Sunday, March 23, 2014

Leap of Faith: Good Doctor


sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 03/23/2014

video available at
podcast here:
or via iTunes here:



13Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

Mark 2v13-14

Levi takes a leap of faith here. When Jesus invites him to “follow,” Levi understands that Jesus is inviting him into a whole new life. It’s a massive career change, from wealthy, secure tax collector to student of a poor, itinerant, homeless teacher. Why did Levi (also known, other places in the Bible, as Matthew) get up and follow him? Why did he trust Jesus?

For that matter, why do any of us trust Jesus?


We’ve been proposing, over these last couple of weeks, that Jesus is really good. That he gives us a picture of a God who wants to do good for us and to us, if only we’ll give him the opportunity by depending on him. By asking him to act on our behalf.


We’ve been proposing that Jesus is genuine and truthful when he says that he’s come so we can have life, and life to the full. That he’s capable of following through on that commitment – that he’s got power, resources, knowledge, skill, everything it takes so that if we trust him, if we take enough mini-leaps of faith in him, we’ll actually experience life, full, abundant life with him, through him, from him. And that there is something uniquely compelling about Jesus himself that allows us to be sure of him, to have confidence in him, to get over our trust issues and betrayals and let downs and actually take a shot at trusting him.


When it comes to Levi, and his leap of faith, of course we can’t know for sure exactly why he yes to Jesus’ invitation. But we can take some educated guesses. And my best guess is that Jesus was offering Levi more than an invitation into a new life; he was offering Levi a cure for what ailed him, and Levi could already tell it was working.


Levi is in Capernaum, a town on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, near several important trade routes. Israel is under occupation by the Roman Empire, and under the local authority of the sons of the late Herod the Great. When Herod the great died, the kingdom was divided between his three sons, Archaleus in the south (including Jerusalem and Bethlehem, for example), Antipas above him (including Nazareth and Cana), and Philip in the northeast (with cities like Bethsaida and Caesarea Philippi). These three Tetrarchs, like their father before them, were just puppet rulers, with their strings being pulled by Rome. They were in power as long as they maintained order and kept the taxes flowing to the Empire. (By the time of this story, in fact, Archaleus had been deposed because he’d ruled so poorly and so Rome took direct control.)

Capernaum was in Antipas’ territory, on the border of Philip’s territory, and Levi collected the tolls whenever traders passed from one territory to the other. Lots of people could remember when you didn’t have to pay tolls (Herod the great had died 30 or so years earlier), so we can guess that Levi probably took the blunt of their grumbling and complaining and abuse. And the locals would have despised him because he was working for their oppressors. Which was a bit of a vicious cycle, because once a person is made into an outcast and socially marginalized, it negatively affects their attitudes towards the outcasters. Which makes it more likely they will abuse what little power they do have, and in someone like Levi’s case, that would mean colleting extra, unauthorized taxes to boost his own income.

All in all, it meant two things for Levi. One, he would have had job security and a wealthy lifestyle. And two, he would have been the object of scorn day after day, except in the evenings when he could get together with the other outcasts, those who were referred to in his day as “sinners.” When we hear “sinners” we imagine a set of forbidden behaviors, but which really meant they were on the outs religiously speaking and politically speaking.

Now imagine you’re Levi. When you were a kid you had two options presented to you. Option 1: live a loyal Jewish life, following the religious guidelines of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, working in an approved profession. Upside? Good standing with your people, your family, the respect of the community, access to the traditions and Temple of your people. Downside? The threat of being impoverished and abused by the whim of Rome and the Tetrarchs. Constantly having to look over your shoulder. Option 2: Get in good with the Roman powers-that-be and work for the Man. Upside? All the money and security you could ask for. Downside? You’re an outcast for the rest of your life, and cut off from the traditions and God of your people.

Levi had chosen option 2. Imagine that you’ve gotten everything you’ve wanted by way of wealth, and yet your soul aches with the deepest kind of ache for belonging. Your soul is sick. You make do with the friendships you can find, but everyone’s soul is aching like yours. It’s killing you. But there is no way you’re joining up with the very hypocrites who have exiled you. You want to belong, but not on their terms. They want to shame you into belonging. Their souls are sick with something else, sick with pride.


Then along comes Jesus. He seems to have no soul sickness. He’s an outcast too, like you, but also not like you. He didn’t go after wealth hoping it would be a good life and find it wanting; he didn’t go after security from Rome. He doesn’t have the ache that you have and your friends have. And he doesn’t have the pride of those who’ve rejected you. He doesn’t wield shame as a weapon, and at the same time he seems immune to it when it’s wielded against him. He seems to have a different source of life, and it spills over to everyone around him.


Follow me.

No scorn. No critique. No shame.

He just looked at me, saw what I did, and who I am, and said, yup, you, I want you. Come along if you’re up for it.

