In watching Jesus carry the wood of the cross to the place of execution, Christians naturally think of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. God said to the patriarch, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” Abraham obeyed God, and Isaac quietly carried the wood up the mountain, preparing to be slaughtered by his own father.
In many ways, the story is disturbing, repugnant, and infuriating. We want to know what it was that drove Abraham up the mountain to take the life of his beloved son. We want to know why Isaac was so passive and compliant in the whole affair. And we want to know why God intervened at the last possible moment, possibly traumatizing Isaac even further. The entire episode is a bit more comprehensible when we understand that covenants often involved the exchange of firstborn sons. But sending Isaac to live in God’s house would necessitate his death. That’s hard to take.
Yet it was precisely because Isaac’s life was on the line that something even more horrendous than child sacrifice was at issue—namely, the possibility that God could be a liar. After all, Isaac was the child of promise, so if he died, God’s trustworthiness would die with him. Isaac has to live—or be resurrected—if all nations of the earth are to be blessed through his line. Abraham knew this, as the New Testament tells us in Hebrews 11:17. Abraham was convinced that God cannot lie, so he raised the knife. Just then an angel of the Lord called out from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham! Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you revere God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up, and there in a thicket was a ram caught by its horns. He took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering in the place of his son. Amazing.
Genesis 22 is a story about the costly sacrifice of a father, the willing submission of a son, and the gracious provision of the Lord. “He will provide,” said Abraham. “The Lord will see to it.” No wonder Jesus said to his contemporaries, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Jesus was now part of a similar story himself, and Abraham had gotten a preview of it. But what did Abraham see when he was standing on Mount Moriah? What did he hear? What did God show him? Did Abraham see the obedient Son of God bearing the wood of the cross to Golgotha—the Son for whom there would be no substitute this time? Perhaps if Abraham had been standing at the foot of the cross and had seen Jesus die right in front of him, he would have looked up to heaven and spoken God’s words back to him: “Lord! Lord! Now I know that you revere me, for you have not withheld from me your Son, your only Son, Jesus, whom you love.”
This message shows how the hardest thing God could ever ask of us is the very thing he did for us—he gave us his only Son.That Son was a descendant of Abraham through Isaac, and all families of the earth are blessed through him. God kept his word. Again. “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32). Even more amazing.
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.
It all started in the garden of Eden. One man—made in the image of God—has the privilege of walking with God, talking with God, and enjoying God. His Hebrew name is Adam, which means “humanity.” He is the fountainhead of the human race, and he represents all of us. In this garden, Adam has a choice to make: Say “yes” to God, and all will be well, or say “no” to God, and all will be lost. As the story goes, Adam says “no” to God. In effect, he says to him, “Not thy will but mine be done.” As a result, his paradise is blitzed, the ground beneath him is cursed, and humanity is born again backwards into the darkness. Weeds of alienation start springing up everywhere. Humans are alienated from themselves, from each other, from creation, and from God himself. They’re naked and ashamed, hiding in fear.
But it’s a gracious God who seeks them out. Though he was the one dishonored, God pursues Adam and his wife to start repairing the mess they had made. He replaces the fig leaves they made to cover their nakedness, giving them instead garments of skin to wear (Gen 1:21), a more suitable covering than what they had crafted with their hands. But in order for Adam and Eve to wear garments of skin, God had to take the life of one of his own creatures to make it happen. Somewhere in Eden, then, there lies a dead animal carcass so that Adam and Eve can be spared the death sentence for their cosmic treason. As such, we are introduced on the earliest pages of the Bible to the theological concept of substitution—one dying so another can live.
If that weren’t enough, God gives them a word of hope, a prediction. He speaks of a man who will someday come to crush the head of the serpent, the creature that enticed the first couple to say “no” to God in the first place. In the process, the man will suffer a devastating wound. It’s the first hint in Scripture of the sacrificial death of Messiah to come, but God is determined to see human sin atoned permanently. And so, we wait. For thousands of years, we wait until we find ourselves in another garden. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane is “the Last Adam” and the fountainhead of a new human race. In this garden, Jesus also has a choice to make: Say “yes” to God, and humanity will be rescued, or say “no” to God, and humanity will stay ruined. Thankfully, where Adam said, “Not thy will but mine be done,” Jesus says to his Father, “Not my will but thine be done.” Gethsemane, then, is reversing the misfortunes of Eden, as the next day, Jesus goes to the tree of death to give us back the tree of life. He becomes the carcass in the garden.
