History’s First Courtroom Drama: Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

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“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”

Lawyers have gotten a bad rap ever since wisecracking bad guy Dick the Butcher uttered his famous line in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Most of us must admit, however, that we appreciate a good courtroom saga. Did you know the Gospel of John might be histories’ first legal drama?

Writing five or so decades after Jesus, John sought to answer an obvious question: Why should folk place their faith in a religious leader who made astounding self-claims, was executed as an enemy of the state, and whose followers, (with claims Jesus rose from the grave) seemed unhinged? John provides Jesus a gripping defense:

The Prosecution

Jesus had been nabbed by Jewish religious authorities and tried at night for blasphemy (John 10:33). He was then turned over to the governor of the occupying Romans and killed on a different charge (John 18:29-31), insurrection, a charge that allowed the Romans to keep the peace by eliminating Jesus.

The Accused Pleas? Guilty.

John’s Gospel opens with “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God…and the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory of the only begotten of the father full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,14). John opens his book by equating Jesus with God at the creation of the universe. That is a pretty tall claim. In fact, it is such a stunning claim John can’t really have been serious. Surely, we must have misheard him.

Just to make sure we are picking up what Jesus is laying down, John tells us that Jesus made a habit of equating himself with deity by referring to himself using God’s covenant check-signing name, a name given when God told Moses, “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14). And this isn’t a one-off. Jesus repeats it at least seven times:

  • I am the bread of life. (6:35)
  • I am the light of the world. (8:12)
  • I am the gate for the sheep. (10:7)
  • I am the good shepherd. (10:11)
  • I am the resurrection and the life. (11:25)
  • I am the way and the truth and the life. (14:6)
  • I am the true vine. (15:1)

For Jews, monotheistic then and now, were so serious about the holiness of God they substitute the generic “God” for “Yahweh” even to this day. Jesus’ “I am” statements were an unmistakable gauntlet thrown. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day, playing their own version of C.S. Lewis’ classic, “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” argument, vacillated between questioning Jesus’ sanity (“He has a demon, and is insane…” 10:19), and trying to kill him for blasphemous lies (10:33) before they finally grabbed him in a garden and had him executed.

The Defense 

But what of Jesus’ astounding self-claims? John never tries to shrink from the statements or lesson their blow. Instead he seeks to prove Jesus’ claim of divinity with 7 miraculous signs recorded in escalating levels of difficulty:

  • Changing water into wine (2:1-11) – “the first of the signs.”
  • Healing an official’s sick son remotely (4:46-54)
  • Healing a paralyzed man (5:1-15)
  • Feeding 5000 (6:5-14)
  • Walking on water (6:16-24)
  • Healing a man blind from birth (9:1-7)
  • Raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-45)

Jesus makes 7 Claims to be God. John provides 7 Signs to support Jesus’ claim.

The Witness List: A legal showdown occurs in John chapter 5. Again attacked for his claims to be God in human form (5:18), Jesus lays out his witness list to corroborate his identity: Jesus himself (5:31), John the Baptist (5:33), Jesus’ miracles (5:36), God the Father (5:37), and the Old Testament scriptures (5:39). Jesus calls two more witnesses in later chapters: the Holy Spirit (15:26), and his followers (15:27), giving us a witness list numbering…wait for it…seven.

An airtight Case

 Seven is the number of divine completeness: Seven claims to deity. Seven miracles to support his claim. Seven witnesses. Jesus’ case is perfect. John is arguing that the case for the deity of Jesus is airtight.

A Star Witness

3/4 of the times the verb “witness” (the Greek martureo) occurs in the NT it occurs in the Gospel of John (28 of 39 occurrences). In all its’ forms (witness, witnessing, bearing witness), the word “witness” occurs 90 times in the New Testament. Half of them are in John. This legal emphasis in the Gospel of John gives us different perspectives on biblical characters from the other Gospels. Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, is a good example. In the other Gospels John appears as a preacher of repentance and baptizer of multitudes. In John he is witness for the defense. John 1:6-8 introduces John saying, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.He came as a witness, tobear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”  In the Gospel of John, baptizing is mentioned, but barely. His important role is witness. And not any witness, but a key witness, a star character witness. Appearing more frequently in the Gospel of John than in the other Gospels, John the Baptizer shows up in four places in John (ch. 1, 3, 5, 10), each time specifically labelled a “witness.”

Jesus’ well-born cousin makes a particularly credible witness. A big-city kid from an influential priestly family. While Jesus preached to the ordinary, his cousin garnered audiences with the king. And what does this highly regarded witness say? Look at the first chapter of John:

v20 “I’m not the Messiah.” v21 “I’m not Elijah.” And “I’m not Moses.”

v22 Exasperated the religious leaders ask, “Enough of who you aren’t. Who the heck are you?” John answers with scripture, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘get ready for God!’”

In v26 the religious leaders follow up, “Why then are you baptizing?”  John goes from talking about who he is not, to talking about the one who is, “I am”: “Someone so great, so glorious, is coming that I hesitate even to be his foot-washing servant.”

In v. 29 and 30, John literally points to Jesus: “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is the one I was talking about.”  John the Baptist provides our case with unambiguous testimony.

