Welcome to the March 2018 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the World English Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, March 2018
March 1, 2018
“My heart is steadfast, God. I will sing and I will make music with my soul. Wake up, harp and lyre! I will wake up the dawn. I will give thanks to you, Yahweh, among the nations. I will sing praises to you among the peoples. For your loving kindness is great above the heavens. Your faithfulness reaches to the skies. Be exalted, God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth. That your beloved may be delivered, save with your right hand, and answer us. God has spoken from his sanctuary: ‘In triumph, I will divide Shechem, and measure out the valley of Succoth. Gilead is mine. Manasseh is mine. Ephraim also is my helmet. Judah is my scepter. Moab is my wash pot. I will toss my sandal on Edom. I will shout over Philistia.’ Who will bring me into the fortified city? Who has led me to Edom? Haven’t you rejected us, God? You don’t go out, God, with our armies. Give us help against the enemy, for the help of man is vain. Through God, we will do valiantly. For it is he who will tread down our enemies.” Psalm 108, WEB
Robert Morgan is a pastor and author from Nashville, Tennessee. He shared this story about prayer in a sermon. “I once spent the night in a crumbling hotel in Ponto Alegre, Brazil. A friend and I ascended to our room, high in the building, in a tiny, creaking elevator. From our window I saw slums spreading out far beneath me, and I felt uneasy. That evening I prayed, ‘Lord, please save me from any danger of fire. You can see we’re at the top of a dilapidated hotel, which is nothing but a firetrap. There isn’t a fire station near, and I can’t see any fire escapes outside the building. Lord, you know that this building would go up in flames in a second, and at this very moment it is probably full of people falling asleep with Marlboros in their mouths…’
“By the time I finished praying, I was a nervous wreck, and I hardly slept a wink at night. The next morning, as I evaluated my evening, I realized that my bedtime prayer had focused on my negative feelings rather than on God’s assurances and promises, and learned an important truth: Unless we plead in faith, our prayers can do more harm than good.”
David faced many enemies throughout his life. As a young boy he killed lions and bears protecting his father’s flocks. As a youth he killed the Philistine who threatened the armies of the LORD. After Samuel anointed him as God’s chosen ruler, he fled the wrath of Saul, never turning from the right ways. As king of Israel, he fought many enemies in the name of the one true and living God. He was threatened but never turned from trusting God, whom he knew would guard and protect him from harm.
In this Psalm, we can see David’s heart and focus. He began this prayer with a song of praise, exalting the one from whom he was seeking help. He remembered God’s promises, and recognized that when Israel failed, it is against her God. In this song of praise he sought God’s salvation, direction and help. He ended the prayer with a statement of faith: “Through God, we will do valiantly. For it is he who will tread down our enemies.”
What David did not do in this Psalm is what Robert did in that hotel in Brazil. He did not focus on the enemy, the fear or the danger ahead. He first praised God’s greatness and His promises and then asked for help. Robert realized the next morning that it was the words of his prayer that made him nervous and restless that night, not the perceived danger itself. He learned that he should have prayed in faith that God is great and His promises are true.
We often hear the call for “thoughts and prayers” these days, especially after a tragedy of some sort. This call is ridiculed and rejected. “What good are thoughts and prayers? We have to DO something!” While it is true that our thoughts are generally meaningless, prayer certainly has power. At the very least it will turn our hearts from fear and anger. At best, we’ll hear God’s voice and find the right answer to our troubles, giving us direction about what we can do.
It isn’t enough, however, to pray against the things that make us afraid and angry. Prayer is about trusting that God is in control and that He can and will DO something. The root of our problem is not earthly objects or even human failure. The root of our problem is evil and the devil. We’ll never beat the devil with our human strength or ideas. We will never overcome evil by doing something. We need God. We need to pray. We need to begin those prayers with praise and thanksgiving like the Psalmist, worshiping the God who has defeated and will continue to defeat our enemy. Do not spend your time rehearsing the evil that might befall us, but instead look to the good that God will do in answer to our prayers and listen for His guidance.
“Therefore many of the Jews, who came to Mary and saw what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went away to the Pharisees, and told them the things which Jesus had done. The chief priests therefore and the Pharisees gathered a council, and said, ‘What are we doing? For this man does many signs. If we leave him alone like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’” John 11:45-48, WEB
I have no small children in my life at the moment, but I have a huge collection of children’s books. I kept many of the favorites from when my children were small, but I also used those books when I was a preschool teacher and when I have visited classrooms as a storybook reader. I love to read to children.
Today would have been Dr. Seuss’s 114th birthday, and I have a large collection of his books. My favorite is “Green Eggs and Ham.” I love to read it because the rhyming is fun and it has a good message. Over and over the guy tells Sam-I-Am that he does not like something and will not eat it anywhere with anything. He refuses to eat it for no good reason, except maybe because it does not look like something he would like. The kids get a kick out of the end of the book, when the guy finally tries the green eggs and ham to get Sam-I-Am off his back and he discovers that he likes it. At four and five years old, many of our children need to learn that they should try things they have never had before because they just might like it. The children all agreed that they should try new things.
I read the story just before snack time when I was a preschool teacher. After the story I announced, “In honor of Dr. Seuss’s birthday, our snack today will be green eggs and ham!” I had gotten up early to scramble some eggs with green food coloring. I served the eggs with some ham and a mini bagel. One girl, who was a very picky eat, tried them when I explained that they were regular scrambled eggs. She exclaimed, “Hey, I like it!” just like the guy in the story. However, even after the story and the discussion about trying new things, some of the children refused to eat the green eggs.
Adults are not much different than children when they have their mind set on something. I know there are foods I refuse to try or things I refuse to do. Sometimes these decisions are based on previous experience; sometimes there is good reason for my refusal. However, I can also admit that there are many things I will not do because I have previously established an opinion and I won’t change my mind no matter how hard someone tries to convince me otherwise.
This happens with many adults in the arena of ideas. They have their opinions and they won’t even listen to another person’s ideas to see if there might be another possibility. This is particularly true when it comes to issues from politics or religion. Now, ideas are not like food: we should not change our opinions with every wind that blows. We can’t try on ideas. However, we can listen to others with an open mind and then seek more information so that all our decisions and opinions are based on facts and information.
Unfortunately, many of the Jews refused to listen to Jesus or believe what He said. They were set in their ways. They had their opinions about the Messiah and what He would do. When Jesus came, he did not fit into the image they had created and they could not see God in the works He did. They even said that Jesus was of the devil. This caused division among the people. No matter how much Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God, some people could just not get past their attitude about Jesus.
As we read through the Gospel narratives of the life of Jesus, it seems impossible to us that there was anyone who did not believe in Jesus. His words hold so much authority and His actions came from one with power. The Pharisees saw the miracles and heard His preaching and yet they would not believe. They could not get over their own interpretation of the signs and prophecies. They knew Jesus threatened to turn their world upside down and they did not want anything to change. They refused to believe despite the proof and came up with many excuses to reject Jesus.
We are not much different than the Pharisees and those children who refused to eat the green eggs. We get our hearts and minds set on things and we won’t change. Unfortunately, when we close our minds to new things, we miss the chance to discover that “We like it!”
“Now this is the commandment, the statutes, and the ordinances, which Yahweh your God commanded to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you go over to possess it; that you might fear Yahweh your God, to keep all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you; you, and your son, and your son’s son, all the days of your life; and that your days may be prolonged. Hear therefore, Israel, and observe to do it; that it may be well with you, and that you may increase mightily, as Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has promised to you, in a land flowing with milk and honey. Hear, Israel: Yahweh is our God. Yahweh is one. You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. These words, which I command you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the door posts of your house, and on your gates. It shall be, when Yahweh your God brings you into the land which he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you, great and goodly cities, which you didn’t build, and houses full of all good things, which you didn’t fill, and cisterns dug out, which you didn’t dig, vineyards and olive trees, which you didn’t plant, and you shall eat and be full; then beware lest you forget Yahweh, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Deuteronomy 6:1-12, WEB
Julia Roberts played Katherine Watson in a movie called “Mona Lisa Smiles.” It was about an art teacher in the 1950’s at Wellesley who was unmarried, independent and she loved modern art. She didn’t fit the mold of the Wellesley expectations. The girls were intelligent and could accomplish great things, but their ultimate goal in life was to be a trophy wife on the arm of the right man. They were born and raised to this life as a perfect housewife. Katherine put up a series of art slides when she first began teaching the class; the girls knew the facts about each one, but when asked their opinion of the piece or to compare two, they had difficulty looking beyond the surface to see what lie underneath.
Katherine showed the girls a new perspective and encouraged them to consider a different kind of life. She showed them it was possible to be happy with a career. She lived life by her own rules and upset people along the way. The college alumni refused to allow her to change the status quo. The mothers of the girls were firm with their expectations and their boyfriends were unwavering with their demands. In the end, the girls realized that there was indeed more to life than being a housewife and they stepped forth in faith.
Throughout the movie, the girls, the teachers and the mothers suffered consequences for their actions. Relationships were broken if they disappointed their friends. They failed when they did not follow the instructions. If they did something that was different, they ended up divorced or separated from those they loved. They were outcast if they did not do what was expected. They lost homes, jobs, children, respect and honor in a world where such things were lifted onto pedestals. Adherence to the rules meant peace and happiness. Unfortunately, the rules were a confusing and contradicting mix coming from every direction. Some of the rules were meant to keep things as they were; others were made to bring change. Some seemed to protect and others to endanger. Which way should they go?
The Lord’s Law was not given to oppress or burden the people, but to protect them. God’s Law is not a bunch of rules that we have to keep; it is a covenant between God and His people. It is a sign of God’s love. The Law was given so that the people would remember Him and look to Him always. Whenever they turned away, disobedient to the Law and their God, they suffered the consequences of a broken relationship. When they observed the commandments, they enjoyed the blessed life that God promised. The commandments are instructions about relationships, how to keep them strong, first with God, then with each other. They also affect our relationship with ourselves. When these relationships are broken, we have no peace and happiness. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try, we are unable to keep those relationships from being affected by the world. The confusing mix of rules we are expected to follow make it difficult. Jesus Christ came to show us the true purpose of the Law: to turn our hearts and minds to God for salvation. He is ready with grace and forgiveness to give us His Kingdom.
“Remind them to be in subjection to rulers and to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, not to be contentious, to be gentle, showing all humility toward all men. For we were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and his love toward mankind appeared, not by works of righteousness, which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy, he saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly, through Jesus Christ our Savior; that, being justified by his grace, we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This saying is faithful, and concerning these things I desire that you affirm confidently, so that those who have believed God may be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable for men.” Titus 3:1-8, WEB
In “The Four Loves” C. S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
Jesus says, “Love your neighbor, even your enemies.” We could spend hours discussing the different “types” of love. We certainly love our spouses with a different kind of love than our children and our parents. We love our friends in a different way than we love strangers. We have those different types of love because we base our love on the relationships and what we have in common. How do you love someone you don’t even know? How do you love someone who is so completely opposite in ideology? How do you love someone who has actually done you harm? These are the questions with which we struggle. The reality is that we do love each person with a different type of love.
There is one love that is different than the rest: the love of God. This is a love that is unwavering, faithful, sacrificial, not just for one person or one nation but for all mankind. While we will love our spouse as a lover or our children as a parent, we are also to love them with the love of God. That is the love that flows out of our faith. This is the love that makes it possible for us to love those neighbors who aren’t very loveable, to love those who are our enemies. Unfortunately when we love, we will be hurt. But when we love, we will experience the blessing of God’s grace. We are vulnerable, but we’ll know God’s faithfulness and mercy. We might be hurt, but God will give us comfort and peace in the midst of it and His love will reach out in ways we do not understand to those who have hurt us, calling them to repentance and faith. Loving the unlovable might just prove that they are loved, not just be us but by the God who can save.
When we love family, friends, neighbors, strangers or even enemies with the love of God that flows through us, they are drawn into His heart where they will find the transforming grace of His love. The world changes with each person that becomes a brother or sister in Christ. This love is hard. It means subjecting ourselves to authority, sometimes rulers with whom we vehemently disagree. It means being obedient, doing good works for all who are in need even when we are struggling with our own needs. It means never speaking an evil word about anyone. It means ignoring the argument that you are sure you can win, being gentle to those who are no, and being humble. Jesus came in flesh and blood to love us and save us. We are made new by His Spirit, justified by His grace and made heirs to the eternal Kingdom. He did this and now calls us to live accordingly. That means being vulnerable by opening our hearts to let God’s love flow to everyone, sharing His kindness that they too might believe and be saved.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 11, 2015, Fourth Sunday of Lent: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
“Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole. It shall happen, that everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’” Numbers 4:8, WEB
I went to the grocery store yesterday to buy food for the next few days. While there, I thought about joking with my friends on the East Coast who are facing another winter storm. I was going to post, “For my friends in PA, I’m at the grocery store. Need anything?” I joke because the grocery stores in their area were probably empty of the staples because everyone went to stock up for the time they would be trapped by the blizzard. I didn’t do it because it would have been cruel to play upon their suffering, especially since winter appears to have finished with Texas for the year.
We rush out to the grocery store before a huge weather event because we don’t want to be trapped without food. The trouble is we could probably survive just fine with what is already in our pantries, refrigerators and freezers. In the United States, most of us have more food than we can possibly eat. We go shopping before those storms not for survival, but for comfort food. We want snacks to eat during the movies we will watch if our electricity doesn’t go off. We want brownies and chips. We buy milk and bread, but really want chocolate and wine. We buy food that will sustain us, food that can be eaten even if we can’t cook, but we usually eat the junk food that makes us feel good.
We all have to admit that there are times we go to our pantry or refrigerator and think, “There’s nothing to eat,” despite the fact that we couldn’t fit any more food on our shelves. We can’t find something because there is nothing looks good. Nothing seems worth the work and time it would take to cook it. Everything looks bland and unappetizing. We manage to settle for something, but we think about all the things that would taste better. Sometimes we don’t even know what would satisfy, we just know that what we have won’t.
