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.

 

 

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Surprise Endings: Superheroes, fat ladies, and hope for humanity in dark times

 

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We all love the surprise ending. One where the hero miraculously reappears and the bad guys get their due. First it was the western. Then war movies. Next came the Sci-fi, followed by adventure movies. Then it was fantasy…Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter. Now we have superheroes.

When you think about it, aren’t they are all the same plot? How is it that no matter how many times we see this story, and no matter how well we know the narrative, we keep coming back for more? Why do these movies resonate so?

It seems our hearts love the plot line that, no matter how dark the night appears, help is on the way. “Look, up in the sky…” Or as Washington Bullets coach Dick Motta famously said, “The opera ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings.”

Perhaps it is because no matter how far fetched they are, these movies hum a melody our hearts already know…a tune, sung by that large lady of song which says, “Yes, this is impossible…but a final scene yet remains.”

I think the superhero saga is simply a retelling of the Christian story – the story that our hearts were made for.

Here is that story in a nutshell: Once there was One God – a glorious being who dwelt in perfect unity and love…a holy trinity. Not the self-centeredness of the human trinity of me, myself and I, but the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in self-existent, self-giving love. God desired to share his fullness and joy, so he/they (words fail us in the presence of such glory), created. And God, the creator of creativity, created intricately, painstakingly…lovingly. The first two pages of the Bible describes this in detail.

Then, in less than one page of script, we wreck the entire operation.

And the whole rest of this Bible, all of the other 2000 pages, tell of God’s relentless pursuit to win his wanderers back.

It’s a story of a growing hope. God starts with a single man, Adam. He moves on to a family, Abraham and Sarah’s. From there he widens his rescue to a nation, Israel. Then, finally, God throws out the lifeline to all of humanity.  This deliverance tale finds its fulfillment in the person of Jesus: God becomes one of us, lives among us as a servant. He goes to a cross as the most unlikely part of his Father’s rescue plan. The climax of the story occurs in the days we commemorate as Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

Let me remind you of that story line: Jesus is grabbed by angry religious leaders and sentenced by a private mob under the cover of darkness. As an occupied people, his countrymen lack the ability to pronounce the death penalty. So they take him to their Roman occupiers and change the charges against him – Romans do not care about local religious rules, they re-label Jesus a traitor. Jesus doesn’t defend himself. The governor, Pontius Pilate, tries to placate the crowd by having Jesus savagely beaten. But, rather than satisfy the mob, the beating raises their blood lust. Pilate acquiesces and sentences Jesus to the death reserved for the worst criminals: crucifixion. They force Jesus to carry his cross to the hill over the highway where they execute enemies of the state. They nail Jesus to his cross and erect it between two thieves. Six hours later he is dead. But before he dies he says two fascinating things: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” And “It is finished.”

Let that sink in: Jesus actually asks his Father to forgive to forgive his executioners. Then he says, “IT is finished.” Not “I” but “It” – his reason for being on that cross is what Jesus “finished.”

In the end, they take his lifeless body down and place him in a tomb. They seal it with an enormous stone, stamp it with the mark of the emperor, and station a Roman guard unit to protect it.

The end.

Or so it was supposed to be.

But the cosmic filmmaker had other ideas…

But why was Jesus up there anyway? What was his “it”? The power in any story is not only in the action, but what the actions mean.

Jesus was on the cross as an innocent but, we are told, most certainly NOT as a victim. Why way he there? Because you and I really do have a problem that has trapped us. One that reaches into every recess of our existence…a problem that is environmental, relational, interpersonal and existential. It is a problem we cannot avoid and will not go away.

In our hearts we know that God is perfect and holy. …And, when we are honest, we painfully aware of just how much we are not.

It’s a dilemma: A God whom the prophet Habbakuk says, “is too pure to look upon evil,” (Hab. 1:13) has a love that will not allow him to look away.  In Jesus, God manages to right what we made wrong. To ride in and save the day. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life”(John 3:16).  The unlikely storyline God chose involved a cross, a tomb, and a man who wouldn’t stay dead.

It is called salvation…deliverance…rescue. We were as good as dead in trespasses, and then, As Peter said, “Christ died for our sins once for all. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. (1 Pet 3:18)

Again, he was not a victim: This was in the script all along. Jesus’ death was the rescue plan.

But Jesus is a savior who, no matter how “over” the story appeared, still had a surprise ending up his sleeve. We know that plan worked by the Easter event – Jesus walking out of a tomb. We give it a fancy, religious sounding name, resurrection. But the shocking news was that a man very carefully put on ice did not stay that way. And, now that death cannot hold him, he holds out the hope of life to us as well. Paul said it like this: “Christ has been raised from the dead…the first of a great harvest of all who have died…just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life.” (1 Cor. 15:20-22)

God offers his rescue to all. But God, always a gentleman, will not arm twist or manipulate us to accept his offer. In Terminator 2, the terrifying cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up to rescue Sarah Conner. She is terrified. After vanquishing her enemies, the Terminator reaches out to her with the words, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Do you want to live? Will you come with Jesus?

Will you allow his forgiveness to be yours? Will you allow his Spirit to breath new life into you? Will you allow the great author and director to give you love and acceptance…to write a new ending to your story?

John said it like this, “To all who receive him, even to those who call on his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.” (John 1:12)

Tonight, what scene are you in? Are you at the height of success? If so, you might want to resist the temptation to arrogance. You have seen this story. You know the heights are an illusion.

