Archives For Lent
Pharoah and his army he cast into the sea, they went down, down, down like a stone. By your right hand, by your mighty right hand they were shattered; Lord, you shattered them all. Sing to the Lord; the Lord has won, he has won. Sing to the Lord; the Lord has won, he has won.
– Exodus 15
Moses is referred to as a servant thirty-six times in the scripture Jesus learned on Mary’s lap.
Only, there’s another understanding of servant that courses through the Hebrew Bible. It’s not a memory of one God has sent to his People. It’s the promise of a servant God will send to rescue his People.
The prophet Isaiah was called after the Chosen People had been invaded, defeated and plundered by Babylon. Israel’s best and brightest were exiled into captivity. Those not exiled had it worse; they had to live among ruins, the promises of God reduced to ash and rubble.
Isaiah looked for a day when God would restore his People by way of another Servant.
And maybe because of all the violence Isaiah had witnessed, maybe because Isaiah knew firsthand that violence doesn’t always end in victory songs, Isaiah anticipated a servant unlike Moses. Isaiah envisioned a deliverance different than the Exodus.
After Jesus enters Jerusalem, on Monday of Holy Week, Jesus goes to the Temple as though he’d been deputized and it’s his jurisdiction.
Not content to ‘teach’ he drives them out:
The merchants who’ve set up shop in the narthex.
The money changers, looking to make a buck off atonement. The venders who sold doves to those too poor (like Mary and Joseph) to purchase a proper animal for sacrificing.
Jesus drives them out along with all the thousands of sheep and oxen waiting to be sold to the holiday travelers.
Tradition refers to this as Jesus ‘cleansing’ the Temple, but it’s really a stampede. In a city already filled with 200,000 pilgrims and the 20,000 lambs required for their Passover meals Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple creates chaos in the streets. It leaves the crowds spellbound.
It puts Jesus firmly in control of events.
If he truly is a Messiah like they expect then his coup d’etat is nearly complete: the Temple’s been taken, the crowds are on his side and the Roman fortress is literally just next door.
But Jesus doesn’t take up arms.
Instead, Matthew says that after he’s driven out the merchants and money changers, Jesus welcomes the blind and the lame and the children to come up to him in the Temple, a place where they were forbidden.
Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple becomes yet another example of how he’s taught all along.
As though God had sent this messiah to teach.
As if deliverance could be accomplished with just words.
Or with the Word.
Patristic theologians, those theologians in the Church’s first generations, understood the work of atonement primarily in battle imagery.
For them, the Son’s work is a dramatic struggle Jesus wages with Sin and Death. Death in this perspective is a malevolent power, synonymous with Sin, which looms over God’s creation and frustrates God’s intentions for us. Paul, in Colossians 2.15, speaks of the Cross in this way and the effects Jesus’ cross have over the natural world in the Gospels suggest it too: the earthquake, the graves exploding open, the sky darkening, the temple veil torn in two. Jesus in Mark 10.45 speaks of his life being a ransom.
The Palm Sunday allusions to a military parade echo such a battle metaphor too. Jesus rides into Jerusalem just like Pilate, the crowds wave palm leaves, a messianic symbol, and Jesus is tried for claiming to be a rival king and he dies a revolutionary’s death.
For the early Church, Easter- much more so than the Cross- is the day that changes everything and the significance of the Cross is that it’s empty.
In the Gospel narrative, Pilate and the chief priests represent the power of Death and Sin in the world. They represent us, who enamored of ‘power’ such that we cannot recognize or accept that Jesus’ self-giving form of love is the true power that moves the universe.
Jesus saves us by breaking Death’s power, by defeating the lure that Sin has over us and by making possible a life lived in anticipation of God’s New Creation. This metaphor sees atonement has happening primarily through Easter’s Empty Tomb.
The strengths of the Victor theory include its recognition of the reality and power of Sin in the world; Jesus comes to defeat Sin on a cosmic level not simply forgive my personal sin and Jesus does this objectively and decisively.
According to this way of thinking, Sin really was defeated by Jesus once and for all. As Paul says in Ephesians, he has brought down the principalities and powers. All that’s left in our world, all the sin and evil we see in our world, is just the last gasp of an enemy that’s already been defeated.
Think of the Ring of Power in the Lord of the Rings and how it exercises power and evil long after Sauron had been defeated. It was, in fact, this model of the atonement that informed Tolkien.
Another attribute of the theory is how it understands that God works liberation and reconciliation not through violence but by letting Sin do its worst to him and thus demonstrating its ultimate finitude and weakness.
The Cross, then, shows God exhausting Sin’s power.
There’s literally nothing else Sin can do to him and its still not enough to destroy God’s condescending love.
The Victor metaphor also pays due attention to Jesus’ life. The content of Jesus’ life, his teaching, is the same power that defeats Sin at the end of the story. His teaching isn’t extraneous or optional for us. It’s Jesus training us to do battle in the world today.
Christians committed to the efficacy of Jesus’ teaching aren’t being naive or idealistic, as critics often charge; in fact, they are being more realistic than anyone else.
Sin has been defeated by Jesus.
We shouldn’t act as though Christians must resort to non-Christians means to do battle. Sin should be taken seriously but the only way to defeat it is through Christ’s way of life.
It may even kill us as it killed him but ultimately Easter shows it to be the only winning strategy.
Salvation isn’t just what Jesus did; it’s what God does.
When it comes to Christ specifically, salvation, meaning ‘healing’ or ‘rescue,’ is a word that functions with two complementary but different meanings.
Understood against a large canvas, ‘salvation’ refers to what Jesus does (or did) through his life, death and resurrection. More particularly, ‘salvation’ also refers to what God does today to heal us of Sin; that is, ‘salvation’ refers to how God extends the benefits of Christ’s work to us in the present.
I would argue the only way to avoid such confusion is construing salvation as a work, not of God or Jesus in isolation from one another, of the entire Trinity.
As Trinity, God worked salvation for us through incarnation, cross and resurrection.
As Trinity, God works salvation (healing, rescue) for us through the Holy Spirit.
Put in trinitarian terms, salvation is both past and present. It’s a work of both the Son and the Spirit.
As a work of the Son, salvation can be defined in terms of Christ’s act of atonement and refers to the way in which Jesus‘ birth, life, death and resurrection reconciles a sinful humanity to God.
While this work of the Son properly encompasses the breadth of Jesus‘ story, oftentimes atonement more narrowly refers exclusively to the Cross.
When Christians say ‘Jesus saves,‘ for instance, they usually mean ‘Jesus atoned.‘
Atonement is a sacrificial term owing to the Levitical holiness codes in the Old Testament. In Christian terms, it denotes the way in which Jesus (his life or death or both) is an expiation, an expungement, for humanity’s sin. As I tell the confirmation students each year, atonement refers to how Jesus makes us ‘at-one‘ with God, a God we’d estranged through our sin.
Christ achieves this at-onement irrespective of the rest of the course of human history. As the darkening skies, the torn temple veil and the quaking earth in the Gospels‘ Good Friday scenes suggest, there is an objective status to Christ’s work on the Cross. In some real way, the obedience and faithfulness of Jesus all the way to the Cross determines how God henceforth regards humanity.
That the penalty of humanity’s sin is reconciled, however, does not mean that humanity is fully restored to the life God originally intended.
It may be the 1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4-giveness
but that does not mean you are a transformed person.
Forgiveness alone does not make you who God made you to be. Forgiveness instead makes it possible- it frees you- for the work of the Spirit (grace) to restore you so that, over time, you may resemble Christ.
The work of the Son is objective, true, and perfect. It is continued and perfected in us by the work of the Spirit. The Spirit makes available in the present the work of the Son in the past.
You can see this Trinitarian flow in the chronology of the Gospels themselves. After Good Friday and Easter, the Risen Christ appears to the disciples (to whom all is clearly forgiven) and breathes his Spirit upon them.
Soon, having received the Spirit, the disciples, heretofore dim-witted, sinful and cowardly, bear a striking resemblance to Jesus himself.
Having been reconciled they’ve been restored to lead Jesus‘ life for themselves.
