Tag Archive | Jesus

Shadowy Faith

Nicodemus

Jesus and Nicodemus by Crijn Hendricksz, 1616–1645

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  (John 3:1-2)

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  (John 7:50-51)

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.  Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. (John 19:38-40)

***

          He was an upstanding citizen, this Nicodemus.  A member of the religious Council of the Jewish people.  Respected.  Probably envied by many for his position among the leaders of his time. 

          But he was very much his own person.  A quiet man, it would seem.  Not one to make a big brouhaha about his position or about his faith.  Yes, he was part of the religious Council, and he probably kept all the laws and rules that were on the books.  But he had his questions, too.  And he wasn’t afraid of those questions.  A bit afraid, perhaps, of letting his fellow Council members know that he had questions, but not so afraid that he didn’t take himself to Jesus for that midnight conversation which is so well known and has been celebrated in numerous sermons and works of art down through the centuries.

          He doesn’t seem to have had all his questions answered in that conversation, however.  He did not become an open follower of Jesus.  He rather remained a member of the Council that was always suspiciously watching Jesus’ every move, always plotting to find a way to get rid of this Upstart who was undermining their dignity and their authority.  “Why didn’t you arrest him?” they asked the Temple Police after Jesus had stood in the Temple one day, inviting any who were thirsty to come to him and experience living waters flowing through their lives. 

          “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  Nicodemus speaking, in response to the Council’s chiding of the Temple Police.  He wasn’t exactly proclaiming his faith in this Jesus, but he was certainly defending Jesus, even though it meant putting his own reputation at considerable risk. 

          Then came the cross.  We don’t know where Nicodemus was when Jesus was hanging on that cross, but my guess is that he was standing somewhere on the fringes of the gathered crowd, sifting through his conflicting emotions about this death.  Had the other Council members maybe been right?  Had this Jesus been merely a hoax and not really a teacher come from God as he had once believed—or at least wanted to believe?  Would God have allowed one of his prophets to die in such a cruel manner?

          Whatever his thoughts.  Whatever his questions.  Whatever his disappointment and grief, John tells us that Nicodemus teamed up with Joseph of Arimathea to help in the burial of the body of Jesus.  Made sure that this Jesus, whoever and whatever he might have been, was given a dignified burial.

          An interesting man, Nicodemus.  A man with a shadowy kind of hopeful faith in Jesus, but a faith filled with a myriad of questions.  A man with a deep longing for something more than what the Council and its religious observances and explanations offered.  A man who stood up for justice.  A man with profound human compassion.  A man who deserves our deep attention and respect.

          I have some dear friends whose middle names might well be Nicodemus.  They long for God and for a close and meaningfully deep relationship with this enigmatic Jesus of the gospels.  But they have so many questions.  So many deep questions.  So many profound questions.  So many questions, in fact, that sometimes their faith feels blown away by all the riddles that life presents.  Yet, like Nicodemus, they spend a good bit of time searching for Jesus, sometimes in the darkest nights of their lives.  Like Nicodemus too, they usually stand by and stand up for those who are being unfairly treated by others. And also like Nicodemus, they will often be found caring for the needs of others—visiting those in distress, serving at soup kitchens, loving a very difficult adult child, passing along gift cards to strangers, sitting with a dying neighbor.

          I don’t know if Nicodemus ever became an “open” believer.  I don’t know what happened to him after the night of the burial of Jesus’ corpse.  I don’t know if he ever learned about the resurrection.  I don’t need to know.  What I do know is that I wish there was more of Nicodemus in all of our lives.  More of his questing.  More of his courage and integrity in standing up for the just treatment of others.  More of his compassion. 

          In an age when so many seem so sure they have The Truth, Nicodemus and his questing spirit are so welcome.  In an age when defending The Truth seems more important than caring about justice and tending to the needs of others, Nicodemus’ words and actions point to a more humane way, a more Christ-like way, of being and believing in our oh-so-needy world.

          Jesus honored Nicodemus in that long night conversation.  John honored him in his stories of his later life.  I think we would do well to honor him as well in the way we live out our lives, in the way we live out our faith. 

Jesus–Always Showing Up

 

Jesus walking on water

Gustav Doré

1832-1883

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified.  But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

John 6:15-21

          Why did they do it?  The disciples had just seen Jesus feed a multitude of people with 5 barley loaves and two fish—quite a stunning feat!  So why, after that, did those 12 men jump into a boat and in spite of the darkness, the strong wind and the rough sea, head across the Sea of Galilee, leaving Jesus to fend for himself ?

