Almost nothing

I miss talking to my father-in-law, Lonnie.

Lonnie could fix anything, and if there was anything he loved more than fixing things, it was helping you fix them. He devoted much of his retirement to serving churches and going on mission trips to help others fix things.

I would call Lonnie when I’d get stuck with something I was working on. Say, I was trying to replace a starter motor on an old car, and there was a bolt that I couldn’t get the wrench around.

“Did you pray about it?” Lonnie would ask.

Of course I hadn’t.

Outside of the resurrection, the only miracle mentioned in all four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, is the feeding of the 5000. In the Gospel of John, Jesus asked for Philip’s advice on what to do.

Philip had nothing.

Then Andrew spoke up. Andrew had found a boy with five small barley loaves and two fish. Think dinner rolls and sardines.

Almost nothing.

But with Jesus it was enough.

In his first miracle, Jesus involved some servants by telling them to fill some stone jars with water before turning the water into wine.

His last miracle in John 21 involved the disciples in a miraculous catch. “Bring some of the fish you caught,” he told them. But Jesus didn’t need their fish. He already had breakfast cooking. And wasn’t he the one who caught the fish?

There is a line in the great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” which goes, “We will not fear for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.”

Jesus doesn’t need us to do the miracle, but he chooses to work his power through us.

I wonder. Maybe my father-in-law was so good at fixing things because he was always aware of God’s presence, always willing to be the channel of God’s power.

What is more amazing, that Jesus can do miracles?

Or that Jesus chooses to perform his miracles through us, even if we bring almost nothing?

With Jesus, “almost nothing” can be quite enough.

Lord of scripture

“You shouldn’t believe me,” Jesus said, “If I just make claims about myself.”

Now that sounds odd. Doesn’t the Gospel of John claim that Jesus is the “Word” spoken at creation? The “Word become flesh?”

How can Jesus not be credible?

But it turns out that Jesus always has others backing him up, always making his claims real to our hearts and minds.

There’s the Holy Spirit, who is always speaking, supernaturally, on Jesus’ behalf.

There were prophets, like John the Baptist.

And then there’s scripture.

Jesus makes the most amazing claims about scripture: Every word in the Bible points to him. He is the one who inspired the human authors through the millennia. That’s why he said, “Not one word, not one letter, not the least stroke of a pen,” would ever disappear from scripture.

But we often don’t read it that way. We pick out the verses we like and quote them, preach on them. We pick out verses which support our positions and use them against people we disagree with.

Before we do that, we should listen to what the Spirit is saying to our hearts.

Jesus is Lord, even of scripture.

Conversation starter

Want to start a conversation?

Ask someone if they’ve gotten the vaccine. 

People who would never speak about politics, race, or religion don’t hesitate to tell you what they think about getting a shot.

And for the most part, people have been willing to listen.

The pandemic is a global problem, but the solution is intensely personal: Baring a part of your body so a stranger behind a mask can inject you with a substance labeled “For use under Emergency Use Authorization.”

The creation of not one, but three vaccines in less than a year might just go down as one of humankind’s greatest achievements.

But taking the shot requires deep trust.

Think of all the things that have to happen before the vaccine gets to you. Years of research, experiments, trials, approvals, manufacturing, logistics, storage, and more. All that has to go just right for the vaccine to be safe and effective. 

It all seems like a miracle to me. Jana and I were pleased to get shots as soon as we could.

And faithful Christians can also choose not to.

Long ago, God sent his one and only Son from the perfect safety of heaven into the chaos of the world to bring the cure for what is ultimately wrong with us.

The cure for sin meant way more that rolling up his sleeve and getting stuck with a needle. It meant getting stripped naked and nailed to a cross.

Shouldn’t that humble us all to the dust?

Shouldn’t that help us to listen to each other? Just doing that would be a miracle too.

Whether we choose to get the shot or not.

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.