Missing The Point

It’s like we’re in a race. But this race is different. At this finish line, everyone loses.

The race happens every year at this time. It’s the race to see which church can have the most spectacular Easter celebration. It started out innocently. There’s going to be an egg hunt at First Baptist Church.

But that wasn’t enough.

Now First Assembly was advertising the largest Easter egg hunt in the county. And the folks at the new church across town certainly weren’t going to sit back and watch this race. They wanted to be in it. So they decided to have the largest Easter egg hunt in the world. And then the next year they would have a helicopter dropping eggs. Hunting for eggs on the ground is so 1980s. Helicopters is how you win the kids these days.

Until it wasn’t anymore.

So now, in an effort to get back in the race, the folks at First Baptist will have an Easter Bunny skydiving out of an airplane. No one can top that. Well, except for the even newer church that is already planning next year’s event where they will use a tomahawk missile to deliver a few hundred Easter eggs to eager kids. It promises to be a hit.

There’s a rationale behind this.

We have to get people in the doors, they tell us. And at this time of year, nothing does that quite like a few million Easter eggs. But when did the resurrection of Jesus from the grave become about seeing who could draw the biggest crowd? When did churches stop being churches and start acting more like car dealerships that promise you a great deal on a brand new Lexus only to tell you that the last one was just sold right before you showed up? Oh, but can I interest you in a slightly older and more expensive model?

Hunting Easter eggs isn’t the problem. Just like Christmas trees aren’t the problem. Both are fine traditions. But they make terrible replacements for the good news that Jesus came to earth to save his people, died and rose again. In an effort to be relevant, we have moved away from that message, fearing that it won’t make sense to the average non-Christian. But somehow we think that skydiving Easter bunnies will.

On the day that Jesus rose from the grave, Mary Magdalene and her friend Mary had come to care for his burial site. But there was a problem. No one was buried there anymore. The tomb was empty. The guards were out cold and the stone was rolled away with an angel sitting on top of it. That angel had a simple message.

“Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” Matthew 28:7 (ESV)

No gimmicks.

No bait and switch.

No concern with drawing a crowd.

Just a simple message.

Jesus is alive.

On their way, the Marys were interrupted by the risen Lord. When they saw him, the two ladies fell before his feet and worshiped him (Matthew 28:9).

Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost this. The fact that our God has conquered death and that through him death does not have the last say over us is no longer enough. We need helicopters and a few million more eggs.

And instead of worshiping Jesus like the two Marys did, we need a gimmick to get us going.

We’ve come a long way in two thousand years.

I’m just not sure that it’s in the right direction.

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Fear And Great Joy: A Resurrection Meditation

So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Matthew 28:8 (ESV)

It’s a strange mixture. We don’t usually hear about people being afraid and joyful at the same time. It’s always one or the other. Either someone is afraid or they are happy. It never seems to be both.

But this was different. This was the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Nothing like it had ever happened before. Nothing would ever be the same again.

The women who had followed Jesus were afraid because this was all new to them. They had seen God’s power before but never like this. This was more than feeding the five thousand and turning water into wine. This was the defeat of death, once and for all. When you come face to face with whatever it is that’s scary enough to beat something as scary as death itself, fear seems to be the natural emotion.

But it wasn’t the only emotion.

There was joy as well. There was joy because separation was gone. There was joy because the cross was not the end. There was good news to tell and these women were overjoyed because they were the ones chosen by God to deliver it. The angel of the Lord could have gone straight to Peter and John and the boys. Instead, he appeared to Mary Magdalene, a woman who had once been possessed by seven demons, and another lady who Matthew affectionately refers to as, “the other Mary.” None of that mattered. The body that they had come to visit was not there. It had not been stolen. It got up under it’s own power.

That’s a scary thing.

But it’s also a joyous thing.

That strange combination of fear and joy is still with us today. We often find ourselves afraid because things are not as they should be. We live under the curse of Adam’s sin.

That’s a scary thing.

But Jesus came to undo the curse, take it from us and put it on himself. When we consider our sins in relation to the holiness of God, things definitely are not as they should be.

That’s a joyous thing.

 

From the perspective of the religious elites of the day, the cross should have been the end of our faith. Instead, it is the source of our hope.

