Sunday, April 20, 2014


It is now Easter Sunday.

For many of us that means church in the morning. For some, it means brunch. For other it means egg hunts and candy. And for others, it doesn't mean anything, it's just a Sunday. What does Sunday mean to people? Again, for some it's the Lord's Day. For some, it's the night the tune in AMC to watch The Walking Dead.

Walking Dead is not on tonight; AMC is running the final season of Mad Men right now, but since it is Easter Sunday I thought that was a good time to talk about zombies.

The origin of the word zombie is not as much related to the current idea of them in pop culture. The term comes from voodoo, and applies to someone under some enchantment that makes him a mindless, soulless automaton, or a re-animated corpse. The notion of a re-animated corpse is the one that stuck, but you'll see the other sort of zombification in movies like I Walked With a Zombie or The Serpent and the Rainbow. In modern understanding, a zombie is the living dead, a body that cannot die, usually hungry for others. Often now this "zombie" state is seen as infectious, and a bite from a zombie will make you a zombie too.

Among some skeptics and atheists, Jesus is sometimes mocked as being a kind of King of Zombies, because of his resurrection. But I say, in a way, he is; not a king of soulless bodies under voodoo curses, but a king of those who once were dead and yet shall live.

Easter is the day that Christians celebrate that Jesus was risen to life again from death. He left his tomb empty and appeared to those who followed him. For 40 days, he continued living and being seen by many, including a large crowd of people, until vanishing into the sky. I understand why it may be hard for skeptics to believe, and seems like foolishness. But while you may not believe it happened, it is undeniable that Jesus' followers DID believe it happened. They claimed to have seen him. They told others they had seen him. The spread of Christianity is due to the resurrection belief. Peter and Paul make a point of saying that they weren't following "carefully designed fables" but that they had seen him with their own eyes. Now, you may also discount the gospels as written decades after Jesus lived and died, and therefore fabrications after the fact. But the letters of Paul are authentic and some pre-date the gospels as we have them. They attest to early Christian belief in Jesus' resurrection. Paul himself claims to have seen him; it was the moment of his conversion. I cannot doubt that Paul saw something that changed his life. We date the earliest of Paul's writings at around 50 A.D. (or C.E.) Assuming Jesus died somewhere around 30 A.D., that's only twenty years later. And the earlier gospels come only a few decades after that. Which means that if people did see Jesus after his resurrection, some of these witnesses would still be living. There are people today who continue to deny there was a Holocaust in Nazi Germany, but the living witnesses have been attesting to it for decades. And that was only about 70 years ago. There's still controversy about the JFK assassination, and that occurred just fifty years ago. You are free to disagree with the position of believers, but you can't write it off as fairy tales written long after the fact. It wasn't all that long, when you think about it, and certainly not late enough that any witnesses couldn't corroborate it. I choose to believe it. There's a moment in an early X-Files episode where Mulder is asked, "Why do people like you continue to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary?" and Mulder replies, "Because all the evidence to the contrary is not entirely dissuasive."

So I want to call attention to one point put in Matthew's account. It says that when Jesus died, there was an earthquake, and this earthquake opened up graves. He then says that some who had died rose out of their graves after Jesus' resurrection and appeared to many (Matthew 27: 51-53). So not only was Jesus himself risen that day, but others were brought to life as well, testifying Jesus' resurrecting power over death. His resurrection was the firstfruits of our eventual resurrection, and the dead who rose in Matthew are a small reminder of that; that his life brings others to life. I don't know how long these zombie Jews were walking around. They must have died again at some point. But we can have hope that if the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in us, he will raise us as well.

I used the word "zombie" somewhat jokingly above, but the people in Matthew were likely not mindless hulks looking for brains. But in Christ, we live forever. Death does not finish us. Modern zombies generally are unstoppable (unless you shoot them in the head or something), and so are we in a way in Christ. But we aren't under some evil enchantment robbing us of our will. In water baptism, we picture ourselves dying to ourselves and our old flesh, buried with Christ and raised again with him. So we are in a way a kind of walking dead, dead to the things of this world and single-minded in purpose: to follow Christ. Like zombies, we are not overcome by death, but we shall overcome the world. We seek to penetrate the minds and hearts of the lost in Christ, those dead in their sins, that we might give them the life that we have. Christianity was designed to be infectious.

So the song I chose for this final essay of Easter is Audio Adrenaline's "Some Kind of Zombie." We are dead to sin, walking in the life of Christ. We have hope because of Christ's resurrection. It is the proof that resurrection will come. As Paul wrote (and I'm paraphrasing, but it's in 1 Corinthians 15), if Christ is not risen, then this whole thing is pointless, we are still in our sins, and we should be pitied! But I believe he is risen, and it's not pointless. We can overcome the death of this world. The day is coming when all death shall be destroyed for good. Until then, we walk on as former dead men revived by the Spirit of God to make all the followers we can. But we are not decrepit, decaying bodies slowly wearing away. And we cannot be taken out by the enemy's killshots, because Christ is our head, and he is powerful and indestructible. In a way, we are like some kind of zombie, but of a kind never encountered in some movie. It's Easter, and there is life in Jesus.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Awaken the Dawn

I didn't know at first what the theme or the song for today was going to be. There's very little in scripture about the Saturday before Easter. It does say that was the day that those who had Jesus crucified were concerned about his statement about rising in three days. So on the Sabbath, they stationed soldiers at the tomb in case some of the zealous followers of Jesus attempted to steal the body or something. Meanwhile all the Jews were resting and observing the Sabbath as far as we know. I did find it interesting that it was Jesus' enemies rather than his followers who were thinking about Jesus' predicted resurrection and taking action. So I thought there could be something in there to write about. Then I thought about a day between occurrences, where your God is dead and nothing is happening. I considered using the U2 song "Wake Up, Dead Man." But this felt like repeating themes I'd already dealt with.

So instead, the song for today is actually the song that inspired this whole week's project. I was walking home from the library and was reminded of this song. It called to mind the idea of "rising" and what that means in the context of Easter. So today's song is "Let it Rise".

