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For What Shall We Live?

1db56738fcbefcd9e18164e5af1a7d08Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Romans 5:7-8

Memorial Day, which originated after the Civil War, commemorates the sacrifices of those who have fought and died in the American armed forces. It was in 1865 that Henry Welles, a druggist in the village of Waterloo, New York, suggested—at a social gathering—that honor should be shown to the patriotic dead of the Civil War by decorating their graves. A year later, a committee was formed to plan a day, and townspeople embraced the idea wholeheartedly. Wreathes, crosses and bouquets were made for each veteran’s grave and flags were set at half-mast.

The first national official recognition of Memorial Day was issued by General John Logan, first commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. This was General Order No. 11 establishing “Decoration Day” as it was then known. The date of the order was May 5, 1868, exactly two years after Waterloo’s first observance. And that year, Waterloo joined other communities in the nation by having their ceremony on May 30. In 1971, Congress made the last Monday in May the official national holiday.
According to the most recent estimate from the Department of Veteran Affairs, 651,031 Americans have died in battle. That number doesn’t take into account others, who died in theatre, but not in battle.

I spent some years as a teacher of U.S. History, have done some training of Navy chaplains, and so have researched our wars. Nevertheless, I was cut to heart to read again the statistics on the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars, the War with Mexico, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Desert Shield/Desert Storm and, now, what the Department of Defense lists, as the ongoing conflict that is the Global War on Terror.

General Logan, in issuing General Order No. 11 said, “We should guard the graves [of those who died for us] with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or the coming generations, that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided Republic. If other eyes grow dull, and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remains to us.”
Memorial Day. Interpreters have long noted the aura of sacredness that surrounds the day’s traditional observances. The Memorial Day Foundation offers many suggestions on how we might honor the fallen. Included in these a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. local time to pause and think upon the meaning of the day. At that hour today, buglers across the country, will be playing “Taps” wherever they may be.

Memorial Day likely conjures up memories for all us. Some of my earliest memories, from my childhood, are of my father, a World War II veteran, marching in our town’s Memorial Day parade. I recall, as well, when I was in my twenties, standing by his flag-draped casket as he was honored by members of the local American Legion post where he’d served as commander for many years. But perhaps I am more acutely attuned to Memorial Day this time around because of a conversation I had some days ago with my son-in-law, a now-retired Special Operative with the Marines, a Raider.

Andrew, over his years of service, was deployed again and again to Iraq, Afghanistan and other of the most dangerous places in the world. And because he and others like him did and do the things they have done and continue to do, we can sleep more easily at night. Though I doubt he’d refer to it as such, Andrew regularly ministers to former soldiers who struggle to sleep as they relive—each night—horrific battles, as they see the faces of the fallen beside them, as they struggle to manage the mundanities of everyday life off the field of conflict.

On this Memorial Day, I will be weaving in and out of the reflections of two men who understand, from first-hand experience, that wars are fought on a wide range of battlefields. The first of the two is Roger Brady, a follower of Jesus Christ and a retired U.S. Air Force General. His words appeared in an article in Christianity Today magazine.

Those whom we honor this Memorial Day, he said, died serving something bigger than themselves—the transcendent ideals that make America the country we cherish. But for us as Christians, he added, this day should have an even more poignant meaning. Many of the same values that our nation should hope to nurture and many of the traits military members are challenged to embody are consistent with those perfectly modeled for us by our Savior. He was the quintessential example of service and sacrifice.

In his letter to the Roman church, the apostle Paul said, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7–8).

Before He went to the cross, Jesus showed us how to love each day. To the consternation of those watching him, he invited himself to the home of a hated tax collector named Zacchaeus, he challenged the hypocrisy of religious leaders by coming to the rescue of a prostitute, he exposed the meaninglessness of their religiosity by healing the sick on the Sabbath, and he challenged bigotry and insensitivity by publicly engaging in conversation with a Samaritan woman that His society said was unworthy of His time.

Brady reminds us that, as Christians, we are not only citizens of the United States but citizens of the kingdom of God as well, and our citizenship in that kingdom of God is a gift extended to us freely by God’s grace. Paul told the Ephesian Christians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:8–10).

The society in which Jesus lived had many problems akin to what we see in the United States today. There was hypocrisy, bigotry, poverty, and oppression of the weak by the strong, and He condemned all of that. America is probably a better place than that for even the most marginalized of our citizens, but it is not always what it should be for all of us. As Christians, regardless of our earthly citizenship, this is part of the work He left for us to do. Is it our duty as Americans? Yes, it is—but even more so as citizens of the kingdom of Christ.

Most Americans will never serve in the military—less than one percent of our population does. And even among those of us who do, very, very few of us are asked to give that last full measure of devotion. So, what is the question for us on this day as we remember those Americans who died on our behalf? It is this—for what shall we live?

Brady reminds us that, whether we wear the uniform of our country or not, we all have a service to offer, a service to those ideals that reflect God’s universal truths and that our American ancestors captured in the formation of this country. Jesus has assigned the church to carry on His work. So, when evil strikes in the form of a school shooting or, when nature unleashes its fury and devastates property and lives, when children suffer, when people are hungry or homeless, when a virus strikes down a loved one, and people ask, “Where is God?!” we must be there and have them see Him in us.

We must bring His comfort and His healing to this world. When we live lives of service to those around us, we honor the God who saved us and we honor all those who gave that last full measure to secure for us all the things we enjoy in this nation.

Some time back, I came across a publication from American Baptist International Ministries that contained an article by IM Missionary Bill Klemmer. Bill begins his article with a reference to Matthew 21: Speaking to His disciples, Jesus tells a parable of two brothers whose father asked them to do some work in the family vineyard. One said, “Sure, I’ll go”—but he never went. The other said, “No way”—but eventually he did as his father had asked.

Bill said his typical response to God’s calling would fit right into this story. Eager to please his heavenly Father, he would answer, “Yes, I’ll go.” But when the initial excitement had faded, his head would get in the way of his heart and he would rationalize, “The timings not right. I need to be better prepared. I’ll go after I finish this one thing.” Usually, Bill admitted, he behaves like the second brother, eventually going, but not always on schedule, sometimes reluctantly and often with timid, halting progress.

