Chapter 21 "Significant and Wonderful"

Scripture: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:15; John 2: 1-12; Mark 1:21-28

McLaren looks at the two “first” miracles as described in the Gospel of John and Mark.  As he looks at these occurrences he asks really good questions. Observing that many today seem to dismiss the idea that these miracles could have occurred, or that perhaps since we do not see some of these happening now, that they give us false hope, McLaren offers a unique thought.  Why not, instead of debating whether or not the stories themselves happened, we might rather allow the story to shake up our normal assumptions and inspire our imaginations? McLaren asks these great questions:

“Dare we believe that we could be set free?  Dare we trust that we could be restored to health?  Dare we have faith that such a miracle could happen to us-- today?”  (99).

Certainly there are all kinds of ways we can discuss the stories of scripture, but what a rich invitation to accept them as they are and seek to find ways that they might challenge us to live, think, act, or breathe into life differently.  As McLaren ends, “Faith still works wonders.” Indeed.

For you to consider:  How do you respond to the literary approach that looks for meaning in the miracle stories (without needing to prove they did or did not happen)? Can you apply it to some other miracle stories?  This would mean to look at a miracle and simply ask questions about what we might learn about the characters in the story by what they said and did and chose, and how those observations might then change or impact us in our lives.  

This is exactly how I approach all the stories of scripture when I lead people in discussion of bible stories both in church and in public.  It is so powerful to watch the Holy Spirit take a story and apply it to the heart and mind of a listener. A friend was doing this in a grocery store one day and walked up to a checker who wasn’t busy and asked if she could tell her a story.  The woman was open, so this friend, Andrea, told her a Bible story and began to engage her in a short time of discussion asking just a couple questions. This checker began to cry as the story found a place in her life, and told Andrea, “I had come to work today but was determined to make it my last day.  I was going to go home and kill myself tonight. But after this story, after this encounter, I have a hope that can only be the gift of this Holy Spirit you spoke of.” The woman met Jesus at her job that day. People are so hungry to hear some good news.

As you engage in the significant and wonderful gospel and experience and tell His story, what plans God has.

Chapter 20 "Join the Adventure"

Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-4; Luke 4:1-30 and 5:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:1-9

McLaren walks through these passages highlighting how Jesus stood against temptations that often cause us to trip, and entered into his ministry empowered by the Holy Spirit demonstrated in healing miracles and deliverances.  

My favorite aspect of McLaren’s discussion centered around Jesus’ visit to Nazareth.  McLaren observes that Jesus had said, “‘Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’  And then wonders what else Jesus might have said. He could have said, ‘Someday this Scripture will be fulfilled,’ and “everyone would have felt it was a good, comforting sermon.  He could have said, ‘This Scripture is already fulfilled in some ways and not yet in others.’ And again, that would have been interesting and acceptable.” But either of those, observed McLaren “would postpone until the future any need for real change in his hearer’s lives.”  For what Jesus said required radical rethinking and radical adjustment. (McLaren, p 93).

What I love about his inquiry is that it takes us into the possible thinking of those people in Nazareth and helps us understand that when Jesus went on to illustrate that such a present-day fulfillment would mean a gospel that reaches everyone not just those like us, He was really stepping on toes.  

This speaks to us today, still, for in many ways, with all our talk we still are not very open to those unlike us, who dress, look, act, think, walk differently.  It is easier to say we are open to people being with us and walking with us, than it is to actually live that out. In Jesus’ hometown the crowd of people who knew him and loved him from when he was a kid, and had seen him grow up, went quickly from a congregation of well-wishers to a mob who sought to kill him.  

As people who are called to follow Jesus, we can be assured that people will treat us similarly at times.  They will not hear us, they will refuse the gospel we represent, they will want to throw us off the proverbial cliff because we bring a message that does not fit with their lives.  

Along this line, McLaren asked this in the question section:  “How do you respond to the idea that you can be captivated by the expectations of your loyal fans and intimidated by the threats of your hostile critics?”

Great question. How might you respond?

Both statements can be true, obviously. And what it is about the voices of retractors, those who are critical, that make them stick more than the positive affirmations?  Negatives can hit a deeper place and we can then begin to believe them. Like a friend told me this morning at the pool -- “When I get into a pit, those negative thoughts become all the truer, although they are still lies. And the pit is harder to get out of.”  

