Believing Crazy Stuff

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Acts 1:1-11, Eph 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53 (with a shoutout to Matthew 28:16-17)

St. Augustine of Hippo said, “If you believe what you like in the gospel and reject what you don’t like, it’s not the gospel you believe but yourself.”

When I hear Augustine’s words I can’t help but think of Jesus’ Ascension. The Ascension is the embarrassing event. The hard to believe event. The event most Christians would rather just avoid thinking about. Ask us about the incarnation and without blinking we say, “God did something amazing.” Ask of the resurrection and we think, “500 people at one time saw Jesus and people don’t have group hallucinations.” But bring up the Ascension…A group of guys standing around 40 days later watching Jesus’ feet disappear into heaven. Its’ …awkward, Ok.

A variety of scholars will tell you that the ancient world had numerous “ascensions.” Rome had Romulus and Augustus, The Greeks, Hercules. In the Bible, Genesis has Enoch whose story ends with “and God took him,” and in 2 Kings 2 Elijah disappears in a whirlwind. But, no matter how many reports may have been out there, the New Testament witnesses don’t seem any more comfortable with the Ascension than we are. They tell the story with as little elaboration as possible, and with more than a hint of confusion. In the description in Acts 1, two men in white appear and ask them, “why are you standing around looking into heaven in the middle of a workday?” It’s a wonder they didn’t respond, “Are you kidding? Our friend, who we watched them kill stone cold dead, has been hanging out with us for more than a month telling us he would ascend to the Father. And. He. Just. Did. So excuse us, if even though he told us what he was going to do, we just can’t stop looking.”

In the book of Acts we find out the disciples did what one would assume they would do when God does something beyond explanation: They worshipped. We Christians still worship on Ascension Day. The church in Jerusalem has gathered on this day on the Mount of Olives from at least the late 300s. A simple chapel with a hole in the roof sits over a rock tradition says is the place from which Jesus left. You can stand there and look up and see the sky.

Unlike many of the commemorative sites in the Holy Land, this one is thoroughly unimpressive. The impressive part is long gone…seated at the right hand of the Father. As Paul said in Ephesians: “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”

“How” Jesus did it is a mystery. What it must have looked like to the witnesses is as well. In the East they taught the faith with icons rather than stained glass. In iconography there is an artistic technique called a mandorla, the Italian word for almond. A mandorla is an almond, or round or starburst looking shape around Jesus that generally gets darker as you get closer to Him. It indicates a mystery beyond mere seeing. You see mandorla’s in the transfiguration, the resurrection, and the ascension. A mandorla is sort of a visual parenthesis that says, “What is happening, we saw it, but we don’t understand it…it’s a mystery.” They may have been witnesses, but they couldn’t really describe it – and painters can’t really paint it.

In the West we have all sorts of representations of the Ascension from ceramic feet disappearing through church ceilings, to Dali’s painting of the ascension that has Jesus disappearing into what looks like the atomic structure of the universe. Is it any wonder in Matthew 28:16 and 17 we read, “Now the eleven disciples went…to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted.”  If eyewitness were enough, you might have the inability to capture the image, but there wouldn’t be doubt.

Instead, the scripture points us towards mystery in our relationship with the risen Christ. We know Him and perceive Him, not through a set of coherent intellectual propositions, or even trust in the reliability of eyewitnesses. A “faith” founded on propositions alone, no matter how sound the argument, still fails to change the one who accepts it. That sort of faith is just opinion.

True faith is union with God, participation in the life of the risen Christ. We are not baptized into observations or opinions, we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the language of icons, our life is plunged into the mandorla that is the Kingdom of God. God calls his people into that parenthetical state where our lives constantly refer and point to a new reality, a reality which has filled us…a quality of life that transcending opinion, is nothing less than union with God, a union that itself witnesses to the coming Kingdom.

More than mere eyewitness observation…more than persuasive propositional truth…OUR walk with the resurrected and ascended Jesus Christ is what affirms the living truth of Christ. To quote St. Paul, you can be one with God because “God placed all things under His feet.” Because Jesus has ascended, “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.”  Because Jesus has ascended, “you may know…the hope to which he has called you.” Because Jesus is ascended, available is “his incomparably great power for us who believe. Because he is ascended, to you, his body, are the riches of his glorious inheritance.

