Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith for ever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. (Psalm 146:5-9)
He heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds. (Psalm 147:3)
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you.” (John 15:12-16a)
If you’ve ever showed up to a party that is already in full swing, you know how it feels: Conversations are in motion, the music is playing, the food is out and partially eaten. But people greet you as you arrive because you’ve been expected all along and they’re glad that you’ve finally arrived.
Sometimes people view God as being outside of the drama of human existence and then, after people scream, yell, and pray, he finally decides to intervene so that he can get back to tricking us with fake planets like Pluto or whipping up the next natural disaster just to mess with things.
The Bible offers a different picture of God: He is already involved in everything that is happening. It is God who creates and sustains all life; it is God who initiates justice and care for the hurting and the needy; it is God who brings healing to the wounded. Yes, people do cry out, but not to a god who is deaf half the time to their cries, but instead to the God who is fully aware, fully present, and already at work.
Jesus presents the face of God within his own life and character. Jesus loves those who have followed him, and he loves them as friends. They are not simply religious functionaries; they are beloved friends. He tells them that they have been drawn into what God is doing in the world and are a part of his work.
“You did not choose me but I chose you.” People sometimes debate about these words as if they are about some sort of determinism regarding how God chooses who is in and who is out. But Jesus is speaking about how God works: God’s work comes before anyone is aware of what is going on. God is the initiator and we get to respond to what he is doing. The disciples did not hunt up God by chasing down Jesus and demanding that he let them join his club. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, wrestling in prayer, and then chose his followers as an answer to that time of communion with his Father.
Every time we respond to God we are showing up to a party that is already in full swing. When we trust our lives to Jesus, God doesn’t say, “I’m really glad that you showed up. Now, what is your name, again? I’m really kind of busy, you know.” God has been at work in and around us the whole time, drawing us, calling to us, loving us even as we went along our own merry way. God started the party without us, but he also reserved a seat for us, waiting for us to finally arrive.
But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. . .
Shepherd your people with your staff, flock that belongs to you, which lives alone in a forest in the midst of a garden land; let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old. As in the days when you came out of the land of Egypt, show us marvelous things. (Psalm 7:7, 14-15)
I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
Most of us are waiting for something. We’re waiting for a big break, waiting for our ship to come in, waiting for the right person to come along, waiting for quitting time, waiting for retirement. We do a lot of waiting. It seems life too much of our life is spent in some kind of waiting room filled with old magazines and bad coffee.
The ancient people of Israel were in exile, and they waited. Perhaps some had lost hope in God, lost hope in ever returning home again, and lost hope in their future. The prophet Micah, however, speaks of hope in waiting, because he intends, regardless of what everyone else does, to wait on God. He trusts that God will hear him.
Micah describes the people as a flock of sheep who are surrounded by a lush land, but are isolated in a forest—not the best environment for sheep. He calls on God to be their shepherd and to show his people marvelous things once again. He believes that life in the garden is their destiny rather than hiddeness in the shadows of the forest. The prophet recalls the history of God’s people and how God acted in the past to rescue them. He is confident that God will act again.
I’ve experienced crazy things in my life that I can only interpret as the work of God. Exact amounts of money for specific needs have shown up at just the right time; cries for help for those I love have been answered; direction for life choices has come in surprising ways. Yet, when things in life get dicey, I start waiting on the wrong things. I wait for a brilliant idea to emerge from my own brilliantness to solve the problem, or I wait for new strategies to emerge, or I wait for financial markets to wake up and make my future brighter than it seems. It’s a painful waiting and there is no rest in it.
Jesus employs the metaphor of the grape vine to make his point about waiting. I’ve been to wineries and seen grape vines at work. They just sit there, doing what grape vines and branches do. The branches are wedded to the vine, and the soak up sun, soil, and water and the fruit follows. I love visiting wineries because they feel so peaceful and relaxed. If that’s what waiting is really about, then I’m all for it.
The brand of waiting that Jesus recommends is one of abiding, or living. It’s not a waiting that is passive, isolated, or disinterested, but is instead a waiting that is immersed in the life of Jesus. There is a rhythm of trust in that kind of waiting, because Jesus moves in concert with the desires and intentions of God, and that waiting-life works its way into our lives by the breath of God’s Spirit—the Holy Spirit. Abiding in Jesus is a life of participation in what God is doing all around us. It allows for the best kind of waiting.
The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger for ever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:6-14)
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them. . . I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:18-21)
When I was in the Navy I worked in an old building that had three restrooms on the bottom floor, and each was clearly labeled: Men; Women; Officers. The message was clear to we enlisted folks who were at the bottom of the military food chain: We had our own restrooms and we were not to share those facilities with our officers, who were, historically, men.
The only problem with this set up was that there were now two female officers who worked on the first floor of this building. Every so often one of them would use the “Officers” restroom just to make a point. After all, they too were officers. It was their right. It was an act of equality and justice.
In our culture equality, rights, and justice are often bundled together in our thinking. We believe in equal access to all things—after all, we have the right to pursue almost anything we desire, and to hinder that process is perceived as an act of injustice. The way that the Bible describes justice in relation to God is very different from our cultural constructs. Justice is seen as God engaging with broken humanity and setting right what has been damaged by sin and oppression. Even to those who have transgressed, God offers the possibility of forgiveness. This comes from his love and compassion, described so beautifully in Psalm 103.
When Jesus speaks to his friends in John 14, he deepens the understanding of God’s love by describing it not only as compassionate, but also present. He speaks of his life being embedding in the life of God the Father, and that this life will live within those who trust him. He describes the Holy Spirit as the “Advocate,” the one who comes alongside us to help us. This is more than God looking over his damaged children and relieving them from punishment; this is God fully present as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to his children who are, in all appearances, dust.
It is sad when we reduce Christian faith to a set of concrete statements of belief. At the heart of Christian faith is the initiative of God, which comes before anything we believe, and the promise of his presence living within us, transforming us from dust to beloved children. This is God worth trusting. First we trust, then we come to articulate what we believe. As John says in another place,
In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us . . . (I John 4:10a)
After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Matthew 28:1-10)
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:5-11)
When Christians celebrate Easter, it is typically joyous. The dark coverings of Good Friday are drawn back, the windows are opened, the bright flowers are produced, and the songs of joy are sung. There is no more need for sadness and grief; he is risen, and all will be well.
The first friends of Jesus, however, did not experience joy until later. Initially, fear and disbelief dominated them—Jesus twice tells them, “Do not be afraid.” The guards at the tomb were terrified to the point of catatonia; t is likely that they later exhibited the signs of PTSD. In Luke’s account of the Resurrection, the male disciples don’t believe the story that the women tell about the empty tomb and the angels. They thought it was “an idle tale” (Luke 24:11). Their own gender prejudices might have made the women’s report suspect to them. They found it hard to believe.
