The Day (and Promise) of Rest

It’s the day between. Good Friday has concluded; Jesus is in the tomb; Sunday is yet to come. There is no gospel text to guide our thoughts on this day, but there is a very poignant passage for the day in Hebrews 4, the latter portion of which is below:

11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be among the disciples of Jesus the day after. And the day before. Except they only knew about the former. Everything in which they had invested had gone south, and very quickly at that. The unimaginable series of events had landed them in a place where the only possible conclusion was that they had lost it all. And how would they ever hope to be rehabilitated into the world they had left, the one they had rejected in exchange for a vague but very compelling vision from a man like no other–who was now dead. Talk about needing some downtime. Today, we would probably add “and a therapist.”

The text in Hebrews speaks of those who fell short of entering into God’s rest due to disobedience. But it also tells us that even the promised land of Canaan was not the final rest of which God had spoken. There were “rests” along the way toward the final Sabbath rest. God knows we need them. They clear our thoughts, allowing us to debrief, reflect, and refocus. Sometimes they come at pivotal points, where we seem to have every reason to turn around, turn away, and perhaps even turn against God because of the failure of the plan we thought we knew, the one for which we had signed up. At the very least, it forces us to ask ourselves again just what it was that we expected from this relationship in Christ. Before us is the specter of many who had failed and bailed at these junctures; but there are also those, like the disciples of Jesus, who wondered just as much, but stayed the course long enough to receive the unbelievably good news.

Our “Saturdays” of disappointment and confusion are real, and sometimes they are long. Just as with the disciples, God knows when to end them with His powerful intervention. The one He was to provide Easter morning is proof enough that he does redeem the times of rest if they are endured with hope, even while uncertainty dominates the moment. He knows when and how to raise the dead.

Time to Step Up

It’s Good Friday–a somewhat odd designation of the day on which Jesus was crucified. On one hand, the results of this and the days immediately succeeding were very good indeed; on the other hand, the spectacle of a crucifixion is the farthest image from “good” that one can imagine. Mel Gibson, for all his personal flaws, made certain that we would never think of the cross without its horrendous, unspeakable cruelty and pain. But today’s text focuses on the end of the day, assuming we are all familiar with what occurred in its central hours. John 19:38-42:

38 After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. 39 Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

An interesting character, this Nicodemus. He wanted to know what Jesus was all about (John 3); he defended the right to be heard (7:46-53). And he was a witness to the crucifixion, watching and pondering all that he had seen and heard, both from Jesus and from his antagonists. Now he came with Joseph, perhaps a friend of significant means, to request the body of Jesus in order to give a proper burial. When all was said and done, he had made a choice. And though we read no further, it was almost certainly the sort of choice which changed his relationship with his colleagues on the council for irreversibly. He stepped up to do the right thing and declared his belief in the Messiah in the process.

Nicodemus is perhaps the paradigm of those who have taken the care to contemplate the evidence on its own merits, rather than accepting the judgment of others whose vested interests outweighed the need for any such consideration. C. S. Lewis comes also to mind, though he did not begin from the insider vantage point from which Nicodemus viewed the evidence. Yet the bottom line for both of these men is the same as it is for any who will look at the facts of Jesus on a cross and ask what the best explanation might be. Why is he there? What had he done to land in the place of the politically dangerous and violent, the vile and the despised who had been nailed to crosses by a sadistic and calculating Roman system?

Nicodemus came as one familiar with the inner workings and reasonings of the council which planned the demise of Jesus. He more than perhaps anyone was aware of the real story behind the plot his colleagues had been persuaded into executing. He knew their hearts; he knew who Jesus claimed to be; he drew the conclusion. And when the time came for him to step up and be counted among the followers of Jesus, he was more readily found than even the closest of Jesus’ friends.

Many of us sit among the scoffers, the scornful; we hear their supposed reasons for dismissing Jesus. Today we are especially reminded to look at the cross and compare this Christ to the rantings and self-serving caricatures of Jesus coming from his detractors. We may even be in places where we listen in on the plots to do away with him, or at least with his words or his risen presence among his followers. When we look at him on the cross, will we step up and claim his body? Could there be a meaning here of a church, his lifeless body, awaiting resurrection?

The Point–Not Whether Wednesday or Thursday

Today is know in the Christian world as Maundy Thursday. If the recent findings of a British study are correct, we have been celebrating the Last Supper on the wrong day of the Holy Week for many centuries; according to the study, it should be Wednesday if we are interested in following the steps of Christ chronologically. As today’s text makes very clear, it is the meaning, not the precise timing, to which believers attach their faith and from which they draw their mission. An extended passage today, John 17:12-26:

12 While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.
20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

So much to reflect on in this passage; where does one begin? The opposition which will always exist between “the world” and the followers of Christ? That might give us pause when we are tempted to think that people will like us if they only understand us better. The fact is that those who are “of the world” understand perfectly that our purpose is at odds with their desires and they have no intention of yielding. Maybe we begin with the sanctification, here used clearly in the sense of being set apart for God’s use. Just what that use might be and how it is to be enacted then becomes a critical concern. Do we start with the concept of “the truth” in which or for which or by which we ar set apart? Do we focus on the nature of the unity for which Jesus prays?

