Monday, June 6, 2016

Does Questioning God Equate to Stumbling?

You would think that if there was ever a time when no one questioned who Jesus was, it would be while Jesus was on earth in the midst of his public ministry (as we are studying in Luke right now). Even Jesus’ enemies didn’t doubt him. He had healed a paralyzed man in their presence. Jewish leaders had even appealed on behalf of a friendly centurion—and Jesus healed his servant. And the pièce de résistance: we last saw Jesus in Nain, giving life to a dead man who’s body was about to be buried—a widow’s only son—in Luke 7. Now THAT’s not something you see every day (I'm being facetious, of course). The witnesses freaked: 16Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” The passage we studied last week ended: 17And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country. Needless to say, Jesus is a celebrity—probably the most talked-about person in all the Middle East. There’s not a whole lot of doubt going on. Jewish leaders are wondering what to DO with him, but even they don’t question him. 

But there is a guy in Israel who does. And he is the last person you might think would: John Baptizer. 

Remember him? He used to be the biggest celebrity in Israel. Besides being Jesus’ cousin who leaped in his mom’s womb when a pregnant Mary visited, he’s the one who introduced Jesus to the world. He had all the prophet credentials: the right heritage (his dad was a priest), a great story (miraculous birth from elderly mom), the right prophetic persona, he was even prophesied about himself. People came from everywhere to hear him and be baptized. Jesus even took some of John's disciples to be his own. When Jesus’ popularity eclipsed John's, he’s the one who said, “He must increase…” Remember?! Well, what happened to John? Truth is he fell victim to one of the classic blunders for preachers: he got political.

I blogged about this in January. He essentially weighed in on Herod's skanky marriage to his brother's wife (who happened to also be his niece), Herodias. Apparently, this convoluted and immoral arrangement was concocted in order to bolster an image of bloodline-legitimacy to placate the Jews so the Herods could stay in power. And it was by a thin, brittle thread that Jewish sensitivities were kept tamped down. The Herods (Herod Antipas and Herodias—there are several more in this intertwined family tree!) knew this, and when John Baptizer started meddlin' he had to be silenced. No one wanted him shut down more than Herodias, whose ambition was unquenchable! She was a woman you did not want to offend! Today politics presents preachers with a target-rich environment! Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Wow. Have there ever been two morally worse people, offered by the two dominant parties from whom it appears the president will come?! See I just lost some of you, making my point!

So, John Baptizer, once famous, is (according to Matthew) now in prison for getting political—doing what I just did: pointing out the moral flaws of some in power. 

Now, while sitting in prison, John hears reports about Jesus who is on a roll! Just delivered a great sermon, he healed a centurion’s servant in absentia, and just revived a dead young man. 
St. John the Baptist in the Prison by Spanish painter
Juan Fernández de Navarrete (1565-70).

Luke 7: 18The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, 19calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 

This is interesting! Scholars have argued: is John doubting or is he trying to push Jesus to do something—perhaps get on with the rest of the prophesies about the Messiah (the conquest and reigning as King parts), perhaps just get John out of prison so that together they can join forces. We must admit, it’s hard to go from “who’s who” to “who’s that” to “who cares”! John who once had all attention now sits forgotten! He’s gotten what he asked for—decrease!  But this isn’t working out like he thought. Sometimes decrease hurts! Sometimes it makes us question.

There are many times and many different ways I’ve seen similar things happen. 
• Perhaps someone you love died and you grieved deeply and questioned God.
• Anthony told me about a pastor he knows who lost both legs to diabetes. He's in pain, discouraged, and…questioning God.
• I know many who have left ministry for one reason or another because of questions. That causes others to question.
• Last week a woman came to my office struggling with a real family issue. She's asking: “I’m doing the right thing... Why am I not feeling blessed?”
• Some of you finding out decrease isn’t fun. ~I know a family trying to do the right thing financially and all heck broke loose. Sickness, kid problems, a parent dying. Why?
• Perhaps you're saying: Marriage wasn’t supposed to be like this! This is hard. 

Some of you asking God: “Are you really the one? ‘Cause from my view it ain’t working.”

And it’s happened to me. I’ve told you about a period of crisis I had while in college. I was completely not expecting my religion classes to undermine my faith. College wasn’t supposed to be like this. I was thinking I was going to a Christian place where I was going to grow! Now I was questioning almost everything!

