Monday, March 29, 2010

From Jerusalem to Emmaus

Two disciples of Jesus journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus, their deepest hopes and dreams having been crushed.

We use that word hope a lot.  We hope someone gets better soon.  We hope our favorite sports team wins.  We hope the store has what we are looking for or that maybe it will even be on sale.  And so, we easily forget what it is to really hope for something, to believe in something so much that we commit ourselves to it.

That is what these disciples had done.  They had pinned all their hopes on Jesus.  These were hopes that had been passed down over generations, promises from long ago.  These were the hopes of not only individuals but of an entire people.  The kind of hope that these disciples had in Jesus stemmed from events that were hundreds of years old.  They were rooted in what God had done for Israel so long ago and so many times over.  God delivered the people from their slavery in Egypt through Moses by conquering Pharaoh and his army at the Red Sea.  God had delivered the people into the promise land with Joshua at the head of Israel's armies.  God had raised up judges and kings to lead them in their time of need.  And God had delivered the people when they found themselves in exile in a foreign land.  God had always raised up a leader to deliver Israel in its time of need.

Now many in Israel believed that they were in need of deliverance once again, this time from Rome and its powerful army and its pagan religions.  And here came Jesus, doing these incredible things, healing, casting out demons, raising the dead, talking about God in a way that no one else could.  As these disciples on the way to Emmaus say "He was a prophet mighty in word and deed".  So they put their faith in him.  They pinned all their hopes and the hopes of their people on him.  They committed their lives to him, followed his teaching, believing that he was the one who could get the job done.  This is what they mean when they "But we were hoping that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel."

"We were hoping..." implying that they no longer hold that hope.   Indeed, how could they?  It would be foolish to hold such a hope.  Perhaps we are even to imagine that these disciples are making this journey away from Jerusalem because they are fearful.  Jesus, their leader, had been crucified and buried in a tomb.  He had been defeated just like all the other pretenders, all the others who had claimed to be Israel's deliverer but had just ended up executed by Rome's enormous power.  Maybe the Roman officials would come after Jesus' followers next.

No, there was no hoping now.  There was only pain, confusion, and fear.   I can almost imagine the conversation that these two disciples must have been having on their way out of Jerusalem.  "How could we have been so stupid?  We were so sure that he was the one.  But clearly we were deceived."  That is, after all, what the cross meant.  At this point, there was no thought on the part of Jesus' disciples that his suffering was somehow redemptive or that it could bring salvation.  No, the cross meant unquestionably, undeniably that Jesus had NOT brought salvation, that he had failed in his mission as messiah.  Jesus was dead and Israel remained in need of deliverance, in need of restoration.  In addition to all this, the disciples had now heard reports that Jesus' body was missing; that it was no longer in the tomb where it had been laid.  And so on this journey to the town of Emmaus they must have wondered why someone would bother to steal Jesus' dead body from the tomb.  This is a journey filled with questions and grief.  It is a journey in the absence of hope.

Then Jesus shows up.  At first, these two disciples mysteriously fail to recognize him.  In fact, when Jesus asks what they are discussing they take Jesus to be somewhat ignorant, asking him "Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem and unaware of the things which have have happened here in these days?"  These disciples go on tell the one in whom they had placed all their hope about how now all their hope is lost.  Jesus is not put off by their blindness or misunderstanding.  Instead, he graciously continues to journey with them and he explains to them from the scriptures how this had been a part of God's plan all along.  Jesus explains to them that his death was not his defeat but the beginning of his victory.

The disciples still do not seem to recognize Jesus but they invite this one they see as a stranger to stay with them for the night rather than traveling on by himself.  Jesus agrees and shares a meal with them.  It is only when Jesus breaks the bread to share at the meal, much as he had done at his last meal with the disciples and as he had done when he fed the crowds from only a few loaves and few fish, that they suddenly recognize who it is that has been traveling with them all along.  Upon this revelation on the part of the disciples, Jesus vanishes from their sight but the disciples say "Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the scriptures to us?" and they immediately get up and head back toward Jerusalem to share the good news that their hope is alive once again.

