Monthly Archives: May 2013

When everything is gone there will still be Jesus. (Thoughts on Matthew 2:13-23)

Sometimes I dream what life will be like when my eyes close only to open in the life to come. For some reason it’s always when I listen to music.  It has this way of distancing my heart from the moment and stretching out my existence from the things that have been to the things that one day will be.  I see.  I dream.  I hurt.  I wonder.  I ask.  I consider all the things I know and all the things I don’t.

Being a pastor is an honor like no other.  I remember the first time I got to speak at the Bible College from which I graduated and the first thing that was in my heart to tell them was that no one could ever articulate what it really means for someone to let you be their pastor.  It’s an invitation into the most sacred parts of their life.  You get to be there when two become one, when new life starts and when life goes away.  People allow you into the darkest and most precious moments of life.  There’s something about the words “power vested in me” that still shakes me.  You get to be one of the first to hold that precious new baby.  But maybe the most sacred part is when you get to sit with those when life is fleeting, or with those on the fringe when death has come.

Several years ago I had the honor of sitting with a young man who was being ravaged by cancer.  His days were numbered.

He knew it.  I knew it.  We all knew it.

He asked me a simple question, “Pastor, what is heaven like?”  When you’re sitting in that moment it doesn’t matter how much theological training you’ve had or how well you know your Bible.  A lump sits in your throat that seems like it has a life of its own.  Everything you’ve ever told people in easy moments runs across your mind.  Everything that has been written in little booklets sold at Christian bookstores sits at the forefront of your thinking.  And as I hope all Godly people would, I responded with godly fear that I don’t get the right to speculate.  Not here.  Not now.  Maybe when it’s easy I can be opinionated, but not in this. I can only speak of the things I would die for myself.  I remember that moment like yesterday.  Tears rolled down my face because I didn’t even want to entertain the question…I just wanted him to live.  I looked back and said,

“I don’t know.  But I do know one thing…Jesus will be there.  And I can promise you this, that wherever he is is exactly where you want to be.”

He didn’t have the strength to cry.  He just simply said, “I can do that.”  It was from that little laugh that we got to dream together.  His kindness opened up the door to dream, to believe.  I got to share the picture that the scriptures paint so vaguely of the life to come.  I talked about new creation and resurrection, about a place where death has no more life, about a new earth that is alive and vibrant, about family and what is means to be sons and daughters of God.  We dreamed and laughed about snowboarding with angels and what life will feel like when death has no place over human beings.

A week later I did his funeral.

And that’s the power of death, isn’t it?  It’s hard to argue that it doesn’t have the last word.  Whether it’s the death of a close friend, a madman in Newtown, a tornado in Oklahoma, a starving child in Kenya or a war-torn desert in Palestine, death’s brutality has its way.  It has its way in this life and it has its way in our hearts.  It looms like an unspeakable shame that taunts those in its way.  And it creates for those who contend with it a deep question, “God, where are you?”

One of my favorite moments in scripture is when Jesus’ friend Lazarus dies.  Lazarus has been dead for 4 days.  He shows up on the outskirts of Mary and Martha’s property and Martha runs out to meet him.  Desperate, broken and alone she says the question that sits on all of our lips.  She asks the question not only for herself but for all mankind, “Jesus, where were you?  If you were here my brother would still be alive.”

Jesus, where were you?  This is the dilemma of suffering.  It isn’t that we don’t understand that suffering exists.  We get it.  People can be evil.  People can do evil things.  Don’t believe me?  When you realize that the same amount of money that could end global poverty is the same amount of money Americans spend on ice cream every year then you can’t really argue back with me.  Watch the news for 5 minutes and the potential evil of human beings is told without a second thought.  The problem of suffering is that Jesus is so good.  He’s so so good.  And if he’s this good, how can this happen?  How can he really be the one he says he is and all of this can still happen?

This last Sunday we stopped at the moment in Matthew’s account of Jesus when death had its way in Bethlehem.  Right in the middle of the King of Resurrection’s birth is an evil King who, in his jealousy and rage, murdered all of the male children under 2 in the area of Bethlehem.  These two realities stand so contradicted to each other, it’s hard to hold them together.  Jesus born in the slaughter.

