Lent Week 5: A New Covenant

This year during the Lenten season we have been looking at events and conversations in the life of Jesus on his way to the cross.  The cross was the ultimate point of conflict between the kingdoms of this world and the new kingdom which Jesus had come to inaugurate.  The kingdoms of this world, with their top-down, violence-based, power-driven, what’s-in-it-for-me ways of doing things, and the kingdom of God with its upside-down, others-first, get-to-the-back-of-the-line-if-you-want-to-lead way of doing things.  But before we get to the cross there are a couple of loose ends to tie up.

At this point Jesus and the disciples are making their way towards Jerusalem for the Passover.  Now the Passover was the climactic celebration of the Jewish year, but by the first century it was a bittersweet celebration.  It looked back fondly on the great acts of deliverance by which God brought the nation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and established them in the Promised Land, but with an air of wistful longing as the Jews found themselves enslaved again to a hostile foreign power and hoping–yearning–for a fresh act of deliverance from above.

It was against this backdrop that Jesus and his disciples prepared to enter Jerusalem.  The city was huge by ancient standards, and all the roads into the city were slammed with people headed there for the festival.  There was not a hotel room to be had.  (Think:  Athens GA on a football Saturday.)  And with all that Jesus had been doing, there was a buzz among the people heading into the city that had reached a fevered frenzy by that point.  People in the city and on the roads leading in were looking around anxiously, hoping to catch a glimpse of Jesus.  And when he and his disciples were spotted on one of the roads in, the whole crowd started laying out palm branches and broke into a chant:  “Hosanna!”  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  “Blessed is the king of Israel!”

The people had high hopes that this Passover would be different from all the others before.  That this would be the time when Jesus would pull off his rabbinic robes and declare himself the Messiah.  That next year at this time they would be celebrating their first Passover in a freshly liberated Israel with nary a Roman in sight.  They had no idea.

Once in the city, Jesus and his disciples skirted around from place to place–even causing a disruption in the Temple (you can read about it in Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, or Luke 19:45-46) which was prophetic in that the whole sacrificial system ground to a halt, if only momentarily, as a sign pointing to a time when the sacrificial system would stop for good–but never staying in one place long enough for any of the chief priests or their spies to get a bead on them.  They were tailing Jesus the whole time, with the intent of keeping him in sight until after the Passover was over and the crowds thinned out and making their move then.  Once they had killed Jesus, then they would track Lazarus down and kill him too and this whole thing would be over and done with.

And then, an answer to prayer–from their perspective, at least.  One of Jesus’ closest disciples broke ranks and approached them, promising to deliver Jesus over to them at an appropriate time.

Finally we get to the Passover.  Jesus had his disciples find an out-of-the-way place where they could hole up and have the Passover meal and have those last conversations with the disciples, because he knew that time was running out.  This sets the stage for our reading this week:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”

Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

–Matthew 26:26-29

Now get the picture:  Here are Jesus’ disciples all holed up in the upper room.  One of them has just left for God knows why.  Then Jesus starts acting all kinds of crazy.  There was the foot-washing thing, which we looked at last week.  Now this:  Jesus breaks the bread and starts talking about “This is my body”.  Wait–what?????  Luke’s version adds the words “given for you”.  What on earth is he talking about?????  This was the unleavened bread, the part of the Passover meal which represented the manna that God provided for the Israelites during their time in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.  The disciples knew exactly what the unleavened bread was.  Come on, Jesus.  Stick with the Passover script.

But it gets worse.  In Luke’s version the next thing he says is “Do this in remembrance of me.”  At this point the disciples, if they were God-fearing Jews, should have all gotten up and walked out of the room.  Perhaps the whole Messiah thing was getting to his head, but the one thing you did not do under any circumstances if you were a devout Jew was mess with Passover.  The closest parallel would be if your pastor got up on Christmas day and said “Today we are going to celebrate my birth and sing songs to me and hymns about how great I am.”  If that ever happens in your church, it means that something has gone seriously off the rails and you should get up and leave instantly.

