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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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? 

I Don’t Want a Narcissistic Crucifixion

According to iTunes, I have a lot of music. Over 22 days’ worth, to be exact.

I intentionally chose probably 95% of it; the rest were gifts, and songs that I needed to learn for gigs.

I also have probably 100 podcasts—again, ones that I have chosen.

I really don’t have to listen to the radio anymore. I can exist in my own little “Pod World,” and never have to listen to music I don’t like, or ideas I don’t agree with, any more.

That’s the world we live in—a “targeted marketing” paradise where I can tailor my world around me: my tastes and desires, my whims and wishes.

DVR, Netflix, Facebook, all point to a somewhat disturbing phenomenon:

I am the center of my existence. My needs rule.

Turning to the cross, although this may sound sacrilegious, I want to be crystal clear: Jesus’ death on the cross is not simply about the forgiveness of my individual sins. 

As N. T. Wright puts it, for too long we have made this individual forgiveness the “Sun” in our “Good Friday” universe.

But God’s purposes are much, much bigger.

And the truth is, I need it.

I don’t need a salvation that is “all about me” to join up with my universe that is all about me.

I need a God who is bigger than that; who—and pay close attention here—forgives me along the way to a larger and grander purpose in the world. 

The cross isn’t just about individuals; it’s wrapped up with the entire mission of God from Genesis 2, through Abraham, through Israel, through the Prophets, and ultimately into Revelation.

Stay with individual forgiveness only, and you risk developing a narcissistic spirituality; start with mission and you get the over-arching purpose of God, with forgiveness thrown in…

… What a gift!

Holy Week, Friday :: The Praetorium :: the Place of Suffering

Mark 15:1-20. Very early in the morning the leading priests, the elders, and the teachers of religious law—the entire high council—met to discuss their next step. They bound Jesus, led him away, and took him to Pilate, the Roman governor.

Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus replied, “You have said it.”

Then the leading priests kept accusing him of many crimes, and Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer them? What about all these charges they are bringing against you?” But Jesus said nothing, much to Pilate’s surprise.

Now it was the governor’s custom each year during the Passover celebration to release one prisoner—anyone the people requested. One of the prisoners at that time was Barabbas, a revolutionary who had committed murder in an uprising. The crowd went to Pilate and asked him to release a prisoner as usual.

“Would you like me to release to you this ‘King of the Jews’?” Pilate asked.10 (For he realized by now that the leading priests had arrested Jesus out of envy.) 11 But at this point the leading priests stirred up the crowd to demand the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus. 12 Pilate asked them, “Then what should I do with this man you call the king of the Jews?”

13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!”

14 “Why?” Pilate demanded. “What crime has he committed?”

But the mob roared even louder, “Crucify him!”

15 So to pacify the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He ordered Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip, then turned him over to the Roman soldiers to be crucified.

16 The soldiers took Jesus into the courtyard of the governor’s headquarters (called the Praetorium) and called out the entire regiment. 17 They dressed him in a purple robe, and they wove thorn branches into a crown and put it on his head. 18 Then they saluted him and taunted, “Hail! King of the Jews!”19 And they struck him on the head with a reed stick, spit on him, and dropped to their knees in mock worship. 20 When they were finally tired of mocking him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him again. Then they led him away to be crucified.

After the public betrayal and humiliation of the upper room, Jesus’ physical ordeal begins. He is arrested at night, and then kept up through a sham (and illegal) trial, before being delivered over to the only people with the power to inflict capital punishment in the region—the Romans.

The Romans didn’t particularly dislike Jesus; to them he was simply another Jewish religious fanatic. The punishment they inflicted on him wasn’t particularly malicious or evil.

But it was efficient.

Jesus was beaten, whipped, insulted, and he bled, sweat, and wavered.

Make no mistake, a lot happens at the cross; but a lot happens before the cross as well.

Because Jesus suffers.

Call me crazy, but having a “suffering savior” matters to me.

It’s possible that God, being all-powerful, was completely capable of bringing us back to Himself with a snap of His infinite fingers. But regardless, He chose to come to us in the form of a human being.

Who was beaten, whipped, and crushed.

I think the implications of this are staggering.

If we worshipped a God who was only far-off, who is distant, who is only perfect and clean, than I would be terrified or embarrassed to come to Him (or Her) in my weakness and suffering.

But because God—because somehow YHWH—knows suffering, knows pain, knows humiliation, it means that I can bring my own suffering, pain, and humiliation to Him, and when I do, he says,

“I understand.”

“I have felt this.”

“You don’t have to be ashamed.”

Because God suffered, I can suffer too, and know that He welcomes it, and shares in it. He does not shun me in my weakness, but welcomes me.

Holy Week, Thursday :: The Upper Room :: the Place of Betrayal

12 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go to prepare the Passover meal for you?”

13 So Jesus sent two of them into Jerusalem with these instructions: “As you go into the city, a man carrying a pitcher of water will meet you. Follow him. 14 At the house he enters, say to the owner, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room where I can eat the Passover meal with my disciples?’ 15 He will take you upstairs to a large room that is already set up. That is where you should prepare our meal.” 16 So the two disciples went into the city and found everything just as Jesus had said, and they prepared the Passover meal there.

17 In the evening Jesus arrived with the twelve disciples. 18 As they were at the table eating, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, one of you eating with me here will betray me.”

