Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Great bunt!

I saw something at a baseball game today I've never seen before. (Yes, my wonderful job scores high marks for giving us a baseball outing ;) ).

We're all familiar with the post-home run trek by the team to meet the hero - high fives all the way around. In fact, in our culture it's probably a picture that needs no caption; we just assume that's what happened, and move on to the next success story.

But today, our home team showed me something different. Yes, they congratulated the home run-hitting hero, but a few plays later jaunted out to meet another player -- one who had just made a successful sacrifice bunt, getting out at first but advancing the runner into scoring position. I watched in amazement as I realized that had I seen a picture, I would have assumed that he was being congratulated for a home run - the greeting equalled that of the earlier player who had hit it over the fence.

As I watched, I thought of two kingdom workers. One, "Sam", was released this week from jail in South Asia after many believers turned out to protest. He had been jailed for sharing truth, and upon release was merely told not to "cause any more trouble". It was a home run, and cheers and high fives were certainly called for. The second, Cyd Mizell, was murdered almost two months ago in Central Asia. Our prayers and pleas turned out differently than we expected. Yet as Tertullian said, "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church." And so Cyd gave up a sacrifice bunt, advancing the cause of Christ in ways we might not understand until heaven. But many of us have struggled to accept that this, too, is part of the victorious Christian life.

In the convicting book Cat & Dog Theology, Bob Sjogren & Geral Robinson call this "winner's circle theology". It's what makes us identify with Moses rather than the Israelite serving as a slave in the middle of the 400 years in Egypt. It's what causes us to love the story of Daniel in the lion's den, and skim over the prophets who were killed. And it's also what often causes us to stumble when we feel our work is in vain.

The fact is, we're all on the same team for the kingdom. We have different roles to play, and sometimes we might not understand how it fits into the big picture. Some kingdom workers have found themselves "unsuccessful" in numbers, but translated massive amounts of scripture for the next generation to utilize. Others have found resistance and met it on their knees, opening doors in the heavenlies that they were never priviliged to walk through. More than one has found themselves in an unchosen location because of political circumstances, wondering what to do next. I submit to you that all of these were used by God to give a sacrifical bunt, advancing the kingdom in a way equally victorious to the home run of the evangelist that came along later.

You may even be facing your own trial of "success". You may be wondering how your recently defunct Bible study fits in. You may dread that next newsletter, because all you can say is how hard you're praying for open doors, and your supporters want to see some answers. You may wonder if numbers are truly insignificant, since that is what you're always asked to share.

If so, please hear my heart on this: On behalf of the body of Christ, I give you a high five. I'm meeting you on your way back to the dugout to tell you what you desperately need to hear tonight:

Great bunt.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tragedy - or miracle?

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, "Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise." And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened. (Luke 24:1-12 ESV)

It has already been one of those weeks. We've been hit recently with over $800 in unexpected expenses. Our dog has a tumor that is likely cancerous. A family friend who is moving to our town this weekend ended up in the hospital yesterday with some serious problems. There never seems to be enough time. And a quick check of the news brings nothing to lift my spirits.

It's easy to be perplexed.

And yet, having just spent a week immersed in the lessons of Jesus' last week on earth, I am drawn back to our Easter Sunday message from church.

Our pastor spoke on Luke 24:1-12. The women went to the tomb that morning, not to observe the fulfillment of a promise, but out of devotion to Him. They were completing the Jewish burial purification process - with over 75 lb of oils and spices, the weight that would be prepared for kings. (Mark tells us that they didn't plan ahead for the heavy stone in front the tomb, wondering on the way how it would be removed.) Suddenly, they arrive at the tomb and the stone is rolled away! A miracle, right?

But they didn't see it that way. They were perplexed. John's Gospel lets us know that there was the assumption that someone had taken His body. A miracle had occurred, and they couldn't see it.

How like us. We tend to focus on the apparent defeat ("Where is He?") rather than the obvious victory ("He is Risen!"). We get perplexed, because we don't make the connection with the facts right before our eyes, and the promise He has made.

The key, our pastor observed, is found in verse 6: We must "remember how He spoke to us." We must keep His words before us. We must rest in the promises of God, which are "Yes and Amen" in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 1:20). In other words, they are totally fulfilled in Him. We just have to get our eyes adjusted to see it.

And that is also where the resurrection miracle comes in. As our pastor noted, "The stone wasn't rolled away so that Jesus could walk out -- it was moved so we could look in!" God doesn't keep His miracles from us. He is glorified when we see a miracle for what it really is. And so He moved the stone, so the world could see the resurrection miracle.

I confess, I'm still perplexed. I'm struggling to see the victory in our recent challenges and those of our sick friend. Yet I know that through the Holy Spirit, we experience the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. I know that His Word will transform my perplexity into understanding. And I know that He is in control.

