Good Lookin’

by Daryl Byler
Easter 2005: Jubilee’s Journey with God
March 27, 2005
Exodus 14:10-14,21-25, 15:20-21;Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

The Common Lectionary texts for this Easter Sunday all have to do with how we look. I’m not talking about how we dress. Or how we groom our hair. Rather, about where we focus our eyes and hearts and minds. Of course this makes all the difference in how we live.

Looking ahead with faith (Exodus 14). The Old Testament text is about learning to look ahead with faith. What an incredible thrill it must have been for the Israelites to pack up and march out of Egypt after 430 years of captivity. God’s mighty hand had delivered them from the powerful Pharaoh. As icing on the cake, the Egyptians showered the Israelites with much of Egypt’s wealth, as the Israelites headed out of town.

The quickest route to the Promised Land would have been to go through the Gaza Strip. But that is where the mighty Philistine armies resided, and God knew the Israelites would be afraid and might turn back. So God led the Israelites on a round about path through the Sinai wilderness.

Soon they arrived at the Red Sea. They must have still felt the euphoria of being free. No longer would they be forced into hard labor. No longer would they be subject to Pharaoh’s unreasonable demands.

But then they heard the thundering sound of horses’ hooves and chariot wheels coming toward them. And they looked back. They looked back at the advancing Egyptian army. And, incredibly, they looked back with fondness for their old way of life back in Egypt!

The Israelites cried out to God. Then they turned on Moses and demanded: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness” (14:11-12).

This is a dramatic change of perspective from just the day before. It probably would have been easy for Moses to blow his stack and confront the Israelites about their selective memory. But instead he calmly responds: “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still” (13-14).

And, of course, God performs another mighty miracle by parting the Red Sea so that the Israelites can safely walk through.

But when the Egyptian army seeks to chase the Israelites through, the sea crashes in around them. In their dying moments, even the Egyptian army recognizes that Israel’s God has brought about this deliverance. And Miriam leads the people in a wonderful song of praise for God’s deliverance (15:20-21).

God always calls us forward to places that are unknown and even scary. This is perhaps the only way that we learn to trust God. The problem is, we humans often seem more comfortable going back to the old ways – even if they bear painful memories. Because, at least, the past is full of familiar routines.

When God calls us forward, there is nothing to be gained by looking back. Lot’s wife learned this the hard way. Jesus said as much about those who would follow him: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). The only valid reasons for looking back are to reflect on God’s faithful acts or deal with unresolved issues.

The difference between faithful Christians and unfaithful Christians is where they look when circumstances seem to be caving in around them. Read the stories of the apostles, the early Anabaptists, Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Archbishop Oscar Romero who was killed 25 years ago this week. They all had times where they felt overwhelmed by their circumstances or that God had abandoned them. But what made them great leaders is that they continued to look ahead with faith to the new thing God was calling them to.

There have been bumps in the road in Jubilee’s journey. There were times when we felt like turning back. It was 14 years ago this week that Jubilee was asked to leave Highland United Methodist. It was a difficult time for Jubilee and some were tempted to go back to Hooper Street. But God opened new doors. God provided a way forward.

Why can we look ahead with faith? Why do we not need to be afraid? Because, as Moses told the Israelites: “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still. . . you can stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you” (Ex. 14:14,13).

Our options are not limited to an oppressive past or a terrifying present. God calls us to look ahead with faith.

2. Look above with transformed minds (Colossians 3). Paul wrote his letter to the church at Colossae at the same time he wrote his personal letter to Philemon. Epaphras, a disciple of Paul’s, is thought to have delivered both letters on the same trip.

The church at Colossae seemed obsessed with earthly things — rigid rules about appropriate foods and religious practices. And with human wisdom and traditions.

Paul’s letter urges them to think about their life and purpose in a radically new way now that they have been joined in Christ’s death and resurrection: “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth…” (Col. 3:1-2). Paul’s point is that, when we become Christians, we have a whole different perspective about life. We have a whole new set of values and priorities. Christians look above with transformed minds. His point is not that we become so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. Instead, that we become so Christ-minded that we will in fact be a blessing to the world in which we live. Our prayer becomes like the prayer of Jesus: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Where we set our minds has everything to do with how we live our lives and set our priorities. I had a mind re-adjustment last summer. While running on Capitol Hill one evening, my body went into anaphylactic shock – apparently as the result of a sting or something I had eaten. I barely made it back to the house before passing out. Cindy called 911.

It was my first trip in an ambulance, and lying on my back what came to me were the words of Jesus to Peter: “When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go!” (John 21:18).

