humility

Body of Christ

Romans 12:3-8 (NLT)

Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.

In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.


 

A good dose of humility solves a whole lot of problems.

You don’t hear much about people pursuing humility. If you do hear about it, the pursuit can seem odd, along the lines of monks cloistered from worldly pursuits or Mother Teresa relocating to Calcutta to serve the poor.

As Christians, however, we are called to incorporate humility into our lives. First of all, we try to keep ourselves humble in an effort to imitate Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Despite being God in flesh, the only way Jesus allowed himself to be lifted up was on the cross, a horrible, painful humiliation preceding his death. He lowered himself for our sakes.

Paul was big on the importance of humility as a way to imitate Jesus. In a different letter, one he wrote to the church at Philippi, Paul says, “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.” (Philippians 2:3-5, NLT.)

Humility is a concept for everyone. Across-the-board humility will be an important idea later in Romans, when Paul tells us about Christians relating to government. In the secular world, leaders often pursue titles and fame to lift themselves up. Christian leaders have a different mandate, however: The best of them are servant leaders, people who sacrifice to help others succeed.

In regard to troubling events of the last couple of weeks in our nation: Lord, give our leaders humble servant hearts, hearts aligned with yours. And as I pray, I have one leader in particular in mind.

Paul also seems to be saying that humility walks hand-in-hand with a second virtue, self-awareness. Where are your strengths? Where are your weaknesses? And maybe the most important question: Are you fooling yourself about yourself? He is talking about spiritual and moral strengths and weaknesses, of course.

I have a humorous book titled “Crazy Talk: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms.” Some of it borders on silly, but I like the entry for “Pastor/Priest.” The definition: “A sinner who is so aware of the power of sin in his or her own life that he or she feels called by the Holy Spirit to announce that God loves sinners.”

A call to ministry of any sort is impossible unless the person first becomes acutely aware of his or her own sinfulness. You cannot describe the wonderful flavor of Christ’s living water until you have felt a desperate thirst for forgiveness.

As we search for deeper self-awareness, I should add, once again, how incredibly helpful the Bible is. If we judge ourselves simply by what we consider right and wrong, we are unlikely to make much progress. It’s hard to measure anything with a broken ruler. We need a holy standard.

The climactic moment of the Bible is the story of Jesus, who fulfills the promises of the Old Testament. Jesus, God in flesh, is the holy standard for living.

When performing a little self-assessment, I find it useful to turn to Matthew 5 through 7, The Sermon on the Mount, a summary of Jesus’ teachings about how we are to live our lives as lovers of God and one another.

I’m not talking about doing a simple read-through of what we already know is there. I’m talking about reading it slowly, meditatively, letting each teaching challenge every aspect of our lives. It does not take long for our minds to find humility as we are reminded of our dependence on God for help.

And dependent we are. We cannot save ourselves; that’s why Christ came to die on the cross and save us from sin. On our own, we cannot even respond adequately to Christ’s gift. That’s why the Holy Spirit came after Christ’s ascension to guide us, sustain us and empower us.

An exciting thing happens in the midst of all this humbling self-awareness, though. Despite our inability to measure up, God’s Spirit lifts us up and makes great use of us. The Holy Spirit works among us to assemble the global church into something very much like the body of Christ.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, we now do globally what Jesus did with the limited reach of his body. We are called to lovingly declare the growing presence of the Kingdom of Heaven in this world, helping people find truth and eternal life.

No one person can come anywhere close to carrying the load, certainly not in the global church and not even in a small local church. The work of the church is something we do together, and everyone has a role.

Do you know what your role is? You have been made to do something in this effort. If you’ve joined Luminary United Methodist Church, the Holy Spirit is shaping you for the particular work we are doing in the area of Ten Mile, Tennessee.

Paul gives us just a few of many examples. Some of us have to speak God’s truth directly, inspired as God’s grace flows through Scripture, prayer and worshipful practices. Some of us need to be knowledgeable enough to teach. Some need to have those humble hearts—I think of Stephen in Acts—where acts of service flow naturally into declarations of who Christ is, regardless of the cost to the servant.

If you don’t know your role, there are all sorts of ways to discover it. Often, we explore possibilities with tests or in small groups. Start here: Understand the mission of the church clearly—we offer people a relationship with Christ—and then pray for guidance about your role in that mission.

