The Way of the Cross – Lenten Season 2018
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away……One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God….I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp…..On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there….”(Revelations 21:1-4, 9-11a, 22,23,25 NIV).
The Road to Jerusalem
When my daughter was 12 years old, she was full of curiosity. And she would ask very good questions too. But she didn’t always like the answers.
“Why is God hiding?” she would ask. “Why doesn’t he protect me from hurting myself. Doesn´t he love me?” “If God loves the whole world, why doesn’t he just get rid of hell and let everyone go to heaven?” Those were the hard questions.
But she had other questions as well. “Who was Cain’s wife?” “Who created God?” and “What is heaven like?” Obviously, we had a lot of talks together coming home from school, walking in the park, sitting in my office.
Everyone knows that by age seven or so, kids become able to make moral distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad. By age eleven or twelve, they are full of curiosity about their world (and spiritual things). By eighteen, society deems them to be responsible for their own actions but it is still an open question when real maturity sets it. For women it seems to happen earlier than with men but in both cases it appears to have to do with relationships. Marriage for women and a firstborn child for men.
The curiosity of a twelve year old is part of the natural order of things. They are curious about everything. There is nothing all that strange in it. It is more of an innocent curiosity directed toward a multitude of subjects. If you are a spiritual family, it will naturally evoke a lot of spiritual questions. That doesn’t indicate spiritual maturity necessarily, just spiritual curiousity. Which is great!
The truth is that when an adult is curious about spiritual things, even hungry to understand the things of God, we would consider that NOT to be normal for an adult and therefore it may be an indication of a holy curiousity, perhaps even evidence of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit within. But whether twelve or twenty, the answers can still be frustrating.
Why is God hiding? Well, he is and he isn’t….
Why doesn’t He protect me? Well, he does and he doesn’t…..
Why am I not perfect? Well, you are but you aren’t…..
A lot of answers are like that in the spiritual realm because of the disconnect between the way we see the world and the way God sees the world. We think the world is normal. God thinks the world is deeply abnormal. We judge things by what we can see. God judges things by what is unseen. We think in terms of the temporal. God thinks in terms of the eternal. And this difference makes all the difference in the world.
Yes, by all rights, if the Bible is true, if the resurrection has already happened, if Jesus has triumphed over the grave, then things should be different. But they aren’t. And yet they are. Things are already true but they have not yet been revealed as true. It isn’t obvious to the entire world that God exists, that Jesus is king, that the Devil is defeated. The book of Revelations talks about war, and people dying, and great disasters happening before the end will come. There is still a purpose, a job to do, a war to be won in the hearts and minds of people, and churches, and nations.
We live in an in-between time, a purgatory of sorts, that defines our worldview. This is the time of already but not yet, here but coming, true but not yet revealed. Nothing makes sense if you don’t understand this one truth. This existence is abnormal and strange. It is a truce of sorts between God and a world in rebellion. God stays His hand in judgment so that He might turn His face toward us in grace. All of this is made possible by the cross. We are at war. We are working for the King behind enemy lines. Our union with Christ is our identity. His great rescue attempt is our purpose. Our role and testimony is crucial in the process and that is our significance This identity, purpose and significance is what brings meaning to our lives.
Yet, most people are living their own lives with their own purposes, usually focused on business and family success as defined by the world. There may be a religious veneer to give it a better shine but, at heart, their stewardship is not on behalf of the king but on behalf of their own lives and projects. They are hedging their bets, doing enough in the church to calm their own consciousness but not enough to upset the apple cart of their own worldly ambitions. I am just as guilty as they are.
Somedays I just give up on seeking Jerusalem. I no longer have the energy or the will to continue to fight for something that nobody else wants. The book of Revelations describes the new Jerusalem in absolutely wonderful terms, glowing with gems and gold, perfect in dimension, like a bride beautifully adorned for her bridegroom, Jesus. All of those things are metaphors of course. John makes it clear that we are the bridegroom of the King, the true church, all believers from every tribe and nation, those who have been redeemed by the blood of the lamb. It sounds wonderful and it will be when we are in glory. But what about now.
