Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Unexpected Gift of Easter: The Risen King

This is God's plan, His great gift to us? 

This young Jewish man went and met that enemy of every man, that enemy that eventually wins every battle fought, and that enemy is death, the inevitable offspring of sin. Here this man stood, in the face of our enemy and He did so without any discernable defense. He allowed the beast to inflict its finishing move, its checkmate. So, death crawled upon this seemingly insignificant life that hung upon the Roman cross, and delivered its fatal sting, that sting that has taken out every person before, that sting that was always known as final, and Christ drew His last breath. Christ died, even Christ.

What gift is this?

God has given us a man, and before He makes any real impression on the world, other than in the hearts of a few Israelites, He is stripped of His dignity before His servants and of His life. Can you imagine the horror that must have washed upon the shores of the disciples' hearts? We see it in Peter, even before the crucifixion, when he denied Jesus three times (Matthew 26: 69-74). Even this miracle worker, this man Peter, on behalf of the disciples, acknowledged as the "Son of the Living God," (Matthew 16:14-16) died, and He died before accomplishing anything that human history would have acknowledged as an accomplishment. In other words, if the story had ended at the cross, there would be no story to tell. This Man through whom they drew so much strength had, in an agonizing moment, been separated from their midst.

How dare these apostles think so highly of their Rabbi? They hailed from a remote nation ruled by a mighty emperor a world away. They could have no real bearing on the world, even if they tried. A man more powerful than anyone they had ever met, a king of kings, ruling the earth from his Roman throne, the emperor, had no idea of their existence. They were insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Israel might have been a mighty nation at one time, but that time had gone, lost to antiquity, and every great hope that had come down the line had been defeated; why would this Jesus be any different? Why would He matter to Caesar, or any other mighty ruler to come into human history?
Here the gift hung, a lifeless corpse? What gift was this?

He came into the world, from the world's perspective, in less than spectacular circumstances. Yes, we know the miracles that took place to bring about the incarnated One, but if one simply observed the physical circumstances without much thought, Christ would seem less than extraordinary, a star being the only real recognizable phenomenon, and only by those who paid attention to the stars. His parents, at the whim of Augustus, their emperor, had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, while Mary was nine months pregnant. In other words, He was not the direct descendent of powerful parents, but to people who obeyed the rule of another, and He never takes a thrown, not once, while He walked the Earth, other than the throne of His followers' hearts.

His birth was eventually recognized by some wise men, and even noted by Herod, but this was some time after His actual coming into the world. At the time He was born, He was delivered into a stable, amongst the beasts of the field, and the only persons to be heralded by the angels concerning the arrival of the baby happened to be shepherds, a lowly group of men indeed. The elite of society looked down on shepherds, and these men, as Luke tells us, were in the fields at night, which more than likely meant that they were homeless.  And so, we find this child, born amongst animals, visited by the homeless, to a insignificant family in an insignificant part of the world, and He would grow up only to die by the hands of the same mighty empire that He was born under. At the time of His death, He had changed nothing that matters to humans as they write history. Some were privileged enough to witness His miracles, but the vast majority of the world in which He lived, He was a nobody by their standards, a nobody like everyone else.

How, then? How did He start such a movement? He was nobody, was He not? And, after all the miracles, He still died a nobody, did He not? He shook Pilate to His core, but who was Pilate in the grand scheme of things?

Yet, this man is known. He is not only known, but He generates interest. He not only generates interest, but He is still studied. He is not only studied, but He is followed. He is not only followed, but He is worshiped. How? Why? What made the difference? His life ends in tragedy and defeat, or so it seemed.
In short, Christ proves great because God orchestrated a great surprise, a surprise that we would have scoffed at if we were in the planning room, a plan we would have said of, "I would do it differently." He used an insignificant nation to bring about this insignificant man, who would eventually be realized to be the greatest gift ever given to man: Our Messiah, Our Savior. While this seems odd, it was not so unexpected. That Messiah would come from such humble and forgotten history was prophesied long before His arrival, and it is in this knowledge that people in retrospect begin to understand the significance.  Against such odds, God said it would be so, and it is undeniable, practically speaking, that this is phenomenal. Some bow in worship, and others act in fear, trying to snuff out this light from Israel, but all hear...and one day, all will take notice:

             " But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
                  Though you are little among the thousands of Judah,
                  Yet out of you shall come forth to Me
                  The One to be Ruler in Israel,
                  Whose goings forth are from of old,
                  From everlasting."
                  Therefore He shall give them up,
                  Until the time that she who is in labor has given birth;
                  Then the remnant of His brethren
                  Shall return to the children of Israel.
                   And He shall stand and feed His flock
                  In the strength of the LORD,
                  In the majesty of the name of the LORD His God;
                  And they shall abide,
                  For now He shall be great
                  To the ends of the earth;
                   And this One shall be peace. Micah 5:2-5

From nowhere, amongst a little group among an insignificant people, will come a king that will be from everlasting and will have the strength of the Lord. Just as His coming was an unexpected expectation, so the life He lived was an unexpected expectation.  What do I mean by an unexpected expectation: It something foretold and acknowledged, but so unbelievable it was unrecognizable to many who knew of its eventual coming and paid its realty lip-service alone. He was to be the suffering servant, and although this was known of Him, it angered His fellow Jews that He would not take a more political rule that typified human power and might, ruling with a heavy hand. Instead, He walked everyday towards a submissive death, the death on the cross, and while His death was foretold years and years before His coming, and He even spoke of it often, when He died, His followers felt defeated. If they had only known...

And God looks down on us and says, "This is my Son, whom I give to you." This unknown man, He is our gift. The greatest gift ever given, and we must, at times, wonder why. Why is Jesus the gift of God? What does He offer me...which is the typical human question, not always without warrant, but often ungratefully asked nonetheless.

