Monday, February 27, 2017

Why Follow Jesus?

When I was getting ready to graduate from college and go off to seminary, my father sat down with me one day and offered me the chance to take over the nonprofit ministry he had started almost thirty years before. I would have had a steady income, the opportunity to lead a significant Christian ministry, and the freedom to take it in new directions. But I wasn’t sure that following in my father’s footsteps in that way was what God wanted me to do. So I told my father I wasn’t sure. After graduating from seminary, I started into parish ministry and have never looked back.
I do not know how many generations in Simon and Andrew’s, or James and John’s family were in the fishing business. However, I imagine it was quite a few. There must have been great pressure on them to carry on the family tradition, if only to make a living. But they did not. They chose to follow a different dream, the dream of God’s kingdom. Mark tells us about that in Mark 1:14-20….
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

To my mind, this text raises a very simply question: Why follow Jesus anyway? Obviously, being part of the “kingdom of God” movement got John arrested. Such events as these should have given Simon, Andrew, James, and John, enough reason not to follow Jesus, but they followed anyway. They left their nets and their families, their family businesses, and everything they knew, and they left it all immediately to follow the preacher from Galilee. Why?

I think there was something about Jesus’ message and something about his person that made Simon, Andrew, James, and John want to follow him. Let us look first at Jesus’ message….

Jesus proclaimed the good news of God. There is so much bad news in the world, it is no wonder that Simon, Andrew, James, and John found Jesus’ message refreshing and attractive. In Proverbs 25:25 we read, “Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.”

What was this good news that Jesus proclaimed? The use of this phrase, in the way Jesus used it, goes back at least as far as Isaiah the prophet. In Isaiah 52:7 we read,

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Jesus was preaching this same good news of the reign of God, the kingdom of God. Despite outward appearances, with Rome ruling over Palestine, according to Jesus, God was still in charge.

Don’t miss the fact that Jesus is making a great claim here. John the Baptist proclaimed that the kingdom was coming. Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near.” In other words, “The kingdom has come near in my coming.”

Furthermore, Jesus demanded a response to his message. He was like a waiter asking for the order. He issued a clear invitation: “Repent and believe in the good news.”

Tom Wright explains what repentance would have meant for Jesus’ first century Jewish audience….

First, it meant turning away from the social and political agendas which were driving Israel into a crazy, ruinous war. We can imagine someone saying that today in a country where ideologies are driving half the population into violent behaviour. Second, it meant calling Israel to turn back to a true loyalty to YHWH, their God. And, as anyone with a smattering of knowledge of the Bible would recognize, this was what had to happen before God would redeem Israel at last. The call to repent is part of the announcement that this is the time for the great moment of freedom, of God’s rescue.[1]

So that is repentance. Jesus was calling people to a change of mind that would result in a change of direction. But what does it mean to believe? Jesus invited people to believe in the good news. Jesus called people not simply to believe a certain report, but to believe in it, to entrust themselves to it.

The story is told that a national magazine assigned a photographer to take pictures of a forest fire. They told him a small plane would be waiting at the airport to fly him over the fire.

The photographer arrived at the airstrip just an hour before sundown. Sure enough, a small Cessna airplane stood waiting. He jumped in with his equipment and shouted, “Let’s go!” The pilot, a tense-looking man, turned the plane into the wind, and soon they were in the air, though flying erratically.

“Fly over the north side of the fire,” said the photographer, “and make several low-level passes.”
“Why?” asked the nervous pilot.

“Because I’m going to take pictures!” yelled the photographer. “I’m a photographer, and photographers take pictures.”

The pilot replied, “You mean you’re not the flight instructor?”[2]

Sometimes our trust is misplaced.

However, when Jesus calls us to place our trust in the good news that he proclaims, our trust is not misplaced. I do not know of anyone who has truly trusted in Jesus who has been disappointed.

Part of the invitation that Jesus issues here is not simply to believe in the good news, but to follow him personally. The message and the messenger are inseparably connected. If we believe his message, then we will follow him, not just a set of instructions, but him.

Greg Gilbert writes,

I started trying to teach my son to swim early on. It was a chore. A year or so old at the time, the little guy didn’t like getting water in his face in the bathtub, much less this massive ocean of a pool he was staring at now. At first, “teaching him to swim” meant getting him to splash around a bit on the top step, and maybe putting his lips in the water enough to blow bubbles if he was feeling really brave.

Eventually I convinced him to walk around with me in the shallow end, with a death-grip around my neck of course. Once we mastered that, it was time for the Big Show—Jumping Off the Side. Fulfilling my God-given duty as a daddy, I lifted him out of the pool, stood him on the side, and said, “Come on, jump!”

