Sunday, November 29, 2009

waiting for the marriage

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

A few days ago I stumbled upon this weird talk radio show in my car. And it was one of those shows featuring a love guru that fields questions from America’s most pathetic people and then offers them advice in the ways of love. And so I stumbled upon this show, which really means I tune in every Tuesday at 5. Just kidding. Anyway, this anxious woman calls the love guru because she really wants to marry this guy. And according to her, this guy promised they’d get married one day. But here’s her problem. There’s no wedding date – just a promise. And God bless this anxious woman, she is sick of waiting. And so she called the love guru with a question – “I want this wedding to happen. I want it to happen soon. How can I speed up the process and make him marry me now?” Well the love guru, in her infinite wisdom, gave some pretty good advice, and so tonight I thought I’d pass it on. Are you ready for the words of the great love guru? “I don’t think you’re ready to get married yet. You will be when the time comes, but you need to wait. Be patient. He promised you a wedding. And you love this person. You trust this person. There will be a wedding. And so be patient. And wait.”

Now, with that in mind, think of tonight’s reading from 1 Thessalonians. The Thessalonians are kind of like that anxious woman and Paul – well, he’s the love guru. You see, the Thessalonians are anxious because they too are waiting for good to be made on a promise. A promise that Jesus will return, for that day when Jesus restores his fallen earth and makes right all that’s gone wrong. And as they wait, the church gets impatient and anxious as a question arises in their midst. Why do we still have to wait?

Now, before moving on, we need to understand something about how the bible talks about Jesus’ return. According to the Bible, when Jesus comes back, it’s going to be like a wedding – the celebration of a marriage. Jesus is the husband, or the bridegroom and we, the ones who wait for Jesus, are the anxious bride to be.

For example, consider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians. “I promised you in marriage to one husband so that on the day of the Lord I can present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor 1:2). Or consider John the Baptist, who tells his students that Jesus is like a bridegroom that is searching for his bride (John 3:29). Or the book of Revelation, which envisions Jesus’ return by saying, “Let us rejoice, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.” And of course, as college students, I know you’re all huge fans of Jesus’ first miracle – the transformation of eighty gallons of water into eighty gallons of booze. But does anyone remember where that happens? At a wedding.

Now, with that in mind, let’s go back to Paul, who writes 1 Thessalonians as advice to the anxious woman we call the church. And historically speaking, the church Paul writes to seems racked by the following question. “We know that Jesus is coming back. We know that, because we believe, Jesus’ return is good news. What we don’t know is why the delay? We want this wedding to happen and we want it to happen now. Why do we still have to wait?” And here’s how Paul responds to their anxiety. “May the Lord make you increase in your love for each other and may your heart be strengthened in holiness so that when Jesus returns you may be blameless.” In other words, Paul tells them that God has a purpose in making them wait. To foster love for one another. To create holiness in their lives. To refine their character to such an extent that they become blameless before God.

Now, we don’t like to wait. We live in a horn honking, express-lane shopping, high-speed Internet kind of world that, to be honest, doesn’t teach us a whole lot about patience. All else being equal, we’ve been conditioned to believe that not waiting is better than waiting and let’s be honest – we don’t like to wait. For anything.

And so when it comes to God, and to the mystery of life, we naturally wonder – why do we have to do it? Why doesn’t God just fix things now? And if God is here, why doesn’t he just show himself? And if God truly desires to abolish sickness and death, why doesn’t He just cure cancer now or end violence now? In other words, if we really believe that Jesus is coming, and that when He does He’ll fix what is broken and will right what is wrong, why not do it now? Why do we have to wait?

Today, on this first Sunday of Advent, we are reminded that waiting is at the heart of the Christian story. Think of Abraham, who was promised a son and had to wait twenty-four years for that son to be born. Or the Hebrew people, who waited four hundred years to be freed from Egyptian slavery, not to mention the additional forty years of waiting in the desert that would follow. For centuries Israel waited for her Messiah to arrive, but even with Jesus the waiting did not end. The church was told to wait for the promised Holy Spirit. In fact, in the eighth chapter of Romans Paul himself writes, We ourselves groan inwardly while we wait for adoption,” which is his way of saying that he’s waiting for the wedding – for that day when Jesus comes back and restores all things. To be a Christian is to actively wait for God. And there is a reason God makes us do it. To make us loving. To make us holy. To make us blameless. To get us ready for the marriage.

