Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Broken and Beautiful Thing

She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head (Mark 14:3).

By Tuesday Jesus needed a break. He found what he needed in the little village of Bethany.

A traditional chronology of the last week of Jesus’ life tells us that the days played out as follows: Sunday was the day Jesus entered Jerusalem, praises shouted, branches waved, cloaks spread out like a rug, expectations running high. That parade was soon forgotten. On Monday Jesus cleared the temple of money changers and animal vendors, quoting the prophet Jeremiah and chastising those who had turned God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers. Things were getting tense. By Tuesday Jesus needed a break from the noise and clamor of Jerusalem at Passover.

The respite Jesus needed was found at the home of a man known as Simon the Leper. We have no idea who this man was. His name never appears again in the pages of scripture. The simplest explanation was that Simon was a man who had suffered from leprosy until Jesus healed him. Now, well and whole and restored to his home in Bethany, he hosts a meal for Jesus.

While Jesus was reclining at the table “a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume” (14:3) Sound and scent were almost simultaneous, the shattered vessel releasing an aroma that quickly filled the room. And almost as quickly, the murmuring started.

The presenting issue was the waste of such a valuable and precious commodity. That’s what some of those present complained about. It isn’t clear if they were sharing the meal, involved in the intimacies of table fellowship with Jesus and others, or if they were religiously curious spectators. Gossip mongers making nice until they could find something to talk about.

The unspoken issue, the deeper issue, might have been the woman herself. A female had made her way to the place where Jesus reclined – highly unusual in that cultural setting. As Luke tells the story, the woman had a reputation that should have caused a truly righteous man to recoil. That Jesus didn’t flinch caused tongues to wag.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus said as they unleashed their harsh rebukes at her. “She has done a beautiful thing to me” (14:6). Beautiful indeed.

All of the beauty in this Holy Week drama is seen in broken things and broken people. The meal is hosted by a man who still lives with the moniker of his former life: Simon the Leper. While possibly used affectionately by neighbors who marveled at his healing, the nickname evoked his broken self. A man once diseased and feared and rejected now made well, hosting a meal for the one who touched his shredded flesh and made him whole again.

There is beauty in the broken jar, a delicate rounded vessel with a long neck, holding expensive perfume. Once a vessel like that was broken, everything in it would flow out, completely emptied, nothing held back. And that act of devotion came from a woman who very likely knew her own brokenness.

The people who missed entirely the beautiful that happened in that room in Bethany were the competent people, the smart people who knew the value of a dollar. They were superficially devout people who spoke loudly abut the poor but were strangers to mercy. They might not have been hostile to Jesus, but they didn’t quite get him. Those words about anointing and burial sailed right by them (14:8). They missed the beautiful thing.

Holy Week won’t mean much to those who avoid their own brokenness and despise it in others. That’s true for the simple reason that Holy Week is taking us to a very broken place – the place of crucifixion and death. Apart from that Resurrection is thin and Easter becomes little more than “cute.” Settle for cute Easter, and you’ve missed the truly beautiful thing.

But seeing the beauty means getting close to the broken things and broken ones: a leper, a questionable woman, a shattered jar – all broken. And then there’s Jesus taking the image to himself. “This is my body . . . broken.”

He has done a beautiful thing for us. Beautiful indeed.

We work hard, O God, at concealing the broken pieces of our lives. We mask them with our charisma and the trappings of a successful life. Teach us to see the beauty in those broken places of our own lives – and also in the brokenness of our neighbor. Save us from the kind of competence that distances us from you and the beautiful thing you want to do in us through Jesus our Lord. Amen. .

Monday, March 29, 2010


. . . the whole crowd of disciples began to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen (Luke 19:37).

Few places are harder to live than in the gap between what we expect and what we get, that barren stretch that separates what we think we deserve and what our lives have actually delivered to us. We can barely tolerate being there and we’ll do anything to find a way out.

Sometimes that means we adjust our expectations. The pain of disappointment is alleviated by lowering our sights. But with every downward adjustment hope is diminished, and eventually we find we’ve stopped dreaming altogether.