19 Greatly distressed, each one asked in turn, “Am I the one?”

20 He replied, “It is one of you twelve who is eating from this bowl with me. 21 For the Son of Man[e] must die, as the Scriptures declared long ago. But how terrible it will be for the one who betrays him. It would be far better for that man if he had never been born!”

22 As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take it, for this is my body.”

23 And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 And he said to them, “This is my blood, which confirms the covenant[f]between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice for many. 25 I tell you the truth, I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new in the Kingdom of God.”

26 Then they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives.

What do you fear most?

Though most of us have irrational fears of something physical (ask me sometimes about my “relationship” with reptiles), for most of us the fear of emotional damage and threat loom larger.

How much do you fear humiliation?

I think Mark—and the other gospel writers as well—chooses words very carefully. In no way is he an idiot, or some kind of literary or spiritual half-wit. There’s a picture of Jesus that he is trying to paint, and he is using every available tool to work in the  medium of words.

Notice how he includes the phrase, “The Twelve.” First Jesus sends two disciples into the city to find a room where he will celebrate this Passover-ish meal. Then he shows up with The Twelve. Then he talks to The Twelve. Then he says, one of The Twelve will betray him.

What happened to the two?

I agree, along with theologian and New Testament scholar Craig T. Evans, that the reason Mark highlights the phrase “The Twelve” in this passage is that there were other disciples in the room. They secured a “large room” for the meal: more than enough for Jesus and his chosen twelve. But a large room would be necessary to accommodate a larger group of followers.

How many were there? 20? 40?

So when Jesus announces that one of these 12 followers would betray him, it’s not in a private, intimate place. It’s not an aside to a camera.

It’s in public.

There would’ve been some kind of gasp in the room. This was the “inner circle”, the chosen disciples, representing the “new Israel.”

And Jesus just announced that they would fail; not just fail but betray.

It would’ve been, to say the least, an awkward moment.

But Jesus is not surprised, and doesn’t seem let it affect the moment, because he goes on with the meal. 

He inaugurates the Lord’s supper, and proclaims the new covenant.

In spite of their coming failure.

Because ultimately it’s not their mission to complete. They can fail (and fail they do); he will not. 

So today, as we work through “Maunday Thursday“, keep these things in mind:

  • Relatedly (and obviously), we have all betrayed and failed Jesus in some way
  • Jesus’ is not surprised by our struggles to be faithful; he works through them and in spite of them
  • He is also not embarrassed by us; it’s his mission—we are merely called to do what he called those disciples in the upper room to do…
…To remember him.
Tomorrow: The Place of Suffering

Holy Week, Tuesday :: Bethany :: the Place of Safety

Take a few minutes and read Mark 14:1-9

Interspersed in the narrative of Jesus’ time in Jerusalem are these episodes of Jesus in a town called Bethany. What emerges is the picture of Bethany as a place of safety for Jesus, away from the tension and conflict of Jerusalem during Passover. It was a place where his friends Simon, Mary, and Martha lived, a place where he could come and “exhale” during this closing act of his life.

Where are your places of safety? Who are the people in your life that you can truly relax around? Are there activities and routines that give you peace?

When is the last time you did those things? When is the last time you were with those people?

When is the last time you experienced deep peace and security?

The first two thoughts for today are:

  • If you haven’t experienced this lately, carve out time to find it. Go to that place; be with those people, do those routines. There is nothing wrong with rest. There is nothing wrong with peace.
  • If there are people who have historically given you this peace, consider thanking them. Write a note, make a phone call to say, “This is what you’ve done for me in my life, and I want you to know what a great gift it has been.”

The remaining thought centers around Bethany in the context of the story.

Because as comforting as Bethany was, Jesus didn’t stay there. He went there a couple times, but he used it (and the relationships there) as fuel for his mission.

  • Have you stayed too long in Bethany? Rather than calling you to more rest, is God calling you out, to a place of mission? Are you a bit too comfortable?

Holy Week, Monday :: Jerusalem :: the Place of Mission

We are hosting early morning gatherings this week. I thought I’d post my reflections on and/or excerpts from my teaching. 

As the time drew near for him to ascend to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. (Luke’s Gospel, 9:51)

‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. And now, look, your house is abandoned. And you will never see me again until you say, “Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ (Luke’s Gospel, 13:34-35)

I believe Jesus knew exactly what was waiting for him in Jerusalem. I think he knew the storm he was stirring up, and that when we walked into the center of the storm, he would encounter pain and suffering and death.

And he went anyway.

He went because, as Israel’s king, he was going to (finally) be the suffering servant that God had wanted Israel to be. He went because he knew that God wanted to take his mission to the whole world, to the people beyond the borders of Israel, but in order to do that someone had to pay the price for Israel’s sin, someone had to end the exile that Israel was in so that the light could go out to all the nations.

In this sense, Jerusalem represents the fulfillment of his mission, and “the road” is the path to that mission. Everything is leading up to this moment, this destination.

I love that phrase, “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”

He strips everything away, and begins to focus on the culmination of his mission. Distractions will no longer be allowed. He has to complete his mission.

As we begin our own journey to the cross on Friday, is there anything distracting you? 

In a sense, our mission this week is to enter into the story of Jesus’ last week. By doing that—by faithfully and compassionately remembering Jesus’ last days, suffering, and death—we are making the story current and real.

  • Can you “resolutely” set out for Friday?
  • Is there something you need to set aside for these final days of lent, in order to allow God to work in your life?
  • What can you do to clear space for your mission this week: to listen to and experience the fulfillment of Jesus’ mission?