And so here’s the question I leave us with. Have we learned to actively wait on God? Are we soaking ourselves in the Scriptures and allowing God’s living word to comfort us and disturb us and change us and renew us? Are we taking the time – every single day – to place ourselves before Jesus in the hope that he’ll make us loving, that he’ll make us holy, that he’ll make us blameless.

You see, every time we pray or read scripture or sit in contemplative silence, we wait on God. Every time we feed the poor, befriend the friendless, or greet the stranger, we wait on God. Every time we refrain from judging, show others mercy, or have the courage to share our faith, we wait on God. And we do these things, not as an end in themselves, but to give the Spirit room to purify our hearts, to refine our character, to make us ready for the marriage.

You see, at the end of the day, we really don’t know when we’ll meet Jesus – maybe tomorrow, maybe when we die, maybe at the end of the age. But what we do know is that we will, and that all of creation is moving and pointing and groaning to that glorious day when the bridegroom finally returns to claim his bride. And it will be a glorious day for Christ’s church – a day of intimacy and fulfillment and restoration.

But for whatever reason, I’m not sure we’re ready. In God’s sovereign wisdom, the bridegroom is delayed and the creation continues to groan. And so today we’re reminded that as a church our call is to wait – not passively but actively. And as we soak ourselves in the scriptures, and in prayer, and in being intentional about loving the people that God places in our lives, we find ourselves preparing. We find Jesus moving, slowly but surely, into every aspect of our world and into every aspect of our lives. As we wait, we find ourselves preparing – our hearts and our world – for the marriage of heaven and earth, of God and humanity, of Christ and His Church.

For a lot of us, I know the question is still there. If God intends to put an end to death, injustice, and cruelty – why not just do it now? I don’t have a great answer to that question. But I do know that God does. And that it’s a good answer. And I know that it matters greatly how we live as wait for that answer.

You see, we might not know the wedding date. But we do have a promise. And so wait. Be patient. Jesus promised us a wedding. And we love Jesus. We trust Jesus. And so be patient. And wait.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

a revolutionary king

John 18: 33-37
"My Kingdom is not from this world"

I think we all have an image of the historical Jesus – a picture of what we think Jesus must have been like. For example, as a small child, I imagined a nice, quiet, gentle guy with like fourteen kids piled in his lap. But then in middle school Jesus started wearing a long white robe and got a little too attached to his pet sheep, which he always carried under his right arm. In high school I actually lost the ability to picture the historical Jesus at all because everyone kept telling me he wanted to live in my heart. But in college I joined a fraternity and Jesus came back as the great teacher whose greatest interest was condemning everything I thought was fun.

But my image of Jesus has changed. When I picture Jesus now I see a revolutionary – a revolutionary that was crucified as a threat to an empire and above whose cross was an inscription: THE KING OF THE JEWS.

Now, as many of you know today is Christ the King Sunday – a day the church sets aside to focus on Jesus as our King. And we’re going to do that but first we have to understand how kings functioned in Jesus’ world. Because kings and queens in today’s world are limited in power. They can express their wishes. They can pressure politicians. They have great symbolic value. But a king today isn’t really an absolute monarch. But in Jesus’ world, kings had absolute power and there was only one way to the throne – revolution.

And that’s what Pilate was scared of – that Jesus was leading a revolution that threatened his empire – which ironic if we consider the circumstances of John’s Gospel. You see, standing before Pilate is a peasant from a podunk town with a few followers that have all run away. And so in Pilate’s mind Jesus can’t be a king. It just doesn’t add up, but to be safe, Pilate asks him anyway – are you the King of the Jews – and this is what Jesus says. “My kingdom is not from this world.” And if I had to bet, these are the words that made Pilate wonder, and that make me wonder, what kind of king is Jesus? And what kind of revolution is he leading?

