729) Cleo and John (part two of two)

     (…continued)  Six years later, Cleo’s husband John died.  John was a believer, but wasn’t one to talk much about his faith.  He wasn’t like Cleo.  He didn’t have anything picked out for his funeral, and we did not have long discussions about God’s love and promises.  He and Cleo went to church together, he sat quietly as Cleo read the daily devotions, and he listened sadly as Cleo told me what she wanted for her funeral.  But he never said anything.  Everyone knew this was going to be a lot harder for John than for Cleo, but John never said that.  He never said anything about faith or what he was feeling.  He could talk all day about his old red pickup, or about his days as a foot soldier in World War II, or about the 25 cats out at the old farm place they still owned.  He believed in Jesus, but his faith wasn’t something he felt comfortable talking about.

     In his later years, John had Alzheimer’s disease and was forgetting everything that happened more than ten minutes ago.  I would visit him in the nursing home, and talk to him about Cleo and the old red pickup and the farm and his cats.  Sometimes he would smile or would make a comment that showed he was remembering something, but usually he was quiet.  Then I would read from the Bible and say a prayer.  He would listen closely, but as always, he would say nothing.  I would read to him all the most familiar verses, but his memory was gone, so no matter what I read, it was probably like he was hearing it for the first time.

     Then one day, out of nowhere, John said something about the Bible.  He had again been hearing the old familiar verses, especially the ones about eternal life in heaven and seeing our loved ones again.  Perhaps it made him think about Cleo.  All of a sudden, his eyes brightened, the wonder of those great old promises registered one last time, and he said, “You know, that is a really good book you have there.”

     “Yes, John,” I said, “it sure is.”  It was just a simple statement, but it struck me in an unforgettable way.  Jesus died for us, and then he rose again from the dead, and he said that if we believe in him, we too would rise from the dead and live again with him in heaven.  That is an incredible promise that we should never get used to or take for granted.  But we do.  We might believe it or half believe it, but we do take it for granted.  But not John.  There, in that nursing home, living out his last sick and lonely days, he heard that promise as if it were brand new, and it thrilled him.  John was a low-key, quiet guy, who never got very excited about anything.  But that day, something in those Bible verses got him excited.

      This are many Bible verses that are worth getting excited about.  Our fragile and temporary bodies will wear out and die.  We know that.  But someday, long after the worms or the crematorium destroy every last cell; maybe even long after the sun burns out and the earth freezes over; I don’t know when, but someday, in God’s own good time, we will get a new body and we will live again.  And the book that tells us all about that, is, like John said that day, ‘a really good book.’

     Nowhere else is such a promise given, and then backed up by one who himself rose from the dead.  Nowhere else is such a hope given, a hope that can keep someone like Cleo strong and confident, even amidst the ravages of cancer.  Nowhere else is any refuge given from the swift passage of time and the inevitable end of life.

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John 6:66-68  —  From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.  “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.  Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

John 3:16  —  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

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Eternal God,
whose Son Jesus Christ said,
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid’,
take away our fear of death;
bring us to the place he has gone to prepare for us;
and give us his peace for ever.  Amen.

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728) Cleo and John (part one of two)

     Cleo was dying of cancer.  She was still strong enough to come to church and go to appointments, but the doctors had told her there was nothing more they could do.  The cancer would soon end her life.  She was 62 years old and her husband had just retired.  They had lots of friends and plenty of money and all kinds of plans.  With John now retired, they would finally have time to enjoy life.   But the cancer ended all their plans.

     It was my first week in that congregation, and Cleo asked me to come over and visit her and John.  She said, “I don’t know how much time I have left, and I want to tell you some things for my funeral while I am still able.”  I went to their home, and she did indeed have much to tell me.  She had put a lot of thought into her funeral, and had a list of all her favorite hymns and Scripture readings.  With each hymn and each Bible verse she had a comment or a story on why that was important to her and why she wanted it read or sung at her funeral.  Then she said, “I even have a verse picked out for your sermon text, if you think that would be okay.”

      “Yes, of course, I would like to have a verse from you for the sermon,” I said.  She then turned the pages of her Bible to Joshua 23:14.  This verse is near the end of the book of Joshua, and, near the end of Joshua’s life.  He is, in fact, giving his final instructions to the people of Israel.  The very next chapter tells of his death and burial.  Joshua had much to say to them in these final words, and in the verse Cleo requested for her funeral sermon text he said,

Now I am about to go the way of all the earth.  You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God have you has failed.  Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.

