Grieve, Hope & Wait

Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus beside the tomb on the day of his resurrection matches well with the complex mix of emotions Christians continue to experience in the face of death.  We find in this encounter the deep grief of death, the exhilarating hope of resurrection, and the agonizing wait for the joy of resurrection to reach fulfillment. 

Grief: Out of the sleeplessness of grief, Mary hurries to Jesus’ tomb “while it was still dark.”  At the tomb, we find her weeping and so distraught that she fails to recognize Jesus when first she sees him.  She is in the morass of grief—the heartbreaking, pain-filled, despairing sorrow of losing one whom she loved. 

What I love about John’s report of this incident (in John 20:11-18) is that we can find no trace of Mary being corrected for her behavior.  There is never a suggestion that Mary should not have cried or that she should have trusted God more fully.  John reports, with full acceptance, the depth of Mary’s bereavement because that’s what the death of a loved one does to us.  Mary did what every sane person does in the face of death.

Earl Grollman stresses, “Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness.  It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love.  The only cure for grief is to grieve.” 

Washington Irving adds, “There is a sacredness in tears.  They are not the mark of weakness, but of power.  They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues.  They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”    

Hope: Suddenly, Jesus stands before her—or suddenly Mary recognizes Jesus as he stands before her—and Mary is overcome with the exhilaration of his resurrection.  Never has such good news been shared with our world as when Jesus appeared before Mary with the announcement that death had been overcome.

Many years ago, Dr. Robert Hughes of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia illustrated the significance of Jesus’ resurrection with a story about his father, who had been a coal-miner in northeastern Pennsylvania.  Dr. Hughes’ father had the job of going down into the mines every morning before the other miners, to check the mines for methane gas.  Every morning he would descend alone into the mines, taking with him the safety lamp, and he would begin to go through the darkened tunnels, checking each of the tunnels and shafts to make sure there was no deadly methane gas present.  If the light of the safety lamp would begin to flicker, he would have to run for his life, because it would signal the presence of deadly gas.  After checking the mine, he would rise to the surface, where all the miners gathered around waiting expectantly, and he would announce, “It’s okay; it’s safe.  You can go down into the mine now.”

Dr. Hughes would explain, “That’s what Christ did for us.  He came up out of the depths of death and announced to all who are gathered on earth, ‘It’s okay; it’s safe now.  You can enter into death, into the darkness and the unknown.  It is safe because I have made it safe.  I have been there, and I have come back.  It has not been victorious over me, but I have overcome it, and I will be with you in death, even as I have been with you in life!’”

Wait: In the midst of her excitement, Mary grabs hold of Jesus, but he says to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” 

Jesus rose from the dead, but he was not going to remain on the earth, so she could not cling to him.  Death was been conquered, but we do not yet get to enjoy the resurrection of our loved ones. 

When our loved ones die, they go to heaven.  That is great news!  But we still miss them.  All of us on earth are stuck waiting for the experience of the joy of the resurrection, and we will remain stuck in our waiting until we are called to heaven or until Christ returns.  Between now and then, when we deal with the death of a loved one, we live in the complex mix of deep grief, exhilarating hope, and an agonizing wait for the joy of resurrection to reach fulfillment. 

Why did Jesus come to earth?

When Jesus stood on trial before Pilate, he said to Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”  That statement intrigues me because elsewhere Jesus gave other reasons for why he came into our world.   In John 10:10, Jesus declared, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  In Mark 10:45 he stated, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” 

Which is it?  Did Jesus come into our world to testify to the truth?  Or to give us abundant life?  Or to give his life as a ransom for many?  Or do all three go together?

When Jesus stood before Pilate on trial for his life, Pilate thought that the truth of the matter was that Pilate was in charge of Jesus’ destiny.  Indeed, Pilate said so.  In John 19:10, Pilate asked Jesus, “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”  But Pilate was wrong.  Jesus replied, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).  Pilate was not actually in charge of Jesus’ destiny; God was.  The reason Jesus was born—the reason he came into our world—was to give his life as a ransom for many so as to bring to us abundant life.  This is the truth that Jesus testified to.  

