Wednesday, December 29, 2010

When Wise Men Behaved Like Children

The oldest continuously worshiping church in the world is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church is built above a cave that many believe to be the birthplace of Christ. Now the beautiful thing about this church is that in order to enter through the Church of the Nativity one must pass through a very low gate.  You cannot enter without bending low; and then again when one approaches the cave itself, only those who stoop low, only those who make themselves small, like a child, may enter. Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18: 3). In Matthew 2: 1-12, we learn about the wise men who behaved like children in order to find the Christ Child; and in so doing show us how to find him too…

Like curious children, these wise men said, “Why?”  “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem...” following a star (Matt. 2: 1). Nothing is more childlike then curiosity, then the willingness to go on an adventure of discovery. The first question these wise men asked is not directly stated in this passage…but it is definitely implied. The first question these wise men asked was “Why?” as in “Why did that strange star appear in the east?” It is a sad day indeed when we stop learning, when we stop seeking, when we stop asking questions. May God save us from a jaded indifference that assumes we’ve already seen it all, done it all, and know it all.

Now these wise men or “magi” from Persia studied the motion of the stars, and so when they saw the star (literally, the astral phenomenon) they asked themselves, “Why?” Why has this light appeared in the sky? I asked my girls what they were most curious about when it came to the story of the wise men…and they said, “The star.” I am confident that these wise men saw an extremely bright object in the sky which clearly communicated to them that someone very special was to be born in the land of the Jewish people; and that this “star” led them to Bethlehem. But what was this "astral phenomenon" exactly?

Just over 2000 years ago there was a rare conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn three times in a portion of the sky known as “the Fishes”. Jupiter signified the birth of a world ruler. Saturn was the star of the Jews/Palestine; and the fish constellation signified “The Last Days.” They interpreted this alignment of stars to mean that a great Ruler who was to usher in a new age was to be born in Palestine the following year. We don’t “think” that people interpreted “the star” in this way, we “know” they did… from ancient Babylonian calendar tablets that speak about this event the year before. The wise men saw something in the sky that pointed to an event of great significance… and so they followed the star and its message to Jerusalem. For an excellent survey of opinions on the star phenomenon, see The Magi & the Star by Michael J. Miller.

As I said, the first question these wise men asked was, “Why?” They were wise because they asked questions; they were wise because they knew they didn’t know it all. They were wise because they were not afraid to act like curious children. On Christmas Eve, one of our middle school boys had a simple line in a Christmas play loosely based on the story of The Little Drummer Boy.  Playing the part of the Bethlehem star, he kept repeating confidently, “I’m a star!" But the big moment came when he declared to the wise men, "I'm a star…but the real star is in there!” (pointing to the manger).  The wise men knew who the real star was…and their curiosity brought them to where he was.  May God give us the curiosity of a child. May he give us the courage to ask the most important questions of life: Why am I here? Why did God bring me into this world? What is God’s will and how can I be part of it?

Like trusting children, these wise men, asked “Where?”  “‘Where is this child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened… and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet…” (Matt. 2: 2-5).  Notice that these wise men believed so strongly that they were being led to this Child that they boldly walked into Jerusalem and asked Herod, ‘Where is he?’ In other words, they had faith that he would be there!

Last Sunday, the day after Christmas, I took a quick survey of our families during the worship service. "Who was first to get up Christmas morning?" I asked the children. "Was it you, or was it your mom or dad?"  I was wagering that mom and dad did not have to set their alarm clocks on Christmas morning; and the quick survey proved my theory.  These kids were the first out of bed...up at dawn…knocking on the door...tugging at their parents' arms...begging them to get up -- even if (like me) you went to bed at 1:00 in the morning after leading a late night Candle Light Service.  There was no mercy!  And why do children do this? Because of those presents under the tree. They knew…they believed…they trusted that what was in those beautifully wrapped presents was something wonderful, something special, something good; and that trust was confirmed.  Which is what happened when these wise men with childlike trust inquired of King Herod where the Messiah was to be born. Their faith was confirmed.... confirmed by the words of the scribes and Pharisees from God’s word, confirmed by the promise of God that the Messiah was coming: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times" (Micah 5: 2).

Like amazed children, these wise men said, “Wow!”  “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matt. 2: 11-12). The word that describes the attitude of these wise men when they come to Bethlehem is wonder (or “Wow!” for short). They were “overwhelmed with joy” at the sight of the star which with the aid of God’s word led them to Bethlehem… and then even more amazed when they saw the One they had come to greet…the Christ Child before whom they “knelt down to pay homage.”

Children teach adults how to say, “Wow!” When a child is born, there is an adult who is saying, “Wow!” When a toddler first begins to walk, there is an adult who is saying,  “Wow!” When a baby says her first words, someone is saying, “Wow!”  I read about several children that made me say “Wow!” recently.  In April of this year, 16 year old Alex Griffith, who was adopted as a baby from a Krasnoyarsk Russia hospital by a Maryland couple, raised over $60,000 to design and build a playground for the orphans back home. Alex has cerebral palsy. In August, 9 year old Logan Hearn saved the life of his 2 year old brother when he saw him floating face down in the family pool thanks to a CPR class he took and his willingness to correct his distraught parents who were doing it incorrectly. In March, a 12 year-old girl saved the lives of hundreds of island inhabitants off the coast of Chile, when she sounded the village alarm following the massive 8.8 earthquake warning them of the giant tsunami wave that soon followed....

Children teach us to say, “Wow!” And no Child has wowed us more than the One born in Bethlehem’s stable…. We wonder at the humility of our Lord who chose to be born not in a palace, but in poverty, in a cave most likely, where he lay in the crook of a woman's arms. The same amazement that we feel even today in his presence…was felt by the wise men also as they knelt down to worship, open their treasure chests, and then return by another road.  First, they knelt down and worshiped, they gave honor to the King of kings. Next, they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts (and the best gift of all, was the gift of their love and their loyalty). Then, warned by an angel, they returned by another road. Now that’s a phrase we can easily pass over. But it’s an important one. King Herod wanted these wise men to return to Jerusalem and inform him where the Christ Child was…not so that he could worship him, but so that he could destroy him. But they were so amazed at the Christ Child that they chose to obey the heavenly vision instead of King Herod.

As a boy, one of my favorite memories was our summer vacations at my grandparents’ farm house in Belen, New Mexico, where my dad and his sister grew up. We looked forward to seeing our grandma and grandpa, and to playing with our cousins. Now beside their house were some huge cottonwood trees that the four cousins would play beneath for hours… swinging on the tire swing, building forts and lighting a few stolen matches; going fishing with grandpa, and hunting arrowheads with grandma. We didn’t care about the heat of August or the mosquitos…. they were some of the happiest days of our childhood.  About four years ago, we had a wonderful family reunion in the Sacramento mountains of New Mexico…and after it was over we drove up to Belen; to the land on which my grandparents’ house was built. Grandma and Grandpa are in heaven now, and the house is no longer standing, but the huge cottonwood trees are still there, just as strong and beautiful as ever. So I decided to take some fallen wood from that tree and with it I fashioned a two foot cross, which hangs in my office. That cross reminds me of my childhood…and the Great Family Reunion that is coming for all who trust in the Savior. It reminds me of the little town of Belen, which is Spanish for Bethlehem. And it reminds me of Jesus who said, “Let the little children come to me for to such belongs the Kingdom of God.” Christmas is past…but the same Jesus who was born in the little town of Bethlehem invites you to come to him today as the wise men did two thousand years ago…with the curiosity, the simple trust, and the wide-eyed amazement of children as we receive Gods’ greatest gift…who is Christ himself.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Christmas Price Tag

After 85 degree heat last Sunday, we’re finally getting some winter weather here in Southern California…continuous rain through Thursday… But that’s nothing compared to Paris which had the heaviest snow fall in 25 years this past week, forcing 8,000 people to spend the night in the airport and nearby company offices , and shopping malls. And don’t forget Great Britain. They’re having the heaviest snowfall in 50 years, with minus 9 degree temperatures and possible 18 foot snow drifts, closing more than 1000 schools. Winter makes us appreciate the gift of light and heat so much more, doesn’t it? It’s the shorter days and the longer nights that make the holiday lights, candles, torches, heaters, and fireplaces such a welcome part of any home…

There are few people on earth who have not felt cold and dreary, or who have not experienced days when it seemed like it would be "always winter and never Christmas" (to borrow a phrase from The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe); days that seemed frozen in darkness. But I’m here to proclaim to you the good news that the blazing Light of Christmas has come. For as the shepherds gathered around a warm fire, “keeping watch over their flock by night,” an angel of the Lord stood before them “and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, 'Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy for all the people!'” news that the light of the world has come, news that the long winter was over and that the gift of Christmas, the Light of the World, has arrived: "for to you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). In the Greek text, three simple words follow one after another in this verse: For you (humin)…today (sameron)…a Savior (soter)!  I'd like to focus on each of these in turn, because they remind us that Christmas has both a gift tag and a price tag.

