Monday, December 21, 2009

Peace from Another World

What is peace? Is it simply the absence of commotion...a little peace and quiet? Is it the serenity and calm we feel beside a warm fireplace on a winter's night? Is it the declaration of a cease fire between two warring enemies, or the terms dictated by a conquering nation? Is it a sign we make with our hand to express our hopes for the world? Is peace real or just an ideal?

On the night of Jesus’ birth, the angels declare good news of the Savior's birth to lowly shepherds, shouting “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2: 14). I want to consider the nature of this peace they proclaimed because the word shalom (the Hebrew word for peace) is not just the absence of conflict, or a warm cozy feeling. Like the three vertical lines in its first letter, the letter shin (resembling the English letter w ) it represents wholeness in three dimensions: wholeness of relationship with God, with others, and with the earth. For followers of Y'shua (Jesus), shalom is a world-invading, world-shaping reality made real and personal in the Messiah.

“Peace on earth” describes tbe One who came to us in humility and weakness. Shalom is more than a word, it’s a person who came from heaven to earth; who came from the highest place to the lowest place. Peace had to come to this earth…because real peace is not of this earth. Real peace on earth is by definition an alien invasion - from beyond the stars of heaven to the dust of the earth. It's Emmanuel (God-With-Us) who came down. God came down to walk with us in the garden. God came down to speak with Moses in the burning bush. And God came down when the Son of God was born in Bethlehem’s stable to bring us his peace. People demonstrate for peace, they work for peace, they even fight for peace, but true lasting peace, shalom, does not orginate from the earth or its indigenous is the fruit of a relationship with the Living God through Christ the Prince of Peace.

Now some have understandably asked: if Christ led 'the peace invasion,' why was the world not reduced to instantaneous peace upon his arrival? Good question. The obvious answer is that Christ came into this world as a tiny baby; weak and totally dependent upon others for survival. He came in humility, not with a sword. His power (revealed in the humility of a tiny baby, in his selfless life, and his atoning death) reminds us that lasting peace does not come by force. Certainly, if God wanted to force this world to be “peaceful," if he wanted to eliminate war and its causes, compel nations to work together on reducing greenhouse gases, feed the starving in Africa, eliminate human trafficking, or eliminate any number of problems, God could do so at any time he wanted – and many expected the Messiah to do just that. But God’s sovereign will seems to be that we freely love him, and freely love each other – which is the only way that true shalom is really possible.

“Peace on earth” is the promise of God’s inevitable triumph over evil. When the heavenly host (lit. "an army of heaven") declare “Glory to God and peace on earth” with the coming of the Messiah; they do so not as those presuming victory before the battle has been won; but as those who have been told the outcome. The angels give a victory shout because they know how the story is going to end. They know that the birth of the King means the evil one has already lost. They know that at the cost of his own life this tiny baby would show us how to live as God’s people; bear our sins on the cross, and rise from the dead in victory.

Of course, when Christians speak of the victory which Jesus has brought to us in his life, death, and resurrection…it’s not surprising that there are skeptics. What can one person do…let alone a baby born in a hillside cave, to usher in world peace? I read about a Palestinian baby a few years ago, who was found abandoned at birth in a roadside heap of trash. She was rescued by Palestinian doctors, cared by a group of nuns in Bethlehem and had her heart repaired by an Israeli surgeon. Palestinian doctors noticed she was turning blue and losing weight, and the baby was taken to a Jerusalem hospital. “She was skin and bone and that’s it,” said Israeli doctor Eli Milgalter, who operated on the baby’s heart on January 24th. The nuns raised nearly $11,000 to pay for the hospital costs, and Milgalter performed the surgery without accepting payment. She has made a full recovery, doctors said.” The article mentions that “the baby has become a rare example of the region’s usually fractured and clashing peoples working together to save a life.” And her name? Salaam: the Arabic version of Shalom, which means safe, secure, and forgiven[Citation: “‘Peace Baby’ Touches Mideast Enemies,” Associated Press (2-25-02)]. When people scoff at what one man or woman can possibly do, I remember what one Peace Child did…. which brings me to my last observation about the angels' announcement of peace.

“Peace on earth” is the sign of those who receive Christ personally. The angels cry of peace on earth “among those whom he favors” means God’s shalom, his wholeness, is given to those whom he chooses. How do we know that we are favored? First, we have welcomed the message of the Savior and received him personally. Secondly, we find that we have a passion for making peace, for bringing shalom, and wholeness to this broken world one person at a time. Peace is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:22). Sadly, there has been much done in the name of Christ which has not contributed to shalom on earth...actions which must certainly grieve God's heart (e.g., The French Inquisition, twisting Scripture to justify slavery in America, or the German national church's weakness in the face of Hitler). There have been, however, many examples over the centuries of those who have carried on the work of shalom as Christ's followers.
  • In the ancient world, infanticide was not only legal, it was commonly held that sacrificing one’s own children could be an act of beauty. It was the early Christian church that ultimately brought an end to this terrible practice.
  • In the ancient world, women were considered the property of their husbands; somewhere between slaves and freedmen. Yet Jesus warned against the mistreatment of women, he elevated them as full members of society, and had many women among his original followers.
  • In the first century church of Rome, we know that Jews and Greeks, slaves and freedmen worshiped together as equals before Christ. While it is true that many Christians did own slaves over the course of history, it was finally Christians like William Wilberforce who turned the tide against the international slave trade. Indeed, two thirds of the abolitionists in 1835 were Christians.
  • I continue to be struck by the story of Gary Haugen, president of IJM, whose life was changed when as a gov’t worker, he was sent to Rwanda following the war between Hutus and Tutsis that led to the deaths of millions. As a result he dedicated his life to rescuing the most vulnerable members of society from slavery and violent oppression. In a speech delivered to the White House, one of his co-workers said this: “While there are millions of girls and women victimized everyday, our work will always be about the one….The one girl deceived…The one girl needing a rescuer To succumb to the enormity of the problem is to fail the one. And more is required of us.” (Cited in Terrify No More, by Gary Haugen). Let me say it again: Those who know Christ personally have a passion for making peace, for bringing shalom, and wholeness to this broken world one person at a time.

This is Christmas, and I’ve been talking about the gift of peace, of the shalom that Christ came to bring us. But I want to impress upon you that this gift of peace is more than a simple cry to be more socially engaged in the problems of this world. We should be, but it's going to take a lot more than that. Real peace requires, as I said earlier, an alien invasion. We need a Peace from beyond this world, a supernatural Spirit to guide and redirect our thoughts toward Christ-like ends…which is why I want to end this Christmas meditation on "peace" by telling you about the Kohanim blessing....

For those of you who are not Trek fans, you may or may not be familiar with the Vulcan greeting (Live long and prosper!) and its hand sign. It was invented by Leonard Nimoy based upon the Kohane blessing that he witnessed in the synagogue of his youth. The Kohanim are the genealogical descendents of the original priests who served in the Jerusalem temple. A remnant of the Temple service lives on in what’s called the Kohane blessing. Now worshippers are not supposed to look at the priest as he is performing the blessing (some children believe they will go blind or something bad will happen to them if they do); but Leonard snuck a peak and what he saw was two hands formed together to make the Hebrew letter shin – and this is important: Because shin is the first letter in the word “shaddai” (Almighty God) and “shalom” (peace). Nimoy later modified this into a single hand gesture. Here is the blessing:

The LORD bless you, and keep you:
The LORD make his face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you:
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and grant you peace.
That blessing, like the words of the heavenly host, bring Shaddai and shalom together: it reminds us that there is no shalom on earth without Shaddai; that “PEACE on earth” grows as we give “glory to GOD” for the Son he sent to save us…the Savior who is Christ the Lord. And so we pray not only for peace on earth...but that the Prince of Peace might truly reign in the people of the earth.

Jesus, I admit that I have longed for peace in my life, but avoided the things that would make for peace. Please cleanse and forgive me. I know that only by your grace can I turn from the darkness of my anger, resentment, selfishness, and pride. I therefore kneel before your humble manger, in the shadow of the cross where you died to make me whole, and pray…
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
Prince of Peace, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
[A Prayer for Peace (adapted from The Prayer of St. Francis)]

Monday, December 14, 2009

Joy from Another World

We are the generation of extreme realism...not easily lured into 'over the top' displays of joyous enthusiasm. Sarcasm and cynicism are more acceptable than the genuinely positive affirmation. The Bible, on the other hand, rings with joy - from God's "very good" creation (Gen. 1: 31) to the Psalms of David which speak again and again of the "joy of the Lord" Jesus himself whom Luke says was "full of joy through the Holy Spirit" (Luke 10:21/NIV). Listen to the twisted observations of Uncle Screwtape, a senior devil imagined by C. S. Lewis: “[Joy and laughter do] us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of hell” (The Screwtape Letters, p. 50)!