Will the real John the Baptist please stand up?

John the Baptist has a very different emphasis in John’s Gospel. He is not the bug-eater in a hair-suit. Nor the man of influence speaking truth to power. Nor the powerful preacher waist deep in the waters of baptism immersing an adoring public. Nor the prophet whose end gave us the expression, “getting your head served on a platter.” This John is a simple witness.

-Not the light, but bearing witness to the one who enlightens the world.

-Not the promised deliverer, but crying out to the one who is.

-Not the lamb of God, sacrificed for the world, but pointing to one who would be.

John’s job might have been preaching and baptizing. But John’s vocation was witness. “Vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare, “Call.” John’s paying gig was one thing, his call was to witness. That makes John a great model for Advent. While the world follows Santa to the mall and bows at the altar of Amazon Prime, the church follows Advent: a time of preparation, of listening, of remembering that what we need isn’t socks or a sweater, but a savior.

We may have a lot of different jobs: Lawyer or landman, teacher or tradespeople, parent or pediatric nurse, student or stockbroker. But followers of Jesus have a higher calling: Witness. We are sent to testify, as John writes in another place, to “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have touched with our hands.”

You Have Been Summoned to Appear

Regardless our business, our true calling is to witness to God’s visitation and redemption of the world in Jesus. In our various roles we are but witnesses, cleverly disguised as lawyers and nurses, stockbrokers and students. We have a high and holy calling: “And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.” (15:27)

John bore witness not to his own gifts and abilities, but God’s. He cried out not of his own power, but God’s. He pointed not to himself, but to the Lamb of God already among them.

That is our call, friends: To bear witness, to cry out, to point others to the savior. We are the final witness Jesus spoke of in John, the ones who believe without seeing (John 20:29). Our task is to continue to bear witness, “thatJesus is the Christ, and that by believing you might have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

Like John in his fractured time, we too live in fractured days – days desperate for the hope of God…desperate for a witness to the light, a cry of hope, to be pointed to Jesus.

Can I get a witness?

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Did Jesus just say, “Be nice or go to hell”?

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A leader’s final address always warrants a close listen. The Sheep and Goats judgment in Matthew 25:31-46 is just that: The final section of the final sermon in the five sermons Matthew organized his Gospel around.

A laundry list of subjects to avoid at dinner parties

The sheep and the goats is a difficult passage: Heaven and hell and judgment and the poor and imprisoned…a virtual laundry list of topics to avoid in polite circles. When reading this passage religious conservatives tend to take Jesus’ words concerning the afterlife literally and his words concerning the treatment of our fellows figuratively (and often with some sheepish embarrassment and a desire to explain their earthy literalness away), while progressives tend read it seeing Jesus’ words about our fellows literally, glossing over the words about the afterlife with a grain of (embarrassed) salt. The principles of literary interpretation would indicate that the passage is either figurative or literal. In this passage, Jesus, usually the master of parable and simile, uses none of his usual indicators for figurative language, leaving all equally unsettled by his unswerving literalness.[2]

Jesus is sitting on the mount of Olives. The twelve are with him.[1] It is Wednesday, two days before he would be crucified. Jesus shocks them with a description of the way things will play out. Let’s look at the passage:

31 When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Jesus will be leading angels. His glory” and “his glorious throne” a repetitive emphasis of Jesus’ deity – God alone sits on the heavenly throne.

32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

The question everyone wants answered: Who are sheep and who are goats? There are two theories: A theological view, proposed by those wanting to avoid a conclusion that Jesus is teaching salvation by good works…a conclusion the arc of Matthew’s Gospel and the rest of the New Testament would argue against.[3] In this view the sheep are Christians and goats are non-Christians, and judgment is based on how non-Christian goats treat Christian sheep. The other theory is the grammatical view – that the difference between sheep and goats is, as the text says, the way “the nations” treat “the least of these.” I can give a plethora of reasons for the grammatical view, including it making little sense that Jesus, on the heels of a series of parables about disciples remaining alert in their faith, would abruptly introduce a new subject in a way he hasn’t done in any of his four previous sermons in Matthew, and besides, the normal grammatical reading leaves us without the necessity of textual gymnastics. Let’s look at the passage, letting the text speak for itself…

33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Notice the passive voice: “have been blessed by my father,” and “inherit the kingdom prepared for you.” Grace is always a gift, always received. But what have the recipients of God’s grace been up to? Jesus tells us:

35 …I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  Notice what the sheep give: Food & drink. Hospitality & clothing. Visitation & friendship. First, basic needs. Second, shelter and clothing. Finally, existential needs: time and attention. Abraham Maslow wasn’t the first to notice a hierarchy of needs.  “Sheep,” Jesus points out, “open hearts and hands.” When we open heart and hand to those around us, we open our hearts and hands to Jesus. Or as Henrietta Mears said, “Every person we meet is dying for a drop of love.”[4]

Stunned by the personal pronouns… 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’  40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Jesus describes all humanity standing before Him, the risen Lord in glory, the leader of the angelic host, a savior who sees all and knows all. 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. In Ephesians and Colossians Paul tells us the final judgement will bring a blessed reunion. Jesus tells us, that for some, it will also be a time of awful separation.