But why was the cross of Christ necessary for our salvation? Why did Jesus have to die? Why is forgiveness not by divine decree? If God can say, “Let there be light,” and it was so, why could he not also say, “Let there be forgiveness,” and it was so? Historically, the former statement has been seen as entailing no violation of God’s nature or ways. The latter, however, has been seen as a violation of at least some of his attributes. On the one hand, God’s holiness and justice require the condemnation of sinners. One the other hand, God’s mercy and grace require the forgiveness of sinners. Which will it be? Is there not a “divine dilemma” here demanding resolution? Is there a way for God to separate sinners from their sin so he can judge the sin while sparing the sinner—thus keeping all of his attributes perfectly intact?
In addition to connecting the dots from Eden to Gethsemane, this message explores how the cross is God’s crowbar that separates sinners from their sin, allowing them to be forgiven. Indeed, on the cross, God’s holiness and justice are satisfied (sin is condemned), and God’s mercy and grace are realized (sinners are forgiven). God did not sweep human sins under the rug, he swept them onto his Son—with the adult Son’s permission. On the cross, then, God’s attributes “collide” and find their mutual resolution in the death of Jesus Christ. And the restoration of Eden begins.
Today marks the beginning of Lent, the forty days before Easter (excluding Sundays). As we approach Holy Week 2021, we ponder our spiritual brokenness and earthly mortality. We give ourselves to humble mourning and repentance for our contrbution to the death of Christ on the cross. As Paul Tripp notes, “We should be a rejoicing people. But this side of our final home, our rejoicing should be mixed with mourning as we witness, experience, and, sadly, give way to the power of evil.” We don’t have to look very far to see that we live, work, and relate in a world that has been twisted and bent by sin. Some of it our own.
God’s Cosmos Is Beautiful and Broken
And God saw that it was good. Genesis 1:25
“…cursed is the ground” (Gen 3:17).
“…it will produce thorns and thistles for you” (Gen 3:18).
“…creation was subjected to frustration” (Rom 8:20).
“…its bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21).
“…groaning as in the pains of childbirth (Rom 8:22).
God’s Image Bearers Are Beautiful and Broken
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. Genesis 1:31
“…every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood” (Gen 8:21).
“… I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceived me” (Ps 51:5).
“…there is not a righteous man on earth who…never sins” (Eccl 7:20).
“…all have turned aside, they have together become corrupt” (Ps 14:3a).
“…there is no one who does good, not even one” (Ps 14:3b).
“…all we, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” (Isa 53:6)
“…all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).
“…if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8).
“…if we claim we have not sinned, we make [God] out to be a liar” (1 John 1:10).
“…tears…death…mourning…crying…pain” (Rev 21:4).
“…for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen 3:19).
God’s Son Is Beautiful and Broken—For Us
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. John 3:16
“…Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6).
“…Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
“…Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3).
“…God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21).
“…who gave himself for our sins” (Gal 1:4).
“…who gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
“…Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13).
“…who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:6).
“…Christ suffered for you” (1 Pet 2:21).
“…Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Pet 3:18).
God’s Gift of Repentance Turns Us from Broken to Beautiful
In repentance and rest is your salvation. Isaiah 30:15
David’s famous prayer of repentance, which the church typically reads and practices on Ash Wednesday, demonstrates the beauty of the king’s brokenness before God. My analysis of his literary artistry is as follows:
The addendum (vv. 18-19) was possibly added later to correct the potential misimpression that sacrifices were no longer important or necessary in Israel.
Ken Miller writes, “David’s plea in Psalm 51 comes from someone one who has honestly faced himself for who he really is and what he has really done. No excuses, no explanations, no blame placed on circumstances or on other people. He knows he has committed sin and wants only to be honest and acknowledge what God already knows. He cannot have peace, he cannot please God, he cannot be of meaningful service unless God washes him and restores him completely. Far from David’s mind is any idea that God is lucky to have him on his side, that God should take what he gets and be satisfied, grateful for the assistance he has received.”
Miller is right. David came clean with God and thus got cleaned by God.
We fall down in repentance only to be lifted up in grace.
But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. Psalm 3:3
God does this to
“…bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes.” Isaiah 61:3
This is falling upward. And the best is yet to come.