Hanging in my childhood home was a quote from the Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” I want a good reason to believe that. Don't you? I'm guessing that the most cynical person reading this, if he or she was honest, longs to be truly happy; wants to believe that there is a reason in this world (or out of this world) to be authentically joyful. That's why I'm so fascinated with the story of Gabriel's announcement to Mary in Luke 1: 26ff. where the angel brings to Mary and to us, news of great joy… a real, lasting joy that can not be taken away from us.

True Joy is the Savior who understands our deepest fears. "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you....Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God!" (Luke 1:28, 30/NIV). The first word that Gabriel speaks to Mary is variously translated as "Greetings!" "Hail!" or even "Good Morning!" but literally means "JOY to you!" The reason for this joyous greeting is what Gabriel is about to explain.

You are "highly favored" Gabriel says or in the older translations, "full of grace." Many Catholic Christians grew up saying the rosary prayer, “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.” I wonder how many people suppose that “full of grace” refers to something innate within Mary, that it describes her “gracious personality’ or her gentleness. Yet what Gabriel literally says is, “Joy to you, RECIPIENT OF GRACE, the Lord is with you.” To paraphrase: "Be filled with joy - not fear - because you are “favored” (NRSV) by God, a recipient of his grace, his ‘undeserved favor’. God has chosen you not because of anything you have done but because he loves you." Unlike the world of sport where being “favored” refers to a statistical advantage that one team may have over another based on recent performance…a status that can change with the wind; Mary was “highly favored” not because of past performance, but God’s unchanging love for her. Hear this: to live in constant need of having to prove yourself worthy of God’s love or anyone’s love (for that matter) is to live in fear. True joy flows from the knowledge that you are loved absolutely, and without reservation, despite your faults and imperfections. The happiness of this world rises and falls with our circumstances, but the joy that Gabriel speaks of cannot be taken from us. That’s because the Joy that is beyond this world is more than an emotion…it’s a Person, the LORD who is with us. He is joy itself. As the Psalmist declares, true joy is found “in God MY JOY and my delight” (Psalm 43: 4/ NIV).

True Joy is the Savior who answers our deepest questions. We’re told in Luke 1:29 that Mary "pondered" the angel’s greeting. The word lit. means to dialogue with one’s self (to reason or debate). It means that Mary was not passive about the angel's words: she carefully weighed the implications of what he was saying. Many people assume that to have a religious experience, to know God’s joy one must disconnect the intellect. But the testimony of Scripture from 'pondering Mary' to 'doubting Thomas' is that God honors our questions and our doubts. It may sound strange to hear a pastor say this…but I’m a strong believer in doubt. Doubt has been the catalyst for some of my most significant spiritual growth as a Christian -- especially in my college years. If God had demanded passive acceptance from Mary this story would have ended with the angels explanation in v. 33 and a quick “Good-bye!” But Mary’s blunt question is honored: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Mary too, was a realist. Larry King was once asked by a caller: “If you could select any one person across all of history to interview, who would it be?” King's answer was that he would like to interview Jesus Christ. When the questioner followed with, “And what would you like to ask him?” King replied, “I would like to ask him if he was indeed virgin-born. The answer to that question would define history for me" (Just Thinking, RZIM, Winter 1998). As a Jew, I'm sure he was quite serious. What evidence is there for the history defining virgin birth?

Gabriel says that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you" - not a very satisfying answer for the scientists among us. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that both Matthew & Luke agree there was something very different about Jesus’ birth, that although Joseph was the legal father, he was not the biological father, and that Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Mark calls Jesus “the carpenter, the son of Mary.” Paul says he is “born of a woman.” again with no mention of Joseph (Gal. 4:4); and most non-Muslims are surprised to learn that the Koran calls him, “Jesus the Son of Mary” and esteems him as “the virgin’s son,” conceived by the work of God. Of course there is no way to prove the virgin birth by direct observation (for obvious reasons)…what we can directly observe is any number of the countless millions who testify to a virgin birth in their own hearts; that the same Holy Spirit who brought Jesus into Mary has brought Jesus into them, that he lives in them; speaks to them, guides them, and continues to fill them with his joy and peace.

Along these lines noted geneticist Francis Collins, the Director of the Human Genome project spoke in a CNN interview of the extraordinary influence of Jesus Christ upon his life, "a person with remarkably strong historical evidence of his life, who made astounding statements about loving your neighbor, and whose claims about being God's son seemed to demand a decision about whether he was deluded or the real thing. After resisting for nearly two years, I found it impossible to go on living in such a state of uncertainty, and I became a follower of Jesus" ( True joy comes to those who understand that the answer to our deepest questions is not just a proposition, but an extraordinary Person…Jesus himself.

Finally, true Joy is the Savior who has revealed our deepest purpose. “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word…..[and then later in her prayer she declares] My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed’” (Luke 1:38, 47-48). What I love about Mary’s response to Gabriel’s message is first, her joy simply in being used by God for his purpose. “My spirit rejoices in God my savior for he has looked with favor…on me!” True joy comes to those who recognize that God has called them (personally, individually) to be his servants and followers.

The second thing I love about Mary’s response is that she understands God’s mission will extend far beyond her own years on earth. It’s not just about her. She knows that God is not only calling her to be a servant in her place and time…but through the power of the Savior, to bless the generations that follow her. Jesus is God’s gift to every generation. Doug Coupland, the postmodern literary icon who coined the term Gen X, once disclosed the quest of his generation and every generation: “Now—here is my secret. I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love" (Douglas Coupland, Life After God, Washington Square Press, NY, 1994, p. 359). Mary speaks for every new generation of Christ’s followers when she admits this need for direction and turns to the one in whom life's purpose is found, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. May it be with me according to your word.”

One of the most beloved songs of Christmas is Joy to the World, lyrics by Isaac Watts. Ironcially, Watts never intended this to be a Christmas Song. It’s based upon Psalm 98…a Song of God’s faithful deliverance, but Watts saw in this Psalm a foreshadowing of the coming Messiah. Some may cynically wonder whether anyone who wrote a song like “Joy to the World!” could know anything about suffering or loneliness. In fact, we know that Watts had frequent health problems during his life; and that he knew the pain of heartbreak. When Elizabeth Singer heard his music, she began a correspondence with Isaac and proposed marriage through the mail. Taken with her adoration, he accepted, but when she raced to Isaac’s side, rather than cementing a life-long love, she was unenthused with Watt’s “shallow face, hooked nose, prominent cheek bones and death-like palor" and told told him so before returning home! It broke his heart, but he poured himself even more into his writing! (Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2001, p. 101). Joy, as Watts discovered, was not dependent upon circumstances or crushed by life’s disappointments. Joy comes from the deep seated conviction that the love of God revealed through his Son is the most dependable thing in this world…

Isaac Watts said this in his final days: “If God should raise me up again, and use me to save a soul -- that will be worth living for. If He has no more service for me [here], I can say, through grace, I am ready; I could without alarm if God please, lay back my head on my pillow and die this afternoon or night. My sins are all pardoned through the Blood of Christ.” ( Friends, my joy is not dependent on my situation or anything else in this world, it’s anchored in the unshakeable reality of Jesus the Christ; the One who understands my deepest fears, answers my deepest questions, and has revealed my deepest purpose. It's not just a word for Mary anymore: “Joy to you!” Gabriel says, and “Joy to the World…the Lord is come!”

Dear Jesus, the Child of promise who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, the invisible God made visible, the Son of God, Savior and Messiah, you are the source of true Joy; in whom my fears are conquered, my questions are answered, and my purpose revealed. I admit that I have sinned against God and others, and have sought happiness in things that do not and cannot satisfy. Please forgive me. I now turn from everything I know is wrong; and from all that might seek to dilute your power in my life. Thank you for showing me how to truly live as God intended; for offering up your life for me on the cross, and removing from me the curse of my sins. Thank you for your victory over death when you rose again! I receive you now as my Sovereign Lord and Savior to cleanse and renew me. I receive you into my heart as Lord to rule in and through me. Fill me now with your Holy Spirit so that I may serve you joyfully and faithfully, in fellowship with your other disciples, forever! Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Love That's Out of this World

18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1: 18-21).

