I love to watch the TV show Oddities, which follows the Obscura Antiques & Oddities store in Manhattan. The store specializes in unique and downright bizarre merchandise: Art made out of nail clippings … Teddy bears made of belly button lint … Paintings made entirely out of human hair … Taxidermy fighting cats …Mummified cats … Exploded human skulls … Electric chairs. Weird stuff that folks with quirky tastes find perfectly wonderful … And shell out lots of money to obtain.

Based on the way that Christians tend to describe John the Baptist, you’d think that he’d fit right in as an “oddity” … on the same shelf with teddy bears made of belly button lint. Let’s face it … most sermons and Bible studies on John the Baptist tend to start with: “That John the Baptist was one seriously weird dude!” Case in point, Mark Driscoll’s Vintage Jesus study describes John the Baptist as Jesus’ home school cousin complete with an afro and jedi robes. Seriously. It seems you can’t have a sermon or Bible Study on John without beginning with one of the following jokes:

  1. You wouldn’t bring John the Baptist home to have dinner your mother!
  2. John the Baptist is so crazy he makes pi seems rational.
  3. Couldn’t you just picture all those bug legs getting stuck in John’s teeth?!?
  4. I bet that camel hair isn’t itchy as my 3-piece polyester suit.

Based on the way that we tend to describe John the Baptist, you would think that Clark Griswald’s Cousin Eddie was based on the life of John. And – yes – I’ve been guilty of describing John as being one straightjacket away from the looney bin in the past. And I need to repent of it.

Haven’t we done a disservice to focus so much on John’s more “eccentric” aspects? Who is to say what is “normal,” “eccentric” or “weird” in the eyes of God anyway?

God called plenty of Old Testament prophets to do out-of-the ordinary stuff and they aren’t automatically slapped with the “weird” label. Take Ezekiel for example. In Ezekiel 4, God called the prophet to lie on his side for 390 days and cook with human poop. Another case in point: God called Hosea to marry a prostitute and give his three children offensive names (who wouldn’t want to name their child “No More Mercy” or “Not My People”). How about Jeremiah? … God told Jeremiah to walk around with a yoke meant for two large oxen. Jonah? … You know the bit about the large fish. Daniel and Zechariah had some pretty trippy visions.

Yes … God often called His prophets to do extreme things to demonstrate to hard-hearted, unrepentant people that they needed to repent and turn to God. Sharp tools are often needed to pierce hard hearts. And John was one of God’s sharp (and effective) tools.

There is also practical motivation behind why John did the things that he did. Namely that John was impoverished and lived off the land. Being an itinerant mega church preacher didn’t make much money in John’s time. John was serious about preaching a message of repentance to the nation of Israel and preparing the way for the Messiah and His kingdom. That didn’t leave much time for that bi-vocational plumbing career. So John (and probably John’s followers) did what they needed to do to survive. When you’re doing what it takes to survive, camel hair clothes might be delightful and locusts might be delicious. To this point, many modern bedouins who live where John preached still eat locusts as a common cuisine. When you’re hungry, you eat what’s available.

If anything, John’s diet and personal habits reflected his dedication to the kingdom of God. His personal needs took a backseat to the elevation of God’s glory. Unfortunately, living in poverty and forsaking worldly possessions for the sake of God’s calling also seems strange to many Christians.

Our view of what it means to follow Christ has become way too safe and average. In Luke 9:23, Jesus describes the discipleship process as follows: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” We’ve minimized the punch of this verse. The cross was one of the most horrific means of execution and torture ever devised. Taking up one’s cross means a willingness to deny one’s personal needs and suffer as Christ suffered. The language of discipleship is always couched in the language of servitude and sacrifice for the sake of Jesus. Instead, we throw around phrases like “everyone’s got their cross to bear” (which is not true) and identify our minor personal issues (ranging from tolerating difficult people to sitting through boring worship services) as sacrifices for the calling of Christ.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we’ve lost all connection to having an extraordinary faith. In fact, we’ve lowered the bar as far as what is extraordinary. I recently read a church growth article where the suggestion that church members actually take the time to greet one visitor in a worship service was proclaimed as a “radical idea.” What is the standard for being “radical”? When “doing something crazy for God” now means posting “I love Jesus!” on Facebook, then the concepts of “crazy” and “normal” in our church culture have seriously gotten out of hand. The sad fact is that everyone’s up for “doing something crazy for God” when sacrifice isn’t really required. When the sign-up sheet for living in abject poverty in a different culture for the sake of Jesus goes around in church, very few people are signing up anymore.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that everyone is called to preach or be a missionary. Not everyone is called to vocational ministry. What I’m saying is this: The standard for attempting extraordinary things for God with extraordinary faith needs to be raised from the current dregs of mediocrity. In the words of the great Baptist missionary William Carey, we need more Christians willing to “expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”

Have you ever passed up the “weird” to keep being “normal”? I certainly have. Back in college, I had the opportunity to join a Christian club. I was excited about the potential for fellowship with this group … Until I learned that a requirement of the club was going to door-to-door in my dorm to share with people about Jesus. When I found that out, I went incommunicado with the club. I avoided the club members like they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They’re probably still wondering why I never showed up to the meetings. But my fear was being perceived as “abnormal” or “weird” by my peers. I let my desire to fit in overwhelm my desire to be obedient Christ. As I reflect back on this event, I’m sorrowful in thinking about who didn’t hear about Jesus because I was merely worried about being “normal.”