But it gets worse.  Now Jesus takes the wine, which represents the blood that was applied to the door of every Jewish house in Egypt so that the angel of death that struck down all the Egyptian firstborn would pass over their houses (thus the name Passover).  He says “This cup is the new covenant…”  If the disciples were thinking straight they would have asked “What kind of covenant?”  You see, in ancient times there were three basic types of covenants:  bilateral parity covenant, which was an arrangement between two equal parties (think:  business contract), bilateral suzerainty covenant, in which one party is clearly superior and lays down all the terms and conditions (think:  your curfew, when you were growing up), and promissory covenant, which is where one party takes on all the obligations of the covenant and agrees to provide all the benefit to another party (think:  middle school crush).  If the disciples were thinking straight they would have asked “Is this going to be like the covenant between our nation and God (a bilateral suzerainty covenant), or is this going to be something else entirely?”

But Jesus isn’t finished.  He goes on, “…in my blood, which is poured out for you.”  Now we’re right back to the Temple equation.  Every year for as long as they could remember, the disciples had gone up to the Temple, made some sacrifices, and obtained forgiveness of their sins for the year.  An animal was sacrificed, its blood was poured out, and forgiveness was received.  Wait a minute, Jesus.  Your blood is going to be poured out, as some kind of sacrifice.  But you can only do that once.  What on earth are you talking about here?

There is one more loose end to tie up before we get to the cross.  But that will have to come next week.


Lent Week 4: Leading Great

This year during the Lenten season we have been looking at events and conversations in the life of Jesus on his way to the cross.  For this week’s reading we go to Mark.  But before we get to that, let us back up to establish some context.

The most well-known of Jesus’ miracles is the story of Lazarus, a well-known story to many of you which John recounts in his Gospel (John 11).  Here was a dead guy.  Not just dead, but dead dead.  As in they-had-already-had-the-funeral dead.  When Jesus got the word that his friend Lazarus was sick, he told his disciples “Stay put.  We’re not going anywhere.”  Which must surely have weirded them out.  When they finally arrived in Bethany they had already hired the mourners and they were just finishing up the funeral.  They had just closed up the tomb.  When Lazarus came back to life they had to take the grave clothes off.

So when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead it was a huge deal.  To the point where Bethany became a tourist attraction.  People came from all around in hopes of a Lazarus sighting.  Some went and told the Pharisees, as John points out in his account.  They convened a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

Who was the Sanhedrin?  This was the ruling council, the Supreme Court if you will.  These guys represented the Jewish people to Rome and Rome to the Jewish people.

At this meeting, John tells us, they said, “What are we accomplishing? …Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”  On the face of it, a very arrogant thing to say.  Yet it shows that on a certain level they got what Jesus was all about and what he was intending to do.  They referred to his miracles as “signs”, which indicates that they saw them not as blind, haphazard displays of supernatural power but as pointers to something.  There was a method to Jesus’ madness, if you will, and the Pharisees recognized it.  Jesus had come to start something new, something that would put them and their system out of business.  If everyone believed in him, then the Romans would take away the Temple–there would be no need for it anymore.  History tells us that that is exactly what happened.

So from then on, John tells us, the Pharisees were out to kill Jesus.  And not just him, but Lazarus too.  Why?  Because Lazarus was evidence.

Jesus gets wind of what the Pharisees are up to, and he decides to lay low.  He wants to be in Jerusalem for the Passover, but he doesn’t want to risk getting arrested prematurely, so he moves about carefully and stays mostly on the fringes of the Judean wilderness, in a village called Ephraim, as John points out.  How did Jesus get this intel?  Likely Nicodemus.  Recall that Nicodemus was a Pharisee on the ruling council, and Nicodemus was likely in attendance at that meeting.

So now, pilgrims are streaming into Jerusalem from all over the region just ahead of the Passover.  Tensions are high around Jerusalem, as the Passover is always the time for Messianic wannabes to stir up trouble.  This year is no different.  If anything, the hype is even greater this year because of all the news going around about Jesus and the Lazarus thing.  This year Jesus was even greater than the Passover.

