Rest, the Lord Is Near: Combating the Stresses of Life (Psalm 23:1-6)

Psalm 23 is one of the most popular texts in the Old Testament. Charles Spurgeon called it “the pearl of Psalms.” James Montgomery Boice called it “the most beloved of the 150 Psalms in the Psalter.” And J. P. McBeth called it “the greatest poem ever written.” It’s often read at funerals, or during times of profound grief and sadness. That’s appropriate, but King David’s composition is a psalm for life, not just death. Indeed, we likely need this psalm now more than ever.

Stress is a prominent reality of modern life. Never before in history have people been more anxious and overloaded than they are today. Life has always been hard on a fallen planet, but it seems to be getting harder. We live in an age of exploding technology that’s hard to keep up with; information overload that threatens to overwhelm us; political polarization that breeds cynicism and disillusionment; media manipulation that makes it hard to trust anything we see on our screens; a cancel culture that keeps people captive to the fear of other people’s judgments; a global pandemic with widespread disagreement over how best to navigate it. And, as many people have discovered, stress takes its toll physically and emotionally. As one book title says, The Body Keeps the Score.

What is stress? It’s the pressure, strain, and tension we feel whenever a situation or event demands more from us than we think we can give. The tell-tale sign we’re stressed out is when we find ourselves saying, “I just can’t handle this right now!” A well-mannered, kind-hearted young woman can turn into a screeching bridezilla in the run-up to her wedding. A tender, warm-hearted young man can turn into a cauldron of bitterness when there are more deadlines than time to meet them. People routinely suffer chronic stress as a result of financial woes, work pressure, bullying, relationship troubles, or the challenges of parenting. All of it can cause anxiety, irritability, depression, headaches, insomnia, and other serious physical or psychological symptoms.

How do we cope? How do we survive? How do we overcome the taxing stresses of life? How did King David do it? How did he cope? How did he overcome? After all, the “sweet singer of Israel” spent several years of his life being pursued by his enemies. On more than one occasion did a spear whizz by his ear and twang into the boards where he was lodging. Most people have never been on the receiving end of that kind of incoming enemy fire (police and military personnel excepted). And most of us have never spent a great deal of time living as a fugitive, running for our lives. David did. And yet he had a way of rising above the stresses of life. 

Psalm 23 gives us a clue as to how he did it. The composition is a declaration of trust and confidence in God despite all that was going on around him. Two main metaphors drive the poem: (1) God as David’s Shepherd (vv. 1-4); and (2) God as David’s Gracious Host (vv. 5-6). Together these metaphors paint a stunning portrait for us: God is the ultimate Shepherd-King to his people. People are the sheep of God’s flock and the guests of God’s kingdom. Now, sheep are essentially helpless and not particularly bright. That’s not a good combination, as the following video clip indicates:

People and sheep have a lot in common! They both desperately need a good shepherd! Thankfully, believers have one in Yahweh, the God of Israel. If David were here today, he might say to us, “Rest in the Lord who is with you and good to you.” Specifically, he might tell us to rest in the PROVISIONS of the Lord (vv. 1-3), the PRESENCE of the Lord (vv. 4-5), and PROMISES of the Lord (6). God is the caretaker and protector of his people, and he will ensure that they do not lack in basic needs as they navigate the stresses of this life. Rather, he pursues them with goodness and covenant love all the days of their lives (v. 6).

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

On Behalf of a Grateful Nation (and a Thankful Pastor)

It’s always an honor to participate in a funeral for a veteran of the armed services. This morning I had the privilege of laying to rest at the Indiantown Gap National Cemetery (Lebanon County, PA) a member of the United States Air Force who served his country during the Vietnam War.

A United States flag draped his casket—the blue union field at the head end over his left shoulder—to honor the memory of his service to our country. After “Taps” was played, the Honor Guard carefully folded the flag into a triangle such that no red or white stripes were evident, leaving visible only the blue field with stars. (The flag is never lowered into the grave or allowed to touch the ground.)

