Monday, February 29, 2016

Only God

Only God could have figured this one out.  What is beyond our finite ability to figure out is something set forth by the Apostle Peter in one of his letters to the church.  His first epistle is a favorite of many because of the strong and certain call to live a holy life.  Holiness is much misunderstood and misinterpreted by many church folks of our day.  Another thing about which Peter wrote that troubles some folks is found in I Peter 2:24.  In that place the Word of God says, "He (Jesus) Himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness..."  What Peter is talking about has been the subject of many who have written volumes and there are still more volumes to be written.
 
Without aiming for na├»ve simplicity as some might say, it just seems there are some things which only God could figure out how to do.  On my best day of  theological clarity, understanding how our sins could have been borne by Jesus on the cross, even before we were born to commit them, is a mind boggling consideration.  But, I long ago came to the conclusion that I do not have to have clarity about what God has done and is doing in order for it to be a reality upon which life can be based.   What I do believe in the core of my being is that the death of Jesus on the cross in some mysterious way has provided a way for me to live as one seen not as an unacceptable sinner, but a loved child of God. 
 
The Word says Jesus bore our sins on the cross so that we might be free from our sins.  No one will argue that committed and un-confessed sin is a  powerful force which robs us of our life.  It under minds our own sense of personal worth; it keeps us looking over my shoulder to see when the hammer is going to fall; and it taints our every relationship.   There is, therefore, no way for us to live without a heart full of gratitude to God for what He has mysteriously done for me and for everyone through the death of Jesus on the cross. 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Nothing Withheld

When viewed through our 21st century lens, no Biblical story seems stranger or more difficult to understand than Abraham going to Mt. Moriah to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God.  Abraham had waited twenty-five years for this son of promise to be born.  God had promised Abraham many descendants and the old centurion patriarch surely knew that Isaac was the one through whom it would happen.   But, in that moment God spoke saying, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering..." (Genesis 22:2)  Though he must have gone to the edge of not doing this unthinkable thing being asked of him, Abraham finally did what he had been doing for a lifetime.  "So Abraham rose early in the morning...and went." (Genesis 22:3)
 
It was only in that final moment when Isaac was on the altar and Abraham's knife was in the air about to come down into this only son whom he loved that God stayed the old man's hand and then provided a substitute offering from the nearby tangled bush.  The blood of Isaac was not necessary.  Abraham had made it absolutely clear that nothing was more important to him than his relationship of obedience with God.  He would withhold nothing in order to prove it. 

Fast forward to another high place where an only Son, much loved by His Father was put on the altar of sacrifice.   This time, however, it is the Son of the One who stayed Abraham's hand on Mt. Moriah.  Even as Abraham was willing to withhold nothing from God, so did God speak to sinful humanity saying that there was nothing He would withhold in order to express His love.   Not even an only Son whom He loved was withheld.  And this time there was no deliverance for the Son on the altar.  Instead, through His death came deliverance for each one of us.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Think About It

As horrible as was the cross, it is still the most powerful image of the love of God for each one of us.  As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, it is understandable that someone might die for a good person, but it is not easy to figure how someone would die for a person who had chosen to waste his or her life.  One might choose to die to save a child, but who would choose to die for a serial killer, an abuser of others, and someone guilty of the worst kinds of sins against good people.  It would be an one thing to die to save a great peacemaker and still another to die for a terrorist.
 
What the Apostle Paul wrote is an amazing truth about God's love.  In verse 8 of chapter 5 he wrote, "But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us."  Think about that single word for a moment.  God does not wait until we are good to love us.  He does not wait for us to prove we are worthy of His love.  He does not allow our sins, no matter how terrible they might be, to keep Him from loving us.  In fact what the Word says is that even while we were choosing the way of the evil one, He was loving us.  Think about it for a moment.  There has never been a time in our lives that God was not loving us.  Even in the worst day we have lived as a sinner, even when we disappointed Him the most, He was loving us.
 
Is that not what Simon Peter learned that morning on the beach when he had breakfast with the  risen Lord?  Three times Jesus asked Peter about his love for Him.  Three times.  Surely, it was not lost on Peter that he had very recently denied Jesus three times.  Jesus was intentionally bringing that moment to mind, not to condemn Peter, but to let Peter know he was forgiven and still loved.  Think about it a moment.  He does the same thing for us. 

