Three Crosses on Golgotha

21 04 2014

3889857112_5da0e85840_mAs an instrument of Roman justice, the purpose for crucifixion was not merely to carry out a death sentence. It was to do it brutally, causing the most suffering possible. It was expected that the grotesque suffering would be a deterrent to the masses. The victim often took days to die.

This made the conversation among three suffering victims all the more unexpected, nailed, as they were, to crosses on a hill called Golgotha just outside Jerusalem. Jesus of Nazareth hung between two unnamed criminals. In a few gasping sentences the talk turned to the after-life — the world beyond this world.

One criminal seethed with bitterness. He hurled sarcasm and insult at Jesus. “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” he taunted (Luke 23:39). This man was obviously hard and unrelenting to the end.

The criminal on the opposite cross rebuked him. Suffering equally, he chastised his fellow sufferer: “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly since we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man (referring to Jesus on the center cross) has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:40,41) Then, addressing Jesus in painful gasps, he asks, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).

Where did a wicked man get this hope for an eternal kingdom? He knew Jesus’ name. Had he listened from the fringes of a crowd at some time when Jesus was teaching about the way to heaven? Luke’s account doesn’t say.

We should not be surprised that the dying man’s interest was on his uncertain future. That’s because God plants an instinctive awareness in all of us that there is life after death. As a pastor I have been with a number of people when they were near death. If they retained consciousness to near the end of their passing they usually were open to hear the Gospel’s message about what was ahead.

I don’t recall one of them ever saying, “Well my end has come. When I stop breathing I will cease to exist.” Rather, they wanted to hear what the Scriptures say about “the other side.”

What went on at Golgotha tells us things we long to know. The penitent criminal could never undo his offenses. He was experiencing his last moments of life. But in those last moments he heard Jesus’ words, “This day you will be with me in Paradise” Wondrously, he encountered the ever-ready, always-offered mercy of God.

But he experienced this mercy on God’s conditions — “repentance and faith” (Acts 17:30). That meant taking responsibility for and turning from the sins of his past, insofar as possible in present circumstances, and putting his faith in Jesus, whom he must have vaguely understood as King and Savior.

In saying to his fellow criminal with fading breath, “We are getting what our deeds deserve,” he was owning his sins in the presence of the only one who could forgive them. Jesus was in that very moment in the process of dying — “the just for the unjust” – and paying the man’s sin debt.  And with great humility the dying man expressed faith by his request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Responses from those three crosses represent life’s fundamental issues and the optional responses for all of humanity: There’s hostility to the Gospel, hard and unyielding. There’s penitence, humbly asking for a place in the eternal kingdom, and receiving the promise of God’s mercy. And above all, wonder of wonders, there’s the Savior, Jesus our Lord, assuring of the mercy requested: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

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Photo credit:  db Photography | Demi-Brooke (via flickr.com)





When Two Become One

14 04 2014

WeddingPastors are supposed to bring theological grounding to all events they administer. That is one of the reasons for the years of pastoral training.

Consider the issue of marriage. Its boundaries are becoming increasing fuzzy in the secular mind. A war rages on to open up the traditional definition — one man and one woman — to other options and perhaps soon to increased numbers in a union. This means pastoral care of the modern wedding must reflect what the Scriptures teach about marriage.

In my recent book, The Pastor’s First Love: And Other Essays on a High and Holy Calling, I spell out in brief some ideas about marriage as a rite of passage in Christian understanding. Here’s a sampling from the book:

A wedding is a ‘rite of passage.’ Across two thousand years, the church has considered certain events to be epochal moments in life’s journey: birth, baptism, marriage, conversion, death. These have not always come in the same sequence or been given the same weight. But such events are so momentous that they deserve appropriate celebration.

When a man and woman come to the altar, what happens there in a few minutes changes them forever. They approach the altar as two single persons, legally unrelated; they leave as a married couple; a new unit in society. Their status will be forever altered, and so will the church community of which they are a part. Should not anything so crucial deserve appropriate celebration in the setting of Christian worship? The event is more than a legal moment; it is a sacred moment of life-changing significance.