     One might wonder why Cleo picked that verse.  There are many other verses in the Bible that would seem to fit her situation better.  In the Psalms there are many complaints about the unfairness of life; and no one could have blamed Cleo for thinking it was unfair for her to be dying when all her friends were making plans and doing things and going places.  And if she did not feel it was polite to complain to God, there are those other Psalms that simply express the sadness of life in this disappointing world.  Or, she could have selected Jesus’ own words as he was dying, quoting Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  She certainly could have felt forsaken by God.

     But Cleo did not choose any of those verses.  Rather, she chose a verse that expressed her faith and her gratitude and her confidence in God.  “All of God’s good promises have been fulfilled for me,” she said, making Joshua’s words her own.

     When you think about it, she was right.  God never promised her, or any of us, a long life and the time to fulfill all our plans and dreams.  God never promised that we would not face disappointment.  God did not promise that we would never have to leave our loved ones behind.  In fact, none of those things that Cleo would be missing out on were ever promised to her, or any of us, by God.

     What God has promised is the strength to meet each day– and Cleo was certainly staying strong.  God promised comfort in the midst of even life’s greatest tragedies and suffering– and Cleo certainly was experiencing that comfort even during this, the most terrible time of her life.  And things were going to get even worse for Cleo.  She would endure much pain and suffering before she died.  Yet, she had that ‘peace that passes all understanding’ even unto her dying breathe, and all who saw her were inspired by her faith.

     Most of all, Cleo was a firm believer in God’s promises of the life to come in that place where there would be no more cancer, no more disappointment, no more pain, no more tears, and no more death.  With that confident belief in that eternal promise, she had no bitterness about missing out on a few more years here.  Cleo had thought a lot about what she wanted said at her funeral, and she wanted everyone to know that things aren’t always as they seem.  God had not failed her at all.  In fact, all of God’s promises for her had been fulfilled; not one failed her; just like Joshua said.  As Paul wrote, “Look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”  (continued…)

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Joshua 23:14  —  (Joshua said),  “Now I am about to go the way of all the earth.  You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed.  Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.”

Joshua 24:14a…15  —  (Joshua said),  “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness….  But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.  But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18  —  Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

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In you, Lord, I have taken refuge… Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, Lord, my faithful God…  Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief.  My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak…  But I trust in you, LordI say, “You are my God.”  My times are in your hands… 

–Psalm 31:1a, 5, 9-10, 14-15a

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727) “I Will Not Believe”

The Incredulity of Thomas, Carravagio (1571-1610)

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John 20:19-20…24-29  —  On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and side.  The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord…

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them.  Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it into my side.  Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”  Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

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     For some reason, Thomas was not with the rest of the disciples on the evening of that first Easter Sunday.  Therefore, he would have had to believe without seeing, and he would not.  Thomas was doubting the firm declarations of his ten best friends, the women who had been to the tomb, and the testimony of the two men with whom Jesus walked and talked on the road to Emmaus.  Thomas demanded proof he could see, not just the eyewitness report of someone else, no matter who it was.  Thomas saw Jesus dead, he knew he was dead, and he knew that dead people do not rise.  So he said, “Unless I SEE the nail marks in his hands, and unless I PUT MY FINGERS where the nails were, and unless I put my hand INTO HIS SIDE, I will not believe it.”  

     Because of his doubt, Thomas has been the object of some criticism and scorn over the years.  But really, when it comes to matters of faith one should have not only an open mind and a trusting spirit, but also a questioning mind and even a bit of suspicion.  There have been all sorts of religious scams, false prophets, and heresies over the years, and the present age is no exception.  So it is a good idea to not believe everything you hear.  Thomas could have probably put a little more trust in the consistent testimony of every one of his best friends, but we must not fault him for wanting to get all the information he could.  Perhaps instead of Doubting Thomas, he could have been called Cautious Thomas, or, Practical Thomas.  One should look into these things as much as possible before stepping out in faith;  just as Thomas did.

     But eventually, one must step out in faith.  Knowledge and facts will get you only so far.  Thomas had lots of facts.  Jesus had died.  That was a fact.  Jesus was in the tomb.  That was a fact.  And dead people don’t come back to life.  That was an established fact.  But the facts Thomas had ended at the grave, and that was not far enough this time.

     Faith can move us beyond facts that we can see and experience to even greater facts.  On Easter Sunday, God decided to change the facts of life.  Those who had the faith to be open to something more than the usual facts were about to see and receive something entirely new.  God, who had created life in the first place, was revealing in Jesus Christ the new fact that he could and would raise the dead.  And if proof was what Thomas wanted, he was about to receive it.