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 1 John 3:1-2
Christians have never been called to be obnoxious or hostile in society. We’ve been called to be a people of hope, filled with a sweetness of spirit and a gentleness of demeanor (Phil 4:5). As it says in Titus 2:10: we are to “make the teachings of Christ our Savior attractive.” Or, to put it another way, the church of Jesus Christ was never meant to be a cranky little subculture, but a dynamic and joy-filled counterculture—one in which the surprising grace and spontaneous love of God is made known to our neighbors in real and tangible ways. Yes, we gather with like-minded believers to worship God and hear his truth, but then we leave our comfort zones and enter into the world of others to be a blessing to them. To do that means that we have to cross some borders—just like Jesus did. Many borders are geographical in nature, but others are racial, cultural, educational, or social. Crossing them can be difficult.
There’s no greater example of Jesus crossing borders than in Mark 7. It’s the only time the Gospels record for us that Jesus left the nation of Israel as an adult. (He was taken to Egypt as newborn to escape the sword of Herod.) In this passage, Jesus goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon, which is northwest of the Sea of Galilee. This is Gentile territory—outside the covenant land—and Jesus goes there on purpose. Still, it’s one of the strangest and most difficult texts in the New Testament. The parallel passage in Matthew 15:22-28 is even more bizarre. It’s the story of the Canaanite woman, whose daughter Jesus sets free from demonic oppression. But before he does so, he engages this woman in a conversation that surprises us. Not only does Jesus come across as cold, dismissive, gruff, and seemingly unconcerned, he likens the poor woman to a puppy! What’s going on here?
Jesus doesn’t usually act like this, and when he does, we want to know why. We almost feel the need to apologize for what he says. We don’t mind when Jesus is rude to the religious leaders of the first century, but when he seems indifferent to the plight of a desperate mother, believers get nervous. In fact, this is one of the stories that convinced the famous atheist Bertrand Russell that Jesus was not a kind and moral person like everyone thinks he is. Was Russell right? Quite the opposite. In the end, Jesus demonstrates that the grace of God cannot be contained within the borders of men. He wants to heal and cleanse all kinds of people so that they are whole and fit to be in God’s presence. But he has to expose prejudice before he can redeem it. And when he does, his border crossings give his followers a larger vision—a vision that assures us that Jesus is genuinely concerned about—and displays great sensitivity toward—those who need his touch. The lesson for believers today is clear: Jesus crossed all kinds of borders with his grace, and he wants his followers to do the same.
American Psychologist Rollo May once wrote, “Depression is the inability to construct a future.” In other words, the person who lives in a constant state of darkness and despair has experienced the death of hope. It’s a feeling many of us can relate to because depression is a worldwide phenomenon. It’s been known and studied for more than 3,000 years.
The World Health Organization estimates that over 125 million people around the world are clinically depressed each year. Twenty-five million of those people live right here in the United States. That includes entertainers, musicians, athletes, politicians, scientists, white collar workers, blue collar workers, the clergy, and more. In fact, more Americans suffer from depression each year than heart disease, cancer, and AIDS combined.
Depression is both common and complicated. It’s a condition with many causes, many expressions, and therefore many definitions. Some have called it “a howling tempest in the brain.” Others have called it “the common cold of mental illness.” And just like the common cold, there’s no immediate cure, but everybody seems to have a remedy for us. Especially Christians.
Sometimes our prescriptions sound callous or even cruel, coming across as if we’re saying, “Take two Bible verses and call me in the morning.” But that doesn’t work. And it’s not even an issue of faith most of the time. In fact, depression affects believers and unbelievers alike. The great Reformer Martin Luther lived with depression. So did:
The Puritan author John Bunyan
The Baptist teacher Charles Spurgeon
The Bible translator J. B. Phillips, and
The hymn writer William Cowper
We can add to the list Michelangelo, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln. In fact, President Lincoln once wrote in his journal: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.”
Even Presidents are not immune to depression. Neither are God’s people. Consider Moses, Elijah, David, Jonah, Job, Jeremiah, and Peter—all of them, at one point or another, were depressed. Moreover, the book of Psalms reads like an emotional roller coaster. One minute the tone soars to the heights of exultation in God. The next minute we watch it plummet to the black hole of despondency.
