What Happened at Easter? (Surprised by Hope Sermon Series: Part 2)


Chrch-of-the-holy-sepulchreJohn 20:24-29

Walking up to the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is an experience that many Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land look forward to their whole lives. The church is the holiest site in Christendom, and marks the traditional site of the Mount of Calvary and the location of Jesus’ tomb, so you’d think that visiting this place would be a powerfully spiritual and emotional experience. Well, it may be for some, but it never has been for me.

First, the church is pretty non-descript, buried as it is in the midst of a bunch of other old buildings that cling to it like barnacles. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d walk right past it, though the crowds going inside the massive wooden doors might give it away.

Once you make it through the doors, however, you immediately feel not a little bit disoriented and perhaps a little bit disappointed. Right inside the doors there’s a set of steep steps that you go up marked as the Mount of Calvary. At the top of the stairs you don’t find a hill but a chapel that is crammed with people all jockeying for position. Monks yell at the crowd to stay in line and be quiet. People argue with one another about who got there first. I actually felt somebody tug at my wallet once before I slapped the unseen hand away. All of this to move to the altar in the little chapel, underneath which there is a hole in the floor where people, one by one, kneel down and stick their hands in and touch the “rock of calvary,” the place where Jesus was crucified. This should be a holy moment, but getting yelled at by a monk to “move along” makes it less so.

You join the crowd down the back stairs and across the church to a large rotunda, underneath which there is a small building which is considered to be the site of Jesus’ tomb. No garden here, like the Gospels talk about, just a crushing crowd of people waiting in line to go into a tiny room where there’s a slab of limestone that is supposed to be the place where Jesus was laid. But the stone comes from Europe and was put there in the 19th century to mark the place where the original slab probably stood.

It’s a strange mixture there at the holiest site in Christendom. Archaeologists generally consider the site to be accurate given the fact that the church was built on top of an old first century rock quarry with lots of first century tombs still evident. The church was originally built in the year 330 by Helena, the mother of the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine, who discerned the site based on the tradition of Christians worshipping at the site, and the fact that the Emperor Hadrian had built a temple to Aphrodite over the site in the second century—probably as a way of negating the Christian influence. Helena tore down the pagan temple and built the church, which has undergone many additions, rebuilds and renovations since. It’s one of the few places in Israel where you can say with some certainty that “this is the place” where Jesus was.

And yet, it’s a place that is buried under layers of church tradition and conflict. The site is now divided by seven different Christian traditions—Ethiopian, Greek, Syrian, Roman Catholic, Armenian, and Coptic—all of whom claim rights to the church and who defend those rights, sometimes violently. It is said that if a monk sweeping his tradition’s part of the church goes too far into another’s territory it can spark a riot, which happens with surprising frequency. The Israeli Police have to come in and break it up.

Interestingly, too, there’s a ladder on a ledge above the main entrance door that’s been there since the mid 19th century because none of the churches can agree on who has the authority to move it. Here, in the holiest site in Christendom, Christ-like compassion, peace, and care is ironically elusive. The true meaning of the cross and the resurrection seems to be buried underneath all those layers of church tradition, ornamentation, and conflict.

Every time I’ve gone there, I’ve thought about the idea that the reality of Easter isn’t only buried there in Jerusalem under layers of liturgical stuff, it’s often buried in many of our churches. Like angry monks we often have a tendency to see our traditions as needing to be guarded and defended, rather than asking the deeper question of what Easter really means biblically. When we do that kind of excavation, we tend to find a story that isn’t something to be defended, but something to be lived out.

So, what does Easter really mean? Well, as we dig into the resurrection stories in the Gospels themselves and into Paul’s understanding of the resurrection we will see that they are not, on the one hand, stories about a spiritualized idea of Jesus, nor are they, on the other, a comprehensive defense of Jesus’ divinity or of a heavenly destiny. That’s how the resurrection has generally been viewed by the left and right on the continuum. Ask most people what resurrection means and they’ll tell you one of those two versions. What the Gospels are trying to tell us instead, if we’ll listen, is that the resurrection of Jesus is the inauguration of a whole new world—a new creation that shatters all the old categories of life, death, body and spirit and leads to a very different worldview than the ones we’ve been given either on the left or the right.

Belief of thomasThe story of Thomas provides a prime example of this shift in worldview in the Gospel of John. The disciple most often known as “Doubting Thomas” is sometimes used by preachers and commentators as a kind of straw man representing skepticism of the Christian message, but the story is less about Thomas’ doubt than it is about his belief.

John tells us earlier in the text that Thomas wasn’t the only one who questioned the story that Jesus had been raised. Mary Magdalene was the first one to see him, and then rushed to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (v. 18). Notice, however, that the disciples hiding out in the house “for fear of the Jews” didn’t seem to believe her until Jesus himself showed up. Only when they saw him themselves did they “rejoice” (v. 20). Thomas hadn’t been with the disciples at that moment, but the disciples told him, as Mary had told them, “we have seen the Lord” (v. 25). Thomas isn’t that different from the other disciples who cannot quite grasp what the empty tomb means.

Thomas, however, is more honest in his attempts to guard his reason. Like a good historian, Thomas wants to see and to touch. He wants to see the nail prints and the scar in Jesus’ side, just like his friends had seen. Rather than doubting their story, Thomas needs to see evidence before belief. The word “doubt” doesn’t actually appear anywhere in this text. In the Greek, the word is “apistos” or “unbelief.” Thomas, in other words, isn’t dismissing the good news, he simply wants to guard his reason until he sees evidence that demands a verdict.

But the evidence that Thomas is looking for isn’t something that can be categorized in the normal way. We know, as they knew, that people who die tend to stay dead. We know, too, that some people report seeing visions of departed loved ones or report seeing apparitions, but this wasn’t that kind of account. Thomas wants evidence that can be seen, felt, touched. A ghost you could explain away, a vision you would understand, but an embodied, risen Jesus? This I have to see to believe!

And Jesus obliges, showing up a week later with an invitation for Thomas to touch and feel. Now, you’d expect that John would give us a short sentence saying that Thomas did just that—that he would examine the evidence with his sense of touch. But John doesn’t say that. Instead, Thomas transcends the kind of knowing that he had intended to use and passes into a deeper and richer one. In the midst of the risen Jesus, Thomas moves from unbelief requiring evidence, to belief requiring a response.

It is Thomas, the historian, who thus speaks the first words of confession about what the resurrection of Jesus meant to him, to the disciples, and to the world. He simply says, “My Lord and my God!” He moves from guarding his position to giving his worship

Thomas’ statement is a loaded one that draws together all that we’ve been talking about over the last several weeks. When Thomas calls Jesus “Lord” it’s a title granted to a king—the one whom all of Israel had been waiting for—the one whom would inaugurate God’s kingdom and begin setting the world right—the one who announced that this new creation was at hand. In the first century world, “Lord” was a title reserved only for Caesar—Thomas now declares the first Christian creed in two words—“My Lord”—you are the true king and the kingdom has truly come.

And then, “my God.” Remember the hope of Israel—that God would return to Zion in power and dwell with his people in a renewed and restored temple. Well, here was Jesus, the one in whom heaven and earth come together, the one who, like the temple, was destroyed but, unlike the temple, the one who rose again. God had indeed returned—beating Israel’s greatest enemy, death, by going through it and out the other side to the kind of resurrected life so many of them had been waiting for. The resurrection of Jesus was the coronation and vindication of Israel’s true king—the king of the whole cosmos, and in him a new creation had begun.

The resurrected Jesus stands as the evidence of that new creation that transcends the categories of the old. It’s not merely a spiritual kingdom, but an embodied one, as his scars and, later, his appetite suggests. But it’s not merely a physical kingdom, either. Jesus is embodied, but he seems to appear behind locked doors. His friends didn’t seem to recognize him right away. In Jesus’ Easter body there seems to be both continuity and discontinuity with his pre-resurrection self, and he announces a new kingdom that has both continuity and discontinuity with the present world.  It’s a kingdom that brings heaven and earth together, and we see that most beautifully represented by the risen Christ. We’ll talk about that more next week.

