The Way of the Cross – Lenten Season 2018
“I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regards to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:7-13a NIV).
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will” (Romans 8:26,27 NIV).
Frederick Buechner, in his book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, tells us that the world of the gospel is “a world of magic and mystery, of deep darkness and flickering starlight It is a world where terrible things happen and wonderful things too It is a world where goodness is pitted against evil, love against hate, order against chaos, in a great struggle where often it is hard to be sure who belongs to which side because appearances are endlessly deceptive. Yet for all its confusion and wildness, it is a world where the battle goes ultimately to the good, who live happily every after….That is the fairy tale of the Gospel with, of course, one crucial difference from all other fairy tales, which is that the claim made for it is that it is true, that it not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is happening still” (quoted in The Sacred Romance p. 46).
The Gospel as a true fairy tale. Now that’s an interesting perspective. The point is to understand the Bible not as a set of do’s and don’t’s or even as a series of propositional truths about life or as a manual for living well. We need to understand the Bible as God’s story, God’s great rescue operation. It’s about people and relationships and plots and counterplots and battles against sin and evil. It’s about saving people. It is the greatest story, the greatest drama ever told. It’s fantastic to be sure but it is true.
And we have a crucial role to play in this unfolding drama. We find our identity in union with Christ (like our union/relationship/oneness with our spouse). We find our purpose in joining him in his great rescue operation, in building his kingdom. We find our significance in the crucial role we play together with him in the power of the Holy Spirit. Those three things, identity, purpose and significance, create meaning for our lives.
So let’s talk about the Holy Spirit, our Counselor, our Helper. Of course the first question to ask is what He is supposed to help us to do. And this is no simple or easy question. Many people think that His job is to make our lives easier by blessing us with abundant living and prosperity and health. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many people think that His job is to make us holy through the management of situations and relationships to which we are encouraged to act in faith and repentance. That is closer to the truth but it isn’t enough. Even our sanctification has a purpose. As C.S. Lewis liked to say, “God is creating a certain type of person,” one who is like Christ, but he is creating this person with a particular purpose in mind. In fact, it is in the fulfilling of our purpose as co-workers with Christ in His great rescue operation that we truly become like him. It isn’t just about morality but about relationship and not just about relationship but rather a relationship infused with purpose and direction. Much like a marriage that is not focused on itself but rather focused outward in ministry towards others. That is what makes a marriage healthy. That is what makes a Christian, and a Church, healthy.
So let’s state it another way. God is creating a certain type of person, like Christ, who has a certain type of job, like Christ, and it is in the completing of that purpose that one becomes like Christ and experiences the abundant life of wonderful blessings even in the midst of suffering and persecution. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. Yes, we will need a Helper.
And Jesus said that the first thing this Helper will do is to make us feel miserable. He will convict the world of guilt. I hate helpers like that. It’s the Jewish mother syndrome. I’ll just sit here in the dark while you go and have fun with your friends at the mall, she says. Talk about manipulation and guilt. That’s not what we are talking about here. That kind of guilt is false guilt. The thing about humans is that we can feel guilty about things that are not our fault but we can also NOT feel guilty about things that are clearly our responsibility. The work of the Holy Spirit is in the second category. And that is important, healing work. To deny your guilt is to suppress your true relationship with the other. To confess in transparency and honesty is to create a healthy relationship. Of course, this assumes that you believe that God exists in the first place and that your relationship with Him is both the source of all your troubles in life as well as the solution.
Our minds are darkened with regards to our relationship with God. That shouldn’t surprise us much. We are mostly darkened in our understanding of our relationship to most other human beings as well. Let me give you one example. It’s more on the light, fun side of things but the point is still well taken. I remember being in Bible College and my girlfriend, who would later become my wife, told me one day that a certain girl really liked me a lot. I was totally blind to it. I had no idea. I think in general that guys are more dense than girls when it comes to relationships but I was shocked that I had no idea, that I could not read the signs, that there was this pretty girl who actually liked me. It was flattering. It was interesting. I had just started going out with the girl that would later become my wife and it made me look at her differently to. I started looking for the signs of interest and found them. It was a real eye-opener for me.
Some of us are more blind than others. Guys may be more blind than girls, at least in general. Apparently you can train yourself to look for the signs, but the blindness exists and it has something to do with relationships. Are we surprised that we are blind to the real situation in our relationship to God? We shouldn’t be. We will need help. Jesus said that when the Counselor comes, the Helper, he will lead us into all truth. That isn’t just propositional truth but relational truth. He will reveal to us the true nature of our relationship with God, it’s brokenness, its coldness, its distance and what God, through Christ has done about it. He will lead us into all truth.
Of course there are a lot of other passages about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives but it is important to pick up on one last one from the book of Romans where Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit knows what we need to pray about and he helps us in our weakness and in our prayers with groans that no words can utter.
First of all, note that Paul is talkng about the Holy Spirit helping us in our weakness, in our brokenness. Remember that he already helped us to get to the place of weakness. He convicted us of our guilt, he taught us the true nature of our relationship with God and how he solved it through Jesus Christ. Now we stand before Him in our weakness, in our inability to love, with a job far too big for us to do alone, unable to carry the burden of glory that has been thrust upon us, terrified of the importance of the role we have been asked to play in the drama of redemption. We are in exactly the right place. The place of weakness. We need to pray.
But before we talk about prayer, we need to acknowledge a few pre-conditions of true prayer. Obviously we aren’t talking about formulaic or formal prayers which are just many meaningless words thrown into the air by religious types the world over. Forget it. God is not a fool. We also aren’t talking about the prayers of people who will not prepare their hearts by coming to the Lord with their sins dealt with, their relationships healed through confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. James tells us that the prayers of a righteous man are powerful and effective. Most of our prayers are not simply because we ignore these preconditions to prayer. The righteousness spoken of here is not sinlessness but rather the incorporation of the righteousness and maturity of Christ as we walk the road to Jerusalem, the way of the cross. If the cross is not central in our lives, in our relationships, in our prayers, then just forget about it. Don’t waste the time. Your prayers aren’t getting past the ceiling.
