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The parables of Jesus are some of the most famous teachings of Christ recorded in the gospels. In fact, one-third of Jesus' recorded teachings in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are parables. These particular teachings are so engrained in our understanding of who Jesus is and what he is all about that it's hard to fathom what our picture of Jesus would be like without these famous stories. Since most people are familiar with parables such as "The Good Samaritan" or the "Prodigal Son," we face a unique challenge today that Jesus' original audience did not face when studying these well-known stories: we are so familiar with the parables of Jesus that we're rarely shocked by the messages contained in them like we were when we first heard them told. Our challenge, as modern listeners, is to approach these parables with "fresh ears." In fact, Jesus says explicitly in Matthew 13:1-15 that "hearing" the message of truth contained in the parables is the purpose of these stories. In other words, he tells these stories to reveal a truth about God we otherwise would have missed. It's as Flannery O'Connor says: "When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock— to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."
In many cases, our personal legacies can dominate our thoughts, careers, and parenting. Sadly for others, little energy is spent processing what may be said of our lives after we die. We have a choice in working to develop our legacies as healthy trees or behave in such a way that they are reduced to gangly stumps. Either way, a remnant of our life's story will be left to observe by at least some in the years after we leave this life. God challenged the people of Judah along these lines. Their behavior over the generations had brought about a crucial crossroads as it related to their collective legacy. The prophet Jeremiah called out four behavioral traits that had led to their demise as a people. Fear, isolationism, selfishness, and worry were rampant in the heart of the nation. Those four traits can be resident in our lives today and can literally kill our personal legacies. However, the beauty of God is that He is a redemptive God. His grace can turn our stumps of fear, isolationism, selfishness, and worry into new life.
Worry and anxiety about the future is an inevitable part of life. Many times, the source of our worries is the trouble we are facing right in front of us; our worries for the future cripple us in the present. In Jesus' most famous discourse, known as "The Sermon on the Mount," he addresses the subject of worry. When talking about the subject, Jesus doesn't avoid the tough realities we will face in this life. In fact, he acknowledges that life is not always easy when he says, "Each day has enough trouble of its own." Yet even knowing the troubles we face, Jesus commands his disciples to rid themselves of worry. First, he does this to remind them that there is more to life than whatever we are currently worried about. Most often, we are worried about things "of this world" rather than things that are eternal, so Jesus is calling his disciples to have an eternal focus. He goes on to remind his listeners that God is control, which means we are not. When we believe this to be true, our worry boils down to us doubting the character of God. Ultimately, Jesus' teachings on worry remind us that there are two responses to challenges we will face in this life: worry or worship.
One of the most popular and critically acclaimed movies from the last year is Gravity. What may appear to some on the surface to be an action movie is actually a commentary on our current cultural climate that contains great truth. So many people in our world today are floating through space in isolation, many times because of tragedy and pain from our past. On top of that, we as a society have increasingly tried to replace faith with science, which ends up trivializing life. This is because faith in a higher power is an essential part of the human experience. When we try to explain away all of life through science and information, we lose our sense of wonder and our capacity for faith in God. Abraham Joshua Heschel says, "Awe, reverence precedes faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith." Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul says in Colossians 2:6- 7, "So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness" (emphasis added). Gravity gives us a great picture of why we need to be rooted, or grounded, in Christ and how this leads to thankfulness and strengthened faith.
Anytime we discuss the subject of how Christians should relate to the culture we live in, an important part of the conversation deals with our "posture." Posture, in physical terms, is the position your body assumes when you aren't paying attention. When thinking about this term in relation to how we interact with culture, posture can be the default attitude we have towards the world around us. In Culture Making, Andy Crouch defines the term by saying, "Our posture is our learned but unconscious default position, our natural stance." An important question is, "What should our posture towards culture be, as Christians?" The answer—possibly a frustrating one—is, "It depends." In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul assumes different postures depending on the context he finds himself in, and the same must be true of us. When it comes to our attitude towards movies like "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," it would be beneficial to assume a posture of openness and eagerness to learn. In this particular movie, it has an important message for Christians and non-Christians alike. It's a movie that reminds us about what's truly important in life and contains a message that echoes a truth found in Scripture.