Yes. I think I will. I want what he has. I need what he has. I’m dying without it – I was numb to that fact, the fact of my internal death, just to survive, but it’s true. Just hearing the words – Come, follow me - is already bringing healing to the ache in my soul. He says I can belong with him. And with his. It’s like I already do. I just have to say yes. Yes. Heaven help me, yes!


15While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

17On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”


Mark 2v16-17

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus meets us human beings and connects with us by calling us. By inviting us to be his students, disciples, apprentices, followers. The ones he calls are the sinners – the ones who, for one reason or another, like Levi and his friends, aren’t drawing life any more from pride of place. He’s not calling the righteous – the ones who float above their desperate need, buoyed by pride of place, by contentment with the approval of the sanctioned community.

And he is, in relation to us human beings, to everyone he calls, a doctor. That’s the deal, and there is no other. This is a bit counterintuitive when it comes to how we understand God’s relationship to us, isn’t it? What if we understood that about God? That his primary relationship with us is as a doctor. Someone who wants to make us well, someone who is devoting his life to that purpose. And Jesus is a particular kind of doctor. A really good doctor. A doctor for the sick.

In those days, doctors didn’t command the kind of respect they often command today. In the oral tradition of the time, there was a list of the professions that were looked on with contempt: “…the donkey driver, the camel driver, the sailor, the coachman, the shepherd, the shopkeeper, the doctor, and the butcher.” Rabbi Judah is quoted as saying, “The better of the doctors was good for hell.”

Why the contempt? Well, generally speaking doctors weren’t super effective – medicine was in a pretty primitive place at the time. And more than that, doctors had the reputation of giving preferential treatment to the rich and neglecting the poor.

In other words, people didn’t trust doctors. They suspected them of just being in it for themselves, not for their patients, and they didn’t trust many of their “cures.”

And yet, Jesus compares himself to a doctor anyway. Why?

When we go to the doctor, we are often in a particular emotional state. We arrive at the doctor’s office with emotional baggage. Guilt, shame, fear, worry. There’s something called “white coat syndrome” – a surge in blood pressure that 20% of the population experiences when in a doctor’s office. We’re afraid of the prospect of a painful procedure, embarrassed about being touched or having to disrobe, afraid of being criticized for unhealthy behavior, and most of all we’re afraid of a bad diagnosis.

And yet, all that most doctors want to do is be helpful. This is true of all the professions that care for us in our distress: doctors, nurses, therapists, dentists, physician’s assistants, counselors, social workers, you name it.

[two great doctors growing up, Dr. Opachik and Dr. Scuccimari…]

Let me tell you about Dr. Sam Tickle. Retired now, he was a pulmonologist (a lung doctor) in Memphis, TN during the rise of the AIDS epidemic. (He’s married to Phyllis Tickle, the renowned author that will be speaking at the Blue Ocean Faith conference in Ann Arbor in May, and who compiled the set of fixed hour prayers that so many of us practice, called the Divine Hours). At the time, HIV hadn’t been detected and there were no effective treatments.

Dr. Tickle was like a living example of the doctor Jesus in Mark 2. He was a first responder to these gay men who were showing up in the 1980’s with mysterious and rare lung disease and no immune response. They were dying horrible deaths with no cure or even treatment at the time. He is beloved in Memphis today, because of the way he cared for these men. He allowed them into his unit.

Which caused all kinds of pushback. Because more and more of these men were coming to his hospital, knowing they’d be taken in. This disease seemed dangerous, and these men were despised in many cases because of their homosexuality.

[Sam’s conversation with Phyllis…]

Dr. Tickle didn’t have a cure for AIDS. But he did offer what Jesus’ was offering in Mark 2 to Levi. He offered acceptance. He was willing to be with them, and do everything in his power to make them well. And, like Jesus, he offered it despite the personal cost. Because he was a doctor, and that’s what doctors do with sick people.

That’s what Jesus was doing. Offering acceptance to these “sinners,” these people without pride of place in his day, and sick with the soul ache that comes from being an outcast to the righteous.

Notice, he doesn’t call himself a doctor because of his miraculous healing power. He has that in abundance, of course, but the immediate context isn’t a healing, but the fact that he’s eating with these sinners. He accepted them. Because that’s what they needed to get well, and he was their doctor. He was willing to be with them, and do everything in his power to make them well.

In fact, so many of Jesus’ healings in the new testament include this component of acceptance – the lepers, the centurion’s slave, the woman with feminine bleeding for 12 years, the paralyzed man, the blind beggar, and on and on. The healings themselves were great, but the thing that made Jesus their doctor was that he was at ease with them in their sickness, and accepted them, touched them, greeted them, forgave them, welcomed them, treated them with the dignity only the “righteous” were accustomed to experiencing.

This is the heart of the good news, isn’t it?


Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, to the glory of God.

