Sunday, March 27, 2016

2000 and Counting

For the first time since 1971, I have no pulpit from which to preach the Resurrection message on Easter Sunday.  For the past 44 years I have had the privilege of preaching on this great Sunday. It is not likely at this late date that I will somehow make 45.  No one has invited me to preach this morning.  And, no one should.  Any preacher who has a pulpit from which to preach on Easter and chooses not to use it for preaching should be "un-ordained."  So, today for the first time in a long time, I will be in the pew and not in the pulpit.
As I thought about all this, I sought some perspective.  Roughly speaking it has been 2000 years since the Resurrection of Jesus.  If my math is correct, and my high school math teachers would assure you it could be wrong, there have been 104,000 Sundays and 2000 Easters since that day Jesus came forth from the grave.  Give or take a few.  There is nothing scientifically accurate about these calculations.  So, before I started preaching my Easter Sunday sermons, over 2000 Easter Sundays had passed.  I have preached on only 44 of those 2000 Sundays so Easter has surely not been dependent on me for preservation.  Who knows how many Easter Sundays are still to come?  Regardless of how you compute, my 44 is not even a drop in the bucket.
So, as I deal with my disappointment about not preaching today and seek some perspective, it seems rather obvious that Easter is not all about me.  It is going to be celebrated even if I am not preaching.  It always has and it always will.  Easter is not about me, not about you, but about Jesus being raised from the dead to assure us all that because He lives, we, too shall live.  Easter is about declaring victory over everything, including death.  While I would choose to preach any Sunday over sitting in the pew, I will be thankful this morning to be one of those resurrection people caught up in the joy of the greatest moment of celebration on earth. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Broken Heart

Finally, the journey begun weeks ago comes to an end.  We have come from the Mt. of Transfiguration to the hill known as Calvary.  The first was a moment of sheer glory and the second was a moment of sheer agony.  On the Mt. of Transfiguration a voice came from heaven.  One the cross of Calvary, there was no voice from heaven, only silence.  The only voice was the voice of the suffering One.  One of the things heard from Him was a Word first spoken by the Psalmist David.  "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?"  (Matthew 27:46)  In the final moments of His life, Jesus remembered those ancient Words from the depths of a soul all but depleted of its life.
Those who take the time to read more of the 22nd Psalm find themselves reading more words of agony, words that Jesus may well have said had there been enough life energy to do so.  As it was, there was only enough strength to verbalize the first line of the Psalm.  Perhaps, the rest was spoken silently from His heart.  If such is true, then Jesus would have said in His spirit to His Father, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?  Why are You so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?  O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer, and by night, but find no rest."  (Psalms 22:1)  Of course, there is more to read as we might well do on this holy Friday.
If Jesus did indeed take upon Himself the iniquity of all of us as well as the punishment we deserve for ours sins, it is not a strange thing for Him to cry out in this moment of sensing separation from the Father for the cost of sin is separation from God.  Such was something never before experienced by Jesus.  It was never experienced as He lived with the Father in the heavenly place, nor was it experienced as He lived on this earth.  The only time He sensed separation from His Father was in that horrible moment of taking upon Himself the punishment for our sins.   It surely must have broken God's heart.  It ought to break ours.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Eating and Drinking

Thursday of Holy Week is full of memorable events, but none stands above the final supper Jesus had with His disciples.  He shared a meal of tradition, the Passover meal, and transformed the table into an altar which would forever bring His sacrifice on the cross into the room where future disciples would gather.  He used ordinary things like bread and wine.  He broke the bread and gave it to them saying, "Take, eat, this is my body."  He took the cup, gave it to them and said, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant..." (Matthew 26:26-27)  Ordinary things and ordinary acts.  What is more ordinary for any of us than eating and drinking?

However, the way Jesus used the words and the way He used the common things of the earth is no less than amazing.  Everyone knows about eating and drinking.  It is something necessary for life.  When we eat and drink, our body takes what it needs to grow and sustain life from the things we put into our mouths.  It is something truly extraordinary.  So, Jesus says the bread on the table is His body; the wine in the cup is His blood.  As we share in the holy meal He instituted that night, it is for us a moment of taking into ourselves that which is necessary for our spiritual life.  As we eat and drink physical food and drink, we nurture our body and as we eat and drink the sacrament of the bread and wine, we receive spiritual nurture for our soul.  It is an eating and drinking that speak of taking Him into the core of our spiritual being so that our life with God might be sustained in an abundant fashion.