Kneeling before the next of kin, with the straight edge of the folded flag facing the recipient, one member of the Honor Guard stated solemnly, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Air Force, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

These words are poignant and appreciated. Nevertheless, I always get to deliver the best lines at these events. They’re the most comforting and triumphant lines one could offer at a time like this, and I’m thankful I get to speak them:

“Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, we commend to your eternal care our friend and brother, and we commit his body to the ground—earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. And now, Lord, sadly but with confidence, we let your servant depart in peace, for his eyes have seen your salvation, the glory of your covenant people. We trust that your angels have led him in paradise, that the martyrs have come to welcome him and take her to the Holy City, and that Christ, who is his life, has appeared to say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter ye into my rest.’ Amen.”

We planted a seed today. We look forward to the harvest at the end of the age.

Even so, Lord, come quickly.

Image Credits: verywellhealth.com; dying.lovetoknow.com.

Unwrapping a Miracle: Joining Jesus in the Vital Work of Restoration

Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come forth!” And he did. John 11:44 says, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.’” This well-known story is primarily a revelation of who Jesus is. In the Gospel that bears his name, John calls Jesus the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Light, the Word, the Son of God, and many other titles conveying his divinity. It’s all about him. But is there anything in this story for us mortals—before our own resurrection at the end of the age? Indeed, there is.

The dead in Israel would be wrapped in long strips of cloth. The strips were placed in such a way as to bind the limbs and keep them straight. Even the head was wrapped to keep the mouth closed. Such a tight encasement would have made it hard for a living person to walk, let alone a dead person whose consciousness had just been restored.

lazarus-come-forth-03

Given these constraints, how did Lazarus even stand up when Jesus ordered him to? How did he make it over to the entrance of the tomb for all to see? Nothing but the power of God can explain such a miracle.

But could not the Savior who had just set a man free from the grip of death also set him free from the garments of death? If the restoration of life was no problem, could the removal of linens be a challenge? Obviously not. So, why the command? Apparently, Jesus delights in letting his followers participate in a miracle. 

  • “Take me to the tomb!” he says. And they do. (Couldn’t he find it himself?)
  • “Take away the stone!” he says. And they do. (Couldn’t he do that himself?)
  • “Take off the linens!” he says. And they do. (Couldn’t he do that himself?)

Jesus could have done all those things himself, but once again he allows his followers to participate in a miracle. It seems to be his pattern—and his Father’s. In the Old Testament, creation is supernaturally spoken into existence by God, but human beings have to take care of it. Manna is supernaturally rained down from heaven by God, but the Israelites have to go out and collect it. The Promised Land is supernaturally given by God, but the covenant people have to go in and take possession of it.

lazarus-come-forth-02

Like Father, like Son: Jairus’ daughter is supernaturally raised to life, but the family has to feed her. The bread and fish are supernaturally multiplied, but the disciples have to distribute the food and pick up the leftovers. Eternal salvation is supernaturally accomplished on Calvary, but believers have to proclaim it for the world to hear the good news and respond in faith. Jesus acts like his Father in every respect.

The God of the Bible never needs our help, but he often allows himself to be “helped.” Remember the Palm Sunday donkey? “The Lord has need of it,” says Jesus (Luke 19:31). That’s an odd thing to say if you’re the Son of God.

What kind of a Savior admits to having a need? What kind of an all-powerful God is this? One who is meek. One who is kind. One who invites his people to join him in his work of restoration. It’s the same humble God we meet in the manger. And again in the upper room washing dirty feet. The beauty of Jesus’ meekness here in John 11 is that the people who wrapped Lazarus in sorrow now get to unwrap him in joy! Jesus made him alive, but they get to set him free!

This is the mission of the church—to help set at liberty those who are in bondage and living under the sentence of death. But it’s also a mission that applies to believers, too—those who have been resurrected by Jesus in the new birth but still may not be completely free. Can you relate?