One of the most underestimated elements in effectively communicating the Gospel is our responsibility, as Christ followers, to understand the culture and context in which God has planted us. While there is a premium placed on studying Scripture, we don't always take seriously the job of studying our culture so that we can connect people to Christ. One of the best and most famous examples in Scripture of someone doing this very thing—taking time to study their context before sharing the Good News—is a story about the Apostle Paul found in Acts 17. When he arrives in Athens, Paul takes time to walk around and understand the context in which he finds himself. He then goes on to use a false idol and quote Greek poets as a way to share the Gospel with the people of Athens. This is because Paul understood, like Madeleine L'Engle says, "There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation." This is why, in a similar way, we must learn how to connect parts of our culture to the message of Scripture, like Paul in Acts 17. In the recently released Disney movie "Frozen," we see themes of sacrificial love that are closely related to the way Scripture defines love. This story of a girl sacrificing her life for her sister can point us back to the sacrificial love we are called to embody as Christians.
When describing Easter, Henri Nouwen once wrote, "Easter season is a time of hope. There still is fear, there still is a painful awareness of sinfulness, but there also is light breaking through." Nouwen's description of Easter does a great job of explaining the range of emotions associated with Easter morning. It is certainly a time defined by hope and faith; it's also a season marked by emotions that are not always discussed by the modern-day Church like doubt and fear. However, it is only when we allow the reality of our pain to be met by the reality of the resurrection that true healing and freedom happen in our lives. The Apostle Paul recognizes this fact, which is why the conclusion to Romans 8 has an "Easter tone" to it. Romans 8:31-39 is certainly a passage of celebration, triumph, and hope. However, it is not a passage about triumphalism or blind faith. Paul rattles off a long list of things that can cause us fear in this life, but he does this to remind the reader of the hope we can have when facing these trials. The conclusion is a great reminder that God is for us, not against us, so there is nothing to fear.
In Romans 8, the Apostle Paul is describing the new exodus Jesus inaugurated with his life, death, and resurrection. As we get to verses 18 and following, Paul makes it abundantly clear that this new exodus is not just for Israel. It's not even just for humanity. The new exodus Jesus launched is for all creation. Paul says creation, which was subjected to slavery due to human sin, waits and groans along with humanity for the day of redemption. In other words, the new exodus Jesus is bringing about has huge implications for the entire cosmos. This is important because we can begin to lose hope in God's ability to bring this freedom to our lives if we forget there is a larger story being written. As A.J. Conyers says, "The power of hope is something we do not often understand. It comes essentially from the human tendency to transcend circumstances by virtue of imagination. Hope, however, depends upon the fact that any set of circumstances has a larger context. Hope must be projected outside the circumstances." That's why in Romans 8:18-27, Paul defines hope in terms of being something we do not fully have, or possess, ourselves. Our hope is in the story God is writing that is bigger than our current circumstances and individual lives.
Throughout Romans 5-8, Paul uses the Exodus story to explain the human situation and how Jesus brings freedom to all of creation. He has a strong diagnosis when addressing the human condition by dealing fully with the "weight of sin." At the same time, Paul is also giving his readers a heavy dosage of the "weight of glory" in this section of Romans. The reason why he deals heavily with both subjects—bondage to sin and freedom in Christ—is because you can't talk about one without the other. Karl Barth puts it this way: "Resurrection proclaims true freedom to us and lets us painfully discover our prison chains." While the message of freedom should be exhilarating, often times we don't fully celebrate it because we have yet to experience this liberation personally. Paul, knowing our doubts and frustrations, reminds us of two important themes from the story of the Exodus. First, he reminds us that those who are in Christ are "led by the Spirit of God." This reference to the Exodus is meant to remind us that God doesn't just send His people on a journey; He actually accompanied Israel on the journey. The other Exodus theme Paul reminds us of is that those who are in Christ are "children of God." This term appears for the first time in Scripture in Exodus 4. As children of God, Paul says we are due to share in the same inheritance that God reserved for His son, Jesus.
In Romans 8:5-8, the Apostle Paul talks about what happens when our minds are controlled, or governed, by the flesh. In many ways, this seems to be rehashing what was already discussed in Romans 6. However, what Paul is doing is following the arch, or flow, of the Exodus narrative. When he says in Romans 8:7 “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God,” it is meant to remind us of Pharaoh in the story of The Exodus. Pharaoh is the quintessential character in Scripture that stands in opposition to God. He has, as Exodus tells us repeatedly, a “hardened heart” towards the God of Israel. Throughout the story of The Exodus, Pharaoh refuses to acknowledge the sovereignty of the God of Israel, and we get a clear illustration of how this lifestyle, as Paul says, leads to death. Romans 8:5-8 and the story in Exodus both remind us that we were created to live under the authority of God. Whenever we fail to acknowledge this reality and make our flesh “god,” our lives lack the life and peace that can only come from God.