42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And the final shocking sentence: 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

A few observations

-Jesus’ first and last sermons tie together. The Sermon on the Mount began with “Blessed are you when you…” The Sermon on the Mount of Olives ends with, “receive now your blessings!

-Judgment is Jesus’ job. Some we think are sheep, apparently are not. Some who appear to be goats, apparently are not. It is not given to us to figure that out. Anyway, other’s status is usually a red herring for our true question.

-Our true question is, “What about me?” What is my responsibility? Answer: To love. Tertullian said, “Have you seen a brother, you’ve seen your Lord.”[5] Do you want to find God? The Lord most high is found in our lowest fellow.

Matthew’s Gospel was written to encourage his Jewish brethren to faith in Jesus. This is not saved by works,but ratherhow faith works.” The formula of scripture is not works lead to grace but grace leads to works.[6] The obvious fruit of receiving grace is to become gracious!

-Our culture’s idea “God accepts everyone as they are” sounds nice, it is just not supported by scripture. God is a holy lover. Jesus welcomes us allAnd bids us all be changed. The difficult truth is that “Depart from me” is part of Jesus’ vocabulary that he says some will hear. As Dale Brunner said, “The Gospel has a two-edged nature: it brings salvation to the repentant and damnation to the obstinate.”

-How does judgement work?[7] I once watched a Palestinian shepherd call his animals out of a pen in the West Bank. He had sheep and goats. As they left the corral they separated themselves. Although mixed in the pen, when the shepherd called them out to take them to pasture, the sheep and the goats naturally separated toward their own, right and left. The shepherd didn’t say, “Sheep, over here. You goat get over there.” They self-selected. I think the disciples would have known that. We will appear before the shepherd/king, and at his glorious presence self-select for eternity based on who we have become. You and I are becoming now, today, who we will be for eternity.

– It is trendy to say, “I can’t believe in a God who would force people into an eternity apart from God.” That does sound like a bad sort of a God. There is only one alternative, one that is infinitely worse: A God who does not trust us to make our own decisions and would coerce folk to spend all eternity with him against their will. Such is the nature of God: His holy love, deep and wide enough to make a path for you and I through his son, yet never coerce us to walk it.

Martin Luther wrote, “O dear Lord God, how are we so blind that we do not take such love to heart! How could we have thought it up that God himself throws himself so deep down into our midst and accepts the works of all those who give themselves to the poor as though they had been done to him. Thus, the world is full of God – in every lane you meet Christ. You find him at your door.”[8]

So did Jesus just say, “Be nice or go to hell? Nope. More, “Become like me now and enjoy me forever.”

 

[1] Matt 24:3

[2] There is no parable language. See Matt 25:1, 14 for examples.

[3] Held by Augustine and many Reformed theologians

[4] Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28. (Michigan: Eerdman’s Publishing, 2004) p. 571

[5]Tertullian, Writings Vol. III, Ch 26, Of the Parting of Brethren

[6]Eph 2:8-10, Titus 3:4-7

[7] V. 32 “…as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

[8] Luther, Sermons from the year 1526

Why the fuss over a missing body?

 

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Were you one of the myriads who avoid Facebook at Easter? Has the wonder at all of the different ways to meme “He is risen indeed” worn off? Do you wonder why all the fuss for a missing body anyway?

Maybe you grew up in a family that didn’t attend church. Or perhaps you grew up in a suburban evangelical church that seemed more about maintaining a cultural status quo and giving the faithful “hot topics,” than forming a robust and thoughtful faith. Growing up non-religious I didn’t know what to make of Easter either.

I heard the astounding claim that Jesus Christ came back from the dead. I assumed they meant the “not quite dead, not quite alive,” “came back” of movie zombies. Or perhaps a new-age, “his spirit is always with us.” Or maybe even a motivational, “he was knocked out but he pulled himself off the mat” to Rocky theme music. But no, they meant an actually dead person, a person who had been professionally executed and the blood drained from his lifeless corpse, was not only walking around but convinced a significant group of people to follow him around Palestine for 50 days after the government had signed off on the execution’s success and entombed and guarded him.

When I first heard this I thought, “Ridiculous! How can even Christians believe such a tale?”

Well, it turns out it is hard to stop people from believing, even in shocking things, when they have seen them for themselves. The eyewitnesses to Jesus resurrection couldn’t stop talking about seeing Jesus after his death, even when it got them killed. Eleven of twelve disciples would die for failing to say 3 simple words: “It. Never. Happened.” Even before folk could really tell you what Jesus’ resurrection meant they knew it was earth shattering; That it put what Jesus had done in an altogether different category from anything that had happened on the planet before or since.

People that were seen to be killed but are walking around and claiming that they laid down their life and, as God in the flesh, are free to pick it up (John 10:17-18), well, that creates a spectacle. The question is, what does the spectacle mean? The early followers of Jesus, upon reflection, realized the empty tomb meant three things:

First, it plausibly explained our human condition. Second, it was a concrete event that withstands scrutiny. Third, it tangibly improves the lives of its followers.