For now, however, like those guardian monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, we can continue to guard our positions on the continuum or, like Thomas, we can choose to confess that the risen Jesus is both Lord and God not just of the future, but of our present. We can stop trying to fit the resurrection into our existing scientific and spiritual categories and, instead, begin to see it as the first event of the new creation and as our vocation to participate with Jesus in making it a reality. If the resurrection means that Jesus is Lord (present tense), then it means that we, as his subjects, have work to do in announcing his kingdom. If the resurrection means that Jesus is God returning to take up residence with his people, then we have a vocation to live and act as if God’s justice and peace and glory is already filling the whole world. Easter means that God, in Christ, has beaten the enemy Death and that all that remains is to announce that victory in advance of his coming. Resurrection then isn’t just a position to be defended, but a vocation for us to live out every day until he comes!

This is clearly what the disciples did. Before Easter, they are hiding out in a locked room wondering if they should quietly go back to fishing. After Easter, they are soon traveling around the ancient Mediterranean world telling people about the crucified and resurrected Messiah, which would have been a blasphemy to many Jews and a puzzling anomaly to many Gentiles. They knew this message was bizarre, but they preached it anyway—they preached it because they witnessed it, and no amount of persecution or even their own violent deaths could stop them from doing it.

Now, a lot of people in the world believe some crazy things, but they usually do so for some personal benefit—that they’ll have many wives, or get their own planet, or advance in levels of knowledge or status. But the early Christians had no upside to their beliefs that would benefit them in the present—no secret knowledge, no promise of riches, no social status. Quite the opposite, actually. They could only expect scorn and ridicule at best and being torn apart in the arena at worst. Being a Christian in the first two plus centuries after Jesus was a dangerous proposition, and it still is today in some places. Did you see the story about the Iranian Christian Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who has been sentenced to death for converting to Christianity? He and others like him reflect that apostolic spirit. The disciples, weren’t concerned so much with personal reward as they were with the renewal of the whole world. They preached Easter not just as a future hope but as a present reality. You could kill them but they still believed they’d be back, embodied and renewed one day. They didn’t go out to fight for their faith, but to give it away sacrificially. You can’t stop a movement like that—and Easter movement, a resurrection movement—a movement that believes death itself can be and will be beaten.

But we’re a long way from those early days, and most of us aren’t on the edge of real persecution. We tend to only talk about resurrection once a year, on Easter. That’s the day that, like every day at the Holy Sepulcher, the guardians start mixing with the tourists—those who come to look around and try to figure out what it’s all about—something to do with tombs or bunnies and eggs and the like. The world is confused about Easter because the church has been confused about it as well.

On my second trip to the Holy Sepulcher, I squeezed into the door at the tail end of my group and joined the crowd pressing up the stairs to Calvary. At the top, waiting there in line, a young couple behind me tapped me on the shoulder. They were Italian, and in broken English they said, “Can you tell us what this place is?” They were in Israel on holiday, and had apparently just followed the crowd into the church. That’s what tourists do.  I told them the story, but what they heard seemed to not connect with what they saw in the crowded chapel. I wanted to tell them more when it was quiet, but then they were gone, whisked away by the crowd.

I wonder how many people crowd into churches every Easter, or look at Christians and  wonder, “Can you tell us what this is all about? How we answer that question is vitally important. Is Easter the event that changes everything, or is it just another religious holiday?

Instead of a theory, instead of a tourist attraction, instead of a spiritualized formula, what they need to hear is the story—the story of how Jesus is both Lord and God and how his resurrection makes all things new, and that that’s what we’re up to right here—practicing resurrection and bringing the life of God’s new creation to bear on a broken world groaning to be made whole again.

May we recapture the call to be Easter people—not just believing in resurrection but living it. People who proclaim Jesus as Lord and God as King—right now, today, and every day.










Can These Bones Live? (Lenten Series: Surprised By Hope – Part I)

Scots-Irish HeadstonesEzekiel 37:1-14

As many of you know, I finished my doctoral dissertation on clergy transitions last week. It’s nice to have that accomplished, but transition wasn’t my original topic. When I first started formulating ideas for the dissertation, I went to my favorite subject, which is the resurrection of Jesus. I’ve had a life-long fascination with the history and theology of that most important event, even though it can seem, on the surface, to be rather morbid. The joining together of death and life have always interested me. One of my hobbies in college, for example, was to check out cemeteries to look at old gravestones and imagine the lives of these people in their time. When Jennifer and I were dating, we’d be driving along and as we passed an old cemetery I had to stop and look it over. To this day, I don’t know why she married me!

My original dissertation plan was thus to preach a series on resurrection and then evaluate congregational response to what would be, for many, a very different view than many of us learned along the way (although, I would argue that this new view is a more biblical one). I had it all planned out but then, after I had written the first chapter, we got the call to come to Tri-Lakes, which brought the topic of transition more to the forefront. I’ve kind of become the conference’s transition expert, and have begun a season of training pastors and SPR committees on that subject.

Still, however, studying the resurrection remains my deepest passion. While I didn’t write that dissertation, I am going to preach that series, which is the one we begin today. Over the years, I read a lot of books on the subject of death and resurrection: books on burial practices, for example, the nature of human personhood, theories of afterlife in different cultures, and the biblical worldview of death and life—quite a library of stuff. One of the books that really grabbed me, however, was one by Dr. Tom Long, who teaches at Candler in Atlanta—a book titled, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral. I know it seems weird, but this book on funerals, death, and resurrection was one of the best I’ve ever read (of course, I’m the kind of pastor who would rather officiate a funeral than a wedding any day—mostly because, at a funeral, people are paying attention as they think about their own mortality!).

I liked this book mostly because Dr. Long gets at the core understanding of death in Scripture. He argues, and I think correctly, that the Bible tends to talk about three kinds of death and, at the outset of this series, knowing the difference can help us begin to understand what’s going on in the Gospel accounts of the resurrection. Using Tom Long’s categories, we might call these “small-d” death, “capital-D” death, and, finally, the death of Christ.

 Small-d death is what we might also call natural death. It’s simply the recognition that we humans are mortal—that we have a certain life span, whether it is short or long. Some might wish that we had life spans like those we read about back in Genesis (Methuselah – 969 years old—imagine how much he had to save for retirement!), but we have to remember that by chapter 6 God had already set a limit on human life – 120 years—which seems to be true even today.

Truth is that each of us has an expiration date, which reminds us that we are human and not divine. That’s what we acknowledged on Ash Wednesday this week as we took ashes on our foreheads and said those words that are so true: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Our mortality, however, is a mixed blessing. On the positive side, the fact that we don’t hang around forever means that our lives have a sense of urgency that can generate things like creativity and faith. If you’re a procrastinator, mortality reminds us that you can’t procrastinate eternally! There is a deadline for all of us. Small-d death keeps us from living in a state of atrophy.

Small-d death also has the somewhat positive affect of assuring us that suffering does not last forever. I’ve sat with a lot of families whose loved ones were suffering terribly in pain and for whom death was a blessed end to their suffering.. While we can never say that small-d death is desirable, sometimes it is a release from the prison of pain. Sometimes death might even be considered a friend to those for whom drawing breath is a struggle.

We’re even more familiar of the downsides of small-d death, however. It reminds us that every day we live we are one day closer to dying (aren’t you glad you came to hear all this today?). And when we die, there’s a pretty good chance we will be forgotten. I’ve done plenty of funerals where a family member will try to say something helpful like, “He’ll be remembered forever.” Well, the truth is that cemeteries are full of people that nobody remembers. Very few people are remembered for more than a couple of generations after their passing. Psalm 103 reminds us of this fact:

“As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it and is gone, and its place knows it no more” (v. 15-16). Knowing that we’ll likely be forgotten, we can get trapped by what Tom Long calls “the anxiety of impermanence” which can cause us to a “what’s the point?” way of thinking. When people think that their lives won’t be worth much in the long run they can wind up wasting their lives in self-destructive ways. Maybe sin itself is really a byproduct of mortality. Conversely, people may also simply try harder to stave off their mortality and drive themselves to an early grave trying to “make their mark” in the world. We all want to be remembered, but will we? Small-d death is a great equalizer, but also a great antagonist.

