Better Angels: Flag Day 2017

The lesson my kids learned today in D.C. — “As Americans, we don’t shoot one another over our political differences.”

Today we were scheduled to tour the White House with Martha Brooks, the wife of our congressman, Mo Brooks. She arrived and apologized for being a few minutes late. She had just learned about the news we’ve now been following all day: a gunman opened fire at a baseball field in Alexandria, VA early this morning, injuring House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, several congressional staffers, and two Capitol police officers. Mo was among the group of GOP congressmen the shooter allegedly targeted. Thankfully, Mo was unharmed and he was even able to give aid to the injured.

A half hour after all of this went down, Martha met us at the Visitor’s Gate at the White House.

We told her that we’d be fine, that we totally understood if she felt she needed to be elsewhere. Instead, she graciously stayed by our side for the duration of our tour, offering insight and remaining especially attentive to our children’s questions while her phone blew up with texts and calls. Honestly, I don’t know how she was able to do it. Her composure was something wondrous to behold.

One of the Secret Service agents stationed in the East Room recognized Martha and came up to console her. She thanked him for his concern, saying with a smile, “Other than the fact that someone tried to shoot my husband this morning, I’m fine!”

The Bybee family with Martha Brooks, Flag Day, 2017

At the conclusion of our tour, we snapped this picture with Mrs. Brooks. Yesterday, she hosted us on an amazing tour of the Capitol. Mo took the kids with him on the House floor and they even had the chance to cast a few votes and rub elbows with some other congressmen. By this morning, Mo Brooks was a trending topic on Twitter, his quick thinking and heroic action one of the bright spots in an ugly news story that says much about our current political climate.

You hear about these kinds of things from time to time, but it was surreal to be so close to the situation, to see the “real” people being impacted by the events that make headlines. It was also difficult to see our children confronting the reality of evil in such a visceral way. It didn’t make sense to them. “Why would someone want to shoot our elected officials?” Not exactly the kinds of conversations we were anticipating when we planned this family vacation to the nation’s capital. Try explaining this kind of garbage to a nine-year-old.

But in the end, as the better angels of our nature prevail, we remember that our fellow citizens — even the ones with whom we most strongly disagree — are just that: fellow citizens. They are fellow sons and daughters, sisters and brothers. Today I’m grateful for people like Mo and Martha Brooks, individuals who not only represent me as a North Alabamian, but more importantly, as an American. Mo, your dedication to your country and your fellow citizens is evident. Thank you for your service. And, Martha, my children will not soon forget your strength and dignity in adversity. Nor will I. People like you renew my hope in the national ideals we hold so dear.

Praying for you all and for all those injured in today’s shooting.

Posted in Family, Kids, Politics, Terrorism | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Back Porch Eschatology Is The Best Eschatology

While grilling some chicken last night, Jackson brought me his Bible. (He wanted a “real” Bible the other day, rather than a “kids” Bible, so we stopped and let him pick one out.) He had been reading Genesis 1 and he had a question about creation. Our conversation about creation prompted an exchange about eternity and Jackson said, “I think heaven will be like going back to the Garden of Eden.” I said, “Well, in many ways, there’s some truth to that. Things will probably be something like they were in the Garden. But God says that the end isn’t a return to the Garden but instead it’s life in the eternal city, the new Jerusalem.”

Jackson sat there blinking at me.

So we read through Revelation 21&22 and did a little “new heavens, new earth” theology together. I told him that heaven wasn’t some far away disembodied existence where we float around on clouds and ride raindrops and all of that stuff. Instead, God promises to renew and redeem the earth, to restore it back to its originally good purposes. So when humanity made a mess of the creation God deemed to be “good”, He didn’t give up on those purposes. Rather, He’s working toward the achievement of those good purposes once more. That’s eternity, the place where things are “good” once again. The new heavens, the new earth, and the new Jerusalem all point to the work of God who will make “all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

Jackson said, “I like the sound of that.”

I do, too.

Back porch eschatology is the best kind of eschatology.

Posted in Eschatology, Faith, God, Kids, Scripture, Theology | Leave a comment

The Problem with Country Music (2017)

I love country music. As in, I LOVE country music. Growing up in Nashville, country music was ubiquitous, but nowhere more than our home. I’m not sure I was aware that other genres of music even existed when I was a child. Around our house, music was country music. One of my earliest memories is singing along to Johnny Cash records with my Dad. I was shocked and a little appalled when I learned that the other kids in the neighborhood didn’t know all the words to Folsom Prison Blues. So when I say I love country music, I have street cred, people. In fact, I love country music so much that my youngest son’s middle name is an homage to Cash.

