718) “I Know Just How You Feel”

   

     God “became flesh and dwelt among us,” says the first chapter of John’s Gospel.  There are two basic reasons why it is so important that know and believe that God did become a human, going through everything, in life and in death, that every human does.  

     First, WE learn about God in a very personal way.  Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father.”  Over the centuries, philosophers have pondered and debated and written about who God is and what God must be like.  The Old Testament prophets had direct experiences with God and tried to communicate to their listeners what God was like, what he demanded of us, and what he offered to us.  But to know what God is like, we look first and foremost at Jesus.  There, in person, we see most clearly who God is and what God has to say to us.  When we pray, we can picture in our mind a young man, a person like ourselves, whose words and actions are recorded for us to read so we can get to know him better.  God is not an impersonal force pulsating through the universe.  God is a personal being who at a particular point in history became a person.

     Second, as the result of God becoming a person, GOD learned what it is like to live the life that we live.  The Bible describes this in Hebrews 4:14-16:  “Let us hold firmly to the faith we profess, for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but Jesus was tempted in every way, just as we are, yet he was without sin.  Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and grace to help us in our time of need.”

     Sometimes it is hard to know just what to say in a given situation.  I have heard some people say that they do not like going to funerals because they don’t know what to say to those who are grieving.  You don’t have to say much at all, really, because just being there says a lot.  Actually, it might be better to say nothing than to say the wrong thing.  One thing that I try not to say is, “I know just how you feel.”  Well, I usually don’t know just how they feel.  How can I know what it is like to lose your spouse after 55 years of marriage?  How could I possibly know what it’s like to have to go into a care center after a lifetime of being independent?  And I don’t know what it is like to lose a child, face life threatening surgery, or be confined to a hospital bed for a month.  I’ve never been through any of that, so I don’t know how it feels.  There are other things I can say, but I can’t truthfully say “I know just how you feel” in many situations.

     However, when a widow who just lost her husband a few months ago, comes over to the home of a friend who just lost her husband that very day, and says, “I know just how you feel,” that is all she needs to say.  The lady whose husband just died knows that they do indeed share a common sorrow, do understand each other, and can indeed bear one another’s burden in a special and unique way.

     In the same way, says the book of Hebrews, when we pray to Jesus, we can know that he knows just how we feel, for he too lived a life like we are living.  He also went through the difficulties of growing up; he also grieved the death of friends and family; he also faced betrayal and desertion by friends; he also struggled with temptation and disappointment and failure.  Jesus also endured excruciating pain and death; he even faced despair and times when he felt completely alone, abandoned even by God in heaven, as when he prayed from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  When we are in pain or sorrow or grief, it helps to have a friend there who can truly say to us, “I know just how you feel.”  We have such a friend in Jesus, because he was here and lived a life like us, and even faced the death we must all face.  As we sing in the old hymn: What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear; what a privilege to carry, everything to him in prayer.

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What a Friend We Have in Jesus to the tune of Folsom Prison Blues.  Nice!:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2b1XxaRmmQ

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John 1:1, 14a  —  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

John 14:8-10a  —  Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”  Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?  Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?”

Hebrews 4:14-16  —  Let us hold firmly to the faith we profess, for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but Jesus was tempted in every way, just as we are, yet he was without sin.  Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and grace to help us in our time of need.

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Jesus, Still Lead On by Nicholas Zinzendorf  (1700-1760):

Jesus still lead on
Till our rest be won;
And although the way be cheerless,
We will follow calm and fearless;
Guide us by your hand
To our fatherland…

When we seek relief
From a long felt grief,
When temptations come alluring,
Make us patient and enduring;
Show us that bright shore
Where we weep no more.

Jesus, still lead on
Till our rest be won;
Heavenly leader, still direct us,
Still support, console, protect us,
Till we safely stand
In our fatherland.

717) Palm Sunday, 150 Years Ago

     

     Linclon in Richmond

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     On April 9, 1865 Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union forces General Ulysses S. Grant, thus ending the Civil War and the most terrible four years of American history.  It was Palm Sunday, 150 years ago.

     Earlier that week, Monday, April 3rd, Union Forces entered the city Richmond, Virginia, the capitol of the South.  Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the rest of the Southern leadership had fled the city, all the soldiers had either moved out or were captured, and Richmond was securely in the control of the occupying Union forces.  President Abraham Lincoln had been in the area for several days already, visiting the army.  Now, with the city in Union hands, Lincoln said he wanted to go into Richmond.

     Tuesday morning, April 4th, a small contingent of soldiers brought Lincoln down the James River, and the President entered the city.  He began walking the streets without fanfare.  Then he was recognized.  Several black workers, now freed from slavery, ran out to meet him.  Then some black women, also enjoying their first day of freedom, ran out to join the procession.  Soon, many other freed slaves joined them, all shouting, “Glory Hallelujah, Massa Lincoln, Glory Hallelujah.”  

