April 19, 2017: His Present Risenness
If we take seriously the words of the risen Jesus, “Know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.” (Matthew 28:20), then we must accept His invitation that His resurrection needs to be experienced as a present and continuing reality. Brennan Manning wrote, “For me the most radical demand of the Christian faith lies in summoning the courage to say yes to the present risenness of Jesus Christ.” How many times do we fail to notice the subtle ways that Jesus is snagging our attention?
I was a guest at a wedding many years ago. Like most weddings, you have the joy of making new friends, particularly as you nervously find your assigned seat at the dinner table at the reception. The guest to my left (my new friend) had discovered (from another “helpful” guest) that I was a pastor. She leaned in and said in a loud voice, “If only God would speak to me in a way that was really personal! Then I might believe.” I suggested she pray about that and, in my experience, it was the sort of prayer God delighted to answer. She dismissed the idea. Still, I said a quick, silent prayer that God would meet her personally. As I placed a noiseless “Amen” to my prayer I got the craziest idea that this woman had almost drowned when she was three years old. It felt ridiculous, but I could not shake off the conviction. At the same time, Psalm 18:6 came to mind: “He drew me out of deep waters.” We passed through the appetizer course (me attempting to shake off this absurd notion), then the entree, and finally the dessert. My new friend continued with her theme of wanting to hear from God personally and I sat with this surprising impression that just refused to go away. So, now on my third cup of coffee, I said another silent prayer and nervously ventured, “This is probably crazy, but I just wonder if possibly the story of a little girl, say about three years old or so, who had a near-drowning experience but was saved might mean something to you?” She burst into tears! “Yes!” she said, “That was me! How could you possibly have known that?” She dried her tears and looked me straight in the eye. “But if only God would speak to me personally!”
Why is it so hard to summon the courage to say yes to the present risenness of Jesus Christ? For some of us, this may be mere naiveté. But for others, like me, it’s usually a matter of our own stubbornness or even, at times, a willful refusal to accept what is right in front of us. That particular night it took me three cups of coffee before I would risk looking foolish for Jesus!
Earlier in Jesus’ ministry, He appeared to His disciples amid a storm. Walking on water, he jumped into their boat and silenced the storm. In his account, Mark wrote, “They were completely amazed…” (Mark 6:51). The disciples had no capacity, no rational way, to explain or comprehend what Jesus had done. It just didn’t fit reality as they knew and understood it. Why were they amazed? Mark takes us right back to the feeding of the five thousand that had occurred earlier that day — and then he “rats” them out: “They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened." (verse 52).
“Hardness of heart” is often used to describe a refusal or an unwillingness to trust what God has put right in front of us. And the disciples’ hardness of heart calls me to come to terms with my own. You know that attitude that says, “No matter what you tell me, I am not going to believe it!” This is our willful refusal to acknowledge Him as Lord and entrust our lives to Him. Conversely, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the more we accept the reality of His Lordship to take root in our hearts, the easier it becomes to recognize His presence. That said, our willful refusal to see what is right before us, over time may lead to our inability to recognize even His most obvious presence. Here’s another way of putting it: our unwillingness to acknowledge Him may gradually decay our ability to see Him. And this is also what Jesus encountered in the boat! He had to overcome the disciples’ spiritual blindness.
Many have committed their life’s work to make the account of Jesus’ physical resurrection explicable — to render it neat and reasonable. But it’s not neat and reasonable. We miss the real Jesus when live as though we have Him all figured out. He is always doing something beyond our understanding and imagination! We need to let Him confront us with our own spiritual blindness and, by the power of His Holy Spirit, open our eyes to His presence among us. I could hardly believe the woman’s response to the words God seemed to have given me at the wedding reception. I wanted to say, “Madam, this IS the personal word you asked for! Don’t miss it!”
If we can’t or we won’t, there is a chance that, after many years of willful refusal and the ensuing blindness to His presence, we will find ourselves experiencing a fear of abandonment. We can so easily mistake our own vision of reality (that is, there is no God, or worse, God is there but He doesn’t care for me) for the truth about God. The truth is there is no storm we face that can diminish His Glory in our lives. Not even our willfulness, our blindness or our worst fears can stay His loving, self-giving, merciful, passionate and very personal pursuit of us. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)
On a Friday when all seemed utterly lost, broken and hopeless, Luke records, “…there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour…” (Luke 23:44). And then a few days later, Mary could not even see Jesus through her grief that she had forever lost Him. John wrote, “…[Mary] turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, ‘Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’” (John 20: 13-16a) How did Mary recognize Him in the garden? Jesus called her by name.
Later that same day, on the road to Emmaus, two disciples failed to recognize the stranger who walked at their side and opened the scriptures to them. Notice, once again, it looked like Jesus was going to pass them by. “He [Jesus] acted as if He were going farther, but they urged Him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So He went in to stay with them. When He was at table with them, He took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized Him.” (Luke 24: 28-31a). Here a softened heart became a burning heart as Jesus unfolded the scriptures to them.
And still He comes — chasing us down in the storms and struggles of our lives. Softening our hard hearts with the reality of His love, He says, “Take heart.” Opening our eyes to the reality of His presence, He says, “It is I.” Delivering us from our fear of abandonment, He says, “Do not be afraid.” His death on the Cross atoning for all our hardness of heart, all our foolish pride and religious sensibilities. His resurrection still assuring us amid our fears that He is risen and He will never pass us by.
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