First, our human condition: Unlike modernity’s belief in the goodness of humanity, the Christian faith acknowledges a further complexity – that we are enslaved, by an underlying driver of our behavior: sin and death. Sin and death chase us. It is why we fear death and are uncomfortable around the dying…why we deny our own mortality and try to hide the effects of aging. And sin and death rear their ugly heads in every relationship we have, individually, interpersonally, and internationally. Well-meaning broken people breaking people as we stumble toward the grave. The Christian faith explains our human experience.

Second, the empty tomb said that Jesus entered into sin and death and defeated them, and that because he did, we will someday be as he is: never to taste death again. All of this is based in the idea that one God/Man defeated death, indicated by the empty tomb. Paul wrote the entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 15 about this. Unlike other faith systems, the Christian faith is based on an act in history, the resurrection. The empty tomb not only endures scrutiny, it invites it. In Matthew 28:6 the angel says to the women, “come, see the place where he lay.” Either Jesus exited a tomb and death is defeated. Or he did not and it is not. But give it a close look, because the empty tomb stands up to rigorous scrutiny.

And finally, Jesus Christ materially improves the lives of his followers. In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway wrote, “the world breaks everyone…and those that will not break it kills.” Sin and death oppose us. They are trying to break us, and they are trying to kill us. Jesus breaking out of the tomb means, as Paul said, “that when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Jesus Christ delivers life. Now and for all eternity. (Col. 3:3-4) That life changes you. If you doubt it, ask anyone I went to high school with.

The empty tomb and missing body are a big deal because they explain our experience, withstand our scrutiny, and deliver us life. 

I  do realize that, even if you can accept the three historic conclusions of the 2.2 billion Christians, we are a product of our culture, and Americans have trouble with religious claims to uniqueness. Since the 1960s we have heard another unhelpfully optimistic assertion that all religions are essentially the same. This is bizarre on its face if you think about it for more than a minute. Even atheists like Harvard religion professor, Stephen Prothero think so. In his book “God is not One,” Prothero points “many Buddhists believe in no God, and many Hindus believe in thousands of them. And those gods are of completely different character as well: Is God a warrior or a mild-mannered wanderer?” Not only that, the view of the struggle of life and the vision of what being fully alive in the various religions looks completely different too. We like to pretend that religions are benignly alike. But they aren’t. And you can’t just get rid of religion either. Religion is sociologically persistent. Humans are hardwired to religion and worship. The trick…is to make sure we worship the right object.

The empty tomb and the missing body are a big deal specifically because they answer the question of the object of our worship. They explain our struggle, give a solid basis that can be scrutinized, and materially change the lives of those who walk with the risen one. Which is why your Christian friends can’t help but post about it on social media.

Good Friday: The axis of the cosmos

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You may have wondered why an execution is known as, “Good” Friday.

Here is the spoiler: Jesus went to the cross to be able to say three words: “It. Is. Finished.”

The early church believed Jesus was crucified on March 25th. Further, they believed that, since re-creation happened on March 25th, the first day of creation must have happened that day as well.

The early Christian’s view of time was much loftier than the later idea that time revolves around, Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord.” The original idea of Jesus’ followers was that the cross of Christ is the Axis Mundi, a timeless, still center to the universe around which the entire cosmos rotates. It wasn’t that the earth was the center of the universe. It was that the cross is.

I was a Young Life leader for 25 years. Young Life focusses on explaining Jesus to the high school kids who don’t go to church. Every semester YL leaders do a talk on the crucifixion. One Monday night 140 high school kids were shoehorned into my friend Rawleigh Grove’s living room, as I gave the “cross talk.” Regardless of what you have heard of high school kids interest in the things of God, I can tell you that all over the globe hundreds of thousands of high school kids are hanging on every word of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. After the message kids sat in stunned silence. Except for one kid, a church kid named Josh. Josh jumped up, ran right up to my nose and said, “I’ve been in church my whole life and I have NEVER heard this. My dad was a youth pastor, my mom a Sunday school teacher, but I’ve never heard this. Why has no one has EVER told me this?

Without really thinking I said, “I don’t know. Maybe we are so busy telling you what not to do that we forget to tell you what Jesus did.” That was (accidentally) a pretty good answer. But, Josh says, “I don’t know about that.” He turns and practically runs out the door saying, “I’m going Starbucks.” He rips open Rawleigh’s front door and yells over his shoulder, “It’s the only place still open for me to tell people what Jesus did for them!” The door slams and Josh is gone.

…For the first time Josh knew what Jesus did on the cross in detail. And for the first time, Josh knew that Jesus did it to satisfy a debt that only God could pay…Josh’s world began to pivot around a new axis: the immovable cross of Jesus Christ.

Centuries before Jesus lived, Isaiah passed along (in Isaiah 52 and 53) what God told us Jesus would someday do – Why he would go to the cross. In the Good Friday Gospel reading (John 18:1-19:42) Jesus told us how it panned out – “It is finished.”

Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “I am finished.” He didn’t say, “Oops.” He didn’t say, “three cheers for the attempt.” Jesus said, “It is finished.

Jesus’ “it” was nothing less than the salvation of humanity, the opening of relationship with God for you. Forgiveness of all that stands between us and the Father. The relationship of a lifetime for all eternity freely offered, the opportunity to join God’s high and holy mission to redeem a lost world. That is what Jesus finished on a hill called Golgotha, on a cross between two thieves. The universe rotates around that event.

