Telling Bob About the Pastorate

In preparing for this morning, I struggled for some weeks over what I should present in the way of a candidating sermon. I scoured the Word; I perused articles; I searched online; I sought the advice of pastoral colleagues, family members and friends; and I prayed and prayed and prayed. For whatever reason, the message to be delivered at a neutral pulpit before the church’s search committee had come to me with immediate certainty. Forgiveness. A no-brainer!

But what to offer today? This one didn’t come as easily. Should I offer a sermon on the Word and words? A message on spiritual awakening and revival? The I Am Statements of Jesus? The 23rd Psalm? Or, in the wake of Hurricane Florence? Perhaps a message addressing the question: How Could a Loving and All-Powerful God Allow the Catastrophic to Occur?

A mere 66 books, only about 800,000 God-breathed words to consider!! Narratives. Prophecies. Poems. Gospels. Epistles. Should I offer a topical sermon or a verse-by-verse message, mining each word for its breadth of meanings in the original languages? What to do! What to do!!

And then, while preparing my opening remarks for last night’s dinner and this afternoon’s luncheon, I felt led to Bob. Now, most of you who are here this morning likely know that I have served as a professor of evangelism and renewal and directed 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 that you might call me to serve as your pastor, I thought it appropriate to return to a message I delivered at a service for one of my Master of Divinity students.

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 moments, 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.

MATTHEW 4:1-11 AND 2 TIMOTHY 4:1-5

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 that 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.”

To resist this 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.

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, baptisms, weddings, funerals and other events at which you will officiate.

There’ll be a website to update, advertising to consider, staff to nurture, a building to maintain, 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.

In the midst of all of this, 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 midst 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 by 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 are able to 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 these 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 aspire. I want to be a Christ-honoring, Bible-centered, faithful and faith-filled pastor and I pray you will call me to serve as your pastor. And the congregation did…by unanimous vote.

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.

 

Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth

“The greatest problems of our time are not technological, for these we handle fairly well. They are not even political or economic, because the difficulties in these areas, glaring as they may be, are largely derivative. The greatest problems are moral and spiritual, and unless we can make some progress in these realms, we may not even survive.”

So writes D. Elton Trueblood in his foreword to Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. This blessed book, written by Richard J. Foster, has been used since its initial printing in 1978, to deepen the interior lives of countless individuals, nurturing them toward more abundant living.

“Superficiality is the curse of our age,” Foster asserts. “The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is…for deep people.”

The classic Disciplines, or central spiritual practices, of the Christian faith allow us to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us. Dividing the Disciplines into three movements of the Spirit, Foster shows how each of these areas contributes to a balanced spiritual life. 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.

Foster asks us to “picture a long, narrow ridge with a sheer drop-off on either side. The chasm to the right is the way of moral bankruptcy through human strivings for righteousness. Historically this has been called the heresy of moralism. The chasm to the left is moral bankruptcy through the absence of human strivings. This has been called the heresy of antinomianism. On the ridge there is a path, the Disciplines of the spiritual life…[T]he path does not produce the change; it only places us where the change can occur. This is the path of disciplined grace…[and] our world is hungry for genuinely changed people. Leo Tolstoy observes, ‘Everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself.’ Let us be among those who believe that the inner transformation of our lives is a goal worthy of our best effort.”

If you are feeling spiritually dry, if you have tired of superficiality, if you are hungering for a more abundant life, I recommend you carve out some time to spend with Celebration of Discipline. I have used this book in many classes on spiritual growth and have seen astonishing transformations in those who have devoted themselves to the principles set forth within.

Sunday’s Palms Are Wednesday’s Ashes

Sunday’s palms are Wednesday’s ashes as another Lent begins;
Thus we kneel before the Maker in contrition for our sins.
We have marred baptismal pledges, in rebellion gone astray;
Now returning, seek forgiveness; grant us pardon, God, this day!

We have failed to love our neighbors, their offenses to forgive,
Have not listened to their troubles, nor have cared just how they live.
We are jealous, proud, impatient, loving over-much our things;
May the yielding of our failings be our Lenten offerings.

We are hasty to judge others, blind to proof of human need;
And our lack of understanding demonstrates our inner greed;
We have wasted earth’s resources; want and suffering we’ve ignored;
Come and cleanse us, then restore us; make new hearts within us Lord.

-Rae B. Whitney (1991)

I had intended to post this on Ash Wednesday, but just located the lyrics today. Though a tad late, the words remain good ones for reflection, prayer and action during this period of Lent and beyond.

subpage--ash-wednesday-

 

Converts to Christ Who Are Not Disciples of Christ

Richard Foster writes: “Perhaps the greatest malady in the Church today is converts to Christ who are not disciples of Christ–a clear contradiction in terms. This malady affects everything in church life and in large measure accounts for the low level of spiritual nutrients in our local congregations. To counter this sad state of affairs, we must determine that, regardless of what others do, our intention is to come under the tutelage of Jesus Christ, our ever-living Savior, Teacher, Lord, and Friend.”
Dallas Willard reminds us that: “Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated through by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus same He came to bring (John 10:10).”
In Devotional Classics, in which both of these quotes are found, it is noted that Jesus instructed His followers to obey everything that He had commanded (Matt. 28:16-20). A good exercise, in this period of Lent, would be to go through the gospel of Matthew to list all the things Jesus commanded us to do. The results would make up a mosaic of what the basic Christian life should look like according to Jesus.

Forcing Conformity While Calling It Tolerance

I am a staunch advocate for free speech and the free exercise of religion and am appalled at the steady erosion of these long-in-place and long-cherished rights in the United States.  

Phil Robertson, of Duck Dynasty, recently responded to a question about sin, paraphrasing–what he believes to be–the Word of God. He has been threatened with the loss of his job on the A&E network because he did so.