It’s amazing how a near-death experience can help set one’s mind on what is truly important in life.

3. Look around with hope (John 20). Each of the gospel writers offer slightly different views of the resurrection story. Matthew, Mark and Luke have both Mary and Mary Magdalene going to the tomb together. But in John’s account, Mary Magdalene goes alone. She immediately sees that the stone has been rolled away and runs off to tell Peter and John.

John’s account – which he tells in the third person – seems a bit self-serving. He reminds his readers – as he frequently does toward the end of his book — that he is the disciple whom Jesus loves. Perhaps he thought none of the other Gospel writers would recount this fact! And for some reason, it is important for John to tell his readers that he outran Peter and reached the tomb first (just for the record, or course!).

When John goes in the tomb it says that “he saw and believed.” But it’s not clear what he believed. Did he simply believe Mary’s words: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him”? Or does he really believe that Jesus has risen from the dead? It seems to me that the former understanding is more likely, based on the fact that Peter and John simply head home.

But Mary hangs around the tomb, weeping. Then she looks in the tomb again and sees two angels sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying. They ask her why she’s weeping and she repeats her story that they have taken Jesus away and she has no idea where they have laid him.

At this point Mary turns around and looks outside the tomb and sees Jesus, but doesn’t recognize him. Jesus too asks Mary why she is weeping and – assuming she is speaking to the gardener, asks if he has taken him away. If so, she is willing to go get the body and take care of it.

When Jesus calls her name. And Mary finally recognizes that it is the Lord.

There is no particular reason to be hard on the disciples for not immediately believing the resurrection. None of us would have either. But on this side of the resurrection we must certainly know that the core lesson from Easter is that there are no situations in life that are utterly hopeless. God is in the business of winning victories out of our darkest trials. Do you believe that?

What do we anticipate when we look around? The disciples and Mary initially would have settled for finding a dead body.

How often are our expectations of God way too low? How often is God wanting to perform a resurrection and we’d be content with a corpse? Do we look around in hope, or are we content to look around in despair?

The Via Dolorosa winds through the old city of Jerusalem, marking the path where Jesus walked from his condemnation by Pontius Pilate to Golgotha where he was crucified. Every Easter season, thousands of Christians from around the world re-walk the Via Dolorosa – or the stations of the cross. Sadly, Palestinian Christians, who live only miles away from Jerusalem in places like Bethlehem, are increasingly being restricted from going to Jerusalem to visit the holy sites.

About a month ago, I was in Bethlehem – which is about six miles from Jerusalem. Bethlehem is one of the more prominent Christian communities in the West Bank — although Christians are rapidly leaving the Holy Land. The situation is dire. The Israeli government is building a wall around the northern part of Bethlehem that will effectively cut off Bethlehem’s tourist trade and will prevent Bethlehemites from going to Jerusalem. The economy has never been worse. All day grown men followed us around and, at every stop, begged us to buy their goods so that they could feed their families.

On one stop, we visited Zoughbi Zoughbi – a Palestinian Christian who runs a mediation center. Zoughbi described the oppressive conditions in Bethlehem, and I asked him why gives him hope? What keeps him from becoming cynical? What keeps him from giving up and leaving like so many others?

Zoughbi’s response was classic statement of Christian faith. He referred to Via Dolorosa — the journey of Jesus’ suffering in Jerusalem — and said: “We don’t know which station of the cross we are at now, but we know where the journey leads, and the tomb is always followed by the resurrection.”

This is our affirmation as Christians. Even in the most difficult of circumstances, we can look around with hope, not despair, because our Christian faith tells us that the tomb is always followed by the resurrection.

It’s hard to say who will be here when Jubilee celebrates its 50th anniversary — its true Jubilee. What those who gather will find on that occasion will depend on where Jubilee looks over these next 25 years.

Good lookin’ will be looking ahead with faith, not back out of fear. Will Jubilee be ready to take new challenges, knowing that God will fight for and deliver her? Or will Jubilee look back in fear, at what seem to be advancing threats?

Good lookin’ will be looking above with transformed minds, not dwelling on earthly things. Will Jubilee seek those things that Christ seeks? Or will Jubilee set its mind on earthly things — building a reputation, looking out only for herself? Playing it safe?

Good lookin’ will be looking around with hope, not looking around in despair. Difficult days are certain to come. When they do, will Jubilee look around with hope knowing that a resurrection follows every tomb?

My prayer is that God will help Jubilee to always be a good lookin’ congregation!

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