It’s here that I sat with Matthew.  Why would you tell me this?  There’s so many things you didn’t tell me about Jesus, why tell me this?  It’s here that I hear Matthew say back to me, “How could I not?  This is who Jesus is.  He came into death to be the one who would stand up to it for all of us.  He didn’t come with cheap answers, he came with power.  You have to know the conditions of the life Jesus was born into because it clarifies the whole story, the entire reason he came.”

“Death had always had the final word.  But Jesus had something to say back.”

Matthew is capturing the two storylines of life.  There is a storyline of the world, you live and you die.  Do what you can to enjoy it.  It comes and it goes.  The dead children of Bethlehem tell us the story of this world; evil wins and suffering has no equal.  And yet, right in the middle of the climax of the most evil thing that could exist in the death of children…there is another story.

There is Jesus.

He is the second storyline.

Matthew isn’t telling me this story to be brutal or for the manipulation of emotions.  He’s making a statement.  He’s making the statement of the entire gospel.  He’s making the statement of why anyone in this life could actually believe Jesus is Good News.  He in his subtlety is drawing a divergent line in the stand.  “You must see, Phil, what I believe about Jesus.  He created a second way.  When my story is all finished you’ll know it like you don’t know it now, but Jesus came to tell death it didn’t have the final word anymore.  He did.”

Martha is sitting at Jesus’ feet.  The question lingers in the air.  “Where were you?”  Jesus looks back at Martha with a simple and audacious comment, “Your brother will rise again.”  This response is so layered I understand why Martha initially responds to the level on the surface.  “I get it Jesus.  One day there will be a resurrection.”  There is something about her words that are so defeated and sarcastic.  I don’t know if she believed what she had just said, my guess is it’s the answer someone gave her in sunday school one day a long, long time ago.  Much like our answers.  But Jesus isn’t upset.  He loves Martha so much.

He loves us so much.

I see this moment so vividly.  Jesus eyes locked with Martha.  There’s a power that connects past the tears.  People everywhere, but right in this moment no one else exists.  Jesus looks at her and says, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Anyone who trusts me will live even though they will die and whoever lives by trusting me will never die.”  And then the question.

“Do you trust me?”

In such a simple question Jesus’ words start to take so much life.  Jesus is putting Martha’s first statement right back in front of her, but inviting her to see it with fresh eyes.  Her brother will rise again, not because it’s the cheesy answer that you learned from someone you don’t really know a long time ago.  Her brother will rise again because Jesus is.  Jesus isn’t an imagined hope or an ideal existence.  There was a day he sat in the dust with a broken woman named Martha and with tears in his eyes made a declaration to the ages…death doesn’t get to win anymore.  It’s rival has come.  Its enemy is at its doorstep.  Lazarus is about to be the proof.  Death is about to be defeated.

There is no easy conversation about suffering.  Cheap answers are more dangerous than no answer.  But I can tell you this, I believe in a God who has real answers.  I believe in a God who did something.  I believe in a God who desires to create people to be the answer to physical suffering.  I believe in a Jesus who wrote a second story.  I believe Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  I, if I trust anything at all, trust Jesus.  I believe that when everything else is gone, there will still be Jesus.

His resurrection isn’t simply a philosophy for me, I feel its existence within me.  I believe in the resurrection because it has taken dwelling within my flesh and blood.  The eternal promise rests within me like breath.  I have no doubts.  Every tragedy, personal and global, every ounce of suffering will be made right…because death doesn’t really have the last word…Jesus does.

I know for those who don’t believe questions still linger.  We could debate philosophies and Jesus’ sovereignty in light of the gravity of our choices having real impact.  We could debate about how the vast majority suffering is human made.  We could debate that when we broke away from God nature itself shifted and now suffers from the same sin sickness that we do.  We could debate that we want to shift blame on God when there is so much more we could do.  We could pull out all of the great quotes of atheists and Christian social advocates who say things so much better than we ever could.  We could debate God’s responsibility in a world with free will.  We could say everything there is to say.

And what I would tell you back is this.  After all of those words, there is one more word.