Another strategy moves in the opposite direction. Sometimes the tension between what we expect and what we get pushes us to do whatever we need to do to secure our own happiness. We lash out at whoever or whatever gets in the way of what should have been.

Of course, we often ricochet back and forth between both of those responses: resignation or anger, passive acceptance or violent force. What we find most difficult is what the Psalmist urged. “Wait on the Lord” (Psalm 27:14).

Holy Week is bracketed by shouting crowds. On the front end of Holy Week we remember the day Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem. Luke tells us that the crowd that welcomed him that day “praised God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen” (19:37). Their shouts were grounded in past events, but those past events had shaped their expectations of what would soon be.

The miracle-working Jesus was their King. The very manner of his approach to Jerusalem, mounted on a colt, spoke to his identity as the one of whom Zechariah had prophesied (Zech. 9:9). These shouts carried the weight of expectations shaped by the hope of what a warrior king would do.

By the time we get to the end of the week those expectations are thoroughly shattered. This celebrated King has failed to deliver and now the crowds are shouting something different. “Hosanna” has morphed to “Crucify.” Holy Week is the story of what it means to walk with Jesus in the midst of unmet expectations.

We find ourselves in good company. This kind of disappointment isn’t unique to the godless or the wicked. Even Jesus’ closest followers struggled during those final days of his life. And they failed. Some of them failed big: Judas’ disappointment with Jesus, and then with himself, was so deep that he took his own life. Peter caved to his fear and denied Jesus. Eventually, by Friday afternoon, all of the disciples have scattered.

And as for us – plenty of us live every day with unmet expectations. Some of them are minor: a driver in front of you failed to use his turn signal; you assumed your spouse had made the bank deposit when you wrote the check, or the kitchen completely messed up your order when you happened to be on a tight schedule.

Of course, some of our expectations go to the core of who we are. A single adult approaches another birthday marking yet another decade without the dreamed of mate and the dreamed of children. The long-awaited retirement brings a deadening boredom and feelings of uselessness. The new purchase becomes a draining burden rather than the status symbol it was supposed to be. The promotion proves to be a wrong fit for your best skills. In short, things are not working out like you had hoped they would.

That gap between what we expected and what we actually experience is the place where faith wanes. During this week – or for that matter during any week – when the tension between what you hoped for and what you’ve received feel unbearable, hear the invitation of Jesus. Stay with him. Listen to his words. Watch what he’s doing. Don’t get swept up the noisy demands and expectations of the culture. God is at work. Such hardly seems to be the case, and you may not see it now. But God is at work.

To all who feel the ache of something that hasn’t worked out according to plan, welcome to Jerusalem.

Lord Jesus, keep us close to you in the final days of this Lenten journey. Our expectations so easily become demands. We stop praying and start giving direction. Keep us attentive to what you are doing, especially when life unfolds in ways we didn’t expect or ask for. Teach us trust, even in the shadow of the cross. Amen.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Finding Your Way Back

The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came . . . and anoint Elisha. . . ” (1 Kings 19:15).

My daughter lost her jacket at church last Wednesday night. It just disappeared, grew legs and walked off. We searched for while, but it had been a long day, we were both tired and it was time to go home. Part of me wanted to be hard-nosed about it, dig in and let her know we weren’t going anywhere until she found that jacket. Another part of me – the part that won – just wanted to go home.

“Maybe it’ll turn up, Anna.” That’s what I said out loud to her. Inside my head I was thinking, “We’ll never see that jacket again.” I knew I’d be back the next day and I’d look again.

Thursday morning: A little more time, much less tired. I did what you always do when you’ve lost something. I tried to retrace her steps. Her first stop on Wednesday afternoon was Marnie’s office. That had been thoroughly searched and we knew it wasn’t there. The second stop was bell choir. We hadn’t thought of that on Wednesday night. The story has a simple but happy ending. I walked up the room where she has hand bells and there it was. It hadn’t been hard to find. It was simply a matter of going back to where she had been.

