It’s getting to look a lot like Easter. Which, frankly, isn’t saying that much. Between Christmas and Easter, it’s plain to see which holiday is the favored child of the church calendar. The advent of Christmas is announced months in advance with music, decorations, movies, sales, and anticipatory feasting. We light candles, open doors on the advent calendar, and generally work ourselves into a state of hysterical glee and exhaustion.Continue reading “Cold Easter”
When I was a pastor, I noticed that my visits with people occasionally made them nervous. Maybe it was my personality. Perhaps I didn’t make enough small talk. But I think the cause lay elsewhere. I think they were sometimes uncomfortable because they saw me as a symbol of something else. Or, perhaps I should say, I was a symbol of someone else. One woman told me that she spent the whole day cleaning before I arrived. Then she said, “When the pastor visits, it’s almost like having God come to your house.” My wife, Jane, who had come with me, answered her with a laugh. “The difference is that God already knows what your closets look like.”Continue reading “The Holy One of God”
A few years ago, it was popular for some Christians to wear wristbands with the initials WWJD on them. The letters stood for the question, “What would Jesus do?” The question is probably a good one. But it seems to assume that what Jesus would do is always evident to us. This isn’t always the case. In fact, the question the disciples asked more often than not was a very different one. Instead of wanting to know what Jesus would do, they asked, “Why did Jesus do that?” The disciples were often puzzled by Jesus. They were as confused by His actions as they were by His teaching.
In this year of COVID-19, the governor of my state has asked everyone to stay home for Christmas. To be honest, it feels strange. For many, Christmas is a time for traveling. The same was true of the first Christmas. The Gospel narratives of Christ’s birth are crowded with travelers. Zechariah, the priest, travels to Jerusalem to burn incense before the Lord and is struck with dumb surprise when the angel announces that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son in their old age. Mary travels too, heading for the hills to visit her relative, Elizabeth. Then to Bethlehem with Joseph to give birth to the miracle child conceived by the Holy Spirit. Shepherds hurry into the night, leaving their flock behind to find the babe wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Magi travel from the east by caravan to lay their gifts before the newborn king of the Jews, while Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath. Everybody in the Christmas story, it seems, is on the road.Continue reading “Christmas Traveler: Why the Nativity is About the Cross”
A former student of mine once complained about what he called “the language of unsustainable intimacy” that the church often uses when it speaks of our relationship with Christ. “I hear it most often from youth group leaders who tell students to ‘date’ Jesus for a year,” he said. At the time I had been reading through the gospels and had marveled over how little they seem to reveal about Jesus’ personality. They do not deny that Jesus had a personality. In fact, their emphasis on the reality of his humanity implies the opposite. Yet they tell us virtually nothing about the things we normally talk about when we describe what someone is like. We know nothing about the Savior’s physical appearance, and next to nothing about the sound of his voice. We know that he was a carpenter but what did he like to do in his spare time? How did he act when he was among friends?
We know that Jesus cried but do not know what made him laugh. We cannot see the gleam in his eye or the way his forehead might have wrinkled when he thought deeply about something. Indeed, I feel as though I have a much clearer notion of Simon Peter’s personality than I do of Christ’s. This does not mean that the Bible portrays a Christ who is devoid of personality. But it does, quite frankly, make it difficult for me to relate to him. At least, it makes it difficult for me to relate to him in the same way that so much of our worship music seems to suggest that I should. The overheated imagery of these songs often sounds like it was lifted from a romance novel.
In his essay on the emotional life of Christ, theologian B. B. Warfield describes the two dangerous tendencies that the church has exhibited in its attempt to understand the humanity of Christ. One is to lean so far into his divinity that the human is undermined. The other is to err in the opposite direction and so rob him of his divinity. “Between the two, the figure of Jesus is liable to take on a certain vagueness of outline, and come to lack definiteness in thought” Warfield warns. We must do justice to both dimensions of Christ’s nature without somehow allowing each to cancel out the other or ending up with a hybrid being who is neither truly God nor truly man.
I think we are on similar ground when it comes to Jesus’ personality. Some propose that Jesus had a perfectly balanced personality. They suggest that if Jesus had taken the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, he would have scored equally in every area. It seems to me that this is just a way of saying that Jesus had no personality at all. What is more, if Jesus was truly God in the flesh as the Bible declares, such a possibility seems extremely unlikely. If personality is the result of a combination of factors that includes both genetic makeup and experience, then Jesus must have had his own distinctive personality. Otherwise, he would not be human. To say that Jesus’ personality was perfect does not mean that it was indistinct.