But Jesus didn’t seem to take the negative words in at all. It was as if he was impervious to the voices of the critics.  He didn’t let their opinions take anything from him, nor exert control over him. He had recently come from the wilderness and the testing and was full of the Holy Spirit, all of which sustained him and made it so he could simply “pass through the crowd” this mob intent on killing him.

This week, write the word “disciple” or “apprentice” in a prominent place to remind yourself of Jesus’ invitation to you to follow moment by moment throughout your week, even in the face of adversity.  

Chapter 19 "Jesus Coming of Age"

Scripture: 1 Kings 3: 1-28; Luke 2:39-3:14 and 3:21-22; 1 Timothy 4: 6-16

If you are not reading the book here is a brief summary of this chapter’s focus:

McLaren speaks of Jesus coming of age:  He entered the temple at 12, the only glimpse that we have of him as an adolescent.  Then again, as Jesus entered the waters of baptism under John’s ministry some 90 miles NE of Jerusalem.  John’s baptism was like a protest against the temple’s cleansing pools, and called people not to just a ceremonial washing, but a change of life.  

“According to John, the identity that mattered most wasn’t one you could inherit through tribe, nationality, or religion -- as descendants of Abraham, for example.  The identity that mattered most was one you created through your actions...by sharing your wealth, possessions, and food with those in need, by refusing to participate in the corruption so common in government and business, by treating others fairly and respectfully, and by not being driven by greed.  One word summarized John’s message: repent, which meant ‘rethink everything,’or ‘questions your assumptions,’ or ‘have a deep turnaround in your thinking and values’” (p. 88).

When Jesus arrived in John’s waters, John declared something different over him, saying he was indeed the “Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.”  Jesus was the “One promised” to come after John for whom John prepared the way. This announcement was followed by a visual of a dove coming down upon Jesus and the declaration of God from Heaven: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  With this Jesus was launched into ministry.

McLaren notes the unique beauty of this declaration and visual of the dove, here was a man with a “dovelike spirit, a man with the gentleness of a lamb, a man of peace whose identity was rooted in this profound reality: God’s beloved son” (89).

This chapter is about identity, about baptism, about entering into life with our identity rooted in who God is not in who we claim to be, and more so, rooted in how we live not what we claim.  “What they (the people) needed most was ...a change in orientation, a change in heart,” wrote McLaren. That’s what we need the most as well. In order to live in this life we must have a change that is inside of us, that changes how we approach and see and experience this life.  

One of the experiences that most impacted me was experiencing baptism by immersion when I was a college student.  I participated in an on campus group associated with Campus Crusade for Christ and in that the leader taught us with great emphasis that infant baptism didn’t cut it. That teaching unsettled me.  Did my baptism as an infant not prepare me for my walk with Jesus? Was it really not enough? Was it not valid? The questions upset me enough, I went to speak to my pastor, then, Ehrhardt Lang. Ehrhardt was a wonderful man, son of German Missionaries to Japan, and had grown up in Japan.  He had a deep, loving heart, an ability to lead that unified the church, and a passion for Christ that didn’t ebb. I sat in his office and told him of the teaching, my dilemma, and desired his direction. It was the best direction possible. He spoke with me about baptism, how it is something that God makes valid, so my infant baptism was valid.  My faith made that baptism more effective for me, so believing and having gratitude for God’s work, was important. He then counseled me this, “Don’t be fretful about this. You can do it, or not. But I want you to be assured of this, if you go into the waters, it will be a renewal of what God has already done, it is less “rebaptism” as it is the reaffirmation of that baptism.  So you do as you feel God leading, and to discern this, ask, ‘Do I have great joy in this direction?’”

I had such joy, it was a Holy Spirit direction, and affirmed my baptism under the waters in front of that Baptist church at an evening service.  It was like that experience caused me to re-experience my infant baptism. I was being renewed and the Spirit moved in anew through that experience.  

How might you respond to this message?  What thought or idea intrigues, provokes, disturbs, or challenges, or encourages, or helps you?

Keep following Jesus…


Chapter 18 "Sharing Gifts"

Scripture: Psalm 117; Matthew 2: 1-12; Luke 2: 25-32

Pointing to the Magi, the Egyptians  and Simeon in these passages, McLaren points out the gifts they brought, the protection they offered, the praise he gave Jesus even while not leaving their own belief systems.  Not certain of this entirely, for I think the Magi and Simeon certainly showed a faithful turn toward Jesus, but I appreciate McLaren’s desire that instead of viewing all other people and their religious beliefs as competitors with us, or as unworthy of kindness or love, that we note that there is truth every place.  We can always look for truth. God’s truth is everywhere. Followers of Jesus only have the corner on truth to the degree they are actually relating to Jesus who is the Truth, personified.

