RADICAL FAITH

Third Sunday of Easter (Year B)

TEXT: Luke 24:13-35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,  and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. (Luke 24:13-16)

If you look up the word “radical” in the dictionary, you may see that (as an adjective, anyway), something is radical if it is:

  1. relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of perceived reality; far-reaching or thorough.
  2. based on thorough or complete change.
  3. very different from the usual or traditional: extreme.

I suggest that the entire Easter season is a radical time. Through Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter Day, we encounter some very radical stuff: radical obedience, radical acceptance, radical despair and radical hope.

Radical obedience was what led Jesus to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey’s back, even though he knew it was carrying him to his death.

Radical acceptance was what Jesus came to after an evening of prayer in a garden, when he began by asking his Father to please take from him the cup of suffering—and finished by saying, “Not my will, but yours, be done.”

Radical despair kept Mary Magdalene from recognizing the risen Jesus when at first she encountered him. Radical hope was what she came to, after Jesus called her by name, and she then knew who he was. “Rabbouni!” she exclaimed, and embraced him.

Her radical despair was, in a flash, overcome by radical hope. But until that moment, she was absolutely convinced that he was gone forever, and she had not the faintest hope of ever seeing him again. The Messiah was dead. Defeated by the forces of evil he had come to overthrow.

If that’s not a cause for radical despair, I don’t know what would be. And I suspect that may account for her inability to recognize this man she knew so well; her brain would not permit her to believe what her eyes were seeing.

Perhaps something like that is happening in today’s gospel lesson. These two disciples walking toward Emmaus have not one shred of hope. They’ve heard the rumour about Jesus being alive … but they obviously don’t believe it.

Devastated and demoralized by the events of the past three days, they cannot recognize Jesus, either—even when he joins them on the road and engages them in conversation.

So clueless are they, in fact, that they begin to explain Jesus’ own story to him—how he “was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” and yet was betrayed, tried and executed.

“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they say.

But now their hopes are dashed. Destroyed. As dead, they think, as their failed Messiah.

Like Mary Magdalene outside the empty tomb, they are so convinced they’ll never see Jesus again … that they cannot recognize him, even when he’s walking right beside them. Their brains won’t let them believe what their eyes are telling them.

Maybe. Or perhaps there’s something else going on here. After all, Luke tells us that, as soon as they do recognize him—after he breaks bread at supper—he vanishes from their sight!

Poof. Gone. Vanished into thin air, like a ghost. Yeah. A ghost. Able to do ghostly things. Like walk right through walls; which seems to be what happens next, because—if you keep reading past verse 35, you hear a story that is best described as spooky.

The two Emmaus Road disciples—Cleopas and his companion—hurry back to Jerusalem. They find the eleven hiding behind what John’s gospel tells us were locked doors. And then they report what has happened to them, and how Jesus was “made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

That’s where today’s reading left off. But then—continuing on from the very next verse, we read:

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence (Luke 24:36-43).

Let’s recap. While they’re still telling their Emmaus Road story to the other disciples … “Poof!” (again) Jesus suddenly appears in the room. And they do think they’re seeing a ghost!

But then Jesus invites them to touch him, saying, “It is I myself … a ghost does not have flesh and bones like I do.” Just like last week’s gospel, where Jesus comes back so Thomas can touch his wounds, and believe.

Then he asks them for something to eat, and they give him a piece of fish. Ghosts don’t get hungry, do they?

So what is going on here? On the one hand, the risen Christ appears to be as real and solid and physical as we are. And yet he’s able to blip in and out of the physical world at will. How can that be?

I wonder if it all comes back to the idea of incarnation. Or the idea of at-one-ment. In Christ, divinity and humanity are perfectly reconciled. And in the risen Christ, we encounter someone who has all the qualities of God and all the qualities of a man.

Perhaps what we see here is a foreshadowing of our own future existence. Some commentators think that’s what Paul is hinting at in First Corinthians, chapter 15, verse 20, when he refers to the risen Jesus as “the first fruits of those who have died”—and when he talks about the perishable putting on imperishability, and the mortal body putting on immortality (1 Cor. 15:54).

Perhaps. However, those interpretations raise troubling questions of their own—questions which could fuel quite a number of blog posts. In a way, it’s as if the resurrected Jesus has become a rapidly-moving target: one that’s hard to keep in focus.

It seems to me that whenever we try to explain faith rationally—whenever we demand complete understanding of the things of God—we wind up frustrated. Perhaps the really important message of today’s gospel story is simply this: faith has very little to do with reason, and very much to do with experience.

I’m sure none of the disciples could make sense of this, either. And from the gospel accounts, it looks like they didn’t even try to figure it out. If they were attempting to write sensible, rational accounts, they surely would have glossed over—or omitted—the most bizarre details.

Jesus was dead … and then he wasn’t!

He had a physical human body, just like anyone else’s … except his could dissolve from sight in one location, and then re-materialize in another!

Of course it doesn’t make any sense. And of course it isn’t the kind of story you’d invent if you wanted to fool people. Or convince them that your claims are true. Why would the disciples record such unbelievable stuff … unless … it was because that’s what actually happened?

I think they had to write what they wrote, because anything else would have been, at best, a half-truth—and at worst, a lie. They had to report what they saw and heard and touched and felt, because that was their genuine experience. They had to write what they wrote, even though they knew it sounded ridiculous, could not be explained, and would be doubted by most.

Friends, this is radical faith. Yes.

Through the events of Holy Week and Easter, we’ve seen Jesus display radical obedience and radical acceptance; we’ve watched as Mary Magdalene’s radical despair is transformed into radical hope; and now we have arrived at radical faith.

Radical faith is born out of radical experiences. And experience has everything to do with perception. One may see a miracle where another does not. One may feel deeply blessed while another shrugs his shoulders.

In Ephesians, chapter two, verse eight, Paul says that faith is a “gift” from God. Often, I think, that gift of faith is offered through experiences that are—at one and the same time—profoundly holy and deeply subjective. And I wonder whether these sorts of experiences are there for us all the time, if only we will notice them.

Or, to put it another way, perhaps the risen Christ is walking beside us and we do not recognize him until something opens our eyes. Perhaps Jesus is sitting beside you right now. Or will be tomorrow, on the bus. Or riding in the bike lane.

See, I think the risen Christ shows up in our lives—and keeps on showing up—until we do recognize him.

I don’t think it’s very often as dramatic as the episodes we read about in the gospels. But I do believe he shows up. I believe he shows up in the life of every person—over and over again, trying to get us to notice him—because he knows he has something to give us. Something we each need, desperately, whether we know it or not.

For a man I know, Jesus showed up in his bathroom mirror. Yes. His bathroom mirror. This fellow was kind of unsteadily standing in front of the sink, trying to get his bearings after waking up drunk. Yes. Not merely hung over, but still drunk, after many hours of sleeping. And this was not unusual for him. His bleary-eyed countenance, viewed in the mirror, was a familiar face.

Except, this time, something about that face was different. This time, rather than simply the sad visage of a man who had given up on his life, he saw—for the first time—the face of the Christ he’d heard about long ago in Sunday School; the Christ whom he had, in baptism, put on as a teenager; the Christ whom he had, as an adult, turned away from.

But on this morning, looking in the mirror, he realized that Jesus had never turned away from him. And this experience was so profound—and so real—that it awakened in him a desire for new life, and set him on the road to recovery.

For a woman I once knew, Christ showed up in the face of her newborn daughter—who had come into this world addicted to the heroin her mother had used during her pregnancy; used because she didn’t believe she could stop using it.

But the sight of her child’s distress—and the realization that she was herself responsible for it—awakened in her a kind of love she did not know herself capable of. And for the first time in her life, she sought help and devoted herself to getting well.

