Saturday, March 26, 2016

Interpreting Easter

Perspective and interpretation are everything.  We do not just recognize and know certain facts about things; we have a perspective on those facts and interpret them into some kind of coherent story. 

            Nearly eleven years ago my wife and two of my daughters were in a car accident.  We were returning home from my parents’ house in rural Iowa.  A car came from the east on a gravel road and did not slow down but blew through the stop sign, right in front of us.  There was nothing I could do.  I hit his rear quarter panel and his car literally spun like a top and came to a stop.  He and the girl in the passenger seat immediately hopped out of their car without a scratch or bruise on them.  My girls were in the very back seat and were fine.  My wife, however, tore her rotator cuff from the seat belt and the impact.  For me, ever since that day, my back has never been the same.  There are occasionally days when the pain and limitation are so bad that I can barely walk across the room.

            In the ten years since that accident I have replayed it over a thousand times in my head.  Maybe if only we had left a few minutes earlier or later from my parents’ house things would be different.  Maybe if I had only driven slower or faster.  But there really was nothing I could have done about it.  I have been downright angry more than once, blaming that stupid kid who changed my life.  In those thousand times of replaying the event, I have looked at it from my perspective, my wife’s perspective, the girls’ perspective, and even the dog’s perspective.  But in all those years of replaying the accident in my mind, just in the past two weeks God has given me a different view of that event.

            You see, in these past ten years I have been so deep into interpreting the accident from my perspective and my family’s perspective that I never even considered to look at it from the perspective of the driver of the other car.  It was as if God finally tapped me on the shoulder and invited me to see it all in a different way.  When I look at that accident from the other driver’s view, he was driving down a gravel road and was coming to a t-intersection.  There was no road on the other side of that stop sign.  What is there to this day is a large grain elevator.  He was driving at highway speeds when he went through the stop sign.  Had he blew through that sign and not been struck by my car, he and the passenger with him would have been certainly killed because they would have slammed into the elevator.  But, instead, I “happened” to come along and hit him in such a way that his car spun and literally stopped just feet from the grain elevator.

            That car accident actually saved two people’s lives.  All of a sudden my chronic low-level back pain and limitation seems a very small price to pay for the lives of two people.  I am now interpreting that event as God sending his servants, Tim and Mary, to a highway where two other people were on a collision course with death.  And he used us to literally stop it from happening.

            Perspective and interpretation are everything.  For many of the people in the first-century, the crucifixion of Jesus was just another death.  It all seemed like some tragic accident that Jesus did not deserve.  But it was no tragic accident.  God sent Jesus to the right place at the right time among people who were on a collision course with death.  And he took their place.  It was us who were behind the wheel and driving our lives recklessly, not knowing that we were facing imminent tragedy.  But Jesus came along and took our place.  He absorbed the punishment that we deserved so that we could live.

            My car accident was unique to me and to the others involved.  But the death of Christ is universal in its scope, having affected every single person on planet earth.  And God showed no favoritism.  The cross of Christ is for all kinds of people from every nation, every race, and every ethnic group.  We are invited by Holy Scripture to have a perspective on the cross as being able to affect deliverance from all wrongdoing and all misguided lives.  We are encouraged to interpret the resurrection of Jesus as bringing a new lease on life to millions of people.  We are to take those events of Jesus and see them as our redemption.

            So, then, our part in the whole affair is this:  Everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name.  That is the perspective and the interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus that we need.  Our only hope of life beyond the grave is Christ’s victory over death.  Christ is risen.  He is risen, indeed.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday

            At first glance, “Good Friday” might seem a bit oxymoronic for a day observing the torture and death of an innocent man.  Yet, it is very good in the sense that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ meant the redemption of the world.  On this day Christians remember and commemorate the events that led up to the cross; unpack those events and interpret them with profound meaning and significance; and, worship Jesus with heartfelt gratitude in light of this redemptive event.

            The bulk of the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are given over to the final week of Christ’s life, especially leading to the cross.  Good Friday worship services often take a somber form due to the brevity of Christ’s experience on the cross.  Christians remember the last words of Christ, and recognize the significant impact his death had on the immediate persons around him.  Believers also contemplate the lasting results of that singular death as an atoning sacrifice; perfect love; reconciliation between God and humanity; victory over evil; and, redeeming all creation.