Isaiah said, “Kings shall shut their mouths.” And Jesus thundered, “It is finished.”

Isaiah said, “He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows;” And Jesus said, “It is Finished.”

“He was pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities.” It Is finished.

“His chastisement brought us peace, and by his wounds we are healed.” That too, finished.

“The iniquity of us all was laid on him.” Finished.

“By oppression and judgment he was taken away.” Done.

“Cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” Finished.

“It was the will of the Lord to crush him; and put him to grief.” That as well is finished.

Because of him “many shall be accounted righteous.” Finished.

“He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors.” Finished.

“He bore the sins of many.” And guess what?” That, too, is finished.

And while the world grew quiet, Satan stood up in hell clapping. And Jesus, with perhaps the faintest hint of a grin, shook his head, “uh uh.” And said, “It. Is. Finished.” And he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

And now, ever since that day, regardless of what you see, or hear, or think, the entire cosmos pivots on the axis of the victory won on the immovable, finished, cross of Jesus Christ.

 

When God Goes the Wrong Way

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The “triumphal entry” of King Jesus into Jerusalem was through the back gate. Ironically, at roughly the same time, the other key player in the drama, Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, would have been arriving through the cities’ front gate on his way to the Roman palace just inside the city wall. Kings may outrank governors, but conquerors outrank the vanquished. So, while Pilate arrived in a caravan, with horses, trumpets, and armed retinue; on the back side of the city, the king of the Jews, arrived on a donkey. People bowed for both. For Jesus, though, they bowed in expectation rather than spear-point. Matthew 21:1-10 tells us, they shouted, “Hosanna!” and “spread their clothes and cut branches before him.”  These people were in.

The whole city was stirred.” They were all in.

At least they were on Sunday.

By Friday, though, they were all out.

By Friday, the crowds had abandoned Jesus. The 72 had abandoned him. Even his twelve closest friends abandoned him. By the time they nailed Jesus to a cross on skull hill, none remain save his mother and John, a teenager too young to matter.

Why did the crowd…so passionate on Sunday, jump ship so quickly?

Their disillusionment seems to have begun when Jesus entered the temple the next morning. It would have been a pregnant moment: the crowd anticipating Jesus, their long awaited political deliverer, to turn to the right, toward the Antonia fortress, built by Rome on the temple wall to stare down into the Jewish temple – Big Brother making sure Israel remembered who’s boss. Jesus would show them!

Except that Jesus entered the temple and, where everyone expected him to turn right and shake his fist at the conquering pagans, Jesus wheeled left and began overturning the tables of the moneychangers. Moneychangers had a nice little business converting secular money into special temple money to buy animals for the sacrifices. At a profit, of course.

This act must have been befuddling. “Jesus, we might be getting a C in following God, but at least we are trying. How could you go after us? The Romans are the problem here.”

Palm Sunday exposes an inconvenient truth: No matter how excited we are about God today, we are only days away from turning our back on all that is good and true. It is human nature to turn from God when things don’t make sense.

We can go from “I’m all in” to “I’m so out of here” on a dime. 

I do not want to minimize your pain. It is all too real. When the wheels come off, the crash is brutal. Circumstances appear purposeless. God seems to work slowly. Or worse, God seems to give evil and injustice the nod. It was true on that first Palm Sunday, and it’s true for us – Jesus Christ is not the savior we would choose.

We can’t imagine our deliverer turning (what seems to us) the wrong way.

Jesus Christ is not the savior we want.

But he is the savior we need.

The savior we desperately need.

When you are tempted to think Jesus doesn’t get it, remember this:

Jesus knew temptation: He was in the desert forty days…tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:13).

Jesus knew poverty: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matt 8:20)

Jesus knew weariness: Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well.” (John 4:6)

Jesus knew sorrow: “My soul is overwhelmed to the point of death.” (Matt 26:38)

Jesus knew loneliness: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46)

Jesus knew frustration: He overturned their tables saying.…’how dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!’” (John 2:15-16)

Jesus knew disappointment: “O Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather your children together…but you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

Jesus knew ridicule: “Again and again they struck him…and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they mocked him.” (Mark 15:19)

Jesus knew rejection: “many of his disciples…no longer followed him.” (John 6:66)

The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is a not “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” He gets it.

In that day when the world least makes sense, the pain seems unbearable, when confusion reigns; do not lose hope. God will redeem even this. On your worst day, I believe the Lord is grabbing your face, gazing into your wounded eyes and saying:

“I promise you my child; the magnificence that will one day be yours will so overwhelmingly repurpose and overcome the suffering and pain you are experiencing right now, that it will turn even this tragedy to indescribable joy and unsurpassed splendor.”

So, friend, don’t give up. Don’t pack up your palms and go home. Stay the course. Hang onto your Hosanna when you expect God to go right and he jukes left.

Jesus Christ is not the savior we would choose. But he will never, ever, ever…be anything other than the savior you and I need.

 

 

Four Christmas Gifts that Change Everything

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Photo credit: Google Store – Fake Call from Santa app.

