The Diminished Cross

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Each year about this time I lament my disappointment as I once again embark on a futile search for a place to observe Good Friday among my protestant based churches.  Mind you not all have done away with such observances, but with each passing year the offerings become fewer and fewer.  In a feel-good age of cheap grace and victorious living, the message of suffering, forbearance and surrender of self, becomes increasingly diluted if mentioned at all.  The challenge of taking up one’s own cross and submitting to the unpredictable and uncomfortable life of following our Savior in His suffering and death is being largely replaced with the more popular theology of living your best life, tapping into God’s treasure trove and living a free-style life where all is covered by grace and a high five is preferable to a lowly stature of humble prayer and reflective remorse.  The cross is only relevant as a piece of jewelry or a favored tattoo and not a reminder of our sinful roots.

The cheap form of grace that some brandish about like an infinite well we didn’t have to dig was provided to us at a high cost.  In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dierich Bonhoeffer reminds us of the cost of this grace:

“such grace is costly because it calls us to follow. It is costly because it costs a man his life and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. Above all it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son; “ye were bought with a price”, and what cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”

That cost was paid on a cross.  There would be no Resurrection Sunday without the horrendous events surrounding Good Friday.  In fact there would be little value at all in an empty tomb except that given it by the verified death just three days earlier.  It is the cross that empowers the message of the resurrection-it is the bloodshed and the suffering and the ultimate show of sacrificial love by means of the cross that gives life and hope to the message of redemption and eternal life revealed by the empty tomb.  But somewhere in our attempt to make more palatable the message of hope and forgiveness many have left out the call to obedience, suffering, discipline and selflessness that the cross represents. A 30 second Sinners Prayer void of a call to total submission under the weight of a daily cross would be to hard to receive and would turn many away, so it is left off the buffet of inspirational anecdotes and dessert blessings lest the people may not come.

While I enjoy the freedom of our worship styles I am never drawn away from the integrity of the old hymns.  One of my favorites was written by Isaac Watts over three hundred years ago, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.  The descriptives held within the lyrics paint for us an undiluted picture of the price paid on the cross and the eternal value that lies within the solemn observance of that first Good Friday;

  1. When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died, my richest gain I count as loss and pour contempt on all my pride. 2. Forbid it Lord that I should boast, save in the death of Christ my God; all the vain things that charm me most I sacrifice them to his blood. 3. See, from his head, his hands, his feeet-sorrow and love flow mingled down; Did e;er such love and sorrow meet or thorns compose so rich a crown. 4. Were the whole realm of nature mine that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, deserves my soul, my life, my all.
I am the least of those to point out how we overlook the cost of the cross as we pass Go and head right to the empty tomb and collect our $200. My life is not one of submissive discipline and I fall short of understanding and living out the combined message of the tomb and the cross. But I am deeply grieved and concerned at how through the generations the high cost paid for the grace we boast has been diminished to a nearly unmentioned detail having little significance compared to Living our Best Life Now. It is the blood shed up to and on the cross that provides our healing.  It is the lashes and the nails on the cross that provide our forgiveness. It is the carrying of the cross by our King that provides us the best example of meekness and humility. And most importantly, it is only the death on the cross that made possible the glorious resurrection we celebrate at Easter.  One can not be separated from the other; one can not be observed properly as a single event without knowledge of the other. And one can not glory in the risen Savior and the empty tomb with giving glory to the crucified Lamb and the price of death paid for our redemption.
There is no shortage of scriptural texts to instill in us the ever relevant importance of observing the work accomplished on the cross.
1 Peter 2:24; He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness”
Hebrews 12:2; For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame and sat down at the right hand of the Father.
Galatians 6:14; May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.
1 Corinthians 1:17; Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom or eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Although they gave it their best effort, not even Hollywood with all their special effects could adequately capture the horror, the level of pain, the sense of abandonment nor the depth of so great a love that was displayed that Good Friday on the cross we so reluctantly acknowledge. Christ took upon his body the eternal punishment for all evil, for all hatred, for all martyrdom in his name, all terrorism, all extremism, for every lie, indiscretion, theft, for every person who has walked the face of the planet he created. The source of all life became death; the embodiment of all that is good became all that is evil so that even his own father could not look upon him in his deepest and most agonizing hour on the cross. How can we so easily brush aside the infinite sacrifice in favor of the glorious outcome? Is it because the cross reminds us of our worthlessness and our own sinfulness but for the high price paid for our grace? With all that is left of my shattered life I will attempt to find glory and worth in the cross and pray that its significance is never lost on me.