The Hebrews had plenty to eat, but they were tired of eating the same old manna day after day after day. I can see them as well as I can see myself standing in the pantry saying, “There’s nothing to eat here!” They complained about wandering in the wilderness. They complained against Moses and God. They wanted to return to the slavery of Egypt. Did they really expect that the food would be better in Egypt? After all, they were slaves and would never have received the best of fare. However, when we are not satisfied with our situation we always expect that things will be greener on the other side of the fence. They thought that the food for slaves had to be better than the manna of freemen.
God was disappointed by their lack of faith and trust. The Hebrews wanted control. They, perhaps rightfully, felt helpless. Moses had led them into the wilderness away from their homes and everything they knew. Perhaps their life was not comfortable. They were oppressed and worked to death as slaves to the Pharaoh, and they hated their life. When Moses led them out of Egypt they were excited to be alive and free. But the Promised Land was not right around the corner. Their wandering in the wilderness became such a burden that they began to look back on their sojourn in Egypt with fond memories. It had to be better in slavery than starving and thirsting lost in the desert. Even though God was providing them with all that they needed - safety, food and water - they hungered and thirsted for Egypt.
When I think of the Exodus, I picture a rag-tag mass of people just wandering in the desert for forty years, no direction or purpose. While that is true in a sense, they were far more organized. They became a nation of nomadic people, and while they did move often in those forty years, they weren't constantly in motion. They followed the pillar of cloud in the day and fire in the night as God commanded, but they also set up camp for long periods of time.
They were forced to wander because they did not trust God at Mount Sinai. While Moses was receiving God’s Word for His people, they built a golden calf to worship. This caused God’s anger and a promise that the unfaithful generation would not enter the Promised Land. By the time they made it there, the men and women who left Egypt had died, leaving only their children and grandchildren. They were not happy; they grumbled constantly about the lack of food and water. The journey was meant to teach them to trust in God. It was a hard earned, and shortly held, lesson. God’s people have fallen to unfaithfulness so many times. When they did, God used the world to help them to look to Him again. Whether it was war, exile or oppression, the suffering they faced was given as a gift to bring about repentance and faith.
We can easily get caught up in ourselves, whether it is our victories and dreams or our suffering and pain. It becomes so important to us that we lose sight of that which is more important: God. The Hebrews turned from God and Moses over and over again. In today’s Old Testament lesson, we see the aftermath of one of those moments. Numbers 21:1-3 tells the story of their first battle as a new community under God’s grace. The king of Arad attacked the wandering nation as they passed near to his land and captured some of them.
Their prayer was typical of our human prayers, Israel vowed a vow to God: “If you will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.” It wasn’t enough for their people to be set free; they wanted to destroy those who had harmed them. God gave the Canaanites over to the Hebrews and they completely destroyed them. It was by God’s hand and will that it happened, but as with all victory, the people became caught up in their success. They had the power to defeat a great enemy!
When it was time to move on, Moses led them the long way to avoid Edom. They people were not thrilled by this route; they were impatient and thought it to be a waste of their time. Besides, why shouldn’t they go into Edom and use their new found strength to take what they needed? They could find fresh food and water; they could eat something besides manna and quail. As is typical with human complaint, the Hebrews exaggerated their needs. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loathes this light bread.” They were sure they were going to die.
The Promised Land was not right around the corner but they weren’t going to die. God provided for them, the manna and quail filled them, and they had enough to survive. They didn’t want to just survive and their desires turned them away from God. The Hebrews wanted control; they spoke against God and Moses. They complained the way we complain when we can’t find something we want to eat in the pantry or refrigerator. Manna was not food to these people, even though it met their needs. They were imagining that back in Egypt they’d be eating chocolate and drinking fine wine.
God was disappointed by their lack of faith. The people exaggerated the dangers they faced in the desert, especially since they had the God of creation, the God of their forefathers, protecting and leading them. All they could see was what they had left behind. Sure, they were slaves, but they had food other than manna and quail. God had to remind them that they were not in control. This story of snakes is hard for us to accept. It doesn’t fit with our modern expectation of God. Why would He do such a thing? Why would He send dangerous snakes into the midst of His people? Why would He allow so many to die? The poisonous snakes were a way of getting the people’s attention before they did more harm to themselves, perhaps even rebelling against Moses and returning to Egypt. Would Pharaoh welcome the slaves back with open arms and a huge barbeque? No, they would go back to their own deaths, and it would be alone, without God. If they turned back to Egypt, they turned their back on God. Returning to Egypt would have been worse than poisonous snakes as it would have led to the annihilation of God’s people.
The snakes did indeed get their attention. They went to Moses and asked him to pray for them. And Moses prayed and the LORD heard their pleas. Did He remove the snakes? That certainly would have been the most logical and loving solution to the problem. But in His mercy, God did not remove the poisonous snakes. Instead, He commanded Moses to create a bronze snake on a pole. When the people were bit, they could look at the snake and be healed. Ironic, isn’t it? Looking to the very thing that brought death brought them healing and life. God gave them the sign so that they could have a visible reminder of His salvation and deliverance.
We often ask ourselves why God would allow Jesus to die. Again, it doesn’t fit in with our modern expectation of God. It seems illogical and unnecessary. God could have saved the Hebrews by removing the snakes and He could have saved us by removing from our lives that which continually leads us astray. Would it have worked? Would the Hebrews have kept their eyes on God if they had no snakes to remind them of His saving grace? Would we keep our eyes on Jesus if we had no reason to be saved? God gave us a sign so that we could have a visible remind of His salvation and deliverance.
Jesus reminds us of this parallel in today’s Gospel message. The book of John shows clearly how Jesus is better than Moses in every way. He is better than the Temple that Moses established because He is the Temple. He is better than the Law which Moses received from God because He is the Law. He is better than the prophet because He is the I AM. In today’s passage, Jesus tells Nicodemus that Moses lifted up a bronze serpent to save God’s people, but the Son of Man would be lifted up to a greater salvation.
Look to Him and have eternal life. Have faith in the only Son and you will have eternal life.
John 3:16 is probably one of the most beloved and most quoted (and perhaps even misquoted) verses of the scriptures. Yet, there is so much more to this passage. This is a message about light. Jesus Christ is the light, and without Him we live in darkness. John 3:16, is a wonderful message, a message that many people have used to share the love of God with the world. As a matter of fact, when you see “JOHN 3:16” in the end zone of a football game or on a billboard, you know exactly what it means. We worship a God of love.
This is so very true. Here is where the Christian message begins to trouble us. This God who loves us so much sent His Son to die for us. How can this be? How can the world see love and grace in this horrific death? Why couldn’t God do it in a different way? Why couldn’t He let us do it our way so that we wouldn’t have to suffer? Wouldn’t more people believe if we could show them this God of love? They reject a God that allows the snakes to keep biting without seeing that it is in His gracious act that we repent and return to Him. John 3:16 is worthless without the rest of the story. John 3:17 says, “For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him.” We are saved by the blood of Christ, shed for us and for all those who believe, and by His cross we are set free to live in God’s kingdom for eternity. John 3:16 means nothing without the truth that Jesus saves us from ourselves and the sin that will destroy us. He who was without sin was raised so that the world would be saved.
The world looks at the cross and sees it as a horrific torture device and not a symbol of freedom and glory. Yet, as you read the witness of John, you will see that the cross is where Christ was glorified, because it was on the cross that He was perfectly obedient to the will of God. It was there the world was saved, not in the empty tomb. Our salvation rests in the One hanging on the pole, and it is to Him that we are to look for healing and peace.
The focus during the weeks of Lent has been on covenants, but this passage does not seem to hold to the pattern. Where is the promise in the Old Testament lesson? Yes, the people will be healed, but God never took away the snakes. They will still be bitten and people still died. The only way they would ever be saved is by trusting in God. Though there is not a spoken covenant here, there is an incredible promise: you’ll experience His saving grace when you trust in Him.
Nicodemus didn’t get it. We don’t hear his entire story, but let’s put our passage in context. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, but something about Jesus drew him in to have a conversation. He had respect for Jesus, and yet we have to wonder why he came at night. Was he afraid of what others might think of him? Did he want time alone with Jesus? Is the idea that Nicodemus came at night more a statement from John that Nicodemus was stuck in darkness? It is interesting that Nicodemus speaks in the plural, “We know you are from God.” Who is “we”? Is Nicodemus speaking for a group?
Whoever Nicodemus meant when he said “we,” the conversation was very personal and intimate between the two men. Jesus told him that something has to change. He couldn’t rely on his human gifts and experiences to know God. It is only by God’s grace that he could truly have life. Jesus reminded him of the story of the people in the desert: it was only by the grace of God that those people were saved from their snake bites, and it will only be by the grace of God that anyone will be saved from their sinful natures. The new bronze snake would be Jesus Himself, raised on a cross and killed for the sake of the world.
Nicodemus was a teacher, a Pharisee and a member of the ruling council. If anyone knew God’s word it would be a man like Nicodemus. Yet, he understood God only from the perspective of law and tradition, not from grace. He knew only the things of flesh, not the spirit. So, Jesus pointed back to a story Nicodemus would have known very well to show how God would give a sign to His people. Moses’ snake was just a type. The Savior would be lifted, too. Jesus was referring to Himself; He would be lifted on the cross and those who look to Him will have eternal life.
Is the image of the cross any more comforting than that of the snake on a pole? I don’t think so. We wonder why it was even necessary for Jesus to die. Couldn’t God have simply forgiven our sins and let us continue on our journey? No, it would not have been enough. We would have been like those Hebrews eventually. Along our journey we would wonder about whether things were better before we were forgiven. Isn’t it more fun to live according to the ways of the world? Isn’t it more exciting to follow our own desires, to seek the good things in life? Isn’t it better to be in the comfort of Egypt rather than wandering helpless in the wilderness?
God had to do something more than get our attention; He had to finish the work. He had to pay the price. He had to provide His Son who would guarantee eternal life to those who believe. The issue in the desert was not hunger or starvation; it was trust. The issue for us is not living by the law; it is about trusting that God provides true life. Nicodemus didn’t understand how anyone could be born again. He probably didn’t even understand why; he thought everything he needed could be found in good works and right living. He thought he could trust in himself. But just as the Hebrews had to trust in God to be healed from the snake bite, we have to trust in God to be reconciled to Him, even if His method seems out of character.
Thankfully, God gives us something to look at, to remind us of His grace. He could have taken the snakes away, but how long would the Hebrews have continued to trust in Him if He had? He gave them the bronze snake so that they would keep looking to Him. Would we trust in God if He took away sin and made us perfect? Adam and Eve certainly didn’t. How long would we last? How long would we remember God and look to Him? Instead of letting us wander in our own wilderness, in our own selfishness, God gave us something to remind us of His grace: the cross. When we look to Jesus, we know that all God’s promises and covenants are real.
The psalm for today is a call to praise God, given to those who know God’s redemption. The psalm names several groups of people, including those who are wandering in the wilderness, freed prisoners and seafarers who have been saved from a shipwreck. We have to wonder if God really heard the cries of His people in the wilderness. In the wilderness the people were grumbling about the conditions. They were tired. They were sick of the manna. They were thirsty. They were beginning to fear what was ahead. They wondered if the Promised Land would be everything they expected. The wondered what suffering they might experience there. They worried about how many would die along the way. God answered their grumbling with poisonous snakes.
Yet, despite this unexpected answer, God did lead them to the Promised Land. Despite our grumbling, God answers our prayers, too. The answers to our worries are not always as we might expect. We don’t always get healed of our disease nor have our problems solved as we wish. Sometimes the answer is death. What we don’t know is that the answers we want might lead us to turn away from God and from His salvation. He answers so that we will learn to trust Him, give Him control and keep our eyes on Him. The psalmist sings, “Let the redeemed by Yahweh say so, whom he has redeemed from the hand of the adversary.” No matter our circumstances, we’ve been set free to praise God and glorify Him to the world.
Paul begins today’s epistle lesson with a rather strong statement: “You were dead.” They weren’t physically dead; this isn't the first scene from some early version of a zombie movie. As a matter of fact, they were probably living a fairly decent life in Ephesus. They were dead not because their heart stopped beating and their brain stopped working. They were dead in their sin; they did not believe in God.
There is a very real “us versus them” attitude in the words of this epistle. The “you” in verse one is directed toward the Gentiles, those who lived according to the desires of the flesh, following the ruler of this world: the devil. In verse three Paul refers to the Jews who were called to be God’s chosen nation.
Yet, in this passage we see that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile. Paul writes, “...we also all once lived in the lust of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” Jew and Gentile are the same; we are all condemned by our will. We are typical selfish and self-centered human beings and we will naturally reject God for our own sake. This is the very reason why it was necessary for Jesus Christ to die on the cross. The world is full of human beings who are sinners in need of a Savior. It took a serpent to bring salvation to the people in the desert, and it took the cross to bring salvation to you and me. It took a man to bring healing and pain. Who would have thought that it would be the Son of God hanging on a cross?
It is on the cross where we truly see the God of mercy. Could God have removed the serpents from the camp of the Hebrews? Of course He could, but He didn’t. Instead He gave them a way to be healed. Could God forgive without the cross? Why didn’t He find another way to save us from our troubles? I don’t have the answer to that question, for I do not know the mind of God. I do know however, that when I’m in the midst of trouble brought on by the consequences of my own sin, the sins of others, or the grace of God sent as serpents to draw me back into His presence, it is the cross where I can most clearly see God's love. I see my sin and my sinful nature and I see His mercy and His grace. Any freedom I have, or peace, or joy, or hope, or even faith has nothing to do with me. It is a gift from God, given not because I've done anything right, but out of His deep love for me. As a matter of fact, I was dead, and He died so that I might live.
“God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” The eternal life that comes from faith given by God is not just something to look forward to in the future; it is also in the here and now. It is a life that is lived in thanksgiving and praise. There is hope in a world made up of typical human beings who fail to trust God. His name is Jesus.
“Don’t be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, nor turning shadow.” James 1:16-17, ASV
When someone decides that they want to change clothes in our house, to get into something more comfortable after church or something clean after a sweaty or messy activity, they say, “I’m going up to change.” We answer, “Don’t change too much. We like you the way you are.” Of course, we don’t necessarily like the clothes they are wearing, especially if they are dirty and smelly, but we do love them just the way they are.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for all of us to change. We all have aspects of our lives that are less than perfect. We have habits that should be broken, attitudes that could be transformed. We should be constantly growing and maturing and becoming more, striving for the perfection that God intends for His people. Will we make it in this life? No, I’m certain none of us will ever be perfect in this world. We will be sinners in need of a Savior until the day Christ fulfills everything. Until then, we are imperfect saints journeying toward the Promised Land.