            Sadness, then, is far from the only emotive expression on this day.  It is appropriate to feel wonder, gratitude, and deep satisfaction for the accomplishment of deliverance from the power of sin.  Thus, we not only remember the suffering of Christ, but what that horrible suffering accomplished.  In fact, the cross of Jesus is so significant that an eternity of considering its impact could not plumb the depths of its far-reaching effects.

            With all that has been said, one would think that Good Friday is a hugely observed day on the Christian Calendar.  Yet, it is not.  The bottom line is that the cross is not popular.  Not only do unchurched folk care not to think about it, but church attenders would like to be mindful about other things than the cross.  Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge has adroitly put her finger on the problem:  “Religious people want visionary experiences and spiritual uplift; secular people want proofs, arguments, demonstrations, philosophy, and science.  The striking fact is that neither one of these groups wants to hear about the cross.”  Indeed, as the Apostle Paul has said, the cross of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

            Our contemporary religious milieu celebrates and promotes self-styled spirituality; it is the “in” thing to eschew church and develop a personalized religion that fits the demands of the modern (or postmodern) world.  The cross, however, is “out;” too much blood and sacrifice, and not enough of what I’m looking for in life.  Perhaps we should think long and hard on Hebrews 13:12-13 – “Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.  Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, and bear the abuse he endured.”

            The extent of Good Friday goes far beyond just a day on the calendar; it is the fulcrum upon which all of Christianity hinges.  So, today, let us contemplate the cross, observe the salvation accomplished through Christ’s death, and offer prayers and petitions for those who need deliverance from the power of evil.  In short, let us worship God in Jesus Christ because of the cross.  Amen.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Maundy Thursday

            We are journeying with Jesus through Holy Week, the most sacred time of the Christian Year.  When we think about Holy Week, we are familiar with Good Friday and certainly Easter; but Maundy Thursday?  On this day the church remembers the last evening that Jesus shared with his disciples in the upper room before his arrest and crucifixion.  The experiences in the upper room were highly significant because this was the last teaching, modeling, and instruction Jesus gave before facing the cross.

            Maundy Thursday, then, marks three important events in Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples:  the washing of the disciples’ feet; the instituting of the Lord’s Supper; and, the giving of a “new” commandment to love one another.  Let’s briefly unpack these three impactful words and actions from Jesus.

            For Jesus, this was all about and for love, God’s love.  On that fateful night, having loved his disciples for the past three years, Jesus showed them the full extent of his love by taking the posture of a servant and washing each and every one of the disciples’ feet, including Judas.  After demonstrating for them a totally humble service, Jesus said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15).  This was an incredible act of love.  We need to rightly observe that Jesus Christ loves me just as I am, and not as I should be.  He loves me even with my dirty stinky feet, my herky-jerky commitment to him, and my pre-meditated sin. 

            Not only did Jesus wash the disciples’ feet, but he lifted the cup of wine and boldly asserted:  “Take this and divide it among you.  For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”  And he took the bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you, do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after the supper he took the cup saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:17-20).  Because of these words of Jesus, the church everywhere throughout the world, for two millennia, have practiced this communion, this supper so that we might have the redemptive events of Jesus pressed firmly into both our minds and our hearts by means of the visceral and common elements of bread and wine.  We are to not just know about Jesus, but are to experience being united with him.

            Having washed the disciples’ feet, and proclaimed to them the meaning of his impending death, Jesus gave them a clear commandment:  Love one another, using the same model he had showed them (John 13:34-35).  We represent Christ on this earth when we carefully, diligently, and persistently practice love.  Although love was by no means a new concept for the disciples, in the form and teaching of Jesus love was shown with four distinctions:  Jesus as the new model of love; a new motive of love, that Christ first loved me; a new motivator to help us love, the Holy Spirit; and, a new mission, the evangelization of the world using the power of Christ’s love to accomplish it.