Friday, February 26, 2016

Near the Cross

Most folks would rather sing, "On a hill far away,..." than "..near the cross."  When it comes to the cross, far away is better than near.   When it is far away, it seems like a small icon on the horizon.  Kinda like the ones we see in the bottom corner of a computer screen.  Benign is how it appears.  Not much to it.  But, near is different.  Near reveals things not seen from a distance.  Near shows us the dying form of One who has suffered beyond the boundaries of endurance.  Near brings too many horrible things into plain view.  Far away is comfortable.  Near is painful.

So, do something uncomfortable this Lent.  Find some time to be near the cross.  Maybe today.  Maybe now.  If not, then soon.  But, find some time to be near the cross.  Sit quietly as one very near that cross of Calvary.  See those things which are not seen when the cross is far away.  See the blood coming from the nails in His feet and hands.  See the blue bruises all over His body.  See the gashes across His skin from a whip with iron pieces in the end.  See the chest rising and falling as life seeks to seep out of a beaten body.  See the eyes as they look around from face to face.  Feel the spit as He gasps and struggles to breathe.  Hear the words uttered from deep in His soul to those watching and to the Father.  Feel the darkness that overcomes that place. 

Ask God's Spirit to guide your mind and your heart as you envision this sacrifice on the cross.  Seek nothing but the moment of experiencing what it is like to be near the cross.  See Him.  See the Holy One.  See the Lamb of God who sacrificed Himself for the sins of the world, yours and mine.  See Him.  See the love being made known.  Know that it was all necessary because of sin, yours and mine.  Be near the cross for a time.  Weep and mourn.   But, most of all choose to live.  It is why is He went to that place for you and for me.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Theological Talk

One of the problems with theological words is not that they are so difficult to understand, but instead, that we make them so difficult to understand.  Too many times we preachers preach not toward the simple definition but toward the more exhaustive one which will prove that we have the larger understanding of all the possible nuances of some theological word.  The words like justification, salvation, redemption, and atonement drift by the average pew sitter who really only needs a word that can simply penetrate the heart and not the head.  This is not a suggestion that our minds need to be left at the door when we worship, but simply a confession that we preachers have largely forgotten the power of a word for the heart. 

One of those theological words so important to the season of Lent and its central symbol, the cross, is the word "justification."  Simply stated, justification is that act of God which causes Him to see us just as if we had never sinned.  Justification is first and foremost an act of God.  It is an act of God which makes humankind to be accoiunted as just and righteous, free from guilt and the penalty of sin.  The act of God which makes this simple, profound, and life changing truth reality is the cross.  To say we are justified has nothing to do with us and everything to do with God.

In Romans 3:24-25 there is this Word of God which says, "...they are now justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by His blood, effective through faith."  God has acted for the sake of humanity through the horrible cross death of His Son.  He changed the game completely for us so that it is now possible for us to stand before Him as one who has never sinned.  Would you dare believe such a thing?  Dare to believe it.  Dare to believe this eternal truth which only awaits the human response of faith to be stamped as effective, not for the world, but for you and me.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Servants First

After the Mount of Transfiguration experience, Jesus started His final journey to Jerusalem and the cross which was beginning to loom large before Him.  As we read gospel accounts of that movement from the mountain of transcendent glory to the hill of crucifixion, we know that Jesus began to speak to His disciples of the reality and the necessity of His impending sacrifice.  They never seemed to get it.  Maybe it was too horrible a possibility for them to consider.  Or, maybe their pre-occupation with themselves and their positions of greatness kept them from seeing the self-sacrificing servant who was walking ahead of them on the road to Jerusalem. 
 
What we know is our own aversion to following the Suffering Servant if it means sharing too much of the suffering with Him.  In our mind hard times cannot possibly be a part of God's plan for us.  Life is supposed to be good for the disciple of Jesus and when we begin to experience the difficult moments of life, our first inclination is to pray for deliverance instead of seeking His purpose in allowing us to live in such a hard place.  In our Christian life, we are too quick to go after our own plans which in the end always make our life easier and better by the standards of the secular community instead of going after God's plan which might put us in a place of sacrificing any right to self or even our own life.
 