Change is a good thing, but it is not the supreme aim. Change for the sake of change is not worthwhile. It doesn’t work. We’ve all heard that when something is “broken” we have to “do something about it.” The first impulse is to change. Change might just be what is necessary, but it isn’t helpful to just make random changes without considering the consequences. It also isn’t helpful to say, “But we have never done it that way.” So, what do we do? We consider the problem, not only from our point of view, but from the point of view of those who think differently. After all, there are always those who have the opposing opinion, for good reasons.
Gabriel the angel took good news to two people in the birth story of Jesus. He told Zechariah that he would be a father, and he told Mary that she would be a mother. Both answered with the same question, “How?” They were facing the same ridiculous news and they both questioned the words of the angel. But Zechariah asked from an attitude of doubt, and Mary asked out of curiosity. They received the news from different points of view: one wanted proof and the other wanted understanding. Some may look at change as good news, but it isn’t always good news for everyone.
We should not assume that when someone says, “We’ve never done it this way” that they are rejecting the idea. Some, like Zechariah, will doubt. But others will ask with the curiosity of Mary, “How will this be?” Instead of immediately brushing off those who question change, let us consider that they may simply wish to understand how the change will happen and how it will make a difference. Why are we doing this? Are we changing for the sake of change? Do we understand the consequences and have we considered all the possibilities first?
Youth ministers and people who work with children in the church will tell you that the most common answer to the questions they ask those they are teaching is “Jesus.” It doesn’t matter what question is asked, someone will say the answer is “Jesus.” So, when we ask “Why,” the answer might just be “Jesus.” We might be tempted to use the same answer when confronted by the doubtful and curious, but He’s not always directly the answer. Take, for example, the question of whether we should change the carpeting in the church. When someone says, “We’ve never done it that way before,” they might just mean “why.” Can we really answer, “Jesus?” Surely Jesus does not care about the color our carpeting. But, we can ask, will this change glorify God? Does this change build the church or does it destroy Christ’s body? Does this encourage Christians or does it make some stumble?
James tells us that God never changes. He loves us now and forever just as we are. But He encourages us to grow in faith and maturity, to strive for the perfection to which He is calling each of His children. We may like things the way they are, but there may be good reason for us to change. Let us remember that change is never the supreme aim of anything we do; glorifying God is our purpose. Change can be good and change can be bad. So, let us not change things for the sake of change, but discover what changes glorify God and help us to grow in faith, working together to do what is right and true.
“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat, to a deserted place apart. When the multitudes heard it, they followed him on foot from the cities. Jesus went out, and he saw a great multitude. He had compassion on them, and healed their sick. When evening had come, his disciples came to him, saying, ‘This place is deserted, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves food.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘They don’t need to go away. You give them something to eat.’ They told him, ‘We only have here five loaves and two fish.’ He said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass; and he took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave to the multitudes. They all ate, and were filled. They took up twelve baskets full of that which remained left over from the broken pieces. Those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.” Matthew 14:13-21, WEB
It has been a very long time, but I remember taking Sunday trips to see my Grandma and Grandpa who lived a few hours from us. They lived on a farm, had an extensive garden and served delicious food. There was always a huge bowl of mashed potatoes, corn, some sort of meat – usually beef – as well as other bits and bites. By the end of the meal we were stuffed and ready for a nap on the couch in front of the TV. There were piles of leftovers.
The same thing happens at my house. I always over plan; I buy enough food to feed an army. In my attempt to ensure everyone will have enough to eat, I prepare large quantities of everything. Eveyone is stuffed in the end and there are always piles of leftovers. We try to eat everything, but after a few days we usually have to discard something. I cringe at the waste, but know can become unhealthy to eat. We don’t worry about the leftovers when we are preparing the meal, we only think about satisfying the needs of our guests. This is gracious generosity. It is an attitude that what matters most is providing the best for those we love. This is what God does for us.
God’s gracious generosity is beyond our comprehension. The meal in today’s text from Matthew’s Gospel seems very simple, but it was extravagant. More than five thousand people ate and were satisfied. It wasn’t a pack of peanuts or even a tuna fish sandwich, which would help with the grumbling tummies but would never satisfy. The disciples handed out fish and bread that filled thousands of bellies until they were satisfied. When it was over, there were twelve basketfuls of bread remaining.
Have you ever wondered what happened to the leftovers? Did they pack it away in plastic containers and make sure everyone had some to take home? Did they take it to the local soup kitchen? The story does not tell us what happened to those twelve baskets full of bread. Jesus could make the miracle, but don’t you think that he could have made it perfectly, without leftovers? Perhaps there is some sort of symbolism to the twelve baskets. In this story we see God’s gracious generosity; we see how God was more concerned with feeding the hungry without worrying about the leftovers.
That’s what He does with His grace. He gives it out in abundance, not concerning Himself with what is left over. Perhaps, just as it is up to us to consider what it means that there were twelve baskets left over, we should also be considering what to do with the grace that runs over in our lives. There is surely someone with whom we can share it.
“According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another builds on it. But let each man be careful how he builds on it. For no one can lay any other foundation than that which has been laid, which is Jesus Christ. But if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or stubble; each man’s work will be revealed. For the Day will declare it, because it is revealed in fire; and the fire itself will test what sort of work each man’s work is. If any man’s work remains which he built on it, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned, he will suffer loss, but he himself will be saved, but as through fire.” 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, WEB
I once visited an historic Anglo-Saxon village when we lived in England. The village was a recreation of a settlement that had existed circa 400-900 AD. Archeologists found the remnants of this village and through trial and error tried to discover what their homes might have looked like. Wattle and daub homes are made from twigs and sticks that are twisted together to form walls, and then covered in mud plaster like substance to provide some protection from the elements. These materials quickly disappear with the ravages of time and weather. All that remained for the archeologists were the foundations of the homes; the stick and mud is long gone. They tested different theories, using the tools that the Saxons would have used, and after several attempts put together one home that used the most successful options from the previous attempts. We can see something of their lives in the tools and jewelry left behind. Those things were made of iron, bronze, silver and gold.
It is interesting to note that even many castles and cathedrals built long after the Saxon era are also crumbling and disappearing from the landscape. The lovely town of Bury St. Edmunds was once the home of a large, prosperous abbey. Today, the ruins are part of a lovely park with gardens, an aviary and a museum. The Abbey was once very prosperous, but hard times fell upon the people. There was civil and religious unrest. Many of the buildings were abandoned, left to fall into ruin over the years. Sometimes the king or local government officials took the buildings apart to reuse the materials. Sometimes the people of the surrounding town stole the rocks to build homes, barns or boundary walls. Eventually all that remained was a foundation and a memory.
Since most English churches were designed in the shape of a cross, aerial photos show a cross drawn on the ground. It is a reminder of what those places once stood for: the love of Christ and as a witness to the Gospel. Unfortunately, the world interfered, sometimes from within as the leaders became greedy and proud and at other times from the persecution that came from outside the walls. It is nice to know, however, that when everything else is gone, what still remains is Jesus.
Your life of faith is built upon our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As a person of faith you will have eternal life in Him. We can believe and never build a single wall of our temple because we have the foundation of Jesus Christ. However, we are given gifts and opportunities to build our life of faith to glorify God now and into eternity. The best building is that which is built with gold and silver tempered by the Holy Spirit, but many temples are being built with nothing more than twisted twigs and sticks covered by mud that will be unrecognizable in time. Others are crumbling from lack of use.
I pray that when I stand before my Lord there will be enough there for Him to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” How I long to hear those words. But I know that whatever happens in that day I will be saved. Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of my life, and to Him I owe everything. But I also know that in faith I’m called to build a life in this world that glorifies God. We are saved to be a blessing to others, that they too might experience God’s grace and be saved.
Even if everything you have ever done disappears from existence like the Saxon homes or the ancient ruins of England, with Jesus as your Savior you will have eternal life. The question our scripture passage asks today is whether or not your temple is being built and maintained according to His good and perfect will. Are you living according to the Word of God as found in the Scriptures? Are you living a life of active faith? Or are you throwing up walls made of the destructible thoughts of this world? Your salvation is not dependent on the temple you build, but your life is the only thing you have to offer the Lord. What will He see after the fire of the Holy Spirit burns away the perishable things? Will He say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant?”
“The next day, he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who is preferred before me, for he was before me.” I didn’t know him, but for this reason I came baptizing in water: that he would be revealed to Israel.’ John testified, saying, ‘I have seen the Spirit descending like a dove out of heaven, and it remained on him. I didn’t recognize him, but he who sent me to baptize in water, he said to me, “On whomever you will see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.” I have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.’” John 1:29-34, WEB
The story is told of a military man who was stationed overseas during a war. In those days, there were often people who wrote to the soldiers in the field to give then courage, love and friendship. This man received regular letters from a woman in the states whom he had never met. He wrote back as often as possible and they fell in love.
When the time came for him to return home, they arranged to meet. The soldier went to the rendezvous point and looked around for a woman wearing a flower on her dress. He noticed a beautiful young woman on the street, and was disappointed when she did not have the expected flower. She winked at him, and he was tempted to go with her. Just then, an older, rather plain looking woman approached him wearing a flower. He knew this must be his beloved. He was a bit disappointed, for he’d expected her to be a beautiful woman. He loved her, however, so he approached her with a small token of his esteem.
The woman, with tears in her eyes, told him that she was not the pen pal and that he should give the gift to the beautiful young woman that had just crossed his path. She was truly his pen pal, but she needed to be sure he loved her for herself, not just her beauty. His love for the woman in the letters was so great that physical image did not matter to him.
When Jesus came to earth, He did not wear a banner telling the world His identity. He came as the son of a simple carpenter, born in a stable, grew up under the care of Mary, his mother, and spent most of his life living that simple life in an unassuming and unexpected village. Even during His ministry, He spoke in a manner that only those who heard with spiritual ears would believe His words.
It was the Holy Spirit that gave John the recognition of Jesus Christ. The same is true for us today. God does not approach us with a banner saying, “Hey, I’m God, believe in me.” Jesus did amazing things during His time on earth, but He did those things to prove that He was who He said He was. He also told His disciples that those who would believe based on His Word would be more blessed because they would have faith without proof. He wants us to love Him for Himself. What did you expect when you first met the Lord? Were you disappointed because He did not fit your expectations?
We love Jesus Christ because of the testimony found in the scriptures. The Bible is His love letter to us, given over the ages so that we can get to know Him. Through His Word we see Him as He is, experience His love for us and receive His grace. By His Word we are saved; by His grace we have the faith to love Him even if He does not fit our expectations.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 18, 2018, Fifth Sunday of Lent: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:[32-34] 35-45
“I will delight myself in your statutes. I will not forget your word.” Psalm 119:16, WEB
Who is Melchizedek? We have so little information about this man, but his name is found several places in the scriptures. In Genesis 14, Lot, Abram’s nephew, was captured by a group of kings battling against another group of kings who was apparently stuck in the middle. Abram heard about what happened and with just 318 trained men pursued the captors. Abram won, freed Lot and returned home. On his return, Melchizedek, the king of Salem brought Abram a meal of bread and wine and blessed Abram. Abram returned the blessing with a tenth of everything.
Melchizedek was not only the king, but also a priest of God Most High. Psalm 110:4 says that he was “a priest forever.” Abram recognized the blessing as having come from God, and gave the tithe to Melchizedek in recognition of his kingship and priesthood. A tenth is the share a king would receive from the bounty taken in war. A tenth is the tithe given to God in thanksgiving and praise. Melchizedek offers for us the archetype of the king-priest that we see in Jesus Christ. Melchizedek is often viewed as one to whom God has given an authority that reaches beyond the boundaries of the Law, both religious and secular. There are organizations that claim to train people in the order of Melchizedek, with secret priesthoods that hold to the cosmic laws and their own inner vision and sacred purpose. Those that take on the role of Melchizedek in their ministries claim a kingdom beyond earthly limitations. Since we do not have very much information on Melchizedek, it is easy for people to take the scriptures and interpret it to their own benefit.
I saw that a lot when I was doing online ministry. I spent time in Christian chat rooms and loved the discussions on faith and theology. It seems like there are a million different ways to understand the Bible and I think I ran across every one of them during my wanderings. Some of our differences were minor and often based on our own unique perspectives. We each look at the text from our own point of view, understand it from our own experience and see it as we need to see it in our current circumstances. Sometimes, however, I ran across people who saw God’s Word in a way that could be considered heretical. All too many believed they have “special knowledge” of the scriptures and claim that if others do not understand then they have not been blessed by God. They never try to explain, but instead insist that the listener “Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal it to you.” They believed they were superior and simply dismissed others that refused to believe what they said.
Jesus Christ is not like those who claim of their own volition that they are specially called and gifted. They are nothing more than earthly men and women who are using a mystery of scripture for their own benefit. Jesus does not claim to be a priest; He is a priest called by God. The writer of Hebrews says of Jesus, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” In God’s words spoken, “You are my Son. Today I have become your father,” the Son is called into the priesthood to serve God. As the Son, He is the King. Thus, Jesus Christ is the true King-Priest, which Melchizedek was only the archetype. He humbled Himself and served those to whom He was sent.
Throughout Lent we have been looking at the covenants of the Old Testament. We saw the covenant with Noah, Abram and Moses. Those covenants were made between God and His chosen people. They were defined by God’s will and established with a sign. They were promises of God’s love, protection, provision and mercy. They were made to the people as a group, as a nation. As such, the sins of the nation fell on the heads of all the people. The covenants were mediated by the king and the priests. They were themselves imperfect persons, so it was necessary for the priests to present a sacrifice for themselves before they could offer the sacrifice for all people.
This new covenant promised in Jeremiah is different because it is a covenant between God and each individual. The New Covenant promised that we would no longer need a mediator. God promised to write the Law on the hearts of all people; He would no longer dwell in the Temple but in the hearts of men and women of faith. “Know Yahweh; for they shall all know me, from their least to their greatest, says Yahweh: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.” The sins of the father no longer falls on the head of the son; each person is responsible for his or her own failing.This makes the relationship between God and His people more personal, more intimate, more cherished.
