I Myself Will Go

ash-cross

by Fr. Joe Lawrence

Genesis 45:16—46:7

“I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again.” Genesis 46:4

Jacob must have been hesitating to go down into Egypt. We know this because God appeared to him in a vision telling him, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there.” At this point in the story, Jacob and his sons have discovered that the once-dead Joseph (or so they thought), is now alive and lord over all Egypt, and he’s extending a saving hand to his dying family. Joseph has invited them to come into Egypt to survive the devastations of the famine that had swept through the whole known world. But Jacob hesitates to go down there.  I think I can understand why. Even though he was something of a nomad, as were his father, Isaac, and his father’s father, Abraham, nevertheless, he had put down roots there in that land which would be known as “Israel” one day. There is more, however, to Jacob’s hesitation than worry about uprooting his life and his family from the familiar. He would be leaving the Land of Promise—the land God had promised to his people, the land where a tribe of nomads would become a great nation called into existence by the living God—and he’d be heading into Egypt, which we later discover is the land of slavery, the house of bondage.

Without the Land the dream dies. The Land was central to all the promises God had made to his people. And if this is the case, wouldn’t going down into Egypt seem to threaten the promises of God? Why does God ask Jacob to put himself and the promises of God in such a vulnerable, dangerous position? Why does God lead Jacob into Egypt?

For that matter, why did God give Joseph a great dream but then allow him to be sold into slavery by his own brothers? Why would God anoint David to be king and then have Saul chase him down with murderous threats? Why would God put his love on the people of Israel and then have them hauled off into exile? Why would the Shepherd of Psalm 23 send his flock on a walk through the valley of the shadow of death? Why would God lead his faithful to the martyr’s stake? Why would God not preserve us from anxiety or depression or grief or suffering, but allow us to walk right through them? Why would God promise us life (John 11:25-26) and then allow each and every one of us, and each of those we love, to die? Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?

We’re not given a perfectly satisfying answer to this (and, yes, it is a single) question in either this passage or anywhere in the Bible. But here is what this passage does say: “I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again.” Jacob and the people of God are being beckoned to danger and to suffering, but God will be with them; and their suffering will not be the final word, for God will bring them up again. This may not be completely satisfying, but it’s the (yes, single) answer that is given.

We too are beckoned to suffering in some form or another, and we are beckoned likewise to our death. But God will be with us, and our suffering and death will not be the final word. God will raise us up again. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again.

Isn’t it obvious? Doesn’t this verse scream out the name of Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One? Isn’t Jesus the One who has gone down with us into the suffering of death? And isn’t he the One who has taken up life again so that he can bring us up again? Isn’t this verse really, after all, about Jesus, his Cross and his Resurrection?

Indeed, this is God’s answer to that single, all-important question, “Why, God…?”

Well, on second thought, I suppose there is something satisfying about that.

Fr. Joe ministers at Trinity Anglican Church

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I Will Give You Myself

Advent 2017

December 20

Mark 8:11–9:1

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Mark 8:35

Poor Simon Peter. One moment he is basking in the glory of having identified the true identity of his master Jesus (“You are the Christ!”), and the next moment he is being rebuked for rejecting the Cross of the Messiah (“Get behind me, Satan!”). Nevertheless, we could possibly thank Peter. For what follows Peter’s rebuke is the most majestic and powerful teaching about the meaning of the Cross in the Christian life from the lips of Jesus himself.

Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The Christian life is no walk in the park. It’s not a pleasant stroll “in the Garden,” as the old hymn has it. One day, yes, we will walk again with the Lord in “the cool of the day,” unburdened with the sin that weighs us down, our vision unclouded by the dust of sin. But the path to the Garden leads us by way of Golgotha. Whoever would come up after Jesus to the Father’s house must first shed the old self that is enthralled to sin, in bondage to Self.

No half measures will do. An outward show may impress the world, but God sees the heart. He sees who we really are and concludes: death to self is the only way.