John’s lifestyle wasn’t “weird” … It reflected his willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom of God. It should be criminal to label someone who is willing to sacrifice everything for Jesus as a nutcase! To follow Christ means that His needs are greater than my needs, His desires are greater than my desire and His plans are greater than my plans. To follow Christ means minimizing us and maximizing the glory of God. To follow Christ means taking up your cross and imitating our Savior … Even if it means we surrender our lives.

Maybe John the Baptist – this guy who sacrificed it all for the Messiah – would look at us in our Starbucks-friendly, rock and roll driven, theatre seating, 10-minute message, comfy worship services and say: “You guys are the weird ones.”

Stop trying to be so normal and do something weird for Jesus.


Does Jesus Hate Religion?

The greatest oversimplification of the Christian faith in our time is as follows: “Jesus came to abolish religion.” Or “Jesus hates religion.” Or “Jesus wants a relationship and not religion.” It’s an argument that has been somewhat dear to the center of my convictions, because it was one of the dominant themes of my high school Young Life club – where I got saved. But is the argument valid?

It’s a game of semantics really.

In the first place, what does the word “religion” actually mean? Webster’s Dictionary (my nemesis from high school English class) defines the word “religion” as “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices” or “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” When we say that Jesus hates religion, are we saying that Jesus is opposed to having any personal convictions or beliefs? … Are we saying that Jesus could have penned the song “Imagine” by John Lennon with its talk of no heaven, hell or religion? … Are we saying that Jesus had no ardor (meaning strident energy or seal … not to be confused with the love of trees) or faith? … Surely the second person of the Trinity didn’t go through all the trouble to take on human flesh to declare to His creation: “Do whatever you wish … Believe whatever you wish … It’s all cool with me.”

In contrast, some pastors are openly channeling Martin Luther when they discuss “relationship vs. religion.” This form of the attack on “religion” comes from a well-intentioned and even Biblical position. While most religious systems throughout the world base salvation or enlightenment on personal works or achievements, the message of Jesus Christ bases salvation on God’s grace alone through faith alone. Ephesians 2:8 (ESV) states: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Instead of trying to ascend to heaven to get to God, God descends from heaven to rescue us. From the Garden of Eden onward, our God desires for us to have a relationship with Him and not just hollow acts of devotion. Jesus often attacked the Pharisees for this point. The Pharisees would tithe out of their spice racks but would fail to have compassion on the marginalized members of their society. The Pharisees looked good in the eyes of the applauding public but ultimately their hearts were deceitful and unchanged. So in that Reformation-esque frame of reference of “faith vs. works,” God does desire relationship and not empty religious actions.

From this standpoint, I can imagine that the “religion vs. relationship” argument probably flourishes in many churches because it’s simple, catchy and both words begin with the letter “R.” As a seminary trained Southern Baptist minister, I can vouch that pastors are suckers for alliteration.

Unfortunately, the “religion vs. relationship” argument has been hijacked to connote something other than “faith vs. works.” Sometimes words wind up taking on new meanings like when Michael Jackson tried to convince us that “bad” meant “good” back in the 1980s (I never bought it). Similarly, “religion” has become a hipster code word for the traditional, organized church. To this end, the “relationship vs. religion” argument channels many people’s different frustrations into a focused attack against traditional, organized church. If all God wants is just to hang out with people, then why do we need all these multi-million dollar church facilities and over-paid ministers anyway? For that matter, why do I need to bother committing to a church at all if I can commune with God in my home in my PJs or at Starbucks with some hot java? To hear many people now describe the “religion vs. relationship” argument, you’d think that Jesus wanted everybody to have an unstructured quiet time in a meadow followed by a drum circle and meditative emo acoustic worship in minor keys. Then go have a torch-carrying mob burn down every mega-church like a scene from the movie “Frankenstein.”

