Tag Archives: Gospel

The Tears of Jesus

Will you make Jesus Christ cry or smile this week?
Will you break or console His heart?

weptIt’s a trivia question that’s familiar to anyone who’s been around the church for any length of time – “What’s the shortest verse in the Bible?” “Jesus wept” we say, “John 11:35.” By definition, “trivia” is “a piece of information that’s of little value.” And that’s what we’ve done to John 11:35.  We’ve “trivialized” it.  We’ve reduced it to a Sunday School riddle, to a piece of amusing but unimportant information.  But to my way of thinking, “Jesus wept,” John 11:35 is one of the most important things that the New Testament tells us about Jesus Christ.

In the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday, right after Jesus told His disciples that He was the way, the truth, and the life, how we get to God, Philip, one of Christ’s very first disciples, made what must rank right up there with the great understatements of all times. “Just show us God,” he said, “and that will satisfy us” (John 14:9).  Really, Philip?  That’s all you want? To see God? That will make you happy?  We can’t hear the inflection of the voice in the things that Jesus said in the Gospels, but I can’t help but think that there’s just a little bit of exasperation when Jesus answered Philip with — “Have I been with you all this time, and you still don’t get it?” And then Jesus made the statement on which all of Christianity rests – “Whoever sees me sees God” (John 14:9). Explaining what this means, E. Stanley Jones said that just as our words are the expression of our thoughts, so Jesus Christ is the expression of God.

Just as we look up through a person’s words to understand their thoughts, so we look up through Jesus to know what. God is like that which we see in Jesus.  And if God is, then He is a good God and trustable.  I can ask for nothing better. (28-29)

So, what do the tears of Jesus tell us about who God is?

JesusWell, in John 11:35, the tears of Jesus tell us that God completely understands the pain that the death of a loved one produces in us. Jesus wept at the tomb of his good friend Lazarus.  Even though Jesus knew that He was on the verge of bringing him back from the dead, still Jesus wept as He stared the reality of His friend’s death in the face, and that’s because death is an enemy, the New Testament tells us, the last enemy to be destroyed (I Corinthians 15:25).  Even when death comes as the blessed release of a loved one from their suffering and struggle, death is still unnatural, not part of God’s original design for us as human beings.  It’s intrusive, destructive, and malevolent. That’s what the tears of Jesus tell us in John 11:35.   God doesn’t want us to die, and Jesus Christ came to see to it that we don’t have to. He’s the resurrection and the life, and whoever believes in Him, Jesus promised, though he dies, yet shall he live, in fact, whoever lives and believes in Him “shall never die” (John 11:25-26).  Imagine that, Pastor Ben Haden said, we who are Christians – we who believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior – we won’t be… we can’t be dead… not even for a minute!  That’s what the tears of Jesus mean in John 11:35, but this isn’t the only place in the Gospels where Jesus cried.  He wept on Palm Sunday as He approached Jerusalem for His final week (Luke 19:41-44)–

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying…
“You did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

glassHalfway down the Mount of Olives today, directly opposite the walls of Jerusalem, there’s a little church known as “Dominus Flevit” – Latin for “Our Lord wept.” This is where tradition tells us that Jesus Christ stopped on that first Palm Sunday to grieve the fact that “He came to His own home, and His own people received Him not” (John 1:11). The tears of Jesus in Luke 19:41 were the tears of rejection, the tears of unrequited love.  As Morton Kelsey used to say, “There’s something more powerful in this world than God is, and it’s us, for we have the power to keep God out of our lives should we choose to.” Jesus, it would seem, came to terms with this fact halfway down the Mount of Olives on His way into Jerusalem for the last time, and it caused Him to stop and weep.  His tears were the tears of God, in fact, those tears had flowed before.

Jeremiah 8 is where we’re told about the tears of God. The prophets of the Old Testament operated with a profound sense of — “Thus saith the Lord.”  They didn’t speak on their own initiative or from their own insight.  God put His thoughts in their hearts; His words in their mouths.  At least that’s the claim made by the Bible’s prophetic books.  And so, in the book of Jeremiah when we read –

For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn,
and dismay has taken hold of me…
O that my head were a spring of water
and my eyes a fountain of tears,

so that I might weep day and night for…
my poor people!

The right interpretive question for us to ask when hearing these verses is – “Who’s speaking?” Who is the “me,” and the “my,” and the “I”?  Is it Jeremiah speaking, or is it God?  Is this the anguish of Jeremiah for his people, or is it the anguish of God for His people? Are the tears these verses describe the tears of Jeremiah the prophet, or are they the tears of the God who sent the prophet? Christopher J.H. Wright in his commentary on the book of the prophet Jeremiah, after acknowledging the difficulty that interpreters have had trying to sort out the words of the prophet from the words of God in these verses, finally concluded that when they are read backwards from the – “thus saith the Lord” – in chapter 9, verse 3 back to what’s said in chapter 8, verses 18-22, that the “me” who speaks is “unquestionably God himself.”