“Go back the way you came.” This was God’s word to Elijah. Sometimes God says the same thing to us.

Last week we spent several days with Elijah on Mount Horeb, the mountain Elijah had fled to in his fear and despair. A cave makes a great hiding place, but it makes a lousy home. The good news is that the story of Elijah does not end on Mount Horeb.

“Go back the way you came.”

There was still more for Elijah to do. God hadn’t finished with him, but God’s purposes for Elijah couldn’t be fulfilled in a cave. Elijah would have to crawl out of the hole he had found in which to stoke his anxieties and self-pity. He would have to retrace his steps and find his calling once again.

“Go back the way you came.”

That sounds simple but for many nothing could be harder. For one thing the steps that took you to where you are today might have been very painful. The cave of self-pity or self-doubt was never a place you thought you’d be, and you’re not entirely sure how you got there. Going back and revisiting those steps may be the last thing you want to do. You’d just as soon not walk through that desert again.

But as hard as it might be, the promise that gives strength for the journey is that you can find your way back. The cave is not the end of your story. You can find your way back to a place of usefulness and purpose. You can find your way back to a clear direction. You can find your way back to being someone who has something to offer that shapes another person’s life.

Elijah made his way back through to the place where he found Elisha, the one who would carry on what Elijah had started. That’s the story we’ll spend time with this week. But for today, what would it mean for you to “Go back the way you came?” What steps do you need to retrace and what might you find once you do that?

Gracious God, let every step we take today be taken with you. If there are steps that need to be retraced, make us bold to walk that way that we might once again discover who you’ve called us to be and what you’ve called us to do in this world. In all that we do, we pray that you would make our steps firm and keep faithful as we seek to walk as Jesus walked. We pray this n his name. Amen.

Friday, March 05, 2010

He Hid His Face

And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it he pulled his cloak over his face . . . (1 Kings 19:13).

Time for a reality check. That voice that Elijah heard on Mount Horeb – we’ve got it all wrong.

Our Bible translations don’t help us much here. We are told that on Mount Horeb Elijah heard a “still small voice.” That’s the King James Version, the familiar and time tested phrase that captures the nature of the divine utterance. The “still” and the “small” is described in stark contrast to the bluster of wind and fire and earthquake, all of which were void of God’s voice and presence.

Other translations take the “still small voice” and make it a “gentle whisper” (NIV). One translation says that it was “the sound of sheer silence” (NRSV). The New English Bible says that Elijah heard a “low murmuring sound” while the Jerusalem Bible calls it “the sound of a gentle breeze.”

A still small voice. That sounds nice doesn’t it? Soothing. God’s voice caressing us, lulling us into a peaceful state of mind.

But whatever this voice was – breeze, whisper, sheer silence – it caused Elijah to hide his face. That’s not the behavior of one soothed and lulled. That’s the action of one awed, convicted, fearful.

I recall being outdoors on a work in site in the middle of an Oklahoma August. From time to time a gentle breeze would disturb the shade-less heat. Your response is to lift your face, to catch as much of it as you can for as long as it lasts. That’s not what Elijah did. He covered his face when God spoke. The voice may have indeed been a whispering voice, breeze-like in tone and volume, but it evoked something deep in Elijah. It made him hide his face.

Mark Buchanan rightly states that

There is a dreadfulness about God. This is seldom said. We often cherish a pious delusion about ourselves: that we truly desire God and that all that’s lacking to pursue deepest intimacy with Him is adequate skill, sufficient knowledge, proper motivation. But is this so? Down in our bones, mingled with our blood, silent and potent as instinct, is a dread of God. This is primal fear. The voice of God, the presence of God, holds not comfort but terror. (Your God is Too Safe, 22-23).

Long before whispering to Elijah, God held another mountain top conversation with Moses. When Moses came down from the mountain the Israelites kept their distance from him. They told him, “speak to us yourself and we will listen, but do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Exodus 20:18-19). The voice of God would be too much.