If you believe what you like in the gospel and reject what you don’t, it’s not the gospel you believe but yourself. But if you dare believe the Gospel, if you cling, even to the “crazy stuff”…if you have faith, not as spectator or as “opinion” holder, but faith as participation with Jesus, as union with God, then you find, not only a confidence unavailable for those who trust in themselves, but that your life becomes the irrefutable evidence of “the  fullness of Him who fills all in all.

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The Greatest Comeback

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It might have been the biggest comeback in sports history: Tiger Woods, once golf’s greatest player, had not won a major tournament in 11 years. His emotional issues, self-destructive behavior, and substance abuse problems well-documented. Winning the Masters Tournament when off your game in life sounds far-fetched. But winning the green jacket for the 5thtime after barely being able to walk two years ago is simply unbelievable – The man has had four back surgeries, the last one a spinal fusion.

Yet, when the ball rolled into the cup on the 18th hole giving him the win, Tiger and everyone I could see on television, erupted in cheers. It was a moment of redemption. A man who for years appeared to have given up on himself, a man who has spent a decade as a has-been, all of a sudden playing the best golf of his storied career.[1]

But Tiger wasn’t the only comeback last week. All around the planet Christians celebrated the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. An event so momentous, that even when we attempt to purge the religious roots, everyone still knows we date time by it. An event so powerful, that it is the historic basis of the most-followed religion on earth.[2] An event so persuasive that many who have attempted to debunk it have become believers in it.[3] And regardless of the dismissive opinions expressed by Union Theological Seminary president Serene Jones last week, Jesus’ return was THE great comeback.[4] Unlike Tiger, who seemed to have given up on a comeback, Jesus actually predicted his.[5]

It is because of Jesus’ comeback you can have your Tiger moment. No matter what might have happened in your life; your pain, struggles, addictions or past, Tiger’s weekend is a reminder that comebacks are possible. That weekend points to the other, even greater comeback in which death itself been defeated and real life taken-up from the grave. Jesus offers that ultimate victory to you and to me.[6] Maybe this year is the year for your great comeback!

 

[1]Golf Digest says that Tiger is hitting the greens at a higher rate than at any time in his career. the-critical-stat-tiger-performing-at-a-career-best-level

[2]1 Cor. 15:17-19

[3]CS Lewis, Frank Morris and Lee Strobel to name a few.

[4]https://www.christianheadlines.com/contributors/michael-foust/seminary-president-admits-she-doesn-t-believe-in-heaven-miracles-or-christ-s-resurrection.html

[5]See: John 2:18-22, 10:17-18; Matthew 12:39-40, 16:4 & 21, 27:63; Mark 8:31, 14:58; Luke 9:22

[6]See John 1:12 and Revelation 3:20

Tabloids, Tombs, and Digitally Curated News

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I was in a grocery store checkout line on a late-night college food run. My eyes landed on a tabloid headline: “Resurrection True: Man Dead 50 Years Comes Back from Grave!

I knew better.

Still, that headline: “Resurrection True: Man Dead 50 Years Comes Back from Grave!

I reached.

And for the first and only time in my life, I opened a copy of the Weekly World News. 

Here was the story: Dec 11, 1941. As Singapore fell two young newlyweds are captured by the Japanese and interred in separate POW camps. Many died. After the war the woman looked for her beloved. High and low, near and far she searched, desperate to find the love of her life. Finally, after 44 years, she gave up and married another, a man who had been a friend for decades. …Three years later her doorbell rang. The woman opened door…and there stood her long-lost love.

The woman said, “It’s like he was dead for 50 years and came back from the grave.”

The ever outlandish Weekly World News buried the lead on an amazing story. 

Popular culture used to think the resurrection was “burying the lead” on Jesus the great moral teacher…that the disciples went to the wrong tomb…or stole the body…or, the most outlandish of the headline seeking theories, that Jesus’ body was eaten by dogs..

But that is old news…

Did you know that belief in Jesus’ resurrection is on the upswing? A recent survey reports American’s belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is up from 67 to 75 percent in just three years. More and more Americans believe in the resurrection.

…But according to the same sources, fewer and fewer Americans attend church, from 70% to 50% over the last 20 years.

Think about that for a moment: More and more people believe that a man brutally executed, blood drained from his corpse, epoxied into grave clothes and sealed in a tomb for three days, punted a two-ton stone off his own tomb and emerged into a Sunday morning sunrise, seen and interacted with by hundreds and hundreds of witnesses…and yet, less and less of those same people are showing up at that man’s house to find out what comes next!

More and more people think the tomb is empty…

but they don’t know why it matters!

