Easter: An Invitation to Believe

If you have been tracking with us over the course of the Lenten season, you know that we have been looking at the Gospel of John.  Specifically we have been looking at seven supernatural occurrences around which John organizes his account of the life of Jesus.  These occurrences are called signs because they are not random occurrences but because they point to something, namely Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

Today we come to the seventh, and final, sign.

This sign is the answer to the question we should all be asking:  Who is Jesus?  Ultimately, this sign is what convinced his followers.  Without it, Jesus would have been nothing more than just another Jewish rabbi gone off the rails, just another wannabe messiah executed by Rome.

Jesus’ followers were fully expecting him to do exactly what every other dead person had ever done since the dawn of time:  Stay dead.  Put another way, nobody expected no body.

You see, the problem with Jesus was not with what he taught, or even with what he did.  It was what he claimed about himself.  He simply claimed too much.  And in the end it had all been exposed as a big fat lie.  You don’t crucify the Resurrection and the Life.  You don’t execute God’s Messiah, whom the Jews had been awaiting for centuries.  You don’t put the Son of Man to death.

Clearly Jesus was not who he claimed to be.  Like the other disciples, John did not expect a crucifixion and resurrection.  He expected a king.

So we pick up our story from last week.  After Lazarus, so many Jews were hyped for what was to come.  A groundswell of support was building.  That had been an undeniable act of God, and now many people were believing in Jesus.  Problem:  too many.  Jesus’ enemies were taking notice, and they had had enough.

As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, the crowds know he is coming and are buzzing with anticipation.  The city is full of spies.  It is full of fans.  It is full of patriotic zeal.  Passover was coming, the annual commemoration of God liberating the Jews from slavery to Egypt.  The Jews were hoping for a second Passover, when God would liberate the Jews from Rome.  This had to be it.

Jesus comes into the city and is greeted by throngs of fans chanting Hosanna.  It gets political real quick.

Jesus moves all around the city, teaching, preaching.  The religious leaders are watching, waiting, hoping for their chance to get Jesus separated from the crowds and hatch their nefarious plans.  Judas loses patience and sells out to the chief priests.  He goes off and does his deal with them.

Jesus celebrates his final Passover with his disciples, and in the process, increases their expectations.  He announces a brand new covenant, in his blood–which must have weirded everyone out who was in the room.  The terms and conditions of this new covenant are very simple.  You know them.  Love one another.  Jesus is about to do something for the nation, except that this is going to go much farther than just the nation.  It is going to be for the whole world.

They leave.  Judas does his thing.  Jesus is arrested and taken to the high priest.  They go to Pilate because they want Jesus executed quick.  Pilate wants nothing to do with him.  They insist.  Pilate gives in, thinking that if he has Jesus beaten and released that will satisfy them.  It doesn’t.  No, they insist, he must die.

So Pilate gives in.  They take Jesus away and crucify him.  No other details are recorded because none are needed.  Once you’ve seen a crucifixion or the aftermath thereof, you can’t unsee it.

John records Jesus’ last words:  John, take care of Mom.  In the midst of all this John inserts this comment:  “The man who saw it (that would be John) has given testimony, and his testimony is true.  He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.” (John 19:35)  On the face of it, this seems unnecessary.  But John is not referring to what just happened.  He is talking about what is about to happen, because that part may be tough.

Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body.  You can’t bury a crucified person unless you bribe someone.  Nicodemus comes with Joseph and they hastily remove Jesus’ body from the cross and place it in his tomb.  They did all this because they were fully expecting Jesus to do what every other dead person has ever done:  Stay dead.

They hurriedly prep the body, because the Sabbath is coming.  They leave.  John and Peter disappear into the city.  We don’t know where they went or what they did.  But wherever they were, they were surely having conversations to the effect of “Well, that’s three years of our life that we’ll never get back.”

Early Sunday morning, there is a knock at the door.  Roman soldiers?  No, couldn’t be.  Roman soldiers don’t knock.  It’s Mary Magdalene.  She is panicked and sobbing.  They’ve taken Jesus and nobody knows where they’ve put him.  She did not assume a resurrection.  She assumed a stolen body.

Peter and John feel the urgency of the situation and take off running.  John beats Peter to the tomb (Peter was surely dead by the time John gave his account so he felt safe including that detail) but does not go in.  Why?  Because it’s dark.  Because it’s a tomb.  He wasn’t going in there.  Peter catches up and goes charging into the tomb.  Why?  Because he’s Peter.  That’s what Peter does.  He’s always saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.

And there in the tomb, Peter sees the strangest thing:  Strips of linen just lying there on the ground, with the headcloth all rolled up off to the side.  Grave robbers would not stop to disembalm a body, so Peter is convinced.  John goes into the tomb.  He sees and believes.  That is his formula throughout his account:  Seeing leads to believing which leads to trusting.

