Do you want to get well?

Jesus had gone to Jerusalem for a festival, but instead of going to the temple, or going to celebrate with his friends, he’d gone to a place where vast numbers of people with disabilities—the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed—hung out. There was a pool there whose waters, some believed, had healing properties. Jesus found a man lying there who’d been an invalid for 38 years. 

“Do you want to get well?” Jesus asked.

What Jesus said next set off a chain of events that culminated with the crucifixion.

“Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”

Jesus was ushering in his new creation. But instead of being overjoyed, the people were disturbed. The healing had taken place on the Sabbath, and even worse, Jesus had told the man to pick up his mat. Observant Jew wouldn’t carry anything on the Sabbath.

Now, God himself had commanded the Jews to observe the Sabbath. Jesus could have come back the next day; what’s one more day when you’ve been disabled for 38 years? Instead, he deliberately provoked the controversy.

Why?

Jesus was out to deal with a kind of disability that was even more devastating than being blind, lame, or paralyzed:

The legalism of those who appear healthy.

Seven Stanzas at Easter

American novelist, the late John Updike, was greatly influenced in his writing by his Catholic faith. He wrote this poem while he was still in his twenties.

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

Stuck on Good Friday

Some time ago, Gary Scott Smith, then chair of the History Department at Grove City College, wrote a book called Heaven in the American Imagination. He said our ideas of heaven come, not just from religious tradition, but from the culture and current events. He said people’s view of heaven has changed over time.

Prior to 1800, people viewed heaven as a place of worship and service to God.

After the civil war, ideas about heaven shifted to images of service, education, and personal growth.

Heaven now is viewed as “a place of comfort, enriching entertainment, self-actualization, robust relationships, and bliss.” Heaven is seen as a haven from the ills of the world, a magnificent home, a vacation resort, a perpetual playground, a therapeutic center. Some are afraid that heaven could be boring, hence an emphasis on great entertainment.

Dr Smith wasn’t trying to make a religious point. He was simply saying that people tend to project their ideas of heaven and the resurrection onto God. It’s been going on for centuries.

But our ideas are too small.

Our faith is stuck on Good Friday, and so we fail to grasp the significance of Easter.

Why stuck on Good Friday? Because nothing moves us quite like the idea of someone laying down their life for another. It’s powerful. So, it’s not so hard to believe that Jesus died for us; that our sins have been forgiven.

We can grasp the idea that the slate has been wiped clean. God cares. It all fits into a therapeutic world view. It’s all about what God does for us. 

Of course, God loves us; that’s what God is for.

Of course, we deserve another chance.   

So, the Good Friday story is one we can kind of imagine. 

But the resurrection is where our worldview and our experience fail us.

Nothing prepares us for the God who rises for us.

Death is not the end!

This is way more than therapy; more than self-actualization; way, way more than entertainment.

We can walk with God again. 

Our actions in this life have eternal consequences.

God is making all things new. Time to get unstuck.

Uncancelled

The “cancel culture” claimed another victim this week.

This time it was the incoming editor of Teen Vogue magazine, 27-year-old Alexi McCammond, who was forced to resign over offensive things she said a decade ago.

When she was 17.

Two years ago, the National Association of Black Journalists had named McCammond their “emerging journalist of the year.”

Of course, the “cancel culture” is nothing new.

What’s different today is that social media demands that punishment be carried out instantly, in widespread public view.

In the “cancel culture” there is no due process and apologies aren’t allowed.

This week I’m preaching on Jesus’ encounter with a victim of the “cancel culture” of his day. The woman had gone to the well to draw water in the heat of day, evidently to avoid making contact with the people she’d offended. What got you shunned back then wasn’t offensive tweets, it was sleeping around.

But that’s when she met Jesus.

You often find Jesus in the places the culture finds offensive.

Rather than shunning her, Jesus engaged her. He knew everything about her, and yet he cared for her, spoke to her compassionately.

And his grace and truth transformed her.

And then something even more amazing happened. The woman ran to tell everyone she knew about her encounter with Jesus.

She was no longer afraid of being shunned.

And now they listened to her.

An encounter with the Living God has the power to transform us and the people around us.

We should never be afraid of being “cancelled” for speaking God’s truth in love.

Worth repeating

A story is told of three sons who grew up, left home, and went out into the world to make their fortunes. They each became wealthy. One day they got together and talked about the gifts they were able to buy for their elderly mother. The first son said, “I built a big house for Mom.” The second said, “I sent her a new Mercedes with a driver.”  The third son smiled and said, “I’ve got you both beat. You know how Mom loves the Bible, but you also know she can’t see very well. I sent her a brown parrot that can recite the entire Bible. It took 20 monks in a monastery ten years to teach him. I had to pledge $100,000 a year for 10 years, but all Mom has to do is name the chapter and verse and the parrot will recite it.”