          Were they irked, perhaps, that Jesus had not let the crowd “take him by force to make him king?”  If he was the Messiah, then why not let the people crown him as their king?  Yes, they knew he kept talking about “his time not yet having come,” but…what was he waiting for?  Here had been a perfect opportunity, and Jesus had blown it by wandering off to a nearby mountain for some solitude and prayer.  And this delay, of course, meant a delay, not just for him, but also for all their hopes and dreams of the special positions of honor and power they would be awarded in his kingdom.   Did Jesus not appreciate their loyal service?  Apparently not.  Well, let him wander off then.  They would simply leave him be and take care of themselves, thank you very much!

          Or were they, perhaps, simply tired?  It had been a long day, after all, crowded with travel and with needy, hungry people that Jesus had insisted they feed.  Yes, certainly it had been impressive to watch Jesus take the loaves and fish and distribute them to that huge crowd.  But then they, the disciples, had had to be the ones to clean up all the mess the crowd had left.  And what a mess it had been!  Maybe those disciples just wanted to get home to grab some much-needed sleep.

          So off they went into the stormy night, probably cursing the wind, cursing the waves, and maybe even cursing their Master for his mysterious and often annoying ways.

          And then that terrifying figure walking across that stormy sea.  A sea demon?  A ghost about to turn them all into ghosts? 

          “It is I.  Do not be afraid.”   The silence as Jesus stepped into their boat and calmed the raging storm.  The even greater silence as those disciples heard his voice, his “It is I,” Έγώ ϵἰμι, “I am,” the very name of the God the 12 had worshiped from their earliest years.

          The quieting of that vicious storm was the second amazing miracle the disciples witnessed that day.  No wonder they were stunned into silence.   But it seems to me that there’s yet another miracle in this story, a third miracle, a miracle hidden within the folds of the miracle of the stilling of the storm.  That miracle is the reality that Jesus came to them at all!  Came to the very men who had abandoned him just a few hours before, leaving him stranded on the far side of the Sea of Galilee. 

          Miracle indeed.  And isn’t this a miracle that repeats itself in our own lives as well, over and over again?  We often “leave” our Lord for a time for any number of reasons.  Sometimes we just want to pursue our own agendas, our own concerns.  Sometimes it’s because something has annoyed us about the way the so-called followers of Jesus behave.  Sometimes we’re just tired of trying to love God with all our hearts, trying to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We just need a break—want to have a little fun in our lives.  Sometimes we may be a bit irked with Jesus.  He seems to have wandered off into the mountains again, instead of responding to our longings and needs, and we are not pleased.  

          And then he shows up.  In our weakness.  In our neediness.  In our careless self-centeredness and forgetfulness.  In our anger.  Jesus comes to us.  Comes to us with his simple, powerful presence.  Comes and speaks the word we so need to hear, “Έγώ ϵἰμι.  It is I.  Do not be afraid.”  

          Miracle indeed.


 

Cursing Fig Trees, Moving Mountains, and Praying: A Lenten Reflection on St. Mark 12:12-24

dead tree

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, [Jesus] was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.  He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

St. Mark 12:12-24

***

I really wish Jesus hadn’t said what he said in the last paragraph of the passage above. Or, at least I wish the gospel writer had given us something of the conversation that must have immediately followed this, so we could have a better sense of what Jesus might have had in mind in this rather enigmatic statement.

Could Jesus possibly have meant, when he used that word “whatever,” that if I asked for a luxury car or a condo in Switzerland, or for my friend to be healed of his terminal cancer, that God would certainly provide that, if only my faith were strong enough? If only I prayed my prayer just right, with all the right words? If only I thought more positively about God and what God can do? A casual reading certainly suggests this, and as a result, thousands of Christians down through time have either given up on God or beat up on themselves, thinking they simply did not have sufficient faith.

Such a shame, as I believe this passage can deeply enrich our prayer lives, but only if it is understood in the context of the whole of Jesus’ life and teachings. So I like to imagine that a conversation something like this might have followed Jesus’ words to his disciples that day.

***

Peter: Wow! That is really something, Rabbi. I love that kind of power! I’d love to zap some people the way you zapped that fig tree! And I’d love to move a few mountains in my life!

