Easter and God’s Laughter

Easter and God’s Laughter

Written by Matt Benton, Pastor of Bethel United Methodist Church in Woodbridge, VA.

Why do the nations conspire,
    and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves,   
and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
    and cast their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
    the Lord has them in derision.

Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
    and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” – Psalm 2:1-6

We conspired.  We plotted.  We counseled together.  We hatched a plot.  We arrested the Innocent One.  We tortured the Prince of Peace.  We killed the Lord of Life.  We hung the Holy One of God on a tree.  We shouted curses and jeers at the Blessed One.  We crucified Jesus of Nazareth.

God came into the world and we cried “NO!”  We told God that this was our world and we were content to be our own kings and rulers.  And we shoved God out as loudly and as violently as we could.

But today isn’t a day for remorse.  Today isn’t a day for sorrow.  Today isn’t a day for grieving.

Today is a day for laughter!

CHRIST IS RISEN!  HE IS RISEN INDEED!  God shouts this day that God’s Son is the King of Zion.  And He has been raised from the dead.  He has been raised to live and to reign forever and ever.  God has set His Son in the highest place.  God has defeated death.  God has defeated sin.  God has defeated evil.  Forever and ever, Amen!

And in so doing God has exposed sin, death, and evil for what they are: losers.  Things defeated.  Things finished.  Sin will not define us.  Death will not hold us captive.  And evil has no power where Jesus reigns.

This is our victory.  This is our celebration!

So, we also laugh.  We laugh at the sin that had so long ensnared us.  We laugh at death that once held pompous sway.  We say, “where O death is your victory?” (Paul’s version of shouting “SCOREBOARD!”)  We laugh at the principalities and powers that thought they could defeat our God.  We laugh at any notion that our God could be outdone by evil. 

Our God wins!  Our God reigns!  Our God is the victory!

Jesus Christ is Risen!  He is Risen Indeed!

And ours is the victory.  God’s Yes in Jesus is God’s Yes to us, a yes that says we are loved (any notion that you aren’t lovable is laughable).  A yes that says we are not forsaken (any notion that says we are alone is laughable).  A yes that says we are God’s children and heirs (any notion that says God doesn’t love us is laughable).  A yes that says God is with us forever and we shall be with God forever (any notion that says we are condemned is laughable).  A yes that says God will redeem every bit of us until we are who God has always made us to be (any notion that says our past will forever define us is laughable). 

Laugh today.  Celebrate today.  Be joyous and raucous and boisterous today.  Because Jesus is Risen.  And God is laughing.

Cursed is the One who Hangs On A Tree

Cursed is the One who Hangs On A Tree

Written by Brian Johnson, Pastor of Haymarket Church in Haymarket, VA. Brian Johnson is the husband of Trinity’s Communications Consultant Kim Johnson.

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“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us—because it is written, Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed.” – Galatians 3:13

            Paul, the early Christian missionary who wrote much of the Old Testament, had a problem.  Paul had spent his life studying, learning, trying to obey God’s law.  And, in the law – in what we would call the Old Testament – there is this very clear statement that “everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed” (Deuteronomy 21:23).  Paul believed – as he had spent his whole life believing – that the law was a direct message to the people from God, a message that told them how to live, how to act, what mattered to God.

            And so, when he heard about Jesus, he knew deep down that Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah, because the Messiah was the promised savior, God’s chosen and blessed one, and Jesus had died a cursed death: hanging on a cross, from a tree.  So, Paul became an intense opponent of the early Christians, because he was sure that they were dead wrong.  But, then, Paul had this radical experience while traveling– overwhelmed by a blinding light, he heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him, calling him to follow Jesus and share his Good News.

            So, now, Paul’s got a problem.  He believes that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s chosen savior for the people.  And if God has chosen Jesus, he must be blessed.  But, Paul also still believes that God’s word in the Old Testament is true – which means that Jesus, as someone who was put to death on a cross, is somehow cursed.  How can Paul hold these two radically divergent – even contradictory – ideas together?  How can someone be blessed – sent by God, even – and cursed at the same time?

