fresh bread: eagerly waiting for him

“Christ … will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9.28b, CEB)

As I read this text and type my thoughts, my wife and I are expecting the birth of of our third grandchild. This will be the first child born to “my baby girl,” our daughter and her husband, and will be our third grandson (yes, they’re all boys). Now while all of our grandchildren are more than just a little bit dear to us, there is something just a wee bit special about this one we’re expecting now; namely, he’ll be quite close by and that’s a privilege we’ve never experienced before. My pulse quickens a bit just at the thought of it: we’re expecting a grandson right here where I live!

Did I say “expecting?” “Expecting” my eye; we’re “eagerly waiting” for him! We’re almost delirious with joy and virtually dancin’! Pity the poor soul who asks us about the situation because we’re liable to talk their legs off. If you’re the one who asks, you’d best just get comfortable because it’s going to take awhile between showing you the 4D ultrasound pics, bringing you up to speed on how his mother is doing, how we’re doing with the waiting, etc., etc., etc.

Get the picture?

Now “expecting” should be at the very least an equally lame word to describe how Christians feel about their Lord’s return. And yet, I dare say if you randomly asked a great many Christians the question “How would you describe your feelings about Christ’s return?” the clear majority would use most any word available … so long as that word lives a great ways from the word “eager.” Dare I say it? A great many Christians even “dread” his return and they’re not at all ashamed to say so plainly.

Why is this? Is it that they have little or no confidence in their salvation? Do they completely misunderstand what all their Savior’s arrival will mean for them? Have they swallowed hook, line, and sinker some deformed gospel that is no “gospel” or “good news” at all, one that places no real value on, the quality and expression of joy? How on earth could it be that they’ve come to be at best “reluctant” to welcome the arrival of the only One who can come to save them completely from themselves and sin, from Satan and the world, from darkness and despair?

While there are surely a thousand explanations, I can’t help but think there is one dominant reason common to most who feel such a way and that reason is simply this: they’ve never deeply seen faith and religion, Christianity and discipleship, hope and belief, as anything remotely like a relationship between persons. Instead of religion being about the rendezvous of Father and family, Savior and saved, Spirit and spirits, it has been to them all along as something more like the making, keeping, and enforcement of expectations, rules, and boundaries. It has more in common with a legal agreement than about lives entwined. It’s like “expecting” a grandchild that will live close by and dreading what all that will entail.

Merciful heavens! Two texts leap to my mind:

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34a, TNIV)

and

“… our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ …” (Philippians 3:20, TNIV)

“Expect” as you well, but as for me and my house, we’re eagerly waiting. And I’m not talking about a grandson!

Heavenly Father, in the strong name of Jesus our Lord, break through the barriers and habits long in place and well up in every Christian heart such a confidence over the work of Christ, such a great grasp of your good love, and such a sense of blessing over just the prospect of being completely together with you that they cannot help but look upon your arrival with eagerness, enthusiasm, and zeal. Amen. And amen.

ct: so much depends

(Arising from reflections on Matthew 13:24-32)

… the Word who was in the beginning with God became one of us, creating and redeeming our world by stretching our words. A new creation, a new world, was begun. So there is another world, but it is the same one as this world. A new world created within the old world, however, cannot help but be a world in crisis. … Jesus is the parable of the Father’s love given to transform us so that we might be drawn into the new creation called the kingdom of God. … much will depend on how we have learned to allow the Word , Jesus Christ, to shape our words. So much will depend on our being made into Christ’s body by the words that speak us. (Stanley Hauerwas, A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching, pp.41,42,45)

fresh bread: how to make sure your prayers get heard

During his days on earth, Christ offered prayers and requests with loud cries and tears as his sacrifices to the one who was able to save him from death. He was heard because of his godly devotion. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered. (Hebrews 5.7-8, CEB)

Now what specific point in Jesus’ life in the flesh does the author have in mind? It seems clear his experience in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night of his betrayal, is in view.

He [Jesus] said, “Father, if it’s your will, take this cup of suffering away from me. However, not my will but your will must be done.” … He was in anguish and prayed even more earnestly. His sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground. (Luke 22.42,44, CEB)

We know how things played out: the cup of suffering is not removed and Jesus is led off to die on the cross for our sins. Which leads me to ask: how is it then that the writer of Hebrews can say Jesus’ prayer “was heard?”

1. Some believe that Jesus’ prayer in the Gethsemane was actually his request to be delivered from imminent death there in the Garden so that his whole life’s work and mission would not be compromised. That is, since Jesus didn’t die in the Garden, but survived to complete his mission by dying on the cross in our place, we can say that that was what was meant by the statement that Jesus’ prayer was “heard.”

2. Others think Jesus’ Garden prayer was actually not so much a prayer for his avoidance of death on the cross, but a prayer for deliverance out of, or from, the bonds of death. Consequently, when Jesus was raised from the dead we can say specifically this this is how his prayer was “heard.”

3. And there is yet another possibility. Could it be that since Jesus’ prayer was ultimately about his Father having his way, Jesus’ death on the cross was the answer to the prayer, and so the Father’s will was done?

