Re-Post: Getting Ready for Easter

[The following piece was first posted March 5, 2012]

On Sunday, April 8 of this year, millions of Christians on all five continents will gather, not only in magnificent cathedrals and traditional churches, but also in worship centers, store front chapels, and even thatched huts.

Some will risk their lives to attend. They will be there to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as they listen with intensity to resurrection Scriptures and sing with joy resurrection hymns.

But individual persons in these throngs will differ from one another in their grasp of resurrection truth and also in the intensity of their faith in Christ. What will make that difference? One possibility will be how well they have prepared heart and mind during the weeks prior to Easter Sunday.

The importance of preparation for Resurrection Sunday has been formalized in church practices since as far back as the fourth century A.D. when the forty days prior to Easter Sunday were set apart for that very purpose. During these forty days of Lent, special observances are encouraged – such as fasting, acts of self-denial, increase in the giving of alms, etc.

My idea is to live devotionally during those days with the Gospel accounts of the last days of our Lord’s life up to his crucifixion. To do this, my heart is drawn to the Gospel according to John. His account has 21 chapters; yet, as early as chapter 12, he introduces his readers to the events of one week — the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. So, chapters 12 to 19 – eight of its 21 chapters — are devoted to the events of that one single week. If a third of John’s gospel covers only one week of Jesus’ 33-year lifespan, that tells us they are very important.

Please note how Chapter 12 begins: Martha serves a dinner in Jesus’ honor. Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, is at table. In an act of extravagant devotion, Mary breaks open a jar of the expensive perfume, nard, and pours the whole content on Jesus’ feet. The fragrance fills the house.

Judas is openly offended and complains that this ointment could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. But John, writing much later, tells the truth about Judas: he “… was a thief; as keeper of the money bag he used to help himself to what was put into it” (John 12:6).

What a wide range of concerns in that room! Just so in this Easter season: some will love the Lord with the warmth and sincerity of Mary; others may be present but kept from worship by blockages of greed, pride or sensuality. How appropriate to test our love by a verse of an old hymn:

More love to thee, O Christ, more love to thee;
Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee.
This is my earnest plea, more love, O Christ, to Thee
More love to Thee; more love to Thee.

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Re-post: A Protestant Equivalent to Lent

[The following was first posted March 28, 2011]

We’re about half way through Lent. This year, Lent is March 8 to April 23. It ends Saturday after Good Friday. It’s an ancient religious practice followed mainly by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Those who observe Lent include the 40 days before Easter Sunday. During that time, Sundays are not counted because they are intended to be days of celebration year-around – Christ is risen!

For the masses, Lenten practices are not usually severe. Observers deprive themselves of something important – meat, fish, television, sweets, coffee, movies, etc.

These self-deprivations are supposed to call believers to additional prayer, meditation, contrition, repentance, financial giving, or service to prepare themselves for the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection on Easter.

The observance of Lent has never in any large way made a place for itself among Protestants. I believe 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.” The denial of self is more than saying no to the Internet or coffee, meat or movies, and so forth, except perhaps in a symbolic way; it is saying no to “self” – 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 of interest, even appealing, to all serious Christians. The self-deprivations, little or great, are supposed to be attended by special times of prayer and meditation, by repentance and self examination. Meditation is biblical. Consider what God’s word says (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2).

There will be an upsurge of attendance at Protestant services on Easter Sunday. It is sort of traditional. Women especially used to appear in new Easter outfits, a custom tracing back to the celebration of new life in Christ. That practice from my observation no longer seems to be the big thing it once was.

But think of the spiritual impact there would be if hordes of Protestant worshipers were to prepare themselves for the day by several weeks of daily meditation. Will you take the challenge?

Meditation for Christians is not humming a sound or turning the mind loose. It is “focused thinking” and it takes serious effort. Whether practiced by sitting quietly in a chair, kneeling by a bed, sitting on a porch, or walking back and forth in seclusion, Christian meditation can be set in four stages: (1) the deliberate reading of a Scripture verse or passage; (2) the pondering of its content; (3) conversation with God asking for understanding; and (4) a resting in His presence.

The three special times of the day marked especially for meditation are (1) with the last thoughts before falling asleep; (2) the first thoughts upon waking; and (3) a special time of the day set aside for quietness with the Scriptures and prayer.

This sort of disciplined pondering can be a time for taking stock on the state of the soul, repenting as necessary, reflecting on the condition of one’s relationships, asking for a renewal in love for Christ and others, and generally resetting the inner dial to tune in on 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 the Gospel accounts of the closing days of our Lord’s life (Matthew 26-28; Mark 14-16; Luke 22-24; John 17-21).

