Saturday, August 21, 2021

Jesus and the Individual, Part II

If Jesus was so concerned about saving the world (collective noun), why are there so many stories about individuals in the Gospels?  I am looking at Matthew and here is what I see, people who are named and their story is woven into Jesus':

  • Mary & Joseph (mother and stepfather; crucial to His birth and early years)
  • King Herod (demented murderer of small children, forcing Jesus' family to flee)
  • John the Baptist (he sets the stage for Messiah's arrival, fulfilling prophecy)
  • Simon & Andrew (first called of The Twelve; dubbed "fishers of men")
  • James & John (next in line; leave their nets to follow Jesus)

Now Matthew's narrative swings full force into crowd scenes:

Jesus preaches in Galilee then news spread up to Syria (the crowds come bringing their sick and "he healed them all. Large crowds followed Him wherever He went...") (Matt. 5:25)

Jesus and the crowds assemble on the mountainside and He preaches the so-called Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus ends this long discourse with the analogy of, because they have listened to His words and follows them, is like the man who builds his house on a rock that is able to face the storms of life and remain standing.  Then Matthew concludes the Sermon with the comment, "And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes."  (Matt. 7:28-9)

Then, heading into Chapter 8, we meet:

  • A man with leprosy (whose heartfelt plea to be healed moves Jesus)
  • A Roman officer (whose faith and humility moves Jesus again)
  • Peter's mother-in-law (Peter's family is now Jesus', too)

Then, more crowds.  But, before He departs:

  • He advises a teacher of the law that He has no where to lay His head 
  • A man who should not look to the dead, but to the Living One 

Then a storm.  Then the calm.  Jesus triumphs over chaos, as had His Father when He hovered over the primeval waters. 


  •  Two demon-possessed men (scary for everyone concerned, but Jesus faces the demons head-on)
  • A worried group of townspeople who beg Jesus to leave; He does


  • A paralyzed man (Jesus sees his sins as the greater disability)
  • Matthew is called (he is in his booth--the scene of the crime--and he leaves everything behind)
  • Grumblings and rumblings of the religious leaders, who scorn Matthew's dinner guests and are scandalized Jesus eats with them

Some more teachings and then:

  • a leader of the synagogue petitions Jesus (his daughter just died)
  • a woman whose bleeding has made her an outcast, but her faith compels her to touch Jesus' prayer shawl (and He commends for her faith)
  • Two blinds men call out (Jesus heals them)

Then, Jesus' call to His followers to see the harvest of souls and to be willing to go out and minister to the crowd. 

Then, we read many chapters dedicated to His teachings.

I am seeing a pattern here.  Focusing on individuals seems to be how Matthew demonstrates Jesus' ministry:  Jesus worked one on one, sometimes in front of a crowd, but the individual is always important and center stage.  Period. 

There is a scene from The Chosen series that really captures what I am trying to say.  In it, we see Jesus going through Samaria (His disciples are not pleased--it's the long way around and the people there are well, Samaritans!) and after they go into town to buy food, He rests at the well.  A woman arrives, and after some dialogue, and her utter surprise about having a Jewish man pay any mind to her, He says that He came there just to see her.  

That scene lit up the Scriptures for me.  Then it hit me:  How often did Jesus go to a place, where He knew an individual would be stationed, only to touch that person and then move on?  

In other words, where certain people in need could be found, is exactly where He went.

So now, His seemingly random encounters with people in the Gospels makes sense:  Go where someone is in need, and meet that need, to the glory of the Father, by the touch and words of the Son. 

No mass Gospel.  Just a Gospel for the masses, given out to one individual at a time.  When someone's life is so touched by Jesus, the Gospel cannot help but multiply.  

I struggle with the large, en masse way church in Jesus' name is conducted today, as I have made clear.  When I cannot go and talk with a pastor/leader because he is too busy; when a pastor/leader cannot visit me in a place of great need, such as a hospital, because he is too busy; and when I visit a pastor/leader and he is listening only marginally because he is too busy, then, well, that pastor/leader is too busy.

Hold on a minute, Cramer!  I can hear you say.  What about the Book of Acts, where the apostles have to create deacons because they were busy?  Let's go there:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:1-7)

What I see here is, the individual is still important, because disturbing food meant taking the time to talk with each person, not just giving food out, like a take-out or a drive-thru.  But if a lot of people need food, then it takes more time and people to help out.  It's not that the distribution of food was unimportant to the disciples; it was that the time required to do the task took away time from prayer and preaching.