Is there intelligent life beyond our world? The late cosmologist Carl Sagan pondered, “As long as there have been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people” (Carl Sagan, "A Gift for Vividness," Time, Oct. 20, 1980, p. 61). Sagan believed our place in the cosmos was insignificant; and he wrote elsewhere that the only way to take away the loneliness of our meaningless existence, would be to find other lonely beings in the universe like ourselves.

As I said last week, I see no reason to deny that there may be other forms of intelligent physical life in the universe; but as a Christian I already know that there are other forms of intelligent spiritual life in the universe (as the angel sent to Joseph testifies); and that beyond all of this is the mind and purpose of the Creator who sent an emissary to explain to a frightened fiancé the lengths He was about to go to show his love for us....

Take the fact that to show his love, Joseph is told that God would become like us. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit says the angel. Paul speaks of Christ "who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness" (Philippians 2: 6-7). It has been the confession of Christ’s followers for 2000 years that in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…that in his love, his forgiveness, his kindness, his teaching and miracles, and above all his death and resurrection, he showed that he was and is the invisible God made visible. Jesus was from the Holy Spirit because he couldn’t have been from anywhere else!

But having said this, let’s not forget the other part of the angel’s message: that this Child was conceived; that he was from heaven but he was also human; further out than the outermost limits of the most distant galaxy, but as close as a baby held in his mother's arms. When the Messiah was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, it was God’s personal tribute to the miracle of human life, the dignity of human life, the value of human life from conception to life’s final breath.

In the first century infant mortality was 90%. Just to make it to your first birthday was considered a reason to celebrate. So Jesus’ birth reminds us that every life is precious to God…from the life of an unborn baby to the lives of those dying because of poverty and disease…or endless cycles of war and violence. It also reminds us that we do not have a Savior who is unable to relate to our weaknesses…but who became like us; that he might share God’s love face to face and with a full understanding of our weaknesses, fears, and failures.

The second thing Joseph learned from the angel was that to show his love, God (in Christ) would give his life for us. “You are to name him Y’shua for he will save his people from their sins” (21). Y’shua (Jesus) means “God is our Savior!” There are all kinds of debates about what humanity’s real problem is…global warming…economic instability… religious extremism, AIDS or cancer. But deep down, we know that the real ‘pandemic’ is human pride and selfishness. We have a sin problem above all, that needs to be addressed; a problem that separates us from God and and wrecks havoc on our relationships with each other...and with the creation.

Notice that the angel says Jesus will come to save his people from their sins, not from other people’s sins. Most of us have entertained the thought that life for us would improve markedly if that troublesome neighbor, nasty co-worker or difficlt family member would get straightened out. It’s always easier to contemplate the sins of others rather than our own…whether its Tiger Woods’ marital problems or that brazen couple who recently crashed a State Dinner at the White House. But despite my fascination with other people’s sins, Jesus came to save me from my own first, from the darkness that is in me. In a recent interview with the ABC news show 20/20, comedian Chris Brown said he was blindsided by his own brutal assalt of former girl friend Rihanna last February. “I never had problems with anger" Brown asserted. "No domestic violence with any of my past girl friends or altercations. I was never that kind of person…it was like, ‘How can I be that kind of person?’"

How, indeed...and yet the word of God says we are all “that kind of person”, that we are all capable of doing evil given the right conditions and situation; that we’ve all fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). This week, what may be the last Nazi war crimes trial in Germany began. A former SS guard was tried for his participation in the extermination of 29,000 Jews at the Sobibor death camp. How can we make sense of this human capacity to do evil? I have no easy answer…but as a Christian I can say this. My God did not avoid the pain and suffering of this world, but took the sin and evil of this world upon himself when he was crucified on a Roman cross. He was the innocent One who willingly bore the penalty for our guilty past. And when he died and rose from the dead, he proved that there is no place (no matter how dark or hopeless) that God is not willing to go to reach us.

The last word of God’s messenger to Joseph is a citation from the prophet Isaiah which the Messiah’s birth is about to fulfill: "Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us’ (22-23). Several years ago, during a visit to Cairo, I was eating at a KFC of all places… seeing a horse-drawn wagon and a man, sifting through the garbage. Where was he going and where did he live, I wondered. I soon found out. It was a blistering August afternoon when I was taken to a garbage collection village in the outskirts of Cairo. I’ll never forget the sight of a five year old girl who suddenly appeared out of nowhere to smile at me. I thought to myself: this is the only world she will ever know; the only reality she will ever experience…IF NOT FOR LOVE. Because for love of Jesus, in the midst of that filthy dump where human beings lived off the garbage of the city, Christian men and women were building a church and doing life-saving mission. I remember the cool and even refreshing smell of wet mortar and cement inside the church and the sacrificial work that was being done by God’s people among these untouchables. Men and women, here is a picture of the incarnation, and the love behind it. Jesus moved from the glory of the Father’s presence, into our filthy neighborhood in order to show us that he is and continues to be “Emmanuel” – God with us

The angel’s message from beyond our world is that Christ became like us, to give his life for us and that he promised always to be with us. In other words, we’re not the insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in some forgotten corner of the universe that Sagan described. We're the visited planet that God came to save through his Son. For, in the words of John 3:16, God so loved this insignificant world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life! Now that's a love that's truly out of this world.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Hope from Another World

I never tire of hearing (or telling) the story of Christmas...and that story begins with a man in search of hope (Luke 1: 5-25). His name was Zechariah, a direct descendent of Aaron (Moses’ brother) – and like every male descendent of Aaron, he was a priest – and as a priest it was important that he marry a woman of absolutely pure Israelite lineage. Now it was considered a special blessing if one married a woman who was also a descendent of Aaron: that extraordinary woman was Elizabeth. As infants, their parents had given them both very special names. The boy was named “Zechariah” which means “God remembers” and the girl was named “Elizabeth – or El Isheba” which means “Oath of God; or as we might say today, “The Promise of God.” Imagine the joy, then, when these two children of Aaron were married. Imagine the hope that together their lives might reflect the truth that indeed: “God remembers his promises!”

These were dark days in Israel – a nation now occupied by Rome, and under the cruel authority of Herod the Great. No doubt their parents hoped and prayed that their children might be part of God’s solution, God’s answer to the cries of their people. Zechariah and Elizabeth would have carried within them the powerful message of their names, and the message of hope that their marriage signified. But as the years went on, and Elizabeth was unable to conceive, that hope was severely tested. To be childless in that day (and without a son) was considered a great embarrassment; and they lived with this shame throughout their married life. For years they prayed for God to give them a son; yet that hope must have surely faded when Elizabeth entered menopause and “both were getting on in years” (Luke 1:7). Even so, Luke tells us, they continued to live “righteously” before God and continued to trust him. They did not allow this shame to overwhelm them: a seed of hope remained within them…a hope from beyond this world.

Now there were as many as 2000 priests in Zechariah’s day – which meant that there were far too many priests to serve in the Temple on any one occasion. The priests were divided therefore into 24 sections; which were called up for two periods of one week each annually. You can imagine that priests considered their service in the Temple to be the greatest honor imaginable. For those priests who were called up for Temple service, there was an even greater honor, and it was literally a once in a lifetime opportunity. This was the privilege of burning incense on the altar within the Holy Place of the Temple. This privilege was granted by lot, and if you were ever chosen, you would never have the opportunity again, for you were only allowed to do this once in your entire life. Luke tells us it was Zechariah’s lot, on that hope-filled day, that was chosen. He was to be the one to enter the Holy Place and burn incense on the altar, and pray for the people. And it was here, in this holiest of places that Zechariah saw the angel… a Messenger from another world sent to remind him that God’s people have not been forgotten in this one…and that neither has he. His message had three parts…and the first was spoken without words. It was simply this…

We are still standing. “Then there appeared to [Zechariah] an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.... ‘I am Gabriel, I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent to speak to you’” (Luke 1: 8-12, 19; cf. Rev. 5:11). God’s messengers are often described in Scripture as silently standing watch; or in Rev. 5:11 as a numberless multitude circling the throne of God; and when Zechariah is pouring out his heart in prayer in the Holy of Holies, what he sees first is the Messenger of God…standing beside the altar.

