My church used to go camping. When I was little, probably just 8 years old, our entire church would drive out to the country, to a beautiful stretch of land owned by a sister church, and we would camp out.

For a kid who grew up in the inner city, camping was quite the experience. There are several things that I can still remember vividly: the height of the trees, the morning fog, the smell of the ashes and embers left smoking from the previous night’s fire. And the stars. So many stars.

I knew that our solar system was in a galaxy called the Milky Way, but I didn’t know that you could actually see the Milky Way from our planet. My view was always obstructed by the city lights. The sky of my childhood was mostly red, except for when we went camping. There, away from the buzzing street lamps and urban light pollution, I could finally see the night sky that my ancestors saw. I was filled with wonder.

How far away were these stars? Did they have planets, too? Were they bigger and brighter than our sun? My imagination was kindled by the heavenly lights, which, even though they don’t appear to move, put on a far better show than anything I could watch on television.

C.S. Lewis had this same sort of experience with the countryside of his native Ireland. He referred to the feelings that nature stirred up within him as Joy. It was as though something was calling to him from beyond the created order; a voice, perhaps, or a distant memory of someplace that he had never been but for which his heart deeply longed.

I have come to believe that I am haunted by the memory of something that I have never experienced, but know beyond reason to be true. We are all haunted by the memory of a place where everything was good, true, and beautiful; a place untainted by the tragedy and suffering wrought everywhere by evil. There was a time before the world bent in on itself, unleashing this torrent of death. That place is Eden, and that time is the beginning. Like a specter haunting its earthly home, Eden wanders the hallways of our imaginations.

Our hearts know that things are not as they ought to be. Something has gone horribly wrong, and as a result Eden’s gates have been shut and locked from the inside. We have been expelled, and there can be no going back, at least not by the old way. We have lost Eden, and our hearts won’t let us forget it. This memory has been burned into the human imagination.

•••••

I sit on the beach, holding my son as he is slowly dying of a rare and fatal neurological disorder, and I’m longing for a place that we lost. I’m regretting the sin we committed that let things like Batten Disease enter the gene pool. When we lost Eden, we gained death—death in all its forms and by all its means. Even the slow, crippling death of a child.

I want to run, to run back to Eden and throw open its gates. I want to carry my son to the Tree of Life, to lay him down under its shade and cover him in its leaves. I want to run with him through fields of grass untainted by the foolishness of humanity and build him a home in a land without idols. I want to go back to the place where we talked with God face to face, so that the Great [Re]Creator might breathe on him and HE WOULD LIVE!

But I can’t. There is no going back. The gates of Eden are shuttered forever. The Tree is gone. Eden is lost.

•••••

Every wistful desire, every indescribable longing—what C.S. Lewis called “Joy”—is misdirection. Our hearts ache for what we have lost and cannot regain. This is why all natural beauty is tinged with sorrow. A sunrise over the ocean fills us with awe but leaves us strangely empty. So, too, with a storm over the mountains, or the mist upon the rolling green hills on an early Irish morning. The earth reminds us of Eden, so we retreat to cities, congregating amidst the unnaturally straight lines of the structures we build, structures designed not to protect our stuff or our lives, but to protect our hearts from the pain of the memory of Eden’s loss.

We have to go back and we cannot go back. We must press on. The only way to go is forward, to hope that somehow, we will stumble our way into Eden again, or perhaps into something fuller and better. Perhaps, even, someone will come to us to show the way. Would that God may light the way again, to throw open the gate, to sound the trumpet, proclaiming Eden open once more. Would that he might come to us, to speak to us, to invite us, to know us, to suffer with us, and perhaps, dare I say it, to die with us. To participate in this Unmaking which we have made. To capture it. To engulf it. To swallow it up forever.

Yes, this must be the way. Not that we might find Eden again by luck or adventure or triumph, but that the One who inhabits the Original Eden, the Greater Eden, might come to us and speak to us in our exile. That he might bear our diseases and take up our infirmities. That he might even carry the burden of our sins, and in doing so, woo us out of our idolatry.

Eden, after all, is only Eden because of the One who abides there, who met us there, who spoke with us face to face and walked with us in the cool of the day. The sting of losing Eden is not that we have lost the beauty of trees and mountains and rivers–those we still have aplenty–but that we have lost the beauty of knowing God. The power of the Tree of Life is not found in the fruit or the leaves, but in the arms of the One who prunes it.

•••••

Oh, my heart, be wooed! Be wooed from your idolatry and lusts and deception and turn your face toward the One who is worthy, who is good, who is power wrapped in humility.