For a Christian couple, a wedding may be a very personal matter, but it cannot be a private one — limited to two people only. It is the couple’s wedding for sure, but it is also the church’s, meaning it also belongs in the context of a particular unit of the body of Christ.

“So, the Christian church has a large stake in the wedding: its sanctuary provides the setting; its congregation provides the witnessing community; its ministers provide the authorized officers; and its rituals provide the theological content concerning what the event means. It can be argued that all of this is brought together best and most coherently when the couple meet at a Christian altar and the people gather with them in a setting conducive to the worship of the God who is the creator of marriage.”

I recognize that across a lifetime of ministry spanning well over 60 years, secularizing trends have had their effect on church activities. On occasion, two people raised in a church setting may still need gentle and loving instruction as they approach their wedding – that is, on what the parts of the ceremony that solemnizes the relationship mean. And of course, pastors need to teach their people some basics even at a time when no wedding is in the offing.

For example, Christians consider marriage an “institution” ordered by God at the time of creation (Genesis 1&2). Therefore, the couple must not appear at the altar as though they were creating something new. They may be demonstrating a fresh version of the event but they are entering into something that has been there from the beginning. This should make the moment for them not only joyful but also humbling and worshipful. That’s why we are not so likely to speak of “performing” a wedding as “solemnizing’ the event.

Also the words spoken in ritual should reflect accurately the meaning of the event from a Christian perspective. Rituals that are designed by the couple to make feelings the dominant element are not nearly as useful as rituals that proclaim the event as ordained by God, call for comprehensive pledging, and ask God in deep earnestness for his blessing on the couple at the altar. To achieve this in the face of today’s secularizing influences may require some counsel of the officiating minister.

It seems to me that, as never before, Christian communions ought to give special attention to the wedding’s content and meaning. Weddings, insofar as possible, should be shining reflections of the grace of God which enables two, a man and a woman, to become one — profoundly united in all aspects of their life together!

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Photo credit: Adam Woodrow (via flickr.com)





When Hope Was Born

7 04 2014

Lamb1One of the remarkable features of the accounts of the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each give a disproportionate amount of space to the last week of Jesus’ earthly life.

Luke first gives us considerable detail about Jesus’ birth: The angel, Gabriel, made the announcement to the Virgin Mary; the birth took place away from home in Bethlehem; the shepherds received the news from an angel, backed by an angel chorus; and the baby was blessed by two aged worshipers at the temple.

But after that abundance of information, Luke gives no more detail about Jesus’ childhood until he is twelve years of age. At that time Mary and Joseph take him to Jerusalem for his first Passover. Luke’s comment after this trip is:

“Then (the boy) went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them … And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:51,52). That is all we are told.

After the silence from his infancy to his reaching 12 years of age there is yet another period of silence — 18 years (except for the notice elsewhere that he was a carpenter). This silence is broken when Jesus begins his public ministry, according to tradition, at 30 years of age. Surely Luke, the careful historian, had access to details of that period. He must have had good reason for passing over these long stretches of Jesus’ life.

But then Luke gives us ample information about his three years of ministry — where he went, the followers he chose, what he taught, the miracles he performed, his encounters with enemies, and the friendships he gathered.

So of the 24 chapters of Luke’s account of the Gospel, the vast majority of space is devoted to Jesus’ birth and the three years of his ministry, beginning at age 30.

But it is striking that even greater attention is given to one particular week of his Life (Luke 19:28 — 23:56). It was on the day the Passover lamb was sacrificed in Jerusalem, that he was nailed to the Roman cross as God’s Passover lamb.

This intensity of detail is where Luke’s story was going from the start. His earliest reference to the real reason for Christ’s life appears early on in Luke 9:51:  “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” The Message paraphrases Luke’s words as follows: “He gathered up his courage and steeled himself for the journey to Jerusalem.”

That “setting out” was purposeful. It was not his wish to go. He knew what he would face. Yet he was resolute, on an appointed mission, to die under the Father’s judgment for the sins of the world.

During that momentous week, Luke reports, Jesus taught in the temple, he ate the Passover meal with the Twelve; he cautioned Simon Peter; he gave brief instructions for their ongoing ministry; he prayed his anguished prayer on the Mount of Olives; he was arrested, disowned by Simon Peter, and given a contrived and flagrantly lawless trial.