I don’t want to be accused of burying the lead, so here is my point: The empty tomb offers the human race a fresh start.

1 Corinthians 15:20 says this, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

Firstfruits are the first portion of a harvest, the way a farmer knows if they are going to eat that year. If the firstfruits are tasty and abundant, the harvest is good; life secure. If the firstfruits are poor, you are looking at tough times. The firstfruits point to what is coming.

Jesus is your firstfruits. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, you are eternally on your own; but Jesus did rise from the dead. His resurrection is the firstfruits of your resurrection.

Listen to 1 Corinthians 15:21-23: “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” 

You and I are so valuable to God that Jesus Christ stomped out death itself to be able to bring you to His Father. You can live in confidence at the Father’s forgiveness purchased at the cross. At the empty tomb, God; vast and infinite. Mysterious. Awesome in power. Dwelling in unapproachable light…offered humanity a “do-over.” The Only Begotten One, full of grace and truth laid down his life for you on Good Friday. And He picked it up again to offer an identity as His own.

Where do you find your identity? Over the last 40 years of post-modernity, we have been taught the narrative that our identities are grounded in the individual. Here’s a question for the world: How’s that working for ya?

Even our skewed news…our digitally-curated, narcissism encouraging, only the news we “like” cellphone news…even that leaves us with the inescapable awareness of the inability of the individual to get it right.

Welcome to the post-modern hangover…where, we are told, if we are just true to our passions all will be well. If only it were so.

This is not what journalists call “puffery.” This is the “above the fold” stuff: God offers us is nothing less than a new identity, one in which we are more than the bundled sum of our drives and passions and political commitments.

In Christ we become a child of the King of Glory.

…Accepted by God;

…bought back from the pawnshop of sin;

…given a new outfit, the righteous robes of Christ;

…Offered the firstfruits of the only identity I know that allows one to go through life open-hearted and open-handed toward others…O, and did I mention that since Jesus Christ’s grave is empty, if you are in Christ, yours will be too!

Don’t bury the lead on your life: “Resurrection True”: Man (or woman) dead 2 yrs, or 10 or 50 comes back from the grave!” There is a man standing at your door knocking. He is the one you have been waiting for…your beloved. He has been seeking you, looking near and far for you. Jesus said it like this, “Behold I stand at the door and knock…

Jesus Christ walked out of His grave that you might walk out of yours.

What are you waiting for?

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No one likes to wait. Remember staring at presents under the Christmas tree? Or arriving famished at your favorite restaurant and the maître d’ tells you 90 minutes? Or standing in line forever at Disney’s Space Mountain to get to the sign that says, “Time from this point: 2 hours.”

The archetypal wait of my life was waiting for our daughter to be born. It took us a long time to conceive, so I was very excited about the pregnancy. I tummy talked from the very start. I could hardly wait for the arrival. But, as often happens with first children, our baby was late. Finally, the doctor said, “If nothing happens by day 10, we will induce.” We induced, and even then, Ellie still wouldn’t come. We walked the maternity floor’s hallways for hours. She took so long I actually got to deliver my daughter myself. Seriously.

With a onesy on my head I hovered over the doctor during the delivery like an umpire. I was so close he finally said, “Matt, two don’t fit down here. Either back up or get in here and deliver this baby yourself.” So I did.

After another push…our wait was over.

The season of Advent is all about waiting. Waiting and watching. We want to get to the end, but we have to wait, like waiting for a baby who refuses to come.

Perhaps you are doing some waiting in your life. Perhaps the waiting and watching are overcoming you. If that is you, consider the lyrics of a waiting pregnant woman’s song: In Luke 1:46-55 the virgin Mary sings a song known to history as, “The Magnificat.” Mary sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary too, in need of a savior, instructs us on waiting. From Mary we learn: How to wait, why to wait, and to whom should we look as we wait.

I. How to wait:  

In Mary’s wait, Magnifying the Lord and rejoicing in God made a difficult wait easier. Yes, an angel of the Lord had come to Mary and told a virgin she would bear a son, and yes, Mary acquiesced willingly. But doing things God’s way would have gotten complicated quickly: The glares from a distance, the clucking self-righteous with their rumors and innuendo, the shaming taunts, “An angel you say? We aren’t as naive as that fiancé of yours.”  No wonder Mary sought solace in another expectant mother, a relative conveniently located in another town. Yet, in her soul, Mary magnified the Lord. Mary teaches us to wait exercising the sacrifice of praise.

