God isn’t as religious as you think He is.

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“It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12:32

This statement might just be among the most anti-religious things Jesus is recorded to have ever said. In one sentence, Our Lord turns over the tables of our religious presumptions and drives out the money changers of self made religion.
The words of Jesus here, must have made every Pharisee in town feel squeamish. He says something here that flies in the face of two prevalent forms of religion. In one joyful declaration or Lord knocked the legs out from under what I call, “The probationary gospel” and the “Cash and Carry Gospel.” Both of these are rampant in our culture today, and are as deadly to the soul today as they were in Jesus day.
1. “The probationary gospel” is a lie that portrays our heavenly father as nothing more than an irate deity, fuming over us with his bony finger poised over the Hell-button, just waiting for an excuse to drop the trap door open and send us screaming into the abyss. It’s a probationary gospel because it is entirely dependent on our good behavior. Imagine God saying to us at conversion, “Alright you little sinner. You’re forgiven for now, but if you don’t keep it clean you’re going back to the darkness.” It’s a fake gospel that says, ” If you die having even the smallest sin unconfessed, you’re going to hell !” Really? A salvation that is only as strong as my ability to confess? A gospel that depends on my goodness is no gospel at all.
Jesus says, “It’s your father’s good pleasure…” Your father was and is pleased to give you the kingdom. His salvation is not an act of obligation, but of divine love. If you are saved you are not on probation. You are not under the wrath of God any longer. God is your father and He is pleased to give you his kingdom and everything that comes with it. This leads to the second point.
2. “The cash and carry gospel” otherwise known as the health and wealth gospel. There are many preachers who are selling the gospel short, by making it primarily about money and health and material things. While I have no problem believing that God will meet all our needs and even give an abundance at times, the notion that the kingdom of God is about material things falls short of the message of Jesus.
The Pharisees loved money. If Jesus message had been about wealth and financial gain, they would never have crucified him. They would have flocked to him. I fear today that many preachers would have quite a following of Pharisees had they preached their messages in his day. The gospel is not about making it in this world, but in the next. Jesus said, “Its the father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The kingdom of God is what is being offered here, not the kingdoms of this world.
The message of the gospel is not about how God can make you wealthy, healthy and successful in this life. Too many people become Christians because someone told them Jesus could improve their lives. While that is certainly true, that is not what makes the gospel good news. The good news is that we have an eternal kingdom that never fades, an eternal hope with greater riches than this world could ever offer.
Our lives are hidden with Christ (Col. 3). When prosperity preachers offer us mansions and cars and money they are thinking too small. If you read the verses that follow Luke 12:32 you will see Jesus inviting us to strip ourselves of any concern for material things and go after the real riches found in him. Paul tells us that “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink (i.e. material things) but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17)
Friends, Jesus came preaching a message that is liberating to the soul! It liberates us from legalism and materialism, among other things. He liberates us by showing us a father in heaven who is not nearly as religious as we are. God is not religious, God is love. He is Holy love. He calls us to free ourselves from the bondage of sin and self, by faith in him. When we turn to Him by faith we find a heavenly father who takes great pleasure in giving us a kingdom that never fades, never falls, never dies. He’s not inviting you to the burden of religious duty or the greater burden of materialism. But to the freedom and joy we were created for. This comes only through turning by faith and surrender to Jesus Christ, who died to open the door for us.

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The exercise

Mark 15:16-20

“and they began to salute him, ‘Hail King of the Jews!'” v. 18

“Well, men I have a special treat for you today!” The commander blared in the kind of sarcastic tone only a military commander can master. We stood there a little unnerved as he went on.
“It seems these mewling Hebrews are bickering again, only this time they’ve handed over one of their Prophets for a little exercise.” 

Whenever our commander says “a little exercise” he says it with a sadistic bite that let’s us all know, somebody’s about to get a beating. I have to be honest, I kind of enjoyed these “exercises”.

