Most Sinners Are Very Nice People

The Contemplative Pastor
Eugene Peterson

The word sinner is a theological designation.  It is essential to insist on this.  It is not a moralistic judgment.  It is not a word that places humans somewhere along a continuum ranging from angel to ape, assessing them as relatively “good” or “bad.”  It designates humans in relation to God and sees them separated from God.  Sinner means something is awry between humans and God.  In that state people may be wicked, unhappy, anxious, and poor.  Or, they may be virtuous, happy, and affluent.  Those items are not part of the judgment.  The theological fact is that humans are not close to God and are not serving God.

To see a person as sinner, then, is not to see him or her as hypocritical, disgusting, or evil.  Most sinners are very nice people.  To call a man a sinner is not a blast at his manners or his morals.  It is a theological belief that the thing that matters most to him is forgiveness and grace…

An understanding of people as sinners enables a pastoral ministry to function without anger.  Accumulated resentment (a constant threat to pastors) is dissolved when unreal – that is, untheological – presuppositions are abandoned.  If people are sinners then pastors can concentrate on talking about God’s action in Jesus Christ instead of sitting around lamenting how bad the people are.  We already know they can’t make it.  We already have accepted their depravity.  We didn’t engage to be pastor to relax in their care or entrust ourselves to their saintly ways…

The happy result of a theological understanding of people as sinners is that the pastor is saved from continual surprise that they are in fact sinners….

Simply to be against sin is a poor basis for pastoral ministry.  But to see people as sinners – as rebels against God, missers of the mark, wanderers from the way – that establishes a basis for pastoral ministry that can proceed with great joy because it is announcing God’s great action in Jesus Christ “for sinners.”

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The Language of Intimacy

The Contemplative Pastor
Eugene Peterson

Descriptive language is language about – it names what is there.  It orients us in reality.  It makes it possible for us to find our way in and out of intricate labyrinths.  Our schools specialize in teaching us this language.  Motivational language is language for – it uses words to get things done.  Commands are issued, promises made, requests proffered.  Such words get people to do things they wont do on their own initiative.  The advertising industry is our most skillful practitioner of this language art.

Indispensable as these uses of language are, there is another language more essential to our humanity and far more basic to the life of faith.  It is personal language.  It uses words to express oneself, to converse, to be in relationship…

Language I is the language of intimacy and relationship.  It is the first language we learn.  Initially, it is not articulate speech.  The language that passes between parent and infant is incredibly rich in meaning but less than impressive in content.  The coos and cries of the infant do not parse.  The nonsense syllables of the parent have no dictionary definitions.  But in the exchange of gurgles and out-of-tune hums, trust develops.  Parent whispers transmute infant screams into grunts of hope.  The cornerstone words in the language are names, or pet names: mama, papa.  For all its limited vocabulary and butchered syntax, it seems more than adequate to bring into expression the realities of a complex and profound love.  Language I is primary language, the basic language for expressing and developing the human condition.

Language II is the language of information.  As we grow, we find this marvelous world of things surrounding us, and everything has a name: rock, water, doll, bottle.  Gradually through the acquisition of language, we are oriented in a world of objects.  Beyond the relational intimacy with persons with which we begin, we find our way in an objective environment of trees and fire engines and weather.  Day after day words are added.  Things named are no longer strange but familiar.  We make friends with the world.  We learn to speak in sentences, making connections.  The world is wonderfully various and our language enables us to account for it, recognizing what is there and how it is put together.  Language II is the major language used in schools.

Language III is the language of motivation.  We discover early on that words have the power to make things happen, to bring something out of nothing, to move inert figures into purposive action.  An infant wail brings food and a dry diaper.  A parental command arrests a childish tantrum.  No physical force is involved.  No material causation is visible.  Just a word: stop, go, shut up, speak up, eat everything on your plate.  We are moved by language and use it to move others.  Children acquire a surprising proficiency in this language, moving people much bigger and more intelligent than themselves to strenuous activity (and often against both the inclination and better judgment of these people).  Language III is the predominant language of advertising and politics…

Informational language (II) and motivational language (III) dominate our society…Meanwhile Language I, the language of intimacy, the language that develops relationships of trust and hope and understanding, languishes.  Once we are clear of the cradle, we find less and less occasion to use it.

