Jesus Is Authority and Mystery

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Jesus Is Authority and Mystery

By Beth Demme

Jesus is an interesting mix of authority and mystery.

In Mark 1:21-28, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath and people are “’astounded” at his authority. Jesus is there at the synagogue with a small group of disciples who also responded to his authority. Just a few verses earlier they were fishermen. Jesus approached them and said “follow me” and they did! They dropped everything to follow him. (Mark 1:16-20)

While Jesus (and the fishermen-disciples) are in the synagogue, an unclean spirit identifies Jesus as “the Holy One of God.” Jesus dispenses with the spirit, which only makes the people in the synagogue more “amazed.” They ask, “What is this? What’s going on here?” (Mark 1:27, NRSV & MSG) Mark says that from that point on “the news about Jesus spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.” (Mark 1:28, CEB)

Notice, the unclean spirit says who Jesus is, but Jesus doesn’t. He doesn’t offer any explanation of who he is or where his authority comes from.

I love this!

By not declaring his identity/divinity here, Jesus invites us to think about the big question – from where does his authority come?

The mystery is part of Jesus’ message, too.

The Problem With God’s Grace

This Truth Can Be Hard to Swallow

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God’s Grace Problem

By Beth Demme

If we were playing a game of word association and I said “Jonah,” chances are good that you would say “whale.” When it comes to Jonah, we tend to get wrapped up in questions about if, how, and why Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish. But really, Jonah is a lesson in the problem with God’s grace.

Jonah learns the terrible, awful truth about God’s grace.

Jonah learns it the hard way. God tells him to go to Nineveh, but instead Jonah runs away from the problem. He hops on to a ship, gets thrown overboard in the middle of a storm, gets swallowed by “a large fish,” and is spit out onto dry land after three days and three nights. (Jonah 1)

The appalling thing that Jonah learns is that God’s grace is for everyone, even the Ninevites.

Jonah did not want the people of Nineveh to receive God’s grace. He didn’t want them to know about God or God’s love or God’s mercy. Jonah knew that if God gave the people of Nineveh a chance at a relationship, they would jump at it. He knew they would repent and God would forgive them. And then something truly dreadful would happen, Jonah would have to accept them as part of God’s people.

Jonah didn’t want to accept the Ninevites, he hated them. They were political enemies—the Assyrians who conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and then scattered the Israelites, resulting in the ten lost tribes of Israel. (Here’s a lesson on that.)

Jonah wanted them to be punished, he wanted to substitute his justice for God’s mercy.

You might say Jonah thinks the Ninevites are from a sh… sh… shady country.

In death, or on the verge of it, Jonah has a revelation. Jonah says, “As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord and my prayer came to you in your holy temple. … I with a voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2) In other words, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord, not to me.” In that moment, Jonah understood that he couldn’t tell God who to choose and who to exclude.

But even with that apparent attitude adjustment, Jonah goes to Nineveh half-heartedly. He goes into Nineveh a little ways and offers them 7 words. That’s all. He makes a single prophetic pronouncement: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4)  After all of the build-up, all of the effort to try to avoid going, the deathbed revelation, and then once he gets there, that’s all he says?

And yet, that was all it took. We’re told that the hope of God’s love and mercy was so magnetic that everyone, including the king of Nineveh himself, believed in God and started living differently. (Jonah 3:4-9) As Jonah predicted —and feared— God welcomed the Ninevites with open arms. “This was very displeasing to Jonah and he became angry.” (Jonah 4:1) Jonah says, basically, “uuuuuuuuuugh. This is exactly why I did not want to come here!”

In death (or on the verge of it), Jonah had cried out to God for help and forgiveness. God “brought [his] life up from the Pit” and Jonah promised to honor God “with the voice of thanksgiving.” (Jonah 3:6-9)

But, then, despite receiving God’s mercy himself, Jonah accuses God of being too merciful towards the people of Nineveh.

Jonah says he would rather die than see the people of Nineveh receive God’s grace.

That’s the terrible, awful thing about God’s grace. It’s for everyone. Anytime we draw a line between us and them, God is standing over there with them.

I struggle with this. I want God to be on my side, to like who I like and dislike who I dislike. Like Jonah, I struggle to be obedient to God and I’m overwhelmed with humility and gratitude when I remember God’s loving forgiveness. And, though it’s hard to admit, I’m like Jonah in that I take what God offers and try to keep it for myself and for those who think like me.

The “Ninevites” in my life can range on any given day from the person who cut me off in traffic to the person on Twitter or Facebook who posts a message that contradicts my own view on an issue like women in the pulpit, immigration, marriage equality, the value of life (before and after birth), and so on. It’s hard to admit, but God loves them too.

That, I think, is the real message of Jonah—the terrible, awful truth about God’s grace is that it is for everyone.

Who are your Ninevites? How do you feel about sharing the love and grace of God with them? Can you relate at all to Jonah’s reluctance to share God? Tell me about it in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.