            So, you see, Maundy Thursday is a highly significant day on the Church Calendar – one which deserves to be observed, and an opportunity to remember the important words and actions of Jesus on our behalf.  Through Jesus Christ we are to live always in love, modeling our life and church ministry after him.  In Christ we are to allow love to characterize our life together as we proclaim God’s love in preaching and sacrament.  A watching world will only take notice and desire to be a part of our fellowship if we are deeply and profoundly centered in the love of God in Christ.  This is the reality that Maundy Thursday brings to us.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Holy Week


            Each year at this time I go through a bit of lamenting about the timing of the Christian observance of Holy Week, that eight day stretch from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday in which we especially remember the significance of Christ’s redemptive events.  In my locale, Spring Break always occurs during Holy Week which means that a chunk of families are typically gone.  What is more, March Madness is happening in which an even bigger slice of people are glued to their televisions watching or their smartphones live-streaming the games.  As a pastor, sometimes I feel a bit like a voice crying out in the wilderness wondering if anyone can hear me.

            Yet, the reality is that remembering the person and work of Jesus, observing his teachings, and seeking to follow him in all things is an uphill climb throughout the entire year when faced with the rest of the culture’s manner of keeping time and observing life-habits.  For most people, it is not the popular thing to do to be on fire for Jesus; it is not the easy to do to radically observe Jesus in everything.  But maybe this isn’t such a bad thing, after all.  Maybe all of this helps us to be quite intentional about living for Jesus and remembering him.  Perhaps it is a unique opportunity to follow Christ each day equipped with a plan and a prayer to seek God through our work, our families, and even our churches.

            Observing Holy Week is certainly not commanded in Scripture.  Yet it is a wonderful opportunity to swim against the current of cultural values and fully embrace the biblical values of journeying with Jesus through life.  Just as birthday and anniversary celebrations allows us a different rhythm for a time, or as holidays provide us with certain family traditions, so Holy Week can be for us an expected time of contemplation and reflection resulting in a great celebratory feast and joy.  As we journey with Jesus, consider these special days:

Palm Sunday is a focus on the entry of Christ into Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Maundy Thursday marks three significant events in Christ’s last week:  his washing of the disciples’ feet; his institution of the Lord’s Supper; and, his new commandment to love one another.

Good Friday marks the death of Jesus Christ.  It is “good” because his death means redemption for the world.  We especially remember why the cross is so very important, that it is the once for all sacrifice to end all sacrifices.  There is now eternal forgiveness.

Easter Sunday is the culmination of all the expectations of God’s people, and the fulfillment of all God’s promises to them in Christ.  We rejoice, celebrate, and renew our love and commitment to God for raising Jesus from death.  His resurrection means new life for us.

            Observing Holy Week can take the form of attending special church services; the opportunity to read through one of the Gospels over the course of the week with other believers; or focus on the passion narratives in each Gospel.  For the Christian, these are the fundamentals of our faith, the base upon which our lives are constructed.  We return to these again and again so that for the entirety of the year we can live in careful devotion to the Savior who has brought us salvation from sin and offers new life.

            Holy Week is an opportunity for the church to remember and give thanks with both quiet gratitude and loud shouts of praise, with solemn reflection and expressive response.  There is no time like it in the year.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Place of Suffering

The New Testament writer, Paul, wanted to know “the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings” (Philippians 3:10).  Let’s be really honest from the start:  we don’t like suffering, and we often spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to avoid pain.  Yet, the real issue is not whether we will suffer, but whether we will suffer as Christians.  We all will face suffering; it is just a matter of whether we suffer because of our own poor choices or because we are living for Jesus (1 Peter 2:20-21; 4:1, 12-13).

When the athlete goes into the weight-room, he/she is purposely going in there to suffer.  There will be grunting and straining and difficulty.  There will be a ripping and tearing-down of muscle fibers.  There will be pain.  But there cannot be growth and development without it.  One cannot simply go into a weight-room and sit and watch other people lift weights and believe that you will get in shape.  Showing-up at church to watch, listen to a sermon, and observe the worship does not make one a stronger Christian; it is the heavy lifting of getting into the Word of God for oneself, wrestling in prayer, and struggling to have that spiritual conversation with another person that are just a few of the ways that we are going to grow and develop.  What is more, God will put us through circumstances that we would not choose for ourselves in order to place us in a position to know Jesus. 

When Paul talked about becoming like Jesus in his death, this was his way of saying that some things need to die in life in order for new growth to occur.  For example, fire is actually an important part of Yellowstone National Park.  According to ecology experts, “fire promotes habitat diversity by removing the forest overstory, allowing different plant communities to become established, and preventing trees from becoming established in grassland. Fire increases the rate that nutrients become available to plants by rapidly releasing them from wood and forest litter and by hastening the weathering of soil minerals.”  In other words, fire is necessary for environmental growth.

