Friend Evelyn wrote the following in a response to “Getting the Church to Sail”: Do we have to suffer persecution, like they do in the 3rd world countries before we fall on our faces before Him; begging forgiveness for our … Continue reading
I am spending this time on the Apostles’ Creed because Jesus-followers need to get a firm grip on what they believe. So many church people are content to casually believe in Jesus, go to church when they’re in town, and maybe read the Bible occasionally. It’s good for them and it doesn’t cost anything . Well, it didn’t used to cost you anything to take luggage with you on the airplane either. But we are heading towards a time when admitting that you believe in Jesus and go to church (or that you own a Bible) is going to cost something – maybe a lot. Some readers may already be experiencing that in their work place or at school. Even if out-in-the-open persecution of Christians in the Western world never happens, you will need your faith more than ever; life will be severely tested in so many ways that casual belief won’t get it done. So, “get a grip” on your faith while there’s time!
…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell. On the third day he rose again;
Lots of big fancy theological words can get piled up on this one: atonement, propitiation, redemption, justification. This little chain of historical events carries a lot of freight. Put simply, Christians believe that every human’s rebellion against God (sin) brings with it the verdict of “guilty”, and the sentence of death. But God the Almighty Father sent his Only Son our Lord to rescue people by standing in for us to receive the judgment and punishment from God that we deserved for our rebellion.
The fact that Jesus was condemned before Pilate is more than a historical detail – Jesus stood before Pilate accused as a guilty evil-doer. To rescue us he allowed himself to be condemned by a mortal judge, and sentenced to death. But the gospel accounts of Jesus display his “shining innocence”. They show clearly that he had no guilt and evil of his own; he was punished for the evil lodged in our hearts, poisoning our own lives and the lives of others, in ways petty and monstrous.
Crucified, dead and buried seems to be a triple redundancy to state emphatically that Jesus was really, really dead. But there is significance in the manner of his execution. The cross was a sign of being cursed. It carried, of course, a heavy stigma from a human point of view – what would be your first reaction to hear that someone you knew ended up in the electric chair? Kinda casts some tarnish on your opinion of them (or however tarnish ends up on someone) doesn’t it? But death on a cross also carried the curse of God’s law (see Galatians 3:13). To believe that Jesus was crucified means you believe that the entire curse of God lay on you because of your rebellion against God (sin), and falling short of God’s design for you – But! That curse was lifted off of you, and transferred to Jesus.
Even more, Jesus abandoned himself completely over to the power of death – the curse of sin – “he was dead and buried.” Death is the power that puts the chains on the human experience, and holds us captive. Jesus surrendered himself to death to deliver us from it. “…because [Jesus] suffered death for us, he is now crowned with glory and honor. Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9).
“He descended into Hell”. I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, what does that mean exactly, where does the idea even come from, and do I really have to believe that or can I just mumble that part?
John Calvin said, “If it is left out, much of the benefit of Christ’s death will be lost.” Yes, he really said that. Admittedly, the Biblical data is slight and indirect, but it is found in Acts 2:31, Ephesians 4:9, and possibly I Peter 3:18-20. The idea that Jesus descended into Hell pushes the envelope on the necessity of Jesus surrendering himself to the power of death. What Christians believe that Jesus suffered the pain and torment of death to rescue us – body and soul. Jesus not only died, but also suffered Hell in order to experience the terrible torments of God’s judgment after death. When Jesus suffered in your place, he went the full distance. He suffered the full extent of God’s judgment. To believe this is to believe, as Calvin states, “…in death we may now not fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up.” Or as Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:54, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” If you believe Jesus suffered the full extent of death, you believe that both physical and eternal death have been consumed by your Lord.
Christians believe something that stands the “real world” on its head: Jesus was physically raised from the dead. Long time church people hardly think about it. Easter is just the high point on the church’s spring calendar. We forget how foundational the resurrection is to Christianity and how profoundly it blows “the-way-things-are-supposed-to-work” right out the window. Paul was very emphatic with the Corinthian Christians that without Jesus’ resurrection Christianity is a joke:
But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.
Spend time thinking through who put Jesus in the position of being condemned to death, and how they put him there. The phrases “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried” carry with them the overtones of our world’s hard reality, where lies, corruption, manipulation, misuse of political power and a host of other manifestations of evil are the way it works. If Jesus rotted in the grave, then all of that evil would have won; Psalm 2 would end at verse three – the powers of earth succeed in their plot to break their chains and free themselves “from slavery to God.” But God changed the rules, upset the apple cart, turned the tables, re-wrote the book; evil appeared to have gained the upper hand, only to have its scheme transformed into fatal defeat on Easter morning. Give that careful consideration.