My purpose today is not to discuss the relative merits of each of these ideas. Instead it is to encourage all who know Christ and all who want to know Him to participate in worship at the table of the Lord today. And as you do, recall this passage and how our Lord prayed for us before he died for us and for our salvation.

Please share any thoughts that come to mind through the words of the passage for the day–and on what it means to have Jesus pray these words on our behalf.

How To Draw a Crowd, Jesus Style

Popularity is a difficult phenomenon to figure out. What causes it; what dims it; with whom does it begin; what mixture of public desire and personal charisma accounts for a particular person being thrust into the limelight? How much depends upon the seeking of the popularity in the first place? Jesus certainly had the floor when he spoke to the crowds in John 12:27-36:

27 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. 34 So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35 So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”
When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them.

I suppose one could have an interesting though fruitless discussion over the question of whether Jesus was actually seeking the attention of the crowds that invariably gathered wherever he went. It seems reasonable to conclude that simply the doing and saying of the deeds and words he offered would be enough to bring ample attention. No further PR needed. But what if the deeds and words, probably heavily weighted toward the former, detracted from the overall purpose? Should one remain in the spotlight for as long as the market will bear one’s presence and style? What would it have hurt for Jesus to hang around a little longer, thereby drawing greater attention to his mission? Would not five years, or ten or twenty, rather than three yield greater visibility and wider acceptance?

Apparently not. We are best served by accepting the New Testament’s later witness to the idea that it was “in the fullness of time” that Christ came, and that “at the right time” he died for sinful humanity. On the other hand, the rightness of the time had to do with how his visibility would be expanded, not diminished. He did not come primarily to draw crowds, but to redeem them. And he knew that in order for that to happen his death in a very public and very demeaning fashion had to occur.

There are many reasons for which I have heard people being encouraged to “come to Christ.” Some of them make me cringe. The cringing comes because there was no necessity, no reason for a crucifixion if those reasons having to do with self-fulfillment, purpose, blessing, better relationships, etc., were the purposes for which he came. In that case, the cross is not a triumph but a tragedy to be explained. He should have stayed and gathered more crowds. But in his unsearchable wisdom, he knew our own hearts and minds very well; and in that wisdom he knew that drawing people toward redemption was far greater a purpose than wowing them with words or deeds, of which we would eventually have wearied were it not for his being lifted up. On a cross. Which continues to speak. May we never offer a Christ without it.

Do People Really Want to See Jesus?

Sometimes the answers just don’t seem to fit the questions. At least that’s how it appears. Maybe we don’t quite understand the question, and therefore cannot grasp the answer. Maybe we are simply being redirected in our thinking. Which of these is going on in John 12:20-26?

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. 21 So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.

“Some Greeks” wanted to see Jesus. That should come as no surprise; after all, who in the region would not have been aware that the man by that name had become something of a sensation? Wanting to see Jesus may have been no more than wanting to rub elbows with a celebrity, something to tell the folks back home. It could also have been an honest desire to meet and speak with and learn from the one whose words as well as his actions had people taking. This is plausible, in light of the fact that they were there to “worship at the feast” (a curious enough phrase in itself for many of us). In any event, the Greeks came to Phillip, who went to Andrew, who accompanied the former to speak to Jesus about the request.

But the only answer given seems to be given to Phillip and Andrew, the Greeks no longer being mentioned. And it is an answer that only vaguely answers the situation. My hunch is that Jesus is referring to the desire to see him, a desire which is about to be fulfilled in an as yet unanticipated way. Once he is glorified, which is connected to his being “lifted up” in the succeeding passage, he will draw not only a few Greeks, but everyone to himself. But not yet. Had Jesus been seen at this point by those outside the small circle of followers they would have taken word of an odd but charming miracle-worker back to their own context. And that’s not God’s intent for the one we would know as Lord.

The necessity of Jesus’ death to his saving mission is again underscored in this response. The kernel of wheat must be placed in the ground to fill its purpose. It’s something we recognize as necessary for our salvation; do we see it as readily as a pattern for our own lives of discipleship? Are the followers of Christ content to sing songs thanking Jesus for what he has done to save their skin and/or their souls without a death of their own? Do we wish to draw others to ourselves on any terms, even if it is without the message of the cross which we are to take up in our following of Jesus?

To be blunt, I have had my fill of people saying in one breath that “it’s not about me, it’s about Jesus,” and in the next breath singing songs that are about themselves and how they feel. Maybe we want a Jesus who dies, but not a self that follows him there.

Or maybe I’m just an old crank. What do you think?