And when you pray, you are coming in Jesus’ name, in his authority, not in your own and so you must exercise faith in the relationship and faith in the will of God. My wife once asked me whether or not we should pray about giving a financial gift to a pastor who was working with the poor and had a specific need that had to be dealt with. I said no. We shouldn’t pray. She just looked at me. I told her to just give the man the money that he needed. We didn’t need to ask God whether or not we should actually do his will when the opportunity arises. That was an occasion NOT to pray. What were we supposed to say? Lord, should we actually do what you already told us to do? Help us to understand your ways, O Lord. We are confused. I don’t think so. Just do it.
There are lots of other situations where we WILL have to pray because God’s will is not clear or we aren’t certain what road to take when there is more than one route to take. James tells us that there is a prayer that God always answers in the affirmative. The prayer for wisdom. God loves to guide us. He loves to show us the way. Sometimes through direct illumination, many times through a brother or sister in the Lord, often through His word. But when we pray, a pre-condition of prayer is that we are ready to be the instrument of God answering our prayers. We don’t just pray for financial help for a friend, we have to be ready to provide that help. We can’t just pray that someone else provides a car for a needy family, we go out and talk to people, raise the money, rob a bank or whatever but WE get the job done. If we are praying for it, we have been chosen to be God’s answer to the very prayer that we are praying.
Praying in faith means respecting the relationship that we have with the Holy Spirit and making sure that we come to prayer as we come to that relationship, ready to obey the will of God, having dealt with our sin and broken relationships, fully believing that he hears us and will give us the wisdom we need. But sometimes, even that is not enough.
Tough things can happen to us to knock us off our feet. We can get embroiled in difficult situations, be persecuted by people inside and outside of the church. We, or our loved ones, can get cancer, diabetes, have a heart attack, an automobile accident, be raped, killed. Life is hell sometimes and God knows it. There is a battle going on. He is in control but the stakes are high and people will get hurt. Not eternally but it still hurts.
And when those moments happen, we don’t even know what to pray for. We just cry out in a primal way to God and speak to Him with our tears. We have no words. In those moments, when we are in travail for a lost soul, when our wayward son or daughter has gotten themselves into real trouble, when someone is badly hurt, when life is just overwhelming, the Holy Spirit in our weakness, cries out to God the Father with groans and tears that express our deepest fears and desires and longings. And that is a good place to be. Even when heaven appears to be silent and no answers are forthcoming, even then, especially then, the Holy Spirit is there with us, groaning in travail to God.
You see, there is a miracle happening. When all the rest of the world cry out “Curse God and die,” you are there crying out to God. When all the rest of the world is trying to convince you that God is evil and we, humans, are good, you are there crying out to God. When all the rest of the world is shaking their fists at the injustice of God, when your heart is cold, your feelings numb, when you know that you are weak and have nothing to offer and yet you still cry out to God and in all honesty tell him of your weakness, your sin, your stubborness, your cold heart and you cry out for some sort of solution, some sort of intervention, some sort of help, you don’t even realize it but you are a living miracle, surrounded by the Holy Spirit, groaning together with you when there are no words to express your hurt and humiliation and weakness. God is listening very, very closely to everything that is said, the Holy Spirit translating your weakness into the strength of faith and presenting your situation before the throne of God. That is a relationship. That is a desert warrior.
We are not alone. The world would have us think that He has abandoned us to the dark night of the soul but it is precisely in that dark night that we are closest to God and He has his ear finely tuned to hear every last thing that we say or feel. We are not alone. The world would have us believe that we have been abandoned but the very fact that you are there on the floor, on your knees, spread out on your bed, crying out to God, is testament to the presence of the Holy Spirit filling that Holy Sanctuary of prayer. It is a romance after all. That is what the story is all about. You are the maiden in distress. You will be rescued by your knight in shinning armour. He will save you from the dragon, the beast, the evil one. Even from your own sin. We are not alone. He loves us fiercely and deeply. That lover is the Holy Spirit who is wedded to us for all eternity because of the work of Christ on the cross. He is our lover. He is our Counselor. He is our helper. He is our friend. We are not alone in this struggle, this battle for the hearts and souls of our family, our church. We are not alone.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God….
Lord, I am overwhelmed by the deep and fierce love you have for me that you would share my tears and groans and translate them into heavenly music and song to please the ear of God. I am entirely yours and you are entirely mine and I would have it no other way. Thank you for being my lover, my best friend, my counselor, my helper. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.
Read more (from The Temptations of the Cross)
Flashes of light sped down the line of march far below him and Gabriel looked quickly for the problem. He saw it in an instant. One of the wagons with their oversized wheels had wandered off the track and had bogged down in the loose sand. A child – it was Ethan – had fallen off and the heavy wagon was tilting off balance and was about to collapse on the boy. Gabriel’s wings stood out stiffly with tension, every feather primed and ready to fold and dive in an instant if he were needed. But Michael had it under control.
Gabriel watched as his powerful brother swooped under the great wheel and put his shoulder to the wood. He who could lay bare entire forests with the blast of his nostrils would find this delicate work a bit more challenging. He would have to hardened his shoulder just enough so that he could hold the earthly substance for a moment. The trick was to be covert, do nothing out of the ordinary, just enough help to get the job done but not give their presence away.
Gideon was there as well, standing over Ethan, his wings tense, silently encouraging him to get up, to move – quickly! (Read more…..)