The Hope of Salvation

 

1Peter 1:17-23

 

Disclaimer

Sometimes a sermon comes with a disclaimer; this is one of those times. So here it goes:

This sermon may contain more advanced theological concepts and language that may prove challenging for some hearers.

I know this will be a turn-off for some of you. And I truly am sorry. I hope I will do a good job explaining and defining concepts so they can be easily understood. But the Bible is clear that it is not healthy to consume spiritual breastmilk for our entire lives. There comes a time where we learn the value of substance. We read in Hebrews 5:14 that “solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (ESV).

So if we believe (as we claim) that sermons are intended to help us mature as Christians, I’ve got to give you something to chew on from time to time.

Atonement

The big theological concept we’re going to be attending to this morning is atonement. At risk of oversimplifying, atonement is being reconciled to God. This english word was itself built for this purpose. Atonement is a compound of three parts—AT-ONE-MENT. It means being “at one” with someone (and “at one” means “in harmony”), so atonement means being in harmony with someone. And in the case of religious conversation, it means “being in harmony with God.”

Or, as a theology professor of mine once put it—Atonement = God + Humanity + Salvation

Atonement is one of those big concepts that our human, finite brains have trouble grasping. So like all big concepts (like the concept of “God” for instance), we understand it through analogies and metaphors. Over the last two millennia, there have been six dominant ways of understanding this work of Jesus, with at least three of them depicted in part in today’s reading. Since they are analogies or metaphors for a deeper, broader, bigger reality than we can comprehend, none of them is perfect. That’s why having a variety of images is helpful.

Yet there are quite a few Christians who claim only one of these is correct—and this despite the biblical presentations of other images. I have even been told a few times I’m not really saved because I refuse to confess that there’s only one image of atonement that is perfect and true.

It’s hogwash. When the thief on the cross asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom, Jesus doesn’t respond: “Today you will be with me in paradise, provided you affirm a penal substitutionary theory of atonement.”

As I said, our reading today contains a few of these images—or “theories” of atonement. So I want to take just a couple minutes to introduce you to these pictures of the work of Jesus. And then we’ll wrap it up by recognizing that the possibility of salvation opens us up to hope in God.

1. Ransom

The first of these images is the Ransom Theory. This is one of the oldest images to be articulated by the Church, and the picture is just what you might expect.

The devil has kidnapped humanity, holding us hostage and threatening us with harm.

God chooses Jesus to be the ransom paid to the devil to set us free.

Christ is paid to the devil, yet in the resurrection, God tricks the devil with the old switch-a-roo.

In our scripture reading, we find the Ransom Theory represented in the 18th-19th verses, which read:

it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed [that word means “ransomed” or “liberated”] from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ (NIV11)

As with all these images of atonement, this one finds its power in that the image is rooted in the life situation of Christians at the time. When a theologian named Origin fully articulates this around AD 180, Christians are a powerless and oppressed people. For this reason, the Ransom Theory continues to appeal to Christians living under dictatorships and those struggling with addiction.

2. Satisfaction

The second imagery I want to discuss is called the Satisfaction Theory. This analogy for atonement emerges in Europe almost a thousand years later, when the life of the common Christian there was based on the feudal system of kings and queens, of lords and ladies, of knights, and of peasants.

As a man named Anselm wrote about it, he remarked how the Ransom Theory didn’t make sense:

Why would God have to pay anything to anyone? God is God!

And moreover, God isn’t a cheat.

So in reading his bible, Anselm came up with a different image—one that fit quite well into the world in which he lived. Here’s how he imagined atonement:

In our sin, we have insulted God’s honor.

This “Fall” has sent the whole order of creation into a chaotic spiral down.

God (like the lord of the manor) demands satisfaction.

And this should come from us, but it is too great a price for any of us to pay.

In fact, it is so great a price, only God can pay it (though God is not guilty).

That means only a God-man can do it (someone who is both God and human). Though God doesn’t have to, God provides a way, through Jesus, who was both fully human and fully God.

We can see this image hinted at in v.21:

Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God (NIV11).

In other words, Jesus’ work opens the door for us to trust in God; it “satisfies” the “offense” so we can again be in right relationship with God.

3. Moral Influence

Around the same time, another image of atonement came to be articulated. A man named Abelard described what he called the “Moral Influence Theory.” Like Anslem and the Satisfaction Theory, Abelard wanted to address some of the failings of the earlier Ransom Theory. He argues for a more prominent role of love in the whole conversation, and argues that Jesus showed us how we are to live.

Christ, he argued, died for sinful humanity out of love for us, making the cross a demonstration of the extent of God’s love.

This is then to be our model: If you follow the God of the universe, you will become love; if you follow Christ, you will be an example of love in the world.

One of the many verses supporting this picture is found later in 1Peter, in chapter 2. Starting in v.21, we read that “Christ…[left] you an example, so that you might follow in his steps… [skipping to v.23]… When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (ESV).

Abelard argued that we are to follow the model set by Jesus, and that it is by following Jesus’ model that we are reconciled to God—it is by loving as we are loved that we experience atonement.

4. Penal Substitution

Still with me I hope? The next image I want to present is The Big One. No the best one, necessarily—but The Big One. What I mean is: this is the one that is sometimes used to clobber people who realize that analogies and metaphors never tell the whole story. I’m talking about the Penal Substitutionary Theory.

In Penal Substitution, the image is of a courtroom and a trial. It goes like this:

There is divine law, and any lawbreaker must pay for breaking it. The punishment is death.

We have broken the law, and God (who is apparently under the law and bound by it as well) has issued a death sentence.

Jesus takes our place on death row, suffering our punishment in our place.

His death is the payment for our breaking God’s law.

While it may not seem explicit, this theory is represented in v.19 of our scripture reading, as Jesus is compared to “a lamb without blemish or spot” (ESV). This is a shortcut way of referring back to the sin offerings of the Old Testament, prescribed by God as a way of symbolically enduring the punishment for our sins. In the sacrificial system, our sin was symbolically transferred to an animal that then dies and is presented to God.

To help you understand the Penal Substitution Theory, think about these verses from Isaiah 53:

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5 ESV)

5. Example

The fifth analogy for understanding atonement was introduced in the late 1500’s by a man named Soccinus. This one gets called the Example Theory, and it is somewhat similar to Abelard’s Moral Influence Theory that we discussed earlier. Soccinus argues:

Christ died rather than walk away from what he understood his true duty to God

He would not stop telling the truth about God, even if it got him killed.

In the same way, we are to follow his example in being speakers of the truth too.

A glimpse of the Example Theory can be found alongside the Moral Influence Theory in 1Peter 2. In parts of verses 21 and 22, we read:

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.

6. Christus Victor

Now there is one final image I want to mention this morning. Though I saved it for last, it is really the most ancient. It’s called “Christus Victor,” which means “the victory of Christ.”