It would be interesting to celebrate Easter in a cemetery. One particular tomb could be arranged ahead of time with the doors thrown open and a coffin smashed to bits, the corpse nowhere to be seen. People dressed like angels could leap out from behind gravestones and trees, scaring the pants off everyone by yelling, “He is risen!” Then everyone could gather together and be allowed to share all their doubts about faith and God. Starting an Easter celebration with fear and doubt might align us with the experiences of the first disciples; it might also create a new kind of space for Jesus to appear and show that he is truly alive.
It was only long after the events of the Resurrection that some theological interpretation started to emerge. People like the Apostle Paul looked deeply into the life of Israel, reflected on the story of Jesus, and realized that something cosmic and global was happening as a result of the local event of Jesus’ resurrection. This was a story for all people, and human lives were being drawn into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus, who had been condemned by the power of sin, and then snuffed out by the power of death, now stood victorious over both those dark forces. When we trust our lives to Jesus, his story becomes ours; Paul says that we, too, are now freed from the dominance of both sin and death.
A story that launches in fear and disbelief, in a dusty spot in a faraway place, becomes a story of joy and hope, a story for people in all places at all times. Even for those who are still troubled by fear, Jesus comes and urges, “Do not be afraid.” For those who struggle with disbelief, he reaches out and cries, “Greetings!”
Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)
It has been said that Humphrey Bogart’s last words were, “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.” Other famous people have uttered final words that were profound, desperate, or just plain crazy. People will say all kinds of things at the point of death.
Jesus had every right for any of the above, given his circumstances. We would understand his final cries to be of incomprehensible anguish or utterances coming from hallucinatory pain. Instead, he offers the words from the prayer book of his people—the Psalms.
You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God. (Psalm 31:3-5)
People often think of death as a giving up of all that is valuable and precious to us—human life. In crying out in the words of the Psalm, Jesus brings to the minds of the witnesses to his death something very different. This time of suffering will end, not in the obliteration of life, but instead in Jesus’ entrance into the refuge of his Father.
In both the Hebrew and the Greek of the Bible, the same word is frequently used for spirit, breath, and wind. As Jesus offers his spirit—the breath of God that brings about all of life on earth—he breathes out, offering back to God the life that was his in the first place.
Even as people speak, breath is at work. Our words are formed by teeth and tongue, breath and mind. As God speaks, word becomes flesh; breath becomes life.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
It is intriguing to note that much of the last words spoken by Jesus on the cross were words of prayer. His prayers were not simply the isolated, painful cries of a dying man, but rather the corporate prayers of the people of Israel, gathered into the slowly diminishing life of Jesus, who had come for the sake of his own people and the sake of the world. Jesus cried not only for himself, but also on behalf of Israel, bringing the pain of their exile into his own time of agony.
All the witnesses to Jesus’ death could understandably assume that sin and death had won the day. Rome and Jerusalem conspired in deceit to do away with Jesus; their success was realized when Jesus breathed his final breath. The claws of death would surely wrap around one who died as a criminal and a failed Messiah.
Jesus, however, did not fear such a destiny. As his life dwindled to a dull glow, he laid his spirit into the hands of his Father. Death would not enjoy a victory over Jesus; he belonged to God, and would be received home. Death would have to look around twice to figure out what had just happened.
The confidence that Jesus had in his Father’s desire to receive him gives us hope for ourselves. The same Father who embraced the spirit of Jesus upon his death will one day receive us as well. When Resurrection comes, spirit and body will reunite in God’s new heaven and new earth. There is no shortage of hope for the people of God.
When new houses are built, all the skilled workers play their parts—creating a foundation, framing, running wire and pipe, making roofs and walls and ceilings—and then leave for the next project. A clean-up team comes in and picks up all the fragments of the job so that people can move in. The workers still carry a responsibility for the integrity of their work, and they will have to return to fix something if it doesn’t work properly.
However, the workers have no responsibility for what the inhabitants do once they move in. If the marriage collapses, the electrician will not be called to account. If illegal drugs are manufactured in the bathroom, the plumber will not have to answer to the police. The workers’ relationship to the house ends when it is properly completed and ready for occupancy. What happens after that is not their concern. They are finished.
Jesus’ final words on the cross imply a number of things. Truly, Jesus’ life is finished. He is breathing his last, and he will now die, as all humans must. Along with his death, the power of Rome has finished its murderous work on yet another person. For those standing close to the cross, those words might have confirmed what they already believed: All that Jesus had said and done was finished, as was the life they had shared together.
But some other things were finished as well. All that had come to be represented in Jesus—the life of Israel and the life of the entire human race—would no longer be subject to the final word of sin and death. Yes, sin would still rattle its cage throughout the world and every new birth would end in a grave, but their power to pronounce the end of the story was finished. And if we truly believe that the very fullness of God was in and with Jesus, then God’s immersion in the totality of human existence was finished; from conception to death, God’s sojourn in the life of the human race was complete.
Unlike the workers who move on when their work is done, what was finished in the death of Jesus would launch into a new reality with a cosmic purpose. This was not a finishing that was over and done with no relationship to what would come next, but it was rather a finishing that would explode to a new level in the Resurrection (the Greek word for finished implies this purposeful relationship). To the average onlooker, Jesus the failed Messiah who died on Friday was truly finished and had gone the way of others before him. But Sunday was yet to come, and what appeared to be finished would turn reality on its head. Like a seed that appears dried and dead but, when planted in the ground, becomes a living plant, so would the finished, dead body of Jesus enter the tomb and emerge with new life for all.
We humans, who so often lack vision, can easily look around and declare ourselves “finished.” We’ve hit a wall, we’ve made too many mistakes, we’ve missed too many opportunities, and we are finished. But the story in which we are invited to live doesn’t leave us finished as though we’ve reached a silent ending. On one level we may be finished, but in Jesus we find that we can launch into a new life that doesn’t deny what has happened before, but now wraps up the past into a present that brings hope and promise for the future.
Things may no longer look as we imagined they would, but passing from death to a resurrection life rarely keeps things looking the same. The resurrected Jesus was not a reanimated corpse, but a real body from which death and its effects had been banished. There were still the marks of the past in Jesus’ hands, feet, and sides, because what had happened to him was real. The new life, however, wrapped up the past into the new and purposeful life that was launched on Easter.
Thirst is a basic human response to the need for liquid. The human body has more water in it than any other kind of element. A person can go for a long period of time without eating, but lack of fluids can do some serious damage.
Thirst is also painful. It racks the body and creates incessant, rasping reminders in the mouth and tongue. It doesn’t come and go; it takes up residence.
That Jesus would thirst should come as no surprise. After losing blood in the process of crucifixion and then being exposed to the elements that day, thirst would be natural to him. But his thirst also should not surprise us because Jesus was a real person, suffering in a very real, human way. This man was no divine illusion pretending to die, as some involved with the first-century so-called “mystery religions” might have claimed. Jesus was real, and true. His suffering and death were authentically human, experienced in time and space.
