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Who I Say You Are 5

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I have been sensing Christ asking me to give my own answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” I don’t have just one answer, however, so I have been giving a series of answers. Here’s another one.

What I say:

He is both lamb and shepherd.

What I mean:

He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 RSV). It is his blood, “like that of a [sacrificial] lamb, without defect or blemish” that “ransomed” me from a life of futility (I Peter 1:18-19). It was his death that tore open the curtain of the Holiest Place and made it possible for me (and for all of us) to come boldly into the presence of God (Hebrews 10:19-20).

I can’t tell you why it was necessary for him to die for us. I’ve never understood the doctrine of original sin, or how Christ’s death solves the problem. He himself never tried to explain it. I only know that, when Jesus said it was necessary for him to die, and Peter told him to stop being such a downer, Jesus responded to Peter the same way he replied to the Devil when he tried to tempt Jesus in the wilderness: “Get behind me, Satan” (compare Matt 16:21-23 with Matt 4:10; in some ancient manuscripts the verbiage is identical). And in the Garden of Gethsemane, he asked his Father to prevent his death and suffering “if it were possible” (Mark 14:35). And he added, “For you, all things are possible” (v. 36). But he knew even then that he had to die for us. And he did. He was the sacrificial lamb whose death was a gift to us all.

I’ve never been any good at explaining all that. But I know this: it was only by claiming that gift, in the summer of 1971, that I found God. I didn’t understand it any better than Peter did, and everything inside me protested against it just like Peter protested when he first heard about it. But I understood what Jesus meant when Peter objected to Christ washing his feet (John 13:6-7). Jesus told him, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (v. 8). That much was clear to me.

So on that early summer’s evening in 1971, I accepted the gift, despite all my inner objections. I told him I wanted his blood to wash me of my sin. And he did.

Someday when I stand before God and have to give an account of my life, I’m not going to justify myself. “My one defense,” as Matt Maher says, is Jesus, and what he did on the cross. He is “the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 5:12).

But, at the risk of mixing metaphors, I also identify him as the Great Shepherd. For after he cleanses us, then he guides us further into life with God.

On that Day of Reckoning, I will be asked a number of stern questions: What did I do with the resources God gave me (Matt 25:14-30)? And how did I respond when I was faced with people in need (vv. 31-46)? In other words, I’ll be compelled to give an account of what happened after I was redeemed by the blood of Christ. What did I go on to do with that precious gift?

Here again, my only defense will be that I followed my Shepherd. But that, too, will be enough. Through the fifty intervening years since I accepted his sacrifice as the Lamb, he has guided me, prodded me, and kept me moving forward, as a Shepherd. The Shepherd not only lays down his life for the sheep but also guides them; and his sheep know his voice and follow him wherever he leads (John 10:1-30). That has certainly been my experience. He has taken me to places I never expected to go, and herded me into flocks I never thought I’d be part of.

He’s full of surprises… so much so that it’s impossible for me to tell you who he is in a brief, tweetable message.

And that’s why I’ll continue giving you my answer to that question in future posts.

Bullies: A Sermon

This is the text of a sermon that I wrote on January 8, 1985, prior to attending seminary. I never ended up preaching the sermon (nor did I finish seminary, for that matter), but it illustrates the kind of practical approach I envisioned I would take as a minister.

Something important is missing from the stained-glass conception of Jesus.

Look at any image of him on a stained-glass window. Would you invite this man to your next cocktail party? And if you did, what would you talk about? There you are with all your best friends; you’re laughing and having a great time. Where would the stained-glass Jesus fit into this picture? Imagine him having the least interest in the latest movie you’ve seen, or whether you caught anything on your recent hunting trip! It seems much more likely that he’d sit apart from the group, perhaps reading a religious book and waiting for dinner to be served.

Nor is it easy to think of him – the lofty, holy Savior – trying to maneuver an automobile through rush-hour traffic and not getting peeved at a motorist who just cut him off. We can’t picture him slaving away at a monotonous job (like some of us do), or babysitting some bratty kids (like we’re sometimes stuck doing), or (again like us) getting involved in a dirty, no-holds-barred family argument.