The image this is based on is that of a battlefield. It goes like this:

Christ sees us trapped in battle with darkness and joins us, like a front-line general

Satan uses his super-weapon (death) and kills Jesus

We then spread out in fear, thinking we are defeated

But God pulls out God’s own secret weapon (the death of death), signaling the end of the line for the powers of darkness

As this imagery of atonement testifies, it is through both the cross and the resurrection that victory is won for those who believe in Jesus. I could quote any number of verses here, but the most comprehensive presentation of this imagery is found in the book of Revelation, as John visualizes both the past and future defeat of the powers of darkness in this apocalypse. The picture of Jesus presented in chapter 19 starting in v.11 fits particularly well with the Christus Victor understanding of atonement.

Saved from Ourselves

Still awake? We’re through the heavy stuff. Pat yourself on the back.

Now here’s what I want you to take away from all this: Grace.

You see, a central dimension of all these explanations and analogies (and there are far more that you can find with the help of the Google)—a key component of them all is that we cannot make ourselves right with God. We cannot do it ourselves. Our nature…… our striving…… our aspirations are somehow contrary—or insufficient—or unable—to get us to that place we were created to occupy in relationship with God.

Drastic measures had to be taken on our behalf.

Drastic love had to enter our world and lives in order to save us from ourselves.

All of these theories of atonement—all of these images of this particular work of God and Jesus—they all point to the need for grace—the unmerited favor of God. No matter how we explain it, the only way we can comprehend the possibility of salvation is for us to realize that God must save us. We cannot save ourselves.

But they all also testify to the fact that God wants to save us. They tell us that God will go to tremendous lengths to save us.

And because of this hope of salvation that we have—a hope rooted solidly in who God is, rather than the present circumstances and choices of our lives—we can indeed find hope in hard times.

Amen.

The Anchor of Hope

 

Intro to Series

Did you know that in the church calendar, Easter lasts for 50 days? Christmas lasts just 12 days. Advent lasts anywhere between 22-28 days. Lent lasts 40 days. But Easter—the season dedicated to celebrating hope and grace in light of Christ’s resurrection—is the longest holy season of the year.

And as things would have it, this year the Lectionary prescribes reading the letter of 1Peter during the Easter season.

1Peter is an interesting book. While it is has traditionally been identified with the apostle Peter, this letter addresses themes and situations that grew in urgency around the end of the first century AD. Specifically, this letter is addressed to Christians who are suffering for their faith in Jesus Christ—those whose religious convictions have led to very real social, economic, and perhaps even physical suffering. They are being punished by a culture prejudiced against the Way of Jesus.

In the face of such difficulties—standing before such tremendous obstacles—these Christians are finding their faith tested in ways they could never have imagined. The simple act of following Jesus is costing them in ways we could never imagine.

This letter, then, meets them where they are. It acknowledges the suffering they are experiencing—the hard times they face. Yet it aims to reorient the reader toward joy and hope.

While the trials most of us face pale in comparison to those of this letter’s original readers, the wisdom that is offered is just as valuable to us today, as we too struggle to find hope in hard times.

That will be our theme for the rest of this resurrection season: Finding Hope in Hard Times. In the coming weeks we will reflect on

the hope of salvation (and how we are saved from ourselves)

the hope of meaning (and how we are saved from senselessness)

the hope of being chosen (and how we are saved from chance)

the hope of grace (and how we are saved from defending God)

and the hope of a savior (and how we are saved from saving ourselves)

But first, we begin where the author of 1Peter begins: by identifying the Anchor of Hope. Let us read.

1Peter 1:3-9

 

11 Reasons for Praising God

(adapted from New Bible Commentary, s.v. 1Peter 1:3-9)

This treatise on finding hope in hard times begins by identifying the anchor of our hope: the one true God. And then, in the next few verses, it offers us eleven reasons for praising God…… Eleven realities that are indisputable…… Eleven facts that are not conditional upon circumstances. Within these eleven points, we discover how the inalterable reality of God and God’s work gives hope in the midst of trouble.

[And yes, that means this sermon is going to have eleven points. I may have to skip the poem at the end.]

1. Our reading begins: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Peter 1:3) The first reason to praise God is that God is father to Jesus Christ. Jesus himself talks about the closeness between he and the Father, even saying “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus is our example, redeemer, friend……without a God who “so loved the world that He gave His only Son,” we wouldn’t have a Jesus either. So no matter what’s going on in our lives or world, there is something—someONE—to anchor our hopes to.

2. The reading continues: “In his great mercy” (v.3). This is the second point. It is mercy that motivates God—not condemnation, not anger, not jealousy, not pride. Contrary to the faulty images of God that so many of us hold, this verse is quite clear that God’s motivation in engaging us is driven by mercy. Jesus wants us to know this about God—he goes to great lengths to show it to us. And twice he even quotes Hosea 6:6, insisting that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt 9:13; 12:7). That our God is a God motivated by mercy is another reason to put our hope in God in all circumstances.

3. “In his great mercy, he has given us new birth” (v.3). this “new birth” is the third point. The new birth……the new beginning……the transformed existence that is given to us is a product of God’s great mercy. It’s that mystery that Nicodemus wrestled with in John 3. It’s that transformational reality proclaimed in Galatians 2 as Paul says: “I have been crucified with Christ—I am no longer alive—but Christ is living in me; and whatever life I have left in this failing body I live by the faithfulness of God’s Son” (Gal 2:20 VOICE). Because of God, there can always be a new beginning, a new day, a new chance.

4. Point four. The author says that this new birth is “into a living hope” (v.3). In other words, the result of that new birth is a life of hope. This hope is qualified with the next two points, as its means and its object are made explicit. Yet it is also remarkable simply to recognize that on account of the inalterable reality of who God is and what God is doing, our lives can be filled with hope.

5. So what is the means of this hope? That’s the fifth point here. It comes about “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (v.3). Christ has been raised from the dead. We celebrate that most fully on Easter, yet this reality undergirds the hope that draws us every week. Without the resurrection, we would have no hope, as Paul points out in 1Thess 4:13. Without the resurrection of Jesus, Jesus’ death would have been “the most tragic waste in all of history” (Gal 2:21 VOICE). As we read in 1Cor 15, “If what we have hoped for in Christ doesn’t take us beyond this life, then we are world-class fools, deserving everyone’s pity. But Christ was raised from death’s slumber and is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep in death… Through Christ all of us can live again” (vv. 19-20, 22 VOICE).

6. This brings us to the sixth point. If the means of our hope is the resurrection of Jesus, the object—the reason—for our hope is surely the inheritance that awaits us as children and heirs of God (v.4). One of the ways we have understood the work of Jesus on the cross is to say he swapped places with us. Later in 1Peter 2 we’re told that Jesus “took on our sins in His body when he died on the cross so that we, being dead to sin, can live for righteousness” (v.24 VOICE). But if we swapped places, it also means that Jesus places us in his own position in God’s eyes, as God’s beloved children and heirs. Once again, as followers of Jesus, this is an inalterable reality in our lives—no matter how the storms of life may bluster and blow.

7. This inheritance, v.4 of 1Peter 1 continues, “can never perish, spoil or fade.” This is the seventh point. No matter what hostile elements may menace…… No matter the pollution that threatens to defile…… No matter our own fears of fading zeal or faith wasting away…… Our inheritance remains secure; it “can never perish, spoil, or fade.”

