Ninety-nine Sheep

ninety nine sheep

Looking at the grace of God, a grace which surpasses all human understanding and comprehension.  A grace which just makes no sense to us, because the only ways we can understand are the ways of our world, the ways we have learned and lived our whole lives.  Consider this story of a shepherd and a particular lost sheep.

Lost-Sheep

“”What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Luke 15:4-7 ESV

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I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time getting this one.  It seems simple enough, but when I really consider it, what about those other ninety-nine sheep?   Jesus tells us this man (God the Father) would leave ninety-nine sheep in the open country to chase after this one fool sheep who wanders away.   In the open countryunprotected, there would be thieves, wolves, and any number of other threats.  More could simply wander off.  What if he comes back with this one lost sheep, celebrating and thanking God, and twenty more are missing?  Then what?

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It makes no sense to us (at least me) because I am too busy counting. I like to know I’m doing the right thing, making the right decision.  So why would I leave ninety-nine perfectly good sheep vulnerable to attack, unprotected, to go chasing after one scoundrel who never should have wandered off in the first place?   In trying to win back this one little sheep, I’m not going to risk losing any of my good sheep.

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But here’s the thing about God and his grace – if you’re busy counting, doing the math, you’ve missed the whole point.  In the words of Philip Yancey in his book What’s so Amazing About Grace?, “Grace is not about finishing last or first; it is about not counting.”   God’s grace is a free gift, not something we can ever earn.

healthy people

God’s not doing the math.  God is not about making sure we have done ten more good things that bad things in our life so we can then somehow be found worthy of his love.  God is not even about distinguishing “bad” from “good”.  (What was that tree Adam and Eve were not allowed to eat from in the garden?)  If he were, he had ninety-nine perfectly “good” little sheep and would never have left them to chase after that one “bad” sheep.   But, as Jesus also says, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”” Luke 5:32 ESV.  That one lost sheep is the whole reason Jesus ever came…

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God did not come to us in the form of Christ Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, because of how righteous we are.  He came to chase us down because we are all his lost sheep.  He comes out of heaven, walks with us on earth, joins us in our mess which we have made, and guides us back.   He is gathering his flock.  If we have been brought back into the fold, now we get to join Jesus in chasing down the rest of those lost sheep.  We are out in the open country, there are wolves watching and waiting.  If we are just standing still, how easy will it be for the wolves to pick us off?

jesus searching

So we don’t stand still.  We join Jesus in his search.  In our search, we draw closer to Him, we become more like Him.  As we become more like Him, we too begin to stop counting.  We too begin to see the value of one lost sheep.  We too will leave ninety-nine in open country to chase the one who has strayed.

harvest is plenty

There are so many lost sheep.  So many that, as Jesus tells us, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Luke 10:2 ESV.   If you are that lost sheep, Jesus will not rest until he has tracked you down.  He’s come all the way from heaven to find you.  If you’re one of those ninety-nine in the open country, the wolves are watching and waiting for their chance to strike.   Quit standing still, go with Jesus, and find that lost sheep He is looking for.

John Lewis

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Means and Ends

Means and Ends

Temptations-of-Jesus-2.jpgOoops, thought I had published this days ago…

After Jesus was baptized, he then was led by the spirit into the wilderness of prayer and fasting.  Jesus about to begin his ministry of announcing and enacting the kingdom of god.  During this forty days, Jesus is contemplating the nature of both his ministry and the nature of the Kingdom of God he’d be establishing.    While contemplating his ministry which would soon begin, Jesus faces three temptations.  In these temptations, Jesus was tempted to go about his ministry in the wrong way, to establish the kingdom of god on the wrong foundation.  Remember what he taught about foundations – “”Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”” Matthew 7:24-27 ESV

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The first temptation Jesus faced was the temptation to base the kingdom on bread.  The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”   You might say this is the liberal temptation, to merely address the material needs of mankind.  It’s a temptation to reduce the faith to a socioeconomic agenda.  These things need to be addressed, but Jesus saw it as a temptation to simply address the material needs of man.  Bread is good, bread is necessary.  But people will sell their very souls for a piece of bread.  But this still leaves that God shaped hole in the middle of our soul.  With the word of god he resisted that temptation.  And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.'”

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The second temptation was the temptation to spectacle.   And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'”   Just do a sign, prove who you are!!   This is the empiricist temptation, to persuade by empirical proof, to do away with faith by simply proving everything.  Jesus resisted that because he realized that was to put God to the test, And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”   He resisted that and left room for faith.