You also can talk to your pastor. As a pastor, I know for certain part of my role is to help those I serve discern God’s calling.

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What Is Pleasing to God

Luke 18:9-14 (NRSV)

[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”


“God be merciful to me, a sinner!” It is a simple prayer, but it can take a lot of self-awareness to get us to such a place.

In the case of the tax collector, he had to fall low in the eyes of other Jews, and then he had to fully realize what his status meant in relation to God. You may be asking yourself, “Tax collector? What’s wrong with being a tax collector?” Jokes about the IRS aside, being a Jewish tax collector was much different than being an employee of the modern tax system.  In Israel in Jesus’ day, tax collectors were on about the same level in society as prostitutes and lepers.

For all practical purposes, Jewish tax collectors were traitors. They had decided to go to work for the occupying Roman Empire. They had the backing of the Roman army, a lot of flexibility in making assessments, and were known for using their positions to enrich themselves. Being a tax collector was a good way to be rich and hated all at the same time.

Somehow, some way, this particular tax collector in Jesus’ parable had come to regret the man he had become, but his feelings of emptiness and utter rejection were actually to his advantage. God heard his sad, broken, heartfelt prayer and granted him justification, what we might today call salvation.

Contrast the tax collector’s situation with the Pharisee, a legalistically religious man who would have appeared righteous to the world. He pursued God, but he wasn’t meeting God where it mattered, in his mind and heart. Even in his prayers to God, he exalted himself.

Look how holy I am. Look at the good I do. God, when you look at me and compare me to the people nearby, I must stand out! Thanks, God, for making me one of your favorites.

What should be of concern to many of us is that we potentially have more in common with the Pharisee than we do with the tax collector. (If you’re saying, “No, trust me, I’m broken like the tax collector,” at least know that in the upside-down world of salvation, you may be strangely blessed and already way ahead of me in understanding Jesus’ story.)

Those of us who have a veneer of respectability—a title, a position, a public reputation—have to be a little more conscious of our need to surrender to God wholly and fully. We need to seek humility; we need to understand that in the eyes of God, none of us are worthy. To quote Paul in Romans 3, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.”

Short of personal disasters that might wipe out affluence or reputation, we have a more difficult path to open ourselves to God. We have to choose to be vulnerable, a state that normally has very negative connotations.

I first offer you a little exercise in humility. It is no great secret to salvation, but it helps. From time to time, try something you’re not good at doing. I’m practicing yoga, and it’s kind of a sad thing to watch, I’m sure, particularly when I’m in downward dog (think shaky chihuahua) or reclined pigeon (I call it “broken bird”). But not only is it good for me, the struggle keeps me humble.

The challenge you take on doesn’t have to be physical. Just try something you know you’re not good at, struggle to improve—perhaps in vain—and learn to laugh at yourself a little.

We need to go further, too. In prayer, we have to be willing to call ourselves sinners. Because of our sins, we cannot be good enough for God on our own. We never will be. It doesn’t matter what we accumulate in terms of titles, homes, cars or 401Ks. God will not be impressed.

As we remember our sins, we should beat our breasts from time to time, saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” I don’t think God wants us to wallow in our sins, but we certainly need to remember they happened, and perhaps still blush at them a little.

Occasionally focusing on our inabilities and sins helps us remember how much we need God. He is perfect, we are not. It is foolish to approach God like we are somehow equal to him.

And when we get there—when we truly humble ourselves—we are much better equipped to understand what a great gift we have been given in Jesus Christ.

God owed us nothing, we owed him everything, and through sin we created a debt we could never repay. And yet, God came. God came for the undeserving, the broken, the lost.

We are no better than prostitutes, criminals, or traitorous tax collectors. Isn’t it strange that once we accept that truth, we are made ready for eternity with God.


The featured image, “Biblical Illustration of Gospel of Luke Chapter 18,” is by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, Texas, 1984.

Let It Be with Me

Cranach, "Madonna Under the Fir Tree," 1510, public domain

Cranach, “Madonna Under the Fir Tree,” 1510, public domain

The mother of Jesus should fascinate us. I know Protestants sometime feel Roman Catholics go too far in their devotion to Mary, but in our reaction to that devotion, we can fail to pause and really appreciate Mary.