Companies like Hobby Lobby are being threatened with millions of dollars in crippling fines and, thus, ultimate expulsion from the marketplace because they are refusing to provide government-mandated employee health insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs and related counseling. To go against their deeply-held pro-life beliefs would violate their Christian principles. This case is going all the way to the Supreme Court.

The marginalization of Christians in this country is a frightening trend and one that should alarm every American.

In the article below to which I link, is found this:

“Speaking on the issue of tolerance, mega-church pastor and bestselling author Rick Warren observed: ‘Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear them or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.’ Tolerance is not the same thing as acceptance, and acceptance is not the same thing as an endorsement. The message A&E’s decision sends is that the network will not tolerate someone who conscientiously objects to homosexuality on religious grounds. The implication of that message is that 45 percent of Americans [who are striving to live by biblical standards] should, in principle, be prepared either to sacrifice their jobs or recant their beliefs and endorse a lifestyle to which they are opposed, conscience be damned. To the extent that we embrace that implication, in television and in other American industries, we’re also embracing an identity as a nation that forces conformity while calling it tolerance.”

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/12/the-genuine-conflict-being-ignored-in-the-i-duck-dynasty-i-debate/282587/#!

Provocative and Evocative Words

James 1:26; 3:1-12

In the early 1970s, comedian George Carlin made headlines across the world with his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.”

He began the routine by saying, “There are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is: 399,993 to seven! They must really be bad.”

And then he – famously – proceeded to say them.

On July 21, 1972, he was arrested after performing the routine at Milwaukee’s Summerfest. The charge: violating obscenity laws. The case, which prompted Carlin to refer to the words for a time as “The Milwaukee Seven,” was dismissed in December of that year. The judge declared that the words were indecent but Carlin had the freedom to say them as long as he caused no disturbance. He was arrested several more times after that for performing the routine, but he refused to drop the bit from his act.

In 1978, the “seven dirty words” riff eventually ended up as the focal point of a Supreme Court ruling: New York radio station WBAI had played a recording of Carlin’s routine – without bleeps – and caught the ire of the Federal Communications Commission. A 5-4 decision reaffirmed the government’s right to regulate speech that the FCC deems offensive.

Carlin, now deceased, once said, “I love words. I thank you for hearing my words. I want to tell you something about words that I think is important. Words are my work, they’re my play. They’re my passion. Words are all we have really. We have thoughts, but thoughts are fluid. And, then we assign a word to a thought and we’re stuck with that word for that thought. So be careful with words. The same words that hurt can heal.”

Some years ago, in the midst of a sermon series on words, I used a word from the pulpit that probably came as a great surprise to some. It was a four-letter word starting with the letter f but it wasn’t the great big f-word. It was the one about passing gas.

One person emailed me after the service – absolutely furious – telling me that she had been hurt because I had used that word. She said she had been so enjoying the service – everything was so lovely, all was well — and then I shared a story that had that word in it.

The story was about a couple of employees in a pizza shop in North Carolina who did some nasty things to pies before delivering them to customers. They dropped pizza toppings on the floor, mashed them around, scraped them up, and daintily arranged them on the pie. They stuck cheese strands up their noses, extracted them, and giddily sprinkled them over the sauce. They spit the condiments over the top of the pizza and did to the pie the word I used. Then, they uploaded a video of their creative efforts onto the Internet for all to see.

The woman who was offended by the offensive f-word didn’t care to hear my reasons for sharing this story. She couldn’t get past the word. Words can hurt.

On the other end of the spectrum, another person gave me a great big hug after worship and said, with great delight, how much she had absolutely loved the sermon! She insisted it was exactly what she had needed to hear that morning. It seems Carlin was right: words that hurt can also heal.

Words. Words can provoke: incite to anger or resentment OR stir to action or feeling. Words can evoke: summon or call forth emotions, bring back memories or create something new by means of the imagination.

Was the word I used unsuitable for a formal occasion, especially a worship service, because of its vulgar nature? Perhaps. But it was precisely because of its power to offend that I used it. I wanted my listeners to hear a graphic description of a provocative action and I wanted them to feel disgust and anger over it. What these employees did was a clear example of the betrayal of trust. The execs of the national pizza chain who employed these two fools had to do major damage control. It took the company a good bit of time to recoup.

I used the incident in setting the stage for a message on how we trust, who we trust, what we trust…trust as a journey. From this tale of betrayal and the stories of clay-footed others, I moved on to explore how the first disciples came to trust Jesus; why we can trust Jesus; and why, since we can trust Jesus; we also have the freedom to obey Jesus.

I was stunned to be asked by the angry woman if I was amused by the pizza story. I was not at all amused; I was appalled and I wanted the congregation to be appalled. I wanted them to feel what I felt when I read that story: repulsion, betrayal, dismay. I wanted them to feel those emotions so we could explore together the power of shattered trust and the contrasting power of secured trust. As I reflect, I wonder if the angry woman wasn’t so offended because I’d shattered her trust in me by using a word from the pulpit that she never, in a million years, would have believed I would ever have used.

Now, for certain, certain words offend some people and not others.

The same pizza story reached a man at a breakfast the church offered each Saturday for the homeless and at risk in our community. Because of the startling pizza images, one man especially paid attention to the message and was moved closer in relationship with the Lord. He made a point of coming to me to let me know the impact for healing that my words had made on him.

Now there are stories and images and ideas and words in scripture that anger, incite, excoriate, amuse, edify and transform. The Bible is filled with stories about lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. The Bible is also filled with stories about chastity, abstinence, generosity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. There are passages that deal with rape, adultery, promiscuity, prostitution, pre-marital sex, and homosexuality. There are passages that speak to friendship, courtship, love, marriage, sexual relations within marriage, and fidelity. There are stories of war, abandonment, thievery, idolatry, accidents, injuries, tragedies, murder, treachery, mayhem, torture, and assassinations. There are also stories of peacemaking, faithfulness, healing, joys, and miraculous rescues. There are images that horrify, frighten and offend, images that edify, calm, and restore.

