Now it’s time for Jesus to do some serious battle. If you think Jesus displayed incredible courage by overturning the tables of the money changers on Day 2 and then returning to the “scene of the crime” on Day 3, just wait till you hear what Jesus faced on Saturday.
“What?! On Saturday?! He was still in the tomb: how is it possible that Jesus did battle from the grave?”
Typically, we skip this day, jumping right from His death on the cross on Friday to His resurrection from the dead on Sunday. But some pretty
significant stuff happened on Saturday, so let’s just take a few minutes tocontemplate the significance of His burial.
The early church, by the way, didn’t miss the significance of Saturday. In fact, they saw so much significance in this day that they deemed it appropriate to include two phrases about this in the Apostle’s Creed. One of the phrases seems like a redundancy; the second phrase seems more like heresy (but it isn’t, rest assured).
The Apostle’s Creed reads as follows:
“I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ, His only Son,
our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day He rose from the dead;
I was talking with someone about the Apostle’s Creed the other day and when I asked her if she had any questions about anything in the Creed, she said, “What about that phrase ‘he descended into hell’? I’m not so sure about that.” And my guess is that some of the people reading this have the same kind of question. But first, let’s take the “and buried” part of the statement…
Let’s pose it as a question: Why would the Apostle’s Creed read “and buried” when it just got done saying Jesus was “dead”? Of course, He
was buried! No need to point that out, right?
There are at least a few reasons why it is important to note that Jesus was indeed buried.
One: The gospel writers thought it important to note that Jesus was buried. There are whole paragraphs in the gospels dedicated to pointing out the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial, laying him into Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, and even noting that those faithful female followers of Jesus saw it happen.
Two: This establishes the final fact of Jesus’ death. In modern times this is important since some skeptics of the resurrection claim “Jesus never actually died, he just passed out.” The painstaking preparations utilized in burying Jesus dispel the possibility of that theory. The death of Christ becomes a firmly established fact in history, not just a fanciful expression in an epic allegorical poem.
Three: On a more “spiritual” level, Jesus’ burial is important because, in His burial, He took our atonement one step further. Here’s how: not only did Jesus bear our sins in His body on the Tree of Calvary, He also carried those sins with Him into the grave, leaving them buried there forever. (Leviticus 16:22 prefigures this with the picture of a “scapegoat”: the scapegoat has the sin of the nation of Israel placed on it and then it is set free to wander in a “solitary place.” This foreshadows Christ’s burial–the scapegoate being a “type” or “picture” of Christ. Exciting, eh?!)
Corrie ten Boom makes the point that our sins are thrown into the ocean and then God posts a sign there that says “No fishing.” Christ’s burial is like that.
Our sins are left buried in the grave.
In light of that, it is indeed important to observe and contemplate Christ’s burial.
Reflection: “My sin is forever dead and buried. Do I keep digging it up? Why?” Prayer: ”Thank you, Jesus, for your atoning work that leaves nothing undone. You are truly the ‘author and perfecter’ of my faith.”
Now let’s tackle the more controversial phrase in the Apostle’s Creed: “he descended into hell.”
To understand this, though, we need to understand what the early church meant by the word “hell”…
In our day, “hell” has come to mean essentially “a place where the wicked are punished.” But a few hundred years ago, when the Apostle’s Creed was first translated into English, the word “hell” meant simply “the unseen place” or “the covered place” (not necessarily a “place where the wicked are punished”). Investing the word “hell” with this kind of broader meaning had its roots in the Greek word “Hades” and the Hebrew word “Sheol.” So, it seems, to understand the word “hell” in the Apostle’s Creed, we do better to understand what Hades/Sheol means, since this is the intention of the word as it appears in the Apostle’s Creed (not as we use it today, let me stress). Now: In the early church, Hades (or Sheol) was a place where all the departed went (both the righteous and the sinner; the blessed and the wicked) and it did not necessarily involve “fire” or “punishment.” It was more like a waiting place. A place where people awaited future judgement. This, then, is the correct meaning of the word “hell” as it appears in the Apostle’s Creed. For sake of modern-day clarity, we would not be amiss in substituting the word ”Hades” for the word “hell” when it comes to translating the Apostle’s Creed.
With that background, let’s get back to the issue at hand: Jesus’ descent into “hell” (Hades). Why is it important to note that Jesus descended into Hades? I can think of several compelling reasons:
One: it was in descending to Hades that Christ completed His identification with us as humans. You see?: at that time, every human descended into Hades, whether wicked or blessed; and so did Christ. His descent into Hades, therefore, shows that He really was fully human! He really does know what we go through! How awesome! He left no “stone unturned” in taking on our human nature. He went “where every man has gone before.”
But, Christ is not merely human, He’s also God. So, as God, Christ did a unique work. He did something no mere human could ever do: He took the keys of death and Hades, and He released the righteous dead that were being held captive there so that they could enjoy His presence from that time on in Paradise. And, he didn’t stay there, like the rest of humanity. He emerged from Hades–something no one had ever done before.
Now: I can just hear someone saying “Wait a minute there, Tim! This sounds a little like heresy to me. Where does it say that in the Bible?”
There are a few key texts that support this (in addition to what we know of the early church beliefs and the Apostle’s Creed, which are also, in my mind, good indicators of orthodox–right–belief). Bear with me, some of this is a bit “technical” but the last text/point is very juicy indeed!: First, the apostle Peter refers to Jesus’ descent into Hades in Acts 2:24-32. In quoting king David, Peter says in verse 27 that Jesus will not be “abandoned to ‘Hades’” (NIV translates “Hades” as “grave”: this is not a literal translation–a truly “grave” mistake–sorry for the pun!). It is an important distinction, however, because this seems to indicate that Jesus did indeed descend into “Hades” but was not “abandoned” (or left) there. In other words, David/Peter seems to indicate that He did go there, He just wasn’t left there.
Second, this also fits with the picture we get in Ephesians 4:8– “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train…” That begs the question: Who were these “captives” he led in his train? The early church believed that this is none other than the “blessed” (“righteous”) inhabitants of Hades at the time. Their waiting was over. So now, when someone dies they go directly to be with the Lord–there’s no need for a “waiting place” like Hades anymore. See Philippians 1:21-23 where Paul indicates that we are present with Christ the moment we depart–that’s because the righteous don’t go to Hades anymore to await judgement. In fact, C. Donald Cole (Moody Press) notes that there is no such thing as Hades anymore: only heaven and hell (in the modern-day sense of the word), because when Christ led out the righteous inhabitants of Hades (as is indicated by Ephesians 4:8) “Hades” became “hell”–a place reserved only for the “wicked.”
Third, this way of looking at it does not contradict what Jesus told the prisoner on the cross next to him: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
Fourth, this also fits with the picture in Revelation 1:18. (Brace yourself. This is the juicy part!) Jesus appears to John in a vision and identifies himself as the one who holds “the keys of death and Hades.” Where did Jesus get these keys? The early Christians believed He got them by going there and fighting for them.
And this is the part I like the best: the early church believed that Christ was not just a sacrificial lamb. They also believed He was the victor. The irony is thick: soldiers are posted at Jesus’ tomb all day Saturday. Meanwhile, Jesus is waging a battle on a more strategic front: in Hades. The soldiers by the large sealed rock can’t touch Him. In fact, they’re completely unaware of the battle being raged “beneath” them! Jesus goes where every man has gone before to do something no man has done before. He “breaks the seal” by stealing the keys! The soldiers posted at the tomb’s entrance are impotent to stop it all from happening.