To go to the Table is to go to the Cross.  Always it is such a moment.  One reason I prefer to kneel when receiving Holy Communion is that kneeling always seems like a more appropriate posture when in the presence of the One whose death means life for each one of us.  If we are privileged to go to the Table on this Maundy Thursday, eat with thanksgiving, and drink deeply from the cup of blessing. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Not A Holiday

Wednesday of Holy Week is a different kind of day.  On Monday we remember Jesus cleansing the Temple.  Tuesday is the day for remembering all the confrontations with the religious authorities who were asking manipulative questions designed to nail Him to the cross.  Intense is a word which might describe those days.  The events of those days had the enemies of Jesus so in His face that He could see the color of their eyes and the evil hatred as well.  On Wednesday things are different.
Where we find Jesus on this particular day is outside the city in Bethany.  It is a day away from all the evil energy swirling against Him in the city.  It is a moment of respite.  It is a quiet day.  Perhaps, it was a day of prayer for Jesus.  Perhaps, it was a day of struggling with what Jesus knew to be ahead of Him.  Perhaps, it was a time of praying as He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.  While there is much we cannot know for sure, we do know that He was not so far removed from Jerusalem that His mind and heart were free of the impending reality of the cross.  We realize this as we see the woman coming to Him with her alabaster jar of costly ointment of nard.  (Matthew 26:6, Mark 14:3)  When it was poured on Jesus' head, He rebuked her critics by saying, "She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial."  (Mark 14:8)  It is obvious from this comment that Jesus was not taking a holiday from dealing inwardly with what was before Him.
What was before Him was dying on the cross.  It was not just before Him, but so close at this point that He was not only envisioning His suffering and death, but His burial as well.  We cannot begin to imagine His struggle.  The stakes were high.  The salvation of all the world's people was in the balance.  The cost was unthinkable.  He would cease to exist, go into the darkness of death, trusting only in the Father who had sent Him for just a moment.  For you, for me, for all of us, He went to the cross and to the grave to perfect the Father's plan. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Tuesday's View

With Holy Week full upon us now, many church communities are joining together with other like minded congregations and offering daily worship experiences that are centered around the events of the final week of Jesus on this earth.  I remember one such week while pastoring in Vidalia.  Each day of the week a different preacher would preach on a pre-determined text which focused on what happened in Jesus' life during Holy Week.  Monday was the day of cleansing the Temple.  Tuesday was the day of confrontation.  Wednesday was the day of silence in Bethany.  Thursday was the day of the last supper.  Friday was the crucifixion.  All went well until we came to Friday and the preacher announced that even though it was the day of crucifixion, he was going to preach an Easter message which he did.  Sometimes not even preachers want to look at the cross.
But, looking at the cross is what this week is all about.  Not to see it and not to spend time before it diminishes the joy of Easter's celebration.  One of my favorite Lenten hymns written by Isaac Watts in 1707 has us singing, "When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride."   To truly look at the cross of Jesus will cause inner change.  It will do a sweeping transformation of the heart.  It will cause us to see the false values we place on the things we deem to be important as well as the freely given offering of Christ which demands, "my soul, my life, my all."  Anything less is not enough.
The days before Friday are dwindling in number.  Only a few are left before we remember an event so awful we hate to cast our eyes upon it and yet so wondrous that we kneel before it as the one event in all of human history which has the power to give victory over our guilt and sin.  It is not the therapist's couch that will deliver us, but the cross.  Look at it.  And then, look again, but not just for a moment.  Look for a long time.  And, then even more. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Catalyst

The cleansing of the Temple on Monday was the catalyst for the cross on Friday.  It may seem like an act unrelated to what happened on Good Friday, but instead, it speaks of the reality of the "cause/effect" dynamic of life.  The animosity and hatred on the part of the religious hierarchy had been brewing for some time, but when Jesus turned the Temple economic table upside down, the deal was sealed.  A once popular but almost forgotten theologian of another era named Walter Rauschenbush wrote that six sins combined to kill Jesus.  One of them was graft and political power.  Once Jesus touched the economic nerve of the power brokers, He could not be tolerated.  The cross became inevitable.
As we find ourselves once again on this Monday of Holy Week and remember this act of Jesus and how the keepers of the religious status quo responded, we cannot help but wonder if there are some areas of our own life that cannot tolerate the cleansing touch, or even the righteous rage of Jesus.  What is it that we hold to so tightly that not even His anger against it will cause us to make changes?  What part of our life that we know as sinful is so important that we hold to it even though we know it is one of the forces that drives nails in the hands of the innocent One who breathed His last breath on the cross for us? 
The closer we get to the cross, the more difficult it becomes to point our finger at others and their sins as the cause of His sacrificial death.  The deeper the shadow, the more clarity we have as we see our own heart.  It was the sin of those first century power brokers that put Jesus on the cross to die, but not just theirs.  Their sins may have driven one of the nails in Hands, but my sins, your sins, surely drove the other. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Wooden Cross