The brutal fact is, God himself breaks down in agonizing sorrow (8:18). God is crushed (8:21)… God dissolves in tears (9:1)… God holds his head in his hands, and sobbing through the tears says – “My people, my people, my poor, poor people.” (127)

We can break God’s heart. We can make Christ cry.  We can grieve the Holy Spirit.

bookOur Catholic brothers and sisters have an entire devotional tradition that’s based on this idea. It’s called “consoling the heart of Jesus,” and it goes back to a 17th century French nun who said that while she was meditating on the death of Christ on the cross one day that she had a vision of His heart and heard a voice saying, “Behold this heart which loves so much yet is so little loved.” At the center of “Consoling Spirituality” is the realization that our indifference, our ingratitude, our inattentiveness, and our irreverence makes God incredibly sad.  Christ’s heart aches because so many for whom He’s dying ignore His goodness and love. “Behold this heart which loves so much yet is so little loved.” This is not just a Catholic idea.

kennedyG. A. Studdert Kennedy was a much beloved Church of England minister during WW 1. He won the Military Cross for bravery in his service to the wounded during the war, and then when the war was over, he threw himself into the ministry of the church with the same energy and passion, especially with the inner city poor of England. Never healthy, he pushed himself in his service of Christ to the point of physical exhaustion, and in 1929, just short of his 46th birthday, G.A. Studdert Kennedy died. A poet as well as a pastor, G.A. Studdert Kennedy’s poem “Indifference” is probably his best known –

When Jesus came to Golgotha they hanged Him on a tree,
They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Birmingham they simply passed Him by,
They never hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.

Still Jesus cried, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,”
And still it rained the wintry rain that drenched Him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall and cried for Calvary.

It’s said that Christ would rather be rejected than ignored. In the book of Revelation the Risen Glorious Christ told the Christians in Laodicea that they were neither “hot” nor “cold” – indifferent.

So because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of My mouth! (3:15-16)

Jesus stopped to weep on His way into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday not because of the cross that was waiting for him there at the end of Holy week, but because He knew that what He was going to do on that cross was something that could so easily ignored by the people for whom He was doing it. “Behold this heart which loves so much yet is so little loved.”

In the Gospel of John, right after the miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000, Jesus gave His Bread of Life discourse, and it proved to be something of a watershed moment in His ministry. Because of what Jesus said about being the bread from heaven that must be consumed by people who are desiring eternal life, many in the crowd of fans who were just following Him for the show and the snacks turned away from Jesus because they found what He was saying to be too confusing, too demanding, and too disturbing.  And John tells us that as the crowd thinned, Jesus turned to His disciples, to the people who had been with Him from the very beginning, and asked – “Are you going to leave me now too?” Again, we can’t hear the inflection in the words that Jesus spoke in the Gospels, still, I hear sorrow.  And Peter answered – “Lord, to whom we can go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (6:66-69).

“Consoling Spirituality” is nothing more and nothing less than us telling the sorrowful Christ that we aren’t leaving Him, that we know He has the words of eternal life, and that we believe He is the Holy One of God. If Christ is hurt by our rejection, then surely Christ is bolstered by our devotion.  In fact, Robert Boyd Munger said that we can make God smile (84). In a 1986 interview, this pastoral giant said that all he ever wanted from the Lord in return for his more than 60 year ministry on the West Coast was His smile. “If I know you’re there and you’re pleased,” he said, “that’s all I need.” So, if it’s our inattentiveness, indifference, ingratitude, and irreverence that grieves Christ, then it’s our attentiveness, responsiveness, gratitude, and reverence that pleases Him.

So, will you spend time in Scripture this week reading again the story of Christ’s
passion, about how He died and was raised for you?

Will you gather with the community of faith to offer God praise and thanks
for what He has done for us and our salvation?

Will you spend some time talking to God from your heart about
where you are right now in your life and what it is that He wants for you?

 And will you find some specific and concrete ways to take up your cross
and follow Christ on the way of self-sacrifice and service?

This is the week for paying attention, giving thanks, taking take up our crosses, and making God smile. DBS +




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“Well Done Thou Good & Faithful Servant” (Part 4)

William Franklin Graham Jr.
(November 7, 1918 – February 21, 2018)


“The Next Billy Graham”

Now that Billy is gone, a question that is being actively, and even urgently, discussed by many Evangelicals is – “Who’s next?” Who is going to step up now to take his place as the great unifying voice and public spokesperson for this diverse “conversionist” (Lives need to be transformed through being “born-again” and undertaking a lifelong process of following Jesus), “activist” (The Gospel needs to be actively demonstrated through lives of witness and service), “Biblicist” (The Bible is our highest authority in matters of Christian faith and practice), and “Crucicentric” (a focus on the cross of Christ as the basis of our redemption and reconciliation) community called “Evangelicals”?