The empty tomb is proof. And its power doesn't stop on Easter Sunday.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Motivation of Assurance

Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things--things that belong to salvation. For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. Heb 6:9-12 ESV)

There is something incredibly motivating about assurance. When we feel safe and secure in a relationship, we are motivated to step beyond our masks and walls to that place of authenticity. The best bosses are those who motivate us from a position of security, not one of fear. And knowing what we are like, God inspired the author of Hebrews to remind us not to "work harder" but to draw on the motivating power of assurance.

Interestingly, this highly encouraging passage follows one which challenges and warns us not to let go of the hope set before us. Now the author says that he is certain of something better - not that the Hebrews would lose faith, but that they have reason for assurance. At the heart of that assurance is their good works of service to the saints - done in love for His sake. With such "proof of the pie in the pudding", they could press on for full assurance. And with this full assurance should come not sluggishness, but an increased faith and imitation of those gone before.

God hasn't forgotten your service done out of love for Him, either. He sees and knows all you've sacrificed. And He wants you to have a full assurance of faith - one that leads to increased good works, deeper faith, and a closer walk with Him. You don't have to drum up motivation. Just draw near to Him, and let the assurance He provides lead you to a motivation like you've never known!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

He is Risen - He is Risen Indeed!

The traditional Easter greeting in 59 languages (from Please post it in the comments in the language of the people group YOU are in if it is not listed - and have a blessed Resurrection Sunday!

English: Christ is Risen! Indeed He is risen!
Albanian: Khrishti unjal! Vertet unjal!
Aleut: Khristus anahgrecum! Alhecum anahgrecum!
Alutuq: Khris-tusaq ung-uixtuq! Pijii-nuq ung-uixtuq!
Amharic: Kristos tenestwal! Bergit tenestwal!
Anglo-Saxon: Crist aras! Crist sodhlice aras!
Arabic: El Messieh kahm! Hakken kahm!
Armenian: Kristos haryav ee merelotz! Orhnial eh harootyunuh kristosee!
Aroman: Hristolu unghia! Daleehira unghia!
Athabascan: Xristosi banuytashtch'ey! Gheli banuytashtch'ey!
Bulgarian: Hristos voskrese! Vo istina voskrese!
Byelorussian: Khrystos uvaskros! Sapraudy uvaskros!
Chinese: Helisituosi fuhuole! Queshi fuhuole!
Coptic: Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!
Czech: Kristus vstal a mrtvych! Opravdi vstoupil!
Danish: Kristus er opstanden! I sandhed Han er Opstanden!
(or Sandelig Han er Opstanden!)
Dutch: Christus is opgestaan! Ja, hij is waarlijk opgestaan!
Eritrean-Tigre: Christos tensiou! Bahake tensiou!
Esperanto: Kristo levigis! Vere levigis!
Estonian: Kristus on oolestoosunt! Toayestee on oolestoosunt!
Ethiopian: Christos t'ensah em' muhtan! Exai' ab-her eokala!
Finnish: Kristus nousi kuolleista! Totisesti nousi!
French: Le Christ est ressuscite! En verite il est ressuscite!
Gaelic: Kriost eirgim! Eirgim!
Georgian: Kriste ahzdkhah! Chezdmaridet!
German: Christus ist erstanden! Er ist wahrhaftig erstanden!
Greek: Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!
Hawaiian: Ua ala hou `o Kristo! Ua ala `I `o no `oia!
Hebrew: Ha Masheeha houh kam! A ken kam! (or Be emet quam!)
Icelandic: Kristur er upprisinn! Hann er vissulega upprisinn!
Indonesian: Kristus telah bangkit! Benar dia telah bangkit!
Italian: Cristo e' risorto! Veramente e' risorto!
Japanese: Harisutosu Fukkatsu! Jitsu ni Fukkatsu!
Javanese: Kristus sampun wungu! Saesto panjene ganipun sampun wungu!
Korean: Kristo gesso! Buhar ha sho nay!
Latin: Christus resurrexit! Vere resurrexit!
Latvian: Kristus ir augsham sales! Teyasham ir augsham sales vinsch!
Lugandan: Kristo ajukkide! Amajim ajukkide!
Malayalam (Indian): Christu uyirthezhunnettu! Theerchayayum uyirthezhunnettu!
Nigerian: Jesu Kristi ebiliwo! Ezia o' biliwo!
Norwegian: Kristus er oppstanden! Han er sannelig oppstanden!
Polish: Khristus zmartvikstau! Zaiste zmartvikstau!
Portugese: Cristo ressuscitou! Em verdade ressuscitou!
Romanian: Cristos a inviat! Adevarat a inviat!
Russian: Khristos voskrese! Voistinu voskrese!
Sanskrit: Kristo'pastitaha! Satvam upastitaha!
Serbian: Cristos vaskres! Vaistinu vaskres!
Slovak: Kristus vstal zmr'tvych! Skutoc ne vstal!
Spanish: Cristo ha resucitado! En verdad ha resucitado!
Swahili: Kristo amefufukka! Kweli Amefufukka!
Swedish: Christus ar uppstanden! Han ar verkligen uppstanden!
Syriac: M'shee ho dkom! Ha koo qam!
Tlingit: Xristos Kuxwoo-digoot! Xegaa-kux Kuxwoo-digoot!
Turkish: Hristos diril-di! Hakikaten diril-di!
Ugandan: Kristo ajukkide! Kweli ajukkide!
Ukranian: Khristos voskres! Voistinu voskres!
Welsh: Atgyfododd Crist! Atgyfododd yn wir!
Yupik: Xris-tusaq Ung-uixtuq! Iluumun Ung-uixtuq!
Zulu: Ukristu uvukile! Uvukile kuphela!