Jesus would later tell of the sign he would give – “When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”  Luke 11:29 ESV.  But in the end, even the resurrection would not be enough if a man does not want to see.  “He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.'”” Luke 16:31 ESV

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The third temptation was to base the kingdom upon force, to compromise with the devil that he might become the world’s new emperor the way all the old emperors become emperors.  And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”  This is the conservative temptation, to rule the world by violence.  To continue to do it the same way Caesar was doing it.  But Jesus resists this temptation as well.  “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'”   Jesus could have been the conquering Messiah the people were waiting for.  They couldn’t wait to join his army and really strike back at those Romans.  Jesus would have used his power for good, he would have been a more righteous king.  He could have bypassed being the suffering servant and grabbed the throne through the will to power, the power to kill.  But he still would have just another king in the line of kings of the world.

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Notice all these temptations were based on a desire for a good end.  Jesus was not tempted with evil but he was tempted for good.  Jesus was tempted to have this as his end – to eliminate poverty, engender faith, and unite the world.  But it was  the means that were wrong.

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Does the end justify the means?  Never.  In fact, the means are the end in the process of becoming.  Becoming more forgiving, or becoming more vengeful.   Me coming more merciful, becoming more merciless.   Becoming more Christlike, or becoming un-like Christ.  Becoming more an instrument of Christ’s love and mercy, or becoming an instrument of the Satan’s anger and vengeance.   Compromised means always results in a compromised end.  Jesus overcame the temptation to base the kingdom on bread, spectacle and force and instead set forth to proclaim the kingdom on faith hope, and love.  Instead of the conquering Messiah, he chose the route of the suffering servant.  Instead of bread, circus, and force, he chose the route of the cross for his coronation.

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Jesus is king.  Jesus was king.  Jesus came to be king.  But when the people tried to make him king by force after his feeding the five thousand, he declined.  “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” John 6:15 ESV.   When they came the next day looking for more bread, he cryptically offers instead his own flesh and blood.  “So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” John 6:53-56 ESV.   Most who hear him call him crazy, and all but the most devoted followers turn away.  “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”” John 6:66-69 ESV.

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Ultimately, Jesus would be crowned king.  His means were love and forgiveness, not bullets and bombs.   His ends were love and forgiveness, not bullets and bombs.  These are hard things to understand.   Will we turn back, or continue on our walk?  Do we want to go away as well?  Or, like Peter, is our answer Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God??

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“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.'” And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'” And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.”

Luke 4:1-13 ESV

http://bible.com/59/luk.4.1-13.esv

John Lewis

Into the Waters

Into the Waters

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“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.””  We come this morning to the baptism of Jesus.  You could also say this is the formal anointing of Jesus as Messiah.  The messiah is the anointed one.  The Messiah, in the scriptures, is anointed with oil instead of a crown.  Here, though, Jesus is anointed not with oil but with the Holy Spirit.   He comes out of the waters of baptism, he’s praying, and a dove lands upon him.   God the Father announces from the heavens You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.

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Luke is screaming out,  LOOK! LOOK!  We finally have the messiah.  We’ve waited so long, but it’s finally happening.  The king is on the scene, He, Jesus, in the waters being baptized by John, is the true king of Israel.  What follows next is Jesus going out into wilderness to be tested, tempted, and tried before actually launching his ministry and announcing kingdom of God.

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Meantime, let’s think about something here –  John the Baptist is announcing to Israel, you need to repent, change your lives, change your ways, you need to come be baptized for repentance and forgiveness of sins!!  The people come, Jesus comes with them and he gets baptized by John.  He is baptized with a baptism for repentance and forgiveness of sins.  So, question is, is Jesus repenting of sin??  Why else would he need to be baptized by John??  He is baptized with a baptism for repentance…is Jesus repenting of sin??

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The answer, i would say, is yes and no.  Jesus is without sin, therefore Jesus can not repent for personal sin.   But here’s the key – Jesus has joined us, he belongs to a sinful people,  he can say, to us and with us,  we need to repent, let me lead the way.   Jesus is God with us, he is Emmanuel.   He is not God separate from us, he is one of us.  He could never say father forgive me of my sin, but can teach us and lead us to pray, with him leading us, saying, Father “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

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This is hard to get for we modern people.  Repenting for sins for which we are not individually responsible for is foreign to us.  But the hyper individualism of the modern era is foreign to biblical thought.  It is a very modern, liberal creation to think like this –  I’m an individual responsible only for myself…it’s as if we believe in the ways of Cain, “Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?””   To which we say all too often, no, I’m an individual responsible for no one else, just myself.  That’s foreign to the thought of the Bible, and it’s not how Jesus thought.

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Jesus did not stand aloof from us, as a holy individual, saying look at all those sinners are getting baptized, but I am without sin so I will not join them.  Instead Jesus says I belong to a sinful people, a sinful race, I am one if you, I am with you, I will lead the way, together we need to repent.  Even though he wasn’t individually responsible he’s willing to say we together need to come back to God.

baptism

Jesus leads us into the waters of baptism and calls us to follow.  Baptism remains formal introduction into the Jesus Way.  There is no excuse for not being baptized.  Jesus was baptized.  Then he tells us to be baptized. If you’re not baptized, there is only one thing to do.  Go, and be baptized.

