Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Two Pieces of Wood

This week, we remember and reflect on the death of the Lord Jesus Christ.  As horrible and cruel as Jesus' death was, he took it on himself willingly, to accept death for all of us.  But why on a cross?  Wasn't that a symbol of shame and punishment for crimes?  In our day, that would be like honoring someone who died in the gas chamber or the electric chair.  What was the meaning?

Jesus had spoken of being "lifted up" in John 3:14-15 and John 12:31-33 as the means of his death, and the result of his death--salvation for all people.  The cross was inevitable.  Athanasius observed that the Messiah's death had to occur by acts of others (not just a calm deathbed in old age or illness) in order to gather up and defeat, in his body, even the anger and hatred and cruelty of mankind. 

The execution device used by the Romans was designed to inspire fear and horror, as condemned criminals and traitors were punished by what was often an agonizing, multi-day ordeal in an area visible to passers-by, thus encouraging order in the populace who were often conquered people resentful of Roman occupation.  It was an upright stake, the base buried in the ground, and a crosspiece, carried by the condemned criminal, attached either at the top or a short distance from the top.  Both Matthew and Luke mention the inscription attached above his head, so it appears that was the style used, and it is carried forward in Christian symbolism today*.

So if we look at the symbolism inherent in all these things, what might we see?  Not all of these are explicit in scripture, but meditating on these ideas can be useful.  And there are probably more meanings we could bring out; God is infinite in his ability to plan and create meaning for us. 
  • The upright stake united heaven and earth, as the Incarnation had done
  • The crosspiece stretches in both directions, and Psalm 103:12 says "He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west."
  • The crosspiece stretched Jesus' arms out wide, as a symbol of the Father's arms being open to us; and some say, as the measure of the breadth of his love. 
  • The crosspiece, going in both directions, could also symbolize uniting Jew and Gentile: Galatians 3, especially verses 14 and 28. 
  • The wood shows he absorbed for us the curse given in Deut. 21:23, "anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse."  See also Galatians 3:13.

Of course, these are not just "interesting meanings" -- our Savior really did die a brutal death on that torture instrument.  He suffered pain, humiliation, thirst, embarrassment, fatigue and many other hurts to pay for humanity's sin and rebellion.

And he did it just for you.

* Footnote: there are some who believe this symbol is of pagan origin and so should not be used by Christians.  That assertion lacks credible evidence.  The cross was a symbol that offended both Jew and Gentile, but paradoxically brought hope and salvation to Christians (see Galatians, especially), and so it has remained the primary symbol of our faith.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Grace and Our Reponse

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of grace.  I can join with John Newton who said, at the end of his life, "I know only two things:  I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior!"  If life has taught me one thing, it's that my own performance is sadly lacking, and I am in constant need of God's grace. Even when I do something good -- or avoid doing something sinful -- my motives are still not 100% pure.  So if my acceptance with God is by performance, and I want to show him my hard work and obedience, then his answer is going to be, "Sure, but what about all the other times?"  But if my standing with God is by his grace, then his grace covers all my sins (as well as my utter lack of perfection in my works).  And the perfect life of Jesus, the only perfect human, provides full righteousness for me in place of my brokenness.

That's why Paul, the apostle of grace, preached the wonders of grace, in spite of being fully trained in law-keeping in his Jewish upbringing and being obedient to all the details of the law.  He tells us in Galatians 2, "We know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law."  

Then in verse 20, he says "My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."  How can we do that along with Paul?  First of all, by trusting completely in Christ to be our salvation, not trusting our own efforts.  Next, by paying attention to what it means to be "in Christ" -- focusing on letting Jesus Christ do in us what he tells us is important.

With "Christ living in me," I'm responding to God's grace in Jesus Christ, to who he is and who I am now as his new creation.  Here are some examples:  generosity, the complete opposite of stealing; respecting another person, rather than lusting or following that lust into sexual sin; speaking graciously and generously rather than gossiping or lying; forgiving, rather than being angry over our hurts; and being content, rather than being jealous of what others have.  These are all modeled for us in the life of Christ, and repeated in the rest of the New Testament.

