Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Sign of Jonah

But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
Mat 12:39-40 ESV

“If you were to die tonight, do you know for certain that you would go to heaven?”

Silence rumbled like the shock waves of a sucker punch up and down the twin rows of mahogany ribs dividing the church sanctuary. Neatly starched and suited men sat politely next to their primly decorated women and stared awkwardly at the floor as matching children squirmed in dress shoes examining the corners of the ceiling. All the while, the eyes of the preacher canvassed the room from behind his oaken bulwark with expectation and a hint of something like predatory hunger.

“If you’re not sure tonight, please raise your hand”

And there sat I again, hand raised alone amidst “the saved, the sure and the serving,” wondering whether it was faith, apathy or ignorance that gave everyone but me such confidence

“If you want to be sure, pray this prayer with me tonight…”

One more prayer, followed by the pastoral reassurance that I could now magically “know for certain” that I was going to heaven. Why? Because I was “obedient to God” in doing what the man waving the heavy leather textbook told me to do. But what about the man-in-black down the street with the crisp white collar? He had some slightly different ideas of what it meant to be obedient to God. How about the kind young gentlemen with white shirts and bicycles? Or the bearded man across town in the building topped with soft-serve? Or the man with the graphing calculator and the cosmic chip on his shoulder? Everyone seemed to have an opinion about this whole heaven thing.

Heavens abound, with vast catalogs of images to translate their Elysian beauty and indescribable splendor into the all-too-describable banalities of this world. And while opinions vary, the general consensus is that all other roads lead to Hell, or Rome depending on how you slice your eschatological pie.

Every religious system has its own apologetics, evidences and experiences to validate its individual beliefs. According to my own investigation Christianity, properly and humbly understood, is easily the most satisfying intellectually and spiritually. However, while some belief systems perform better than others, all require the engine of faith. Without that engine, even Christianity goes nowhere. In the absence of faith, we are left with only the rigid skeletal remains of religion. Religion is dead, and dead stuff stinks.

And the grand smelly truth is that the atheists have a point. It is impossible to know anything about subjects like God and heaven “for sure” according to the modern concept of knowing. Knowledge requires fact, fact requires demonstrable proof and the only thing demonstrable about heaven is that people are just dying to get in.

Faith is the anima of Christianity. And faith, simply put, is trust. Practicing faith is practicing trust in the God who created the universe, called himself our Father, came to live among us and subjected himself to the curse of death which we brought upon ourselves, so that we could be free from its fear and power. It is not a summation of facts. It is a call to trust in the character of a God who reveals himself in Christ to be the essence of selfless love.

To those who proclaim or insist on some indisputable fact or irrefutable sign, God offers only the sign of Jonah. This sign also must be accepted on faith and stands only on the evidence of the gospels and the truth inherent in the words and actions of Christ. It is a truth that can only be “known” by faith, by the willingness to believe in something so ridiculously crazy that it could only be true: that God loves us so much, he would suffer and die for the freedom of those who murdered him. That because of such scandalous love, he can be trusted.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Love and Glory

No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.
John 1:18 NAS

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…
Heb 1:1-3 NAS

I hear much about God’s glory. Worship music revolves around it. We “give” it to God in public prayer. Pulpits abound with preachers zealously proclaiming it, defending it, demanding it and lamenting the loss of it. Still, in spite of all the noise, I think some people have little idea what they’re talking about. From the way certain people speak about God, it is understandable that others leave the church with an impression of God as petty, self-centered, egomaniacal, an attention-seeking infant with self-esteem issues.

I cringe every time I hear the phrase, “God’s primary concern is His own glory.” I hear it a lot. I hear it from people I know and love, people who love Jesus very much. They want to lift God’s name high and defend it all costs. They don’t seem to understand that God doesn’t need to be defended. I think they fail to realize they are lifting Him out of the reach of the very people He came to deliver. In the words of Rich Mullins from the Lufkin, Texas concert before his death, “They’re not bad, they’re just wrong.”

A being primarily concerned with his own glory would never descend to this rat-hole of a world. And he certainly wouldn’t die for the rats. Honestly, he would probably torch the whole damned thing. He might possibly be convinced, out of a narcissistic desire for praise - and all that nagging - to leave cracked the door to the heavenly servants’ quarters. Even then, however, I think he would station Saint Peter nearby with instructions to weed out the riff-raff. And the bad singers.

The book of Hebrews says that Jesus is the exact representation of God’s nature. In other words, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. He came to be a servant (Mat 20:28). He was homeless (Mat 8:20). He was spit upon, beaten and mocked (Mar 14:65). He was crucified for our sin (Gal 3:13, Isa 53:5). He never acted for his own glory. Everything he did and said was for the deliverance and redemption of humanity; and of course, for the glory of the Father (Joh 7:18). Such a deliverance could do nothing less than bring glory to the Father because it displays the greatest love imaginable (Joh 15:13).

Genuine selfless love, fully understood and accepted, always results in praise from the beloved. But assuming praise and glory to be God’s primary goal misses the focus of Jesus’ every word and action, denies the very selflessness in which he was glorified. You see, it is His love that makes Him glorious. The pursuit of glory could never make him love.