 Capital-D death, however, is a different reality. Capital-D death is never welcome under any circumstance and is never a gentle friend, but “an alien and destructive force.” It is an enemy—in fact, Paul says that it is the enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). It is God’s enemy, and it not only steals life from individuals but also captures “principalities and powers” (to use Paul’s terms). Capital-D death can enslave human institutions, turn people to warfare, cause hate and genocide, lead to systems of injustice and violence, and make a mockery of God’s good creation. Capital-D death seeks to destroy hope for the future, mocks our very existence, and “scorns human beings who are set down in the middle of history with aspirations for eternal worth” (Long 40). Capital-D death wreaks havoc in the world and we see it at work every time we open a newspaper and read the accounts of madness and mayhem perpetrated by human greed, malice, and sin. Capital-D death convinces humanity to embrace consumption over compassion, greed over grace, and self over our neighbors. When we begin to believe that the world is a dark and evil place, rather than God’s good creation, Capital-D death is at work.

The point is that there is a difference between small-d and Capital-D death. Small-d death ends our life in time and place. Capital-D death seeks to end humanity altogether, consigning it to a future without hope. Sure, people have often thought that they could simply act better and the world would be better, too. The whole Enlightenment project was about human progress—that things will just keep getting better and better and eventually things like war and disease and even death will be conquered by reason, science, and technology. New Atheist voices like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, direct descendants of Enlightenment thinkers like Nietzsche and Kant, write screed after screed decrying faith and calling for pure reason. But how has that Enlightenment project been working out? Is war being eradicated, for example? No—and now we have nuclear weapons (which science gave us, by the way). Try as we might, humanity hasn’t been able to beat back Capital-D death, or even small-d death for that matter. If we’re thinking that we can change things on our own, well, I’ve got bad news. On our own, we’re still subjects of King Death. So we might cry out with Paul, “Wretched people that we are. Who will rescue us from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)

Well, the answer is why we’re here this morning. Sunday morning. An echo of Easter. We read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion last week—all that happened on a Friday—the day that Jesus was nailed to a Roman cross, enduring the pain and agony of death—small-d Death in his broken body and Capital-D death in the form of the evil and violence of empire and hate that put him there. “Death and death apparently had won, as they always do” (Long 42). And Jesus’ friends did the only thing they could do in the face of death and death—prepare for a funeral. 

In Jesus’ day, burial was a two-stage process, and tombs had two parts. One part was a slab where you laid out the recently deceased, washed and wrapped the body in linen cloth, and anointed it with spices designed to both hasten decomposition and cut down the odor of decay. The family did all the preparation: no funeral home in those days. The body would thus break down in the tomb and then, exactly one year later, the family would return and collect the bones of the deceased, placing them in an ossuary or bone box, which would then be stored in a niche in another part of the tomb. The tomb had a stone door because this was repeated each time a family member died.

The people of ancient Israel were thus quite acquainted with small-d death and everything that went with it. It was not sanitized, but an everyday reality. They were also intimately acquainted with the realm of capital-D death. Remember what we said in the previous series—the history of Israel is a history of slavery and occupation by foreign powers that used death as their greatest weapon. They had seen more than their share of death and exile, the cause of which they attributed to their own sin. They understood Capital-D death as the force that still enslaved them, and until that was defeated, until God returned to Zion, until their enemy’s greatest weapon was neutralized, they would still be a subject people. As exile and occupation continued to grind them down, many of them began to look for a new hope—a hope they called resurrection.

Bones3We see that in the passage we read earlier—Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones coming to life. Read that closely and you see that Ezekiel’s prophecy connects resurrection with the return from exile. Look at verse 11: “Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost, we are cut off completely.’” Such is the pain of exile. But then God gives them the promise: “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people and I will bring you back to the land of Israel…(v. 14) “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil…” Here, resurrection is a metaphor for restoration and return—the dry bones can, indeed, live.

But as Israel continued to live under foreign occupation, the idea of resurrection began to move from metaphor to hope, from idea to reality. In the account of the Maccabean revolt in the apocrypha, for example, seven Jewish brothers and their mother stood in front of the pagan king Antiochus Epiphanes and are told to eat pork, in violation of the Jewish law, or they will be put to death. Each brother, in turn, refuses. One says, “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up* to live again forever, because we are dying for his laws.” One has his tongue cut out and his hands cut off, but he bravely holds them out and says, “It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disregard them; from him I hope to receive them again.” As the last of her sons goes to his death, the mother says to him: “I do not know how you came to be in my womb; it was not I who gave you breath and life, nor was it I who arranged the elements you are made of. 23Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who shaped the beginning of humankind and brought about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.”

These Jewish martyrs believed that they would be resurrected one day—given back their bodies—and their resurrection would mean the defeat of all the powers of the earth. They were not only focused on a heavenly reward for their faithfulness, but rather the defeat of Capital D death itself and those who wield its power.

The prophet Daniel, who was hugely influential on the writers of the New Testament and, in some ways, on Jesus himself, put the Jewish hope of resurrection even more succinctly: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the starts forever and ever.” (12:2-3)

Mount_of_Olives_Jewish_Cemetery2By the time of Jesus, this resurrection hope had become woven into the fabric of Jewish hope. The Pharisees, the Essenes and the zealots were proponents of resurrection, though their opposite number, the Sadducess, saw it as a dangerous belief. Resurrection hope meant that, in the end, the forces of evil and both small d and Capital D death would be defeated forever. They believed that this would happen at the last day, when God finally returned to Zion and dwelt with his people forever, judging the nations there in Jerusalem. So strong is that belief that, even today, there is a huge Jewish graveyard on the slope of the Mount of Olives facing the Temple Mount. These are prime burial plots because, in Jewish hope, the ones closest to the temple may be resurrected first and have a ringside seat for the judgment.

But that was still a long way off—a distant dream. No one expected that it would happen in their own time, to one man. No one expected that resurrection life could break in on them in the present. Easter, however, tells us that it did and when it did, it answered Paul’s question: Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:24).

In this series, we’re going to look at how the resurrection of Jesus changes everything by defeating death, inaugurating the end of exile, and leading us to a new creation in which death itself is no more. The resurrection is the central reality of Christian faith—without it, the whole project comes undone. The resurrection of Jesus was the catalyst of the early church, and can be our catalyst once again. It was the central theme of the preaching of the apostles, and should be our central theme as well. In a time when so many churches are merely offering people tips for living life just a little better, an understanding of the resurrection leads us to understanding life itself—life in the midst of death, beyond death, and over death.

The bones of Israel in Ezekiel’s vision and the bones of Jesus laid out for burial are deeply connected. Jesus is Israel, and he will prove that her bones can, indeed, live and bring life to the whole dry, dusty world. This is the best news ever, and we’re going to spend the rest of Lent exploring it and understanding it.

But to get there, we first have to be willing to address the reality of death among us—the small d death that robs us of our loved ones, and the Capital D death that drives much of our world. No, you don’t have to be the kind of strange nerd that likes browsing through cemeteries, but you might become the kind of person who faces the reality of death with the sure and certain hope of resurrection—a person who believes that these bones can live.

You know, yesterday we had a memorial service here for Ken Carlson, and then afterward the ladies prepared a feast—a celebration of life in the midst of death, a meal of promise, and fellowship, and hope. That’s the biblical way of life, indeed its whole story.

That’s one of the reasons we’ve implemented weekly communion during the Lenten season. When we come to the table, we face the reality of life and death together—Jesus’ death and his death, Jesus’ life and our life. The broken body and shed blood of Jesus, the victim of death in all of its forms and power, changes to a symbol and a promise of resurrection life. We want you to not only hear the good news, but to taste it.

 I once asked a rabbi fried of mine to define Judaism and he said, “Bob, that’s easy: They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” That’s what we celebrate at this table, but with a little twist: “They tried to kill him, he won…let’s eat!”

 These bones can live!



The Meaning of Jesus: Part 7–The Meaning of the Cross

Cross.1We come now to the climax of our series on the meaning of Jesus, and the climax of the whole biblical story of Jesus that we’ve been looking at over the past six weeks. I say it’s the “climax” and not the end of the series, because our Lenten series is going to take us to the next part of the story—the story of Jesus’ resurrection, the story of the church, and the story of God’s future and our future in God’s good creation. It seems a good time to do that, what with all the speculative talk about 2012 being the end of the world as we know it—but, to quote the band REM, we’re going to learn that that’s something to feel fine about. Indeed, it’s not the end of the world that we should be looking for, but rather the beginning of God’s new creation. Stay tuned during Lent for that story.