     One week later the disciples were again behind locked doors, and this time Thomas was with them.  As on the previous Sunday evening, Jesus was suddenly in the room with them.   Jesus again said to them all, “Peace be with you,”  and then immediately turned to Thomas.  Jesus did not rebuke Thomas, but gently offered him the very proof he had been asking for.  “Here Thomas,” he said, “here are my hands; put your finger right into the wounds.  And you wanted to put you hand into the wound in my side. Go ahead.  Now, stop doubting and believe.”

     The Bible does not tell us if Thomas actually reached out to touch Jesus wounds, or if the mere presence and words of Jesus were enough to convince him; but either way, he said, “My Lord and my God!”  

     This gentle and understanding way of Jesus with Thomas should create an environment in the church where questions are encouraged and not discouraged, and where doubt is responded to not with criticism, but viewed as an opportunity for growth in faith.

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Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  –Frederick Buechner

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Faith given back to us after a night of doubt is a stronger thing, and far more valuable to us than faith that has never been tested.

–Elizabeth Goudge, English writer

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Lord, I do believe.  Help me overcome my unbelief.

–Mark 9:24

726) Questions

     Job was a good man who was tested by a time of unimaginable suffering, as described in the first two chapters of the Old Testament book of Job.  The next thirty-five chapters of the book describe a debate between Job and some friends as Job questions the goodness and justice of God.  In chapters 36-41 God has a few questions for Job.  Randy Alcorn describes how God uses these questions to open Job’s eyes to a much larger perspective (from Alcorn’s June 16, 2014 bolg at http://www.epm.org): 

When I need a point-of-view adjustment, I read the last five chapters of Job.  That’s where the focus shifts from Job’s questions about his suffering– and his friends’ proposed answers– to God’s majesty.  Job had a better basis for complaint than nearly any of us ever will.  Yet after listening to Job’s grievances, God finally speaks to him:  “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me” (Job 38:3).

God is saying, “You are unhappy with me, Job.  You have questioned me.  You assume you know far more than you do.  Now it’s my turn to ask you some questions.”  God never faults Job for being finite, only for failing to recognize that he has no right to pass judgment on the wisdom and goodness of an infinite Creator.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me, if you understand.  Who marked off its dimensions?  Surely you know!”  (verses 4–5).

God has always been; Job just showed up.  In Hebrew culture, wisdom came with old age.  God is eternally old, Job ridiculously young.

God says, “Tell me, if you understand.”  Job doesn’t and can’t.

We lack God’s omniscience, omnipotence, wisdom, holiness, justice, and goodness.  If we insist we have the right, or even assume we have the capacity, to understand the hidden purposes of God, we forfeit the comfort and perspective we could have had in kneeling before his vastly superior wisdom.

While this doesn’t answer the question of evil and suffering, it does suggest God’s answer is beyond our understanding.  One day we’ll know far better than now; but even in eternity, God will still be infinite, and we’ll still be finite.

Job finally says to God, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.…  My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:3, 5–6).

     Charles Spurgeon stated, “He who demands a reason from God is not in a fit state to receive one.”  It is when Job surrenders himself to God that he at last, at the end of himself, finds comfort.

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The writer of Psalm 8 already had that wider perspective, so he has a different kind of question.  His understanding of the greatness of this God of all creation makes him wonder why God even pays attention to something so small as mere person, and then offers his praise for God’s care of us.

PSALM 8:

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
    you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
    to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
    you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

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Father, thank you for both inviting us to ask questions and instructing us to listen carefully to your answers.  Help us rely on you even when we don’t understand.  As a loving Father, you want us to trust you rather than blame and resent you.  After all you’ve done for us as Creator and Redeemer, how could we do less?

–Randy Alcorn

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Psalm 8:2 speaks of the praise of ‘infants and children.’  Listen to this two year-old’s enthusiastic praise of God as she sings The Lord’s Prayer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AR4PQ30VkBk

725) Surprise!

By Randy Alcorn, March 27, 2015 Blog:  www.epm.org

     Imagine someone takes you to a party.  You see a few friends there, enjoy a couple of good conversations, a little laughter, and some decent appetizers.  The party’s all right, but you keep hoping it will get better.  Give it another hour, and maybe it will.  Suddenly, your friend says, “I need to take you home.”

    Now?

     You’re disappointed– nobody wants to leave a party early– but you leave, and your friend drops you off at your house.  As you approach the door, you’re feeling all alone and sorry for yourself.  As you open the door and reach for the light switch, you sense someone’s there.  Your heart’s in your throat.  You flip on the light.