Oh, my heart, be wooed! Be wooed by the One who can heal with a touch and raise the dead with a word. Oh, foolish heart, turn yourself to the One who turned to you, who looked for you in the darkness of this land of exile, who suffered for you and all your foolish and idolatrous brothers and sisters. Turn your face to the One who died, and in dying forgave all your sins; who rose again, and in rising swallowed up death forever.

Oh, my heart, be wooed! Be wooed by the Bridegroom who pursues you with the ferocity of the purest agape. Be wooed, oh my heart, be wooed, because what you have lost in Eden you have gained a hundredfold in Jesus.

•••••

It’s easy for me to lose sight of this, to think about what I’ve lost in Eden, what I could lose with Zeke, rather than focus on what I’ve gained in Jesus. Eden haunts me, but Jesus is with me. No, it doesn’t always feel that way, but there is a reality, a truth, that exists independently of what I feel or perceive, and at the center of that reality, defining it, incarnating it, animating it, is Jesus.

Jesus offers you and me and all the rest of us far more than Eden ever could. Eden was a place from which God came and went; Jesus is a person, a man, who is God. He was God, is God, and will always be God. We know God through him, in him, and because of him. We see what God looks like, acts like, talks like, and loves like in Jesus. Everything about Jesus is God. There is nothing about Jesus that is not God.

But sometimes my foolish and shallow heart is drawn to pretty things that shine and glow. My desires turn toward idols, toward that which promises what it cannot deliver. I try to find Joy in created things rather than in the Creator, the Sustainer, the Redeemer. The Joy is not in the mountains; the Joy is in the One who treads the mountains. The Joy is not in the ocean; the Joy is in the One who filled the Ocean and sees its depths.

All that we have lost in Eden, and more, is found in Jesus. But he isn’t flashy. He isn’t urgent. He doesn’t shine or glow. He is patient. He is strong. He is brave. He is power wrapped in humility. He is agape love clothed in tenderness and strength and empathy and holiness. He loves and he loves and he loves and he haunts your heart, wooing you, calling to you. “Return to me! I can give you Eden and so much more! I can give you myself, perfect goodness and purest light and strongest love.” In losing Eden, do not lose yourself. Find yourself in the One who passed through death to find you.

Ezekiel is calm now, his screaming abated by a dose of valium, a rescue medicine all too often administered these days. His eyes open and close lazily as he passes between waking and sleeping, looking for me, for an anchor, in this strange vacation-house bedroom. We abandoned all thought of swimming in the community pool when the seizures overwhelmed his body, shaking him from head to toe like the last autumn leaf twisting in the cold breeze. He screamed, and screamed, and screamed as I carried him from the pool to the house.

Sedated, he is laying on our bed staring blankly at me. Like Elijah and the widow’s dead son, I stretch myself out over his body, kissing his forehead. He clumsily reaches for my ears, gently grabbing hold of one while failing to find the other. I pray to God, “Spare my son. Heal my son. Rewrite his DNA. Repair these broken genes.” For now, my prayers are met with silence, both from Ezekiel and from the Lord.

My son has Batten’s Disease, which was forged in the darkest laboratory of hell’s genetic warfare division, concocted by the most brilliant and diabolical mind in the underworld. Batten’s is a fatal, progressive, genetic, neurological disorder that attacks the brain of small children, unmaking them from the inside. Over the course of several years, Batten’s will steal a child’s motor skills, speech, sight, hearing, thought, chewing, and breathing. Before it finally, if not mercifully, takes his life, Batten’s will completely break the child’s brain, leaving him in a permanent vegetative state. There is no cure. Batten’s is UnCreation. If there is anything that fulfills the purposes of Evil, it is this disease that is destroying my son.

I cannot describe to you what it is like to look at your young child in the throes of a crippling and degenerative disease and know that, unless God intervenes, this is the healthiest he will be for the rest of his life. All of his faculties are abandoning him. I am overwhelmed by the knowledge that he will eventually be both blind and deaf. Will he be terrified by the darkness when he can no longer see? What will we do for him when he can only lay there helplessly, unable to see, hear, or communicate? My son is dying, and I am full of fear.


We have been forced to endure the grief of his slow death this far, and we can only hope and pray that we will not have to endure it until the bitter end.
 Ezekiel is being uncreated by a satanic disease that, through the reception of two recessive genes from Breena and me, is rooted deep within his genetic structure. In that sense, it is as much a part of him as his brown eyes and hair. So when we pray, we do so with the knowledge that we are, in a way, asking God to turn his brown eyes blue. We are praying for the impossible. We are asking God to rewrite Zeke’s DNA, to repair and restore his genetic code. We are asking God to work on a microscopic scale.

