Monday, May 5, 2014

Not The End

I was one of those people who was really into the TV series Lost. I followed each of the clues the series dropped like bread crumbs from every kind of loaf in the world. I read the internet chats and Jeff Jensen's Entertainment Weekly posts folding each morsel into new grandiose theoretical confections. And in the end the whole thing was about a rock that stoppered the island's magic. I and a lot of fans were disappointed. We suspect that, reassurances to the contrary, the writers really did not have that ending in mind all along. It felt like it was just thrown together. But at least they did have an ending.

Not all series with a central mystery do us the courtesy of giving us an ending. When I was a kid I got intrigued by a series called Coronet Blue. The title was the only clue an amnesiac remembered about his former life. It ran one summer and was not renewed so the mystery was never resolved. The same thing happened with a series called John Doe about a man who knew everything except who he was. Lots of fascinating clues. No ending.

And now I am a fan of Game of Thrones, a gritty fantasy show about a war of succession which has several cut-throat claimants to the throne, plus dragons and eerie creatures called White Walkers. Not only is the TV series without an ending in sight, neither is the series of books on which it is based. Author George R.R. Martin still has at least 2 books to write to wrap things up and he is in his mid-60s. He is a very slow and painstaking writer, with gaps of up to 5 years between books. Everybody wants him to finish before the TV series runs out of plot and, of course, before he dies! We have no guarantee of either outcome. Supposedly the producers of the series have presented him with a provisional ending that he has approved. So whatever happens to him, we will find out who ultimately rules Westeros.

At least the British show The Prisoner did have an ending, albeit an allegorical one that is still debated by fans. And Joss Whedon accomplished the miraculous in getting a film, Serenity, made to resolve most of the questions brought up in his canceled TV series Firefly. And it became pretty clear in reading the Harry Potter series that J.K. Rowling had a definite ending in sight while writing the books. And unlike Lost, it was a good ending.

The Bible is really one long story, the love story of God and his creation. God makes the world and its people and pronounces them good. But we humans disobey him and, in his words, “ruin” his world. Instead of washing his hands of us, God sets about redeeming humanity and his creation. He starts by narrowing his focus to the offspring of one faithful man, Abraham. Then he narrows it further to the descendants of his grandson Jacob. He makes a nation of them. When they are enslaved he rescues them and makes a covenant with them. He teaches them that he is a God of justice and faithfulness, mercy and forgiveness. The message is repeated and reenforced by a series of prophets.

God then focuses on the descendants of Jacob's son Judah,and then on his descendant David. He makes a king of David and promises that one of his royal line will rule forever. But the people of Israel and even the Davidic kings fail to obey and remain faithful to God. He lets his people go into exile and rescues them once more. But they are a shadow of the kingdom that flourished under David and his son Solomon. The prophets tell the people that God has not forgotten his promise but will send an anointed one, a Messiah, to restore and rule them.

And that's where Jesus comes in. When he arrives on the scene, the descendants of Judah are at a low point. They achieved independence once more for a brief time only to invite the Romans to take over! Yes, that's the demoralizing scandal of their situation. About 140 BC, having gained freedom from the Seleucid successors to Alexander the Great, an independent Jewish kingdom existed under the Hasmonean Dynasty. But after 80 years, this kingdom was split by a civil war between 2 rival sons of the king. The people asked for Rome to come in and bring peace. And the Romans took over, eventually installing Herod the Great as their puppet King of the Jews. Through their own actions, the people of Judea and Galilee were under the thumb of the pagan Roman empire, whose emperors began to call themselves gods. In addition, there had not been a prophet giving the Word of the Lord on their plight for at least 200 years. So it seemed to the people that they had hit rock bottom. It looked like the perfect time for God to send his Messiah.

Then John the Baptist came, preaching repentance in the name of the Lord. And Jesus arrived, healing and preaching forgiveness. Jesus displayed mastery over demons, diseases, disastrous weather and even death. Surely he was the Messiah. He would raise an army like his ancestor David, overthrow the Romans and inaugurate God's kingdom on earth!