Perhaps you have been down that road to Emmaus yourself; the one filled with grief, pain, and confusion; that journey where it seems like all the hopes you ever had have been nailed to a cross and buried in a cold, stone tomb.  Certainly, it is a common journey in this world of ours where we are surrounded by death, violence, greed, poverty, brokenness, and pain.  To one degree or another, we must all walk that road.  And at some point we may even look around in all of that pain and confusion and ask ourselves "Where is God in all of this?"

But the truth is God has been walking right by our side all along, we only failed to see that it was him.  God is there in the bread and juice that we share together at the Lord's table.  God is there in the fellowship that we share with one another.  God is there in the simple acts of hospitality extended to a stranger.  But most importantly, God is there when we are journeying down a hopeless road with nothing but fear and and questions, God is there.

The hope that we have as Christians is not a naive one.  It is not a rose-colored glasses approach to our world that pretends there is no pain or suffering or that's it not important.  Our hope is one that says that pain and suffering are not the end; that death does not have the last word because there is a God who is more powerful than death.  We believe that our God and Father raised Jesus our Lord from the dead and that he will do the same for us.  We believe that our ultimate enemy, death, has been defeated and if death itself can't stand in God's way then its hard to imagine what can.

That is why we gather for worship Sunday after Sunday.  That is why we serve others and reach out to those we don't know with the love of God.  That is why we have committed ourselves to Jesus.  We have pinned all of our hopes on him because he has set our hearts on fire with his resurrection life.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Journey from Deliverer to Sacrifice

Maybe it was like an Independence Day Parade.  You know, the kind you see in small town U.S.A.  Local businesses and civic organizations have their floats.  The High School and Jr. High Bands play patriotic music.  Men and women of the armed forces are recognized.  Everyone else stands on the side of the road waving American flags and clapping.  All in celebration of the freedom that was won over 200 years ago and in hope that it is a freedom that we will continue to enjoy.

Passover was like Israel's Independence Day.  It was the festival that commemorated God's deliverance of Israel from its slavery in Egypt.  It is thought that Psalm 118 was sung by those entering the city of Jerusalem during the Passover festival.  You can almost see the movement of the people into the city in the Psalm itself.  They begin at the bottom of the hill:
"Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for His loving-kindness is everlasting.  Oh, let Israel say, 'His loving-kindness is everlasting.'  Oh let the house of Aaron say 'His loving-kindness is everlasting.'  Oh let those who fear the Lord say, 'His loving-kindness is everlasting.'"
As those singing make their way toward the city, they recount all that God has done for Israel; how God has defeated all of Israel's foes.  Then as they approach the city gate they sing:
 "Open to me the gates of righteousness; I shall enter through them, I shall give thanks to the Lord.  This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it."
Those celebrating then remember once again all that the Lord has done for Israel.  They rejoice that even though Israel was the stone rejected by the builders of all other nations, God has chosen them to be the cornerstone of His kingdom.  Perhaps now they are approaching the Temple at the center of the city, the center of the whole universe in Jewish thought, the place where God himself resides, saying
"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  We have blessed you from the house of the Lord."
The journey climaxes and find its goal with the sacrifice of the passover Lamb. This final sacrifice is where the procession has been headed all along.
"Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar."  
And the Psalm concludes with the same words of praise with which it began.
 "Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for His loving-kindness is everlasting."
Jesus must have made this journey into Jerusalem many times, maybe every year of his life when it came time for Passover.  But the gospels only record in detail for us the last time Jesus would make this pilgrimage.  And in this final trip into Jerusalem, Jesus finds himself as the centerpiece of the Independence Day parade.  Just as feelings of nationalistic pride soar high in the U.S. on the 4th of July, so also Passover was a reminder for Jews of what God had done and a promise that he could do it again.  These crowds had seen what Jesus could do; the healings, the casting out of demons, even raising the dead.  Was there anything that Jesus could not do?  Many in this crowd must have thought that not even the mighty Roman army could stand in Jesus' way.  Maybe Jesus was coming to Jerusalem to claim his throne as king.  So the air in Jerusalem is filled with shouts of Psalm 118
"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
And the crowd adds to this shouts of "Hosanna!" which means in Hebrew "Deliver us!"  The crowds believe Jesus is the one sent to deliver them, to bring them independence once again, just as God had given Israel independence from Egypt at that first Passover meal so many years before.  Then Jesus heightens expectations even further by making his way to the Temple.  The Temple, besides being the place of prayer and sacrifice had also served as a symbol of kingly authority in the past.  The Temple had been built by kings and other kings had solidified their rule through it.  Perhaps Jesus would do the same.