Fortunately, we have a God who turned the molecular structure of water into wine. We have a God who restored the genetic code of a man born blind. We have a God who rewrote the DNA of those crippled from birth.

And so we pray, begging God to intersect his power with the profound need of our son. If Ezekiel is to live, he must literally be changed at the deepest possible level. If he is to survive, God must recreate what the devil, through this disease, has uncreated. Breena and I are convinced that this is not too big a thing for God to do.

But God has not healed him yet. We have been forced to endure the grief of his slow death this far, and we can only hope and pray that we will not have to endure it until the bitter end. I don’t know why he hasn’t given us what we have so desperately asked of him. I don’t know why my son continues to die with slow but agonizing finality right before my eyes, despite the prayers of hundreds of people all over the world.

I wish that my hands were holy enough to drive the evil out of him, but everyday I walk the line between faith and fear. Is God silent? Or are my ears deaf to his voice? Is he ignoring me? Or is he doing far more than I can see or imagine? Fear is the result of leaning into questions for which there are no satisfying answers. I simply don’t know if Zeke is going to live or die.


The God of Christianity is the only God who can say to a bereaved parent, “I, too, have lost a son.”
 When I contemplate the power of God, I have hope that Zeke’s flesh will be healed and he will be set right in this life. There is no doubt in my mind that the God that rose Jesus from the dead is able to conquer this disease in my son. But this knowledge of the power of God cuts both ways: I know that God can, but I don’t know if he will. Ultimately, I find no rest, no peace for my mind or soul, no lasting hope in the contemplation of the power of God alone. He is, after all, God, and he is free and able to do whatsoever he chooses. He doesn’t have to do what I want him to do.

Where, then, can my soul find rest in the midst of all this suffering? In this: Jesus is the God who has suffered. I follow the God who knows, intimately, personally, and experientially, what it is to suffer as a human being. The God of Christianity is the only God who can say to a bereaved parent, “I, too, have lost a son.” When I contemplate the suffering of God, I have faith that my God understands what I’m going through because he himself has endured the grief of loss and death. In suffering, my love for God grows because now I, too, understand something of what he endured at the cross. Not only this, but my heart is full of hope that, come what may, God is somehow making all things new, including my son.

When I contemplate the suffering of God, I have the confidence to ask God to change his mind about Ezekiel. If God has planned, for whatever reason, to take Zeke at an early age, I know that I can make this audacious request of the God who empathizes with us: “Please reconsider. Please don’t take my son.” Like Jesus in the garden that dark night, I am asking that, if there be any other way, let this cup pass. But I must also pray, like Jesus my Lord prayed, “yet not my will, but your will be done.”

I can find rest in the prayer that God’s will would be done instead of my own, not because I know God is all-powerful, and not even because I know that God is all-loving, but because I know that God has willingly chosen to suffer and die. I can trust God because he is all-understanding, all-empathic.

I wouldn’t make it if I didn’t have Jesus. And I don’t mean having Jesus in some casual, half way. I mean fully. There is no greater comfort than to know the suffering God in the midst of our suffering, and the only way to have that comfort is to commit yourself fully to God. I don’t know why anyone would refuse Jesus. You might say, “Won’t you be angry at God if Zeke dies?” I might. But where, then, would I turn? What other god could know my pain? What other god could empathize with me in the midst of loss? What other god has tasted death and come out the other side so that I can be free? Only Jesus. And if Jesus has done all this, then what could any other god possibly have to offer?

With the landmark decision from the Supreme Court this week, striking down DOMA, proponents of gay marriage have scored a huge, if not final, victory in their pursuit of marriage equality. The Court’s decision reflects popular opinion. In our society, marriage (and all of its benefits) is understood as a civil right, and therefore cannot be legally denied to anyone who wishes to be married. While I disagree with this understanding of marriage, and personally believe that homosexual practice is on the spectrum of sexual immorality, I am not overly concerned by what this ruling means for our society. What concerns me, rather, is what I’m hearing and seeing in the Church, and how it understands what the Bible has to say about homosexual practice.

