If Today’s Media Had Reported on Jesus

Everything the President of the United States says is news. If he belches, international stock markets drop. If he bellows, nations flinch. If his speech is aggressive – and how often this president sounds aggressive – ambassadors phone home. It seems his every word is parsed, interpreted, and debated.

I can’t think of anyone whose words have been more closely attended, unless it was Jesus himself. His words have been parsed, interpreted, and debated for two thousand years. But in Jesus’s case, his words have been parsed by experts in ancient languages. They have been interpreted and debated by theologians, whereas President Trump’s words are fodder for the news and entertainment media – and face it, in our day the distinction between news and entertainment has virtually disappeared.

What, I can’t help but wonder, would today’s news media have made of Jesus? How would they have reported on him? If Jesus were their subject, what kind of headlines lines would today’s editors splash across the page? With what kind of lead would they open a news story?

The fact that Jesus, unlike other rabbis of his day, taught women was a source of controversy during his three years of public service. St. Luke tells us that some women (including prosperous, married women) supported his work financially and at least occasionally traveled with his disciples. One can imagine a front-page picture of adoring women gazing at Jesus, with the caption: “Fund-raising Effort Among Married Women Pays Off.”

When Jesus turned water into wine, how would reporters have chronicled it? Would they have called it an ecological disaster or described it as a revolutionary process sure to drive traditional vintners into bankruptcy?

Jesus was widely known as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners,” the two most reviled categories of people in the country. Tax collectors were most despised, and were considered traitors, since they worked for the occupational government. Headlines might include: “Collaborators Throw Support Behind Jesus,” or “Jesus Accepts Fringe Group’s Endorsement.”

Or how about when Jesus “cleansed the temple”? It was endlessly controversial even then, but how would today’s news and entertainment media have broken the story? “Jesus Leads Anti-Clerical Protest,” or “Chaos Erupts on Temple Grounds,” or “Jesus Accused of Assault in Temple Incident.”

What Jesus did was certainly newsworthy, but what he said could have kept a scandal-mongering news media in a feeding frenzy. Imagine what a reporter could have done with Jesus’s statement, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Something about “…disparaging the working class,” perhaps. A columnist would have raged about his “…chutzpah, his unrivaled arrogance.” The magazine rack at the grocery store would have screamed, “Jesus Manages to Offend Everyone!”

When his adversaries threw a lighted stick of political dynamite at Jesus in the form of a loaded question about taxation, Jesus’s brilliant response was: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” But think what a reporter could have done with that: “Today Jesus, in a highly controversial statement, went on record in support of the Roman occupational forces.”

Imagine the uproar that would have surrounded Jesus when he said, “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” Or, “Let the dead bury their dead.” Or, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” Or, “Unless you believe in me, you will die in your sins.”

One could go on and on. People who want to use Jesus’s words against him will find plenty to keep them busy, but those intellectually honest enough to want to know what Jesus really meant will be kept even busier. And the person who goes further and genuinely tries to do what Jesus said, will be busiest of all—busy making a difference in the world (and being happy doing it).

It is easier (for the time being) to make Jesus’s words fit one’s purpose than to make one’s life fit his words. Easier, but disingenuous and, frankly, far less rewarding.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 5/27, 2017

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The Banality of Evil and the Creativity of Good

One of the remarkable moments in the history of the twentieth century occurred near its close: the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. South Africa had been embroiled in decades of horrific racial violence. The Commission’s mandate was to discover the truth about politically-motivated violence, provide amnesty for truth-tellers, and reconciliation for the nation.

This was a very different goal from the one pursued in the Nuremberg trials, held fifty year earlier. In Nuremberg, the goal was to render judgment. In Cape Town, the goal was to facilitate reconciliation. When the philosopher Hannah Arendt reported on the Nuremberg trial of Adolph Eichmann, she famously (and controversially) wrote of “the banality of evil.” Had she been present at South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Hearings, I can’t help but think she would have commented on the freshness and creativity of good.

