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We’re All in the Wilderness Now. What Comes Next?

We're All in the Wilderness Now. What Comes Next?
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (1/15/17), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 40:1-12 & John 1:29-42

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen Now on Soundcloud

Welcome to the wilderness.

The wilderness beyond the Jordan river is where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. It’s where the Hebrew people wandered for forty years after their escape from Egypt. In this same wilderness, Elijah heard the still, small voice of God.

The wilderness is a place free of human habitation and interference. It’s far away from the noise, busyness, and worries of everyday life. It’s a space in which the cultivated concerns of civilization – wealth, power, politics, and honor – fall away.

When human beings venture out into these wild places, we’re stripped down. We’re left with the more basic questions of life. We enter into a realm of raw survival and sense experience. We ask ourselves: “What will I eat and drink? What lies ahead, beyond that ridge? How will I defend myself against wild animals?” Life becomes very real, very challenging, and very simple.

You might think that this journey into a life of such basic thoughts of food, shelter, and warmth would be a brute existence. After a few days in the wilderness, it wouldn’t be surprising if we were transformed into thoughtless animals, concerned only with the next meal. And that is indeed one possible outcome of the wilderness journey. Yet paradoxically, throughout the history of God’s people, we’ve repeatedly seen the opposite. The Holy Spirit draws us out into the desert to experience the most transcendent, majestic, and holy things in the midst of the struggle to survive.

For us here who live in the heart of civilization, our highly cultivated lives have become a distraction. The machinery of civilization, the mighty works of human beings, are enough to consume all of our attention. Presidents and pontiffs, roads and sewer systems, rent to pay and jobs to get done. Our lives are very busy, very full of important matters that demand our attention. There’s very little room for the holy silence of the desert. Little attention for the howling animals of the forest. Our eyes have become so fixated on the glowing screen that we’re incapable of perceiving the burning bush.

We like think that we’re in control. That’s what life in civilization is all about. We’ve come to believe that we can direct the flow of history. That we are the authors of the story, rather than minor characters carried along by the plot written by Another. With all our science and industry, we can fly to the moon, shape the human genome, and finally, just maybe, brew the perfect cup of coffee. The dream and driving myth of civilization is that we can fix the world. We can make everything work correctly. We just have to put our minds to it.

The wilderness isn’t interested in what we put our minds to. It doesn’t really care about how smart we are, or how hard we work. The wilderness is a place of waiting. It’s a place to listen. It’s a parallel dimension in which human beings are still utterly dependent on the forces of nature. When we’re in the wilderness, we belong to this world – not vice versa. We become desert creatures.

John the Baptist was a desert creature. He was a man drawn into the wilderness by God. He was emptied out by it. He was a young man, an ambitious man – full of drive, dreams, and passion. God called him into a wilderness life, into a journey that stripped away every ambition but one: To preach the message.

The message that God gave John wasn’t an ideology. It wasn’t the basis for a mass organization that could throw out the Romans, purify the Temple, or even reform the Pharisee’s brand of Judaism. John’s message was a wilderness message, a message that was fundamentally incomprehensible to those who still lived in civilization. John’s message wasn’t about the power of good people to change the world. It wasn’t about incremental progress through human effort. John’s message was simply and solely about the power of God to intervene in history and establish his direct rule.

John’s message was simple, but no one understood it – probably not even his own disciples. Everyone expected God to come out of the wilderness and enter into the history of civilization. To become a civilized God. For almost everyone, the hope of Messiah was that God would establish a great king on the throne, in the line of David. To establish a political dynasty that was like all the other kingdoms of the earth – but better.

But John knew that God couldn’t be domesticated. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God of the wilderness. He can’t be contained in temple, a government, or a throne. Despite all our efforts to create a place for God in the midst of our civilization, God was never interested in that. The God of John the Baptist didn’t come to reside in cities and high towers. Instead, he brought his people out of the bondage of civilization and into the wilderness. With the coming of the Messiah, God would go a step further. He would bring the wilderness into the midst of the city.

When Jesus came out to the edge of the wilderness, John and his disciples were baptizing people in the Jordan river. The baptizers were practicing the ancient Jewish purification rite of mikveh – a ritual washing with water for purification. For John’s people, immersion in water signified repentance and preparation for the coming of God’s reign.

But even as they prepared themselves in this way, John was always clear: This outward cleansing with water was just a shadow of what the Messiah would bring. John baptized with water, but Jesus was coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit. John baptized for preparation and repentance. Jesus would bring about the healing and transformation of the whole cosmos.

