Thirty minutes from https://twitter.com/WelshRev at https://www.facebook.com/TyrBugail for https://www.facebook.com/Grace.Wales.online , https://welshrev.blogspot.com/and https://yGRWP.com on issues of lifestyle.
We’re looking in the run-up to Christmas this year at how the actual Christ of Christmas meets OUR people’s need.
They don’t think He does.
(They can’t CREDIT that He might!)
But the things they are crying out for in the depths of their hearts are things that Jesus makes thorough and comprehensive provision for, for those who follow Him.
And today we’ve come to the deep-seated human desire to find the good life, the ethical life, the right life.
Now before you succumb to the view that I’ve lost the plot because you’re convinced people have no desire for such a thing … how do you explain the moralism of this virtue signalling age, it’s deep desire to ethicise care for the planet, its passionate support for things like Children in Need?
You see, it seems that there IS some vestige of the image of God left in humanity that – however badly marred – still wants to do the right thing and be seen to do so.
Time and again we hear converts to Islam from Western secular backgrounds highlighting this issue in their praise for Islam.
And so just as in the amoral … often immoral … culture of the Roman Empire in the first century AD (when the New Testament church sprang into life) we are seeing in our time in a significant group of people a revulsion with and a rejection of immoral, exploitative and ill-disciplined living.
Of course, there were significant numbers of Greek and Roman background women who were at first attracted to Judaism’s ethical monotheism because of how their culture treated them.
They were attracted to ‘the Way’ it proposed for living.
And today, too, we see something of the same sort of thing.
In Dan Strange’s analysis of the things that (in his words) make faith in Christ ‘magnetic’ there’s a phenomenon he calls the desire for a norm … a pattern of accepted and acceptable behaviour to live by.
“This second magnetic point is called norm and asks whether there is a way to live - and how we know what that is.” (Strange, p. 44).
If you want an ‘advent’ book I really do suggest reading Dan Strange’s ‘Making Faith Magnetic’ … it has a great analysis of what people are crying out for, but would be surprised to discover is to be found in the life and ministry of the actual Christ of Christmas.
And that’s why this year in the run-up to Christmas we’re doing this little series on our culture’s fundamental ‘felt needs’ and how they are met in the Christ of Christmas.
This week it’s the basic powerful desire for a workable standard or ‘Norm’ that we can live by.
In our culture and across the world, social media whips up and magnifies the norm … the standard or the way that life ‘OUGHT’ to be.
But today it is not enough to be virtuous, we want to be SEEN to be virtuous.
Strange says “Therefore I would argue that our Western post-Christian culture seems to be wrestling with this magnetic point more than ever, even though it doesn’t realise it.”
There’s a clash between ideals of tolerance and the insistence that the beliefs of certain groups are evil and have no place being expressed in today’s society.
“We can’t live with the norm and we can’t live without the norm.”
There are huge contradictions in current thinking here.
We can’t live without accepted standards of behaviour, but we can’t live with those being pointed out to us either in our society because we cannot manage to live by the ethical framework people are crying out for!
On this not being able to live with the norm, or without it, Strange quotes the columnist Rory Sutherlandcomparing ‘safe spaces’ (where dissentient views aren’t tolerated) to quiet carriages on trains.
The rule gets set by the most neurotic person around in both quiet Carriage and Safe Space and like the Quiet Carriage this simply doesn’t work.
Sutherland: “a space which annoys no-one becomes intolerable to everyone.”
And Strange illustrates this from Goth culture: “The appeal of being a Goth lies in not conforming to certain societal norms, but you still want to conform to the rule of the sub-culture, because you need to fit in somewhere.”
Science can’t set ‘the norm’ … morality falls outside the sort of stuff science can measure, observe and talk about!
It deals with the material world.
But what we all realise - and sociology can describe this - is that even lawless hardened criminals expect police to go after the thief when it’s their stuff or their kid’s briefcase or whatever that gets snatched.
Now, the actual Chris of Christmas can do BETTER that this for us.
You see, Romans 1-2 teaches us that everyone has the Law in one way or another, but the issue is we break it and need the Incarnate Christ to be justified … I Romans 3:23.
But we’ll get to that.
So the Bible actually deals with our need for ‘the norm’ or the Way to live, and also addresses the innate human contradiction that we need the norm but then can’t live with it because of what has gone wrong in our human nature.
In fairness, this was prophesied in the Old Testament.
Isaiah 35 foretells the joy of the coming time of redemption:
“Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
8 And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.”
So there’s a poetic celebration of coming deliverance and salvation for the faithful people of God … what interests me most here is that what characterises the time when the people of God will be blessed with a ‘Way’ also characterises much in the ministry of Jesus:
“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.”
What Jesus actually brought was going to characterise the time when the Way was made plain to us …
And the human desire to know post-Eden what the Way that a person should live looks like is added to this great list of blessings at that time …
“And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.”
We could go on about the Way in Isaiah, but really we need to focus not there but on the fulfilment of this prophecy in Jesus.
Living with ‘the norm’ is fraught with issues …
There are questions about the nature of the norm.