I decided that for today's theme, we would look at some of the pagan origin of Easter. The word "Easter" comes from the Old English or Anglo-Saxon Eastre or Eostre. It's related to the Germanic Ostara. From what little research I did, Eastre was a Teutonic goddess of spring, celebrated by pagan peoples in pre-Christian Western Europe. There's very little surviving documentation of some of these things in pre-Christian Europe. In fact, there's exactly one source that mentions anything at all about Eostre, and that's a 7th Century source, after these lands had been converted. However, etymologists and philologists have examined early European language and have come to some general deductions.

From what we can tell, Eastre was a goddess of spring, in so far as there was a month dedicated to her. Much as our days of the week are named after Norse gods or veneration of heavenly bodies, so too our month of April was once Eosturmonath, that is, Eostre-month. It has been theorized that Eastre was a goddess of the dawn. The root whence comes her name means "dawn", and our present English word "east" likely also derives from the direction of the sunrise. I'll try not to get too heavy into words and things, which I find fascinating, but which can be dry or confusing to others. But it seems likely that she was some sort of bringer of the dawn for these European pagans.

It's worthwhile to think about Jesus and our modern Easter celebration in connection to the rising of the dawn. For while there are Christians who balk at the name Easter (preferring, for example, Resurrection Day for their church services), the name has stuck and there are interesting parallels to be made. Jesus rises from the dead very early in the morning, much like the sun itself. In fact, he rises on the day pagans chose to honor the sun: Sunday. I want to be clear: I am not promoting some kind of Christian paganism saying we should worship the sun. Nor am I saying it to write off Christianity as just another silly belief structure with the same basic ideas as superstitious paganism. But metaphorically, Jesus rises like the sun on Easter morning and I find that compelling.

This connection continues in scripture with Messianic prophecies in Malachi. Malachi speaks of the coming Day of the Lord and says that to those who fear the Lord, God will send the "Sun of Righteousness" who shall "arise with healing in his wings". Some translations are on the side of it just being the sun itself, and mention healing in its rays or beams, while other translations personify this Sun of Righteousness and speak of it with male pronouns. If we take the personified Sun as the truer reading, than it may be referring to Jesus. This is the reading that Charles Wesley took when he wrote the popular Christmas carol "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." The third verse begins, "Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in His wings." If this reading is correct, then the Bible pictures Jesus as being like the sun, rising with healing for God's people. Doesn't this fit nicely with Easter, on which Jesus rises early in the morning? In fact, Wesley's whole song reflects an idea of the sky ringing with God's glory. He didn't write the lyric "Hark, the herald angels sing". After all, the Bible never says the angels sang, and later the lyric says "with angelic hosts proclaim". What Wesley wrote was "Hark how all the welkin ring," welkin being an old-style word for the skies. It's a song about how at Christ's coming, the heavens ring with glory, and then Wesley invites us to join in with the "triumph of the skies."

While we don't want to begin actually worshipping the heavenly bodies, the Bible does say that the heavens declare the glory of God. We don't worship the creation itself, but it does point to the Creator. Every morning when that sun rises brings new mercies. In several psalms, David writes of how he will sing praise to the Lord. He writes "I will awaken the dawn!" At the rising of the day he will praise the Lord and perhaps his very praise begins the day. It's a strong verbal image. What I find really cool is that David writes this from a cave, after being delivered from Saul. David was in hiding in a cave, and his life was uncertain. But he was able to emerge and say "Awake, my glory!" Jesus, the Son of David, was entombed in a cave, and awoke to glory with the dawn on Easter Sunday.

Other random secular symbols and traditions of Easter have unknown origins. We don't know that Eastre was a fertility goddess, but may have had some connection to life and spring. But we maintain eggs and rabbits for this season, natural reminders of the propagation of life. For Christians, Easter is also about the newness of life. It is about a second birth. The Christian message is also one of propogation, not of literal reproduction, but of making disciples, and thus spiritually creating more sons and daughters of God.

There are neopagans today who have reverted to acknowledging Ostara or Eastre in their practice. I pray they come to serve the true Sun of Righteousness. "The heavens declare the glory of God" say the Scriptures, so this Easter season let's allow that glory to rise among us. Not every "rising" this season need to be a physical getting up or reviving from death. There's also the simple rising of a light in the darkness, of songs that rise to heaven. We don't have to venerate some Teutonic goddess this holiday season, but I encourage you to look at the sunrise on Easter morning as a reminder of the Light of the World that we worship. I'm reminded of an old Sunday School song that says, "Jesus wants me for a sunbeam." We can spread that light like a city on a hill, and spread life abundantly throughout our land. THAT's a fertility message I can get behind. On the Sabbath, all is at rest. But the next week brings a new start, and joy comes in the morning. May the literal sunrise remind you of the Son-rise, and inspire songs of praise. Join the triumph of the skies! Oh, let it rise!

With These Hands

This is my post for Thursday and Friday, and it will deal with events that lead up to and include the crucifixion.

The song I've chosen for today is "My City of Ruins" by Bruce Springsteen. In keeping with my overall theme of rising for this Easter, I chose something from his album, The Rising. Springsteen put out this album in the wake of September 11, 2001. "My City of Ruins" is very much a response to those events, and he performed it live on television as part of the benefit concert America: A Tribute to Heroes. I remember I didn't much like the song at the time, mainly because everything was wall-to-wall 9/11 and I grew tired of it. And the song started being used too often on television and such. But a few years later, I came to really like it. The point is, the song was born from a time of confusion, loss and despair. And that's the sort of place we find Jesus' disciples on Good Friday.

Springsteen gives us an image of a church with music playing and open doors, but there's no one inside. Similarly, the disciples who began the night together having seder were soon scattered, and their mission forgotten. Without Jesus, they didn't know what to do next. Some followed after and watched him die, others ran home. How do you go on when things fall apart? It's easy to say "I'll die with you!" but when the moment comes, fear takes over.