When Christ descended into Hades, a battle was waged and Christ emerged victorious. He now has the keys of death and Hades–for real. I don’t know about you, but I think that is way way way way COOL!!! Christ is the victor! He fought the battle! He released the prisoners! He led them out of Hades into His glorious presence! So now, when we die, we go directly to be with Him. Directly to heaven. To paradise. (I can’t wait!!!)
And to think, all that was happening on Saturday (even the guards were oblivious!). Explain to me again why we tend to skip from Friday to Sunday, because, quite honestly, I don’t get it???…
Reflection: “Christ is the victor. Am I experiencing His victory in my life?” Prayer: “Lord Jesus, thank You for your full participation in our humanity. And thank You for your deliverance. I proclaim you to be the Lord of everything on the earth, above it, and beneath it. You are the Almighty One. You hold the keys of death and Hades. I long for that day when I, too, will be with You in Paradise.”
May this Holy Week continue to be meaningful for you.
My church holds a combination Maundy Thursday/Tenebrae Service. The format remains the same every year but the readings (and shadows) vary slightly. You can find a copy of the Worship Bulletin from tonight by clicking on the link. I would love feedback and comments.
My God, My God, he cried,
If he is quoted right…
Somehow that moan is comforting
To us, alone at night,
Who tremble, daring dawn,
That He, so wise and strong,
Should weep and ask for aid.
Somehow, my loving, distant God,
It makes me less afraid.
I just read the story again. It sounds like a cliche, but my heart feels like it’s beating heavily in my throat. A heavy weight pushes down on my chest. Powerful, intense movement in my soul. Just think of it! He was innocent, he was God, he was a miracle worker, he’d done nothing wrong. And they killed him. It can’t be real. The story feels more like poetry. Certainly not the stuff of history. But it is history. I guess we could almost call it “poetic narrative.”
Jesus’ last day of life before burial is loaded with imagery, symbol, power, depth, emotion. Poetry.
The day’s symbolism starts in a place called “Gethsemane”: literally, the word in Aramaic means “oil press.” Ironic that the Son of Man in his last day of life should go to pray in a place called “oil press.” I guess that’s why he was sweating drops of blood. The life was pressed right out of him in tiny, precious droplets. While in Gethsemane, Mark tells us in the original Greek that Jesus is literally “surrounded by sorrow, grief, pain and agony.” (In Greek, Mark uses the word “perilupos”. “Lupos”=grief, “Peri”=around or surrounded by). And in the Greek version, Mark tells us that this sorrow comes upon Jesus suddenly, shockingly, surprisingly. Jesus was suddenly amazed and surrounded by inner pain, like a hunted animal (grief pressing the life out of him). What a picture. No wonder he prayed. No wonder he asked his Father if the “cup” could be passed from him.
Then Judas comes and betrays the Son of Man with a kiss. Why a kiss? Why not just point him out? Perhaps because he was trying to fool Jesus into thinking he really loved him and had no part with those thugs with clubs. But you can’t fool Jesus. He sees right through you.
Reflection: “Do I try to fool Jesus? Do I tell him I love him, mouthing the words with a stone cold heart? Do I kiss him like Judas?” Prayer: “I am done with trying to fool you, Lord Jesus. You see all, you know all. You know my innermost thoughts and feelings. You know my heart better than I know it myself. Change me. Change my heart.”
Jesus is taken to the Jewish religious leaders and they put him on trial. Those who hate him can’t make their stories match up. Jesus remains silent the whole time, just letting them make fools of themselves. Finally, according to Matthew’s and Mark’s account, after being silent throughout the whole trial, Jesus says just one thing: the statement that would ultimately damn him to death in their eyes. (Why didn’t he just keep his mouth shut?!)
Meanwhile, Peter, the “rock” that the church would be built upon, denies knowing him. It’s all unraveling now.
Jesus is taken to Pilate and put on trial. He’s mostly silent. In Mark’s account, he says just one thing again: “Yes, it is as you say.” (The question was: “Are you the king of the Jews?” Not a question you want to answer in the affirmative when you’re standing in front of the Roman governor).
Pilate can’t decide what to do: Jesus has obviously committed no crime. Then Pilate remembers a custom they have: “It was the custom at the Feast to release a prisoner whom the people requested. A man called Barabbas was in prison…[he] had committed murder…” Pilate must have thought, “I’ll offer the people Jesus or Barabbas. Surely they’ll choose Jesus, because Barabbas is a murderer. Surely they’ll want Barabbas to die, not Jesus.” But the crowd chooses Barabbas–for freedom (already the paradox of the cross is foreshadowed: the innocent one pays the guilty one’s penalty). Pilate is surprised. He wants to know why. They don’t tell him. They just keep shouting louder and louder and louder “Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” Jesus, the innocent one, will be killed. There’s blood on Pilate’s hands. He needs to wash them.
Before a whole company of soldiers, Jesus is beaten on the head with a staff several times. He’s whipped. They put a crown of thorns on his head. He’s mocked. They spit on him. (But he hasn’t done anything wrong!)
He’s led to the Place of the Skull. They nail him to a cross. They take his clothes. He says just seven things while hanging there:
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He offers forgiveness.
“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” He offers heaven.
“Dear woman, here is your son. Here is your mother.” Family created.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Sin borne.
“I am thirsty.” Spiritual desert.
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” The end is near. A loud cry, and-
“It is finished.” Salvation complete.
It’s over. Spear in his side. Blood, water. The curtain: torn. The sky darkens. Body in the tomb.
Still falls the Rain–
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss–…
Still falls the Rain
With a sound like the pulse of the heart that is changed to the hammer-beat…
Still falls the Rain
In the Field of Blood where the small hopes breed and the human brain
Nurtures its greed…
Still falls the Rain
At the feet of the Starved Man hung upon the Cross…
Under the Rain the sore and the gold are as one.
Still falls the Rain–
Still falls the Blood from the Starved Man’s wounded Side:
He bears in His Heart all wounds,–those of the light that died,
The last faint spark
In the self-murdered heart, the wounds of the sad uncomprehending dark,…
Still falls the Rain–…
See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament:
It flows from the Brow we nailed upon the tree
Deep to the dying, to the thirsting heart
That holds the fires of the world,–dark-smirched with pain…
Then sounds the voice of the One who like the heart of man
Was once a child who among beasts has lain–
‘Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.’
-Excerpts from Still Falls the Rain by Edith Sitwell
No words can describe what happened that day. Poets come closer to sapping its meaning. And Gethsemane foretold it.
Try spending a good portion of the day in silence: in contemplation of a dark but truly Good Friday, and an unjustly murdered but truly great Jesus.
May this Holy Week continue to be meaningful for you.
Jesus, King of the Universe,
ride on in humble majesty,
ride on through conflict and debate,
ride on through sweaty prayer and betrayal of friends,
ride on through mockery and unjust condemnation,
ride on through cruel suffering and ignoble death,
ride on to the empty tomb and your rising in triumph,
ride on to raise up your Church, a new body for your service,
ride on, King Jesus, to renew the whole earth in your image:
in compassion come to help us.
Here is my Palm Sunday sermon based on Matthew 21:1-11:
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest. Hosanna to the Son of David.