But country music, at least mainstream country music produced on Music Row in 2017, has a problem.

Country music isn’t country music anymore.

It’s probably a bit too dramatic to say that country music has lost its “soul”, although plenty of critics have come to that conclusion. Stadium country, Bro-country, country-pop…there are plenty of terms to describe the dreck on the country airwaves these days, but none of them are good. Aesthetically, there is a certain assembly-line approach to Nashville country that many find off-putting. Comedian Bo Burnham nails Nashville’s cookie-cutter approach to record making:

“I think some of the greatest songwriters of all time are country artists. Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, you know? And if you’re writing honestly, that is art, and I would never bash that. The problem is, with a lot of modern country music, what is called stadium country music—the sort of Keith Urban brand of country music—is that it is not honest. It is the exact opposite of honest. Where instead of people actually telling their stories, you’ve got a bunch of [millionaires] who’ve never done a hard days work in their life.”

“They figured out the words and the phrases they can use to pander to their audience, and they list the same words and phrases off sort of Mad Lib style. And every song is raking in millions of dollars from actual working class people.”

Insert a backroad party reference here, a pickup truck / tractor there, name drop a classic country artist like Willie or Merle, simmer over a bed of pedal steel and electric guitar for three and half minutes and…voila! There’s your Mad Libs template for a bona fide country hit. The only interchangeable piece is the (usually male) artist on the stage. And that’s the state of modern country music: an artistically bankrupt wasteland where Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley (ad nauseam) are kings.

Thankfully, “real” country music is still alive and well, albeit far away from the plastic sound of Nashville’s airwaves. Thanks to the proliferation of digital music and the accessibility it provides, artists like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell are carrying the torch for fans of authentic country music. I’ll highlight a few of these artists over my next few posts.

Posted in Cash, Culture, Music | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

In Honor of the Queen

A certain someone around our house celebrated a birthday today.

So we decided to crown “the queen” with cookie cake on her special day.

 

Words don’t really express the blessing Sunny is to the people in her life. She spent her birthday doing what she loves to do: teaching students and caring for her family. After the school day ended, she ran the kids home, turned around and took AK to swimming lessons, then went BACK to school for a middle / high school athletics meeting to fill out paperwork for the kids. Thankfully we were able to carve out some time to celebrate tonight by ordering Steak Out, showering her with gifts and cards, and treating her to one of her favorite indulgences: Great American Cookie cake!

Sunny, you’ve heard me say it hundreds of times: we don’t get to be experts very often in life. At most, we have one or two areas of true expertise. But as the world’s leading authority when it comes the character of Sunny Bybee, I have to remind you that you are a conduit of God’s profound goodness. I see it in your relationship with me, with your children, with your family and friends and students. And trust me, we’re all better for it. In case you need further proof, let me also remind you that your goodness influenced what I wrote about you on your birthday last year. And the year before that. And probably next year, too.

I’ve never known anyone who wants to do the right thing more consistently or more completely than you. Among the countless reasons I love you, it is this singularly definitive quality – your goodness – that stands out. My favorite expression in the Scriptures is a word of doxology, praising God for His goodness and His enduring love. But perhaps my affinity for these words is simply reflective of my relationship with you. For I have experienced more of God’s goodness in you than in anyone I’ve ever known; and you have loved me with an enduring love, the kind of love that is eternal in nature because it is grounded in God’s love first. You are the living exegesis of this Word to me. So tonight I give thanks to the Lord, for He is good and His love endures forever. I know this to be true because I’ve known it through you.

May this year of your life be filled with blessings in abundance, with grace beyond measure and exceeding peace. And may you encounter just a bit of the same goodness in us that we profoundly experience in you. Happy Birthday to the Queen!

Posted in Blessings, Family, Scripture, Sunny | 1 Comment

Daring Faith: Coming Back

What do you think of when you hear the word “comeback?”

Sports fans might think back to the most recent Super Bowl and the Patriots’ historic 25-point comeback, the largest in Super Bowl history. Michael Phelps was in the news this week, hinting at a possible comeback, even though he officially “retired” following the 2016 Summer Olympics. Others might think of a favorite entertainer – Garth Brooks, for instance – staging a comeback tour after years away from the limelight.