II. Why Wait? 

48 he has looked on the humble estate of his servant For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for meand holy is his name. 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. For Mary, God is thrice dependable: God sees Mary. God does “great things” for Mary. And the mercy of God is not just for Mary, but for all those who fear him.”

III. To whom should we look as we wait? 

Notice the completed tense verbs in v 51-53… 51 He has shown strength with his armscattered the proud, 52 …brought down the mighty…exalted those of humble estate; 53 …filled the hungrythe rich…sent away empty54 He has helped his servant Israel. Mary lists seven ways God is faithful. Seven, the number of God’s perfection. All are expressed as completed actions, even though they still have not come to pass. It is an airtight case laid out in song that God’s character is utterly dependable: “in remembrance of his mercy,55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

Waiting is hard. Waiting is lonely. And I have noticed, that when I look for my deliverance from the wrong sources, waiting is discouraging. It doesn’t take a NASA scientist to realize that our deliverance will not come through human progress, or politics, or the goodness of family and friends, not even through a great romance. Yet we continue to look for deliverance from sources that cannot deliver. The Lord is the only source who will not let us down. Magnify Him!

What are you waiting for? 

At a crosswalk when someone doesn’t know which way to go, they stop and clog traffic. Often, we wait because we don’t know which way is forward…in other words, we’re lost. Interestingly, the Bible says we are all lost. Some people think that the Bible says we are evil and need obliterating. But the Bible actually says we are lost and need to be found…that for most of us our problem isn’t badness, just lostness. What do lost people look like?

-Lost people pursue the world and what it offers.

-Lost people come to believe that the way to have a great life is to try to control it.

-Lost people think that somehow money or sex or power or pleasure can fill the deep ache inside.

-Lost people think there is another source of life besides the God who created us then joined us 2,000 years ago to redeem us when we wandered off and became lost.

Have you lost your way? In your relationships, your work, your calling, your parenting, your desires, your values – have you lost your way?

We all get lost. The ancient prophet Isaiah said it like this: “All we like sheep have gone astray.” Lost sheep need to be found. Only in “God our savior” can our spirit rejoice in a true and lasting way.

Mary tells us at the end of her song that God is great: The “mighty one.” But God is also good, “his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”

How merciful is God? So merciful that Jesus went to a cross to rescue lost folk just like us. In fact, later in Luke’s gospel Jesus says it straight out, “I came to seek and save the lost.”

Could Jesus be talking to you?

Waiting is frustrating. Waiting in the dark can be terrifying. Being stopped in the middle of a crowded intersection, being bypassed by a world that appears to know where it is going feels like hell. But the Good News is that God seeks and saves the lost. And, as Mary shows us, we can wait on God, because God always follows through on his promises, so much so that we can behold them as already accomplished when we behold them with eyes of faith.

What are you waiting for? 

In the eternal realms the beginning of all things being set right is at hand. Wait on God. The ultimate finder of the lost is worth the wait. Wait on God. The time for our delivery is at hand. Let him bring you new birth. Wait on God. When you do, you will find in your waiting, that the Lord will make your heart sing too.

Killing it: How overwork leads to underperformance

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Have you ever been really tired? As in, barely drag yourself out of bed, wonder how you’ll make it through the day, dog-tired?

Have you ever been discouraged, depressed, or anxious?

Are you any of those right now?

Jesus lets us in on a spiritual practice that research says increases work performance, reduces anxiety & depression, increases energy levels and happiness, and will even help you live longer.

What is this great catalyst for human thriving?

It is Sabbath. That’s right – a simple practice taken for granted for 3500 years.

We don’t sabbath much these days. We go, go, go. 24/7. We brag about the number of hours we work. If we do “take” a day (Did you notice we use the language of theft?) it is to shop, do home projects, plan the week, or acquiesce to the tyranny of Sunday children’s sports. That isn’sabbath! The Hebrew word for sabbath means “cease.” Sabbath is about ceasing – about rest!

Easier said than done

I had breakfast with a friend last week. As we left he asked if I was on my way to the office. I told him, “No, it’s my day off.” He asked what my plans were. I replied, “Writing a talk on sabbath taking.” I am so bad at taking a day off that I used my day off to write a sermon on taking a day off!

If you were born before 1965 you have, in the recesses of your memory, Sunday go to meetin’ clothes, dinner with cousins, sitting on the porch, naps, ball in the yard, reading with your family…and being bored because all the stores were closed. The sabbath was a day to “cease.”

