“One Like Us:” Discovering God’s True Love for Us

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Text: Hebrews 2

I.

Did anyone catch the season finale of the reality show, The Bachelor, last week?

I’ll fill you in on the premise: Basically, a bachelor spends two months with two dozen women contestants to find the love of his life.  During the show, he eliminates a woman until one lucky lady is left whom he wants to marry.

Ever since I heard about the show, I thought it preposterous that people would actually sign up for this show, much less buy into the premise.  This past season was the 13th season, which means that, apparently, there are many people who are eager to get on to find the love of their life.

This doesn’t include the other long-running companion show, The Bachelorette, just as ridiculous to watch. Ridiculous yes, but very addictive at times.

My wife and I watched only a few episodes this past season, and it seemed to have changed very little from previous years:  Women go around telling the cameras of how much they love the Bachelor.   She loves him, and she loves him, and she loves him.  Gosh, there’s a lot of love on that show.

Then there’s the bachelor:  He doesn’t want to hurt this one’s feelings, or break that one’s heart.  But its inevitable.

Our favorite moments of the show happen when a contestant just loves the bachelor–she wants to spend the rest of her life  with him, she wants to have his babies.  Then, as soon as she is eliminated and is driving home in the limousine, she changes her tune:  The Bachelor is the biggest jerk in the world.  He’ll never find a family because he’s rotten.  How could he be such an animal?

Well, this past finale was a real whopper.  Mr. Always-Right apparently found Miss Probably Right, and the big point of contention was that Mr. Always-Right had yet to say the big three words:  “I love you.”

Now granted, we know Miss Probably-Right loves him.  She wants to be with him for the rest of her life.  Why wouldn’t he tell her the same?  And where was that engagement ring he was supposed to offer her?

So the host spent nearly 10 minutes of the finale trying to get Mr. Always-Right to say that he loved her. The studio audience scoffed; but, Kristina and I actually thought he was being pretty smart.  I mean, here is this guy who really likes this girl, and he doesn’t want to say the big “L” word because he wants to take things slow.

I don’t know why the show’s host didn’t see this as honorable.  Out of 12 bachelors who have appeared on previous seasons, only 3 got married.  The rest broke off the relationship in less than a year.

I think the real mockery in all of this is the victim of this reality show: No, not the victim who’s wife insists that we shouldn’t change the channel to find something else worth watching.  Rather, the victim I am talking about is love.

Have we as a society become so shallow as to think that love is something you can just find on a reality show, something that is entirely driven by emotional responses to what amounts to nothing more than sensual desire?

II.

We think that this infatuation (no pun intended) with love is new in our society.  Well, at least we think its something that erupted only in the past five decades, a result not of new psychological methods of defining love, but of the “free love” era of the 1960s.  “Peace, man.  Let’s just love one another.”

Striving for love, however, is something that has been around a long time.  We even see it as far back as the Old Testament:  Astute Bible readers will note that throughout the Old Testament, God is indeed a God of love more than the myth that the Old Testament God is a God of wrath.  But Israel fails to realize that.

God tries to convince Israel over and over again that God’s first commitment is to His people in a posture, not of fleeting, emotional love, but of “steadfast love.”  The Hebrew word is hesed, and it implies the same kind of compassionate, self-giving love as the Greek word, agape.

Yet, we find people in the Old Testament about as anxious as our lovely contestants on that reality show.  They know they want love.  They strive, and they long, and they reach for love, but find it in all the wrong places.

I can’t help but to think of the anxiety of the author who wrote Psalm 8, when he wrote of God’s love in a perplexing manner and asked, “What are we humans that you visit us?”

God visited His people.  God was intimate with His people. It didn’t seem to be enough.  Something was incomplete, not because God was incomplete but because I think God knew that something was missing in our life the minute we humans decided to sin against Him and get kicked out of the Garden of Eden.

You remember what it was like in the Garden way back in Genesis 1 and 2?  Scripture tells us that God “walked with Adam and Eve,” and spoke to them in the cool of the evening breeze.   There is an intimacy there that only the Hebrew poetry of the first few chapters of Genesis can evoke.

