Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Lion and the Lamb

     I've always been struck by the contrast between the Jesus who appears in the stories of the final week of his life and the Jesus who appears throughout the rest of the gospel. Before his final days he is like a lion. Performing miracles, healing the sick, raising the dead, he literally walks on water. There seems to be no limit to his power. And he always comes out on top. The demons always flee, the bad guys constantly try to trap him and trip him up and he always has just the right thing to say to confound them and frustrate them. For the first 3 1/2 years of his ministry the good guys always win, the bad guys are always sent packing. He's exactly what I expect a hero to be.
     Then, as the end approaches, Jesus says to his disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." (John 12:23)
     The stage is set, he's paid his dues, it's time for the final showdown, the big reveal.
     But the Jesus we see in the few hours before his death is so different from the lion like character that has been drawing such a crowd. First, he comes riding in to town on an under aged donkey. I don't care who you are, you're not going to look like a hero astride a shaggy, wobbly legged donkey. And once he gets to town, the bad guys get away with murder and Jesus has nothing disarming to say. He's bound and beaten, mocked and spit upon by the same clowns he's showed up in every confrontation for 3 1/2 years. Where's the hero? Where are the words of wisdom? It's frustrating to read the story. Why doesn't he show himself for what he really is? He seems the opposite of a hero. He seems like a victim. Is he really a lion? Or is he just a lamb?
     The reason this part of Jesus' life is so frustrating to us is the same reason that it was so confusing and sad for his closest disciples, his friends. They thought (and we usually think) that a person's finest hour is when they rise up in all their strength and ability, put their greatness on display and triumph completely over the enemy for all to see. But when Jesus said that the hour had come for him to be glorified, he meant that he was going to demonstrate what glory really is. And it turns out glory is not what we think it is at all.
     If we are honest, we have to admit that the biblical account of the original sin that Adam and Eve committed—not just the sin of eating forbidden fruit, but their prideful arrogance to want to be "as gods..." to do what they wanted when they wanted—is very believable. Adam denied God's will to do what he wanted to do. And from that day on mankind continued to do just that. We all want to be our own boss, to be as strong and fearsome as the Lion in defending ourselves and making a life for ourselves.
     But then Jesus came along. In Jesus the human race finally had a man that could resist the temptation to have it his way and instead say, "Not my will but thine be done." And that is precisely what it means to be worthy of glory: to know God's will and deny oneself and do it. 
     When his hour had come, he showed us what kind of a hero he really was. He said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." (John 12:24, 25)
     He delivered himself to his tormentors, riding right into their stronghold on the lowliest beast of burden. They bound him, beat him, insulted him and he said nothing because everything that needed to be said had already been said between him and the Father.  To be a lamb like this requires the power and courage of a lion. 
     This truly was his finest hour on the earth and they never stop talking about it in heaven because it was and is the most amazing, selfless and courageous thing any man has ever done. And in the songs they sing to him, about him, the name He is known by is the one he proved he deserved in his finest hour: The Lamb of God. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

John 3:1-8
1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 
2This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 
3Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 
4Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 
5Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 
6That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 
7Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 
8The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 

This private dialog between Jesus and Nicodemus is one of the most well-known passages in scripture, and for good reason. This is the first time in the book of John that Jesus speaks more than a few words. And these words describe the central experience of those who enter into the kingdom of God. He's talking to Nicodemus but his intended audience is much bigger. He's talking to all of us. All of mankind. And what he says is on the top shelf, it's a stretch for anyone to grasp, but it's not completely out of reach.
I don't think Nicodemus was a bad guy. He wasn't the kind of man who judged someone from a distance, without talking to them face to face. He was obviously successful and well respected and well known. To me that indicates that he was probably hard working and dependable and a good leader. Qualities that make up a good guy.
But this night, in this conversation, as he tried to get a handle on an unconventional young rabbi, this successful and respected religious leader was out of his depth.
Nicodemus' question shows that he is trying to understand, but Jesus knows Nicodemus (and we) won't grasp these words with understanding alone.
Here's what Jesus is telling us: Intimacy with God results in spiritual conception
A new person is born, a spiritual person, when we are intimate with God. Other places this new person is referred to as 'the inner being...' (Ephesians 3:16) 'a new creation...' (2 Corinthians 5:17) or 'a new heart' 'a new spirit'. And this new person, comes into being and supersedes and replaces the old person that we were. Jesus tells Nicodemus that it is this new person who sees and enters into the Kingdom of God.
No doubt Nicodemus was surprised to hear Jesus refer to it in these terms, but the experience sounds exactly like what King David sought when he prayed, "Create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me." (Psalm 51:10). As a leader of Israel, Nicodemus would also be very familiar with the words God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh." and "I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes..." (Ezekiel 36:26, 27)
It's gratifying to witness Jesus as he explains 'spiritual truth in spiritual language' to a man who has had no experiences that correspond to these words.
It's gratifying because after we have been born of 'water and the spirit' we are all called and equipped and privileged to have very similar conversations with our friends and family and neighbors. Trying to speak to people about a dimension that they have no point of reference to comprehend. It's comforting to know that even Jesus isn't entirely successful in getting his point across. But wow! His words are so descriptive and powerful. Even if you can't understand them, you want to understand them.
Maybe that is where the problem lies. I said earlier that Nicodemus was trying to understand Jesus' words, but Jesus knew that Nicodemus wouldn't get a grip on his words with understanding alone.
There is one thing necessary for anyone to experience what Jesus is talking about, to experience conception at this point of intimacy with God. And that is to believe.
The thing that distinguishes someone who enters the kingdom of God is that they believe. In fact the early church didn't call themselves Christians, they called themselves believers.
It is only when we believe that we conceive, and when we conceive, that we see, and when we see, that we enter into the Kingdom of God.