A Christmas With Glee
December 26, 2010
I have always been jealous of people who were able to jump high enough to dunk a basketball. I’ve had a love affair with basketball since I was in the 3rd grade. I loved to dribble, I loved to make a good pass, and I loved to make a shot. But what I really wanted to do was to dunk, like the guys I saw on TV. And as I got a little older it was my assumption that my day would come, that it was just a matter of time before I got tall enough to dunk a ball. But the best I could ever do was to touch the rim … just barely. I never came close to dunking a ball. And although I’m only 5’10” and could thus use my lack of height as something of an excuse, I eventually played against guys my same height who could, as we used to say, “jump out of the gym.” I remember seeing some short kid like me take off down the court, rise up and dunk the ball and thinking I had just seem some kind of miracle. In my mind, he had defied gravity. And for a time, my greatest dream was to do the same thing.
It never happened. Oh, if you have one of those baskets you can lower to 7 or 8 feet, I can dunk a ball … or I could at one time. But defy gravity? Only in my dreams.
Earlier this year the gang from the TV show “Glee” did a version of the song “Defy Gravity,” which was originally written for the musical “Wicked.” Here are some of the words:
Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m through with playing by the rules
Of someone else’s game
Too late for second-guessing
Too late to go back to sleep
It’s time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes, and leap!
It’s time to try
I think I’ll try
Kiss me goodbye
I am defying gravity
And you won’t bring me down!
So how about you – have you ever wished you could defy gravity? My guess is that most of you haven’t really wasted much time dreaming about dunking a basketball, but think of it this way – is there anything you wished you could rise above? We start a new year in just a few days. I’m not going to ask you to consider coming up with a bunch of New Year’s resolutions, or tell you that you should write down your goals for the year. Some of us like to do that sort of thing, but for most of us that’s more painful than it is productive. But I do want you to think about this – is there anything in this next year that you would like to rise above? Is there a hurdle you want to get over? Is there something that has been bringing you down and keeping you from experiencing the life you’ve always wanted?
We just celebrated the birth of the Christ child, whose life-story is recorded for us in the four books of the New Testament we call the Gospels. And as we continue to read the story of the one known as Jesus, we discover this about him – over and over, Jesus defied gravity. And not only did Jesus defy gravity; Jesus promised that we could defy gravity in the ways that matter most to us. No, I don’t mean that Jesus is going to help you or me dunk a basketball or that we’re going to fly through the air like the witches of “Wicked.” But Jesus enables you and me to rise above all those things in life that do their best to bring us down. Let’s take a look at the Gospels for a few minutes this morning and see what they can teach us about defying gravity.
Jesus Defies Gravity
One thing we like in our superheroes is the ability to defy gravity. Of all the things Superman can do, the coolest thing about him is that he can fly. Spiderman’s ability to climb any wall or any building is impressive, but what we really want to see him do is to use his spidey powers to leap from building to building, soaring through the air. So when the Messiah arrives on the scene in first century Israel, what better way to demonstrate his powers than to defy gravity?
At least that’s how Satan saw things. Do you remember the temptation of Jesus by Satan that took place in the desert while Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights? The first temptation was logical enough. Satan says to Jesus, “If you’re really the Messiah, then turn these stones into bread so you can end your fast.” And Jesus refuses; he refuses to invoke divine powers just because he’s hungry. So Satan tries a different approach. He takes Jesus to Jerusalem, has him stand on the highest point of the temple and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” (Matthew 4:6) Satan dares Jesus to demonstrate his ability to defy gravity; he dares Jesus to show off his supernatural powers to everyone in Jerusalem. And Jesus refuses. I mean, this would have been so cool! Who wouldn’t have been impressed if Jesus had jumped from the top of the temple and landed harmlessly on the ground, like a hawk soaring from a mountaintop and gracefully floating to earth? What a great way for Jesus to make an entrance! What a way to kick off his earthly campaign! Who wouldn’t follow a Messiah like that?