Jesus stressed to Pilate, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over” (John 18:36).  What followers is Jesus referring to?  His motley band of disciples?  What good would they be against the soldiers of Rome?  If that’s what Jesus had in mind, he would have been delusional.  But the truth is that Jesus had a much greater army at hand.  When soldiers arrived at the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus, he announced, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53)  And when Jesus calmed a storm at sea, his disciples asked each other, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41)  If Jesus wished to prevent his crucifixion, he could have called forth the armies of heaven and/or the forces of nature to protect him.  But he didn’t come here to save himself; he came here to give his life as a ransom for many so as to bring to us abundant life.  This is the truth that Jesus testified to.

The truth is that death is a calamity that no one is history has been able to overcome.  But Jesus came into our world to do just that.  He came to overcome death by giving his life as a ransom for many so as to give us abundant life.

Before the Second World War, a grave in Germany had been sealed with a granite slab and bound with strong chains.  On the slab an atheist had inscribed, “Not to be opened throughout eternity.”  But, somehow, a little acorn had fallen into a crack, and its outer shell had ‘died.’  Years later, everyone who passed by could see a huge oak tree growing up out of that crack, having completely broken apart the granite slab.  The arrogant words upon the slab still declared, “Not to be opened throughout eternity,” but a ‘resurrected’ acorn had proven it wrong.  Jesus did the same to death.

One of the early church fathers, St. John Chrysostom, expressed it powerfully: “By accepting the body of Christ Death made a great mistake. It thought that it was an ordinary body: a sinful body and mortal just as the others held under its tyrannical authority. But as those who take food that cannot be digested by their stomach, will vomit not only the indigestible food, but whatever else they have eaten, so also with death. Death swallowed the all-pure and immortal body of the Lord, but immortal life was a bitter victual and indigestible for the gluttonous and insatiable Hades. It could not digest it and, therefore, vomited it! Together with the body of Christ, Hades ejected also all the dead held in its stomach from the beginning. The only appropriate and digestible food for death is sin. The sinless body of the Lord was inappropriate food for Hades. It resembled a stone that not only cannot be digested but also, if it remains in the stomach, will destroy it and breach it. When death swallowed the Cornerstone, the all-holy body of the Savior, it was in pain and distress, and lost all of its strength.”

Jesus came into our world to testify to the truth and to give his life as a ransom for many so as to bring to us abundant life.

A Critical Choice

Over and over again throughout each day, we face the critical question: Will I trust in the values and ways of this world?  Or will I trust in the values and ways of Jesus Christ? 

Almost 50 years ago, Robert J. Ringer wrote a best-selling book that continues to portray the common mindset of modern American culture.  His book, Winning Through Intimidation, grew out of his own experience.  He explains, “I did one altruistic good deed after another—concentrating on the other person’s best interest—naively believing that my good deed would be appreciated and that I’d be commensurately rewarded.  At best I ended up with a handful of air; at worst I got a slap in the face.”

Ringer gave up on altruism.  He states, “From now on I would have to be the intimidator and maneuver others into the role of intimidatee…for the first time, I had experienced the thrill of winning through intimidation…. There was no longer the slightest doubt in my mind that intimidation was the key to winning.”  

J.B. Phillips suggests that a different set of ‘Beatitudes’ might match better the values and ways of our world:

“Happy are the ‘pushers’: for they get on in the world.

“Happy are the hard-boiled; for they never let life hurt them.

“Happy are they who complain: for they get their own way in the end

“Happy are the blasé: for they never worry over their sins.

“Happy are the slave-drivers: for they get results

“Happy are the knowledgeable of the world: for they know their way around.

“Happy are the trouble-makers: for they make people take notice of them.”

But the values and the ways of Jesus Christ…? 

John tells us (in John 13:1-15) that a night or two before his crucifixion, Jesus got up from the dinner table, “took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”  When he finished washing their feet, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

By washing the disciples’ feet and commanding us to do likewise, Jesus sets before us a choice: Will we trust in the values and ways of this world?  Or will we trust in his values and ways?

