Monday, April 30, 2018

Change Your World # 2 - Blessed are the Poor

            As the weather warms up, many of our school students (and teachers, too!) have spring fever.  It’s hard to stay focused on what you’re learning when you look out the window and everything’s so beautiful that you just want to be outside.  Seniors in high school have the double-whammy of two diseases—spring fever and senioritis.  Senioritis is when it’s your last year of school, and you just don’t care anymore.  All you can think about is graduation.  And when you get to graduation, the valedictorian is up front telling you all about how you can go out there and change your world—but all you’re thinking about is summer vacation.  You’re listening to the sage advice of your top schoolmate, and all you can think is, “Yeah, whatever—the beach is waiting!” 

Bible scholars suggest that Jesus’ disciples were mostly about the same age as high school seniors, so you can bet that it wasn’t until years later that they really appreciated Jesus’ words when he told them how they could change their world.  I think teenagers and young adults today get a bad reputation for not knowing what they want to do with their lives.  The truth is, Jesus’ disciples didn’t know what they wanted to do, either.  So instead of taking up the family business, which was generally expected of everyone, they decided to attach themselves to a wandering rabbi and become professional students.  I’m sure that Jesus knew they wouldn’t appreciate his lessons until much later, so he tried to make them as pithy and memorable as he could.  The Beatitudes are the core of his teaching about how Jesus’ followers could change their world.

Jesus begins with “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs (Matthew 5:3).”[i]  Many translations say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but this is pretty hard to understand—I think the New Living Translation does a good job explaining what Jesus means.  You are blessed if you’re poor and understand your need for God.

This is a pretty hard concept for Americans to understand, because we have so much.  Could Jesus possibly have meant that you’re blessed if you’re poor?  Maybe he just meant that you’re blessed if you realize that you’re spiritually in need of God.  That sounds good, right?  But, just in case we’re confused, Luke 6 gives us a parallel version of the Beatitudes where Jesus simply says, “God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.”  Plus, all through the gospels, Jesus pronounces blessings on the poor and woes upon the rich.  No—Jesus literally means that God blesses the people who don’t have much in this world.

            Why is this?  Well—some were born into poverty, and never had much.  Others lost what they had, through no fault of their own.  Maybe it was taken from them, or maybe circumstances like huge medical bills caused them to lose their fortune.  Still others might have brought about their own poor condition through a series of bad decisions.  Or some few people like Saint Francis of Assisi may have taken what Jesus said literally, about selling what they had and giving to the poor.  Or maybe they never had much but chose a life of service to others, over the acquisition of wealth.  One way or another, there are a lot of people in the world who don’t have much.  In fact, the number of poor people far outweigh the number of wealthy in the world.  According to the Washington Post:

To be among the wealthiest half of the world last year, an adult needed to own only $3,210 in net assets (minus debts), according to the data. To be in the top 10 percent, a person needed to have only $68,800 in wealth. To be in the top percentile, the threshold climbed to $760,000, according to Credit Suisse.

According to the Federal Reserve, the median American family had $81,000 in net worth in 2013.[ii]

By those standards, where does that put you, personally, compared to the world population?  Jesus’ disciples were among the world’s poorest people at the time.  Certainly, their status as homeless students of an itinerant teacher made them even poorer.  Jesus was speaking directly to poor people, proclaiming that God hasn’t forgotten them.  In fact, God promises that they will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.  Why is this?  Why do poor people get this beatitude, or blessing, while Jesus warns the wealthy time and time again?

Because when you’re rich, you trust your money and your stuff, but when you’re poor, all you’ve got is God.  When you’re poor, you pray more.  You rely on God more, because you don’t know where your next meal or car repair is going to come from.  For some of us, the worst thing that ever happened to our spirituality is when we started making a better paycheck.  We were closer to God when we didn’t have our retirement funds or inheritances or stocks to fall back on.  So in the Beatitudes, Jesus has something to say to those who struggle with money and those who don’t.

To those who are poor (if that’s you, listen up), Jesus says, “You don’t know it, but you may just have it better than the rich people around you—because you’ve got the real treasure.  You’ve got Me!” 

To those who are rich (those with ears to hear, let them hear), Jesus says, “Good and faithful servants take what they have and sow it into the lives of others, so the Kingdom will grow.  Maybe your reliance on wealth has drowned out the sound of My voice.  Maybe you need to give some of it to the poor around you who don’t know where their next meal or car repair is coming from.  Then you can help my little ones up, while uncluttering your spirit so you can know Me more.”

