time when, as Paul said, the natural branches will be ‘grafted into their own olive tree’ (Romans 11).  They will look on Him Whom they pierced and mourn for Him, as it says in the prophet, Hosea.  It will be ‘life from  the dead’ and ‘riches for the world’ as it says in Romans 11.

I can’t help but think that much of the Church’s reluctance to accept her identity is simply to do with latent generational antisemitism.  Surely the popularity of ‘Israel-bashing’ in the modern media also has much to do with it.  But we have to overcome this problem in prayer if we mean to enter into our identity as God’s bride in the fullest expression, as it says in Ephesians 5, ‘not having spot or wrinkle’.  I am convinced that our ‘schism of the heart’; our corporate ‘identity crisis’; will be used as a channel for hell’s legions until the breach is healed.

But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were [so] far away, through (by, in) the blood of Christ have been brought near. For He is [Himself] our peace (our bond of unity and harmony). He has MADE US BOTH [Jew and Gentile] ONE [body], and has BROKEN DOWN (destroyed, abolished) the hostile dividing wall between us, by ABOLISHING in His [own crucified] flesh the ENMITY [caused by] the Law with its decrees and ordinances [which He annulled]; that He FROM THE TWO MIGHT CREATE ONE NEW MAN [one new quality of humanity out of the two], so making peace.  (Ephesians 2:13-15 AMP, emphasis added)

If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. (Mark 3:24-25 NKJV)

It’s time to get our house in order and get our kingdom in order, or we will not be able to stand.  I would invite you to read the following extract from the Victorian novel Daniel Deronda, in which Deronda (a Jew who is unaware of his identity as a Jew) interacts with Mordechai who is inviting him to share in the plight and destiny of the Jewish people.  The Church must find herself in these words and others like them.  It is not enough that we feel compassion for the Jews, or even help the Jews; we must find our identity in union with the Jewish people and the Jewish Man, Jesus, Who has purchased our souls.

“I feel with you—I feel strongly with you,” said Deronda…”That is not enough,” said Mordecai, quickly, looking up again with the flash of recovered memory and confidence. “That is not all my trust in you. You must be not only a hand to me, but a soul—believing my belief—being moved by my reasons—hoping my hope-seeing the vision I point to—beholding a glory where I behold it!”—Mordecai had taken a step nearer as he spoke, and now laid his hand on Deronda’s arm with a tight grasp; his face little more than a foot off had something like a pale flame in it—an intensity of reliance that acted as a peremptory claim, while he went on—”You will be my life: it will be planted afresh; it will grow. You shall take the inheritance; it has been gathering for ages. The generations are crowding on my narrow life as a bridge: what has been and what is to be are meeting there; and the bridge is breaking. But I have found you. You have come in time, You will take the inheritance which the base son refuses because of the tombs which the plow and harrow may not pass over or the gold-seeker disturb: you will take the sacred inheritance of the Jew.”  (George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, Chapter 40)