When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. (Mark 15:33-37)
Dying has to be the loneliest of all human experiences. Even when others are gathered around the one dying, the process is singular and cannot truly be shared. Death is a solitary business.
A lot of people were gathered around Jesus as he approached death. Even though he died with two others, each death was individual. Jesus suffered his death by himself.
There is a common theological understanding of this isolation in death that says that even God abandoned Jesus to die alone with the sins of the world. The conclusion is that such abandonment was a theological necessity, evidenced by Jesus’ agonized lament, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Any Bible footnote will tell you that he was quoting from Psalm 22, which goes on to speak of danger and physical suffering, even suffering that sounds eerily akin to a body undergoing crucifixion.
But this cry from the Psalm is more that just the cry of one feeling abandoned and alone. It is the cry of Israel. It is the cry of the world. It is a cry that looks around at evil, suffering, pain, exile, and death, and despairs that there is no rescue. It is a cry that fears that God has left the building.
Has God abandoned Jesus to carry the weight of the world all by himself? Or, is Jesus crying out on behalf of Israel and all of the world, identifying himself with universal suffering, and taking that pain to his heavenly Father who, rather than abandoning Jesus, is experiencing the fullness of his pain within God’s self?
And when Jesus breathes his last, does God exhale too?
Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face . . .
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face.
Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. (John 18:19-22, 19:1-2, 16-18)
There are many stories that deal with horror. But horror is not really a literary genre—it is a response to something horrific, an emotion that reflects the terror being encountered, whether in depiction or in experience.
It’s easy to revisit the story of Jesus’ arrest, abuse, suffering, and death abstractly, even theologically. But it’s a horror story of the first degree, a story of torture, humiliation, and a slow, painful death. While all the gospel accounts are relatively brief on this part of the narrative, they don’t skip it. Maybe this sort of thing happened often enough in first century Palestine that the story didn’t need an overabundance of detail. Nevertheless, they speak of it. And it’s a horror show.
Imagine this happening to someone you know, someone you care deeply about who is in your life right now—a friend, a brother, a son, a father, a husband. Imagine him being arrested on a false charge, cruelly beaten by soldiers and they nailed up on a cross of wood to die in the public square. And there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. There is no authority to stop the horror. The authorities are the authors of it all.
Jesus allows himself to be taken to this end. In his willingness to die, the power of evil ramps up to a fever pitch and has its way with him. If what we believe about Jesus is true—that he is the Word made flesh, that the fullness of God dwells in him—then that rabid force of evil has its way with God on that bleak Friday afternoon.
The most disturbing part of this horror story is that it didn’t come about by monsters or serial killers or phantoms. It came about in a way that was familiar to the people. The Romans were good at this sort of thing, and they plied their trade on Jesus with a well-rehearsed skill. It had happened before and it would happen again. But it was still an experience of horror for everyone.
It is an odd thing that our story of salvation could be classified as a horror story. But if it doesn’t invoke an emotion of horror at some point, then perhaps we have insulated ourselves against its gritty reality. Our story is not one divorced from the terrors of human history, but one that is grounded in a specific time and place, yet for all people in all times and places. And that one place, like all places, is a place where horror dwells.
It’s no wonder that the lights go out on Good Friday. Horror loves the dark.
”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. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:20-26)
This morning I received an email from a major department store alerting me to THE COMFORT I DESERVE. It was an ad for pillows and comforters for a bed. They looked very nice. I just didn’t know that I deserved them. I also didn’t know what I had done to deserve such comfort. But the department store people seemed to be convinced that I was a deserving person. They must be very kind.
In Jesus’ prayer in John 17, there isn’t anything about deserving. His prayer is about giving—giving the love of God the Father to the people around him, giving himself to God and to others, giving the oneness that he shares with God to those who will receive it.
He prays not only for those in the room with him, but also for us. He speaks of those “who will believe.” If there is any comfort to be had, I find it knowing that Jesus prayed for all who would come along later, including Paul, Augustine, Teresa, Calvin, Wesley, King, and us.
But is that a comfort we deserve?
No, it is a comfort that results from the generous love of God. And if Jesus’ words are to take root in our hearts, then we are not able to think of deserving—that is, de-serving. We can only think of serving, and doing so in the way of Jesus.
This is such a different prayer than the so-called Lord’s Prayer, the one that Jesus said was to be prayed “this way.” Maybe we are given such a simple prayer for ourselves because, as in John 17, Jesus prays the prayers we cannot find the words to prayer.
Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them. (John 12:35-36)
Darkness can be a comfort. When it’s time to sleep, darkness can soothe and quiet the human heart, offering an environment for rest. But it can also be a terror, obliterating all sense of orientation and direction, projecting fears of specters and skulkers into its inky blackness.
Even the smallest light—a wooden match, a birthday candle—can shatter darkness and reveal the true nature of our fears. Ghosts and goblins were only footstools and tables. But formerly dark corners assumed to be empty could be illuminated sufficiently to reveal hypodermic scorpions and invasive vipers. The light unmasks our fearful illusions but it also exposes dangers that disguise themselves as things benign.