8. And why is this? That’s the eighth point. It remains secure because it’s keeping is not left with us: Peter tells us that it “is kept in heaven for you” (v.4). This is Peter’s way of saying what Paul means, when he says that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). In the Roman world, if you were a Roman citizen, there would be a record of your citizenship kept in Rome. No matter what happened in the world, that citizenship would be secure. But of course, just because you were a Roman citizen didn’t mean you were supposed to end up in Rome when you retired; quite the opposite: your job was to bring Roman culture wherever you were.
(cf. N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p.293)

9. That brings us to point #9: We “are shielded by God’s power” (v.5). This word “shielded” might better be translated “guarded.” It literally means “garrisoned.” And the point here is that we are “garrisoned” by the power of God so that we will be able to inherit. Nothing can threaten that. As an analogy, there are quite a few times the apostle Paul relies on his Roman citizenship to get him out of sticky situations. It provides him with certain protections not available to the average Joe. God is so intent on ensuring we inherit the promise that God uses God’s power to shield us and protect us—not preventing any harm from coming our way, but guaranteeing we do not face it alone and that God will see us through. Another reason to trust God as the anchor of hope.

10. Number ten. Peter tells us in v.5 that it is “through faith” that we are “shielded by God’s power.” Faith, then, is the means by which we are guarded by God. It is how we hold onto God’s promises. Our salvation does not depend on our actions, our morality, our righteousness, our knowledge, or our purity. It depends only on faith. It is only “through faith” that we begin the lifelong process of turning toward God. It is only “through faith” that we can submit to God and become like our savior Jesus. It is only “through faith” that we find salvation.

11. That’s the last point. Salvation. Peter says that we are guarded—”garrisoned”—”until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (v.5). Salvation—whether we do a good job explaining it or not—has past, present, and future components. Here in 1Peter 1, “salvation is described with reference to the past (Christians have been given new birth by God’s mercy), to the present (Christians are being shielded by God’s power), and to the future (at the last time will come the final deliverance from evil)” (IVP-NB Commentary, s.v. 1Peter 1:3-5). We can confidently anchor our hope in God because with God there is salvation. As the apostle Peter proclaims in a sermon early in Acts, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 NIV11)

Peter, of course, in the remaining verses of our reading, goes straight into acknowledging the troubles his hearers are facing. He speaks of “suffering” and “grief,” of “trials” and the crucible of persecution. But he does it all with the foundation of knowing God as the anchor of hope.

As we’ll see in the coming weeks, Peter never dismisses suffering. He never demeans it by suggesting it is any less devastating than it is. He also, I believe, never glorifies it. Peter isn’t interested in creating martyrs—the people he is writing to are already being martyred.

Instead, he wants to help them come to terms with the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves.

He wants them to know that God is with them.

He wants them to know that as followers of Jesus, they will survive this, even if they die in the process.

He wants them to know that—even in the face of tremendous adversity—it is possible to have hope and joy in your life. All it takes is anchoring your hope to the one and only God, who loves you and wants to see you through.

Amen.

Resurrection

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

 

Matthew 28:1-10

 

A New Boy

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, a boy was born. The circumstances of that birth were only noteworthy on account of the misfortune that tainted that supposedly joyous day.

The mother—pregnant out of wedlock.

The location—forced to travel 70 dangerous miles on account of a ridiculous political decree.

The parents—so shunned by family members that they were forced to sleep where the animals were kept at night.

There would be visitors laterafter the birth of this boy—but their arrival would be more unsettling than joyous. I mean, what do you do with the promises and predictions of vagabond shepherds and Iranian astrologers?

The childhood of this boy also bears no particular mention. It was a typical childhood for one born into a blue-collar family in that time and place. There was one peculiar event when he was about 12 years old. The family was traveling back from a festival, and it appears the boy did not get on the bus home with the rest of the family. When they saw he was missing, they called the police and went searching—but he was at a church (of all places) doing some Bible study. Certainly atypical for a teenager who runs away. But then again, maybe it was just a mix-up, right?

The life of this boy does not gather much attention until he is a man. But even then, one wonders. It was a turbulent time and place—and itinerant preachers were pretty common. I’m sure it was hard for his father and mother when the boy-now-man failed to continue the family business. But I suspect they came around—especially seeing the way people came to seek him out.

The man taught a back-to-basics type of religion. Be kind. Care for each other. Do good. Wash behind your ears……that kind of stuff. But he had some radical notions too.

He said that following God involved self-sacrifice: “take up your cross and follow me.”

He taught an inversion of the social order: “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

And—most radically—he taught that we are to love our enemies.

Like many of us in the exuberant days of our youth, the man had a flair for bucking authority. He didn’t keep the Sabbath the way he was taught—that attracted a lot of negative attention. But what made it worse is that he’d break the Sabbath by doing remarkable and incredibly good things.

Somehow, he’d heal someone’s blindness……but it was on the Sabbath.

Somehow, he’d cure someone’s sickness……but it was on the Sabbath.

Sometimes, it almost seemed like he was giving the middle finger to the religious authorities.

And people in power will usually do anything to keep their power. That’s the way this story goes, too. Our fellow upsets the wrong people. A plan is made. A betrayal is bought. A trap is set.

Arrest.

Trial.

Sentence.

His life ends as a footnote: just another would-be messiah, crucified by the Romans as a rabble-rouser and insurrectionist. Just as in the beginning, there are those who saw something more as he died, yet they proved unsettling too: a crucified thief, a Roman centurion……

But death was not the end for our Jesus. The morning after the Sabbath, two women go to the grave. They are tasked with the dirty, stinky, tainting job of attending to a decomposing corpse. But instead of a fetid body, they discover an empty tomb. Instead of the corpse of their teacher and friend, they receive word from an angel. And as they run away, afraid, they meet their risen Savior, who proclaims “Do not fear.”

A New World

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far, away, a new world was born—a Kingdom “not of this world.” It’s birth, too, went largely unnoticed by the world at large. It’s advent, too, appeared more unsettling than joyous in the moment.

Jesus, having “descended to the grave” (as the Apostle’s Creed and 1Peter 3:19 tell us), is raised by God to new life.

His resurrection conquers death and paves the way for abundant life—eternal life.

His resurrection breaks this world open so that a new creation can emerge.

His resurrection is a taste of the resurrection that awaits us all.

For in Jesus’ resurrection, the power that this world has wielded against us—the power of death—has been rendered impotent, for all time.

In Jesus’ resurrection, the very fundamental realities of how life works have been altered. It is as dramatic as though gravity no longer applies, or the earth no longer rotates around the sun.

In Jesus’ resurrection, the Kingdom of God is birthed into this world.

And now we—who were so lost to sin—can find rescue.

Now we—who were so broken by the world—can find healing.

Now we—who were so devastated by grief—can find comfort.

Now we—who were so afraid—we can find love.

In the resurrection of Jesus, what is of this world has been broken open. A new day has dawned. A new beginning has started.

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, the End was decided. And life, peace, joy, and hope……and love……love wins.