Our reading today comes from the Gospel of John, but it’s not like “Christ the King” is a big theme for most of John’s Gospel. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Christ is present from the beginning as a king. We recall Jesus’ first words in each of these Gospels. “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” And as we read Matthew, Mark and Luke, we see that Jesus’ every miracle and parable and exorcism bear witness to a new Kingdom that Jesus is bringing, and because of that, to Jesus – our new king.

But the Gospel of John is different. Jesus doesn’t begin his ministry talking about the Kingdom of God. Instead, he begins by saying things like, “my hour has not yet come.” “I lay down my life for the sheep.” “When I’m lifted up, I’m going to draw the entire world to myself.” There’s not really a whole lot of talk about kings and kingdoms in the first seventeen chapter of John. But then we get to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion – and the words king and kingdom explode! And so if we’re going to understand John’s kingly image of Jesus we have to look at what follows today’s Gospel. And if we keep reading here’s what we find.

First, like all kings, Jesus receives royal garments: a robe and a crown. A purple robe is put on Jesus to mock him and a crown of thorns is then placed on his head. This is where John’s kingly image of Jesus begins – mockery and pain.

Second, Jesus receives royal homage and is presented to his subjects. Through a mixture of shouting and laughter, of spitting and striking, we hear the sarcastic refrain of the crowd – “Hail, King of the Jews.” John’s kingly image of Jesus continues: ridicule and injustice.

Third, Jesus embarks on a royal procession before taking his throne. And as he walks the road to Golgotha, the onlookers shout and clamor and mock him as they notice that this king is carrying his own throne upon his back. John’s kingly image heightens: loneliness and struggle.

Finally, Jesus is enthroned – not on a chair but on a cross. His glorious hour has finally come. The sheep will be spared and the King will be lifted up for the entire world to see. And displayed above this king’s throne in three different languages is a title. “King of the Jews.” John’s kingly image of Jesus is now complete: surrender and death.

Like I said, we all have an image of Jesus, which includes an image of what we think it means for Jesus to be our King. And like all kings, Christ is all-powerful. But how do we understand that power? You see, John may link Jesus’ kingship to his crucifixion, but John doesn’t portray Jesus as a victim. No, John gives us the image of a sovereign King – of a king that’s crucified because he chooses to be crucified.

Which means that Pilate was right. Jesus was a threat to the empire – just like he’s a threat to all the mini-kingdoms that you and I build and base our lives on. But as Christians, we believe that Christ’s kingship is good news as we proclaim that God’s kingdom will one day come on earth as it is in heaven – which means that violence and hate and death and arrogance and anything else that opposes God’s kingdom will one day come to an end because our crucified King will finally be running the show.

But in the meantime the cross-shaped revolution continues and today we’re reminded of the king that invites us to take up our cross. And here’s the image we’re given, the image I pray is shaping our lives – the image of a king that endures the shame of his own subjects and saves his sheep by dying for them; a King whose crown is of thorns and whose throne is a cross; a King that enters Jerusalem not on a chariot but on a donkey; not with an army but with a handful of fishermen; a King whose power is revealed not in the breaking of bones but in the breaking of bread. This we believe is the sovereign, all-powerful King of the universe.

And so blessed be God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and blessed be God's Kingdom now and forever. AMEN.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

pain (when your life is in the crapper)


I have to say, I’m really glad to be in Texas right now. Because that means I’m not in northern Virginia, which is where I lived for three years before taking this job. Now don’t get me wrong seminary was a good experience. Virginia is a great place to be. In September. But after October 15th or so – its freaking cold. And I don’t mean “wear a jacket” cold. I mean wrap your body in the skin of a dead bear cold. In other words, it’s a pretty harsh winter.

Do me a favor – raise your hand if you like the winter? Thank you, now I know who the liars in the room are. No one likes winter. People like being inside when winter comes - sitting by a warm fire, with a cup of warm coco, having their hearts warmed by the Clay Aiken Christmas album – because when they hear the word winter, that’s what comes to mind. But not me – when I hear the word winter, I think of my cold seminary dorm room, the freezing cold, ice, hypothermia, snow, dead batteries, thermal underwear, depression, recreational eating to cure my depression, and of course, the Clay Aiken Christmas album.