There are passages that focus on a woman’s monthly cycle, a man’s bodily discharge, childbirth, sores, burns, infections, leprosy, insect infestations and mold. The Word speaks to us about fashion, cooking, construction, the arts, agriculture, parties, mountain climbing, the materially rich, the materially poor, the spiritually rich, and the spiritually poor.

And there is a reference in the Bible that many commentators assert is speaking about the f-word I employed. It’s in the book of Isaiah and is used in comparing the suffering of judgment and war with the pain and physical eruptions that frequently accompany childbirth. I’ll help you out here in finding it: the euphemism that’s used is “giving birth to the wind.”

The Bible is filled with words that speak to our everyday lives in our totality as human beings. It is filled with real-time, relevant to all-time stories that teach us how to live. In these stories, we see ourselves and our world; the Bible is an absolutely timeless and always contemporary book. Often employed therein are provocative words written to evoke a response.

All these stories, images and words find touch points and echoes in our world today. I listen to the threats emanating from North Korea and recall the same kinds of taunts and saber-rattling from the Philistines or the Ammonites or the Edomites in the Old Testament.

I read a story about a woman in Oregon who killed another woman and cut out her baby and I am reminded of the passage in 1st Kings, chapter 3, of the two women who came to Solomon both claiming they were the mother of one child. Both had delivered children but one had smothered her son by lying on top of him. When she saw he was dead, she stole the other woman’s child while she slept.

The two stood before King Solomon asking him to make a judgment. He ordered a sword be brought and then gave an order: “Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.”

The woman whose son was alive was filled with love and compassion for her child and begged Solomon to give the baby to the other woman. But the other said, “Neither you nor I shall have him. Cut him in two.”

Then the king gave his ruling: “Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother.”

What a horrifying, sickening, outrageous story but also — what a lesson about wisdom and discernment! Throughout scripture, we find similarly provocative stories that are written to evoke an understanding of truth and to work in us an appropriate response for application to our daily lives.

I read articles today about corruption in government and think of the parade of rulers we find in books like 2nd Chronicles where we see a just ruler like Jehoshaphat contrasted with his son, the corrupt Jehoram, and how one, for the most part, did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and received honor and how the other did not do what was right and, as a result, suffered great agony.

I drive by a police station and see a sign lifted in memory of a fallen officer, killed in the line of duty, and I am reminded of the scriptures that call upon us to respect those who are in authority over us. In a newspaper article about the death, I come across a photograph of the officer’s grieving wife and read how a comrade , in recalling the state trooper’s actions said that, on that day, “there would be no compromise of duty. Evil was met with bold courage and an unrelenting will to do what must be done.”

I’m led to wonder if the man who shot the police officer believed he was doing the right thing when he kidnapped his own son, led police on a 40-mile chase and opened fire on troopers as they rushed his car. Then I’m led to Proverbs 14, verse 12: “There is a way that seems right to a man but, in the end, it leads to death.”

All of the foregoing are matters about which we need to be concerned, matters we need to address as the church, matters against which we must not insulate ourselves, matters about which we should have an opinion, matters that call us to action.

I’ve been struck in scripture by the chastisements of preachers and congregations who moved, as if by rote, through the motions of worship. What is worship, the scriptures ask?

Worship is not just ritual activity but the involvement of the heart, mind and will. The test of true worship is not just what we do during an hour of worship each Sunday; it’s about what we do 24-7.

Religion that God accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Did I use a polluted word that Sunday? Perhaps. A pastor’s responsibility is to preach the Word, to reprove, rebuke and exhort, with great patience and instruction. A pastor must seek to discern each week how to make the connections between the written Word and the contemporary world.

Now it may not be acceptable  in some social circles to talk about a bodily function such as the one I mentioned that day but that bodily function is natural to us all, a common connector, and of enough interest to be the subject of at least two dozen books for children and of enough interest to warrant 49,800,000 references on Google.

Some years ago, I had a very heated conversation – in the presence of my doctoral students — with a pastor in New York City who is known most especially for his powerful, life-changing ministry with men on the street. He uses the most foul language imaginable from the pulpit – the seven words you can’t use on TV and more. He communicates in the language of the streets.

In our very animated debate that day, I chastised him for his language via Ephesians 4, verse 29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up, according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

I followed up with Ephesians 5:3-4 (which I paraphrase here): Among us there is to be not even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any other kind of impurity or greed nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk, or coarse joking. But my man in NYC still insisted he needed to use the seven words you can’t use on TV in order to reach those who are often otherwise unreachable.

Not easy this word stuff. The same word that can hurt one may heal another.

The bottom line is this: may it be impressed upon us again the power that is found in words. We speak casually; we speak seriously. We joke with others and we bring challenges. Yet, in all that we say, there is a need to think seriously about what we say before we say it.

We must follow the lead of Jesus and use words in ways that instruct, praise, forgive, and when necessary, challenge and admonish. Let us do our best to really listen to what others are saying and try to hear the intent behind what they are saying. Let us seek to live in biblical ways, looking to the Word to inform our daily lives and our speech. Let us tame our tongues. Let us be patient with one another but also encourage one another to use our words wisely. May we each rededicate ourselves to being used of God to build up others in the walk of faith. Let us invite the Holy Spirit to guide us and to inform and form our words.

Oscillating Mascaras and Fish-Finding Watches

Matthew 25:14-30

I used to be a mall rat. Not anymore. Now — only when absolutely necessary – do I drag myself to one of the mega shopping complexes. Then I run in, get what I need and run out. However . . .