M. Scott Peck comments, “Until that moment the whole point of things had been for someone to get on top, and once he had gotten on top to stay on top or else attempt to get farther up.  But here this man already on top—who was rabbi, teacher, master—suddenly got down on the bottom and began to wash the feet of his followers.  In that one act Jesus symbolically overturned the whole social order.  Hardly comprehending what was happening, even his own disciples were almost horrified by his behavior.”

            The values and ways of this world may include intimidating others, pushing others, and climbing over others, but Jesus calls us to follow a different set of values and to live a different way of life. 

            Jesus calls us to love and to serve unconditionally.  Jesus did not withhold the washing of John’s and James’ feet though they had been arguing over who was the greatest.  He did not withhold the washing of Thomas’ feet though Thomas would doubt his resurrection.  He did not withhold the washing of Peter’s feet though Peter would deny knowing him.  And he did not withhold the washing of Judas’ feet though he knew that Judas would betray him.  To Jesus, love is not something that is given or withheld on the basis of what a person has earned, but is given purely on the basis of God’s never-ending love for us.  Can we seek to love others purely on the basis of God’s love for them?

            Jesus calls us to love and to serve sacrificially.  He took off his robe.  He humbled himself.  Shortly after this, he would give his very life for us.  What are we willing to give up for the sake of caring for another?  How far are we willing to humble ourselves for the sake of serving another?

            Jesus calls us to love and serve actively.  Jesus did not simply wish his disciples well.  He got up from the table; he poured water into a basin; he washed their feet; he dried their feet with a towel.  He took action to meet their needs.  Are we willing to get up, to get involved, to lend a hand, to do something practical?

Over and over again throughout each day, we face the critical question: Will I trust in the values and ways of this world?  Or will I trust in the values and ways of Jesus Christ? 

What Fragrance Will I Bring?

The apostle John tells us (in John 12:1-2), “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  There they gave a dinner for him.” 

Take a deep breath and imagine the aromas that would have filled the house that day.  There would have been the smell of freshly baked unleavened bread for this was within seven days of the Passover.  There would have been the aroma of wine, and the smells of dates and figs and fresh grapes and cooked onions and Jerusalem cheese and pickled herrings and honey pie.  For a dinner like this, there may have been the smell of barbecued goat or lamb.

How did these wonderful aromas get into the home?  John tells us concisely, “Martha served.”  

Martha, honored by Catholics as a patron saint of cooking and of serving, had the magnificent gift of hospitality.  She brought love and joy into a home and into the lives of others in the way in which she fed and cared for people. 

Max Lucado shares his own experience with someone like Martha: “The best example of love that I can think of occurred at the death of my own father.  I remember a lady who was a distant relative of our family.  She drove six hours to get to the funeral.  She walked in the house and went immediately into the kitchen and began washing dishes.  I didn’t even know she was there.  She straightened up everything and helped prepare for the meal.  She came to the funeral.  After the funeral, she came back and did the dishes again, got in her car and went home.  As far as I know, she never said a word.  She never introduced herself. But when I looked around, I realized that love had been in our house.” (quoted by Gene Getz in The Walk, p. 74)

In John 12, we find out that Martha’s house became filled with another aroma, the fragrance of perfume.  Martha’s sister Mary “took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.”

This, too, was a marvelous aroma.  It was the aroma of personal devotion and generosity.  Ann Kiemel writes, “Grandfather was in the backyard, and it was midmorning.  His small grandson kept begging him, ‘Gramps, can I fix you a hamburger?’

            “‘No, honey, gramps is full.  He just had breakfast.’

            “‘Hmmm.  Can I fix you a hot dog?’

            “‘I don’t think a hot dog would mix well with the eggs inside.’

            “The child tugged on his grandfather’s arms, and burst into an enormous smile.  ‘I know, Gramps . . . a glass of water?’

            “Grandfather looked into the dirt-smeared face.  He wasn’t thirsty, but he could see the boy’s desire to do something special for the man he most admired.  ‘Yep, I think Gramps could use a drink.’

            “The child ran into the kitchen.  He happened to pick up a dirty glass from the sink instead of a clean one.  He turned on the hot water tap, instead of the cold.  As he ran out the door with the water, the mud from his hands smeared over the outside of the glass, dribbled inside, and clouded the hot water.  ‘Here you are, Gramps.’  (Oh, his enthusiasm.)

