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Archive for March, 2012

The Last Week

March 31st, 2012

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” Jesus entered the temple area and drove out al who were buying and selling there … “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’”

Matthew 21:10-13

The last week of Christ’s earthly ministry was heavy with conflict as the world’s rejection of Christ, the Word Incarnate, came to full expression. He entered Jerusalem in triumph on Sunday, taught in the temple Monday and Tuesday, spent Wednesday in Bethany, and introduced the Last Supper on what we would call Thursday night, and was betrayed, arrested, and tried that same night. On Friday He was condemned and crucified, and on Sunday He rose from the grave.

Just one week, but it truly was a week that changed the world. Faith was present, but it was weak, faltering, and confused. It was weeks later before the events could really be absorbed by the bewildered and overwhelmed disciples. They had to deal with their own failures around the cross event, to grasp the reality of His death and resurrection, and to begin to understand that this changed everything in their world and in their lives. Several weeks elapsed before the resurrected Christ commissioned them, and before the Holy Spirit fell on the church. In the patience and longsuffering of God He graciously took some time for the disciples’ slow minds to catch up to the events and the change they brought upon the earth. And God does the same with our slow minds, for our problem is that we have heard the story so often that we take it for granted.

On this week our focus is on Christ, the Savior, the Man of Sorrows, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, and we will be better followers of His for doing so. It is customary in modern day art to depict Christ with a smile on His face, revealing His joy. We live in an era of world history where there is more levity and lightness than previous generations. Christ did teach about joy, and I believe we can assume that He smiled and even laughed. We see His humor in His teachings and though the jokes do not always translate across the language, culture, and centuries long divide, they were certainly there – human interest stories about the irascible judge that met more than his match in the persistent widow, about guests showing up late at night unexpected, about swallowing camels and straining gnats. Yet the Bible never records Christ laughing; it does record Him weeping. He was the “Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).

The last week was marked by loss: on Sunday He lost Jerusalem. The triumphal entry was marked by praise, praise for Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, yet it was inadequate praise. It was neither wide enough nor deep enough: not wide enough for not all were involved, especially not the religious leaders; not deep enough because those who did participate lacked understanding of His mission, and because Christ had not yet died to reconcile man to God and the old stubborn selfishness of people persisted. They would praise as long as it did not interfere with their lives too much, but this was exactly the problem: true worship by definition re-orders our lives.

In recent years public worship for Christians has increasingly emphasized our emotional response to God. The Bible records several such moments when the people of God responded to the revelation of His greatness – Isaiah 6:1-8; 2 Chronicles 7:1-3; Revelation 1:17, for examples. It is right for us to do this, I believe, yet a danger is also associated with this: that we might simply get caught up in our own emotional release and miss the heart of God. This is precisely what happened on Palm Sunday. While the people were caught up in the worship of Christ He was weeping for the city. If worship does not re-order our lives, then it is mere diversion or entertainment.

Christ wept over Jerusalem on that day (Luke 19:41). When everyone was singing, Christ was weeping. Look at the Man! See Him for who He was and who He is, not for who we want Him to be. He is the one who brings light in the midst of darkness, joy in the midst of sadness, peace in the midst of conflict. Yet He is also the one who brings truth in the midst of falsehood, reality in the midst of denials, and God in the midst of selfishness. His heart was not caught up in the emotion of the moment but was in communion with the Spirit. And if He wept for Jerusalem, the city of the temple, He also wept for the rest of the world.

He saw through the shallowness of their praise. He knew the darkness in their hearts, and the darkness that permeates the fallen world. He was not content with just a taste of a better climate, with some respite from the testing and struggles of bearing witness to the truth by being Truth itself. He came to bring life, real life, to make real changes, lasting changes, and He would not turn back until His mission was accomplished. He could foresee the pain and suffering Jerusalem would undergo because of their unbelief, and He wept. But more than the suffering they would experience, He wept for the life they did not have, because they did not know Him. The futility was not measured merely in their future sufferings they would soon endure at the hands of the Roman army, but in the lack of real life and an absence of authentic relationship with God that would result in genuine purpose and meaning.

Philip Bliss, the great hymn writer, penned these moving words:

Man of sorrows! What a name
for the Son of God, who came
ruined sinners to reclaim!
Alleluia! What a Savior!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
in my place condemned he stood;
sealed my pardon with his blood:
Alleluia! What a Savior!

Guilty, helpless, lost were we;
spotless Lamb of God was he:
full atonement-can it be?
Alleluia! What a Savior!

Lifted up was he to die;
‘It is finished!’ was his cry;
now in heaven exalted high:
Alleluia! What a Savior!

When he comes, our glorious King,
all his ransomed home to bring,
then anew this song we’ll sing:
Alleluia! What a Savior!

Seeing His compassion, His steadfastness to His mission, His grasp of spiritual realities, His greatness, His humility, His love for you and me and even for the whole world, what can we say other than what Bliss wrote: Alleluia! What a Savior!

Christ still weeps over our world today, over the pain and suffering people experience, over hearts that are far from God, over lives that are missing their potential, over souls that know no real peace, over human spirits that are dead and need resurrecting. If worship is genuine we are not merely touched by beautiful music, or only make an emotional connection with someone’s stirring testimony, or merely have a catharsis of relief at getting scolded by the preacher. Worship that is real is an encounter with God, that sees His holiness and grasps the concerns on His heart, and that in the spirit of worship goes out into the world carrying His concerns into the blackness of unbelief. As a pastor I confess that I am often burdened that our worship is so self-centered and not God-centered.