Today the Christian church around the world celebrates one of the most colorful events of its faith heritage-the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. When Matthew tells the story in his Gospel, he becomes so caught up in the spirit of the occasion, he has Jesus riding on two animals instead of one. Verse 7: “The disciples brought the donkey and the colt and spread their cloaks upon them and Jesus sat on them.” That would be a sight to behold whether the Messiah was doing or not! Matthew’s exuberance is balanced by his careful attention to the historical magnitude of the moment. He quotes not just one prophet but two, both Zechariah and Isaiah. He wants to make it clear that the Messiah, the King, the Savior for whom the people have waited so long, is the one who is coming into the city. Tell the daughter of Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you mounted on a donkey.” The point is unmistakable. Royalty is on the way, but it is the kind of royalty that people have never seen before – a humble royalty. A servant king.
Two thousand years after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, another visitor came to the city, Germany’s last Kaiser, Wilhelm II. His entourage was so grand that he had to have the Jaffe Gate in the old city widened so that his over-sized carriage could pass through. After the parade had ended, someone climbed up and attached a large sign to the gate. The sign read, “A better man than Wilhelm came through this city’s gate. He rode on a donkey.”
What made Jesus a better man, do you think? What was it about him that compelled the people to spread their cloaks and wave their branches in the air? What is it about him that still inspires millions of people to give their lives to him and even for him? Nowhere has the paradoxical beauty of the mind of Christ been more eloquently expressed than by Paul in his Letter to the Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
What made him a better man? It was his beautiful mind, which was nothing less than the very mind of God. His beautiful mind put him on the back of that donkey.
His beautiful mind gave him the courage to speak the message of salvation no matter what it cost.
His beautiful mind opened his eyes so that he could see the people who were being put down or shut out by unjust practices and selfish ambitions on the part of others.
His beautiful mind led him to overturn the tables of the money changers in the temple, led him to cure the blind and the lame.
His beautiful mind brought him to his knees before the disciples so that he could wash their feet on the night of his betrayal.
His mind led him to the cross where he poured out his life.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” Paul admonished his friends in Philippi. If you want to belong to him, the first
thing you will need to do is get your mind right. Can we live that way too? Paul thought we could. “Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he said. But not in the sense of transplanting that divine perspective into ourselves through our own efforts; certainly that
is impossible. No, it is this sense of receiving the gift of transformation that I am speaking of today-receiving transformation through him who became completely one of us and, thereby, defeated everything. And I do mean everything that would keep us from our own full humanity.
What does a Christ-like mind look like as we live in the world? We can see it clearly in the great saints and martyrs, such as Mother Teresa or Albert Schweitzer or Dietrich Bonheoffer or Martin Luther King, Jr. or even Mahatma Gandhi. All of these people lost themselves in their quest to live like Christ in the world. The great thing is in losing themselves, they found themselves.
An artist becomes lost in the work. Lovers become lost in their beloved. Workers are excited about a common enterprise. You toss aside that part of yourself that is always watching how you’re doing. In self-forgetfulness, you become most fully yourself. This is the great paradox of human existence.
In my studies, I have found that the churches that are growing the fastest are the ones that provide entertainment instead of worship and make
people feel good about themselves. They preach sermons like “Everyone is a winner!” or “God loves you just the way you are.” Those are not bad sermons but I wonder what kind of church you would have if your sermon titles were “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” Or about this one for a sermon, “Those who want to save their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives for my sake, will find them.”
To see what the world cannot see and then to do something about it-these are the marks of the mind of Christ.
Why did Jesus ride that little donkey or rather both of those donkeys into town that day? I think he did it to demonstrate true greatness to all the world. After the donkey came the cross. And it is there, right there, that you see greatness in all its glory.
In my Catholic tradition growing up, we said the Nicene Creed and in this tradition we say the Apostle’s Creed. Both creeds include the line: “He was crucified, dead and buried.” In other traditions there is another line added to the creedal statement: He descended into hell. What a powerful acknowledgment that there is no human experience – no height, no depth, no loss, no pain, no apparently God-forsaken place, even the farthest reaches of hell – that Jesus has not entered into. He descended into hell is immediately followed by the glad affirmation that he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven. It is here that the great reversal takes place. The servant becomes Lord. The humiliated one becomes the exalted one whose name is above every name. He ascended into heaven, and on Palm Sunday, and during this Holy Week ahead, we remember that he did not get there the easy way.
What a journey he had. Before the suffering and the crucifying and the dying, he entered Jerusalem riding a donkey and all the city was in turmoil, Matthew tells us. As is always the case, English words are entirely too mild for the original Greek meaning of this word “turmoil.” In Greek the word was usually used in reference to violent changes in the weather or earthquakes. In other words, Jesus comes into town and the whole world shakes. A fundamental shift takes place at the heart of things, and nothing is ever the same again.
I hope that parade will pass down your street today. I hope your heart will bow before him. I hope your very world will be in turmoil as Jesus comes to your heart and nothing is ever the same again. I hope your hosannas will ring to highest of heavens.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest. Hosanna to the Son of David. Amen.
Here is today’s worship bulletin.
Today is the beginning of the Holy Week, which is the week before the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Sunday before Easter, today, is referred to as Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. On that day, Jesus made his entry in the city of Jerusalem and was welcomed by thousands of Jewish pilgrims who had come to celebrate the Passover. The Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 21 verses 1-11, vividly describes what happened:
As Jesus and the disciples approached Jerusalem, they came to the town of Bethphage on the Mount of Olives. Jesus sent two of them on ahead. “Go into the village over there,” he said. “As soon as you enter it, you will see a donkey tied there, with its colt beside it. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone asks what you are doing, just say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will immediately let you take them.”
This took place to fulfill the prophecy that said, “Tell the people of Israel, ‘Look, your King is coming to you. He is humble, riding on a donkey— riding on a donkey’s colt.’”
The two disciples did as Jesus commanded. They brought the donkey and the colt to him and threw their garments over the colt, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road ahead of him, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Jesus was in the center of the procession, and the people all around him were shouting,
“Praise God for the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Praise God in highest heaven!”
The entire city of Jerusalem was in an uproar as he entered. “Who is this?” they asked. And the crowds replied, “It’s Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
What kind of Messiah?
The crowd rightly recognized Him as the Messiah. Jesus was the one they had been expecting. So they were excited about it! Finally God finally sent the man who would deliver Israel from their foreign oppressors, the Romans. The messiah they were expecting was a political messiah, and what would happen to Jesus in the next couple of days – His crucifixion and death – was totally contrary to their expectations. That probably explained why public opinion turned so easily against Him.
Even the disciples who stayed true to Jesus during His trial, crucifixion and death still thought that Jesus would deliver Israel from the Romans. In Acts 1:6, after the resurrection and before the ascension, they said: “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?” Jesus came to deliver, but His deliverance was not a political or military deliverance, but a spiritual one. He would deliver people from their sins and usher in the Kingdom of God.
So why is today called Palm Sunday? I guess the answer is pretty straightforward… The crowd cut palm branches off the trees and threw them on the ground before Jesus. Compare it to the red carpet you see at the Academy Awards ceremony. Or when a king, queen or president pays an official visit to the head of state of another country.
What kind of Jesus do you expect?
My question to you on this Palm Sunday of 2011 is this: what kind of Jesus are you expecting? Are you waiting for a Jesus who will meet all your expectations and does exactly what you want Him to do? Or are you waiting for a Jesus who will do what He wants to do in your life?
As we’re getting ready for Easter Sunday, 2011, I want to encourage you to allow Him to search your heart. Allow Him to let His light shine in all the dark places in your life. Allow Him to change you from the inside out. He has come to bring you deliverance from the things that have kept you bound, maybe even for years. He has come to bring you freedom. He has come to bring you life, life more abundantly!
