Two Weddings Compared: That of a Queen’s Grandson and That of the Son of a King

On May 19, 2018, Prince Harry, grandson of Queen Elizabeth, will exchange wedding vows with Meghan Markle, an American actress whose most recent home has been in Toronto, Canada.

Their vows will be exchanged in a chapel within Windsor Castle, west of London. It promises to be a simple wedding as royal events go, but grand if not sumptuous in any commoner’s eyes.

For weeks now pundits have speculated: who will be invited and who passed over? Will the father of the bride be there? How about former President and Mrs. Obama, longtime friends of the prince? Or for that matter, should President Trump be invited? Speculation shifts from day-to-day.

The news of this upcoming event makes me think of one of Jesus’ parables.

In it, a king was planning a lavish wedding banquet for his son and his bride. It would be his kingdom’s star event of the season. According to custom, invitations were sent long before the date was set.

When the actual day of the event arrived guests received urgent notice that they were to come quickly; everything was ready.

The first guests receiving the summons ignored the invitation. The second group shrugged and turned back to their preoccupations — one had an interest in planting a field, another in managing a business.

A third group on receiving the call ruthlessly beat up the messengers and even killed some of them.

The king was infuriated at their refusals. Such an indignity to his beloved son! He sent out an army to burn their cities and kill the murderers.

Then, determined that the banquet would not fail and that his son would be duly honored, the king sent servants in all directions to invite anyone they found available — even persons lounging at street corners.

The call was urgent and the strategy worked. The banquet hall was full (Matthew 22:8-10).

Then Jesus’ story takes a strange turn. The feast was underway. The king, moving among the guests, found one man in slovenly attire even though wedding clothes had been provided when the guests entered.

The king asked the man how he got in. The man had no answer. The king had him bound and thrown out of the brightly lit hall into the blinding darkness.

The first invited guests were absent because of their disrespect for the king and his son and their preoccupations. The guest who had come, though inappropriately dressed, was thrown out because of his contempt for the occasion.

Some who listened to Jesus’ story recognized themselves in it. They rejected Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God, or they grudgingly accepted it but would consider entering only on their terms.

Jesus’ story ends with the words: For many are invited, but few are chosen.

That is, many are called to faith in Jesus as Lord and King with promise of a place in the kingdom to be celebrated like a great, joyful banquet. But earthly attractions hold sway. Others will be passed over because of their foolish insistence on their own terms.

A few weeks from now, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will be stars of a sumptuous wedding banquet in their honor. ­­Then the public interest will fade and other world events will gather attention.

Jesus’ parable, on the other hand, will stand for all of history to remind us that, although many are called to have a place in God’s eternal kingdom, the number of those who respond on kingdom terms will be few.

The chosen will be those who are seriously responsive to the Father’s call to kingdom citizenship as provided by the earthly life, ministry, and death of His dear Son, the Lord Jesus.

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Why Does Historic Methodism Teach the Doctrine of Prevenient Grace?

The Bible quickly introduces us to the story of Adam and Eve — created by God, placed in a perfect setting, and given a task to perform. They were forbidden only one thing; they were not to eat the fruit of a particular tree; but many others were accessible in the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 1,2)

They violated the one prohibition, and in doing so they placed themselves in rebellion against the Ruler of the universe, the God to whom they owed their existence and their ideal surroundings.

Where should the story go from there?

We can imagine two possibilities. First: In response to such disobedience the Lord God might have struck with fire all he had created, wiping it out. The second possibility: The Lord God might have turned his back on the couple, leaving them forever estranged from Him.

But possibility three is what actually happened: The Lord God came walking in the garden searching. He confronted the pair with their offense and then clothed them with animal skins. Thus begins a wondrous story of salvation.

In essence, God initiates by making himself known to sinful mankind and seeking them out.  This is called prevenient grace.