     “Surprise!”  Your house is full of smiling people, familiar faces.

     It’s a party– for you.  You smell your favorites– barbecued ribs and pecan pie right out of the oven.  The tables are full.  It’s a feast.  You recognize the guests, people you haven’t seen for a long time.  Then, one by one, the people you most enjoyed at the other party show up at your house, grinning.  This turns out to be the real party.  You realize that if you’d stayed longer at the other party, as you’d wanted, you wouldn’t be at the real party– you’d be away from it.

     Christians faced with terminal illness or imminent death often feel they’re leaving the party before it’s over.  They have to go home early.  They’re disappointed, thinking of all they’ll miss when they leave.  But the truth is, the real party is underway at home– precisely where they’re going.  They’re not the ones missing the party; those of us left behind are.  (Fortunately, if we know Jesus, we’ll get there eventually.)

     One by one, occasionally a few of us at a time, we’ll disappear from this world.  Those we leave behind will grieve that their loved ones have left home.  In reality, however, their believing loved ones aren’t leaving home, they’re going home.  They’ll be home before us.  We’ll be arriving at the party a little later.

     Remember, Jesus said, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21).  He said, “There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).  Laughter and rejoicing– a party awaits us.  Don’t you want to join it?…

     To be in resurrected bodies in resurrected friendships, enjoying a resurrected culture with the resurrected Jesus– now that will be the ultimate party!  Everybody will be who God made them to be– and none of us will ever suffer or die again.  As a Christian, the day I die will be the best day I’ve ever lived…

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     A friend told me about the last conversation he had with his mother.  She knew she was quite ill, and she told her son she did not want to die yet because she just purchased some new blue carpet for her brand new apartment.  She had the same beige carpet in the same old apartment for twenty years, and she was sick of it.  But now she had something new– new carpet in a new apartment.  And her new apartment had a beautiful view of a wooded area with a creek.  What a time to get sick!  She said, “I don’t want to die.  I really like the new carpet.  I have a nice apartment now, and I was so looking forward to enjoying the view.”  But then she did die.  Her son said, “Though she believed in Jesus, she did not really know what was ahead for her.  None of us do.  But God’s Word tells us that it will be far better than anything we could ever imagine.  I know that my mother was surprised to wake up on the other side of death to things far more wonderful than new blue carpet.”

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1 Corinthians 2:9-10  —  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; these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.”

Matthew 22:2  —  (Jesus said), “ “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.”

Revelation 21:3-4  —  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.”

Matthew 13:44-46  —  (Jesus said), “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field.  When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.  Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls.  When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”

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PRAYER OF OLD SIMEON in Luke 2:29-32, when he held in his arms the baby Jesus:

 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.

A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

724) Hallelujah!

ALLELUIA!  CHRIST IS RISEN!

CHRIST IS RISEN, INDEED!  ALLELUIA!

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     Christians all over the world begin their Easter worship services with those words.  Alleluia, also spelled Hallelujah, is a Biblical word of praise that has become very well known in recent years because of a song written in 1984 by Leonard Cohen.  The title of the song was simply Hallelujah, and it wasn’t much of a hit when it first came out.  But it gradually grew in popularity, and other artists sought permission to record it.  Cohen was generous in granting that permission, and there have been over 300 different professional recordings of Hallelujah, including one for the popular kid’s movie Shrek.  It has become a well known and much loved song, and has been used in numerous other movies, television shows, memorial services, and other events.

     The song’s title is a Biblical word, and the melody sounds very much like something you could use in worship.   However, even though some of the lines speak of the Old Testament King David, the lyrics would not fit very well in a worship service.  But Cohen has granted permission for the song’s use with different lyrics, and there have been some very nice recordings of some ‘Christianized’ versions.  In 2006 Kelley Mooney wrote an Easter version of Hallelujah for her church.  A couple years later she received permission to make her own recording with these words:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5diqGpttHDk

Here is a Christmas version:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GSTH3G1YIs

And this one was done by a priest for a wedding:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-voADFn0aow

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This is Leonard Cohen singing Hallelujah as he wrote it:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrLk4vdY28Q

And here is Cohen in a 2010 talking about the success of the song:

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

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Revelation 19:1-2a…4-7  —  After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting:  “Hallelujah!  Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments….  The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God, who was seated on the throne.  And they cried:  “Amen, Hallelujah!”  Then a voice came from the throne, saying:  “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, both great and small!”  Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:  “Hallelujah!  For our Lord God Almighty reigns.  Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory!

