Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Two Ways That You Need to Have to Actually Know God

289 million.  That’s a lot.    But that’s what I got when I put in this question to Google, “How do you know God”    That means lots of folks have lots of answers to that question.   But is it really that hard to know God?     Yes and No. 

And in the words you’re about to hear, you’ll find out why knowing God can be both surprisingly easy, and at the same time, not all that easy at all.   

Why is knowing God both surprisingly easy, yet at the same time not easy at all?   Well, first, If you get almost 300 million results to the question, how do you know which answer is the closest?   Now if you put anything into Google, you get a bunch of results.  If you want to know how to make lemonade, you’ll get 28 million    But still, this question of knowing God generates 10 times more than that.  And if you simply put the word God in, forget about it.  That gets you 1.8 billion!
So how do you really know God?   In these few short sentences, God tells you what knowledge of God has to look like.     Put simply, God tells you.  If you really want to know me, you have to know me both ways.   Only when you do that, will you really be on the road to knowing me. 

What do I mean by both ways?   Well, you see both ways in the words we just read.   How does John start out?   He starts out by talking about how he and the apostles know Jesus.  But how does he do that?    He gives you objective realities.  We heard Jesus.  We saw him.  We even touched him.    

Only then does John talk about having communion with God, about knowing God at a subjective level.  

Now, why does the letter start out that way?   Because in these words of John, God is giving you a crucial insight on what you need, to know God.    To know God, you have to know God both ways.  You have to know God as both an objective reality, and as a subjective experience.  
You see.   In the end, human beings don’t change too much.   And all through human history, when people want to grasp what the world means, what ultimate reality is, they go in one of two directions.   In one direction, they decide that what the world means can only be what I touch, see and feel.   If I can’t measure it, then it can’t exist.   They become in the word of the philosophers, materialists. If it ain’t material, then it ain’t anything basically.  But in the other direction, folks decide that you can only grasp what the world means, what ultimate reality is, through some sort of subjective experience.     It’s what you feel that matters.  Who cares if you can’t measure it?   It doesn’t make it any less real.   In fact, that stuff is more real than anything.    In John’s day, these folks called themselves Gnostics, from the Greek word for knowledge.   They were always looking for some sort of esoteric experience to discover God, one that would give them that special knowledge of God and everything.    Today you might call them New Agey.  

But to be honest lots of religions move towards this way of seeing the world, but not Christianity.  Christianity actually says that you have to see the world both ways.   And that means, you have to know God both ways too.    

Christians believe in a God who actually became a real human being, a human being whose life and death, and yes, even resurrection can be verified.   Christians believe in a God who came as someone you could actually see and touch, who is a verified fact in history.   That’s why Christian researchers do archeological digs to learn more about Jesus and the early followers.  For Christians, the material matters.   As important as subjective experience is, you can’t just know God only that way.   

A few weeks ago, I was in the car with my 3 year old son, Patrick, and we were talking about Jesus.   And Patrick just spontaneously said as he sometimes does.  I love Jesus.   I said I love Jesus too.   Then, Patrick asked.  He’s make-believe?   You see, Patrick loves Lightning McQueen, from the Disney movies, but he’s beginning to figure out that Lightning might not be real.    So, he was asking, is Jesus that way too.   And I replied, No, Jesus is real.   And that kind of blew Patrick away.  And it kind of blew me away too.  What that meant hit me all over again.   Yes, Jesus is real.   God became a human being, who walked actual roads in actual places that you can still visit to this day.  

For Christians the material matters.   That’s why Christians study science, and even fund it.  Do you realize that the Vatican has an observatory?   In fact, it has had one for a hundred and twenty five years.  And I’m not talking some little rinky dink think so the Pope can look at the stars.   No, the current director of this Observatory, has a Ph.D in Planetary Science.  He received the Carl Sagan Award from his fellow astronomers.    And he’s also a Jesuit brother.    Think about that.   The Pope spends serious money each year on scientific research.  

Because the material matters, Christians do all sorts of things to alleviate human suffering from starting hospitals (in fact Christians invented them) to hunger and disaster relief.   And it’s why John starts out his letter by talking about the God that he actually saw and heard and touched.  But just knowing that cannot be enough.   Knowledge cannot stop there.  

