Christ, the Way to God

I recently had an opportunity to preach to soldiers in the U.S. Army Reserve at a chapel service for WAREX in Ft. McCoy.   The text for this sermon is John 17:1-11.

I pray that this sermon challenges you to continue to place your faith in Christ.  I also pray that, if you are not a Christian, this sermon will encourage you to turn to Christ!

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“It’s where my demons hide”

The musical group Imagine Dragons has written quite a profound song.  You may have heard it about a thousand times on the radio recently – it’s called Demons.

However, in seeking to understand the story of humanity in relation to God, this particular song also has a certain theological significance.  Perhaps Imagine Dragons did not intend that; yet when seeking to accurately, and poetically, understand humanity, just as this group has done, an experience with God is inevitable.

The lyrics speak for themselves regarding the human condition:

When the days are cold
And the cards all fold
And the saints we see
Are all made of gold

When your dreams all fail
And the ones we hail
Are the worst of all
And the blood’s run stale

I wanna hide the truth
I wanna shelter you
But with the beast inside
There’s nowhere we can hide

No matter what we breed
We still are made of greed
This is my kingdom come
This is my kingdom come

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

At the curtain’s call
It’s the last of all
When the lights fade out
All the sinners crawl

So they dug your grave
And the masquerade
Will come calling out
At the mess you’ve made

Don’t wanna let you down
But I am hell bound
Though this is all for you
Don’t wanna hide the truth

No matter what we breed
We still are made of greed
This is my kingdom come
This is my kingdom come

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

They say it’s what you make
I say it’s up to fate
It’s woven in my soul
I need to let you go

Your eyes, they shine so bright
I wanna save that light
I can’t escape this now
Unless you show me how

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

God certainly understands this condition.  The writers of Genesis state, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5, NRSV).  And God grieved because of it.  He saw the demons hiding within the hearts of people.

Granted, some have given in to the demons hiding within their hearts.  Still, some glorify the demons; a world where all people gloat in their evil ways with no sense of repentance is most likely what God saw in the early chapters of Genesis.

Others may live in denial of aspects of the selfishness that grips them.  It’s okay; I think we’ve all been there at one point or another regarding some type of evil that has gripped our hearts in one way or another.  God has a way of revealing our mistakes and shortcomings and wrongdoings in us.  But by his grace he does not strike us with lightning; rather, he works with us to patiently change our hearts toward his goodness.  We learn to respond in humility so that the tendency toward sin within us may be vanquished.

Yet the lyrics of Demons almost speak of someone wrestling with the evil – the beast – that they fear is hiding within them.  They want to do the right thing, but they just can’t seem to do it.  They desire with all their heart to do it, but the beast inside has too much of a grip of them.  The person simply says, “Don’t get too close, it’s dark inside.”

The human condition – the depravity of humanity, seemingly woven within our souls, nearly inescapable.  As we look at the state of the world, as we honestly look at the state of our own individual hearts, escape from our sins seems impossible.  Many theological traditions have called this total depravity, the idea that sin is embedded so deeply within us that is impossible to root it out and finally get rid of it; no matter what we breed, we still are made of greed.

Still, other theological traditions like my own, the Church of the Nazarene, say that through the power of Christ and his Spirit within us, that disposition toward sin may replaced with a disposition toward God’s holy love.  The theological traditions debate about this point, which is good, but it can also turn into talking past one another.

The reality is not necessarily as clear-cut as we try to make it in our finite minds.  Sin has a grip, an incredibly strong grip, on our hearts.  This cannot be overlooked; but it does not mean that God cannot form us and mold us.  It does not mean that the Spirit cannot be at work within us, wrestling the sin and changing it toward love.

At the same time, though, we press on toward the goal, made possible by Christ, of erasing the tendency toward sin and replacing it with a tendency toward love.  This is, as well, a definite possibility in this life, but it must be one approached with humility, an awareness of our temptations and sins, and an attitude of constantly asking for forgiveness from God and others.

Most of us are probably somewhere in between – wrestling the demons.  But as long as we are seeking after God while wrestling, accept God’s grace, and look to Christ through all of our pains, trials, and failures in this world, we are moving in the right direction.

In understanding our own condition, we must remember that humanity and God are on a collision course.  A song like Demons cannot be complete without God; it only tells half the story.  But the collision is not because of some convoluted idea that God wants to destroy us because of our sins; it’s because God wants to save us from our sins and the pain they cause.

The initial crash has already happened.  Christ, very much the focal point of that crash, was born, crucified, and resurrected as both God and man.  Read scripture and you will find the many lives of people whom Christ has touched – lepers, pharisees, the blind, the lame, and yes, of course, the demon-inhabited.

