Archive for the ‘Jesus’ Category
I confess I have a singular television pleasure (Pawn Stars doesn’t count): The Office. I cannot help myself. If you have watched The Office you know how incredibly absurd Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell, is, but you are willing to look through him because even in absurdity there can be wisdom.
Blockbuster Video, the place I call my Office, has previous seasons of The Office on DVD and I can and do watch them while I am working. It’s not a matter of sitting around with popcorn and Coke on a couch. It is a matter of hearing the dialogue–which is often all you really need when watching the office. There is some physical humor, but it’s not really the most important thing. I prefer to say I am listening to The Office.
On the DVD’s one can access deleted scenes and every so often I do just that. I did just that after several episodes during season 2 and in particular I watched the deleted scenes after episode 8, “Performance Review.” Sometimes the best wisdom comes from the places we might easily overlook and I think it is easy to overlook the wisdom of Michael Scott. Here’s what Michael said in one deleted scene:
Michael: What is an office? Is it a group of people? Maybe. Is it an idea? Of course, yes. Is it a living organism? Exactly, yes. And any single cell organism has to have a spine, and that’s me. But the spine is always controlled by a brain, and that is Jan. But the brain needs a heart, and that is me again. So ironic. You know what? The heart is smarter than the brain. But the brain is so effing hot.
I know that won’t make much sense if you haven’t watched The Office, but all you need to read is the part couched in between the absurdity and the vulgarity. It’s kind of like the High Priest making a statement and having no idea what it means, how true it is, or what the ramifications would be for the entire population of the earth (John 11:49-50). But there it is. He said it. The ridiculous and absurd Michael Scott: “The heart is smarter than the brain.” It’s easy to overlook the utter brilliance of this sentence because it is surrounded by typical Michael and because it is only found in the deleted scenes files. I can’t believe this paragraph didn’t make the cut.
The thing about The Office is that, in my opinion, it’s not really about the office at all. I’m no sentimentalist, but I know that what attracts me to The Office is not Michael’s wisdom, Dwight’s antics, or Toby or Stanley or Angela or Kevin or anyone else in The Office. I watch The Office because of Jim and Pam. There it is, I confess: I watch The Office because the love story between Jim and Pam is majestic, grand, beautiful…in my opinion, it’s the only reason to watch The Office.
So I’m a sap. I’m captivated by this love story. The cat and mouse. The come and go. The give and take. The near and the far. The love story that is the central story to The Office is perfectly written. It is a story that perfectly illustrates what Michael said in the deleted scene: “The heart is smarter than the brain.” The heart finds a way. I wish I could tell you that while I sit here and write this I am not crying. I can’t. I’m thinking about the last year of my life and how I have played the mouse to Jesus’ cat, how he has been near and I have been far, how he has given and I haven’t taken. I can’t tell you how I am waiting for our break-up to be over and how I’m anxious to kiss once again for the first time. My heart cries out: Yes! My brain still dwells in the land of Meshek and Kedar. My brain is in the way, even if my heart knows the truth. I want to skip ahead to episode 4 of season 6. Again. But there are many episodes in between.
The story of Jim and Pam is a love story that captivates the heart and the mind. I have watched the relationship grow and grow…anyone who watches The Office knew from the very first time they watched the show that Jim and Pam were in love. We waited and watched and hoped and imagined the day when Pam and Roy would break-up and Jim would be the one and Pam would be the one. We never knew how they would come together. Jim got transferred. Pam was a little stand-offish. Roy got in the way. Jim had Karen. Pam went back to Roy. There was tension. There was chasing. There was flirting. There was danger. There was awkward situations and grand announcements. There was the Kiss. There was the fight. Still we hoped. We even hoped the friendship wouldn’t get in the way! We dared to think that in the end Jim and Pam would be one. We knew they loved each other, but how and when would they be together? At one time Pam told Jim she couldn’t imagine her life without his friendship, but Jim wanted more. We suspected Pam did too, but so much clutter was in the way.
So we watched. We waited. We wanted to see each episode unfold and what new twist or turn their love would take. We feared for Jim lest Roy find out and bash in his face. We wondered how long Pam would hold on to Roy. So we watched. And waited.
And then it happened…
There in the midst of the absurdity of the office, love blossomed and bloomed. There in the midst of every sort of dysfunction and sin, a pure love became. There in the midst of every sort of suffering and turmoil and trial and misery and uncertainty, love reached out its hands and took hold of two hearts and bound them together as one. There in the midst of friendship, surrounded by idiots, suffering, pain, and the every day tedium of mindless work: two people found each other and love won. There in the midst of the 6 billion inhabitants of this planet, two people looked across their desks, their eyes met, and they saw the person they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with. There in the midst of the murkiness and drudgery that is life, love was revealed and exposed and confessed and announced and bound and consummated.
There, of all places, love. There, of all things, love. There, of all people, love.
Do not our hearts long for this? Even when our minds rebel and scream and shout and rage against all that is right and good and pure and holy do we not know love? Are we are not all desirous of love? In the end, Paul said, all that really matters is love because all that remains is love.
I know it’s only television. I know it isn’t real. I know that love doesn’t really work…but then again, it does, doesn’t it? Isn’t that why I watch the show? Isn’t it because love is that way, it is like Jim’s and Pam’s? Isn’t it because we know that is exactly how it is, even with Jesus? That is exactly how love becomes. Love grows in the soil of adversity. Love becomes in the midst of the near and the far. Love takes hold in the midst of absurdity and uncertainty. Love is two becoming one.
And ours is a love story. In the midst of all that life is–the wrath, the uncertainty, the unholiness, the unhappiness, the tedium, the dysfunction, the crudeness, the awkwardness, the turmoil, the trials, the suffering–in the midst of it all, there is a love story. Many will write this off as mere fiction–the product of someone’s imagination, entertainment via cable television; and nothing more. But some of us are in on the secret…some of us are privy to the mystery…some of us have been given the key…and we know it is true. Despite out misgivings and our fears that the break-up and tension will never be resolved, that Jim and Pam might never get together, that there are too many obstacles in the way, we are guided by our hearts and our hearts tell us the truth. And we know the episodes that follow. We know there is a marriage and we watch all the previous episodes knowing and waiting with anticipation for the episode when finally, for the first time, the marriage takes place.
We are people who will endure season after season of disappointment because we know in the end, there is a love that will find a way and a love that will not be broken. No chicane will stand. Love wins. And season after season of disappointment will not disuade us from believing.
Then an entirely new life begins.
“Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”–Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter
I did something this past week that I haven’t done for quite some time: I took some time off from life and went to Pittsburgh with my wife and sons. We have wanted to see the fireworks from Point State Park for quite a while and this year we were finally able to do so.
We stayed in a small hotel in Oakland, which is a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh, and where The University of Pittsburgh is located. We were in a fourth floor room that had one window with a spectacular view of the mountains and Monongahela River. It was quite exhilarating to look out the window and see the river, the mountains, the bridges, the freeways, and all the cars moving along without a thought to the fact that those roads are being held in the air by nothing but concrete and rebar.
On Sunday, July 4th, we walked from our hotel in Oakland down Forbes Avenue through downtown all the way to Point State Park where we joined in with thousands of people, scattered upon the grass and concrete, to watch the fireworks. We sat behind an family of Arabic descent who were sitting next to a young white couple who were sitting next to a black woman and five small children (all boys). We watched sky-divers make a dramatic descent to earth, putting all their faith in a thin piece of silk and a few ropes. We saw people watching from the safety of their hotel rooms behind us. We listened to the thump, thump, thump of the All-America music being played by a DJ a short way off in the distance, “Born in the USA, I was, Born in the USA!” We smelled the BBQ, sweat, cigarette smoke, popcorn, and smoke from expended fireworks.
We saw a stand where we could get our favorite Chinese dish, General Tso’s chicken and fried rice. Or, if we preferred, from another stand, popcorn or cotton candy. We watched people squeeze 15 people into a space suitable for maybe 5. We saw people talking on cell phones and others talking face to face. We saw some folks making out. We saw some women dressed like they were going to church and others dressed like they were opposed to the very idea of clothing. We saw men in suits and others in their biker get-up and children in pajamas. We saw entrepreneurs selling glow sticks and others selling bottles of water. There were booths with information and food. There were police and other safety people. There were…people, Americans…and we were all together.
The young white couple that sat in front of my family was especially interesting. Next to them there was a black woman who was tending to five small boys. I don’t know if they were all hers or not, it doesn’t matter. What was amazing is that this young white couple became fast friends with the five small black boys and before long all five boys were sitting on the young couple’s blanket. Then the boys also began partaking of the couple’s chips. They talked as if they had been friends forever but when the fireworks began the conversation abated and there was a chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the five boys and the young man and woman. It was a beautiful thing–these utter strangers sharing food and blanket space and a song of celebration.
When the fireworks were over, everyone stood up and began the long walk back to wherever they were living that night. Some undoubtedly went to their hotel and others went back to their house. Maybe some went to their cars and others went a walking (like us!). It could be that others went to nowhere as they had nowhere to go or back to their box under a bridge. But for those 25 minutes at Point State Park, we were altogether one people.