People say that they like the winter. But tell me this – how many people spend their working career in Miami and then retire in Minneapolis? That’s right, no one. Of course, there’s always the argument “God made winter and so it must be good.” To which I reply, did He? There’s no mention of winter in the Bible before the fall. We hear a whole lot about trees and flowers and rivers and fruit and people running around naked. But only after Genesis 3 – only after the Fall – do we read about snow and cold and of course, the Clay Aiken Christmas album. And so I don’t know where the Garden of Eden was. But I can tell you this – its not Northern Virginia in the middle of January.

Now, if you really like Winter, that’s okay. But regardless of how you feel when winter breaks into your life, we all have trouble with spiritual winter – when winter breaks into our souls.

For example, you may lose a job or lose a parent or lose your sense of purpose or get sick or move to a different city or just find yourself depressed. And all of these things, as bad as they are, aren’t what I’m talking about when I say spiritual winter. Spiritual winter is when God seems gone. When you pray and all you hear is silence. When you cry and no one wipes your tears. Spiritual winter is when God seems gone. Spiritual winter is when you feel like you’ve been forgotten, when you feel like God’s hiding, like God’s let go of you – which means that you and I, we need a way of holding on to God when it feels like God has let go of us. And so we turn to the book of Job.

Out of curiosity, how many of you have read Job? Job experienced the 2nd hardest spiritual winter in the history of humanity. The Bible describes Job as blameless, upright, and as one who feared God and turned away from evil. In other words, he’s a good guy. And he’s also a blessed man. He’s rich, has seven sons and three daughters, a lot of servants, a beautiful wife, thousands of cattle and livestock. Job is a blessed and blameless man. He’s got it all. That is, until one day …

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. 7 The LORD said to Satan, "Where have you come from?" Satan answered the LORD, "From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it." 8 The LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil." 9 Then Satan answered the LORD, "Does Job fear God for nothing? 10 Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face." 12 The LORD said to Satan, "Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!" So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.

And if we keep reading, here’ s what happens: Job’s wealth is stolen. His servants are murdered. His livestock die. His children die. And then the kicker, Job gets sores all over his body. And so Job is covered from head to toe in open, gaping, infested, painful wounds.

In order to understand what’s happening in this book, we need to think of a play with two stages: an upper stage, and a lower stage. Because this is crucial to understanding the Book of Job. We know what’s going on in both settings, but Job doesn’t. Job only sees the lower stage – that is, what’s happening on earth. All Job knows is that he’s lost his livestock, his wealth, his servants, his children, and to some extent, his body. And his wife isn’t all too supportive …

Then his wife said to him, "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die." 10 But he said to her, "You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips. Now when Job's three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, they met together to go and console and comfort him. 12 When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. 13 They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. 

Ok, and so here’s our question tonight: can Job hold on to God in the face of his suffering? Can we hold onto God in the face of ours?

Like many of us when we suffer, Job doesn’t know what to do and so the Bible tells us he goes to sit on an ash heap at the town dump. His wife’s advice – “curse God and die,” isn’t what I’d call encouraging. But thankfully, Job doesn’t listen, and notice his question: shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad? Job is struggling to understand God here. Is God really good? In chapter 1 we’re told that “Job did not sin” but now there’s a qualifier: “Job did not sin in what he said.” In his heart, Job is starting to struggle. Spiritual winter has invaded his soul. And Job cannot escape. It feels like God has let go of him and Job is starting to question God’s goodness.

Job’s friends then come to visit him and they don’t even recognize Job. And so they begin to weep and they sit with him for seven days and don’t say a word. For seven days. Not one word. Now, a brief side note:

In his letter to the Romans Paul says to “weep with those who weep.” This is a great example of what Paul meant. When spiritual winter invades the life of your friends, weep with them. Sit in silence with them. We don’t have to pretend that we know why they’re suffering. It’s okay to just be with them. Silence can be a real gift.