Jesus and his disciples are among the throngs streaming into Jerusalem, and he pulls his disciples off the road, into an orchard and under a sycamore tree perhaps, for one last chat before they get to the city.  Now we come to this week’s reading:

They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

–Mark 10:32-45

Of course James and John knew how the systems of this world worked.  Those on top leveraged power and influence for their own benefit and with no regard for others.  It paid to be on, or close to, the top.  They knew (or so they thought) how all this was going to end:  With Jesus pulling off his rabbinic robes and revealing himself as the long-awaited Messiah.  So they wanted to be #2 and #3.  The other disciples knew how it worked as well, which is why they were so indignant with James and John–they also wanted to be #2 and #3 and how dare James and John cut in front of them!!!!!

We saw this top-down leadership model play out in the Sanhedrin meeting which John recounted.  We have seen it play out in virtually every political, cultural, and religious system prior to Jesus, and we see it in many political, religious, and even Christian, places today.

Not so, says Jesus.  My way is completely different from anything else you’ve seen.  If you want to be great in My kingdom, you must take the role of a servant.  And if you want to be the greatest, you must become a slave.  This is even worse.  At least servants get paid.

The story of the early Church indicates that the disciples got this.  Acts tells us that there was a point where the leaders of the early Church were so busy serving and meeting the needs of widows in the community that they had no time for anything else.  They had to literally pry their hands away from that task so that those disciples who had been closest to Jesus could pass along what they had learned from him.

But it didn’t happen right after this conversation.  In all likelihood, the point at which they got it was on another occasion a few days later.  They were all in an upper room celebrating the Passover.  This was a heady time; emotions were high and momentum was building.  Everyone was expecting that at any moment Jesus would pull off his rabbinic robes and reveal himself as the Messiah.  And then, sure enough, Jesus did pull off his rabbinic robe.  But not to reveal himself as Messiah.  Instead he grabbed a towel and a washbasin and began to wash everyone’s feet.

Washing feet was a servant’s job.  Yet in all the headiness of that moment, no one had thought to step up to do it, or to get a servant to do it.  And now Jesus was doing the deed himself.  The disciples were dumbstruck.  They knew what these hands could do, they had seen it with their own eyes.  And now here they were, washing feet.  Peter protested vociferously, voicing what the other disciples were probably thinking to themselves, but reluctantly submitted.  After that, all was quiet.  The quiet was interminable.  Those of you who have been to a footwashing service are accustomed to a quick wash that takes only a minute or so.  But actual footwashing as done in the first century was nothing like that.  Instead it was a painstaking process that took several minutes and involved going over every square inch of the foot and ankle, taking the towel and washbasin and scrubbing out every conceivable spot on the skin where dirt could accumulate.  And here was Jesus, going through this painstaking process on each foot, for each disciple.  When he finished, he said basically, “I am the greatest around here.  And now that I have done this for you, you have no excuse.”

We live in a day and age in which the reputation of Christianity in America has gone completely to shit.  In what can best be described as a bald-faced power grab, evangelicals have linked arms with some of the worst specimens of humanity to elect a president whose message is consistently the complete and total opposite of anything even remotely connected to Jesus Christ.

But there is hope.  Two thousand years ago a small band of people took to heart this idea that true greatness lies in being one who leverages influence for the benefit of others–the exact opposite of how every political, cultural, and religious system in the world up to that point had leveraged influence.  The result was that a knockoff Jewish sect following a crucified leader, with no financial or military backing, that should never in a million years have made it out of first-century Judea, became a worldwide movement that has persisted for over two thousand years.  It happened once.  It can happen again.

Lent Week 3: A Woman at a Well

This year during the Lenten season we have been looking at events and conversations in the life of Jesus on his way to the cross.  This week we stay in John for another reading that is likely familiar to many of you.

Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

“I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

–John 4:1-26

She lived in a town called Sychar, in the heart of Samaria. Samaria was right smack in the middle of things; if you wanted to go from Judea to Galilee or vice versa, you had to go through Samaria.

The Jews hated the Samaritans–so much that they avoided Samaria if they could at all help it. Anytime they needed to get from Judea to Galilee or vice versa, they would cross the Jordan and detour via the east side. The feeling was probably mutual on the part of the Samaritans. Jews saw the Samaritans as half-breeds–people who intermarried with foreigners out of convenience and disrespect for the ways of God. The Samaritans worshiped on a different mountain. They used a bastardized version of the books of Moses.

