Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Phony Disguises

"Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves" (Matthew 7:15).

About 650 BC, Aesop told a story that went like this. "There was once a Wolf who wanted to disguise his appearance in order to secure food more easily. Wearing a discarded sheep skin he pastured with the flock deceiving the shepherd by his costume. In the evening it so happened that he was shut up by the shepherd in the fold; the gate was closed, and the entrance made thoroughly secure. But the shepherd, returning to the fold during the night to obtain meat for the next day mistakenly caught the Wolf instead of a sheep, and killed him instantly.” Could Jesus have been told that popular fable 600 years later? It's quite possible.

What we know for certain is that for Jesus, the wolf is the false prophet or teacher who seeks to ravage the flock, which is his church. He looks like a sheep outwardly, but he’s a wolf inwardly. In Aesop’s fable, the sheep don’t recognize the wolf; nor does the shepherd. On the other hand Jesus the Good Shepherd does recognize the wolf; and he gives us 4 tests to help us see through his phony disguise, even if we are the one’s wearing it.

The first test is the GATE test. In Matthew 7: 13-14, Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate”; and again in John 10:9, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” It has been the confession of the Church for 2000 years that Jesus Christ is the narrow gate that leads to peace with God and eternal life…not just one gate among several equally good options. There are many gods and spiritual leaders that are venerated in this world. So choose your god wisely! Your god may be money.…technology… your children… your reputation. Your god may be science or scientology. It may be fear. It may be the wisdom of a modern day guru. Choose your god wisely.

I for one am hungry for a God who cares about the suffering of this world, a God who offers me a compelling way to live my life, and a God who confronts the problem of death. Now I could see that God cared about suffering when I realized that God himself suffered on the cross and bore the penalty of my sin in Jesus Christ. I found a compelling model for living in the person of Jesus who showed me how to live life as it was meant to be lived; and, finally, I found in Jesus the hope of eternal life when he rose from the dead – a fact attested to by his followers to their deaths.

Choose your god wisely. There’s a ride at Disneyland that has over a thousand different variations (Indiana Jones & the Temple of the Forbidden Eye). At the beginning of the ride, you choose which portal you will pass through; and the mantra you hear over and over again is “Choose Wisely.” But although the details are different the outcome is always the same. There is a popular philosophy that sees all religions in much the same way. That worldview is like a sheepskin; it feels nice and warm and cozy, but it is ultimately harmful. Jesus tells us that he alone is the gate that leads to the Father (Rom. 6:23). To believers, I say this: Never be afraid to affirm the Lordship of Jesus Christ above all as if you had to protect Jesus (or your faith) from being judgmental or unmerciful. Jesus can take care of himself (thank you very much)…and if we Christians can’t trust Jesus with all those who do not know or follow him yet, who can we trust? He is Lord; He is just; and He is good!

The second test is the ROAD test: Do we affirm the life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us? Do we teach people to follow Jesus’ way of life and obey his commands or to ignore them? Jesus says, "the road is hard that leads to life and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7: 14); and again, "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' and do not do what I say?" (Luke 6:46). Historically, churches have stressed either the call to personal faith in Christ, or social righteousness in his name; but the reality is that Jesus calls us to both. He calls us to believe in him, know his word, and fellowship with his people. But he also calls us to the street; to reconcile with enemies; to speak the truth in love, to guard and protect sexual purity, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked; serve God instead of money; and to let our good works shine like a light so that others might see them and glorify God.

Last week, at a discussion forum focused on erradicating the evil of human trafficking, I heard a pastor involved in rescuing, sheltering, equipping, and mainstreaming children who have been victims of child trafficking and sexual abuse (truly God's work!) Someone from the audience asked him this question: “Where is God in all this?” (perhaps because he was the only clergyman on the panel). His gentle but firm response was, “Where are you?” He was being a faithful prophet…he was encouraging the people around him to take Jesus’ commands seriously, to walk the walk of a disciple. As I thought about this question, others surfaced as well. Where is God when you discover that children are being abused in your apartment complex or on the other side of the world? Where is God when your work associate is struggling with her marriage? Where is God when your neighbor finds out he has a brain tumor? Where is God when a friend at school says that she has no hope and wants to end her life?

Where is God? God is at work! Where is God at work? Philip. 2:12 says that “God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God likes people, and his intention is that his people be involved in addressing the pain, spiritual confusion, and injustices of this world for the sake of his kingdom. If someone tells you otherwise…he’s sporting sheepskin. The truth of the gospel is deeply personal…and deeply practical; a glorious word, and a world changing deed! “Dear children, let us not love with word or tongue, but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3: 17-18).