To get there, however, we have to first understand the massive importance of the cross in the biblical story. The cross is our central symbol, the one that dominates our view of worship and the life of discipleship. And yet, as important and central as the cross is to our faith, many Christians don’t really understand why.

For example, I had a conversation once with a college student when I was doing campus ministry in my first appointment. During a late night Bible study, the student, who was a very deep thinker, said to the group, “I often hear that whole ‘Jesus died for my sins’ thing, but how does that work? What does the death of a man in an obscure part of the world 2,000 years ago have to do with me and my situation right now?

That was a great question, and one that theologians have wrestled with themselves for a long time. Indeed, over the course of Christian history, many theories of the atonement, or the meaning of Jesus’ death, have emerged. The ransom theory, for example, says that Jesus died as a ransom to Satan (based on Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45, where Jesus says he came to give his life as a ransom for many). This theory says that God gave up Jesus to Satan in order to set us free from captivity to sin and death, but then God tricked Satan by raising Jesus from the dead and depriving the devil of his prize captive.

The Satisfaction Theory, on the other hand, says that Jesus appeased God’s angry wrath by being a ritual human sacrifice.

Closely allied with that theory is the Penal Substitution Theory, which says that God’s mercy replaced his wrath after the infinite self-sacrifice of Jesus. Because Jesus was righteous and sinless, God credits us with that righteousness because of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins.

Then there’s the Moral Influence Theory, which says that Jesus’ death is simply an example for the rest of humanity to emulate. As Jesus gave himself for us, we should give ourselves for others.

Some of these sound familiar to you if you’ve been part of a church for at least part of your life. There are others, too. Different traditions use these theories as the standard answer to the question of why Jesus had to die.

But while these theories each have some truth to offer us, the problem with them is that they are incomplete in and of themselves. Like the edited versions of the gospel that we talked about at the beginning of this series, atonement theories tend to focus on pieces and parts of Scripture, and are truncated versions of the story the Gospel writers are telling us—a story that sees the cross as the climax of a much larger story—the story of the Bible, the story of Israel, the story of how God redeems his good creation. The meaning of the cross isn’t derived from a theory, it’s derived from the whole story.

 Remember how that story goes? It begins with God creating the world for the purpose of dwelling there. God creates humans in his image as the stewards of that creation, and walks with these humans in a face-to-face, loving relationship. The humans, however, seem to want more than that, so they listen to snake who, like the accuser Satan, reminds them that they can choose to be more than God created them to be.

 So they reject the image of God for their own image, and the result of their sin is the curse of death—the ultimate dehumanizing force. The whole creation suffers because the human stewards no longer see their vocation as caring for it. Instead, they begin to exploit the creation, and each other.

But God does not give up on the project. Indeed, God chooses another human, a man named Abram, and makes him a promise—through your family will come a great nation that will bless the whole world. This nation will be a light to other nations, showing them the way to be truly human, living out the purpose of stewardship and reflecting my image. Through Abraham’s family, God is going to carry out his project of redeeming and renewing his good creation, and will dwell with his people there.

 Abraham’s family grows into a nation, which soon finds itself enslaved to one of the powerful empires of the world, Egypt. The tyrant, Pharaoh, rules over Israel, but God sends a leader named Moses to deliver his people from slavery. The moment of liberation takes place at Passover, when the people are to place the blood of an unblemished lamb on the doorpost as a protection against the death that will pass over Egypt and it’s tyrant ruler. The Passover sacrifice signals the beginning of an exodus out of slavery and into a new future.

God preserves the nation of Israel, despite her grumbling in the desert and, through the law, gives them their vocation as a light to the nations. If they were faithful to this mission and to their covenant with God, God would give them the inheritance of a promised land, a holy land, from which they would be a city on a hill, a lamp on a stand, the salt of the earth, the ones through whom God’s redemptive plan for the whole world would be realized. Indeed, God dwells with Israel in the tabernacle, and then the temple—the place where heaven and earth came together. God had intended to dwell with his people from the beginning of creation, and the temple represented that reality.

But Israel could not carry out this mission. The creeping influence of sin and idolatry was always pulling them away from it and from God. Israel’s kings struggled to stay faithful, and as they went, so did their people. Instead of being a light to other nations, Israel chose to be like them. Instead of obedience to God, Israel chose to be the kind of power from which they had been liberated all those years before—the kind of power that oppresses the poor and gives into self-serving idolatry.

So God deals with Israel’s sin by withdrawing from the temple and removing Israel from the land. Israel goes into exile in Babylon because of sin, her failure to be the people God called her to be. After some years, some of the people return and rebuild, but things are not the same. The temple is rebuilt a couple of times, but God’s glory is no longer present in the way it was. They are overtaken by foreign powers—the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Syrians, the Romans. They are still, in a very real sense, enslaved and in need of liberation.

But again, God does not forget them. God promises Israel a savior—a messiah who will come and set things right. The messiah will restore the temple, cleansing it as the place for God to return and dwell once again. And the messiah will fight Israel’s battle against her enemies, forcing them out. The messiah will be Israel’s representative, indeed, he will be Israel, and do for Israel what she, in her sin, could not do for herself.

In the midst of all that hope and expectation, however, Israel seemed to miss an important vision of the Messiah. The prophet Isaiah had said that the messiah would, indeed, cleanse the temple and fight Israel’s battle, but he would do it not through triumph, but through suffering. The suffering servant, as Israel in person, would bear the pain of Israel’s sin. As Isaiah 53:5-6 puts it, “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 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.”

As we have been saying throughout this series, Jesus believed that it was his mission to embody the messiah’s mission, but in a way that nobody expected. Jesus would take on Israel’s commission to be a light to the nations and succeed where she failed, but at a high price. The blessing that was to come through Israel to the whole world would not come through the show of power and strength they had long hoped for but, ironically, through the suffering and death of her only true king.

This is the template that Jesus lays over his ministry. The story of the exodus, Israel’s foundational story, is the story that Jesus embodies in his own ministry. Look at it again:

Jesus understands that his people—who are all the people of the world—are enslaved by the tyrant, Satan, and his greatest weapons of sin and death. As we said last week, Jesus understands that part of his messianic vocation is to go out and do battle with this enemy, who is behind all the powers of this world.

Jesus believes he is the leader, the deliverer, the savior of his people. He is the new and even greater Moses, who has come to rescue people from slavery to sin and death and lead them toward a new future.

But that new future requires sacrifice. Jesus would be that sacrifice, the one who, like the Passover lamb, takes on the sin of his people, and causes death to pass over them. It’s not coincidence that Jesus’ death takes place just before the Passover feast, nor is it coincidence that the night before his crucifixion Jesus takes his disciples to an upper room and shares a meal with them that is a different kind of Passover meal—a meal that features his own broken body and shed blood. It is a meal that shows that he is the lamb, the blood, and the firstborn son all wrapped up in one—the one whose death will save his people from death. Jesus doesn’t leave his disciples with a theory about what his death will mean. Instead, he gives them a meal—not something to be debated, but a meal to be embodied.

Jesus thus lays out a new vocation for his followers. He chooses twelve disciples as a archetype of the 12 tribes of Israel—a new Israel. And he gives them a renewed vocation. It’s the vocation he lays out in his teaching, in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere—a vocation of going the second mile, turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, forgiving even those who would nail him to a cross. Jesus reveals the mission of the new Israel as one of peace, mercy, and love, not power and prestige.

Lastly, Jesus reveals the new Israel’s inheritance—the kingdom of God, the reality of heaven and earth coming together. The promise was not for a holy land, but the whole world filled with God’s glory. Not for a temple made of brick and stone, but a temple embodied in Jesus himself, the one in whom heaven and earth, humanity and divinity, come together, and the one in whom all sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins were done once and for all. Jesus embodies the temple in his life and in his death. He also embodies God’s return and the end of exile.

This is what Jesus, Israel’s true king, sees as his mission—a mission that will take him all the way to the cross. Jesus was speaking and acting in such a way as to imply that he was to go ahead of his people, to meet the powers of destruction in person, to take their full weight on himself, so as to make a way through, a way in which God’s people could be renewed, could rediscover their vocation to be a light to the nations, could be rescued from their continuing slavery and exile.