“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” This is what John said when he took his first look at Jesus down by the banks of the Jordan. The Holy Spirit had come down and rested on Jesus, and in that instant John knew that his ministry was complete. His own eyes had seen the promised savior.

John’s ministry was never about himself. He was always focused beyond himself, on the Messiah. There were lots of people who wanted to make John the Messiah, but John was crystal clear from the very beginning. He was just a messenger. When the people pressed him to identify himself – maybe he was the reappearance of Elijah? – John identified himself with the words of Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

The voice of one crying in the wilderness. That’s who John was. That’s who we are. That’s our job, too.

Have any of you ever watched Battlestar Galactica? The new one, not the 1970s version. It’s an amazing show. I won’t go into all the details right now, but for those of you who have seen it, there’s a phrase that is repeated over and over through the four seasons of the show: “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.”

Well, it’s happening again. We’re being called again into this wilderness journey. We are being invited to become desert creatures. Like John, we are called to become voices in the wilderness, crying out and making straight the way of the Lord.

The people of God have been called into the wilderness many times. We were called out into the Sinai when Moses led us out of Egypt. We went out to see the wild man John the Baptist, out beyond the Jordan. We returned again to the wilderness, when the church became the official religion of the Empire and it seemed like the only authentic faith was to be found in the desert. As the followers of the risen and living Jesus, we return to the wilderness again and again as he calls us.

Moving out into the wilderness is always a challenge. It pushes us out of our comfort zone spiritually, psychologically, and physically. The wilderness journey is one of loss and grief. We’re forced to let go of the life we thought we knew, the world we believed existed. We must face the reality of our own complicity with evil – and what it will cost us to turn towards the light.

And as if all of that weren’t enough – as if it weren’t sufficiently challenging to embrace our grief, face our shadow, and suffer the loss of comfort and stability – we’re asked to do more. Like John, we are challenged to acknowledge, freely and immediately, that we are not the Messiah. We are not the Messiah. We are not the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There’s one savior, and he’s not us.

Of course, you knew that, right? So did I – intellectually. But if I’m being really honest with myself, I have to admit that most of the time I act as if everything depended on me. I’ve spent most of my life under the delusion that my life could drive history. Both popular culture and religion have encouraged this in me. “Make a difference! Let your life speak! Be the change you wish to see! You are somebody!”

I’ve been told my whole life that I have personal responsibility for the way that history turns out. Since I was a little boy, it’s been implied that I’m supposed to be the hero of the story, the person driving the plot to a satisfying conclusion. And if I’m not that person, if I’m not the protagonist of history, then I’ve basically failed as a human being.

So for me, it’s a revolutionary thing to truly understand and accept that I have found the Messiah. Because if I’ve found him, he’s not me. If I’ve found the ultimate Protagonist of history, that means that I’m out of a job. I’m stripped of the illusion that my life, my effort, my intelligence, my faith, is the most important thing I can offer humanity and the universe. When I find the Messiah, I learn that the most important thing I can do is to be human, love boldly, and accept the reality that I flow in history – I don’t direct it.

This has always been hard for me. It’s even harder now that I see history flowing in such a dark direction. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I wonder whether maybe these days we’re living are actually an alternate timeline – and maybe I could fix it by going back in time and changing some tiny thing. There we go again – control!

It’s hard to let go of control when the stream we’re caught up in seems so odious, so opposite to that moral arc that we’ve been taught history is bending towards. It’s hard to embrace a savior who is not us, when we want more than anything to take matters into our own hands and influence the course of history. It’s hard to admit that we’re so small, so weak, so marginal to the flow of events in our generation.

But maybe this turn of events in the cultural, political, economic, and environmental state of our country is the only thing that could have woken us up. Maybe we needed this to hit rock bottom, to realize that trying to be in control of history is just too painful. More than ever before in living memory, our country really needs a savior. And it sure as heck isn’t me.

So what do we do in times like these? When our culture seems so dark, and it’s clearer than ever that we can’t solve the many injustices and pathologies of our nation? What is our role to play as friends of Jesus?

Our reading from Psalm 40 gives us a good example to live by. It says, “I waited patiently upon the LORD, he stooped to me and heard my cry.” There are two pieces here, right? The psalmist “waited patiently upon the Lord” – repentance – and God “stooped to me and heard my cry” – redemption.