The gift of Christmas is given for you.  I remember how exciting it was to awake on Christmas morning to a tree surrounded by gifts…and see on the gift tag the miraculous words, “To Steve.”  I love the personal nature of the angels words: “There is born for you (humin can be trans. either “to you” or “for you” )…a Savior.”

The angels do not make their announcement in some vague, impersonal way. This was no automated email confirmation; no computerized mass mailing telling me that I’ve won some bogus prize…if I subscribe to three magazines. No, this was a personal invite to the most important event in history: “There is born for you…a Savior” and it was said to shepherds keeping watch over their sheep. Remember that shepherds were regarded by many as no better than robbers. Yet, these ordinary shepherds, who made their living not in golden palaces but out in the fields, were the first to be told about the birth of the King of kings. The promise of Christmas is for you too, the angels seemed to say.

Sometimes we say to ourselves, “No, it can’t be for me…. We assume that God’s gift is for holy people, not messy people …people who have failed and faltered …people with doubts and dusty dark closets. Surely the good stuff is reserved for messless people, not messy people like me.” Now listen carefully to the angel's words: "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people" (Luke 2: 10). The angel did not say that the gift of Christmas was good news for some people or for the right people or for a select people, but for all people…and that means that God’s gift is for you….” 

The gift of Christmas is given for you…and it is given, today As Jack Hayford used to say, "Not yesterday which would mean you’ve already missed it. Not tomorrow, which means you still have to wait for it. The promise is for today."  I’m thinking of Ebenezer Scrooge in Dicken's classic fable who awakens from his visitation by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future; now a reformed man and desperate to right the wrongs he has done to Bob Cratchit and so many others. Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head….

“What’s to-day?” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.
“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.
“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.
“To-day?” replied the boy. “Why, Christmas Day.”
“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. “I haven’t missed it!”

Friends, the promise of Christmas is for today…and you haven’t missed it!  When the angels’ announce Jesus’ birth, the shepherds say to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing (literally, "this word" / rhema) that has taken place" (Luke 2: 15). God’s word is an event that comes alive today in Christ…as when Jesus said after reading the prophet Isaiah, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). The assurance of God’s love and healing power is meant to be ours today: For “Jesus said to [Zaccheus], ‘Today salvation has come to this house’….” (Luke 19:9) and the Bible says, “Now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).  Do you recall Jesus’ words to the thief who was crucified beside him? “Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Today…today…today!

But notice how the shepherds respond to the angels’ announcement. They say to one another, “Let us go now  to Bethlehem and see….” (15). That says to me that if the promise of Christmas is for today… I must respond asap, without delay. Human beings spend a lot of time dreaming about and worrying about the future or regretting and longing for the past. In the meantime, we forget to live in the grace of this present moment with God (like the shepherds) and experience all that he has for us today. God means for you to receive and to share with others today… the truths of his Word… the gift of His healing … the gift of salvation & eternal life. To paraphrase Ebenezer, “You haven’t missed it!" It’s not too late to receive his gracious gift of love… and it’s not too late to share his love, his compassion, his forgiveness and grace with others. The gift of Christmas is for you, and it’s for today, but there is one more thing we need to know about the gift of Christmas...

The price tag of Christmas was paid by the Savior When we are younger most of our wishes are material in nature; but as we grow older hopefully we begin to understand the deeper meaning of Christmas. Years ago, Amy Grant recorded a song about her Grown-Up Christmas List
So here’s my lifelong wish,
my grown-up Christmas list,
not for myself, but for a world in need:
No more lives torn apart,
that wars would never start,
and time would heal all hearts.
And everyone would have a friend,
and right would always win,
and love would never end.
This is my grown-up Christmas list.
 God wants us to live in such a way that this Christmas wish is possible; and that’s why he did what was necessary to bring it about. That's why he sent his Son: “to seek out and to save what was lost” (Luke 19: 10); to save this world from sin, fear, cruelty, and death.  As children we don’t realize that most wishes have a price tag. Sometimes when gifts are exchanged between families there is a debate about the price they are willing to pay for one another's wishes. (Last year you bought Uncle Albert a nice new raincoat… this year you’re thinking a pair of reindeer boxer shorts.) As families grow and finances get tighter, the limit may get smaller and smaller.

But there was no limit to what God was willing to pay for his Christmas wish – his wish and desire that all might know him, turn from evil, and walk in his ways. There was no limit to what he was willing to do…Even if it meant descending from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into our humanity. Even if it meant sharing his life and light with the very ones who would later reject and desert him. Even if it meant accepting the anguish of the cross before the joy of Easter. Even if it meant the slow millennia long transformation of this world through his flawed but Spirit-filled people. All of this, God was willing to do to pay for his Christmas wish. The gift of Christmas is for you, it’s for today…and it’s Jesus our Savior who paid the price for it.

We’ve been having some stormy weather this week…and it reminds me of a story by veteran ABC Radio commentator Paul Harvey who once told a story he called, The Christmas Storm.  Listen to Harvey's original radio broadcast by clicking on this link.  The transcript of Paul Harvey's story is below:
This is about a modern man, one of us, he was not a scrooge, he was a kind, decent, mostly good man, generous to his family, upright in his dealings with others. But he did not believe in all that incarnation stuff that the Churches proclaim at Christmas time. It just didn’t make sense to him and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just could not swallow the Jesus story about God coming to earth as man. I’m truly sorry to distress you, he told his wife, but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve. He said he’d feel like a hypocrite. That he would much rather stay home, but that he would wait up for them. He stayed, they went. Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier, then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper.

Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound. Then another…and another. At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. Well, when he went to the front door, he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They had been caught in the storm and in a desperate search for shelter they had tried to fly through his large landscape window. Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze. He remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter -- if he could direct the birds to it. He quickly put on his coat and galoshes, trampled through the deepening snow to the barn, opened the door wide, and turned on a light. But the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in -- and he hurried back to the house, fetched bread crumbs, sprinkled them on the snow…making a trail to the yellow lighted wide open doorway of the stable, but to his dismay the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them, he tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms -- instead they scattered in every direction except into the warm lighted barn.

Then he realized they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature, if only I could think of some way to let them know they can trust me. That I’m not trying to hurt them, but to help them. How? Any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him.

If only I could be a bird myself he thought. If only I could be a bird and mingle with them and speak their language, and tell them not to be afraid, and show them the way to the safe, warm barn. But I'd have to be one of them, so they could see and hear & understand.  At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sound of the wind. He stood there listening to the bells. Adeste Fideles. Listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow.
The gift of Christmas is for you.  The gift of Christmas is for you today; and the gift of Christmas is the Savior born in Bethlehem’s manger....

King Jesus, you are the Christ of Christmas! Help me to know today that just like these shepherds, I too have been personally invited to enter Bethlehem’s stall, and to celebrate your coming. I know now that the greatest Christmas Gift of all was not wrapped in colorful paper with fancy ribbons or bows, but in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. I thank you that you are that Gift, the Infinite One who became an Infant, the Teacher who shows me how to live, the Redeemer who bore my sin on the cross, the King who is risen from the dead. As I turn from the things I know are wrong and place my faith in you, I confess you to be my Lord and my Savior, and thank you for making me a member of your Forever Family. Please cleanse me and heal me, fill me with your Holy Spirit, and set me on the path of Eternal Life that I may celebrate the Gift of Christmas today…and every day of my life.  Amen!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

God's Toy Story

The other day, I saw the Nutcracker ballet with my family. It’s the story of a girl who receives the gift of a toy soldier, a soldier that magically comes to life and takes her on a great adventure. As I watched the performance… I started thinking (with a little prompting from a chapter in Lewis' Mere Christianity entitled, "The Obstinate Toy Soldier") about how many children’s stories have this same theme. Can you name a few? Corderoy, Raggedy Anne & Andy, The Velveteen Rabbit, Pinocchio; and the popular film…Toy Story where toys only pretend to be lifeless when their owners are not around.

In that movie, all the toys know they are just toys…except for one: Buzz Lightyear. He’s the one who thinks he’s really a Space Ranger on a mission from Star Command: “To infinity and beyond!” he likes to say. That is until he sees a TV commercial selling Buzz Lightyear action figures for Christmas… and he discovers the truth. Of course, he learns that while he may be just a toy, he can still bring joy to a child’s heart (Please join me in a collective, "ahhhhhhh").

Why is it that we are so fascinated with stories about toys and playthings coming to life? There are probably several reasons: but I think it’s because we have a God-given desire to nurture and bring forth life; and because we dream of being forever alive ourselves, to go to infinity and beyond. And now we are getting closer to the message of Christmas and the message of John 1: 1-12, for…

What children (and adults) make believe, God has the power to do. John writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (John 1: 1, 10). In the beginning, says John, was the Eternal Word, the Logos; a word that enbodies the Hebrew concept of wisdom (hokmah)  and the Greek concept of reason and mind (logos).  John says that this Logos is the eternal, creating, illuminating, sustaining mind of God that has always existed (Barclay).