Many years ago, I remember attending a church service on Easter with my family.   And let’s just say that the preacher’s message that day left us underwhelmed.   As we drove away, my sister nailed what bothered us.   She said, “It was like he was talking about flying, but he had never flown before.”    Sure he knew about flight.   He could tell you how it all worked.   But at least the way he preached that day, you would never have thought he had experienced it. 

That’s why John moves in these sentences from talking about knowing the facts of Jesus to actually knowing Jesus, to as he puts it, to having fellowship with the Father and the Son.  

It’s like the difference between saber and conocer in Spanish.  You see, Spanish doesn’t just have one word for “know.”   It has two.    One, saber, means you know the facts.   For example, if I use saber and I say, I know Donald Trump, that would be true.    I know who Donald Trump is.  But if I used conocer, and said I know Donald Trump.  That means something quite different.   That would mean I’ve been hanging out with the President at Mar a Lago, that I know Donald Trump.   

And when it comes to Jesus, you can’t just saber know Jesus.  You’ve got to conocer know Jesus.  But how do you know that?   I mean, how do you know that you really know Jesus like that, not just as a fact, but as a friend. 

Two things will tell you.   First, do you yearn for everyone to know God like you do?   Does it make you sad that others do not have this relationship in their life?   Do you feel a desire to share the love that Jesus has shown you with others?  

Do you know the magician duo, Penn and Teller?   Beyond being incredible entertainers and illusionists, the vocal one of the duo, Penn Gillette, has become a well-known atheist.   Yet something happened to Penn that he found so compelling, he shared the experience on a video on the internet.  
After one of his shows in Vegas, Penn had gone out to greet the crowd as he often does, and he noticed this guy just hanging back and waiting for him.   After the crowd had moved away, the man stepped up and sincerely shared how much he liked the show.   Then he said, “I brought this for you” and he pulled out a Gideon pocket edition New Testament.  As he looked Penn intently in the eye, he told Penn, “I wrote in the front of this, and I wanted you to have it.  I’m kind-of proselytizing.  I’m a businessman.  I’m sane not crazy.”   And Penn as he reminisced about it on the video said with real emotion in his voice simply three words.  “It was wonderful.”   He talked about how the man had written not only a note, but 5 contact numbers and an e-mail if Penn wanted to get in touch.   And Penn went on to talk about how it bothered him how folks who professed belief often didn’t share it, because they felt it might be socially awkward.   And then he said words I don’t think I’ll ever forget, “How much do you have to HATE somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

Now we all know folks who have mishandled sharing the Good News of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean you don’t share it.   And if you don’t have any desire to do that, even if the prospect of it intimidates you, then you need to ask yourself.  How well do I really know Jesus?

And secondly, beyond this desire, if you know Jesus, you will discover that your experience of him transcends culture and time.    What do I mean?    Do you remember that prayer we prayed about half an hour ago?  It went like this:
Come, O Christ, our Light and illumine our darkness.  Come our Life, and revive us from death.  Come, Our Physician, and heal our wounds.  Come Flame of divine love, and burn up the thorns of our sins, kindling our hearts with the flame of your love…” 

Did those words resonate with you?   Has Jesus ever brought you light in your darkness or healed a wound?   Have you ever felt your heart kindled by the flame of his love?”  But get this.  That prayer comes from an Orthodox monk who lived almost 400 years ago in Czarist Russia.  What do you have in common with someone like that?   Simple.  You have a mutual friend.  The same Jesus saved you both.  And that sort of knowledge, it transcends every culture and every time.

When you know Jesus like that, not just as a fact in history, but as your faithful friend, it changes you forever.   When you know Jesus, not simply as a story in a book, but as the one who has rewritten your story, it moves you like nothing else.   Then you know what John means when he talks of the fellowship of the Father and the Son, because you have become part of it.   And like John, it has brought you a joy, a joy that sustains you, even on your worst days.  

Do you know Jesus like that?  If you don’t, do you want to?   All you need to do is ask.  

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Two Realities that Give You a Joy that Nothing Can Take Away

If you were here last week, you heard me say all sorts of exciting things about living in Resurrection Time.   You might remember the riff. 

It isn’t evil has the last word time.  It’s God’s love has the last word time.   It isn’t Jesus is dead and gone time.  It’s Jesus is alive and at work time.   Because it isn’t despair time.  It’s hope time.   It’s isn’t fear time.  It’s faith time.    Whatever you face, God will love you through it.  God will give you triumph over it.  Because it’s not death time.  Sisters and brothers, what time is it?  It’s resurrection time. 