Of course, I realize that some of you are like kids (and teachers) with spring fever, and haven’t heard a word of this.  Or, you’re like twelfth-graders with senioritis, and you’ve heard, but you quit caring long ago.  But I have the hope, just like Jesus had the hope, just like the valedictorian has the hope, that after some time has passed these words may be remembered: “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”  Those who have the least will inherit the most.  The words of the Teacher turn your expectations upside down, calling you to radical faith that will change your world.

[i] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.
[ii] Swanson, Ana.  “You might be among the world’s richest people and not realize it.”  January 21, 2016.  March 19, 2018.

Monday, April 23, 2018

"Change Your World"

             Many people don’t know this about me, but I’m really an introvert.  A lot of folks think that’s odd, because pastors are always among people, whether in homes or hospitals or in church.  Often, we’re in huge crowds where we interact with loads of people all at once.  But I’m an introvert who’s had to learn to function as an extrovert.  Extroverts get jazzed up from being around large groups of people, while introverts have to recharge when they’re alone.  In fact, an introvert doesn’t get ready for a party—they gather strength for a party.[i]  Then later, they recover from a party.  But if you’re at a party and you’re talking to an introvert, you can tell he likes you if he’s looking at your shoes instead of his own.[ii]  The other day somebody asked me, “What are your plans for this weekend?”  I got all excited and said, “Nothing—absolutely nothing.”  That’s when you know you’re an introvert.

            I think Jesus was an introvert.  Yes, he was always followed by crowds who wanted him to teach them, heal them, take care of them.  But he was also always sneaking away from the crowds and going off by himself to recharge.  One of the funniest scriptures about Jesus is Matthew 6:1-2[iii]: “One day as he saw the crowds gathering, Jesus went up on the mountainside and sat down. His disciples gathered around him, and he began to teach them [emphasis mine].”  In other words, what we often call the Sermon on the Mount wasn’t Jesus preaching to the crowds at all—but a little bit of private teaching time that Jesus had with the disciples, when the crowds got too big to handle.  When you think of it, the Beatitudes are far too deep a subject for the general populace to get anyway—it was meant for the insiders, those who were disciples already.  Jesus knew that the crowds often didn’t listen, but he wanted to give his disciples a clue as to how to change their world.

            So we have this little gem that we call the Beatitudes.  You may have heard some clever preacher call them the “Be-Attitudes,” because these attitudes help us to be all that God made us to be.  (That’s brilliant—I wish I’d come up with it.)  If Christians would just live by the Beatitudes, we’d all do an amazing job at becoming like Jesus—which is the point of Jesus’ message to his disciples.  This is the beginning of a series on the eight key attitudes of a Christian—but today, I simply want to get a bird’s eye view.  Matthew 5:3-10 says:

God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.
God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.
God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.
God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.
God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

            Here’s what Jesus is saying—in life, you get what you focus on.  When you realize your need for God, you get God.  When you’re honest about your need for comfort, you get comfort.  When you’re down-to-earth, you inherit the earth.  When you focus on justice, you can accomplish your goals of equity for all.  When you’re merciful, you get mercy back.  When you work for peace, you’ll be honored by the people who will later benefit from that peace.  When you lose everything for Jesus’ sake, you gain everything in return.  Jesus is saying that you tend to get what you give the most attention to.  If you focus on pain, you experience more pain.  If you focus on how bad the world is, the world just seems worse.  But if you focus on blessing, you get more blessing.  In the words of the great philosopher Qui Gon Jinn, “Your focus determines your reality.”

            When the crowds pressed in, Jesus knew that this truth was too much for most of them, but he told this secret to his followers.  If you change your attitude, you can change the world.  First, you can change the world by shifting your focus off the problem and onto the solution. Change the way it looks to you, and you change your response.

