Jesus Will Always Surprise You

I try not to stray too far from the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) in my Bible reading and study. In any given year, I try to stick close to Jesus’ words and the story of His life in these four books. I do this partly because Jesus is the center of all that God has done for us and said to us, from Genesis to Revelation. Without Jesus…well, life-the-universe-and-everything doesn’t make much sense.

But I also stick close to the gospels because even though it’s familiar territory, each time I listen to Jesus speak through the text, He catches me off guard.

Jesus always surprises me.

Let me tell you about a recent surprise…

In 2017 I’ve been reading through the Bible chronologically. I say reading, but it’s mostly listening. About 80% of my time in the Scriptures this year has been listing to the Bible in chronological order of events using two apps: ReadingPlan and English Standard Version. I’ve found this approach really helpful when reading the Old Testament because it has helped me pick up on major themes I’ve missed before. For example, until this year, I haven’t fully appreciated the significance of this Old Testament word: steadfast love. It’s all over the Old Testament and a constant reminder of God’s faithful care for those He calls His own.

But, reading the Bible this way also means that I haven’t been in the gospels much this year. Until now.

This past week I listened to the entire book of Matthew. And there was Jesus, saying something I’ve heard, and even studied, many times in chapter 15. And yet, He caught me completely off guard. Again. Here’s the passage below. (I’ve marked Jesus responses to her in red.)

21And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26And he answered,“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.—Matthew 15:21-28

 

The woman sounds pitiful, her words reveal her desperate heart, arousing our compassion. And yet, Jesus at first appears callous ignoring her, then condescending, and seeming to insult her. In fact, he almost sounds what we would call racist. Is this the picture of Jesus you learned in Sunday School?

Ultimately, of course, its a story of Jesus’ power and compassion. But, if you or I demonstrated power and compassion that way, those around us would say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I had to stop and listen a few more times. What do I make of this Jesus—a man with the miraculous power to heal, but who alludes to her as a dog in the process?

When I considered His surprising words, I was forced to remember…

❯ I Don’t Know the Whole Story

Jesus never spoke this way to any other woman. Consider the way He spoke with another woman who was publicly accused of adultery. It was quite the opposite. He came to her defense and did not condemn her though she was guilty of the charge. So, for reasons I will never know, Jesus treated this Canaanite woman in a way that provoked her persistence and revealed her desperation. And so, she has become a parable of what Christian faith and humility looks like in action: casting one’s hopes entirely on Jesus alone.

I Am Not His Equal

If a mere man spoke like this to you, whether his intention was kind or not, you would rightly think him full of himself. When a mere man condescends and treats you as beneath him, his conceit is evident. But we know Jesus to be the only truly obedient Son of the Father. The voice of God proclaiming him so at his baptism and on the mount of transfiguration, and his own resurrection testify that Jesus is The (only) Righteous One.

So, Jesus is no mere man. The word condescension has negative connotations when applied to a man. But, the condescension of a true, divine superior is the essence of grace, mercy, and kindness. In this story, I read of a man unlike any man, a God-Man who granted an inferior audience, tested her, and amazingly, satisfied her heart’s desire. The passage teaches in surprising terms both that Jesus is good, and that I am infinitely beneath Him.

I expect Jesus will keep surprising me as I read through the rest of the gospels. It’s good to keep the gospels close and stay surprised. Otherwise, I fear I have a tendency to try to tame Him in my imagination. But as C. S. Lewis said of Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, He is neither tame nor safe.

I want to encourage you to meet Jesus face-to-face in the gospels, too. Pick up a Bible. Sit down. Listen. Look Him in the eye. If you want to know Jesus, that is where you will find Him. If you want to grow in faith, that is where you will hear Him command you to believe in Him. If you want to know why, that is where you’ll find the reason. If you want to grow to be a more spiritual person, He will tell you what that really means.

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What Bethlehem Taught About Marketing Jesus

Around 2,000 years ago Bethlehem hosted the most spectacular event since, “Let there be light.”

It was completely unique; utterly new. Nothing like it had been done before, or since. It was the incarnation of the eternal Son of God in real human flesh and bone, the Son of Man, born to save us. It was the divine answer to the human problem.

