A few lines for Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday

Instead of writing a few lines about Jesus’ passion and resurrection, I’d like to share from ShiftWorship.com these lines…

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A different sort of king

Palm Sunday cross graphic found via Google

Probably to the surprise of some, Jesus does not arrive in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday riding on a stallion with guns blazing as people might have expected a king to do. Rather, as the church remembers this weekend, he enters on a colt. And his eyes are filled with tears, knowing the trial and death that awaits him. Jesus is a different sort of king than the people are expecting.

Jesus had sent his disciples ahead to fetch the colt and bring it to him. If anyone asked what they were doing with the animal, he instructed them to say the Lord needed it and would return it shortly. In those days kings would not have asked to borrow an animal; a powerful ruler would simply have taken it and added it to his stable. But Jesus is a different sort of king.

As Jesus rides the donkey into Jerusalem, a crowd gathers – ordinary citizens with their children waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” It’s a word that means “Save us!” The crowds probably mean to say “Save us from the Romans occupying our land!” Jesus, however, has his eyes on a bigger enemy than Rome: He is entering Jerusalem to battle sin and death itself. Jesus is indeed a different sort of king.

Looking at the pieces of this story, I can’t help but wonder about the owner of the colt. Did they have any idea who the animal’s rider would be when they loaned it to the disciples?

It reminds me of a 19th century Sunday school teacher in Boston named Kimball who introduced a shoe clerk named Dwight L. Moody to Jesus Christ. Dwight L. Moody became a famous evangelist who influenced someone named Frederick B. Meyer to preach on college campuses. Meyer led someone named J. Wilbur Chapman to the Lord. Chapman, while working with the YMCA, arranged for Billy Sunday to come to Charlotte, North Carolina to attend revival meetings. This led to community leaders in Charlotte scheduling a second revival with someone named Mordecai Hamm. Under Hamm’s preaching, a young man named William gave his heart to Jesus Christ. You knew this man as Billy Graham, who preached to more people than anyone in history. I am certain that that 19th century Sunday School teacher in Boston had no idea what would happen from leading a shoe clerk to Christ.

It’s amazing what can happen when you and I welcome the Lord to work through our lives. I might think I’m just letting someone borrow a colt or that you’re just having a nice conversation with a shoe clerk. But don’t underestimate Jesus’ ability to take little things in life and use them for great purposes. He is ruler over all, yet he knows, loves, and guides you and me individually. What’s more, he had you and me in mind that day as he entered Jerusalem to conquer sin and death. Do you know any other rulers who relate to you like that?

As I said, Jesus is a different sort of king. He’s one worth worshiping this Palm Sunday.

I shared these thoughts in this week’s Rock Valley Bee.

The Infant King

I don’t think I’ve ever associated Psalm 2 with Christmas before. It’s the one where God, enthroned in heaven, scoffs at sinful humanity’s futile attempts to dethrone Him.

This time of year we celebrate the arrival of King Jesus, a King greater than the Herod of His day or any other power or authority back then or since. Countless monarchs and empires have come and gone; things I have enthroned in my heart instead of Jesus have crumbled (or will crumble) into the dust. However, as God’s Son, one with Father, Jesus’ Kingship is secure. He is the ultimate fulfillment of the promise God makes in Psalm 2 to install His King on earth.

King graphic found at rescuehousechurch.org

A poem I read this week in a book of Advent meditations reminds me of all this. Attributed to Daithi Mac Iomaire, it’s simply titled “The Infant King.” It leads me to worship the newborn King – the true King of kings and Lord of lords – this Christmas season.

And in the corridors of power
and in the palaces of hate,
the despot and his lords conspire
this holy threat to liquidate;
yet all the kings that e’re there were
and all the princes of this earth
with all their wealth beyond compare
could not eclipse this infant’s birth.
A million monarchs since have reigned,
but vanquished now their empires vain;
two thousand years, and still we bring
our tributes to the Infant King.

God in the desert

It strikes me how many Bible stories take place in a desert. I talked about this a few weeks ago in a message I gave at Trinity CRC, observing that it makes sense for the desert to figure so prominently in Scripture because the two geographical features that continually seem to wrestle for control in the Holy Land are the sea and the desert sand. One Bible dictionary describes how the wind rages across Middle Eastern deserts, “driving plants, animals, and people before it like chaff.” The dictionary entry goes on to say how people believed the desert was a place where only “divine intervention offers deliverance from death.”

Desert photo found with Google.

Long ago, I learned from James Houston how biblical deserts are not only geographic locales but also a symbol of the periods in our lives when we need to be tested and learn the ways of the Lord. These are difficult times. However, it’s in a desert experience – when I feel disoriented and uncertain – that I may best learn to trust God in deeper ways than if everything were fine.

Despite the cards, lights, parties, presents, and general festive cheer, Christmastime can feel like a desert. Loneliness, seasonal affective disorder, family being far away, financial strain, or grief over an absent loved one easily make this a difficult time of the year.