What if this life was all we had? What if when we die there is no more? Now put down the stones because I am not challenging anyone’s beliefs or my own beliefs. I am just thinking so bear with me.
I have been reading a book called The Mystery of Death by Dorothee Soelle. She was a German theologian and this was the last book she wrote and she addressed some challenging questions about living and dying. As we approach Holy Week and Easter, I wanted to share some thoughts and reflections on not only dying but living in the face of dying.
First, humanity in general and Americans specifically seem to fear death. We put cemeteries as far away from us as possible to avoid dealing with and being confronted with death. I wonder why? The more I think of my own death (hopefully not imminent), the more I think about my life. I feel challenged to live in the face of my death and to live well. I do not fear my death but in light of my death, I want to live my life. I want to live knowing that I will die one day because I want to be remembered as someone who lived.
This brings me back to my intial questions. What if this life is it? There are some who live this way and they consume and abuse others to get as much as they can but I don’t think that is the best way to live. I think we should live for others. I think of those people who consumed resources and people to get to the best of everything and they are remembered as being greedy. Then you have people who lived for others and they are remembered as bing kind people. Both people had an impact on the world while they lived but one of those people has an impact that continues on into the future. I believe this is the way to live our life. I believe we should live as if death were not (to quote James Allison) and to live life to the fullest.
I find that I am troubled by Christians even though I am a Christian. There are some who live life for the sole purpose of getting to heaven. They want their pie in the sky reward and they live life and do good to get something in return. As a result all Christians are viewed in this same light. I believe there is life after death. I believe there is a heaven but I don’t think we should live this life just to get to heaven. Jesus came to make a difference in our world. Jesus came to free people from slavery and oppression. Jesus came to give people a better life and then he died for our salvation. But first he lived to make the world a better place. We tend to focus on the dying side of Jesus while losing focus on the living side. Jesus lived first and then he died. That is important to remember. Jesus lived as if death were not. Jesus lived to give others life abundantly.
Jesus lived as if death were not. We should do the same. We should live our lives as if we are going to live forever but live them for others. We should strive to make the world a better place in light of our lives. We should follow Jesus’ example of living – not to get to heaven – but to make the world a better place than when we arrived.
What if we all lived for one another? What if we lived as if death were not? What if we live?
How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance–now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant…. Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. -Hebrews 9:14-15; 10:11-14
For centuries the Hebrew people watched their priests performing the rituals of the tabernacle and then the temple. The word priest means “one who stands,” and these were indeed people who stood before the people on behalf of God, helping the people bring their sacrifices in worship. The high priest did such special things as going into the most holy place of the temple and offering the most intimate prayers on behalf of the people.
With Jesus all that changed. He came and took the role of the highest priest, the one mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). He came and told us that the lessons learned from the temple and the priests and the animal sacrifices–lessons about our sin and the terrible judgment pronounced on sin and the possibility of substitute sacrifices–had been learned, and that he had come to be the fulfillment
Jesus is the great high priest. He also is the sacrifice. He came to be “the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 9:15). He is the “ransom” (“redemption”).
But Jesus is quite different from all of the earlier high priests. “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties,” but these sacrifices “can never take away sins.” What those priests did was to provide a picture of and a teaching about forgiveness. Jesus actually accomplished it. He was both God and man, and thus stood before us linking heaven and earth. His death was the ultimate sacrifice, and indeed the only sacrifice that truly mattered.
Risen from the dead, and returned to the Father, he now continues to be the link between God and man. He doesn’t “stand” anymore, now he sits at the throne of God.
Tilling the soil
And counting: how many days Now
‘Til His suffering begins
-Haiku based on Luke 9:62
Here is today’s sermon based on John 11:1-45:
Once upon a time there was a beginning to time and creation. At some point in the future there will be a culmination of God’s purposes in his creation. But in between the beginning and the end, there are many different kinds of moments. At any moment in our world, someone is crying. At any moment, someone is laughing. At any moment, someone is yelling, someone is whispering. At any moment someone is being lifted up and someone else is being torn down. At any moment in our world someone is rejoicing and someone is mourning. At any moment someone is finding and someone is losing. At any moment someone is being born and someone is dying. At any moment.
We come today to a specific moment which hangs between life and death. It is a moment that Jesus prolongs deliberately. It is a moment where some cry, some hope, some believe and some criticize. It is a moment of waiting between death and resurrection. It is a moment which tells the story to God’s people about what happens with us in the in-between times.
Jesus’ close friend Lazarus had been very ill. And when Jesus heard of his illness from Lazarus’ two sisters, Mary and Martha, he did not rush to Lazarus’ side. Instead, Jesus waited for two days and then he traveled to Bethany. By the time he arrived, Lazarus had been dead for four days and buried. Martha and then Mary come to Jesus with a greeting and a reproach, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The sisters’ request had been ignored apparently. The problem was not a lack of faith. Both women believed in Jesus and in who he was. The disconcerting problem was that Jesus had not shown up in time to save the man’s life.
We don’t always know why God does things the way he does. And there are many ways to look at this story. But today we will consider just one angle–that God teaches us something about what it’s like to live in in-between times, and what we do in in-between times.
We know that there are many beautiful and good things about our world. But we also live with the reality that this is a fallen world and many things about creation and humanity are broken, not quite right, and even downright evil. The Bible promises that one day everything will be put right and we will be whole again. But until that day, we live in in-between times, waiting for our hopes to be fulfilled. We wait to see our loved ones who have passed on through death. We wait for the scars and wounds we carry around inside to be completely healed. Do you ever still feel the pain from some past hurt? Every once in a while I do. We wait for our sinful natures to stop battling with us and for the time to come when we won’t have to put such effort into choosing the good way. We wait for a closeness to God that is tangible and visible and right in front of us without all the walls we build in the way to block the view. For these things and other things, we wait. It is an in-between time.
As Jesus approaches Lazarus’ tomb, we realize that it is an in-between time for him also. God did not have to put himself into such a time, but he did. Jesus is at a moment between life and the death that awaits him on the cross. And even though he will rise again, just as he will resuscitate Lazarus, that fact does not negate the pain and suffering and dying that he will choose to walk through for our sakes.
What does God show us about in-between times as he waits in his own in-between time? Let’s take a look at Jesus.
One of the things Jesus does in the in-between time is weep. In the in-between time there are tears. No matter how sure we are of God’s promises and how strong our hopes are, God’s people will still be moved to tears. When John says that Jesus was deeply moved and troubled, his words literally mean that Jesus groaned violently and was shaken to the very depths of his being. Weeping is not a sign of a lack of faith. Mary and Martha and God as a human himself wept tears at the pain and struggle and sorrow of the in-between times. It is okay to cry.
Whether we find ourselves at a funeral (even of a Christian) or witnessing some injustice or hearing bad news on the television, God’s people will find themselves in tears. There is a lot to mourn in our lives. Jesus knew that he had the power to raise Lazarus. He knew that Lazarus was safe in heaven with God at that very moment. And yet still he wept.
We live with hope in our future. But here and now we live with the reality of the confusion and chaos of our world. There are times in the in between when we will find ourselves in tears. In the in-between time, there are tears.
In the in-between time there is also work. Even as Jesus gave earthly life back to Lazarus, Lazarus was just one man. And Jesus still had the cross ahead of him. But it is interesting that Jesus gave others work to do. In the in-between time, God’s people have work to do. Jesus could have raised Lazarus any way he wanted to. Instead, he chose to ask others to roll the stone away. He chose to resurrect Lazarus with his grave
clothes on, and then he asked others to help take off the linen shroud.
