Saturday, December 22, 2012

Advent Musings on Mary of Nazareth

Luke 1: 26- 38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." 34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" 35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God." 38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.

The angel Gabriel came to Mary, a messenger sent by God to deliver a mind-blowingly life-changing message to this young virgin in Nazareth. Gabriel arrives in verse 26 and leaves in verse 38. I wish I could have seen the look on Mary's face when God's messenger left her home in Nazareth!

In just twelve verses God, who sent the messenger to deliver His message, has completely changed the narrative of Mary's life...forever.

When Mary woke up that morning, she was an obscure young Jewish girl, probably living her ordinary life in the unremarkable town of Nazareth, preparing for a traditional marriage. I wonder if the thought of becoming the Messiah's mother had ever crossed her mind. Had God ever put such a dream in her heart? Had she played childhood games in her living room, pretending to be the mother of the Messsiah? Had she laughed dismissively at her other-worldly fantasy, as she lived reality in her down-to-earth world, thinking, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Was she content with the way things were, preparing to marry the God-fearing Joseph, longing to be his wife and begin their happy life together? Did she ever look out her window on to the dusty streets of Nazareth, wishing that God would do a new thing in her life?

We don't know any of these answers. Still, I can't help wondering what Mary's days were like before that fateful, unexpected visit from Gabriel. The Gospels tell us nothing of her life before this moment. But, I have a hard time believing that the girl in this story, who utters words of breathtaking faith that forever cede control over her destiny...I have a hard time believing that this small-town girl never imagined a world beyond her own. I have a hard time believing that Mary's mind had settled down satisfied in Nazareth, hoping the landscape of her life would never change.

It is striking to me that the Bible says nothing about why she found favour with God. I would make an educated guess that her humility had something to do with it. Jesus affirms humility more than once, and epitomized it in His life and ministry. Perhaps he learned it from his mother, as much as from anyone. Mary's humility is evident to me in her immediate response as "servant of the Lord' instead of "Queen mother." And, later, in her song of praise, Mary sings that God has "looked with favour on the lowliness of His servant." Perhaps it was just as well that she'd grown up in Nazareth, where I'm guessing it was easier to develop humility than under the "bright lights" of an illustrious city like Jerusalem, for example.

So, here is young Mary, betrothed to Joseph, going about her ordinary life, when she unexpectedly has an extraordinary encounter that dramatically changes her life. Even if she'd dared go the mother-of-messiah road in her daydreams, I doubt that in her dream script, she would have written her part as a young girl on the brink of scandal -- and death-- as an unmarried mother-to-be betrothed to a righteous man in the very conservative first century Middle East. Surely this is not what one envisions when one thinks of finding favour with God! Today's Gospel lesson finds her bewildered, wondering "what sort of greeting" this is. She didn't think, "Ah-ha! Just as I've always believed and prepared for." She wonders what to make of it all.

Perhaps she hardly dared to believe the truth about the favour she has found with God. I imagine she was anxious about how exactly she had "found favour" when she considered the implications of explaining this to her parents! Would her orthodox Jewish parents be able to accept this "good news" before she was married to Joseph? Can you imagine Mary pleading with them, "No, really, it is the Holy Spirit! Gabriel where are you when I need you!" Imagine how she might have feard losing Joseph, when she broke the news to him "No, really, it is the Holy Spirit! That's what the angel told me when I told him I was a virgin! I am still a virgin, Joseph. I'm waiting for you. How can believe the worst about me? Gabriel, where are you? Now would be a good time for another visitation!"

Did she wonder if her conservative community would follow through on a righteous judgement when she could no longer hide her unplanned pregnancy? Were these the thoughts that were madly thrasing about Mary's mind when she hurried to Elizabeth's home on the long road from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea? As we remember a familiar story, let's not forget that when Gabriel left Mary, the chosen mother of our Lord was, in fact, at an utterly vulnerable moment in her life: Her life as she knew it was over; the life that she was planning was threatened; and her very life was in danger.

Except for this one truth: The Lord was with her. And that changed everything.

Isn't it ironic that while Mary's new predicament looked like all hell was about to break lose in her life, in actual fact, God had begun the process of conceiving heaven on Jesus was being formed in her womb. God Himself was entering our world in a most humble, vulnerable manner, and Mary reflected that journey in her own humility and vulnerablity. This is Mary's moment of conception: "Now you will conceive and bear a son," Gabriel tells her. This is the moment when the life of the Son of God begins in her. This moment of utter vulnerability and bewilderment in her life. This moment which needed her radical trust of faith without sight: "Let it be done to me according to thy word."

God was doing a new thing. I can't imagine that there was anything that Mary could have done to prepare herself for this, as she just couldn't have anticipated it in her life. But, you also get the feeling that God, in His perfect wisdom had found a way to prepare her. Because by the end of this chapter, she's singing His praises...most improbably!

"For nothing will be impossible with God."

So, this Advent, as we ponder the wonder of Christmas and prepare and wait expectantly for Christ's Second Coming, what can we learn from Mary's heart-pounding, life-altering introduction to the One who would become her Lord and Savior?

The first thing that comes to my mind is this: If you're looking for a life of safety and predictability, one in which you are the absolute master of your fate, well, you cannot follow Jesus Christ! "Surely not, Lord!" incredulity comes to my mind when I think anew of this first introduction of God incarnate into the world -- words that echo the incredulous Peter on the rooftop, when a voice from heaven asked him to eat the very foods he knew were forbidden by God's law(Acts 10). What is God thinking here? Why would He risk this innocent young girl's life and reputation like this? Why would He put the fate of His Son, the Messiah, the Savior of the World, in such an utterly fragile womb: fraught with danger, scandal and death?

I don't know the answer to this, and maybe I shouldn't. For if I a mere mortal could figure out and fully understand everything that Almighty God does, well He'd hardly be God! God is God and in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord." (Isaiah 55:8)

The safety of the church sanctuary, the predicatablity of regular worship, the comfort of Christian fellowship, the peace of prayer meetings and blessing of Bible Studies all seem ridiculously incongruous here in first century Nazareth, where we are introduced to a woman New Testament Scholar Raymond Brown, calls the "first disciple."

Mary's life appears like it is about to come apart at the seams...or so it would seem to any reasonable, even faithful observor. Even the righteous Joseph, for example, we are told in a separate story in Matthew's Gospel, has second thoughts about marrying his betrothed. (See Matthew 1:18-25) Who could blame him? Certainly, no reasonable, righteous man in Israel would have counseled Joseph otherwise. And, yet, that's exactly what God does in a dream: God persuades Joseph to change his mind about quietly cancelling his plans to marry Mary.