But when Jesus arrives at the Temple, he does the last things that anyone expects.  He starts tearing the place apart, turning over tables, and kicking people out.  Jesus says that those in the Temple have taken what was supposed to be a house of prayer, a place where people seek God, and turned it into the exact opposite, a place where "religious people" could hide from the things that God really cares about.

This is the beginning of the end for Jesus and he knows it.  After the triumphal entry and Jesus' actions in the Temple, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus' telling of the parable of the vine-growers.  In this story, the vineyard owner sends a slave and then another slave and a third slave to collect his share of the prophets from the vineyard but the tenets beat all three and send them away empty handed.  The owner finally sends his son but the tenets kill him.  Jesus summarizes the story with the words of Psalm 118:
"The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone."
Whereas it was Israel that was the rejected stone that God had chosen in Psalm 118, now the religious leaders are the ones rejecting Jesus who is the one that God has chosen.  Jesus knows that even though he is God'a chosen one and even though just a few days ago all the people were welcoming him as king, his time is now short.  In just a matter of a few days, the crowds which shouted "Deliver us!" will turn to shouting "Crucify him!"

Humanity hasn't changed much in 2000 years.  We still have our parades to celebrate our independence.  We still talk about how much we value freedom and liberty.  And we should.  But one of the painful truths of Palm Sunday is that we really only value certain kinds of freedom.  We don't really want to be liberated from all of our slaveries.  We want our political freedoms and the liberty to choose what we want.  But what happens when all our choices become a kind of slavery themselves?  We are perfectly happy to continue on in our slaveries of greed, nationalism, lust, and pride.  We don't really want those chains to be broken.  So as long as Jesus plays nice and gives us the freedoms we want then we'll ask him to deliver us.  But if his liberating work begins to actually cause pain, if it demands sacrifice on our part, then like the Pharisees, we too begin to plot how we might get rid of Jesus.

In these final days of Lent, we must remember that to be a follower of Jesus is to be associated with a convicted rebel and criminal.  To accept the liberation and freedom that Jesus brings is to accept the way that he brings it; through death, through the cross, through sacrifice.  It is easy to join in the parade, singing God's praises and waving our palm branches, when we think that this march will end in the fulfillment of our own hopes and dreams but will we continue on this path when we find that the movement of this whole procession is a movement toward sacrifice?

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Journey Between Liberation and Restoration

Psalm 126 is a part of the group of Psalms known as the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134).  This group of Psalms go by this name because they were sung or recited by faithful Jews as they ascended the path toward Jerusalem.  Faithful Jews made this pilgrimage three times each year at the major festivals of the Jewish calendar: Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles, festivals which celebrated both God's deliverance of the people from their slavery in Egypt and his provision for them through the harvest they reaped in the land God had given them.