My favorite answer is the one that Russell Moore, the President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, offers.  He writes –

Whenever I start to get discouraged about the future of the church, I remember the last conversation I had with the Evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry… Several of us were lamenting the miserable shape of the church… We asked Dr. Henry if he saw any hope in the coming generation of evangelicals, and I will never forget his reply.

“Of course, there is hope for the next generation of evangelicals,” he said. “But the leaders of the next generation might not be coming from the current evangelical establishment. They are probably still pagans… Who knew that Saul of Tarsus was going to be the great apostle to the Gentiles?” he asked us. “Who knew that God would raise up a C.S. Lewis or a Charles Colson? They were both unbelievers who, once saved by the grace of God, were mighty warriors for the faith…” And then he said, “The next Billy Graham might very well be passed out drunk in a fraternity house right now.”

I actually hope he or she is, because this is the truth to which Billy Graham devoted his entire life, that – “The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16), and that – “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). What would be more fitting than for the next Billy Graham to be someone whose life gets suddenly and powerfully transformed in this way by the Gospel that Billy himself preached and trusted so faithfully for so many years?  DBS+

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“Well Done Thou Good & Faithful Servant” (Part 2)

William Franklin Graham Jr.
(November 7, 1918 – February 21, 2018)


“I Stand by the Door”

Billy Graham was an instrumental voice in my own spiritual awakening in 1969 when I was 16 years old. People I know like to criticize Billy Graham for not being more theologically sophisticated. But that’s always seemed to me to be a little bit like criticizing Nolan Ryan for not being a better batter, or Bill Gates for not ever having a song in the Billboard top ten. Nolan Ryan was not paid to hit the ball but to throw strikes, and he was pretty good at that! And we don’t know Bill Gates for his singing abilities but for his technical and entrepreneurial genius, and that genius is pretty impressive! So, to criticize Billy Graham for not writing anything comparable to Karl Barth’s “Church Dogmatics,” or for not teaching at some top tier theological seminary where he might have become a first-rate scholar is to completely miss his gifts and call.

Robert Raines got it exactly right when he wrote in his 1961 book New Life in the Church (Harper & Row) –

When Billy Graham came to New York City for a Crusade (1957), Protestant clergymen came out both for and against him. Reinhold Niebuhr, a top-flight theologian, took what appeared to be a thoroughly negative view of Graham’s coming, “as though the eye were to say to the hand, I have no need of your” (I Corinthians 12:20). But Henry Pitney Van Dusen, the President of Union Theological Seminary where Dr. Niebuhr was a world-famous teacher, said – “There are many, of whom I am one, who are not ashamed to testify that they would probably never have come within the sound of Dr. Niebuhr’s voice or the influence of his mind if they had not first been touched by the message of the earlier Billy [Billy Sunday]. Quite probably five or ten years hence there may appear in the classrooms and churches of Billy Graham’s severest critics not a few who will be glad to give parallel testimony to his role in starting them in that direction.” (42)

Sam Shoemaker, another evangelist of the last generation, spoke of his ministry in a way that helps me understand and appreciate Billy Graham’s ministry.

I stand by the door. I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out. The door is the most important door in the world – It is the door through which men walk when they find God. There is no use my going way inside and staying there, when so many are still outside and they, as much as I, crave to know where the door is. And all that so many ever find is only the wall where the door ought to be. They creep along the wall like blind men, with outstretched, groping hands, feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door, yet they never find it. So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world is for men to find that door – the door to God. The most important thing that any man can do is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands and put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks and opens to the man’s own touch. Men die outside the door, as starving beggars die on cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter. Die for want of what is within their grasp. They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it. Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it, and open it, and walk in, and find Him. So I stand by the door.

Go in great saints; go all the way in – Go way down into the cavernous cellars, and way up into the spacious attics. It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is. Go into the deepest of hidden casements, of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood. Some must inhabit those inner rooms and know the depths and heights of God, and call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is. Sometimes I take a deeper look in. Sometimes venture in a little farther, but my place seems closer to the opening. So I stand by the door.

…I admire the people who go way in. But I wish they would not forget how it was before they got in. Then they would be able to help the people who have not yet even found the door… As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place, near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there, but not so far from men as not to hear them, and remember they are there too. Where? Outside the door – Thousands of them. Millions of them. But – more important for me – One of them, two of them, ten of them. Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch. So I shall stand by the door and wait for those who seek it. “I would rather be a door-keeper” (Psalm 84:10) – So I stand by the door.