Notice this crisis John is having comes right after the example of the centurion. Almost in contrast: The guy who has no real reason to believe does. The one who has every reason to believe is struggling.

Well, John's two disciples came to Jesus.

20And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” 21In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. 22And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: [He quotes from Is. 35 and 51] the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. In effect, Jesus says: “Go remind John what the Old Testament says the Messiah will be about and tell him what you’ve seen happen before your eyes. 

Now, I notice that Jesus stops short of quoting the “set the captives free” part of those messianic prophesies.

He ends:  23And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” The word translated "offended" is the Greek word, skandalon (where we get the English word, "scandal.") which literally means "a cause for stumbling." Jesus is saying, don't stumble over me. Don't see me as a scandal and be offended to the point of losing faith!

So what?
1. It’s normal to question when things get hard. Don’t beat yourself up. Next time remember you’re in good company. John Baptizer was the greatest man born!

2. It’s good to be a healthy skeptic. Have spiritual curiosity. Take what you hear and read seriously. There are two wrong extremes: 1. Never question anything. You’ll be the one who, when faced with questions will say, “My pastor said…” or “My church believes…” It prevents you from engaging others and sets you up for a fall. 

That was one of the things that rattled me so badly when in college. I had never had to think critically. I just believed what I was told. I guess that's good…until someone persuasively told me lies.

What’s good is to be firm on the essentials. Know there are things you don’t question: God’s existence, Jesus’ full deity & humanity, salvation by grace. But there are so many other nonessentials that are still important, and nuances of even the essentials which bear checking out. Let me tell you, I have a list of Bible verses that are in the category “I don’t understand”! But many of these have become some of my favorites, giving me a more glorious understanding of Christ and his will!

The other extreme is 2. to have a spirit of disbelief. I’ve known people who took pride in their agnosticism or atheism. They made this their identity. They didn’t want to believe, therefore, they simply refused to give faith a chance. 

3. Sometimes we just need to suck it up. Not to be crass, but that’s basically the answer Jesus gives John. “John, Not only am I NOT going to come alleviate your suffering and jailbreak you, you are going to be beheaded because of a stripper. There’s no happy ending to your time on earth. 
Oh…and you’ll be blessed if you will trust me and stay the course. Suck it up and finish strong. Don’t stumble because of me.” 

So to finish the story of my period of doubt in college… I was in a tailspin of doubt. I walked to the apartment of a man who discipled me (a former missionary and athlete who was also my former student minister) and we drove to Pizza Hut. I confessed to him that I was struggling with doubt and told him why. I basically repeated the arguments my professor made that the Bible was full of errors. What I got was not understanding or pity…it was a trip to the woodshed! After hearing me out, his reply went something like this:

"Chad, you mean to tell me that you have seen God do so much in your life and through you and you are this quick to doubt him? You mean to tell me this Bible that you have loved and believed, where you have heard God speak to you as he has to people for 2000 years you are going to so quickly not believe anymore because of some pointy-headed, pseudo intellectual professor who gives a lecture with some cherry-picked arguments that don't stand the test of scrutiny? I feel like I may have wasted my time with you! I've seen new Christians in Africa go back to their Muslim families who pounded them with much more than what you've heard from that professor—and they stood firm!"

Truth is, he was wise in not coddling me. He knew me well and knew I was an athlete and he gave me a firm kick in the proverbial pants. And that was exactly what I needed! My face turned red as he spoke, because he was SO right. 

"Let me ask you a couple of questions," he said. "How many people do you think that professor has led to Jesus with those opinions? Do you know of anyone he's led to Christ, despite having hundreds of lost students in his classes studying the Bible?" I didn't answer, but I didn't know of any. I did, however, know of several who became hardened in their disbelief. He continued, "What kind of fruit do you see in his life? And have you gone to the library or to your pastor or anywhere else to look at the abundant scholarship that refutes all that he is teaching?" Again I didn't answer. Because he was right. I had not.

He did with me what I believe Jesus did with John: showed tough love to a guy who, in his heart, knew better. He knew I wasn't stumbling...I was questioning. 

My friend didn't just wound me. I don't want to leave the wrong impression. He pursued me afterward to affirm me, pray for me and help me find the truth. He is still my friend today—and I will never be able to thank him enough.

I love that as John's disciples were walking away, Jesus shouted many complements about John for all the crowd to hear. Among those was this: that there had never been a man born of woman who was greater than John. Pretty cool.