Christ has died!
Christ is risen!
Christ is coming again!

 

 

Good Friday Monologue

Note: I don’t often include the songs that were sung/performed, but on this occasion, I believe they add a certain something.

Sing: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Part 1

Man, I haven’t been back here in ages–not since that night all those years ago. I was younger then, of course. Though under the circumstances, I’m not sure I was any better looking.

I remember it was a nicer day than it should have been. There was a cool spring breeze blowing gently and bright sun in the clear blue sky–of course, that would change before any of us realized.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I seem to do that a lot when remembering that day. Never before has my memory been so clear and so cloudy at the same time as when I remember that day.

I’d known Jesus for some time, by then. You’ve probably heard about me, even though you never knew my name. Everybody knows about the 12, even if they get some of the names mixed up. But they weren’t the only ones Jesus commissioned to spread the good news about God’s kingdom. I was one of the 72 that Jesus sent out—two-by-two—to prepare the way ahead of him. It was unreal: I felt like John the Baptist in more comfy clothes and with better food. Man, those were some crazy times: people healed, demons cast out, all sorts of odds overcome.

You know, I wasn’t even in town when Jesus was arrested. The Jerusalem hotels get booked up nearly a year in advance, and—once Jesus told all of us he was going to Jerusalem for the Passover this year—every one of his followers wanted to be in Jerusalem to celebrate it with him. We knew it would be too late to book a big banquet hall—in fact, I’m not sure how Jesus managed to secure space big enough for he and the Twelve. But Lazarus and his family were kind enough to put me up. And just knowing that I was within two miles of both Jesus and Jerusalem at the Passover would have made it memorable. But of course, the events of that night made it memorable for other reasons—reasons that changed everything.

It was still dark when the pounding at the door began. Mary and Martha were obviously more used to this kind of thing than were the rest of us staying there. I got the impression that they had served as a waypoint for many of Jesus’ followers who needed to pass through the area unobserved. But there was nothing covert about this man—who I later learned was named Daniel. He yelled so loudly you couldn’t even make out what he was saying, and I thought the door was going to fall from it’s hinges from the beating he gave it.

Mary got to the door first, as the man panted out: “Jesus——“ he panted.

“Jesus……they……him……Gethsemane……swords……”

Something had happened, but Daniel was too distraught to explain. While Martha made some tea and Mary tried to calm him down, Lazarus and I and some of the others started packing our bags. Whatever was going on, we were going to be there too.

Suddenly there was a shout from bellow: “No!!!” Mary screamed. And we all came tumbling back down the stairs in concern and fear.

My memory isn’t very good here. It’s like I sort of zoned out when I heard the word “arrested.” There had been a lot of close calls for Jesus these last years. There had been a few times it seemed like Jesus was even throwing fuel on the fire. But he had always managed to get away, even if that involved mysteriously moving the crowd like it wasn’t even there.

But we’d all heard the rumors. We’d known how people were being kicked out of the synagogue for believing in Jesus. We’d seen the last couple days how the Jerusalem leaders had stirred up the crowds against him.

Arrested. Jesus may have given them ample motive, but there was no doubt the charges would be trumped up. There would be no doubt that those snakes would find a way to……

Lazarus’s hand clapping on my back brought me out of my daze. “Time to go, friend,” he said as we set out, the early light of dawn just breaking behind us. We had only a few miles to travel, but we didn’t really know where we would find Jesus. We knew they were taking him to Caiaphus’ house, but would he still be there? Even if he wasn’t, there were only a few places to look. If we were lucky, others who were loyal to Jesus would be trailing him, leaving bread crumbs for the rest of us to follow.

Sing: Go to Dark Gethsemane

Part 2

I could tell you about the next few hours—hours spent anxiously searching, fearing the worst and knowing nothing. But none of that matters, because we were too late. From Caiaphas to Pilate to Golgotha. That’s where we found him—stripped nearly naked, nails already piercing his hands and feet, crown of thorns savagely crushed into his head. I have never been able to shake that image from my memory.

Time seemed to stand still then, too. I’m sure there was chaos all around, but it was as though all the sound was sucked out of the world along with the air. Creation itself seemed to hold her breath as Jesus hung there—his heaving chest the only indicator of life.

Suddenly, it heaved more deeply than normal, and I knew it had to be the end—this would be his last breath. Jesus wasn’t going to survive long on the cross—not as long as we’re used to—but who could fault him, his body broken as it was, subjected to beatings that tore his flesh from his bones.

But after that breath, there did not come the expected death-rattle groan, but something even more earth shattering:

“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:34)

[SILENCE]

That forgiveness was a slap in the face, for certain. Here was Jesus forgiving the people who crucified him as a common criminal, and I’m still holding a grudge against Lucas for letting his dogs poop in my yard. What a hypocrite I am!

I’d like to say this knocked some sense into me, but I’m not so sure. But it did make me more aware of what was going on around me. While my mouth had been agape, my friend Jesus—the Messiah—was being ridiculed. It was that stupid sign!—“This is the King of the Jews”—that they put on top of the cross. What started with the authorities trickled down to the soldiers. My blood was already rising in defense of my friend when one of the criminals hanging on another cross joined in. That was the last straw! Hearing him of all people taunt Jesus and tell him to save himself was simply too much.

I opened my mouth to speak, but someone else beat me to it. “Shut up, you idiot,” I heard. Not quite the way I was going to put it, but probably better considering the presence of the women around us. But who was this that was standing up for Jesus? It wasn’t someone near me…… It almost seemed like it was coming from that direction……

It was! Could you believe it?!? Jesus, hanging on a cross, being taunted by one criminal and defended by another. I don’t remember all that he said as he stood up for Jesus, but I do remember the way it ended. He turned to Jesus with a strength and resolve that betrayed the dire circumstances and he said: “Jesus, when you come into your kingdom, please remember me.”

Holy smokes, right? I mean, I’ve heard of deathbed confessions and all, but this is pushing the envelope to the bitter end. Jesus, however, never missed a beat:

“I promise you that this very day you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

[SILENCE]

Salvation. I wish I could tell you we all realized then and there that this is what it was all about. But we didn’t. Maybe we couldn’t, I don’t know. It took Jesus explaining it all to us afterward before we realized that salvation is where this was heading all along. At the time, it just seemed cruel. Hopeless. A tragic ending to what could have been.

But even in this moment, as we were all thinking about ourselves and what this meant for us, Jesus was thinking about others. Jesus, as he usually did, was thinking about relationships and how to bring us together—how to help us find purpose through each other—how to help us be the fulfillment of our prayers in one another’s life.

Looking down from the cross, his gaze connected with that of Mary. His mother’s. Just a few spans away from the cross that bore her firstborn son. Oh God, I hadn’t even realized Mary was there, let alone thought about how she was feeling through this! “Forgive me,” I thought, as Jesus yet again managed to shake me from my self-indulgent despair.

