Thursday, May 17, 2012

Be Changed!

In The Brady Bunch Movie, Marcia auditions to be a model. The agent looks her over and then says he might be able to do something with her if she will cut her hair, cap her teeth, lose about 30 pounds and consider breast implants. Marcia slaps him and says, with indignation, “cut my hair?!?” as she storms out.

Despite the humor involved in Marcia’s situation, we can all relate. No one wants to be told that she needs to change in order to be considered worthy enough [for a job, a relationship, or any other role]. Instead, we like to believe that we’re perfectly ok just the way we are. So I imagine, when the early disciples asked Jesus who was the greatest in his kingdom, they fully believed at least one of them qualified for such a title.

But when Jesus responds to them - before he names the greatest in the kingdom - he says that they must be changed if they even want to enter the kingdom in the first place!  “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Hearing this must have felt something like a college student who asks his teacher, “who’s the smartest person in our class?”, only to have the teacher reply, “I’ll tell you the truth, unless you are transformed and become like a preschooler, you won’t even be considered a member of this class.”

Now that’s a slap in the face! Not only should we understand that we’re not the greatest in the kingdom, but we’re also being told that we can’t even get into God’s kingdom unless we are radically changed. Who wants to sign up for that?!? Change is hard, long, challenging work. It’s unnatural. It is often unpleasant and downright frustrating.  

Notice, however, that Jesus doesn’t say “change yourself.” His message of transformation is not about us trying to be different or making ourselves into something new. Instead, he says “be changed.” This implies that something or someone else will act upon us to transform us from our current state into kingdom-people.

Earlier in his ministry, Jesus had a private conversation with one of the religious rulers, where he explained this incredible secret.  

Jesus told him, “I am telling you the truth: no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.”
“How can anyone," said Nicodemus, "be born who has already been born and grown up? You can't re-enter your mother's womb and be born again, right?”
“I am telling you the truth,” replied Jesus, “that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Human parents can only give physical life to their children. Yet only God’s Spirit can change you into a child of God.”

This should encourage us!

First of all, as I mentioned in my last post, Jesus
wants us to understand greatness in his kingdom. He doesn’t chastise us for wanting to be important; instead, he tells us how to achieve this.

But the first step, he explains, is that we need to be sure we are
in the kingdom of God. We can’t overlook this truth because things are upside down in God’s kingdom. God looks for sick, sinful, weak people to welcome to his banquet. He wants foolish, messed up, despised and rejected people to be his children. And those people - those people who recognize how ridiculously inadequate they are - enter the kingdom of God, not because they can get all cleaned up and look impressive, not because they have any ability to improve themselves, but because they look to God to change them. These people want to be transformed from the inside out, and only the Spirit of God can give birth to spiritual life.

So, once you recover from the shocking statement that you can’t get into the kingdom of God on your own, and you can’t receive the place of highest honor in that kingdom based on your own merits, and, in fact, you need to become (or, recognize that you already are) as helpless as a small child - then you get to enjoy the incredible grace of receiving the Spirit of God and being converted into a new person. Just as you cannot physically re-enter your mother’s womb to be born a second time, so, too, can you not enter the kingdom of God without being born by his Spirit.

In my next post, we’ll take a deeper look at what that “new person” is like. But for now, I’m interested in knowing: when did you realize you couldn’t make it on your own and needed to turn to God? If you haven’t looked to God for help, how would you challenge what I said in this post?   

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Competing for the Prize

My daughter is determinedly competitive. Winning is everything to her little heart right now. When she runs around with her friends - of ages both older and younger than she is - she wants to be the fastest. When we play a game, she refuses to play by any rules that would make her lose. She attended two sessions of soccer practice and, because she was unable to achieve a certain technique, refused to return.

My husband and I have many conversations with her that affirm our love for her regardless of some competitive success. But more importantly, we want to communicate to her that winning, or being the best at something, is not the goal of life. 

So when Jesus' disciples asked him who was the greatest in his kingdom - when they inadvertently inquired as to which of them was the best - it only seems natural to expect the great Teacher to remind them that life isn't a competition. 

"Haven't you been watching me?" Jesus could retort. "I hang out with all the nobodies, the outcasts, the forgotten and condescended to. Can't you see that I'm not interested in people with important titles and puffed up righteousness?" 

Or he could have given them a refresher on Psalms 8 and 144 -  on how great God is and how infinitely small and insignificant they are by comparison.   

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth, who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens! When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; what is man that You take thought of him and the son of man that You care for him? Blessed be the Lordmy rock, my lovingkindness and my fortress, mstronghold and my deliverer, mshield and He in whom I take refuge. Lordwhat is man, that You take knowledge of him? Or the son of man, that You think of him? Man is like a mere breath; his days are like a passing shadow.

But instead of chastising these immature boys for competing to be in first place, instead of reminding them of the great humility that Jesus himself bore for their sake, instead of giving them a biblical rebuke for even daring to ask about greatness when compared to the eternal God -


So - maybe seeking after the prize isn't a bad thing after all? Maybe God actually wants me to be great in his kingdom? The apostle Paul seems to agree, as he shares with the church that he presses on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. And again he reminds us: Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. 

We'll unpack this even more as we process Jesus' answer, but for now, I'd love to hear your thoughts. How do you feel knowing that there is a way to greatness in the kingdom of God? What sort of issues (positive or negative) does that bring up for you? 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Want To Be Great?

Who is the greatest person in the world?

Check out these suggestions, by country. Or read Joel Stein’s recent article naming his picks for the 100 most influential people of all time. If you’d like to put a picture to the faces, check out these 100 portraits of iconic people in history.

The people on these lists have many things in common, namely, that they became famous (either for good or evil) and that they exerted a great deal of influence over a significant number of people throughout time. 

But to truly decide on the greatest person in the world - or in history - a better question may need to be asked: how do you define greatness?

Is greatness attributed to someone because of his words? Certainly, many 'great' speeches have been made, such as President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address or Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream". But was it the words that inspired us, or the men behind those words?

Is greatness achieved by one's actions? The Red Cross has won the most Nobel Prizes of any entity and Mother Teresa is easily one of the most famous 'saints' to have walked the earth. Is what they have done the cause of their greatness in our minds?

About two thousand years ago, a group of young men looking for greatness posed that very question to their respected teacher. Devout Jews who were waiting expectantly for God's Kingdom to reign on earth, they wanted to know, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 

No doubt these guys were hoping one of them would qualify for the title. If they had not yet proven their worth, then surely the teacher's response would set them on the right track. 

For an answer, Jesus called over a little child (probably between the ages of 4-6) and placed the child among the group of men. Then he said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."

I'm assuming that, when you contemplated the first two questions posed in this post - who is the greatest? and how do you define greatness? - your first response wasn't anywhere near "a preschooler." And I'm certain that the guys hanging around Jesus would have agreed with you. His answer is surprising, puzzling, and pretty hard to accept.

So I invite you to spend this month meditating on this difficult saying with me. If you want to be great, or if you want to understand how God defines greatness, or even if you just want to contemplate the words of Jesus, stay awhile - let's chat!