John uses light imagery quite often. In this account, Jesus speaks of his own presence among his people as light in the midst of darkness. He calls upon them to “believe in the light.” At first it sounds as though he is talking about intellectual illumination, an enlightening of the mind that dispels the darkness of ignorance and false belief.
But there is more going on here than simply a mental shift. Jesus calls them to belief so that they “may become children of light.” There is the suggestion of transformation here, a movement of life from the immersion in darkness to an identity that is lit up like a Christmas tree. It hints at what would later be seen as the ultimate intention of God for the world: “See, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Transitioning from darkness to light is more than a change of the mind; it is also a change of a life.
Once Jesus speaks these words—words that were somewhat cryptic to his hearers—he left them and hid for a while. When he was with them they were amazed, challenged, offended, horrified, and energized. Now they could experience his absence for a while, imagining what it would be like for him to be gone from them, leaving them in darkness.
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:20-24)
When I read this story, I always want Jesus to say, “Great! The Greeks are here! Now I’ll tell them the Good News and everyone will know that I came for the whole world! Now find me some Ethiopians and some Brazilians!”
But he doesn’t. He just turns to his disciples and speaks of his impending death. He ignores the Greeks altogether.
Who knows? Maybe the Greeks thought Jesus was a local magician and wanted him to pull some rabbits out of a hat. Or, they might have been sincere God-fearers and wanted to talk with Jesus about life and faith. That would have made great copy for John. Either way, it doesn’t happen.
Jesus made it clear that he came for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). But he also claimed that God’s ultimate intentions were for the whole world (as in John 3:16). The two were not mutually exclusive, but his focus was, for the most part exclusively on the people of Israel. At the same time, the world would be impacted.
That’s an interesting paradox: Being exclusive for the sake of all. We often think of exclusivism as something negative, a party that sends out limited invitations. But Jesus knew that his mission involved the death and resurrection of the people of God, and he would enact that in his own life, suffering, and death. He would represent the nation of Israel in his death and rebirth, and ultimately it would be seen that this representation included the whole world.
This helps we who follow Jesus today to understand that there is an exclusivism to being the people of God, in that we are first of all a worshipping community. Others might worship other gods, but we do not. At the same time, our exclusive worship and devotion is not for our own sake, but for the sake of the world. We order our lives around the work of the Spirit of God and seek personal transformation—and that’s good. But such transformation is not like self-improvement—it isn’t just for us. It is so that our lives would bear witness to Jesus Christ and provide evidence that the kingdom of God is, indeed, at hand.
And that is truly the party that sends out unlimited invitations.
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.” . . . Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ”Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:1-2, 7-9)
The story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem and being hailed by the people is a familiar one. But I’ve often wondered about the part about Jesus insisting that the colt he was to ride upon be one that had never before been ridden.
Yesterday I visited a friend who is very ill. His condition is very serious and he is now under hospice care. I came straight from church and brought my copy of the order of service with me. I read some words to the songs we had sung that morning and also the texts of scripture. As I prepared to read this one, a thought occurred to me. My friend was about to take a journey that all humans must make, and they only make it once. It’s riding into the unknown on a colt that had never been ridden.
And Jesus, I told my friend, is riding with him.
Death had not occurred for Jesus yet, and it would only happen once. He, too, would ride into a place he had never been before. But his death was unique and he would journey as no one had before. Yes, others had suffered and died before him, even on harsh Roman crosses. But never before had someone in whom the fullness of God dwelt gone to his death. Never before had God embraced human death in the way he was about to do it in Jesus.
The writer to the Hebrews, in describing Jesus as the ultimate of all Jewish high priests, says it best:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.(Hebrews 4:15-16).
Then Jesus cried aloud: “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.” (John 12:44-50)
Recently my 6-year-old grandson Jack complained to me that he couldn’t find his toy Star Wars light saber. I suggested that perhaps Darth Vader had slipped into his room and ran off with it. Jack replied dismissively, “He’s not real, dude.”
Aside from needing to recover from being called “dude” by my grandson (as though I were Grandpa Lebowski), it was an appropriate reality check: Avoid believing in things that aren’t real.
Jesus called upon people to believe in him. When we think of believing in him, we think of believing that he existed at a point in history, that he was who he claimed to be, and that he accomplished theologically exactly what we have been trained to understand.
But his original audience was called to believe in a different way. They didn’t have to stretch too far to believe that Jesus existed—he was standing right in front of them. They didn’t have access yet to any of the apostle Paul’s theological explorations about Jesus. Did they need to believe that he performed miraculous signs? All they had to do was hang around awhile for that one. That he was the Son of God? Yes, that one might have taken some work on their part.
But in this text from John, Jesus isn’t asking his hearers to believe in him the way people might believe in ghosts (or in Darth Vader, for that matter). The belief is directed toward God the Father. But these were first-century Jews, and they had no trouble believing in God. But there was something about God that Jesus wanted them to believe, something new and revelatory about God that would be new for them.
And in Jesus, they could see that new and revelatory thing. They already felt that they were under God’s judgment—that’s why the Romans were in charge of everything. But Jesus showed them the redeeming, saving, healing face of God, the face that their ancestors experienced long ago when being rescued from slavery in Egypt. Jesus wanted the people to believe what he was saying and doing—his words and his works—so that they might be reborn as God’s people, a people destined to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth, God’s people through whom all the families of the world would find blessing.