Now it’s the testimony of the gospels that in the person and work of Jesus the invisible God is made visible. In his words, in his actions, in his love and compassion, and most of all, in his death on the cross and resurrection…we see God, hear God, experience the victory of God over the darkness of this world. What we dream of doing as children (bringing things to life) Christ did among us: “in him was life,” says John, “and that life was the light of all people.”

In the middle of the 3rd century, a fanciful story about Jesus… The Infancy Gospel of Thomas was written to satisfy those who were curious about Jesus’ boyhood. Though these are tall tales to be sure…and Jesus is sometimes portrayed as an impulsive trickster and magic worker (the authentic gospels are very lean in their accounts of Jesus as a boy, and as a worker of miracles.  Miracles always have a purpose and are never done for ostentatious display), there is one story I’d like to share with you…

When the boy Jesus was five years old, he was playing at the ford of a rushing stream. And he gathered the disturbed water into pools and made them pure and excellent, commanding them by the character of his word alone and not by means of a deed. Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows. It was the Sabbath when he did these things, and many children were with him. And a certain Jew, seeing the boy Jesus with the other children doing these things, went to his father Joseph and falsely accused the boy Jesus, saying that, on the Sabbath he made clay, which is not lawful, and fashioned twelve sparrows. And Joseph came and rebuked him, saying, “Why are you doing these things on the Sabbath?” But Jesus, clapping his hands, commanded the birds with a shout in front of everyone and said, “Go, take flight, and remember me, living ones.” And the sparrows, taking flight, went away squawking. When the Pharisee saw this he was amazed and reported it to all his friends (trans. by Tony Burke, 2009).
Now I find this story interesting because (1) it portrays Jesus playing – which I am sure he did; and (2) it portrays Jesus doing as a child, what every child dreams of doing; and what countless stories help us to imagine doing, bringing a toy to life. And though I am fairly certain that this is not an authentic gospel story…there is an important truth here that is grounded in the canonical Gospels: that when God’s Son was born, it was his mission not just to live as one of us…but to bring us to life. And again, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people” (John 1:4).

Now this is an incredible offer…to be brought to life and all, but we have to remember that there can be no resurrection without a death; that redemption and transformation often involves letting go of things we’re convinced we can’t live without; and so not everyone appreciated Jesus’ message. Indeed…

What God could hardly conceive, human beings did. For “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him…” (John 1: 11).  When I was a boy I had a favorite teddy bear…I named him Snowy. He was my first not quite real friend. I imagined that he got cold when I went to school so I put him under the covers. I imagined that when my grandma had to sow back his torn arm, and give him a new mouth, that it might have hurt and I felt sad. I imagined that when I had hugged all the fur off him, that his fur was actually growing back…but I could never have imagined that Snowy, my bear, would ever turn against me.  And yet what a child can hardly conceive or imagine, we did when God offered us his Son. Lewis asks us to imagine a tin soldier that you had the power to heal and bring to life… but that toy, stubborn and willful refused to be changed, fearing that the transformation would kill him. Like obstinate toy soldiers, we have feared having our natural life transformed by God into a supernatural life – we have feared that in submitting ourselves to God’s gracious plan…it would mean the death of us.

It’s true, of course, that even the most modest change in our set pattern and way of doing things can be threatening and scary….that overcoming a destructive habit, finding the courage to face one’s fears, to say the words, “I’m sorry,” to ignore peer pressure and live by a different standard than our friends…may feel like death…because it is the death of what’s familiar, safe, and comfortable, the death of our old selves and our old ways. And Jesus did say, “If anyone wants to come after me, he must deny himself, pick up his cross and follow me!” We may fear that accepting God’s gift to us in Christ will be the death of us…but his promise is this; that…

Those who receive and believe in God’s Son are brought to life as God’s children. "But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1: 12-13). About that stubborn toy that didn’t want to become human…fearful that the change would kill him…What would you do as its owner?

Well, this is what God did. He came to us in his Son, Jesus (“and the word became flesh”) -- he became just like us; and then, miracle of miracles, did exactly what we most fear to do…he surrendered himself to the will of the Father even unto death…and was raised up on the third day. Jesus, our fully human Savior, was raised up to new life (a toy soldier had for the first time, become fully alive).  Why did he do this? He did it so that we might become like him…He came to transform toy soldiers into real human beings…. into children of the living God.

How does God change us into his children? There are two sides to this lifelong process (the human side; and God’s side): On the human side it happens, as John says, by our receiving and believing – that is, it happens by our faith and active participation (v. 12a). To “believe” in the biblical sense always involves both trusting and doing. When, for example, Jesus commanded us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven,” it meant that we were to imagine ourselves to be God’s son or daughter; to dress up like Jesus. Now the moment we do that, we realize how different we really are from Jesus. For unlike the Son of God whose will and desire is one with the Father…our interests are often of a very different kind… self-centered, prideful, full of jealousies and fears.

On many Sundays, as we sit in church praying or singing or nodding approvingly of the message, we may inwardly feel like hypocrites….And yet the odd thing is…Jesus wants us to do it. He wants us to call God “Our Father.” He wants us to practice being his children. Question: Why do children love to “pretend”? Why do they dress up in their parent’s clothes? Why does a child pretend to be a knight and slay the dragon…or dress up like a beautiful Queen, presiding over her royal court? Why do children like to play house, dress up their dolls, or go on treasure hunts? They are pretending to be grown-ups. They’re developing their imaginations, sharpening their wits, strengthening their muscles… preparing for grown-up challenges and grown-up responsibilities. When we pretend to be like Christ…we’re doing the same thing. We’re imitating his prayers, we’re imitating his way of speaking and acting and loving. We’re trying to do the things that we imagine he would do if he were us! We may not feel like Christians half the time…but that’s not the important thing. What’s important is that we practice…keeping in mind that as we do so…we have a helper.

Remember that there are two sides to becoming children of God. On the human side it happens by our receiving and believing, but then there is God’s side…"for to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1: 12). The power is not ours…it is his. Power to become children of God…power to serve…power to heal…power to tell others… power to love…and power simply to be and to know that we really are his children.

Do you know you are a child of God yet, brought to eternal life in Christ?  Dr. Fred Craddock tells a story about vacationing with his wife when he noticed a gray haired gentleman greeting people at every table in the restaurant. “I hope he doesn’t come over here.” He didn’t want anyone intruding on their privacy. But sure enough, the man did come over. “Where you folks from?” he asked kindly.  “Oklahoma,” Craddock said. “Splendid state, I hear…and what do you do for a living?” “I teach homiletics at the graduate seminary of Phillips University,” Craddock replied. “Oh, so you teach preachers how to preach? Well, I’ve got a story to tell you.” And with that, the man pulled up a chair and sat down. Craddock groaned inwardly, “Oh, no! Here comes another preacher story!”

The man stuck out his hand. “I’m Ben Hooper. I was born not far from here across the mountains. My mother wasn’t married when I was born. When I started to school, my classmates had a name for me, and it wasn’t a very nice name. I used to go off by myself at recess and lunch time because the things they said to me cut me so deep. When I was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to our church. I would always go in late and slip out early. But one day the preacher said the benediction so fast I got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. I could feel every eye in the church on me.

Just about the time I got to the door I felt a big hand on my shoulder. I looked up and the preacher was looking right at me. ‘Who are you, son? Whose boy are you?’ he asked. I felt this big weight coming down on me. It was like a big black cloud. Even the preacher was putting me down. But as he looked down at me, studying my face, he began to smile a big smile of recognition. ‘Wait a minute!’ he said. ‘I know who you are. I see the family resemblance now. You are a child of God.’ With that he slapped me across the rump and said, ‘Young man, you’ve got a great inheritance. Go and claim it.’

The old man looked across the table at Fred Craddock and said, “Those were the most important words anybody ever said to me, and I’ve never forgotten them.” And as he smiled and walked away, Craddock remembered that on two occasions the people of Tennessee had elected to the office of governor men who had been raised without a father. One of them was a man named Ben Hooper.