So here she was, coming to the well, lugging her jar all the way up the hill under the oppressive heat of the noonday sun.  You didn’t come to the well to get water in the middle of the day unless you had a really good reason.  It was just too hot.  Lugging that water jug all the way to the well and then all the way back home was hard enough; why add to your trouble by dealing with the heat of the noonday sun as well?  For this reason, the vast majority of the town’s women went to the well at twilight; there was just enough light to see where you were going but not enough to be oppressively hot.

And therein was her problem.  You see, this woman had some baggage.  She had had five husbands; each one had divorced her and cut her loose for some reason or another.  We don’t know.  Now she was living with another man, “living in sin” as we might say.  The rabbis wouldn’t grant her another marriage; they had been lenient enough with her as it is with numbers four and five.

Though we don’t know the details of this poor woman’s personal life, that didn’t stop the other women of the town from speculating and formulating their own judgments.  Said judgments were often communicated in whispers just loud enough for her to hear–intended to be loud enough for her to hear–whenever she was around.  Given the choice between dealing with that and dealing with the noonday sun, she preferred to take her chances with the sun.  The noonday sun was crazy hot but at least it didn’t gossip behind your back.

But on this day, things were a little different. There was a man sitting there at the well. A man who wasn’t from around here. Now in that culture, Jews just didn’t associate with Samaritans. (You knew that already.) And men didn’t associate with women. Women were viewed as second-class citizens and there were all sorts of complicated cultural protocols that you went through to arrange a marriage and you just didn’t step outside of that.

But Jesus didn’t care about such things. (You knew that already too.) And so he asked this Samaritan woman for a drink. Really he didn’t need it, but when you’re chillaxing at the local well, that’s as good a conversation starter as any.

Now in John, Jesus is all over the place. He will start in one place and then quickly jump to something completely different. We saw this last week with Nicodemus, and we see it again here. After the woman expresses her incredulity that Jesus would ask her for a drink or even talk to her in the first place, he starts talking about living water. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

The woman obviously is thinking of well water. This kind of water requires work. Hard work. “You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” But Jesus is talking about something completely different. Water that bubbles up from inside of you and never runs dry. You can drink this water and never be thirsty again. This water does not come from Jacob’s well or from any other source here on earth. This water flows from the Lord, the fountain of Israel.

Now the woman’s interest is piqued. “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” Not quite, but close. She is still thinking well water and not having to come up to Jacob’s well every day. She still doesn’t have a clue who this Jesus is, other than some stranger claiming to offer her water that is better than what she can get at the well.

“Go, call your husband.” Ah, now the truth comes out. Jesus doesn’t go there in order to shame her or accuse her, as the other women of the town would, only to show her that he is much more than anything she had ever suspected up to that point. He is greater than Moses or Jacob or Abraham. She senses that he is some kind of prophet. Good. Maybe he can settle that age-old question that had divided Jews and Samaritans: Which mountain? But worship is not a matter of which mountain when the Son of God is standing right there in the flesh, right there in front of you.

“God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” True worship of the Father is through the Son who is the Truth in the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus last week we saw that the Father begets the very worshipers He seeks through water and the Spirit. Worship is not a matter of finding the right mountain–or the right church, or the right denomination–but of being found by Jesus.  You don’t get close to God by climbing up mountains to get to him, or by searching for the one true Church or the place that has it all right doctrinally or that offers a smashup musical worship experience or whatever.  God gets close to you by coming down to you, putting on human flesh and taking it to the cross.  You worship by receiving what God has to offer you.

“I know that the Messiah is coming, and he’ll straighten it all out.” So she says to Jesus.  But she doesn’t know the half of it. “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” One of the very few times in all of the Gospels when Jesus comes out and says straight up that he is the Christ. He doesn’t say this to any of the high and mighty religious types of Israel–not this directly, at least–but he says it to this poor, miserable train wreck of a woman with a train wreck of a life, who had had five husbands and was now living with what would have been number six.

Remember that we, too, are the Samaritan woman. The only difference is that we have superior means at our disposal to maintain the illusion of respectability and of having it all together. When you have the cushy job and the new house in a fashionable part of town, when you have the 2.6 kids and the minivan on a quiet and safe suburban street, it is so easy to pretend that you have it all together. But scratch a little below the surface and it gets real messy, real quick.