Much later—after years of being clean and sober—she would speak about how her daughter “became as Christ for her.” Because, you see, that tiny girl literally bore her mother’s sins; and through bearing them, she removed them.

I also remember a man who—freshly released from prison—surprised me by making this declaration: “I don’t want to be a murderer any more.”

His words surprised me because I had never before considered that such a thing was possible. I thought that once you had killed someone, you were a murderer. And that’s what you would always be, even if you repented and were forgiven. But this ex-convict believed that Christ could make him—really and truly—“a new creature.” He understood that better I did. He knew that, if you’re walking with Jesus, your past does not have to be your future.

I hear stories like that—I witness things like that—and I think to myself, “Wow! That is radical faith!”

That is the kind of faith that not only changes a person’s life, but turns it upside down. That is the kind of faith you arrive at after you witness something you thought was impossible (or at least, impossible for you).

I also know people who hear those same stories and dismiss them as silly rationalizations by individuals who needed to trick themselves into doing the right thing.

But that doesn’t really matter. Because radical faith testifies to the truth—even if it brings ridicule, even if the telling of that truth comes with a cost.

As I said, some people see miracles where others do not. And some shrug their shoulders when handed a blessing. But even so, Jesus keeps on showing up. He shows up for each one of us—over and over and over again—until we either notice him … or pass from this life without ever knowing the priceless value of the gift of faith he wanted us to have.

So, my friends, if you have not yet noticed this Jesus fellow walking with you—then I urge you to stay alert. Keep your eyes open. Look at your life with open eyes. Wait on the Lord—and believe that you will see him. For on this day, Jesus is saying to you: Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20).

Brothers and sisters, the meal is ready. The table is set. Come, and take your places.

Doubt That Leads to Faith

Second Sunday of Easter (Year B)

TEXT: John 20:19-31

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25b)

Most Christians think the great believers of the faith never doubted. They know about the faith of the famous Christian leaders, but not about their inner struggles. Yet …

The Scottish reformer, John Knox, wrote of a time when his soul knew “anger, wrath and indignation, which is conceived against God, calling all his promises in doubt.”

Or consider another great reformer—Martin Luther. When we think of his courage in the face of persecution, we may assume Luther never questioned his faith; but he once wrote this: “For more than a week, Christ was entirely lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy against God.

In today’s Scripture passage we find that same kind of faith-struggle even in one of the twelve disciples: Thomas. Now, to me, Thomas seems like a disciple for times such as we live in. Why? Because we live in an age that questions everything! Perhaps we can learn something from Thomas about how to handle our own questions and doubts.

And we do have them. It’s not always easy for us to simply believe. Most of us are more like Thomas than we care to admit. However, I think that’s not really such a bad thing, being like Thomas. For being able to admit our doubts and questions is the first step toward honest faith.

You know, if we had only the first three gospels, all we would know about Thomas would be his name—for that’s all they tell us. To find out more about Thomas, we have to look at the fourth gospel—John’s Gospel.

In chapter eleven of John, we read the story of how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. This is the first time John mentions Thomas, and he gives us some real insight into the kind of person he was.

As you may recall, Mary and Martha had sent word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus was desperately ill. They lived in the small village of Bethany, very close to Jerusalem. After considering the request for a couple of days, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

But the disciples were reluctant. They said, “Teacher, just a short time ago the people there wanted to stone you; and now you are planning to go back?

They thought he was crazy to even consider returning there. But then Thomas spoke out—and he said, “Let us go along with the Teacher, so that we may die with him!”

He was willing to go with Jesus to Jerusalem knowing full well that it just might cost him his own life. This guy was no coward! Thomas loved Jesus and was fiercely loyal to him. We also see that Thomas leaned toward pessimism—“Let’s go along with Jesus, so that we can die too!”

Well, you know what a pessimist is, don’t you? A pessimist is someone who can look at the land of milk and honey and see only calories and cholesterol. For a person like that, Christian discipleship must be an almost impossibly difficult thing. Yet—in spite of his pessimism—Thomas was willing to follow Jesus wherever he led.

In the 14th chapter of John, Jesus tells his disciples that he’s going away to prepare them a room in his Father’s house. He says to them: “You know the way to the place where I am going.” But Thomas replies, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; so how can we know the way?”

Thomas was not afraid to ask questions when he didn’t understand something—and that seems to have been okay    with Jesus. Of course, the honest doubters and questioners never did bother Jesus. The ones who got under his skin were the know-it-alls—the ones who refused to open their hearts and minds to the truth he was teaching.

There is, after all, more than one kind of doubt. There is the kind of doubt that does not want to believe, that reaches for arguments in order to deny the affirmations of faith. But there is also the “seeking” kind of doubt—the kind that Thomas had. The person who doubts in this way earnestly wants to believe—but honestly admits that understanding is difficult. This kind of doubt actually energizes and expands faith—and that is a healthy kind of doubting.

Thomas was that way. He asked questions because he wanted to understand. Doubt need not be the enemy of faith.

If you have never had any doubts or questions, it may be because you have never seriously thought about your faith. Often we do not truly understand what we believe until some doubt arises that makes us search for answers—just like Thomas did.

Now, let’s return to our gospel lesson. It’s evening on the first Easter Sunday. The disciples are hiding behind locked doors. Then—suddenly—Jesus is with them in the room! He shows them his hands and side—and they are filled with unspeakable joy. But Thomas is absent.

We don’t know why Thomas was not with them. Perhaps it was because his heart was broken. Things had turned out just as his pessimism had suggested. Perhaps Thomas had withdrawn to grieve in solitude. That would be understandable. However, because he isolated himself, Thomas missed out on the one thing that could have turned his sorrow into joy—the presence of the risen Christ.

You know, it’s like Jesus told us: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). When we withdraw from the fellowship of the Christian family, we miss out on that special sense of the presence of Christ—and we miss out on the tremendous peace and joy that goes along with it.

Perhaps the disciples realized that. In any case, they rushed out to look for Thomas. And when they found him, they proclaimed their happy news: “We have seen the Lord!”

Then, of course, Thomas made that reply for which he has become famous: “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Fast-forward to one week later. The disciples have gathered again—and this time Thomas is with them. Like before, Jesus appears to them. “Peace be with you,” he says. Then Jesus turns to Thomas and offers to allow him to touch his hands and his side.

We’re not told whether Thomas actually did this. Probably, he did not need to. But he fell on his knees and said, “My Lord and my God!” And with those words, Thomas made one of the greatest confessions of faith in the entire Bible. Thomas’s doubt—even his great doubt—did not destroy his capacity for great faith.

So don’t let anyone tell you to stop asking questions, or to suppress all your doubts. Admit them. Ask your questions. Talk things over with people you trust. But please—do not allow your doubts and questions drive you away from Christian fellowship. For it is as you gather with God’s people that the risen Lord will make his presence known to you. Make no mistake about it: Jesus still comes and stands among us, giving us peace and power through the gift of his Spirit.

Here is the truth: Christ understands our doubt and accepts our imperfect discipleship—and he still entrusts his message and his mission to us, saying, As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

I guess that means Jesus has no doubts about us!

Maybe—if we just hang in there—some of his confidence in us will rub off. What a thing to consider! Thanks be to God. Amen.

“Peering Into the Tomb”

Easter Sunday

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

—Matthew 28:1-10 (NRSV)

Here is where the Christian faith begins—with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the main event of Easter—the return to life of the One who was crucified, dead, and buried. The main event of Easter—and the very thing that is hardest to believe.

The resurrection defies our understanding, and it pushes our reasoning abilities to the breaking point. Fortunately, we do not have to explain the resurrection. No. Because Jesus’ resurrection explains us. It establishes who we are and why we believe today. Because the resurrection happened—because Easter happened—the church happened.

