Friday, April 25, 2014

Enter In

According to John 20, on that first Easter morning when Mary Magdalene starts for Jesus’ tomb, she has no idea that she will meet with a miracle.  She thinks she is going to complete the embalming process that had been abandoned on Friday, because of the Sabbath.  But instead of finding Jesus’ body, she discovers the stone rolled away.  She runs to tell the disciples, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  Peter and John run to find out what’s going on.
            Now, at the point where Mary tells them about Jesus’ disappearance, John the gospel writer refers to himself not by name, but as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  Yet, by the time he reaches the tomb he simply calls himself, “the other disciple.”  You might think this is modesty, since he reaches the tomb before Peter did—John just doesn’t want to brag that he’s the faster runner.  But there’s an element of shame in the way John refers to himself.  Perhaps he regrets his inaction.  He reaches the tomb first, but instead of going in he reluctantly waits outside.  Stooping to look into the tomb, he peeks into the tomb long enough to allow his eyes to adjust to the darkness.  In the gloom, he sees the linen burial cloths lying there, but is hesitant to enter in.  On the other hand, Peter demonstrates his usual boldness by plunging into the tomb’s dark mouth as soon as he arrives.  He doesn’t wait to allow his eyes adjust, but blindly rushes in to see the miracle.  Only after Peter has gone into the tomb does John enter in and believe.
            Peter and John represent two different kinds of Christians.  There are those whose who, though they are “the beloved,” yet are reluctant to venture into the unknown.  Tentatively they stand at the door of faith, looking in yet not fully experiencing all that God has for them.  Then there are those who plunge headlong into the darkness—those who can say, “We walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5.7).”  Abandoning all caution, they take leap into the darkness, no matter what lies ahead. 
            The church needs both kinds of believers.  John may be embarrassed about his hesitancy, yet perhaps it’s because John was already there, and had already looked in, that Peter has the boldness to run into a dark tomb without looking.  Peter needs John’s settled spirit in order to give him the courage to act boldly.  Then, John needs Peter’s courage in order to know that it’s safe to enter into the tomb and see what God had done.  The point is that both eventually do enter in, and both believe.

            Are you a John, or a Peter?  Are you more comfortable waiting, observing, and considering before you act?  Or are you the kind who forges ahead into new things, often acting before you consider the consequences?  Both play a part in the story of the resurrection.  The church needs its pioneers, and it needs those with settled spirits.  The important thing is that you enter in.  Enter in, and experience the risen Savior.  Then help others to enter into relationship with Him as well.  In this way, the message of the resurrection is spread throughout the world.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Movie "Noah" - One Pastor's Perspective

So, I finally broke down and saw the movie "Noah," directed by Darren Aronosfsky ("Requiem for a Dream", "Pi", "Black Swan").  I'd read reviews that referred to it as "the most unbiblical biblical film ever made."  I was familiar with many of the ways in which "Noah" diverged from the Biblical account of the Great Flood, yet I was hopeful about the film nonetheless.  I even re-posted an article that I read, which encouraged Christians to go see it, on the basis that whether they're good or bad, believers need to support biblical movie-making in Hollywood--otherwise, there might not be other biblical movies made.  I said on Facebook that while the pastor within me couldn't recommend "Noah," Greg was pretty excited about it.  I mean, who wouldn't like a biblical movie starring Russel Crowe (Silence of the Lambs), Emma Watson (Harry Potter), Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs), and Jennifer Connelly (Hulk)?  

Turns out that "Noah" would probably have been more biblical if in addition to actors, it had thrown the gladiator, Hermione, Hannibal Lechter, and Hulk's girlfriend together in a blender and mixed them together to get a storyline.

Don't get me wrong--it was enjoyable to watch.  As an adventure/disaster film, it was well-made and engaging, full of tension and astounding special effects.  But it would have been better if they had changed the biblical names of Noah, Shem, Ham, Japheth, Tubal-Cain, and Methuselah to other names entirely.  Any similarity to the biblical story ends with these names and the facts that there was a flood, people died, Noah built an ark and rescued the animals, ravens and doves acted as messengers, there was a rainbow and a mountain, and Noah got butt-naked drunk afterwards. 