There was a very wealthy man who was bothered by severe eye pain. He consulted many physicians and was being treated by several. He did not stop consulting a galaxy of medical experts; he consumed heavy loads of drugs and underwent hundreds of injections. But the ache persisted with more vigour than before.
At last, a monk who was supposed to be an expert in treating such patients was called for by the suffering man. The monk understood his problem and said that for some time he should concentrate only on green colours and not to let his eyes fall on any other colours. It was a strange prescription, but he was desperate and decided to try it.
The millionaire got together a group of painters and purchased barrels of green paint and directed that every object his eye was likely to fall to be painted green just as the monk had directed. When the monk came to visit him after few days, the millionaire's servants ran with buckets of green paint and poured it on him since he was in red dress, lest their master see any other colour and his eye ache would come back.
Hearing this, the monk laughed and said "If only you had purchased a pair of green spectacles, worth just a few dollars, you could have saved these walls and trees and pots and all other articles and also could have saved a large share of his fortune. You cannot paint the world green."
Let us change our vision and the world will appear accordingly.[iv]

            So, we change our world in two ways.  First, we shift our attitude and change the way we see the world.  This in turn changes our response to the world.  Like the person who annoys you—you can’t control him, but you can control the way you see him, and your response to him.  Second, we change the world, not by trying to paint the world and make it the way we want it.  But by treating it with compassion, justice, mercy, and peace—by adopting the attitudes of Jesus, the world begins to change itself in response to this love.  It happens little by little, and not all at once.  But eventually you will see light dawn, when you “think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth (Colossians 3:2).”

[iii] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.
[iv] Reynolds, Randy.  “The Other Side of the Wall.”  March 13, 2018.

Monday, April 16, 2018

"Death and Taxes"

            Benjamin Franklin said, “In this world, nothing is certain, except death and taxes.”  But death doesn’t get worse every year.  Since this is tax season, I thought I’d tell you a story:

An old preacher was dying. He sent a message for his IRS agent and his Lawyer (both church members) to come to his home. When they arrived, they were ushered up to his bedroom. As they entered the room, the preacher held out his hands and motioned for them to sit on each side of the bed. The preacher grasped their hands, sighed contentedly, smiled and stared at the ceiling. For a time, no one said anything.
Both the IRS agent and Lawyer were touched and flattered that the old preacher would ask them to be with him during his final moment. They were also puzzled because the preacher had never given any indication that he particularly liked either one of them.
Finally, the Lawyer asked, "Preacher, why did you ask the two of us to come?"
The old preacher mustered up some strength, then said weakly, "Jesus died between two thieves, and that's how I want to go, too."[i]

            In Jesus’ time, lawyers and tax men were thought of just as poorly.  Gospel writers portray lawyers as always having tricks up their sleeves, trying to pull a fast one on Jesus.  And they depict tax collectors like Zacchaeus and Matthew, along with Matthew’s publican friends, as sinners particularly in need of God’s grace.  Because Israelites hated paying taxes to Rome, they found Caesar’s IRS agents particularly hard to stomach.  I can imagine that when the Pharisees and Herodians (notorious enemies who shared a common disgust with Jesus) came to Jesus with a tax question, they were casting sidelong glances in Matthew’s direction.  Mark 12:14-17 says:

They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” 
But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” 
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

            Now, I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of sermons declaring how Jesus perplexed those who would ensnare him, explaining that we owe taxes and honor to our government, and worship and obedience to God.  While all that is true, I want to simply point out a difference between what we owe the government, and what we owe God.  On the one hand, sometimes Caesar demands what we can’t pay, or what is difficult to pay.  For example, if a person told the tax collector they couldn’t pay, the brute squad would invade their home, confiscate their property, and maybe throw the delinquent into prison.  (Not unlike today, in some ways.)  But God, on the other hand, never asks for more than you can pay.  In fact, if God asks something from you, God usually provides the payment. 

            In Matthew 17:24-27, we read about another incident regarding taxes.  This time, however, it wasn’t the imperial tax, but the temple tax that needed to be paid.

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
“Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”
“From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
            Unlike Caesar’s tax, which could only be paid by the blood, sweat, and tears of the person who owed it, Jesus demonstrated that when God demands something of people, God often pays the price Himself.  Imagine—before this need ever arose, God arranged for a fish to swallow that coin.  Or created a fish with a coin inside, just for this purpose.  However God did it, it was God who paid the tax demanded by the temple.  When Peter had nothing to pay with, God paid the price.

