Jesus loved, healed, guided, transformed, forgave, and comforted. People flocked to him and traveled far and wide just to be near him. Broken people were not the same after encountering him.
But we are mistaken if we think that all of what Jesus had to say was easy to hear, reassuring, or validating. Jesus pushed buttons that needed to be pushed and often his most pointed words and difficult teachings were aimed directly at those who were the most religious and, on the surface, faithful.
Without a doubt, Jesus said and meant hard things sometimes. That said, his intent was never to destroy a person, but rather to use every way possible to bring the person back to the love of God, a right understanding of God, and to the right motives for actions.
One of Jesus’ hardest sayings is found in Luke, chapter 14. Here Jesus said to a large crowd, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”
On the surface, Jesus’ words seem completely incompatible with what we know of Jesus throughout the Gospels. But if we want to understand what Jesus was getting at, we need to look at the word “hate” in Greek and what it means.
The Greek word used in Luke 14 is hate but hate to Greeks meant something vastly different than what it means to us in 2017. Hate in Greek has everything to do with priorities, what comes first, and what is loved more.
Jesus in essence was saying, “Love me more than your father, mother, wife, and children, then you will not only know what it means to follow me, but you will also end up loving people more as a result of doing so.” Or, “Love me the most and you will end up loving those who matter the most to you more.”
This teaching has nothing to do with rejecting anyone. It has everything to do with the path to loving human beings more than we might otherwise. The more we love God, the more we align ourselves with Christ, the more love becomes the essence of who we are, how we act, what we feel, and what we say.
I often use an image of a triangle to illustrate this point. Picture yourself on one on point of the triangle. Picture a close family member on another point. Finally picture God on the third point. As the two people move closer to where God is on the triangle, note the distance between the two people becomes smaller. The more Jesus is our priority and our first love, the more we will love others because by doing so, the more we will learn to love like God.
1977 was an eventful year. Gasoline was 65 cents per gallon. The new Apple computer cost a whopping 600 dollars, a lot of money especially in those days. I graduated from high school in southern California and the Eagles released some of their biggest hits. While there was much happening during this time on the world stage of great significance, something occurred that got many people in the country excited. The first Star Wars movie was released.
To this day I remember standing in a line blocks long at 6925 Hollywood Blvd. waiting to get a ticket for a showing at Graumans Chinese theater, the place in front of which you can see the footprints of John Wayne, Doris Day, and Charlton Heston to name just a few.
The first film was superb and represents a classic battle between good and bad, what is right and evil, light and darkness. With characters like R2-D2, Obi-Wan, and Princess Leia, the story line has captivated millions for decades. Like in the first movie, Darth Vader was a malicious character in the films that followed. In one film, Darth Vader said to Luke Skywalker, “If you only knew the power of the dark side.”
On one level such lines and the character of Darth Vader are entertaining and it should be left at that. On another level, the story like many stories reflect a reality we all live in the midst of, which is the constant conflict between God and evil, good and wrong, light and darkness. I am thinking about this because of what I encountered in a Target store the other day. The store had 4-foot tall, standing and talking Darth Vader characters up and down aisles.
While shopping, every time I passed a motion sensitive Darth Vader character it spoke a line from a Star Wars movie. The line I most often heard was “If you only knew the power of the dark side.” I must have heard the message 15 times throughout the store.
I am all for profit making, capitalism, marketing, etc. as many people are employed through selling movie related items. I do not believe in banning items from stores. There really is nothing too terrible about a 4 foot Darth Vader character. That said, the whole event at Target reminded me that we all, young and old alike, need to be attentive to whose voices we listen to and understand that there is an impact from every voice we hear, even those that are recorded.
Some messages we encounter are far from benign. While having a 4-foot Darth Vader character in the house could be entertaining for some, it also provides for reflection and teaching and praying about the reality of darkness in our world, a darkness that cannot overcome the light of Jesus.
I pray we will all give much more attention and energy to voices of light, voices that reflect the words of Jesus we encounter in the Gospels. And I pray we will do so whether shopping at Target, watching television, or overhearing the words of others we do not know.