            “Gramps looked at the awful glass of water, and caught the sparkle in the small face.  He drank it all, and wrapped his arms around the lad.  ‘You know, that was the best glass of water Gramps ever had.’” (I Love the Word ‘Impossible,’ pp. 92-93)

There is no greater taste and no greater fragrance than that of genuine love for another.

But another smell filled Martha’s and Mary’s home that day as well—not the delicious smell of Martha’s cooking or the delightful fragrance of Mary’s devotion, but the stench of Judas’ hypocrisy, greed, and condescending judgment. 

In her book The Sense of Smell in the Middle Ages, Katelynn Robinson comments, “Just as the odor of good fame reflects good actions and is healing to others through its good example, the stench of infamy reflects bad actions that have putrefied the soul, and infects others.  Sometimes wicked people can hide their bad deeds with ‘insincere good words and virtues’ and pious actions such as penance in the same way that stenches can be hidden under good odors…. The wicked person might even seem to have the odor of good fame.  However, the ability of a bad person to hide the stench of his true nature is only temporary…. The stench of spiritual corruption thus cannot be long disguised with pious actions.”

It strikes me that in my dealings with others, I have the opportunity to bring the beautiful aroma of service and hospitality, or the delightful fragrance of devotion and generosity, or the stench of insincerity and condescension.  Many years ago, Henry David Thoreau advised, “Behave so the aroma of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere.”

A Weeping Savior

Greek and Roman mythology believed in gods who were heartless, who had no care for humans.  William Barclay points out that, in Greek thinking, one of the greatest attributes of the gods was the Greek word apatheia, from which we get the English word apathy—the lack of care.  Indeed, heartfelt concern by the gods for people was punished harshly.   When Prometheus took pity on people and gave to them the gift of fire, Zeus—the chief of the gods—punished Prometheus harshly, binding him to a rock in the Caucuses where an eagle would descend upon him daily to eat Prometheus’ liver, only to have it grow back again each night so the punishment could be repeated each new day.  There was no place in the courts of Zeus for such a thing as pity toward humans.

But when God revealed Himself to the world in Jesus, what the world saw was a very different kind of God than what the Greeks and Romans expected.  When Jesus came to the tomb of his friend Lazarus who had died four days earlier, and when he saw the people weeping, John 11:33 records that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”  

The Greek word used here to describe Jesus as being greatly disturbed in spirit is enebrimasato (from the verb embrimaomai).  The word was used in classical Greek to describe the snorting of an angry horse.  When John got around to recording this miracle, he recalled that Jesus was so moved by Mary’s grief and the tears of the others that he snorted like an angry horse.

In the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures) this word is used in Daniel 11:30 to express violent displeasure.  John recalls that Jesus was so deeply moved in spirit that he showed violent displeasure over the grief that surrounded him.

Jesus does not reveal a God who is apathetic toward our sorrows but one is passionately moved by our grief. 

John 11:35 goes on to report, “Jesus began to weep.”  Even though he knew that he would raise Lazarus back to life, Jesus felt their sorrow so fully that he joined the mourners in their grieving. 

Ken Gire asks the question, “Which is most amazing?  To have a God who raises the dead?  Or to have a God who weeps?”

It is no surprise to me that Jesus could raise the dead.  If Jesus is God, and if God is all powerful, then I can expect God to do miraculous things.

But who would expect to meet a God who feels our pain so deeply with us that he cries?

In his book Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff writes, “Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.  It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one can see his splendor and live.  A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live.  Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor.” 

That quote stirs my soul.  Perhaps the most incredible aspect of God’s character is his willingness to take unto himself all of our sorrow!  How can any mortal look upon the fullness of sorrow that God takes upon Himself and survive?  Jesus can do it because he is all-powerful; he does do it because he is full of love for us!

A Disgusting Question

John 9:1-2 tells us, “As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’”    

What a disgusting question this is!  What a disgusting thing it is to approach life from the viewpoint that a birth defect or a health challenge is because of one’s sin or the sin of one’s parents! 