But then sin happened, and humans got eliminated—no roses for them.  They get into a limousine driven by angles, and then tell the camera, “Oh, who does that God think he is anyway?   That God isn’t about love after all!”

No wonder Cain killed Abel.  Imagine growing up in that household?  Might have drove me mad too.

III.

Since the very beginning of the New Testament, however, something happens.  Something changes for us that we may not have seen coming:  God decided on a course of action that would, once and for all, reveal the extent and length and breadth of His love for us:  God visited earth in a real, flesh and blood sort of way, in the form of a baby—in the person of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel: “God with us.”

Something amazing happens.  God goes beyond merely visiting humans, God becomes ever intimate with humans.  God touches them—the lepers, the women, the children, the poor.  God heals them.  God interacts with them.  God cooks them breakfast on the shore of the sea of Galilee and gathers them around the table with scriptures on the tip of his tongue and bread in his hands.

This is the sentiment of the book of Hebrews, out of which our scripture lesson comes today.

The book is what many scholars believe to be a sermon that tells of this unfolding drama of God’s visitation to earth.  It begins like the Gospels: With a declaration that God helps conceive a Son, a beloved child, who is God’s very own, who bridges the gap between heaven and earth.

It explains in high prose and majestic poetry that, in the person of Jesus Christ, God visits humanity in a new, climactic way that inaugurates the kingdom of God as well as the divine love of God.

I am intrigued today by Hebrews 2 as the author makes some bold statements about the nature of this divine love of God.

God’s divine love doesn’t come in the form of a rose or a ring, but in the form of a cross.   Verse 13 says this:

“It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect [or complete] through sufferings.”

In other words, in becoming human, God goes one step further with this notion of love: God loves us so much that God chooses to suffer and experience death in one of the most humiliating ways ever—on the cross—in order to express three simple words to us: “I love you.”

The language here almost evokes that something was incomplete, that the love under the Jewish law was not enough, that it still evoked feelings of longing and desire in humans that was somehow inadequate, if not too fragile.

There was something that God had to do, and that was to experience suffering and testing and temptation on our terms.

IV.

One of the hardest classes a seminarian takes is pastoral care.  Basically, it’s a class on how to do pastoral visitation without making a fool of yourself.

It’s a nerve-racking, heart-wrenching class, because PC doesn’t just give you resources for these different situations, it also tests a student’s response to those situations.

Students make visits and then write up a “case study” or the basic script of the conversation.   The student then brings copies of the case study to class, hands it out to peers and teacher alike, and basically reads through the conversation.

This is really difficult, because when you read through an actual conversation you had with someone you visited by the bedside, you start to see things that make you really insecure.

Have you ever gone into an awkward situation with someone facing hardship, and on your way out of the hospital room, you wonder whether you said the right things?  Some of you ask, “What did I even say?”

Many students who visit someone find that they say to the patient, “I know how you feel,” in order to make that person feel better.

Or a student will say, “I understand, please tell me more.”

Or, “That is terrible for you, I’m so sorry to hear that.”

You too can probably recall a time in your life when you’ve visited someone in need and said one of these things.

Now, none of these responses are bad.  In fact, if you are visiting a friend who has cancer, and you know how they feel because you’ve had cancer, then it can be very assuring and very comforting to say, “I know how you feel.”  It lets the other person know that he or she is not alone in this journey, and that you will not let them go it alone.

But for many students in pastoral care, these statements are not true.  Many students don’t understand what people are going through in times of trauma.  Many students don’t know how a person feels.  And, many students are unable to be sorry for what is happening in another person’s life; there is no way to be sorry—there is nothing the student can do to change or help the situation.

God’s love is so profound, that the only way to fully express it was to pass through the very suffering, temptations, and hardships of life so that when God says, “I love you,” God means it.   God was willing to taste the very sting of death and brokenness that touch all of our lives.  God knows what it feels like to pass through hardship; God understands; God can make a difference.

