Into the Light

Luke 23.50 – 24.12

When my wife and I first got married, we spent more than a little time talking about the future—as you do when you first get married. After all you’ve dedicated yourself to the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, and you hope to have a lot of future together.

In one of those conversations, she said to me,  “Just remember: you can get fat or bald but not both.”  Well, here’s a *short* photo history of my gene pool.

So, I think it’s pretty clear where I’m headed.

My wife really wasn’t offering me a choice.  Thankfully, she made this remark to me with a twinkle in her eye. But the fact of the matter is that we all face choices everyday that really aren’t choices. The fact of the matter is that there is much in life over which we have no control: our race, our gender, our nationality, our accent; whether we are tall or short, young or old; how much artistic talent we have, how much athletic ability we possess.  We have no control over our ancestry or our DNA.  And as if that weren’t enough, life also has a way of confronting us with choices that really aren’t choices. Do I pay the rent or pay for my child to have a coat?  Do I buy food or do I buy medicine?  Millions of people face questions like these everyday and have no answer.

Yet, despite the fact that these choices really aren’t choices, judgments are made, expectations are set, stereotypes are manufactured for us and about us based on these facts of our lives.  We can choose how we handle these judgments and expectations.  But we don’t have a choice as to whether we will handle them–or not. And so these choices, which really aren’t choices, lead us into situations that aren’t fair, that aren’t just.  If we’re lucky, those situations take the form of a stray comment, or a snide remark.  At times, however, those situations can literally become a matters of life and death, as they did for Trayvon Martin; as they did for Fakhra Younas–and thousands if not millions of others like them.

I don’t share these things with you to bring you down.  I don’t share these things with you pretending you don’t already know about them, perhaps even better than I do.  I share them with you today to remind you, to proclaim to you why Easter matters. The fanfare of Palm Sunday, like the branches the people waved in premature celebration, has already faded; but the glory of Easter endures. And it endures because the story of Easter is a story that runs head-on into the unpleasant realities of this world–runs into them, and runs through them.

The Christ whom we declare Risen today is, in the famous words of the prophet Isaiah, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” not only in the suffering He endured at the hands of His executioners but also in His life as a Jew.  Then as now, Jews faced a variety of prejudices from the Greek-speaking, Gentile world around them, and as a people subjugated by the Roman Empire they faced a number of judgments and expectations that were beyond their control.  Jesus would have experienced these prejudices and judgments from His earliest days on this earth.  Later He would confront other judgments and expectations in His ministry, as talk began to spread that He might very well be the long-awaited Messiah.  That term, that title, was loaded with assumptions in Judea.  Even those closest to Him didn’t get it, and those assumptions, at least in part, led to His crucifixion.   The religious authorities used them as the basis for the charges they brought against Him. Many scholars believe that Judas’ disappointment with Jesus–disappointment rooted in his own expectations of Jesus as the Messiah–may have factored into his decision to betray Jesus.  And even though Pilate could find no reason why Jesus should be executed, the passion underlying the assumptions and expectations surrounding Jesus persuaded him to pass sentence nonetheless.

But it didn’t stop there.  The soldiers pounced at the opportunity to “let off some steam” while Jesus was in their custody. As if the slow, savage, humiliating torture of crucifixion weren’t enough, they mocked Him, taunted Him, and belittled Him before they nailed Him to the cross and left Him to asphyxiate in the midday heat. Alone. For those whom He had taught and healed and ministered to so many times in so many places were nowhere to be found. One of the most haunting details of Luke’s account of Jesus’ final moments is that the women “stood at a distance, watching these things” (Luke 23.49).  But at least they were in the picture.  Peter, James, John…all had vanished.  Jesus’ last conversation on Good Friday was with a thief whom He had never met.  And His body would be claimed by a righteous stranger and laid in a tomb meant for someone else.

Those early hours of that first Easter morn were dark indeed. The disciples didn’t know what to do, what to think. Their hopes, which had soared so high on Palm Sunday when they escorted Jesus triumphantly into Jerusalem, had been dashed against the jagged rocks of reality.  They were disoriented, terrified, and no doubt ashamed.  It was dark–around the disciples and inside them as well.