Romans 15v7

If you’ve been listening the past few weeks, you remember that the glory of God is to take care of those who depend on him. Being accepted by Dr. Jesus is where that glory begins. We see his goodness in his acceptance of us, and that’s what frees us to trust him, to depend on him. To take a leap of faith with him. So that he can come through for us, to his glory.

That’s what Levi discovered. He resigned as a customs official. He accepted a position as an apprentice of Jesus. It was a leap of faith. And then Dr. Jesus upped the ante on his acceptance of Levi. He came to his home, to his party, to his friends. Ate with them. Drank their wine. Listened to their jokes. Probably told some of his own. He was with them. Despite all the flack from the Pharisees. Because he’s a really good doctor.

And it’s his acceptance that is the beginning of the cure for what ails us. Because at the heart of the sinful, broken human condition is shame. The painful feeling that we are deeply flawed and unworthy of belonging. And so we go elsewhere for life, depending on everything but God for life, to our detriment and the detriment of others. But Jesus’ acceptance meets us powerfully in our shame, revealing to us that no matter how deeply flawed we might actually be, it doesn’t threaten our belonging with him. He’s not afraid to take on our shame by being associated with us. We are worthy of belonging with him by virtue of our shared image-bearing humanity. He’s become one of us and made all of us worthy because of our association with him.

We all have our concerns about taking a leap of faith with Jesus, just like we all get nervous about going to the doctor. How will it work out? What will we find out is wrong with us? How humiliating will it be? What will his prescription be? Will I be able to follow it?

It’s a leap of faith. You’ll have to decide if you want to find out for yourself.


In my experience, all those fears are unfounded. It will work out in such a way that we have life, and life to the full. We will find out that what we have is fatal, but that isn’t the end of the story. That the end of the story is life, and life to the full. It might be humiliating if it were anyone but Jesus, but it’s Jesus, and so there isn’t a hint of humiliation, just joy. His prescription is going to be ever increasing doses of himself and of learning a whole new way of living, and it’s going to be the most challenging thing we’ve ever done in our life. But with his help, we’ll be able to follow it. Even if it takes you a lifetime of refills and referrals.

[personal story of a visit to Jesus, the really good doctor…]


Practical Suggestions:

1. Reflect on Romans 13v10 & the Hippocratic Oath…

Romans: Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

Reflect on what that means about Jesus. Jesus is a really good doctor. He is love, the fulfillment of the law. He will do no harm to you. Reflect on the disquiet you might experience about trusting Jesus with this or that about your life, and the concern that he might do harm to you. Take 2 minutes each day to put clarity around the harm you worry or feel you might experience if you take a particular leap of faith, and invite him to respond to you about that.

2. Let Jesus be himself. Make space in your conception of him to feel differently about you than you feel about you. Sometimes because we can’t accept ourselves, we imagine God doesn’t or won’t either. Or because we think it’s hopeless, we imagine God thinks so too. Ask him to reveal to you how he feels about you with respect to your deepest shame.

3. Make an appointment with Jesus already. Stop trying to be your own doctor. Sometimes we don’t go to the doctor because we figure that we already know what’s wrong and what we need to do. We don’t want to waste the time, the money, and go through the rigmarole. Maybe. But maybe not. What would it hurt to bring your ailment to Jesus? He might surprise you. Schedule 30 minutes with him. 20 minutes devoted to you telling him what’s wrong with you and your life. 10 minutes to seeing what he says back.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Leap of Faith: Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Lose.


sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 03/16/2014
video available at
podcast here:
or via iTunes here:


We’re in the midst of a special season here in the church, something we are calling “A Leap of Faith.” Some of you may have had experiences of Lent, the 40 days before Easter when Jesus’ followers engage with God in special ways to identify with the time Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days before beginning his ministry. It’s a way of connecting with Jesus in his suffering in order to share in the joy of his resurrection. Often times, Lent is known as a time of giving things up. And while many of us may be “giving things up” during this Leap of Faith, it’s not about religious observance. Everything we are doing is about growing in our capacity to experience the awesome life that Jesus promises us. And at the center of that life is faith. At the center is learning to trust that Jesus is really good and really wants to do good things for us. So we are setting this time aside to really go after that, to take him at his word when he promises he came to give us life, and life to the full, and see what happens.


Here’s how it’s working, if you’re new with us this Sunday. Or maybe just as a reminder or deeper explanation if you’ve already begun the experiment with us. It’s all outlined in the Leap of Faith User Manual that you can grab in the lobby or download online if you don’t already have one.

First, each one of us is praying, every day, for at least one Big Ask. This is a specific, measurable thing we are asking God to do for us (that we think maybe he wants to do for us) that if he could do it, it would really be a big deal for us. And we’re asking him to respond in some way that we could see before Easter.