It’s not a typical Christmas text, but the Song of Moses gives me courage when I feel blue this time of year: It reminds me how God never abandons me in my desert experiences. Even “in a desert land” or “in a barren and howling waste,” God finds me, just as He found and led the Israelites in ancient times. He not only finds me (even though that would be enough!), He also shields and cares for me; He guards me “as the apple of His eye.”

Mind you, that doesn’t automatically make the desert a challenge-free place. Moses sings of how God is like the mother eagle who “stirs up her nest” and pushes out her chicks. They need to learn to fly, not always play it safe in the nest. But the mother still “spreads her wings to catch them and carries them aloft” as they struggle and learn. Similarly, followers of Jesus are always being pushed out of the nest, out of our comfort zone somehow or other as the Holy Spirit dares us to dream and risk and redefine impossible as we pursue God’s mission for us. And even when it feels most difficult, God never drops or forgets any of His people.

I dare say one of the reasons God allows me to experience a challenging time, a desert place, is so that I can better experience Him. When I am worn out and dried up, I have nowhere else to turn except to God, the One who shields and cares for me. God leads me in my desert experiences and makes me better despite – or because – of them.

Granted, He doesn’t necessarily promise to entirely remove me from the desert – at least not on this side of the new heavens and new earth. But He does promise to never forsake me or leave me on my own. He didn’t find me in the first place just to give up on or lose me.

With God’s presence and in His strength, even a barren or blue Christmas can become a bit more of a joyous Christmas for me. And if I can share that Good News with someone else, maybe it’ll bring a bit more joy to their Christmas, too.

Rare contentment in an epidemic of affluenza

Celebrating Thanksgiving Day? That’s traditional. Living thankfully year-round? Now that’s counter-cultural!

Our culture encourages you and me to want and grab more and more. It’s practically an economic virtue. Depending on who you ask and what you all include, you’re exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 ads every day whether you’re looking at Snapchat or the logo on your shirt. Combined, all the advertisers in the US spend nearly $200 billion a year to get their products and services in your face. And while each one may offer something unique and even good and useful, together they give the same message: “You will not be content until you buy what we’re selling!”

Advertisers know that, in general, we have a lot of buying power, whether using our savings or racking up credit card debt. More than ever before, they know we have the ability to take them up on their offers. Yet, ironically, never before have people been so discontent. I think it’s crazy the whole phenomenon of Black Friday immediately following (even usurping) Thanksgiving Day. We pause to be thankful for what we have… only hours later to frantically grab for more!

Author Peter Schuurman refers to all this as “affluenza.” He writes: “We are sick. Sick not from some sort of deprivation, but rather from an excess, an overabundance.” In general, we have so much more than we need, but at the same time, our culture trains us to feel like we never have quite enough. To be thankful, to be content is rare in an epidemic of “affluenza.”

I receive the antidote for this sickness from a surprising source: A prison inmate languishing in jail. This inmate’s name is Paul and what he writes to the church in a city called Philippi is just as relevant to the people of Sioux County: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Even in the slammer, Paul experiences more freedom than a lot of people on the outside shackled to their discontent. He has a contentment that gives him joy even in the worst circumstances (like a cruel Roman jail).

What’s the secret? “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Another way you could put it is like this: “I have everything in him who gives me strength.” Paul is so thankful for what Jesus has done for him: He is a forgiven child of God through Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection on the third day. Being blessed like this is better than anything else Paul’s world (or my world) can offer. No matter what happens to him, Paul knows God is with him and for him. That finally gives him contentment.

Contentment will not come from taking advantage of a Black Friday sale. There will always be something new to buy. I’ve learned that contentment comes from allowing the Holy Spirit to nurture within me the reality that Thanksgiving is not simply a day on the calendar but a lifestyle God invites me to experience in Jesus.

Thanksgiving graphic found via Google

I wrote this for this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
Of course, my Canadian readers will have celebrated
Thanksgiving Day back in October!

Grace and mercy

Mercy and grace graphic found via GoogleIf you spend any amount of time around a church, I hope you regularly hear the words grace and mercy. These are two words I often use interchangeably and I sometimes mix up which one means what exactly. Singer Wayne Watson has cleared it up for me in his song simply titled “Grace” from his CD Living Room:

Grace keeps giving me things I don’t deserve.
Mercy keeps withholding things I do.

Grace is free and unmerited favor. It is a gift. I cannot earn it. I do not deserve it.

Some people say they want what they deserve. I know my heart too well to demand that. What I deserve is God’s wrath. The holy God doesn’t have the time of day for the slightest trace of sin, yet I have soiled myself in it. Nothing imperfect or unholy can exist in God’s presence, but through Jesus, God welcomes me into his presence, into his family as his child. God’s mercy withholds what I should have coming to me.

