HW 2014 :: Last Words :: “Please”

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In Luke 22, night is beginning to descend: one of Jesus’ closest friends has deserted him, and the authorities are coming to arrest him. As I wrote before, in a way this is no surprise to Jesus. I believe he’s been able to see this coming for a while.

But in another way, I believe this is a terrifying moment for Jesus.

And so he prays.

“‘Father, if it’s your will, take this cup of suffering away from me. However not my will but your will be done.” Then a heavenly angel appeared to him and strengthened him. He was in anguish and prayed even more earnestly. His sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground” (22:42-44).

Jesus says, Please. 

It’s easy—even tempting—to think of Jesus as this stoic, forgiveness-dispensing robot who has no fear or hesitation about what he has to do. But if Jesus was as fully man as he was fully God (which orthodox belief would say), then being fully man would mean that he would encounter fear and need, because we do. 

Jesus has to say, “Please take this from me.”

Would he have actually turned away from his arrest if he would’ve had the chance? I don’t know. I doubt it. I think he would have pushed the issue like a true prophet of Israel, until he had made enough people angry.

But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t without emotion.

That doesn’t mean that on that evening in the Garden he didn’t ask. 

And when he asked, God said, “No.” 

I suppose it’s often the same way with us…

… We ask.

… We say please.

… Sometimes we even beg.

But sometimes God says, “No.”

But just like with Jesus, it’s not so much God’s answer that is telling, but it’s our response to the answer that is critical.

What do you do when God says, “No”? Particularly when we are facing challenges or hard times? Do you rationalize? Well, I know it seemed like that was a clear “No”, but I’m sure that God wouldn’t want me to suffer, so maybe I’ll just act on this anyway. 

Do you rebel? I’ll show God; if I don’t get my way I’ll just take my toys (ministry, gifts, tithes, support, etc.) and go home. 

Any number of responses are possible.

But Jesus doesn’t do any of these, because he knows a secret. In fact, it’s the same secret he’s been talking about for a long time:

The point of life is not to avoid pain; the point is to ask, “How can I grow through this?” 

After all, Jesus has been telling his disciples for a long time: you may not be able to “avoid temptation”, but you can stand through it.

But standing through pain and heartache and hurt and fear takes the one thing that we all need as humans: faith. 

If Jesus was only God, only divine, he wouldn’t need faith. He would be able to make reality simply conform to his wishes, and then there would be no doubt, no fear.

No please. 

But significantly, he says Take this away. 

Which means he can understand us when we have fears, doubts, anxiety; when we face the unknown.

So when Jesus says, “Please,”

… And God says, “No,”

… Jesus says, “Not Your will, but mine.”

And Jesus carries on in faith, that the One who calls his name will stand with him and not desert him, even as he walks, quite literally, through the valley of the shadow of death. 

Next Up: Forsaken and Defiant.

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Is Easter REALLY Our “Super Bowl”?

Is Easter Sunday REALLY the Super-Bowl?

Growing up in my faith tradition, it was common to hear Easter Sunday referred to as “The Super Bowl”. Since it is (was?) traditionally one of the most heavily attended Sundays of the year, there is always a tremendous amount of time and energy put into making an amazing Sunday experience—both for guests and for God.

We put together the best musicians we can find, we purchase thousands of dollars in Easter lillies, we polish the pews and the doors and we make extra room for people who will “check out faith” for perhaps the only time that year.

In short, we put our best foot forward.

Part of this effort is in recognition of the celebration of the resurrection: Easter really IS a special day in our faith, and we do our best to make our worship reflect the glory and joy of Jesus’ resurrection.

However, is calling it “The Super Bowl” really the best metaphor? I’m not sure.

(For starters, soccer is a much better metaphor for the spiritual life.)

The reason I’m rather uncomfortable with the Super Bowl image is that, well, it just puts too much of me in it. The Super Bowl depends on the players playing in it.

Christ’s resurrection does not.

Our best efforts on Easter are not so much to “make it happen” but to respond to something that has already happened.

Our Super Bowl really happened already. We are just basking in the victory now.

Furthermore, the Super Bowl metaphor (and yeah, I know: all metaphors break down eventually, but this is my rant, not yours) doesn’t really play out theologically: We play the Super Bowl; you (Who: guests? The Church?) watch us. 

I wonder if a different image might be a Feast: We are inviting people to “our house” where a great celebration is going to happen. We didn’t even cook the meal, but it’s going to be a night of rich food and deep celebration. We want you to come, but the success of the feast doesn’t really depend on our greatness, or the 6 (8? 10? 15?) hours of rehearsal…

It depends on the presence of the One whom we are celebrating.