At the age of 22, he had a strong sense that God was calling him to serve in Africa as a missionary doctor, and he immediately answered, “Yes,” and took steps to follow through on that calling. Seven years later, having completed medical school and his residency, he had the skills necessary to answer the call. But, along the way, he’d gotten married, had children, gone into private practice and purchased a house. He suggested to God that the responsible thing to do was to save for his children’s college educations, pay off his mortgage, get practical experience and then go to Africa.

One day he and Ann were traveling in upstate Vermont when their train stopped dead in its tracks. In that moment, God led them to pray about the calling he’d heard years earlier. By the time the train started up again, they’d told God they would go. And six months later, they set out with three young children and a fourth on the way. They remained in Africa for seven years before returning to the United States for their first furlough. At that point, the last thing Bill wanted to do was to go back and keep serving. He was haunted by the memory of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which had torn him away from his family and kept them apart for 11 long months. Surely, he thought, they’d done enough. Someone else could else could take a turn.

But after a year of visiting churches and sharing stories of God’s faithfulness, he couldn’t shake the call. So, they returned to the D.R. Congo, and over the next decade, the constant fighting there would grow to engulf much of central Africa, claiming an estimated 1.2 million lives in what would become known as Africa’s World War. When they completed their assignment in the D.R. Congo, they moved on to South Sudan, where yet another prolonged civil war was coming to a head with the ethnic massacre of hundreds of thousands.

Today, Ann and Bill are living on the Congo-Uganda border, which has been the epicenter of Africa’s second largest and deadliest outbreak of Ebola. Bill says he continues to contemplate his calling. Now that they’re in their mid-sixties, the children ask, “Isn’t it time for you to come home?” Their simple answer is, “Not yet. We still feel called to serve.”

He and Ann met, what Bill describes as, a “gifted evangelist and educator.” The man was on his way home to a town of half a million persons, a town that has been under attack by rebel militias for several years. Armed elements infiltrate the town at night, raping, pillaging, murdering, and burning homes. A U.N. force has been unable to prevent these attacks. So, Ann and Bill were surprised when the man spoke of his eagerness to get home.

Why? Why are you so eager to get back to a place that so many other people are fleeing?

“You see,” he said, “Jesus is coming back soon, and when He returns, I want Him to find me laboring in the field He assigned to me. I want to be where I am supposed to be—in the trenches—when Jesus returns.”

Last week, our nephew, Bernie, an R.N. contracted the coronavirus in the course of his work, and spent two weeks in the hospital on ten IV drips and many more medications. His breathing was managed via a ventilator. He was constantly dialyzed, and received additional interventions too numerous to recount…the team attending to him tried everything to save him. He went into septic shock a few days ago and succumbed to COVID-19. His wife, Jean, was allowed to be at his bedside as he went home to the Lord, and she wants to believe he was aware of her presence with him. If Bernie had survived, he would have been on a trache and in a nursing home for the remainder of his days. We’re heartbroken. Five other family members (Jean, a nurse practitioner, three of their children, and Bernie’s brother) all tested positive for the virus but are recovering. Bernie is one of more than a thousand healthcare workers who have died in the frontline fight against COVID-19. On this Memorial Day, I will be thanking God for his service and for the service of others who have died in this war.

We all pass through seasons and there is a time for every purpose under heaven. Someday we will find ourselves at the end of our lives looking back, and we will ask ourselves what it was all for. At that moment, I imagine we will all want to recall a life of service to something larger than ourselves, to children who needed our teaching and our example of service, to people to whom we gave a hand up in times of need, to friends and colleagues whom we comforted in times of sorrow, lives with whom we shared the many physical and spiritual blessings that have been bestowed on us. If we have lived that life of service, we will have fulfilled the challenge of the Savior when he said, “Whatever you did for one of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).

So, on Memorial Day, and every day, we need to ask ourselves: for what shall we live? How are we doing at fulfilling not just the ideals of our American forefathers but those universal values set in place by the One who made us in His image, who sent His only begotten Son to secure our salvation, the one who “created us in Him to do good works?”

Let us not allow Memorial Day to pass by seeing it only as a day that marks the beginning of summer, a day off, a day to barbecue. May our use of the day include an honoring of those who, with their lives, have purchased our freedoms. Not only the soldiers who gave their lives on fields of battle, not only the frontline workers who have died in their service to others, but our Savior Jesus Christ who gave all on the cross that we might have freedom from sin, death and Satan.

Take some time in silence today at 3, offering prayer for those who are in harm’s way around the world, giving thanks for those who have sacrificed all that we might be free, and opening ourselves to a word from the Lord about what call He might be placing on our lives at this very moment.

Let us pray:
God of all our yesterdays, I am part of a people called to remember. Gifted with memory, looking back, I know who You are, what You have done for me in Jesus Christ, and, by Your grace, whose I am. God of my today, O come before You with praise and adoration. Your Spirit is here within me.

God of all my tomorrows, time is in Your hand and I pray I may each day serve You obediently and joyfully. Eternal God, Alpha and Omega, I rest my past, devote my present and hope my future in You. Thanks be to God.

Abiding and understanding God, I pray for those too busy, having too many things to do, who have lost the rhythm of life and have forsaken Sabbath rest. I pray for those who have so much crowding in their hearts of that which is not You, that they make no room for You. I pray for those too familiar with the Good News, too jaded, too preoccupied with that which is not You—those who have lost the quivering of the Holy Spirit at really hearing and being captured by the call and demand of the gospel.

Lord, forgive me if I am one of these, and let me find my abundance in You. Save me from myself and guide me to Yourself.

As I open myself to You, I pray You will gently fill me with Your light and Your Spirit. Help me to take each step trusting in You. Help me to walk Your path relying not on my own strength, but on Yours. Speak Your words to my heart, Lord.