This changed everything for them.  Everything Jesus said was true and could be trusted.  Eventually they would see the risen Jesus himself and there would be conversations.  John focuses on one in particular, with the disciples and Thomas.  Thomas was not present the first time around and would not believe it, and consequently got tagged with the nickname “Doubting Thomas”.  But Thomas did exactly as you or I would have done in those circumstances.

John closes with an invitation:  Believe and trust.  “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).  Why?  Because of what happened that morning.

Palm Sunday: Coexistence

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we are looking at the Gospel of John.  Specifically we are looking at seven supernatural occurrences around which John organizes his account of the life of Jesus.  These occurrences are called signs because they are not random occurrences but because they point to something, namely Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

This week we will look at the sixth sign.

One of the key underlying themes in this story is a question with which any person of faith (Christian or otherwise) has wrestled at least once; many who have given up on faith did so because they could not resolve the tension in this question.  The question:  How can a good God allow evil in the world?

John’s answer, as shown in this story, would likely be thus:  God and evil can coexist.  I’ve seen it happen.  But it doesn’t look like what you would think.

Over the course of John’s account, Jesus and his disciples have been bouncing back and forth between Judea and Galilee.  Galilee is up north.  It is safe space; it is where Jesus’ family, friends, and supporters live.  Judea, especially Jerusalem, is dangerous territory.  Why?  Because anytime Jesus appears in Jerusalem he stirs up the people.  And the Jewish religious leaders don’t want that, because if the people get stirred up then Rome gets stirred up.  And when Rome gets stirred up, bad things happen.  This week Jesus is in the Jerusalem area again and, for the reasons given above, his disciples are on edge.

Repeatedly the temple leaders have asked:  Jesus, are you the Messiah?  Don’t keep us in suspense.  Tell us straight out, once and for all.  I did tell you, Jesus said.  I’ve shown you.  You just don’t want to see.

So now Jesus goes all out.  His intent is to manufacture a sign so undeniable that it will force the religious leaders’ hands.  He heads to a small town just outside Jerusalem, and that is where our story picks up.

Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”

Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”

After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”

His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.

So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

Jesus wept.

Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “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.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the festival at all?” But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him.

–John 11

Right off the bat we learn that Jesus had a purpose in all this.  This delves into nature:  it was left unattended–on purpose.  Jesus’ purposes.  Sickness for the glory of God was a completely and totally new category in that religious culture.  Realizing that Jesus’ words would likely sound crass, John jumps in with an editorial comment to reassure the reader that Jesus did in fact love Mary and Martha and Lazarus.

Jesus then proceeds to stay on with his disciples for two more days.  He is staging a sign here, a sign with a purpose.  He had healed sick people all day long, but for him to do what he is about to do, that will kick it up several notches.

Finally Jesus returns.  His disciples try desperately to talk him out of it.  As noted above, anytime they are in or near Jerusalem the disciples are on edge, for Jesus’ life and their own as well.  Jesus’ response:  “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”  Translation:  12 hours of daylight = 12 hours of opportunity.  Follow the light of the world (that would be me) while you still can.  You can stay here if you want but if you do, you will miss the opportunity of a lifetime.  Finally the disciples give in.  Thomas speaks up and says what they are all thinking:  Let us go so that we may die with him.

They get to Bethany and by that point Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days.  They were just wrapping up the funeral service.  Martha goes out to meet Jesus and comes at him with the full force of her raw humanity:  Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.  But I am sure that even now God will give you whatever you ask – trying desperately to cling to some last sliver of faith in that moment.

Your brother will rise again, says Jesus.  I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day, says Martha.  Translation:  Don’t try to comfort me with your theology.  I’ve already read all the books and I know all the verses, and it is no comfort to me.  If you had been here a couple of days ago we wouldn’t be waiting for the last day.

I am the resurrection, says Jesus.  You don’t have to wait for the last day.  The last day is right here with you, right now.

Now Mary comes out to meet Jesus and what we see here is divine empathy.  Jesus knows fully how all of this is going to play out, yet he does not rush through to the happy ending.  Instead he enters into the moment and is fully present with his friends in their grief, even to the point of weeping himself.

At no point did Jesus offer any of the pious cliches and platitudes that we have come to expect in moments like this.  Nothing like “God will never give more than you can handle”, “If God brought you to it, he will bring you through it”, “With God, everything happens for a reason” (though in this case we know from earlier in the story that this did happen for a reason), or my all-time favorite (and likely yours too), “God is in control”.

We know how the story ends.  Per John’s account, many who saw this go down believed in Jesus.  That’s John’s MO:  Seeing leads to believing which in turn leads to trusting in Jesus.