The story of Easter is so familiar that we sometimes fail to hear some of the details of the account. On all three years of the liturgical cycle, the Revised Common Lectionary points us to John’s report (John 20:1-18). Today, however, I want to look at Matthew’s account of the first Easter morning—and, specifically, at three details which are reported there.

First, the stone was rolled away—not to let Jesus out—but to let us in! I say this because the idea that God rolled the stone away from the door to let Jesus escape is inconsistent with the testimony of Scripture.

Remember the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus recorded in the last chapter of John’s Gospel? On two occasions, John tells us, Jesus suddenly appeared in the midst of the disciples—even when they were behind locked doors!

Locked doors never kept Jesus in or out. Matthew makes this clear in today’s reading. In his account of the resurrection it was after Mary Magdalene and the other Mary had come to the tomb that “there was a great earthquake,” and an angel of the Lord rolled away the stone and sat upon it.

For centuries, the curious have always wanted to peer into the dark depths of death—but the tomb has been sealed with secrecy. The tomb has always mocked us. It has always stood as the “dead end” of all our efforts to see beyond this life into the life to come. But on the first Easter morning, the angel tells the two women to look inside the tomb, saying: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” (Matt. 28:5-6)

Easter rolls the stone door of the tomb away for us so that we might penetrate the mystery of death. Easter makes the tomb into a tunnel—a tunnel into the heart of the eternal; and it shows us that the holy heart of God is love and life. God rolls the door of the tomb away not to let Jesus out—but to let us in—to allow us to see that Christ’s promises are true.

Second, the tomb is not completely empty. Christ’s body is absent, but the place is filled with the words of the angel—the words that say: “He is not here; for he has been raised.” The words that continue on, saying: “Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’”  (Matt. 28:6-7)

If the women on that first Easter morning had looked into an empty and silent tomb, then our resurrection faith would be a belief based on human speculation, an assumption of the moment, an argument based on negative evidence. But no! Our faith is based on a word spoken to us by God. It is based on God’s holy promise, spoken by Christ before he died, and upon God’s holy assurance—spoken by the angel on the first Easter Sunday. That same word that echoed in that Easter tomb still fills the emptiness of our world today: “Christ is risen!”

The tomb has become a trumpet proclaiming the victory of life over death, and the continuation of Christ’s presence and mission in this world—first in Galilee, and ultimately to the ends of the earth.

The third detail is this: because of Easter, we can turn our backs on the grave. Matthew tells us that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary—having heard the angel’s message—turned their backs on the grave and ran with “great joy” to tell the disciples.

Joy is the key word here. Christ was buried, but he wouldn’t stay dead! The tomb could not hold him. And because of him, the tomb cannot hold us, either. This indeed is what Jesus promised to us before he died, a promise that seemed—at the time—totally incredible. However, because of that first Easter morning, we know it was a matter of fact and substance.

The stone was rolled away from the tomb—not to let Jesus out, but to let us in!

The stone was rolled away from the tomb, to show us that death is not the end, but is rather a new beginning. A new beginning that proclaims the victory of life over death. A new beginning which allows us to turn our backs on the grave. A new beginning which calls us to embrace the future with faith and with hope. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed.

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Amen.

“Hosanna!”

Palm Sunday (Year B)

TEXT: Mark 11:1-11

Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  (Mark 11:8-10)

AH! The fans of Jesus! Rock stars have fans. Movie stars have them. Athletes have them. Even some politicians have fans.

The fans that Jesus had seem more like that last kind than anything else. Andrew Lloyd Webber had it right when—in Jesus Christ Superstar—he coined the term, “Jesusmania.”

As Jesus entered the gates of Jerusalem, his fans made a carpet of welcome for him with their cloaks, and with the branches they had cut in the fields. They waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna!”

The word hosanna means “save now” or “save us now.” To call out, “Save us!” was to greet a saviour—but not in the personal sense in which Christians today might think of it. No. The sense here is of a national Saviour—like a general leading an army of liberation.

The form of this celebration goes back to the Jewish “Festival of the Booths.” In that celebration, the branches represented the crude shelters in which the Hebrew people lived in the desert after they escaped from Egypt. Psalm 118 echoes what the ancient Jews used to sing as they approached Jerusalem to join in the festival. In part, it goes like this:

Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the
Lord.                           (Psalm 118:25-26)

“Save us! (Hosanna!) Save us, we beseech you …” These are the words with which Jesus was welcomed into the capital city. They used the greeting for a saviour—for a liberator, a Messiah. That apparently unconscious acknowledgment in the word “hosanna” (“save us”), is like using the name “Jesus” without remembering that it, too, means “Saviour.” (see Matt. 1:21)

Jesus was welcomed as a conquering hero. But instead of a war horse, he chose to ride a donkey, in what should have been an obvious reference to the messianic symbolism of the prophet Zechariah:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
    and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
    and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.              (Zechariah 9:9-10)

Christ entered Jerusalem not in the style of a triumphant general, but in the style of a humble servant. To the very end, Jesus tried to make people understand the true nature of his Messiahship.

It is perhaps difficult for us to understand—as we look backward in time—how they could possibly have misunderstood him. But we have to remember how desperate they were. They were an occupied and oppressed people. What they wanted—what they thought they needed—was a warrior-king who would expel the Romans, and restore their nation. If they had paid attention to what Jesus was trying to show them about himself, they would have had to face the same question which confronted Pilate later in the week—concerning who this man was, and if he was a king, what sort of king. (see John 18:33-38)

I guess it’s the same question we still grapple with, some 2,000 years later: Who was he? Who is he? And—with all the conflicting and competing pictures of Jesus in our modern world—who is he, for us?

Who is Jesus, for you? Who is he, for me? Perhaps, for us, it has indeed become a question that can only be answered in a personal way … and perhaps, after all, that’s what he always intended. I wish I knew for sure. I wish the church, at least, could reach some kind of consensus on that point—about who he is, and what he means. And I wonder what would happen if Jesus was arriving in our city this afternoon, and all of the Christians turned out to greet him. What kind of hosannas would we be shouting?

Here’s a poem. Actually, I guess it’s more like a prayer than a poem. A Briton named John Young wrote it, and I think it’s worth quoting today.

A Palm Sunday Reflection: Twenty Centuries Past

Twenty centuries past, what city has not heard
of your coming?
From Beijing to Berlin, from Jerusalem to Johannesburg,
from New York to New Delhi
surely the word has spread that you’ve come in peace,
not violence
to enrich, renew, transform our lives and bring us to shalom?

Blessed is the one who comes
in the name of God. Hosanna in the highest.

Twenty centuries past, what city has not heard
of your church?
From Catholic, Orthodox, Uniting or Anglican,
Evangelical, Progressive or Pentecostal
surely the message of acceptance, healing, confidence
in your royal advent, has been passed on through
faithful living?

Blessed is the one who comes
in the name of God. Hosanna in the highest.

Twenty centuries past, what city has not rejected you?
From penthouse to tenement, from factory to leisure centre,
from theme park to concert hall,
surely the news is that this life is for taking, not giving
and what stands in the way of this lifestyle
must now be removed?

Blessed is the one who comes
in the name of God. Hosanna in the highest.

Twenty centuries past, what city does the Christ seek to enter?
From leafy suburb to shanty town, from housing estate
to West-End flat, from salon to slum,
surely the sign of the church free from pride, united in deed,
must be the welcome the Christ longs for
as he enters our city?

Blessed is the one who comes
in the name of God. Hosanna in the highest.

Amen.