We can always treat others with grace.  Since Jesus clearly is reaching out to Muslims around the world, Himself, through dreams, and there are many, many Muslim Background Believers, we cannot say that every religious system is equal. What Jesus offered was something very different.  God coming to people, instead of people striving for God. Unfortunately, many expressions of Christianity have created a very “person oriented” faith, as if we have to work hard to get God’s love, attention and mercy.  That is the reverse of what Jesus came to achieve.

One of the questions McLaren asks is this:  how do you respond to the idea that members of different religions can see one another as neighbors with whom to exchange gifts rather than as enemies or competitors?  

Amen.  Let’s not view others as enemies.  Ever. Instead let’s reach out, offer love, give of our lives and our substance to reach into the lives of others around us in order that Jesus can show up through us in those relationships.  McLaren says, “May we who follow Jesus discover the gifts of our tradition and share them generously, and may we joyfully receive the gifts that others bring us as well.” Yes.

I think that we tend to view others who have differing beliefs from us suspiciously.  Often because we know little about the other beliefs, we can be fearful. There’s a great story of a pastor in Peoria, IL who befriended a local Iman and Jewish Rabbi in his community and the three became great friends.  Their friendship made national news.  They shared honestly, loved willingly, while honoring the differences of belief they shared, while loving one another well.  It’s a story to embrace.

So often those who claim Christ do not model the love of Jesus in their relationships, so let’s do that, and do it well before we take up some argument.  People need Jesus and they can only meet Him if you put Him on display. And it is worth taking up the challenge McLaren offers: “This week, look for someone of another faith to spend time with. Get to know them. Learn about their tradition. Ask them what they value in their heritage and answer any questions they have for you” (85).  

Were we to do this-- what a difference it would make.  For I can promise, those around us of other faiths view you and me as if we believe whatever is the worst case story of “Christian” behavior around us. They believe that all Christians hate others, picket military funerals, or burn Korans, etc.  So, get curious about others and model something different for them to see.

And speaking of “sharing gifts” -- sign up for the Gifts and Talents Workshop and learn how God has gifted you to make a difference in this world and step into those gifts.  It will be great. Check out our website under “News,” or register at: www.signups.wumc.me.


Chapter 17 "Surprising People"

Psalm 34: 1-18; Matthew 1: 1-17; Luke 2: 8-20

“How do you respond to this approach to the meaning of “Son of God”?

McLaren highlights several aspects of the surprising people mentioned in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel and of how they tell of Jesus.  “Surprising People” since Matthew’s genealogy included women, gentiles even, unheard of in any Jewish genealogy, and Luke included shepherds in his story of Jesus’ birth! Matthew emphasized how gentiles are included in the story, with gentile Magi even coming to worship, showing a fulfillment of the call to Abraham, whom God had said would be a blessing to all people.

Luke also included a genealogy but for a different purpose. His followed Mary’s line, (find it in Luke 4) also in the line of David, and traced all the way back to Adam, the “Son of God.”  This title for Jesus as the son of Adam, the “Son of God,” “is in some way a new beginning for the human race -- a new genesis… Just as Adam bore the image of God as the original human, Jesus will now reflect the image of God.  We might say he is Adam 2.0” (p.76).

Both Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus, of his birth, of the start of his life. And both highlight within it people we might not expect to find there.  The inclusion of these surprising people, the women in Matthew’s genealogy, the unlettered shepherds, poor Simeon and Anna, the poor, the disenfranchised invites us to recognize how God actively is reaching out to such surprising people and often through them to us as well. The people in whom we would not expect perhaps to meet the Savior are the very ones in whom we meet Him.  

McLaren calls Jesus “Adam 2.0.”  As such, He is the start to a new life. We do not live based upon our own efforts, by keeping rules, by being careful to try super hard to be like Jesus in our lives. We do not live asking “What would Jesus do?” and trying to do it. I think of Boxer, the horse, in Orwell’s Animal Farm who again and again responds to the impossible demands around him with his worn out phrase:  “I will try harder.” This is what many make the walk with Christ -- a continual “I’ll pick myself up by my bootstraps” kind of litany, an effort to do better by working harder.