His head turned toward Mary, who had John at her side. John had always loved Mary like she was his own mother. I think that’s one of the reasons he and Jesus were so close. Again his chest heaved. Again we held our breath in case it was his last. [WAIT……]

And again his voice—weak as it was—sounded above the din of the crowd:

“Dear woman, this is your son. This is now your mother.” (John 19:26-27)

That was when the lights went out. [PULL DOWN HOUSE LIGHTS]

Sing: The Old Rugged Cross

Part 3

Trauma has a way of messing with your perspective of time. Add darkness into the mix, and it’s nearly impossible to be sure how long it was between things. I’m not entirely sure I’m remembering it all in the right order.

The sudden and unexpected darkness that enveloped us seemed to unsettle those who had been mocking Jesus. They quieted down for a while—that was strangely fortunate. But then again, I think the darkness drove us back into our own thoughts.

Grief is a funny thing. We didn’t know about the different stages of grief (or all of that) back then, but I was experiencing most of them at that moment: there was plenty of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. But mostly, I remember feeling empty. Abandoned. Hopeless. Jesus had taught us so much about God’s care and concern for us, how we are loved by God more than the birds of the air, and all that. But here……when it mattered……God seemed nowhere to be found.

Suddenly, Jesus said what we were all thinking. It happened so suddenly that his voice scared me, as though I was startled awake once again:

“My God, My God, why have You forsake me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)

[SILENCE]

It wasn’t until later that we realized Jesus was quoting from the scriptures. That happened a lot with Jesus, but those are other stories for another time. Remembering the context of those words from Psalm 22 helped us (later on) to hear them as words of triumph instead of abandonment. They helped us transform the cross from a symbol of torture and death into one of hope and life. Because Jesus said those words, we realized that we were “the generations to come” who will “tell…of the righteousness of the Lord, of what He has done” (Psalm 22:31)

But I’m getting ahead of myself again. We didn’t know any of the yet. We couldn’t comprehend how Jesus was using one of the psalms he loved so much to transform our mourning into shouts of joy, just as the prophet Jeremiah had predicted (31:13).

Instead, it was dark. Jesus was obviously dying. And we didn’t understand.

As if we needed a reminder that his body was giving out, his voice again sounded in the darkness:

“I am thirsty.” (John 19:28)

[SILENCE]

Dehydration. Exhaustion. Anemia. It was all catching up with him.

And it was like blood in the water, and the sharks were circling. That very human expression of distress and weakness ramped up the viciousness of his tormenters. Instead of water to quench thirst—or even a little wine to help abate the pain—it was vinegar they offered him.

I could see Jesus’ body tense and twist as that sponge soaked in vinegar was squeezed against his face, dripping into cuts and running into the lacerations on his back and sides. Is there no end to the cruelty of our human race? How can Jesus forgive them, even as they continue to kick him when he’s down—even as their…their…their evil is on full display?

They were right about one thing: Jesus’ life was about to end. He even said as much, as soon as they got that vinegar-soaked sponge out of his face:

“It is finished.” (John 19:30)

[SILENCE]

It’s a strange kind of triumph when the goal is to expose violence. And that’s what this was, really. To people who didn’t know him, “it is finished” sounded like Jesus was giving up—like he was quitting the fight to live any longer. But to those of us who knew him—to those of us who had been so completely changed by knowing Jesus—we heard something different. There was a resolve in his voice……a note of satisfaction, like a job well done. Jesus, it seemed, felt he had accomplished something, even if we didn’t know what that was.

Nor did we have the opportunity to ask him. Because a second later, the end really came:

“Father, I entrust My spirit into Your hands.” (Luke 23:46)

[SILENCE]

Special Music: Kelley Mooney’s adaptation of L. Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

Drama Part 4

If we didn’t know everything had changed before the moment of Jesus’ death, we certainly did afterward. The whole earth shook, like the very foundations of creation were keening with grief. After the sun reappeared, someone noticed the curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom. The earthquake caused some caskets to be unearthed, and (without enough time to bury them all before the Sabbath), a couple days later some would even claim these corpses were walking about and “proving” they were alive.

Of course, that’s a story for another day, too.

The remarkable thing about this day is the way Jesus taught us to see how the Kingdom was already there. In his actions and his words, Jesus pulled back the curtain of this world and allowed us to see that the Kingdom was already in place—we just had to trust enough to live it out.

He did what I think the young people these days call “flipping the script.” All those things we were afraid of proved to be nothing. All those things we had trouble seeing became real. The symbols of death became the means to life. Even death itself became redeemed as Jesus recognized in it a reunion with the Father.

I wish I could tell you we knew all this at the time. But unfortunately, we didn’t. We knew Jesus’ death changed everything, but the change we thought happened drove us to despair. We holed up in fear, hiding out with the expectation that we too would be killed. This, we thought, was the end. The cross seemed to be one giant X-marks-the-spot where the train wreck of our hope piled up onto itself.

I’m not sure what else to tell you. All these years later, I still don’t comprehend a tenth of it. But my witness remains the same: I was there. I was there. I was there.

Sing: Were You There? (vv.1-3 only)

 

Lent: Revelation

 

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

Intro to Scripture

We have another long reading this week. But this one……this one we have to do all together. There’s no splitting it up, no skipping parts. Matthew himself has written it in a way that weaves the themes and stories so closely together that you simply cannot stop reading until the end.

We often focus on the story of the Triumphal Entry of Jesus on Palm Sunday. But—if we are not engaged in services of remembrances and worship throughout the week—we end up skipping from the celebration of Jesus entering the city to the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. And yet—as many of our songs and artistic images over the years have testified—it is the cross that is central to the work of Jesus—the very cross that we tend to skip right over. The resurrection is the work of God, but the cross demonstrates Jesus’ love for us.

And so today—in a move that is quite traditional in the broader Christian world—we focus on the Passion of Jesus, a phrase that refers to his suffering and death.

Matthew 27:11-54

 

Who Is Jesus?

This entire reading begins with a question. It is—in a sense—the most commonly asked and answered question in the gospels. And no, despite our need to hear the answer to that question, this one is not “Who is my neighbor?”

The question I’m talking about is: “Who are you, Jesus of Nazareth?”

Or as Pilate frames it at the beginning of the story: “Are you the King of the Jews?”

We’ve been reading a lot from John’s gospel lately. And John wants us to know who Jesus is from the get go:

Jesus is the Word of God, who became flesh and lived among us.

Jesus is the true light, who shines in the heart of everyone, and came into the world.

Jesus is the complete revelation of God, who perfectly reflects God’s heart.

All these things John presents in the first chapter of his gospel. The story that follows—in John’s gospel and the others—is the story of everyone else coming to know what the reader knows at the beginning.

In the stories of Jesus’ temptation (Matt 4; March 5), this question is posed to Jesus himself by the devil: “Who are you, Jesus of Nazareth?”

In the story of Nicodemus‘ midnight inquiry (John 3; March 12), this question of Jesus’ identity is never far below the surface.

In the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4; March 19), she all but asks him “Who do you think you are?” before Jesus says that he is the Christ.

The story of the blind man (John 9; March 26) tells of a series of inquiries aimed to disprove that Jesus is the Messiah.

