Thursday, April 16, 2009

And the Last Shall Be First

There has been a lot of speculation as to the reason Susan Boyle's solo performance on the TV show, Britain's Got Talent, has so stunned and inspired audiences around the world. The 47 year old Scottish woman who walked on stage was quite ordinary in appearance. Confessing to the show's producers that she was still a virgin (something you evidently have to apologize for these days) she said, "Never been kissed. Shame! But it's not an advert!" The audience groaned as she stated her age, expecting to see just another wanna-be character with no discernible talent. Amanda Holden said in an interview "When she came onto stage the audience immediately starting booing and hissing her, based purely on her appearance. She looked a little odd [and] was a bit nervous and searching for her words" (Los Angeles Times, April 17, 2009). Everyone was laughing at her....until she began to sing. "As her earthy, pleasing voice took command and soared over the auditorium, the crowd could be heard letting out a collective gasp, then starting to cheer raucously." The mouths of the judges dropped open in stunned surprise. Now, 13 million YouTube hits later, with Hollywood agents and talk-shows eager to get face time, she is an over-night phenomenon.

What drives this fascination with Susan Boyle? She is an underdog, to be sure; and her story of come-from-behind success may resonate in particular with American audiences. No doubt her performance also reveals our shallowness as a culture, in which we judge so many books these days by the cover, and not by the content. All of these things are true...but I would submit that there is a deeper more fundamental reason that we are enthralled with Susan Boyle: it's because we know her story reveals a deep spiritual truth about the Kingdom of God (whether we believe in that Kingdom or not).

Scripture abounds with stories in which God chooses those who could have been voted, "Most Unlikely to Succeed". Sarah was barren, when God promised her that she would give birth to a child in her old age. Moses is chosen to lead his people out of Egypt despite his protests: "I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue....O my LORD, please send someone else" (Exodus 4: 10-13). David is called by God not because of his outward appearance, but for other more important reasons: "The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16: 7). In similar fashion, Isaiah describes the Servant who would bear the sins of the world though despised and forsaken: "He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him" (Isaiah 53: 2).

Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah, was a common carpenter. He knew what it was to live an ordinary life, and what it was to be an outcast. He came not to be served but to serve. He suffered not because of any evil he had done but because of our sin. He was beaten and executed like a common criminal. Throughout his ministry he ate with tax gatherers and “sinners,” embraced and healed the outcasts; got annoyed at the hypocrisy of the religious professionals, and generally spent time with people on the lower rungs of society...and that included women. One of the most profound facts surrounding the accounts of Jesus' resurrection is the eyewitness testimony of the women (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary). The gospel writers agree that they were the first to see Jesus, the first to speak with Jesus, and the first to share the stunning news that he was alive again (see Matthew 28: 1, 9; cf. Mark 16:1ff., Luke 24:1ff., John 20:1ff.).

For a first century man, the eyewitness testimony of these two women to Jesus' resurrection would have been far more unbelievable than Susan Boyle's success on Britain's Got Talent! Yet, the Gospel writers unanimously include it -- not because it made their story sound more plausible to first century ears -- but because that's the way it actually happened. Indeed, it's the way Jesus wanted it to happen; accurately reflecting everything we know of Jesus’ ministry.

Jesus' parables of the kingdom underscore his habit of turning the tables on traditional sensibilities about who is 'up and in' and who is 'down and out'. "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven...Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth" (Matt. 5: 3, 5). "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18: 3). Again, "Who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves" (Luke 22: 27). "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted" (Luke 17: 14); therefore, says Jesus, "Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first" (Matt. 19: 30).

On Britain's Got Talent, Susan Boyle sang, "I Dreamed a Dream" -- a heart-felt song about broken dreams from Les Miserables. Here are a few lines:
I dreamed a dream in times gone by
When hope was high and life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving.

In the musical these lines are sung by a destitute woman named Fantine who feels that all hope is lost, that love has died and life is not worth living. Later in the story, however, she does experience compassion and loving kindness through the main character, Jean Valjean who himself was shown mercy when he was caught stealing from a bishop years earlier. “Don't forget" the bishop says to him, "don't ever forget you've promised to become a new man. You no longer belong to evil. With this silver I’ve bought your soul and I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred and now I give you back to God.” Jean Valjean didn't forget...he was shown mercy, and he became a merciful man by God's grace.