The important question in life is not "What must I do with my life?" but "What does God want to do with my life?"  Had Jesus not been into seeking the answer to the second, He surely would have found a route that would detour around Calvary. The disciples were into the first as they walked with Jesus to the cross while arguing over personal greatness.  Like many of us, they failed to get it that following Jesus was about being a servant of the Father's will. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Deliverance

When we behold the One John the Baptist called "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29) dying on the cross, our minds often take us to that night in Egypt when Moses instructed the enslaved Hebrews to slaughter the lambs which had been living as a part of their households for four days.  As each family did this, the blood of the slaughtered lamb was placed over the doorposts of the house so that deliverance instead of judgment would come to those within it.  The Hebrew Passover comes from this night.  The blood of the lamb provided deliverance.
 
There was blood shed that day on the cross.  It was blood of the Holy One from heaven, the Son of God, the One who was born for the expressed purpose of saving His people from their sins.  While we would rather think of Jesus dying there in some sanitized and clean fashion, it was dirty and bloody business which was enacted on Calvary that day.  As the slaughtered lamb and the blood on the doorpost reminded the Hebrews that deliverance was costly, in an even greater manner the slaughtered bloody body of the Lamb of God reminds us that our deliverance is not without great price.  Jesus has died for each one of us.
 
But, to take it a step further is to recognize that Jesus died not just for the masses of humanity, but for the single individual whom we see each time we look in the mirror.  Jesus took upon Himself the punishment which is rightfully mine as a result of my sins.  The punishment deserved for sin is death and separation from God.  His shed blood and His death is not what He deserved, but what I should get from God because of my sin.  But, because of the blood of the Lamb of God, I stand now as one who can receive the free gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:23)  Such is my deliverance and such is the power of this shed blood of Jesus.  Thanks be to God!

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Lamb of God

In the John the Baptist narrative, there is that moment when the Baptizer sees Jesus and declares, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."  (John 1:28)  There is a sense in which that particular moment was one John had been waiting for all his life.  He and Jesus were connected through their births and through a Word spoken by the prophet Isaiah who spoke of a "voice (who) cries out:  In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord..." (Isaiah 40:3)  John the Baptizer was the voice and the one who was to usher on to the stage of human history the One about whom Isaiah described by saying, "He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth, like a lamb that is led to the slaughter..."  (Isaiah 53:7)  There at the Jordan River, God brought His plan into the open.  Though known by many names, this Jesus baptized by John is surely "the Lamb of God."
 
Most of us know little about lambs.  We read about them more in the Scripture than most of us see them.  When we think about a lamb, we think of a small gentle creature who moves about slowly grazing.  A neighbor down the road has a small flock of sheep and every time I see them, I think it is a wonderful pastoral scene.  But, the truth is each lamb is born to either be sheared or slaughtered.  And, even after a lifetime of shearing, the slaughtering still comes.  Had any of us been writing the story, we likely would have used some animal image other than a lamb to depict the Savior of the world.
 
Yet, it was God's choice.  While it can be said of all of us that we are born to die, it can even more be said of Jesus.  From the very beginning, He was spoken of as One who would save His people from their sin.  The men from the East brought expensive gifts some of which could be used to prepare the dead for burial.  When John called Jesus, "the Lamb of God" any doubt about what was ahead was taken away.  Jesus would save His people from their sins by being God's chosen sacrifice for those sins.  Those sins are yours and mine.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Blood

When I was growing up in the distant past, some of the most often sung songs were those about the blood of Jesus.  Who can remember singing, "Washed in the Blood," or "There's Power in the Blood?"  I remember.  It seems like yesterday when I first sang, "What can wash away my sins?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus."   Today's church culture is different from that day.  Talking about the blood of Jesus seems to be politically incorrect, or maybe it is, theologically incorrect.  And, when it comes to singing those old songs about the  blood of Jesus, many folks find other songs which are less offensive to this generation of "Gimme' the feel-good religion."

In a culture where the entertainment industry keeps us knee deep in violence and bloody images, it seems strange that today's church leaders and go-ers have such an aversion to blood.  Action movies with intense violence and graphic more real than life imagery are the big buck makers.  But, have a preacher throw out a sermon that gets a bit graphic about Jesus dying on the cross and parishioners have a meeting at the door to remind the preacher that children are present.  I do not remember being undone, upset, and unable to sleep because I heard some preacher preaching on the blood of Jesus, but I do know it often penetrated a rebellious heart and put it under conviction which was a good thing.

