Affirming the Sunrise

“Sun’s awake?” This is a question that we used to hear often in the Smith household. For a while, my daughter would wake up well before dawn and assume that the day had begun. After all, if she was awake then everyone else should be awake, too!

As it happened, this phase of my daughter’s early wakefulness coincided with the birth of my son, which meant that my wife and I were already sleep deprived. Needless to say, my daughter’s early morning wake-up calls weren’t exactly helpful to our rest or sanity. So we taught her that nighttime is for sleeping and daytime is for playing, a supposition that led to that all important question: “Sun’s awake?” If so, it was time for everyone to get up. If not, it was time to go back to sleep. Most often, this question bought exhausted parents a few extra minutes of sleep because the sun had not yet risen. For the followers of Jesus, though, the same question should have the opposite effect. For in Christ we believe that the sun is indeed awake, which means that we his people should be awake as well.

Of course, when we talk about the sunrise in Christ, we move into the realm of metaphor. We speak here of the sunrise of redemption breaking forth on a broken world. This is the moment when the “new heaven and new earth” of Revelation 21 take shape, when brokenness gives way to wholeness, when God dwells perfectly with his people, and when there is no longer any mourning, crying, death, or pain. This is the object of Christian hope, and we wait for it expectantly.

But how can we say that the sun is already awake? The new heaven and new earth are certainly a worthy and compelling hope for the future, but how can we say that the sun of redemption is rising over a world that is so obviously broken? We hear of natural disasters and moral disasters on a regular basis, and it so often seems that we are cloaked in the deep dark of an unfriendly night. This broken darkness makes us long for that beautiful, future work of God already described, but can the sun really be awake now, in this pervasive darkness?

In a word, yes. Notice Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old is gone, the new is here!” This is a sweeping statement that speaks not of future hope but of present experience. It is also a statement that, when teamed with passages like Revelation 21, yields an important insight: New creation is the object of Christian hope and the content of Christian experience. Somehow that promised new creation has become present to Christ’s people in the here and now.

But how can this be? Resurrection is the key. In Christ’s resurrection new creation has sprung forth. Death has been defeated and the rebellious powers of this world have been put on notice. Our resurrected Lord now reigns victorious, and we wait with expectation for the day there when the victory won at the empty tomb will be made whole and complete! The goodness of this total victory, the fullness and totality of new creation, has now become the hoped-for inheritance of Christ’s people, and by our connection to the risen Christ and through the work of the Holy Spirit within us, we experience its beginnings even today.

New creation has begun, but it is not yet complete. Theologians call this the “already/not yet” dimension of God’s work in Christ. We already experience it, but we have not yet experienced its fullness. Thus, we Christians find ourselves at the moment of twilight. The sun itself is still just below the horizon, but its light has begun to mingle with the darkness. The light is present, but the darkness has not yet been dispersed. We are a people caught in that moment between night and day.

Which makes my daughter’s question an important one. How should we live in this in-between moment? Well, if the sun is awake, as we believe it is, then we should act like it. Though we exist in a moment when darkness still covers the land, we are to live according to the light that has become present to us in Christ. We are to follow Jesus in the power of the Spirit, knowing that this unfriendly night must eventually succumb to the full, unyielding light of day.

“Sun’s awake, daddy?” Yes, sweetheart, it is. And that makes all the difference.

Rest

The New Year is upon us, prompting many of us to assess our current places in life.  Sometimes we are pleased with what we see.  Often we are not.  For many, the New Year provides a unique moment when we allow the problems that we have been ignoring to come to the fore.  We have known that we are not healthy enough but have largely ignored this fact.  Now, with the sense of new beginnings, we seek to face it head on.  Or we know that we have not paid enough attention to our spiritual lives.  For months this knowledge has tickled at the back of our consciousnesses but has remained largely unaddressed.  But now in the moment of newness, we seek to blaze a new trail of spirituality that does justice to the faith we profess.  These commitments are called New Year’s resolutions, and they have the potential of bettering our lives.

At the same time, New Year’s resolutions prove difficult.  The discipline required to overcome habit is elusive, and many of our resolutions fall by the wayside.  Thus, New Years becomes not only a moment of great potential for change, but also an opportunity for guilt.  Knowing our less-than-stellar track records, many of us simply pass over the newness of New Years in order to spare ourselves the same cycle of commitment and failure that we have endured in the past.  There is a realism in this choice, but there is also a sense of defeat.  Or we make our resolutions half-expecting to abandon them in short order.  This, after all, is how it always works.

Into the midst of this frustration, I don’t have much advice on how to do a better job of sticking to resolutions.  I expect that we can watch any number of the morning news shows to glean such pointers.  Instead, I offer a thought for possible reflection: As we focus so much on the problem areas of our lives and our past failures, it is easy to forget that we are loved.  One of my favorite stories from Jesus is the parable of the prodigal son.  In it, we see a wayward son who has dishonored his father and squandered his inheritance.  In a low moment, he chooses to throw himself on his father’s mercy in hopes of being given a lower place in his father’s household.  Whereas he was once a son, the young man now hopes to simply be taken on as a hired hand.  As he focuses on his shortcomings and failures, those problem areas of his life, he doesn’t expect much.  Even being accepted to the point of becoming a hired servant is a gamble.