It’s sad, really, that it takes something like a colorful recreation of bombs bursting in air is required to bring a people together, as one.
That same Sunday, the fourth, we also attended a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game. It was 9 innings of pure bliss (even my eldest son, who rather despises any and all sports, said the game was his favorite part of the trip.) There was so much going on that day–not least of which was the Pirates coming from behind to win the game against the Phillies. I can only think of one, maybe two, things that I enjoy more than sitting at a baseball game in hot, July heat, but not many more.
There we sat in a crowd of 28,000 people cheering for the home team Bucs! It seemed like the weight an entire city was riding on every pitch. It was so intense that I didn’t even mind the three year old sitting behind me who literally kicked the back of my chair for nine innings. There was the perogi race, the weiner toss, the t-shirt toss, and the perfect coordination of the ground’s crew who came out every three innings to drag the infield. There was the standing and singing of God Bless America in the seventh inning and the follow-up during the stretch of Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Have you ever heard 28,000 people singing Take Me out to the Ball Game? It is quite truthfully a sound to behold. There were the fireworks and the roar of 28,000 people in the seventh inning when Pirates rookie Pedro Alvarez walloped a homerun kicking off a rally that eventually gave the Bucs the win.
And of course let’s not forget the view. We sat in the upper deck along the third base line. From there we had a spectacular view of downtown Pittsburgh and the Allegheny River. The accompanying picture does no justice to how wonderful the view was that day–clear sky, downtown, baseball, and 28,000 people who cared about nothing but the outcome of a silly game. And yet I knew beyond doubt that I was automatically friends with everyone in that stadium–joined together by some mystical bond created by the crack of a bat. I was friends with Pirates fans and Phillies fans alike.
While I sat there I was thinking about Scripture. I was thinking about John who, by the end of the Revelation, is also thinking about a city that has come into his view.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)
And also I thought about this one from later on in the same chapter:
“The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. He measured its wall and it was 144 cubits thick, by man’s measurement, which the angel was using.” (Revelation 21:15-17)
I was thinking about all those people in that great city. I was thinking about all those squares and cubes and and geometry and the symmetry of the city. I was thinking about a river flowing through the city. I was thinking about God and whether or not he was King of that city too. I was thinking about that building right near the center that looks like the top of a castle (in the picture). It’s made entirely of glass and does it ever shine in the light. It’s called the Pittsburgh Plate Glass building. I was thinking about the city sparkling in the sunlight and glittering in the moonlight. It’s a veritable city on a hill whose light cannot be hidden.
I was thinking about the church. I was thinking about all those people and how many of them knew about Jesus. I was thinking that my experience in Pittsburgh was so unlike my experience in the church.
“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:22-27)
I was thinking that I wish church could be like that baseball game–where everything we disagree about and hate each other for is forgotten because we are overwhelmed by what is right in front of us. Nothing else mattered that day except baseball. I wish I could say that in the church the only thing we truly cared about was Jesus–that we were truly overwhelmed by Him.
I was thinking that I wish church could be like those fireworks–where everyone from every different walk of life and culture is brought together under one banner and celebrates. I wish I could say that in the church the only banner we unite together under is Jesus. And I wish we didn’t have to wait so long for it to be a reality.
I was thinking that I wish church could be like that city–where everything is in balance and shines and sparkles and glows and radiates unity in the sun. Where strangers walk together and every tribe and tongue is united under one Name. I wish I could say that the church glows and shines in the Son. I wish I could say we truly were that City coming down from heaven.
I was thinking that I wish the church could be a place where…
I was thinking that I wish the church could be a place….
I was thinking that I wish the church could be…
I was thinking that I wish the church could…
I was thinking that I wish I could love the church, and all of the stupid people that make up the church, half as much as I loved the people in PNC Park that day or in Pittsburgh that night. I think if I could learn to love again the church then maybe I would see that I don’t need to spend so much time wishing the church was something other than what it is and instead I could concentrate on being what the church is: loved by God.
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:25-32)
I don’t know if that makes sense or not. I probably should have just said, at the outset, that I wish I had the intestinal fortitude to love the church the way Jesus does. Or, I wish I could love the church the way I love Pittsburgh–a city full of strangers.
I was thinking I spend too much time wishing and not enough time doing.
I am, and have been, reading Mere Churchianity by the late Michael Spencer, aka the Internet Monk. I really do not think it is possible at this point to write how much I love this book. Michael had a way with words and it continued in this book.
The funny thing about the world is what the church is and what the church does. Churches are strange creatures and, likely, more often reflect the character of the preacher than that of the Head, Jesus. Frankly, I do not know which I dislike more: the church or preachers. Having been a preacher myself for the better part of fifteen years I am erring on the side of caution and disliking the church more.
Preachers are not far behind though.
There’s a relatively new congregation in my community. They are putting the finishing touches on a nice, shiny new building. They are also having a big fair to attract new people–I’m assuming children who will be brought by their screaming parents. Whatever.
I know of another church that proudly announced on its marquee: New Contemporary Service–as if that is the honey needed for the flies. Whatever.
I know another church that, now that there’s a healthy and substantial flow of cash, is fixing a hole in a roof–as if fixing a hole in a roof will suddenly convert the world to Jesus. Whatever.
I can be critical of the church now–as if I was soft on it before. I haven’t had a church home for nearly a year. I’m not altogether happy about that; nor I am altogether sad either. Like I said, church is a funny thing and laying low for a while has given me an opportunity to spy. I’m not so sure I like Big Church (as in Big Oil, Big Money). Church is way too much of a chore, far too much aggravation, and not nearly enough of what I am looking for. That’s not arrogance; that’s reality. What I’m looking for is a church that has a big sign out front that simply says: Friends of Jesus, Friends of People. Welcome.
Here’s what Michael Spencer wrote, “There is little need for large churches stuffed with satisfied audiences. There is a great need for a movement of disciples going into the overlooked places of the world to see and serve the Kingdom of God” (101). I could not possibly agree more. But this will not be the experience of the church so long as the church is comfortable inside itself.
For far too many people church is what we do on Sunday with little regard for actual discipleship created by Jesus. Comfort is the key. The role of the preacher, at least so far as I can see, is to preach the world of God with such power of the Spirit that the comfortable people become agitated and the agitated people are comforted. The Scripture is, after all, a double-edged sword.
I’m still looking for a church that is all about Jesus–by that I mean, of course, that there is a deliberate focus on what Jesus is doing, who Jesus is, and how these two things collaborate and inform, shape and conform, empower and reform the steps we take as disciples of Jesus. I’m looking for a church that is not satisfied.
I am not looking for a church that ‘meets my needs.’ Only Jesus can meet my needs. I’m not looking for a church where I can get helpful hints for living a better life or having a better marriage or anything of that sort. I’m looking for a church where Jesus is the first and last word each week and where Jesus is the substance we meet in the middle. I’m looking for a church where the preacher insists and expects that I open my Bible when the Scripture is read. I’m looking for a church where the preacher, the elders, the communion, the worship–everything–says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” When I go to church I do not need to see myself, I need to see Jesus.
Well maybe I’m going on too much about this. It’s easy to be critical of the church and terribly difficult to jump in and be so much a part of the church that these complaints are overwhelmed with love. The church cannot be what I want the church to be, the church can only be what the church is and is becoming by the grace of God. And in this I believe is the lesson Jesus has been teaching me for the past year: love the church regardless of what the church may appear to be in your myopic vision. Love the church like Jesus does.
Simply put, what the church doesn’t need is me and all my bitterness, whatevers, and criticism. What the church needs is Jesus.
“To believe in Jesus in the Christian sense means not less than trusting him utterly as the One who has borne our sin in his own body on the tree, as the One whose life and death and resurrection, offered up in our place, has reconciled us to God.”
–DA Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, 29
I happened across the blog of an author tonight whom I had never heard of before. I recognized some of the names associated in one way or another with the author so I hung around for a bit and did some reading. I discovered this author had recently published a new book he calls Rediscovering the God Imagination: Reconstructing a Whole New Christianity.
The author is Jonathan Brink. I have never heard of him before, as I said, but I did recognize the names of his endorsers and his detractors. Having had my own issues in the past with Ken Silva, I can say that to an extent Mr Brink has my sympathies. I suppose one could say that, as a rule, if Ken Silva is one of your detractors then I will give you the benefit of the doubt and welcome to the club.
The problem is that Silva is an equal opportunity judge and jury and Brink set himself up by using the words ‘reconstructing’ and ‘new’ alongside the word ‘christianity.’ I’d like to give a balanced, quick review of the 26 page sample chapter Brink posted at his blog.
I took the time to read Brink’s 26-page sample chapter* that he has graciously posted at his website because, well, that’s what I do. I read. I’m a little on the fence regarding some of what I read (and I was also a little taken aback when I read in the comment section that he hadn’t read The Everlasting Man by GK Chesterton–even though that comment was written, evidently, two years ago) and I’m not able to make a complete judgment about the contents of the book. He begins by reminding us that we live in an age of questions–questions about the very traditions upon which we have nursed as Christians. He opens by writing this:
But what is the inherent nature of the Gospel? What actually happened in the Garden of Eden? In order to follow Jesus, it would seem obvious that we would want to know exactly what Jesus is doing on the cross, what problem he is solving, and what it means to humanity. Yet there is no clear, historical agreement regarding our basic understanding of the Gospel. Scholars and theologians have been wrestling with this tension within the Christian tradition for roughly 1,700 years.