     Some of the former slaves began to kneel before Lincoln in humble praise and gratitude.  At this, Lincoln paused and motioned for them to rise.  He said, “Don’t kneel to me.  You must kneel only to God and thank him for your freedom.  Liberty is your birthright.  God gave it to you as he gave it to others, and it is a sin that you have been deprived of it for so many years.”  The triumphant procession continued through the city.  It was a great day of joy and vindication for Abraham Lincoln.  The previous four years were filled with heartache and frustration and death and grief, as Lincoln led the nation during the four year war to preserve the union and to end slavery.  This was a great day of freedom and victory for this man who endured so much agony.  Five days later, was the final surrender of Lee to Grant at Appomattox.  Five days after that, President Lincoln was assassinated.

     Our Palm Sunday worship services remember the story of another triumphant procession.  Jesus, the great preacher and healer who had been ministering throughout the countryside, was coming into the big city of Jerusalem.  Jesus, the friend of the poor, the lover of sinners, the miracle worker, the wise, but controversial teacher; this Jesus was coming to the capitol city.  He was received like a king, with robes and palm branches spread on the path before him so not even the feet of his donkey had to touch the ground.  And everyone was praising him and shouting “Hallelujah!”  Five days later, Jesus was killed, and all his followers were plunged into despair.  

     On Easter Sunday Jesus rose from the dead, and that meant our freedom from our bondage to sin and death.  That resurrection meant new life for all who believe in Jesus, now and forever.  

     The story of Abraham Lincoln in April of 1865 is an incredible story and his leadership, suffering, sacrifice, and death; and it meant freedom for four million slaves.   But the life and death and resurrection of Jesus means the offer of freedom from sin and death for everyone who ever lived.  We must never allow the familiarity of this story blind us to its glory and wonder and eternal significance.

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John 12:12-15  —  The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem.  They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!”  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  “Blessed is the king of Israel!”  Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:  “Do not be afraid, Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”

Zambian artist Emmanuel Nsama depicts the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. More Palm Sunday resources at Sacraparental.com

Triumphal Entry, 1969, Zambian artist Emmanuel Nsama

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Almighty God, on this day, your son Jesus Christ entered the holy city of Jerusalem and was proclaimed King by those who spread garments and palm branches along his way.  Let those branches be for us signs of his victory, and grant that we who bear them in his name may ever hail him as our Lord, and follow him in the way that leads to eternal life.  In his name we pray.  Amen.

716) Set Your Hearts on Things Above (b)

     (…continued)  Nothing can transform our whole way of thinking about everything more than the resurrection of Jesus, where death was turned into life.  Death, that inevitable and final obliteration, was transformed from the end of everything into a new beginning.  “Set your hearts on things above,” says Paul, and then, “When Christ, who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”  Set your minds on that resurrection from the dead, it says, and keep that in mind.  Then, you need not be desperate to get it all, have it all, or experience it all here in this little world and this short life.  There’s more to come.  We will rise to live again.

     Have you seen those books like 100 Things to Do Before You Die, or, 100 Places to See Before You Die?  There is even one that lists 1000 Places to See Before You Die.  Those books must be for people whose ‘to-do list’ isn’t already long enough.  I sure don’t need a thousand more things on my to-do list.  There always seemed to me to be a certain desperation in the ‘before you die’ part of those titles.  It is as if you have to hurry up and get that all done really fast, because after you die it will be too late to enjoy anything.  But that’s not at all how a believer in Jesus would look at this, not if Christ’s resurrection promise has had any impact on them.  “Set your mind on things above.”  There are far better things promised than anything you can find in any of those books, even lists of the 1000 most fun things and interesting things to see and do all over this world.   The Bible says that glories beyond imagining await us in that heavenly home.  Do you believe that?  Is that your hope?  After all, it was God who created this wonderful little world that we call home for a little while.  Do you think his vast heavenly kingdom, his own home, will be any less wonderful?

     Having the proper perspective on life is always important.  The Gospel gives us a much larger perspective than would otherwise be imaginable, but life itself forces upon us a realistic perspective.  The ancient Romans knew that.  For centuries, the army of the Roman Empire was the most powerful military force on earth.  They conquered, and held for many centuries, all of Europe, much of Northern Africa, and lands well into western Asia.  Their generals were the best in the world, won great victories, and had tremendous power and prestige.  These generals would be honored with great victory parades, receiving respect and praise like few human beings would ever know.

      Sometimes when on parade, to keep them humble, these great and powerful generals would have a slave riding with them in the chariot whose job was to keep whispering into the ear of the general the Latin phrase, ‘memento mori, memento mori…,” translated, “Remember that you are mortal, remember that you will die.”  Amidst the loud clamor of such great honors and praise, this word of reality and truth, spoken to them again and again, gave them the necessary perspective to keep them from getting too proud or overconfident.   That is a good perspective for everyone to keep in mind, and if remembered, would be a reminder to keep looking to Jesus.