But we do not try to pound our round life into a square hole.  No, instead, this Adam 2.0 thought, this idea of Jesus beginning a NEW humanity, means that Jesus has come to fit us for this life.  He sets us free from that which we could not free ourselves. Jesus comes to bring that life into us. We do not try and try harder, but instead, are filled with the life of God, and that life moves through us. Jesus lives his life through us moment by moment -- as a pregnant mom’s life gives life to the child within her.  I do not align myself with Him, but rather, I receive Jesus and He aligns me with Himself. “You shall be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48),” is what Jesus does in me and in you. And that word translated “perfect” means complete, mature, reaching the point God intended. I don’t have to work to bear fruit, for when attached to Him, like a branch to an apple tree,  I find my life in Him and He bears fruit through me.

This reminder I found most compelling and encouraging in McLaren’s emphasis on the surprising people.  It is equally surprising that Jesus would life his life through me, as it is surprising when I encounter His life lived through someone in whom I least expect it.  I guess both Matthew and Luke readily would tell us to expect the unexpected with Jesus. It is He who brings life, so it ought not surprise us when we encounter that life through unlikely characters.  Also, perhaps in a good reminder, that life is not ever limited to the deserving, the privileged, but is for everyone, literally. Jesus came through a poor young Jewish woman, and was heralded by poor shepherds, and He was in the line of people that included gentile women and lowly characters to shout that he came for the likes of me, of you.  Such a good message.

McLaren invites us:  “This week, look for surprising people to whom you can show uncommon respect and unexpected kindness.”


Chapter 16 "Keep Herod in Christmas"

Jeremiah 32:31-35; Micah 5:2-5a; Matthew 1:18-2:15

McLaren presents the argument that we must “keep Herod in Christmas” for in Herod’s demonstration of violence, in his attempt to kill the threat to his rule, Jesus, Herod  behaved as many of us would have. There is no “us” vs “them” when we come down to it, for “...like Herod, members of ‘us’ will behave no differently from ‘them,’ given the power and provocation” (p 72).  Wars will still occur and like this slaughter that occurred in Bethlehem, those wars will be fought by those much younger than those who planned them.

McLaren reminds us that what Herod commanded had also been commanded centuries earlier by another despotic ruler, Pharaoh, in Egypt, who commanded that all the baby boys be drowned in the river in order to prevent the Israelites from overthrowing their slave masters.  His attempt to protect himself from Israel failed as Moses was one of the boys spared. Moses later became a mighty leader, a type of Savior, of Israel, who led them out of slavery.

McLaren asks:  “Does God promote or demand violence?  Does God favor the sacrifice of children for the well-being of adults?  Is God best reflected in the image of powerful old men who send the young and vulnerable to die on their behalf?  Or is God best seen in the image of a helpless baby, identifying with the victims, sharing their vulnerability, full of fragile but limitless promise?” (p 73).   

We know how God answered those questions already by coming to earth as that child.  Until the violence against children ends in this world, McLaren said, this slaughter of the innocents must be kept in Christmas to remind us of the precious value of every life.  

Question to engage in:

“Share a time when you were a child and an adult other than a parent showed you great respect or kindness?”

When I was in 7th grade I needed a new start.  On my birthday, March 22nd, when I turned 13, my family moved from our house in the community of Turlock, to an almond ranch my dad had bought out in the country near a much smaller place called Denair.  This was not a long move, but it meant I had a choice to make. Did I want my mom to drive me back to Brown School for my continuation of Middle School, or would I like to change schools, leave friends behind and attend a small, country, one-room school just about a ¼ mile from our new house called “Gratton School.”  

My 7th grade year had been immensely difficult already.  I was flunking German and some other classes. I had spent the majority of that year either in a wheelchair or on crutches because of what I said was horrible pain in my heels.  I couldn’t walk, for that season, at all. It was a strain on my family. My brothers thought I was just seeking attention. I didn’t really think that was it, after all they couldn’t feel what I felt.  I received shots in my heels, my legs were put in casts, I was put into the wheelchair, I was put on crutches. All that year I had received special attention as a person handicapped. But the psychologist my parents sent me to was certain in his diagnosis:  “Brian cannot stand up to life.”

Truly, I think that was it.  So, one day, in February, my friend Ken had pushed me into our backyard, and my mom stood at the back door and said, with some exasperation,  “Brian, get up and walk in here.” And crying, complaining, I stood and staggered to the door. There was more to it, but I walked again and thereafter, quickly, recovered.