            God did this for Adam and Eve, providing the first sacrifice that offered its skin to cover their nakedness and sin.  God did this for Abraham, when God asked the prophet to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22).  God did not ultimately require human blood; Instead, God Himself provided the sacrifice.  A ram in the thicket, caught by his horns, became the gift upon Abraham’s altar.  But this story simply foreshadows Jesus’ offering of Himself for the sin of the world.  God provided Himself as a sacrifice, to pay a tax we could never pay.  When Jesus hung on the cross between two thieves, he identified with our sin.  As death and taxes are certain, Jesus’ death paid our price.  Just as the fish’s mouth provided the treasure, so from Jesus’ mouth came the blessing of forgiveness that saved the world.

            Have you ever owed a debt that you couldn’t pay?  Maybe this year at tax time, you especially feel that way.  When it comes to your spiritual debt, God pays the price for you.  God doesn’t simply allow an extension—He offers a grace period that extends to eternity.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

"Rocky Road"

                Holocaust Remembrance Day is this coming Thursday—a time to remember the victims of Hitler’s reign of terror.  One CBS report[i] introduces Ben Stern, a 95-year-old Jewish survivor of Auschwitz who needs a caretaker and roommate when his wife enters a nursing home.  When 31-years-old Lea Heitfeld moved in, she tells him that not only is she of German descent, but her grandparents were active Nazis.  In the interview, Heitfeld recalls, “The first thing he said is, 'Lea, I want you to know, you're third generation. You're not responsible for what happened.'"  Stern asserts, “Lea is not guilty about what her grandparents did.”  Though Stern’s seven brothers, one sister, and both parents were killed in concentration camps, he releases Heitfeld from the burden of blame.  You see, because Stern has been down such a rocky road in life, he realizes the need to give people grace.  This astounding forgiveness so inspires Heitfeld that now she’s getting a master’s degree in Jewish studies.  This story is just one example of the amazing power of grace.

            Grace is that remarkable ability to forgive, even when a person doesn’t deserve it.  It is the unmerited favor of God to humanity.  Grace can also be a gift we give to others, when we have experienced that kind of unlimited and unconditional pardon.  But it wasn’t always this way.  Under the old covenant of law, people had a good (but lesser) arrangement with God.  It wasn’t until the time of Christ that God made a new deal by providing a better way of grace.

            You see, in the beginning of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh, God is depicted as “a jealous God…punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:5-6).”[ii]  God reiterates this in Exodus 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9-10.  While I do not believe these scriptures mean God actively punishes descendants for the sins of their ancestors, it does indicate that the decisions we make can result in blessings or suffering for those who come after us.  God certainly warns of life’s consequences, including addictions, diseases, and other curses that come from the sins of previous generations.

            In Ezekiel 18, God spells out forgiveness under the old covenant of law, bringing clarification to the misunderstanding that God may actively punish descendants for the sake of their ancestors.  God points out that this covenant (old to us, but new at the time) is better than people’s assumptions.  You see, people used to quote a proverb saying, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge (1:2).” The whole rest of the chapter is spent in an explanation that God punishes the guilty for their own sins and doesn’t punish people for either the sins of their children or their parents.  This chapter embodies the grace experienced between Ben Stern and Lea Heitfeld.  It’s also a good example of the grace that we ought to give one another, when we deal with racism and ethnic history in or own context. 

            Under the old covenant of law, this good (but not best) way that God dealt with people had to do with their own behavior, whether it was righteous or wicked.  Ezekiel 18:26-28 says:

When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life.  Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die.
            In other words, God’s forgiveness was dependent on that person’s behavior.  If the person’s behavior was bad, repentance from sin earned forgiveness.  But when Jesus came, God offered a better approach to forgiveness—the way of grace.  In Jesus, the requirements of the law were met because God knew we could never meet them.  No more would humankind have to earn forgiveness by demonstrating good behavior.  In fact, the new covenant recognizes that no behavior can be good enough. Romans 3:10 says, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.”  Romans 3:23 says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  So, knowing that we were incapable of effecting our own redemption, God did it for us—before we even repented.

On the cross, Jesus cried, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).”  Jesus didn’t declare forgiveness for any Roman who would put down his hammer and nail, or pardon for any prostitute who would just stop sinning.  No—Jesus forgave everyone, everywhere, for all time, before any of them repented of their sin.  Jesus didn’t die for the godly.  Romans 5:6 says, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”  Verse 8 says that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”[iii]  You see, Jesus didn’t die for us because we’d repented.  He died for us so that we’d repent.