Jesus doesn’t come up with some reason not to be baptized.  John tried to stop him.  “John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?””  Matthew 3:14 ESV.   But Jesus says no, we must fulfill all covenant faithfulness, all righteousness, I’m part of this so baptized me as well.  “But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.”  Matthew 3:15 ESV

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Jesus leads the way and calls us into baptism, he institutes communion, these are both formal religious practices.   Jesus followed a sacred calendar, He gave us a prayer to pray, He founded a church and calls us into it.

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Don’t accept modern liberal idea that Jesus was opposed to formal religious practices.  Noting could be farther from the truth.  Again, Jesus is baptized and calls us to be baptized.  Jesus instituted communion, observed a sacred calendar, Jesus gives us a prayer to pray, he founds a church calls us to be part of it.   We don’t get to make Christianity up.  It’s a received faith.  We can’t have an a la carte Christianity.  I like to sing the songs in worship, say Amen!  But i don’t need to be baptized, really.  It’s cold outside, it might mess my hair up.  And we really don’t need communion, besides, i have places to be and that takes time….

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Ok, you might be able to pull off following Jesus as an individual, but then what are you going to pass to your kinds and grandkids?    What about the generations to come?   If we are interested in passing our faith to the next generation, we need to be interested in the things that make Christianity multi-generational.   Things like churches, communion, calendar, and prayers that are passed on from generation to generation.  This is how the faith gets passed on through generations instead of just a lone, boutique experience.

Christianity is impossible as a solo project.  In the beginning of his ministry, the first thing Jesus did was to be baptized with us, showing us we are all in this together.  We don’t all have to  figure out how to be saved by ourselves.  One way of understanding Salvation might be as a kind of belonging where we, corporately,  belong to the People of God.

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I’ve heard it said that a lone Christian is a paralyzed Christian.  I would say a lone Christian is no Christian.   We are called follow Jesus into the waters of baptism, we are called into church, we are called to worship, we are called to communion, we are called to prayer.   If you’re not following Jesus into these things, then what are you following him into?

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.””

Luke 3:21-22 ESV

http://bible.com/59/luk.3.21-22.esv

John Lewis

A Little Shelter

Writing today about our God, who is so vast and so overwhelming that we can only describe and attempt to understand him through the use of metaphor.  There really is no other way.  We talk about God in metaphor, but even that does not satisfy, so we have multiple metaphors we use, which at least can get us close to understand the power, majesty and grace of the God of the universe.

One of our favorite metaphors, it seems, is the military metaphor.  We American Christians do seem to love to refer to ourselves as “soldiers of the Lord”, we love to describe our bibles as “swords” we are carrying into our great battle.  We love the picture of Christ in Revelation with the sword coming from his mouth – “In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.”  Revelation 1:16 ESV.   We love to envision this Christ who returns, chopping down all those sinners with that sword (all those other sinners, that is).   As the writer of Hebrews told us “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12 ESV.  As a sinner who’s been chopped down by the word of God, slain in heart by the one the one who judges the living and the dead, so that I could come to faith and be baptized into the resurrection kind of life, this metaphor does have its place.

BUT, maybe this is not the best metaphor for us to use as we go into the world.   Maybe as “soldiers for Christ” we are carrying an us vs them attitude into the world.  In our current culture war climate, maybe this is just not the best way for us (or them) to see ourselves.  Many outside the church don’t understand this metaphor and even feel threatened by it.  As “soldiers for Christ”, we seem as though it’s us against the world.  And they are the world.  It’s just too easy for this metaphor to be misunderstood and misused by those outside both by those outside and those inside the church.   Why not focus on being the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the city on a hill, the temple of the Lord, the vineyard and branches of God.

Or how about the metaphor Jesus uses in closing his Sermon on the Mount?   “”Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”” Matthew 7:24-27 ESV.   This metaphor which Jesus gives at the end of his masterpiece sermon is especially helpful and hopeful for us if we are interested in reimagining the church in a new and more attractive way.  It’s the metaphor of a shelter from the storm.

Jesus did not invent this metaphor.   Instead, he is taking this metaphor straight from Isaiah, where Jesus took so much of his self awareness and self understanding from.  Three different times Isaiah uses this “shelter from the storm metaphor as he looks forward to Messiah.

“In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.” Isaiah 4:2-6 ESV.   Isaiah sees Zion in the age of Messiah, at the coming of Christ, as a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.   A safe place for those weathering the storm to come looking for shelter…

O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you; I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure. For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the foreigners’ palace is a city no more; it will never be rebuilt. Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you. For you have been a stronghold to the poor, a stronghold to the needy in his distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat; for the breath of the ruthless is like a storm against a wall, like heat in a dry place. You subdue the noise of the foreigners; as heat by the shade of a cloud, so the song of the ruthless is put down.”  Isaiah 25:1-5 ESV.  God’s care for the poor and needy will be a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat.   Yahweh has always been especially interested in the care of those for whom the world does not care, in giving shelter to those who can provide none of their own.

