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Welcome Happy Morning!

1408f557ef81ec73fff34aa55dea906b-rimg-w550-h320-gmirJohn 20:1-18; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8

Welcome Happy Morning, age to age shall say. Hell today is vanquished, Heaven is won today. Lo! The dead is living, God forevermore; Him, their true Creator, all His works adore. Come then, true and faithful, Now fulfill Thy Word! Tis Thine own third morning, Rise O Buried Lord! Show Thy face in brightness. Bid the nations see. Bring again our daylight; Day returns with Thee. Welcome happy morning, age to age shall say; Hell today is vanquished. Heaven is won today. Amen.

The lyrics of this hymn I just shared with you were written in the sixth century by Venantius Fortunatus – truly from age to age it is the same. We do welcome that happy morning when Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Jesus was acknowledged then as Conqueror of Sin, Death and Satan as He is today, as He always will be. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. He is the risen Lord, eternal Lord.

You know it really surprises me that so many people spend so much time and effort and energy chasing after the temporary, pondering the inconsequential. In truth, much of the world focuses its attention on the fleeting while putting off thoughts of eternal destiny — ultimate consequences — when really the first priority of our thinking ought to be eternity and how eternity informs the momentary. We’re here for just a blinking of an eye and then something happens to us. Death and eternity. We can’t avoid death any more than we can avoid eternity – they don’t go away simply because we choose not to think about them. We need to plan ahead and not go so willy nilly about life. Eternity is a long time. So let me ask you a question this morning: How and where will you be spending eternity? If you truly are a Christian, can you be certain – are you certain that you have put your faith in a reliable place, in a reliable person?

The Bible tells us that everyone has sinned and has fallen short of the glory of God and that the wages of sin – what is earned through sin – is death. If there is no atonement for sin, what is earned is an eternity of separation from God.

The perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ is the only basis on which we can come into a saving relationship with the living God. There is no other way for Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” By Jesus.

Mt. Rubidoux, Riverside, California, Easter Morning at 6 o'clock. Two thousand people holding services. From 1870-1925?
Mt. Rubidoux, Riverside, California, Easter Morning at 6 o’clock. Two thousand people holding services. From 1870-1925?

Suppose the entire human race lined up on the West Coast with one objective – to get to Hawaii. We’ll equate their goal with God’s standard of righteousness. The gun is fired and all the swimmers jump in. As we look out over the ocean, we see the most moral one of all – an individual always doing his best, trying to adhere to the highest moral standards – yet he would be the first to admit his imperfection and sinfulness. But he’s out there in the water 75 miles from shore. Next we see a college student. She does cheat on her exams a little and goes on a binge every now and then but she’s not a complete reprobate. She’s gotten about 10 miles out. The mass murderer is drowning a few yards off shore. Scattered about in the water between the two extremes of the spectrum, we see the rest of the human race. As we look from the mass murderer to the tremendously moral man, we can see the difference. It’s an enormous difference. But what’s the difference in terms of Hawaii. Everyone will drown.

A set of swimming instructions won’t help at this point. We need somebody to take us to Hawaii. This is where Jesus comes in. If you can live a life that is absolutely perfect in thought, word and deed, you can make it to heaven on your own steam. But no mere human being has ever done or ever will do this. All the other religions of the world are essentially sets of swimming instructions, suggested codes of ethics, patterns for living. But humankind’s basic problem is not a matter of knowing how we ought to live; it’s lacking the power to live as we ought. The good news of Christianity is that Jesus Christ does for us what we cannot possibly do for ourselves. Through Him alone are we reconciled with God, given His righteousness and enabled to have a personal relationship with Him in His very presence.

And how did He accomplish all of this? By going to the cross and taking upon Himself the punishment for sins that was rightfully due to us. And how do we appropriate His righteousness? By admitting and repenting of our sin, accepting Christ’s sacrifice in our place and living lives of service and gratitude for what the Lord has done.

But how do we know that Jesus – who claimed to be the Messiah, the Savior, God enfleshed – how do we know that He wasn’t some lunatic or that He wasn’t a liar? The crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are either elements in the world’s greatest hoax –or the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension are the most important events ever for humankind.

So what do we have for proof of the claims of Jesus?

Well, first there are the prophecies all fulfilled in Jesus – written hundreds of years before Jesus appeared on earth, prophecies recorded for us in, what we call, the Old Testament. Detailed prophecies referring to the place and time of His birth in – specifically – Bethlehem. His birth by a virgin. His ministry in Galilee. His roles as prophet, priest and king. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem astride a donkey. His betrayal by a friend. We have to the penny the amount of money for which He would be betrayed. We have the prophecies that the money would be returned for a potters’ field, that false witnesses would come forward to accuse the Messiah. We have accountings, hundreds of years before they occurred, of all the incidents surrounding His death – that He would be mocked and spat upon; that His hands and feet would be pierced; that He would be given gall and vinegar to drink; that soldiers would cast lots for His clothes; that Jesus would pray for those who were crucifying Him; that not a bone of His would be broken; that He would be buried with the rich; that He would rise from the dead and ascend into heaven.

Then we have the witnesses to the resurrected Jesus: from 1st Corinthians 15 and elsewhere, we learn that Jesus, after His resurrection, appeared to Mary Magdalene, to Peter, to several women as they ran from the tomb, to two disciples on the Emmaus Road, to 10 disciples in the Upper Room, to seven men at the Sea of Galilee, to 11 disciples on a mountain, to more than 500 people at one time

And then there are the details surrounding the crucifixion: Jesus was sentenced to death by the Roman Empire. Death by crucifixion, the most horrific, painful means of execution ever devised. But first, as I noted last week, Pontius Pilate had Him scourged. And, as you’ll recall, in this form of punishment, the prisoner was tied to a post with his back bent and a whip with long leather straps studded with sharp pieces of bone, rocks, lead pellets and glass was used on Him. With each lash, the whip would wrap around the body, stripping off pieces of flesh. Roman beatings could be so severe that bones and organs were left exposed. By the time they got through beating Him, Jesus’ body may well have been barely recognizable.

They jammed on His head a crown of thorns and then beat Him on the head repeatedly with a staff. Then they led Him away to be crucified. John tells us that Jesus – battered, whipped, dehydrated, exhausted from a sleepless night — carried His own cross as they headed out of Jerusalem. But, with His condition weakened by the torture, the soldiers took a man from the crowd and had him carry the cross for the remaining steps to the place of crucifixion.

Then on the skull-shaped hill, Golgotha, Jesus, naked and already in unimaginable pain, was nailed to a cross through His ankle and heel bones. And He remained on that cross for six hours.

The following events at the site of the crucifixion help verify that Jesus was dead:

  • The Roman soldiers did not break Jesus’ legs, because they “saw that He was already dead” (Jn. 19:33).
  • The soldiers plunged a spear into Jesus’ side, and from it came both water and blood (Jn. 19:34). Medical experts say that if He were not already dead, this in itself would have killed Him. Others have concluded that the pouring out of water and blood from His side was proof that Jesus was no longer alive.
  • When Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body of Christ so he and Nicodemus could bury Him, Pontius Pilate ordered a centurion to verify that Jesus was dead (Mk. 15:43-45). The Roman governor would not release the body to Joseph until the centurion was certain that all signs of life were gone. You can be sure that an officer in the Roman army would not make a mistake about an important matter like this in his report to such a high official as Pilate.
  • Joseph and Nicodemus prepared the body for burial according to Jewish custom. This included wrapping it “in a clean linen cloth” (Mt. 27:59), anointing the body with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes” (Jn. 19:39), and placing it “in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock” (Mk. 15:46). It seems obvious that any sign of life would have been detected by these bereaved friends. Surely they would not have buried a breathing Jesus.
  • The Pharisees and chief priests met with Pilate to discuss what had occurred. They made such remarks as “while He was still alive” (Mt. 27:63). Soldiers were ordered to secure the grave with a seal. In addition, guards were placed on duty to prevent the disciples from coming to “steal Him away” (v.64). The Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities knew beyond doubt that Jesus was dead.

After His body was wrapped, it was placed in a rock cave before which a huge stone was rolled. Geologists from Georgia Tech went to Jerusalem some years ago to study just how large this stone had to have been to cover the four and a half to five foot doorway that would have been standard at the time. The stone, they estimated, would have weighted 1 ½ to 2 tons. This stone would have been sealed with clay and stamped with the Roman signet. To mess with a Roman seal was punishable by death, by crucifixion. The tomb was heavily guarded – remember, this was the Roman Empire – the most well-trained fighting machine that has ever walked the earth. Because of the stature of Jesus, the controversy surrounding Him, we can surmise there would have been a pretty substantial detail guarding Him. Again, well-armed, well-trained. And they themselves would have been beaten, set afire, or executed if they failed in their duty.

Could the disciples have eluded the guards – the well-trained fighting machine who would faced death for this? Could the guards have slept through or allowed the disciples to remove the two ton stone, unwrap the 100 pounds of graveclothes, fold them up neatly, lift the body and carry it away? Come on!

And then there is the witness of the disciples. They had dedicated the better part of three years to following Jesus. In the hours after Jesus’ death, they were probably asking themselves if they all hadn’t made just a huge mistake. Even though Jesus had told them He would die, they’d just never gotten it. They hadn’t understood; they hadn’t bargained on the cross. And so they were in hiding, fearing for their lives. But, then something happened to change them overnight into bold, fearless proclaimers of the name Jesus. So bold, so fearless, so determined to spread the word, that we’re here today to talk about what they did, what they saw 2,000 years ago. So bold, so fearless, so changed – that they were willing to give their own lives so that we might know their Jesus.

They had been so afraid they had been cowering behind doors but then – on the third day after the crucifixion – John tells us one of the women who had followed Jesus made her way to the tomb. Mary Magdalene had left behind her life of sin for a new life as a disciple of Jesus. She believed Him. She loved Him. And then He died on the cross.

Mary witnessed His death and she was there when His lifeless body was taken down and placed in the tomb. And so she returned to the tomb early in the morning on the third day and found, to her amazement and fear, that the stone had been rolled away.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Easter_Morning_-_WGA8289
Easter Morning by Caspar David Friedrich, 1828-1835.

She responded by running to tell the disciples. Her announcement to Peter and John was like a pistol shot that started the race to the tomb. And so the proud, impulsive fisherman and the one known as the beloved disciple, made for the tomb. From the outside, one could see the body was not there. Mary had probably seen that. But from the inside of the tomb, a person might be able to receive a great insight. That insight is the key in all of this: the realization that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.

Understand that Mary didn’t know that in those initial moments outside the tomb. What she said was: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.” When she said, “they,” she probably meant the Romans had taken the body.

But, as we’ve noted, that was an incorrect assumption. After all that had occurred, the last thing the authorities wanted was to see a missing Jesus whose disappearance would be certain to stir up the people again. And Mary knew the disciples hadn’t taken Him. They’d been in hiding, afraid to show their faces. And a simply human Jesus couldn’t have emerged from the tomb on His own. Remember what He had endured.