One of the great preoccupations of the 21st century is to know whether or not humankind is alone in the universe. I find it interesting that while our post-Enlightenment culture is rather skeptical about angels; there is an increased fascination with the idea of life on other planets, or even extra-terrestrial visitors to our world. A few years ago on a family trip to New Mexico we decided to stop in Roswell where "alien-fever" is high. The streetlights are painted like ET's, and there is a museum dedicated to the supposed government cover-up of an alien spaceship that crashedlanded in Area 51 during the 1950's. As we left the museum, my dad was actually interviewed by a local news station out in front. They asked him if he believed there was a "cover-up" and he replied with a wink and a smile, “Cover-up? When has the gov’t ever been involved in a cover-up?” Some may think me foolish to say this, but I personally see no reason to doubt that there may be other forms of intelligent physical life in the universe. However, as a Christian I already know that there are other forms of intelligent spiritual life in the universe; that the cosmos is populated by spiritual beings whose purpose is to “serve [God]” for the sake of those he came to save" (Hebrews 1:14).

The Bible says they are guardians and protectors of the people of God: “The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them” (Psalm 34:7); and that “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:11). Indeed, they are described as the unseen rulers and guardians of nations (Daniel 10:13). While they are spiritual beings, Scripture describes them as having ethereal bodies that can assume human form and communicate with us directly; as when Abraham entertained three angels unaware who came to announce that Sarah would have a son. In the gospels, angels are present at the three great events of Jesus’ life…his birth, his death, and his resurrection (see Luke 24:4, 23, Acts 1:10). So, when Zechariah saw the Messenger of God standing beside the altar of incense, it was a visible reminder that God is still standing too; that hope is alive; that those who try to "cover-up" or deny the activity of God in this universe will be shown to be the real fools. How we need to be reminded of that today.

The second word of hope that is given to Zechariah may be summed up in this phrase: We are still listening. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard” (Luke 1: 13b-17). What was on Zechariah’s mind when he first entered the Holy Place and prepared to burn the incense and pray? No doubt the man whose name means “God remembers” would have cried out, “Lord remember your people, deliver them from the oppression of their enemies. Remember your promise to send us the Messiah!" By now he had little hope that he and his wife could have a child, but perhaps he prayed for strength & comfort in his disappointment. That is when the angel appears, and his first words are “Do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard….” We can only imagine what Zechariah was thinking, “Which prayer? My prayer for Israel’s deliverance, or my all but forgotten prayer for a son…” The answer is both: Zechariah’s prayer for a son (13b-15); and his prayer for the Messiah (16-17). Zechariah falls silent as the angel explains that Elizabeth will bear him a son, and that he will name him John…. “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and the power of Elijah he will go before him…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1Luke 1: 13-17) These words were the fulfillment of the promise that one like the prophet Elijah would return to prepare the way for the Lord’s anointed, the Messiah. Zechariah’s son would be that prophet!

How many prayers have been silenced by the lie that God does not listen or care? The angel comes to show Zechariah that God is listening; and that his best for Israel and for the whole world; also includes his best for Zechariah. Agnes Sanford, author of The Healing Light and the daughter of a Presbyterian missionary often spoke of how she could see angels when God’s people gather in prayer…describing them as luminous and powerful as they attended the saints one by one whose hearts were crying out to God. During healing services at our own church, I often feel that with the eyes of my heart I can see those same angels...attending to those who are crying out to God for help.

Last Sunday, one of the founders of Jews for Jesus, Dr. Tuvya Zaretsky, spoke to our congregation about a very angry man who twelve years ago, walked down the aisle of our sanctuary while he was teaching a seminar on how to share the gospel of Y’shua with our Jewish brothers and sisters. He was a devout man, an Orthodox Jew who believed in his heart that this seminar was a threat to the Jewish people; and so he began to shout in a threatening manner and remove arm fulls of literature in order to disrupt the meeting. Sadly, over the next several years, there were other confrontational meetings between Tuvya and this man. Yet two weeks ago he contacted Tuvya to express concern about his atheist son as well as a new respect and appreciation for the transforming power of the Christian faith. They planned to meet following Tuvya's presentation at our church. A "divine" appointment to be sure! Twelve years ago this man had confronted Tuvya with anger and bitterness; but now, on the same day that Tuvya was standing again in our sanctuary, he spoke of the meeting he was about to have after the service with this same man...and asked us to pray for them both. As it turns out, I went along and silently stood in the parking lot, to pray as the conversation unfolded in a local coffee shop. Then the two approached me, and the man sincerely apologized for his angry words 12 years ago (a time before I was even pastor of this church). He heard words of forgiveness and love from us both, and was assured by Tuvya that the same congregation he entered years before would both welcome and respect him as a Jewish man; and be honored to share with him the gospel of Y'shua. I have no doubt that there were other unseen witnesses standing by as well, rejoicing with us that a 12 year old prayer was being answered. For as we pray, the Lord and the heavenly host are listening.

Zechariah asks an important question in response to the angel's announcement: “How will I know that this is so" (Luke 1:18)? He asks this question not only on his own behalf, but on behalf of all the skeptics of our age as well. How do I know that God is real? How do I know God will keep his promises? How do I know that I’m not deluded? The angel’s response is his name: “I am Gabriel" aren't I? The angel whose name means, “God is mighty" ...the same angel who stood before Daniel 600 years before to speak of the coming Messiah (Daniel 8:16ff.); who stands in the presence of standing before you now. In other words, not only are we still standing, not only are we still listening, we are still working! Zechariah is not so different from you and me…wondering if God is still mighty, still alive and well, still working, still able to fulfill his promises.

Five years ago, a young boy attending our Nursery School fell out of his second story bedroom window. I saw the window. It was at least a 16 foot drop. He smashed his head on the concrete…and they rushed him to the hospital. The doctors said that he would not survive the head trauma, and even if he did, he would probably lose the ability to speak, hear, or see. His parents are Orthodox Christians…and they called on their church to pray. His father is a physician, and he was especially awed by his son's miraculous survival and full recovery. Now the power of God that they called upon was represented by Michael, the archangel after which their son was named; and in gratitude to Michael they gave me his icon (an icon is an image or portrait of Christ, an angel, or other biblical figure considered a source of spiritual awakening, divine energy and even healing, but never worshiped). Michael means, “Who is like God?” Who indeed?! And that's what Gabriel came to remind a man who had nearly run out of hope.

Some of us may feel like we’re falling from a two story window today…running out of hope... looking for a way out… tired of praying, filled with worry like Zechariah for our own families and for the larger world of which we are a part. Perhaps your hope is being severely tested, and you need to hear the word of Gabriel like Zechariah or Tuvya’s new friend or Michael’s parents did. The good news is that from beyond this world…hope has arrived, the Messiah has come; and the angels that announced his birth have come to remind you that God has not forgotten you; that God is still standing, still listening and still working!

Gracious God, we thank you that with Zechariah, we can know that you have not forgotten us, that you always keep your promises; and that in your presence fear is banished and hope is restored. You are the Infinite who became an infant, the Word made flesh, the light that shines in our darkness, the Savior of all. You are the promised One who was born in humility, the promised One who walked among us as our teacher and shepherd, the promised One who shared our weaknesses, our sorrows and our pain; the promised One who heals our diseases, mends our bodies and broken spirits; the promised One who shows us the way to the eternal kind of life; the promised One who has won the victory over the things that would destroy us, our every sin and failure and the shadow of death; the One who dwells in our hearts today by the Holy Spirit, and who has given us power to be called children of God and ambassadors of your kingdom. O Lord we bless you today… and we exalt your holy name. Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Song of Reconciliation

Papa said to Mack, “I want to take away one more thing that darkens your heart.” Mack immediately knew what it was and turning his head away from Papa, started boring a hole with his eyes into the ground between his feet…Now there was no holding back as hot tears poured down his face and between sobs Mack cried, Papa, how can I ever forgive that SOB who killed my Missy?” (The Shack, p. 226).
In Paul Young's novel, The Shack, Mack discovers that forgiveness is key to the final step of healing that Papa wants to do in his life – but it may be the hardest step of all. Thankfully, Papa has not left us without some clear guidance when it comes to walking the difficult road that may or may not lead to reconciliation.

Before we do anything else to resolve the conflict we have with another, we must pray that it might be resolved to the glory of God. In 1 Cor. 10:31, Paul reminds us that whatever we do should be done to the glory of God… and that includes how we address and resolve conflict. When our lives are consumed with anger and pain, we need to ask God for help.

When Mack decides to return to the very place where the killer had taken the life of his youngest daughter, it could have meant confronting the killer himself (if this was a trick); or God himself…or simply himself. But in any case, it was going to mean dealing with his terrible anger; his doubts, his regrets and his deep sadness. Perhaps you remember the scene as Mack gets out of the car near the shack. We're told that as “He stood and stared down the path, …the pain that had been building in his stomach finally pushed him into panic. After only five steps he stopped and retched so strongly that it brought him to his knees. ‘Please help me!’ he groaned” (The Shack, p. 77). That was Mack’s simple prayer…and that was enough. It’s one of the oldest prayers in the world. It’s not long or complicated, but it’s real; and before you try to do anything in the way of confronting the demons in your life and relationships, it’s a good place to start: “God, help me!” And beyond that, with Paul, we can ask that God would truly be glorified in the process.