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In Mark 2:23-3:6 Mark records Jesus being followed and grilled by religious leaders for improper sabbathing. Jesus was well-acquainted with the sabbath. Keeping sabbath is the fourth of the 10 commandments. The exhortation to “remember the sabbath” is repeated 150 times, more than the other 9 commandments combined. One example illustrates the sabbath’s place in the biblical narrative: When Moses is about to leave the mountain from God’s presence, tablets in hand, to take the commandments to the people (Exodus 31:12-18), God’s parting words are, “Above all, remember the sabbath.

What’s the big deal?

Sabbath is God’s primary mode of spiritual formation. It is the marinade of the spiritual life – a secret sauce that, when it soaks into us, flavors our lives. Which means that getting rid of the sabbath is a great way to insure spiritual blandness. Joseph Stalin actually tried this. The Soviet Union went to a 5-day week in 1930. It was a trick to get rid of religion by eliminating the sabbath.

What happened when folk worked hard and didn’t balance work with rest, community, and worship? Productivity plummeted. When the Nazi’s invaded Russia in 1940, the Soviets immediately went back to the 7-day week. All work and no play doesn’t just make Jack a dull boy, it makes Jack an unproductive one.

How does overwork lower productivity?

When we go 24/7 it raises the stress hormone, cortisol, that our bodies make for short term fight or flight. According to Psychology Today, elevated cortisols are public health enemy number one. When cortisol levels remain high it interferes with learning and memory, lowers immune function and bone density, and causes increases in weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. High cortisol is also linked to depression, anxiety, diabetes, and heart disease. In other words, skipping the sabbath is bad for both your physical and emotional health.

In 2005 National Geographic did a cover story on the five places on the planet with an abundance of people living past 100 years of age. One is in the U.S. – Loma Linda, California. Loma Linda is unique for a high percentage of Seventh Day Adventists, a group whose defining characteristic is…wait for it…keeping the sabbath. Keeping the sabbath is associated with lengthened life expectancy.

Over our lifetime, a regular sabbath adds up to a decade with God. Imagine, where would you be if you took a decade away from your education? Working through the sabbath means we will end our lives a decade less wise than our forbearers.

Let’s summarize: Skipping the sabbath lowers work performance, is harmful to our physical and emotional health, shortens our life expectancy, and exacts a high price on the truest, deepest part of us – our spiritual life. Conclusion: We really ought to sabbath.

How does one sabbath?

Keeping the sabbath is as simple as trading 24/7 for 24/6. Whatever is “work” for you, “cease” it one day a week.

Sabbath suggestions

  • Stay off the phone. Email, text and Facebook can wait.
  • Do something fun.
  • Keep a gratitude journal.
  • Do less. Scratch activities from Sundays to create margin-like those kid’s sports leagues.
  • Be with family and friends.
  • Worship God.

In Mark 2:23 the religious leaders hassled Jesus about the disciples noshing on grain as they walked through a farm field. We think of that as petty theft. Snacking wasn’t stealing, though, it was expressly permitted by the law…unless they pocketed food (Deuteronomy 23:23-24). By Jesus’ day, however, the importance of the sabbath had led religious leaders to make a bunch of strange rules to prevent work. One such rule was against walking more than 2/3 of a mile on the sabbath. 2/3 a mile broke their arbitrary “work” threshold. To get around the rules folk would build tiny little 1’x1’ houses 2/3 a mile from home, then they could walk twice as far.

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The religious leaders were hassling Jesus because picking grain was “work.” Notice that they wanted the disciples to violate the 8th commandment against stealing in order to keep a made-up rule to avoid work. Jesus gently corrected their made-up rule with scripture, then irritated them by calling himself the “Lord of the sabbath.” Then Jesus walks right into a synagogue and demonstrates his lordship over that sabbath by healing a guy. Jesus wasn’t disrespecting the sabbath, he was placing it into perspective. “The sabbath is made for you!”

How is the sabbath for you? 

The sabbath isn’t just a mechanism of rest, it is a tool of identity. We were created in God’s image and given vocations. God shares his dazzling vision for the future in order to use you and me to bring it about. That vision soaks into us as we participate in the weekly rhythm of sabbath. So, take that day each week. Rest. Worship. Study. See if you don’t begin to view you, your work, and God’s world through new eyes.

The original American dream of the freedom to pursue happiness has been written down like a bad debt. Our culture’s new mantra is that we work to live: get as much money possible, as fast as possible, with the least effort possible, in order to get off work to go do something else.

