Who is Barabbas? (or Why is “Good Friday” good?)

“…will you have me release for you the King of the Jews?”  They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!”  Now Barabbas was a robber.   -John 18:40

It’s hard to understand, unless we take some time to ponder it, what is “good” about “Good Friday.”  After all, it is the day that Jesus, the son of God, not only died, but was actually put to death at the request of the very people who were God’s “chosen” ones.

How can this be “good’?

In order to understand, of course, we must know a bit about our history.  Not the history of the world, per se, but the history of our salvation.  For that, we need to go all the way back to the book of Genesis, and a long-ago promise made between God and Abraham.  Here, Abraham is pleading with God to give him a son, an heir.  And God promises not only will he have a son in his old age, he will have so many descendants they will “number the stars.” (Gen 15:5)  But in order for Abraham to know that God was serious about this promise, God said to Abraham, “Bring me a heifer three years old…” (Gen 15:9)

Say what?

Yes!  This is why knowing our salvation history is so important.  Because in the days of the Old Testament, bringing animals to sacrifice is a sure sign that a covenant is being formed.  And in today’s terms we sometimes refer to a covenant as a “contract.”  But it’s really so much more than that!  In America today, if you break a contract, you may get taken to court and have to make a monetary payment of what you owe or possibly spend time in jail.  But in biblical times, animals were sacrificed as a covenantal promise that if one of you should break your end of the deal, you would bring a curse upon yourself and your family,  perhaps to the same end as the animals you are sacrificing:  death!  Further, a covenant was often made between one person who had much to offer, and one person who had less but needed what the other one had.  Very often the person who risked bringing the curse upon themselves was the person with less, because that person would be taking out a loan but promising to repay the person who had given them the loan.  Part of the covenant then, was for both parties then  to walk between the bloody carcasses of the sacrificed animals to indicate they were offering their life–or at least their livelihood– in exchange for whatever they needed from the other person, should they not repay it.

But something strange happens in the covenant between God and Abraham.  Tradition would dictate that in any exchange with God, God is “holding the cards” so to speak.  So  clearly, Abraham should walk through the animal carcasses to swear his faithfulness to God or risk being cursed or put to death.  Instead though, we are told that “a deep sleep fell on Abram” (Gen 15:12), and “when the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.” (Gen 15: 17)  This fire pot and flame, in biblical terms, is none other than God himself agreeing to be cursed– even to the point of death– if he should not fulfill his promise to Abraham.  And what does Abraham need to do in return?  Stay faithful to God.  And this covenant is binding not just between God and Abraham, but between all generations after them.  Sounds simple enough, right?

But as it turns out it is the regular old sons and daughters of Abraham, the father of our Christian faith, that fail to keep the promise of faithfulness. Yet, we can see that God keeps his promise!  In the first chapter of Matthew, we are given these long ramblings of generation after generation who are the descendants of…you guessed it, Abraham. (Yes! This is where all the “begats” finally start to mean something.)  Matthew takes us through generations that “number the stars” from Abraham all the way down to the Messiah, who is, of course, Jesus.  Jesus, the son of Mary, the foster son of Joseph… and the only begotten Son of God.

If this were a movie, the music would be swelling right about now, because with the birth of Jesus, we are going to see God deliver on his covenant oath and establish a new one.  Here God himself enters into the ancestral line (pointing clear back to Abraham, the father of our faith) in order to make good on his covenantal promise.

Which means someone is about to pay.

Not because God didn’t keep his promise to Abraham, but because the sons and daughters of Abraham didn’t stay faithful to God!

So God will send us his Son to pay the price. And his Son will die.

But first, in today’s reading, the crowd is given one last chance to let God out of this covenantal oath and instead pony up for all their own years of faithlessness and broken promises.  Again, though, we must understand some biblical traditions.  That is, that it was customary that every year on the feast of Passover, a prisoner was released.  Yep. One completely guilty person, released and set free.  This is what is happening when Pilate offers the people one last chance to let the Son of God go free, but instead they choose, not Jesus,  “but Barabbas!” to be released. (John 18:40)

And this is where the music should stop, and the cameras zooms tightly on your face.