Jesus himself had his moments in Gethsemane of prayer to at least ask if there was some other way. He had to pray for the strength to follow through just as any of us do, and his task was a lot harder.

My favorite part of the song is the final repetition of the chorus. "With these hands, I pray for the faith, I pray for the strength, I pray for your love." The hands of Jesus did a lot over that day. With those hands, Jesus washed his disciples' feet and taught them humility. With those hands he served them supper, and instituted a memorial for himself. With those hands he confronted his betrayer, when they both dipped the bread. With those hands he healed the servant's ear which Peter cut off. With those hands he prayed for his disciples even before praying for himself. And with those hands he hung and bled for the redemption of sins.

It was a dark time for Jesus as well as for his disciples, and it's important not to make light of that or forget it. He cried out "My God, why have you forsaken me?" Now, scholarship and opinion on whether God actually forsook him that day differs and I'm not going to get into that debate here. But Jesus certainly had to be feeling much of what the Psalmist did for him to quote Psalm 22 (and he was well-versed enough in Scripture to know he was quoting it). And yet despite all of that, he still said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." He prayed for the people. That's the faith, and the strength, and the love of God.

One thing I like about the live version of "My City of Ruins" is that there's a minor lyrical difference from the album version. On the album, it's "I pray for the faith, for the strength, for your love" and then they repeat. But on the live version he also sings, "I pray for the lost, Lord." And that encapsulates Christ on the cross.

Times of ruin are scary and it can be hard to focus on what to do next. The disciples were chosen by Jesus to do his work. But it was hard to remember that mission that day, when they were in fear for their own lives. "Tell me how do I begin again?" It was literally a dark time, with the sky being unnaturally dark in the middle of the day. But Springsteen reminds us, do some praying and rise up. We all grow weary of watching and praying, but the time comes to rise up. Easter isn't about sinking into darkness; it's about rising up. "You do not have to go down in defeat for one split second," said healing evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman. The church was designed to be the hands of Christ on earth. So with these hands, we can pray, and build, and heal, and serve, and meet, and save. If you need strength today, ask for it.

Paul writes about all these themes in Romans 8, and I would encourage you to read that whole chapter, but in his concluding points he reminds us, "Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us." How does one become more than a conqueror? Perhaps because we don't just confront our enemy and overcome him; we then go out and heal. We aren't just taking, we are taking back and restoring. We cast down the evil overlords, and we work to free the people who were enslaved. We conquer not only our own oppressors, but are empowered to help others.

It's important in moments of despair that feel like Good Friday to remember it is not the end. Good Friday was an end, but it was not a bad end. It was God besting the devil at his own game. Things don't just stop when Jesus was laid in the tomb, not matter what the Jefferson Bible says. Jesus said, "It is finished", but he didn't mean, "Oh well, I guess that's all over now." The word "finished" there is more about a sense of completion. Some versions may read "accomplished". There are Jewish translators that use the Hebrew word "nishlam" which means to bring to completion. Interestingly, from the same root you get a verb for paying back a debt. (You can read more about fascinating insight into these roots here.) The crucifixion was the culmination of Jesus' work, not his destruction. I like the final lines of Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ, where he writes (and this is probably not the exact quote, but very close): "Jesus said, 'It is accomplished!' and it was as if he had said, 'It has just begun.'" Think whatever you want about the rest of that work, but that's a killer last line, and it's true. It began the work of new life that would be fulfilled on Sunday, and it began the new age of redemption for all men.

So don't be despairing in your city of ruins. Rise up! I'll conclude this piece with a song I used to use for closing Good Friday services. Remember that when it seems like Friday night, Sunday is on the way!

(This one's a cute animated version.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

This Blood's For You

Time got away from me today because I had to do laundry. My theme for Thursday really bleeds into Friday, so I planned to write one piece for both days. I still will, though it probably won't go up until tomorrow. But in the meantime, here's a song for Good Friday that needs no further commentary.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

What's Your Mind Set On?

This was supposed to go up yesterday, but the day got away from me.

The subject for today is Judas Iscariot, the man whose name has become synonymous with betrayal. In some circles, the Wednesday of Holy Week is known as "Spy Wednesday", named for Judas and the Pharisees he sold Jesus out to, who sought an opportunity to catch him. So I thought we would look at Judas for a little bit and contrast him with someone else.

I'm sure Judas began as a good guy. He was one of many people who came and followed Jesus in the early days. When Jesus selected twelve to be his main guys, Judas was one of them. To be in the inner circle was a big deal! We also learn from John's gospel that Judas was given treasury responsibilities. He handled the money box for Jesus' ministry. The gospels rarely discuss the finances of Jesus and his disciples, perhaps because that's less interesting than miracles. But we know they had to buy food and things of that nature. Probably they did other charity work of giving to the poor, since Judas mentions this sort of thing at one point. But however they raised funds and whatever they did with them, we know Judas was in charge of it.

Now let's pick up the story several days before Passover. John's gospel implies this event occurs before the "triumphal entry", others do not. But they generally agree it was several days before Passover. Most gospels say two days before. John says he was in Bethany six days before, but that doesn't mean that he didn't stay there awhile and this event couldn't have been two days before. Anyway, Jesus and friends were in Bethany where Martha, Mary and the now very much alive Lazarus live. And this group was all at the house of Simon for dinner. At one point in the evening, Mary takes a bottle of very expensive perfume, brings it to Jesus and anoints him with it. You may be familiar with this story, as it appears in films and stage productions (often with erroneous details). Judas gets indignant about it, saying it was a waste of such expensive stuff and telling Jesus, "We could have sold it and given that money to the poor!" Others there apparently agree and echo the sentiment (Matthew and Mark say it was "some of the disciples", while John specifically mentions Judas. I don't doubt it was his idea). Jesus tells them they will always have opportunity to give to the poor, but that he wouldn't be around very long. He blesses Mary, who has anointed his body for burial. Shortly after this, Judas begins plotting how he can betray Jesus, and goes to the Pharisees who offer him thirty pieces of silver to turn him in.