So, coming back to our reading from Luke, what is God thinking? Why would He choose such a precarious predicament for His Son's birth? To those unbelieving evesdroppers on this story it all seems doomed. And yet to the ears and eyes of faith it points to the glory of God: to the wonder of it all; to the heart-pounding, wildly amazing, beyond-our-imagination, creative genius of the One whose Word brought forth the cosmos from chaos. As the writer of Ephesians puts it, "Now to Him by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to Him be glory..." (Ephesians 3:20-21)

Significantly, Gabriel's message doesn't carry even a hint of doubt that God's intended purpose will succeed: He tells Mary, "you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus." This Son, Gabriel tells Mary, "will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

Gabriel's message is authoritative and certain. It is a "Let there be light" moment. And, indeed, there was light: Jesus, the light of the world. The light of the world was coming into the world, and the darkness could not overcome it, as the author of John's Gospel testifies in John 1. Yet, clearly, the facts do not really lend themself to easy belief, let alone certainty, at this stage of ths story! Jesus' very birth is naturally impossible! And the woman whose womb will conceive Him is oh-so-vulnerable! How can one anticipate Jesus eternal reign at this moment?

And so the call to faith begins at this moment of conception. Faith without sight, or fearless faith as Mary might say. How else can you explain her last words to Gabriel? How did God prepare her for this quality of faith? Surely, her courageous faith is one reason why God chose her!

The text shows that she's perplexed and "ponders" the greeting. So,even though the Angel Gabriel says, "Do not be afraid, Mary" one could surmise that it's just out of habit, because the text does not tell us that Mary is afraid, interestingly enough. The contrast with the priest Zechariah is striking to me. Earlier in the chapter, when Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in the temple, Luke tells us that Zechariah was "terrified and fear ovewhelmed him." (Luke 1:12) Mary on the other hand is merely, "perplexed" which is a really understated response to an angelic vistation! Perhaps her youth accounted for this. Perhaps she was so steeped in the Scriptures that the divine realm was quite natural to her because it was the paradigm in which she "lived and moved and had her being." She seems immediately comforted, for example, by Gabriel's words, "For nothing will be impossible with God," almost as if she instantly understood and believed the reference to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18:14 ) and that other impossible pregnancy.

She has just one question: "How can this be?" She's a virgin, you see. In those days, young, unmarried women were. She has not yet "known" a man. And even she knows the facts of life that stand in the way of this conception. And then Gabriel lays it out: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; He will be called Son of God."

This is no ordinary birth. This is no ordinary baby. God is at work. And Mary, it seems, is ready to believe that nothing is impossible with God.

I love God's thoughtfulness in having Gabriel mention Eliabeth's pregnancy, now in its sixth month. He had to show this poor girl something to believe that she wasn't positively insane! And if Eliabeth's pregnacy is true "of whom it was said that she is barren..." well, could it be? Dare Mary believe?

"For nothing will be impossible with God."

Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann says that "barreness is the way of human history. It is an effective metaphor for hopelessness. There is no foreseeable future. There is no human power to invent a future...but barreness is not only the condition of hopeless humanity. The marvel of biblical faith is that barreness is the arena of God's life-giving action." What marvelous good news this is!

And so it is that we are introduced to Mary of Nazareth: in humility, in frailty, in obscurity, in danger -- in a place where, in Brueggemann's words "there is no human power to invent a future."

But, the Lord is with her. And that changes everything. She has found favour with God, and God gives her -- and the world -- an unimaginable future, even unto eternity. And, in that greatly momentous "now" in Nazareth when Jesus is conceived in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, by the grace of God, this naturally impossible thing is conceived in her, namely, fearless faith. It is a kind of radical, supernatural trust in God and surrender to the Lord that God Himself calls forth in the life of a disciple of Christ: "Here am I, a servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word." Is this response from the "first disciple" of Christ the only truly acceptable response for anyone who wants to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?

Later in Luke 1, when Elizabeth confirms the angel's message and promise, we find Mary, of the house of Jacob, a radiant, joyful, betrothed, expectant mother-to-be, singing her song in the major key of radical, fearless faith -- trusting entirely in God's mercy, goodness and great faithfulness.

Reasonably, Mary could have bemoaned her new-found, unprovoked vulnerability. But God...was with her. In fact, at this point, God was in her, having taken residence in her inmost being. And that changed everything.

Full of improbable faith, impossible hope, and unlikely love, Mary perceives, impossibly, that future generations will call her blessed and she rejoices in God her saviour.

For nothing is impossible with God. Not virgin birth. Not barren conception. Not hope beyond despair. Not extravagant love. Not amazing grace. Not the ungodly made blameless and right with God.

Not even life after death.

And so we, too, can rejoice with Mary of we receive Jesus of Nazareth, the love of God incarnate.

"He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

Thanks be to God! Hallelujah!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

On Distress….And the Son of Man Coming

Luke 21:25-28

21:25 "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
There have been times in my life when I’ve had the privilege and joy of seeing the glory of the Lord displayed along the sea. I’ve especially enjoyed times when I’ve been at the beach, looking up at splendid skies with billowy white clouds, glimmering with the pink-orange hues of the setting sun. The breathtaking beauty of such times reminds me of the Lord’s Second Coming, as I raise my head and see the heavens declare the glory of the Lord.

So, I’m struck by the contrast in this Gospel reading. Clearly, Jesus doesn’t seem to have a lovely beach setting in mind when He tells His disciples about His Second Coming. The backdrop in this Gospel reading is not a stunning view at the water’s edge, when the heavens seem to abound with the glory of the Lord, causing one’s soul to soar.

Far from an artist’s aesthetic impression of the Second Coming, look at the disturbing words that Jesus uses to set up the scene: distress, confused, faint, fear, foreboding, shaken. Not a pretty picture! And, yet that’s precisely when Jesus will come, He says, breaking into the bleakness with His glorious, unmistakable presence.

“Then,” He says, “Then” they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”

There is something (perhaps everything) about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its perfect truth that is contrary to the wisdom of the world; utter foolishness, in fact, as Paul writes in his letter to the Corinithians. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the widsom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’” (I Corinthians 1:18-19)

In verses 25 and 26 of Gospel reading in Luke, Jesus describes the kind of circumstances in which people will see Him come “in a cloud with power and great glory.” Speaking to His disciples before His death, the Lord tells them to look for Him when things look that bad. Perhaps in their more immediate circumstances, Jesus was trying to give His disciples a way of seeing His death on the cross as the power of God at work.

And, perhaps, in this time shortly before He was going to die, the fully human Jesus, in the company of His disciples, was reminding Himself that the horrible death He was about to die was the “now” when God, His Father, was in complete control of His life and His destiny as redeemer of the world. Luke’s Gospel has an especially detailed account of Jesus’own agony at Gethsemene (22:39-46). Luke tells us that Jesus was in anguish and that “He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling on the ground.” (22:44) So we know that Jesus experirenced distress and foreboding about what was to happen to Him on that first Good Friday. Even so He trusted God with His life.