I think at that moment, my one-year-old son wrote me off as a crazy man.
The look on his face, in about two seconds, went from confusion to dawning understanding, to amused rejection, to outright contempt. He frowned and said, “No. I go see Mommy.” Again acting faithfully on my solemn responsibility as a father, I refused to surrender, chased him down, and eventually convinced him (with various bribes) to come back to the pool.

And so we came to the moment of truth.

I jumped into the water again and stood in front of him with my arms outstretched, watching him bob up and down in his swimmy-diaper as one-year-olds do when they kind of want to jump, but not really. “Come on, kiddo,” I said. “I’m right here. I’ll catch you. I promise!” He looked at me half skeptically, did one more little wind-up, bouncing at the knees, and then fell into the pool with what was more a flop than a jump.

And I caught him.
After that we were off to the races. “Doot ‘gain, Daddy! Doot ‘gain!” And so commenced half an hour of jump, catch, lift, reset, jump, catch, lift, reset.
When it was over, my wife and I started to worry that maybe our son had gotten a bit too comfortable with the water. What if he wandered out to the pool when no one was there with him? Would he remember all the times he’d safely jumped into the water and decide he had this pool thing whipped? Would he jump again?
Over the next few days we watched him around the pool, and what we saw both comforted me as a parent and touched me deeply as a father. Never once did my little boy think about jumping into the water—at least not unless I was standing underneath him with my arms out, promising to catch him. And then he would fly!
You see, despite all his apparent successes, my son’s trust was never in his own ability to handle the water. It was in his father, and in his father’s promise: “Come on kiddo. Jump. I promise I’ll catch you.”[3]
In a similar way I think, Jesus invites us to follow him personally, to trust in him and not our own abilities, to jump when he says jump. He also promises that if we do that, he will make us into fishers of people. He will make us into reproducers who can effectively call others into his kingdom movement.
Why did Simon, Andrew, James and John follow Jesus? I think it was partly because of his message, but it was also because of his person. As I have suggested already: there was something about Jesus that was unlike any other teacher these men had ever met. His claims were unique and his personality was magnetic. Greg Gilbert’s son trusted him and followed him into the water because Greg was his dad. I think there was something about Jesus that made Simon, Andrew, James and John recognize in his words, the sound of their heavenly father’s voice.
Mark Galli writes,
President Theodore Roosevelt was a charismatic figure who made quite an impression on people. One journalist, William Allen White, wrote of his first meeting with Roosevelt in 1897:

He sounded in my heart the first trumpet call of the new time that was to be…. I had never known such a man as he, and never shall again. He overcame me. And in the hour or two we spent that day at lunch, he poured into my heart such vision, such ideals, such hopes, such a new attitude toward life and patriotism and the meaning of things, as I had never dreamed men had…. After that, I was his man.

Then Mark Galli draws this application….
If a mere mortal can have such an effect on another, how much more our Lord? If we will spend time with him in prayer and in Scripture, we too will find our hearts filled with vision, with hopes, with a new attitude toward life and the meaning of things, and afterwards we too will say with thankfulness, “I am his.”[4]

[1] Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone, 9.
[2] Source unknown; submitted by Brett Kays to
[3] Greg Gilbert, What Is the Gospel? (Crossway, 2010), pp. 71-72; submitted by Van Morris, Mount Washington, Kentucky,
[4] Mark Galli, managing editor, Christianity Today; source: Thomas Bailey and David Kennedy, The American Pageant, ninth edition (D.C. Heath, 1991) p. 676

Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Funny things sometimes happen in church, especially surrounding special ceremonies like baptism. When I baptize young people or adults, I usually like to use a lot of water because it is supposed to be a visible sign of invisible grace. I remember one time when I was baptizing a group of four siblings. When I came to the youngest, whose name was Ryan (meaning “little king”), he had already seen how much water I could hold in my hand and pour over the heads of his brothers and sister. Therefore, when I scooped a big handful of water out of the baptismal font and poured it on his head, he quickly moved his tie to one side so that it would not get wet as the water descended. He was smiling as he did this and it brought a big smile to everyone in the congregation. Baptisms are joyous times.
I think Jesus’ baptism also must have been a joyous time. Let us see what Mark has to say about it in Mark 1:9-13….
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
This story raises a big question: if John’s was a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sin, why did Jesus go to John to be baptized? After all, Christianity teaches that Jesus was without sin.