Some church scholars are convinced there are pieces of what is called "The True Cross" still around for people to see.  "The True Cross" is not just any cross from antiquity, but the one upon which the Prince of Glory was crucified.  Does such wood actually exist?  Put me in the category of the skeptic.  Actually, I am not sure it really matters as far as my faith in Christ is concerned.  It is cemented by the love and grace and mercy of God which has been revealed to me through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 
Though there is some tradition which argues that the cross of Jesus was hidden lest the disciples of Jesus find it, it seems more likely that the cross of Jesus was used again and again for the execution of others.  Why waste a perfectly good cross just because a rebellious religious leader died on it?  Surely, such would be thinking of the Roman authorities.  There is no scriptural reason for the cross of Jesus being one never used or ever used again.  For the people who used it for un-holy purpose, it was just a means of getting rid of Jesus and other troublemakers. 
Certainly, this is a week when the cross of Jesus looms large before us.  While none of us are in that small crowd of people who can actually witness to seeing it standing physically before us, all of us who trust in Christ know that the cross which was meant to simply be an instrument of death was in God's hand an instrument of salvation for each one of us as well as each one who has shared life on this planet.  Faith is not about trust in what can be seen and held in our hands, but trust in what cannot be seen.  The writer of Hebrews said it very well when he wrote, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."  (Hebrew 11:1) 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

A Great Mystery

In too many places baptism has become too much about community ritual.  In the mind of many, it marks people as decent good folks who are trying to live a Christian life.  And for many of our ecclesiastical institutions, it becomes a kind of litmus test for membership and participation.  And while there are some who declare that baptism is required for entrance into heaven, it is not viewed near that significantly in most places.  The truth is in some of those other places, it hardly matters at all.
Reading through the book of Romans can certainly give the reader a different view.  In the early part of the 6th chapter of that epistle, the Apostle Paul likens baptism and the death of Jesus.  As we look again at what the Word of God says, we hear these words, "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?  Therefore, we have been buried with Him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life." (Romans 6:3-4)  To ponder over these Words is to realize that there is a great mystery staring us in the face.  It is a Word that takes our mundane thoughts about baptism to an entirely different level.
As we are baptized, as we go under the water (a hard visualization for those of us pre-disposed to baptism by sprinkling), we come out from under not as we were when we went under it.  Before we were sinners, and afterwards, we are this new creation.  The thought is that as Christ went under death and came up from it in a manner befitting of heavenly glory, so do we as we are baptized.  As we never could before, we are after baptism enabled to walk in newness of life.  We may say it is all just symbolic, but is it not true that our actions of expressing faith in Christ are those actions which have eternal consequences?

Friday, March 18, 2016

Cross Jewelry

Writing a daily Lenten meditation since the middle of February on the cross has certainly caused me to do a lot of thinking about that event on Calvary.  It has sent me deeper into the Scripture.  One other thing it has done is to make me more aware of those moments when I see that holy symbol out there in the world.  The most common place it shows up is in jewelry.  Now, to be honest, I am not much a jewelry person.  I wear a wedding ring and used to wear a watch until it quit working.  When it quit, I decided I really did not need one since I never used it to tell me when I should quit preaching.  What other reason does a preacher need a watch?
But, a lot of people are different from me.  A lot of people wear a lot of jewelry.  And a lot of people wear some kind of jewelry which features a cross.  I saw a guy the other day with an expensive gold looking three inch cross hanging on a chain down midway his stomach.  It certainly did an un-cross like thing in that it called attention to itself.  Another man wore a small wooden cross secured around his neck with a piece of leather.  It was hardly visible just above the top button of his shirt.  A woman who handed me some change the other day in the store was wearing a silver bracelet with several crosses etched into it.  And, while it may not be jewelry, it is not hard to find an inked cross on someone who likes that permanent kind of artwork.
I cannot help but wonder what people think who wear cross jewelry.  Do they see it often during the course of the day and think about the fact that Christ has died for them?  What do they say when someone comments about their necklace or bracelet?  Do they say, "Thank you," or do they say something about the Savior who died on the cross?   Does it get worn so much that putting it on is like putting on a shirt or a pair of socks?  Does it mean anything to the people wearing the cross on their jewelry?  I guess the only way I will ever find out is to ask.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Be Thankful

Those who have a bent toward the literal interpretation of the Scripture find themselves in a bit of a quandary in more than one place.  One of the those places is found early in the first few verses of I Peter where the Apostle writes about believers being sprinkled with the blood of Jesus Christ.  "To the exiles...who have been be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with His blood."  (I Peter 1:3)  What is obvious it the impossibility of these believers being literally sprinkled with the blood of Jesus decades after the cross.
Instead, the Apostle Peter is using symbolic language to speak of the means by which these believers have been set apart as the people of God.  Though the language is symbolic, it refers to an actual event in the God-humanity narrative and that event is the cross.  In Hebrews 10:10 the Words says, "we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all."  One of the major themes of I Peter is a call to holy living.  All of us can quote that verse which says, "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people."  (I Peter 2:9)  This set apart, or holy status, is not accomplished through our determined religious living, but through the shed blood of Jesus on the cross.  Without the blood of Christ, holiness becomes a fantasy.  It is in the shedding of the holy blood, the sprinkling of the holy blood for the sake of everyone named sinner that enables sinful folks like you and me to live holy lives before God.
To see the shed blood is to see something which justifies us causing us to stand before God as righteous instead of sinful.  To see the shed blood is to see something which has the power to cleanse us of all our sin.  And, to see the shed blood is to see something which makes it possible for us to be sanctified, or set apart for holy purposes by a merciful heavenly Father.  Sometime in this day, remember to be thankful.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Final Scapegoat