Billy stood by the door to show people where and how to get in, and as one who was ushered by him into a deeper understanding and a fuller experience of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I am so grateful that he was there. DBS+


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Gospel Words and Gospel Works

handsThere’s a memorable scene in the movie version of “Jesus Christ Superstar” where Jesus gets surrounded by a sea of needy people, all of them stretching out their hands trying to grab hold of a piece of the wholeness that He had offered to other people in His ministry of healing.  They wanted their share, and in this scene in the movie Jesus gets engulfed by this crowd with their needs and He disappears into them as if sinking into quicksand.

I think of Mark 3:7-10 whenever I see of this scene –

Hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon. Jesus told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him; for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him.

The physical needs of people were so great and so many in the days of His public ministry that Jesus could very easily spent every waking moment He had healing them, feeding them, and delivering them. And so Luke tells us that early in His ministry Jesus withdrew to a lonely place to think and pray, and when the crowd found Him and wanted more, He told them – “I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43).

Word and action were inextricably intertwined in the ministry of Jesus. The verbalization of the Good News of God’s presence and purpose – His “Kingdom” – and the visualization of the Good News of God’s presence and purpose were equal parts of His ministry.

Jesus preached and Jesus healed the sick.
Jesus preached and Jesus cast out demons.
Jesus preached and Jesus raised the dead.
Jesus preached and Jesus fed the hungry.
Jesus preached and Jesus calmed the storm.

This is why Luke began his second book, the book of Acts, with a description of the content of his first book, the Gospel of Luke. “In the first book,” Luke explained, “I dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). “Do” and “teach.” Jesus did things and Jesus talked about things. Word and action — that was the pattern of Christ’s ministry.

JesusIf I’m reading Luke 4:40-44 correctly, then it was figuring out how to balance the things that Jesus was sent to say with the things that Jesus needed to do to give those words credibility that proved to be so tricky for Him because there were always more people who needed Jesus to do things for them — to heal them, and to feed them, to deliver them —than there were people who were eager to sit and listen to Him preach. It would have been easy for Jesus to have neglected His mandate to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom because He was so busy meeting people’s physical needs.  This is a theme that recurs throughout the Gospels.

The Adversary tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread in the Wilderness. Some interpreters hear in this taunt the suggestion that Jesus should substitute His spiritual mission for a purely material one alone “You don’t have to go to the cross as the Messiah to do the saving work of God, just meet people’s physical needs, that will get you a following” seems to be the subtext of the Devil’s suggestion.  And then later, in the Gospel of John, after feeding the 5000, we’re told that the crowd was actually ready to take Jesus by force and make Him King (6:15), and why not?  He could keep their bellies perpetually full.  But Jesus turned and walked away from this offer, and when the crowd finally caught up with Him again, He told them directly –

“You came looking for Me because you ate the bread and got all you wanted, not because you were looking for the Christ.  Don’t seek the food that spoils; instead, seek the food that lasts for eternal life. This is the food that the Son of Man can give you…” (6:26-27 – paraphrased)

Then Jesus preached one of His most important sermons in the Gospel of John — the Bread of Life discourse.

What I see going on in the story that Luke tells in 4:40-44 is this same struggle to hold the Gospel’s words and the Gospel’s works together in proper balance. This isn’t easy to do.  In fact, it’s a horse that we can fall off from either side.  And so there are word churches. There are works churches.  But there are very few word and work churches.  Word churches are good at telling people about Jesus.  Works churches are good at showing Jesus by the compassionate things that they do.  But what God wants, what God needs, what God always intended, was for every church to hold their Gospel words and their Gospel works together in proper balance.

The church I serve is a Gospel works church, in fact, we do the works of the Gospel just about as well as any church I’ve ever known. If there’s someone who needs to be fed, or clothed, or sheltered, or taken care of in a time of distress, deprivation, or desperation, we’ll be there because we understand that this is what Jesus Christ expects of us as His people. But ask us to tell somebody about Jesus, and we’re like deer caught in the headlights.

assisiWe just love that saying that gets popularly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi – Go into all the world and preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words.”  We love this saying because we’re Gospel works Christians, and we think that it excuses us from ever having to talk about our faith. There are several problems with this.  First of all, St. Francis never said it. The Franciscans have thoroughly checked.  They’ve searched their sources, and not found it anywhere.   And the truth of the matter is that it’s highly unlikely that St. Francis would have ever said this.  He was a preacher, and the order that he founded – the Franciscans – are an order of preachers.  They’re all about the preaching of the Gospel.  They’re word Christians. And finally, we probably shouldn’t say it because it’s ultimately illogical.  Saying – “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words” – is sort of like saying – “Call me on the phone, if necessary use numbers,” or – “Fix me dinner, if necessary use ingredients.” The fact of the matter is that the Gospel has some specific and essential content. It’s about Jesus — it’s about who He was and what He did – and that means that it can’t be preached without using words.  The Gospel is inherently verbal.  The cool cup of water that we give has got to be explained at some point if it is in fact being offered in Jesus’ name.