As the Apostle John wrote to affirm this,
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us. (I John 1:1-2)
We are told that Jesus was not offered water to satisfy his thirst, but rather “vinegar.” It was actually a cheap wine that the soldiers kept handy for themselves—after all, crucifying people was a taxing business. It is also added to the text that this cry of Jesus was, again, part of a scripture that needed to be fulfilled:
I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none. They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink. (Psalm 69:20b-21)
There is an interesting parallel here: The same Egypt that oppressed and enslaved the ancient Hebrew people later gave shelter to Jesus and his family when they were in need; now the same Romans who worked their dark machinery to end Jesus’ life are giving comfort to the one they are killing. That comfort doesn’t come from outside of the soldiers’ resource, but rather from the very jug of wine that they use to comfort themselves. The oppressors have become the comforters.
Jesus’ own people stood back and watched him die; mockery and grief were mixed in a paradoxical cocktail. Even the most devoted of Jesus’ followers lacked the ability to minister to his needs. The soldiers, however, attended to his thirst.
The complicity of the Jewish leaders with the Romans created a vehicle of death that was swift and sure. Enemies locked arms as they unleashed their power on Jesus. At the end, however, those who would have been considered to be far removed from the people of God brought the only attempt at comfort to the dying Messiah. It be a Centurion who would make the declaration,
“Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Matthew 27:54b)
There is something the outsider sees that the insider misses. I have heard several high-profile atheists state that, while they think religion in general is bunk and Christians in particular are fools, Jesus is at the very least, admirable. They sometimes puzzle at the lack of seriousness with which Christians take their own Savior.
Maybe there is something for us to learn from those who watch from afar.
And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
I know a man who, as a teenager, was arrested along with two friends for minor drug possession. The judge gave the parents a choice: The boys could spend three months in the county jail, or receive probation and be turned over to the parents. The parents got together and agreed that some jail time would serve as an excellent lesson to their wayward sons. During their time in jail, one of the boys was horribly abused by some seasoned criminals. He suffered a mental breakdown and never fully recovered from the experience. Lesson learned.
The idea of being forsaken by one’s parents is painful. Parents are supposed to be primary caregivers, and to abandon a child—especially when that child is in desperate need—is an offense to most people. The idea of God abandoning Jesus at his greatest time of need is a nightmare. After all, if God would do that to Jesus, would he also do it to us?
There are theories about what is really going on when Jesus cries out, agonizing over being abandoned by God. One is that the divine part of Jesus is extracted so that the human part fully suffers. Another is that God needs an innocent, perfect person to suffer and die in the place of the human race, and he turns his back on Jesus so that his anger can be fully satisfied. There are other theories as well.
Jesus, however, is not crying out simply from his own place of pain, uttering words that are his own. He is quoting from the Hebrew scriptures, speaking the words of a text that would have been familiar to the Jewish people gathered at his execution:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2)
Perhaps the rest of the Psalm would echo through the minds of the people on that day, as the psalmist describes agonies that correspond to the pain suffered by one being crucified:
All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads. . . I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled; I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots. (Psalm 22:7, 14-18)
In the last words of Jesus, words that sound desolate and alone, the agony of Israel in exile is mirrored. Yes, there is a prophetic ring to the Psalm as Jesus enacts the descriptions of suffering that the psalmist so strikingly describes. But there is something else happening as well: In his suffering, Jesus is fully identifying with Israel’s sense of abandonment. Israel continues to ask when they will be liberated from foreign powers, and Jesus takes that cry into himself.
God, in Jesus, has not left the scene of suffering, turning his back impassively, waiting for his wrath to be assuaged. God is fully present in Jesus, indentifying to the point of death with Israel’s condition—and, ultimately, the condition of the entire world.
And, in our condition, God continues to identify and share our pain, fully identifying his life with ours.
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (John 19:26-27)
My college chaplain used to say that he worried about the big things of life, while his wife worried about the little things. He worried about big things: the economy, war, social upheaval, and national politics. His wife worried about the little things: what they would eat, where they would live, how the bills would get paid. He thought that was a reasonable trade-off. He was, of course, joking.
Jesus dying on the cross was a big thing. It was big because first, he represented all of Israel in that place of death. He took within himself all the suffering and pain that Rome could dish out to a people that had lost their way. It was also big because, as Israel represented the entire world to God, so did Jesus die on behalf of the world. He took on the inevitability of human death that stalks all people of the world. And it was big because a real human life was being slowly snuffed out in a horrible, tortuous way.
While hanging on that cross, Jesus expressed concern about a little thing: His mother’s care. But why did he bother to do that, especially under those circumstances? Certainly Jesus had other family members who could care for her; why John, his close friend and disciple?
Maybe there is a clue in something else that Jesus said. He once looked at his followers and claimed them as his own family:
“Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:49b-50)
In his last words to Mary and John, Jesus seemed to be redefining what it meant to be a family in the present reality of God’s kingdom. His mother and his friend had faithfully followed him, even to the place of his death. In their solidarity with him they entered into a new relationship that was not boundaried by genetics or bloodlines, but rather by faith. Mary would not be a boarder in John’s house; she would be his mother. John would not be Mary’s landlord; he would be her son.
There is something potentially wonderful about families that are made up of parents and children. But life in the kingdom of God creates a new kind of family that binds us together in a way that transcends the hereditary. Rather than defining family as being grounded in a common DNA, family is now grounded in common faithfulness. This new family embraces its members not because there is genetic necessity, but because the glue that holds it together is God’s love.
It is also a risky family because it is one designed to take in and care for the stranger. The ethic of hospitality runs deeply through the shared life of the people of God, and it always shakes things up, taking the commonplace and predictable and turning them into the risky and questionable. Such is the life of this new family.
Were can this new family be found? Sometimes it is in churches, or at least in aspects of churches. Other times it is found more organically among people gathered in non-traditional settings. It isn’t usually found in contexts that are grounded in common interest or a comfortable chemistry. There is too much safety in those settings, and it’s too easy to violate the predictability of the environments to allow for hospitality. It can only be found when the common ground is the love of God.
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The desire for power drives much of the drama of humanity’s story. Posturing for advantage and control underlies most of the conflicts of history, both global and local.
In Mark’s gospel (chapter 10), James and John approach Jesus and ask for the positions at his right and left when he comes to a place of power. Jesus says that they do not understand what they are asking, and that those places are not his to grant. The other disciples are angered when they hear about the request, possibly because they hadn’t thought of it first.
At the end of the story, both Luke and Mark subtly address the irony of that request for advantage:
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. (Luke 23:33)
It appears that the power to grant the places to the right and left of Jesus came from the power of Rome rather than from Jesus. Jesus’ executioners decided who would be on either side of Jesus, and these would not be places of power, as James and John wrongly assumed. These were powerless places, places that would end in death.