Take one verse at a time. Set your mind on it. If thoughts wander draw them back. If light breaks forth and you want to carry the verse through the day, write it on piece of paper and keep it near. Meditation is indeed a discipline but when it engages our souls it is even better than nourishment to our bodies.

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Advent: Do You Want to Experience it More Deeply?

AdventTo add depth to your faith and ardor to your devotion to the Lord this Advent season, spend extra time pondering the first sentence of John’s Gospel.

He writes, “In the beginning was the Word….” — on the face of it a perplexing line. Why didn’t he just write, “In the beginning was Jesus?” That’s who the fourth gospel is about, after all.

Or, John could have written: “In the beginning was the Messiah.” That term would be familiar to the Jews but not so familiar to others. He wanted both Jews and Gentiles to understand what he had to say.

Here’s the background:

When John wrote his Gospel, he was an old man living in Ephesus, where there were large populations of both Greeks and Jews.

To make his message attractive to the Greek mind while at the same time remaining true to Jewish thought, he had to find the right word to introduce Jesus to both.

Here’s why “Word” worked for his Greek readers:

More than five hundred years earlier, a Greek thinker named Heraclitus had lived in Ephesus. This man wrestled with the notion that all of existence was in flux. Nothing seemed to stand still.

To illustrate, he noted that one couldn’t step into the same river twice. If you step into the water, then step out of the water, then step back in, he reasoned, you are not stepping into the same river.

But if everything was in process of change all the time, Heraclitus pondered, why was all of existence not in chaos? He concluded that there was some unifying, ordering principle or influence over all. He called this the Logos – which meant “word” or “reason.” This idea had survived in Greek thought for more than 500 years.

Jewish thought had a similar idea. God’s “word” is presented in the scriptures over and over again as imbued with power. The story of Creation bears this out. In Genesis 1, eight times we read: “And God said” — and each time, His word brought an additional component of creation into being.

Jeremiah writes, “Is not my word like fire?” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). From the Psalms we read, “By the word of God were the heavens made” (Psalm 33:6). William Barclay writes, “the phrase the ‘word of God’ became one of the commonest forms of Jewish expression.”

In the light of all this, John concluded, Logos (word), was the best expression to open the mind of the Greek reader to who Jesus was and why he came, and at the same time to be true to the Jewish understanding as John talked about Christ — the Messiah’s first coming.

By saying “in the beginning,” John adds a new and deeper understanding for both Greek and Jew. In this way, he asserts that Jesus always existed; he is eternal!

And, he further adds the staggering news that, indeed, “The Word was God.”

The sentence with which John begins his good news account can stir us deeply: Jesus, the Word, is eternal. He is God, and in him God came into our sphere as an infant. We discover who he is and we call him Jesus, our Lord.

That truth, if reflected on prayerfully again and again during Advent, will deepen faith and Christian joy.

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The Day the Christian Church Was Born

508302228_ae37586ce9_mChristians observe the birth of Jesus at Christmas; his resurrection on Easter (which is also the Jewish Passover) and this year, Pentecost Sunday, May 15, 2016. In doing so they will celebrate again the birth of the Christian church.

The New Testament reports on the original day of Christian Pentecost in Acts 2, written for the church by physician and historian, St. Luke.

To set it up, Our Lord’s crucifixion at the time of the Jewish Passover left his followers distraught. They did not yet understand that he had died as the Lamb of God, sacrificed to atone for sinners. The brutal death appeared not only tragic, but also unjust and pointless and it vaporized their hope for themselves and their nation.

Then on the third day after that horror Jesus was resurrected. But at the outset his followers seemed incapable of believing that he had actually come back to life.

So, for 40 days after his resurrection the Lord appeared repeatedly among his followers, restoring their confidence by giving evidences of his living presence. On one occasion he appeared to more than 500 followers at one time. By these appearances his followers came slowly to believe and their joy and worship grew.

Then, when the doubts and uncertainties held by this small circle of believers had been replaced with joyful certainty, Jesus ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives. The apostles witnessed this ascension.

After the ascension there were then ten additional days during which Jesus’ convinced and renewed followers were often together in an upper room in Jerusalem or at a gathering place in the outer court of the temple. The major activity of those gatherings was prayer.

Thus 40 plus 10 added up to 50 days. The long celebrated Pentecost of the Jews came 50 days after Passover. Now, the Christian revision was to be celebrated.

Then, on this first Pentecost after Jesus’ sacrificial death, when Jerusalem was filled as usual with visitors from many places in the world, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the gathering of disciples.