In the 16th chapter of the book of Exodus, we find God given instructions for the observance of the Day of Atonement.  It was a ritual designed to handle the sins of the people.  Through it they would receive forgiveness for all their transgressions.  It required the death of three sacrificial animals.  A bull was slaughtered and offered as a sin sacrifice for Aaron.  Before he could make a sin offering for others, he had to make one for himself for he was a sinner.  After he had offered a sin offering for himself, he then slaughtered one of the two designated sacrificial goats as a sin offering for the people.  In both cases sacrificial blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat of the altar.
When this was done, the second sacrificial goat was brought before the tent of meeting.  It would not be slain, but spared.  Aaron, the priest, placed both his hands on the head of this live goat and then he confessed all the iniquities of the people of Israel.  Through his confession, he placed all the iniquities of the people of Israel on the head of the goat which was then led into the wilderness to be turned lose alive.  "The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness."  (Exodus 16:22)  Thus, the sacrificial animal was taken outside the camp of the Hebrews.
The writer of Hebrews surely must have remembered this attempt at handling sin as he wrote his letter to the church.  In the last chapter of that epistle we read about the final scapegoat: "Therefore, Jesus also suffered greatly outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by His own blood."  (Hebrews 13:12)  Jesus did not die in the city of Jerusalem, but outside the city.  He, too, was sent out with the iniquity of all of us upon His sacred head.  No more goats need be sent in the wilderness.  One named Jesus has died once and for all for all of us.  No more sacrifice is needed.  His is sufficient.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Messy Rituals

The Old Testament book of Leviticus, the graveyard of many would-be-read-the-Bible-through folks, has some divine instructions for some messy rituals.  One of them is the ritual for the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests.  It is found in the 8th chapter of Leviticus.  By the time everything is said and done a bull and two rams have been killed and a whole lot of blood has been thrown around.  During the ordination service, Aaron and sons are first washed with water, then anointed with oil, and finally touched with the blood of sacrificial animals.  "Moses took some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aaron's right ear and the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot."  (Leviticus 8:23)  After Aaron, his sons came for the same blood ordination.  And, finally, Moses dashed the rest of the blood against the sides of the altar.
As we read about other rituals in the Leviticus, we see that the blood of sacrificial animals is used to set apart ordinary things for holy purposes and to make atonement for sins.  While some might get lost in reading these pages filled with ritual, they point us toward the supreme ritual offered by God on a hill called Calvary.  The cross became the altar.  The ram and bull was replaced by the Son.  The blood shed for holy purposes in the new covenant established by God with all of us fulfilled the holy plan of God. 
Like those Old Testaments rituals, the moment of Calvary was messy.  There is no way to contemplate a death like the death of Jesus without it being messy and ugly and horrid to see.  The very Son of God shed His blood on the wooden cross as an offering for our sins.  Through what He willingly did, it became possible for the likes of you and me to once again be at one with God the Father.  God had a plan that He worked out for our sakes on the cross.  Were it not for our sins, none of it would have been necessary.  We should never look and think otherwise. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Sent to Save

Even though Jesus preached many sermons while walking this earth, He  did not come into our world to be a preacher.  And while we still ponder His parables, He did not come into the world to be known as one of its great teachers.  It can also be said that He did not come to heal people of their infirmities and diseases.  He did not come for His life to tell us a story that would be read through the ages.  Certainly, He excelled at all these roles and many had their lives changed because of the way He lived among us, but none of these things really speak of the reason He was here among us for a small piece of time. 
What the Word makes clear is that Jesus was sent to die for our sins.  The very beginning of the Jesus narrative in the Scripture enables us to hear an angel telling both Mary and Joseph that this Son about to be born would save His people from their sins.  They surely must have wondered about how that would happen.  On that last trip to Jerusalem, Jesus was constantly talking about going to the Holy City to die.  The gospel writer, John, gave us that memorable verse known as John 3:16 which declares the same truth.  And, the Apostle Paul wrote to young Timothy a Word which says, "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the foremost."   (I Timothy 1:15)