For Your guidance, Your healing, Your power, Your grace, and Your peace—I give You thanks. I pray that I might believe more fully, love more compassionately, and live in your Way more faithfully. I pray these things in the name of Jesus. Amen

From the Chaplain’s Manual of the U.S. Submarine Veterans Organization comes this benediction for today:
God be in our head, and in our understanding;
God be in our eyes, and in our looking.
God be in our mouth, and in our speaking.
God be in our hearts, and in our thinking.
God be at our end, and at our departing.

May the Lord bless thee and keep thee until we meet again. Amen!

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Contingent Contentment or Contentment in Christ?

Max Lucado, in the Anxious for Nothing Bible Study, offers two words that served as the inspiration for the message I’m posting today. “Contingent Contentment” is the kind of thinking that starts with the “I’ll be happy when…,” “I’ll be happy if…” I’ll be content when I marry. I’ll be happy when I have a child. I’ll be content when I get a new job. I’ll be content when I move to a new community. I’ll be happy when I get a new car. In every instance, contentment is based on circumstances.

Psalm 42 was composed by someone who is longing for the good ole days and lamenting his current circumstances. He is filled with discontentment. The writer, is a worship leader as well as a member of the Korahite choir. The Sons of Korah were the descendants of Levi who sang in the temple. The psalmist is now in exile in the land of the Jordan River. That river lies north of the Sea of Galilee and contains many waterfalls as it cascades southward. The psalmist tells us that he is feeling overwhelmed by the spiritual “waves and breakers” that have “swept over” him.

He recalls leading groups of people to worship, singing songs of thanks! Those were special times—but the psalmist is singing a different song today. Today, his heart is broken and he can’t seem to locate God. With this background, hear the beginning words of the psalm:

“As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I go and meet with Him? Day and night, I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying, “Where is this God of yours? My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be: I walked among the crowds of worshipers, leading a great procession to the house of God, singing for joy and giving thanks—it was the sound of a great celebration! Why am I discouraged? Why so sad?”

Can you remember a mountain-top moment of worship? I can remember many. I remember a retreat on the Maryland shore with some Stephen Ministers I’d trained. We’d gathered around the Lord’s Supper, and all of us were taken to a place of deep emotion in worship that moved us to tears, bonded us together, and warmed us to our cores. I remember a Maundy Thursday service and the depth of intimacy and overwhelming love I felt for the Lord and for members of the congregation as I knelt to wash their feet. I remember blessed times when folks have come forward in services to receive Christ as Savior; I remember sacred moments in a baptismal pool. I remember my great joy and relief when I went forward to proclaim my own belief in Jesus as Savior at a Billy Graham Crusade in Boston, Massachusetts. I remember the moment I received spiritual assurance and tangible confirmation of my call to pastoral ministry.

There are moments while praying from the pulpit when the presence of the Holy Spirit has been so palpable that I’ve felt transported. There are moments even in nature when I’ve heard the Lord in the whisper of the wind.

All of these mountain top experiences have something in common: I could feel in every fiber of my being the presence of God. The moment, the time in worship, was good not because it was entertaining or emotional but because the Spirit of the Living God—His grace, His mercy, His mysterious majesty—surrounded me and often surrounded the assembly.

You may remember, as well, moments in worship, communion with God, like this. Perhaps you also remember days you didn’t bother to worship because you just didn’t have it in you. Not that you were lazy or wanted to do something else—no, you just felt numb and cold inside. No matter how loud you sang or how catchy the songs—even if the preaching was right on target—something was missing. Think of a deer in a desert, panting for water, crying as it looks for water, unable to find even a trickle of a stream to quench its thirst.

That’s the way the psalmist describes his spiritual state. He is dry and parched. He’s not thirsty for water but for God. His soul is thirsty. He longs to be near God—to experience a refreshing stream but instead he’s in the desert. Tears, salty tears, are the only drink he can find, but saltwater only increases one’s thirst.

No songs of praise come from his parched lips. His swollen, red eyes see no sign of God’s face. He is only blinded by the sun. And there isn’t even an edifying voice of a fellow worshipper speaking a psalm, hymn, or spiritual song to spur him on to love and good deeds. In the desert, his tragedies are instead exploited by an unbelieving world that taunts with sneering questions, “Well, where’s your wonderful God now?! Can’t you see how hollow all religion is? Give it up!”

But even more troubling questions can come from those who profess to be Christians: “Why do you think God abandoned you like this? Maybe it’s something you did? Maybe there is some unresolved sin or pride in your life? How is it that you’ve fallen out of favor with God?”

And then there’s another question that we sometimes hear: “If you don’t feel close to God, who do you suppose moved?” That last one is actually a good question. If you were to ask that of our Psalmist he might surprise you and say—well it seems to me that God did!

The psalmist feels abandoned and forgotten. Being forgotten is one of the worst feelings. Being forgotten means being alone and defenseless before enemies and the forces of nature. Being forgotten means losing stability and security— nowhere is safe, darkness surrounds.

The psalmist wants to know why God has thrown him aside. He is lost in darkness; enemies have taken advantage of his misfortune. And he feels shame—an embarrassment for God. He has praised God like an adoring child praises a Father— confident in the Father’s goodness and boasting that the Father can do anything! And then, in the moment He is needed most, it seems the Father isn’t there. And the child is—abandoned. All the praise and boasting about the Father becomes… embarrassing.

Whose psalm is this? Who are the children of Korah?

Any of us who feel thirsty for God’s presence. Anyone who hears people say, “Where is Your God?” because something terrible has happened. Those who find themselves in oppressive surroundings as family members or co-workers insult them for their faith. And those who feel stressed and disappointed because God hasn’t seemed to do much to help them out of a difficult situation.

“Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him again—my Savior and my God!…Each day the Lord pours His unfailing love upon me, and through each night I sing His songs, praying to God who gives me life…’O God, my rock,’ I cry, ‘why have you forgotten me? Why must I wander around in grief[?]…I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him again—my Savior and my God!”