Maybe we have thrown out the baby with the bath water when we avoid any mention of the blood of Jesus Christ.  Most folks can quote I John 1:8-9, but seldom attach the last part of verse 7 to it.  It reads, "...and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin."  It would seem that something so important and so powerful would get more attention than it does.  It may be difficult for some to dig out how it works, but the digging will be well worth the effort.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Right Direction

One of my favorite Old Testament stories is found in the 21st chapter of Numbers.  It is the story of the bronze serpent being raised in the wilderness.  As the story begins we see the Hebrew people whining and complaining.  They complained to Moses about bringing them out of Egypt.  They fussed at God about the food He was providing.  "...we detest this miserable food," they said.  (Numbers 21:5)  The miserable detestable food was the manna from heaven.  God was not happy and soon the veil of protection was lifted so that the camp was invaded by poisonous snakes.  When they cried out to Moses to intercede to God for them, God responded by telling Moses to make a bronze serpent on a pole and set it in the camp.  When a person was bitten all it took for them to live was to look at the bronze serpent.
 
John, the gospel writer, remembered this part of his heritage and spoke of it as he wrote about Jesus.  "...as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him, may have eternal life."  (John 3:15)  The Scripture really is amazing.  It makes you wonder if God had the cross in mind even as He provided a temporal prototype in the camp of those whining Hebrews.  Certainly, John thought of the similarities.  No one had to look at either.  A stubborn snake bitten Hebrew could choose not to look and die.  And, so we can we with the cross.
 
One man's death has provided life for all of us.  But, of course, this one man was not just any man, but the very Son of God who "did not count equality with God as something to be exploited...He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross."  (Philippians 2:7-8)  Like those ancient Hebrews, God provides our deliverance and then gives us the freedom to look toward it, or away from it.  Be sure to look in the right direction.  It matters.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Cross Art

The cross is seen in so many places.  It is inked on to some folk's skin.  Other wear it around their necks.  Of course,  it is seen in churches.   Some years ago while at Vidalia as pastor, one of my members told me she had discovered there were hundreds of crosses in the sanctuary.  It seems that the ceiling tiles were made in such a way that each one seemed to have a cross imprinted on it.  I only hoped she did not do her research during my sermons!  Over the years the cross could be seen in my office.  I have had a cross of granite, one of olive wood from the Holy Land, a photograph of the moon behind a cross, and a pencil drawing given to me while at Young Harris College.  The simple dark pencil art on a sheet of typing paper was put in a simple black frame and has been with me all these years. 

We all have some cross art around somewhere.  It is that symbol of our faith which speaks of the love of God and the atoning sacrificing of Jesus.  It is that reminder to us that because of what Christ has done for us, our sin problem has been handled.  Because of the cross guilt does not have to have the last word and forgiveness becomes reality.  Simply recognizing those two things speaks of the way our life is changed because of the cross of Calvary upon which the Savior hung and died.

For my whole ministry that simple sketch of the cross hung in my office.  It was the object of much meditation and spiritual reflection over the years.  It was something so empty of details that it gave my spirit room to roam as I viewed it.  I often needed that simple focal point for meditation, but more importantly, I have and will always need the cross upon which my Savior died.  It is the difference between living and dying.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Take It or Leave It.

I found it somewhat surprising that a reading of I John 2:2 ("...and He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the world.) would take me to the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.  But, one thing learned a long time ago is that every reading of any passage of the Scripture can be new experience.  No one should ever think the written Word of God is just ink on pages; instead, it is a living Word which is constantly speaking God's Word to anyone who reads with a heart and mind open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.  This does not give us a license to crazy irrational thinking and interpretation, but it is simply an attempt to say the Holy Spirit often speaks in ways we are not expecting.
 
So, as I read the epistle, all of a sudden I found myself looking at a very familiar story through a different window.  The older brother who never left home lived with the benefits of his Father's love every day, but somehow he never really understood or accepted it.  So do we live with the reality of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.  We are the beneficiaries of what Christ has done for us on the cross, but at times we live as if it is ours to grasp and take instead of simply receiving what has already been given to us.  On the other hand, the younger son left.  He made a choice to take what he could  and then leave having nothing more to do with whatever the relationship with his father might afford him.  But, at the end of the day, he returned to it and lived at one again with his father instead of separated as was his older brother.  The truth is the older brother had always been separated even though he had been present.
 