And many did believe. But enough didn’t believe and ultimately they won the day. The face of God that Jesus showed them impacted them in such a way that they could rise up and proclaim with one voice:
Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:14-16)
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. (John 11:21)
Jesus began to weep. (John 11:35)
The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is a deeply emotional one. Lazarus and his sisters were not just faces in a crowd—they were Jesus’ friends. It seems odd to us, at first, that Jesus waited to go to Bethany where the family lived, but perhaps he knew that it was too late, since it would take two days to get there. Jesus also knew what he was about to do, so he wasn’t in a panic.
Nevertheless, he encounters deep pain when he arrives. Jesus enters into the family’s grief, even though he knows that Lazarus will be returned to them.
Jesus was not a magician who performed medical parlor tricks for the crowds. In every act of ministry he revealed the true face of God, the God who was Emmanuel—God is with us. Jesus was profoundly with the people in their pain and suffering. And so he wept.
Martha was only partially right in what she said to Jesus. Yes, he could have prevented Lazarus from dying at that time. But at some point death would claim him just as it would claim others. And just as it would claim Jesus.
Was Jesus weeping because his friends grieved? Or did he weep because he knew that death remained an inevitability for all? Yes, in his coming death and resurrection, death would be defeated in that it would be revealed that death did not have the last word for human beings. Still, it would come to all.
Thomas (who is unfortunately labeled by tradition as “the doubter”) made a significant theological statement when he insisted that the twelve go with Jesus to die with him. We have come to believe that Jesus’ death was not only unjust and politically motivated, but was also representational. When Jesus died he represented all of Israel, and also the entire world. Jesus would absorb the power of sin and death and take into himself the inevitable end of all human beings. And in his death, in a very important way, God would endure suffering and death.
I wonder if Jesus still weeps? Yes, he has come through death and into resurrection, just as we hope for ourselves. But does he still weep as death cuts it swath over the fields of humans that suffer under its effect? In his place of exaltation with God the Father, is his joy constantly lubricated with his tears?
If he is truly Emmanuel, if he is truly with us, then he is with us in all aspects of our lives.
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.
O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore. (Psalm 131)
I now have an app on my smartphone that feeds news stories to me from several sources. Now I can get the news from a variety of perspectives. And I can learn about some of the dramas and dangers that make me feel anxious, angry, and afraid.
It’s interesting to me how news about environmental crises, wars, nuclear threats, political maneuvering, professional sports, and celebrity misbehavior can make us obsessively dependent. We end up feeling as though we need the information to feel like we matter, like we have a voice, like we are joining in with things that are not only disturbing, but that also feel too great and too marvelous for us.
The psalmist speaks of a heart not lifted up and eyes that are not raised too high. Is it a posture of defeat, or is it the recognition of helplessness in the scheme of things? Either way, we are given the image of the calmed and quieted soul being like a weaned child with its mother.
It’s an image rather strange to us, I think. But perhaps it is the picture of one who is no longer dependent on the drama of the nation. For the ancient Hebrews, their identity was tightly bound in the identity of the nation. There was no identity for them outside of Israel. The psalmist might have been speaking of being weaned from that national dependency.
We are so bombarded with information about world events that it is often overwhelming. Much of the information pertains to things over which we have no control, which creates even greater distress. Sometimes we need to be quieted. A lot of the time we need to be weaned from the drama.
It would be an incredible experience to remain aware of—and even, at times, to participate in—what is going on in the world while resting in our dependency upon God. I wonder what that would do to our anxiety and frustration levels?
O world, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities. (Psalm 130)
I know people who have never been forgiven by those they have wronged. Even after great sorrow and repentance on the part of the offender, the one who suffered the offense withholds forgiveness. The people might be married to each other, co-congregants at church, or in some other relationship of proximity. And forgiveness never comes.
For some who have been sinned against, the pain might be too deep to forgive, at least in the short run; it could take time for that to happen. For others it becomes a form of power, keeping the sinner at bay and inside an eternal prison of unforgiveness.
For the sinner, the shame of the offense is compounded by the ongoing imprisonment of unabsolved guilt.
The psalmist speaks of God’s forgiveness in relation to the iniquities of the nation of ancient Israel. He rejoices that God doesn’t “mark,” or keep a record of the nation’s sins. After all, if he did, then it would be impossible for Israel to stand under the weight of its transgressions.
It is a comfort to apply such generosity to ourselves as persons. The people against whom we have sinned may not forgive us—we have no control over that. They might keep the record indefinitely, waving it in the air on occasion to make sure we don’t forget.
And the sinner doesn’t forget. Maybe never. I doubt that God actually forgets, either. He remembered Israel’s sins long enough for the people to be hauled off into exile. But in the end, he kept no record. When God forgives, the pardon is real, as real as the guilt that was the prerequisite for forgiveness. Once pardoned, always free.