So, when it came time to decide whether or not I would change schools, I jumped at the chance. The 6th-8th class at Gratton School had about 20 students, and the 7th grade class only eight students when I joined.

Our teacher was Jack Harlan, and somehow he understood me.  I received special attention of a new variety. I competed against the super smart students in the class, like Bonnie Hubbard with her perfect handwriting.  Even when I lost in the Spelling Bee, failing to spell anxious correctly, that loss didn’t feel like defeat. My grades and attitude improved, in Mr Harlan’s class.  In a real sense, he was a man who reached into a river in which I was drowning, and pulled me out. He taught me to believe in myself, and, gave me hope where I had had none.  

He was an adult in a powerful position who rather than using it against me, used his power to rescue me.  I do not know what this was like to him. I do know what it did for me. He is a continual example of how one person can change the trajectory of another’s life.

Who might you name as such a person whose life made a difference in your own?  

Chapter 15 "Women on the Edge"

Scripture: Luke 1:5-55; Isaiah 7:14 and 9:2-7; Romans 12:1-2

In his chapter he encourages his readers to move beyond the questions in modern minds as to the possibility of an elderly pregnancy, like Elizabeth’s, or an immaculate conception, like Mary’s and ask what these events might mean to our own walks of faith.  

The facts of these events, truly, cannot be denied as the historical biographical evidence is solid.  There is more evidence for the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, than for the fact that President Lincoln was shot in Ford Theater in 1865.  It’s solid historical fact. We can still struggle with it, be that as it may. And so as to meaning, even the people of John’s time and Jesus’ wondered what the events of those births might mean.  

McLaren says the virgin birth was not as much about bypassing sex “as about subverting violence.”  Truly, this child, Jesus, through Mary did come to subvert, to overthrow, to bring a shift into humanity that would change it forever.  

He was the new beginning of humanity. The 2nd Adam.  A new starting place. Even when Matthew pulls forward Isaiah’s prophecy, which was first fulfilled in Isaiah’s time, for it was delivered to King Ahaz, the unfaithful king, that was not to prove the virginity of Mary. That virginity was already proven for Matthew declared it more than once.  No, it was to show the kind of shift in power that would take place.

In Isaiah’s time, that shift meant that by the time the promised child was 3-4 years old, the current powerful kings would be overthrown, and by the time he turned 10, the threat would be removed completely.  This occurred exactly as predicted (see Isaiah 7, especially vs. 13-17; and 2 Kings 17). When an actual “virgin” was pregnant, not just a “young woman” as the original Hebrew could be translated, the evangelists recognized this prophecy of Isaiah applied again.  And then this child, Jesus, again would be overthrowing the power of Rome, and a greater power, the power of the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:1-3) that of Satan, as he came to “destroy the devil’s works” (1 John 3) not in a violent overthrow, but as with a kingdom that grew because of God.  

The prophet Daniel  described this overthrow:  “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people.  It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands -- a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces” (Daniel 2: 44-46).  

McLaren is correct that Mary saw this.  Mary, of whom it is said pondered God’s words in her heart, was on the lookout for the fulfillment of what God was doing in the world.  She was not just a pawn, but was a leader, a mighty woman, even as a young teen, who saw God moving to change the world. She was one who dared to believe in the God who could do the impossible, and who could use her, an unlikely vessel for this purpose.  

Indeed, as God used this young woman to birth life and hope and the impossible through her, so God yet desires to use you and me to do the same, to bring Jesus to others.  This is the great gift of this chapter -- a God who enters people to live through them, a God who frees us from what binds us to free us into what God has for us to do -- this is the God we serve.  

McLaren reminds us of all this in his brief chapter inviting us to grab ahold of hope and the God of the impossible for our lives as well, not to just meet some need in us, but to accomplish that impossible plan through us.  

I’m currently reading the book Thirst by Scott Harrison, the unlikely founder of the best known and easily most successful nonprofit ever seen.  Founded when Scott was 30, in 2006, this vision to change lives by providing water has so far impacted 8.4 million people.  Talk about impossible things made possible by God, and you see it in this man and his life and mission. He’s a remarkably ordinary guy who after wasting 10 years of his life doing everything he ought not to be doing, by his own account, running from God and life, Scott turned around and dedicated a tithe of those years, one full year, back to see what God might do.  In that year, that turned into two, God changed Scott’s heart and the result was the work for which Scott was created-- Charity:water. 8.4 million people are saying thank you. What plans does God have to work through you?