I think people are going to have problems with this. I really do. I strongly disagree there is ‘no clear, historical agreement regarding our basic understanding of the Gospel.’ Yes, indeed, scholars have wrestled (and rightly so) with Scripture and definitions. And yes, indeed, there are a lot of theories about the implications of these beliefs. But the basic suppositions of the Gospel, even at the most basic, creedal level, are not really challenged (and probably shouldn’t be). Christians still believe Jesus died, was buried, and was raised from the grave (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-11).
I am not so sure, and even Brink equivocates just a bit, that we need to seriously rethink 1,700 years worth of theological reflection. He has questions about whether or not many of the theological formulas that have been created during this period of time actually address the correct question. Thus he writes:
This book suggests a provocative possibility: much of our historical understanding of the problem is wrong. The basic assumptions we make about what is happening in the Garden of Eden are skewed by the very nature of the problem. We locate the problem in the wrong place and end up trying to resolve a problem, which doesn’t actually exist. (p 6 of the pdf sample chapter)
I suppose that in order for new theories to be put forward, the historical understandings have to be cast in this light. We cannot suggest a better way forward unless we cast aspersion on all that has led to this point. This is a very post-modern way of going about things and it is very popular among many so-called emergent theologians and preachers (although I don’t think Brink categorizes himself as either). Challenging ideas is fine; I do so all the time. Suggesting that they are altogether wrong–well, there are a lot of preachers and theologians who will abandon Brink at this point.
Brink also has to do some re-working of the first three chapters of Genesis–which he does (see p 16-19 of the downloadable pdf). Here I believe Brink asks some important questions, and I am curious as to how he will answer them. I have no problem with questions being asked and, to be sure, I am always thrilled when someone, anyone, actually opens their Bible and wrestles with the story–a chore that many who are firmly ensconced in those 1,700 years of theological strictures refuse to undertake since it is much easier to whip out a quote from Calvin or Spurgeon to bolster one’s position: Calvin said it; I believe it; that settles it.
Yeah, that works.
As I neared the end of Brink’s 26 pages, I came across this paragraph:
And finally the story presents the atonement – how God is actually reconciling humanity to God. To understand the human story means confronting our traditional notions of what is happening on the cross, to ask, “Where is the problem located?” Once we answer this question, a new understanding of the atonement opens up. We are invited to discover the depth of what is happening, to shudder at the sheer magnitude of love it reveals, and embrace it with open arms. The story reveals God’s central concern is not a punitive sense of justice for breaking a law, but an overriding concern for the consequence of death. (p 21 of the downloadable pdf)
There’s more to it than this, and I don’t want to be unfair to Brink, but here I might be disinclined to go all the way with his idea. The problem as I see it is that we don’t necessarily need to confront the traditional understandings of the cross and we do not need a new understanding of the atonement. I have no problems with the idea that there is more than one ‘theory of atonement’. Nor, for that matter, do I mind someone opening our eyes to another aspect of God’s work in Jesus. What I object to is the idea that all those theories that went before need replacing or scuttling. Maybe Brink is not being so drastic, but it’s hard not to think he is. And, to be sure, he will have a lot of work to do in order to convince people that 1,700 years of theological reflection have been wrong and that, aha!, he suddenly has it all figured out.
That’s a tall order for anyone. I’m genuinely interested to see how he pulls it off, and how he resolves it for a new generation of pilgrims.
A better approach, I think, is to see all those theories (of atonement) that went before as bits and parts of a comprehensive atonement that God enacted in Christ. None of them is comprehensive, none is exclusive of the others. Together they all help explain what God was doing in Jesus and what he is doing in us. I agree wholeheartedly with Brink that the cross expresses God’s concern for the consequences of death; yes, say it so. But the cross dealt with what caused death (sin); resurrection dealt with death. Or, so says the apostle,
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. 16So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:14-21, NIV)
I will be interested to see how Brink treats the Resurrection of Jesus since it was only mentioned once in the 26 pages I read and even then it had nothing, necessarily, to do with Jesus’s Resurrection. I hope he has a very large section on Resurrection because in the sort of undertaking he is proposing it will surely be necessary.
I also agree with Brink that we need to be set free from religion. Too many Christians are far too content to live in a scripted religious experience where everything is contained inside neat little compartments that never ever mix together and share ideas or educate or inform one another. Religion is typically what destroys preachers who have been called by Jesus to proclaim the Gospel, who have been called to tell and retell the story.
Frankly, I’m not sure we need a new Christianity–maybe, better, we just need people who are willing to live the story already there (you know, the ‘take up your cross, deny yourself, follow me’ kind of stuff). Frankly, I am not so sure we need to reconstruct a new anything since we are utterly incapable of doing so anyhow (no mention of the Holy Spirit in those 26 pages either; I realize he couldn’t include everything in 26 pages so I am not being overly critical, I’m just saying…)
Brink seems rather intent on redefining some of the terms we use in the church, but I don’t know that such redefining is necessary either. And don’t get me wrong, I understand there is a disconnect between what the Bible says and the way many Christians live. I get it; really I do. I was fired by a church in whom that very disconnect was incarnate in an unimaginable, undeniable, and epic way.
I also understand that suffering and pain and injustice need to be addressed at a much deeper level than preachers have dared to think necessary and possible in the past. The so-called tried and true Sunday school clichés first uttered by John Calvin and perpetuated by the Neo-Reformed scholars of this age no longer work on a people who have questioned and will continue to question everything. One of the great aspects of my generation’s rebelliousness towards authority is the freedom to question, challenge, everything. In other words, you will not control me, you will not tell me what to do or believe; I will figure it out for myself, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, thank you very much.
It may be that I’ll end up agreeing with you or Calvin. It may be that I will reject you and Calvin (especially Calvin). But I will work that out on my own in the company of fellow pilgrims–if only I could find a group of pilgrims willing to live in the turmoil of the doubt that we call faith (see Matthew 28:17).
Brink will have no problem convincing some, will reap the scorn and hatred of others who are already convinced he is a heretic, and will, hopefully, find even more who will read what he says and shout ‘hooray!’ when they read something brilliant, will weep when they read something silly, and will search the Scripture when they come across something that challenges their understanding of Jesus, Christianity, and faith.
Brink claims to have gone back to Scripture in order to write this book. He also claims that much of what he saw in Scripture just didn’t seem to line up with some of the traditional teachings. Therefore I believe it is equally fair and important for those who read this book to go back to Scripture also and see if what Brink has written squares up with what Scripture, the Bible, says. From what I read in 26 sample pages, I think there are going to be some issues.
But we can give him a read and test that for ourselves.
*my reflections concern only the 26 page sample chapter Brink posted at his website.
In the church we are fond of a lot of things that, let’s be honest, have little or nothing to do with Jesus. I’m looking for something in the church I haven’t yet found. After spending the better part of fifteen years preaching in the church and being spiritually beaten to death by God’s people, I can honestly say that something about the church leaves a lot to be desired. It’s a wonder that anyone wants to join up with this club, pay dues, and attend regular meetings.
But church, despite my criticisms, is not meant to be, nor will it ever temporally be, a place of perfection. And the reason people get so bent out of shape is because they expect the church to operate like the local retail outlet: the customer is always right and we must do whatever it takes to keep the customer happy and returning and parting with their money. When the church doesn’t operate that way it’s time for something to change. Churchtopia is what some look for instead of simply a place where everyone who has been beaten, broken, hurt, and undone can meet with like living and treated people.
The church isn’t perfect; duh. What we haven’t figured out yet is this: it’s OK that the church isn’t perfect.
Does what we say resemble what Jesus said? With four Gospels to work with, the words and teachings of Jesus are not hard to find. If Christians really do believe what Jesus said, do we sound anything like him? Do books written by Christians sound anything like Jesus’ appearances in the Gospels? Did he even once mention our need to receive him as our personal Savior? Did he constantly talk about ‘discovering your destiny through your dreams?’ Was church growth a major Jesus topic? If not, why not? And where did we come up with all the things we love to devote conferences to? (Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity, 54-55)
Of all the things his enemies chose to trap Jesus, politics was the best. Even I could have figured out that one. We can trap anyone in a conversation about politics. I’ve know people who would sell out their own mother because of politics, or, worse, their own child. It was a perfect trap for Jesus–because everyone knows that the Pharisees and Herodians were perfectly innocent when it came to politics!
I’ve often marveled at Jesus’s ability to come up with these so-called one liners that effectively silenced his critics with one fell swoop. “When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.” When you come up against someone who knows all too well the tactics of the enemy, and he destroys you with thirteen words (probably less in Greek), what else can you do but leave? I wish I had that power, that wit, that ability to think so quickly.