What an incredible promise! This promise was fulfilled in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in His death at the cross. His resurrection and ascension gave us the hope of eternal life. He forgave our sins and promised that we would live in His light and life by His Power. He gave us that power at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon all flesh. Now God dwells within the hearts of His people, those who believe in Him, molding and reforming us each day. We know Him because He has written Himself into our hearts and our minds with His Word.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus Christ the one and only Son was obedient, giving up the glory of heaven to become flesh to live, serve and die for the sake of the world. “Having been made perfect, he became to all of those who obey him the author of eternal salvation...” Our obedience to God’s Word is our response to that which He did for us. The source of our salvation calls us to a life of humble service; following in His footsteps, perhaps even to our own death.
We don’t choose our calling. We simply choose whether or not we will be obedient to the will and purpose of God. In doing so, we receive all that He has promised.
I get why some of these people easily follow organizations that make great claims. We all want to be important. We are blessed throughout our lives with opportunities for positions of authority whether in the church or the world. We are sometimes given the responsibilities of leadership. As such, God expects us to manifest our relationship with Christ in the way we take upon those responsibilities. We aren’t called to these positions to rule over people; we are called to serve. Jesus Christ was the Servant King, doing more for God’s people than He ever asked of His disciples. He even went to the cross die. Now those of us with faith, forgiven by His blood, walk in His light and do His work with joy. We should never allow our position in God’s Kingdom make us think we are more important than another. We are called to be servants, knowing that Christ did it first for us.
James and John were important to Jesus and they were witnesses to the miraculous and incredible things He did. They immediately left their father Zebedee to follow Him. They were part of Jesus’ inner circle along with Peter; they were witnesses to the Transfiguration. They are often known as the Sons of Thunder because they asked Jesus if they should call down hellfire on a Samaritan town that rejected Him as they were going to Jerusalem. They were zealous and loyal. They believed and lived their faith passionately. They also thought they were important enough to have Jesus give them special consideration when He entered into His Kingdom. They wanted to sit at His right hand and left hand. They wanted to be on the dais with the King, sitting beside His throne.
Jesus had authority over heaven and earth but He could not fulfill their wish to have such seats of honor. The reality, which they did not yet understand, is that the seats they desired would never exist. They thought Jesus would be an earthly king like David, who would rule over Jerusalem and Israel to save the people from the oppression of the Romans. The irony here is that Jesus just finished telling the disciples that the Son of Man, Himself, had to suffer at the hands of the world and be condemned to death. He told them that He would be mocked, spit upon, flogged and killed in Jerusalem. Jesus would never sit on the type of throne they expected and desired. His throne would be a cross, and those on His right and left would be common criminals facing the same punishment for their sins. They had no idea that His cup and baptism would offer only suffering and pain. They were willing to follow Jesus anywhere, but they did not expect that it would mean following Him to a cross. They told Him they were able to follow Him. Jesus said, “You will.”
This came true for James. Just fourteen years after the Jesus’ death, James was beheaded in a lame attempt to halt Christianity. He was the first Apostle to be martyred, the only one of the eleven whose death was recorded in the scriptures. He indeed did drink the same cup and suffer the same baptism as Jesus. James boldly asked Jesus for the wrong thing, but he continued to live out his life of faith and then he died for the sake of the Gospel. We may make the same mistakes, thinking our position or our experiences merit us greater attention or honor. Jesus teaches us a different way.
Jesus called the twelve together and said, “Jesus summoned them, and said to them, “You know that they who are recognized as rulers over the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you, but whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant. Whoever of you wants to become first among you, shall be bondservant of all.”
Jesus was not self-appointed. He was called by God, called the Son of God with God’s own voice. He was not following His own will but the will of the Father. Because of His obedience, God made Him Priest and King over this New Covenant. He did not choose these roles; God fulfilled His promises in Jesus. These were not earthbound titles given for a brief period of time; He is Priest and King forever.
The journey we’ve traveled during this Lenten period has helped us see, and accept, that we have truly sinned against God. We have done what we should not do and failed to do what we should do in thought, word and deed. While our sins are against our neighbors, the root of our problem is that sin keeps us separated from God. Our failures make us unable to pay the debts we owe one another and our God. But God promised to take care of it all and He fulfilled that promise with Jesus on the cross. We do not need a priest or a king to intervene on our behalf because we have Jesus. God forgives our iniquity and forgets our sin because He was obedient.
We are still going to sin. It’s a fact of life that our flesh is weak and susceptible to temptation. Every day we will fail to do what is right. These sins are rarely anything major; we seem to be good and upright to the world. But sin is sin, and the effect of sin reaches far beyond our own lives. Though the work is complete, we still have reason to pray for God’s grace and forgiveness. We need Him to change us. He teaches and guides us through His Word; His Word is found throughout the scriptures.
Psalm 119 is the longest of the psalms; it is an uncomfortable psalm for many of us, first of all because it is twenty-two stanzas of eight verses each that seem to say the same thing over and over and over again. How many times can someone say “I love your law,” especially those of us who understand God's grace? However, the psalmist is not repeating the same words over and over again. Each word has a unique and different meaning, though it is hard to see in the English translations. There is repetition, but not as you might think. Each stanza gives us a fuller understanding of what it means to be obedient to God. With words like statutes and commandments, it might seem like it is simply about obeying rules, but the reality is that it is a far more, all encompassing trust and obedience to God and His Word.
Let’s look at Psalm 119:9-16 a little more closely, seeing the words more clearly to understand how it helps us be more obedient to God as we come to the end of our Lenten journey.
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word.” The word translated “word” in this passage is a Hebrew word that means “spoken word.” In other words, the speaker understands that following God means hearing and obeying that which has been spoken about Him.
“With my whole heart, I have sought you. Don’t let me wander from your commandments.” The word translated “commandments” is best translated “all God’s law.” This refers to everything God has commanded, not just a specific set of rules. This is about more than being a perfect law-abider; it is about being all God has created and redeemed us to be.
“I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. This word is the best verse in this stanza, it is where we find God’s grace. “Word” in this verse should be translated “promise.” We can’t be perfectly obedient to anything on our own strength or power, but God has promised to guide us and lead us in the right way. He has also promised that He will not abandon us when we fail.
“Blessed are you, Yahweh. Teach me your statutes.” This word translated “statutes” refers to the boundaries. It is often used in reference to the ritualistic law, but God lays out all sorts of boundaries for us in His Word. Those boundaries are given to keep us safe, to set us on the right path, to keep us close to Him. We all need boundaries and we ask God to teach us the limitations of our humanness.
“With my lips, I have declared all the ordinances of your mouth.” This word, “ordinances,” refers to justice. True justice, biblical justice, is that which adheres to what God intends for His people. As much as we do not like to consider it, God has returned a verdict: we are sinners in need of a Savior. That’s what Lent has been all about - discovering the truth of our failure to live up to being the people whom God intends us to be.
“I have rejoiced in the way of your testimonies, as much as in all riches.” The word “testimonies” refers to the work of God in the world, the witness of all the good God has done. When we are troubled by our sinfulness, we can look back to the story of God and His people and see that He is faithful to His promises. He will save us because He has promised.
“I will meditate on your precepts, and consider your ways.” Here the psalmist makes a commitment to be obedient to God’s authoritative rule. The “precepts” are official orders properly appointed by God. He is the authority over our lives and His Word is the one to give our full attention.
“I will delight myself in your statutes. I will not forget your word.” Here we return to the words used in verses 9 and 12. Obedience to God’s boundaries and spoken word is not a burden; it is a joy and a delight to follow God, no matter where He leads and no matter what He calls us to do. And sometimes He calls us to do very hard things. But when He does, we can trust that He has given us all we need. His Word is enough to keep us on the right path and take us where He wants us to go.
We do a lot of things wrong. That’s our human nature: we are sinners and we fail to live up to God’s expectations. When we do, we can trust in God’s faithfulness to keep the New Covenant. Our Lenten journey has led us toward repentance, turning to Jesus for His forgiveness. He has led us to the point that we can delight in His statues and never forget His Word. In His great mercy and love, Jesus has provided for our reconciliation with God the Father, which then makes it possible for us to reconcile with our neighbors and all creation. He forgives us, forgets our sin and dwells in us, guiding our resurrection journey along the path He has ordained for each of us.
“For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remains no more a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and a fierceness of fire which will devour the adversaries. A man who disregards Moses’ law dies without compassion on the word of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think he will be judged worthy of who has trodden under foot the Son of God, and has counted the blood of the covenant with which he was sanctified an unholy thing, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance belongs to me,’ says the Lord, ‘I will repay.’ Again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Hebrews 10:26-31, WEB
I don’t always know where I’m going when I sit down to write the devotion. I come up with ideas a million different ways. I often come to the keyboard with an idea from a television show I’ve watched or an article I’ve read. Sometimes I’ve had an experience that has an impact on my faith. After twelve and a half years, I have to admit that the ideas are hard to find some days. How many times can I talk about my favorite moments from “The Big Bang Theory?” Even harder is finding a theme that goes with a scripture, or finding a scripture that goes with a theme.
One of the more dangerous practices to find my topic is to just open the bible to the index and start reading some of the words. One day I came across the word “apostasy” and then went to the scripture passage listed. I found the one above. It is a hard one, interpreted many different ways by many different experts. Who is the writer of Hebrews addressing? Who are the apostates? What is this judgment? Can we, who have had faith, become an enemy of God again?
I had an online friend. I have not spoken with this friend in a very long time, so I do not know what has happened over the past few years. This friend had been a passionate, active Christian. He was devote and zealous. Over the years, however, he discovered discrepancies between what he believed and what he was finding in his study and experience of Christianity. He noticed contradictions that bothered him. “How could it be this way and that way?” he asked, and solid, intelligent answers did not suffice. He lost his faith and rejected Christ. He rejected Christianity and all religion. Some days he thought he might be agnostic, willing to admit that there could be something but he just didn’t know what it was. Some days, which came more and more frequently at the end of our discussions, he rejected everything to do with faith, even the people who cared for him.
I don’t know what happened, or will happen, to my friend. Today’s passage may not offer much hope. But if it says anything, it does say that it is up to God, and I have to believe that He is always faithful. We can reject what Christ has done. We can reject Christ. But God can do the impossible, and though there is a reality of hell for those who reject God, there is also hope that God can overcome even our unfaithfulness. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, but there is always hope.
So why would I be faced with such a difficult text during this Lenten period? Perhaps it is calling us to think about those who were once among the faithful but have fallen way. Perhaps there is a glimmer of faith, but the doubts and questions are too much to bear. Perhaps they are lost in the cares or temptations of the world. We may think they are apostate because they do not live the same sort of faith as us, but it is not for us to judge. Even if they have, like my friend, rejected Christ so completely that they are unwilling to even have Christians in their lives, it is up to God to change their life and faith. It is not up to us to call them apostate, but it is our calling to pray and seek God’s hand in their life. Condemned or not, it is our responsibility to love them. God will do what God will do. Our job is to believe and trust, living in hope for what can be through God’s mercy and grace.
“This is the message which we have heard from him and announce to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie, and don’t tell the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we haven’t sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 1 John 1:5-10, WEB
I have to admit that I did not give up much for Lent this year. I haven’t been playing some of my video games. I have added several devotionals to my daily readings, giving up some of my time to spend in God’s Word. And I have been doing meat-free Friday. You might think that this last one isn’t a big deal; after all shouldn’t we all be able to eat humbly just one day a week? As it turns out, Friday is the day I usually try to go out and do something fun. I thought about inviting a friend to lunch this week. Then, just as I sat to send the invitation, I remembered that today is Friday. I have promised not to eat what I want to eat at the restaurant I want to visit. I will have to wait.
God would forgive me. As a matter of fact, I didn’t keep my promise last week. A friend and I got together on Friday for a trip to the art museum and then went out for lunch. Friday is the only day we can get together and we hadn’t done it in a long time because of her schedule. I felt it was more important to enjoy the fellowship with my friend. I could probably make the same reasoning this week, but I knew I should remain faithful; I can go to lunch another day next week or wait until after Easter.
I failed to live up to my promise. I’m sure many of you have done the same. Did you eat a piece of chocolate or get a cup of coffee? Did you open that game app or miss a day or two of reading? We are more than halfway through Lent. As a matter of fact, we have just over two weeks. If you failed at keeping your fast once, did you give up? Did you decide that because you couldn’t do it, you shouldn’t even bother to continue trying?
That’s the thing about sin. We know we do what we should not do. We fail daily to live up to the expectations of God. Sometimes we think, “Well, I’ve failed anyway, it doesn’t matter anymore.” Even worse, we accept God’s forgiveness and keep on doing what we know fails to honor God. Just because we fail once does not mean that we should go on sinning. There was nothing wrong with me having lunch with my friend; it was a good thing. What was wrong was that I did not live up to my promise.
We are going to sin; it is part of our nature since the beginning of time. During Lent, I’m sure many of you made promises to fast. We will try to live up to our promises, but we fail. We will try to live more Christ-like lives, but we fall. What we need to remember is that Christ died that we might be forgiven so that we can go on to another day of trying to be better. Whatever we do wrong, we can start each new day with a clean slate when we offer our confession and receive His grace. Our troubles lie in the fact that we too often refuse to believe that we have done anything wrong. Confessing our faith also means confessing our sin, that we might receive that which Christ has done and live according to His good and perfect Word.
“Let each man give according as he has determined in his heart; not grudgingly, or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, that you, always having all sufficiency in everything, may abound to every good work. As it is written, ‘He has scattered abroad, he has given to the poor. His righteousness remains forever.’ Now may he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food, supply and multiply your seed for sowing, and increase the fruits of your righteousness; you being enriched in everything to all liberality, which produces through us thanksgiving to God. For this service of giving that you perform not only makes up for lack among the saints, but abounds also through many givings of thanks to God; seeing that through the proof given by this service, they glorify God for the obedience of your confession to the Good News of Christ, and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all; while they themselves also, with supplication on your behalf, yearn for you by reason of the exceeding grace of God in you. Now thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!” 2 Corinthians 9:7-15, WEB
I mentored a little girl in third grade at one of the schools in Little Rock. One day after spending some time alone together, we joined her classmates for lunch. They all gathered around, seeking the kind of attention my friend gets every time I visit. The children asked me about my family and were surprised that I had been married to the same man for over 14 years. Most of these children came from broken homes, homes with missing or even abusive fathers. There are few that know what it is like to have a loving father, one who takes care of his family.