Which is just another way of saying that there is no room for the stained-glass conception of Jesus in life as we know it. As much as we may love and adore him, we can’t expect much help from him when it comes to the details of day-to-day life.

The tragedy of it is that Jesus actually did fit into practical daily life – the real Jesus, that is – and he came to make it possible for US to live our lives to the fullest. (Not, in other words, like stained-glass zombies.)

Take, for example, the cocktail party: Jesus went to parties like that all the time. One notable tax professional even threw a party in Jesus’ honor and invited all his friends and business associates to come and meet him. The religious community was scandalized!  Evidently Jesus didn’t put a damper on the festive mood. His detractors called him a wine-bibber and a glutton, and they criticized him for being in the company of unreligious people. One time, when they ran out of wine at a wedding reception, Jesus used his miraculous powers to make more wine before the guests were even aware that there was a problem.

As for taking an interest in your latest hunting trip, his closest friends were fishermen, and on more than one occasion, as they were wrapping up an unsuccessful night of fishing, he called to them from the shore and asked how it had gone. And when they complained about not catching anything, he again summoned his miraculous powers to point out where all the fish were.

(Hmmm. . . he might’ve been just the person to invite on your next hunting trip!)

There were no motorized vehicles in his day, but Jesus experienced his share of traffic jams. Because of his notoriety, people pressed in on him in large crowds on many occasions. One time he tried to get across town to help a sick girl, but traffic wouldn’t budge. The girl died before he got there.

We can’t imagine him slaving away at a mindless job all his life like so many of us are forced to do, and yet he did, apparently. The Bible only talks about the last three years of his life; the rest of the time he was working – we think as a carpenter.

As far as dealing with bratty kids, consider this: although his close associates tried to keep kids away from him, Jesus enjoyed them. The only reason it has never occurred to us that any of those little ones were brats is the fact that he got along so well with them.

And as for family arguments, Jesus had those, too. For a while, his brothers tried to get him to stop preaching. They thought he was a crackpot.

It makes you wonder how accurately we have pictured Jesus, doesn’t it? He faced all the problems we face, but he made constructive use of them. And people noticed. They observed how he lived, and they said, “We’ve never seen anything quite like this.” Jesus showed them how to live life at its best. He gave them a glimpse of what life could be like for them! This is what we miss when we think of him as Stained-Glass Jesus.

I want to illustrate this by talking for a moment about a problem we’ve all experienced.

Bullies.

Children aren’t the only ones who get picked on by bullies. We all meet them from time to time, at any age or station in life. Even the most sophisticated among us must deal with some form of intimidation or coercion on occasion. And when we do, we are often puzzled as to how to handle it.

Generally, we adults are no more adept at standing up to bullies than children are. In fact, adult intimidation is more subtle and complex. Volumes have been written, and will continue to be written, on how to deal with bullies in the workplace, at home, or at the check-out counter. Techniques have been advanced to help us say No to pushy salespeople. There are books full of snappy comebacks when someone insults us.

As helpful as techniques may be in specific situations, no one set of techniques can prepare us for the whole gamut of intimidation that may come our way. What we really need is a personality that can rise to meet whatever challenges we face, as we face them.

The Stained-Glass Jesus would be of little help to us here. He would want us to assume a sheepish position, no doubt, even to the point of letting bullies slap us in the face or crack us over the head. He’d want us to remain passive while they’re stomping us into the ground.

The fact is, however, that Jesus’ actual remarks on this subject are much more complex than that. . . and make more sense. He said lots of things about bullies, and I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m going to cover them all today. But here’s something he said that you would never expect to come from the lips of Stained-Glass Jesus.

He was talking to his closest circle of followers about some of the things that would happen to them in the days ahead. He warned them they would be coerced, lied about, and threatened with bodily harm. And he offered this prescription: “Therefore, be as wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

That’s the trick, isn’t it? Nobody wants to be a dishrag – thrown on the floor and stepped on. But when people insult us or intimidate us, we often can’t think fast enough. In the moment when we most need wisdom to keep from looking foolish, we can’t think of the right thing to say. Generally, we adults get stepped on far more than we care to admit.

But how many serpents, as a general rule, get stepped on?