Evil is everywhere driven by the same conventional and monotonous motivations: pride, greed, and selfishness. We are sometimes shocked by its brutality but never by its modality—the predictable misuse of power through deceit and the threat of violence. But goodness surprises us. It is original in a way evil never is.

In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chairman of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, detailed one surprising story after another from the commission’s hearings. Broken people confessed the evil they had done, while family members of victims found surprising ways to forgive.

In one powerful story, a white police officer confessed to the murder of an 18-year-old black man, whose mother sat in the courtroom. He admitted to celebrating with other officers as they burned the young man’s body. A few hours later, the officer compelled the same woman to watch as he and his partners burned her husband alive. His last words to her were: “Forgive them.”

After the officer’s emotionally charged testimony, a silent courtroom listened as the bereaved wife and mother asked for three things from the white officer. The now-elderly woman asked him to take her to the place where her husband was burned so she could gather up the dust and give it a proper burial. Next, since he had taken her family from her, she asked him to come to the ghetto twice a month to spend a day with her, so she could have someone to mother. And, finally, she asked someone to escort her to where he was seated so she could embrace him. She wanted him to know her forgiveness – and God’s – was real.

The officer, overcome by emotion, fainted. At the same time, someone in the courtroom began to sing “Amazing Grace.” And the world got a snapshot of what goodness – what God – is like.

There are two words translated “forgive” in the New Testament, which connote distinct aspects of forgiveness. The one focuses on the evil deed, and has the idea of sending it away, rather like the ancient High Priest confessed the nation’s sins over the head of a scapegoat and sent it into the wilderness, never to be seen again.

The other word does not focus on the evil deed but on the person who commits it. The evil is sent away, but the one who committed it is not. He or she is forgiven. This word is formed on the stem for “grace.” We are to send away the offence, but grace the offender with love and acceptance, just as the Lord graced us.

Sadly, most of us get this turned around. Rather than sending away the offence, we cling to it. We season it with the salt of resentment and feed on it until we poison ourselves. We do exactly the wrong thing: clutch the sin but send the sinner away. Instead of gracing the person who hurt us, we snub and ignore him and refuse to have anything to do with him. And so evil continues unabated.

But goodness, as we see it in God and in his representatives (like the elderly woman in Cape Town), sends the evil deed to oblivion and surprises the one who committed it with grace. And against all odds, “mercy triumphs over judgment” and real people “overcome evil with good.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 5/20/2017

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The Number One Rule in Great Story-Writing

A great storyteller can bring a character to life, metaphorically speaking. There’s no one who does it better than the novelist and poet Wendell Berry. His Port William “membership” is replete with memorable characters, and his Burley Coulter is one of the great characters in contemporary literature.

Sometimes a storyteller or novelist will confess that he did not know a character when he first introduced him. J.R.R. Tolkien said as much about his character “Strider.” He introduced him before he knew who he was or what role he would play in the story, then let him grow into one of its principal characters.

A great novelist can bring a character to life, metaphorically speaking. God, the greatest storyteller of all, brings his characters to life literally, and gives them (within limits) space to create their own roles. Humans get to be (to borrow once again from Tolkien) “sub-creators,” assistant storytellers, tasked with shaping their own stories.

The great storyteller leaves room in his script for his creatures to develop their own personalities and choose their own roles—without ruining the end of the story. Think of how complicated that must be! Tolstoy worked with over 180 named characters in War and Peace. God works with over seven billion at once, allowing them all to write their own story (in part, at least), and still manages to give it a happy ending.

And what a story it is, crammed with beauty, jubilation and pathos! Like all great stories, it is full of conflict and resolution. The first rule of writing fiction is: introduce and overcome conflict. Apparently, that’s Rule One in real life too.

My wife and I recently watched “La-La Land,” and I was mildly amused by how transparently (and sometimes suddenly) the writer-director introduced and resolved conflicts. But life, which is the great writer-director’s story, is also filled with conflicts and resolutions, and many of them are introduced (and sometimes resolved) as suddenly as anything in La-La Land.