What Good News this is to those of us who have put our hope in Jesus Christ, our Lord! As the writer of Hebrews tells us, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknessses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

Jesus knows. And Jesus cares. And Jesus has the power to redeem. Jesus is not indifferent to our fears and foreboding. Jesus is not dismissive of our distress and confusion. In fact, it is in those very circumstances that we disciples must, as the Lord instructs us, “stand up and raise our heads” and look for the One who is our hope and our redemption.

With Jesus as our High Priest we can, therefore, along with the writer of Hebrews, “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)

The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is not escapist or fake. It never pretends that things are not the way that they are. In verses 25 and 26 in this Scripture, Jesus acknowledges that there will be distress and confusion and fear and foreboding. I can’t imagine that anyone goes through life without experiencing this in some degree. But, for Jesus that is a mere backdrop to the spotlight which focuses on…Him; His presence, His glory, His power, and His redemption. Here’s where I draw my hope, here’s where I believe every one who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ can draw sure hope (He is speaking to His disciples): Let the believer dwell on verses 27 and 28, where Jesus leaves the disciples with words like “power and great glory” and “redemption” while assuring them of His return.

Now, those who call Jesus Lord, know our redemption isn’t just “near,” it’s here. The “now” of redemption has already happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is up to us to receive it by coming to the Lord in faith.

Some day, all the world will see Jesus come again, this time in power and great glory. But, in the mean time, He remains the believer’s firm hope in the midst of distress and confusion and fear and foreboding. When your world is shaken, I urge you to “raise your heads” and look to Him, above the chaos all around you. Jesus Christ is not waiting for our souls to soar in order to reach Him who is unreachable. On the contrary, the Lord comes to us in our deepest distress, in our fears and forebodings.

When we need Him most…He is especially there.

You will see Him come in the midst of your distress with power and great glory. And if He says your redemption is near, it must be so, for Jesus can be no other way but true to His word.

Jesus can be no other way but faithful.

If you don’t know that already, take a chance on Him. You will find Him to be faithful and true. Some day all the world will see Him. But, in the mean time, through the eyes of faith, we who know Him can see Him…now. And, in the words of a meaningful old hymn, He will “sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”

Let me leave you with the hopeful words of the Psalmist who is waiting for divine redemption and urged his nation to do so (Psalm 130:7,8):

“O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with Him is great power to redeem.
It is He who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.”

Thanks be to God!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

God's Surprising Righteousness

Matthew 3: 13 "Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" 15 Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." Then John consented. 16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." (NIV)

Righteousness matters to God the Father, and, therefore, it matters to Jesus, the Son. It is His Way, and He is the Way. From beginning to end, the Holy Scriptures testify that righteousness is God’s way. As followers of Christ, therefore, His way must be our way.

So, what is this way of righteousness? Clearly, it’s more than obeying the Ten Commandments. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-11) makes that abundantly clear. The law-keepers of Jesus’ time were the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, and Jesus says, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)

But, how can our righteousness exceed the righteousness of the law-abiding Pharisees? I think the answer is…by the grace of God! It really is a gift we receive by the amazing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. When we come to Him in faith, Christ takes our sin and gives us God’s righteousness in exchange! Sounds incredible? Well, look at this that Paul writes: “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Corinthians 5:21) The words “we might become” suggests that the end result does not happen instantly and yet, clearly, in Christ, God’s righteousness is suddenly not just what we do, but who we are! Writing to the Corinthian church, Paul says, “Christ has become for us wisdom from God – that is our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” (emphasis mine, 1 Corinthians 1:30) And in his letter to the Galatians, Paul asserts, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

What wonderful, breathtaking good news! But, it brings me back to my original question. What is God’s way of righteousness? The New Testament accounts show that God’s righteousness often surprises people, and can even be contrary to what we expect. Jesus declared, for example, that prostitutes were entering the Kingdom before the Pharisees! (Matthew 21:31) Needless to say, this surprised the Pharisees! (To say the least!) Just like it surprised the disciples when Jesus said it was harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.

Why does God’s way surprise us, especially if, like those Pharisees and those disciples, we get our understanding of righteousness from Scripture? When I read Matthew’s Gospel this summer, it got me thinking about God’s Righteous Way.
This text, in particular, seems to suggest that, whatever God’s righteous way is, it may not always be what our righteous instincts tell us it is. As the word of the Lord says in Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways.” (Isaiah 55:8)

In this text from Matthew, we find Jesus coming to John the Baptist to be baptized by John in the River Jordan. This Gospel records John’s response like this: But John tried to deter him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" That’s the NIV translation. The NRSV says, John would have prevented him…”
We see just a few verses earlier (Matthew 3:11) that John knew he was just the one preparing the way for the Messiah. John understood that Jesus was more powerful and that Jesus would baptize with the real power – Holy Spirit. John knew his place, and he knew that he wasn’t even fit to carry Jesus’ sandals…let alone worthy to baptize Jesus! John the Baptist had been appointed by God to prepare the way for His Son. As Luke’s Gospel tells us, John had the right pedigree: two devout, righteous parents to provide good, godly genes, and, if that wasn’t enough, he was filled with the Holy Spirit while he was still in his mother’s womb. (Luke 1)

So, I find it really instructive that, on this matter of the Lord’s baptism, this John – the one who is prepared by God Himself to prepare the way for the Messiah -- gets God’s way of righteousness wrong! “No, Lord! You should be baptizing me! Surely, given who you are, that’s the right way!” he’s thinking, understandably. I mean, first of all, why would Jesus need a baptism of repentance? And why would Jesus be baptized with water when He will baptize with the real thing – the Holy Spirit? Were these the kind of questions running through John the Baptist’s head in a rush of thoughts reflecting, “What’s going on Lord?”

It’s Jesus who’s baffling here. Not John the Baptist. Jesus responds with "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." Really? This is the proper way for all righteousness to be fulfilled? If John the Baptist got it wrong, I think it gives us a reason to be humble about our own convictions, no matter how righteous they seem. In the end, whatever else John was thinking at that time, he did the right thing: He did what Jesus asked him to do. He was obedient to the Lord, even though it contradicted his convictions. And obedience, according to Paul, leads to righteousness (Romans 6:16). So, good for John the Baptist! He was humble and obedient and didn’t insist that as the God-ordained “Preparer” of the way of the Lord, he knew better than Jesus. He submitted to the One he knew was Lord, yielding to God’s wisdom over his own, even though he’d been training for this position all his life!

If John had insisted on his well-learned way of righteousness, he would have actually prevented the way of the Lord, instead of preparing it! Surely, there’s a lesson somewhere in that! To his credit, John the Baptist “consented,” Matthew tells us. That tells me that even though he didn’t quite agree, and maybe wasn’t quite convinced, he still obeyed. John had learned that much well. And, so, according to Jesus, “all righteousness” was fulfilled. And, only God really knows how! But, I’m arrested by these verses: “16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."