A Seventeenth Century Dutch scholar named Arminius was foremost among those who brought the term forward, and later Eighteenth Century Oxford scholar, John Wesley, and his followers embraced this understanding during a great outpouring of God’s saving mercy on the British Isles.

John Wesley wrote: “It is God who takes the initiative first to provide for our salvation in Jesus Christ and then to enable us to respond through prevenient grace.” The Apostle John writes that Jesus was “the true light that gives light to everyone” and that “We love (God) because he first loved us” (John 1:9 and 1 John 4:19).

“Prevenient” comes from a Latin word that means preceding in time or order; coming before, or anticipating. In Christian thought it is used to speak of the manifestations of God’s grace that precede repentance and spiritual awakening. Wesley presented it as “all the ‘drawings’ of ‘the Father’, the desires after God which, if we yield to them, increase more and more.”

Thus, prevenient grace is the grace that initiates our salvation. It is the grace that prompts a little child’s first sense that there is a God above, and gives that child its earliest awakening to moral responsibility.

That is, God initiates the search for sinners whom Jesus died to save and He offers them hope. As one doctrinal statement has it, “This [prevenient] grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our first transient understanding of having sinned against God.”

Luke tells us about Zacchaeus, a man rich but of apparently shady character, motivated by greed as a tax collector. He attempted, out of curiosity, to see Jesus close-up and to do so he climbed into the branches of a Sycamore tree. But Jesus saw him and called him to come down.

Jesus then went to his home as a guest and the crowds responded by muttering that Jesus had gone to be a guest in the home of a sinner. But Luke reported the move more positively.

After being with Jesus for some time that day Zacchaeus, in a great burst of generosity, pledged half of his wealth to the poor and also stated his intention to return fourfold to any he had cheated.

Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus at the end of that day were as follows: Today salvation has come to this house…. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.

We cannot come to God on our own initiative because as simmers we are dead in trespasses and sins. It is by prevenient grace that we are first awakened and called.

As the Apostle Paul writes: but because of his great love for us God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions —  it is by grace you have been saved: (Ephesians 2:4,5).

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved.

How precious did that grace appear,

The hour I first believed.

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Are We Paying Enough Attention to Children in the Church?

When my mother saw I was serious about answering a call to the ministry, she gave me only one word of advice. She said, “Don, be sure to pay attention to the children.”

I’m sure she meant: speak to them; inquire of their well-being; make a place for them in the life of the congregation; be sure they are instructed in the basics of the faith — all of which would seem excellent counsel.

My mother’s words were consistent with our Lord’s response when Jesus’ disciples thought him too busy to be bothered with children who were brought to him.

Jesus rebuked his followers, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). He then gathered the little ones around him and blessed them.

My Mother’s advice was given in the mid-forties of the Twentieth Century and we are now nearly through the second decade of the Twenty-first Century. Things have changed in fundamental ways in 70 years!

In the intervening years many subcultures on our continent have rapidly secularized. That is, they no longer have  reverence for an Unseen Presence who rules over all.   Persons who accept this cultural shift seem to be grounding all reality in the present visible world only.

Still, I would say that my Mother’s few words two generations ago and our Lord’s attitude toward children remain the pattern for us today.

And based upon my years in ministry, I offer two of many possible concrete suggestions about the children among us in these secular times.

First, a congregation should take a hard look periodically at whether the Bible is being presented to children from their early years onward. Is it foundational to all family activities and church ministries?

That is, is the Bible being read daily in Christian homes, connecting church and home in religious practice? Are children learning the Bible’s timeless stories and their lessons — like the story of David and Goliath, Ruth and Naomi, and especially the stories of Jesus, and his words and miracles?

Against the apparent increase of “sophisticated” and widespread antagonism to the Christian faith, the Bible is the first line of defense as well as our guidebook, and our children need to be more rooted than ever in the Sacred Scriptures.

My second suggestion deals with the increasingly aggressive secularization of sex education in public schools, countering, even scorning, Christian teaching.