“Behold, a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule in justice. Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a shelter from the storm, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.” Isaiah 32:1-2 ESV.  The king will reign in righteousness and rule in justice.  And one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess and bless our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.

Eight centuries before Jesus, Isaiah used the language of a shelter from the storm.   Jesus would understand the kingdom of a God as Isaiah understood the coming of Messiah – a shelter from the storm.   The storm is all around us.  It seems we can run, but we can’t hide.  We live in the world of the 24 hour news cycle, a world where everyone has chosen sides and every bad thing that happens is their fault.  It doesn’t matter who they are, all that matters is that it’s not our fault.

In this polarized world in which we live, entrenched in our “us vs them” standoffs, the church as a shelter from the storm is far more appealing than storm-troopers for Jesus, or soldiers for Christ.  The world is entrenched in battle formations.  When we invite people to church, is it just another invitation to battle?  Is the invitation “We are in a huge battle, come fight on our side!”   How attractive is that?   Do people really want more conflict in their lives?   Or – have they already have enough of that?

Isaiah’s – and Jesus’- invitation is much better.  I’m reminded of the old 80s hair band song “We all need a little shelter”.  Our world is beaten down, pounded by the winds and the rains and the rising storms of life.  My pastor says that we are all either coming out of a storm, in a storm right now, or about to head into a storm.  So, are we offering them more storminess?  Or are we inviting them out of the raging storm and into a nice warm shelter?

What, exactly, should we be offering as the church?  Shelter from the storm?  Or more of the same old us vs them conflict that the rest of the world lives under.  Are we living by the spirit of the world, or the spirit of Christ?  “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.” 1 Corinthians 2:12 ESV

We all need a little shelter.   Yes, we do.

John Lewis

Taking Away the Sin of the World…

Taking Away the Sin of the World…

lambof god

A couple of days later than I wanted to be with this.  But, it’s a good message and one worth sharing.  Even if it gets under some skin…

John the Baptist was sent by God to prepare for the revolution.  The revolution God himself was bringing.  John was preaching and baptizing in the wilderness, preparing a people ready to participate in the revolution of the arrival of kingdom of God that would come with what Jesus was doing and saying.  John had gathered a large following, and had many disciples of his own.  At least two of these would become disciples of Jesus, Andrew and we believe John, though it doesn’t say so explicitly.

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Jesus comes out to where John is, to see this thing that John is doing out by the Jordan River.  John sees him coming and declares to his disciples Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!  The next day Jesus comes again, and  John says it again.  The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.”  Andrew and John became followers Jesus, or as we might say, followers of the lamb.  Two of the very first Christians.   To be a Christian, to participate in the revolutionary kingdom of Christ, is to be a follower of the lamb who takes away the sin of the world.  But – what does this even mean?

We all know there is something deeply wrong in world.  We are over 7 billion strong as the human race, but we are still a long way from getting it right.  Something is wrong.  Why is there still so much hatred, so much racism, so many wars, so much poverty.  Why do 2 billion people, with all our advancement, technology, and ability to create wealth, still live abject poverty?  Why is there still so much preventable disease?   We have the means, we have the ability, we just have not organized ourselves to be able to prevent these things.  Never mind the diseases we haven’t cracked yet, but there are diseases we are completely capable of beating, yet we have not.  Why?

Sin

The only answer has to be because of our sin.   It’s what John calls the “sin of the world”.  In the book of Genesis, the sin of world begins with unhealthy desire.  In the garden, Adam was warned about this.  But Adam and Eve ignore their warning and begin to feed their unhealthy desire, leading to their expulsion (or maybe it would be more helpful to call this exile).  Then sin rears its ugly head, and Cain kills Abel.  This is the story that most clearly shows the sin of world that replicates its self over and over.   It seems to be the source of our problems and deep systemic problems we have until this day.

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The sin of world is our rivalry with our brothers and sisters whom we call enemies and others, leading us to hate and accuse, to refuse and vilify, ultimately to  oppress and kill our sisters and brothers, especially if they belong to some other tribe, race, nation, or religious group.  We refuse to recognize those other than we think we are as our brothers.   Then we participate in all those Cain-like activities of hating, accusing, vilifying, oppressing and even killing.  This is the opposite of what the bible calls love.  The Bible also says God is love.  It’s by going against the grain of love that the world becomes a miserable place.

If we refuse to love God in such a way that it is manifested in loving our neighbor, we are on the highway to hell.  If we are going against universe as God created and intended (and we almost always are), we suffer the consequences of unintended pain and suffering.