Jesus.  He wrote a second story.  He stands at the epicenter of your questions and wants to give you resurrection.  He wants to make you resurrection.  He wants to commission you to be resurrection for others.  He is here to tell you that death hasn’t had the final word.  He has.  He is the resurrection and the life.  Death may be flopping around this world like a dying fish…but it won’t win.  And one day, all of us will close our eyes in this life and open them in the life to come.  I don’t know exactly what it will be like, but I do know that Jesus will be there.  And I can promise you this, wherever he is is exactly where you want to be.

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Open Carefully: Response Required. (Thoughts on Matthew 1:18-2:12)

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Last night we celebrated Christmas on Cinco De Mayo.  Sort of.

As we go verse by verse in Matthew as a brand new community of people, we found ourselves in the story of Jesus’ birth.  Add a few Christmas songs, Christina’s Christmas cookies and a white elephant gift exchange (which did include a massive box of tampons and E. Smith’s actual licence plate) and it made me wish it were snowing.  But more than anything there was this heartbeat growing inside of me as I looked out at these 20 people sitting in my garage that realized one day these people are going to be like my family.  Those who were once strangers were going to become some of the most meaningful people in my life.

Those who were far away were going to be drawn near.

And that’s really the thing that felt like Christmas, because if there is anything worth celebrating as we look at this origin story of the King, it’s that He who seemed far away came near to bring close those who were actually far away.  God became man to wrap his arms around me and draw me in.  The God who seemed so far away, so quiet for so long, is here.  As I let Matthew tell me about the birth of his true King it became so apparent that he wanted me to know one thing.  The King has come.  He’s here.  The waiting is over.  He finally came.

It’s hard to capture the magnitude of what this meant to Matthew.  Part of it is connected to his genealogy.  You see every one of those men were waiting.  Abraham was waiting.  David was waiting.  They were all waiting.  42 generations are listed, and we know historically that there were more than that…and they were all waiting.  But the waiting is over, because King Jesus is here.  The true King is here.

The true King.  It’s like you can see Matthew pause because he’s wondering how to explain a very complicated story.  “But when Jesus was born, Israel had another king named Herod.  He wasn’t the true king and everybody knew it, but he had a lot of power with Rome so it wasn’t a boat that many wanted to rock.  Except for John, but I’ll get to him in a minute.”   And instantaneously we see that Jesus the King was born into a power struggle.  A spiritual and physical power struggle which is setting up the question that isn’t going to be answered quickly, “What is going to happen when the Kingdom of Herod confronts the Kingdom of Jesus?”

And it’s here that I began to see what mattered to Matthew about this moment.  Lot’s of things happened when Jesus was born and if you want to gooshy stuff you really should be talking with Luke.  It’s like Matthew steps back and says “If you saw it from a distance you’d realize that when Jesus was born it became the most catalytic event in the history of the world.  It set off this chain reaction with Jesus at the epicenter.”

Jesus is the epicenter.

Matthew makes one thing very clear – when Jesus showed up it demanded a reaction.  It demanded a response.  He told me about Joseph and the choices that were in front of him.  Was he going to trust God and marry this pregnant teenager to the shame of his name and family or was he going to divorce her and maintain his reputation among his peers?  Jesus’ arrival demanded a reaction.  Then Matthew told me about these powerful men from the East who studied the stars and saw something so wild they traveled at the cost of their own lives to find this King.  Where they going to count the cost and find this child or was it simply too much work?  Jesus’ arrival demanded a reaction.  Then Matthew tells me a little bit more about King Herod and his discovery that “a new King” was coming.  Just like Joseph and these foreign astrologists he had a choice to make.  Was he going to believe that God was on the move to the loss of his own status or was he going to tighten his grip on the power he craved?  Herod, like the others, had a moment where reaction was required.  And sadly, Herod’s reaction was with the sword.

It’s like when Matthew was telling me about the events around Jesus’ arrival I knew what he was trying to tell me.  I, like all of these men, was now confronted with the very same choice.  In fact we all are.  The arrival of King Jesus invites me into a response.  Whose path will I follow?  Will I side with Joseph and the mysterious travelers or will I side with Herod and protect the Kingdom I built with my own hands?  Will I gently bend to my knees and worship this King?