Some time ago – as I was running out — something caught my eye that stopped me in my tracks. It was a display for a new product: oscillating mascara. Oscillating mascara? Yep. Lancome and some other cosmetic lines are now marketing battery-powered mascara. Jean-Louis Gueret, creator of mascara brushes for Lancome, said he came up with the idea for oscillation after watching makeup artists at work. While applying mascara, their hands move in a zigzag pattern. So to best emulate the movement, Gueret explained, he came up with a flexible, polymer-based mascara brush that vibrates along its longitude at 7,000 micro-oscillations a second. To launch the battery-powered movement, one presses lightly on an area of the mascara’s outer tube that turns on a three-centimeter motor.

Gueret said that, as the mascara brush vibrates against eyelashes, they become “organized” and evenly coated with a mascara formula that also extends, curls, shapes and makes lashes seem thicker.

Well, I just stood there in the aisle . . . riveted and then I burst into great gales of laughter. But now I feel like crying. There, in front of me, was a perfect example of being acted upon vs. acting. Now, you can take a stick, put it up to your eye and voila!  Perfectly organized eyelashes.

Segue. I have some pretty distinct memories of fishing with my Dad. And whether it was dropping a line from a pier or from a rowboat in the middle of the lake, it’s my recollection that a good bit of the enjoyment of fishing was in using our human senses to find the fish. The big question, the big mystery: where were the fish biting?

Today, all of the guesswork and sense work has been taken out of the equation because now recreational fisherman can purchase a fish finder akin to those used by the huge commercial operations. The device is worn on your wrist and doubles as a working wristwatch. The instrument’s sonar sensor reads to a depth of 120 feet and operates in a wide 75-foot remote radius, transmitting real-time views of fish to the 1 1/4″ LCD display. Come on! Talk about shooting fish in a barrel! Where’s the fairness in that? Where’s the fun in that?

The more I look around today, the more I see a good bit of our culture heading toward Wall-E-ism. A key plot point in this animated movie (released in 2008) centered on the creator’s vision of what would become of humankind after 700 years of having everything done for them. The picture wasn’t pretty: human beings as useless baby blobs being acted upon, not acting. Wall-E warns us of the dangers of rampant consumerism and presages what can happen to the Earth when human beings abandon their responsibility for stewardship.

Now, working off of this intro, I’d like to ask you some questions: Will you settle for being acted upon or will you act? Are you using, will you use, your God-given talents or will you bury them? Will you be a good steward of what the Lord has given to you or will you abandon that responsibility?

To get a grasp on how important the stewardship of our talents might be, let’s look to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25. There we read:

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

“‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

I’ve researched the contemporary equivalent of the biblical talent and have come up with a range of estimates. In one place, I read that one talent was a worker’s average income for anywhere from three to 38 years worth of work. So, if we come somewhere in between and say 15 years, five talents would be the income for 75 years of labor, two talents the income for thirty years of labor. In another place, the author calculated today’s value by drawing from the talent as used in military pay. During the Peloponnesian War in ancient Greece, a talent was the amount of silver needed to pay the crew of a trireme (a warship powered by 170 plus oarsmen) for one month. Hellenistic mercenaries were commonly paid one drachma for every day of service; 6,000 drachma made a talent. Based on this fact, assuming a crew of roughly 200 rowers paid at the basic pay rate of a junior enlisted member of the US armed forces, a talent would be worth nearly $300,000.

Bottom line here: the talent was an enormous sum of money.

But, for our purposes today, let us think of the talent as not just a measure of finances but a measure of the amount of gifts, resources and abilities that God has given to each one of us. In our story, all three individuals were given good gifts. All three were given good talents and resources. Not one of these servants earned the resources or talents that they were given. We need to understand that all of the talents were pure gifts from the giver of gifts: God. Not one talent was earned nor deserved.

The one who had received the five talents put them to use, went off at once and traded with them and made five more talents. This individual was industrious with what had been entrusted to him and he doubled what he had. In the same way, the one who had the two talents put those talents to use and he doubled what he had.

Notice that the “five talent” person and the “two talent” person did not get into psychological games about who had the most talents. They didn’t get into verbal jousting with one saying, “I am superior because God gave me five talents,” or the other bemoaning, “I am half as good because God gave me two talents.” There were no “comparison games” being played here.

Both individuals realized that the one who had given them resources expected them to use those resources for His glory. That was simple and clear. They had to turn in an account of how they had used the gifts that the giver of gifts — God — had entrusted to them.

Now, in our story, the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried the talent he’d been given. Remember this talent wasn’t anything to scoff at; this was an enormous waste!

We, too, have been given resources, gifts and abilities and we are to use them to please our God – we’re not to bury our talents.

Every single one of us has received clusters of gifts, clusters of resources. Each and every unique one of us. But, we can bury those treasures – as did the third person in this parable – we can bury those treasures.

But, like the three in our parable, we will also face the moment of settling accounts. We, too, will need to face the giver of gifts to explain how we used what He gave us. You see the joy here of those who put their talents to good use. They were happy and God was happy with them.

How precious it must be to hear the words from our Lord: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” We want those words said about us on judgment day.

This is not a “works righteousness” kind of thing. We know that salvation is a pure gift and that we cannot earn our way into heaven by our works. Rather, the sign that our salvation is freely given is that we do the works that God wants us to do out of thanksgiving and not to earn anything from God. Salvation is always a free gift, undeserved, unearned.

Knowing that we are saved by God’s grace, however, we “do” the works that God wants us to do, not to earn salvation but because God has filled our hearts with love and our actions with compassion.

Now the one who buried his talents actually blamed God for his own inaction. We may respond in the same way. If we don’t use the gifts/resources/talents that God has given to us, rather than blame ourselves, we may end up blaming God or evil or evil circumstances for the fact that we did not use our God-given gifts.

