Tag Archives: lent

Paths Through the Desert

In Job we get to see something interesting about how God uses suffering to reveal what is in the hearts of humans. Job, a righteous man, suffers immense tragedy at the hands of Satan. While God ultimately restores Job, his “friends” keep coming around telling him he must have done something. His friends are saying God is not protecting Job because he must have messed something up in his relationship with God. “You got your troubles by your own mistakes Job, because God would have protected you if you were really righteous,” they argue.

A while back we went through 1st Peter, another book that reveals how God uses suffering to refine us, to identify us with the sufferings of Christ. God sometimes uses fiery trials to re-form us closer to the image of Christ, the God who suffered for us and suffers with us. This book was written for an audience who was experiencing intense persecution and yet, it kept pointing them back to the example Christ. This experience was not lifted up as something God would protect them from and help them escape, it was seen as an opportunity to be refined.

The fact is God can use suffering, and does use suffering. He uses it to refine us, and every now and then it’s actually good for us. It can shake us out of our complacency and turn us back to God. It can purify our motives. Suffering can draw us closer to God in ways that comfort can actually get in the way of. As John of the Cross reminds us, when we are comfortable, often the first thing to suffer is our relationship to God because we begin to forget how much we really need Him.

The truth is, God seems more likely to use suffering to refine us than we are comfortable with. God is not in the business of handing out golden parachutes, but in raising up true disciples who like Job can weather even the biggest storm this life can throw at us and have our relationship with God remain intact. We might freak out a little bit, but the center holds. God holds us together though the mess. Sometimes God draws us to a desert experience so that we would thirst for Him…to show us we have been drinking from other places than the water of life. Like Jesus in the wilderness God sometimes calls us to travel the way of the desert: The way of trusting God on an unfamiliar path.

God’s grace sustaining us on the desert way—puts us in a place to see things as they really are: We see ourselves, and our relationship with God with new eyes. We see the end of ourselves. We see our dependence on God. We see our utter need, but we also see God sustaining us in ways we never believed were possible. God doesn’t just give us new eyes to see ourselves, He gives us eyes to see our tethers (the things William Penn called cumber). We see the things that control us for what they are…and as they are unmasked we learn to be free of them once again.

Like the children of Israel before the exile, we can limit God. We can mentally trap Him inside a building on Sunday morning, we can even trap Him inside the Bible, if we read it in unbelief that the Spirit is still moving and still leading us today. The children of Israel had a way of seeing God that was bound to the land. It was bound to the Temple, the monarchy. It was bound to the shadow of mount Zion. They would point to the promises of God, but their actions were no longer rooted in the character and nature of God. They no longer depended on God, but on external things. They pointed to the blessing God promised them, but they ignored the warnings about their own part of the covenant. All their encounters with God were past encounters, because they had long since gotten comfortable with their sin separating them from God.

So God called them to Babylon. He would no longer protect them from themselves. He would strip it all away to show them something new. He would show them how as Creator, He was unfettered and free. He would keep His promises on His own terms, not on their terms. He would show them that outside the protections of their armies. Outside the protections of the Promised Land. Outside the elaborate Temple system and blessings of the priests. God was there, even in Babylon. God was not limited by the limitations they tried to put on Him…

God is still trustworthy to sustain us. The same God who parted the Red Sea would also make a way through the exile. After all these things were stripped away, the one thing they would know they could count on would be the promises of God. They would one day get back these blessings they were about to lose. They would one day return to the land they knew, but first a lot of chaff would be stripped away. God had to make them thirsty for the right things once again…

Isaiah writes:

“Look, I am about to do something new. Now it begins to happen! Do you not recognize it? Yes, I will make a road in the desert and paths in the wilderness.  The wild animals of the desert honor me, the jackals and ostriches, because I put water in the desert and streams in the wilderness, to quench the thirst of my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself, so they might praise me.” (Isa. 43:19-21)

After a long experience of God stripping me down, revealing the good and the bad motivations for ministry still kicking around within me, revealing the parts of my mind still needing to be held captive by Christ. I went through a long process of letting go all control, and trusting God to lead me once again. It was a process that brought me here, and a process still at work within me in some new ways. Maybe you’re in that place. It is messy to watch something we love fade. To mourn it. And to wake back up to the hope of God resurrecting something new in its place…