Now that makes for a powerful Easter message, but how does it happen?   How do you actually live in Resurrection time?  How do you live with confidence and peace, even joy on a daily basis?   Can you live that way not only on your best days, but on your worst?   Is that even possible?
In the words you’re about to hear, and the words we’ll explore over the coming weeks, God shows you the way.   So, today, let’s start to explore what God has to say.

How do you actually live in Resurrection time?  How do you live with a profound sense of confidence and joy even on your worst days?  Is that even possible?  Here God says.   It is.  You can live with joy and peace.  But how?  It comes when you know the two realities that change everything.  But before you get to the realities, you need to understand the joy. 

As the apostle John, finishes up the words we just read, he tells them.   We are writing these things to make our joy complete.  He’s not saying.  I’m writing to you because it makes me feel so awesome to tell you these things.   Now, it certainly does make John feel awesome, but that’s not what he’s saying.   He’s talking about a joy they all can have.

You see.  As John begins the letter, he tells them.  I and my fellow apostles, we actually saw and experienced Jesus.  We saw it all.    But then the “we the apostles” switches to a “we” that includes not only the apostles but these folks too.   So when he gets to this last sentence, he is saying.  I am writing so that all of us, you and me, can have this complete joy that Jesus brings.  But what is this joy? 

The preacher Tim Keller paints a picture that describes it well.   When Keller and his family lived in Abingdon, Pennsylvania, outside of Philly, they lived in a neighborhood where all the houses were built into the slope of this huge hill, a small mountain really.  Soon after they moved in, Keller noticed something weird.   No matter how little or how much it rained everything in their yard, stayed green.  And whenever it did rain, their basement always flooded.    One day, Keller was talking about how weird that was with one of his neighbors.   And the neighbor said, “Oh, I thought you knew.  All our houses are built on a huge river.”   Underneath Keller’s house, all the houses of that neighborhood actually, he learned, flowed a huge underground river.   So even when a drought came, the lawns stayed green.   And sure enough, when the rains did come, the water didn’t just come down.   It came up too.

And that’s what God is telling you here.   God is saying. You can have a subterranean river of joy like that in your life.  Whatever you are going through, even the hardest things, this joy will be there, flowing underneath it all.   Now God isn’t saying that you’re going to go through life, with a blissful smile on your face, never crying or feeling pain.   That’s not joy.  That’s denial.   That’s detachment from reality.   Jesus felt grief, sadness, discouragement, all the painful emotions of life.   But like Jesus, whatever pain you face, you will have underneath it all, a powerful river of joy and peace welling up from inside you.  

Do you know the name of Helen Keller?   At one point, she became one of the most famous people in the world.   What was her first claim to fame?  She graduated from college, something no one like her had done before.   And when she did, she changed everything for those with disabilities forever.   When Helen was not even two years old, she experienced a brain illness that completely took away her hearing and sight.   But through the work of a remarkable teacher, Anne Sullivan, she learned to write and then to talk, and became one of the most celebrated writers of her generation.  

And when I was looking for quotes on joy, her words kept popping up.  In fact, I found more quotes from Helen Keller on joy than from any other writer.    And when I looked to understand why, I found accounts of this joy that characterized her life.    A newspaper reporter wrote this about a talk she gave in 1916;

According to those who attended, Helen Keller spoke of the joy that life gave her. She was thankful for the faculties and abilities that she did possess and stated that the most productive pleasures she had were curiosity and imagination. Keller also spoke of the joy of service and the happiness that came from doing things for others.

Just to give you some idea of what she did for others, among other things, she founded with the businessman George Kessler an organization to combat blindness and malnutrition around the world.  Today, that organization, Helen Keller International still exists. It has a budget of almost a quarter of a billion dollars.  And in 120 programs in 22 nations around the world, it works to eradicate blindness, hunger, and disease   

Helen Keller described the joy that led her to do these things and more as this.   She wrote.  “Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow.”   Helen Keller went through more than her share of pain but underneath it all, lived that holy fire, a fire lit by a profound experience of Jesus’ presence in her life.  How do you experience that joy, a joy that led a deaf and blind woman to this life of deep fulfillment and remarkable joy?

It comes from knowing the two realities of which John speaks, the two realities that Keller knew intimately.   It comes first, from a living day to day relationship with God, and second, from a deep certainty of how tightly God’s love holds you.   