Now the soundtrack shifts.  This was so indisputable a sign that those who were willfully blind had to act immediately.  The sign had had its desired effect; it had forced the hands of the Jewish religious leaders.  “If we let him go on like this…”  Note the supreme arrogance in that statement.  Elsewhere in John’s account Jesus states “I lay down my life and take it up again” so no one is letting Jesus do anything or stopping him from doing anything.  “…everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation”, said the religious leaders.  They had that part right.  They had no idea.

This ties back to the beginning of John’s account:  Light has come into the world, but some people loved the darkness.

Lent Week 5: Open Eyes

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we are looking at the Gospel of John.  Specifically we are looking at seven supernatural occurrences around which John organizes his account of the life of Jesus.  These occurrences are called signs because they are not random occurrences but because they point to something, namely Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

This week we will look at the fifth sign.

Over the course of John’s account, Jesus and his disciples have been bouncing back and forth between Judea and Galilee.  Galilee is up north.  It is safe space; it is where Jesus’ family, friends, and supporters live.  Judea, especially Jerusalem, is dangerous territory.  Why?  Because anytime Jesus appears in Jerusalem he stirs up the people.  And the Jewish religious leaders don’t want that, because if the people get stirred up then Rome gets stirred up.  And when Rome gets stirred up, bad things happen.

So now Jesus and the disciples are back in Jerusalem.  They pass a blind man, and there we pick up our story.

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” Some claimed that he was.

Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”

But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

“How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.

He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

“Where is this man?” they asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said.

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”

But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.

Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

The man replied, “He is a prophet.”

They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”

“We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”

Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”

The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.

Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

“Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”

Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”

–John 9:1-41

The story begins with a simple question:  Rabbi, who sinned?  This man, or his parents?  Neither, said Jesus.  You’re coming at this the wrong way.  No one sinned; instead this happened–for a purpose–so that the works of God might be displayed.  Jesus then did as he usually did and took the conversation somewhere that had nothing whatsoever to do with the original subject.  My identity, he says in effect, will never be more clear than it is right now.

Go and wash, says Jesus.  This is foreshadowing; the blind man walks by faith, trusting the word of someone whom he cannot see.  He washes, and he can see.  So he goes home.

His family takes him to the Pharisees, because that’s what you do when you were ill but then are healed, before you can reenter Jewish community life and worship.  But now the soundtrack changes.  You see, this was a Sabbath.

As we know from prior editions, the Pharisees had 39 categories of things you couldn’t do on the Sabbath, without being in violation of the command not to work on the Sabbath.  Among these things:  You couldn’t mix or knead.  Also you couldn’t practice medicine of any sort, except to save a life.  Jesus was guilty on both counts.  Consequently, Jesus was not from God because he did not keep the Sabbath.  To the Pharisees this was a no-brainer.  But in reality, as we know already, it was only their version of the Sabbath that Jesus didn’t keep.

How can a sinner perform such signs?  they asked.  Their was not any room in their theological categories for what was happening right before their very eyes.  This is what Francis Collins would call “willful blindness”:  when there is something to see but you don’t want to look.

In the face of increasing pressure from the Pharisees the formerly blind man grows more insistent.  I don’t have all the answers, he says, but I do know this:  I was blind but now I can see.  I’ve already told you everything, but you don’t want to listen.  Do you want to become his disciples too?  To which the Pharisees responded:  You were steeped in sin from birth.  You deserved this.  Your parents deserved this.  Bye.

Willful blindness.  Refusing to see what is there to be seen, because it falls outside our theological categories.  When you engage in this, you run the risk of leaving outside the context of your spirituality many people whom God loves, and perhaps even God Himself.  As Christians, we should be excited about any context in which people are moving toward God, even if it does not fit inside the context of our theological presuppositions.  God is bigger than anyone’s theological categories, and it is not OK to not look if there is something to be seen.

Lent Week 4: Lunch and Learn

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we are looking at the Gospel of John.  Specifically we are looking at seven supernatural occurrences around which John organizes his account of the life of Jesus.  These occurrences are called signs because they are not random occurrences but because they point to something, namely Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

This week we will look at the fourth sign.

When you have an agenda, you cannot be direct or honest in your dealings with another person.  There is always this dance you have to do:  you cannot ask directly for what you want because that would be rude and the other person would know that he/she is being used and/or played and who wants that?  On the other hand, you have to express whatever it is you want at some point, in some fashion that the other person will understand, or else you will never get what you want.  But at the same time you can’t be too obvious about it, so you have to give hints and come at it indirectly.  At the same time, you need for your hints to be clear enough for the other person to pick up on.  And back and forth it goes, where it stops nobody knows.  This week’s sign has to do with some people–a lot of people, actually–who had an agenda for Jesus.

Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

–John 6:1-15

To set the stage for this, last time Jesus was in Jerusalem.  Now he and his disciples had returned from Jerusalem to Galilee.  The Passover was approaching.  This was significant because the Passover honored Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt some fifteen hundred years prior, and, well, at this stage in their history, they needed another Moses.  They needed another Joshua.  They needed another Judas Maccabeus.  They needed someone who would rally the people to victory and drive out the Romans, and their hopes were high that this Jesus could be the one.

So when they heard that Jesus was headed back up their way, a whole crowd of people turned out to meet Jesus.  Per John’s account, the crowd numbered about five thousand men.  This is significant, and not because they didn’t count women and children because women and children didn’t count.  It is significant because five thousand men is the size of a fully formed Roman legion.  Given that, and the fact that Passover was approaching, it is not hard to guess what the people had in mind.

Jesus asks Philip where one can buy bread for these people to eat.  Of course he was asking ironically, because he already knew full well what he intended to do.  As noted last week, just because Jesus is the Son of God doesn’t mean he doesn’t get to have a sense of humor.  Philip’s answer:  It would take more than a half year’s wages to buy enough food for all these people to have a bite.  Translation:  There ain’t no food out here.

Andrew found a boy down front with five small barley loaves and two small fish.  At this point you’re thinking that the food trucks show up with bread and fish for everyone.  But that’s not how this went down.  Jesus prayed a blessing and then instructed the disciples to start passing out food.  With all those people in that grassy area and only five small loaves and two small fish, you can imagine the panic that the disciples felt.  Amazingly enough, when they looked up, everyone had had their fill and then some.  They gathered up the leftovers and there was enough to fill twelve baskets.

This was remarkable.  When Moses fed the Israelites in the desert with manna, there was only enough each day to last for the day.  Yet here they had gathered up enough food for God knows how many days.  Given that, together with the fact that, as noted above, they had enough men for a fully formed Roman legion and Passover was near, you can see where this was headed.  They would head south, with Jesus leading the way, picking up more and more people as they advanced, and by the time they got to Jerusalem it would be Passover and they would have four fully formed legions storming the gates and the Romans would be toast.

Jesus knew all this.  Per John’s account, he knew that the people were intending to make him king by force.  He wanted no part in it, so he took the disciples and put them in a boat.  One could imagine him grabbing the disciples and manhandling them to get them into the boat:  “Don’t get any ideas here.  Don’t let any of this go to your heads.  Let’s go.  Keep it moving.”  Once they were off he stole away to a mountaintop by himself in order to lose the crowd.

But the crowd found him and the disciples on the other side of the lake.  “Rabbi, when did you get here?”  they asked.  There it is.  They didn’t want to know when Jesus had gotten there.  They wanted Jesus to be their king and lead them in triumphant assault upon Jerusalem and kick the Romans out on Passover.  But Jesus knew all this.  “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”  (John 6:26)  Translation:  “You missed the point.  You’re just here for the food.”  He called them out on it, and then proceeded to thin the crowd by teaching some weird shit, as the rest of John 6 unfolds.

The takeaway is this:  As long as following Jesus is about getting stuff – no.  These people were in the very presence of God Himself come down to earth – God in a bod, if you will – yet they couldn’t see past their stomachs.  They had the opportunity to be followers of Jesus, yet they couldn’t see past their stomachs and their political aspirations.  Many unfollowed Jesus when things got weird later on in John 6.  But a few remained.  They saw the movement through to its surprising climax, and then they proceeded to change the world.  We can likewise change the world in our age.  But it starts with being followers of Jesus, not consumers.

Lent Week 3: Carry On

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we are looking at the Gospel of John.  Specifically we are looking at seven supernatural occurrences around which John organizes his account of the life of Jesus.  These occurrences are called signs because they are not random occurrences but because they point to something, namely Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

This week we will look at the third sign.

Healthcare back in ancient Rome was a joke.  Doctors were scarce and they did not know much.  In ancient Rome, it was against the law to defile a dead body.  This extended to doctors and meant that they could not examine a dead body.  So autopsies were illegal.  Doctors would try to get to almost-dead people and do as much of an autopsy as they could before they died.  Needless to say, this created a situation which is best left undiscussed.

So in that world, doctors were scarce and they were scary.  For this reason, only the wealthiest of the wealthiest of the wealthy could afford doctors.  For everybody else, there were two options:  temples and superstition.  You could take your chances at the temple; with the proper sacrifices the gods might, just might, be cajoled into doing something for you.  Or the priests might, just might, have mercy on you.

Failing that, there was superstition.  This week’s story hinges on a local superstition.