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) This is grace–pure, unmerited favor from God. While we were still sinners. A Samaritan woman at a well. And each of us.

Lent Week 2: Nic at Nite

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

–John 3:1-21

This well-known encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus is what we are looking at this week.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a member of the ruling council.  This meant he had gotten on as a Pharisee and started at the bottom of the religious rung and worked his way up from there, likely because he had wealth or connections or possibly both.

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, likely because that was the only time that would work for them.  Jesus was busy during the day, the Gospel writers make a point of telling us that there were always crowds surrounding Jesus, and surely Nicodemus figured that it would not behoove him to be seen in that crowd trying to get a meeting with Jesus.  So night it was.

But things tend to mean more than one thing in the Gospel of John, and time is significant as well, so when John notes that the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus was at night, there is more in play than just night being the only time these two could connect.

Night is the time of darkness (duh).  But in the Gospel of John, it is more than just physical darkness.  Spiritual darkness.  Ignorance.  Unbelief.  Atheism.  Paganism.  Idolatry.  Knowing much but knowing nothing about God.

Jesus had lots of followers, and many of them were expecting him to at some point show himself as the Messiah, drive out the Romans and reestablish Israel as an independent kingdom, just like in the days of Solomon and David.  But the more astute followers suspected that something else was happening here.  Nicodemus fell into that category.  And he had some questions about Jesus and what he was up to, so he came at night.

He begins:  “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  Note that Nicodemus refers to the miracles, healings, etc. as “signs”.  These things were not just willy-nilly displays of supernatural power, but instead there was a method to the madness, as it were.  Nicodemus recognized this.

So Nicodemus finally comes to the point of asking his question(s).  But the words of his preamble aren’t even out of his mouth when Jesus stops him and goes in a completely different direction:  “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

Jesus did this all the time.  He would routinely answer questions by not answering them, or answer questions no one was asking, or go in a completely different direction from what the questioner was asking about.  And here we see it happening again.

Jesus was a teacher, a rabbi, sent by God.  Nicodemus knew that much.  But he didn’t even begin to know the half of it.  So Jesus wanted to stretch him, get him thinking in a new direction.

Nicodemus was lost.  “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”  He knew Jesus wasn’t speaking literally here.  But he didn’t have a clue what Jesus was really saying here.

But Jesus doesn’t take the bait.  “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”  In other words, nice try.  You were born a citizen of Israel–great.  But that won’t even begin to get you into the kingdom I’m talking about here.

“You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus is still lost.  So Jesus yanks his chain:  “You are Israel’s teacher…and you do not understand these things?”  Finally Jesus comes to something Nicodemus can relate to:  Moses.  “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

Wait a minute.  But for the Son of Man to be lifted up like that…that would require him to be hung on something or impaled on a pole or other such thing.  And the Law is clear that anyone who meets that fate is cursed.  So you’re saying that the Son of Man is going to be…cursed?  And somehow that will bring us eternal life?

Likely Nicodemus left that meeting with a whole lot more questions than answers.  We don’t see Nicodemus again until the end when Jesus has died.  This was not the ending that anyone was expecting.  But this Jesus deserved better than to have his body cast upon a trash heap, as was the typical fate of crucifixion victims.  Joseph of Arimathea had a tomb, so he and Nicodemus went to Pilate to request the body of Jesus.  Likely this involved a significant bribe, as it was against the law for crucifixion victims to be given a proper burial.

Nicodemus came up that day and saw the Son of Man–lifted up above the crowd.  Not the ending he or anyone else was expecting, but when he saw it he doubtless remembered what Jesus had said to him that night, and made the connection.

Lent Week 1: Jesus in the Wilderness

This year during the Lenten season we will be looking at some key moments in the life of Jesus leading up to the cross.  This week we look at a familiar story which comes to us courtesy of Matthew’s Gospel:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.  After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.  “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down.  For it is written:

” ‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up on their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot
against a stone.’ ”

Jesus answered him: “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give to you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan!  For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

–Matthew 4:1-11

Forty days and forty nights Jesus fasted in the wilderness.  This is where the forty days of Lent comes from.