Usually I think of the good stuff after the person leaves in anger. I wish just once I could say something so witty and thoughtful that a person left me because they were amazed.
The image we have, sometimes, in church and amongst Christians in general, is that being curt is unacceptable, undoing your enemies with words is beyond the pale. What we expect is courtesy and manners. I detect in Jesus’s words to the Herodians a great big, giant, massive, “Shut up already” or “Take this back to the Pharisees and let them smoke this for a while.” Jesus rules!
I know you’re thinking something like, ‘Well, he was Jesus and he could do what he wanted. With us, us saved people, we have to be nice to one another.’ Sure. Whatever.
Personally I think we put too much stock in being nice and having manners. When someone is acting stupid, asking stupid questions designed to do nothing but trap another, the other should be quick to be as witty and thoughtful as Jesus–to silence them and, perhaps, save them from further embarrassment. The problem is that we do not have time to be witty and thoughtful. All we have time for is the jugular. That is, Jesus wasn’t witty and thoughtful for the sake of destroying his enemies, but for the sake of truth.
If we cared about truth, and I suppose many Christians think they do, we would put more time into being witty and thoughtful and saying more with less. A beautiful thirteen word sermon was all it took to shut up stupid people. I like that about Jesus. (*smile*)
This morning, my second of three days away from work, I sat in a chair on the patio behind my house. There were about a million birds singing—all a different song, but all perfectly intelligible to someone or at least to another bird. The songs were wonderful even though they were not being sung to or for me. Maybe the birds would be offended if they thought I was listening in on their conversations and songs.
I just couldn’t help myself and I found myself wishing I knew their language so that I could sing with them.
While I sat on the patio, I read from Scripture. Specifically, I read from John 11 and the story of the raising of Lazarus. Theologians are quick to point out that what happened to Lazarus was a resuscitation and not a resurrection. This is a terribly important theological distinction.
I don’t think Lazarus cared what it was: all he knew is that he was alive. Nothing else mattered now that breath filled his lungs again and light flooded his eyes and the warmth of blood once again began flowing through his flesh. Jesus did more than raise Lazarus: he recreated blood, fired synapse’s, pushed breathe into his lungs, and gave Lazarus back his movement. Whatever he did, it brought Lazarus out of the tomb. Whatever it was, Lazarus was glad for it.
I suppose I have always thought, probably because I watched some Jesus movie one time, that Lazarus came out of the tomb slowly, stiffly, and without much animation. Maybe. He was, after all, wrapped in ‘grave clothes’ which probably prevented a great deal of motion. But maybe Lazarus came bounding out of the tomb sort of like that fella that Peter healed one day who went ‘walking and leaping and praising God’ in the temple courts. Maybe Lazarus came out with a leap and a shout something like, “He get this stuff off of me I can’t see, or talk, or run and leap and sing.”
Somewhere I read that the reason Jesus said, “Lazarus, come out,” is because if he had just said, “Come out,” the tombs would have emptied that day. He called Lazarus and Lazarus came out. Isn’t it odd that even the dead can hear the voice of Jesus—often are better than the living: the birds obey; the dead obey; the living….well, we practice. Can you imagine Lazarus shouting back, “No thanks! I’m fine where I’m at.” But who among us would refuse the call to life? Even the dead are smart enough to know that when someone calls you to life you hear, listen, and obey.
I wonder if any of those others, the other dead, laying bone dry in dusty tombs near Lazarus’ tomb lay there thinking, “Oh, please call me next! Please call my name! Please Jesus let me hear your voice!” There’s something strange about people not wanting Jesus to call out their name, something odd about those who so continually refuse to hear and heed the call to live and life.
As I read through this story I noticed that people kind of blamed Jesus for Lazarus’ death. Verses 21, 32, and 37 all seem to point in the same general direction: Jesus could have done something but since he wasn’t there he didn’t. I’ll bet they would be angry if they knew he purposely stayed behind for two extra days.
- Lord, if you had been here… (21)
- Lord, if you had been here… (32)
- Could not he who…. (37)
It feels like maybe they were thinking he could have done something but for some reason or other he did not. Let’s be honest and truthful: this is one of the most difficult aspects of faith and Jesus to deal with on a regular basis. And I am only too aware of the platitudes that mutter things like, “What God could have prevented in his power he allowed in his wisdom” or something like that. Frankly speaking, this is of little comfort to the grieving and wailing. Yet there it is. Jesus could have done something after all he did open the eyes of a blind man! If he had been there he could have done something.
Divine restraint is profoundly perplexing and discomfiting.
Sometimes Jesus just isn’t there in time to prevent something. Sometimes Jesus delays for an extra two days so he can shop or catch up on his favorite television programs. I don’t know the reason why he delays and I cannot say that I perfectly agree with it—you know, why not set the world right right now? Why is it wisdom to allow death instead of preventing it?
What would have been the greater joy? Receiving a resurrected Lazarus back from the grave or having him healed before he entered the grave? The only response we know of is that Jesus really made a lot of people angry with this stunt and some others put their faith in him. The raising of Lazarus caused a lot of problems and, to be sure, didn’t go all that well for Lazarus either (John 12:10).
Here’s the thing though. Jesus calculated all this and made the decision and we are privy to the wisdom of his decision with respect to Lazarus even though we are not always privy to the wisdom he employs in his decisions concerning our lives: Jesus was not content to merely ward off death for a little while. No. His goal was to crush death under the weight of its own hubris. Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death, but it was better to utterly demolish death instead. There is wisdom.
Here I am. I am thinking of that sort of wisdom—wisdom that is powerful enough to prevent anything, but doesn’t always do so. I don’t understand it, but I don’t suppose I have to. Anne Lamott writes beautifully that ‘the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns’ (plan b, 256-257).
Here I am, living in the mystery, living with the mysterious Jesus who evinces a sort of wisdom that allows pain and suffering and death because there’s something better he wants to do. The essence of faith is believing that Jesus’ wisdom, no matter how little sense it makes, is wise. The essence of faith is believing that things make sense to God even when they do not make sense to me. I’m not close to mastering this which is why I write about things like anger, envy, and pride.
So what are we to do with this Jesus? NT Wright has some helpful thoughts at this juncture:
What’s more, the suggestion that we treat Jesus as a moral example can be, and in some people’s thinking has been, a way of holding at arm’s length the message of God’s kingdom on the one hand and the meaning of his death and resurrection on the other. Making Jesus the supreme example of someone who lived a good life may be quite bracing to contemplate, but it is basically safe: it removes the far more dangerous challenge of supposing that God might actually be coming to transform this earth, and us within it, with the power and justice of heaven, and it neatly helps us avoid the fact, as all four gospels see it, that this could be achieved only through the shocking and horrible events of Jesus’s death. (After You Believe, 126)
I have to ‘do something’ with this Jesus who gave us a glimpse of what this transformed earth and life will be like in the raising of Lazarus. This Jesus who does things like raise people from the dead is not safe and cannot be domesticated. He is unruly and out of control: no one stands up to the biggest bully in town. People are typically content to let the bully have his way, and death was content to continue owning every street corner in town. Jesus came along and changed all that.
Jesus is not safe. What are we to do with him? What are we to do with one who purposely lets death have its way only so he can walk right up to its front door and not even knock before demanding that death give up its claim? If anything we can say that Jesus is not one who will deal nicely with death at all so who are we to think we have a chance of resisting him? The biggest bully in town does not stand a chance against Jesus and all Jesus did was say, “Lazarus, come out!”
What I am going to do with this Jesus? I can’t stop him or control him. I can’t resist him. I can’t not follow him.
It’s late now. The birds have put away their songs for the day. They are resting some place safe, waiting and watching for the veil to lift and the the dawn to break. They will awaken me with their songs blaring through my open window in the morning. I still will not know their song or the language they use so I won’t be able to sing with them. But I know a song of my own, it’s the same song Lazarus sang when he came waltzing or leaping or jumping or hobbling out of the tomb that fine September morning. I can sing it with Lazarus because I, too, have been raised to life.
Jesus let the biggest bully in town do its worst for four days. Then Jesus went to the bully’s turf and completely undid the best and worst the bully had to offer. Completely undid death. Completely.
So what do we do with someone who raises the dead, gives life back to corpses, beats up the biggest bully in town? What do we do with Jesus?
I have been posting a lot lately about the essential oneness of the church and why it is so important for us to be one in the Spirit of peace. I have also been preaching such sermons to my congregation on Sundays during Lent.
Last week, as I prepared for my last sermon in the series, I came across the following article by David Faust, president of Cincinnati Christian University. The essay is brilliant and lays out our motivation for Christian Oneness quite succinctly.
He begins by talking about some things that are not the glue of our unity:
In a 1910 lecture at Yale, Charles E. Jefferson described the difference between a church and an audience,
It is to be regretted that we have come to judge preachers by the number of persons who listen to their sermons. A superficial man is consequently tempted to work, not for a church, but for an audience.