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Someone must intervene.  This is what must be done when someone we love has gone down the path of self destruction.  God intervenes.  This is what we call Christmas.  God stages his own intervention.   Because “For God so loved the world…”.  God beholds this  race he has made in his own image engaged in increasingly self destructive behavior, and inserts himself into our situation in the form of his only begotten son.

_intervention

Someone must stage an intervention.   Someone has to take away the sin. It’s the sin that’s the problem.  Wars, poverty, racism, hatred are just manifestations, symptoms.  But the deeper problem is the sin.  So when Jesus appears on the banks of the Jordan, John announces the Lamb of God who takes away sin of world.

John1_29-behold-the-lamb-of-god-who-takes-away-the-sins-of-the-world

How?  How does Jesus take away the sin of the world?  We are at the beginning of the story, but  we find at the end of the story exactly how Jesus takes away the sin of the world.   The sin of the world, hating and killing our brothers, will be violently sinned into Jesus.  He becomes the supreme victim of problem,  he becomes the supreme victim of the sin of the world.  The sin of the world that wrecks the capacity of human flourishing coalesces into a great single moment in history and is sinned into Jesus.  And so he bears the sin of the world.

Hell

Where does he take it?   Down into death, Hades, Hell, Sheol.  Exactly where it belongs.  He takes that sin with himself down into the depths of death, and after three days he shakes it off.  He’s raised from the dead!!  He comes back, having born our sins, without a word of blame.  He takes it all, he bears it.  He’s the innocent Lamb of God.  All that sin, hatred, blame, revenge, retribution will all stay in Hades, but the Son of God returns on the third day.  He speaks of love, peace, and forgiveness, not vengeance and payback.  This is how the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world.   He  leads us into the new world by absorbing sin, forgiving it, and taking away sin of the world.   It dies with him, but is not resurrected with him.

BUT – we are called to be followers of the lamb.  In our own lives in our own way we are to imitate day by day, in ways big and ways small, what Jesus did.  We are not fans of the lamb, but followers of the lamb.  It’s one thing to be spectator in the stands, cheering your support.  Go Jesus!!  It’s another another to suit up.  It’s another thing altogether to get in the game, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.

take-up-your-cross

John the Baptist was the greatest of all prophets before Christ.  Jesus himself says so.  I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John.”  Luke 7:28 ESV   But two of his disciples leave for Jesus.  Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. Whoever is least in the kingdom is greater than John.  You can be the greatest ever to live under the vision from Moses, but when Christ comes it’s a completely different world.   “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John 1:17 ESV

The Stoning of St Stephen

This is what it means to be a Christian, to follow the lamb.  To live the ways of the lamb.  What does it look like?  Often times it looks like what Stephen did.  The day after Christmas on the church calendar is the feast of Stephen, St Stephens Day.  It’s appropriate that the day after celebrating birth of Christ the church honors the first Christian martyr.   We know the story of Stephen.  He was a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. Acts 6:5 ESV.   Stephen was powerful, full of the Spirit, and was gathering around him many followers of Jesus.  This put him in rivalry with some in the Sanhedrin.   “But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.”   So, of course, they killed him.   But as he’s dying, he cries out – “And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”  Acts 7:60 ESV.  He cries out for Jesus not to blame his own killers.   He’s become a little Christ, a Christian.   He carries their sin upon himself.  Just as the sin of the world comes upon Jesus but he does not recycle it or return it.  He did not follow the way of Cain, the way of revenge, way of the world.  He cries out for forgiveness, not vengeance.  He bore the sin of the world, helping the lamb of God take away the sin of world.

We either retaliate against sin and help the devil recycle and reenergize the sin of the world, or we absorb and forgive sin and help Jesus take away the sin of the world.   This is what it means to be a follower of the lamb.

mlk

Are there any modern examples followers of the lamb.  Well, how about Martin Luther King, Jr?  He was America’s greatest prophet.  True to what Jesus would say, America killed him and then built a monument to him.  What sorrow awaits you! For you build monuments for the prophets your own ancestors killed long ago. But in fact, you stand as witnesses who agree with what your ancestors did. They killed the prophets, and you join in their crime by building the monuments! This is what God in his wisdom said about you: ‘I will send prophets and apostles to them, but they will kill some and persecute the others.’

MLK_LorraineMotel_

So, yes, we killed him and built monuments to him.  We killed him, and created a holiday honoring him.  We killed him, we honor him, and we still live in the world picking up stones to throw at one another.

America has twin foundations sins.   The enslavement of Africans for the sake of economy, and the expulsion and sometimes genicidal treatment of native inhabitants in the name of expansion.  It was all about economy and expansion.

