Sometimes you hear songs that only your eyes know how to talk about. I’ve spent all day talking with my eyes as I listen to a very beautiful album of songs by Zach Sobiech, a kid who died of cancer yesterday after recording an album in the final months of his life. Zach formed a band called A Firm Handshake with his lifelong friend Sammy Brown when he learned that he had less than a year to live. I’ve spent time that I don’t have trying and failing to summon up the right combination of adjectives to describe his music about living richly in the shadow of death. Continue reading
It’s probably the most poignant scene in the original Star Wars movie. Obi-Wan has engaged Darth Vader in a fierce lightsaber duel to provide cover for Luke Skywalker and his friends to escape the Death Star. Luke looks over to his mentor; they lock eyes; Obi-Wan raises his saber to let Vader kill him; and Luke is left to figure out how to become a Jedi without his mentor. This weekend at our LifeSign contemporary service, we are talking about the day when Jesus left his disciples and ascended into heaven (click here for a promotional video to share!). It’s worth asking the question the disciples must have had: Why did He abandon us? Continue reading
Our youth pastor invited me today to talk about atonement with our confirmation class. As you know, I am very passionate about offering a better explanation than the Four Spiritual Laws of how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection reconcile us to God. I’m not very good at turning confirmation lessons into silly activities with cotton balls and papier mache. So what I offered them was pretty simple: a single sheet of paper with a brief description of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection at the top and then seven different concrete problems that Jesus’ atonement provides a solution for (realizing that’s not an exhaustive list). I gave them scripture passages to read and had them try to answer based on the scripture how Jesus’ atonement addressed the stated problem. Continue reading
This is Advent translated into hip-hop for Christians who are able to admit that we don’t always do a good job of taking up our cross to follow Jesus and want to try again to serve our king by marching for His kingdom. Lyrics are below.
I’m jumping on the bandwagon. Ever since the Episcopal convention last week, all the Christians bloggers are talking about whether or not the liberal church will survive. The conversation thread that I’ve followed has included John Meunier, Ross Douthat, Diana Butler Bass, and Rachel Held Evans. I spent my twenties in struggling mainline liberal churches that were very active in social justice causes in their community and painfully empty on Sunday mornings. Since I feel like my own observations and convictions are inadequate to explain the sociological shifts that are occurring in American Christianity, I’m not going to present this as any sort of coherent theory, but rather a series of points that respond to what I’ve read in no particular order.
This past weekend for my message on Ephesians 2:1-10, I decided on a zombie theme since I can get away with that in my contemporary service and because zombies are “in” with the young people. The inspiration was a phrase that Paul uses to describe people who are enslaved to sin: “children of wrath,” which sounds like the title of a bad horror movie. He also tells the Ephesians that they “were dead through the trespasses and sins in which [they] once lived,” i.e. living dead, a.k.a. zombies. In all seriousness, I think a zombie apocalypse is an excellent metaphor for capturing the nature of sin. Sin is not just “breaking the rules” or “offending God’s honor” as we often hear in the pop-evangelical “Four Spiritual Laws” account of the gospel. Sin is a devastating spiritual disease that makes us into zombies; Jesus provides the means to resurrect us from this state of living death.
In the second sermon of our church’s “Big Picture” series, we looked at the meaning of church as described in Ephesians 1:23 — “the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” It’s often been said as part of the Methodist “Rethink Church” campaign that church is a verb, not a noun. This is literally true in the Bible’s original Greek. Paul uses the word kleseos in Ephesians 1:18 to describe the “calling” of God’s hope. Ekklesia, the word that gets translated as “church” in Ephesians 1:23, is derived from the same root as klesous. It means literally “the calling forth,” or as I decided to name it, the song of God’s power.
I preached a sermon a couple of weeks ago about a passage from 2 Corinthians 5 in which Paul uses a phrase that has dominated my mind ever since it jumped out at me at my Monday small group two weeks ago. Paul says that he longs for “what is mortal [to] be swallowed up by life.” Our lives in the world are oftentimes overwhelmed by things that create spiritual death, that keep us from being the vital, dynamic people God created us to be. Jesus swallows us this spiritual death on His cross and replaces it with the resurrected life that God established through Him on Easter. Here’s an audio recording of my sermon on this topic: swallowed up by life.
Sermon for Holy Saturday, 4/23/2011
Text: Romans 8:18-28
How many of you know the musical “Bye Bye Birdie”? We performed it in middle school. One of the songs is called “Put on a happy face.” I used to sing it to my son Matthew as my personal coping mechanism whenever he used to cry as a toddler: “Gray skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face; brush off the clouds and cheer up, put on a happy face. Take off the gloomy mask of tragedy, it’s not your style; you’ll look so good that you’ll be glad ya’ decided to smile!” It’s kind of a good song for Easter; what do you think? Easter is here so it’s time to stop being sad – just put on a happy face! Isn’t that what Easter’s about? I’m not so sure…
How many of you have had friends who are a bit too sunny when you’re down in the dumps? And when you try to vent about your problems, they tell you to take off the gloomy mask of tragedy and pick out a pleasant outlook. Did you ever want to slap the smiles off of their faces? I’ve had friends like that. I’ve also found that holidays can be like insufferably cheery friends. It’s not okay to be sad on a special day because you bring others down, and nobody wants to hang out with a downer.
