Copyright © 2013 by Ralph Couey
We are entering that time of year that we most often associate with joy. Thanksgiving is upon us, and in a month, Christmas and then New Years. This is a time in which friends and co-workers have parties, we begin that mad rush of cleaning, shopping, cooking, baking, and decorating, all in preparation for that much-anticipated gathering of family. It is a happy, if frenetic period. It is mainly the reason why January is so hard to endure.
At the core of this whole event is, of course, the celebration of the birth of Jesus. The giving of presents honors the supreme gift given by God of his only begotten son. The bright, colorful lights that brighten the lengthening nights remind us that the coming of Jesus was a light unto the world. Even the gathering of families and the sharing of that love helps us to remember the depth of the love God has for us.
And yet, the story of the manger is only the first step of the journey Christ took that led to that cross on the hill, and eventually the miracle of the resurrection. It is important for us to remember that it was those awful hours on that cross that gave meaning to the celebration of his birth. Jesus was sent here to take upon himself the sins of man, therefore the only reason for his birth was so that he would journey to the cross.
Yeah, I know. Buzz kill. This is not a season in which we want to dwell on dark thoughts, on negative events. We don’t want anything to disturb this holiday euphoria of ours. The bad stuff can wait until April, when we can share time for the crucifixion story with Tax Day on April 15th.
There is a building tension in the recounting of the time between the manger and the cross. We don’t know a lot of details about Jesus as a child, although there are a few highlights, like his teaching in the temple. We really don’t begin to know him until that day he shows up with John the Baptist. From that point, we know about how he gathered his disciples, and how he taught the masses, challenged his enemies, and performed miracles. We follow along as he came to cross-purposes with the Sanhedrin, and how they plotted to take his life. We see his torment in the Garden of Gethsemane as he accepted his fate, and his isolation as he saw that even his devoted disciples couldn’t stay awake to share the vigil of those final hours.
His trial, the terrible lashing, the crown of thorns, and that long, staggering journey up to Golgotha carrying the cross, the instrument of his eventual death. The terrible pain of the nails as they were driven into his hands and feet, and the beginning of his final agony as the cross was set upright. We see that even in that terrible pain, he found the compassion within to absolve the simple thieves that hung beside him.
After he dies, we watch as Mary and others take him to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. And then, we rejoice in the great miracle as Jesus arises from his tomb, meets with his disciples, and then ascends into Heaven.
Critics and cynics over the centuries have pointed to the scant historical mentions of Jesus. There are passing references to him in histories written by Josephus and Tacitus, but other than that, he is nearly invisible in contemporary accounts. Historians point out that while Jesus’ impact on the world through the spread of Christianity has been huge, his influence during his life was narrow in scope. Certainly, the Sanhedrin would not include in their writings a figure who challenged their power and authority. And the Roman Empire was at the pinnacle of power at that time, covering an enormous span of territory. Against that, the acts of one Nazarene carpenter would shrink to irrelevance.
But the real truth, the true power of Jesus is in the fact that despite humble beginnings, and a continuously uphill battle against the religious and political power structure, the religion of Christianity, the power and blessing of the gospel grew to encompass the entire world.
I am continually amazed at the power of this story, even today. We see people converted to Jesus from every continent, from every political system, even from every other religion, or no religion at all. Yes, perhaps in his day he may have been a mere footnote to contemporary historians. But since then, he has become the entire book.
We shouldn’t allow the euphoria of this coming season to gloss over the painful events which happens next. We are on a disciples’ path. While we would like it to be smooth and free of risk, it is in fact an uphill climb over a road that is strewn with rocks and potholes. We will encounter doubters and cynics who will challenge our faith and belief. We will come across those who have stumbled and as a result want to give up on their faith. We will speak to those who believe that because God does not use his power to instantly end suffering, that he does not exist; those who don’t understand that we have our agency, and thus a choice of allowing that suffering to continue. On top of all that, we also will deal with our own weaknesses, our own crises of faith, our own sadness and despair.
This journey of ours, like the journey of Christ, was never meant to be easy. It was never meant to be without pain and doubt. Because it is through those challenges that we learn and grow. Steel can only reach its ideal form through the application of intense heat which burns out the impurities. Without that process, the steel is weak, and fails under stress. We are also like that steel, because it is through a trial by fire that we are purified and made strong, so that when we are tested and stressed, we will not fail.
What is the cost of discipleship? When we were baptized, what exactly did we commit to? Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said a number of things that bear repeating here.
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance,
baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.”
I think most of us have someone in our lives who always seems to be asking for help. At first, because of the love we have for them, we give freely. But they keep asking, over and over and over again. We begin to see that even though we have bailed them out, they refuse to change their attitudes and behaviors that continually get them back into trouble. We get frustrated. We even get angry. And yet, we are still compelled to reach out. The strong among us will reach a point when we plant our feet and say, “No more.” In Missouri, we had a saying: “If a fella is bound and determined to shoot hisself in the foot, don’t get in the way of the bullet.” Now think about God’s relationship with us. How many of the trials we face are of our own making? When we were cleansed in the waters of baptism, we took upon ourselves the responsibility of true repentance; to go our way and sin no more. We promised that we would confess our sins freely and accept responsibility for our actions. And we told God that we would serve him, his church, and his people, even when it was inconvenient.
“Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating.
By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil
and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”
It is so easy to be judgmental. It is so easy to assume that we are right and everyone else is wrong. That our behavior is above reproach, and everyone else is at fault. We judge others through pride and arrogance and it is through that prism that we fail to extend to others the same grace we assume is ours to receive freely. The blessings of the Gospel are free to all. There are no exclusive memberships here.
“When all is said and done, the life of faith is nothing if not an unending struggle
of the spirit with every available weapon against the flesh.”
The journey of Christ to the cross, as I mentioned earlier, was not a smooth and painless walk. It is the same with us. If we expect that just because we proclaim Jesus that it’s all downhill from here, then we got into the wrong line. The life of a disciple is a difficult one. We will always be challenged. We will always be tested. We will always be despised and denigrated by those who think themselves “above” religion. Choosing to do the right thing will not always be easy, or make us popular. And yet, in the midst of our struggles, we will discover that discipleship does provide us the most important thing: The strength to persevere.
“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow,
and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.
It is costly because it costs a man his life,
and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.
It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.
Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'Ye were bought at a price',
and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.
Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life,
but delivered him up for us.”
On November 19th, a ceremony was held in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. There, in a hilltop cemetery, thousands gathered to commemorate the 150th anniversary of what has been hailed as the greatest Presidential speech, and one of the finest orations in human history, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The speech was short, only 270 words lasting about two and a half minutes. But it spoke volumes of what the sacrifice of blood in those three days of July 1863 meant to the nation. In part, President Lincoln said,
"We have come to dedicate a portion of that field,
as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives
that this nation might live.
It is altogether fitting and proper that we do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here,
have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,
but it can never forget what they did here.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated
to the great task remaining before us—
that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave
the last full measure of devotion—
that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
Isn’t that also the call of discipleship? We have also come to this place to dedicate our lives so that the blessings of Jesus will live. Yet we cannot consecrate this place. It was consecrated by the life, suffering, and death of a man who struggled against sin, and we must never forget what he did there. It is for us, the disciples to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us. That from that honored cross, we take increased devotion to that cause for which the Son of God gave the last full measure of devotion.
"Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend –
it must transcend all comprehension.
Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own comprehension.
Bewilderment is the true comprehension.
Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge.
In the movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” Dr. Jones, Sr. is shot and mortally wounded in the cave where the Holy Grail is secreted. In order to save his father, Indiana must survive the three challenges to reach the cup and the healing waters. The first two challenges involve penitence (kneeling to avoid being decapitated), and recognizing the name of God (stepping on tiles spelling out the Latin spelling of Jehovah). It is the last challenge that has always stayed with me. Indy stands at the precipice of an apparently bottomless chasm. He must cross over in order to reach his goal. The clue reads, “The path of God. Only in the leap from the Lion’s head will he prove his worth.” Indy realizes that he must muster all of his faith and step out into the chasm, trusting that a bridge will be there. In fact, it is there, a narrow path that is a clever optical illusion. That is, in fact, what faith is; being able to step into someplace you cannot see, to undertake beliefs that can never be scientifically proven. But most importantly, knowing that none of us will ever be able to see the destination or the route to which discipleship will take us. And yet, we must have the strength…and the faith…to take the journey.
“Christian love draws no distinction between one enemy and another,
except that the more bitter our enemy's hatred, the greater his need of love.
Be his enmity political or religious,
he has nothing to expect from a follower of Jesus but unqualified love.
In such love there is not inner discord between the private person and official capacity. In both we are disciples of Christ, or we are not Christians at all.”
Everywhere we look today the air is filled with the smog of conflict. Here in DC, we focus on the political and ideological wars being fought, that threaten to tear our nation asunder. But throughout the world, there are wars between nations, conflicts between factions. Even our personal relationships are prone to conflict. But discipleship demands of us that we should love our enemies, without condition or qualification. It is our duty to offer love, not hate or anger. I think there is nothing harder for a human to do. There are people out there who just instinctively know how to push our buttons, the ones that trigger our own personal volcano. In those moments, it is the easiest thing in the world to give in to that anger, open the vent and let the lava spew. But if we are to call ourselves disciples, we must act as disciples, which means responding with love, not hate. As Bonhoeffer says, “we are either disciples of Christ, or we are not Christians at all.” We must make the choice.
Jesus is the Chosen One of God. And yet, on the cross he died a sinner, but not because of anything he did. He took the sins of us all with him, and his suffering was not only of a physical nature, but a spirit tormented by all the sins committed by humans before and since. That was his cost, the price he had to pay. It was that willing sacrifice that gives meaning to the birth, to the life of that innocent child lying in a manger.
Let us here highly resolve that He did not die in vain.