But Jesus didn’t do it. When Satan dared Jesus to defy gravity, when he gave Jesus the chance to show the world that he could defy gravity, he refused. And we wonder why? Wouldn’t that have been an effective way to gather a lot of followers right from the beginning?
Bible scholars suggest two reasons Jesus refused Satan’s dare to defy gravity. First, Jesus came to earth not to save himself, but to save us. This was a temptation to use his power to benefit himself, to make life easier for himself, and that was not at all his purpose. His purpose was to save us from our sin by dying for us, not to save himself from harm by defying gravity. And there’s a second reason Jesus refused this dare; here’s how author Philip Yancey explains it: “By resisting Satan’s temptations to override human freedom … Jesus surrendered his greatest advantage: the power to compel belief.” (p.74 in “The Jesus I Never Knew”) Here’s the point. If Jesus had gone flying through the air like Superman in front of all of Jerusalem, people watching would have had no choice but to believe in him. I sometimes ask people what it would take for them to believe in God, what it would take for them to believe in Jesus, and often the response I get is something like this: “If Jesus would show up and do a miracle, I would believe in him.” In essence what they’re saying is, “I want God to make it impossible for me not to believe in him.”
But that’s something God refuses to do, just as Jesus did when Satan tempted him to jump off of the temple. Why? Because God respects our free will. Would you really want God to compel you to believe in him and to compel you to follow him? If he did that, there would be no need for faith and there would be no genuine love. Love that is compelled isn’t love. And so while God gives us plenty of evidence to believe in his existence and in his power and in his goodness, God also gives us the freedom to choose for ourselves whether we’re going to believe in him and whether we’re going to follow him. Because God loves you and respects you, God has resisted the temptation to compel you to believe in him and has given you the freedom to make your own choice.
Butwhile Jesus didn’t overwhelm our free will with gravity-defying displays of supernatural power, he did take the wraps off a few times in front of those who were already his followers to demonstrate that he was in fact the one he claimed to be – Immanuel, God with us. Do you remember, for example, the time Jesus walked on the water? There’s a gravity-defying display if there ever was one. Here’s the account in Mark’s Gospel:
Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.
When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.
Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed …” (Mark 6:45-51)
The laws of nature dictate that an object the weight and size of a human body, when standing on water, will sink. I imagine every one of us here has discovered this to be true. When you go swimming, how do you get into the pool? Do you like to jump in, or are you the type who sticks your toe in the water to check out the temperature first? Here’s something none of us do – none of us say, “I think I’ll just stand on the water for awhile and see how it feels on the bottom of my feet.” We can’t do that because of gravity. But Jesus can. Jesus, the water-walker, defies gravity.
A year or two go by, and Jesus finds himself in a load of trouble. It was why he had come to earth in the first place, after all. Do you remember the old man Simeon whose account is part of the Christmas story? In Luke 2 we read about the old man Simeon coming across the Christ child at the temple, as the Spirit had promised he would. Simeon takes the baby Jesus in his arms to bless him and he says this to Mary: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul.”(Luke 2:34-35) Right from the start, Mary understood that this precious child of hers was destined for tragedy. And now the time has come, and Jesus is dead, having been brutally put to death on a cross. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea have prepared Jesus’ body for burial and placed it in a new tomb that Joseph himself had cut of out rock. A boulder has been rolled in front of the tomb. Pilate has ordered the tomb to be sealed and to be guarded night and day by Roman soldiers.
But that was Friday, and now it’s Sunday. Two of the women who followed Jesus have come to the tomb to grieve. Here’s what happened next:
There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.” (Matthew 28:2-6)
If we want to see Jesus defy gravity, there can be no better demonstration than this. In fact, Jesus didn’t just defy gravity; he defied death. Not even the grave could keep Jesus down.
