Now ye need not fear the grave

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

All our fear is ultimately the fear of death. It is, as Paul says, “the last enemy.” It is the ultimate worst case scenario.

My grandmother died this year. She was 92. She lived a beautiful life, passed her final days in my parents’ home being cared for by those she loved the most, and died trusting in Christ. This is the way to go. Having seen her decline, and knowing she was tired and ready, I had even prayed that God would take her before too long.

And yet, this was the toughest blow of a tough year for me. I think of her daily. I miss her terribly. It hasn’t fully set in that I can’t pick her up and take her to dinner the next time I’m in Georgia.

This is because death, even a good death, is awful. It’s an intrusion into the good world God created. And we pass our entire lives under its shadow, knowing it awaits us all, awaits those we love. Death is inevitable. The fear of this makes us subject to life-long slavery.

Jesus stepped into time and space, became human with all that entails, in order to change this. He was acquainted with death, more so than many of us. He lived in a time when death was much more a part of everyday life than it is for us. People didn’t get taken to the hospital and then the funeral home; they typically died at home, were mourned at home, and were buried by the family and community.

Jesus seems to have lost his earthly father at a fairly early age, as Joseph departs the narrative between his adolescence and young adulthood. He saw children die– doubtless more than just the few he raised from the dead. He wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. But more than all this, he passed his entire life on earth in the shadow of the cross. He knew it was coming. He knew what he was here to do. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.”

The fact that he also knew the Resurrection was coming didn’t change the fact that the suffering was coming as well.

Hebrews 2:14 and following is one of my favorite passages, and especially my favorite passage for Advent. One thing that always strikes me: The author doesn’t say that Jesus delivers us from death. Of course, in the greatest sense he does, but unless we are alive at his return, knowing Christ does not deliver us from the physical experience of death. He does, however release us from slavery to the fear of death.

This is not just about knowing that heaven is coming, though it is that. It is about knowing that because Jesus’ humanity is so genuine, his becoming one of us in every way so complete, we are united with him in every stage of our life, including the final one. How has he destroyed the power of death, and the work of the devil? Through death itself. He didn’t pretend to die, or seem to die. He died. His death destroyed death forever. And he accomplished this for us– for “the children” of whom he is unashamed, who share in the flesh and blood that he willingly adopted.

“Now ye need not fear the grave.” Because Jesus has been there already. And so we will not go there alone.

Made perfect through suffering

For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all of one. (Hebrews 2:11)

Suffering is an inevitable part of the human life. For the Christian, good things can happen through suffering. There are lots of good lines about this from lots of Christian authors. One of my favorites is attributed to Samuel Rutherford: “The King keeps his best wine in the cellar of affliction.”

In my experience, there are three stages of processing this truth. First, the stereotypical naive person, often young, who hasn’t suffered very much. Sometimes a seminary student, though those poor guys get a bad rap. I have been this person. Lines like this one from Rutherford, usually encountered through John Piper or somewhere similar, sound so good, and repeating them makes you feel wise.

Then there’s the person actually going through suffering. I have been this person. At this stage you can really believe the thing is true, and want it to be true, but also think “I would like to get the results without the process.” In some of my valleys, I have thought “Right, God’s going to show me his goodness, but I know enough Bible to know he might do that by sending me a really awful affliction that I would like to avoid.” So in the moment, the thought isn’t as always as comforting as one might hope.

Finally, there’s the person who has been through suffering, has gained some distance from it, and is able to look back and say “Yes. This is true.” I am that person. It actually is true that most of the seasons of growth in my walk with God, most of the times where I have been most aware of his presence and his care, have been hard seasons, not easy ones. (I’m also still relatively young, most likely with plenty of suffering still to come, so who knows how naive I’m being right now.)

So God does good things through suffering. This is probably a truth best expressed after we have experienced it personally, when it has cost us something to affirm it.

One thing that’s common to all of us: We don’t go out looking for suffering. We don’t choose it.

We might choose situations that we know full well could end in suffering. That’s true of deep friendship, of bearing and adopting and raising children, of having parents. To love is to risk suffering. But we don’t really choose the suffering itself. We don’t have to. It finds us. That’s part of being human.

It’s a part of being human that Christ did choose. The author of Hebrews tells us that God, in order to “bring many sons to glory”– that is, in order to restore us to full humanity through relationship with him– determined to “make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” Why did Christ, the eternal Son of God, have to be made perfect? Why was suffering the way to do it? Because it’s a key aspect of being human, and it was something the Son had not experienced prior to the Incarnation.

