One of the beautiful elements of Christian theology is that injustice and evil do not have a final word. Justice needs to be satisfied and something needs to be done about the genocides, the murders in major cities, and the young girl who died of cancer this morning. These things should not get the final word.
Richard John Neuhaus points out in his breathtakingly poignant devotional work Death on a Friday Afternoon that somebody has to be blamed for the pain and hurt in the world (theodicy). If somebody has to be blamed, then the finger of humanity is pointed directly at God (if there is a God).
God is guilty.
God is to be blamed.
“The word ‘theodicy’ means the judgment of God—not God judging us but our judging God. The philosophical problem of theodicy is that of trying to square God’s ways with our sense of justice. The assumes that we know what justice is, but the entire story the Bible tells begins with the error of the presumption. It is the original error of our wanting to name good and evil. Right from the start Adam tried to put God in the dock, making God responsible for the fall because, after all, God gave him the woman who tempted him to sin. From the beginning we see the argument building up to humanity’s cry, ‘God is guilty!’—building up to the derelict nailed to the cross.”
God accepted the verdict we passed on him. He accepted what had to be done about what we had done.
When we look at the bloody, mess of a man on the cross, we see how far God went for you and me—he abided by a sham of a trial and subsequently gets the final word about injustice.
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.”
Jesus gets the final word. He gets the final word and ensures the final word is rooted in both justice and mercy. He said, “It is finished” on the cross and in his last words of the Bible (Revelation 22), he said, “Surely I am coming soon.”
In my reading this week, I came upon this beautiful passage by Richard John Neuhaus. In it, Neuhaus reflects on the thief hanging next to Jesus on the cross. While both of them slowly begin the process of Roman execution, one of the thieves (Dysmas, as legend names him) turns to Jesus and asks to be remembered by Jesus. Neuhaus writes,
“According to [Dorothy] Sayers, Dysmas turned toward the light, but he did not believe in the light. His ‘Lord, remember me’ was not an act of faith but an act of charity. It is the kind of thing one might say to someone who imagines he is Napoleon. But then, says Sayers, with Jesus’ unexpected answer there is a moment of illumination, of insight; it is not unlike an act of faith. Of Dysmas she writes: ‘He is confused between the crucified man, of whose weakness it would be selfish to demand one added agony, and the eternal Christ, of whose strength he is half aware, and with those sufferings he seems to be mysteriously identified, so that in some strange way each is bearing the pain of the other.’
Certainly Jesus was bearing the pain of Dysmas, and of the other thief, and of all humanity half aware and unaware. ‘Today turn to him. At times we turn to him with little faith, at times with a mix of faith. Jesus is not fastidious about the quality of faith. He takes what he can get, so to speak, and gives immeasurably more than he receives. He takes our faith more seriously than we do and makes of it more than we ever could. His response to our faith is greater than our faith.
Once a father came to Jesus asking him to heal his sick child. ‘All things are possible to him who believes,’ Jesus said. The father cried out, ‘I believe, help my unbelief!’ And so cry we all. At another time Jesus said if you have faith, no greater than a mustard seed, you can move mountains. Here on Golgotha, the place of death and devastation. Dysmas has faith smaller than a mustard seed, and it blossoms into a tree of eternal life, a tree of paradise. Christ’s response to our faith is ever so much greater than our faith. Give him an opening; almost any opening, and he opens life to wonder beyond measure.”
Death on a Friday Afternoon page 37-38
I stumbled on this gem of a blog post by Kenneth Tanner on Patheos and had to share it. If you’re not doing too well during a Lenten fast, be encouraged:
“Perhaps you’ve tried to keep a fast this Lent? Perhaps you read somewhere that Lent is about “getting in touch with your guilt” but then you found–with good reason–that self-flagellation is not the healthiest or most effective motivation for spiritual practices.
My waitress at the local diner asked me this morning if I really wanted bacon with my eggs as it’s Friday (she knows I’m a pastor in the community). I told her, “I like to keep God guessing about my devotion.”
She knew that I was joking, and she also knew that I was grateful for her reminder, but I also was with a bunch of Christian brothers eating breakfast and it’s good for them, and for me, to remember that I am human and that Christ is the only one who is good, who is my righteousness.
If you are faltering in the Great Fast you are not alone but there is also really good news.
Fasting is not about changing God, whose love and regard for us are constant. We cannot do anything that changes God’s disposition toward us; we cannot leave anything undone that changes his heart, a sacred heart that is always ready to welcome us home.
Much less is fasting about adding anything to the life and activity of Christ in the flesh, a life that saves us and swallows up death. In his life for us, he took upon himself our fallen nature and the sin of the entire world—all of it.
And, while, I’m at it…Lent is not about “embracing our guilt.” It’s about recognizing that Christ alone can bear it.”