Jesus: But Peter, I “zapped” that fig tree to underscore what I just did in Jerusalem when I went through the temple and denounced the flagrant abuse of that holy space. My “zapping” of that fig tree was simply to show you God’s power when it comes in judgment on those who abuse their faith to enhance themselves and make life more difficult for others.  

Peter: Oh! So you mean it wouldn’t work if I was just angry at my wife or at my friend John here and uttered a curse on them? Rats! But maybe just as well. I know I’m hot-tempered, and I’d probably feel so sorry for what I did the very next day. But I’d still be interested in just how I could muster enough faith to move some of the mountains in my life.

Jesus: Well, Peter, as to removing mountains, that takes a little more explaining. It’s true.  Sometimes God does remove mountain-like obstacles in our lives.  Sometimes God doesn’t.  Sometimes God simply asks us to live with these obstacles and to grow an inner, mountain-solid  strength as we struggle with them day after day after day.  But there is one mountain–the Mount of Olives, visible just just over your shoulder, which God, in God’s time, is most definitely planning to move.  I wonder if you might recall the passage from Zechariah where the prophet uses highly symbolic language and predicts that the Mount of Olives will be split in two at the time of God’s final coming to earth to rescue his people.

Peter: Well, I was never really good, Jesus, at remembering all the promises I was taught as a child, but I think I do remember that passage, as the image is so startling. Isn’t that the one where the prophet is talking about God’s coming judgment and God’s coming reign, a wonderful time when there will be no more night and when living waters will flow out of Jerusalem and spread across all the earth? And yes, the prophet does say that “on that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that one half of the Mount shall withdraw northward, and the other half southward”? (Zechariah 14)

Jesus: Yes, that’s it Peter. And my rather cryptic statement to you was really a reminder of that promise. Some terrible things are going to happen in the days ahead, but I wanted to reassure you that if you pray for God’s coming kingdom, you can trust wholeheartedly that it will someday come. So whenever you see the Mount of Olives, Peter, Friend, remember the poetic imagery of Zechariah’s prophecy, and let your prayer be for God to come and establish God’s reign. God will indeed answer that prayer! You will then see walls and mountains shattered all around!

Peter: Okay, okay. I think I’m beginning to understand what you meant about moving mountains. Sometimes your words are so mysterious, Rabbi ! I guess you do want us to think more carefully and deeply about the things you say. And I promise to try. But what about that last bit of what you said, when you said that whatever I ask for in prayer, if I believe, I will surely receive it? That sounds pretty straightforward to me!

Jesus: Well, Peter, let’s look at this a little more closely too. I do want you to ask for whatever your heart longs for. But I also want you to be aware that as you pray, believing that with God nothing is impossible, believing that God will respond to your faith, you may discover, as you draw closer into God’s orbit, that some of your desires may change. Right now you would love to zap or remove some of the troublesome people and situations in your life. Tell this to God. Believe that God is understanding and responding to you. But also be prepared to be in dialogue with God, to listen to God as well as to speak to God. And be prepared to grow and change in your innermost desires.  

Peter: Well, that’s a bummer. I guess I should have known that you had something like that up your sleeve. I know you spend hours and hours alone with God, and you always come away with a renewed determination and strength, a new confidence in your mission and purpose in life, even in those times when everything seems to be going against you.   Okay. So maybe I have a bit to learn. Maybe I have to really open up to God, learn to trust that phrase from Psalm 56: “this I know, that God is for me,” even when things and people aren’t going just the way I’d like them to go in my life.

Jesus: Now I think you’re beginning to get it, Peter. It is something like that. My own dreams for the kingdom have had to be “revised” as I’ve gone along. But I keep going back to God in prayer, and even when I’m shaking my fist at God because things are happening so slowly and so haphazardly, I still have a deep sense that God is with me, that God is for me, that God is shaping me and my desires, even as I bring myself more fully to trust in the mystery of the working out of God’s purposes. I’ve told you that I believe that I am going to be put to death before too much longer. Do I want this? No, I do not. And when the time comes, don’t be surprised if you hear me begging God to “let this cup pass from me.” I will be praying then exactly what my heart longs for, to be spared a vicious and violent death. But I hope you will then also hear me pray, “Your will be done,” because I think that’s where all our deepest prayers must culminate. Not with an “okay, God, I give up” sense, but rather with a deep trust that, no matter what happens, God is there for me, for us, bringing us and our world a little closer to what God has in mind for each of us and for our world.