Well tonight we’re celebrating Easter even though it’s not official till tomorrow morning. But it’s also Holy Saturday, the only full day that Jesus spent in the grave. This gives us a unique opportunity to let our celebration have a double-meaning. We know that Jesus has conquered death and won the final victory over Satan, but His kingdom is not yet fully established on Earth as it is in heaven. Theologians call this the “already but not yet” paradox of Christianity.
On the one hand, Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins and victory over death gives us the basis for having hope in the future and in whatever is beyond the future. As Christians, we live every day in the reality of Easter, in the hope that was established by Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. But we cannot let Easter make us think that God is done with the world and there’s no point in trying to make it a better place. We also live in Holy Saturday, in a day when the world is still fallen, when the king of the universe is still not recognized as Lord of all, when many people throughout the world still live in despair and shouldn’t be scolded for not feeling God’s presence in their lives.
Without Holy Saturday, Easter is a slap in the face to those whose lives have made it hard to say hallelujah. Without the solidarity of Jesus’ suffering and death, His resurrection is something for the happy people to dance to. Thus we should celebrate not only the resurrection of Jesus, but also the cross and even the grave of Jesus, because when we accept the combination of these three moments in one eternal reality, it helps us make peace with the fact that we’re still waiting for God to put a hallelujah in our hearts. As our scripture tonight, I picked Romans 8:18-28 in which Paul names and validates what it’s like to wait for God’s deliverance.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Holy Saturday is about hope. We know what God has started because of the death and resurrection of His Son. It’s because God reached out to us in Christ that we are no longer tone-deaf to the groans of creation around us. The hope that we have in Jesus’ resurrection awakens us to our call to transform the world and thus is the beginning to the end of creation’s “bondage to decay.” God is gracious enough to let us take part in His abolition of decay and the establishment of His kingdom. That’s what the hope is for. What has the resurrection done to our lives if it doesn’t move us to change anything about the world around us?
By raising Jesus from the dead, God proved to the world that He has the power to make all things new. God can resurrect our spirits when we’ve been through tough times. God can resurrect our broken relationships with other people. God never stops resurrecting our unfair and dead world to draw it into His freedom and glory. But there’s a difference between interpreting the events of our lives on the basis of God’s hope and pretending like everything is already perfect. Hope and denial are utterly the opposite. Denial tries to slap a fake smile on a moment in which there’s nothing to smile about. Hope faces our sad moments with integrity knowing that we cannot hope “for what we already have.” Denial pretends that the future is under control. Hope doesn’t claim to know the future; it simply trusts that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” It often takes a lifetime to learn how to trust God like that, but Paul seems to be saying that impossible situations actually bless us by forcing us to hope.
I want to tell you a story about hope. I have spent a lot of time in the past week visiting the Trauma ICU at Fairfax hospital where Nick Franca is lying in bed on a ventilator fighting for his life. Nick’s girlfriend Kelly has taught me about hope. She’s been sitting by his side singing to him, praying for him, and rubbing his hand. I don’t think she’s in denial about the grim reality she faces. She’s just taking each moment at face value. When you see hope like that, it makes you want to fight tooth and nail against anyone or anything that would dare to snuff it out. Hope like that causes people to do heroic things. But it’s hard to get hope like that without staring straight into the face of despair. We do not hope when we’ve analyzed the circumstances and think that a positive outcome is likely. Hope only comes to us when we’re out of other options. We hope because we must!
To those of us who have never been put in a situation where all we have is hope, the fact that Jesus came back from the dead might mean something. It’s something we’re supposed to believe in – a concept, a doctrine, a pious-sounding thing to say. But to people who have to hope because they’re without other options, Jesus’ resurrection means everything. It means that God really can reverse the course of human events. It means that Nick Franca will walk and live and breathe in a body free of cancer whether that happens a month from now or when we all join our resurrected Savior in glory. It means that there will come a point in time when all of our tears will be dried and all things in creation are reconciled to the God whose love reigns over them.
When people live in this hope, they refuse to accept the ugly realities of a fallen world. They refuse to accept racism; they refuse to accept poverty; they refuse to accept dictatorships. When Wael Ghonim got a band of people together to protest the government in Tahrir Square in Cairo, he looked about as naïve as Noah building an ark in the desert. But then it rained. The hope made more hope and more hope and the floodgates couldn’t hold it back. Only God knows what will happen in Egypt and Syria and Libya and the rest of the Middle East. Only God knows all the twists that will take place in the story of His redemption of the world between now and the end of time. But one thing’s for sure: we can put our hope in God not because we know what’s going to happen but because God has raised our Savior from the dead. We live in Holy Saturday; it’s blasphemous to what hope means to deny that reality, but the more that we put our hope in the Lord who will deliver us, the more that we will see the Easter dawn of God’s kingdom pushing up over our horizon.