Sunday, April 17, 2022

The Great Amen

It was a Sunday afternoon, and as the spring sun drifted west, a pair of retiring pilgrims hit a slow pace on the road back to Emmaus. The Passover was finished; there seemed little point in sticking around Jerusalem for the whole seven days of the Unleavened Bread. Not that they felt too inclined to make offerings; everything had already been taken from them, all but memories. They talked as they walked, and remembered their Teacher – the day they'd heard him say those beautiful words: “Amen, amen, I say to you: Whoever hears my word and believes the One who sent me has eternal life... Amen, amen, I say to you: An hour is coming (and is now here!) when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:24-25). Jesus had a habit of talking that way – of prefacing his teachings with a double amen, an assurance his words were a solid rock to build on. But they also remembered his last amen – for they'd been in the crowd, reading his lips, as he turned to the converted killer crucified at his side and said to him, “Amen, to you I say: Today, with me, you'll be in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). And not long after that amen... Jesus was dead – their Christ, a corpse.

And so these two were now leaving Jerusalem, quitting the holy city, processing their grief and disillusionment. Early that morning, they'd heard the hysterical ravings of women who'd said they'd seen Jesus alive, walking and talking. Impossible. Their friends Peter and John went to investigate, and had found the tomb emptied – no doubt robbed in some cruel twist of fate, they thought. They couldn't take it any more. They'd hoped that Jesus would be the redemption of Israel from her Gentile oppressors, that he was the prophet who'd open the kingdom and show God's promises come true. And as an ignorant stranger sidled up to them on the road, that's just what they told him when he butted into their conversation. Everything had been so certain and beautiful, rooted like a tree of life growing in their own backyard. But everything came crashing down at the cross and the tomb, and as they walked back to Emmaus, they wondered how they could ever bear to say the word 'Amen' again.

'Amen,' you see, is a Hebrew word. It's from the same root as 'aman,' the Hebrew word for 'truth.' And the root points to something regarded as firm and sure, something taking solid root that can't be ripped out. It's a word of acceptance or assertion, of affirmation or confirmation. The first times we hear people in the Bible say amen, it's a word used to accept a judgment. A woman undergoing a test of her faithfulness to marriage swears an oath and, when told the consequences of lying, she says, “Amen, amen” (Numbers 5:22). The Levites shout to all Israel curses if they fail to keep this or that word from God's Law, “and all the people shall answer and say: 'Amen'” (Deuteronomy 27:15). To say amen here is to say, “Yes, if we fail this, let your curse on us be true.” But if an amen could accept a curse, so too could it accept a blessing, when one was spoken. An amen could be used to affirm a royal decree, as when Benaiah said amen to David's decisions, meaning, “I submit and endorse what you have ordered” (1 Kings 1:36). And most common of all, 'amen' could affirm a word of blessing or a prayer. So it was when Israel gathered in worship. When Ezra read the Law and then blessed the LORD, “all the people answered 'Amen, amen,' lifting up their hands, and they bowed their heads and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground” (Nehemiah 8:6). And in private gatherings, too, like at meals, when the father of the house would recite blessings over the food or drink, those at the table would reply by saying amen.1

In all these prayers and blessings, the Jews never forgot the prophecy of Isaiah that, when the new creation was to come, all God's people would learn to know him in a new way: as the God of Amen, the God of unbreakable faithfulness and truth. “His servants he will call by another name, so that he who blesses himself in the land shall bless himself by the God of Amen, and he who takes an oath in the land shall swear by the God of Amen, because the former troubles are forgotten and are hidden from my eyes” (Isaiah 65:15-16). That's a promise.

And it was that promise which the saddened pilgrims returning to Emmaus found inconceivable now. Where was God's faithfulness and truth if the Redeemer of Israel was dead? How could God be a God of Amen if this trainwreck of an ending could make the whole story meaningless in retrospect? How could they ever say amen to a God who seemed impossible to trust, a God whose promises floated off into thin air?

But then, for the remaining hours of their walk, those two discouraged travelers listened to the stranger, who rebuked them as foolish and faithless. “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Wasn't it necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and so enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26). And, setting their hearts aflame, he told them, book by book, what Paul would later sum up to the Corinthians: “The Son of God, Jesus Christ..., was not Yes-and-No, but in him it is always Yes, for all the promises of God find their Yes in him (2 Corinthians 1:19-20)!

God's promise to Adam and Eve to punish the tempter and one day crush its head through Eve's child? That promise finds its Yes in Jesus Christ! God's promises to Noah to work for human life and to make the waters a source of salvation? Those promises find their Yes in Jesus Christ! God's promises to Abraham to prosper him and make his name great, to give him offspring beyond the stars, to give him an everlasting inheritance in the land, to make him a source of blessing to all families of the earth, to provide for himself the lamb of sacrifice? Those, too, are Yes in Jesus Christ! God's promises to Moses, to redeem his people from captivity, to make them a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, to lead them home and give them victory, to feed them and bless them for their day-by-day faith? Yes in Jesus Christ! How about God's promises to David to raise up a Son of David who'll build God's true Temple, and to establish an eternal throne of rest from the days of war? Aha, the promises find their Yes in Jesus Christ! And then there are God's promises by his prophets: to gather the people back with joy, to welcome the nations to Zion's light, to make a new covenant with all flesh, to feast them with heaven's abundance, to pour out his Holy Spirit, to give the Son of Man power to subdue beastly empires through his suffering, and ultimately to conquer death itself and set death's captives free. With so much written down, is it possible to believe all that the prophets have spoken? Of this you can be sure: all of them, every prophecy, finds its true Yes in Jesus Christ! And the word of the psalmist, that “this is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life” (Psalm 119:50)? The life-giving promise is Yes in Jesus Christ!