As a present work of the Spirit, salvation can be defined in the very terms Jesus used the word: as healing, rescue, restoration from sin. This is the way Jesus speaks in Luke 19 when Christ invites himself to Zaccheus‘ house. Jesus‘ hospitality and welcome of a dreaded tax collector and Roman collaborator changes Zaccheus‘ heart such that Zaccheus willingly gives up his ill-gotten fortune. In response, Jesus declares ‘salvation has come to this house today.‘ In other words, Zaccheus right then and there has experienced healing.
Salvation as a work of the Son refers to what Jesus says ‘is accomplished’ on his cross. It’s the work that is true regardless of my own belief or faith. Salvation as a work of the Spirit refers to how I access and appropriate the Son’s work in my present life. If the work of the Son is what is objective about salvation then the work of the Spirit is that part of salvation that requires my response.
Already you may be asking: If the work of the Son (on the Cross) is definitive, perfect and objective once for all, then what of those who don’t believe? Who never come to the faith or who do not take it with sincerity?
That specific question is best answered later but understanding salvation as a work of the Spirit allows you to answer part of the question now.
Namely, if one does not appropriate salvation in their present life then- no matter the question of how God will ultimately judge them- they are living an impoverished life. They are living (settling for) a life less than what God desires for them.
I pulled the questions at random from a bingo tumbler and answered as many as possible.
Dennis Perry, my assistant pastor, joined me at 3 of the services and a friend and divinity student, Andrew DiAntonio joined me at 2 of the services.
You can listen and/or download them by clicking here or going to ‘Tamed Cynic’ in the iTunes store.
I will add them to the ‘Listen’ widget on this blog by the end of this week.
Shudder – to tremble with a sudden convulsive movement, as from horror, fear, or cold.
That moment when you want to find the nearest cave and just stay there awhile – or maybe longer….
Not a good kind of chill – a shudder.
That horror. That fear.
That recognition that leaves you cold.
That moment when it feels like nothing will ever be ok again.
Oprah helped bring the watered down version into our vocabulary – the AHA moment. But I’m talking about the shudder moment.
Isaiah talks about it:
“The arrogance of man will be brought low and the pride of man humbled; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day, and the idols will totally disappear. Men will flee to caves in the rocks and to holes in the ground from dread of the LORD…In that day men will throw away to the rodents and bats their idols of silver and idols of gold, which they made to worship. They will flee to caverns in the rocks and to the overhanging crags from dread of the LORD”
James talks about it:
“You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not recieve, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people, don’t you know that a friendship with the world is hatred toward God?”
It is spiritual adultery when we worship anything or anyone other than God. James has a way of putting things doesn’t he?
Too often I have felt that shudder to my very core when the Holy Spirit helps me uncover some hidden agenda, fear, pattern or habit in my life that is totally missing the Christian mark. I mean way off!
Then the realization hits me about just how much time I have wasted or how many people I have hurt in the meantime.
The wreckage that needs to be dealt with as well as the sin.
I have told myself what I have wanted to hear too many times so I could keep safe in my little life. So I wouldn’t have to go through the agony of the shudder moment that has to change everything for me. Too many things that I have served keep me from being the woman that God created me to be.
The thing is, that once I feel it, name it, deal with it, and ask for forgiveness I must give it over to the cross.
It isn’t easy to give up the regret or shame that those moments can bring.
I fee like if I don’t carry it around for months or years then I am somehow diminishing the suffering that I must feel because of it.
Christ suffered for that sin as well.
If His forgiveness is not for me – then it isn’t for you – and I know it is.
I hate Palm-Passion Sunday sermons. Hate. Them.
I know most everyone will never come to Holy Thursday or Good Friday so I feel this pressure to condense a week’s worth of holy week time and what is an easy third of the Gospel into one sermon, which is recipe for bad writing, which I know, which eventuates in bad writing. Argh.
Here’s a Palm Sunday sermon, “The Recipe for Peace,” from 2 years ago. It’s not terribly awful.
Scot McKnight has it posted it over at his Jesus Creed blog.
At the same time I was finishing up seminary, my best friend was winding up his studies at law school. When I was starting out at my first church, he was beginning his law career.
After clerking for an appeals court judge for a year, he got chosen to clerk for the Supreme Court, for Justice Scalia, a job which first required he to pass an extensive FBI background check.
Because I was his best friend and because we’d been roommates together at UVA and because we’d known each other a long while, the FBI needed to interview me about his character.
So one spring afternoon during Holy Week a fifty-something FBI agent came to my church to interview me about my friend.
He was tall and balding and was wearing a dark wrinkled suit. When my secretary showed him into my office, the first thing he said to me was “you don’t look much like a reverend.” Whether he was talking about my age or appearance wasn’t clear, but the contempt was crystal. I decided right then and there that I didn’t like him.
He offered me his business card but not his hand and sat down across from my desk. He glanced around my office looking amused. Then, with a dismissive tone of voice, he said: “So, why are you doing this?”
He meant ministry. Why are you doing ministry.
It wasn’t really the sort of question I was expecting to have to answer from him. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I believe God’s called me to this.’
And he chuckled.
Like there must be some angle, like I’d just given him a throwaway line I couldn’t possibly believe.
He nodded towards my diplomas on the wall by the stained glass window and said: ‘You didn’t really have to go to school for this did you?’
Looking back, I’d have to say it was right about then that I became cranky.
He opened up a leather portfolio, took out a pen from his pocket, and said: ‘Let’s get to it.’
I’m sure he had all the answers already, but he asked me how I knew my friend, how long I’d known him, how well I knew him. Those sorts of questions, verifying dates and addresses.
Then he asked me if I knew whether or not he belonged to any international organizations whose beliefs or interests might conflict with those of the United States government.
And because I’d already decided I didn’t much care for this agent and because I was feeling kind of cranky, a question like that was just too good to pass up.
So I responded by saying: ‘Yes, yes of course.’
He stopped writing and looked up from his pad. ‘Care to explain that?’ he mumbled.
And with my voice oozing sincerity I said:
‘Well, he’s a committed Christian. He belongs to a Church- that’s an ancient, international organization that demands complete and primary allegiance and can be quite critical of the government.’
The agent sighed as if to wonder what he’d done to deserve having to listen to a crazy person like me. He scribbled something in his notepad- religious nut-job, probably- and muttered: ‘But Christianity’s personal not political. It’s just spiritual stuff.’
And because he’d rubbed me the wrong way, and because sarcasm is my particular cross to bear, I decided to mess with him a bit more. I put a concerned look on my face and in my best conspiratorial tone of voice I whispered to him: ‘The problem is that Christians don’t see a difference between the two.’
I noted with delight his bald scalp starting to flush red.
‘Everything in the Gospels is about personal transformation,’ I whispered, ‘but everything in the Gospels is also a dangerous political statement.’
He set his pen down. He looked really irritated with me and I was loving every moment of it.
‘Alright,’ he said, ‘what do you mean exactly?’
Again with mock sincerity I said:
‘Think about it. As soon as Jesus is born the government tries to kill him. When he’s fasting in the wilderness he implies the governments of the world already belong to the devil. For his first sermon, he advocates across the board forgiveness of debts, redistribution of wealth to the poor and convicts to be set free. He never gives a straight answer about whether his followers should be paying taxes to the empire or not. When he enters Jerusalem the week before he dies he does so by mocking military parades with donkeys, coats and palm leaves.”
And then I lowered my voice to a whisper and said: ‘even though he refuses to resort to violence he’s killed by the empire as an enemy of the State, as a revolutionary. And we call him King.’
When I finished, he waited a moment, not saying anything, trying, I think, to get a read on me. Then he narrowed his eyes at me and said: ‘You think you’re pretty smart don’t you?’
And I feigned innocence and replied: ‘And just think- I didn’t even have to go to school.’
Every year during Passover week Jerusalem would be filled with approximately 200,000 Jewish pilgrims. Nearly all of them, like Jesus’ friends and family, would’ve been poor.
Throughout that Holy Week these thousands of pilgrims would remember how they’d once suffered under a different empire and how God had heard their cries and sent someone to save them.
So every year at the beginning of Passover week, Pontius Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph: a parade of horses and chariots and armed troops and bound prisoners, all led by imperial banners that declared ‘Caesar is Lord.’
A gaudy but unmistakeable display of power.
At the beginning of that same week Jesus comes from the east.
His ‘parade’ starts at the Mt of Olives, 2 miles outside the city, the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised God’s Messiah would one day usher in a victory of God’s People over their enemies.
And establish peace.
