That the King of Glory shall go in!
This past week Pope Francis opened the Door of Mercy at the Vatican to signal the beginning of a Jubilee Year on the church calendar.
The notion of a Jubilee Year has its roots deep in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Every seven years, by Jewish Law, there was to be a Sabbath Year. Just as God commanded one day of rest each week, the Sabbath, to remember the priority of His presence, power and provision as the key to their well-being, so God also commanded His special people to observe a Sabbath Year every seventh year.
The Lord said to Moses on Mount Sinai, say to the people of Israel, when you come into the land which I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruits; but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord. (Leviticus 25:1-13)
For six years you may sow your land and gather in its produce. But the seventh year you shall let the land lie untilled and unharvested, that the poor among you may eat of it and the beasts of the field may eat what the poor leave. So also shall you do in regard to your vineyard and your olive grove. (Exodus 23:10-11)
At the end of a cycle of seven Sabbath years – the 49th year – the seventh Sabbatical year would be followed by a special “Jubilee” Year in the 50th.
And you shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall send abroad the trumpet throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be to you; in it you shall neither sow, nor reap what grows of itself, nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat what it yields out of the field. In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property. (Leviticus 25:8-13)
In the Nazareth synagogue early in Jesus Christ’s public ministry when He read from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and announced the fulfillment of its words in their midst, many scholars believe that Jesus was announcing that the great Jubilee of God’s salvation was breaking in upon them in Him.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19/Isaiah 61:1-2)
The Jubilee Year of Jewish Law became a powerful way for early Christians to think and talk about God’s saving work of redemption and release that they had experienced in Jesus Christ, and the church has ever since used this idea to call for special seasons of active grace in her life and ministry. This is what the Pope did last week, and symbolic Doors of Mercy are being opened, not just at the Vatican in Rome, but in every cathedral of the Roman Catholic Church around the world to signal the beginning of a year of special grace when people are being intentionally invited to come in. Of course, this is supposed to be the stance of every church in every place at every time, but sometimes special gestures like this one that the Pope made last week in Rome, and that is now being repeated all around the world in churches this week, have a way of reminding all of us who are Christians that mercy is really our only currency.
The harshness of recent rhetoric in this political year needs a strong counterpoint. In fear and anger the sound of doors being slammed shut resound right now in our culture. There are voices calling for the doors of our society to be closed to Muslims and refugees, and especially to Muslim refugees. The anguish of our African American brothers and sisters after Ferguson bears painful witness to their experience of the doors of justice and opportunity being closed to them and locked tight for generations. Our gay and lesbian family members and friends hear the doors of the church still slamming in their ears even as the door of equal protection under the law in the larger society has just begun to open a little bit wider. And the mentally ill continue to be hidden away behind the closed doors of misunderstanding and isolation in both church and culture as they always have been.
Philip Yancey in his book, What’s So Amazing about Grace, says that as a part of his research that he conducted an ongoing informal survey of the people he sat beside on airplanes and who stood with him in line with at Starbucks. “What’s the first word that comes to mind when I say the word ‘Christian’?” he wanted to know from them. And he said that he heard words like “judgmental,” “harsh,” “angry,” “hateful,” “prejudiced” and “mean,” but never the words “graceful,” or “kind,” or “gentle,” or “loving,” not even once. The Doors of Mercy need to be opened at church, and not just so that “they” can come in, but so that “we” might come in as well. But even before we start to think and talk about how the church’s Doors of Mercy have to be open to all people everywhere, we need to make sure that those doors of the church have been opened to Jesus Christ.
I have long been haunted by the dream that A.J. Gordon (1836–1895), the American Baptist preacher, described at the very beginning of his spiritual autobiography – How Christ Came to Church (1895).
