07 April 2012

The Birth of a Tree

Holy Saturday 

Jesus is entombed, like a seed in the ground. He himself said that unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Fascinating, the way big things get their start from such inauspicious beginnings. Take, for example, a Redwood tree. If we were to give the seed of a Redwood to a man who had never seen the breathtaking height of the full-grown tree, he would never be able to predict just what would grow out of the little acorn he held in his hand.

So much of what we know about the world comes not by looking at the seed of things and then projecting into the future what will break out from them, but by watching things happen, and then thinking backward until we can see just how they could come from such strange beginnings.

Who would ever guess, if they had never seen a tree, what would become of the little acorn? Every arborist who ever lived, every student of the nature of trees started by looking at a fully grown specimen, and then worked back to understand how it grew from the seed.

So it is with the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. No one living in Jesus’ day ever thought that God’s Messiah would be shamefully crucified, die the death of the accursed, and then, in the middle of history, be raised from the dead.

But why? Why did they not know? Because all they had was the seed. They had the acorn of this tree in the prophecies of the Old Testament, in scriptures like Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22. But even though they had this seed, they had never seen the tree, and so they could not picture what would grow up from the ground.

Nobody knew what would come of the seed, nobody that is, except the seed itself: the word incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ. Before this seed ever died, he knew what tree he was destined to become. This is why Jesus referred to Isaiah 53 when he said that he did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. And this is why he cried out with the opening refrain of Psalm 22 from the cross,

Eloi, Eloi... 
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? 

He knew that in his death, he was the seed, the same seed pictured in those prophecies, and that from his death would grow the promised tree: the kingdom of salvation.

Let us consider the words of the Scriptural seeds. Let us quiet our hearts and look back with our minds as those who have seen the tree, and wonder that it should have grown from such a disheartening inception as the death of our Lord.

05 April 2012

Ground Zero, Part 2

Dear God help me, is there something that I’m missing?
Well, there was, and it 
changed everything for me. What was it? Just this: that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. If that much is true, then everything else is secondary. If Jesus really rose from the dead, then I don’t have to solve every conundrum to have a robust, confident faith; I don’t have to feel a certain way to be assured of my fate; I don’t even have to have an inerrant Bible. If Jesus Christ really rose from the dead, then my biggest question is answered.

Why am I a Christian? Because Jesus rose from the dead. This is my ground zero, the same ground that rooted the faith of the very first Christians. It’s all there in 1 Corinthians 15.
I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received...

that Christ died...
It really happened. Four gospels, multiple letters, and historians like Tacitus, Pliny, and Suetonius all agree: Jesus died. His heart stopped. His eyes closed. His breath left.

and that he was buried...
Buried by the unlikely figure of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the very council that called for Jesus’ death.
and that he was raised...
The people of the ancient world saw more of death than most of us, so they certainly didn’t need modern medicine to tell them that dead people stay dead. 

and that he appeared...
Why did Peter turn from the coward who denied the living Jesus, to the apostle who went to his death proclaiming the lordship of the crucified Jesus? Why did the rest of the disciples not fade back into the woodwork as did all the other followers of failed would-be messiahs? Why did Paul draw his readers’ attention to the experience of 500 eyewitnesses, most of whom were still alive and available to be questioned? Why is it that James, the brother of Jesus, disbelieved in him while he was alive, but believed in him so strongly after his death that according to the historian Josephus, he was stoned for proclaiming his brother as Lord?

Why did Paul turn from hunting Christians as blasphemers to giving everything to make their cause grow, through poverty, whippings, shipwreck and execution? Why? Because in Paul’s words, 

He appeared also to me.

The historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection changes everything. It means that when I come to the New Testament, I come to a collection of documents that bear witness to the experience of those who saw and heard and died for the risen Lord. It means I have a preview of my fate after death, embedded right there in eye-witness testimony. It means that this faith is not some imaginary fort in which to hide away from fear, but a staging point for great deeds and great thoughts, all grounded in history.

If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. But, in fact, he has been raised from the dead: the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

That’s all that death is for those who are in Christ: a closing of the eyes into a sleep from which we will awaken to the sight of our Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, as though it were only yesterday. So then, my Christian comrades, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of our Lord, knowing that in him, our labor is not in vain, but rooted in the fertile soil of well-grounded hope.

02 April 2012

Ground Zero, Part 1

I can feel it right here...

...at the back of my neck: the current of a past event––assuring as the breath of a deer on her doe––reminding me that whatever night may come, it will dawn, inexorably, to life. When I turn my head to catch sight of this hope, there is the city’s steel girders, glass windows, black smoke. But still I feel that breath––right there. And so I look beyond this concrete mess, out along the apostolic sight-line, until I am but an arm’s length from the historical lung: the tomb that breathed the Morning: the Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead––as though it were only yesterday. 

The disciples Peter and John running to the tomb of Jesus.
When I was a boy, a storm knocked out the power one night and the whole house went country-dark, like a coroner’s blanket had been draped over our roof: nothing but black. Dad was on the night shift back then, so it was Mom and I huddling in the hallway, together on the floor. She said if I invited Jesus into my heart, I would never have to be afraid of anything again. So we prayed, and it worked––the fear went away.
That is how I became a Christian. But did that make it real? Was my faith proven true by the comfort I felt, or was it a make-believe fort to run to and hide in from darkness and death? Why is it if I do not believe in fairy-tales, I do believe in this: that Jesus is God’s Son, that his Spirit is in me, and that he’ll take me to be where he is when I die?  Death is coming––of that I am sure––inching its way closer minute by minute, and there is nothing I can do to keep it away. It may be a Monday or a Tuesday, but one day my heart will stop, my eyes will close, and my breath will be lost. So whatever I’m going to believe in this life, I want it to be the truth.

Such were the thoughts of a twenty-something divinity student on his way to the pastorate, reading a daily diet of unbelieving intellectuals. It seemed like every time I opened a text book from my seminary curriculum, whether in philosophy or Biblical studies, I would find myself disheartened by the thoughts of scholars who disdained my Christian faith.

The problem was that although my heart had been won for Jesus in the childhood years, what had not been won was my mind. I was divided, split down the middle between the questions of the present and the feelings of the past. Only now, I felt nothing. When I prayed––and I prayed desperately every morning––it seemed that my words lacked all buoyancy and settled unheard in the back alley trash.

 I could feel it coming: the moment when I would let go of this faith and drift into the vain entropy of an atheistic universe.

“Is this what it’s all about?,” I asked myself. “Untying questions and contradictions, always living in fear that one day there will come some intellectual knot which I cannot work out, and then SNAP, my faith will be broken?”

My mom had said that if I invited Jesus into my heart, I would never have to be afraid of anything. Yet here I was, terrified.

So I turned on myself and asked, “Why am I afraid? Is there something I’m missing, some item of first importance that could so ground me that even when I can’t unravel a question, even when I feel nothing of God’s presence, I will continue to stand firm?  

Dear God, help me, is there anything like that? Is there something I’m missing?

Well there was, and it changed everything for me.