You see.   When John uses this phrase “making our joy complete,” he wasn’t just making up.  He was quoting Jesus. 

Jesus before he died, said to the apostles, I am the vine and you are the branches.  You need to abide in me like that, with the intimacy that a vine has with its branches.  Why did Jesus tell them this.  He said.  “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” – the same phrase John uses here.

Jesus in those words isn’t simply talking about saying your prayers.  Jesus is talking about an almost constant interaction with God’s presence, one that connects you with this river of joy, this holy fire.  What does this look like?

Let me ask.  Do you sense God guiding you, restraining you, encouraging you as a normal pattern in your life?   For example, how did I know about this vine and the branches connection?  As I was working out this Wednesday and doing my devotions, I was mulling over these words on joy in John.  And as I read through the scriptures preselected for that day, there it was; these very words from Jesus on the vine and the branches. God was guiding me there, but other times, I sense God keeping me from my worst impulses or calling me on my own self-righteousness.   And trust me, I am not special.  Any person can have this connection.   And when you have this sense of day to day intimacy, it taps you into that river, so that no matter what you face.   You know.  You are never alone.

But God gives you more than just this intimacy.  God gives you a certainty that no matter how badly you mess up, his love will never let you go.  

It always stuns me when I hear people say something crazy like, “Well, it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you live a good life.”   Why in God’s name would anybody want a belief like that?   Who the heck knows what a good life looks like?    I mean. What’s the passing grade for a good life?   Every religion and philosophy has a different idea.  So do you just have to wait until you die to know, if you’ll even know then?   I can’t imagine a more anxiety producing belief than that.    

This is why when anyone tells me that they’re not religious, I agree.   I tell them.  I’m not religious either.   You see, religion tells you that it’s your life that saves you.  You do these things.  You obey these rules.  You live by these rituals.  And you experience fulfillment, joy, peace, salvation.  But the gospel tells you.  You’re not saved by your life.  You’re saved by his life.  

If when someone asks you if you’re a Christian, and you say “Well, I’m trying to be.”   Then you don’t get that.   “You can’t try to be a Christian.  Nothing you do make you a Christian.   God makes you a Christian.”    Your life doesn’t save you.   His life does, God in Jesus giving his life for you does that.    And when you know that, really know that, you have a confidence that nothing can defeat.   And it has nothing to do with arrogance or pride.   Yes, you know.  You are so right with God. But you also know.  You had nothing to do with it.  God did it all.   You know.  You are a frog on a fencepost.     Why?  Because when you see a frog on a fencepost, you know that frog didn’t get there by itself.   But it’s there now, and it’s riding high.   And that’s you.

And when you know that, it frees you from anxiety and it opens you up to joy.  It leads you into a life lived with God not just on Sunday, but every day, every hour, every moment.   And no matter how badly you mess up or how hard your life becomes, you know.  God will never leave you.  God’s love will never abandon you.   You know the joy of which John speaks, a joy that flows underneath you, like a mighty river, a joy that lights your path, like a holy fire.   And in that joy, you realize, you are only getting a foretaste of the joy still to come, a joy that will bind you to God’s beauty and love forever.  Do you want that joy?  All you gotta do is ask.  

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Power of Living in Resurrection Time

Did you see it?  Did you see the pictures from Syria a few weeks ago?   Those images only paint a small part of a more awful picture, one full of more sadness and suffering than I can even grasp.    
Last week, in Egypt, people were just going to worship God.  And for that, someone decided to blow them up.   And the bombers said they were doing that in the name of God?   What is up with that?

You don’t need to go to Syria or Egypt to see it.  Every week, you can hear another story of the horrible things people do to each other, not in some place far away, but right down the road.  What is going on?    

How do you see God in the middle of that?   How can God even be found?   It can seem that God has left the building.  But has God left it?   And if God hasn’t, what is God doing?   How does God give hope when things seem hopeless?   How does God provide peace when so much can scare you to death?   In these words God shows you the way.   God shows you the way not only to hope and peace.  God shows the way to a life lived in the confidence that nothing, not even death, can defeat God’s love.   Let’s hear what God has to say.

When you see a world where so much is going wrong, how does God set it right?  How does God bring hope, bring peace to this world, to this community, to your neighbors, to you?  In these words written to folks going through horrors of their own, God tells you.   Where is God in the mess of the world?  God says.  I am there in the middle of it.   Because that’s where the battle lies, that’s where the enemy lurks, that’s where the victory is won.   And that means, whatever mess you face, God is there too.   And nothing will ever defeat that.    