So, if the authorities hadn’t done it and the disciples hadn’t done it, and a merely human Jesus hadn’t done it, how had the stone been moved, the guard foiled and a dead Jesus come out of the tomb? Well, let’s see.

Verse 4 in John’s gospel tells us that John reached the tomb. Imagine the scene: He and Peter had been running and have arrived huffing and puffing. But John stops short – he peeks into the tomb but he doesn’t cross the line. Instead, he squints to try to see inside.

We can sympathize with him. There is something about walking into a tomb – we avert our eyes, we pull back. It’s a region to which we defer and give respect. But, while John hesitated, Peter crossed the line. He went right into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there as had John from the outside.

This gospel writer, John, now uses four Greek words all translated “saw.” Mary and John “saw” at a glance (the word used for their seeing is blephei). Peter “saw”  (the-o-rei), carefully examining the details, theorizing.

Peter noted that the cloth that had wrapped Jesus’ head was separate from the other grave clothes. It even had a rolled-up appearance. The Greek word suggests it was coiled or rolled as though the head around which it was wrapped had suddenly dematerialized and vanished. Peter saw all this like a detective, examining the details, looking for clues. He was trying to figure out what “they” had done with the body when “they” had taken it. He was puzzled that they would leave the grave clothes.

Then John went into the tomb. Again, he “saw” but this time the Greek word used is eiden, a physical seeing, a mental understanding, a spiritual knowing. While Mary and John had initially just looked, while Peter was theorizing, John now had a flash of insight.

Verse 8 says John saw and believed. What did he believe? He believed that Jesus rose from the dead. He understood that Jesus was not carried away by some weird soldiers who had taken the trouble to unwind and rewind the grave clothes. John had crossed the line. Faith is going across the line, seeing, believing, and then acting on that belief. John believed what he believed based on what he saw in the tomb. Only later did the disciples come to understand from scripture why Jesus had to follow this route. The point here is that they didn’t make up a story of resurrection to fit a preconceived understanding of scriptural prophecy. Jesus had been explaining to them that these prophecies had to be fulfilled in Him but, as scripture tells us again and again and, as we’re reminded in our passage from John, the disciples were slow to understand.

It is interesting to note how each of these words about seeing has moved into the English language. Blephei is found in words particularly relating to the eyelids, that which covers the eyes. Theorei lends it base to words that speak about speculations, untested assumptions, abstract reasoning. And eidon has made its way into the language in words such as eidetic, defined as that which is marked by extraordinarily detailed and vivid recall of visual images.

It’s clear that all of the disciples came to this eidetic way of seeing because nothing less — no fictional story, no hoax — could possibly account for the changes that occurred within them.

Take, for instance, the transformation of Thomas. Of all the disciples, he seemed the least likely to be convinced. His pessimism was first revealed earlier, when Jesus mentioned His plans to go to Bethany where Lazarus had just died. Thomas had suggested to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (Jn. 11:16). Although this statement suggests a degree of courage, it also implies that Thomas was resigned to martyrdom. If that was his typical response, it is no wonder he responded to the disciples’ claim that they had seen Jesus after His death by saying, “Unless I see . . . I will not believe” (Jn. 20:25). Does this sound like someone who is willing to rekindle the anger of the Roman officials by claiming that Jesus was alive if He really wasn’t?

Now look at Thomas a week after the crucifixion. In the upper room, surrounded by his 10 friends who had already seen Jesus, he saw the Savior face to face. Finally, Thomas was convinced. His statement, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:28) is the ultimate proclamation of belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Here was victory that could be won only through hard evidence. It’s the only thing that could have changed this skeptic into a believer.

No, the disciples were not the type of men who could have lived a lie as far-reaching as one that claimed a dead man wasn’t dead anymore. They might have misunderstood Jesus on occasion, but they were basically honest men. They had no reason to devise such a scheme, and they didn’t have the courage it would take to defend such a bald-faced lie. Peter would never have been hanged upside down for a trumped-up story. Mark would not have been dragged through the streets to his death if he had been defending fiction. James would not have been beheaded for a falsehood. Thomas wouldn’t have been pierced with a lance for a lie. Yet history tells us that these men each died in these horrific ways. What a testimony to the truth of their claims! They were willing to die for the One who overcame death for them–and for us!

So this day we celebrate – this happy morning – calls us to the tomb to confront the reality of death and to make a decision about what kind of relationship we want to have with death. We are asked to decide whether we will allow eternal death to have a grip on us or whether we will, instead, embrace the eternal life that is offered to us only by the resurrected Jesus Christ.

Finally, let us walk once more by the tomb. John and Peter have gone off to ponder the questions and Mary remains at the tomb sobbing and sobbing. But, as she looks into the tomb again, she sees two angels now seated where Jesus’ body had been.

And they ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Her reply was the same she had given to Peter and John just moments earlier, “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put Him.”

Then she sensed someone else near her. She turned and saw a man whom she assumed was the gardener. And He asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”

Perhaps she couldn’t see clearly through her tears, perhaps her grief and fear kept her from seeing, but, initially, we’re told she failed to recognize that the one to whom she was speaking was the risen Jesus. Finally, He called her by name as He does each of His disciples and she felt a pull on her heart. She knew this was Jesus, alive and standing before her.

Then Jesus said a surprising thing: “Do not hold onto me for I have not yet returned (or ascended to the Father). Perhaps this was Jesus’ way of telling Mary that her life could never return to what it was. Mary would have to let go of the incarnated Jesus so that He might complete His work and send the Comforter, the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Mary would also have to let go of death, of sin, of all that bound her. She would have to truly trust the risen Lord. That’s something we all need to remember on this Resurrection Sunday. There are some things we just can’t hold on to. Many of us have perhaps remained entombed for years, wearing death and sin like graveclothes – bound by regrets, anger, unresolved guilt, fears. These must be stripped away in order for us to fully display the light that will draw others unto Jesus.

We who have welcomed Jesus as Savior can leave the tomb; we can let it go to claim the abundant life that Jesus has for us now. Jesus Christ is alive and new life is available to everyone who calls on His name.

While tears of joy were streaming down Mary’s face, Jesus told, “Go to my brothers and say to them ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary left the tomb to share the good news. “I have seen (in the Greek, e-o-raka) the Lord,” she said. This fourth Greek word for seeing has a similar meaning to another – eureka – which has come directly into the English language and is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as the word “used to express triumph upon the discovery of something.” In the case of Mary, the something was not a something, but a someone. Mary had discovered the risen Lord Jesus Christ. And because this risen Lord had conquered death, Mary had discovered new hope, new meaning, new life. Well, more accurately, these had been given to her for salvation is the gift of God. We receive not of our own efforts so that no one can boast. My most fervent prayer this morning is that we all might see as Mary saw on that first Resurrection morning.

That we might really see – not a simple blephei kind of seeing (at a glance); not a theorei kind of seeing (speculation) and not even an eiden kind of seeing (identification) but that we might be filled with the full triumph of discovery as the eyes of our hearts comprehend that in this day we have been confronted with the reality of death and it’s alright because Jesus has conquered death. Jesus has risen from the dead and that makes a difference for us now.

Easter Morning. Chromolithograph by Mary Theresa Hart from 1861-1897.
Easter Morning. Chromolithograph by Mary Theresa Hart from 1861-1897.

Welcome Happy Morning, age to age shall say. Hell today is vanquished, Heaven is won today. Lo! The dead is living, God forevermore; Him, their true Creator, all His works adore. Come then, true and faithful, Now fulfill Thy Word! Tis Thine own third morning, Rise O Buried Lord! Show Thy face in brightness. Bid the nations see. Bring again our daylight; Day returns with Thee. Welcome happy morning, age to age shall say; Hell today is vanquished. Heaven is won today. Amen.

And all God’s people said Amen!

NOTE: I composed this from notes compiled over a number of years. Attributions may not be complete. Sources include: Paul E. Little’s How to Give Away Your Faith.

Featured image: Easter Procession by Illarion Pryanishnikov, 1893.

 

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From Acclamation to Crucifixion

Mark 11:1-11 and Matthew 27:45-61

Palm Sunday, also called Passion Sunday, is the day on which we recall Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem; it is also the day on which we recount the sufferings of our Lord Jesus in the week that followed. This Holy Week began with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem where He was met with great rejoicing, great honor, and great praise.

As Jesus approached the city, He knew full well what lay ahead of Him for Jesus, fully God, had come in the flesh so that He might take upon Himself the punishment rightfully due to sinful humankind.

Before His arrest, He had foretold that one of His own disciples would betray Him. He had predicted the suffering that He would undergo at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law. And He had warned His disciples He would meet His death but, three days later, would be raised from the dead.

Before He went to the cross, Jesus used the image of the instrument of His death to instruct His followers in the need for being willing to bear the cross for Him, being willing to suffer and perhaps to die, in obedience to Him but always with the realization that eternal glory was in store for those who would submit themselves to God.

As Jesus neared the villages of Bethphage (bait-fuh-gee) and Bethany (Baith-a-nee) on the eastern boundary of Jerusalem, He knew it was time for Him to be revealed as the Messiah. Messiah translates into English “Anointed One.” He was the One for whom the people had been waiting. But some in the crowd didn’t understand who He was because they had been hoping for a Savior who would overcome earthly enemies and reign as an earthly king. Others rightly understood that Jesus—in the Hebrew “Yeshuah” (which means Savior)—was the Messiah to Whom what we now know as the Old Testament had pointed. With his work on the cross, Jesus—Prophet, Priest and King—would be victor over the enemies of sin, death and Satan.

Jesus was the answer to more than 300 Biblical prophecies/promises that were all fulfilled in Him.

Hundreds of years before He came, the prophets Micah and Isaiah predicted the Messiah would be born of a virgin in the village of Bethlehem and that He would come from the tribe of Judah and the line of King David.

Zechariah, prophesying more than 500 years before the coming of Christ, wrote that the Messiah would be sold for 30 pieces of silver, and it was for this amount that Judas Iscariot handed over Jesus. Zechariah also predicted the money would be returned for a potters’ field, a burial place for foreigners. And it was.

And, as Isaiah foretold, Jesus was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and He was crucified with sinners. Isaiah had said the hands and feet of the Messiah would be pierced, He would be mocked and insulted, He would be given gall and vinegar to drink, He would pray for His enemies, His side would be pierced, soldiers would cast lots to see who would get His clothes, not a bone of His would be broken, and He would be buried with the rich. All these prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus.

And all this suffering—the prophets foretold—would be necessary so the Messiah might take upon Himself our sins and, in so doing, accept the grievous penalty for them. The prophets also foretold that Christ’s resurrection and ascension into heaven would guarantee eternal life to all those who would believe and accept what the Savior had done for them on the cross.