Let me put this in layman’s terms when it comes to Christianity:  suffering is a necessary part of the Christian’s life because it creates the conditions for new life and growth and releases fresh sources of God’s grace into the church.  We are to put to death anger, rage, malice, slander, lying, and useless language.  They are to be replaced with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, forgiveness, and love (Colossians 3:7-14).  This only happens when we have Jesus Christ as our ultimate priority, our highest value, and our surpassing greatness.  We have no intention of putting bad attitudes and behaviors to death if Jesus Christ is not our ultimate priority and highest value.  But if Jesus is the surpassing worth of our lives, then we will seek to do whatever we can to know him (Philippians 3:4-14).

There are a lot of voices out there competing for our attention in today’s world.  A lot of people want to get noticed.  Even more ideas want to get spread.  Whom and what we choose to listen to and obey is of great importance.  The vital essence and core value of Christianity is Jesus.  Do not settle for a status-quo, watered-down version of cultural Christianity.  Embrace Jesus, which means embracing both his cross and resurrection. 

So, what will you do to cultivate your relationship with Jesus?  We all must:  transfer our trust from ourselves to God; value what God values; be a student of God’s Word (in order to know Jesus better); be a person of prayer (because you cannot know Jesus apart from prayer); and start living for what is most important, jettisoning everything that gets in the way between you and Jesus, even if it hurts.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Lost People Matter to God

Hanging-out with “sinners” has always been a scandalous activity for Christians who do it.  The Pharisees had a big problem with how Jesus was spending his time (Luke 15:1-3).  From their perspective, Christ was guilty by association.  The people Jesus hung-out with were actual real unsavory characters; there was really no doubt about their bad character. 

But Jesus did not come to earth to make already righteous people feel good about being around him; he came to rescue sinners and restore them to God. 

And Jesus never wavered from this fundamental mission.  With everything he said and did, Jesus communicated that lost people matter to God – and that practice eventually got him killed.

            Earlier in my Christian life I adopted a practice that most Friday nights I would go to a certain bar known for its less than virtuous clientele, order a bowl of chili gumbo and sit and talk with people.  I learned a lot about speaking with people about Jesus.  I learned even more about God.  I saw the terrible brokenness of many people’s hearts, and saw that the heart of God was pained and that he longed to restore such persons.

            One night, in the middle of winter, as I was walking back to my place with a friend at about midnight, we encountered a guy so drunk that he could not walk straight.  He was not wearing a coat, and he had no pants – he was in twenty degree weather with only a shirt and underwear.  All the people who passed by him laughed and kept walking.  It took several minutes to get some semblance of a story out of him about what happened and where he came from and where he lived.  He could not remember losing his pants which had his wallet and keys.  He had come from a bar that was blocks away, so he had been outside for a while.  He lived far enough away that there was absolutely no way he would have ever made it home.  It is likely that without someone helping him he would have passed out somewhere and died.  We got him home, found a way to get in his place, and tucked him in his bed.

            The next day I went and checked on him and had a good conversation about what happened and why we helped.  We ended up meeting several times together and talked a great deal about God, sin, Jesus, and salvation.  But, meanwhile, not everyone was happy about it.  Some of the people in my church were not pleased with me spending time in a bar with sinners.  “Bad company corrupts good character” and “it looks bad” they would tell me.  I just looked at each person who had a problem with it and said with as much D.L. Moody flavor as I could:  “I like the way I am reaching out to lost people better than the way you are not.”

We are in danger of becoming encrusted with so much insulation from lost people and their real hurts that we do not know God’s heart for them. 

Jesus, better than any of us could ever imagine, knows how awful and horrific sin really is because he suffered by taking on the sinful baggage of every person who has ever lived.  It is a staggering thought.  So, because Jesus understands how incredibly terrible sin is, it is God who becomes completely uncorked with joy and celebration when just one lost sinner is restored to his heart.

            Grace lies at the heart of the Father – a scandalous grace that defies all earthly sense.  God’s deepest desire, God’s greatest yearning, and God’s most passionate dream is this: that lost people would return home (Luke 15:11-32).  We were meant to be in harmonious relationship with God.  When that is not true of people, it pains the heart of God and He longs for restoration. 