There was a pool in the city of Jerusalem, in an area of town called Bethesda, which was believed to have healing powers.  This pool was fed by an underground spring.  Every once in a while this spring would produce an air pocket which would work its way up to the surface.  This would, of course, disturb the surface of the pool, and perhaps provide a natural explanation for the phenomenon which gave rise to this superstition.  From the perspective of one looking at the pool from above, it appeared as if the surface was being disturbed for no apparent reason.  By Jesus’ day, a legend had grown up that these disturbances were caused by an angel who would occasionally come down and disturb the water, and the first one to enter the pool after such a disturbance would be healed of whatever illness he/she had.

Imagine the chaos here.  And the irony:  This pool was believed to have healing properties, yet the scene around it was the exact opposite of health and wellness.

Needless to say, healthy people avoided this area of town like the plague.  Because it was the plague.

Yet Jesus goes right into the heart of this area, and that sets the stage for today’s sign.

Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews.  Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered columns.  Here a great number of disabled people used to lie–the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.  One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.  When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred.  While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Get up!  Pick up your mat and walk.”  At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.

The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.”

But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ ”

Then they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?”

The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.

Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again.  Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.”  The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.

This is a situation where religious rules have gotten in the way of basic human compassion.  Here we have a man who had been lying there at the side of this pool for 38 years.  In all probability he was an old man.

Jesus asks him a question:  Do you want to get well?  Seems like a question with an obvious answer, but this is a trick question.  You see, not everyone wants to get well.  Sometimes there are benefits to staying sick.  You get things you wouldn’t otherwise get if you were healthy.

But this guy did.  Underneath the sob story, he really did want to get well.  We know because when Jesus commanded him to get up and walk, he did.

Now the day on which Jesus did this was a Sabbath.  That is what makes this a sign.  By doing this miracle on a Sabbath, Jesus kicked the proverbial hornet’s nest.  The religious protocols of the day required anyone who had been sick and recovered to show themselves to the priests, who would examine them and declare them fit to once again participate in the community’s life of worship.  So off this man went, mat in tow, to the temple.  Of course the Jews did stop him to inform him that the law forbade him to carry his mat on the Sabbath.

Which was a lie.  The law did not forbid any such thing–their tradition did.  You see, when Moses came down from Sinai he brought the written Torah and the oral Torah.  The oral Torah was a commentary on the written Torah.  It was a fence, a guardrail if you will, around the written Torah to ensure that it would not be broken.  But it was held to have the exact same authority as the written Torah.  This oral Torah spelled out 39 categories of things–not things, but categories of things–which you could not do on the Sabbath.  One of these was to carry an object from one place to another.  Ergo, this man was in violation of the 4th commandment.

But the whole point of the 4th commandment is to take a break from labor, not to take a break from love.  Yet this is precisely what happens to any religious person, in any religious community, when you ignore the why behind the what.  When defending a theological system, an ideology, a political agenda, or a party platform takes precedence over the very people whom these things were created to serve.

When what is best for people is no longer important to you, then you are at odds with God.

This man responded to the Jews by saying, “The man who made me well told me to pick up my mat and walk.”  One could imagine him continuing thusly:  “You never did anything for me or said anything to me except that I deserved to be in my predicament because I or someone in my family sinned.  This man showed me kindness, so I’m going with whatever he says.”

Later on Jesus finds the man and has some words for him.  Scholars, theologians, and others much smarter than yours truly have teased this out in all manner of ways.  But I think the best answer to this may be the human answer that is as obvious as the nose in front of your face.

“Stop sinning”, Jesus says.  But what on earth could this man have possibly done?  This man had just spent the past 38 years of his life lying on a mat at the side of a pool.  He couldn’t sin because he couldn’t do jack shit.  Was there some sin in his prior life, or in the life of his parents, which had put him in that state?  This was a commonly held view in that culture, and one which Jesus devoted considerable energy to turning on its ear.  A few chapters later (spoiler alert), Jesus comes out and refutes it directly.  So why in the world would Jesus affirm it in this instance?  If we look at the story on its face, the only option left is that Jesus was referring to the man “sinning” by carrying his mat–which Jesus himself had told him to do.  Just because you are the Son of God doesn’t mean you don’t get to have a sense of humor.

Now we come to the punch line:  “…or something worse may happen to you”.  Really?  This man had just spent the last 38 years of his life on this stinking, chaotic, plague-infested poolside.  What could possibly be worse than that?  Of course there is always room for John Piper-esque grandstanding that the consequences of sin are far worse than any physical ailment.  And that may be true.  But if you assume that posture, you do so at your own risk.  You see, God is for people.  And when your religious views or theological commitments get in the way of people and in the way of basic human compassion, then you are at odds with God.  When you look at another person’s–very real–pain, and see nothing more than a teaching point concerning the consequences of sin, that’s a problem.