We have been through quite a time of testing these last few months at College Avenue. It has been hard to lose so many people we love and walk with them through various trials. These last few months I feel as I have come to the end of myself, and yet broken through to that place where God’s presence floods back in, bringing beauty to the brokenness. God’s Spirit has sustained me recently in ways I could never begin to describe. And as Isaiah reminds us, we can come out the other side of a desert experience with hearts filled with praise. I long for that, for me and for you. I long for God to bring about something new and wonderful, bearing fruits only He can bear in us. We bear these fruits only through being connected to the Vine. Sometimes nothing reveals that like the desert. May our many trials make us thirsty for God, and help us trust Him to satisfy our thirst as only He can. May we learn to trust Him in these uncertain times. May we be grateful for His streams in the desert, filling our hearts with hope and even wonder at the journey. God wants his people to be freed from slavery, and sometimes that means trusting God through the desert, and then finally to the Promised Land beyond it. Let us keep walking, keep hoping, and keep dreaming for the new things God wants to do among us.

Agape,

James

 

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Lenten Journey of Justice: Good Friday

 

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Read Luke 23
Devotion
In Luke’s version of the Last Supper it ends in a cryptic dialog where, after fighting over who was the greatest, Jesus tells the disciples to go and by swords. Here Jesus performed a prophetic sign pointing to the meaning and significance of his death; He was to die as a Sufffering Servant, living out a vision of redemption envisioned in Isaiah 53. Another reason Luke include this is to foreshadow the actual way in which Jesus was to die: he would be numbered among the transgressors. It would be no shock to Jesus that he would die between two insurrectionists, but it was bitterly ironic for Jesus was not a Judas Maccab eus-style Messiah who came to raise up an army and drive out the Romans, he was a radically nonviolent Suffering Servant type, a type not on the radar of the Jewish paradigm’s land-centric focus.

He may have driven the money changers out this temple, but Jesus was not interested in building an earthly kingdom. He may have stood up to the self righteous and the status quo, but he was not as willing to kill for his beliefs as much as die for them. If one were left with any doubts about the humility of Jesus, we must recognize that the incarnate Creator of the universe here “Did not consider equality with God something to be used to his advantage, but rather poured himself out, taking the form and nature of a Servant (Phil. 2:6-7 translation mine). There is great truth in the Christian cliche that “it was love that held him on that cross” because staying there was not just a sacrifice but a choice. A choice of love he made for you and for me.

If Jesus hadn’t left it up to us I have my doubts that the day Jesus suffered through would have been called Good Friday. This rightly recognizes that this is the event at the heart of the gospel or “Good News,” but when I think of Good Friday I always recognize it was good for us, but not good for Jesus. And from the earliest days of Christianity it has been a day of sorrow, penitence, and fasting… something preserved in the German terminology for this day Kartfreitag, or Sorrowful Friday.

For Jesus this day would be a nonstop train wreck of pain, with Jesus fresh off his experience with betrayal to spend all night enduring three religious and three civil trials–none of which were as concerned about justice as they were with pleasing the court of popular opinion. Jesus endured a flogging severe enough it may have eventually killed him. He carried his heavy crossbeam through a mocking crowd hurling rocks, dirt, spittle, and insults. He had his hands pierced by cruel nails. And to make matters worse, while hanging on the cross the only way to keep breathing was to push his feet against the nail through his legs. The wooden footrest we see in pictures was considered optional and since they wanted to hasten the death and get things cleaned up for the the Passover Festival, it probably wouldn’t have been there.

Jesus had to earn every breath on a clock he knew he would never outrun. Near the end of this exhausting process his states of rest would be like waterboarding himself in a rapidly downward spiral of energy loss. Jesus experienced pain on a level we could scarcely imagine, he experienced the death of a criminal, a transgressor. It was a death reserved for those the Romans wanted to make an example of. It was a warning to all who would follow the path of this “transgressor.” It is a warning to us as we follow him that we are also on a journey of a cruciform life.

Good Friday wasn’t that good for Jesus, but it was exceedingly good for us. It was the culmination of a human life of suffering: Jesus grew up in a town that ostracized him for a scandalous birth, he fled a genocide as an infant, he was rejected in his hometown and nearly thrown off a cliff, he lived as a homeless man wandering the countryside teaching people about God, the very people who would reject him. He truly was, as Isaiah envisioned, a man whose life was well acquainted with hardship and sorrow. To die a painful death between two insurrectionists is the zenith of his suffering, but it surely wasn’t the beginning of Jesus’ many encounters with pain and brokenness.