The father's attitude is consistent.  What he was giving was always available.  It never changed.  Those sons of his could take it or leave it, but what they did or did not do did not change who he was and what he had provided for them and was giving them.  The atonement, the atoning sacrifice is for the sins of everyone in this world.  What we do or do not do does not change this grace granted constant of the universe.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Theological Hairsplitting

It is interesting to look at John 3:16 and I John 2:2 together.  In the well known gospel word we read, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son..."    What sounds a bit universal in its direction is tempered by the limiting words, "...so that everyone who believes may not perish, but have eternal life."  While Jesus may be for the world, John 3:16 really speaks of a salvation limited by human choice.  On the other hand, in the epistle there is this word which says, "...He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world."  In one place there is a word about limited salvation and in another unlimited atonement.
 
Now all this is not just theological hairsplitting.  It is an important distinction.  The cross is something God has done which has meaning for every single person even if every single person does not choose to see it that way.  What God has done on the cross is done.  It is the gift of atonement for all of humankind.  It is available.  Not accepting that Jesus died on the cross does not alter what God has done.  It is complete without any human response.  On the other hand, the salvation made possible through that act of atonement is dependent on our individual human response.  We cannot make the atoning act of Christ null and void, but we can make the gift of salvation null and void by not choosing it.  Atonement and salvation differ in that salvation is dependent on free will.

The cross is God's answer to the predicament our free will has created.  We are free to choose what God has planned for us, or reject it.  It is because our choice is bound up in our decision to do life our own way that the atoning act of the cross became necessary.   But, as has always been the case, what we do with it is our choice.  Not even something as good as God's love is forced on us.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

One Thing and Another

When reading the Scripture, one thing often leads to another.  It happened the other night while reading the first chapter of Ephesians.   Verse 7 said, "In Him, we have redemption through His blood..."  Without hardly a mental pause, I thought immediately of the story of Hosea and Gomer.  Unlike like today's preaching, in my teenage years I heard a lot of sermons based on Old Testament stories which was my first introduction to this unusual Biblical couple.  As a way of illustrating how Israel had turned away from God, the prophet was told by the Lord, "Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom...for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord."   (Hosea 1:2)  Hosea did as the Lord commanded only to have his wife leave him for another man only to be told to go and get her back by paying the one with whom she was living a certain amount of money.  Hosea went and bought her.  Or, to put it another way, he redeemed her. 
 
Redemption is not a word used a lot in this culture of ours.  And even sadder truth is that the word is hardly used by the church anymore.  Maybe it is called something else in our day.  If not, then the church itself might be in need of redemption.  It is not a common thing for people of our day to see themselves in need of being redeemed, but this is exactly what the Apostle Paul is saying that Christ has done for us by dying on the cross. 
 
The cost of our redemption is not the fifteen shekels of silver,the homer of barley, and the measure of wine used by Hosea, but the very blood of the Son of God.  Through that shed blood we have been bought back from the power of sin and evil.  When we turned away from God through our first act of disobedience, we were in doing so choosing to serve not God but everything opposed to Him.  Through the blood of Jesus that choice can be turned around.  Because of His blood we no longer have to live sold out to the evil one. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Mystery

Anyone who doubts the divine inspiration of scripture only needs to reads the 53rd chapter of Isaiah.  Hundreds of years before the birth and death of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah spoke of His suffering and death with such detail that divine inspiration is the only explanation.   No one could have imagined such a thing as is described.  And, to those who say, that Jesus knew the scripture and orchestrated it so that it would happen as written is stretching beyond anything that is rational.  To read that chapter of Isaiah is like reading an account of the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross.  And it also a Word which causes us to see something of what God was doing in that moment.
 
Verse 6 of that 53rd chapter of Isaiah has a line which reads, "...and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all."  Men named Jewish Religious Leader and Roman Authority may be blamed for putting Jesus on the cross, but Jesus being on the cross is not so much about who put Him there as what put Him there.  What put Him there was the sin of people like you and me.  Were it not for our sins, the cross would not have been necessary.  Upon Jesus on the cross God somehow mysteriously placed the sins of all of us.  Jesus hung there to die not just because of Pilate's actions, but because of ours as well.
 