Did you see that? Once John consented to God’s surprising righteousness, the Son of God came up from out of the water, “heaven was opened” and the Spirit of God descended, and God’s voice was heard. Wow. Suddenly, springing up from below and coming down from the heavens is this One who is “Immortal, Invisible.” Suddenly, the Almighty, Eternal, Enthroned God is present, is visible, is heard. Is this how “all righteousness” was fulfilled: All of heaven’s glory and goodness and love and righteousness in Father, Son and Spirit are now available “on earth as it is in heaven”?

John the Baptist’s perplexing experience with God’s righteousness reminded me of Joseph’s story, earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. In chapter 1, Joseph, betrothed to Mary, is the one who has to consent to a righteousness that is not his own, and even contrary to his own. In that familiar story, Joseph discovers, much to his dismay and dishonor, I’m sure, that his beloved Mary is pregnant. All he knows at this point is that it’s not his child. And, Matthew tells us, “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”

Joseph knew the law. Joseph knew what was right. And Joseph was clearly a compassionate man, as well as a righteous man. It seems self-evident that God would choose a loving, righteous man to be His Son’s childhood guardian here on earth.
But, this Joseph was about to stumble over his own righteousness, resolving to do something contrary to God’s purpose. God’s righteousness was at work in Mary’s conception, and Joseph, in spite of his righteous pedigree, couldn’t see it, so he resolved to do the wrong thing. In his defense, how could Joseph possibly have had a clue that Mary’s child was conceived by the Holy Spirit? Thank God that He intervenes to fulfill His righteousness! Matthew tells us, “But, after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20)

And, Joseph, like John the Baptist after him, consented: “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” (verse 24) Imagine how different the Gospel story would have been if Joseph had woken up, sure of the justice of his own righteous indignation, and had followed through with his intention to divorce Mary!

Both Joseph and John the Baptist were willing to consent to God’s surprising righteousness. Both of them were willing to enter into the realm of God’s surprising ways, because they trusted God, even when they couldn’t quite understand Him. They were willing to lay aside their own well-intentioned convictions…and obey God.
The truth is none of us can always be certain of our own righteous ways. None of us. But, we can always be sure of God’s righteousness, even when we don’t understand it. Because we can be sure of God. In Christ, God has proved His great faithfulness and His steadfast and astounding love. This is One we can trust. This is One we can obey without fear. In the good news of Jesus Christ, God has shown that He loves us with perfect love, and perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4). And so, though he perplexes even those whom He calls (as Joseph and John the Baptist surely were), He proves faithful. Every time.

These episodes in the faithful life of Joseph and John-the-Baptist teach me that God’s righteousness takes even His most faith-full followers by surprise from time to time. So, in following Him, all of us need to leave room for God’s surprising ways in our lives. These two righteous men’s particular predicaments illustrate the need for humility in my sense of righteousness. I need to be always ready to yield to God’s wisdom, which may lead in some startling ways.

Yet, even in these mysterious ways, both stories show, reassuringly, that God will find a way to communicate to us and intervene in order to fulfill His righteousness. We can trust God. Because of His great forbearance and love and faithfulness, we are never left to our own devices and our own wits to fulfill His purposes. We, too, can confidently affirm the words of the apostle Paul, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

Obedience is required for God’s way of righteousness. Both Joseph and John the Baptist set every believer this example: they obeyed God, even though it contradicted their own convictions and probably left them more than a little confused. They obeyed God before His way made full sense to them. I suspect that, often, our obedience, too, must come before we understand. Our obedience, like theirs, must be based on knowing God, not on knowing the whole story. I am reminded of another instance when Peter had to consent to the Lord Jesus doing a very surprising thing – washing Peter’s feet! Talk about the surprising way of God’s righteousness! Jesus says this to Peter, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” (John 13:7) Peter had to be persuaded, quite understandably, to consent to the Lord washing his feet and here, again, Jesus’ words underline that, often, that obedience comes before understanding. Simply because you trust the One to whom you gladly give your consent.

God’s righteousness may take us by surprise and leave us confused, at least for a while, but it always seems to bring in His Son’s Kingdom. Often in a way that is evident -- even if it’s only through the eyes of faith. We’ve already seen how John the Baptist’s obedience led to heaven’s opening up and the Spirit of God descending in the form of a dove, and God’s voice being heard, as His Son emerged from the waters.

His Kingdom was at hand.

Joseph’s obedience led to the protection of an innocent woman and to God’s own Son being given a name – and being given earthly legitimacy! That name was Jesus “because He will save their people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) The moment of this Savior’s earthly arrival is astonishingly low-key in Matthew’s Gospel. Nevertheless, Matthew tells us “all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet, ‘the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel – which means, God with us.”

His Kingdom was delivered.

Even when God’s righteous way is surprising, mysterious and counter-intuitive to human understanding…it always brings in His Kingdom.

Praise the Lord!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

God in The New Thing

John 6:1-21
6:1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 6:2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 6:3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.6:4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 6:5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" 6:6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 6:7 Philip answered him, "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." 6:8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, 6:9 "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?" 6:10 Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 6:11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 6:12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost." 6:13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 6:14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world." 6:15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

Philip was one of the first disciples of the Lord. Jesus had asked Philip to follow Him. That’s all it took. Something about Jesus was so compelling that Philip not only followed, but sought out his brother, Nathaniel, and called him to come and see Jesus, declaring, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote: Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45) The fact that Jesus was from Nazareth and, as far as Philip knew, the son of Joseph, did not stand in the way of Philip’s faith in this Jesus.

Philip was probably there when Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus’ disciples saw that first sign and believed. Early on, Philip was a follower, an evangelist, and a believer. He probably was there, along with the other disciples, when Jesus cleansed the temple and talked with the Samaritan woman. He must have known that Jesus had miraculously healed the dying son of a royal official in Capernaum (Jesus’ second miraculous sign in this Gospel), and then miraculously healed the man who’d been lame for 38 years.

Philip was there from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He’d seen Jesus, made the decision to follow Jesus, believed in Jesus, and seen His power to heal, and heard the authority with which Jesus taught and admonished.

Impressively, Philip had figured out, even before Jesus’ miraculous signs, that Jesus was “the one” – the one that Moses and the prophets had written about in sacred Scripture.

So how come, with this enviable background, this disciple fails the test here? Did you see that in this text?

The text tells us that when Jesus looked up “ and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" He said this to test him [Philip], for he himself knew what he was going to do.”

If this was a test, what might the correct answer have been? Perhaps, “Well, Lord, I saw you turn water into wine at that wedding when they’d run out of wine. I’ve seen you heal miraculously. So, maybe you could provide bread for these many people to eat now. I know there isn’t any way we can feed this number naturally. But, I believe in you. And, so, I believe you can work a miracle right now.”

Something like that? Maybe?