God seems to be like that–always seeking human cooperation in accomplishing his purposes. He doesn’t have to. He chooses to. Jesus told his disciples and us to follow him. To love as he loved. To serve as he served. To lay down our lives for others just like he did. It is a serious calling that honors us. We are invited to join God in his work of redemption–to be part of his church and help roll stones away and remove grave clothes from people in this world who are entombed in fear or loneliness or failure or resentment or wounds. We don’t raise people to new life in Christ. But God lets us help. God lets us help. That is the privilege and purpose he gives us, and it is not to be taken lightly.
People who know me know that I’m really big on church commitment. It’s not an idea that originated with me. I had nothing to do with it. Making a decision to join a church and be active–to live your life with a specific group of Christians, to learn about love by loving and being loved, to join gifts and abilities in ministry, to commit to a life of service in all of life, not just on Sunday–is important because the church is God’s vehicle for bringing people to salvation. Church is God’s idea and God’s invitation to join something bigger than ourselves and what’s going on in our own lives. Church is God’s idea of growing us up into the richest experience of salvation and, along the way, telling the story to others who might also find God as the answer to all their questions and longings. Church is who will feed the hungry and bind up the brokenhearted and speak words of life and lay down her life. Church is where we roll the stones away and take off each other’s grave clothes and then joyfully and faithfully do the same for others in our world because as we obey Jesus’ commands, we get to witness life come from death. In the in-between time there is work to do.
In the in-between time there are tears. In the in-between time there is work to do. And in the in-between time there are hopes. There are hopes. Whenever I hear of some goodness, I begin to know hope. This week a friend listened patiently and compassionately to another friend. This week a parent brought out the best in her child. This week a neighbor looked after another’s house. This week in the city a surgeon saved a
man’s life. This week a police officer prevented someone from being killed. This week a kind word was spoken, someone gave up some time to nurse a relative, and a brother and sister made up. This week, a father was forgiven and a couple was reunited. Whenever we witness or experience joy or beauty or goodness, we catch a taste of what is to come.
Our hopes are all pinned on that time that is described in Revelation 21 where we will hear Jesus call to us, “Come forth from the in-between time to the now,” where God will be with us face to face; and he will wipe away our tears and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. Everything will be made new and we will have a place with God and there will be light and there will not be any need or want because we will be fulfilled.
Paul tells us in Ephesians that when we believed, we were given God’s Holy Spirit as a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance as sons and daughters of God. It is God’s Spirit which keeps alive in us a hope and a certainty and a longing for what is to come.
In the in-between times, God’s people live with hope for what is to come. And it doesn’t matter if others doubt or scoff or question or give up their hopes, as some did outside Lazarus’ tomb, and even after he was raised.
In the book Fresh Packet of Sower’s Seeds, Brian Cavanaugh recounts a little story about a snail who had a vision. One raw, windy day in spring, a snail started to climb a cherry tree. Some birds in a nearby tree sniped their ridicule. “Hey, you dumb snail,” squawked one of them, “where do you think you’re going?” “Why are you climbing that tree?” others chimed in. “There are no cherries on it.” “There will be some by the time I get there,” replied the snail.
As Jesus walked into Jerusalem, not long after he raised Lazarus from the dead, and as he continued steadily into the heart of conflict and hatred, into accusations and false witnesses, into whippings and beatings and thorns and nails and swords, there were those who squawked, “Hey, you dumb man, where do you think you’re going? Why are you hanging from that tree? Nobody is with you. They’ve all deserted you and you are all alone. Where are your followers now? But he continued to hang and then he continued to die. He didn’t stop the process. He didn’t save himself. He continued on into death and the tomb because he knew that if he continued on through that tomb to the other side, everything he desired for us would be waiting there for us by the time we got there too.
God’s people can be ridiculed in the in-between time. God’s people can snipe at themselves and each other for being so slow to believe or commit or get moving. But the beauty of all of this is that God is the one who walks with us in the in-between time. God is with us weeping and working and hoping we’ll come along as he does what only he can do. And as we creep along, creep along, creep along, God is the one who will make sure that everything we are creeping towards will be there in all its fullness–a city of gold through which runs a river of life which is bordered by the tree of life, bearing 12 crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree will be for the healing of the nations.
We live in an in-between time where there are tears, there is work, and there are hopes. And in the in-between time, at any moment, someone is crying and someone is laughing. At any moment someone is yelling and someone is whispering. At any moment someone is being lifted up and someone else is being torn down. At any moment in our world, someone is rejoicing and someone is mourning. At any moment someone is finding and someone is losing. At any moment someone is being born and someone is dying.
We live in an in-between time where the grave cloths cling to us much like they did to Lazarus reminding us that while Lazarus was raised, death will come again. We live in an in-between time but we can hang onto to hope because in another tomb, the grave cloths were folded
neatly and left behind as Jesus conquered death.
Don’t give up at any moment. Keep going at any moment. Hang on at any moment. Rejoice in any moment. Because also at any moment Jesus may come back for us. At any moment we will hear the trumpet sound. At any moment God’s voice will beckon us to his living presence. At any moment our tears will be wiped away, our work will be done, our hopes will be realized. At any moment we will be healed and whole and home. At any moment. Any moment. Amen.
Here is today’s worship bulletin.
Fast from judging others; feast on the Christ indwelling in them.
Fast from emphasis on differences; feast on the unity of all life.
Fast from apparent darkness; feast on the reality of light.
Fast from words that pollute; feast on phrases that purify.
Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude.
Fast from anger; feast on patience.
Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism.
Fast from worry; feast on trust.
Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation.
Fast from negatives; feast on affirmatives.
Fast from unrelenting pressures; feast on unceasing prayer.
Fast from hostility; feast on nonviolence.
Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness.
Fast from self-concern; feast on compassion for others.
Fast from personal anxiety; feast on eternal truth.
Fast from discouragement; feast on hope.
Fast from facts that depress; feast on truths that uplift.
Fast from lethargy; feast on enthusiasm.
Fast from suspicion; feast on truth.
Fast from thoughts that weaken; feast on promises that inspire.
Fast from idle gossip; feast on purposeful silence.
Gentle God, during this season of fasting and feasting, gift us with your presence
so we can be a gift to others in carrying out your work.
–William Arthur Ward
This morning I was reading the lectionary texts for Easter. I am not sure why but I flipped open my book and there they were and so I read them. Part of the text from John caught my attention.
The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down and saw the linen wrappings lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. -John 20:4-6 (NRSV)
As I read this passage, I had to smile because Peter was being Peter. He stumbled into the tomb to see for himself because he is never satisfied with someone else’s words. Then I realized that Peter represents us and we would be the ones doing the same thing. But wait, before we shake our heads at Peter and write him off as an idiot, think about what he does – he is bold in his actions and in his faith. He stumbles into the tomb because he wants to see. Are we really like Peter afterall?
In the early days of the church, Christians were bold in their beliefs and their actions. They knew they were most likely facing persecution and death but they worshiped anyway. People joined the church because they saw the boldness of the believers and despite the odds against them, they continued to grow in faith and love for one another. They were bold.
