Sown, Raised

“The first man Adam became a living soul”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (1 Cor 15:45)

My job more or less boils down to figuring out how to make the Christian message, the gospel, make sense to someone who hasn’t grown up hearing it and who may well be hearing it from me in his or her (and my) second language.

That’s a good spiritual discipline. You need to think hard about what you need to know in order for Christmas and Good Friday and Easter to make any kind of sense to the hearer. You need to think hard about what you know that makes these stories make sense to you, or whether they do make sense to you, you who would claim that believing the stories are true is just about the most important thing anyone can do in their life.

I really would claim that. In a box of hand-me-down books my four-year-old son was given recently is a copy of The Story of Jesus (a Little Golden Book by Jane Werner Watson). It’s nice enough for 22 of its 23 pages, with plenty to quibble about but nothing grotesquely wrong – and then, after a survey of Jesus’ teaching, comes this gem of a final page:

After Jesus’ death, his followers took his teachings all around the world. And the stories he told are still known and loved and retold today, in every land on Earth.

a058b2b415b2ba5dfe0f7c780c111346Granted that Little Golden Books probably wouldn’t go for a two-page spread of a blood-drenched crucifixion scene, the way Watson manages to gut the message and meaning of Jesus is nauseating. How did Jesus die anyway? To all appearances, he passed awa
y peacefully, surrounded by friends and family, having written a couple of bestsellers on How to Be Nice and Not Worry So Much, which his followers thought were just so swell that they just had to hand out copies to all their friends.

Easter only makes sense if we realize that our problem isn’t really that we don’t know how to live. Jesus didn’t come to tell us how to live. We know how to live.

Our problem is that we don’t live that way.

And so the Bible keeps saying, all the way through, that something fundamental about who we are needs to change. God makes promises to make us into people who will live as we know how: The Lord your God will circumcise your heart. I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. You must be born again.

Jesus died for our sins. That is gospel. But if Jesus dies for our sins and stays dead, then we are still who we are, still with our old hearts, still the sort of people who will sully a clean slate the second it’s handed to us.

The first man Adam became a living soul, it says; he was of the earth, a dust-man. There was nothing wrong with that. He was enlivened by the breath of life breathed from God into his nostrils, enlivened by the greatest intimacy God had engaged in with any creature of His. It was a beautiful way of being. But then he disobeyed God, and it was spoiled, and instead of being planted and blossoming into the glory for which he was destined, he died and stayed dead.

If Jesus died and stayed dead, then this is still how it works, and the old way of being, which started out beautiful but was spoiled, is still the only way of being. But he didn’t. He was raised in glory, becoming a life-giving spirit, a man of heaven. He is not a frail thing of dust drawing breath from God; he is an immortal victor whose human life is so fully united to that of the living God that the almost unbearable intimacy of the moment Adam was awakened into life seems almost cold and distant by comparison.

And that union means that, being alive, Jesus Christ can give life. He can give the kind of life that permeates his entire being, that sustains him, that means that he will never again be subject to death. It means he is there to give to all who ask, to be found by all who seek, to open to all who knock.

It means that what God intends to do with people in order to save them from death and judgment has happened to someone, and that He so identifies us with that Someone that we simply are no longer the dust-people we once were, broken and dying, and that He breathes the life Jesus now experiences into us so that we – slowly, incompletely, even haltingly, but inexorably – blossom into the image of the heavenly Man.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

For Mercy on the Souls of Men

Sev’n times he spake, sev’n words of love;
And all three hours his silence cried
For mercy on the souls of men:
Jesus, our Lord, is crucified! (Frederick Faber)

Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? that is, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.

Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!

Woman, behold, your son! … Behold, your mother!

I thirst.

It is finished.

A friend, a freshly minted Christian, was telling me recently how he had come to the point of believing. It was a long story and a very good one, but one of a rapid series of turning points came when he watched The Passion of the Christ in hopes of experiencing what he’d been reading in the Bible a little more vividly.

He told me that when he got to the crucifixion scene, even though he knew from previous reading what Jesus was going to say, he broke down in tears at Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

“No human said that,” he told me.

Xaveribergkapelle - Lamm GottesSetting aside the Christological imprecision, it’s a beautifully simple observation that has stuck with me for weeks. At the heart of the gospel is this Jesus, Son of God, Son of Man, submitting to the wrath of God against man and the wrath of man against God, trusting his Father and forgiving his tormentors to the bitter end.

That’s not, as you might say, natural. It’s not normal. It’s not how we function, not how we deal with our suffering and perceived failure and the opposition and betrayal of our peers. It’s not how any god we would fashion in our own image would operate. It just isn’t human religion.

