Sunday, March 20, 2016

I Believe: God’s Great Pursuit

When a thug steals Nathan’s truck, he takes off after the truck with a reckless abandon, knowing that his baby is in the backseat. (Courageous)

Now that is love! When I first saw this movie, Courageous, I, like many of you, thought to myself, "Just let that truck go!” But this father knew something we didn’t know. Father’s are like that. He knew that truck held something very precious inside. Something so precious, in fact, that he was willing to risk his own life to save it. I suppose you can see where I am going with this.

As those earliest Christians continued their effort to write down the things most important about their faith, “I believe in God…” “I believe in Jesus…” They added something else:
I believe Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and that He descended into hell.
Of all the things they could come up with, of all the many aspects of Christianity, why do you suppose they chose these words to describe the heart of their faith? I’ll tell you why. Because these words describe the most incredible journey God ever took. The journey from heaven to earth, the journey from perfect life to death. This is the journey God took on your behalf. He jumped onto a moving truck and refused to let go and when God jumped, He gave up His life for yours.

The story of the Incarnation, God becoming human, is the most powerful love story every written. It’s not only a story of God taking on flesh, it is the story of God’s endless mercy and radical pursuit of us. And that, church, is at the center of our faith.

There are certain elements of the Incarnation with which we are extremely familiar. Jesus’ birth, we celebrate Christmas every year! Jesus’ death and resurrection, we will celebrate Easter again next week! And we are even extremely familiar with those years in between, the years of Jesus’ ministry. And maybe the new movie, The Young Messiah, will give us a glimpse into his childhood! There is an aspect of Jesus’ life, however, with which most of us are unfamiliar. In fact, there is not much written in the Bible about it. There is a passage here and there that mentions it. There are writings outside of the Bible that mention it. And in spite of its relatively small footprint on the Christian landscape, it shows up in this “I believe statement” of the earliest Christians. Do you know what I’m talking about?

I believe in Jesus who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and descended into hell.

OK, be honest, how many of you know what this is all about? What a strange statement! There have been a lot of movies about Jesus lately, but I’ve never seen one about this! But, this line is based upon Scripture. For example, consider Acts 2:23–24:
In accordance with God’s established plan and foreknowledge, He was betrayed. You, with the help of wicked men, had Jesus killed by nailing Him to a cross. God raised Him up! God freed Him from death’s dreadful grip, since it was impossible for death to hang on to Him.
What does it mean that Jesus was in “death’s dreadful grip”? Many early Christians interpreted this to mean that Jesus experienced all of humanity, including death. When Jesus died, he traveled to the place of the dead, like all other human beings. Only the place of the dead could not hold Jesus. In fact, they argued that Jesus had to go to the place of the dead in order to defeat death once and for all. Wow, what an awesome story of God’s endless mercy and radical pursuit of us! While Acts is a rather obscure reference, and one that is open to interpretation, I Peter is a little more clear.
Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. In the past, these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water. Baptism is like that. It saves you now—not because it removes dirt from your body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers. (I Peter 3:18–22 CEB)
Did you ever read a story and feel like you must have missed a chapter? Every year, on the last day the office is opened before Christmas break, the ministry staff goes to the movies. It is our tradition! We will typically see the big movie that is coming out for the holiday season. A couple of years ago, we all went to see the last installment of the Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies. As we were headed out that way, we invited Lee Browning to join us. We all watched the movie together that day. We sat through the entire two-and-a-half hours! On our way out, we were all talking about the movie. And Lee said: “That was great! But, … were there more movies before this one?” When I read I Peter 3:19, I get the sense that I’m missing something, and I am. There is a lengthy story that circulated in early Christian circles about Jesus’ journey into hell after His death. Nowhere in Scripture do we have that full story. But a few of the New Testament writers allude to it. The writer of Acts, as we’ve seen, might make an allusion to it. The writer of I Peter says this in chapter 3, and in the next chapter says the good news was preached to the dead. There also might be allusion to this story in the New Testament book of Jude. But that is it, not too much. Outside of the New Testament, however, this story is expounded upon in great detail. The apocryphal book of I Enoch gives us, perhaps, the fullest account. In that story, the “prisoners” in question are those who sinned in the days preceding the flood in Genesis 6–9. God placed those sinners in chains (in a prison) until the final judgment. But the Son of Man appeared to them, offering them an opportunity for salvation. Other books, including the Ascension of Isaiah and the Gospel of Peter, also mention this story. Irenaeus, an early church leader, argued that Jesus had to go to hell in order for His sacrifice to be complete. Because Jesus was the second Adam. He had to participate in humanity in all ways, even in death. But, death could not hold Jesus. So, as our human representative, Jesus defeated death for us. Blazing the trail to resurrection that we would someday follow. We might never hear the entire story that led to this strange verse in I Peter. But even if we are never privy to the entire story, the most important thing is clear. God loves us so much, that He became human to save us. And he suffered to save us, he died to save us, and he even went into hell to save us. Now church, that is love! We’ll talk about celebrating resurrection next week, but this week, let’s remember why Easter is so special. As the theologian Jugen Moltmann once wrote about the great span from Good Friday to Easter Sunday:
God weeps with us so that we may someday laugh with Him.
Do you know the name Brennan Manning? Manning is a Christian author who has written a few excellent books, including The Ragamuffin Gospel. He also was a close personal friend and mentor to the late singer/songwriter Rich Mullins. “Brennan” is not his real name, but it was the name by which he was known for decades, before his death in 2013. Many years ago, he relayed this story about his name. While growing up, his best friend was Ray. The two of them did everything together. Bought a car together as teenagers, double-dated together, went to school together. They even enlisted in the Army together! Went to boot camp together and even fought on the front lines together.

One night while sitting in a foxhole, Brennan was reminiscing about the old days in Brooklyn. His best friend Ray was sitting next to him, listening, eating a chocolate bar. Suddenly a live grenade came into the foxhole. Ray looked at Brennan, smiled, dropped his chocolate bar and threw himself on the live grenade. It exploded, killing Ray, but Brennan's life was spared.

Later in his life, Brennan became a priest. When he did, he was instructed to take on the name of a saint. He thought of his friend, Ray Brennan, so he took on the name "Brennan." Years later, he went to visit Ray's mother in Brooklyn. They sat up late one night having tea when Brennan asked her, "Do you think Ray loved me?" Mrs. Brennan got up off the couch, shook her finger in front of Brennan's face and shouted, "What more could he have done for you?" Brennan said that at that moment he experienced an epiphany. He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, Does God really love me? And Jesus' mother, Mary, pointing to her son, saying, "What more could He have done for you?"

The cross of Jesus is God's way of doing all He could do for us. And yet we often wonder, “Does God really love me?” “Am I important to God?” “Does God care about me?” You may be wondering that. Listen, God not only loves you, he has pursued you from heaven to earth and even into hell! You have not moved too far away from God for Him to find you! You have not messed up so much that God cannot forgive you! And as the story of the prodigal son reminds us, God is just waiting for you to take the first step toward home. And when you do, God will run to meet you there!

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