Between the Earthquakes: What Was God Doing on Saturday?

There Was A Great Earthquake 

Matthew reports that on the first Easter morning “there was a great earthquake.” It ripped open the tomb and scared the living daylights out of the Romans guards who “shook with fear and became like dead men.” (Matthew 28:2-4)

Matthais Grunwald (1470-1528) imagined that moment in the Isenheim Altarpiece.  the-resurrection-of-christ-right-wing-of-the-isenheim-altarpiece.jpg!LargeYou can feel the earth vibrate and hear the earthquake rumble. The tomb is broken open. The guards tumble to the ground. The Risen Christ soars out of the grave like the Space Shuttle lifting off from the Florida coast. His smiling face dissolves into the brilliant sun that penetrates the pitch black darkness. He raises his nail-scared hands saying, “Be not afraid! I am going before you!”

A 17th Century mystic wrote:  “The earth which trembled with sorrow at the death of Jesus leaped for joy at his resurrection.” (Cornelius Lapide)

Shaking in the Darkness 

It was the second earthquake in Matthew’s gospel.  On Friday, when Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, the sky turned black and “the earth shook and the rocks were split.” (Matthew 27:51)

That’s where Matthew left the women on Friday night. They felt the earth shake as they watched Jesus die. They saw Joseph place his battered, bloody body in the tomb. They heard the stone roll across the entrance with a heavy, funereal thud. They watched Pilate’s guards put the seal of Rome on it and settle in to make sure that the body stayed where it belonged.

But then, the unexpected happened! The earth itself leaped for joy with the good news that God had not forsaken Jesus. God shattered the all too predictable power of death with the unexpected power of new life. It means that God has not forsaken this world to go on being what it’s been and God has not forsaken any of us to go on living the way we’ve always lived. The same God who breathed life into dusty chaos on the first morning of creation, breathed new life into the lifeless Jesus and brought forth a whole new creation.

What Was God Doing on Saturday? 

Between the two earthquakes, there is the stoney, cold silence of Saturday, when Jesus battered, lifeless body lay motionless in the tomb.  What was God doing then?

Here’s the way Wendell Berry described the way God was at work to bring new life out of death in the tomb.

What hard travail God does in death!
He strives in sleep, in our despair,
And all flesh shudders underneath
The nightmare of His sepulcher.

The earth shakes, grinding its deep stone;
All night the cold wind heaves and pries;
Creation strains sinew and bone
Against the dark door where He lies.

The stem bent, pent in seed, grow straight
And stands. Pain breaks in song. Surprising
The merely dead, graves fill with light
Like opened eyes. He rests in rising.
(A Timbered Choir, p. 25)

Perhaps the silence of Saturday is the reminder that beneath the surface, God is still at work in every dark, deadly, lifeless place to break through the darkness and bring new life. The resurrection means that tomorrow is never just another day!

May the same power that broke open the tomb on Easter morning shake us with new life preparing us to shout, “Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!”

Jim

P.S.  We’ve just completed work on a devotional guide and small group study on “Easter Earthquake”.  It will be released by The Upper Room later this year.

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Palm Sunday Politics

It’s Not Just About Trump.

Did the President do the right thing by ordering missile attacks on a Syrian airbase? Was it Constitutional? Will it make any difference? What happens next?

Those questions need to be seriously debated, but one thing is clear. A lot of people both in the US and around the world liked it. Some even suggested that it made our otherwise immoral, illiterate, and incompetent leader look “Presidential.” It provided a momentary feeling of moral superiority in “doing something” in response to an inhumane attack on innocent people by a brutal dictator.

Palm Sunday Cheers 

The cheering for Trump’s attack on Syria reminded me of the cheering crowds on Palm Sunday in “Jesus Christ, Superstar” .

When they shouted, “Hosanna!” – the imperative verb means, “Save us!” – it was more of a political than a religious acclamation. Even the waving of the palm branches had political implications. The crowds were cheering for a leader they hoped would break the strangle hold of oppressive Roman authority and set them free. It released their anguished hope for Israel to be “great again.” It was their way of announcing, “There’s a new sheriff in town!”