Some things I confess to not understanding.  How God did such a thing is beyond the boundaries of my mind.  I have a seminary degree and have spent a lifetime reading the Word and preaching it, but I still confess to the mystery.  How my sin weighted down on the heart of Jesus as He was dying, I do not completely grasp.  How the predicament of separation from God in my life has been resolved through His death is dimly seen, but never clearly.  But, not understanding does not keep me from believing the truth of God's Word and the reality of the dying One on Calvary.  It has not kept me from using it as the foundation for my whole life and trying to point others to the same reality.  The way out of the problem created by our sins was handled on the cross.  Whatever we decide about the cross will not change the reality of what happened there long years ago. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Better Way

Sin says, "I know a better way."   Such an understanding of sin is as old as sin itself.  It was likely first uttered in the Garden of Eden when the Lord God showed up one evening looking for conversation with the man and the woman who had been entrusted with keeping the Garden.  Whatever they wished to eat was theirs with the exception of the fruit from one tree.  The woman heard what God said, but her taste buds, her eyes, her desire to be wise, and the subtle word twisting of Satan brought her to the place of putting the food in her mouth and in the hands of her husband.  Of course, in the moment of confrontation, the man blamed the woman and the woman blamed the serpent.  Both might well have said, "But, Lord God.....it was good."
 
Too often we realize too late that what we perceive to be the better way is not really the good way.  Too often we realize that our insistence on having life our way is a one way street to separating ourselves from the very One who created us within an order that enables us to know life at its best. We just cannot seem to believe that it is true.  Like Adam and Eve, we decide that there must surely be a better way, a more secure way, a happier way, a more satisfying way and at least for awhile we justify ourselves by declaring to God, "But,...it was good."  But, there finally comes that moment of being alone with ourselves before God when we realize He is not going to wink at our disobedience and pretend it is no big deal.  It is a horrible moment.  It is a moment of choosing to ignore the reality of the sin in our life, or dealing with it.   One way digs a deeper hole.  The other way gets us out.
 
The way out of the mess sin causes is the cross upon which Jesus, the Son of God, was crucified.  As sinners we do not want to look because it means acknowledging that we cannot help ourselves.  We are powerless to extricate ourselves from the power of our guilt and the consequences of our sin.  We are faced in that moment with the choice of calling out for mercy from the One who died there, or going on as one so foolish as to declare to the Almighty Creator of the universe, "I know a better way."

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Of First Importance

When the people of Corinth read Paul's letter that we know as I Corinthians, he was no stranger to them.  He had been with them, loved them, preached to them, and led them to a saving faith in Christ Jesus.  Paul was the one who enabled these new converts to bond together in the fellowship of the church.  In what we know as the Resurrection Chapter (I Cor. 15), we hear him saying to them, "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received:  that Christ died for our sins..."  He could have started at another place.  He could have reminded them of the Bethlehem, or had they had the hymnals of today, he could have had them sing, "Tell me the stories of Jesus...scenes by the wayside, tales of the sea,.."  but instead he started with the cross.

The cross still makes for a good starting place.  While we are more apt to want to sing "Tell Me the Stories of Jesus" than "The Old Rugged Cross,"  it is also true that what we might want or prefer is not always what we really need.  Some years ago a popular movie about Jesus ran the theatres and the masses raced out to see it.  It portrayed the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus with such realism that many wanted to turn their eyes away.  However, the truth of the matter is that when we turn our eyes toward Jesus, we inevitably must see what we He went through on the cross for our sakes.

The resurrection is, as the scripture says, the central part of our faith, but there would be no resurrection on Sunday had there not been a crucifixion on Friday.  It is a mistake to rush by Friday to get to Sunday.  It may be a more pleasure filled place to stand, but unless we truly see and deal with what Jesus did on Friday, we will surely go on living as if sin is not such a big deal.  Sin is a big deal. When un-confessed it is the one thing which can separate us from God.  Is there any bigger deal?

Friday, February 12, 2016

End of Discussion

The church's movement away from preaching about the cross is in some ways a strange thing since the crucified Christ is such an important part of the gospel message; yet, it is also understandable.  It becomes understandable as we consider how the church's sacred message is impacted by the prevailing views which reflect the consensus opinion of the secular society around it.  In the church's desire to be attractive to the world, it has embraced theological compromises, leadership models that exalt the CEO instead of the servant, and a mode of operation adopted from the world of big business.