I’ve been stationed here in this dirty place for six years now. I patrol the streets of this flea infested country and do what I can to keep peace. I haven’t seen my family or my home in forever, and with all the angry stares I wonder if I ever will again.  I have to watch my back every minute if I don’t want to find a dagger between my shoulders in some alley. 

I don’t speak Hebrew, but curses sound the same in any language. Don’t these fools know we’re here to improve their lives? If only they could see the glory of Rome and her gods, they would want to evolve out of this obsessive, intolerant religion of theirs.

So you can understand my sheer enjoyment when they bring us a piece of Hebrew flesh to butcher.  This one, they say, thinks he’s some kind of king. These Jews and their kings! What a joke. The commander speaks as they bring in the “King”

“Now men, we’re going to have a little coronation today. Just remember we have to keep this one alive because he has a full day ahead of him.” We all knew what that meant. Another stinking body hanging beside the highway. He would be crucified with the others.  

 “let’s get started.” We all had a good laugh watching the commander dress up “His majesty” in a robe and parade him around while we bowed mockingly. Then one of the Centurions made a crown  of thorns and slammed it down on his head with such force blood literally spit out in all directions. There he stood in the center of the pavement while we shouted, “Hail King of the Jews!” For the next hour or so we took turns unleashing our rage on him. He just stood there and took it. This was my chance to unload on these Hebrews and I meant to enjoy every moment of it. But I have to admit this Jew was a little different than most.

Most of the time they either fight back or they scream for mercy. I was kind of hoping he would too. But he just seemed to absorb it all. After awhile I stepped back to let some of the younger recruits get a few punches in, while I tended my knuckles. That’s when things became a little weird. I made a crucial mistake in my business. I started to feel for the guy. And I began to notice to looks on our faces, and what I could see of his.

Years ago when I was a young boy I saw a pack of wolves tear apart one of my father’s sheep. Today reminded me of that. We were a pack of wolves tearing apart an innocent sheep. This is why it’s not advisable to think too much at one of these exercises. Thinking leads to feeling and feeling makes you vulnerable. It’s best to keep up your guard or that lamb might get too close, then you’re done for.

I watched him in the midst of that pack. It was like he literally absorbed our hate for this people and their god. I found myself sinking back to the perimeter of the mob. All I could do was watch them toss him back and forth, sending his blood spattering on their faces. There wasn’t a man there who wasn’t covered in his blood.

I found it easier to stand in the back ground and join the chanting, “Hail King of the Jews!” but I found myself losing my sarcastic edge. I just kept saying it and watching him. “Hail …King…of the Jews!” Hoping this frenzy would soon end I chanted with an unexplainable sense of empathy, like I was starting the believe it. “Hail…King….”

Why was I weeping now? “Hail King…” My heart felt weak. I feared being noticed, so I made my way to an outer room. I looked down at my bloodied hands trying to understand what was happening to me. Weeping broke into a torrent of unexplainable sobs. I’ve done these “exercises” a hundred times. But this time I couldn’t escape the eerie feeling that something really terrible and powerful was happening.

Regaining my composure, I rushed back to the pavement, hoping no one saw my reddened eyes. The frenzy had stopped. The commander ripped off the mock robe and dressed him. All the soldiers stood there exhausted, some smiling, others maybe a little shaken. As they led him out I just stood in the back repeating those words, hoping no one would notice the change in my tone. “Hail King of the Jews!”

I spent the next hour cleaning up and trying to shake myself back to normal. I had been assigned to the execution in the afternoon. I tried to prepare, but nothing could prepare me for what would happen next.

Promises are easier kept around the table.

Mark 14:66-72

“And he broke down and wept.” v. 72 

Promises are easier kept around the table than before the fire. The one Yeshua had named the rock, now lay in pieces in an alley outside the courtyard. The accusing roosters scream tore into his inner ear with unrelenting mockery. There’s a kind of weeping that is so deep that it makes your whole body convulse until you vomit up burning grief from deep places you had no idea existed. Peter was discovering depths of sadness that tore his soul to shreds.

“I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me…” He had said. “One who dips his bread with me…” 

Writhing on the ground Peter felt like a serpent impaled with a spear. All he could do was relive those horrible moments.