Spoiler alert:  I'm about to mention elements of the movie that you wouldn't have been able to get from reading the Bible.

In addition to the Bible, "Noah" relied heavily on the ancient Book of Enoch for its content.  I enjoyed reading the Book of Enoch, with its supernatural creatures like Nephilim and Watchers...but Aronofsky even gets his Enochian elements mixed up, confuisng Wathchers, Nephilim, and Golem legends.  He has rock giants who help Noah build the ark, and who protect Noah and family from attackers.  These rock giants are actually angels who tried to help humanity--and because of this, God punished them, contorting their shape into beings of stone!

Which leads me to my biggest problem with the movie: its depiction of God.  Nowhere in the film does God speak to Noah.  Noah has visions and impressions where he feels he needs to build an ark.  Noah draws conclusions about God's will, and acts on them in disastrous ways.  But nowhere does God give explicit instructions to Noah.  The bibilical God had a relationship with the man and family that He saved.  In this movie, God is silent.  And if God could be characterized in any way, He is a god of wrath who punishes any violation--even to the point of cursing angels who just try to help humans.  

These fallen angels, by the way, are heroes in the movie.  The last time I checked, fallen angels are called demons--and they seek humanity's destruction rather than its salvation.  In the movie, the skin of Eden's serpent is a tool for blessing and healing, giving further implication that demonic forces are actually forces of good.  So it seems that Aronofsky has his roles reversed.  It's not surprising that an athiest would be mixed up about his impressions of God and demons.

Some other problems with "Noah" are:

  • In the Bible, Shem, Ham, and Japheth were all married.  In the movie, only Shem had a wife.
  • In the Bible, these three and their wives repopulated the earth.  In the movie, Shem and Ila have twin girls (so, how is this re-population supposed to work?)
  • In the Bible, Noah is righteous; in the movie Noah goes insane, and acts murderously---even toward his own family.  (And, actually, his family's quick forgiveness of him is unrealistic at the end.  It's as if he can brush his hair and straighten up his clothes, and the would-be murderer becomes a source of blessing again.)
  • In the movie, Noah becomes so outrageously nasty that when we get to the fight scene at the end, where Noah takes on his nemesis Tubal Cain, along with fighting against his own sons Shem and Ham, you find yourself actually hoping it's Noah who gets killed.  He's just that bad!
  • In the Bible, the Nephilim (giants who are descendants of the union between fallen angels and human women) are bad guys.  In the movie, the're heroes.
Now, I do have to give Aronofsky some credit for the following:
  • I'm glad Aronofsky included peripheral biblical characters like Methuselah and Tubal-Cain in the story.  They added richness to the story line--even if they were greatly exaggerated.
  • Biblically, Noah and his family were vegetarians.  Aronofsky continues this tradition, but he juxtaposes vegetarianism against the carnivorous Tubal-Cain and his people.  In other words, "Vegetarians good, meat-eaters bad."
  • I do think that Aronofsky hit the nail on the head when he contrasted the mechanized society of Tubal-Cain against the natural, environmentalist lifestyle of Noah and family.  There's a lot of animal-loving, tree-hugging going on my reading of Noah's story.
  • Honestly, I think that the post-flood account of Noah's drunkenness in the Bible is a pretty realistic approach to a man who's been through everything that Noah endured.  Who wouldn't have a little PTSD and substance abuse problem after something like that?  Aronofsky's depiction of that part of the tale wasn't too bad.
  • The circular rainbow was a nice touch, since circles are symbols of covenant.
I've heard lots of people saying, "Yeah, it was the most unbiblical biblical movie ever made, but at least it gets people talking about the Bible."

To that I ask, "But what does it have them saying about the Bible?"  Does it teach that the god of wrath employs murderous madmen and demons in order to save the world from Himself and His own destruction?  That demons are the good guys, and heroes are really evil?  That the biblical story in which the world was destroyed and reborn through the remarkable work of one family isn't exciting enough--that it needs to be "dressed up" into something it was never intended to be?  That would be like saying the horrifying real-life Battle of Thermopylae wasn't exciting enough--that it needed to be made into a graphic novel and later a blood-and-gore move.  Oh--wait--somebody did that too!  