We are participants, with you—the guests, the Church… everyone. 

We have come to the feast just like you. We are not separate.

So what if instead of “Playing the Super Bowl” this year, we “Went to the Feast” (and invited others to come as well)?

 

HW 2014 :: Last Words :: “You Will Be Pruned”

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In John’s gospel, Jesus talks to the disciples a lot. He spends a lot of time in chapters 13-17 giving advice and challenging them to live a radically loving and service-oriented life. As in the rest of the gospel, Jesus makes good use of metaphor, in particular in chapter 15:1-8, which is worth quoting at length:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. If you on’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you. Ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.

There are two things that stand out in this passage: First, as with “sifting”, pruning is not usually meant to be pleasant. Most of us think that we increase our effectiveness by adding things to our lives:

  • gadgets,
  • activities,
  • Titles
  • Commitments
  • Awards

However, Jesus’ words here push back—quite forcefully—against this. Pruning is not grafting: it’s not adding things onto a plant or a grapevine. It is removing things… quite abruptly.

By cutting them off.

God wants us to be effective—to produce fruit—and most of us would eagerly agree to the idea of being effective “for God.” What most of us don’t want to think about is cutting things out of our lives—being pruned—in order to be effective. Removing, for instance…

Gadgets…

Activities…

Commitments…

Awards…

Titles…

It doesn’t seem so pleasant, and yet “addition by subtraction” really does seem to be what Jesus is aiming for.

The second aspect of this passage emerged when I was studying the Lord’s Prayer. A theologian pointed out that a common practice for growing grape vines was that a particular plant would be pruned for three years before it was allowed to produce fruit. Rather than rushing to produce, the vine was cut back so that its root system could grow deeper. 

I was struck by my attitude towards serving: my rush to “do something” for the church, and my impatience to make an impact.

In contrast, Jesus says that before you do something, you need to be something: namely deep and rooted. 

Obviously, there are pretty profound implications for the way we lead people as well, specifically in how deeply we challenge people to grow, and how much to we emphasize who people are becoming as opposed to the things kinds of things they are doing.

As we reach the halfway point in this Holy Week, the two questions that Jesus asks today are:

  1. What are you prepared to cut away in order to produce?
  2. Have your roots grown deep enough to balance out the ministry you are involved with? Does your character match your call?

Feel free to share, and also feel free to follow me on Twitter.

 

Next up: Jesus says, “Please.”

 

HW 2014 :: Last Words :: “You Will Be Sifted”

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Just after the Last Supper, the disciples show their humanness by immediately having an argument on who is the greatest. Evidently they have utterly missed the point of Jesus’ teachings on service and humility. When he hears their debate, Jesus reminds them that the greatest among them “must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant” (Luke 22:26).

In the gospels, Peter often serves as the “representative disciple”, meaning that he symbolizes the questions, successes and (mostly) failures of the disciples—of The Twelve and of all us.

Immediately after Jesus reminds all of the Twelve about “true greatness,” he turns to Peter and says, “Simon, Simon, look! Satan has asserted the right to sift you all like wheat. However I have prayed for you that your faith won’t fail. When you have returned, strengthen your bothers and sisters” (Luke 22:31-32).

 

This is a harsh but very true statement that holds as true for us today as it did for Peter. Sifting is not easy. Sifting separates the good from the bad, but it is seldom pleasant. If for nothing else, sifting reminds us that inside us there is both wheat and chaff.

 

Most of the time we don’t want to be reminded that we are not all perfect, but Jesus here reminds the “representative disciple” that it’s sort of inevitable, that some kind of breaking or humbling is going to come Peter’s—and thus our—way.

 

Interestingly, Jesus tells Peter that he has prayed that his strength won’t fail. It’s reminiscent of Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer: “Don’t lead us into temptation” (Luke 11:4b). In Matthew’s version of the prayer, Jesus says, “Don’t lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” There is a sense in Jesus’ teachings that temptation is a given. Avoiding it is not the point, but enduring it is (otherwise, he wouldn’t have to add, “but deliver us from the evil one”).

 

So with these words, Jesus is saying that reflection, humility, and even a bit of failure is inevitable for a disciple, but Jesus will be praying that we find our way through it. 

 

Then  Jesus adds this additional challenge to Peter: “When you have returned, strengthen your brothers and sisters.”