The procession begins at the Mt of Olives, but Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem began all the way back in Luke 9.
For ten chapters Jesus has journeyed from one town to another, teaching his way to Jerusalem.
From Luke 9 to Luke 19, as Jesus has made his way to Jerusalem, it’s all been about teaching, his teaching, teaching about the Kingdom.
It hasn’t been healing after healing after healing. It hasn’t been miracle after miracle after miracle. Jesus has taught his way to Jerusalem, taught about the Kingdom here and now, and our lives in it.
But when they get to the Mt of Olives, this place that’s charged with prophetic meaning, it’s not his teaching they want to acclaim.
It’s his deeds.
The mighty deeds.
The deeds of the power.
The healings and the miracles.
As if to say: if Jesus can do that just imagine what he can do to our enemies.
There are no palm branches in Luke’s Palm Sunday scene, no shouts of ‘Hosanna.’ Not even any crowds.
It’s just the disciples and some naysaying Pharisees and this King who’s riding a colt instead of a chariot.
The disciples lay their clothes on the road in front him.
They sing about ‘peace’ just as the angels had at his birth.
And then they proclaim excitedly about his mighty deeds.
And just as the disciples begin voicing their expectations and the city comes into view, Jesus falls down and weeps: ‘If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace.’
He’s looking at the city but he’s speaking to his disciples.
And he’s talking about the Kingdom, his teaching about the Kingdom.
He’s talking about:
Good news being brought to the poor and the hungry being filled
Embracing society’s untouchables
Eating and drinking with outcasts
Loving enemies and turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate you and refusing to judge lest you be judge and forgiving trespasses so you might be forgiven
Greatness redefined as service to the least
Love of God expressed as love of Neighbor
Hospitality so extravagant it’s like a Father who’s always ready to welcome a wayward home
A community of the called who are committed to being like light and salt and seed to the world
He’s talking about the Kingdom.
Our life in the Kingdom in the here and now.
With the city in view and excited shouts of mighty deeds ringing in the air, Jesus falls down and he cries.
Because after every sermon, every beatitude and parable and teaching moment his disciples still don’t get it.
They still don’t see how his teaching about the Kingdom and how he will save them are one and the same.
‘Enough with the Sunday School lesson,’ the agent said. His bald head was a deep shade of red and I was gleeful for it.
‘You don’t have any reason to believe ___________ has subversive ideas about the government do you?’
Did I mention I was feeling cranky?
Well I was. So I replied: ‘Like I said, he’s a Christian. I should hope he as some subversive ideas.’
The agent threw up his arms and pointed his finger at me: ‘This is about your friend’s job,’ he said, ‘so tell me straight what you’re saying.’
I nodded my head in concession.
‘Christians,” I said, “we don’t believe governments or empires or militaries really have the power to change the world. Christians have a different definition of Power. We believe its Jesus, his way of life, that makes for peace.’
‘That’s not the way the world works’ he said, the disrespect creeping back into his voice.
‘That’s what I was trying to tell you.’
In all four of the Gospels, there’s only two places where Jesus weeps.
The first is over the grave of his friend Lazarus.
The second time Jesus weeps it’s over us.
It’s like he knew. It’s like Jesus knew we’d never get it, never grasp that it’s our living his Kingdom here and now that makes for peace.
And yet he doesn’t stop the Palm Sunday parade. He doesn’t get down off the colt. He doesn’t tell the Passover crowd to pick up their palm leaves. He doesn’t turn around and head back to Galilee.
He goes up.
Knowing right then and there that we had no idea what he’d been trying to teach us, Jesus still goes up into Jerusalem.
As if the only way to show us, once and for all, would be-
for him to forgive those who trespass against him
and for him to turn the other cheek
and for him to bless those who curse him
and for him to give his robe to those who take his cloak
and for him to love his enemies
all the way to a Cross
just so we might finally see
the things that make for peace.
The Cross isn’t just a grim reminder that you’re a sinner and Jesus suffered and died in your place.
The Cross is proof that, no matter how we think the world works, his is a way and a truth and a life not even death can defeat.
The following is an anecdote I used to begin a sermon on the atonement a few years ago:
It probably tells you something about my life that I’ve known two different people named ‘Frog.’ The first was a bully in middle school who sat in front of me on the bus. That was the Frog on whom I one day unleashed my inner Taxi Driver, but that’s a story for another place.
The other Frog was a retired man who worked for the funeral home in the town where I once ministered. This Frog- I have no idea what his actual name was; it actually said ‘Frog’ on the somber nametag he wore for the funeral home- was tall and skinny and bald. His head was small and his Adam’s apple was large and stuck out further than his nose.
Once, I was sitting in the hearse with Frog. I had my robe on and my worship book in my lap. We’d left a funeral service at my church and we were leading a processional of cars to the cemetery for the burial. I’d ridden with Frog before. Frog was a lay leader at his church- a deacon I think is what they call them. His church was Pentecostal Holiness, one of approximately fifty-three in town.
As we led the procession through town and up the winding road to the graveyard, Frog told me that he and his church had that previous weekend baptized sixteen youth in the Jordan River.
‘Excuse me?’ I said. ‘In the Jordan River?’ I asked.
And he said: ‘Yeah, the Jordan River…at Holy Land, USA.’
Holy Land, USA was a- I don’t know what you call it- theme park a short drive away in Bedford, Virginia. The Jordan River in question was actually more of a stream that eventually found its way to the James River. I had driven past Holy Land, USA before.
It is a not- quite- to- scale recreation of the Holy Land complete with State Park-like wooden signs explaining in irregularly painted words what you’re looking at. The Garden of Gethsemane, for example.
It all has a certain charm to it, and I suppose if you can ignore the thickly forested mountains, the waste baskets and park benches, then it’s just like the Holy Land. It’s on the same tourist route as Foam-Henge, the Natural Bridge Wax Museum and the miniature toy museum.
This is the hallowed, sacred site where Frog had proudly helped baptize sixteen of his church’s youth.
‘That’s…interesting’ I said. When he didn’t say anything in reply, I was afraid I had offended him. But we had arrived at the cemetery and he was instead looking in his mirrors to check that the procession was lining up behind him properly.
‘It’s a waste of land’ he said to me absently. And I thought he was talking about the graveyard.
‘At Holy Land, USA they have I don’t know how many acres. You can walk Jesus’ whole life.
But if Jesus just came to suffer for our sins, it’s an awful waste of land.’
Then he got out of the hearse.
By that same reasoning you could argue that the Gospel texts themselves are a waste of ink and pages. Filler. Unnecessary prologue on the way to the Passion and to Paul.
Frog is hardly the only person to harbor that perspective.
When the purpose of Jesus’ life is defined exclusively in terms of his death, then the content of his life seems superfluous. Indeed (and this may be one reason why the substitutionary perspective has such mass appeal) the ethical imperatives preached by Jesus in his life no longer carry much urgency.
You only need the cross for salvation.
Not the sermon on the mount.
Jesus came to die for me.
Not to form me as part of a particular community.
What’s demanded by this understanding of the atonement is my belief in it and not my participation in or continuation of Jesus’ Kingdom community.
What’s more, if Jesus’ death is the point of it all then Easter seems little more than a happy surprise at the end of the story, a pleasant but not necessary epilogue, an example only of the eternal life we too will one day enjoy.
But here’s the real kicker:
Why is it that no one seems to notice that the most common ways we have of talking about the Cross and what Jesus accomplishes (and why) appear no where on the actual lips of Jesus?
How do we get away with narrating the Cross in a manner that the Gospel writers chose not to narrate it?
As a pastor, I frequently hear from Christians:
‘I think Christianity is private, personal. Politics should be kept out of the Church.’
I certainly get the fatigue behind the question. Fatigue over our hyper partisan culture and how the Church has dirt all over its hands by participating and encouraging that culture.
And yet when someone makes a statement like that I often ask, in love:
‘Just what bible are you reading?
Because you’ve obviously never read the Old Testament prophets.
Or the Exodus story.
Or any of the Gospels.
Or the Book of James.
Like Judaism before it, Christianity has always been a public faith. The first Christians were called an “ekklessia,” meaning they were ‘God’s called-out people.’ Christians, it was believed, lived their faith publicly with very public consequences. Questioners in the gospels asked Jesus about everything from adultery and divorce to poverty, taxes, war and patriotism. St. Paul, on the other hand, wrote most of his letters to churches to help new Christians with the difficulties that came with balancing their faith and their worldly commitments.
