7 Lessons of Lent, and the road to Easter

christsfaceBy Matt Sapp

Many churches that use the Lectionary texts of the Christian calendar have ventured through the Gospel of Luke during Lent.  At our church, Heritage Fellowship, we’ve been highlighting lessons that Jesus teaches us about God along the way.

I know it can be hard to keep up with what we’ve been doing from week to week, but I want each of us to arrive at the cross on Good Friday and the empty tomb on Easter Sunday with the fullness of God’s truth in front of us.

So here’s a brief summary of the seven lessons we’re learning from Jesus during Lent.

1.      God is most present when we are at our most vulnerable. It’s usually in our darkest places that we feel most alone. But Jesus has been to those same dark places and the God revealed in scripture has been there for Jesus as God is there for you. So never doubt, as Julie Ball reminds us, that “God is there, and God knows how it feels. And God loves you, in the wilderness and on the mountaintop, during Lent and at Easter, in all the year, in all of life.” (Luke 4:1-13)

2.      There is an inescapable mystery to God. If we’re going to make it all the way to the cross, we’ll have to learn to embrace it.  Mystery—uncertainty about the future—can lead us to two things: fear or hopeful expectation. Our Biblical heroes prayed through fear so that they could work out of hope. We’ll see Jesus do just that in the Garden of Gethsemane in a few weeks.  We should do the same thing. (Luke 13:31-35) (Genesis 15:1-18)

3.      God creates. Our God is not a God of destruction, even though it’s tempting to think that way sometimes. We learn very little about God through tragedy. Instead, Jesus teaches about a God who creates and nurtures and tends to us. So stop fearing God’s judgment and instead embrace a God who digs into the soil and strengthens your roots. (Luke 13:1-9)

4.      God wants you to experience the joy of being found. Jesus teaches us that God is a seeker after lost things. Again, when we expect judgment, God instead overwhelms us with careful and thoughtful demonstrations of just how valuable we are. During this season when we focus on how valuable God is to us, take a minute or two to imagine a God who thinks WE’RE valuable to HIM!! (Luke 15:11-32)

5.      God is worthy of extravagant love. Jesus teaches that we ought to be willing to seize holy moments in our lives when God is especially present and real. Emotionally and spiritually healthy people understand that we should spare no expense in welcoming a God into our lives who make us whole again. We’ve learned about a God who spares no expense to welcome us home. Jesus teaches that we should spare no expense in welcoming him, too. (John 12:1-8)

6.      God is irrepressibly worthy of our worship. It’s not always safe or prudent or popular to be people who boldly proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ. Do it anyway. God’s message of love in Jesus Christ is irrepressible. It will march forward and overwhelm the world with or without us. We might as well get on board now. (Luke 19:28-40)

7.      Faith in God is an experiential truth. Faith is not an intellectual proposition or a logical conclusion. Faith, if it is anything at all, is remembered experience. That will be our message for Easter Sunday. (Luke 24:1-12)

If there’s an overarching theme in each of the truths we’re discovering together, it is one of reciprocal value. We are first and foremost individuals whose value to God is beyond measure. That’s the mystery—that God would value us so highly. And second, we are people created to value God and our relationship with Jesus Christ to a degree that is similarly beyond measure.

We live in a world that talks a lot about creating value and assigning worth to work and commodities and products and people. In a world where relative value seems to be of paramount importance, Jesus helps us discover a God who re-frames the whole “value” conversation.

We will never experience the fullness of the Easter miracle until we understand that the God revealed in Jesus Christ redefines our understanding of value and worth.  We have two more Sundays before Easter to do just that. I pray we will.


The Truth of Epiphany and the Human Christ

394By Joe LaGuardia

Some of our Christmas carols make bold claims about Christ.  Some remind us of Jesus’ miraculous birth, while others recall the revelation of God’s Messiah to angels and sages.  Perhaps the greatest claim is made in the classic hymn, Away in a Manger, which states that when it came to baby Jesus, “No crying he made.”

Now that is a miracle.  I can only imagine  what it might be like to have a baby that never cries, whines, wets the bed, and learns the word “No.”

This baby is miraculous indeed.  He probably also knew intuitively how to share his toys, avoid back-talking his parents, and eat his vegetables. No wonder most of the artwork depicting the Christ child throughout history shows him as a miniature man in saintly repose.

Was Jesus really like that?  Did Jesus rest in a manger that heavenly and grow up without any need for training, correction, or parental guidance?

We know that Jesus had growin’ up days like the rest of us, a fact we recognize during the season of Epiphany.  Twice in Luke 2 (vs. 40 and 52), scripture tells us that Jesus “grew in wisdom and in stature.”  What about the rest of Jesus’ maturation and growth?

As far as one blogger is concerned, Jesus did do all the things that babies and infants do, including cry.  But Jesus “never cried in a sinful way.”  That’s a stretch, and when I think back to when my children were infants, I don’t recall them crying in a sinful way either.  Babies cry; that’s how they communicate.

Our thoughts about baby Jesus, no matter how far-fetched they are, reveal something about our theology of Christ, which I would guess is not as developed as it should be.