That’s the amazing thing about admitting and confessing our sins. Once those sins are recognized and identified as something real and true, forgiveness becomes a possibility. How tragic it is when a person decides that everything is just okay and nothing requires pardon. That’s a weight under which no one can stand.
The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. (John 9:30-38)
It’s fun to read the story of the man born blind. After Jesus heals him, the Pharisees are enraged and want an accounting. The man gives them the facts, but they’re not satisfied.
So he lectures them. And they hate it.
After all, they’re the smart, holy guys and he’s the man who was, probably to them, an uneducated object of God’s wrath. That’s why he was born blind. He was afflicted because of some past generational shenanigan and God decided that someone—how about a newborn baby?—had to pay. How awesome.
I love it that the tables got turned on the Pharisees, but there’s something tragic to the story as well. The man has been, for his entire life, living at the margins of society. Now that he can see for the first time, he has to adjust to a sighted life and find a way to integrate in his context. He’ll need to develop some skills so that he can work. He’ll need to learn how to socialize like his neighbors. And he’ll need to learn how to worship with his community.
Except now, the Pharisees have driven him out. They’ve cut up his synagogue membership card.
How troubling this would be for the man. He could only believe that God had a hand in his healing, a healing that came through that wandering street preacher named Jesus. Having been restored to full humanity by the God he thought had forgotten him, he is now banished by the local religious elite. It doesn’t make sense.
But after the expulsion, Jesus took him in. He invited him into the embrace of faith and the man fell into Jesus’ arms. The Pharisees showed the man the face of the God they preferred—a God to which they felt they had aspired, one that kept his circle of acceptance tight and bounded. Jesus, however, showed the man the real face of God—it was a generous face of love, of healing, of initiated trust.
The man may have been born blind, but he seemed to recognize the real thing when he saw it.
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. (John 9:13-16)
It would be amazing to have your sight restored. Imagine being blind from birth, never seeing a thing, then suddenly your eyes are opened. Everything would be new to you—color, movement, faces, landscape. It would take quite a while to get accustomed to a sighted life. It would be like landing on a distant planet where all things are alien to you.
The man born blind in this story would have been in the midst of joy and celebration when the Pharisees showed up to interrogate him. I wonder if he stared at them for a while before answering, marveling at their phylacteries and robes. They were putting a damper on the moment, not seeming to care that the man could see for the first time in his life. They were more concerned with how Jesus had done it.
Had Jesus just waved his hand like a Jedi knight, it might have been considered an acceptable act of healing. But Jesus made mud to do the job, and on the Sabbath such an act was interpreted as work. You can’t work on the Sabbath, even to heal a blind man, so said the religious leaders. They stood on God’s word.
Jesus, of course, saw the Sabbath differently. He claimed that the Sabbath was for people, not the other way around. For him, the works of God could not be separated from the word of God. He also claimed to do only what he saw his heavenly Father do. That was blasphemy enough for the Pharisees.
When the abolitionists rose up in the 19th century to fight against slavery in the UK and US, they were accused of going against the word of God. Scripture, so the defense went, did not condemn slavery, but rather commanded that it be done with kindness. Therefore, the abolitionists were (among other things), fighting against God’s will.
But the anti-slave people persisted, seeing something deeper in Scripture that did not allow for the oppression and enslavement of anyone. No one today would likely disagree with their convictions.
Are there other issues facing us today where we have gripped our texts of Scripture—our interpretations of those texts, actually—in such a way that our convictions of correctness end up bringing harm to others? Is being right our highest calling? We have a number of biblical and historical precedents showing how the desire to be right can violate what God is doing in the world (think of Jesus and the Pharisees; of Paul and the Judaizers; of abolitionists and slaveholders; of women and men in the church).
God help us to recognize his works before we make a false claim on his word.
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)
The sixth chapter of the gospel of John tells a story of duplicity. At the beginning of the text, Jesus feeds 5,000 hungry people. As a result, more people begin to follow him. In the middle of the text, the religious leaders give Jesus grief over his claim that he is the “living bread that came down from heaven.” Jesus then scandalizes everyone when he says that to find true life, they must eat his flesh and drink his blood.
After that, everyone deserts him except the original twelve. And, as Jesus points out, one of them is a bad apple.
Actually, they’re all bad apples. The disciples reveal themselves to be cowardly, power hungry, doubtful, confused, and violent. The other so-called disciples cut and run as soon as Jesus says something that disturbs them, confirming the popular definition of heresy: Telling someone something they don’t already think they know.
Judas merely acts out what lies within the heart of all the others. Yes, he betrayed Jesus. But his actions revealed the possibility that betrayal was a seed inside all of them (that’s why, when Jesus later said that one of them would betray him, each one asked “Is it I, Lord?”). When the larger group of followers abandoned Jesus, that too was a form of betrayal. They sided with Jesus’ enemies the moment they walked away. They voted Jesus down in their departure.
When Jesus asked the twelve (including Judas) if they planned to leave as well, he exposed the possibility that betrayal could happen at any time. Even after Peter speaks his touching words of loyalty and trust, he and the others would fall away, at least for a while.