In Jesus’ conception of Life As It Was Meant to Be, we could become like serpents in our ability to keep from getting stepped on, BUT. . . at the same time. . . our intentions could be pure. We could reach a state of being in which it would be possible for us to defend ourselves artfully from intimidation while wanting only the best for the person who was trying to hurt us.

It seems like an impossible balance, but what if it could be achieved! Who wouldn’t want that kind of power!

The problem is, Jesus didn’t lay out a Three-Step Program for achieving that kind of personal poise. The remark about the serpent and the dove was just part of the overall way of life he offered. The kind of character he had in mind included that and much, much more – and it would need to be developed over time. He taught us the basics and promised to guide us further by the Holy Spirit, but we’ll never get there if we don’t acquaint ourselves with the things he actually taught and let those teachings chart a course for our lives.

That’s why Stained-Glass Jesus is so harmful. He may be nice to look at during the Prelude, especially when the sun hits him just right, but you want to avoid thinking he’s the real Jesus. Because he’s not.

The plain folk used to gather around when Jesus met up with bullies. Proud, educated, aristocratic clergy tried one after another to make a fool out of him in public. The people used to howl with laughter at his replies. Anything the bullies said or did, he could turn masterfully against them. But when they nailed him to the cross, he looked down at those same people and said, “Father, forgive them.” Yes, he was a miracle worker, but in moments like that we see how powerful he really was.

Wise as a serpent. . . and harmless as a dove!

If YOU could have that kind of power, would you want it? Would you let him bestow it upon you? Even if it took him the rest of your life?

 

 

 

 

An Ideal Transformed

This is a sermon I preached at Portage Chapel Hill United Methodist Church, Portage, Michigan (USA), on January 21, 2007. The text was Luke 4: 14-21.

Our story begins 600 years before Christ. It was a dark time in the life of Israel. Foreign invaders had taken away most of their land and abducted most of their people. Only one of the tribes of Israel was left: the people of Judah. But now the end had come for them, too. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon stormed in with his troops, and the Promised Land – the land that their God had given them – was taken from them. They were marched off in chains, forced to live in ghettoes throughout the empire. It was called “the Babylonian Captivity,” and it looked like the end. They were far from home, and they had no reason to suppose that they would ever get back.

But miraculously – out of the ashes – they emerged as a new cultural and religious force, for it was during their captivity that the religion of Judaism came to full flower. Before this they had been a nation, but now they saw themselves as a people with a distinct cultural identity that didn’t depend on their geographic location. No matter how far-flung they might be spatially, they could still remain close spiritually.

How? By becoming “people of the book.” It was during their years of dislocation that a new class of scholars called “scribes” began to appear. These scribes were men who knew the scriptures thoroughly and taught them systematically to the people.

Picture this: refugees who are spread out all over the map of the Mediterranean world yet bound together in spirit by the sharing of the same stories and by the observance of the same religious practices – even down to eating the same kinds of food and wearing the same kinds of head gear. They had never before had such a strong sense of identity.

Now. . . among these various groups of refugees, a document begins to circulate. It is written under the pen name of Isaiah, a greatly-revered prophet from an earlier time, but in style and substance it differs from the writings of the earlier Isaiah. As this document makes its way from one Jewish enclave to another throughout the empire, hope swells, for it opens with the words, “Comfort. . . comfort my people, says your God.” And that’s exactly what it does: it both comforts and excites them. For this document – what we now recognize as the second half of the Book of Isaiah – describes a new vision for the people, a new ideal.

Here is one sample of writing from that document, from Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because he has anointed me,
He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
To bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And release to the prisoners,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
And the day of vindication of our God. . . .

There were nuances in the text that they didn’t catch at the time, but this is what jumped out at them: they believed that God was telling them they would return home in triumph and that they would be a great nation once more.

A generation passed. A new imperial army rolled across the map, and now the Babylonian Empire gave way to the Persian Empire. Cyrus, the new emperor, didn’t like how the Babylonians had displaced their conquered peoples, so he decreed that everybody – not just the Jews, but people of all nationalities – could go back to their former lands. Unfortunately, he didn’t offer a comprehensive relocation package, but he gave them permission to go back if they were able to bum a ride.