This is the pattern we see in John’s life and ministry, too. John and his followers waited patiently upon the Lord. They waited out in the wilderness, out beyond the Jordan. They waited patiently as the thick darkness of Roman occupation suffocated their nation. They waited patiently while the collaborators – military and civil authorities – got rich off of the exploitation of their people. They waited patiently in poverty and humility, knowing that they were not the Messiah, but that God would send one. They waited patiently upon the Lord.

Our minds resist the way of John, the way of the wilderness. They insist that we need to fight, that we have a responsibility to overcome the darkness and restore justice to our community. This temptation is seductive, because it’s partially true. We do have a responsibility to work for justice in our society. We do have a role to play in the struggle to birth the reign of God into the world. John and his followers weren’t irrelevant to the affairs of the world. There’s a reason John was murdered by Herod. In a broken world, obedience to God always challenges the status quo. John was a desert creature, and the world could not comprehend him. And that’s why he had to die.

We are called to be desert creatures in the midst of this city. We are followers of Jesus. That means we stand in the prophetic heritage of John the Baptist. It’s a powerful heritage, one that brings down Empires and changes the course of history. But if we’re to stay sane, healthy, and centered in the Spirit – if we’re to overcome the world just like Jesus did – we have to stay grounded in that wilderness mindset. We have to remember who we belong to. And who the Lord of history is.

The power of the Holy Spirit that is at work in us has the power to change the world. We have a responsibility to be faithful in the struggle, to make ourselves proactively available for God’s work in the world. But we can’t make it happen. The Author of history will be its perfecter. We are called to be friends of Jesus, who lend a hand as we’re led by him.

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Can I Be Happy Without Progress?

One Must Imagine Him Happy
Two of my favorite biblical books are the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes and the New Testament Book of Revelation. Strange choices, I’ll admit. You’d be hard pressed to find two writers with a more profoundly different view of history, and humanity’s role to play in it.

Ecclesiastes basically views all of life as cyclical, repetitive, and ultimately futile – even boring! We humans are born, grow up, work, struggle, and die. We bring nothing into the world and taking nothing with us. All our efforts are just chasing after wind – building sand castles that are inevitably destroyed by the incoming tide of history. All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

Revelation, on the other hand, envisions a cosmos that is on a collision course with an apocalyptic unveiling. God’s sovereign rule is breaking into history, and the end of the story is at hand. For Revelation, nothing about this life is remotely futile or boring. We are in a life-and-death struggle as the last chapter of human history is revealed. What could be more exciting or important?

Somehow, these two visions co-exist as integral parts of the Christian canon. Both are embraced by billions as authentic expressions of God’s story. Each one reveals something profound about our world and our Creator.

But can they both be true? How can history be both cyclical and linear? How can life be an endless cycle of birth and death, while at the same time heading towards culmination in a final revealing, release, and restoration?

I find this same confusing paradox in my own life. Much of the time, I feel as though I’m spinning my wheels. Despite my best efforts, very little changes – at least, not the way I expect. Yet, over time, life does develop and grow. The person I am today would both shock and amaze the young man I was in college. I have been transformed, almost to the point of being unrecognizable to those who knew me as a young person.

And yet, in many ways I am fundamentally the same individual I was fifteen years ago. My heart hasn’t changed. I’m still made of the same basic elements, even as life experience, circumstance, and personal choices have shaped me in so many ways – for better and for worse. My life has both a cyclical and a linear aspect. Some things never change, even as I grow and develop on a determined trajectory.

My heart has known this for a long time, even if my head is still catching up. I’m reminded of the writings of Albert Camus, who used the Myth of Sisyphus as a metaphor for the tragic/heroic state of human beings in the world. Sisyphus is condemned to push a huge boulder up a hill forever, always losing control just before reaching the peak. After watching the boulder tumble down to the bottom of the hill, Sisyphus walks down into the valley to do it all over again.

For the Greeks, who originally told this story, this was a vision of hell. The utter futility of Sisyphus’ actions – both heroically linear (with a goal of getting the boulder over the hill) and tragically cyclical (each time it rolled back down the slope)  – combined to deliver a terrible punishment from the gods on an arrogant humanity.

For Camus, though, the myth of Sisyphus was a vision of human freedom. It is precisely in the midst of the incomprehensible cycle of history that we find fulfillment – not by successfully pushing the boulder over the summit, but through finding joy in the labor itself. Living in hope of a linear, “end-of-history” fulfillment, we are empowered to embrace the hills and valleys of the apparently futile cycles of Ecclesiastes.