But, who did God tell?

He let it go largely unnoticed.

Sure, an angel choir sang praises, but to whom?—just a few shepherds in the middle of nowhere. Just a few non-influencers at the edge of a podunk town in a backwater region of a disinterested empire.

The shepherds talked it up, sure. But all the response they got was that people wondered.

God did let two others, elderly Simeon and 84-year-old Anna, in on the big event. They astonished Joseph and Mary, making a big deal over Jesus when they brought him to the temple 40 days later. But nothing much came of it; they weren’t exactly movers and shakers in Jerusalem.

And, there were a few foreign star gazers (Magi), too. But they just showed up out of the blue, asked directions, and then, left without a word.

That was the extent of God’s big announcement.

One has to wonder, why.

Here’s my take:

Because Jesus isn’t a product.

Jesus isn’t God’s equivalent of a new iPhone to be beautifully packaged, merchandised, shipped, sold, and tracked.

God wasn’t measuring Jesus’ performance in the marketplace. He had no charts plotting Jesus’ market penetration. There were no graphs tracking Jewish versus Gentile uptake. Jesus wouldn’t need tweaking. He would never be re-branded. He didn’t come in multiple, market-sensitive packages.

He just came. He did His Father’s will. And He trained a few followers to tell the world about it.

No more angel choirs.

✣    ✣    ✣

So, here we are in our modern, free-market consumer society, and the message about Jesus has finally come to us. In ordinary, sometimes forced ways (your parents made you go to church, right?), the message, this gospel, is now our charge.

Will we pass it on as it was received?—in its biblical essence, unpackaged, unadorned?—at once both divine and earthy, glorious and offensive?

Or should we measure it, test it, tweak it for maximum relevance and appeal?—Because, after all, we know so much more about human nature now.

Given what Bethlehem taught about marketing Jesus, perhaps we should question the relevance of the question, “How do we make the message relevant?”

I hope I, we, can leave it alone, except to make it known.

✣    ✣    ✣

I’ll write more about how we often don’t leave it alone next time.

Grace and peace, Lon

She Needed to Know: Is Jesus Pro-Women?

Dawn and I recently had a conversation about feminism with a young woman we have known and cared about for a long time.

The topic centered around how society had made this young woman feel “less than…” and how she felt that the ideals of feminism defended her value as a woman.

She identified “society” as anything and anyone (male or female, Christian or non-) who made her feel she had to look or act a certain way to be valued as a person. Whether it was pressure to look sexy in heels, or to like pink or dolls, or to not like math and science, the pressure was real to her.

Dawn and I spoke at length with her about this. Through the conversation it was evident that the pressure she felt took an emotional toll on her. It caused her pain. And we tried to be supportive.

The next day, reflecting on the conversation, I realized that we hadn’t told her one, very important thing.

THE thing, really.

So I wrote her this note.

Perhaps some of you need to hear this as well.


Dear _______,

It’s evident from what you said last night, that the environment you live in pressures you to believe that to be a woman is to be “less than…”

I understand the reality of what you sense. It’s wrong. And it’s sad. Because it’s not true.

And…

The best response I can think of is the gospel of Jesus Christ:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.—Galatians 3:28-29

The idea that all of humanity, regardless of gender (or rank, or ethnicity), is equally valuable by God’s measure and equally heirs of God’s promised blessing was radical in the ancient world.

And it is the foundation of the best view of ourselves.

⟩ The extent to which our culture pressures women with “You are less than…” is the extent to which our culture has rejected the gospel of God’s unmerited favor toward women.

⟩ The extent to which women feel the need to assert “I am not less than…” is the extent to which they have not understood or embraced the gospel of God’s immeasurable value of them.

⟩ The extent to which christians or the church pressure women to feel “less than…” is the extent to which they have twisted or betrayed the gospel of God’s unconditional love toward women.

I glimpsed your emotion about this matter and I’m sorry. I can’t fix society or the church for you, but I can unashamedly recommend that embracing the gospel fully, is the best means of finding true liberty to be a woman who is never “less than…”

The gospel assures us that God embraces your value as a woman.

I hope there is some light in that for you.