are we afraid of joy?: Luke 24

read Luke 24.  Thomas Jefferson used a razor to make up his own version of the New Testament; he sliced out everything he considered a miracle.  Why did Jefferson go to all that trouble? Why did he want to exorcise the miracles from the Bible?

When we ask about miracles, the real question we are asking is: is God real?  Because one thing is clear: people who say God doesn’t “interfere” in our lives, or that miracles don’t happen, or who take the “supernatural” out of the Bible, are trying to take God out.  God, by definition, is supernatural.  God’s hand, by definition, works miracles.  God promises to help us with our lives the moment we ask – and if He is real, He helps us all the time, even when we don’t ask.  So really the question is: why do we have trouble believing in God?  Is it just that we are so stuffed full of pride we don’t want to have to bend the knee to anyone?  Or is there another more wonderful reason?

In the last chapter of Luke, Jesus Christ returns from the dead.  Needless to say, Jefferson omitted this chapter from his version.  Luke 24 is full of humans who don’t believe Jesus has come back from the dead. The only person who is not surprised is Jesus.  In one of the most perfect examples of dramatic irony, Cleopas says to Jesus:  “You must be the only person in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard about all the things that have happened there the last few days.”

One can picture Jesus having trouble keeping a straight face when He asks: “What things?”

Cleopas proceeds to tell Jesus about the crucifixion of Jesus.

This is the kind of dramatic irony in which we engage all the time when we tell God what He should do for us – instead of asking Him to open our eyes to see what He is already doing in the world.  Perhaps one of the problems is that we are looking for the wrong kind of miracle.  Perhaps we are looking for the wrong God.

Jesus meets the disciples’ sorrow, disbelief and doubt with another miracle.  “You foolish people,” Jesus tells the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  “You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures.  Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” Jesus asks.  Luke writes that then “Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”  v. 27.  The disciples exclaim later that their hearts “burned within them” when Jesus spoke.

The same thing happens when the risen Jesus next appears to the eleven remaining disciples and those with him.  They all have trouble believing their eyes, and Jesus says: “When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Again, after asking why they don’t believe, “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.”  v. 45.

These two miracles – that twice Jesus opened the minds of humans to “understand the Bible” – are as spectacular as the miracle of God coming back to life after being crucified.  Why?  Because understanding the Bible is the same as being raised from the dead.  Something supernatural happens when God opens our mind to understand the Bible – God enters us.  God explains His ways, and His ways are not our ways.

Why do we have trouble letting God in to show us the truth about Himself?  The Amplified Bible translation says that in Luke 24 the disciples have trouble believing that it’s Jesus standing before them, come back from the dead, even when He holds out his nail-pierced hands, because of their “joy”.

In other words, they have trouble believing something because their joy would be so enormous they fear it might swallow them up.

Is that our problem?  Do we resist God because the hint of joy terrifies us?  Are we afraid to believe the promises of the Bible because they’re so good we fear we might lose ourselves in joy?  Does complete and utter joy terrify us?

I think so.  I think we all start to grasp, just for a minute, that God is real.  We sense that everything He says is true.  We see the clouds billowing like mountains above us, and we know a divine Artist made them.  We consider the possibility that we can trust this Artist.  We feel, just a little, how much He loves us – and then we block our minds to it.  We “suppress the truth,” as Paul wrote in Romans 1.  Why?  Because we’re terrified of joy.  We’re scared of losing ourselves.

What we don’t realize is that losing ourselves to the One who made and loves us, is the only way to have true peace.  Giving ourselves to the One who gave everything to us is the only way to find ourselves.  Surrendering our lives to the one who surrendered himself on the cross is the only way to find complete and perfect fulfillment.  That’s what Jefferson missed when he took a razor to the Bible.  He missed the joy.

The good news is that God knows this about us.  He made us, after all.  Maybe that’s why He lets us experience Him in little pieces.  He doesn’t force us.  Sometimes, He even keeps us from recognizing Him as He did to the disciples on the road to Emmaus – for reasons of His own, but whatever they are, they are loving reasons.  He appears to us in the breaking of the bread – and then disappears – and appears again.  I don’t know why, but this is the dance of Love.