He had been standing by the fire warming himself, not sure if he should fight or run. He knew for sure he would be arrested for assaulting that servant, so he considered going into hiding. But he was unable to move. Suspended helplessly between his concern for Jesus, and his instinct to avoid further trouble, he warmed his hands while his synapses raced for a plan. Then she approached.

She didn’t bring any accusations, just a simple statement. Why does it seem our greatest temptations come wrapped in plain brown paper, almost unnoticeable until too late? She casually mentioned, “You were with that Nazarene.”

Fearful that she would point him out as the one who assaulted the servant, he tried to protect his cover,

“No, sorry, you’ve got the wrong guy lady.”     

The Rooster crowed.

Peter reasoned to himself, “I wasn’t denying him, just my association, in case they’re looking for me.”

Not only does temptation come in plain brown paper, it finds an opening and keeps coming.

Enter the servant girl again, only this time she told all the bystanders.

“Hey this is one of the disciples of that Nazarene.”

Fearing this time they would surely report him, he denied it.

“I’m not denying him, just my association with him. I can tell them later after all this blows over.” He assured himself.      

Then another chimed in, “Hey I can tell by your accent, you’re a Galilean. I know you’re one of them!”  Temptation also plays hard on your fears, and Peter was fearful of more trouble.

“_______it! I don’t know this Nazarene you’re talking about.” He shouted.

Almost immediately the rooster cut through the night with a menacing indictment. At this all his rationalizing and reasoning fell into a million scathing pieces. Peter ran into the night, oblivious to the laughing crowd behind him.

The sound of his master’s warning couldn’t be drowned out by his convulsing heart.

“Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Yeshua had said.

Promises are easier kept around the table than before the fire.

Satan delivered a package in brown paper and Peter received it first class.  What do you do when the promise you gave the Lord at the table, fails the test of fire?

Through the torrents of emotion Peter could only think of his dear friend, betrayed by those he had given so much to. Flashes of memory cascaded into his consciousness compounding his grief.

Every word Yeshua had spoken, every deed he had done hovered over Peter with a crushing heaviness. Glimpses of walking on water, passing out bread, and opening blind eyes hammered  him with unstoppable force.

Peter spent hours sitting in the corner of his home, arms folded around legs, rocking back and forth. “He gave me a life, and I gave him death. Oh God have mercy. His blood is on my head.”

But somewhere in the night something clicked. “Yeshua knew this would happen. He warned me. He wasn’t surprised. He knew I would falter. But he didn’t send me away.”    

That thought seemed to give him some hope, although he didn’t know why.

He knows that much of what we say at the table doesn’t make it past the door of the upper room, much less to the fire of trial. Yet he still calls us to be with him.   That’s the gospel.

One cross is better than a thousand.

Mark 14:53-65   

“But he remained silent and made no answer.” v. 61

“Let’s get this over with.”,  Caiaphas roared himself and the council awake. He hated these late night trials with a passion. But time was of the essence with Passover fast approaching. News of this Nazarene’s rebellion had kept the High Priest awake many a night, so he was pleased to have finally apprehended him, especially before the feast day. “The last thing we need is a false prophet running around at the most holy time of the year.”  The only thing he despised more than the filthy Romans was rabble rousers like this Yeshua, who threatened, not only the spiritual well being of Israel, but also her political stability. Rome doesn’t take too kindly to rival kings. “I’ve seen too many crosses along the highway, to let some misguided mystic start another rebellion. One cross is better than a thousand.”

One by one the witnesses came bearing testimony.

“I heard him say he wanted to destroy the Temple.”

“Well, I heard him say he was going to build a new temple in three days….”

“Or was it seven?”

“He told us to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Roman soldiers, or something like that.”