If you were hearing this story for the first time, you would think that some of Jesus’ last words would be, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Instead, just a few days later, the women who heard him utter that frightening sentence would hear him say, “Do not be afraid.”

In this world, there are a million reasons to be afraid. When you think about it, there is only one reason not to be.

Jesus is alive.

That is enough.

That is our great joy.

Good News For People Who Doubt

I wasn’t blessed with the best of nicknames.

Jaybird.

That’s what people called me when I was a kid. I know guys named Cornbread, Turk and Bubba. Those are all solid nicknames. Each one tells you that the guy with the nickname either has a cool story to tell or is not one to be messed with. Not so much for Jaybird. There are no linebackers in the NFL named Jaybird. Well, maybe with the Cleveland Browns but you get my point.

I’m much better off than a guy named Thomas. No one ever calls me Jaybird these days. But Thomas has the misfortune of being called Thomas the Doubter for several hundred years now. Why are we so hard on Thomas? No one ever says Peter the Denier or Paul the Murderer. And there’s certainly more to Thomas than his doubts. Of all the disciples, he seemed to be the one of the ones most concerned with going where Jesus was going (John 11:16; John 14:5).

But we don’t talk to much about those moments. Thomas is better know for his doubt that led him to make a bold, misguided statement but also helped him to see his Master like never before.

Jesus had just risen from the grave and word was getting out. The disciples had locked themselves in a room and, no doubt, were trying to process what the empty tomb meant. And then Jesus walked in (John 20:19-23). By the time he left, all of the disciples were sold on his resurrection. Well, all of the disciples who were there. Judas Iscariot was dead. And Thomas, well, we don’t know where he was. But he wasn’t in that room (John 20:24).

The disciples had to tell Thomas the news. They told him that they had seen Jesus. Not experienced Jesus. Not felt Jesus. They saw him. He talked to them. He showed them his wounds. This was no rumor and it certainly wasn’t a ghost. But Thomas wasn’t impressed. That’s when he made his bold, misguided statement.

“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” John 20:25 (ESV)

Never.

Jesus took the challenge. But he waited. For eight days he allowed Thomas to marinate in his doubt.

The disciples were inside, back behind the security of locked doors. This time, for whatever reason, Thomas was with them. And Jesus showed up again.

Guess whose name Jesus called out first when he walked in.

He didn’t say the name of  Peter, the Rock. He didn’t ask for John, the Beloved Disciple. He called for Thomas, the Doubter.

The grave could not hold Jesus down. The locked doors could not keep him out. And Thomas’ doubts could not keep him away. Jesus came and met the Doubter where he needed him most – right in the middle of his cynicism and unbelief.

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” John 20:27 (ESV)

Thomas responded by making another bold statement. But this one was anything but misguided.

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” John 20:28 (ESV)

Doubt is one of the sacraments of our age. Even in some churches, doubting seems to be a mark of spiritual enlightenment. So we have pastors who doubt the virgin birth, professors of religion who aren’t quite sure if Jesus ever even lived and an entire generation of church goers who are only sure about one thing – that it’s wrong to be sure about anything.

On the other end of the spectrum, there have always been those Christian leaders who have all of the answers. They know the answers to the questions that haven’t been asked yet. Even on issues not addressed in the Bible, they are absolutely certain that they are right and you are wrong – on everything.

And then there’s Thomas. Yes, he had his doubts. But the answers he didn’t even know he was looking for weren’t found in more evidence or a deeper knowledge. They were found in Jesus. That is where we must look. And as we do, we must echo what the father of a sick child said to Jesus. “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

The Christian’s identity is not found in his doubts. It’s found in his Savior. But it is through repentance and moving beyond those doubts that the Christian grows closer to his Savior.

History tells us that Thomas likely went on to India to share the good news of Jesus. It is also likely that he was martyred for his devotion to what he vowed that he would never believe. Thomas marinated in his doubts for eight days. He spent the rest of his life taking them to Jesus and serving him.

We all have our doubts from time to time. Perhaps for you it’s some part of the Bible that you find just too hard to believe. Or maybe you check all of the right boxes when it comes to believing the Bible but it’s the future that makes you doubt. You’re all on board with the virgin birth being real, it’s God’s sovereign and loving control over tomorrow that’s giving you second thoughts.