But note the way the giver of gifts responded to the one who had buried his talents, “You wicked and lazy servant! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.” This individual tried to blame God but it didn’t work. God saw through his game and so the talent was taken from him and given to the one with the ten talents, the one who would put the talent to good use.

Each one of us has been given gifts. Your gifts are the sum total of all the resources that God has given to you.  Your gifts or talents are not just your genetic abilities and natural aptitudes, although these are part of your gifts.  Many of your most precious gifts are qualities and resources that have been developed in you over time.

And one thing we know is that God wants us to use these gifts, these God-given gifts for His service and, as you use those gifts, the Lord showers you with blessings.

In her book, Gifts of Grace, Mary Schramm suggests that there are five steps in ascertaining and using your gifts, and I would like to walk through those steps with you.

The first step is to discover your gifts, and you always discover your gifts in relationship. You rarely or never discover your gifts in isolation. You discover your gifts through your parents, teachers, coaches, instructors, friends, fellow Christians and others. Other people help you to discover your gifts.

The second step is to accept the gifts that God has given to you. This is the art of maturity, learning to accept the gifts that God has given to you and not given to you. A key thermometer is how jealous and envious you are of other people and their gifts. If you are jealous and envious of other people’s giftedness or feel inferior, chances are you have not really accepted your own blend of gifts that God has given to you. One of the primary keys of life is to accept and use the gifts that God has uniquely given to you, your unique blend of talents, aptitudes, abilities, life experiences, the sum total of all your resources.

The third step is to enjoy your God-given gifts, to take pleasure in them, to appreciate what God can do through your life.

The fourth step is to mature or develop those gifts. Like all gifts, they need to be put to work, to be exercised, developed. Nothing in this world becomes stronger without hard work and investment of time, self and energy. Just to rely on native talent and avoid the hard work of developing a gift will lead you nowhere, but will cheapen your gift and you as a person.

And the fifth step involves all of the steps, and this is to surrender all of your gifts to God.  If you don’t, you’ll either bury your gifts or you will use your gifts for your own benefit…to glorify yourself or to satisfy yourself. Either you give your gifts to the service of Christ and His mission in this world, or you don’t. And, if you don’t, you will always fall short of happiness.

Many people ask, “What is God’s will for my life?”  Very simply, you do God’s will in your life when you discover, surrender, and use your gifts to honor Him and bless the world around you.  It’s not that difficult.  That’s stewardship, the management of the life that God has given to you. You have been blessed to be a blessing.

Will you settle for being acted upon or will you act? Are you using, will you use, your God-given talents or will you bury them? Are you being a good steward of what the Lord has given to you or have you abandoned your responsibility? If you have buried what you’ve been given, ask yourself: is it because you’ve become stuck in a pattern of blaming others for your circumstances? Well, it’s high time you dug down deep to draw up that talent. Claim the abundant life the Lord has for you. If you keep doing things the way you’ve always done them, you’ll keep getting the same results. Make today different. Resolve TODAY to be a more faithful steward of all that the Lord has placed within upon you.

And:

May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him; may the eyes of your heart be enlightened, that you may know the hope to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in His holy people, and the immeasurable greatness of His power in us who believe, according to the working of His great might which He accomplished in Christ when He raised Him from the dead. (Ephesians 1:17-19)

Photos by Donna Hailson.

Christ is Risen!

John 3:16; Matthew 28:1-6; Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 6:4

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Christ is alive! And, at the appointed time – in the fullness of time — trumpets will sound, choirs will sing their alleluias, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed – the mortal will be clothed with immortality, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye! Death swallowed up in victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

God gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Romans 6:4 proclaims that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. And paraphrasing Ephesians, chapter 2: those who are dead in their sins are given new life as they come to Jesus in faith.

That is the Gospel. That is the gospel truth of Easter, Resurrection Day.

Edward Markquart, pondering the meaning of Easter, muses over what might have been printed if there were newspapers in the first century like those we have today. If there were, an obituary for Jesus might have appeared in the Saturday edition noting His time and place of birth and His lineage. There we might have read about the publicity He’d received because of unusual occurrences associated with Him such as the blind being given sight, the deaf hearing, and the lame walking. The obituary might have noted the rumors about how He radically changed people’s lives and how one day He entered Jerusalem to the loud acclamations of Passover crowds who hailed Him as king.

The piece would likely have gone on to say that those crowds had turned against Him and called for His death and how, succumbing to those crowds, Governor Pontius Pilate, representing the Roman Empire in Jerusalem, sentenced Him to death. And, in that article, we would have learned how Jesus died on a cross at three o’clock in the afternoon on Golgotha, the hill of the crucifixion, outside the walls of Jerusalem. His burial was in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

If that obituary had been printed in the Jerusalem Post or the Nazareth News, everyone would have thought that the Jesus movement had ended. Its leader was dead. His disciples had gone into hiding. This little episode would have become one minor footnote in history. His reputation, His teachings would have faded…if not for the third day. On the third day, the grave was empty. Jesus had risen from the dead.

The news spread, from the angel to Mary to Peter to the disciples to the 500. And they became a new people. They became a new brand of men and women who were filled with a new power, with resurrection power. They were no longer afraid of living because they were no longer afraid of dying. They had a new passion for life because they had resurrection power within them!

On Easter – all these centuries later – the Church, gathered from every race, every culture, every nation…the Church gathered by the hundreds, by the thousands, by the millions – the Church…gathered to hear the Resurrection message – to sing the songs and hear the good news, to celebrate new life — Christ has been raised from the dead by the victorious power of God. Christ is risen! Alleluia!

This day is not only concerned with God’s victory over physical death; this day is also concerned with God’s victory over spiritual death. God raises up both dead bodies and dead spirits. God raises spiritually dead people to life all the time, and I’ve seen it again and again. I have seen and heard and experienced real life stories of people who were spiritually dead and God put new life back into them. That’s what Easter is all about.