Affirmation of sexual practices contrary to both nature and Christian moral teaching is being taught more aggressively and explicitly in public schools.  For example, it’s reported that in some places sexual practices that are neither normal nor healthy are being presented with approval and even encouraged in the teaching of young children.

At the time of writing concerned parents in Canada, the United States and Australia are being called upon to treat April 23 as a “day out.” On that day children are to be kept home from their schools in protest.

Do our Lord’s words pertain in this? Bringing the little ones to Jesus must also include protecting them insofar as possible from instruction that would counter our Lord’s teaching and the authority of Holy Scripture.

It is now many years since I served as a pastor over a congregation. In reflection I’m sure my mother’s advice affected my thinking to the benefit of my congregations and their children.

If I were returned to the assignment of pastoring a church, I would be even more committed to heed my Mother’s advice to pay attention to the children and their need for both teaching and protection.

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Why Was the Cross of Christ Necessary?

In his book, The Cross of Christ, the late John R. W. Stott described the experience of an imaginary visitor to London who arrives with little understanding of Christianity. Eager to learn, he comes upon the beautiful Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

Approaching the cathedral he first notices with amazement that the dome of the building is dominated by a huge golden cross. He then enters and sees that the cathedral itself is built in the shape of a cross with arms reaching to the right and left from the central nave. These arms appear to form two chapels.

Looking into each chapel he sees what appears to be a table and on each a small cross. Going below into the crypt where the remains of famous people are buried he notes that on each tomb there is engraved the form of a cross.

Back in the nave the stranger decides to stay for a service of worship about to begin. He notices that a man sitting next to him wears a miniature cross on his lapel and a woman on the other side wears one on her necklace. The service begins with a hymn beginning, We sing the praise of him who died, of him who died upon the cross.

The theme of the cross registers with him as dominant and compelling.

The cross was claimed as the symbol for Christianity as early as the second century. Other symbols had a brief life but once the cross was established it remained firm against all opposition and has endured for two millennia.

This should not be surprising. There are at least 28 references to Christ’s cross in the New Testament and these references appear across the New Testament from Matthew to the Revelation.

But why the cross, this instrument of vicious torture? Why must the punishment of sin be visited in this manner on the Holy Son of God? Simply put, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Sin must be punished.

Mankind’s universal offense against God’s holy laws is more serious than we, his creatures, are aware until the Holy Spirit brings the reality home to us. The Lord God, the ruler of the universe declared to Adam, You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die (Genesis 3:3). Adam both touched and ate despite promised consequences.

Adam’s offenses were not like a child’s offense in taking a bit of candy from a table knowing only vaguely that to do so was wrong. Adam’s offense (and ours) was an intentional, self-conscious disobedience against a holy God, the Creator and Ruler of All. God must keep his word: “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:20).

But again, why must there be such suffering on God’s part in order for him to forgive the sins of his creatures? The answer in brief: God’s justice must be applied without compromise otherwise he is not just. Sin must be paid for.

And there was no one else who could pay the just penalty for sin since, as the Apostle Paul notes, all humans have sinned and do come short of God’s glorious ideal (Romans 3:23). So, God in Christ out of his great love for his sinning creatures took the penalty on himself at Calvary. It was the only way (John 3:16).

On a cross, Jesus, the Son of God, voluntarily suffered a substitutionary death and a temporary alienation from God, the Father of us all (Psalm 22). He became sin for us who knew no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). In doing so, he paid the enormous penalty for our sins.

As the letter to the Romans declares, He did (this) to demonstrate his justice at the present time so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). Thus, the cross is the ground of our salvation.

Looking deeper into this timeless moment at Calvary one sees beneath the suffering a love that will not give up on sinners. As we have travelled through the Easter season this has been brought home to us many times. As John Bowring wrote more than a century ago:

In the cross of Christ I glory,

towering o’er the wrecks of time,

All the light of sacred story,

gathers in its head sublime.