So, while at one time I said that the pastor within me couldn't recommend it but Greg was pretty excited about it--I have to say that Greg wasn't too thrilled with it, either.  The movie was well-made, to be sure.  I'm a fan of fantasy movies, and wouldn't have had any problem with a similar story that changed the names and didn't represent itself as a biblical account.  But when athiest Aronofsky starts to tell Bible stories--watch out!  

I'm sure I'll get flooded with comments on this one--let me hear what you think.

Monday, April 21, 2014

“I Am the Resurrection”

 Every Easter, people flock to churches to hear the declaration that Christ is risen.  What a blessed hope we have, because we serve a risen Savior!  Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life (John 11.25).  He proved it on Easter when He escaped from the tomb and pressed His victory over death, hell, and the grave.  But the joy of Easter doesn't end with Jesus' resurrection--He promises us resurrection as well.  Colossians 1 and Revelation 1 call Jesus the "firstborn from the dead," while 1 Thessalonians 4 and Romans 15 teach that believers themselves will experience the resurrection.  So as you hear Easter sermons about the disciples discovering an empty tomb, just imagine the astonishment that somebody will feel one day when they visit your grave and find it empty!  Christians not only celebrate Jesus' resurrection on Easter, but anticipate our own.  Easter is about Jesus' resurrection, and it's about ours.

Yes, on Easter we can look back on that actual historical event of Jesus' resurrection and say, "Look what God did!"  And we can look forward to that last trumpet when believers will be resurrected and say, "Look what God will do!"  But today is today--and it's in this moment that we need hope in a God who can speak new life into our dead hearts and minds.  

Found in John chapter 11, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus to life is for all who need such resurrection in their own lives.  Though this resuscitation falls short of Jesus' glorious resurrection, it prefigures Jesus' return from the grave.  Lazarus was brought back bodily, with new breath flowing into once-dead lungs.  This was miraculous enough.  But Jesus' body was totally transformed--a body of light and power.  As I read the story of Lazarus, and as I feel my own need for revival, I ask the question of Ezekiel 37, "Can these bones live?"  I need the story of Lazarus, as a reminder that it's not just Jesus who gets raised to new life in the Bible.  This is for you and for me as well.

When my faith is stale, I need revival.  Lazarus had been dead for four days, and at this point his rotting body had begun to stink.  My faith-life can be the same way.  I might let my prayer time lapse for a day or two, without any dramatic effects.  But after four days, my spirit starts to stink.  Jesus, however, is the God of perfect timing. He waits until we realize our own stench before He arrives to bring new life.  He says, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I’m on My way to wake him up (v. 11 HCSB)."

We come to Jesus even as His friends did.  I bring my fears, my unbelief and limited human vision.  Like Martha, I am a mixture of faith and doubt.  “Lord, if You had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.  Yet even now I know that whatever You ask from God, God will give You (vv. 21-22 HCSB).”  But Jesus does not condemn my weakness.  Though my mourning grieves Him, He has compassion on me.  He reassures me with a word of truth.  He promises, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, even if he dies, will live.  Everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die — ever."  Then He asks, "Do you believe this (vv. 25-26 HCSB)?”  Your answer will determine the amount of work the Lord is able to do in your heart.

First, the stone must be removed.  Jesus could have removed the stone Himself, had He wanted to.  But God knows that if I am to experience revival in my life, I need to do some of the hard work.  I've got to ask God to show me the stones that I've placed over the entrance to my heart, that keep me from hearing His commanding voice of resurrection.  This can be sin or disobedience or a negative attitude, or any number of things.  Once I've found the stone in my heart, it's up to me to move it.  I can't ask Jesus to do this difficult work for me.  Jesus says, "Remove the stone (v. 39 HCSB)."  By doing this myself I participate in the renewal that Jesus brings.  The poor men who removed Lazarus' stone were forced to deal with the stench of the human condition.  Likewise when I roll back my own stones I'm forced to deal with my own stinking sin.  But then, once I've done my part, it's the Master's turn.  Only by His voice can there be new life.