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I first realized the Santa story had holes in 1977. I was in the 6th grade, an embarrassing age not to be in on the gag. My friends, realizing my innocence, enlightened me with the subtlety one expects from 6th graders.

I would not let Santa go down without a fight, though. Pitying the skeptics, I would bring them back into the fold with facts. We gathered around our homeroom teacher’s shoebox sized desk calculator as I confidently pressed buttons. “The world’s population x the 20% who are kids (the machined hummed), divided by 10 hours of darkness (wheels whirled), divided by 60 minutes in an hour (gears spun). Equals.

Confident of victory, I tore the tape from the still cranking calculator…and gasped as the disappointing truth sank in: Santa was delivering 1.3 million presents per minute.

My friends howled. Our teacher, Mr. Fishleder, bit his lip in a passable attempt at maintaining a merciful decorum.

Although I learned what Christmas was not that year, it would be the better part of a decade before I learned of import of the infinitely more remarkable Christmas gift giver:

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

-Isaiah 9:6, NRSV

Peel back for a moment our familiarity with the story…

A child whose names include “Mighty God”? Just to make sure we don’t miss the implications, in the next verse Isaiah circles back and tells us the predicted child would be a king whose rule would have “no end,” lasting “forevermore.” Yet kings don’t rule forevermore. Kings die. “Forevermore” and “no end” are code, code for God himself.

Let Isaiah’s sense-surpassing dichotomous claim sink in: God. Born. Religions generally have the deity lecture from a safe distance. Like Santa. “Hey, you people, straighten up down there. I’m making a list. I’m checking it twice. I’m going to find out who’s naughty or nice.” Other religions seem to me to be about helping people piously work their way to God. But God’s plan is shockingly intimate: “Immanuel.” Which St. Matthew tells us means, “God with us.” Christmas is nothing less than God. Born. The gift of God himself.

Our human inclination is to shrink Christmas to manageable proportions by making it an inspiring fable about being nicer. But if Christmas is only a warm fiction it isn’t inspiring at all. It’s desperately bleak – Our problem, after all, is not that we don’t know how we should live, but that we don’t live how we know we should. Given the havoc we have made of earth, is it possible to let us loose, as we are, in the cosmos for eternity? Let’s be real: Moral perfection for you and I is as likely as jumping the Grand Canyon on a bike “Santa” brought you for Christmas as a kid.

God’s answer, however, is much more heartening: A son is “given.” “Given,” not just “to us,” but “for us.” He was born for us, and he would die for us. Christmas is the beginning of God doing for us, out of love for you and I, what we cannot do for ourselves – forgive us and change us. God himself; born, living, dying, rising…both the perfect life we should live and the perfect sacrifice we cannot give. Jesus the king would pay our ransom and become our victor. In Christ, God made a way across that Canyon. Those two simple words, “For us” make Christmas the gift that fixes the mess humanity has made of things… a way has been made through the wall of our reality, clean across the chasm of our fallen-ness.

Christmas is God’s gift of Jesus.

Like any gift, though, God’s gift only blesses us when we receive it. And let’s be honest, receiving gifts is tricky. Anytime we receive a gift we wonder what accepting it will mean. When someone gives you a wedding ring, for example, accepting it has ramifications…

So what does receiving the gift of Jesus bring? I see four Christmas blessings in the names given the Christ child in Isaiah 9:6. Four gifts that have the potential to change everything:

First, in receiving Jesus, we receive the Wonderful Counselor. Why do people see a counselor? For help with relationships – healing in marriages, friendships, and families. The Wonderful Counselor, reminds us of our value. In light of our value, we are freed from emotionally over-investing in others because we need to be needed, or conversely, underinvesting out of fear of commitment. Jesus desires to fill us on the inside regardless of what is happening outside.

Second: He is Mighty God. Are you ever in over your head? In Christ, Mighty God himself is on your side. Jesus Christ does not peddle empty promises – You can count on him when the chips are down.

Third: When you receive Jesus, he becomes your Everlasting Father. Why father? Because through his Holy Spirit sent at Pentecost, God offers intimacy and acceptance, like a great father to his beloved children, by living within you. God came to us, so that we can come to him.

Fourth, Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Peace in Hebrew is the word shalom. More than internal contentment, shalom is society-wide flourishing. Shalom means that poverty, disease, brokenness, and death are replaced with prosperity, health, reconciliation, and life. Individual new birth and inner peace, are your blessings when you receive Christ, but so is systemic shalom – expressed in the here and now by connecting with one another, serving others in Jesus’ name, and confidence against the worst this world can throw at you. The world’s brokenness matters to God, and God has promised the ultimate renewal of the whole earth.

My friends, Christmas is the gift that can change everything. But much more than the Christmas bike of childhood now rusting in a landfill, Christmas is the lasting gift of Jesus Christ, God with us. And in receiving him, God’s offers four gifts: Healing in our relationships, his strength and sure defense, intimacy and acceptance with God, and reconciliation now and peace in the future. And so, I urge you, whether for the first or the thousand and first time, receive God’s gift of love: Jesus. When we receive him, we find we receive, with him, the four Christmas gifts that change everything.

 

Big Papa.