I think part of the answer is that Jesus was baptized in order to identify with us. Matthew and Luke would want to point out to us that Jesus identified with us from the moment of his birth: thus the inclusion of the birth narratives in their Gospels. But Mark wants to emphasize that Jesus identified with us as sinners right at the beginning of his ministry, in his baptism by John.

Now, the next step is very important. Not only did Jesus identify with us through his baptism, but also through our baptism, we identify with Jesus. Baptism is part of how we get connected to Christ and benefit from his life, death and resurrection.

Now, here is the truly great news…. If we have identified with Jesus, if we are in Christ, then everything that Mark says of Jesus in this passage will, I believe, be true of us….

First, if we identify with Jesus in baptism then I believe God will be doing unexpected things in our lives. Nothing could have been more unexpected to the Jews of Jesus’ day than that the Messiah would come from Nazareth in Galilee. Remember what Nathaniel says in John’s Gospel: “Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46) It was not that Nazareth was a particularly bad place. It is just that there was no mention of Nazareth in connection with the Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus, God was doing something unexpected by having Jesus, the Messiah, come from there.

I wonder: given that we serve the God of wonderful surprises, what unexpected good thing might God do in your life and in mine in 2017?

A second thing we see in this passage is that if we identify with Jesus in baptism, there will be times when we will see the heavens torn apart. Now, let me explain what I mean by this. When Mark says that Jesus saw the heavens torn apart, I do not think it means that there was literally a hole up in the sky and that Jesus saw through that hole into God’s heaven. Notice, that Mark says Jesus saw this. He does not mention anyone else seeing this. It was a personal revelation to Jesus. “The heavens being torn open” was, for Mark, a traditional way of expressing revelation.

Therefore, if we are in Christ I think that at times we will have similar personal revelations. We will have times where we will be more supremely aware of the “God dimension” in our living. I believe that the veil between our earthly existence and God’s heavenly abode is very thin, perhaps more thin in certain times and places than others. However, the key thing is that if we are still, we will know that God is God (Psalm 46:10); we will be aware of his presence.

Third, if we are in Christ then the Spirit will descend upon us like a dove. Throughout the New Testament baptism and the impartation of the Holy Spirit are connected with each other (Acts 2:38; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Titus 3:5). The interesting thing to me in this passage is that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove. I imagine that John the Baptist expected something much more violent. However, here the Spirit comes on Jesus in a gentle and peaceful manner. I think that is most often the way with us as well. I do not believe that the Holy Spirit is usually manifested in a violent manner, but in a peaceful, gentle, quiet way.

Fourth, if we identify with Christ then we will hear the voice of our heavenly Father, telling us that he loves us. Jesus heard this voice audibly. It may happen that way with us, but it may happen in other ways as well. Again, I think when we get quiet, when we seek the still, small voice, we will hear God telling us that he loves us. When we read Scripture, we read the message that God loves us. I am here today to tell you that God loves you. You are loved by the Father.

Tom Wright has this to say about this passage….

A famous movie-maker had a huge legal wrangle with his long-time mentor and guide. The younger man simply couldn’t handle criticism, and ended up rejecting the person who had helped him so much. When it was all over, a close friend summed up the real problem. ‘It was all about an ungenerous father,’ he explained, ‘and a son looking for affirmation and love.’

It happens all the time, in families, businesses, all over. Many children grow up in our world who have never had a father say to them (either in words, in looks, or in hugs), ‘You are my dear child’, let alone, ‘I’m pleased with you.’ In the Western world, even those fathers who think this in their hearts are often too tongue-tied or embarrassed to tell their children how delighted they are with them. Many, alas, go by the completely opposite route: angry voices, bitter rejection, the slamming of doors.

The whole Christian gospel could be summed up in this point: that when the living God looks at us, at every baptized and believing Christian, he says to us what he said to Jesus on that day. He sees us, not as we are in ourselves, but as we are in Jesus Christ. It sometimes seems impossible, especially to people who have never had this kind of support from their earthly parents, but it’s true: God looks at us, and says, ‘You are my dear, dear child; I’m delighted with you’ Try reading that sentence slowly, with your own name at the start, and reflect quietly on God saying that to you, both at your baptism and every day since.[1]

This leads to a fifth point. If we identify with Jesus then our lives will be pleasing to the Father. Not only does he love us for who we are in Christ, God will actually be pleased with our actions, our accomplishments, because the Holy Spirit working through us will produce the fruit that is pleasing to the Father: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Some of us may feel like we could never please our earthly fathers. However, that will not be the case with our heavenly Father. Our lives will please him; our lives do please him in Christ.

