Sunday, February 14, 2010

god's great accomplishment

About eight days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"--not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

I recently visited a really cool church with ten minutes of “open space” built into the service. The idea of “open space” is that we need a chance to listen to Jesus in our own creative way, and open space, by definition, is open – you can do whatever you want. Draw, paint, write a poem, pray, be silent, drink coffee, journal – you can even dance, which, of course, is the option that I chose. Just kidding, I prayed, and I was even given a question to pray about in my open space with Jesus. “God, what do you want me to accomplish in the coming year?” That was my prayer, and a really cool thing happened. I heard a voice – an unmistakable word spoken directly to my spirit. “God, what do you want me to accomplish?” And you know what God’s answer was? LESS. “I want you to accomplish less.”

At first, I thought God was talking about my lifestyle – about how I need to slow down and learn to “say no” and be a little bit more spontaneous – you know, that I needed to “do” less. But then it dawned on me. That wasn’t my question. I didn’t ask God what He wanted me to do. I asked God what He wanted me to accomplish.

So I thought about it. And I figured out that we only accomplish things that are hard. To accomplish something is to complete something that’s hard to complete. For example, I don’t care how skilled you are at tying your shoes – that is not an accomplishment, unless of course you went to A&M. And that’s when it hit me. Accomplishing something is great when it comes to our hobbies, our work, and to the personal goals we set in life. But when it comes to our spiritual life, or to our character – we can accomplish nothing. When it comes to the sins and the flaws and the inner-defects that enslave us – when it comes to throwing off the shackles of anger or lust or contempt or greed – when it comes to our hearts – we can accomplish nothing.

Think about it. Try not getting angry or anxious or jealous or lustful or bitter for an entire week. That would be quite the spiritual accomplishment. If you can do it then I stand corrected. But unless you’re a robot, you’re going to fail. Now don’t get me wrong –you’re still responsible for how you handle your anger or what you do with your anxiety or how you respond to your jealousy – but ridding yourself of them? Not going to happen. That’s just not something we have the power to accomplish.

In today’s Gospel Jesus takes Peter, James and John mountain climbing and something amazing happens when they reach the top. Jesus, upon praying, catches fire from within, his face and clothes become dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah appear in glory to have a conversation with Jesus. And Luke even tells us what they talked about. “They … were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” In other words, Moses and Elijah are speaking to Jesus about his impending “departure,” whatever that means. But not only that – they’re talking about Jesus’ departure like it’s going to be a really great accomplishment. But what about leaving Jerusalem would be such a great accomplishment?

The word departure is an embarrassing translation. It’d be like taking the Greek word for killer whale and translating it as goldfish. And so when you get home tonight find your bible, cross out the word departure and write the following word in its place – exodus. Elijah and Moses and Jesus were talking about the exodus he would accomplish at Jerusalem.

Now, I’m not just being nit-picky. This is a distinction we have to make because the Old Testament revolves around the Exodus that God accomplishes through Moses. And remember, the Exodus is about being set free from slavery. The people of Israel were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years until God parted the Red Sea, which made it possible for God’s people to go to the Promised Land. If you haven’t read the Old Testament, 98% of it, in one way or another, is about the Exodus. It either looks forward to it, or describes it, or looks back to it. And so if I had to summarize the Old Testament in a sentence it really wouldn’t be that hard. In the Old Testament, the Exodus is God’s great accomplishment.

Now, I know this seems like a tangent, but stay with me, because over time, the prophets started speaking about a new exodus – a new exodus that God would accomplish to set us free once and for all. You see they came to realize something that’s pretty profound. Their problem was a lot bigger than they thought. The problem wasn’t slavery between people. It was slavery within people. The real problem was the sins and the flaws and the inner-defects that enslave humanity – in other words, whatever it is inside our hearts that even makes enslaving other people a possibility. The shackles of Egypt were not the problem. But it was the inner-shackles – the chains of anger and lust and contempt and greed and jealousy and hate – this, they said, was humanity’s real problem. And it was a big one – far too hard for humanity to deal with on their own. The sin within was the real enemy and only a new exodus would accomplish its defeat.

Now, with that in mind, let’s go back to that mountain and to Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah. “They … were speaking of his exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” See what’s happening in today’s Gospel? Moses and Elijah have come to tell Jesus that His mission, His purpose, is to lead God’s new exodus – that in Jerusalem He will accomplish what the Old Covenant was powerless to do. Like Moses before him Jesus would be the One to set God’s people free. Moses set them free from the shackles of Egypt, but Jesus will set them free from the inner shackles of sin; from the shackles of death. And that, they said as they talked on the mountain, would be God’s greatest accomplishment: “the Red Sea of death would be split with a cross and Jesus would lead his people through.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)

Now with that in mind, let’s go back to where we started – with a God calling us to accomplish less. What God wants us to realize – the heart of our Christian faith – is that through Jesus God has accomplished everything. And that’s what the new exodus is all about – the defeat of sin and the defeat of death through the cross of Jesus Christ. And unlike the first exodus, which is a weak shadow of the new one, God’s new exodus is the final exodus. It’s what 100% of the New Testament is all about. It is God’s greatest accomplishment.

And so here’s your homework for the week, and I’m cheating because I stole it from Luke, but that’s okay because Luke stole it from God. “This is my son, my Chosen; listen to him!” That’s your homework. Listen to Jesus. If you accomplish nothing else in life but this – if you learn to listen to Jesus – your life will be a wild success. I know it’s counter-intuitive, but don’t worry too much about your anger or greed or lust or whatever else it is that enslaves you. Let Jesus worry about that. He is, after all, the One leading the new exodus. It’s not our job to worry. Our job is to listen.

To put it differently, following Jesus isn’t about accomplishing anything at all. Following Jesus is about following Jesus and about letting Jesus accomplish transformation in our hearts. But what that means is that we have to create some open space in our lives. Open space to bathe in scripture. Open space to wait in silence. Open space to listen to Jesus and for him to accomplish what He wills to accomplish in each and every one of us.

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