The prophecy about going back home looked like it was about to be fulfilled literally except that, when they were offered the opportunity, most of the Israelites didn’t really want to go back home after all. That was just a nostalgic thought for them. They got group solidarity from dreaming and singing about it, but they didn’t really want to do it. This was a new generation. They had made lives for themselves in their various parts of the empire. They didn’t want to pack up and leave.

A few did go back, but they had an uphill battle. Palestine was all torn up. Samaritans and other people had taken over part of the land, and they didn’t feel like giving it back. It took over 100 years just to get a wall built around Jerusalem. You can read about their trials in the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

We can make quick work of this next part of the story. Around 300 years before Christ, another imperial army wound its way around the Mediterranean Sea, led by Alexander the Great, and the Persian Empire gave way to the Greeks. The Greeks had the most advanced culture of their time, but they weren’t any good at ruling the world. Around 150 years before Christ, the Jews in the Holy Land took advantage of the empire’s weakness and won their independence, but it was only temporary. . . for another imperial army had already begun marching across the map of the western world, and about 30 years before the birth of Christ, they showed up outside the gates of Jerusalem. The Greek Empire gave way to the Romans. The Jews in Palestine put up with Roman domination for a while, but about 70 years into the so-called Common Era, they tried to win their independence again, this time with disastrous results. Israel was wiped off the map, and they remained that way for nearly 2,000 years.

Over 600 years earlier, the Jews had believed that God was telling them they would return home in triumph and be a great nation again. They pointed to the scroll of Isaiah as their proof text. But they had already entered a new and better phase of their life as a people. From now on, their influence on the larger culture would be much more powerful than it had ever been before, because now they were citizens of the world. Their influence from now on would be pervasive, from within the nations. There were hints of that in the Isaiah scroll, but they failed to see it. What they really needed now was for someone with prophetic insight to give them a new ideal – a new sense of mission – and to encourage them to embrace their dispersal among the nations as a good thing.

Someone did try to tell them that. He came from the town of Nazareth, and his name was Jesus.

He traveled throughout his home province of Galilee, telling his people about the possibilities. As a people, they were soon to be spread out in communities all over the globe. “You are the light of the world,” he told them. “Let your light shine everywhere you are.”

He told them that they were the little bit of leaven that would be worked into the dough and make it come out right.

In the banquet hall of the world, he told them, “You are the salt.” They would provide the essential ingredient that no other nation could provide. But Jesus emphasized repeatedly: If you’re going to be the salt, you’d better make sure you don’t lose your distinctive flavor, or else you’ll lose your reason for being. What was it that made them distinctive? Neither their unique apparel nor their special diet. “It isn’t what you put into your mouth that makes you holy,” he said. “It’s what comes out of your mouth that matters: words of kindness, of justice, and of truth. That’s what distinguishes you as God’s people. That’s what will change the world.”

One Sabbath morning, Jesus visited his hometown of Nazareth. There was a lot of commotion as he entered the synagogue. They invited him forward to read a passage of scripture and to expound it. They had heard a lot about him and they were waiting for him to say something noteworthy.

He stepped to the front and the attendant handed him the scroll of Isaiah. Opening it, he read these words:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me to bring
good news to the poor,
To proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

He closed the scroll, gave it back to the attendent, and returned to his seat. Nobody said a word. Then he looked back at everyone and said, “This scripture has been fulfilled. . . in your hearing. . . today.”

The members of the congregation shook their heads. By what stretch of the imagination could anybody say that that scripture was fulfilled here and now? The problem was that they were interpreting it one way and he meant something else. They thought he was talking about the old, fond hope of the return to Israel’s glory days. But in Jesus’ hands, the text took on new meaning. It sounded like the expression of an old ideal, but when he read it, it became an ideal transformed.

The Nazarenes thought the prophet Isaiah was speaking to them, promising that God would release them from bondage. But Jesus read the passage differently. Now the speaker was Israel, and the audience was the world. Israel was anointed to bring good news to the brokenhearted and captive of all nations, to free people everywhere from every kind of bondage by introducing them to the Living God. In Jesus’ hands, the Isaiah scroll was no mere prediction of better times to come for Israel; it was a summons – a mission statement for God’s people. Jesus extracted from the text what was best in it: the call to ministry.

