THE BURDEN

My guilt overwhelms me—it is a burden too heavy to bear. [Psalm 38:4 (NLT)]

First published in 1678, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is the second best-selling book of all time (the first being the Bible). In this religious allegory, the reader follows the adventures and trials of Christian (Part I) and his wife Christiana and their children (Part II) as they journey from the City of Destruction toward the Celestial City.

The iconic picture of the pilgrim Christian is that of a man bent over with a heavy pack strapped to his back. From that illustration, many assume that means Christians must carry a heavy burden, which is anything but the truth. Although Bunyan’s allegory opens with the man saddled with that pack on his back, he is free of its enormous weight for most of the story.

At the book’s start, the burdened man is crying while reading the Bible. Realizing that death is followed by judgment, he fears that his heavy load of sin will condemn him to Hell. The troubled man asks, “What must I do to be saved?” When the Evangelist tells him to follow the light to the Narrow Gate, Christian leaves on his pilgrim’s journey. He still carries that pack laden with the weight and shame of his sins; it is a burden that he can’t remove by himself.

Even after Christian enters the Gate, that heavy load remains. Goodwill tells him to be content carrying it until he comes to the Place of Deliverance.  Upon getting there, Christian sees a cross at the top of the hill and a tomb at the bottom. As he approaches the Cross, the straps on his pack loosen from his shoulders. The burden drops to the ground, tumbles down the hill, and disappears into the mouth of the sepulcher. Christian’s burden has been transferred to Jesus who, while on that cross, atoned for all of his sins. When the empty tomb receives his sins, they are gone forever.

It’s no surprise that Charles Spurgeon’s favorite book (after the Bible) was The Pilgrim’s Progress, that this man known as the “Prince of Preachers” read it at least one hundred times, or that Bunyan’s allegory has been used by Christian missionaries for centuries. As with the parables of Jesus, the book’s powerful visual images skillfully illuminate gospel truths. Christian’s burden falling at the cross is what Good Friday was all about. We are rid of the weight of sin and the burden of trying to earn our way into God’s good graces. Released from guilt and condemnation, we are free of sin’s penalty because Jesus paid that price for us. That Christian will eventually reach the Celestial City is what Easter was about!

We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. [Romans 6:6-8 (NLT)]

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. [Matthew 11:28 (NLT)]

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SATURDAYS

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. [2 Corinthians 4:8 (NLT)]

For many of us, last Saturday was probably spent preparing for Easter. We may have picked up people at the airport, done last minute shopping, purchased an Easter lily, decorated eggs, assembled Easter baskets, snacked on jelly beans, or hidden plastic eggs around the yard. Although the previous day, Good Friday, had been a somber one, we knew that the next day, Easter, would be one of joy and celebration. Knowing how the story ended, we didn’t mourn or feel abandoned. But what of the disciples on the Saturday after his crucifixion?

The Bible is strangely silent about that Saturday. We assume that, being good Jews, they observed the Sabbath day quietly, but that’s about it. Did they do any of things associated with Jewish mourning: tearing of clothes, wearing sack cloth and ashes, fasting, or prayer? As Job’s friends had done, did they gather together and sit shiva (as one would for a parent, child, sibling or spouse)? Was their seven day period of mourning interrupted when they learned of the empty tomb?

That one Saturday 2,000 years ago, everyone thought they’d never see Him again and what a dark day it was! Jesus—their leader, closest friend, and hope—was dead and gone. The agony of despair and defeat must have been unbearable. Was there regret or anger that they’d given up their homes and livelihoods for their failed Messiah? Think of their heartache and the many would’ves, could’ves, and should’ves as they wished they’d only known Thursday’s meal was the last time they’d be together! Think of their remorse for having fallen asleep while Jesus prayed, the shame of abandoning Him in the garden, and Peter’s self-reproach for denying Him. Were they also afraid of being arrested and suffering the same kind of death?

The disciples never fully understood when He’d spoken of dying. Not believing that He’d be crucified and buried, they didn’t seem to expect Jesus to return and didn’t trust the women when they said the tomb was empty. Jesus had said, “It is finished!” Not understanding what He’d finished and seeing no future, they’d lost hope.

Perhaps the gospel writers chose not to tell us about that gloomy Saturday because the disciples weren’t especially proud of it. Yet, they told about Peter’s denials, Thomas’ doubt, and James and John wanting places of honor. Perhaps there’s no mention of that Saturday because we’re not meant to dwell in the Saturdays of our lives.

I’m not talking about the day we get the chores done, take the kids to practice, or watch Saturday Night Live. I’m speaking of the times when disaster, despair, regrets, or anguish assault us and we can’t see tomorrow because of the darkness of today. The disciples’ Saturday lasted only 24-hours; unfortunately, our Saturdays often last much longer.