Indeed, this is what we see happening in the crucifixion narratives. In John’s Gospel, we see Jesus battling against the wind of those two great storms we talked about early in this series: the wind of Rome and the gale of Jewish expectation. Jesus stands against them both and reveals his true mission. Turn with me to John 18 and let’s walk through this briefly.

In verse 28, Jesus is brought from Caiphas’ (the high priest) house to Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor. They represent the two storms. Caiaphas wants Jesus dead, but Pilate can’t find anything wrong with him. Jesus befuddles them both.

In verse 33, Pilate asks the question: “Are you the king of the Jews?” This is the central question of the Gospels – who is Jesus? In verse 36, Jesus answers in a powerful way. Indeed, he is the king of the Jews, but not in the way that anyone, either Caiaphas and the Jews or Pontius Pilate and the Romans would have every conceived. “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But, as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “My kingdom is not of this world.” That would imply that his kingdom is somewhere else, a heavenly kingdom perhaps, which is what many people expect it to be. No, it’s not from this world—it’s not, in other words, the kind of kingdom that the world typically holds up—kingdoms of power and prestige—the kind of kingdom that Rome was and that Israel aspired to be. It’s not the kind of kingdom that fights for its existence. It’s the kind of kingdom whose king comes not to fight, but to die.

John reminds us a few times that this was the day of preparation for the Passover—the festival celebrating the liberation of Israel. The irony was that Israel’s liberator, Israel’s true king had, indeed, come. But he had come not only as the leader, but as the lamb, quite literally bearing the weight of their sin in his own body and he carried the cross. Pilate, in the ultimate touch of irony to the story, has the title “King of the Jews” nailed on to the cross above Jesus’ head. He meant it as a mockery, a way of sticking it to the Jewish leaders who were incensed at his joke. But John tells us, as do the other Gospel writers, that this is, indeed, Israel’s true king—the king who has come to die, with the weight of his people’s sins and the weight of the worst human evil on his sagging shoulders. He died the death that they deserved for their power hungry and bloodthirsty reach for power. He died in place of the guilty one, Barabbas, but also in place of all those who held Barabbas’ own revolutionary ambitions—those who included his own disciples. He died at the hands of his enemies—he died at the hand of the ultimate enemy, evil, and succumbed to evil’s greatest weapon, death.

But the Gospel writers and Paul as well make it clear that this death was not a defeat, but a victory. In Colossians 2, for example, Paul says that on the cross Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” The two great storms converge over Jesus, and yet their force is exhausted. He dies, but he is not defeated. Indeed, his death takes on all the evil the world can muster and somehow starts to reverse evil’s curse.

Albert Schweitzer, the great 20th century physician and philosopher, once said that Jesus understood that his vocation was to go out and reverse the course of history. The great wheel of history was turning, powered by sin and death. Jesus hoped it would turn the other direction, but when it didn’t, Jesus threw himself upon that wheel and it crushed him. But then it started to turn in the other direction. The way of death is reversed, and the way of life begun—all because Jesus chose to die.

This is the larger story that we need to understand in order to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ death. We need more than theories, we need the story that puts the theories in perspective. Jesus’ death fulfilled the whole biblical story, the story of how God will redeem his whole creation from sin and death—a story of ultimate, sacrificial, life-giving love. It’s the story that finds its climax in Jesus’ last words from the cross: “It is finished.” You know, that’s the same thing that is said in Genesis about creation (Genesis 2:1-2). On the sixth day, God finished the work. On the sixth day of the week, Jesus says, “it is finished.” In Jesus, on the cross, the story, the work, the mission, is complete.

Too often we’ve taken the reality of the cross and made it a personal story of how Jesus died so that we can go to heaven. The Gospel writers tell the story quite differently, however. In fact, they’re telling us the story in exactly the opposite direction. The story of the cross is the story of how the creator God, in the person of his Son, died so that death could be defeated, and the life of God’s good creation restored. Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly right now, because the anti-creation and anti-life force of death has been beaten and sin right along with it. We are forgiven, not just so that we can avoid the penalty for sin, but so that, free from sin’s slavery, we can begin to live into the full life of the kingdom, right here, right now. That’s the work that Jesus finishes—and a work that we as his disciples—ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven ourselves—are to implement and share with the whole world.

Indeed, Jesus tells his disciples that their vocation is to bear a cross of their own—to offer his sacrificial love to the whole world, to die to ourselves and our own sin and shame, and to live into the new life of the kingdom. Jesus’ death changes us so that we, in turn, join the risen Jesus in challenging the powers of death with the good news of life.

None of this, of course, makes much sense if Jesus had simply died and that was the end of it. He would have been just another in a long line of would-be Messiahs that died a violent death at the hands of Rome. But what happened three days after Jesus died put all of this into perspective. We can’t fully understand the cross without the empty tomb. We shall turn to that next week.

But for now, what does the death of a man 2,000 years ago have to do with us? Everything. And not just for us, for the world. His cross-bearing vocation has become ours as well. We are a people of the cross.





The Meaning of Jesus: Part 6 – The Ultimate Battle

Note: For Parts 4 and 5 of the series, check out my associate, Joe Iovino's blog at joeiovino.com, or download the audio on our website

StoryofjesustemptationMatthew 12:22-32

          Let’s begin with a quick review of where we’ve been in this series: We started the series by talking about the meaning of Jesus as emerging from the whole story of Scripture. We’ve often missed that full story because we’ve tended to think along a continuum that divides left and right, liberal and conservative, spiritual and material, and we tend to operate with a truncated or edited version of the gospel, depending on our position on the continuum. We began the series by saying that the story and meaning of Jesus doesn’t lie on this continuum, but is out here—a completely different kind of story with a meaning that lies outside our usual categories. But to get at that story, we have to be willing to embrace the whole story of Scripture.

            In the second sermon, we talked about the perfect storm that was gathering in Jesus’ day: the clash between the imperial occupation of Rome and the Jewish expectation of liberation. But at the intersection of these two opposing forces comes Jesus, with a message that overshadows both expectations: the message that God himself is becoming king. God will overshadow Caesar, but God will also come to his people Israel in a way that did not fit their categories. Using Israel’s formative story of the exodus, Jesus begins to describe and act out a new exodus that will lead people to freedom from slavery to sin and death, and toward a freedom to grow into the image of God they were created to be in the first place.

             Jesus leads that new exodus as God’s appointed leader, prophet, savior, and son. In the third sermon, we looked at Jesus’ mission – the mission of God – a mission to restore God’s good creation. Jesus came announcing a great Jubilee – that God becoming king was going to change everything. Those who were on the outside would be insiders, and those who held on to power would soon find that power pales in comparison to the power of God, who is coming to set the world right. Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was already arriving, and it wasn’t just for God’s chosen people—it was for the whole world, even the Gentiles like the Romans who occupied the land.

             Joe then talked about how Jesus describes and embodies the work of this kingdom. Jesus describes it in parables—stories that invite the hearers to see themselves in light of the coming of God’s kingdom, and stories that describe how that kingdom permeates all the aspects of life. Many of Jesus’ parables were about banquets and parties: the ultimate sign that everyone was invited. Jesus acts out those parables by eating with people who are outside the continuum of respectability, and thus declares that they are welcome in the kingdom. The kingdom of God is a banquet where no one goes hungry, and everyone has a place at the table if they will only respond to the invitation.

             Last week, then, Joe talked about how Jesus the Messiah began to carry out his mission as God becoming king. He talked about the expectation that the messiah would pave the way for God to come again and dwell with his people, with the temple being the ultimate sign of that dwelling place. The temple was where the people of Israel believed heaven and earth met, and they believed that when God returned that God would eliminate all of their enemies and make Israel a great nation once again. The messiah would cleanse the temple in preparation for God’s return. Jesus, indeed, cleanses the temple, but he also announces God’s judgment on it and on those who would use the temple as a symbol of national pride or as a place from which the rich and powerful exploit the poor. This temple would be destroyed, Jesus says, but a new one would rise in its place. The new temple would be Jesus himself: the one in whom heaven and earth come together, and one in whom both God and humanity fully dwelt.