The two insurrectionists who shared crosses with Jesus point us in two ways we can respond in taking up our crosses and sharing in the death of Jesus. One eased his pain by joining in with the mockers, rejecting outright the idea of a Suffering Servant. The other criminal recognized in this injustice that it was actually God at work through Jesus’ death on the cross; in sharing in the suffering of Jesus he recognized he was not innocent but that Jesus was. This latter path is the one where we earnestly share in the death of Jesus. We must recognize Jesus in his sinlessness, suffering the fate we deserved and ask to be identified with him. This man’s desperation led him to publicly identify with Jesus in the face of a mocking crowd. At times it can be that black and white… and when our chips are down in our suffering we see glimmers of where our identity is truly coming from. We face the same choice.

 

Friday Fool’s Challenge Prayer
Gather some paper and dark writing implements such as a sharpie or pen, and also a pencil. Spend some time doing your best to draw Jesus on the cross with a sharpie or pen. The drawing need not be very detailed, but if you have enough artistic ability to move beyond stick figures to a silhouette please attempt to do so. When you are finished flip the page over and look at where the figure of Jesus bled through the page. Next take the pencil or some other lighter weight writing implement and draw yourself onto the “bleeding through” silhouette of Jesus on the cross. As you draw prayerfully and artistically “identify” with this cruciform representation of Jesus, recognize the spiritual reality that your sin like, ink or graphite–where it falls on the cross– is identified with him and removed. It is forgiven, and you are free. Good Friday is Good News indeed!


Lenten Journey Of Justice: Maundy Thursday

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2Read: John 13:1-34

Devotion

Many of us feel a special kinship to Peter, a man who both shined brilliantly and failed mightily. His example give us who stumble hope, and us who are a bit cocky a needed does of humility. As Peter comes before Jesus with all his pride and frailty, it reminds us of how we all are before God; well intentioned, and yet ignorant of even what we do not know. Peter was oblivious to the work of the devil, oblivious to the ways his pride had shut up his ears and eyes to the call of Jesus to the mutual submission and annihilation of hubris that is taking the role of the servant.

Jesus would show a radically new way of being King in washing the disciple’s feet. It was a way of kinship that showed love through service, forgiveness and grace. It was a way of kingship that involved mercy, humility, and submission. Peter speaks for many of us with his gut response “No, you shall never wash my feet.” And then again, after realizing he has shot his mouth off with, “Then Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” We struggle to recognize our need for cleansing; our need for a savior. Like a dirty kid we are comfortable in our filth, and at first unwilling wash our filthy hands before supper. Next Peter overcompensates, asking Jesus for an entire bath, and Jesus points out that this is not what is needed.

At times dramatic cleansing is needed, but sometimes we just need to be freshened up by God’s forgiveness for small things. I think this speaks to relationship. There are times for radical redefinitions in a relationship, such as a proposal, but other times it actually undermines commitment and faith in the relationship to behave as if every day would result in a monumental change. If one proposed say every day, especially if one was unfaithful the next, this would not be a healthy relationship. Yet some of us come to God thinking everyday will be a radical transformation, like every day we should experience radical forgiveness and grace. At times we should trust in the grace we have already received, and we should submit to the routine opportunities for cleansing God sends our way. To do otherwise is to pretend to be greater than our Master.

We each come to God in need of cleansing, reluctant to receive it, and reluctant to offer service to others in humility. Obedience is a struggle for all of us, but it is through obedience that we demonstrate our faith in and love for God. Peter looked disobedient but came to be realigned with obedience, Judas looked obedient but was not where it counted the most. Maundy Thursday takes its name from the Latin biblical text where Jesus say “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Faith, love, and obedience intertwine in us, yet the example of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet shows us that these things intertwine around service and humility, the service and humility in following the example of our Servant King.

Fast, Read and Pray:

As you fast one meal today, reread John 13:1-34. Consider how Jesus’ Royal Law of Love works itself out in obedience, service and humility in your life today, or how God might want it to look anew with a bit of washing.