Today is the day we commemorate the life of Joseph, the earthly father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though we hear little about him in the Gospels and nothing during Jesus’ adult life, there is enough information to know that he was a faithful guardian. He took Mary as his wife after she was found pregnant was a sacrifice. He was most likely ridiculed for this decision, losing any respect he may have had by taking a fallen woman as a wife. He cared for the spiritual development of the child by presenting Jesus at the temple according to the law. He gave up any established business contacts he might have had by running off to Egypt for a few years to protect this child. He journeyed to Jerusalem for festivals as any righteous Jew would do. From what we see, Joseph made a good father.
There is a Sicilian tradition that remembers Joseph in the midst of the season of Lent. They combined the disciplines of fasting, almsgiving and prayer by inviting the poor to a dinner called “St. Joseph’s Table.” The tradition began during the Middle Ages when there was severe drought in Italy. The prayers raised for rain were accompanied by promises to honor God and St. Joseph with a feast. The prayers were answered, rain fell and the famine was over. So, the people held a great feast in gratitude to God for His blessings in the town square and the poor were invited to come eat their fill of the food offered. Today, the feast is still celebrated as an act of thanksgiving for prayers answered.
I began mentoring because I have been greatly blessed by a wonderful family, and I wanted to share that with a child who may not have it. As it turns out, I’ve adopted a whole class full of children to love. God blesses us for a reason, so that we might be a blessing to others. I don’t think it is a good idea to go around promising God that we will throw a feast if He will answer our prayers. It is like the person who promises God to donate a portion of a lottery if only He would make their ticket a winner. That’s not the way God works. He needs nothing from us, not even our promises. He answers prayers according to His good and perfect will. However, though “St. Joseph’s Table” began that way, God honors those feasts thrown by those of a right heart, those who generously give of the harvest in thanksgiving to God.
God chose Joseph to be the earthly guardian of our Lord Jesus Christ. He blesses us to be a blessing, gives so that we might give, and loves us so that we will love one another. Joseph responded to God’s love by caring for that little baby in every way. During this season of Lent, let us remember God’s love for us and let us share that love with others.
“In that hour the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who then is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?’ Jesus called a little child to himself, and set him in the middle of them, and said, ‘Most certainly I tell you, unless you turn, and become as little children, you will in no way enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever therefore humbles himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.’” Matthew 18:1-4, WEB
I have a bookshelf filled with children’s books. Some of those books were mine when I was a child. Then I bought many books for my children. I haven’t stopped buying children’s books even though my kids are grown and they do not yet have children of their own. I found an adorable book in the Easter department at a store that I purchased just last week. It doesn’t matter that I can’t share it with children right now; I will some day. For today, I still pull books from that shelf to read. You’ve probably seen at least a few devotions based on some of those books. There’s something special about the way writers of those books can tell stories that entertain children but also speak to the hearts of adults.
I read an article from a writer who has rediscovered the joy of reading children’s books. Bruce Handy writes, “One of the unexpected joys of parenthood, for me, was reencountering books that I had loved and that, much to my relief, I found I still loved. Reading bedtime stories to my kids was – not always, but often – like revisiting a favorite old neighborhood after many years and finding not only that it hadn’t been chain stored into submission or paved over altogether but that it was far more interesting and complex than I knew.” He wished some of the great characters were remembered the way we do the characters in classic literature. He warned that it isn’t always a wonderful experience, but encouraged his readers to revisit those great stories and listen to the lessons they still have to offer us as adults.
Bruce also talked about the disappointing day when his kids began reading for themselves. It is our goal as parents to give our children everything they need to become independent adults, including the love of reading. Yet, we hate to let go of them, to watch them lose their innocence. As they grow older, they lose touch with the joys of childhood.
It is good for us to read books written for adults as we get older, but let us never forget the joy of those simple stories that we loved as children. It might seem odd that Jesus would tell the disciples that they should be like little children. We pray, study and worship so that we might mature into a deeper and fuller faith, but Jesus calls us to be open to His Word, to receive it like a child. He encourages us to receive it with innocence and faith. All too often our search for God is not about the relationship but rather to have knowledge and a better understanding of God. We will never fully understand, but if we become like little children and receive Him with joy, we’ll grow ever closer and will see more clearly God’s love and mercy and grace.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 25, 2018, Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion: Processional John 12:12-19/Passion Zechariah 9:9-12; Psalm 118:19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47
“And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross.” Philippians 2:8, WEB
The Gospel lesson from Mark for the Sunday of the Passion is lengthy. It covers two complete chapters and we see the story go from the threat of the plot to kill Jesus to the fulfillment of that threat. We hear the entire of the Passion from Mark’s point of view. Beginning at the first verse we see that the plot thickens as the chief priests and scribes try to find a way to kill Jesus. They needed to be sneaky, however, because they knew that the crowds would be upset by the arrest. They said, “Not during the feast, because there might be a riot of the people.”
Hindsight is twenty-twenty vision, so we know the whole story. We know what happens at the end. We know that even as Jesus died on the cross, He lives and in Him we have life. However, sometimes it is good for us to walk the journey completely, waiting and watching as if we are ignorant of the future. Sometimes it is good to put ourselves in the shoes of those who lived it. They didn’t know what would happen on Easter. They didn’t even know at this point in the story what would happen on Good Friday.
Whispers of real danger were beginning to run through the people who were witnessing the actions of Jesus. He had done amazing things, including the impossible raising of Lazarus. The leaders were nervous because the people were crying out for a savior. They wanted a king that would save them from the Romans and make the nation great again. This kind of talk threatened the lives and lifestyles of those in control. It was not just selfishness and greed that made them hostile to Jesus; they knew a revolution would be dangerous to the people.
They may have been afraid that they would lose their own power and authority, but they also perceived the danger Jesus posed to the nation of Israel and he wanted the council to consider everything. What they didn’t consider is that the path they were taking was exactly according to God’s plan. They thought that killing Jesus would end the danger. Killing Jesus would do something more extraordinary.
Jesus didn’t help the situation. Instead of quietly slipping into Jerusalem for the Passover feast, Jesus came in a very public and extraordinary way. He fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament by arriving as a triumphant King, filling the people with such hope. But He wasn’t the kind of king that they expected. He is the King willing to spill His own blood to set us free from the real oppressor: sin and death. This is reason for us to rejoice. Unfortunately, those who were there on the first Palm Sunday did not really understand the meaning of this promise. They rejoiced as Jesus went into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, righteous and humble, because they thought that Jesus would deliver them from the Romans. The cheered as He entered the city, threw down palms and their cloaks along His path. Even His disciples did not understand until after the Resurrection.
He could have done everything they wanted. He could have called down legions of angels to defeat the Romans. He could have pushed Herod off the throne; He could have even defeated Tiberius and toppled the entire Roman Empire. But that was not His purpose. He humbled Himself even unto death, giving up the glory of heaven for the torture of the cross to serve you and me. We did not deserve His love and grace; we will never deserve His love and grace. He did not do it to reward us for our goodness. He did it because our Father the Creator made us good and though we were the ones who were unfaithful, He desired restoration. God sent Jesus so that we could be saved from ourselves, forgiven for our sins and set free from sin and death to live in His Kingdom forever.
The leaders were worried on that first Palm Sunday because it seemed as though the world was willing to follow Jesus. The people cried out in celebration as He entered the city, praising God for finally sending the Messiah. The jubilation did not last very long, however, which we see in the story of Jesus’ Passion. They were easily turned by rumors and lies. They were shocked by the words and actions of Jesus who did not act like one who was determined to take the throne. He acted like One who set His feet on a path that led nowhere except death. Wisdom incarnate was foolish in their minds and they looked for another who would do what they wanted and expected the Messiah to do.
My mom always said, “If you don’t give me flowers when I am alive, don’t bother to send any to my funeral.” She insisted that she’d rather enjoy the flowers while she is alive. “I can’t enjoy them after I’m dead!” She had plenty of flowers at her funeral, given by friends and loved ones, yet her request always made me wonder why we do so. Others must do so, also, because there are often requests for donations to be made to favorite charities in lieu of flowers.
There are several reasons why flowers are sent to funerals. First of all, in days long gone, the flowers helped to mask the smell of the decomposing body. Most bodies are now embalmed, so it isn’t as important, but we continue the practice because flowers also are a visual expression of love, sympathy, and respect. They are means of lending support and sharing the burden of grief. Some people have begun sending flowers or plants to the family rather than the funeral home so that they can be enjoyed.
Another reason for sending flowers is the image it conveys. One of the most beloved hymns for use in funerals is “In the Garden.” The flowers give a visual and olfactory impression of being there in the Garden, walking with the Lord as we wish our loved one a final farewell. An article I read said, “Flowers create a background of warmth and beauty which adds to the dignity and consolation of the funeral service. Those who have attended services where there were no flowers have expressed the feelings that something was missing... that the funeral was depressing.” Funerals are a time of sadness, but for those who are Christian it is also a time of joy. Flowers add to the celebration of life and remind us in the midst of our grief of the promise of new life.
We get the same impression on Easter Sunday morning when our sanctuaries are filled with pots of lilies. Our visual and olfactory senses are heightened and we experience the joy of new life that is promised in the empty tomb. The scent also brings to mind a story found in today’s Gospel reading.
The chapter continues with a gathering of Jesus’ disciples and a gracious act by one of the women. She had pure nard which she poured over his head. Anointing a body at death was a loving, intimate and respectful ritual. As soon as a person was dead, they closed the eyes, gave their loved one a kiss and washed the body. They often used perfume like nard, myrrh or aloe. The woman chose to do this before He was dead and Jesus honored her sacrifice. I suppose, like my mom, He preferred to experience the love when He was alive rather than later when He would not experience it at all.
Some of the disciples were upset by the waste, but Jesus used the experience as another opportunity to talk about His death. Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want to, you can do them good; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could. She has anointed my body beforehand for the burying. Most certainly I tell you, wherever this Good News may be preached throughout the whole world, that which this woman has done will also be spoken of for a memorial of her.”
It was difficult for Jesus to accept the acclamation of the crowds on that first Palm Sunday. He knew what they didn't know. He knew that His purpose was not as they expected. He knew that within days those screaming fans would be persecuting Him. We are different because we understand that they are celebrating for all the wrong reasons. They think they’ve found a king; we know that we’ve been sent the King. They think that they’ve found a savior; we know that He gave up everything to be our Savior. They thought that they found someone who would honor their wishes; we know that He obeyed only God. We see the parade through the eyes of the Resurrection. We also know the only way to get there is through the cross.
There are so many important and intimate moments in the two chapters of the Passion story in Mark that it is hard to mention them all in this devotion. We see Jesus sharing the Passover with His disciples, Judas betraying Jesus, Jesus’ prayers, His arrest, Peter’s denial. We see Jesus delivered to the authorities and tried, mocked, crucified and buried. It is a heartbreaking story, perhaps even more so after the six weeks of Lent. We have been reminded that we are sinners and that this Passion was not just for our sake. It was our fault. Jesus might have been put to death by the hands of the Jewish and Roman leaders, but we are just as guilty as they. He died because we are sinners.
I try to imagine how Jesus felt during those final days. He may have received their praise and worship on Palm Sunday, but He knew it would not last. Beneath the confident façade was a man who knew that His true purpose was just days away. I don't think we can even imagine the pain He was experiencing deep in His heart. He loved every one of those people who were crying out and throwing palms. He loved every one even though He knew that they would all abandon Him in just a few days. He loved them so much, and us too, that He carried each of our burdens with Him to the cross.
Things were quite chaotic in Jesus’ day. The Jews thought they understood what God expected and how they should live. They had interpreted and reinterpreted the Law to the point that it was so burdensome that most people could not live according to it, but they used that unrighteousness as an excuse for the oppression of the Jews. They thought that surely if the people had been living up to God’s Law, then they would not be living under the rule of a foreign power. If the people repented, God would send a Messiah to defeat the Romans and restore Israel. They were looking for a powerful, military solution to their problem. Many came forward as false Messiahs, promising peace through war.
However, they missed the prophecy that described the Messiah as a suffering servant, as a humble and peacekeeping king. They expected battles, so when Christ came in peace bringing grace, forgiveness and healing, they did not recognize Him. They wanted a king to ride in on chariots with an army.
Jesus did not come into the world ranting and raving about sin. He did not come with swords and chariots to drive the unrighteous out of Jerusalem to make room for a new king. He did not even come to make changes to the earthbound control of His people. He came to show them the kingdom of God. He did this by quietly calling people into His presence, by speaking stories about faith and by touching the lives of those who crossed His path. He did not force people to follow, but rather drew them into His heart and called them to follow.
Is the world peaceful? No, there is war in many countries. There is even war and chaos to be found in our homes, neighborhoods and cities. We are human and we react in human ways against the difficulties caused by the human condition. However, there is a peace in this world that is not seen in the news headlines. It is seen in the hearts of men who believe in Jesus Christ. It is a peace that comes from the hope we have in Christ through His blood. The prophecy in Zechariah was fulfilled on Palm Sunday. After this fulfillment, Jesus suffered the greatest violence man can do against man. He was crucified despite His innocence. But in His death and resurrection, we find true peace. It is a lasting peace because it takes us into eternal life. We may never see even a day without some war in our world, but we can rest assured that the peace of Christ which passes all human understanding will last forever.
Paul tells us, “Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus...” We are to have the same humility in our own lives, taking on the nature of a servant. We cannot follow Jesus to the cross, but we can humble ourselves and become obedient to God’s Will for each of us. The answers to our prayers might include humiliation, persecution and suffering. It might even include death, but we willingly accept all these circumstances because Jesus did it first for our sake. Now we can see Him exalted, as was written in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. “Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
As we look at the time between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we realize that far more happened than a quick change of heart. Jesus spent those days attacking the status quo. He went into the temple and taught. He overturned the tables of the money changers. He spoke in parables that painted the leaders in a less than positive light. He turned their world upside down, not just the leaders, but also the people. He assaulted everything they knew and they did not know how to handle it.