And so this impossible scene brings the flowering of an impossible religion. If we say, as my friend does, this is the God I want to believe in, then the basic way we attach ourselves to Him is to demand that He be for us the Father who answers that prayer of His Son from the cross. There is nothing else we may demand of God, but we must require this of Him.

As with all things, there’s a catch. If we require of the Father that He forgive us for the Son’s sake, then He will require of us that that prayer be on our lips as well, that we relinquish every claim to fairness and call upon the Lord to have mercy on the undeserving. And He will answer that prayer of ours, often enough, by letting the recipients of His mercy first do things to us that He will then forgive, for they know not what they do.

Life will be unfair, in a word. Increasingly unfair, even. If we walk this path, then more and more we will love and care for people who will receive that love with resentment, envy, even hatred. I suspect that the evil returned for the good we do will tend to increase in proportion to the sincerity and purity of our love. And we may never see, before we die, the effect of that love on those who received it so ungratefully. Christ didn’t.

And in that way, we’ll come to know this Jesus from inside his own story.

What Then Will This Child Be?

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son…

The last notes of Luke’s prelude to Christ ring out in the Benedictus, deaf and dumb Zechariah’s song of praise; this is the first of the great signs of the times, the things Jesus will point to when this same baby boy sends his disciples to ask whether he is indeed the One to Come.

5865915298_fa6ffef241What is announced by the birth of John, Luke wants us to see, is the Day of the Lord’s Vengeance. It’s no coincidence that the tongue of the mute sings for joy at the birth of the one who is to prepare his way in the wilderness. We’re to see the Day dawning here, blazing forth in the healing ministry of the Anointed, continuing in the at once blinding and eye-opening self-disclosure of the Resurrected to another blameless Jew.

The hand of the Lord was with him, it says, to save his people from the hand of those who hate them, the hand of their enemies. Hands in the Bible are, by and large, not for caressing, not for acts of gentleness. Hands wield, are raised against adversaries, are trained for war. This child is a weapon in the hands of the Almighty, an instrument of judgment, vengeance, overthrow. Luke’s first chapter is overwhelmingly martial in tone – God is coming to Israel, the King of Glory, mighty in battle. It is a great and terrible Day that is dawning; the Sun of Righteousness rising on the elect will set the wicked ablaze.

What will this child be? He will be the prophet who comes in order that his people might not all be burned to stubble by that dawn. No wonder all the neighbors were gripped by fear; they must have had some inkling of the answer to their whispered question.

Do we realize that this is what Christmas is – the beginning of the decisive offensive in the real War To End All Wars? Do we grasp that there is a war on, one with only two sides, one with only one possible outcome, of which every one of us on either side of it must become a casualty?

The band Wilco put it this way: You have to lose / You have to learn how to die / If you wanna, wanna be alive. I don’t claim to know what Jeff Tweedy thought he was getting at with those words, but it’s an incomparably efficient expression of what this gospel in Zechariah’s song demands. Deliverance, serving God without fear, knowledge of salvation in the forgiveness of sins, light to those seated in death’s shadow, guidance into the way of peace: John will die a sad and ugly death for proclaiming these things. His relative Jesus will die a worse one in order to realize them.

Light and life lie on the far side of darkness and death. God’s people would be saved from the hand of their enemies because Jesus would fall into that hand. He would pass through the darkness and out the other side so that we might learn how to die without being lost forever.

The life we know how to live, the one we are born into and are trained up in, is living death. It is enlistment in the army of a power hostile to the proper Sovereign of the world it seeks to dominate. You have to lose if you want to live. You have to die if you want to conquer. This would be John’s message: act as if God is coming to kill you, and when He does, He will raise you up on the last day.

Jesus Christ, the baby in the manger, the man of sorrows, will show us how. Get ready for
Christmas: believe that, in the truest sense, the End Is Near. Learn from this Jesus how to die. Learn from Zechariah, from Mary and Elizabeth and Gabriel, just what will dawn on you when you do.

And now: by the tender mercy of our God, may the sunrise visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Amen and amen.

No One Is Safe and We Are All Going To Die

We are a few days out from the latest horror of 2016, a deadly attack on apparently random bystanders by means of a hijacked transport truck. This one hit my city, targeting a Christmas market I’ve strolled through in the past, in one of the busier tourist and pedestrian areas of central Berlin. It’s right by the zoo, where we have an annual family pass and take the boys often. It’s a fairly important transit hub, where it’s not uncommon for us to change trains or buses on the way to somewhere across town.

14932a005c9ffb48The initial suspect, now cleared, is Afghan or Pakistani (it’s never been quite clear exactly which), a man who came to Germany seeking asylum. We have had a decent amount of contact with refugees from both countries, hearing their stories, sharing meals and glasses of tea. The current suspect, still at large and being sought, is said to be Tunisian. We have Tunisian acquaintances here as well, though they’re people who have been in Berlin a long time. These descriptions are not abstractions for us, imaginary bugbears from far away. Both victims and perpetrators could be (though they’re not, as far as we know) our neighbors, acquaintances, friends.