Either way, remember that Jesus is big enough for your doubts. Don’t cling to them. Cling to him. Right where you need him the most, right where your faith is the weakest is right where he meets you.

Do not disbelieve, but believe.

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They Have Seen Better Days

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This afternoon I’ll preach at a Good Friday service. It’s not at the Georgia Dome. No one is selling tickets to it. No Grammy winners will be there. But there’s is a very strong chance that a lot of the people there have been called Grammy a time or two in their lives.

This Good Friday service will be at the nursing home in the community where I live and work. There will be people singing off key. To be fair, I’ll be one of them. There will be people there who can’t hear or see very well. There will be strange requests for strange songs I’ve never heard of before. But, like the other years that I have been a part of this service, I’m really going to like it.

Being at that nursing home on Good Friday reminds me that Jesus didn’t just die for me. He didn’t just die for the younger generation. The cross wasn’t exclusively for church kids. Jesus didn’t die only for the young, fit and popular crowd. He also died for the old, the feeble and the dying.

He died for the lady struggling to play the role of mother for her aging mother.

He died for nurses and administrators who refuse to cut corners, even if no one else would notice, because they do their work as unto the Lord.

He died for his Church and some of the people who belong to his Church spend a lot of their days in a nursing home. Some because that’s their place of employment. Others because it’s where illness has left them.

But Jesus didn’t just die for his Church. He rose again for it. And that gives us a living hope, no matter how dire our circumstances are here on earth.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 1 Peter 1:3-5 (ESV)

I’m guessing that five minutes or so after I’m done speaking to this group, most of them will forget what I said.

Their memory isn’t what it used to be.

They have seen better days.

But because of the grace of God and an empty Middle Eastern tomb, the folks in that nursing home who belong to Jesus have not yet seen the best days.

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:4 (ESV)

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Next Month’s Crucifixion

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A lot has changed in 2000 years. Man, a lot has changed in 2 years. Watch a movie that’s just a few years old. If it’s set in New York and you can still see the World Trade Center in the skyline or if one of the characters uses a flip phone, the movie may as well be in black and white.

A lot has changed. And fast.

During the month of April, I plan on preaching through specific events leading up to the death and resurrection of Christ. Part of the trick for me is to not read the gospels, are any part of the Bible, through my white, American eyes. But I can’t help it. Something inside of me has to wonder what it would be like if Jesus was born 30 years ago in the United States and was now just a few weeks away from his crucifixion.

A lot has changed in 2000 years.

Or has it?

People would still be mad at Jesus.

Conservatives and libertarians would probably like him at first. But then we would take notice of some of the people who followed him and start to have our doubts. Prostitutes? Really? The deal closer for us would be the time when one of us walked into a restaurant and noticed Jesus sitting with a high ranking IRS official. That, coupled with his hesitancy to do anything to overthrow oppressive government officials, would be all we would need.

And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous but sinners.” Mark 2:16-17 (ESV)

Those with more of a liberal slant would love Jesus’ work with the poor. His Sermon on the Mount would get tons of shares and likes on social media. Of course, the part where he talks about marriage and adultery would have to be overlooked. Who is he to keep people apart who really love each other? And what’s with his followers? Some of them carry swords! There are even rumors that Jesus told them to do such a thing. That seems more and more like the work of an extremist than a man who will bring about peace.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” John 14:27 (ESV)

The health nuts would really have a fit. I mean, have you seen some of the things he eats? Isn’t he aware of the mercury in the fish or the gluten in the bread? To top it all off, his disciples don’t even wash their hands before they eat. Barbarians!

“There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” Mark 7:15 (ESV)

The church folks wouldn’t like the way he stirs up controversy in houses of worship. Those were expensive tables he turned over. The anti-religion zealots would ridicule his frequent talk of God and the government would view him as a puppet to be used for their own wicked purposes only to be discarded when those purposes are met.

It’s been said that nothing brings unity like a common enemy. If Jesus was wrapping up his earthly ministry next month in the United States, he would be the common enemy. He would be the one person who got the libertarians, the liberals, the high-ranking government officials, the food Nazis, the church crowd and the skeptics to all sing the same song.