For this reason, the word “religious” has gotten a bad reputation because it’s also commonly used as a label for over-zealous religious types. No one wants to be “religious” anymore. It’s about as cool as “mom jeans.” Being “religious” connotes that you’re a bike helmet wearing, door-knocking Mormon missionary. And no one wants to be the guy who interrupts another family’s dinner. It’s so much more hip to be “spiritual.” If you’re “spiritual,” you’re the culturally enlightened guy who drinks lattés, carries a man purse, rocks a deep-V and at some point in his life has worn a “soul patch.” The “spiritual” guy has never knocked on anyone’s door to share his faith … He’s got dinner reservations at the Thai-Ethiopian restaurant down the street anyway.

But there’s another very extraordinarily raw nerve at work as well: Religious hypocrisy. Many of us grew up in a more traditional church worship style where eccentric conventions straight out of “Footloose” were commonplace (“Hey you! Stop dancing, cut your hair, take out your earrings and stop listening to the back-masked homicidal messages in the Judas Priest record!”). Many will read the gospel accounts of the Pharisees and immediately think of hypocritical members of past churches: The pastor who ran off to Florida with his 20-year old secretary … The church treasurer that systematically stole millions from the church budget over a period of years … The Sunday School teacher that went through an ugly nuclear-level divorce … The teens that sang “Lord I Lift Your Name On High” at Wednesday youth group and went to the drunken orgy on Friday night. In church, we are often falsely taught to view our church leaders as Superman, who later engender our grave disappointment when they cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound. If it were true that Jesus hated religion (and vis-à-vis church), then it gives license to dump the hypocrisy and sheer disappointment often found in the organized church.

For those vigorously pushing back against the organized church with the argument that “Jesus hates religion,” I understand what it’s like to be disappointed in the church … I understand what it feels like to be disconnected to a particular style of worship … I understand what it’s like to feel handcuffed by church tradition … I understand that the church sometimes seems meandering and unfocused. But Jesus does not share your animosity towards the church. Jesus does not hate His church. The church is the beloved bride of Christ, for whom He shed His precious blood, and is His appointed means of accomplishing His mission of sharing His gospel into the world.

But here’s the ultimate point: Jesus never stated that his mission was to abolish religion. Period. Not in the Bible. Furthermore, Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, faithfully observed the practices of the Jewish faith, participated in all of the Jewish festivals, had core convictions about His worldview and said this statement about His religion: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20 ESV)

Yes … Jesus was “religious” in every lexical sense of the word:

  • Jesus had core convictions and beliefs. The Sermon on the Mount and the parables tell us the worldview of the God who created the universe then came into flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus was universally considered to be a Rabbi that sought to share His conviction with others. People desired to pack like sardines into houses to sit and listen at Jesus’ feet.
  • Jesus had faith and urged His disciples to have faith. The God who calms the storms and walks on the water urges His disciples to step out of the boat in faith as well.
  • Jesus had ardor and zeal for His beliefs. We find out that Jesus is pretty skilled with a whip when He chases the moneychangers out of the Temple. Jesus compares the Pharisees to decorated graves and openly mocks their attempts at hollow piety. When Peter refused to accept Jesus’ mission to die on the cross, He called him Satan. Jesus wept over and had compassion for the lost and the perishing. Jesus was not a robot.
  • Jesus and His disciples participated in organized religious celebrations. The Gospels record Jesus participating in and fulfilling nearly every major Jewish religious observance.
  • Jesus liked hanging out in religious establishments. Even at age 12, Jesus could be found teaching at the Temple. It was His Father’s house! Not only did Jesus teach in private homes, mountainsides and seasides, He taught in the synagogues and the Temple frequently.

On top of all of this, James – the brother of Jesus – goes on to describe in James 1:26-27 that there is false religion and true religion. And God the Father accepts true religion. God the Father does not reject all religion.

In summary, the argument of “Jesus hates religion” fails simply because it is imprecise and unclear. In using the word “religion,” does it mean that Jesus hates conviction and belief? Religious works? Traditional church? Over-zealous religious types? Hypocrisy? The correct answers are no, depends (see James 2:14-17), no, no and absolutely, but – at the end of the day – it all winds up being as clear as mud. Let’s all resolve to be more precise in our theological language, because the gospel is at stake.Image

The 2012 No Smack Talk Challenge

I bet you couldn’t guess what my New Year’s Resolution is. No … it’s not somehow contorting and twisting our pre-lit Christmas tree back into its original box (my wife already did that … thanks, honey!). No … It’s not playing another off-the-hook game of Mouse Trap with my daughter. No … It’s not seeing the reunited Van Halen in concert in 2012 (Sammy Hagar is a better lead singer for Van Halen than David Lee Roth … discuss). That right … Getting back to blogging and doing it consistently.

But here’s the deal: The purpose of the blog is to encourage my church as well as other Christ-followers and share how Jesus continues to work in my life. If you’re reading this blog in the hopes of starting some esoteric theological debate with a real, live pastor, go to another website. There’s plenty of websites clogging the Internet for folks who want to strictly argue for arguments’ sake about the merits of neo-Calvinism or mid-tribulation, pre-wrath, postmodern, post-partum, pre-millenniallism (if that’s what you’re into).