That brings us to this week, and the second part of the expectation that the people of first century Israel had for a messiah. The messiah was to cleanse the temple and herald God’s return, but the messiah was also to be the one who would fight Israel’s final battle with her enemies. For first century Jews, there was no greater enemy than Rome, and plenty of would-be messiahs took on the role of trying to pull off an armed revolt against the occupying pagan oppressors. In fact, if you were going to be a messiah, you’d better be willing to fight.

In AD 4, for example—when Jesus would have been a young boy–a would-be messiah named Judas the Galilean led a revolt against the Romans over the issue of taxation. That revolt was quickly crushed, and the Romans destroyed the town of Sepphoris, just five miles or so from Nazareth. A lot of scholars believe that Joseph and Jesus were later employed to help rebuild the town, which would have been a constant reminder of the consequences of messing with Rome. Other military messiahs emerged after Jesus, like Simon Bar-Giora, who led a revolt in AD 66 that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70, and Simon Bar-Kosiba, who led a revolt in 135 that resulted in all the Jews being expelled from Jerusalem, and the emperor Trajan renaming the city Aelia Capitolina and rebuilding it as a Roman city. The point is: would-be messiahs were expected to fight Israel’s enemies. The downside? They always lost. 

Jesus understood this as well as anyone. He knew that as God’s anointed king he was going to have to go out and do battle, but the battle in which he engages looks nothing like his contemporaries or even his disciples imagined. It wasn’t a battle involving fighting in the normal sense of swords and spears, nor was the enemy the kind that you could fight on a traditional battlefield. This was a different kind of battle with a different kind of enemy. For Jesus, the battle wasn’t with Rome or any other empire, but the power behind all empires, all oppression, and all of human evil. Jesus, the messiah, comes out to do battle with evil itself, personified by the figure the Bible calls “the satan.”

Who is this Satan? Well, most of us know him as a devilish figure who is all red, carries a pitchfork and has a forked tail. Some might think of him as the one who causes people to do evil things, much like Flip Wilson’s old character Geraldine who was famous for making the excuse, “The devil made me do it.” Others see Satan and his demonic minions as a constant spiritual force battling with angels for control of the world. There’s a lot of talk in some Christian circles about “spiritual warfare” going on around us all the time, and that Satan can be found under just about every rock. In some Christian circles, you’ll hear almost as much talk about Satan as you do about God—as though they are equal but opposite forces vying for control of human souls.

Well, a couple of caveats before we dive in here. First, I remember C.S. Lewis’ admonition in his wonderful book The Screwtape Letters. For those of you unfamiliar with that book, Lewis playfully writes it from the perspective of a junior demon receiving advice from his uncle Screwtape on how to bring his human charge down to hell. But I love how Lewis begins the book. He writes this:

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally please with both errors and hail and materialist and a magician with the same delight.” What we need is a biblical understanding of Satan and evil, and how Jesus goes out to do battle with him as the enemy of all humanity.

The word “Satan” in the Hebrew means “accuser,” and the Bible makes it clear from the very beginning that Satan’s main role is as the one whose accusations push people to believe that they can and should be more or less than the humans they were created to be.

Remember the snake in the garden for example, who told Adam and Eve that they could be more than human—they could be like God himself (Genesis 3:5). They bought the lie, and their sin, ironically, made them less than human, less than they were created to be. In the book of Job, Satan oppresses the righteous Job through disaster, but more insidiously through the accusations of Job’s friends and his wife, who keep speculating that Job must have done something wrong to deserve this. The accuser wants Job to believe that he is less than what he was created to be—less than valued by God.

That’s how Satan’s evil accusations work—they get us to believe that we are more or less than human. When we believe we’re more than human, better than others, we begin to “demonize” and dehumanize others as being only worthy of our contempt. We are right, they are wrong. We deserve the best, they deserve nothing. Evil and self-centered sin cause us to dehumanize others, and this happens all the time in our world. Lust dehumanizes people into objects of pleasure, greed dehumanizes people into commodities, war dehumanizes people into targets. The list goes on. We typecast people into the categories of “people like us” and “people like them,” never realizing that evil is a dark force that stands behind all human reality. We can wind up buying the lie that evil is something other people do, and that we’re the righteous, deserving ones. Satan’s work drives a wedge between humans and each other, and between humans and God.

But Satan can also get us to believe that we are less than human—that we deserve nothing and that we are nothing. Much of the pathology we see in people comes from a belief that they have no worth. The man caught in addiction, the girl who cuts herself, the woman who sells her body to be used by others, the executive who is working himself to death trying to prove his worth—all of them are caught in the lie.

 Jesus understood how Satan works. Indeed, one of the first acts of Jesus’ ministry is to go out into the desert and confront Satan directly. Satan tempts Jesus to act as though his status as Son of God gives him carte blanche to serve himself and impress others—to be the kind of messiah everyone expects. If you are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread and eat your fill. If you are the Son of God, jump off the Temple and land unscathed and everyone will know you’re more than human. If you are the Son of God, rule all the kingdoms of the world just like the emperor. I like the way Bono sings Satan’s line in the U2 song Vertigo: All of this can be yours. Just give me what I want, and no one gets hurt. Satan wants to drive a wedge between Jesus and his mission. Jesus, of course, refuses, but in Luke’s version, the writer makes it clear that the battle wasn’t over after those 40 days. In fact, Luke says, “Satan departed from him until an opportune time.”

Indeed, everywhere Jesus goes he sees the same Satanic forces at work. It’s at work in the Pharisees, who divide the world between insiders and outsiders. He sees it in the face of those possessed by demons and who are driven to act more like animals than humans. He sees it in those whom society considers worthless—the broken, the sick, the used. He sees it even in his own disciples, who believe that they deserve places at Jesus’ right and left hands and who can’t wait to pick up a sword and join the revolution against Rome. Notice it when Peter says, “You are the Christ,” but then rebukes Jesus for even thinking about dying. Jesus’ words to Peter are telling. “Get behind me, Satan. You have not in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Jesus sees Satan as the one who snatches away the word of the kingdom, like birds eating up freshly sown seed (Matt. 13), in the face of a woman crippled by ailments (Luke 13:16), and in the accusing role of Judas, one of his own disciples. This is a more insidious enemy than Rome or any other empire could ever be.

Indeed, when Jesus refers to hell, most often he is referring to a present reality. The word “Gehenna” is the word used for the Hinnom Valley outside of Jerusalem—a place where the garbage dump was—a dump that smoldered and smoked all the time. Many of Jesus’ warnings to Israel were about checking their idea of revolution against Rome—otherwise the city would become the trash heap. The way of violent revolution, says Jesus in effect, is the way of Satan. The destruction of the temple would be hell for the people of Israel—the end of the world as they knew it. But Jesus is offering another way.

So Jesus comes to do battle. But notice how he does it. In the text we read earlier, the Pharisees ironically accuse Jesus (note the parallel) of being in league with Satan because he casts out demons. This makes no sense, of course, because, as Jesus clearly points out, Satan would be stupid to be casting himself out of people. That may be the unforgiveable sin Jesus is talking about—equating what he is doing with Satan’s own work. No, this is the sovereign power of God at work—the kingdom of God is on the doorstep.

In Matthew 12:29, Jesus gives a metaphor for what he is doing: he is “binding up the strong man” (Satan) and “plundering his house.” How does he do this?

He does it by restoring people’s humanity. Indeed, everything that Jesus is doing—from healing, to teaching, to casting out demons, to eating with known “sinners”—represents a victory, a reversal of the effects of Satan’s accusatory work. Jesus makes broken people whole. As Joe said last week, Jesus makes the unclean clean just by his presence and touch. He called people to love their enemies, even the hated Romans, by humanizing them—going the extra mile and turning the other cheek. You don’t fight evil by perpetrating more evil, says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Violence crushes the humanity of both parties involved. No, the only way you conquer evil for good is with the humanizing force of love, forgiveness, and peace.

Indeed, the Gospel writers tell us that Jesus’ ultimate weapon in the battle against evil was unleashed on the cross. It is on the cross that Jesus becomes an innocent victim of the worst human evil that we can imagine. And there is Satan at the foot of the cross once again—in the voices of those who shout derision at Jesus: If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross. If you are the Son of God, show us the power you have over your enemies. If you are the Son of God…

And yet, Jesus doesn’t fight…he forgives. He humanizes even his enemies. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” The cross, the ultimate icon of defeat, somehow becomes the place of victory. We will talk about the meaning of the cross in more detail next week.

