Monday, May 15, 2017

The Gateway Into the Age to Come

One of the most personal and moving stories in the gospels is that of Lazarus and his resurrection in John 11.  In this short narrative we see the fully human Jesus and his intimate relationship with the family of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  Jesus learns of Lazarus' illness and eventual death, but chooses to remain distant, rather than rush to Bethany.  When he finally does arrive, Lazarus has already been dead for four days and his stinking flesh is rotting in a tomb.

As Jesus approaches those mourning, Lazarus' sister, Martha, comes out to meet Jesus and says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."  Martha's sister, Mary, repeats this phrase to Jesus a few moments later, though, from a much more deferential posture.  "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."  Whole sermons have been and should continue to be preached on John 11:35 - "Jesus wept" - but it's also interesting to note the response of the other Jews near the scene in verses 36-37 of the text.  "So 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?'" 

This is a universal question.  We all have or will ask this question at some point.  "Why couldn't the Lord have prevented _________ from dying?"  Why my grandmother or my grandfather?  Why my friend?  Why my mother, my father, my brother or my sister?  Why my wife, my husband, my son or my daughter?  Why them?  And more pointedly, why now?  We can identify with Martha and Mary.  "Lord, if you had been here, ________ would not have died!"

Death is inevitable for all of us.  It's not a matter of if, but when.  But the writer of the gospel of John wants to share an antidote for death with his readers.  That antidote is resurrection, and resurrection is one of the major themes in his gospel. 

The mainstream Jewish view of the eschaton (end times) featured the bodily resurrection of God's people.  John's gospel is in step with this theology as he records Jesus' affirmation of the resurrection as the gateway into the age to come.  Jesus even affirms that his own voice will signal the final resurrection of the dead.  Let's read together John 5:25-29, "Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.  For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.  Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out - those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation."

The writer of John's gospel presents much of his teaching on the meaning of Jesus through 7 signs.  The sign of the resurrection of Lazarus is the 7th, and most significant of the signs, but the 1st sign is also important as it relates to resurrection.  Have you ever noticed how the 1st sign, the sign of Jesus turning water to wine begins?  John 2:1 says this.  "On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee..."  I believe something else of significance happened on the third day!  This is no accident.  If you read further in John 2, after Jesus turns the water to wine, you will notice that John tells the story of Jesus cleansing the temple much earlier than the 3 synoptic gospels.  In John's gospel, Jesus cleanses the temple near the beginning of his ministry, whereas in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus doesn't perform this act until the last week of his life.  Jesus did not cleanse the temple twice.  John has simply rearranged the chronology for theological purposes, namely to link the cleansing of the temple to this 1st sign.  Notice the interaction between Jesus and his opponents after he shuts down the temple operations.

"The Jews then said to him, 'What sign can you show us for doing this?'  Jesus answered them, 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.'  The Jews then said, 'This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?'  But he was speaking of the temple of his body.  After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.'" (John 2:18-22).

By linking the 1st sign of turning water to wine with the cleansing of the temple, and with Jesus then linking the cleansing of the temple with his own resurrection, the writer of John's gospel is alerting the reader to one of his major themes.  He wants us to see that the story he is telling is the story of resurrection. 

As one continues through the gospel and the other signs, eventually one is brought to the 7th sign and the story of the resurrection of Lazarus.  The 7th sign points to where this story has been going from the beginning, to the ultimate resurrection - Jesus' own eternal resurrection from the dead. 

But let's leave Lazarus in the tomb for a little while so that we can overhear an important conversation between Jesus and Lazarus' sister Martha.  This conversation points even beyond Jesus' resurrection to the bodily resurrection of all who will put their faith in him.

"When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.  Martha said to Jesus, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.'  Jesus said to her, 'Your brother will rise again.'  Martha said to him, 'I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.'  Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me, will never die.  Do you believe this? '  She said to him, 'Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.'"

Of course, Jesus does call Lazarus out from the tomb, still wrapped in the burial cloths.  He was raised from the dead, but his death was not an eternal resurrection.  The body which came out of the tomb on that day eventually died again.  Nevertheless, his resurrection is the gospel of John's second most important sign and points to Jesus' own resurrection, the ultimate sign of who Jesus is.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life - no one comes to the Father but through him.

Lazarus' resurrection not only points to Jesus' resurrection, but it also points to our future hope of resurrection.  And just as springtime and Easter reminds us of the resurrection of the Son of God, it should also remind us that one day, God will give eternal life to all who have put their trust in Jesus.  That eternal life will begin with the bodily resurrection from the dead.  Resurrection is the gateway into eternal life in the age to come in the renewed creation. 

G.K. Chesterton's poem The Convert captures some of these ideas well.

After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright,
And I came out where the old road shone white.
I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
Being not unlovable but strange and light;
Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead

The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free;
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.