“THE HOUR HAS COME”

Fifth Sunday in the Midst of Lent (Year B)

TEXT: John 12:20-33

Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:23-26a)

In today’s gospel lesson, we hear Jesus make some enigmatic—and perhaps vaguely disturbing—statements. First, he says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Then, immediately, he begins talking about death. He says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

“And I,” he says, “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Of course, it is his own death of which he speaks. He will be lifted up upon a cross to draw us to himself. He will die for our sakes, in our stead. Some people are troubled by that idea: that the Son of God would die on our behalf; die, so that we might live.

It’s a difficult concept to grasp. And yet, it is a truth that lies at the very heart of our Christian faith. It’s what the apostle Paul is trying to express when he says—in First Timothy chapter two, verse six—that Christ gave himself as “a ransom for all.” Paul states this even more clearly elsewhere, when he says that Jesus “died for us, so that … we may live with him” (1 Thess. 5:10).

And of course, earlier in John’s gospel—in what must surely be the most-quoted Bible verse of all—we hear that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Death for Christ means life for us.

Jesus often spoke to his disciples about his death, but they didn’t get it … not until much later. And we read the gospels … and we hear Jesus speaking about his death … and we think that we get it. But I wonder if we do.

Do we really appreciate his death and understand what it means to us? Do we comprehend the price that was paid for our salvation?

Today I want to quote something at length. It’s from a book I first read about 30 years ago, by Hank Hanegraaff. The book is called Christianity in Crisis, and it was re-issued in a new edition in 2009. This story appears in both editions.

          The time was the roaring twenties. The place was Oklahoma. John Griffith was in his early twenties—newly married, and full of optimism. Along with his lovely wife, he had been blessed with a beautiful blue-eyed baby.

          John wanted to be a traveller. He imagined what it would be like to visit faraway places with strange sounding names. He would read about them and research them. His hopes and dreams were so vivid that at times they seemed more real than reality itself. But then came 1929 and the great stock market crash. With the shattering of the economy came the devastation of John’s dreams. Brokenhearted, he, like so many others, packed up his few possessions and with his wife and little son, Greg, headed east in an old Model-A Ford. They made their way toward Missouri, to the edge of the Mississippi River, and there John found a job tending one of the great railroad bridges that spanned the massive river.

          Day after day John would sit in a control room and direct the enormous gears of that immense bridge over the river. He would look out wistfully as bulky barges and splendid ships glided gracefully under his elevated bridge. Then, mechanically, he would lower the massive structure and stare pensively into the distance as great trains roared by and became little more than specks on the horizon. Each day he looked on sadly as they carried with them his shattered dreams and his visions of far-off places and exotic destinations.

          It wasn’t until 1937 that a new dream began to be born in his heart. His young son was now eight years old, and John had begun to catch a vision for a new life—a life in which Greg would work shoulder-to-shoulder with him, a life of intimate fellowship and friendship. The first day of this new life dawned and brought with it new hope and a new fresh purpose. Excitedly father and son packed their lunches and, arm in arm, headed off toward the immense bridge.

          Greg looked on with wide-eyed amazement as his dad pressed down the huge lever that raised and lowered the vast bridge. As he watched, he thought that his father must surely be the greatest man alive. He marvelled that his father could single-handedly control the movements of such a stupendous structure.

          Before they knew it, noontime had arrived. John had just elevated the bridge and allowed some scheduled ships to pass through. Then, taking his son by the hand, they headed off for lunch.

          Hand in hand, they inched their way down a narrow catwalk and out onto an observation deck that projected some 50 feet over the majestic Mississippi. There they sat and watched spellbound as the ships passed by below. As they ate, John told his son, in vivid detail, stories about the marvellous destinations of the ships that glided below. Enveloped in a world of thought, he related story after story, his son hanging on every word.

          Suddenly John and his son were startled back to reality by the shrieking whistle of a distant train. Looking at his watch in disbelief, John saw that the bridge was still raised and that the Memphis Express would be by in just minutes.

          Not wanting to alarm his son, he suppressed his panic. In the calmest tone he could muster, he instructed his son to stay put. Leaping to his feet he jumped onto the catwalk and ran at full tilt to the steel ladder leading into the control house. Once in, he searched the river to make sure that no ships were in sight. And then, as he had been trained to do, he looked straight down beneath the bridge to make certain nothing was below. As his eyes moved downward, he saw something so horrifying that his heart froze in his chest. For there, below him in the massive gearbox that housed the colossal gears that moved the gigantic bridge, was his beloved son.

          Apparently Greg had tried to follow his Dad but had fallen off the catwalk. Even now he was wedged between the teeth of two main cogs in the gearbox.

          Although he appeared to be conscious, John could see that his son’s leg had already begun to bleed profusely. Immediately, an even more horrifying thought flashed in his mind. For in that instant John knew that lowering the bridge meant killing the apple of his eye.

          Panicked, his mind probed in every direction, frantically searching for solutions. Suddenly a plan emerged. In his mind’s eye he saw himself grabbing a coiled rope, climbing down the ladder, running down the catwalk, securing the rope, sliding down toward his son and pulling him back up to safety. Then in an instant he would move back to the control room and grab the control lever and thrust it down just in time for the oncoming train.

          As soon as these thoughts appeared, he realized the futility of his plan. There just wouldn’t be enough time. Perspiration began to bead on John’s brow, terror written over every inch of his face. His mind darted here and there, vainly searching for yet another solution. What would he do? What could he do?

          His thoughts rushed in anguish to the oncoming train. In a state of panic, his agonized mind considered the 400 or so people moving inexorably closer toward the bridge. Soon the train would come roaring out of the trees with tremendous speed. But this … this was his son … his only child … his pride … his joy.

          His mother—he could see her tear-stained face now. This was their child, their beloved son.

          He knew in a moment there was only one thing he could do. He knew he would have to do it. And so, burying his face under his left arm, he plunged down the lever. The cries of his son were quickly drowned out by the relentless sound of the bridge as it ground into position. With only seconds to spare, the Memphis Express—with its 400 passengers—roared out of the trees and across the mighty bridge.

          John Griffith lifted his tear-stained face and looked into the windows of the passing train. A businessman was reading the morning paper. A uniformed conductor was glancing nonchalantly at his large vest pocket watch. Ladies were already sipping their afternoon tea in the dining car. A small boy, looking strangely like his own son, pushed a long thin spoon into a dish of ice-cream. Many of the passengers seemed to be engaged in either idle conversation or careless laughter.

          But no one looked his way. No one even cast a glance at the giant gearbox that housed the mangled remains of his hopes and dreams.

          In anguish he pounded the glass in the control room and cried out, “What’s the matter with you people? Don’t you care? Don’t you know I’ve sacrificed my son for you? What’s wrong with you?”

          No one answered; no one heard. No one even looked. Not one of them seemed to care. And then, as suddenly as it had happened, it was over. The train disappeared, moving rapidly across the bridge and out over the horizon.*

This story provides a faint glimpse of what God the Father did for us—of what Jesus did for us in offering up his own life. Unlike the Memphis Express, that caught John Griffith by surprise, God—in his great love for us—determined to sacrifice his Son so that we might live. As First Peter chapter one, verse 20 says: “He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for our sake.”

Jesus was not caught accidentally by death. Willingly, he sacrificed his life for the sins of humankind. Listen, again, to these words from today’s gospel: “Now my soul is troubled,” said Jesus. “And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

The suffering and the death of Christ had a purpose. Those who join themselves to him, those who believe that he was lifted up on the cross for them, those who in faith submit their own suffering and their own pain to his—they honour what God has done.

Writing to the Corinthians, Paul said: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains but a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

It is difficult to comprehend the will of God, difficult to grasp just what he has done. But we know this—and we are called to accept this, and to embrace this—that it was done for us. And it was done so that we might live.