Not only did God’s goodness triumph once for all over evil, but in Jesus’ resurrection love triumphed over hatred.
…the attitude of those who procured [Jesus’] crucifixion was an almost virulent hatred, so bitter that in the end it was capable of ascribing the loveliness and graciousness of his life to the power of the devil. If there had been no resurrection, it would have meant that the hatred of man in the end conquered the love of God. The Resurrection is the triumph of love over all that hatred could do … The Resurrection is the final proof that love is stronger than hate.
Suffered, crucified, risen – three words that form the core of God’s loving hope for this world. Look for how they intersect with your life today.
 Isaiah 25:8
 I Corinthians 15:12-19, Tyndale House Publishers: Holy Bible : New Living Translation. 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2004.
 William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, The Daily Study Bible Series, Revised Edition, Westminster John Knox Press,1975, p. 147, 148.
I introduced Part I – Believe in God by saying:
… it is essential for followers of Jesus to begin now to know what they believe. If someone sneeringly insults you because of your Christian beliefs, will you know what it is you are insulted for? Or if one day it is necessary to draw a line in the sand between what you believe and what you are being told to ignore, will you know where the line is to be drawn? Tens of thousands of Christians are at least familiar with one of the oldest and best summaries of the essential Christian beliefs – the Apostles’ Creed.
Part I went on to examine the words, “We believe in God” from the Creed’s first statement. I would encourage you to read Part I if you haven’t yet. Now we will look at the next part of that statement, “the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”
Next, the Creed describes God the One and Only with a startling word – Father. Please! Don’t get bogged down with modern indignations about inclusive versus patristic language, because that would miss the marvelous point here. The point is, God is personal – loving, relational, knowable! This capital G God is not remote, disinterested, or coldly unaware of you.
The description of God as the Father makes two claims: first, that God is the Father of Jesus Christ, and second, that God is our Father. The claim that God is the Father of Jesus doesn’t imply that Christians believe Him to be male. Rather, it expresses the idea that Jesus and God had an intimate, organic, and essential relationship. Likewise, if you believe God to be your Father, you believe that you have a deep, growing, foundational relationship with God as well. That is an idea worth spending some time thinking about!
Not only is God loving and relational, God is also all powerful. To believe that God is almighty means more than God has the power to do whatever God wants. What we really believe is that God rules over everything; Christian and not-Christians, every country, all creatures in the ocean, on land, and in the air, this entire planet, solar system, and anything there is beyond. God rules it all in macrocosm as well as microcosm. One of the earliest manuals for Christian education during the Reformation states that it is by God’s almighty power that God “rules in such a way that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, comes to us not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.”
If God were only some benevolent, grandfatherly figure in Heaven, wishing you well, but of limited power, God might desire to answer your prayer, but be unable. If God were almighty, but not fatherly, God might have the ability to answer your prayer, but be unwilling. But you believe that God the Father is almighty! Not only does he will to answer you, God is able to “accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.” This counterpoint formed by God’s Fatherly love and almighty essence means you are able to be patient during tough times, grateful is good times, trusting “[your] God and Father for the future, assured that no creature shall separate [you] from his love, since all creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they cannot even move.” What more do you need to sleep well tonight?
Christians believe that God is maker of Heaven and earth. This doesn’t mean that Jesus people ignorantly cling to a hopelessly outmoded view of the cosmos from the ancient world. It means we believe that everything was created by God. We use a very simple rule of thumb – if it ain’t God, then God created it. That should about cover it, but just in case, the Nicene Creed clarifies that everything visible and invisible was created by God. Which brings us full circle – if God alone is creator, and if everything else is creation, then God the Father almighty alone is to be worshiped.
But, we have also just affirmed that God is almighty Creator, and loving, relational God the Father. Therefore, this simple statement implies that God’s act of creation is an intentional act of love. Creation was not an accident when God sneezed and divine matter flew into the chaos and spontaneously brought order. Nor was it the act of a dispassionate divine being who set things in motion then sat back to observe what might happen. To claim God the Father almighty is Creator affirms that not only is creation good, because God intentionally created it, but also that God wants to be fundamentally involved in every minor detail of what goes on.