The story of Easter, the glory of Easter, is that into that darkness God shines a brilliant light: a light that heals and warms as much as it illuminates.  Not only do the women who faithfully journey to the tomb see the stone rolled away, they hear the marvelous words: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He. Is. Not. Here — for He has risen!”  Not only does Jesus walk out of the Tomb, He goes to find those who abandoned Him: those who failed to stay awake; those whose spines were too weak to support their tough talk.  He goes to them as they are leaving the city on the road to Emmaus.  He walks through walls to find them where they are still hiding. He calls them back to shore after they have returned to their old lives, their old jobs.

The story of Easter is the story of God’s best winning the collision with the world’s worst and Jesus inviting us into a new life, a new reality based on that victory!

That is why Easter matters.  Because of Easter, we now have a new way to face the the judgments, the expectations, the injustice, the unfairness of life–a way that lies beyond courage; a way that lies beyond our own strength and determination; a way that is grounded in love, in grace, and in the very presence of God with us. Easter is the source of our hope.  We can dare to stand up, speak out, and stare down the harsh realities of this world because in Christ pain, death, and disillusionment will not have the final word.  God’s best wins, even when the world’s worst draws first blood, even when darkness falls in the middle of the afternoon, even when faith is all we have left to stand on.

Christ is risen–He is risen indeed.  Dawn has broken, and the Risen Christ invites us all to come with Him  into the light of this new day.  That is the good news of the gospel.  And the promise of Easter is that the Risen Christ will come to meet us where we are no matter how many times we doze off, no matter how weak our spines may be, no matter how far we may have wandered, no matter how thick the walls may be.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia!  Alleluia!  Amen.

Christian Hissstory

I was wrapping up my work-from-home day a few weeks ago when my three-year-old daughters wandered into the bedroom and piled onto the loveseat where I was studying. They started leafing through my Bibles, sifting through every piece of paper within arm’s reach, and asking questions about everything in sight. I did my frantic best to engage their interest in what I was doing while trying to maintain my train of thought and prevent what was quickly becoming a landslide of my labor. Just as I began to get myself and my things together, Emmy abruptly halted her scrutiny to complain that the current song playing on my laptop (Jesus Christ the Apple Tree) was too slow. I set my stuff aside and scrolled through my iTunes library to find something more upbeat for her, hoping that would appease her long enough for me to get my books and papers put away. I congratulated myself as she started to grove to “You Can Call Me Al.” Then Mary spied my Anglican prayer beads on the side table. “Beads!” she exclaimed, with a zeal that forecast a tantrum of even greater force if Daddy did not indulge her curiosity.

“Now be careful,” I said, as I placed them in her outstretched hand. “These are special beads.” She studied them with her fingers and gazed at them intently.

“What’s this?” she asked, holding the beads up by the cross. “It’s a cross,” I said. “What’s a cross?” “It reminds us of Jesus.” “Oh,” she said.

As they sat on my lap and we listened to the music, Mary slowly pulled the prayer beads over the arm of the loveseat and across her own lap. “It’s a snake,” she giggled. I laughed softly, thankful that her imagination had taken her to an animal that glided gently over things. I watched her with fascination for a few moments until I managed to wiggle a hand free and turn my attention back to my laptop. Before long, I found myself trapped under a pile of snoozing toddlers. The invasion was over and the occupation had begun.

With my wife at the store, I settled in for what might be a lengthy (and wonderful) stint as a human mattress. Before I got too comfortable, though, I lifted the prayer beads from Mary’s relaxed grip, fearing they might vanish into the mysterious depths of the sofa cushions, and returned them reverently, if awkwardly, to the table. In the process, I thought again about how easily those beads had become a snake in her hands. Then I wondered if that was the real reason why I should handle them with care. Such metamorphoses are hardly confined to the innocent and playful workings of a child’s mind.