I boast not or works or tell of good deeds for naught have I done to merit his grace

All glory and praise shall rest upon him so willing to die in my place

I will glory in the cross, in the cross, lest his suffering all be in vain

I will weep no more for the cross that he bore-I will glory in the cross.

May you have a blessed, reflective and completely cognizant Easter celebration as we acknowledge the whole Easter story from the incarnation to the passion, from the death to the resurrection and from his ascention to his eventual return, all made possible by his obedience to the cross.

 

 

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Hemorrhoids as Currency-Only in the Bible

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Anyone who has had the privilege, or curse of knowing me for long knows I have somewhat of a twisted sense of humor. I can find funny things sometimes in the most mundane of situations. For example, the New Testament records for us a story of Paul who brings a man back to life after the young man falls from the wall at the place where Paul is preaching-a miracle indeed.  Most will read this story as God using Paul to perform a miracle that gives credibility to Paul’s mission, but not me.  This is how I read the story with my twisted mind. In Acts chapter 20 a young man named Eutychus (Greek, meaning good luck) is sitting on a wall as Paul preaches.  Specifically, scripture says “as Paul went on and on”. If you’ve ever been in a southern tent meeting, you know what “on and on” means. Paul literally preaches the young man to sleep, at which time he falls from the wall and dies, perhaps the origin of our phrase “bored to death”? In any event, Paul sees the situation, lays over him and miraculously brings the young man back to life, and goes on preaching as scripture records until dawn!  I can imagine here the young man thinking to himself, ala Jim Carey, “aren’t I the lucky one (again, his name means good luck)”. Yes I know, a sacrilegious perception at the very least-I just think God has a sense of humor not unlike mine!

As New Testament Christians we tend to grab our Bible and proceed to the Gospels or the Letters in our devotions-I’m guilty too. But the Old Testament is full of nuggets that many of us miss.  Besides being rich in historical recordings that are confirmed in other ancient texts, there is a bevy of humor for us who are sensitive challenged. One of the funnier but never preached on stories of the Old Testament is found in 1 Samuel 5-6.  The Philistines have taken the Ark of the Covenant. We all know how seriously God treated the handling of His Ark. They take it back and set it in the temple of one of their gods, Dagon.  In fact they place the Ark right next to the statue of Dagon, a bold and brazen move. The next morning when their priests arrive and enter the temple they find the statue of Dagon lying face down before the Ark, as in worship. I think that’s funny. Anyway they set the statue of Dagon back on its perch.  The next morning they come in and find the same thing, Dagon lying before the Ark  but this time, its head and hands have been broken off and are laying to the side. God could easily have destroyed the image by fire or crumbled it into hundreds of pieces, but instead He placed him face down before the Ark as a sign of reverence in a playful display.

Because the Philistines were mistreating the sacred Ark that they should not be possession of in the first place, God smites them with a smitey smite!  Bloody water, no; grasshoppers and locusts, no; weeks of darkness, no. God’s punishment of choice, Hemorrhoids! Translated texts use the word tumor because it is less explicit but earlier translations use the word “emerods”, which has been concluded to mean hemorrhoids. “Emerods in their inner places”, as recorded, is much more descriptive to the twisted minds of Biblical scholars. Can the story get more funny, you bet. Consumed by their burning punishment and well before the invention of Preparation H, they appeal to God as to how to be relieved from their suffering.