As you may have noticed above, the song I've chosen for today is that classic George Harrison ear worm, "Got My Mind Set On You". What was it each of these people had their minds on?

Well, the Pharisees had their minds on maintaining political power, and on eliminating Jesus as soon as possible. And so they finally were able to hire Judas as an inside man to betray him. But what was Judas' mind set on?

Well, to quote the song, Judas was thinking about "a whole lot of spending money". Now, I'm sure it seems reasonable to you to sell goods and give them to the poor. And generally, that may be a good thing. The early Christians in the first century did just that, selling their goods and distributing to the needy. But John's gospel tells us that even though Judas said that, he didn't really mean it. Judas was actually secretly embezzling from Jesus' ministry. So when he saw that oil of spikenard, he wasn't thinking so much of the poor they could help; he was thinking when they sold it, he could skim a healthy chunk off the top for himself. It's easy to paint Judas as a mustache-twirling villain, but again I'd say he started out good as far as we know. But somehow temptation started to get the better of him and he became a thief.  His mind, which started on Jesus, began to stray to his own selfishness.

There's a story about a rather obscure miracle in the Bible. It says one day Jesus and Peter went up to the Temple and found they had no money for the temple tax. So Jesus tells Peter to go catch a fish, and that fish he catches will have happened to swallow some money. Peter catches a fish, and there's a coin in its mouth, just enough for Jesus and Peter's temple tax. Now, this is a fun bizarre little story in itself. But I have often wondered if the reason Jesus and Peter were caught short that day is because of Judas' theft. Jesus doesn't strike me as the kind of guy to just show up unprepared like that. So I like to think that this is a teeny bit of foreshadowing Judas' embezzling.

Luke's gospel adds another tantalizing detail, telling us "at that time, Satan entered Judas". It seems then that the betrayal of Jesus wasn't fully Judas' idea, but put in his mind by Satan, the Adversary. Judas' mind was now set on the things below, confused by the devil. I have issues with the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, but if you know the show you'll recall that it opens with Judas singing a monologue about his concern for Jesus' growing following as Messiah. The very first line is "my mind is clearer now". This is probably not what Tim Rice had in mind when he wrote it, but when I hear the line, I like to picture that his mind is clearer now because Satan has just distorted it. And everything he sings after this is colored by Satan. If I were ever to stage the show, I'd probably even start it off with Satan whispering in his ear before the song or something like that. But Judas' mind was no longer clear; it was muddied by sin and Satan. Perhaps by giving in to his own desires, Judas had opened the door to be used of the enemy. It may be that he comes to realize this in the end, which is why he ultimately kills himself. But under Satan's influence, he was quick to agree to betraying Jesus. But he told the Pharisees, "It's gonna take money. A whole lot of spending money."

Let's contrast Judas with Mary. Matthew and Mark just say it was "a woman" who brought the oil for Jesus. But John names her as Mary. Contrary to what you have heard, this woman was NOT a prostitute, nor was she Mary Magdalene. She was Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Now this same Mary is the one who is mentioned as sitting at Jesus feet listening to him while her sister Martha fretted about getting things ready. Martha said, "Jesus, tell Mary to get over here and help me!" but Jesus says, "Why are you worrying so much, Martha? Mary chose the better part." Side note: Jesus is not saying don't work, or don't treat your guests well when they come over. In another story where a different woman similarly blesses him, he calls out the host for providing no water to wash his feet. But Jesus was friends with these women, and he was pointing out Martha was getting TOO concerned with appearances and the work. She was only getting stressed, instead of enjoying the visit from Jesus.

Jesus blesses Mary again here for having a righteous perspective. Her mind was set on the moment right there, and on Jesus. Sometimes we allow ourselves to get worked up over "what if" scenarios. Or sometimes we talk ourselves out of something good. Some Christians can cause pastors grief over what they consider wasted resources. It's a good thing to help the needy; but sometimes these Christians are missing the bigger picture of what God wants for the church right then. And probably some of them, like Judas, are thinking from their own selfishness. But Mary's focus was always on Jesus. She just wanted to be close to him, and do for him. And sometimes that takes time.

So what have you got your mind set on? Is it set on selfish desires, like Judas the thief? Or at the very least, is it distorted by the voice of people who sound reasonable but are not thinking with righteous insight? There were those who were swayed by Judas' vocal objections.

Is your mind set on what Satan is desiring for you? Judas gave in to this manipulation. Jesus said a little later that Satan was also after Peter, wanting to "sift him as wheat", but Jesus prayed that his faith would be strong. Satan wanted to shake Peter apart, shatter his faith and scatter him from Jesus. And this is Satan's desire for all those who would live godly in Christ Jesus. Don't allow your mind to be confused, or believe the lie that you are thinking "clearer now".

Or is your mind set on Jesus like Mary's was? She only appears a few times in the gospel, but each time she remains a role model for her simple devotion to Jesus. She was willing to give at great expense for him. She wanted to spend time with him. She was tuned in to what God was doing.

I know the George Harrison song can get annoying and stuck in your head, but that's part of my intent here. When you find it going through your head in the middle of the day, think about what you've got your mind set on. I hope you can think on God and say, "I got my mind set on You."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Fly Like an Eagle

Today is the first day of Passover. It's the time of year the Jews remember when they were slaves in Egypt and God sent plagues against Egypt and then Moses led them out. It recalls the final plague, when God slew all the firstborn in Egypt, put passed over the Hebrew homes that had lamb's blood put on their doorposts. Hence the name, Passover. And then God parted the Red Sea, and the Israelites walked out on dry land, and all that stuff you've seen in old movies.

Passover is also the time when Jesus was crucified. The "Last Supper" as it's come to be called was a Passover meal. It's always nice when Passover and Easter coincide on our calendars, I think. So this post could be all about Passover. I could draw parallels between the blood of the sacrificial lamb on the doorposts and crossbeams and the crucified Jesus whose blood brings redemption. But today's post, as the title suggests, is only partially about Passover. Our theme today comes from the song "Fly Like an Eagle" by the Steve Miller Band.

