waiting and wondering

Christmas eve day is a peculiar day. It is a day of sitting around, being edgy, wondering what is in that package. It is a day of expectation. It is a day of hoping that what is in the wrapping is everything you dreamed, and knowing, deep down, that at some level it won’t be.

We know that whatever is in the wrapping is stuff. And we know that stuff disappoints.

The day Jesus died, many people had equally conflicted emotions.

Some of them knew all of his promises. As they watched the body which was wrapped around those words die, they watched their dreams die.

Some of them took the body down from the cross, getting bloody themselves. They wrapped the body, as carefully as ever a lead crystal goblet was wrapped. They laid the body in a cave, as gently as that goblet under a tree. But they had to wonder whether this package was ever going to be opened, whether this bloody mess could ever be … anything…again.

Some of them were pretty sure that everything Jesus had said was a lie. It had to be. If it was true, then they were liars. And that couldn’t be. But there was still this nagging doubt. So they went to Pilate and asked him to put more ribbon on the package and a clear tag. And he did.

That Friday night, like this Christmas eve night, a bunch of people had a hard time sleeping. They weren’t sure whether their lives would be transformed when they woke up, or whether they would be exactly the same.

The common thread between their expectation and ours is in the manger and the grave. Each looked pretty powerless, that baby and that body.

But when the subject is expectation, never underestimate Jesus.

Two days before Christmas

It’s two days before Christmas and we are reading about Easter.

But let’s me more accurate, shall we? It is two days before many people celebrate the birth of Jesus and we are reading about his death. In Matthew 27:33-50, we are reading about his death.

We use religious shorthand – Christmas, Easter -  to stand for the celebrations that formed around these two events. But the shorthand covers the actual physical events. A baby was born. That hurts. A man was crucified. Arguably, that hurts more. Both involve waves of pain, gushes of blood. At each you hear great gasps for breath, cries for relief. Often, sedatives are offered and are occasionally denied. Both are messy.

But then, when we think of implications, the two diverge. The birth is usually about hope, about new life, about dreams and growth and change and a future. A crucifixion, never so.  Crucifixions are about punishment, protection, purifying the land of another villain, another insurrectionist, another crook. Every mother prays her child ends up good; every executioner knows some mother’s prayers were unanswered.

Until this particular day, cross, executioner, crucifixion, dying man. On this day, with people looking on and all the usual gore, something began to look like a birth. Buried in blood, hope hid. Dreams died, yes, but only for those who thought they knew the story. For the rest, unknowing, unsuspecting, a future was in the process of being born. This death was planned to provide life, on the other side, mind you.

In time (less than three days), the separation from God part of death was going to disappear. The despair and dread, defeated.

Death still hurts, but this particular death looks almost exactly like a birth. Or maybe it just allows new birth.

But in the middle? It hurt like hell.

so maybe he understands

It is hard to be ridiculed.

To trip and dump everything on your tray, to hear silence for a moment and then laughter, that’s tough. To miss one item on the checklist and then to be teased forever about your inability to do simple things right, that’s tough. To betray God and to have your name forever known as “Judas” is awful.

But in every one of those cases, something happened. At the very least you tripped. Often we did miss the item, we did betray someone, we did forget.

What if the ridicule happens for doing something right?

  • “How could anyone believe that?”
  • “Does that mean that you also believe that and that and that?”
  • “Why would you waste time on those people. They will never figure it out. They will never understand. And you will have given up any chance of getting ahead.”

When you are doing the right thing and you get teased (at best) or imprisoned (at almost worst), you eventually wonder why you are doing it. Not at first. At first it feels noble to do the right thing and have people recognize it. But the seventeenth time you wipe the lips of the person who threw up and then mocked you for taking care of people like her, it does get old. Especially when you know that if it weren’t for you, no one would care.

At those moments, when you are getting wronged for quietly doing right, you are having the privilege of a glimpse of what Jesus was experiencing in his last hours. There was a steady stream of mocking, ridicule, reviling, laughing, torture, insults, and saliva. Because willingly surrendering his life for people who hated him was the point, there was not much he could do.

Except, of course, love us.

Simon says

Sometimes details make me wonder.

As we read Matthew’s story, Jesus is carrying his cross. A man from Cyrene, named Simon, is forced to carry it for him.

That’s it. We know where Simon is from. We know what he did for part of an hour of one day of his life.

If we look at Mark’s story, we read that Simon had at least two sons, Alexander and Rufus.

If we look at Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, we discover that Rufus and his mom are living in Rome, and she was like a mother to Paul, too.

If we look at the story of the spread of the church, following the persecution in Jerusalem, we find that people from Cyrene who were in Jerusalem go to Antioch and begin to tell the stories of Jesus, and one of those people, a man named Lucius, was a teacher there.

Cyrene was, by the way, in Northern Africa, near Libya. It was a long way from Jerusalem. It was a Roman city. Jewish people from there would have come to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover as a pilgrimage. And at least one of them, Simon, got caught up in the story.

Simon, that day, became a follower of Jesus. (Luke tells us that he carried the cross behind Jesus). His traveling companions end up becoming missionaries. His wife and sons care for Paul at some point on his journey.

Sometimes we think that serving Jesus means speaking or teaching or preaching. We think that doing practical tasks are no big deal. This family, whose only traces in scripture are serving, ended up helping Jesus and Paul. They are singled out for mention as being helpful.

Apparently the followers who merely help are important, too.

Simon says.

the others

There are others that are mentioned in stories about Jesus.

There are his followers, the twelve and seventy-two and thousands. But then there are the others.

Judas, one of the twelve, ended up as one of the others. He expresses remorse, but he never looks for Jesus or the rest of the followers. He killed himself.

The chief priests, never part of any group of followers, are the ultimate others. They pursue Jesus’ end to the end.

Pilate, a follower of himself and Caesar, was an other. His wife may not have been an other, having had a bad enough dream about Jesus that she warned Pilate to free him. Pilate, however, didn’t even listen to his wife. He gave permission for crucifixion.

The crowd were others. They yelled for the release of a criminal and for the death of Jesus.

The guards were others, ridiculing and torturing.

All of the others identified in Matthew 27 actively pursued the destruction of Jesus. They were after him. They were threatened by him. They plotted and bargained and pleaded and pounded nails.

None of them in any way were indecisive. Not like his followers.

His followers were hanging around the edges,  the fringe. They listened with fear. They fled.

There were some other others, of course, the ones clueless that anything was going on, the ones in their houses, eating supper, reminding the kids about homework, going to bed. While this nighttime drama was playing out, they were sleeping.

Followers now, like followers then, have a choice. We can pay attention. We can ask for help. We can follow.

The others are still around. There are people who understand exactly who Jesus claims to be and don’t like it. We can step up and do something.

We can die for them. Like Jesus.