Through each person allowing Christ to change their heart, that crash is continuing as God’s kingdom breaks further into our world, one person at a time.  God desperately desires you to be a part of that kingdom, no matter what demons or beasts inside you may be wrestling with.

Christ came to not only show how to overcome our selfish, sinful behaviors, he came so that in him, and by the power of his Spirit, we can actually have life in victory over our sins.  Whereas Cain said yes to his overwhelming temptation of killing his brother Abel, by Christ we can say no.

The demons of greed, of failure, of darkness, of fear of whatever beast we believe is inside us that we are currently wrestling, hiding from, and running from – these are the demons that Christ casts away.  These are the demons that Christ will work with us to conquer and overcome.  These are the demons that, by the same Spirit that is in Christ, can be vanquished.

Still, in humility, remember that sin is always lurking at the door, just as it was for Cain (Genesis 4:7, NRSV).  This is the total depravity within us, yet more importantly it is a depravity that, by Christ in us, we have the power to not open a door to that lurking sin.

By the power of the Spirit, we are formed to be Christ-like.  Remember, though, it takes time; it can take a lot of time.  So wherever your demons may hide, allow Christ to work on them.  Allow the Spirit to shape your heart to God’s heart, forcing out the sin and humbly replacing it with love.

As Christ said, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, NRSV).  May God forgive us of our shortcomings, sins, and mistakes, and may God fill our hearts with his love toward him and one another.

The Importance of Exploring Christ’s Humanity

When studying the person of Jesus Christ, there is often a temptation to focus on his divinity at the cost of his humanity. Christ’s divinity can be over-emphasized to the point where his humanity is described in patronizing ways or simply taken for granted. It is all too common to hear a Christian say, “Yes, Christ was fully human, but he was also fully God.” While the emphasis on Christ’s divinity is clear, the result can be a quick dismissal of Christ’s humanity as solely mystery.

Although it is true that Christ as God is inherently mysterious, there is deep significance to Christ’s humanity. This significance is lost if Christ’s humanity is diminished to being completely unexplainable!

Rather, the importance of seeking to understand Christ’s humanity should not be lessened; God, when a follower seeks after Christ in faith and by the Spirit, opens his or her mind to understanding Christ as both fully divine and fully human. Christ often states in his teaching, “Whoever has ears, let them hear” (Matthew 11:15; Matthew 13:9, NRSV). In other words, even if a concept may not seem initially understandable, it can often be made sense of, usually with some critical thinking! Therefore, whoever has ears, let them hear about the whole person of Christ as both fully human and fully divine.

In order to have an orthodox belief in Christ, one must profess him as human and divine; Christ is, in fact, the revelation of God in human form. Karl Barth writes a great article – “The Humanity of God” – and warns against emphasizing one over the other. He writes, “It would not do to even partially undervalue his humanity, the gift of God, which characterizes him as this being. We can meet God only within the limits of humanity determined by Him. But in these limits we may meet him.”

Barth further states what happens when people consider God without humanity:

“We viewed this “wholly other” in isolation, abstracted and absolutized, and set it over against man, this miserable wretch—not to say boxed his ears with it—in such fashion that it continually showed greater similarity to the deity of the God of the philosophers than to the deity of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

“On the basis of the knowledge of the humanity of God, no other attitude to any kind of fellow man is possible. It is identical with the practical acknowledgement of his human rights and dignity. To deny it to him would be for us to renounce having Jesus Christ as Brother and God as Father.”

The danger in understanding Christ without learning about his humanity is that Christ becomes something that he is not.

Thomas F. Torrance writes in another critical book – Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ – about the importance of realizing Christ for who he fully is. His humanity and divinity cannot be “divorced” from one another. He gives the example of historians; historians examine the historical Jesus and, as a result, many do not want to take into account anything that is supernatural, unexplainable, or theological.

Torrance writes, “The historian can only try to place Jesus on the horizontal plane in a time series or in the midst of a historical movement: he cannot deal at all with the vertical movement in and through which Jesus came into being in history.” They often do the opposite of what many Christians do: they separate his divinity from his humanity, and only look at his humanity.

A person cannot be broken down into various characteristics and then defined in his or her totality as only one of those characteristics. This is reductionism; while it sounds like an easy solution, it is always a solution that does a disservice to understanding the person or concept as a whole. Christians cannot fall into this temptation when seeking to understand Christ; if followers truly love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength as Christ commands, Christians must examine him for who he fully is: human and divine. Christians fail to realize many of the profound implications of Christ if he is reduced to only one of those characteristics.

Still, with the exploration of Christ’s humanity, it is critical that one does not presume a removal of Christ’s divinity! Rather, exploring Christ’s humanity must be complete with the knowledge that Christ is also fully divine.