Or mine.

Because there it is in my footnotes:  Barab’ bas.  Aramaic meaning “son of the father.”

You see, God ponies up on his covenantal promise (a promise he didn’t even need to make with us) not because he didn’t keep his promise, but because we didn’t.  He pays our due in that moment in time, with the death of Jesus, the Son of the Father, instead of the rightful death of Barabbas, the son of the father.  Barabbas, the “robber” who stole the spot of the Blameless One, is set free.

Who is Barab’ bas?

Barabbas is you.

Barabbas is me.

Because Jesus took the place for our unfaithfulness and sins.

And we are free.

Free from this covenant that we never upheld anyway.

Free of all the old ways of doing things.  The old ways of worship.  The old ways of sacrifice.  The old ways of judgment.

And God himself, in Jesus, invokes a New Covenant.  With moral laws that haven’t changed, but the ways we honor them have.

We honor them now “Loving God above all things and loving my neighbor as myself.”

We honor them with repentance.

We honor them with forgiving others as we have been forgiven.

And we honor them with Holy Communion.  Eucharist.  Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving because we never had to pay the price for the generations of promises broken.

Thanksgiving because we never even had to take the oath to pay.

Thanksgiving because God loves us so much that he gave his very self for us, just so we might love him in return.

Do you see it?

It’s all right there in front of us.

And it is very good.

Reflect:   Read the Passion of our Lord today (John 18:1 – 19:42) and place yourself in the story as Barabbas.  Give thanks to God for sending his only Son to take your place!

Pray:  Heavenly Father, we can never, ever thank you enough for the sacrifices you’ve made for us.  But we thank you for never giving up on us!  We thank you for loving us even when we fail to love you in return.  Help us to be more like you!  Send us your Spirit of Love to empower us to share your love with all your creation.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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LOVE IN ACTION and THE FAMILY DOG

It’s important to me that you understand something. When I embraced SIMPLIFY as my theme for 2013, it wasn’t my intention to never blog again. That would be OVERsimplifying, which I almost never do. In fact, I had intentions to blog at least every Monday, and then add a second day to each week next month.

The thing is (as is often the case), Life had other plans for me.

So, in my case, instead of blogging, Life has kept me preoccupied by playing nurse to my golden retriever. In an attempt to keep the story SIMPLE, let me just outline for you the past two and a half weeks of my life:

  • Left Dog in kennel for vacation.
  • In an attempt to escape and find us, Dog tried to secretly eat his way out of the kennel, but told no one.
  • We returned from vacation and brought Dog home.
  • Dog was happy, but had trouble sleeping and seemed unable to relax. Since, in our presence, Dog can easily be confused with a throw rug until you say the words, “walk” or “yum-yums,” this had us concerned.
  • Dog went to vet and was treated for acid reflux.
  • Dog slept like a baby that night, and we breathed a sigh of relief.
  • Symptoms returned for Dog the next day and we took him back to the vet.
  • Dog was given a special “cocktail” to soothe his stomach and “clear things out.”
  • Dog slept like a baby, but refused to eat the next morning.
  • Dog went back to vet to undergo x-ray.
  • X-ray revealed a mystery item in stomach that would not move.
  • Dog had surgery to remove the “largest mass of foreign body” our vet has ever seen in his 20+ years of vet medicine. They saved a “small fraction” of it for all of us to enjoy (it’s a gallon-sized bag, just so you know):

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  • We feel Dog deserves a plaque like on Man vs. Food that announces “Food Won” (or in this case, “Foreign Body Won”), but I guess the vet thought we were joking because no such plaque has yet been presented to Dog.
  • Dog seemed much better.
  • The next day Dog got worse again.
  • Dog has been at the vet two of the past three days and was treated for gas and other things.
  • As a result of trying to guess what all may be wrong with him, I get to give him all these meds at least twice each day. On a good day he’ll take them wrapped in the cheese slices, but he hasn’t had a good day yet this week:

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  • To date Dog is still eating very little and/or refusing to eat altogether.

So, I’m at that scary place right now where I don’t know how the story will end. And so I don’t want to write, because it’s difficult to write when you’re in the middle of something scary and painful.