There is a movement happening within the Church, and particularly within Evangelicalism, to reconcile the Church with the homosexual community. I believe in this movement. I want to be a part of this movement. I am convinced that this is one of the things that God is doing in the American church today. However, I’m concerned that, in an effort to follow God’s leading, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As Christians are pursuing reconciliation and love, the Scriptures are being misinterpreted, misunderstood, ignored, or even denigrated. In a well-intentioned attempt to be humble and contrite about sins committed against homosexuals (and those sins are real and many), many Christians are abandoning the millenia-old biblical sexual ethic, and, more importantly, the understanding of the authority of Scripture over the life of the believer.

I want to be clear about something. The problem lies not with what the Bible says or does not say about homosexuality; the problem lies with the hostile attitudes, condemning words, and proud hearts that Christians have had toward homosexuals. What I see and hear happening, though, is that for many Christians the Bible is the problem. When the Bible becomes the problem, and as a result you throw it under the bus, you step outside of historic, orthodox Christian faith. So what I’d like to do in this post is address some of the issues regarding Scripture and homosexuality that I’ve seen raised in the past few years.

1. Jesus never talked about homosexuality.

This is, perhaps, the most common objection to the biblical teaching on homosexuality. This is also a true statement. Jesus never directly addressed homosexuality; or to put it more accurately, the Gospel writers did not  include statements about homosexuality in their books. If Jesus did say something about homosexuality or homosexual practice, it has been lost to history. The inference that many people make from this silence is that Jesus, therefore, approved of homosexual practice, or at the very least he approved of loving, monogamous, homosexual relationships.

All-the-thingsThe trouble with this reasoning is that arguing from silence is the weakest argument one can make. Take a look at the picture on the left. You have three circles. The largest circle is “All the things,” which symbolizes everything somebody might possibly believe. The smallest circle is “The things Jesus said,” and the circle that is slightly larger than that is “The things Jesus believed.” I believe that it’s safe to assume that Jesus believed more things than what the Gospel writers credited him as saying. In other words, Jesus believed more than he said. That, I take it, is self-evident.

However, the trouble comes when trying to determine what, exactly, lies outside of the red circle but inside of the blue circle. Some assume that, because of the importance of homosexuality, Jesus would have spoken against it if, in fact, he believed that homosexual practice was wrong. But because he did not speak of it, he must have either, a) not been too concerned about it, or b) approved of it. (A third inference would be that, because Jesus didn’t talk about it, neither should the Church.)

While I agree that homosexuality is a really important issue, there are  a lot of other issues of equal importance that Jesus also did not talk about. Just in relation to human sexuality and sexual activity, Jesus did not address any of the following issues:

Polygamy/polyamory
Bisexuality
Cross-dressing
Rape
Child sexual abuse
Bestiality
Group sex
Public nudity or exposure

Using the same logic as above, we must assume that Jesus either, a) wasn’t too concerned about these issues, or b) approved of them. Of course, this is absurd. If we believe that the following statement is true, Jesus didn’t talk about homosexuality, therefore he approved of the exercise of it, then by mere reasoning we can substitute any activity for homosexuality, as long as Jesus did not expressly condemn it in the Gospels. Besides the list of sexual activity above, we could include extortion, kidnapping, and a host of other evils. There are even some good things that Jesus never spoke about; for example, romantic love. Arguing from silence breaks down into absurdity because it is based on mere speculation. It is unreasonable to believe that, because Jesus never explicitly talked about or condemned homosexuality, he therefore approved of the practice of it.

In fact, when Jesus speaks about sexual ethics, he makes it clear that his position on human sexuality is even stricter than what is found in the Old Testament. For Jesus, sexual holiness and wholeness extend to the individual’s heart, so that external adherence to biblical laws is not a sufficient sexual ethic in the kingdom of Jesus. Whether Jesus was talking about lust or divorce, he consistently added to the teaching of the Old Testament, indicating that he expected more from his disciples than what the Bible called for. It would be shocking, then, if Jesus were lax on the issue of homosexual behavior, which is condemned in Leviticus 20.

2. The prohibition of homosexuality in the OT is right next to the command not to make a garment of two types of material.

The implication of this statement is that, because nobody pays attention to the garment command, neither must we pay attention to the sexuality command. This same reasoning pops up with certain commands in the New Testament, particularly about women speaking in church or having short hair.

I am somewhat sympathetic to this objection. Why, after all, must Christians be hard-lined on sexual behavior and not other behaviors? When did we decide which Scriptures we could ignore and which we had to enforce? If we’re going to let men have long hair and women have short hair in our churches, then we should have a good explanation of how we’re obeying the spirit and intent of those commands rather than just ignoring them altogether.