I believe that this aspect of Camus’ philosophy captures something vital in the biblical tradition, strangely reconciling the quasi-nihilism of Ecclesiastes and the apparent triumphalism of Revelation. This philosophy is, in fact, the polar opposite of the totalitarian visions of the 20th century, in that it invites us to embrace life on its own terms, rather than as a means to a greater end. The gospel of Jesus is that we may have life, and have it abundantly. No more, no less.

This abundant life is not conditional. It does not depend on human progress, historical development, or an end-of-history event occurring in our lifetimes. It cannot be discouraged by suffering or loss or historical failure. No matter how many times the boulder rolls down the hill, there is life and power available to us to keep pushing, keep living, keep loving.

In times such as these, when the liberal illusion of “progress” has been so dramatically punctured, this is good news. On days like today, when I wonder whether my life “amounts to anything,” this is good news. The joy that sneaks up on me, and is always available to each one of us, will keep me moving back up the hill. Not out of fear, nor because I have no other choice, but because there is joy in the labor itself.

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Christmas is About Hitting Rock Bottom. Are You There Yet?
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (12/18/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 1:18-25 & Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18.

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen Now on SoundCloud

It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas.

As an American, I have a stereotyped vision of what Christmas ought to look like. It’s a cold, dark, wintry time. We’re bundled up, rushing from our warm houses to gathering places like this one, and back to our warm homes. It’s a time for gathering with family and friends. It’s a time of reassurance. That though we are experiencing some of the longest nights of the year, the light of friendship, community, and faith still shines. We are together. We are loved. God is providing.

I like this vision of Christmas. I think it’s an authentic view into how God calls us to be a faithful, caring community to one another. It includes Jesus’ command to love one another. It captures the hope that he promises us through the resurrection – that no matter how long the night, there is a bright morning coming.

The baby Jesus is that bright morning. Amid the cold and dark of winter, he comes to us as the light of Christmas. He is born to a pair of righteous Jews – a carpenter and his young financée. This couple is living in a very dark, very cold night. They – their whole family, their whole nation – is living under a brutal military occupation by a foreign power. They’re living in empire that maintains its rule through total military dominance. An empire that puts down rebellions by annihilating entire cities and selling whole nations into slavery.

Along with the entire Jewish nation, Mary and Joseph are waiting, longing, praying for salvation. The salvation they’re looking for is very tangible. They’re hoping for a great military leader. Someone in the mold of King David, who will throw the Romans out of Judea once and for all. Mary and Joseph are waiting for God’s anointed one, who will finally establish the kingdom that God promised David – a reign of justice and peace that never ends.

Still, I can only imagine how shocked both Mary and Joseph must have been when they learned the role that God was giving them to play in this deliverance. Mary was just a young girl – probably little more than a child herself. Yet God spoke to her. He chose Mary to be the mother of the Messiah. The mother of the promised deliverer. The mother of the son of God.

It would be an understatement to say that this turned Mary’s life upside down. Nothing could ever be the same as before. Her entire life would be defined by this birth, this child, this relationship with Jesus. Despite all that, Mary said “yes” to God’s call. It would have been less surprising if she had said “no.” But she said “yes.” She was ready for this mission. She knew how great her people’s oppression was. She knew how badly they needed a savior. So she said “yes.”

I think that sometimes we forget about Joseph’s role in this story, or maybe gloss over the courage and faithfulness that he showed in his response to God’s plan. But Joseph’s response was almost as miraculous as the virgin birth. How many men would accept their fiancée’s claim that their pregnancy was the result of an action of the Holy Spirit?

If you’ll remember from our reading a few weeks ago, the High Priest Zechariah had a tough time believing it when the angel told him that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son. Surely they were far too old for that! Because of his inability to believe the word of God, Zechariah spent the next nine months mute, unable to speak about the message he had received.

Joseph, on the other hand, was able to overcome his doubt at an even more miraculous occurrence. Somehow, he was able to work through his doubts and fears that Mary had been unfaithful to him. He also had the strength of character to withstand the shame that certainly came on him when others suspected that he might not be Jesus’ father. He had the courage to raise Jesus as his own, trusting that God’s word to him was true.

I believe that Joseph was able to muster this kind of courage precisely because he understood what the stakes were. God instructed Joseph to name his son Jesus – Yeshua. Yeshua is a Hebrew word meaning “God saves.” Joseph understood that God was intervening decisively in history. God was acting to save Israel from its enemies, the terrible oppression of the Romans and their client dictator, Herod. God was finally fulfilling his promise, given throughout the Old Testament, that he would raise up a ruler to sit on David’s throne, to govern God’s people and administer justice forever.