If Holy Week teaches us anything it is how deep the problems of the world truly go, but the solution of God goes as deep as the problems, even deeper still. The cross was not an accident that Christ stumbled upon, neither was He only a good man who happened upon a cruel world, but He was God of very God, the Eternal Word made flesh, who saw the world for what it was, who was not distracted by the lures of temporary fame and momentary popularity, and who came to give His life for our salvation.

He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and all who invest their hopes and faith in Him find Him to be in their hearts everything He said He was.

Prayer:

Lord, let us not be fooled by the empty praises of the world. Let our worship be genuine, so that our lives are re-ordered. Let us invest our hopes in You. Be to us everything You said You are. Burden us with the burdens of Your heart. Amen.

Lenten Devotionals (Fastenzeit)

Judas’ Breaking Point

March 30th, 2012

Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.

Matthew 26:13

We are a funny race. Our way of thinking combines observations, logic, and emotion mixed with inner motivations, often very dark thoughts, until we decide to take action. Good people are motivated by good and kind thoughts, yet each of us knows the darkness that resides within us is quite capable of reacting out of jealousy, envy, hurt, anger, a sense of being slighted, or all of these plus an unforgiving spirit. The tipping point inevitably comes and most often it will come due to the hidden thoughts of our heart – anger and bitterness as opposed to love and kindness. Whichever we dwell on more will eventually spill out into words and actions.

These words above were spoken by Christ as Mary, the sister of Lazarus whom He had raised from the dead, poured an expensive perfume over His head. The disciples were at first indignant at the waste, and John mentioned specifically that Judas said, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” Then John added the commentary that his concern was not for the poor, “but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it” (John 12:6). The words of Christ, however, seemed to be the final straw for Judas and then it was that he determined to betray Jesus, then it was that he went to the chief priests and asked for some payment from them for handing him over.

What a contrast! Mary in gratitude and love worshipped Christ lavishly. Earlier she had accused Jesus of a lack of love for her and her family, as He had lingered elsewhere while her brother was sick and dying. When Christ had come, too late it appeared, her words stung, “If you had been here my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). She had suffered the agony that the entire human race has felt at one time or another: Why must my loved one suffer? Why did God not heal my hurt or prevent my pain or calm the storm of my heart? Her human response was quite in keeping with our own experience. We know so little of God’s perspective and His timing, let alone the needs of those others around us, that we tend to only see God through our narrow and limited view of things. A child prays for sunshine that he may play while a farmer prays for rain that his crops might not fail. We are more often like the child than like the farmer.

Mary could not have known what God knew, when God’s timing was for Christ to come to Judea for one final time in His ministry. She only knew her brother lay dying. Her prayer was for her brother, but also for herself to some degree. She also had a limited view of what Christ could do, for when Lazarus had died and was placed in the tomb, her heart was defeated and she was devastated. No question that Mary was the more emotional of the two sisters. Martha was always seen serving and though she also accused Jesus of neglect with regard to her brother, she added the words of faith, “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (John 11:22). From Mary’s lips, however, no such words had come. These two sisters with their differences represent extremes of human personalities: doers and feelers. They represent us all, and some of us at different times are either one or the other. The only thing these sisters could do, and the only thing we can do in our hurt, is to trust in three unchanging truths: (1) Christ shall ultimately triumph over all that opposes Him; (2) Christ shall use unpleasant experiences in the lives of His people to transform us; and (3) He will be with us always.

Judas believed none of these three. His initial enthusiasm for Christ and His mission had dissipated over time. The surprising insights that had sprung spontaneously from Christ’s mouth over those three years that had revealed His different way of perceiving life had not been believed and thereby understood by Judas. His own self interest had overruled his heart’s need for God. Truth became a casualty to his desire for money and power; stealing from the moneybag became more attractive than listening to the truth. We are not given a guided tour of Judas’ heart by the gospel writers, but had we had time to examine it we would probably have found a cacophony of selfish motives, imagined slights by Jesus, resentments over His rebukes, desires for self-glory and control – all of these raising their voices in his heart until the pure praise of others was just simply annoying.

Upon the resurrection of Lazarus, Mary’s love for Christ grew: as deeply as her sorrow had gone, so high had her joy leaped in her heart. Perhaps there was a bit of remorse for the hard words mixed in with her gratitude as she poured the perfume over Christ – rarely are our motives completely pure – but love was the predominating thought. Our responses of gratitude and love to Christ differ as much as our personalities differ from one another. Some sing a song, some write a song, some give money, some sacrifice time, some do a good turn to others, and a variety of responses remain. Martha served and Mary anointed with perfume. Gratitude’s response is not the same as duty, for we all are to serve, to witness, to give, to praise, and to follow. Neither is it the same as a call to service, for God by His own choice sets some apart for vocational service.

Unending love was rubbing up against fallen humanity and some believed and let this Light called Jesus search their hearts. Others stiffened their necks, closed their hearts, and rejected Him for petty reasons. Christ was betrayed for silly reasons such as petty jealousies, a few coins stolen from the treasury, not enough recognition, and whatever other sour thought could find no exit from the closed up soul of Judas. Once the cup of bitterness is full, it spills out into action.

What a warning for us all. We distance ourselves from Judas too quickly. We are not like him, we protest, but let’s stop and honestly ask ourselves how we might be similar. I have known people leave the church for such reasons as they could not stand another person to be recognized, especially a person they did not like, or they saw a position of service go to another person, or their idea was not considered seriously enough, or How dare the pastor tell me I was wrong! Limitless love that is intended to flow within us and through us to touch others is stopped too often at the door of self-interest.

Prayer.

Lord of eternal love, forgive us for having no vision beyond our own short-sighted interests. Bring us into Your much larger universe of knowledge, of love, and of purpose. Show us when we react in envy to others instead of praying in love and support of them. Amen.

Lenten Devotionals (Fastenzeit)