Not that there’s anything new about all this. It goes all the way back to the first time two prehistoric cave men got in a dispute about who was in charge of the cave. When one threw a rock at the other, his opponent went looking for a larger rock. And we’ve been doing it ever since. The rocks just keep getting more dangerous and more expensive. The bible traces our murderous desire for at best, justice, or at worse, revenge, back to Cain and Able.  It’s the way the tragic effects of sin are passed on from one generation to another.

It’s not about Trump.  It’s about all of us.

Palm Sunday Tears 

jesus-weeps-over-theAnd what was Jesus doing? Luke records one of the most poignant scenes in the New Testament.

As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it. He said, “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace.”

Through his tears, he predicted the way violence always leads to more violence.

“The time will come when your enemies will build fortifications around you, encircle you, and attack you from all sides.  They will crush you completely, you and the people within you. They won’t leave one stone on top of another within you, because you didn’t recognize the time of your gracious visit from God.” (Luke 19:41-44)

New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, named our addiction to the idea that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right “The Myth of Redemptive Violence.” It is simply not the way of Jesus.

The Jesus Way 

Standing in opposition to Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “What is absolutely aweful and unacceptable in war is that Christians are compelled to forget their Christian faith.” (The Cost of Moral Leadership, p. 102)

I could wish that fellow United Methodists who are passionately demanding that we take a strictly literal approach to what the bible says about human sexuality would be just as passionate about taking Jesus seriously when he said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)

Contemporary Christian writer, Shane Claiborne summarized Jesus’ radical alternative when he wrote:

Jesus teaches a “third way” to interact with evil. We see a Jesus who abhors both passivity and violence and teaches us a new way forward that is neither submission nor assault, neither fight nor flight. He shows us a way to oppose evil without mirroring it, where oppressors can be resisted without being emulated and neutralized without being destroyed.

Christians in every generation have found endlessly creative ways to compromise the message Jesus taught, the way he lived and the way he died.  All too easily, we end up cheering for the wrong kind of deliverer.  If only we were as endlessly creative in searching for nonviolent ways to confront the violence and injustice around us!

Bonhoeffer’s Witness 

One of the painful ironies of Bonhoeffer’s life was that although he was convinced that Jesus’ way of non-violence was central to Christian discipleship, he was hanged 72 years ago today because he participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

“Even when he abandoned his non-violence to join the conspiracy, pacifism always remained his ideal…In no way did Bonhoeffer concede that the violent deeds planned by the conspirators escaped the guilt for what they had to do in attempting to free the world from the sinister, lethal grip of Adolf Hitler.” (The Cost of Moral Leadership, p. 100, 115)

Jesus’ way of nonviolence is not a quick fix for conflicts that have gone on for hundreds of years.  It’s the long-term way of life to which he calls us.  If there are times when, as a totally unavoidable last resort, a community of nations is called to use war to thwart aggression, Jesus’ followers cannot cheer for it, but must confront it with something like Bonhoeffer’s guilt and Jesus’ tears.

In the end, it’s not about Trump. It’s about the way Trump represents our desire for revenge and the longing for something that feels like justice when we see evil but choose the way of evil to attempt to end it.  It was enough to send Jesus to the cross.  It calls us to go there, too.

Peace,

Jim

The Ways We Die

Even Smartphones Will Die

The headline from The Financial Times hooked my attention:  “The smartphone is eventually going to die, and then things are going to get really crazy.”  It was a technological reminder of the truth we heard on Ash Wednesday, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”  None of us will get out of here alive.

The question is not if or when but how we will die. Not “how” in terms of a medical diagnosis, but “how” in terms of the spirit, attitude or faith with which we face our death.

How Jesus’ Died  

Each gospel writer tells the crucifixion story differently, like different artists capturing what happened on 9/11 in their own unique way. Listening to Jesus’ last words and reflecting on the ways I’ve seen people die led me to music that felt like a commentary on the biblical text. I hope you’ll take time to listen to the music in this message as a part of your journey through Holy Week.  (You’ll be surprised to discover that none of them are Wesley hymns!)