In light of the reality that God’s heart burns for lost people, churches really need to:  put away all their petty concerns and realize there are lost people dying apart from Jesus every day; put their worries about the future in biblical perspective because there are people with no hope and no God in our neighborhoods and workplaces; chuck their pre-occupations with attendance and money, and instead have a holy obsession with people coming to know Jesus Christ as Savior. 

We are to make it our aim in this life to pray for, long for, look for, run after, and pursue lost people for Jesus Christ. 

For what does it profit a person to gain the world but lose his/her life because he/she was too pre-occupied with everything but reaching lost people for Jesus?  And what does it profit a church to have buildings, budgets, and butts in the pew but to never see a lost soul come to Jesus?

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Skinny on Sin

            If there is one constant thing that every church and each Christian will have to deal with until Jesus returns it is the ever-present reality of sin.  Sin is everywhere – in our hearts, in our world, in our institutions, and in our families.  It is on television, the internet, social media, and moves in and out of smartphones.  Sin, apparently, is even in our desserts (oh, the decadence of chocolate!).  If it takes one to know one, we are all experts on being sinners.

            From the Bible’s vantage, sin is serious business.  It is both the things we do (1 John 3:4), as well as the things we leave undone (James 4:17).  Sin is both the breaking of God’s commands, and the lack of conforming to the teachings of Jesus.  Christians throughout the ages have generally understood that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and Christ’s law of love (Luke 10:27) constitute a brief summary of God’s holy and moral instruction for humanity.  This is all based in the character of God, as he is both holy and loving.  Sin, then, may be defined as anything in a person which does not express, or is contrary to, the basic character of God.

            All sin, whether in actions or inactions, has as its root an attitude and activity of self-centeredness.  It is the bent of thinking more about ourselves than of God.  And, oh my, the consequences that such an attitude results!  Sinful attitudes bring about an obsession with lust (1 John 8:34; Galatians 5:16); a broken relationship with God (Romans 3:23; Galatians 5:17); bondage to Satan (1 Timothy 3:6-7; 2 Timothy 2:26); death (Romans 6:23; 8:6); hardening of the heart (Hebrews 3:13); and deception (1 Corinthians 3:18; James 1:22, 26) just to a name a few.

            What all this means is that we are guilty of transgressing basic morality as well as failing to live up being ethically virtuous people on any on-going consistent basis.  Well, that sounds like a total Debbie-Downer.  Actually, it’s total depravity.  Being depraved people does not mean we are never capable of doing good; it just means that sin has profoundly touched everything in our lives, without exception.

            The ironic paradox of all this is that experiencing true joy and comfort comes through knowing how great our sin is.  We can only live above sin if we are set free from it by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  If a person is to be redeemed from sin, then a provision must be made.  Sin has been dealt with once for all through the person and work of Jesus.  He is our representative, taking our place with the punishment we deserved (Galatians 4:4-5; Ephesians 2:5-6; Colossians 2:9-15; Hebrews 2:17-18; 1 John 2:1).

            Jesus Christ is our ultimate substitute (Romans 5:8); which resulted in our redemption (Galatians 5:13); which resulted in his sacrifice for sin satisfying all justice (Romans 3:25); which resulted in our reconciliation to God (Romans 5:10).  Therefore the person who believes in Jesus is forgiven of sin because Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to deal with all the effects of sin.  The Christian is complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10).

            The sin issue has been dealt with decisively and definitively in Christ.  So, then, gratitude is in order for the church.  Christians ought to be the last people on earth that walk around looking like they were baptized in pickle juice.  Instead, Christians ought to be the most thankful and gracious people around because they are forgiven people.  A lack of joy and celebration betrays a lack of Christianity (Luke 15:25-32).

            Sin certainly is awful.  It destroys everything it touches and can leave terrible consequences in its wake.  But sin does not have the last word.  Thus, effective church ministry has at its core a solid teaching of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection which is the decisive blow to sin’s power.  Anything less isn’t a church, but a country club of people hob-nobbing over donuts and gossip.  The skinny on sin is that it is bad, really bad; but Jesus is good, and overcomes the worst that sin can throw at him.  Thank you, Jesus.