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In a world of unique individuals my father might have been the uniquiest. He was a high roller who hit it big. Twice. He also hit rock bottom. Twice. Unfortunately that last hit was a doozy. After that, Phoenix’s highest-flying realtor mostly “worked” from home. First it was online gaming. Later the stock market. Which, come to think of it, might be the same thing.

We all have our own unique vantage point on other’s lives. Many knew my dad as “Marty the realtor”or “Marty the campaign manager ” or “Marty the original Suns season ticket holder” or “Marty the scratch golfer.” Some knew him as “Marty the card player” who, when he felt hot became, “Marty the high roller” on a comped flight to Vegas. His grandchildren knew him as “papa.” But everyone, everyone knew him as “Marty the forwarder of factually dubious spam.”

My dad was a paradox: An extroverted recluse. A curmudgeon with a heart of gold, a man who wore his vices on his sleeve, but hid his virtues under a Grumpy Cat exterior. My father was a virtuoso reaction provoker. You could not spend more than 5 minutes with my father without both loving him or hating him.

Usually at the same time.

When I was a child we would vacation at Pajaro Dunes, a lovely semi-private beach. But as my dad aged, he reverted to the NY kid who longed for the hubbub of the boardwalk. He began to holiday on Mission Beach, the West coast’s answer to Coney Island. He rented on the promenade. Always with a second story balcony to watch girls and talk smack to the fellas. Men in their 70’s don’t talk smack with the young boardwalk Turks. But no one told my dad that. They didn’t dare.

In the mornings on the boardwalk he would greet the world with vocal renditions of Sinatra, Bennett, and Hoagie Carmichael. Picture the boardwalk at 8 am on a midweek July morning: A few fit joggers & bikers power by. Locals kibitz over coffee. Hung over college kids stumble home. But mostly families that stayed up too late are trying to grab a few more moments of shut-eye. And there, on the balcony above it all, is my retirement-aged, 260 pound, shirtless, chain-smoking Italian father belting out “Fly me to the moon,” overpowering Sinatra on his massive boom box.

No, it wasn’t good.

And of course he knew it.

In my 49 years I cannot recall a single incident in which my dad was not the center of attention. I’m not sure he intentionally sought attention. He was just a smidge larger than life.

Ideas were important to my dad. He had them. Articulated them. Argued them. He won every argument. Usually because his idea was persuasive. When it was not, he reverted to a technique of oratory I call “vocal Darwinism” – survival of the loudest.

Words were important to my dad as well. He used them often – either in the declarative or the exclamatory. If you used a word wrongly you would receive a lesson on its Latin etymology, delivered in the declarative exclamatory.

Inside of my father’s home, where the lion spent the lion’s share of the last 25 years, the most common words addressed to him began, “O Papa.” The “O” could be pronounced with shock, joy, fear, dismay, gratitude, or exasperation. As in “O, Papa!” when he went out of his way to help one of us, or when you caught him, a man in end-stage congestive heart failure, sneaking an entire box of sodium enhanced prepackaged spareribs for breakfast. Most of my father’s favorite words cannot be said in church.

My dad was an Italian. A genuine New York, swarthy, swag-wearing, chain-smoking, looked like a mafia Don and sounded like one too, Italian. In case you would like to be an Italian, there are 3 essential words you need to know. My dad made sure we knew them: Capish (understand), Stai Zitto (shut up), and Luie Monjagovol, an untranslatable expression useful for all occasions…mostly for those rare times when you could not use any of the words my dad really preferred using…the ones you cannot use in church.

My father was extremely funny. And sarcastic. Unfortunately, sarcasm often goes over one’s children’s heads…and when it does it often carries decades long consequences. For example, when I was seven and writing the obligatory post-Christmas “Thank you” notes, I made the mistake of telling my dad that envelopes “taste bad.” He said, “That’s because the glue is carcinogenic.” I was always learning important things from my father, like how to pronounce “carcinogenic,” and that envelope glue was a dangerous yet unregulated substance. I didn’t lick envelopes until I was a high school junior. I was working as a Suns’ ballboy when one night Ron Lee, a highly personable Suns guard, half-licked a ticket envelope and handed it to me to finish. I licked my finger and used that to complete the wetting of the envelope glue. I looked up and the entire team was staring at me. I had no idea that they were wondering if I was a racist for not licking an envelope after a Black man. With full conviction I informed them, “Licking envelopes is stupid. Y’all are going to die of tongue cancer!”

My dad’s name was Martin Ubaldo Marino. I once asked him why he always wrote “Marty.” He told me “Martin Ubaldo” was long and WOPy sounding so he had it legally changed. I saw him write “Martin U. Marino” on something last year and asked him when he changed his name back. He had no idea what I was talking about.

I live in fear of what other great fictions await my discovery.

My dad was the strongest man I knew. As a kid I would hold onto his neck as he swam underwater tw0 complete lengths of our 1970s era swimming pool. I could barely hang on due to the water resistance. It must have taken tremendous strength to propel his large body and with my drag through the water. I would let go on the first leg to come up for air, dive down again, and catch him again on his way back.