One other prophecy was offered by Zechariah and it is this that leads us into our passage from Mark. In the ninth chapter of the book of Zechariah, the prophet wrote: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, daughter of Jerusalem! See your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

And this prophecy was fulfilled as Jesus asked His disciples to procure such a colt that He might enter the city—the city of His destiny—not on foot, as would be expected of a pilgrim and not on a horse, a mighty steed, as a warrior, but on a lowly donkey, as a man of peace.

On the colt—and we are told in the gospel of Matthew that it was the colt of a donkey—the disciples placed cloaks to create a sort of saddle for Jesus. As a token of homage to Him, cloaks and leafy palm branches were spread on the road before Him.

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The words of praise the people then offered are recorded in Mark’s gospel and in like passages in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. “Hosanna?! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” The word Hosanna is a Hebrew exclamation that translates “Save Now!” It was an appeal to God to save the Israelite people now that the Messiah had appeared among them. The words “He Who Comes” is the title by which the Messiah was denoted. “Save us now, Messiah!”

And so, on what has come to be known as Palm Sunday, Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. On the following Sunday, He would make His triumphal resurrection from the dead.

In between, there would be a full week. On Monday, He would cleanse the temple of the moneychangers and, in that same temple, He would heal the blind and the lame and He would instruct His disciples on the power of faith.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, He would share a number of parables, teach about the Greatest Commandment, tell about the events that would signal the end time, and describe the final judgment.

Wednesday would close with Mary’s anointing of Him with oil and with Judas’ promise to the authorities to betray Jesus.

On Thursday, there would be the preparation of the Passover meal, the washing of the disciples’ feet, the designation of the traitor, the Last Supper, the parable of the true vine, the promise of the Holy Spirit.

And then there would be the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Gethsemane” translates from the Hebrew: oil press. John’s language in his gospel suggests it was a walled garden, and Luke tells us it was located on the slope of the Mount of Olives.

The symbolism in all of this is astonishing. In Jesus’ day, olive oil took the place of butter and cooking fat and so was crucial in a person’s diet. Oil was used as fuel for lamps. It was also used in healing. Further, in religious life, those consecrated to God’s service were anointed with oil. The prophet, the priest, and the king were all anointed with oil in ceremonies of consecration. Jesus, the anointed One, gathered up into Himself the triple function of prophet, priest and king and this Messiah, who fed the multitudes, who brought light into the darkness, and who healed in body, mind and spirit—this Messiah came to the Garden of Gethsemane and prepared to undo the damage done by the inhabitants of the first garden.

So, just as the Bread of Life was born in Bethlehem, which translates to the English, “House of Bread,” and was placed in a feeding trough, so now on the night of His betrayal, the Anointed One is found at Gethsemane, in the oil press, on the Mount of Olives.

Jesus knew what was coming. He could have run. Instead He prayed and He waited and He made a request of His disciples. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” They fell asleep.

Luke 22:44 tells us that as Jesus anguished over what was coming, His sweat was like drops of blood falling on the ground. The medical term for this, “hemohidrosis” has been seen in patients who have experienced extreme stress or shock to their systems. The capillaries around the sweat pores become fragile and leak blood into the sweat.

The fully human Jesus knelt in prayer and anguished over what lay ahead of Him. The fully human Jesus would know every excruciating lash of the whip and the piercing pain of the crown of thorns. This Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was fully God and fully human. Now, e may not understand how this is possible but to appreciate the magnitude of what Jesus did, we need to accept it.

He was fully present on the cross but beyond the horror of the cross, Jesus knew even more awaited Him. He, the sinless One, who had existed from all eternity, pure, unspotted, holy, knew that He would redeem us from the curse of the law by taking all our filthy sins upon Himself that they might be crucified with Him on the cross.

After this time in Gethsemane, there would be His arrest, His healing of the High Priest’s servant, and the desertion of His disciples.

On Friday, Jesus would appear before Caiaphas (kay-a-fus), the high priest, then before the entire Sanhedrin (the highest judicial and ecclesiastical council of the ancient Jewish nation composed of 71 members). Then He would be before Pilate, Herod and Pilate again.

Judas, filled with remorse and self-loathing over his betrayal of Jesus, committed suicide. Pontius Pilate, responding to the cries of the crowd to crucify Jesus, approved the death sentence and then tried to wash his hands of the whole affair.

But before sending Him off to be crucified, Pontius Pilate had Jesus scourged. In this form of punishment, the prisoner was tied to a post with his back bent and a whip with long leather thongs studded with sharp pieces of bone, rocks, lead pellets and glass was used. With each lash, the whip would wrap around the body, stripping off pieces of flesh. Roman beatings could be so severe that bones and organs were left exposed. By the time they got through beating Him, Jesus’ body may well have been barely recognizable. The pain from being struck with this instrument—up to 39 times from the neck to the knees–was so severe that men died under it or broke with loss of their senses. But Jesus retained His consciousness throughout.

Then Matthew, in chapter 27, beginning at verse 27, records the preparation for Christ’s crucifixion. The Roman guard—about 200 men—took Jesus into the barracks at the Fortress of Antonia (an-toe-nia) and began to mock Him. They stripped Him of His clothing and put a scarlet robe on Him, the color symbolizing power and kingship. On His head, they put a crown of woven thorns. In His hand, a staff to symbolize a scepter. Then the guards knelt before Him: “Hail, King of the Jews!”

They spat on Him and took the staff and struck Him again and again on the head and then they led Him away to be crucified. John tells us that Jesus—battered, whipped, dehydrated, exhausted from a sleepless night–carried His own cross as they headed out of Jerusalem. But, with His condition weakened by the torture, Jesus stumbled under the load. And the soldiers took a man—a North African—from the crowd—Simon of Cyrene—and ordered him to carry Jesus’ cross. Jesus followed until the 650-yard journey from the fortress of Antonia (An-toe-nia) to the place of crucifixion was completed.

That place of crucifixion was the skull-shaped hill called Golgotha. There Jesus, naked and already in unimaginable pain, was nailed to a cross.

Jesus was crucified at about nine o’clock in the morning. Our passage from Matthew refers to the sixth to the ninth hours (which, in our reckoning would be from noon to 3 o’clock) and in those three hours, darkness came over the land.

C. Truman Davis provides a physician’s description of what would have happened on the cross. He tells us that the soldier who nailed Jesus to the cross would have looked for the depression at the front of the wrist and through that would have driven the heavy, square, wrought-iron nail. The soldier would then have moved to the other side and driven the nail into the other wrist careful not to pull the arms too tightly but to allow for movement.

Jesus’ left foot would then have been pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, the nail would have been driven through the heels.

Then Davis imagines: Jesus slowly sags down with more weight on the nails in the wrists. Then as He pushes Himself upward to avoid this stretching torment, He places His full weight on the nail through His feet. Again there is the searing agony of the nail tearing through the nerves between the bones of the feet. At this point, as the arms fatigue, great waves of cramps sweep over the muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push Himself upward. Hanging by his arms, the pectoral muscles in his chest are paralyzed and the intercostal muscles by His ribcage are unable to function. Jesus fights to raise Himself in order to get even one short breath. Finally, carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically, He is able to push Himself upward to exhale and bring in oxygen. It was probably during these periods that He uttered the seven short sentences recorded throughout the gospels:

The first, looking down at the Roman soldiers throwing dice for His seamless garment, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

The second, to the penitent thief, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

The third, looking down at the terrified, grief-stricken John—the beloved Apostle—Jesus says to him, “Behold your mother.” Then, looking to His mother Mary, “Woman, behold your son.”

The fourth cry harkens back to the first words of the 22nd Psalm, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani (sa-voke-tanee),” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Hours of limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, searing pain where tissue is torn from His lacerated back as He moves up and down against the rough timber. Then another agony begins. A terrible crushing pain deep in the chest as the pericardium (the double walled sac that contains the heart) slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart.

We are reminded in this of the 22nd Psalm, the 14th verse: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.”

It is now almost over. The loss of tissue fluids has reached a critical level; the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the tissue; the tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. The markedly dehydrated tissues send their flood of stimuli to the brain.

Jesus gasps His fifth cry, “I thirst.”  This recalls another verse from the prophetic 22nd Psalm: “My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth, you lay me in the dust of death.”

Someone runs to get a sponge filled with drugged wine, puts it on a stick and offers it to Jesus to drink. He refuses it. Some continue to mock Him. And then perhaps Jesus feels the chill of death creeping through His body and He speaks the sixth of His words from the cross: “It is finished.”

His mission of atonement has been completed. He can allow Himself to die. With one last surge of strength, He once again presses His torn feet against the nail, straightens His legs, takes a deeper breath, and utters His seventh and last cry, “Father! Into your hands I commit my spirit.”

At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom signifying the fact that, at that moment, Christ had made it possible for believers to go directly into God’s presence. The earth shook, the rocks split, the tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.

Finally, when the centurion and the others with him saw all of this, they realized what they had done and they were terrified. He must have been the Son of God! And those of His followers who had not deserted, watched from a distance.

As evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, accompanied by Nicodemus—we’re told by the gospel writer John—dared to go to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus. Can you see them working together to take Him down and to wrap Him gently in a clean linen cloth? Placing Him in the tomb? And can you see the two women—Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of the apostles James and John–outside the tomb?

Well, this is where we find ourselves as we approach Holy Week. Over these days, if you dip your bread into oil or eat an olive, think as you do of Jesus pouring Himself out in grief on the Mount of Olives—in Gethsemane–the oil press—as He looked toward the cross. As you receive a palm branch in worship, give thanks to the One who went to the cross for you and praise Him—our Prophet, Priest and King, our Savior, our Lord.

If you happen to pass a field where donkeys are grazing, think of the Man of Peace riding triumphantly into Jerusalem. Imagine yourself in the throng, laying your tributes at His feet. Place yourself at the Last Supper, in the Garden of Gethsemane, listen to His teaching, walk with Him through these days. May we not slumber on through this time but rather read and read again the gospel accounts of Holy Week. As you are able, as your strength permits, spend time fasting, feasting only on the Word of God and praying.

Take a few moments to contemplate the great love of our Lord that sent Him to the cross for the remission of our sins.

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Telling Bob About the Pastorate

Matthew 4:1-11 and 2 Timothy 4:1-5

When, at the end of 2021, I was nearing the end of a pastorate in New Hampshire, I wanted to prepare the congregation for the next chapter in their life together. On one Sunday, I stressed the need for the church to mobilize in ministries of compassion; the following Sunday I shared the message that follows.

What to offer today? A mere 66 books, only about 800,000 God-breathed words to consider!! Narratives. Prophecies. Poems. Gospels. Epistles. And then, I felt led to Bob. Now, I’ve often drawn from my years as a professor of evangelism and renewal and director of a doctoral program centered on the Renewal of the Church for Mission. In those capacities, I often served as a pastor to pastors or as a pastor to those preparing to enter the pastorate.