All of us come into the kingdom of God with some sort of hang-up—a habit, an attitude, an addiction, a trauma, a psychological struggle, or some sort of besetting sin. Oh, we’re trusting Christ for salvation all right—and we’re spiritually alive in him—but we’re still not completely free. We’re wrapped up tight in a collection of character flaws and spiritual deficiencies. Theologians call it “remaining corruption.” And some of that corruption seems to remain for a long time. But it’s not who we really are anymore (cf. Rom 7:17, 20).

lazarus-come-forth-04

Our fellow disciples are commissioned to help unwrap us from that which still binds us, even as they themselves are being unwrapped. That’s why, according to the New Testament, we do this for each other in a relationship of radical grace and non-judgmental accountability. We’re all in the same battered boat, so capsizing other people’s ships is rank hypocrisy.

Sometimes the unbinding process is messy and complicated (“But, Lord . . . by this time there is a bad odor,” v. 39). Sometimes it’s glorious and exhilarating (“Many . . . put their faith in him,” v. 45). Either way, when we join Christ in his work of restoration, we get to see the love-power of God in action—up close and in person.

We get to see Lazarus face to face, and we get to unwrap a miracle.

Thank you, Father, for your amazing love-power that can do all things. Send forth your Word again in our day to heal, forgive, restore, and provide. Open my eyes to the opportunities around me where I can participate in your divine work of restoration and be a conduit of your grace. Help me to be gentle and meek like Jesus, using my gifts, abilities, and resources to serve others and advance your kingdom. Use me as you see fit to help set others free from their bondage. And help me, Lord, to allow my fellow disciples to gently pull off my own grave clothes, too. Amen.

Image Credits: Jesus of Nazareth ITC; lightoftheworldgarden.com.

Mary Comforts Eve, Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Today we conclude our reflection on Grace Remington’s “Mary Comforts Eve,” a simple sketch with profound theological messaging. In Part 1 we looked at the picture without comment, scanning the piece and letting it have its impact on us. In Part 2 we looked at the encounter in general, noting the significance of these two women meeting in the presence of Christ. In Part 3 we looked at the three types of fruit presented in the sketch, two of which are visible and one of which is not. In Part 4 we looked at the artist’s strategic use of color and how each one telegraphs important spiritual truths. In this last part, we look briefly at the hands, feet, and faces of the two women. They, too, tell a story.

Garrett Johnson has noted, “We find Eve; that is, we find ourselves, walking along our path, tripping upon the serpent’s scales, dolefully latching onto our symbols of self-satisfaction and divine pretensions.” Johnson is perceptive in his assessment of the fallen matriarch. A similar and contrasting observation can be made of Mary. She clings to nothing; instead, her hands are free to gently caress the one who desperately needs her Son, whom she will soon share with the world. Indeed, all of Eve’s children need her Son, and God brings him to us as promised though this young obedient servant of his.

The two women make contact through look and touch, banishing the isolation and alienation that often accompany sin. Yet there is a hint of reluctance on Eve’s part, so the scene has begun, but it is not yet completely resolved—leaving us to contemplate her response to Christ. And ours. 

Specifically, Eve’s right arm takes a defensive posture, as if she were trying to cover herself, even while holding onto the forbidden fruit. The bend in her arm forms a V, one of the universal symbols of women. Moreover, this V creates an arrow pointing down toward the serpent, which is entwined around her legs. Despite the entanglement, Eve is able to walk, though it is clearly difficult for her to do so. Her journey is encumbered every step of the way by the enemy, but the mother of the redeemer now stands before her. Consequently, Eve is stepping in the direction of hope—but not without assistance.

Eve’s left hand is touching Mary’s belly, but only because Mary has apparently pulled it toward the child, overcoming Eve’s hesitation. Her reluctance is no doubt rooted in her sense of shame and unworthiness. Mary knows, however, that it’s precisely for such people that Jesus has come. Confidently, then, she helps Eve touch the one who will undo the effects of her cosmic treason.

Additionally, Mary gently strokes Eve’s cheek with her right hand, giving her assurance that all will be well. The promised deliverer, “the seed of the woman,” has finally come. Jesus will take her shame and nakedness to himself on the cross, and in the process, his “heel” will be “bruised,” as the prophecy says. Crucifixion is ugly business, but no longer will Eve need to bear the weight of her own sin and all the calamity it unleashed on the world, for the world’s sin bearer is now here.