You would think God would exempt his principal characters from the conflict, let them rise steadily to prominence and success. Not a chance. In fact, his principal characters seem to encounter more difficulties than the rest of us.

Take St. Paul. He begins, like many characters in books and films, on the wrong side. He not only faces conflict, he causes it. But he is won over by Jesus himself and becomes a prominent character on the side of good. Does that solve his problems? Not at all. It increases them.

Not long after Paul is introduced into the story, he is threatened and forced to run for his life. The bad guys want to do him in and the good guys don’t want anything to do with him. As each conflict is resolved, a new one is introduced. People on his own team try to undermine his efforts. As soon as that crisis is resolved, his best friend and he have a heated disagreement and go their separate ways. If that’s not enough, he is arrested multiple times, beaten regularly, ridiculed, shipwrecked, bound over for court and charged with a capital crime.

Could it be that in life, as in fiction, a character cannot develop to his or her fullest potential without conflict? And, if that is the case, why are we always so surprised when we encounter it? Why are we so determined to avoid it?

Think of what would happen if parents got to write their children’s stories. They’d remove every obstacle, every pain, and cause their children to rise steadily to prominence and success. Fortunately, God does not allow us to write other people’s stories, not even our children’s. He doesn’t allow us to do so because he knows we would create underdeveloped and defective characters.

It’s the characters that are most important to God, not the plot. That’s why he allows us a role in writing our own story. If he were trying to create the perfect plot, he would never let us touch it. But his goal – at once more difficult and more satisfying – is to create characters that are beautiful, fully alive, and immortal.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 5/13/2017

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The Danger of Misplaced Trust

On May 7, 1915, a German submarine torpedoed the British ocean liner Lusitania just off the southern coast of Ireland, mere hours from port. The Lusitania was one of the largest and most luxurious ships of its time. It carried a complement of 1,962 people, passengers and crew, as well as hundreds of tons of munitions (something the British government repeatedly denied until 1982).

Shortly after the torpedo struck, there was a second (internal) explosion, and twenty minutes later the Lusitania’s bow was on the seabed. Of the 1,962 souls onboard, 1,198 were lost. One of the mysteries surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania is why she still had unmanned lifeboats aboard when she went down. Only six of the Lusitania’s 48 lifeboats were launched.

There was certainly little time to launch the boats before the Lusitania went under, and she was listing badly, which made the task extremely difficult and for some boats impossible. But there is another possibility as well. After the torpedo struck, one of the surviving passengers heard a passenger call out, “Captain, what do you wish us to do?” Captain William Thomas Turner replied, “Stay right where you are, Madam, she’s all right.”

The female passenger then asked the captain, “Where do you get your information?” and he answered, “From the engine room, Madam.” There is no evidence, however, the engine room provided the captain with such information. It seems Turner said what he said not because it was true, but because he was trying to prevent a panic.

Moments later, a passenger shouted from the direction of the bridge, “The Captain says the boat will not sink,” and cheers went up across the deck. According to an eyewitness, people who were trying to board the lifeboats changed their minds and turned around.

Misplaced trust killed many of the people who died that day. They got bad information, and accepted it as true. In this, the age of spin doctors and fake news, we may be as vulnerable in our own way as were the passengers of the Lusitania.

This is particularly true in the areas of spirituality and religion, where anyone (I am an example) can voice an opinion. Warnings against misplaced trust have been sounded since at least the prophet Jeremiah’s time. He lambasted the religious professionals of his time who, he said, “…dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”

This is a recurring theme in the Bible’s Old Testament, and particularly in Jeremiah. The prophet carried on a lengthy feud with religious professionals who falsely reassured their hearers everything would be alright. St. Paul sounded a similar note in the New Testament when he warned, “While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly … and they will not escape.”