Wednesday Lenten Journey of Justice: “Sparks”

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Read Luke 21:5-38

Devotion

As the dwelling place of God, it would probably seem like a special sort of blasphemy to hear Jesus say that the Temple would be destroyed. Many scholars think that Jesus “speaking against” the temple was one of the final straws in the “indictment” against Jesus that resulted in his trials and death on the cross. It solidified the popular understanding of Jesus as an anti-temple establishment figure. The Romans would crucify Jesus to make a statement that insurrection would not be tolerated for a Roman colony, especially one constantly waiting like  tinderbox for the spark of violent revolution, a spark that would eventually come as a Zealot uprising. But for the Jewish leaders, Jesus was that kind of spark. If the people lost faith in the temple and the establishment that supported it this would be more than economically costly, it could inevitably tear down the Jewish society and its way of life.

To even imagine the destruction of the Temple would be painful for Jewish people for whom the Temple was the closest thing to the embodiment of God. In John’s version of the Olivet Discourse John clues us in to something reflected on later, that Jesus was talking about his body as the true Temple of God. This is significant in at least two ways, one being that God really did have a body and one that would be violently struck down in the violent flogging and crucifixion of Jesus. If they had recognized Jesus for who he was they would have been been just as horrified, for the “temple establishment” was so far from the heart of God that it was they themselves, out of sense of protecting the name of God, would be the real culprits in defiling and defaming the true temple of God.

The second significant issue is Jesus prophesying about the actual destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. After a two year siege and a period of starvation leading many Jews to both cannibalism and suicide, Titus broke the seemingly impenetrable wall of Jerusalem. He destroyed the Temple and went on to finish off the Zealot rebellion at Masada. But Jesus knew this day would come, as well as warned about the coming persecution. He warned his disciples not to get caught up in this conflict, to hide in the mountains. He warned the church not to get caught up in “this worldly” violence. He protected the church from certain destruction and spared them countless misery.

What does all this say about the justice of God? We see a view of justice in which religious leaders who have lost their way are confronted, and in which the church removes itself from the violent nationalistic struggles of angry people who would try to call the Kingdom into being through violence. God’s justice responds to violence, not with threats and fear, but with dedication and love. God was on a mission to take hearts of stone and make them hearts of flesh, to reveal for the world the temple of God was no longer a temple of stone, but a temple made of human flesh. Both would be broken, one temple would be broken out of spite, the other out of love; one temple cleansed sin through sacrifice temporarily, the other cleansed sin once and for all.

For Group Gathering:

Discuss the two temples alluded to in Jesus’ warning about destruction. Examine 2 Chronicles 7:11-22, the dedication and warning of the very first temple reading it out loud taking turns with each verse. Reflect on the following queries:

Queries for group discussion

  • How does the first temple account foreshadow Jesus’ coming as the new Temple of God?
  • How might the church better live out the idea of  being made of living stones and of people whose bodies are now temples’ of the Holy Spirit?

Close in prayer asking God for direction as to how to better reflect God’s presence as an ambassador for Christ and “touchstone” of the Living Temple of God.

 


Tuesday Lenten Journey of Justice: “God’s Business”

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Read 2 Cor. 5:11-21

Devotion

A Jesuit spiritual director I know has an interesting art form he engages in; he loves mosaics. Some of his favorite works begin by getting a bunch of different colored glass and stoneware plates and smashing them to pieces with a framing hammer. He then picks up the pieces and arranges them in new ways that highlight the beauty hidden among the brokenness. These once perfect plates become essentially glued back together as if by grace, into a new creation; a reconciled creation. Far easier than reconnecting all these little pieces is to give up and walk away. Reconciliation takes time, patience, skill, and a lot of creativity. God’s business, and our business as Christians, is the business of reconciliation. But with God at work in our lives we can look past the pain and disorientation of brokenness because of the hope we have of becoming a new creation. Hope shows us that the brokenness doesn’t get the last word.

In the Old Testament the Hebrew word that comes the closest to “grace” is chesed. It is an interesting word that is not bound up as much in the idea of “unmerited favor” as it is in the idea of help that comes in time of need. It is often translated “loving-kindness,” but the idea really is more that of being helpless and crying out for help to someone who has the power to act, and when they do act, that is chesed. This Old Testament understanding of grace is one well acquainted with our need for God, a need beyond ourselves. Like pieces of colored glass shattered on the floor we are in no position to put ourselves back together, yet God takes us and makes us a new creation. He sees just the place we fit together once again and makes a mosaic, joining the brokenness back together into something beautiful beyond the jagged scars.