When the Israelites reach Mount Sinai, just before God gives them the Ten Commandments, The first thing God says to them is, "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself" (Exodus 19:4). God describes that first Passover event as carrying Israel on the wings of eagles. Now, I don't know about you, but for me this imagery immediately calls to mind something like this:

As a fan of Hobbits and such, I think of those moments in Lord of the Rings when they are saved at the last minute by the giant eagles who swoop them up and carry them to safety. And that's what God is saying here. He's saying that he heard their cry in Egypt, and he rescued his people and flew them out as if on eagles. J.R.R. Tolkien enjoyed stories with moments like this, which is why he put them into his own. It's that sense of sudden elation when Pippin says, "The eagles are coming!" It's the joy of a happy ending. Tolkien even coined a word for it: eucatastrophe. That is, the sudden joyous "turn", like a good catastrophe. In our lives we can spend a long time waiting for that something good to happen. We're quick to recognize catastrophe; bombings, mudslides, sudden illnesses. But God says he's come to bring eucatastrophe, and time will come we can fly.

Probably the most well-known scripture regarding flying like an eagle is found in Isaiah 40: 31.
But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint.
Some newer versions read "and not lose heart." If we trust in the Lord and wait, he will give us the strength we need to fly like eagles. But let's also look at this verse in context. This is the closing thought of a few verses that begin in verse 27. Here, Isaiah speaks of people complaining that God doesn't see them, or that he's ignoring them. But Isaiah reminds us that God does not tire, God always sees, and gives power to the weak. Even young, athletic types will eventually get wear out and lose energy, but God provides supernatural energy beyond that. God gives a new strength that allows you to run and never tire, and not only to run, but to fly. Sometimes we just have to be patient, and consistently wait on the Lord.

Let's bring things back to Jesus and the week leading up to Easter. During these days, he spoke many things about the final days to come, when he would return to establish his kingdom. But he warned that not everyone who was on his side now would be prepared when he arrived. The first side of flying like an eagle is patience. But on the other side is preparedness. Jesus tells the story of ten virgins who were waiting to escort a groom to his wedding. I don't think the story is saying that he was marrying all ten virgins (that would be crazy!), but that they were part of the proceedings. Anyway, they all brought lamps, but five of them didn't bring extra oil. The groom was delayed and when he finally arrived in the middle of the night, the lamps of those five were going out. So they quickly ran off to see if they could buy oil, but it was too late. So the groom went with the other five to the wedding, leaving the unprepared virgins behind. The groom here is Jesus. and he's reminding us that in our patience to wait on his coming, we must maintain a state of readiness. Before we look at the bigger End Times picture of what that means, let's think about it another way. You may know that God is coming for you. You may believe you're ready, waiting for that eucatastrophe. But as time goes by, does your faith wane? Does your light die out? Do you despair of him ever coming? "I knew he was coming, but I didn't think he'd take so long!" It can be hard to wait, and sometimes things take longer than we expected or would want. We need to be prepared with enough oil. In the Bible, oil is often a picture of the Holy Spirit. If we remain in the Spirit of God, that's how we maintain the oil for these situations, and he will multiply it like the miracle of Hanukkah, renewing our strength to bear the wait until we are borne on eagles' wings.

But this is really just a secondary interpretation. Primarily, Jesus is developing a picture here of what Christians have come to call the Rapture. That's when he will call all of his people, and they shall rise from life or death and "meet the Lord in the air", as Paul said. In a sense then, that's a day when many really will fly like eagles. There's a saying in the gospels that always struck me as really bizarre. For the longest time, I saw it as a kind of non sequitur image. Jesus, speaking of the last days says there will be those who say "He's over here!" but don't believe them, but that his coming will be like "lightning that comes from the east and flashes in the west". And then he says, "Wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together." And I always think, "huh?" What part of what you just said is that referring to? Luke's gospel helps a little bit. Here, Jesus presents an image of the Rapture first, by saying that there will be two in a bed, one will be taken and the other left behind. Two in a field, one taken and one left behind. So one of the disciples asks, "where?" and he says, "Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together." So again the question becomes, is this "where" the place where the people are going, or the place they are left behind? It's an odd image for Jesus to use carrion fowl like this. But if the body is Jesus, then it might make sense that the eagles that gather around it are the ones he has called to himself. If this reading is accurate, than Jesus himself is comparing his saints to eagles, who will fly to him. Honestly, at this point it makes about as much sense as anything to me, and I thought I'd mention it since it fits with my eagle theme for today.

Over time, it's a shame that the Rapture has come to be understood almost with a smugness, that Christians lord it over the world that God will pull them out and then they'll be on their own to deal with God's wrath. But what is overlooked by these people is what Jesus was saying in his parable. Five of those virgins were on the side of the bridegroom; they were awaiting his coming just like the others. Jesus isn't saying "woe to all you wicked, 'cause after the Rapture you better look out!" Jesus is saying, "Woe to you Christians; keep yourself in me and in readiness, because if the Rapture comes and you ain't right, you ain't goin'!" We don't hear it this way in churches as often because it makes us uncomfortable. But Jesus is looking for faithful servants. "Time keeps on tickin'" says the song, and we need to remain in the Spirit, in readiness, doing what Jesus called us to do. If we do, then we really will fly like eagles one day.

Let's live in righteousness and readiness. Let's rise from the confines of this world to a greater glory to come. There will come a day when our problems will be ended. So on one hand, we can wait on the Lord, trusting him to bear us up. On the other hand, we can also be about his business, shoeing the children without shoes, feeding the babies, housing the people, until the Lord comes to complete the work. As Paul wrote in his concluding thoughts to the Galatians, "Let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart." Some versions say, "if we faint not." We need not worry about fainting while in the Lord, for he will renew our strength, and we shall walk and not faint. We shall mount up with wings.