Matthew 28:1-7  —  After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.  There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.  The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.  The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.  He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.  Come and see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples:  ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’  Now I have told you.”

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The Empty Tomb, Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942)

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Jesus Christ Is Risen Today, Alleluia!
14th century Latin carol

Traditional:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMwPEmUMP7U

Contemporary:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0h9mGLh5WvI

Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!
Our triumphant holy day, Alleluia!
Who did once upon the cross, Alleluia!
Suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia!

Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia!
Unto Christ, our heavenly king, Alleluia!
Who endured the cross and grave, Alleluia!
Sinners to redeem and save. Alleluia!

But the pains which he endured, Alleluia!
Our salvation have procured; Alleluia!
Now above the sky he’s king, Alleluia!
Where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!

Sing we to our God above, Alleluia!
Praise eternal as his love; Alleluia!
Praise him, all you heavenly host, Alleluia!
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Alleluia!

723) Jesus and the Soldiers

     From the time Jesus was arrested on Maundy Thursday evening until he died Friday afternoon, less than a day passed.  Jesus had shared a last meal with all of his disciples, and soon after was arrested.  From then on, he was no longer among friends.  In those hours of his greatest suffering, there is no record of his even being allowed a visit.  The only contact we know of is a sad glance across the courtyard to Peter after Peter denied even knowing Jesus; and a few words to his mother and his disciple John at the foot of the cross.  Other than that, Jesus was surrounded by enemies, by people who either wanted him dead, or were willing to let it happen.

     Who was it that was with Jesus most in those last hours?  It was not his friends.  Nor was it any one of the authorities.  Jesus appeared briefly before each of them as he was dragged around from one to the other.  But for the entire time, from his arrest until his death, Jesus was with Roman soldiers.  They made the arrest, they escorted him before the various authorities, they carried out Pilate’s order to have Jesus flogged, and then, when the crucifixion order was given, they led Jesus to Golgotha, nailed him to the cross, and stood guard until he was dead.  We don’t know if it was the same soldiers all the while, but as a group, it was they who were with Jesus the most.  We see in these soldiers three different reactions to Jesus.

     First, we see excessive cruelty.  In the flogging and then the crucifixion of Jesus, the soldiers were carrying out cruel orders.  But their cruelty went far beyond that.  In the times between appearances before the authorities, the soldiers made fun of Jesus, mocking him as king.  They made a crown of thorns, and pushed it down onto his head.  They blindfolded him and punched him from all directions.  They insulted him and bowed down before him in fake worship.  They spit on him and called him names.

     Sometimes the evening news has videos of the police beating someone they are arresting.  They are then accused of using excessive force and must stand trial.  In court their lawyers will sometimes describe the criminal’s violent or threatening behavior that provoked the attack.  Then a jury must decide whether or not the violent response of the police was justified or unnecessarily cruel.

     In the case of Jesus, it is absolutely clear that he did not provoke the soldiers.  They came to arrest him with swords and spears and clubs.  Jesus told them that none of that was necessary, agreeing to go peacefully.  When the impulsive Peter took out a sword and cut off a man’s ear, Jesus told him to put the sword away, and healed the man’s ear.  Most of the time, Jesus did not even speak in his own defense, let alone resist arrest or provoke an attack.  Yet, the soldiers reacted to this quiet, peaceful dignity with harsh, humiliating cruelty.

     The second reaction to Jesus by the soldiers was one of indifference.  After Jesus was nailed to the cross, the soldiers had nothing to do there but stand guard until Jesus and the other two men on the other crosses were dead.  The crowd showed no signs of causing any trouble, so the soldiers were able to do a little gambling to pass the time, ‘casting lots’ to decide who would get Jesus’ garments.  Here these men are, on the scene of the greatest event in human history, and they are not even paying attention.  Instead, they pass the time by gambling.

     That crucifixion and the resurrection which followed still have ultimate significance for all people.  Our eternal destiny is determined by our reaction to that Jesus who there died and rose from the dead; and the reaction of many people today is the same as the soldiers– indifference.  I can understand someone who struggles to believe.  Some of the greatest heroes of faith in the Bible had their struggles with faith.  But it is difficult to understand one who will not even pay any attention to the truth being told here and the eternal life being offered here in this story.

     There is a third reaction among the soldiers who were with Jesus.  Mark 15:39 says, “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely, this man was the Son of God!’”  This man’s reaction was to be converted from unbelief to faith.

     I have been describing the soldiers as a group, implying that all were cruel and that none paid any attention.  We have no way of knowing even how many soldiers there were, let alone which ones did what.  Perhaps not all were cruel, and at least one was paying attention— the verse says this centurion’s reaction came ‘when he saw how he died.’  He had been watching Jesus.