An audience, however, is not worth working for. An audience is a group of unrelated people drawn together by a short-lived attraction. . . . It is a fortuitous concourse of human atoms, scattering as soon as a certain performance has ended. It is a pile of leaves to be blown away by the wind, a handful of sand lacking consistency and cohesion, a number of human filings drawn into position by a pulpit magnet, which will drop away as soon as the magnet is removed.
An audience is a crowd, a church is a family. An audience is a gathering, a church is a fellowship. An audience is a collection, a church is an organism. An audience is a heap of stones, a church is a temple. Preachers are ordained, not to attract an audience, but to build a church. Coarse and ambitious and worldly men, if richly gifted, can draw audiences. Only a disciple of the Lord can build a church.
If strong personalities don’t hold God’s people together, what does? To ask the question more narrowly, what holds the Christian churches and churches of Christ together? (My emphasis
Faust goes on with an important reminder:
Maybe we have been looking for glue in the wrong places. I love our colleges and conventions, our camps and conferences, and I hold our publishing houses in high esteem. I admire the founders of these ministries, and I’m thankful for the faithful believers who have led and supported them, often at considerable personal sacrifice. I don’t want any of them to go away.
Years ago I worked for Christ In Youth. Today I serve as president of a Christian university and write a weekly column as executive editor of The Lookout, published by Standard Publishing. My life has been powerfully impacted by these and other parachurch groups. I want these ministries and others like them to thrive and grow—as long as they clearly fulfill God’s will.
None of these worthwhile endeavors, though, can hold all of God’s people together. As important as our favorite parachurch organizations seem to us, they aren’t essential to the body of Christ. The church is God’s forever family, not our colleges and conventions.
Can we find within ourselves the humility to admit that, good as they are, these institutions we hold dear are human expediencies, not biblical necessities? Even more, are we willing to boldly declare that if God so willed, and all of our favorite manmade organizations suddenly disappeared, we would still possess everything that matters most as long as we have the Lord? Can we see through the fog of the familiar and recognize that God’s kingdom and his reign, his gospel and his grace, will remain intact and unmoved no matter what happens to our favorite ministries?
Despite all the good they have done and no matter how much we value them, manmade institutions can never hold us all together. We need to look to a higher place to find the glue.
So where does Faust suggest that we find the glue that holds us together? How can we recognize it? What will it be?
What really pulls us together? It’s simple, really. So simple that we tend to miss it altogether.
The Savior sticks us together. We are one in Christ—stuck to him like branches on a vine, like skin on a body, like flames on a candlewick. Unity finds its focus in him.
The Spirit sticks us together. We aren’t united because we share the same political views or personality types, the same opinions and preferences, the same nationality or language or skin color. We’re one because “we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:13). The Holy Spirit’s “bond of peace” is strong glue indeed (Ephesians 4:3).
Scripture sticks us together. Not that we all understand every verse exactly the same way. But Scripture gives us a common starting point, a common language, a common compass. The Bible pulls us together when we read it personally, preach it powerfully, teach it faithfully, interpret it carefully, and apply it practically. Sound doctrine is manna for the hungry heart. It makes the church healthy and strong.
Service sticks us together. Mission trips and new church plants prove it. Benevolence projects demonstrate it. It’s hard to fight when you’re working side by side to serve someone in need. It’s hard to put your brother down when you’re already down there with him, praying together on your knees. Unity becomes visible, even tangible, when we “serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).
Do you want your favorite college, convention, camp, or other cause to thrive and grow? Then make sure it’s subservient to the mission of the church! Make sure it’s helping people connect with the Savior, the Spirit, and the Scriptures, and engaging them in meaningful service. A parachurch ministry that does those things will thrive. If it doesn’t do those things, we’re probably better off without it anyway.
What is the glue? Savior, Spirit, Scripture, Service—not a flashy formula, but somehow it kept us glued together in the past.
I suggest we stick with it.
Well, I’ll probably get in trouble for quoting so much of his essay here, but I’m willing to risk it just in case you don’t follow the link. These are beautiful words. There is too much that divides the body of Christ, too much that separates us, too much that effectively ruins whatever witness we may have for him and his grace.
We should continue to fan the flame of Christian unity and essential oneness. We must continue to work to preserve the unity already forged for us at the cross.
Be blessed this Resurrection season. Ask yourself: Am I the answer to Jesus’ prayer for Christian Unity or am I the problem? Am I working for peace or fostering division? Am I part of the solution or creating more problems?
Soli Deo Gloria!
This is a podcast of the sermon I preached this past Sunday evening from Hebrews 10:19-25. It is the fourth part of a series I am preaching through Hebrews. I have been posting the manuscript links here and I will publish this manuscript too and also upload it to my box.net. Here are the links to the first three sermons:
Sermon one is: Listening to and Thinking about Jesus
Sermon two is: Resting in and Holding Fast to Faith
Sermon three is: Growing in Jesus and our Understanding of His Work
Sermon four is: Drawing, Holding, Considering Because of Jesus
Download Podcast here: Hebrews 10:19-25
Or us the inline player below:
Sunday, March 22, 2009 (PM)
The Imperatives of Hebrews, 4
The Book of Hebrews
I suggested to you last week that chapter 5:11 through chapter 6:12 was a parenthesis. That is, the author interrupted his argument about the superiority of Jesus’ high priesthood which began in chapter 4:14 (which actually began in 2:17 & 3:1) and reminded us yet again about the need to persevere in the faith.
In last week’s imperative, he said that we need to grow up in the faith-we need to grow up in the Word of God. Paul said similar things to the Church in Corinth; things we looked at this morning. A little maturity will go a long way towards Christian unity. This was the interruption in the book of Hebrews 5:11ff. Grow up!
Now he brings it back around to his earlier discussion on the High Priesthood of Jesus. And this discussion is not a short discussion. And the author is not willing to spare a single detail of this conversation-however hard or complicated it might be for the babes on milk to understand. Thus there is a lull, so to speak, in his imperatives from 6:13-10:18. When the author is all done, we sense a deep breath before he finally utters, “Therefore…”
This high priesthood of Jesus carries with it powerful consequences to all who know of it and are blessed enough to participate in it. When we begin engaging in the 90 Days with Jesus in May, we will explore deeply this priesthood because I think it is probably one of the more unexplored aspects of the Christian faith. Still, we can say this much: Everything said in Hebrews 10:19-25 is predicated on the substantial idea of Jesus’ high priesthood being sufficient, and, what’s more, on the idea that he is not only He the High Priest over the House, but He is also the sacrifice that was offered. Both aspects are important when considering what he says in this sixth ‘therefore.’
As one commentator notes:
As Paul often does, the writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers on the basis of the doctrine he has made so clear. Because the great teachings he has set forth are true, it follows that those who profess them should live in a manner befitting them. There are resemblances between the exhortation in this paragraph and that in 4:14-16. But we must not forget that the intervening discussion has made clear what Christ’s high priestly work has done for his people. On the basis of Christ’s sacrifice, the writer exhorts his readers to make the utmost use of the blessing that has been won for them.
So, again, the great teaching he has made clear is the High Priestly work of Christ and the perfection of the sacrifice He offered. So, imperative section number 6:
6. The sixth marker is found in Hebrews 10:19-25: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Now, as you heard, and as you can see, he actually includes within this ‘therefore’ three distinct imperatives that we should be concerned about because Christ has opened up a ‘new and living way for us’. I don’t think it would be unhelpful at this point to visit the book of Leviticus, chapter 16, and see exactly what all this entails-this ‘entrance’:
1 The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD. 2 The LORD said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.
3 “This is how Aaron is to enter the sanctuary area: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 4 He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on. 5 From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.
6 “Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. 7 Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 8 He is to cast lots for the two goats-one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat. 9 Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering. 10 But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat.
11 “Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering. 12 He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. 13 He is to put the incense on the fire before the LORD, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the Testimony, so that he will not die. 14 He is to take some of the bull’s blood and with his finger sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover.
15 “He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. 16 In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. He is to do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which is among them in the midst of their uncleanness. 17 No one is to be in the Tent of Meeting from the time Aaron goes in to make atonement in the Most Holy Place until he comes out, having made atonement for himself, his household and the whole community of Israel.
18 “Then he shall come out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it. He shall take some of the bull’s blood and some of the goat’s blood and put it on all the horns of the altar. 19 He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times to cleanse it and to consecrate it from the uncleanness of the Israelites.
20 “When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. 21 He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites-all their sins-and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert.
23 “Then Aaron is to go into the Tent of Meeting and take off the linen garments he put on before he entered the Most Holy Place, and he is to leave them there. 24 He shall bathe himself with water in a holy place and put on his regular garments. Then he shall come out and sacrifice the burnt offering for himself and the burnt offering for the people, to make atonement for himself and for the people. 25 He shall also burn the fat of the sin offering on the altar.
26 “The man who releases the goat as a scapegoat must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp. 27 The bull and the goat for the sin offerings, whose blood was brought into the Most Holy Place to make atonement, must be taken outside the camp; their hides, flesh and offal are to be burned up. 28 The man who burns them must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp.
29 “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work-whether native-born or an alien living among you- 30 because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins. 31 It is a sabbath of rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance. 32 The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments 33 and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the people of the community.