From this time forward, he was saying, the people of God would be identified by the way they served. In that moment, Jesus announced the arrival of a new day in which God’s people would be the ones busy flinging open prison doors, healing the sick, and bringing life out of death. That may not have been the old ideal, but that was God’s ideal.

Unfortunately, the people of Nazareth liked their old ideal just fine, and it angered them that one of their own kinfolk would try to rewrite history. In response, Jesus told them that God’s people are the ones who follow God’s ideals. “You can hold onto your old ideals if you want to,” he seemed to be saying, “but if you do, you won’t be God’s people anymore.”

That was too much. Without even waiting for the benediction, they grabbed him, ran out of the synagogue with him, and headed for the nearest cliff. But he “passed through the midst of them, and went his way.”

There’s a moral to this story, but it’s a hard one to listen to. The Nazarenes were good people. They were just like us. They read their scriptures and they thought they understood them, but apparently they did not. It was an honest mistake. Isaiah 61 really does look like it’s talking about a return to the glory days of Israel. We probably would have thought the same thing if we were in their place. Their mistake was not misinterpreting the scripture. Their mistake was being so sure of their rightness that they could neither hear nor accept what God was trying to tell them.

This story invites us to ask ourselves: What is it we’re missing? What are we not hearing?

We can’t imagine being wrong. Neither could the Nazarenes. They, at least, had Jesus right there in their face, telling them they were wrong. We’re not so lucky. Since he’s not right in front of us, we don’t even stop to consider what we might be missing.

The Nazarenes would have done well to have looked carefully at another passage from that same Isaiah scroll, this time from chapter 55:

Your thoughts are not my thoughts,
Neither are my ways your ways, says the Lord,
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
My ways are higher than your ways,
And my thoughts than your thoughts.

God is always way beyond us, but sometimes we catch glimpses of what God is doing. The Isaiah scroll was full of such glimpses. When the Jews read that scroll, they thought they heard God promising to restore them to their lands and to their former glory. But all the while, God was trying to tell them something more, something so new and different that they couldn’t catch the sense of it, even though it was right there in their scriptures all the time.

What is it we’re missing? What ideals have we in contemporary Christianity embraced, thinking they must surely be God’s ideals? What are we failing to see?

Let us learn this crucial lesson from the people of Nazareth. Let us turn honestly to God in prayer and say, “We don’t know what your ideals are. Show us. Teach us. Open our blind eyes.”

This should be our prayer: “Give us your vision, O God. Fill us with your aspirations.”

For as the heavens are higher than the earth
So are my ways higher than your ways,
And my thoughts than your thoughts.

What is it that God is trying to tell us as a people, but we can’t hear it because we’re too set in our ways, too absorbed in our own thoughts?

What is it that God is trying say to you?

The Lady or the Tiger?

I’ve been talking about my belief that God is involved in the ongoing Story of Life. In this YouTube video, I tell about an assignment I had in high school, shortly after I became a Christian, and what happened when I prayed about the assignment.

Click here to watch the video. It will open in a separate screen.

The Story of Life and My Testimony

As a fairly new Christian, I was surprised to discover that my testimony seemed like a different genre from the testimonies of other Christians. Mine seemed much more secular than theirs. That was how I started recognizing the importance of the Story of Life. I talk about that in this video.

Meditating on the Story of Life

This is the first of a series of videos on the practice of meditating on the Story of Life. For most of my life as a Christian, I have deliberately kept in mind the Story of Life when I’m praying. In this video, I use The Junior Wall Chart of History to explain what that means and why I find it helpful in my spiritual life.

How’s It SUPPOSED to Be with Our Souls?

You’ve probably heard the old question, “How is it with your soul?”

In most religious circles I’ve been in, we’re reminded from time to time that we should be asking each other this, but here’s what we do instead. Person A asks Person B, with a cock of the head, “How are you doing?” because Person A isn’t comfortable prying into Person B’s spiritual life. In response, Person B talks about her aches and pains and woes. Person A empathizes, commiserates, and promises to pray for Person B. And this is all fine, because we ought to care about each other and bear each other’s burdens.

But that’s not the same thing as asking each other about the state of our souls.