The disciples didn’t know that hopeless Saturday was simply a day between despair and joy, but we do. Because Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday, we know that we have not been abandoned. Because Jesus gave us His Holy Spirit when He ascended into heaven 40 days later, we know that we’ll never be alone. No matter how long our Saturdays are, we have no reason for despair, fear or anxiety. Whether in this world or the next, a glorious Sunday eventually will come.

And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:20b (NLT)]

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. [Hebrews 4:16 (NLT)]

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EASTER: ALLELUIA! CHRIST IS RISEN!

monarch butterfliesThe next day, on the Sabbath, the leading priests and Pharisees went to see Pilate. They told him, “Sir, we remember what that deceiver once said while he was still alive: ‘After three days I will rise from the dead.’ So we request that you seal the tomb until the third day. This will prevent his disciples from coming and stealing his body and then telling everyone he was raised from the dead! If that happens, we’ll be worse off than we were at first.” Pilate replied, “Take guards and secure it the best you can.” So they sealed the tomb and posted guards to protect it. [Matthew 27:62-65 (NLT)]

Christ the Lord is ris’n today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heav’ns, and earth, reply, Alleluia!
Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once He died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia! [Charles Wesley]

Billy Graham told of when an entertainment network was doing a story on highlights of Charlotte, North Carolina. Considered a point of interest, the Billy Graham Library was visited by the show’s co-host, Kristy Villa, and her film crew. Seeing the many crosses displayed throughout the property, Villa asked, “I see all the crosses, but where is Jesus?” Her library guide replied, “He’s in Heaven, and He is also present in the lives of those who believe in Him and follow Him as their personal Lord and Savior.” Villa exclaimed, “Oh, that’s right! Some worship a crucifix, but Christians worship a risen Christ.” The journalist added, “I have been in church my whole life, but I have never heard the emphasis put on an empty cross.” Our emphasis is on the empty tomb, as well!

The bodies of Bahá’u’lláh, founder of Bahá’í faith, and Báb, a central figure in Bahá’í and the founder of Bábisma, are buried in Israel. The grave of Confucius, the founder of Confucianism, is in his home town of Qufu in China and Muhammad, the founder of Islam, is buried in the Mosque of the Prophet in the Saudi Arabian city of Medina. The body of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was cremated and his remains were sent to eight different royal families. The Patna Museum in India displays a casket containing his sacred ashes and a temple in Sri Lanka possesses what is said to be his right tooth. When he failed to resurrect, the body of Cyrus Teed, founder of Koreshanity was buried on Estero Island; two years later a hurricane washed his tomb out to sea. As for Jesus? His grave was empty!

Let us never forget that the story didn’t end with the crucified Christ! The cross couldn’t stop Jesus and the tomb couldn’t contain Him. Pilate’s best efforts to secure the tomb were worthless. A Roman seal, large boulder and a sixteen-man Roman guard were not enough to keep Jesus shut in His tomb! Both cross and grave are empty! With His death and resurrection, Christ triumphed over both sin and death! Alleluia!

Easter means you can put the truth in a grave but you can’t keep it there. [Anne Lamott]

But the angel said, “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!” [Mark 16:6 (NLT)]

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GOOD FRIDAY: ON THIS HOLY DAY

Simeon…took the child [Jesus] in his arms and praised God, saying, “I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!” Jesus’s parents were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them, and he said to Mary, the baby’s mother, “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, but he will be a joy to many others. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” [Luke 2:28,31-35 (NLT)]

Munster - Bern CathedralAs Mary stood in the shadow of the cross, did she recall Simeon’s words when he held the infant Jesus in his arms? His prophecy came true that day at Calvary; as she watched her son endure such torture, it truly must have felt as if a sword had pierced her very soul. Jesus was supposed to be the glory of His nation but there He was—dying the death of a criminal. Mary didn’t understand why her beloved boy had to perish and she certainly didn’t know that He’d be back in three days. Imagine her sorrow and the emptiness in her heart as she witnessed her son’s agony.

Mary knew she loved her son but I wonder if that day she questioned God’s love for Him. She didn’t know that from the moment Jesus was planted in her womb her boy was headed to Calvary or that His death on the cross was all part of God’s perfect plan. How could she understand that her Son’s death was a deliberate choice: that He was dying for the very people who had placed Him on that cross? How could she know that His death proved the enormity of God’s love for all of humanity?

Like Mary, we don’t know the reason why our loved ones suffer or what will result from their suffering. Unlike Mary, however, we do know the rest of the story. Without the crucifixion, there would have been no resurrection. But, because of Jesus’s death and resurrection, there is another life waiting for us in God’s heavenly kingdom. Jesus’s resurrection means that hope overpowered desperation, love claimed victory over hate, forgiveness prevailed over condemnation, joy conquered despair, and life triumphed over death.