We’re doing that, not because we want to test God, but because we want to grow in faith. And often times that takes a leap of trusting him. He tells us to ask. He tells us he wants to take care of us. He tells us he wants to do good for us. That’s where he gets his glory, by being really good to people who depend on him. And so, by making our Big Ask specific and measurable and putting a time frame around it, we put ourselves in the position of taking a bit of a risk. A bit of swallow and a gut check each time we ask. Because we’re sort of putting him and his reputation, at least with us, on the hook. He’s a big God; he can handle it.

[For example, last year’s Big Ask for me – my wrist – and how it worked out…this year’s, and how he has responded so far.]

Also, each one of us is praying, every day, for 6 people in our lives who we’d love to see experience more of the life Jesus promises to give people. 6 people not necessarily in our closest circle of friends or family, but maybe people we still have some kind of regular, local connection with, who, so far as we know, aren’t already engaged in one-on-one discipleship with Jesus, and so aren’t already asking him for things on their own behalf. So we’re trying to exercise our faith to ask God to bless them, maybe so God can show them how much he loves them and how really good he is. And for those of us who are up for it, we’re going to blow some money or time on some of them. Buy them something they might really be blessed by, or do something for them that might make their day.

And finally, we are asking God, every day, for some things for our church. We’re calling them “Family Prayers.” For example, that God would help us all grow more mature and loving as his students. That we’d have the privilege of baptizing a bunch of people on Easter, as a sign of great things he’s starting to do in this community. That he’d find a way to take care of all of our financial needs together, specifically so that we’d not have this $20,000 gap in our budget by the time Easter gets here.

But for all of this to happen, we’ve got to take some mini-leaps of faith. Of trusting in the goodness of God. Particularly in the goodness of Jesus, who is the one who shows us what God is like, more than anything or anyone else.


As we began to talk about last week, the core dilemma we have when it comes to trusting another person is that there is a sort of quantum uncertainty when it comes to the goodness of any particular action on their part. People are vulnerable to fear & pride, and people have limits. It’s really difficult to be sure of someone, no matter how well you know them. Heck, we can’t even be sure of ourselves.

People might, for example, have mixed motivations. Their actions might be motivated in part by fear, or pride, shaped by the influence of anxiety or shame. And even if their actions spring originally from good motivation, they can be derailed by fear or pride along the way.

[e.g., Peter from the Last Supper to the crucifixion, enthusiastically supportive, then denying Jesus…]

And beyond that, people might not actually be capable of following through on their best intentions. People can come to the end of their strength or power or influence or skill or resources.

[disciples falling asleep in Gethsemane…]


This is a major issue for us who live in a world full of us. Trust opens the door to Love, and love is the fundamental source of our life. This kind of chronic un-sureness in each other can leave some of us unwilling to really trust anyone, ever. And with the importance of trust for love, it leaves love at arm’s length for many of us. Thus, life itself, the fruit of love, is just out of our grasp.

This is tragic. And ultimately destructive for human beings.

We need rescue.

We need someone who is really good.

We need a God who is love who can begin to set things right.

Someone whose actions spring reliably and always from love,

and never from fear or pride.

We need someone that we can trust who can heal us.

Someone that we can trust who can lead us out of this mess and into life.

We need Jesus.

Jesus is really good.


He’s genuine and truthful in his motivations, and his motivations are to do good on our behalf. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” This is Good that he’s not only willing to do, desiring to do above all other desires, but good that he’s capable of doing. He can do what he says. And we can trust him. Not only is he trustworthy, but he’s demonstrated, beyond any shadow of any doubt, that the essential core of his being is invulnerable to the forces that make us unable to be sure even of ourselves. So we can be sure of him, in the way that we have never been able to be sure of anyone before.

Let’s dig into this a little bit. Bear with me; this should be fun, and we’ll get back to Jesus soon, with fresh eyes to see his goodness in a powerful light.


Remember the episode of Golden Balls we looked at last week? The one where Ibrahim and Nick faced off with big money at stake. They’ve each got two golden balls. One says “split” and the other says “steal.” If they each play the split ball, they share the money, 50/50. If one plays split and the other steal, the one who plays steal gets all of it, and the one who played split gets nothing. And of course, if they each choose steal, no one gets anything.

It’s a beautiful microcosm of the dilemma we have when it comes to trusting anyone. If they are proven good, and we are good in kind, everyone wins. But if we trust their goodness, but they betray us, they walk away with something that we feel should have been ours (and our hatred) and we have a broken heart. Or do we just assume no one can be trusted, so we resolve to get what we can for ourselves while the getting is good, and take a gamble on playing the steal ball?

Well, in Nick and Ibrahim’s episode, Nick surprised everyone by announcing he was going steal, and suggested Ibrahim choose split, with Nick promising he could give Ibrahim half the money after the show. This led to all kinds of consternation, with Ibrahim calling Nick all kinds of names but eventually relenting, only to discover that Nick had actually played the split ball and they shared the money after all.