Soon after, the mother sent thank you notes to her sons. 

To the first son she wrote, “Thank you so much for the house, but I only live in one room, yet I have to clean the whole house.”

To the second son she wrote, “Thank you so much for the new Mercedes. It is beautiful, but I’m too old to travel much now so I stay home. By the way, the driver is rude.”

To the third son she wrote, “My dearest son. You are the only one with the good sense to know what your mother likes. The chicken was delicious!”

There are some passages in the Bible that have received the kind of tragic misunderstanding that’s captured by this story. John 3:1-15, which describes Jesus’ encounter with a religious leader named Nicodemus, is one of those.

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

Nicodemus couldn’t see what Jesus was talking about.

And it’s not that much different in our culture today. “Born again Christians” are considered a subset of all Christians, an unhappy, morally rigid subset at that.

But the truth is, “born again Christian” is a tautology. It’s saying the same thing twice in a row. As Jesus told Nicodemus, no one can be a Christian outside of a spiritual rebirth from heaven.

Actual Christians are, by definition, “born again.”

That’s worth repeating.

Queen’s gambit

I just watched The Queen’s Gambit, the popular Netflix miniseries based on the 1983 book by Walter Tevis. It’s about a girl named Beth who’s taken to live in an orphanage after her mother died in a car accident. In the orphanage, Beth is befriended by the janitor who teaches her to play chess. It soon becomes apparent that Beth is a prodigy, but could she master the obstacles in her life so she could master the game?

A “gambit” is a strategy, ruse, or ploy.

A “Queen’s Gambit” is an opening strategy in chess that puts the player on the offensive. It also described Beth’s approach to life: Don’t let others know what you’re thinking. Keep your opponents on the defensive.

That may be fine for chess, but it’s not how God designed us.

What if you had a friend who you could trust with your deepest secrets? We have such a friend in Jesus Christ. John 2:25 says that, “He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.”

In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth’s genius wasn’t enough to master the game. It wasn’t until she let her friends help her that she was able to succeed at the highest level.

There’s no gambit that we can use on Jesus. Nothing gets by him. He knows everything about us and still he loves us completely. 

None of us ever really “master the game” of life.

But we can trust the Master.

Turning water into…grape juice?

My late father-in-law was a wonderful man of faith. He was a humble servant, the most Christ-like person I ever knew. Part of his walk with the Lord meant not drinking alcohol.

There are lots of reasons not to drink. Alcohol abuse claims 100,000 lives in the US every year. The scope of personal tragedy is unthinkable. The CDC estimates the economic toll at a quarter trillion dollars.

But that’s not why Lonnie didn’t drink. Like a lot of people born during Prohibition, he’d been taught that drinking was a deadly sin.

So, I asked him, how could it be that Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine? It was because he came from a faith tradition which taught that it wasn’t wine that Jesus made, but grape juice. 

Well, no. In Isaiah 25:6, the prophet pointed to a future where “the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine.” Jesus turned water to wine, showing he had come to fulfill God’s promise.

The Apostle Paul advised Timothy to drink wine for his health. Wine was probably safer than the water back then.

In Luke 18, Jesus told a parable of two men who went to the temple to pray. One, a religious insider, reminded God that he was better than other people, like tax collectors, and that he fasted twice a week. The other, a tax collector, just beat his breast and pleaded for mercy.

Here’s the thing. Just as God doesn’t require us to “fast twice a week,” he doesn’t give us extra credit for not drinking. God gave us wine to be enjoyed, a sign of his abundant provision for us. 

Now, my father-in-law lived a joyous life; he never missed out on a thing.

But drinking is not a deadly sin.

It’s sin that often makes drinking deadly.

It’s also sin that leads us to make rules God never intended.

What do you want…really?

A few years ago, I started work on a proposal for a sabbatical grant from the Lilly Endowment. It was quite an effort, taking a team of us more than a year to complete. The key question Lilly wanted to know was, “What makes your heart sing?”

Could you answer that?

Do you really know what makes your heart sing?

Are you sure?

In his wonderful book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Christian philosophy professor James K.A. Smith says that we are all pursuing a vision of the good life. But most of that vision has been formed in us without our knowing. We’re bombarded every day, all day, by visions of the good life set forth in the culture through marketing, social media, etc. We’ve been conditioned to think, “If I have that…look like that…get that degree…had a partner like him or her,” then I’ll have achieved the good life. 

But it never works that way. The moment we achieve “that,” “that” starts to get old.

Smith says to really understand what makes your heart sing, to reach your vision of the good life, you have to retrain your heart. It takes time, practice, repetition, to unlearn what the culture tells us and discover a greater vision.

We were created in and for love by a God of love. What we all really want, whether we know it or not, is to love God and to reflect God’s love to the world.