We are already now the bride of Christ. Yes, I know that we live in the already but not yet but the already is already here. We are the bride of Christ. Our unity in Christ, our spiritual unity in following the way of the cross, in confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation is already here. It is what marks us as Christians, that we love one another as Christ has loved us. It is our calling card, our testimony, our holiness set apart for his use as vessels of mercy and clay pots filled with the treasure of a new relationship with God through Christ. And in that spiritual unity we receive the anointing of God to be and do what He has called us to be and do. A holy nation. A called-out people. A light in the darkness. The new Jerusalem where God dwells among men not just as individuals having the Holy Spirit within but as a community where the Holy Spirit is evident in the relationships between those same people.
It sounds good but where is it to be found? Can anyone name a place? I had a taste of it in Bible College (even more than Seminary). They say that the L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland was that kind of place. Many parachurch organizations (especially among the youth) have achieved some real spiritual unity. The evangelical revivals in sub-sahara africa seem to bear the marks of this kind of fellowship. Individual churches such as the Brooklyn Tabernacle in NY or Rey de Reyes in Buenos Aires have accomplished it to some degree. Perhaps there are even more places that I am not aware of right now. Certainly in many small group ministries this kind of fellowship is achieved at least for a while depending on the leader. And there are many instances where one person will reconcile with another regardless of what is going on in their church. God always has his remnant who follow Him.
And yet, my point still stands. Why is it that so many churches do not exhibit the marks of a true church, a true spiritual fellowship living under the anointing of God? I think there are a number of reasons.
Wheat and Tares
1. Jesus told us that there would be both wheat and tares (weeds) in the church and that we should not try to tear them up but rather leave them until the final judgment and let God separate the sheep from the goats. The only problem is that I think Jesus was assuing that the wheat would be in charge of the church and not the weeds. Or perhaps Jesus simply doesn’t care much about the institutional church and believed that the wheat is always the wheat and the weeds would always need to be ministered to, evangelized and transformed before the final day comes.
2. But, even so, the institutional church still has a role to play and we should hope and pray that the leadership of the visible church, local or national or international, would still be wheat and not tares. That is also not always true. In my own church, it is amazing to point out that over the years, anyone and everyone has been invited into leadership whether they were Christians or not, spiritually mature or not, good leaders or not. It was a question of bodies and getting positions filled. If we are so foolish as to give up our positions of leadership to people who are weeds (by their own confession) or even wheat but immature and not yet ready for leadership, then we are just asking for trouble.
The Spirituality of the Pastor
3. Even when we have a group of leaders who are Christians with varying levels of maturity, a lot depends on the Pastor and his or her spiritual life. In worldly terms, we say that the leader determines the culture of the organization. The same is true spiritually. If the Pastor does not practice the way of the cross and prioritizes the spiritual unity of the leaders (at the very least) in order to get the anointing of God on all of their efforts, then nothing much will actually happen.
The Spirituality of the Board
4. When it comes time to choose a Pastor, the Board needs to be clear about what kind of Pastor they are seeking. But if the Board members themselves are not seeking Jerusalem (spiritual unity that brings the anointing of God) then they will not choose a Pastor who is seeking Jerusalem.
Jim Collins, in his book Good To Great, describes companies that make the leap from being a good company to being a great company The key element seems to be that the Board chooses what he calls a Level Five leader. Most of the time the Board did it by accident but, once it was done, the Level Five leader would create an executive team of up and coming Level Five leaders as well as encourage and transform the Board into a group of Level Five leaders. That is his main work so that he can leave behind him an organization deeply rooted in the culture of Level Five leadership which knows how to transform themselves into a great company on an ongoing basis.
That same idea is necessary for the church. It all starts at the leadership level.