And these promises can only be Yes in Jesus Christ because the cross was not the end, the cross was not a failure, the cross was not a derailment and a trainwreck. The cross was the plan – it was “necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things,” because it was the appointed means by which he'd not only enter his own glory but open that glory to the world. All the promises of God are Yes in Jesus Christ because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life2 – just as he'd said and sealed with his double amen! In the Messiah of the Eternal Yes, we meet at last the God of Amen face-to-face! And so, at the end of their walk to Emmaus with the stranger, he enters their place of lodging and sits down at the table with them. And from the table he takes the bread, he blesses it, and as he breaks it, they find the renewed faith to say amen to his blessing. With their faith in God's purposes restored, their amen receives from him the bread into their hands, and at once their eyes are opened by their faith to see the living Christ in their midst, proving in himself “the power of an indestructible life” in front of their eyes (Hebrews 7:16).

Swiftly Jesus passes beyond their sight, though they'll see him again when they run the seven miles back under darkness to Jerusalem. Years later, John will see the same risen Jesus, resplendent in his glory. And this Jesus introduced himself in many ways. But his concluding self-description was as “the Amen” (Revelation 3:14). Jesus doesn't just say amen – he is Amen! Jesus is divine acceptance of all the human blessings said up till then. When Ezra blessed God, and the people said amen? God was saying amen too, accepting Ezra's blessing – and Jesus is that Amen that God says, Jesus is that acceptance of our praises. So too is Jesus the human acceptance of all the divine blessings ever pronounced. As a man on the earth, Jesus enjoyed perfect communion with his God and Father, because his humanity was nothing but perfect faithfulness and obedience. So, as it's written, “the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had” (Genesis 39:5). And what did he have? Us – the people whom the Father had given him out of the world (John 17:6). For us, Jesus is the perfect human Amen that open-handedly receives every blessing God wants to pour out on the human race.

On the cross, Jesus is also human acceptance, not only of those blessings, but of all the curses ever uttered. On the day the men of Israel said amen to the Law's curse at Mount Ebal, Jesus is humanity's Amen through them, ready to step forward and accept the curse for their failures. So “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree'” (Galatians 3:13). But in his resurrection, Jesus is divine affirmation of human life as good, as worth God loving and preserving. Jesus is God's amen to our faithful prayers, Jesus is God's amen to the burning desire that life has to be lived. Jesus is the indestructible goodness of human life, the anchor of our existence and our identity and our hope. Jesus is the indomitable Amen that receives all promise and all goodness.

And so in him is God's promise through Isaiah true. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the beginning of the new creation, when our blessing comes when we bless ourselves by Jesus Christ, in whom we find the God of Amen. His servants he calls by another name: 'Christians,' the people who meet their God in a crucified and risen messiah, the people who make up the Body onto which the anointing of the risen Head runs down and perfumes it with life and love, with grace and glory. And as we forget our former sins and troubles, which are lost in this Easter grace, we swear our lives by the God of Amen to the Father's holiness, and we bless ourselves by the God of Amen whose risen life is our indestructible anchor, firm and sure, to guarantee eternal access for our prayers and our praises. For he's promised that, through him, the prayer he taught us will be heard.

In him, we're the children of the promise, who have “the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:1), the “promised... hope of eternal life” (Titus 1:2), the “promise of entering his rest” (Hebrews 4:1), and the “promised eternal inheritance” (Hebrews 9:15). “He has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). And to all these promises, a risen Jesus is God's Yes and Amen! And now, “according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).

And “that's why it's through him that we utter our 'Amen' to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20). Whereas Israel had been saying amen long before Easter, now on Easter we know why we say amen at the end of our prayers. 'Amen' is revealed as Jesus' name, Jesus' title, Jesus' action forever. When we say amen after reciting the creed, we're sealing our confident agreement in the same shared faith that's anchored by the Lord who conquered Death and Hell, the Lord who ever lives to intercede with his Father for us and to pour out his Spirit to fill the life of his Church with gifts and graces and unbreakable hope. And when we say amen after a prayer, we turn it over into Jesus' hands, calling on him as the Yes of God's promises, to deliver these prayers to the Father, purified and secure. Concluding the Lord's Prayer especially, we answer with 'Amen,' a Hebrew word so strong we keep it no matter the language we speak, for in so doing, we're “sealing by the amen... the petitions of this divinely taught prayer.”3 In saying amen, we're asking in Jesus' name, for he is the Great Amen.

Continuing on from the table in Emmaus, when the early church celebrated the eucharist – their thank-offering to God – and prepared to share the communion of God's altar through it, Paul tells us that part of the holy ritual meant everyone attending carefully to the words and saying a heartfelt 'Amen!' to the prayers by which the bread and wine became holy (1 Corinthians 14:16). In so doing, the Christians offered themselves as a living sacrifice on the altar, united in death and life with Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. As now we ready ourselves to celebrate the same at this holiest of feasts, don't be shy in uttering loud your 'Amen!' to the glory of God in our risen Lord – in whom all God's promises have found their eternal Yes! “Blessed be his glorious name forever! May the whole earth be filled with his glory! Amen and amen” (Psalm 72:19).

1  Mishnah: m. Berakhot 8.8

2  Paschal Troparion, an ancient Easter chant

3  Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Catecheses 5.18

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