At this point those with a weak constitution may choose to stop reading as the cure is as painful (and I might add gross) as the affliction.  The remedy-God demanded five gold plated emerods!  Gold was the currency of the day.  Someone had to take five hemorrhoids and cast  them in gold as a sacrifice to God. So I have to ask myself the obvious question that few would ponder, again because that’s just the way I’m wired. Who would be the least fortunate, the person chosen to collect and cast these hemorrhoids in gold, or the unlucky soul who, with no anesthesia had to offer them up?  Say about me what you will-I see that God has a funny and twisted side to Him just like me.  After all, He accepted me as one of His kids so He can’t be all there, right?

Seriously, God is to be reverenced and worshiped for His Deity as we do each week together or in our individual time alone with Him. But it’s ok to laugh at the thought of some of God’s recorded antics as proof of His lighter side. Maybe George Burns or Morgan Freeman’s depictions of God in their respective films Oh God and Bruce Almighty aren’t so far off. Maybe there is a time to worship Him in solemnness and reflection as well as a time to laugh about Him in a celebration of mirth.

Or just maybe the funny side of God can only be revealed to the simple twisted minds of a few like me.

Applied Christianty-Do We Really Get It?

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Upon our recent trip to Southern California we had the privilege of spending some time with one of our adopted kids-in-Christ. She and her peers from Vanguard University had gone on a mission to the Philippines earlier in the year to work with an orphanage.  When she arrived back in the states she was very certain that God was calling her to go back for an immediate return trip.  Learning of the opportunity and the need my wife and I were happy to provide some staple items that she would deliver to the orphanage and a birth center.  In every aspect, it really was the least we could do.  While in California we were blessed and convicted to hear the report of her latest mission trip.

She described for us in great detail the climate of the islands. Her “accommodations” were hot, humid and buggy. It was required that she sleep in long sleeves and pants to ward off insect bites and other night time creatures, though sleeping in this hot and humid climate with no air conditioning. Although she felt God’s hand of protection, safety is always an issue on the island as local law enforcement can be bought by the highest bidder. While she was relaying her experiences she was popping antibiotics for an amoeba she had picked up on her last trip.  As she told us her story we were all to the point of tears.  Why?  Because she suffered so much while doing good? Because of the horrendous living conditions of those she was serving? Not at all.  It was because of the glow on her face as she gave us the details-because of the love you could see in  her eyes and her expression for the kids she had come to know on her trips. And because of the true guilt we felt when  she told us that she could not wait to go back!

This young college student was showing me, a professed follower of Christ for over 45 years, what Christianity looked like when applied.  I was and am still dumbfounded. Still dealing with parasites and bug bites this young lady can’t wait to go back into the conditions most of us would shy away from, just to be a blessing to children who have no family but show love to all who come into their villages.  I was so proud and at the same time, so shamed.

We sing “Give Me Your Eyes” and “I Want to be Your Hands and Feet” emotionally in our comfortable climate controlled worship services and listen intently to messages about the Good Samaritan once a week to get out “feel good” on, but do we take it to the streets?  Are we living an applied Christian faith in our everyday lives?  Are we quick to jump on a soapbox over social ills and ungodly laws but slow to buy a homeless person a meal or give a coat to a street teen?  Are we guilty of hitting Like and Share and typing Amen on social websites to show our faith but stingy in our response to support even our local shelters or charities?  I have to tell you straight up-upon hearing this young lady’s testimony I was convicted to the core.

James 2 in the Message Bible speaks this same sentiment to me like this:

“Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really (gets it)? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say ‘Good Morning Friend! Be clothed in Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit!” and yet walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup-where does that get you?  Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?” 

I am not a man of means but I know now that if I am to reflect through my walk what I profess in my talk, I need to be less concerned with my approaching retirement and more concerned with the real-time needs of those around me “while it is still day”. I need to be teaching our young people how to show forth good works rather than being schooled by those who “got it” much sooner than I did. She will tell you that she’s been blessed by crossing paths with my wife and I, but I will tell you I’ve been changed by crossing hers! God help us to emulate those around us who get and apply their faith, even when they are 20 or so years our junior.