So back to the “still small voice.” Two things are required of us: Be careful and be courageous.

Be careful in your listening: This voice is not easily heard and it will not be found in the loud and obvious blustering of our culture or even of our churches. Loud and showy religion is one of Satan’s closest allies in keeping people deaf to God. Be careful in your listening.

And be courageous: When God speaks you may be undone. As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). The voice of God could change your life. It could change your plans. If you’re trying to hear God speak be sure you’re ready for what that might mean for your life. God’s words are never given to us as a mere lullaby.

What is truly amazing is the God wills to speak to us. The real question, as always, is whether we are willing to listen.

We will not take your voice lightly, O God. Help us to listen carefully, discerning your words and your will in the middle of our busy and noisy lives. And make us bold as we listen for what the Spirit says, ready to be changed and ready to respond in obedience. Amen.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Lightweight Deity

Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done . . . Elijah was afraid and ran for his life (1 Kings 19:1-5).

We’re waiting on a growth spurt. Could be any time now. I’ve made use of biblical language in assuring my son that he’ll shoot up any day – “like a thief I the night . . . you do not know the day or the hour.” But it will come.

In the meantime we let him eat just about anything he wants. I’m not sure that’s such a great idea. It sure won’t hasten the “thief in the night” thing, but maybe it’ll get more meat on the bones. Imagine my surprise when my son announced that he needed to abstain from a meal before a wrestling meet. He explained that he was only a half-pound shy of having to move up to the next weight class and he didn’t want to do that.

Weight classes make sense in wrestling. They keep things fair and they keep things safe. That’s obvious I guess, but I’m new to the whole wrestling subculture. Whereas I’m typically encouraging him to bulk up, I wasn’t sure I wanted him in the next weight class. It means bigger opponents. In theory he’s bigger too – but it didn’t look that way to me.

Strength and size are important in wrestling. And they also matter in our walk with God.

On Mount Carmel it was clear that Elijah served a heavyweight God. The prophet had called for a contest between himself and the prophets of the fertility god Baal. Elijah had gone to the mat on this one, challenging the people. “How long will you waver between two opinions. If the Lord is God follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21).

Short version of the story: Baal was pinned in seconds by Elijah’s God. Baal had nothing to offer in response to the loud and frantic prayers of his prophets, more than four hundred of them pleading hour after hour for a show of strength. Their prayers met with Elijah’s taunts and silent skies.

Then Elijah prayed. A short request, simple and clear in it purpose: send fire so that all may know that you, O Lord, are God (1 Kings 18:37-38). And fire fell from heaven.

The shocking thing about this story is its aftermath. Having defeated Baal’s prophets, Elijah is a wanted man, hunted by Queen Jezebel. In the face of her threats, God suddenly became small, a lightweight deity. The pagan Queen became large, a heavyweight ruler. Fear gripped Elijah’s heart and he ran for his life.

How is it that God so easily and often becomes small in our eyes?

Elijah’s name means “The Lord is God.” We say we believe it. But the slightest opposition from some pretender to power in our lives can send us into a tailspin of anxiety. Our God is suddenly shrunken and weak – and something else stands large and powerful in our minds and claims lordship over our hearts.

The person making hiring decisions becomes strong and powerful against our lightweight deity. The stock market and drama of Wall Street looms large as God pales in the background, swallowed up in the noise of trading. A supervisor becomes the heavyweight, far too much for our scrawny God. God gets small, even when we know better, even when we’ve lived through something where we’ve seen fire fall from heaven.

In 1961 J. B. Phillps wrote a book titled “Your God is too Small.” If such a thing could be written in 1961, how much more so in 2010? As this year begins, what weight class have you placed God in? And what would it take for God to once again become a heavyweight deity – Powerful, Sovereign, Creator God.

Forgive us for seeing you as small, O God, while other things stand large and formidable in our minds and in our hearts. We would recover our sense of your power today, living with the strength that comes from serving a great and mighty God who is at the same time faithful in caring for us. Grant us courage for all that we face and a vision of your presence with us. Amen.