“For he who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one.” Jesus is so closely united to us, so committed to bringing us all the way home, that he willingly chose a life of suffering in order to bring about our sanctification, our restoration to glory. Not an ordinary life of suffering, either. Being limited in time and space, being born with all the mess that entails, being able to be hungry and tired and sick– that is true suffering for a divine being. He went further. He suffered physical torment, relational abandonment, the persecution of those he came to save, the rejection of his own family. All this before the cross, before bearing the full extent of God’s wrath.

He did all this to be truly, perfectly united to us. He took on this role knowing what it would cost. He was willing. He is not ashamed to call us his brothers. This is why, in the moments of our deepest pain, we are never alone. We are united to Christ, who is eternally morally perfect, and who stepped into our world in order to be made experientially perfect. He suffers with us in order to bring us to glory.

Born to raise the sons of earth

At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:8-9)

Do you realize what a big deal it is that in a year, we seem to have come up with at least three vaccines that have the potential to stop a global pandemic in its tracks? Along with the necessary infrastructure so that it’s likely most people who want the vaccine could have it before Easter? That a year from now, COVID could have gone the way of measles and polio?

Humanity is capable of incredible things. Of course, we’re capable of terrible things too. “Heaven have mercy on us all– Presbyterians and pagans alike– for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”

Since the Garden, this is what it means to be human. We bear the image of God, every single one of us. And yet, we also bear the unmistakable marks of sin and disease and death. So much potential for good, so much depravity. Not in different types of people, but in each one of us.

Hebrews 2 is at points a little tricky, because it’s not always clear who the pronouns are about. The author quotes Psalm 8, which praises God’s work in creation and marvels at the privileged place mankind has at its apex, and then by verse 9 we’re clearly talking about Jesus. Between the two, it’s a little unclear. “He [God?] left nothing outside his [man’s? Jesus’?] control.” “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to [man? Jesus?].”

The answer, I suggest (following smarter people), is to see the significance of Jesus as the second Adam, the true representative Man. As I said yesterday, he became human in order to experience everything we experience. But in becoming human, he also suffered what he did, and accomplished what he did, for us. He redeems our humanity, raises us back to our proper place. “In him the tribes of Adam boast / More blessings than their father lost.”

The consummation of our redemption is not yet complete. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to mankind. The earth still bears thistles and thorns. Vaccines are still needed because disease is still present. “Man, at war with man, hears not / the love song which they bring.”

Yet what do we see? We see Jesus, the True Man, the representative Man, the second Adam, who reinstates us in our Father’s love, who shows us what it means to be truly human, who gives his Spirit to perfect us more and more in his image. This is what Advent tells us: He came to redeem our fallen humanity, by taking it upon himself. He has redeemed us, he is redeeming us, and as we look to the second Advent, we know that he will redeem us.

He is “born to raise the sons of earth,” that we may become once more the sons of God as he intended. Because he is crowned with glory and honor, we will rule over the beautiful renewed creation as we were made to do. “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”

On Christmas and showing up

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:14)

Several years ago, while we were spending a season in the States, a dear friend’s mom died. It was unexpected, but the family had had some time to prepare, and I had been on the phone often with my friend. When the end came, I was conflicted about being able to make it to the funeral. It was a 6-hour drive away, and there were some specific things going on that had me reluctant to leave Melissa and the kids.

I talked to another friend, who gently but firmly said “I think it will mean a lot to him to see you, even if it’s just for a few minutes. People remember who shows up.” Of course he was right. I knew it the second he said it.

I made the drive down for the visitation. When I saw my friend’s sister, also a close college friend, she said “Wow, you were there when my dad died too.” After the visitation our tight little group went out to eat, watched a Georgia game, laughed and were silly together. It was the first time in years we had all been together, and it hasn’t happened since. I drove back the same night, and never regretted it for a moment.

People remember who shows up.

I remember who showed up in each of the darkest trials I’ve walked through. The immediate phone calls from pastors in the US when Eliza was diagnosed, and the friends who took turns flying over to spend a week playing with our kids and washing dishes. (The absolute champion mother-in-law who stayed for over 2 months!) A friend who drove 3 hours both ways to see me the last time I was in Georgia.

This is the glory of the Incarnation, and the heart of what we celebrate at Christmas. Jesus showed up. We rightly sing of the Cross and his sacrifice. But before he did that, he had to become flesh; he had to become one of us. He had always been the eternal Son of God, the “radiance of his glory, the exact imprint of his nature,” had always “upheld the universe by the word of his power.” He became human. He made his dwelling among us. He showed up.