Mary is perhaps the most important mere human to have ever lived. (I say “mere” human to take Jesus, who was in some mysterious way both fully human and fully divine, out of contention.) After all, Mary was the “favored one,” the first chapter of Luke’s gospel tells us. God found Mary worthy to carry the Messiah, God in flesh, in her womb. Jesus’ devotion to and love for her was evident even as he hung dying on a cross.

So, what made Mary so special?

Earlier, when I described her as perhaps the most important human to have ever lived, some of you may have flinched a little. Did you begin to run other possible candidates through your mind: biblical characters like Abraham or Moses, or John the Baptist, or great historic figures?

If you did so, consider whether you’re attaching worldly standards to the word “important.” God’s standards are different from worldly standards; humility and unwavering faith would seem to top the divine list, and Mary seems to have been full of both. In addition, God asked Mary to take on an astonishing task, one many older women would resist. She responded with one childlike question about process, and then made a simple statement, “Let it be with me.”

Oh, and we shouldn’t forget bravery. Stoning was the punishment of the day for a poor, unwed pregnant girl, which is how her neighbors would have viewed Mary. To follow God while facing such dire circumstances required a heart wide-open to God’s will, one willing to disregard the potential personal cost.

God chose Mary, it seems, because she had the right soul for the task. She was young, perhaps as young as 13 or 14, but Luke 1:46-55 records her remarkable understanding of the meaning of Christ’s coming.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” Mary said. She was rejoicing with her much older cousin Elizabeth, who carried in her womb John the Baptist, the prophet who would announce the coming of Jesus’ ministry in adulthood.

As Mary continued in her prophetic rejoicing, she laid out the radical mission of Christ. He brings mercy to those who believe and follow God. He scatters the proud. He brings down the powerful. He lifts up the lowly and the hungry. He does all of this as a fulfillment of a promise made to the world through Abraham long ago.

And of course, we now understand that Jesus grew up to accomplish this radical realignment of power through his death on the cross, a sacrifice designed to break the grip of sin.

Governments and armies still seem to have power, but none can help us establish a relationship with God. At best, they can keep the relationship freely available.

Mary’s song also calls us to magnify the Lord, regardless of our ability to carry children. The baby in her womb would reveal God’s nature to all. As the body of Christ on earth today, Christians similarly exhibit God’s Spirit to a hurting world.

And while this task requires humility and faith, it also makes us revolutionaries, like the quiet, demure Mary who suddenly sang of a world to be turned upside down.

The great Scottish theologian William Barclay noted that Mary’s song declares three great “revolutions” that her child would spark in the world.

First, God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” That is a moral revolution, Barclay noted, bringing about the death of pride. People cannot compare their lives to Christ’s and remain convinced they are somehow superior creatures.

Second, Mary sang that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” That, Barclay said, is a social revolution.

If we are to magnify God, we ignore labels used to sort people as important or unimportant. In every face, the Christian sees God’s creation. In every person, a Christian sees a life potentially made whole by Christ.

Third, Mary tells us that the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty. Barclay called this part of the song a declaration of an economic revolution.

“A non-Christian society is an acquisitive society where each man is out to amass as much as he can get,” Barclay wrote. “A Christian society is a society where no man dares to have too much while others have too little, where every man must get only to give away.”

Oh, to magnify the Lord in every moment of our lives, to allow revolution to occur in every choice we make. It isn’t easy, of course.

Fortunately, the baby who grew to be a man and live out his mother’s prophecies did not shrink from the difficult task of the cross. May God grant us similar courage in this season; may we learn to say, “Let it be with me.”

Who Are You?

"John the Baptist," icon in Kiev Museum, public domain.

“John the Baptist,” icon in Kiev Museum, public domain.

John 1:6-8, 19-28

The Jewish leaders sent messengers to ask John the Baptist a straightforward question: “Who are you?”

Having drawn crowds of Jews with his preaching and his call to repentance, he answered their real, unasked question, Are you the Messiah?, by simply assuring them he was not the savior prophecy had predicted. The messengers pressed John the Baptist, however, finally leading him to quote Scripture as his answer.

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the Prophet Isaiah said.”