Back in the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther discovered this truth afresh. He grew up believing that he had to earn God’s mercy and grace through acts of love for God and neighbor. As one of my seminary professors, Lyle Bierma, explains it, Luther perceived divine favor “not so much a gift as a reward” for good behavior.

I feel you and I need this history lesson. We might be able to define grace and mercy, but I don’t think we consistently live as though we truly understand them. Our is a “performance-oriented society, dominated by a can-do spirit,” observes Prof. Bierma, and I agree. “We work for good grades in school, earn victories on the football field, compete for awards, receive merit pay at work, and get demerits if we misbehave. In the middle of all this striving and achievement, it is not easy to admit that when it comes to meeting the deepest need of our existence, our restlessness for God, we can do absolutely nothing ourselves. We are totally reliant on outside help.”

Enter mercy and grace: I deserve for God to ignore me, to even punish me because of my sin. Instead, in Christ, I am forgiven and restored. I rest assured in him for today and eternity.

Discovering this does not leave me unchanged. Impacted by God’s mercy and grace, I want my life to overflow with that same mercy and grace. With God’s Spirit encouraging and equipping me, I want my life to be filled with acts of love for God and neighbor – the same thing for which Luther strived. But instead of doing these things to get God’s attention and favor, I do these things in profound gratitude for his mercy and grace. I want to be thankful for his gift.

If you see any gifts from God in your life – a loved one, a job, a skill, even grace itself! – let’s team up and find ways to show him and others how thankful we are for them.

I wrote this article for last week’s Rock Valley Bee
to commemorate Reformation Day today.

In good company on a mission

Clouds picture found via Google

Jesus’ resurrection and ascension are Good News. This is a season in the church calendar for joy: I’m filled with joy that Jesus lives and reigns; I’m filled with joy that sin and death no longer have the last word.

But this is also a season emphasizing mission: As Dale Bruner points Matthew - A Commentary (Vol 2) The Churchbook by Frederick Dale Brunerout in his commentary on Matthew, every appearance Jesus makes to His followers after His resurrection includes a call to mission. The Holy Spirit of the living Lord sends me on a mission to where I work, go out for ice cream, and even travel on vacation.

When this sounds overwhelming to me, I remember I’m in good company with the first followers of Jesus.

Maybe I don’t feel bold enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. Well, I’m in good company then. Jesus first gives His commission to go and tell that He’s alive to a group of women who have been (understandably) frightened by a dazzling angel. He later commissions scared disciples hiding in the dark and sad disciples who will watch Him ascend to heaven. The truth is that Jesus equips and sends fear-filled people to free people from fear of alienation, sin, death, and hell.

Maybe I don’t feel qualified enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. Well, I’m still in good company. Jesus appears to and commissions 11 disciples – an incomplete number following Judas’ tragic death. In the Bible, 12 is a perfect number, not 11. But the truth is that Jesus equips and sends imperfect people to do His perfect work.

Maybe I don’t feel official enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. Guess what? I’m in good company. The Gospels refer to the disciples being commissioned by Jesus – no mention (yet) of specific leaders, church officers, or even the more official title of apostles. It’s simple people known as disciples who Jesus sends on mission. And that is all a Christian should ever want to be – a disciple. So the truth is that Jesus equips and sends ordinary people to do His extraordinary work.

Maybe I don’t feel spiritual enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. By now you’re not surprised to hear I’m in good company. Jesus first commissions a group of doubters. It’s not just Thomas, but a bunch of them who have doubts mixed in with their worship. But Jesus remains patient and forgiving: He does not divide up His disciples into two groups – commissioning those who believe and worship while telling those who fear or doubt to come back later when they have their acts together. No, in the Gospels, all are commissioned, leading me to see how Jesus’ sending power is far greater than His disciples’ faults and failings. The truth remains that Jesus equips and sends unsure and uncertain people to do His sure and certain work.

Maybe I don’t feel authorized enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. Again, I’m in good company with those feelings. I think about how the very first people to be sent on mission by Jesus are women. Today that’s no big deal, but in Jesus’ day, a woman’s testimony did not count in the law courts of the land. Women were not allowed to stand as witnesses. Everyone would’ve said that as women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are poor choices as the very first witnesses and testifiers of Jesus’ resurrection. Yet the women are the first ones commissioned by the angel at the tomb to go and tell. Then they meet Jesus Himself who again confirms they are indeed the ones to go and tell the Good News. Throughout the Gospel, Acts, and the letters, we see women serving and proclaiming the Good News in wonderful ways. Still today the truth is that Jesus equips and sends all His sisters and brothers of all ages and cultures to do His work that enfolds everyone regardless of gender, age, and culture.

Jesus is raised from the dead and now reigns over all. This fills me with joy. It also sends me and all Jesus’ followers on a mission. The command “Go and tell” is for each of us. That’s joy and the mission of this resurrection and ascension season.