That was the disciples' priority:  prayer and the Word.  You can't teach it and preach it if you don't know it.  

But then the narrative in Acts moves right back to an individual:  Stephen.  His witness, as he was dying, was enormous.  Could it be that the disciples praying and staying in the Word, with Stephen chosen as one of the seven men to serve, was able to sustain his witness as he was being questioned, preaching to the leaders and as he died as the stones knocked him down?  

In other words, if our priority in our churches is not the Word, is not prayer, then when we are out there, ministering in the face of opposition, will we be able to endure?

In order to stand on the rock when the rains and winds come, will we really know what Jesus said and enacting His words on a daily basis?

It is easy in America now (relatively) to stand, for the storms and waters are not raging.

Not yet. 

But when the waters do rage down, flash-flood fashion (as they do in the Middle East), will we be ready?  

Or will we be:

  • Planning the next big event?
  • Attending a worship concert with lights, camera, action? 
  • Listening to it's-all-about-you-and-God's-wonderful-plan-for-your-best-life sermon and then hustling out to grab a coffee and go?
  • Worrying about building budgets, buying expensive equipment and burning out well-intentioned volunteers every Sunday because the Sunday Experience has got to bring people back due to the enormous investment the church as made in all the modern accoutrements?
  • Pastors who are CEO's rather than shepherds and then fall into temptation due to exhaustion and isolation (because it is lonely at the top)?
 I don't know.  That worries me a lot.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Jesus and the Individual

I believe I have established that Jesus did not use politics as a way to bring on the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom comes from changed hearts:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
    though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.

No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.” (Jer. 31:31-34)

Ezekiel reiterates the same theme:

"For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws." (Ezek. 36:24-27)

A nation of righteousness is solely built on hearts that are transformed by Christ, for He is our Righteousness.  We have to be guided by His light in order to create light; His wisdom, to create wisdom and His love to create love in all we do.


My greatest fear today is the evolution of the mega-church, where individuals come in to a large worship center, the lights darken, and the congregation becomes a crowd.  Everyone is enveloped in a sense of self-focus:  I am worshiping God as opposed to We are worshiping God together as His Body.  

The lights come up and the focus is now on the pastor.  He alone dispenses the Word; have we been in the Word at all this week, and come to church already fed?  Or do we rely on him to feed us in a fun and exciting way, that will make personal Bible study later on seem rather boring by comparison?  His stories, his analogies, his jokes seem to make the Word interesting; just sitting there at home, simply reading the Word, is comparable looking at the sheet music, as opposed to going to a symphony. 

But I don't understand the Word, many will say.  But that is our problem.  We have many churches where, for some time now, people have listened to the Gospel in topical preaching, filled with stories, videos, film clips, personal experiences and modern references.  No depth, no digging deep:  just enough Bible to make it a sermon, but it is short, sweet and simple. 

That is why many don't know the Word now, and pastors have to dumb the Word down.   

I have seen and heard in the last ten years:    

  • A large, stuffed beat placed a wooden altar to talk about sacrifices.
  • A clip from Survivor to talk about the lost.
  • A clip from the 60's sitcom, the Andy Griffith Show. (forgot the application)
  • A flyer from a new church sneering at hymns ("Nobody ever played Hymn Hero") and mocking name tags.

I have participated in:

  • Setting up a full concert venue for the worship team in a school auditorium with an elevated stage, a very tall screen, concert lighting, full sound board and having the main pastor streamed in, with all the attendant problems technology brings with it.     
  • The volunteers in this church were exhausted.  Then the Sunday worship was renamed, "Sunday Experience" which put even a heavier burden on the volunteers to make Sunday interesting and going off without a hitch.   

I was told to:

  • Wear a t-shirt to the school's games (the school that allowed us to use their auditorium) to cheer on their students.  (I refused.  I thought that was asking a lot, and it felt disingenuous.)

I have watched:

  • The branding of a church reach epic proportions of importance. (The amount of discussion was disturbing.)
  • Money that was tithed was spent on mugs, pens, banners, cafe tables, chocolate, expensive equipment, water bottles and t-shirts.  (How does any of that further the Kingdom of God?)

