October 7, 2012

But We Do See Jesus

Passage: Hebrews 2:8b-9

As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Last December (2011) The Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel reported the following story: “At first, getting shot by an assault rifle in an Orange Blossom Trail motel room seemed like a bad thing.  Now, Dan D’Amato says it likely saved his life. That’s because, were it not for the bullet wound, doctors may not have found the massive tumour that was festering in his lung. Mr. D’Amato, 45, says he views the shooting as a catalyst to change his life by shedding bad habits and improving his health.”

Does the fact that a bullet wound became the occasion for revealing a lung tumour make getting shot a good thing?  The Apostle Paul wrote that we should give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:17); he did not say we are to give thanks for all circumstances.  Nonetheless, I often hear Christians following a similar train of thought as Mr. D’Amato—trying to make sense of a bad thing by pointing to some good that emerged in the aftermath.  When something senseless happens we try to mitigate its senselessness; if only we can find some sort of rationale for its occurrence, no matter how tangential, it somehow makes the event not feel so bad.  Is this not a little like what we do when we express gratefulness because “it could have been worse”?

I do not want to make light of the gratitude we feel in the knowledge that the damage of some harm was mitigated.  Theologian Matthew Henry wrote a series of influential commentaries on the Bible.   On the occasion of being robbed he prayed, “I thank Thee first because I was never robbed before; second, because although they took my purse they did not take my life; third, although they took my all, it was not much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed and not I who robbed.”

The question I raise with you is why should we be thankful in the midst of harm at all?  Why should we choose thankfulness rather than bitterness?  Is Marxism correct that Christian faith is a kind of opiate used by people to dull the sharp edges of actuality?  Is the Christian’s thankfulness merely a whitewash to cover over the decay of human ills?

I invite you to reflect with me on the theme of thanksgiving; in particular, thanksgiving in the face of suffering.   The place we do that as Christians is through the prism of the cross of Jesus Christ; “but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death,” wrote the author of Hebrews.  The believer’s thanksgiving is rooted in the saving work of Christ in his life given for us.

1. One of the places in the Bible where we go to take up the subject of suffering is the book of Job.  We read today from its opening scene.  Job was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”  He became wealthy and influential such that “this man was the greatest of all the people in the east”.  He then experiences a series of devastating reversals on the loss of property, children, and health.  “In all this”, we are told, “Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.”

For a number of reasons that we haven’t time to explore today I think the book of Job is an older testament parable told for the very purpose of exploring this subject.  Like Jesus’ parables whose characters are made up the truth is in the point Jesus wishes to make.  When he told of a landowner he is not speaking of a particular landowner on such and such street.  So too the truth of a parable whether on the lips of Jesus or older testament author is not diminished in the telling of the story.

The story of Job explores and exposes many of our typical explanations for suffering.  One explanation that is promulgated by Job’s friends is that Job, in spite of his insistence to the contrary, has sinned and he is being punished.  The solution is to confess his guilt so this suffering will pass.  Do we not find ourselves reaching for this explanation when reversal strikes?  How quickly we wonder “what have I done wrong?”  Job in many respects responds from the same paradigm.  God punishes bad behaviour and rewards good behaviour.  I haven’t done anything wrong, Job insists, so God is being unfair—not giving him his right.

I once read the story of a Bosnian man—a Mr Lajic—who claims that his house has been hit six times by meteorites since 2007.  Experts at Belgrade University have confirmed that all the rocks he has produced are meteorites, but Mr. Lajic believes their trajectory is no accident, claiming “I am obviously being targeted by aliens.”  Is this not akin to the idea that God is picking on me?  In the opening of Job we read of a wager between God and Satan; the result is the same idea—that God has somehow singled out Job for “special” treatment and it’s not good.  Do you really believe that God takes Satan’s wager betting on the character of people’s lives?  Such and idea is certainly contrary to the prayer Jesus taught us to pray—“deliver us from the evil one”.  This is one of the reasons I think Job a parable—this opening wager between God and Satan is not in character with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The wager scene is not unlike many of the explanations we reach for, like “bad Karma”, for example.