Mary, of course is stomping on the head of the serpent, rendering it impotent in the presence of the gestating Christ. This dramatic act portrays the protoeuangelion of Genesis 3:15, where God judges the serpent with these words: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” 

Protestants need not object that Mary is the one crushing the serpent’s head in this scene because: (1) Jesus will do exactly that in his death, burial, and resurrection; and (2) Jesus will give his followers authority to do the same. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20; emphasis mine). Believers will share in the crushing because Jesus did the neutralizing of satanic authority: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15). Consequently, Eve is able to drop the forbidden fruit and step into the future with freedom, confidence, and joy. Will she do so? Will we?

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the sketch is the contrast of expressions. Eve’s face is crestfallen, downcast, and ashamed. She blushes profusely because of the humiliation that comes from having her sin exposed to the world. It’s difficult for her to look up, although she clearly tries to do so, daring to hope that Mary’s child might offer the relief her soul so desperately needs.

Mary’s gaze is priceless. She smiles gently at Eve, knowing full well that her child is the hope of the world and the remedy for all its miseries. She conveys no sense of judgment, haughtiness, or condescension toward Eve, only love. Her eyes are wider than Eve’s because she knows from the angel exactly who this child is and what he has come to do. Eve is still in the process of discovery, so her face is not yet relieved of all its agony, nor is she yet able to look at Mary directly.

King David had a similar experience. In his prayer of confession to the Lord over his sin with Bathsheba, he pleaded to God, “Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity” (Ps 51:9). So ashamed was he of his sin that he asked God to stop noticing it, something he was unable to do himself (cf. Ps 51:3). But as soon as the king made that request of God, he virtually reversed course and cried out, “Do not cast me from your presence (literally, “your face”) or take your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps 51:11). Did he want God’s face to stay or go?

The crisis was devastating to David. In v. 9, he wanted God to hide his face from his sin, but in v. 11, he didn’t want God to hide his face from him. The dilemma was acute. If God chose to look on David’s sin, it would produce in him a deep sense of unbearable shame; if God chose not to look on him at all, it would produce in him a deep sense of awful abandonment. Neither option was pleasing to David, and his only hope was that God would somehow find a way to cut the Gordian knot of unacceptable choices. The knot is finally cut by Mary’s child, who grew up and became “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). 

I, too, know the shameful blush that comes from sinning against God and wounding others—precious people made in his image who deserved better from me. Maybe you know that feeling, too. We cannot undo our own treason against God, but Jesus can. Be assured that the grace of God in Christ is greater than your failures. Humbly accept his gift and turn from what made it necessary in the first place. If your face is downcast in shame, humiliated by your own sin, dare to look at Christ by faith this Christmas. You’re why he came. 

We’re why he came—sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. As the old carol says, Jesus came “to save us all from Satan’s power, when we are gone astray.” Indeed, he came to be “the glory and the lifter of [our] head” (Ps 3:3) so that we could look God in the eye again, stepping into the future with freedom, confidence, and joy. He came so the ancient blessing given to God’s people could fully and finally be true:

The Lord bless you and keep you; 
the Lord make his face shine upon you 
and be gracious to you; 
the Lord turn his face toward you 
and give you peace (Num 6:24-26).

Amen.

Part 1: The Gasp
Part 2: The Encounter
Part 3: The Fruit
Part 4: The Colors
Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Image Credits: elledecor.com; illustratedprayer.org.

Mary Comforts Eve, Part 4: The Colors

We continue our reflection on Grace Remington’s “Mary Comforts Eve,” the portrayal of a hypothetical encounter between the two main mothers of Scripture—the mother of the human race and the mother of the new human race. The descendants of the former are spiritually broken and stand in need of redemption; the offspring of the latter is spiritually perfect and thus stands able to serve as humanity’s redeemer. The colors in the sketch assist the artist in telling the story.

Eve is covered in her own beautiful brown hair, and brown is the color of the earth. In fact, the garden floor in this sketch is also brown. It’s the earth from which Adam was created by God. Eve, who was derived from Adam, was therefore made of the same “stuff” as Adam. As such, Eve is of the earth, and to the earth she will return in death because of her sin (Gen 3:19).