MLK Jr DC Memorial

It is fitting, then, that the grandson of slaves in the 1950s would show by his life to white American Christians what it looks like to follow the lamb.  The Gospel had taken root in African American churches at the time, and Martin Luther King was an embodiment of that.

The Dexter Avenue Baptist church in Montgomery Alabama.   It’s weeks before Christmas, November 17, 1957.  In Alabama. A black man in Alabama in 1957 knows what it is to have enemies.  Martin Luther King that day preached a sermon called “Loving your enemies.

“The evil seed of the enemy neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is.  An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy….we must not seek to defeat or humiliate the enemy, but to win his friendship and understanding…

Seeing the image of God in your enemy who is trying to harm you is a very difficult thing to preach.  It would have been easy to just preach an us vs them, God is on our side Sermon, but that’s not what he did.

…Returning hate for hate multiples hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.  Violence multiples violence.  Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.  Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies or else?  The chain reaction of evil hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars must be broken or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.  To our most bitter opponents (bitter opponents as in KKK members dragging black men off to be beaten and worse) we say we shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by  our capacity to endure suffering.  We shall neet your physical force with soul force.  Do to us what you will, we shall continue to love you.  Throw us in jail and we shall still love you.  Bomb our homes (his home was bombed) and threaten our children and we shall still love you.   Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour to beat us and leave us half dead and we shall still love you.  But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.  One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves.   We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”  

Now that’s a follower of the Lamb.  Only Jesus makes that sermon possible.  Only Jesus makes that life possible.  He didn’t only want to liberate African Americans from unjust oppression, he wanted to liberate white Americans from the idea that they had to perpetuate their evil system.

On April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee Martin Luther King, Jr bore the sins of America when he was cut down by an assassins bullet.  By following the lamb, preaching Jesus, loving enemies and practicing nonviolence, Martin Luther King, Jr helped take away the sins of America.  His death helped awaken America to its sin of racism.

The death of Jesus was obviously unique in that he was the sinless sin of god vindicated by resurrection on the third day by the Father.  But the suffering and death of St Stephen, Martin Luther King, and every other Christian martyr is the ultimate example of what it looks like to follow the lamb.  They were helping the lamb take away the sin of the world, and God will raise them, too, to life everlasting.

Amen

“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

 

The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.”

John 1:29, 35-37 ESV

http://bible.com/59/jhn.1.29,35-37.esv

 

“What sorrow awaits you! For you build monuments for the prophets your own ancestors killed long ago. But in fact, you stand as witnesses who agree with what your ancestors did. They killed the prophets, and you join in their crime by building the monuments! This is what God in his wisdom said about you: ‘I will send prophets and apostles to them, but they will kill some and persecute the others.’”

Luke 11:47-49 NLT

http://bible.com/116/luk.11.47-49.nlt

John Lewis

The Weeping

Looking at a story of grief, weeping, and ultimately hope this morning.

The story of Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, one of Jesus’ dearest friends.  Lazarus fell ill, so his sisters sent to Jesus saying “So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”” John 11:3 ESV.  Jesus got the message that Lazarus was ill, and the story tells us “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” John 11:5-6 ESV.  Which seems kind of odd, shouldn’t he have left immediately?   But Jesus had his own plans for this sickness of his friends, which only he understood.   “But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”” John 11:4 ESV

So Jesus took his own sweet time.  Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.  He had waited where he was for two extra days, waited so long that by the time he shows up, his friend Lazarus had been dead four days.  But I do have to say, it may not have mattered how quickly Jesus had left to come to Lazarus, he may have been too late anyway.  But either way, by the time Jesus show up, Lazarus has been dead four days, and his sisters are none too happy or impressed with Jesus because of it.  So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died….”    Mary also says, …“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Which brings us to the shortest verse in the Bible.  Jesus doesn’t justify himself, he doesn’t give all the reasons why he hadn’t come, he doesn’t tell Mary and Martha why Lazarus had to die, he doesn’t try to cheer them up and tell them everything is going to be ok, he doesn’t tell them how this is all part of God’s good plan.  No, here it tells us When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.    Next it tells what Jesus reaction was – Jesus wept.   He doesn’t explain, justify, or minimize their loss.  He doesn’t try to “cheer them up”, doesn’t try to get them to pretend they have not lost their brother.  Their brother was dead, laid in the tomb four days.   They had suffered loss, they were grieving, so Jesus wept, he joins them in their grief.   If you are hurting right now, if you are grieving, if you are weeping, Jesus weeps with you.

Maybe the apostle Paul was familiar with this story when he told the believers in Rome “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Romans 12:15 ESV.  Just weep with those who weep, as Jesus wept with Mary and Martha.  Share their burden, don’t deny their pain.

Of course, this is not the end of Lazarus’ story.  It won’t be the end of your story either.  Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”   It’s in this darkest hour that we see our greatest hope.   It’s our great Christian hope, the true hope of Christ.  Resurrection.