Christianity is not, and never has been,
simply an interior faith.
It is not limited to my own inner spirituality or my own personal relationship with God. Nor are the concerns of Christianity limited to the Church sanctuary. Christianity places expectations on its followers that follow them from worship to the church parking lot on Sunday morning and, from there, all through the week.
The way of Jesus offers a particular way for us to be in and view the world, and that the Christian tradition has a needful witness to help us make sense of our lives and the issues that confront us.
Claiming Jesus is Lord meant for the first Christians that Caesar was not. It was a big, bold confession that had implications on every part of their lives.
Even if we don’t like it, confessing the Lordship of Christ should still impact every square inch of our lives too.
But before we can figure out those implications, we need to learn what the first Christians didn’t have to learn; they had the benefit of a unity brought on by mutual suffering under the Empire.
In America, we are, for all intents and purposes, the Empire. In America, Christians first need to learn how to get along.
Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor says:
People who are shouting at each other are constitutionally incapable of seeing the image of God in someone else.
Our culture is characterized by much shouting. Given the divisive nature of our contemporary culture, how we talk about politics, as Christians, is nearly as important as the conclusions that we draw.
I know she didn’t mean to do it, but my sister pulled a Jacob.
A very difficult family situation feels like a tragedy and a tragedy for me can become an idol.
I am in the middle of it right now, and I know how I need to act, but I don’t want to!
I want to act like Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka and stomp my feet and scream “I want it now daddy! I want it now!”
But I can’t. I am a Christian. That epic realization trumps it all. It just does.
I have to do it; sooner rather than later, because it is impossible for me to live this way. As Keller puts it, it is a bloodthirsty deity and hard to appease. Unforgiveness is a vice-grip that changes how I see everything every day. I’m still not there yet though. I woke up with the vice grip around my heart.
She is my only sister. There are hundreds of reasons and ways in which I can justify my anger and never forgive her. The only one on the other side of the tally sheet is that I am called to forgive without her even asking; To forgive because I am forgiven.
I am naturally inclined to want justice instead – to make sure that it is fair before I can move to forgive. Several years ago I recall hearing someone on television talking about how they had been able to forgive the drunk driver that killed their child. All those around her and even I were shocked and amazed that she would even want to let alone find the path. It seems like forgiveness on that scale is seen as weakness not strength from the Divine.
Then during my walk Max Lucado spoke to me this morning on the radio. He reminded me
“relationships do not survive because the guilty are punished but because the innocent are merciful.”
I’m not all high and mighty sitting up here on my throne of innocence, I’m still trying to figure my part out, but until I forgive and get past this, nothing else is possible.
I feel betrayed by her. I feel like she destroyed a dream I have had for many, many years. I believed that God was granting me one of the “desires or my heart.” I believed that God was bringing the desire of my heart and his will for me together.
I remember when Dennis preached about that and how sweet it is when those two worlds collide. By her actions she took it away from me. I wanted it so much.
Maybe that was the idol – the wanting?
I just know that I must forfeit this idol.
I know that I can do all things through Christ. I know because God tells me and if it were not so, he would not have told me. It is the Word of God. I have faith that He will be there every step of the way with me as I work through this. I know this because He has accompanied me on this journey before.
My Savior is not unfamiliar with betrayal.
“Be kind and compassionate to one another. Forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32.
If I do not, I dishonor Him and I can’t bear to do that again.
Here’s my sermon on ‘Forgiveness’ for our Lenten Series on Idolatry, Counterfeit Gods. You can listen to the sermon in the ‘Listen’ widget on this page or download for free in the iTunes Library, under Tamed Cynic.
This isn’t the sermon I thought I was going to preach when my week began.
I started out on Monday writing a sermon about the prophet Elisha and a leper named Namaan, but then, because of a decision I made weeks ago, I had an encounter this week that provoked a much different sermon.
If you read my blog, then you know that a few weeks ago I made a Lenten commitment that once or twice a week I would strap a clergy collar around my neck, which I usually only wear to weddings and graveside burials.
I made a commitment that I’d strap a collar on and go to some public space, like a coffee shop or pub or cafe, and just see what conversations came my way by exposing my faith and vocation in plain sight.
Since then I’ve worn it to Starbucks a couple of times.
Last week, I went to Barnes and Noble.
This past week I went to Whole Foods to eat lunch in the cafe and sketch what I had planned on being a very different sermon.
I sat down in a booth with my food and a few books about the prophet Elisha. And aside from the check-out guy asking me who I was going to vote for- for Pope- it was an uneventful day.
And I was about to call it a day, when a woman pushing a grocery cart crept up to my booth and said:
‘Um, excuse me Father….could I?’
She gestured to the empty seat across from me.
‘Well, I’m not exactly a Fa______’ I started to say but she just looked confused.
‘Never mind’ I said. ‘Sit down.’
She looked to be somewhere in her 40’s. She had long, dark hair and hip, horn-rimmed glasses and pale skin that had started to blush red.
No sooner had she sat down than she started having second thoughts.
‘Maybe this is a mistake. I feel ridiculous and I just interrupted you. I just saw you over here and I haven’t been to church in years…’
She fussed with the zipper on her coat while she rambled, embarrassed.
‘It’s just….I’ve been carrying this around for years and I can’t put it down.’
‘Put what down?’ I asked.
‘Where do I start? You don’t even know me, which is probably why I’m sitting here in the first place.’ She laughed and wiped the corner of her eye.
‘Beginning at the beginning usually works’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ she said absent-minded, she was already rehearsing her story in her head.
And then she told it to me. She confessed.
About her husband and their marriage.
About his drinking, the years of it.
About his lies, the years of it.
About her making every effort to help him, to stick by him, to do whatever it
took to keep their marriage together.
She told me about how he’s sober now.
And then she told me about how now the addiction in their family is her anger and resentment over how she’ll never get back what she gave out, how she’ll never receive what she spent.
Then she bit her lip and paused- like she was mentally censoring a part of it.
And so I asked her: ‘Are you asking me if you’re supposed to forgive him?’
‘No, I know I’m supposed to forgive him’ she said. ‘My priest told me that years ago- that’s when I stopped going to church. I know I’m supposed to forgive.’
‘What’s your question then?’ I asked.
‘I’ve sacrificed enough. He’s the one who owes me. Why does forgiving him just make me feel like a victim all over again?’
‘Why can’t I just wipe this from my ledger….and move on?’
And when she said that, I knew I had to write a different sermon.
When Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness, when Peter asks Jesus if forgiving someone 7 times is sufficient, Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer. Peter’s a brown-noser, a butt-kisser. Peter wouldn’t have raised his hand and volunteered if he thought it was the wrong answer.
After all Moses had said an eye for an eye, do in turn what was done to you but no more. So 7 times must have struck Peter as a generous, Jesusy amount of forgiveness.
I mean, think about that. Imagine someone sins against you. Say, a church member gossips about you behind your back. I’m not suggesting anyone in this church would do that, just take it as an illustration.
Imagine someone gossips about you. And you confront them about it.
1. And they say: ‘I’m sorry.’ So you say to them: ‘I forgive you.’
2. And then they do it again. And you forgive them.
3. And then they do it again. And you forgive them.
4. And then they do it again. And you forgive them.
5. And then they do it again. And you forgive them.
6. And then they do it again for sixth time. And you forgive them.
I mean…fool me once shame on you. Fool 2,3,4,5,6 times…how many times does it take until its shame on me?
It’s got to stop somewhere, right?
And Peter suggests drawing the line at 7 times.
7 is a good, biblical number and, whether we’re talking about gossip or anger or adultery, 7 is a whole lot of forgiveness.
So Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer; Peter must’ve expected a pat on the back, gold star from Jesus. But he doesn’t get one.
Instead Jesus says: ‘You’re off by about 483.’ Not 7 times but 70 times 7.
490 times. And- it’s even worse than it sounds.
490 was a Jewish way of expressing perfection. Infinity.
So Jesus is saying there is no limit to forgiveness, that forgiving someone is something we never get done with. It’s something that goes on forever.
That forgiveness is not a favor we offer 490 times but when we finally get to 491 we can stop.
No, Jesus is saying that forgiveness is a way of life that never ends.