It wasn’t long before Caiaphas weary mind was unable to keep all the accusations together. Trying to sort out truth from innuendo this late at night was like trying to catch the evening rain in a fishing net. His vision, weak enough as it was, began to falter amidst the dance of flickering lamps and shadows across centuries old tapestries. The smell of incense fought in vain against the stench of councilmen and soldiers encircling the accused, eyes burning like hot coals into innocent lambs flesh. And there stood Yeshua, in the center. He was strikingly calm for a man facing death. He seemed impervious to the barrage of piercing accusations raining upon him. How could he be so silent? He had to know he was going to die! One cross is better than a thousand.

When the last accuser completed his clearly contrived testimony, the council members sat there, a bit baffled about what to do next. They all seemed to be shaking their nets along with Caiaphas, who sat there rubbing swollen eyes and massaging a throbbing forehead. He could feel a new furrow forming as he awaited any further testimony. For a moment he allowed the silence to linger while he marveled at the man who stood before him, bound in chains, but freer than anyone in the room.

Yeshua stood for the longest time averting his gaze to the floor, then to the ceiling, then around the room. But still he said nothing. No defense was made against the flimsy testimonies. No pleas for mercy, or claim to innocence, nothing but silence. After a moment of stillness and quiet confusion, all eyes in the room, except for Yeshua, turned to Caiaphas, whose weary eyes widened like a deer caught in the headlights. Straightening his robe and clearing his throat he asked Yeshua to speak.

“What do you have to say about these accusations?”

Silence continued to loiter like an unwanted guest, so the High Priest pierced deeply into the heart of the matter.

“Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” This question was the fuse, that once lit, set off the explosion that changed a covert trial into a virtual riot.

Until now, Yeshua had not made eye contact with Caiaphas. After a brief uncomfortable silence, the accused deliberately raised his battered head until his gazed was locked onto his interrogator. Piercing black eyes riveted the fatigued priest into the back of his chair. For a moment Caiaphas felt that he himself was the one on trial, and Yeshua was the High Priest. The accused spoke with stunning regal force. “I am…”

At this Caiaphas felt himself wither away like a leaf in a storm. He could barely keep from falling to the floor. What followed next crashed upon him like the red sea upon ancient Pharaoh’s army.

” and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

The short fuse incinerated. The room exploded.

The tearing of cloth. A scream for justice. The sound of fists crashing into Yeshua’s face.

Foreboding blood spatter sprinkling angry men.

An hour passed before the room cleared and Yeshua was dragged off toward his death.

Caiaphas sat there alone, staring at blood washed tapestries, and listening to the echo of Yeshua’s claim. He had tried and executed many false prophets in his years as High Priest. But this time something shook him. No matter how hard he tried to justify the means with the end, he couldn’t quite escape the queasy feeling that Yeshua wasn’t the one on trial here. Hours later, he lay awake in his bed, repeatedly muttering neurotically to himself, “Better for one man to die than everyone else, right? One cross is better than a thousand…right?”

 

Naked Faith

Mark 14:43-52

“And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.” V. 52

Cleptus thought his lungs were going to collapse. Falling naked into a thicket of brush and stones, he tried to suppress his frantic wheezing until the squad of soldiers passed by. He felt relieved that they had quickly lost interest in him, as they dragged Yeshua away into the night.

His weary head spun wildly in a sea of fatigue and slowly waning fear. Heavy perspiration and garden foliage was his only covering. He considered going back for his linen cloth, but apprehension kept him in hiding. He was now living everyone’s worst nightmare; finding yourself naked in a public place, and looking for cover. Only for him the dream was real. He sat there trembling, his mind racing for a plan.

Eventually he mustered the courage to go back to the place where it all went down, retrieve his cover and make his way to his shelter. After cleaning off and falling into his tiny cot, he laid face upward entranced by the handful of stars that peeked through the hole in his ceiling. “It must not be meant to be.” He moaned through hot jagged tear streams burning frustration into his thin cheekbones.

Ever since last year, when he happened upon this Rabbi, who was blessing a group of children, he had wanted to meet this amazing man from Nazareth. He wanted to talk with him about so many things, but it seemed like the whole universe was conspiring to stop him from making contact. He had heard incredible stories about this miracle working sage, but what really caught his attention was that day when he watched this Messiah playing with a bunch of children.