Are you being overcome by the adversities of life? Do times look dark? You need to know, that in Christ, you have an Aslan…A hero with superpowers, unstoppable like a cyborg. A man in a white hat who has already ridden to your rescue…

He purchased your forgiveness on a cross, guaranteed your ultimate rescue when he walked from the tomb, and offers a life transformed in the in-between.

So when all looks lost, look up. For it is not until we are at the end of us that our Super Man can do his thing.

Is it just me, or is that the fat lady I hear warming up her voice in the wings?

Or as the church says, The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

 

The church isn’t a restaurant. It’s culinary school.

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Last week’s “The church doesn’t exist to feed you” post pushed lots of people’s buttons…mainly because I put myself in the awkward position appearing to argue against the Bible. Let me morph the analogy a bit…

For most of my Christian life I disliked church. REALLY disliked it.

Not bored, as in “I would rather watch my team play.”  Not, “Oops I forgot to set my alarm.” But a tension in the neck that ruins Saturday date night when I realize that in the morning my wife expects me to get up and go to church sort of a dislike.

It wasn’t a God problem. At 18 I fell in love with Jesus. Soon after I developed a crush on the Bible. I love serving others. Most weeks I would rather do ministry than go on vacation. But church? Not so much.

I found church relentlessly reductionistic: four songs, sermon, pass the hat, then off to lunch. The best part of that liturgy was the lunch. I had an undergrad degree in the Bible and a pile of master’s credit in theology. Give me the text and I could give you the conclusion to nine out of ten sermons. I was more than bored. I was convinced Sunday worship was utterly irrelevant.

Can you relate just a little? Have you ever sat in church and wondered, “What is this getting me, besides 10% poorer?”

Part of the problem was my mental image of the church: I saw it as a restaurant designed to feed me.

Think about what happens at a restaurant:

            -You choose one you like

            -You drive to it

            -Someone seats you

            -You order what you are in the mood for

            -Then you eat the meal and sit in judgment on it: “I like this”,  “I don’t like that.”

A restaurant is a narcissistic, preference-driven experience. Which is fine for a restaurant, but it is a certain kind of soul death when I view the church that way.

Lobster.036My wife and I once went to Pappadeux’s on “all you can eat lobster night.” We watched people with butter dripping down their forearms and chins, eating three and four enormous lobsters in a single sitting. It was as revolting as it sounds. You can imagine the girth of people who consume 5000 calories before dessert. When we use the church as a restaurant, and sit back waiting for someone to serve us we will either go home hungry or huge.

But what if we changed our perspective? What if we saw the church less like a restaurant and more like culinary school.

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While a restaurant is a place of preference that exists to meet MY desires. Culinary school is a place of perseverance where one comes to be equipped to feed OTHERS. Culinary school is something you invest your time, talent and treasure in because you have a sense of calling.

In Ephesians four, Paul describes us as “baptized into one body,” “living lives worthy of our calling,” “in the unity of the Spirit” and THEN Paul portrays God as giving gifts “to equip the saints” to change the world …in the case of culinary school, through tasty, nourishing, healthy, well-prepared, well-presented food.

The Church does not exist to feed us. It exists to equip us.

The “church,” “ecclesia” in Greek, literally “the called out ones” have been “called out” specifically to be equipped through Word, Sacrament and discipline to return to the world and call others to the banquet table of God’s great love feast.

Think about the joy that happens over a table in a great little neighborhood bistro: Joy is made possible in culinary school. Culinary school is the place where:

-You sell your stuff, pay big tuition dollars, and move into a bad apartment, all because you are committed to a goal

-You get a set of tools – really good ones!

-You learn a new set of skills

-You are in a community of people with a vision

-It is also a place where there is tremendous conflict as you learn your craft…but a place with support and encouragement and accountability also

-They set you in front of a dangerous stove and let you play with the nobs, and try mixing stuff up and seeing how it tastes and hope you don’t blow the place up while you learn

All so your class can go out into the world with a vision for places where people will be fed and cared for and real community built.

That, friends, I would suggest to you, is what the church is supposed to be:

-Those “called out”

-Equipped with tools and knowledge

-Allowed to practice

-Giving grace to one-another, with support and encouragement provided

-A community where conflict is expected and forgiveness extended

-A community where we are playing with dangerous tools: the Keys to the Kingdom of God

-A community with a mission to change the world.

That is why the church asks people to spend valuable time seeking God, give 10% of their money, and serve others…because Jesus and his kingdom is just so important. We are all busy. But we find time to do what we want to do. What if we fell so in love with Jesus and his call on our lives that we make HIM our priority, and the culinary school that is the Church the place where we are equipped?

In the Christian life one is only truly blessed when they are in the community of faith, giving themselves to that community and giving themselves and the Gospel message away to create a different world.

What about you?

-Have you met the Master Chef, Jesus the Messiah? Have you given your life to him by faith? Have you been baptized as the public entrance into that faith?

What is your view of the Church? Have you been showing up, as at a restaurant, to be fed? Or are you coming to be equipped and move out to change God’s world?

The world awaits. It awaits the flavor and seasoning and the freshness that can only come when we step into God’s mission. It awaits the beauty and warm relationships that happen when we do our parts and dish up a big steaming bowl of the goodness of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

There is the aroma of Christ on those who serve (2 Cor. 2:15). There is the taste of the goodness of our God.  There is a beauty for the eye to behold when the presentation is with grace.

Like a restaurant that hasn’t opened, the neighborhood might not know the wonderful things in store for them until they begin to smell the aroma of Christ in your kitchen and you begin to serve God’s recipes at the banquet table of the Kingdom. Are you waiting to be fed or being equipped to taking your gifts into the world? A hungry world awaits its Savior.