But of course, this isn’t how the game usually goes. In every other episode, every single one over the course of three seasons, the players try to convince each other that they are planning to play the split ball, they try to convince each other that they are “good” people with good intentions, hoping to persuade the other person to trust them. Either so they can actually split, and share the money, or steal, and get all the money. Here’s a great example of how the game usually goes…(both players have lost before, the woman in quite a humiliating way, and the man just a very small amount that hardly mattered – this is their second time at the final table, but their first time with each other.)


It’s her last comment that gets to the heart of the matter. “I didn’t feel happy about what I’ve done, but having been stabbed in the back last time, I just couldn’t put myself through it again.” And it’s that picture of him, head in his hands, unable to look up.

Sure, sometimes it’s greed that makes us unreliable – which of course has its roots in fear, in the idea that we’ll never have enough so we’d better get as much as we can while the getting is good.

But usually, according to social scientists who’ve run all kinds of experiments on this, it’s a different kind of manifestation of fear. It’s the fear of having that terrible, humiliating experience that man just had. We hate that feeling. We dread that feeling. Way more than we love the feeling of getting some money. And as a result, people generally prefer to “steal” and risk getting nothing than to “split” and risk having that awful, pit-in-the-stomach, I’ve-been-made-to-look-a-fool feeling.

It’s a feeling of powerlessness and vulnerability. Not trusting another person, and walking away with nothing, is a better feeling than powerlessness and vulnerability. It’s a form of power. It says I took my fate in my hands, and it may not be a great fate, but at least it’s still in my hands and not yours, you greedy son-of-a-bee-sting.


Which reveals the brilliance of Nick’s strategy. He put Ibrahim in a position where he was already powerless and vulnerable, right from the get-go. I’m stealing, now you deal with it. He made Ibrahim have to choose which option had the best shot at recovering some of his power. He could play the steal ball, walk away with nothing, and look vindictive and small. Or he could play the split ball, looking generous and possibly walk away with whatever Nick gave him afterwards. Even if Nick gave him nothing, he wouldn’t have that pit in the stomach feeling of powerlessness, because he already had it.

As you may recall, he argued with Nick for 45 minutes before finally playing the split ball. 45 minutes! That’s how badly he wanted to get out of that powerless place. That’s why he was calling him names. Remember that story he told about how his father told him that a man who didn’t keep his word was nothing? Ibrahim never knew his father, he was raised by a single mom. It was a bald-faced lie told to try to get his power back. When we are powerless, we resort to desperate measures.

In fact, Ibrahim said later that he’d been planning to steal the money they whole game until that moment that Nick announced his intentions. Nick’s strategy forced Ibrahim to be good, in a sense. By persuading Ibrahim of his own badness. By coercing Ibrahim into something that looks like trust, but is really just hoping against hope for a good result, because it’s all Ibrahim had left of his stripped to the bone dignity. And at the end, Ibrahim was exhausted, spent.

As we said last week, this is sometimes how we experience our lives with God. We live in fear of incurring his wrath, and that motivates us to do “good.” But it feels a little icky, like what Nick did feels a little off to us. We feel coerced into trusting him, where we are just hoping against hope for a good result, hanging on to the small shreds of dignity we have left.

That’s not the God Jesus reveals to us. There’s no ickiness in Jesus. Nothing a little off in his approach to us.


The Leap of Faith is all about freely, joyfully trusting God. About an exuberant adventure in faith. About exhilaration at the end of the story, not exhaustion. About life to the full, not spent life. [FNL: Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose…]

And it’s possible because Jesus is really good.

We can see that in the way he frees us to trust him.

Does Jesus try to persuade us of his intentions? No, not really. He announces them, and that’s about it. The first people to trust Jesus hear a sales pitch that goes basically like this:

Come, follow me.

Turn around from where you’ve been going, from whatever you’ve been doing, and trust the good news I’m telling you about what God’s up to in the world.

Along the way, and especially when we reach the destination, I’ll make sure you have access to life, and life to the full.

Sometimes they get some additional bits.

It will be hard. You might have to die along the way.

Not much of a pitch, is it?

So why do they trust him?


They trust him because Jesus has demonstrated that he has no fear of powerlessness or vulnerability. And as a result, they can be sure of him. Sure of him in the way no one has ever been able to be sure of anyone else ever before.

Three examples.

The first happens before he’s done anything powerful at all.


1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,, 2as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way”—

3“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,

‘Prepare the way for the Lord,

make straight paths for him.’ ”


4And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”


9At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased


12At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

Mark 1v1-13


Consider Jesus. Having his cousin, John, minister to him the “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

Jesus, fully human but also fully divine. Without sin, here among sinful humanity. Placing himself in the position of the sinful, for the crowds to see. He’s not afraid to be perceived as weak, sharing in the common humiliation of sin, is he? Not even when he’s not.


Then, he gets this extraordinary encouragement from heaven. “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” That could be empowering, couldn’t it? It could go to one’s head. Not Jesus’. Instead, he’s obedient to the Spirit.