As Jesus journeyed to the cross he knew he would experience brokenness and suffering. He knew his body would be broken. He knew his blood would be poured out. But he also knew that God’s grace would knit the world back together through this act of obedience. Often, when we think of what things will be like when they are fully restored, our imaginations go to something more like the whole plates before the hammer. We think God will restore creation in a way that shows no evidence of its former brokenness. But Jesus’ raised body still bore the marks of his suffering. He still had holes in his hands and side. Reconciliation is not without its marks… but it shines forth like a mosaic with the scar tissue of grace binding it back together. It shines forth with beauty, beauty made even more beautiful by its brokenness; brokenness united together by love.

Watch

Pray

Pray that the Lord would reveal to you the patchwork of grace that has been woven through your life. While cliche, we often only get to see God’s grace from a “back of the tapestry” perspective. One day we will get to see the fullness of the beauty of God’s plan, but even now perhaps as you prayerfully look back at your story of redemption, God might reveal to you some of the beauty that has come through brokenness… Some of the good that has been brought forth from some of the pain.


Monday Lenten Journey of Justice: “Powerless”

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Devotion:

 

The Apostle Paul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. He came tot he church as an enemy, and joined the church as a trophy of God’s grace. Paul wrote Romans long after the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, yet he wrote about the theological realities at work in the gospel story. In Romans, Paul further explores the justice of God. He does this directly, but also indirectly as he elaborates in the mercy of God, and God’s heart for reconciliation. Paul reminds us that this divine mercy sought us out, that God heard our cries for a way back to Him. He sent Jesus, as the ultimate demonstration of God’s love of us,  and that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul points us through this passage to the spiritual reality of atonement at work in the actions of Jesus leading to the cross. It was to a world that was trapped in sin that Jesus came and died, but as Jesus died–so our sin died with him. As he would soon rise triumphant, the seeds of reconciliation and restoration sprung forth into the world… beginning to work themselves back into creation like leaven through the dough.

Lectio Divina Instructions
Lectio Divina (or divine reading) is a spiritual reading of scripture. We come to the scripture not for study only, but approach the text in a sense with openness to receive from God. The traditional lectio framework has four distinct stages outlined in the instructions below.

Reading God’s word (Lectio)
Read Romans 5:1-11 slowly twice (this is the larger reading from a physical bible). If you are doing this in a group have the listeners close their eyes to help them focus on hearing. As you read listen for a word or phrase that seems “illuminated” for you. Sit in silence a couple minutes.

Reflecting on God’s word (Meditatio)
Read the passage again. During the silence reflect on how the passage speaks to your life today.

Responding to God (Oratio)
Read Romans 5:1-11 again. During the few minutes of silence consider how God is calling you to
respond. Pray and tell Jesus your intended response to what you have heard. It might be praise or action of some kind, or something to think further on etc.

Resting in God (Contemplatio)
Read Romans 5:1-11 one final time. Rest in the words in silence for a few minutes. Close in prayer.


Sunday Lenten Journey of Justice: “Swordplay and Sifting at the Last Supper”

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Read Luke 22:14-38

Devotion

For my New Testament class, I wanted to do something interesting for my final paper. I felt like writing about Jesus’ non-violent teachings because I really care about peace, but that has been done before, and by smarter people than me. But one passage seemed to always come up in discussions about peace, the closing bits of our scripture today where Jesus tells the disciples to go buy a sword. I was always puzzled by this passage that seems so out of step with other teachings of Jesus. There are places he talks of his message as being as divisive as a sword, but that idea does not really fit here. In fact, this command didn’t even seem to fit with the scriptures that follow it—where at Jesus’ arrest, Jesus stops Peter from wielding his sword and heals the man wounded by the sword. Why would Jesus tell the disciples to buy swords they would be forbidden to use?

Often in the peace debate this sword saying is used as a prooftext to discredit Jesus’ radical nonviolent teachings, like his call to love even our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I have even heard it coopted by modern gun rights advocates who attempt to twist the scripture into a view that Jesus supports the second amendment. In fact not long before I began writing my paper, Sarah Palin was quoted in a brand new article to this affect.