We largely remember John as looking like a wild man, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. Set aside to serve God from the moment he was conceived, he usually is depicted in art with uncut hair and beard, roaming the desert wasteland most of his life until he drew near civilization to declare the beginning of Jesus Christ’s ministry.

To understand John the Baptist, we have to read his story in all four gospels. In Luke, we learn John the Baptist was a miracle child in whom the Holy Spirit dwelled even before he was born. He leaped in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, capable of recognizing the presence of the Messiah.

We also understand from Luke that Jesus and John the Baptist were related through their mothers, cousins separated in age by only six months. We can only speculate whether they spent much time together. Luke also tells us John the Baptist grew up in the wilderness, meaning he may have lived part or all his life as a hermit prophet, possibly among a sect of Jews known as the Essenes.

When John the Baptist began his adult ministry as recorded in all four gospels, he preached a fiery call that the people should repent of their sins in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. Ultimately, Jesus came to John to be baptized in the Jordan river, that great symbol of God’s promises and new beginnings.

It is here we really see John’s humility, rooted in his clear understanding of his role in the universe. John initially resisted Jesus’ request, saying Jesus should baptize him. At Jesus’ prodding, John finally relented and performed the act. Jesus’ servant ministry was launched in humble solidarity with people craving righteousness and holiness in their lives.

As John’s story proceeds alongside Jesus’ story, the ministry of the messenger fades as the ministry of the Messiah burns more brightly. There is no earthly glory for John, no story of victory in this life. Ultimately, he died an ignominious death, his severed head presented to a dancing girl and her wicked mother.

How different John the Baptist’s story seems from ours. And yet, Christians, how similar our calling is to his.

If we are ultimately to emulate Jesus, striving to have the attitude of John the Baptist is a good start. I don’t mean we have to wear itchy clothing and roam the desert eating bugs, or die a martyr. It helps us all greatly, however, if we can keep God’s great plan before us and find our role in it.

John the Baptist existed for one reason, to declare the coming of the messiah. Again, in this Advent season we’re being reminded that we, too, anticipate Christ’s return. The church and its members exist largely to “make straight the way of the Lord,” to call people to repentance so they are ready to meet their savior.

How we do this requires John-like humility and a little artfulness. Humility helps keep us holy; to quote Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Any good work we do can quickly dissolve when mixed with sin. Just think Bill Cosby if you don’t understand what I mean.

Artfulness in relationships and communication comes with prayer and practice. It also helps to trust that God’s Spirit can shape us and others in ways we thought we never could be shaped.

Who are you? Regardless of how you may appear to others, or whether you meet worldly definitions of success, you are a child of God, saved by Christ from eternal death because of God’s love for you. So are all the people you meet. Let them know.

Overconfident

Philippians 3:4b-11 (NRSV)

The Apostle Paul, writing to the church at Philippi:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.


 

The Apostle Paul was not a man clinging to religion for solace or validation after failing to find such comfort elsewhere. By human measures, Paul was a success long before he believed in Jesus Christ as Savior.

He was born to the right people, in the right kind of family. He had both a solid trade, and he also was a scholar. In the Jewish world where religion and politics were one and the same, he was a rising star, a great future ahead of him.

But having been confronted by the power and reality of Christ, Paul threw his resume and the benefits he had accrued away, calling them all “rubbish.” Such is the life-altering experience that can occur when we truly understand who Christ is.

This message should resonate in profound ways―perhaps even disconcerting ways―in a congregation like ours. We are a people who are, on average, better educated than most. We are a people who are, on average, better off financially than most. Many of us have track records of success.

That means we also are a people susceptible to the same trap that ensnared Paul until God whacked him with the heavenly equivalent of a Louisville Slugger. If you’re among the people here today who are thinking, “Hey, the preacher’s not talking to me―I’ve never felt like a success,” then consider yourself blessed, perhaps for the first time. As Christ told us, the meek shall inherit the earth.

“What trap?” the rest of you may be asking yourselves. It’s simple: the trap of self-reliance, of overconfidence. We are a people constantly in danger of believing that because we were smart enough to figure a few things out, we have figured everything out, including God.

Not so, Paul tells us. There is something new to learn. We worship a God who has turned the world upside through Jesus Christ, a God who places the last first, who gives hope to the hopeless, who transforms slaves into rulers in the kingdom of heaven.