A question to close all this out with;  Does your version of religion and/or politics get in the way of loving other people?  If so, then you are at odds with God.  God is love.  John says so later on in the story (spoiler alert).  You know what love looks like; get on the wrong side of love and you are on the wrong side of God.

Lent Week 2: Living As If

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we are looking at the Gospel of John.  Specifically we are looking at seven supernatural occurrences around which John organizes his account of the life of Jesus.  These occurrences are called signs because they are not random occurrences but because they point to something, namely Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

This week we will look at the second sign.  But first, some context.

After Jesus performed the first sign (at Cana, which we looked at last week), he and his disciples went down to Jerusalem for passover.  Every time Jesus goes to Jerusalem danger is in the air, so of course the disciples were holding their collective breath for every waking moment.

Jesus cleansed the temple.  Per the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), this event took place during the Passion week, the last week of Jesus’ life.  Yet John moves this event to the top of his account.  Were there two temple cleansings?  Unlikely.  After something that drastic, it would only be a matter of days before Jesus was dead.  Most likely, John had other priorities than to give us 21st century moderns the actual factuals.  Regardless, note that when the authorities questioned Jesus they asked “Who do you think you are?”, not “What do you think you’ve done?”.

Jesus did many signs.  He conversed with Nicodemus under cover of darkness.  He went back to Galilee.  En route, he conversed with the woman at the well.  There is some foreshadowing here:  The people of her town, Sychar, believed because of her testimony–what she had to say about Jesus.  Eventually Jesus and the disciples returned to Galilee, and here our story picks up.

After the two days he left for Galilee.  (Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honor in his own country.)  When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him.  They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover feast, for they also had been there.

Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine.  And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum.  When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death.

“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”

The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”

Jesus replied, “You may go.  Your son will live.”

The man took Jesus at his word and departed.  While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living.  When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour.”

Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.”  So he and all his household believed.

This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee.

–John 4:43-54

The first sign, which we looked at last week, was a joyous occasion.  This was a heartbreaking occasion.  Jesus wades into both.

Now the royal official lived in Capernaum, which was 8 hours from Cana by foot, 3 hours by horse/chariot.  This was a wealthy individual, who in all likelihood had purchased his title.  He didn’t walk 8 hours to Cana.  He was probably a Sadducee.  The Pharisees were deeply religious and conservative, the party of the people, as it were.  (Think:  Midwestern Republicans.)  The Sadducees were very wealthy, intellectual, aristocratic (think:  Northeastern liberals); they held a deterministic worldview.  There was no resurrection; you just lived for God and then you died and whatever happens after that, happens.

But on this day, he was a desperate father so all of that got pushed aside.  He went to Jesus and begged him to come.  Forget dignity.  Forget worldview.

Jesus’ response was not an indictment of the official or of anyone else.  It was just a statement of fact:  People will not believe unless they have evidence.  He asked the official to trust him based on the testimony of others.  Go on about your business.  You have nothing to worry about.

This was a whole lifetime reduced to a single day.  We go about our days and our lives, believing Jesus based on the testimony of others.  The official made his decision:  He believed Jesus and went home.  He walked away from the only person who could heal his son–because he trusted him.  This is walking by faith:  Not walking by wishful thinking, but walking as if what Jesus says is true.

We close with Jesus’ words to Thomas from later on in the story (John 20:29), which are spoken indirectly to all of us:  “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Lent Week 1: Mother Says

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we are looking at the Gospel of John.  Specifically we are looking at seven supernatural occurrences around which John organizes his account of the life of Jesus.  These occurrences are called signs because they are not random occurrences but because they point to something, namely Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

This week we will look at the first sign.

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee.  Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

“Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied.  “My time has not yet come.”

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.

Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine.  He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew.  Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee.  He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.

–John 2:1-11

Notice that in John’s telling of this story, he does not state the miracle when it occurs.  He assumes that the reader already knows.

Jesus was at a wedding feast and they ran out of wine.  This would be a big deal at any wedding, but in that culture and at that time it would have been a very big deal.  So Mary leans on Jesus.  Jesus responds:  Woman (much more formal than it sounds in today’s language), my time has not yet come.  In other words:  I came to save the world, not weddings.

As stated before, this was not just a miracle, it was a sign.  The stone jars were part of it.  They were representative of the Old Covenant; their very reason for existence was part and parcel of the Jewish ceremonial washing program, which was part of the Old Covenant.  In other words, Jesus used something which would soon be replaced, to point to that which would take its place.  The Old Covenant, established by Moses on Mount Sinai and represented in the story by these stone jars, would soon be disappearing, and the one who would take its place, the one to whom the Old Covenant was leading, was on the scene right there and then.

