The scene opens on the ancient grounds of Camp Pragmatics where newly arrived recruits stand uniformed and ready before Drill Sargeant Joe Lamech Skull, now in the middle of Company 666‘s morning drill.
Mark 14: 66-72
While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him.
“You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.
But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway.
When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” Again he denied it.
After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”
He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”
Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
This morning I read chapters 12 through 14 in the book of Job, the words of a man alternately addressing God and his deluded comforters in the midst of his suffering. Immediately after, I read the first chapter of Luke. The juxtaposition of the two readings left a strange sensation, a net of chiaroscuro, light and shadow, the sunrise of salvation and the nihilism of pain.
Oddly, there came to my mind, Agatha Christie’s psychological novel, Absent in the Spring, and Shakespeare’s sonnet from which it drew its title.
From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him,
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odor and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.
Caught in the pain of loss, the poet’s world is colored by it. What used to penetrate his senses with beauty now sharpens the knife’s edge of absence. Everything is a shadow of what it once was or ought to be and he is deeply aware of it.
Not so the narrator of the psychological Christie novel. She is absent to her own loss, that is, she doesn’t know what she’s missing. For a brief time an awareness of her loss, her failure to “be there” for those she claims to love, all of life that she’s failed to see and missed, cuts into her consciousness. Her grief is almost unendurable and she is overwhelmed by regret. She determines to change and make amends. But the moment passes like a mirage in the desert heat. She returns to her narcissistic life “absent” once again, oblivious to the misery of those who need her the most.
The pain of loss absorbs Job’s consciousness. But he engages with God through it all. While his “comforters” try to justify his suffering, Job goes straight to the One who can get him though it. He will not “curse God and die” as his wife advises. He will not absent himself to his suffering. He will neither deny it nor flee from it. Instead, in his suffering he looks for God. He remembers who God is. He knows that whatever the season, the summer of abundance or the winter of loss, God is unchanging, steadfast in love and faithfulness and sovereign in power. This knowledge emboldens Job and shores up his hope so that he doesn’t fall into the despair with which Satan tempts us during hard times.
It is the first chapter of Luke that puts it all in perspective. This is where Christ’s birth is announced. Zechariah breaks into a joyful song of expectation and Mary bursts into a paean of praise as her spirit rejoices in God her Savior. Jesus’s birth breaks into history, the history of the world and our own personal history. His birth is pivotal to our understanding of temporal loss because His birth is the moment in time when the eternal becomes more real, more true, more present than absence caused by loss, whether the loss of health or loss through death.
His presence overtakes the absence. His reality in history, in the flesh, through His death and resurrection, overshadows everything. Eternity trumps the temporal. And by the word of God through the Holy Spirit we glean it daily as God who suffered here on earth suffers yet with us, making more real to us the glory that awaits us when we see Him face to face.
Praise God for that day!
Job 19: 25 (NASB)
“As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on the earth.”
2 Corinthians 4:17-18 (ESV)
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Hebrews 2: 14-15 (ESV)
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
Yesterday I saw this on Twitter: I just wanna go home, wherever it is … The writer was a young Indian woman and an author with over 21K followers. But her age, background, and success at her vocation fades into irrelevancy beside the plaintive cry of her heart.
Those simple words struck through the heart of me because I remember as a child, sometimes, out of nowhere would come an inexplicable longing, and wherever I was, even if with my family at home, I too would say aloud to no one in particular: “I wanna go home.” And the moment I said it sadness would flood my soul and I would be reminded of the absence of something or someone vital to my well-being. But I couldn’t define what it was. Or who it was.
I wonder, have you reached the point in your Christian walk where weakness is strength? Where your weakness becomes a source of joy? If you have, then you have found true humility and more: you have found wisdom. And wisdom is a Person. Jesus Christ.
As C. S. Lewis puts it,
It is easy to acknowledge, but almost impossible to realize for long, that we are mirrors whose brightness, if we are bright, is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us.…Grace substitutes [for hubris] a full, childlike and delighted acceptance of our Need, a joy in total dependence. We become “jolly beggars.” (The Four Loves)
Joy in total dependence? It goes against the grain of our tendency towards self-reliance. In our pride, complete dependence is anathema.
Remember Christ’s parable of the lost coin in Luke 15?
“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Lk. 15: 8-10)
I love the happy ending, but I never quite connected with the bit about calling the friends and neighbors in to celebrate over a lost coin. After all, a silver coin was a drachma, “comparatively but of small value” as Matthew Henry puts it in his Commentary; it wasn’t even a day’s wages like, say, a denarius of the time.
But if the silver coin had a sentimental value far outweighing its monetary worth, this would surely explain the rejoicing that followed its discovery.
H. V. Morton’s “In the Steps of the Master” (1932) puts the story in the context of a tradition that dates back to Biblical times and continued up until the middle 20th century if it doesn’t still continue to this day. In Bethlehem, five miles south of Jerusalem, he tells of meeting a poor field-worker’s family whose daughter showed him her wedding dress, a heavily embroidered garment worn with a high headdress and its flowing white veil. The headdress is like something out of a medieval picture book or a fairy tale except that “the little tower from which [the veil] hangs is a small red fez held upright on the head by two cords which tie beneath the chin. All around this little fez are sewn row upon row of coins. The znekb [chain] hangs from the headdress and contains ten coins with a central pendant.”
All the coins would compose the bride’s dowry but the znekb with its pendant would be cherished by the bride all her life as a gold wedding necklace or ring would be today. For her, the ten coins on her wedding chain would be worth more than money. And the loss of even one of the coins would be disastrous. If I lost my wedding ring today, I would turn the house over, searching into the night until I found it, and my friends and family would know how distraught I was. They would also be the first to “rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”
Every woman in the crowd hearing these words of Jesus would have known exactly what he meant. What would have surprised them is that Jesus was portraying God’s pursuit of every lost sinner and His overflowing joy over every sinner’s repentance and salvation as a uniquely personal love and joy.
