Put off by religious types?

A few weeks ago, our sons helped lead the funeral service for their grandmother (my wife’s mother). Presbyterians call this “A Witness to the Resurrection and a Celebration of Life,” and so our sons made sure that the resurrection was front and center at the service. Like her late husband, Lorraine lived with the assurance that she belonged to God; that this life was not all there is; and that one day she would rise to see her loved ones again.

The loss of a loved one is one of the few occasions when people open up about faith. One person expressed views that ministers often hear: he didn’t believe, he said, because he’d been turned off by the rules and hypocrisy he’d seen in church growing up; the religion he’d experienced seemed too confining; and there were plenty of people on the Internet who shared his views.

Acknowledged.

But what does any of that have to do with the fact that Jesus Christ, who was stone cold dead, came out of the tomb?

Are you telling me that, because you were put off by some church people, that’s going to influence the way you understand the most important event in history?

You let a bad experience of church shape how you understand reality itself?

Far from being confining, the resurrection is the most liberating news you could possibly hear. The resurrection means that we can live with courage and love and hope because we have proof that God is for us, and that God is dealing with the problem beneath all our other problems.

Of course, if Jesus really did come out of the tomb, and I believe he did, it creates a bigger challenge for us than what to do about “religious” people. The risen Jesus calls us to choose him so that he might use us to transform the world today, and so that one day we might rise with him and live with him forever.

What’s influencing that choice for you?  

Question of authority

This week is Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey while excited crowds waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna!” (Save us!).

For the first time, Jesus accepted the crowds’ adoration and their proclaiming him as the king.

But Jesus didn’t head to the palace for a coronation, he headed to the temple to clean house. In the only act of violence he ever committed, he drove out the currency exchangers and the sacrifice sellers.

The religious leaders asked, “Who gave you the authority to do these things?” It was a fair question. The religious leaders’ job was to uphold practices that God had founded a millennium before. The only one with the authority to overturn those things was God.

Which is why Jesus went to the temple (where God resided) and not the palace (where the king resided.)

So, the question this Sunday is one of authority. Who has authority to come into your place and clean house?  Have you let Jesus have that kind of authority over your life? Has he cleaned up lately? Ever?

Jesus cannot be your helper, or your moral example, or a nice teacher. He claimed to be God. If he’s not turning things over and setting things straight, is he really God to you?

End of exile

This Sunday we come to the end of our study of the Old Testament figure Nehemiah. But the ending of Nehemiah is a letdown.

God had brought his exiled people back to Jerusalem. Despite all kinds of opposition, the walls were rebuilt, the city was secure, the sacrificial system was restored, and the people were worshipping again.

After 12 years as governor, Nehemiah stepped aside for a time. When he returned, he found that the people were doing the same kinds of things that had made God angry centuries before. There was legalism, cronyism, materialism, and more. Angry and frustrated, Nehemiah immediately sought to correct the problems.

Had the reforms been for nothing?

Not without self-pity, Nehemiah cried, “Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God.”

It’s one thing to take the people out of exile.

It’s something else to take the exile out of the people.

It’s one thing to lead a reformation.

It’s something else to be content with God when the reforms don’t seem to last. 

What we miss, if we don’t know our Bibles well, is that the Book of Nehemiah marks the end of the Old Testament history. Everything that comes after Nehemiah is wisdom literature or prophetic writings. The Bible is basically silent about the history of God’s people for the next 400 years, until the New Testament writers come on the scene. 

Someone told me recently that they had prayed and prayed but God had failed to answer their prayers. Therein lies one of the great questions of life. It seems to me that for every answered prayer, there’s a reform that didn’t fully take, and a frustrated reformer who can only cry out to God.

But for Nehemiah, all was not lost. The people were worshipping, if imperfectly. The Holy City was restored, if still under assault.

Maybe the point is to make us long for the once-and-for-all reformer, Jesus Christ.