Renovating Us Lovingly

[ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jason Bandura works with the Glen Elm Church of  Christ.  Married to Shannon, he is Dad to three lovely daughters.  He lives on the Canadian prairies and writes occasionally HERE.]

In Luke 1, Mary’s angel-visit is followed with a road trip. She sets out to see her relative Elizabeth, who she has learned has received a miracle of her own, becoming pregnant long after any believed possible.

In my years as an ESL teacher, I heard countless students begin sentences with these three words: “How you say…?” Poor grammar aside, the query was clear enough. What words does one use to express a given thought or name a given object? Mary’s trip likely spanned 100 miles, spread over three or four days. Surely she wondered, “How you say… I am pregnant with the Son of God?!”

My approach would have been to slope down easily into such a conversation. I would have begun talking about Elizabeth. Upon seeing her bulging belly, I could have asked questions for days about her pregnancy and her experiences and her emotions. After a comfortable stretch, I would then gently transition conversation toward my own set of experiences. (I confess that Mary’s particular story has no possible ramp for a smooth transition, but I likely would have tried this anyway!)

But God is not having it.

Upon hearing Mary’s “hello”, a womb wiggles, a junior jumps, and a priest’s wife turns prophetic. Immediately attention centers upon Jesus Christ. Not the game plan we created on the road trip!

It’s easy for me to imagine Mary conversationally meandering for a while before centering the visit upon Jesus. Embarrassingly, this is likely due to my own tendencies to meander in the affections of my heart and the devotions of my life. However, the Holy Spirit uses Elizabeth’s voice to prompt us:

  • Do not relegate Jesus to the fringe.
  • Do not minimize him.
  • Do not buckle him in the backseat.

A dart in the bullseye of a dartboardInstead, be very clear that Jesus is not merely one ingredient in your life recipe. He is front and first and foremost. Paul would argue that he is at the center of the entire cosmos (Colossians 1:16-17).

So set your eyes upon Jesus:

  • Set them squarely.
  • Set them solidly.
  • Let them not wander.
  • Let them not want.

For everything that God has for you – more than you could ask or imagine – resides in Jesus Christ. Like a meditative refrain of his name, we would be wise to sit and soak in the wonder of who he is.

magnificat_1In response to Elizabeth’s declaration, Mary is inspired to make her own. These words have become timeless, taking on the name “Magnificat”. Luke 1:46-56 breaks into noticeable halves. The first (46-50) is relatively personal; Mary is alluding to Yahweh’s unique work in her life. The second (51-56) zooms out to show a plan encompassing whole systems and societies, A mighty reversal for high and low, rich and poor, filled and empty. Many perceive these as “kingdom moves” – the renovations necessary as the Creator calibrates his world to his liking. The picture is wondrous if we imagine ourselves “moving on up” within the upheaval. However, I would argue most of us should sit with the more trouble implication that some of what we love will be tossed about by the Christ.

Few have been as helpful in clarifying the concept of the kingdom as Dallas Willard. He makes it easy to understand:

“Every last one of us has a ‘kingdom’ – or a ‘queedom’, or a ‘government’ – a realm that is uniquely our own, where our choice determines what happens. We are made to ‘have dominion’ within an appropriate realm of reality.”

And God’s kingdom is not that different:

“God’s own ‘kingdom’ or ‘rule’ is the range of his effective will, where what he wants done is done.”

This imagery brings alive the challenge of conversion. What happens when the “ways of the land” in God’s kingdom rub against the borders of my kingdom, governed by very different ways? Now we negotiate. Or debate. Or declare war.

arm wrestlingThis is why my eye lingers on Luke 1:51: “God’s arm has accomplished mighty deeds.” I imagine a child bragging of his father’s strength. A second child one-ups the first with bolder claims about his daddy’s muscles. The competition grows until some child silences the others with an unmatchable claim. Verse 51 strikes me as Mary preemptively ending all conversation. No one is so mighty as her Father, and his strength is most vividly seen in the very next phrase: “The proud in mind and heart, God has sent away in disarray.”

In a sense, God’s wondrous strength is seen most clearly in how he deals with the proud – those who know so much, those who have so much, those who are so much. Toward any form of pride – be it rebellious or religious – God’s response is completely predictable. He will scatter, he will break, he will undo. This has been true since Babel.

Perhaps surprisingly, this is actually God’s move of grace toward us. When personal kingdoms barricade us from entering is kingdom, he will knock something over. When the priority of self shelters us from the power of salvation, his most loving move may involve a wrecking ball. When we determine that our sense of self-guided direction will deliver us into abundant life, God will lovingly disorient us.

Along with Elizabeth, he will prompt us to center upon Jesus as directly and hastily as we can. And along with Mary, he will nudge us to praise him at how willing he is to exert his power toward battling our pride.

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You Can Make Jesus Marvel!

It’s all been done; that’s what we are told.

And most days, we believe it.