Whose boy or girl are you? God’s Son was born so that all who receive and believe in him might be brought from death to life and know they are children of God. Jesus is not playing with us here. He means it; and if that describes the desire of your heart I invite you to pray with me...
Gracious God we thank you for sending us your Son so that we could become true sons and daughters – not by the will of the flesh, but by the will of God, filled with your Spirit and eternal life. We confess that we have behaved like stubborn toy soldiers who, when offered real human life, have chosen to remain dead, painted wood! We have feared what you might do to us, instead of giving thanks for what you want to do for us. Forgive us for our sin and foolish pride. Thank you for showing us in Christ what real human life looks like, and for proving that not even death can destroy the life of those who believe in your name. Therefore, we humbly ask you to change and transform us as we believe in your Son, imitate his life, speak his words, pray his prayers, and do his works. Father, let this Christmas be not only the commemoration of Jesus’ birth, but the celebration of his birth in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If that prayer expressed your heart’s desire, if you claim your inheritance through God’s Son, know that God has claimed you as his child...from this very moment, from this day forward…from here to infinity....and beyond.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Have a Merely Christmas

Personally, I’m hoping for less than a merry Christmas this year…I would be happy with a merely Christmas. Perhaps it’s just the influence of Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, but I’m longing for the truth of Christmas…plain and simple. I was at a Target the other day with Lisa watching the store make preparations for Black Friday and the beginning of “Merry Christmas.” We were picking up a few things for a get together with friends. “What time are you opening on Friday?” we asked the checker.  "The store opens at 4:00am in the morning," she replied with a sigh. As we all know, lines of people were already forming on Thursday to enter the store the next morning.  Now don't get me wrong, I like to find a good deal too, but I can’t help but think that this whole Black Friday phenomenon is a very strange parody of Christmas. It’s about people desperately trying to get in, to be first in line, to get the best deal, when in reality, Christmas and Jesus' birth is about being invited into the very life of God, not to buy something but to receive God’s greatest gift... but who bothers to get in line for that?  The message of "merely Christmas" is truly astounding, if virtually ignored -- that Jesus was born to bring us into the very life of God… and to show us what that life is like

So, here goes.  In honor of "merely Christmas" I'd like to suggest three astounding things about the life of God that Jesus' birth reveals and offers to us.  (i) The birth of Christ means that God is purposeful.  Listen to the words of Paul: "But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer slaves, but God’s children; and since you are his children, he has made you also heirs" (Galatians 4: 4-7).  For many Jews and contemporaries of Jesus, the timing of Jesus’ birth appeared to be no accident.  "When the time had fully come, God sent his Son," says Paul.  It was the fulfillment of God’s plan from the very beginning....

Two thousand years before Jesus’ birth, the Lord solemnly vowed to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation...and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:2-3). God fulfilled part of one of that promise through Abraham and his seed...and we bless them because of it; but the question remained: How would God fulfill his promise to bless "all the families of the earth" through his people?  As followers of Y'shua (Jesus) we affirm his mission as "the light of the world" and God's blessing to Jews and Gentiles alike. To David the Lord declared through the prophet Nathan: “I will raise up your offspring after you...and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son" (2 Sam. 7:12; 13-14). No earthly king ever fulfilled that prophecy; yet it was the experience of the multitudes that through his  matchless life, his atoning death, his victorious resurection, and his indwelling Spirit that the Kingdom of God had indeed come near.

Seven hundred years before Jesus’ birth, Isaiah wrote these words: “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold a [young woman] shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [trans. God is with us] (Isaiah 7:14).” He goes on to predict that Immanuel will come to bring God’s forgiveness as the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53).  Did Isaiah have a contemporary ruler in view...or was he given insight into a future king and "suffering servant" unlike anything the world had ever seen?  Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord promises to make a New Covenant with his people (Jer. 31:31); and through the prophet Micah we’re told where he would come from: a small town, outside Jerusalem – Bethlehem of Judea (Micah 5:2).  Again, we assert that prophets were speaking of events beyond their immediate made crystal clear in the coming of the Messiah, Jesus.  Therefore, when Paul speaks of “the fullness of time” he certainly means the fulfillment of ancient prophecy…but perhaps also the unique time itself in which Jesus was born; a time that seemed just right for the coming of the King…

There was the Roman peace: Never before, in the history of humankind had so much of the world been unified under one basically just government The Romans called it the Pax Romana, and it enabled citizens to travel freely and safely throughout the known world  There were the extraordinary Roman roads which facilitated rapid communication and the spread of the gospel. There was the rise of the Jewish Faith – the belief in one God that had spread throughout the Empire because of the Dispersion (721, 597 BC). There was a universal language. Greek was understood across the Empire, much like English is today. The gospels and letters of Paul were all written in Greek. If God were going to send a Messiah, this seemed to be the time. All this is to say that God is purposeful…that he sent his Son to us in a purposeful way, in fulfillment of his own promises, at a time of his own choosing. And this means that when Y'shua (Jesus) came to bring us into the life of God, that he came to bring us into a life that is purposeful and meaningful...

Do you sometimes question whether there is any rhyme or reason to your life; that your life is like a puzzle that can’t be put back together? God does nothing without purpose. God created this world for a purpose. God sent his Son for a purpose. God made you and me for a purpose. And our life with such a God…if we will trust in him…will be a life filled with purpose (not just in this world, but in the world to come).

(ii) The birth of Christ means that God is purposeful…and personal. When it came time for God to reveal himself fully, he could have sent a letter, or an email or a text message. Instead, "God sent his Son, born of a woman" [and] "God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’” He came in humility. He came as a baby. He came personally. Why? Because God is personal. In fact, he is beyond personal…he is Super-Personal (to use the words of C. S. Lewis).

The Christian understanding of God as trinity was not invented by the early church, it was the result of the disciples’ real life experience of the One True God, whom they found to be physically present in the person of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection; and afterward, in his continuing presence through the gift of his Spirit. Now, why does it matter whether God is personal or impersonal, triune, or not? It matters…because how we see God greatly impacts how we see ourselves and other people. A godless world produces godless people. A God-filled world, produces God-filled people. How we see God also impacts how we envision our future. Distorted ideas about God can lead to distorted ideas about our future...
Some believe “nothing” created this world and so “nothingness” is our future. Others take a step back from this extreme and say, “I believe in God but not a personal God.” And what they usually mean is, “God is impersonal if there is a God at all” -- that after this life, or perhaps after several lives, human souls will be "absorbed" into God; something like a drop of water that falls into the Ocean. “But of course,” (as Lewis says) “that is the end of the drop.” If that is what becoming part of the life of God is like, it really means the end of our existence altogether, the end of our individuality, the end of our personality. But Christians have a very different view of what entering into God’s life will be like. It is not like a drop of water disappearing into an infinite ocean… it is actually something like what many of us experience around the table on special holidays, or long to experience more fully…it’s like being invited to sit down at a great banquet table with those you love and who love you.

I heard about an elderly man in Phoenix who called his son in New York and said, "I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing—45 years of misery is enough." "Pop, what are you talking about?" the son asks. "We can't stand the sight of each other any longer," the old man says. "We're sick of each other, and I'm sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her." Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone. "Like heck they're getting divorced," she shouts. "I'll take care of this." She calls Phoenix immediately and screams at her father, "You are NOT getting divorced. Don't do a single thing till I get there. I'm calling my brother back, and we'll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don't do a thing." The old man hangs up the phone and turns to his wife. "Okay," he says, "They're coming for Thanksgiving and paying their own fares. Now what do we do for Christmas?"

When I was a boy, my family would drive out from the valley on Thanksgiving to spend the day with my mom’s sisters and family. Their house was on top of a hillside that overlooked the ocean, and I never tired of looking at its beauty… but what I longed to be part of was my family, to sit at the table, to experience the joy of those relationships. Joining the life of God is like being welcomed into a great circle of love. And Christians can say this, because we believe God is a circle of love, a trinitarian family of loving persons. For some of us, feeling closeness in our families was not possible. Due to bitter division or unresolved anger, we felt distant from our parents or siblings. Our home didn’t feel like a “circle of love” but empty, cold, and unwelcoming. Friends, we were created to share in the loving fellowship of the three-personal God. Can we truly be part of this fellowship, this circle of love? That’s Jesus’ prayer for us! For “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17: 23).

(iii) When God acted in “in the fullness of time…” it tells us that God is purposeful. When we read that “God sent his Son,” it reminds us that God is personal. And when Paul says that we were adopted in Christ “no longer slaves but God’s children” it means that God is merciful. Paul writes: “God sent his Son…born under the law to redeem those under the law that we might receive adoption to sonship… So you are no longer slaves, but God’s children, and since you are his children, he has made you also heirs.”

Now a slave obviously has no freedom and no hope; but God’s mercy is revealed in this way…that the Son of God was willing to be born into a world where he would be treated like a slave (crucified on a Roman cross) so that we who are slaves to sin might be treated like God’s sons.  In the first century, there was more than 60 million slaves in the Roman empire. People of that day could no more imagine a society without slaves than we can imagine a society without electricity. Today…slavery may not be as visible, but it is just as real…

If you have something in your life which is master over you…you are a slave. If you’ve always got to have more stuff, or better stuff, or bigger stuff to feel OK about yourself…you’re a slave. If you’ve got to drink something, smoke something, or snort something to survive each day…you’re a slave. If you can’t control your anger or let go of grudges…you’re a slave. If you’re living in the fantasy world of internet pornography, you’re a slave. If you spend so much time at work that you’re neglecting your family… you’re a slave. If you’re dominated by fear and worry, you’re a slave. And if you’re unwilling to admit that you’re a slave to anything…you can bet your a slave to something...beginning with arrogance and pride.

I continue to be struck by the story of Gary Haugen, a devout follower of Christ and president of International Justice Mission, 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.” That’s a perfect picture of God’s mercy, God’s unrelenting love for each one of us…who sent his Son not only to free us from slavery, but to make us part of his family, heirs of the grace of life, life abundant and life eternal.