This psalm and the song “His Eye is on the Sparrow” is for the thirsty, parched souls who long for God—those who long to be immersed in His mercy and rescuing grace.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Like the psalm, the song starts off with a little self-talk: Why am I discouraged? Why am I so sad?

Despair is a vicious thing. It’s a sort of auto-immune disorder of the soul. It attacks your soul, then turns your soul against you for feeling sad. But the chorus in both the hymn and the psalm yields to hope. The thirsty soul decides to become a pilgrim. Like the deer, the psalmist is going to sniff out the source of water.

I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him, my Savior and my God!

Being a pilgrim means accepting the wilderness, but settling for nothing on the journey except the deep waters of God. That’s why we need this psalm—to send us on our pilgrim journey, to prepare us for the spiritual life. Too many people settle for poison in the wilderness, contentment based on contingencies. “Feeling better has become more important to us than finding God.”

In his autobiography, When You Can’t Come Back, Dave Dravecky (a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants who lost his pitching arm to cancer) says that he “learned that the wilderness is part of the landscape of faith, and every bit as essential as the mountaintop. On the mountaintop, we are overwhelmed by God’s presence. In the wilderness, we are overwhelmed by His absence. Both places should bring us to our knees; the one, in utter awe; the other, in utter dependence.”

Jesus once spoke to a thirsty woman in the wilderness of Samaria (John 4). She felt far from God and so it isn’t strange that she asked, “Where is God?” She had heard from her family—the generations before her—that God was on His holy mountain—Mount Gerazim. But she’d heard from her enemies that God lived in a big house in Jerusalem. “Where is God?” she asked.

Jesus wasn’t surprised by the fact that she’d had five husbands and that the man with whom she was then living wasn’t her husband. Like many of us who long for God, she’d turned to other people, other circumstances, other avenues looking for satisfaction. She was thirsty, and so when Jesus spoke of living water—deep water—that not only satisfies thirst but taps a spring of gushing water in the soul—she wanted it! Like a deer panting for water!

Scott Hoezee recalls having seen a bumper sticker that featured the picture of a telescope along with the words, “If you see God, tell him I’m looking for Him.” This psalmist would appreciate that bumper sticker. But in this psalm, as in so much of our experience, you can’t always find God with the “telescope approach.” Sometimes we try to scrutinize our present circumstances to see if we can locate precisely where God is, hoping we can zero in on Him the way a telescope zeroes in on a star. But it doesn’t always work that way.

To stick with the astronomy analogy for a moment: some of you know that when stargazing, the best way to see some stars is to not look directly at them. Because of the way our eyes are designed, faint objects can be seen best when you look askance from them. Look just to the side of a dim star and you will suddenly see it in your peripheral vision.

Sometimes faith is like that, too. It seems to have been the case for the writer of Psalm 42. Unable to locate God in the present moment of crisis and pain, he instead looks to the past. Not only was the psalmist able then to see God in the past, but somehow it energized his hope in the present moment too. By looking just to the side of his current circumstances God appeared in the “peripheral vision” of his soul once more. A simple act of remembering turns this psalm around and transforms this poem from an ode to despair into a statement of bold faith and audacious hope.

How does this work, I wonder? What’s the mechanism that can take a distant memory of something God once did and use it to re-tool the present? It is finally a mystery how God’s Spirit can use the past to give us hope for the future. But it happens.

It seems we sometimes struggle in knowing where to “find” God in certain moments, particularly in moments of great pain or uncertainty. We don’t always know what God is “up to” or why it seems our prayers are going unanswered—only the truly arrogant or impious would ever dare to claim they always know what God is doing and why. Often, we just don’t know. But perhaps the recovery of our hope doesn’t depend on making sense of each moment. Maybe in life’s darker, deeper valleys it is our memories of who God is and what He has done that can pump a little air back into our deflated balloons of hope.

We are on a pilgrim’s journey, and when trekking through the wilderness, aching with thirst, we must continue to trust the Lord is with us and that He will—as we seek Him—bring us to deep waters that will wash over us, soak us, and cleanse us. On the journey, we sing:

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion, my constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Why are you so discouraged, the psalmist asks? Why are you so sad? Put your hope in God! We will praise Him again—our Savior and our God!

But, you know, if we will not admit our pain, we can’t deal with its consequences. It’s no wonder that the first step in any twelve-step program is to admit the problem, whether it is alcoholism or drugs or something else. No pastor, therapist, counselor or friend can help those who will not admit their need for help. Folks can’t help if you won’t let them help.
Is there a sense in which you feel isolated from God and God’s purpose today?

Perhaps the problem is your sin, and the first step is honest confession and contrition. Perhaps, like the psalmist, you have been oppressed by others in their sin; now you are innocent of guilt but nonetheless suffering its consequences. Are you dealing with pain or fear that you feel God should have prevented or healed? Are you facing physical or financial setbacks that God has not remedied? Stress in your marriage or family that God has not lifted? In what way do you feel far from God today? Don’t wander off. Cling and pray specifically for what you need.

Cling to the memories of what God has done, cling to the unchanging, always loving nature of God. Cling to the Word of God, cling to other folks of faith, cling to what Jesus did on the cross, cling to hope.

You know, Christians have worshipped God not only in brightly lit sanctuaries, not only in soaring Gothic cathedrals or in the splendor of Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome. Christians have also gathered together in catacombs and prison cells, on the run from Communists in China, and on sinking ships in the Atlantic. Christians have shared the body and blood of Jesus not only while organs played fugues by Bach but also while air raid sirens cut the air outside the church with their shrill warnings of Nazi bombers over London.

Again and again, often in dark circumstances where they could no more see God on the move than could the poet of Psalm 42, Christians have remembered Jesus—they’ve glanced to the side of any present darkness to recall the cross and what that cross has meant throughout their lives. And as they’ve done so, they have again and again discovered that Jesus is no mere memory—He’s here! He’s alive!