“My God, why have you forsaken me?” 

The last words Jesus speaks in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 33:34 are known as “the cry of dereliction,” defined as “the state of being abandoned or deserted.”  There’s no getting around it.  Jesus spoke the way we feel but are often afraid to express when he shouted at a silent sky, “My God, why?”  

Because Jesus asked that question, we can ask it, too. It’s the gut-wrenching question we ask when death comes at a time and in a way that we never expected.  It’s the cry of the parent whose child is killed by a drunk driver on the highway, hit by stray bullets in an urban ghetto, or buried beneath the rubble of bomb blast in Mosul.  With Jesus, we scream the question toward a leaden sky and listen in silence for an answer that doesn’t immediately come. 

Looking back from this side of the resurrection and Pentecost, Paul Jones offered the Trinitarian answer in The Shack when he had Papa say, “We were there together…Regardless of what he felt at that moment, I never left him.” (p. 96, italics his.)  It’s the mystery of the incarnation that led Paul to declare that at the cross, God was “in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”  (2 Corinthians 5:19)

Feeling my way into the darkness of of Jesus’ cry took me to the dark feeling of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  The final verse says:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.

One of the ways we face death is with the pain-soaked cry, “My God, why?”

“It is finished!” 

Of the translations I read, only J.B. Phillips adds the exclamation point to Jesus’ words in John 19:30.  It captures the mood of the newer translations that say, “It is completed.”  In John’s gospel, Jesus’ takes his last breath saying that the mission for which God sent him has not been defeated; it has been accomplished, completed, fulfilled!  It is not a cry of resignation or defeat, but a breathless shout of victory, even in the darkest, loneliest, most miserable moment of the world’s rejection and horrendous death.

Some people die with a deep sense of fulfillment and gratitude, satisfied that they have done what they were called to do.  In their own imperfect way, they have been faithful in their life of discipleship.  It’s what Paul meant when he said, “I have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)

That sense of fulfillment reminded me of Vachel Lindsay’s poetic description of “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven”.  The wildly extravagant musical version by Charles Ives captures the exhuberant celebration as the founder of the Salvation Army leads his company of “vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath, unwashed legions with the ways of Death” into heaven where they “marched on spotless, clad in raiment new…And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world.”

One of the ways we die is with gratitude knowing that our work has been completed.

“Into your hands I commend my spirit.”  

And then there is Luke, my favorite of the gospel writers.  Only Luke records Jesus telling the criminal on the cross, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”  (Luke 23:43) Immediately after offering that unexpected word of undeserved hope, Luke records that “darkness covered the whole earth…while the sun stopped shining.”  In that impenetrable darkness, Luke hears Jesus “crying out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’”  (Luke 23:44-46)

All I can say to that is, “Wow!  What a way to go!”

Like Jesus, some folks die with absolute peace that comes from unrelenting assurance in the love of God and the hope of resurrection.  People don’t generally pick up that peace at the last moment.  It is the result of a life of spiritual discipline that is rooted in scripture, shaped in prayer, celebrated in worship, and practiced through self-giving service.

Palm Sunday will mark the 72nd anniversary of the day when Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in a German prison because of his courageous faithfulness in calling the church to oppose Hitler.  As he was led from his cell, he said to another prisoner, “This is the end.  For me, the beginning of life.”

Shortly after my mother’s death, I listened to “Gabriel’s Oboe”, Ennio Morricone’s extravagantly beautiful theme music for the movie, “The Mission.”  I was overwhelmed with the feeling that the music captured the way she left this life, walked through the darkness of death, and entered into the new life of the resurrection. I want to live so that I will die that way, too.

The headline said that after the death of the smartphone, “things are going to get really crazy.”  But for people who have lived a life of faith, after death, things are going to get really amazing!

Grace and peace,

Jim

P.S.  If Cohen, Ives and Morricone are too much for you, my friend and former musical colleague, Penny Walsh, recently posted this beautiful arrangement of “Abide with Me” which says the same thing in a more traditional way.