April 10th, 2014
How many of you have read a book more than once? Why invest the time when you know the outcome already? Why submit to the circuitous pilgrimage through a plot if the resolution has in a sense been predetermined by your prior knowledge? We all have our reasons; one might be that we find both the story and its resolution so compelling that the end warrants the endurance through the travails of the storyline.
For Palm Sunday and Resurrection Sunday (though it’s okay–you can say Easter), we’ll preach a short series: How’s it End? Why the “end” matters to our moment. On those two Sundays, we remember Jesus’ portentous arrival in Jerusalem and then celebrate His earth-splitting resurrection. But given how the momentousness of what happened then only anticipated something greater in time, we want to ask what both those days in Jesus’ life pointed unto. So we’re going to open that book where angels might not fear to tread but preachers may: John’s Revelation. What he speaks of is as dizzying as how he speaks of it.
The resurrection boggles the mind as it is; two things it anticipates will just about blow it. The end of the story means to tell us about the future reign of God and the future renewal of God. That pair of promises represents the narrative trajectory to which the fanfare of Palm Sunday and the unfathomableness of the resurrection allude. We want to connect the dots between them, but moreover we want to ask what it means, as John will say so often in his vision, to “patiently endure” the storyline we’re in.
This Sunday we’ll look at a long and wild passage, full of sound and fury but signifying everything (4-5:10). It has to do with the future reign of God, but one that’s already been inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Jesus. We’re either mesmerized or scandalized by power and politics. But just as your average candidate campaigns on not just a platform, but a narrative, so we’ll find a connection between the power Jesus brings to bear on the human condition as part of the story in which He became the prime player. Metaphorically speaking, everyone in this life votes for a narrative–a vision of the future. We’ll consider what it means to “vote” for the narrative of God’s ultimate reign–three things those who do vote for that narrative are convinced of:
- a particular view of reality
- a particular view of humanity
- a particular view of identity
It’s one thing to let a work of literature whose end you already know to compel you to retrace the steps of the story. It’s quite another thing if you’re a character in the story. I’d ask you to pray for these messages–for me and for you as you hear them–that we’d all find a little more endurance to live the story we’re in.
It escapes me that already twenty years have passed since the genocide in Rwanda. This week’s New York Times remembered that tragic anniversary in what might be the most redemptive way possible. We can’t but remember the unimaginable violence that led to a staggering loss of life. But thankfully there are a number of stories that can be told which are little cracks of light breaking through into an otherwise benighted story.
Amid the statistics of hatred, now there are stories of, if you can believe it, forgiveness.
And the NYT article marshaled the power of images to tell that story, capturing photographs of the debtors and those who’d forgiven them their barbarous debts.
We sought to recover the centrality of forgiveness last Sunday from the episode when the prostitute comes to the Pharisee’s banquet to anoint Jesus’ feet. We made the case that the fact of our being forgiven can only move from the periphery of our thinking and living unless we get past the problem with it and the embrace the proof of it. Furthermore we conceded how only a power not our own, a power not within us, could ever have that effect on us. But upon reflection of the sermon, I realized that while I may have identified where the power comes from (the Son purchases our pardon while the Spirit confirms–and reconfirms–it henceforth) I may not have clarified in what sense the power “operates.”
The power works in the sense that it pushes back against the other motivations to withhold forgiveness that we might otherwise follow. Power is as power subverts an opposing one.
What opposes the inclination to seek forgiveness? One is the desire to conceal our sin, mostly out of fear of what we might lose if it becomes known, or what it will cost us to make things right again. So the motive to do everything but seek forgiveness is strong. But when the Gospel of Jesus assures us that not just our acts of sin, but our heart of sin, is not held against us–rather than fear what we’ll lose by coming clean with another, we take heart that the loss will still never outweigh what we’ve gained in the forgiveness we have through the Cross. It’s for the honor of Christ we transparently seek reconciliation with another, but it’s also because of trust in the love of Christ for us that we don’t feel the compulsion to preserve a false identity of blamelessness.
What if you’re on the harmed side of forgiveness? What opposes the inclination to offer it and how does the Gospel turn back that force with a force of its own? No one has to be taught to seek vengeance; the desire bubbles up as predictably as a chemical reaction–which it is in part. But if C.S. Lewis was right when he said that “to be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you,” then the exercise of forgiveness will always hold primacy. Our identity as one who is forgiven lays a claim on our hearts to act in kind, even when the harm we feel eclipses any felt sense of having ourselves been pardoned. Furthermore, the delight we experience in bearing a grudge toward one who’s harmed us–and who will deny that delicious feeling of wrath–diminishes as we trust the Gospel. Why? There’s a greater satisfaction to be had that derives from both rising above our instinctual bent toward punishment, and the sense that we, like Reverend Ames intoned, “feel the will of God enacted through us, which is the great restoration of ourselves to ourselves.”
But heaven is in the practicalities. Forgiveness will take center stage in our hearts only with guidance in how both to grant it and to wait for it. As I promised, here are links to two articles that unpack not just the practice of forgiveness but the enduring premises beneath them. Dan Allender weaves together wisdom and stories from his own counseling ministry in an article he wrote entitled “Forgive and Forget.” (Don’t be fooled by the title; by his admission there’s no such thing.) Tim Keller’s article entitled, “Serving Each Other through Forgiveness and Reconciliation,” does what Allender does, and with even more detail–explaining the process as a series of hard-fought but well-sought stages. How Keller ends his essay struck me most: the very nature of the church demands a degree of attention to forgiveness as unrelenting as an attention to nourishment. That we are the company of the redeemed means we enter into the communion of the saints with all the instincts of rebellion and estrangement. We’re brought together by the Cross despite the fact that we’d just as soon avoid each other–and assail each other when provoked. If you’re looking for a concrete application for last Sunday’s sermon, reading these two essays would be a choice move.