More Like This From Beth:

Why Renewal Is My Word for 2018

And the Wesley Covenant Prayer

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My Word for 2018: Renewal

By Beth Demme

My word for 2018 is renewal. Re-new-all. Make everything new again, or at least as much as I can. Some people complain that the world today is the worst and that things back then were better somehow. I get it. At times it’s easy to see the bad and hard to see the good.

Maybe I’m naïvely optimistic, but I’m looking for renewal in 2018.

I don’t expect to find renewal on my own. I’m counting on God to show it to me. God breathed life into dry bones (Ezekiel 37) and God breathed life into humankind (Genesis 2:7). Today I’m asking God to breathe renewed life into me and to let me see signs of renewal throughout 2018.

One of the most impactful prayers I’ve ever prayed is called the Wesley Covenant Prayer. It’s often offered as part of a Covenant Renewal Service. My church did this service recently and it felt … special.

The Covenant Prayer is an all-in kind of prayer. God is all-in. We learned that with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Covenant Prayer is one way to affirm that I, too, am all-in. (Click here for a business card size copy of the prayer you can print.)

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Whose am I? In this prayer I say, “I am no longer my own, but thine.” I say, “Yes God, I belong to you and I live for you, not for myself.”

The Problem With Knowledge

Are you looking for Jesus in the manger or in the palace?

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The Problem With Knowledge

By Beth Demme

The last sigh of the Christmas season has evaporated. Have you put away all of your Christmas decorations? Is the tree un-decorated and hauled to the street (or put in storage)? Have the Christmas lights been removed and the Christmas blow-ups deflated? What about your Nativity? Have you wrapped each piece carefully and stowed it away?

Mine is all safely re-packaged and returned to the attic, already awaiting its next limited run.

Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season. In the church, this is when we celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men. You know, the three fellas in the Nativity who are wearing funny hats and holding little boxes?

The story of the Wise Men comes from the Gospel of Matthew. Here’s a quick run-down of what happens:

The Wise Men are astrologers from somewhere East of Israel. They see a special star rise in the sky and when they consult their charts they realize that it means the king of the Jews, the Messiah, has been born. They set out to find that king of the Jews to pay him homage. They go to the place that makes sense, Jerusalem—the capital city and the location of the Temple. They fail at first.

They meet with Herod, Rome’s puppet ruler over the region, but they know he’s not the one they’re looking for (and so does he). Herod calls together “all the chief priests and scribes of the people” to ask them where the Messiah is supposed to be born. The religious leaders say (more or less), “oh, yeah, we know all about that. Supposedly he’s going to be born in Bethlehem.”

The crazy thing is, the religious leaders don’t run around jumping for joy, they don’t take off for Bethlehem, they don’t do … anything.

It’s hard to admit, but I have a lot in common with the religious leaders Herod consulted.

Two Keys to Seeing God At Work

How to Expect the Unexpected

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The Two Keys to Seeing God At Work

By Beth Demme

As we’ve moved from Advent to Christmas and now towards Epiphany, I’ve been repeatedly surprised at how unexpected it all is. I’m more aware than ever that I need to be open to seeing God at work in unexpected ways.

The Messiah was conceived by the Holy Spirit but then was born in the normal human way to an unmarried couple from the wrong part of Israel and laid in a manger instead of a fancy crib in the palace or temple. And then, a month or so later, when it was time for his mother to go to the temple, his parents didn’t walk in and declare, “Hello Chief Priest, we’ve brought you the Messiah!” Instead, they humbly offered the sacrifice of the poor (two birds) and devoted themselves and their baby to God (Luke 2:22-24; Leviticus 12:6-8).

At the temple, it was Simeon and Anna who declared that Jesus was the Messiah, not Mary and Joseph and not the Chief Priest or any temple official (Luke 2:21-38). How did they know?

Mary and Joseph knew Jesus wasn’t just a regular baby. They had both been visited by angels (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2:26-36), Elizabeth confirmed it (Luke 1:41-43), and the shepherds showed up at the manger declaring that Jesus was the Messiah (Luke 2:15-18). If Mary and Joseph and Jesus were happening today, they might put a bumper sticker on their car (or donkey or whatever) that says, “MY SON IS AN HONOR STUDENT IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. HE WILL BE SEATED AT THE RIGHT HAND OF THE FATHER.”

But Mary and Joseph didn’t declare it. They were just in the temple trying to do the right thing according to Jewish law. It turns out, they didn’t have to declare it. There were people who were waiting expectantly for the unexpected.

The Birth of Jesus is All Wrong

Jesus' Birth Is Unexpected In Every Way

Unexpected Jesus

Unexpected Jesus

By Beth Demme

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)

For church folks this line is so familiar most can probably recite it from memory, even if they aren’t much on memorizing Bible verses. It is an integral part of every Christmas pageant, no matter how humble. In terms of world-changing events, it is a drop the mic moment—the birth of Christ.

And yet, we tend to forget how unexpected it is.

We expect God to use the mighty and powerful to do mighty and powerful things. We expect God to work in big, extraordinary ways. But actually, the birth of Jesus gives us the opposite perspective.