Now none of us would want to argue with the Apostle Paul.  We would not argue with him when he talks about the reason for Jesus coming into our world. However, many of us might argue with him about who is really first in line when it comes to the sinner list.  Remember that old song which has us singing those words, "It's me, It's me, O Lord...."  Indeed.  It's not my brother or my sister or the Apostle Paul, but it's me, O Lord.  Have mercy on me, one foremost among sinners, have mercy on me, O Lord.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The New Self

Keepers of the status quo do not like or appreciate those who threaten what they are committed to preserve.  Usually, their persistence about preservation of the status quo is not so much about the institution as the power they seek to preserve for themselves.  Certainly, this was true in Jesus's day.  Those who stood at the top of the Jewish religious system saw Jesus as a threat to everything upon which they stood.  There was no room in their world for someone like Him.  Surely, as He was dying on the cross, they were saying and thinking, "He got what He deserved."  Through their words they tried to justify what was happening and their part in it.
They had it wrong.  Instead of saying, "He got what He deserved," they should have said, "Jesus got what we deserved."  But, of course, they could not even think such a thing.  Their sense of personal righteousness would not have allowed it.  In their mind Jesus' death on the cross had nothing to do with the fundamental wrongness of their lives for they could not perceive that there was anything wrong about them or their way of life. 
Surprisingly enough, it is no different with today's culture of religious people.  It remains hard for us to admit that there is something fundamentally wrong with us.  We may not think of ourselves as self-righteous, but we still tend to value what is perceived as an innate goodness in the human spirit.  It causes us to mistakenly think that given enough time we can correct whatever personal flaws we might have making ourselves better as well as the world around us.  According to the Word of God, it is a flawed way of thinking.  When Jesus died on the cross, He got what we deserve. When we figure that one out.we are on the road not to a better self, but a new one. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Victory in Jesus

As I mentioned in the last blog posting, Vachel Lindsay's poem, "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven" is one of my favorites as well as one I have often used in preaching.  My favorite lines come not in the beginning of the poem, but later in the section where Jesus sees what Booth has done and responds to it.
Jesus came from out the court-house door,   
Stretched his hands above the passing poor.   
Booth saw not, but led his queer ones there   
Round and round the mighty court-house square.   
Yet in an instant all that blear review   
Marched on spotless, clad in raiment new.   
The lame were straightened, withered limbs uncurled   
And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world.   

It creates the kind of images that elicit praise.  As I consider those lines about Jesus transforming that blear review, I think about singing the old gospel song, "Victory in Jesus."  While it is not nearly as old as a Martin Luther or Isaac Watts hymn, it is still considered old by the contemporary church that only sings song that were written yesterday.  Of course, some parts of "Victory in Jesus" do not resonate with a church culture that wants to sanitize the cross and ignore centuries of tradition so that no one is bothered by a reference to the blood of Jesus.  The old gospel song about victory has lines that have us singing, "I heard an old, old story, how a Savior came from glory, how he gave his life on Calvary...I heard about his groaning, his precious blood atoning...O victory in Jesus...He sought me and bought me with his redeeming blood..."   The times may be changing, but what has not changed is the saving power of the blood of Christ shed for us on that old cross. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Are You Washed?

I have always enjoyed Vachel Lindsay's poem entitled "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven."  When I first heard it in high school literature class, I certainly did not know that I would use in countless times in sermons preached over a lifetime.  If you have never read it, find a copy and read not just the one stanza quoted in this blog, but the whole thing.  It is an exciting poem filled with powerful spiritual images. 

Booth led boldly with his big bass drum—   
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)   
The Saints smiled gravely and they said: “He’s come.”   
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)   
Walking lepers followed, rank on rank,   
Lurching bravoes from the ditches dank,   
Drabs from the alleyways and drug fiends pale—   
Minds still passion-ridden, soul-powers frail:—   
Vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath,   
Unwashed legions with the ways of Death—   
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)   
Of course, one of the recurring themes is "the blood of the Lamb."  In that Biblical writing known as Revelation, there comes that moment when the writer addresses the question, "Where are the martyrs?  Where are the persecuted ones who died faithful to Christ."  "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?"  is the question of the text.  And the answer given is, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."  (Revelation 7:13-14)  Oh, the power of the blood of Christ! Oh, to be washed in the blood the Lamb!  It cleanses us and makes us ready for heaven.  "Are you  washed in the blood of the Lamb?"