He did this in order to heal the breach that had opened in our relationship with God due to sin. He also did this to fully experience what it means to be human: to be fallen from our original state, to live in a world that is broken and that breaks us, to be able to be sick and hungry and tired. To experience the death of loved ones. To suffer and to weep.

Christmas celebrates Jesus coming into the world that is. We don’t have to pretend it’s a perfect Dickens village. He knows the real thing. He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger. He chose not to leave us alone. He chose to show up.

Enjoying Good Friday, and how weird that feels

IMG_1973Normally, the week before Easter, often called Holy Week, is a very busy time in my line of work. (I stuck that “often called” in there for a reason, which we’ll come back to.)

But this is a strange Easter in a strange year. Basically, all over the world, most people are sitting at home. Churches do all sorts of different things around Easter, but odds are, whatever your church usually does, they’re not doing.

As a pastor, my job both has and hasn’t changed in the past few weeks. I talk to people, I write and preach sermons, I do admin. A lot of that I can do at home. Like most people, I’m having a lot more Zoom calls than normal, and like most pastors, I’ve learned more about live streaming than I care to know. The very real crisis honestly feels distant, as the Czech Republic has done a fantastic job of flattening the curve.

But today, which is often called Good Friday, 2 days before the Sunday that is often called Easter, when Christians have historically celebrated the Resurrection of Christ, I’m not leading a Good Friday service. I’m not making sure everything is squared away for Easter Sunday, or double checking with Melissa to make sure no one’s left out of Easter dinner. All those things would be normal.

Instead, I’m sitting in my happy place: at a table in our garden, watching meat cook on the smoker, smelling charcoal and hickory, hearing my kids run around and birds chirp and normal neighborhood sounds.

This is one of my favorite things to do. But it feels weird today. Shouldn’t I be mourning over the death of Christ and my sin that made it necessary, or at least watching a Good Friday service? Maybe we should have planned one. Maybe I’ve failed to call our people to meditate on the Cross and God’s redeeming love. Maybe this is a huge missed opportunity. All of these thoughts have gone through my head in the last hour, and maybe they’re right.

Maybe.

I’m a pastor in the Reformed tradition, which is vast and varied. The stream I generally line up with has historically not made a huge deal of the church calendar. Calvin, from what I understand, didn’t preach Easter sermons and Christmas sermons. He preached whatever was next in the Bible. He was very sensitive, for very good reasons, about innovation and observing man-made traditions.

(Can we just agree not to argue over that right now, and follow me to the point.)

I’m not as hardcore on these points as Calvin. I love Advent and Christmas, and I really love preaching my tail off at Easter and singing “Christ The Lord Is Risen Today.” A pattern of observing major events like the incarnation, the cross and resurrection, and Pentecost (you forgot about that one, didn’t you) is a great way to make sure we take time to emphasize those aspects of the work of Christ.

But man, am I glad to be a Protestant today.

The Bible tells me to reflect on the priceless gift of the Lamb of God, slain for my sin. It tells me to rejoice that Christ is risen, that death no longer has mastery over him. It does not tell me I have to celebrate the Resurrection on the first Sunday following the first full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox. It does not tell me that I have to keep the Friday two days before that in any particular way. Again, these can be helpful rhythms. I’m not anti-Easter; the sermon is written and ready to go.

But my little back-and-forth with myself today has pointed me to one more reason to rejoice in the cross: Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—not my proper celebrating of them—has purchased the forgiveness of my sin, brought me home to God, and secured for me all his benefits.

Am I sufficiently sober and worshipful today? No. I never have been a day in my life. Have we emphasized the story of Holy Week enough with the kids? No, though we’ve tried. Am I thinking enough about the Resurrection and not too much about the deviled eggs I’m planning to make for the first time? Almost certainly not. And that’s OK, because one thing Jesus purchased for me with his death is the freedom not to worry about those things.

Jesus’ work on the cross is complete. He has purchased for me every kindness I receive from God, from forgiveness of sin to this quiet moment with the smell of the hickory. He died so that I can receive these gifts from my Father, and not fret over whether I’m responding sincerely enough.