I don't know about you, but I want to fly like an eagle, let his Spirit carry me.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Rubble or Our Sins

Today's song is the recent hit from Bastille, "Pompeii".

I'd like to focus today on a theme of rising out of our past mistakes. To do so, I 'm going to look at the story of Jesus "cleansing" the Temple. That is, throwing out the moneychangers and all. After he came into Jerusalem, Jesus came to the Temple where the moneychangers were sitting outside doing their business and Jesus throws them out, saying "It is written My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves." He's quoting the prophet Daniel there. But I'm going to focus less on what reasons Jesus had for throwing them out in general, and more on why this specific time.

This is another story that appears in all four gospels, however in John's gospel it appears very early in the gospel. The gospels are not always strictly chronological, and different stories do sometimes appear in different orders, but this is drastically different. In John, it's one of the first things Jesus does in his ministry. Also the event seems a little more violent in John, where Jesus actually makes himself a whip with which to drive out the men and their animals. I love moments like this because they clash with the perception of a weak, pacifist Jesus. There's such a thing as righteous anger. Indeed, he may have said, "He who lives by the sword dies by the sword," but many don't realize it was Jesus who told the disciples to arm themselves with swords that night in the first place. Anyway, I have come to believe that there are actually two Temple cleansings; that Jesus did it once at the start of his ministry, and again at the end.

And that gets to the heart of my post today. Jesus told these people not to do this anymore and scared them away. And yet three years later, they were back to their old games again. So Jesus throws them out again. This would all end a lot more permanently when the Temple was finally destroyed some decades later. But for right now, it's Jesus saying, "What did I tell you before?!" Regarding the destruction of the Temple, Jesus famously said that not one stone would be left on another. The whole place would be rubble.

We do so often have a tendency, even with the best of intentions, to revert to our old ways. But that's not repentance. Repentance means to turn around and not go that way again. When violence comes down on us and scatters all our stuff, it can be easy to want to just rebuild it all again the way it was. And sometimes that's okay. But what if God has scattered it all in judgment and doesn't want you going back that way? In the book of Judges, time and again the people drifted away from God to do things their own ways. Several times it says "and everyone did what was right in their own eyes." Modern America seems to exalt this way of thinking; that everyone has their own personal truth that is right for them. And while to a point I support personal liberty in a political sense, morally I do not. For Israel, doing things their own way resulted in idolatry, captivity, civil war. Perhaps some other day I'll write about the story of the war the started over the woman who was raped to death in Judges. But suffice to say that there comes a point when God sends judgment. But that judgment comes in two parts. First, he judges them with wrath, but he also sends a judge, a leader, to free them and lead them. The history of the Jews in the Old Testament is one of forsaking God, destruction, repentance and rescue.

The song I chose for today is metaphorically about the destruction of Pompeii, which was covered in volcanic ash and ruined by the eruption of Vesuvius. People were frozen in time, preserved in whatever they were doing, good or bad. The song speaks of the walls tumbling down, and seeing the clouds of destruction coming. But first I'd like to focus on the bridge of the song, which is just these simple words:
"Where do we begin: the rubble or our sins?"

What does that mean? I interpret it to mean that after disaster strikes, how do we begin to rebuild? What's the first thing we look at, the rubble or our sins? It's easily to just start putting stone on top of stone again, but maybe we need to examine whether it's the right thing to do. The moneychangers went back to the sin Jesus had chastised them for. They looked at the rubble, and set it all back up again. After the Babylonian captivity, eventually people returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls and the Temple that had tumbled down. But that's not how it began. First, they spent 70 years in Babylon in a divinely ordained time-out. They repented of their sins, and were now ready to rebuild. Sometimes we're not supposed to rebuild the structure that was, and sometimes we have to get a new perspective first. When Ezra, Nehemiah and the others went back and rebuild, they not only examined the rubble, but their sins as a people. They put away idolatry. One might even argue that the more legalistic tradition of the Pharisees developed out of a hyper-awareness of sin that began in that day, because the people looked at what happened and said, "Never again!" Now, that led to sin of a different kind, but I'll leave that be or we'll be here all day.

"We were caught up and lost in all of our vices" the song says. Several other songs on the album focus on starting over after destruction. The chorus mentions closing your eyes to the impending doom. I'm reminded of Peter who walked on water when his eyes were on Jesus, but his faith faltered when he looked at the wind and waves. "How am I gonna be an optimist about this?" What I'm suggesting is that even in times of hardship or judgment, keep your eyes on God. If he is chastening you, he will bring you through it to something better. Maybe not everything is divine judgment, but we also can't afford complacency. For in these days on that last week, Jesus also talked about the final judgment to come, and how there would be people who professed to know him who will be sent away. If we want to rise on that last day, we need to flee from those things that beset us. And that can be very hard. But Jesus has saved us from sin, that we should not walk in that way anymore. That's dead; now we are raised with Christ. It's the point of Easter, and a theme of many early Christian writings (1 Corinthians 15 for example). We are sown in corruption, but we shall be raised in incorruption. There are better things to come if we do not lose heart.

I'm rambling a bit again, I think. But I suggest in this Easter season you take stock of your life. Eventually all this world will pass away to rubble. But we can live in newness of life by letting Jesus free us from our sins and no longer returning to them. The future is before us: how will we proceed? Will we focus on the rubble, or our sins?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Somebody Save Me

Today is Palm Sunday in the Christian church, and I'm starting a week of posts for Easter which will feature some thoughts and a song. Today's song is Remy Zero's "Save Me", which you might know as the theme from Smallville.

Mention Palm Sunday, and what do you think of? A church full of people waving palm fronds? Likely it's the so-called "Triumphal Entry" of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey as onlookers crowd around, with palm branches and shouting "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!"