Just as Jesus called out to Mary and Marthas brother “Lazarus, come out.”, he will call to each one of us.  That is my hope, that is what my true faith is.  Each one of us will hear “John, come out!”, “Marc, come out!”, “Rob, come out!”, “Susie, come out!

Jesus told Martha “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”  Do we believe this?  We have a great hope in Christ, that just as he was raised from the dead, we too will be raised from the dead.  “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Romans 6:4-5 ESV.   And as Paul also so well puts it, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” 1 Corinthians 15:12 ESV

So we believe, we trust, we have faith in that which we can not see.  But for now, we weep.  And Jesus weeps with us.

“Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.””

John 11:17-44 ESV

http://bible.com/59/jhn.11.17-44.esv

John Lewis

Only the Suffering God…

suffering christ

Continuing something now that I had started before Thanksgiving and the coming of the advent season.   Looking again at the question of pain and suffering in our world.  Pain is the price of admission, we might say, the price of admission into this thing we call being human.  We’ve been raised by Denial University to deny our pain, but denial or not, we all feel the pain of living in this broken world.

ecce-homo-behold-the-man-2

So today I’m going to jump forward, out of advent, straight into the passion story of Jesus Christ.   Heche Homo.  Behold the man.  Pilate, during his “trial” in Rome leading to the crucifixion, brings forth Jesus to the jeering crowd.  See this man who is suffering.  See him bleed, watch us mock him, spit on him, beat him.  Is it enough?  It was not enough.  He would have to suffer more, much more.  Further torture.  Crucifixion.  An agonizing death.  Heche homo, behold the man.  This man whom we behold, this man is God.  But he is seen here not as the omnipotent God, but as the suffering God.

mighty-god

From the beginning of human religious consciousness  we have shared similar images of god throughout cultures and throughout the religions of the world.  We’ve had our ideas of god which go way back.  The  creator god, mighty god, merciful god, omnipotent god, the all powerful god.   We had known the glorious god, the holy god, the avenging god, but this is something other, something altogether unanticipated, unimagined, unexpected.  This is the suffering god.  A god who suffers.  The idea that god could and would suffer.

suffering christ2

This idea is so foreign to us (and by us i mean humanity), even scandalous, that it took nearly 2000 years for even the church to admit it, to see it, to confess it.  It took 2000 years after the suffering Christ to see the suffering god.  It took two world wars and the holocaust for the church to see the suffering god.

dietrich-bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the great theologians of the twentieth century.  A few days before his execution by Nazi Germany at the Flossenburg Concentration camp he scribbled the words “only the suffering god can help” on a scrap piece of paper which was somehow smuggled out of that prison and  preserved for history.  Written on a scrap piece of paper by one of the most brilliant theologians of the 20th century days before he himself was hung from the gallows for being a prophetic voice against his own brutal empire.

From the beginning of the Church and throughout its history, from the Greek philosophy, Platonist influenced Church fathers until middle of 20th century, we talked not of the suffering god, but instead of the “impassibility” of God.  Impassibility means incapable of suffering.  The argument went like this – To suffer is to change, God doesn’t change, and therefore God does not suffer.   This way of thinking about God dominated Christian thought from about the 2nd to 3rd century until the mid 20th century.   That’s when we discovered the suffering god.

What forced Christianity to re-think the suffering of god was the horrors of the twentieth century and the two world wars, which can really be seen as a single event stretching over 20 to 30 years.

WWI U.S.

World War I highlighted the coming of both mechanized and chemical warfare, along with trench warfare and our general advancement of technology.   It was the war to end all wars.  It was a war that saw 20,000,000 deaths.  The world had never seen anything thing like this.  Until the one that came after that.  We didn’t see this consequence of technology coming.  So much for our enlightenment bringing about a more peaceable world.

wwii

Then WWII came, and for the first time, it was not just not just about the armies.  Before WWII war was fought by soldiers out in the battlefield, civilians and cities were left alone.  But with WWII, the battlefield was everywhere,  the battlefield included the cities and population centers.  We were truly “enlightened” by this point, I suppose.   Really, why should only those in military service suffer and die?   While World War 1 saw 20,000,000 deaths, WWII. saw 25,000,000 military deaths, and 40,000,000 civilian deaths.  65,000,000 people gone with civilian deaths nearly doubling actual military combatant deaths.  We came a long way baby…war was now totalized.

holocaust1

When we add in deaths produced by totalitarian regimes of mao and Stalin, first half of twentieth century saw death of 150,000,000 people through systematic killing.  The battlefield was truly everywhere.