The message, “You don’t have to do anything; it’ll be fine,” plays well to an audience. It played well to the people aboard the Lusitania, and they broke into cheers – just minutes before they drowned. It played well in 1929 when the Secretary of the Treasury, just weeks before the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression, assured people, “There is no cause to worry. The high tide of prosperity will continue.” And it plays well now.

I sometimes hear the “You don’t have to do anything; it’ll be fine” message in religious circles, usually introduced by the confident assertion that God loves us unconditionally. It’s true God’s love is unconditional, but nowhere in the Bible does the message of his love promote a laissez-faire complacency.

According to St Paul, God’s kindness does not leave people where they are, but leads them elsewhere – to repentance. God is like a good parent. He doesn’t stop loving his children because they disobey him or engage in immoral or self-destructive behaviors, but neither will he ignore or acquiesce to such behaviors.

The Bible is clear: God did not send his Son so we could remain in our selfishness and sin, but so we could escape them. He does not say, “Stay where you are; it’s alright.” That’s not the kind of thing he would say. He loves us too much.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/5/2017

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The Virtue We Wish We Could Do Without

When the Tribune Chronicle stopped carrying Sydney Harris’s column, I abruptly cancelled my subscription. It was my habit to turn first to “Strictly Personal,” and only after that to check out the rest of the paper.

Harris’s famous aphorisms and colorful analogies made his work both wise and entertaining for a generation of readers. Nevertheless, I think he got it wrong when he wrote, “Perseverance is the most overrated of traits, if it is unaccompanied by talent; beating your head against a wall is more likely to produce a concussion in the head than a hole in the wall.”

True, perseverance will not produce talent in the untalented, but it will help the untalented accomplish more than they could otherwise. And in a talented person, perseverance will produce remarkable results. Consider Albert Einstein, who humbly claimed, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

President Coolidge made a similar point: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Perseverance is one of the most important virtues mentioned in the Bible. It is “through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures” that we have hope. When God gives people strength, it is usually does not manifest in awe-inspiring displays of might but in steady and determined perseverance.

According to the Bible, which takes a very dynamic view of human personality, people are under construction. It takes a variety of tools to build a great person, but none is more important than perseverance. Character is produced and maturity is gained through perseverance.

Yet perseverance is the one virtue we all wish we could do without. It requires us to do the hard thing, long after the desire for doing it is spent. The very sound of the word can make a person feel weary.

Despite its prominence in Scripture, perseverance is frequently missing from classical virtue lists, like the celebrated Cardinal Virtues – prudence, justice, temperance and courage. St. Ambrose gave them their title (from the Latin cardo, for “hinge”) in the fourth century, but the virtues themselves were extolled long before Ambrose, and even before the Christian era.

Perseverance didn’t make the cut for the so-called “theological virtues” (faith, hope and love) either. Perhaps if someone were to formulate a new category – “The Unwanted Virtues” – perseverance would finally make the list. It would sit right alongside chastity, which St. Augustine famously deferred, and that most elusive of virtues, humility.

It’s not hard to understand why perseverance gets so little love: it’s no fun. It’s hard work. It’s tiring. Yet perseverance is essential to the formation of character, and character (of a certain kind) is what God wants for humans. It’s what he’s been after all along.

The other virtues, including the cardinal virtues of St. Ambrose and the theological virtues of St. Paul, become expressions of character only through perseverance. This explains why God doesn’t just force us to do the right things. It’s not right things he’s after, but right people. He’s wants character, deliberately and freely chosen.

Virtue is not something that comes to us ready-made, from on high. C. S. Lewis described it well: God does not generally give us virtue. Instead he gives us the “power of always trying again. For however important [any virtue] may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still.”

  1. T. Wright put it this way: “Virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices become second nature” – that is, become character. It is our choices, not our religious experiences (however extraordinary they may be) that most shape us. Mystical experiences may produce emotion and provide insight, but only our repeated choices, made with perseverance, can produce character.