It’s not Black Friday…it’s the first Sunday of Advent; and probably because it’s merely Christmas around here, Christmas plain and simple the lines at the door of our church were a bit shorter (and a whole lot quieter) than they were at Target the other day….But my prayer is that this Christmas will be the season in which you do walk through the open door, and invite a few others to walk through that door with you…knowing that as you place your trust in the Child who was born in Bethlehem’s manger…you too can be part of God’s life… you can be part of his purpose and plan …you can know his mercy and amazing grace…and you can be part of his continuously expanding circle of love, with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit… forever and ever. Amen!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Faith: Is it Reasonable?

Director Brian Flemming, a self-described “atheist Christian,” has taken on a tough assignment. In his documentary, The God Who Wasn’t There, he is trying to prove that Jesus never existed. In an interview with Christianity Today, he says, “I think that knowledge is basically the enemy of faith, and so I’m basically encouraging people to seek knowledge.” I couldn’t agree more or less… I couldn’t agree more because I believe we should seek knowledge. I couldn’t agree less because I don’t believe that knowledge must be the enemy of faith.

True faith is reasonable: it’s the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.  True faith is built on facts. In Lewis' Mere Christianity, he emphasizes that he's not asking anyone to believe in Christianity if his best reasoning tells him to do otherwise (Book III, ch. 11). We believe something to be true because there is good evidence for it. Now as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). That is, some of the things we believe to be true, that we have good evidence for, are unseen.

We believe in oxygen not because we can see it, but because we can breathe it. We believe in the sun not because we can directly look at it, but because we can see everything else. We believe a man named Abraham Lincoln existed not because we have met him or spoken with him, but because of the historical evidence and that big statue of him in Washington D.C.  When I go into the operating room for the first time, I have no direct experience of anesthesia or of the skillfulness of the surgeon, but based upon the testimony of others, and my own research into the facts, I have faith and believe that I will be OK.

We believe in Christ in the same way…not because we have walked with him on earth or have heard him speak in an audible voice, but because of the facts. Woody Allen said that he would believe in God if God would send him a sign –a large deposit in a Bank Account under the name, “Woody Allen” would do the trick. I’m not talking about that kind of fact, but I am talking about things we can measure...

I’m talking about the gospel record, as well as the Jewish and Roman historians who speak of him and his movement. I’m talking about his impact on the value of life…Consider Telemachus the 5th century monk who climbed down into the middle of a Roman arena and said, “In the name of Christ stop!” When he was attacked by one of the combatants and died, the crowds silently emptied out of the arena – History records this was the last gladiator contest in the Roman empire. But we could also speak of abolitionists like William Wilberforce or John Woolman or the compassion of Mother Theresa.

I’m talking about his teaching that inspired the building of colleges and universities around the world and some of humankind’s deepest thoughts; his impact on government, through those who have stood up against totalitarianism and the abuse of human dignity in his name.

I’m talking about his impact on those who have sought to expand human knowledge… like nuclear physicist Peter Hodgson who says that “Christianity provided just those beliefs that are essential for science, and the whole moral climate that encouraged its growth,” and were we to remove every trace of Jesus from history, how much of the world’s great art, music and literature would be left?

I’m talking about his impact on the soul… the millions who testify to the gift of his grace, beginning with his first disciples who gladly faced death to tell us that the one they had seen crucified had risen from the dead, and will raise us up too.

The point is that faith is built on facts, and reliable evidence, but if this is true… what about our feelings? Doesn’t faith owe a lot to good feelings, feelings of joy, contentment, peace, and love? Anyone who has been a Christian for a while knows that feelings are unpredictable. We may be totally in love with God and his people, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have days when we feel spiritually dry and unmotivated. Consider for a moment...when we hear some bad news, or we get into some financial difficulty, or we find ourselves surrounded by a lot of people at school who don’t believe in Christ, or we’ve been hurt by a church member, or there comes a moment when we want to tell a lie, or do something immoral; a moment when it would be much more convenient for Christianity not to be true…a moment when we’re tempted to throw in the towel, a moment when our emotions begin to do a blitz on us; that’s when our Faith comes.  Here is a classic reflection by Lewis....

Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods.  For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods "where they get off," you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith (Mere Christianity, Book III, ch. 11).

So feelings change, moods go up and down, but faith holds on to what we’ve accepted on good evidence to be true despite those changing moods. And therefore, we must train the habit of faith. Now how do we do that? As Lewis reminds us…we need to spend daily time in prayer, focusing on the truth of God’s word, spending time with God’s people in worship and service. “We need to be continually reminded of what we believe.”  Most people who drift away from the Christian faith do not do so because they were argued out of it, but because they simply drifted away. Their faith withered and dried up for lack of food and water. I’m concerned that there may be a great number of Christians whose faith depends primarily on good feelings…the good feelings they get when they are in church, or when they are with their Christian friends, or when they are singing their favorite songs, or doing their favorite church activity.

Good feelings are great, but good feelings alone will not carry you through suffering or persecution. They will not carry you through the crucible of doubt or the ridicule of a teacher with a bias against Christianity. You’ll need more than feelings to get through that. And faith that depends on nice feelings will not hold up well when you’re sitting there in church, feeling bored out of your mind, angry at somebody in the next pew, or not getting your personal needs met. We’ve got to get serious about knowing Christ…and the power of his resurrection (as Paul once said). To exercise our faith, like we would exercise our bodies…so that, fed by the truth of God’s word, prayer and serving others, it will weather the storms that inevitably come. And, ironically, as we do that… we shall also discover something deeper about faith. That faith is ultimately built on the solid rock of Christ himself….

True faith is reasonable, but it’s also humble: it means coming to the end of myself, believing that Christ alone empowers both my belief, and my best actions. We just got through saying that true faith is based on facts, not just feelings, and that it's nurtured by action. Now that raises an important question Christians have been debating for a long time. What is more important: faith or action? There are two caricatures of the truth which Christians have been accused by other Christians of believing…

One is that “Good deeds are all that matter”; helping the poor, a consistent Bible study and prayer life, or giving money to the church. If you do that, God will bless you with a pain free life with heaven thrown in. But can we put God in our debt? Can God’s blessings be bought with our money, or our good deeds? The other is that “All you need is faith,” that what you do doesn’t matter at all. You can sin all you want, God doesn’t really’s believing in Christ that makes the difference. That’s ludicrous, of course, because a faith that pays no attention to what Christ called us to actually do is not faith at all. As Lewis points out, asking which is more important (Faith, or Good Actions) is like asking which blade on a pair of scissors is more important? True faith leads to action; and action nurtures true faith. But there’s a deeper truth here…and that is that faith means coming to the end of myself altogether and realizing that God alone is the source of both my faith and my best actions. Paul says it best:“Therefore, my beloved… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).

True faith is humble. As a Christian my faith is not in my faith, nor is my faith in my actions. My faith is in a Person. “Apart from me,” says Jesus, “You can do nothing.” Yes, I must work out my own salvation, but only to realize that “apart from Him…I can do nothing,” that God is the one at work in me…enabling me to work for him and to believe in him. This is faith in the highest sense: faith in a Person, the Person. Not faith in my reason. Not faith in my spiritual discipline. Not faith in my moral character. And certainly not faith in my power to judge this messy thing called the church! It’s sad to think of how many people probably sit on the sidelines, unwilling to get their hands dirty and risk serving alongside God’s people because they have more faith in their judgment of the church than they have faith in Christ. True faith is not faith in me at all, but in Christ and what he can work in and through me, and even in spite of me. True faith is not only reasonable…it’s humble.

I’m reminded of a conversation that Aslan has with Lucy & Edmund before they leave Narnia for the last time to return to our world in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. "You won't be returning to Narnia, dear ones," he tells them.  Lucy begins to break down and cry: ‘It isn’t Narnia, you know,’ sobbed Lucy. ‘It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?’ ‘But you shall meet me, dear one.’ said Aslan. ‘Are - are you there too, Sir?’ said Edmund (now much humbler). ‘I am,’ said Aslan. ‘But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.’’