I'd like to address some of these points. First, this is one of the few events mentioned in all four gospels, and all of them mention some variant on the "Hosanna!" quote. But what does Hosanna mean? Well, it means something like "oh, save! Save now!" Yet for some reason over the years church people have diluted the word such that, even when they know what it really means, they act as if it's just an expression of praise, like hallelujah (which is literally "praise the Lord"). We sing it in the choruses of songs. For example, "Holy holy holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are filled with your glory! Hosanna!" But the word really has little to do with the verse in that context. So I'd like to explore what the word means in the context of Palm Sunday, and perhaps in our lives today.

Hosanna is a cry of desperation. It comes from a people in need. It says, "I need someone else to rescue me. My situation is beyond me. Help me! Save us!" Which is why I chose the song I did. When the crowds who have seen the things Jesus had done approach him, many believing him to be the promised Messiah, they cry out in expectation that he is the one who can finally save them. Save them from the Romans, save them from their poverty, save them from their disease, and usher in an era of peace and righteousness. The psalms are filled with writers asking "how long until you save us, Lord?" and often this is a salvation from enemies who are said to surround the writer. These people aren't just standing around saying "God is good!" They are calling, "Somebody save me!"

Is it an expression of jubilant praise? Not exactly, but sort of. You see, it's followed by "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" Put yourself back into ancient times for a moment and imagine that you are a peasant. All your life you hope that the king or someone important will learn of your plight and send aid. Or in modern terms, perhaps it's like some poor nation begging the U.S. for foreign aid or military assistance. Then one day a man comes in the King's authority to say that the King knows about you and is bringing food, water, and medicine. So you rejoice when the King's emissary comes. That's what they're saying. They are acknowledging Jesus as Messiah, as the one who comes in the name of the Lord, that is, with the power and authority from God to fix things for them. So saying "Save now!" in that context, is to say, "I acknowledge that you can save us, that you are here now to save us. So save me! Don't delay, and don't forget me personally!" It's on one hand saying "I need it," but on the other hand saying, "Yes! The thing I've hoped for is finally coming!" So "hosanna" becomes an interesting cry of both desperation and anticipation. It's saying "Do it! Do it now!" I think of it in the context of the chorus from John Lennon's "Bring On the Lucie (Freda People)". I think I'll include that one here too. That's part of what hosanna means. "Free the people now! Do it, do it, do it, do it now!"

[incidentally, I'm mostly focusing on the chorus here. Some of you may be offended by my posting this song here, but it's for illustrative purposes. There may be things in the verses you don't think belong here. I'm not going to comment, but it's not my intention to offend but to educate.You're free to not push play.]

There's almost a kind of activism to it. It reminds me a bit of the sorts of things we heard from Obama supporters and voters back in 2008. Some people expected him to be this great Messiah figure for them. I'm not trying to get political here and I won't comment further on that as it would be a long digression. But there was an expectation that here was someone who could change things, and promised "hope and change". And so when people stood and shouted "Yes we can!" you can see a similarity to ancient Jews and Greeks crying "Hosanna!" (I could comment on Obama's declining support numbers since then and compare that to the crowds crying "crucify him!" on Good Friday, but I'll leave that there.)
Calling "hosanna" to Jesus is like a personal shout to a powerful figure asking him to take note of you and do something for the people. In a sense, one might say that "Hosanna!" had more in common with "Hey hey, LBJ" than with "praise you, Jesus!" even though the latter is how we think of it. Sometimes that "do it now!" aspect has an intense desperation. Churches don't talk about that side of things as often; they want to focus on joy and goodness, and that's fine. But as people, our emotions fluctuate and can be very intense, and we're not always on top of the world. So maybe for you "hosanna" doesn't mean, "Yay God! Salavation's here!" Maybe for you, "hosanna" means "Why don't you do something already?" Because even as Christians, we have times when we're just pounding on the ceiling, shouting at God, "Do something!" Those are desperate moments. Those are times all you can say is, "Hosanna," that is, "just save me now." Do it, do it, do it now. Those are moments you need a savior.

Something else to think about is the expectation these people had of Jesus. Just why on this day of all days were the people out in full force? Why now were they crowding and honoring and laying their clothes on the ground for his procession? The last time Jesus was in the area, he angered the religious leaders so much that they tried to kill him. According to John's gospel, Jesus fled and went into hiding. It was there that he got news his friend Lazarus was sick. And Jesus delayed in going to help him. When he finally went, Thomas famously said, "Let us also go, that we might die with him." At this point, there's an expectation that returning to the Jerusalem area will not be end well for him. Of course, Jesus knew why he had come and that he was going to be crucified. But it's worth noting that Thomas at least anticipated it could end badly for all of them. After he raises Lazarus from the dead, he slips into hiding again, but Passover is fast approaching. News of Lazarus has spread. And so when Jesus visits the family in Bethany again, word gets to Jerusalem that Jesus is around again. Speculation is high that he'll be in the city for Passover, as any good Jew. So the Pharisees essentially put out an APB on Jesus, wanting to know when he gets in. Given all this context, I'm sure people in the city were wondering whether he'd actually show up. It must have been known among some of them that he had a price on his head. And yet multitudes had seen miraculous things he had done. For Jesus to come back to the city now was more than just a visit: it was an act of defiance. Now add in the dash of Messianic prophecy from Zechariah: "Your king is coming on the colt of a donkey." When you see Jesus coming on a donkey, or even when word spreads from the owner of the donkey from whom it was borrowed that Jesus had taken it, it would seem he's here now to buck the establishment. It would be safe to stay in Bethany. But he's coming back because the people need him. That must have been encouraging to the disenfranchised of Jerusalem, or the visitors who have only heard about this mystery man who does wonders. Surely even doubters of Jesus' anointing might call "Save now!" as if to say, "If it's really you, than do it already! Prove it!"