Both Mary and Joseph understood that this was the great calling of their lives. They would be parents to the Messiah. They would raise the one who saved Israel.

Whatever other hopes, dreams, and ambitions Mary and Joseph had for their lives, they were willing to sacrifice those in order to be responsive to God’s call.

This could be because they were just amazingly faithful saints, with powers of discernment and compassion that exceed that of ordinary people like you and me. That’s possible. But I tend to think that there was something more profound at play here.

I believe that any of us can take selfless, heroic, terrifying action given the right circumstances. We just have to be desperate enough. Think about the stories you’ve heard of regular folks lifting up cars to save a loved one. Yesterday I watched a news clip of a young woman who found her dad trapped underneath a one and a half ton automobile. Without thinking about it, she knelt down, pulled up, and flipped the car over and off of her dad’s body. He lived.

That kind of amazing strength and power is possible for all of us when we are truly desperate. When the full force of our lives is channeled in one direction, the miraculous can occur. That’s what happens when a daughter sees her father being crushed under a car. It’s what happened when Mary and Joseph watched their people being crushed under the jackboot of Roman occupation. They had become desperate enough to take miraculous action. Their need for salvation had become so great that they were ready to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. To do things that would be unthinkable otherwise.

For Mary and Joseph, and for the whole Jewish people at that time, salvation was not a “spiritual” concept. It was not primarily about going to heaven when they died. It wasn’t about some kind of transcendental, spiritual escape in this life. For the thousands of Jews who were praying for the arrival of the Messiah, salvation was profoundly concrete. It was political. It was material. It was about saving the lives of their children. They prayed for a future where the Romans no longer insulted their faith and desecrated the holy city. No longer dominated and exploited their economy. No longer crucified their sons and husbands along the highway.

God’s salvation isn’t just a nice idea. It’s air to someone struggling to breathe. It’s water to a person wandering in the desert. It’s food to a mother whose children are starving to death. For that kind of salvation, ordinary people like you and me can do miraculous things.

As we remember the birth of the baby Jesus, as we celebrate the coming of God’s messiah, it is time to ask ourselves: Are we hungry for salvation? Do we thirst for it above all else? Are we prepared to see our lives disrupted in order to seek salvation out?

In a certain way, we’re at a disadvantage to Mary and Joseph. Compared to them, our lives are pretty comfortable. I can tell you for sure, George was not born in a cow stall. We had access to wonderful midwives who guided us through the birth, and there was emergency medical staff on call in case anything went wrong. We were so blessed.

For those of us who have spent our entire lives in the United States, we have known relative peace and stability. Even in recent years, as our country has begun to slip more deeply into hatred and violence, the insanity and slaughter has still been the exception rather than the rule. I grew up in a country where I and most people I knew felt that we were citizens in a democracy. Not subjects of an occupation. Not sheep to be sheared and slaughtered at the whims of a dictator. I’ve lived a truly blessed life.

So I have to ask myself: Do I really want to be saved? Do I truly hunger and thirst for righteousness? Do I really want the upheaval that comes with salvation? Or would I prefer to remain in a comfortable hell?

Our nation is entering into a time of great testing, and it remains to be seen whether which path we will choose. Will we embrace the baby Jesus, with all the disruption and trouble he brings? Will we carry this pregnancy to term? Or will we tell God, “No. I won’t have this child. No, I won’t claim him as my own. Find someone else, God. I don’t need that kind of disturbance in my life.”

In the 12 Steps addiction recovery program, they have a concept of “hitting rock bottom” For alcoholics and drug addicts, hitting rock bottoms is when the pain of using becomes greater than the pain of not using.

For God to send Jesus into the world, Mary and Joseph had to be at rock bottom. They had to know that the pain of receiving Jesus is less than the pain of accepting one more day of economic injustice, moral outrage, and spiritual darkness. To receive Jesus, the Jewish people had to know that choosing the way of cross is ultimately less painful than continuing to participate in the endless cycle of hatred, violence, and oppression.

Christmas is an opportunity to ask ourselves: Are we there yet? Have we hit rock bottom? Is the pain of living in a world of hatred, willful ignorance, and greed greater for us now than the pain that comes from following Jesus?