It is from the right and the left that Jesus hears conflicting interpretations about what is happening to him. One man mocks him, ridiculing Jesus’ so-called messiahship that appears to have no ability to save anyone from the power of the Empire. The other man offers a rebuke to the first:
“Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:40b-41)
This condemned criminal sees what others have missed: Jesus is innocent. He shares the place of the criminals’ death but he doesn’t belong there. The religious leaders and the power of Rome have come together to label Jesus as a wrongdoer, one deserving death, but the criminal knows otherwise. In his place of powerlessness, he sees the truth about Jesus.
This, however, is all that he knows. There is no evidence of theological depth or a correctness of understanding of faith that could be labeled “Christian.” He has not believed in Jesus because Jesus died for his sins; he and Jesus still live. All he knows is that Jesus is innocent, and that God must be with him. That is probably why he made a request that stands in sharp contrast to that of James and John:
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)
Jesus promise that the two of them will indeed be together in “Paradise,” the anticipated place of rest that will follow death. Even before resurrection there will be rest in Paradise, and the man will enjoy that rest simply because he asked to be remembered.
Once again, Jesus reaches out, even in his agony, to the least among the people. A dying criminal has no credentials of righteousness or any claim to a reward. But this one was remembered, and Jesus did not cross to the other side of death that day alone.
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
In his book The Source of Life, Jürgen Moltmann reflects on his time as a POW in Scotland and England. He had been a German Air Force pilot during World War II, was captured, and detained until 1948. During that time, he claims, through the kindness of the local people around the camp, he gave his life to Jesus Christ. After the end of the war but before he was sent home, he and some others were given permission to attend a theological conference, an event that was to be a profound gift to him, in ways that he did not anticipate.
At the conference some Dutch students approached Moltmann and his friends and described the loss they had suffered at the hands of the Germans. Moltmann was crushed by the guilt that he felt, and feared that this new life he had found was about the crash to the ground. But the students’ tone changed. They said that, because of Jesus, they could now reach out in forgiveness and become brothers in Christ with the ones who had been their former enemies.
In war, as in other tragic places of human conflict, people do not know what they are doing. Moltmann thought he was being loyal to his country, but had been duped by Hitler and his thugs. But he didn’t know what he was really doing. The Dutch students’ revealed the truth about what he had done, and then offered forgiveness. First, the guilt was identified and acknowledged; then the power of forgiveness reordered the relational landscape.
Jesus had been horribly mistreated, and then crucified as though he were a criminal. His own people had turned on him and conspired with the Romans to subject him to the most tortuous death the Empire had sanctioned for its non-citizens. Everything about this was wrong, and Jesus could still see the faces of those who despised him as he slowly died on the cross.
We Christians today celebrate the cross as the primary icon of our faith. The earliest Christians shied away from the cross as a symbol because of the horror associated with it. Sometimes we speak of Jesus’ death on the cross as if it were the only significant event of his life, something even orchestrated by God. Yet, Jesus asks for those who are killing him to be forgiven. What they are doing is not a good thing; it is in line with the historic sin of Israel, a sin that Jesus lamented:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (Matthew 23:37a)
Christian thinkers over the decades following the events of the gospels thought deeply about what it meant that God would fully inhabit a human life, suffer, die, and be raised from death. They would find a depth to God’s forgiveness in this story—a story they found themselves still experiencing—that went far beyond anything they had ever before considered. They would be stunned to realize that God’s love broke all the boundaries of ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28).
It is easy to put boundaries around forgiveness, to limit even God’s mercy and love. We see the limits of our own understanding challenged when Jesus, before the pivotal moment of his death, asks that God forgive the people who have seen to his murder. I believe we can be confident that God heard his prayer. That before the death of Jesus, before the people could repent of their crime, Jesus asked that they would be forgiven. If there are boundaries to the love of God, we do not truly know what they are, as much as we might like to make that claim.
Not even our theologies, it seems, can limit God’s love and forgiveness.
O Lord, what are human beings that you regard them, or mortals that you think of them? They are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow. (Psalm 144:3-4)
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord”, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
In a course on ministry, my teaching partner and I ask our students to respond in writing to the question, “If God is thinking about you right now, what is on his mind?” You would think that a group of seminary students would be fairly positive in their answers, but the majority usually struggle with the idea that God is thinking anything positive about them, or even thinking about them at all. It’s a tough place for them to be, and it has changed the way we teach the course.
I wonder if the responses of my students mirror the way most people feel about God. Certainly the psalmist reflects on the temporal nature of human life. We are born, we live for a while, and sooner or later we die. People just seem to come and go on planet earth, like a bunch of shadows that ultimately lack any substance. Why would God be concerned about these mortal puffs of wind?
One of the crazy things about the Bible is that it keeps telling the story of the God who thinks constantly, cares deeply, and acts redemptively toward human beings. Yes, there is much said about God’s anger and wrath, but most of that is consequential; God’s wrath is usually expressed in people getting what results from their misbehavior. Even so, God keeps coming back at people, renewing covenants, forgiving sin, bringing hope and promise. This God of greatness keeps coming at us, living among us, drawing us toward him in love and healing. It’s a crazy story. But it’s crazy enough to bring us hope.
Jeremiah seems to describe God’s plan to have a people that no longer “know” him by regulation and requirement, but instead really know him deep within their lives. They will be a people who have experienced the pain of corporate sin, because their entire nation—a nation raised up by God to be his light in the world—turned from God and everyone suffered for it. They will become a people who know God through the transformation of forgiveness, and they will know him as they never have before.
What is God thinking of us—you and me—right now? What do you see in your mind? Is he angry and looking for something to smite you with? Is his back turned because he is disgusted with you? Is he simply preoccupied with things greater than our skinny little existences, and can’t be bothered with thinking about us in the first place? Or is he reaching out, as a loving Father to a broken, wayward child who is stumbling home, hoping for a crumb of bread, only to find a feast spread out, the music turned up, and joy enough for everyone?
God is thinking of you right now. What does he think?
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. (Psalm 22:27-28)
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well . . . (John 12:9-10)
I’ve heard it said that Christianity is a club that exists for the benefit of its non-members.
The movie Of Gods and Men tells the true story of a group of Trappist monks who live and minister in a Muslim community in Algeria. The monks gather daily for prayer and worship, but the rest of their time is spent caring for the people of the community with prayer, medicine, counsel, and friendship.
Too often the Christian faith is viewed (both by outsiders and insiders) as a religion that one must get into, with the objective of getting each member into heaven one he or she dies. The above movie suggests a way of living out the way of Jesus that is very different from the former view, and is probably much more in line with Scripture. It is also offers the challenging idea that Christians could intentionally be among non-Christians (Muslims, no less!) and love, serve, and care for them, looking for the presence of God among them.
That God would be generous to those who are not technically the people of God has scandalized religious people for thousands of years. Yet our Scriptures point to God’s generous desire for the entire world; his longing that all nations would turn to him and worship. While the Bible also speaks of judgment, God’s heart for the world cannot be overlooked.