Well, after seven days of silence Job speaks and does anyone remember what he says? May the day of my birth be cursed. That’s the ancient way of saying I wish I had never been born. And for the next 30 chapters or so, Job expresses a level of bitterness, confusion, sorrow, and anger toward God that is staggering. Job questions God – and here is Job’s question. Why, God? Why have you forsaken me?

Well, Job’s friends tell him it’s his fault – that he’s suffering because of his sins and that he needs to repent. A little advice – don’t do that. Job’s friends were wrong. Remember, there’s an upper stage. And like Job, Job’s friends can’t see what’s happening on the upper stage. And so they have to make something up to explain what’s happening on the lower one. And the answer they came up with wasn’t very good. They should have remained silent.

But then again, Job’s question is the universal question, right? Why? Why am I suffering? We’ll come back to the question of why. But first, we need to look at two other questions. The question of what, and the question of where – what do we do with the pain? And where is God in the pain?

1. What do we do with the pain?

A couple years ago a survey was conducted that asked thousands of people what one thing had the greatest impact on their spiritual growth. The number one answer - Pain. While it’s true that pain is not a part of God’s Kingdom, that doesn’t mean that God can’t use it. That God can’t redeem pain. You see, in spiritual summer – when life is going well, when we feel God’s warmth, when school and faith and relationships are thriving – it’s really easy to think that we’re the ones in control. But spiritual winter reminds us that we’re not in control at all. Someone once said that the biggest difference between us and God is that God doesn’t think He’s us. In the presence of pain, we get very clear about not being God. It’s not that pain is good. But dependence on God, humility, prostrating ourselves as helpless before God – these things are good. These things do bring us closer to God. And depending on our heart and how we respond, pain can make us dependent. Pain can humble us. More so than anything else, pain can bring us to our knees before God. And that’s why pain can have such an amazing impact on our spiritual growth.

And so when it comes to the question of what – what do we do with our pain – my first answer is trust. Trust that God can use it for good. It’s like Paul says, “in the end all things work for the good of those who love God.” “All things” includes our pain – whether it is physical, emotional or spiritual.

But second, when it comes to our pain there’s something else we’re supposed to do: we’re supposed to complain to God. Or to use a fancy theological word, we’re supposed to lament. Consider the following psalm: “Wake up, O Lord! Why are you sleeping? Wake up! Stop rejecting us! Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? How long, O Lord, How long?”

I don’t know who wrote this psalm, but I do know this – they’re in a whole lot of pain. And this is their prayer – “wake up. Please do something. This sucks. I feel like you’ve rejected me.” There’s a name for honest prayers like this – they’re called prayers of lament. And the Bible is full of them. And while all religions of the world prayed to God, no other religion – except that of the people of Israel – prayed these prayers of complaint, of lament, of raw honesty. And the reason they prayed these prayers was because they trusted in God’s love enough to be honest, and because they expected God to do something about their pain. And so when it comes to your pain, be honest with God. Don’t indulge in self-pity but genuinely open yourself up to God – because when you do that, what you’re really asking God to do is to created the kind of condition in your heart that will make resting in His presence possible again. Pray raw prayers of honesty. Trust me – God can take.

2. Where is God in the pain? (In other words, what is God’s answer to our complaint?)

At the end of the book, God answers Job in a storm. Out of the storm, God answers Job’s complaint. And what’s interesting, and to some people frustrating, God never answers Job’s question of why. Job never learns about that upper stage. The upper stage will always be a mystery to Job, and to us. God never tells Job why. In fact, God doesn’t even answer any of Job’s questions – in fact, He does the opposite. God starts questioning Job!

Now, why does God do this? Well, on the one hand, God is reminding Job that he has a finite mind and a limited point of view – that some things he just can’t understand because he’s human. In other words, God humbles Job. But that’s actually not the main point behind God’s questions.

And so to remind everyone, we’re at the end of the book. Job is in a lot of pain. He’s spent the last 30 chapters lamenting – Job has been questioning God. And now its God’s turn to question Job. What do you think God asks? Because time is limited, I’ll give one an example:

“Who waters a desert with no one in it, to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass?”