We all know about that dance.  Perhaps the reason that we respond to those stories of the wallflower chosen by the most handsome guy at the high school dance, is that we are all, deep down, a wallflower.  We’re all sidelined by fear, afraid of joy, unable to break free of our obsessions, anxieties and ambitions on our own.  So Love Himself comes to each of us, holds out his hand, and says: “will you dance with me?”

Like the girl no one will dance with, we’re afraid it’s a joke.  We’re afraid that Love will laugh at us.  But God means it. All we have to do is look at the cross to know we can trust Him.  It’s as if Love gave everything He owned to buy a ticket to the dance, just so he can ask us to dance with HIm.  That’s what the cross is about.  That’s the miracle of how much we are loved.  That’s the God we can’t even imagine existing.  We’re looking for a stern God who is angry with us.  But what we find is a Loving God who has already forgiven us.

If we stretch out our hands toward that God, and open our minds to the incredible, terrifying, wonderful, joyful idea that God actually loves us, just the way we are, we discover His miracles happening all over the place.  The miracles are like fireworks on the like Fourth of July – sparking in our kitchens, in the office, on the street, in our cars, on sports fields, as we order from a harried waiter, as we connect with people we never even noticed before.  The miracles start when our hearts start to burn within us as they did for the disciples who listened to Jesus, and we feel the still small voice of God asking us to react with Love when all we want to do is be angry.  We offer grace when we want to pound someone into the sidewalk.  God melts us from within, and the miracles spread without.  All we have to do is open our hearts to Joy – and we discover Joy has already opened His heart completely and wholeheartedly to us.  Joy didn’t hold back.  So why should we?

posted by Caroline Coleman in on March 14, 2012

do we know what we’re doing?: Luke 23

read Luke 23.  When I was young, in a fit of rage I threw a heavy garden metal stake straight at one of my lovely handsome nice athletic brothers.  I was furious at him.  I don’t even remember why.  He says to write that I “split his forehead from his eyebrow to his hair.”  By the grace of God, it hit him just above the eye and left only the tiniest of scars.

But that incident got dredged up at every wedding, every birthday, and every public speech.  It wouldn’t go away.  I didn’t know why.  Then one day, about ten years ago, I was sitting with that brother and his family at a wooden table gouged with initials at the skating rink where we’d grown up playing hockey.  And it suddenly hit me – as if out of nowhere – what I’d done.  I said to him, “you know what?  I am so sorry I threw that stake at you.  There is nothing you could have done that justified me doing that.  Nothing.  And I don’t think I was ever even sorry about it until now.”  My brother stuffed another french fry in his mouth, and mumbled, “oh, forget it, Caroline.”

And he’s never mentioned it again.

What happened?  What happened was that I had not been sorry, not one bit, up until that moment ten years ago.  It never occurred to me to be sorry.  And that was why the incident got dredged up – because it needed an apology.  By truly being sorry, the incident was finally put to rest.

But what else was going on there?  Why had I never been sorry?

I don’t know, but I think it has something to do with the Holy Spirit.  I think there is a sense in which we don’t really know what we’re doing until God reveals it to us.  I like to think that what happened was that one day, ten years ago, the Holy Spirit whispered truth to me – that what I had done was terribly wrong – and said it in such love, that I was able to hear it.

 In 1968, Johnny Cash performed Folsom Prison Blues in Folsom Prison and sang these words:  “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.”  Then Cash goes on to sing: “When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry.”

The genius of the song lies in Cash’s ability to capture both truths – depravity and remorse.  Cash has said he tried to get at truth when he wrote the Reno line: “I sat with my pen in my hand, trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that’s what came to mind.”  The prisoners’ cheering to the Reno line was supposedly added post-production – but who cares.  People love the cheering.  The cheering is part of what has made the song so famous.

So why did the narrator of Johnny Cash’s song cry when he heard the train coming?  Was it really remorse?  Or was it self-pity?  It’s hard to tell if the singer is really sorry – and that, too, is part of the song’s genius.  He’s sorry he hasn’t seen the sunshine.  He’s sorry he’s not in the fancy dining car drinking coffee and smoking big cigars.  But there’s a hint of more in the sound of the train whistle itself.  The whistle is like the mourning of the dove, that touches something inside of us.  The train whistle suggests that the narrator is sorry not just that he didn’t listen to his mother when she told him not to play with guns – but that he must have broken his mother’s heart.