And, over the years, many dear ones have asked me to speak at their ordination services and installations. As I am here this morning praying the Lord will lead a Bible-honoring, Christ-centered, well-educated, experienced minister to lead this church, I thought it appropriate to return to a message I delivered at a service for one of my Master of Divinity students. In the bulletin this morning, you’ll see pictured a sampling of what those called to the pastorate may be called upon to do in the local church. I have filled all those roles and more in my years as a minister.

Now, Bob was one who’d been in several of my classes, and I’d even invited him to participate in a doctoral level course that I taught in Washington, D.C. Some years ago, he accepted a call to lead a church in upstate New York, and I was called upon to share key lessons from the Word on the responsibilities of the pastor; I was charged to bring a charge to him on the day of his installation.

I took a three-part approach. First, I looked to the passage in the Bible that has been called “the handbook for ministers.” Then I considered the temptations that face the pastor, and I concluded with an examination of what it means to be a servant leader, an under-shepherd of Christ leading according to the example set by Jesus. In creating the message, I built upon the reflections of other writers on these themes and passages that have ministered to me and have taken up residence in my heart.

One last bit of introduction, before we turn to the Word…a question that was once posed to me that still prompts a shake of the head, a moan and a good laugh: “I know pastors work on Sunday mornings but what do they do the rest of the week?” In the next few minutes, I’ll convey a bit about what we do the rest of the week as I speak to Bob, to Bob’s congregation, to you, and to myself.

First Timothy 4 (and that’s not a mistake, I do mean First Timothy 4) has been referred to and has served as a “handbook for ministers.” The chapter provides practical instruction for the one called to pastor the local church. The task: preach the Word, practice the Word, progress in the Word.

This passage, as rendered into contemporary language in The Message by Eugene Peterson, reads this way:

The Spirit makes it clear that as time goes on, some are going to give up on the faith and chase after demonic illusions put forth by professional liars . . . [But] you’ve been raised on the Message of the faith and have followed sound teaching. Now pass on this counsel to the Christians here, and you’ll be a good servant of Jesus. Stay clear of silly stories that get dressed up as religion. Exercise daily in God—no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever. You can count on this. Take it to heart. This is why we’ve thrown ourselves into this venture so totally. We’re banking on the living God, the Savior.

Get the word out. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity. Stay at your post reading Scripture, giving counsel, teaching. And that special gift of ministry you were given when the leaders of the church laid hands on you and prayed—keep that dusted off and in use.

Cultivate these things. Immerse yourself in them. The people will all see you mature right before their eyes! Keep a firm grasp on both your character and your teaching. Don’t be diverted. Just keep at it. Both you and those who hear you will experience salvation.

Now, let’s bring alongside of this a portion of Paul’s message in 2nd Timothy 4 where he writes: “I can’t impress this on you too strongly. God is looking over your shoulder…so proclaim the Message with intensity, keep on your watch. Challenge, warn and urge your people. Don’t give up. Just keep it simple. You’re going to find that there will be times when people will have no stomach for solid teaching but will fill up on spiritual junk food—catchy opinions that tickle their fancy. They’ll turn their backs on truth and chase mirages. But you—keep your eye on what you’re doing; accept the hard times along with the good; keep the message alive; do a thorough job as God’s servant.”

In both passages—1st Timothy 4 and 2nd Timothy 4—Paul addresses two of the great dangers within the church today: apathy and apostasy. Apathy might be defined, in the context of the faith, as unfaithfulness to the faith, a lack of concern, a lack of interest in the faith. Apostasy is an abandonment of the faith, a turning from the faith to a lie.

Both are all too commonly found in many who profess to be Christians today, and there is a great need for preachers who will boldly and unashamedly preach the Word without compromise. I hear too often today of folks who are in churches where the Bible is held in the hand and used as a prop, or where entertainment is the word of the day, or where messages are preached each week that are all fluff and no substance, barely milk and certainly not meat. Paul was instructing Timothy to set forth a banquet, and this is a word for all of us who preach today.

Over time, you must work out an entire Biblical menu, drawing from the Old Testament and the New. Doing book studies; character studies; thematic studies; offering sermons that address specific theological questions; messages that focus on special occasions or times of the year. You must make certain the messages preached are drawn out of the Word, are faithful to the Word, and offer practical applications to contemporary realities.

But it is not enough simply to preach. As Paul reminds us, we must also practice what we preach. Practice the Word. Your first call is to faithfulness to the Lord and to His Word. Immersion in the Word will spill out in faithful living and teaching. Commitment to the work of the Holy Spirit will be seen in your concern for the spread of the Gospel. It will be demonstrated in your concern not only for the welfare of your local community but for your region, your country, your continent, your world. Always keep your ministry of prayer and ministry in the Word first. Listen to the Lord and the rest of your responsibilities will be clearly laid out for you.

You are also called to progress in the Word, to mature in it, to be cultivated in it, to grow in it, to live in it, to move forward in and through and for it. Know there will be temptations along the way to be diverted from your call. We draw lessons about what these temptations might entail from what Jesus experienced when He was taken into the wild for the Test. There were three parts to the test as we see set forth in Matthew, chapter 4.

These temptations of Christ speak to the temptations that face the pastor and, really, for that matter, all of us.

First there is the Maturity Test—The Test of Pain and Pleasure. When you are empty, hurting or confused, will you trust God to meet your needs or will you rush to satisfy them yourself?

Will you be as those who look to the fountain of living water or as those who dig for themselves cracked cisterns that cannot hold water? Will you trust in the Lord and walk in His light or will you try to live by your own light, try to warm yourself by your own fire?

Remember, your Heavenly Father knows all your needs and He will give you all you need from day to day if you live for Him and make the Kingdom of God your primary concern. This we are promised in Matthew, chapter 6.

Then there is the Integrity Test—The Test of Popularity and Praise

Will you use your abilities to serve God and others or to gain praise for yourself? Keep in mind the lesson from the story of Rehoboam from 2nd Chronicles 12. At the height of his popularity and power, he abandoned the Lord, the people followed him in that sin, and the Lord then abandoned them to their enemies. Remember also Proverbs 27:21: “A person is tested by the praise he or she receives.”

One of the first times I heard myself referred to as “The Reverend” was over a loud speaker in an airport. A limousine driver had come to collect me to bring me to a television studio where I was to create a film for the Billy Graham Association. And when one of my first books was released, and when I started doing radio interviews and appearing on TV, I was treated like a rock star wherever I went—with crowds clustering and clambering to get near me. This happened even at Gordon-Conwell, my alma mater. I liked that. It scared me that I liked that, and I pulled back to make sure my head was on straight, and I was redirecting the praise to the One worthy of all praise and glory.

To resist temptation, we are told to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. If we do, we’re told in Galatians 5, we won’t need to look for honors or popularity and when the Lord blesses, we won’t be tempted to think we achieved everything under own power. Keep in mind that you will never please all the people all the time, and you’re not meant to. We’re to focus on Jesus. In 1 Peter 5, we are told to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God and, in His good time, He will lift us up.

The third test is the Priorities Test—The Test of Prosperity and Possessions. Do you, will you, value possessions on earth more than treasures in heaven?

In Matthew 16:26, the question is asked: “What good will it be for a person if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” And in 1st Timothy 6:18 to 19, we are instructed to use our money to do good, to give generously to those in need, always being ready to share with others whatever God has given us. By doing this, we are storing up real treasure for ourselves in heaven and living a fruitful Christian life here as well.

Trust in the Lord. Humble yourself before Him. Keep your priorities straight. And then lead like Jesus. Bosses boss. Dictators dictate. Servants serve. The pastor is called to servant leadership. In Luke 22, verse 26, we read: “The one who serves you best will be your leader.”

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will need to set an example, following the example that Jesus set. In John 13, we read the words of Jesus: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” In 1st Peter 5:3, the one called to lead is told not to lord it over others. Instead, to come alongside and lead by good example in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will need to challenge folks with a greater purpose. The popularity of Rick Warren’s book on the purpose-driven life drives home the great desire in peoples’ hearts for purpose, for meaning. We only grow when we’re challenged. God is at work in His people to will and to act according to His good purpose. We have each been made for His purpose. We have each been called according to His purpose. We must work according to God’s agenda and beware of substituting our own agendas for the Lord’s.

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will need to affirm folks for their potential and you’ll need to be patient as each will grow as the Lord brings the increase. Remember Proverbs 12:25: A word of encouragement does wonders.

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will need to trust folks with responsibility. Luke 16:10 reads: “Whoever can be trusted with a little, can also be trusted with a lot” and in 1st Corinthians 13:7 we’re told that if you love folks, you’ll believe in them and expect the best of them. If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will offer folks honest feedback, helpful correction, using only helpful words for the building up of others according to their needs.

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will be open with folks, honest with them. You’ll look to folks as friends, you’ll love them and you’ll pray for them. You will let folks minister to you. If all goes as it should, you will become pastor of your church one person at a time. And when you find yourself introduced by one in your family of faith not as simply the pastor of the church I attend but rather— with a special inflection and tone—as “my pastor”—that precious gift will fill your soul with a joy that you will treasure always. The pastor has the honor of being present in the most intimate moments of people’s lives: at births, at marriages, at crucial turning points, as an individual breathes a last breath. What a privilege it is to be admitted to such moments! These are the treasures of the pastor.

What tears down the pastor, weighs down the pastor, and can ultimately burn out, chew up and kill the pastor are manufactured crises, perpetuated dramas, pettiness, nitpicking, infighting, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the stirring up of dissension, discouraging words, negativity and impatience. Warnings and chastisements against these are found throughout scripture. Beware of these, walk carefully through them, pray for wisdom and the strength of the Lord to use them for forward (rather than backward) movement, and pray that you will behave honorably when you encounter them.

I might interject here that, as an interim pastor, my experience with this congregation was entirely different from anything I’d known before. Very little was asked of me here—though I offered to do more—so what I’ll share now about the life of a pastor comes from the years prior to my season with you.

One of the burdens of the pastorate is the guilt we can carry because we’re not given the gift of omnipresence. In any given week, there will be personal and family crises needing your attention, folks in the hospital or recuperating at home, homebound or folks in nursing homes urging you to visit. You’ll have a sermon to research and craft and Sunday services to prepare; committee and board meetings to attend; materials to select; short term and long range planning to do. You’ll have a budget line to watch; stewardship to promote. You’ll have dedications, believer’s baptisms, weddings, funerals and other events at which you will officiate.

There’ll be a website to update, advertising to consider, staff to nurture and protect (in one church I pastored, I had a paid staff of seven. If this church grows in number, it may one day have a staff of that size). There will be a building to maintain (I was the clerk of the works in renovating ¾ of another church complex). There will be community and regional contacts to make and keep, classes to teach, phone calls to make, emails to write, a community to reach; mediation to perform. You will be a prophetic voice against the evils of the day. You will need to discern which causes to champion. And there will be seemingly endless adminis-trivia calling for your attention every day of every week.