The beginning of a New Year means different things to different people. Some seek to establish new resolutions or commitments. Others view the calendar change as a benign transition. Some welcome a new year with relief, others with heartache, and some with joy.
This New Year’s Day I happened to be in the town in which I spent my young years growing up, El Paso, Texas. While disliked by a lot of people because of the dry high desert location, the poverty that is prevalent, or the fact it is a border town in which over 90 percent of the population has a Hispanic name, I love it. It is real, authentic, and there is not a lot of room for pretense. Of course the food, culture and people are wonderful as well. El Paso is also a place in which two vastly different countries are completely interdependent in so many ways and this has been the case since the city was founded long ago.
But I also love El Paso because most of the old neighborhoods are full of so many childhood memories that sustain me and bring me great joy. It was a great place to be a young boy with lots of energy. On my recent trip, I took the opportunity, as I do each time, to reminisce with life-long friends.
Memories are so important. They give us a sense of where we have come from, serve as the basis for life lessons learned, provide for a sense of identity and internal cohesion, and often provide the fodder for getting in touch with life’s blessings. But memory itself can be such a poignant and painful topic especially when memory banks clear out and what a person remembers becomes more like an empty cold storage unit.
My mother who is 94, with whom I spent the New Year, lives in El Paso. Physically she is fine, but much of who she was is fading as her memory and ability to recall the who, what, when, where and why of her life vanishes. I know many of us go through this with our parents, but it hurts, is painful, and makes me along with many of you sad. I get it. That said, I have to wonder if diminishing memory is a blessing in some kind of way, especially when living in the ninth decade generally means most if not all friends are gone.
As I was hurting when 2017 began and was thinking about all of life’s memories, my faith interrupted my sadness when these words came to mind. “Remember, God is Immanuel. God is with us. Period.”
While the presence of Jesus does not take away heartache, it certainly frames it in a way that tells me in the end all will be well, to embrace each moment as an extraordinary gift, to cherish true wealth which has everything to do with family and friends, to live with a heart of gratitude knowing our ultimate destination is taken care of, and knowing when it is all said and done, loving God and people is all that matters.
My word for 2017 is Immanuel. And I pray that you too will remember that Jesus is within, all around, and working through all we can remember, and all that has faded away. Immanuel is with us and Immanuel is with those we love who look at us with a blank stare because his or her memory is gone.
On Christmas Eve this year, I suggested that when thinking of the signs of our times, it is easy to come up with a long list of negatives. There are a lot of bad things happening all over our world, really sad, tragic events.
Such things are often the sole focus of what we see, hear, or are exposed to. Although it is essential we don’t put our heads in the sand and instead respond to what is wrong through faith driven action, it is also vital to remember that solely looking at what is amiss leads to an extraordinarily skewed way of looking at things. The good is always happening in the midst of the bad.
What is most important to keep in mind as we roll into the year 2017 is that Jesus is fully present with us, continuing to lead, guide, teach, heal, forgive, challenge, and transform us, just as he did when he walked the desert sands of Israel.
The night before Jesus was crucified, he said something. He said, “I will not abandon you. I will come to you and later I will be in you. You will know that I am in the Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”
Here Jesus says he not only will always be with us, but that he will be in us. And there is a clear sign this is the case.
Here is what we find in scripture. “God is love. All who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. If we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us…As we keep his command to love, we live deeply and surely in him and he lives in us. Love is how we experience his deep and abiding presence.”
In other words, love is the sign that Jesus Christ is alive and well, living in you and in me and in the midst of this messed up world. He continues to do now what he did way back then anytime love shows up.
God is love. Jesus, was God in the flesh. Want to be in touch with God, love. Want to find Jesus, love. Wonder where Jesus is, love. Love is the point. Love is the purpose. Love is the sign. Those places in our lives in which we love by what we do and by how we act, are the very same places we will encounter God.
God, who is love, is our constant companion and final destination.