34 “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.” And it was done, as the LORD commanded Moses.
So you can see what a terribly complicated situation this was. Jesus not only simplified this matter of entering in, but he also opened it up for people outside the priestly caste and people outside the Jewish population.
33At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”-which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
35When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” 36One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.
37With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. 38The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” 40Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.
This is what he is talking about: Jesus, at his death, opened things up for people. Those who enter the temple, the part opened up for us, enter in as priests (‘let us hold unswervingly to what we profess’), as companions (‘let us consider how’), and as people who have the right and authority to commune with the living God, that is, worshipers (‘let us draw near’). It is in this context then that the author of Hebrews offers up his imperatives in verses 19-25. Let’s look at each one briefly.
First, he says, “Therefore…let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having had our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” This is the authority to commune with the living God. Jesus has opened up the way, and he has clothed us with the proper wedding clothes. I happen to think here he is talking about baptism in some way. We might debate over the issue of baptism a great deal, but the Scripture seems fairly consistent in its presentation of the important things that happen at baptism.
So we can draw near to God. The work of Jesus at the cross makes worshiping such a God even possible. There is a cost. Jesus paid it. So we should draw near. Get close. Get to know. Worship. Offer ourselves up to him. He is not for us to fear in the sense that we stay away. We come before him in sincerity because he knows we don’t have to fake it. We come before him with assurance. What I wonder, for those who have not experienced the outward sign of baptism is: Can they have the full assurance? If it is merely an outward symbol of an inward work, can we be certain of the inward work if we have not experienced the outward symbol?
Second, he says, “Therefore…let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess for he who promised us is faithful.” We have hope. We have hope precisely because hope does not depend on us. Somewhere in all the mix is a mustard seed of faith that the story we have believed and the Messiah we have followed is true. Frankly, sometimes that’s all we have; sometimes less. But there it is: hope does not lie within us. If it did, it would be destroyed in a minute. Our hope, Peter says, is stored up for us in heaven; it is precious; it is resurrection hope in Christ; it can never perish, spoil, or fade; it is protected by God’s power (1 Peter 1:3-5). Praise God.
Our hope depends upon the one who is faithful and therein is our hope. Again, it is important to remember that our hope is not in a dream, or an idea, or a concept, or a religion or anything of the sort. The author of Hebrews says that we have hope because he who promised it is faithful. He is faithful. We hold unswervingly to the hope we profess. This is the same thing he said back in 4:14: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” Profess is also confess or announce to declare. As priests, we have a confession to make; we announce to others this hope. We must hold unswervingly to this hope.
Third, he says, “Therefore…let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another-and all the more as you see the day approaching.” The danger, of course, is in trying to hold on to this course alone. As I have been emphasizing in our Sunday morning messages from Corinthians, we are best served and best when we are together. So we must encourage one another which means that this is a responsibility for everyone in the body towards everyone in the body. These are words we ought to be sharing with one another constantly. But I think it is critically important that these words rest not on a single person, but that the responsibility falls to all of us.
If this is but the responsibility of one person the words can grow weak, the person can grow weary, the warning can be wasted. I think if I am reading this correctly and all of us have been invited into the priestly class, then all of us have a confession to make, a worship to offer, and encouragement to give. How can we do this? Well, it means we have to talk to one another, share with one another, be involved in one another’s lives. We have to love one another enough to care about them. We have to know enough about one another to do the spurring. Frankly, as I have said elsewhere, some people have more access to others than some others do. We all must share in this responsibility so that people know they are loved and cared about and that people are concerned for them. We are companions on this journey. We move at the rate of everyone, neither speeding ahead nor lagging behind. We journey together.
Let us draw near is an exhortation to worship, fellowship, communion, confidence, faith, and trust. We enter as worshipers.
Let us hold fast is an exhortation to our priestly responsibilities inside our confession. Our confession is not something we keep secret. We enter as priests.
Let us encourage one another is an exhortation to fellowship, communion, companionship, and love. We enter as companions.
The profoundest part of these verses is that they are even possible. But Jesus had made it so. We no longer exist in solitude, we no longer live in isolation, we no longer walk alone.
The profoundest part of these verses is surely that Jesus’ work does not compel us laziness and complacency, but rather to work and energy and fellowship. We are together.
We are called together in a fellowship in God’s presence. He has opened the way for us not to enter singly, on our own, but together; as one. We come before him together. We draw near together. We hold fast together. We encourage one another together. We. Together.
Soli Deo Gloria!
I have been noticing for a while that a series of sermons I posted here, The Church in Exile: The Book of Daniel, has been getting a lot of hits and downloads at my box.net account. This inspired me to share with you a lengthy series of sermons I did (18 in total, but I’m missing one) that coincided with a series of devotionals I posted here (90 Days with Jesus: John). I have also posted the Bible school lessons that went with this series as well. Here, then, are the sermons linked to my box.net account and free for download. Thanks for stopping by. jerry
The Sermon Schedule: John’s Gospel
1. The Word Became Flesh, and Dwelt Among us, John 1:1-18
2. Behold Jesus, John 1:19-51
3. The One From Above, John 3:22-36
4. Difficulty of Believing in Jesus, John 6:1-71
5. From Whence Comes a Prophet?, John 7:1-52
6. The Children of Abraham, John 8:31-59
7. On Restoring and Taking Sight, John 9:1-41
8. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, John 10:1-42
9. The Death of Jesus in His Own Words, John 12:20-36
10. A New Command He Gave Us, John 13:1-38
11. While We Anticipate His Return, John 14:1-31
12. Very Simply Put: Stay There, John 15:1-16:4
13. Resting in His Victory, John 16:5-33
14. The Priorities of Jesus in His High Priestly Prayer, John 17:1-26
15. Not Him! Give us Barabbas! John 18:1-40
16. Jesus is Crucified, John 19:1-42
17. Jesus is Resurrected, John 20:1-31
18. Jesus’ Mission Clarified, John 21:1-25
(I am currently missing the sermon on John 20. Once it has been retyped and saved, I will add it.)
If the links stop working or are wrong, please tell me via email or as a comment in the comment thread. These are here to help with illustrative material, exegetical points, and homiletical ideas. I don’t care how you use them, short of publishing them as your own, and you should do your own exegetical work. I wrote these three years ago so some illustrations might be dated and some of the exegesis I might disown now–I have learned quite a lot since I originally preached these. Nevertheless, I think they might help you and if they do, I praise God alone. Please, however, these are not meant to replace your own diligence in the study.
The Real Older Brother
1Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3Then Jesus told them this parable: 4″Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
8″Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
11Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13″Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17″When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ 20So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21″The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22″But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25″Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27′Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28″The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31″ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ “
Last year when I took Doctrine of Grace, we were required to read a book by David A Semands called Healing Grace. I’m sure I have quoted from it before, and I have actually given away a couple of copies to people. He states his case early on as to what one of our major problems is in the church:
I am convinced that the basic cause of some of the most disturbing emotional/spiritual problems which trouble evangelical Christians is the failure to receive and live out God’s unconditional grace, and the corresponding failure to offer that grace to others. I encounter this problem in the counseling room more than any other single hangup. (14)
I read the sermon of a friend this week. The sermon was about being a minister in the church. He wrote that it is about grace:
Indeed, here is grace’s way – of Israel’s birth through a barren womb. Here is grace’s way – of the champion from Gath killed by Jesse’s youngest son. Here is grace’s way – of the Word taking on fallen flesh and stubbornly refusing to be fallen in it. Here is grace’s way – of ostracised women being commissioned as proclaimers of God’s good news. Here is grace’s way – that the deepest revelations of God are not given to the wise and understanding but to infants. Here is grace’s way – that God has a deliberate policy of positive discrimination towards nobodies, that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and that the earth will be inherited by the meek. Here is grace’s way – love your enemies and bless those who make life hell for you. Here is grace’s way – of God making foolish and weak the wisdom and power of the world. Here is grace’s way – of God putting his treasure into jars of clay in order to show that God’s all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. Here is grace’s way – that only in humiliation do we find God exalting us, only in dying do we find God making us alive, only in throwing our lives away do we find God giving life back to us. Here is grace’s way – of power being brought to an end in weakness. Here is grace’s way – that we might actually be more use to God with our thorns than without them. Only when I am weak, am I strong.
These are beautiful words, grace words.
Jesus told four stories that day.
He told these four stories to a particular group of people: “Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
They were concerned because Jesus was doing, in their eyes, the wrong thing. Jesus was paying attention to the weak, the poor, the less than famous, the less than righteous. They were concerned because Jesus wasn’t paying enough attention to those who kept the rules, did all the right things, and demonstrated their exclusive righteousness before the world. Jesus actually went to the sick people, the weak people, the unrighteous people and this offended those who were well, who were strong, who were righteous. So Jesus told these three stories to those who grumbled.
Eugene Peterson notes for us in his book Tell it Slant that Luke is the only author in the New Testament to use this word ‘grumble’ or ‘mutter.’ It is a word similar to words used in Exodus 15:24 and 16:2 to describe the manner in which the Israelites were expressing their frustration with Moses and Aaron. Luke also uses it again in 19:7: “All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘he has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’” This after Jesus went to the house of Zacheus for dinner.
