Summary: The Season of Lent is a time for penitence and prayer, reflection and renewal. It is a time to reconsider: Have you been given a glimpse of eternity? If so, what positive and consistent change has been noticeable in your values and lifestyle?
Scripture focus: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Luke 13:31–35
Date: Sunday, 17 March 2019 (Belfield Uniting); Wednesday, 13 March 2019 (Centre For Ministry)
In the Marvel Studios’ 2017 superhero film Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, there is a scene during which a god-like Celestial named Ego is describing how he found meaning and purpose to his existence, after millions of years, to his long-lost son Peter Quill (aka Starlord). Not surprisingly, Peter had difficulty understanding the grand vision his father described. Ego then touched Peter’s forehead to enlighten him with a glimpse of eternity.
Unbeknownst to Peter, Ego’s plan for the future involved remaking the universe for his own glory and required destroying everything and everyone else.
While poets, philosophers and biblical writers have acknowledged our creator has put a sense of eternity into our hearts (Ec 3:11), it is often the case we need someone else to give us a glimpse of eternity, to stir up that sense within us.
Catching a glimpse of eternity was a nice experience for Quill, sure, but how did it impact him, what difference did it make? Did it change his faith and lifestyle in any way? I won’t tell you —you’ll just have to see the movie for yourself— but we do have every reason to expect someone’s life would change after having a glimpse of eternity.
Research on Near Death Experiences (NDEs) has shown how persons having such a experience do change in rather consistent and positive ways. Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel has found
a significant difference between patients with and without an NDE ... Patients with an NDE did not show any fear of death, they strongly believed in an afterlife, and their insight in what is important in life had changed: love and compassion for oneself, for others, and for nature ... Furthermore, the long lasting transformational effect of an experience that lasts only a few minutes was a surprising and unexpected finding. (See Pim van Lommel, “About the Continuity of Our Consciousness”, Brain Death and Disorder of Consciousness, edited by C. Machado & D.A. Shewmon (New York, NY, USA: Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2004), pg 118)
Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard further explained
People interpret their NDEs using available language and concepts ... [their] basic shifts in attitude are stable over time, compared with a control group ... [and they] tend to internalise the values of their religion, because they begin to see them not as speculations or dogma, but as verified facts. (Mario Beauregard & Denyse O’Leary, The Spiritual Brain (New York, NY, USA: HarperCollins, 2007), pg 165)
Whether through a near death experience or any other way, it is reasonable to assume those given a glimpse of eternity, will naturally demonstrate a change in their values and behaviour, their faith and their lifestyle.
Let me ask you then to consider: Have you been given a glimpse of eternity? If so, what positive and consistent change has been noticeable in your values and lifestyle?
The Season of Lent is a time for penitence and prayer, reflection and renewal, a season specifically designed to encourage us all to think deeply on our own meaning and purpose, to rethink the direction we are taking in our life.
The reading from The Gospel of Luke (Lk 13:31–35), has Jesus declare,
I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’!” (Luke 13:35b)
Jesus made this statement as he lamented over the city of Jerusalem and its people, how they “kill the prophets and stone those sent to her” (see Luke 13:34; cf. Matthew 5:12; 21:35; 23:29–31, 37). This wasn’t mere hyperbole on Jesus’ part, since the history of Israel is filled with examples (cf. Acts 7:51–52). That the true prophets of God were often persecuted by the people of God was an accepted tradition based on passages from 1 Kings, Nehemiah, and 2 Chronicles (see 1 Kings 19:10; Nehemiah 9:26; and, 2 Chronicles 36:16). Chapter 11 of The Book to the Hebrews acknowledged this tradition when the author provided a list of witnesses and saints ending with this description:
Others experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.
All these were approved through their faith... (Hebrews 11:36–39a)
Jesus saw in himself a perfect example of this tradition of prophets being mistreated. Here he was driving out demons and performing healings —the work of God, in other words— yet the religious and political leaders wanted to arrest and kill him (Lk 13:31-32).
I think it’s fair to say we can draw a straight line from this declaration to Jesus’ so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem (see Psalm 118:26; also Matthew 21:9; Luke 19:38; John 12:13). But reflecting on how Jesus’ declaration here is prophetic, because it is later fulfilled, is not what especially grabs my attention in this verse.
Perhaps due to my personality type and proclivities, it is Jesus’ connection between “seeing” and acknowledging him that excites my metaphysical antennae. They saw him but didn’t believe; yet Jesus was here declaring they would not understand him until they believed him. This sounds suspiciously like Anselm’s famous dictum, “faith seeking understanding” —I won’t even try to impress you with a deplorable rendition of the original Latin, fides quaerens intellectum, because that would be unnecessary ☺
I have always felt it questionable, and apologetically unsatisfying, to argue one must believe in Jesus before one can understand Jesus. However, our readings today do change my opinion somewhat.