Even when the people of Israel are hauled off into exile, God tells them to settle in and live, but also to pray for the welfare of the non-Jewish nation that has brought them into exile. The words offered by Jeremiah must have puzzled the ancient Jewish people. Why pray for those who had taken them captive?
We see God’s generosity clearly in Jesus. His critics found his care for the poor, sick, and marginalized to be an offense against respectable religion because he preferred people over regulations. Jesus even reached out to the dead, including raising his friend Lazarus from the grave. Even that upset the religious leaders, so much so that they planned to do away with Lazarus. I suppose it didn’t occur to them that if Jesus could do it once he could do it again.
Still today religious people sometimes bristle at the idea of God’s generosity toward the world. It can be offensive to hear that your own certainties about being “in” while others are “out” might be wrong. Yet our Scriptures point us to being a people through whom all the families of the earth will find blessing; that we would pray for our apparent enemies and seek their welfare.
I think those Trappist monks had it right. Yet, in the end, even they paid a high price for their faithfulness. You’ll have to see the movie to know what I mean.
[Jesus] went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier, and he remained there. Many came to him, and they were saying, “John performed no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true.” And many believed in him there. (John 10:40-42)
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. (Psalm 131:1-2)
Many years ago we took part in a simple Easter sunrise service on the beach. Only twenty or thirty people showed up (it was, after all, very early and very cold), but the time was rich with worship and sharing. Our pastor offered a short message that was inviting and deep.
As we gathered, I noticed a young man jogging along the shore. I knew him—we were both in the Navy at the time, and I was aware that he lived near the beach. He saw me, stopped, and listened for a while. At the end, he asked me who the guy was doing the speaking. I explained that it was our pastor, and my friend went directly to him to talk. I found out, minutes later, that he prayed to trust his life to Jesus. Over the next year before we got out of the Navy, we had the joy of serving together in that church.
I know that we religious people are good at celebrating things like Christmas and Easter in a big way. Yet both events took place originally at the margins of the human community. King Herod was making a lot of noise while Jesus was quietly born in a stable. Just before Jesus’ resurrection, the drama was found in the city, where the religious leaders conspired to do away with him. John chapter 10 tells of Jesus withdrawing from the accusations of the leaders and heading back across the Jordan, where others came to believe in him. Bigness and excitement do not always translate into environments where God is doing his best work.
In the US, we can move from zero to 60 in a flash, and then stop on a dime and do it all again. We can do things bigger and more exciting than almost anyone, but that doesn’t always translate into the best. When it comes to God’s work among people, much of it happens in quiet, undramatic places: Jesus is born at the margins of the city, and God becomes man; Jesus withdraws to pray, and his disciples become his answer to prayer; Jesus dies in a lonely place outside of Jerusalem, and God absorbs all the power of sin and death; God raises Jesus with only a few terrified Roman guards as witnesses, and sin and death are defanged while all things begin to be made new.
Quiet is a difficult thing for many of us. We have so much informational and entertainment-oriented input that our cultural ADHD is rampant. For us, it is work to find a quiet place. But it may actually be the place where God waits to offer his touch, his word, his healing. The psalmist may have been thinking of lofty things when he referred to “great and marvelous,” but those things for us might be the cacophony that surrounds us on a daily basis. They might only be great and marvelous in their dominance and volume.
I wonder if Jesus still goes to the lonely quiet places that are outside of our daily dramas. I wonder if he goes there to meet us, and then waits, and waits, and waits.
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. (Psalm 130:3-4)
Again I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, ”I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.” Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.” But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” (Romans 10:19-21)
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:14-16)
The story of the downfall of the ancient city of Sodom is a dismal one. It is often thought that that Sodom’s crime was a sexual one. But the prophet Ezekiel interprets things differently:
This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. (Ezekiel 16:49)
The people of Sodom violated a fundamental code of the ancient near east: Hospitality. The strangers visiting Lot should have been treated kindly by the community. Instead, the men of Sodom sought to violate the visitors in the most degrading way they could imagine. Apparently the people of Sodom liked things the way they were, and having strangers in town shook their system of life. It also offered them a possible distraction from the boredom of excess. It’s a scandalous story.
The story of the people of God is also a scandalous one. First, the one (Abraham and his descendants, who will be become Israel) are chosen for the sake and blessing of the many (all the families of the earth). Then Israel repeatedly turns away from God in order to compete with the very nations they were called to bless. God himself becomes scandalous to Israel when he reaches out to people groups that are not Israel. Jesus repeats this scandal when he speaks of “other sheep” who will listen to his voice.
The Apostle Paul’s quoting of Isaiah shows that God’s heart is for more than just a select few. Isaiah speaks of God revealing himself to those who haven’t even asked for him. When you consider yourself to be part of God’s original chosen people, those are fighting words.
I sometimes wonder if the complacency that characterized Israel in those days could be found in the complex and fractured world of the church. We sometimes think that being a Christian is about describing who is in with God versus who is out, and end up viewing ourselves as a kind of select few. How are we so different from our spiritual forebears of Israel? How shocked we might be if the prophetic word came to us that God was reaching out to a people yet unknown to us. What if it ended up being people we considered to be enemies of our faith? We should certainly share Israel’s sense of scandal if that were to happen.
The psalmist points out a profound truth: If God were to list our iniquities—our sins, violations, and failures—no one would have a leg to stand on. But none us—not Jew, not Gentile, not rich or poor, not man or woman—are left standing alone. God himself stands with us, offering forgiveness where there has been sin, so that we might become the people he has always desired.
God’s scandalous ways will always violate our non-hospitable sensibilities. That’s how most of us came to faith in the first place.
I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and for evermore. (Psalm 121)
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him . . . (John 9:24-28)
I was blessed to grow up in a home where I felt protected. When I was at home, I always felt safe. When I was out and about—playing with my friends, going to and from school—unpleasant things sometimes happened to me that caused me to feel unprotected and threatened. But I knew that home was around the corner, and once I arrived there, my fear and pain would diminish and I would find safety again.
The Psalmist sings of God’s great protection, and it is a beautiful word of comfort and hope. The ancient people of Israel would reflect on this psalm, as many would do in years to come, even in the midst of pain and suffering. The opening line is telling: The song begins by looking for help. The longing for God’s protection comes when protection is needed the most.
After Jesus healed the man who was born blind, the man’s day must have been spent trying to adjust to his new sense of vision and to try to make sense of all things he was seeing. He would drive his family and friends crazy asking them who was who, and what certain things were. There would be laughter and joy as everyone celebrated God’s goodness. But soon thereafter, trouble comes. The religious leaders are not happy with what Jesus is doing, and the formerly blind man is brought in for questioning. When they don’t get the answers they want, they treat the man abusively and kick him out.
Trusting in God doesn’t mean that we escape the evil and suffering that is characteristic of our world. But our trust is in the God who does not let those things have the last word in our lives. Even when circumstances lead to death, we can still trust God for the life that is yet to come. When sin and death are rendered toothless, we are able to live in the midst of pain as we trust the One who has conquered it all.