Most especially, He rejected the expectation they had of Him. On Palm Sunday, they welcomed a king, the king whom they thought was going to save them from the Romans. They were ready to make Him king of Israel so that He would lead them to freedom. They did not understand the kind of freedom Jesus came to give.
The psalmist writes, “Open to me the gates of righteousness. I will enter into them. I will give thanks to Yah. This is the gate of Yahweh; the righteous will enter into it.” Who are the righteous? In the days of Jesus, the righteous were the ones who had the power, who had the appearance of righteousness. They knew the scriptures and they knew Law. Yet they did not know God. They did not recognize Him in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. They rejected Jesus; they cast Him away to the cross.
We are Easter people, given life because He was raised, but the Passion is too important to ignore. If we truly listen to the story, we see the incredible suffering and degradation that Jesus underwent for our sake. This will cut us to the heart, bring us to our knees and cause us to cry out for mercy and forgiveness. After all, we are as guilty as those who rejected Him two thousand years ago. We were there, not in flesh, but in the same nature of those who actually witnessed the events. We need to experience it, too, to truly understand our sinfulness and receive the grace of God’s answers to our prayers. He will deliver us from the hand of our enemies. He just might not do it the way we want Him to.
During the reading of the Passion story we look back on the events of that horrific week. We might think that the Jesus suffered most when He experienced the physical pain of the cross and death. But the greatest suffering came at that moment when the weight of the world’s sin was on His shoulders which made it impossible for God to look upon His beloved Son. Jesus cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At that moment we see His humanness. He may have suffered the pain of all His wounds for hours, but it was that one moment when He was truly alone. That was when He suffered the most.
Jesus continued in the will of the Father, even though it seemed uncharacteristic, unmerciful, unloving. He did not save Himself even though the crowd shouted that He should. Instead, He gave a loud cry and died. He suffered the ultimate abandonment in the moment when He needed God the most, and He did it willingly. He was not willing to follow the cries of the crowd; they were fickle, following every wind. They did not know what they were doing. He had to die for God’s promises to be complete. His amazing grace was realized through the most incredible act of sacrifice: the beloved Son, the Priest-King, offered Himself as the Lamb of God for the forgiveness of all sin for all men in all time. Everything Jesus went through was nothing compared to the promise of God’s unfailing love for His people. Jesus humbly accepted the Will of God and obediently suffered for our sake.
We are about to enter into Holy Week having reached the end of our Lenten journey. The Passion story reminds us that Jesus was both divine and human. He was the Son of God, but He was also the Son of Man. He enjoyed being loved by those He loved. He knew what He had to do for the sake of the world, but He loved His disciples so much that He didn’t want to abandon them just as they needed Him most. We would rather ignore the reality of the Passion. He was humiliated by the people He loved, even His closest friends. He faced the temptations we face. He prayed the same prayers; He asked God to take the cup, a prayer we can all admit to praying. We like seeing Jesus as the Priest-King, but we are uncomfortable with the image of the sacrificial Lamb. Yet it is that Lamb that has fulfilled all God’s promises.
Take time to read the Passion story according to Mark over the next week or so. Reread it. Reflect on it. Hear God’s grace in the midst of the horror. Consider what it would be like to be the woman with the perfume, to be Judas or the priests, to be Peter in the courtyard. Experience important and intimate moments of the Passion along with the disciples. Feel the pain that Jesus felt both in His body and in His spirit. Walk with Him, remembering that Jesus did it all for you and me.
The disciples, crowds and leaders did not know how the story would end, but even though we have twenty-twenty vision, we must see the sacrifice of Jesus with the same eyes as those two thousand years ago to appreciate that we, too, were among the crowds who honored Him one day and rejected Him the next. Even His closest friends did not know how to deal with the reality of Jesus’ life and death. How can we expect to understand our own place in this story if we do not experience it as they did? So, let us walk with our Lord and see it through His eyes, to know it through His heart, to experience it in His presence as if we were there. Then we will see as they did, and remember when He is resurrected what He truly did for us all.
“But now, brothers, if I come to you speaking with other languages, what would I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation, or of knowledge, or of prophesying, or of teaching? Even things without life, giving a voice, whether pipe or harp, if they didn’t give a distinction in the sounds, how would it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet gave an uncertain sound, who would prepare himself for war? So also you, unless you uttered by the tongue words easy to understand, how would it be known what is spoken? For you would be speaking into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of sounds in the world, and none of them is without meaning. If then I don’t know the meaning of the sound, I would be to him who speaks a foreigner, and he who speaks would be a foreigner to me. So also you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, seek that you may abound to the building up of the assembly. Therefore let him who speaks in another language pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in another language, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.” 1 Corinthians 14:6-9, WEB
People often ask me which Bible version they should use. This subject comes up occasionally during our Sunday morning Bible study, especially when we find a difference in the reading. We do not all use the same translation, so sometimes a listener will comment at the end of a reading, “I like the way your version translated that word.” Or sometimes we do not like it. It is a tangent to our topic for the day, but always leads to good discussion. We look with more depth at the text; we read it in context to see if that helps us to understand. “What do you think the writer meant to say?” Sometimes we’ll even look up more versions to see what they say. I don’t know Hebrew, but I will look up the Greek to see if it helps. We get so much out of those conversations and I imagine they are much like the conversations the translators had when they were working on their versions.
Some people are truly bothered by those differences. They don’t understand how the Bible can be reliable if the words are chosen by fallible human beings. They think a word is a word is a word, and yet we know that there are multiple meanings for some words and multiple words that mean the same thing. Sometimes we have to work at finding the right meaning for the right word. It doesn’t help that language changes over time. Tell a teenager and her grandmother that “The singer is sick,” and they will understand that sentence differently. The teenager will interpret “sick” as being something really amazing; the grandmother will think the singer is ill. The understanding of words has changed even more over hundreds of years. Take the word “naughty,” for instance. Long ago, if you were naughty, you had naught or nothing; later it came to mean evil or immoral, and now you are just badly behaved.
I read an article with Mark Ward, an author who wrote a book called “Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.” His book talks about the good and bad of that particular version of the Bible. Fifty-five percent of Bible readers still use it as their first choice, but many use it as their only translation. He warns that there is a danger to the loss of the King James Bible as the common standard of the Bible, but there is also a danger to relying solely on the language of that version. Words have definitely changed in five hundred years and thus the true meaning of those Greek and Hebrew words are lost to modern ears.
He is often asked the same question I am asked, “Which is the best version of the Bible?” He does not think there is a “best” version. Instead, he says, “Instead of looking for the ‘best’ translation, I tell people to look for the most ‘useful’ one for a given situation. If you’re reading the whole book of Isaiah quickly, go for a smoother translation like the NIV or HCSB. If you’re focusing very hard on studying two paragraphs in 1 Corinthians 7, go for a more “formal” translation like the NASB or ESV. If you’re teaching functionally illiterate people at a shelter, use a translation made for super-easy reading like the New International Reader’s Version (NIrV).”
I have been following a program designed for reading the Bible in a year. I have chosen, purposely, to use a smoother translation for reading, and because it is different than I usually use, I’m hearing the words in a whole new way. I use English Standard for study. I use World English Bible to post on this daily devotional because it is a modern language public domain translation. I love other versions for other reasons. I even like the paraphrases once in a while for the sheer joy of their shocking use of language. Take, for instance, this passage from The Message. “If you’re a vegetarian, eat vegetables to the glory of God and thank God for broccoli.” (Romans 14:6b)
When asked why he wrote the book and which Bible passage is his favorite, Mark answered, “One of the endorsers of my book, a man I respect greatly, put it better than I could: “fostering more and better Bible reading.” That’s it. The 55% of English-speaking Christians who read the KJV don’t - can’t - know what they’re missing unless they check other translations. Many of them do. But some of them don’t, and I think they should - for their own good and that of others. I’ve pretty well dedicated my life to making biblical truth understandable, so Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 14 is especially precious to me. Repeatedly - seven times by my count - he makes the same basic argument: if you want to edify others, you need to use intelligible words.”
Which is the best version? My answer is the same as Mark’s: use the best version for you in that moment. My warning is the same, too: don’t get so caught up in one version that you determine every other version is wrong. Sometimes we need to look at God’s Word through new eyes, through different eyes, for it to speak to us and to others. The most important thing is to get into God’s Word regularly - daily - in study, in prayer, in reading, in conversation. The more you get into the Bible, the more you will know God’s story and the your relationship with God will grow and mature as He reaches ever more deeply into your heart and your soul.
“By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and closes his heart of compassion against him, how does the love of God remain in him? My little children, let’s not love in word only, or with the tongue only, but in deed and truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and persuade our hearts before him, because if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. Beloved, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have boldness toward God; and whatever we ask, we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight. This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he commanded. He who keeps his commandments remains in him, and he in him. By this we know that he remains in us, by the Spirit which he gave us.” 1 John 3:16-24, WEB
One of the advantages of purchasing a movie on DVD or Blue-ray is that they come with additional materials. Some will have blooper videos and others will have back stage commentary. Some, especially those movies based on real life, will have documentaries about the story or the people involved. Those extras make the purchase worthwhile.
A special DVD edition was released when the movie “Splash” starring Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks celebrated the twentieth anniversary of its release in 2004. On this particular DVD, we are treated to the original audition tape of Tom Hanks.
“Splash” was one of the first movies that starred Tom Hanks. Over the years he has proven himself as a great actor over and over again. He is not only good in comedies; he has also done tremendously well in dramatic performances that have earned him Academy Awards. He has even done well as a producer, director and writer. Film making is obviously where his talents lie. Yet, it is really difficult to see his potential on that original tape. He had trouble following the script; he stumbled over words. He really looked like he did not belong in this line of work. But Ron Howard saw something in Tom’s performance and chose him to star in the film. The movie was a hit and Tom was well on his way to a successful career in the film industry.
This type of discernment often happens in the classrooms of good teachers. Those teachers are often asked, “Why do you spend so much time with that child? They won’t accomplish anything.” Yet, somehow the teacher sees potential that is not obvious. It is such a joy when the teacher is proven right as the child successfully overcomes the difficulties they face. It takes time, love and faith that there is something there to be nurtured, and in the end the child’s life is made right and whole by that teacher’s time and energy.
When Ron Howard was preparing the anniversary edition of “Splash” he asked whether Tom Hanks minded if the audition tape was included. Tom did not care, but wondered why anyone would even want to see it. Certainly his career has given us plenty of wonderful examples of the work he can do.
Have you ever really thought about how amazing it is that God did for us what He did? We were sinners, incapable of keeping His Law and constantly separating ourselves from His love, mercy and grace. As we look around at one another, and at ourselves in the mirror, we can’t help but wonder what made Him do such a thing. Yet, He saw something in His people - a potential to love Him and one another. He knew we were unable to accomplish this on our own, so He sent Jesus to live and die for our sake. On the cross, Jesus overcame all that separates us from God and reconciled our lives with His. Now that He has been raised from death into eternal life, we too are given all we need to live in love according to His ways.
“He entered into the temple, and began to drive out those who bought and sold in it, saying to them, ‘It is written, “My house is a house of prayer,” but you have made it a “den of robbers”’ He was teaching daily in the temple, but the chief priests and the scribes and the leading men among the people sought to destroy him. They couldn’t find what they might do, for all the people hung on to every word that he said. On one of those days, as he was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the Good News, the priests and scribes came to him with the elders. They asked him, ‘Tell us: by what authority do you do these things? Or who is giving you this authority?’ He answered them, ‘I also will ask you one question. Tell me: the baptism of John, was it from heaven, or from men?’ They reasoned with themselves, saying, “If we say, “From heaven,” he will say, “Why didn’t you believe him?” But if we say, “From men,” all the people will stone us, for they are persuaded that John was a prophet.’ They answered that they didn’t know where it was from. Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’” Luke 19:45- 20:8, WEB
Jesus was controversial. Whenever he breezed through a town or village, many would follow and listen. However, there were those who did not believe Jesus came from God. His own village rejected Him. Many claimed He was of Satan. Some tried to stone Him for the things He said and did. The teachers in the temple as well as other religious leaders began to fear his power over people.
The life and ministry of our Lord Jesus was filled with incredible signs, wonders and teachings. From the first miracle at Canaan when he changed water into wine, to the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and everything in between, Jesus showed Himself to be different from anyone the world had ever seen. When He taught in the temple and on the hillsides, people were amazed at the Word as it came alive before them. Jesus helped people understand that there was a better way of living and that there was a deeper meaning to the scriptures.
The people saw Jesus as the answer to their prayers. They sought a Messiah, someone who would set them free from the oppression of the Roman invaders of their land. They wanted to be a free nation again and live as they did during the Golden Age of Solomon their king. As Jesus gained in fame and following, His disciples pleaded with Him to go to Jerusalem and claim His place. They knew that there were enough people to support Him, and that they would fight to give Him the position they felt He had come to fill. However, Jesus did not go to Jerusalem until it was the right time. As the Passover of His third year of ministry approached, Jesus knew the time had come for Him to fulfill the promise of His Father.
Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!” The people were excited, pulling palms from the trees to wave and throwing cloaks in the path of the donkey on which He rode. Some of the Pharisees rebuked Jesus, telling Him to quiet the crowd. Jesus answered, “I tell you that if these were silent, the stones would cry out.”
These words made the Jewish leaders more upset about the work Jesus Christ was doing in their town. The plot thickened as they sought ways to remove Jesus not only from Jerusalem, but also from the hearts and minds of the people.
Jesus’ answers had a way of cutting right to the heart of a situation. Unfortunately, the Pharisees did not understand the kingdom of God, so they were not seeing Jesus for who He was. Jesus was upset by the state of the Temple. It was a holy week, Passover. The temple courts were filled with merchants selling animals to the pilgrims so they could offer their sacrifices. Certainly some of the merchants were less than honorable about their products, their weights and conversions. Sin after sin was causing disgrace in God’s house. The worst was that the Temple was no longer a place to come to know God, but rather to attend to the works of men.