Today, we do not face persecution or death (okay not in the United States but in other parts of the world they do) and we could be openly bold about our faith because we have Constructional protections but yet we are the most timid lot of people I know. We simply accept things as they (yes I am making broad generalizations) and lament about it. I had a discussion yesterday with someone who was concerned about the growing number of Muslims in this country (not necessarily immigrants but converts). He couldn’t wrap his head around why people would be attracted to Islam. I suggested that it is because Muslims are bold in their practice of their faith (not intended as a negative). I shared that my dry cleaner invites me to Friday prayers and frequently answers my questions and enjoys a discussion of faith. Many Christians I know will push Jesus but not have a discussion about their beliefs or things in their beliefs that trouble them (that is being bold).
When I was 17, I had some serious faith questions and I went to my parish priest (I was a practicing Catholic then) and he dismissed my questions and suggested I go someplace else. I spent the next 5 years searching for answers and stumbling through things I shouldn’t have. Imagine if he had been bold enough to answer my questions. Martin Luther had questions and he boldly stood up and demanded answers to his questions. He was not timid and yes he caused an uproar but he also set off a series of discussions, councils, and reforms that caused people to reflect on their faith and their beliefs.
Back to my discussion yesterday, my colleague continued to grieve over the growing number of Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, and humanists. If I look back to the groups he mentioned, they are willing to share and talk with people who have questions. They are willing to look at the weaknesses of their faith/beliefs and address them. I admit there are parts of Christianity that trouble me – there are scripture passages that trouble me, there are days when I have doubts about my faith and I am willing to discuss them.
What is missing today is a boldness to have a conversation about our doubts and our beliefs. We would rather guilt people into believing or dangle hell in front of them than sit down and have a serious discussion about what troubles us with Christianity. We won’t admit that we have doubts in our faith and we simply push people away because we appear to be strong and not willing to discuss questions and doubts. What do you think happens? People feel that they are wrong or different or unfaithful and wander off to seek out the answers they have.
It is time we begin to have dialogs about what we believe and what we question. Let’s be bold in our faith and bold in our questions and bold in our doubts. Afterall, we are only human – just like Peter.
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour. ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. – John 12:20-33 (NRSV)
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Death bearing new life — a mystery for sure. Even though Jesus was talking about his physical death, this passage makes me consider my own state of affairs. What needs to “die” in my life? What am I holding on to, out of fear, out of comfort, out of refusing to change, that is actually keeping me from living life at the fullest God intended for me? What is keeping me from bearing much fruit?
One quote that I have found to be very helpful is a quote from Marianne Williamson, which was read at Nelson Mandela’s 1994 Inaugural Address, that names our need for releasing well:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that almost frightens us.
We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?”
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There is nothing enlightening about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us;
It’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.
We release not only for our sake, but for the sake of the world. We release so that fruit might bear abundantly, so that we might not only feed ourselves, but also feed others. And we feed others by allowing them to see us living fully out of the core of who we are — out of who God created us to be — and in turn, invite others to do the same.
Here is today’s sermon based on John 4:5-42:
Scientists and nutritionists tell me that I need 64 ounces of water each day, eight glasses of eight ounces each and tap water is not my only option. Just walk down the beverage aisle of the grocery store. What a dazzling set of choices awaits me!
I find not just water but also soda water and tonic water. I find mineral springs water, artesian springs, mountain springs, imported from Poland, imported from France, from Maine, fluorinated, and non-fluorinated water.
I know that juices could satisfy my thirst, too. The latest displays hold not just grape juice, apple juice, or orange juice, but all sorts of creative combos: pineapple-banana juice, cranberry combined with raspberry, cranberry combined with strawberry.
I can choose among milks: regular milk, 2% milk, lowfat, buttermilk, lactose-free milk.
I can choose among sodas for weeks and never drink the same item.
I have a new coffee every month, not just regular or decaffeinated, but liqueur-flavored, cinnamon-flavored, Columbian, French roast, Ecuadorian, Honduran, European.
I have beers, nonalcoholic beers, lite beer, imported beer, domestic, micro-brewery, local beer, malt beer, hop beer, honey beer, wheat beer.
Somewhere in the world, right this minute, someone is thinking up a new way to quench my thirst. But I am overwhelmed! Give me a drink!
Two thousand years ago, a Samaritan woman came to an ancient well with the same need. She needed a drink. She was a human being with the same physical needs that I have today. She had probably been coming to Jacob’s well in Shechem, naturally, every day. There were no crowded grocery shelves in those days. She satisfied her thirst daily, with water from the well. It was routine.
But on this day, a stranger is there, the prophet Jesus. She does not recognize him, and he begins to puzzle her. He puzzles her by the mere fact that he, a Jewish man, seeks a conversation with her, a Samaritan woman. He was crossing two social boundaries at once, for Jews had little to do with Samaritans; long-standing theological disputes separated them. They disagreed on worship practices, too. And, secondly, a man would never engage a woman in conversation such as this.
“Give me a drink,” Jesus says. Yes, Jesus asks for a drink from the well. I like verses like these from the Bible, verses where Jesus expresses ordinary human needs. “Give me a drink,” he says here at the well. Later in his life, he would ask his disciples, “Do you have anything here to eat?” Jesus was hungry and thirsty in his time. We sometimes forget in our hyper-spiritual age that Jesus was deeply human. There were days when Jesus craved the same physical satisfactions that we do. It was noon on that day at the well, and Jesus was thirsty.
This Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for a drink. But, soon, he also begins to speak of water, that is, living water, a water that will leave a person never having to thirst again. At first, the Samaritan woman thinks he means flowing water-flowing water as opposed to flat water.
Yes, I suppose that there were meager water choices 2,000 years ago. One could drink flat water, water perhaps that had gathered in a cistern or one could drink flowing water from a spring or well. I figure that the comparison today would be between fizzy and non-fizzy water. Jesus says he has some true fizzy water. It is alive!
“Sir,” the woman asks, “where do you get this living water?” Jesus responds that whoever drinks from the water that he gives will have a river of living water flowing up from inside them!
“Sir,” she says, “give me this water.”
“First, go get your husband,” Jesus commands.
Ahhh, but she has no husband. No, wait. She has had five husbands. But the one she is living with now is not her husband. The image we see now becomes confusing indeed. Does the Samaritan woman live in any formal, committed relationship at all? It looks like she has consumed husband relationships in the same manner that many of us choose something to drink today. We have so many choices that we try to choose them all. Those relationships have not satisfied the Samaritan woman. She has ended up now in a relationship that is not marriage at all.
Yes, human beings may not have always had so many choices about what to drink. Truly, our beverage choices in this day can overwhelm us. But we have always had other kinds of choices. We have always had choices about how to satisfy our deepest needs, our deepest needs for intimacy, for love, for security, for truth itself.
We choose, we choose, we choose, trying to satisfy those deep needs for refreshment, but our meager choices never satisfy. The Rolling Stones were right: I can’t get no satisfaction, and I try and I try and I try.
“First, go get your husband,” Jesus commands.
“I have no husband,” the Samaritan woman says. I have chosen and chosen, but I have no husband.
You and I today have tremendous choices, don’t we? We choose and choose and choose. We try and try and try, but our choices rarely stay with us. We have to choose again the next day.
When Jesus declares that the man she is with is not her husband, the Samaritan woman realizes suddenly that she is face to face, not only with Jesus, but with truth itself. “I perceive you are a prophet!” she exclaims.
A prophet speaks truth, for sure. But a prophet also scares us with such truth. Here is Jesus, offering living water, but that water comes in an awesome package: It is packaged in a truth that reveals us as who we truly are.