Sydney Harris was wrong. Perseverance is not overrated but overlooked, unseen because it lies beneath and supports all the other virtues. And that is why St. James pronounced the one who perseveres through trials, instead of the one who has no trials, to be blessed.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/29/2017

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Acquire Inward Peace, Change the World

Before “Wayne’s World” was a movie with Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, it was a Saturday Night Live comedy staple. The sketches were frequently based on some daydream fantasy of the stars – things that did not, and perhaps could not, happen in the outer world but could happen in “Wayne’s World.”

Wayne is not the only person with his own world. People frequently say of a coworker or family member, “He is his own world,” usually in a disapproving tone. They’re implying their friend is escaping from the real world (and his responsibilities in it) for the less real world of his own thoughts or fears or fantasies.

But Wayne is not the only one with his own world – everyone has one. While the thoughts and fears and fantasies of the inner world might not correspond to what is happening in the outer world, they are nevertheless real thoughts and fears and fantasies – actual events in the inner world which are bound to influence the outer world.

So it’s not just “Wayne’s World.” It’s “Shayne’s World” too – and William’s and Jennifer’s and Michael’s and Emma’s. There are currently about seven billion such worlds within our shared world.

What takes place in the world inside a person has a profound impact on the world outside a person. Freud promoted this idea, but we didn’t need Freud to know it was true. We’ve all seen how what goes on within us affects the people around us.

All humans have an inner world in which “the inner person” (St. Paul’s terminology) spends his or her entire life. Our usefulness to family and society, as well as our happiness and sense of purpose, have more to do with this inner world than the outer one. People who understand this can be useful, happy and purposeful even when everything in the outer world is wrong – when disease strikes, relationships break and financial supports collapse.

People wrongly assume happiness and fulfillment result from a careful ordering of the outside world. If they can just get a high-paying job, a nice house, and an attractive spouse (and, with these things, people’s respect), happiness and fulfillment are guaranteed. But they’re not. The idea has been disproved about as many times as there are people on the face of the globe.

Yet people try. They sometimes kill themselves trying, kill themselves with stress and overwork. They go to ever greater lengths to control their outer world, sacrificing themselves and manipulating their friends, but the results for which they hope never last.

The truth is a person cannot ignore the inner world and still be happy in the outer one. There are wars to be waged in ordering one’s private world, battles to be won. And there is friendship to be gained with the God who alone can enter our inner world.

It might be argued that such an emphasis leads to an unhealthy introspection and a spiritualized self-absorption. These are dangers, but they are dangers for everyone, spiritual or not, because everyone has an inner world. It’s not attention to the inner world, but inattention – and the helter-skelter interior life that results – which leads to self-absorption. As John Ortberg put it, “The neglected soul doesn’t go away; it goes awry.”

There is a long border and a great deal of commerce between the inner world and the outer. The person who most benefits the outer world is the one whose inner world is peaceful and well-ordered. Hence, St. Seraphim of Sarov’s observation: “Acquire inward peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation.”

The evils we all bemoan in the outer world – greed, apathy, selfishness, bigotry, anger, sexual exploitation, and all the rest – didn’t originate in the outer world, in New York, L.A. or Kandahar, but in the inner world. Jesus was (as always) right on target when he said: “For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.”

There will never be peace and prosperity in the outer world while there is envy, greed and deceit in the seven billion or so inner ones. Achieving peace in those inner worlds is an enormous task. God alone is big enough to accomplish it.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/22/2017

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Good Friday Service

Below are the messages from the Coldwater Area Ministerial Evening Good Friday Service. I hope it will be an encouragement to you – it was to me! The area pastors are friends an co-workers in the kingdom of God – a blessing to me and to the larger church. – Shayne

INTRODUCTION

Our theme tonight is the glory of God. We want to look at God’s glory through the lens of Scripture and the medium of song. It will be something like climbing a mountain: at each new rise, we will gain a perspective we didn’t have before. Then, at last, we will come around the mountain, and out from the cleft of the rock to see God’s love and holiness displayed with breathtaking and fearsome glory.