Peter: Whew! That’s a lot to digest. Think I’ll ever be able to learn all of that, Rabbi? Ever really be able to pray like that? I sort of preferred my simplistic understanding of your zapping that fig tree and your promising us whatever we ask for in faith.

Jesus: Just keep working at it, Peter. I can assure you. Growing a meaningful faith is truly the task of a lifetime, but it is a most worthwhile task. As you work at this, there will be the joy of knowing God and knowing yourself more intimately, more fully. And yes, there will be struggles as well. There will be questions. There will be sorrows. But you will not be alone, even when it will sometimes feel as though you have been abandoned by the very God to whom you pray. Somewhere, somehow, in the depths of your soul, even when you are crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? why have you forgotten me?” I can assure you that you will experience an Unnamable Calm, and you will be enabled to say—and really mean it—“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

 

Old Bartimaeus

blind-man-healed

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Mark 10:46-52 (NRSV)

****

Old Bartimaeus, his

memory held in trembling hands,

gout and loss enveloping his muscles, bones,

sorrow wrapped around his mind;

does he remember that day so long ago, when all of life

stood still so he could see the colors of his world?

*

Remember sitting by the road,

blind and crying out to Jesus—

bellowing, really—desperate and terrified of

being overlooked yet one more time?

Remember that Jesus-crowd surging past, too busy

singing happy praise to notice some poor

bawling soul along their path? Remember

Jesus stopping, standing still? Remember

rush of wonder as he sensed he had

become the center of celestial awe—wind and

angels, saints and ancient stars all gazing down on

him in hushed respect, as David’s Son stood

still for him, for him, a lowly, raucous beggar, a

good-for-little blinded man? Remember Jesus

scooping up his eager faith, telling him to

go on his way—sighted, whole,

ecstatically jumping for joy?

*

So long ago.

He now himself stands often still, when he can

stand at all, his body so misshapen, his voice

mere whisper, his mind so tentative. But

now and then, a smile will crease his ancient face; his

eyes will shine with light, as he

recalls, imbibes, and claims that day when

Love stood still to drench his life with joy.

 

Two Stones for Mary

Tanner's Mary“Mary”

Henry Tanner (1859-1937)

46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” 48 But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12: 46-50)

***

          “How dare he!? Does he have any idea of how difficult being his mother has been? Any idea of how many nights I’ve tossed and turned into the wee hours of the morning, pondering the meaning of his life? Trying to balance the wonder of his birth with all the stress of nurturing him to adulthood? How dare he point to his disciples and name them as his mother? A sting I will not soon  forget!”

          Mary had come to see her son that day because she was concerned about the nasty rumors she had heard. Rumors that suggested Jesus had been casting out demons with the assistance of demonic power. She had come needing to hear him say, “Mother, not to worry. The rumors are not true. I am still going about my Father’s business.”

          But instead the words Mary heard through the open door seemed so dismissive of her. Of her, the one whom the angel in her youth had greeted as the “favored one” in God’s eyes! Of her, who had given birth to him under extremely difficult circumstances! Of her, who had lived during his toddler years as an immigrant in a foreign land in order to protect his life! How dare he!?

          I suspect that Mary spent many hours brooding over those sharp words. Wondering why she seemed to mean so little to her son. Wondering what her son was really all about. Wondering, for that matter, what God was all about. Difficult hours. Bitter hours.

          But somewhere in the quiet of those lonely hours, I like to think that Mary came to hear those painful words as a gift. A gift of discovering more truly who she really was. As a young woman she had been told by the angel that she was highly favored by God. She had been told by the Baptist’s mother that she was blessed among women, and she had watched as shepherds and wise men had knelt to worship her baby born in that manger. And as she had pondered all of this, she had known that she was special, known that she was truly beloved and blessed by God.

          But perhaps what she now also learned about herself as she pondered the seemingly harsh words of her son was that, beloved by God as she was, highly favored as she was, at the same time, she was also no more deeply loved by God, no more special to God than the lowliest of the low who followed her son. Hadn’t she once heard her son say something similar to this? About the lowliest member of his movement being greater than that bigger-than-life prophet, John the Baptist? Now his words seemed to be saying the very same thing to her. Teaching her that, even as she relished and rejoiced in the attention God had lavished on her, to be most true as a person, she still needed to understand that she was no more valuable in God’s eyes than the children she often saw Jesus holding in his arms.