So, our response to God's grace is to focus on the person, the actions and words of Jesus Christ himself.  Being filled with Christ motivates us to surrender our own human will and be filled with him instead, saying yes to the voice of the Holy Spirit and doing good instead of following evil.  It all starts with a person -- Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God become flesh for us -- and it continues in us as we learn to be filled with him instead of with ourselves.  May we all learn to focus on him and overflow with his grace.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Jesus' Temptations: Pride

Jesus was the unique Son of God, joined with flesh (John 3:16).  Nobody else will ever be in that position.  So he was pretty special (he still is, too!).  So as Satan tempts Jesus a third time, he tries to convince Jesus that even if he throws himself off the highest point of the Temple, the Father will protect him.  After all, Satan's thinking seems to be, how would God fulfill his plan for us without Jesus, who is the plan in flesh? 

Jesus turns Satan down, cold.  “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the Lord your God.’ ”  What's that about, not getting on God's nerves or something?  No, it's about recognizing our place and not thinking too highly of ourselves.  Jesus is quoting Deut. 6:16, where Moses warns the Israelites not to try stretching the limits of God's patience and mercy.  God's patience is infinite -- after all, he controls time and everything else -- but when the Israelites insisted on continuing to do what would harm them, and treated God's generosity with contempt, it was against their own best interests to let them continue. So he stopped them.  

What did Jesus have in mind in quoting this scripture?  Somewhat the same idea:  "God is loving and generous, but don't get your pride inflated about it."  When we test the limits of God's generosity, what we're saying is that we are so important that God can't get along without us.  Not a very good notion.  Not even for the unique Son of God.  Absolutely not for us! 

Jesus recognized his own limitations and his complete dependence on God.  In short, Jesus was humble, not proud. That is our example, which we should follow a lot more often than we do. (Side note:  it's a good thing Jesus did this perfectly too, because we never will!)  So what kind of trouble do we get ourselves into by being proud?  By over-estimating our own importance, pride creates other negative reactions, like: 
  • Anger ("don't you realize I'm more important than you?")
  • Hurt feelings and unforgiveness ("how dare this person treat me like that!") 
  • Discontent ("that didn't turn out the way I deserve")
  • Impatience ("hurry up, you're wasting MY time!")
By going willingly to the cross, Jesus showed his humility once more.  He absorbed the shame, the curse, the weight of all our sin; and he even forgave those who put him there (Luke 23:34).  We would all do well to ask God to show us our pride.  Then, when we see it, not to 'swallow our pride,' but to regurgitate it and leave it behind, as we follow Jesus.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Jesus' Temptations: Patience

Continuing to look at the temptations of Jesus in Luke 4, we see the second temptation as Luke recorded it was an offer from Satan for all the kingdoms of the world, if Jesus would worship him.  At first, that sounds a little hollow -- didn't Satan know who he was talking to?  That would be like trying to offer Bud Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, a chance to throw the ball around a little with the Rockies if he would resign his position. C'mon, are you serious?  But apparently the devil was.  “I will give you the glory of these kingdoms and authority over them,” the devil said, “because they are mine to give to anyone I please.  I will give it all to you if you will worship me.”

Jesus didn't dispute Satan's claim to rulership of the world, but he didn't agree either.  He didn't try to argue about who was in charge, or even assert his divine authority (as the Son of God) over Satan.  He simply bypassed the claim and responded by quoting Deut. 6:16 “The Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’ ” 

Jesus had perfect faith in the Father.  His loyalty was not wishy-washy.  He kept his focus on his mission, relying completely on the Father's plan.  Luke records the risen Lord saying in 24:26 Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?”  He knew that his calling required his death, and there was no shortcut.  And by rejecting Satan in all these temptations, he responded as the perfect human, the obedient second Adam (Rom. 5:12-19).  

So what lessons could we gain from this temptation?  First, of course, to have faith in God.  (Our faith isn't perfect, of course; it wavers and is stronger some days than others.  But Jesus' faith was perfect, and we can trust in the Father through him; we don't have to worry if we will succeed, since we know he succeeded!) Second, to be patient, which means knowing we are with Jesus on a journey of faith leading to maturity -- it can't be hurried but has to be taken one step at a time.  And maybe, for the Bonus Round, recognizing that Jesus wasn't worried about being in charge, so maybe we shouldn't either.  

Are you being tempted, or feeling impatient?  Maybe it's time to stop and reflect on the perfect response of Jesus:  to worship and serve only God, and rest secure in the knowledge that God has the future worked out.