Like all great artists, the way Cash performs the song adds to the pathos.  If you watch the video linked above (where he’s performing in San Quentin), his lips curl when he sings the Reno line.  But when he gets to the part where he admits he hangs his head and cries, his voice goes low.  It’s not the uptick of teenage girls, it’s the deep passion of a man who knows he is paying the price for his depravity.  It’s the passion of a man who might, just might, be sorry for what he’s done.

So why, just after Jesus was crucified, did Jesus ask God in Luke 23 to “forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”?  Is that true?  Do we really not know what we’re doing?  And who is the “they” Jesus was talking about here?

If you’ve read the Bible, you will know that it was not “the Jews” who crucified Christ – it was all of us.  The “they” is “us”.  Whether we shoot a man just to watch him die, or we throw a metal stake at a brother in a fit of rage, we are all hammering nails into God’s hands.  That, I think, is one of the reasons Jesus said we don’t know what we’re doing.  We have no idea how bad our sin really is.  We have no idea how deeply it grieves our Father.  We have no idea of the price Jesus had to pay for the evil in our hearts. We have no idea of the tears we are ripping in our own souls.

This brings us to the other puzzling part of Luke 23.  Why is Jesus silent in the face of his accusers?  They are telling lies about him.  They are shouting lies, in fact.  Scripture says that the shouting prevailed over the silence.  So why doesn’t God defend himself?  It doesn’t make any sense.  But there, in the thing that seems to make the least sense to us, lies the stunning truth about grace.  When the crowds yelled those accusations at Christ – they were condemning themselves.  Judgment screamed, while Love stayed silent.  Judgment cried out, “he deserves to die,” while Love let the truth sink in that the person who deserves to die is each of us.  We are all Barrabas – the “murderer” set free because an innocent man takes our  place.

Are we really that bad?  Yes.  But knowing this can move us not to self-hatred but to gratitude.  There is self-hatred all over this chapter.  It’s evident in the ranting of the crowd.  They are raving about themselves, about their own sin.  The good news is that another strain runs through this chapter, just as it does through Fulsom Prison Blues.  There are three humans who “get it” here.  The Roman Centurion, there to oversee the crucifixion (and so beautifully dramatized in the novel The Robe), says in wonder: “Surely this man was the Son of God.” One of the robber being crucified alongside Jesus is saved right there on the cross, as he cries out the truth that saves us all: “I deserve to die, but this man has done nothing wrong.  Jesus remember me.”  And Joseph of Arimathea, did not agree with what the others had done, and did the little that he could; he paid for a tomb for Christ’s body.

What was different about these three people?  While the crowd ranted; while Jesus’ friends stayed “at a distance”; these three stepped closer and looked.  These three hold out hope for us all.  If we do that, if we take the time to step closer and look at the cross, we find out the truth.

The whistle train blows for our sin – and yet God let the train run Jesus over instead.  The train whistle brings tears that pierce us, because if we ask God to show us what we’ve done, we discover that our behavior breaks His heart.  When sorrow, true sorrow pierces us, we, too, are crucified, because our pride suffers, our false sense of ourselves as perfect has to die.  But this kind of death has to happen in order to raise each of us to new life.

And that new life is one of truth.  It’s a life where God can finally show us the truth about what we’ve done, and where we can finally apologize to the people we’ve hurt, and finally be reconciled to them – assuming they are kind enough to forgive us.  Letting God show us what we’re really doing hurts, but it softens our hearts.  It causes us to cry.  It melts us.  And in so doing, it enables us to live in community.  We are all prisoners, until Love sets us free.  We are all singing the mournful blues in our heart, until God gives us a new song.  We are all hurling objects at each other, until we discover that our Father loves us so much, he took the sharpened point of all those objects in his own chest.  We can trust God, because He knew exactly what He was doing – and He did it for us.

posted by Caroline Coleman in on March 4, 2012