And as he likes to do, Jesus goes straight from answer to illustration and tells a story that starts with grace and ends with hell.
‘And oh, by the way,’ Jesus tacks on, ‘that’s exactly what God will do with you unless you forgive in your heart.’
On the surface that’s a really crappy story.
You must forgive or else. You must forgive or else your heavenly father will lock you in hell and throw away the key? You must forgive…out of fear?
That doesn’t sound like Jesus- at all.
So, there’s got to be more going on in this story than you can hear the first time through.
In fact, what we need is a couple more takes to notice what’s going on in Jesus’ parable.
So what I need is a few volunteers…
The story revolves around 3 main characters: a King, a servant and a fellow servant.
Take One: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35
So in the beginning, the king opens his ledger to settle accounts, and he finds a servant who owes him 10,000 talents.
The amount of the debt is key to the whole logic of Jesus’ story. In case you’re rusty on your biblical exchange rates:
1 Denarius = 1 Day’s Wages
6,000 Denarii = 1 Talent
This servant owes the king 10,000 talents. When you do the math and carry the one- that comes out to roughly 60 million days’ wages or 164 years and 3 months of labor.
So when Jesus tells the story, Peter and the other disciples would’ve known instantly that this man owes a debt he could never possibly repay. It’s not just a large debt; its an un-repayable debt.
But no sooner is the man forgiven his debt and set free than he encounters a fellow servant who owes him, about 3 months wages. No small amount but small potatoes compared to the debt he owed the king.
So even though he’s been forgiven and set free he grabs the man, chokes him, demands what’s owed him and sends the man to prison, ignoring the very same plea he’d pled: ‘be patient with me…’
And when the king finds out he has failed to extend the same mercy he had received, the King has him thrown in jail to be tortured until all his debt is repaid, to be tortured.
To be tortured for 10,000 talents worth of time. 60 million days.
Take Two: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35
Here’s a question:
Why does the king cancel the debt?
Because of the servant’s plea? Because he promises to pay back everything he owes? 60 million days worth of wages?
He can’t ever pay that back.
So if the king forgives the servant because the servant promises to make it up to him, then the king is stupid.
The king just forgives him. Gratuitously. The king offers him grace.
And how does the servant respond?
Immediately he leaves the king and then turns to a fellow servant and demands from his peer what he has coming to him.
Somehow this servant has managed to receive the king’s forgiveness yet he’s remained completely unchanged by it.
He’s been forgiven something he could never repay.
He’s been spared a punishment that should have been his.
He’s been offered grace and somehow its not converted his heart or his character.
He’s still the same person he was before.
The king’s grace has not made him a person of grace.
Take Three: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35
Here’s another question: what happens to the debt? In the story?
The king examines his ledger and sees what’s owed him. But when he forgives the servant, what happens to the debt?
Where does that debt go? What’s the king do with his ledger?
Because the debt doesn’t just disappear. Someone has to pay the debt- that’s the way the world works, that’s the way accounting works.
And this servant can never pay what is owed. So who eats the debt?
The king pays the debt.
The king will have to suffer the cost of this un-payable debt because forgiveness always costs someone something.
But notice, it’s not just that the king pays the debt.
Because the king can’t forgive the servant without in some way tossing the ledger book aside once and for all.
Because there’s nothing this servant can ever do to bring his relationship with the king back in the black.
So when the king forgives the servant, the king also sacrifices the ledger.
Keeping tally of what’s been earned and what’s still owed goes by the wayside for good.
The whole system of settling accounts, of keeping score, of positive and negative, of + and -, of red and black, of credits and debits, of giving and receiving exactly what is owed- the king DIES to that way of life.
He gets rid of the ledger, so that a servant can have new life.
After the king gets rid of his ledger, who’s still got one?
Who’s still keeping score? Who’s still keeping track of what people owe him? Who’s still recording what he’s earned? Who’s still tallying what he deserves from others but still hasn’t gotten?
You see, the king throws his ledger away. Gone for good.
But the servant clings to his ledger.
And he takes his ledger with him, willingly, all the way to hell.
In other words, Jesus says, if you insist on treating other people by the book then God will give you exactly what you want. And treat you by the book.
‘Why can’t I just wipe the ledger clean and move on? Why does forgiving him make me feel like a victim all over again?’ the woman at WF asked me.
I sipped the last of my coffee.
And I said: ‘That’s kinda the way it’s supposed to feel.’
I could tell from her face she didn’t follow.
So I tried to explain:
‘The way we forgive is just a small-scale version of how God forgives. There’s no way to reconciliation that doesn’t first go through pain and suffering. Jesus is the pattern. Forgiveness means you bear the cost instead of making the other person pay what they owe you.’
‘That’s a sucky answer’ she said.
‘Sure it sucks’ I said. ‘It sucked for Jesus too, remember.’
‘Do you talk like this in church?’ she asked. ‘No, never.’
‘Look, the debt your husband owes you is real, but forgiveness means you absorb that debt. And, yes, it’s painful and, sure, it’s hard, but that’s the only way to resurrection.’
‘Like I said,’ she said, ‘it’d be a lot better if I could just wipe the ledger clean and move on.’
‘Yeah, but if you wipe that part of it clean it won’t be long before some other part of it shows red. It’s not about wiping the ledger clean. It’s about getting rid of the ledger altogether.’
No more pretending. That woman at Whole Foods, and that servant in the story, they’re not the only ones clinging to their ledger.
Let’s not kid ourselves.
Some of you carry around a ledger filled with lists of names:
Names of people who’ve hurt you.
Names of people who’ve taken something from you.
Names of people who’ve wronged you.
People who’ve cheated you or cheated on you.
Who’ve lied to you or who’ve lied about you.
People who refuse to listen to you, or to understand you, or to accept you.
People who’ve betrayed you, who’ve rubbed you the wrong the way, or who’ve just let you down one too many times.
And in many of your ledgers, you have a whole other list of names, people that no matter what they do, there’s nothing they can do to change their name from the red to the black in your book.
Some of you cling to ledgers filled with balance sheets, keeping score of exactly how much you’ve done for the people in your life compared to how little they’ve done for you.
Some of you cling to marriage ledgers, tallying the precise daily cash flow of what each person brings to the marriage, which person is costing the marriage more and which person is sacrificing more, working more, contributing more. To the marriage.
And some of you cling to ledgers that look more like a list of accomplishments:
How much you’ve done for others.
How much you’ve given to your church.
How much you attend worship.
All the reasons why you think, assume, God should love you.
While others of you can’t let of go.
Can’t let go of ledgers that list all the sinful things you’ve ever done. All the things you’re ashamed of. All the things you wish you could change about yourself. All the things you wish you could take back.
Ledgers filled with all the reasons why you’re secretly convinced God can never love you.
This sanctuary should not be a place where we lie: there are as many ledgers in this room as there are people.
And, hell, I have my own.
But Jesus wants us to know that we’ve got to put them down.
To get rid of them. Toss them aside. Die to that whole way of living.
Because clinging to this (the ledger) makes an idol out of that (the cross). Because if you’re still holding on to this, that’s just a symbol from a story that happened once upon a time to someone else.
I mean, let’s be honest. Some of you have gone to church your whole lives and you’re no different than you were before. The grace of the King has not made you a grace-filled person.
And it’s because you’re still holding on to this.
When it comes to you, you want the King to throw the book away. But when it comes to everyone else in your life, you insist on going by the book.
But clinging to this, going through your life going by the book, needing to keep score, needing to tally and balance the accounts, it makes that (the cross) an idol.
It makes it nothing more than an object– because you’re worshipping the object and not its meaning and power.
Because the good news of the cross is that you’re more sinful than you’ll ever admit but you’re more loved than you could ever imagine.
The good news of the cross is that there is nothing, nothing, nothing, you can do to earn God’s love.
And there’s nothing you can do to lose it.
God doesn’t keep score. God doesn’t go by the book.
Because the King has tossed his ledger in the trash.
And despite the cost, he’s paid every debt. Every debt. And that includes, by the way, the debts that everyone in your life owe to you.
So put the ledger down. Put it down. Get rid of it. Die to it.
And instead tit-for-tat, instead of quid pro quo, instead 1 for 1, you do this and I’ll do that, eye for an eye, try 70 x 7.
Just as the King has shown mercy to you.
I would rather die than go back to being the person that I was.
I taught my children to lie.