Hebrews 2:14 says it this way:  “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power over death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”

I wonder if those men and women go on those reality shows not just to “find love” but to fill that void in all our hearts that comes with the knowledge that all of us are, well, human.  We don’t want to be alone in life or in death.

The epistle of 1 John, often called one of the love letters of the Bible, says this about God and love:

3:16: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”

3:18:  “Little Children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

4:8-12:  “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that he love us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

The biblical theme is always the same:  We get at God’s love through the very cross of Christ, by the very fact that God “knows” and “understands what we are going through.”

V.

I’ve met a lot of people who suffer or have faced hardship who have been resentful towards God.  I can’t say that I blame them, and I certainly don’t condemn them or tell them they are wrong.  Often, I’ll just encourage people to be honest with God.

But many folks resent God because they still feel God is distant.  They feel that God is somehow detached from human affairs.  God’s only involvement, they assume, comes in the form of judgment or the dishing out of consequences for sins committed.

The sermon that is Hebrews paints a different picture:  God is so intimate, so loving, that God is directly involved with us with every step we take.   Jesus is not ashamed of this intimacy; Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters.  Jesus was not ashamed to suffer and be humiliated on the way to death.

And Jesus is not afraid to let us bear our crosses a time or two either, because it is in our own fragility that we find the very beautiful tapestry that allows us to embrace, love, and nurture others.

I like the poem by late Archbishop of Argentina, Oscar Romero, that appears in your bulletin:

We should not wonder that a church has a lot of cross to bear.  Otherwise, it will not have a lot of resurrection.  An accommodating church, a church that seeks prestige without the pain of the cross, is not the authentic church of Jesus Christ.

Just as God’s symbol of love is the cross, so too does our symbol of love for each other and the world around us become the very crosses we bear, so that when we meet others by a bedside, we too can say, “I love you.  I am present with you, and Jesus is present with you too because He knows how you feel.  He is one just like us.”

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Finding solidarity with the suffering Christ

crucifix-2-flashAll of us have our own image of Christ ingrained in our imagination.  It’s the image that confronts us when we close our eyes in prayer.  It’s the one representing He whom we worship when moved by a particular hymn or praise chorus.

I raised this idea in a Bible study on the epistle of John.  The epistle, I argued, was basically a commentary on who Christ is: fully human, fully divine–the word, Logos made flesh.  It gives us a vision of who Christ is with graphic language, affirming that “water, blood, and spirit” bear witness to Christ’s work on the cross.

Then I asked the class what kind of “Christ” showed up when they pray.  Many people, myself included, had trouble answering that question.  Not many folks wonder what “image” of Christ their prayers or worship conjures for them in the midst of a spiritual experience.

As a Protestant since childhood, I always had as my image of faith that of an empty cross.  I had a glow-in-the-dark cross on my bedstand to help me sleep at night.  Later, in middle school, Mom and Dad bought me a gold cross to wear around my neck.

There weren’t any crucifixes in my household, no icons either.  “We have an empty cross,” my parents told me, “Because Jesus had been raised from the dead and is alive in our hearts today.”  Perhaps they told me that to make sure that I didn’t turn Catholic (I had been baptized Catholic, and my parents went to a Protestant church only a year after I was born); I don’t know, but it stuck with me.

In high school and especially college, however, when art became important in my life and faith, crucifixes did start to make an impression.  There was something about seeing Jesus on the cross that made an impact on my heart and enriched my prayer and worship.

It’s been years now and I have traveled a little longer down my spiritual path, and I no longer see those two images–the empty cross and the crucifix–as conflicting or contrasting symbols.

I think there are times when we need the victory of the empty cross.  It’s the image that communicates the end of the story, the triumphal finish in which all death will be defeated.  All of us will be raised with Christ.

We also need the Christ who died on the cross and is beholden to it.  We need that reminder that God chose to feel pain, to suffer on our behalf.  We need a Christ who knows how we feel when tears are our only companion, when we are left alone with sorrow because our friends fall asleep in our Garden of Gethsemane.