     There were a hundred men under a centurion’s command.  There were no doubt far fewer than a hundred men on this assignment, so this centurion was certainly the one in charge.  I doubt if he was gambling, and it’s clear he was paying attention.  He could very well have been the commander throughout the proceedings, and if so, he had done nothing to stop the soldiers cruelty to Jesus earlier.  But now, there is something different going on.  Jesus had been mocked and insulted by many throughout the day, but this last comment made just after Jesus died is of a completely opposite tone.  The centurion does not mockingly call Jesus Lord, but says, “TRULY this man was the Son of God.”

     This is what often happens when one begins to pay attention.  The indifference that was shown by most of the soldiers would never lead anyone to faith.  How could it?  They were not even looking at what was going on.  But this centurion was looking, and as the verse says, it was when he SAW how Jesus died that he became convinced this was no ordinary man.

     A pastor friend of mine several years ago was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  One of his parishioners, also a friend of mine, said, “Ted will show people how to die.”  What he meant was Ted would show people how to die with the faith that gives someone courage and hope, even in the valley of the shadow of death.

     That centurion saw Jesus endure insults and injuries with quiet dignity and courage.  He saw Jesus, the condemned man, take charge of the conversation with Pilate, the ruler who held Jesus’ fate in his hands.  He saw Jesus forgive those who just nailed him to a cross.  The centurion saw Jesus give a word of comfort and hope to a thief dying next to him.  He saw Jesus pray to God on the cross, and then commit his spirit into God’s hands.  That centurion saw many men die, but he never saw anything like this, and he said, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”  The Holy Spirit cannot respond to indifference, but the Spirit can work faith in the hearts of those willing to pay attention to Jesus.

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Mark 15:16-20  —  The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers.  They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him.  And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!”  Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him.  Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him.  And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him.  Then they led him out to crucify him.

Mark 15:39  —  When the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

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Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a poor sinner.

–Ancient Jesus prayer

722) By His Wounds We Are Healed

From The Passion of the Christ,  2004

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From The Passion Reconsidered, an article by Frank Turek posted April 12, 2009.  Turek is coauthor of I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist.  See more of his work at:  CrossExamined.org.

     Nearly 45 years ago, medical doctor C. Truman Davis felt he had grown too callous to the agony Christ suffered at Calvary.  His callousness disappeared after he researched the crucifixion and wrote an account of Christ’s Passion from a medical perspective.  I’ve slightly adapted his account here for your consideration this Easter.

     The whip the Roman soldiers use on Jesus has small iron balls and sharp pieces of sheep bones tied to it.  Jesus is stripped of his clothing, and his hands are tied to an upright post.  His back, buttocks, and legs are whipped by two soldiers who alternate blows.  The soldiers taunt their victim.  As they repeatedly strike Jesus’ back with full force, the iron balls cause deep contusions, and the sheep bones cut into the skin and tissues.  As the whipping continues, the lacerations tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produced quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh.  Pain and blood loss set the stage for circulatory shock.

     When he is near death, the half-fainting Jesus is then untied and allowed to slump to the stone pavement, wet with his own blood.  The Roman soldiers see a great joke in this provincial Jew claiming to be a king.  They throw a robe across his shoulders and place a stick in his hand for a scepter.  They still need a crown to make their travesty complete.  A small bundle of flexible branches covered with long thorns are made into the shape of a crown and this is pressed into his scalp.  Again there is copious bleeding (the scalp being one of the most vascular areas of the body).  After mocking him and striking him across the face, the soldiers take the stick from his hand and strike him across the head, driving the thorns deeper into his scalp.

     Finally, when they tire of their sadistic sport, the robe is torn from his back.  The robe had already become adherent to the clots of blood and serum in the wounds, and its removal– just as in the careless removal of a surgical bandage– causes excruciating pain, almost as though he were being whipped again.  The wounds again begin to bleed.  In deference to Jewish custom, the Romans return his garments.  The heavy horizontal beam of the cross is tied across his shoulders, and the procession of the condemned Christ, two thieves, and the execution party walk along the Via Dolorosa.

     In spite of his efforts to walk erect, the weight of the heavy wooden beam, together with the shock produced by copious blood loss, is too much.  He stumbles and falls.  The rough wood of the beam gouges into the lacerated skin and muscles of the shoulders.  He tries to rise, but human muscles have been pushed beyond their endurance.  The centurion, anxious to get on with the crucifixion, selects a stalwart North African onlooker, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the cross.  Jesus follows still bleeding and sweating the cold, clammy sweat of shock.