The truth is the secular community around the church which pushes hard against it has no real interest in hearing about the cross.  It is the "what's-in-it-for-me" community.  It is also the "feel good" community.  The message of the cross does not really appeal to those immersed in either mindset.  The great proliferation of churches across the landscape is not so much about spirituality.  It often seems more an expression of the church's attempt to please people.  If folks do not hear what they want to hear at one church, or if one church does not cater to their perceived needs, there is always another church down the street.  And, as the leadership of a church begins to understand that pleasing the community is the way to getting bigger and better, it is a short step to making sure the message is not offensive.

And the cross is offensive.  It was raised not just as a sign of God's love, but also because of human sin.  Jesus' death on the cross is about our need for forgiveness, our need for reconciliation, our need for help in handling the mess we have made of our life because of our disobedience and sin.  The cross makes our arguments about the relativity of sin moot.  Sin is choosing our way instead of God's way.  End of discussion. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Old Rugged Cross

When I was growing toward my faith in Christ, it seemed that the church was always singing, "The Old Rugged Cross."   Somewhere along the way without ever really intending for it to happen that old song took root in my memory and heart.  Nowadays, we hardly sing it.  Maybe it is not contemporary sounding enough, or maybe there are more hymns from which to choose, or maybe the church has developed an aversion toward a message that is cross centered.  The cross was messy, bloody, and deadly.  Preachers do not seem to spend much time preaching about the saving power of the blood of Christ.  Apparently, the cross has become too x-rated for normal Sunday morning viewing.  After all, children may be present.  Some of the children are under the age of ten and some are more like the babes in Christ spoken of by the Apostle Paul.
 
Hearing "The Old Rugged Cross" the other day set me to thinking about the way the cross is handled in today's church culture.  Mostly, the cross is seen in the church as a piece of jewelry worn around the neck or the arm of those who come to worship.  And, if not a piece of jewelry, it is implanted on the Sunday T-shirt with other Christian symbols and scripture verses.  Of course, in some places it is still seen sitting around the altar area or on the wall, but it is hardly seen as the church's selling point in the world.  Non-believers who show up with their Biblical illiteracy might actually wonder why it is displayed in such prominent places since no one seems very eager to talk about it.
 
It makes you wonder if the church is missing something in its proclamation about Christ.  Unfortunately, the message of today's church does not center around Jesus dying, but around Jesus loving everybody and Jesus caring for the sick and Jesus being an example for those who intend to live the Christian life.  It is no wonder the church often seems to be stumbling toward obscurity.  Something is missing.  What is missing is not something the church can do without.  Neither can we.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Lent 2016

Today is Ash Wednesday and so we enter into the season of Lent.  It is a long season that opens up with dark ashes and somber words about human mortality and ends with fresh baptismal water and words about resurrection.  It reminds us of the last journey of Jesus to Jerusalem.  As the gospel writer Luke tells it, the last journey began on the Mt. of Transfiguration and ended outside of Jerusalem on a hill called Calvary.  Along the way there were so many memorable encounters with people who were desperate enough to cry out for mercy or climb a tree.  These days of Lent also bring into view memorable moments such as the Triumphal Entry, the cleansing of the Temple, the final supper, the betrayals, the trial, and, of course, the cruel crucifixion.

To read about this final journey of Jesus to Jerusalem and to His death is gut wrenching and heart breaking.  It is gut wrenching to consider the enormous amount of pain and suffering thrust upon Jesus before He finally breathed His last gasp of breath on the cross.  But, as gut wrenching as it may be, it is far more heart breaking for as we see Him suffering and finally dying, we know each one of us is the reason.  Surely, it breaks our heart to know that our sin made it all necessary.  The sin at which the world would wink, or turn a blind eye, or declare inconsequential is the very thing that nailed Him to the tree.  When we finally come to that moment of realizing that Jesus died because of our sin, it is indeed a heart breaking moment filled not only with tears but also such deep sorrow.

Lent is not a pleasant season.  It is one that is from day one overshadowed by the long and awful darkness of a cross.  There is no way to walk into Lent and not realize what is at the end of the journey.  Some may say in a Pollyanna fashion, "Oh, but Easter is coming," but it only comes at a great cost which is impossible to miss by those who walk the road all the way to the end to hear the nails, the screams of the Holy One, and the final fall of His head against a silent chest. "Lord, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy on me a sinner."