Frankly, it’s a lame way to live.

We were, all of us, whether artist or barista, therapist or teacher, oil exec or equity guy, spiritual beings. We were made for God’s presence to seep into, to awaken us to the God-saturated world where you can work and rest and play as designed, both for your benefit and to the honor of the One who speaks his purpose over and into you.

That is why Jesus sabbathed, by the way; to keep his connection with his Father deep, strong, alive. Sabbath empowered Jesus’ work. “Sabbath was made for man,” not for you to be fresh for an 0500 Monday wake-up, but to connect us to the one true source of life, God himself. Our NEED for rest is a constant reminder of our NEED for a Savior. Without Christ, we will work without purpose, without wholeness, and without a break.

In Jesus, God welcomes us to rest, marinating us in the wise, joyful presence of our heavenly Father. God made us with spiritual ears to hear His still small voice whispering to our hearts. But we only hear that voice when we pause to listen…when we sabbath.

So go ahead, keep killing it at work. But kill it 24/6.

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Narrative and Metanarrative: John 3:16, your story, and your place in the cosmos

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We experience life as story.

This seems hardwired; the way we assemble our discrete experiences as plot devices in a coherent narrative. And we continue to do this even when our stories ultimately leave us wondering, “Is this all there is to life?”

And it isn’t just story on a micro level, we look for story on the macro as well: interpreting the world through metanarratives; grand, overarching, shared stories. Our current metanarrative is postmodernism. Philosopher Jean-François Lyotard described postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Our previous shared story was modernity – the belief in human progress. Lyotard pointed out that the shared belief in human progress failed. We did not “make the world safe for democracy.” Dr. King’s, “arc of the universe” did not bend towards justice.” Progress did not solve the world’s problems. We may have “boldly gone where no man has gone before,” but we have a sense we were going the wrong way. Modernism just didn’t pan out. In response, postmodernism posits the death of the metanarrative.

And yet…we cannot stop seeking meaning personally, and we cannot stop seeking context to our place and role in this massive world. Whether it works or not, we continue to instinctively assemble narratives for ourselves and search for metanarrative to explain our place in the cosmos. We are convinced we are both part of something larger and also, paradoxically, free to write our own story…even in light of the evidence that neither is working.

John 3, Nicodemus, and the Narrative and Metanarrative of God

In the third chapter of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus did the same thing. Nicodemus came to Jesus attempting to figure out how Jesus fit in his culture’s metanarrative and to understand Jesus’ place in his personal story. Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem for the religious festival. Perhaps they were camped in their favorite olive garden enjoying the spring breezes along the ridges of the Kidron valley. Nicodemus, a respected teacher with a lot to lose if he were found to be talking to a rabbi disrupting the status quo worldview, came at night.

Nicodemus greeted Jesus with pleasantries: “Teacher, we know anyone doing the things you do must be from God.” Jesus swept the compliments aside. Sympathetic interest was a waste; “A new birth is what you need.” Nicodemus approached Jesus as a teacher. Jesus teaches: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The expression has two meanings. Born “from above” and “again.” Both are implied. Jesus is offering Nicodemus’ a new master narrative – the Kingdom of God. Assume for a moment this metanarrative actually does come from the creator and redeemer of the cosmos. If that is true, by definition, it is different from every other worldview in its’ objective truth. And like hunger points to the existence of food, our human desire to understand the big picture points to a true metanarrative. (Have you ever wondered about how unhelpful it is on an evolutionary level for humans to sit around contemplating our place in the universe while saber tooth tigers awoke from hibernation looking for lunch?)

But although our hearts point us to a true metanarrative, Jesus says that neither Nicodemus, nor you and I, are free to find the metanarrative of the Kingdom on our own. It comes from above. We cannot accomplish it ourselves. In fact, Jesus says (John 3:3) we can’t even “see” it on our own.

Nicodemus, cannot make heads or tails of this. (John 3:4) “Can you return to your mother’s womb?” 

Now that Jesus has broached the topic of seeing new birth, he pushes past seeing, (John 3:5) “I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is not meant to be viewed from a safe distance. It is to be entered personally. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” One can imagine the evening wind rustling the olive branches. “Spirit” in both original biblical languages, suggests breath or wind. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Jesus said. Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, commenting on this passage, said, “Don’t wait until you know the source of the wind before you let it refresh you. Or wait until you know its destination before you spread sail to it…Trust yourself to it.”