Where do these rules come from? Who decides? If we are going to try to decide them by consensus, can we ever have rules and standards that are clear and obvious for everyone?
Then there are questions about LIVING with the norm.
How do I resolve my desire to express myself with my craving to ‘fit in’?
And what happens when others don’t live up to my standards (or I to theirs!)?
The upshot is that living with norm CAN throw up some undesirable consequences.
It can be a breeding ground for pride … we seem to need to feel good about ourselves by feeling ‘bad’ about somebody else!
It can be very tiring … being virtuous is hard enough, but feeling the need to be SEEN to be virtuous too gets exhausting!
It can be the source of significant anxiety, too … I can get very fearful of falling foul of ‘the standard’ and having people judge me.
And of course living with a ‘norm’ clashes with the new (alleged) morality of ‘tolerance’.
And yet, Jesus has at the focal point of His ministry the portrayal and promotion of a ‘norm’.
Jesus as the fulfilment of the Norm
It is something from the Old Testament that He doesn’t erase but fulfils … and in fulfilling it He subverts it to cover the objections we’ve just been raising - that our culture raises - to living with a behavioural norm.
More than that, Jesus INSISTS on people living with HIS norm … and entering into the liberty we were made for.
His norm is in scripture called ‘the Way’.
• The Way in the Gospels
Jesus’s disciples have been following Him around learning from Him alongside the events of everyday life for about three years by this point, learning from Him the way rabbinical disciple learned from their rabbi.
But now in John 14 vv. 5-6 Jesus begins to prepare them for a time when He will go away and leave them to get on with following Him in his absence.
He says … I am going away.
Naturally enough, the disciples didn’t like the sound of that and it was the unsure, confidence-lacking member of the group that spoke up on this occasion:
“Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Thomas is unsettled and he is taking Jesus very literally here …
Jesus has said ‘You know the way to where I am going’ meaning that the life of faith and discipleship which they have learned from Him over the last three years is the way to follow Jesus into Glory.
Thomas … shaken at the idea that Jesus is going away … is thinking literally of maps and route-finding!
But against that background Jesus make the spiritual point He is aiming at absolutely clear … almost in an aside from the track His conversation has been following but it really sums up in a sentence what He’s been teaching them about following Him as His disciple over the course of the last three years!
You want to know the Way?
I am the Way, He says.
Now that taps into a strong theme in Old Testament Messianic prophecy.
Jesus is the Way … the Greek word is ὁδός (hodos) 'road'
The word means road or path.
It’s a general term for a thoroughfare to get from one place to another; by extension then it came to mean: way, manner of life. “The Way" is a term for the Christian lifestyle which carried over into the language used in the New Testament Church to describe the life of faith.
Now this is really important because the whole language of discipleship in the Gospels is about following Jesus in the Way.
• The Gospel invitation - join me on the Way
From the very beginning of Jesus earthly ministry His message was an invitation to join Him on the Way.
In fact, it was MORE than an invitation.
It was a proclamation.
Along with the general command to repent and believe the Good News went a call to individuals to express that by following Him in the Way.
• The prototypical proclamation Mark 1:14-15
“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Now, this John was the one who had been sent to fulfil the prophecy of Malachi 3:1 and of Isaiah 40:3 as the one who would prepare the WAY for the Lord Who would come and redeem His people.
And when THAT John was put in prison … his ministry of preparing the way for the Lord (incidentally in Isaiah 40:3 it is specifically our GOD that is having the way prepared for Him, which is interesting) … that ministry of John’s ended and the ministry it was preparing for began.
The Kingdom of God was now at hand … God was walking back amongst mankind after four hundred years of silence from the prophets to call people back under His authority as King - to living out His norm.
Not a set of rules … but a Way of life-giving life - fulfilling while subverting the whole idea of a norm.
From the outset the call was to the individual to walk with God in Christ on His way … but that started with the prototypical proclamation to repent and put your trust in the Good News.
Repenting and trusting in Christ is the gateway to life on the Way!
Which is why Mark immediately shows us next in His account the way Jesus called on individuals to put flesh on the bones of their repentance and faith by setting out to live their lives following Jesus in His Way …
• The prototypical calling Mark 1:16-18
“As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.”
The verb used there in Mark 1:18 to describe the lfe of discipleship is ἀκολουθέω
1) to follow one who precedes, join him as his attendant, accompany him 2) to join one as a disciple, become or be his disciple 2a) side with his party
It is the verb commonly used of what discipleship DOES in the Gospels, particularly in Jesus’s Galilean ministry.
First here in Mark 1 it was Peter and Andrew.
Immediately after them it was James and John the sons of Zebedee:
“Going on a little farther, he saw James, the son of Zebedee, and John his brother in their boat mending nets. 20 Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.”
And in the first century Palestinian model for theological training, this is what it looked like … following your ‘rabbi’ and observing in his daily life the ‘enfleshing’ of the Law and learning how to live it out yourself.
• The pattern of teaching - following Jesus on the Way
That model for theological training … being let in on the life of the one who was teaching you the Word of God … is what we see as Jesus trains the future leaders of His Church.
Twelve of them.