In Seminary, I participate in the usual theological discussions that led to fascinating mind games sometimes. I am in school with all sorts of Christians, not just with those of my own denomination. And our denominations disagree on some important matters, including matters like baptism itself. A frequent question is asked of one of our professors. Maybe you have ask it, too. Some folks baptize in the river, we noted, and some folks baptize with just a few drops of water. And so we asked, “How much water does one need for a valid baptism? How much water is sufficient?”
Our professor looked at us seriously, maybe just as seriously as Jesus looked at that Samaritan woman at the well. Our professor put down his pen and said, “A valid baptism needs as much water as it would take to drown in.”
Drown in? What a scary thought! We thought baptisms were supposed to be joyous and happy and renewing! No, he reminded us. Baptism also involves death itself. Baptism means dying to the old life and being born again. One needs enough water, symbolically, to remind us that something is dying here. That is the truth of what we do.
“Sir, give me a drink. Give me some of this living water.” The request of the Samaritan woman is our request today. Give me something that will stay with me, that will keep me alive.
But Jesus’ answer speaks an awesome truth to the woman. Jesus’ answer is spirit and truth. Jesus’ answer is that living water comes very close to being deadly water. Yes, you may drink of this water, but this water will show you the truth about yourself and the truth about your world. That truth may overwhelm you. It may come close to killing you with its clarity.
But it is alive. It is alive with spirit and truth.
After this encounter with the Samaritan woman, there is one other time in Scripture that Jesus is thirsty. Can you remember? It is when Jesus is about to die. Jesus is on the cross. Among his short and plaintive last words are these: “I thirst,” he said. Jesus, remember, is human, deeply human, with the same sets of physical cravings that each of us knows today. Ah, not just physical cravings, but spiritual cravings, too.
When we get to Good Friday, on the cross, Jesus’ thirst is our thirst. “I thirst,” Jesus said, and he takes the thirst of the entire human condition to God.
That is the truth also revealed on the cross. Of all the endless varieties of ways we humans devise to quench our thirst, none of them is finally true. The true satisfaction of our thirst comes from a face-to-face encounter with God, in spirit and in truth. This is satisfaction.
This encounter can only be awesome, even terrifying. It will take us to a realm of spirit and truth where we have never before been. It will involve the shedding of blood and even death itself. Yes, something inside us will die.
The old choices will die. The shallow waters, the flat waters, will dry up, like our shallow and flat relationships will dry up. But God provides living water. God will raise us up to new life, just like God raised up Jesus from the dead, no longer thirsty, but spilling forth water and blood for the salvation of the world.
Give me a drink of that living water, the blood of Jesus poured out for the salvation of the world. Amen
Here is today’s worship bulletin.
Here is today’s sermon based on John 3:1-17:
It was a night-time meeting, a secret, private meeting away from the crowds that hovered around Jesus during the day. It was a safe place to ask a question, to ponder the mysteries of the basileia of heaven with one who appeared to know. Nevertheless, when Nicodemus came to Jesus, Nicodemus did not bring a question. Instead, Nicodemus brought his own announcement of who Jesus was. Nicodemus, with his many pedigrees – a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, a teacher in Israel came to Jesus and said, “I have seen your miracles, your signs and wonders, and I know that you are from God. I know who you are.” And Jesus answered him, “No, you haven’t a clue, you really don’t. You saw me supply wine for the wedding feast. You saw me cleanse the temple of those who were making a business there and you think you can use this evidence to draw logical, rational conclusions. If this is your profession of faith, you know nothing of faith. Faith involves commitment and risks. Your slipping over here in the dark of night in order to tell me who I am is not faith.”
Nicodemus made a statement and Jesus gave a rebuttal. Interesting. Then Nicodemus did ask a question, “How? How can this happen? How can these things be?” And Jesus answered these “How to” questions with a birth story. Interesting conversation and Nicodemus probably wonders what he is getting himself into with this nighttime encounter!
Nicodemus came to Jesus because Nicodemus knew that Jesus knew the answers. However, Nicodemus did not know the questions. Nicodemus wanted to know how to win the prize, how to achieve for himself the life that was beyond his grasp, how to place himself in the presence of God. Jesus recognized Nicodemus’ searching and answered the questions which Nicodemus did not know how to ask. Jesus told Nicodemus about being born of the pneuma.
Jesus knew that the “How to” questions were not the questions Nicodemus really wanted answered. The questions which had driven Nicodemus to come to Jesus by night were probably more along the lines of “Who am I? Why was I born? Where do I belong? How can I be at peace with who I am?” These are the kinds of questions which keep us up at night. However, the only questions Nicodemus knew how to ask were questions which reflected an accounting view of life – questions about balancing the ledger, questions reflecting the notion that when things add up only then can they be true. Jesus did not deal with the answers to these questions. Instead, Jesus told Nicodemus a story of a birth, a story of being born of the pneumatos or Spirit.
Nicodemus, however, was so focused on the “How to” questions that he was confused by Jesus’ answer to him. Nicodemus wanted to line up proofs and arguments in order to arrive at a clear conclusion and thereby become a believer. Nicodemus assumed that this was how faith is born and sustained. Consequently, Jesus’ birth story was completely incomprehensible to Nicodemus. For Jesus told Nicodemus that faith is born of the pneumatos, a pneumatos that blows like the pneuma, blows where it chooses, blows and we hear the sound of it, but we do not know where it comes from or where it goes. Jesus told Nicodemus that life in God’s basileia cannot be earned or achieved. One is simply born into God’s basileia and living in the pneumatos cannot be controlled, charted, or calculated. All of this was very confusing to Nicodemus who only knew how to trust in the security of the rituals, doctrines, and moral instruction of the synagogue.
Turning away from Nicodemus’ “How to” questions, Jesus told Nicodemus a story of a birth. Jesus told Nicodemus that to be born of the pneuma would mean allowing the pneumatos to propel him along the way without any sense of his old securities. To be born of the pneuma would mean trusting God’s love for him and for all people. Jesus never made the law easy, never lowered the passing grade, never invited permissiveness. However, all of those concerns regarding morality were not part of the birth story. Nicodemus asked how to be born anew, assuming he needed to do something in order to cause this to happen, and Jesus answered, “This is not about what you do. You do not give birth to yourself. You cannot give birth to yourself. God is the one who breathes life into you and gives you birth from above. At your birth, blood is shed but it is not your blood. The blood at your birth belongs to the one who gives birth to you, belongs to the God through whom you are born into life eternal.” Nicodemus asked Jesus “How to” questions and Jesus told him about the God who gives birth to us. Jesus knew this would seem very shaky to Nicodemus except that as he trusted in the pneumatos, Nicodemus would find himself living a life eternally in God’s presence.
It seems to me that we are not so different from Nicodemus. We come week after week to proclaim who God is and to ask God to make things right for us, to ask God to bring us into God’s presence and to give us eternal life. Our prayers begin “Almighty God, from whom comes every blessing…” and our petitions for ourselves and others go on and on and on. We are so much like Nicodemus. And in the midst of our struggling to figure out how to win God’s favor, God is giving us birth, laboring over us, breathing life into us, pushing us out into a life lived in God’s presence, an eternal life. We struggle for the prize not recognizing that the prize is already ours.
The accounting line is this: If you believe in Jesus, you will have eternal life.
The birth story is this: God so loved you that God gives you life.
It is not our believing which gives us birth from above. It is the pneumatos of God who births us into life eternal. Nicodemus asked “How to” and Jesus told him a birth story, a story of God bringing into existence things that did not yet exist.