     And then, reminded of Jesus, and with the promise of Easter in our mind, we can imagine a different kind of ‘whisperer’ in our ear.  When we are discouraged and see no way out, or in despair and see no hope, or ill and see little chance of ever feeling better again, or dying with no chance of recovery, we can in times like that imagine Jesus beside us, whispering in our ear not ‘remember that you will die,’ but rather, the Easter promise, “Remember that you will live…  Remember, that you will live.”

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I Corinthians 2:9  —  As it is written:  “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”— the things God has prepared for those who love him.”

Revelation 21:3-5a  —  I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look!  God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

Philippians 1:21-24  —  For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.  If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me . Yet what shall I choose?  I do not know!  I am torn between the two:  I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

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May God give us light to guide us, courage to support us, and love to unite us, now and forever.  Amen.

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715) Set Your Hearts on Things Above (a)

 German POW in Russia, 1945

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     It was 1945 in Moscow.  World War II was finally over, and the German prisoners of war had just been released.  Russian soldiers were marching them through the streets to the Moscow train station.  There they would be loaded into box cars and taken back to Germany.

     The people of the city of Moscow lined the streets, and they were angry.  They were filled with an intense hatred that could in a moment erupt into violence.  Hitler’s decision to double-cross Stalin and invade Russia devastated that nation.  Forty million Russian soldiers and civilians died in World War II.  That is almost 100 times the number of Americans that died in the war.  Every family in Moscow lost someone, many families lost several loved ones.  And these German soldiers caused the death and destruction.

     The first German soldiers to go by were the officers.  They were a proud and arrogant group.  They had buttoned their uniform jackets to the top and marched proudly in line as if they were on parade before their own generals.  They did everything they could to give the impression that prison had not broken their spirits.  They wanted people to know that they were not defeated and had no regrets.  Some walked by with smirks on their faces and they looked defiantly into the angry crowd.  The crowd was livid, and was shouting, spitting, and pushing their way forward.  The police had all they could do to stop a riot from breaking out.

     Then, the crowd quieted down a bit, and soon they were silent.  The officers were past, and now it was the enlisted men that were going by.  These were the foot soldiers.  They had apparently been kept in a different part of the prison, because they weren’t buttoned up and marching proudly.  They were just barely moving along.  They were in rags, and looked starved, sick, beaten.  Some looked near death.  Nobody felt like shouting at them or spitting on them.

     A Russian woman quietly walked past the police and gave one of the soldiers a piece of bread.  A few others did the same.  All remained quiet.  Suddenly, those men weren’t the enemy anymore, but they were someone’s loved ones:  someone’s little boy, far away from home, sick and dying; someone’s big brother who they hadn’t heard from for a while; someone’s husband who was feared dead; someone’s fiancé; someone’s daddy.  Many of those Moscow Russians had no doubt seen their own boys come home from the front looking ragged and sick and beaten just like those German boys, and they had pity on them.

     The whole crowd changed from hatred to pity in a matter of minutes; and the change came from looking at other people in a different way, from gaining an entirely different perspective.

     Jesus is always teaching us to look at people, and all of life, from a different perspective.  Do you remember what Jesus had to say about enemies?  Jesus said, “You have heard that you should love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I tell you love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you…  If all you do is love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Even the pagans can do that much.”  Jesus calls on us to look at other people in a different way.  In fact, Jesus calls on us to look at everything in new and different ways.

     This other way of looking at things is made possible by Christ’s resurrection from the dead.  In the third chapter of Colossians Paul says, “Since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God;” and not only your hearts, but also, “Set your minds on things above, and not on earthly things.”  Set your hearts– your emotional life; and you minds– your thinking and reasoning, on things above.  Above what?  Above the earth, so that you are able to see things as God above would see them.  Then we may understand and approach everything not only from within the limits of this life, but in light of eternity, because we, like Christ, will be raised.  That changes everything.  Those German soldiers were not only the enemy, but they also were children of God; children badly misled, and guilty of the most terrible things, but still his children and able to receive his forgiveness.  God is the heavenly Father of both Russians and Germans.  Everyone you meet, friend or enemy, is a child of God with eternal dignity and worth.

     The New Testament doesn’t allow the resurrection to be nothing more than a private hope.  It reminds us that the eternal value that God has given to you is no more or less than he has given to anyone else.  And so God tells you to set your hearts and your minds on things above, seeing everything and everyone from that larger perspective.  (continued…)

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Matthew 5:43-44  —   (Jesus said), “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Colossians 3:1-2  —  Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Philippians 2:1-4  —  Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

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Grant, O Lord, that we may keep a constant guard on our thoughts and emotions, that they may never lead us into sin; and that we may live in perfect love with all people– in affection to those who love us, and in forgiveness to those who hate us.  Give us good and virtuous friends.  In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

–Warren Hastings  (1732-1818)

714) Why Doesn’t God Do Something? (b)

     From McGovern to Obama - feat. image

     (…continued)  Years later, George McGovern became a world famous U. S. politician, even running for president in 1972.  One time, he was invited to speak somewhere in Austria at a World War II Anniversary event.  He told that story as an example of all the suffering that war brings to civilians, even those far from the front.  Afterwards, an excited, elderly Austrian couple came up to talk to him.  They said, “It was our farm that you hit that day with your bomb.  We were out in the field, so you can stop worrying about it, no one was hurt.”

