A couple of years ago Jolynn and I had the privilege of traveling with a group from the Central Texas Conference to the Holy Land. After a period in the northern region around Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, we traveled down the Jordan River valley and then took the slow ascent up to Jerusalem. As we approached the city, the tour bus entered a long dark tunnel through the mountains. The guide directed us to look to the left as we emerged from the darkness. As we peered out suddenly the tunnel vanished and the bright sunlight flooded the bus. The stirring music “The Holy City” blared out over the buses loud speakers. And then … there it was! The magnificence of “holy mount” and the great holy city spread before us. Somehow the combination of all of it managed to be at once hokey and incredibly stirring. An almost primal sense of hope and expectation filled me with awe. For me, Jerusalem is the city of the Savior.
Metaphorically the journey of Lent to the cross and beyond is a journey up the mountain to the Holy City. The week before holy week we are, again metaphorically speaking, approaching the Holy City. The joy of the approaching Palm Sunday is before us. And yet, we live in the present. The regular rhythm of life surrounds us.
For me, Saturday March 21st found me driving to Temple to participate in the funeral service of Rev. Arcynthia Louie, one of the saints of the Lord. Pastor Louie served St. Paul United Methodist Church in Georgetown. She left a legacy of a flourishing ministry and grace filled sense of the Holy Spirit that blessed others. Just before Pastor Quinton Gibson (St. James UMC, Temple) rose to give the funeral oration, a soloist sang with moving conviction and artistic beauty “Because He Lives.” Grief was leavened with hope. Sorrow was transformed by triumph. I am still bathing in the blessing of the service.
I recall when I first came to the Central Texas Conference as a newly consecrated bishop (almost 7 years ago!) we had an extended daylong meeting with Cabinet members and key leaders (lay and clergy) to examine our mission, core values, and strategic needs. As the group focused in on worship and preaching which lifted up Christ, the theme of preaching the resurrection came forcefully to the forefront. There was an emphatic consensus that we needed to preach the resurrected Christ as Lord and Savior. As the soloist at Rev. Louie’s funeral service came to the powerful closing words of “Because He Lives,” that conversation flashed across my mind. As the heartfelt shouts of “Amen” and claps of exclamation echoed across the St. James sanctuary, I leaned over to Dr. Clifton Howard who was sitting to my left. Dr. Howard had been a part of that initial conversation and had been insistent about our need to preach the resurrection. We shared a quick memory of the conversation and its importance at times like this.
Approaching Jerusalem, moving through the season of Lent towards Holy Week, I hear Christ calling us back to the cross and through the cross to the triumph beyond.
You may recall a story that made national news shortly after the tragedy of 9/11(2001). There was a man working alone on one of the top floors of the World Trade Center when the plane hit his building. In the chaos and confusion he made his way to the stairs and started down. As he was passing the 63rd floor on his way down he heard a noise that him stop. He stepped back and pushed his way through the fire door onto the floor. There he discovered some terrified people getting ready to jump. He shouted at them, “Come with me! I know a way out.” (Later when interviewed he said at that point he didn’t really know a way out, he just knew they needed to try something different.) He got people off the ledge and lined them up, like a troop of Cub Scouts or Brownies. Then, he marched them all the way down 63 flights of stairs to the bottom and to safety.
The interviewer who wrote the story remarked to him, “I understand you had to get tough with one of the women (on the march down the stairs). Somewhat sheepishly he replied, “Yes, she panicked (part way down) and I had to yell at her to get her back in line. It was the only way out.”
Jesus is that man for us but with two notable differences. First, he really does know the way out. He’s not guessing. Second, the way out is not down – but to Jerusalem, through the cross and only then to the joy of Easter morning.