Jesus places his coming in the context of the scriptural metanarrative (3:13-14). He refers to the last of the prophets, Daniel, with his vision of the messiah as the “Son of Man,” then connects his story even further back, to God’s ancient Law. In Numbers 21 Israel was in the wilderness, grumbling and snake-bit. The children of Israel were told to look upon a bronze serpent lifted up to live. Jesus, who elsewhere said the entire Old Testament referred to him, gives this as a small taste, “so must the son of man be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” With a single reference Jesus points both backwards and forwards in history by equating this with his impending passion.

Now comes the central declaration of the Christian faith: John 3:16. The heart of God’s metanarrative, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” “God is love” is a precious truth, but God being loving necessitates no divine participation. “God so loved that he gave,” declares God is active, invested…getting his hand’s dirty for his creation.

And what object is sufficiently large for God’s self-giving love? Christianity is more than another world religions offering individual salvation. Oh, it contains that, but Jesus tells us, God’s scope is much more expansive. God’s object is the world itself. God himself redeemed the entire cosmos as Jesus was lifted up. The salvation offered by Jesus Christ has a vast, grand sweep. John 3:16 tells us that God’s love is:

  • Active: “God so loved…he gave.”
  • Personal: “his only begotten son”
  • Available: to “whoever believes”
  • Specific: Centered “in him
  • Purposeful: giving “eternal life.

In Jesus Christ, we see and enter God’s grand Kingdom metanarrative. We discover our narrative as well – that our purpose is bound up in God’s purposes.

St. Augustine wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord; And our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee.”

The stories we believe matter.

Only one metanarrative explains human history. Only one fulfills scriptural prophecy. Only one makes sense of our universal experience of destiny. It is the story of God; who, in Jesus Christ, is activepersonalavailable… specific…and gives purpose to our lives.

What Jesus was effectively saying to Nicodemus is this: “What you think about me is only as helpful as it is accurate. You think I’m from God. That’s nice – but nice won’t get you new birth. Release yourself to the moving of God’s Spirit. Allow yourself to be refreshed by, to spread your sail to, God’s Spirit. Allow yourself reborn by the explainer of history, the fulfiller of prophecy, and the one who makes sense of our stories. Don’t entrust your life to narratives that don’t satisfy. Don’t surrender your life to a metanarrative that will end up on the dustbin of history…

God has told us his overarching story. He designed you and I for a place in that story as we are born from above and anew. He can do this because of who He is and what he has done, defeating death on Calvary. More than “a teacher sent from God”, Jesus is God himself, offering a new birth from above to all who believe, rewriting our stories in his, and allowing us to see, and enter the grand story of eternity.

 

Easter: The Story that Shapes all Stories

 

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Holy Week for Newbies

A few years back an international student from China named Peter spent his senior year of high school living with us. Growing up in an atheist country, Peter had no spiritual upbringing except to think that religion was something for silly people. After about six months of living with us (and attending church out of respect), we took a road trip to California. Peter was staring at the passing desert when he turned and blurted, “I think every hero movie is really just a metaphor for Jesus!”

I thought about Peter’s insight and realized that whether we are talking Lord of the Rings, Raiders, or Narnia; MIB, or the Matrix, an end of the world series streaming on Netflix or every Western ever, our epics are all variations on a theme. You can hear the deep voiced announcer on the trailer, “Dark forces hold the world in its’ grip. One man can deliver us. One solitary, misunderstood man.” And, just when all seems lost, a miraculous turn of events in the climactic showdown carries the day…and all is saved. And while this may have happened long, long ago, it was certainly not in a galaxy far, far away. The epics that captivate our imaginations all channel the same day: The day when God’s deliverer overcame the marshaled forces of evil, defeated the dark overlord, kicked down the gates of a prison called hell, and set a captive cosmos free.

Like a great movie, the timeline of the narrative can get complex …Time melds together: The victory may have been won, long, long ago, but it is a victory that transcends time, culture, and distance. It is a victory that is here. Now. Today.

But how does the resurrection of Jesus save us? Jesus making things right is called “atonement,” literally, “at-one-ment.” All Christians believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection saves humanity by making us “at one” with God. But how those actions save has been the subject of centuries of study and contemplation. It is a complicated thing for an infinite God to communicate an infinite rescue to finite humans. To do that takes analogy. And finite analogies, by definition, all fall short somewhere.