And so, stop settling for contingent contentment, being happy only when all the circumstances have lined up according to your desires. Instead, trust God, hope in Him, and know that His is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

If you are depressed and feeling all alone, Psalm 42 validates what you’re going through as an experience well-known to all people of the faith, and it can help you express your honest pain to God. It can also remind you that God is with you, God uses all things for the good of His people and—like the apostle Paul—you can learn to be content regardless of your circumstances. You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength.

Keep this psalm and Philippians 4 close by you each day. And, finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received, do; and the God of peace be with you. Amen.

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Reflections on Resurrection in the Time of COVID-19

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On this Easter, so often celebrated with delicate bunnies and fragile eggs, I want to speak  instead of Resurrection Day and the powerful, power-filled Jesus, the Risen Prophet-King, the Roaring Lion, the Holy Lord of Lords.

My dear friend, Tom Graffagnino, in his brilliant—and all too timely—treatise on the troubled No Border Land that is our Western World, reminds us that:

“Jesus was much more than the Nice Guy from Galilee with innovative, helpful hints for righteous living. Jesus stilled the stormy Sea of Galilee at one point with a word, but He made life-threatening, tsunami-like spiritual waves everywhere else. He came to rock humanity’s boat. He did so two thousand years ago, and He still does it today…We may first encounter baby Jesus, ‘meek and mild’ in the manger, but that is not where He would leave us. Obviously, the ‘All You Need is Love’ Jesus is very popular today. That Jesus fits the mold that the world cherishes and approves…This Jesus Much-Preferred is always agreeable, always friendly, ‘progressive,’ and fashionably up-to-date. [In centering on this innocuous, inoffensive Jesus]… much of the church in the Western world has been…swamped by the lukewarm waters of compromise and mesmerizing higher critical doubt…We expect our under-shepherds in the pulpit to coddle us with easygoing tales…We demand soothing half-truths…and have abandoned the teaching and preaching that brings sinners to their knees…Thinking ourselves wise (sensitive, caring and fair), we have become fools. For convenience’s sake, we have melted down the penetrating, razor sharp, double-edged sword of truth and fashioned for ourselves psychological, snub-nosed butter knives instead.”

And while all too many pastors have given in and have been serving up snacks of milk, cookies, and entertaining stories rather than banquets of deep spiritual truth and doctrinal meat, our society and even our natural world, of which we had been made stewards, have been dying slow and painful deaths.

In 1983, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian historian, who drew the world’s attention to the evils of the Gulag, lamented:

“As a survivor of the Communist Holocaust, I am horrified to witness how my beloved America, my adopted country, is gradually being transformed into a secularist and atheistic utopia, where communist ideals are glorified and promoted, while Judeo-Christian values and morality are ridiculed and increasingly eradicated from the public and social consciousness of our nation. Under the decades-long assault and militant radicalism of many so-called ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ elites, God has been progressively erased from our public and educational institutions, to be replaced with all manner of delusion, perversion, corruption, violence, decadence, and insanity.”

Much of our world has endeavored to shut God out of the very world He created, and many—in so doing—have wound up in their own shaped-to-fit gulags, prisons of their own making.

We have been experiencing a famine of hearing the Voice of God.

Sensing our nation slouching towards Gomorrah, many have been lifting hands in prayer pleading, “God help us!! Help us turn from our wicked ways!! Restore our land!!”

Today, I believe, God is answering those prayers through the trials and isolation brought on by COVID-19. He’s been removing and/or shaking the supports on which we have long relied: jobs, homes, money, friends, families, full bellies, global markets, health systems…He’s made clear to us that we are not in control.

I have been praying for many years that God would bring a revival to rival any and all that have gone before. Never did I imagine God might do this by shaking us to the core with trials that are now encompassing the globe.

Charles H. Spurgeon, in his devotional Morning by Morning, suggested that some of God’s graces would never be discovered if it were not for trials. He wrote:

“Hope itself is like a star—not to be seen in the sunshine of prosperity, and only to be discovered in the night of adversity…It was but a little while ago that on your knees you were saying, ‘Lord, I fear I have no faith; let me know that I have faith.’ Was not this really, though perhaps unconsciously, praying for trials? For how can you know that you have faith until your faith is exercised? Depend upon it. God often sends us trials that our graces may be discovered, and that we may be certified of their existence. Besides, it is not merely discovery; real growth in grace is the result of sanctified trials…Is not this the reason why He is contending with you?”

A few Sundays ago, I posted a sermon entitled, “The Reset Button,” and as the weeks of isolation have gone by, I’ve become even more convinced that God is using this time to reset our personal and corporate lives and to reset our world and all its components. Our personal and societal flaws have been laid bare, and we’ve been given eyes to see what we’ve become but also—what we might yet be.

God is resetting the biosphere and calling us to lament how cruelly we have treated the extraordinary world with which He, the Creator, has gifted us. As Julio Vincent Gambuto has well summarized: “A carless Los Angeles has clear blue skies as pollution has simply stopped. In a quiet New York, you can hear the birds chirp in the middle of Madison Avenue. Coyotes have been spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge. These are the postcard images of what the world might be like if we could find a way to have a less deadly daily effect on the planet.”

Robin Wright, in a March 23 New Yorker column noted:

“The novel coronavirus has swept the globe at a time when more people are living alone than ever before in human history. The trend became noticeable in the early twentieth century, among industrialized nations; it accelerated in the nineteen-sixties. In the United States, the numbers have almost doubled over the past half century, according to the research aggregator Our World in Data. In 2019, twenty-eight percent of households were single-person—up from twenty-three percent in 1980. Stockholm may represent the apex of this trend: in 2012 sixty percent of households in the Swedish city had only one person. Psychologists note the difference between living alone and loneliness.”

Wright concluded, “I live alone and have no family, and usually don’t think much about it. But, as the new pathogen forces us to socially distance, I have begun to feel lonely. I miss the ability to see, converse with, hug, or spend time with friends. Life seems shallower, more like survival than living.”