But isn’t this too hard? Isn’t Jesus’ yoke easy, his burden light?  C.S. Lewis explains in that masterpiece Mere Christianity:

The Christian way is different: harder, and easier [than that of the world]. Christ says “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over  the whole natural self, all the desires which you think are innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”

Ah yes, this is hard, but what we get in return for our own selves is God’s own self—his life, his power and his presence working within us. This, I think, is what Jesus meant when he said that his yoke is easy, his burden light.

What would you give to gain God? I think I’d give my very life. God promises I’ll get it back. But I’ve got a hunch that I won’t miss it much. I’ll be too busy enjoying the love of God without the dust of sin clouding my eyes.

Afflicting the Comfortable

Advent 2017

December 15

Mark 6:14-29

John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death.

It has been said that good preaching often comforts the afflicted but must sometimes afflict the comfortable. We fallen and sinful human beings find it all too easy to get cozy in our sins. When this happens what we need is not the warm, comforting voice of love but rather love’s loud voice of judgment. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the most gracious thing God can do for us sometimes is to let experience his judgment. For this can rouse out of our sins and set us on the path of grace and holiness once more. Sometimes we need to encounter the voice of judgment, if we ever have a chance at hearing rightly the voice of mercy.

Kendall Harmon tells of Susan Howatch, who wrote fat, racy novels in the 1970s. She had it all—fame and fortune. She was “on a roll” until something happened that caused her life to fall apart. Her marriage came unglued, and then her thirteen year old daughter informed her that she would rather live with her father. Susan was stunned. She reflected later on, “It made me think about everything. I felt a complete failure as a mother. Religious conversions come in all shapes and sizes and mine was not a Road to Damascus, but a cumulative effect…It as the most alienating, destabilizing experience. All the things I thought important, like money and success, weren’t important at all. God had stripped me of everything.”

What happened to Susan Howatch? Kendall Harmon explains, “Susan met Jesus Christ in judgment, and it was the greatest blessing in her life. She reoriented her life with a new foundation and is now an even more successful novelist.” Susan heard the voice of judgment and then the voice of grace and mercy.

John the Baptist has been calling out with the voice of judgment to Herod and Herodias who are in an illicit marriage. While Herod is somewhat perplexed by the voice of judgment, he longs to hear more. But Herodias despises this voice and seeks to silence it—by murder, if necessary. She prevails, but in doing so she loses. For by silencing the voice of judgment, she will never hear the voice of grace and mercy, like Susan Howatch did. John afflicted the comfortable, but because this was not received, Jesus couldn’t comfort the afflicted.

We, too, often try to silence the wholesome voice of judgment. We ignore it. We avoid troublesome passages of Scripture. We tune out a sermon that strikes too close to home. We tell ourselves that God isn’t concerned with our “small sins”. We compare ourselves with “worse sinners.” We ignore the guilt until the feeling of guilt goes away.

Don’t do this! Listen to the voice of God, whether it comforts or afflicts. If it afflicts, you can be sure that even so it is the voice of love which is seeking to bring you, by and by, to the place of comfort, even if by an arduous path.

 

 

God Is Able

Advent 2017

December 11

Mark 4:21-end

 “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.  He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.” Mark 4:26-27

Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons is about the courage, the integrity, and finally, the execution of Sir Thomas More, who was caught in the political machinations of England under Henry VIII. The king wanted an heir to the throne, and in that political climate it was everybody’s problem. Cardinal Wolsey complains:

Wolsey: Then the King needs a son; I repeat, what are you going to do about it?

More: I pray for it daily.

Wolsey: God’s death, he means it…You’d like that, wouldn’t you? To govern the country by prayers?

More: Yes, I should.

Most of us feel differently than Sir Thomas More. We think it’s well and good to pray, but surely we should supplement our prayers by helping God get things done.