I was not sure what I was going to find as I dug into this passage, but at the time I was not really thinking about Easter, or the significance of this passage as a foreshadowing of that, but that is exactly what I found. What I found was actually a bit of how Jesus seemed to understand the significance of what was happening, how he pondered the significance of his death. He pointed to the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. Before we get too far into that, let me first sum up the content of the passage. We will be digging deeper into Isaiah 53 for Easter Sunday this year:

Luke sets the stage for more than a presentation of what other churches call “the words of institution,” there is a certain gravity beyond merely the supper itself, to the words of the supper. Jesus is betrayed and the announcement of his betrayal leads to dissension over the loyalty of the disciples. The group begins debating over ambition and status immediately after supping together, and Jesus promises each will rule beside him and judge Israel. Satan’s sifting is experienced by the group and Jesus speaks of how his prayer for Peter will see him through the coming time of sifting where he will eventually commit his acts of betrayal. This seamlessly leads into our text about remembering the provisions of a previous time, the exchange about the swords, and the fulfillment of Isa 53. But in almost no telling of the story of the Last Supper does anyone ever think to include the squabbles of the disciples or these mysterious words of Jesus about buying a sword.

And this is probably to avoid some controversy, as scholars fight about how to understand what Jesus meant but these words. Some take the talk of swords figuratively, some literally. In my studies I found no good reason to take it figuratively. Some see it as Jesus play acting being an insurrectionist, setting the stage for people to treat him as the leader of a violent revolution. Others see it as irony, or even disgust. Jesus’ words “that is enough” could just as easily be translated “enough of that!” It is impossible to know if Jesus abruptly ends the discussion because he is frustrated or was just done saying what he had to say.

Some have pointed out that two swords for 12 disciples seems like a laughable amount of weaponry to rise up against the might of the Roman empire. Others that the disciples would need to defend themselves after Jesus was no longer with them. Whatever is meant by Jesus’ talk of swords, what is clear is that he saw this as part of being “numbered with the transgressors,” a reference to Isaiah 53; a role written about himself long ago that would soon be fulfilled.

The New Testament story is the fulfillment of the Old Testament story. It is a story of the justice of God, told in the symbols of the story of Israel. It was the Passover that showed the people of God a way out of their oppression and slavery. It was the Passover that gave Israel the Passover Lamb, the symbol of how God’s people—acting in faithfulness— would be protected by God from their enemies. And it was the Passover Lamb whose blood would break the bonds of slavery in Egypt, just as Jesus’ blood would break the bondage of sin for the world.

And here at the Passover we see Jesus enacting a new Covenant, a covenant made through his blood as the fulfillment of the Passover Lamb. We spent Advent exploring the Old Testament idea of the Kingdom of God, and in many of my Lenten devotions some of you are following along with, we have been examining how this Kingdom vision of Justice was expressed in the example and teachings of Jesus. He taught in parables about the mercy and justice of God, a God often offering grace to those who do not deserve it. And revealing how Jesus—as the Messiah— came to inaugurate this kingdom the prophets of old longed to see.

It was the kingdom’s fulfillment, it seems, that even this late in the game the disciples were still oblivious to. As Jesus unveils to them this new thing God is about to do, they got caught up in fighting about who would play the biggest role in this new kingdom to come. Who will be the greatest? Who will have the seat of honor as right hand man of to Jesus?

Not who you think Jesus says. It will be the humblest, the servant. It will not be the most dominant—the one most willing to do whatever it takes no matter how violent—to Lord it over the people of God through military might… It will be the one who is the most willing to take the form of the servant, the one who will suffer most out of their love for others. The one who rules will be like the one who serves, and this is exactly the picture we find alluded to in Jesus’ death on the cross.

True greatness is not about prestige and honors and accolades, it is about humility and service. It is not for those who are impatiently wrapped up in taking back their country by violent revolution, not for those most willing to lay down their life to drive out the Romans and win back the Holy Land. It is for those who live lives of faithful service, content to take the kingdom of God as it truly is—a kingdom of peace and justice with thrones sitting around a table of unity, not that unlike these twelve people sitting together around a table to celebrate the Passover. It will even be the same people, and more in fact.

And think about who is sitting around the table with Jesus: some fishermen and a skeptic, a violent revolutionary and a tax collector who had betrayed his country; the one who would deny Jesus three times and the one who would betray him with a kiss. If it wasn’t for Jesus, these men would have very little in common. Some would even have been mortal enemies, yet with Jesus among them they gathered around the table of fellowship to be thankful to God. That is what the Kingdom of God is like, and that is what church should be like… sinners and saints, people of every stripe gathered around Jesus. Learning how not to squabble… learning how to be more like their Servant King.