Yet there are moments in the Gospels when the clouds of silence part and the rays of his personality peek through. When the religious leaders set a watch on him to criticize him for healing on the Sabbath, Jesus gazes at them in anger “deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” (Mark 3:5). When a young man asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus looks at him with love (Mark 10:21). He speaks tenderly to a shy woman (Luke 8:48). These accounts open a window on what Warfield calls “the profound internal movement of his emotional nature.” The divine being revealed to us through the humanity of Christ is not only a God who thunders but a God of tears and sighs.
According to Warfield, these are the clues that fill in the gaps for us. In particular, they show that the personality of Jesus is marked by both compassion and justice. Jesus felt love and expressed anger. His love was directed toward those who suffered. His anger was aimed at religious hypocrisy and hardness of heart. Warfield notes that in the Gospel accounts Jesus comforts, rebukes, and threatens. Although the New Testament does not describe Jesus’ smile, Luke 10:21 says that he was “full of joy through the Holy Spirit” when the disciples told him of their victory of the demons.
However, in the conclusion to his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton observes that there is a missing note in the Bible’s portrayal of Jesus’ personality. There is joy, grief, and even anger. “He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell” Chesterton writes. “Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness.” But shyness about what? According to Chesterton, the one thing that was too great for God to display while he walked upon the earth was his mirth. Zen Buddhism has its laughing Buddha but the Gospels do not portray a laughing Christ.
Does this mean that Christ was joyful but humorless? This cannot be true. Although the Bible does not say that Jesus laughed, there is an underlying wit reflected in his teaching. Many of his analogies use the ridiculous to make their point. Camels go through the eye of the needle. The religious leaders strain the gnat and swallow the camel. The most unlikely people find forgiveness and the least qualified are appointed to lead.
Divine mirth as Chesterton describes it seems to have more in common with glory than it does with what we usually think of as humor. It is hidden from us not because it does not exist but because we do not yet have the strength to behold it. Yet it should not surprise us if creation itself bears witness to the fact that God has the capacity to laugh. “Anybody who has ever wondered whether God has a sense of humor only needs to look at the platypus for an answer” someone has said. Or you might just look at what he has done with your own life.
I had a friend in college who said that Jesus appeared to her in her dreams. The two had long and meaningful conversations. I was terribly jealous. I wondered why Jesus didn’t appear to me too. Then one night I had a dream about Jesus. He sat at the end of my bed and spoke to me. He didn’t look like I had imagined he would. For one thing, he had blond hair that looked like it had been shaped by a stylist. He grinned at me, his white teeth shining in the dark. He looked like the host from a TV morning show. But it was the conversation that bothered me most. He just wasn’t making any sense. When at last I realized that what he was saying to me was only gibberish, I woke up.
I have to confess that my first thought was, “Yeah, that’s about right. That’s just the sort of Jesus who would appear to me.” Not the Jesus I read about in the gospels. No, I get surfer dude Jesus with blow-dried hair and dental implants. Then, for a brief moment, I felt a stab of panic. What if it really was Jesus? What if, up close and personal, Jesus turns out to be a figure sold to me by the church’s public relations machine? Would I someday discover that what I believed about Jesus had all been a carefully manufactured façade? Like a celebrity who has evaded his handlers, would he prove to be only ordinary in the end? What if the light that had blinded me on the road to Damascus was only the flash of the paparazzi’s cameras? Or, perhaps even worse, what if I got to know the real Jesus and realized that I didn’t especially like him? I know that such a question is unimaginable to most evangelicals. But you have to admit that such a thing does sometimes happen in our other important relationships. We all have people to whom we must “relate’ but with whom we feel distant or uncomfortable. It may be a boss, coworker, parent, or sometimes even a friend.
Evangelicals often say that Christianity is a “relationship” and not a religion. I understand what we are trying to do when we say this. We want to humanize Jesus for people (as if the incarnation were not enough). We do not want them to confuse faith with the rituals that are associated with the Faith. But sometimes I wonder if we make too much of it. Is it possible that the “relationship” frame is as liable to misunderstanding as the “religion” frame? Many of our notions of relationship are sentimental. This is especially true of our idealized relationships. What is more, many of our relationships (especially in the dating realm) are voluntary associations that are a function of personal attraction. We meet somebody and if we like them we enter (or attempt to enter) into a relationship with them. But what happens if, after we enter into a relationship, we find that we don’t like their personality as much as we thought we did at first? What if “relating” to the person makes us uncomfortable or our sense of that individual’s personality is elusive?