            The answer Paul comes up with – an answer he passes down to us through the New Testament – is that Jesus bore the curse for us.  The logic of Paul’s argument is this: the law, as found in the Old Testament, is pretty clear: those who follow it, who do everything that it says we should do, will be blessed.  But those who fail to keep the law in its entirety are under the law’s curse.  The reality, as Paul points out (and as anyone who has ever been a human being knows), is that we all fall short, we all screw up, even the best of us fail sometimes.  The line between good and evil, it has been said, doesn’t run between people, or between groups of people.  The line between good and evil, between light and darkness, runs down the center of every human heart.  So, says Paul, we are all deserving of punishment.  We are all, in a sense, under a curse. 

            Paul sees Jesus hanging on a tree, on the cross, and he sees something amazing happen.  Jesus, he says, is taking on the curse on behalf of the rest of us. He who had no sin, who was the only person ever to be free from the power of sin, has nevertheless accepted the full weight of sin, he has borne the curse for us, so that we might be set free, so that we might receive God’s promise, so that we might come to know, to be, God’s own righteousness.  He takes what we deserve, and accepts it for himself, so that we might know, experience, revel in what he deserves: God’s goodness, God’s love, God’s light.  Because Jesus accepted the full weight of sin, because he suffered under sin’s curse, everyone else who has ever been cursed, who has ever sinned, is given forgiveness instead.

            We aren’t nearly as comfortable talking about curses these days as Paul and his contemporaries were.  And, yet, let’s be honest: there is much about this world that is not as it should be.  Disease, hatred, bigotry, injustice, oppression, greed, hunger, fear, white supremacy, poverty – there is much in this world that is broken.  There is much that is wrong that needs to be put right.  We might even, if we want to use spiritual language, call some of that stuff “a curse.” In Jesus, God says, “I see all the evil you’ve done, I see the injustice you’ve ignored, I see the broken systems that put the poor and vulnerable more at risk when things like famine and pandemic and disasters strike, and it’s going to take a lot of painful work to put it right, but I love you too much to make you bear the weight of your curse – and, anyway, it’s too much for you to bear – so, I’ll bear your curse myself.”

            Jesus is God entering into our world and giving us something better than we deserve – better than we could ever earn on our own.  Jesus is God saying, “there are real consequences to all the evil you have done – cosmic consequences. But I won’t make you face those consequences on your own.  I will face them for you.” 

            No matter what brokenness we face, no matter what evils we encounter, we do not face them alone.  God, in Jesus Christ, has borne the curse for us.  Thanks be to God.

Adam and Jesus in the Garden

Adam and Jesus in the Garden

Written by Matt Benton, Pastor of Bethel United Methodist Church in Woodbridge, VA.

Two stories and their settings are the same.  A man stands in a garden, before God, and is afraid.

Two stories whose settings are the same, but couldn’t be more different.

Adam stands in the Garden of Eden.  He has just eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  He’s naked.  He’s ashamed.  And he hears God walking through the garden.  God is seeking him out, ready for their evening stroll.

But Adam has disobeyed.  He has done what God specifically told him not to do.  HE HAD ONE JOB!  He knows that the second God sees him, God will know.  Know what he’s done.  Know that he’s disobeyed.  Know that he’s failed.

So he hides.

He’s afraid.  He’s afraid of what God will do to him.  What will happen when the truth of his actions is brought to light.  He’s afraid that he cannot stand before God, he’s afraid of what will happen when he stands before God.

Jesus stands in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He’s praying.  He’s praying so hard he’s sweating blood.  He’s afraid.  But unlike Adam, he’s not afraid of God.  He’s not afraid because of his disobedience.  He’s not worried about what God will do to him.  He’s afraid of what we will do to him.

“Father, let this cup pass from me!” he prays.  He is not worried about the price of his disobedience.  He is worried about the cost of his obedience.  What it will mean for him to be obedient to God’s will.  “Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”  Adam couldn’t help but be disobedient; Jesus cannot help but be obedient.

Adam fears that the price of his disobedience deserves death.  Jesus is afraid because the cost of his obedience is death.

Adam fears that, because of his disobedience, his relationship with God will be severed.  Jesus fears that his obedience will, for a time, sever the link between the Father and the Son.

Adam leaves the garden walking on his own.  Jesus leaves the garden committed to walking fully with God, even if that means walking to His death.