What you believe about God determines how you interpret and respond to the circumstances which every day contains. According to the Heidelberg Catechism, when you believe in God the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and earth, it means, “I trust I him so completely that I have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul. Moreover, whatever evil [comes my way] in this troubled life he will turn to my good, for he is able to do it, being almighty God, and is determined to do it, being a faithful father.”
Who knew so much could be packed into this one little sentence, I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and earth? If you haven’t memorized the Apostles’ Creed yet, start with this first line. Spend time mulling it over, thinking it through, holding it up once in awhile to moments in life; Come to know God as your almighty Father, your Creator.
Coming up, Jesus Christ, God’s only Son.
Our world is moving towards unprecedented political, economic, and spiritual crisis. Rapidly. History suggests that during crisis and upheaval religious faith is stress-tested, and when, at least for the Christian faith, it has shown most brightly through the murk of evil. Since 315 A.D., when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, Christianity has been main-stream Western culture. Between then and now, Western Christianity has endured few true stress-tests – and never in North America. That is changing as our world is being pulled into the whirlpool of crisis.
Just in my own life time Christians in the United States have accepted the notion that it is wrong to talk about their religious views in the public arena – well, if not wrong, then at least in very poor taste. In our public school systems, we have gone from the occasional outrage of a child being censored for expressing their faith, to commonplace reports of Christian students being denied having Bibles, praying on school property, or flunking for challenging evolution on the basis of faith; American Christians have come to expect those stories, and probably wonder how the children’s parents missed the email that taking Jesus to school results in rough sledding (although to be fair, that hasn’t permeated yet into the rural school districts of “fly-over” states).
Here’s the situation: in the non-western parts of this world, persecution of Christians is the rule; in Western countries, even the United States, it is already more difficult to stand up for Jesus than it was twenty, fifteen, or even five years ago. As crisis deepens, it isn’t very likely that boldly living for Him will become easier – history suggests it will become much harder. That’s why it is essential for followers of Jesus to begin now to know what they believe. If someone sneeringly insults you because of your Christian beliefs, will you know what it is you are insulted for? Or if one day it is necessary to draw a line in the sand between what you believe and what you are being told to ignore, will you know where the line is to be drawn?
Tens of thousands of Christians are at least familiar with one of the oldest and best summaries of the essential Christian beliefs – the Apostles’ Creed. This creed had its beginnings in the days of the early church, the 200’s A.D. In those days being a Christian could be tough. Becoming a Christian and joining a church was not a casual thing. Before being baptized as a new Christian, you might go through a couple of years of teaching and examination; the pastor or bishop wanted to be sure that you were truly committed. And at your baptism, you would recite a creed, a statement, that summarized the faith that you had been learning, and which you were about to commit yourself to. That was the earliest beginnings of the Apostles’ Creed, as a summary of basic Christian teaching from the Bible and the Apostles, which was used to instruct new believers. As an official Creed it was formalized almost 600 years later at the end of the 800’s. This Creed was never meant to be an in-depth explanation of Christian belief, just a basic outline to learn, know, and to teach with. So let’s get with the teaching, learning, and knowing!
As an outline, the Creed divides into three parts – yes, three! The notorious three point sermon aside, three means Trinity – God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Sure, the Spirit only gets an honorable mention in the third part – the notorious catch all section – but that’s good enough for a balanced outline! We will follow that outline in explaining the Creed, first looking at God the Father, then examining God the Son, and finally going into God the Spirit and all the other bits and pieces.
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
When saying the Creed out loud in worship, it is traditional to stand. To say “this is what I believe” with other people is not a simple thing – it’s a big deal, much more than whispering, “Here are some ideas I intellectually buy into.” Christian singer/song-writer Rich Mullins put it this way in the refrain of his song “Creed”:
and I believe that what I believe is what makes me what I am;
I did not make it, no it is making me…”
In other words, your belief in God and how He has acted in the past and continues to act in the present is what defines who you are; it is what aligns every fiber of your being. The Presbyterian author Albert Winn suggests that believing is passionate, it contains zeal; it contains power, it is a struggle, it coexists with unbelief. He has written, “Real believing is always in spite of. We do not say, ‘of course I believe.’ We say, ‘I dare to believe in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.’” When you recite this creed you declare that this is what you cling to no matter what.