Even last week’s story of Lazarus being raised from the dead (John 11; Apr 2) has Jesus’ identity at its heart. There he proclaims to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11:25; adapted from the VOICE).

To these stories, we can add the numerous times Jesus was directly asked “Who exactly are you?”, such as in John 8:25.

There’s that time Jesus asked about what the crowds thought of him, followed by asking the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15; Mk 8:29; Lk 9:30).

Especially today, we cannot forget the Triumphal Entry itself, as the procession of Jesus into Jerusalem left many marveling “Who is this?” (Mt 21:10 ESV)

And even before he lands on Pilate’s doorstep, he is questioned by the Sanhedrin: “If you are the Christ, tell us” (Luke 22:67 ESV).

The Answer

And so by the time we get to today’s lengthy scripture reading, we should almost expect it to begin with the same inquiry, the same investigation: “Who are you, Jesus of Nazareth?”

You see, this is the story where the loose ends are tied up.
This
is the story that all those other stories were hinting at.
This
is the story where Jesus fully answers the question.
This is where Jesus reveals who he is.

And who is he?

That answer—the answer to the question everyone has been asking—is found in the mouth of a pagan, a Roman, a coarse soldier of all people: “Surely he was the son of God” (Matthew 27:54 NIV).

Confounded Understanding

Now maybe you don’t see it, but there’s something completely confounding about this. Over and over in the Bible, it’s the wrong people who realize things.

As one example, it is not Peter (the rock on whom I will build my church) who discovers that Jesus is no longer in the grave. It is who? Two women: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.

As another, it is not the disciples who lived and mentored Jesus who realized that his mission extended beyond the Jews. Who first comes to appreciate that fully? Saul who became Paul, a noted persecutor of the church who likely never even encountered Jesus in the flesh.

The question “Who is Jesus?” is not an question that can be answered in the ways we are used to. Pilate wants to answer the question by popular vote. That’s one of the ways we claim to know things. If enough people believe it to be true, then that’s good enough (……sadly). But today’s reading reveals that the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” is not discovered in popular opinion (contra Pilate & the masses) but in individual awakening (cf. Centurian). Something happened that defied logic, that defied explanation, that broke through the Centurion’s inability to see “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” that was right in front of him.

Similarly, the question “Who is Jesus?” is not a question that can be reasoned out; it’s answer is not the product of cognitive or intellectual thought. That’s another way we claim to know things: we think them through. We gather the evidence and piece it together to support what we already believe……oops, that’s not the way we’re supposed to do it, but that is how it usually seems to work. And we Christians can be the worst about this.

I was down to Council Grove last week. There’s a billboard somewhere along the way (maybe around Topeka?) that has a picture of a very new baby with the caption: “There Is Evidence for God.”

Now, I have a hard time looking at a baby without being amazed at God’s handiwork and inspired to live more fully into God’s desires—to help make the world a little more kinder and a little more like God’s Kingdom. But the existence of a baby is not proof of God……not really.

And more to the point—whoever is behind these signs has missed a fundamental reality of faith. We cannot answer faith questions by reason alone; we cannot “prove” the existence of God to those who disbelieve. The gospels are filled with stories of people witnessing unexplainable phenomenon performed by Jesus—who the text tells us continued to disbelieve. Faith, as Paul suggests in Romans 12:3 and other places, is gifted to us and grown in us by God. We know Christ because God reveals him to us and we move toward him.

Our scripture today is the pinnacle of that revelation as we encounter Jesus through the eyes of the Centurion and we (too) proclaim the truth that is revealed to us in the moment of his death: “He really [is] God’s Son” (Mt 27:54 VOICE).

An Invitation

Of course, all this has simply been an introduction to the most important question of all: Who is Jesus……to you

If you’ve made the decision to take up your cross and follow him, then Jesus is your friend, your mentor, your savior, your king, and the best picture of God’s heart we can know in this life.

But if you haven’t, I wonder if maybe God is at work—right now—gifting you with a moment’s faith, an individual awakening, a revelation that Jesus really is the Son of God. You don’t have to understand what that all means yet; even I don’t understand what it all means. But what God asks of us is not comprehension, but a turning of submission and obedience……a shift away from ourselves and towards Jesus.

If you’ve never really done that, I’d like to have the opportunity to talk with you about it. I’d like to ask you to come see me during our closing hymn, or even after the service. I’m not a salesman. I’m not a persuasive debater. But Jesus is my friend, and that has changed my life.

Who is Jesus to you?

 

 

Lent: Revolution

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

 

Revolution

This week’s Lenten theme is “revolution.” And among other things, that means I’ve had a song stuck in my head all week.

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world…

So begins one of those anthems from the late 60’s. Some of you were probably singing along before I even got to the end of that third line.

For whatever reason, I almost always think of this song when the word “revolution” comes up. But despite its pop-ey, upbeat melody, the Beatles’ song Revolution has always sounded a bit skeptical to me.

Maybe it’s lines like “we’re doing what we can,” where it feels as though they are acknowledging that “what we can” just isn’t enough yet.

Maybe it’s my own skepticism when people claim to have “a real solution” or a “plan” to the complex problems of our world.

Maybe it’s the awareness that changing the “constitution” or the “institutions” doesn’t translate into changes in “head,” heart, or “mind,” as the later verses acknowledge.

But I also think this song resonates with me because I identify with the kind of melancholy hope it suggests. I do believe that “we all want to change the world,” even if we are misguided or don’t know how to do it. I really do believe that the average person is “doing what they can” to make it a better place. And my faith tells me that “it’s going to be all right, all right, all right……”

Our scripture text today provides some key insights into the revolution of love that Jesus initiates in the world–a revolution that we (as his followers) continue to pursue and practice as we pray: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

But first: let us begin our reading with John 11:1-16.

Part I: John 11:1-16

 

Overcoming Fear of Being Hurt by Others

Jesus and his friends have a lot of genuine concerns in this first section of verses from our scripture reading.

They are concerned about their friend Lazarus’ illness

The disciples have concerns about Jesus’ judgment

There are concerns about encountering resistance from those opposing Jesus’ ministry

There is the genuine possibility of physical harm

And there is even a possibility—as voiced by Thomas/Didymus—that this brief road trip back to Bethany could be the end of the line for the Jesus movement

They are—quite in fact—putting themselves into direct harm by going to their friends’ side. Last time they were there—just days before, it appears—the locals tried to kill them. In order to walk with Jesus, the disciples have to overcome the fear of being hurt by others. In order to advance Jesus’ revolution, they must obey him to the point of laying down their very own lives on account of Jesus’ great love for others.

Let’s read some more……

Part II: John 11:17-27

 

Overcoming Fear of Death Itself

One does not make friends by being late to a funeral. You can be late to almost anything else in life, but if you are late to a funeral, the family of the deceased will write you off as someone who never really cared. I can’t help believe that reality has always been so.

I have witnessed too many heated exchanges after funerals to imagine this confrontation between Martha and Jesus in any other way. At least, that’s the way it begins. Jesus has a way of simultaneously diffusing and exacerbating the depth of emotion around him.