One for each of the tribes of the Old Covenant people of God just as the Twelve were to go on and lead the multi-cultural New Covenant people of God throughout the earth beginning at Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost.
We start seeing this model for spiritual training in 1 Kings 19:21 where Elisha begins to follow the great prophet Elijah:
“So Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the ploughing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his servant.”
And so Elisha began his wanderings with Elijah learning the prophet’s ‘game’ as Elijah modelled it for him day after day in all the challenges, trials, tight corners and miraculous deliverances of what it meant for them to walk humbly but usefully with God.
In that sense, it was life lived on the way back to Eden where humanity found purpose and fulfilment by walking with God in the cool of the day.
And that’s basically what we see the Twelve doing with Jesus … walking, talking, having stuff explained to them in all the twists, turns, dangers and triumphs, challenges and miracles of the Saviour’s ministry.
• The LANGUAGE of discipleship
The very LANGUAGE of discipleship in the Lord’s earthly ministry then is of following, travelling, walking with God (as they observed Him giving evidence that He was doing exactly what you’d EXPECT God to do) walking, following, Jesus leading the way.
Following Him was identical to walking with God.
And after Pentecost, and His return to Glory, this remained the language of Christianity in the age of the Spirit.
• The Way in the New Testament Church
As Luke records for us the life of the early church, ‘the Way’ is still the term for the Christian lifestyle.
We see that notably in Act.9:2 and Acts 19:9
“Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.”
It is only in Acts 11:26 that we are told:
“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.”
Disciples were still called followers of the Way after that … it was the outsiders, the non-unbelievers who called followers of the Way Christians!
But while ‘Christian’ has become the common choice of name for believers, the more accurate ‘followers of the Way’ still has a lot to commend it in theological accuracy.
It’s just that our culture hasn’t retained that term, so just resurrecting the term now without explanation makes it sound like you’ve gone off and joined a cult!
Acts 19:9 demonstrates that the believers at Ephesus … where a great work was done under Paul’s leadership … were also consciously identified as followers of the Way:
“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9 But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.”
So it was a consciousness of being followers of Jesus ‘on the Way’ prophesied by Isaiah that characterised the early church followers of Jesus.
And it was on that Way …following a person not an ethic … that they both found fulfilment of their desire for a Norm, and the subversion of the issues having a Norm brings.
As Dan Strange puts it (p. 110)
“When it comes to the norm, Jesus doesn’t just reveal that there is a standard, he says, I am the standard. Jesus doesn’t throw away the rule book, He is the rule book. Jesus doesn’t carry a set of rolled up blueprints under His arm, He is the blueprint. The norm of which we are aware … is not a set of dry, abstract and impersonal rules but is embodied in a magnetic person … Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5 v 17).”
He IS the norm, do you see?
What we’ve been saying, then, is that Jesus reveals to us God’s norm … He is the norm, “the way, the truth and the life” in the passage we’ve looked at in John 14:6.
Now, in conclusion, we just need to recognise that Jesus is making a big claim here.
What gives Jesus the authority to set the standard He claims to?
Why should we listen to HIS Norm?
An authoritative voice, to be authoritative, needs at least three things.
Do they know or when they speak are they just vibrating some air?
Secondly, are they upright?
Do they have integrity, moral authority to speak and to be telling us what to do?
Thirdly, does this work?
Are they effective? Do their words have power not simply to describe realty but to SHAPE it?
To get our trust, respect and obedience surely all three must be evident?
In Jesus we see Someone Who demonstrates He has all three perfectly.
So as an authority - THE authority - Jesus is to be trusted.
He doesn’t make us chose between either rules or relationship, between love and obedience … whereas in our culture these are pitted against each other, in Jesus they are not because He is worthy of both our love and obedience.
In fact in the Way His love is what motivates and empowers our obedience.
More than this, Jesus is not just the standard but the Saviour.
The follower of Jesus is finding his desire for a faithful norm in his following of the Norm Jesus embodied in Himself … but when it comes to that norm we want but can’t keep, the follower of Jesus doesn’t consider that they obey so they’re accepted, but that they are freely accepted so they obey (you can check that through in Titus 2:11).
Now, as we’ve said before, trying to keep our own norms only breeds hypocrisy … but embracing Jesus as the authority on how to live will foster humility.
Instead of being tortured with anxiety and guilt when we fail to live up to our self-invented norms and fail to live up to our standard, in Christ we can rejoice in His gracious salvation and find a liberating freedom in the forgiveness of all of our failures.
And following Jesus as the Way, truth and life we can pack in all this being obsessed with ourselves and with how other people think of us … because Jesus pays the price of all my sin and guilt and shame at the manner in which I so often fall short of the mark.
As Dan Strange puts it in his very helpful book:
“Jesus is the standard we all want, and Jesus is the Saviour we all need. But here’s the thing: you can’t have one without the other.” (p. 115)
Yet with this root - with Jesus as our standard and our Saviour - we can enjoy a life of security within a norm, and freedom to flourish in it.
And the Christ of Christmas came to bring this very ‘Way’ to us.
And our culture is crying out for that.
Let’s make it our challenge this Christmas to make that plain.