Resurrection Sunday: "I have seen the Lord!"

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.(John 29:18)

What does it mean that Jesus is alive? Human wisdom cannot grasp the depth of what Jesus’ resurrection means, but Christians recognize that it is so crucial, so vital, so significant to know that His grave is empty.

Jesus not only died for us, but He was also raised from the dead by God the Father. And the significance of that is incredible. Because He lives ...

I am a new creation. 2 Cor. 5:17 says, “Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” All of my previous sin and shame have been forgiven, but God’s grace goes beyond that: Romans 6 explains that my old self died with Christ, and I have been raised up with Him and have been made new. Because Jesus lives, I am simply not the same person that I was before I became a Christian.

I have an eternal hope. 1 Cor. 15 is a key New Testament passage explaining the importance of Christ’s resurrection. Paul makes his main point in verse 19: “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” Paul explains that if Christ didn’t rise from the dead, we have no hope of a resurrection of the dead, either. If there is no resurrection of the dead, there is no eternal life. Paul goes on in verse 52 to emphasize the truth, which makes our hope a certainty: “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”

There will be a “last trumpet” that calls the dead to life. Those who are not alive at that time will be resurrected from the dead, and we shall all be changed. This last trumpet call will summon believers in Christ to heaven for eternity. It will also summon those who did not believe in Christ on this earth to eternal judgment. Because Christ was resurrected, we have the assurance that someday we, too, will be resurrected.

I have an intercessor in heaven: Jesus. Hebrews 7:25 says: “...He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.”

Jesus’ purpose RIGHT NOW is to intercede for believers. 1 John 2:1 calls Jesus our “Advocate with the Father”. What assurance it is to know that Scripturally, when I sin, Jesus stands before the Father with the scars on His body from His crucifixion, interceding on my behalf.

Please listen to these precious words: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness....if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation [acceptable sacrifice] for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” (1 John 1:9, 2:1b-2).

Becoming a Christian doesn’t make us sinless. But because Jesus lives, His wounds bear eternal testimony that He bore our sins. Because He lives, we know the penalty for our sins has been paid in full.

• I have an example of God’s limitless power. When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, he shared part of his heart’s desire: “that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings,” (Phil. 3:10, emphasis mine). When God resurrected Jesus, He demonstrated His power over death. Romans 6:9 says, “knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again: death no longer is master over Him.”

Because Jesus lives, I know that God has power over anything I may face. As Paul explained to the Ephesians: “...These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:19b-21). His resurrection is evidence of God’s power -- the “strength of His might” to which Paul referred. Never, never, NEVER, do I have to wonder if my circumstance is hopeless or my problem too big for God. Because Jesus lives, I know that God is in control.

I anticipate meeting you someday -- maybe on this earth, but definitely in heaven ... because He lives.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Saturday of Holy Week: The Sabbath Rest

The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment. (Luke 23:55-56 ESV)

It is appropriate that the waiting came on the Sabbath.

Some see Saturday of Holy Week as a dark day, filled with fear and dread for those who loved Jesus. But since we have the full revelation of Scripture, we know how the story ends. And so we can see this day not as dark, but as blessed. It is a reminder that, as Hebrews 4:9 says, "So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God". But this rest isn't achieved by completion of our own works.

Hebrews 4 teaches us that by faith, we enter in to His sabbath rest. By faith, we believe it truly is finished. By faith, we rest from our works. And by faith, we see Him not on the cross or in the tomb, but resurrected.

They didn't realize it when they went home that evening, but that pre-resurrection Sabbath would be the last one where believers would have to doubt. For today and every other Saturday of Holy Week, wherever we are in the world, whatever our personal struggles and circumstances, believers are united in this:

Tomorrow morning, there will be no wondering about the tomb. It will still be empty.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Friday of Holy Week: "They all said, 'Let Him be crucified!'"