It is tragically humbling to recognize the seeds of sin and betrayal that lie within me. Yes, there is love, but love is a prerequisite for betrayal. There is no betrayal if love does not first exist. Yes, I can say that I love Jesus. But I have to realize that betrayal can grow out of my love like a toxic weed.
Thankfully, my love is not first. God’s love is first. Love comes at God’s initiation, not mine. My task—and yours—is to cling tightly to Jesus’ robes and hang on. Even when his words and deeds scandalize me.
For he satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things. Some sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons, for they had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High. Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor; they fell down, with no one to help. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress . . . (Psalm 107:9-13)
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? (Romans 8:31)
It is usually at Christmas time that we sing songs about Jesus that employ the Hebrew name Emmanuel—God is with us. But we ought to sing songs like that all year round so that we never, never, forget that God is truly with us.
God’s withness is not meant to be an abstraction of theology. The Bible speaks of God as the One who allows his people to suffer the consequences of their actions and choices, but who also meets them in their desperation, hears their cry, and rescues them. God remains with us even in the worst of circumstances.
I once knew a woman who told me that, as a young teenager, having suffered through more pain than a kid should have to endure, she made a decision to stop trying to be good and to embrace the hard-drinking party life. And she told God she was going to do that. She said that she heard God say to her, “Alright. I’ll go with you.” Years later, when she cried out to God in her alcoholic desperation, he rescued her. She still carried the burden of her recovery, but she knew that God continued to be with her.
I’ve thought a lot about that over the years. Does God really stand by us when we deliberately choose paths that will inevitably result in pain and suffering? I believe that he does. I can imagine God standing next to that young, angry teenager, carrying the pain of her life on his shoulders while she vainly tried to medicate her agony. He said he would be with her, and he was.
And when I think of God doing that, I see Jesus.
Jesus was soundly criticized for coming alongside people considered to be sinners. But in Jesus the face of God was revealed in a way that scandalized those who thought they were above sin. But the sinners knew they were sinners, and Jesus knew that, too. He came alongside them and entered their pain. They took his hand as he reached out, and he rescued them. Jesus was with them.
God has, in human skin, become Emmanuel to us. Jesus is with us.
“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. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” (John 6:44-45)
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)
It is interesting how we think about the ways that we approach God. We are an independent, free-will kind of people, and we know how to make our choices. So we choose to get up on a Sunday morning and go to church. We choose to take a particular seminary course because it fits our schedule. We choose to come forward to take communion, even though we’re not sure we really need to.
I’ll bet that Moses thought that way when he approached the burning bush. But he didn’t choose to be on holy ground—God summoned him there and then told him to take off his sandals.
I don’t believe in free will anymore. Will, yes. But not free will. My will just isn’t all that free. It’s polluted by all kinds of outside forces that have formed me over time and is influenced even now by voices and events around me. There is no purity of will to be had.
So I don’t think I can approach anything having to do with God as though I am a being with pure, unadulterated will. And perhaps, like Moses, when I think I am choosing in my freedom to engage with God on some level, I am actually responding to his summons. And by the time I realize where I am, he tells me to take off my sandals.
In all our fussing and worrying about choosing what will please us and stressing over things like our devotional life, it might be helpful to stop and consider that we don’t come to anything related to Jesus except that the Father has drawn us. And in our weak lives of prayer, it is the Spirit of God who steps in and intercedes on our behalf, not condemning our weakness, but carrying us through it.
The God of the Bible is not an abstraction. He is engaging, summoning, participative, purposeful. And having been summoned by him to worship, serve, learn, pray, love, and dine, how do we respond? Do we keep our sandals in tact because we choose to do so? Or do we remove them in obedience to the One who has always been calling us to stand at his flame?
Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25-26)
“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)
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh . . . (Romans 8:1-3)
Our story of faith seems to move from the singular to the plural, from the particular to the universal. It moves from Abram to his descendants to all the families of the earth; it moves from Moses to the Hebrew slaves to the nation of Israel; it moves from Jesus to his followers to the church and to the world.
Paul tells us that Jesus came deal with sin. John tells us that Jesus came to be the savior of the world (1 John 4:14). The issue of sin moves easily from the particular to the universal and back again. Sin may be about me, but it’s about me in the context of us.
When we read the narratives of the gospels, it is a bit shocking to see how this dealing with sin comes about for Jesus. It comes about by sin having its way with him. The story culminates in sin winning the day, parading Jesus’ perfect, broken body around like a macabre trophy. Sin wins and Jesus suffers and dies.
I suppose that’s part of the reflective lament of the season of Lent. We hover over the passion narrative and watch tragedy unfold. This one sent as savior of the world, whose words and works rolls across the cracked and wounded skin of Israel like a healing salve, is suddenly despised by his own people and brutally, shamefully, executed. Somehow, in that sad drama, Jesus deals with sin.
It isn’t just that Jesus takes my sin and your sin away. It’s that Jesus allows the systemic, violent sin of the world to focus its fury on him on a particular day in a particular point in human history. In that particularity, in and through Jesus, God takes both sin and death into himself. He doesn’t heap sin and death on us; he embraces them willingly in order to rip out their teeth and ultimately destroy them.