Let me remind you, dear reader, that the orthodox view of Jesus’ personhood is that he is fully God and fully human.  Jesus was 100% of both.  He is, of course, without sin although even that theological premise rests on a single thread of scripture from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (5:21).

The argument surrounding Jesus’ divinity and humanity was settled long ago in the fourth century.  At that time, priests, bishops, and other church leaders debated Jesus’ Christology and the incarnation.

One priest, Arius of the Church of Bancalis in Egypt, claimed that Jesus was fully human and therefore not the same “substance” (as a bishop, Alexander of Alexandria, claimed) as God.  This became known as the Arian Controversy.

Bishops across the empire settled the disagreement in the famous Council of Nicaea in 326 CE, when nearly 300 bishops argued that Jesus was both divine and human, not just like God, but God in the flesh.

The second verse of the classic Christmas hymn, O Come, All Ye Faithful, recites some of the theological statements that came out of the Council:

“True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal . . . Son of the Father, begotten, not created.”

In my own experience, I find it important to highlight both aspects of Jesus’ personhood.  He was fully divine, and Jesus, who was “one with the Father” (John 10:30) embodied God’s reign and bridged the gap between heaven and earth.  God chose to live among us in a particular place and time, a great admission of the value that God places on us humans.

Yet, Jesus is fully human and, therefore, did what most babies and children do.  At the same time, Jesus also suffered, felt the pain of grief, and faced hardship.  This is good news: When I face the same, Jesus–and, in turn, God–knows exactly how I feel.  In Jesus Christ, God has become an intimate sojourner with humanity.

I don’t think any of us like to think of Jesus as a baby who spit up, made messes, and threw his food to see if it stuck to the wall; but, he likely did.  It’s Jesus’ very humanity, however, that makes the Gospel for what it is.  If Jesus showed us the way, then we can follow in faith, hope, and love with the same confidence.


The long and dangerous road of theological tradition

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church hold anti-gay signs at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Veterans Day, November 11, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTXUI58


By Joe LaGuardia

As a requirement for her Master of Divinity degree at the McAfee School of Theology, Atlanta, Georgia, the Reverend Karen Woods wrote a thesis on race relations in the local church.  In it, she argues that slavery, discrimination, and contemporary conflicts surrounding race did not suddenly appear out of nowhere.

Rather, the dysfunction of racism grew out of long theological traditions that manipulated the Bible to justify one race’s subjugation over another.  Sadly, although our ancestors were people of their time, this theological context sat squarely on a certain systemic interpretation of the Bible that dehumanized people.

Woods’ thesis reminded me that beliefs surrounding a variety of issues these days result not from spontaneous decisions or platitudes, but from long-held convictions and traditions that require (consciously or otherwise) theological gerrymandering and interpretative acrobats over a long period of time.

If we are still embroiled in the consequences of racism even today, then it should not surprise us that contemporary debates over other hotbed topics will last well into the next generation of Christendom.

Traditions and experience inform how we read the Bible (if we read the Bible at all), and shaping our reading of God’s Word according to such embedded ideologies threatens to undermine the authority of Scripture.

The worst part is when we declare that God agrees with our positions rather than change our minds when we know some things simply contradict Christ’s or the Bible’s teachings.

M. Craig Barnes, writing for The Christian Century, wrote of the dangers associated with biased interpretations of scripture.  He recalled Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address delivered on March 4, 1865, in which Lincoln lamented the toxicity that imbues any theology that forces ideology on humanity’s understanding of God.

According to Lincoln, “Both [the North and the South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes [God’s]aid against the other . . . The prayers of both could not be answered.  That of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln went on to declare that the institution of slavery–250 years in the making–will not come untangled as easily as many people in the Union had hoped.  Yet, it was imperative to “finish the work we are in” so as to bring about harmony to a nation divided by political ideology.

Lincoln hit the problem squarely on the head.  Our debates surrounding the most pressing issues of the day such as gun control, environmental stewardship, war, immigration and refugee policy, and federal budgets must indeed play out in the philosophical and political arenas, but must avoid any declaration that God is taking one side over another.  Otherwise, we too will be embroiled in divisions that rend the very fabric of our nation.

Ultimately, when a Christian surrenders to God, she surrenders her “rights” in this world in order to become a fully-recognized citizen in God’s kingdom.  It is to sacred Scripture that a citizen of the Kingdom submits, not to any man-made document or system of government.

God’s call is a singular mission to march towards the cause of the cross.  This results from self-denial and, sometimes, death, if not physically, then of those embedded convictions that conflict with Christ’s values.

Most significantly, submitting to Christ’s lordship means divesting our theologies about God and social politics that perpetuate some of the more hostile elements of faith that play out in our places of worship, politics, and the public square.  Without this important reformation in our churches, we remain steadfast in the very bigotry that our faith condemns.

Without analyzing the long-held beliefs that shape our worldview, we fail to “be transformed in the renewal of our mind,” as Paul so aptly commands in Romans 12:1-2.

My prayer for the New Year is that we will have robust debates in an otherwise uncommon election season, but that we will not use religion as a weapon to wield rather than a balm to heal, and that we will use Scripture to transform our thinking rather than support our myopic opinions about so many issues we face today.  May Christ, not the fascination with our own interpretations of Him, be Lord over our lives.