My dad broke racial barriers long before it was fashionable. In the late 1960s, Phoenix was a very Anglo city. The first time I laid eyes on an African American was in my house. Asleep. Connie Hawkins had flown into town to look at homes and was tired. So my dad, who sold the early Suns players their homes, brought him over for a nap. Back then professional sports were divided not by management and labor (they all made about the same money), but by color. My dad and trainer Joe Proski socialized with White and Black alike. It took me years to realize that they were the only ones doing that. He never mentioned “justice” or “reconciliation.” He just lived it.

If we did something hard-working or noble my dad said, “You’re a good man, Gunga Din.” I lived to hear those words.

Here is an event which summarized neatly my father as a dad and grandpa: He beat us to the hospital for our daughter’s birth. Then he entertained himself and the hospital staff by loudly and extensively hazing us up and down the maternity ward for being, “late to our own child’s delivery!”

Boys always learn the important things in life from their fathers. Here are the…

Top 10 life-lessons I Learned from my dad:

1. Tools are something you buy…but you hire someone else to actually use.

2. Do stuff you don’t like because you love your kids: Bouncing a Lincoln Continental all over Northern Arizona forest roads to take two teenagers fishing comes to mind. I cannot imagine anyone more out of place in a forest than Marty Marino.

3. Everyone gets to win in a deal. My dad was a very upright businessman. When some friends hatched a get-rich quick scheme that would leave a someone with a loss, he shook his head disapprovingly and barked, “The job of a salesman is to make sure NO ONE gets screwed, Matt.”

4. Care for people. One Christmas he was ordered to “tone it down” by the Salvation Army. When he drove up to the house and saw how poor the family was, he loaded the whole tribe into his Fleetwood Brougham and took them on a shopping spree at a warehouse store.

5. It’s better to be kind than nice. My dad was not a nice man. But he was remarkably kind. He would come to your aid no matter how dumb a situation you had gotten yourself into. But, boy, would he ride you about it the whole time.

6. Your gifts can be a stepping-stone or a tombstone. The same pride that made my dad a legendary real estate agent also made him too proud to return to it. My father taught me not to be a victim of my gifts.

7. You can save a lot of money by making your own cigarettes…but money is all you are saving.

8. For a man for whom religion was a regular target of his sarcasm, I learned a great deal about faith:

-He taught me to read the Bible beginning in the Gospels. I had started the Bible twice and got bogged down in Leviticus both times. Who starts a book 2/3 of the way through? I thought. My dad taught me that it is really a collection of books, and that the New interprets the Old.

-I learned to stick with it. On three occasions I thought about quitting the ministry for something that would pay better. Each time my dad beelined to my house to talk me out of it. “Why would you do that?” He asked. “You were made for this.”

-I learned that what we say and what we mean aren’t always the same thing. Last month, my father, the vocal atheist, called me concerned about a lack of faith by my nephew. The conversation was both funny and profound…

Dad: What are you doing?

Me: At 6:30 A.M. on my day off?

Dad: You aren’t sleeping are you?

Me: Not any more.

Dad: Do you know that  ____ doesn’t believe a GD thing about Jesus Christ. Can you believe that? I mean… JC. Who doesn’t love Jesus, GDit. What the H! Everyone loves Jesus Christ. Even I love Jesus Christ! And I do, dammit, I love Jesus Christ. GDit. And who doesn’t believe anything? C. I mean really NOT believe anything? What the H!”

Me: Dad, Have you considered contacting Guinness? You might have set a new record for blasphemies in a conversation for Jesus.

Dad (after a most out of character apology for his word choice): You need to do something about that! You need to talk to him! (He was a master of the declarative exclamatory.)

Me: Dad, you have spent 30 years mocking faith. And you are surprised that he took you at your word? I have always known you had a secret thing for Jesus, you protested too much. You should really have that talk. Be honest. Let him know that, although you have big issues with the church, that you actually think quite highly of Jesus and it bothers you that he doesn’t.

I don’t know if that conversation ever happened.

9. Number nine takes a little setup: My father went to great lengths to avoid exercise. If he had a religion, it might have been named Exercise-avoidance-ism. This religion had at its theological core the doctrine that “every human is allotted a certain number of heartbeats at birth and that if you want to waste yours exercising, that is your business.”

So, #9, I learned that his theory on “the conservation of heartbeats” was flawed.

10. Speaking of flawed, the worst day of a kid’s life might be the day he finds out his dad is flawed. And my dad was quite flawed. However, one of the best days in a man’s life is the day he finds out that his flawed father is still quite human and, in many ways, quite holy. One day last summer he and my stepmother came over unannounced and told us that she had beaten cancer.  They had never told us that she had cancer-it might have been the only secret my father ever kept. That day, the only time in my life that I saw my father cry, he threw his arms around my stepmom, squeezed her hard enough that we feared for her safety, and blurted through his tears how much he loved her and how lost he would be if anything happened to her. I will never forget that day. It told me my dad was growing…becoming more alive, even as his body was obviously not.

As I thought about a memorial to my father I realized, “This will be the first time someone has ever gotten the last word on Marty Marino.” But as a Christian, I don’t actually believe that I have. So I will just say, see you later, dad. I love you and miss you already.

Martin Ubaldo “Marty” Marino

Nov. 11, 1934 ~ March 14, 2014

(Originally posted 4/7/14)