“Crucify!”

It’s been 2000 years since Jesus’ earthly ministry. The World Trade Centers have come and gone. Phones have gotten smarter.

But things haven’t really changed all that much.

The human heart still has a bent towards grace when it is the recipient but away from grace when it’s another heart doing the receiving.

Thankfully, God hasn’t changed either. 2000 years ago, Jesus didn’t come looking for people who would agree with him. He came looking for sinners. He found them. He confronted them. He forgave them. He loves them.

He found a tax-collecting traitor named Levi. He found an extremist named Simon who wanted to see that government overthrown. He forgave them both. He loved them. And he gave them both a spot around the same table. His table.

We all have our differences. And that’s good. But none of us have exclusive rights to Jesus. We all have our shortcomings. If the crucifixion took place a few Fridays from now, we would all find our own ways to drive nails, run away in terror, mock or yell, “Crucify.”

All of us.

But that doesn’t mean that we should abandon truth in some sort of near-sighted hope that doing so would lead to unity. It won’t. It never does.

Instead, we should cling to truth. The Truth.

It’s only then that we come to grips with just how dire our condition is.

But it’s also there where we see just how deep the Savior’s love is.

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. Luke 23:34 (ESV)

A Bar for Christians

A few years back a new building was built in my town. Before it was officially opened I was invited to come in and pray over it. It was a sad day.

The building was the office of the county coroner. There was nothing wrong with the building. It was very new and clean and seemed to be well built. But it was a sad day because every room I walked in existed for one purpose.

Death.

I knew that it was just a matter of days, maybe hours, until lifeless bodies would lie in the examining room while grieving family members tried their best to handle the pain.

The last room I visited was designed specifically for those who were grieving. There was a window for family and friends of the deceased to look through, apparently to identify their loved one. On the wall just below that window, about waist high, there was a bar. One of those bars you see on the side of the stall in a handicapped restroom. Of all the things I saw that day, this is what has stayed with me.

I grabbed it and thought about the hundreds and hundreds of hands that would cling to that bar as their eyes looked through the window and their knees grew weak. For many, this bar would be their only hope.

But not for Christians.

The bar we have to cling to does not come and go with new buildings. It is constant. It has always existed, even before us. And if we find ourselves on either side of that window, it will still be there. That bar is the goodness of God.

You are good and do good; teach me your statutes. The insolent smear me with lies, but with my whole heart I keep your precepts; their heart is unfeeling like fat, but I delight in your law. Psalm 119:68-70 (ESV)

We don’t know all of the details surrounding this Psalm. We just know that the author was not immune to suffering. He knew what it was like to have his reputation smeared and to be haunted by wickedness. But through it all he remained in God’s word. And it was there that he found something to grasp. The goodness of God.

God’s goodness is not dependent upon our assessment of the goodness of a particular situation. Rather, it is only through his goodness that we are able to see any goodness at all.

It is good for me that I was afflicted that I might learn your statutes. The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. Psalm 119:71-72 (ESV)

Christians are not immune to the sting of death. Not yet. Our knees still get weak and our eyes still fill with tears.

But we have been given something to cling to during those times. We have a Good Shepherd who calls us to come to him, laying our burdens down and finding rest for our weary souls.

Jesus promises that one day that building will not exist. My friend will be out of a job. Neither one of us can wait for that day.

But until then, we all cling to the Good Shepherd who conquered death for us.

Easter Helps Us Hang On

Kids don’t care if you get enough sleep.

When they are babies, they scream about every two hours.  People who say that they slept like a baby have never been in the same house with a baby.

When the kids get just a little older, they come into your room in the middle of the night and stand over you as you sleep, waiting for you to wake up so that they can tell you that you forgot to give them an extra blanket.  I’ve almost died six times and five of them have been because of my kids waking me up this way.

This is one of the worst ways to wake up.

One of the worst ways.

My mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in the early 90s.  Her doctors gave her a bunch of videos and brochures, told her to buy some exercise equipment and gave her pretty much every new, experimental drug they could get their hands on.