And so let’s say you’re Job, and you’re like “God, this sucks, why am I suffering?” Instead of answering your question, God decides to ask in return – “who sends rain to the dessert?” What? At first glance, that’s a really weird answer. But not for people in Job’s day. You see the reader in Job’s day knew that life depended on rain. Water = life. No water = death. And because of that, no one would ever waste water. And so imagine God appearing to Job and saying, “I would. I waste water all the time. I have no problem sending rain to a desert where no one lives.” And so here’s our question – what does this say about God?

That he is uncontrollably generous. That the way he loves is irrational. That he is good for no reason at all. That he gives even when it makes no sense. That he is uncontrollably generous. You see, the point behind God’s questions is to answer the question Job is really wrestling with – is God good? And God’s answer is simple – I AM. I AM uncontrollably generous. I AM irrational in how I love. I AM good for no reason at all.

The reason suffering is difficult is because we don’t see the upper stage. Like Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “we know only in part.” But we do know a lot more than Job did. And what we do know is wonderful and should give us a lot of hope. I mentioned earlier that in the history of the world, Job experienced the 2nd hardest spiritual winter. The heart of our Christian faith lies in the belief that Jesus experienced the hardest spiritual winter in the history of the world. That the Son of God actually left the upper stage to dwell with us on the lower one. That Job’s question – my God, my God why have you forsaken me – became Jesus’ cry on the cross. That in a way that is so mysterious and beautiful and strange that we can’t fully comprehend, that God – who is uncontrollably generous – became human in Jesus of Nazareth to deal with spiritual winter forever. And so when it comes to the question of where – where is God in our pain? I point you to Jesus on the cross and say – “with us.” That’s where …

I know we all have the question – why? Why the suffering, why the pain? It’s a good question. In fact, we talked a little bit about the question of why when we looked at Genesis 3 earlier this semester. The only problem with the question of why is this – there’s an upper stage we just don’t see.

But here’s the deeper question. Is God really good? Is God really good?

At times, it may feel like God’s let go of us. But know this – he hasn’t. He can’t. He loves us too much. He’s sacrificed too much. He is much too good to ever let us go.

And so as you go about your lives, please know, there will be tough times. Spiritual winter will come. But when it does, just remember that God became human to experience the worst spiritual winter could do to any one man. That he rose from the dead to defeat it forever. That in the meantime, God can use our pain for good. That he loves us enough to hear and answer of prayers of lament. That God can be expected to do something about our pain. That in Jesus, God has done something about our pain. And that because of what God has done in Jesus, spiritual winter will one day come to an end forever.

Monday, November 9, 2009

not guilty

“But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”

A couple years ago I was invited by a judge into his courtroom for the final days of a high-profile criminal trial. The defendant – a young man named John – was on trial for murder. And I don’t remember the specifics of the case, but I’ll never forget the outcome. The trial ended, a verdict was reached, and the defendant was asked to rise. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?” We have replied the foreman. “On murder in the first degree, how do you find?” Guilty.

John was guilty, and he didn’t really seem too surprised. In fact, he just stood there: speechless, emotionless, lifeless – completely and utterly alone. Alienated is the word that best describes what I saw in John. I have to say, the scene haunts me – John being escorted in chains to a cell where he’d just wait to be sentenced, which in the state of Texas is usually death by lethal injection. A verdict had been reached, a verdict that would not be overturned. Guilty. The verdict was guilty.

Somewhere along the line John’s life had gone wrong. I wondered, was he mentally ill? Did he make bad choices, or just have bad luck? I don’t know, and to be honest the court didn’t care. The fact is, John was guilty, and justice demanded that John pay for his crimes. The rule that governs life in our world is actually pretty simple – you get what you give. If we do the crime, we must do the time. If we owe, then we must pay. And if we murder, then we must die.