 

The sequence seems pretty clear:

 

  1. We need to be “sifted”: to examine ourselves and see what’s good and bad in our inventory, and then be prepared to respond appropriately.
  2. We need to rely on Jesus’ strength to help us endure the humbling that sifting involves.
  3. After we get done with our inventory, and come to terms with the “chaff” in our lives, we are called to service.

 

Next up: Jesus gets out the pruning shears.

 

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Holy Week 2014: Last Words – Monday

A couple years ago, I wrote out some thoughts for Holy Week. They were centered around some of the places that Jesus encountered during his last days before his crucifixion. This year, I thought I’d offer some devotional thoughts on some of the last words he spoke. These are simply meant to give us all some things to think about as we process Jesus’ sacrifice.

“Let’s Go To Jerusalem.” 

Though Matthew doesn’t quote Jesus saying this, he does record that “Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day” (Matthew 16:21).

Personally, I think it’s crystal clear that Jesus knew what was waiting for him in Jerusalem. The portrait that the gospels paint of Jesus is of a man who is well aware of the directions that the winds in Israel were blowing. Between Rome’s empire and Israel’s coming, religion-fueled violent revolution Jerusalem was not the place to go if you (a) wanted to stay safe while (b) preaching the arrival of God’s kingdom.

But safety isn’t part of Jesus’ agenda.

Unless he chooses to change his message (God is King) or his strategy (non-violent resistance and prophetic pronouncements), Jesus knows what waits for him in Jerusalem: the might, power, and force  of the temple and the religious establishment (backed by Rome’s interest in keeping the tax money flowing).

Jesus may not be a mathematician, but I imagine he can add, and he can see that this is going to end badly for him.

But that’s exactly why he chooses to go.

I don’t know if Jesus was “afraid” in any sense that we may understand that word, but at any rate he sees where the danger and darkness lies, and he walks straight towards it. 

For many of us, we don’t need to look very far for darkness and danger. For a lot of us, we have wilderness and black caves inside our own souls; that’s where our darkness is. There are things—brokenness, fears, unconfronted/unacknowledged sin—lurking deep inside of our hearts and lives. They may be backed by the power of years of co-dependency and escapism, and we may be well aware that to confront them may very well mean pain and even death of parts of us.

But in the same way that Jesus knows, and still goes, I think we are called to go: go to the dark places inside us, the places that are rooted in the power of this world, that will buffet and beat us as soon as we show up.

Moreover, I think that we are called to go to the dangerous places inside us with Jesus’ message and method: “God is King, and you will be defeated, not by asserting more power or more control, but by surrender of ego, of self, and by a willingness to die to myself.”

What is your “Jerusalem”? An addiction? A vision of your future that you’ve clung to? Your pride? What would it mean to walk towards it, to face it, and then to surrender so that God can begin to heal you? 

The Bible Project Pt 6: The Mission in Jeopardy

With Abram’s decision to listen and go, God’s rescue project is back underway. Everything that went “wrong” in Genesis 3 is now going to be set right. Abram indeed has a family—a couple of sons, in fact (Genesis 16-21). Then those sons have a couple sons (Esau and Jacob; Genesis 26-28), and eventually we get down to 12 brothers who form the beginnings of this nation that will “bless the whole world” (though they are still just a family, not a nation… yet). One of those brothers, Joseph, ends up in Egypt and actually rises to great status and honor in that nation, and as part of Abram’s family, it’s easy to see how this rise in status will help bless the whole world because, well, it’s easy to equate power with blessing.

But as the years pass, something goes amiss, and the “rescue project” begins to experience a major challenge. Exodus 1:8 says that, “a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph,” and with that innocuous statement, the wheels begin to come off. The Egyptians end up enslaving Abrams family—the rescue project—and forcing them to build cities for them.

How will the blessing move forward now?

In Exodus chapters 4-12, God demonstrates clearly—first to Moses and then to Pharaoh—that the blessing will not be held captive, culminating with the great release of Israel in chapters 12-14.

God’s agenda—the mission to rescue and restore—will not be denied. It will not be held captive, not even by the pre-eminent world empire of the day. The people are set free from their slavery in order to—and this is critical to understand—to get the blessing back on track.

Freedom is not the only point of Exodus; mission is.