 

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Do I Have a Love That Can Suffer and Persevere?

Christ on the Mount of Olives by Josef Untersberger. Public Domain.

Love is often portrayed in our culture as an overwhelming fascination attended by a romantic glow. It’s largely rooted in the feelings.

Indeed, human love can activate such emotions, but genuine love can also be costly: A mother cares without complaint for a disabled child month after month to the point of exhaustion. That is noble, suffering love.

During Holy Week, we celebrate love, but in this case God’s love — a love for his fallen creatures of such imponderable magnitude that his Son, Jesus, was willing to suffer and die on our behalf.

God’s Son came to earth in human form for that very purpose. So while Jesus healed the afflicted, fed the hungry, and blessed the children, he came for more than to express compassion and comfort.

A deeper look into the Gospel accounts shows that the Incarnate Christ knew that his love would lead him into suffering. The willingness to suffer would be one way of showing love.

I became aware of this insight many years ago when Luke 9:51 seemed to stand out from the page. It says, As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.

Resolutely. That was the word that held my attention. Could it mean he didn’t want to go but knew he must do so to carry out a divine plan?

Back then I was also surprised by how early in Luke’s account the sentence appears. The Gospel according to Luke is divided into 24 chapters, but already in chapter nine Luke reported that Jesus knew what was ahead and that he anticipated suffering.

Jesus had not come merely to heal the afflicted, and teach the masses about his kingdom. He had come to suffer a death that would be for others.

He must have known that the religious rulers in Jerusalem would plot his death, the throngs for Passover would be easily turned against him, his own followers would flee, and Roman soldiers would be called upon to hang him on a cross to torture him in his dying. Yet he went forward resolutely.

Much happened as Jesus made that determined journey toward Jerusalem. It was after he fed the five thousand miraculously that Peter declared him “The Christ of God.” (Luke 9:18-20).

Jesus follows Peter’s confession with clear words to his disciples about what was ahead: The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life (Luke 9:22).

Could anything have been clearer? Still, his disciples failed to understand that for this great teacher and miracle worker love would mean suffering and that would require deep resolve.

During the same period of time he must have felt the need to bring the matter up to his disciples again because on another occasion he said: Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men (Luke 9:44).

There is a sobering and maturing word in all this. We too, as Christians, may fall into the trap of thinking of the love we profess only in brighter and more airy terms. It’s great to be a Christian!

And so it is. But Holy Week should remind us we are also called to be resolute in facing the tests, the adversities and the unexpected surprises of the journey. We are called to be true to our commitments even when our situation is adverse and undeserved.

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If We Claim That Jesus Talks to Us, Is That a Sign of Mental Illness?

Recently, on ABC’s  morning show, The View, comedian Joy Behar spoke insultingly of the Christian faith, provoking widespread protests. The network reportedly received 45,000 complaints.

Behar had conducted an on-air interview with the Vice President of the United States, Michael Pence, in which he said he seeks direction from Jesus for decisions he makes and he receives answers from him.

Ms. Behar quipped on a later show that when you talk to Jesus that is one thing but when you say Jesus talks to you that may be a sign of mental illness.

She has since apologized to the vice president and, at his request, to the public at large.

This exchange raises a question believers and unbelievers alike would do well to ponder: Does the Christian faith claim that the Lord Jesus communicates with believers in an understandable way?

Jesus, who came from the Father, certainly spoke to humankind during his time on earth. Saint Mark tells us Jesus went into the region of Galilee “proclaiming” (Mark 1:14). On another occasion a leper pled with him to be made clean of his disease and Jesus said to him, “Be Clean” (Mark 1:40). To such speaking, the four Gospels testify repeatedly.