In case you’re wondering, John was not this man’s real name. John is my name, but I could have used your name, or anyone’s name for that matter. After all, something has gone seriously wrong in all of our lives. Now granted – I’ve never murdered someone before, but Jesus had this funny notion that we all have murder in our hearts. If all it took to please God was simply not to murder, I can honestly say – I’d be fine. And so would you. But I think that deep down, we all know that God requires so much more from us. Because the truth is, we murder one another all of the time: with our anger, with our insults, with our contempt and our indifference. We murder each other with hate-filled words and hate-filled thoughts, with poisonous gossip and rage-filled lies. I’m not saying we all yell or scream or pitch fits or lose our temper. We have too much dignity for that. After all, isn’t withdrawing so much easier? How many of us kill with our silence, our indifference, our coldness of heart? Sometimes the best weapon is withdrawing our support, our encouragement, our generosity or our favor in order to prove a point or to get our way. Ignoring others is the best weapon many of us have in our arsenal. But regardless of how we murder one another, alienation is always the result. And so we have a lot more in common with John than we’d like to admit. In our relationships with one another, not one of us is innocent. John isn’t the only one on trial for murder. We all are, and deep down we all know the verdict.

Of course, the real problem is not our relationship with one another, but our relationship with God. The only reason we have a hard time loving others is because we have a hard time loving God. As spiritual beings, God created us to find meaning, peace, intimacy, and security with God, in God, and through God. But how often does our life become a frantic search for living water in the midst of empty wells? Money, sex, power, reputation, popularity, and prestige are just a few of the gods we’re prone to worship. And here’s what’s so amazing – we know that these gods alienate us from the one, true God, but we worship them anyway – even when they leave us feeling hollow, unfulfilled, and disoriented. Now, if this is a fair description of our world, and at times our lives, there’s only one question left to ask. Is this world our cell and are we waiting to be sentenced like John? If we are in fact guilty before God, is death what awaits us?

A Christian is a person who stares these questions in the face, who takes these questions seriously, and who joyfully answers these questions of ultimate concern with an emphatic NO. As Christians we understand that God hasn’t sentenced us to death – he’s elected us to life. As the author of Hebrews writes, “Jesus has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Our world is characterized by alienation. But God’s world is characterized by reconciliation. And that is the good news of the Christian Gospel that tonight’s reading from Hebrews is trying to capture – that through no merit of our own, we have been placed at the center of God’s world. Regardless of whatever alienation we may feel, God has declared that in Christ we are reconciled to God. Regardless of whatever guilt we may bear, God has declared that in Christ we are forgiven. Regardless of whatever sin we may struggle with, God has declared that in Christ, the stain of sin has forever been removed.

We have been reconciled to God. In Christ, we have peace with God. And so whatever went wrong in our relationship with God has been radically put right. But here’s what’s so amazing – there’s still work to be done, and we, who follow Jesus, are the ones God invites to do His reconciling work. To quote the apostle Paul, the same God “who reconciled us to Himself through Christ … has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” Paul even says that we are ambassadors of God’s reconciliation. An ambassador is a person sent by one country to another as a visiting representative. And that’s exactly how the bible describes us – as people from another country, as people from a heavenly country, who have a mission here on earth. We may live in a world of alienation, but we represent a God of reconciliation. And so as citizens in God’s Kingdom, committing murder is no longer acceptable. As citizens in God’s Kingdom, assaulting others is no longer acceptable. As citizens in God’s Kingdom, ignoring others is no longer acceptable. God has embraced us. As God’s ambassadors, the time has come for us to embrace one another. You see – reconciliation isn’t just a big piece of the Gospel. Reconciliation is the Gospel.

Tonight’s sermon began in a courtroom, and so the courtroom is where we shall end. After all, tonight’s reading is crystal clear that we’re all going to face judgment. But there’s a catch. The rule that governs life in our world – you get what you give, you pay what you owe – is different than the rule that governs life in God’s world. And this is what grace is all about. You see, there is only One who can judge us, and he was judged for us. There is only One who can condemn us, and he was condemned for us. There is only One who can sentence us to death, and we are the ones for whom he died. A verdict has been reached, a verdict that will not be overturned. Not Guilty. The verdict is Not Guilty.