Of course I told them to tell the truth, but I taught them how to lie.
I had to.
I was protecting my way of life by lying to myself and everyone around me.
Keller says that money (and I submit a whole host of other idols) can be a spiritual addiction and like all addictions they hide their true proportions from their victims. They do what they have to do to feed and perpetuate the addiction.
The heart always wants to justify itself
My precious paradigm cannot be intruded upon when I am living for something other than my God.
When I am not following the Holy Spirit, I tell myself what I have to in order to maintain my way of life. Self -deception is key if I am to continue to stay comfortable doing what I’m doing. And, let’s face it, everyone likes to be able to go to sleep at night.
Keller says we look to our idols for significance and security and because we HAVE to have them, we do what we have to do to protect our head from really seeing the desires of our heart – we deceive ourselves.
That is why I can continue to go to church and bible study week after week, year after year and still be in the same spiritual pits and ruts.
The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same things and expect different results.
If I am tired of the same spiritual gerbil wheel, I need to jump off and do something different…”this time, I will praise the LORD.“
This time I will put my trust in God. Find my honor in God. Find mercy at His feet. Everything short of that will leave me bankrupt once again. This time…..
If Leah had continued to resist the simple act of letting go and praising God, still praying to God for answers to the wrong questions, she would never have had the beautiful breakthrough that allowed her heart to be changed – that allowed her to love God and be loved by him. She could finally praise God. Her circumstance hadn’t changed – her husband still didn’t love her. She was still the same rejected and unloved woman she had always been. But she finally broke the cycle.
“Anyone who listens to the word, but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in the mirror and after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. The man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it. He will be blessed in what he does. James 1:23-24
This time I have to tell the truth to protect my way of life, my life with Christ.
I have to be responsible for my spiritual growth. I have to want to be the person that God created me to be badly enough that I am willing to look at those spiritual worms inside me and call them what they are.
I would rather die than go back to being who I was.
This one is for bloggers to answer the question: ‘Why the Cross?’
My first stab at Tony’s question is posted here at Patheos.
What Tony is after, I suspect, is the need for Emergent Christians to articulate an understanding of the atonement that is as robust and scripturally thorough as the ubiquitous penal substitutionary atonement theory (which holds that Christ dies in our place, his blood ‘satisfying’ the wrath of God towards sinners).
One of the reasons for the penal substitution theory’s staying power, I suspect, is that it ‘preaches.’
Indeed I’ve heard many a pastor worry that other understandings of the atonement- many of which are just as scriptural- lack the emotional resonance of ‘Jesus suffered God’s wrath in your place.’
Here’s an attempt to play with the traditional ‘Christus Victor’ (referencing Revelation 12) perspective in a way that’s practical and ‘preaches.’
Nearly a year ago this month, I found myself trapped on the corner of Washington and King streets in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia.
I was headed into Banana Republic. I don’t own many ties.
I have fewer dark ones. And that Friday I needed one, a black or a grey one. Because the night before, Jack, the little boy from our confirmation class, had been pronounced dead as I held his hand in the ER.
I was in a hurry, still feeling numb. But standing there on the corner, blocking my path, were 4 or 5 men and women. Evangelists.
A couple of them of were holding foam-board signs high above their heads. The signs were brightly illustrated with graphic images of a lake of fire, a 7-headed dragon and a terrible-looking lion with scars on its paws.
At the bottom of one of the signs was an illustration of people, men and women…and children…looking terrified, looking like they were weeping.
A couple of them were passing out pamphlets.
I tried to slip by unnoticed. One of them tried to hand me a tract, so I just held up my hands and said ‘I’m a Buddhist.’
But the young man blocking my path wasn’t fooled. He pointed at my open collar and said: ‘But you’re wearing a cross around your neck.’
‘Oh, that.’ I feigned surprise.
The young man looked to be in his twenties. He didn’t look very different from the models in the store window next to us.
He handed me a slick, trifold tract, gave me a syrupy Joel Osteen smile and said: ‘Did you know Jesus Christ is coming back to Earth?’
Then he started talking, with a smile, about the end of the world.
I flipped through his brochure. It was filled with images and scripture citations from the Book of Revelation.
‘Martin Luther said Revelation was a dangerous book in the hands of idiots’ I mumbled.
‘What’s that?’ he asked.
‘Oh, just thinking out loud.’
Then he asked me if I was saved. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘Jesus Christ was returning to destroy this sinful world, but that Jesus loved me and wanted me to invite him into my heart so I could be spared the tribulation.’
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it.
Sometimes, I’m prone to sarcasm.
Sometimes, I have a tendency to be abrasive.
But that Friday, the day after Jack, what I felt rising in me was more like…anger.
‘Lemme get this straight’ I said. ‘Jesus loves me so much that before he casts me and everyone else into the lake of fire and destroys all of creation, he wants to give me the chance to accept him as my personal savior.’
The evangelist smiled and nodded his head and immediately tried to close the deal, telling me I just had to accept that I’m a sinner and that Jesus died on the cross in my place.
Because he was still standing in my way, I decided to push his buttons.
‘Why the cross?’ I asked him. ‘Why does Jesus or anyone have to die? Why can’t God just forgive us?’
He gave me a patronizing chuckle and said: ‘But God can’t do that!’
‘God can’t do that? God can create everything from nothing
but God can’t forgive?’
He just nodded like this was the most obvious thing in the world and said: ‘That’s why Jesus has to die on the cross.’
‘So what you’re saying is…my salvation hinges on how persuasive I find you- out here with your huge signs with dragons and lions on them?
Okay, so maybe I was feeling a little sarcastic.
‘I’m not sure you understand how serious this is sir’ he said to me.
‘Oh, I got it. I just think its more serious that you don’t understand the cross or Jesus Christ and don’t even get me started on the Book of Revelation!’
It was right about then I became vaguely aware that I was creating something of a scene. A small crowd had stopped and were watching us like it was the scene of an accident.
And I could tell from the PO’d look on his face that this evangelist was now much less concerned about my eternal salvation, and if he could he’d probably volunteer to throw me in the lake of fire himself.
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a business card. ‘Maybe you should talk to a pastor instead’ he said.
‘Yeah I’ll think about it.’
My assumption is that for most of you the Book of Revelation is like that acid-trip, boat ride scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
I’s like those Cosby Show episodes where Cliff Huxtable sneaks a midnight hoagie and then has whacked out dreams of pregnant men who give birth to toy boats and more sandwiches.
And why not?
Revelation is filled with bizarre, crazy images: dragons and horsemen named Death, lions that look like lambs, robes dipped in blood, pregnant women and numbers pregnant with meaning and above it all this image of a boot-stomping, butt-kicking Jesus Christ.
And my assumption is that, like those evangelists on Washington and King, you assume Revelation is about the future. That it’s like a visual morse code, warning us of what’s to come.
But when we treat the Book of Revelation like a Ouija Board that predicts the future, we miss the fact that St John writes down this vision God gives him, sneaks it out of the prison Rome has locked him in, and he sends it out to his churches not not to warn them of what’s to come one day but to remind them of what has already come to pass, once and for all, in Jesus Christ.
The Book of Revelation is not primarily about the future.
It is instead in scene after scene, in image after image, in symbol after symbol, about the cross.
It’s about the cross.
And not only that- as bizarre and crazy as Revelation might seem to you, if you don’t understand what John’s trying to convey, then you don’t understand the cross.
Here in chapter 12, John describes this vision of a heavenly battle between the forces of Satan and the forces of God.
On one side of this battle is the Dragon, whom John identifies as Satan.
But John doesn’t stop there. John gives the Dragon 7 heads and 7 crowns, the same number (everyone of John’s churches would’ve instantly known) as the number of Roman emperors from the regime that killed Jesus to the regime that threw John in prison and now persecutes his churches.
So John draws Satan as a dragon, as serpentine, and then costumes it as Rome to remind you that the powers that once killed Jesus and now persecute his People- this is the Evil that’s afflicted God’s creation from the very beginning.
On the other side of the battle that John sees is the archangel Michael, who in the Hebrew Scriptures personifies the power and might of God.
And in the middle, in Satan’s sights here in chapter 12, is a woman crowned with 12 stars- that’s Mother Israel, with her twelve tribes, from whom comes the Messiah.
