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The Benefit of Lent

April 8th, 2012

Search me, O God, and know my heart!

Try me and know my thoughts!

And see if there be any grievous way in me,

And lead me in the way everlasting!

Psalm 139:23-24

What has happened over these past 47 days as we entered a time of fasting and prayer? From the beginning of Lent I mentioned that for me personally the purpose was to confront my own worldliness and to humble myself before God. What has been accomplished?

First, I did not find the attraction ended for all the worldly things that I took off my list during Lent. Not everything has changed, and perhaps this is the greater lesson. No amount of fasting will remove my sinful nature and the only one remedy given by God is death, specifically identifying with the death and resurrection of Christ, reckoning myself dead to sin and alive with Him to God. There is still no room for boasting about who I am, so the goal of humility was achieved but in a surprising way. I am humbled at just how worldly I am.

Secondly, I have understood how empty worldliness really is. The desire for worldly things did not disappear, but I also began to see how much I do not need these things. Someone once said, “Money is not important, just necessary.” We may sum up all of the physical things that attract us in such a way. I am more keenly aware of the fact that this world is passing away, but the kingdom of God is forever.

Our speech reveals our thoughts, and, thirdly, I have found myself speaking and writing more than ever before about the grace of God. I could not say that during these last two months that I have not sinned – I have entertained impure thoughts – but I have also found myself growing in the confidence of the offer of God’s forgiveness. Not only has my prayer life grown, but my desire to pray has grown. I have learned to rest and rejoice in the grace of God offered to us, specifically offered to me, in Jesus Christ.

One fear I had is that I would become “proud of my humility” – I heard someone today do a bit of spiritual boasting about his own observance of Lent. I believe the purposes of God would be more greatly served by failing to keep the fast, and then becoming appalled at our sinfulness and confessing this sin and losing all confidence in our self while turning to Christ for cleansing and strength, than by completing the fast and then boasting to ourselves or to others about our dedication. The great secret of the Christian life is to forsake confidence in ourselves and place our confidence in Christ. Paul wrote of this matter in Philippians.

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection…

Philippians 3:8-10

The “loss of all things” in this context referred to his Pharisaical past that glorified self-righteousness. He considered all of that as “dung,” so surely I should think the same thing about my own poor efforts to be involved in a few days’ fast. But of greater significance he also contrasted living by our own self righteousness to living in the resurrection power of Christ. The message is clear that we have a choice to make between the two; we cannot do both.

Something of a surprising nature is that, during this fast, I have learned to care more about the people closest to me – my wife and children and other immediate family members in particular. Particular in studying the humiliation and death of Christ it brought me to question what things I would not want to be taken from me, and wife and family were the first on the list.

Another surprising benefit I gained is a simple insight into these types of exercises, sort of a big “So what?” to the entire experience. I don’t mean to devalue the experience, but I do intend to keep it in perspective. We are called to search ourselves as followers of Christ, especially to let God’s Spirit show us what is in our hearts, but we dare not think that this is enough. Paul said that he did not consider his life dear unto himself, but that he should finish the course God set out for him, to complete the ministry to which God called him (Acts 20:24-25). At the end of this experience I have to challenge myself to realize that this cannot just be an end in itself, but it should work to my spiritual development that eventually, in one way or another, prepares me to do the ministry that God has called me to do.

So these past 47 days have been of significant spiritual benefit to me, and God has searched my heart and increased my desire that He would search it more.

The final benefit, and the most significant, is a deeper love for Christ for His love and amazing patience with me. I cannot even begin to grasp the great disparity between me and God. He is eternal and I am created. He is all wise and I know so little. He is love and I can be petty and mean. But He stops to love me, to bless me, to listen to my prayers, to tell me that my life is important to Him. This realization of His greatness and love has created in me a greater desire to be close to Him, to know Him more, and to serve Him better.

Thank You, Lord, for Your grace. Cleanse me of my sins and draw me close to Your heart. Do something significant through my life, for Your sake. Amen.