This solemn oath of trust in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is what the martyrs of the early church died for. It is what Christians are dying for, being beaten for, arrested, and turned out of their homes for, right now today, in places like Iran, Egypt, China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Kenya, Burma, and Indonesia (you can learn more at persecution.com). Proclaiming “I believe …” is not a casual thing at all. It has power. It draws a line in the sand between you and the world at large. The world will respond with hostility because you have just sided against it (look at Jesus’ words in John 15:18-16:4 and 17 about the tension between his followers and the world). This why Christians stand when they recite the Apostles’ Creed, because declaring “This is what defines us!” is to take a stand against all evil and powers in the world which defy God’s love and righteousness.
“I believe in God” is a simple statement that represents a very big idea – belief in God, capital G. This is a profession of monotheism, that there is only one God, expressed in three persons. The big deal is that if there is only one God, then that God alone is worthy of total, complete devotion and worship – nothing else, no one else can demand that kind of allegiance. That means no political ideology however noble, no leader however gifted and promising, no virtue however empowering, nothing, is worthy of owning the first and primary place in your life. Christians believe that this God is alone God, the supreme, ultimate Other; and therefore is alone worthy of unwavering devotion. The Scots Confession of 1560 expresses the idea with these ringing words:
We confess and acknowledge one God alone, to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom only we must worship, and in whom alone we put our trust. (I added the emphasis)
That’s what it means to confess, “I believe in God.”
Coming up next, Part II – Father, almighty, Creator.
Hmmm. Psalm 89 this morning. Maybe if I listen, the Lord might drop a hint. Well look at this: “Your love, GOD, is my song, and I’ll sing it! I’m forever telling everyone how faithful you are”. Huh. Isn’t that interesting? But look at what’s next: “I’ll never quit telling the story of your love”. How ’bout that?! … Telling everyone how faithful God is, telling the story of God’s love? Guess that pretty much sums up what my writing is about!
Sooo. Let me tell you about how lovingly faithful God was to me yesterday.
Number one, God loved me enough to give me another day. Sure I woke up as groggy as a sailor on shore leave, and stayed that way most of the day, but my back and shoulder muscles felt more relaxed than they have in months.
Faithfulness? Even going into year two of ALS I still had the strength to walk back home from the auto shop, as easily as a year ago. And even though I can’t pastor any more I had meaningful work to do for Him yesterday, using my gifts and talents to help Wyoming’s Presbyterian churches communicate effectively.
The story of God’s love yesterday has to include dinner. ALS has made meals difficult sometimes. It’s so much work to chew and swallow. But because God loves me, dinner was all about Pizza Hut Supreme Hand-tossed. I could chew the green pepper chunks, and enjoy the blended flavors with the onions, the rich sausage, and the mellow cheese. Yummy, yummy, yummy! One day I might not be able to eat it. But God is faithful, and that day is not yet. One more thing I have to sing about at dinner last night – my kids. Three years apart, but roaring with laughter as they relived the two weeks spent with their second cousins this summer; free for a few moments from their sibling contest.
Such joy. That’s how much God loved me yesterday.
How about you? Care to hum a few bars about God’s love in a comment? Help yourself
21 At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?” 22 Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven. 23” The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. 24 As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. 25 He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market. 26 “The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ 27 Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.
28″ The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’ 29 “The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ 30 But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. 31 When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.
32″ The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. 33 Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ 34 The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. 35 And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”
When I was attending seminary, the Holy Egos drove me nuts. These were the guys (yes, they were all male, go figure) who wanted the whole class to know that they had the highest theological IQ in the room, including the professor. They would soak up huge amounts of class time in wearisome debates taking issue with the professors, to prove, I suppose, how wise and holy they were; therefore demonstrating how uniquely God had anointed them to proclaim the truth and defend the faith. In this account from Matthew, I recognize the signs of Holy Ego in Peter.
I suspect that he was trying to impress Jesus – and the rest of the class – with his theological IQ. That may be why he raised this question about forgiveness – then provided an answer. “In the spirit of what you are talking about Rabbi, seven times would be about right wouldn’t it?” Anyone even slightly conversant with the New Testament probably thinks that Peter only proved what dough-head he really was. But cut him some slack, because Peter actually showed some theological sparkle here.