These people in Rome to whom Paul was writing had begun to doubt that.  And you can see why.   Soldiers were arresting their friends, killing them even, simply for what they believed.   That’s why Paul quotes that verse from the Old Testament, “We are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”     That’s how they felt.   And they wondered.  Where is God?   And Paul told them.  God is there with you.   God has not walked away.  God is working even if you can’t see it.    And no matter what happens to you, even death, God will win.

But how did Paul know that?   How can Paul be that confident?  It’s because Paul hasn’t forgotten what time it is.  Now what do I mean by that?  Surely these people knew the time. They knew the date, the day, the year.  But that’s not the only time there is.  

That’s why the Greeks had two words for time.   One word, Chronos, describes the time you see on a clock.   But the other words, Kairos, describes the time a clock will never catch.  Kairos timing sends a ball into a goal, makes a joke funny, makes a story powerful. 

Have you ever seen a great hitter hit a baseball out of the park?  He doesn’t set his watch and when the alarm goes off he hits the ball.   No, he waits for that perfect moment when his bat will slam it into the stands.  He hits by Kairos time.  When you look at someone you love, and you know that it’s time to kiss them.  Do you check your watch to know when?  No, you check your heart.   Kisses live in Kairos time. 

And Paul knows that time.   Paul knows.  It isn’t Rome wins time.  It’s Jesus wins time.   It isn’t Death has the last word time.  It’s God’s love has the last word time.   And Paul doesn’t know that because he heard a nice sermon about it one day, and signed onto the team.  If you know Paul’s story, then you know.  

He had been the guy arresting their friends, even killing them.  And he did it all in God’s name.  But one day, as he headed into the Syrian city of Damascus to do that deadly work, Jesus showed up.    The Jesus he thought was dead and gone, that Jesus showed up, and asked.  “Why are you persecuting me?”  But get this.   Paul wasn’t persecuting Jesus.   He was persecuting his followers, his friends.  But Jesus was telling him.  You hurt others.  You hurt me.   And from that moment, Paul got what time it was.  It wasn’t Jesus was dead time.   It was Jesus is alive time.   It wasn’t violence in God’s name time.  It was turn back from evil time.   It wasn’t death time.  It was resurrection time.
And so every time Paul got discouraged, he remembered that.   When evil ruled his life, Jesus had turned it around.  So when that evil led others to beat him down, to imprison him, he trusted Jesus to work again to bring good out of that evil.   And Jesus did.

So he can write, God will work all things together for good, for those who love and trust.  Now Paul knew.   That doesn’t mean evil things don’t happen.   Nor does it mean God deletes what evil does like a bad file.    Evil still leaves casualties on the battlefield.  But Paul is saying.  Evil will not have the last word.  God’s goodness and love will have that.  

That’s how the Cambodians came to my childhood church in Chattanooga.   A member of that church went to the pastor, who happened to be my dad, and said.  “We have a chance to bring Cambodian refugees to Chattanooga, but they need places to go.”   You see, that was the refugee crisis of that day, hundreds of thousands fleeing the wars of Southeast Asia.   So our church put out the word, and families across the congregation, across the community stepped up.   They took whole families, mom, dad, kids, often grandma and grandpa too, well over a 120 folks before it was all done.   Folks came together to help feed and clothe them, and get them jobs so they could stand on their own two feet.    And then, we decided to invite them to church.  But they didn’t know English yet, though they had one man who understood Chinese. So the church found John Ang, a pastor who spoke Chinese.  And the church began a worship service for them, and they showed up, with John speaking Chinese, that then got translated into Cambodian. It made for a long service, but it worked. 

Then a few months later, John came to my dad, and told him. “They all want to be baptized.”   Now, we were a little concerned.  Were they doing it just to make us happy?  And they said.    Yes, you had something to do with it.   When we lingered for months in squalid refugee camps , we had lost hope.  We had lost so much already.  Then you showed up, and brought us here.  You weren’t family.  You weren’t even Cambodian.   And we didn’t even share the same religion.  Yet you opened your homes to us.  You sacrificed for us.  You loved us.    And we wanted to know why.   And John told us.  It wasn’t you.  It was Jesus working in you.   And so we want Jesus to work in us too.   We did have a problem.    John Ang was Baptist.  That meant these folks wanted to be dunked when we Presbyterians sprinkled.  So we just found a big swimming pool.  We invited a bunch of other folks to help us.      And one Sunday afternoon, we baptized 120 joyful Cambodians in the name of Jesus.