We ask because we often think to ourselves, “If I were God, I would have done it a different way…How is this the best God could do? How is this a gift for me?”

The reality of Jesus unexpected, expected reality teaches most about ourselves, that what God would plan would not be our plan. God did not send His Son in such unexpected ways just for surprise, In fact, He told us exactly what He planned to do, and it made all the sense in the world to our Father. It is our own unbelief and twisted ways that lend to our surprise. Why would God come as One who would not use His might to punish others into submission? Why would He not rule from a human thrown? Why would He be so different? Because God is different. God does not rule and provide peace like Rome, or any other fallen nation for that matter. Through heavy-handed rule and power humans reign. God rules in love, and Christ is that ultimate gift of love.

Let us indulge the human question: How is Christ a gift for me?

Jesus' coming in human flesh is a gift on so many levels. First, it is a demonstration of God's self-giving character. God's love for His Son extends throughout eternity past, present, and future. Throughout eternity, up to the point of the incarnation, God the Father had enjoyed complete unity with Christ, the Son, but the Father had to give Him up to send Him to us to die (John 3:16). Not only did the Father give away His Son to live on earth away from the intimate Triune community He had always enjoyed, the Son also sacrificed. He gave up His divine rights in order to walk amongst us (Philippians 2:6). He gave up His power in order to walk as we walk, so that we might know Him.... So that when we ask the question, what would God have us do as humans in this or that situation, we can look to Christ, God in flesh.  Just as written Scripture is God's Word in language we can understand, so too the Son comes in a form understandable to our mind, human form. He teaches us that our path is through Him, in communion with the Holy Spirit. He is our model.

Jesus’ coming was an intimacy not yet known by sinful humanity. Not only could God be approached as He was in the Holy of Holies, He could be touched. He could be held; He could hold. He could be kissed; He could kiss. He could be seen; and we could see Him seeing us. He would come to be with us, and would forever be closer than ever before (since Eden), through the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was here. God was walking amongst us once again, and because He came, He is still here.
Perhaps the greatest part of this gift is that He has opened a way back from exile. The exilic human race is on a path to once again be the Edenic people of God. We are going home, back to the garden, which will be a beautiful city once we finally get there, New Jerusalem. Once sin entered the world, a gulf was formed, a non-negotiable ocean born.

When we say, "I would have done it a different way, God might just reply, "And who would you suggest die for your sins?"

God could have manifested Himself in countless ways, but He came as a human, for sin demands human death. And if He had not died, we would be forever hopeless. Instead, He came, and death has been split in two, and we walk in its wake by His grace, back to God's Kingdom.  That death that had defeated all men before, in its spreading upon the Christ, met its own demise. By taking Christ, it dragged into its depths a being too powerful to contain, and He burst forth, leading the captives out of captivity. 

It is true, if the story had ended at death, it would be no story. But there was a big surprise; death has died, for it met a man too powerful to destroy.

Christ is the gift of life, the promise that God still loves this fallen race. Our story is a tragic tale without Him. We are hopelessly lost without Christ. Ours would be a life not worth having, if that great gift had been never given. The gift of the baby boy that would save the world came into a world in a less than magnificent manner when we reflect upon the whereabouts of His family in physical and social standing, but then again, knowing the supernatural nature of His birth, it is the most amazing story ever told. We still tell it. And even with all the mundane, less than elite people involved, His coming still drew the wisest of men to see the child. His birth still struck fear in the heart of Herod. Imagine Herod's thoughts. Here a child is born to a couple of no real import, yet somewhere deep down Herod knew this child represented real opposition to His rule, to the rule of tyrannical men. And for some unknown, seemingly illogical reason, He lies awake at night in cold sweats, knowing the boy is alive, and growing in stature.

Herod would not succeed in killing Him on behalf of the empire, but the empire would kill Him nonetheless. He would have the audacity in His own lifetime to speak of His gospel, to suggest it would one day be told worldwide. How foolish this must have seemed, no more foolish than at the time His body hung lifeless on the cross, and, yet, somewhere deep down they knew it to be true, and they had killed Him for it. The centurion knew it, and we all have to face His reality. In this death, His message would become concrete. His death would complete exactly what He came to accomplish, to die so that we do not have to die as well. By the time of His death, His story had just begun. Christ is that gift we look at and at first think, why would I ever want that. There is nothing special here. But once opened, the gift becomes the greatest possession we can know. 
He is the difference between having nothing and everything, not just because He died, but because he also rose!

On Friday, the veil was torn in two because of Christ’s work on the cross. As it ran down from top to bottom, the tear continued downward, creating a fissure down into the depths of Death and Hades, but Death did not notice. In swallowing up Christ, death unwittingly sealed its own fate. For three days, death silently and smugly boasted in its victory, as it had defeated even the most perfect Man to ever walk the Earth. Just as it swallowed up the first Adam, the second Adam had been defeated as well, or so death thought. On this day, Satan watched as His child, Death, was defeated, and he as well was delivered a mortal blow to His head. Today, Christ rent death into, becoming the first fruits of the resurrection.

When He rose, He reminded us all that the Messiah was to be crowned King, as it was written:

“I was watching in the night visions,
And behold, One like the Son of Man,
Coming with the clouds of heaven!
He came to the Ancient of Days,
And they brought Him near before Him.

Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
Which shall not pass away,
And His kingdom the one
Which shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14).

For a time, Christ humbled Himself to serve us through suffering, but that was finished. Now, He has taken back His rightful place. Thus, He states:

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore[a] and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen. (Matthew 28:18-20)

We have a King! Happy Easter…