Alan Kreider, the late Mennonite theologian, had a good friend who spent some time serving at one of Saint Teresa’s hospices in Calcutta. As he reflected later on his experience there, he said – “Since I don’t speak Bengali, I couldn’t talk to them in their own language, and that meant that they were left to draw their own conclusions about why I was there.” And that troubled Alan’s friend because he knew that he was there serving.  He wasn’t there because he was such a good and generous person in and of himself, but rather because he had such a good and generous Savior, a Lord who wanted him to be there. His actions were all because of Jesus, but the people he served never knew that because he never mentioned Jesus.

Churches and Christians that do the works of the Gospel need to speak the words of the Gospel with equal intentionality. And churches and Christians that speak the words of the Gospel need to do the works of the Gospel with that same focus.

steveSteve Sjogren, was pastoring a church in Cincinnati back in the early 1990’s when he realized that his verbalization of the Gospel was in desperate need of some Gospel visualization if it was ever going to get an honest hearing. Steve says that he had become a pretty obnoxious “word” Christian.  People actually turned and walked the other way when they saw him coming because they didn’t want to be badgered by him about Jesus again.  He was that guy who went into public bathrooms and unrolled the toilet paper in each stall just so that he could roll it back up again with a witness tract strategically stuck in-between the sheets every five squares or so.  Not many people were coming to Christ through his efforts.  So Steve dramatically changed directions.

godworkSteve resolved to start doing the works of God’s love for people with the heart of a servant before trying to share a single word about God’s love with them. He concluded that if people could first see a demonstration of God’s love in Jesus Christ that they would then be more receptive to hearing the message of God’s love for them in Jesus Christ. And it was a woman that Steve humbly served one day at the point of a need she had that actually confirmed that this was the right approach for him to take.  She began to weep as Steve served her at the point of her felt need, and when she asked why he was doing it, he simply said – “Because of the love of Jesus Christ.” “I’m 50 years old,” she told them, “and all my all I’ve ever heard Christians do is talk, talk, talk about God’s love. But here today, for the very first time in my life, I’ve actually experienced something of God’s love for me personally!” (The Conspiracy of Kindness – 102).

The Gospel is something we say. The Gospel is something we do. When we hold the Gospel words and the Gospels works together — when people can see the Gospel then they will be so much more willing to hear the Gospel. So, how shall we live so that people will want to know more about Jesus Christ who is our Lord and Savior?  What can we do that will make somebody stop and wonder – “Why is she like that?” “Why is he doing this?”  And should they dare ask these questions of us out loud — are we prepared to tell them — “Because of Jesus and His love”? DBS +






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The great temptation of the church in an era of challenge and decline like the one that we currently find ourselves in is to want to pull back and take care of ourselves rather than to turn outward in Christ’s mission of extending God’s compassion to anyone and everyone who has been kicked to the curb and told that they don’t matter. And because this is just such an era of challenge and decline for churches like ours, the Jesus I believe we really need right now is the Jesus who meets us in the Gospel of Luke.

jesusesThe Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is the Messiah of God’s complete faithfulness. The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is the Son of God’s mighty purpose and power. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel is the Son of Man whose compassion draws the least, the last, and the lost into the embrace of God’s inclusive love.  And the Jesus of John’s Gospel is the Word of God made flesh who comes to offer us the gift of eternal life.

I know all of these Jesuses.
I believe in all of these Jesuses.
I need all of these Jesuses.

When I struggle with knowing what’s true and who it is that I can finally trust, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew I really need. When the days grow dark and it feels like chaos is winning the fight, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark I really need.  When loved ones die and I am confronted with the fact of my own mortality, I find that what I really need is the Jesus of the Gospel of John.  And when I am tempted to pull back into the cocoon of myself to pursue my own private interests and to seek my own selfish well-being, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Luke I really need.  The most important thing for a church like ours to rediscover and then proclaim in a mean era when people are increasingly picking sides, drawing lines, and building barriers to keep others out is that we are God’s “beloved” — we are — all of us — God’s “beloved.” And this is precisely what the Jesus of the Gospel of Luke makes clear to me.

Near the end of his life, Henri Nouwen said that the central moment in the public ministry of Jesus as the Christ as far as he as concerned was His baptism in the Jordan by John when He heard the voice of God say – “You are my beloved.”  The last great theme of Henri Nouwen’s long and distinguished vocation as a spiritual teacher was the development of this idea that at the very center of the spiritual life for us as Christians is hearing the words – “You are my Beloved” – in “a deep way,” and then living out this truth as a contradiction to everything that the world believes.

belovedThe world says that our worth is determined by how we look, by what we weigh, by who we vote for, by where we live, by the level of our education and income, by who we love, by where we were born, by the color of our skin, or by any one of a hundred other things. But in the world our worth is always conditional.  It always depends on something else.  It’s something we have to deserve.  It’s something we have to be worthy of.  It’s something we have to earn.  But the Biblical word for “beloved” cuts through all of this and says that our worth is something that is established by God’s own determination and declaration instead.  The Biblical word for “beloved” is variant of the Biblical word “agape,” a word that refers to God’s love – a “deep, active, self-sacrificing, and absolutely unconditional” kind of love. To be “beloved” is literally to be “agape-ed.”