But almost every time it plummets, it comes back up again. The writers always seem to come around to some sort of resolution—some sort of peace, hope, joy, contentment, or confidence that God is at work. Only two of the biblical psalms have no expressed hope in them at all—Psalm 39 and Psalm 88. The latter composition is the great lament of Heman (not to be confused with “Haman” in the book of Esther; the Hebrew spellings are different).
In Psalm 88, the word “dark” or “darkness” is used three times (vv. 6, 12, 18). Heman feels like he’s surrounded by darkness, and there’s not a single ray of light to be found anywhere. In fact, in the Hebrew Bible, the word “darkness” is the very last word of the prayer. That doesn’t come through in English, but that’s how the original reads. So, we have to ask, what’s a prayer like this doing in the Bible? Why did they include it?
The book of Psalms reads like an emotional roller coaster. One minute the tone soars to the heights of exultation in God. The next minute we watch it plummet to the black hole of despondency.
Heman is not exactly a household name—even for students of the Bible—but he played a vital role during the reign of King David and King Solomon. He was a well-respected prophet and worship leader in Israel during the glory days of the monarchy. He served at the temple by royal appointment, and Scripture tells us that Asaph was Heman’s right hand man. Asaph is better known to us than Heman, mostly because Asaph’s name is on 11 of the psalms, while Heman’s name is attached to just one. (After reading Psalm 88, we might conclude that one is enough from the hand of Heman!)
Psalm 88 is there to teach us that while suffering and depression may be inevitable, they’re not incompatible with faith. On the contrary, the weakest prayer in darkness can be an entry point for light. Heman thought his darkness was both absolute and permanent, but it wasn’t. God hadn’t abandoned him. How do we know that? And do we know he won’t abandon us?
While suffering and depression may be inevitable, they’re not incompatible with faith.
The end of Psalm 39 contains a heartbreaking appeal: “Turn your face away from me, God.” The end of Psalm 88 likewise contains a devastating assertion: “Darkness is my closest friend.” What these two writers expressed poetically one man experienced literally. Matthew 27:45 says, “From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ ”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That is, why have you turned your face from me? Jesus experienced the ultimate darkness that Heman thought he had gotten form God (but didn’t). Jesus on the cross got the real darkness. Willingly. For us. And he knows how it feels to go as low as one can go.
But the Jesus Story doesn’t end on the cross. Or in the tomb. As Peter writes, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3). If ever it looked as if hope had died forever, the cross of Christ was it. But the death of Christ was not the end of Christ. That’s why Peter speaks here of: “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” A living hope, as opposed to a dying hope or a fading hope. Darkness is always temporary in a world that features a risen Christ.
The weakest prayer in darkness can be an entry point for light.
Somebody once said, “Hope is the ability to hear God’s music of the future, and faith is the courage to dance to it now.” Indeed, real hope is essential to dancing through our present struggles. How can we do that? We get help from trusted sources. We get a qualified therapist if we need one. We take meds if they’re properly prescribed. We take care of ourselves—physically and spiritually—as best as we can. We look at the trials of life and remind ourselves, “It’s nothing a resurrection can’t cure in time.” So, we press through the darkness with God’s help, and others’ help, and we wait for the clouds to lift.
Darkness is always temporary in a world that features a risen Christ.
Despite his horrible circumstances—and the severe depression it caused him—Heman demonstrates the beauty of a melancholy believer who will cling to God in faith even while swirling down the vortex of misery. We salute him for what he can teach us today. “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps 30:5b). So, hasten the morning, Lord. For all of us.
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Genuine hospitality is one of the tools in our gospel neighboring toolbox. Unfortunately, when we hear the word “hospitality” today, we often think of Martha Stewart, the Cake Boss, or Better Homes & Garden. But those things are a distortion of what the New Testament means by hospitality. The command to show hospitality to strangers (Hebrews 13:2) literally means to show love to people who are different from us.Sadly in our culture, many people sit around mocking people who are different from them. But that is not to be the case with the followers of Christ. Quite the opposite.
Henri Nouwen once said, “There is a sacramental quality to true hospitality.” What is a sacrament? A sacrament is “common stuff” (e.g., the water of baptism, the bread and wine of Holy Communion, the oil of anointing, etc.)—common stuff that, when dedicated to Christ, becomes a vehicle of God’s grace and power to the receiver. So hospitality is common stuff. It’s not “entertaining with perfection.” It’s not a 7-course meal with five-star flourishes. We’re talking about simple soup and salad. Maybe peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Or perhaps a cup of coffee while listening to someone else’s struggles and aspirations—providing hope and encouragement within an atmosphere of cordiality and respect. God works powerfully through conversations like that.