5. That doesn’t mean that the spiritual leadership doesn’t have a lot of work to do in the congregation as a whole (which is full of wheat and weeds). It does. Their focus is, of course, in ministering to the weeds, bringing even more weeds into the church and ministering to them as well. The leadership will become adept at Spiritual Conversations in terms of salvation as well as discipleship. They will encourage people to accept the cross and to walk in the way of the cross. Every elder (as well as other spiritual leaders) will have a small group to work with but also be trained and expected to engage in spiritual conversations whenever and whereever possible. Each one of them have a Life Ministry in which they share their walk with God, their faith, their hunger and thirst for righteousness, answering questions, giving comfort, and lighting up the darkness with the truth of the word of God. If they aren’t able to do this kind of work, why are they elders? The administration of the church can be done by a small executive council of three people who can take care of the mundane issues in the church. Any strategic issues can be brought to the Board once a month. The idea is to stay focused on the real work of an elder.
Preaching the Cross
6. Pastors need to preach about the way of the cross. When was the last time you heard a sermon on sin in your church? Or confession? Or repentance? We always hear about forgiveness but not about reconciliation. Many Pastors have lost their edge (or they never had it in the first place). The Devil works hard to keep us confused about the heart of the gospel. He doesn’t care about moralistic sermons or twenty minute talks about something in the Bible that everyone has heard a hundred times before. It makes no difference. It doesn’t change any hearts. The Devil laughs on the back row. How many times I have seen the Pastor (or a preaching elder) preach on a topic one moment and right after church do the exact opposite. One elder preached on mercy but in a meeting right after church with a young woman who needed some help and asked for some mercy, he denied it, even getting mad at her for having the gall to try to hold him to the very thing that he just preached about. How dare you? Pastors need to live the way of the cross but they also must preach it. Paul said that he preached Christ, and him crucified. Nothing else. We would do well to do the same.
The Priority of Prayer
7. Finally we need to talk about Prayer. The whole point of God giving us an impossible job to do is to remind us that we cannot do it alone. It must be done in dependence on the Holy Spirit in prayer. Without individual and corporate prayer focused on our purpose and rooted in our unity in Christ where we take hold of the will of God and the promises of God by faith and apply them to our daily situations, we have no resurrection power to get the job done. Resurrection power is within in the presence of the Holy Spirit but it can only be accessed through ongoing reconciliation with others and full surrender to God. In prayer, the anointing falls. In prayer, the solutions come. In prayer, our focus sharpens. In prayer, God acts. In prayer, we are transformed. Nothing happens without prayer in spiritual unity.
The Religious Spirit
Let me try to be clear. What point is there in going to church on a Sunday morning if you are not willing to get right with God in full surrender or reconcile with your brother or sister before you come before God? That is the whole point after all. How difficult it is to go to church knowing that your Pastor doesn’t know, like or trust you. How hard it is to see him or her preaching their heart out and yet knowing that this guy over there and that woman over here are stiff and hard to anything he has to say because he hurt them so deeply. Whether in high church tradition or low church informality, whether the Pastor weeps as he preaches or calls everyone to literally fall to their knees in worship as we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” It means nothing, it transforms noone because there is sin in the camp. I’m not saying that God, in his mercy, cannot still minister through a Pastor like that, because he can. But Jesus also said to those who claimed that they cast demons out in his name, that he never knew them. Ministry effectiveness is no excuse for spiritual deadness and disobedience. This is the religious spirit and we are all prone to fall prey to its deception. Having the form of religion but denying its power.
Seeking Jerusalem is a question of seeking the spiritual unity that brings the anointing of God upon his people for effective ministry. Seeking Jerusalem is about seeking the presence of God as a body of believers (or at least as a group of leaders). Seeking Jerusalem is about walking in the Spirit together as a body. The problem with mankind is broken relationships between us and God and between us and others. The solution is the cross. Jesus came to die on the cross to heal relationships. Healed relationships are the highest priority in the church. It is already true that we are reconciled to each other but it is also not yet complete. It is in that focus, that struggle, that priority that we will discover the resurrection power of God within us as a group of believers that will transform our world and empower our ministry.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God……
Lord, the truth is that I don’t love you enough to do things your way. Help me to have that focus, that priority and help me to fight for it everyday. Of course my sinful habits draw me away from that unity to my individual life and concerns. Obviously, my lack of love makes me selfish about my own issues and desires. I need your help to overcome. Seeking Jerusalem is the struggle but it is a struggle already won even though it has not yet revealed itself fully. Help me to stay focused and to work hard towards that spiritual unity. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.