I was fourteen when I picked up the Bible on my own to read. My friend that summer had gone on a shopping spree at the local Christian bookstore with his mom, and he came home with a Bible inside it’s own zippered case. I loved books, and loved to read (especially serial fantasy novels with lots of blood, guts, fire-breathing dragons, and action), but I had never seen a book in its own case before, and I thought that was pretty cool. While my friend started up Final Fantasy on the NES, I sat on the bed and cracked open his new Bible. At 1,400 pages or so, I thought it would be best if I just skipped to the end. I knew the beginning had stories of the flood, and Moses crossing the Red Sea, but that was about the extent of my biblical knowledge. I turned to the book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, and saw “Dragon” in one of the section headings. I started reading in Chapter 12:
“A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in labor and agony as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: There was a great fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven crowns. It’s tail swept away a third of the stars in heaven and hurled them to earth…” (Rev. 12:1-4)
I was hooked. This sounded exactly like the stuff I was reading in my “DragonLance” novels. I read on, got a little bored, skipped ahead, and then froze in chapter 19:
“Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse. It’s rider is called Faithful and True, and he judges and makes war with justice. His eyes were like a fiery flame, and many crowns were on his head. He had a name written that no one knows except himself. He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called the Word of God. The armies that were in heaven followed him on white horses, wearing pure white linen. A sharp sword came from his mouth, so that he might strike the nations with it. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will also trample the winepress of the fierce anger of God, the Almighty. And he has a name written on his robe and on his thigh: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rev. 19:11-16).
Now we’re talking! I thought. People go to church to read this stuff? I was blown away. It sounded so much like what I was reading in my novels that I wanted so badly to know more. I came home that afternoon and told my mom I wanted to get a Bible and go to church. She said there was a youth group that met on Wednesday and she would take me there. Later that week, I went to my first youth group meeting at a Baptist church in town, and a bunch of teenagers who were way more attractive than I was at the time welcomed me in and sat on couches and sang songs together. They didn’t sound like the school choir. They were just singing the way I liked to sing in my room when I was… ahem… air guitaring to the radio, only they sounded better.
I lived my Christian faith through the tumultuous ups and downs of High School. I did some stupid things. I hurt some people pretty bad, and even to this day I wish I could go back and undo the hurt I dealt out. I blew through college like a Saturday afternoon on a country road, and then lived my faith as though I were running a 10K, like the BolderBoulder. I just wanted to get a good, average time for my age group. Just to get the “well done” at the end, but I knew I wasn’t one of the Elite runners, yet nor was I the guy in the back drinking all the free beer and mostly walking in an uneven line.
Then, about a year ago, I re-read the gospels, and I noticed something I had never noticed before: When Mary visits the tomb, she was looking for a body.
Let me just pause for a second, take a breath, and write that again, because it stopped me in my tracks: She was looking for a body.
The disciples were no where to be found. They weren’t looking for anything special or amazing to happen either. They seem to just assume the body will be there. “I’ll wait and visit the grave on Tuesday; the floral shop doesn’t open until Monday, anyway.”
It was almost like Jesus hadn’t said anything before about his resurrection to his followers. But I knew that wasn’t true because there are at least three instances in the book of Luke where Jesus foreshadows his resurrection (see Luke 9:21-22; 9:43-45; 18:31-34). In fact, he told of it so much that even his enemies were worried that something might happen, so they set guards over his tomb (Matt. 27:62-66).
If it was that big of a deal; If the disciples had some concept of the resurrection (and how could they not after all the healings and resurrections Jesus had performed on others); then don’t you think they would have at least gone to see if something might happen? But they didn’t! They stayed home. Kicked back. The Broncos were playing. Brats were thawing in the fridge.
Maybe it was out of fear – they needed an alibi in case the body was stolen. Maybe we give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they knew he would be resurrected, but since none of them bothered to show for the crucifixion other than John, they were too ashamed to come to the main event.
But, no. I don’t think any of these options are valid. Peter was too surprised by what he saw after hearing Mary’s report.
I mean, come on! Shouldn’t they at least have come after the Sabbath to pay their respects, the way Mary did? But even Mary wasn’t looking for anything other than his body:
“But Mary stood outside the tomb, crying. As she was crying, she stooped to look into the tomb. She saw two angels in white sitting where Jesus’ body had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “Because they’ve taken away my Lord,” she told them “and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know it was Jesus. “Woman,” Jesus said to her, “why are you crying? Who is it that you’re seeking?” Supposing he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you’ve carried him away, tell me where you’ve put him, and I will take him away” (John 20:11-15).