I wonder, as we enter into this Holy Week, if we aren’t more like those Pharisees than the jubilant crowds. Do we accept Jesus for who He is or do we demand Jesus to be the king that we think He should be? Jesus isn’t just our friend or teacher or master. He is the Savior who will die in the most horrific way imaginable. We don’t want to worship a God who would demand blood for redemption, but we can’t get to Easter without following Jesus through the cross. It is no wonder that the people began to turn on Him. Yet, through it all, Jesus was totally in control.
“Come, see Yahweh’s works, what desolations he has made in the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth. He breaks the bow, and shatters the spear. He burns the chariots in the fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the earth.’ Yahweh of Armies is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.” Psalm 46:8-11, WEB
The bible shares more words about the Tuesday of Holy Week than any other day in the history of the world. Jesus spent the day in the temple and around Jerusalem telling parables and causing controversy. The leaders confronted Him and questioned His authority. The disciples desperately tried to understand the changes they saw in Him. In many ways, the crowds were becoming confused because the sweet stories of hope were becoming warnings of woe to those who would not listen.
Jesus was a great storyteller. The people were mesmerized when He spoke the word of God because He had an authority they never expected and because He spoke in ways that touched their lives and experiences. He used examples from their everyday life: vineyards, yeast, animals, clothes, building, treasures, farming, friends and money. He used the things in this world that they knew to share the Kingdom of God. The crowds were drawn to Him and the children delighted in His presence. These parables of Jesus always had a spiritual message but were presented in a tangible way so that the people who heard them with a heart of faith understood the promise of God for their life.
Not everyone received those words with a heart of faith. The leadership often heard the stories as condemnation against them. They were threatened by Jesus’ focus on submission, poverty and forgiveness. They were offended by His insinuation that their obedience was not righteousness, but rather was the act of self-righteous hypocrites. With every word, they became angrier at what they heard and their hearts hardened even more. I have heard it said that the same sun that melts ice hardens clay. Those who had the heart to believe understood that the Kingdom of God was about power in our weakness, hope in our affliction and repentance from our old ways of life. Many did not hear the grace of Jesus’ message and they sought a way to end His ministry.
While Tuesday is the most written about day, the Bible is silent about what Jesus did the Wednesday before Passover. Jesus knew the time of His death was growing close, why wasn’t He in the Temple trying to reach those that He had not yet touched? I would have felt a desperate need to continue the ministry until the very last moment, to reach as many as possible. Jesus knew a better way. He spent the evenings during Holy Week in Bethany, at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. There, on Wednesday, it is likely that Jesus and His friends spent a quiet day in prayer and fellowship.
In Jerusalem, the leaders were plotting against Jesus. They had to find a way to rid the city of this man they saw as a threat to their power. We do not know exactly when Judas went to the Temple to offer to help, however it could have been on Wednesday. It is difficult for us to know exactly why Judas would betray Jesus. It is possible that he thought that Jesus would respond and fight and thus take His rightful place as king. Judas wanted power, but did not understand the kind of power that Jesus was to show. The leaders were already hardened against the message, but at this point the people were also beginning to turn away from Jesus. He was no longer fulfilling their desires. He was preparing them to accept the ultimate sacrifice.
I am sure our pastors and worship leaders are struggling to get everything done. There are so many extra worship services, with bulletins to print and materials to gather. Churches and communities are planning fun events with egg hunts and bouncy castles. Musicians are preparing special pieces. Families are busy with preparations for family gatherings. Holy Week is not hectic in the way that the days before Christmas are hectic, and yet we are still running around so busy buying chocolate for baskets and hams for the meal that we don’t have much time to immerse ourselves in the story of Jesus’ passion. We say “Jesus is the reason for the season” at Christmastime, and yet we don’t hear the same words during Easter. Are we experiencing this Holy Week with a heart of faith, or are we so busy chasing the Lord we want that we are missing these last few days listening to our Lord as He truly is?
Jesus rested on Wednesday after a busy Tuesday, but the rest of the world was in tumult as the people played out their roles in this incredible drama. Through it all, Jesus remained calm and in control. He was preparing His heart for that moment when He would take all our sins, including those committed against Him in these final moments, on Himself. Are we taking the time in these final days of Lent to rest and pray as we prepare our hearts to receive the gift of life being offered by Jesus?
Scriptures for Sunday, April 1, 2018, Resurrection of our Lord: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 16; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8
“I have set Yahweh always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” Psalm 16:8, WEB
What is peace? We certainly can’t find it in the papers or on the nightly news programs. When we turn on the TV or scroll through our social media we are bombarded with information from home and abroad of violence, destruction and loss of life. There seems to be no peace in our world today.
What is peace? Jesus knew peace. He didn’t live without threats of violence. One day the crowd tried to stone Him. The temple leaders accused Him of blaspheme and insurrection. He was crucified on the cross – a most horrific death. Yet, He faced large crowds of hungry people with only a few fish and some bread without worry. He touched the sick, spoke to the outcasts and ate with the sinners with love. He faced His trial without fear; He spoke only the words necessary despite threats from His accusers. He had peace, the peace that comes from knowing God is close.
What peace are we praying for? Peace is not the lack of violence; violence is brought on by a lack of peace. The unending cycle of attack and retaliation will only be stopped when the hearts of the warriors find true peace. We have that peace; Christ’s peace is the assurance that God is with us, that He is at our right hand so that we will not be moved. We live in that peace singing praise and thanksgiving to God and we have been called to share that peace. As we share God’s Word, He works in the hearts of those lost in this troubled world, seeking their own kind of peace with weapons and threats.
Jerusalem wanted peace. The leaders of the Jews thought the status quo was good enough. They weren’t, perhaps, quite as independent as the nation under King David, but they were given enough freedom to live their Jewish faith. They feared insurrection because they believed the Romans would use it as an excuse to destroy what was left of their nation. They settled for their own power and prestige and knew that they would lose the most if there was a fight. Jesus wasn’t good for their future.
They didn’t realize that Jesus had a much different mission. They misunderstood the prophecy about the Messiah, or ignored it for their own sake, and they were afraid a military battle would lead to their destruction. Jesus had no intention of ever becoming the kind of king that the crowds were demanding. Jesus came to restore the true King, God, as ruler over His people. They’d lost touch with the peace that comes with knowing God is there among His people. They sought the death of Jesus so that He would not change the status quo.
They did exactly what God intended. We look back on that first Good Friday so long ago and wonder how God could allow such evil to win. We wonder the same thing today. Why is there so much violence? Where is the peace? Where is God? Even Jesus asked that question while He hung on the cross. “My God, why have you abandoned me?”
Sometimes God gives darkness its moment so that the Light will shine ever more brightly.
We have to be honest with ourselves and realize that we have become complacent in our faith. We are comfortable. While there are a few examples of people being persecuted for their point of view, most of us in the United States have never had to fear that we would be martyred for our faith. We see it happening elsewhere, but we can get in our car on Sunday morning to go to church without worrying whether we will make it home again.
I went on a wildflower adventure the other day. I drove to some of the most likely places where I might find fields of flowers. While this year is not a great year for the wildflower bloom, there are always a few places to see and photograph the flowers. My favorite site to the southeast of San Antonio is a cemetery. They keep the areas around the graves pretty clear of flowers, but the fields that surround it are bursting with life. I spent a long time photographing the many different kinds of flowers in those fields. I even caught a butterfly and a hummingbird enjoying the nectar. I know it seems odd to look for life in a cemetery, but it is especially appropriate during Holy Week to do so.
Easter proves that death leads to new life for those who trust in Him
I was on my way home when I took a wrong turn. I ended up in Sutherland Springs, the small town that experienced a tragedy six months ago when the people of First Baptist Church were gunned down. I didn’t stop, but I found myself in prayer as I continued to drive home. Later that evening, the news reported that the congregation is getting ready to rebuild their campus. We have had to deal with too many tragedies in the past few years, but in this case you can truly see the Light shining through the darkness. The people of Sutherland Springs have faced their grief and hurt with hope and peace and forgiveness. Though there is no such thing as a silver lining in this kind of tribulation, we are reminded that God is able to make good things happen out of the most horrific events. After all, we would not be celebrating Easter on Sunday if Jesus hadn’t been hung on the cross.
The hard part about writing for Easter Sunday on Wednesday is that we have not yet experienced Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We have twenty-twenty vision because we know the end of the story, but we still need to be reminded that Jesus’ death was necessary.
That first Holy Week must have been incredible for the disciples. On Sunday they entered Jerusalem with Jesus on a donkey being proclaimed king by the crowds. They had given up everything to follow Him and their sacrifice was paying off. Within days Jesus had stunned and upset so many people that they were afraid for His life and their own. At the Passover, just when they thought He might make some big announcement about revolution against the authorities, Jesus taught them to be humble servants and to live in love and mercy. Then He was betrayed, denied and crucified.
We do not know what the disciples did after Jesus died. He was hurriedly wrapped and placed in a freshly hewn tomb because it was the Passover Sabbath, a particularly holy time for the Jews. It is unlikely they did much; the law had many restrictions that were more closely obeyed during the holy periods. Besides, the disciples were in shock, afraid and in mourning. Perhaps they prayed, but it is more likely that they spent the time together discussing all that had happened, trying to decide what they should do. Without their rabbi, they had no guidance.
The scriptures tell us that early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb to take care of the body of Jesus. They did not have time to complete the burial because of the Sabbath, so they returned to use spices for anointing and grieve for their Lord. Yet, when they arrived in the garden, they noticed the stone had been moved away. Jesus’ body was gone. Now we look to this empty tomb as the sign of the hope to come; our tombs will one day be empty because we have eternal life in Christ Jesus and we rejoice. Yet, at this point in the resurrection story, the disciples were not rejoicing. The women were afraid. Mary wept. The disciples were confused. They did not understand what was happening.
Then Jesus began appearing to them. He called Mary by name in the garden. He broke bread with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He entered through a locked door. He appeared to five hundred. Eventually, Jesus appeared to Paul. When He appeared to Mary, she ran to tell the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” Eventually they believed and rejoiced.
We often think of the empty tomb when we think of Easter. While there is promise in that emptiness, there are also questions, doubts, fears and grief. The same thing is true for those facing tragedy in our world today. The people of Sutherland Springs had a hope that will not disappoint. Though they had to say good-bye to loved ones, they also know that they will be reunited with them one day. They believe in the promises of God.
The hope and joy of Easter is not found in a cemetery, or folded grave clothes, but rather in the Risen Lord. It isn’t found in anger or protests or “action.” It was when the disciples saw Jesus that they knew all He spoke had been true. It was when He spoke their names, when He ate with them and showed them His wounds. It was when they heard His voice and saw His face that they believed. In our own moments of darkness, we will find peace when we look for the Light. We will shine the Light when we share the Gospel. The Gospel is not something we do; it is something God did.
Paul writes, “Now I declare to you, brothers, the Good News which I preached to you, which also you received, in which you also stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold firmly the word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” He goes on to talk about all those to whom He revealed Himself.
From the earliest days of the Christian faith, believers gathered together to share their witness and confess their beliefs in Jesus. It did not take very long before they were praying familiar prayers or repeating the words of Jesus. Since much of their religious experience came from the Old Testament writings, we can even see the hymns they might have sung in worship by reading the Psalms. The letters of the Apostles were shared over and over again, establishing proper understanding of this new revelation of God. They began to form creeds, poetry and hymns that brought together the doctrines they had learned in a way they could easily remember and teach. By repeating these confessions of faith, they became deeply imbedded in their hearts and minds. When asked about their Christian faith, they could easily share the Gospel message in words that were seen as credible because the whole Church shared them.
Scholars generally agree that this passage from Paul is one of the earliest Christian creeds. It has been around since the earliest days of the church, having become a part of Christian worship within just a few years of Jesus’ death. By sharing this simple statement about the death, resurrection and appearance of Jesus Christ as the Risen Lord, the truth of salvation was written on the hearts and minds of the believers, giving them the strength and knowledge to share the Gospel with others.
There is a story about some mice that lived inside a piano. They were awestruck by the music they heard echoing in their dark world. They all believed in some unknown player, were comforted by the thought that someone made the music. They rejoiced over the Great Player they could not see. But one day one of the mice ventured to another part of the piano and found the strings. He came back thinking he knew how the music was made, for the music came from the strings as they trembled and vibrated. Everyone stopped believing in the Great Player. Later another mouse went exploring and found the hammers that made the strings vibrate and the simple explanation for the sound became more complicated but they still did not believe in the unknown player. Eventually the Great Player became nothing but a myth to the mice.
Isn’t that the way it is for many people in today’s world? We are like those mice, living in a world where we cannot see the One in control. But natural explanations to unexplainable things have made many people doubt in the existence of a Great Player. Science and Mathematics explain away the most extraordinary things, leaving behind nothing in which to have faith. For many in today’s world who are seeking something more, even spiritual understanding is being used to explain away the most miraculous things. To some, the stories in scripture should be seen in only a spiritual understanding – the virgin birth of Christ, the cross and even the resurrection. Yet, the wonder that is God can’t be explained away by our minds, hearts or even souls. He continues to play the music of our lives as we ponder what it all means.
Faith is the only thing that will get us through the times of darkness. We have to rely on God, knowing that He is faithful, blameless and pure. He is with us and everything we do we do only with His strength. Even when we cannot see the Great Player, He is playing the music of our lives. That’s what will get us through each day. We can’t allow the things of this world to cause us to lose our faith and we cannot allow our worries and fears to keep us up at night. We can only step forward trusting in God, knowing that He is with us through all our trials.
The Gospel passage from Mark is hard to read because it ends so abruptly. The final sentence says, “They went out, and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come on them. They said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid.” The women were too afraid to say anything to the others. Obviously someone figured it out. Matthew and Luke tell us that they did report what they saw at the tomb to the disciples. John tells us the story from Mary’s perspective. But in Mark, we are left hanging.
There are eight more verses that neatly tie up the story, but there is some controversy over whether those verses were part of the original text. There is another verse that is found between verses 8 and 9 in some manuscripts, that says, “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterwards Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Again, this verse helps to alleviate the abruptness of Mark’s story.
These verses are helpful, but ending at verse 8 serves a purpose, especially for those who heard Mark’s story in the beginning. See, Mark was a storyteller. The book was not written at first, but was told orally over and over again. It was a story that developed over time. Mark was very young. His mother owned the upper room, so he probably served Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper. He was there at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The disciples hid in the Upper Room after Jesus died. Mark overheard their stories, learned them by heart, and then repeated them to others.