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:4-6
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. II Corinthians 5:21
By means for our first [parents] (Adam and Eve), we were all brought into bondage, by being made subject to death. So at last, by means of the New Man, all who from the beginning were His disciples, having cleansed and washed from things pertaining to death, can come to the life of God. -Irenaeus of Lyons
Jesus was nailed to a rugged piece of wood, naked. He was beaten, had his beard torn off and was deserted by his followers. Jesus was placed as a common criminal, a person on the side of the road strategically placed to show the strength of Rome. The same person who created the world and fashioned the cosmos was now held to a tree. He was looked upon as a subject of scorn, an object of derision. He was placed there for the world. And quite frankly, I was a cause of His pain.
(Repost from the archives)
Passion Week has begun.
In the Church, we move from a time of celebration, hailing the arrival of a Messiah, the one who will right the world and remove the evils that plague it. We move from Palm Sunday and shouts of joy to the moments of darkness on Good Friday.
Crucified naked on a hillside.
I cannot begin to fathom what that must have felt like. To be led through the streets in a victory parade a few short days before being led through the streets beaten, stripped, and exhausted. This Messiah was betrayed by a friend and nearly everyone he loved deserted him as he went through the kangaroo court and was ultimately disposed of in incredible cruelty.
If it is true, why would this man, who claimed to be equal to God, subject himself to brutality? And if the story is true, he was also forgotten by God.
If this didn’t happen, then this whole Christian thing is pleasant morality tales at its best and manipulative in its worst. Yet, if it’s true, then perhaps Jesus knows what it’s like to be misunderstood, lonely, betrayed, and forgotten. Maybe he can sympathize with our weaknesses and baggage. If he rose from the grave, as the initial generation of disciples claimed (to the point of their own deaths), then he might be able to do something about it.
But before we jump to the majesty of Easter, we wait in the dark week when the Son of God was marred beyond recognition.
For now, we wait in darkness.
At my church a couple of weeks ago we sang the below hymn from Charles Wesley and I wanted to share it with you all accompanied by this sketch from Rembrandt van Rijn.
Arise My Soul, Arise
Arise, my soul, arise; shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding sacrifice in my behalf appears:
Before the throne my surety stands,
Before the throne my surety stands,
My name is written on His hands.
He ever lives above, for me to intercede;
His all redeeming love, His precious blood, to plead:
His blood atoned for all our race,
His blood atoned for all our race,
And sprinkles now the throne of grace.
Five bleeding wounds He bears; received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers; they strongly plead for me:
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“Nor let that ransomed sinner die!”
The Father hears Him pray, His dear anointed One;
He cannot turn away, the presence of His Son;
His Spirit answers to the blood,
His Spirit answers to the blood,
And tells me I am born of God.
My God is reconciled; His pardoning voice I hear;
He owns me for His child; I can no longer fear:
With confidence I now draw nigh,
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And “Father, Abba, Father,” cry.
There once were two men who went to church.
The first one dressed right and had the Christianese down. He said words like “blessed” at the right time and constantly referred to his wife as his “bride.” The other man showed up dressed differently and didn’t quite know what to say. If the church was West Coast “flip-flop” casual, he would show up in a suit.
While the first man prayed incredible public prayers, had an impressive library, and was a key member of the church, pride seeped into the foundation of his character long ago. However, this second man is different. I picture this second man wondering what to say when it came time to pray. He heard prayers given in King James English long ago, but didn’t know if that was still appropriate. Instead, I picture this man dishing out raw honesty to God. He looked down to the ground and quietly mouthed, “God, please have mercy on me.”
God doesn’t need our sacrifices.
God doesn’t need our perfection.
In fact, He doesn’t need our money or thoughts or our prayers. He certainly doesn’t need our words, whether they’re eloquent or jumbled. What God wants from us is our heart—broken, confused, heavy, or spent.
Jesus told a parable about two men who went to the temple. There was a Pharisee, who had it all together, and the tax collector, who was far from perfect. While the parable played out like the two men who went to church, Jesus ended it with surprising words.
At the temple, the tax collector, broken and ashamed, couldn’t even look up to the heavens. He looked down to the ground, beat his chest and groaned, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” This man, Jesus said, went home justified (declared righteous before God). Shockingly enough, that tax collector, not the religious leader, had the real relationship with God.
Where is God in our brokenness? According to Jesus, it seems as if he’s there in the middle of it. He’s there, if only we look to him. If only our heavy hearts, burdened with sin, despair, or frustrations, might find their rest in Jesus.
Where do you find God?
