Monday, March 20, 2017

Jesus, Our Older Brother

Relationships between siblings have the potential for incredible grace and extraordinary pain. This is why there are so many many stories in Scripture that revolve around the relationship between brothers and sisters. Think about it. If we were to remove all the sibling stories from the Bible, some of our most favorite moments would disappear. Indeed, a Bible without Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus would be no Bible at all. What's more, the person and work of Jesus would be described in a much different way, if not totally meaningless without the theme of Jesus as the older brother coming to rescue his younger siblings and restoring them to the Father. Because sin has powerfully dominated the sibling relationship, Christ had to come to us that our sibling relationship with him might be healed along with all other sibling relationships. Paul Zahl is helpful in this regard.
Almost all sibling problems have to do with a child's feeling that the affection of his parents was unevenly distributed. The middle child thinks the eldest is favored, but the youngest is really the favored one. The youngest basks in the affection of his less-uptight parents, who have become wiser in their child-rearing. ... Grace demolishes this idea of proportional loving, It demolishes it ... because God's love is one-way, removed from any relation with the receiver, there is no "rivalry." This grace of Christ is the first stage of the healing of siblings who are furious at one another.
Is it not maddening when an author we don't even know seems to describe our reality as if he is a member of our family? Brother and sisters, our sibling relationships are unparalleled in how they reveal the reality of the fall. The good news is Jesus came into the mess of our sibling relationships as our good and loving and rescuing older brother (Hebrews 2.11-13).

In the early 90s, Robert Redford directed and narrated the well-known film, A River Runs Through It. More than being a film about fly fishing with amazing scenes of trout fishing in the rivers that run through the Montana Mountains, this was film about family. More specifically about the love and pain that brothers often share. Norman and Paul Maclean are brothers whose father is a stern Presbyterian minister. Norman is the firstborn son who does nothing but satisfy the cold expectations of Reverend Maclean. Paul, on the other hand, is the younger rebellious son who abuses alcohol, gets into bar fights, and becomes "overly involved" with too many women. Nonetheless, Norman has deep and abiding affection for Paul. He wants to help his brother, but is unable, because he fails to understand his brother. Norman explains this loving struggle to want to help Paul, even though he is unable.  
Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding. 
Paul's life ends after being brutally beaten and left for dead in a back alley. This devastates Norman and he responds by doing what he and Paul used to always do together, fly fish. To return to the river without his brother was more loneliness than Norman could bear.
In the loneliness of the canyon I knew there were others like me who had brothers they did not understand, but wanted to help. We are probably those referred to as "our brother's keepers," possessed of one of the oldest and possibly one of the most futile and certainly one of the most haunting instincts. It will not let us go. 
The good news is that Jesus as a faithful older brother is willing and able to come and save us because he does understand our plight. He is the true brother's Keeper. This is why Hebrews says: "he had to be made like [his brothers,] fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people (Heb 2.17, NIV). As N.T. Wright says,  
Jesus is the older brother of a much larger family and he did come to where his siblings were. He wallowed in the land of sin and death. He identified with them, shared their fate, and thereby rescued them from it (N.T. Wright). 
Click below to download and listen to our exposition of Hebrews 2.10-18.

Sin, Substitution, Sacrifice, and the Cross

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Justice of the Cross

Why were Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden? When God responds to our sin we often only think of him in terms of punishment. We are therefore led to believe that God was punishing our first parents by casting them out of the Garden because he couldn't stand the sight of them. He couldn't tolerate their presence as sinners, so they had to go! Is that what the text says? No! Instead, God's Word describes God as seeking them out, even in their state of sin and shame. Furthermore, Genesis 3.22 describes why they were exiled.
Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. (Gen 3:22–23, ESV)
Love for Adam and Eve motivated the LORD God to send them out from the garden of Eden because if they were to eat from the tree of life, they would remain forever trapped in their sinful state. God's love would not allow this. This is why God exiled Adam and Eve. Furthermore, God knew what this exile would cost him and that costly sacrifice is what we encounter in Isaiah 53. As this second full week of Lent begins let's meditate on one truth from this text.

On the cross God suffers with us.