By passing through the Jordan at his baptism and then heading out into the wilderness, Jesus recapitulated Israel’s journey through the wilderness and into the Promised Land, but in reverse.  The forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness parallel the forty years Israel spent there.

Now at this point an interesting question surfaces.  Why did Matthew choose to include this episode in his Gospel account?  Why did Mark and Luke include it in theirs (they tell the same story but slightly differently)?  You see, not a whole lot was written down in ancient times.  Papyrus wasn’t cheap, and few people knew how to read.  So if Matthew, Mark, and Luke wanted to go to all the trouble to include this, there must have been a very compelling reason.  And here it is:  Each of these temptations was, for Jesus, a temptation to opt for the world’s way of doing things, the way of power and of me-first, the way that ran contrary to everything Jesus was and everything He was all about.  This struggle would be a recurring theme throughout Jesus’ ministry, right up to the very end when He went to the cross.

So Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, and then the devil came to him when he was at his weakest.  His first temptation was to turn stones into bread.  It was as if the devil was saying, “Come on, Jesus.  I’ve read your book.  I know who you are and what you’re all about.  You can do this.  Who’s going to miss a few stones from out here in this godforsaken country where it’s nothing BUT stones?”

Any worldly king would have killed for that kind of power.  And if they had it, they almost certainly would have used it to transform stones into bread–to “transubstantiate” stones into bread–in that moment.  But Jesus didn’t bite.  Instead he answered the devil as one under the old covenant:  “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  This was an allusion to Israel’s time in the wilderness when God provided bread for them on every day of the journey.  Jesus refused to use his power to meet his own needs.  He came not to be served, but to give his life as a ransom for many.

Next they go to the temple.  How did they get there?  They walked, in all probability.  Meaning that Jesus and evil personified–they spent some time together.  They went to the highest point of the temple.  Now this was not some spire on top of the temple building, as you might imagine.  It was the southeast corner of the temple courtyard.  You look down from here, and it is a sheer dropoff of hundreds of feet into the valley below.  Had Jesus thrown himself down into that ravine, as the devil had asked him to, and emerged unscathed–it would have had a tremendous effect.

The devil even quoted some Scripture at him.  Two could play at that game.  The modern version of this is all over the place in evangelicalism:  Just believe, just have faith, just quote a verse–and God will come through for you.  He has to.

Jesus answered by quoting Scripture:  “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”  These same words were spoken by Moses to the Israelite nation, at a point when they felt themselves entitled to certain things by virtue of their status as God’s chosen people.  You don’t understand, he said.  It doesn’t work that way.

If you think that by doing such-and-such things, you can get God to respond in the desired way–that isn’t Christianity.  That’s magic.  That’s religion that plays right into the world’s way of doing things–the way that Jesus came to turn upside down.

So now we come to the third temptation.  The first two were merely warmup acts, in which Jesus and the devil were getting to know each other.  This temptation was the main event.

They went up to a high mountain.  How did they get there?  They walked.  They spent time together.  Likely they went atop one of the mountains north of Jerusalem.  They went at night.  They saw the whole city lit up at night, in all of its splendor.  About sixteen miles away was Jericho, likewise lit up at night in all of its splendor.  This was the epicenter of the presence of God in the lives of the Jewish people.  It is as if the devil was saying, “Feast your eyes on this, because I know this is why you’re here.  I can give you all this.  All you have to do is bow down.  Not for all time, just for a moment.  Just acknowledge that it is mine to give.”

But that is not what Jesus came for.  He did not come to barter for a kingdom, but to establish a kingdom.  This would be a kingdom of conscience, established in the hearts and minds of his followers.  A kingdom where power and influence were not exercised for the exclusive benefit of the powerful and influential.  A kingdom where the subjects were not at the whim of the rulers.  A kingdom where the subjects were not required to lay down their lives for the king, but the other way around.  A kingdom like none that had existed previously.

So then the devil left him.  Luke tells us that the devil left to wait for an opportune time.  In other words, he wasn’t finished.  This was just round one.  All of these temptations would be recurring themes throughout Jesus’ ministry, and they would be present right up to the very end, when he went to the cross.

Jesus was tempted in ways that we all are tempted, yet he refused.  Why?  Because he came not to take over, but to take away the sin of the world.  Even he came not to be served, but to give his life as a ransom for many.