If we are, God will perform the miraculous in us. Like Joseph, we will become agents of his protection and healing. Like Mary, God will use us to bear Jesus into the brokenness of this world. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel – God with us.” Amen.

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Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

Let’s get this out of the way: The story of Jesus being raised from the dead is totally nuts. The idea that for two nights Jesus would lie dead in a tomb – probably beginning to smell a little funny – and then on Sunday morning would be up and about, visiting his friends, strains credulity to the breaking point.

Even those who saw it first-hand were slow to believe it. Mary assumed he was a gardener. The male disciples dismissed the women who told them what they had seen. And the apostle Thomas said he wouldn’t believe in the resurrection unless he personally put his hand into Jesus’ pierced side.

Eventually, Thomas did see and touch Jesus in his resurrection. And he recognized in Jesus all the power and majesty that he failed to comprehend during Jesus’ pre-resurrection ministry, crying out: “My Lord and my God!”

Today, there are billions of people who say they believe in the resurrection. Countless men and women throughout the centuries have believed, despite not having the benefit of touching Jesus’ wounds or having breakfast with him by the Sea of Galilee.

To any rational outsider, the resurrection faith of the Christian community must seem inexplicable. How do so many otherwise reasonable people come to put their faith in an event that none of us have personally witnessed, and which all our scientific knowledge tells us is not possible?

I had the same reaction during my first visit to a Quaker church on Easter Sunday. Everyone around me was saying, “He is risen!” and I could only look at them with startled curiosity. On what basis were these intelligent, highly-educated people saying something so preposterous? Did they have special knowledge that I didn’t? I asked some of them directly: Have you seen Jesus yourself?

I remember being less than satisfied with their answers. How could faith in something as crucial as the resurrection rely solely on church tradition or the words of an ancient book? Surely we should demand more proof than that. If Jesus showed himself to the first disciples, why shouldn’t we expect the same today?

According to John, Jesus says those who have not seen but believe anyway are blessed. But I’ve never been very interested in that kind of blessing. I’m more of a Thomas. I want to see Jesus with my eyes and touch him with my hands. If Jesus and his resurrection are going to be at the center of my faith, I want to know the reality of it for myself. I don’t want any second-hand religion. I want to be a witness to the resurrection.

And in many ways, I have been. In the years since my first, skeptical Easter, I have had my own Thomas moments. I have seen the presence of Jesus shining through in the lives of those around me, in acts of courage and love, and in totally unexpected encounters that are hard to explain. I have come face to face with Jesus, the one who was dead but now has been raised to life.

To my skeptical self of a decade ago, I know this would sound like a pious sleight of hand, a cop out. “You still haven’t seen Jesus in the flesh. How can you believe in a bodily resurrection based on your subjective feelings?”

I acknowledge that to many my faith might seem to stand on a weak foundation. But I have seen Jesus in the flesh. I have seen him in the flesh of men and women who are serving him, many times without even being aware of it. I have seen how he lives in the most broken of us, even in me. He is alive. His amazing presence fills the cosmos, and this silly little world we share. If that’s not bodily resurrection, I don’t know what is.

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What Did Jesus See?

What Did Jesus See?

What Did Jesus See?

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, it was a big deal. The city was packed with pilgrims who had come to celebrate the Passover. The occupying Roman army was on high alert, well-aware that insurrection was common during the days of the festival. The air was electric as devout Jews from across the diaspora gathered together in the city of David to remember their liberation from Egypt, and to wait for God to send another leader like Moses, one who would free them from the Roman yoke.

There was revolutionary expectation as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, echoing Zechariah’s prophecy of a victorious messiah-king who would free Israel from foreign domination. People waved palm branches and threw down their coats in front of Jesus, reenacting the anointing of Jewish kings. They shouted praise: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” All of Jerusalem was abuzz with the question: Could this Jesus be the one? Could he be the promised savior who would defeat the Romans and establish an independent Jewish state?

Jesus didn’t seem to deny that interpretation. When some of the Pharisees in the crowd demanded that he calm his disciples, Jesus only replied: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Yet Jesus saw something that no one else did. All the crowds around him were imagining what the future might hold for Israel. But Jesus didn’t imagine – he knew. With the eyes of a prophet, Jesus could see what was on the horizon. And all he saw was terror and bloodshed.

Looking down from the Mount of Olives at the holy city, he cried out, weeping: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Jesus could see what the crowds, the Pharisees, and even his own disciples could not: Jerusalem would be besieged, burned, destroyed. The people within it would be annihilated. The dream of violent revolution would become a nightmare. The myth of a Davidic kingdom and a holy Temple would be replaced by utter destruction.