The place Job brings us to is uttered in the last chapter of the book; our explanations of senseless suffering are exposed. “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”  Evil is inherently senseless and cannot be rationalized; no matter how gifted the intellect is can’t be “figured out”.  Job finds help not in what he understands but in encounter with God.  “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” Second-hand hearing about Jesus is categorically different from first-hand encounter with him.

The source of the believer’s thanksgiving is relationship with Jesus Christ not in being able to make sense of the suffering that we may face and have to bear.

2.  The limits of human understanding are one thing the scriptures expose; a second problem the scriptures expose is the hardness of the human heart.

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  Some Pharisees tested Jesus with this question. This question about divorce is no abstract ethical problem.  Both Mark and Matthew locate this incident in the “districts of Judea across the Jordan”.  That was where John had been baptizing.  That was where John had denounced Herod Antipas for taking his brother’s wife. Recall that that denouncement led to John’s arrest and death.  To ask the question Jesus this question was to invite him to incriminate himself.

A question about marriage can be as loaded a question today.   Jesus’ interlocutors remind him that Moses gave permission for divorce.  Yes, says Jesus, but that wasn’t how it was meant to be from the beginning.  Moses allowed this because of the hardness of your hearts, said our Lord.  This was a diffiuclt saying for his disciples to hear—did you really mean no divorce?  Jesus does not back away: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”  This is a hard saying for us today.

We must keep in mind the context of this story in relation to other occasions in Mark’s gospel where Jesus discusses this heart problem. Mark has earlier noted Jesus teaching: “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? ... It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come”. When we put these “heart” texts together then Jesus point becomes clear.  Recall that the essence of his message was that the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe.  Jesus is claiming that when God becomes king creation itself is renewed, so that the rule within the kingdom is the rule of what creation was meant to be.  And that includes lifelong, faithful monogamous marriage.  Jesus point is that when God becomes king, on earth as in heaven, he will provide a cure for hardness of heart.  The healing Jesus brings in a healing from the inside out.

Our problem is far deeper than proper adherence to a moral code.  The transformation of the human heart is the core on which God’s project of restoring turns.  Jesus’ teaching about marriage exposes the corruption of the human heart.  On these matters I have come to appreciate the counsel of a wise pastor who said to put our house in the best order we can and serve the Saviour with our lives.  Curing the hard heart is an ongoing project.

So what does this have to do with thanksgiving?  There is a tendency we have to turn Christian faith into moralism.  To treat Jesus’ teaching as a code for conduct rejecting the message that we have this heart problem imagining that we can do just fine if the rules are clear.  In Psalm 26 (today’s lectionary Psalm) the psalmist prays “I walk in my integrity: redeem me, and be gracious to me”.  If his integrity were enough why does he need to pray for redemption?”  The Psalmist knows what the cross of Jesus Christ declares—the heart problem is far worse that we imagine it to be.

The believer’s thanksgiving is grounded in the experience of encounter with Christ revealing to us that his power to save is far greater that we can conceive.  There is always more grace in God than sin in us. Michael Niren, a Toronto immigration lawyer, says that in his experience, new Canadians often embrace holidays like Thanksgiving with even more enthusiasm that those who have been here for generations. “Coming from where they come from, countries with political conflict, without free speech or rights of assembly,” says Mr. Niren, these people evince “an extraordinary level of gratefulness. They are truly thankful just to be here.”  I think there is a parable here for us; the believer’s thanksgiving is rooted in an appreciation because we know the bondage to sin from which we have been released.

3.  As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Here is the Christian story.  Not everything is fixed yet—we do not yet see everything in subjection to them (humans, i.e., creation as God intended).  But we do see Jesus... now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death.  What we can’t make sense of, the inherent senselessness of evil, what we cannot correct, the corruption of the human heart, is resolved at the cross of Christ.  He tasted death—meaning the experience of being lost to God—so that we might not know this death.

Here is the last point I want to underline with you.  The logic of the gospel is that we come to know God as redeemer then know him as creator and sustainer of life. Thankfulness to him as creator is rooted in a thankfulness born of being redeemed.  If just seeing creation were sufficient to illicit thankfulness to God why is humanity so profoundly unthankful?  Does that not indicate that we have a problem of the understanding and the heart?

The believer’s thanksgiving is rooted in the saving work of Christ; in his life given for us. “... but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”