     McGovern began to apologize, but the old man stopped him, saying, “We did not understand why that big American plane would fly all the way over to Austria just to bomb our little farm, but we were not mad at you.  I said to my wife, ‘If in some way bombing our little farm will help defeat that devil Hitler, than hooray for the Americans.’”

     Until that day, nobody on earth knew the full story of what happened that day the bomb dropped.  Those in the air knew why the bomb was dropped there, but had no idea if the people on the ground lived or died, and if they did live, what they thought of the bombing.  Those on the ground did live, but they had no idea that the destruction of their little farm was an accident.

     All involved were forced to put their own interpretation on the event.  Less honorable airmen, hardened by the destruction of war, might not have been concerned about those on the ground, and might have even laughed at the coincidence of such a direct hit.  But McGovern and his crew did not laugh.  They were saddened by the destruction, even though it was unintentional.  And though they hoped that those who lived on that farm would have survived, they were quite sure the farmers would have been cursing those who bombed them for no apparent reason.  But they were wrong about that.  The farmers were so eager for an American victory that they were willing to give the American fighters every benefit of the doubt.

     On the ground, the Austrian family had no way of knowing the reason for the attack on their home.  They wrongly assumed it was an intentional direct hit, and they thought it must have had something to do with defeating Hitler.  But even though they did not understand it, they had no ill will.  Terrible as it was to lose all their buildings, they chose to see their personal loss in the context of the wider conflict and larger purpose of the whole war.  And they were more than happy to make their sacrifice.

     We are a bit like the Austrian couple that suffered a great loss for no apparent reason.  There are many things that we too must suffer, and we may not see any purpose in such suffering.  But we must admit that our vision is limited.  God is a big God and his creation is a big creation, and we are just a small part of it.  Those unfortunate farmers could have chosen to look only at the loss of their farm and the hardship that meant for them, and would have been angry and bitter about their loss.  But they chose to accept their loss as just one part of a bigger plan or purpose that they did not understand.  In so doing, they were content to endure the loss, and go on living without a full explanation.

     We all choose to view the world in a certain way.  We can choose to see everything that happens only through the lens of how it affects me and what I want to do.  Or, we can choose to see everything in the light of what happened to Jesus during this Holy Week.  The Bible says that just as Jesus suffered, we too will suffer; but the Bible also says that just as Jesus rose from the dead to live for all eternity, we too, believing in Jesus, will rise from the dead to live with him in heaven forever.  That larger vision gives us a new way to understand everything that happens to us.  We can, for the time being, be like that cheerful Austrian farm couple, living and trusting in that larger purpose and vision, even when we don’t understand all the details.  Jesus once said, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”  That is what Jesus did for us that first Holy Week, and even though we cannot yet comprehend all that means, we can believe Jesus when he tells us that this is what we need most of all.

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Whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want.  

–C. S. Lewis, The Problem if Pain

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Romans 8:28  —  We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

II Corinthians 1:2-5  —  Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.  For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.

Psalm 121:1-2  —  I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lordthe Maker of heaven and earth.

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Lift up our hearts, O Christ, above the false show of things, above fear, above laziness, above selfishness and covetousness, above custom and fashion; up to everlasting truth and order; that we may live joyfully and freely, in faithful trust that you are our Savior, our example, and our friend, both now and forevermore.  Amen.

–Charles Kingsley, English clergyman, novelist, and social reformer  (1819-1875)

713) Why Doesn’t God Do Something? (a)

     If God is all-loving and also all-powerful, why doesn’t He do something about all the troubles in the world and in my own life?  This has been one of the most troubling questions throughout the ages for theologians, philosophers, and just about everyone else.

     Sunday we begin Holy Week, the week that Jesus Christ died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins.  And what we see there, in that story, is God ‘doing something.’  We do wonder how God is active in our world.   In this story we see God, in Jesus, doing his most important work in all of history; and we may remain unmoved by it.  In our limited vision, we might be disappointed.  We want a God who will do what we want him to do:  make me well, improve the economy, bring peace into the world and into my own personal life, keep me healthy, make my business succeed, get my loved one to quit drinking, help me get that job, etc.  That’s what we want.  But in the Gospels it seems as if all God wants to do is come to earth and die on the cross to save me from my sins.  “That’s maybe nice,” someone will say, “but it is not what I need right now.”  You may not put it just that way, but that kind of attitude is behind a lot of our questions about what God is doing and not doing in our world.