The third test is the FRUIT test. I can teach people to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. I can teach people to do the right thing all day long...but the acid test as far as Jesus is concerned is personal integrity, “Do I practice what I preach; do I exhibit the fruit of the Spirit in my own life?

Jesus says that “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” and that “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matthew 7: 17-18). His meaning is crystal clear. If we are following Jesus then there will be fruit…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; and if there is no fruit…we will be accountable to God’s judgment for that. Now let me say this, if you are a spiritual leader and alarmed when you read these words of Jesus; if you wonder whether you are really living out what you teach or proclaim to others, that's a good sign. The mere fact that you are alarmed and want to grow in the Spirit’s fruit is a sign that Christ’s Spirit is at work in you. None of us has arrived. One of the signs that we are drawing closer to Jesus is an increased awareness of our own sin and unworthiness; and our need of his grace. BUT, having said that, I must also go on to say this....

I do not honor Jesus’ words here…if I offer only consolation and no warning. To those who profess to be pastors or teachers or spiritual leaders but who do not show anything of the grace of Christ, and who do not really want in their hearts to be meek, forgiving, loving, or generous to those in need; but who are stingy, habitually unforgiving, self-righteous or arrogant, or embarrassed to be known as his disciple; Jesus would say that such persons should not be confident that they are converted. And so the prayer I’ve been praying a lot lately is, “Jesus, shine your light in me and in your church. Remove the sheepkin of hypocrisy, and reveal the places that there needs to be true conversion and repentance, real growth and a changed heart."

The fourth and final test that Jesus gives us here for genuine faith and trust in him is what we may call the STORM test: That is, has this person’s faith been storm-tested and revealed to be founded on the truth of God’s word. In Matthew 7: 24-27, Jesus says that the wind will blow and the rain will come, but that the house built on the solid rock of his word will stand…the house built on the sand of our own pathetic efforts and false gods will not. The fourth acid test of the spiritual leader is that he or she has found the word of Christ to be the solid foundation of his/her life in the midst of suffering and hardship.

In his book, Authentic Faith, Gary Thomas writes about the former editor of HomeLife magazine, Jon Walker whose unborn child was diagnosed with a fatal birth defect. Though the doctor recommended abortion, they decided to have the child anyway. The doctor was stunned. He was a confessing nihilist, believing that everything is random, that life is chance and that the Walkers just got “a bad roll of the dice.” Nevertheless, they believed that if Jeremy was only going to have 40 weeks in the womb to live…they were going to celebrate those 40 weeks as a gift from God.

Jon is not pollyanna about life…he admits very openly that the past 16 years have been difficult and on some days he wonders “why God keeps asking us to walk this road. It doesn’t appear fair.” After his baby died (the fourth child that they lost) Jon had to have an emergency gall bladder surgery, a hernia repair, and an operation on his writing hand – all in the same year! Jon wrote later, “I have to tell you that I’m not at all defeated by these events. In fact, I’ve … learned that because God is in me, He’s also in the middle of the mess, and I’ve learned that the mess is there to show me where I’m hanging my hope.”

Everyone suffers…but the man or woman of God knows that the mess shows us where we’re hanging our hope; therefore we reject the ridiculous teaching that says the true believer is guaranteed a pain-free life of prosperity and ease; and instead we pick up our cross with everybody else and follow the crucified and risen Lord into the mess of this world, doing his works and proclaiming his words with grace, compassion, and healing power!

One of the most memorable things Lisa and I saw in the Colorado Rockies two months ago was the spectacular big horn sheep. Let me tell you, wolves are impressive…but nothing beats a Rocky Mountain bighorn; weighing up to 300 lbs; living in large herds, able to climb incredibly steep terrain and more than able to defend itself with its large curved horns. But what’s amazing is that the bighorn was in danger of extinction not more than 70 years ago due to overhunting and exposure to the diseases of domesticated sheep. But the bighorn has made a comeback because the boy scouts and others made a concerted effort to protect it.

Friends, I believe that our nature is to be strong and resilient in Christ like the bighorn…it’s in our nature; but it’s foolish to think that we are invulnerable to attack either from without or from within. And so we boldly pray, "Jesus, protect your sheep by helping us see through the wolf's phony disguse, even if we are the one's wearing it; any fear of naming you as the world's one true Lord and Savior; any hesitation to encourage others to obey your commands; any failure to practice what we preach; any reluctance to trust your word in the midst of the trials we are going through right now. We trust you to do what's best, for you're the Good Shepherd, who says, 'I know my sheep and my sheep know me, and no one is able to snatch them out of my hand.'"

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