But that’s kind of why I realized I had to write. Because I want you to show you how my mystic mind has learned to deal with scary, painful times.

Here’s a punch list of how I’ve been dealing with this:

  • I write down the things I’m grateful for every day. It can be as simple as “The dog pooped!” and as deeply sad as, “I am so grateful that if I have to experience a loved one suffering it is my dog suffering and not my children, husband or other  human loved one.”
  • I lower my expectations for the day. I don’t expect the world to understand how much my dog means to me. But I know our story. I know how much he means, and so I know I need to hold myself more gently right now. I’ve cleared my schedule so that if I need to stay busy, I get busy with housework, and if I need to lay low and watch TV for a bit while the dog walks around backwards into things (which he’s been doing a lot), then I can watch him and use the TV as a distraction.
  • I stay focused on what matters. This is, for me, at least, much harder than it sounds. I get distracted so easily with thoughts of “what if’s” and “then what’s” that I tend to miss the big picture of what these series of events will mean in my WHOLE life. Yes, it’s hard to watch my dog in pain. And yes, it is EXPENSIVE. Yes, it’s hard to think of having to let him go (if it comes to that). Yes, it would be sad…BUT…Yes, my kids are healthy. Yes, my husband is still gainfully employed so we can pay those bills. Yes, when you can fix a problem with money it’s really not the biggest problem you’ll ever have. Yes, in spite of however this ends, I am still so happy and grateful and better for having known my dog that I would do it all over again– even if the end of our relationship comes much sooner than I’d expected.
  • I (force myself to) practice what I preach. I’ve embraced a new mantra, and when I do that, I know from experience that Life has a way of testing me on it. My new mantra has been this: THERE IS NO BLAME. And these are the words on which I’ve tried to focus this whole episode. The people who supervised my dog at the kennel where he ate the stuff? They are not to blame. The doctors who didn’t have x-ray vision and know that my dog ate something? They are not to blame. The dog who should just KNOW BY NOW how to be calm in our absence? He is not to blame. And that leaves me with the one person left I like to blame the most for things going wrong: Me. The old habits are hard to break: I should have known….I should have said…I should have told them…I should have been more diligent…. But if I go down that road, I’m not helping anyone. Not the doctors, not the kennel workers , not my kids and husband who are just as concerned and hurting as I am watching our family pet suffer, not my friends and family who have called to check on his progress through this seemingly endless journey, and– most especially–not the dog.

In the meantime, I’m waiting and watching and praying. These acts are the silent language of LOVE IN ACTION that my dog understands. And whether these past few days end up being but a bump in the road of an otherwise long, enjoyable life with him, or they end up being his *gulp* dying days, it is most important to me that he see his life lesson has not gone unnoticed, that his message for me has been received, that his purpose for being has transformed me.

And I feel the Spirit within smiling and nodding and bringing me peace with this SIMPLE revelation:  Through the ages, few earthly beings have been more consistent about the message of LOVE IN ACTION than the family dog.

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Closing thought: If you have a family dog that you love and have learned some of life’s SIMPLER lessons from, feel free to post his/her name (or names if you have more than one) in the comments section below. I will know through that SIMPLE act, that you are joining your hearts with ours in prayer for a speedy recovery for our beloved Baxter.

xx oo

Lisa

Impossibly Grateful

One of the down sides of having something you perceive to be “impossible” happen for you at a young age,  is that it becomes pretty easy to believe that “impossible” things will become possible for you just because you write them down and want them to happen.

I think for years I believed (still do sometimes, when I forget that I know better) if I just wanted something enough, willed it into my life, it would happen.  Then, when those things did happen, not knowing any better, I’d call it “karma” or “dumb luck” or a “blessing.”  And as long as life continued on, more or less as I planned for myself, than it was easy for me to continue believing that way.

The problem came, though, when suddenly life was not going according to my plan.  People I loved died for no reason, friends turned on me, distance came between me and the ones I loved.  What was I to make of my “dumb luck”, then?  Was this what I’d willed for myself somehow?  And, if so, how could I will it away?