And then he was killed. And to his followers, it seemed like the story had been canceled abruptly with no proper ending. All they were left with was disappointment and questions. And that brings us to our passage from Luke 24:13-35.

Two disciples are walking to Emmaus, 7 miles from Jerusalem. They are discussing the whole sorry affair when Jesus joins them. They do not recognize him at the time. We are not sure why. Perhaps it was the fact that they were walking west and therefore into the dazzling light of the setting sun. Anyway Jesus asks what they are discussing and they tell him about the prophet who was crucified and how their hopes in him were dashed. And they add the surprising news that his tomb is empty and the women say he is alive.

You can't help but feel sorry for these two, especially when they stop and look sad. They say, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” They don't know what to make of it. They were invested in this story. They had devoted their lives to it. Now nothing made sense.

Jesus does not coddle them for one minute: “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Rather harsh. But he does get their attention. And they really want to know. Did they get it wrong? Was the answer there all along? “Then,” we are told, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

Notice that it says “in all the scriptures.” Remember that at this point not one word of the New Testament has been written. All the disciples have is what we call the Old Testament: the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets. So nowhere in there does it say, “Jesus of Nazareth will do this or that.” And yet when you read the Hebrew Bible as a Christian you keep hearing passages that resonate with what we know of Jesus, echoes of future history.

It starts in the first book of the Bible. In Genesis, God (talking to whom?) says "let us make humanity in our image." First clue that God's oneness is far from simple. When humanity disobeys God and introduces actual rather than potential evil into the world, God sets his plan to redeem his creation into motion. He promises that the descendant of the woman will crush the head of the source of evil. He tells Abraham that the world will be blessed through his offspring. Abraham is even willing to give up his son but God substitutes his own sacrifice in his place. There is a sense in which the story of Joseph, a good son wrongly punished, whose trials bring about a greater good, prefigures Christ.

In the story of the Exodus, the blood of a lamb saves God's people from death. Moses predicts that God will raise up a prophet like him whom the people must obey.

The Psalms are a treasure trove of glimpses of the coming Messiah, who is both the Son of God and the son of David. Psalm 22 chillingly gives a first-person account of one whose hands and feet are pierced, whose clothes are divided up through the casting of lots and who asks God why he has been forsaken. Other psalms speak of one whose bones are not broken, who is betrayed by a friend, who is given vinegar to drink, and who prays for his enemies.

The writings of the prophets also add to the picture of God's Anointed One. In Isaiah alone we learn of his birth, his Davidic lineage, his Galilean ministry, his beating, his humiliation, his death to save others from their sins and his being buried in a rich man's tomb. The other prophets add more details until we get to Malachi, the last book of the Hebrew Bible. There are, depending how you divide up the passages, between 110 and more than 300 prophesies that apply to Christ in the Old Testament, which I have bookmarked in this Bible.
These are the verses that refer to Christ which Jesus shared with the disciples as they walked along.

Few stories are so well constructed that the revelation at the end strikes you both as a surprise and yet as one which, upon further reflection, seems inevitable. In movies, I can point to Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and M. Night Shamaylan's The Sixth Sense. In literature, the Harry Potter series leaps to mind. We now know that J.K. Rowling intended all along that Harry's destiny echo Christ's willing death to save us. She builds to it the same way the Bible lays down the same clues about what God intends his Son to accomplish.

And the first ones to hear the whole story explained were the two disciples heading to Emmaus. Imagine how they felt. They thought the story they were part of, the story of Jesus, had been going great. They thought they would soon be crowning him king and following him into battle to overthrow the Roman occupation. Then it seemed to all go wrong. Jesus was crucified by the Romans. The story ended badly to their mind. But, with Christ's explanation, they now see that this was all part of God's plan from the beginning and had they looked at the scriptures properly, they would have seen the true path Jesus was taking. And what they thought was a disaster, his death on the cross, was in fact God's way of reversing the damage done by our sins, as well as his way of forgiving those sins.