With that said, it is hard to ignore that there is a consistent sexual ethic to be found in Scripture. While Leviticus 20 presents the bare bones outline of this ethic, it is expounded upon in many other places in the Bible, and even made stricter by Jesus. Unlike the kosher food laws, the Old Testament’s sexual ethic is never abolished in the New Testament.

Furthermore, the selective application of Scripture by some Christians is not a reasonable argument for the selective application of Scripture by other Christians. And just because some Scriptures seem absurd and outdated to us doesn’t mean that other Scriptures, whether in adjacent chapters or in the other Testament, should be treated as such.

3. David and Jonathan were gay lovers.

The question of the nature of David and Jonathan’s relationship has gotten a lot of attention lately. Indeed, their relationship was complicated and intense. Jonathan took off his robe in front of David. David said that his love for Jonathan was greater than the love of women. They kissed and wept together. So they were gay, right? Not necessarily.

First of all, Jonathan almost immediately recognized that, though he was Saul’s firstborn son and rightful heir to the throne of Israel, it was David who would become king. Rather than become his rival, however, Jonathan became David’s friend. The act of taking off his robe (and also his tunic and sword) and giving it to David is most likely the symbol of Jonathan’s surrender of the throne to David. The covenant that they made together, recorded in 1 Samuel 18, is not a covenant of marriage, but a covenant of power and of the throne of Israel.

Secondly, the love that David and Jonathan had for one another was not necessarily sexual in nature. The Hebrew word found in this passage (ahobah) has a wide spectrum of meaning, much like our own English word “love.” According to Holliday’s Lexicon, the word can mean the love between a husband and wife, the love between friends or people in general, or God’s love for his people. The overwhelming majority of occurrences in the OT describe the love between friends or the love between God and his people. It’s important to note, too, that most marriages in the Ancient Near East were not based on romantic love, particularly for someone with the political power of David or Jonathan, so the love that David had for his wives was likely not as strong a force in his heart as the love I have for my wife. (I readily admit, of course, that this is speculative. But it’s important that we remember just how different our culture is from Israel in David’s time.)

Third, the kiss was a common greeting and “goodbye” in ancient Israel. Examples of two men kissing can be found in Genesis 29:13, Genesis 33:4, 1 Samuel 10:1, and 2 Samuel 19:38-39. None of these kisses are sexual in nature. For a much fuller treatment of the relationship between David and Jonathan, please check out this post from pleaseconvinceme.com.

4. The NT authors were talking exclusively about abusive homosexual relationships and cultic sexual practice.

The implication of this statement is that, in places like Romans 1:26-27, 1 Timothy 1:9-11, and 1 Corinthians 6:9, Paul is talking about the abusive homosexual relationships, common in Roman culture, between an older, dominant man and a younger, passive man, and not monogamous, same-sex relationships based on love and respect. He may also have been talking about sexual activity in the worship of idols, which is a common theme in idolatry both in the Old and New Testaments.

This argument might be convincing if Paul were Greek or Roman. Though he was a Roman citizen, Paul was a Jew, through and through. He was, at one point, a Pharisee–a teacher within the strictest sect of Judaism. As I have already mentioned, there was a strong sexual ethic within Judaism, and particularly within Pharisaic Judaism, that would have understood homosexual practice, as well as many other sexual activities, as contrary to God’s command. The defining element of the nature of the relationship was not whether it was abusive or cultic, but that it was homosexual. While Paul would have also condemned heterosexual cultic sexual practice (and any other kind of cultic sexual practice), as well as abusive heterosexual relationships, because of his strict upbringing in Torah, he would not have accepted or embraced monogamous same-sex relationships.

But what about when he recognized Jesus as Messiah and his life was changed by God’s grace? As we have already seen, God’s grace does not necessarily mean a relaxing of the sexual ethic of the Old Testament. In fact, based on what Jesus communicated in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, the sexual ethic of Jesus’s kingdom is more strict than what is found in Torah. We have every reason to believe, especially given what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20, that Paul, following the lead of Jesus, draws a clear line demarcating appropriate sexual behavior for the believer, and homosexual practice lies on the far side of the line.

5. The authors of Scripture knew nothing about sexual orientation.

This is probably true, but I don’t think it matters. The Bible never tells us to “be true to ourselves” or to “follow our hearts.” The truth is, when we follow Jesus, we are called to say “No” to the natural desires of our hearts. None of us are oriented to take up our cross and follow Jesus. None of us are oriented to lay down our lives for our friends, love our enemies, or go the second mile for anybody. There’s nothing natural about following Jesus. And yet these are the basics of being a Christian.