________________________

* Hank Hanegraaff, Christianity in Crisis: 21st Century (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009) pp. 167-170

 

The Blaming Game

Fourth Sunday in the Midst of Lent (Year B)

TEXT: John 3:14-21

“God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)

Condemnation seems to be a speciality of ours—we human beings, I mean. We are always trying to apportion blame—or shift it. It’s a nasty game, but most of us learn to play it very well. We see it operating in a raw way among children. We see it at work in much of what appears in the popular press. Right now, we are seeing it played out in the political arena on both sides of the Canada-US border.

I regret to say that amongst the people I know best, the condemnation game has become almost an obsession. In some groups I know, perhaps 70% of the conversation is condemnation of this and that—a litany of complaints about what others have done (or look like they’ve been doing).

Why is it so? Maybe—when we condemn others—what we are doing is trying to build up our own self-esteem by tearing others down. Maybe it is a crazy game in which we try to make ourselves feel superior and better. We say: “I know I have my faults, but that is really disgusting.”

Or, “When we were young we got into some mischief, but nothing like this. I don’t know what young people today are doing. Haven’t they got any morals? Haven’t they got any brains?”

If condemnation was a disease, we’d call it an epidemic. It infects every area of our lives, and it damages everyone it touches—because fault-finding is always self-defeating. A burst of condemnation may give us momentary relief. But the relief does not last. Our anxiety about our own worth soon surfaces again.

What’s more, if we regularly condemn others—and accept it as the norm—then we put ourselves in the position of living on the edge, forever suspicious that others may be similarly critical of us. “What are they saying about me?”

But you know—in spite of what much popular religion would have us believe—God refuses to play the “blaming game.” Condemnation is our thing—but it is not God’s thing!

The gospel—the “good news”—is about healing and rescue. That is what salvation really means: it’s about salvage! God is in the salvage business. Salvation is about the rescue and healing of humanity. It’s about saving us from the hell we’re already in.

Jesus did not come to add a heavier burden of condemnation. No. He came with a remarkable openness to us—and tremendous compassion. Certainly, he noticed the flaws of ordinary people, but he did not focus on them. His focus was on mercy, on forgiveness, on reconciliation.

Now, I’m not saying that God-love is sappy—or sweetly sentimental. God is no marshmallow. There is steel in God’s love. The love of God can be expressed in rebuke, in challenge, in protest and in discipline—just as we see demonstrated over and over again in the Bible. Nothing that can ruin God’s children will go unchallenged. Nobody is regarded as worthless. No one is disposable.

There is a judgement factor in God’s love. Now, when you hear that word judgement, some of you may immediately think of a lofty, stern figure handing down a sentence. But it ain’t necessarily so. For example, in order to help a patient, a physician must make a judgement. Healing often involves painfully honest diagnosis, maybe some unpalatable medicine, and sometimes painful physiotherapy or major surgery. Yet the end result is not destruction, but cure.

Jesus is the physician who uncovers what’s really wrong. His loving presence exposes evil. He points it out. He warns us about it. But he does not judge us for it—even though our religious training and cultural conditioning might tell us otherwise. And I think most of us have been trained to think that way. It’s so much a part of our worldview that it’s almost automatic.

I’m sure we’ve all heard the scripture, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). For much of my life, I heard that statement as a threat—if you’re bad, God will get you! It wasn’t until I became a parent that I understood what that verse really means; it’s not a threat—it’s a well-intentioned warning. It’s what you mean when you tell your three-year-old not to touch the hot stove, or when you caution your teenager about drugs. It’s urgent advice from God, who loves you: “The wages of sin is death! Be careful, my child, be wise.”

It’s the warning, not the judgment—and it certainly isn’t the punishment. No. Those things we do to ourselves. If we touch the hot stove, we get burned. The judgement is self-imposed. Our response to the warning makes our judgment good or bad. Whether we accept what is given to us to protect us—that is what makes our judgment good or bad. Our response to Jesus is the judgement. As Jesus himself said in today’s gospel lesson:

“This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19)

If we choose to live in darkness, we will slowly lose our sight; we will become blind. That is the judgement we would bring on ourselves. If we prefer the darkness of evil to the light of God, we lose our sensitivity to truth—and we become spiritually blind. This is the inescapable judgement. We judge ourselves by our goals, our values, our decisions, our actions.

The world judged itself when it rejected God’s true Son. For John, the cross is a sign of ultimate judgement—and yet it is also the ultimate sign of God’s glory. For God is willing and able to rescue and heal and reconcile even those who have done the most wicked of deeds. In Christ, God heals the blind and the half-blind. God can save even those who seem irrevocably lost. God offers us his redeeming love—not condemnation!

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)

What God does for us, we are also to do for one another. We are to love others sufficiently to forgive, uplift, heal and restore. We are called to be merciful even as God is merciful. We can break the vicious cycle of condemnation that is spinning out of control in the world around us.

How? By forgiving each other. We can bring hope even into lives beleaguered by frustration and mired in despair. In fact, often we are called to be the mediators of not just our own mercy, but of God’s mercy. As the only “body of Christ” visible now on earth, the church (and that’s all of us) is called to the ministry of reconciliation—called to make forgiveness and restoration real to those who need it.

What an awesome responsibility! And at the same time, what an amazing privilege! Love, love, love … and yet more love—that is our mission. This does not mean, however, that we are to be like soft, sweet mush. Sometimes love has to be hard and sharp. We are to love others enough to expose evil in whatever form it takes. This, also, is part of our ministry in the name of Christ.

But we must never slip over the line into condemnation. Far too often in its history, the church has debased the name of its Lord by doing exactly that. During this Lenten season, let’s resolve to break condemnation’s chain—beginning with our own. May God richly bless us, and guide us, and faithfully uphold us as we labour for his Kingdom. Amen.

CRACKING THE WHIP

Third Sunday in the Midst of Lent (Year B)

TEXT:  John 2:13-22

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!” (John 2:13-16)

Theodore Roosevelt … anybody remember him? If you do, you’re really old, because he died in 1919!

“Teddy” Roosevelt was the 26th President of the United States, and—as an adult—he was known for his toughness and courage. In fact, on one occasion—after he had been shot in the chest by a would-be assassin—he refused to visit the hospital until he finished delivering the 90-minute speech he had prepared.*

“I do not care a rap about being shot,” Roosevelt said. “Not a rap!” 

However, he wasn’t always that brave. It seems that, as a young boy growing up in New York City, Teddy Roosevelt became absolutely terrified of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church—which was where his family attended worship.

Now, some of you reading this may not be surprised by that. As I understand it, many people have been terrified of the Presbyterian Church.

But young Teddy had a very specific reason for his fear. When his mother asked him about it, all Teddy could say was he didn’t want the “zeal” to get him—like it said in the Bible.

Further inquiry led Mrs. Roosevelt to the Scripture recently quoted by the pastor, from the King James Version, where Jesus says: “And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up” (John 2:17).

Little Teddy figured that—under some pew, or perhaps behind the pulpit—the man-eating “zeal monster” was hiding, lying in wait to grab its next victim.

As we consider this morning’s gospel lesson—which in our modern translation reads, “Zeal for your house will consume me”—we might wonder whether this “zeal” thing is some kind of monster.

Consider what it drove Jesus to do.

“In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple …” (John 2:14-15a)

Now, that’s not something most of us can easily picture: Jesus with a whip.

Lots of churches have framed pictures of Jesus on their walls. Some people even have them in their homes. And the scenes they portray are fairly predictable: Jesus as an infant in the arms of his mother; Jesus surrounded by children; Jesus with a lamb draped over his shoulders; Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

But I’ve never seen anyone hang a picture on their wall of Jesus with a whip!  It’s not a very popular theme. But that’s how Jesus is depicted in today’s reading from the second chapter of John’s Gospel.