When Nicodemus began to allow himself to be born of the pneuma, things changed for him. In the chapters which follow, we read that Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus in the darkness of night, later spoke up for Jesus, publicly questioning those in authority who would judge Jesus. Then after Jesus’ death on the cross when all the disciples had fled, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus came forward to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus was no longer intimidated or afraid. Nicodemus had come to realize that he was born from above not by his own doing but by the love of God who birthed him anew and gave him a life of boldness.
What would it mean for us to understand that we are born of the pneumatos? Most of us think we know who God is, who God calls us to be, what God wants us to do. What if we were to stop telling God what we know, to recognize that God is bigger than our naming of God, and to listen for God’s Word to sweep over us without direction from us. What if we did not hold back but allowed the pneuma to take us to places not on our agenda? What would happen to us if we listened for God to call forth from us that which we did not recognize as being possible? Throughout my life I have had people call forth from me gifts which I did not recognize as being mine to give. I am certain my experience is not unique. Someone names a gift in you as if it existed and as you live into their expectation, you experience the reality of such a gift. God calls into existence things that do not yet exist. God calls forth life which we cannot bring about on our own. What might God be calling forth from us now? Can we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the untamed pneuma of God? Can we listen for what we have heretofore been unwilling to hear? Can we see in one another not something to critique or judge but rather the image of the God who has given us birth?
God called Abraham and Sarah from barrenness to birth, calling into existence things in their life that did not yet exist. And Abraham and Sarah were willing to trust God, moving from despair to hope, from old securities to new gifts, from death to life. Leaving what they knew to be true, they went where they had never been, away from all familiar markings and reference points without the benefit of GPS, allowing their life to be reshaped by the One who came to them in a birth story. Abraham and Sarah stepped out into a new way of living and were blessed.
The invitation to Abraham and Sarah, the invitation to Nicodemus, the invitation to us, comes as a birth announcement. The invitation is to let go of the ledger. Such an accounting system will be the death of us for there is no way to make our relationship with God balanced. God loved us first and loves us still, calling forth from us a life beyond our imagination. Such life is ours not because we figure out the “How tos” and did the right thing, but because the God who loves us breathes life into us.
To be born of the pneuma is to trust our life to the God who gives birth to us.
To be born of the pneuma is to embrace the mysterious newness of God knowing we do not have a final hold on the pneumatos.
To be born of the pneuma is to live as ones born of love. Amen.
Here is today’s worship bulletin.
Isn’t that an interesting title? We often describe God’s grace as adundant or liberating or free but wild? The longer I walk this journey of faith, the more I realize that God’s grace is indeed wild. It is offered to everyone and anyone. God chooses everyone and that is what makes it so wild. It embraces me and woes me for God time after time. It surprises me, it encourages me, it corrects me, it renews me, it treats me according to my needs. I am in constant need of God’s wild grace.
However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus. God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus. -Ephesians 2: 4-7 (CEB)
God’s wild grace is what sustains me and anyone else who wants to be a friend of grace. But we need to be careful not to accept any substitutes for God’s amazing grace. That’s why once in awhile we need to make reality-checks on our faith to make sure we are living in grace -not in works or in cheap grace- but in the wild, real, amazing grace of God Almighty. And Lent is just a perfect season to make these reality-checks on faith.
You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives. -Ephesians 2: 8-10 (CEB)
Through grace, God raises us up from death just as God did for Christ. Scripture says that Jesus has been raised by God – it is not something he did but something God did. Jesus was passive in this and in a similar way, we are too! We are saved by God’s grace through our faith alone and our faith only. It is wild because that is all that is involved. Jesus couldn’t raise himself and in a similar way, we can’t save ourselves.
The radical change from death to life is a pure gift of God’s wild grace. This amazing transformation is no way the result of our activity. Even the faith as the means by which God’s grace has saved us is a gift from God! But while the text underlines that our salvation is not from works, it also emphasizes works to be an intertwined component of God’s grace. Our works have not and will not save us but they are part of the plan God had in mind in bringing us from death to alive. Good works are not just accidental by-products as we go about our lives.These good works are so vitally important that God has preplanned and pre-prepared them for us to do. It’s not about us. It’s all about God and God’s wild grace!
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. -Numbers 21:4-9 (NRSV)
Lent is a season of waiting. Like the people of God following Moses through the wilderness, I grow impatient. The constant reminders that Jesus is going to die wear on me, perhaps similarly to the ways in which miles and miles of walking, dry ground, heavy heat and miserable food wore on the people following Moses. After they spoke against the Lord and suffered the bites of venomous snakes, God told Moses that his followers could look to a bronze snake raised on a pole in order to avoid death. One might think of this image of the snake on the pole as foreshadowing Jesus, raised up on the cross — perhaps hoisted there in a way that might be saving.
The figure of Jesus on a cross is one that often manages to stop me in my impatient tracks. While I’d like to hurry through Lent and skip to the glorious resurrection of Easter, there is something about Jesus’ death that needs to be felt and experienced. The people of God surely felt pain when they were snake-bitten. They could turn their eyes to a raised, bronze snake and be reminded that God is not absent in the face of pain. As God’s people today know the pain of divorce, abuse, addiction, poverty, racism, gender inequality, depression and damaged relationships, we may turn our eyes to the image of Jesus on the cross and be reminded that we are not alone in our pain, that God is not absent in the face of pain, and that Jesus himself suffered through very human pain.
The grace of God alone lifts Jesus above Mount Gethsemane. The grace of God alone lifts the bronze snake above the poisoned heads of the people of Israel. And it is the grace of God alone that can lift us out of our impatience and into the painful darkness of Lent, that paradoxical, holy, uncomfortable celebration of the incomprehensibility of God and the realness of God’s presence.
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 wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. – 1 Corinthians 1:18-15
Wisdom often does not correlate with financial or political success either. Newspapers are full of stories about wealthy and powerful people who were perceived to be wise, but turned out to be foolish. The core Christian belief that a crucified Christ is the Savior of the world seems like utter foolishness to many. But to us who believe, the “foolishness” of a crucified and risen Christ has the power to transform our sad and lost lives with amazing grace. Like an M.C. Escher drawing, where birds morph into fish before our eyes, Jesus the foolish stumbling block morphs into Jesus the Son of God, the window into the mind and heart of our Creator.
How much faith does it take to grasp this true wisdom of God? Just a mustard seed. Plant it in your heart and God will make it grow. Just a baby step. Put one foot forward into the darkness and God’s light will show the way.
This morning, I opened my Bible and began to read Psalm 22. I didn’t intend to but the pages fell open to this page and I don’t believe in coincidences so I read:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’
Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shrivelled;*
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion!
From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I* cried to him.From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live for ever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it. (NRSV)
Psalm 22 begins with the last words Jesus cried out on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We hear these as words of despair. But even in despair, the psalmist remembers what God has done and trusts in what will be done. Jesus knew this Psalm. He knew that the last verses contain the great promise of the Messianic age, the kingdom of God when we shall all praise, glorify and stand in awe of God. What Jesus cried out in his last breath would not then have been words of despair, but words of hope.
The promise is great. It is not only that God has rescued us from the trials of our days of waiting. The promise is of a new kingdom. The poor shall eat and be satisfied. We hear this again in the Gospel of John, where Jesus referred to himself as the bread of heaven. And it is the promise in Isaiah 55:1f. All the ends of the earth shall turn to the Lord. All dominion will be the Lord’s. We can praise God and know that God is enthroned in our praises.
This is our hope. Even as we recall the path that brought us here we have hope. We can even be grateful as we wait in faith.