Dr. A. J. Gordon was pastor of the fashionable Clarendon Street Baptist Church of Boston. A secular worldly spirit dominated the congregation. The pews were rented. They hired unsaved singers from the opera who rendered music that was spiritually dead. The deacon dared to print a leaflet which said, “Strangers Welcome.” But he was rebuked by an elder, “Why, you might get the wrong kind of people in here and run the right kind out!” Of course, everyone knew who the “right kind” were. The pastor’s heart was deeply burdened over this situation. Pastoring became a drudgery that pressed him to the point of desperation. His people needed to repent and turn to Christ. He, therefore, spent more time on his sermons. Disappointment followed when few, if any, were converted by a week of solid toil in sermon building. Prayer meeting was dead, too. If he could only get the people together to pray. Yet in spite of all he could do, very few even attended prayer meeting. Those who did come never rose to really pour out their hearts to God for new life in the church. About that time the administration of the church began to come unglued. Opposition developed among some of the church officers. Then he had to work hard trying “to get the members to vote as they should.” Those who should have helped actually wound up hindering. That led to discouragement, sleepless nights and pressurized living. At last, he made a trip to the doctor who called for absolute rest as the only remedy for such strain and stress. While struggling to minister on such hard rocky soil, Dr. Gordon fell asleep one Saturday night while preparing his sermon. He had an unusual dream. “Not that I attach any importance to dreams or ever have done so”, he wrote. “I recognize it only as a dream; and yet I confess that the impression of it was so vivid that in spite of myself memory brings it back to me again, as though it were an actual occurrence in my personal ministry.” He dreamed he was in the pulpit just about to begin his sermon before a full congregation. At that moment a stranger entered and passed slowly up the left aisle of the church looking for someone who would give him a seat. Half way up the aisle a man offered him a place which was quietly accepted. Gordon’s eyes were riveted on this visitor. He wondered, “Who can that stranger be?” He determined to find out. After the sermon, the stranger slipped out with the crowd. The pastor asked the man with whom he sat, “Can you tell me who that stranger was who sat in your pew this morning?” In the most matter of fact way he replied, “Why, do you not know that man? It was Jesus of Nazareth.” Seeing the pastor’s great consternation, the man assured him, “Oh, do not be troubled. He has been here today, and no doubt he will come again.” Gordon was filled with an indescribable rush of emotion and self-examination. Why the Lord Himself was here listening to the sermon today! “What was I saying?” he asked himself. “Was I preaching on some popular theme in order to catch the ear of the public?” With a sigh of relief he remembered that he was preaching Christ. “But in what spirit did I preach?” his conscience demanded. Was it in the spirit of one who knows that he himself is crucified with Christ? Or did the preacher manage to magnify himself while exalting Christ. For the first time in his life, A. J. Gordon was electrified with the truth that Christ himself had actually come to church! He could never again care what men thought of preaching, worship or church. “If I could only know that He was not displeased, that He would not withhold His feet from coming again because He had been grieved at what might have been seen or heard.” All of Pastor Gordon’s priorities were turned around. His life and ministry would never be the same after this. He fell at the feet of his Lord in worship and turned the administration of the church over to Him. He then taught his board and his people to let the Holy Spirit take charge. The revival that transformed A. J. Gordon’s ministry and changed Clarendon Street Baptist Church into a powerful lighthouse had begun! That same revival awaits any church that will let the Head of the church take charge.
Condensed from How Christ Came to Church, The Spiritual Biography of a A.J. Gordon.
In two weeks it will be Christmas – our annual celebration of God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ and dwelling among us full of grace and truth. Recently, as I was listening to Handel’s Messiah as part of my regular pre-Christmas spiritual discipline, I was struck by the power of one particular chorus – “Lift up Your Heads” – #33.
“Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is the King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is the King of Glory? The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory.” (Psalm 24:7-10).
And it made me wonder – if we haven’t opened the doors of our hearts for the King of Glory to come in, then when we open the doors of our churches to others, what is it that they will find? Because the world today so desperately needs mercy, I am glad that the Pope opened the Vatican’s Doors of Mercy. It reminds all of us who are Christians about what it is that we have to offer. And because the world is becoming a more frightening, anxious and harsh place with every passing day, I’m especially glad that this Pope opened the Doors of Mercy during Advent.
As you know, Advent is the season of the church year to get us ready for Christmas. This is when we are encouraged to make room once again in our hearts for the coming of Christ. And this is when we are asked to open the doors of our churches to let Christ in all over again. By opening the Doors of Mercy in his church this Advent, the Pope has reminded all of us who are Christians that if the world is going to find mercy when they step through the doors of our churches, then our churches are going to first have to be very intentional about opening their doors to Christ, so that the Lord of Mercy might come in. DBS+