“Mrs. Sanders, were going to prescribe these tiny gray particles to you and see if they help.  They’ve proven themselves very effective with cats.”

“Is that kitty litter?”

“Just take it.”

This is why they call it a medical practice.

All of those new medications and the adjustments that came along with them really did a number on my mom’s body.  There were many times, late at night, when her voice calling my name would function as my alarm clock.  When I ran to check on her I would usually find her stuck in a chair or on the side of her bed.  Her toes were curled under and her legs felt like rocks.  Her face gave me a pretty good description of the pain that she was experiencing.

I’ll be thinking about those rude awakenings in the middle of the night a lot this weekend.  I’ll also be thinking about friends who are caring for their own parents as they undergo chemo, radiation and blood transfusions.  I’ll think about the people in my church who, because of sickness and aging, are trying to figure out how to be parents to their parents.  I’ll think about fathers and mothers who suffer as they watch their sons and daughters suffer from cancer or the effects of some crazy accident.

And I’ll think about the One who, in his victory over the grave, has secured that same victory for his people and guaranteed their release from sin and death.

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 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. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“O death, where is your victory?

O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.                                                                         1 Corinthians 15:50-57 (ESV)

There’s a good chance that you are trying to figure out how to care for a sick loved one.  Or maybe you are the sick loved one.  Whatever the circumstances, I hope that the events of this weekend help you to hang on.

Don’t listen to the crooked preachers on TV who promise health, wealth and happiness on this earth. Jesus didn’t die for that.  He died to atone for the sins of his people and to set us free from sin and death.  And while he certainly can and does bring healing on earth, we have to continue to trust in him when he chooses not to.  But our trust is not based on a hunch or mere faith for faith’s sake.

It’s based on an empty tomb.

And it’s based on a promise that springs forth from Jesus’ victory over the grave.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:3-4 (ESV)

 

Hunting Easter

Easter can be a tricky holiday.

Some churches stop being churches and transition into Hoppin’ Eddie’s Bounce House and Family Entertainment Emporium.  Every year around this time I get mail-outs from churches boasting “the southeast’s largest Easter Egg Drop” or “the loudest Easter celebration in northwest Henry County” or “free Easter chicks to the first 470 kids under 12 who buy advanced tickets to the Good Friday service.”

For others, Easter seems to be a time to redo Christ’s once and for all sacrifice on the Church’s behalf.

“Sorry that I can’t make it to your Easter lunch, or whatever pagan name you call it.  I’ll be busy shaving my head, sacrificing a gentle lamb and boiling it in wine.  But you go ahead and enjoy your mashed potatoes.”

People and churches are different and they worship in different ways.  That’s part of the beauty of the body of Christ.  But we have to be careful that we do not let Easter become a holiday about doing more, doing it louder and doing it bigger.  It shouldn’t take an egg-dropping helicopter or a new dress to help us grasp the weight of what Easter is all about.

Throughout the centuries since Jesus’ resurrection, the Bible has proven sufficient for that task.

It is in the Bible where we read that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of many things that sets him apart from mere revolutionaries or good teachers (Acts 5:33-42).

It is in the Bible where we read that death, while still stinging us today, will one day lose it’s power.  When Christ rose on the third day, death’s grave was dug.  When Christ returns, death will be finally and forever laid to rest (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

And the Bible tells me that I have an Enemy.  That Enemy is not the leftist homosexual activist, the fundamentalist preacher, the environmental terrorist or the politician with whom I might disagree.  No, my Enemy has been a liar and a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44).  He has set his sights on my brothers in the faith (Job 1-2; Luke 22:31).  And he is out to get me too (1 Peter 5:8).

He even tried to get Jesus but he failed (Matthew 4:1-11).  And when Jesus rose from the grave, he guaranteed the eventual and eternal defeat my Enemy and his weapon of choice, Death (1 Corinthians 15:20-22; Revelation 21:4; Revelation 20:7-10).  The resurrection means that Jesus wins.  And the Church, because our identity is found in him, wins too.

Whether you worship in jeans or a new suit, at a huge domed stadium or a small church doesn’t matter.

What matters is that Jesus is alive.  Death is dying.  Our Enemy will soon be gone forever.

And that’s reason enough to celebrate.