Of course, not all such comebacks are received warmly. In 2006, Barbara Streisand announced a 15-city comeback tour and fans reportedly paid as much as $12,000 for exclusive access, which included a group photo and autographed souvenirs. But some of her fans threatened to file a class-action lawsuit against her after paying exorbitant amounts to see her “farewell” tour in 2000, only to find out that it was far from her final performance! (I guess the farewell tour functions simply to set-up the comeback tour.)

We love it when our favorite team perseveres in the face of adversity, when an athlete overcomes the odds or an entertainer reinvents himself. But have you ever stopped to ask why we love comeback stories so much? Is it simply because they’re dramatic? Compelling? Inspiring? Or could it be that our fascination with these comeback stories is intended to point us to the ultimate comeback story, the story of Jesus?

As we wind down our Daring Faith series, I want to challenge you to think of the gospel as the greatest comeback story of all. John makes it clear: the spiritual forces of darkness conspired to put Jesus on the cross. He tells us that Satan himself entered Judas, setting into motion the arrest and trial of Jesus. But as we noted last week, none of these things could occur without the consent of Jesus. John makes it equally clear that Jesus remained in complete control to the very end. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross and all its agony.

And on that glorious Sunday morning, the victory of God was revealed; the tomb was found empty. Jesus “came back” from death, declaring the sovereign reign of God over those evil forces. And the empty tomb is a comeback promise for God’s people as well. It promises that sin and death need not have the last word in our lives, that God has initiated a spiritual comeback for those who would dare to believe.

John demonstrates this by sharing several post-resurrection stories toward the end of his Gospel. Today we’ll call them comeback stories.

John begins by telling Mary Magdalene’s comeback story. Mary had already experienced a tremendous spiritual comeback in her life. Luke 8:1-3 tells us that Mary was possessed by seven demons until Jesus healed her. So, Mary already knows that the power of God can bring you back from some very dark places. When we find her outside the tomb on that Sunday morning, Mary is despondent. She and the other ladies have come to tend to the body of Jesus, but they’ve found the tomb empty.

At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). – John 20:14-16

The tears in Mary’s eyes kept her from seeing Jesus.

The same could be said of some of us – the tears in our eyes are keeping some of us from seeing Jesus. Not that we’ve lost our faith; Mary hasn’t lost her faith here. But some of us are so overwhelmed by grief that it’s the only thing we see anymore. I know firsthand how deep that well runs. A recent brain-imaging study revealed that the same areas of the brain that were active in the brains of cocaine addicts were also active in heartbroken case subjects when they simply looked at a picture of their former romantic partner. The neuroscientists conducting the study concluded that we crave our departed loved ones just as much as the addict craves their next fix. It just proves what we already know: grief is incredibly powerful.

But Mary’s story teaches us a really important truth: with God’s help, you can come back from grief and sorrow. The key ingredient in this kind of comeback is hope. If you have something to believe in, a hope that your loved one is no longer suffering, hope of seeing them again someday, then you can come back from sorrow. Hope is simply maintaining and eternal perspective – the most hopeful people have an eternal perspective. If you’re running low on hope, it’s probably because you’ve lost your eternal perspective. According to Ecclesiastes 3 God has set eternity in the hearts of man. There’s some sort of universal awareness that there’s more to life than what we can see, that we’re more than just oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon, and water. But when we lose sight of this eternal perspective, we lose hope.

The empty tomb declares that God has an answer to our sorrow. 1 Thess. 4:13-14, Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. The empty tomb promises that you can come back from grief. It’s a promise of hope. That’s Mary’s comeback story.

John tells another comeback story, the story of Thomas.

Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” – John 20:24-28

It’s easy to criticize Thomas for his lack of faith. But my heart goes out to him, in part because I talk to a lot of people who wrestle with doubts of one kind or another, and in part because I’ve also wrestled with doubt over the course of my walk with Christ.

Maybe faith comes easily for you, but if it doesn’t, I want you to hear this: we’re not going to judge you if you have doubts. God gives us a command at Jude v22, Have mercy on those who doubt. And we plan on being faithful to that word. So, you’re not weird if you have questions; you’re not unwelcome here if you’re still unsure about all of this. In fact, it’s been my experience that those seasons of doubt are sometimes the prelude to a period of great spiritual growth.

