just for an afternoon

The Word for today:
Mark 16: 9-20

And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.
(Mark 15:21)

In my footloose, bohemian days, I went to New York City all the time. Maybe a dozen times a year, I used to go to New York just for an afternoon.

When I say “just for an afternoon,” I’m not referring to the length of my stay. I mean that the afternoon was what I went there to do. And New York was the perfect setting for an afternoon perfectly played.

Beginning in the wee hours of Saturday morning, I’d drive from Buffalo to New Paltz, where there were college friends who would take me in for the night. Then I’d take the train to New York, where I did what I came for—the afternoon.

Then I’d get on the train back to New Paltz and sleep through what was left of the night. Then I’d drive back to Buffalo on Sunday. Ahh, youth.

As I said, I didn’t just spend the afternoon, I did the afternoon. It was sort of like performance art before there was such a thing.

Most of the time I did much of nothing, which was the best part of the whole production.
But sometimes I actually went somewhere specific. I sometimes went to the public library, which is my favorite place in New York. I went to the Metropolitan Art Museum. I sat in the bleachers in right field at Yankee Stadium, which is a lot like going to the zoo and a baseball game at the same time.

Now and then I went to experimental theatre or improvisational comedy clubs. One time I walked into an improv place and I had no sooner gotten a beer and was making my way across the room to an open table when I was whisked away by two extremely attractive women!

They sort of guided me between the tables towards a storage room behind the stage.

When we got there they wanted to know, “Are you ready to be a star?”

“I was ready to drink this beer.”

“Oh, we’ll get you more of those if you’ll play a part in our play.”

Those were fair terms, so a deal was struck. I was to play a rather artsy professor. I was given a tweed coat, eyeglasses without lenses, a black beret, the gist of a plot, and a few examples of the situations that might arise. Then they told me to put on the coat and the glasses and “become” the character. “Respond with a sentence to whatever sentence we speak,” I was told. “Say the first thing that comes to mind.” So I did. And for 20 minutes, I was a star, with two free beers to boot.

***

Simon of Cyrene was impressed into duty in much the same way. From his home in North Africa, he’d come all the way to Jerusalem for the Passover. He’d brought his sons along for their very first time.

Turning a corner, they were met by a gruesome procession. Battered and bloodied men were making their way through the narrow streets, carrying heavy beams that must have weighed 50 pounds.

Though he himself was a very big man, he was suddenly nearly lifted off the ground by two burly centurions, one at each side. They hustled him forward until at his feet was a man who’d been so severely beaten that his face was a featureless pulp.

He was ordered to carry the beaten man’s beam. So he placed one of its ends over his left shoulder. Then he offered his right hand to the condemned man.

The heat was rising, the road was uphill, and the suffering man was unable to stay on his feet for more than a few minutes at a time.

Over the final steps of their ascent, Simon had to carry the man in the same way he’d sometimes carried his sons when they were too tired to walk.

With a beam over one shoulder and a man over the other, it was almost more than Simon could bear, but there were just a few steps remaining. Then he dropped the beam to the pavement and slowly lowered the man to the ground.

***

I’m not sure of the theological implications of helping God get up so he could die on a cross instead of the street.

I’m not sure there are any theological implications. And, to tell you the truth, if there are I don’t really want to know.

What I do know is that there will come a day when, suddenly, you are offered a part in God’s Story. You’re no longer just an onlooker, just a Bible reader. There you are on the page with Jesus.

Above all else, take the cue. None of us, in any cosmic sense, are playwrights. We are bit players at best, who know not the whole, just our role. So you will not understand what is going on as you are swept along into circumstances that are neither of your making nor of your choosing.

There will be time to ask questions later, but for now just play the part you’re called to play. Play that part with all your heart. Lend God the hand he gave you. Put your back into it if need be. Walk right into the Story and become one with it, even if it’s just for an afternoon.

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the church of Barabbas

The Word for today:
Mark 15:42-16:8

Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. (Mark 15:6-15)

I usually don’t feel comfortable in a church. I’m probably wrong to think this way, but whenever I go into a church I feel that I’m among a bunch of squeaky-clean people who will never know me.