The little parable of Mark 4:26-29—one of the shortest of Jesus’ parables—clarifies most incisively who really gets things done in the Kingdom of God. A farmer scatters seed on the ground. He sleeps. He rises. He attends to other matters on the farm. Meanwhile, the ground of itself produces the growth of his crops. He’s not responsible for the abundance. He doesn’t even know how it works. When the harvest is ready the farmer goes to work again.

This parable presents us with a man who has his work to do, and he does it. He also knows that there is work that must be done but not by him. The farmer plants and he harvests, but if he tries to make the seeds grow, he’ll be getting in the way.

God is the one who gets things done in his Kingdom. This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing for us to do. The farmer, after all, plants the seeds and brings in the harvest. This is hard—back-breaking—work. But the point is that the farmer’s activity has to give way eventually to the work that only God can do: make things grow.

There are a number of things only God can do, a primary one being the changing of hearts. Only God can change your neighbor’s heart. If you try, you’ll only get in the way and probably ruin a relationship. Only God can change your heart. If you try, you’ll only change your behavior at best; at worst, you’ll fall deeper into pride.

But God can do it. That is why we pray—because we know God is able where we are not.

Do you believe this? Do you pray with this kind of confidence? Or do you try to supplement your prayers by helping God do his job?

 

 

 

 

The Creative Call of Jesus

Advent 2017

December 6, 2017

Mark 2:1-22

“’Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’” Mark 2:17

The Pharisees simply didn’t understand what Jesus was up to when he called rather despicable (read: unrighteous) people like Levi the tax collector to be his disciple, or when he ate and drank with deplorable “sinners and tax collectors”. In the Pharisees’ moral landscape, there were two types of people—the righteous and the unrighteous, the worthy and the unworthy, Law-keepers and Law-breakers. And in that moral landscape there wasn’t much of a path from unrighteousness to righteousness. What was it that the Pharisee Nicodemus said? “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb?” (John 3:4). In other words, it’s impossible, and radical even, to suggest that the unrighteous could change. They’re bad people, and by hanging around them, Jesus seems to be one of them. Why else does he “eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16). If Jesus were truly a teacher from God, then he would be hanging around the right(eous) sort.

Jesus’ moral landscape, in stark contrast to that of the Pharisees, makes change—or better yet, transformation—central to his mission as the Messiah. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” he tells Nicodemus (John 3:3). Unless a profound and radical change takes place, a person can’t so much as catch a glimpse of God’s kingdom. To the Pharisees he says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Jesus the Messiah is in the business of healing the sick, raising the dead, and turning lives around. It’s not only possible to change; it’s also necessary, and for Jesus, quite normal.

This change, however, does not come about through our moral efforts or through our decisions to try harder. We can’t will ourselves into righteousness. St. Augustine says as much: “To descend into sin, that free will, through which man corrupted himself, was sufficient, whereas to return to righteousness he needed a physician, since he was sick; he needed a giver of life, since he was dead.” Jesus came not to tell sinners to get their act together; he came not to tell the sick to get better or to tell the dead to raise themselves. Jesus came to save, to heal and to raise the dead. Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The word “call” is crucial. In the beginning God “called” into existence the things that were not. The world had no ability to exist until God spoke it into existence. We call this event “creation”. Similarly, Jesus calls sinners into righteousness; he calls the dead into life; he calls the sick into health. They had no ability to be righteous, alive or healthy until Jesus spoke it into existence. We call this event “new creation”, and it is the only way we’ll ever change. The application should be clear: if we want to change, to see transformation in our lives, the right approach isn’t a reinvigoration of our moral striving; it’s rather by hearing again the voice of Jesus calling us into righteousness. As the great hymn (381 in the Hymnal) has it: “Thy strong word bespeaks us righteous; bright with thine own holiness.”

How are you approaching the season of Advent? Are seeking above all to hear the creative call of Jesus?