Secondly, declare before Christ your forgiveness as the forgiven (Matt. 5: 21; Matt. 18:21-35; Luke 23:34). Jesus tells the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in which a slave who is mercifully forgiven a huge debt owed to the King goes on to threaten and imprison a fellow slave who owed him a few dollars. The King is furious when he hears of it: “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” Jesus concludes, “So my heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matt. 18: 35).

Jesus reminds us again and again that before we consider whether or not to forgive we should recall that we are among the forgiven. So why do we hesitate to forgive those who have wronged us? Perhaps, we assume that to forgive means that we must forget that wrongs were ever done to us, or ‘pretend’ it never happened; but that’ s a misunderstanding of biblical forgiveness.

A colleague of mine, Neal Nybo, who is a pastor on staff at Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church shares this true story about a time when he was working in the business world. “I was supervising a customer service department in a Christian company. One customer service rep had begun showing up late to work, missing days without explanation and was surly to his coworkers. I sat down with him to talk about it. Almost before I could say anything he interrupted me with the request, "Will you forgive me?" I hardly thought his infractions needed forgiving but he insisted. "Yes", I told him, "I forgive you." He turned back around in his seat, end of conversation. I said we still needed to talk about his behavior. "No you can’t," he said, "you have forgiven me, it’s forgotten, you cannot punish me or bring it up again." I felt like forgiving his sassy mouth right out the back door and the rest of him with it.”

The command to forgive does not require me to forget it ever happened. That is not necessary, nor is it humanly possible. To forgive means you choose to live as the truly forgiven; to treat others as you have been treated by God; relinquishing anger (Matt. 5:21) and putting your enemy in God’s hands. Listen to Mack who knows that Papa is challenging him to forgive the very one who killed his Missy. “Papa…I know it isn’t right, but I want him to hurt like he hurt me…If I can’t get justice, I still want revenge….I’m stuck, Papa. I can’t just forget what he did, can I?” Mack implored. “Forgiveness is not about forgetting, Mack. It is about letting go of another person’s throat” (The Shack, p. 226). “Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver….to release you from something that will eat you alive, that will destroy your joy and your ability to love fully and openly” (The Shack, p. 227). Finally, Mack is able to release the rage that was eating up his insides like battery acid: “I forgive you, I forgive you, I forgive you….” Jesus commands us to be willing to forgive up to 70 times 7...which simply means that forgiveness is a process...and that we must be prepared to say it and to keep saying it until it really begins to sink in. If the first thing we need to do is ask for God’s help…the second is to declare our forgiveness as one who has been forgiven from the cross!

Thirdly, seek to rebuild a relationship of trust by approaching the person directly, not gossiping (Mat. 5: 23-24, 7: 4-5; Matt. 18: 15-20; 2 Cor. 5:18-21). Forgiveness is the first step toward reconciliation… but forgiveness is not reconciliation nor is it the restoration of a relationship. Remember Mack’s question to Papa about the killer, and Papa’s all-important response….
“So what then? I just forgive him and everything is okay, and we become buddies?” Papa answers: “You don’t have a relationship with this man; at least not yet. Forgiveness does not establish relationship. In Jesus I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship….” (The Shack, p. 227).

We’ve been talking a lot about forgiveness today…but the real goal, the finish line is the sweet song of reconciliation. Paul writes, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself…. we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5: 19, 21). Reconciliation is a two-way street! God has come toward us...but he waits for us to come toward him. In the same way, you can forgive all day long, but it takes two to reconcile., to have a relationship. Here are five things that facilitate reconciliation…

First, you must confess your own sin to God. “Take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matt. 7: 5). Start with the man in the mirror. Second, you must speak the truth in love. In the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus warns that “If you are angry or insult a brother you will be liable to judgment….” Proverbs has much wisdom on this subject: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). And again, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov. 25:11). Our tone makes a world of difference when we confront one with whom we have a conflict. Third, be ready to speak words of forgiveness: “I forgive you!” Fourth, offer words of repentance: “I’m sorry!” These are the two most powerful phrases in the process of reconciliation. And finally, pray that God would bring true healing to your relationship. You can say all the right words and even mean them…but still not have a relationship. It’s possible you may never achieve that this side of heaven. Prayer acknowledges you both have a relationship with the same Lord who will one day bring you together.

On Thursday night I was running late for a special friendship dinner in Universal City hosted by a Turkish community organization dedicated to building bridges of friendship with Christians and Jews -- a very fine organization that goes by the name of Pacifica. And so, I got on the freeway about 5:45pm, trying to make it by 6:30pm for the opening introduction. It took me an hour and fourty minutes of stop and go driving to go 26 painful miles; but I did barely make dinner. It was a wonderful evening. Then it was time to go home…and how can I describe the joy of crossing all those roads again at full throttle, engine purring, banking easily through the 101/405 freeway interchange at top speed, negotiating the gentle curves of the Sepulveda Pass and down into West LA in under 30 minutes! This is what automobiles were designed for! As I was driving…the thought came to me. This is a powerful picture of forgiveness and reconciliation! Without forgiveness, you can get by…but it’s like slogging through LA at rush hour. Your thoughts and emotions are handicapped by the obstacle of unforgiveness which is eating away at every good thing in your life. But once forgiveness and reconciliation is tried, it is like driving on the open road, full throttle; unencumbered, un-burdened, exhilarating! This is how human beings were designed to live!

Friends, all this talk about forgiving...and even loving one's enemies as Jesus taught us from the cross is more than fantasy or the stuff of fiction writers like Paul Young. This stuff really happens. I know a man in my own congregation whose daughter was murdered by her fiance in a fit of rage. The anger he felt toward this man grew and grew until it was literally killing him. But there came a day when God made it clear to him that he needed to forgive...not just for that man's sake, but for his own. And so like something out of a novel, my friend went to the prison where he met with this man face to face, forgave him, and shared with him the love of Christ. That act of forgiveness not only changed my friend...but the stunned man who had shot and killed his beautiful daughter. Not many months later, his daughter's murderer was himself killed in prison, but not before repenting of what he had done...and finding peace with God. The power of forgiveness is real, the hope of reconciliation is real....and many of you, like me, have seen its effects.

One last thing Jesus tells us when it comes to the subject of relinquishing anger and moving toward others in forgiveness and reconciliation is to simply do it, and not delay: "Do it now!" (Mat. 5: 25). Perhaps my favorite scene in The Shack is the one in which Mack is given the opportunity to face again the man who beat his mom, and then beat him for three days chained to a tree with a belt and bible verses; a man who hurt him so deeply he put rat poison in all his bottles before he ran from home. It’s implied elsewhere that Mack may have poisoned him to death (cf. The Shack, pp. 10, 73). So much of Mack’s distrust in God; so much of his pain is tied up with that ugly relationship. But then comes the night Mack is brought to a forest meadow under starlight…and his eyes are opened to see a view into heavenly realities… And there in a circle of fire and light, a festival of friends, luminous heavenly beings, children, adults, and angels…is one who knows him…but whose face is filled with shame and sadness. It is his father. Mack finds himself running now toward him, until he finds himself standing before his father who is now on his knees, head hanging low before his son.

“Daddy!” yelled Mack, and he threw himself onto the man who could not even look at his son. In the howl of wind and flame, Mack took his father’s face in his two hands, forcing his dad to look at him in the face so he could stammer the words he had always wanted to say: “Daddy, I’m so sorry! Daddy, I love you!” The light of his words seemed to blast darkness out of his father’s colors, turning them bloodred. They exchanged sobbing words of confession and forgiveness as a love greater than either one healed them” (The Shack, p. 217, cf. 10, 73).

Friends, we can only pray that many such meetings will take place in heaven for those who die in the Lord…but why wait? Sadly, there will be many such meetings that never take place, because sins are never confessed, forgiveness is never declared, and love is never shared. Why silence the sweet song of reconciliation? Why wait to speak the words of confession and forgiveness. Why delay, when you and I both know that a love greater than either one of us can heal what has been broken?