The only way the strangeness of God can be grasped is if we first let go of the idea that we have everything figured out. No undergraduate or even graduate degree can save us. Faith is the only way to salvation.

I suppose the one comfort for the targets of this text is God clearly needs Christians with backgrounds like Paul, strategic thinkers with successful records. God did go to great lengths to make Paul his own. I wonder why?

Well, first of all, because God loves everyone, including the self-reliant and even the self-absorbed. He draws us all toward a relationship with him.

There’s a close second, I think: In this time in-between the cross and the final, general resurrection, the church still has to navigate a broken world. Jesus said his followers would have to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

For now, there’s a need for strategic thinkers, for planners, for people who can match wits with evil. Paul stood and fought brilliantly, enduring great harm to his body.

There is just an equal need, it seems, for those who do such work to do it with great humility, understanding that God’s wisdom, not our own, must be our guide. This is why we pray for guidance. This is why we submit to what we find revealed in Scripture, even when what we find troubles us.

Worldly success is fleeting. We are fragile creatures; wisdom and cunning can vanish with one blow to the head. We use our gifts, our talents and our blessings while we can in God’s service, but humble faith is what will sustain us for eternity.

What Would You Uproot?

Luke 17:5-10

There are a couple of messages in Jesus’ words we’ve heard today that may puzzle us or even disturb our souls. Just remember, when the Bible does that to us, we’re growing.

I feel the need to preach this sermon backward relative to the text. By first exploring what Jesus said about the slave who had just come in from the fields, I think we can better understand what Jesus said about faith and its tremendous power.

Slaves of God

I initially don’t like the example of the slave coming in from the field. First of all, the idea of slavery is foreign to us now, so it’s hard to get into the right frame of mind to hear the example. Slavery was not uncommon in Jesus’ day, however, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus used the relationship as a metaphor.

The real source of my reaction, however, stems from the self-assured American in me. The line of questioning starts out okay: How would you handle your slave? Would you just let him plop down at the table before he finishes his last task of the day, which is to feed you? We as hearers of the story are in a position of power, a position any ambitious American seeks.

Jesus was setting us up, though. In the end, he flipped the story on us. Suddenly, we are the slaves, subservient to God. Even if we do everything we are supposed to do as God’s creation, we can at best say at the end of our lives, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”

Those of us living in a world where we equate our success with our own genius or hard work may flinch at such a message. It strikes at our egos, at our sense that we can climb the ladder in God’s kingdom through sheer hard work. It is a message designed to humble us, to remind us of God’s infinite vastness and power and our inability to match him in any way.

When we find ourselves appropriately humbled, we’re at a point where we can at least begin to hear what Jesus had to say earlier about faith.

The Source of Faith

The disciples had been hearing some hard words from Jesus. He had warned them about the extreme danger of being the cause of other people’s sin. He also had talked about his powerful demand that we learn to forgive those who offend us, particularly if they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Even if one of them were to sin against us seven times a day, and then repent, we would be called to forgive that person seven times a day.

The disciples clearly felt they weren’t up to the task. “Increase our faith!” they cried out. Jesus told them they first might want to find faith.

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed”—that’s a very tiny seed—”you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Faith is faith, Jesus was saying. It has great power.

It has great power not because of anything we do, but because of what God can do. Our faith is largely a matter of trusting in God’s power and plan. As far as the uprooting of mulberry trees, which have very large root balls, Jesus was using hyperbole. Mark and Matthew record Jesus teaching a similar message when he described a kind of faith that can move a mountain to take a swim, too.

Jesus’ point was not that the faithful would make great landscapers. It was that the faithful know anything can happen where God wants it to happen. He can change us into people who do no harm, people overflowing with forgiveness. He can change the world into what he would have it be. And we can participate in all of that by aligning our wills with God’s will.

As far as great miracles are concerned, sea-going mulberry trees and mountains are nothing compared with what Jesus ultimately did on the cross. The power of God crushed death; the gates of heaven were flung open to what previously could not approach God, unholy, sin-stained humanity. Christ’s resurrection and the ongoing witness of the Holy Spirit at work in the world today prove it to every generation.

Ultimately, our faith is about believing that what is wrong will be set right. Maybe the transformation happens in part now; certainly it happens in full at the end of time.