In other words, your gracious hospitality to others is a conduit of God’s grace and power to others. You want the grace of God to come to people who don’t know Christ? Then beat them over the head with the Bible, right? No! Practice authentic hospitality. You want the grace of God to come to people who are destroying the culture? Then get louder and more strident in the culture war, right? No! Try a little authentic hospitality. When we share a common table, we stop—at least for a time—contending against each other. We turn our attention toward rejuvenating our bodies. We lay aside our differences and join together in one of the most basic of human activities. And as we share some common food and drink, we discover the common humanity of the person across the table from us—a person likewise made in the image of God, not a political combatant or a theological sparring partner.
A sinner? Definitely. A heretic? Possibly. An unbeliever? Maybe. An immoral person? Perhaps.
In other words, the kinds of people Jesus ate with! He was friend of tax collectors and sinners. That’s why they called him a drunkard and a glutton. But hospitality breeds friendship and understanding. And disagreements between friends are of an entirely different nature than disagreements between sworn enemies. In the end, hospitality seeks to turn strangers into guests, guests into friends, and friends into brothers and sisters. Hospitality welcomes people that the world excludes. So, let us practice hospitality!
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.
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.
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).
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.
Fill in the blank: “The Son of Man came _________.” How would you respond? Teaching and preaching? Healing and forgiving? Loving and restoring? Dying and rising? All good answers, but Luke 7:34 says, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking.” In fact, a major feature of Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus is usually going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal. If you love to eat, Luke is your Gospel. But wait. Does that sound like a holy man to you? More feasting than fasting? More parties than protests? What kind of rabbi is this? The rap on Jesus was that he was “a drunkard and a glutton” (Luke 7:34). Now, Jesus was neither of those things—the Bible says he never sinned—but he did give his enemies enough ammunition to make the charge stick. And they made it stick not because he was eating and drinking per se, but because of the kinds of people he had at his table—those who were low on the “religious food chain.”
Surprisingly, there’s no indication that such folks ever had to “repent” before they could come eat with Jesus. The fact that they came at all—and enjoyed his welcome—was apparently repentance enough for him. What’s going on here? It’s called grace. And grace is often a threat to the hyper-religious. Tim Chester has said, “In Luke’s Gospel Jesus got himself killed because of the way he ate.” That’s hardly an overstatement. Indeed, before Jesus ever picked up the cross, he picked up the fork. When he did, he turned the tables—and everything changed! Significantly, the one person Jesus pictured as being tormented in Hades was a man who kept others from dining at his table (cf. Luke 16:19-31). It’s a sobering thought. Moreover, Paul’s great exposition of the doctrine of justification by faith in the letter to the Galatians is sparked by a meal—by Peter’s refusal to eat with Gentiles. For Paul, broken table fellowship was a denial of the gospel itself. Why? Because meals are such a central and powerful expression of the reconciling work Jesus came to do.
In this message, we take a look at the meaning of meals and the potential of meals. Here’s what we discover: Meals remind us that the God who feeds us is hospitable, generous, wise, and good. They demonstrate that we’re not self-sufficient beings but finite creatures dependent on the Creator. Meals also reveal to us the status of our own hearts—who are we willing or unwilling to have at our tables? This is the key issue. Are we trying to protect ourselves and our families from the kinds of people that Jesus wants us to reach? That is not true holiness. The holiest man from eternity ate with the unholiest people in history. Meals, then, enable us to be conduits of God’s common grace to others—to listen to, affirm, encourage, inspire, value, and support other people. They position us to be on mission—to ask questions, share insights, offer challenges, elevate vision, and offer the gospel.
Ultimately, meals remind us of the eschatological meal to come—the Marriage Supper of the Lamb at the restoration of all things. So mark it down: At the center of the Christian life is a meal—with Jesus himself as the main course. In light of these realities, ask yourself the question: Who is at my table and why? Who might God want me to invite to my table in order to share and celebrate grace? We read in 1 John 2:6, “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” In light of our theme, we might well say, “Whoever claims to live in him must eat as Jesus ate.” Are you up for the challenge?