     Yet, the Bible focuses our attention on this Holy Week when God did act in His most important way.  The Bible tells us that in this coming of Jesus, and in his life and death and resurrection, is the answer to our every question, and the place where all our needs are met, now, or in eternity.  In Christ Jesus our Savior, says the Bible, is everything we are looking for, whether we know it yet or not.  Our problem is not that God has failed to act; it is that God does not do what I want him to do.  Faith, however, believes that what God has done in Christ is, in the long run, what will matter the most.

     Former South Dakota Senator George McGovern was a World War II pilot.  He flew a B-24 on thirty-five bombing missions over Germany.  There were few jobs in the war that were more dangerous than being on the crew of these flights.  Even if they were not shot down by enemy fighter planes or anti-aircraft fire from the ground, as so many were, they had to deal with frequent mechanical problems.

     On one flight, a bomb failed to drop and was stuck in the open chute.  If they landed the plane with the bomb in that position, the bomb would explode and kill them all.  They could abandon the plane, but that would mean losing a much needed plane.  In order to save their lives and the plane, one of the crew members crawled into the open hatch and worked to free the bomb.  Finally, he was successful, and the bomb dropped through the air, down to the open Austrian countryside.  The crew was overjoyed; that is, until they looked down to see the bomb falling right toward a peaceful little Austrian farm.  They could do nothing but watch as the bomb made a direct hit, destroying everything, house, barn, outhouse, and all.  They could only hope that no one was home at the time.  The destruction of that little home was not their intention, but they felt terrible.  (continued…) 

George McGovern's bomber crew

George McGovern (center front) and his crew

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Psalm 13:1  —  How long, Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?

Habakkuk 1:2  —  How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?  Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?

II Corinthians 5:19  —  God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them.

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PSALM 31:1-2, 5:

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame;
    deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me,
    come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
    a strong fortress to save me…
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
    deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.

712) Peace and Justice and Pontius Pilate (b)

 Image result for peace images

     (…continued)  I have been going to church conventions for over 30 years, and have heard many debates on resolutions in which well-meaning Lutherans have supported various causes in the name of peace and justice.  Some have wanted to support unjust regimes because at least they kept the peace, and some have wanted to support violent revolutions to bring about justice.  South Africa, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Nicaragua, Panama, Rwanda, Somalia, Syria, Lybia, Bosnia, Sudan, Cuba, and more; in every one of those situations, it was of little help to just be in favor of peace and justice.  It often has to be one or the other for a while, and hard choices must be made.  Those not responsible for the choice can make signs or write newspaper columns, and criticize.  If the peace is being maintained, they can complain about the absence of justice.  If force is used to attain justice they can complain about no peace.

     Sometimes, those on the conservative end of the spectrum will try to keep the peace, even when that means allowing great injustices.  Sometimes, those on the liberal end of the spectrum will advocate violence in the pursuit of a more just society.  And sometimes, it is the other way around.  It is a messy world, and good, faithful, Bible-believing Christians can honestly disagree on what messy methods should be used to achieve greater peace and justice.  And mistakes are often made by well-meaning people.

     As a nation, it is sometimes necessary and helpful to enter into these conflicts, and sometimes it is not.  As individual citizens, Christians have a duty to be informed voters, and may even, as politicians, enter the debate and promote one course of action or another.  But it is usually best for the church to stay out of these things most of the time; perhaps not every time, but certainly most of the time.

     The church has something more important to be concerned about, and Jesus himself points this out in his words to Pilate in John 18.  “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate had asked, and Jesus said did not say that he wasn’t.  But he he did say, “My kingdom is not of this world; my kingdom is from another place.”  Jesus did not align himself with the establishment which was trying to keep the peace, nor did he align himself with the revolutionary zealots who by violence wanted to create a more just society.  He had more important matters, eternal matters, on his mind.  In getting too closely aligned with the kingdoms of this world, the church stands to lose focus, credibility, and clear purpose. 

     Then Jesus told Pilate exactly what he is here for, and therefore, what the church should also be about.  Jesus said, “I am here to testify to the truth, and everyone who listens to me is on the side of the truth.”  What Jesus meant by truth was much bigger than political truth, much bigger than peace and justice issues.  He had already said that his kingdom was not of this world, and throughout his ministry he was always pointing to his heavenly Father, to that eternal kingdom, and to himself as the one who can offer the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  Jesus was always calling on us to believe in him, and to believe that what he said was true.  “I am here,” he said, “to testify to the truth.”

     This is what we must remember about Jesus.  Believing in Jesus is, most of all, a matter of truth.  Faith is not a matter of what works, what is good for society, or what most effectively brings peace and justice.  The test of faith is not if it guarantees happiness, fulfillment, peace, prosperity, or whatever else, no matter how desirable.  Those are all agendas of our own that we place on Jesus.  And while some of those things might come along as a part of what it means to believe Jesus, believing in Jesus is primarily a matter of truth.