This, then, is the context. And Jesus tells four parables.
In the first, there are 100 sheep. One is lost. So the good shepherd goes out to look for the one sheep. He eventually finds it and brings it home. And what happens? He calls his neighbors together and they rejoice in the Lord over the one lost sheep that was found.
In the second, there are ten coins. One of them is lost. So the woman sweeps and cleans and turns over the cushions and tears up the planks and digs through the garbage until she finds it. Eventually, she finds it. What does she do when she finds it? Well, she spends it on a lavish party and invites all her friends to come over and celebrate the one lost coin that was found.
In the third, there are two sons. One of them is lost. So the father stays at home and does nothing. He waits and waits and waits and waits. No one goes to look for the younger son. Not the father. Not the older brother. The father waits. The older brother goes about on his own…why? Well, frankly, because he has his share of the inheritance. Why should he expose himself, his inheritance, what is rightfully his to go out and look for the younger brother who has squandered everything? Tim Keller in his book The Prodigal God writes:
In the first two parables someone ‘goes out’ and searches for that which is lost. The searchers let nothing distract them or stand in the way. By the time we get to the third story, and we hear about the plight of the lost son, we are fully prepared to expect that someone will set out to search for him. No one does. It is startling, and Jesus meant it to be so. By placing these three parables so closely together, he is inviting thoughtful listeners to ask: ‘Well, who should have gone out and searched for the lost son?’ Jesus knew the Bible thoroughly, and he knew that at its very beginning it tells another story of an elder and younger brother-Cain and Abel. In that story, God tells the resentful and proud older brother, ‘You are your brother’s keeper.’ (81)
And Keller’s point is that it should have been the older brother who went out to look for the younger brother. And he also points out that to bring the younger brother back would have cost the older brother considerably. Remember, the property had already been divided. Jesus said in verse 12, “So he divided the property between them.” Keller notes that “every penny that remained of the family estate belongs to the elder brother. Every robe, every ring, every fatted calf is his by right” (82). This is why the father says at the end of the parable, “…everything I have is yours.”
Yet the father takes a ring, a robe, and a fatted calf from the older brother and gave them to the younger brother. To bring the younger brother back in involved a cost to the older brother.
Thus there is a fourth parable. In this parable there is one lost son. He is the older brother who had remained behind and done everything right. In his own words, “‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.” Jesus certainly doesn’t argue with him. The father doesn’t argue with him. But that doesn’t mean, at any level, that the older brother isn’t lost. Jesus is ‘redefining lostness.’ He was pointing out to those who grumbled that the Son of Man came to seek and save what is lost and that the lost included them as well.
Keller goes on in his book to point out several characteristics of what he calls ‘elder-brother-lostness.’ I won’t list them all for you, but hear this one particular quote:
If such people [as the younger brother] wrong them, elder brothers feel their spotless record gives them the right to be highly offended and to perpetually remind the wrongdoer of his or her failure. [...] When the younger brother comes out of his denial, and the father welcomes him, the elder brother realizes that the pattern is being broken, and his fury is white-hot. [...] If the elder brother had known his own heart, he would have said, ‘I am just as self-centered and a grief to my father in my own way as my younger brother is in his. I have no right to feel superior.’ Then he would have had the freedom to give his brother the same forgiveness that his father did. But elder brothers do not see themselves this way. Their anger is a prison of their own making. (57)
It must be remembered to whom Jesus told this parable: It was to the Pharisees and those who grumbled that Jesus would dare go and look for the younger brother. They were angry because they knew Jesus was doing what they should have been doing-being their brother’s keeper, looking for the lost and the wayward. Jesus was the older brother. That’s why they were angry. They were angry that the father was so extravagant, gracious, and generous and forgiving. Keller nails it again:
The younger brother knew he was alienated from the father, but the elder brother did not. That’s why older-brother lostness is so dangerous. Elder brothers don’t go to God and beg for healing from their condition. They see nothing wrong with their condition, and that can be fatal. If you know you are sick you may go to a doctor; if you don’t know you are sick you won’t-you’ll just die. (66)
And this brings us back to the point of the sermon which is God’s grace. And I suppose it is fair to ask this question: If your life has not been changed, radically altered at the core, do you understand grace? Or, let me state it negatively: If your life has ‘remained unchanged by God’s grace’ can you really say you understand the costliness of that grace?
Can you say you even understand the Gospel? Keller states, such people “have a general idea of God’s universal love, but not a real grasp of the seriousness of sin and the meaning of Christ’s work on our behalf. [...] If we say ‘I believe in Jesus’ but it doesn’t affect the way we live, the answer is not that now we need to add hard work to our faith so much as that we haven’t truly understood or believed in Jesus at all.” (123, 124)
That statement really made me step back, examine myself, and evaluate just exactly what I believe. That is a hard statement to accept. But the good news is that if the Father waited and waited for the younger brother to return, he went looking for the older brother, begging and pleading for him to come inside. In other words, he is not at all content that the older brother stay outside, missing the party. If the father made a fool of himself for running to the younger brother and robbing the older brother to welcome him home, he also made a fool of himself by begging and pleading for the older brother to come in.
The problem is that Luke 15, like the book of Jonah, does not have an ending. We don’t know if the older brother received the same grace from the father the younger received and went into the party. Did he go in and party and rejoice that the younger came home? Or did he stay outside unhappy and, frankly, unsaved?
Because those who are saved join the party. Those who have received God’s grace, join the party. Those who are join the party, are glad that the younger brother has come home.
Every single one of us, every single day, need to evaluate and re-evaluate and immerse and re-immerse ourselves in God’s grace. That God goes out of his way to search and welcome everyone home is an startling indication of the prodigal, spendthrift nature of God: he gives his grace away radically, freely, to everyone: To younger wayward brothers; to older self-sufficient brothers.
We are invited to examine ourselves. Three of the stories had happy endings. What of the fourth? How will the fourth story end? Did the Pharisees Jesus spoke to that day, the ones who grumbled and muttered, join the party? Did they go inside and rejoice and celebrate?
We are invited to stop and look at ourselves and ask a very important question: Which brother am I? And we are invited, before we too quickly associate ourselves with the younger brother, to stop and see if perhaps, just perhaps, we are the older brother.
I started this blog for the primary purpose of writing 90 days worth of meditations from John’s Gospel. Those meditations coincided with a 4 1/2 month sermon series from the same and were posted here under the heading “90 Days with Jesus”.
We also coordinated our Bible School classes and all ages were taught from the same lessons (adapted of course to each age group). I am currently uploading those files to my box.net account and there they will be freely available to any who so choose top download them.
In this post, I am providing links to the Bible School material. The exegetical notes file consists of 114 pages of variously written notes (many quotes, outlines, etc.) and the lesson pages themselves are provided under separate links. The notes are according to my style and may be unedited or otherwise unfinished. There are 18 total lessons. The chapters I didn’t write a lesson for are covered in the sermon aspect of the series. I will post the sermons in a separate post later. Thanks for stopping by. jerry PS–Let me know if any of the links fail.
The sermons to go along with these Bible School lessons are now available. Click the link: 90 Days with Jesus, John’s Gospel and you will have access to 17 of 18 of the sermons (I have to retype one) and the box.net links. Thanks, jerry
Lesson 1 John 2:1-11
Lesson 2 John 2:12-25
Lesson 3 John 3 :1-21
Lesson 4 John 4:1-54
Lesson 5 John 5:1-47
Lesson 6 John 8:1-30
Lesson 7 John 11:1-57
Lesson 8 John 12:1-19, 37-50
Lesson 9 John 13:1-38
Lesson 10 John 14:1-31
Lesson 11 John 15:1-16:4
Lesson 12 John 16:5-33
Lesson 13 John 17:1-26
Lesson 14 John 18:1-40
Lesson 15 John 19:1-42
Lesson 16 John 20:1-31
Lesson 17 John 21:1-25
Lesson 18 Overview/Review
Intercession for Sodomites and Gomorrahites
Genesis 18, Luke 15
Properly speaking, of course, a Sodomite is someone who lives in Sodom the ancient city that one afternoon Abraham, the father of our faith, stood interceding for. A Gomorrahite is someone who lived Gomorrah. I suspect we have clung to the former because it is much easier to pronounce.
Genesis 18. If the Old Testament had Comedy Central, this chapter would certain anchor the prime time line-up. This chapter runs some extreme ends which is probably one way to adequately demonstrate the intrusiveness of chapter and verse divisions.
At one end of the chapter we are confronted with the absurdity of 100 year-old people being informed of impending doom. Not only is it absurd for 100 year-old people to find themselves suddenly parents, but it seems equally absurd for a baby to find himself being raised by people whose diapers he should be changing—and could very well be changing in a few years’ time. Then again, by any standard it is absurd to think of people that age…well, you know.