I am not suggesting that we may find, upon closer inspection, that Jesus really is the shallow creation of some public relations machine or that we will hate his personality once we finally come to know it. My point is that the rhetoric of ordinary relationships is probably not an adequate framework for understanding all that it means to be joined to Christ. Such language predisposes us to expect certain kinds of experiences with Christ that we rarely have. I can’t help noticing that Jesus’ own disciples did not always feel comfortable with him. Sometimes, like the disciples in the storm, it was because Jesus far exceeded their expectation (Luke 8:25).”Who is this?” they asked. There is a measure of distance implied in such language. The effect of such experiences on the disciples was not a sense of casual familiarity but one of awe and sometimes even terror. This does not change after the Resurrection. If anything, it intensifies the experience. When John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” comes face to face with the glorified Christ, he is so startled that he faints dead away (Rev. 1:17). At other times, the discomfort experienced with the disciples was because Jesus disappointed them. They looked for bread and Jesus offered himself instead (John 6:53-54, 60). They expected him to drive away their enemies. Instead, he surrendered to death at their hands and then walked out of the tomb they buried him in (Luke 24:19-24).
Either way, the disciples sometimes found their experience with Jesus to be profoundly unsettling. For those who were able to successfully make the transition from surprise or disappointment to faith, the result was not comfortable familiarity but a sense of mystery. There was apprehension (in the old sense of the word) but not comprehension. They were able to grasp something about Jesus but not with comprehensive understanding. John, who arguably “knew” Jesus better than any of the other disciples, tells us that such knowledge is yet to come for us (1 John 3:2).
In an essay on the subject of faith, Dorothy Sayers observes that a faith is not primarily a comfort, but a truth about ourselves. “What we in fact believe is not necessarily the theory we most desire or admire” she explains. “It is the thing that, consciously or unconsciously, we take for granted and act on.” Her friend and peer C. S. Lewis made a similar observation about faith. Faith, as Lewis defines it, is “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” I am suggesting that the same thing is true of the “relational” faith that joins us to Jesus Christ. Although faith often includes an experiential dimension, it does not require a particular kind of emotional experience in order to be genuine. Instead, faith requires that I take certain truths about Jesus and his relation to me for granted and act upon them. The relationship that I have with Jesus Christ is not dependent upon the way I feel about the relationship. This relationship is a fact before it is an experience. As C. S. Lewis has wisely observed, it is not a mood. Indeed, according to him, one of the functions of faith is to teach your moods “where they get off.”
It was not a carefully argued apologetic that reassured me after waking from my dream. Instead, I was reassured by the Jesus I encountered in the Bible. He was nothing at all like the Christ of my imagination. He exceeded my expectations. He disappointed me too. Fairly often, I might add. On too many occasions I came to him like the disciples, with my own assumptions about what he should say and do, only to have those expectation shattered. I quickly discovered that the Jesus of the Bible was beyond my control. I could not manipulate him with my prayers, bribe him with my behavior, or wheedle him with my praise.
We often treat doubt as if it were mostly a matter of unsettled reason. If we can prove that the Bible is historically accurate or that it agrees with science, we feel that we will overcome the doubter’s objections. But I think there are other factors in play when doubt’s uncertain shadow looms over our hearts. Certainly, it is a lack of confidence. Like Eve, we hear a whispered question which undermines our thinking and unsettles our soul: “Did God say?” However, more than anything else, I suspect that most doubts arise from our own lack of imagination. We cannot really envision Jesus as he truly is. We prefer a more controllable version to the one we read about in the Scriptures. Someone who is more comfortable and predictable. If such a Jesus shows up in your dreams with his shining smile and comfortable patter, you should probably ignore him. He is only a figment of your weak imagination. He bears as little resemblance to the real Jesus as a kitten does to a lion.
I am afraid of death. I know that I am not supposed to be. Hebrews 2:15 tells me that one of the reasons Jesus shared my humanity was so that He could “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:15). I believe that this is true and I am still afraid. I know some Christians who are afraid of dying. But they fear the crossing, not the destination. It is death itself that I fear.