As you attend to all these responsibilities, you must make the effort to maintain a healthy home life, paying attention to your family. You must make time for fun. You must rest. You must keep a Sabbath.

And, in the middle of all of this, there will always be folks who are certain they know far better than you how you should do your work. Some of these will not approach you directly but will attempt to make end runs around you. You will need the patience of Job! At times, you may become so enmeshed, so all-encompassed in the doing of the work that you may begin to lose sight of your first priority: the being, the being in a deep and ever deepening relationship with the Lord. Put the brakes on when that happens and get yourself back on track.

Several years ago, Vernon Grounds addressed a gathering of pastors at a conference in Massachusetts. In his message, he looked to 1st Samuel 12:23 where these words are written: “As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you.”

When he finished his presentation, I looked around the room and every pastor—myself included—appeared to have been cut to the heart by his message. If you remember nothing else from what I’ve shared today, remember this: Prayerlessness is a sin. It is disobedience to the will of God. Luke 18, verse 1, records that Jesus told His disciples that they should pray and not give up. Throughout the scriptures, we are told that prayer ought to be the habit, the rule, the discipline of our lives.

Prayerlessness is contempt for the fellowship of God. If we don’t have time for fellowship with God, we’re serving something wrong. In Rev. 3:20, we’re told that the Lord stands at the door and knocks and comes to anyone who will invite Him in. Sometimes we behave towards God as though we believe Him to be at our beck and call. We expect to press a button and have Him do our will. That’s disrespectful.

Prayerlessness is indifference to the purpose of God. We say we want to be molded in the image of Jesus. Well, Jesus, during His time on earth, prayed. And what is He doing now? Interceding on our behalf.

Prayer is a struggle, a battle on three fronts. Prayer is not always a matter of pure delight. It is a struggle with the physical. With our restlessness, our drowsiness. It is a struggle with the mental. Lack of concentration, a truant imagination. It is a struggle with the spiritual. Remember Ephesians 6. We are not engaged in a struggle with just flesh and blood but are wrestling with the powers of darkness. The enemy uses emotional, physical and spiritual weapons to battle against us. But Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint on his or her knees. So…get on your knees. If you’ve got bad knees, then get on your knees in your heart.

Be concerned about your prayer life. Pray about your prayerlessness and ask the Holy Spirit to revive you in prayer. Give a thought to when you can best give your undivided attention to God. The times may vary. Perhaps you’ll pray while you walk or when you’re in the car. Perhaps you’ll pray on your knees or prone before God. Perhaps you’ll get up earlier or stay up later when the house is quiet. Do whatever helps.

Be disciplined. With the Holy Spirit’s enablement, keep at it. Pray for the grace to be consistent in prayer. Someone once said that “ruts of routine serve as God’s grooves of grace.” Remember that today you are becoming what you will be the rest of your life. You’re laying the groundwork today for the Christian you’ll be tomorrow. If you have some lack, attend to it today. Teach us to pray, Lord.

Keep before you this prayer: as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for the dear ones who make up my family of faith. And if you want your church to grow in every way, encourage your folks to pray.

I ended my message to Bob and his congregation with a prayer that his family of faith might serve as a beacon of light in the place where the Lord had planted them. I prayed that Bob might serve faithfully and well, keeping his priorities straight and the Lord the Lord. I ended with the benediction from Numbers 6:25: May the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

What I’ve presented this morning is that to which I have aspired and that to which your settled pastor should aspire. He or she should want to be a Christ-honoring, Bible-centered, faithful and faith-filled pastor, and I pray you will call a person called to and skilled in leading a church.

May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

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“If I didn’t forgive them, I would never be free”

Yesterday was the eighth anniversary of the passing of Nelson Mandela. As remembrances came across my computer screen, I was reminded of a visit to Zimbabwe some years ago where I had the privilege of hearing him speak. Robert Mugabe was also on the platform that day and I remember being struck by the great difference in the receptions afforded the two men. While Mugabe was greeted with polite (faint) applause, the room filled with ululations and other expressions of appreciation and admiration as Mandela stepped to the podium. Mandela, on that day, praised the missionaries who had been so influential in his walk with Christ and he insisted he would not have been the man he was if not for his faith. I pray that followers of Christ who are reading this today might honor Mandela (and, more importantly, the God he served), by celebrating what Christ has done for us and by working each day for justice, peace, forgiveness, and righteousness wherever the Lord calls us.

Mandela famously said, “I knew, as I walked from prison, if I didn’t forgive them, I would never be free.”

If there is anyone reading this today who has not met Jesus, I pray you might take note of how a walk with Christ may transform your life as it did Mandela’s. I pray you might invite Jesus into your life, celebrate your first Christmas with great joy, and know the all-surpassing peace of the Lord all your days.

Image: Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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The Light

From 46 years ago comes a story about the power of light. Darrel Dore was working on an oil rig one day in the Gulf of Mexico when suddenly it began to wobble. Before too long it tipped to one side and crashed into the water. Darrel found himself trapped inside a room on the rig. As the rig sank deeper and deeper into the sea, the lights went out and the room where Darrel was trapped began filling with water. Thrashing about in the darkness, Darrel made a life-saving discovery: a huge air bubble was forming in the corner of the room. He kept his head inside that bubble of air and prayed that someone would find him.

As he prayed, Darrel knew he wasn’t alone; he felt the presence of Christ there with him. For 22 hours, the presence of the Lord comforted Darrel, but at the same time Darrel knew that the oxygen supply inside the bubble was slowly giving out. Soon he would be dead.

Then Darrel saw a tiny star of light shimmering in the pitch‑black water. Was it real or, after 22 hours, was he beginning to hallucinate? Darrel squinted to see. The light seemed to grow brighter. He squinted again. He wasn’t hallucinating. The light was real. It was coming from the helmet of a diver who was coming to rescue him. His long nightmare was over. His rescue was at hand.

This true story helps us understand Christmas. Sin had wobbled our world, tipped it to one side, and sent it crashing into the waters of spiritual disaster.  Darkness was everywhere.  The human race was drowning in sin, facing certain spiritual death. Then people turned to God.  They prayed in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “O Lord, you are angry and we are sinful, all of us have become unclean…Save and deliver us.”

They prayed.

And they waited for the One promised to them: The Messiah. Then, when the night seemed darkest, something remarkable happened: a star appeared in the sky heralding the arrival of the Light of the world.

Into the darkness came the Light. The Savior appeared, Jesus, the Light of the world.

Perhaps we all have stories of how precious is light when all is dark about us. Luci Swindoll tells about a friend who, along with six strangers, was caught in a stalled elevator during a power failure. Fear was quickly turning to panic. But then Luci’s friend remembered that she had a tiny flashlight in her purse. When she turned it on, the fear in the elevator dissipated. For forty‑five minutes, these strangers sat around the light and talked, laughed, and even sang. The light brought comfort when they needed it the most.

And just when the world most needed God’s light, a baby was born in Bethlehem, translated from the Hebrew (House of Bread). And this child, Jesus (whose name means Savior) was wrapped in swaddling cloths and placed in a manger (a feeding trough). The Bread of Life. The Light of the World.

The great truth of Christmas, the great message of Christmas, the great promise of Christmas, the great joy of Christmas, is all wrapped up in one word, Emmanuel… which means God with us God is always with us! The true Light is with us. The Light of Bethlehem is with us and, as we have received Christ, that Light is in us and shines through us.

Let’s recall again, as folks do this time each year, the events that occurred in Bethlehem when the Messiah—the Light—came into the world.

A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all people should take part in a census. Everyone returned to his or her own hometown to be registered. Joseph and Mary went from Nazareth south to Bethlehem. Joseph was from that town, the city of David, and while they were there, Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Luke tells us there were shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks. Luke writes, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today, in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

You can visit the place where it is believed the shepherds were that night. It is a vast pasture area still today where shepherds still take their sheep there to feed. You can stand in those fields and see Bethlehem in the distance. In that place, the shepherds were surprised and terrified as “the glory of the Lord shone around them.”

But in Psalm 27, we read that, The LORD is our light and our salvation — so why should we be afraid? The Lord is our stronghold of our lives so we need not be afraid. In Isaiah 41 we are urged not to be afraid, for He is with us. He is our God. He will strengthen us. He will help us. He will uphold us with His victorious right hand. And in Isaiah 51, we are told that sorrow and mourning will disappear, and that those who follow the Lord will be overcome with joy and gladness.

The light of Bethlehem still shines on us.

One of my prayers this season is that we might all be surprised again by the light, surprised by the joy, surprised by the blessings, surprised by Christmas! That we might not just let the passages sit on us and fall off us but that we might take them in and be illuminated by them in a new way, in a startling way, in a joy-filled, light-filled way. I pray also that we might carry Christmas with us all through the year.

Some years ago, when I was pastoring a church in Pennsylvania, I suggested that folks leave out or up some reminder of Christmas all year round. One woman told me that she and her family had decided to leave out their nativity scene—I think it was probably a Fisher Price set. Her little daughter, Lilah, called the figures in the set her “guys” and she would often walk around carrying her Jesus. She spent so much time holding on to him that a lot of his features rubbed off. Would that we all would keep Jesus so close, that we would all hold Him so tight, that lots of Jesus would rub off on us!

We can learn so much from children in their simple, yet profound, expressions of faith. Sometimes, in the rush of the world, we forget to hold on to Jesus. Each year at Christmas, the church in Pennsylvania had a live nativity on the property, complete with barn animals. Then one year, I suggested we put that display on a flatbed truck and take it on the road for the city’s Christmas parade. We gathered all our folks and lined up at the starting point, but then it dawned on us: we were missing the baby Jesus. We came up with the last-ditch idea of using my knitted gloves bundled up under the swaddling clothes as stand in for Jesus, but then one father of young children [bless his heart!) saved the day—running home and arriving back in the nick of time with a baby doll. In all our careful preparations, it wasn’t until we looked at the empty manger, until we looked at our Mary’s empty arms, that we realized how desperately we needed our Jesus. How’s that for profundity? Too often, we do the very same thing at Christmas – leaving Jesus behind.

I must note that our presence in the parade—our nativity scene—turned out to be the only true Christmas presence in the sea of marching bands; beauty queens; antique cars; politicians; clowns; storybook, movie and TV characters; floats advertising local businesses; and—of course—Santa. I must say, however, our nativity scene rivaled Santa in popularity. People all along the route literally squealed with delight when they saw us…and old and young yelled, “Look, it’s Jesus!! It’s the baby Jesus!!”

A dear friend, Tom Graffagnino, who is an author, poet and visual artist, wrote a lament that aptly summarizes what’s happened to many contemporary celebrations of Christmas:

Christmas now means TV Specials,
Hopeful Fridays in the black.
Sleighs and reindeer on the rooftops…
Santas with their bulging sacks.