Consider the repercussions of either option:

If this man and his parents and their friends and relatives believed that his blindness from birth was the result of the man’s sin at birth or even before birth, how would they have treated him as a baby?  Would they have cooed over him as a “sweet little gift from God” whom they delighted in?  Or would they have withdrawn from him as a sinner who brought on his own disability?  As he grew and reached that inevitable milestone when young people begin to question their own worth and potential, would he be able to look beyond the oft repeated judgment that he is a sinner, justly cursed by God.  Throughout his life, those who looked upon him as having deserved blindness had dismissed him or pitied him as the object of God’s displeasure. 

If, on the other hand, it was believed that it was his parents’ sin that caused his blindness, what depth of guilt and shame that would have inflicted on the parents!  After listening to a lecture about “how fear inflicts illness and love cures it,” Dr. Jen Gunter, a gynecologist and blogger, wrote to the lecturer in anguish, “Can you explain how fear killed my son who died after 3 minutes of life?  After hearing you speak…I was left thinking his death was because I didn’t love him enough.”  How cruel to suggest that a newborn’s death or a newborn’s blindness is because of a parent’s sin!

The problem is that the people of Jesus’ day were influenced by an ancient version of the prosperity gospel—the idea that God rewards “good” people with blessings while visiting sickness and misfortune on those who are “bad.”  On top of that, the hearts of people in Jesus’ day were weighted down with a suffocating sense of fatalism—being resigned to the despair that whatever is going to happen to us is just going to happen.

The Japanese poet Issa provides the tragic epitome of fatalistic despair.  All five of Issa’s children died before he turned 30, then his young wife died as well.  Seeking consolation, Issa visited a Zen master, a Buddhist priest, who told him that the world is like a dew drop.  The sun rises and the dew evaporates.  That is all there is to life.  So Issa wrote this poem:

This Dewdrop world—

a dewdrop world it is, and still,

although it is….

There remained in Issa an unsatisfied longing for something more than fatalism.

Fortunately, in John 9, Jesus offered something in sharp contrast to both the prosperity gospel and fatalism: Grace and Opportunity.

Jesus cast aside the prosperity gospel and its idea that misfortune and illness are the result of sin when he announced to his disciples, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”  He replaced the lie of the prosperity gospel with the good news of God’s grace.  He saw this man not as a philosophical talking point but as a man in need of Christ’s touch, a man loved by God.

And Jesus cast aside fatalism when he declared, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  He replaced the despair of fatalism with the hope of new opportunities.  I appreciate that Jesus did not say, “He was born blind so that I could do a miracle,” but said, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  A miracle is a singular event that is over in a matter of minutes.  Jesus focuses instead on the man’s life, and on the works (plural) that would reveal God to others.  It has to do with far more than the proper functioning of a pair of eyes, for the chapter goes on to address the blindness of the Pharisees whose physical eyes worked fine. 

Verse 6 tells us that Jesus “spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes.” 

Other times, Jesus simply spoke and a person was healed.  Why does he go through such a strange procedure to heal this man?

I can think of two reasons:

1: Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath by mixing a formula, knowing full well that what he did was looked upon as illegal work for a Sabbath.  Jesus was making a point to the man (and to all who had written this man off as disdained by God): “You are worth the effort.  You are worth the work—even if it gets me in trouble with the legalists.  Those who misunderstood God’s ways will keep on misunderstanding, but you matter to me!”

2: In mixing the mud from his spit and spreading it on his eyes, Jesus was mixing the very essence of his being with this man.  When I wanted to discover my ancestry, I spat into a vial and mailed it in for analysis.  It told me who I am.  Jesus gave his very self to this man.  Remember that others had withdrawn from this one whom they considered punished by God.  But Jesus made intimate connection with him.  He didn’t heal the man from a distance but close up and hands on.

Grace Conquers Shame

Does God care when we make a mess of our lives—or when someone else does that to us?  Does God care when we feel humiliated?    

One definition of humiliation points out that “humiliation involves an event that demonstrates unequal power in a relationship where you are in the inferior position and unjustly diminished.”  Other definitions of humiliation speak of manipulating a person, treating him or her as an object, subjecting a person to ridicule, scorn, or contempt, putting a person in a degrading position, demeaning a person, or subjecting a person to public shame. 