Because it wasn’t war has the last word time.  It was welcome has the last word time.  It wasn’t refugees are strangers time.  It was refugees are Jesus calling us to love time.   It wasn’t it’s too much trouble time.  It was Jesus will make a way time.   It wasn’t evil wins time.  It was Jesus wins time.  Because, it wasn’t death time.  It was resurrection time.  

That’s why, this church years ago welcomed Cambodian refugees into our midst.  They lived in our church apartment, and one of them became our custodian.  And when that family moved on, we welcomed Bianca, our current custodian and her family. Ironically, the war they were fleeing in Bosnia was one where mainly Christians were killing mainly Muslims.  Evil exists everywhere.     

But evil doesn’t have the last word.  God’s love has that.  That’s what Paul knew.  Paul knew because evil had not had the last word in him.   And in resurrection time, even when evil kills; even when death comes, even then; God’s love lives.  

About 23 years ago it happened in the small community of Goshen, Alabama.   The folks at Goshen United Methodist had gathered for a special Palm Sunday drama.    And when the sirens went off, they didn’t hear them.  So when the tornado struck, and the roof came down, they had no warning.   Of the 145 gathered  that day, twenty perished, including the pastor’s four year old daughter, Hannah.   Twenty years later, that pastor, Kelly Clem returned for a service to mark that day.    

Here is some of what she said, “That evening, the world began to join us to make sense of it all, but Holy Week doesn’t make sense….But -- here and there -- in spite of the “why?” there would be a gleam of hope. ‘Where was God?’ people ask. But a hundred little gifts reminded us that God is here, that it’s God’s story we’re living; that, as Jesus promised his disciples, he will not leave us orphans in this storm.”

One of those gifts was a video.   A church member, Brenda Formby, had been recording the service when those walls came down.   And her camera caught something. Diane Molock had been sitting next to her 3-year-old nephew, Tyler.  And as the walls came down, she cuddled him into the safety of her arms.  Diane Molock would die that day. But Tyler would live.

TV shows offered her thousands for that video, but she refused it.   One by one though, survivors came to see it.   And when they came, that image of Diane giving her life for Tyler helped them heal.   Why? Her death echoed the death of the One who had died for them, who had died for everyone.  Her sacrifice reminded them that just as Jesus was there for them on that cross, Jesus had been there for them on that day. 

The church never rebuilt on that site.  Instead it made it a memorial park, and planted a dogwood tree for each life lost.    And in the outline of the old church, they made two stone walls.   One stands broken with rebar curling out of the top, to mark the devastation of the day.  

But another wall stands beside it with a cross shaped opening cut into it.  

And they positioned it so that when the sun sets, the light of that cross shines through the whole site.

You see.  That church knows, what time it is.   It isn’t Jesus died for no reason time.  It’s Jesus died to destroy death time.   It isn’t Jesus is dead and gone time.  It’s Jesus is alive and at work time.   It isn’t Jesus is in the tomb time.  It is Jesus is risen and at work time. It isn’t death has the last word time.  It’s God’s love has the last word time.  It’s not death time. It’s resurrection time.  
But let’s give evil and death it’s due.  It’s brutal and it’s ugly.   After all, what happened to Jesus?  The great early Christian preacher, Melito says it well. 

This one was murdered.   Why? Because he had healed the lame.  He had cleansed the lepers. He had guided the blind with light.   He had raised up the dead. For this reason he suffered….

But is that the last word, Melito?  No.  Melito of Sardis preaches.   But Jesus arose from the dead and mounted up to the heights of heaven. When the Lord had clothed himself with humanity, and had suffered for the sake of the sufferer, been bound for the sake of the imprisoned, been judged for the sake of the condemned, buried for the sake of the one who was buried, he rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned free; I gave the dead life; I raised up the ones who had been entombed.  Who is my opponent? I, he says, am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death.  I triumphed over the enemy. I trampled Hades under foot.  I bound the strong one, and carried off humanity to the heights of heaven.  I, he says, am the Christ.

Therefore, come, all families of women and men, you who have been befouled with evil, and receive forgiveness for them. I am your forgiveness, I am the Passover of your salvation, I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you.  I am your ransom. I am your light, I am your savior. I am your resurrection.  I am your king. I am leading you up to the heights of heaven. I will show you the eternal Father. I will raise you up by my right hand.