In the religious teaching of that day, forgiving someone three times was as far as you needed to go. Based on the book of Amos, it was taught that the extent of God’s forgiveness was four, and since no person is God’s equal, forgiving someone three times was sufficient. Therefore, when Peter suggested a limit of seven, he was actually going over the top! He was exceeding the norm. And since seven was a special number associated with wholeness, completion, and perfection, Peter was really ahead of the pack!
Jesus responded by saying that in God’s realm, forgiving someone even seven times isn’t big enough, the limit is 70 x7. So right here, we have the definitive standard of how many times you need to forgive someone, 490.
But do you really believe Jesus was being so literal? Because if he was, do you really think you could keep track of someone sinning against you 490 times? Even if you could, by number 490, forgiveness would have long since have become an ingrained habit! Jesus’ reply means: “There is no limit to forgiveness – seven times might be a complete number, but it is not complete enough”. Then Jesus tells this story to explain why there can be no limit to forgiveness in God’s realm.
Some Good News
It is difficult to accurately translate the servant’s debt of 10,000 talents into 21st century value. What puts it into perspective is learning that the annual revenue for the entire province of Galilee – a wealthy province – was 600 talents. It would have taken the entire province of Galilee over sixteen years to pay off this man’s debt. In other words, this man’s debt was astronomical. His descendents would be working that debt off for generations.
So the servant begs – for more time, an extension, anything – it’s about to cost him everything. But the king doesn’t grant him an extension – he completely writes off the entire debt, a debt so large that it would have been significant for the king as well. The king could have reduced it or refinanced it, but instead, he canceled it – completely. The servant left a free man.
And that is incredible Good News, because each of us is the servant in that story. Each of us owes God a debt of sin that is beyond our ability to ever make right with God. No matter how hard we work at paying that debt down, we just keep getting deeper. We identify with the words from Romans 7:18-19: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” It’s as if our natural inclination is to ignore God’s terms and instead try to relate to him on our own terms. Or even to think and live as if there is no God. That debt will cost everyone of us everything.
But God wrote the check on that, so to speak, when Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. God didn’t reduce the debt, or refinance it, God canceled it completely for everyone who chooses to accept the deal. God offers to forgive the full debt of living in rebellion against Him. God has done more than we could ever ask for, more than we had a right to expect.
But look what happens next in the story. This servant meets a fellow servant who owes him a little money. Again, 100 talents is hard to translate into contemporary value, but whatever its value, it was only 1/100th the debt this guy was just released from! Yet he didn’t even grant the mercy of more time that he had originally begged the king for! – let alone granting the kind of mercy he had just received. So when the word got back to the king about this incident, the king was very unhappy, and things turned out worse for the servant than they would have originally.
Peter was thinking big, trying to expand conventional thinking on the limits of forgiveness. But Jesus’ parable says that there are no boundaries to forgiveness where God rules, because there are no debt limits on God’s forgiveness. God freely, completely forgives the debt of sin, a debt so large it is beyond comprehension, utterly un-payable. Therefore, how can God’s people fail to forgive the comparatively small transgressions they encounter from others?
Jesus’ concluding statement forms a sharp contrast with Peter’s question. The issue isn’t how many times you forgive someone before you can give them what they deserve. If you follow Jesus, the issue is forgiving others with the same kind of limitless mercy that God has forgiven you.
If you are a church person, this Good News about God’s limitless forgiveness has probably seeped in to your DNA. But how about the “as I forgive my debtors” part of the Lord’s Prayer? Do you know – really- what it means to do that?
1 Corinthians 13 says: keep no record of wrongs. That is forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t hang on to memories of hurt feelings, hold grudges, or think: “I guess I’ll cut you a little slack and see if you can make it up to me – I’ll give you a bit more time to pay down your debt.”
No – forgiveness cancels the record between you and that person, just as God canceled your debt with Him. Don’t be misled by the tough guy idea that it’s possible to forgive, but not forget. True forgiveness forgets, it deletes all the data in the “everything-I-hold-against-you” file. The old Greek word translated in this passage in Matthew as “forgiveness” carried the sense of: to let go, let alone, let be; to disregard; to omit, neglect; to let go, give up a debt, to remit; to give up, keep no longer.
Church can be one of the most miserable and vicious places on earth. Every church I have been involved with has had multiple layers of “issues”, a code word for unresolved hurt feelings between people in the church, as well as between family members. Forgiveness is the balm to heal all those “issues”, but it is so rarely practiced. I had a church leader once who hung on to a letter a church member had sent him that hurt his feeling horribly. Even after the writer of the letter was diagnosed with a terminal illness, he refused for a long time to give up that letter and forgive. I was stunned that a committed follower of Jesus would refuse point blank to even consider forgiving someone. Happily, he removed it from his dresser and destroyed it before she died.