This parable follows that of the lost sheep and is the second of three in Luke 15. You won’t be surprised that the next parable is that of the prodigal son. We who are Christians have this inexpressible comfort, that we belong to Christ Jesus who when we were dead in sin gave us new life. As He has said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10: 28-30)
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
It’s the question the people who were flocking to hear John the Baptist wanted answered in the third chapter of the Gospel of Luke. In our rush to get past the account of John’s ministry to read about Jesus, we can sometimes overlook some important and practical truths that John – “the voice crying in the wilderness” of the world – has to say to us.
As the forerunner of the Christ and one called to “prepare the way of the Lord,” John was going around the region of the Jordan River baptizing and preaching “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He warned those who came to listen of the coming judgment of God and he cautioned them that God demanded more than just lip service to His laws but rather they must “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” …. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:13-14, 20)
Well. Here it is: the day after Christmas. I don’t know about you but the day after Christmas is when you get back to “real life” and its mundane details and there’s the news as usual, mostly bad as usual, and the afterglow of celebration fades into the incessant strife and violence borne of hatred between peoples, and sickness and warfare and want continue unimpeded.
The words slipped out of my mouth before I could stop them. They were ugly and they came from the very gates of hell as I spit them out at the one I loved most in the world.
They had all the backing of my frustration, my feeling that I had been pushed to the limits of my endurance in an untenable situation. And after they leapt out into the open, I cringed in shame and despair at the pain I had caused, loathing myself, and most of all, feeling crushed by the weakness and frailty of my flesh, my corrupt human nature.
I was unworthy of the beloved standing before me, hurt and disappointed, unworthy of the love that I knew would forgive me the next moment. Worse still, I was unworthy of the Holy Spirit who dwelt in me, having been born again by that same Spirit through God-given faith in Christ Jesus, to whom I had been united.
I knew better. I was committed to a life of holiness through union with Christ. I knew I had been called to
“walk by the Spirit, and . . . not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Galatians 5:16-17)
As part of the body of Christ, the church, had not Christ Himself proclaimed that the very “gates of hell shall not prevail against it”? (Matthew 16:18)
It wasn’t the first time I had failed that day to “walk by the Spirit” and I knew it would not be the last. But each time I did, I was bitterly aware that I cut myself off from the joy and strength of my salvation. My life became brittle and dry without the well-spring of the Holy Spirit’s felt presence, as I had once again grieved Him.
I was very young and it had taken a leap of faith and all my savings to buy it, but I did. It came packaged in a big shiny white box and an enticing rainbow apple with a chunk bitten out, and when I brought it home that morning, I was met with disbelief and scorn.
It is no wonder that Virginia Woolf entitled a collection of essays on writing “A Room of One’s Own” since not only does a writer’s room occupy a space all its own, like a creative work or an individual’s life, but it maintains the boundaries of that space with enclosing walls formed at its conception. Only a doorway admits entrance or exit both to the occupant and visitor. And whatever that “room” may be, however modest or grand, private or public, man-made or natural, we leave one room only to enter another which in turn we leave for another. It is this sense of leave-taking that we see played out in our lives and in our occupations, but also in the interior spaces of the imagination as artists and storytellers, scholars, and critics.
In our lives, we pass through places, events, times, and histories, our own history intersecting with others’, passing from one day to the next until time stops. As writers we leave the “real” world with its ready-made structures and demands into a self-created world which may or may not bear a resemblance to any we have known.
But leave-taking in its many forms is not an easy job, and the dynamics of its interplay between the leaving of one room for another creates an uneasy tension.
There is an entrance that must be made and, more often than not, what we see is a closed door. Maybe even locked. Perhaps only slammed shut by an unceremoniously hostile exit echoing with the finality of rejection. It doesn’t matter that you yourself may have slammed it shut, stung by criticism or scorn or frustration at fruitless effort. The closed door dares you to approach it once more and make your entrance.
“Master, I want to see!” (Mark 10: 51)
How many times have I been in conversations with a beloved saint, desperate for relief from their pain or sorrow, who would cry out, “If only I could see His face!” How many times have I been in circumstances where I have pleaded with my Savior, “Only let me see You and I can bear even this, Lord!” And in each case the darkness simply seems to increase and our words seem only to echo back to us, mocking us from the black hole of our despair.
The request seems simple enough. Even praiseworthy. We’re not asking for mountains to be moved or miracles to be performed. Just a reassuring glimpse of the One who died to save us.
“Master, I want to see!” Jesus healed the blind man who asked for his vision. But what if the blind man refused to see? What if he had gone back to acting as if he were still blind and sat begging for money from passersby once more? How foolish that would be! How truly blind!
Yet that’s how I am when, in the crucible of trial, I employ lightly the faith I have been given by my heavenly Father (Eph. 2:8). I trade something “more precious than gold” (1 Pet. 1: 7) for what I have not yet been given but will be given on that day when Christ Jesus returns.
Twice in his letter the writer of Hebrews tells us to “consider Jesus” (3:1, 12:3). He wasn’t saying it mockingly as one who taunts the blind. He was saying it to the elect of the church, the body of Christ, who had once lived in “the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13) but now were “children of light” (1 Thess. 5:5). Only these had the eyes of faith to see, to “consider Him . . . so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (12:3).
So then let us hold fast to this sight we have been given, look with faith at our Lord Jesus, and say with the Psalmist, “I have set the Lord always before me; because He is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken” (16:8).