The Purpose of Memorials

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One of the most solemn and eerie memorials we ever visited was the Pearl Harbor Memorial situated over the sunken Arizona in Hawaii. From the deck you can easily view the remains of the lost battleship that serves as the final resting place of hundreds of brave soldiers. You can see and smell the still leaking oil from the steel tomb rising to the surface. The legend is that as long as there are survivors of that attack the oil will continue to rise to the surface as a reminder and a sign from their shipmates below. It’s an experience that pierces the hardest facades and causes one to remember the tragic losses of that infamous day.

April 14th, 1984. We received a call at the office to return home immediately-there was a fire. Upon pulling into the parking lot of our apartment complex we were in shock to see the burned out frame of what was just an hour before, our home. We were left with the clothes we wore to work that day. Nothing survived-except one sole box that held a collection of ribbons I had won in High School during my Track and Field Days.  I still have that box tucked safely away in my garage.  It is my reminder of the events of that day.

Our lives are built around a series of markers, or memorials, some of pleasant events and others of painful experiences.  They are left behind to tell us that something significant happened in our lives on this particular day or at this certain location. We may not even recognize the markers that we encounter.  Our mates are a marker of the day we entered into the marital commitment, a pleasant day for most.  Our kids are walking markers of the day love brought forth shared life. April 15th is a marker that reminds us that it’s time to pay our increasing tax burden for the freedoms we enjoy. The American Flag is a constantly waving reminder that even though she is sick and maybe not what she used to be, she is still the greatest country in the world.  No one is trying to escape our borders.

As believers we have several memorials left behind for our observance. The rainbows that appear after a heavy storm are God’s reminder to us to never destroy the earth for our sins and disobedience to Him. The communion we receive is done in remembrance of the love and the sacrifice of our Savior as He gave up His body and blood for our good. Christmas and Easter and the Passover are calendar memorials that commemorate the events of the Bible that are central to our faith. The cross we wear around our neck or tattoo on our body is a memorial of the ultimate expression of love that is just as fresh to day as it was over two thousand years ago.

On This Memorial Day we pay tribute to the brave men and women who served, who lost limbs, who suffered tragic burns in explosions and who paid the ultimate price of their lives so that we could bicker over religious freedoms, argue over Constitutional rights, blame everyone but ourselves for our current status and yes, even stomp Old glory and burn the Holy Bible. The freedoms we were blessed by God to be born into did not come cheap. There was a heavy toll paid for our freedom.  We must never forget that.

And the eternal life and salvation that we were born again into also came at a heavy price-we must never forget that either. God bless you this Memorial Day, God bless and have mercy on America.

I AM HE-The Proven Submission of Jesus

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Most of us have seen various depictions through movies of the events leading up to and including the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Some may have even felt a tinge of hostility toward the religious leaders and Roman rule who so viciously had Jesus beaten, tortured and put to death, as if they were actually in control of the events. The accounts of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest and trial are similarly recorded in the four gospels.  But the account John gives us has one added observation, one that leaves us with no doubt that the only person who had total control of the events that night was in fact Jesus.

This account aligns perfectly with the intent and theme of each of the four gospels, not to be viewed as inconsistent, but as different perspectives of the same story.  Matthew writes to Jews familiar with the Old Testament presenting the genealogy of Jesus and proof of Old Testament prophecy that Jesus in the expected Messiah. Mark’s audience is more to the Romans not familiar with the Old Testament prophecies.  Mark provides more stories of the miracles of Jesus as proof through action of His deity. Luke’s objective was to point out the human element of Jesus through various and detailed physical descriptions, including the anatomical aspects of the death of Jesus-fully God in the form of human man.  John on the other hand wrote in a way to show us from the very first verse that Jesus was the human expression of the eternal God-“In the beginning was the Word-the Word was with God and the Word  WAS GOD!”  So it’s only natural that John would remind us that even in death, Jesus God was present. This is how John reveals this to us in his gospel:

John 18:1-5;   18 After saying these things, Jesus crossed the Kidron Valley with his disciples and entered a grove of olive trees. Judas, the betrayer, knew this place, because Jesus had often gone there with his disciples. The leading priests and Pharisees had given Judas a contingent of Roman soldiers and Temple guards to accompany him. Now with blazing torches, lanterns, and weapons, they arrived at the olive grove. Jesus fully realized all that was going to happen to him, so he stepped forward to meet them. “Who are you looking for?” he asked. “Jesus the Nazarene,” they replied. I am he,” Jesus said. (Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.) As Jesus said I am he,” they all drew back and fell to the ground!