I’m quite certain there is someone reading this today who is spiritually dead OR who is so close to being spiritually dead, you would never be able to tell the person was alive. Spiritually comatose. Too busy for God.  Too busy running in circles and God is not part of that circle.

The apostle Paul, writing in his epistle to the Ephesians, tells us that we need to put off our old selves and put on the new. We are made new experientially when we yield to the work of the Holy Spirit within us.

For someone, your spiritual life is as dehydrated as the dry bones described in the book of Ezekiel. Your life is relatively unaffected by spiritual things. On Good Friday, you didn’t stop for even a moment to recall Jesus’ suffering on the cross.  The study of Scripture and the practice of daily prayer are not on your itinerary. Oh, you may pray when you’re in a jam, like just about everybody else. Oh, you may believe in the “Man Upstairs,” but that daily authentic walk with God is just not part of your life.

Tell me, can a person who is deaf hear the thunder? No. Can a person who is blind see the piercing flash of lightning? No. Neither can a person who is spiritually deaf truly hear the Word of God speaking to them every day, nor can the spiritually blind see the piercing light of God shining on their lives. The spiritually deaf can’t really hear the voice of God and the spiritually blind will not be overjoyed at seeing the beauties of God in Christ. Some are living like the dead dead, rattling around with dry bones like the skeletons described in the book of Ezekiel. … No thunder of God do you hear! No light of God do you see! No delicacies of God do you really taste or eat!

But the Easter message is that the awesome power of God, who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, can miraculously take your dead life and mine and make it alive. God can take a person who are spiritually dead and fill that person with resurrection power, vibrant power so that life is lived with a passion for the ways of God. And it’s time. It’s time to wake up, come out from the spiritual coma, be raised up from spiritual lethargy by the power of God.

If you’re reading this today, I believe it is because God wants you to read this so that you might hear afresh or for the first time the Easter promise that God raises up both dead bodies and dead spirits. Victory over death was won by Jesus Christ.

Let’s recount what God did in Christ so that we might live.

Jesus had a Last Supper with his disciples and spent an excruciating time waiting in Gethsemane when those disciples couldn’t manage to remain awake with Him as He agonized over His approach to the cross. In a garden, He was betrayed with the Judas kiss and then He was brought before His accusers in a sham of a trial. He suffered the emotional pain of acknowledging the betrayal of yet another beloved disciple.

Then He suffered the physical pain of the scourging – Jesus was struck over and over and over again with a whip constructed of long leather straps studded with sharp pieces of bone, rocks, lead and glass. With each lash, the whip wrapped around His 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 was barely recognizable.

Then a crown of thorns was jammed on His head and He was beaten on the head repeatedly with a staff. They led Him away to be crucified. Jesus – battered and 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.

On the skull-shaped hill, Golgotha, Jesus, naked and already in unimaginable pain, was nailed to a cross through His wrists and feet. And He remained on that cross for six hours until He said the words: “It is finished” and “Father, into You hands, I commit my spirit.” Then He took His last breath.

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” (John 19:33).
  • The soldiers plunged a spear into Jesus’ side, and from it came both water and blood (John 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 (Mark 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” (Matthew 27:59), anointing the body with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes” (John 19:39), and placing it “in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock” (Mark 15:46). 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 and the scriptures make clear they were certain He was dead (Matthew 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 weighed 1½ to 2 tons. This stone would have been sealed with clay and stamped with the Roman signet. To tamper with a Roman seal was punishable by death, by crucifixion. The tomb was heavily guarded by soldiers of 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 assigned to 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 have faced death for this? Could the guards have slept through or allowed the disciples to remove the two-ton stone, unwrap and fold neatly the hundred pounds of grave clothes, lift the body and carry it away? Really!

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 – the scriptures tell us the women who had followed Jesus made their 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 and an angel said: “Do not be afraid, for I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here. He has risen. Just as He said.” He is risen!! Alleluia!

So this day 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 spiritual death, eternal death to have a grip on us or whether we will, instead, embrace the new life that is offered to us only by the resurrected Jesus Christ. Jesus loves us. He gave His life for us. When we believe this and follow Him, we follow Him to resurrection. We live.

We who have welcomed Jesus as Savior can leave the tomb, knowing that death will not hold us in its grip. We are free to claim the abundant life that Jesus has won for us. Jesus Christ is alive and new life is available to everyone who calls on His name. Why live like the dead when you can live as the living?

If you are reading this and you have never welcomed Jesus into your life and if you feel a prodding in this moment to do so, I invite you to pray the prayer that follows. If you already know Jesus and want to rededicate yourself to Him, you can use this prayer to do that as well.

Dear Jesus, I admit that I am a sinner. I am sorry for any sin I have knowingly or unknowingly committed against you. I want to turn my life around and live for you. I believe that you died on the cross for me. I – with all sincerity and with all gratitude – accept your sacrifice in my place and invite you to come into my heart and my life to be my Lord and Savior. I place my hope in you and thank you for the gift of you, the gift precious beyond all gifts. Amen

If you genuinely – from the depths of your heart and mind and spirit – prayed to welcome Jesus as Savior today, know that the Word of God promises that you will have eternal life and you are a new person in Christ from this day forward. This is good news to share and I hope you will share that good news with me and with any other Christians you may know. You can take your first steps as a Christian reading the gospel of John which you can access via the Bible Gateway link on this website. A next step would be connecting with a Bible-believing, Christ-honoring congregation in your community. You will never be alone again as Jesus will walk with you and His Word (the Bible) will transform you as you read.

Folks who have known Jesus for awhile: I would love to hear how you were introduced to Him and what that relationship has meant in your life.

I wish you well on your journey of faith and pray it may be as transformative and exciting as has been my own!

Photos by Donna Hailson.

Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians

Saeed Abedini with his sonPhoto by ACLJ (used with permission).
Saeed Abedini with his son
Photo by ACLJ (used with permission)

Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen and ethnic Iranian who returned to Iran, has been imprisoned and tortured there for six months because of his Christian ministry. The prosecutor, in outlining the charges against him, said Abedini had undermined the Iranian government by creating a network of Christian house churches.

“This is a real travesty, a mockery of justice,” said Jay Sekulow, Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which has been lobbying for the pastor’s release. “From the very beginning Iranian authorities have lied about all aspects of this case, even releasing rumors of his expected release. Iran has not only abused its own laws, it has trampled on the fundamentals of human rights.”

Sekulow said it is deeply troubling that “we have a U.S. citizen who has been beaten and tortured since his imprisonment last fall, now facing eight years in Evin Prison, one of the most brutal prisons in Iran.” He added that the pastor, whose wife Naghmeh and their two small children remain in the United States, will most likely continue to face “life-threatening torture and abuse at the hands of the Iranian regime — simply because of his Christian faith.”

According to The New American, the Muslim-born, naturalized American citizen Abedini became a Christian after training to be a suicide bomber in his native Iran. “His wife, the American-born Naghmeh, whom he married in 2005, related that Abedini had become very depressed as a result of the training, and that “Christianity saved his life.” Following his Christian conversion, Abedini ultimately became a leader in Iran’s underground church, and before leaving the country, oversaw about 100 churches and 2,000 members in 30 Iranian cities. He had returned to Iran to help establish a non-sectarian orphanage.”

Fox News notes that: “On the day he was confirmed as Secretary of State, John Kerry went farther than his predecessor had in condemning Iran for imprisoning an American citizen . . . Kerry, the longtime Democratic senator from Massachusetts, made the statement in response to a written query from fellow Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who asked if Kerry, as Secretary of State, would join the National Security Council’s call for Saeed Abedini’s release.

“’We remain deeply concerned about the fairness and transparency of Mr. Abedini’s trial,’ Kerry told Rubio. ‘I, along with the U.S. government, condemn Iran’s continued violation of the universal right of freedom of religion and call on the Iranian authorities to respect Mr. Abedini’s human rights and release him.’”

U.S. citizens who are persecuted for their faith overseas are not a typical priority for the U.S. Government or the media, human rights lawyer Nina Shea has observed. And it was not until March 22, in a statement issued very late on a Friday, that Secretary of State John Kerry made a proactive call for Abedini’s release. “I am deeply concerned about the fate of U.S citizen Saeed Abedini, who has been detained for almost six months and was sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran on charges related to his religious beliefs,” Kerry wrote. “I am disturbed by reports that Mr. Abedini has suffered physical and psychological abuse in prison, and that his condition has become increasingly dire.”

Pastor Saeed is far from alone in suffering persecution for his Christian faith. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimates that an average of 159,960 Christians worldwide are martyred for their faith each year. Deseret News boils the numbers down to a Christian martyred every five minutes – killed because they name Jesus as their Savior.

Open Doors, a non-profit organization working in the world’s most oppressive countries, providing Bibles and literature, media, leadership training, socio-economic development and ensuring prayer, presence and advocacy for persecuted Christians, recently released its 2013 ranking of the 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe. Topping the list are: North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Maldives, Mali, Iran, Yemen, Eritrea, Syria, Sudan and Nigeria.

North Korea is described on the Open Doors website as “the most difficult place on earth to be a Christian. One of the remaining Communist states, it is vehemently opposed to religion of any kind. Christians are classified as hostile and face arrest, detention, torture, even public execution. There is a system of labour camps including the renowned prison No. 15, which reportedly houses 6,000 Christians alone. But despite severe oppression, there is a growing underground church movement of an estimated 400,000 Christians.”

In Saudi Arabia, according to Open Doors, there is no provision for religious freedom in the Islamic kingdom’s constitution. “All citizens must adhere to Islam and conversion to another religion is punishable by death. Public Christian worship is forbidden; worshippers risk imprisonment, lashing, deportation and torture. Evangelising Muslims and distributing non-Muslim materials is illegal. Muslims who convert to Christianity risk honour killings, and foreign Christian workers have been exposed to abuse from employers. Despite this, converts are responding to Christian TV programmes and to dreams and visions from God.” Despite persecution, despite martyrdom, Christianity is growing rapidly, perhaps undergoing its largest expansion in history.

Their Blood Cries Out: The Worldwide Tragedy of Modern Christians who are Dying for Their Faith, by religious liberty scholar Paul Marshall with journalist Lela Gilbert, is one of the most moving books I’ve read on the persecution of Christians. In this, the authors reveal the reality of this present-day horror and offer suggestions on what individuals and churches can do to help those who are suffering.

51IRH56y5RLMarshall, Gilbert, and Shea have also now released a new book on the international torment of Christians called Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Thomas Nelson). Their launch was March 27 at the Hudson Institute, where all three are affiliated, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer biographer Eric Metaxas moderating.

***

Mark Tooley, on the blog site Juicy Ecumenism, shared the following comments from the authors today:

“Churches themselves don’t take notice sometimes,” Nina Shea sadly observed about persecution of Christians. “Not too many people are paying attention.” And “political correctness has grown even in churches.” She contrasted today’s indifference to the wide coalition of the 1990s that rallied for global religious liberty, which led to the International Religious Freedom Act, mandating that U.S. foreign policy prioritize the issue. That coalition had been led and cheered on by, among others, evangelical leader Chuck Colson and New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal, both now deceased.

The indifference and ignorance even within American churches is compounded by little knowledge that significant Christian communities even exist in majority Muslim countries, Paul Marshall noted, much less that they are increasingly under siege.