But, Philip answers in a way that is perfectly understandable and reasonable, given that there were at least 5,000 people there. He says, “"Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little."

In other words, “Jesus! Do you see this crowd! We can’t possibly feed them here and now. Or ever, really. I mean we don’t have enough money. Not even to feed them a little bit!” (I wonder if his unexpressed thoughts were these: “We’ve been following you, so you should know this. It’s not like we’re making an enormous living by following you.)

So, Philip failed the test. His words and his expectations and his reasoning had no faith in Christ built into it. It was perfectly rational. And, as if to emphasize Philip’s point, Andrew tells Jesus about the boy with five barley loaves and two fish. It's like he's saying, "That’s the little we have with us. There isn’t even close to enough. It’s simply not possible to feed this many people."

They both fail the test, really. That test of faith in the power of the Lord.

I’ve been wondering why that might have been, given that they’d witnessed his power to heal and to make wine out of water, and that had caused them to believe. I wonder if their faith eluded them here because it was a new experience with Him. I mean, if those were 5,000 guests at another wedding and the wine had run out, perhaps they’d have rememered the wedding in Cana and said to Jesus, “Well, you make the best wine, Lord! Maybe we can find a little water somewhere, and you can do what you did before. That was amazing!”

But, here they were, confronted by a new set of humanly impossible circumstances, and their faith faltered. Instead of focussing on the Lord and His power, they looked on the circumstances and their powerlerlessness to meet them, illustrated by the meagre means at their disposal. They didn't have a personal memory of a similar experience in which the Lord had worked miraculously. And so they forgot to remember the Lord.

In my reading of this text, I might be influenced by what I read recently in the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah 43:18-19, the Lord says to Israel, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”

In this Gospel text, here is Jesus on the mountain about to do a new thing in the disciples’ lives: feed them and a great multitude of people until they were fully satisfied, without sufficient resources. Except His own. His disciples could not perceive the new thing He was about to do, because they had no similar experience to call to mind. Sure, they knew about how God fed the Isrealites in the desert. The Scritpures testified to that. It was easy to believe that kind of thing happened then and there. But here and now? It was alien to their experience.

Rememberance plays a great part in our life of faith. But, I think there may be times when it acts as a stumbling block to faith. Like when God decides that He is going to do a new thing in our lives. We often fail to perceive it. We fail the test of our faith because our minds are too caught up in the exact way that things have always been. So, instead of focussing on our Lord, and abiding in Him, we focus on the circumstances in which He has worked before, and “abide in our past” as it were, unable to perceive the new thing God is about to do.

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.”

If we are to follow Him, we cannot dwell on the past, we need to move with Him, even on to new and uncharted territory. The promised land, after all, was a new land to God’s people. As precious and instructive as our faith experiences are, our faith in Jesus Christ cannot be grounded on our past experience of Jesus Christ. Christ Himself must be the foundation of our faith, even on new ground.

So, Philip failed the test. But, look at the wonderful good news in this passage! It doesn’t stop Jesus from doing what He had planned to do! He doesn’t respond to either Philip’s or Andrew’s lack of faith. But, He goes on to demonstrate His power even in these circumstances which they hadn’t experienced with Him before. Christ does what He had planned to do. Miraculously. With just those five barley loaves and two fish, Jesus takes the initiative and takes charge and does what He had planned to do. That is, He does the impossible. He feeds those five thousand people as much as they wanted, until they were satisfied!

So, while Philip had despaired of feeding them even a little, Jesus actually fed them until they were satisfied! And, not just that, but there were 12 baskets full of leftovers. Plenty more to go around.

Maybe Jesus tells the disciples to gather the left overs so that they would learn how wrong they’d got it! He was in no way limited by their faith experience, any more than He was limited by meagre resources. Can you imagine what was going through Philip and Andrew’s mind as they kept having to pick up the left overs, after everyone there had eaten until they were satisfied. They must have felt a little foolish. They must have felt a little embarrassed by their little faith. Each basket full of leftovers might well have been an equivalent measure of faith in this Lord, on whom they had not counted when they’d considred this new and impossible situation. Philip had been counting on wages; Andrew on what was available.

Neither of them counted on Jesus Christ. They believed in Him. They followed Him. They listened to Him. Yet, when the new thing confronted them, their faith floundered on their limited experience. Thankfully, God’s power and willingness to redeem is not constrained by our limited experiences of His power. Along with His power, His love and grace are unlimited. So, along with the Psalmist we can “hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.” (Psalm 130)

In our own life experiences, if we faithfully follow this unpredictable Lord of ours, we will surely find ourselves in uncharted territory, where we will have no faith memory to fall back on. Still, even when we cannot lean on our own experience with the Lord, we can and should remember and lean on the Lord Himself. Maybe that’s why in instituting the Lord’s supper, Jesus asked His disciples to “Do this in rememberance of me.”

We need to remember our Lord Jesus Christ. Faith requires us to lean on Him. If all we do is lean on our particular and limited experiences of Him, then, inevitably, our faith will flounder as Philip and Andrew’s did on that crowded mountain.

“Abide in me.” He says. “Remember me.” He exhorts.

This is entirely personal. Far bigger than mere experience.

“Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Jesus says, later in this Gospel. (John 17:3)

Know Jesus. Remember Him. Count on Him. Trust in Him.

And as you go with Him through life’s unpredictable journey, you may find, to your surprise and delight, that the new thing He is doing, which caused you to doubt His ability, is actually His means of satisfying you, impossibly, and storing up for you baskets full of faith and wonder.

So may it be. Amen.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Preparing the way of the Lord: It’s No Party!

Mark 1:1-8
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'" 1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 1:6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 1:7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
These verses tell me that preparing for the Lord doesn’t involve a party. We don’t have a “Jesus Shower” where we come together and play party games and exchange fun gifts. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good party. Jesus, I believe, is known to have enjoyed the company of His friends, and gone to at least one wedding party. But, I think these verses point to the fact that our faith is no frivolous matter. Because it’s about life itself. And, we need to remember that as we go about these “in-between times,” waiting for the second coming of our Lord.

The central figure in today’s Gospel passage, John, was not wearing a party hat, but he “was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” The writer of this Gospel probably wanted to invoke the image of Elijah among his Jewish readers. They believed that Elijah would come again, before the Messiah appeared. But, this is probably lost on most modern, Gentile readers. Still, the image of John the baptist is evocative. It’s wild. (The honey he ate wasn’t neatly packaged in a bottle.) The narrative is even set in the wilderness, or desert, depending on your translation. John the Baptist’s dress sense is an affront to our civilized fashion sensibilities. The scene of preparation and the protagonist of preparation are both discomforting. This is not a lovely, domesticated, Hallmark-card. It is neither fun nor reassuring. Withering heat, dust, toil and tears of frustration, withering exertion and inhospitable surroundings all come to mind, as we consider this image of a man “crying out in the wilderness.”