Father, forgiveness is difficult and painful, for there is a part of me that wants to hold on to my resentment and anger…even if it kills me. Let me begin by asking your forgiveness for my unforgiveness. Let me begin by crying out to the One who said, “Father, forgive them!” from the cross; and let the sound of my Savior’s words drop me to my knees in tearful repentance. Jesus, may your words move me now toward the ones I have kept at a distance, blamed for all my pain, or written off with my indifference and daily annoyance. Help me to see clearly…to own up to the things I have done wrong, including the unwillingness to forgive. Yes Lord, help me to forgive, to take my hands off the throat of the one I am so angry at; to release my anger and to entrust you to be the final judge. Do a miracle of mercy in me such that I may now go to the one with whom I am angry, or to the one I know I have hurt and then -- Holy Spirit, by your power -- to form the words, “I am sorry!” and again, “I forgive you!” Jesus, you built the bridge of reconciliation with the cross on which you died for this world’s sin…help us now to walk across this bridge where both of us may meet with you, and be healed! Amen.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Freedom Beyond the Falls

The sight of a massive waterfall is both beautiful and terrifying, majestic and awe-inspiring at the same time. In The Shack, Mack's encounter with God following the tragic murder of his youngest daughter Missy nears its climax when he is permitted to see his children -- all of his children -- and Jesus playing in the middle of them. As he stands within an open cavern, all that separates him from Missy is a curtain of water falling directly in front of him -- a thin but, for now, an impenetrable veil separating him from eternity. In Pauls letter to the Philippians, the apostle, who is in prison and quite possibly facing execution, is standing where Mack is standing, on this side of the waterfall, on the brink between life and death, and from that unique vantage point he defines life and death in this way: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Mack, in Paul Young’s novel, The Shack, discovers why this is true, and so can we.

Paul’s example teaches us that how we live determines how we view death. We can’t understand Paul’s view of death without first looking at his view of life. On this side of the falls, Paul lived by faith: Writing from prison, Paul resolved that he was not only in chains because of his preaching (Philip. 1:16), but that he was “in chains...for Christ” (Philip. 1:13). Indeed, Paul’s message had spread throughout the Praetorium -- Caesar’s elite soldiers drafted off successively to guard him; literally chained to him. Yes, Paul lived by faith…for he goes on to say “I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance” (Philip. 1:19). Instead of focusing on the chains, he focused on the prayers of the saints and the help, or (more literally) the choreography of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. He lived by faith in the choreopraphy, the steps, leaps and turns of this life that Christ is overseeing; and the heartfelt prayers on his behalf which ascend to God's throne.

On this side of the falls, Paul lived to enlarge Jesus in his own body. His prayer is that Christ would "be exalted (the underlying Greek verb is megaluno, which means to enlarge or magnify) now as always in his body whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain" (Philip. 1:20-21). To enlarge, to magnify Christ in my life…now that’s a worthy goal. Paul’s greatest joy was seeing others fall in love with Jesus…and seeing his influence and impact increase.

On this side of the falls, Paul lived to engage in “fruitful labor” on behalf of others . “If I am to live in the flesh that means fruitful labor for me” says Paul. Therefore, “I am convinced…that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith" (vv. 22-25). The possibility that Paul could die in prison was very real…and yet he faced that possibility knowing that if he should die he would be with Christ; and if released it would mean more fruitful labor for the kingdom. None of us knows what tomorrow holds…but if we are given the grace to live another day…how will we live it? Paul was clear. If I ever get out of here…I’m going right back to serving Christ and others with all the resources God has given me! If you knew that you only had a week to live here on earth how would you spend your wealth? How would you invest your time and resources? Paul knew…and so should we.

Paul’s example teaches us that how we view death determines how we live. On the other side of the falls, Paul knew that he would be with Jesus, that death would be gain. Until he returned to The Shack, Mack thought of death and suffering as ultimate evils, but he’s assured that “This life is only the anteroom of a greater reality to come. No one reaches their potential in your world. It’s only preparation for what Papa had in mind all along” (The Shack, p. 169).

On the other side of the falls, Paul was confident that the investment he made for Christ in this world would have an eternal impact. In the Parable of the Talents Jesus speaks of the servants who are told to invest their master’s wealth while he is away. Upon his master’s return he hears him say to the wise servant, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been trustworthy with a few things; now you shall be put in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:23). Of course Jesus also warns us that we can be foolish, and bury our talents in the ground – that’s the sad situation of the “lazy servant” whom Jesus rebukes. Jesus wants to save us from wasting our gifts in this life; impressing upon us that what we do here is preparation for new responsibilities to come.
On the other side of the falls, Paul knew he would be free. “My desire is to depart and be with Christ" says Paul (employing a Greek word that is also used for un-mooring a ship, or breaking camp). At the same time, he sees the importance of remaining in the body since this means fruitful labor for the kingdom. One of the ways that we honor the veterans of faith who have died…is by carrying on Christ’s ministry -- by worshiping, growing in faith, building a Christ-centered community, reaching out with the gospel, and supporting his work with our gifts and abilities.

The grace to face life and death with hope comes to those who know that Jesus is alive and in the middle of both. The beautiful scene in the cavern comes to a climax when Missy signs the words, “I LOVE YOU” to her father and then makes a big embrace as though she were hugging him. Then a voice calls her…and she turns toward it after giving him a final kiss. “And now Mack could clearly see the voice that had called his Missy. It was Jesus, playing in the middle of his children….The voicing of their joy was a symphony to Mack’s ears, and as he watched, his tears flowed freely.” (The Shack, p. 170).

Mack sees Jesus playing in the middle of his children (both those who are alive on earth, and the one who has passed from this life into the next). Jesus is the link between both worlds…bringing purpose to this life and hope for the future. Friday night, I was not feeling well. I got whatever has been going around, swine flu, bird flu...who knows. It was no fun...but I've been a lot sicker. When I was about seven years old and my grandmother had just died, I got very sick with a high fever. My parents were about to take me to the hospital. Then, something very unusual happened. My mother went into their bedroom and smelled the distinct scent of my grandma’s perfume. Then, five minutes later my fever broke. She told me this story years later; and shared how it was a sign to her of her mother’s love, and God’s. To know that Christ is alive and in the middle of both life and death…brings incredible hope, for we know that He is near…and that if he is near, then those who have died in him cannot be far from us either. They are just beyond the falls…just beyond the veil that separates this world and God’s full world.

Paul said, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” There’s a saying that a Christian can be so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly good. But I think it’s just the opposite as C. S. Lewis observed in Mere Christianity: "If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” Those who have truly known that in Christ…dying means more life abundant and eternal have risked everything to relieve the world's suffering: care for plague victims, defend the rights of children, guide slaves to freedom, breach war zones to feed the poor, make disciples of Jesus, and extend his kingdom on earth.

The lasting memory for me of The Shack is that of Jesus playing in the middle of Mack’s children…and Missy among them. For when Jesus is in the middle of this life, we know that we are loved and so are all those who have died in him. When Jesus is in the middle we understand that our purpose is to bring Jesus into the middle of every arena of life; and to pass on the message that he shared with the wordless sign of the cross: “I love you.” And so we pray...

Lord Jesus Christ, I long for you to be in the middle of my sorrows, in the middle of my triumphs, in the middle of my family, in the middle of my finances, in the middle of my workplace, my neighborhood, my team, my school -- but most of all, I want you to be in the middle of my life – not just today or tomorrow, but forever. For I know that if you are there, I have nothing to fear or dread. I know that I’ve said and done much that is ugly; that I’m a sinner that needs your forgiveness. So by faith, I ask for and receive the miracle of your healing touch; with humble gratitude for the example of your matchless life, for dying in my place on the cross, and for the power of the Spirit to turn from wrong toward all that is good. Lord, I ask you to take control of my life as I trust in you alone to save and redeem me. Please bring your death-conquering power, your compassionate love, and joy-filled presence right into the heart of my body and soul that I may serve you boldly, faithfully, and eternally. Amen!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Woman Jesus is in Love With

In this spiritually hungry age, interest in the person of Jesus is unmistakable and enduring; at the same time, the popular image of the church that bears his name is less than flattering. I heard one writer sum up the church as “hard pews, unsingable tunes, enforced silence and excruciating boredom.” In Paul Young’s novel, The Shack, Mack is a man whose view of the church is skewed by the memory of his alcoholic father who would beat his mother and then take after him with a belt and Bible verses. At the same time, he has felt a measure of strength from his wife Nan and her faith in the goodness of "Papa," as they have endured the tragedy of their daughter's murder. In the novel, Jesus explains to Mack that the church is much more than a cold institution…she is his Bride, the woman he is in love with.