Lenten Devotionals (Fastenzeit)

Resurrection Day

April 7th, 2012

…he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.

Acts 2:31-32

In the wisdom of God He provided our salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that when he was among them, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). But we need to be careful that we do not lift the words from their context and imagine Paul was saying that the cross was all that mattered, and, therefore, the resurrection was unnecessary, for certainly he was not saying that. Later in the same letter he wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14).

The resurrection gave meaning to all that had preceded it. By it the Cross was proved to be more than a tragic death, and the life of Jesus infinitely more than an example. Upon the fact of the resurrection stands or falls the whole fabric of Christianity.[1][1]

The central focal point of apostolic preaching was the resurrection of the crucified Christ from the dead. This also – “He is risen! – became the center of the Christian profession. As Paul wrote, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).

The story of the resurrection so dear to the heart of believers has been depicted and sometimes embellished by artists and worshippers of every generation of believers. Each has left the imprint of its interpretation for the succeeding generations. It is good to sift through the layers of cultural interpretations, to shake off the accumulated dust, and recall the actual history of the event. The real event was not a mosaic icon from medieval times, nor a stained glass window framed in a cathedral, nor was it stretched out on renaissance canvas and commissioned by royalty. Rather it was real: God’s infinite power demonstrated in a finite earthly setting.

The body of Jesus of Nazareth had been embalmed and entombed quickly on Friday afternoon. With the sunset that day, the Jewish Sabbath had begun and no work could be done until Saturday evening after sunset, which would have been the beginning of their Sunday. From the creation the grace of God had been revealed in that man begins his day with an evening of rest so that he may have strength for work in the morning. Likewise, as Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day of creation the first full day human life existed was the seventh, the Sabbath, the day of rest. The message in all of this highlights the grace and providential care of God for His creation. We are born helpless infants and remain relatively so for years afterwards. We are fed, taught, watched over, and trained for years before very much is truly expected out of us. And in all of these are pictures of the grace of God, the undeserved favor and blessing of God upon us. That Christ was in the tomb on the Sabbath and rose from the grave on the first day of the week is symbolic of this truth: we are given before anything is required of us.

The women who had been associated with the ministry of Christ, both named Mary, came early that Sunday morning to perform a more proper embalming of Christ. The confused feelings and consternation and sorrow over His death still lingered heavily in the morning air. The Mary’s were worried about how they would be able to roll back the large stone that covered the entrance. They said nothing of the guard that had been placed around the tomb. Perhaps they were unaware of them. But when they arrived the stone was already removed, tossed aside and an angel sat upon it, another one in the tomb itself. The message was clear, “Why are you seeking the living among the dead? He is not here. He is alive!”

Still confused the women were uncertain what to believe and what to do. They had come to do a job, but there was nothing to be done except believe. They were slow to do so, however. The Prodigal had returned home expecting to work for his father, not to be accepted again as a son. The women came to the tomb expecting to embalm a corpse, not to believe in a resurrected living body. Faith must precede action, and, in fact, it always does. What we do reveals what we believe and when our actions do not match up with our profession, then we are professing with our mouths what we really are not believing in our hearts. That Sunday was to be the day for the followers of Jesus to decide how they would get along without Him. Some had already begun to formulate these thoughts on the Sabbath. Life must go on, and they must deal with their sorrow and disappointments, face up to reality and trudge forward into the future without Jesus. This was what had been going on in their minds.

Often we find it easier to walk in the darkness than to dare to come into the light. Jesus had told the disciples several times that He would rise from the dead, but they did not believe, apparently not a single one of them truly believed that He would. Even Peter, the great Confessor, could not hold the prophecy in his heart only because Christ had told him. Only after the fact did they believe. Often they must have read or heard about the believing heroes who had lived by faith even when things on earth had not worked out for their benefit – men Abel who Cain his brother killed, men like Jonathan who had died fighting for his father Saul, men like Jeremiah who had been a faithful prophet but was martyred all the same, and men like Zechariah whom Christ mentioned was slain between the temple and the altar. So they knew the answer to what they must do at the death of Christ – they move forward in faith, faith that was grounded in the bedrock of the Old Testament promises but that had yet to have fully invested in all the words of Christ.