He goes into the wilderness where he doesn’t eat for 40 days. One of the most vulnerable places for a person to be, weak and surrounded by wild animals. And in that place, in that state, tempted by Satan himself. And as we find out in other accounts, the temptations all have to do with power. With different ways to demonstrate his power or get more power or get himself out of this powerless position. And Jesus resists all of them, allowing himself to remain in a place of complete dependence on God’s provision and care.


That’s how we first meet Jesus. Completely immune to the fear of powerlessness, embracing vulnerability. And in that weak place, his goodness is beginning to be revealed to us. Along with his strength and power.

Example 2:


13 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

2The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

John 13v1-5


Here, “all things under his power,” Jesus takes the position of a slave. He does the job only slaves are supposed to do, which is why if you read further, Peter has difficulty accepting it. To be a slave is to be profoundly powerless. And Jesus has no fear of it. It is what love demands, and Jesus does it with joy.


He loved them to the end, it says. Which, as I understand it, doesn’t just mean to the end of his life. It also means that he loved them to the very end of love, the furthest reaches of love. When love is willing to go into a place of powerlessness on behalf of another to reveal its goodness, then it has gone where only true love can go.


Which brings us to the third example. Jesus’ death on the cross. We’ll save the details for Holy Week before Easter, but his crucifixion is the most deeply humiliating, powerless place a human being has ever been.

He’s stripped naked and displayed on hill, enduing mocking insults.

He’s lumped with thieves and rebels.

He is discredited on the cross, a taunting sign above him to shame him.

His hands and feet are nailed to tree trunks, unable to move.

He’s abandoned by most of his closest friends, who have run away in fear and embarrassment.

He’s cut off even from God.

He hangs there until he cannot breathe any more, emptied of strength, and then of life itself.

And Jesus goes there willingly, resisting various temptations to escape it along the way. He does it so that we can life, and life to the full. He does it so we can see how good he is, how good God is. He does it so we can be sure of him.

There is no quantum uncertainty in Jesus’ goodness. We will never, ever have to wonder if his good intentions and actions will be derailed by fear or pride. Perfect love is invulnerable to fear and pride. It defeated them a long, long time ago.


When we sit across the table from Jesus of Nazareth, deciding whether or not to trust him, and he looks us in the eyes and says, “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full,” we can have total peace. There are no games being played, not by Jesus. He’s not trying to avoid shame. He’s not trying to make himself look good. He doesn’t need anything from us. He’s not upset with us and trying to teach us a lesson. He’s putting all the power in our hands.

We are totally free in his company. We can take the steal ball and see what happens. He’ll respond with whatever brings us the most life. We can play the split ball and he’ll respond with whatever brings us the most life.

Or, if we’ve had enough of games, we can pick up the Golden Balls, put them back on the table, and say to him, I don’t need these. You’re all I need. Let’s go. Where to?

And off we go. One baby leap of faith at a time. Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.

Practical Suggestions:


1. Do the Mark Devotionals this week. Pay attention to how little Jesus is concerned about being humiliated or being in a position where he’s having to totally trust that his Father is going to come through for him. Notice how this affects those around him who are taking risks to come to him with their needs. See if it makes you surer of him when you come to him with your own Big Ask.

2. Step down. If you’ve got a relationship in your life where love has been kept at arm’s length because no one wants to risk feeling powerless or humiliated, try imitating Jesus in embracing that position for the sake of love getting a foot in the door.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Leap of Faith 2014: Golden Balls & the Goodness of God


sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 03/09/2014
video available at
podcast here:
or via iTunes here:

How interesting, eh? Imagine yourself in that situation. A lot of money on the line. Every choice is a leap of faith.

Do you want all of the money? Do you try to convince the other person that you are going to split so that you can steal? Or do you happy with half? Do you trust the person across from you? If they say they are going to split, do you split too? What if they say they are going to split, but you don’t trust them? Do you split so at least someone goes home with something? Or do you steal so that no one gets anything?

Of course, in this one, everything is turned on its head. He’s promising to steal, and then give half the money later. How did you feel about him? He seemed selfish and then turned out to be generous. How do you feel about him now that you saw what he did? Is he more trustworthy or less?

Now imagine that you are playing this game with Jesus. Let’s say he’s sitting across the table from you. $100,000 at play. He’s looking in your eyes. You’re looking in his. And he says to you what he said to his disciples in John 10:10


“I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.”

That’s it. No matter what you say to him, he looks you in the eyes, penetrating to your soul, and says it again, and again, and again. I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.

I don’t know what you’re planning to do. You might be planning to steal. You might be planning to split. But I want you to imagine sitting across from him, high stakes, dramatic music playing, crowd watching, breathlessly. How do you feel? Can you trust him? What do you trust him to do or be in that situation? Why do you feel that way?

Now hold that thought. We’ll come back to Golden Balls a little later.