We don’t see the turning of the tables until Easter. Yes, sin and death win on Friday. But their power is unraveled on Sunday. Yes, in the world there is still sin and, yes, we will still die. But neither sin nor death gets the last word in the story. God’s word is the last word.
For you, O Lord, are most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods. (Psalm 97:9)
The Lord knows our thoughts, that they are but an empty breath. (Psalm 94:11)
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” (John 6:27)
I once calculated how many days I had been alive. It was easy to do: I multiplied my age in years times 365 (I didn’t bother with Leap Years. It was close enough to depress me anyway). The result was a big number representing a lot of days—more than I’d like to say. The sheer number of sunrises and sunsets that I had passed through bothered me less than the realization that I remembered very few of those days.
Oh, I could grab a memory here and there, but there was not one waking day that I could recall in its entirety. Even if I tried, such a day would be cobbled together with shreds of other days, a Frankenstein day that never worked quite rightly.
Where do thousands of days go in the life of a human being, days that seem so vital and important at the time but then are gone like a mist in the afternoon sun? Where do the conversations, the ideas, the drama, the thoughts go to die as soon as they are experienced?
The psalmist declares that the Lord—the One exalted above all gods—knows our thoughts, even though, in the end, they don’t amount to all that much. I’d like to believe that my thoughts are important, that I have ideas that need to be communicated to others so that the world can be a better place and everyone will know that I’m brilliant and amazing. I want my thoughts to amount to something.
But, when it comes right down to it, my thoughts are only an empty breath. Yet, even at that, the Lord knows them. That needs to be enough.
Feeding on my own thoughts does not inspire spiritual nutrition. The Lord knows my empty-breath thoughts, but is gracious enough to share his thoughts with me, if only I’ll listen.
I need to pay attention to this. I suspect that we all do.
I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.
The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it—you have founded them. (Psalm 89:1-2, 11)
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” (John 6:14)
The Bible begins with a story about creation: “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth.” But the first hearers of that story did not listen from a theological vacuum. Before they were the people of Genesis, they were the people of the Exodus.
The ancient Hebrew people were encountered by God (not the other way around) when they were rescued from their slavery in Egypt. God continued his redemptive work by leading them through the wilderness and to a place that would be the land promised to them by God. They first of all experienced God as their redeemer, their rescuer.
And then the opening chapters of Genesis connect some stunning theological dots: The God who rescued the people from slavery is also the God who created all things. This wasn’t the act of a territorial god who just happened to outsmart the Egyptian deities. There were, in fact, no other gods. The God of the Exodus, the I AM of the burning bush, the God whose steadfast love and faithfulness is celebrated by the psalmist, is the one, true God. This same God created the heavens and the earth. The redeemer God and the creator God as one in the same.
The people experienced Jesus in a similar way. Their understanding was not very theological and it clearly wasn’t framed by scientific inquiry. They experienced Jesus as redeemer, as the one who rescued them from demonic oppression, sickness, hunger, marginalization, and even death. Like the people of Moses’ day, the theological dots wouldn’t be connected for quite some time.
I can attempt to know God through theological and scientific inquiry, but I won’t encounter him that way. God, however, is the one who initiates encounter with me, and it comes as he determines. My inquiries just might produce revelations along the way, but they won’t serve as stepping stones up the tall mountain where I just might locate God.
Sometimes people chafe at the particularity of Jesus. Why, as Christians insist, would God reveal himself in that one person at a specific point in history and in a backwater location at the fringe of the Roman Empire? Why not to all people everywhere at the same time?
It seems, however, that particularity is the way that God does his redeeming work. To act universally would be to act outside of history. God works with real people in real human existence to redeem and rescue in real time. And through God’s particular, redeeming work, a universal call comes to the world.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.
For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. (Psalm 90:1-14)
The psalmist expresses a profound awareness of God’s engagement with the whole of human life. God is acknowledged as creator of all things and as the one who holds the days of each human life in his hand. The sins of the people stand stark before God’s face, and his anger flares.
Yet, the writer speaks of a longing for wisdom in light of the frailty of life. He longs for God’s compassion and love that will result in joy and gladness in the swiftly passing days of life.
In this song of worship I hear the singer marveling at God’s engagement with the people he loves. Yes, there is anger because the people have a history of turning away. Yes, there is wrath because God leaves the people to the horrific consequences of their bent desires. These are acknowledged as hard realities.
But the longing and expectation is that God’s steadfast love will bring both satisfaction and joy. This is not the voice of one who cowers before a raging deity; it is the voice of one who is confident in the love of God who is both creator and redeemer.
I don’t think I often appreciate the wholeness of God’s engagement with me. It is too easy to look for joy as a result of getting the things in life that I want rather than as a result of God’s steadfast love—a love that is poured out even as my secret sins stand before God, revealed for what they really are.
Come, O God, and embrace the entirety of my life throughout the days that I live.
Therefore, thus says the Lord, assuredly I am going to bring disaster upon them that they cannot escape; though they cry out to me, I will not listen to them. (Jeremiah 8:11)
Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)
“You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires.” (John 8:44)
Often I find myself wanting what I want, no matter what. I know that eating a certain thing is not good for me, but I want it anyway. Get out of the way and let me eat it. It’s my body. The consequences are mine. It’s my right to want what I want.