Perhaps that is why, as far as Christian holidays go, Easter has always seemed to me to have a more somber tone than Christmas. Christmas is about life. It celebrates the birth of the Savior. Easter is about life too. It celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. But in order to get to resurrection, you must first face death.
Jesus’ experience of death was different from ours. Most of us do not seek death. Death finds us and when it finds us it always comes as a surprise. To me this is one of the proofs that death is an intrusion. Romans 5:12 says that sin entered the human race through sin. Death was Adam’s gift to the human race, the fruit of his disobedience.
But in Romans 5:15 the apostle Paul also writes that the gift of God that comes to us through Christ is not like Adam’s trespass: “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” Death did not come to Jesus. Jesus ran to meet it. Jesus pursued death and defeated it like a champion.
Still, that doesn’t mean that Jesus treated death lightly. There was certainty when Jesus spoke of His own death but no flippancy. Matthew 26:37-38 says that on the night of His betrayal Jesus entered the Garden of Gethsemane with His disciples and “began to be sorrowful and troubled.” He said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” The savior’s distress is a comfort to me.
It is a comfort because it means that Jesus understands my fear. The fact that Jesus did not take death lightly means that He will not dismiss my fear of death. Because He knows what it is like to be sorrowful and troubled at the prospect of death, Jesus will treat my fear with compassion by providing grace to help in the hour of my need.
But more than that it is a comfort because Jesus faced death and defeated it on my behalf. My fear of death is personal and individual. It is my death that I fear and when I die it will be my own fear that I feel. But Jesus’ death was different. There was a corporate dimension to Jesus’ death. Jesus faced death but not for Himself. Jesus experienced death but not for His own sake. Christ died for us. Christ died for us so that whether we live or whether we die, we may experience life with Him.
And this ultimately is what makes Easter different from Christmas. This is why the early Church celebrated Easter instead of Christmas. Christmas is about life. It is about the birth of Christ. But the life of Christ would have no real value, if it were not for Christ’s death. At the same time, the message of Easter is not merely that Christ died. It is that Christ died and rose again. Both facts are fundamental to understanding the significance of who Jesus was and what He did. Both facts are foundational to my hope.
Does this mean that the fear of death automatically dissolves when I place my faith in Jesus? While this may be true for some, it has not yet proven to be true for me. I still have moments when I am gripped by the fear of death. Does this mean that my faith has failed me? Not really. I believe that God’s grip on my soul is greater than the fear that often takes hold of me.
What is more, we should not be surprised if some of us feel ambivalent about death. The Bible itself is ambivalent when it speaks of the believer’s death. On the one hand, the apostle Paul describes death as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26). Yet when writing about the prospect of life and the possibility of his own death in Philippians 1:21-24, Paul also said that he was torn between the two explaining: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
I confess that while I do not always share Paul’s enthusiasm at the prospect of death, I do share his hope. I know that in the hour of my death this same Christ, who boldly strode out to meet and face death like a champion, will rise up to welcome me as a friend. In that moment all my fears will be forgotten forever.
The images coming out of Oklahoma City are so painful to see that it is hard to say anything about them without somehow trivializing the tragedy. It seems better to hear from someone who has lived through a comparable experience. I was reminded of a passage from Helmut Thielicke’s series of sermons based on the Lord’s Prayer. Thielicke was a Lutheran pastor who preached these sermons to his congregation in Stuttgart, Germany during the collapse of the Third Reich and as allied bombs rained down on the city.
In the sermon based on the phrase “Thy Kingdom come,” Thielicke writes:
When we, inhabitants of a severely damaged city, walk through a flourishing undamaged section, almost involuntarily our eyes perform a little trick upon us and suddenly the intact facades are transformed into horribly mutilated walls and horror dwells behind the bleak and empty windows. We know what a house looks like beneath its sleek surface, and it is shockingly easy for our imagination to produce this little inversion in which the order system of beams are seen as a chaotic confusion of bizarre and splintered fragments of wood. Again and again the face of death peers out from behind the features of the living, and the shadow of ruins leers at us from the ordered peace of respectable homes…In this world of death, in this empire of ruins and shell torn fields we pray: “Thy kingdom come! We pray it more than ever.”