I'd like to take a moment to examine the phrase "hosanna in the highest" which I have never fully understood, even as a kid. The phrase appears in both Matthew and Mark, the earliest of the four gospels. "Hosanna" I get, but in the highest what? Highest heaven? Highest degree? Highest places? Are they saying "save us from the soles of our feet to the top of our heads"? "Save now on the ground, and save now in the rooftops and high towers"? That's an interesting reading. From that perspective it might mean "go into the fortresses of the authorities in their lofty towers, bring them down and save us!" "Highest heaven" is an interesting reading, a praise that reaches to God. That is, to cry "Save us!" until it resounds in the throne room of heaven. Or does it mean "to the ultimate degree", as in "I'm asking you to help me as loud as I can"? Is "Hosanna in the highest" like saying "Help me, help me, a thousand times help me!"?
Interestingly, Luke's gospel doesn't use the phrase "Hosanna in the highest". Instead, it says "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!" Now, glory in the highest I understand. That WOULD mean heavenly realms. Part of me wonders of the cacophony of shouts that day lead people to hear the words "Hosanna" and "in the highest" apart from each other but simultaneously. Some shouting, "hosanna" and some shouting "glory in the highest" and "hosanna in the highest" becomes a remembrance of hearing the two at once. Luke makes a point of starting his gospel by saying he's seen and read other accounts, and he set out to make an orderly account based on eyewitness reports. So I do wonder whether anyone ever actually used the phrase "hosanna in the highest" that day. But if they did, perhaps it was with Luke's intent: on one hand acknowledging Jesus as having the power to save, and praising God to the heavens for it.

The phrase shouted that day was not one just randomly spoken by people. It was quoting a well-known psalm, Psalm 118 in the Christian Bible. This psalm gets a lot of mention in the New Testament, because it's where it is prophesied, "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone." This scripture is applied to Jesus by Peter, Paul, and others in the New Testament. And just after that portion of the psalm, it reads (in the New King James Version):
Save now [that is, Hosanna], I pray, O Lord;
O Lord, I pray, send now prosperity.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
We have blessed you from the house of the Lord.
God is the Lord,
And He has given us light;
Bind the sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar.

This portion helps to further elucidate what they meant by "hosanna" that day. It was a prayer. It was a call for prosperity. What is prosperity? The sense that you have a future, that you will not just continue, but thrive. It's a call for needs to be provided for, for health, for security, for relief. And it is also very interesting that they recall the phrase "blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" that day. Earlier in the psalm comes a section that suggests what coming "in the name of the Lord" means to these people. In verses 10-12, three times surrounding enemies are mentioned and each time the psalmist says, "But in the name of the Lord, I will destroy them." So again, you can imagine that when people start recalling these words and calling them out that day how they would catch like wildfire as an anthemic shout. That's what people expected from Jesus: that he was here to destroy those surrounding them.

One final note of exposition about that psalm is the sacrifice mentioned. I find it fascinating that immediately following the phrases chanted on Palm Sunday it says "God has given us light; bind the sacrifice to the altar." The two ideas seem unconnected until you consider Jesus. To the Christian, Jesus is the Light of the World (a constant theme in John's gospel), and is also the ultimate Passover sacrifice. The image of a sacrifice bound to the horns of the altar suggests parallel with Christ as the sacrifice bound and affixed to the cross. Perhaps the psalmist, unaware, was prophesying a sacrificial suffering Messiah even as much as a conquering one. In Jesus is both, for in Him is the true salvation.

That's a good thought to end on, and I could stop right there, but let's examine the other obvious element of Palm Sunday: the palms. The gospels never say that people waved palms that day. And yet that's how we always remember it. What they do say is that people laid their clothes down on the ground before Jesus, and others cut palm branches and laid them down as well. They were giving him the red carpet treatment, as it were; the gentlemanly act of throwing your coat over a puddle. John's gospel does simply say that people "took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him", but doesn't explicitly state that they were put on the ground, as other gospels do. It's interesting that the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) all mention the clothes in the road, but Luke doesn't mention palms. Wouldn't it have been interesting if waving your coat around in church had become the custom on Palm Sunday! We'd call it "Coat Sunday" or something. Maybe we'd even collect coats for the needy, by having people throw extra coats into the middle isle and then distributing them as needed in the coming weeks. Actually, that's not a bad idea. But anyway, the waving of palm fronds is not explicit to this section of Scripture.

But the Spirit of God has sense of humor, it seems, for there is a time of year when Jews all gather together bearing palms. It is not Passover, but the holiday of Sukkot, which falls in the, um, fall. You might know it from your Bible as the Feast of Tabernacles. During this time, they are commanded to erect temporary structures (sukkot, plural of sukkah) and to take for themselves, among other things, a palm leaf. In Hebrew it's called the lulav. As I was researching the lulav again today out of curiosity to what it's meaning might be for Palm Sunday, a connection to Sukkot was revealed. It is from Zechariah we get the Palm Sunday prophecy that the King of Israel would come lowly and riding on a donkey. But in the final chapter, Zechariah provides another image regarding the King. It is in Zechariah 14: 16.
"And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles." Did you catch that? After the Messianic King is established, all the people will keep the Feast of Tabernacles. What's that? Sukkot! Which means everyone will come to Jerusalem and take up his lulav! And this seems to include Gentiles too. So I'm amused that God seems to have, over the centuries, used Palm Sunday among the Gentile Christian churches to prefigure this future day. Just as during that "Triumphal Entry" the people gathered from all around in Jerusalem to recognize the King, so too will all peoples do the same once again, and they will do it with palm branches. If you got a palm branch at church today, think about that over the coming week. It's not just a sign of praise and acknowledgment of Jesus. Think of it as a connection to your Jewish brothers and sisters, for the day is coming where we will be sundered no more, and all shall keep the same festivals.

How then shall we conclude these things? I guess what I would like you to take away from all these random thoughts is a deeper, emotional connection to the word "Hosanna". Throughout the week, I want to focus on a theme of rising. Rising up from depression, rising out of ashes, rising from death. In this case, perhaps an uprising of sorts against the forces of this present darkness that you are wrestling against. Raise your hand and shout "Hosanna!" to the highest heaven because your King is coming, and he comes with power to save. So go ahead and ask him to save you. Whatever salvation it is you need, he is able to provide it. Jesus said, "Ask, and it shall be given to you." So don't be afraid to say "Somebody save me!"