To me, the third option makes the best sense of both the context of Luke 22 and the statement in Hebrews 5, especially vs.8:

“Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” (Hebrews 5.8, CEB)

Which leads me to ponder with a bit of wonder over the place of prayer in my own life. Particularly in connection with the will of God and my submissive obedience to him. When I want God to have his way most of all and am willing to live out whatever he would will for me, then I can say with confidence, that my prayer are always “heard.” I don’t have to “get my way” to be persuaded God “heard” my prayers; I need only know that my Father yearns to hear from me and longs for me to simply live by his guidance.

Heavenly Father, in the name of your Son and my Savior Jesus, deliver me from the dead end road that conceives of prayer as having been truly “heard” or “effective” only when things turn out the way I would have wanted them to happen. Always bring me to that place of submission where I perceive you hearing, and so answering, every single prayer I utter when my longing most of all is for your will to be done. Amen.

ct: blinded by the light

[From reflections on the account of Jesus healing the man born blind (John 9:1-41)]

Learning to see Jesus entails a training that challenges our presumption that we are already in the light. The man born blind is able to see Jesus because he had the advantage of being born blind. We fail to see Jesus because we have the disadvantage of being enlightened. It turns out, moreover, that we cannot will our way out of our enlightened darkness. Rather, we must be confronted by a light so brilliant that we are able to see the darkness our pride mistakes as light. An extraordinary claim, but what do you expect? We are Christians after all. We worship a crucified God – that takes some getting used to. (Stanley Hauerwas, A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching, p.35)

fresh bread: when the message doesn’t do it for you

We also had the good news preached to us, just as the Israelites did. However, the message they heard didn’t help them because they weren’t united in faith with the ones who listened to it. (Hebrews 4.2, CEB)

I know a lot of preachers and teachers. We share. I observe. And so this much I know we have in common: there isn’t a preacher or teacher on the planet who doesn’t hear it all the time. Sometimes it comes to us obliquely and sometimes it arrives head-on, but it’s always there. Always. To one degree or another.

  • “There just didn’t seem to be anything in that lesson for me.”
  • “Well, at least I got a good nap.”
  • “Maybe if you used more Scripture maybe I’d get more out of your sermons.”
  • “Maybe if you used less Scripture and more illustrations I’d get more out of your sermons.”
  • “And your point was …”

Ouch.

Whoever said “Sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words can never hurt me” was either deaf or an idiot. Speaking for this preacher, and virtually all I know, nothing hurts worse. Nothing.

And here’s why.

  • When you’re somewhere beyond buried in the wide, daily demands of ministry, ranging everywhere from administrivia to heart-rending counseling situations …
  • When no matter how early you start, how late you stay, how fast, how hard, or how efficient you work, you know you’re able to deal with about .01% of what needs to be done …
  • When there’s no such thing as a 45, a 55, or even just a 65 hour work week and you’re on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and trying to balance all of that with some remote image of a family life and a personal life …
  • When in the midst of that storm you struggle to carve out and protect some shred of sane quality time to prepare some semblance of several fresh, meaningful, creative, helpful, and truly God-honoring  sermons and lessons week-in and week-out without fail …
  • And then upon sharing that message you’ve tried to grapple with in thought, bathe in prayer, and sweat blood over in delivery, and someone says to you rather dismissively of it all, “That just didn’t do anything for me” …

It hurts.

But not as a personal hit or something to be taken as a personal offense. Rather it hurts because you know standing right in front of you is one of God’s people, one of your kin in Christ, who apparently did precious little or even nothing to encounter a message from God with personal faith. Then these words of God’s Spirit come to my mind:

“… the message they heard didn’t help them because they weren’t united in faith …”

It makes my heart hurt; it makes me bleed. And this is why it bleeds:

  • My brother was passive, not active in it all.
  • My sister apparently expected to receive without giving.
  • My kin in Christ clearly didn’t engage the experience with trust in our God and his promise of faithful provision in all things.
  • My fellow church family member thought the whole experience was for their personal benefit rather than for them to be united with God and all of his people.
  • My partner in the kingdom of God honestly wasn’t helped because they didn’t try to help themselves.

And so it hurts to say it, but say it I must, for it’s part of the message God has given us all …

Sometimes sermons suck. Sometimes lessons are lacking. And sometimes they lack or suck not at all because of anything the preacher did or didn’t do or from what the message did or didn’t have, but because of what was lacking in the hearts of those who heard it.

Or precisely as God’s Spirit had it said for us:

“… the message they heard didn’t help them because they weren’t united in faith …”

In faith, let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus, we preachers and teachers lift up to you our poor offerings we presume to call “sermons” and “lessons.” Where they honor you, please bless. Where they dishonor you, please forgive. In it all, have mercy on us God, sinners all we are. And have mercy on all of your people in how we hear you and through all that is. Unstop our ears. Help us to open our hearts. Grant us the grace to open our closed minds. To this end, we pray, that we would be united more fully with you and each other forever. Amen.

ct: believing is seeing

[Reflecting on Thomas’ reaction to Jesus’ invitation for him to touch his wounds and believe in John 20:19-31]

Jesus is the wound of the Father’s love, which we share through the gift of the Spirit. Let us confess we would prefer a savior not wounded, not wanting our own wounds exposed. Then let us recognize that such wounds are necessary for seeing the world and ourselves truthfully. And so, to be so wounded by the Spirit is what it means to be blessed, to be among those who have not seen but who have come to believe. Indeed, the church is constituted by those who have come to believe what we have not seen by trusting in what we have been told. (Stanley Hauerwas, A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching, pp.31-32)