On a side note, what Eve is wearing underneath her hair is not immediately apparent in the sketch, but Scripture tells us it would have been the garment of skin that God had made for her so her shame and nakedness could be covered. God replaced the garment of leaves she made with her own hands with a more suitable covering made by his own (Gen 3:21). The theological point is that salvation is never rooted in human effort; it is always rooted in divine grace. Self-salvation is no salvation at all.

And do note that it was God who drew first blood on the planet, not Cain. God sacrificed the life of one of his own creatures so that Eve could be spared the imminent death sentence she rightly deserved. Somewhere in the garden, a bloody carcass lay dead because of Eve’s sin (and God’s mercy in covering that sin). 

Mary is covered in a garment of snowy white, which is the color of purity. In Catholic theology, Mary’s purity is due to her own “immaculate conception” in her mother’s womb, preserving her from spiritual depravity. In Protestant theology, however, Mary is a member of the fallen human race like any other woman. As such, she needs a Savior, too (cf. Luke 1:47). Her purity comes from the fact that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). I hold to the latter view, as the former is a late theological development with no biblical warrant. 

In any event, the white garment signifies that just as Mary is made pure by the gracious presence of Christ in her, so the fruit of Mary’s womb, Jesus, can make Eve and her descendants pure, too—but only through the cross, which also makes an appearance in the sketch.

In addition to her white robe, Mary is also draped in a blue head scarf, and blue is the color of the skies and/or heavens. She herself is not from heaven, but she carries the one who is—Jesus, “the man from heaven” (1 Cor 15:14-49). Ominously, her headscarf forms a crown in the shape of a cross, which corresponds to the awful prophecy Simeon gave Mary just after the birth of Jesus: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). 

Eve’s “crown,” on the other hand, is earthy brown—a row of curls made by her own tainted fingers. It’s a hint, perhaps, at the crown of thorns that will go on to encircle the head of Christ in his atoning work on the cross. But notice further that the blue cross seems to flow like living water down Mary’s shoulders and back, directly toward the head of the serpent. The crafty beast will soon get what’s coming to him.

The fair skin of the women is not historically accurate. They would have been much browner in tone, Easterners as they were. I suspect the fair skin represents an application of the universal biblical story to the specific race of the artist—an acceptable practice if applied across the board with equal acceptance. That is, were the artist non-Caucasian, Eve and Mary might well be portrayed in that artist’s race, too. “Red, and yellow, black, and white—they are precious in his sight.”

The garden arch is predominantly green, which speaks of life, abundance, and divine goodness, a theme discussed in the previous post. Moreover, the archway is lush with ruddy-yellow fruit, an indication of the kindness, grace, and provisions of the generous God who gave it. He delights in giving good gifts to his children. The single forbidden fruit in Eve’s right hand is solid red, distinguishing it from the copious good fruit made available to her throughout Eden. The serpent is green, too, because it’s a living creature, but it also features dark splotches, an indication of its sinister intentions toward God’s treasured child.

Best of all, the encounter takes place in a yellow-gold light, one that illuminates the entire scene. This color can represent both royalty and divinity, so the stage is awash in the presence of God. That presence envelops both Mary and Eve. Moreover, the in utero Christ is “Emmanuel,” God with us. The point is that God is here. He is in this scene despite the presence of the sinner and the serpent. He has not been put off. He has not abandoned his people.

The implication is that God is with us in our moments of failure and shame (as represented by Eve) as well as our moments of faithfulness and obedience (as represented by Mary). He does not run away. Rather, he pursues us with his “goodness and mercy…all the days of our lives” (Ps 23:6). 

That pursuit took Jesus to another garden—the Garden of Gethsemane, where he “prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Quite significantly, the first blood shed by Christ in his Passion was not drawn by human hands (cf. Gen 3:21). He bled freely of his own accord in the garden before placing himself into the hands of his captors. In other words, he had already given what his tormentors would claim they had taken (cf. John 10:17-18). 