Boasting About the Wrong Things

The Cross and Christian Ministry
D.A. Carson

[26] For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. [27] But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong…

– 1 Corinthians 1:26–27

God’s grace can reach anyone.  But being well regarded in the surrounding pagan society is in no sense an advantage.  If anyone approaches God on the basis of some putative wisdom or “pull” or wealth, he or she is necessarily excluded.  If God accepted people on such grounds, he would compromise himself.  He would be the worst kind of snob, the kind that is impressed by entirely superficial advantages – like a panting, third-rate social climber in a pinstripe suit, desperate to be approved and eager to fawn all over anyone who speaks with a posh accent.  Paul insists that such a vision of God is utter nonsense.  God is not impressed by the public philosophies, political clout, and the extravagant wealth that the world so greatly admires.  And the Corinthian believers should have recognized the point and disavowed such pagan allegiances themselves.  After all, the commonness of their own predominant backgrounds should have alerted them to the kind of people God frequently pursues…

Paul is not saying that Christians have nothing to boast about.  Rather, he is saying that if they boast about the things the world boasts about, they are boasting about the wrong things.

Regret

John 11:45-53

[45] Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, [46] but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. [47] So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. [48] If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” [49] But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. [50] Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” [51] He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, [52] and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. [53] So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.

When I was a teenager, I would drive very fast.  When I was pulled over once for speeding, I immediately regretted breaking the law.  But why did I regret it?  I regretted getting caught.  I regretted the possibility of a fine and traffic school.  I regretted that I would be yelled at by my parents.  But to be honest, I didn’t really regret endangering other people.  I didn’t regret my “offense.”

The Pharisees were amazingly disciplined in their religion.  They fasted and prayed, they studied the Scriptures, and they established meticulous rules in order to obey the Law of Moses.   The Pharisees did this because they deeply regretted that Israel had been conquered by empire after empire.  They profoundly felt the shame of exile and the loss of the Promised Land.

But did they regret offending God?  Did they regret that their sin had separated them from their God?

In our passage, we find that the Pharisees love their status.  Jesus is threatening because He is drawing away many people to Himself.  The Pharisees also love the honor of men.  This is why they do not want to offend the people by openly rejecting John the Baptist or arresting Jesus in broad daylight.  The Pharisees also love their power.  They do not want to offend the Romans because they could take away their authority, their status, and their nation.

The Pharisees love many things other than God.  They do many religious things for reasons other than the love of God.  For clearly if they loved God, they would not violently reject His Son and shed innocent blood by killing their own Messiah.

According to verse 53, the Pharisees plan to put Jesus to death.  But their plan does not precede the plan of the Father.  We, like the Pharisees, rarely regret offending God.  We regret consequences of our sin like guilt, shame, and judgment.  We, too, love many things more than God.  We are willing to sin as a means to an end.  Yet, the Father sends His Son to die for sinners like us, that His people from every tribe and nation would not perish.

May our regrets and our hopes no longer center on our punishments or rewards, but may we regret all that separates us from God.  Let us put our hope in Him who restores us to the Father.  The Son of God has paid the price that we might become children of God and live now and forever with and for Him.

“Yes, Lord, I believe”

John 11:17-27

[17] Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. [18] Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, [19] and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. [20] So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. [21] Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [22] But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” [23] Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” [24] Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” [25] Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, [26] and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” [27] She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

In the novel, the Kite Runner, two childhood friends are divided by one boy’s guilt.  His friend was brutally assaulted by other boys.  He actually could have done something and he knows that only his selfishness and fear kept him from helping his friend.