The Costly Gift

meaningful-advent

December 23

Read Mark 12:35—13:13

“Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all…For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:44)

I learned as a little boy the difference between a casual gift and a costly gift. I was playing in the shallows of the beach in the stifling heat of a Florida Summer. My family was on our vacation with a sizable leg of our trek in the minivan through the Southern states still ahead of us.  The waves were breaking atypically close to the shoreline, and I was typically unconcerned about them. An unusually strong wave (or so it seemed to me) swept me under without any warning. One moment I was breathing the warm air under the radiant warmth of the Florida sun; the next moment, which seemed like one of the longest I have experienced, I felt like a sock at the bottom of the washing machine. I tumbled around I know not how many times; my eyes burned from the saltwater as I strained wide-eyed to discern which way was up; my lungs felt about to burst. Just then, a hand grasped my shoulder and pulled me up out of the breaking surf. My father had apparently seen me go under and quickly came to the rescue. In his haste, however, he lost his glasses in the waves. The rescue was a gift; the loss of the glasses made it a costly one. My father spent the rest of the vacation—day and night—in an old pair of prescription sunglasses. He looked great; he just couldn’t see very well, especially at night.

Those glasses are a small loss in retrospect, but they weighed heavily on my mind at the time. I scoured the shoreline up until the moment we left that beach in hopes catching a glint of reflected sunlight wash up in the sand. Being the recipient of a costly gift causes one to feel an oddly heavy combination of sheepishness and obligation, guilt and gratitude. I would have all too gladly found those glasses and made a return on the gift, in order to rid myself of the feeling. I think the feeling comes from recognizing the pain of sacrifice in the giver of a costly gift and knowing that pain is on your account.

A costly gift cuts into the substance of the giver (in every sense of the word ‘substance’—being, wealth, and the stuff we are made of). Christianity is bravely built on the recognition of the high moral worth of the costly gift. Indeed, Christmas is a celebration of a Costly Gift.

In Mark 12:41-44, Jesus and his disciples sit watching the worshipers at the Temple make their contributions to the treasury. Many rich people, we are told, give large sums of money but always in amounts that they can spare–casual gifts, we might say. Eventually, Jesus sees a poor widow drop in two copper coins—the smallest coins available. Jesus calls his disciples over to witness what Jesus considers an act of extravagant generosity. He says, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” According to Jesus’ calculations, she has given “more.” She has given a costly gift to her Lord God, a gift that cuts deeply into her meager livelihood. I can’t help but imagine her, despite her grinding poverty, as a joyous person, because (and few know this) only joyous people are so generous.

The widow gave all she had to live on. In this she has a beautiful kinship with our Lord. He took on flesh and blood precisely so that he could give his life. This costly gift culminates on Good Friday, but at Christmastide we celebrate the first stage of that costly giving, when in the incarnation and birth he took on the flesh that would be killed and the blood that would be shed. What was it that Paul said? “For you know the gift of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

This Christmas amidst all the good and proper joys of gift-giving and gift-unwrapping, of feasting and singing, let us remember the Costly Gift of Jesus Christ, our incarnate Lord. Let us remember Him who lost not glasses but His Life, not so that we feel sheepish and guilty, but profoundly and life-changingly grateful. I promise that this won’t dampen your joy and your Christmas spirit. If anything, it will deepen them.

Merry Christmas!

What is Love?

meaningful-advent

December 22

Read Mark 12:13-34

 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (Mark 12:29-30)

We hear talk about something called ‘love’ almost unceasingly.  Apparently, people know what they mean by this word. ‘Love’ means something along the lines of: “affirming and accepting another for who they truly are.” Howard Jones, who undoubtedly knows something about all this, says, “Love is letting each other be who we are without fear of censure.” When we care for, cherish and affirm another person, without demanding that they be just like us, then we are loving them. When we receive this kind of attention, we are being loved. ‘Love’ is what will make our world a better place, our society more just and our lives more meaningful and enjoyable. ‘Love’ is set in binary opposition to ‘hate’ and ‘judgment’, which have the reverse affect on the world, society and our lives. ‘Jesus’ obviously was for ‘love,’ we are told. ‘Love’ wins.