God sacrificed the life of his only Son so that we could be covered by him and spared the imminent death sentence we rightly deserved, similar to what happened in Eden. One hymn writer described it like this: “Amazing pity, grace unknown, and love beyond degree.” The result is what the Apostle Paul argued in 1 Corinthians 15:47-49:

“The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.”

In other words, we can go from earthly brown to heavenly blue, wearing snowy white—all because the golden Christ once became bloody red for us.

No wonder Mary is comforting Eve.

Part 1: The Gasp
Part 2: The Encounter
Part 3: The Fruit
Part 4: The Colors
Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Image Credits: elledecor.com; illustratedprayer.org.

Mary Comforts Eve, Part 3: The Fruit

We’re reflecting on Grace Remington’s “Mary Comforts Eve,” a simple pencil-and-crayon sketch portraying a hypothetical encounter between the two towering matriarchs of the human race according to the Christian Scriptures. My comments are from the perspective of a Protestant evangelical pastor and seminary prof with an appreciation for what this Catholic nun has produced, even though our views on Mary and the church will not always align completely. No matter: it is my privilege to learn from (and be blessed by) others.

Remington does not consider herself to be a professional artist. She simply likes to doodle while thinking and studying. She got the idea for this piece while pondering the differences between Mary and Eve. Interestingly enough, the practice of Bible journaling art has taken off among evangelicals in the last decade or so. In an age of ubiquitous online memes, this practice is a welcome trend, and getting started is not difficult. I’m not an accomplished artist, but I can’t study the Bible without a pencil in my hand, either. There’s a treasure trove of truth gems in the canon to sort out. Some of these gems make their way into Remington’s sketch.

The scene portrays three kinds of fruit, two of which are in plain sight. First, there is the good fruit of Eden, scattered throughout the garden archway. It’s important to note that there’s much more good fruit available to Eve than the one bad fruit she wound up eating. As noted in a recent post, God’s openhandedness is seen on the very first page of Scripture: “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food’” (Gen 1:29). Right out of the gate, God is a giving God, and generosity is seen as a prevailing attribute of his.

It’s not specified in the text how many edible plants and trees with fruit were available for the taking. Were there a hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? A million? We don’t know, but the scene is marked by lush and lavish provisions from the hand of the benevolent God who gave them. Indeed, Yahweh is portrayed as a God of abundance. He says to the first human, “Eat!” and only one tree was said to be off limits—“the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:17). 

Celebrate the goodness of good in this divinely intended imbalance: God gave ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.” Consequently, he’s not a stingy, crotchety God at all; he’s a God who overflows with blessings, provisions, kindness, and grace. And even the one “no” he gave was for our benefit, not our misery. Indeed, it was meant to prevent our misery.

Alas, Eve ate the one bad fruit of Eden, which is the second fruit visible in the picture. This fruit was “good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6). What made it bad was not its internal composition but the fact that God said it was off limits to Eve. In the sketch, she is still clutching the forbidden fruit, which brings with it all the miseries of guilt, shame, and despair (as seen in her downcast, blushing expression), as well as crippling bondage and eventual death (as seen in her legs, which are encoiled by the serpent).

Every descendant of Eve, save one, has experienced this sense of guilt, shame, despair, and bondage. Such is the beguiling nature of sin. We want what we want, and we take what we want, ignoring the clear instruction of our kind and generous God. Consequently, we are justly placed under the sentence of death for our spiritual treason. “In the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). Is there no hope? Is there no way out? Is the human race irreversibly doomed? Blessedly, God’s grace is much greater than human rebellion.

The way out is the third fruit in the Remington sketch, the fruit of Mary’s womb, soon to be born. “Blessed are you among women,” said Elizabeth, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). Mary’s fruit—Jesus—is the way out. Indeed, he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He is our hope. He is our deliverer. He is our salvation from guilt, shame, despair, bondage, and death. In fact, Mary’s fruit is the fulfillment of the protoeuangelion in Genesis 3:15. Jesus is the good fruit that can undo the effects of the bad fruit.