     The 650-yard journey from the fortress Antonia to Golgotha is finally completed.  Jesus is again stripped of his clothes except for a loincloth.  The crucifixion begins.  Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh, a mild pain-killing mixture.  He refuses to drink.  Simon is ordered to place the cross beam on the ground and Jesus is quickly thrown backward with his shoulders against the wood.  The legionnaire feels for the depression at the front of the wrist.  He drives a heavy, square, wrought-iron nail through the wrist and deep into the wood.  Quickly, he moves to the other side and repeats the action, being careful not to pull the arms too tightly, but to allow some flexibility and movement.  The beam is then lifted in place at the top of the vertical beam and the title I reading Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews is nailed in place.

     The victim Jesus is now crucified.  As he slowly sags down with more weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating, fiery pain shoots along the fingers and up the arms to explode in the brain– the nails in the wrists are putting pressure on the median nerves.  As he pushes himself upward to avoid this stretching torment, he places his full weight on the nail through his feet.  Again, there is the searing agony of the nail tearing through the nerves between the metatarsal bones of the feet.

     At this point, another phenomenon occurs.  As the arms fatigue, great waves of cramps sweep over the muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain.  With these cramps comes the inability to push himself upward.  Hanging by his arms, the pectoral muscles are paralyzed and the intercostal muscles are unable to act.  Air can be drawn into the lungs but it cannot be exhaled.  Jesus fights to raise himself in order to get even one short breath.  Finally, carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the bloodstream and the cramps partially subside.  Spasmodically, he is able to push himself upward to exhale and bring in the life-giving oxygen.  It is undoubtedly during these periods that he utters the seven short sentences which are recorded.

     Now begin hours of this limitless pain, cycles of cramping and twisting, partial asphyxiation, searing pain as tissue is torn from his lacerated back as he moves up and down against the rough timber.  Then another agony begins.  A deep, crushing pain in the chest as the pericardium slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart.  It is now almost over– the loss of tissue fluids has reached a critical level; the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the tissues; the tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air.  The markedly dehydrated tissues send their flood of stimuli to the brain.  His mission of atonement has been completed.  Finally he can allow his body to die.  With one last surge of strength, he once again presses his torn feet against the nail, straightens his legs, takes a deeper breath, and utters his seventh and last cry: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

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Isaiah 53:3-6  —  He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain…  Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

1 Peter 1:18-19a  —  For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ.

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PSALM 22:1-2…11:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me,
    so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
    by night, but I find no rest…

Do not be far from me,
    for trouble is near
    and there is no one to help.

721) Understanding Suffering

Image result for suffering images

     I am a descendent of immigrants.  Most Americans are.  The first generation of my ancestors in this country endured great hardship and suffering.  They left their homeland and families forever, they crossed the ocean in what would now be considered intolerable accommodations, and then entered an unfamiliar and frequently dangerous land.  Only then were they ready to start chopping down trees, building homes, and clearing and tilling the land.

     They had heard stories of life in America.  They knew it was a land of great opportunity.  Farmers who would never own more than ten or fifteen acres in the old country, no matter how hard they worked, would be given a 160 acre homestead by the U. S. government.  All they had to do was build a house on it, begin to farm it, and stay there for five years; and it was theirs to keep.  What an opportunity!  But it would mean incredible hard work and suffering, not only for those five years, but for the rest of their lives.  For many, it would have been easier for them to stay home in the old country

     But if they did not emigrate, it would be ever more difficult for the next generations.  America was a land of increasing opportunities, the old country meant decreasing opportunities for many.  Coming to America would mean a better future for the generations to come; for us.  The emigrants would suffer, yes, but that suffering would have a meaning and a purpose.  It would mean a better future for their children.  Suffering can be better endured when it has such a purpose, goal, and hope in mind.

     To live is to suffer, and one of the keys to a good life is to know how to suffer; and to know that it has, or can have, meaning and purpose.  Holy Week is all about the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.  One of the messages of Holy Week is that God can turn even the greatest suffering into the greatest good.  We can learn much about suffering by watching Jesus and how he suffered and died.

     Different religions have different approaches to suffering.  Islam says you suffer because is the will of Allah.  Allah causes everything to happen, including suffering as he sees fit, and that’s that.  Hinduism says, if you suffer you deserve it.  The Hindu concept of ‘karma’ says that the good and evil that happens to you is doled out in exact proportion to the good and evil that you do.  If that doesn’t appear to happen in this life, then, in your next reincarnation, things will be evened out.  Buddhism says you suffer because you care.  Train your mind to rise above all cares, having no loves, no desires, and no attachments, and you will not suffer.