Jesus God invoked the very name He had given in response to Moses when asked “who should I tell them has sent me?”  God said “tell them I Am has sent you”. At the very verbalizing of the name ‘I Am” all who came to arrest Jesus were given full disclosure if they had any doubt of who Jesus really was-God!  Who was in the crowd that came that night to arrest Jesus?  The gospels give us enough information to determine that it was a mixed crowd of select religious leaders, the guards of the Jewish temple and Roman soldiers-Jews and Gentiles alike. It is given through Peter’s response in slicing off the ear of one of the religious leader’s servants that even the disciples were shaken at the betrayal and arrest of Jesus, so His response of “I Am” and the resulting “we all fall down” that they witnessed served to assure them too that Jesus was in total control.

I can’t help but imagine the reaction of the religious leaders when they found themselves on the ground at the mention of the name “I Am”. How long did they sit there? Were they in shock?  Did they begin to question their authority or Christ’s deity? How could they just get up, shake the dust from their cloaks and continue in this arrest?  What about the Roman guard?  They were strong and feared men who ruled by force and intimidation.  They were reportedly carrying swords on their person.  But at the mentioning of the name “I Am” they too were knocked backwards to the ground by the power of Jesus’ words.  There should have been little doubt to all who were present that night, the religious leaders, the Roman guard and the followers of Christ that this man was God in the flesh and in charge of the situation.

Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus portrays this very nature of total control of what’s coming ahead.  In John 10:14-18 Jesus spells it out for us very clearly:

 14“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

In Mark’s gospel, chapter 8, Jesus is again recorded as predicting to His followers what must come.  From the Message Bible,

30-32 Jesus warned them to keep it quiet, not to breathe a word of it to anyone. He then began explaining things to them: “It is necessary that the Son of Man proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religion scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive.” He said this simply and clearly so they couldn’t miss it.

Those who heard these words at the time perhaps did not fully grasp what Jesus was predicting.  I’m quite certain that given the crucial role the disciples would eventually play in the birth of the new church and the new gospel, Jesus needed them too to be reminded that night that His betrayal and arrest was prophetic and being orchestrated as part of the plan of salvation set forth from the beginning of time, when Jesus was the Word and was with God and was God.

For good measure, Jesus reminded even Pilate of His power and control, recorded again by John in chapter 19;

He took Jesus back into the headquarters[a] again and asked him, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave no answer. 10 “Why don’t you talk to me?” Pilate demanded. “Don’t you realize that I have the power to release you or crucify you?”

11 Then Jesus said, “You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above.

In no way is this a suggestion that Jesus laid aside the physical aspects of His humanity as to not suffer pain. Any inferred implication that this was the case is not supported by scriptural texts. Jesus was fully God with complete power and control but yet fully man, responding to the torture and pain as any mortal man would. Luke is quick to record for us the physical elements of Christ’s suffering. Jesus was clear and deliberate to everyone present at the time and all who choose to observe His recorded words today that He voluntarily surrendered His life-laid it down and relinquished physical control, suffered the humiliating torment of suffering and death ascribed to the common criminal of that period out of a pure love we can never fully comprehend.  Jesus God allowed Roman guards to beat Him about the face, pull out his hair and beard, spit on Him, mock him, discriminate against Him and publicly bully Him. He didn’t demand his rights-He didn’t sue for defamation of character or false arrest-He didn’t accuse the leaders of profiling or religious bigotry. He simple gave us His life of His own free will as the ultimate and supreme sacrifice for all mankind for all time to come, because He wanted to, because He could and because He loved us that much. The Great I Am proved His submission to us. How unworthy I am for such a sacrifice.