In verse 40 (HCSB), Jesus says, "Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”  My belief is essential, if I'm going to see the revival that I need from God. The Lord is a gentleman, and doesn't force Himself on anybody.  He may show up to bring resurrection to my heart, but a lack of belief on my part will block God's blessing every time.  If I want to see God's glory manifsted, then I've got to have faith that He will do it.

Before the Lord does anything else, He prays.  “Father, I thank You that You heard Me.  I know that You always hear Me (vv. 41-42 HCSB)."  Central to our understanding of revival is the knowledge that God is our ever-present friend who always hears us.  There is no place where we are absent from God's presence (Psalm 139).  God always hears and sees us (Genesis 16).  When you seek revival, you seek a constant refreshing.  As Hagar needed a supernatural stream in the desert (Genesis 21), so you need God to quench your spiritual thirst.  And God always hears your cry in the desert.

When the stone was rolled away, Jesus called with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out (John 11:43 HCSB)!"  Why would he have to give such a command?  Was it Jesus' voice that awakened Lazarus from the dead?  Or, was it Jesus' prayer that awakened him, and Jesus spoke to the living man inside the tomb, commanding him to emerge?  When God brings renewal to our lives, often we say, "Thank you very much," but in reality we prefer to remain our tombs of depression or doubt or fear.  Jesus didn't resuscitate Lazarus so that he could live in the tomb.  He called Lazarus into the light of life.  He calls you too, saying, " I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life (John 8:12 HCSB).”

Just as Jesus commanded Lazarus into the light, He also told Lazarus' friends, "Loose him, and let him go (v. 44 HCSB)."  Jesus was the main actor in Lazarus' salvation, but Lazarus also played a part, following the Master's call into the light.  But once he had emerged, Jesus called the faithful to come and unbind their brother.  When revival comes, the entire faith community must respond in order to set free those who were once in darkness.  The resurrected life of faith is not an individual thing--it happens in partnership with other believers who obey Jesus' command to set one another free by His love.

This Easter season, I hope that you'll celebrate the new life of Christ--but I also hope you'll experience new life in Christ.  I pray that you'll put your faith in the once and future resurrection, but that you'll also claim the new life Jesus offers for today.  God calls the living to unbind the once-dead so they can walk freely.  I pray that God will use you in this way.  May this Easter see you standing before an empty tomb--the tomb of Jesus, which you can celebrate, and your own as well.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Worthy is the Lamb

When my wife and I were in studying at Virginia Commonwealth University, we had plenty of good friends.  We also had some strange ones.  One of our friends, a devout Christian, decided that in order to be truly fulfilled in his faith, he had to adopt all the Jewish practices of Jesus our Messiah.  So, Gentile though he was, he began wearing yarmulkes, phylacteries, and prayer shawls.  He kept the Sabbath from sundown on Friday til dusk on Saturday.  He observed all the Jewish feasts and festivals.  In fact, he probably followed the letter of the law more closely than the most orthodox of Jewish believers.
            When Passover came, he wanted to share this earliest of Jewish traditions with his eight-year-old son.  So he did as Hebrew law prescribed.  He raised a pet lamb from the time of its birth until Passover.  It was his plan to slaughter the lamb with his son, put the blood on the doorposts and lintel of his house, and then make a meal out of it.  It was an adorable little lamb, and I hated the thought of its eventual death—but what could I do?  Anyway, if it was going to die, I thought, at least it could be a witnessing opportunity.
            VCU’s inner city campus has very little green space.  My friend’s home was one notable exception.  Right in the middle of the university was an old mansion that was owned by the school—but the back yard and carriage house were rented to my friend, who made his residence in the upper level.  The lamb spent its young life frolicking in green grass beneath the shade of brownstone houses and tall academic buildings.  Only a chain link fence separated the lamb from all the students who loved to stop and admire its sweet beauty.  Seeing gathered crowds of students, I would approach the fence and call the lamb by name.  “Come here, Worthy,” I would call, and the little lamb would come.
            “What did you call him?” the students would ask.
            I would answer, “I called him by his name, Worthy.”
            “That’s a strange name,” they’d say.  “Why’d the owner name it that?”
            “I’m glad you asked,” I’d reply.  Then I’d share how Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice, whose shed blood rescues us from death more completely than sheep’s blood could save Jews who sought shelter in their homes that first Passover.  I’d tell them about John’s vision that we find recorded in Revelation 5.11-14:

