Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Death: The Old Paradigm

In his book, When Your Rope Breaks, pastor Stephen Brown writes candidly about the maelstrom of emotions that engulfed him when his brother and best friend Ron suddenly passed away of a heart attack. Ron was only in his forties, had a growing family and was a superb district attorney. His death devastated Steven who did not have time to say “goodbye” considering the unexpected way in which Ron died.  

Several weeks after Ron’s death, Stephen decided to visit his brother’s grave. It was a cold, overcast afternoon in late winter as Stephen stepped out from his car into the drizzle. Ron’s grave was not yet marked, and Stephen couldn't find it. As he groped through the mud, his grief overwhelmed him. Standing in the rain, Stephen began sobbing. “God, this has been the worst month of my life and now I can’t even find my brother’s grave,” he muttered.

That’s when Stephen sensed a presence come over him, as though Christ himself were there in the cemetery. As he glanced over at another tombstone he saw the following words inscribed on granite, “Why are you seeking the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5). It was as if Jesus were speaking directly to Stephen in the depths of his despondency. The “real” Ron was not there, and he wasn’t lost either. Ron’s soul was with Christ. Death was not a closed door, but the threshold which marked eternity.    

“These words comforted me,” Stephen later wrote, “and I haven’t been back to the cemetery since. I don’t need to go back. The One who loved Ron and knew him came to me in my grief. He promised never to leave, and that has made all the difference in the world.”[1]

The question of the angel to the women that first Easter Sunday may seem rather silly at first. After all they saw the fountain of blood spew from his side when the solider plunged a spear into Jesus’ side. They carefully wrapped his limp and lifeless body in seventy-five pounds of spices and linins. They had heard the “thud” of the large stone as it dropped into its final resting place, sealing the corpse of Jesus in a dark cave. All of these things gave them a sense of finality. It really was over.

They were searching for Jesus in a graveyard, because the resurrection was the furthest thing from their mind. I think the deeper issue of the question posed in the glow of the resurrection sunrise was this—often times we persist to live in old paradigms even when God has revealed the beginning of a new work. Once again, Jesus defied to be put into a category, in this case the deceased, and this took a while to sink in.

The participants in that first Easter drama had heard Jesus’ promises of resurrection. They had seen him raise others from the dead. Yet, they still insisted that death had won even when they had been given so much evidence of Christ’s infinite power. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not faulting them for their struggle to get out of the gutter of unbelief.

What I am saying is that like them, we can be equally stubborn to move out of the fog of Saturday evening and into the light of Sunday morning. Like Pastor Stephen standing over an unmarked grave, we can so easily forget that Easter is the dawn of new paradigm shift—death is daily being eclipsed by life. It may look like the grave has won, but those moments are only temporary. Jesus has reversed the flow of the sin-cursed natural order and His endless, unstoppable life which bursted from that tomb is merely a preview of coming attractions. Because He lives, we shall live also. Death is in retreat my friends, and where we are going it has been completely banished altogether.  

I will leave you with a thought from Philip Yancey who wrote, “There are two ways to look at human history, I have concluded. One way is to focus on the wars, violence, squalor, pain tragedy and death. From such a point of view, Easter seems a fairy-tale exception, a stunning contradiction in the name of God . . . But if I take Easter as the starting point, the one incontrovertible fact about how God treats those whom He loves, then human history becomes the contradiction and Easter a preview ultimate reality. Since Jesus conquered death and by proxy our death then hope then flows like lave beneath the crust of life.”[2] 

[1] Stephen Brown, When Your Rope Breaks (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 48-49.
[2] Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 1995), 219-220. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

I Should Have Been Crucified

During the Civil War a man from the South named Willie Lee became a member of a Confederate group called Quantrill’s Raider’s. They used guerilla warfare tactics, raiding small towns and villages sympathetic to the Union and then disappearing in the night. The Raiders were successful in avoiding being captured for a span of about two years.

One night, in 1864 the Union forces were tipped off and were lying in wait for them. They were successful in capturing all of the Raiders but one, a teenage boy who escaped. The rest were sentenced to be executed before a firing squad. Word of the execution traveled over the countryside and a sizable crowd of spectators gathered to witness the fate of this notorious group. Little did the Union soldiers know that the teen who had escaped made his way back to the scene and was present in the curious crowd.
As the Raiders were lined up facing the firing squad, just before the shots rang out, the young boy ran out of the crowd and up to the commanding officer. He yelled, “Stop! I think you should know that I am one of them. But you didn’t bring me here. I came by own choice.” He then pointed to one of the men in the line and said, “This man is my friend. He has a wife and children, and I have no one. I’d like to take his place, if you will let him go.” The officer in charge replied, “If that is your desire, I will grant it.” The teen walked into the line, in the place of his friend and was executed with Quantrill’s Raiders.
Later the redeemed man, Willie Lee, came back to the awful scene of death, uncovered the grave, and found the body of his friend.  He put it on the back of a mule and took it to a little cemetery near Kansas City, where he was given a proper burial. At the time, he marked the grave with a rude wooden slab. Later, however, the grateful man erected a 15-foot marble monument inscribed with the words: “SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF WILLIE LEE / HE TOOK MY PLACE IN THE LINE / HE DIED FOR ME.”[1]