Those words remind me that Christ has brought us into a new world in which we are learning to recognize his voice …and it is called the fellowship of his friends, the Church. The reason we are called into this fellowship is so that we may learn to recognize him in the world beyond its walls. If we don’t recognize him out there in the everyday arenas of life, it’s probably because we haven’t sought him among his people either… “for wherever two or three are gathered in my name there I am in their midst.”  There, in the midst of our brothers and sisters, is where we see the face of our Lord; where our faith is strengthened and we are prepared to follow him where he is often not welcomed or honored.  May he bless you with a faith that is reasonable, based on facts not just feelings, that can ride out the storms of life; and with a faith that is humble, that is powerless apart from Him; but through whom all things are possible.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Heavenly Hope

As Jesus hung on the cross, “[one of the criminals hanging beside him] said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (Luke 23: 43). Do you want to be in Paradise? Many of us aren’t so sure. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain describes a Christian spinster Miss Watson, “a tolerable slim old maid, with goggles on,” who thinks Huck Finn is spending entirely too much time going on adventures, wearing filthy clothes, slouching in his chair and, generally, having too much fun. So she tells him all about the bad place, and why he should try for the good place.
“Well, I couldn't see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn't try for it.  But I never said so, because it would only make trouble, and wouldn't do  no good. Now she had got a start, and she went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn't think much of it. But I never said so. I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together” (Samuel L. Clemens, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1963, p. 3).
Like Huck, a lot of us could care less about going to "the good place."  We’re quite happy living right here…and thinking about heaven may seem more like an escape from reality, or an eternity sitting in the clouds playing harps. But looking forward to heaven is more than escapism or wishful thinking, it’s what we were born to do. Today I want to address three questions about heaven…

The first is, what is “heaven” … and how can we get there? I want to begin by pointing out that much of the descriptive language about heaven in the Bible is figurative because it speaks of an experience beyond words. When we read about streets paved with gold, we should think of heaven’s perfection and beauty (gold does not rust). When we read about music, harps, and singing we should be reminded that heaven will be a place of beauty and joy and, yes, worship. And when we read that we will receive a crown on our heads we should know that heaven will be a place of victory, authority and responsibility.

Jesus describes heaven as “Paradise” to the thief hanging beside him – a Persian word that means “walled garden.” When a Persian king wanted to honor one of his subjects, he would invite him to walk with him in his paradaiso. It was the gift of the king’s friendship.  What a day it will be when we are able to walk and talk with King Jesus in the Paradise of God. Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” That is, “Today (without delay) you will be with me, alive and well, in the heavenly realm.” Beyond this, Jesus’ own resurrection reminds us that we will not only experience a new spiritual life with him immediately after death; but (at the end of the age) a new super-bodily life (a life after life after death) that will be like his own. How these two experiences are seemlessly related we cannot say for certain...but we know by faith that  when we are "away from the body" we shall be "at home with the Lord" (2 Coritnhians 5: 8); and that "when Christ returns, we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2).

In Scripture, the word trans. “heaven” (Greek: ouranos) can also be trans., “air” “sky” or even “atmosphere.” When Jesus taught us to pray, "Our Father who art in heaven (literally: 'in the heavens'), he was telling us that the kingdom of heaven is as near and accessible as the air we breathe. Heaven is not confined to outer space or beyond space, or the Twilight Zone, it’s as close as the atmosphere that surrounds us; and yet, and yet...our sin separates us from that eternal realm. Modern "string theory" (a branch of theoretical physics) speculates that there may be as many as eleven dimensions in our universe -- though we can only experience four of them. Other theories calculate the possibility that there are countless alternate and unseen universes (The TV show "Fringe" is loosely based upon such theories).  If scientists can hypothesize about multi-dimensional and alternate universes; how difficult is it to believe that there is a transphysical realm which we will experience after death by God's grace, a dimension we cannot now see but that is closer than we ever imagined, like a room separated from us by a thin wall and a door…

Of course, some doors, like the front gate of the White House, are tough to walk through. On Sun. July 26, 2009, one of the biggest and most famous men in the world, Shaquille O'Neil, tried to get into the White House without an appointment. At 7-1 and 325 pounds, a winning smile, and NBA championship rings on his fingers, Shaq has what it takes to walk into most places. Doors open for Shaq. And so, Shaq decided to put his celebrity, and President Obama's love of basketball, to the test. He was on a D.C. sports radio show on Friday July 24th, and he put this question to the listeners: "Check this out, I got on a nice suit, I'm in D.C. paying a visit, I jump out of a cab in front of the White House, I don't use none of my political or law enforcement connections. If I go to the gate and say, 'Hey, I'm in town, I would like to see the President,' do I get in, or do I not get in? Two days later, Shaq gave it a try, and just like the opponents who’ve tried to drive past Shaq to the hoop, the White House gate security rejected him too. Later that day, Shaq tweeted, "The White House wouldn't let me in, whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy."  Good question. And whyyyyyyyyyyyyy should we think that heaven’s Gate will open for us? One reason only: we know the Gatekeeper -- not our reputations, not our diplomas or NBA rings, not our money or our popularity.

Jesus said, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:9). There were two thieves who hung beside Jesus… one who believed in him and one who rejected him. Our Lord will allow us to reject him…if that is our wish. He will not force us to be with him…we can spend eternity away from his presence; yet it is not the Father’s will that even one of us should perish” (Matt. 18:14). We can hope in heaven, because we know the Gatekeeper, and because he knows us.

Here is another question: Are there sign-posts that point us to a life beyond this one? Most of us have trouble wanting heaven, because, as Lewis reminds us in Mere Christianity, Book III, ch. 10, we’ve not been trained to recognize the desire for heaven that is present in each one of us. I’m talking about our unfulfilled longings and desires. Do you remember the sweet smell of summer on the last day of school; the joy of graduation day, waking up on Christmas morning, a walk through a towering redwood forest, or standing before a dramatic ocean sunset; the exhilaration of crossing the finish line in a hard fought race, the tears down your cheeks as you saw your bride walk down the aisle, the satisfaction of a job well done, the memories of a faraway country. These are the moments we say to ourselves, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” And yet…the happiness that these sweet moments offered us were fleeting and temporary. They flew away…and as much as we wanted to go with them, we could not. Now Lewis suggests that we tend to respond to these experiences in one of three ways…

There is The Fool’s Way, which is to blame the things and people themselves that disappoint us (we look for another romantic relationship to fill our need for love, a more expensive car, or a bigger vacation…but each time these experiences fail to deliver our heart’s desire). David, of course, was well know for the affair that he had with Bathsheba. He had become bored…he was looking for a new thrill and so he took the "the fool's way" out.
Then there is the so-called Sensible Way which is to give up on the dream altogether; to settle down and not expect too much; to stop chasing the rainbow’s end. Jim Carrey once said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” Like Jim Carey, Solomon (King David’s son) had money, he had power, he had fame… he built great monuments…he had many women “and the delights of the flesh”…but he finally called all of this “a chasing after wind” (Eccles. 2: 1-11).

Finally there is The Christian Way. It is to rejoice in every signpost of beauty and eternity in this life...but to know that they point us to something beyond this world. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy” says Lewis, “the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” I have eyes because there is something to see. I have ears because there is something to hear. I hunger for God…because God wants me to know him, and live with him forever.  The Christian says, “I love this world; but I’m not home yet.” Listen to King David: “O LORD…You have given him his heart’s desire, and have not withheld the request of his lips…He asked you for life; you gave it to him – length of days forever and ever… for the king trusts in the LORD, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved” (Psalm 21: 1-7). Christ is the answer to our heart’s desire and our longing for life. King David’s prayer was fulfilled by David’s greater Son who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me…even if he die, shall live" (John 11: 25).

Thomas Aquinas was one of the greatest theologians of the Middle Ages. His Summa Theologia, in which he answers 10,000 objections to the Christian faith, is one of the greatest intellectual achievements of western civilization. But on Dec. 6, 1273 Aquinas abruptly announced to his secretary that he would write no more. While worshipping in the chapel of Saint Nicholas, Aquinas had an intense experience of God’s glory. "I can do no more," he said, "such things have been revealed to me that all I have written seems to me as so much straw."  May Christ himself bless each of us with such an assurance of the glory and goodness of God… as we worship, through his word, in our journey with his people….in every moment of beauty we experience in this life.

But hold on, if we believe that life’s greatest joy and deepest significance is found beyond this world….does this mean we care nothing about this one? 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 trust that in Christ death has been swallowed up in victory 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….

Listen to how Paul talks about the world to come, and its relationship to this one. “Listen! I tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye….For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality….then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory….thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15: 51-58).

I can’t think of a more important reason to dedicate our resources and our lives to God’s work today, to be steadfast and immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord; than the knowledge that we are equipping people not just for life in this world (and we are), but for service in God’s eternal kingdom. Because there is, through Christ our Risen Lord, a life beyond this life...our labor is not in vain; our lives are not lived in vain; our dreams are not dreamt in vain, our hope is not built in vain, our victories are not won in vain, our losses are not suffered in vain, our hearts have not been broken in vain….no test was ever faced in vain, no pain, ever suffered in vain, no kindness, ever done in vain, no love, ever shared in vain, and no, we were not born in vain. Because Christ is risen…every sin has been forgiven, the power of death has been defeated, and Heaven’s doors are now wide open… If somebody ever says to you, “It doesn’t get any better than this!” Don’t you believe it.  It does!  On the final page of The Last Battle, Lewis describes all our life here on earth as just the title page of the Great Story, which goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before."  There's a "good place" waiting for you and me.  Believe it, live it, and give thanks to God for it, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Scariest Sin of All

On Halloween, children pretend to be someone or something they’re not.  I’ve come to believe that, despite its darker side -- it’s the opportunity to pretend, to role play, to be childlike...which is what actually redeems Halloween in my mind, as well as the opportunity to meet and greet our neighbors.  C. S. Lewis once said, "When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up” (On Three Ways of Writing for Children, 1952).