     Jesus was always concerned about truth, but he was not always concerned about peace.  One time, in fact, he made it clear that he came not to bring peace, but division (Luke 12:51).  And the message of Jesus was not so much about justice as it was about grace.  Remember the parable of the wage-earners?  Those that started at the end of the day got paid the same as those who started first thing in the morning.  That wasn’t ‘justice.’  That was grace.  Some received even more than what was just (Matthew 20:1-16).  It is by grace that we are saved, not by getting what we justly deserve.  And we can all be grateful for that.

     Questions of whether or not Christianity works will get one into all kinds of side issues, from the problem of suffering, to the errors and shortcomings and divisions of the church, to the negative witness of so many Christians, to the divisive debates at church conventions about what political course to follow, to debates on science and Christianity and what should be taught in schools, and on and on.  All of these things raise important questions and need to be discussed.

     But as we do so, we must always stayed focused on the main point, and that is the truth of who Jesus was and still is.   The truth of Christianity all depends on Jesus, and we must remember that Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if it is true, it is of infinite, eternal importance.  That is regardless of whether it seems to be working or not working in any given situation or individual.

     There are many in this world who despise Jesus, but who seem to do very well.  There are others who believe in Jesus and are persecuted to the point of being tortured and even losing their lives.  To some, it might look like believing in Jesus doesn’t work.  But we don’t believe in Jesus because it works for us in this brief moment of time here on earth.  We believe in Jesus because in Him is the truth, the truth and the life that lasts for all eternity.

     “My Kingdom,“ Jesus told Pilate, “is not of this world.”

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John 18:36  —   Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders.  But now my kingdom is from another place.”

John 18:37b  —  (Jesus said), “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.  Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

John 18:38a  —  “What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

John 14:6  —   Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

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Lord Jesus, give us the grace to follow you, the Way, to learn from you, the Truth, and to live in you, the Life.  

–Erasmus

711) Peace and Justice and Pontius Pilate (a)

     Many Christians place a great emphasis on ‘Peace and Justice’ issues.  There are many churches in which you will hear more about peace and justice than about Jesus Christ.  To be concerned about these issues is certainly implied in the teachings of our Lord, who was called the ‘Prince of Peace,’ and who proclaimed the truth that all are people are equal in the eyes of God and deserving of justice.  But such concern about peace and justice has led many churches more and more into partisan politics, leaving less and less emphasis on the eternal salvation of souls.  A balance is needed.  But there is always the danger of that balance being lost, and the primary message of the church being ignored or distorted.

     Among those who demand for peace and justice, there are always those who forget the hard truth that sometimes in this wicked world you cannot have both.  For example, the American South in the pre-Civil War days was a peaceful place for wealthy plantation owners.  They lived a life of ease and comfort, and could build up incredible wealth without any labor on their part.  But there was no justice in the South in those days for the eight million Negroes by whose slave labor those plantation owners gained their wealth and their peace.  And there was no justice possible without a considerable disturbing of the peace for four long and bloody years.  Abraham Lincoln would have preferred to always maintain peace and justice, but in the very first days of his presidency, he was forced to make the choice to pursue one or the other.

     The Roman empire prided itself on the peace and justice it brought to its conquered nations. Of course, they had no qualms about making war in the first place to conquer the territory, and no qualms about using armies to enforce the peace. But when at its best, the Romans did try to rule with justice and, at the same time, keep the peace.

     That was what Pontius Pilate had hoped for in the ordeal of a Jewish wandering preacher that was brought before him one morning in the fourth year of his reign as governor in Palestine.  Peace and justice were always his goals, noble Roman that he was, and that would have been his agenda for dealing with Jesus.  He would ask him a few questions, determine his guilt or innocence, declare his verdict, and then either sentence him or set him free.  Pilate was not a soft-hearted man.  He did not care about these people.  But he was a proud Roman, and the Roman ideal was to be just and fair.

     However, Pilate that morning would be confronted with the same awful choice that Lincoln faced, that of having to choose one or the other, peace or justice.  It is not a simple world we live in.  It is easy to be for peace, and we are all in favor of justice and fairness for all.  But what do you do when you are forced to choose one or the other?

     Pilate at first seemed irritated with the chief priests for bothering him with this matter.  “Take him for yourselves and judge him by your own law,” Pilate told them.  “But we have no right to execute anyone,” they said.  So, reluctantly, Pilate began the cross-examination:  “Are you the king of the Jews?…  Do you refuse to speak to me?…  What is it you have done?…  Where did you come from?…  What is truth?”  Then, satisfied that Jesus was not a threat, Pilate said, “I find no basis for any charge against him.”  There is Roman justice at its best– a judgement in favor of the little guy.  Pilate has to deal with the religious authorities on a regular basis, and so he would have had a good reason to please them and just give in to their request.  But Pilate took a stand against them, and declared innocent a poor man who can do him no favors.