When we were in Yosemite a few years ago, we came to a lookout high in the mountains, where we could gaze down at the valley stretching out before us. We saw distant and noiseless waterfalls perpetually cascading down sheer rock walls. There was Half-Dome reaching for the sky. To our left was El Capitan with it 3,000-foot vertical wall. As we looked, my wife and I had the same thought: It doesn’t look real. It was clear and grand – but too grand to take in; there was always more to see than you could see. Whichever way you turned, wherever you looked, there was some new glory.

Tonight, we hope to have the same kind of experience, but as we look at the cross: “Let me never boast,” the great apostle said, “except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” When it comes to the cross, whichever way you turn, wherever you look, there is some new glory. We can’t take it all in – perhaps we’ll never take it all in – but tonight we will look and be awed.

 EGYPT

Some form of the “word” glory is used in over 300 verses in the Bible, but the word doesn’t appear at all in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. It doesn’t make its first appearance until the story of the Exodus – the story of Israel’s escape from slavery and oppression in Egypt. God reveals his glory as he triumphs over the gods of Egypt, one by one, in plague after plague. His glory shines as he defeats his people’s oppressors and their gods.

The pharaoh recognized the superior might of Israel’s God, and surrendered, but later withdrew his surrender and sent the armies of Egypt, with their overwhelming numbers and advanced weaponry, sweeping down on Israel’s frightened refugees. But the God of Israel will have none of it. His glory lights the heavens. His right hand stirs the sea – “The God of glory thunders over the sea.” He rends the waters like a garment, then sews them back together right over the top of the enemy of his people.

The gods of Egypt are humbled before the Lord God Almighty. The light of Rah, the mighty sun god, is dimmed before the dazzling glory of Jehovah (Yahweh). The glory of the god Khepri (who was always represented by the scarab beetle) was crushed under the weight of glory of the God of Israel. When the Gods battled in Egypt, the God of Israel was the glorious victor.

God showed his glory in Egypt when he bared his arm and made a fist.

SINAI

The next significant grouping of “glory” words comes as Israel journeys to the Promised Land. Instead of heading northwest to Canaan, the Israelites are led by God to go south into the formidable Arabian desert. They travel through some of the most barren and intimidating country on earth until they come to Horeb, the Mountain of God: the place called Sinai.

Here the Lord displays his glory. As it settles on Mount Sinai, fear settles in the hearts of the people. The sight is awesome and alarming: It looks as if the entire top of the mountain is being consumed by fire. Here the God who “is a consuming fire” enters into covenant with a people who are like chaff. Deity and humanity come to terms, and laws for their relationship are put in place.

It is here that Moses ascends the mountain and dares to say to God: “Now, show me your glory.” So, God hides him in the cleft of the rock and causes his glory to pass by, but warns Moses that he will only see his back for no one can see his face and live.

Moses returns from the mountain heights, his face shining with glory. He carries two tablets of stone, on which are engraved the terms of the covenant. These are the Ten Commandments (or Ten Words), the basis for the Book of the Law. They are placed in the ark, where the glory of God shines continually. God revealed his glory at Sinai, when he donned his judge’s robes and laid down the law.

 The Tabernacle/Temple

The next major cluster of glory words appears around the construction of the tabernacle and, later, the temple. God gave instructions to Moses for making a tabernacle where people could come to meet God, worship him and seek his forgiveness. Inside the tabernacle (and, later, Solomon’s temple) was the Holy Place, where only priests were permitted to go. But inside the Holy Place was the Most Holy Place. It was cordoned off by thick curtains and surrounded by an overwhelming – and frightening – sense of holiness.

No one entered it except the High Priest, the firstborn son of the firstborn son in Aaron’s direct line, and he only entered one day a year: The Day of Atonement. When he entered, he wore a robe that had little bells sewn on its hem. The priests outside would listen, and if the bells stopped ringing, they would know that God had taken the High Priest’s life because he had entered the most holy place in a state of sin.