But the father is surprising.  Instead of waiting with a stern demeanor for his son to come crawling home in shame, he sees his son in the distance, and he begins to run.  Running is not befitting for a man in this culture during this time.  It is unseemly.  Yet the father throws decorum aside and rushes to meet his son.  Instead of finding a stern and cold reception, the son is met with compassion and is swept up in the father’s embrace.  He will not be a hired hand.  No, he will be restored as a full son to the household, and the father throws a party to celebrate his return.

As we begin a New Year that is fraught with potential for both success and failure, perhaps the place to begin is here in the Father’s embrace.  For we, like the wayward son, have also been met with compassion and grace if we have turned in faith to Jesus Christ.  And while the Father does indeed lead us by the Spirit to make changes for our good, his first word to us is not one of disappointment or disapproval.  His first word is love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NIV)  In Jesus, we have been caught up into the Father’s embrace, and in the cross, we know the depth of his love.  Of course, God’s love for us militates against the destructive and apathetic areas of our lives, just as the love of an earthly parent trembles to see the self-destructive behavior of his or her child.  The call to change is an act of love as well.

In the moment of newness that is the New Year, perhaps rest rather than activity should be our starting place.  Instead of focusing on our shortcomings, perhaps we should simply rest in the Father’s love.  And as we rest, perhaps we should then listen to the words of a loving Father who desires our good, who does indeed call us to change.  But let us remember that love is the first word, not shame or guilt.  And let us also remember that God does not leave us alone.  If he calls us to it, he walks with us through it, no matter how we stumble and fall.  The call is to keep walking and relying on grace as we do.

May you rest in the Father’s love this New Year.

Discerning Opportunities

Early in the Gospel of Mark, we find Jesus faced with an interesting dilemma.  His ministry has been met with acclaim in a town called Capernaum.  The people there have been awed by his teaching, and he has performed many healings and exorcisms.  In the early morning after a full evening of ministry, we are told that Jesus “got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35b, NIV)  The dilemma comes when his disciples come looking for him.  They exclaim, “Everyone is looking for you!” (1:37)  It seems that Jesus has an opportunity to capitalize on the success of the previous day.

The proper response to such news seems obvious: Jesus should take the opportunity for further ministry.  God has blessed his efforts, and a door stands open.  It would be irresponsible to turn away from such an opportunity!  But Jesus does just that.  With what I assume was incredible presence of mind, Jesus replies, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (1:38)  When faced with this great opportunity, Jesus walks away.

As I read this account, I am convinced that there is such a thing as a “holy no.”  There are times in our lives when we are faced with great opportunities, sometimes even great opportunities for great good.  But the mere presence of an opportunity does not necessitate that we take it.  Indeed, there are times when we should not, when a “holy no” is the proper response.  This statement may seem counter-intuitive or even irresponsible, but the example of Jesus points to a more discerning way.

Note a couple of things about Jesus in this passage.  First, his choice to walk away from this great opportunity is preceded by prayer; he got up early in the morning to pray.  Second, Jesus’ “no” to one opportunity meant “yes” to another.  Because Jesus refuses to return to Capernaum, he is able to go to other places.  Indeed, he must say no to Capernaum in order to fulfill his ministry.  After all, preaching in different places is why he came. (1:38)  It seems that Jesus knows exactly what he is to be about and is willing to pursue it to the exclusion of all other opportunities, even good ones.

So just how does Jesus know what he should be about?  I would argue that his prayer and his presence of mind are linked.  Perhaps Jesus is rooted in his purpose because he was first rooted in prayer.  His time on his knees informs his time on his feet, and he is empowered to discern between the opportunities set before him.  Thus, Jesus is able to offer a “holy no” to one opportunity in order to offer a “holy yes” to another.

We are coming to a time in congregational life when this kind of discernment will be important.  In the coming months, members of Immanuel will be asked to consider serving in various ways in our community for the coming year.  When such opportunities arise, we sometimes respond with too-quick responses.  Some reply “yes” in excitement for service or reluctant duty, while others reply “no” because of poor past experience or feelings of inadequacy.  The example of Jesus, though, points to the more discerning way – the way of prayer and purpose.

I encourage you to pray about your place in Immanuel in the coming year.  I encourage you to have the presence of mind to discern between opportunities, having the freedom to offer “holy no’s” to good things in order to offer “holy yes’s” to best things.  I encourage you to refuse to take on too much, and I also encourage you to refrain from taking on too little.

May we all pray for discernment, both corporately and individually, as we seek to serve God, one another, and the surrounding community.  And may our time on our knees inform our time on our feet as God grants the wisdom that we seek.