You know how it is... when someone we love dies, we sit around in the living room and we tell stories. “Do you remember that time when Jesus...?” “Jesus always liked to say...” They worked out their grief through those stories. They worked out their understanding through those stories. And the storytelling surely went on after Jesus appeared to them, and then long afterward. Mark could see in the conversations of Peter and the disciples that the experience of being with Jesus was something to be shared. You could not believe in Jesus and remain silent.
And so he took all those stories and told them to others. I can imagine a group of people sitting around a living room, anxiously waiting to hear about the One that was raised from the dead. They were seekers in search of the truth. As Mark tells the story, we are held mesmerized by the immediacy of Jesus’ ministry. I have seen people hearing this story told as it was in Mark’s day sitting on the edge of their seat in hopeful expectation. We can sense the fear and amazement of the disciples. We can feel the anger of the leaders. We are aware of the confusion and doubt in the crowds.
And then, after about two hours of storytelling, Mark says, “They went out, and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come on them. They said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid.” How would react? I can see the crowd erupting with questions and opinions. There may be good reason for adding those extra verses in the book of Mark because we are no longer hearing that story told directly from the eye witnesses. Something had to happen after the women were afraid or we would not be Christian today.
But let us, for a moment, see that by ending the story so abruptly, Mark is inviting the hearers into the story. What happens next? You are like one of those women at the tomb. What do you do? Do you take the story to another or do you run and hide out of fear? Do you join with Mark, Peter and Paul by sharing what happened so that others might believe?
When we are preparing our activities for our churches, we often ask ourselves the question, “What are they looking for?” We want to know what our visitors are seeking so that we can provide them with the programs that will keep them coming back. Perhaps we should be asking this question, “For whom are you looking?” People may want Easter egg hunts and BBQs, basketball leagues and teen dances, but they will never be transformed by those things. The chances we have to reach those who do not believe are so rare, that we are willing to do whatever is necessary to catch them at those moments.
Sometimes we miss the point and we forget what really matters. This might be even more true today as we are living in a time of great fear. We know we need to offer the Gospel, but we aren’t sure what that means. Do they expect us to be a church fighting for justice or protesting everything that is wrong in our world? I don’t mean to say that we should not fight for justice or peace in our world because we as individuals are called and gifted for unique ministry. It is even possible that the Christian sitting on the pew next to you has been chosen by God to stand in direct opposition to you. You, also, might be called to stand in direct opposition to them. God is using each of you to help the other seek God more deeply, to turn to Him and trust that He will make things right. The answer is never in the extremes; the answer is always in God.
Those who are coming to your churches this Sunday, curious about what you have to offer them in this world filled with violence, destruction and loss of life will never be truly satisfied until they encounter the living Christ. We know they’ll never hear the message if they will not enter through the door, so we give them what they want. We give them a show. We give them activities. We give them excitement. In the process, we often forget to give them what God has given us: hope, peace, forgiveness. We forget to give them Jesus.
The story of Easter, the rising of Christ out of death into new life, is something that everyone should hear. It seems like in that day it would have been best for Jesus to appear to the entire city of Jerusalem at one time, to do something spectacular to ensure that the reality of His death and life was understood by all. As it happened, many people doubted the story they heard. The Romans thought the Jews had stolen the body. The Jews thought the disciples had stolen the body. Those who doubted would have been silenced quickly if only they’d seen Him with their own eyes.
The Easter story is both the easiest message to preach and the hardest. For those who have heard the story a hundred times before, the words “He is risen” deepens the hope we have as we wait in expectation for the fulfillment of all God’s promises. However, when we gather on Easter Day, there are also many who only know part of the story. They know that Jesus Christ is Lord, but they don’t quite understand why. They know they are seeking something, but they can’t define their need. They want to be fed, inspired and to learn, but what they really need is to be transformed. They need to meet Jesus.
The world does not know what to expect when they walk through the doors of our church. We spend a great deal of time asking, “What are they looking for?” But we need to remember that they are not looking for the things we can offer them. They are looking for Jesus. We can fill our schedules with a bunch of exciting activities or focus our ministries on taking action against the darkness of this world, but let us never forget the center of our worship life: Jesus. Egg hunts and protests might bring people to the pews of our churches, but they will never save a soul. Only Jesus can do that. Only Jesus can give us true peace in this troubled world.
“Don’t let your heart be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many homes. If it weren’t so, I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will receive you to myself; that where I am, you may be there also. Where I go, you know, and you know the way.” John 14:1-4, WEB
Today is Maundy Thursday. In many different Christian denominations, congregations will gather to share in the final moments of Jesus Christ’s life and ministry.
Jerusalem was bustling with preparation for the Passover feast. Pilgrims were in town and many were curious about the man Jesus about whom they had heard so much. His triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Sunday gave them hope that perhaps He was the one for whom they were waiting. They had hope that they’d reached the day they had waited for: the day of Deliverance. Passover was an ideal time for Jesus to grasp His Kingship. It would be significant to the Jews who would make the connection between Jesus and Moses. Just as Moses delivered the Hebrews from the Egyptians, Israel’s new King Jesus could deliver them from the Romans. So throughout the week as Passover grew near, the people were expectant for something incredible to happen.
The disciples asked Jesus where they were to celebrate the Passover feast. As usual, the preparation was in the hands of God, and Jesus gave them instructions where to go, who to see. As the evening drew close, the disciples gathered in the upper room, ready to celebrate this meaningful night with their Lord.
The evening did not go as they’d hoped. Rather than speak about being a king, Jesus spoke of being a servant. He spoke of death, betrayal and denial. Peter, as usual, made great claims of his love for Jesus and his willingness to even die. Jesus told him that he would, that very evening, deny Him three times. Jesus knew Judas was the betrayer, and was clearly in control as He told Judas to do the task quickly. The disciples were confused by the words of Jesus, and became agitated as the vision they had of a kingdom began to fall apart before their eyes.
Jesus showed them what it meant to be the Messiah; He loved them with a very active, humble, sacrificial love. At the supper, He removed His cloak and wrapped a towel around His waist and got on His knees to wash their feet. This menial task was one that only a servant would do. Peter was so incensed by the action he rejected Jesus with the words, “No, you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus persisted because He was showing them by example the way they were called to lead the continuation of His ministry. The disciples were specially chosen to serve the Lord. It was not to be a ministry of power, but of humble service.
Jesus instituted a new covenant of faith at this meal. The Passover Seder was a remembrance of the deliverance of the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. The meal was highly symbolic, recalling the bitterness and affliction of life in Egypt, as well as the rebirth and joy of their new life of freedom as God’s chosen people. The people celebrated the Passover each year in expectation that the Messiah would soon return to deliver them again. There was great hope at this celebration because Jesus seemed to be the one who would fulfill their expectations and free them from the oppression of the Romans.
Jesus made no such promises. Rather, He spoke through the elements of the Passover and made a new covenant with them. He took the bread, gave thanks to God and gave it for all to eat. He had told His followers that He is the bread of life. In this new covenant He told them to eat regularly of the bread to remember that He is the true bread. After the supper He took the cup, symbolic in the Seder as being the cup of Redemption. He gave thanks and gave it to all to drink. He told them that this cup is His blood, and that only His blood would redeem them from their sins. By His death we would be forgiven. Today we recall those words and His promise according to His command to share the bread and wine in remembrance of Him. By His death, by His blood, we are forgiven.
Jesus spoke of humility and service, betrayal and denial, but several of the disciples got into an argument about who would be the greatest among them in the kingdom. Even at this late hour, after all Jesus had spoken to them about sacrificial love, they still sought the power of this world. It might seem like His plans were falling apart because the disciples were acting according to their flesh in betrayal, denial and pride, but Jesus continued to be in control.
Jesus took the disciples to Gethsemane so that He could spend time in prayer. It is at this moment that Jesus Christ makes the final and most incredible act of submission to His Father’s will. He committed to the only path He could take: the path to the cross. The ministry of Jesus Christ was about to close in a most painful and horrible manner, yet He stood and walked right into the hands of His betrayer. It was the will of God.
We think about the horror of Good Friday, but I think perhaps Maundy Thursday was the harder day for Jesus. Physical death, even horrific physical death, is nothing compared to things He had to experience that day. It was the day He said good-bye to those He loved. It was the day He saw that they still didn’t understand the reason for His life and ministry. It was the day He saw the betrayal and denial and abandonment of His disciples. It was the day when He agreed to follow the path His Father demanded. Even in the midst of betrayal and denial, Jesus comforted His disciples. He promised them the Holy Spirit, that they might continue His work after His death. He established a new covenant with His people, a covenant of life, hope and remembrance. It was the day that He willfully went to prepare a place for us, the day He set His feet on the path that would assure us eternal life in His true Kingdom.
“Jesus cried again with a loud voice, and yielded up his spirit.” Matthew 27:50, WEB
It had been approximately thirty-three years since the birth of our Savior. For the last three years, he shared the Kingdom of God. During that time he did many incredible things. He healed the sick, cast out demons and fed thousands. He even raised the dead. He preached a new truth to the people, that God is merciful, full of forgiveness and love. He also taught that following Him would not be easy, that He demands much from our lives.
After He spent time in prayer, Judas came with a crowd of people. So that His accusers would know which man to arrest, Judas betrayed his friend with a kiss. Peter tried to stop the arrest by swinging his sword. A guard was injured but Jesus healed the wound. The will of God would not be hindered by the desires of men. Jesus appeared before Caiaphas, the chief priest, so that the Sanhedrin could find some crime worthy of death. But by Roman law, the Jews could not put a man to death. They found him guilty of blasphemy.
The disciples scattered. They hid in the crowds, trying to see each moment, afraid to be discovered. Peter warmed himself over a fire, trying to fit in to the crowd. Three people approached him and claimed they had seen him with Jesus. Peter denied knowing him three times, just as Jesus said. After the final denial, a rooster crowed and Jesus looked directly at Peter. Peter wept bitterly because he knew that he had betrayed his Lord.
Jesus was taken before Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate was around at the beginning of the week. He had seen how popular Jesus was with the people, but he did not view Jesus as a threat. After all this was the Roman Empire, who could destroy it? When Pilate discovered Jesus was from Galilee, he sent him to be tried by Herod. Pilate was anxious to be rid of this problem. His wife has seen in a dream that Pilate would be blamed for the death of this innocent man.
He was taken to Herod who was quite excited about seeing Jesus face to face. He’d heard so much about the man; he wanted to see some mighty miracle performed before him. When Jesus would not prove himself, Herod humiliated Him and sent Him back to Pilate.
The crowd was easily agitated because events of the Passover evening did not go as they’d hoped. The Jewish leaders were scattered in the crowd ready with a word to manipulate the crowd. When Pilate saw that Jesus was innocent, he asked the people if He should be freed. Someone yelled, ‘Crucify him.’ At this, the whole crowd went wild and began to yell for Jesus’ death. Pilate tried three times to release Jesus, but he had no control over this situation. The crowd that was yelling, “Hosanna” just days before were so agitated by Jesus’ actions in Jerusalem that week they easily fell into the atmosphere of anger, fear and violence. They yelled, “Crucify him!” Pilate had no choice. The final betrayal came when the people said, “We have no king but Caesar.” They showed Jesus that they did not even look to the Lord God Almighty as their King.
Jesus had to die.
Jesus was humiliated, beaten and stripped of everything. They took His clothes and His dignity. They forced a cross onto His already sore and bleeding back and pushed Him on to Golgatha. As He walked His final footsteps on this earth, Jesus was in control. Those final moments on the cross, He took care of His business ‘ He forgave His enemies, honored His mother and found a son to care for her, and provided the hope of Salvation to a sinner in need. When all was complete, when the scriptures had been fulfilled, Jesus cried out for the last time and He gave up His spirit.
Jesus died at the ninth hour, 3:00 PM. The earth rocked with the anger of God. The ground shook and the rocks split. A centurion pierced Jesus in the side and His blood spilled into the earth. The curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom. This was not some flimsy piece of material like lace, easily ripped; it was thick, a wall like protective covering over the Most Holy Place, the dwelling of God Himself. It was in the Most Holy Place that only the High Priest, just once a year, entered to sprinkle the blood of atonement on the Mercy Seat for the forgiveness of Israel’s sins. The Mercy Seat was the cover of the Ark of the Covenant, the Throne of God Almighty. When Jesus died, God ripped the curtain from top to bottom, opening the way into His presence for all people, not just the High Priest. God would no longer live in a box.
Jesus died just hours before the Passover Sabbath was to begin. It was necessary for Him to be buried quickly for no one could do such work after sunset of that day. A temple leader named Joseph of Arimathea, who was a righteous man that did not agree with the verdict of the council, approached Pilate for the body of Jesus. He took the body, wrapped it in a new cloth and laid it in his own tomb, one that had never been used. The women watched as Jesus was laid there so that they would know where to go to properly prepare His body for permanent burial after the Sabbath.
The disciples were in fear and confusion. They hid from the world and mourned the loss of their beloved teacher and companion. Can you imagine the things they must have thought about, and talked about? Who was Jesus? Why did He die? Why did we spend these years following Him? What will happen to us? Had we truly wasted three years of our lives? Is this really the end?
Judas was shocked by the events of the day, of the violence used against Jesus and His ultimate death. He thought he was forcing Jesus to accept His rightful place as King of Israel, but he saw his ploy fall apart in a horrific way. He went to the chief priests and tried to repent of his sins, but they would have had to admit their own fault if they’d offered Judas forgiveness. They did not care, they got what they wanted. So, Judas did the only thing he felt he could do. He threw the money back at them and committed suicide to end the pain. The destruction of Judas was foretold in scripture, and he died because he saw no hope.
It seemed as though the world was in control. Jesus had no one who would defend Him. The women stayed close at great risk, but they were helpless. Peter denied his Lord after vehemently claiming to that he would stand by Him until death. They did not understand what Jesus had to do, and as they mourned His death they questioned their own role. We, too, consider these questions as we journey with Jesus, particularly at times of sorrow and distress. Why me, why now, why this? Is this really the end?
Is it finished? Is Jesus Christ really dead? Is there any hope?