The question we have been wrestling with this Lent is, what does the justice of God look like? And in this passage we find our answer: It looks like a divided Israel healed despite many differences, gathered like the 12 disciples around the Prince of Peace. It looks like the freedom earned by the Passover, freedom from slavery. It looks like the new covenant, providing a way into the family of God for those left on the outside. It looks like the kingdom of God reigning above human agendas or dreams of power. The justice of God looks like the humblest is the greatest; the one who trusts God’s promises for the future rather than the discouragement of the present. God’s justice is found in those who can look back at the faithfulness of God and see how God took care of his people, and can trust that there is no need for fear based thinking or worry to justify acts of desperation.

But there are hints of much more in the story, hints of Satan sifting two disciples who would betray Jesus, Peter and Judas Iscariot. One would deny him three times and turn back, and one would betray him only to throw his life away in despair. God’s grace was deep enough for both, but only one repented and believed. We see a great deal of fear at work in both Judas and Peter, but it was only Peter who would put those fears aside one day and race to the tomb. As the people of God, we too are being sifted. There is something valuable at the heart of us that will be uncovered, if we can let our sifting point us back toward the hope of the resurrection and not toward selfishness and self-preservation justifying acts of betrayal.

When it comes to the gospel story we see Jesus being sifted too. We see his tortured prayer at Gethseme. We see his betrayal; his painful death on the cross. We see his people spit in his face and mock him, and we see his love and grace go all the way to the end—all the way to his dying breath. But Jesus, in this passage, presents his death in light of Isaiah 53, of being the Suffering Servant through whom true freedom would come.

As the disciples of old—we Christians are often eager to flash our swords and take up arms, yet we see Jesus present himself not as the giver of wounds but as the receiver of wounds—wounds by which we are healed. We see Jesus, who committed no sin, numbered among the transgressors, hanging between two violent revolutionaries in the shameful death of an insurrectionist. A humiliating death that would serve as a warning to all who followed in the ways of transgression.

In this death, which we might be tempted to see as the ultimate act of injustice; proof the world can never be changed, Yet Jesus invites us to see his death on the cross as an act of service, an act of redemption. For God took the sin and shame and wickedness of this world into himself and absorbed it. God suffered, but God suffered as a servant, righting the creation that had drifted as far from God as it could go; paying the ransom for a world held hostage by sin.
As Isiah puts it:

“he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.”

We find ourselves puzzled at the justice of God. What does this mean for us, in our time? I think the unity and humility we see Jesus pointing to gives us our best clue. It is not enough just to believe in Jesus intellectually, as the book of James puts it even the demons do that. If one would truly reign with Jesus, truly be his disciple, we must lay down the fear based thinking that justifies violence and strife. We must become like him in humility, in joining into the suffering of our world and living humble lives of service. We must look back on God’s faithfulness and go forward in hope. We must do more than be grateful for Jesus’ sacrifice, we must follow in his example.

When the devil sifts us, we are all too ready to take up a sword. We are all too ready to miss the point of what God is up to. Our fears can often point us away from trusting in God, but the battle Jesus faced was one of fighting through that fear to the victory on the other side of the cross. He could have taken the path of violence, he had every right to it in the midst of all the injustice he faced. As the ruler of the universe, he could have “lorded it over” this path of suffering. But Jesus took the path of the Passover Lamb, he let himself be numbered among the transgressors, he took the path of the Servant King.

For those who would reign with him, we must also be willing to suffer with him. For those who would rule with him, we must also be willing to serve with him. We should not be a people wondering about the minimum requirements of making it into heaven, but people wondering how far, with God’s help, our transformation can go. But the direction, long before it becomes a picture of us exalted—ruling with Christ on a throne, is a picture of the path of the cross. It is the path of the Suffering Servant.

This is not a mystery hidden from us, it is not something that should take us by surprise as it did the first disciples. We already know the end of the gospel story. But to get to the end of the story we must walk the path of Jesus, the path of the cross, the path of humility, the path of the Suffering Servant. We, as the people of God, must look past our fear of the present dangers we face… and have the courage to follow God even there.


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