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Those Below

When Jesus' cross swung into the air and thudded into the ground, a crowd of folks settled in for what was ahead.  The death that inevitably came never came quickly.  Some who watched were there for some kind of perverted entertainment.  Others, like the woman who gave birth to Him were there weeping.  No doubt some stood behind the cross so the eyes of Jesus could not find them.  These were the one who had pledged loyalty and love only to run when danger came into the Garden.  And finally, there were those who taunted Him as He died.
The cruelty of such a thing is almost impossible to comprehend.  To taunt a dying man seems unthinkable, but such is what Jesus endured in His last hours on this earth.  One cried out, " Yourself.  If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross."  (Matthew 27:40)  Chief priest, scribes, and elders who supposedly stood for the best of the Jewish religion mocked Jesus saying, "He saved others; He cannot save Himself...let Him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in Him."  (Matthew 27:42)  One who hung on a cross beside Him derided Him as he called out, "Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!"  (Luke 23:39)  So many of those who watched from below mocked Him, called Him names, and hurled one unspeakable insult after another at this One who was in that moment dying for their sakes.
Of course, there were some others who responded to the horrific act in a different way.  A centurion who had a up close and too personal look at what was happening was moved after it was over to say, "Truly, this man was the Son of God."  (Matthew 27:54)  And, then, there was that dying thief who said to the dying Savior, ""Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom."  (Luke 23:42)  I wonder where I would have been standing.  I wonder what words I would have said.  Like Simon Peter, I know what I would say I would do, but, still I wonder.    

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Radio Preacher

Today I hear a radio preacher preaching about the cross and using a kind of credit card theology to express what God was doing on Calvary.  At times we preachers need to step back and listen to some of the creative things we come up with to illustrate divine work.  Being one who has pulled some ridiculous and strange illustrations out the homiletical hat enables me to recognize one when I hear it.  As the preacher talked about the sin transaction which took place on the cross, he said that God took the debt on our credit card and canceled and put it on Jesus' account.  Now, I understand what he was trying to say and why he was using the credit card idea, but it just did not float.  At least not for me.
While there is some debt business being transacted on the cross, it is not exactly like transferring credit card balances to someone else's card.  Actually, the cross has always seemed to be about the integrity of God.  The one thing God cannot do is to lie.  Maybe, cannot is the wrong word.  Maybe it is more accurate to say that one thing God will not do is lie.  He will not be untrue to Who He is and what He has said.  In the creation He brought into being is the gift of free choice.  We can decide to do what the Creator wants us to do or we can choose to ignore it.  We can choose the unholy way of sin or we can choose the holy way of obedience.  Both decisions have consequences.  The first leads to death and the second to life.  

When we choose to sin, we choose separation from God and His holiness.  What does God do?  Does He wink at our sin and tell us that it is ok?  Does He make light of it?  No, instead He provided a costly way for us to be reconciled to Him even though we chose to sin while at the same time maintaining His own integrity as a trustworthy and faithful God.  He sent His Son to die, to take upon Himself what we rightly deserve for our sins.  In doing so we are reminded that our sin is costly serious business and not to be taken lightly.  A death has taken place for us.  Because of that death we are again enabled to live as we were created to live.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Good Shepherd

I suppose on the night of the crucifixion of Jesus, Pontius Pilate went to bed thinking that he had handled rightly the problem of Jesus which the Jewish authorities dumped in his lap.  He had signed the order for His death and now it was over.  The Jewish status quo was also likely well pleased.  They had been instrumental in having Jesus executed.  He was dead.  No more problems with Him.  And the Roman soldiers who did the dirty work of putting Jesus on the cross no doubt ended the day knowing that Jesus was gone forever.  Their brutality and mean spirited-ness had made His dying as difficult as they could make it.
But, none of them should have been taking any credit for what happened that day.  At any moment Jesus could have changed the outcome of that afternoon.  Changing the outcome of that afternoon had been a possibility for Jesus since those moments in the wilderness after His baptism by John the Baptist.  Along the way to Jerusalem there had been other moments when He heard the voice of the evil one either in His heart or in the counsel of those well meaning disciples who followed Him.  For Jesus the cross was not something forced upon Him by others, but something He chose for others.
In he 10th chapter of John we find what is known as the Good Shepherd chapter.  There is that place in that section of scripture where we hear Jesus saying, "I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down His life for His sheep."  (John 10:11)  A little later in that same section, we hear Him speaking about His life as He says, "No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again. (John 10:18)  What He did on the cross was not thrust upon Him by those who thought they had the upper hand.  He became the "lamb led to the slaughter...He did not open His mouth" (Isaiah 53:7)  by choice.  It was a choice made out of love for each one of us.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Scene

The scene around the cross that dark Friday afternoon was not a pretty picture.  It was a moment when humanity was at its worst.  One man drove iron spikes into another man's hands and feet nailing him to the wooden cross upon which He was stretched.  When the cross was pulled up and dropped violently into a hole, the pain experienced by the One destined to die was simply unthinkable.  When the One nailed to the cross screamed at the jarring pain, those who put him there laughed and called Him unspeakable names.  And, then the tormentors settled down with their wine and gambling as if a man was not dying right there before them.  Humanity at its worst is what we see when we look.

But, we also see the power of God being worked out in what seems to be a picture filled only with despair and hopelessness.   If God could work in that place and in that moment to bring about good, then there is no horrible place beyond the reach of His divine redemption.  It is a thing worth remembering for we have all stood in terrible places in our own journey of faith.  We have gone through the loss of children and parents, the loss of marriages, the loss of what we thought spoke of our future, and the loss of our own sense of personal worth.  We have been in places where it seemed impossible for us to consider that life had a future. 