Evil, sin, that for which Jesus died, is depicted all around Jesus in the vignettes of the Gospels on this Good Friday. How can I condemn these people? I see myself in their faces:

Judas, the betrayer. I've never sold Jesus' life to an angry mob, but I have betrayed His trust. I've betrayed Him by my actions. I've demonstrated in my past that for all my claims to be a Christian, I truly didn't belong to Him. (Matt. 26:47-56) I also know what it's like to be remorseful, without truly having a transformation of heart (Matt. 27:3-6).

Peter, the denier. Shamefully, I know what it's like to be ashamed/embarassed/afraid to acknowledge my relationship with Christ, to have the desire to fit in surpass the desire to honor Him. (Mark 14:54-72).

The legalistic Pharisees. They were so careful to avoid being defiled on the Passover and to avoid breaking the law about the money Judas returned. But they missed the main point altogether by failing to realize who Jesus was. Like them, I know what it's like to practice self-righteous legalism instead of relationship with Him. (Matt. 27:7-10; John 18:28)

Pilate, the Placater. Pilate knew Jesus had done nothing wrong, but wanted to satisfy the crowd. How sadly I know that trap. (Mark 15:15)

The crowd. No one was guiltless here - the Scripture says they "all" cried out for His crucifixion (Matt. 27:22). The pressure to conform in a group is one I know all too well.

On this Good Friday, my thoughts are filled with the truth that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. I have no grounds to elevate myself above anyone else. In fact, true Christianity never does. Followers of Christ know where they've been, and how they got where they are. And that is why the positive vignettes are so encouraging:

Simon the Cyrenian. The picture of Simon is welcome relief in the evil that swirls around. Caught up in the scene, he participates in God's eternal plan without intending to. (Mark 15:20-23). Today I praise God that despite my place among all the sinners in this story, like Simon He called me on the road to the cross.

The Centurion. Jesus made it clear to Peter that awareness of who He is comes from God, and is not revealed by man. The centurion comes to that understanding as he observes the way Jesus died (Mark 15:38-41). Like Paul, the centurion represents that God can save even the worst of sinners.

The women and John at the cross. They didn't abandon Him at the end. And Jesus saw the needs and entrusted Mary and John to each other. How encouraging to know that if we perservere to the end, if we don't abandon Him, we will be blessed beyond measure. (John 19:25-27).

Joseph of Arimathea. We shouldn't doubt that Joseph's boldness came only from God. He became part of the fulfillment of prophecy when he gathered his courage and went to Pilate. God grants boldness when we need it - and that is good to know, so that I don't repeat the mistakes of my past when I failed to acknowledge Him. (Mark 15:42-46)

Grace, grace, and more grace. God's transforming grace changed me from one of the crowd to one at the cross. For that, I worship Him today.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Thursday of Holy Week: "He loved them to the end"

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. (John 13:1, ESV)
Like never before, this year I see the motivation of love in Jesus' last hours before the crucifixion.

Reading the Gospels, we get a sense of a narrowing of purpose, of focus, of intentionality, in the latter portions as Jesus heads toward Jerusalem for the last time before the cross. His final teachings to the disciples are equally purposeful, filled with directness, example, and reflection questions to make sure they get the lessons.

But more than that, they are filled with love. Love characterized His actions in a very deliberate way. Whether washing their feet, teaching them truth, promising them the Holy Spirit, warning them about the coming events, praying for Peter in his "sifting season", partaking in the covenant meal, praying for them (and us!) in John 17, or commanding them to love God and each other, love permeates the pages marking Thursday of Holy Week.

And it's not just love for them. Certainly He loved them - the passage above not only speaks to the love He showed in the Upper Room, but points to the cross - where His would truly be poured out in full and Jesus would cry "It is finished!" (John 19:30). But there was a higher love motivating Jesus.

I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go from here. (John 14:30-31).

The cross not only demonstrated God's love for us (Rom. 5:8), but also revealed to the world that Jesus loved the Father! Jesus here is living a dramatic example of the command He gave in John 14:15, that if we love Him we would obey Him. He could say that, because He practiced it in His relationship to the Father.

Jesus' last hours before His arrest were an intense demonstration of the Great Commandments - love for God and love for others. May all our days be filled with the same. And may our love glorify Him.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Wednesday of Holy Week: The sound of silence

I'm glad that there are no passages for Wednesday of Holy Week.

I know Jesus did things that day - there was a feast in town, and He was teaching His disciples. But God did not inspire any Gospel writer to record words for this day. And somehow, that relieves me.