In a conversation with Jesus, Mack has this to say: “You talk about the church as this woman you’re in love with. I’m pretty sure I haven’t met her….She’s not the place I go on Sundays,” Jesus replies gently: "Mack, that’s because you’re seeing only the institution, a man-made system. That’s not what I came to build. What I see are people and their lives, a living, breathing community of all those who love me, not buildings and programs….” I want to look at two aspects of the church today: the church as institution; and the church as Christ's 'beloved'. Let me begin by saying that Scripture agrees that the church Jesus loves is more than an institution. But before I go any further with that point, I want to acknowledge that the church is an institution; and it would be hard to argue from Scripture that God is against institutions or organization, per se!

Think about it! The universe is fantastically organized from the subatomic world…to the motion of the planets and stars. And if I could sit down with Mack, I might remind him that ancient Israel’s worship was carefully organized and instituted by God. There is a wonderful passage at the end of the Book of Exodus, after Moses and the people have carefully constructed the tabernacle, organized the Aaronic priesthood, and assembled the people to pray, that “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40: 34). In the New Testament Paul reminds us that when it comes to worship “God is not a God of disorder but of peace…and that all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14: 33, 40). If one takes a look at the descripton of the early church in Acts 2: 43-47 you will find the major priorities that drive the church's structure to this day -- things like worship, disicpleship, building community, Spirit-empowered ministry and mission. So, God's gathered people have always gathered in an organized fashion...but it is far more than an organization or an institution - more than services, clergy, denominations or buildings....

The church is more than services. We often talk about “going to church” on Sunday, when we really ought to say, “I’m going to worship.” Although it can certainly help, sitting down in a worship service does not necessarily make one a follower of Christ…especially if we spend it counting bricks, or the minutes before it’s over.
The church is more than clergy. Many associate “church” with clergy. It’s humbling to think that Jesus reserved his strongest criticism for religious professionals. The word “clergy” has come to mean, “the people who do the ministry” and the congregation? Well, they're “the people who pay for it.” In truth, pastors/teachers only one part of the church…and their job is to equip the church for its ministry (Eph. 4: 11-12).
The church is more than denominations. Many associate “the church” with groups of churches – from Roman Catholic, to Orthodox, to Reformed churches like our own…to “Non-Denominational” churches that look increasingly “denominational.” In John 17: 21, Jesus prays that we might be truly one which means one in him -- not one organizationally. I know several catholic priests, and count among my friends and colleagues several so called "non-denominational" pastors. My own brother is an independent church pastor and my cousin is a Russian Orthodox priest in San Francisco! We come from different “denominations” but we serve the same Lord.
The church is more than buildings. For so many the church has come to mean bricks and mortar. While walking through Herod’s Temple, Jesus reminded his disciples that “something greater than the temple is here.” He was speaking of God's very person made visible in him. Buildings facilitate ministry, but buildings are not the church. The word “church” (Scottish “kirk”) is derived from the Greek word kyriakon, which means, “belonging to the Lord.” We don’t drive or walk to church, we are the church, because we belong to the Lord.

Thus far we’ve seen that the church Jesus loves is an institution, but that it is more. God’s people are described in a variety of ways in the Bible (e.g., a temple, an army, a family, a body) but the most beautiful image likens the intimate union between God and his people to that of a Groom and his Bride. Here are 3 marks of the Bride that Jesus is in love with: beauty, faithfulness, and love.

The church Jesus loves is reflecting, more and more, the beauty of God’s holiness. Paul writes: “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word” (Eph. 5: 25-27). One of the things that people should see when they observe God’s people is what Psalm 29:2 (KJV) calls “the beauty of holiness.” When Moses returned from meeting the LORD on Sinai, the people noticed that his face shined with the glory of God, the holiness of God. When people see you and me, they should see something of the beauty of God’s holiness on our faces. Now, don’t confuse the beauty of holiness with the ugliness of holier-than-thou religiosity. The face that reflects the beauty of his holiness is a face that knows it has been washed clean, as Paul says, by the water of the Word. It is a face filled with gratitude to Jesus for what he has done by his grace and power.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was drawn to God by the beauty of the holiness of Jesus. Born a slave in New York, she emancipated in 1827, and traveled America as a powerful preacher for Christ against slavery. In her autobiography she wrote than when she first drew near to God a sense of her own sinfulness kept her at a distance; feeling that she needed someone to stand between her and God and plead on her behalf. Suddenly, she says that she saw ‘a friend’ standing between her and God. “Who are you?” the woman asked. In her words, “The figure brightened into a form distinct, beaming with the beauty of holiness, and radiant with love.” She strained to see who it was…and the answer came. “It is Jesus.” At that moment, God was no longer an avenging judge to her…but in Jesus became “altogether lovely.” Her life went on to become a powerful and radiant reflection of the beauty of his holiness (Gerald R., McDermott, Seeing God, p.110).

Second, the church Jesus loves encourages faithfulness to his message and ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit. In 2 Cor. 11: 2-4, Paul says, “I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband….But I am afraid that…your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted you submit to it readily enough.”

The church that Jesus loves is faithful to him…like a bride is faithful to her husband; not running around with another Jesus (“another god who claims to save: or seeks our allegiance), a different spirit (for it is his Spirit of grace, love, and truth that we want to emulate) or a different gospel (for there are many messages and books, but for us there is only one Messenger, and one Holy Book). When we call one another to faith in Jesus over against "another Jesus...spirit...or gospel" we must not confuse this with Jesus' attitude toward "another culture, a different people, or a different nation." One of the biggest fears that people have about following Jesus is that they we will have to walk away from their unique culture and background. Remember that Paul ministered as a Jew to Greek speaking Gentiles. His whole ministry was based on the premise that Jesus’ message transcends (it does not obliterate) culture and tradition: For “There is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free…male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28).

The followers of Christ are from every culture on earth. One can just as easily be an American as a Korean, a Russian as a Filipino, an Israeli as an Iranian, an Austrian as an Indian and follow Christ, for his faithful followers come from every continent and nearly every people group on earth. As Jesus says in The Shack, “I will travel any road to find you,” which he has done and continues to do. Every year, the Church of Scotland celebrates what they call the “The kirkin’ of the tartans.” All the various Scottish clans (represented by their tartan/plait) enter the kirk and lay their tartens on the communion table in a symbolic act of their “belonging” to Christ; their new identity, and their allegiance to him above all others.

Finally, the church Jesus loves shows a deep love for God and for one another. David Watson asks this question: “What does a bridegroom look for most of all in his bride? Beauty and faithfulness are important, but above all he looks for love.” In the message to the church at Ephesus, the risen Christ commends the church for its hard work, its patient endurance and doctrinal purity, “But, I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first (Revelation 2: 1-7). To be faithful to Christ without loving Christ is like a husband who never cheats on his wife, but never invests in his marriage either. Jesus said that it is love, above all, that will be the mark of those who follow him: not orderly worship, not sound doctrine, not impressive buildings, not well-trained clergy, not denominational labels, but love for him, and love for one another… love that is more than words, love that gives itself away as Christ gave himself up for us.

I want to end by saying that perhaps you heaven’t seen the church reflect the beauty of holiness, or faithfulness to Jesus’ message, or love for God and other people. If God’s people have let you down let me say that we’ve all been there! We can testify that Jesus shines infinitely brighter than any of us who take the name of "Christian". After all, we are the bruised and broken sinners for whom he gave his life…and because of him we can also say that we’re now part of the living, breathing community of all those who love him and who would love you to join his forever family.

Monday, October 26, 2009

You Be the Judge

We’ve all seen it: an umpire makes a controversial call. The managers come out on the field; there’s a lot of yelling and screaming; but in the end, nothing changes. Why? Because the umpire has the best view, and the authority to make the call. Not once have I ever seen an umpire's decision overturned after one of these tirades, have you? Yet, there comes a time when each of us is absolutely certain that we could be better umpires than God; that we could make better judgment calls if given the opportunity. In The Shack, Paul Young’s character, Mack, gets that opportunity. In the end he is certain about one thing: “I don’t want to be the judge!” Here are 4 biblical reasons why:

To let God be Judge is to be freed from the need to make final judgments about ourselves or anyone else. To let God be the judge means freedom! For though we all have to make judgment calls requiring wisdom and discernment -- Christ comes to take the matter of making final judgments out of our hands altogether — a role we’re totally unqualified for anyway. That's because when we’re in the judgment seat (to paraphrase Karl Barth) it usually leads to one place -- the place where we find ourselves innocent and everyone else guilty.