Hurt feelings hurt! Forgiveness is hard, and not something most people are naturally inclined to do. But hey, if God wants his people to so the impossible, then it’s up to God to make it happen! The first step to forgiving someone is talking to God about it. Let God known how hurt you are, how impossible it is to forgive that person, or even to want to forgive. Lay it out there – “the only way forgiveness will happen God is for you to change me.” God likes those kind of challenges!
If you follow Jesus, how full are your “everything-I-hold-against-you files”? Are you holding grudges, or continuing to feed hurt feelings with anyone at church, in your family, a friend, or a neighbor? Don’t let your holy ego get in the way of following Jesus.
Wyoming’s Big Horn basin is desert country. Actually, it’s probably classified semi-arid, so it’s not so parched as many other places on the planet. But trees are rare, and serve as markers for intermittent run-off channels, or the north side of a higher ridge. Even then, the term “tree” is a generous description for the junipers that look likeextremely over-sized shrubs, or the scraggly cottonwoods. Sage brush, spiny horse brush, and prickly pear are the primary vegetation, along with short grasses and a smattering of wild flowers. For most people traveling through it, the basin desert is brutally devoid of all signs of civilization, just boring stretches of absolute nothing, an excuse to drive peddle to the metal, in the mistaken belief that even law enforcement would not bother with it.
Yet there is a desert within this desert, aptly referred to as the badlands. The badlands aren’t just empty stretches of nothing, they are a blasted wasteland; heavily eroded ridges and mounds of yellowish grey bentonite clay, shot through with just enough iron oxide to provide occasional pink and inky-dark striations. Nothing much grows there. The stunted sage is lightly scattered, and even the short grasses hardly have a foothold. The badlands form square miles of sterility, filled with the rubble of rotting hoo doos, broken cap rock, and jagged channels that may carry water once every fifty years.
The drive from Worland, Wyoming to Cody, takes you on a highway that forms the southern boundary to a stretch of badlands. In places the road seems to be the barrier that keeps the badlands from infecting the relatively lush drainage of Gooseberry creek. On the left, thin pastures and occasional ranches, to the right the silent mad howl of the badlands.
I drove through there on a rare wet spring day recently, feeling the emotional weight of my A.L.S. I was having a bitterly painful time of prayer with God about dying youg and leaving my family behind. And as I drove by the edge of the badlands I had a sudden impulse to look over at the bad-lands – impulse, urge, command, I’m not sure how to describe it – but they were green. “I can even make the bad-lands green” was God’s comment to me.
I remembered a verse from Isaiah that had inspired me a couple of years ago, Isaiah 55:13:
Where once there were thorns, cypress trees will grow.
Where nettles grew, myrtles will sprout up.
These events will bring great honor to the Lord ’s name;
they will be an everlasting sign of his power and love.
Or to paraphrase, God will make the badlands green. But was that a promise of healing from the thorns and nettles of my A.L.S.? A promise to bring bountifully care of my family after my death? Or simply a promise for just that day and my bitter state at that moment? Somehow, I believe the promise that “God can make the badlands green” was mostly for that moment, a promise for that day. “look over here,” God seemed to say. “that’s how you are looking at life this morning -seared, with nothing but the rubble of your broken dreams. But I can make the badlands green, and I will do that in your life today.
And so I caught up with my daughter and her class at the Buffalo Bill Cody museum and had a good time. God took the dismal nature of my mental and emotional states that day, and transformed them into something resembling life, unexpectedly, without even a plea.
Hebrews 4:14-16: Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. The Holy Bible : New International Version. electronic ed. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1996, c1984, S. Heb 4:14
“Does God exist?” may be an important question, but the follow up question might be more crucial – “what kind of God is he any way?”
I read a lot of fantasy fiction. Most of the contemporary stuff contains a divine element in the story-line, usually in the form of “the gods”. Modern fantasy writers tend to have a cynical view of divinity. For the most part their gods are either uninterested in human affairs, or too busy with important things to care about mortal affairs, or most cynically, the source of human misery. Likewise, most Americans believe that God exists. But that doesn’t answer the question of what kind of God they believe in. Is God uninterested in their life, too busy, or even malicious, or … (insert your favorite paranoia about God). Basically, all the fuss is simple: if God exists, does He care, and can I approach Him or not?