Today is Fat Tuesday, the day where you and I can get so much sin out of our lives that we can rightly prepare for Ash Wednesday and 40 days of preparation for Easter. While not getting into the questions surrounding why an individual should go overboard before a time of repentance, Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday/Shrove Tuesday was originally begun to get in the last bit of rich food and celebration before the more somber time of fasting arrives on Ash Wednesday.
Now it seems like a lot of Protestant churches are now taking part in Ash Wednesday and remembering the Church Calendar period of Lent. Why, when I was a kid, Lent was just for Roman Catholics, not for Protestants of many different stripes. But after my time in Church History classes in my undergrad education at Vanguard University and my time at Fuller Seminary, I have come to the conclusion that it is a helpful practice for the Church as a whole.
There will be people who take part in the time with little thought, that will always happen, but the focus on sin, repentance, and the cross will make the victorious resurrection and vindication of Jesus that much sweeter on Easter.
If you feel called to give up something for 40 days, then that is great. But please, don’t go flaunting it around everywhere like a martyr. Fasting from something is meant to be between the individual and God, not a regular Facebook post about the desire to eat chocolate or drink coffee again. As Jesus said in Matthew 6:16-18,
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Whether you do or do not begin the fast in the Lenten season, I hope you would at least commit to remembering God’s mercy through his action in Jesus. As I have said in a previous post years ago, “we should participate in Lent not out of superstition or thoughtless ritual. Lent ought to be a time of contemplative thought upon Christ and His salvific mercy.” While Christmas reminds us that God came to us, Lent and Good Friday will remind us that God brought us back into the fold at great cost by bearing our sin.
Am I ever thankful for that!
Are you observing Lent this year?
(This post was originally seen in 2013)
I was asked recently to explain how I know that I am a Christian. Talk about a high-stress question! It took me a little bit of time to think through my answer, but I was able to articulate it this way. I wrote to them this,
“I know that I am a Christian because of the completed work of Christ and my trust in his redemptive work on my behalf. I know that I am in Christ not because of some formula or particular prayer, but in the promise of redemption through a living faith in Jesus. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that I know that I am justified and sanctified.
“Being an evangelical Christian, is more than just passive experience. It is embodying a life coming into alignment with the Kingdom of God, being conformed into the image of Christ. And it is through this that I know that I am a Christian. Jesus has promised salvation, and this assurance is grounded in the promises of Scripture and is confirmed in the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit.”
The faith of the Christ-following community hinges on the fact that Jesus once died, was buried, rose from the grave, and ascended to heaven. That is why Holy Week is so very important to the life of the Church. This zeroes in on the time Jesus spent in Jerusalem in his final week, starting with his glorious entrance on Palm Sunday and culminating in his horrific crucifixion on Good Friday.
As the week soon turns to betrayal on Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday) and the brutal execution of Jesus, the second Person of the Trinity, on a Friday afternoon, I hope that you know that you can have an assurance of salvation.
I hope and pray that God will be with you during this heavy week.
Here’s something I have learned recently: Nothing of worth comes easy.
Discipleship is difficult. Sanctification is tough. Conforming, slowly but surely, into the image of Christ is a rough process. When the easy path shows up suddenly in your life, think twice before it allures you down the gentle slope.
I am reminded during this Lenten season that Jesus was tempted with the easy path on many occasions. Do you recall his temptation period in the wilderness? When he was tempted for 40 days (remind you of Lent?). Jesus even went without food for that length of time (how difficult is that?), don’t ask me how he did it, that feat is far beyond my well-fed understanding! But when he was fasting and praying, Satan tempted him with a few different outs.
First, Jesus was tempted to make a loaf of bread out of a rock. Next, he was tempted to put on a spectacle by jumping off the temple, having an angelic force catch him on the way down. Then, he was tempted to kiss the feet of Satan and have the whole world given to him in domination. Put yourself in the sandals of Jesus for a moment. Wouldn’t you say that was a tempting situation?
Certainly the creator of the universe could alter the material world and create a hearty roll for himself. The one who has a name that is far superior than the angels could have been made famous and declared to be the Messiah through the temple jumping. The King of kings could have had the nations as his subjects if he skipped the cross for a brief moment of deference.
The path Jesus needed to take was one pointing to the cross. Lent helps point followers of Jesus toward that pivotal point as well, where we find the possibility for redemption and reconciliation. Jesus chose to die for our sins and to restore relationships between broken humanity and God. For it was Jesus, God incarnate, who bore our sins and took our place.
The path to glory went through the cross. Before the glory of the resurrection came much pain. As a follower of Christ, I think we also tread a similar path. Like an athlete who trains their body for a big game and an acorn slowly transforming into a mighty oak tree, a follower of Christ slowly but surely is conformed into the image of Christ. Discipleship and sanctification is a tough path, but it is a path worth taking.
What have you learned recently?