Thursday, April 20, 2017

When joy comes

At the Bible study I attend, we've been studying the gospel of John, and we spent the last month working slowly through the crucifixion.

It is important to look closely and carefully at the crucifixion, because this is where God clearly and unmistakably demonstrates the depth of His love for us.  God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).  It is important to try to grasp the agony that Christ willingly subjected Himself to, in order that we could be forgiven and saved.  It is hard to think about, hard to face our culpability in it all, hard to ponder the physical abuse that He subjected Himself to, and nearly impossible to wrap our minds around the spiritual anguish that God--the God of all Creation--experienced, as the Trinity actually somehow temporarily fractured, while Christ bore the sins of the world.

It is important to study the crucifixion because this is where our sins were forgiven.  This is where the blood was shed.  This is where God settled the sin debt, once for all.  This is where the love poured out.

It is also important to study and understand the resurrection, because here the power, victory and triumph of God shine out in amazing, astonishing clarity.  Sometimes people from other religions try to mock us, saying we worship a man who was so weak that he couldn't keep from dying a humiliating death.  Many details about the death of Christ demonstrate the foolishness of their argument--for instance, the way Jesus peacefully turned Himself over to the authorities after they had fallen to the ground, powerless before His presence (John 18:6), and the way He told Peter to put away his sword (John 18:11), and the way He refused the opportunity to bargain with Pilate for His life (John 19:10-12).  Many points in scripture reveal the willing meekness of Christ as He restrained His divine power, but the resurrection blows all allegations of Jesus' weakness out of the water.  Jesus is our victorious, triumphant, magnificent King.

We have finally arrived, in our study, at the resurrection.  John's story about resurrection morning is my favorite, because it includes the very personal encounter that Mary Magdalene had with Jesus outside His tomb.

Mary stood outside the empty tomb, crying.  Jesus' body was gone.  John and Peter had come and investigated, observing the linen grave clothes with no body in them, the shroud that had covered His face, folded and laid aside.  John and Peter left, but Mary stayed behind, bewildered and overwhelmed.  Just days ago, Jesus had ridden triumphantly into Jerusalem, amidst cheering throngs and waving palm branches.  Yesterday, He was tortured and crucified.  Now, even His body has disappeared.  Imagine Mary's sense of loss, the great emptiness that replaced her earlier excitement and expectation.  Imagine her confusion.  Nobody understood Jesus' plan to die and rise again.  Of course He had talked about it, but He spoke in so many parables, said so many things that were hard to understand.  How could a person tell when He was being literal and when He was being figurative?  Hadn't He spent a great deal of time teaching them to glean the hidden meaning from His stories?  How could they know that His words about dying and rising were more than a parable?  At that moment, Mary didn't understand anything except the sharp pangs of loss that took her breath away.

She must have been sobbing hard, the kind of crying that fills your eyes so you can't see, and engulfs your body with trembling so your skin can't feel the world around you.  I'm sure she was doing what we call, these days, "ugly crying."  Blinded by grief, Mary was unable to recognize Jesus when He stood before her.  She was unable to notice who was speaking to her when Jesus asked, "Woman, why do you weep?  Who are you looking for?"

Desperately, assuming this was a gardener, hired help, she pleaded, "If you've moved Him out of the way, please tell me where you put Him, and I'll get Him."

He spoke her name: "Mary."

Then she knew who He was.

He spoke to her by name.  I love this.  Jesus calls us each by name.  He knows us intimately, calls to us tenderly, and we, His sheep, recognize His voice when He calls.

I hope it is not disrespectful for me to say this, but I imagine that Jesus found delight in presenting Himself to Mary, fully aware that His resurrection was the cure for all her fears and longings.  While He waited for her to realize who He was, He must have held back a smile, knowing how ecstatic she would be when she recognized the truth.

I believe that Jesus must feel similar delight each time a lost soul gains the sight to see who He is: the Savior, the one full of love and full of power, the one who will restore all things, bringing eternal comfort and joy just as He has promised.  When heaven rejoices over a sinner receiving salvation, it isn't just angels singing, it's the Lord Himself, full of triumph and jubilation.

He is so good, so good to be overjoyed by the way His victory releases us from the despair of our broken world.  What a good God He is, to go to such lengths to purchase this priceless gift for us, and then to delight in watching our mourning transform into joy as we receive what He imparts.

Thank you, Lord Jesus, that you are faithful and good.
Thank you for the joy of your salvation.