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Starting at the End

Submitted by on June 27, 2011 – 11:30 am4 Comments

I hardly ever read a book. That is, I rarely open up to page one, read each line, turn the page and repeat until the last page. This is partly because I never have time to read fiction any more; partly because I view most books as resources  — I buy those that I think will be useful, go through each one with more or less attention depending on how good it turns out to be, take notes, and then put it on the shelf. I buy the book so I don’t have to remember stuff. So I end up with lots of books. And I end up doing a lot of dipping, rather than reading. I always start at the back of the book so I know what the payoff will be. If I read more of this book, what will it give me?

On Father’s Day my daughters took me to the Loop in University City for the best Chicago Style hot dogs in St. Louis (I know, the “in St. Louis” part means I’m not saying much, but these are legit) and some browsing in the eclectic shops. The local (non-chain) bookshop had a title propped up that caught my eye: King’s Cross. The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus by Timothy Keller. I’d never heard of Keller, apparently he’s a quite successful and popular New York pastor and author. Turns out it is a book reflecting on the Gospel according to Mark (which I happen to be teaching in the intensive summer term right now). I skipped the blurbs on the back cover (with its gratuitous praise for the author) and turned, like I usually do, to the end of the book.

One of the last sections opens with this question – a critical question, really.

What if you believe that the resurrection is true? You believe that Jesus has died to save you—to redirect your eternal trajectory irrevocably toward God. You believe that God has accepted you for Jesus’ sake, through an act of supreme grace. You are part of the kingdom of God.

Now, most Lutheran sermons, if they happen to mention the resurrection at all (sad statement, but true) usually stop there. Or will continue with something like “And someday you will go to heaven.” But Keller, helpfully, does not stop there:

. . . What then? Does the resurrection mean anything for your life now? Oh my, yes. Isaiah, Amos, and many of the prophets wrote about what God wants to bring in the future—the kingdom of God, the new heaven and new earth, a healed material creation . . . Absolute wholeness and well-being—physically, spiritually, socially, and economically . . .That is the kingdom of God—shalom­—complete healing of all the relationships in the creation. We will be reconciled to God; to nature; to one another; and to ourselves.

I hope I’m not breaking any kind of laws here, but the next paragraph is what got me to buy the book. The previous paragraph is simply good Biblical theology. The next paragraph is where it gets personal:

And to the extent that that future is real to you, it will change everything about how you live in the present. For example, why is it so hard to face suffering? Why is it so hard to face disability and disease? Why is it so hard to do the right thing if you know it’s going to cost you money, reputation, maybe even your life? Why is it so hard to face your own death, or the death of loved ones? It’s so hard because we think this broken world is the only world we’re ever going to have. It’s easy to feel as if this money is the only wealth we’ll ever have, as if this body is the only body we’ll ever have. But if Jesus is risen, then your future is so much more beautiful, and so much more certain, than that.

The resurrection is not just something we believe in. It is something that shapes our reality so that we do things in a different way. “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” sounds stupid, until you realize that your turned cheek will be made new in the new creation. Giving away your coat to anyone who asks, and in addition the cloak he didn’t ask for (or your change to the guy with the can outside the ballpark) is foolish, until we realize that God’s desire is to provide for him, and that He’s given you what you have not so you can hang on to it, but so that He can use it to provide for the “him who asks of you.” Will we get abused? Will we be taken advantage of? Of course. Does it matter? No. If you don’t understand why it doesn’t matter, ponder again Jesus’ resurrection and his new creation. And read Mark (perhaps with Keller). Or, if narratives are too tough, read Paul.

There are a lot of insights scattered throughout the book. Some I liked; some (inevitably) I know to be wrong. One annoyance is that every episode in Mark somehow becomes about my life and me. Mark is not really about me. It is about Jesus. Still, the book, Keller mentions, is based on his sermons, and in preaching there is the necessary task of drawing connections to our Spirit-induced response. So it may benefit you in your sermon work. But most helpful to me is that the book starts at the end: The resurrection happened. We will be raised with Christ. Since that is the end, now what?

4 Comments »

  • pete lange says:

    thanks jeff – i really like the subtitle for the book – “the story of the world in the life of jesus”. it seems to get at the fact that our whole world (life, the universe, and everything) is wrapped up in the death and resurrection of christ. good stuff – sounds like a book to get for series B next year..

  • John Rasmussen says:

    I’ll have to check the book out, I didn’t know he had a new one. He kind of does the same thing with “The Prodigal God,” where he has a section titled “Salvation is Material.” In my opinion he’s a pretty good author, and since he’s Reformed he’s actually interested in theology, which makes his books about the only thing worth buying in a Christian bookstore (next to the Bible). Despite the fact that Keller tends to make the text about “me and Jesus,” I do have to commend him for putting out books that deal with solid Biblical theology, but are still accessible and attractive to lay people (something I’m still waiting for CPH to do…) I wish we had more Lutheran books that expressed the beauty of our confession, but in a way that most people can understand or relate to… and marketed to other Christians, rather than just Lutherans. But now I’m moving into an entirely different topic.

    • Jeff Kloha says:

      Yea, I know, John. When I saw this I was thinking, “I’ve been wanting to do a book on Mark like this.” Mark’s gospel has, to me, one of the most relevant and directly applicable messages for Christians today, and it is a fun read (if I can say that). I’ve taught Mark dozens of times in Bible study, as well as classes. But, time is everything.

      Keller, of course, is weak when we want him to sound Lutheran. For example, when comes to the Last Supper — not that he should have shoehorned it into a discussion of the Real Presence, but he lacks, I thought surprisingly, the communal nature of the Lord’s Supper which is a huge part of our Lutheran emphasis.

      And, we need to bug brother Gibbs until he writes a book on eschatology. Send him an email.

  • Rev. Ben Haupt says:

    Thanks for passing along this suggestion. Keller is full of good stuff. Just checked “Prodigal God” out of the library. Our circuit studied through another of his books “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism”. It was a great postmodern apologetic – great book for Christians to learn how to engage our de-churched, atheist, or agnostic friends. Keller is becoming one of the most respected voices of the PCA along side R.C. Sproul. May we Lutherans be encouraged to engage our culture like these guys are doing. Kudos and ditto to the above exchange calling for this kind of thing!

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