In Christ becoming human, he took on a fallen humanity as our representative in birth, life, and death, in order to redeem our fallen humanity to God. The significance of Christ’s humanity demonstrates the real possibility of sanctification, holiness, and Christ-like living in a person’s life. Christ’s humanity defines what true humanity and a relationship with God looks like in fallenness.

Tom Noble, in yet another essential book – Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Historic Doctrine of Christian Perfecting – summarizes the early Church Fathers as they make this same point: “Their line of thought may perhaps be most clearly expounded in three statements: Christ sanctified our humanity by assuming it. Christ sanctified our humanity by living in it. Christ sanctified our humanity by crucifying it.”

Moreover, in order to understand Christ taking on a fallen humanity, it is essential to understand the difference between fallenness and sinfulness; they cannot be confused. While Christ assumed a fallen nature, he remained sinless.

Finally, scripture offers critical evidence regarding the nature of Christ’s humanity. Christ’s birth, along with details of his life, and finally the events of his death, clearly show that Christ took on a fallen humanity. It is only because Christ assumed a fallen humanity that people, living in fallenness today, can seek holiness in God through Christ and the Spirit.

Saviour, Cast a Pitying Eye

“Saviour, cast a pitying eye,
Bid my sins and sorrows end;
Whither should a sinner fly
Art not thou the sinner’s friend.
Rest in thee I gasp to find,
Wretched I, and poor, and blind.

“Haste, O haste, to my relief!
From the iron furnace take;
Bid me of my sin and grief,
For thy love and mercy’s sake;
Set my heart at liberty,
Show forth all thy power in me.

“Me, the vilest of the race,
Most unholy, most unclean;
Me, the farthest from thy face,
Full of misery and sin;
Me with arms of love receive,
Me, of sinners chief, forgive!

“Jesus, on thine only name
For salvation I depend,
In thy gracious hands I am,
Save me, save me to the end;
Let the utmost grace be given,
Save me quite from hell to heaven.”

Mr. Charles Wesley, thank you for these beautiful, true, and poetic words. We humble ourselves, fallen creatures full of sin and selfishness, before God.

The life, death, and resurrection of Christ is our only hope and salvation, our only cure.

Because of Christ, we live empowered by the Spirit to be in the life of God.

Unlocking ‘Inception’ (and a reference to 1999)

“You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”

Eames states these words in a conversation with Cobb as the two discuss the idea of inception – successfully planting an idea in a subject’s mind.   The characters, played by Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio, respectively, unlock the key to Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie, Inception, with this sentence.   The movie, unfortunately to some puzzling and not worth the time to figure out, is both complicated with its plot layers, yet at the same time more simple than we first realize.   Therein lies the beauty of the story.

In a way, it reminds me of the story of God and his creation: complicated layers of depth and meaning in its plot, yet very simple to understand in the theme that unlocks it.   But, just as in Inception, the simplicity needs the complexity and the complexity needs the simplicity in order to tell the story in the best way possible.   It is the only way to grasp the full and nuanced detail yet focused truth.

Granted, I finally saw the movie almost three years after it first came out; therefore this post might be a little late.   Oh well!   However, Inception is perhaps one of the best and most original stories out there.   The greatness of Inception is that the film does just that – inception – to the viewer’s mind, especially in light of the final scene.

There are two possibilities to explain the movie.   The first is that there was indeed a level of reality evidenced by Arthur, Ariadne, Eames, Saito, Yusuf, etc.   From this level of reality, the crew progressed into dreams in order to work in Fischer’s subconscious.   This understanding is more clear cut and easier to handle.   However, the problem with this idea is that, considered against the second possibility, this explanation renders the movie flat and without an extremely rich layer of storytelling, depth, and meaning.   If you are one who is happy and content with this idea, read no further.

The other possibility is that the only layer of reality was the relationship between Cobb and his wife, Mal.   Therefore, what we viewed throughout the entire movie was Cobb’s dream – a dream that ended up being at least five layers deep.   But here are the inevitable questions: why? and so what was the point of the movie then?   I point you to Eames’ words: “You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”   In a single word – inception.   The point of the movie: planting an idea in Cobbs’ mind. But even more masterful and genius in Nolan’s storytelling: planting an idea in the viewer’s mind.

In addition to other negative emotions from his wife’s death, Cobb was overcome by guilt, shame, anger, and depression.   Forgiveness – again, think of Eames’ statement – was being planted into Cobb’s mind so that healing could finally occur in his life.   The movie was not about Fischer and his father at all, but solely about Cobb’s healing.   This “simplest version of the idea” is present in the movie’s themes: forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.