We’ve got busy elves and grinches,
We hear workshop “Ho-Ho-Ho’s!”
Deca-dancing through the malls, sir…
Where there’s more wind yet to sow.

Huge parades in front of Macy’s
Have a Hollywoodish spin.
Talking heads all reading prompters,
Pantomiming stars with grins.

Giant Garfields floating by us…
Frosty blow-ups on the lawn.
Nonsense from the Tow’r of Babel,
That just babbles on and on.

There are bowl games in the offing,
And, O, my!…They bring us Joy!
Celebrations in the end zone…
Barbie dolls and tinker toys.

Yes, we covet Golden Calves, son,
That our neighbors bought this year.
In the meantime, we’re quite certain
That there is no God to fear.

* * *

Is it really any wonder
That, my friend, we’ve lost our way?
We’ve lost sight, and now we wander
Blind in fog of 50 Grays.

* * *

Truth appeared in flesh before us,
True Light dwelt in time and space.
Now we scoff our way through Target…
And ignore Amazing Grace.

Ah, but still, the Light shines. The light of Christ never stops shining. Our parents and grandparents saw the Light’s glow in the darkest hours of the depression. Our soldiers have seen the Light’s glow even on distant battlefields. The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. The Light shines in prison camps. The Light shines in hospital rooms and funeral parlors. The Light shines amidst poverty and the Light shines into sunken rooms on oil rigs. The Light shines in every manner of heartache and hardship. Nothing can stop the Light of God’s love for humankind from penetrating the darkness.

As John declares so beautifully in verses 4 and 5 in the first chapter of his gospel, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of humankind. The Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” Jesus is the Light of the world. That Light cannot be extinguished.

Let this light of joy give you courage. This was the message of the angel for the shepherds, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all the people.”

Do not be afraid. Why? Because of this good news of great joy. What is the antidote to fear? The opposite of fear, the antidote to fear, the cure of fear, is joy. The joy of Christmas will keep you from being afraid. A deep, profound trust in the gift of Bethlehem will keep you from being afraid.

Armed with the joy of Christmas, this light of joy shining around you, you can stand against anything and everything that would threaten you. Courage means we know who we are, in spite of everything we face, and we can face even those things which threaten to destroy us.

In December 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, the German army surrounded some Americans in the village of Bastogne. The German commander sent a message ordering the Americans to surrender. The American commander sent back a one-word message, “Nuts!” It was one of the greatest responses of military history.

That is the message of Christmas for every Herod and every heartache and every hatred and every hardship and everything that would destroy you — Nuts! Or, as the angel put it, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all people.”

Let the light of Christmas give you courage. The Savior—the Light of the World, the Author of Joy, is your best gift at Christmas. He has come to save the world and He has come to save you.

As you travel about in this season, look at all the lights strung to illuminate the darkness and ponder the beauty of it all, ponder what the world would be without Light and remember that we have the privilege of sharing the Light. That’s our job when we leave this place. Let the light of Christ shine through you. Let this light give you courage. This was the message of the angel for the shepherds, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy!”

Prepare Him room and receive the joy that illuminates the world.

Perhaps you might wish to lift this prayer:

Gracious God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we come to You, the faithful One, who stands with us in and through all things. We rejoice this Advent season in the sure and steadfast hope that is ours in Jesus the Lord. As we draw closer to Christmas, keep us growing ever stronger in mind and spirit. Enable us to walk each day in holiness and purity. May our lives express such devotion to the faith that has claimed us that there would be about us no wavering testimony but instead a witness of love that will be clearly understood by all we encounter. Lord, make us shine like the stars. May we do everything without complaining or arguing as we hold out the Word of Life. May we be glad and rejoice in You.

May we hold on tight to you, Jesus, and may Your Holy Spirit fill us to the brim. May we rejoice in your Presence and walk in Your Light. In the name of the Savior we pray. Amen

In closing, I’d like to share one more poem by Tom Graffagnino:

He’s the Reason for the season,
He’s the Reason for them all…
He’s the Truth, the Living Water,
Spring of Hope beyond The Fall.

He’s the Reason there’s a harvest,
He’s the Firstfruit, He’s the Seed,
He’s the Word the Father’s sowing
Through the Bride…the Bread we need.

He’s the Light of dawn we long for,
Justice truly…and the Scale.
He’s the Shepherd by still water,
He’s the Truth beyond the veil.

He’s the Reason there is reason,
And the Reason there is Good,
He’s the Reason why you ought not,
And the Reason why you should.

He’s the Reason for amazement,
He’s the Reason why there’s awe….
He’s the Reason why we trembled
At the sunset that we saw.

He’s the Reason that now Heaven
Is a place that we may be…
And the reason, friend, is simple:
It’s a place called Calvary.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And now unto Him, who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you without blemish before the presence of His glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Savior, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord before all time, now, and for evermore. Amen.

Image: Unsplash

J. Christy Wilson, Jr. and Afghanistan

As much of the world has been focused on Afghanistan in these days, I’ve found my thoughts much occupied with memories of Christy and Betty Wilson.

These faithful servants of the Lord ministered as missionaries—for 22 years—in what had been, prior to their arrival, the unreached nation of Afghanistan. Christy was my first professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; it was from him that I received an introduction to the world mission of the church. I served as his teaching assistant for two years and worked with him on the book, Bringing Christ to All the World.

I have long thought of him as my spiritual father, and I remain deeply grateful for his godly witness, precious mentorship, and loving friendship. He opened opportunity after opportunity for me and was used of the Lord, in many ways, in setting the trajectory of my life. Christy went home to the Lord in 1999, but his influence over my life, and over the lives of countless others, remains. When Christy and Betty set foot on Afghan soil, they were standing where few Christians had stood before. Today, the second fastest growing evangelical movement in the world is in Afghanistan. First is in Iran, where Christy was raised by his parents who were missionaries to that country. I hope you’ll take the time to read about this remarkable man in the accompanying story.

https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/Life_of_J_Christy_Wilson_Jr_Full_Article

Where No One Has Heard: The Life of J. Christy Wilson Jr. Paperback – Illustrated, June 1, 2016.

A Voice in the Wind: Another Route

A Voice in the Wind: Another Route Audio

How does the Lord speak to us? How do we discern the voice of God?

Some time ago, an acquaintance suggested I read, A Voice in the Wind, by Francine Rivers. I located a copy and dug in. Now I’m not usually attracted to much Christian fiction, but if you’re looking for something that will shake you out of your complacency, make you take a hard look at your commitment to the Lord, get you lamenting about the tepidness of your witness, remind you of the ways in which the Lord speaks, and make you see how much more you could be for Christ, how much deeper and more fulfilling your relationship could be with Christ…run out and get this book.

Many of us need a new vision for our personal lives. Some of us are bogged down in a sea of guilt, regret, or disappointment. Others of us feel something is missing from our lives. We need a new vision. A new way of seeing. One of the reasons, I believe, so many people—around the world—have a lack of vision is because they either never talk to God or always talk at God (telling Him all the things He should be doing). What folks tend not to do is listen for God, listen to God, converse with God.

So, in this entry, I’ll be providing an overview of the ways in which God speaks to us. Then, in the coming weeks, I’ll unpack and more deeply explore each one of these ways. My prayer is that, as we move through these days, we might each have an Epiphany that will transform each one of us.  We’ll begin, however, with the story of the wise men from the East and the ways in which the Lord spoke to them.

That will take us to Matthew 2, verses 1 through 12, where we read:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.  When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Traditionally, the Christian church has remembered the visit of the Magi twelve days after Christmas, on what is called the Feast of Epiphany. Today we celebrate that day of Epiphany.

The word epiphany is defined, in contemporary lexicons, as a moment of sudden revelation or insight, a new way of seeing or understanding. It is so right that we should begin a new year with the word epiphany on our lips.

One time German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer put it this way, “We all live under the same sky, but we don’t all have the same horizon.” The scriptures tell us the wise men looked farther than they could see; they lived under the same sky as their contemporaries, but they had a different horizon.

Some scholars have speculated that the wise men from the East may have heard about the promised glorious King via the writings of the prophet Daniel who, as you may remember, had achieved a high rank in the Babylonian court about six hundred years before the birth of Christ. The wise men, whose steps we recall today, may well have been among the many God-fearing Gentiles who lived at the time of Christ.

During the Middle Ages, a legend developed that they were kings, that they were three in number, and that their names were Casper, Balthazar, and Melchior. Because they were thought to represent the three sons of Noah, one of them is often pictured as an Ethiopian. All we know from scripture, however, is what we read in Matthew. One author notes that the magi would have been skilled in astronomy and astrology (which were closely linked in that day) and that they were likely involved in occult practices, including sorcery. It is from their names that our word for magic, magician, and imagination are derived.  They believed in one god and were the most prominent and powerful group of advisors in the Medo-Persian empire and subsequently the Babylonian empire.

We learn from the book of Daniel that magi, in fact, were among the highest-ranking officials in Babylon. Because the Lord gave Daniel the interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream—which none of the other court seers was able to do—Daniel was appointed as “ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.” Because of his great wisdom, and because he had successfully pleaded for the lives of the “wise men” who had failed to interpret the king’s dream, Daniel came to be highly regarded among the magi.

Because of Daniel’s high position and great respect among them, it seems certain that the magi learned much from that prophet about the one true God, the God of Israel, and about His will and plans for His people through the coming glorious King. Because many Jews remained in Babylon after the Exile and intermarried with the people of the east, it is likely that word of the promised Messiah had been passed down and was known hundreds of years later, even until New Testament times.

So, having received a sign from God (a star), the magi, spoken of in the book of Matthew, set out in search of the prophesied King. King Herod of Judea got wind of their arrival in Jerusalem and the purpose of their visit; he felt threatened and asked his advisors where it was prophesied the Messiah would be born. When he was told the child was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod began to plot the death of any and all who could possibly pose a challenge to his reign.

But, in that darkness of suspicion, the light of devotion was shining. The wise men had come to worship, and they would not be turned aside.

Now, we’re not told exactly how the God of revelation caused the magi to know that Jesus had been born. What we do know is that they had been given the sign of His star. Almost as much speculation has been made about the identity of that star as about the identity of the men who saw it. Some suggest it was Jupiter, the “king of the planets.” Others claim it was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, forming the sign of the fish—which was used as a symbol for Christianity in the early church during the Roman persecutions. Still others claim that it was a low-hanging meteor, an erratic comet, or simply an inner vision of the star. A quick aside here: I was disappointed that we were so socked in here that I wasn’t able to catch a glimpse of the “Christmas Star,” the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on the 21st. Well, if I’m still alive in 2080, I’ll have another chance. More likely, I’ll be elsewhere and may be able to see it from another vantage point.

