Jesus Wept

 Poet Donna Swanson posed these questions in one of her poems:

     Did you ever cry, Jesus?  Did the world ever pile up on you ’til you wanted to quit?
     Did you ever cry, Jesus?  Did you ever get so tired of humanity that you wished you’d never come?
     Did the blind eyes, the twisted bodies, the warped minds and the maimed souls ever get to you? Were you ever just plain mad?
     Did you ever cry, Jesus?  I think you must have, for you know me so well. So well. I think you must have cried a little.

Sunday’s scripture lesson–Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead–answers the question. Of course he did. I still remember my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Phillips, teaching us about nouns and verbs and illustrating his point by quoting “the shortest sentence ever written”: John 11:34 –“Jesus wept”. And if we look at the verse before that, we learn that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” If you check various Bible translations, that verse is translated in a variety of ways: Jesus was “deeply moved, greatly disturbed, his heart was touched, he was deeply moved and troubled, he was visibly distressed, he became angry in spirit and very agitated, he gave a sigh that came straight from the heart”, or, in the King James Version, “He groaned in his spirit.”  The word for “groaned” is one that can also be used for the snorting of an animal. It’s as if the emotions are wrenched from Jesus, and the tears flow.

As Kathleen Stegall and I were searching for a bulletin cover, one possibility was a picture of a statue that perhaps you’ve seen: Jesus standing tall but placing his face into his opened palm. We decided against it because it actually looks more like the reaction he might have to some of the outrageous things his followers do and say in his name–but that’s the subject for another week’s sermon.  And you’ll be happy to know that we picked a more traditional picture.

Of course Jesus wept. He was with a family he loved and among a community of deeply grieving people. His humanity demanded nothing less than his participation in their grief.

On Sunday, we’ll reflect  on John 11:1-6, 17-44. In John’s gospel, the raising of Lazarus takes place a short time before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. John makes it clear that Jesus’ miracle and the perceived threat it provides against the religious leaders of the day sets into motion the drama of Holy Week, which begins next Sunday, Palm/Passion Sunday.

One on One with Jesus: Nic at Nite

This Sunday we’ll be thinking about the story of Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus as reported in John’s gospel, Chapter 3. It is most well known for Jesus’ declaration, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” and John 3:16–“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Either one of those passages can provide enough material for a several week Bible study, so I’m going to focus on the context of Nicodemus’ night time visit with Jesus.  What was a prominent leader from the religious establishment doing sneaking–and that’s not too strong a word–in the darkness of night to see an itinerant rabbi from Galilee who had just a few verses before cleansed the Temple of the money changers and sacrificial animals? 

        In my preparation for this week’s sermon, I came across this thought from Professor Gail R. O’Day’s commentary on John 3 in the New Interpreter’s Bible.  She writes, “The seriousness of this text’s invitation was grasped by African American slaves. Nicodemus’ nighttime visit to Jesus offered an important biblical precedent for their own worship gatherings. Slaves were allowed to participate in formal Christian worship only at their masters’ discretion; they were not allowed to have their own worship and rarely were allowed access to the Bible. Therefore, they held clandestine religious gatherings at night, a practice that continued after emancipation. The slaves saw in Nicodemus’ night visit roof that it was possible to come to Jesus even when those in power forbade it. Nicodemus was a model, someone who was willing to act on his own against the will of the authorities.”

One on One with Jesus: the Samaritan Woman

Sunday’s meditation will be based on John 4: 1-30, 39-42, Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman. We’ll experience that encounter in a different way as three voices present this scripture, the longest conversation that Jesus has in the Gospel accounts. In the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Professor Gail O’Day offers these thoughts on the passage:

“The Samaritan woman is never judged as a sinner. On the contrary, she is portrayed as a model of growing faith. As [the story] unfolds, the reader sees the woman’s faith grow as she comes to entertain the possibility that Jesus might be the Messiah. Of even greater significance, however, the woman is portrayed as a witness. She invited her fellow townspeople to come and see Jesus. The Samaritan woman’s successful evangelization of her town belies the myth of the privileged position of men as witnesses and disciples. Because of her, the number of people who believe in Jesus grows. Jesus treats her as a serious conversation partner, the first person in the Gospel to whom he makes a bold statement of self-revelation.”

The temptation is to focus only on the “negatives” in the Samaritan Woman’s life according to the culture of the times: she’s from a group of people that religious folks considered to be outcasts; she is, well, a woman; and she has what sounds like an unusual marital history (for which she, and not the men involved, would bear the burden) and last of all, she doesn’t have a name….she is forever The Samaritan Woman. To focus on the negatives is to miss the point that Professor O’Day makes: she is a witness, the first person in the Gospel to whom Jesus makes a bold statement of self-revelation. The. First. Person.