One of the questions that often gets asked at this point is this: If Jesus defeated evil, then why is there so much of it around? Why do we still see it at work every time we open a newspaper or turn on the TV? What can be done about that? It’s pretty overwhelming.

Big questions for which answers are hard to come by. It’s too easy, though, for us to see the magnitude of the problem, throw up our hands, and wait for Jesus to return to fix it all. The message of the kingdom is that Jesus will ultimately set everything right—God is becoming king. But as Joe said last Sunday, the kingdom isn’t just a future reality. It’s also a present one. If we really believe that, then it should change our approach from acquiescence to the presence of evil to active engagement in defeating it. As Jesus says in verse 30, whoever is not with him in this work is against him. Whoever doesn’t gather in those who are outside, scatters them. Therefore, I want to leave you with a few ideas to ponder in that vein. 

First, the Gospels make it clear that Satan and evil aren’t just spiritual concepts. Remember, in Jesus’ world, there is no separation between spiritual and material, sacred and secular. All this talk about spiritual warfare in many Christians circles, I think, distracts us from the real battle that is taking place around us every day. If Satan’s influence was merely spiritual, then it would be easy to ignore or defeat. Instead, evil infiltrates all human systems: economics, politics, even the church! Walter Wink wrote a great book a few years ago called Engaging the Powers, which looks at how human systems become hijacked by the dehumanizing forces of greed, power, and violence. The apostle Paul uses similar language when he talks about the “powers and principalities.” He’s not merely referring to the spiritual realm here, but to all those forces that drive injustice and break down our full humanity.

I would argue that one of the reasons that there seems to be no abatement in the powers of evil in the world is that the Church (capital C) has dabbled to long in the spiritual realm and not enough in engaging the powers.

Instead, we often wind up colluding with them. We mesh Christian faith with political ideologies that don’t match up with what Jesus taught—and both the left and right are guilty of that. I am often appalled at the things that people claiming to be Christ followers post on Facebook about government officials, or the other political party, or about immigrants or the poor, or you name it. We can’t fight the powers if we’re using their language and their tactics of demonizing others. The Church needs to return to the language and tactics of Jesus, who ate with sinners and humanized everyone he met—even his enemies.

Second, we need to become more and more aware of the places around us every day where the powers are at work, and then stand up to them with sacrificial love. I had a meeting this week with some other pastors, the executive director of Tri-Lakes Cares, and the Monument Police Department, and learned about a couple of places where there are gaps that people are falling into. We have a growing number of children in our area, for example, who receive free or reduced cost lunches in our schools. The forces of greed that contributed to the downturn in our economy cause a trickle down effect that impacts the most vulnerable among us as more people continue to be out of work. Yes, the economy might be improving, but not in a way that helps these kids. For many of them, a school lunch is the only real meal they’ll get in a day. Many of them don’t eat much, if at all, over the weekend. Tri-Lakes Cares has put together a snack pack for students in that situation at Palmer Lake Elementary School, but they have not been able to cover the other schools. We have hungry kids in our own community, and that’s a systemic evil. I think this is a battle we can fight. I am proposing that as a church we take on at least one school in our district, maybe more, and provide TLC with all the food they need to make sure these kids get to eat. I have a meeting about this tomorrow. That’s a gap we can fill, and one more way we push back the forces of poverty.

We are also facing some severe budget cuts in our school district that will likely force families to pay for their kids to be bussed to school. Now, we can throw up our hands , or we can look at ways that we, as a church, can help cover the gap for some poor families who may have to choose between eating and transportation. I don’t know where that’s going to go, but I want to work with our district to make sure that those who need help get it. That’s pushing back the powers, even if it’s just in a small way.

I learned about those two simple things at one meeting in an hour. You’re out there in the community every day in a wide variety of places—places where the powers that dehumanize people are constantly at work. Jesus calls us to go to battle—to muster up all the love and courage and peace we can and fill in the gaps that keep people from being fully human.

The meaning of Jesus is a call for his church to get back in the fight—not with weapons and angry rhetoric, but with love, forgiveness, peace, and sacrificial service. Many of the great movements in history that brought about positive change began with one person choosing to stand up to the powers and say, “No more.” Jesus did that, and calls us to do it, too.

Someone once asked a wise man, “If God is real, why doesn’t he do something about all the evil in the world.” The wise man answered, “He did. He created you.”

Actually, that same idea is right there in our membership vows. “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” Jesus was empowered to fight Satan on his own turf. So are we.

Jesus defeated the power of Satan. It’s up to us to go out and implement the victory until he comes. 


The Meaning of Jesus: Part 3 – The Mission of God

1977 Jesus of Naz synagogue

Luke 4:16-30

You may have heard the old adage, “You can’t go home again.” That it’s hard to go back to where you came from and relive your childhood, that sort of thing.

Well, I looked that up the other day and found out that the phrase actually comes from a novel by Thomas Wolf with that as the title. Wolf’s novel tells the story of George Webber, a budding author, who writes a book with frequent references to his home town of Libya Hill. When the residents get their hands on it, they see those references as distortions of their idyllic life, and they begin sending Webber death threats and menacing letters, even though the book gets rave reviews around the rest of the country.

The moral of the story? Don’t mess with the hometown myth!

But take that to a grander scale. Imagine, for example, writing some scathing references about your country and having them published. People here in the USA don’t take kindly to that kind of talk. You either have to love it or leave it.

I was interested to read the other day during the Martin Luther King holiday that the day after he was shot, Dr. King was set to give a speech entitled, “Why America May Go to Hell.” Key line: “If America does not use her vast resources to end poverty, to make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.” He was writing this sermon in that hotel room in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

I don’t imagine that would have gone over well. Such talk gets people killed because we generally don’t like critique—especially critique that challenges our view of history.

But critique is what prophets do. It’s not critique designed to insult. It’s critique that’s aimed at change. But people don’t generally like change, particularly those who have been steeped in the same paradigm for years, decades, even centuries.

When Jesus goes back home to Nazareth, he seems to have known, even before he opened the scroll in the synagogue, that the prophetic words he is about to read and speak will be incendiary. He is about to announce to his hometown people the good news that God was about to become king, but the bad news was that it wasn’t in the way they thought. They, as well as many in Israel, thought they had an inside track as God’s chosen people—that God viewed them as insiders and the Gentile Romans and other people as outsiders. This was a long-standing paradigm, and Jesus was about to challenge it.

As we continue in our series on The Meaning of Jesus, one of the things that we need to come to grips with at the outset is that Jesus envisions his mission as God’s mission. As we said last week, Jesus understood himself as God’s messiah, God’s representative, and believed and acted as though he was in charge. But Jesus envisioned the mission of God as being quite different than his people. Indeed, when Jesus talked about God and acted as God, he was in effect redefining who God was for a people who thought they had him all figured out.

And if you think talking about a country is inflammatory, wait til you see what happens when someone talks about God!

Remember that last week we talked about the perfect storm that was brewing in first century Israel–the Roman storm of the empire from the west, the Jewish storm of expectation and that third—the hurricane that heralds the news that God is becoming king. It’s this third storm we want to look at this morning and how Jesus interprets it. This passage in Luke certainly isn’t the only place it appears (Joe will dive into this a little more next week) but it does tell us several things about what God becoming king means and how Jesus embodies that reality.

First, Jesus talks about God’s Mission.

It was customary for a rabbi to stand to read the scroll in the synagogue, and then to sit down to teach. Jesus opens the scroll to Isaiah and reads from Isaiah 61:1 and 58:6 (keep in mind that verse and chapter weren’t added until centuries later). “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In these few verses, borrowed from the prophetic mission of Isaiah, Jesus reveals that he is operating under the power of the Holy Spirit. Now, the Spirit is active in a lot of ways, but Luke wants us to connect that verse back to Jesus’ baptism in chapter 3, when the Spirit descended on Jesus as a dove and the Father spoke those words of commission for Jesus and his mission: “You are my Son, the beloved. In you I am well pleased.” While the people in the synagogue may have been thinking that Jesus was referring to himself as a prophet, Luke wants us to recognize that Jesus is speaking as the son of God.