Well, since the Bible doesn’t identify or explain the star, we can’t be certain, but it might have been “the glory of the Lord”—the same glory that shone around the shepherds when Jesus’ birth was announced to them by the angel (Luke 2:9). Throughout the Old Testament we are told of God’s glory being manifested as light, God radiating His Shekinah presence in the form of ineffable light. The Lord guided the children of Israel through the wilderness by a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13:21). When Moses went up on Mount Sinai, “to the Israelites, the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the mountaintop” (Ex. 24:17). On a later occasion, after Moses had inscribed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, His face still glowed with the light of God’s glory when he returned to the people (Ex. 34:30).

When Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (Matt. 17:2). On the Damascus road, just before Jesus spoke to him, Saul of Tarsus was surrounded by “a light from heaven” (Acts 9:3), which he later explained was “brighter than the sun” (26:13). In John’s first vision on the Island of Patmos, he saw Christ’s face “like the sun shining in its strength” (Rev. 1:16). In his vision of the New Jerusalem, the future heavenly dwelling of all believers, he reports that “the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).

The scriptures tell us that, at the time of the magi’s visit, the family was living in a house, and it is likely that the magi arrived a year or two after Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. They presented Jesus with gold (symbolizing His kingly status), frankincense (His divinity), and myrrh (recognition of His future sacrificial death on the cross).

So—in some way, not detailed in scripture, the magi received an initial word from God and set out to find and worship the newborn King of the Jews. Did they have access to the writings of Micah, who lived 100-150 years before them? There they could have read these words: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Or did they hear a still, small voice speaking to their spirits? We don’t know.

 We do know God spoke to them through a visible sign: the star And then they were warned in a dream—another way in which the Lord spoke to them—not to go back to Herod but to return to their country of origin by another route.

At the outset, I promised an overview of some of the ways in which the Lord speaks to us. In our passage for today, we’ve seen at least two, and perhaps five ways God spoke to the magi: a tangible sign, a dream, and possibly, scripture, a voice heard within or an audible voice.   

So, let’s start with the last in that list and make it first in our review. God may speak to us in an audible voice. When John baptized Jesus, a voice spoke from heaven and said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). There are other instances in the Bible where God’s voice was heard aloud.

Second, He may speak to us in a still, small voice, a whisper. I love the passage from 1st Kings 19 that reads:

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by. Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

The most frequent way God speaks to me, and, I believe, to most Christians, is through that still, small voice. He spoke the universe into existence, but He also whispers quiet messages into the hearts of people.

Third, He speaks by popping words or Scriptures into our minds. How grateful when the Lord has brought before my mind’s eye a challenging word or a comforting passage from scripture at just the moment of my need.

Fourth, He speaks by popping pictures into our minds.

There have been many times during my ministry when God has spoken to me by flashing a picture into my mind. Often the Lord will bring a person’s face before me and tell me I need to lift the individual in prayer or I need to do something for them. When I pray for you, the Lord brings your faces before me and sometimes He gives me a word about a need or a concern. In a single scripture, in a single picture, we can see details that it might take a thousand words to explain.

Fifth, He speaks through dreams.

The Bible is full of references to dreams. Remember, in the Old Testament, the story of how angry Joseph’s brothers were when they heard of his dream in which the sun, moon and stars bowed down to his star? There’s Pharaoh’s dream of the seven fat cows being devoured by seven skinny cows which meant that famine was about to grip the Middle East. And, in the New Testament, Joseph had a dream warning him to take Jesus and Mary and flee into Egypt, and—as we’ve been reminded today—the Magi were warned in a dream not to share with Herod where the Messiah had been born.

If God used dreams in Bible times, He certainly can and does use them now. Joel spoke of the importance of dreams when he prophesied, “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men and women shall dream dreams” (Joel 2:28). When I lie down to sleep at night, I often pray, Lord, speak to me in my Night Visions, (as the prophet Daniel called them). And the Lord does.

Sixth, He speaks by giving us sympathy pains, sensations, what feels like a physical touch.

Sometimes God may alert you to another’s need by giving you a pain or a sensation that the individual is experiencing, telling you in this way to pray for that person.

Some years ago, I attended a conference at Harvard and, when it was time to leave, I couldn’t remember where I’d left my car. I’d wandered, with friends, all over the campus, and I’d stayed later than they to have a conversation with one of the speakers. They’d gone. I was alone and I had no idea where to go. I asked the Lord to direct me. I felt a hand upon me and a gentle leading that took me from one side of the campus to the other, right to my car.

Seventh, He speaks through others.

This can be one of the most important ways God speaks to us, but it can also be one of the most difficult ways to hear or discern His voice.

God spoke very directly to me one day when I became very angry with and lashed out at my young daughter for her behavior some days earlier. She’d caused embarrassment to me in a store and I hadn’t gotten over it. She looked at me, through tear-filled eyes, and asked why I couldn’t forgive her. “God wants us to forgive each other, why can’t you forgive me? Her words cut me to the quick and were the basis of the first sermon I ever preached.

Now, I’m not saying that you should accept everything everybody says to you as a Word from God. But neither should you dismiss out of hand words that hit you where you live.

Eighth, He speaks through the Holy Spirit bearing witness.

Have you ever been reading the Bible when you came across a Scripture that seemed to grab you by the heart? When that happens, it may be the Holy Spirit bearing witness that this is a message to you straight from the heart of God.

The same thing may happen when you’re listening to a sermon or a song on the radio, conversing with a friend, or even driving down the street. Suddenly, a phrase, a picture on a billboard, or just about anything else grabs hold of you, and you know God is speaking to you.

God spoke to the Magi and to the shepherds with a vision of light and directions for where to go. Like me, you may have your own stories of the Lord speaking to you in undeniable ways. When I came to faith in Christ at a Billy Graham crusade in Boston, I felt like I was on fire. I sensed a light all around me, and I felt something akin to a cleansing wave washing over me. Not long after I came to faith in Christ, I was on a Cursillo weekend (a three-day retreat), asking God what I was to do now that He’d given me a new life. On that weekend, I again had an experience of light and was told, via a still, small voice what next steps I should take.

A light. An audible voice. A still, small voice, a whisper. A scripture or a picture that pops into your mind. A dream. Sympathy pains, sensations. A word from another person, especially a fellow Christian. The Holy Spirit speaking to us through the physical realm.

Now, we must be careful not to attribute to God those things that are not of God, but we must also—with trained discernment—listen for what God might be saying to us. As I noted at the outset, too often, too many of us, talk at God, telling Him we need this, that and the other thing. But prayer is a two-way conversation. In this new year, I pray our relationships with the Lord may grow and be a great blessing to us and to others. I also pray that, in our prayers, we might not only speak to God but listen for God. Amen?

A Voice in the Wind: Another Route Audio

Are You Listening?

As we look out on a society deeply troubled by civil unrest, as we consider the appearance of and the after-effects of a global pandemic, as we ponder what it will mean as we emerge from our imposed cells of isolation, many are asking: “what does it all mean? Why is all of this happening? Are there cultural elites manipulating us for their own ends? How can a loving and all powerful God allow the catastrophic to occur? Is God speaking to us through all this turmoil?”
   Are you seeking the wisdom of God in these days? Are you reaching out to Him in prayer? The Lord speaks to us in manifold ways through the written Word, through His Holy Spirit, through the natural world, and often through the unbidden and unexpected. 
He calls us to listen and to use words that will edify, words that will build and challenge and comfort and minister to those around us. But it’s not always easy to locate those words when the people in our lives shun us, refuse to listen to us, misunderstand us, dismiss us, and treat us with disrespect. Walls are built—walls of anger and frustration and fear—walls that are hard to penetrate. In the midst of all the confusion, we may even build walls between ourselves and God. We can’t hear or we refuse to listen.
   We all say we want signs. But are we listening? Are we listening for what God is saying at the small crossroads as well as at the big junctures? Are we listening to the spoken and the unspoken words of those we encounter every day? Are we listening to the heart cries of the child, the stranger, the friend, even the one who seems bent on our destruction?

Are you a dreamer…a wishin’ and a hopin’??

OR are you a visionary looking for an opportunity? If you are a visionary, don’t let anyone dampen your passion or size down your vision. Pray to be certain that what you think could be, God is telling you should be. Then step out in faith, follow the road map God provides and you’ll have a reason for getting up and showing up every day. Don’t go through your life with a hole in your soul because you’re just drifting along with no purpose, no meaning in your life. The God of the universe has designed you to fulfill a purpose unique to you. Granted, this world offers a truckload of options when it comes to possible visions to pursue. But you were carefully crafted, minutely detailed for a selected divine agenda. God’s visions for your life are the things that will give your life impact beyond this life. God’s visions always have an eternal element. His vision for your life is part of a plan He envisioned and put into motion long before you and I came on the scene. Ask for that divine glimpse of what could be and should be. Ask God to be your vision and to instill in you His vision for you. And then go after that vision with everything you’ve got.

Patience, Persistence, and Perseverance

Snail_animal

James 5:7-12
Patience is defined as the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset. Persistence is a firm continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition. Perseverance is steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.

Patience. Persistence. Perseverance. How desperately we need these in our rucksacks today. The coronavirus and the resultant efforts to stem the tide of its dissemination have upended our lives. Grocery shelves are emptying. Businesses are suffering. The stock market is wobbling. In Maine, nearly 90,000 individuals, or roughly 13 percent of the state’s workers, have filed for unemployment since March 15 . While some restrictions on public activities have been lifted, protests are increasing. People are sick of and sick of hearing about COVID-19. Tempers are getting shorter and shorter. Patience is wearing thinner and thinner.

Patience. Patience seems a hard commodity to locate and not just because of a virus. For other reasons, it is sometimes hard to be patient. Frank Luchsinger tells of a woman who telephones him one day, choked with emotion as she reports, “Ray walked away from Day Care this morning.” She is speaking of her husband, who is sinking into Alzheimer’s and is in a wonderful day program in a community center.

“It’s a very busy street. He’s headed west; he knows we live that way. They spotted him at the bank and at the hamburger stand. It’s been six hours. I’d have called earlier but I knew there was nothing we could do. Every time someone sees him, he’s gone before the police get there. It’s such a cold day. Do you think we could start the prayer chain?”
Sometimes it’s hard to be patient.

A young couple wants one thing most in life—to have a child. They wonder why God has not chosen to bless them with a pregnancy. Both are successful professionals but this brings little satisfaction. Now their marriage is beginning to suffer under the strain.
Sometimes it’s hard to be patient.

A family with several children sits in a fast food restaurant learning that Happy Meals don’t necessarily bring happiness. Children’s meals are all mixed up on the table and while a haggard dad tries to sort out whose meal is whose, the littlest one eats part of a meal that doesn’t belong to him. Tempers flare.
Sometimes it’s hard to be patient.