In his sermon, Thielicke goes on to say that God’s kingdom is to be sought at the point where two lines of the Bible intersect. One is the descending line of divine judgment. This rarely consists in God’s destroying offenders with a thunderbolt from heaven but rather in leaving them to their own wretchedness. “There is nothing more terrible than the man who is left to himself,” Thielicke observes.
The other line is the ascending line of God’s kingdom. This is not a matter of evolution, human development, or the gradual Christianization of the world. Rather, it is a mysterious exercise of God’s dominion which is simultaneous with and contiguous to the other. Thielicke explains, “The manifestations of God’s will are emerging ever more clearly and conclusively in the very midst of decline and decay, and God’s sovereignty rules in power above all rebels and usurpers, bringing his great and ultimate plans for the world to fulfillment.”
This is as true of those natural events which shake the foundations of our world as it is of human affairs. Jesus is the one of whom the disciples said, “the wind and the sea obey Him” (Mark 4:41). Perhaps it is not so surprising that instead of being comforted by such a thought, they were filled with fear. Jesus controls the winds. He is the living one who died and is alive forevermore. He alone holds the keys to death and the grave (Rev. 1:18).
We all love stories where some great person stoops. The Mayor of a great city moves into the housing project for a month. The CEO of a billion dollar company works on the loading dock for a day. The NBA star joins a pick-up game in the neighborhood. The college president helps a freshman unload the car in the first week of school.
We like hearing stories like these. But the truth is, excursions like these have very little to do with real humility. Humility is not a day trip. It is not a place we occasionally visit in moments of extreme devotion. Humility is a realm that Jesus calls us to explore deeply and inhabit permanently.
Despite its importance, the truly humble person is not marked by an extreme interest in humility. What we sometimes mistake for humility in others is often just a carefully disguised form of pride. Such attempts at humility are intended to set us apart from others. These acts of false humility are not merely comparative, they are competitive. It is hard to serve those with whom you are in competition.
Real humility is harder to recognize than we think. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis observes, “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays; he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility; he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
This is what differentiates true humility from false humility. False humility is conspicuously self-conscious. But the truly humble person, as Lewis observes, is not thinking about himself. This is not because the humble person loathes himself. It is because the servant is genuinely interested in the other.
Love, it turns out, is the real secret to humility. Before Jesus’ great act of humility, the Scripture testifies: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1 ESV). The key to humility does not lie in thinking about humility at all. What we call humility is really just another name for love.
Not long ago I had dinner with an old college friend named Dave. I reconnected with him last year through the magic of social media, but until the other night it had been 25 years since the two of us had talked face to face. Dave was just as I remembered him. Older, of course, but the same essential person: a serious follower of Jesus Christ who is devoted to his family, his church and his friends. He has been in the same church and has been teaching the same Sunday school class for over 25 years.
Dave is a people person. He is someone who is energized by the crowd. He loves being part of a small group. In other words, he is pretty much everything I am not. I am energized by the crowd, but only when there is a pulpit between us. I hate small groups, for the most part. I am, as Dave told me at dinner the other evening, the same curmudgeon that I was in college.
This came as something of a shock to me. Because to tell you the truth, when I was a young man I did not see myself as a curmudgeon. In fact, I thought I was a people person: an outgoing, vivacious, life of the party sort of guy. Looking back on it, I can see that what is true of Dave is also true of me. As far as my personality goes, things have not really changed much. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Jesus hasn’t made any difference in my life. He has. My values and behavior have changed radically since I began my walk with Jesus in the early 1970’s. But being a Christian does not seem to have changed my personality, at least not fundamentally.
The late Martyn Lloyd-Jones once observed, “There is no profounder change in the universe than the change which is described as regeneration; but regeneration–the work of God in the soul by which He implants a principle of divine and spiritual life within us–does not change a man’s temperament.” In other words, what the gospel does promise to do for us is something more radical. Instead of changing our temperament, it promises to set apart what I am and have for God. The shy person does not suddenly become outgoing but learns to glorify God with his or her shyness. The surly person does not lose the capacity for surliness but will be able to subject this natural tendency to the purpose and power of God through the Holy Spirit (often with great struggle).
What I saw in my friend Dave the other night is what I see in my own life. Jesus Christ set us on a trajectory of grace and we are still following its arc. We are further along than we when we last met face to face. The intervening years have altered our appearance. But the aim is still true.