Our English word humiliation actually derives from the word humus, which is “the organic matter of the soil, as leaf mold and other decomposing materials.”  To humiliate someone is to reduce that person to the ground. 

Each of these perspectives on humiliation matches the experience of a woman whom we meet in John 8 who was “caught in the very act of committing adultery,” and who was made to stand before a crowd of people in the courtyard of the temple.  Scribes and Pharisees—the powerful men of the day—dragged her out of bed and forced her to stand beneath their accusations, as the object of public shame.  By all indications, she was manipulated into the position in which she was caught.  She stands there, in a degrading position before this crowd, subject to their ridicule, scorn, and contempt.  She is treated as an object—merely the bait used to try to trap Jesus.  She is humiliated; she is reduced to dirt before the crowd of onlookers. 

Where do we find Jesus while all of this is going on?

As the scene opens, Jesus is sitting at the temple, teaching the people.  When they stand the woman before him, he drops even lower.  John tells us that “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” 

What Jesus wrote in the dirt was not important enough to John to mention it in his record of this event; therefore it is of no importance to us.

What is important to John—and should be important to us—is where Jesus puts himself while this woman is being humiliated.  John tells us twice (in verses 6 and 8) that Jesus “bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.”

While this woman is being humiliated—reduced to the ground—that’s where we find Jesus.  He shares with her where she is. 

In the preface to his gospel, John tells us (in John 1:18), “No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Fathers heart, who has made him known.” 

What does this event in the temple that day reveal to us about God? 

Jesus shows us a God who comes down to meet us in our humiliation.  That is, in fact, what the incarnation is all about: Rather than remaining in heaven, looking down on us, God came into our sin-filled world in Jesus, as one of us.  He came down to meet us in our humiliation.

That’s what Jesus’ death was all about.  2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

And that’s what Pentecost is all about.  Pentecost is the celebration of God choosing to make his home in the mess of our own hearts.

God did not hold back the birth of Jesus until this world was good enough for his entry.  Nor did God hold back Jesus’ death until the world was good enough to deserve his death for us.  Nor does God hold back the Holy Spirit until we are good enough for God’s Spirit to enter our souls. 

What Jesus began to reveal to us when he bent down and wrote in the dirt that day is that the God we love is a God who bends down to meet us even at our lowest points.

Faith Lessons from Philip and Andrew

Faith is continually giving us opportunities to learn and to grow.

Two of Jesus’ disciples—Philip and Andrew—discovered this one day.    

While Jesus was teaching by the Sea of Galilee, a large crowd came to him.  Seeing their need for physical sustenance, Jesus asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” (John 6:5)  John adds to the text that Jesus “said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.”

From a Biblical perspective, testing is not for the sake of grading a person’s faith.  Nor is it for the purpose of promoting or flunking a person.  Testing, in a Biblical sense, has to do with refining or purifying or strengthening a person’s faith.  Many preachers have made a big deal of Philip’s answer, (“Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little”) as though Philip’s lack of faith deserved a failing grade.  But Jesus never makes such a comment, nor does he drop Philip from the group of apostles, replacing Philip with a more deserving individual.  Jesus knows that for each of us, faith is a work in progress.  Since God’s consistent goal is to keep strengthening our faith and to grow us in the likeness of Jesus, we can expect to encounter tests throughout our lives that can help us to grow stronger in faith and more like Christ. 

Jay Akkerman points out, “For two years, scientists sequestered themselves in an artificial environment called Biosphere 2.  Inside their self-sustaining community, the Biospherians created a number of mini-environments, including a desert, rain forest, even an ocean.  Nearly every weather condition could be simulated except one, wind.  Over time, the effects of their windless environment became apparent.  A number of acacia trees bent over and even snapped.  Without the stress of wind to strengthen the wood, the trunks grew weak and could not hold up their own weight.”

Helen Keller adds, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet.  Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

Through Philip, we learn that tests come along in our lives not to grade us or to weed us out, but to give us opportunities to grow in faith and in the likeness of Christ. 