We’ve seen in this series that messaging the gospel without neighboring the gospel undercuts the credibility of the gospel. In the famous story of the woman at the well (John 4:1-42), Jesus does both—messaging and neighboring—and the results are eternally significant, both for this woman and for much of her hometown. By looking at Jesus—the man at the well—believers can learn what messaging the gospel and neighboring the gospel look like in action. For starters, Jesus overcomes a racial barrier, a gender barrier, and a moral barrier. He then taps into some of the deepest needs buried inside this woman’s soul.
James Huneker once said, “Life is like an onion. You peel off layer after layer only to discover in the end that there is nothing in it . . . except your own tears.” The Samaritan woman probably would have agreed with that sentiment. As Jesus peels back the layers of her life here in John 4, he exposes a heart that desperately needs him—a heart that’s been a fountain of tears for many years. She’s a loner and an outcast, but Jesus spends a significant amount of time with her. For once in her life, she feels valued. Even Jesus’ disciples are amazed by the encounter, which primes this woman to hear the good news.
But Jesus does not present the gospel as a stale template or a set of canned talking points. He does so with fluidity, spontaneity, creativity, and respect. It’s personal and relational. It’s pointed yet engaging. He finds a way to tap into her real questions and deepest concerns. He also finds a way to turn the conversation to spiritual things for her benefit without ever watering down the truth. Through it all, the woman discovers that Jesus is much more than a mere man, and what he offers is much more than a new religion. By watching Jesus in action, believers today can discover that gospel neighboring and gospel messaging is a solid path to gospel embracing.
When believers get serious about neighboring the gospel, we soon discover that not everyone shares our love of Christ and our practice of the Christian faith. We may even encounter civil authorities who seek to oppress us for it. That was certainly the case for much of the church in the 1st century, and it’s increasingly the case for believers around the world in the 21st century. That’s part of what makes this passage so radical. In 1 Peter 2:17, the followers of Christ are given a shocking (and world changing) command—to honor everyone. Peter writes, “Show proper respect to everyone.” In The Message paraphrase, Eugene Peterson puts it like this: “Treat everyone you meet with dignity.”
That’s hard enough to do when relationships are good, but it’s especially difficult when people are unkind to us, or when they mock us, insult us, persecute us, or try to get us to violate our conscience. Yet that’s the lofty vision to which Christians are called. Moreover, we honor others even if they don’t honor us in return. We honor others by going beyond merely tolerating them. We honor others even if we disapprove of their values, beliefs, or lifestyle choices. We honor others by disagreeing with them “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). The Greek verb to honor here means, “to set a price on,” “to ascribe worth to.” It’s what store clerks do when they put price tags on merchandise. To honor people, then, is to treat them with value, significance, dignity, importance, or respect. “Honor” is not a word of emotion but a word or recognition. The point is that people matter because they’re made in the image of God. That’s where their value comes from.
For believers to do what Peter is calling us to do, we have to make a distinction between people and their deeds. Yes, everyone should be honored for their personhood, but respect for their deeds must be earned. The good news is that everyone can be honored because grace allows us to “unstick” people’s bad deeds from their essential personhood. In that sense, the cross of Christ was a heavenly “crowbar” inserted between us and our sin. Jesus—at great cost to himself—pried the two apart. If that weren’t enough, he took our sin and stuck it on himself. Then he took his own righteousness and stuck it onto us. That’s why Paul could write, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). The problem with many believers is that we’re just too “sticky” when it comes to other people. Peter calls us to “unstick” them in our minds, speech, and manner of life.
Those who follow in the footsteps of Christ seek to align themselves with the mission of Christ. There are two wings on this bird, and both are necessary to fly well: (1) The followers of Christ will practice gospel messaging; and (2) the followers of Christ will practice gospel neighboring. The gospel, or course, is the good news announcement that a new emperor has ascended the throne—Jesus Christ, not Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:8-14; Phil 2:9-11). It’s the declaration of what God has freely done for his people in Christ (1 Cor 15:1-10a). In his death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus conquered sin and death, and those who believe in him now have their sins forgiven, and they receive a new life—not by righteous things they have done, but because of the finished work of Christ. In other words, salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, who is making all things new in the restoration of the entire cosmos. That’s the good news, and messaging that news is part of the believer’s mission.