For all we know, the authors of Scripture knew nothing about being introverted and extroverted. There is so much that Jesus demands of me that forces me to set aside fundamental aspects of my personality (INTJ–the best!) for the sake of others, himself, and his kingdom. I find, very often, that being a Christian, much less a Christian leader, is very unnatural and difficult for me.

I want to finish by saying this: Jesus is opposed to anything that is more fundamental to your identity than himself. Jesus is opposed to anything that leads you away from closer communion with himself. Jesus is opposed to anything that you love more than himself. Sexual orientation is not more fundamental, more important, or more true than the person of Jesus Christ.

The central message of Christianity is something we Christians call the Gospel, a word that literally means “good news.” Christianity is a “good news” religion. It exists to tell the world that something good, something true, something beautiful has happened, and now everything can start to get better again. Everything can start to be remade, rebuilt from its brokenness–even you and me!

One of the things that I love most about being an evangelical is that the Gospel is constantly put front and center in my life because I hear it proclaimed from the pulpit in church nearly every week. I see it in action in the lives of my friends. I watch as it transforms people, moving them from sinner to saint. And we evangelicals are careful to tell you that there’s nothing you can do to earn this Gospel, this salvation. It’s a free gift from God. It comes by grace, through faith. You can’t buy it. You can’t work for it. You can’t earn it.

Why is that? It’s because of what the Gospel is. The Gospel is an event, a story. It’s the story of Jesus.

Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians 15.

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to [many].

The Gospel is the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection. When we proclaim the Gospel, we proclaim the news (which just so happens to be very, very good) that Jesus died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he rose again on the third day, appearing to many. The Gospel is a proclamation of historical fact, which like all facts of history, can neither be changed nor earned.

This is a profound comfort. A comfort so glorious and gracious, in fact, that we find it very difficult to live with. The fact is that you and I are prone to change the Gospel. We’re apt to add to it, to make it earn-able. We engulf it in doctrinal tests to determine who’s out and who’s in. We define it in terms of behavior, turning the Gospel into some sort of morality test. (Which, of course, isn’t good news at all, because if Jesus is the standard of morality, then who among us could ever hope to pass that test!) We’re all tempted to add things to the Gospel, but adding anything to the Gospel destroys it, changing it from an event in real time and space to a philosophy, a doctrine, a list of rules, or a set of behaviors.

But the Gospel is not abstract. It is not intangible. It is not conceptual.

The Gospel happened. The Gospel is blood and flesh, nails and wood, thorns and fists. The Gospel is a tortured scream, an agonized groaning, a declaration of God-forsakenness. It is a desperate look to heaven, a final breath, a surrendered spirit. The Gospel is a suffocated man on a Roman cross. A man who was God. Now dead.

The Gospel is myrrh and aloe, a king’s burial. It is strips of linen, a stranger’s tomb. The Gospel is silence. Burial.

The Gospel is the first breath back from the dead, renewed hands folding up burial clothes. The Gospel is a stone rolling away from the inside, terrified soldiers, gleaming light. It is an angel laughing, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” It is the tears of Mary, hands grasping at the gardner’s feet–Jesus’s feet. The Gospel is two men walking along the road talking with a stranger, the risen Jesus they did not recognize. The Gospel is doubting Thomas’s fingers running across the wounds on Jesus’s hands, proof which led to his declaration of faith: “My Lord and my God!” It is Jesus and Peter, sharing a breakfast of reconciliation. “Do you love me? Feed my lambs.”

This is news. World-changing news. But this news cannot be changed. This news cannot be earned. You can no more earn the Gospel than you can earn the Revolutionary War. It is an event that happened long before you were born. Earning it is simply not part of the equation.

And yet we do. We change it. And I think most of us change it one way–we limit it. We say, “Sure, Jesus died and rose again. God loves the world so much that he offers salvation to everybody for free! That’s all true and it applies to every one…every one, that is, except for me. I am depressingly special, because I still have to earn my way back to God.”

This is what we believe in our deep, deep hearts, isn’t it? We think that God only likes us if we’ve had a day of little to no sin. We think that God will only bless us if we set the course of our lives to accomplish some great thing for him. We so easily forget that the Gospel is a true story that does not change as the years pass. It’s not a philosophical statement. It’s not a logical argument. It’s not even a doctrine! The Gospel is a statement of historical fact. It’s the story of Jesus.