Jesus heard that He was “agape-ed” ~ “beloved” when He got baptized.  Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John to fully identify Himself with the people He came to seek and save, and so when God declared Him “Beloved” I believe that it wasn’t just a statement about Him alone, but rather it was a statement for, and about us all.  As one of the greatest theologians that the church has ever produced, a man named Athanasius (296 – 373), put it – “He [Jesus Christ] became what we are so that he might makes us what He is.” Getting into line with all those people who were being baptized was part of Jesus “becoming what we are,” and God’s declaration of Jesus as His “Beloved” child is part of Jesus “making us what He is.”

In a sermon that he preached at the Episcopal Cathedral in St. Louis at the beginning of January in 2011 [http://yourcathedral.blogspot.com/2011/01/you-are-my-beloved-sermon-for-feast-of.html] the Rev. Mike Kinman explained that the truth of “Beloved-ness” is a truth that moves in three directions at once.  First it moves inward. It’s first a word that gets spoken to each one of us individually. Once we’ve internalized this truth and feel it in our bones, then it starts to move outward.  You see, not only am I God’s beloved, but so are you, as is everyone in this beloved community we call the church.  So, in your imagination tattoo the word “Beloved” onto the forehead of every other Christian you meet – the Conservative ones and the Liberal ones, the Progressive ones and the Fundamentalist ones, the ones who are most like you and the ones who couldn’t be more different from you – and then frame every thought you have of them and every word you speak to them, or about them, by the fact that they are numbered among God’s “agape-ed.”  And once we’ve started treating each other around here, inside the four walls of the church, as “beloved,” then it’s time to open up the doors and take this show on the road.

John 3:16 doesn’t say that God so loved the church that He sent his only begotten Son, but that God so loved the world. It’s the whole world and everyone in it that’s “Beloved” by God.  There are no exceptions.  And so Rev. Kinman told his congregation that Christians are people who –

…through prayer and [Bible] study listen to God’s voice saying: “You are my beloved,” and who every day grow a little less fearful and a little more trusting that it is true. It’s being people who look at each other and see before anything else someone whom God adores. [And] Who every day try just a little bit harder to be a part of God adoring everyone else…

cupJesus heard God say that He was “Beloved” while standing in the waters of His baptism.  I think that where we are most likely to hear God say that we are His “Beloved” is at the Lord’s Table where bread is broken and a cup is poured in remembrance of Christ’s saving acts and in celebration of His continuing presence.  We come to the Lord’s Table to hear God say – “You are my Beloved.” And then we go from the Lord’s Table knowing that every person we meet is God’s “Beloved” too, and understanding that we may very well be the only people in the world with the power at that moment to tell them, and to show them, who they truly are – God’s “Beloved.”  DBS +


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Christmas Movies and the Gospel


This Christmas at my house we watched “Elf,” “Christmas Vacation,” “The Santa Clause,” “Christmas with the Kranks,” part of “White Christmas,” “A Christmas Story,” and the “Miracle on 34th Street.” Movies are some of our culture’s most familiar texts for interpreting the meaning of this season. And I predict that they will only grow in importance in the future as fewer and fewer people go to church and publicly identify themselves as Christians.

buddySomething Christmas movies buffs like to discuss are their favorite characters. Online you’ll find lists and lists of people’s favorite characters in Christmas movies – Buddy from “Elf,” Ralphie from “A Christmas Story,” George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Clark Griswold or Cousin Eddie from “Christmas Vacation,” or any one of the characters from “A Christmas Carol” — Jacob Marley… Tiny Tim… Ebenezer Scrooge.  The character from a Christmas movie that I personally find most spiritually intriguing is “old man Marley” from “Home Alone.” Old man Marley is the across-the-street neighbor of Kevin McCallister, the kid, who through a series of blunders, gets left behind when the rest of his family flies to France for the holidays. We are introduced to old man Marley in “Home Alone” when Kevin sees him shoveling the snow on his sidewalk.  Kevin’s older brother, Buzz, has convinced him that old man Marley is “the South Bend Shovel Slayer,” a man who had infamously murdered his family with a snow shovel, and so every time Kevin bumps into old man Marley early in the movie, he yelps, turns, and runs away.