***

While the church is growing exponentially in Asia, Central America, South America, and Africa – in settings that are often, as noted, extraordinarily oppressive –  it is dead or dying in Europe and in the United States. Up until 1955, most everyone in Britain, for example, was active in a church. Today, fewer than four percent of Britons participate in ecclesial life. The situation is even worse in countries like Germany and Sweden where the numbers of professing Christians are now so low as to be almost uncountable.

While people in the United States are hungry for information about God and, while the country still permits open expressions of the Christian faith, Christian pollster George Barna estimates that perhaps four percent of Americans actually live in ways that could be considered biblical. Mark Mittelberg, in his book Building a Contagious Church: Revolutionizing the Way We View and Do Evangelism, says that if the question – “What are we trying to do?” – was asked in many churches, the response would be either a blank stare or an entire laundry list.

Here, where we have the freedom to live out the faith, many Christians are biblically illiterate and rarely share their belief in Christ with those who have never been introduced to Him. Spiritual interest is at a high level but so is bewilderment about what to believe and whom to trust. Christianity has been syncretized with everything from (what we used to call) the New Age to Buddhism to secularism.

Mittelberg states it plainly: “In most ministries [in the United States] very few lost people are being reached for Christ. Yet the words of Jesus in the Great Commission are seared in our minds: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matthew 28:19-20). This mandate was given for all churches of all times, so it includes every one of us who is part of those congregations.”

We sit on the mission field. What will you do about all that you’ve just read? Brothers and sisters around the world are dying for the faith. The Lord may never place you in real harm’s way for the sake of the gospel but we each need to consider what risks we would be willing to take for the Lord Jesus Christ if He did. What risk will you take for the Lord this Holy Week? Will you take the risk to invite someone to consider Christ? Who will you bring to worship this Sunday? Who will you lift to the Lord in prayer?

To learn more about the persecuted church, you can visit:  http://www.opendoors.comhttp://www.worldwatchlist.us/world-watch-list-countries/; and  http://www.aclj.org. Tooley’s full story on the release of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians is found at http://juicyecumenism.com/2013/03/28/global-assault-on-christians/.

Featured photograph: Photo of Saeed Abedini with his wife, Naghmeh, and their two children (a six-year-old daughter and four-year-old son) by ACLJ (used with permission).

Trying to Grab a Victory on the Cheap

King James Version of Bible, first edition, title page - 1611
King James Version of the Bible, first edition title page

Over the last couple of days, self-identifying Atheist Facebookers (not necessarily “card-carrying members,” just folks) have been reposting a slam against Christians and the Bible from The Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science. Referring to the King James version of the New Testament, the piece asserts that “21st century Christians believe the ‘Word of God’ is a book edited in the 17th century from 16th century translations of 8,000 contradictory copies of 4th century scrolls that claim to be lost letters written in the 1st century. That’s not faith. That’s insanity.”

Coincidental with this posting was a recent debate at the University of Cambridge between Prof. Dawkins, an ethologist and evolutionary biologist, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams. The debate proposition that “religion has no place in the 21st Century” lost by 324 votes to 136.

The London Telegraph reported that, in stressing his central concern as simply whether religion is true, Dawkins summed up his argument by describing religion as a “cop-out,” “a betrayal of the intellect,” “a pernicious charlatan” and a peddler of “false expectations.” Interestingly enough however, early in his address, Dawkins described himself as a ”cultural Anglican.” One is left to wonder if the author of The God Delusion was so roundly beaten because he hadn’t done his homework, had betrayed what he claims to be his own guiding principles, and is struggling with his own self-identity.

The self-stated mission of Dawkins’ foundation is: “to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and human suffering.” From the aforementioned FB posting and the summary of the comments made by Dawkins at the Jan. 31 debate, one might easily come to the conclusion that Dawkins is desirous of replacing what he perceives as religious fundamentalism with a secular fundamentalism that eschews scholarly inquiry, shuts down respectful debate, and preaches intolerance of other perspectives on the subject of religion. As the Urban Dictionary notes, such anti-religious ideology often “militantly ridicules, mocks, scorns and satirizes the idea of the existence of a deity or deities and or religion . . . [and employs] propaganda, bullying and insults as tactics to push adherents to abandon their professed beliefs and or convert them into like-minded individuals.”

But, you know, I’m beginning to think there may be a chink in Dawkins’ anti-religion armor. We may be watching an ethologist kicking against the goads.

In a public dialogue with Williams on the nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin at Oxford in February of 2012,  there was surprise when Dawkins acknowledged that he was less than 100 per cent certain of his conviction that there is no creator. The London Telegraph reported that “the philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, interjected: ‘Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?’ Prof Dawkins answered that he did. An incredulous Sir Anthony replied: ‘You are described as the world’s most famous atheist.’ Prof Dawkins said that he was ‘6.9 out of seven’ sure of his beliefs.”

As Dawkins has begun to accept the possibility that God exists, he might – from this point – begin to question whether that God could have conveyed truths about the God-self through human instruments who put that revelation in words that Christians have received as “The Word.” Who knows where Dawkins might end up if he gave the study of theology the same level of attention he has given to science?

Oxford theologian Alister McGrath offers this succinct assessment of Dawkins: His “engagement with theology is superficial and inaccurate . . . His tendency to misrepresent the views of his opponents is the least attractive aspect of his writings.” Many have listened to Dawkins over the years because he’s achieved so much in science but theology, while a companion discipline to science, is just as rich and detailed and just as demanding of rigorous attention and inquiry.

Literary scholar and cultural theorist Terry Eagleton passes similar comment in the London Review of Books: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins…are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster . . . critics of the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook.”

For those willing to admit that there just might be a God, for those interested in the truth about the origins of the Bible, perhaps you might consider doing some research before rejecting, out of hand, that which Christians call “The Word of God.” You might start here: http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/bib-docu.html