This was accompanied by heaven-sent signs – “the sound like the blowing of a violent wind” and tongues of fire (that) “separated and rested on each of them”.

Winds on occasion symbolize the Spirit of God (John 3:8). This demonstration of divine power seized the attention of the gathered throng and signaled God’s purpose: The news of the Gospel would travel across the world (like the blowing wind) by the power of his Spirit.

Fire, like wind, symbolized the divine presence. Recall that God spoke to Moses out of a bush that burned but was not consumed. On that inimitable Pentecost the wind could be heard and felt and the fire seen.

Then came the third miraculous demonstration of God’s power: the apostles and other worshipers began to speak prophetically and those from other nations heard them proclaim in their own languages. This gift of languages perplexed and amazed the worshipers.

Then Peter stepped forward and began to address the crowds. He reviewed the history of Jesus and proclaimed him to be the Messiah. He explained the miraculous events as fulfilling the predictions of the prophet, Joel. Passionately, he called the listeners to repentance.

We can call his address the first Christian sermon. In fact, we can say this miraculous Pentecostal occasion symbolizes the birth of the Christian church.

There can only be one original Christian Pentecost. But God’s power as seen on that day can be tapped into by prayer because the out-poured Spirit is the universal Spirit of Christ promised to live in us and to help us do the work of the church for all time. Wherever the church wholeheartedly seeks the Spirit’s power the church is preserved and renewed.

The mission of the Spirit given to us at Pentecost is unchanging. It is to awaken us to sin, call us to repentance and the fulness of new life in Christ, and to help us serve through the church in her mission to preach the Gospel to every Creature and serve as his gracious hands to a hurting world.

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Re-post: From Easter — Onward and Upward

I continue my faith-trek from Easter Sunday toward Pentecost Sunday with a soul-deep awareness that Jesus Christ makes himself a living presence to all who choose to follow him.

I hear the words of the Angel who addressed the women outside the empty tomb early on that first day of the week, “He is not here; he is risen just as he said” (Matt. 28:6). Just as he said. He promised! He kept his promise!

The words of the Apostle’s Creed ring true for me, “I believe in Jesus Christ . . . who the third day rose from the dead.” And because of that, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”

I read a piece by the late Wilbur M. Smith marshalling the arguments to support the truth of the resurrection. It reinforces my faith. Christ had power over death and hell. During his earthly ministry he himself raised three from the dead, the son of the widow of Nain, the 12-year-old daughter of Jairus, and Lazarus.

What can we say to the fact that the disheartened Apostles were little by little compelled to believe after Christ’s resurrection. And in believing they moved from being disheartened and afraid to being joyful and courageous even unto death?

On resurrection Sunday the tomb was empty and no one could explain this adequately except by the facts of the resurrection. The Roman soldiers even had to be bribed to lie about what had really happened that left the tomb in its vacated state.

The arguments are many and compelling, but I am most moved by the truth of Christ’s resurrection when I read for myself the closing chapters of each of the four gospels. I have read them carefully this past week. I have pored over them. For me they breathe life and hope for this life and for the life to come.

So I pray earnestly for you, my dear reader, that you too may experience afresh this living Christ who suffered and died for you and who lives to share his resurrection life in you. If you know him, may you know him more deeply, if you are on the fringes of faith may you cross the line by surrendering to his will, and should you be one who lives without this hope may you give the truth of the resurrection the chance it requires to bring you to newness of life.

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The Story of Our Lord’s Resurrection – It’s Real History!

Rembrandt - The Risen Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen

Rembrandt: The Risen Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene (1638)

God’s message to all mankind climaxes in the Gospel and its implications.

As the Apostle Paul states the essence of the Gospel it is this: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared … (1 Corinthians 15:3,4).

He appeared! As the living Christ, he appeared to real and living people who bore witness to his resurrection.

He appeared to Simon Peter. This appearing is not described by any one of the four gospel narrators. Still, we know that he did so appear, because Luke says that a group of believers who had gathered privately in Jerusalem during the evening of resurrection Sunday reported with joy that the risen Lord had appeared to Simon (Luke 24:34).

He appeared to the twelve disciples. John reports that on the evening of the same Resurrection Sunday “when the disciples were together with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ (John 20:19).

He appeared to more than 500 of the brothers at the same time. St. Matthew gives us this account, and it coincides with the promise Jesus made to his disciples on the eve of his passion: “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee” (Matthew 26:32).