Jesus is so late he missed the funeral entirely. Martha, hearing Jesus is finally in town, goes out to meet him. Mary stays home, perhaps not even wanting to see Jesus’ face at this time of deep grief and perceived betrayal.

Yet within Martha’s grief remains the kernel of faith. She knows that “with God all things are possible,” as Jesus says elsewhere in the gospels (Mt 19:26; Mk 10:27). And with that faith comes a hope—the hope of resurrection both in the next life and in this one. Her hope allows her to overcome the fear of death itself. For in the revolution of Jesus, the impossible becomes possible

But our story is not yet over……

Part III: John 11:28-45

 

Overcoming the Grave

Jesus, as scripture testifies, is genuinely moved by the grief of his friends and his own grief. I have sat with so many grieving folks over the years—folks that too often think grief demonstrates a lack of faith on their part. They believe that if only their faith were stronger they could face death with a certain casualness and rationality, instead of experiencing such heartbreak and devastation.

This story should completely and utterly undermine that way of thinking. There has not been another human being on earth in all of history whose faith and utter reliance on God can be compared with Jesus. Yet here we find him—devastated and weeping—at the death of his friend. Even though he is going to invite Lazarus to rejoin the living in just moments, this text shows that even Jesus has to discover the hope that overcomes the grave.

Fear & Revolution

Fear is a powerful motivator, and (according to the experts in such things) fear of death is the strongest motivator of all. It’s a beneficial evolutionary trait, the scientists say; fear keeps us alive.

But in coming to earth—in living and loving and dying—Jesus initiates a revolution of love.

No longer will we be bound and limited by fear.

No longer will death hold sway over us.

No longer will fear form the basis of our life and relationships.

In the revolution began in Christ, “perfect love drives out fear,” as we read in 1John 4:18. And (as this story of Jesus demonstrates) perfect love is made real in our world when we risk ourselves for one another. In a few more chapters (in John 15:13), Jesus will make this even more clear to us when he says “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (NIV11).

(In our text this morning) Hope overcame fear only because Jesus and his disciples were willing to risk their own lives to be with Martha and Mary. In doing so, they made love real in the world, and they advanced this revolution Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.

By the ways of this world, fear keeps us alive. But according to the revolution of Jesus, it is in risking ourselves for others that we discover eternal life.

As we learn to see through Jesus’ eyes, we observe that fear binds and limits us, while hope frees us up to the limitless possibilities of our God-given potential.

What we are talking about here is not merely a reformation of our thinking and being, as we discussed with the Nicodemus text a couple weeks back (March 12). Nor is this a resolution to challenge our faulty ways of thinking, as we discussed last week in story of the blind man’s healing.

Here Jesus is demonstrating the way of revolution—the way to “overcome the world,” as Jesus will explicitely state in John 16:33. His actions here demonstrate how to subvert the powers of the world, how to free ourselves from the slavery of the fear of death, how to experience the liberating hope of God’s redemption, and how to live in the abundant life of God.

The means of accomplishing all of this… the means of advancing this revolution is this: to overcome fear with love.

Conclusion

Now, even though we’ve worked through 45 verses this morning, the story is still far from over. In fact, John’s gospel becomes a bit of a page turner at this point, as each story builds into the next. You see, before the chapter ends, the author provides some significant foreshadowing, telling us that this resurrection of Lazarus echoes with consequences all the way to the office of the High Priest.

Jesus’ life has been threatened before, but it was always by impassioned crowds reacting to their traditions being questioned. Here, at the end of John chapter 45, there begins an intentional, covert plan of action with the purpose of ending Jesus’ life. Here, at the end of this chapter, Jesus can no longer move about publicly, instead hiding in the wilderness outside a small town.

Beginning at the end of this chapter, things get even more dangerous for Jesus, as there is a building expectation that Jesus will make another dangerous choice—another choice to go where peril is certain—this time, to go to Jerusalem and die.

It’s a pattern in Jesus’ life precisely because it is the means of the Jesus revolution:

Risk yourself for others and love will conquer fear.

Risk yourself for others and hope will overpower despair.

Risk yourself for others and the Kingdom of God will be advanced.

“You say you want a revolution”? You want to save the world?

Choose love, even at personal expense.

Choose hope, even when it hurts.

Choose Christ, even when it costs you the world.

Pray

God,

Our scripture text today is permeated with emotion,
And most prominent among these is love.

May we remember the lessons of this chapter:
That love combats fear,
Love comforts grief,
Love grows faith,
And love—yes love—even conquers the grave.

Thank you for the example of love
that we have in your son, our Savior, Jesus the Christ.
And give us the courage to offer all of ourselves
in the cause of Christ, the revolution of love,
that is the Kingdom of God.

Amen.

Lent: Resolution

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

 

John 9:1-41

 

“It Is Not God”

Every now and again you encounter something that allows you to see everything in a new light. As a pastor, I am often present with individuals and families in the immediate aftermath of such occasions.

Perhaps it is the birth of a child, or the death of a friend.

Perhaps it involves a deep betrayal by a relative, or a near-dump truck load of generosity and kindness heaped upon them by a stranger.

Perhaps it involves a radically-widening worldview after travel or a near experience.

But all of a sudden, everything is different. You just can’t go back to seeing the world in the same way—not anymore.

There have been a few times—rare times, for sure—but a few times where this dramatic change happened to me because of something I read. In these instances, the words I encountered reverberated so absolutely with truth, and the concepts that were communicated allowed me to see so clearly that it was like “scales” fell from my eyes, as Acts 9:18 describes when a blind Paul regained vision at last.

One of these reality-altering quotes came from the pen of Augustine of Hippo, one of the most important theologians of Christian history. While discussing God, Augustine, a Christian leader from around 400 AD, says:

“Why wonder that you do not understand? For if you understand, it is not God.”
(85 Serm. 117, 5: PL 38, 673.—cited by Pope John Paul II in Augustinum Hipponensem, 28 Aug 1986)

Now, maybe that seems like a lot and maybe that seems like nothing. Let me try to put it into more clear and current language for you. What Augustine is claiming is that everything we think about God is incomplete and faulty. Every profession we make about God has some inherent untruth to it.

Many talk of God as “father.” But God does not equal father and father does not equal God.

Many talk of God as “eternal.” Yet how are we finite beings supposed to comprehend the infinite?

Many talk of God as “creator.” Yet as creations we cannot even begin to imagine what this means.

Many talk of God as “love.” But even this is decidedly inadequate, because our experiences of imperfect love hinder our ability to comprehend God’s complete love for us.

All of these are metaphors—comparisons between someone we cannot comprehend (God) and things we can comprehend. As such, they are all imperfect and they will all fail some of us.

How (for instance) does a child of a deadbeat dad connect with God as “father”?

How does an abused spouse comprehend God as “love”?

How does a regularly shuffled-around foster kid comprehend God as “eternal”?

These metaphors break down. And when they do, they must be abandoned. But that doesn’t mean that I give up on God if I give up on the metaphor of “father.” Instead, I just lean on the many other metaphors to help me learn and live and grow.