It seems wrong, just at the moment, not to have Something To Say. The politicians all do. Social media are alight with calls to prayer and expressions of sympathy, calls for tighter immigration controls and calls for compassion for refugees, all the usual back-and-forth.

I have no policy proposals. Opinions on immigration policy and Islam, sure, some of them probably better informed than others. My take, though, more than anything, is a very basic, not at all original to me observation about what we – we human beings, I mean, or at any rate certainly contemporary Westerners – are like, and what we assume mistakenly to be the case about the world.

The problem is what we all implicitly acknowledge the question to be: how can we be safe? How can we make it so this doesn’t happen? Do we need to be nicer to or tougher on Muslims? Do we need more video surveillance or less? Do our borders need to be more closed or more open? Do our gun laws need to be more or less restrictive? How can we get Them to stop hating our freedom?

Perhaps, if we were to get the answers right on every single one of these things, we would be perceptibly more safe. Perhaps. For a time. But at some point, we would find some new questions, questions which would seem equally, terrifyingly urgent to answer rightly, as once again we ran headfirst into the brick wall of the reality that no one is safe and we are all going to die.

It’s a perennial observation, a truism, something so obvious as not to need stating: we are all going to die, and our safety is really an illusion. The world is out of our control; even the forces and phenomena we understand relatively well are too complex for us ever to truly master. Someday, sooner or later, cancer or terrorism or heart disease or drunk driving or a falling piano or just sheer time or something is going to be more powerful than we are, and we will succumb to death.

And yet we spend untold emotional, physical, and mental energy trying either to combat this inevitability or to ignore it. I dare say just about everything we do for pleasure or comfort, for self- or civic improvement, has one of these as its ultimate goal: to stave off death, or to numb ourselves to its sting.

Hence the real outrage at evil deeds like the Breitscheidplatz attack, the inevitable this could have been prevented if only… declarations that well up in our throats and pour forth from every pundit. Death has intruded into our fun, asserted itself in a public and powerful and horrific way, and given the lie to all our distractions and efforts at achieving control over our fate. Any number of things could have prevented this – but they didn’t.

In the end, then, we are shaking our fists at an unsafe God who has made an unsafe world. Like so many evangelicals of the last half-century (and may the Lord make them a thousand times as many as they are), I’m a bit of a C.S. Lewis disciple. One of his many indelible sayings comes from the description of Christ figure Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: “Safe? … ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

We like this. It sounds romantic and exciting. But Lewis provides some exposition of the saying in The Silver Chair, in Aslan’s own self-description: “I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms.” Our God is unsafe, in the deepest and most meaningful sense of the word: it is up to Him when and how we will all die. And He may have us die at a time and in a way for which we are not ready.

And we cannot, of ourselves, ever be ready. In our world, the devil – our cosmic Accuser – has the power of death, because death has the sting of sin, and sin the power of God’s holy and righteous law. We cannot be ready for death, because death dooms those who stand condemned. That’s why it strikes such a tender nerve when death intrudes on our “normalcy.” Our normalcy is nothing normative for God, nothing He has promised, nothing He may not at any time lay aside, to our destruction.

How then shall we live and grieve and have our celebration this unsafe Christmas? It is easy enough to appeal to vaguely hopeful bromides about love conquering hate, light shining in the darkness, that sort of thing. Berlin is full of them right now. But too often, I think, these sentiments are just as light, insubstantial, ephemeral as the “joy” of the season that dissipates in the face of tragedy (and Breitscheidplatz is only one facet of the darkness all around). What we need is heavy joy, substantial hope, solemn and solid festivity.

I love the trappings of Christmas: pretty shiny things on the tree, unreasonable amounts of sugar all around, tchotchkes and sentimental songs and all that good stuff. It is good stuff, and stuff is good. But let us, us Christians at least, not use these in the way we’re inclined to by nature – to paper over the cracks in our world with the notion that people really aren’t so bad deep down, or to drown our sorrows in tinsel and eggnog and nostalgia. The way to resist the power of evil in our world is not found in resenting it for crashing our party.

To deliver those enslaved through the fear of death, the Scripture says, our Christ partook of flesh and blood. He signed up for this, for life in a world where tyrants slay the little childer, life in which every millisecond of continued existence succeeds only at the pleasure of the Father in heaven. He came, in fact, to succumb to the danger – in order to rob the devil of the power to secure his people’s damnation. He came as the token of God’s good will, the promise that God is not only vaguely well-disposed toward His benighted creatures, but that He will not be kept from them, not by death or violence or any other damned thing, and that in the end “it was all worth it” will be the understatement of all eternity. The only real resistance we can put up to this world’s evil is to think, speak, and act as if all of this is true.