Very often, for most of us, it is in these more desperate hours that we turn to  God.  What do I have to lose?,  we reason.  And so we try our hand at prayer.  We hope that the Being we are praying to somehow picks up on our invisible “smoke signals” of desperation and makes things right for us.  But until then, we have to live with the unknown.  Which can feel a lot like suffering.

But then eventually, somehow, in a way we can’t explain, things do get better for us.  Easier somehow.  Is it time that has healed our hurts?  we wonder.  Is it maturity?  Wisdom?  We don’t really know, but life is suddenly good again, so we do not question.  We simply pick up the pieces and move on.  Hoping for the best, once again.  Perhaps a little more cautious now, but moving forward all the same.

And that’s a shame.

Not that we move forward, or that we remain hopeful, but that we Do. Not. Question.

On a spiritual level, if we do not begin to question our own thinking at some point, especially when life is “good,” then it becomes really easy to say that either God does not matter at all because he has no part in anything we do, or contrarily, that when we make “good” choices God “rewards” us for them, and when we make “bad” God  “punishes” us for those.

Because I’d been brought up a “believer,” I never really considered not “believing. ”  Instead, my belief system for years was more that of  “reward and punishment.” I was especially mindful of it in college and my early adult years.  I’d go to church to “earn God’s favor,” and I’d find life looking up for me.  Then I’d get cocky or bored or self-righteous, stop going to church for a while (which for me was virtually the only time I would pray), and eventually find myself struggling again.  The problem with this kind of thinking is that this makes God moody and vindictive.  A God who wants for us what is good, only when we ourselves have earned that goodness.  A God who then punishes us unless and until we can figure out where we went wrong.  This is very often the God we are introduced to as children in nearly any Old Testament story:  God creates the world and it is good.  Woman (and man) makes a wrong choice, therefore they are punished.  They begin to make better choices,  life gets better.  The world they populate continues to make bad choices,  so God sends a flood to wipe the earth clean.  It goes on and on.

Hopefully all of us at some point, reach a time in our lives when we are forced  to ask, Is this really the God I believe in?  One who gets great joy out of watching me walk through a minefield of missteps and explosions only applauding me when I’ve avoided the mine?   And if we don’t ask different questions, force ourselves to see a bigger picture–ask God to show us a bigger picture– we can all too easily think this is how we are meant to live.  As if God is some sort of Master Programmer who insists on making us guess the rules of  the game.  The problem here is that, if we don’t question Who it is we believe in, we might easily end up believing in a God whose love we must earn, and we forget entirely about the God who from the very beginning “looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good.” (Gen 1:31)

For me, it wasn’t until I  became a parent myself that I finally began to ask the bigger questions.   Suddenly, I had to take into account what I would teach my children about God.  And I had to take into account how I felt about my children, and weigh that against what I believed God felt about me — one of His children.  This helped me grow a bit and see that while, yes, I do punish my children from time to time for making bad choices, I also –most of the time, in fact–am simply content to let them be, discover, learn and grow on their own.  They do not have to earn my love.  Ever.  Because, as the famous movie line goes, “They had me at hello.”  And if I, in my fallen human state, can feel this kind of love for my children, I reasoned, then how much greater must God’s love be for me?  For us all?

The  journey becomes easier then, when we change to that mindset.  Suddenly, from this perspective we realize that the question is not “What did I do to deserve this suffering?,” but rather, “Have I ever done anything to deserve any part of my life–good or the bad?”

And the seed of gratitude is planted.

Gratitude is often the “cure” for just about anything that ails us.  In a state of gratitude, I am reminded that nothing is promised me.  Not wealth.  Not fortune.  Not fame.  Not motherhood.  Not marriage.  Not success.  Not recognition.  Not power.  Not wisdom. Not even My. Next. Breath.

It’s all a gift.  Freely given.

From the vantage point of gratitude, I can see that while I’m disappointed because I’m not getting what I want right now, at the same time, I can see all the things I’ve been given up until now that I also didn’t deserve.

For me this makes God a much more lovable Being.  A Being worth believing in. Someone with whom I really wouldn’t mind spending all of eternity.

That is the pilgrim’s journey that I am celebrating this holiday.

It is the best and only way I know to honestly “give thanks.”