Yes, under the new covenant, God’s forgiveness is not contingent on our change of behavior.  Our change of heart and conduct is because we’ve been forgiven.  Receiving God’s unconditional love and grace makes all the difference.  Now, there are some people who will argue with that.  They’ll say, “You’re claiming that the law is over and done with, and should be thrown out!”  No, I’m not.  They’ll say, “You’re claiming the law is no good anymore.”  No, I’m not.  I’m saying that the law was an essential ingredient for making grace, but now that we have grace, it’s so much better than the law.

Take, for example, chocolate ice cream.  Mmm—there’s nothing better than chocolate ice cream…except Rocky Road.  Rocky Road couldn’t exist without chocolate ice cream.  Chocolate ice cream is essential for making Rocky Road.  Chocolate ice cream doesn’t cease to exist, just because you add nuts and marshmallows.  It still exists, and is part of Rocky Road, all the way through.  But next to Rocky Road, chocolate ice cream just seems to lack something.  If chocolate ice cream is the law, then Rocky Road is grace.  Grace couldn’t exist without the law—but grace exists because the law just didn’t satisfy.  In the same way, we needed the law as an ingredient to make grace.  But now that we have grace, the law by itself just isn’t enough.

I’ve known a lot of people who’ve told me, “One day, when I’m ready to clean myself up, I’ll become a Christian.”  That’s like saying, “When I’m ready to repent, I’ll get forgiven.”  It doesn’t work that way anymore.  It’s forgiveness that causes you to repent.  It’s salvation that cleans you up.  It’s grace that sets you free.  So today I pray you’ll receive that grace, share that grace, and be free indeed!

[i] Tracey, Ben.  “Holocaust survivor finds unlikely roommate in granddaughter of Nazis.”  April 29, 2017.  February 19, 2018.
[ii] Scripture quotations taken from the NRSV.
[iii] Emphasis mine

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

"The Easter Laugh"

            Last year Spring, I went to Canada to see my sweetheart and to meet her family for the first time.  Her teenage daughter Chelsea decided she’d play a practical joke on me with a Kinder Surprise egg.[i]  These are chocolate eggs that are hollow on the inside and contain a prize of some kind.  She carefully split the egg along the seam, removing the toy and replacing it with a cracked egg.  Then she carefully resealed the chocolate shell.  I didn’t know about any of this when she first met me and gave me the treat as a welcome gift.  You see, she knew we don’t have Kinder Eggs in the States, so I wouldn’t know what to expect.  “You just take a big bite of it,” she said, imagining the yolk and white squirting or oozing all over me when I bit into it.  But something told me to be suspicious, and I happened to be holding it at such an angle that the slimy insides collected on the back end.  I bit into the front end of the egg, and nothing happened.  Chelsea laughed and said that I’d ruined her plans, explaining that there was a raw egg inside.  “Hmmm...” I said, “What should I do with this?”  I chased her around the house with it.  Just when I caught up to her and could have dumped it on her, I stopped, tipped the candy to my mouth, and slurped down the raw egg.  It just about made her sick.  She wanted to say, “The yolk’s on you,” but the joke was on her!  Something tells me that April Fool’s Day is going to be big in that family.

            According to Time, April Fool’s Day has several ancient roots.  One traditions says it comes from the “Greco-Roman festival called Hilaria, which was celebrated on March 25. The festival honored Cybele, an ancient Greek Mother of Gods, and its celebrations included parades, masquerades and jokes to celebrate the first day after the vernal equinox.”[ii]  This was traditionally considered New Year’s Day.  But “In the 16th century, the Christian world switched from the Julian calendar, which was introduced by Julius Caesar, to the Gregorian calendar named for Pope Gregory XIII. The change moved the New Year up to January 1. Some historians find another origin for April Fools in that switch, as those still using the Julian calendar were fooled by the new date.”  Alongside these traditions comes the idea that God Himself is a pretty good practical joker.  In his blog, “Go”, Glen Schaeffer writes:

Rev. Weiser observes in The Easter Book that, “In the early days of Christianity, all of Easter Week was one continuous feast… a week of intense happiness and spiritual joy.” Easter Monday is known as the “Day of Joy and Laughter,” “Bright Monday,” “White Monday,” and “Emmaus Day.”)   The Joyful Noiseletter notes, “The custom was rooted in the musings of early church theologians (like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom) that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. “Risus paschalis – the Easter laugh,” the early theologians called it.” More specifically, some theologians suggest the festival was inspired by the famous Easter midnight sermon of John Chrysostom (344-407 A.D.), who described a vision of Christ confronting the devil and laughing at him.  Quoted on The Joyful Noiseletter website, one pastor noted, “God has a sense of humor. God has the last laugh and the last word. That word is Resurrection in Jesus Christ! He is Risen!”[iii]