Many, in this time, are becoming increasingly anxious and depressed as they worry about the potential loss of homes, incomes, loved ones, and financial security. Ami Rokach, a psychologist in Canada, said she believes it’s a blessing that the coronavirus has hit the Western world. “For the past century,” she told the New Yorker columnist, “human life has focused increasingly on money and material belongings, which, especially with technology, has led to neglect of human relationships. Now that we’re suddenly stuck at home, the best means of surviving, psychologically and biologically, is to interact with people by whatever means available. She wonders if we might come out of this time of isolation with strengthened interpersonal bonds, having realized how important these are to our health.

I wonder if we might come out of this time of isolation with strengthened bonds with the person of Jesus Christ, having realized how important He is to our health. Isolation? Hmmm?

It was on the third day that Jesus rose from isolation, resurrected from the dead.

In Beyond Belief to Convictions, Josh McDowell, Bob Hostetler and David H. Bellis tell us that “Jesus broke the power of death by rising from the grave…[He] pierced the kingdom of darkness with a penetrating light.”

“Christ’s resurrection victory over death and despair not only broke the power of death for all of us who trust in Christ as Savior but also provided the means for us to receive a whole new perspective on life. Though we may endure pain, grief, and suffering here on earth, because Christ’s death was followed by his resurrection, we can know that such things are temporary—and that much greater things await us. Because of the Resurrection, we are destined to live forever in new bodies on a new earth, an existence that will be so enjoyable that anything ‘we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory [God] will give us later.’ For we ‘wait anxiously for that day when God will give us our full rights as his children, including the new bodies he has promised us’ (Romans 8:18, 23).

“We have the answer to where we are going in life, and in death…With a belief in the Resurrection, we can face life’s difficulties with the conviction that no matter what, ‘if God is for us, who can ever be against us?’ (Romans 8:31). We can be assured that God has not lost control and will not abandon us (see Romans 8:32). We can be confident that He is not punishing us or condemning us (see Romans 8:34). And we can know that He still very much loves us (see Romans 8:38).”

How long will it take us, how long will it take you, to rise to new life? We will never return to the old normal, and we should give great thanks for that blessing. The old normal wasn’t working.

F. B. Meyer reminded us that “Our Lord is constantly taking us into the dark, that He may tell us things. Into the dark of the shadowed home, where bereavement has drawn the blinds; into the dark of the lonely, desolate life, where some infirmity closes us in from the light and stir of life; into the dark of some crushing sorrow and disappointment. Then He tells us His secrets, great and wonderful, eternal and infinite; He causes the eye which has become dazzled by the glare of earth to behold the heavenly constellations; and the car to detect the undertones of His voice, which is often drowned amid the tumult of earth’s strident cries. But such revelations always imply a corresponding responsibility—that you are to speak in the light—that you are to proclaim upon the housetops. We are not meant to always linger in the dark, or stay in the closet; presently we shall be summoned to take our place in the rush and storm of life; and when that moment comes, we are to speak and proclaim what we have learned. This gives a new meaning to suffering, the saddest element in which is often its apparent aimlessness. ‘How useless I am!’ ‘What am I doing for the betterment of humankind?’ ‘Wherefore this waste of the precious spikenard of my soul?’ Such are the desperate laments of the sufferer. But God has a purpose in it all. He has withdrawn His child to the higher altitudes of fellowship, that he may hear God speaking face to face, and bear the message to those at the mountain foot.”

Meyer concludes his message with this: “There is no short cut to the life of faith, which is the all-vital condition of a holy and victorious life. We must have periods of lonely meditation and fellowship with God. That our souls should have their mountains of fellowship, their valley of quiet rest beneath the shadow of a great rock, their nights beneath the stars, when darkness has veiled the material and silenced the stir of human life, and has opened the view of the infinite and eternal, is as indispensable as that our bodies should have food. Thus, alone can the sense of God’s presence become the fixed possession of the soul, enabling it to say repeatedly, with the Psalmist, ‘You are near, 0 God.’”

If you have never welcomed Jesus into your life as Lord and Savior, I’d invite you to lift the following words in prayer that you may do so. Those who already have a relationship with Christ, may pray these words as well to affirm that blessed reality.

Dear Lord Jesus, I know am a sinner. I am sorry for any sins I have committed— knowingly or unknowingly—against you. I want to turn from my sin and follow you all my days. I believe you died for my sins and I accept your sacrifice in my place. I now come to you and receive you as my Savior and Lord. It is in the name of Jesus I pray. Amen

And now beloved of God, you must build yourselves up in your most holy faith; seek wisdom for the living of these days in God’s Holy Word, the Bible; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; and wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.

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, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all ages, now, and forevermore. Amen.

Sources:

Graffagnino, Tom. No Border Land: Finding Grace in a Dark and Dying World. Grand Rapids: Credo House, 2020.

Spurgeon, Charles H. Morning by Morning. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Gambuto, Julio Vincent. “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting.” Medium. 2 April 2020. <https://medium.com/@juliovincent/prepare-for-the-ultimate-gaslighting-6a8ce3f0a0e0>

Wright, Robin. “How Loneliness from Coronavirus Isolation Takes Its Own Toll.” The New Yorker. 23 March 2020.

<https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-loneliness-from-coronavirus-isolation-takes-its-own-toll>

McDowell, Josh, Bob Hostetler and David H. Bellis. Beyond Belief to Convictions. Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 2002.

Meyer, F.B. Streams in the Desert. 11 April.

<https://www.crosswalk.com/devotionals/desert/streams-in-the-desert-april-11th.html>

 

 

The Lord Can Change the Trajectory of Your Life: Billy Graham and the Supernatural Activity of God

Billy-Graham1Over the course of my days, my life has intersected again and again with the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham and ministries to which he was connected and/or had founded.

In 1982, my marriage was falling apart and I was falling apart. Friends, who’d been praying for me for some time, invited me to attend the Graham crusade at Nickerson Field in Boston and, on Pentecost Sunday, I went forward with thousands of others to accept Jesus as my Savior. I invited my husband, Gene, to attend the next night and he went forward as well, welcoming Christ into his life. Jesus saved our marriage and turned our lives completely around. In the days that followed, when I sensed a call to the professional ministry, I never considered studying anywhere but Gordon-Conwell: Billy Graham was one of the founders of what would become my alma mater and he was chairman of the school’s board during my years there. His signature is on my Master of Divinity diploma from that school.

ham-mainnew
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts.