Sixth, if we have identified with Jesus in baptism then the Spirit will drive us into the wilderness for our forty days.

Here is where the story begins to have an edge to it. Everything seems very positive up to this point: John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness preparing the way for the Lord, Jesus being baptized, the Father confirming his love for his Son. All is good.

So why would the Spirit drive Jesus out into the wilderness, the same Spirit who just descended on Jesus in the form of a gentle, peaceful dove? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that, as we saw with John the Baptist, there are some lessons we can only learn in the wilderness of loneliness. It is only when we have all our normal resources stripped from us that we realize just how all-sufficient God truly is.

The wilderness, the desert, was a place of temptation, a place of testing, for Jesus. If we have identified with Jesus, then Satan, the adversary, will tempt us; there will be opposition. You cannot choose the way of Jesus and not face some push back.

I suppose some people have a hard time believing that there is such a person as Satan, the adversary. Personally, I have no such problem. It seems obvious to me that there is such a thing as evil in the world. I also believe in a supernatural realm, so why should there not be evil on that level as well? I agree with what C. S. Lewis had to say about this….

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.[2]

So, I believe in the existence of the devil. However, the good news in all of this is that if we identify ourselves with Jesus then he will also equip us, through the Spirit, with strength to overcome the adversary.

In the midst of the testing in the wilderness, we get an interesting picture that is only in the Gospel of Mark. We read that Jesus was “with the wild beasts”. Now this can be a threatening picture if we imagine it one way, but there is an alternative way of looking at this cryptic phrase. I think here we have a picture of Jesus as the Second Adam, in harmony with all creation, just as the first Adam was in harmony with all creation before the fall when he named all the animals.

Just so, if we identify with Jesus then we too will find harmony with all of God’s creation. This may not happen at first, but I believe we should be working toward it. Paul gives us a vision of God renewing all creation in Romans 8.

Because this is where we are heading, toward the renewal of all creation with ourselves in harmony with all God has made, therefore we should not act as though it does not matter what we do with our bodies. We should not act as though it does not matter how we treat God’s creation. It does matter. We need to be good stewards of all that God has made, good custodians of this world that God has entrusted to our care….

This passage ends with some very good news. If we identify ourselves with Jesus, then we will have the help of the angels. Throughout Scripture, we see the angels assisting God’s children. How much more will the angels assist us if we are in Christ? People talk about having a guardian angel. However, I do not see in Scripture where we are limited to the assistance of one angel per person. I believe that God will do whatever it takes to assist his children, whether that means dispatching one angel or a legion of angels to help us in our time of need.

The following story is told about a Christian minister in Iran….

As the minister was driving with his wife, they stopped in a small Iranian village to purchase some water. Before entering, the minister noticed a man holding a machine gun and leaning against the wall outside the store. The minister’s wife looked at the man’s face and the gun, then put a Bible in her husband’s hand and said, “Give that man this Bible.” Her husband looked at the man—his menacing beard and his machine gun—and replied, “I don’t think so.” But she persisted: “I’m serious. Give it to him. Please, give him the Bible.”

Trying to avoid the issue, the husband said, “Okay, I’ll pray about it.” He went into the shop, purchased the water, climbed back into the car, and started to drive away. His wife looked at him and said, “I guess you didn’t give him the Bible, did you?” Looking straight ahead, he replied, “No, I prayed about it and it wasn’t the right thing to do.” She quietly said, “You should have given him the Bible,” and then she bowed her head and started praying. At that point, he turned around and told his wife, “Fine! If you want me to die, I will.”

When the minister returned to the store, the man with the machine gun was still standing against the wall. The minister approached him and placed the Bible in his hand. When the man opened it and saw it was a Bible, he started to cry. “I don’t live here,” he said. “I had to walk for three days in order to get to this village. But three days ago an angel appeared to me and told me to walk to this village and wait until someone had given me the Book of Life. Thank you for giving me this book.”[3]

I believe in angels. I believe they are around us all the time. They are here to assist us. They are messengers of God for our good. If we identify with Jesus, then we will have the assistance of the angels. We will experience harmony with God’s creation. We will know deliverance from temptation. We will know the all-sufficiency of God in the wilderness places of life. We will live lives pleasing to God. We will experience God’s love. We will have the Holy Spirit. We will receive revelation, and God will do unexpected, glorious things for us. The only question is: have we identified with the One who identified himself with us?

[1] Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone, 4-5.
[2] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, New York: Macmillan, 1977, p. 3.
[3] Michael Ramsden, “An Uncompromising Faith Lived Out with Grace,” Just Thinking (1-26-09)