HomeAloneThe best scene in the movie, in my opinion, is when, alone and afraid, Kevin slips into a dark church where a children’s’ choir is rehearsing for Christians Eve and old man Marley, who is also there, alone and afraid in the dark, slips into the pew beside Kevin. Their conversation eventually gets around to their families, and old man Marley tells Kevin that he’s there listening to that children’s choir rehearse because it was the only way that he could hear his granddaughter sing.  You see, old man Marley hadn’t murdered his family, they were estranged, they hadn’t talked to each other for years.  Old man Marley lived his life in the pain of this isolation, and poignantly he told Kevin, “You can say hello when you see me. You don’t have to be afraid.  There’s a lot of things going around about me, but none of it’s true.”  These are the words of someone who’s been pushed away and who just wants to belong somewhere, to somebody.  There’s Gospel in these words.  Paul told the Ephesians that Jesus Christ came to specifically bring people who felt pushed away back into the circle of God’s care and concern. “He is our peace… He broke down the barrier of the dividing wall… He came and preached peace to those who were far away” (2:13; 17).

shadowsIn Luke’s familiar version of the Christmas story, the shepherds are old man Marley. They were the ostracized ones, the people who were pushed away and lived in the shadows. Shepherding was hard and dirty work. Living with their flocks in the open fields, shepherds stank of sheep.  Nobody wanted to be around them, and not just because of their poor hygiene. Daily contact with blood, manure, and dead animals rendered shepherds unclean spiritually. And so they were excluded from the community of faith, and from the ceremonies in the Temple.  They didn’t belong.  They weren’t fit to be with God, and they weren’t fit to be with other people. They were the “far off” ones, and then on the night when Christ was born, Luke tells us that they were the very first people to be told of it and to be invited to come and see it.  This is not an insignificant detail of the story. The way that Luke tells us his story of Jesus, God makes His way in Christ to all of those who have been pushed away – the poor, the sick, the different, the unclean, the needy – and He invites them all back into the embrace of His love.  And here’s a secret that we all live with, every single one of us — in some way we’re all old man Marley.  In some way, we’re all the shepherds.  In some way, we’ve all been pushed away.  In some way, not one of us really feels like we quite belong.

hollowhillsIn her book, The Hollow Hills, the novelist Mary Stewart told the story of a young man who had been raised in one of the great households of Northern England. But deep inside, he knew that he didn’t belong there.  He’d been told the story for as long as he could remember about how he had been left in a basket at the gate of the castle as a baby.  He was unknown and unwanted — illegitimate, an embarrassment, an object or shame and scorn. He belonged to no one; no one belonged to him. He knew all too well the pain and fear of being pushed away. And then one day, unexpectedly, he was brought to the court of the king.  And as he stepped into that royal hall, the king stepped down from his throne, and gathered that boy up into his arms.  With tears in his eyes, the king explained that he was his son, his first-born, the heir of the throne, the next in line to become the king of the realm.  The king explained how he’d had to send him away at birth to shield him from the plot of an enemy who sought to destroy him, but that now the time had come to finally restore him to his rightful place, and this story is ours.

Somewhere deep inside we all feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for. There are painful ways that we have all been pushed away. We’re all familiar, in our own way, with the pain of not fitting in, and with the fear of never belonging to anyone, anywhere.  And then, in that darkness we’re told about a little baby born in Bethlehem to be our Savior, and we’re invited to come and see Him for ourselves.  And it’s there, kneeling at the manger that we discover that we are in fact wanted, that we are in fact loved, that we are in fact accepted, that we do in fact belong.  In Christ the “far off” are brought near (Ephesians 2:13-17), and that’s me… that’s you… that’s us… Merry Christmas!  DBS +



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The Gospel in Christmas Cards

I remember the great care that my parents took every year with their Christmas cards. Early in the fall there was always a trip, and sometimes more than one, to the stationary store where together they poured over those big sample notebooks for hours looking for just the right Christmas card.  Mom and dad certainly had their standards.  It had to be traditional and not contemporary, religious and not secular, show Jesus and not Santa, and be about Bethlehem’s manger and not about Christmas trees, or reindeers, or snowy forests.  I learned my appreciation of Christmas cards from them, in fact, through the years I’ve become a kind of Christmas card connoisseur. While I appreciate every Christmas card that I’ve ever received, and honor the spirit of friendship and affection that they signal, purely on the level of image, symbol and art, I have my favorites.


Years ago Mary Lynn and I received a Christmas card that was a print of Pieter Bruegel’s painting “The Census at Bethlehem.” It shows a typical 16th century Flemish village on a cold winter’s day.  There’s nothing distinctively “religious” or “Christmas-y” about it, except for a “wreath” over an open window where a crowd has gathered and seems to be conducting some kind of business with the official looking people inside the building. In the middle of the picture there’s a man with a basket of tools on his arm leading a donkey with a pregnant woman sitting on it toward the crowd at that open window, and only gradually does it dawn on you that this is Bethlehem and that is Joseph and Mary!  Mary Lynn and I liked this Christmas card so much that we later bought a print of the painting, had it framed and it now hangs in our home.