Jeremiah spoke to a people that wanted to worship idols and play international politics by the rules of the world. Like their ancestors, they wanted what they wanted. In the end, God let them have what they wanted. They didn’t want to listen to him, so he cooperated by not listening. When they received the consequences of a life without God, the horror of it made them cry out, but God wasn’t listening. At least, not for a while. Jesus wasn’t seeing much improvement in his day.
I think that’s probably what Hell is: Eternally getting what you want. Imagine the weakest, most stumbling desire for God exploding into glorious flame when God is encountered face to face. Then imagine the most stubborn, angry desire for something other than God, and getting it. Forever.
What would it be like to live in a city where there is no goodness, where each person lives only for personal gain and pleasure, where power is the only currency? That would be Hell. That would be getting everything you demand, if what you demand is anything other than God.
I tend to lean on the words of Richard John Neuhaus: “In this life, and in the age to come, followers of Jesus can have everything they want, if everything they want is Jesus.”
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God. (Psalm 42:1-6a)
While leading an illegal, underground theological seminary just under the Nazi Gestapo’s radar, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about Christian community:
“It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us . . .” (Life Together)
Like the psalmist, who reflects sadly on a time when he had the freedom to worship along with his companions, Bonhoeffer came to know what it meant to long for Christian community. When the gift of fellowship was easily accessible it would go unappreciated. Abundance can be the enemy of appreciation.
When I read the beautiful words of Psalm 42 that describe a thirst and longing for God, I am troubled. There are too many times when I lack such longing, as though the drink that is God is unnecessary to my well-being. It is the same difficulty that I have when I read the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day, our daily bread.” I don’t ask for my daily bread, nor am I always thankful for it. I have plenty to eat. There is an abundance in my cupboard and more at the grocery store when it runs out. It is hard to be grateful for something that comes to me so easily and abundantly.
I do not desire to go hungry or to live in isolation. However, sometimes I wonder if it would take some severe stresses of life to enliven my longing for God. Certain garden plants should be deprived of water for a while in order that they would suffer stress and strengthen their roots. Could it be that lack of stress causes our roots to diminish? Has our abundance produced a lot of leaves but no fruit?
Perhaps the unwanted stresses will come, and in the lack of abundance we can cry out with the psalmist, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)
I don’t know that much about suffering, really. I know people who have suffered deep loss and pain; by comparison, my sufferings have been minimal. I recognize that there are people in the world suffering from hunger, disease, and oppression. I do not suffer from these kinds of things.
But I do know something about hope, and the Bible speaks of it quite a bit, as it does about suffering. When you hope for something, you are very happy when that hope is fulfilled—after all, hope has, as its object, an encounter with the thing for which you have hoped. On the other side, we also speak of hopes unfulfilled, hopes being dashed, and so on. When our hopes bring us no payback, no honoring of a promise, then we are disappointed. Hope is the thing we look forward to. We stop hoping when we get what we desire.
Except that’s not what the apostle Paul says.
He says that hope doesn’t disappoint us, and not because we’ve received a release from suffering or some other tangible reward. He says that hope doesn’t disappoint because of the outpouring of the love of God through the Holy Spirit. And Paul was writing to people who knew a thing or two about suffering.
Over the years I’ve heard of the potential rewards of following Jesus: You enjoy prosperity, your ailments get healed, you feel great all the time, you have all the answers. Those are some of the things you hope for, and if you don’t receive them it might be your lack of faith or lack of understanding.
But that’s not what the apostle Paul says.
In the midst of suffering, marginalization, and loss, hope is not disappointed because of the outpouring of God’s love. His Spirit is already with us, and our hope is there. And hope is always alive and operational. We’re not anticipating something else, looking for another answer, waiting for our spiritual or material ship to come in. Our hope is already fulfilled in the outpouring of God’s love, and yet hope still remains alive.
God’s love is already there. It precedes our own fractured loves and our own misplaced hopes.
“In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us . . .” (1 John 4:10a)
For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. (Jeremiah 7:30-32)
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. (Psalm 78:2-3)
If there was ever an apt description of Hell, the valley of the son of Hinnom—or, Gehenna, as it was called in Jesus’ day—would be it. The ancient Hebrew people joined in with the idol worshippers in the local area and sacrificed their own children to a fire-filled god in that valley. In the time of the Roman occupation of Israel, Gehenna had become a flaming garbage dump, where refuse and the bodies of executed criminals rotted and burned day and night.
The account of this tragic failure of the people of God says something about the nature of evil. Some might say that God is in control, that he is sovereign, and all things come from his hand—good things for blessing, bad things for discipline and punishment. After all: Either God is in charge or he isn’t.
But in some ways, God isn’t in charge, at least not in that way. God may be sovereign, the rightful ruler of all things, but the realm over which he is king is a broken, distorted realm. The ancient Hebrew people embraced an evil that was of their own making, and it was an evil that had never entered God’s mind—we are told that he never commanded it. The people took upon themselves a sin that would mark them for generations to come and bring a curse upon the land where their children’s ashes were scattered.