The original wine provided by the bridegroom set the stage for the better wine made by Jesus.  In the same way, the Old Covenant set the stage for the New Covenant which Jesus would bring.

Per John’s account, this was the first of the signs.  The disciples believed because they saw, and thus there was reason to believe.  Unlike John, our faith does not come by seeing, it comes by hearing or reading.  It comes via the testimony of those who were there and saw it with their own eyes.  We trust that what they say is true and they had no reason to make any of it up.

Ash Wednesday: John and the Rabbi from Nazareth

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season.

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. If you’re any good at math, then you have no doubt figured out that that’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t; it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this journey. Many churches have Ash Wednesday services where you receive ashes on your forehead. Ashes symbolize repentance from sin; to go around in sackcloth and ashes was a classic Old Testament expression of grief and repentance. Ashes also symbolize mortality; we are but dust and unto dust we shall return. We die to ourselves and all that we are in this world in order that we may rise to life in Christ.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks.  This year we will be looking at the Gospel of John.  Specifically, we will be looking at seven supernatural events which anchor John’s account of the life of Jesus.  These events are referred to in his account as signs.  Meaning:  These were not random supernatural occurrences.  These were not supernatural parlor tricks, if you will.  These were signs; they pointed to something.  Jesus’ closest followers recognized this, if only in retrospect.  Jesus’ most vociferous opponents recognized this and they did not like where the signs were pointing; thus their opposition.  So what were the signs pointing to:  Nothing less than Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

Faith and belief are notions that typically get weird in any religious context.  But in the real world, they are easy to pin down:  Faith and belief are driven by evidence, and by confidence in the person or source delivering a piece of information.  In religious, and specifically Christian, contexts, faith and belief take on a different meaning which sounds very much like what we in the real world would call hope.

But when John uses these words in his account of the life of Jesus, he is not speaking of hope.  He is using these words with the real-world meaning in view, asking his readers to believe on the basis of the evidence he presents and confidence in his reliability as the source of the information he presents.  He gives his thesis statement, if you will, at the end of his account:

Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

–John 20:30-31

In other words, don’t just “take it by faith”.  Read the account, track along, and you will be convinced.  Convinced of what?  That Jesus is the Son of God.  But that in itself is not the endgame here.  There’s more:  that by believing you might have life.

In weeks to come, we will unpack the seven signs around which John organizes his account.  As noted above, these are not just random supernatural occurrences; they were intended to point to something.  Become enamoured, not with the signs themselves, but with the One to whom the signs point.

 

Lent Week 5: The Bible is Human

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for five to six weeks. This year we have been coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?

Currently we are coming around the question:  What is the Bible for?  In order to guide our thinking on this question, we have been looking at insights from Pete Enns’ latest book “How the Bible Actually Works“.  Enns is a Bible scholar and writer/blogger/podcaster whose passion is to make the Bible relatable to everyday believers.  His unorthodox views on what the Bible is and what we ought to expect from it have generated no small amount of controversy over the years.

Last week we came around the idea that the Bible is a diverse book, like a conversation happening across the ages as the Hebrew people interact with their past and reinterpret it to speak into their struggles to come to grips with what God is up to in their present circumstances.  God was guiding this process behind the scenes, and this is what Christians mean when they talk about the Bible as “inspired”.

But it is important to understand that God did not simply speak His words from heaven.  Many evangelicals have a view of the inspiration of Scripture that would honestly be much more at home in Islam or Mormonism than in anything remotely resembling biblical Christianity.  The Bible is a human book, the product of centuries of people wrestling with what God was doing in their midst.  It evolved over the ages and did not reach its final form until after the Babylonian exile as priests and scribes edited it into something that would give hope to those returning from captivity as they struggled to put the pieces of their nation back together.

Enns zeroes in on Chronicles as an example of how this worked.  In our English bibles, 1-2 Chronicles comes right after 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings and represents another look at the same period of history with a slightly different emphasis.  But in the Hebrew bible, 1-2 Chronicles comes at the very end.

Chronicles is not a repeat of 1 Samuel through 2 Kings. It is a retelling of those books from a much later point in Jewish history. In fact, it is nothing less than an act of reimaging God.

To make a long story short, 1 Samuel through 2 Kings were probably written before and during the Babylonian exile, and the main question these books address is, “How did we get into this mess? What did we do to deserve exile?” The short answer is, “You committed apostasy by worshiping foreign gods, with your kings leading the way.” In other words, these books interpret events of history and pronounce a guilty verdict on Judah.