He was then brutally marched to Calvary where he was nailed to a Roman cross. Before sundown, he was hastily buried. So far as any of his followers knew, it was all over.

It becomes clear from this review that Luke did not intend to write a biography of the life of Christ, giving equal attention to every period of Jesus development. Luke’s report was to include the fullest detail about his mission — he came into the world to proclaim the good news of his kingdom and to die a sacrificial death for sinners.

So, Luke’s kind of writing requires a special title. It is not a biography. It is not even a history, though we believe it is historical. It is a Gospel. It is “good news.”

And the last chapter of Luke’s Gospel account rounds out the good news. He who, so far as his followers were concerned, was entombed with finality on a Friday evening, was raised to life by the power of God on a Sunday morning. As the risen one, he presented himself to the unbelieving disciples. He ate with them, stayed long enough to help them overcome their very real uncertainties, then was taken up to Heaven.

Luke closed his account with these words about his followers: “And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God” (Luke 24:53). Hope for all believers had been born. It is hope for this life and hope for the next, sealed for us by our Lord’s resurrection!

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Image info: Agnus Dei by Francisco de Zurbaran





Looking Toward Easter

31 03 2014

Easter_4520694845_9c4e6476df_mThis is the time of year when Christians of all denominations around the world will celebrate history’s most thoroughly corrupt court trial and at the same time its most world-changing power in spite of that corruption.

Jesus, the Son of God, the sinless one, was ignominiously put to death when religious leaders plotted the deed and then overwhelmed Roman authorities – even though our Lord was innocent of all charges. This corrupt dealing was nevertheless world-changing in that our Lord’s crucifixion purchased eternal life for all who accept the substitutionary effect of his death and trust themselves to him as their personal Savior.

What a collection of vignettes the celebration brings to mind!

There is the story of the treacheries of Judas. He was a disciple of three years standing. He had been under the teachings of a Master who was both forever kind and forever honest. He listened to the Lord’s enlivening words, witnessed his miracles, and fellowshipped at his table many times. But as his greed took control of his actions his loyalties faded and he eventually betrayed that Master for a small bag of silver coins.

There is the story of Simon Peter and his responses to the warning that he would face persecution. He had earlier been outspoken about his loyalty to Jesus: “Others may deny you but I never will,” he boasted; “I’ll stick by you even if it means death.” But when a little servant girl recognized him as a disciple, out of his mouth gushed words of denial. Fortunately, he recovered his senses, wept hot tears over his denials, and received the gracious forgiveness of his Master.

There is the story of a cadre of corrupt religious leaders. The soldiers set Jesus before Annas who was not really the high priest at the time but was father-in-law to the high priest but he still exercised power. Then he was passed to this Caiaphas whose political savvy with Roman authorities had kept him in power for several cycles. They and the Jerusalem ruling council broke all laws of jurisprudence in order to achieve their already agreed-upon ends. Their violations of justice will forever be seen as a shameful travesty.

By the scheming of these leaders, Jesus ended where they intended: on a Roman cross. He was between two thieves, where the crowds passing by could gawk and vent their pitiless scorn. And where a broken-hearted mother and his disciple, John, were the only ones left of his followers to keep vigil near the cross.

Seven times, our Lord spoke out from his cross. His fourth cry rings most incessantly in our memories because of what those words mean to our destiny: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is the opening verse of Psalm 22.

Was this cry that of a man experiencing harrowing pain and loneliness? That, for sure, but much more. What he suffered was far deeper and more alienating than physical pain. The sin burden he bore — the sins of the whole world — separated him from the Father.

In that moment, his was a cry of abandonment. As he took upon himself the sin of the human race — your sin and mine — a holy God could not look upon sin. Sin always brings separation from God. But in that utter estrangement from God, his cry was still, “My God, my God,” and the separation was temporary since his sacrifice paid the sin debt for all mankind.