All right.  I will stop.  I have also watched good, well-intentioned people get caught up in trying to pack their churches for various reasons, whose hearts are for God to examine, not me.

But the one thing I notice as I work through the Gospels is how much time Jesus spent with the individual, because He made the time to do it.  He had a world to save, but He went to the places where an individual was hanging out, and He made a point to talk with that person and share His love, healing presence and care. 

The apostles, on the other hand, got caught up in being busy, going from town to town, bothered about children getting in the way, finding meals and worrying about the angry leaders who were spying all the time.   

In other words, they were caught up doing church.  

Jesus, on the other hand, made the time to:

  • Talk to two men who were living amongst the tombs, and were demon-possessed; their only contact was being chained by the townspeople;
  • Talk to the woman at the well and bring to her the words of life;
  • Talk to the Phoenician woman whose comments about taking the table scraps made Jesus appreciate her faith;
  • Face the woman who touched His garment and received healing;
  • Encourage the man who asked Jesus to help him in His unbelief;
  • Talk with centurion whose faith amazed Jesus;

and the list goes on and on.

So much of the Gospel is showing Jesus meeting one on one with the needy, the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized.  We all know this, but how do we do church in His name?  

Crowds.  Concerts.  Large groups.  Small groups.  Events that are women-themed; church-themed;  men-themed; youth-themed; patriotic-themed.  Lots and lots to go and do at church.

But is there the time for us to sit down and speak to the individual?  The widower?  The woman who is struggling with an abused past; the friend whose marriage is falling apart; the man who is lonely and has a lot of health problems and cannot leave his home...

If we are so busy doing church, with all work that needs to be done to just have one modern service (let alone two or three services, as many churches now have) and we have lots of events to set up for, volunteer at, and tear down, will we have the mental energy to sit down and talk with a needy individual?  

I have sat with a few pastors who were so busy getting ready for the next thing, they didn't have the time to focus on me for a little while.  I have had several pastors move the conversation over to what I could do for them, even though I was asking them to consider me. I walked out feeling betrayed, to be honest with you, for if a pastor doesn't have time to really listen, it feels very dismissive.  

The modern church asks a lot out of its people.  But there's always new volunteers, right?  Or the burned-out ones feel guilty, so they don't speak up.  These churches are so busy planning the next event, how many people who attend are falling through the cracks?  Will anyone even notice if someone stops attending (especially if so many others are coming in to fill the empty seats)?  

Jesus made time for individuals for He kept His ministry simple.  He didn't even have a place to lay His head.  He obviously trusted God for the day to day running of His ministry, so He could concentrate on speaking to those in need, who would then go on and be a living testimony to His grace, and train up His disciples to do the same.

These verses are ever so relevant to the modern church:

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Cor. 3:1-9)

Check:  Will the church go on if the pastor leaves?  Or is it built around him?  Do I expect him to be my "lord" and give me the answers, or do I seek out and depend on Jesus and His Word?

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Cor. 3:10-15)

Check:  Will all the things the church focused on--the sound systems, the branding, the mugs and other promotional materials, the videos, the streaming, the amazing concert-quality worship--come through the flames when tested in that Day?  Or will the time spent with each other, caring and sharing one on one be what glorifies Jesus the most?

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Jesus and Politics, Part III

Jesus could have chosen the course of a political movement--He recruited two men of that ilk to follow Him.  

But He clarified His ministry to Pilate, by declaring that He came to testify to the truth.  (John 18:38)  Not just another truth--Rome had plenty of those by way of emperor worship, adopted foreign religions and philosophies in abundance.

No: The Truth, embodied in Jesus and demonstrated by everything He said and did.

So, Jesus did not politicize His movement, because the Truth is not reducible to a political cause or a platform.  Politics is the art of compromise.  Give a little, take a little.  But if the Truth is at stake, compromise can be extremely dangerous.  The lesser of two evils is still evil.  

British historian Niall Ferguson calls slavery in America "the original sin."  Here we had a new government being formed out of the Enlightenment principle of reason, with the words of the Declaration of Independence declaring a new dawn of freedom and equality, all derived not from the caprices of the government, but bestowed on us by God Himself.  Beautiful, stirring and a lovely foundation upon which to build a new government which honored human beings and their freedom to choose their way of life. 