I am not sure that I disagree with the definition and assertions above. I could probably affirm that ‘love’, if consistently applied, would make our society a more just, or at least more tolerable, one. But I am afraid that that ‘love’ is just a bit too abstract for me. Moreover, I am quite sure that Jesus meant something different, more concrete and more demanding, when he spoke of ‘love’. For Jesus, ‘love’ is only comprehensible in light of the One God who has staked his claim on our life and the life of every human being. Jesus can’t talk about love without also talking about God.

A scribe comes to Jesus to ask, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus replies by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’”

It is vitally important to notice that when Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment—that is, what we are morally required to do— Jesus’ response begins not with a commandment but a statement about what is, not with an imperative but an indicative. For Jesus the commandment to love can only be understood in light of the truth that there is one God; the Lord of Israel alone is God. This God is unwilling that we share our affections and allegiance with any other god; for he and he alone is God. Because he alone is God, he lays exclusive and exhaustive claim to every aspect of our lives. From this theological truth flows the command: Therefore, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

We can talk all day about ‘love’, but if our love-talk does not take place in the context of a deep awareness of the exclusive and exhaustive claim of God upon our lives, then we are not talking about what Jesus is talking about. We may say many profound and good and heart-warming things, but these thoughts won’t touch the reality Jesus speaks of when he says “love.”  It would be like me talking all day about the meaning of marital love without ever mentioning the concrete demand that my relationship with Joette (my wife) makes upon my affections.

For what Jesus means by “love” is not an abstract ‘love’. It is terribly concrete. It is not undemanding approbation, but a jealous and demanding kind of thing. God wants it all, Jesus tells us—the deepest affections of our hearts, the most exalted flights of our souls, the highest thoughts of our minds and the greatest strength of our wills. To change the metaphor: if our lives were a house, he wants to be enthroned in every room, not just the living room but the kitchen, the den and the bedroom too. When we start to let him have all this territory—well, that is love as Jesus understands it.

Jesus tacks on another commandment to the first, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” People who talk about ‘love’ a lot like to start here. Jesus doesn’t. Jesus begins with the love of God and he expects love of others to flow from that first, great love. After all, Jesus can’t talk about love without also talking about God. We can’t begin to love others, in the way Jesus means love, until we begin to yield ourselves to God.

Where does this leave us? Frankly, it leaves us in Advent for just a little while longer—the time of waiting and preparation, the time of preparing while we wait and waiting while we prepare. How do we prepare? Simply, by examining every feature and facet of our lives—what our hearts love, what our minds dwell on, what our wills choose, and what we do with our bodies—and asking ourselves where our allegiances stray from that first, great love of God. In identifying these, we then pray for a greater measure of the Holy Spirit who pours the love of God into our hearts from his boundless store (Romans 5:5).

Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire!

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Christological Addendum

My claim above is that we can’t talk about love Christianly without also talking about God. Anything else is, from Christian point of view, an abstraction. It occurs to me, however, that we still aren’t being concrete enough. Yes, it is true that we can’t talk about love without talking about God. This is straightforwardly Jesus’ point in the above passage. But we must move a step further in order to keep pace with the rest of the New Testament. St. Paul writes that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Likewise, St. John tells us, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). What point am I making here? Quite simply, we can’t talk about love without talking about God, and we can’t talk about God without talking about Jesus. (We confess this latter point about the inseparability of God and Jesus every week in the Nicene Creed when we say that he is “of one Being with the Father.”) Love, as a Christian concept, is inseparable from God’s love for lost sinners in sending Jesus Christ to die for us on the cross. That is the very definition of love. Anything else is ‘love’–an abstraction. I would dare say, we are not going to make any progress in fulfilling the command to love God and neighbor until we fix our eyes on the love of the Crucified Lord and have our hard hearts melted by what we see there.