I live in Texas these days. Texans, as good Bible-belters, generally see the cross and empty tomb in terms of the substitution analogy. You know this analogy: God sends his son to take our punishment to satisfy the legal debt of sin to God. Please don’t misunderstand, I am not saying that’s wrong. I am simply saying that it is an analogy, and like all analogies, incomplete. The analogy of Jesus’ death satisfying a debt was first explored by Anselm in the 11th century, and developed in the Reformation. It is biblical, occurring most clearly in Paul, Hebrews, and places like 1 John 2:2, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” This analogy works for us; Jesus satisfying the law resonates with people under the rule of law. And with today’s student loan balances, I suspect the idea of debt forgiveness isn’t going away anytime soon either.

But a penalty paid for laws broken is not the only way to understand the atonement. The analogy with a profound place in the early church was the Passover (from Exodus 12). You hear echoes of this in the ancient Communion prayers when they quote 1 Corinthians 5:7, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” You see this in the Eucharistic prayer of St. Basil from the 4th century, “He is the true paschal lamb…” (“pascha” being Greek for Passover).

It is interesting that the Jewish calendar had a day dedicated to forgiving sins through sacrifice, the Day of Atonement. One might expect that Jesus would have chosen The Day of Atonement to lay down his life…but he didn’t. God set Jesus’ redeeming work in motion at the Passover.  The Passover.

Same lamb. Different purpose.

Both Jewish feasts involve sacrifice. On the Day of Atonement, the lamb’s death substituted for the sinner’s death. In Passover, a lamb also dies, but the lamb’s blood isn’t applied to the doorposts to cover sin, but rather to mark relationship. The blood notified the death angel to “pass over” as that family belonged to God. The Passover sacrifice had another ritual attached: The children of Israel ate the Passover lamb, a meal of belonging and communion. Then God used Moses to deliver His people from bondage and slavery through the Red Sea, from death to life.

The problem being solved at Passover was not of a lawless people, but a captive one. How Israel came to be in bondage was not addressed. God says to the captors, “Let my people go.” 

The New Testament describes Jesus as the New Moses who delivers God’s people. The people of God, are in bondage to sin and death, so Jesus intervenes. He forgives our sins and sets humanity free. At the last supper, Jesus becomes our New (wait for it) Passover meal, our meal of belonging and communion.

Unlike the Day of Atonement, the imagery in Passover is not legal. Sin is more than a legal infraction demanding God’s justice. Sin is primarily a heart condition: a life lived out of communion with God, the giver of life. We are not sinners because we do sinful stuff, we do sinful stuff because we seek life apart from God. Life apart from the source of life is death (Rom. 6:23 “the wages of sin”). Sin is deeper than a legal consequence (like getting a ticket for going too fast); sin is a natural consequence (like skidding off the road for going too fast).

In the Passover analogy…

God’s Son enters death, not to do our time, but to destroy our jail!

Jesus entered death itself to rescue us. In the resurrection, Christ defeats death, the last bondage. In the New Passover, God Himself becomes our sacrifice. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is not only called the lamb of God, but to make his point, John actually moves the date of the Last Supper so that Jesus is killed on Passover…literally becoming our Passover lamb, slain for God to proclaim, “Mine” over you and me.

So when Jesus burst from the tomb, leaving an angel to tell the women “go find the disciples and Peter,” (Mark 16:7) the message may have been mystifying, but it was unmistakable: Death is destroyed. The evil forces defeated.

Because of the resurrection, we can live in God’s presence as designed. We can assume the vocations we were created for in the garden; image bearers of the creator, Gospel proclaimers, kings and priests, representing God to the creation, and representing the creation to God. All of this makes Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments,” a great movie for Easter, because the Passover helps us understand what all our hero movies point to: the amazing news of Easter.

Peter understood that our great stories are but variations on a theme – riffs on the one great story, the life-changing story of stories. And you and I are not only invited to the premier, we hold complementary tickets for our family, friends and colleagues.

Living as stewards of the story

How do we live as the freed captives God declares us to be? (And as those with pockets full of tickets?)

 

First, Love God. Love God by rediscovering worship. Real worship. In worship we represent the creation to God.

Second, Love people: Love them by serving them. In service we represent God to the creation.

Prisoner, the hero has done his part. You have been released. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just a proof of concept, or the trump card in the argument for God. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a proclamation: We are delivered from the evil forces. The gates are open. The chains released. That is why when we hear, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” We cannot help but reply, “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

Chrystostom’s Paschal Sermon

Gangsta Easter