Here’s what I’m advocating as we enter our Leap of Faith season – one of the most powerful seasons we have together as a church, as a faith family:


Jesus is really good. Really, truly, in every way that really matters, good. And his goodness makes all the difference for us.

Why does it matter if he’s good?

If he’s good, we can trust him. Depend on him. Go to him. Receive from him. Sit across the table from him at the most important moments in our lives and have total peace, even when we don’t know what’s going to happen next.

If he’s not good, we can’t. We can’t do any of those things.

If he’s really good, we can even get over our trust issues. Our self-control issues. Our reluctance. Our self-sufficiency.

If he’s not really good, we just won’t. Because some of us still have a hard time trusting even good people, period, don’t we? Because we don’t trust ourselves to tell if someone’s good. No, it would take an extraordinary kind of goodness for us to drop our guard and actually, really, even just a little bit trust, for some of us.

But if we do trust him, if he’s really, really good – good enough for even the most disillusioned of us to trust – he can lead us to life, reveal life to us, and be life for us.


This is the whole point of God and us. He’s a Father who longs to give life to his sons and daughters. The witness of the first people to encounter this God in a personal way were surprised to discover that he wasn’t like any god they’d ever heard of. He didn’t have needs, wasn’t looking for people to do things for him. He wanted to bless them. And the only requirement was that they would wait on him. Trust him. Depend on him. Come to him with their needs and desires. Because this God was love, and for love, it’s all about relationship. There is no life outside of creative, generous, self-giving relationship. And the thing that opens the door to that is trust. Just a little bit of trust. A baby-step of faith.

Is he really good? Is he really going to be good to me? Ha, yes, looks like he is. Huh, how about that? Well, let’s try another step. Sure enough, wow, he’s really good. And he seems to love me.

And pretty soon those baby steps of faith are leading to a life of faith. Of trusting in God’s goodness. And not just generalized goodness, but personal goodness, directed unfathomably towards us. Which undoes fear and anxiety and all the things that bring so much destruction in all of our other endeavors and relationships. There’s a healing quality to relationship with a good God who is good to us.

If we don’t trust him, either because we don’t want to or are unable to, we are cut off from the inexhaustible, unending joyous life he came to make available to us. And we’re left with whatever life we can fend for on our own. Whatever life we can extract from the people around us, from pleasures and achievements and things.

The stakes are pretty high, in other words.


(The most theologically inclined among us might object: but isn’t the chief end of humanity, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, to glorify God, and enjoy him forever? Yes, I’ll buy that. But I’ll also say that the witness of scripture is that it is in fact God’s glory to take care of those who trust in him.


The primary way we glorify God is not our praise or our moral lives or our good deeds, but rather, very simply that we come to him with our needs and he meets those needs. That’s how God’s glory grows. Not through a great PR department, but through unimaginably good customer service. Granted, customer is the wrong word, but you take my point. God offers to take care of us, we entrust ourselves into his care, he comes through, his glory increases, our trust grows, he comes through, his glory increases, etc. etc. etc. and all along the way, in his top ranked by J.D. Power and Associates company, we are filled with the deepest, most satisfying joy.)

So let’s start here, talking about Jesus being really good, with these questions.


What does it mean to be good? What is it about goodness? What is it about his goodness?

We’re entering the territory of an ages old philosophical debate, of course.

The Transcendental Realists say that the good is the right relation between all that exists, and that the good actually exists in the mind of the Divine, and that it can be expressed in a just political community, in love, friendship, virtues, and harmony between humanity, nature, and the divine.

The Religious Abolutists say that good is defined by adherence to a God-given code of conduct; obedience to the code is good.

The Hedonists say that one must pursue one’s own pleasures, regardless of societal norms. To achieve one’s desires is good.

The Moral Relativists say that good and evil are defined relatively; that good is usually whatever serves society best and evil is whatever is harmful to it.

Welfarists say that things are good because they have positive effects on human well-being.

And that’s really just scratching the surface.


What I’d propose for this Leap of Faith series, is that we look at the goodness of Jesus on his own terms. Jesus says that he’s come so that we can have life, and have it to the full. If he says that’s his intent, what would it mean for him to be good?

I’m suggesting that Jesus is good because:

1) Jesus is genuine, truthful. That really is his motivation – he makes himself personally accessible to us so that we can thrive. So that we can experience this gift of being alive in the fullest, most joyful way possible, in a way that as we are experiencing it, we say, Yes, this is a good gift.

2) Jesus can do what he says. He’s actually capable of making that life available to us if we’ll trust him, follow him, be his disciple, respond to his invitation and leading. Which I suppose means he knows what he’s doing and he’s got the means/power/skill/etc. to achieve it.

3) There is some kind of extraordinary personal quality, an essential core to his being that allows us to have confidence in trusting him. We can be sure of him. This last one is more elusive to define or express, but I think Rudyard Kipling’s poem gets us as close as anything else:

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

In other words, when we encounter a person like that (if we ever encounter a person like that!), we never ever have any reason to second guess them. We are sure of them.