When It Hurts Too Much

One of the advantages of being solely responsible for the content of a blog is having to answer to no one for deviating from the announced plan. I expect to return tomorrow to thoughts regarding Lent and the journey of Jesus toward his death in Jerusalem.

But today I simply offer reflection on the fragility of our lives in this world. I am not speaking only of the more obvious meaning of that term, such as its application to times when accidents or illness claim or seriously alter life. I am also thinking of the fragile nature of the mind and spirit of a person. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. It is not difficult to marvel at the latter; we do so when we are in awe of the abilities of mind and body to create and to heal, to plan and to execute plans. The more we learn of the intricacies of our own physical structure the more the wonder leads us to praise.

What of the “fearfully” part? Is it a reference to our being subject to physical breakdown, either through age or sudden catastrophe? Is it that the same intricate inner workings of the complex systems that make up our bodies can turn and work against our health, rather than for it? Is it a reminder to do what we can to guard our bodies, given the precious nature of the life they hold, not only for ourselves, but for those who share life with us? And what about those others, with whom we have relationships of many kinds, all of which are themselves subject to both healthy and unhealthy expression, bringing both great joy and great heartache?

We are told that God knows our frame, that He has not forgotten that we are but dust; he knows our thoughts from afar. Both of these are truths of which we need to be reminded, as is Paul’s warning that no one knows the thoughts or heart of another person, rendering judgments thereon as words we are unfit to pronounce. That thought continues with the clear statement that it is to our own master that we stand or fall–and that He is able to make us stand. And that ability–no, that promise–to make us stand is not something we undo by succumbing to the pressures of life.

Few of us, though perhaps more of us than what is readily apparent, find life so overwhelming that we seriously entertain thoughts of taking our own lives. Why would a person, especially one who has a solid hope in Christ as sufficient for all of our needs, be in so desperate a position? How would someone who brought encouragement and the blessing of faith fail to find it at a critical point? Was medication intended to maintain that fearfully delicate balance in the brain responsible for its undoing instead? We don’t know. And we will not know. But there are some things we can know.

We know that life hurts at times; sometimes it hurts unbearably, in ways never to become visibly manifested even to those closest and dearest. And no one is immune to things which they would never foresee happening to them. Even the best efforts at mitigation are not always successful because of the complex sort of beings we are; we are not reducible to a formula or equation.

We also know, or should know, that for those who are in Christ there is no condemnation. When Paul writes of the great Christian hope at the close of the same eighth chapter of Romans, he tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing in all creation. His power to hold surpasses the power of confusion, delusion, and anything else in the created order. The depths and heights of our experience of living, always clouded when compared to the perfect vision that yet awaits us, cannot separate us from the hope of Easter. Nor can the sadness, the temporary rocking of our world, or the fearful yet wonderful nature of our being in this world. For now we groan; tomorrow we shall yet rejoice.

God Yes, Jesus No?

There comes a time when choices have to be made. We tend to put those times as far into the future as possible for ourselves, even while demanding that others make them in the present moment–especially in regard to so-called “spiritual” matters. The particular choice to accept as true or to reject as false the claims of Jesus is one which we cannot evade forever, as he himself declared in today’s text. John 12:37-50 (44-50 below):

44 And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. 46 I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. 47 If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. 48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. 49 For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.”

We are familiar with the position that goes something like this: “I believe in God; I’m not sure about this Jesus thing.” The uncertainty about the “Jesus thing” may arise from difficulty in believing the claims regarding his divinity, from the existence of so many alternative religious ideas in a pluralist world, from uncomfortable implications of accepting his words as true, or from negative experiences with those who have claimed to be his followers. Each of these should be taken seriously, of course, and it is the task of theologians and teachers to meet the challenges presented. At the end of the day, however, none of these or other hindrances should prove to be insurmountable obstacles. When the claims of Jesus are heard, they must be accepted or rejected, even if the process of consideration extends over a lengthy period of time.

Let’s consider further the idea that we have the option of believing in God without his revelation in Christ. Where would the information about who God is, what God does, and how God relates to human beings come from? What kind of God is it who is not revealed in and through Jesus Christ? And that is where the acceptance of God with the rejection of Christ runs aground, along with its intellectually barren cousin, the bromide that one can be spiritual without being religious. Thoughts about God and our own self-understanding cannot be neatly separated. Either we form God in our image or we accept that we have been formed in His, in which case fulfillment come from growing in the truth concerning who He is. And who He is revealed in Jesus.

Either Jesus speaks the word of God or we speak it on our own authority. Even when we choose to believe the words of someone in contradiction to Jesus, we make such a choice on our own warrant. And this applies not only with regard to whether or not Jesus is who he claimed to be (a claim, by the way, authenticated by his life, his miracles, his death, resurrection, and ascension); it applies to the tendencies toward selective acceptance of Jesus’ words as God’s own words.

It is that selective hearing and acceptance that calls yet again for our repentance. Are there any particular words he speaks which we struggle to belive are truly from God?