According to the Gospel of John, when Jesus recruited the first disciples, he didn’t ask them what they believed. He didn’t even say, “Follow me.” He simply asked, “What do you want?”

Of course, they didn’t know.

So he spent three years showing them what truly made their hearts sing.

Pass the rope

When Arland Williams buckled into his seat on that snowy night on in Washington, DC, he had no idea that the defining moment of his life was just moments away. Surely, he was anxious to get back home. Perhaps he was becoming impatient, along with the other passengers and crew, over still another delay, even after their Boeing 737 had to be deiced a second time.   

Seconds after takeoff, Air Florida Flight 90 struck the 14th Street Bridge and plunged into the icy waters of the Potomac. Arland was one of only six to escape the crash. A Park Police helicopter was the first on the scene, lowering a rope to the survivors clinging to the wreckage. Arland kept passing the rope to the others, so the helicopter could lift them one-by-one to the shore. But when the helicopter returned the sixth time, he was gone, dragged beneath the waves by the sinking wreckage.

Arland was a graduate of The Citadel, and President Ronald Reagan spoke about him in his commencement address at The Citadel in 1993.

Reagan said, “Sometimes, you see, life gives us what we think is fair warning of the choices that will shape our future. On such occasions, we are able to look far along the path, up ahead to that distant point in the woods where the poet’s “two roads” diverge. And then, if we are wise, we will take time to think and reflect before choosing which road to take before the junction is reached.

“But far more often than we can comfortably admit, the most crucial of life’s moments come like the scriptural “thief in the night.” Suddenly and without notice, the crisis is up on us and the moment of choice is at hand—a moment fraught with import for ourselves, and for all who are depending on the choice we make. We find ourselves, if you will, plunged without warning into the icy water, where the currents of moral consequence run swift and deep, and where our fellow man – and yes, I believe our Maker—are waiting to see whether we will pass the rope.

“These are moments when instinct and character take command, as they took command for Arland Williams on the day our Lord would call him home. For there is no time, at such moments, for anything but fortitude and integrity. Debate and reflection and a leisurely weighing of the alternatives are luxuries we do not have. The only question is what kind of responsibility will come to the fore.

“And now we come to the heart of the matter, to the core lesson taught by the heroism of Arland Williams on January 13, 1982. For you see, the character that takes command in moments of crucial choices has already been determined.

“It has been determined by a thousand other choices made earlier in seemingly unimportant moments. It has been determined by all the little choices of years past—by all those times when the voice of conscience was at war with the voice of temptation—whispering the lie that it really doesn’t matter. It has been determined by all the day-to-day decisions made when life seemed easy and crises seemed far away—the decisions that, piece by piece, bit by bit, developed habits of discipline or of laziness, habits of self-sacrifice or of self-indulgence, habits of duty and honor and integrity—or dishonor and shame.

“Because when life does get tough, and the crisis is undeniably at hand—when we must, in an instant look inward for strength of character to see us through—we will find nothing inside ourselves that we have not already put there.”

Jesus Christ came from heaven to earth, not to snatch us away at the end of our lives, but to put a bit of himself into us here and now. At the end of his life, instead of calling on an angel army to pull him to safety, he chose to pass the rope to give us the chance for new life. Will we take hold of him, and make the daily choice to allow his character to flow into us?

The myths are true

My favorite movie is the Man Who Would be King (1975), based on a short story by Rudyard Kipling. Sean Connery and Michael Caine played former British soldiers, Daniel and Peachy, in India in the late 1800s who set out for a fictional country called Kafiristan. Their plan was to subvert the local chiefs and make themselves kings. 

According to the story, centuries before, Alexander the Great had conquered Kafiristan and made himself king. Under Alexander’s rule, Kafiristan prospered. When he left, he promised to one day send his son back to rule in his place. 

Centuries passed. Alexander’s promise to send his son became legend. But when Daniel and Peachy showed up, the people believed that Daniel was the son of Alexander returning to take his rightful place as king.   

Daniel and Peachy succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Kafiristan even prospered under them. That is until Daniel started believing he wasn’t just a king, but a god.

How is it that so many of our most popular myths involve a king who returns to set things right? 

In Robin Hood, England was in turmoil as it waited for King Richard to come home from the crusades. 

The third part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was called The Return of the King.

In the Disney hits The Lion King and Frozen, the rightful king (or queen) was missing in action. Someone had to show them their duty so they would take their rightful place and bring light and warmth back to the kingdom. 

What if there was a reality behind the myths? 

What if there really is an ultimate king, and all the stories, all the myths, point to him? 

The Bible says there is such a king, a creator who made everything and said it was good. God created human beings in God’s image, and for a brief time God and his people coexisted perfectly. It was when people decided to be their own kings that things fell apart.

What if our myths are a memory trace of paradise lost?

The Gospel writer John says, “The Word became flesh.”

The true King, Jesus Christ, has come to set all things right.