What I love about Thomas’s comeback story is that he works out his doubts in the context of Christian community. Surrounded by fellow disciples, Thomas knows that he is in a safe place to express his doubts, to ask his questions. In your experience, has the church been a safe place to ask hard questions? For many people, I’m afraid the answer is no. That means something has changed from Thomas’s day to ours. But if we’re serious about being like the NT church, then we must strive to be the kind of place where heartfelt questions and honest dialogue are welcome. The NT bears witness to the fact that you can comeback from doubt if you’re immersed in a safe Christian community.

At least one of the key ingredients in this kind of comeback is humility. Thomas is humbled when he sees Jesus, so much so that he makes perhaps the strongest statement about Jesus in the NT: “My Lord and my God!” Our doubts are sometimes the result of a prideful reliance on our own understanding. And that’s where humility comes in. May we possess the humility it requires to walk in the wisdom of Prov. 3:5, Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.

The final comeback story in John’s Gospel is the comeback of Simon Peter. Jesus appears to the disciples at the Sea of Galilee and John records a miraculous catch of 153 fish and a breakfast meal Jesus shares with these disciples.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me.” – John 21:15-19

What is your greatest spiritual failure? What does spiritual failure look like in your life?

Those are difficult questions, I know. For Simon Peter, his great spiritual failure was his denial of Jesus. Three times he publicly declared that he was NOT a follower of Jesus, that he didn’t even know Jim. Just hours before Jesus was arrested, Simon Peter had proclaimed, “I will lay down my life for you, Jesus!” But when the moment of truth arrived, Simon failed. And we’ve all been there.

Everyone experiences spiritual failure from time to time. No one’s spiritual life is an unbroken string of victories. And Simon Peter’s story gives us an unvarnished view of a total spiritual meltdown. This is his greatest spiritual failure and, like us, Simon Peter is wracked with guilt as a result. But as we said from the outset, these are comeback stories. And here we find Jesus carefully putting Simon Peter back together.

Three times Jesus asks Simon Peter: “Do you love me?” And three times Simon Peter responds, “Yes, I love you.” Why would Jesus ask Simon Peter three times?

I believe Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” three times because Simon Peter denied him three times. I believe Jesus is putting Simon Peter back together as thoroughly as he has come apart.

Jesus asks Simon Peter the most important question when it comes to spiritual failure: “Do you love me?” When you experience spiritual failure and you’re trying to put the pieces back together, it’s first things first. So, this is where it begins: Do you love Jesus? Your answer to that question determines everything else. It made all the difference in Simon Peter’s spiritual failure and it makes all the difference for us.

Despite his enormous failure, Simon Peter loves Jesus. And because he loves Jesus, the Lord says three times, “Care for my sheep.” Now, Peter may be inclined to think that, because of his failure, he has no part in the Kingdom. After all, as this story begins, Simon has returned to his former life as a fisherman. (How many times has a spiritual failure caused someone to give up on their Kingdom identity? How many times has someone returned to their former way of life because they assume their spiritual failure has cost them their place in the Kingdom?)

But Jesus doesn’t see it that way. In fact, Jesus sees this as an opportunity for Simon Peter to minister out of his failures. Jesus knows that when we come back from spiritual failure, we become even greater forces for the Kingdom. Before his failures, Simon Peter seems brash, arrogant, and boastful. He’s none of those things anymore. His spiritual failure has produced spiritual scars. But those spiritual scars, through the grace of God, make Peter an even better shepherd for the flock. Far from disqualifying him from service, his spiritual scars make him even more useful to Jesus.

So again: What is your great spiritual failure? What moment from your past gives you the greatest amount of guilt? Whatever it is, know this: you can come back from guilt. There are two key ingredients in this comeback; we provide one but only God can provide the other. The first ingredient necessary to come back from guilt is good old-fashioned Gospel repentance. Brokenness. Contrition. Saying, “I’m sorry” to God. This ingredient is wholly dependent upon me. That wound never becomes a scar without repentance on my part. Without repentance, it’s simply a festering wound.

You need to know this: repentance hurts. The text says that Simon Peter was hurt that Jesus kept asking him, “Do you love me?” That’s the only place I know of in the Bible where it says that Jesus hurt someone, but he does so intentionally to break Simon Peter. And in order for us to experience true repentance, we must similarly be broken.

But the second ingredient in the comeback from guilt is grace and this is God’s part. His grace is available. As John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel, For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace (John 1:16). The grace of God is available in its fullness to free us, that we might comeback from guilt.

Is your story a comeback story? It can be. The empty tomb declares that your story can be a part of the greatest comeback story of all.