          Centuries after Mary and Jesus walked this earth, a Jewish rabbi from Poland would teach his people a lesson very similar to the lesson Mary learned as she pondered her life and the words of her son. This rabbi would tell his listeners that they should each carry two stones with them at all times. Frequently, he would say, they should hold each stone, gently rub it, and learn well the words inscribed on it. One stone should carry the words: “for my sake the world was created.” The other, these words—“I am nothing but dust and ashes.”

          Two stones. In a sense, with her memory of all that had surrounded the birth of her son, Mary had carried through her life to that point a stone which reminded her of her specialness to God. Now Jesus had given her a second stone to carry—a stone that would call her to live her extraordinarily exalted life in a humble awareness that even the least of Jesus’ followers was as special to God as she was.

          Truly a gift. A gift enabling Mary to be all that God intended her to be. Not only an exalted icon for the ages, though she certainly has been that and has been a help to countless numbers of people. But also a humble woman who, as the Book of Acts tells us, placed herself among and not above the other disciples.

          Two stones for Mary. Two stones for us. Gifts to help each of us know our deepest identity before God.

I am immeasurably loved by God, and for my sake the world was created.”

I am no more important than the least of God’s people, and I am nothing but dust and ashes.”

 

No Parking!

no-parking

Three times, in a very short space in Matthew’s gospel, Matthew tells us that “Jesus left” wherever he was and moved on to another place. As I read these passages recently, I began to wonder if perhaps this repetition of “Jesus left” might mean something for me, for us, beyond the simple movement of Jesus from one place to another. Decided to brush off my Greek a bit and “listen” to what was going on in these passages.

“Jesus left that place” (Matthew 15:21 exelthōn—went out, came out, went away). Here Jesus is leaving a difficult experience, an unpleasant dispute with the religious leaders of his day. The Pharisees and scribes have taken offense, as usual, and it’s clear that nothing Jesus says or does will change their minds. So Jesus leaves. He doesn’t stay around to brood over his failure to change the hearts and the thinking of those Pharisees. Jesus says what he has to say and then simply leaves and moves on.

Again, “after Jesus had left that place” (Matthew 15:29 metabas—departed, passed over, moved, or changed place of residence). This leaving follows the healing of the daughter of a Canaanite woman who had exhibited an astonishing faith in Jesus’ ability to heal. An exhilarating affirmation of Jesus’ life and ministry. A success story. But again, Jesus doesn’t park here, doesn’t linger to bask in the joy and glory of something so meaningful and positive. He changes his place of residence, as it were, choosing to leave and move on to the next challenge in his life.

That comes soon. The Pharisees and Sadducees again, this time looking for a sign from Jesus that he was truly the Messiah they were awaiting. Another unpleasant encounter. Once again, after talking with them, Jesus “left them and went away” (Matthew 16:4 katalipōn—left behind). The verb Matthew chooses here is a strong one—not just to leave, but to leave behind. Jesus once again lets go of the disagreeable conversation, leaves the scene and sets his face to move forward.

Seems to me there’s something important for us in Matthew’s repetitive “Jesus left…” It’s so easy for us to hold on to difficult things that happen in our lives. Easy to hold on to painful memories, to old grudges and hurts. To re-live them and nurse them, squeezing out every last drop of bitterness and gall. Easy to hold on to our failures, turning them over and over in our minds, berating ourselves or the world or God or fate or whatever for all that went so wrong.  

Easy, too, for us to hold on to our achievements and our joys. To bask in what we’ve attained, in what we’ve accomplished. Not that that’s all bad. A healthy sense of gratitude for all the good in our lives, whether it’s been something we’ve done or something that was simply given to us, can be deeply satisfying and healthy. But holding on too tightly to our successes can keep us from experiencing fresh challenges. May actually shrink our souls and keep us from discovering new gifts and resources within ourselves.

Whenever, it seems to me, whenever we hold anything too tightly—happy things or painful, difficult things—we tend to lose perspective and often close ourselves down to possibilities that await in the future. We narrow our lives, as it were. So it may be good for us to take heed to Matthew’s repetitive “Jesus left.” Take time, yes, take time to relish the good. Take time, yes, take time to lament the not so good. But DON’T PARK in either space!  