Now notice- it’s the archangel Michael, the power of heaven, that throws the Dragon down, but notice what John says: it’s the blood of the Lamb that conquers and defeats the Dragon.
You see what he’s doing?
St John’s telling you the same story the Gospels tell you.
He’s telling you the Passion story- only not from the perspective of those gathered near Jesus’ cross but from the perspective of heaven.
What John wants you to see is that if you could sit down in Heaven’s throne and look down upon the cross and see it as the angels see it, then what you would see is a battle, a cosmic battle.
That when Jesus collides with the powers of Rome and the religious authorities and the mobs who scapegoat him and the friends who betray him, what’s really going on is that God, in Christ, is colliding, once and for all, with the Powers of Sin and Evil and Death. Satan.
It’s not that the cross is about placating an angry God who demands blood.
It’s not that there’s something in you, something about you, called sin that keeps God from loving you until someone dies for it.
It’s that there’s something called Sin-with a capital S- in the world, outside us, all around us, that transcends us and victimizes us and dupes us and seduces us and enslaves us.
And God loves us so much that he takes flesh in Jesus Christ in order to throw the Dragon down once and for all.
John wants you to see that’s what’s really going on in the Passion story is that the Powers of Sin and Evil do their worst to Jesus:
He’s betrayed by one of his closest friends.
Peter, who’d sworn to always be there for him, to be with him till the end, swears Jesus off not once, not twice, but three times.
In the Garden, when Jesus is afraid for maybe the first time in his life, his friends aren’t there for him.
He’s spit on, struck and ridiculed.
He’s accused and lied about.
He’s stripped and mocked and beaten down and then he’s condemned.
To be nailed to the cross:
Where he’s stared at: naked and shamed.
And abandoned by everyone, including- it seems- God. Everyone but his mother and a friend.
The Powers of Sin and Evil and Death do their worst to Jesus.
And how does Jesus respond?
Jesus never retaliates.
He never says a word in anger.
He never curses those who curse him.
He never raises a fist and strikes back.
He never prays for God to avenge him for what they’ve done to him. He never gives in.
Sin and Evil and Death do the worst they can do to him. And then three days later…guess what?…he comes back.
Jesus lives God’s love and forgiveness till his dying breath, and three days later his grave…is empty.
He wins. He conquers. He throws the Dragon down.
John wants you to see that from the foot of the cross Jesus might look like a suffering servant. But from the front row of heaven he looks like a boot-stomping, butt- kicking warrior.
Who wins with love.
What’s Good News about the cross is not Jesus’ death.
What’s Good News about the cross is that the cross is where the Powers of Death go to die once and for all.
What it means to be a Christian is to be believe that in Jesus Christ on the cross something cosmic and objective occurs.
Evil has been defeated and all that’s left of it in our world is like the last gasp of a dying enemy.
If you miss this…
The cross is not about individuals getting forgiven so that they can be with God in heaven when they die.
The cross and the empty tomb are God’s way of vindicating the life of Jesus; they’re God’s way of saying that love and forgiveness triumphs. Period.
And if that’s true, then it’s true not just on Good Friday, not just on Easter.
It’s true today and tomorrow and in our everyday lives: that the way we conquer and overcome and triumph over the sin and evil done to us is with love.
If I’m honest, I think what angered me most about those evangelists on the street corner- especially on the day after Jack- is how they made John’s Revelation seem so other-worldly.
And I know that for most of you any scripture about Dragons and Armed Angels and Women Crowned with Stars sounds very unrealistic.
It doesn’t seem to have much to do with this world, with this life, with your life.
I know that most of you have always assumed that any scripture with Dragons and Angels and Women Clothed with the Sun must be about some Future, not the Here and Now.
Then again, for many of you, I know something about your Here and Now. What’s it like.
I know plenty of you, in the Here and Now who’ve been betrayed, who’ve been sworn off by someone who promised to be with you always.
I know plenty of you, in the Here and Now, for whom those closest to you weren’t there for you when you needed them the most.
I know plenty of you, in the Here and Now, who know what it’s like:
To be struck
And ridiculed. Insulted and rejected. Lied about.
And I know there’s plenty of you in the Here and Now caught with someone else in an endless tit-for-tat, someone with whom you can’t resist returning every insult with a dig of your own, someone for whom you save one or two outstanding, unforgiven memories just to hang over their head and keep the upper hand.
I know there are plenty of you in the Here and Now who believe in Jesus Christ, who say you have faith in him, but still have someone in your life for whom you insist it’s impossible to forgive, someone in your life with whom no accusation can go unanswered, someone with whom you can’t put away the sword, turn the other cheek or show compassion or pray for the opposite of what they’ve done to you.
I know plenty about your Here and Nows.
So maybe, despite all your assumptions to contrary, you need John’s Revelation to tell you that the Battle’s over, that the Enemy’s lost, that the sin and evil in your life only have their dying breaths left.
Maybe you need St John to paint his pictures of the cross to remind you that you don’t need to give in to what’s going on in your life.
You don‘t have to become what was done to you.
You can overcome. You can conquer. You can triumph.
But only with Love.
Because the love of Jesus Christ has already won.
Maybe you need St John to challenge you: to have more faith in the power of Christ’s love than you do in the power of Sin.
Maybe in the Here and Now, as bizarre and strange as it might sound, you need someone to tell you that the Dragon’s been thrown down.
I’d like to pick up from where I left off last time, but unfortunately, until my family unsubscribes to Jason’s blog, I need to “cool it a bit”
Pick an idol – any idol. That’s the way it seems to me sometimes. Trying to exorcise all these false idols from my life can be difficult, but when we (and I mean I) are trying to protect a long held paradigm and comfortable way of life, identifying false idols and calling them what they really are can be the real tough part.
I remember being in a group study for The Hole in the Gospel and trying to find ways to live with myself after realizations that I am even more self-centered, self-absorbed and spoiled than I had thought. I was seeking advice and honestly struggling with the concept that I could learn about the thousands that die every day from basic hunger as I lament the 15 pounds that I have gained. “How can I learn these things, without being CHANGED?” I poured out to the group after a long sleepless night. “Without needing to do more than check a box and donating a few dollars or serving at ROCK?”
“It was great” somebody offered in response, “the other day I got an email that the shelves were empty at UCM, so I cleaned out my pantry and took some food down – it made me feel really good to do that.”
I asked “that’s great, but what if we need to do more than check that box and do something, that while responsive and generous, checks the box and makes us feel better?” (I should have added a smiley face to the end of my question)
Somebody never came back to the group again. I suppose I had offended her by diminishing what she had done, which was a generous act. However, it was not my intention to diminish her. I was deeply struggling with a concept that grips many of us in our comfortable lives.
How do we give enough money or time to others without upsetting that balance that we all like to think is more important than spending ourselves for Christ?
I want to be “exhausted for Christ” when I die on the one hand, but on the other hand, I want to just the food out of the pantry that we haven’t used and maybe throw in few other choice items.
People are so kind and effusive with their praise and thanks. But, frankly, it makes me very uncomfortable. I know myself well enough to know that it is only by the Grace of God and for His glory that I have time or energy for anything that I do. Too often I have to fight the lazy bum I can be.
I am prone to wanna hang out on my porch and watch Netflix on my laptop and drink coffee and eat jalapeno chips all day….
I am prone to times of self-pity and self-doubt and subject to shame and regret at the time and opportunities I have squandered.
“Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.
Prone to leave the God I love
Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above”
This weekend we begin our Lenten sermon series, Counterfeit Gods. We’ll be talking all through Lent about the idols in our lives. No, idols aren’t inanimate totems (aka: Golden Calfs) that we stupidly think are divinities. Idolatry is as real (maybe more?) as it was in the ancient world.
An idol is anything in our life to which we place ultimate value, anything in life from which we derive our chief happiness and meaning, anything in life on which we depend for our life’s meaning and purpose.
Based on that definition alone, you can see that, chances are, you’re not off the hook.
What’s more, idolatry is hardly something other, unbelieving people do. Christians are just as guilty as anyone else of turning their money, family, children, love, spouse, career, or political party into an ultimate value, giving it the place that should be reserved for God alone- a mistake which frequently ends up corroding our money, family, children, love, spouse, career or politics.
Another thing should be on the list of idols for Christians: religion.
Too often Christians (me: guilty) worship their religious categories instead of God.
Too often Christians derive their sense of worth and identity not from God but from our moral purity.