This true story went on to inspire Gordon Jansen, author of approximately 300 songs, to write the words of the Southern Gospel classic, “I Should Have Been Crucified.” Jansen was also deeply moved by the passage in Isaiah 53 where the prophet predicted some 700 years in advance of Christ all that the Suffering Servant would endure, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Is. 53:4-5, ESV).  

As we approach Good Friday, let’s ask God to help focus our minds on the events of that day some 2,000 years ago. By the way, isn’t it ironic that we call it “Good Friday” when what happened on Calvary was so terrible? Actually, humanity’s worst deed was, at the same time, God’s master plan.

The Bible says that “it pleased the Lord to bruise Him” (Is. 53:10 NKJV). This means the crucifixion of Jesus was not a mistake. Nor was it an afterthought. It was part of God’s rescue mission from the very beginning. Before there was a solar system, much less a planet called Earth or a garden called Eden or a couple known as Adam and Eve, a decision was made in the councils of eternity that God Himself would come to Earth as a man and would go to a cross and die in the place of all sinners.

We call it “Good Friday” because the greatest good imaginable resulted—the satisfying of the righteous demands of God Almighty as Jesus died in our place. He bore our sins and we received His righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21).

Max Lucado adds these thoughts, “It wasn’t right that spikes pierced the hands that formed the earth.  And it wasn’t right that the Son of God was forced to hear the silence of God. It wasn’t right, but it happened. For while Jesus was on the cross, God sat on His hands.  He turned His back.  He ignored the screams of the innocent. He sat in silence while the sins of the world were placed upon His Son.  And He did nothing while a cry a million times bloodier than John’s  echoed in the black sky:  “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Was it right?  No. Was it fair?  No. Was it love?  Yes.”[2]

I was guilty with nothing to say
And they were coming to take me away
But then a voice from Heaven was heard that said
"Let Him go and take me instead"

Crown of thorns, the spear in His side,
And all the pain should have been mine.
Those rusty nails were meant for me,
But Jesus took them, and let me go free!

I should have been crucified,
I should have suffered and died.
I should have hung on the cross in disgrace,
But Jesus, God’s Son, took my place.[3]

[1] Lindsay Terry, Stories Behind 50 Southern Gospel Favorites, Volume 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2005), 130-133.
[2] Max Lucado, The Gift for All People: Thoughts on God's Great Grace (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1999), 73.
[3] Gordon Jansen, “I Should Have Been Crucified,” Benson Music Company, (1971).  

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

How Prison Made St. Patrick

This week many Americans donned their best green outfit, some attended a parade, and, no doubt, others chugged pints of green beer in honor of St. Patrick. Yet, I would wager that most went through these festivities with no real knowledge of the man’s life. Isn’t it curious how little today’s celebration of St. Patrick’s Day has to do with the actual Patrick (much like the commercialization of Christmas). Still, it's worth pondering for a moment why we celebrate St. Patrick's Day far more than, say, St. Augustine's Day or St. Athanasius's Day, even though those two men probably had more influence in shaping Christianity across the world.   

Patrick was born in 373 A.D. along the banks of the Clyde River in what is now Scotland. He father was a deacon, and his grandfather a priest. When Patrick was about sixteen, Irish raiders descended on his little town and torched his home. When one of the pirates spotted him hiding in the bushes, he was seized, hauled aboard ship, and taken to Ireland as a slave for six long years. It was there as a shepherd that he was driven to knees and gave His life to the Lord Jesus.

“The Lord opened my mind to the awareness of my unbelief,” he later wrote in his Confession, “in order that I might remember my transgressions and turn with my whole heart to the Lord my God.”

Patrick eventually escaped and returned home to Britain after stowing away on a trading ship. Once reunited, his overjoyed family begged him to never leave again. But one night, in a dream reminiscent of Paul’s vision of the Macedonian Men in Acts 16, Patrick saw an Irishman pleading with him to come and evangelize Ireland with the Gospel.