As a student, I was given the opportunity to train in and engage in evangelism through one of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) phone centers that was activated each time a crusade aired. Some years later, when I was serving as a visiting professor in evangelism and practical ministry at Gordon-Conwell, I made participation in the BGEA phone ministry a requirement in my courses.

While at GCTS, I was also one of the first students invited to participate in the Arrow Leadership Program which was founded by Billy Graham’s brother-in-law, Leighton Ford. The latter had a desire to help those who were emerging as new communicators of the Gospel. Dr. Ford had created Arrow as a means through which strategic investments might be made in the character, calling, and competency of young leaders. The organization continues to make those investments today.

Around the same time, I was invited to serve as a delegate to Lausanne II (in Manila, the Philippines). This international congress was one in a series of events called by the Lausanne Movement to foster cooperation among evangelical leaders. That movement was founded by Billy Graham, and it was in Manila that I developed a greater understanding of the realities of the global Church.

Two years later, the Graham Association created a profile of my life and ministry for airing during one of its crusade telecasts. As this came in the early years of my work for the Lord, I was stunned to learn that my profile would be the second in a series that began with Major League Baseball player Dave Dravecky. Rev. Graham’s message for the program in which my profile appeared, was entitled, “Who Is Jesus?” I can still hear the voice of Cliff Barrows introducing my segment. And, of course, George Beverly Shea’s comforting bass-baritone filled and lifted the hearts of those in the stadium seats at the Meadowlands in New Jersey along with the hearts of those listening from their seats at home.

The list of life intersections with Billy Graham and the organizations he founded continued on in the years that followed. I was asked to contribute chapters to the Billy Graham Christian Workers’ Handbook and worked with the BGEA to create a film for use in the telephone training centers. I was invited to serve on the Ministerial Advisory Council to the President at Gordon-Conwell and was interviewed for the school’s Contact Magazine. I was one of about a half dozen graduates, serving in churches, who were selected to speak to the GCTS Board of Directors about what additional training I would suggest the seminary should offer. I also collaborated with three GCTS professors on a book that was honored as a Christianity Today Book of the Year. Billy Graham founded the magazine CT in 1956 and its panel continues to select the top books each year in about a dozen categories, ranging from apologetics to Biblical studies, fiction to history and biography.

Decision-Covers-11-2016-1As I have often said elsewhere, I am deeply indebted to Billy Graham. He and the organizations he founded set the trajectory for my life in ministry. This man of integrity, humility, generosity and faithfulness was used of the Lord in the transformations of millions of individuals around the world, including my own. And now, even following his passing, I continue to be blessed by “America’s Pastor” and the BGEA. I have just received a request from Decision Magazine, a publication founded by the Rev. Graham, that I tell the story of how I came to faith in Christ at the Graham Crusade in Boston and how that decision has impacted my life to this day. What I find particularly astonishing is that no single human being has orchestrated these connections over the years. Everything points to the supernatural activity of God.

I pray that anyone reading this might be led to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior by offering a prayer that follows that was often shared by Pastor Graham. Those who know Jesus, might also take this opportunity to rededicate themselves–through this prayer–to the Lord’s service.

In Reverend Graham’s last message in the 2013 video-recorded My Hope America, he shared his heart for our nation today:

“Our country’s in great need of a spiritual awakening. There have been times that I’ve wept as I’ve gone from city to city and I’ve seen how far people have wandered from God. I want to tell people about the meaning of the cross. Not the cross that hangs on the wall or around someone’s neck, but the real cross of Christ…With all my heart I want to leave you with the truth, that He loves you, and is willing to forgive you of all your sins. Sin is a disease of the human heart…There is no other way of salvation except through the cross of Christ.”

He then offered a simple, yet powerful prayer, along with a final reminder that if we are willing to come to Christ, Jesus has the power to change our lives and future forever. “Today,” he said, “I’m asking you to put your trust in Jesus.” Then he lifted these words:

“Dear Heavenly Father, I know that I’m a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins, and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins, I repent of my sins, I invite you to come into my heart and life. I want to trust you and follow you as my Lord and Savior. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.”

If you lifted this prayer, from your heart and with all sincerity, know that your life will be different from this day forward for you will now walk with Jesus. He can change your life as He changed mine, as He changed Gene’s.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Reflecting on the Ministry of Billy Graham as He Enters His 100th Year

Billy-Graham1I came to faith in Jesus Christ on Pentecost Sunday in 1982 at a Billy Graham Crusade held at Boston University’s Nickerson Field. The Reverend Graham’s signature is on my Master of Divinity diploma from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; he was one of that institution’s founders and was chairman of the seminary’s board during my years there. As a student, I was given the opportunity to train in and engage in evangelism through one of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) phone centers that was activated each time a crusade aired.

Later, I served as a visiting professor in evangelism and urban ministry at Gordon Conwell and required the same training and engagement of my students. I contributed to The Billy Graham Christian Workers’ Handbook and worked with the BGEA on a film for use in the telephone training centers. I was a delegate to Lausanne II (Manila, the Philippines, 1989), one of a series of events called by the Lausanne Movement, which was founded by Billy Graham. I am a Christianity Today Book of the Year honoree and Billy Graham founded that magazine. I was one of the first students invited to participate in the Arrow Leadership Program, founded by Billy Graham’s brother-in-law, Leighton Ford.

In 1991, the Graham Association created a profile of my life and ministry for airing during one of the crusade telecasts. I was just starting my work for the Lord and was stunned to learn that my profile would be the second in a series that began with that of baseballer Dave Dravecky. Reverend Graham’s message for that program was entitled “Who Is Jesus?” I can still hear the voice of Cliff Barrows introducing my segment. And, of course, George Beverly Shea’s comforting bass-baritone filled and lifted the hearts of those in the stadium seats at the Meadowlands in New Jersey along with the hearts of those listening from their seats at home.