What’s not funny or playful…but actually very scary, is when we pretend to be people we’re not during the rest of the year; when we hide behind masks of conceit and self-importance, and keep God at a distance. The scariest sin of all is certainly pride. In the words of C. S. Lewis, “Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind….Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense” (Mere Christianity, Book III, ch. 8).  That’s because…

Pride is always in competition with others.  At the root of pride is competition….The quickest way to find out how proud you are, says Lewis, is to ask yourself, “How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take notice of me, or patronize me, or show off?" The reason that I dislike it when other people are the life of the party is that I want to be the life of the party. The reason I’m annoyed by that loud mouth up there is that I want to be noticed, I want to be admired, I want to be on center stage. Now let me caution you that pride is not simply wanting to be praised or recognized for a job well done. According to Jesus we should aspire to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25: 23). Pride, on the other hand, is the need to feel that our job was not just well done, but done better than anyone else; and that we ourselves are better and more important because of it. That’s why pride is not simply the desire to be smart, good looking, or rich, but the need to feel smarter, better looking or richer than the next person. My pride is always in competition with your pride.

Jesus told a parable to some who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (9). That is, he told a story for those who did not see their own sin, who did not see their own faults, who felt that they stood over and above the rest...

‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Some vices bring people together; a crude joke, friendliness at a drunken party, or an illicit affair …but pride always separates us, says Lewis: it is competition & enmity between one man and another, or between peoples and nations….which is why Jesus describes the Pharisee (the proud man in this story) with telling words. He is the one, says Jesus, who is “standing by himself.”  I’m thinking of rock star Courtney Love who grew accustomed to the fame and wealth that came with her marriage to Curt Cobaine of Nirvana. A few years ago, she was dropped off by a black stretch limo in front of the Manhattan Criminal Court building, where she faced charges of disorderly conduct for hitting one of her fans with a microphone stand. When the security guard wouldn’t allow her to bypass the long line for the metal detector, she told a reporter: “The guy wants me to stand in line with everybody else. I'm not everybody else.” Then she added, “It's scary standing in line with everybody else.” The most frightening horror movie is nothing compared with the scariness of admitting that we don’t stand in some special privileged place; that we are just like everyone else; mortal, vulnerable, & accountable to God. Pride is always in competition with others, but that’s not all…

Pride is always in competition with God. That’s because “In God you come up against something which in every respect is immeasurably superior to yourself” writes Lewis. Unless you know God in this way and yourself as nothing by comparison, you really don’t know God at all. A proud person cannot know God because he or she is too busy looking down on things and people to see the One who is above him. That’s why the Pharisee is an impossible contradiction in this story: a man who claims to know God on a first name basis, but who is looking down on everyone else: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income."  Sometimes (surprise!) it’s the people in our own church family that we view as the thieves and tax-collectors. They’re the ones who are in the way of our personal prestige and popularity and power….but the more we compete and look down on others, the more obvious it is that we do not really look up to God. Of course, religious pride is only one way that our eyes can be directed away from God and focused on ourselves....

There is intellectual pride: putting our trust in what the human mind can know and understand…without admitting its limitations. Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of discussing science and theology with a professor of astrophysics at a major university in our area, and a member of our church. What most impresses me about him is how deeply he values science and yet how passionately he speaks about its limitations.  He does research at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, and yet he seems able not to take himself or his colleagues too seriously.  As a Christian, he has questions science cannot address; questions that only find their resting place in God. That's humility.

There is family pride. Obviously there is nothing wrong with being “proud” (i.e., having admiration for our children) but it can become warped when we become obsessed with their success. From 1982 to 2006, 16,475 college students completed an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). The standard inventory asks for rated responses to such statements as, "If I ruled the world it would be a better place," "I think I am a special person," and "I can live my life the way I want to." The nationwide results were revealing. "We need to stop endlessly repeating, 'You're special' and having children repeat that back," said Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. "Kids are self-centered enough already." The study asserts narcissists "are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors." Evidently it all began with some kids when they were taught an alternate version of "Frère Jacques" in preschool: "I am special, I am special; Look at me, look at me!"

There is generational pride: the assumption that my generation is superior to the generation of my parents, or (as an adult) that my generation is superior to that of my children or grandchildren. One of the devil’s ploys is to cut each generation off from all others. It seems painfully difficult for one generation to honor the next or for the next to honor the former. The desire to be honored, to be understood rather than to understand is devastating for Christ’s mission… because it kills all desire to communicate to the next generation in ways they can understand; or to learn from the wisdom and mistakes of our elders. Pride is always in competition with others, and with God; and though the disease has many symptoms…it has only one antidote…

Pride’s antidote: developing honesty and humility. Researchers have found -- not surprisingly -- that there are several public situations in which we do not act like our true selves: when we enter a fancy hotel; when we enter a new-car showroom and begin talking to the salesperson (I've thought of a few others: when we’re texting, going on a first date, or sitting down for a job interview). But the other place researchers say we don’t act like ourselves is when we take our seat in church [Buffington, Playing Charades, Universal Press Syndicate (9-26-99)]! A church ought to be the one place where we can truly be ourselves, and yet for many of us it’s the place where we feel we must be someone else, where we must convince God & others we are good enough, and spiritual enough to be there.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector,” says Jesus. Oddly enough it was the tax-collector (despised as a Roman collaborator and extortionist), and not the Pharisee, who stood far off  “…would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Clearly, Jesus wants us to follow the example of the tax-collector who admitted he was a sinner; came to God in humble repentance, and rather than justifying himself, asked God for mercy!

Now does this mean that the humble person is filled with self-loathing hatred, intent on apologizing to everyone that he’s alive? No. The humble won’t be recognized by how bad they feel about themselves, denying whatever gifts and abilities they have, but by their genuine interest in you and what you have to say. Lewis reminds us that it’s not as though God wants us to stop being prideful and start obsessing about being humble…how lowly and insignificant we are. True humility, in God’s eyes, is about a change in focus…from an obsession with ourselves (whether it is how great we are or how terrible we are) to a genuine interest in others and a passion for the kingdom of God.

If pride is the scariest sin of all, then the cure is the ability to see how funny, how silly we can be in God's eyes; to admit our foolish pride and, better yet, to be able to laugh at it.  Along these lines, Uncle Screwtape, the senior temper in C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, gives advice to his nephew on how to entangle his "patient" in his own humility.  Here is an exerpt from Letter XIV:


The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion. No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue, I gather; not even the expectation of an endowment of "grace" for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation! This is very bad.

I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, "By jove! I'm being humble", and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don't try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed. (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, XIV)  
Humility is laughing at your pride…pride even in being humble.  Humility is not saying “I am a poor artist, or a lousy student” when you’re really a very good one; but honoring the artistry and brilliance of those around you.  Humility is not the minimizing of your own abilities; but a genuine interest in the abilities of others. Humility is neither self-loathing, nor self-conceit…but the love of all selves, including your own.  Humility is the ability to stop looking down (on yourself or on others), and to start looking up at the One who made you, and called you to love the people around you. "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted!" 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Christian Marriage: Gift or Curse?

C. S. Lewis, the author of Mere Christianity, confesses at the beginning of his chapter on marriage that he did not particularly want to write it, in part because he was not married, but also because “the Christian doctrines on this subject are extremely unpopular.” Sixty seven years later, I couldn't agree more!  The Christian perspective on marriage is still unpopular…even among some Christians! I want to talk about the idea of Christian marriage as though I was communicating not to a room full of believers…but to the community beyond the walls of the church who do not quite understand it, and may even be offended by it. My prayer is that by God’s grace I might be able to help explain Christian marriage as Jesus speaks of it… not as a curse to be avoided; but as both a gift to celebrate, and a crucible in which we are tested and changed for the better.

(i) Christian Marriage is the miracle of a total union. The Christian idea of marriage is based on Christ’s words that “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh (Matthew 19: 5). As Lewis reminds us, this Greek phrase (sarka mian) means something like “one body” or “one organism.”  Now there are many types of “marriage” that are being recommended today. There is so-called open marriage where partners have the freedom to have sex with anyone they want. There is polygamous marriage, where one man has several wives; there is disposable marriage, where marriage and divorce and remarriage and divorce is only routine; and there is gay marriage, marriage between people of the same sex.

Now we must be honest: the Bible is not very experimental when it comes to marriage. It’s rather narrowly committed (some would say ignorantly committed) to the model that Moses describes, Jesus commands, and Paul commends. They all seem to think it’s a good model…the best model, and they clearly have their reasons…and if you think the Bible is more than just a good book, you have to take this recommendation rather seriously.  By the way, I don’t think we should be surprised as Christians that there are different marriage models since the world does not universally embrace this Book. I think we can say that fidelity is always better than promiscuity regardless of your model; but that the biblical model has in its favor, over 6000 years of testing behind it.