Jesus’ followers had no idea what kind of king they were dealing with. His coronation would take place while hanging from a Roman cross. His crown would be made of thorns. His triumph would be total defeat in the eyes of the world.

In Jesus we discover a ruler whose power comes not from terror and violence, but from self-sacrifice and love. His is a kingdom where the highest ranking people are the outcasts and misfits – the lowest rungs of Caesar’s order. Jesus brings a peace that relies not on legions and imperial occupation, but on radical acts of truth-telling and compassion.

But no one could see that then. Even for Jesus’ closest friends, the kind of leadership that he offered was literally unimaginable. 

For most of us, most of the time, it still is. As those of us in the United States find ourselves in the midst of the most contentious, disturbing political season in at least a generation, it’s easy to get scared. It’s tempting to place our hopes in the Caesars and Davids of our time, rather than in the humble way of Jesus that overcomes the politics of Empire. It’s easier to seek comfort from the power of political victory in the world’s terms, rather than entrusting our lives to the lordship of Jesus.

Precisely in times like these, we are invited to stand with Jesus on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the holy city. With the Spirit he gives to us, we can see what he sees. We can perceive the destruction that is coming – and also the transformation and redemption that is possible, even in the face of so much brokenness, violence, and despair. And we can weep with him. Sometimes, tears are the right response.

For all of us who choose to walk in the way of Jesus, we know that crucifixion is coming, but there’s also resurrection. There is darkness all around us, but we have been given power to be the light. We live in a time of confusion, fear, and hatred, but the Spirit of Jesus has given us a bold love to stand in. It’s there waiting for each of us. Will we recognize our time of visitation from God?

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Rest On Every Side

When Solomon became king, he inherited an Israel at the height of its power and wealth. Solomon’s father, David, had spent decades fighting numerous wars to carve out territory for himself and fighting off rivals. David’s legacy of violence permeated his whole family, and his heirs fought over who would inherit royal power. Early on in Solomon’s reign, he has his ambitious half-brother Adonijah executed. King Solomon rooted out and destroyed anyone who would threaten his kingship.

For me, this isn’t an easy part of the Bible to read. I’m disoriented by a story in which God’s chosen leader establishes himself through bloodshed, even murdering his own brother. My king, Jesus, was nailed to a cross rather than imposing his will by force. Yet, there’s no denying that this story of imperial rule was part of Jesus’ Bible, too. What sense do I make of this?

One detail that feels important to me is that all of this violent consolidation of power takes place before Solomon has a conversation with God that changes his life. Not long after the bloody events at the beginning of his reign, God appears to Solomon in a dream and says, Ask what I should give you. The young king’s response is to ask for an understanding mind to govern [God’s] people, able to discern between good and evil…

God is very pleased with this response, and not only grants Solomon great wisdom, but also wealth and long life. God establishes Solomon as ruler over a vast territory, larger than Israel has ever been, before or since, and Solomon reigns with justice so famous that even foreigners come to hear his wisdom. The people of Israel stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice. Solomon becomes a man transformed by God’s grace and power.

I wonder how Solomon might have handled his brother Adonijah, and the other rivals that he killed, if he had asked God for wisdom earlier. I can’t help but think that the same spirit of justice that made him the greatest human ruler the world has ever known might have led him on a different path in those early days of his kingship.

Along with his famed wisdom, wealth and influence, God gives peace to Solomon’s Israel. The seemingly endless warfare of David’s reign is over, and Israel experiences a rest and prosperity that is rare in history. In this period of general well-being and stability, Solomon perceives that it is time to build a temple for the God of Israel.

David had wanted to build the Temple, but he was disqualified from building the Temple precisely because of his violent ways. It is written that David said to Solomon, ‘”My son, I had planned to build a house to the name of the LORD my God. But the word of the LORD came to me, saying… ‘You shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood in my sight on the earth…'”

Beyond the moral problems that this violence raised, David would have had a hard time building the Temple, even if he felt he were permitted to. Simply put, David had too many other irons in the fire. There were so many wars to fight, enemies to defeat, and armies to organize, that David never had the breathing room to attend to this holy work.