There are days in my life when I go faithfully about what God has put before me, reading His Word and praying, without a specific word from Him. There are days that I wonder if He's disappeared from the picture, but I trust His Word enough to know He's present even when He's behind the scenes. I may want to know more about what's going on, but He knows that what's been revealed is sufficient.

We all have our Wednesdays of Holy Week - those silent times when we want to know more, or when we wish we had a word. Mother Teresa's lasted for years - she reported that God gave her a clear, powerful call to Calcutta, and then she served for years without a new word from Him to motivate her. St. John of the Cross called it "The Dark Night of the Soul."

And yet the darkness is not dark to Him. He is there. He is busy. And He will explode on the scene tomorrow with words more profound than we can imagine.

But for today, we wait on Him.

Tuesday of Holy Week: "The greatest among you"

[I apologize for the lateness of this post - I had technical difficulties last night.]

As I mature in Christ, I come to realize how many things are easier in theory than in practice. For me, servanthood is near the top of the list.

That's why on this Tuesday of Holy Week, when Jesus presented teaching discourses on the end times, the resurrection, and other topics, I was gripped most by his words to the apostles about servanthood:

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Mat 23:8-12 ESV)

Jesus would soon present this lesson vividly, first at their feet in the Upper Room, then on the cross. Yet on this day, He taught them verbally that positions of authority don't matter. True greatness comes from servanthood.

Servanthood is much easier when we are appreciated and loved for it. Yet, as someone once said to me, "The true test of servanthood is how you act when you are treated like one." My boss is wonderful, but I know that serving would be much more challenging if he treated me like a servant. That's why I am intrigued by an unexpected Scriptural example of servanthood.

This example comes not from the disciples, who were busy arguing about who was greatest (Luke 22:24-30). It comes not even from Jesus Himself, though His example of servanthood is supreme. Instead, it comes from a woman who found herself being used as a contrasting example to others in the room:

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner." And Jesus answering said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." And he answered, "Say it, Teacher." "A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt." And he said to him, "You have judged rightly."

Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven--for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little." And he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this, who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." (Luk 7:36-50 ESV)

This woman did what Simon, and later the disciples (John 13), didn't do - she washed Jesus' feet. But her motivation was worship. She was enormously grateful to the One who dined with sinners, and she demonstrated that gratitude in worship at His feet - worship that included serving in a way others seemed to feel was beneath them.

Another woman is featured with an alabaster box, anointing Jesus' head - and interestingly, it may be the same one (compare Luke 7:40 and Matt. 26:6 with John 12:1-2):

Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, "Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor." But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, "Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her." (Mat 26:6-13 ESV)

Again, the focus is on worship. But Mary of Bethany serves Jesus by anointing Him for burial. And she is honored for doing so. She is the picture of greatness, on her knees before the Lord.

And so the lesson for me is that to improve my ability to serve, I can't focus on service. It's counterintuitive, but I will only be able to serve others if I get my eyes off them and onto Jesus. I will only be able to be treated like a servant if my goal is worship. I will only fail to be dissuaded by people if His glory is my heart's desire.

Those of you on the field are my examples in this. I see you laying down your lives over and over, not for the sake of service but for the cause of worship. And I am trying to learn to do the same.

This Holy Week, let's pray for each other that our service will flow from worship.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Monday of Holy Week: "We Wish to See Jesus"

Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. "Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven: "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.
(Joh 12:20-33 ESV)

This passage confused me for a long time. The Greeks come asking to see Jesus, and He talks about His pending death. I wasn't sure if they ever got their answer, or if they got to see Jesus. I eventually saw how their coming was an indication of God's timing, but the pieces failed to fit in a meaningful way.

But as I read it this morning, I saw it in a new light. [Side note: Try asking God for new insights each year on these familiar passages. Wow!] Suddenly I saw Jesus' answer to the Greeks. They wanted to see Him; He revealed the cross.

We can never see Jesus apart from the cross. We may wish to see Him as a Babe in the manger, as a Healer, as a compassionate man whose parables drip with pearls of wisdom. We may wish to see Him as a curiosity or as a friend. But we can never see Him apart from the cross. Any other image of Him is not only incomplete, it is deceptive.

The resurrection we will celebrate Sunday is vital - essential to our faith, in fact. But we only get to it through the cross.
"We never move on from the cross, only into a more profound understanding of the cross."
- Pastor and author C.J. Mahaney

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sunday of Holy Week: "The Lord Has Need of it"

Each year for several years, my Holy Week tradition has included setting aside my usual quiet time materials and instead read through a Parallel Gospels chronologically (reading Sunday of Holy Week's events on Sunday, Mondays on Monday, etc.).

Each year, God teaches me something new. This year is no exception. Today's lesson was on the role someone played entirely "off scene". Someone whose name we don't know, but whose actions fulfilled a prophecy. Someone who didn't need to hear anything other than "The Lord has need of it."

"Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' say, 'The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.'" And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?" And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. (Mark 11:2-6 ESV)
Whoever this colt belonged to didn't wake up that morning and tie out their colt with the thought of it being gone by nightfall. They didn't know that colt would have an important role to play in the fulfillment of prophecy. I don't have to know all the cultural elements involved to know there is a lesson here for me: Whatever I have that Jesus needs should be released immediately.

Resources, talents, goods, time -- I should hold it all loosely. Whenever I am asked to give up something that I had other plans for, I should only need to hear "the Lord has need of it".

Under His authority, the simplest colt becomes witness to glory. Under His authority, my simple offerings can become tools for the kingdom.

What is the Lord asking of you today? What of yours does the Lord have need of?

Let's commit to letting it go for Him.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Access to God

As a New Testament believer raised in a Christian environment, I tend to take my access to God for granted. Being from a more informal society increases my lack of understanding just how significant it is that I can come boldly before God's throne.

Esther wouldn't have had that problem. She knew the Persian law of her day, and the restrictions on access were severe:

When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry. He went up to the entrance of the king's gate, for no one was allowed to enter the king's gate clothed in sackcloth. (Est 4:1-2 ESV)

Then Esther spoke to Hathach and commanded him to go to Mordecai and say, "All the king's servants and the people of the king's provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law--to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live. But as for me, I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days." (Est 4:10-11 ESV)

"Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish." (Est 4:16 ESV)

On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king's palace, in front of the king's quarters, while the king was sitting on his royal throne inside the throne room opposite the entrance to the palace. And when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won favor in his sight, and he held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter. (Est 5:1-2 ESV)

Studying Esther has given me a glimpse into the severe restrictions of access that most people experience worldwide - and that most people perceive of their "gods". No wonder the good news of Christ is so liberating - with the Gospel, we gain access to God.

Paul writes of this access in Romans 5: 1-2

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

"Access" here is a word "commonly used for the audience of right of approach granted to someone by high officials and monarchs" (The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament edited by Spiros Zodhiates, Th.D.). In other words, the same sort of access that the Persian kings guarded carefully, God gives openly. And consistently. This verb tense indicates ongoing access - not just a one-time visit.

And this access is different from that of the kings of Persia in another way. Mordecai, you recall from the first passage above, could not even go in the city gates, much less the king's presence, in sackcloth. But through Christ, we have access to God at our point of deepest need. In fact, the author of Hebrews exhorts us to make a habit of such actions:

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:16 ESV)

Access to God. What an amazing element of the Gospel. May we never take for granted one of the very reasons He died.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Keeping Focused on Doing Good

As I've read through the New Testament the past few months - and studying James in-depth at the same time - I've been struck by the emphasis on "good works". Here are just a few of the verses - only those that actually use the exact phrase "good works". If we were to search for "good deeds" or "doing good", or those verses which express the concept without the words, the list would be extensive.

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Mat 5:16 ESV)

Jesus answered them, "I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?" (Joh 10:32 ESV)

Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. (Act 9:36 ESV)

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:10 ESV)

but with what is proper for women who profess godliness--with good works. (1Ti 2:10 ESV)

and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work. (1Ti 5:10 ESV)

So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden. (1Ti 5:25 ESV)

They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, (1Ti 6:18 ESV)

Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, (Tit 2:7 ESV)

who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Tit 2:14 ESV)

The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. (Tit 3:8 ESV)

And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful. (Tit 3:14 ESV)

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, (Heb 10:24 ESV)

Why this emphasis on good works? The early church was riddled with doctrinal controversy. There were significant political issues of the day. Christians were mistreated. Money was often tight. Persecution was common. Jesus had promised to come soon, and some just wanted to wait on Him. Yet over and over, the New Testament writers tell us to focus on good works. Why?

I thought about this today as I sat in a conference room at lunch, overlooking the grassy mall of the major university where I work. On the lawn sat a self-proclaimed preacher who likes to come to campus and stir up trouble. He professes Christianity, but devotes himself to arguing. Some well-meaning undergrads sat near him, trying to point out the errors in his thinking by using sound biblical reasoning. I've seen him around for years; I know that they are wasting their breath. He's interested in drama, not doctrine.

Meanwhile, a political battle rages in my country. There are sensational headlines almost every day, things that scream for my involvement. The issues and causes are numerous. No candidate lines up with me on every issue but I have strong opinions on who is best for the country at this time. It would be easy to focus on our nation's political needs right now.

And so it goes. Don't get me wrong - the example of Paul in Gal. 1 shows us that there is a time to focus on doctrine. And good stewardship of our democracy requires that we be an informed electorate and utilize the system God has blessed us with.