After the loss of his son to a tragic hiking expedition, theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote that it was the crucified Christ, not necessarily the Risen Christ, who brought hope.  He needed Jesus on that cross to show up because it was that Christ who related to Woterstorff’s own grief.

He reflected on the crucifix, “God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers.  The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart.  Through the prism of my tears, I have seen a suffering God…Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it” (Lament for a Son, p. 81).

Facing tragedy in my own life, I admit that I know what Wolterstorff is writing about here.  I too am not ready for the “victory in Jesus” hymn but insist on the Christ who we sing about in “Man of Sorrows, What a Name.”  That man came back this past Monday, in fact, when 13 more victims succumbed to gun violence in our nation’s capital.

It is the crucified Christ indeed who comes to us as one in silence, humble head bowed, eyes and mouth closed.  There are no answers there, but a very real sense of solidarity.

The cross will surely be empty later, but for now I see myself there with Jesus.  He and I, broken and battered, with something profound and meaningful held in common.  And there, through that darkest valley, I shan’t fear no evil, for God is with me.

A tale of two desperate souls

There once was a guy named Jairus. He was a real faithful churchgoer and leader in his community.  He had a daughter, 12 years old, who was dying.  She was the apple of her father’s eye.  At one time they played games together, then it was off to school and family vacations to Six Flags.  Now her breathing became more shallow, her skin color pale.

And there was a peasant from Galilee who was said to have the ability to heal.  Jairus heard that the peasant was in town, but he also heard that the peasant caused quite a stir at some churches.  There were the conflicts with the deacons and pastors, and there was that healing on the Sabbath.

Jairus was desperate, however, and he had to try something.  It was his daughter.  He may have to do some explaining at church come Monday–he may actually have to step down as Sunday School teacher–but at least there was a chance that his daughter would be healed.

On the day the peasant came to town, Jairus took off work and made his way to the street corner where the peasant was preaching.  There the Galilean was, with his dark, deep-set eyes and sandwich-board sign that had something or another about repentance and God’s kingdom.  A crowd had gathered.

Tears welled up in Jairus’ eyes even as he noticed that some of his church members were in the crowd.  Yes, he would have some explaining to do.  But, before Jairus knew it, he was on his knees begging the peasant to come and heal his daughter.

Can you imagine–a church leader begging at the feet of some street preacher?  The peasant only nodded in agreement.

It was at that moment that something strange happened.  A woman who had been ill for 12 years pushed her way through the crowd and touched the peasant.  People were disgusted that she had come into contact with them.  They knew her from around town, kicked her out of some of their churches in fact.

She was one of those people who were so full of sin and sickness that she really didn’t belong anywhere.  People avoided her; and, when she went to the local diner, families moved to different booths while children pointed, snickered and starred.

Thankfully, the law of the land kept her from going anywhere important.  She couldn’t get a job either so she lost her healthcare benefits long ago.  How convenient.

Like Jairus, she was desperate so it was worth upsetting a few people to get to the peasant.  She touched him and was healed; he turned and caught her eye.  And, like Jairus, she too fell on her knees before him.

That’s when Jairus’ employees greeted them: “Jairus,” they said, “It’s your daughter.  She died.”

For the first time the peasant spoke to Jairus:  “Do not fear, only believe.”

How can Jairus believe at a time like this?  He believed his whole life.  He went to church every weekend and led committees.  He taught Sunday school and served as deacon, and his faith just didn’t seem to help.  He might as well laugh at this peasant, but he wasn’t in a laughing mood.

How can Jairus take advice from a man who let a sinner woman touch him, much less talk to him?   If this peasant affiliated with the likes of her, then maybe he should rethink his strategy.

Then something miraculous happened.  The peasant — this rabble rouser from the other side of the tracks who got into more fights with pastors than Jairus knew what to do with — healed Jairus’ little girl with four words, “Little girl, get up.”

Four words and that was it.  No questions asked, no tests taken, no churchgoing required, no doctrines debated.  It was just a little girl healed, two desperate and fearful souls humbled at the feet of a Galilean, and another day in the life of God’s miraculous, inclusive, and impartial presence.  A miracle if there ever was one.