Walking by faith is the single most difficult thing a human being ever does. Faith must rest upon a revelation of God, some truth or command that He has shown us. Yet we are so much more prone to be focused on the concerns of this physical world than encouraged by the realities of the spiritual world of God. The physical world came from the spiritual world – all that we see, from the remotest star to the tiniest atom, was created out of nothing by God who is Spirit. So we should not set the boundaries and limitations of what the spiritual world can do by what we know of the physical world. We should think the other way around, that the Spirit of God determines what will happen in the physical world. But I believe we can identify all too easily with these disciples and their lack of faith. They represent us all too well, for we also struggle accepting what God says in spite of our physical circumstances. Even our language betrays our thoughts, for when speaking about the ideals of God we will often say words like, “But in reality,” as though only the physical world was reality. Let us understand that the spiritual world of God is reality as well as this physical world, and even more so for it does not need to fear decay and the limitations of a material existence.

We humans need an evening of rest before we can start a day’s work, we need a childhood before we can enter into adulthood, we need a Sabbath rest before we can enter into the week of labor, and we need the visitation of the Spirit of God before we can believe in the resurrection of Christ. The early disciples believed upon seeing, but Christ later said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). We have the historical record of Jesus’ resurrection, of the testimonies of the original eyewitnesses, so we do not make this decision of trust entirely absent of forensic proof – quite the opposite! The biblical record and the very existence of the church are compelling evidences of His resurrection! But we still need help. We need Christ knocking on our heart’s door wanting to come in, we need the Spirit calling out to us urging us to turn to Him in faith, we need the proclamation of the truth of the gospel, and many of us need friends and loved ones encouraging us to believe.

God knows all of this and is gracious and patient with our slowness of heart. Yet the time must come for us to believe, for surely if we know anything of this earth it is the fleeting nature of physical life. We have no assurance that we will see the sun tomorrow, nor even that we will last till nightfall this day. Our moment of opportunity will come and then we must decide. The moment came later that first Resurrection Sunday, for the followers of Christ to see and believe. They did. They saw the resurrected Christ, and they believed. Now is our moment – yours and mine. We cannot see but we can read of His resurrection and hear His Spirit’s voice calling out to us and believe in our heart that God has raised Christ Jesus from the dead. The lack of seeing is just the first step in a life of faith. There will be many more times that we would like to see and all we will have is the call to follow. If we can embrace His commands with faith, that will be enough.

The issue is really whether or not we can trust His heart. So it is the gentleness, patience, and graciousness of Jesus that wins us to His side. Christ seeks first to win our hearts to His, for then the mind will follow.

Let Him lead thee blindfold onwards,

Love needs not to know;

Children whom the Father leadeth

Ask not where they go.

Though the path be all unknown,
Over moors and mountains lone.

Gerhard Tersteegen

A principle did not rise from the dead, but a Person, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God. We can trust the Lord Jesus with all that is within us: with our fears – He is always assuring; with our careers – He watches over His own; with our sins – He has died to remove them from us as far as the east is from the west; with our doubts – He is a gracious and patient Lord; with our dreams – He has the best plans held in His heart for us, far better than what we can imagine; with our decisions – He is the Good Shepherd who leads His sheep; and even with our death – He is the resurrection and the life.

Prayer:

Lord, we thank You for dying for our sins and rising from the grave. Thank You for dealing so patiently with us who are so slow to believe. We praise You for the greatness of Your power, that death could not hold You, and You broke through the bonds of our old enemy, rose from the grave victorious. We thank You for the promise that You as the “firstfruits” of the resurrection and that we who believe in You can also expect the day to come when we shall don the incorruptible body. Teach us to live in the reality of Your love and Your life and to trust in You more. Amen.


Lenten Devotionals (Fastenzeit)