I once had a long talk with a pastor who was reputed to be doctrinally and personally pure. Over the course of a long afternoon, I guided him through a tour of the twisted passages in my mind. Attempting to empathize, he confessed to me that he, too, was a sinner.

This was not news to me, but it sounded like news to him. “I have searched my past,” he began, “and it reveals that I am a glutton. That’s my sin.”

He had a nearly perfect physique and could probably beat everyone his age in a 5k race, but he looked right at me and told me his besetting sin was common gluttony. In confessing his sin, he was patting himself on the back.

I waited for his confession of other sins. He was visually struggling to come up with something — anything — else to confess. But, honest as he was, he could not tell a lie! There was no other way in which he could admit that he had fallen short of the glory of God.

I wish he had asked me, because I knew a long list of ways that he fell short. And over the course of the next year or two, I got around to telling him some of the items on that list. I even got around to telling him that the only sin I could think of that he had not committed was gluttony!

Churches are full of people like that, who manage to pat themselves on the back even while, ostensibly, in the act of contrition.

That’s why I spend more time in my Bible than in a church. In my Bible are some people who understand me. For example, both thieves on the cross understand me (though only one of them understood Jesus.)

In my Bible live a whole congregation of ne’er-do-wells like Samson and Rahab and Jacob and David and Nadab and Abihu and Ananias and Sapphira and Barabbas. I’m at home when I am with them.

Barabbas, especially, understands me. He is a notorious sinner like I am, and the cross Jesus died on was literally meant for him. I mean that if they were to find the true cross of Jesus Christ, on the back of the beam somewhere they would find Barabbas’ name bespattered by the blood. I feel more than just a kinship with him. We might as well be twins.

If ever I were to start a church, I would call it the church of Barabbas. In order to be a member, you would have to verify that somewhere in the Kidron Valley, beneath the accumulated garbage and rubble of twenty centuries, lies a cross with your name on it.

If you meet that single criterion, you are always welcome to join. I hope you do, ‘cause you will love the church of Barabbas. You will swear it’s exactly like heaven, where only a “Barabbas” (“son of Abba”) is allowed.

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the alchemy of God

The Word for today:
Mark 15:22-41

Supposedly, Jesus was on trial. But you’d never know it by his regal and disdainful demeanor. By the time the trial was over, the reader has the distinct impression that the guy in the chains—the one who was blindfolded, beaten, mocked, scourged, spit upon, and then crucified—was in charge, even in command, the whole while.

In order to account for this remarkable role reversal, Stand in the Rain has endeavored, over the last few days, to view the trial of Jesus through the King’s eyes.

We believe that Jesus had already witnessed his trial via the prophetic scriptures. It is our hypothesis that his calm assurance throughout the entire ordeal originated in his utter trust of God’s Word, which showed him that the accusers, not the accused, were on trial—and that their indictments would ultimately indict themselves.

***

A well-known Bible verse tells us that God is not mocked (1). Believe it. No matter how much you may hear God being ridiculed, he is ultimately never demeaned — because somehow or another, mockery of God actually transubstantiates into his glory:

Surely the wrath of man shall praise Him. (Psalms 76:10)

Jesus had already seen his trial played out in scripture:

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree:
The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” (Psalms 2:2-9)

He held them in derision, knowing that their accusations would one day turn against them:

The wicked plots against the just,
And gnashes at him with his teeth.
The Lord laughs at him,
For He sees that his day is coming.
The wicked have drawn the sword
And have bent their bow,
To cast down the poor and needy,
To slay those who are of upright conduct.
Their sword shall enter their own heart. (Psalms 37:12-15)

God says the same about us. When enemies ridicule us, they are only heaping the coals of their penal fires higher:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God,
for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:19-20)

We should not set out to pick a fight with the enemies of God. Instead, we must – as Jesus did — remember the concept of spiritual alchemy:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,
for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12)

Alchemy was the medieval quest to turn baser metals (lead, tin, etc.) into gold. The alchemists never succeeded, but (just as in salvation) what we cannot achieve, God can. God has already turned the wrath of Jesus’ enemies into praise. In the same way, any derision we face for his sake he will turn into gold:

Do not fear what you are about to suffer… Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)

The prophetic scriptures say that you will inherit a crown. So, in the meantime, walk like the King:

The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?
The LORD is on my side as my helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me. (Psalms 118:6-7)

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(1) Galatians 6:7

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I wouldn’t do that if I were you.