Jesus left (exelthōn); he went away.  Jesus left (metabas); he changed his place of residence.  Jesus left (katalipōn); he left behind.

“Jesus left.” Simple words. Filled with wisdom.

Jesus Laughing

523px-Rembrandt_-_Young_Jew_as_Christ_-_WGA19204

(Rembrandt van Rijn)

(1606-1669)

     “Jesus laughed.”  With all the tragedies of our world today—the bombing at the Boston Marathon, the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, the horrific tornado that flattened Moore, Oklahoma, to name just a few—it may seem a little strange to be thinking of Jesus laughing.  But laugh I’m sure he did, and I find myself wishing that at least one of the gospel writers had penned the words, “Jesus laughed” at least once.  I grew up with a sober Jesus.  And I’m afraid I often preached a sober Jesus.  Very sober.  Very serious.  Of course, it’s true that in story after story, teaching after teaching, Jesus is presented in all four gospels as a very sober, very serious man.  Nowhere is there a recording of Jesus’ laughter.  Jesus does tell his listeners at one point that those who mourn now will one day laugh.  But we never see or hear him laughing.

          And that seems strange to me.  And yet not so strange either.  Jesus was, after all, the “man of sorrows,” one “acquainted with grief”—and not just his own grief, but the grief of every one of us.  From early on in his active ministry Jesus was aware that one day he would  face a cruel death.  Aware that he would one day serve as the “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  So yes, in a sense, it’s really not so strange that we don’t see or hear Jesus laughing in the gospel stories.  He did carry a very heavy load through his life.

          But he must have laughed.  For while his life was truly a difficult one, his task immensely sobering, he did love and affirm life.  All of it.  Spoke of lilies and sparrows.  Was a frequent guest at dinner parties.   And loved children.  Held them and blessed them.  And all of this without a laugh?  With face rigidly set in somber stone?  I don’t think so. 

     For when “the Word became flesh,” that Word didn’t just take on our somber moods, our gravity and grim solemnity.  That Word took on our sorrows, to be sure, but took on as well our laughter and our joy, our dancing, our delight.  And that Word came to be with us, to relate to us, in every aspect of our lives—the happy as well as the sad, the joyous as well as the somber.  That Word came to affirm that all of life is sacred, and I think that herein lies the importance of picturing Jesus laughing at times.  It can be all too easy to isolate our “religious” life in a somber realm of darker colors and drab tones, to be open and aware of the Word living with us almost exclusively in a sepia world isolated from our fuller lives.  And wonderful as it is to know that the Word made flesh does indeed walk with us in all our sorrows, wonderful to know that this Word weeps with us as we watch tragedies unfold in our lives and around our world, it’s also wonderful to know that this Word also shares our joys.  To know that this Word longs to skip and dance with us to make our every laughter deeper, fuller, richer, an echo of the joyous laughter of the God who looked with delight on all that God had made. 

     In almost all classical depictions of Jesus, Jesus is pictured as a deeply solemn man.  Note Rembrandt’s pensive portrait above.  And grateful as we can be for all these rich classical images, I’m also grateful to the contemporary artist Jean Keaton who has reverently moved beyond this classical art to capture some of the joyous laughter of our Lord in her art.  In a number of beautiful pencil drawings, she depicts the delight that I’m sure was very much a part of Jesus’ life.  These drawings give us a fuller sense, I believe, of just who Jesus was in his time here on earth—a man acquainted with grief, to be sure, but a man also who echoed the joy of God in his smiles and his laughter.  Here’s a sample of her work, and you can see more at her website: http://www.jeankeatonart.com.

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     To be sure, faith is a serious matter.  To be sure, faith in the Christ of the gospels calls for sober commitment.  To be sure, faith is never to be taken lightly.  But I do believe that our faith and life will be ever so much richer as we become better acquainted with the Man of Sorrows who not only bore the weight of our sadness and our sinfulness, but who also laughed with joy at the goodness of life as he walked the earth so long ago.  Who continues to walk with us today.  To challenge us at times.  To comfort us at other times.  And yes, to laugh and smile with us as well, whether we are responding to the needs of those struck by a natural or man-made disaster, or are simply relishing the beauty and the joy of life in this lavish, exuberant world in which we live.