Winter as the Ninth Circle of Hell

From the Pastor:

In reflecting one day on the horrible snow, ice, ice dams, mountains of snow and sub-zero temperatures we have endured this winter, I concluded that this might be what Hell is like. I was taken back to a literature class I took in college. I remembered learning about Dante’s Inferno and how, in the final circles of hell, the worst of the damned—traitors who had betrayed benefactors—were not burning in the fires of hell. Here’s what (kind of a Cliff’s Notes for poetry) tells us in their summary:

Still journeying toward the center of the Ninth Circle of Hell, Dante becomes aware of a great shape in the distance, hidden by the fog. Right under his feet, however, he notices sinners completely covered in ice, sometimes several feet deep, contorted into various positions. These souls constitute the most evil of all sinners—the Traitors to their Benefactors. Their part of Hell, the Fourth Ring of the Ninth Circle, is called Judecca.(named after Judas Iscariot)

Dante and Virgil advance toward the giant, mist-shrouded shape. As they approach through the fog, they behold its true form. The sight unnerves Dante to such an extent that he knows not whether he is alive or dead. The figure is Lucifer, Dis, Satan—no one name does justice to his terrible nature. The size of his arms alone exceeds all of the giants of the Eighth Circle of Hell put together. He stands in the icy lake, his torso rising above the surface. Gazing upward, Dante sees that Lucifer has three horrible faces, one looking straight ahead and the others looking back over his shoulders. Beneath each head rises a set of wings, which wave back and forth, creating the icy winds that keep Cocytus frozen.

Just another day in Massachusetts!

On a more serious note, we are in the season of Lent, a time of repentance, reflection, and self-examination. For some people, it is a time to “give up” something, but increasingly churches are suggesting that it is a perfect time to “take on” something to give one’s life focus as we journey with Jesus to Jerusalem and the cross.

The word Lent is said to come from an older word meaning “lengthen”, referring to the lengthening of the sunlight as Easter (and Spring) draw closer. Although it has no relation to Lent, for me, the fact that Daylight Savings Time begins on March 8 and we will have an extra hour of daylight will be especially welcome after this winter.

The Forty Days of Lent ask us to recall how the number 40 appears in the Bible (both Hebrew Bible and New Testament) at times when God is preparing to do something new. Think Noah’s Ark, the Israelites in the wilderness, Moses on the mountaintop for 40 days before coming down with the Law, the prophet Elijah also on a mountain until he finally hears the “still, small voice”, and of course Jesus’ Temptation, and the 40 days between his Resurrection and Ascension. In every case, God is powerfully at work.

Interestingly, the 40 days of Lent do not include the Sundays in Lent. Christian tradition is that we worship on “The Lord’s Day”, the day of resurrection, and so each Sunday becomes a “little Easter” for us.

Let’s hope that as Lent continues through the month of March, we will be able to gather for worship each Sunday and commit ourselves to journeying to Jerusalem with Jesus. And ultimately, not even the icy Hell of Massachusetts can prevent us from welcoming the light, warmth, joy and hope that will come once again with the church’s cry: “Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed.”

The Peace of the Lord be with you, Mike

This Sunday, the First Sunday in Lent, I’ll be preaching on Jesus’ temptation as we find it recorded in Mark’s gospel. Mark’s account is very short, unlike Luke and Matthew’s accounts, which provide much more dialogue between Jesus and the tempter. Even so, it raises some interesting questions, such as “why would the Spirit drive Jesus into the wilderness right after his baptism? “; “why the desert?”; “is it possible that Jesus could have failed this test?” and “why didn’t Jesus just take care of Satan right then and there and make life a whole lot easier for all of us?”

In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey reflects on the meaning of the Gospel account sof the Temptation. He writes, “The more I get to know Jesus, the more I am impressed by what Ivan Karamazov called ‘the miracles of restraint.’ The miracles Satan suggested, the signs and wonders the Pharisees demanded, the final proofs I yearn for–these would offer no serious obstacle to an omnipotent God. More amazing is his refusal to perform and to overwhelm. God’s terrible insistence on human freedom is so absolute that he granted s the power to live as though he did not exist, to spit in his face, to crucify him. All this Jesus must have known as he faced down the tempter in the desert, focusing his mighty power on the energy of restraint.”

Yancey writes a couple of pages later, “The Temptation in the desert reveals a profound difference between God’s power and Satan’s power. Satan has the power to coerce, to dazzle, to force obedience, to destroy. Humans have learned much from that power, and governments (and I would add, terrorists, criminals, and other destructive human beings–Mike) draw deeply from its reservoir. With a bullwhip or a billy club or an AK-47, human beings can force other human beings to do just about anything they want. Satan’s power is external and coercive.” God’s power is the power of love, the power of compassion, the power of a passionate Jesus who set his face resolutely to Jerusalem because he loved his people that much. And God wants us to freely choose to be disciples who place our feet in the footsteps of Christ.