John goes on to report, “One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.  But what are they among so many people?’” (John 6:8-9)

Andrew comes up with an idea.  It may not be much of an idea, but he presents it to Jesus anyway.  The word John uses to describe the fish is opsaria, a diminutive word, signifying that the fish were very small, like tiny sardines.  The bread is identified as barley, seen as an inferior bread, considered the bread of the poor.  It seems hardly worth mentioning them to Jesus, but Andrew does mention them.  With those small fish and barley bread, Jesus fed 5,000 people.

What we learn from Andrew is that when anything is given to Jesus—no matter how inadequate it might be—Jesus can do something great with it.

To put this in perspective, consider the following:

A basketball in my hands is worth $65.  A basketball in Lebron James’ hands is worth $20 million a year.  It depends whose hands it’s in.

A baseball in my hands is worth $7.  A baseball in Clayton Kershaw’s hands is worth $30 million a year.  It depends whose hands it’s in.

A football in my hands is worth $50.  A football in Tom Brady’s hands is worth $15 million a year.  It depends whose hands it’s in.

A rod in my hands might keep away a wild animal.  A rod in Moses’ hands parted the sea.  It depends whose hands it’s in.

A sling shot in my hands is a kid’s toy.  A sling shot in David’s hands slew Goliath.  It depends whose hands it’s in.

Two fish and five loaves of bread in my hands is a couple of fish sandwiches.  Two fish and five loaves of bread in Jesus’ hands fed thousands of hungry people.  It depends whose hands it’s in.

Nails in my hands might produce a birdhouse.  Nails in the hands of Jesus produced salvation for the entire world.  It depends whose hands it’s in.

We never know what God might do when we give the little bit we have to him.

Faith involves a willingness to change

I have had a life-long problem of getting a particular idea stuck in my head then missing out on new opportunities because my attention is funneled only toward the idea that is stuck in my head.

When I was 10 years old, I stood on a stage beneath a net holding over 100 balloons.  A man was talking to us, explaining that one of the balloons contained a slip of paper which announced “WINNER.”  The boy or girl who found that balloon would win a Dick Tracy-like wrist radio! 

But before he began speaking, I had already set within my mind the assumption that the winner of the wrist radio that I longed for would be the one who gathered the most balloons.  I did not listen to his instructions because my idea was firmly stuck in my head.  When the net was pulled away, and the balloons began to fall, I began grabbing as many balloons as I could.  The problem is, when you try filling your arms with lots of balloons, the inevitable happens: some balloons slip away as you stuff new balloons into your full arms.  Quite by accident, one of the balloons I grabbed happened to hold the winning slip of paper.  Either because time had expired or because the one running the contest was a friend of my father’s, the man put his hand on the winning balloon and said to me very nicely, “May I see this balloon?”

He was coming to my rescue, giving me the opportunity to win the prize, but I didn’t see it that way.  I thought he was stealing part of my precious and precarious collection.  So I told him to leave my balloons alone.

Fortunately for me, he was not put off by my rudeness.  Despite my silly protest, he popped the balloon, revealing the winning slip of paper, and gave me the wrist radio I had longed for.

One day Jesus met a man who had a similar problem of having his own idea stuck in his head.  The inability to get beyond the idea stuck in his head nearly cost that man far more than a silly wrist radio. 

This man had been disabled for thirty-eight years.  Much of that time he had spent by a certain pool of water in the northeastern section of Jerusalem.  The pool was commonly known as Beth-zatha, “House of the Olive,” but many people called it Bethesda, “House of Mercy,” since stories had been told of healings that took place within those waters.  The belief was that the waters were stirred at times by an angel and that the first person into the water after the angel had stirred them would be healed.  As a result, the porticos beside the pool were not a place of peaceful relaxation but a place of tense and anxious waiting.  The people there were not happy campers but weary watchers.  Jesus said to this particular man, “Do you want to be made well?” 

