Sunday, April 1, 2012

Rethink: Glory

We have no good modern day equivalent for a word found throughout the Bible: the word "glory." The Hebrew word for "glory" actually means weight, but came to mean "worthiness, honor, abundance." The Greek word means "reputation, recognition, acclaim." But it has overtones of splendor and radiance. The closest modern word is "awesome." It means impressive or breathtaking. And indeed there are praise songs that use it like "Our God is an Awesome God."

In ancient times, people desired and sought glory. One of the things that made one glorious is being victorious in battle. Kings with the title "the Great" were usually awesome warriors as well as impressive rulers. On the website TV Tropes they list a lot of what they call "Moments of Awesome." And while they encompass a lot of thrilling moments in literature, comic books, film and TV, they are often ones in which the hero shows mastery, or he deals a death blow to his foe. The site even covers the Bible and when you look at Jesus' Moments of Awesome you get his healings, his saving the woman caught in adultery, and even the part in Dante's Inferno (not the Bible) where Jesus, between his crucifixion and resurrection, kicks down the gates of hell and frees the Old Testament saints from Sheol, the shadowy realm of the afterlife referred to in parts of the Hebrew Bible. But, tellingly, the entry for Jesus says nothing of his crucifixion being a Crowning Moment of Awesome. And yet that's the way Jesus makes us rethink the concept of glory.

God's glory is, especially in the Old Testament, conventional. The very nature of God is glorious and his mighty acts are as well. God's glory can be seen in storms and the rainbow and other parts of nature. In the New Testament, the glory of God is Jesus himself, his divine nature and the light he brings to the world. But in John's gospel, where the words "glory" and "glorify" appear 41 times, it comes to include something else: his crucifixion.

Now this causes a problem, both then and now. There was nothing glamorous about nailing someone to a tree. First off, it was a form of execution reserved for slaves, traitors and the lowest of criminals. Secondly, it was meant to be the opposite of glorious; it was designed to be humiliating. The person was flogged then the heavy crossbeam was laid across his shoulders and tied to his arms. Then the condemned was forced to trudge the streets as he went to his place of crucifixion, which was a public place. Jesus was crucified on a hill along a road to the city of Jerusalem. There the person was stripped naked. He was either tied or nailed to the crossbeam, which was hauled up and slid onto the upright section which was already fixed in the ground. Sometimes, they took an actual tree, cut off the top and branches and carved it so a peg-like projection fit a hole in the crossbeam. He hung just high enough that his feet couldn't reach the ground. At this point, the soldiers put Jesus' feet together and hammered a spike through his heels. Often a sign announcing the person's crime, which had been carried before the condemned on his death march, was hung from the upright peg above his head. Unable to control the body fluids streaming from his wounds, his nose, his bowels and bladder, wracked by pain, dehydration, shortness of breath, and exhaustion, the person died a shameful public spectacle, a warning to all who dared defy the powers that be. It would be the equivalent of being hung naked on the side of US-1 so all could see you slowly and agonizingly die as they entered Key West.

So where is the glory in that? Especially in the founder of a movement? If one of the disciples died that way, but Jesus escaped, that martyr would be honored. But when your leader dies that way, a pitiful, panting, shivering horror show on the side of the road, how can that be him in his glory?

In action movies, which are about wish fulfillment, in the rare event that the main hero dies, he dies clean. You don't see him torn limb from limb, you don't see him disemboweled, you don't see his brains explode out of the back of his skull if he's shot in the head. If he dies nobly, they want a last lingering shot of him peaceful in death, as if he's died in bed. Heck, in most movies, heroes can take a major beating and there is rarely much in the way of bruising or swelling. Facial wounds don't bleed alarmingly in movies as they do in real life. Because we don't want our heroes to look vulnerable or messed up. And we really don't like them to die in the first place.

But when Jesus says, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified," he is talking about his death, and it runs against human psychology. We see no glory in a man killed so brutally and bloodily. And it's not like they thought differently back then. In fact, most people knew first hand what real death was like. 50% of all children died by the age of 5. If you were a child in Jesus day, you would have seen half of your brothers and sisters die as young children, and be buried. Medicine was rudimentary and based on old wives tales. A cut or a broken leg could get infected and kill you. And you would die at home, nursed by your family, not trained professionals and not in a clean and antiseptic hospital. Unless the cause of death was obvious, what killed you would forever remain a mystery. If you went to war, you would be killed in hand to hand combat most likely, looking at the person who stabbed you or hacked you to death. Your family might look for you to bury your body. If they couldn't find you, the animals and the elements would dispose of you. Death was common and well-known by all. Its ugliness was inescapable.

Sepphoris was the capital of Galilee. In 4 BC, when Herod the Great died, the inhabitants revolted. The Roman army destroyed the entire city. They crucified the men and sold the women and children into slavery. In 1 AD, Herod's son, Herod Antipas, was made governor of Galilee and he rebuilt the city to be the ornament of his territory. By this time, Jesus' family would be living in Nazareth, 4 miles away. It's likely that a builder like Joseph would have found work there and Jesus may have accompanied him as his apprentice. He would have heard the stories from the lips of witnesses to the horrible event that occurred while he was a child far away in Egypt. He would have known the death that awaited those who challenged those in power. His own cousin, John, was beheaded for denouncing the adultery of Antipas. And yet Jesus obeyed God, which he knew would lead to controversy, confrontation and condemnation.