Rightly so, I think. And that should tell us something about the practice of our faith. I really don’t think we can prepare adequately for the Lord in a comfortable, controlled, easy environment. Such a surrounding doesn’t easily lend itself to seeking the Lord with all of our heart, and soul and mind, and neither does it encourage depending on Him. How many of us prepare ourselves for the Lord in earnest, when we’re coasting in a comfortable, easy life, where we are in complete control of our destiny? At some point in our faith lives, if we are to be truly prepared for the Lord Jesus Christ, I believe, we need time in the “wilderness” or desert: a place where we cannot make it on our own, we simply have to depend on the Lord; a place of struggle which focuses our thoughts entirely on Him; a place of starkness, where there is little to distract us from listening to Him. It isn’t necessarily a place where we will not falter, but, rather, one where, even our faltering steps “make straight” the Way of the Lord. We are called to trust Him (rather than our own direction) and depend on Him (rather than on our own resources).

To get a sense of how this might be, we can look at the people of Israel wandering in the desert for forty years, enduring hardship, completely dependent on God for food and water, for their very survival. There, they saw His power in unmistakable ways, and heard His voice in distinctive tones. There, they received the Ten Commandments, divine instruction about living in a way that pleases God. In that place, and through that time, God’s people were disciplined – sometimes harshly – in order to be cleansed of sin and brought back to the Lord. In the wilderness, through the experience of sin and judgment and God’s mercy and provision and grace, they came to know Him intimately. Before they reached the Promised Land, they learned to trust the Lord in the desert, developing a living relationship with Him. It was an unforgettable, and those who lived to tell the tale, conveyed it to generation after generation, as a building-block of faith.

And, so it will be, I believe, in our wilderness of preparation. If we resist it, if we refuse to leave our comfort zones, I think we will be the poorer for it. It doesn’t affect our salvation, but I do believe it will impair the relationship we have with the Lord; impair the level of intimacy we share with the One whom we love because He first loved us.

Listen to what God says to the Israelites, when they entered the wilderness of Sinai,: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” (Exodus 19: 4) There they were in the harsh Sinai desert, not knowing the way forward, or how they were going to make it, and God was saying in that place that He had brought them to Himself! And hear Moses song about their time in the desert: “[God] sustained him in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste; he shielded him, cared for him, guarded him as the apple of his eye.” (Deuteronomy 32: 10)

What a moving, faith-enhancing experience to find yourself guarded and taken care of as the apple of God’s eye! Perhaps, this is why He gives us a wilderness time. Perhaps it is only in complete dependence on the Almighty that we discover, unmistakably, that He is faithful and that His love steadfast.

So, I don’t think it’s any accident that the place of preparation for the Lord Jesus Christ is one that requires utter dependence on the Lord. And, that’s where we find ourselves in this Gospel reading.

We see that preparing for the Lord is no party. The people here are listening to the word of the Lord, proclaimed by John the Baptist. Preparing requires the hard work of making (presumably crooked) paths straight. I get the feeling that John’s entire ministry of preparation made people uncomfortable with the way they were – so uncomfortable, in fact, that they recognized that they needed God, and decided to change their lives to please Him.

John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and they heard and, repentant, came to him to be baptized, confessing their sins in the wilderness. And so it must be for us.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of Mark, shows requires repentance – an often painful process of changing one’s heart and mind, cleansing one’s soul, and changing the direction of our lives and deliberately turning to the Lord. The good news is that it leads to the forgiveness of sins.

All this makes quite an impression on me because it is so different from comfortable church-going that leads to a self-congratulating Christianity! So if the place of preparation is harsh and the work of preparation is difficult, even painful, why bother? I mean, really. Why not just seek the “good life” and stay comfortable and “pursue happiness”?

Here’s where it comes down to Jesus Christ. And that’s why, right up front, Mark says that this is about the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It’s about Him. We’re getting ready for Jesus. Either He means something to us, and makes the preparation worth it, or else, we’ll shrug our shoulders and go do something fun. But if following the Lord Jesus Christ is what we want to do with our lives, then we pay attention, because we want to prepare for Him. And, I believe, if we’ve encountered the incomparable, living Lord Jesus, if we’ve had an inkling of how much He loves us, if we’ve experienced His love for us and know the joy of His presence, then we really would want to prepare for Him…even if it means going through the struggle of the wilderness.

Can you think of a time you’ve prepared for the arrival of someone you love, and do you remember all the work you put into it because you thought it was worth it? Maybe you didn’t even think about it as work, because the focus was on the arrival of that beloved person, whether a child, a spouse, or a friend or family member. How can we be any less willing to do the required thing to prepare for Jesus?

In this reading, Jesus is conspicuous by His absence. That's striking to me. Yet, the preparation is undeniably about His coming, and you have to trust that it will be so. The good news is that (a few verses later in Mark’s Gospel) Jesus does come and, significantly, I think, to that very place of struggle and repentance in the desert. And, did you notice that this particular place and time of preparation isn’t even the beginning of this deliverance? Mark goes back in history, pointing to Isaiah’s prophesy. Way back when. Here is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ: A God-ordained timeless seam, where a remembered past, a paradoxical present, and a hopeful future converge. God acting mysteriously. People waiting. People trusting. People sustained by God’s word… and divine hope.

Please don’t miss the hope that is present in preparation. It’s not obvious, but it’s there. John baptizes by the Jordan River. That’s significant because the waters of the Jordan, by the shores of this desert place, point to God-given refreshment. Moreover, the Jordan inspires hope because it brings to mind the fact that, after years of enduring the wilderness, the people of Israel crossed over the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. That divine hope washes ashore on this wilderness of preparation.

How good it is to know that just like God brought the people of Israel “to Himself” in the Sinai desert, Jesus will bring us to Himself in our desert wanderings! Do you know Jesus Christ as the Beloved? Do you realize that you are His beloved? Something about being out in the wilderness and enduring for so long, in company with God, made Moses feel like the apple of God’s eye! Perhaps the experience is designed for just that kind of understanding about God’s love for you and me. God is crazy about us! And He wants us to know it, and to enter into a relationship with Him through His Son.

And, unlike this time and place in Mark’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit is with us. That’s good news! We are closer to the fulfillment of the good news of Jesus Christ, than to the beginning. We have been baptized with the Holy Spirit! So, while the Lord is physically absent, in our times of preparation, we are enlivened by His mystical, powerful presence.

If we love the Lord Jesus Christ and want to be His faithful followers, then let’s not despise the wilderness experience of our lives…

…It prepares us for the One Who’s crazy about us; making us fully fit for Him. And we might discover, to our great delight, that we are, indeed, the apple of of our Lord's eye!

May it be so. Amen.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Silence at Gethsemene

Mathew 26:36-46 36

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, Sit here while I go over there and pray. 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me. 39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will. 40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour? he asked Peter. 41 Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak. 42 He went away a second time and prayed, My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. 45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!