But gospel neighboring is the other wing, and it is vitally important, too. In fact, messaging the gospel without neighboring the gospel undercuts the credibility of the gospel (Jas 2:14-17). It’s empty words and hollow bluster. We become resounding gongs and clanging symbols (1 Cor 13:1). Moreover, Jesus said that next to loving God, loving our neighbor is the greatest commandment we could keep (Matt 22:34-40). To “love” our neighbors does not necessarily mean having warm, fuzzy feelings toward them. To “love” our neighbors means to regard them as valuable and important. However wretched certain people may be—and we all have a certain amount of wretchedness in us—they are still made in the image of God. They therefore have intrinsic worth, value, significance, and dignity, whether they’re living up to their lofty status or not.
Gospel neighboring also means serving those around us, whether they believe the gospel or not (Matt 5:43-47). It’s easy to be kind to those who are like us, but Jesus doesn’t let us get away with finding loopholes in the command to love our neighbor. The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) drives home the point. But how well do we actually know our neighbors? Mr. Rogers used to sing, “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” Do we even know? If so, how well do we know them? Gospel neighboring starts with getting to know the people who providentially surround us.But this challenge raises many questions. What if we don’t like our neighbors? What if our neighbors don’t like us? What if they’re loud, obnoxious, or annoying? What if they’re immoral, violent, or dangerous? What if I’m an introvert? What if I’m already insanely busy? We have many questions about how to do this well, and we’ll look at some of them over the course of this series. For now, we’re simply getting centered on our need to radiate the gospel.
It has often been said—based on a journal entry by Søren Kierkegaard—that life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. There’s a lot of truth to that sentiment. But what if the sequence were reversed? What if we started out as old folks and got younger with the passing of time? What if we went from being slobbering seniors to drooling infants rather than the other way around? Would that contradict another truism that says youth is wasted on the young?
Welcome to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 2008, the piece was made into a film by the same name starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (story by Robin Swicord and Eric Roth; directed by David Fincher). It was also made into a stage musical in 2019. I’m captivated by the mind-bending thoughts prompted by just a cursory glance at its plot.
Born under “unusual circumstances,” Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) springs into being as an elderly man in a New Orleans nursing home, and he ages in reverse. Twelve years later, he meets Daisy, a child who flits in and out of his life as she grows up to become a dancer (Cate Blanchett). Though Benjamin has all sorts of strange adventures over the course of his life, it’s his relationship with Daisy, and the hope that they will come together at just the right time, that drives Benjamin forward. One of the money quotes in the film, which is often misattributed to Fitzgerald himself, is this:
“For what it’s worth, it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”
We always want that fresh start, don’t we? We always feel the need for genuine newness, but we worry that the sand in our hourglasses will run out of grains before we get there, leaving us with a pile of broken dreams and regrets. That’s why we write pop tunes like, “If I Could Turn Back Time” (Cher), and song lyrics like, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future” (Steve Miller Band), and clever aphorisms like, “You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays” (Meredith Wilson).
We even have a whole series of contemporary movies called Back to the Future. And then there’s Dr. Who’s TARDIS, the British time machine-spacecraft that can go anywhere in space and time at the push of a button. It’s all fantasy, of course, but these stories reveal that we’re a species obsessed with going back and starting over.
Thankfully, it’s a gracious God who provides genuine newness in Christ—the one who said we can be transformed spiritually, from the inside out, like a caterpillar to a butterfly, as if we we were being born all over again (John 3:3-8; 1 Pet 1:23).
Moreover, it’s a good and wise God whose timing is always perfect. He has promised to make all things new (Rev 21:5).
So trust in him. Lean into him. Wait on him.
Whether you’re coming or going.
Thank you, Lord, for the hope of newness that can be found in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Thank you that his gospel is the remedy for regret. Help me to live wisely as I step into the future with you, knowing that you are already there, eager to lead and sustain me by your grace. Amen.
If you knew you had only two weeks to live, what would you do? Where would you go? How would you spend your time? With whom would you spend it? What would be the final experience you give yourself before exiting this life and entering the next? Most people (believers included) would spin out scenarios that focus on their own interests, desires, or pleasures. It’s a natural and understandable impulse. By the time Jesus encounters Zacchaeus in Luke 19, he has less than two weeks to live before dying on the cross, and he knows it. But what do we see him doing? We see him focusing his time on “the priority of one.” And the one that Jesus focuses on is the chief tax collector of Jericho! No one was more despised or vilified than the wealthy Zacchaeus. Matthew was a garden variety tax collector, but Zacchaeus was his boss. He cheated the cheaters!