When we change the Gospel, when we believe that God will only accept me if I don’t sin or that I have to somehow earn God’s saving grace, we are denying the story, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We change it from the story of Jesus into the story of me. We put ourselves into the middle of the story of the world. We say, “I’ve got to pull myself up by my own moral bootstraps. I’ve got to make my way, against all odds, back to God!”

But the Gospel is not about you; the Gospel is for you. It’s the story of Jesus dying and rising for you. You don’t have to do anything to earn his death and resurrection. That already happened. What could you possibly do to earn something that already happened? Could you earn the Revolutionary War? How ridiculous! And yet everyday we live our lives as though we have to earn the Gospel, that God loves us so much that his Son came, died for our sins, was buried, rose again, and was seen by many.

We receive the Gospel. We receive it by faith. We say, “Okay, God. This is what you’ve done. I can’t change that fact. I can’t go back in time and pull you off the cross. I can’t do anything to earn what you’ve already done. I believe it. I receive it. Thank you.” The Gospel has happened, and that is good news. Jesus’s death and resurrection have provided the means for you to be reconciled back to God, to be forgiven of all your sins, and to be made new. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to earn it.

{Edit: If you would like to download the sermon audio from which this post is taken, please click here. The sermon is from Ember’s first series, Run with Horses, on the book of Jeremiah. It is called Letter to the Exiles.}

One of the hardest words I’ve ever had to preach came from the passage that most Christians memorize for the comfort and hope it brings them. You know the verse I’m talking about: Jeremiah 29:11. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Go ahead and admit it. This is your life verse. It’s the desktop wallpaper on your computer–superimposed over a kitten in a basket. It has brought you comfort in times of trouble. It has helped you to hold out for God’s best when you just wanted to give in or give up. This verse has been a sparkling promise of God, like the North Star on a dark night.

I get it. Really, I do.

But here’s the thing. This verse doesn’t mean what we think it means. When we look at the rest of Jeremiah 29, we get a very different sense of what God is saying here. We get the sense, even, that he’s saying the opposite of what we thought. You see, this verse comes within a much larger prophecy to people in exile. They had been ripped away from their homeland, the Promised Land, the holy land. They were living in Babylon, a strange country where the customs, people, and language were foreign to them. Engulfed by the unfamiliar, they longed desperately to taste, to see, to touch what they had always known. They longed to be home.

Most of the prophets living with them in exile saw this and had compassion on the people. They prophesied compassionately. “Just two more years,” they proclaimed, “and God will bring us back to Jerusalem. Just two years longer and he will crush the head of our oppressors.” But compassionate prophecy is often false prophecy. The term of exile would not be two years, Jeremiah declared, but seventy.

For grown men and women, seventy years is a death sentence. For all but the youngest of the exiles, this meant they would never see their homeland again. They would die in this foreign land. They would be buried by unclean hands in unholy soil. Exile is a fate worse than death.

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.” In other words, live in Babylon as though you were living in Jerusalem. Engage with your new reality. Embrace your exile.

We hear a lot of talk these days about finding God’s best life for ourselves. We talk a lot about destiny and calling, always with the thought in mind that we are meant for something great. “God has a great plan for your life that will exceed all your wildest expectations!” It sounds so breathtaking and exhilarating–the spiritual equivalent of climbing El Capitan every day for the rest of your life. How many Christian brochures have you seen with a guy standing on the top of a mountain with his arms spread wide? The message behind the message is, “This should be your typical spiritual experience. This is what God destined you for!”

We hear this message again and again about personal greatness, about achieving your destiny, about realizing your dreams and actualizing the genius within you. And so images of personal significance and professional greatness dance in our heads as the false prophets of Christianity tickle our ears with the repackaged nonsense of Tony Robbins and the positivist promoters of a self-help philosophy that is nothing more than a theology of self where you have replaced God at the center of creation. “I’m going to do great things! …for God. I’m going to take this city! …for Jesus. I’m going to make my life count! …for the Lord.” False dreams interfere with honest living, as Eugene Peterson has said.

Jesus talked a lot about losing your life, and how losing your life for his sake is the only way to really find it. Did he mean that, or was he just joking? Is that how we’re being encouraged to live these days? To lose our lives for the sake of Jesus? To surrender our dreams? To relinquish our genius? To forsake personal greatness? Are any of Christianity’s prophets talking about how to live well in Babylon, or are they all selling us roadmaps back to Jerusalem?

