Friday, June 22, 2012

You Don't Know What You're Missing, Part II

"Have you ever eaten at Morton's Steakhouse?"
"Oh!  Well let me tell you, you don't know what you are missing!  It's fantastic!"

Have you ever taken part in a conversation like this one?  Most of us probably have at some point.  We use phrases like "You don't know what you're missing!" to try to convince the person to whom we are talking that they really are missing something great.  It's kind of a funny thing to say if you think about it.  If it is true that they really don't know what they are missing, telling them this doesn't really accomplish much.  The only way to induce them to try Morton's Steakhouse (or whatever the subject at hand may be) is to somehow get them to recognize and appreciate the greatness of which they have been ignorant up to that point.

This, in essence, is the idea we considered in Part I of this post.  The only way that the Pharisees and Jewish religious leaders of Jesus' day would have called so adamantly for His execution was the fact that they did not recognize or appreciate the truth of which they were ignorant, namely, that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.  All things being equal, this was a truth that the Pharisees could have and should have known.  (I understand and agree completely with the idea that their actions were part of God's bigger plan of redemption and that the crucifixion for which they called was an essential component of God's will for Jesus.  I do not believe, however, that this excludes them from culpability for missing and refusing the Christ.)  The warning sounds out to all believers--Well-meaning and well-studied individuals can miss important truths without even realizing it.  (The warning becomes even more appropriate when you consider the fact that even Jesus' own disciples did not understand the full-scope of His Messianic position until after His earthly sojourn--see Luke 24:13-35.)

As stated in the previous post, the key to avoiding such costly oversights is to honestly and regularly ask the question, "What are we missing and where are we missing it in Christianity?"  (Perhaps it would be even more beneficial to phrase the question in 1st person.)  Either way, it is the starting point in a journey of reflection, evaluation, and discovery which every believer needs to take.

Before beginning that journey, however, I feel strongly that there are two preliminary ideas you must consider:

Your Motive - Questioning and evaluating your own beliefs, the beliefs of your church, or even the beliefs of Christianity at large is a dangerous thing.  At least, that is what many a believer will tell you.  Looking for genuine is often denigrated as simply "rocking the boat," "opening up a can of worms," or "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." (How's that for a trio of metaphors?)  In many circles, questioning established traditions and beliefs is frowned upon (particularly by those in positions of authority) because it often results in reformulation (or even outright rejection) of ideas and traditions long held by the masses.  Change is something of which many people are afraid--particularly in the realm of religious doctrine and practice.

Armed with this understanding of people's nervousness about a questioning spirit, it is critical for you as the questioner to examine and purify your motives.  Don't begin this process with the idea of becoming some rouge iconoclast bent on demolishing anything that even hints of being "traditional" or "old-school thinking."  The point is not to prove that everything we have ever believed or been taught is wrong and must be changed.  This is how many people perceive those of us who raise questions.  Let's do all we can to change that perception.  The purpose in this process is not to act as a proof-reader, armed with a red-pen, bent on finding and highlighting every minute mistake we can find.  Rather, we are trying to serve as investigators or inspectors who honestly evaluate all that "comes down the line"--approving what is good and exposing what is not. (See Ephesians 5:10-11 and I Thessalonians 5:21)  In short, your motive should not be to cause trouble but to find truth.  Personally, I believe that much of what I have been taught is true and correct.  That does not, however, preclude the possibility that I and those around me are missing some key ideas.

Your Weaknesses - If we come back to the story of the Pharisees and the disciples for a moment, we can see it's obvious they did not know what they were missing.  The deeper issue emerges, however, when we ask the question, "Why didn't they know what they were missing?" or "How could they miss something so important (and so obvious, I might add)?"  The fact is, several forces were at work in their lives that were contributing to their ignorance.  A necessary prerequisite to beginning your own journey of evaluation is to determine if and how these same weaknesses may be influencing your ability to see the truth.  Here is a short list of some of the contributing factors to the spiritual and religious miscalculation of the Pharisees.  How many are applicable to you?

1.  Pride - one of the primary reasons the Pharisees never accepted Jesus as Messiah or even considered the possibility that He might be so was their stubborn pride.  Even in the face of clear, conclusive evidence and persuasion (including one of their own--Nicodemus--challenging them to at least give Jesus a chance), the Pharisees' arrogance and foolish stubbornness would not allow them to open their eyes.  Pride blinds and pride hardens.  Very few vices have as negative an impact on the human soul as pride, and very few forms of pride are as hard to unseat as religious pride.

2.  Cultural Conditioning - I use the term "culture" here in a very broad sense.  Your "culture" can refer to everything from the region in which you live to the type of church you attend to the family in which you were born and reared.  All of these (and more) strongly influence the way we think.  In the case of the Pharisees and the disciples, Jesus' failed to fit in the box into which the prevailing culture of the day taught them the Messiah would fit.  Jesus didn't meet their expectations as Messiah--plain and simple.  Rather than reevaluate their inherited belief system (as I am suggesting we do), they simply dismissed Jesus as a fake.  Cultural conditioning is very hard to detect and even harder to eliminate, but we must do both when the truth breaks the mold by which we have been formed.