The Old Testament bears witness that even before Jesus came to live among us God did communicate with humans. God carried on an extensive dialogue with Moses (Exodus 19). He spoke to his chosen people as a whole: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says” (Jeremiah 31:23). He also spoke to individuals, e.g.: “Then God said to Jacob. (Genesis 35:1)

And to worshipers then and now God speaks through the Book of the Psalms: I sought the Lord and he answered me (Psalm 34:4). But did such communications continue after Jesus finished his ministry on earth and ascended into heaven?

A strong assurance that they did was lodged in his promise given to the Apostles on the eve of his crucifixion: And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. (John 14:16)

Jesus had been their Counselor. Now he would send another Counselor who would carry on a comparable ministry of communication — speaking changeless truth to them! But is this assured to all following generations, including us and Vice President Pence?

Nearly three decades after Jesus’ ascension, a Rabbi was approaching the city of Damascus. His intention was to persecute Jews he found following what he viewed as the “Jesus cult.” Suddenly he was blinded by a light so bright that he fell to the ground.

Hearing an audible voice he asked “Who are you, Lord”? With great clarity the answer he received was: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). The Living Christ spoke in human language to Saul of Tarsus, who became the Apostle Paul.

There are multiplied millions of serious Christians who share Vice President Pence’s conviction that Jesus talks to his followers even today — not trivially but certainly on faith and life matters.

Such throngs believe it is not beyond God’s power to speak audibly, thought this way is not most usual. Far more, they “hear” him speaking to them through Scriptures read and preached and through his Holy Spirit’s inward promptings to an awakened conscience.

And so, without being considered mentally ill, Christians can say with reverence that Jesus does speak by whatever means he chooses and we are to listen, ponder his words, correlate them with Scripture and wise counsel, and ask for the reassuring inner witness of conscience.

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A Protestant Equivalent to Lent (2018)

Lent is a season for self-denial and meditation, observed primarily in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

This year, Lent is from February 14 to March 29 and it ends Saturday after Good Friday. We’re now about half way through the season.

Those who observe Lent set apart the 40 days before Easter Sunday, but this does not include Sundays because they are days to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection year-around!

Many today who observe Lent might deprive themselves of something from a list they think important – meat, fish, television, sweets, coffee, movies, etc.

This time of self-denial calls believers to additional prayer, meditation, contrition, repentance, charity, or special services of worship to prepare themselves for the celebration of Christ’s death and miraculous resurrection on Easter Sunday.

The observance of Lent has never in any large way made a place for itself among Protestants. It was Billy Graham speaking on discipleship who once noted that Christ did not say we were to deny ourselves of “something;” he said we were to deny “ourselves.”

This kind of denial is saying no to the self that keeps wanting to rear its ugly head and resist our full surrender to the life Christ calls us to – a life that bows fully to his Lordship and the joyful service of others.

But Lent has an element that should be appealing to all serious Christians.

During Lent the self-deprivations, little or great, are supposed to be attended by special times of self-examination, repentance prayer, and meditation. Consider the call of Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1:2.

Meditation does not mean setting the mind loose to wander; it is “focused reflection” and it takes serious effort.

The three special times of the day for meditation are (1) with the last thoughts before settling for sleep; (2) the first thoughts upon waking; and (3) special times of the day set aside for quietness with the Scriptures and prayer.

Christian meditation can include four stages: (1) the careful and deliberate reading of a brief Scripture passage; (2) the pondering of its content; (3) a conversation with God asking for understanding; and (4) a resting in His presence.

Disciplined pondering can be made a time for taking stock of the state of the soul, repenting as necessary, reflecting on one’s relationships, praying for a renewal in love for Christ and others, and generally resetting the inner dial to those things that matter most.

If these thoughts prompt you to increase your times of meditation and devotion leading up to Easter, I suggest you choose for pondering the Gospel accounts of the closing days of our Lord’s life and resurrection (Matthew 26-28; Mark 14-16; Luke 22-24; John 17-21).

Meditation is indeed a Christian discipline and when it engages our souls it creates focus and insight, and often repentance and joy.

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