And yet, God did not give up on the people. The psalmist writes, “Yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; often he restrained his anger, and did not stir up all his wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not come again (78:38-39).”
I am amazed that this dark episode wasn’t edited out of the Bible. It’s the dirtiest of all laundries and you would think that people would just want to forget it. But they kept the story alive for generations, reminding their descendants that the people of God are a broken people and capable of the worst evils imaginable. The most astonishing thing that would be passed on to each generation was that, in the midst of human failure, God remains faithful. God remembers our frailty. We might suffer the consequences of our embrace of evil, but God still forgives.
I wonder if the first 10,000 years or so of eternity is spent in abject amazement as people are confronted with the pure reality of both evil and forgiveness. We see them now abstractly; then we will see face to face.
For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. (Jeremiah 7:5-7)
People sometimes have a difficult time distinguishing between their religion and their nation. Nations, by design, operate out of self-interest. Religion typically has a different agenda.
I’ve heard people demand of the US what is demanded of Jesus’ followers. As much Christian influence as there continues to be here, the nation of America is not the people of God. That’s true of all nations.
But we who follow Jesus have, I think, a two-fold role in our respective countries. First, to serve as elders at the gate, so to speak, asking national leaders to act justly, wisely, and compassionately. It won’t do for us to simply embrace a preferred political agenda, baptize it as the Christian way, and then denounce all opponents. We must bring more to table than that.
Second, our role is to be the kind of people that God calls us to be. Regardless of the nation’s response to the alien, the orphan, the widow, and the innocent, we must care for them and not oppress them. Whether we are citizens of the US, the UK, China, or Venezuela, we are called first of all to be God’s people for the sake of the world. Our civic responsibility has to rise from that identity. If it happens the other way around, then we just might try to clothe Jesus in the garb of our political party.
I once heard Pastor Bill Hybels (of Willow Creek Church) say that he knows when he is in vital relationship with Christ, because that is when he has a heart for the poor. When he quits caring, then he realizes that something is amiss in his journey of faith. I’ve always appreciated that honesty, and have had to check my own heart along the way. When I quit caring for the people around me then something has gone wrong. When the poor and needy become abstract concepts or only shadowy presences at freeway offramps, then I need to look around and see where Jesus has gone. More to the point, I need to see where I have gone.
“Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)
After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” (For not even his brothers believed in him.) Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil. Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee. But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret. (John 7:1-9)
People wondered why Jesus didn’t promote himself more widely. His own brothers challenged him about his reluctance to develop a proper reputation among the masses. The devil once tried to lure him into doing spectacular feats in the public arena, with only the tiny proviso that Jesus turn away from worshipping his heavenly Father. After three failed attempts at this temptation, the devil left the project to Jesus’ family and friends.
In this story, Jesus does indeed enter the public arena, but secretly. Jesus apparently wasn’t opposed to being present to people—after all, he did a lot of that. But he was opposed to putting on a big show for sake of self-promotion and crowd delight.
I wonder how many times we’re looking for Jesus in something spectacular and thrilling, when in fact he is already with us in secret? In demanding the dramatic, do we ever risk turning our worship to the source of the drama, only to discover that it was the wrong object of worship?
My impression of Jesus as I read the gospel accounts is that he was a pretty consistent person. Probably still is, in the sense that there is a character in him that is reliable and honest. There were other voices speaking to him that suggested he violate his character and mission and become someone altogether different. He wouldn’t do that. My guess is that he still won’t.
In seeking Jesus in the spectacular, we might risk the attempt to reform him in an image that we prefer. That’s how idols come about. We make them ourselves and then we worship them. It’s usually a bad deal. Jesus won’t allow for such a remaking, and he still comes to us as who he is, and in secret.
Come, Lord Jesus, come as you are, not as I prefer you to be.
Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people. . .
But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God . . .
Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73: 1-5, 16-17, 25-26)
There are a lot of things I have failed to learn in life, but there’s one thing I’ve caught on to: When I have pursued something (like a job opportunity, for example) that comes out of desperation, desire, greed, or competition, the level of satisfaction ends up ranging from just okay to completely disastrous. But when I’ve sensed that God’s fingerprints are on something, embracing it always turns out to be the best thing. I think I’ve learned that.
The psalmist confesses his envy toward those who do not acknowledge God yet seem to prosper. He doesn’t get it, but then begins to see things clearly when he goes “into the sanctuary of God.” I imagine him stopping, looking around, sensing God’s presence, and realizing something that he had almost forgotten on his stumbling, slippery journey: “Whom have I in heaven but you?”
I am intrigued that the psalmist’s trigger point came, not over his dinner, not as he strolled along the beach, but rather when he entered the sanctuary of God. In the midst of his worshipping community, in the place full of symbol and incense and candles and music and people, he remembered who he was. This was not a remembering in individual isolation, but one that came within community.
While I recognize that this organism we call “the church” can also be stumbling and slippery at times, it is the place where I come to remember who I am and who I am not. I can look enviously at the world around me and desire things that have little to do with my life of faith, but in entering the sanctuary of God I encounter the opportunity for my eyes to open and see once again what is real.
In those moments I just might recognize that “my flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”