The list of life intersections goes on and on. I am deeply indebted to Billy Graham. He and his organization set the trajectory for my life in ministry. He is, indeed, a man of integrity, humility, generosity and faithfulness who has been used of the Lord in the transformations of millions of individuals around the world.

In Reverend Graham’s last message in the 2013 video-recorded My Hope America, he shares his heart for our nation today, and the following simple, yet powerful prayer, a final reminder, that if we’re willing to come to Christ, He has the power to change our lives and future forever.

“Our country’s in great need of a spiritual awakening. There have been times that I’ve wept as I’ve gone from city to city and I’ve seen how far people have wandered from God.

I want to tell people about the meaning of the cross. Not the cross that hangs on the wall or around someone’s neck, but the real cross of Christ…With all my heart I want to leave you with the truth, that He loves you, and is willing to forgive you of all your sins.

Sin is a disease of the human heart….There is no other way of salvation except through the cross of Christ.

Today, I’m asking you to put your trust in Christ.

‘Dear Heavenly Father, I know that I’m a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins, and rose from the dead. I turn from my sin, I repent of my sins, I invite you to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior.

In Jesus’ Name, Amen.'”

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Just as I am.
All is grace.

 

Books To Feed Your Mind and Spirit

imagesI am often asked for recommendations of devotional materials. Topping my list is Devotional Classics. (I’ve mentioned DC elsewhere on this site but want to reemphasize it and a couple of others today). 

I’ve used this book in my seminary and church-based classes on spiritual formation and development in the disciplines of the faith. I have seen many lives transformed as individuals committed themselves to the work it necessitates. The volume, edited by Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith, uses 52 selections that introduce the reader to the great devotional writers (from Augustine to Thomas a Kempis to Catherine of Genoa to Dietrich Bonhoeffer…). Each excerpt is linked to a biblical passage and is accompanied by probing questions and challenging spiritual exercises. You could focus on a chapter a week through a year and be enormously blessed.

You might also wish to bring alongside this book, two others. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth and Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. The first divides the classic disciplines of the Christian faith into three “movements of the Spirit.”

 

“The inward disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting and study offer avenues of personal examination and change. The outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission and service help prepare us to make the world a better place. The corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance and celebration bring us nearer to one another and to God.”

The second book features essays on the contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical and incarnational streams and grounds each in profiles of individuals throughout history whom the author considers exemplars of these traditions. The three books, taken together, provide refreshing nourishment for the mind and spirit.

Two more recommendations for daily devotionals: My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers, and Streams in the Desert by L.B. Cowman. Each begins with a biblical passage and ends with a meditation on that passage. You’ll find that Chambers will poke around your spirit to urge you to greater faithfulness and Cowman will minister to your soul when you hit rough patches.

 

Good Friday

Mark 15:16-32

When you see the nails piercing through Christ’s hands, believe surely that it is your work. When you see His crown of thorns, believe that it is your evil thoughts.—Martin Luther (1483-1546), leader of the Reformation in Germany

The spectacle of the crucifixion of Jesus was hideous. No language can express how awful and how diabolically evil it was that Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, was being put to death by torturous crucifixion. This was one of the cruelest deaths imaginable; the physical agony to be endured was unimaginable. But Jesus was put to death this way. As Mark records, “It was nine in the morning when they crucified Him” (Mark 15:25).

Jesus had been mocked and beaten bloody by soldiers. The soldiers had “dressed Him up in a purple robe and twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on Him” (Mark 15:17). Humiliation with pain and torture—all for the innocent Son of God.

These horrible things were done to Jesus by others. But theologically, Jesus went to the cross for the sin of the world, which includes the sin of you and me. The old spiritual asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Our answer has to be, “Yes, we were there.” “I was there.”

From today’s The Sanctuary for Lent 2017 by Donald K. McKim.

From Acclamation to Crucifixion

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

Today is known by Christians as either Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday, the day on which we recall Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem but also the day on which we recount the sufferings of our Lord Jesus in the week that followed that triumphal entry.

Three of the greatest lessons that can be derived from Holy Week have to do with the nature of a promise, the nature of love and the nature of victory. A true promise is a promise that is fulfilled. A true love is a promise that is fulfilled. A true victory is a promise that is fulfilled.

Holy Week is all about promises and fulfillment for, as the apostle Paul has written, “No matter how many promises God has made, they are all “Yes” in Christ. And so through Him the ‘Amen’ is spoken to us to the glory of God.”

Promise. Love. Victory. It is always with those who keep their promises that we feel safest. It is always the love that requires the greatest sacrifice that is the most precious. It is always the hardest won victory that is the sweetest. This is evidenced nowhere more clearly than in the Holy Week of Jesus. The week began with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem where He was met with great rejoicing, with honor, and with praise.

As Jesus approached Jerusalem, He knew full well what lay ahead of Him in that city for Jesus had come in the flesh so that He might take upon Himself the punishment rightfully due to sinful humankind. By going to the cross, He was opening the door for reconciliation with God. Jesus, Himself God, followed through on God’s own plan for the redemption of those who would believe. He was fulfilling all the promises.

Before His arrest, He had foretold that one of His own disciples would betray Him. He had predicted also 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 that He would be killed but that three days later He would be raised from the dead.

Before He went to the cross, Jesus used the image of this 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 many in the crowd didn’t recognize Him because they expected the Savior to come in power to wipe out their enemies and to reign as an earthly king. Others understood that this Jesus—in the Hebrew “Yeshuah” (which means Savior) was the Messiah to Whom what we now know as the Old Testament pointed.

And some came to understand that by coming as He did, He was defeating their enemies not just within their lifetimes but for eternity for, with His crucifixion and resurrection, He won the victory over 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 that 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 that the money would be returned for a potters’ field, a burial place for foreigners. And it was.

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

And all of this suffering—the prophets foretold—would be necessary so that 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.

Happy-palm-sunday-clipart-images-for-Kids2-1

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 in this Holy Week. This week, 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 today, 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 this 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.