The biblical view of marriage is based on the assumption that the two halves of the human species must come together in pairs for human life to continue (a biological fact)…and not only must they come together sexually (as when the male and female reproductive cells, each containing half of the 46 human chromosomes are fused in the ampulla of the fallopian tube or in a test tube); but they must come together spiritually, emotionally, and relationally in order for life on earth to continue.  Now the human temptation is to try to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the others and to fixate on it and even deify it…and what Jesus is saying is that you can’t do that without getting hurt and causing great hurt - but that never seems to stop us from trying....

A few months ago on CNN, author and former mistress Holly Hill was arguing that married couples should consider what she calls negotiated infidelity… where couples give permission to each other to have sexual liaisons for the good of the marriage. It was supposed to be a radical new idea…but it was really an old idea. It took a psychologist to bring some common sense to the discussion. “I think what's universal is that no one likes sharing partners -- whether you're male or female.” In other words, when we sin, people get hurt. Last week I read about a girl who bragged that she had slept with 13 guys on her high school’s football team. How does everybody know this? Because she rated their sexual performance by name on her Facebook page; and because of the nature of the internet, it will be part of their permanent online resume. Sobering thought.

When we try to experience sexual union without the emotional, psychological, and spiritual union that biblical marriage provides, there is the risk of hurting ourselves (by making it more difficult to bond with a future mate); hurting others because promiscuity invites us to start comparing, and can create jealousy and insecurity (Women in particular are vulnerable because of the risk of pregnancy); hurting society (because promiscuity encourages the breakdown of families and the spread of devastating diseases); and….hurting God because when we live outside of God’s commands we experience the consequences of a broken relationship with Him. There are precious few of us who do not stand under God’s judgment for sexual sin, for Jesus reminds us that sexual sin begins in the mind and heart. We need to take that judgment on sin seriously…but not more seriously than the good news that God, in his love, sent his Son to restore and heal what has been broken.

(ii) Christian Marriage is the courage to make a lifelong commitment. Jesus is very clear in his response to the Pharisees who question him about divorce. “What God has joined together let no one separate….” (Matthew 19: 6) and later, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” Understand that Jesus said these things to protect women and men equally from the pain of divorce. According to Jewish law, a woman could be accused of adultery against her husband, but a husband could not be accused of adultery against his wife! If a man wanted to discard his wife in order to take up with another woman, he simply gave her a letter of intention to divorce. End of discussion. The Greek attitude toward women was even worse. Demosthenes wrote: “We have courtesans for our pleasure, prostitutes for daily physical use, & wives to bring up legitimate children.” In Rome, divorce was easy & women were repressed. Seneca said that “women dated the years by the names of their husbands.”  Now Jesus turned the tables on this double standard. He warned men who casually divorced their wives to pursue another relationship that they were committing adultery! In fact, says Jesus in Matthew 5: 28, you men are committing adultery if you even look at a woman with lust in your heart.

The grounds for Jesus’ assertion that the marriage relationship should be a lifelong commitment is nothing less than God’s unbreakable commitment to his people.Throughout Scripture, the Lord refers to his relationship with his people as that of a husband pursuing his bride with unbreakable devotion and steadfast love – even when she is unfaithful.... "For your Maker is your husband— the LORD Almighty is his name— the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. The LORD will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected," says your God. "For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you," says the LORD your Redeemer" (Isaiah 54: 5-8).

The power to live in faithfulness to one’s spouse comes from God’s unbreakable commitment to us. But what about those who know they have not been faithful…whose eyes and hearts and even bodies have wandered…or who have experienced the pain of an abusive and destructive marriage that could not endure without injury to one or both… I want to answer that question in a moment, but first I want to make a third point which is implied in Jesus’ words in Matthew 19 and stated explicitly elsewhere…

(iii) Christian Marriage is the promise to love, not just feel “in love.” We can presume that one of the reasons men in Jesus’ day wanted to divorce their wives was that they had grown bored of their partners…that they no longer felt “in love.” We can also be pretty certain that their wives also felt “out of love” now and then…though they had no legal right to do anything about it. The very fact that Jesus does not consider this change of “feelings” a good reason to end a marriage tells us that he had a very different view of what holds a marriage together…that marriage is a promise to love, not just feel “in love.”

Lewis says, “Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing. You cannot make it the basis of a whole life. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling…Love as distinct from ‘being in love’ is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both…receive from God…It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.”

The Greeks had four words for love: Storge, the love of family affection. Phileo, the love of friendship. Eros, the love of physical intimacy and romance; and the highest form of love, Agape, the love of self-giving, the love that says “I’ll hold on to you, no matter what.” There is no greater description of love in this highest sense than the one found in 1 Corinthian 13: “Love is patient. Love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful….Love bears all things, believes all thing, hopes all things, endures all things; love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13: 4-8). If you are not feeling the feelings any more, if you are not feeling in love, that’s the time to start loving…to start serving her, praying for him, listening, doing the hard work of reconciliation and forgiveness, recalling your common purpose, standing side by side, eyes fixed on the horizon of God’s greater purpose.

From Mr. Linz in my Junior High metal shop, I learned that a crucible is a furnace in which metal is subjected to extreme temperatures, removed of impurities, and changed into a more durable substance. Marriage is a crucible in which we are being tested and changed for the better…but sadly many turn away from this test in search of the next easy, romantic fix…instead of developing the love that never ends. One more thing: this kind of love, the highest and best… is not reserved for marriage – how could it be? Family can know this love… dear friends can share this love…and above all we can experience this love with Christ who showed this love for us on the cross (Eph. 5: 27-33).

(iv) Finally, Christian Marriage is a gift….but not the only one. As the disciples listen to Jesus’ teaching on marriage, especially the calling to sacrificial, self-giving love, and the condemnation of casual divorce they say something unexpected: “Perhaps it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19: 10-13). Perhaps, as we began by saying, marriage is really a curse to be avoided.  But Jesus responds, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given.” Marriage is not to be entered into lightly. It is a gift…but there are other gifts. Jesus refers here to those other gifts in a cryptic reference to “eunuchs from birth, eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and eunuchs who have made themselves eunuch for the sake of the kingdom” (Matthew 19: 11-12). What is he talking about?

In reverse order, there are those who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom; who have chosen the celibate life in order to serve God more freely. The single life is a noble calling (Jesus, let us remember, was single, and he had many close friends who were also single -- like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus at whose grave he wept). If nothing else, this is a reminder that singleness is as much a gift as marriage, because our wholenesss is found in Christ…not in any human relationship.

But what about the others that Jesus mentions (somewhat mysteriously) those who were made eunuchs (castrated, wounded) by force or simply born that way. In Acts 8: 26ff. the Holy Spirit sends Philip the Evangelist to share the gospel with an Ethiopian eunuch. It’s an amazing passage as we read that Philip literally runs alongside his chariot to find the Ethiopian reading Isaiah 53.  He learns from Philip that Jesus is the Suffering Servant spoken of by the prophet, the sheep led to the slaughter, the One by whose stripes we are made whole. Isaiah writes in that chapter that “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  Now what makes this story so powerful is that according to the Mosaic law, this man was excluded from the temple on two counts: he was a gentile, and he was a eunuch -- physically maimed and disfugured (Deut. 23:1; Lev. 21: 16-20)! The good news is that this man who had been formerly excluded from temple worship, was now being welcomed into God’s kingdom in fulfillment of Isaiah 56: 3-5 (read it!)…and friends, that should give every single one of us hope who feel like outcasts, sexually broken, maimed, or even violated.

I'm thinking of Jackie Pullinger who spent decades with the outcasts of society in Hong Kong. She tells the story of a 72 year old woman in her church who was a heroine addict and a prostitute for 60 years. Day after day, she would sit outside the brothel waiting for customers, as she poked in the sewers. She injected her back three times a day because the veins in her arms and legs had collapsed. She had no identity card and did not exist as far as the Hong Kong gov’t was concerned. Through Jackie’s ministry, she gave her life to Christ, received God’s forgiveness, and in one of Jackie’s halfway houses, she began to experience God’s healing. Eventually, she married Little Wa in 1992 who was 75 years old. Jackie called it the Wedding of the Decade. The former prostitute was able to walk down the aisle in white, cleansed and forgiven by Jesus Christ – she had been reborn (from Question of Life by Nicky Gumbel).

Friends, every single one of us has a scar or an invisible wound… some of us were wounded at birth, others received wounds that were self-inflicted, or were caused by others. Some of us feel the sadness or guilt of failed relationships and marriages, some of us have been abused or violated, some feel out of place, outcasts among God’s people because of physical or emotional scars. I pray that regardless of the nature of your scar or your story, that you might hear Christ welcoming you, calling you to turn toward him, from everything you know is wrong, that you might become (like his Bride, the Church) pure and spotless, cleansed, forgiven, and above all loved with the perfect love that is God’s greatest gift.