3.  Inaccurate Interpretation of Scripture - I fully believe that many Pharisees in those days could have given you scriptural reasons for rejecting Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah.  (One of them would very likely have been the fact that He was Jesus of Nazareth.)  The religious Jews were students of the Word, but the problem was that their approach to and conclusions about the Word were often flawed.  As much as we hate to admit it, Biblical Hermeneutics (interpretation) is an inaccurate art subject to the foibles of human depravity.  We can and we must regularly evaluate our interpretations of Scripture to be as accurate as possible.  (Part of doing that is being willing to consider the interpretations and ideas of those who have reached different conclusions than we.)

4.  The Fallen Human Condition - We all naturally have our "own way."  We all naturally gravitate toward untruth and error.  We all tend to live unexamined lives.  We all tend to be subject to inertia--both literal and figurative.  Simply put, the Pharisees and disciples were subject to the Fall of Man (just as we are) and, as such, they had the current of human depravity working against them (just as we do).  The good news is that God is in the business of redeeming humanity, and He has provided us with everything we need to know Him, to love Him, and to obtain and live His truth.

Building upon these foundational ideas, I believe that every Christian can and should embark on their own journey of evaluation and discovery.  Every Christian can embrace the spirit of the believers at Berea (Acts 17:10-12).  Every follower of Jesus should be on their own mission to find the genuine.

What are you waiting for?

(By the way, if you have never been to Morton's Steakhouse, you don't know what you're missing!  It is really, really good!)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

You Don't Know What You're Missing, Part I

The following post is a summary of the introductory lesson I taught for a series I am presenting to a Young Marrieds Sunday School class this summer.  Hopefully I will articulate my ideas more clearly here than I did in the classroom.

I am a big fan of dramatic irony in literature and film.  Whether it's Peyton Farquhar from "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" or Henry Bemis from a classic episode of The Twilight Zone, I relish the ironic twist ending.

Perhaps this is one reason why I find the story recorded in Luke 23 (and the other Gospels) so compelling.  This passage recounts the familiar story of Pilate's interaction with the crowd on the day of Jesus' crucifixion:
Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him.  Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him.  I will therefore punish and release him.” But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas!”  Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.”  But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed.
If ever there was a sterling example of dramatic irony, this is it.  The key to recognizing it is to remember that the people demanding the execution of Jesus were not God-hating, Satan-worshipping pagans with a desire to plunge the world into a cesspool of debauchery and unspeakable evil.  On the contrary, the people shouting at Pilate that day were God-fearing, God-loving, and (ostensibly) God-pleasing religious devotees who desired more than anything to see God's name made great in the world.  The were the obsessively religious Jews that we refer to most generally as Pharisees, and the irony of the moment was that they were rejecting the very Messiah for whom they were all looking so earnestly.

How sad!  How tragic!  How...ironic!  These well-meaning folks made one of the most infamous mistakes in history, and the truly ironic part is that it could have been very easily avoided.  To say it tritely--they should have know better.  Of all the people living during the time of Christ, the Pharisees should have been first in line to recognize and honor Jesus as the Christ.  This is the one thing they should not have missed.  Perhaps some readers would come to their defense and say, "Well, it's easy for you to judge them because you have the advantage of looking back on their story.  Hindsight is always 20/20."  To that, I respond, "Yes, but they had the advantage of being thoroughly trained in the Old Testament prophecies.  They had the advantage of seeing the sign miracles in person.  They had the advantage of hearing Jesus brilliantly defend His Messiahship first hand." (See John 5 and Luke 11 for examples)  Disagree if you will, but I am convinced that these religious experts had more than sufficient evidence before them to prove the legitimacy of Jesus as the Christ. They could have and should have believed.  But...they didn't.  They dismissed Jesus as a fraud and a rabble-rouser.  Quite literally, they missed the very "finger of God" when it was right under their noses. (Luke 11:20)

Now, the point in making that point is simple--I believe there is a latent but solemn warning for us in the story of the Pharisees.  I personally believe that one of the reasons why the Pharisees appear so often in the story of the Gospel is because they are we...or we are they. (However you want to put it.)  That is--Pharisaism is not something that only first-century Jews were faced with.  It's not a Jewish problem.  It's a human problem.  Pharisaism is the default setting of the fallen human heart.  If that is true, then the irony of the Jews' case of mistaken identity with Jesus should not be lost on us.  If they could be so sincere and so well-meaning and yet miss something so critical, where does that leave us?  Well-meaning though we may be, the possibility of us missing key doctrines or ideas in our own time is very, very high.

The purpose of this post, the next post, and the Sunday School series I am currently teaching is two-fold--1) To learn what we can from the mistakes of the Pharisees so as not to repeat them, and 2) To open a dialogue in which we confront ourselves with this question, "What are we missing and where are we missing it as followers of Jesus?"  You see, the real problem for the Pharisees was that they didn't know what they were missing.  They had no idea that they were calling for the crucifixion of the real Messiah!  If they had realized the truth they were missing they would no doubt have reacted differently.  Unfortunately for them, however, they didn't realize it.  They were completely blind to their own misinformation and bad doctrine.  The problem with not knowing what you are missing is that you have no motivation to correct the situation.  Who goes looking for their keys, their purse, or the remote control before they realize these items are lost?  Nobody!  Only when the reality that you have misplaced one of these things dawns on your mind do you begin looking for them.  That reality will only dawn on your mind when you open your eyes, look around you, and recognize that something is missing.

So...that is what I am attempting to do in this two-part post, in my Sunday School class, in this blog, and in my life.  It is something that needs to be a regular exercise in Christianity on both a personal and corporate level.  We need to open our eyes, look around us, and ask ourselves, "Have we misplaced our keys?"

I will share with you how to start that process in the next segment...