What a scene! And it took place in the temple—the great temple of God in Jerusalem. Well, not actually inside the temple building itself, but in the temple precincts—the area around the temple where there was plenty of open space for everything from animal traders to a whip-cracking preacher.

Before we go any further, let’s make one thing clear: Jesus loved the temple. Of that, there is no doubt.

When he was 40 days old, his parents took him to the temple, and there they made the appropriate sacrifices prescribed by the Law of Moses for a first-born son. When Jesus was 12 years old, having traveled to Jerusalem with his parents for the Passover, he stayed behind in the temple.

Remember that story? He loved the temple so much he could not bear to leave it when the rest of his family began their journey back home to Nazareth. When Mary and Joseph discovered he was missing, they searched for three long days until they found him there in the temple.

Remember what he said to them? He said, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)

The temple was his Father’s house. So, yes—of course Jesus loved the temple. He was zealous for the temple. He worshipped there and taught there. And when Jesus, now grown into a man, arrived in Jerusalem for yet another Passover, he went to the temple and cleansed it. That’s what he was doing. That’s what Christian tradition has called the story which we heard today: the “cleansing of the temple.” The temple had been defiled, so Jesus cleansed it.

He purified it. That’s how zealous for the temple he was. That’s how much he loved it.

But Jesus also knew that something greater than the temple had come, and that he himself was that greater thing. “Destroy this temple,” he said, “and in three days I will raise it up.”

Although Jesus did speak of the destruction of the temple elsewhere—the one of brick and stone—on this particular occasion, he was referring to the temple of his body. When he says, “in three days I will raise it up”—he’s talking about his own death and resurrection. But, about that, Jesus was misunderstood—as he always was, whenever he spoke about his death and rising.

People just didn’t get it. “What’s the point of that?” they wondered. “What would that accomplish?” But Jesus, cracking that whip in the temple, was trying to clue them in.

Did you notice how, in today’s gospel reading, when Jesus cleanses the temple, he targets the animals? “Making a whip of cords,” we’re told, “he drove them all out of the temple.” Not just the money-changers and those who sold pigeons, but the pigeons themselves; the sheep and oxen, too—he drove them all out. It must have been quite a commotion—the pigeons flapping their wings in panic, the sheep bleating, the oxen … well, making whatever noise oxen make.

So what were the animals doing there in the first place? We don’t usually bring our animals into church. Why was there a menagerie in the temple?

The animals were there for the sacrifices, of course: the sacrifices prescribed by the Law of Moses. Jews would come from all over the world to the temple to offer up their sacrifices to God.

Rather than bring their own goats or lambs with them over the long and perilous journey, they’d buy them when they got to the temple—which is why the vendors and money-changers were there. It was all for the sake of convenience so that the proper sacrifices could be made. And they had to be made.

To atone for sin the animals were offered up, to restore the communion with God which sin had disrupted.

But wait a minute. Can the sacrifice of animals really atone for sin and restore communion with God?

It’s hard to see how they could. And indeed, they cannot. As the author of the book of Hebrews says, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Heb. 10:4)

For what purpose, then, were the animal sacrifices in the temple established?

Today, in retrospect, we can see that they anticipated the blood that would be spilled—the blood that could take away sins: the blood of Christ, which he shed for us upon the cross. Now that he had come, the animals had to go—which is why Jesus made a whip of cords and drove them out of the temple.

“Take these things out of here!” he said, for he—and he alone—would be the atonement for our sins.

Fittingly enough, I suppose, what Jesus did when he cleansed the temple led directly to the sentence of death being pronounced upon him. At Jesus’ trial, muddled witnesses testified:

“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another …’” (Mark 14:58).

Of course, those witnesses didn’t get it quite right, for Jesus, you remember, was speaking about the temple of his body. But theirs was the testimony that led the high priest to ask Jesus who he thought he was: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” To which Jesus answered, “I am.”

Hearing that, the high priest tore his garments and said to the Council before whom Jesus was being tried, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?”

Then all of them—together—condemned Jesus to die.

So it was that the One who drove the lambs from the temple carried his cross to Golgotha like a being lamb led to the slaughter. And the precious blood that Jesus shed there accomplished—once and for all—what the blood of bulls and goats and pigeons could never do.

Jesus made full atonement for sin—and, through faith—communion with God was restored to sinners. Yes, to sinners! That would be you. That would be me. That would, in fact, be each one of us. Thanks be to God for so great a salvation.

_____________________________

*On October 14, 1912, an unemployed saloonkeeper shot former president and Progressive Party candidate Theodore Roosevelt outside a Milwaukee hotel. The bullet merely annoyed him.

 

A BLOW TO THE HEAD

Second Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXT: Mark 8:27-38

… turning and seeing his disciples, [Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mark 8:33)

Jesus is being kind of blunt, isn’t he? I would hate to have been Peter when those words were uttered. Just a few verses earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Peter was the disciple who knew the right answer when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?”

“You are the Christ,” Peter responded. You’re the Messiah. You’re the one God sent.

Mark—being Mark—rolls right on to the next part of the story, where Peter gets slammed for not understanding the meaning of what he has just said. But in Matthew’s reporting of this event, we hear that Jesus’ immediate reaction to Peter’s declaration was one of high praise, not condemnation:

Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:16-19)

Quite a comedown—from “I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom” to “Get behind me, Satan!”  But I guess Jesus was disappointed—and surprised. I mean, it must have been frustrating, after all. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Wow! He gets it. Peter understands. But, then … he doesn’t. When Jesus begins to teach them what being the Christ means—that he’s going to have to suffer, and be rejected, and be killed—Peter is horrified. He pulls Jesus aside and tells him that he’s got it all wrong.

Once again, it’s Matthew who gives us the details: “… Peter … began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you’” (Matt. 16:22).

No. He doesn’t get it. Even though he seemed to be the brightest student in the class, Peter simply does not understand the kind of Messiah Jesus has chosen to be. So the Lord lets him have it: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Yeah. It does seem kind of harsh. But you know, sometimes people have to be hit over the head before they can think straight.

We all know people like this, don’t we? And sometimes we are people like this. We insist on running things our own way. We hear only what we want to hear. We don’t pay attention to what others are trying desperately to tell us. And it’s not that we’re stupid, necessarily. Maybe, we’re just pig-headed. Or deluded.

Or in denial, like a man I know who would not seriously deal with his alcoholism until his wife told him, “Look—either you go to rehab, and go today, or I’m leaving you!”

Or like a woman I know, who refused to seek treatment for her depression until her husband did leave her.

Sometimes, we need to be hit over the head. Maybe it’s a health crisis that demands a lifestyle change. Maybe it’s an extended period of unemployment—or illness, or incarceration—that forces us to examine our lives, our priorities, and our goals.

Or maybe it’s 40 days in the desert. Like Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us Jesus spent. That’s what we’re supposed to be remembering, during this Lenten season. Even Jesus needed preparation. Even he required a training period, so to speak.

First there was the moment of glorious revelation, at his baptism, after he emerged from the chilly waters of the Jordan River, when the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, and God spoke from heaven, saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22).

Christian tradition tells us that’s what happens when each one of us is baptized, whether we hear it, or not. God calls our name, calls us his beloved child, and says, “I am pleased with you.” But sooner or later—whenever we decide to get serious about discipleship—something else happens: we get hit over the head with a cross. We find out that following Jesus isn’t all about glory. It isn’t all about ecstatic prayer, or feeling close to God, or enthusiastically singing songs of praise on a Sunday morning. All of that is part of the story, but it isn’t the whole story. Sooner or later, it’s going to be about feeling the nails. And that comes as a shock to all of us, I think. It’s the part of the story we don’t want to hear. It’s the chapter we don’t want to live out.