The Lord showed me two baskets of figs placed before the temple of the Lord. This was after King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon had taken into exile from Jerusalem King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, together with the officials of Judah, the artisans, and the smiths, and had brought them to Babylon. One basket had very good figs, like first-ripe figs, but the other basket had very bad figs, so bad that they could not be eaten. And the Lord said to me, “What do you see, Jeremiah?” I said, “Figs, the good figs very good, and the bad figs very bad, so bad that they cannot be eaten.” Then the word of the Lord came to me: Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans. I will set my eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up. I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart. (Jeremiah 24:1-7)
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9:1-3)
Right after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, I met a man near New Orleans who had lost everything he owned—his home, his business—when the storm hit. His family was safe, but he remained in the area, attempting to assist family members whose homes had been destroyed. He told me that he and his wife had been talking about God and church lately, but had taken no new steps of faith in their lives. He suggested that this was how God decided to get his attention. My friends and I tried to help him see that God probably didn’t decide to wipe out the entire Gulf coast just to get the man to clean up his act.
The people of Israel might have been thinking along those lines when everything came crashing down for them. Even though there were people, such as their king and other leaders, who had led the nation astray, there were others who remained faithful to God. Even so, everyone suffered the consequences of the nation’s sin. Jeremiah points out the God was fully aware of this, and rather than let the faithful ones languish in exile, he promises them a future in which they will know him and carry the true identity as his people.
Jesus’ disciples wanted a reason for the blindness of the man they encountered. For them, the man’s condition had to be a result of someone’s sin. But Jesus counters that belief when he says that there is no connection, but rather that this was an opportunity for God’s works to be revealed.
But wasn’t there purpose in the man’s blindness? After all, Jesus does say that the man was born blind “so that.” However, all people are born so that God’s works might be revealed in them. This man’s blindness pushed him outside the respectability of the Jewish community. Most would assume that God had cursed him. Now this blindness would be broken so that God’s intentions for the world would be shown to all. Through the man God would show that sickness and disease would not have the last word in God’s kingdom; those who were perceived to be at the margins of faithfulness would be drawn to God’s center.
There is a puzzle to God’s faithfulness. While good people suffer as frequently as bad people, God enters into those painful realities to bring hope and promise to those who will turn to him. We often see suffering as the equivalent of a lightning bolt from heaven (cosmic antics attributed to Zeus rather than to the God of the Bible), when it is part of all earthly brokenness. But God still enters in, and his faithfulness trumps all grief.
Thus says the Lord of hosts: Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you; they are deluding you. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They keep saying to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, ‘No calamity shall come upon you.’ (Jeremiah 23:16-17)
But turning and looking at his disciples, [Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Mark 8:33-34)
In the ancient world, it was common for a runner to be dispatched from the front lines of a battle to report the status of the troops to the military leaders. There was a Greek word used to describe the message when it was one of victory, and in English we usually translate that word as good news, or gospel (gospel is the Old English word for good news). It is the word used when Jesus says,
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
If that runner, however, brought his message of victory to the side that was losing, his message would he received as bad news, and he would probably suffer for bringing it. What is good news for one may be bad news for another.
The prophets of Jeremiah’s day seemed to be in denial over the plight of Israel. They claimed to have dreams and visions of everything being alright when in fact they were about to be overrun by foreign invaders. As a result, the people had no motivation to turn back to the Lord. The delusion allowed them to return to business as usual. The prophets claimed to have good news, but they were wrong.
In the weeks following the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the US, people flocked to churches, looking for answers, hope, and comfort. Soon, however, most churches returned to their usual, familiar congregations as those visitors drifted away. It is very possible that these visitors wanted a return to what had been normal, and being part of a congregation wasn’t a part of their business as usual.
Most of us can relate to that. Good news for us is often having things the way we prefer them to be. Jesus recognized this with his own followers. When he spoke of his impending suffering and death, Peter got after him. To speak of such a thing could not possibly be good news. But Jesus challenged Peter rather harshly, and then told the crowd that had gathered that to follow him would be to take a path that was very different than “business as usual.”
In Jesus Christ, there is good news. The good news is that the kingdom of God has indeed broken into human history, and the twin powers of sin and death have been disarmed. But this good news does not translate into “life as I prefer it.” It is a new life under the rule of God, and that takes a very different form than can be considered normal in any nation or culture. That is one reason that following Jesus can be perilous: When the status quo is challenged, danger is a distinct possibility.
It is a good thing for us to reflect on the meaning of this good news of God’s kingdom, and to try to disengage it from our American, British, Bulgarian, or Chinese cultural preferences. The call of the people of God is to bring blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3), but that includes the proclamation of good news. This is the good news that comes from the victory of God, and it may be very different from business as usual.
Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord: that he looked down from his holy height, from heaven the Lord looked at the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die; so that the name of the Lord may be declared in Zion, and his praise in Jerusalem, when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the Lord. (Psalm 102:18-22)
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’ He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him. (John 6:66-71)
My office is in a business complex that is shared by a vocational training school. Many of the students are training to work in the field of nursing. You can tell who they are, because at their break times they gather outside, wearing their green scrubs, and smoke cigarettes with their teachers. I marvel at this. With all the research that has emerged over the last few decades about the health hazards associated with cigarettes, you would think that young people preparing for careers in health care would have caught onto that reality. One would hope that the succeeding generations would grasp this better than their forebears, but apparently that isn’t the case.
The psalmist continues to lament Israel’s adversity, but also hopes that future generations will learn of God’s faithfulness and respond in a way that avoids the disasters of those who have gone before them. He dreams of descendants who have not yet come into the world, who will not bend the knee to idols or engage in acts of injustice and oppression, but instead will praise the Lord.
I wonder if Jesus thought about this Psalm during the events that were recorded in John 6. He has pressed the people who have been following him—people who have considered themselves to be his disciples—by speaking of the hard realities of truly being God’s people. Many of them, while enjoying his miraculous works, didn’t much care for the real life of following Jesus, and they took off. The only ones remaining were his original twelve disciples, including Judas. So, while Jesus still has followers, a band of men who represent all of Israel, there is still danger in the ranks.
Again, it is God’s faithfulness to his people and to the world that comes to the forefront. Judas, along with the others, were an answer to Jesus’ prayer when he his out in the wilderness for forty days. Jesus prays for those who would follow him, and he gets Judas. To be fair, he also gets Peter, who chickens out at the end, and Thomas, who is cynical about the resurrection. In their frailty and confusion, these twelve represent all of God’s people to Jesus. They are the psalmist’s future generation of hope. But God remains faithful to them, even in their failure.
This is good for us to remember. Each successive generation simultaneously responds to and reacts against God. The various factions of the church continue to reflect faithfulness and worship while simultaneously acting out in brokenness and sin. We can be a bi-polar people, just like those who have gone before us.
In John 17, Jesus prays, ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (vv. 20-21).