Pray On This

There are some things I would like to see uprooted and flung away now. I lift these up as a prayer:

Blindness to God’s plan. May the scales be flung from the eyes of those who cannot see Jesus because of the world’s distractions.

Greed. A sense that we have to have all of ours, whatever we think “ours” is, before we consider what others may need. May that sense dissolve.

Self-interest. It drives both parties of the U.S. government right now, and it frightens the rest of us into thinking we have to behave in similar ways. Someone, please read Philippians 2:4-11.

Meanness. I know, it sounds kindergarten-ish. “Stop being mean.” There sure are a lot of people in the world who seem to delight in cutting remarks and deliberate antagonism of others, though. May God rip away the meanness we find in ourselves.

That’s just the start of a list. What would you add? And do you believe your desires are aligned with God’s?

If so, have faith, and with God’s power working in you, you might make a difference.

A Priest for All Times

Hebrews 5:1-10 (and beyond)

I’ve mentioned before that I like the mysteries of Christianity. There are basics about our faith that are easy to understand, so easy that a child can believe them and be saved. Those basics are only the front door to a vast mansion, however, one with so many treasure-filled rooms that we cannot explore it all in a lifetime.

Christians living at their best follow up the basics by exploring the mysteries, in the process growing to be more Christ-like in their own being. The New Testament book of Hebrews points us down this path of exploration.

The author (himself a mystery) links Jesus Christ to an ancient Old Testament character, Melchizedek, who had in many ways puzzled Jews for centuries. You may recall his being mentioned in Genesis 14, as Abram returns from rescuing Lot and his family, who had been taken in war. Out of nowhere comes Melchizedek, a “priest of God Most High.” He also is described as king of “Salem,” possibly the area that would one day become known as Jerusalem.

This mysterious priest predates the Jewish people and seems to have an understanding of the one true God the Jews would later be called to worship exclusively. He blesses Abram, and Abram gives him a tithe, 10 percent, of his possessions. Melchizedek also appears in Psalm 110, a prophecy of the Messiah.

The original audience for Hebrews was used to the idea of priests, human beings who made sacrifices for their own sins and for the sins of the people. The laws given to Moses by God dictated from which particular lineage these priests were supposed to come. The Book of Hebrews is trying to show us there is a higher priesthood, however, one timeless, eternal, and ordained by God for the complete salvation of humanity.

Melchizedek seemed to come out of nowhere, “without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life.” In this way, he resembled and foreshadowed Jesus Christ, who in his earthly life was beyond understanding.

The author of Hebrews is pointing us toward Christ’s divinity, toward the understanding we now have that the Spirit within Jesus is eternal, present at the creation, carrying his followers with him through an endless eternity despite their mortal fragility.

If you don’t quite get the Jesus-Melchizedek connection, it’s okay. In fact, if you feel stretched spiritually and mentally, that’s good.

We’re being invited to meditate on concepts that take us to the limit of human understanding. When we slow down and meditate on such things, we are better for it, even if we do not fully grasp the answers.

It is similar to when we talk about Jesus being both 100 percent human and 100 percent divine, or when we assert God is one being expressed as three persons, or when we dwell on what creation must look like post-resurrection.

We are, to borrow the author’s words, avoiding becoming “dull in understanding,” learning to eat “solid food” rather than infant’s milk. That solid food causes us to grow. It’s unlikely a human mind can grasp these concepts fully, but in trying, we glimpse what the divine mind must look like.

Over time, we also should develop new abilities from these brushes with God. Hebrews points out what made Christ effective, and for human beings, these attributes are counterintuitive. We see power, be it expressed in physical, political, financial, mental or other worldly categories, as the driving force shaping humanity. But salvation came from one who carried in him the mind of God, yet humbled himself to the point of dying a low, shameful death on a cross.

Hebrews celebrates Christ’s willingness to offer supplications—prayers rooted in deep humility—despite Jesus’ divine right to seek exaltation. Hebrews points to Christ’s suffering, despite his right to demand glory. Hebrews reminds us that Christ was obedient to the end, even unto death.

These ultimately are attributes we should seek for ourselves, too, if we are to follow Christ. How humility and obedient submission benefit us remains a mystery, particularly if we have yet to live into these concepts. Truth is truth, however, and if we believe in Christ we must follow the mysterious truths revealed to us in Hebrews.