Now, notice what that mission is and what it implies:

1) to bring good news to the poor. What would be good news to the poor? That you won the lottery? That there’s a high-paying job available? Perhaps—but the even greater news is that in God’s coming kingdom, the poor will finally see justice. Indeed, the Bible reveals over and over again that the poor are preferred by God. Mary sings about this in the Magnificat that we studied during Advent: You lift up the lowly, she sings to God, and you send the rich away empty. This good news isn’t just the spiritual news that, hey, sure, times are tough for you now, but when you die you’ll have a mansion in heaven. No, instead it is the good news that God, the king, is coming to set things right, to make all people of equal worth and value. The economy of the kingdom will be quite different than the one we have now. In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes in chapter 6, the poor are blessed. Jesus will spend most of his ministry among the poor, and he lifts them up  and gives them hope.

2. to proclaim release to the captives. Slavery was a major part of the story of Israel, but the prophets reveal that people can be enslaved in a lot of ways: economic slavery in the form of debt and poverty, physical slavery to illness and disability, political imprisonment (like John the Baptizer), or even demonic possession. Jesus announces that God was taking people who were enslaved in so many ways and proclaiming their release. He did it through his healings, his exorcisms, his miraculous feeding of the five thousand—all of which were signs that the proclamation was actually starting to become reality. Most of all, release to the captives meant the forgiveness of sins—releasing people from its power and from the curse of death. He will demonstrate that freedom when he rises from the dead, which we will discuss in due time.

3. recovery of sight to the blind. This doesn’t just mean those who are physically blind, though the Gospels make clear that Jesus healed many blind people. It’s also about healing spiritual blindess—blindness to the vision of what God was about to do for Israel and the whole world—a vision of being a light to the nations. Jesus heals that blindness through his work, but he also proclaims its presence in people like the Pharisees, who are “blind guides” that lead people off a cliff of despair instead of offering a vision of hope.

 4. to release the oppressed and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. In Leviticus 25, God orders the Israelites to proclaim a Jubilee year every fiftieth year (after seven cycles or weeks of seven years). At Jubilee, slaves were to be set free, debts were to be wiped clean, fields were to be left at rest. Imagine, for example, if every 50 years all mortgages were paid off, all debts erased, you wouldn’t owe anybody anything. It’s like a “reboot” year!

There’s no evidence that the Israelites actually did this, but the idea of Jubilee was still strong. Indeed, the people believed that the sign that their exile had ended would be the same as a jubilee year. Remember last year we said that the exiles who were taken off to Babylon were allowed to return after 70 years? Well, everyone knew that wasn’t really the end of exile. The prophet Daniel had written that the exile would actually be over after 70 weeks of years (490 years). Now, depending on how you calendar it, 490 years would have taken them to the time of the Maccabean revolt, when Israel did enjoy about a century free from foreign domination. Some would also have thought that it was a time that was arriving about now, in the first century. Regardless, Jesus is announcing that in his person this Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor, was at hand. 

In fact, it would not be a stretch to suggest that the texts that Jesus reads in the synagogue in Nazareth act as a kind of mission statement for what he is about to do over the next three or so years. The wind of God, the hurricane of the kingdom, would come and alter the landscape through his ministry. A new age was dawning.

But that leads us to the second point that Jesus will make. That is, that this kingdom won’t just be for the Jews.

Up until the point that Jesus finishes the scroll, rolls it up and sits down, the people in the synagogue are with him. They’re amazed that this is the same son of a contractor they’d known all these years. Such words of grace! Such excitement! They almost can’t wait to hear what’s next—how God was going to do it. Of course, Jesus had left out that next line that Isaiah wrote after he was talking about proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, which was obviously aimed at them, the faithful. The next line was one they’d also want to hear—about the “day of vengeance of our God.” That vengeance had to be reserved for those wicked Gentiles who were occupying the land. The Roman scum who oppressed them. What was good news for them, they thought, would be bad news for the Gentiles.

But as quickly as Jesus caught their attention, he even more quickly managed to make them furious. First, Jesus speaks what many of them had probably been thinking. Well, if you’re the one appointed by God to make all this happen, do for us those miracles you’ve been doing in Capernaum. They are ready to share in the benefits that they might get from being this prophet’s hometown, and a little ticked that he’s been doing these things elsewhere. They believed they should get a hometown discount—a fulfillment of the blessings they should receive as God’s people.

But Jesus, having delivered them the good news, now tells them that the good news isn’t just for them. In fact, God was actually giving that good news to the people they hated! Jesus was announcing that God was about to do a new thing. Change was coming.

Jesus tells two stories: the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarapheth. In that story, Elijah, the Jewish prophet, travels to Sidon during a great famine. There he meets a local widown, a Gentile, and not only eats with her but raises her son from the dead. There were lots of widows in Israel who were suffering during that famine, says Jesus, but God didn’t send Elijah to any of them—only to this widow. This Gentile. She received the grace and care of God.

Oh, and remember Elisha? There were plenty of people in Israel who had leprosy during his days—a debilitating skin disease that made people ritually unclean. But to whom did God send Elisha? Yes, to a Gentile Syrian named Naaman. And not only was Naaman a Gentile, he was the commander of the army of one of Israel’s enemies! As a result, Naaman renounces his pagan god and accepts Israel’s God as his own.

The point? The kingdom that Jesus is announcing is wider than they thought. They thought they were insiders, but Jesus was announcing that the outsiders—the Gentiles, the poor, the lame, the blind, the broken, the sinners, even the Romans—could become insiders by following him. No historical or ethnic boundaries were going to limit what God was about to do. This king was the king of all, and his kingdom was good news for everyone who would hear it!

They didn’t. In fact, they became so enraged at the mere suggestion that they weren’t God’s exclusive people that they drove Jesus out of town to the top of a cliff. In October, we stood on the likely site where they took him. Nazareth is built on a steep hill with a deep drop into the Jezreel Valley. It’s a long way down.

But it wasn’t time yet. Jesus would face more angry crowds later, and eventually one would have him nailed to a cross. Like the people in the synagogue in Nazareth, they didn’t get it.

 If we’re going to understand the meaning of Jesus, we have to be willing to admit that very often we don’t get it either. We want a God that blesses us, a God that will save us, a God that fights our battles and who will take vengeance on all our enemies. We want to be set free, healed, forgiven, but we don’t want to free, heal, or forgive others who aren’t like us.

Jesus announces that when God becomes king, everything is going to be turned upside down. All the categories by which we define ourselves will be shattered and only one will matter—did you care for people—all people—the way God cares for people—as people made in the image of God? Did you follow my lead? Did you clothe and feed and encourage the least of people, or did you mock the poor as being lazy and stupid? Did you welcome the stranger and the immigrant who is seeking freedom, or did you build bigger fences and threaten them with deportation? Did you share your wealth with those in need, or did you hoard it up and use it all for yourself? Did you love and pray for your enemies or did you seek their downfall? Did you follow the first commandment and become a steward of God’s creation, or did you exploit it with waste and destruction? Did you speak the truth to power about injustice, or did you just turn the page of the newspaper? Did you deliver the good news that changes the world now, or did you just wait around for heaven?

Jesus gives us a vision of a God who isn’t interested in more religious devotion, but one who cares more about justice, and mercy and peace. It’s the kind of God that the prophet Micah wrote about when he said, “What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God!” It’s the God that sends rain on the just and the unjust, the God who eats with sinners and blesses the tears of prostitutes. It’s the God that tells the hometown folks the truth—that they may think they’re in heaven, but they’re headed for hell.

My guess is that if we really listened to Jesus, really understood the meaning of what he said and did, we’d probably want to throw him off a cliff for naming our hypocrisy. As long as he is gentle Jesus, meek and mild, we can confine his teaching to the realm of utopian fantasy.

Jesus embodies a God who is remaking the world, and because he does so he is dangerous to the status quo. He can’t go home again. He is off to fulfill the Scriptures and bring the story of God to its royal climax. His disciples never went home again because they followed him.

 We may not be called to change addresses ourselves, but we are all called to change our image of home and church from that of a secure fortress to a launching pad—a home base for fulfilling the kingdom mission in our neighborhoods and workplaces, our schools and our hangouts.

 But, be careful. There are cliffs out there!