Psalm 68:18[iv] says, “Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive.”  Ephesians 4:8 quotes this, saying that he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive.”  The idea is that the first “captivity” was Satan, who had us bound up in sin and death.  Then, when Jesus rose from the grave, He pulled a switch on the devil, tying him up in his own chains and leading captivity captive.  In his blog post, “Mouse Trap,” Richard Beck writes:

St. Augustine once compared the cross of Jesus to a mousetrap--crux muscipula diaboli.  "The cross is the devil's mousetrap."  The idea goes like this as unpacked by various church fathers. From the beginning of Jesus's ministry Satan tries to thwart Jesus. But failing to get Jesus to fall into sin Satan ultimately decides to kill Jesus, to just get rid of the guy. (Recall that Satan enters Judas's heart suggesting that the death of Jesus is Satan's idea and plan.) Satan, we know, eventually succeeds and Jesus is killed. Thus, Satan, who possesses the keys to Death and Hades, now "owns" Jesus and has him locked up in Hades.
Satan has taken the cheese. 
The mouse trap snaps.
Because what Satan doesn't know is that Jesus isn't just another human being. Jesus is God Incarnate. In this Jesus is sort of like a Trojan Horse. So when Satan takes Jesus to Hades--Surprise!--he finds that the enemy has entered the gates. There in hell Jesus takes the keys of Death and Hades from Satan, binds him, and then releases the captives. In Christian theology this is called the Harrowing of Hell.
…The mousetrap story suggests that evil, in its exercise of power, will overreach. God, by contrast, by allowing evil to overreach, saves us non-violently, with powerlessness. God is passive, allowing Satan to kill, allowing Satan to use power and violence to accomplish the purposes of evil. On the surface, God becomes the mouse, the dead thing caught in the trap, the one hanging on the cross. God absorbs violence and overcomes it with love. What looks like a dead mouse to the eyes of the world--Jesus hanging on the cross--is actually the power and Kingdom of God.[v]

I wonder—are there situations in your life right now where you feel like you’re on the cross?  Have you felt defeated, manipulated, tricked—like the joke’s on you?  The resurrection reminds us that God turns the tables on the devil.  God gets the last laugh.  God shows that weakness is strength, and tragedy turns to triumph.  It’s been said, “Sometimes you have to play the fool to fool the fool that thinks they’re fooling you.”  This is what God did—and he beat the devil at his own game.  Just as God resurrected Jesus, God can raise you up and lead captivity captive for you.  And you can trust this—no foolin’.

[ii] Ross, Ashley.  “No Kidding: We Have No Idea How April Fools' Day Started.”  March 31, 2016.  February 15, 2018.
[iii] Schaeffer, Glenn.  “The Easter Laugh (Risus paschalis) — Observe Holy Humour Sunday.”
[iv] Scripture quotations taken from the KJV.
[v] Beck, Richard.  “Mousetrap.”  Blog: “Experimental Theology.”  May 14, 2002.  February 15, 2018.

"Another Day in Paradise"

            We just had the first day of Spring—and as the weather begins to warm up, my mind turns to flip flops, barbecues, beaches, and Buffet songs—specifically “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”  When you think of “paradise,” what comes to mind?  For some people, it’s someplace like Hawaii, where it’s warm and sunny all the time.  For others, you might imagine the old homeplace, with all your family gathered around.  But what did Jesus have in mind when He used the word?  When Jesus hung on the cross, he was mocked and taunted by the whole crowd, including one of the thieves crucified alongside Him.  Then, Jesus looked at the other thief who believed and said something remarkable: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:42).”  When Jesus said this, what did He mean?