In 1 Corinthians 15:6, later Paul writes that though some of the 500 had since died, many, perhaps several hundred, were still alive to bear testimony to what they had seen. Perhaps this is his invitation to any who were still skeptical, suggesting they seek out one or more of the plentiful eyewitnesses.

If Christ’s resurrection and subsequent appearances had not been real there would surely have been some among the “more than 500” still living who would readily have announced as a fraud the claim that he had arisen and appeared to many witnesses.

He appeared to James, the brother of Jesus. We have met Jesus’ brother James before. Mark tells us of an incident early in Jesus’ ministry, before James was a believer. He had come along with his family to take Jesus home and away from the crowds. That’s because, according to Mark 3:22 and 31, When his family heard about this [his unusual ministry including bold teachings and miracles], they went to take charge of him, for they said, “he is out of his mind.”

But by the time of Jesus’ resurrection James is a believer. Tradition, a secondary source of evidence, says he was met by Jesus at the open tomb and converted through the miraculous reality of what he saw there. Paul later writes of him calling him “James, the brother of our Lord.” (Galatians 1:19)

To all the above Paul adds his own name. Last of all Jesus appeared to me also as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:7) This refers to Jesus’ separate appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, many years after the crucifixion and resurrection when as “Saul, the persecutor” he was on the way to take Christians captive to punish them. (Acts 9:1 –19). Paul becomes one of the apostles due to this late personal and specific introduction to the living Jesus, and the direct assignment from the Lord.

If Christ’s Resurrection, and by extension the promise of our own, were just a notion aimed at any who face the reality of death that would at least be a source of comfort. If it were only a “story” to be enacted in passion plays around the world, that would at least be entertaining. On the other hand, if it were a hoax to deceive the gullible, that would be shameful.

The resurrection of Jesus is none of these. It is history with many witnesses. The New Testament, with many copies and fragments of copies in existence from antiquity even when cities of those times lie in ruins, sets the facts forth simply but compellingly. The recognition and joy of followers who saw the resurrected Christ are authentic. The most skillful of minds have been unable to disprove claims convincingly and instead many have pronounced the accounts of the life of Christ to be the writings of trustworthy men and of reliable history.

So we are summoned to listen to the witness of many who were there, and to the witness of the lives of many more down through the centuries, and to the witness of the living Spirit of Christ, who impresses on our spirits the reality of the resurrection dissolving fear of the judgment for believers.

We are summoned to respond when we hear the living Christ announce: I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and he who lives and believes will never die. (John 11: 25, 26).

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Re-post: Getting Ready for Easter

On Easter Sunday this year, millions of Christians on all five continents will gather, not only in magnificent cathedrals and traditional churches, but also in worship centers, store front chapels, and even thatched huts.

Some will risk their lives to attend. They will be there to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as they listen with intensity to resurrection Scriptures and sing with joy resurrection hymns.

But individual persons in these throngs will differ from one another in their grasp of resurrection truth and also in the intensity of their faith in Christ. What will make that difference? One possibility will be how well they have prepared heart and mind during the weeks prior to Easter Sunday.

The importance of preparation for Resurrection Sunday has been formalized in church practices since as far back as the fourth century A.D. when the forty days prior to Easter Sunday were set apart for that very purpose. During these forty days of Lent, special observances are encouraged – such as fasting, acts of self-denial, increase in the giving of alms, etc.

My idea is to live devotionally during those days with the Gospel accounts of the last days of our Lord’s life up to his crucifixion. To do this, my heart is drawn to the Gospel according to John. His account has 21 chapters; yet, as early as chapter 12, he introduces his readers to the events of one week — the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. So, chapters 12 to 19 – eight of its 21 chapters — are devoted to the events of that one single week. If a third of John’s gospel covers only one week of Jesus’ 33-year lifespan, that tells us they are very important.

Please note how Chapter 12 begins: Martha serves a dinner in Jesus’ honor. Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, is at table. In an act of extravagant devotion, Mary breaks open a jar of the expensive perfume, nard, and pours the whole content on Jesus’ feet. The fragrance fills the house.

Judas is openly offended and complains that this ointment could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. But John, writing much later, tells the truth about Judas: he “… was a thief; as keeper of the money bag he used to help himself to what was put into it” (John 12:6).

What a wide range of concerns in that room! Just so in this Easter season: some will love the Lord with the warmth and sincerity of Mary; others may be present but kept from worship by blockages of greed, pride or sensuality. How appropriate to test our love by a verse of an old hymn:

More love to thee, O Christ, more love to thee;
Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee.
This is my earnest plea, more love, O Christ, to Thee
More love to Thee; more love to Thee.

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