But it’s a part of the story we cannot avoid. There’s a cross waiting for each one of us, and what we do with it will write the defining chapter of our lives. Will we pick it up and follow Jesus in his way, or will we allow its weight to crush us? Will we trust God for strength to carry it, or will we leave it—and our discipleship—face down in the dust?

Those are important questions, and we have to confront them, for ourselves, before we can truly give our lives over to the will of God. The trouble is, at the beginning of our faith journey, most of us aren’t even aware of them. We don’t know our issues. We don’t know our strengths, or our weaknesses. We do not know—or do not want to face—the things that are really going to tempt us, or test us. We need to be shown. We need to know what the deal is.

I think that’s why the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. If the Son of God was truly human—if Jesus was really human the way we are human—then I think he needed to be hit over the head with the cross.

What was that about? Listen to the way Luke describes it, in his gospel:

… Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’”  And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’”

And [the devil] took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him … (Luke 4:1-13)

Notice what’s going on here? In Jesus, at the end of his 40-day sojourn in the desert, what we see is a person who has come to terms with his destiny, who has embraced completely the mission that God has laid out before him.

In the wilderness—in that desolate place, empty of everything except God, and the devil, and his own immortal soul—the carpenter’s son from Nazareth has been shown his cross, and he has made the hard decision to pick it up, trusting his heavenly Father to help him carry it. There will be no short cuts to glory. No easy way out.

No wonder, later on, he reacted so strongly to Peter’s well-meaning advice: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” To Jesus, it must have felt like Satan was speaking to him again: trying, one more time, to turn him away from the plan God had laid out for him—tempting him, one more time, to take the easier, softer way … thereby becoming something less than the Saviour we all need.

Peter did not know it at the time, but when he said those words—when he said, in effect: “Don’t do it, Lord! Choose another way!”—he was hitting Jesus over the head, just like the devil had done, again and again, in the wilderness. And so Jesus hit back: “Get behind me, Satan!”

There’s a lot going on in today’s gospel story, and it all relates to those 40 desert days … those 40 desert nights … when the Son of God wrestled with what it meant to be the Son of Man, and found a measure of peace—and a firm resolution.

That’s what the season of Lent is supposed to be about for us, I think. Whether or not we have an actual desert handy, the 40 days of Lent call us, every year, into a period of reflection and honest self-examination, under the guidance of the Spirit of God. It’s kind of like what 12-Step programs call “taking a personal inventory.” We need to do this again and again, because—spiritually—we’re all kind of thick-skulled, and we need to be hit over the head from time to time.

That’s why it’s a good thing Lent comes round every year. If you sincerely embrace the discipline of this season, you won’t be able to avoid asking yourself questions like:

  • What is my greatest fear?
  • What are the biggest obstacles to my discipleship? and
  • Am I really willing to do what God is calling me to do?

During Lent, what you’re really called to give up is complacency. During Lent—every year—you’re hit over the head with the question: “Are you ‘all in’?”

Will you actually follow where Jesus leads—no matter what? Maybe it is the devil asking the question. Or maybe it’s God. Probably, it’s both of them. But, here’s the thing: When Satan asks the question, he follows up with an easy alternative. When God asks the question, He follows up with a promise: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9).

The Lord may not offer a comfortable way out, but He does promise to help you, to support you, to add his strong shoulder to yours as you bear whatever cross you’re given.

And that, my friends, is why the Good News is good news. Amen.

 

THE TRUTH ABOUT DESERTS

First Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXT: Mark 1:9-15

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan … (Mark 1:12-13a)

For Mark, the gospel story does not begin with angelic visitors or a prophetic dream. It does not open with a miraculous birth or a poetic hymn to the incarnate Word. In Mark’s Gospel, there is no soaring prose. There are no travellers from the East, no expensive gifts, no awestruck shepherds, no jealous, brooding king. Instead, Mark’s Gospel hurls us, ready or not, into a lonely and barren wilderness—a desert—where everything either bites or burns or stings.

And in Mark, Jesus gets there so quickly! First, he is baptized by John in the Jordan River, and then—in the next breath—we find him in the desert, under the blazing sun.

Matthew and Luke, at least, allow him to linger a while at the riverside. In Matthew, he even has time for a conversation with his cousin, the Baptizer. If it were a modern story, they might have posed for a photograph together, their arms around each other, grinning for the camera.

After all, it’s hard to imagine a more significant happening than the baptism of Jesus. As he emerged from the water, the heavens ripped open, the Spirit descended like a dove, and the voice of God proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This ought to have been a picture-perfect moment—a moment to savour and remember and celebrate.

But there is no photo op. Almost immediately, Jesus is driven out into the desert to live with the wild beasts and be tempted by evil. Driven out! Notice that? It’s like the Spirit chased him—forced him—out there.

It’s not exactly what you would expect, is it? After all, God was pleased—no, make that “well pleased” with him. But directly from this moment of glory, Christ is driven into the harsh wilderness—into the desert.

The desert. When it comes to deserts—at least as topographical entities, as geographic locations—I’ll bet most of us Canadians don’t have a lot of direct experience (not with hot deserts, anyway).

Experts say that deserts are formed under unique climactic conditions. Maps show that they cover about one-third of the earth’s land surface. Globes indicate they are found only between specific latitudes.

That’s what the geographers tell us about deserts. But it’s not the whole truth about them. There is another kind of desert besides the wilderness of sand and sun and scorpions; and we are all familiar with it.

The truth is, sometimes—no matter where we live, no matter where we travel—the desert is all we can see. Sometimes, despite what the weather report or average rainfall may indicate, we find ourselves right in the middle of the desert: blinded, disoriented, sunburned, just about dying of thirst.

Sometimes, the desert feels so familiar that we can name every shrivelled plant, every venomous snake, every blistering ray, every irritating little grain of sand. Sometimes, the wilderness is where we live.

The single mother, stretched so thin that she almost disappears, knows the desert of exhaustion and despair.

The abused child, exploited by adults, knows the desert of a trust betrayed.    

The convict, numb to the brutality that surrounds him, knows the desert of violence and guilt and regret.

The bereaved one, suddenly alone, struggles through the desert of sorrow and grief.

We know the truth about deserts, don’t we? The truth is, despite what the geography books tell us, deserts are not found only in North Africa, or southern Nevada, or in the Sinai peninsula. Some of the harshest deserts are not marked on any map. They lie just around the corner. They wait for us behind closed doors. We visit them in our dreams.

But there’s something else that is true about deserts—something that Mark wants us to hear. Jesus has been there first.

That is the good news we find as Mark begins his narrative. No desert on earth is so remote, so barren, so seemingly inhospitable to life, that Jesus has not walked there first. And the presence of Christ in the wilderness reminds us of another truth about deserts. Despite all appearances to the contrary, the wilderness is filled with life.

A handful of desert soil, baked and brown, blowing in the hot wind, can be filled with hundreds of seeds, waiting for that once-in-a-lifetime rainfall—just waiting for a chance to bloom.

That withered plant, yellow and dry, has living roots reaching deep into the ground.

That empty landscape—lonely in the harsh light of day, comes to life in the moonlight as reptiles and insects emerge from hiding.

That broken heart—so empty and forlorn—begins to mend as love becomes real again in a gentle touch, a kind word, a compassionate action.

That wounded spirit—overwhelmed by despair—finds hope again with a fresh challenge, a new reason to live.

That bitter soul—filled with resentment—comes face-to-face with a contrite and devastated enemy, and finds, in the depths of its own desert, the ability to forgive.