In the story of God and his creation, of which humanity is a critical part, there is a word that encompasses forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.   It is the theme present throughout of all scripture.   It is both the “simplest version of the idea” and the key to unlocking scripture’s complexities and nuanced detail in order to find its focused truth.   This word is love.   More specifically, it is God’s love.   It is holy love.

The themes in Inception are demonstrated clearly with the forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing between Fischer and his father; however, this storyline is meant to illustrate and label these ideas so that we can apply them to what the story is actually about, Cobb’s overcoming of his own pain, anguish, and guilt.   Forgiveness and reconciliation are shown to Cobb – ‘incepted’ to Cobb if you will – so that he can finally see and apply these ideas as his own, and therefore be able to finally heal from his own trauma.

With this idea, the rest of the characters are projections of his own subconscious; his children, too, would be projections meant to symbolize the hope of healing in the story and the act of healing itself when he finally sees their faces.   It is a possibility that some of the characters, such as his father, could be the ones performing inception, though it is not critical to know who.    Moreover, the viewers see just how far his guilt is buried in his own being; he must go five layers deep in order to finally come face to face with his guilt and forgive himself. We also see the elaborate systems of protection that his subconscious has created in order to bury his source of pain, rather than confront it.

And while this understanding is a much richer understanding of both the complexity and simplicity of the story, the final scene is the pinnacle of Inception; the final scene is inception.   I asked myself – why would Nolan leave the end open in such a way that we do not know if the final scene was reality or a dream, with the top spinning in such a way where it could be either one?   The answer to this question shapes whether my first or second explanation is more plausible.

The answer is that it does not matter.   It is not supposed to matter.   Remember Eames’ words: “You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”   The simplest version of the idea is forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.   Although in my second explanation they are revealed in a much deeper and more profound way, these are themes that are present in both understandings!   So whether the movie ends in a dream or reality, Nolan’s point hinges on neither – “the simplest version of the idea” remains the same.

Herein lies the brilliance of Inception, a movie, where similar to our dreams, we thought we were going to escape for a few hours: Nolan is able to perform inception on those who viewed the movie.   The viewers ask the question of whether it was a dream or reality, eventually coming to a conclusion on what really happened, while the “simplest idea” of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing is planted within the viewers mind.

He quite literally spells out the answer to the last scene as soon as the movie is over.   Was it a dream or reality?   It does not matter; it is Inception.   It is incredible and genius storytelling.

However, the idea of inception existed long before Christopher Nolan was even born; it is an idea evident in God and his relationship to humanity, although not necessarily so subversive.   God gives us a choice in the matter.   Humanity was originally created to be together with God, operating in a perfect union with him and bound together in holy love to experience true life.   “The simplest version of the idea” was, and still is, love.   It was what gives people life, goodness, and an opportunity to participate in the kingdom and work of God.   In sinfulness and selfishness, though, humanity separated itself from a true understanding of life and love; as a result, we have death and all of its consequences.   We unfortunately see the effects of death all too often in our world.

But God is still there, calling to us everyday, attempting to plant a seed within us that there is something more to life than what appears on the surface; he is working to bring us back toward him.   For some, that seed takes hold and grows naturally; others might deny that seed.   But no matter who we are and whether or not we have denied the idea before, God is still calling to us with this “simplest version of the idea”: love.   It is up to us to accept it; in accepting it, we realize the forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing that Cobb experienced, but on a much deeper and cosmic level.   It does not matter how deep our guilt, shame, or depression is buried, or what walls we’ve built around it, God can and will break through if we allow him so that we may experience true life and love in God.   In communion with God, we return to the way we were created to be.

There was another movie released in 1999 which suggested ideas of a dreamworld and a harsh reality.   In The Matrix (yes – it’s already been 14 years!), when a person was unplugged, one realized the truth of what was happening; but the truth of reality was not as easy as living in the Matrix.   This may serve as a good warning to us: in choosing life in God, there will be times of difficulty when our faith will be stretched.   Christ warns us of this multiple times; nonetheless, there is truth, hope, and love in God.   We are no longer under the bondage and delusions that sin offers.   The truth is ultimately better than living in the Matrix.

God is calling us, each and every human being living on the planet, back to him.   His Spirit is planting seeds even in the most unknowing mind that might one day grow and mature.   God has extended grace to all the creation, evidenced by the work of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; it is a reality offered to each one of us with life in God through the Spirit and Christ.   It is an opportunity for true life and love and an opportunity to begin to break free from the constraints of sin and death.

It was not only the first inception, but it is the continuing inception at work in all people.   I pray that this “simplest version of the idea” might begin to take hold in each of us today!