Everybody ready for blog #1? OK … Here we go …

It’s already three days past New Years so probably most of you have already given up on your New Year’s Resolutions by now. The gym is so overrated anyway. So here’s a new resolution for 2012 that I want to challenge you to do with me this year.

I’ve been convicted lately about the number of New Testament passages about wholesome speech and thinking about how they apply to social media. Normally, most of us think about speech and immediately think about the words that come out of our mouths. But vocal speech is just one form of communication that we use. Sign language, facial expressions and the offensive gesture someone made to the driver who cut him off on the Interstate are also communication (yes … I saw you). Most importantly, our tweets, status updates, likes and comments are just another form of communication spoken into the somewhat empty void of cyberspace.

The source of bad communication is our rotten hearts. In Matthew 12:34, Jesus states: “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” In other words, rotten communication comes from a rotten heart. If social media is just another form of speech or communication, then couldn’t we also hear Jesus also saying: “Out of the abundance of the heart, your fingers tweet.” The first step to better communication is having a relationship with Jesus Christ and having Him change your heart and life. Hopefully you’ve taken that step. If not, contact me at the church … I’d love to share with you how Jesus can change your heart.

To those Christ-followers seeking to better imitate Christ, let me offer to you a unique challenge for 2012. Let’s try to transform our use of social media to be more Christ-like this year. We’re going to do it by applying several Bible verses about speech to our use of social media:

1.     Stop The Smack: Ephesians 4:29 begins, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths …” So many status updates and tweets sound like smack talk from a really bad WWE match. For example … “That guy at Wal-Mart was such an irrational jerk” … “So sick and tired of stupid people that drive so slow” … “Someday someone will get you for all the wrong you’ve done to me. It’s karma! One day you’ll have to meet Jesus!” Would Jesus tear others down to make Himself look better? (Or for that matter, would Jesus really endorse karma or revenge?)

The Challenge #1: Stop all posts or status updates that insult or tear others down. Don’t encourage others to do the same, so don’t press the “like” button on any posts or status updates that insult or tear others down.

2.     Encourage Others: Have you noticed how many verses talk about building up other believers through encouragement? Check out the aforementioned Ephesians 4:29 then proceed to Romans 14:19, Romans 15:2 and 1 Thessalonians 5:11. I’ll wait … Look them up …

The Challenge #2: Write an e-mail, message or status update of encouragement to others on a weekly basis.

3.     Give Thanks Instead of Cussing: Ephesians 5:4 states, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” This is a serious problem for many of us who remember using a “swear jar” back in college. The sophomoric communal nature of social media somehow corrupts us into sinking back into the darkness instead rejoicing in the light of Christ. We wind up sharing and liking that crude joke or image on Facebook. We cuss in text-speak. (Are you really fooling anyone by typing the abbreviated “wtf” or “btfu” instead of the full words?) Most importantly, hours and weeks of our limited time are wasted and procrastinated instead of giving glory back to God.

The Challenge #3: Write a post or status update of thanks to God on a weekly basis. Think about whether Jesus Christ and His church are edified by a post or status update before you type it, share it or like it.

4.     Stop Grumbling: Here’s the big, bad wolf of all social media problems for believers. Philippians 2:14 states, “Do all things without grumbling or questioning.” The reprimand for believers to quit “grumbling” again shows up again in James 5:9 and 1 Peter 4:9. The Greek word for “grumbling” means to murmur or mutter in a form of secret debate. Grumbling means to secretly complain to whoever will listen about your issues instead of directly speaking to the source of your issues. In John 6:61, the disciples “grumble” secretly about Jesus instead of directly talking to Jesus about their disagreement. The culture of social media practically thrives upon grumbling, and many believers fall into this trap. For example … “People should learn how to drive better” … “That woman in the grocery store should learn how to manage her kids” … “My co-workers are so annoying” … “My life stinks so bad right now.” Many grumblers flock to social media to get a quick dose of sympathy/empathy, BUT … grumbling does not address the source of your issues and does nada to further the cause of Christ. Grumbling may make you emotionally feel better in the short run but doesn’t solve any of your problems in the long run.

The Challenge #4: Quit using Facebook and Twitter as sounding boards for grumbling. If you’ve got a problem with someone, speak the truth in love directly to that person without getting other random people involved throughout the Internet.

I hope you’ll take this four-part challenge with me this year (and beyond). If you’re interested in taking this challenge, please contact me to let me know. I’d love to keep you accountable as you also hold me accountable. Let’s redeem Facebook and Twitter (and myspace if you’ve mysteriously been caught in some sort of black hole / time warp thing back to 2005) to the cause of Christ this year!

By His grace alone,

Pastor Matt Higgins