Another favorite Christmas card of mine is one that shows Mary cradling her infant son against the cold of a winter’s night. Now that’s a familiar enough Christmas card image, isn’t it?  What makes this one so unique is where Mary and her baby happen to be.  You see, on this card she sits in the lap of the Sphinx in Egypt cradling the Christ, reminding us of the flight of the Holy family from Herod’s brutality.  It’s a powerful image, one made even more powerful today as a reminder that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were political refugees who had to flee the violence of a Middle Eastern tyrant and who found a home in a different culture where they were welcomed.

baby jesusI think my favorite Christmas card image is the one that I have of the baby Jesus reaching up from His manger to touch the head of a lamb with both of His hands. In my mind and heart, this is the perfect picture of what Christmas means. Now, technically, the Bible says nothing about there being any animals at the manger in Bethlehem.  Oh sure, we have them prominently positioned in our crèche scenes on the mantle at home, and they regularly show up in the Christmas carols that we sing in church.  But technically, there are no references to animals of any sort in the Bible’s story of the first Christmas apart from Luke’s note that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night (2:8).  But that wasn’t in Bethlehem at the manger.  No, that was in the fields outside of town.  The Bible actually says nothing about animals being present at the manger. Nevertheless, it seems perfectly logical to me to conclude that animals were there.


In fact, when you go to Bethlehem and visit the church at the shepherd’s fields on its walls you will see a series of three wonderful frescoes that tell the story of the first Christmas, and prominent in them is another animal, a dog. In the first panel where the angels are making their announcement of the birth of Christ that dog cowers in fear behind a rock. In the second panel where the shepherds are shown going to Bethlehem see this thing that happened, that same dog runs ahead, leading the procession.  And in the third panel, that dog reverently sits at the side of the manger adding his devotion to that of his masters for Him who was born to be the Savior of all creation.  And as whimsical and attractive as all of this is, it is nevertheless a fanciful addition to the story.

We can only talk about sheep at the manger with any degree of Biblical certainty. And the symbolic significance of this for the Gospel comes later in the New Testament’s story of Jesus Christ when John the Baptist identified Him as “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29; 36).  Gary Burge, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, says that he once asked a mature Christian why Jesus is called “the Lamb of God.” The answer given was this: “Because Jesus is so gentle and nice.” But this is the wrong answer.  The right answer is that Jesus was called the Lamb of God because in the world of the Bible lambs were the animals of choice for sacrifice.  We’ve never seen an animal sacrifice, and would probably be horrified if we did.  And the problem with this is that sacrifice was an enormously important part of the Biblical world, and if we can’t get our heads wrapped around what sacrifice meant in the Biblical world, then we will never understand what John the Baptist and the rest of the New Testament means when it tells us that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God.

lambIn ancient Israel sheep drove the economy. Their wool kept people clothed and warm.  Their meat kept people fed.  And so, when it was time to show God just how much He meant to someone, or just how desperate a person really was for God’s help, then something of real value to that person would be offered in sacrifice.  And nothing was of greater value to the people of ancient Israel than were their sheep, especially an unblemished male lamb.  That was your money maker.  His reproductive capabilities was the key to one’s prosperity, and so when offered up in sacrifice, that lamb became a powerful outward and visible expression of the intensity of the inward and invisible intentions of a person’s heart.

In the ancient ritual of sacrifice no gesture was more important than the laying on of hands. “You are to lay your hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on your behalf to make atonement for you,” is what the Law prescribed (Leviticus 1:4).  This point of contact, this physical connection between the animal being sacrificed and the person who was offering it as an expression of what was in his heart, this is what made this whole ritual of sacrifice personal.  And in that picture on my favorite Christmas card of the Son of God reaching up from His manger to touch the head of a shepherd’s lamb what the artist was symbolically telling us that just like the lamb that He touched, Jesus Christ came to be our Savior through an act of sacrifice.


Now, the Christmas Card that I really want to receive is the one with Benedetto Bonfigli’s (1420 – 1496) painting – “The Adoration of the Kings, and Christ on the Cross” (The National Gallery, London) – on it. This painting expresses my Christmas faith as powerfully and concisely as any image I have ever come across. The way that it surprisingly brings together Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the manger and the cross, the Magi’s Messianic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh with Messiah’s self-offering on the cross reminds me of Dag Hammarskjold’s famous observation in Markings (1964) that – “the Manger is situated on Golgotha, and the Cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.”  Rodney Clapp argued that the best way to keep Christ in Christmas was by always keeping it clear that Easter and not Christmas is the central Christian holiday. He said that when Christians are known “for our Easter, then we will have our Christmas back.” And that’s why I love this image.  That baby who sits on Mary’s lap is the Savior who will die on Calvary’s cross (Matthew 1:21; Luke 2:11), and when this is clear, so is the Gospel. DBS +

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