How much of our lives do we spend with Adam in the garden, fearing the results of our own disobedience?  Afraid that God will discover exactly who we are and what we have done?  How often do we fear standing before God knowing that we have not been faithful?  How often do we try so hard to hide from God, lest God feel about us the way we feel about ourselves?

What if, instead, we prayed in the garden with Jesus?  We prayed for Jesus to have the strength to be obedient where we have been disobedient?  To watch the conviction in Jesus’ eyes, the love in Jesus’ eyes.  What if instead of focusing our thoughts on our own disobedience we focused instead on Jesus’ obedience?

Tomorrow, Jesus will go to the cross out of obedience to God.  Out of love for you and for me.  On Sunday Jesus will defeat death, defeat sin, defeat those things that we fear alienate us from God.

Today, leave behind Adam’s garden and its fear of alienation.  Leave behind the fear of what God will do to you should your obedience be discovered.  Leave behind the shame.  Join Jesus in Gethsemane.  See what God will do in order to show God’s love.  See what God will do to win your salvation.  Stop looking at all the things you and Adam haven’t done.  Look instead at what God does.

The Suffering Servant

The Suffering Servant

Written by Hung Su Lim, Associate Pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Richmond, VA.

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 Isaiah proclaims a profound message to the people in exile. This prophet sings a new song of hope and speaks comfort to the people, and his message is unique and powerful, written for a people who experience devastation and have to live in despair in a foreign country. The series of his messages called “Servant Songs” (Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-7, 52:13-53:12) offers hope and envisions a new possibility for the future.

“But here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight. I’ve put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations.” (42:1)

Isaiah identifies the servant as the one God has chosen and put the spirit to carry on God’s mission. The servant is called to bring justice to the nations. The people who are in exile and suffering might have expected to hear a message of retaliation or retributive justice through the military messiah (anointed one). But this kind of servant is called to bring light to the nation so that God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth (49:6). This mission is not nationalistic but universal. The image of the servant repeats the way that God calls and blesses Abraham and Sarah, “In you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:3) God’s chosen ones should not live for their own sake or their own benefit, but should be a light for the nations.

Thus, Isaiah gives us a critical message because we, as human beings, tend to put ourselves first. If we are exploited or abused, we want retribution as justice. Of course, God confronts those who exploit the poor and advocates justice for them. But the mission that the servant is called to do is for all the families on earth, not for her/himself. Furthermore, the lifestyle of the servant is stunning because it may lead to times of suffering and humiliation. Being a light for the nations is not easy and requires sacrifice.

I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” (50:6) 

How could the servant tolerate humiliation and confront this injustice? How could the servant have been living as the suffering one? Suffering has been a deep issue in human history, and there is no easy answer to these questions of why. But the servant has found meaning in suffering. The one who is willing to suffer for the sake of God’s mission will make redemption and wholeness available for all. Suffering is not the end of the story because it can be redemptive and bring light to the nations. That does not answer the serious questions of why, but suffering can mean and make a difference beyond what the servant willingly embraces.

“But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises, we are healed.” (53:5)

The image of the suffering servant is both an image of the community in exile and an image of how the early church understands Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. Jesus is the perfect example of the suffering servant who dies to save all. So, these texts become meaningful once the community of faith claims its belief and faith through them. They offer a meaningful way to follow what they are called to do.

We enter into a time of self-denial and repentance in Lent. Lent offers an excellent opportunity to reflect on the lifestyle of the suffering servant. It is a crucial time for us to identify who we are as God’s servants. When we also claim ourselves as God’s servants, we may be able to follow the examples of Jesus Christ, who lived as the suffering servant on earth and loved all unconditionally. Lent invites us to be a light and bring justice to the nations, even though we may undergo a time of humiliation and suffering. We have hope because God may use our sacrifices, suffering, and pains to bring redemption and restoration for others. Then, we can follow Jesus and his loving ways because Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

“My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”

“My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”

Written by Elaine Ellis Thomas, Rector of All Saints Episcopal Parish in Hoboken, NJ.