Our Lord’s overwhelming sorrow at Gethsemene is stunning, in light of who He is.

He is the One who Matthew describes as “God is with us” (Matt 1:23). He is the One His Father, God, affirms at His Baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased (Matt 3: 17). He is the One who is transfigured before these same disciples present at Gethsemene, when the Father sets Him above Moses and Elijah, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with Him I am well pleased; listen to Him!” He is the One of whom Peter declares, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” To which Jesus responds, “Blessed are you, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (Matt 16: 16-17) He is the One who, just a few days ago, crowds in Jerusalem received, shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Now consider this scene at Gethsemene! Here is this same Jesus Christ, Son of God, the One who comes in the name of the Lord…here He is “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” needing all-too-human companions to be near Him to offer a ministry of presence, turning to His all-too-silent Father in urgent, fervent prayer, as He is literally weighed down by the intensity of His grief: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” He prays, with His face to the ground.

Did you hear that? In saying, “Yet not as I will, but as you will” the Lord Jesus Christ is admitting that at this moment of intense sorrow, the Father and the Son are not of one will!

Have you ever been there? Have you ever been at a place in your life where our Father in heaven is silent in the face of your anguish? Have you ever been at a place in your life where you really need companionship, but when even your closest human companions are not any help? Have you ever been in a place in your life where you know your own will is not in agreement with the will of God?

I know I have.

And here is the mind-boggling truth: Jesus Christ has been there, too.

I don’t know about you, but I thank God that Gethesemene is recorded in His word. It tells me that when we are weighed down by sorrow and feeling all alone and when we feel like we are not of one will with our Father in heaven, well, our Lord Jesus Christ understands. We don’t have to pretend with Him. We can be completely honest with Him in this relationship. What the writer of Hebrews says about Jesus Christ is absolutely true: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) Jesus Christ knows what it's like to want something other than what our Father in heaven wills for our lives.

But, let’s be clear that Jesus surrenders to His Father's will. Even as He recognizes that He wills something different, He surrenders to the will of His Father. Even when the Father is silent in response to His prayer, He surrenders to the will of the Father. Even when He is weighed down by intense sorrow because of His Father's will, Jesus Christ surrenders to the will of the Father. It may be that what Jesus says to the disciples is something He is actually experiencing Himself at this moment in Gethsemene: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”

Jesus might have been feeling a strong temptation to not drink this cup of terrible suffering. This is One who was accustomed to being of one will with the Father. This is One whose very nature is in accordance with the Father. At Gethesemene, the Lord knew not just that He would suffer intensely, but also that He was going to experience the utter hell of separation from His Father (His actual death). How tempted He might have been not to drink this cup of suffering and separation!

Listen carefully to the Lord’s prayer at Gethsemene: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will. And: “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

But, aren’t all things possible for God? Yet, Jesus seems to understand that there is a divine necessity in this particular order or things when He says “if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” It reminds me of a very different set of circumstances when Jesus understood that God’s way -- inexplicable as it might be -- must be followed. It was at the time of His baptism, when John the Baptist, with good reason, protested Jesus coming to him to be baptized, arguing that it should really be the other way around. Jesus responded to John the Baptist, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:15) And here at Gethsemene, Jesus seems to understand a moment of divine necessity…it must happen to fulfill God’s righteousness. And Jesus is all about fulfilling His Father’s righteousness; however strange it might be to human ears and sensibilities. When Peter declared, for example, that Jesus was the Messiah, he got it right, but he didn’t get that the Messiah had to suffer and die. So when Jesus told him so, Peter responded, “God forbid, Lord! This must never happen to you.” (Matthew 16:22) And Jesus rebuked Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Matthew 16:23)

Poor Peter. Really, he was on the same page as John the Baptist: He didn’t quite get God's unfamiliar way of doing things.

Ever been there?

I know I have.

It’s too bad Peter was asleep at Gethsemene. Maybe if he’d been awake, He could have seen and heard how it is when someone sets their mind on divine things. Here is Jesus Christ in a very human moment: weighed down by sorrow, not of one accord with the will of the Father, hearing only silence in response to His anguish. (Listen to God’s silence at this moment. It’s deafening!) You would think, wouldn’t you, oh human, that God could have spoken a word of comfort when His Son poured out His heavy heart and soul? And, yet, Jesus knows to turn again and again to His Father even, or perhaps, especially, in this moment.

Listen, again, to the Lord’s prayer at Gethsemene: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will. My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

This is not the high spiritual experience of His Baptism or Transfiguration. Jesus is not affirmed or exalted. And God does not speak. But, here is the Son, our Lord and our example, turning to His Father, admitting His reluctance to do the Father’s will, because He recognizes what it will mean, and stil yielding completely to the will of the Father, placing not just His mind, but His life in the center of His Father’s will.

If we call ourselves disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, He must be our example. If we call ourselves disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, His prayer must be our prayer. If we call ourselves disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, His ways must become our ways.

This means that, though there will be times in our life when God’s will and way is strange to us, an affront, even, to our human understanding…yet we must yield; though there will be times in our life when God’s will weighs us down with sorrow… yet we must yield; though there will be times in our life when God’s will is contrary to our own will…yet we must yield; though there will be times in our life when God is mysteriously silent when we most want a word of comfort… yet we must yield.

How is this possible?

Here’s where we come back to personal relationship, and what we know to be true, not just of who God is, but who we are in relationship with God in Jesus Christ. I think that Jesus was able – and willing – to surrender at Gethsemene because He truly knew -- and loved -- His Father. His was a long, intimate and enduring relationship with His Father. So, Jesus knew and returned His Father’s steadfast and everlasting love. Even intense sorrow at Gethsemene, and knowledge of the terrible suffering that was to come, couldn’t alter His Father’s character. Jesus knew His Father is faithful and trustworthy. And Jesus knew that He was God’s beloved Son. He’d heard it more than once before, and He’d experienced it in intimate, living relationship with His Father.

Here’s what’s so amazing: The same holds true for each one of us. In Christ, God is our Father, every bit as much as He is Jesus’ Father. And He loves us, too, with an everlasting love. It's up to us to return that love as Jesus did. When we come to know Him, we will find Him to be faithful and trustworthy. And we can rest assured, like Jesus did, and hold fast to our Father, no matter what.

But, we cannot have this kind of radical relationship of trust and abandonment, if we do not know that God truly does love us. And we cannot have this kind of radical relationship of trust and abandonment, if we do not know how faithful God is. And the good news is that God Himself initiates this relationship.

The truth is that this life of faith is not all joy, not all peace, not all highs and ecstasy. But still faith endures because of this Almighty God, who is faithful, and who loves us with an everlasting and immutable love, which He proved to us in that, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And the truth is the life of faith requires us to believe that, even when God is silent, God is present. And the good news is that God enables this faith.