At the dark heart of the twentieth century was the Shoah, or as we know it, the holocaust.  How is it that the most advanced, educated nation in the world (which is what Germany was at the time) could systematically murder 6 million just for being Jewish?

holocaust

After the smoke cleared from the ovens of Auschwitz and mushroom clouds of Hiroshima, the church could no longer speak of god as being impassible.  There was a seismic theological shift in Christianity and Judaism.  In the post holocaust world to speak of god as non-suffering seems almost blasphemous.  Bonhoeffer had it right, only the suffering God can help.  After the holocaust, if God doesn’t know what it is to suffer, then never mind.

But to see the suffering God is not just a concession to post-holocaust sensibilities.  It was in scriptures all along, we just did not see it, probably because we did not want to see it.  We barely want to acknowledge our own suffering, let alone a God who suffers.  But if Jesus really is Emmanuel, God with us, then God must suffer because to truly be one if us is to feel pain.

crucifixion-of-Jesus

Jürgen Moltmann is another important theologian of twentieth century.  In his book The Crucified God he says “A god who is only omnipotent is an incomplete being, for he cannot experience helplessness and powerlessness…Omnipotence is never loved only feared.  A god incapable of suffering can not be involved.

where is god

Elie Weisel is a Romanian born Jew who became an American citizen, Nobel Laureate, and was a holocaust survivor.  In his book Night about his experiences in Nazi concentration camps in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  At one point, he relates a story from one of these camps of an infraction among the Jewish slave laborers.  To punish them, the guards executed 3 people, 2 men and one young boy.  But the boy was too small and his neck was not broken by impact.  He died a long, slow and tortured death.  The inmates were made to stand at attention and watch.  Someone near Weisel said “Where is God, where is God, where is God”.   To which someone else answers “in the gallows.”

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This is the scandal of the cross.  Strangely enough, this is exactly what we confess as Christians.  That God has been hung in the gallows.  Pilate says behold the man!  Confessing Christians say behold our god!  It is almost an incredible claim.  It is scandalous.  The Apostle Paul calls it the offense of the gospel.  The Crucified Jesus hung on the gallows of the cross is the image of the invisible god.   Paul tells us this human being is the logos of god made flesh and his defining moment is being hung upon the cross.   Christ crucified is the image, the ikon, the pure revelation of the invisible God.  Under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death, Jesus Christ is paradoxically the clearest revelation of who god is.  God is like that.  He does not suffer for us to satisfy god, he suffers with us as god.   What does the symbol of the Christian cross say if it doesn’t say we believe in the suffering god?

jesus-on-cross

God did not only become fully human, which is scandalous enough, but he became the kind of human we don’t want to be.  He became a despised and rejected outcast.  He became a failure.  His death came as a failure.  He did not die the noble death of a heroic martyr.  In light of resurrection we see the cross completely differently, but as he died, condemned by Caiaphas, sentenced to death by Pilate, he died the death of a failure.   It was the ultimate I told you so.  There was no halo.  It was just another shameful death on a Roman crucifix.

Jesus did not fight the good fight, live a full life and die at a ripe old age.   This was a young man in his prime, cut down.  He spoke of a new Kingdom, He spoke of a new way of being.  Everybody said he couldn’t do it, then they nailed him naked to a tree and proved they were right and he was wrong.  Even his disciples had forsaken him.  Jesus died the worst death that he may go down into the ugliest depths of death.  Jesus Christ,  Emmanuel, is god with us.  In life, in struggles, in sorrows, in pain, and yes, even in death.  Whatever it means for a human being to die, god in Christ has experienced, but not just an act of solidarity, but an act of salvation.

death-defeated-wallpaper

The writer of Hebrews says   “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” Hebrews 2:9 ESV

God in Christ suffered death that he might enter into death, and defeat death inside its own domain.  He was swallowed up by death that he might destroy death from inside out.   God in Christ went all the way down into ugliest depths of death that he might lead the way out.  So that,  in Christ there is a way out.  In fact, when you die, you in Christ will not see death but see Christ.  He will be there to meet you having defeated death.  His suffering with us not just solidarity but an act of salvation

by-his-wounds-full

This is the mystery of salvation – by his wounds we are healed.  He was wounded so we might be healed.  Even in his resurrected body Jesus s still displays his wounds.  Because when we bring our wounds to the wounds of Christ, we come to one who has really been wounded.  Only the suffering god can help.   His claim is not  “I haven’t really been wounded but I can help anyway”.  Instead he says “I know”. I know what it means to be spit upon, reviled, hated, rejected and betrayed.  I know what it is to be beaten and abused. See my hands, see my side, know that it is I.  He invites us, like Thomas, to touch his wounds, to lay our wounds upon his wounds.  That’s where the miracle begins.  We can’t  explain it, but bringing our wounds to the wounds of Christ does not multiply woundedness but begins the healing.

Only the suffering god can help.

And he is here to help.

“Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands. Pilate went out again and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!””

John 19:1-5 ESV

http://bible.com/59/jhn.19.1-5.esv

John Lewis