It wasn’t an easy decision, but Patrick, about thirty, returned to his former captors with only one book, the Latin Bible, in his hand. As he evangelized the countryside, multitudes came to listen to his strange message of Christ dying on a cross and then resurrecting from the dead. The superstitious Druids opposed him and sought to find a way to kill him. But his preaching was powerful, and Patrick become one of the most fruitful evangelists of all time, planting about 200 churches, and baptizing 100,000 converts.[1]

It’s fascinating to me how God used suffering in the life of St. Patrick to bring about good. David Jeremiah commented on his life by writing these insightful comments: “Rather than resenting his years as a slave to the Irish, Patrick used the time as a shepherd to contemplate what it meant to know Christ, what it meant to know God’s forgiveness. He left Britain as an unconverted teenager but returned as a believer in Christ. Without those six years of suffering, who knows how different Patrick’s life might have been. And who knows how many Irish might never have heard the Gospel through Patrick’s ministry in Ireland in the fifth century?”[2]

There is a parallel between the apostle Paul and Patrick. God used their imprisonment for good. In one of his most joyous prison epistles, Paul wrote about the benefit of being behind bars, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ” (Phil. 1:12-13).  

Times of trouble in life, be they brief or extended, require a change in perspective. Instead of asking, “Why is this happening to me?” we must ask, “What is God doing in my life? What does He want me to learn in this situation?” God had a plan and purpose behind St. Patrick’s imprisonment, as He did Paul’s, even though I’m sure no one, could understand it at the time. As the unknown poet mused long ago:

My life is but a weaving between my God and me.
I cannot choose the colors He weaveth steadily.
Oft’ times He worketh sorrow; and I in foolish pride,
forget He sees the upper and I the underside.
Not ’til the loom is silent and the shuttles cease to fly,
will God unroll the canvas and reveal the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful in the weaver’s skillful hand,
as the threads of gold and silver in the pattern He has planned.”[3]

[1] Robert J. Morgan, Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World's Greatest Hymn Stories (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 5.
[2] David Jeremiah, “Patrick’s Troubles,” Turning Points, March 2015, p. 39.
[3] R. Kent Hughes, “Dark Threads the Weaver Needs,” 1001 Great Stories and Quotes (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1998), 406.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Radical Forgiveness

In 2008 a twelve-year-old boy, Christopher Rodriguez, was in the middle of his piano lesson while at the gas station across the street a robbery was in progress. As the thief ran out of the convenient store, his gun discharged and a stray bullet from the assailant’s gun pierced a wall and lodged in Christopher's spine. The shot paralyzed him for life.

Police caught the gunman and he was tried and convicted in an Oakland, California court. In 2009 the judge sentenced the criminal to 70 years to life in prison, seemingly a just outcome, but what happened next transcended justice. After the sentencing was pronounced Christopher rolled his wheelchair to the front of the courtroom, shook the hand of the man who had shot him, and said, “I forgive you.” It is uncertain whether the criminal felt true remorse, but Christopher left the court that day unburdened by hate.[1]

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Before He died, Jesus forgave all those who participated in murdering Him. Jesus forgave the Roman soldiers who cast lots for His clothing and mocked Him. He forgave the religious leaders who sneered at Him and challenged Him to save Himself. He forgave the gawking and passivity of the watching crowd. He forgave the followers who had run away and hidden, including the remaining disciples.

Erwin Lutzer wrote, “When man had done his worst, Jesus prayed not for justice but mercy. He prayed that His enemies would be exempted from the just consequences of their evil deeds. And He prayed not after His wounds were healed, but as they were yet open. Words of forgiveness came from his lips as nails were driven through His body, when the pain was the fiercest, when the jolts of anguish were the sharpest; He prayed as the cross was lowered into a hole with a thud. It was then, when His nerves were the most tender, when the pain was most unfathomable, He who was the victim of history’s greatest crime prayed for the criminals.”[2]

Forgiveness is not a natural thing to do; it's supernatural. That is one of the amazing things about true followers of Jesus: they have the capacity to forgive people, not because they are special, but because God gives them the ability to do it.

If you are an unforgiving Christian, then one must question how much you know about the Cross. You see it’s only reasonable that forgiven people should be forgiving people. God has forgiven us of such an incredible debt. All of us have sinned. All of us have broken God's commandments. But God has pardoned us of all of our sins, and therefore we should be willing to extend that same forgiveness to others. As C. H. Spurgeon advised, “If you want to learn about your need for forgiveness, go to the cross. If you want to learn about forgiving others, hang out there for a while.”

What Jesus’ cry for pardon teaches us is that we should offer forgiveness to those who don’t ask for it. Why? For one, because God offers us that pardon even before we bow our knee and ask for it and two, because It puts the situation in God’s hands. Forgiveness is the antidote that extracts the deadly poison of bitterness from your heart. Forgiveness stops the cycle of evil, hate and pain. It opens the prison doors and lets the captives free and it creates an opportunity for God to do miraculous things!