The challenge is that life sucks, and each of us, no matter how good, manage to contribute our share of misery. Deep down in the human psyche is the fear that each one of us has screwed up so badly that there is no reason to expect mercy from other people, let alone God. The Bible would agree with that assessment, but it describes God in a surprising way.
A Little History
In the Old Testament of the Bible, it tells the story of how people turned their back on God – not how God turned his back on people. The Adam and Eve account relates our human tendency to not trust God to have our best interests at heart, and our determination to believe we don’t need God. Now, what God should have done was blast everything to Adams, er, atoms, and start all over. But that isn’t God’s character. Instead, God wanted to give us a chance, and set about trying to repair the relationship between God and us. That, incidentally, is the story line of the Bible, and the “back-story” to our verses in Hebrews.
In order to understand these verses, it necessary to understand the role of the Old Testament High Priest (HP) in atonement, God’s initial method of making things right between God and us. In the Tabernacle, later the Temple, the Ark was in the Holy of Holies – a little room completely curtained off from everything else. The cover on the Ark was called the ‘mercy seat’, because God would come and be present above the Ark.
Once every year, the HP, and only the HP, would enter the Holy Place of all Holy Places, into the very presence of God to make things right with God and the entire people of Israel for their sins of the past year. This was the Day of Atonement, and it was very dangerous. Before going in the HP had to go through a thorough process of self purification; as he entered the Most Holy Place, he had to have a cloud of incense between himself and the Ark, obscuring the presence of God. First, the HP would offer a sacrifice for himself, and then he would offer the sacrifice on behalf of people.
I’ve read somewhere that by the time of Jesus, the HP had a rope tied to his ankle and wore a bell; as long as his fellow priests on the outside could hear the bell they knew that everything was going well. But if they stopped hearing the bell, they would know that the HP had screwed up somehow, and that God had struck him dead. In that case, at least they could haul his carcass out with the rope, and not have to wait a year to recover his body. Like I said, getting right with God entailed a little danger.
Jesus The HP
Whoever wrote the book of Hebrews didn’t have to explain all this because readers had grown up with it. Therefore, the contrast between the Old Testament and Jesus as the great HP would have jumped off the scroll at them.
First, as THE HP, Jesus is in God’s very presence, present tense – not just in a place God comes to once a year – no, Jesus stands right next to God full time, providing complete, instant access!
And in God’s presence is not a Mercy Seat, but the Throne of Grace. The Mercy Seat is where God came to dispense mercy. Mercy is God saying “you deserve to die for what you’ve done, but I will let you off.” Now a throne is where the king sat to administer justice – to apply the law (like king Solomon and the two women claiming same baby). But it isn’t the Throne of justice or mercy, it is the Throne of Grace; Justice is God giving us the sentence we deserve, Mercy is God not giving us what we deserve. But Grace is God giving us what we don’t deserve.
That leads to the third thing – something completely amazing! Think about this comment on the Old Testament Mercy Seat of the Ark: Grace does not veil itself from the people. Grace does not hide itself in a tent. Remember, the Old Testament people couldn’t enter the holy part of the Tabernacle, only the priests; the priests couldn’t go into the Ark (God’s presence), only the HP, and then only one day out of year. But now, because Jesus the great HP is in God’s very presence, all of God’s people have access to God. Everyone. Full time. And there’s no more reason for caution and fear of instant death. No bells or ropes! Hebrews says “approach the Throne of Grace confidently – boldly!”
So why is it the called the Throne of Grace? What do we find there, that we don’t deserve? Help in our time of need.
Think on this – In Old Testament days, if someone was tempted to disobey God, where could they turn for help? The HP was the only person who had direct access to God – but only once a year. But if you did go to the HP, there wasn’t anything he could do to “fix it”. He was a susceptible to temptation as anyone else. All he could do was listen, commiserate, and offer some powerless words about faith. Believe me. I’ve been a pastor, been there, done that. It’s crushing to be powerless to fix someone’s inner struggles.