This point is born out in the rest of the book of Exodus. In Exodus 19, God tells His people plainly what His hopes for them are:

“You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagles’ wing and brought you to me. So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole earth belongs to me. You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation.” (vv4-6a)

To break this down:

  • Identity is rooted in God’s gracious acts. God released His people merely because they needed to be released, not because they had done anything in particular to warrant his act. He moved before people were able to “deserve” it.
  • Being faithful to God means being a kingdom of priests.
  • Priests, by definition, exist to “intercede” to mediate or “come between” God and those who seek to meet Him.

As God’s mission gets back on track, He does a couple things to prepare this fledgling nation of priests. First in Exodus 20, God gives them a set of basic guidelines—we know them as the 10 Commandments—to live by. This is to be the basic code of life for God’s people so that they can be this nation of mediators, of priests, to the rest of the world. (Notice that these guidelines are not given so that Israel can earn God’s love; God has already unilaterally shown His love for His people by releasing them from slavery. The Law is given after freedom, in order to help His people live out their mission.)

Second, God establishes a “dwelling place” in the midst of His people. Much of the rest of Exodus, from chapter 25 to 40:33, is filled with the instructions of how construct “The Tabernacle” (or “dwelling place”): what materials to use, how to arrange them, what goes inside, who will maintain it, how they will dress, etc., etc. Another book of the Old Testament (Numbers 2) tells us that the Tabernacle sat at the exact center of the camp, and that all of God’s people would camp around it. Finally, everything finally culminates in Exodus 40:34-38—the last four verses of the book—when God enters the Tabernacle:

“When Moses had finished all the world, the cloud covered the meeting tent and the LORD’s glorious presence filled the dwelling. Moses couldn’t enter the meeting tent because the cloud had settled on it, and the LORD’s glorious presence filled the dwelling. Whenever the cloud rose from the dwelling, the Israelites would set out on their journeys. But if the cloud didn’t rise, then they didn’t set out until the day it rose. The LORD’s cloud stayed over the dwelling during the day, with lightning in it at night, clearly visible to the whole household of Israel at every stage of their journey.”

With these words, the Bibles gives us a picture of how God’s mission should work:

  • God has a people
  • He—and worship—is at their center
  • They move when He moves, and stay put when He stays put
  • The world comes to God through His people (the Church); they exist to introduce the world outside to God

Rather than being just an ancient tale of miracles, wandering and tent-making, Exodus gives us the model of mission for God in the world.

 

The Bible Project, Pt 5: Rescue Begins

To read The Bible Project, Pt 4 click here

To review:

• God created.
• God created humanity in His image, with freedom and authority
• That creation got fractured in a big way, but God responds with mercy and grace

But there’s still a long road ahead, and the central problem is this:

Creation is broken; what is God going to do about it?

From Genesis 3 to Genesis 11, evil and chaos spread over the earth, but then when we get to Genesis 12 something interesting happens:

A man named Abram hears something.

“The LORD said to Abram, ‘Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of earth will be blessed because of you.’

Abram left just as the LORD told him, and Lot went with him.

With those few lines, everything changes, and God reveals His plan:

• Abram is going to have a family/nation
• God is going to “bless” (fix) the earth
• This blessing is going to come through Abram and his family

With that, God’s “rescue project” is underway. His plan is to deal with the fracture of Genesis 3 through a people.

This passage also says two additional things about God and His story:

First, this God calls. The Bible doesn’t tell us how many people God actually spoke to, only that Abram listened. Regardless, God is a god of invitation, of extension, of welcome. We just have to learn to open our ears (or eyes) to hear Him.

Secondly, in the same way that God gave humanity “work” to do in the garden, God gives humanity work to do to help in the rescue of His creation.

(He obviously thinks a lot of us).

Put another way, God seems to be saying, “You were part of this problem (the brokenness); now you’re going to get to be part of the solution.”

Hidden inside this pronouncement is something else that will have a profound impact on the story. As the rescue project moves forward, it will be marked by three characteristics:

  1. It will be a community (“a nation” in v2). The rescue mission involves an invitation to be a part of a people. It is an invitation to connectedness.
  2. It will be marked by purpose (“an agent…”). It exists to be a blessing to the world, to be a part of the rescue project. To that end, to join the family of God is to receive purpose.
  3. It will be marked by holiness (“blessing”). “Holiness” can be a scary word, but in words of Dr. Brian Russell (who pointed out this three-fold framework), “Holiness is just a desire for people to be a little bit better than they are right now.” To join the rescue project is to desire to be a blessing, not a curse, and therefore involves growth in “blessing” things: love, gratitude, joy, generosity, and so on.

Next up: The Mission in Jeopardy