But none of that is the point. Neither is a super-spirituality that camps out on the mountaintop, rather than getting involved in the unpleasantness of the valley. Frankly, I'm a much better Christian in my quiet time than any other time of the day. But God doesn't call me to withdraw, He equips me to engage.

And so I'm convinced that among the many reasons for the emphasis on "good works" is that He knows how easy it is to be a theoretical Christian - and how hard it is to be a practical one. Just try it. Imagine the worst thing you could be asked to forgive. Figure out all the doctrinal reasons you should do it and practice it in your mind. Then think of the simplest thing you struggled to forgive. The vast difference will probably be sufficient to illustrate that walking the walk is much harder than talking the talk.

Jesus said that the greatest commandment was love. Love God, love others. And repeatedly, He tells us to show that love in practical ways. We don't get to love theoretically.

The bottom line is in the first passage above. Good works glorify God. That just doesn't happen when my Christianity is relegated to the hallways of my mind. It only happens on the streets of life. The dusty, dirty, painful streets of life.

The same roads that Jesus walked.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Senseless Death

I've been confronted lately by what seems like senseless deaths.

Cyd Mizell is apparently dead at the hands of terrorists who lack the courage to reveal their faces. Her parents grieve for the goodbyes that were never said. A ministry community struggles not to be defined by fear, but by faith.

Within the past two weeks, three college women were murdered - one in my town. One was the student government president. Another was only weeks from graduation. Parents are confronted with realities they never considered in those promising early years of college.

The stories could go on - we all know far too many of them. The question all such incidents raise is "Why?". Especially when there is no easily-seen glory, no obvious kingdom significance, we question. We label it "senseless".

I leave it to God to make sense of these circumstances. I've decided that far more important than fretting over the possibility of a senseless death is avoiding a senseless life. Avoiding what John Piper calls a wasted life. The life that many people dream about, collecting seashells at the beach and living from tee time to tee time, Piper calls wasted. I'm calling it senseless.

God prepared good works for us to walk in. Over and over, the New Testament exhorts us to practical acts of servant love, to good deeds rather than endless disputes. To loving God and others radically, having a kingdom mindset in all things. Maybe we have some inexplicable death (like Stephen or James or Peter or Paul) - and maybe we just go on to live a ripe old age and die naturally (like John). But our lives at least would not have been senseless.

I've fretted over these deaths the last couple of days, but I've decided that's a wasted focus. Tragedies though they were, the real tragedy is not a senseless death, but a senseless life.

May it never be, Lord. May it never be.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Adorning the Gospel

showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior (Titus 2:10b)

God wants us to show off the Gospel.

At the heart of this command to slaves is this principle that applies to all of us: the gospel - the "doctrine of God" to which Paul refers - is something that our lives should adorn, or show off.

John Piper illustrates this in a memorable way. The Gospel, he says, is like a pretty girl, and our works are the necklace that adorns her. The problem with us is that sometimes we get it backwards and think the gospel adorns us, showing us off - but that's not the case at all. Read the short book of Titus for the theme of good works and you'll see how clear Paul makes the truth: because of our justification, our lives should be filled with good works, especially in times of urgent need, that adorn or show off the Gospel. And, he says, avoid all sorts of meaningless arguments to focus on these good works.

So hang in there today. Seek those good works that show off the Gospel!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Hearing What We Want To Hear

Sometimes our dog absolutely refuses to come when called. Like the other day - I put him out before a thunderstorm, and tried to get him to come in before the heavens opened. But he was determined to take the scenic route, oblivious to the clouds.

It's so interesting that this happens not at mealtime, or at bedtime (when he gets to come sleep next to our bed) - but when he is wandering around the backyard, his nose to the ground, sniffing whatever dogs sniff at such times. I read that hunting dogs (of which he is part) literally have their ears shut off when their nose is engaged. And I believe it.

I'm convinced it's not that he doesn't WANT to listen ... it's just that there are so many interesting things to sniff. And in sniffing something, his ears get shut off to me.

Unfortunately I'm more like George than I like to admit. There are times I can't wait to hear from God - just like George loves when he hears his supper or when I tell him it's bedtime. At other times, though, I wander around sniffing - with my ears closed. Like George, I don't mean to ignore God ... but when I'm sniffing the dirt, my ears get shut off. How many times God must watch me wander around, taking the scenic route to Him, when all He wants is for me to come running before I get drenched!
Oh, for a heart that desires God more than the smell of any dirt! May we all see His beauty and find Him irresistable - and never be satisfied with anything less than the quickest, straightest path to Him.
“Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
-C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Day God Left No Footprints

"Footprints in the Sand." We've all heard the story so much that it's almost lost its meaning. At the end of his life, a man sees two sets of footprints - his walk with God. But mysteriously, there were often only one set of footprints. He learns that on those days, God was carrying him.