     But then came the threat to the peace.  First, the religious leaders put the pressure on.  “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar, because anyone who claims to be king opposes Caesar.”  Jesus had told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world, and Pilate was at first satisfied with that answer.  But the threat of trouble with Caesar was a frightening prospect, and so Pilate began to reconsider the verdict.  Then the crowd started shouting, “Crucify him, crucify him,” and there was the beginning of an uproar.  A riot would mean a bad report to Caesar, and that would not be good for Pilate.  That might be too much trouble to risk for the sake of some little religious fanatic.  So there’s the conflict between justice and peace.  Pilate knows what is just, and, he knows what it will take to keep the peace; and he decides to keep the peace.  But he does so with an uneasy conscience.  He has a wash-basin brought to him before the crowd and symbolically washes his hands of the whole thing, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”  Everybody wants peace and justice.  Pilate found out that you cannot always have both.  (continued…)

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Luke 23:13-15  —  Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion.  I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him.  Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death.”

Luke 23:23-24  —  But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed.  So Pilate decided to grant their demand.

Matthew 27:24  —  When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd.  “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said.  “It is your responsibility!”

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PRAYER FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE IN OUR COMMUNITIES:

Gracious God,
We pray for peace in our communities this day.
We commit to you all who work for peace and an end to tensions,
And those who work to uphold law and justice.
We pray for an end to fear,
For comfort and support to those who suffer.
For calm in our streets and cities,
That people may go about their lives in safety and peace.
In your mercy, hear our prayers, now and always. Amen.

—www.churchofengland.org

710) Wisdom from Thomas a Kempis

Quotes from The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis  (1380?-1471); thought to be the most widely read Christian devotional book in history.  No book of any kind, besides the Bible, has been translated into more languages.

    You have here no lasting home (Hebrews 13:14); and wherever you may be, you are a stranger and a pilgrim (Hebrews 11:13).  You shall have no rest until you are wholly united with Christ.  Why do you look about here for your comfort and peace, when this is not the place of your rest?  Dwell rather upon heaven and give but a passing glance to all earthly things.  All things are passing away, and you together with them.  Take care, then, that you do not cling to them lest you be entrapped and perish.  Fix your mind on the Most High, and pray to Christ.
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    If you meditate on the suffering of Christ, you will find great comfort in your own suffering; and you will mind but little the scorn of men, and you will easily bear their slanderous talk.  For Christ also was in the world, and He was despised by men.  In the hour of need He was forsaken by his friends and left to the depths of scorn.  He was willing to suffer and to be despised; do you dare to complain of anything?  Christ had enemies and slanderers; do you think everyone should be your friend and benefactor?  How can your patience be rewarded if no adversity ever tests it?  How can you be a friend of Christ if you are not willing to suffer any hardship?  Suffer with Christ and for Christ if you wish to reign with Him.
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    Do not place much confidence in weak and mortal men (Jeremiah 17:5), helpful and friendly though they be.  And do not grieve too much if they sometimes oppose and contradict you.  Those who are with us today may be against us tomorrow, and often again they turn around, like the wind.  Place all your trust in God (I Peter 5:7); let Him be your fear and your love.
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    Be not troubled about those who are with you or against you, but take care that God be with you in everything you do (Romans 8:31; I Cor. 4:3).  Keep your conscience clear and God will protect you (Psalm 28:7), for the malice of man cannot harm one whom God wishes to help.  If you know how to suffer in silence, you will undoubtedly experience God’s help.  He knows when and how to deliver you; therefore, place yourself in His hands.  It belongs to God to help and to deliver from all distress and confusion.
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    First keep peace with yourself; then you will be able to bring peace to others.  A peaceful man does more good than a learned man.  Whereas a turbulent man turns even good to evil and is quick to believe evil, the peaceful man, being good himself, turns all things to good…  The disturbed and discontented spirit is upset by many things.  He neither rests himself nor permits others to do so.  He often says what ought not to be said and leaves undone what ought to be done.  He is concerned with the duties of others (Matthew 7:3), but neglects his own.  Direct your zeal, therefore, first upon yourself; then you may with justice exercise it upon those about you.  You are skilled at coloring your own actions with excuses, but you are not willing to receive the excuses of others.  If you wish men to bear with you, you must bear with them…
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    It is no great thing to be able to associate with the good and gentle, for such association is naturally pleasing.  Everyone enjoys a peaceful life and loves best those who agree with him.  But to be able to live at peace with harsh and perverse people, or with the undisciplined and those who irritate us, is a great grace, and an exceedingly commendable deed.
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    All our peace in this miserable life is found in humbly enduring suffering rather than in being free from it (for we will suffer).  He who knows best how to suffer will enjoy the greater peace, because he is the conqueror of himself, the master of the world, a friend of Christ, and an heir of heaven.
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John 16:33  —  (Jesus said), “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.”
 
Romans 8:31  —  What, then, shall we say in response to this?  If God is for us, who can be against us?
 