In those times we have hung on to that verse from Romans which says, "...all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose."  (Romans 8:28)  Those outside of the circle of faith say that such is our grabbing a simplistic word which has little meaning in the real world, but we know it to be the Word of God.  We know that God can bring about good in the worst of things because we have seen Him at work on Calvary.  If God can work for God in that horrible place, then He can surely work in the unthinkable circumstances of our life.    

Sunday, March 6, 2016


I have often wondered if the Apostle Paul in his other life as Saul of Tarsus witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus.  Having him there as a spectator, or maybe even a verbal antagonist has always seemed like a sensible possibility.  Jesus was executed on a cross while Jews from all over the world were in Jerusalem for Passover.  It was the kind of place that a devout Jew like Saul would have surely been present.  After his conversion Paul wrote about the way he was more devout, more of a Jew, than anyone, so surely, he would be there watching Jesus die.  It hardly seems that Saul would not have heard about Jesus, recognized Him as a threat to the status quo of the Jewish religion, and thought it a good thing that He should die.
In my world of speculating, Saul of Tarsus just has to be a witness to the death of Jesus on the cross.  The problem is there is nothing in the Word which tells me it is so.  As strange as it is that Saul might not have been present at the cross, it is even more strange that he would have been there and never wrote anything about it in his letters to the churches.  Being able to say he was there would be like a pearl in Paul's testimony of the transforming power of Jesus.  Yet, there is nothing.  Maybe there is some other writing familiar then but lost now in which he spoke about it, but that only adds to my speculation.
Of course, all preachers are known to speculate now and again.  Many a good Biblical story has been embellished by a preacher speculating about what was written in invisible ink between the lines of the text.  I know.  Call me guilty.  Maybe speculation is not a bad thing if it helps us see through a different window what the Word is saying.  What we need to make sure of is that the speculation does not take the place of what the written Word does actually say.  My speculation does not trump the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

29 to 26 to 30

Old preacher stories never die.  Perhaps, they never die because young preachers hear them and tell them for a life time.  One I remember and have told many times is something which actually happened in the 1970's when the Methodist Church in south Georgia was struggling with the issue of being open to people of all races.  An old farmer took his preacher out to the cow pasture.  After some moments of leaning on the gate and watching the cows followed by a few minutes of silence the old man told his preacher, "I know what the right thing to do is.  I just ain't ready to do it, yet."
Many of us who have walked the journey of faith in Christ have lived through our own version of the old farmer's story.  Many have been the times when we have walked away from doing what we knew God wanted us to do because we were not ready to do it yet.  What we do not want to tolerate in others, we can be very dismissive about when it comes to our own living.  The Word of God says that knowing what God wants us to do and doing it not can have serious consequences.  The writer of Hebrews wrote that such people, "...have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant...and outraged the Spirit of grace."  (Hebrews 10:29)  And who is not guilty of these "spurning...profaning...outraging acts?"  How do we know if such a person is the one who looks at us in the mirror?  Verse 26 of that same chapter says such people willingly persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth. 
To look more closely at ourselves is to see someone who ask God to forgive again and again and again.  Has anyone ever asked God for forgiveness for today's sin knowing that it will likely be committed again tomorrow?  Could it be in such moments that we are spurning the Son of God?  Could it be that we are profaning the blood of Christ?  Could it be that we are outraging the Spirit?  The Word tells us that when we know sin is present in our hearts, we should confess it and then turn away from it.  To ask for forgiveness knowing we will be doing it again is a dangerous choice.  Even divine patience has an end. (Hebrews 10:30)

Friday, March 4, 2016

Good News

The trouble with the old way of dealing with sin is that it really did not work.  The old way is the way of the Old Testament.  It is the way of repeated blood sacrifices.  The old way pointed sinful people away from thinking they could handle what was wrong in their lives to a place of recognizing that divine help was needed.  The old way provided a blood ritual enacted by a consecrated priest in a holy place, but when he finished, its inadequacies soon became apparent. (Hebrews 10:11)  Who would really expect that sin could be taken away by the blood of bulls and goats? (Hebrews 10:4)  And, then, once done, it needed doing again.  It was a ritual of cleansing that lacked any permanence.