In order to ratify the Constitution, there were two states that might have not ratified it if it had explicitly abolished slavery in the new Republic.  The states were South Carolina and Georgia.  We don't have detailed records of the conventions where this was debated, but with their deep investment in slavery, it is a good assumption they would not have ratified the new constitution, thus aborting the new Republic.  So, a compromise was reached in the spirit of political process.  In order to not count slaves to increase the number of representatives in the House (much to the dismay of the non-slave holding states) a slave was counted as 3/5th's of a person.     

The compromise worked.  The Constitution was ratified.  The slave states were satisfied that their slave population was not ignored for representation and the non-slave holding states didn't feel that the slave states had an unfair advantage.  As an additional compromise, the importation of slaves into America was banned by 1808--a date far enough away to allow for a gradual withdrawal from the odious slave trade. 


Thomas Jefferson lamented at the end of his life about slavery, comparing it to a "fire bell in the night."  Here is a quote from the US Capitol website:

"When Missouri petitioned to be admitted as a slave state in 1819, it ignited a dispute that Thomas      Jefferson compared to 'a fire bell in the night.'  But this was one fire Congress could not put out completely.

Representative James Tallmadge of New York proposed an amendment to Missouri's statehood bill gradually ending slavery there. The Senate defeated the bill because of Tallmadge's amendment. The next year, Senator Jesse Thomas of Illinois devised a compromise: simultaneously admit Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state, while banning slavery in most of the Louisiana Territory. Speaker Henry Clay used his popularity and parliamentary skill to win House agreement. The solution ended the immediate crisis—but only postponed a final showdown.

If you persist, the Union will be dissolved. You have kindled a fire which all the waters of the ocean cannot put out, which seas of blood can only extinguish. —Representative Thomas W. Cobb of Georgia, 1819"

Here is some more information: 

"In January, 1820, Congress passed two bills that, together, became known as the Missouri Compromise. Maine was admitted to the Union as a free state. Missouri was admitted as a slave state, although slavery would be prohibited north of a 36-30 line (southern border of Missouri) in the western territories of the Louisiana Purchase—Missouri would be an exception to the line.

Thomas Jefferson in a 4/22/1820 letter to John Holmes had this to say: '…but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated, and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.'” (2)

Jefferson realized that the compromise that allowed the states to ratify the Constitution had led only to more compromises and that the fundamental immorality of slavery had not been addressed nor dealt with, only set aside.  For now. 

Sadly, these compromises led ultimately to our Civil War, where over 600,000 Americans died.  Jefferson could not have imagined such a horror, but I am sure he would have hung his head upon the news and said, "I saw something terrible coming some day."

This is why Jesus would not compromise the truth of who He was, what He did, what He said, or of His mission.

In a fallen and sinful world, compromise may be the only way to get things done, I fear.  But if sin is left alone, it is a cancer that metastasizes in the body politic and leaves us reeling with its results.  So we compromise to get things done, only to find that sin is still present, infecting everything we do. 

That is why, I believe, Jesus did not use the political arena to effect change.  Truth cannot be compromised.

Think if Jesus had compromised:  No cross?  No salvation, no eternity with Him and a hopeless world filled with hearts unchanged by the Spirit of God.

In other words, Rome before Jesus came. A place where a leader could ask, "What is truth?" (John 18:38) while infant children are discarded, life is cheap, women are degraded and men are free to pursue their endless lusts.  

In other words, post-Christian America. 

The truth of Jesus is the only rock upon we can stand to face the storm that is coming:

"Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash."

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. (Matt. 7:24-9)

The crowds were amazed because Jesus was so uncompromising in His assertion that His words alone were the only sure foundation to build upon, whether it be for a person or for a society.

In our mega-churches, with our feel-good-Jesus-is-your-life-coach-and-wants-you-happy messages, we have compromised the very One Who would not stoop to compromise.  


We gotta reach people!  Bring them the Gospel!  Get 'em into church so that they won't go to hell!

But do we take these noble ideas and compromise them as to make them more palatable to our modern age?  

Now, we live in a "What is truth?" kind of society and our compromises in our churches have left people skeptical and wary of church.

So, what do we do?

Instead of hunkering down, preaching the Word in an uncompromised way and allowing the Spirit to work on people's hearts, we compromise the message and ignore the deep sin infecting our country.

The fire bell is ringing again. 




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