When Martha approaches her Lord after her brother has died, she knows that Jesus could have done something.  She had pleaded with him to come, but He did not.  Martha could have been overcome with bitterness.

In Over the Rhine, our church children experience many things that they do not understand.  Why do fathers or mothers leave?  Why do beloved uncles and cousins get shot?  Why do “good” people go to jail, while “bad” people do whatever they want?  We, too, have our questions.  We, too, are confused by what the Lord allows in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

Martha has questions, she is heartbroken, but she still believes in Jesus – that He is “the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (v. 27).  She does not know why Jesus delayed.  She does not know that Jesus will resurrect Lazarus in a few moments.  But she does know, that Jesus loved Lazarus deeply.  And she knows that He loves her (John 11:3, 5).

God may not answer many of our questions in this lifetime, but He does answer the most important question: does Jesus love you?  His answer is “Yes.”  He loves you enough to give His body and His blood for you.

You Believe Lies About God

Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave
Finding Hope in the Power of the Gospel
Edward T. Welch

You believe lies about God.  Guaranteed.  You think he can’t see all things; you think he doesn’t care; you think that he reluctantly forgives; you think that he is far away; you think that he loves many people but not you.  Don’t assume that you know him.  Read the Gospels.  In Jesus you will find God’s fullest revelation of himself.  Pray that God would teach you more and more about himself.

Knowing and Being Known

John 11:1-16

[1] Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. [2] It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. [3] So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” [4] But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

[5] Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. [6] So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. [7] Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” [8] The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” [9] Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. [10] But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” [11] After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” [12] The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” [13] Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. [14] Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, [15] and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” [16] So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Love can be described in many ways, but our culture tends to define it in terms of safety and pleasure.  A loving spouse will do everything in his power to provide security and positive emotions.  A loving parent will do everything in her power to reduce the risk of injury or pain.  Of course safety and pleasure are related to love but they do not define love.  God does.

Lazarus is the one whom the Lord loves (v. 3), yet Jesus does not visit him when he is very ill.  Jesus loves Martha and Mary and Lazarus (v. 5), yet He allows the sisters to weep and grieve and Lazarus to die.  Jesus loves His disciples, yet He risks their lives by traveling to Bethany.

Jesus knows that happy circumstances, safety, and pleasure bring only fleeting joy.  Eternal joy and eternal life cannot be found in such things.  In John 17:3, Jesus declares, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

As the story unfolds, Thomas realizes that being with Jesus is better than life itself.  Martha clings to her faith in Jesus and finds a hope in the resurrection that cannot be shaken even by the death of her brother.  Lazarus is raised from the dead.  The disciples see that Jesus reigns over even life and death.  In His love, Jesus desires for His people to have more than safety and pleasure.  He wants us to know Him.

The world, the flesh and the devil would have us believe that we can only be happy if we live in a particular place, have a particular kind of family, or work at a particular kind of job.  We are led to believe that there is nothing greater than a lack of danger and a lack of pain and this is not true.  Knowing and being known by the Lord of Glory is greater.  Jesus works all things for this ultimate good.

 

No Mere Man

Napoleon Bonaparte

I know men and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between him and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of people would die for Him.

Respect Makes the Task Easier

Does Prayer Change Things?
R. C. Sproul

Before I can be motivated to do something difficult for someone, I need to have a certain amount of respect for that person. When someone asks me to go out into the world and endure persecution and hostility from angry and contrary people, I have to respect that person deeply. Only then does that task become easier.

Courage IS Love

Motivating Soldiers
Henry Abbott

Junger cites 49 research papers from the last 50 years in the section of his book called “Love,” and he affirms the researchers’ findings in anecdotes from World War II, Vietnam, Afghanistan and beyond. He summarizes:

The army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time. The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly. What the Army sociologists, with their clipboards and their questions and their endless meta-analyses, slowly came to understand was that courage was love. In war, neither could exist without the other, and that in a way they were just different ways of saying the same thing.

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