Jesus then spends the next forty days with his disciples, answering their questions, proving to them that he has in fact been resurrected from the dead, and giving them some final instructions. And then comes one more gravity-defying display, what we have come to refer to as the ascension of Jesus. Here’s how Luke records the event:
When Jesus had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. (Luke 24:50-52)
And so, just like that, Jesus is gone. It’s not like he hadn’t given the disciples the “heads up” about this. For some time he had been telling them that he would be leaving, and he even told them that it would be better for them that he would be leaving. That didn’t make a bit of sense to the disciples. How could it possibly be a good thing for Jesus to leave them on their own? Here’s what Jesus said:
But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things, and will remind you of everything I have said to you … But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 14:26; 16:7)
So what’s this all about? How is it good news that Jesus ascended into heaven and left his followers behind?
Jesus Enables Us To Defy Gravity
The fact is that this is the way Jesus enables us as his followers to defy gravity in the ways that matter to us – through the power of the Holy Spirit. Let me give you an analogy, and then let me explain the ways in which Jesus empowers us to rise above all those things that have the potential to bring us down.
In a number of places in the New Testament the Bible teaches us that a Christian is a person who has Jesus living in him. For example, in Galatians 2:20 Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” So how does that work; how does Jesus live in us? Certainly he can’t do that physically. Jesus’ body can’t get inside our body. But the way that happens, as Jesus tried to explain to his disciples, is through the third person of the Trinity, through the person of the Holy Spirit. And that’s why it was better for Jesus’ followers for him to leave. While he was on earth with them, the best he could do was to stand next to them. While he was on earth, Jesus could do things for them. But when he ascended into heaven and the Father sent the Holy Spirit to live in them, now Jesus could do things not just for them but through them.
There used to be an ad on TV for basketball shoes; I think it was a Nike ad. The tagline was this – “It’s in the shoes.” The idea was that if you wore these shoes, then you would be able to jump like Michael Jordan could jump, then you would be able to defy gravity. Let me tell you this – it’s not in the shoes. Those shoes could not help me dunk a ball, or anyone else for that matter. It’s not in the shoes; it’s who is in the shoes.
So think of it like this. You and I are the shoes. Shoes can’t jump at all. Shoes just sit there. What matters is who is in the shoes. And when we become followers of Jesus, it’s Jesus – in the person of the Holy Spirit – who is filling our shoes. Once the Spirit takes up residence in our shoes, we can do everything the Spirit empowers us to do. It is the Spirit living in us who gives us the power to defy gravity.
Now I’ve said a couple of times this morning that we want Jesus to enable us to defy gravity in the ways that matter to us, that we want him to help us rise above those things that have the potential to bring us down. So just what do I mean by that?
Let me give you some examples of things I would like to defy gravity and rise above. Here are some of my categories. First is what I call my fears and frets. I watched a show on the History Channel recently called “Deadliest Roads” that follows three truckers from America who are learning to drive trucks in the HimalayanMountains of Northern India where there is a casualty every 4.5 minutes. Those drivers, as the promo for the show says, live in fear pretty much the entire time they’re on the road. I don’t live with that kind of fear, the kind of fear that makes your heart race and your palms sweat. My fears are more frets. For example, I fret about finances. I think I have everything figured out, that I have my budget under control, and then something will break that needs to be fixed and I think, “OK, how am I going to pay for this?” I’m not worried that I’m going to die or anything if I have to put the repair bill on the credit card, but I have to admit it raises my anxiety level and it can knock me off course spiritually.
Here’s another one, a very silly one. I should be used to this, because it happens every fall, but I’m not. I come home from the office, look out at my back yard, and I notice that the crows have shredded my lawn. And it happens day after day for a couple of months. I’ve put scarecrows in my lawn. It works for a couple of days, and then the crows are back. I get little dinosaur toys and owl toys from Burger King and put them in my lawn. It works for a couple of days, and then they’re back. Sure, I’ve got some pretty cools toys in my collection now, but my lawn keeps getting ripped up. And I let it get to me. I fret over it. Again, it’s something that can knock me off track spiritually.