Posted in Church, Devotional, Discipleship, Faith, God, Jesus, Scripture | Leave a comment

Daring Faith: The Glory of the Cross

At the height of the Nazi regime, while millions of Jews were being killed in the extermination camps, mimeographed pamphlets denouncing Nazi tyranny were being distributed across Germany – leaflets written by a group calling themselves “The White Rose.” These pamphlets were aimed at rousing German citizens from their spiritual and moral slumber. Hitler, the White Rose declared, was a monster who was leading Germany deeper into darkness. In Leaflet #4 the White Rose explicitly framed the struggle against Hitler in spiritual and moral terms.

Every word that proceeds from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war. And when he names the name of the Almighty in a most blasphemous manner, he means the almighty evil one, that fallen angel, Satan…

We will not keep silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!

These words constituted high treason. Whoever the White Rose was, they were flirting with death. Now widely revered as heroes in Germany, the White Rose was a handful of students from the University of Munich, most of them Christian. And among the leaders of the White Rose were siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl.

On February 18, 1943, the Scholl siblings were observed distributing what would become known as Leaflet #6 of the White Rose on the campus of the University of Munich. They were arrested and quickly brought to a trial presided over by one of the most notorious of the Nazi hanging judges. Standing before the Nazi court, both Hans and Sophie remained defiant. Addressing the court, Sophie School refused to back down, saying, “What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”

The Scholls were quickly declared guilty of treason and sentenced to death. The Nazis didn’t waste any time. The execution was scheduled to take place that very day. Sophie Scholl’s cellmate preserved her final words before she left to face the guillotine:

How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause?

On February 22, 1943 at 5:00pm, Hans and Sophie Scholl were beheaded by the Nazis. But the message of the White Rose lived on. The final leaflet of the White Rose, Leaflet #6, was smuggled out of Germany and reached the Allies. Thousands of copies were made and in July 1943, Allied planes dropped the leaflets from the skies over Germany, the defiant words of the White Rose falling like rain.

The White Rose movement will long be remembered as an act of resistance in the face of evil. Its members willfully risked their lives by picking a fight with the forces of darkness, but they were unflinching because of the righteousness of their cause. And today, we gather to remember another act of resistance, one that will be remembered long after the White Rose has faded from memory. Today we look back to the moment of spiritual warfare when Jesus stands up to the evil powers, when he picks a fight with the powers of hell, and defiantly takes their best shot. In the words of the Apostle Paul from Colossians 2, Jesus “disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “A king who dies on the Cross must be the king of a rather strange kingdom.” This was certainly the thought process in the ancient world where the cross was an instrument of torture and execution. Over the centuries, the cross has become the dominant icon in Christianity. And yet, this proliferation has had an unfortunate result: the cross has been somewhat tamed today, becoming – at least for some – little more than a piece of jewelry worn on a necklace.

What is the real meaning of the Cross?

As we’ve been saying for weeks, John’s telling of the Gospel story is unique. And to understand John’s message about the cross, we need to go back to the scene of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13.

Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love….Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power… – John 13:1, 3

As his time with the disciples draws to a close, Jesus shows them “the full extent of his love.” How? It is fitting for us to understand the washing of the disciples’ feet as an expression of his love. But the fullness of his love would be demonstrated through the cross. The washing of feet simply anticipates His loving service on the cross.

Note how John stresses that the Father had put all things under the power of Christ. This is a triumphant note to strike, especially as we consider where the story is headed. John wants us to know that ultimate power resides with Jesus throughout this narrative. This is central to our message this morning: Despite everything that will happen to him, Jesus remains in complete control.

This is one of the reasons Jesus speaks of the cross in terms of “glory” in John’s Gospel. As we noted last week, when Jesus speaks of “glory” in John’s Gospel, it is always a reference to the cross. He sees the cross as the moment when heaven’s glory is fully revealed. But in the ancient world and our own, the question is likely the same: What could be glorious about crucifixion on a cross?

The glory lies in the fact that the cross is the willful choice of Jesus. By stressing that the Father has placed all things under his power, John is saying that the cross didn’t just happen to Jesus. Jesus wasn’t a victim. No, he willfully chose the cross. He embraces it as part of what it means to display the love and the glory of God. And Jesus does this because He remains in complete control throughout the narrative.

He remains in complete control when the guards come to arrest him. John 18:1-6:

When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was an olive grove, and he and his disciples went into it. Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. So Judas came to the grove, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns, and weapons.

Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”

“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.

“I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.

Judas and this detachment of soldiers come ready to arrest Jesus. Jesus asks, “Who are you looking for?” and they say, “Jesus of Nazareth.” And His reply is powerful: “I am he.” Or, in its shorter version, “I AM.”

When Jesus says this, the soldiers retreat and fall to the ground. This is yet another detail unique to John’s Gospel. Maybe John wants us to connect this with another episode when meeting the “I AM” makes someone hit the dirt. Centuries earlier, a voice said, “I AM” and Moses bowed before the Lord in the burning bush, as he stood on holy ground. There is an irony to the scene. The power brokers in the Temple never bowed before Jesus, but their lynch mob does.

Notice that Jesus is in complete control here. As God-in-the-flesh, his slightest command could bring down this mob with their swords and spears. But he allows them to take him into custody. It’s not in the text, but I can imagine Jesus thinking, “Come on, get up. I can’t arrest myself. We have work to do here.” John makes it clear that no one is taking Jesus against his will. He remains in complete control during His arrest.

He also remains in complete control as He stands before Pilate. As the crowd chants, “Crucify him!” Pilate is unmoved, saying, “I find no basis for a charge against him.” But the Jews are insistent, saying, “He claims to be the Son of God and he must die.”

When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”

Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” – John 19:8-11

Pilate says to Jesus, “Don’t you realize I have the power to either kill you or set you free?” Do you hear a bit of pride in Pilate’s statement? “This is where you beg for your life, because I hold all the power here.”

But Jesus doesn’t even flinch. Again, he is in total control and totally fearless. Jesus says, “Power? The only power you have is the power given to you from on high. Your power comes from above where I come from.” Let that sink in. John makes it clear that they can’t arrest Jesus, convict Jesus, or crucify Jesus without Jesus allowing it.

All things are under His power even as He hangs on the cross:

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. – John 19:25-27

Even as his life is ebbing away, Jesus remains in control. He arranges for his mother to be cared for because Jesus remains in control of his household to the very end.

Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. – John 19:28-30

No one kills Jesus. No, Jesus decided to die. He is the one to decide when it is finished. And Jesus decided it wasn’t finished until He fulfilled every Scripture that anticipated this moment. John articulates it quite carefully: Jesus is the one to give up his spirit. Nobody kills Jesus…nobody arrests Jesus…nobody puts him on trial…nobody beats Him without His permission. Jesus willfully chooses the shameful death of the cross because He remains in complete control.

With all things under His power, the cross becomes His moment of glory. And because the cross is His moment of glory, we no longer see it as an instrument of torture and death. We see the cross as a throne, His throne of self-emptying love. The cross is His showdown with the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. At the cross, Jesus engages in spiritual warfare in the most unexpected of ways. He overthrows the oppressive powers of darkness by giving his own life as a ransom for many. And the empty tomb declares the scope of His victory. He willfully chooses the cross, remaining in complete control to the very end. And if He was in complete control when they nailed Him to the cross, He surely remains in complete control even today.

Our world is harsh and cruel, full of nightmares. We worry about Russia and Syria and North Korea and Afghanistan….and for good reason. Some weeks, the news out of Washington is the source of our anxiety; this week, it’s news out of Montgomery. A news report this week claims that we’re overdue for a global pandemic while someone dies every minute because they don’t have access to clean drinking water. ISIS claimed responsibility for attacks on two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt last Sunday that killed more than 40 people and injured more than 100 others. And all the while, things like cancer and estrangement and depression and sex trafficking and grief and shame continue to take their toll on us. And all of this conspires to make us ask: Is anyone in control? That’s the question of Good Friday, the question that was asked in 1943, and the question of our day. We need not look very far to find evil, oppressive forces at work in our world, forces that always seek to enslave us.

But the cross and empty tomb tell a different story – a story of hope and redemption and the victory of self-giving and self-emptying love. The cross was the willful choice of Jesus. And the empty tomb is the ultimate declaration that God is indeed in control from start to finish, in control to the very end. It’s about more than simply the events of one weekend 2,000 years ago. It’s about the reign of God today.

That is the power and the glory of the cross.


At the cross, Jesus exercises daring faith and He calls us to daring faith as well. Faith as trusting obedience. Jesus was obedient in willingly giving his life. And we are called to that same kind of obedience. Obedience is being like Jesus. This obedient faith led Jesus to a cross. This obedient faith also leads us to a cross-shaped life.