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. (Psalm 107:1-3)
Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt’, but ‘As the Lord lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ (Jeremiah 23:7-8a)
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
The people of God always seem to be a people in exile. First, God rescues the ancient Hebrews from their bondage in Egypt. Then, many generations later, the entire nation of Israel turns from God, is overrun by foreign invaders, and hauled off into exile. As they did in Egypt, they began to cry out to the Lord, and he opened the way for them to come home again. The psalmist celebrates God’s goodness in saving his people from trouble.
Jeremiah acknowledges that Israel’s relationship to God is a rescuing one. Early on they claimed the identity of a people that had been rescued from slavery in Egypt; in the era after their exile, they would claim the identity of a people that had been liberated from lands other than their own. While this liberation would bring them home, they would still be under the dominance of foreign rulers. They would be in a kind of house arrest in Israel, but at least they would be home.
It’s difficult today for us to think of ourselves as being a people in exile, especially in the US. Because of a sense of freedom, it doesn’t usually occur to us to think about being dominated by outside powers. But in every land, whether the US, Venezuela, Lithuania, or England, the people of God are a people in exile. All nations are centered on self-interest and, while people might benefit materially at times by that, it is a very different interest than that of God’s.
There is another exile in which all people live: It is the exile into the inevitability of suffering and death. We go from day to day as if these things aren’t lurking outside our doors, but they are. People who suffer often find themselves in isolation—a kind of personal exile from the land of the living. Those who grieve the loss of a loved one feel as though they have been hauled off into the shadows of loneliness, a place where others need not go.
In the midst of this exile, the people of God gather to declare a different reality. The God who has always rescued his people is the God who is with us, and he is present in our exile. When we gather around those who suffer and those who mourn, sharing their pain, we participate in what God is doing in those who are hurting. When the people of God live out the reality of God’s rescue in communities of faith, care, and love, isolation is broken. While we may still live with the threat of suffering and death, we enact God’s love as we care for one another; in that enactment we not only trust in God’s presence with us, sharing our suffering and grief, but we also hope in a future when God will make all things new.
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ (Revelation 21:3-4)
You know the insults I receive, and my shame and dishonor; my foes are all known to you. Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none. They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink. (Psalm 69:19-21)
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.” (John 6:41-44)
Psalm 69 contains a reference that is usually characterized as prophetic in that it points to Jesus. While it was written long before Jesus’ time, it refers to one who is suffering and is given vinegar to drink, just as Jesus would one day be given vinegar (actually, cheap wine) as he suffered on the cross. There are a number of such prophetic references in the Old Testament, and Christians have long cherished them as prophecies that were fulfilled in Jesus.
Most if not all of these prophetic texts originally refer to Israel. They speak to an Israel that suffers, is mistreated, and so on. While there is great value in recognizing the prophetic quality of these texts, there is something else to consider: Within these prophetic links, we see God, in and through Jesus, fully identifying with the life of Israel and ultimately with the entire world.
The psalmist speaks of insults and shame. We see Jesus suffering those same things. When Jesus is dying on the cross he cries out the utterly lonely words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) These words are often interpreted as Jesus crying out in isolated despair, which may have been true. But he was also quoting from a familiar Psalm (22), as Israel cries out in exile. In his suffering and death, Jesus identifies with the people to whom he was sent and who have rejected him. In and through Jesus, God fully identifies with all of us.
I believe that this is important. God is sometimes viewed by people as being distant and crafty, orchestrating disasters, pain, suffering, and loss for some mysterious and unknown purpose. Yet, in Jesus, we see God entering fully into human life, suffering, and death. This is no distant God who does not relate to us, but one fully engaged with all that it means to be human.
Some friends of mine just suffered the tragic loss of a loved one. Will we see God as the one who has set this up or allowed it to happen in order to do something that is incomprehensible to us, and that could only be acheived by this dark event? Or will we see God entering fully into the pain of this loss, grieving with us on the one hand, but also receiving the one who has left us with joy and eternal love?
We think of God being King, of being “in control,” and so we wonder why things like this happen. Is God not strong enough or not willing enough to stop tragedy? I believe that God is indeed King, but he rules over a broken and desperate world, where sin, suffering, and death are still active. But in Jesus, who fully identifies with our wounded condition, those oppressors of human life have been confronted and disarmed, and they will no longer have the last word. The God who is with us, the God who shares our tragic existence, will one day silence and destroy those enemies.
In the meantime we are drawn to him, and in the last day, he will raise us up.
I will sing of loyalty and of justice; to you, O Lord, I will sing. I will study the way that is blameless. When shall I attain it? (Psalm 101:1-2)
Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. (Jeremiah 18:6b)
Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. (John 6:37-38)
A man once explained to me, at length, the benefits of a workout routine. He spoke of muscle tone, cardiac health, and mental clarity. It all sounded glorious and disciplined. It was the life of one who had attained a heightened state of physicality. I marveled at what he appeared to have attained, and despaired at my own lack of devotion to health. After a while I asked the man how long he had been participating in such a rigorous program of exercise. He said, “Two days.” It appeared that he was describing his hopes and intentions more than he was describing his reality.
Psalm 101 describes a life that is fully devoted to God and that shuns all evil. The psalmist claims, “I will not set before my eyes anything that is base” (v. 3a), and “A haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not tolerate” (v. 5b). It all sounds so righteous and sinless, until you return to the opening line of the Psalm: “I will study the way that is blameless. When shall I attain it?” The Psalm is a reflection on hope and intention rather than on a reality that has escaped all sin.
God, through the prophet Jeremiah, seems to wonder about the hopes and intentions of the people of Israel as well. He describes the work of the potter, who forms a pot out of clay, then seeing its imperfections, tears it apart and reforms it again. God says that he will do that with any nation of people, including Israel. As they turn from him and engage in destructive and oppressive ways, he will tear them down. If they turn from those ways, then God will reform them in his own design. God is not willing to allow sin to reign, but he is also willing to reform those who turn to him into people after his own heart.
Jesus claimed to do only that which was the intention and desire of his Father. When Jesus said, “. . . anyone who comes to me I will never drive away,” he was revealing the heart of the Father. Any who come to him will not be driven away. God does not take injustice, oppression, and—in general—sin lightly, and will not allow them to have the last word. God’s last word is “. . . anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.”
As the Lenten season turns into Easter, we will reflect on the resurrection of Jesus. In his death, we will see that sin and death does indeed win the day when Jesus is killed. But that day is not the final day. When Jesus is raised from death, God shows that he has the last word about who wins the day. And all those who have lost hope, will come to him. They will never be driven away.
The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory. All worshippers of images are put to shame, those who make their boast in worthless idols; all gods bow down before him. (Psalm 97:6-7)
Thus says the Lord: For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 17:21)
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:21-25a)
When I entered boot camp many years ago, my world became undone. From one day to the next I was required to do things I had never done before, and to do them with regularity. I had to shave off my hair, wear special clothes, and learn a new language. All this would reform me from a 19-year-old aimless college student into a member of the US Navy, and I would carry this new identity for the next four years. A lot of times I wasn’t happy about the whole thing, but all I could do was resist something that wasn’t going to go away.