These festivals were celebrated throughout much of Israel's history.  However, some scholars believe that the practice of singing the Psalms of Ascent during these pilgrimages did not become common practice until the people of Israel had been returned from their exile in Babylon.  Psalm 126 certainly seems to reference that return from exile.
"When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion, we were like those who dream."
The first three verses of the Psalm speak of the joy that is shared because of the great deliverance that the Lord has accomplished.  The final three verses express a hope that God will not only deliver but also restore.  Surely the exiles would have rejoiced to return to their homeland, the land that God himself had given them.  However, upon arriving there they would have found a land that had not been lived in or adequately cared for in years.  It was their home but it was not what it used to be.  Now that God had delivered them, these liberated captives also needed God to renew their land.  The renewal of the land even stands for a kind of renewal of the people themselves.
"Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting."
So here are these newly liberated captives making the arduous climb up to the city of Jerusalem thanking God for his deliverance and asking for the complete restoration that only God could bring.

We find ourselves making the same climb.  We, too, are making our way along the lifelong arduous and demanding journey toward the holy city.  It is, as Eugene Peterson calls it, "a long obedience in the same direction."  It is not a sprint or a sight seeing tour but an intentional journey toward the one thing that matters.  It is a journey that lies between our being liberated and our hope that God still has more work ahead; that God will also renew and restore our land.  We make the climb thankful for what God has done and eager to see what God has yet to do.

Monday, March 8, 2010

More Painful Than Repentance

Psalm 32 sings the praises of a God who forgives.  As Christians, we talk about forgiveness and repentance and confession a lot.  But talking about it a lot sure doesn't seem to make it any easier.  Is there anything more difficult than admitting when we've been wrong about something?  It's so painful, sometimes embarrassing and humiliating to admit when we've done something wrong.  Sometimes being a Christian or being in Church can actually seem to make it harder to repent and confess because we think we're supposed to be better than that or something.  Or maybe we're just worried about what everyone else will think.  Or maybe we're worried about what God will think; that maybe this time God won't be able to forgive us; that we've just gone too far.  Or maybe its just that we can't stand to see ourselves that way; maybe our own self-worth is too wrapped up in being right all the time.

But what's the other option?  Continuing down our current path even though we know its not the right one?  Turning around and starting down an entirely new path may be difficult but it is certainly better to make the correction when we first see the error of our ways than it is to keep going down the wrong path only to be convinced later that we must now back track even further.  I often think of confession and repentance as a kind of spiritual surgery; it is certainly painful at first but the temporary pain is meant to lead to greater overall health.  Without the surgery and the pain that accompanies it we only become more and more ill.

Monday, March 1, 2010


It is often difficult to determine any kind of context when studying a Psalm.  However, Psalm 63 gives us some help in this matter.  It begins by telling us that this is a Psalm of David when he was in the wilderness of Judah.  (This is verse 1 in the Hebrew text but is placed as a sort of subtitle on the Psalm in many translations.)  This means that this Psalm was probably written during one of the times in his life when David was fleeing form his enemies in the wilderness; either when Saul was pursuing David or when David was feeling the rebellion began by his own son Absalom.  Of these two, the second seems the more likely since v. 11 says "the king will rejoice in God" and David was not yet king when Saul was pursuing him.

If this is indeed the context of this Psalm, then it causes us to consider the weight of David's words.  David speaks of seeking God earnestly because God's loving-kindness is better than life.  David says he will sing the praises of God and that he is satisfied in God.  David says all this not while things are good and easy but while his reign as king has just been attacked and is in jeopardy.  Everything David has spent his life doing is currently at risk.  And all of this because David's very own son is pursuing him and seeks to kill him.  It is in that circumstance that David says he clings to God and is confident that God's right hand will uphold him.

Of course, this is the same kind of radical trust in God that Jesus exemplifies for us and calls us to as well when he calls us to take up our own cross and follow him.  If we only trust in God when things are good, then that is not trust at all; that is not faith, at least not the faith of Jesus.  The faith of Jesus is a faithfulness that extends all the way to the cross, all the way to our own death trusting that God has the power to rescue us even then.  To be the people of Jesus is to be a people who seek the Lord's will earnestly even when we are hurting.  It is to be a people who pray "not my will but thine be done."