What we’re missing is the fact that we Christians are supposed to be caught up in the most exciting project ever, and we inquire about each other’s progress as a way of spurring each other on toward accomplishment of the seemingly-impossible goal that’s been set before us. That goal, in New Testament parlance, is to “go on toward perfection” (Hebrews 6:1 NRSV). But to put it in less grandiose terms, it is to become, as fully as possible, the people God created us to be.

In order to understand what sort of answer would be appropriate in response to the question, “How is it with your soul?” we should first ask ourselves, “How is it supposed to be with our souls?”

And here is just one answer. There are many, many others, but this one’s ambitious enough. Christ says, “[T]hose who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14 NRSV).

That’s a metaphor, of course, but all metaphors refer to something. What is this one referring to, do you suppose? I interpret it as promising a spiritual life that is not only deeply satisfying but immediately available — an inexhaustible source of refreshment within oneself. You don’t have to stand in line at a drinking fountain. It’s within you.

But it’s more than that. It’s not just a form of self-satisfaction. What we’re enjoying is the presence of Jesus Christ. He’s the Living Water. The goal is for us to be imbibing him — in sips, if that’s all we can manage, or in great gulps if we can — and finding a refreshment and satisfaction that are available nowhere else.

Let’s take this one text as an example. If we have a prayer partner or good friend in the faith, and it seems too artificial to ask them, “How is it with your soul?” we could instead have a conversation about the progress each of us is making toward experiencing that gushing spring of water within us.

Have we asked Christ to give us this water? If not, why not? If we have, what’s been the outcome? If there hasn’t been any obvious response to that prayer, let’s talk about it (or better yet, pray about it together) and see if we can figure out what’s hindering us. If there has been a positive response, let’s encourage each other by talking about it, and let’s see what we can do to increase our ability to drink even more freely.

See what I’m saying? The whole point is for us to help each other get deeper into a relationship with the Living God.

Lately, I’ve been particularly impressed by the kinds of metaphors Christ used to describe the Christian life. They were some of the most enjoyable things in life: eating, drinking, partying (he used the party metaphor so often, his enemies ended up using it against him), basking in the sunlight, playing like children in the marketplace — indeed, even becoming like little children again. As enjoyable as each of these things are in human life, they’re metaphors of even greater spiritual possibilities. They’re glimpses of where we’re supposed to be going, both as individuals and as churches. They’re examples of how it’s supposed to be with our souls.

How is it with your soul?

An Unusual Setting for Worship

This blog is a place for me to share my meditations on the subject of workplace spirituality, and there is one piece of music in particular that I use to meditate on this theme. You may be surprised by what it is: it’s the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, by Benjamin Britten. It was written in order to teach children about the various sections of the orchestra and how they all fit together, but I use it for something else: to meditate on how God’s purposes move forward even in the midst of all our busy-ness.

Click hear to listen to what I’m talking about. (It will take you to my other site, Mythic Adventures, because I have audio capability over there.)

The Light That Is In You

sunlight-02-01-17

 

The sun was shining today in Southwest Michigan. That doesn’t happen a lot this time of year, so everybody around here was very appreciative.

We all know how deeply we crave sunlight, especially when we’re deprived of it. We don’t just want to see it; we feel a need to get out into it. We want to make actual, physical contact with the sun’s rays. And when we don’t have a chance to do so for any significant length of time, we feel the loss.

Christ uses a number of powerful metaphors to describe the life that he offers, and here’s one of them. He promises that we can have the light inside us.

“Your eye is the lamp of the body,” he says. “If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light” (Luke 11:34; Matthew 6:22 NRSV).

When I was a young man, I embarked on a flight during a blinding snowstorm. The weather was bad, but apparently not bad enough to ground us. So we took off, and I couldn’t see a thing outside the window of the plane. But in a matter of minutes, we got above the clouds, and — up there — it was a bright, sunny day. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. I always knew in theory that the sun was there above the storm clouds, but its reality meant very little when I was in the middle of a blizzard. From that day on, I’ve always tried to remind myself that the sun is still there in the midst of any storm, both figuratively and literally.

But this scripture promises much more than that. It’s not just telling us to believe that God’s light persists even in moments of darkness. Christ is promising us that we can experience that light within ourselves. And that light will shine even on the darkest of days.