God rescued the ancient Hebrew people from their slavery in Egypt, and soon thereafter handed them laws and codes of behavior that would frame their new existence as a people. This was very different from their former life, where they spent their days in forced servitude. They emerged from their captivity with the mindsets of slaves, and Egyptian ones at that. When God required new things from them, it wasn’t sheer legalism, but rather the way they would be reformed as his people, with the one true God at their center rather than the sun god of the Egyptians.
Over time, the people would come to see this life-giving, reforming law of God to be something that was to be obeyed in order to curry God’s favor and to wear the badge of “righteousness.” Keeping the Sabbath became legalistic rather than a joyous time of rest and worship in the presence of God. If you kept the Sabbath, then you were providing evidence of your own righteousness. This was clearly not what God intended.
The Apostle Paul understood this, since he grew up and was nurtured in that same culture. He recognized that to try to do all the right things to please God ended up just showing us how messed up we really were, because we just couldn’t do enough things right to please anyone. His words in Romans 7 are almost humorous: I try to be good with my mind, but my body misbehaves. It’s like having a segmented personality. Everybody, in their hearts, knows how this works, and it causes no end of frustration. Paul winds up by declaring that there is a rescue from this mess, and God himself brings it about in and through Jesus Christ. God is not waiting around for us to make him happy; when we are at our messiest, he saves us from all forms of condemnation, especially the kind that we heap on ourselves.
If you’ve been in one of those places where you keep beating yourself up for wrongs that can’t be undone, for past offenses that cause you no end of regret, don’t waste your time bargaining with God about it; he just doesn’t need it, and neither do you. He already knows the messes we’ve created, and still he comes toward us, with arms of forgiveness opened wide, and with a love that transforms broken human hearts into hearts that beat with his rhythms of grace and love. That’s what believing in Jesus is really about: Believing that all he says and does reveals the true heart of God. It’s a belief that is crafted out of wonder and trust.
O hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble, why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler turning aside for the night? Why should you be like someone confused, like a mighty warrior who cannot give help? Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not forsake us!
You shall say to them this word: Let my eyes run down with tears night and day, and let them not cease, for the virgin daughter—my people—is struck down with a crushing blow, with a very grievous wound. If I go out into the field, look—those killed by the sword! And if I enter the city, look—those sick with famine! For both prophet and priest ply their trade throughout the land, and have no knowledge. (Jeremiah 14:8-9, 17-18)
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you. Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you. (Psalm 67:1-5)
I became a public school teacher right after college. My principal was a great guy, but he never really saw what I was up to in my classroom. My annual review consisted of him dropping in for 15 or 20 minutes during a lesson, and then telling me that I was doing fine. I appreciated that he trusted me to do my job, but I recognized that he wasn’t really present to my work, and he didn’t really know what was going on in my little world. Had I not known him better, I would have concluded that he didn’t really care.
Jeremiah offers a paradoxical lament: God seems to be unavailable to the self-inflicted troubles of Israel, yet he is present in the midst of his people. Jeremiah believed in God’s presence rather than in God’s detachment, but the devastating circumstances of Israel’s destruction and exile suggested that God had forgotten his people.
But Jeremiah hears a word from the Lord and passes it on: God is present to all the horror of Israel’s downfall. He weeps with grief at the death and disease that now characterizes what remains of Israel. While Israel’s destruction has come as a consequence of the nation’s own actions, God is still present, experiencing with the people—a people who have turned away from him!—all their pain and suffering.
We often talk about God as though he is “up there” while we are “down here.” While the Bible clearly shows God to be above and beyond all creaturely existence, he is also shown to be fully present to the world. Sometimes we look at natural disasters, disease, or war as something God inflicts from afar in order to punish wicked people. It rarely seems to occur to us that God is suffering along with those who suffer, much like Jeremiah’s description of God crying over the pain of his wayward people.
The prayer of the psalmist extends the sense of God’s presence and care to the entire world. He looks forward to a time when all nations will respond to God with joy. The people of God will be instrumental in making God’s glory known to the world, but that is a work that comes from the heart of God for the nations.
In our day-to-day grief and longing, God is fully present. Our own limited sight causes us to think he might have forgotten us, but the witness of Scripture gives us hope for his presence and for him to rescue us. Even in our brokenness and pain, God engages, waiting for us to turn and trust him anew.
Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due to you. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. (Psalm 90:11-12)
For as the loincloth clings to one’s loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord, in order that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory. But they would not listen. (Jeremiah 13:11)
“Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.” The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon; but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the judge. Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” (John 8:47-51)
When I was a kid I had a joke card that read, “I’m not hard of hearing, I’m just ignoring you.” I showed it to my aunt, and she insisted that I show it to my uncle. I did show it to him, but for some reason he didn’t think it was very funny. I have come to understand how he felt.
It’s one thing to miss something that has been said or to be unable to hear. It’s another thing to hear and then ignore. It appears that the people of God have a long history of hearing and then ignoring.
The psalmist is offering more than just words of wisdom. He speaks of the people of Israel living out their days in exile, suffering the consequences of their deafness toward God. The psalmist is a realist; he knows they will live one way or the other. They may as well immerse themselves in this new life in order to become wise. Perhaps it will also be a time to learn to listen.
Jeremiah also speaks of God’s lament over Israel’s unwillingness to listen to him. He offers a strange metaphor: His intention was that Israel would be like a loincloth—an undergarment that would cling closely to the skin and the intimate parts of the body. God’s desire was for his people to cling closely to him, to praise and honor him, and to express his glory to the world. Again, their hands were pressed over their ears.
Jesus, many years later, accuses his critics (again, the people of Israel) of not hearing God. Jesus revealed God’s heart for Israel and the world, bringing healing, life, rescue, and assurance of God’s love. The response of the dominant leadership of Israel was to suggest that Jesus was not really a Jew but, instead, a Samaritan (Jewish people did not think highly of Samaritans), and also that he was inhabited by demonic forces. Jesus reminds him that his way lines up with God’s eternal intentions. In that way is life. But the people seem to keep choosing death.
I’m not sure we’ve gotten a whole lot better at listening. Every time someone comes up with a way of looking at the Bible or thinking about God that challenges some dominant dogma, people start throwing around accusations of heresy, blasphemy, charlatanism, and so on. Usually these claims are made absent of any form of listening. Not every new idea is good, but the refusal to listen can be a symptom of a much deeper problem: Deafness to anything but our own self-created certainties. We have to be very careful about this. I suspect that the people who refused to listen to the likes of Jeremiah and Jesus didn’t think they were shutting their ears to God, but they were. Having open ears doesn’t mean that all things are valid, but it does allow us to remain open to the possibility that we’ve gotten something wrong along the way. After all, we religious folks have a long history of getting things wrong.
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. (Psalm 40:6)