We are not safe. He is not safe. But He’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.


He Has Shown Strength With His Arm

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth…

So the first thing Mary does is, she heads off to visit Auntie (maybe even Great-Aunt, or Cousin or something) Elizabeth, who has thus far been keeping her big news under wraps. It makes sense: who else do you talk to about a thing like this? What better way to make sure the whole Gabriel thing wasn’t a crazy hallucination than to have a tête-à-tête with somebody right in the middle of her own miracle?

And on her arrival, lo! John the Fetus did give a mighty leap of exultation before Mary and the Holy Clump of Cells within her.

It is magnificent, this little scene of two mothers, old and young, virgin and barren, prophesying to one another. Their words fly in the face of all reason, weaving a tapestry of Scriptural thanksgiving and praise for their God’s bestowing the honor of a (to all reasonable appearances) illegitimate child on a girl who certainly will face divorce as a consequence of her apparent adultery, and perhaps death.

Yet once again, the echoes down the centuries of Israel’s history paint the encounter in an astonishing light. Gabriel has already met Mary with a hero’s greeting; now Elizabeth does the same: having arisen as a mother in Israel, she hails a new Jael as the most blessed of women, one whose words – “let it be to me according to your word” – are a mallet and tent peg in her hand to drive through the serpent’s skull.

magnificat-illuminated-msMary’s song, the Magnificat, is likewise – always catching me more by surprise than it ought to – brash, defiant, exultant, not merely in the “God gives me amazing feelings” sort of contemporary Christian mode of expression but in a way that positions her as a worthy heir to her namesake Miriam (likewise unmarried, as far as one can glean from Exodus and Numbers), the singer-prophetess who led the women of Israel in their triumph over defeated Pharaoh so many generations before.

This child, newly created in the virgin’s womb, already constitutes a stunning victory over the powers of earth.

Such is the whole tone and tenor of this song; in a nod to barren Hannah’s victory chant over her contemptuous rival, she exults in the “scattering” of the proud, the dethroning of the mighty, the hunger of the rich. One hesitates to drag the done-to-death college-essay word juxtaposition into the mix, but it fits: Hannah’s boast in the Lord, who has just brought her from an estate of shame into one of honor, on the lips of one who is, as soon as her situation becomes public, going to be ruined in the eyes of all respectable people.

The coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh overturns – from the very moment of his conception – fundamental things about the way the world works. No longer is the present defined on its own terms; the future, a future in which Mary is known universally as Blessed Among Women, in which Abraham’s Seed is a blessing to all the families of earth, in which David’s Seed sits on his father’s throne forever and ever, has invaded, planted its flag in the soil of the vale of tears.

Why? Because the future is this: Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will  dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. This is what will surely be, what all the energy of God is at work to bring about in the Day of Christ Jesus. This is what it is to be a Christian: to live under the flag of that future, to know that God will dwell with us because He already does, to know that we will be His people because one of us already sits at His right hand.

Because of these things, we can laugh all the darkness, pain, and hostility of the present age to scorn. Our attitude ought to be not unlike the proverbial nervous public speaker visualizing his audience in their unmentionables: we are to look at those with every earthly reason for pride as those who are already sacrificing their dignity at the altar of escape from a lost battle; to look at those enthroned on public opinion or seats of influence as already fallen into obscurity; to look at those who seem immune to justice as already knocked down several pegs.

We are not to fear these people or the powers that puff them up. We are not to fear obscurity; we are known where it counts. We are not to fear want; we have a seat at the King’s table.

The Sixth Month With Her Who Was Called Barren

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary…

the-cestello-annunciation-by-botticelli“Hail, Mary,” says the busy-these-days Gabriel, “you lucky girl, you.”

And Mary said unto him: who, me?

It’s tempting to try to claw our way into Mary’s head when we read the account of the Annunciation; it’s perhaps the archetypal story of the nobody-who-discovers-one-day-that-he-is-Very-Special-Indeed. You’re a wizard, Harry; the Force is strong with this one; yep, that’s a Ring of Power you’ve got there, Frodo. What must this Mary, the proverbial small-town girl, be thinking, when she’s told that God has had His eye on her for a while now? Continue reading

He Will Turn Many

I had the privilege this morning to start our Advent sermon series at Gospel Haus with Luke 1:5-20. I’ve translated my sermon below (and probably taken some liberties to make myself sound more articulate than I was, and thrown some things back in that I had to cut to keep the thing from being unreasonably long), hoping that it will be a help to others this Advent season.

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth…

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