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As part of my training for ordained ministry, I spent a summer as a hospice chaplain. Sitting at the bedside praying with those nearing life’s end was an extraordinarily holy time. For those with dementia or who were otherwise non-responsive, it always seemed like something of a miracle that, as soon as I began to say the Lord’s Prayer or sing an old hymn, from somewhere in the recesses of memory, they could recite or sing along with me. The 23rd psalm was another favorite. Everyone seemed to know the words.

When you grow up in church, spend your life in bible study or daily and weekly liturgies, the words that we say and pray become like breath to us. For Jesus, the psalms would have been the hymns he learned from childhood. It is no wonder that, in the moment of his greatest distress, he would cry out to God in dereliction and anguish. This was his language. These were the words inscribed on his heart. 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

As with all psalms of lamentation, Psalm 22 does not stay with the theme of abandonment. It moves through God’s faithfulness, a prayer for relief, and a promise to praise God for deliverance, but Jesus only gets out those first words.

The onlookers and others gathered around enacted other parts, deliberately or not. They pierce his hands and feet and cast lots for his clothing. They mock and scorn him; they taunt him saying 

“He trusted in the LORD; let him deliver him;
    let him rescue him, if he delights in him.” (v. 8)

The gathered chorus fulfills the verses of the psalm while Jesus remains at the opening cry of sheer rejection.

But Jesus knew the psalms. Was there some glimmer of hope in his lament? Did he recall that God’s faithfulness endures forever, that “They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done” (v. 30)?

Perhaps not, but this is the promise to us. In the salvific work of the cross, we are not forsaken. Even as we cry out to God during these months of pandemic and death and anxiety and loss, we know that 

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to
                             the LORD, *
    and all the families of the nations bow before him. (v. 26)

Stories of fish with Jonah and Jesus

Stories of fish with Jonah and Jesus

Written by Hyo G. Kim, Pastor of the West Brunswick Charge in Farmville, VA.

Jesus eats a fish; a fish eats Jonah.

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Jonah is a book about God’s calling for repentance, obedience, salvation, grace, and so much more. It is one of the well-known stories that even people who never read the Bible know. Most people think of Jonah, who ran from God and was then swallowed up by a fish.

Yes, the “a big fish story” part of Jonah has intrigued me for a long time. Regardless of this book’s significant meaning, I was always obsessed with the story related to a fish. “How could a fish swallow up a human?” “Wow! Jonah survived from a fish belly.”

However, there is also an opportunity to find connections and play with the analogical meaning of fish between Jesus and Jonah. What makes these two characters different? It is obedience. Jonah ran from the difficult calling God gave Him (Jonah 1:3), whereas Jesus perfectly obeyed God’s will and went to the cross. Interestingly, I found the difference in how they play with a fish. The Bible challenges us, “Are you gonna eat a fish or let a fish eat you up?” This impractical question is asked and determines our character of obedience in faith. 

A fish is often used as an intermediary in scenes where obedience needs to be explained.

An obedient little boy brings five loaves and two fishes. Consequently, many people could share fish to eat. What would people think while eating those fishes?

When Jesus was just resurrected and appeared to disciples, He asked them to bring food. They gave him a piece of broiled fish (Luke 24:42). What would they think while resurrected Jesus was eating a piece of fish?

Undoubtedly, a fish is considered as a food in those contexts in the Bible. The laws of nature and the logic of the cycle of life are simple. To live, people must eat food. From this point of view, obedience thus eating a fish is not simply an act of following. This is the matter of life.

Are you going to live by eating fish? Or are you eaten by a fish and die?

A big fish ate disobedient Jonah for three days. What would Jonah think of himself for three days in a fish belly?

I remember being an 8-year-old and going fishing with my father for the first time in my life. Before throwing the fishing rod, my father said, “Wait a minute, I’ll teach you how to fish!” I couldn’t wait and threw a fishing rod without listening to my father’s advice, thinking of catching that big, nice fish. What was the cost of disobedience? The fishing hook I threw caught on my forehead and was pulling at my flesh. I was in pain and said to myself. “I came to fish but caught myself in pain.”

Are you ready to follow Jesus? Are you ready to fish?

Jesus called the disciples and said, “Follow me, I will make you become fishers of men” (Mark 1:17).

Remember that Jesus ate a fish, and a fish ate Jonah. Which one are you?