Isn’t that beautiful? It is to me. It’s like a Rembrandt painting in words. No great fiction writer could have shown what a grieving Mary would look like in that moment better than John, and because of that, I don’t believe this is fiction. Mary is absolutely beside herself, so much so that she doesn’t even question why these three angelic-looking men are standing in and around the tomb. We never notice the obvious when we’re grieving or emotionally upset – all that matters is what matters to us in that moment, and John so perfectly portrays this of Mary.
So what does that mean? In my BolderBoulder 10K metaphor, reading this and understanding it for the first time was like seeing the elite runners suddenly veer off course 1/2 mile from the finish line and hit the pub for a few pints at ten in the morning. And yet, Jesus appears to them and calls them out to start the ministry of his new church. Jesus appears to these guys who not only betrayed him before his death, but didn’t even bother to show for his resurrection.
It made me realize that my efforts to maintain an “average” pace in this race meant nothing if the elites couldn’t even cross the finish line without having Jesus call an Über, pick them up, and drive them across the finish line himself. I mean: my efforts now meant NOTHING. If that’s the case, then even my faith is dependent upon God. I can’t even choose to believe.
Hold on. I know you might be thinking I just crossed a theological line there, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not looking at the ontology of a doctrine. I’m not arguing that we ought to say ‘God chooses some for salvation and others for damnation’ – a double-determinism, in which none of our choices matter and God has already predestined everything. I don’t think that’s what the gospel writers are trying to show here. They’re trying to show what happened, and if my faith is dependent on God, then the last thing I need to do is sit back in my pretentious armchair and contemplate predestination, tap my pipe, slap my thighs and say: “Well, that proves what I’ve been writing in my seminary essays all along! I’m going to write me a sermon ’bout that!” Yet, sadly, people do this all the time – they fall in love with theology rather than desiring the One to whom the theology points.
Instead, I realized, I need to be on my knees every day begging God to give me faith in him. To give me his Holy Spirit the way he gave his Spirit to those disciples, who are just as flaky and human as I am. To read the Bible each day and to seek out what God is really trying to tell me about my life.
When Jesus finishes his Sermon on the Mount, he says “Not everyone who calls to me “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom, but those who obey my commands” (Matt. 7:21-23). The repetition “Lord, Lord” is symbolic of emotional engagement. It’s like saying “not everyone who cries out my name with emotional emphasis…” I’ve been in churches full of people who take this very seriously and very literally, but they mis-read this text. They think it means the most important thing is to obey the commands; that ‘obeying commands’ is here set against ‘staying emotionally connected’ and this mis-reading leads them to legalism. They often say that “those other churches” preach a gospel that emphasizes God’s love, but not obedience. With chins held high, they preach dry and stuffy sermons full of intellectually stimulating theological truths but offer no life to anyone.
What Jesus said is like saying “not every thunderstorm, but only those that also make hail will be significant.” In order to have hail, you have to also have a thunderstorm (at least where I live in Colorado; bear with me if you’ve ever experienced hail without a thunderstorm). In other words, it’s not an either-or, as in either you are emotionally engaged or you are obedient. ‘Either you produce hail, or you are a thunderstorm’ doesn’t make sense if only thunderstorms produce hail. Some Christians want to make it that way, and many churches fall too far into one side in order to spite the other.
The truth is, all of us have to be emotionally engaged. We all have to want God more than anything else in this world. If you don’t, no matter how “obedient” you think you are, when God turns out the lights on this world, you’re going to look to whatever it is in life that you hold most dear, and as Jesus said, just like Lot’s wife, it’s going to be your final judgement (see Luke 17:32-35). But, wanting alone isn’t enough. We have to do something with that want. That desire has to lead to action, and that means obedience by desire. This is why the great martyrs and first apostles could endure whippings and beatings and torture and death for the sake of their belief in the gospel. It wasn’t some stoic loyalty to obedience. They passionately desired the kingdom of God more than they wanted to save themselves from death.
“Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith. For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
I don’t understand Revelation. I never did, and I still don’t. Sometimes I think the weird things written there were written just so fantasy nerds like me might stumble upon them. Sometimes I think there’s so much that will make sense later on in life that doesn’t make sense in my reading now. I don’t understand the symbolism of the dragon, but I do get who the knight on the white horse is, and I do see that he faced down the dragon and endured pain and death for the joy of the kingdom that was set before him. He did that so that weak-kneed, average-for-my-age-group, just jogging-along-in-my-fun-run, sinners like me could also come into that kingdom. I hope you’ll consider looking into your own life and seeing all that He offers as greater than anything the rest of this world could offer you in return for your own life, because your life is infinitely precious to him even though none of us deserves this great and merciful honor.