We do not avoid the cross. We embrace the cross, the way of glory through suffering and self-emptying love.

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Daring Faith: Living the Prayer of Jesus

In his 2016 book entitled Be Light, author Samuel Rodriguez tells the following story:

In 1957, a graduate student at Columbia University named Gordon Gould had been working with “pumping” atoms to higher energy states so they would emit light. As Gould elaborated his ideas and speculated about all the things that could be done with a concentrated beam of light, he realized he was onto something. In his notebook, he named the yet-to-be-invented device a LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation).

Sixty years later, we are still seeing the impact of this remarkable tool. Very recently, Lockheed Martin boasted about their new laser, a ground-based prototype system that burned through an entire car engine in a matter of seconds from over a mile away. The company called this laser system the most “efficient and lethal” version on the planet.

From a spiritual perspective, the laser represents the ultimate expression of the impact we can have in a world in need of light. If we are able to understand the stunning power of unity expressed in a laser beam and translate it into our own lives, we might have a greater impact on those around us than ever before.

There is indeed a “stunning power to unity.” And that’s our focus for today. Today we will focus on the prayer of Jesus in John 17, a prayer for unity.

Read John 17:1-5

In John’s Gospel, when Jesus talks about glory, it is always a reference to the cross. We’ll talk about this a bit more next week, but it’s important to point out here because Jesus prays for God to glorify Him in the events that are about to unfold. Several times in John’s Gospel, Jesus has made the statement, “My time has not yet come.” But now the time for His glorification has come as the events that lead to the cross begin to rapidly unfold. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “My greatest moment is when these forces think they’re killing me.” This is the glory of the cross.

Read John 17:6-11, 20-23

This is one of those prayers that functions as a sermon. You know the kind. It’s the kind of prayer your mother would pray when you and your siblings were bickering and arguing. She’d pray, “Lord, please help us to respect one another and treat people the way you want us to treat people!” Mom is praying, but she’s also preaching. That’s a sermon-prayer.

In John 17, Jesus delivers a sermon-prayer. And the focal point of this prayer is unity.

We could divide this prayer in John 17 into three sections:

  • V1-5, Jesus prays for Himself
  • V6-19, Jesus prays for the disciples
  • V20-26, Jesus prays for the church

Some scholars have noted that this prayer is a summary of the entire Gospel of John to this point. It contains many of John’s primary themes: Jesus’ obedience to the Father, the glorification of Jesus at the cross, the disciples’ mission to the world. Throughout the prayer, Jesus is praying for unity. He points out the unity that He and the Father share; he prays for the unity of his disciples, that they might be one as the Father and the Son are one; and Jesus echoes this same thought by praying that all believers would be in complete unity with one another.

The key to this kind of unity is Jesus himself.

At the time John’s Gospel was written, things were beginning to get rough for followers of Jesus. Persecution was mounting. Christians were divided over a variety of different things. With this in mind, it is easy to see why God would want John to record this particular prayer in his Gospel. When external stress mounts, it’s easy for us to begin bickering internally. Have you ever noticed a correlation between your stressful seasons at work and your snippiness toward your family? (If you’ve never noticed this, try asking your family members!) As the church faced persecution, this prayer is an important reminder that Jesus doesn’t want his followers turning on one another.

I have a friend who recently preached through this same passage and he had a memorable way of summarizing this: “God is glorified when His people are unified.” It’s a good line, not only because it’s memorable but because it gets to the heart of Jesus’ prayer. God is glorified when His people keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3).

In his sermon-prayer, Jesus tells us precisely why Christian unity is so important:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me…May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

(John 17:20-21, 23)

Our unity declares God’s mission of love to the world.

According to Jesus, our unity declares that the Father sent Jesus into the world. Our unity lets the world know about God’s love. How? If the love of God is great enough to unite all of us together, then others will know that God’s love is great enough for them, too. The idea is that our unity would declare God’s mission of love to the world, giving them something to believe in.

Unity among believers is modeled after the unity God shares within Himself, the unity of the Father and the Son. Jesus prays that all believers would be brought into complete unity – the word John uses here is a form of the Greek word telos, which refers to an end, a goal. Think of the way a telescope functions to bring close that which is far away. So, Jesus is praying that our unity would be “telescopic” – that our unity would bring God’s love near. He’s praying that we will embody in the present the kind of unity we will experience in the end, that heaven’s unity would be experienced now. In so doing, our unity becomes a Gospel declaration.