And yet on the cross, Mary’s fruit looked exactly opposite of Eve’s fruit. The crucified Christ was seen as worthless, not pleasing to the eye, and foolish—another messianic pretender who got himself killed. But Scripture tells us he was wounded for our transgression. He was bruised for our iniquity. Our punishment was upon him. And by his stripes, we are healed (cf. Isa 53).

Both women in the scene are looking at each other’s fruit. Eve gazes at Mary’s fruit—the fruit of the coming Christ, while Mary gazes at Eve’s fruit—the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. While only Eve touches the fruit of the tree, both women touch Mary’s belly since both need that fruit for their own salvation. And both are mothers of Christ, the good fruit who “comes to make his blessing known far as the curse is found.”

Part 1: The Gasp
Part 2: The Encounter
Part 3: The Fruit
Part 4: The Colors
Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Image Credits: elledecor.com; illustratedprayer.org.

And Guide Us When Perplexed

The Sunday before Thanksgiving is typically a precious time of worship for many believers—on at least two counts. First, according to the liturgical calendar, it’s the last Sunday after Pentecost, known in many traditions as Christ the King Sunday. Worshipers take the opportunity to ascribe glory and honor to King Jesus, who is Lord of chronos (or “unfolding”) time as well as kairos (or “epochal”) time. It’s a way of putting an exclamation mark on the longest season of the church year before the calendar starts all over again next week with the season of Advent. King Jesus “was, and is, and is to come.” He is Lord of all time.

Second, on the civil calendar in the United States, it’s the Sunday leading into Thanksgiving Day. Many North American worshipers therefore take the opportunity to thank the Lord for his many blessings and providential care throughout the year. “We Gather Together” is a meaningful hymn that we often sing on this day, but we skipped it this year because so many parishioners aren’t able to gather in person. Instead, they livestream the service to avoid exposure to the virus. Equally poignant to me, however, is Martin Rinkart’s evocative and stately hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” This piece, too, puts a lump in my throat, and we’re singing it today.

Rinkart was a German clergyman who served in the town of Eilenburg during the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Overrun with refugees during the Great Epidemic of 1637, he conducted between 40 to 50 funerals a day. I can hardly imagine such a calling. Nevertheless, he found a way to be thankful under the most trying of circumstances, penning these memorable words:

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

I’m especially struck this year by the line, “And guide us when perplexed.” No doubt the presence of all that plague and war death around him took its toll personally and emotionally. How could it not? Rinkart, however, turned his mystification into a prayer request. “Guide us now, Lord, in these perplexing times. And as you keep us in your grace, free us from all ills, in this world and the next.” Such a request is appropriate in any age.

We’re not always sure why life unfolds the way it does. Chronos can be confusing sometimes, but believers know the ultimate kairos is on its way. Christ is coming back for his people, and all will recognize him then as the true King. Every knee will finally bow to him (Phil 2:10). “For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.”

Amen.

Image Credit: myjewishlearning.com.

The Blood Covenant, Part 7: The Final Exchange (1 Cor 15:50-57)

Human beings have a rendezvous with death. The Grim Reaper is coming for everyone, regardless of who they are, where they live, how much money they make, or what they believe. As one writer put it, if death were a preacher, “every tombstone is his pulpit, every newspaper prints his text, and someday every one of you will be his sermon.” That’s a creative way to say what Charles Dickens said bluntly a couple of centuries ago, “We are all fellow pilgrims to the grave.” It’s a cold fact of life, and no one likes to dwell on it. Thankfully, the followers of Christ have something glorious to look forward to despite the unavoidability of death. The reason for that hope is the theme of this series.

Covenant partners become functionally one—as symbolized in their exchange of weapons, outer garments, token possessions, names, blood, and places between the slaughtered animal sacrifice. What’s true of one covenant partner is true of the other. Jesus died, but he rose again. Therefore, those who are in covenant with him will die and rise again, too. When Jesus was raised, he got a new and glorified body. Therefore, those who are in covenant with him will get a new and glorified body, too. Indeed, the Body of Christ will get new bodies from Christ. It’s the final exchange of the New Covenant, and it will lead to everlasting joy, not to mention the final humiliation of death.