At the other end of the chapter we see the absurdity of Abraham arguing with God about how many righteous people it would take to convince God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. I hear echoes of a tootsie pop commercial. Ironically, or not, when the angels go out later that evening to investigate whether there are ten righteous people between the two cities, they barely make it out of the first city alive. I think we have an insight into the depths of depravity in the cities since Abraham started with 50 and whittled that down to 10. He wasn’t expecting much. Chapter 18 is absurd and everyone reading it knows this to be true.
I’m not the only one who thinks this story is absurd. Even the characters within the story think the story is absurd: “Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?’” I have said before that sarcasm is one of God’s greatest gifts to us and Sarah’s response to the angel’s announcement surely ranks up there with some of the best sarcasm every uttered.
It might even be absurd that as the visitors were getting ready to leave Abraham goes with them to ‘see them on their way’. It might be absurd that they happen to glance down and see Sodom. It might be absurd that the Lord here, whoever that is, decides that Abraham is a worthy to know what he is about to do to Sodom and Gomorrah because an ‘outcry’ has gone up to the Lord against them.
So in the first half of the chapter we note that Abraham is told the news of Sarah’s impending pregnancy. He is informed that the long awaited heir is only a mere year or so away. This heir ‘story’ connects these two scenes because as they are leaving and accompanied by Abraham the Lord repeats the promise, “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (18-19).
That’s saying much; a lot, especially when it is considered what Abraham does next. He interceded on behalf of Sodom. I know his nephew lived there, but Abraham’s prayer was specifically for the entire city: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?” (23-24) And God assures him that he would not—all the way down to ten people.
The reality is that in our world Christians have feasted far too much on imprecatory prayers than we have intercessory prayers. What sort of ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ was Abraham going to teach his heir if not that we should pray for and intercede for the wicked as demonstrated in this chapter? Does anyone find it strange, or ironic, that there was an ‘outcry’ going up against Sodom and there stood Abraham interceding for the very people the Lord meant to destroy because of the outcry? As Abraham’s heirs, his household (Hebrews 2:16), I wonder if we learned the things of Abraham that the Lord said he would teach us? (18:19)
We like those imprecatory Psalms and prayers because we think we are justified in praying them. Abraham’s prayer wasn’t answered, right? Sodom was destroyed so we think we are right to pray against those modern Sodom’s and Gomorrah’s. All this proves is that we haven’t learned from Abraham. What I am saying, to make my language plain, is that Christians spend far too much time praying for God’s judgment on the wicked and not enough time interceding on their behalf. Abraham asked God to spare the entire city for 10 people.
Isn’t our intercession on behalf of the modern Sodom’s part of the way we as Abraham’s heirs continue being a blessing to every nation on earth? Which brings us back to God’s sermon to Sarah when she laughed: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”
I suppose it is much easier to laugh at what we think impossible, you know, things like God rescuing the most wicked cities or the most unrighteous. I suppose it is much easier to simply pray God send a tsunami or a cyclone and just deal with those people than it is to actually stand toe to toe, face to face, with God (it seems that 18:22 might mean something like ‘God stood before Abraham’) and argue and debate and delay his judgment. But I think we are meant to answer the question: Is anything to hard for God?
If God can help two 100 year old people have a child, can he rescue a lost sheep? Can he find a lost coin? Can he wait patiently for a lost son to come home, and for a steady son to join the party? Can he drive a legion of demons from a man? Can he raise the dead, heal the blind, and cause the lame to walk? Can he rescue Sodom and Gomorrah? Who is it that limits God? Is there anything too hard for God?
And I think that’s what Abraham was thinking as he stood there that evening pleading with God for Sodom. Jesus said, “With human beings this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Not only does this mean that all things are possible, but it also means that all things are possible. It means that perhaps we would do well to stop writing off so many we think God can’t save and open up our prayers to the possibility that perhaps God is just waiting for someone to intercede. Maybe we doubt too much what God can do and thus we never ask him.
So consider: Is anything too hard for God? It’s not so absurd to think that God can save anyone, is it?
Don’t Be Afraid
Genesis 15, Psalm 7-8
Well, there is a day skipped in here. Sorry.
I think I mentioned the other day that Abram is one of my favorite biblical stories. I would love to spend a day with Abram and learn from him and talk to him about his story and his life. I cannot imagine what life must have been like for him: Called away from his family, given a promise by God that one day he would own land, have an heir, and be a blessing (all of which must have seemed radically impossible, endured a huge battle against a bunch of kings—this was a man who saw a lot of things in his years. He had endured famines, travels to Egypt, the wrath of Pharaoh, quarrels with his nephew, and his life would grow no easier as the years went by and the narrative of God’s providence unfolded.
Chapter 15 is unique, I think, in this sense. It is sort of a peaceful chapter, and yet the things that happen in it are rather frightening. Nevertheless, it is the opening words that thrill and delight me. Can you imagine the ‘Sovereign Lord’ (v 2) speaking to you in such a direct way saying, “ ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.’” Imagine that! God was his reward! This means, to me, that of all Abram had to look forward to (land, blessing, and not least a son), his greatest reward, his ultimate reward, was YHWH himself. God was his protection. Abram would not rely upon military prowess or the gifts of kings or anything but God.
God would do everything needed to protect Abram and bring about His intended purposes; namely, to provide the seed who would destroy the serpent.
For Abram’s part, all he had to do was ‘not be afraid.’
God was calling Abram into scary, uncharted territory. He was asking Abram to do things that no one else had ever been asked to do. He was asking Abram to believe things that no one else had ever had to believe. He was asking Abram to go to places where no one had ever been asked to go. “Abram believed the Lord, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” I seriously cannot imagine doing what God was calling Abram to do, and I can scarcely imagine having the sort of faith Abram had to believe God. Doesn’t it take a lot of effort to go in the direction that God calls us to go?
Isn’t it strange, somewhat, that the first command God gives Abram is, “Don’t be afraid?” You know, I need to read that verse every single day and hear those words spoken to me every minute of the day. I need to hear the word of the Lord speak in the midst of the ‘everydayness’ of every day and remind me that ‘it’ is not dependent upon me: “I am your shield; I am your very great reward.” This is God’s way of letting Abram know that ‘it’ does not depend upon Abram. It is God’s way of taking the burden off of the human and putting it back on himself. It is, to be sure, another instance of God’s grace in action.
“Don’t be afraid.” Why? There are a million reasons every single day to be afraid—especially living here in the world now where everything seems so damned uncertain. But God spoke to Abram about uncertainty too, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country no their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there.” There will be uncertainty, but that’s the whole thing. God’s plan doesn’t seem to depend upon the strength of certainty in human circumstances. That is, life can be topsy-turvy and upside down and God remains true and faithful: Don’t look around, Abram, keep your eyes fixed on me, your shield and very great reward. Nothing else you see, nothing else you possess, nothing else I give you is the substance of your reward. Your reward is nothing less than Me.
“Don’t be afraid!” Right. Kids. Money. Bills. How are we to not be afraid? In a sense, not being afraid is the essence of faith because that is when we trust that God’s wisdom and purposes and plans are far greater and far more likely to succeed than our own. Of course we shouldn’t be afraid. Sometimes, however, we are just too darn afraid of living without fear because it is like a crutch that we feel we need to get around from day to day. God, however, was telling Abram: You won’t need the crutch of fear because you belong to me and that is, and will be, enough for you. Your faith will be the standard by which all generations will be measured. Indeed, the righteous will live by the same faith Abram did.
That is the sincere call we have as people of faith, as Jesus followers.
The other day, I posted this but now I think it is worth a re-read:
And the resurrection of Jesus issues the surprising command: don’t be afraid; because the God who made the world is the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and calls you now to follow him. Believing in the resurrection of Jesus isn’t just a matter of believing that certain things are true about the physical body of Jesus that had been crucified. These truths are vital and nonnegotiable, but they point beyond themselves, to the God who was responsible for them. Believing in this God means believing that it is going to be all right; and this belief is, ultimately, incompatible with fear. As John says in his letter, perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4.18). And the resurrection is the revelation of perfect love, God’s perfect love for us, his human creatures. That’s why, though we may at any stage in our lives grasp the truth that God raised Jesus from the dead, it takes us all our life long to let that belief soak through and permeate the rest of our thinking, feeling, and worrying lives.”
Sometimes this process isn’t just a gradual thing; it may involve sudden crises. There’s a hidden chapter in the life of St Paul, which is usually ignored by those who see him either as the heroic missionary or the profound theologian, or possibly the misguided misogynist. Acts doesn’t mention this hidden chapter, but in our second lesson we heard Paul himself speak of it. At one stage of his work in what he called Asia, and we call Turkey, he says that he went through a horrendous and traumatic experience which seem to destroy him totally. ‘I was so utterly, unbearably crush’, he writes, ‘that I despaired of life itself; indeed, I felt as though I had received the sentence of death’ (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). And a good part of the second letter to Corinth actually grows out of this experience; the brash, proud Corinthian church had wanted Paul to be a success story, and he had to explain to them that being an apostle, and ultimately being a Christian, was not a matter of being a success story, but of living with human failure–and with the God who raises the dead. That’s what following Jesus is likely to involve.” (NT Wright, Following Jesus, 68-69)
Resurrection people do not live in fear because perfect love has driven out all fear.