So, my friend is right: God is truly glorified when His people are unified to this degree.

As we can see, the stakes are quite high here. We’re responsible to declare the mission and love of God by the way we unite together as one. And we can also demonstrate these high stakes by taking up this postulate in the negative.

Our lack of unity contributes to the world’s unbelief.

If our unity declares God’s mission of love to the world, what do we declare when we aren’t unified? What does our discord declare? If our unity is intended to bring God’s mission of love near, our lack of unity can have a catastrophic effect in our world.

Every church split sets back the preaching of the Gospel in that community more than we’ll ever know. Every time the followers of Jesus rip each other to shreds, someone who doesn’t believe walks away, never to return. I can imagine someone saying, “I can get that kind of ugliness and nastiness anywhere. I’m done with this.” If our unity gives the world something to believe in, Christian discord contributes to disbelief.

God is glorified when His people are unified. The statement also prompts us to ask, “Who is glorified when God’s people are NOT unified?” I think we know the answer.

What is the greatest threat to Christian unity?

If our unity matters this much to Jesus – so much so that He was praying about it hours before His crucifixion – then we would do well to guard ourselves against threats to our unity. What would you consider to be the greatest threat to Christian unity?

I put this question before my friends this week. As you might imagine, there were a variety of answers. Here are just a few:

  • “Fear. When we can’t be real for fear of judgment, or we fear others aren’t real with us, resentment sets in and divides us.”
  • “Feeling like you are the only one with that problem.”
  • “For me – it’s not what – it’s who? Satan is the father of all lies – the great deceiver. Disunity is one of his preferred weapons because it gives us a perceived enemy while taking our eyes off the most legitimate threat of all.”
  • “The coalescing of Biblical truth with social norms.”
  • “Political differences.”
  • “Silence. The enemy doesn’t want us to communicate on any level. He likes it when we are safe in our Holy huddles.”
  • “Lack of love.”
  • “Sin.”

Clearly there are some serious threats to our unity in Christ. But among my friends, one answer was repeated more than any other. Some called it “selfishness” while others called it “pride”, but in the end most of my friends said the same thing. My own selfish pride is the greatest threat to Christian unity.

An author named Alan Redpath once wrote, “The secret of every discord in Christian homes and communities and churches is that we seek our own way and our own glory.” This is true. When we collectively seek the glory that Jesus speaks of here in John 17 – the glory of the cross – rather than our own glory, unity is the natural result. But when we seek our own way and our own glory, we live out the tragic refrain from the book of Judges: Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. When this happens, unity in Christ erodes.

There’s a story attributed to G.K. Chesterton, probably because he wrote a book titled, What’s Wrong with the World? Someone wrote to the Times of London and simply asked, “What is wrong with the world?” Chesterton, it was said, famously wrote back the following reply:

Dear Sir,

I am.

Yours,

G.K. Chesterton

In like fashion, in response to the question “What is the greatest threat to Christian unity?”, my answer is the same as Chesterton’s: “I am.” My own selfishness is the greatest threat to experiencing the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17.

Let’s put it this way: Who determines how the prayer of Jesus is answered?

Well, the Father must have something to say about all of this, otherwise Jesus wouldn’t pray to Him about it. So, we can’t leave Him out of our answer. But we are also forced to recognize our own culpability here. Again this is a sermon-prayer, so the “sermon part” is on us. Let’s face it: if you and I get crossways with one another, then we bear the responsibility to work that out and reconcile in the name of Christ. Whether you and I get along is up to the two of us.

That means that we help determine the degree to which the prayer of Jesus is answered. We help determine the outcome.

Picture Jesus praying these words. In the final moments before the guard come to take him away, Jesus is concerned with the way you and I treat one another. He’s concerned with the way this church treats that church. Picture Jesus asking that “the stunning power of unity” would be demonstrated in the church that bears His name.

This week’s dare: think long and hard about your relationships. Are you in conflict with a brother or sister in Christ? As much as it depends on you, are you living at peace with everyone (Rom. 12:18)? Or are you sowing seeds of discord in the body of Christ? If you’re sowing those seeds of discord, the Biblical word for that action is strong: anti-Christ. You are actively working to subvert the very thing that Jesus is praying for in John 17. And when you set yourself up against the work of Christ, the biblical word for that is anti-Christ. I hope that language makes you uncomfortable, because it should.

May we dare to live out the prayer of Jesus, that the world might know of God’s mission of love. God is glorified when His people are unified.

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