            The Greek word Paradeisō comes from a more ancient Persian word meaning enclosure, garden, park.[i] This word, which has many language roots, comes from one word meaning “around” and another meaning “to build a wall.”[ii]  Often, the word refers to the Garden of Eden, hinting that when God expelled Adam and Eve from paradise, there was a wall to keep them out.  You may remember the famous Masaccio painting, “Expulsion from Paradise,” where Adam and Eve are driven from the garden by an angel.  It shows him covering his face, while she covers her breasts with one hand and pubic area with the other.  This, of course, reminds me of that old question of which body part you’d cover if you were skinny dipping and somebody stole your clothes.  But what it really does, is point out who’s truly guilty (the shame-faced man with exposed genitals), and who has to pay the price (the woman who hides in humiliation).  History has too often blamed women, forgetting that the fall was because Adam communicated poorly with his wife.  At any rate, both were cast out of paradise, and today humanity waits to be restored.

            In his books, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Theologian and author John Milton wrote about this humanity’s loss of innocence, and regaining God’s glory through Christ.  In Revelation 2:7, Jesus says, “To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”  Then, Revelation 21:1-22:4 talks about a new heaven and earth, and paradise restored. 

When is this paradise restored?  It’s not something we have to wait for.  It’s not “another day in paradise.”  Jesus promised the thief on the cross, “THIS DAY you will be with me in paradise.”  What was lost in the garden is restored at the cross.  Jesus’ atoning death set everything right.  Paradise can be gained today. 

First, this means that today is the day of decision—not another day, but today.  The thief on the cross had no time to lose, and the truth is you don’t know how much time you have left either.  So if you haven’t done so yet, now is the time to make a decision for Christ.

Second, it means that if you do decide for the Lord, today is the day your salvation experience begins.  You might have a long or a short life left, but you can look back on today as a spiritual birthday—when the old self died and a new person was reborn.

Third, it means that when you die, you can be assured that immediately, you will be in paradise with God.  2 Corinthians 5:8 says that to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord.  Like the thief on the cross, you won’t have to wait—but will immediately see Jesus.

This reminds me of the story of the man who died and went to heaven.  As St. Peter gave a tour of paradise, he saw this and that kind of Christian all mingled together, singing songs of worship.  Then he saw a wall, and from the other side of the wall he heard other voices raised in worship.  “Who’s that in there?” the man asked Peter.  The saint replied, “Oh, that’s the (fill in your denomination)…they think they’re the only ones here!”

            For just a moment, I want to return to the original meaning of the word paradise, and the idea that it’s surrounded by a wall.  Revelation 21 talks about bejeweled walls, twelve pearly gates, and a yellow brick road running in and out.  Verses 24-26 say, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.”  This means that even though this paradise is surrounded by a wall, the gates are for letting people in, not keeping people out.  That’s what God wants—not an exclusive heaven for the select few, but an open invitation for the whole world. 

            Of course, one problem with paradise is that many Christians make their religion all about excluding the ones we judge as “sinners,” rather than including everybody.  We build our own walled enclosure, keeping the world out and ourselves in, thinking that makes us holy.  But it doesn’t make us holy—it makes us jerks.  Instead, we need to be like God, and open the gates to paradise for anybody who strolls through.

            Another problem with paradise is that many Christians spend too much time thinking about “another day in paradise,” as if “the sweet by and by” is something we have to wait for.  But Jesus said, “this day.”  If we wait for another day, then we fail to bring God and humanity together every day on the street.  Phil Collins’ song, Another Day in Paradise, talks about this problem.

She calls out to the man on the street
'Sir, can you help me?
It's cold and I've nowhere to sleep,
Is there somewhere you can tell me?'
He walks on, doesn't look back
He pretends he can't hear her
Starts to whistle as he crosses the street
Seems embarrassed to be there
Oh think twice, it's another day for you and me in paradise
Oh think twice, 'cause it's just another day for you,
You and me in paradise, think about it
She calls out to the man on the street
He can see she's been crying
She's got blisters on the soles of her feet
She can't walk but she's trying
Oh Lord, is there nothing more anybody can do
Oh Lord, there must be something you can say
You can tell from the lines on her face
You can see that she's been there
Probably been moved on from every place
Cause she didn't fit in there
Oh think twice, 'cause another day for you and me in paradise
Oh think twice, it's just another day for you,
You and me in paradise, just think about it, think about it[iii]

            When Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” He was effectively saying, “I see your need, and I’m going to take care of you today.”  We need to do the same thing, when we see those in need around us.  Don’t wait, and don’t keep them out of your walled enclosure.  Be like Jesus—open your gates to let them in, and do it today.

[iii] Collins, Phil.  “Another Day in Paradise.”  Album: “…But Seriously.”  1989.