All of us who call ourselves disciples of Christ would do well to remember that faith can slither as well as soar, especially as we round the final bend of Advent and see Bethlehem coming clearly into view. The coming of Christ into the world is the most special of God’s good gifts. It stands alone as an act of love and grace. But one thing Christmas has in common with all the rest of God’s good gifts is that the babe lying in the manger can be misused in human hands: can be, has been, and will be. It’s a story as old as Eden: God provides for humankind and humankind exploits God’s provision for their own purposes rather than God’s, thinking we can better provide for ourselves. The serpent who tempted Eve is alive and well, and it still has our ear, coaxing us down ever closer to the ground and away from the heights of heaven we could be climbing. And the true genius of the serpent’s guile is that he has found ways to make us think we are soaring on the wings of eagles when, in fact, we are sliding on our bellies.

The train of thought I was trying to hold onto during my daughter’s initial onslaught was for a sermon on Acts 6-8, which tells the story of Saint Stephen. He, like the Twelve Apostles, was filled with the Holy Spirit in the days following Pentecost. They all proclaimed Jesus as The Righteous One, the long-awaited Messiah. They taught. They healed. They performed miracles. They did all the things Jesus did in His earthly ministry (John 14.12), and just like Him they rankled the establishment. God was on the move and He was moving His people—again—just as He had in the days of Abraham and Moses and Joshua, expanding both the depth of His relationship with humanity and the breadth of His Kingdom. But the people didn’t want to hear it. They certainly didn’t want to hear about how they were ignoring God’s movement, if not actively opposing it, just as their ancestors had done long ago. Stephen’s words make them so angry that they grind their teeth and stone him to death. They think they are defending the faith; in reality they are deliberately covering their ears, refusing to listen to what God is trying to say and stooping to the lowest possible means to preserve what they think belongs to them.

Sadly, Christian history is replete with similar stories—stories about the people of Jesus following the crowd’s lead rather than Stephen’s example, and for the same reasons. The Crusades, the Inquisition, Jim Crow Evangelicalism, Deutsche Christen, even Country Club Christianity all derive from the fact that we like our faith the way we like it. But our God is a God who refuses to be beholden to our preferences. He is a God who does new things because He is a God who shines light into darkness, and He is a God who pushes boundaries, challenges assumptions, and defies conventions because it is around the walls of such earthly institutions that shadows tend to fall. Often these walls go up in the first place because the serpent charms us with his designs. “God did something big, powerful, and truly amazing here—once,” the serpent says to us. “Let’s build a grand monument to it. We’ll be able to see it better when we can go inside, close the door, and get out of this glare. We’ll be safe there…from attack and, if need be, for attack.”

Stephen stands tall as an exemplar of Christian faith because he was open to God, not closed down: open to the new workings of the Spirit, open to allowing God to confront him, open to confronting others in Jesus’ name, and open to practicing grace as well as claiming it. He was willing to wade into the shadows and be a beacon of God’s presence there. To be “caught up” in the Spirit is apt language to describe what happens when the Spirit gets a hold on us, as it got a hold of Stephen: it lifts us off the ground and over the walls of our own building.

Many of those who will not be with us around the manger this Christmas will not be there because the last time they tried to draw near to Christ, someone threw a stone at them. For this reason, we who pilgrimage to Bethlehem this Christmas must be mindful of what lies in the shadows of the stable. One of the things Jesus is coming to do is to expose the underbelly of serpentine religion—wherever it lurks: in the hearts of spiritual authorities, like Caiaphas, when they make idols out of doctrines and power structures (Matthew 26.59-66); and in the hearts of disciples, like Peter, when they define Jesus’ Messiahship on their own terms rather than heaven’s (Mark 8.29-33). Some of those shadows around the manger most certainly belong to us. Are we willing to make acknowledging and facing those shadows part of our pilgrimage? We should. We need to. Christ is coming to call all of us—all of us—to repentance, so that He might then baptize us with the fire of heaven’s light and send the shadows running. The serpent can’t harm us when it has no place to hide.

My daughter Mary, who fittingly shares the name of Jesus’ mother, taught me a powerful lesson that day. She reminded me that Jesus is truly special. We should make our way to Bethlehem with haste and without reservation to rejoice with the shepherds and sing with the angels. We should cry out with zeal when we see Him, and gaze at Him intently. We should revel in the great gift God has given us. But we should also make sure we handle Him with reverence and care, like we would handle any baby: concerned more for what He needs from us than for what we need from Him. What we need from Him is taken care of. He is with us.

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