After these events, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:
Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield;
your reward will be very great. (Genesis 15:1)
In our reading from The Book of Genesis (Gen 15:1-12, 17-18), the appearance of the Lord to Abram, and the promises made, were only possible because Abram dared to believe this god meant him no harm, this god whom Abram did not previously know. The Lord promised to bless Abram with descendants and a land to call their own. Abram and Sarai dared to believe, and it was credited to them as righteousness (Rom 4:3).
While this story was retold throughout the history and rituals of the Israelites, they still tended to kill the prophets and stone those sent to them. In so doing, despite the glimpse of eternity provided previously to Abram and Sarai, their descendants, the Israelites saw God at work but refused to believe.
Therefore we understand Jesus’ anguish at this tragic reality as he expressed his desire to “gather [the] children [of Jerusalem] together” (Lk 13:34a). When would they learn to love, trust and obey the God who had protected and provided for them, who consistently demonstrated his care and concern for them? With such evidence in abundance, throughout their history and now in the person and ministry of Jesus, how could they respond with threats and violence rather than worship and service?
Both then and now, despite the evidence available, people still struggle to believe Jesus is who he said he is and did what was written about him. By Jesus’ own admission, no one will “see” him until they acknowledge him. It is not obvious why this should be the case, but if so, what is the solution?
The truth is as the writer of The Book of Hebrews described:
Without faith it is impossible to please God, since the one who draws near to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)
The writer here is pointing out the very obvious: If a person does not believe God exists, he will not please God. But, then again, why would such a person care if he pleased God when he doesn’t believe in God anyway?
More relevant to my reflections though is the confident assertion we will find God when we seek him. But a person will not seek God unless he believes God exists. Therefore, no one will see God in the world unless he already believes God is in the world or, at the very least, that it is possible God exists in the world.
This is similar to what happened to me when I bought my little green Hyundai Getz. The kind of car you would normally not notice or even try to ignore. Once I bought one, however, I then began noticing them everywhere! There are more people like me in the world who would purposely buy such an obnoxious car and I now take notice of them. I even wave at them as they pass ☺
We need to believe God exists. We will then begin noticing him everywhere. Believing is seeing!
This fact of human nature is precisely why the arguments of the New Atheists are so unconvincing. One of the more famous among this crowd, Richard Dawkins, has written,
We have seen that living things are too improbable and too beautifully ‘designed’ to have come into existence by chance. How, then, did they come into existence? The answer, Darwin’s answer, is by gradual, step-by-step transformations from simple beginnings ... Each successive change in the gradual evolutionary process was simple enough, relative to its predecessor, to have arisen by chance. But the whole sequence of cumulative steps constitutes anything but a chance process, when you consider the complexity of the final end-product relative to the original starting point. (Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 1996)
According to Dawkins, each small evolutionary change occurs by chance, but the end product is so complex it could not have developed by chance, it appears to have been designed. “But it wasn’t designed”, they will try and convince you. “You’ll just have to trust us on that!”
The New Atheists see but they do not believe; Jesus tells us to believe so that we might “see”.
We have to also take notice of another fact of human nature: It is rather easy to say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, but it is another thing altogether to believe it.
The crowds gathered around Jesus as he entered Jerusalem certainly sounded like they believed he was blessed, but one must ask how many of them were in the crowd gathered outside Pilate’s headquarters just a week later —I’m not suggesting, of course, it was exactly the same crowd.
It is easy to commend a person with mere words, but to believe she is actually worth a commendation and to acknowledge it is to see good in her. To see good in another person is to become open to seeing more good in them and, perhaps, even more good in the world.
The personality and power of Jesus gave more than enough reason to acknowledge how blessed he was, how God was so evidently with him. His blessedness was evident in his kindness to all, the truth he declared, and the miracles he could not help but perform on behalf of any who presented himself. And therein lies the point: Who could do such things if God were not with and in him? (see John 5:36; cf. John 12:37; Acts 5:34–39)
To say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, and to believe it is not merely an intellectual exercise. If we believe Jesus is truly blessed by God then we are acknowledging God exists and that he is good, we are “seeing” Jesus for who he is and who sent him. With a mere sentence of acknowledgement, we become open to a glimpse of eternity, to see God at work in the world, to imagine this world is better because God is in it.
That we have “seen” Jesus will not be revealed in our words but in how we live as a result of becoming open to the truth of God. At the very least, love and compassion for our self, for others, and for nature should become more evident. We should be more able to embody peace in the midst of danger and even death. Our faith in Jesus should become more certain to us and our commitment to a Christian lifestyle more consistent.
In the midst of this Season of Lent, let me encourage you to take the time to seriously consider: Do you believe God exists? Have you seen the evidence of God in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ and even in other experiences of your life? How has your acknowledgement of Jesus made a consistent and positive change in your values and lifestyle?
If you feel you can, with honesty and integrity, say publicly, “‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, then join with me in affirming your faith by reciting The Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.