Those who really deal with their sins are those who finally come to the conclusion that they are not able to handle their sin without divine help.  There is nothing we can do to undo what we have done.  There is nothing we can do to alter the negative cause-effect relationship set in motion once we choose to commit sin.  There is nothing we can do to take away the guilt that keeps us always looking over our shoulder for someone to slip up on us with an axe.  The first step toward dealing with our sin is acknowledging that we are undone and without hope.  (Ephesians 2:12) 

Fortunately, there is a way of getting out from under this sin predicament we have created for ourselves, but it is not found in ourselves but in the Christ who has sacrificed Himself.  We are made whole "...through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all."  (Hebrews 10:10)  In another place the Words says, "..He has appeared once for all to at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of Himself. (Hebrews 9:26)  This may not be good news for those who figure ingenuity and determination will deliver them, but it is truly good news to those who know they need a Savior. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016


People read a lot of stuff during the seasons of Lent.  I remember a couple of churches from my past that created and printed a daily Lenten devotional guide using the members as the authors.  If such is not available, there is not end to the number of Lenten guides published by the various denominations.  There are books written and designed as study guides during these days which take us closer to the cross.  And, if none of these are available, then there is always someone out there like me who is ready to write for anyone who might take a moment to read. 
The Bible is always a good resource in these days as well.  There are numerous reading disciplines which might be read.  Reading the journey of Jesus from the moment in Luke in which He "set His face to go to Jerusalem" to the moment of the cross is likely the one most often used.  But, a disciple could also focus on the encounters on the road, or just look at the different gospels and how they handle the final week of Jesus' life.  The theme used for this particular blog series has been the cross which is an approach new to me this time around.
But, the other day while reading, I saw some material I just could not put down.  It was in the book of Hebrews.  Now, Hebrews is not the most read epistle in the Bible.  Others written by Paul probably get the most reads.  And, actually, there are a number of opinions about the authorship of the letter to the Hebrews.  Lay all that aside for a time and go read the seventh through the tenth chapter of Hebrews.  Read it slowly.  This is not a Word to be read in a hurry.  Read it and allow yourself the time to go back and read the Old Testament passages upon which it is built.  These chapters are a must read for anyone who wants to meditate more on what Christ has done on the cross for all of us so make room for them in your Lenten reading. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Being Reconciled

A lifetime of ministry leaves a preacher with a lot of memories.  Since time has a way of erasing bad memories, most of things remembered are good.  However, there are a few things from the other category which linger.  I remember a church I served where I really got crossed up with many of the folks.  The more I argued with myself about "the principle of the thing" the more I became separated from the ones I was sent to serve.  My even-though-I-was-right stubbornness meant a short appointment.  It was about fifteen years later when the church invited me to come back as a guest preacher that we did the work of reconciliation which I should have done so much sooner.  More than I remember those difficult days do I remember leaving on that Sunday years later knowing that reconciliation had truly taken place.
My biggest regret is that I let it take so long.  I should have been spending more time kneeling at the cross.  The cross is the place where people are made one.  In Ephesians we find words such as, "But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ..." (Ephesians 2:13)  And in still another verse, the Word says, "...that He...might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross."  (Ephesians 2:16)  When believers kneel with the cross before them, the world and its people (including those with whom we have difficulty getting along) are seen differently.  Spending time at the cross enables us to see that the One dying there has died for all of us...each one of us, thereby, joining us together in a permanent bond.

Staying awhile at the cross brings into view the perspective of Jesus which is that there is nothing more important than people living in a right relationship with God and one another.  Through Christ, God did whatever had to be done to communicate the importance of that single truth.  Staying there on our knees might bring us to the place of seeing God's whatever.  And seeing such will surely bring us to the place of understanding that who is right or wrong is not nearly as important as living reconciled to those whom God calls our brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Back in Egypt

Back in Egypt a long, long time ago God did something with His people that we often remember during these days of Lent.  As their days of slavery were winding down, there came the night of the tenth and final plague.  All the others seemed like playschool before this one came down.  This final one would mean the death of every first born in the land of Egypt as well as all the firstborn of the livestock.  But when Moses told Pharaoh what God was about to do, the Egyptian ruler was more determined than ever not to bend to the demands of this Hebrew God.
The only problem was that every first born in the land of Egypt included the first born of the Hebrews.  But, God had a plan to deliver and save his faithful people.  According to the instructions given to Moses and then to the people, every Hebrew family was to take a year old unblemished lamb into their household on the tenth day of the month and slaughter it four days later.  Four days.  Just long enough for the children to get attached to it. When slaughtered, the meat was to provide a meal and the blood was to be spread over the doorpost as a sign that no judgment was to fall upon that house and its firstborn.  The Hebrews were spared by the blood of the lamb on the doorpost of their homes.
The cross, too, is a sign of God's plan for the deliverance of His people.  Once again, the cost of that deliverance was blood.  But, this time it was not the blood of a four legged lamb, but the One John the Baptist had called, "the Lamb of God." (John 1:29)  If the first deliverance in Egypt was costly, how much more costly was the one on Calvary.  The Scripture speaks in many places about the work God has done for us through the blood of His Son.  In the early days of the gospel, some found such a message offensive.  Not much has changed.  People still find it offensive and the blood of Jesus still provides deliverance for those of us who would surely die without it.