Look again at Gethsemene. Jesus Christ keeps going to the Father, even though the Father is silent. And, while at first the Lord tells His three disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” and then falls with His face to the ground to pray, by the time He has finished praying to His Father three times and surrendering to His will, the Lord is somehow on His feet again, miraculously strengthened and determined to do the Father's will: “Rise! Let us go. Here comes my betrayer.”

It looks like God the Father has silently, but surely, lifted up the Son. Through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we can count on our Father to do the same for us.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Thanks be to God! Amen

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Seeing…Yet Believing

Haggai 2:1-91
In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 2Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, 3Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? 4Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, 5according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. 6For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; 7and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts. 8The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts. 9The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.

Faith without sight is hard enough, isn’t it? Faith contrary to sight just seems too much to ask. And yet that’s what God is calling His people to in this passage! And this seems to be a norm in relationship with God. More often than not, God calls His people – people whom He has made His own, and with whom He has a long-standing and intimate relationship -- to this kind of faith. “I’ll give you a son and make you the father of a great nation,” God tells the 90 year-old Abraham, whose wife Sarah was well-beyond child-bearing years. “I’ll give you and your descendants this land that you’re lying on,” He tells Jacob, while he’s on the run with no roof over his head, let alone any land to his name. “You will bear a Son, who will be the Son of the Most High and of His Kingdom there shall be no end,” an Angel of the Lord tells Mary, a simple Jewish virgin, who was not of the royal household. “This is the man I’ve chosen to be a witness to the Gentiles,” He tells Ananias about Saul, who, Ananias knew, was a murderous persecutor of the church.

Have you heard a word like that from the Lord? Have you had that experience with the Lord? Where He calls you to a faith that is contrary to sight? Where He asks you to believe what makes no earthly sense, and is contrary to all clear evidence? Where He calls you to trust Him implicitly and completely – and, even, irrationally? To be able to live such a faith, one must know God intimately. And this takes time – time in which a deep relationship has been built up, where the character and power of God has become evident, and personally experienced, where the voice of God is recognized and gladly received. It cannot happen overnight.

In our reading for today, through the Prophet Haggai, God says to His people, “Remember the glory of this Temple in former days? How does it look like to you now? Like nothing?”

“Yes Lord. That’s what we see with our eyes.”

“Yet, now take courage,” says the Lord.

The Lord does not refute the evidence. He says, “Yet now, take courage.” In other words, “I know how it looks to you and you’re not blind or seeing things. Yet now, take courage. Because you know me. And I am with you. ” Now, when it looks “as nothing” in the Lord’s own words. Now is when He wants His people to take courage…and trust Him. He doesn’t want them to wait for when things look a little better to them. “Now” when, in their sight, it looks like nothing. “Now” when they remember correctly its former glory and could be devastated by the contrast of the current situation. “Now” when it makes no earthly sense to take courage, God says to them, “Yet, now take courage.”

How could they do this? Why would they do this? It depends on their relationship with God. They wouldn’t do it – wouldn’t be able to or want to rise to that faith – if they didn’t know God intimately, if they hadn’t learned from years of intimate relationship about God’s love and faithfulness; if they didn’t have in their heart and mind a treasure-chest of memory and experience in which they had tasted and seen that the Lord is good, even when it all looks bad.

Now, God is counting on them to remember this. Even as He knows they remember the temple’s former glory, He’s counting on them to remember His faithfulness over the years. He brought them out of slavery in Egypt. He took them to the Promised Land (eventually!). He brought them out of Babylonian captivity. They were the children of Abraham. This land had been given to them, children of Israel (Jacob). They had a long, and intimate history with their Lord. And, even though it had been tempestuous, because of their own disobedience, they had come to a place where they were confident of His faithfulness, having known it for themselves. So, when God asks if they remember the former glory of the temple, He’s counting on them to remember His history with them. When he asks if they remember the former glory of the temple, He’s counting on them to remember that He was there with Solomon and the people, when the first temple was built.

When He says, “Yet, now, take courage,” He’s speaking to a people who know Him. And He’s counting on the fact that they will remember who He is, how He loves, and what He can do. All of this comes out of a relationship that is deep and long-lasting. This faith cannot come out of people who do not know God intimately over a long period of time. You cannot trust someone you don’t know; certainly not at this level of implicit trust. God alludes to the length of this relationship: “work, for I am with you,” says the LORD of hosts, “according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt.”

This is why they can “yet, take courage” now, when things look so bad: for the Lord is with them. “Work, for I am with you.” He says. And, again, just to affirm His presence and allay their fears, “My spirit abides among you; do not fear.”

The presence of the Lord changes their perspective of the situation, and calls forth faith that spits in the face of the evidence. They remember His past faithfulness. They know Him. And so God can call forth their faith.

God goes on to say that “in a little while” He will do things that only He can; He will do things that only He has the power to do. These people know what that looks like. They’ve heard the stories of redemption all their lives, and they’ve even experienced it themselves. They’ve heard of the parting of the Red Sea and manna in the desert. They know how they survived in Babylonian captivity, and how they were set free. They remember their history with this Lord, whom they have come to trust because He has proved Himself trustworthy over and over again. This is about Him and what He can do. They work, not trusting their own meager abilities, but trusting Him.

And this is the Lord’s astounding, reality-defying promise to His people: “the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity.” Now, when their temple looks to them like “nothing,” God tells them that the latter splendor will be greater than the former! Now -- when their natural instinct probably tends towards grief and hopelessness, as they remember what was, and see things as they are – “now” is when God gives them a glorious vision, one dramatically different from what they see. They can only believe because it’s God’s word. They can only trust His word because they know, from years of relationship, that He is faithful.

This is the faith that God calls us to. And it comes from knowing Him intimately. It is beyond rational, common sense. It often has little to do with what we see, and everything to do with knowing God. Knowing God gives these people a different perspective on what they see. God knows it. God encourages it. And God calls them to live it.

The people were obedient and began rebuilding the temple. Eventually, it was finished and even enlarged. And then, it was destroyed again, this time by the Romans. But, not before the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom there is more glory and splendor than any man-made construction could ever hold. There was no need for the building after He came. In Him the fullness of God is pleased to dwell (Colossians 1:19)! The temple – any place of worship, however glorious -- pales in comparison to Jesus Christ, whose glory, splendour and majesty is beyond anything, or anyone, that came before or after.

God is true to His word.

God calls us to intimate relationship with Him through His Son Jesus Christ. It is a life of faith and it endures, when we respond to Him. God calls us to this life, where we live seeing Him: seeing Him at work, redeeming, restoring, reconciling and rebuilding in the ruins all around us.

God is with us. At Christmas, especially, we celebrate that amazing truth. And because of it, we can “take courage,” obediently trusting the One who has loved us so much that He gave His life so we might live.

Do you see how things are? Yet, believe, for the Lord Himself is with us. Hallelujah!