For those of us who have placed our lives in the hands of the one who died and rose again, may we never lose heart, because our future is bright.  Our hope - through Jesus - is resurrection. - Shay


Monday, May 8, 2017

Intimately Involved

Many are unaware of this, but the book of Genesis actually provides us with two different creation accounts.  In the first story (Gen 1:1-2:3), we catch a glimpse of the all-powerful, transcendent God of creation.  He's the God who speaks everything into existence.  Even humanity is spoken into existence by his powerful word.  God speaks, and creation is.

Then, if we read on, we discover a different perspective on creation.  In the second account, we see a different side to this God.  Whereas the first creation narrative stresses God's transcendence, the second story emphasizes his immanence.  In Genesis 2:4 and following we see a God who is near.  This God is the God who gets his hands dirty.  He forms the man out of the dust and breathes into his nostrils the breath of life.  The Genesis 2 creation story provides us with a much more intimate portrait of God. 

We need both perspectives to truly understand the God that we serve.  We need to know that he is all powerful and that he is the creator of everything, but we also need to see that he desires to be intimately involved with his creation.  We especially need to see that God desires to be intimately involved with the crowning achievement of his creation - human beings.  God not only created everything, he created humanity to live in relationship with him.

This God is my God and he created me, individually.  Though our modern world tends to focus too much on the individual, there is a Biblical basis for highlighting the importance of each human being.  God not only desires a relationship with all of his people collectively, he also desires a relationship with all of us individually.  In fact, God was intimately involved in our very formation.  He "knit us together in our mother's womb." 

I remember, nearly 8 years ago, standing in the doctor's office and staring up at a TV screen during Juli's sonogram.  I remember seeing our daughter Ashlyn's black and white form on the screen as she grew and developed within the security of her mother's womb.  A line from Psalm 139 was stuck on a repeat loop in my mind, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made."  The Psalmist writes this line because he's aware that God knows him far better than he even knows himself. 

"For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
That I know very well. 
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them - they are more than the sand;
I come to the end - I am still with you." (Psalm 139:13-18, NRSV).

The God who created all of the amazing landscapes - from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific coast...the God who created the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains...the God who created the lush landscapes of Ireland and Scotland, as well as the deserts of the Sahara and Arabia...the God who created the rainforests in Asia and South America, is the same all powerful and amazing artist who breathed the breath of life into our nostrils.  He's intimately involved in all of our lives.  He has a plan for his creation and he has a plan for each one of us within his creation.  God is not only the creator of the cosmos, he's also the sustainer of the world.  And he's providentially involved in each one of our lives.  Psalm 139 helps us to know our God.  But even more so, Psalm 139 reminds us that our God intimately knows us!  We can say the amen with the Psalmist - we are indeed, fearfully and wonderfully made. - Shay

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Top Ten Spiritual Disciplines

Discipline is a bad word in our modern world.  Probably since the Romantic movement, the idea of perspiration, rather than inspiration, seems inauthentic, or perhaps, even phony.  And yet, we all know that most worthwhile things in life, require time, effort, practice, and yes, discipline. 

We've all seen poorly disciplined children create havoc and headaches for those they torment.  A poorly disciplined sports team gets beat - a lot (see the Texas Longhorns football team and Arsenal football club).  Those with no financial discipline suffer the consequences.  An undisciplined person who eats poorly and refuses to exercise, usually looks worse, feels worse, and quite often, lives a shorter and less healthy life.  Smart kids typically do well in school, but disciplined kids often excel in the academic world.  I could go on and on and on.  But I won't.  You get it - discipline is important.

Okay, I'll go on just a little more.  Even in the world of the arts, discipline plays a crucial role.  The writer, the painter, and the musician spend hours and hours working at their craft.  In fact, it's been said that most skills in life take at least 10,000 hours of practice before one becomes competent in a given field. 

But for some strange reason, when it comes to spirituality, discipline is not looked upon as favorably as it is in many other arenas of life.  I think that there is an assumption that in spiritual matters, inspiration far outweighs perspiration (once again, the Romantic movement, as well as some post-Reformation thinking contributes to this view). 

But anyone who has had a long and strong relationship with Jesus will confirm that practicing spiritual discipline is essential for growth in one's knowledge, understanding, and application of the Christian faith.  However, practicing the spiritual disciplines is more of an art, than a science.  There are a variety of disciplines to engage in and a variety of ways to engage those disciplines.  Here's a short list of some common spiritual disciplines that have been practiced over the past 2,000 years.  In fact, let's just make a Top 10 List... 

1. Prayer
2. Bible Study
3. Worship
4. Confession
5. Mediation
6. Solitude
7. Community Life
8. Service
9. Fasting
10. Silence

One could add several other disciplines to this list, and one could of course put this list into a different order.  Which disciplines do you find the most helpful?  Which ones would you add to this list?  Are there any you would take away?  How can the body of Christ grow collectively and individually in our practice of the spiritual disciplines?  Talk amongst yourselves... - Shay