Until then Cleptus hadn’t had much use for any god. To him gods, if they existed at all, were interested in little more than toying with people, or making unreasonable demands of piety.  But then, he saw this man of God, who some said, was a god, stooping down in genuine love for snotty nosed, smelly, wild eyed children. It made him start rethinking the whole god thing. It made Cleptus want to change his ways. He was tired of stealing. Tired of running. Tired of being afraid.

But this was the kicker. Every time Cleptus tried to get close to Yeshua, he came up just a little too late. Once, he saw Jesus teaching from a boat. At the end of the teaching he fought his way toward him, but by the time he arrived at the shore, Jesus was halfway across the water. He prayed late into endless nights, “God if you’re real, and if this Yeshua is really from you, let me meet him.” But time after time he found himself too late, too slow. But tonight it looked like his prayer was going to be answered.

He had just finished bathing himself, when he glanced out his small window and caught a glimpse of a group of men heading into the garden. He recognized Yeshua was one of them. Cleptus, not wanting to take time to dress, grabbed a linen sheet and sprinted into the darkness, tiptoeing around sharp rocks and thorns. The pain was a small price to finally meet this Yeshua of Nazareth.

When he came upon them, the men were sleeping some distance away, while Yeshua appeared to be in prayer. The site of Yeshua, calling out into the night sky, with tears and blood dancing together down the Rabbis face, left Cleptus in awe. How can one speak so intimately with thin air? He wondered. Was there someone really out there, listening?

Cleptus planned to wait until the Rabbi was finished praying, before approaching him. But the opportunity never came. The rapid-fire events that followed filled him with terror. Swords, clubs and torches sent men scattering in all directions. Panic invaded everyone there…except Yeshua. “How do you have such peace when hell breaks out upon you?” The Rabbi seemed to be the only one in control of himself. Even the soldiers seemed unnerved, but not Yeshua. “I’ll never forget that about him.” Cleptus whispered to himself there on his lonely cot.

He didn’t sleep though. He tried to utter a prayer, but started to doubt if anyone would hear. He had prayed for a chance to meet Yeshua, but it never came. He had watched Yeshua pray for help, then he saw him marched away like a common criminal. Even his friends left him.

“If those who claim to be his friends don’t stick with him, then why should I?” He murmured through clinched teeth. “That poor guy’s as good as dead now. Whatever chance I had is gone now.” He spat out. “If God’s out there he must not think much of a crook like me.”

Barely had the words crossed his weary mind, when the morning silence was blasted by the sound of soldiers crashing through his rickety door. They quickly bound him, and ransacked his house, finding the Centurion’s stolen silver. “You thought you’d make a quick sale eh? Well, today you have an appointment with your god! You filthy thief!” Later that afternoon Cleptus found himself cinched to a crossbeam with two others. He could feel the life seeping out of him. Looking to his left he is shocked to see Yeshua.

Cleptus watched, stunned by the jeers and taunts, hurled at the rabbi. The curses all seemed powerless against Yeshua’s obvious love for them. He suffered so terribly, beaten to a pulp, his flesh torn from his body as if by a ravenous animal. Yet Yeshua almost seemed in control even here. “What is this man dying for?” It didn’t make sense to Cleptus. Funny thing was, it didn’t have to. When you find yourself face to face with somebody like that, you don’t have to understand everything, you just have to believe. At that moment Cleptus found Yeshua and Yeshua found him.  That’s the good news.

Just stay awake and watch.

Mark 14:32-42

“My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” V. 34

Sometimes you can feel the darkness. The black night sky pours out thick oil on your shoulders, smothering any semblance of daylight. Andrew dug in just far enough from the master to hear his faint groaning’s mingled with haunting night sounds, harmonizing with an eerie sense of foreboding.  There’s a kind of hypnotic effect that comes over a weary soul, in the late hours, blurring the lines between consciousness and sleep. You don’t really know how much is real, and how much is just in your head. This is one of those nights that make you long for something to happen, good or bad. You’d just about welcome anything at all to shake you out of this limbo.