But, as Sarah Bessey points out in the post I discovered below, if nothing can separate us from God because of Jesus Christ then it’s also true that nothing can justify us before God but Jesus Christ.
Here’s her thoughts.
I was nineteen years old and crazy in love with Jesus when that preacher told an auditorium I was “damaged goods” because of my sexual past. He was making every effort to encourage this crowd of young adults to “stay pure for marriage.” He was passionate, yes, well-intentioned, and he was a good speaker, very convincing indeed.
And he stood up there and shamed me, over and over and over again.
Oh, he didn’t call me up to the front and name me. But he stood up there and talked about me with such disgust, like I couldn’t be in that real-life crowd of young people worshipping in that church. I felt spotlighted and singled out amongst the holy, surely my red face announced my guilt to every one.
He passed around a cup of water and asked us all to spit into it. Some boys horked and honked their worst into that cup while everyone laughed. Then he held up that cup of cloudy saliva from the crowd and asked, “Who wants to drink this?!”
And every one in the crowd made barfing noises, no way, gross!
“This is what you are like if you have sex before marriage,” he said seriously, “you are asking your future husband or wife to drink this cup.”
Over the years the messages melded together into the common refrain: “Sarah, your virginity was a gift and you gave it away. You threw away your virtue for a moment of pleasure. You have twisted God’s ideal of sex and love and marriage. You will never be free of your former partners, the boys of your past will haunt your marriage like soul-ties. Your virginity belonged to your future husband. You stole from him. If – if! – you ever get married, you’ll have tremendous baggage to overcome in your marriage, you’ve ruined everything. No one honourable or godly wants to marry you. You are damaged goods, Sarah.”
If true love waits, I heard, then I have been disqualified from true love.
In the face of our sexually-dysfunctional culture, the Church longs to stand as an outpost of God’s ways of love and marriage, purity and wholeness.
And yet we twist that until we treat someone like me – and, according to this research, 80% of you are like me – as if our value and worth was tied up in our virginity.
We, the majority non-virgins in the myopic purity conversations, feel like the dirty little secret, the not-as-goods, the easily judged example. In this clouded swirl of shame, our sexual choices are the barometer of our righteousness and worth. We can’t let any one know, so we keep it quiet, lest any one discover we were not virgins on some mythic wedding night. We don’t want to be the object of disgust or pity or gossip or judgement. And in the silence, our shame – and the lies of the enemy – grow.
And so here, now, I’ll stand up and say it, the way I wish someone had said it to me fifteen years ago when I was sitting in that packed auditorium with my heart racing, wrists aching, eyes stinging, drowning and silenced by the imposition of shame masquerading as ashes of repentance:
“So, you had sex before you were married.
Really. It’s okay.
There is no shame in Christ’s love. Let him without sin cast the first stone. You are more than your virginity – or lack thereof – and more than your sexual past.
Your marriage is not doomed because you said yes to the boys you loved as a young woman. Your husband won’t hold it against you, he’s not that weak and ego-driven, choose a man marked by grace.
It’s likely you would make different choices, if you knew then what you know now, but, darling, don’t make it more than it is, and don’t make it less than it is. Let it be true, and don’t let anyone silence you or the redeeming work of Christ in your life out of shame.
Now, in Christ, you’re clear, like Canadian mountain water, rushing and alive, quenching and bracing, in your wholeness.
Virginity isn’t a guarantee of healthy sexuality or marriage. You don’t have to consign your sexuality to the box marked “Wrong.” Your very normal and healthy desires aren’t a switch to be flipped. Morality tales and false identities aren’t the stuff of a real marriage. Purity isn’t judged by outward appearances and technicalities. The sheep and the goats are not divided on the basis of their virginity. (Besides, this focus is weird and over-realized, it’s the flip side of the culture’s coin which values women only for their sexuality. It’s also damaging, not only for you, but for the virgins in the room, too. Really, there’s a lot of baggage from this whole purity movement heading out into the world.)
For I am convinced, right along with the Apostle Paul, that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any other power, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.* Not even “neither virginity nor promiscuity” and all points between can separate you from this love. You are loved – without condition – beyond your wildest dreams already.
I would say: Sarah, your worth isn’t determined by your virginity. What a lie.
No matter what that preacher said that day, no matter how many purity balls are thrown with sparkling upper-middle-class extravagance, no matter the purity rings and the purity pledges, no matter the judgemental Gospel-negating rhetoric used with the best of intentions, no matter the “how close is too close?” serious conversations of boundary-marking young Christians, no matter the circumstances of your story, you are not disqualified from life or from joy or from marriage or from your calling or from a healthy and wonderful lifetime of sex because you had – and, heaven forbid, enjoyed – sex before you were married.
Darling, young one burning with shame and hiding in the silence, listen now: Don’t believe that lie. You never were, you never will be, damaged goods.”
It’s Ash Wednesday, the day the Lenten season begins. Lent is a time when we imitate Jesus’ own time of testing in the wilderness by confronting the sin and idols in our own lives.
We will observe Lent this year by preaching on the themes in Tim Keller‘s book Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. Some of you have insinuated my blog could use a ladies’ touch. Well, here to prove I’m responsive and always a good listener, to reflect on the book, I’ve asked Julie Pfister, one of the most authentic Christians I know, to blog her way through the book.
I have had them myself; stickers on my shiny new SUV (not new or shiny anymore) showing that my family was on its way. A few of the right schools, waiting and hoping for that empty spot on the back window to have just the right University stickered to it showing the world just how smart and perfect the little family that I had made was.
Like most of us, I didn’t realize it as it was happening. Pride, like any other idol can be insidious, and so difficult to spot. But my children, my seemingly perfect little family was on its way. I wanted room in my car to carry around the whole hockey team. I wanted my kids to want to have their friends come to my home where I could serve up the milk and cookies.
They did for a while. Then, things started to awry. As Keller put it, its not that I loved my children too much, I just didn’t have any room left in my heart or time in my schedule (or theirs) for God. I wanted my children to be happy, successful, loving and to love me! Perhaps it is partly because of the culture I grew up in that the desire for the perfect little family was so important. Having happy, successful, smart, athletic, caring, loving children would validate me as a person – especially since I had quit my job and “sacrificed” (oh please) my career to raise my kids.
Like any false idol, it didn’t take long for the cracks in my perfect little life to really start to show. My children and family are a wonderful gift and precious blessing to me, but I learned a long time ago, what Keller reminded us, that until or unless we stop trying to map out perfect little lives for our children, and trust God to be their God in the inevitably bumpy and even tragic path that HE has for them, we will be brought to our knees.
Do we pray that they will be Humble, shunning the world and the trappings of success and searching for God? How do we view others children who go off the chosen accepted cultural track…high school, college, graduate degree, career, family, Do we think that there is something wrong if our children “choose” a different path? Are we not quick to give a qualifying response when we tell someone that our son or daughter is not in college? How honest can we be with each other when people ask how we are? How is Sally….Can we really just honestly pray that they will know God? Will we or they be ok if we pray that God will use them, that they will seek God and God will seek them…..if that means that they go against the cultural norms? How can we as parents hope that God will break our children’s hearts so they can be desperate for HIM. Do we trust God enough to want that sort of brokenness for them? What if we pray that our children KNOW God? Do we trust him with the pieces of their broken hearts? Do we trust Him to ???? It is so counter-intuitive for me as a mother for my children to want to feel the emptiness and desperation that I have felt. Do I want my children in the pit of despair?
That same pit that Christ reached down and pulled me out of and set my feet on firm ground and put a new song in my heart! I loved teaching at the Day School. With each new class I always felt a twinge of envy along with the joy of meeting the bright and shiny precious, babies and the hopeful, loving parents that brought them. I wondered how they might feel if their child called them something horrible and told them they hated them.
I hoped and prayed that their child would never get beaten to within an inch of his life or disappear for days and weeks at a time. I wanted to go all Isaiah on them and belt out….Get on your knees NOW and study and learn all that you can….not from Dr. Spock but from the Author of their Life….the Ultimate Educator….so that you are as ready and STEEPED in God and His Word that “when the rest of life unravels” He and his Word will be such a part of your fabric that you will not.
Some people still tell me, hoping to not offend, that I used to remind them of Barbie….Unless I missed the happily broken, God fearing, Grace loving, sinner Barbie, there is no resemblance.