Susan Boyle is the unlikely success story of an ordinary woman, a dreamer whose dreams have come true! She seemed to us to be the last in line...when suddenly, to our stunned surprise, she was put first. Her story is an underdog story, it's a come from behind story, but most of all it's our Lord's story. For through the pages of Scripture and, above all, through our Crucified and Risen Lord we've learned that hope is alive, that life is worth living; that love is real, and that God is forgiving.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

In My Father's House

Speaking of his Passion, Jesus assures his disciples with these now familiar words,
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also" (John 14: 1-3).

It is natural for us to wonder deeply about our future beyond this world. Some would say that there is no future, that the second law of thermodynamics reigns supreme, and death has the last word. Yet it is the consistant witness of Scripture, and indeed the very foundation of the Christian hope, that Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again from the dead...and that we who have lived and died trusting in him shall also share in his eternal life. To envision that life beyond this life requires imagination...since none of us have actually been there. Jesus, however, does give us some clues...and they seem to match up with John's figurative and visionary language in Revelation 21.

It is there that John describes what he calls “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:1-2). Notice the destination and direction of the heavenly city. John does not describe God’s people going up, but God’s Holy City (the dwelling place of God and his people), coming down from heaven to earth; for now “the home of God is among men” (3). The direction is down! God came down to speak with Moses in the burning bush. God came down when the Son of God was born in Bethlehem’s stable. God came down when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon his people. And God will come down again…this time to permanently dwell among us.

Why is this significant? Well, it tells us that heaven is not a permanent vacation from life here on earth. The crew of the space shuttle Discovery just returned to earth after a month in orbit on the International Space Station. That’s a long time in the sky, and a long way from home; but it was not a permanent assignment. Eventually, they came down. They always do! Jesus tells us that we will be with him in his Father's house...and to the thief on the cross he says, "Today, you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). In other words, we will experience a spiritual life with Christ after death... and it will be glorious. But our final destination is not a disembodied existence...but a new resurrection bodily existence not unlike our Lord's risen life (see John 11: 25; 1 Corinthians 15: 35-58). Just as astronauts routinely visit the International Space Station...and then return to earth...so John speaks of the City of God, his people, coming down out of heaven.

There is a future for this earth and for this cosmos (cf. Isaiah 65: 17-25, Rev. 21:1-2) and that future includes you and me. Just as Christ was raised from death, so the whole creation will be given new life, and all who welcome his appearing. The familiar hymn has it right: "This is my Father's world: the battle is not done; Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heaven be one

The International Space Station is an impressive structure...a massive laboratory in the sky which is growing with each new module...but it's a shack when compared to the Father's house. Consider the measurements of the Holy City in Rev. 21: 16b as described by the angel in John's vision. "The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles" (literally -- 12,000 stadia): a city with walls 1500 miles long and 1500 miles high! That's the distance from LA to Kansas City; or from New York to London. The ISS orbits at 250 miles above the earth; but the walls of the City of God are six times higher than that! Admittedly, these are dimensions beyond human comprehension...but the message is clear: our Father's house is big...very big, and he has plenty of room for each one of us.

I've made several references to the International Space Station...but there is one more important way that this home in the sky may help us envision the life beyond this life according to God's word: it will be a gathering place of many nations in which old feuds and antagonisms are supplanted by love and the experience of profound reconciliation in Christ. In Rev. 21, John mentions that "on the gates [of the City of God] are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelities.... and the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb" (Rev. 21: 12, 14). At the close of the chapter, John adds that "the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it" (Rev. 21: 24). If the International Space Station serves as a meeting place of many nations 250 miles above our heads, how much more will the City of God be a reuniting city in which the old divisions and hostilities that exist among nations, peoples, and even in the church will be gone! It is therefore our responsibility to live into this future reality today, and to recommit ourselves to the work of reconciliation in Christ. Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, male and female -- the good news, Paul says, is that "we are all one in Christ Jesus" (see Gal. 3:28).

Father, we pray that we might have a life rich in joy and power, with a constant clear vision of never-ending life before us...a world without tears, a world without death, a world without pain, a world without hatred or division, a world without end...in the name of our Crucified and Risen Lord. Amen!