How can Melito, a persecuted preacher in the second century be so cocky?  He knows what time it is.   It isn’t evil has the last word time.  It’s God’s love has the last word time.   It isn’t Jesus is dead and gone time.  It’s Jesus is alive and at work time.   Because it isn’t despair time.  It’s hope time.   It’s isn’t fear time.  It’s faith time.    It’s not death time.  What time is it?  It’s resurrection time. 

And if you want to experience a God who brings hope like that, who defeats evil like that, who loves you like that, then make this the day, you figure out what time it is.  Whatever you face, God will love you through it.  God will give you triumph over it.  Because it’s not death time.  Sisters and brothers, what time is it?  It’s resurrection time.  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Two Things That Your Relationship with Jesus and Marriage Have in Common

I gotta admit it.  When I first heard about it, it creeped me out.   Yet for hundreds of years, nobody thought twice about it.   That’s simply the way it was.    You got dressed up in your wedding dress.   You put on your wedding ring.   And you made your vows.  And after that, you were married to Jesus.   That’s how women became nuns.   They got married to Jesus, with the wedding dress, the ring, the whole shebang.  You can even see videos of it on-line.  But now, I realize. It’s not only nuns that get married to Jesus.  Every Christian gets married to Jesus.    But what can this even mean?  How can you be married to Jesus?   In the words of this passage, God points the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

Again and again in these words God makes the same point.   When you become a follower of Jesus, Jesus doesn’t simply become your savior.   Jesus becomes your spouse.   What does this mean?  It means marriage means more than just marriage.   Marriage points to something deeper, a divine relationship that never ends.   And only as you understand that, will you grasp what God intends not only marriage to be but your relationship with him.  Now what do your relationship with God and a relationship with a human spouse have in common?  They both depend on two crucial dynamics.  They depend on grace and they depend on intimacy.     

Over the years, you are going to hurt a lot of people.  But if you are married, you will never hurt someone as frequently you do your spouse.  And at the same time, no one will hurt you as much as your spouse does.  Why?     You’re just around that person more. You live with that person day in and day out.  So you have more opportunity to mess up there than anywhere else.   That means. For any marriage to be successful it needs a lot of grace.    As Robert Quillen put it, “A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.” 

But how do you become a good forgiver?  How do you learn to forgive well?   It requires that you consistently do two things.  You show unconditional regard, and you take unconditional responsibility.   What do I mean?   Let’s say your spouse snaps at you one morning over something insignificant.    It’s clear.  They did you wrong.   Now you could snap back, but that rarely leads anywhere good.    You could ignore it on the outside, but inside put it up on your little chalkboard of resentment.  You know, the one that details how much better you are then them.    But that doesn’t lead anywhere good either.  

Or you could show them unconditional regard.  You could give them a pass, so to speak, offer your forgiveness.   Now that doesn’t mean you go to your spouse and say.   “My dear, you spoke harshly to me this morning, but I because I love you will overlook your offense.   I will give you unconditional regard, and offer you my forgiveness.”   Trust me, if you’re doing that, you’re not offering anything but a backhanded slap of self-righteousness.   No, unconditional regard is going to your partner and saying, “Hey, I can see you’re having a hard time this morning.   Can I help?  What’s going on?”   It’s moving past the offense to reach out to the one you love, not with anger or resentment but with concern and care. 

And usually when that happens, your spouse will respond with something like, “I’m really stressed about this or that, and I’m sorry.  I know I took it out on you.”  

And that response leads to the other key to this dynamic of grace, to taking unconditional responsibility.   That means, when you mess up, you own it.   You don’t excuse it. You don’t minimize it.  You don’t defend it.  You own it.    So when your spouse points out a way in which you hurt them, you take responsibility.  You say, “You are right.  I messed up.  I hurt you and I am sorry.”   But of course words can be cheap.  How do you really live into this unconditional responsibility?