Welcome to Lent

Welcome to Lent.

This is one of those years that comes around every once in a while, in which it is not such a great year to be Catholic–or a liturgical Christian of any stripe–because Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day and Easter falls on April Fool’s Day.

Lent is the forty days before Easter.  Back up six weeks from Easter, and then back up a few more days, and you get to Ash Wednesday.  Now all you Georgia Tech grads out there are much much smarter than the rest of us, and at this point you would tell us that’s actually forty-six days.  And you would be correct.  Back out the six Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter, which are counted as free days and not considered part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Historically, Lent has been the time during which the Church has prepared catechumens (those seeking to join the Church via baptism) for Easter, which is when their baptisms take place.  For the rest of us, it is a time of preparation as well. We prepare for Easter during this season by focusing on Christ and his journey to the cross. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent out in the wilderness in preparation for his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years that the nation of Israel spent in the wilderness en route to the Promised Land.  Not all of us will go out into the wilderness by ourselves for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with repentance.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this journey.  Many churches have Ash Wednesday services where ashes are placed on your forehead in order to symbolize repentance from sin.   Ashes appear throughout the Bible as a symbol of repentance–the preferred expression of mourning in Old Testament times was sackcloth and ashes, and the Old Testament writers tied this to repentance.  Ashes also symbolize our mortality–dust we are and unto dust we shall return. We die to ourselves and all that we are in this world in order that we may rise again with Christ.  In the weeks to come we will focus on stories and events in the life of Jesus, especially those leading up to Jerusalem and the cross.

Advent Week 3: Violence and the Table

This is the third week of Advent.  This Sunday is traditionally called “Gaudete” – that is, “Rejoice”.  The dominant theme of this Sunday is rejoicing.  The intro to the liturgy is Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”.  For this week the purple vestments are swapped out for pink or rose-colored vestments.  If you have a pink candle in your Advent wreath, this is the week when you light it.

For the past two weeks we have been coming around the idea of violence, which is only tangentially Advent-related (if at all), yet I believe very timely given where we are as a nation.  Last week we left off with a poignant question:  The story and cycle of violence as part and parcel of the human condition go back much further than any of us can remember.  Yet we as Christians are called to hold out hope that things can change.  How?

In the 2014 film Noah, there is a scene where Noah retells the story of creation to his children while they are on the ark.  We get to the story of Cain and Abel (3:21 in the video below) and, for a heart-stopping 27 seconds, we see the two brothers silhouetted against the sky, the sun low on the horizon (Sunset on peace?  Sunrise on violence?  Perhaps both), and a sequence in which the form of Cain cycles quickly through every kind of pre-firearm soldier imaginable as he is in the process of delivering the fatal blow to his brother Abel.

The meaning is clear:  Whenever we engage in violence, we re-enact that first act of violence committed by Cain against his brother Abel.

So given that our human predisposition to violence is something that goes all the way back to that first act of violence depicted in the story of Cain and Abel, it is clear that this is nothing new.  How then can we possibly have hope?

The answer lies at the Table, in the sacrament which is known as Communion in some traditions, also known as the Eucharist and possibly other names as well.  This sacrament is the realization of a hope that lies buried deeply within the story of Cain and Abel.

As the story goes, Cain and Abel both brought sacrifices to God.  Cain brought the fruit of the field.  Abel brought a lamb.  Abel’s sacrifice was accepted.  Cain’s was rejected.  Why?  The story doesn’t say.  Scholars and interpreters have teased this out in a million different ways but no one has been able to get a clear read on this.  At any rate, Cain turns his rejection into murder–the very first murder ever recorded.

But when we come to the Table, we see both sacrifices brought together.  We see the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.  Abel’s sacrifice.  We also see the bread and wine–grain and grape, the fruit of the field.  Cain’s sacrifice.  Both brothers, both sacrifices, together.  And both are accepted by God.  And in this acceptance the brothers are reunited and reconciled, their enmity healed.

And herein lies our hope.  When we come to the Table, we can lay down all our cynicism, all our weary resignation, all our sighs of “Same as it ever was”, “There’s nothing we can do”, “That’s how it will always be”.  We can lay it all down at the feet of Jesus and let him resurrect it as hope.