Tonight we’re planning to watch the Jesus Storybook Bible video on the crucifixion, then wait until Sunday to watch the one about the Resurrection. Our 3-year-old, who’s new to our family, hasn’t heard the story in all its details, so we want her to sit in the sadness and then experience the joy. I’m about to read and meditate on some hymns about the Cross. I’m also going to listen to my daughter jump on the trampoline, probably have a beer, and thank Jesus for loving me enough to give me all these good gifts. I believe it will be a good Friday.

Vain the Stone

Every Easter we sing one of my favorite lines in a hymn: “Vain the stone, the watch, the seal.”

A few years ago a friend’s father died somewhat unexpectedly. The family had young kids, and our friends weren’t sure how to help them understand what it meant that Grampa was gone and wasn’t coming back. So the dad did something that wouldn’t have occurred to me: He sat with his kids after the graveside service, and they watched the entire burial happen. The casket was lowered into the hole in the ground, and the guys came with the machines and filled the hole with dirt. They tapped it down and covered it with sod. When they were finished, the ground over the grave looked just like everything else. At that point, my friend said, his kids understood what had happened. Grampa’s body was in the box, the box was in the ground, and that was done. Grampa’s soul was in heaven with God.

These little kids were able to understand that burial is final. Once a body is in the ground, that’s it.

Now, contrast this with the approach of Pilate and the Jewish leaders after the death of Jesus.

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard. (Matthew 27:62-66)

I love what Pilate says: “Go, make it as secure as you can.” Do everything you possibly can to make sure that a dead body doesn’t go anywhere. Do everything you can to make sure that a 2-ton stone doesn’t move. Do everything you can, professional soldiers with javelins and swords, to make sure a bunch of terrified fishermen who ran into the night as soon as their leader was attacked don’t come and steal his decaying body. These guys literally have one job.

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal.

Fast forward to Sunday morning. The professional soldiers, having failed to keep the dead body and the 2-ton stone in place, are in trouble. So what’s the plan? A cover-up.

While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. (Matthew 28:11-15)

I want to be at this meeting where the soldiers explain “all that had taken place.” So, boss, here’s the deal. There was an earthquake, and an angel, and we, uh, passed out, and when we woke up the stone had moved and the body was gone.

You notice what the religious leaders don’t say? “Those rascally disciples!” They know that’s not what happened here. But it’s the story they go with. So the narrative becomes:

  • The professional soldiers all fell asleep. Asleep enough that
  • The disciples snuck to the tomb, rolled the 2-ton stone away, grabbed the body, and carried it away.
  • The professional soldiers did not notice all this.

The longer you think about it, the worse of a story it is. But at Matthew’s writing, it was the official version of the events among the Jews. It still is among a lot of otherwise intelligent people. Because they have to deal with the empty tomb.

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal.

Pilate couldn’t stop that body from rising, despite all the resources at his disposal. The religious leaders couldn’t stop the word from getting out that Jesus was alive, despite all the resources at their disposal. Because it had been determined from eternity past that the Son of God would become man, would live a perfect life on behalf of his people, would die for them, and would rise from the dead, having defeated death and sin and hell forever. Nothing was going to stop that.

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal. Vain the schemes of the devil. Vain the lies of God’s enemies. Vain the cowardliness of the disciples. Christ had risen, and the people in charge were powerless to deny it.

This is still the case for us today. Christ is risen. You can deny it if you want, but it’s just like denying that the sun came up this morning. Your denial doesn’t change the reality.

This is bad news for God’s enemies, then and now. But it is very good news for us.

If we are in Christ, the same unstoppable power that raised him from the dead now works for us. The devil can accuse us; our own sin can cause all kinds of problems; our enemies can persecute us; death can even seem to take us out for a time. But it’s all in vain. If God is for us, who can be against us?

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal. Vain every attempt the world, the flesh, and the devil can make against God’s people. The Resurrection proves this is true. He is alive. He lives forever. And because of him, so do we.

Spring and summer in music

We love this city, but needed a break.

Turning 30 was a good chance to think about where I’ve been…

… and be grateful for where I am.

A string of tragedies in my extended family made some old truths even more precious.

Now we’re home, rested, recharged, and ready for real life again.

“Go home to your friends”

Mark 5 tells of one of Jesus’ more dramatic exorcisms: a man with a “legion” of demons, who lived among the tombs, couldn’t be restrained even with chains, and ran around screaming and cutting himself with stones. Jesus casts the demons out of the man, but permits them to enter a nearby herd of pigs, which pigs immediately run down a hill into the sea and drown.

The man who’s been freed from this demonic oppression, not surprisingly, wants to join Jesus and the disciples. Jesus’ reply to him is kind of surprising.