Even at its most desolate, the desert is always ready to burst into bloom at the first sign of life-giving water. Maybe that’s why God so often uses the desert as a place for transformation. Maybe that’s why Jesus emerged from the waters of baptism only to be driven there—into the wilderness.

I know that this Lenten season finds many of us traveling through the desert, wrestling with our own demons and being tempted by evil. Some people might look upon that journey and despair. But we should not. For we know the truth about deserts, don’t we? We know who has gone before us—and we know who will walk with us on our journey. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“Thine is the Glory”

Transfiguration Sunday (Year B)

TEXT: Mark 9:2-9

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (Mark 9:9)

I love YouTube! That’s where I found a documentary on the Greenbrier Bunker, which is a once-top-secret underground shelter, designed to house members of Congress and their staffs during and after nuclear attack. Located 700 feet below the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the 112,544-square-foot bunker (codenamed “Project Greek Island”) was an emergency relocation centre designed to house the United States Congress in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.

The bunker—which was really more like an underground city—was completed in 1962, and could house 800 people. For the next 30 years, owners of the Greenbrier resort maintained an agreement with the American government that, in the event of an international crisis, the entire property would be conveyed to government use, specifically as the emergency location for the legislative branch.

The bunker was only decommissioned in 1992, after a Washington Post article disclosed its existence. It was presumably replaced by another facility—perhaps at Red Rock Mountain in Pennsylvania or Mount Weather in Virginia (although the mere fact we know about these two installations makes me … well, suspicious).

At any rate, if you visit the Greenbrier resort today, you can go on a guided tour of the underground facility, and I imagine it would be an interesting way to spend a few hours.

The bunker is an amazing place. According to the documentary, it contained a dormitory, kitchen, hospital, and a broadcast centre for members of Congress. The television studio had changeable seasonal backdrops to appear as if members of Congress were broadcasting from Washington, D.C., instead of from underneath rural West Virginia, behind 30-ton blast doors.

During one segment of the program, a tour guide points out the military-style bunks that the members of Congress would have had to sleep on, and speaks about what a hardship it would have been for these men and women to live in such Spartan conditions. Perhaps that touch of irony was intentional. What a hardship to have to sleep in a subterranean dormitory … but still a far better fate than that of everyone else, stranded above ground!

All of this was done in the name of “continuity of government.” Yet, one has to wonder what would have remained for them to govern! Government leaders, it seems, would spare no cost to preserve a political system—even if almost all of its citizens were sacrificed.

This being Transfiguration Sunday, I find myself considering a very great contrast. On the one hand, there are these politicians who would wait out Armageddon in their blast-proof chambers. And on the other hand, we have Christ the King.

In our gospel lesson this morning, we find Jesus not underground, but on a mountain top—having, perhaps, the original “summit meeting” with Moses and Elijah. And at the conclusion of it all, Jesus speaks to his disciples not of triumph or even survival—but of his own impending death. Jesus would build neither shrines on the mountaintop nor bunkers underneath it. Rather than ensure his own safety while his followers perished, this King would willingly give himself over to death so that his people could be saved. How different are the ways of God from the ways of this world!

We don’t know what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah talked about on top of Mount Tabor. But we surely know Moses and Elijah. Moses stands for the Law, and for a judicial approach to enforcing righteousness and protecting society from those who would break the Law. As for Elijah, you may remember that he was the one who had a contest with the prophets of Baal to see whose god was the strongest. And when his God won, Elijah slaughtered the losers!

Moses stands for a religious system wherein true discipleship is grounded in disciplined obedience to a legal code, and by keeping the community pure by punishing or expelling transgressors. Elijah stands for a religious system that upholds the honour of God by sacrificing God’s rivals. And war after war has been fought by those who believed that they would glorify God as warrior patriots, proving God’s supremacy by destroying his enemies.

Who knows what advice Jesus might have received from these two. But, ultimately, the decision about what to do next belonged to Jesus. And what did he decide? Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem—not to kill and destroy the enemies of God who had seized control of state and religion, but to stand firmly for truth and love and mercy—even at the cost of his own life.

There on the mountain top—at this moment of apparent, glorious triumph—Jesus is already pointing toward, and drawing his disciples’ attention to, his impending arrest, trial, and execution. Later—in John’s Gospel—he would say, “… when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself.” And the gospel writer comments: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die” (John 12:32-33).

Here is a very different kind of glory—starkly unlike the glory on the mountain top, but no less brilliant. Not only at his resurrection, but also on his cross, will Jesus’ kingly glory become apparent. Far from his death demonstrating the failure of his Messianic Kingship, Jesus is already thinking of his cross as his throne, as the seat of his royal ministry. For it is from that throne—the cross—that he will draw all people to himself. It is as a sacrificial substitute on behalf of his people—on behalf of us—that King Jesus establishes his reign forever.

Many empires have been raised on the sacrifices of brave soldiers, and many nations have been preserved by the valour of their sons; but this cross is the one place where the King makes himself the sacrificial offering for the good of his commonwealth, so that no more will need to be offered except the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

On the verge of the Lenten season, we are given both a glimpse of Christ’s heavenly glory (in his Transfiguration) and a foreshadowing of the price he will pay. And at the end of the Lenten season—on Good Friday—we shall begin to see his glory revealed in suffering. Our Saviour is not first a victim and then a victor; rather, he conquers death and sin precisely by offering himself. That is precisely how he becomes our King. In the very event that is to all human appearances the least likely to result in anything except failure and defeat (that is, in the death of Jesus) we are introduced to a different kind of glory, a different kind of King, and a different kind of kingdom.

In Jesus, we see the glory of God, whose concern is not to ensure “continuity of government” or to preserve a religious system, but rather to save and preserve his people. And I think that this is what we ought to be reflecting upon as we make our Lenten journey, which begins on Ash Wednesday:

  • What does it mean to live as citizens of Christ’s Kingdom?
  • What does it mean to follow this unexpected, unusual Messiah, who tells us that, if we would be his disciples, we must take up our crosses and follow him?

Or, to put it more starkly: if we would drink of Jesus’ cup, are we prepared to taste suffering as well as ecstasy?

And what will that look like, for us? What sacrifices are we being called to make in order to preserve not a religious system, but a people? Not to prop up a denomination, but in order to save the children of God? Will we venture outside the blast doors? Or will we huddle inside our bunker, hoping that the walls are strong enough? Hoping that we’re buried deep enough inside our whitewashed tomb?

If you know the gospel story, you know that—time and again—Jesus lamented the fact that the religious system of his day had forgotten the purpose for which God had created it. The system had become more important than the people of God; the rules and traditions which were meant to enhance and sustain human life had become burdens which denigrated and depreciated that life. Through his own death, Jesus sought to fulfill the requirements of that old system and usher in something new, resurrected from the ashes of what had gone before.

During Lent, we are reminded that we are being called to continue the work that Jesus began. We are called “the Body of Christ”—and if we would embrace that name, we must be willing to walk the path that Jesus walked. It is a path which demands much of us. It demands that we care as much about others as we do about ourselves. It demands that we stand up for justice. And it also calls us to turn the other cheek. It calls us to love even our enemies. It calls us out of comfort and into hardship. It leads us to the mountain top, and back down again. It leads us by streams of quiet water, and it forces us into the tempest. It leads us into death—and then it leads us even beyond that!

To be sure, it is a difficult path, fraught with peril—but make no mistake about this: it is the path of glory, and it leads us, ultimately, to that place where all things are made new, and every tear is wiped away, and the brilliance of our God shines brighter than the sun. There is no better destination, and it offers us something much better than “continuity of government.” As we walk this path, we have continuity of an infinitely better kind; for we travel in the company of all the saints who have gone before us, and with the guidance of God’s own Spirit, who preserves us and saves us.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Thanks be to God.