Dear Reader: Join me during this pre-Easter season in embracing ever more deeply the salvation bought for us at so great a price. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”

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Photo credit: Kimber Shaw (via flickr.com)





Leaning Into God

24 03 2014

Trust_3151573344_84378d934d_nProverbs 3:5 & 6 must contain one of the most recited treasures of the Bible’s Wisdom Literature: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart / and lean not on your own understanding; / in all your ways acknowledge him / and he will make your paths straight.”

I have many times pressed this good word upon young people who stood at the threshold of their adult lives. It seems especially tailored for that period of life, but in fact it applies to life’s every stage.

Recently I read the above passage as Eugene Peterson has paraphrased it in The Message: “Trust God from the bottom of your heart; / don’t try to figure out everything on your own. / Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go. / He’s the one who will keep you on track.”

The counsel, “Lean not on your own understanding” or “don’t try to figure out everything on your own,” may seem to suggest that we can be passive about the many decisions we have to make along life’s pathway. Just lie back and let God work everything out.

More likely, it is  telling us to prayerfully trust the Lord to guide us as we exercise our God-given judgment. In other words, while we use the best human judgment and resources available, at the same time we keep our ears attuned to his “still small voice” of guidance, whether given by direct prompting or through the unfolding of circumstances.

King Asa of Judah illustrates within a single life what it looks like first to lean on God’s understanding ardently and then to switch and trust only our own wisdom. In the fifteenth year of his reign, he cleansed the nation of Judah from its false gods. He “removed the detestable idols” and “repaired the altar of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 15:8).

Under him the people “entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and soul” (2 Chronicles 15:12). This led to a great burst of rejoicing as “They sought God eagerly” (2 Chronicles 15:15).

Obviously, at that period of his reign he was not leaning on his own understanding, and God was directing his path!

Nevertheless, in the 39th year of his reign, 29 years later, and two years before his death, the Scriptures tells us: “Asa was afflicted with a disease in his feet. Though his disease was severe, even in his illness he did not seek help from the Lord, but only from the physicians” (2 Chronicles 16:12).

Seeking help from the physicians was not a wrong thing to do. They too are God’s servants. Their skills are entrusted to them by God. But for some reason his earlier deep trust in God had disappeared. His affliction was by then simply a human problem. Asa’s sin was evident — he left God out of the healing equation.

It all seems to boil down to this: God’s love is everlasting, whether or not we feel it during times of testing. But our trust in that love is voluntary, while at the same time enabled by grace. We appear to have our trust in God mounted on something like a rheostat. That is, we can regulate its intensity.

Therefore, the proverb calls us to increase the depth of our trust — to trust God “from the bottom of our hearts.” As we do, “He’s the one who will keep us on track.” He’ll open before us paths that are straight and cleared of crippling potholes.

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Are We Wise Or Only Smart?

17 03 2014

Prov 1.7The Book of Proverbs is a collection of pithy sayings that captures the ancient Jewish understanding of wisdom. These sayings, created or collected by King Solomon, have endured for at least 3000 years, and have a prominent place in the Old Testament.

But does a sophisticated age like ours need help from the ancient past? Has not our smartness outpaced antiquity’s biblical wisdom? We can wonder.

By biblical wisdom we mean the ability to see life whole, to see it as God sees it. Now, as then, the tendency of the young is to break life into small units — the “now” moments – and to treat each of such moments as the whole of reality. We remember that in our youth it was easy to act without considering consequences. Solomon offers a wiser view.

Just seven verses into his whole collection, Solomon gives us wisdom’s key: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” (Proverbs 1:7).

To “fear the Lord” does not mean to stand in dread of him. It means to revere him because he is righteous, all-knowing, and worthy of trust. Our God is the Ultimate One we hold in such regard, and our fear is a healthy fear. It is the fear of displeasing him.

Our search for wisdom is to start there because “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” This knowledge is not merely systems like mathematics or physics. It is a right ordering of what we experience so as to give us understanding about life – its choices, manners, priorities, pitfalls and outcomes. Hence such knowledge is wisdom.

This call to fear the Lord is repeated in the Proverbs (2:5; 9:10; 14;26 and 27). Even Job, while in dire distress, holds it as a sign of wisdom. (Job 28:28) and David sings about it (Psalm 34:11). The call to “fear the Lord” undergirds the truth of the Old Testament.