But Solomon does. At peace with his neighbors and in a position of great wealth and tranquility, Solomon has the time, energy and attention to focus on that which is most important. Solomon explains to a neighboring king:

…Now the LORD my God has given me rest on every side; there is neither adversary nor misfortune. So I intend to build a house for the name of the LORD my God…

For Solomon, there is finally space for the truly essential work to get done. The time of clawing and scratching to consolidate power is over. Finally, there is a king in Jerusalem who has the mind of the Lord, who reigns in peace and justice. Without the need to fight for survival, engage in conquest, or eliminate rivals, Solomon is freed to attend to the core service that God is calling him to.

As I read this passage, I find myself looking deeper, seeking the various levels of meaning in the text. On a literal level, of course, the Scripture speaks about the conditions surrounding the construction of the Temple. Yet, I also see here an invitation into a different way of living today. Rather than allowing myself to be distracted by life’s constant struggles for security and control, what does it look like for me to experience rest on every side, and to turn my attention to building a house for the name of the LORD my God?

My mind is drawn to a passage from the teachings of Jesus. He tells the story of a sower tossing seeds on the ground. Some of them fell on the path and were eaten by birds. Others fell on rocky soil and were unable to flourish. Other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!

What would it be like for my life to be like the seed that falls on good soil, having rest on every side? So often, I allow God’s purposes for me to be snatched up by the birds of distraction. My endurance fails because of the rocky conditions of my routines and patterns of thinking. And the weeds of the world – selfish ambitions, scarcity thinking, and false relationships – frequently threaten to choke out the good seed of God in my life.

What would it mean for me to have rest on every side, allowing me to focus all my attention on making my life a a house for the name of the LORD my God?

Idols and the I AM

I am fascinated by the often dysfunctional relationship between God and Israel. In Exodus, God appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and provides the Hebrew people with a hope and a future. For reasons known only to God, the Lord chooses an insignificant group of Egyptian slaves and promises to guide them to freedom, peace and prosperity in their own land. Repeatedly, throughout their flight from Egypt, their journey through the desert and their new life in the Promised Land, God works miraculous deeds to protect and guide the Hebrew people. All they are asked in return is to put aside other gods and follow the Lord alone.

This should be a no-brainer, right? In exchange for justice, prosperity, love and stability, wouldn’t you think that a people could be convinced to give up other gods and follow I AM alone? This deal seems so good, that it can be difficult to understand why the Hebrews consistently broke their end of the bargain. Time and again, they worshiped other deities – fertility gods, power gods, national gods – subjecting themselves once again to the horrors of slavery that God had delivered them from. Why would the Hebrews give up such a beneficial relationship to go fiddle around with idols?

At first glance, it’s easy for me to miss the relevance of this spiritual history. After all, no one I know literally worships idols of carved wood, stone or metal. This type of polytheistic worship, while not unheard of, is relatively uncommon in my nation. It is certainly not a live option for me. I have never been tempted to set up an altar to the fertility goddess Astarte or the power god Ares.

Yet, even in 21st-century America, we still worship many things that are not God. It takes a bit of imagination to make the connection between ancient idol-worship and modern-day substitutes for reality, but when I finally do see it, the Old Testament stories are transformed. No longer are they quaint, mostly irrelevant tales from the distant past. Now, they ripple with brilliant color and life. I can see that not only is this same story playing out today, but that I myself often participate in the faithless idolatry that so often got the Hebrews into trouble.

There are many ways that my loyalty to God can get divided. Worries about money or career success are a big one. It’s one thing to say that I trust God to provide for me; it’s another thing entirely to act as if it were true! How often do I pay homage to the god of Success, rather than the I AM who provided for the Hebrews in the wilderness?

In reality, the dynamics of human faith (and faithlessness) are not so different now than they were 3000 years ago. The gods of wealth, fertility, hedonism, and power are all alive and well – and actively sought after. Their names have changed, of course, and most of their devotees would not conceive of their veneration as religious. But worship does not have to take an explicitly religious form to be real. Whatever we give ultimate meaning and priority to, we worship.

We are often lured into believing that we serve God alone, when in fact we have many other priorities – sex, money, power, security, recognition – that are in active competition. Once we see this, it’s no longer so easy to look down on the ancient Hebrews who worshiped their various gods in addition to God. All of a sudden, the story is a little too close for comfort!

More than ever, it’s a story that we need to hear. Though our idols today are rarely made of gold, silver and bronze, they are effective as ever in pulling us away from our primary allegiance to Christ. How can we wake up to the multitude of false gods that populate our culture, and choose to follow Jesus alone? What would it look like to reengage with the I AM of the Old Testament experience, who stands as an alternative to the addictions and delusions of Empire?