The Word for today:
Mark 15:1-21

Yesterday, we saw Jesus turn the tables on his accusers. Suddenly, in the midst of his interrogation before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, Jesus made it perfectly clear to them that they were the ones who were on trial…

When Caiaphas, the high priest, asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus answered,

“I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:61-62)

Jesus’ answer was far more than just a “Yes” to Caiaphas’ question. It was also a terrible warning, alluding to three Old Testament messianic passages to tell them that he was their coming Judge!

“You will see…”
Isaiah 52:8 says, “When the LORD returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes.”

“…the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power…”
Psalm 110:1 adds, “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’”

“…and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
Daniel 7:13 records, “I was watching in the night visions, And behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him.

“You are judging me, but I will judge you,” Jesus was saying to Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin

***

A well-known Bible verse tells us that God is not mocked (1). Believe it. No matter how much you may hear God being ridiculed, he is ultimately never demeaned — because somehow or another, mockery of God actually transubstantiates into his glory:
Surely the wrath of man shall praise Him. (Psalms 76:10)

Jesus had already seen his trial played out in scripture:

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” (Psalms 2:2-9)

He held them in derision, knowing that their accusations would one day turn against them:

The wicked plots against the just,
And gnashes at him with his teeth.
The Lord laughs at him,
For He sees that his day is coming.
The wicked have drawn the sword
And have bent their bow,
To cast down the poor and needy,
To slay those who are of upright conduct.
Their sword shall enter their own heart. (Psalms 37:12-15)

Mankind presumes to judge God. I wouldn’t do that if I were you.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
(1) Galatians 6:7

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I am; and you shall see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power.

The Word for today:
Mark 14:53-72

Here’s a tough one for ya:

Q. That’s my picture on the one-dollar bill. Who am I?

Congratulations! If you answered “George Washington,” then you are not brain-dead.

On the other hand, if the answer to that question somehow eluded you, then you are as brain-dead as the people who insist that Jesus never claimed to be God.

Jesus consistently and persistently said he was God, and in a variety of ways. He said it directly and indirectly, prosaically and poetically, plainly and metaphorically. Even more impressively, he repeatedly demonstrated that he is the Creator God — who made something out of nothing — when he fed the 15,000; that he is the Sovereign God of the natural realm (when he calmed the sea and walked on the water); that he is the Lord of the supernatural realm (when he expelled the demons); that he is the Redeemer God (when he died and rose again).

But if it’s words they want, then let’s consider a single verse from today’s reading. When Caiaphas, the high priest, asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus answered,

“I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:61-62)

First, Jesus answered plainly, directly, and prosaically: “I am.”

Then he answered more powerfully. When he evoked famous images from the Old Testament, it was (for his listeners) the cultural equivalent (in our day) of being asked, “Are you the Father of our Country, the First President of the United States?” and replying—

“I am; that’s my picture on the one-dollar bill.”

***

Jesus’ answer was far more than just a “Yes” to Caiaphas’ question. It was also a terrible warning, alluding to three Old Testament messianic passages to tell them that he was their coming Judge!

“You will see…”
Isaiah 52:8 says, “When the LORD returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes.”

“…the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power…”
Psalm 110:1 adds, “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’”

“…and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
Daniel 7:13 records, “I was watching in the night visions, And behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him.”

***

‘You are judging me, but I will judge you,’ Jesus was saying to Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. He’d turned the tables once again, putting them on trial. They were the words of God Himself, passing sentence on the leadership of Israel. They are the only words he spoke to them.

A person today, just as Caiaphas then, can deny that Jesus is the Son of God. But they can’t deny that Jesus made that claim. And they can’t deny that the Bible teaches Jesus’ divinity.

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