So, this famous story isn’t just about a mafia thug, it’s about a mafia don—the godfather of the first century. In fact, the rabbis in that day said, “A tax collector could never be saved. It would take a lifetime of lifetimes for him to repent of all his sins.” Jesus didn’t agree with them on that point, so he invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house, causing everybody to “mutter” (Luke 19:7). But it was an encounter that changed Zacchaeus’ life. Indeed, Zacchaeus received Jesus into his home, and somewhere during the visit, he received Jesus into his heart, too. The story is rich with insights about: (1) the gospel message (i.e., how the lost can be found); and (2) the gospel mission (i.e., how the found can impact the lost). It’s a story that teaches not only that God can save anybody, but also that God—and the godly—are on the lookout for the lost.
Quite significantly, in the previous chapter, a rich young ruler comes to Jesus, wanting to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. The man doesn’t like Jesus’ answer, so he goes away dejected. His wealth had become an idol to him, and Jesus tells him to smash his idol and follow him. The man won’t do it. So, Jesus declares as the man is walking away, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). But those who heard him say it asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Luke 18:26). Hear the panic in their question! The rich young ruler was a man of status and wealth, so he was assumed by most people to have been unusually blessed by God. If he can’t be saved, then who can be? The shocking truth is that Zacchaeus can be saved. In fact, Zacchaeus is the camel that Jesus got through the eye of the needle! “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). Listeners are therefore challenged at the beginning of this new year to pray:
Lord, lay some soul upon my heart, And love that soul through me; And may I bravely do my part To win that soul for Thee.
I hope your Christmas was as delightful as ours. The morning was quite leisurely—just hanging out in our pajamas and waiting for our daughter and her husband to arrive. Our son stayed over night last night after the Christmas Eve service, and we watched It’s a Wonderful Life together before going to bed. He and I had wonderful conversations and plenty of laughs this morning.
That was after I got up at 4:30 a.m. to place baby Jesus in the manger. Knowing of our tradition, my son-in-law last night placed Mary in a supine position (unbeknownst to me) to simulate her posture in labor. I chuckled when I saw it this morning, but I wasn’t sure at that point who the culprit was. I found out later it was Micah. I told him that Mary probably delivered her child on a birthing stool while holding onto an overhead rope. He said he’ll try to simulate that next year, and we’re all eager to see what he comes up with!
I made hot cinnamon rolls for breakfast, and we had a special blend of Brazilian coffee to help wake up. I then set out all the Christmas candy and goodies we’ll be grazing on over the next several days when the out-of-town family members arrive tomorrow. Many of these treats were selected because they’re the same kinds we had in my childood:
Milk and dark choloclate Wilbur buds; milk and dark choloclate covered pretzels; red and green Hershey kisses; red and green M&Ms; red and green peanut butter cups; chocolate filled straws; nonpareils; and choclate-mint truffles. The cookie collection includes peanut butter blossoms, sugar cutouts, and chocolate chips.
Before we opened our gifts, I read the story of the Magi from Matthew 2. I got a bit emotional—as I do almost every year—because I was reading from the Bible that belonged to my dearly departed father-in-law, who was also a pastor. We then gathered around the manger to remember Emmanuel, “God with us.” After that, the kids served as elves and distributed the gifts.
There are far too many presents to mention here, but I’ll note two from the kids that captured my heart. First, my son gave me an incredibly unique wooden Phillies mug—made out of an actual bat! I can’t wait to try it tomorrow morning! My daughter and son-in-law made me a gift that got me super choked up. It’s a cricut canvas that says, “Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices.” That’s a line from the hauntingly beautiful Christmas carol “O Holy Night,” the same one we were singing to my mom when she passed away.
We then had Christmas dinner, which consisted of oven-baked turkey, Pennsylvania Dutch potato filling, green beans, dried (Cope’s) corn, salad, crescent rolls, apple pie, and sparkling cider. All of us are stuffed. And grateful.
We’re now watching a movie as the day winds down. It was Micah’s turn to make the selction this year, and he chose Elf, which is one of his favorites.
I’m so glad we don’t live in a world where it’s “always winter and never Christmas,” to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis. Rather, the manger is full. And so are our hearts.