So those are some of the aspects of Jesus’ goodness that we’ll be looking at in this Leap of Faith season together. His desire, capacity, and trustworthiness to offer us life/give us life/lead us to life, and life to the full. Jesus has that kind of goodness. The kind we love. The kind we want. The kind we hope in. The kind we are inspired by. The kind we imitate. The kind we follow. The kind we trust. The kind that can save us. The kind that, if we let ourselves, we can fall in love with.

So for today’s purposes, I want to just tease out one aspect of Jesus’ goodness to get us started, which we will really unpack next week, and then outline for us how the Leap of Faith is going to work so we can get started on this experiment / adventure together.


Why is it difficult to be sure of people? People are capable of incredible acts of generosity and heroism and selflessness and charity. The kinds of acts that cause us to catch our breath and restore our faith in humanity. And yet. And yet, nearly every person is also capable of being swayed by fear, by shame, by pride, by anxiety. And in that state, they can act cowardly or selfishly or greedily. The kinds of acts that knock the wind out of us and make us say, like the songwriter of Psalm 116 in the Bible, “all men are liars.”


And that’s our answer. We are, most all of us, susceptible to the influence of fear and pride. Fear and pride introduce something like a quantum uncertainty into the human equation. Meaning even “good” people (not that that’s a valid category, but it’s a term we often use) can make choices that don’t serve the interests of the good.

Let’s go back to “Golden Balls.”

Nick had “good” intentions all along. He wanted to share the money. We know that because he split, when he had every reason to think he’d be able to walk away with all of it if he stole. But he knew the only way to ensure a split from Ibrahim was to find a way to force him to split. Why? Because there is no way to know what kind of influence fear or pride might play on Ibrahim in that moment. So Nick announces, in no uncertain terms, that he was going to play the “steal” ball. He announced, essentially, that he was making the decision fear or pride would normally cause someone to make. It was so startling and unexpected that Ibrahim spent all of his energy having to decide if he wanted to play the “steal” ball and walk away with nothing (and possibly look spiteful and vindictive), or play the “split” ball and have a shot at getting half the money after Nick won it all, hoping against hope that the good would intrude on Nick’s pride.

We know, of course, which choice he made. But we feel conflicted about it. Even though it worked out well for him, something in us is unsettled. I think it’s because what he was trusting was Nick’s “badness” (which, as it turns out, wasn’t actually the case). And it’s because we feel like Ibrahim lost some of his essential freedom in the bargain. Nick took the powerful position right from the get go, by announcing his intentions and his lack of concern about losing all the money, and Ibrahim was left to respond to him, in a relatively weak negotiating position. One tidbit you may not know, because of how the clip was edited for TV, is that Ibrahim was so upset about being in that weak position that he argued with Nick for 45 minutes before they were finally forced to pick balls. In other words, even though it worked out well for Ibrahim, it felt a little icky, a little coerced along the way.

Sometimes, in our religious lives, it can feel like we have to do that sort of thing with trusting God. Like he’s got all the power and we sort of have a choice to trust him or not, but really, it’s not a good choice. And I think that’s because of how those of us with authority in religious settings have tried to lay out the case for trusting God and his goodness. For example, how many people have chosen a life of faith out of fear of hell rather than a love of heaven? How many have chosen to live religiously approved lives as a form of disaster insurance rather than a risk-it-all investment in the dawning of Love’s glorious new age? And maybe we’ve done that with good intentions, because we’ve wanted to help move people towards “good” decisions, but we’ve done it in un-Jesus-like ways. And if that’s the way you’ve entered into faith, you maybe feel a little like Ibrahim. Happy you’re walking away with some money, but exhausted for the effort it took. And not entirely sure what to make of this guy you had to deal with to get it.

Next week, I’m going to tell you a little of the behind the scenes of that Golden Balls episode. About what was going on in each of their minds, and about what happens in our minds when we are faced with questions about trusting someone.

And we’re going to look at Jesus’ goodness in light of this. At how Jesus’ goodness is on a completely different level. At how he flips the tables in the power game of trust, so that aren’t left with doubts about his intentions or about his weaknesses that might cause us to be left holding the “split” ball and none of the goods. So that we aren’t left thinking the “steal” ball is our safest option. So that we operate out of hard-to-believe, pinch-me-I’m-dreaming freedom in our decisions to take mini-leaps of faith in him, without any arm twisting or ickiness whatsoever. So that what we have on the other side is exhilaration, not exhaustion.

That’s next week. For now, some practical suggestions to get started in the Leap of Faith journey. All of them are outlined in the Leap of Faith User Manual you should have in your hands or in digital form somewhere.


1. A Big Ask

2. Your 6: Praying for them & blowing some money or time on them

3. Family Prayers

4. Daily Devotions: Getting Closer & More Connected