As [Jesus] was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.

Lots of times when people become Christians, or when Christians begin to take Jesus more seriously, they can get restless. Could I really be serving God in the job I’m in, in the house I’m in? Sometimes we begin to think that to really serve God, to really be radically committed to Jesus, we need to hang it all up and go into some kind of vocational ministry.

Sometimes, for some people, that’s true. If God’s calling you to step out, then you better step out!

But a lot of the time, he wants us to do exactly what he told this man: “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” If everybody becomes a pastor, the people at your office or in your class or playgroup or squash team or neighborhood might not have anyone to tell them how great God’s mercy is.

 

Do the young Reformed only see black & white?

My friend James-Michael Smith raised a question here last week that I think deserves a fuller answer, because it is an example of a regularly-heard complaint against young Reformed types.

Now I’m not interested in getting the young Reformed movement out of every critique from outside; we deserve lots of them. I do think some common critiques are overblown, though, and this is one.

In a comment on my Rob Bell post, JMS asked why guys like John Piper and Kevin DeYoung are so quick to write Bell off, while John Stott, a hero in the Reformed crowd who holds (“tentatively,” he says) to annihilationism, “gets a pass”. In a comment on another blog JMS gave C. S. Lewis as another example of someone loved by Reformed guys, but who held views that are outside the Reformed fold.

I trust JMS won’t be offended if I generalize a bit from his comment. The young Reformed crowd is sometimes accused of having tightly-defined circles of who’s in and who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s bad and who’s good. Like most stereotypes, this one is true plenty of times. But I don’t think it holds as a defining characteristic.

Let’s stick with the example at hand. Are Piper and DeYoung inconsistent in criticizing Bell but not Stott or Lewis? In fact, no. I came up with a few examples off the top of my head in about 3 minutes (with verification from Google).

  • In 1992, one of Piper’s weekly letters to his church expressed his disappointment with Stott’s view on hell.
  • In 2009, Piper critiqued one aspect of Lewis’ writing on hell. (He linked to this article again last week.)
  • Last year DeYoung devoted a three-part post (link is to Part 1) to disagreeing with Stott over a much less important topic: gender roles in the church.
  • In January of this year– a few weeks before JMS said he gave Lewis a pass– DeYoung wrote an article with cautions on two big problems in Lewis’ Mere Christianity— a book he appreciates. One of them was Lewis’ inclusivism, which is more or less what Bell advocates in his new book.
  • Piper linked to DeYoung’s Lewis critique with the words, “Kevin DeYoung is more reliable than C.S. Lewis.”

We can go broader than this and look at the young Reformed scene in general. Mark Dever once publicly rebuked J. I. Packer, a friend and mentor, over his signing of Evangelicals and Catholics Together– at an event in Packer’s honor! Piper and Dever disagree strongly on whether paedobaptists should be allowed to join their Baptist churches. A few years ago Piper publicly cautioned Mark Driscoll about letting his “cleverness” get in the way of preaching the Gospel (Driscoll, while thanking him for the critique, said he wished it had been in private). John MacArthur is not shy about criticizing, well, anybody– including Driscoll and charismatics in general, yet has invited C. J. Mahaney to preach at his church. These are all guys who are “in,” yet aren’t “given a pass” when there’s disagreement.

Then we can get anecdotal. I went to a staunchly conservative Reformed seminary. My profs were not shy about expressing their opinions. But it’s not like they would only give somebody a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. One theology prof said he owed his soul, under God, to John Stott– he became a Christian reading Basic Christianity. In the next breath, he said Stott was dead wrong on hell, and that it was troubling. I remember at least 2 other professors saying similar things, specifically about Stott and his annihilationism.

I’m well over my word limit, but another example: N. T. Wright. Piper wrote a whole book against his New Perspective on Paul. The young Reformed crowd is largely dead set against the New Perspective, while many others take it as settled fact. If Reformed guys could only see black & white, one place where you’d definitely expect to see Wright on the black list would be my seminary. But the short take we were given was “He’s very helpful on many things; we have some disagreements with him on justification.” (Similarly, Piper’s interaction with him in The Future of Justification is thoughtful and courteous, appreciating some of his insights.)

 

So, no, we Reformed guys are not afraid to disagree with writers we love. What’s the difference between Stott or Lewis being wrong on hell and Bell being wrong on hell? With Stott and Lewis, it’s a flaw in an otherwise reliable guide. With Bell, it’s one more step on a bad trajectory.