There’s a scene on an old Seinfeld episode where George Costanza (Jason Alexander) is attending a child’s birthday party at the request of his girlfriend, Robin. Her mother compliments him: "You seem like such a lovely young man." “Well, I do what I can,” George sheepishly replies. The next minute, George smells smoke in the kitchen and yells “Fire!” Then, he proceeds to run out of the kitchen in a panic, knocking over the clown, an old lady with a walker, and a couple of kids. "Get out of my way!" he yells, as he opens the front door of the apartment and runs away.

In the very next scene, George is outside getting oxygen from a group of paramedics. "It was an inferno in there!" he tells them. Suddenly the clown runs over to George: "There he is! That's him!" Several angry children and Robin's mother gather round. "That's the coward that left us to die!" they cry. The clown tries to hit George with an oversized shoe. "I saw you push the women and children out of the way in a mad panic….and when you ran out, you left everyone behind."
"Seemingly," George refutes. "To the untrained eye, I can fully understand how you got that impression. What looked like pushy, what looked like knocking down, was a safety precaution. In a fire, you stay close to the ground. Am I right? And when I ran out that door, I was not leaving anyone behind. I risked my life making sure that exit was clear. Any other questions?" The fireman offers just one more: "How do you live with yourself?" "It's not easy," George replies.
Now George certainly ain't "all bad" - but even he seems to know that he's not the "lovely" young man Robin's mother first oogled over! Paul was right: We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God! (Roman 3:23). It's easy to make quick judgments, poor judgments , and to jump to conclusions. Paul gave some wise advice to the Corinthian church when he said: "Don’t get ahead of the Master and jump to conclusions with your judgments before all the evidence is in. When he comes, he will bring out in the open and place in evidence all kinds of things we never even dreamed of – inner motives and purposes and prayers” (1 Corinthians 4: 5/ The Message).
Not only do we make hasty judgments when it comes to our own guilt or innocence, or that of others, but we do it with God too – despite the fact that we see only a tiny portion of the big story of which we are a part. It’s really about doubting that God’s intentions…and God’s judgments are good. “The real underlying flaw in your life, Mackenzie, is that you don’t think I am good. If you knew I was good….then while you might not always understand what I am doing, you would trust me. But you don’t” (The Shack, p. 128). Listen to Deuteronomy 32: 3-4: “Ascribe greatness to our God the Rock! His work is perfect and all his ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice. Good and upright is he! God is not just the final judge, he’s the best Judge; which means His judgment will be infinitely more just than any I could make about me or anyone else.

Secondly, to let God be Judge is to be judged by the One who was willingly judged in our place. To let God be Judge means the Judge has taken our judgment! The wonder of Jesus’ death on the cross is that the Judge of the universe stepped down from his chair as Judge, and took our place, the place of the condemned. Why? So that we might stand in the place of the forgiven! Paul says, “God made him to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5: 21) or in another version: “God put the wrong on him who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God.” Now some may object: How does Jesus’ death on the cross prevent the suffering we see in our world? What can it really do to prevent the horrors of WWI, or Auschwitz, or Hiroshima, or September 11th from happening again? I love the final line of My Father’s World: “This is my Father’s world, the battle is not done, Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heaven be one.” Jesus did not come only to die for our sins, he did -- but he also came to confront the powers of evil, to show us how to set the captives free, and to work and pray for his coming kingdom “until earth & heaven be one.”

Did you notice that by the end of The Shack, Papa has helped Mack to identify the evidence that leads to the discovery of Missy’s body, and the conviction of her killer. God cares about Missy. God cares about the young girls being sold into forced prostitution in Cambodia. God cares about righting the wrongs that are a direct result of human pride and sinful disobedience. God cares about justice. N. T. Wright reminds us that we live between the cross and the crown, between Jesus’ victory on the cross…and the glorious new heaven and earth. Therefore, what Jesus did for us through his suffering love is not just a victory to celebrate – it’s an achievement to put into practice and to live out in the power of the Holy Spirit (see N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, ch. 3). This leads me to a third important point....

To let God be Judge is to trust that he is not simply justifying unspeakable tragedy, but redeeming it. Remember the words of Joseph in Genesis 50:20 (The Message): "You planned evil against me but God used those same plans for good" (cf. Romans 8:28). Just because God permits evil does not mean he intends it or even needs it to accomplish his purpose. Let me say it again, God permits evil. He does not intend it. He permits it because it is his will to have sons and daughters, not slaves; children who love him freely not by force; and that means freedom to love him or to hate him, even to crucify him.
“I am not evil,” Papa says to Mack. “You are the ones who embrace fear and pain and power and rights so readily in your relationships. Your choices are also not stronger than my purposes, and I will use every choice you make for the ultimate good and most loving outcome” (The Shack, p. 127).

But what about the evil no one seems to deliberately choose – a natural disaster or a plane accident? Does God redeem these tragedies too? The short answer is that we must trust he does. But it still helps to have a good example.... A member of my congregation recently shared with me an article in the Wall Street Journal about the crash that took place on the Hudson River after a small plane collided with a helicopter piloted by Jerermy Clarke on August 9th. What made this accident especially painful was the fact that the entire nation had been celebrating “the miracle on the Hudson” when Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger safely landed a US Airways plane on that same river in January of this year, saving all 155 souls on board. Father Jonathan Morris, a Catholic priest who witnessed the crash and ministered to the victim’s families had this to say: “The miracle I have witnessed since last Saturday's crash is certainly less joyous than the first Miracle on the Hudson ….but not for that reason is it less miraculous. For in the families of the deceased…I have witnessed inexplicable goodness and love.”

The fiance of the pilot who had just recommitted his life to Christ said this: "Please get the message to the families of the Italian tourists who were on Jeremy's helicopter how much we grieve for them. How sorry we are. And please, please, tell the family of the pilot and passengers of the small plane, that no matter the outcome of the investigation, we hold no hard feelings. We are suffering with them too." And what words were on the lips of the grieving families of the 8 Italian tourists who were killed in the accident, “whose vacation to New York had warped into a nightmare, ending with a view of Madison Avenue blocked off by five hearses carrying their loved ones back to the airport ….”? "Incredibile, incredibile," they repeated, in Italian…. “Thank God it happened here and not somewhere else….You, people of New York, this country of America, are the most wonderful people I have ever met. The way you have treated us. The way you have treated our relatives. I have never known people like you. You have been so, so very good to us. Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Father Morris reflects: “Capt. Clarke's loved ones—and all the families, for that matter—are cooperating in a miracle. In my opinion, they are giving evidence to the Judeo-Christian belief about how God responds to human-kind's suffering. We believe that God's response to our pain is a promise that he will bring forth a greater good out of every instance of evil and suffering in this world, if we let him. These families are bringing into the world and into our lives love and blessings that would never have been there had this tragedy not occured." That's not justification of suffering, that's the redemption of it. [For the complete story go to: ]

Finally, Scripture affirms that to let God be Judge is to be judged worthy of love and the opportunity to accept it. There’s a powerful moment in The Shack, when Mack is given the opportunity to sit on God’s judgment seat and make a truly God-sized decision. He is told he must decide which of his four children will be condemned to hell and separated from God! Mack despairs at having to make such a decision, which is the whole point. He falls at the feet of Sophia, a personification of God’s Wisdom, asking for mercy. “I don’t want to be the judge” Mack cries out, “Could I go instead? If you need someone to torture for eternity, I’ll go in their place. Would that work? Could I do that? Please, let me go for my children. Please, I would be happy to….Please, I am begging you. Please…Please…” Wisdom replies, “Now you sound like Jesus. You have judged well, Mackenzie. I am so proud of you….You have judged them worthy of love, even if it costs you everything. That is how Jesus loves” (The Shack, pp. 164-165). The judgment of God is ultimately the judgment that we are worthy of love, (Not because we have earned the right to be found worthy, but simply because we are his children) for Jesus says “it is not the will of your Father that even one of these little ones should be lost” (Matt. 18: 14). Yet God’s love is not something that will be forced upon us. He gives us the freedom to accept or reject it. For “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1: 12). Or as Papa says: Reconciliation is a two way street, and I have done my part, totally, completely, finally. It is not the nature of love to force a relationship, but it is the nature of love to open the way’” (The Shack, p. 194). In the words of 2 Corinthians 5: 20: “We’re speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God, he’s already a friend with you.”
To sum up, letting God be Judge means trusting that he has the best view and the authority to make the best calls. As Judge he frees us from the need to make final judgments about ourselves or others; as Judge he is the One who was willingly judged in our place; as Judge he does not justify unspeakable tragedy, but redeems it; and (most important of all) as Judge he has judged you worthy of his love and given you the opportunity to accept or reject it: and that’s a judgment call that only you can make.