Matthew 7:3  —  (Jesus said), “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
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Help us against our own negligence and cowardice, and defend us from the treachery of our unfaithful hearts.
    Give us, O Lord, steadfast hearts that cannot be dragged down by false loves;
give us courageous hearts that cannot be worn down by trouble;
give us righteous hearts that cannot be sidetracked by unholy or unworthy goals.
Give to us also, our Lord and God, understanding to know You,
diligence to look for you,
wisdom to recognize You,
and a faithfulness that will bring us to see You face to face.  Amen.
–Thomas a Kempis

709) You Don’t Need a ‘Bucket List’

From Randy Alcorn’s March 4, 2015 blog at:  http://www.epm.org

     The term “bucket list” was popularized by the 2007 movie of that name.  It’s an inventory of things people want to do before they “kick the bucket.”  The idea is, since our time on earth is limited, if something is important for us to do, we have to do it now, because this is our only chance to do it.

     This makes sense from a naturalistic worldview, one which doesn’t recognize any afterlife.  It also makes sense from various religious worldviews that maintain there may be existence after death, but without resurrection and physical properties, and with no continuity between this life and the next.  The one worldview in which the bucket list makes no sense is biblical Christianity.

     Don’t misunderstand. My wife and I enjoy life—going new places and doing new things.  I don’t believe this is wrong, nor is it wrong to list things you’d like to do if God gives you the resources and strength.  But the “bucket list” mentality, that this life is our only chance to ever enjoy adventure and fun, is profoundly unbiblical.  It disregards the teaching of the resurrection:

  • But your dead will live; their bodies will rise.  You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy… The earth will give birth to her dead. (Isaiah 26:19)
  • Many of those whose bodies lie dead and buried will rise up, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting disgrace.  (Daniel 12:2)
  • We will be changed.  For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. (1 Corinthians 15:52-53)
  • The Lord Jesus Christ… will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.  (Philippians 3:20-21)

     Despite the centrality of the resurrection in Scripture and church history, many Christians have never been clearly taught its meaning, so they imagine they will live forever in a disembodied state.  A sincere believer once told me, “I hate to admit this, but I don’t look forward to Heaven.  I wish I could live with Jesus on this earth.  I want all sin and suffering and death to be gone, but I still want to enjoy the beauty of God’s earth.”

     This man loved Jesus, but did not want leave this world and become a ghost or an angel.

     As much as he loved Jesus, the Heaven he’d heard about seemed terribly boring and tedious.  He’d heard that he should live now in light of eternity, but he thought eternity would mean the end of his opportunity to enjoy music and literature and adventure and travel and learning and discovery.  So God would understand, he hoped, if he spent his time and money on his bucket list.  After all, now was his only chance to experience happiness.

     Ironically, what he wished for is exactly what the Bible promises!  We will live with Jesus in these bodies made new, and in a creation made new, without sin and suffering.  Once he knew the true biblical story, the unfolding drama of redemption culminating in the resurrection of our bodies and our universe, he could at last realize there was no need for the bucket list.

     For the Christian, death is not the end of adventure, but our exit from a world where dreams and adventures shrink, and entrance into a world where dreams and adventures forever expand.

     That’s why my wife and I like to talk about our post-bucket lists, consisting of all the things we look forward to doing after we die, and in particular, after the resurrection.  We’re told there will be not only a New Earth, but a New Heavens (Revelation 21:1), the celestial heavens made new, presumably with new galaxies and stars and planets scattered across the New Universe.  Remembering the Andromeda Galaxy I first marveled at through my telescope before coming to faith in Christ, I would love to journey there, to the New Andromeda Galaxy, to the praise and glory of King Jesus.

     My wife’s post-bucket list includes her dream to spend a lot of time by a lake, playing with dogs.  Joni Eareckson Tada, once freed from her wheelchair, says she wants to run through flowered meadows.  Since we’re told we will have physical resurrection bodies and we’ll be living on a physical earth, why not?

     The Bible doesn’t specifically tell us about dogs on the New Earth, but it tells us about other animals (Isaiah 65:17, 25) so why shouldn’t we expect dogs?  It tells us we will eat and drink (requiring food and liquid), and walk and talk, so why not run through meadows?  Or are you expecting an earth without grass and flowers?

     Perhaps an alarm is going off—“but that’s unspiritual—we should only want to be with Jesus.”  Well, Jesus is right at the top of both of our post-bucket lists!  Would the same God who says we should eat and drink to His glory (1 Corinthians 10:31) be offended if we want to play with His animals for His glory and travel to the stars for His glory?

     Of course, some of what’s on our post-bucket list may not be exactly as we envision it, but we know this for sure:  God has revealed that we will be real people with real bodies living on a real earth with other real people and the real King of Kings— so anything there will be far more than we imagine, not less.

     I think God is honored when we let the imaginations He gave us soar as we move our eyes beyond this present fallen world, to anticipate the risen one— holy and happy beyond all comprehension— that the Carpenter from Nazareth has gone ahead to build for us (John 14:1-2).

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Lord Jesus, you told your disciples that you are preparing a place for us in your Father’s home for all who believe in you.  Prepare us also, so that we may be with you in that wonderful place.  Amen.