The people who followed Jesus knew he was at least a prophet. As they saw him heal and heard him preach, they became convinced that despite his pacifist nature he was the Messiah. They were ready to crown him and follow him into battle against Rome. That's why the religious leaders were so upset by his entrance into the city on what we call Palm Sunday. Especially after he drove the moneychangers out of the Temple. It sure looked like a revolution brewing. And it was Passover, when worshippers inundated the city, to celebrate a holiday about how God freed the Jews from Egyptian oppressors. Politically shrewd high priest Caiaphas did the math. "It is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to be destroyed." His reasoning was impeccable. Nobody wanted to see Jerusalem follow the path of Sepphoris.

It's rare for a man to do what is right when it will cost him everything. Politicians put off doing what is necessary if it merely brings a slight risk. Jesus made the decision to keep speaking out even if it meant death. And unlike a movie hero or even Samson, Jesus could not do his enemies mortal damage as he went down. He could only let the overwhelming physical power of his foes take him and do whatever they wanted to with him. The dedication it took for Jesus to stay on his path is awesome, glorious.

You know what's as scary as death: having no control whatsoever over what happens to you. That's what remains with victims after a mugging, or a beating or a rape: they could not stop it from happening. So most of us avoid situations in which we have no control But that didn't stop Jesus. Every blow to the face and head, every skin-stripping lash of the whip, every blow to the nails skewering his arms and legs, took incredible courage to endure. He knew what would happen and at no point did he try to stop it, however futile such a gesture would be. Jesus' composure during his tortures is awesome, glorious.

He was marched through the streets for people to spit on. He was stripped naked before his mother, his friends, indifferent guards and a hostile crowd. He was mocked as he died by the reputable and by the criminal. And he asked God to forgive them. Jesus' refusal to curse those who cursed and humiliated him is awesome, glorious.

Then he felt the full weight of the world's alienation from God. He who knew the Father's love from all eternity feels it no more. He who was always closest to the burning love of God feels the coldness of being at an infinite remove from the source of all goodness. The sun hides its face, the world falls into darkness, and Jesus descends into the hell of abandonment by God. He cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" That Jesus chose to take on our punishment, estrangement from God, for our sake is awesome, glorious.

Very few people realize the awesomeness of the willing sacrifice made for others. J. K. Rowling did and she put before Harry Potter the same choice. Joss Whedon ended what looked to be the last season of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" by having his heroine realize that her gift was her death to save the world. Neither one tried to take down the bad guy as they died. They embraced that which we cower from, the pit, the void, the undiscovered country. But in both cases the authors were consciously mirroring Christ. They realized that what made Jesus awesome was not that he killed bad guys or defeated armies but that he conquered the fears that sit in the pit of our stomachs, the fear of death and the fear of pain and the fear of shame and the fear of not being in control and the fear of abandonment. Jesus felt all those things but he didn't let them control him. A man may fight because he is afraid of those things. Jesus didn't fight because he would not be conquered by fear. He fought fear with faith, trust in his Father even when he couldn't sense him. Death gets us all at some point. Fear needn't. And that is the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

When the Roman Empire finally recognized the church, Christ was given a makeover. Jesus was pictured as sitting on a dais, triumphant, a conqueror. He was portrayed as the Emperor of the universe like the Emperors of the earth. When pictured on the cross he looked serene, stately. It wasn't till the Middle Ages that Jesus was shown to be suffering while on the cross. We still have a hard time seeing the glory in Christ crucified. Even Paul said it was an offense to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.

The heart of Christ's glory is his obedience to God to the point of dying. And in the same way we glorify God by obeying him. As Jesus says in John 15, "My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I love you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love." Again the world sees no glory in the one obeying but only in the one commanding. But just as Christ's glory was his breath-taking obedience to his mission to suffer and die to save us all, so we bring glory to God by obeying his commandment to love everyone--neighbor, stranger, friend and foe.

And it is not our glory we are seeking, it is God's. We are bearers of God's image, but not God himself. The problem with a human being glorified is you can begin to believe what people say about you and become smug and arrogant. Arrogance is the deadliest of sins. It means putting yourself before all others. C. S. Lewis called it the anti-God state of mind because if there is a conflict between what God wants you to do and what you want to do, you follow what you want to do, because you know better than God. The world is full of people who think they are right fighting other people who think they are right. Humility is still not a very valued virtue. And worse, we teach our children that the highest value is to follow your heart's desire. That's what Ted Bundy did. And Jeffrey Dahmer. And Hitler. And Pol Pot. Our hearts are not always the best guide of what to do. We need God's laws written in our hearts. We need a change of heart. Which only really happens when we open our hearts to God's Spirit. And then we can obey his commandments to love all and glorify him in our lives.

A dead Messiah, however, was not a rallying point for the first disciples. They could not see any glory in what happened on the cross. God is a God of the living and Jesus was undeniably dead. How did he make us rethink that? We'll discuss that next Sunday. In the meantime, ask yourself this: If glory is not always to be found in winning at any cost, what can I do to remind myself of that? If God is glorified by our trusting obedience to him, in what areas am I not obeying him? If I am not obeying him, what do I fear and why should I not? If Christ's glory could be found in doing a necessary, painful, and humiliating act of love for us, what am I willing to do to show his love for others and lead them from fear to faith?

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