Case in point: hanging to Jesus left and right were two condemned criminals who reviled Him (Mark. 15:32); yet one of them had a change of heart as He observed Jesus. This broken malefactor started to believe, “He turned to Jesus and said, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom’” (Luke 23:42). Amazingly, Jesus told Him that Kingdom gates would be flung open for him. What do you think changed his heart? I fancy that it was the radical forgiveness that Jesus offered to the undeserving.

You see, if you don’t forgive then God can’t work, but if you make the choice to be like Jesus then there is no telling how a supernatural act of forgiveness can change someone’s eternal trajectory. -DM  

[1] Paul T. Rosynsky, “Paralyzed Oakland Boy Forgives Robber Who Shot Him; Adams Sentenced to 70 Years,” San Jose Mercury News, 16 June 2009 <http://www.mercurynews.com/crime/ci_12601236>
[2] Erwin Lutzer, Cries from the Cross (Chicago: Moody Press, 2002), 36-37. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

No Escape

Every once in a while we hear those pitiful stories of dumb criminals getting caught in the act of breaking the law. Earlier this year, the Associated Press ran a story about one man’s ill-fated attempt to rob a Family Dollar store:

“Authorities say a man's plans to break into a Houston store fell through, after he crashed through the ceiling and landed in front of police. Houston police say the man climbed a tree and onto the roof of a Family Dollar store early Sunday morning, January 25, 2015, then managed to break a hole in the roof and enter the building. But after making his way into the store, the man fell through the ceiling just as a police officer arrived in response to a call about a potential burglary. The man was ordered by the officer to stay on the ground and promptly arrested. Authorities believe the man was trying to steal cigarettes.”[1]

That story reminded me of the inevitable judgment of God and how, like that burglar who was caught trying to escape, that one day everyone who has rejected Christ will have to stand before Him. There is no escaping the judgment of God because justice is one His attributes. Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.”  

What kind of judge would let murderers, rapists and thieves go free after the prosecution had presented a slam-dunk case complete with fingerprints, surveillance video and eyewitness testimony? We would want to throw that judge in slammer as well for dereliction of duty. How then can an unimaginably holy God let sinners go free when they have rejected His Son and broken His laws? He can’t, for if God did not judge then He would not be a God worthy of worship because that would mean He tolerates evil.    

The Bible has given mankind fair warning about the upcoming judgment:

The place of the judgment according to Rev. 20:11 is somewhere between heaven and earth where there is a “great white throne.”  

The person of the judgment is none other than Jesus Christ. Paul remarks in Acts 17:31 that God, “has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” Moreover, Jesus declared in John 5:22, “For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son.” No one is better qualified to stand in judgment, since Jesus not only lived a sinless life, but did all that was possible to offer salvation.   

The people of the judgment are all those who have rejected Christ as Savior. Rev. 20:12-13 says, “And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God . . . The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works.” Princes and paupers, atheists and Buddhists, mechanics and malefactors, scientists and statesman will all stand before the living God to give an account for their lives.

The purpose of the judgment is to declare the sinner’s guilt before God and execute a sentence of eternal separation from God in hell. Revelation 20:12 says, “Books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books.” Imagine a record of every detail of your life—every thought, words and deed—being brought out in the open. There will be no jury, no appeals and no special pleading. God will have all the evidence needed so that no excuse can be made.    

For those of you who have trouble with this doctrine let me remind you that this is actually what justice demands. Erwin Lutzer writes, “We all agree that heaven is a comforting doctrine. What is often overlooked is that hell is comforting too. Our newspapers are filled with stories of rape, child abuse, genocide and a myriad of injustices. Every court case ever tried on earth will be reopened; every action and motive will be meticulously inspected and the exact retribution will be meted out. In the presence of an all-knowing God there will be no unsolved murders, no unknown child abductor, no hidden brides or crimes.  No one is getting away with anything.”[2]

The truth is that hell is our default destination and if we don’t do anything that’s where we will end up. Jesus reminds us in John 3:17-18, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

Fortunately, the good news of the Gospel is that God has done everything possible to make a way for us to be in heaven. He sent his Son to die on the Cross. He wrote a book telling us how to be saved. He gave the Holy Spirit to prick your heart and enlighten you to the truth. The choice is yours to meet Jesus today as your Savior or later as your Judge. -DM

[1] “Suspected Burglar Falls Through Ceiling, Lands Near Police,” Associated Press, Yahoo! News, 25 January 2015 <http://news.yahoo.com/suspected-burglar-falls-ceiling-lands-near-police-204537344.html>
[2] Erwin Lutzer, One Minute After You Die (Chicago: Moody Press, 1997), 111.