I’ve heard it said, and I imagine my husband, Gene, would likely say it’s true that sometimes it’s hard to be patient with your spouse. Socrates wrote, “By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you’ll be happy. If you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher… and that is a good thing for any man.”

We’ve heard it said that marriage is a three-ring circus: engagement ring, wedding ring, and suffer-ring. It has also been suggested that marriage is not a—it’s a sentence; that marriages are made in heaven, but so are thunder and lightning.
Sometimes, it’s hard to be patient.

It’s hard to be patient with our vocations. Certain credentials are required, then experience, then a measure of the right timing and perseverance. Someone not particularly deserving is promoted to the job we want, or we receive damaging and unfair criticism or we are exposed to unrelenting demands resulting in unending stress.

And it’s hard to be patient with our health: that long illness we did not anticipate, medical treatment that doesn’t work out, conflicting opinions, escalating expenses, wear and tear on our loved ones.

And it’s hard to be patient in this time of COVID-19.

“Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength” we read in Isaiah, but when you’re waiting and weary, it’s hard to be patient.

James writes, “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.” Look to the example of the farmer who, in James’ day, waited for the fall rain in early October or early November that was necessary to prepare the hard ground for sowing and to enable the seed to germinate. Later the farmer would wait for the spring rains that would come in April and May; these were vital for the grain to ripen and mature.
Be patient like the farmer. Stand firm.  Wait on the Lord.

Patience: if you were to think for a moment about some of the synonyms for the word “patience,” what might come to mind would be words like: waiting, holding on, hanging in there, keeping up the fight, and persevering (though, in the Greek, perseverance is a more active word than patience). Patience, remember, is a capacity. Perseverance, an action.

Lyman Coleman and Richard Peace opine that, as Americans, we’re not very good at handling stress and demonstrating patience. Our tendency is to act, to think that we can deal with any challenging situation and make it go away. If we can’t, our next line of defense is to go away ourselves. Fight or flee. The idea of hanging in there, of staying in a challenging situation because that is where we are supposed to be, is not necessarily our strength. Of course, sometimes flight may be the only sane answer. We can’t say, without exception, that in all situations the best thing is to hang in there.

One must always attend to the Lord’s leading, wait for Him, and while waiting, stand firm, like Job.

That was James’ word to the church in 1st century Jerusalem and it’s the word to us today. Though Job was not a patient man and frequently expressed his exasperation with the Lord, James wants us to emulate him in his perseverance: despite the disasters and difficulties that came into his life and the relentless attack of his “friends,” Job kept his faith and did not abandon his trust in God. Job’s dependence upon and waiting upon the Lord brought him extraordinary results. Learn from Job.

James, in chapter 1, verse 2, tells us that whenever we face trials of any kind, we should consider these nothing but pure joy because the testing of our faith produces perseverance (steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success) and, if we persist and let perseverance have its full effect, we will wind up mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

John Ortberg in his book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, reminds us that any truly meaningful accomplishment will require perseverance.  “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, the writer of Hebrews said. In other words, just don’t quit. We might have to endure through times of confusion or doubt, times of loneliness, even times when all seems lost. And we should keep in mind that suffering alone does not produce perseverance, only suffering that is endured in faith.

James, in the verses preceding the ones for today, catalogued some of the Job-like misfortunes the folks of his day were enduring: failure to be paid for their labor, being used to bring opulence to a few while personally being forced to live in poverty, abuse in the courts and more. James counseled them not to retaliate, not to become like those who were oppressing them.

The Lord’s coming is near, he says to them. The Lord’s return will change everything.

Now we might note here that there are three words in the New Testament used to describe the Second Coming of Jesus. The first is epiphaneia (in the English, epiphany). It describes the appearance of God or the ascent to the throne of an emperor. The second word is apokalupsis (the English, apocalypse); this carries the meaning of unveiling or revelation. The third word—which is used here—is parousia. It describes the invasion of a country or the arrival of a king. Taken together, these three words give the sense of what will occur when Christ returns. Jesus first came to this Earth quietly as a baby in Bethlehem. When He comes a second time, it will be in awe-inspiring power as the rightful King. In great might and glory, He will claim His people.

While we wait, James said, look to the example of the farmer who knows he can do nothing to hasten the arrival of the rains. The rains will come when God sends them. We sow a seed, we pull the weeds, we do our part to protect the crop, but there is a limit to what we can do. God must do the rest. God must manage the growth. God must work all things together for our good.

While we wait, the temptation might be to slip into inappropriate survival modes or, more specifically, the temptation might be to adopt the ways of the world. Resist such temptations, James tells us. For one thing, don’t take your frustrations out in grumbling.

Now while groaning in the face of suffering may be appropriate, grumbling at one another is not. Bickering, fault-finding, back-biting, nitpicking, grumbling against others is a form of judgment. And here in James and elsewhere we are told not to judge or we too will be judged.

And grumbling is so often misdirected. We’re upset about something over here…but we take it out over there. In stress situations, it may work like this: we feel pressure but we’re powerless to do anything about it. It comes perhaps from someone we dare not cross. We can’t express our anger and resentment directly, so we do it indirectly. We complain to those around us, often to those dearest to us. We may walk around cranky. We may blame them. In any case, our grumbling does nothing but create tension.

What compounds this is that we can then become chronic complainers, chronic grumblers; we can move our attention away from praise. It’s like the big sheet of paper and the little smudge. You lose sight of all your blessings to focus on the little smudge. That little smudge may work into you in such a way that you become a chronic complainer, focusing always on what’s “wrong” and not on what’s “right,” focusing on the blisters, ignoring the blessings.

Someone who could have done that, someone who could have gotten himself bogged down in smudges was Abraham Lincoln.  If you want an example of someone who never got tired of trying, he’s your guy. Born into poverty, Lincoln was faced with defeat throughout his life. He lost eight elections, failed twice in business and suffered a nervous breakdown. He could have quit many times—but he didn’t and because he didn’t quit, he became one of the greatest presidents to sit in the White House.

Once, after losing an important Senate race, he said, “The path was worn and slippery. My foot slipped from under me, knocking the other out of the way, but I recovered and said to myself, ‘it’s a slip and not a fall.’”

He didn’t blame others or use his tongue to tear down others, instead he spoke the truth of his convictions. This is what James is addressing in verse 10. Here he celebrates the men and women who have spoken truth—the prophetic word—in God’s name.

Lincoln, like those prophets, persevered—and because he did our nation survived a great crisis. Here is a litany of a man who never stopped trying:

In 1816—His family was forced out of their home. He had to work to support them.
In 1818—His mother died.
1831—Failed in business.
1832—Ran for the state legislature—lost.
1832—Also lost his job—wanted to go to law school but couldn’t get in.
1833—Borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business and by the end of the year he was bankrupt. He spent the next 17 years of his life paying off this debt.
1834—Ran for the state legislature again—this time he won.
1835—Was engaged to be married; his sweetheart died and his heart was broken.
1836—He had a total nervous breakdown and was in bed for six months.
1838—He sought to become speaker of the state legislature—He was defeated.
1843—He ran for Congress and lost.
1846—Ran for Congress again—this time he won—went to Washington and did a good job.
1848—Ran for re-election to Congress—lost.
1849—Sought the job of land officer in his home state—he was rejected.
1854—Ran for the Senate of the United States—lost.
1856—Sought the vice-presidential nomination at his party’s national convention—got less than 100 votes.
1858—Ran for the U.S. Senate again and again he lost.
1860—He was elected President of the United States.

It was Abraham Lincoln’s belief in the providence of God that allowed him to keep his balance and turn repeated setbacks into eventual victories.

To be formed and transformed through trials, the place to start is with mini-trials. When someone interrupts you, you can practice graciously holding your tongue. When a co-worker borrows something and doesn’t return it immediately, you can practice patience. When you have a headache, you can discover that it is possible to suffer and not tell everybody about it. As simple as it sounds, the place to start being formed by trials is with the mini variety.

But we need to add persistence for the large trials. Perhaps you might identify the greatest challenge of your life right now, or a dilemma you’re about ready to give up on. Make a commitment that you are going to relentlessly persist through prayer.
Perhaps the challenge is relational. Is someone you love far from God and you’ve given up hope? Is it a pattern of sin in your life that you haven’t been able to break and you feel as if you’ll be in its grip forever? Is it a new habit you would do well to cultivate? Is it a family rupture that’s been going on for years?

You don’t keep the faith and attend to these things through sheer strength of will alone but through trusting in, relying on God.

So…what’s the scoop with the last verse in this passage?  It seems a bit oddly placed but it’s not.

The last verse in our passage has sometimes been taken to mean that we should not swear an oath of allegiance to a flag or an oath to tell the truth in a courtroom, but that’s not what James is addressing here. James is not condemning oath-taking of this sort: we find plenty of instances of people taking appropriate oaths all throughout scripture from Exodus to Matthew to Romans to Hebrews.

It would seem James had a two-fold purpose here. First, to warn against the flippant use of God’s name to guarantee the truth of what is spoken. Phrases like: “I swear to God that…” or “As God is my witness, I’ll…” are, in part, what’s in mind here.

Then there are the oaths, the promises, and the boastings we sometimes may be tempted to utter. An example to consider from scripture is found in the experience of Peter who once talked about how faithful he was going to be to Jesus: “Lord if everybody leaves You.  I will not leave You.  Lord, if I have to die to save You, I’ll die in Your place.”

Then when the crucial moment arrived, Peter said about Jesus: “I don’t even know the man.” This was the same man who had sworn to follow Jesus to death.  You see James is saying that, in the Christian life, patience, persistence, and perseverance are not manifested in grand verbal promises but by quiet talk that follows through. Our patient endurance will be shown not in words but in endurance through trials and testing.

So…bottom line: Remember that any truly meaningful human accomplishment will require patience, persistence and perseverance. Allow these to do their work in you, confident that if you do, you will wind up mature in the faith, complete, lacking in nothing. Keep going, stop grumbling, don’t quit. If you fall down, get up. Don’t be an empty talker; just run the race set before you. Learn persistence in the mini-trials and you’ll have greater strength to move through the larger trials. And remember that all of this is not done through the sheer strength of your own will but through trusting in God to use all things for our good to grow us up in Christ Jesus our Lord.
AMEN?
You might wish to lift the following as your prayer: Lord, I know that there is nowhere I can go where You are not and yet often I go about my days without ever giving a thought to Your presence, essentially turning a deaf ear to You, paying no attention to you, overlooking you, discounting you, neglecting you, ignoring you. I do so at my own peril. You are an ever-present help in the midst of troubles. You love me with a love that will never let me go. May I love you and demonstrate my love for you by using the times of discipline to move to greater depths of faith in you. May I embrace the week ahead, being diligent in my labor, kind to my neighbor, generous to the discouraged, patient with my family, loyal to my Savior. May I study the scriptures, be faithful in prayer and—in all things—trust the Lord. I pray in the name of my Savior Jesus Christ. Amen