As such, Paul can taunt the Grim Reaper by saying, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). He can also celebrate with fellow believers, “Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:55).

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Permanent Exile of Death (Isaiah 25:6-8)

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines. 

On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.  

The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces;
he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.  

Isaiah 25:6-8

There’s something pitiable about the person who lives in exile. To be in a faraway place when your heart is back home can be a severe discouragement. We can’t help feeling sorry for people who’ve been evicted or evacuated against their will. To be separated from the comforts of loved ones and familiar surroundings is to be assaulted by loneliness, fear, anxiety, and possibly even despair.

Have you ever felt like an exile? It’s a miserable sensation. The child going away for summer camp, or the teenager going away to college for the first time might have a sense of exile. So might the missionary who heads off to a strange and hostile land after years of being cloistered in a Christian subculture. 

man-alone-gray-fog

To be separated from the comforts of loved ones and familiar surroundings is to be assaulted by loneliness, fear, anxiety, and possibly even despair.

Indeed, exiles come in many forms—the military spouse who gets dragged all over the globe; the chronically ill patient who’s confined to a hospital bed; the success-driven businessperson who gets strapped into a plane seat yet again; the incarcerated man who can do nothing but hang his wrists on the iron bars all day long.

Then there are those who may be physically in their homes, but they, too, feel like exiles: the widow separated from her beloved husband, now living in a quiet house with echoes of poignant memories flooding her soul; the teen athlete who desperately wants to compete but has to stay cloistered in her house while a pandemic runs its course; the child whose parents are emotionally absent and unavailable to provide support and affirmation in those critical, formative years.

All of them can feel like exiles, and all of them desperately want to go “home.”

The people of Isaiah’s day knew that feeling well. Theirs was the plight of the exile. They’re a long way from home, and they have “miles to go before they sleep.” But Isaiah 25 is a song of liberation—an Old Testament Magnificat that anticipates real hope for a bright and glorious future. The hymn breaks into the text unexpected, celebrating the end of the tyranny and shame that have befallen the Jews for so long. God is clearly on the move, having subdued the enemies of Israel and having promised to restore them to a place of peace and prominence once again.

plant-from-tree-stump

With God, even the worst exile is only temporary. Verses 6-8 in particular celebrate the end of darkness and death for the covenant people. The marvelous truth is that Israel as a nation will rise again from the dead.

As is often the case with Old Testament prophecies, the divine Author could see more than the earthly author (cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12). It’s not difficult to capture glimpses of a greater resurrection in this passage—the bodily resurrection that awaits all believers at the end of the age.

empty-tomb-linens

With God, even the worst exile is only temporary. The marvelous truth is that Israel as a nation will rise again from the dead.

In fact, when Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:54 that “death is swallowed up in victory,” he’s citing Isaiah 25:8. When John writes in Revelation 7:17 that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” and again in 21:4 that God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more,” he’s surely alluding to the same prophecy. Isaiah’s original vision exceeds all expectations.

purple-mountains-majesty-stream-pine

Indeed, humanity’s exile to this sin-scarred planet of crime, cruelty, injustice, and death will one day come to an end. Like Israel of old, the church may continue to fail God in many ways, but God is still God, and he will keep his promises:

•  He will prepare an eschatological feast for his people (6).

•  He will destroy the corpse’s shroud that enfolds us all (7).

•  He will swallow up death forever (8a).

•  He will wipe away the tears from our faces (8b).

•  And he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth (8c).

In other words, death itself will be exiled forever, and the people of God will finally be home. And the authority for such a great hope is that the Lord himself has said it will happen (8d).

great-feast-table-fireplace

Thank you, God, for your power over death and the hope that it brings. As we journey through this life—sometimes feeling like strangers and exiles—encourage our spirits by helping us to remember that you will keep your resurrection promises. In the midst of our many failures, disappointments, disillusionments, and inadequacies, help us to stay focused on the glorious future that awaits the people of God. We’re eager to see you, Lord, and have you dry our tears. Until then, help us to hope. Amen.