Living in an age of accessible information and technological wonder, placed in a society of privilege and plenty, we are slow to be shocked. Skeptical and cynical, we salt everything. Amazement is nearly an extinct response, as extreme entertainment and non-stop stimulation have stolen such wonder from us.

Surely Jesus, one who had tasted heaven’s glory firsthand felt some such struggle as well.  Yet Luke 7 tells us of an incident that made Jesus marvel.

CenturionThe chapter opens with story of a Roman centurion. One of his dear servants was deathly ill. Having heard rumblings of a wonder-worker named Jesus, the centurion asked the Jewish elders of his community to approach the healer on his behalf. The Jews were quick to respond, as the Roman had constructed their local synagogue in a display of his affection toward the Jewish people and their way of life.

Jesus agreed to come.

But as he neared the house, he was intercepted by friends of the centurion. They carried a simple message: “Do not trouble yourself in coming, for I am not worthy to have you in my home. This is why I did not presume to come myself. Rather, say the word and healing will take place. I know how authority works as I serve under leaders, and soldiers serve under me. Commands are given, and action is executed. Please wield your power kindly toward me and my servant.”

And this made Jesus marvel.

One can almost imagine him stopping in stride. Smiling a sly grin and slightly shaking his head as he closed his eyes.

This was understanding. This profession of faith, from an outsider nonetheless, was profoundly insightful.

It carried conviction that Jesus was more than a tricky physician, who healed the insides by touching the outside. Rather this declaration professed a belief that Jesus was a spiritual power-broker, a mover and a shaker in the invisible realms. Every type spirit and force knelt before him, and a domain existed–even here and now–where his command was beyond question.

The centurion foresaw an answer to the prayer, “May Your kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” He could see that such a kingdom was already at hand, and he was pleading humbly and honorably with Jesus to let it break into his life in great and gracious ways.

I want to make Jesus marvel just like that.

Knowledge Without Power

A tragic misunderstanding exists.

This blurred vision drives people to regard Christianity as merely one more avenue toward high, idealistic morality to be shelved beside those of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Confucius, Buddha, Tao, and others. The name “Jesus” is simply added to the list of “History’s Great Teachers,” typically receiving a middle-of-the-pack position, surrounded by peers of superior and inferior status.

When Christianity is reduced to a moral path or ethical code, it becomes no more than a variant theme of “Goodness, Beauty, and Truth” to which many through the ages have aspired. Here is where the misunderstanding becomes glaring.

To hold Jesus primarily as a “goodness guru” will drive one to encourage, “Look to the example of Jesus.” But any sharp thinker quickly recognizes that there may be nothing in the world so discouraging as the example of Jesus. The immensity of his moral stature and the absoluteness of his perfection are despair-inducing. The very best of us stand hopelessly condemned before we set out. To speak of “imitating Christ” is the zany zenith of nonsense. I cannot satisfy my own standards. I am incapable of meeting my own demands, and I regularly disappoint others’. Imitate Christ?! This is the language of the lunatic.

Much of this is unsurprising: The extent of failure, both others’ and our own; the departures of some from Christian churches, and the perceived moral collapse in cultures around the globe. What else is expected when the ethical instruction of non-Christian sources or of neutered-Christian teaching builds squarely upon the strength and power that no human being possesses. The architect of such a blueprint can expect lawsuits.

Thank God the distortion is not the deal.

Christianity is no mere code of ethics. If this is the version of faith which you have perceived or received, I apologize for the pitiful counterfeit you have held, with either affection or affliction. Just as a forged fifty will net you nothing beyond disappointment or detention, a crap-copy of Christianity delivers disillusionment or worse.  Mark it down: When Christ gets counterfeited, people get cheated.

Numerous educators and influencers will turn to Christianity as a source for inspired instruction. They may come with guards up against anticipated narrow-mindedness, with minds inquiring, “Christians, what are your dearly held beliefs about life-factors like money, power, sex, and pride?”

The answer is that what I believe about money, power, sex, pride, or any host of other factors is of little consequence. My adding to the pile of perceived knowledge is not nearly so needed as the arrival of power sufficient to deliver men and women from the mastery and control of such things as these.

“It is not knowledge we need; it is power. And this is where your moral ethical systems break down and fail completely. They have no power to offer, none at all.”

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE? Join the conversation below.

What is your faith experience?
Do standards have center stage?
Has power been perceived?

A WORD: To any who read this post with disappointment, with realization that such power has never been perceived, let me plant a seed of hope in your heart.  It DOES exist.  The drudgery of duty is what killed the soul of the older brother (Luke 15).  This is not the destiny of those who are “in Christ”.  Seek your Father with your heart; He is eager to share His joy with you.

[These thoughts have been heavily reliant upon a piece, “On Romans 10:3”, written by David Martyn Lloyd-Jones in 1961. The title and closing quote are his. My offering is the internal interaction with his text, twisted into this post of assertive agreements and revived re-phrasings of his original sentiments.]