     Christianity is not like any of that.  Unlike Islam, Christianity says that God does not intend suffering.  It may come as the result of sin, and God may cause suffering to serve some higher purpose.  But the creation story teaches that God created the world good, and suffering entered as the result of sin and rebellion.  Unlike Hinduism, Christianity says that life is not fair, and that the innocent may suffer.  Christianity does not say that everything will be ‘evened out’ in the next life, but that by believing in Jesus we will find the ‘grace of God’ in the next life, and an end to suffering.  Unlike Buddhism, the Bible does not say that we should avoid all love and attachments and desires in order to avoid suffering.  Rather, the Bible says you should love one another and bear one another’s burdens, even though that means you will suffer.

     We see all these unique aspects of the Christian approach to suffering on Good Friday.  Jesus, the innocent one, was forced to suffer and die the death of a criminal.  He did not deserve that.  And Jesus died because he loved and cared for others; “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” Jesus said.  And the death of Jesus, or anyone else, was not what God had originally intended for his creation.  But the necessity of Christ’s death, said Paul in Romans, goes all the way back to Adam and Eve who sinned, tarnishing forever the good world that God had created.

     The Christian understanding of suffering begins not with Jesus, but with the Old Testament, that part of Scripture that we share with the Jewish faith.  The Old Testament understanding of suffering is shown in Isaiah chapter 52 and 53, which is read every Good Friday.  There we read how the Suffering Servant “took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows… he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities… the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”  This is suffering that has a purpose, that is directed toward a good and loving end.  This is called redemptive suffering, and by it, others are redeemed, set free, and saved.  This understanding of suffering is far different from anything in Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam.

     Christians believe that the Old Testament promises were fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.  We believe that God was in Christ, suffering and dying to atone for the sins of all the world and to provide for the forgiveness of all sins.  Therefore, to understand suffering we look to Jesus, and we see in Him one who did not seek suffering.  In fact, in the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed that the cup of suffering may not come to him.  But Jesus also prayed that the will of God may be done, and when suffering did come, he accepted it with courage and strength, trusting that it would serve God’s higher purposes.

     There is much in the Bible to help us understand and face suffering.  We believe that God can take even the greatest evil and turn it into good, just as Good Friday was followed by Easter Sunday. We believe that death is not only terrible, but that it also means our final deliverance from all suffering, as we are promised a resurrection into a new life without death or sorrow or pain.  We believe that just as parents must discipline their children with unpleasant punishments, the Bible says that God must discipline us, by allowing, or even causing, suffering in our lives.  And we believe in following Christ as he calls upon us to suffer, as he did, for the sake of others.

     As with the immigrants, suffering can be better endured, and even freely chosen, if we believe that in that suffering some greater good might be achieved.  Christ’s sufferings on Good Friday provide the perfect model of such suffering, and believers ever since have been able to see their own suffering in light of Christ’s.  Christ calls on us to not fear suffering, but to have the faith that God is always working through all that we endure, always having in mind the goal of our faith life with Christ now and in heaven forever.

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Philippians 3:10-11  —  I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so thus attain to the resurrection from the dead.

John 15:13  —  (Jesus said), “Greater love has no one than this:  to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Genesis 1:31a  —   God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.

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My Father, if it is possible, may this cup (of suffering) be taken from me.  Yet not as I will, but as you will.

–Jesus, Matthew 26:39

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720) C. S. Lewis on Pride

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Yes, I know one doesn’t even want to be cured of one’s pride because it gives pleasure.  But the pleasure of pride is like the pleasure of scratching.  If there is an itch, one does want to scratch:  but it is much nicer to have neither the itch nor the scratch.  As long as we have the itch of self-regard we shall want the pleasure of self-approval; but the happiest moments are those when we forget our precious selves and have neither, but have everything else (God, our fellow-humans, animals, the garden, and the sky) instead.

–C. S. Lewis, in a letter, February 18, 1954; Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C. S. Lewis, 2008

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Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.  

–C. S. Lewis

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Matthew 23:12  —  (Jesus said), “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Romans 12:3  —  For by the grace given me I say to every one of you:  Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.

Proverbs 16:18  —  Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.

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Eternal God, let this mind be in us which was also in Christ Jesus; that as he from his lofty position stooped to death on a cross, so we in our lowliness may humble ourselves, believing, obeying, living, and dying, for his name’s sake.  Amen.

–Christina Rossetti