You and I are being seduced by a Christianity that has nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth, who grew up, lived, and died under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire; no, we are being seduced by a Christianity that has everything to do with the cult of the self and the drive for power. We are taught that Jesus is most supremely interested in me, and making me a very important person, helping me to actualize my potential and realize my dreams. In Christian America, Jesus isn’t a Savior who died to free you from the curse of sin and reconcile you back to God; he’s a life coach that shows you how to be the best you you can be.

Embrace your exile. God has never promised to make all of your dreams come true. He has never told you to follow your heart. He has not guaranteed your best life now. The truth is, most of us are born for Babylon, and we need to embrace our exile or we will be miserable our entire lives, chasing false hopes and kicking on escape hatches that will never open. Can you live with Jesus if living with him means living in Babylon? Can you follow Jesus if it means you may never see all your wildest dreams come true?

The only place you have to be human is where you are right now. The only opportunity you will ever have to live by faith is in the circumstances you are provided this very day: this house you live in, this family you find yourself in, this job you have been given, the weather conditions that prevail at this moment. …The aim of the person of faith is not to be as comfortable as possible but to live as deeply and thoroughly as possible—to deal with the reality of life, discover truth, create beauty, act out love. -Eugene Peterson

You cannot live God’s life for you, you cannot live life with God, if you are always trying to get out of the life you have been given. You cannot live with God if you are constantly trying to get out of your circumstances, dreaming of being somewhere else, someone else. Escape from exile is not the answer. Escape from this world, this life, these problems, is not God’s way. Every day you face the choice between comfort and depth, between escape and engagement. Every day the unredeemed desires of your heart will allure you away from the reality in which you live, to daydreams of a so-called better life. But there is no other life out there. The life you’ve been given is the only life you have in which to live deeply and thoroughly for and with God.

Embracing our exile allows us to live in the reality in which God lives, the reality that he has given us, and the only place we can find him. As we embrace our exile we learn to embrace God, and trust him no matter the circumstances. God is the God of the good times and the bad. He is the God over Jerusalem and the God over Babylon. Embracing our exile means being content with God’s presence within, and oftentimes despite, the circumstances of our lives.

Only by embracing our exile will we learn to live with hope, real hope that transcends our circumstances and rests not in the actualization of our potential or realization of our dreams, but in the resurrection of our bodies and life forever in the full presence of God. We look forward to a future where the victorious Jesus rules and reigns over all creation, where God’s dream has been fully realized, and where we have become fully and perfectly human, ruling and reigning with Jesus the king on this throne.

And so we come back to everybody’s favorite verse: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  So what is God’s plan? What is this prospering he promises? What does the future look like?

We think that God’s primary agenda is to pull us out of exile, to lead us out of Babylon and into Jerusalem. We think his plan is to make our lives better. But the plan has always been, and will always be, simply this: Jesus Christ. Jesus is your prosperity. Jesus is your hope. Jesus is your future. And we will always find Jesus in the midst of our exile. Jesus walks through the deserts of Babylon, not to lead a mass exodus to Jerusalem—not yet. No, he walks through Babylon to find you, to sit with you, to say, “I am with you. I am here. I am your God, and you are mine. Worship me, only. Follow me, only. And in doing that, become like me.”

We have hope, not because Steve Jobs rose from rags to riches and we can too, but because Jesus Christ rose from the dead and we will too. And on that day he will welcome in all who put their trust in him and not their own potential, who put their faith in him and not their own power, whose hope was in him and not in their own dreams. If you are in exile, embrace your exile. That is where you will find Jesus. There are no shortcuts to realized hope. Only by embracing your exile will you learn to live with the true and lasting hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Postscript.

In many ways, my life is not what I wanted. My son’s health has forsaken him, leaving him a shell of the boy he was and could be. My dream of Ember Church died. Six months ago, I was fired. I am not in pastoral ministry–the vocation to which I sense that I am so strongly called, and toward which I have directed my entire life–and I don’t know when or if I will ever be again. Like many others I know, I live in an existential exile. Embracing this is hard. Daydreaming is easy. So is bitterness. My sense of entitlement drives me to dark places. But if I am to find God in this life–the only life I have–I must embrace the circumstances of the hours I wake and the ground on which I walk. I must embrace my exile in order to find God’s presence, and it’s when I find God here, in Babylon, that I am reminded that the only hope worth having will never be fully realized in a fallen world, but it awaits us as sheer grace, utter gift, on the other side of faithfulness. God’s plan for the world, and for me, is Jesus. There is no harm in Jesus. There is everlasting prosperity in Jesus. The only future worth having is found only in Jesus. That helps me. A lot. And I hope it helps you, too.

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