During Storyline last Sunday, Jim introduced us to the profound but thorny doctrines of the Trinity and Providence. Few tenets of our faith have provoked more ire and debate than the irresolvable mystery of God being three yet one, and that He retains unqualified jurisdiction and superintendence over all things. You can be assured the theologians who composed the Confession did not quickly arrive at the language that came to form these chapters. And as a point of essential context, these were not men who lived in ivory towers or secluded enclaves. They had brothers and sisters, wives and children, who succumbed to smallpox, friends who’d been left bloodied and dead on the battlefields of the then raging English Civil War. So you cannot accuse these scholars of remote detachment from the world to explain their defense of God’s unmitigated power. They not only spoke of this faith but lived by it; they had no choice (ha).
It’s their having to live by faith in the Providence of God amid circumstances that would seem to refute that belief that gets us to the point of exploring this doctrine. Explain, specify, and prove your case from Scripture as to the validity of God’s sovereignty if you will. But how does faith in that doctrine play out in the experience that most tests our trust in it? What does the claim of God’s sovereignty invite us to do–oblige us to do–when we find our world shook to its core?
We’re not so far from our series on the Psalms to remember some things we learned from people in similar moments. Faith in His sovereignty does not preclude our weeping, our extended mourning. Nor does agonized inquiry into His inscrutable designs reflect an absence of faith. Ours is to recognize that no one faces any such moment without some kind of faith. That is, one’s conclusion about God’s absence, or non-existence, in the face of trial must be held by faith, as surely as one must conclude the opposite by faith. One has no comprehensive evidence to render either conclusion air-tight.
Therefore, one must review the evidence that God holds sway even over that which seems to proceed without the slightest intervention from above. Few moments in redemptive history ever seemed so bleak, so wrenched from any divine superintendence, than what we find at Calvary. There we are confronted with God suffering, and with God adopting a silent posture. That God endured suffering and had reasons for silence known only to Him means we are no fool to trust One who knows our weakness and whose silence does not indicate aloofness. Yesterday was the anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s execution. A Nazi doctor who did not know whose hanging he was about to witness wrote later of the pastor, martyr, prophet, spy:
On the morning of that day between 5 and 6 o’clock, the prisoners were led from the cells, and the verdicts of the court martial were read aloud. Through the half-open door of the barracks, I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer kneeling, immersed in prayer to his God, before he took off his prison clothing. The devotion which was obvious in the prayer of this extraordinarily agreeable man, and his certainty that God heard him, made a very deep impression on me. At the place of execution too, he uttered a brief prayer and then courageously and calmly mounted the ladder to the gallows. Death followed after a few seconds. In my activity as a doctor, which has lasted almost fifty years, I have never seen a man die with such devotion to God.
It is one’s faith in Providence that enables one to face the leap into eternity with a courage. And yet, while faith calls us to entrust ourselves to His sovereignty, we take some heart that even the likes of John Calvin could attest to the challenges of trust when he said, “…we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety.” (Institutes, 3.2.17).
Theology means to inform us so that it may in turn move us. The doctrines of the Trinity and Providence certainly confound, but when their irresolvable mysteries are “permitted” to confront us they may still provoke something more than thought; they may very well provoke awe. That was surely true for the likes of John Donne. On his note we shall move on:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. (“Batter my heart,” Sonnet 14)
While we have him here (with HT to Timothy George), we’ll let John Donne explain our reasons for gathering for our community’s first Good Friday service, April 18th at 6pm.
Even in the depth of any spiritual night, in the shadow of death, in the midnight of afflictions and tribulations, God brings light out of darkness and gives his saints occasion of glorifying him, not only in the dark (though it be dark) but from the dark (because it is dark). . . . This is a way unconceivable by any, inexpressible to any, but those that have felt that manner of God’s proceeding in themselves, that be the night what night it will . . . they see God better in the dark
Our “service in shadow” will remember the crucified Jesus in a fittingly spare way through word and prayer, song and silence, light and shadow. All are welcome.
But before we get to Good Friday, we will pray together this Sunday night, April 13th, from 6-8pm at the home of Nathan and Virginia Vandermeer. It will be for our monthly time of corporate prayer. We’ll consider Jesus’ agonized instruction to his sleepy disciples, turn to the Psalms as grist for our prayers, and then pray widely for within and without the church. If you’ve never been, come right along–even if only to sit and listen and pray silently yourself. Think of it as just climbing up in “a big bed with the family” and letting unvarnished words fly forth.
And as a lead-in to our prayer time this Sunday night pray
- for Tony Barnes and his family on the loss of his aunt
- for Wanda Williams on the sudden loss of a cousin
- for Margarita Harris and her slow-recovering injury
- for Jim Akovenko as he travels in Sri Lanka for the growing work of translation there
- for our gracious hosts, Fairmeadows Baptist Church, and other churches in our city
See you Sunday at 9:30,