A story I heard from the preacher, Tim Keller, shows how you live into it.  When Tim first got married, every night before he went to bed, he had a habit of sitting down on the bed, and tossing his shoes into the closet across the room..kerplunk   Now naturally, all this tossing scuffed up the baseboards and the walls of the closet.  So his wife, Kathy said.  “Tim, stop doing that.  You’re messing up the closet.”   And Tim said, “Oh yeah, sorry. I won’t do that.”  But Tim had developed this habit years before.   So sure enough the next night, kerplunk, he threw those shoes into the closet.   Again Kathy said, “Tim, please don’t do that.”  Again, Tim said he was sorry, and agreed not to do it. But sure enough the next night, kerplunk…. Ok, you get the idea.  Now Kathy thought to herself. “Well, I can see how much my feelings matter to this guy, but he’s not going to turn me into a nag. I’ll just deal with it.”    Well, a few months pass, with all the time, every night, those shoes going kerplunk right into the closet.  Then one day, Tim and Kathy have a difficult day together.   That night as they go to bed, Tim does it again, kerplunk, and this time Kathy goes ballistic.   Now, Tim is thinking, “Woah, she is way out of line getting so angry about this little kerplunk.  But of course it wasn’t one kerplunk it was sixty of them.”   Finally, Tim got it, and he went to his wife and said.  “I know this habit really hurts you, but I’m trying to figure out how to stop it.”   And she said, “Well, try finding a way to remind yourself.”   So right on the entrance to the closet, Tim wrote a note.  It said, “Stupid, Stop throwing your shoes into the closet and hurting your wife, signed God.”    Now when Tim did that he was taking unconditional responsibility.           

And when you do that, when you own your own failings, it frees you to forgive the failings of others.  Why?  You know.  You’ve got your own issues too.   You have no right to throw stones so to speak.   And any happy marriage has to live in this dynamic, and not only for the big mistakes, but for these minor ones, the shoes kerplunking in the closet.   When a marriage dies or for that matter any relationship, it’s usually dies the death of a thousand cuts.   It’s the resentments built up over the years.  It’s the hurts that have happened over and over again.   Yes, maybe a big betrayal deals the death blow, but the dying began long before then. 

And why do you need this dynamic of grace in marriage or in any relationship?  It’s because that dynamic lies at the heart of the ultimate relationship, the one between you and God.  When God in Jesus died for you, he showed you unconditional regard.  Even on the cross itself, Jesus showed it.  He said.  “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”    But God’s unconditional regard calls on you to acknowledge your unconditional responsibility. Why did God go to that cross after all?   God went there to save you.   That’s the gospel.   You had become so lost that God to die for you.   Nothing less than that could bring you home.    But you are so loved that God was glad to die for you.   And when you know that, both your unconditional responsibility and God’s unconditional regard, it frees you for the second dynamic, one that every great marriage needs.  It frees you for intimacy. 

Every marriage needs intimacy, physical intimacy, emotional intimacy the whole shebang.  And when that happens, when a couple becomes intimate, if things work as they typically do, they bring children into the world.  Their intimacy bears fruit.  

And in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he makes that astonishing comparison to our relationship with God.  He talks about how in the Jewish law a wife is not free to marry until her husband dies.   Then he tells the Christians in Rome.  That’s what happened to you.  Before Jesus came along, you were married to an abusive spouse called the law.    And out of the intimacy of that twisted legalistic relationship, you bore awful fruit into the world, fruit that Paul even lists in the letter to the Galatians.   Listen to it.  “repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.”  That’s the fruit of a life lived with the law.   But then Paul says, Jesus came to win your hand, and by his love, the your old husband, the law died.    You became free to marry him.   And out of that union with Jesus, you bring a far different fruit into the world.   Paul lists that fruit as well; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Jesus did not ride into Jerusalem on this Palm Sunday simply to offer you his forgiveness, as amazing and beautiful as that is.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem to offer you his hand, to pursue you as his bride; to unite you with himself.   Two people in marriage experience an intimacy with each other that at its best fills them with ecstasy and wonder. But where does that wonder and ecstasy come from?  It comes from the One who created it.  It comes from the one who gave it as a preview of the ecstasy and wonder still to come.     Jesus has come to not only be your savior.  Jesus has come to be your lover too.   This week, you enter not only into the greatest salvation story in history.   You enter into the greatest love story as well, a God who would not let death stand in the way of his love for you, whose great love even death could not defeat.  And when you realize that God loves you like that, that passionately, that completely, it frees you.   It frees you to love your spouse, to love your children, to love your friends, to love your neighbors, even those in the seat beside you like never before.   It frees you to love yourself because you know how ultimately and intimately you are loved by God.   This is the message of Holy Week.  You are loved.  You are loved.   You are loved.