It should have been easy for the man to answer Jesus’ question, but he was unable to get past the idea that was stuck in his head.  So he said to Jesus, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

Fortunately for him, Jesus persisted.  Jesus repeated his offer to heal the man.  This time, though, he phrased it not as a gentle question but as a clear command: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 

I learn a couple of lessons from this passage:     

1: Jesus’ gentle invitation to heal this man and Jesus’ strong command to the man to get up and walk are both given to this man out of the same concern.  This holds true in our lives as well.  The promises God makes to us and the commands he gives to us both flow out of God’s consistent care for us.  If we appreciate his promises, we should also appreciate and heed his commands. 

2: Faith has to do with a willingness to set aside what is stuck in our own head so that we can respond to God’s leading.   

Robert Sutton writes, “A television program preceding the 1988 Winter Olympics featured blind skiers being trained for slalom skiing….  Paired with sighted skiers, the blind skiers were taught on the flats how to make right and left turns.  When that was mastered, they were taken to the slalom slope, where their sighted partners skied beside them shouting, ‘Left!’ and ‘Right!’  As they obeyed the commands, they were able to negotiate the course and cross the finish line, depending solely on the sighted skiers’ word.  It was either complete trust or catastrophe.  What a vivid picture of the Christian life!  In this world, we are in reality blind about what course to take.  We must rely solely on the Word of the only One who is truly sighted—God himself.” 

Faith is learning to hear Christ’s voice and to respond afresh—again and again—to his leading. 

A Quiet, Humble Sign

When they were playing baseball together on the world champion Oakland A’s, Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter said of Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson, “He’d give you the shirt off his back.  Of course he’d call a press conference to announce it.”

If you want the world to know about your kind-heartedness and generosity, that’s what you do.  And that’s what we might expect from God.  If God wants the world to know how great and awesome and powerful He is, shouldn’t we expect massive publicity and some enormous showing off on the part of God?

We do read about some awesome signs in Revelation 13:13-14 that persuade many people to believe: “It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth….”  But the one who performs those impressive and persuasive signs is the enemy of God! 

When God actually came into our world in the person of Jesus, He handled things quite differently.

John 4:54 reports, “Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee.”  So let’s look at the sign recorded in John 4:46-53 to find out what kind of sign Jesus uses to show off who He is. 

The sign begins with a “royal official” coming to Jesus, pleading with Him to heal his son who is at the point of death.  This is probably someone attached to King Herod Antipas—most likely Herod’s steward Chuza (for we learn in Luke 8:3 that Chuza’s wife becomes a devoted follower of Jesus).  What a great opportunity this is for Jesus to pull together all the “important” people in the land as well as a great multitude of others.  Jesus can bring them all together.  He can orchestrate some lightning from the sky or other special effects to wow people.  Then He can heal the boy, and the whole country will see how powerful and awesome He is!     

But that’s not what happens in these verses.  Jesus begins by complaining about people not believing unless they see signs and wonders.  Then He sends the official home with the simple promise that the boy will live.  While the official is on his way, messengers report that the child has recovered.  That means that nobody saw Jesus do anything dramatic. 

If the goal here was to provide a flashy sign to reveal the grandeur and power of God, then Jesus failed miserably.   

It seems, though, that Jesus’ intent was to reveal something different about God. 

This miracle is less about impressive power than about quiet, humble love.  The way in which this miracle takes place draws attention less to the power of God and more to the love of Christ. 

What kind of sign from God does our world need today?  Something that reveals the flashy power of God?  Or something that reveals the love of God?  Las Vegas and Hollywood provide plenty of flashy displays, but what our world needs is love.  Indeed, John 13:34-35 suggests that the way the world will see Jesus is through the love we show to others. 

The story is told of a disabled boy hurrying to catch a train one day.  Carrying packages under his arms, he was struggling with his crutches.  Suddenly, a man bumped into him, knocking his packages in all directions.  The man paused only long enough to scold the boy for getting in his way.  Another gentleman, seeing the youngster’s distress, quickly picked up the scattered packages and slipped a five dollar bill into the boy’s pocket, saying, “I’m sorry.  I hope this makes up for your trouble.”    

The boy, not accustomed to such kindness being shown to him, said, “Thanks, Mister.”  Then he asked, “Are you Jesus?” 

The man replied, “No, but I am one of His followers.”

Perhaps that’s the sign the world needs to see more of these days: More Christians displaying God’s love to others.