Because the ancients were much more pointed and direct in facing serious issues than we tend to be, Solomon says forthrightly that those who despise this collected offering of wisdom are “fools.” That is, they are morally deficient. The use of such strong language is not meant to insult; it is meant to wake up anyone who is trifling with life, and to unmask folly.

The call to “wisdom” and the exercise of “the fear of the Lord” is carried into the New Testament. For example, Luke gives us little information about Jesus for the 18 years from the time of his appearing in the Temple at 12 until the beginning of his public ministry. That relative silence makes wisdom all the more important when he notes twice that during those years of development, Jesus was “filled with wisdom” (Luke 2:40) and he “grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:52).

And in The Acts of the Apostles, Luke described the young church as increasing in numbers and “living in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31). At the same time, the church was joyful; the living Christ was real; believers knew him! They were faith-filled and they bravely witnessed to that living faith in a treacherous world. But the young church at its peak was humble and reverential toward the Lord, bowing low figuratively, and often literally, to seek his divine blessing.

There is a sophistication to our age which no one can deny. And of course it is important, even necessary, to be smart. But if it is a question of putting “smart” in a worldly sense over against “wise” in a godly way, believers will make wisdom the primary goal every time.

In all our seeking we first bow in reverence to the Lord and seek heaven’s wisdom passionately and with our whole hearts. And with this we are promised great reward.

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What Keeps A Marriage Warm and Durable?

10 03 2014

Photo credit: bravenewtraveler (via flickr.com)Shelves, both physical and virtual, are lined with books of advice about what makes marriage great. Newspapers provide advice columns; magazine pieces are devoted to marital issues in enticing ways; and there is always a friend or family member with a word on the subject.

The advice given is usually good but in its flow I see a neglected or under-emphasized element.

My wife, Kathleen, has nailed that element several times since the celebration of our sixtieth anniversary six years ago. Whenever asked, “What’s the secret of a loving and durable marriage?” Her answer is always the same: Respect!

On the face of it, that answer may seem too simple – too all-encompassing, too naive. There’s a lot more to a fulfilling marriage than the experience of a husband and wife sitting in their family room all evening respecting each other.

There’s stretching income to pay the monthly bills, teaching children right from wrong, dealing with the crisis of joblessness, and knowing how to ease up on demands when one’s spouse is under special stress.

But simple as Kathleen’s answer may seem, a fundamental commitment to respect flowing both ways between a husband and wife is basic to a loving and enduring marriage.

It is like the shock absorbers in a car. If the car has only springs it may rock gently as it speeds along a smooth highway. But without shock absorbers whenever it comes unexpectedly to a rough, potted section in the road it will bounce around unpredictably, perhaps eventually landing its passengers in the ditch.

Shock absorbers don’t fill the potholes or make the road silky smooth. But they counter the freedom of the springs, and they hold the car relatively steady until it passes the rough patches and arrives at smoother pavement. So it is with practiced respect in a marriage.

Respect is a learned art. We don’t always feel like saying “please” and “thank you.” It takes years of faithful teaching to fix the practice in the head of a rambunctious boy or the mind of a self-absorbed girl. But when established, these niceties – and many others such as “You first,” or “Let me help you with that,” and especially “I’m sorry” – add excellence to a marriage’s early stages and beyond.

Blessed are both the young man and woman who enter their marriage with such training in their social repertoires!

One major manifestation of respect is the ability to say, “I’m sorry.” No matter how noble the intentions, marriage partners may slip from time to time.

In the early 1970s a film called Love Story hit the screens. It was an emotional story with a repeated line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Even some young people of faith were drawn into its emotional but amoral treatment of love.

The saying for Christians should be, “Love means always being ready to say you’re sorry.” Because we are imperfect at best and sinners at worst there will yet arise from time to time a circumstance that merits an “I’m sorry.” In fact, “I’m sorry” is a needed accessory to respect and when we say it we reflect that our love is deep.

Respect in marriage is not an act. It is not a luxury known only to the few. It is a shock absorber for all husbands and wives who mean their marriage to survive through all the seasons of life and to prosper in its many and varied stages.

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