For the birth of Jesus, we might expect God to use a king and a queen, important people from an important place. But no, we start with an unmarried couple from nowhere—Mary and Joseph from Galilee in Nazareth. It’s hard to draw conclusions from what is not said, but I think it’s interesting that the Bible doesn’t describe Mary or Joseph as especially pious or righteous.

We do know from what is said that God doesn’t work with the most well-respected couple in Judaism, or even someone important in the Roman Empire. God didn’t find someone who was imminently believable and memorable to the people of the day. Instead, God found someone who was willing.

Christmas IS About What You Get

Is it really better to give than to receive?

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Christmas IS About What You Get

By Beth Demme

“Tis Better to Give Than Receive” – you’ve definitely heard it, and you’ve probably said it. It’s what we are supposed to think about gifting in general, but it is especially supposed to be our attitude at Christmas. Paul even tells us in Acts 20:35 that Jesus said it!

Giving instead of getting fits in well with American culture. We like to give because receiving requires humility. We may even feel like the person giving us a gift has something over us, or that we now owe them a gift in return. Have you ever had the awkward experience of a friend or neighbor unexpectedly showing up with a Christmas present for you when you have nothing to offer in return? Do you keep a few extra small gifts or baked goods on hand just in case?

Receiving can be uncomfortable for us.

Receiving when we can’t reciprocate with an equal gift can leave us wanting to jump out of our skin (in other words, really uncomfortable).

Giving, however, leaves us feeling happy.  Giving generously can make us downright giddy. Last week I got to give a Christmas tree, complete with ornaments and star topper, to a family that didn’t have one. I had a big grin on my face the whole time I was shopping for them. As I chose the ornaments, I imagined the wonder on the faces of their young children as they saw the lights reflecting in the shiny orbs. I sang Christmas carols to myself as I drove the hour to deliver it. When I dropped it off I didn’t mind hauling the boxes and bags out of my car. And I sang even more loudly in my car on the way back!

Giving really is fun!

The Irony of A Too Busy Advent

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The Irony of a Too Busy Advent

By Beth Demme

I read a prayer the other day that has really stayed with me: “As water is restless until it reaches its level, so the soul has not peace until it rests in God.” It’s by Sundar Singh and if you happen to be a United Methodist you can find it on page 423 of the Hymnal (that’s one of those book things that has songs and other stuff in it; I realize they are nearly extinct in some churches).

In this busy, busy season my soul longs for peace, but this poetic prayer reminds me I can find peace only when I rest in God.

Is it just me or is Advent too busy for resting in God? Am I the only one who feels taking time to rest in/with God is just too dog-gone time consuming right now?

I know Advent should be about preparing our hearts and minds for the coming of our Savior, but instead I tend to make it about decorating, buying presents, baking cookies, sending out Christmas cards, going to fun parties, signing up for Health Insurance before December 15th, you know—the usual Advent stuff.

The truth is, the busy-ness of the Advent season can dull our senses to God’s abiding presence.

Advent Is Like An HGTV Show It’s All About the Big Reveals

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Advent Is Like An HGTV Show, It’s All About the Big Reveal(s)

By Beth Demme

I admit it, I have spent way too many hours of my life watching HGTV. I love house hunting shows, but I also love home renovation shows. I especially like it when they set out to renovate and restore an entire house. Of course, the best part of those shows is The Big Reveal.

Have you noticed they always take a commercial break just before the good stuff is showcased? We spend 20 (or 50) minutes journeying with the homeowner and we know something really great is about to happen aaaaaaand … cut to commercial.

Advent is like that, too. In a way, Advent reminds us we are living in the commercial break. We celebrate what has already happened, but we know something incredible is still to come.

In Advent, we read passages like Isaiah 64:1, “O that you God would tear open the heavens and come down!” And Psalm 80, “Stir up your might O God and come to save us! Restore us!”

We ask God to restore us because we recognize we’re like the fixer-uppers on HGTV. We’ve got some dry rot, popcorn ceilings, and outdated linoleum but by golly we can be beautiful again if only God will restore us.

We celebrate Advent because we understand our deep need for renovation–our need to change our lives from the inside out. Our need for a savior. [Twitter Link]

One of my favorite Advent songs is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Verse one says, “O come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here.”

Christ the King Sunday

A Timely Reminder of Who I Serve

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A Timely Reminder of Who I Serve

By Beth Demme

Did you notice that between Black Friday and Cyber Monday we had Christ the King Sunday?

The Christian church has its own calendar and it usually ends on the last Sunday in November with Christ the King Sunday. I say usually because it moves around a bit on the secular calendar. Christ the King Sunday is always the last Sunday of the church calendar—five Sundays before Christmas—but it is not always the last Sunday in November. About 25% of the time it works out the way it did this year, with Christ the King Sunday landing between Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

When that happens, Christ the King Sunday feels especially timely.

It is a timely reminder of who I serve. I serve a selfless king who—let’s be honest—is probably not impressed with the consumer I become this time of year.