Andrew wanted to stay awake but his eyelids fused into iron with every creeping moment, and his head was drunk on darkness and firelight. To stay awake he tried to nail his eyelids on his master who was in prayer a few yards, seemed like miles, away.

In the past three years he had seen Jesus angry, sad, joyful, frustrated, and even a bit perplexed on occasions, but never like this.  It was a bit unnerving to see him shaking so violently. His whole body seemed to quake and totter constantly on the edge of an abyss. A momentary flash of firelight revealed what looked like a foreboding stream of blood priming Jesus ashen face.

Andrew found himself running to Jesus with a long sword slashing and cutting away at a fierce dark beast, which was jabbing a makeshift crown full of thorns onto the Rabbi’s head. Then there were bats with red mocking eyes coming at him from all sides, spitting fire at Jesus. Andrew was swinging wildly, but then his sword grew heavy. He tried to run, but couldn’t move his legs. Another dark beast shoved a spear at the master, piercing his rib cage. Andrew tried to fight but was too weak to lift his hands. He screamed out echoes of terror into the night sky.

The next thing he felt was a hand on his shoulder, shaking him. “Wake up! Andrew! Wake up. You’re dreaming! The master is coming.”

Trying to rub the embarrassment from his eyes, Andrew stood up with the others, letting the cold night air resuscitate him.

“Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Jesus’ words cut into Andrew’s heart leaving him fumbling in vain for a response. His weary frame dipped back against a tree watching Jesus enter the ring for another round.

Seeing his teacher rock back and forth with the world perched on his shoulders, its crushing claws sinking deep, Andrew wanted to do something. But what do you do when the world seems to be suffocating in darkness, and even God seems powerless to stop it? He decided in such a time all he could do was try to stay awake, and keep his gaze riveted on his teacher, no matter how hard it became to see him. There must be some battles that only Jesus can fight. So  Andrew kept telling himself, “Stay awake and watch. Just stay awake and watch. Just stay awake and watch.  Just stay awake….”

The diamond of redemption.

Mark 14:22-25

“and Jesus said, ‘You will all fall away… but after I am raised up I will go before you.’ ” v. 26

It’s set like a precious jewel between betrayal and denial. In the text, you can see it arranged perfectly. Before the bread and wine, he predicts betrayal, then after, denial and abandonment is foretold. Set indelibly in between two great human tragedies are the words of our Lord, “This is my body…this is my blood.” I don’t think the position of these words is coincidental.

Jesus first predicts the searing dagger of betrayal, clothed in a kiss of friendship. Then he offers the bread and wine of the New Covenant. After that he declares that he will not only be betrayed, but abandoned and denied by those closest to him. What a tragically beautiful picture of redeeming love. This is the gospel. This is the good news.

The betrayer prepares to make his way to the door under pretense of charity, while the others staunchly declare their willingness to die at his side. He knows they want to, but they can’t. They don’t yet have the power to match their passion. But there he stands, heavens brightest diamond, set between humanities failings. This is the gospel. This is the good news.

We’re all betrayers at heart, waiting for the right bag of silver to draw us away from our redeemer’s side. We’re all scattered sheep, looking incessantly for some place a little greener than we had yesterday. He listen’s with love to our porcelain promises, cracks forming as we speak. He can already hear the rooster crowing in the background. He knows we have passion, but don’t trust his power to see it through.  But there he stands, with bread and wine in hand, offering more love than we can ever imagine or repay.  This is the gospel. This is good news.

He knows the wolves are coming, the sheep are growing restless, and the rooster is about to play taps on our resolve.  But still he offers us his body, broken and his blood poured out. He is the diamond set in the midst of your greatest point of brokenness. Your past failures, and present struggles, and even your future disappointments form the setting to reflect the glory of his redeeming love. In the same way the setting of a ring is transformed when it receives the precious stone, you have been offered God’s glorious new covenant of grace. Once you receive him, your failures are transformed forever. You are never the same. That is the gospel. That is the good news.