But. Jesus, as your great HP, is right next to God. Someone has written, “as believers in Jesus Christ, we can run to our High Priest at any time, in any circumstance, and find the help that we need.” That’s grace. And as Hebrews points out, a HP with direct access to God wouldn’t be much comfort if he didn’t sympathize with his people. What a horrible thing to have a HP with the ability to step in for his people, who rarely saw the need to. No, Jesus sympathizes when we struggle with disobedience to God. Here’s how The Message phrases Hebrews 4:15, “we don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all – all but the sin.” Jesus is compassionate – he demonstrated that so many times while walking in our shoes.
In the gospels, Jesus showed sympathy to the:
Weary and burdened: Matthew 11:28-30. Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
Weak in faith: Isaiah 40:11; 42:3; Matthew 12:20. He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.
Grieving: Luke 7:13; When the Lord saw her, his heart overflowed with compassion. “Don’t cry!” he said.
Diseased: Matthew 14:14; Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
Hungry: Mark 8:2. “I feel sorry for these people. They have been here with me for three days, and they have nothing left to eat.”
Confused and aimless: Matthew 9:36; When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
That is the kind of HP Jesus is, because that’s how God is – mercy, grace, compassion.
Therefore, God is totally accessible! There will never be a reason to prevent you from approaching God. You never have to feel that something you’ve done, contemplated, or said has cut you off from God, that somehow you are unworthy. Of course you’re unworthy, but that’s the whole point! God wants to be accessible to you anyway! You are invited to boldly, confidently, march right in to the throne of grace, because that is where Jesus is. That’s where to find help – eagerly given – because he’s sympathetic … he’s walked in your shoes.
What kind of God is God? That kind of God.
Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus.”Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?” He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?” He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence– and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.” “Good answer!” said Jesus.”Do it and you’ll live.” Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”
I have preached Jesus’ Great Command over and over, both directly and with passing reference. Whether you are a new believer in Jesus, a life lo g church-goer, or simply somewhat curious, this is the definitive summary of what God desires from your life. “What’s God’s will for my life?”; what’s does the Divine plan for me?”, and all other permutations of that question, find their answer in the words “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as well as you love yourself”. Now, the Bible is very clear that while each of us is to be doing this, God in His infinite creativity has created each one of us, equipped each of us, to accomplish this in a unique way. But the mission of everyone on “Team God” is summarized by the Great Command.
I am fascinated that here in Luke, the Great Command is being stated by a religious scholar, one of a group of people that was having a difficult time with Jesus. This guy, though, seems to be sincere. As he answers Jesus, you can almost hear Jesus responding, “ok, uh-huh, alright, yep, almost there – yes! You’ve got it! Oops, ya lost it”. The man just had to ask, “so, what does ‘neighbor’ mean?”
And that my friends is the lump in the oatmeal. It’s the fly in the ointment, the mosquito in the room, the unidentified clunking noise in your car. We all want to know, “does this mean God wants me to love that guy? Those people? Can’t I just get by with dis-interested tolerance?”. We all want to know what the fine print is on this thing, where the escape clause is. And that means we really don’t get the command. The love God with all your heart-soul-mind-strength part is somewhat easy to pat ourselves on the back about, even if we aren’t in church all that often. Heart-soul-mind-strength are ambiguous enough that we can feel satisfied we’ve followed through despite spending Sundays at the cabin, on the tractor, in bed, in Starbucks, or on the links. (As a former pastor I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: going to church every Sunday doesn’t mean you’re succeeding either – but that’s another topic).
However, loving our neighbor as well as we love ourselves is right-in-your-face difficult to fudge on. That’s why we all want the definition of neighbor. Every day we bump up against people who are downright unlovable. What about them?
Jesus answers the question, of course, with his clever parable of The Good Samaritan. The bad news is, the answer is, yes. Everyone. The hard to love, the unlovable, those no one else wants, people who hate you, people you naturally detest.
Yup, that’s the lump in the oatmeal of God’ will for each of us. The good news is that no one could ever choke down that lump of oatmeal in the first place. So if that’s what God wants from people, then God had to do something to make it possible to really love him with all of our being, and love hard to love people as well as we love ourselves. Galatians 5 says that we have been set free by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – set free from our hard-wired self-centeredness that makes it impossible to follow the Great Command.
Can you love the way God wants you to love? Absolutely not. But if you have been set free by Jesus, you have been set free to love others (look up Galatians 5:13, 14). And incidentally, free to truly love God with every aspect of yourself. It won’t be easy to love the unlovable person you bump up against tomorrow, but if you have been set free by Jesus, it will be possible, because he loves that person as much as he loves you.
By the way, what is that noise your car is making?