Every one of us sees our life as a story, a movie in which we are the hero or heroine. And sometimes things happen which completely disrupt the script we have written in our head for our life. You don't become rich and famous. You don't marry the handsome prince. You aren't the best in your chosen field. You don't overcome your handicap or disease or the circumstances of your unhappy childhood and live happily ever after. And because we have been told how such stories are supposed to turn out, we are disappointed. Raised on stories where everyone unequivocally triumphs over everything bad that life throws at them, we don't know what to do or how to go on.

Part of that is because we think the story is over. I see that sometimes in new inmates at the jail. A young person or even a middle-aged person who has never been in jail before comes to me looking panicked or crying and thinks that their present circumstances are permanent. A 19 year old black girl thought her life was over because now she would never become a nurse or get her life back on track. I googled and printed up for her the stories of at least 3 women of color who went to jail and then got their lives together and did great things. One was named a CNN Person of the Year. I frequently repeat a line from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “Everything will be all right in the end. If it's not all right, it's because it's not yet the end.” As Bishop Frade points out, that is one of the key teachings of the Bible. The disciples thought that with Jesus dead, all was lost. But Jesus' death was not the end of the story. With God, the situation is never hopeless.

Sometimes we think the story of our life is ruined because it's not turning out as we wanted it to. But an unexpected plot twist is not the same as an unhappy ending. I can't tell you how many actors were athletes or dancers until an injury derailed the career they had been pursuing all their lives. But had this painful disappointment not occurred we would not have had the screen careers of John Wayne or Charlize Theron or Tom Cruise or Summer Glau or or Forest Whitaker or Amy Acker or Philip Seymour Hoffman. They could have simply given up when their dreams of being an athlete or dancer were shattered. Instead, they found themselves in careers where their other talents were given range and in which they were arguably more successful.

Peter was a fisherman. Matthew was a wealthy tax collector. Saul was a zealous Pharisee. God ended their careers and gave them very different lives than the ones they may have imagined. Unlike the actors I named, their new lives were hardly glamorous. They endured imprisonment, beatings, stoning, and shipwrecks. They all died as martyrs. But none ever expressed regrets. They seized on the new lives God gave them and lived in gratitude for what they received from Jesus and in hope for what was to come.

Our lives are in God's hands. He is the one controlling the story and he has determined it will have a happy ending. We can throw all kinds of minor plot twists at him but he will still get his happy ending. We can screw up our part; we can make bad choices; we can fail him but he will still turn it all into a happy ending. It may not look that way because we are still in the middle of the story. 

Beginning with Jesus the story's focus stops narrowing and starts to widen. Through Jesus the Spirit of God begins to work with the Twelve disciples turned apostles. He moves to the 3000 pilgrims at Pentecost, to the Gentiles to whom Saul turned Paul preached the gospel, to their followers, to the whole Roman Empire, to the East and West and North and South, to all the corners of the globe and all peoples and all nations whose every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever.

That's what God is working toward. Any other point in time is not the final state for any person or life. Even our deaths are not the end of our stories, any more than Jesus' death was the end of his. And it is all his story—his story of a creation he pronounced good, creatures he made in his image and how, when they went bad, he set about recreating them until they become what he intended them to be all along. It's not over for this world or for us when we think it is. 

In fact it will never be over. Remember how you just hate it when a really good story ends. You don't want it to stop. You love all the characters, and you don't want their stories to end and you want to know what happens next. Well, this is the best story ever. Because this is the neverending story of God's love. We are the characters he created and loves and he's determined that we will go on forever. And when he gets everything back on track, when he gets the story back to where he wants it, when all our stories and subplots converge, every chapter, every episode, every adventure will just keep getting better and better and better. 

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