The story is profoundly true, revealing God's sovereign care during our difficult circumstances. And that is why I was stunned to read in Scripture about the day God left no footprints.

The Psalmist Asaph recounts the story during his own time of trouble (see Psalm 77). Unable to sleep, he tries to make sense of what he is going through, becomes fearful that God's promise would fail, and decides to recount God's mighty works as an antidote to his fear (not a bad prescription for insomnia as well!). In need of his own "mighty works", the story he chooses to recount is the crossing of the Red Sea. Pay special attention to verse 19:

77:14 You are the God who does amazing things;
you have revealed your strength among the nations.
77:15 You delivered your people by your strength –
the children of Jacob and Joseph. (Selah)
77:16 The waters saw you, O God,
the waters saw you and trembled.
Yes, the depths of the sea shook with fear.
77:17 The clouds poured down rain;
the skies thundered.
Yes, your arrows flashed about.
77:18 Your thunderous voice was heard in the wind;
the lightning bolts lit up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
77:19 You walked through the sea;
you passed through the surging waters,
but left no footprints.

77:20 You led your people like a flock of sheep,
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

(Ps. 77:14-20, NET)

Here is something that Exodus doesn't reveal: God walked through the sea with them, passing through the waters without leaving footprints. Modern "higher criticism" loves to debate what natural phenomenon parted the sea for the Israelites to cross. Asaph has no such concerns; he leaves no doubt that the sea parted as God walked through it. His footprints weren't there - but He was.

God led Israel across the Red Sea. Moses and Aaron's hands were what the people saw, but God went before them. Our humanistic perspective turns this story into "Moses parted the Red Sea for the Israelites" ... but Asaph's Godward view lets us see that GOD walked first, and the Sea parted. Of course it did. Its Creator was passing through, and the Sea showed proper reverence.

Asaph's psalm ends here. But I don't doubt that he achieved the peace he sought. Whatever he was going through, whether he could see God in it or not, God was there. The sovereign Creator of the Universe was in total control. His promises wouldn't fail, and someday things would make sense.

What is keeping you awake at night? What questions do you ask God - or do you want to ask God, but are afraid to voice? Think over God's mighty works - in Scripture, in your life, in the lives of those you know. Look beyond the current surface events to God's hand behind the scenes. Maybe the situation is like Esther, where God's name isn't mentioned but His sovereignty is evident. Or maybe it's like the parting of the Red Sea, where God is actively leading you through the surging waters.

Be an Asaph. Pray for eyes of faith to see the unseen. Bow at His feet in worship - and kiss the feet that walk through life ahead of you, leaving no footprints.

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see. (Heb. 11:1, NET)

Monday, March 03, 2008

Cyd Mizell and Romans 8:31-39

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? 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 with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died--more than that, who was raised--who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:28-39 ESV)

The message yesterday was on Rom. 8:28-39. An interesting passage in light of a week that brought difficult news about someone many of us prayed so hard for.

And so I had to ask God: Were You for Cyd Mizell when she was captured and killed? Does this passage apply to martyrs, or only those of us blessed to be able to spiritualize the message it brings rather than live it literally?

My pastor's words were helpful. He observed that v. 28 is for believers - those that love God - and that the "good" that all things work for is our Christlikeness, and that the list of things that can't separate us from God's love - tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword - are the "all things" that Paul mentions in verse 28. My logical mind plugs in the phrases relevant to what I know of Cyd's situation:

"And we know that for those that love God
  • tribulation works together for good"
  • distress works together for good"
  • persecution works together for good"
  • danger works together for good"

So, if God is for us, who can be against us? We answer "no one". Yet Cyd's captors were obviously against her. How can this be? Paul answers not that these things never happen, but that they don't separate us from his love. God is FOR us - so He justifies, and that stops the condemnation. God is FOR us, so we have the benefit of Christ's intercession. God is FOR us, so nothing separates us from His love. God is FOR us, so we can be simultaneously sheep sent to slaughter, and yet more than conquerors. God is FOR us, and so no one is successfully against us. Not because their earthly schemes always fail, but because they push us deeper into the arms of God. God was not distant in Job's life, and He was not absent in Cyd's last days.

Cyd experiences Him in a way we all only imagine. She is always with the Lord. We see through a glass darkly; she sees face to face (1 Cor. 13). We struggle through the process of sanctification; she is free not only from sin's penalty and sin's power, but also from its presence. We have quiet times before we go out to be in but not of the world; she has throne room worship.

No, the schemes of her kidnappers did not success in separating her from God's love. What they meant for evil, God used as the very tool to usher her to His side, to hear those words we all long for: "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord."

Indeed, God was for Cyd Mizell. Romans 8 did not return void.

Hallelujah and Amen.