Within the Holy of Holies was the golden lampstand and the ark of the covenant: The ark that contained Aaron’ staff, a jar of manna, and the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. It was in this hidden place that God displayed his glory. It was so awesome that no one dared enter except the high priest, and he only entered because he was required by God to do so.

When the tabernacle was completed, the glory of God descended on it. It filled the tabernacle so that even Moses dared not enter. When Solomon completed the temple, the same thing happened, so that the priests could not even perform their service.

After a while, it seemed to those outside that the glory had dispersed, but really it had condensed: it filled that tiny room known as the Holy of Holies, which was charged with glory. Hidden from all human eyes, except those of the high priest, and hidden from him on all days but one, God displayed his glory in the straight, unbending form of his holiness.

The Cross

God made a fist in Egypt, and displayed his glory. He donned judge’s robes at Sinai, and displayed his glory. He descended on the temple in unbending holiness, and displayed his glory. But the greatest revelation of his glory, its most terrifying display, happened elsewhere.

Even Jesus’s disciples, looking at it, did not see it. They did not consider this a day of glory but of infamy; not a day of praise but of shame. When they looked at the cross, they not only didn’t see God’s glory, they didn’t see God. They felt abandoned. Their sense of loss and desperation found expression in one voice that rose above the din in a cry of desolation: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? “My God, my God—why have you forsaken me?”

There were other people looking on, the priests and rulers, who watched all this with satisfaction. When they looked at Jesus, they saw a bloody lump of human flesh nailed to a cross. They saw nothing they cared for, nothing they desired. They scorned and mocked him in the cross, just as their spiritual descendants scorn and mock him now, in the church. When they looked at the cross, they saw weakness. They saw shame. As far as they were concerned, they had put that man in his place.

But they were blind to what was really going on, which is just what Jesus told them. They could no more take in what was going on than your pet can take in a work of art. If you go to the Louvre with your service dog, and enter the gallery with Michelangelo’s sculpture of The Dying Slave, your dog will see what you see, but it will mean nothing to him. He will miss all the glory and pathos and wonder. To him, The Dying Slave may be nothing more than a substitute fire hydrant.

The priests and rulers looked but did not see. As far they were concerned, they had put this man in his place. But the truth they couldn’t see is that God had put himself in our place. Had they seen God’s hands outstretched to strike their enemies, as he had once struck Egypt, they would have called it glory. But when they saw his hands outstretched to embrace a world – outstretched, and nailed to a cross – they called it shame. They exulted in the fact that God has revealed his glory by giving them the Law, but they missed his greater glory when he took the punishment the law demanded on himself.

They thought they knew the glorious God: the wonder-working, enemy-striking, law-giving, mountain-shaking, temple-filling, plague-sending, sea-parting God. But up till now, they had only seen the fringes of his garment. Like Moses, they had not seen his face. They had seen only his back.

And now they look on the face of God … and don’t recognize him. They see but do not perceive. They don’t realize that beyond the glory of his power is the greater glory of his love. Beyond the glory of his might is the unfathomable glory of his helplessness. The wonder-working, enemy-striking, law-giving, mountain-shaking, temple-filling, plague-sending, sea-parting God is also the cross-carrying, humanity-serving, sin-bearing, pain-enduring, curse-suffering, sorrow-knowing, life-giving Lamb.

This is glory.

Before the crucifixion, Pontius Pilate brought Jesus before the crowds and cried, “Behold the man!” But mystery of mysteries: On the cross, God brought Jesus before humankind, before angels and principalities and powers, and cried: “Behold your God!” This is what God is like. This is glory.

The poet spoke of “Earth cramm’d with glory, and every common bush aflame with God,” but she warned that most of us lack eyes to see it. Will we have eyes to see this? Not a common bush, but a tree; a tree cramm’d with a glory that burns but is never burned up; a glory so bright that our eyes cannot bear it, only our hearts. A tree, on which is nailed our Lord and our God. Here is the ultimate display of God’s glory, “in the very dying form of one who suffered there for me.” This – this – is glory!

“God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.

 

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