11 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

            The students who heard my testimony thought Worthy’s name was fantastic, and I thought it was pretty wonderful that his name allowed me to tell them about Jesus.  What they didn’t’ find very wonderful was hearing my friend’s plans for the little lamb’s demise.  I suppose it was partly my fault what happened next—but I don’t really feel very guilty about it.  One day, my friend woke up to find his lamb liberated.  In my mind I can picture animal-loving students stealing the bleating creature in the middle of the night.  I imagine Worthy skipping happily through a grassy field at some no-kill shelter, or on a hippy farm.  Set free, he wouldn’t have to die to satisfy the demands of my friend’s faith.
            This, of course, destroys the analogy between Jesus and this little lamb.  While Worthy went free, Jesus went to the cross, shedding His blood so that we could be liberated from sin.  This selfless sacrifice is the reason that Jesus is worthy of worship.  Indeed it is His death that springs us free from the destruction that would be ours.  And so I thank God for the Lamb who was slain.  And I also thank God for the little lamb who wasn’t slain.  The next time you see a lamb I hope you’ll remember Worthy—and the Lamb who is worthy to receive all praise.

Friday, April 4, 2014

I Am the Light

When my wife and I were in college, we went on a mission trip to work with homeless people on the lower east side of Manhattan. We stayed in a six-storey building where the fifth floor was rented out by the local Baptist association.  When we needed kitchen facilities, we had to take the elevator down to the second floor.  Getting off the elevator, we found ourselves in darkness. We fumbled around in the dark, bumping into things in that unfamiliar place, until we found the light switch. And do you know what happened in that old, run-down New York City building when the lights came on?  Hundreds of huge New York cockroaches scattered! It looked like the floor was moving!  It made us forget about using the kitchen facilities at all!
Light changes everything.  And Jesus is the light.  That’s probably why the darkness-dwellers of His day didn’t like Him.  Like cockroaches, they scattered when He exposed their deeds.  They became angry when He made claims they couldn’t deny.  Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8.12 ESV).”  Jesus’ light shines in the darkness, exposing the unclean things in our lives.  It leads us to a point of decision.  It calls us to make a change.
Light was the first change in the universe.  In Genesis 1.3 (ESV), God said, “Let there be light!” And nothing’s been the same since then.  With His light He pushed back darkness—both as a physical reality and as a spiritual entity.  John 1.3-4 (ESV) says, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”  Life and light are interchangeable in Scripture—because Jesus gives us both.
Throughout the Bible, God has shown Himself through the medium of light.  He appeared to Moses in the burning bush.  He led Israel through the desert by a pillar of fire.  God’s shining glory filled the temple.  Within the temple, in the holy place, stood a golden lamp stand that was called The Light of the World.  When Jesus said, “I am the light of the world,” the people knew exactly what He meant.

Light guides you.  It helps you to see the truth.  It keeps you from stumbling.  It reveals error and sin, and brings you to a place of decision.  When the lights come on, everything changes.  The question is—when God’s light shines in your life, what are you going to do?  Are you going to continue on with what you were doing in the darkness, or will you call the heavenly Exterminator and get rid of your sinful infestations?  John 1.5 (ESV) gives us great news: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  The best news is that light always drives out the darkness, and never the other way around!  I pray that God will shine His light in your life.  I pray that He’ll reveal the hidden things that you need to see, so that you can deal with them.  And then I pray that you’ll make a decision to live in the light of His life.