We’ve been going through some pretty dark days lately. As citizens of a free country, we Americans have a responsibility to keep up on what our elected officials are doing, particularly if we believe that our freedoms are being endangered. But I’m seeing a lot of foot soldiers faltering spiritually the past few weeks. I know I have been. As the storm clouds gather, it’s so tempting to fixate on the darkness. And the more we do, the more we are tempted to feel anger… and even hatred… toward those whom we identify as the enemy.

But as followers of Jesus Christ, we have a responsibility that far outweighs our need to keep up on the news. We are called to be the light of the world, but we cannot send forth those rays of light if they are not radiating from within us. It is our Number One task, through these dark days, to make sure that our souls are fed, and that the Light of Christ within us does not grow dim. Everyone around us needs us to keep stoking the flame of the Spirit within us. That’s the most important thing we can do now.

For it is not our light that the world needs, but His. We are the light of the world only because He is, if He lives within us. But if the light that is in us is darkness, then how great the darkness — both for ourselves and for those who are depending on us for strength and inspiration.

It was good to see the sun today. But I aspire, more than ever, to tend to the flame within, and to filter everything that happens through the light of the Son.

Knowing and Seeing

There is a wonderful passage in the first chapter of John’s Gospel in which John the Baptist points out Jesus to those around him. John had an important mission: he was calling the Children of Israel back to their fathers and preparing their hearts for the One who was to come. “I’m not even worthy to untie his shoes,” John had said, but he, more than anyone else, was preparing the way for him.

There was nobody else in all of Israel who knew more about the One who was coming than John the Baptist.

But in John 1:29-34, when John the Baptist points out Jesus and says, “He’s the One,” he also adds — not once, but twice — “And I myself did not know him” (John 1:31, 33).

In Koine Greek, it was not necessary to include the subject because the verb carried the subject within it. In cases like this, when the noun is included, it’s emphatic. He’s not just saying, “I didn’t know him.” He’s saying “I myself did not know him.”

He briefly describes how he came to know him, and he finishes his story by saying, “And I myself have seen him…” (v. 34). “Seeing” is very important in the Gospel of John. In fact, as two of John the Baptist’s hearers go and ask Jesus where he’s staying, Christ invites them to “Come and see” (v. 40). And shortly after this, when a prospective disciple questions whether any good thing can come out of Nazareth, he too is encouraged to “Come and see” (v. 47).

So John the Baptist tells whoever will listen, “And I myself have seen him…” But he also emphasizes, “And I myself did not know him.”

It seems to me that we who profess to follow Christ today have this exactly backwards. We haven’t seen him, but we’re quite certain that we know him. And we assure ourselves that anybody who doesn’t know him like we know him, doesn’t really know him.

Of course, there’s a lot more theology wrapped into the gospel writer’s use of the word “seeing” than just what’s apparent to the eye. Chapter 9 goes into this in detail when Christ heals a blind man and the religious rulers object. “Are you saying we’re blind?” they ask Jesus petulantly after a long discussion, and he tells them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin, but because you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:40-41).

So let’s just say that, in the Gospel of John, seeing is an important part of knowing, but seeing isn’t always just with the eye. It seems to me that the gospel writer is emphasizing a personal experience of Christ that goes beyond the intellectual kind of knowing. And we are indeed entitled to say that we know Christ or have seen him in a metaphorical sense if we’ve experienced him in certain ways. But because our experience of him is so heavily metaphorical — for we have not actually seen him — we should always strive for the kind of humility John the Baptist displays in this passage.

“I myself did not know him.”

The point of being a disciple is to increase our knowledge of him through firsthand experience, and that happens through the Holy Spirit as we make ourselves available through prayer and scripture study. But as I look back over the story of my own life, I am constantly prompted to confess to God, “I did not know you.” With each new revelation, I discover how little I knew, and how incompletely I saw — until now. Then, later on, it happens all over again.

“I myself did not know him.” That might make a good mantra for all of us who follow Christ today. It might do us some good to remind ourselves how little we still know him. And we never know what experiences he might bring into our lives next, that will help us to see him — and know him — a little more clearly than we do now.

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