But 1 and 2 Chronicles were written centuries later, probably no earlier than about 400 BCE and more likely closer to 300 or even a bit later—so somewhere in the middle of the Persian period (which began in 538) and perhaps as late as the Greek period (which began with the conquest by the Greeks under Alexander the Great in 332). And these books answer a different question altogether, not “What did we do to deserve this?” but “After all this time, is God still with us?”

Once again, we revisit our theme: as times changed, the ancient Jews had to reprocess what it meant to be the chosen people—if indeed that label even meant anything anymore.

Enns points to the example of Manasseh.  Manasseh was one of the worst kings Judah ever had, and from the account in 1-2 Kings it was his sins and excesses that led to the Babylonian exile.  The damage done to the kingdom during his reign was so great that even the revival and reforms that occurred under Josiah a couple of generations later could not undo it.

But in Chronicles the story of Manasseh is reimagined.  Manasseh is led into exile and returns humbled, chastened, ending his days as a repentant, restored, and righteous ruler. These details were left out of the Kings account–because it was written earlier and to answer a different set of questions.

Why is this important?  Because the story of Manasseh is, in microcosm, the story of Israel being led into exile, crying out to God in repentance, and then returning home to pick up the pieces.

The author of Chronicles wished for the exiles to learn the wisdom of repentance and seeking God in the midst of their hard circumstances.  To this end he showed that even the most wicked sinner–Manasseh–was not incapable of repentance or beyond redemption and restoration.

That is to say, the retelling of the reign of Manasseh (and 1 and 2 Chronicles as a whole) is an act of wisdom—of reading the moment and reimagining what God is doing and, more important, what God will do in the (hopefully not too distant) future.

Lent Week 4: The Bible is Ambiguous and Diverse

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for five to six weeks. This year we are coming around two questions: What is the Bible? And what is the Bible for?

Currently we are coming around the question:  What is the Bible for?  In order to guide our thinking on this question, we are looking at insights from Pete Enns’ latest book “How the Bible Actually Works“.  Enns is a Bible scholar and writer/blogger/podcaster whose passion is to make the Bible relatable to everyday believers.  His unorthodox views on what the Bible is and what we ought to expect from it have generated no small amount of controversy over the years.

Last week we came around Enns’ big idea that the Bible is designed to lead us into wisdom.  It is not intended to be a rulebook or an owner’s manual or a field guide that gives us hard and fast answers, but is instead intended to guide us in developing wisdom for the unscripted journey of faith.  In other words:

Rather than providing us with information to be downloaded, the Bible holds out for us an invitation to join an ancient, well-traveled, and sacred quest to know God, the world we live in, and our place in it. Not abstractly, but intimately and experientially.

We also mentioned that Enns’ discussion of what the Bible is uses three key words seldom heard in any evangelical discussion of the Bible:  ancient, ambiguous, and diverse.  At this point Enns takes up the ambiguous nature of the Bible.  Even sections of the Bible that we are accustomed to thinking of as clear and unambiguous, like the book of Proverbs or the Law…well, it only takes a moment’s thought to realize that laws and instructions have to be interpreted and applied.  That is the task of wisdom.  Example:  When the Ten Commandments say “Honor your father and your mother”…well, how do we do that?  Turns out that the Bible’s clear and unambiguous instructions…aren’t quite so clear and unambiguous after all.

Next Enns turns to the diverse nature of the Bible.  This is a key to understanding the Bible’s teaching:

The Bible’s diversity is the key to uncovering the Bible’s true purpose for us.

…The diversity we see in the Bible reflects the inevitably changing circumstances of the biblical writers across the centuries as they grappled with their sacred yet ancient and ambiguous tradition.

…The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) exhibits this same characteristic of the sacred past being changed, adapted, rethought, and rewritten by people of faith, not because they disrespected the past, but because they respected it so much they had to tie it to their present.

…The Bible isn’t a book that reflects one point of view. It is a collection of books that records a conversation—even a debate—over time.

When I began to see that for myself, a lot of things fell into place about the Bible’s purpose and what it means to read it with the eyes of faith. When we accept the Bible as the moving, changing, adaptive organism it is, we will more readily accept our own sacred responsibility to engage the ancient biblical story with wisdom, to converse with the past rather than mimic it—which is to follow the very pattern laid out in the Bible itself.

The Bible is “timeless”, not because it contains propositional truths that apply to all people across all ages–what we would call “timeless truths”–but because of what Enns calls its “unwavering commitment to adaptation over time”.  In other words, the Bible was not written to us, it was written for us.  By the grace of God, we get to listen in on a conversation among different peoples across different ages as they struggled to come to grips with what God was doing in their midst and their place in His redemptive story.  Our task in reading, studying, and interpreting the Bible is to listen to what the biblical writers were saying in their own respective times and places and let it guide us in coming to grips with what God is doing in our own day and age, and our place in that story.