Worship.  It’s an interesting thing.  Chords and songs, chants and liturgy and occasionally the oh so awesome light show.  It’s this word that no matter how much we tell people we understand it ultimately means the 20-30 minutes of singing before some epic female pastor tell us about Jesus.  You may have a boring dude as well, but same difference.  You know, it’s the time we drink coffee and go quiet on the verses we don’t know by heart.  It’s where we send those last texts before we sit down and everyone will notice.  It’s where we stand in God’s presence and judge people for what they are wearing and lean over and say stuff like this to your spouse, “This song?  Really?  I hate this song.” (I actually did that about 5 weeks ago).  But you know what I mean…worship.

I’m using slight hyperbole, but sadly I’m closer to the truth than any of us want to admit.  I wonder one day what it will feel like to stand before Jesus knowing we perverted something so important.  My prayer for you and for me is that we won’t have that day.  That something inside of us would wake up and see that it’s not too late for us.  We get to let Matthew invite us into a life of true worship.

True worship is a life that allows Jesus to be the epicenter.

I want that life.  I crave that life.  I want to give my life so that others can have that life.  And you want to know what…something about the singing changes when this is your life.  The songs become expressions from the deepest places of your heart.  The moments become the cry for King Jesus to take his rightful place at the epicenter of your life.  The words become the language of love to the one who loved us first.  It becomes the time that you never want to miss…because there’s something about music when you mean it that becomes the most powerful language we have.  And we start to give that language to Jesus.

So who is this Jesus?  This catalyst who created waves throughout human history.  This one that we may dare shape our lives around.  Matthew does something very interesting.  He tells us that Jesus actually has two names.  And his names tell us something very important.  His first name is Jesus, which is actually Joshua, which is actually Yeshua.  It means the one who will lead you into the promised land.  But this isn’t his only name, he was given another name.  Immanuel.  Simply translated Immanuel means “God with us.”  And even though Matthew is just at the beginning of his story he looks at us and says, “Jesus is the one who has come near to take you to the promised land.  This is what he wants to do.  Jesus isn’t a static king.  He’s here and he has a plan.”

Jesus came to be with me and take me to the promised land.

N.T. Wright talks about how Matthew is the left eye that saw the birth of Jesus and Luke was the right eye.  When you put them together, you see the full story.  Apparently John was what happens when you dream in your sleep after eating Taco Bell.  And there is something amazing when you put these two viewpoints together.  You see Joseph and Mary, shepherds and angels, Kings and travelers, and even some barn animals.  They all find themselves surrounding a baby in a feeding trough.  An impoverished King of a teenage mom in a lonely town.  But around him was something spectacular.  Creation leaned in, angels surrounded and the most broken of society came close.

There is another moment in the biblical narrative like this moment.  Except it’s at the very end.  Revelation 4.  John has just shared his heart with all of the churches and starts the vision at the end…with heaven.  Standing at the throne of God is a lamb that has been slain, a picture of Jesus.  Surrounding this Jesus are these four wild creatures with eyes up and down their bodies.  They have different elements of animals and creation woven together into a single freakish being.  I remember being little and being scared to go to heaven because these things were there.  Thankfully, John was just being weird.  🙂  These animals are symbol of creation.  It was creation that surrounded this lamb.  And around these creatures was God’s people.  They were all there.  And around them the angels.  They were all together.

A little over 2000 years ago a baby names Jesus was surrounded by creation, people and angels and they worshipped.  Jesus came to lead us back to where it all started.  That one day all of creation and humanity and the angels will surround this King and worship.  Why?  Because he made all things new.  Something wild and provacative is at place between these two scenes.  Jesus the King, the baby in a feeding trough, the lamb was slain is taking me to a promised land.  That promised land is the renewal and transformation of me to become the me he always intended.  A me free of death and decay, and of sin and hatred, where I take my rightful place next to the one who created me as His son.

One day we will be right back where it all started, but the difference will be that King Jesus will have rescued us.  He came to the broken to make all things new.  

To lower the high places and exalt the valleys.

To make the rough places plain.

To set the crooked places straight.

To reveal the glory of God.

May you today celebrate Christmas, and don’t worry you don’t need any licence plates or tampons.  But you do need one thing…to know that you were loved first.  That there is a King named Jesus who stands at the epicenter of history.  He’s inviting you to let him stand at the epicenter of you, because when he gets there he’s going to have a plan.  He’s going to make all things new.  May you become a worshipper who let’s God Immanuel take you to the promised land.

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