What Augustine argues here is firmly anchored in the Bible itself. In 1Corinthians 13, Paul argues that “we know in part… but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears… Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1Corinthians 13:9-10, 12 NIV11).

You see, both Paul and Augustine are trying to help us resolve to hold our convictions cautiously. They want us to be open to new discoveries as our friendship with Jesus grows. They know all too well how assumptions and metaphors and prejudices can become intertwined into the fabric of faith, and that (if we are going to be following Jesus) we need to resolve to challenge and change our thinking on these old prejudices and assumptions.

Traditional “Wisdom” vs. Outsider Experience

Our Scripture text today provides us with a perfect illustration of this. Jesus and the Jewish leaders again go toe-to-toe, this time with a recently-healed blind man caught in the middle.

This story begins, however, with genuine theological inquiry. As we were made into curious and creative human beings, we have questions. How many of you have said (or heard someone say) something like: “I guess I’ll have to ask Jesus when I get to heaven”……yeah? The disciples have questions—and they realize they can ask Jesus right then and there. So they do.

In the traditional wisdom of their faith (which as a reminder is the traditional wisdom of our faith too), bad things are thought to be the result of bad choices:

A poor person is bad with money

A chronically unhealthy person has made bad health decisions

Someone who has been to prison deserves to be punished and ostracized

It just goes on and on:

A single mother must have been promiscuous

A lonely person must have made bad relationship choices

A hungry person hasn’t spent their money on the right things

We don’t often admit these prejudices within us, but a quick read of the news or a couple days in intentional self-awareness reveals they are the dominant patterns in our culture.

You see, we tend to operate under the assumption that everything works equally for everyone everywhere. It doesn’t, but that is just one of the many deceptions we buy into in our world and culture. We also believe (again falsely) that the world works like a vending machine: put your 55 cents in, push P6 and a Milky Way comes out. In terms of life, that formulaic mentality says if you do good you get good; if you do bad you get bad. And yes, that does happen—much of the time that happens. The Psalms and Proverbs in the Bible are testimonies to this reality; we could call it the “normal pattern.”

But remember: everything does not work equally for everyone. And so there are always those whose experience falls outside the norm. For some of us, this fuels the question of why bad things happen to good people. But in other circumstances, it takes a strong resolution to not prejudge those experiencing bad.

Take, for instance, Proverbs 10:4: “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” There are, no doubt, those in poverty because of their own carelessness; and there are, no doubt, those who are rich due to their personal diligence and care.

But there are also many who are rich on account of someone else’s diligence, a problem described as a “great evil” multiple times in Ecclesiastes (cf. 6:1-2). And there are those who are held down by poverty no matter how diligent they may be with their meager resources. While these “exceptions” may have been outside the norm two-and-a-half thousand years ago, I’m not so sure today. But they remain places of tension and prejudice where we as followers of Jesus must resolve to challenge and change our thinking.

The Healing

In John 9, the disciples see a man who has been blind since birth. He poses for them a theological conundrum—a challenge to that “normal pattern” of life. If misfortune is the result of sin, then his blindness has to be the result of sin. But if he has been blind since he was born, how could he have sinned? He didn’t have the chance, did he? Or is this (they wonder) a case of God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation,” as Exodus 20:5 describes?

Jesus, in his characteristic way, rejects both their theological solutions: his blindness was not the result of his own sin, nor of his parents: “but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” In other words, Jesus says: “Neither, you doofs. But watch while I take what you see as a handicap and turn it into something amazing and beautiful.”

Jesus then paints his eyes with the custard filling from a mud pie, and tells the man to wash it off. When he does, he can see—for the first time in his life.

The Backlash

But our story does not stop there. And that’s because this isn’t a story about theological inquiry; it is about prejudices and the destructive assumptions we make about people less fortunate than ourselves.

This man—now healed—goes back to his life. And the people who know him cannot believe their eyes. They won’t even admit it is the same person. (You know, in the same token—it’s a terrible consequence of our own blindness when we cannot allow the people around us to be better than they once were).

To each inquirer, the man tells his story. Eventually—with unstated purposes—they bring him to the Pharisees—the religious leaders. They too query him, but quickly dismiss him as a liar. Their reasoning is explained in a long, circular argument that exposes their own prejudice. Here’s what they say:

The healing happened on the Sabbath, so whoever did the healing broke the Sabbath

Whoever breaks the Sabbath is a sinner.

And obviously God would not give the power to heal to a sinner.

So that means—even though they have an obviously seeing person in front of them—they decide he has lied about the whole thing.

This inquiry—or perhaps by now we should say “witch hunt”—then escalates. The man’s parents are even questioned. They establish this is their son, that he was in fact born blind, but they cannot explain anything else. So the man is brought before them again and grilled some more.

The man, now sounding a bit peeved, offers some pretty powerful words of testimony that Jesus must be from God. But the blindness and prejudice of the Pharisees here overpower him. This time they dismiss everything he has said because he was “born in utter sin” and thus has nothing of value to offer. And then they throw him out—literally!—like yesterday’s garbage.

The Aftermath

These Jewish leaders are so blinded by their prejudices and assumptions that they cannot see what is right in front of them—a blind person seeing. They cannot and will not accept it because it does not line up with what they expect.

It’s hard to read this story and not to pity them.

It’s also curious to me that the disciples don’t weigh back in down the line. Like the Jewish leaders, they too had their assumptions and prejudices challenged by Jesus and this once-blind man. Maybe they were open to the teachable moment? We don’t really know.

What we do know is that Jesus sought this man out later on. He might be the only person healed by Jesus that he intentionally checks up on. I find that intriguing. Perhaps it is those who are wounded and damaged by this kind of stick-in-the-mud thinking that most need our care and concern. I don’t know. But Jesus does seek him out.

Starting in v.35, we read that Jesus sought out the man after having heard that “they had cast him out.” Here, one who is marginalized by the religious voices of the world is deliberately sought out by the Presence and Incarnation of God. Here (again, rarely) Jesus wants the man to understand who Jesus is so he can live in hope and fulfillment of God’s love. Yet even this tender moment is again spoiled by the blindness of prejudice, as the Jewish leaders hear and react with vehemence against the man and Jesus.

Conclusion

This is a roller coaster of a chapter. In it we have curiosity, hope, disgrace, kindness, healing, a power struggle, a revelation, and some lines drawn in the sand. We read it and feel all the feels, yet when it concludes we don’t know really what we feel anymore. Is it a melancholy hope? A silver-lined tragedy? We are unclear.

And I think part of why we are unclear is because it so illustrates some of the broken pieces within us. I started this morning with that quote from Augustine of Hippo, and I think it might be helpful to hear it again now.

If you understand, it is not God.

The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day mistook the “dim reflection” of their own understanding for absolute truth. They were so certain of what they thought they could see that they completely missed it when the actual Messiah, God-incarnate Jesus the Christ, was standing right in front of them.

In the same way, when we become so rigid and inflexible about the convictions we hold, we risk missing the eyes of Jesus in the stranger in front of us.

This Lent, let us resolve to change our thinking on old prejudices and assumptions. Let us follow the path of our Savior.