Often the cross is described as Jesus suffering something instead of us. It goes something like, "Jesus endured the cross so we wouldn't have to." While themes of substitution are apparent in other texts, this is not the emphasis of Isaiah 53. Instead of suffering in our place, Yahweh's servant suffers with us in the place of exile we have created. "He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors" (Isa 53.12, ESV). The suffering of Yahweh's servant described in Isaiah 53 fulfills the promise of Isaiah 43.3-7.
For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead. Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. I will say to the north, "Give them up!" and to the south, "Do not hold them back." Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth— everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made. (Isaiah 43:3–7, NIV)
In Isaiah 53 Yahweh has sent his servant to every place you and I can imagine in order to bring us home. Specifically he must enter into our place suffering in order to rescue us from it. Indeed, Jesus' suffering is why God can say:
But now, this is what the LORD says— he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze." (Isaiah 43:1–2, NIV)
N.T. Wright summarizes well the way some have misunderstood the cross in a unique paraphrase of John 3.16. "For God so hated the world that he killed his one and only Son." N.T. Wright rightly identifies this as a misunderstanding of Jesus' work of atonement on the cross. Instead of this distortion the Word of God reveals that the suffering love of God sent the Son of God to the cross that we might bring us home. Thanks be to God!

Click here to download and listen to "The Justice of the Cross," our second message in our Lenten Series, Understanding Jesus' Death.  


Monday, March 6, 2017

The Weakness of God

"The weakness of God is stronger than human strength" (1 Cor 1.25b, NIV). What does that mean? One of the truths we meditated upon yesterday was this. It was in weakness that God was mighty to save. For the Apostle Paul, the cross of Jesus calls us to a wholesale  transformation. Jesus' cross must transform our understanding of God. A more literal translation of 1 Corinthians 1.25 would go like this: "For the foolish thing of God is wiser than humans, and the weak thing of God is stronger than humans." What is the foolish thing? What is this weak thing? The foolishness of God and the weakness of God is the cross. This is why Richard Hays writes: "This foolish and weak thing is the event of the cross itself. The cross is the key to understanding reality in God's new age. Consequently, to enter the symbolic world of the gospel is to undergo a conversion of the imagination, to see all values transformed by the foolish and weak death of Jesus on the cross." Have we been converted by the cross? What does it look like to be converted by the cross?

A Transformed View of God

To be converted by the cross is to have our understanding of God transformed. Most of us seem to be born into this world with a theology that goes a bit like this. God is very big and very powerful and very high up on something like a mountain. His natural mood is disappointed and I must summon as much strength as I can to neutralize his opinion of me. I firmly believe Jesus came to destroy this idolatrous understanding of what God is like. Indeed, Jesus reveals a God who humbles himself in order to save his enemies! John 17 defines for us what the one true God is really like. Before his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion, John records Jesus' final prayer. Listen to how Jesus' prayer begins and ends.  
Jesus spoke these things, looked up to heaven and said: "Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, ... Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they will see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the world's foundation. Righteous Father, the world has not known you. However, I have known you, and they have known that you sent me. I made your name known to them and will continue to make it known, so that the love you have loved me with may be in them and I may be in them (John 17.1, 24-26, CSB).
In this passage Jesus uses words like glory, know, and name, so we may understand him to be speaking of what is essentially true about God. He prays the Father will glorify him, the Son, so that the Son can in turn, glorify the Father. In other words, the glory of the Father and the Son will be made visible through what is about to happen. Furthermore, Jesus declares that as the Son, the one who knows the Father, he has come to make the Father known and will continue to make him known, so that the love the Father has loved the Son with, may be in us! How will this sharing of love happen? What will be the means by which the Father is made known and the love of the Father and the Son is shared with us? The cross is how. Yes! As the blood and water flowed from the wounds of the Son, the love of the Trinity was being shared with the world. Jesus opens his prayer with these words: "Father, the hour has come." Throughout John's gospel it has been declared that the hour has not yet come (See, John 2.4, 7.30; 8.20). But now, Jesus knows the hour has come for him to leave this world and return to Father (See John 13.1). This means, "the hour has come," means it is now time for the crucifixion. You see it is through the weakness and foolishness of Jesus' death that we learn of the inner love of God and it's through the cross that love the Father and Son have shared for eternity is poured out for us. This means that our understanding of what God is like must be shaped by the cross. This is why Paul argues in Philippians that because Jesus existed in the form of God, "he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death - even to death on a cross" (Phil 2.7-8, CSB).

What does the "god" in our heads look like? According to Christianity the one true God looks like Jesus pouring himself out for his enemies on the Cross. Let us confess with the Roman soldier one of the most essential truths of our faith.
When the centurion, who was standing opposite him, saw the way he breathed his last, he said, "Truly this man was the Son of God" (Mark 15.39, CSB)! 
It is Jesus' dying breath that reveals Jesus' true identity. The cross calls us to a transformed understanding of God. Not just Jesus, but God! God is like Jesus dying on the cross. There is no other God behind the cross. God was in Christ on the cross reconciling the world to himself. This is summarized well by Plantinga.
“The Son of God just does what he sees his Father doing. He empties himself and takes the form of a servant because that’s the way they do it in his family” (Cornelius Plantinga Jr.). 
Click here to download and listen to yesterday's sermon, The Curse of the Cross.