Jesus, the Son of God, was ignored, denied, betrayed, falsely accused, demeaned, scorned and scourged, and finally crucified on a cross. He suffered and died like a common criminal and was buried in a borrowed tomb like a vagrant. The sinless One paid the sinners’ debts. He didn’t have to, but he did. Thank you, God, for your loving redemption.

…death was not Jesus’ penalty; it was His destiny. It was not His lot in life; it was His mission. It was not His unavoidable fate; it was His purpose statement for coming to earth that first Christmas: “Born to die.” [Bill Crowder, from“The Path of His Passion”]

But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all. [Isaiah 53:5-6 (NLT)]

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MAUNDY THURSDAY: THE ROOSTER CROWS

“Don’t be so sure,” Jesus said. “This very night, before the rooster crows up the dawn, you will deny me three times.” Peter protested, “Even if I had to die with you, I would never deny you.” All the others said the same thing. [Matthew 26:34-35 (MSG)]

Ballenburg roosterThere’s a therapeutic riding center across the highway from one of the churches we attend. Along with horses, barn cat, and dog, they have a rooster. No matter what the time of day we’re there, that rooster crows. Every time I hear that bird’s loud “cock-a-doodle-do!” I remember Jesus’s words to Peter and ask myself, “Have I denied my Lord today?”

I can’t say I blame Peter for his betrayal. He was there when Judas, along with Temple guards and a contingent of Roman soldiers armed with swords and clubs, arrived in Gethsemane. Peter saw them man-handle and arrest Jesus. Peter was the one who impulsively drew his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave. Although Jesus healed the man, Peter had to be afraid as he stood around the fire with the servants and guards in the high priest’s courtyard. Would he be the next one arrested? His name may have meant “rock,” but his behavior was anything but rock-like that night.

Would I have been braver and more faithful than Peter or would I, too, have denied Christ? I’m ashamed to say that I probably wouldn’t have behaved any better than did Peter. I often deny knowing Jesus, and I’m not even afraid of being arrested. I deny Him when I ignore His call to service, remain silent when I should speak, or speak when I should remain silent. I deny Him when I hold a grudge, withhold forgiveness, judge others, and act prideful, spiteful or self-righteous. I deny Christ when I do what I know is wrong, when I don’t do what should be done, when I accept what I know He wouldn’t, and when I take credit for His gifts to me. Unfortunately, there are many ways we can deny knowing Jesus.

Lord, forgive us for the times we’ve denied being your servant. Fill us with your Holy Spirit so that our denials become affirmations and our lives give testimony to your saving grace.

All this time, Peter was sitting out in the courtyard. One servant girl came up to him and said, “You were with Jesus the Galilean.” In front of everybody there, he denied it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” As he moved over toward the gate, someone else said to the people there, “This man was with Jesus the Nazarene.” Again he denied it, salting his denial with an oath: “I swear, I never laid eyes on the man.” Shortly after that, some bystanders approached Peter. “You’ve got to be one of them. Your accent gives you away.” Then he got really nervous and swore. “I don’t know the man!” Just then a rooster crowed. Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” He went out and cried and cried and cried. [Matthew 26:69-75 (MSG)]

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RENDER UNTO CAESAR

Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.” [Matthew 22:21b (NCV)]

green heronSome things never change and, aside from death, it’s said that taxes are the only other sure thing in our lives. Along with a poll (or head) tax, the Romans had a variety of other taxes including customs taxes, property taxes, import and export taxes, crop taxes, toll bridges, sales tax, and special taxes when there was a war or building project to finance. Sounds a bit like nowadays! Yesterday was April 15, the day the IRS demanded what is theirs. When you put “the” and “IRS” together you get the word “theirs” and, once we’ve filed our taxes, it sure feels like the government considers most of what’s ours to be theirs!

When the Pharisees joined with the Herodians and asked Jesus if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, they weren’t asking for accounting advice. Both groups wanted to trap Jesus into saying something that would get Him into trouble either with Rome or the people of Judea. Since paying taxes was a painful and costly reminder of their subjection to Rome, saying yes would anger his own people. If he said no, he’d infuriate the Herodians (Jews who supported Rome), be reported as an insurrectionist, and could be executed for treason. There was no good answer.

It’s foolish to try to outsmart God and Jesus gave the perfect answer. He asked whose portrait was on the coin. Caesar’s picture was on the denarius, the coin of the day, along with these words: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.” With Caesar’s picture and title on it, the coin that deified the emperor clearly belonged to him. Jesus told the people to give to Caesar what belonged to Caesar and to God the things that were His.

Jesus told us we should pay the government what rightfully belongs to it; like it or not, our obligations to the government and the services it provides must be met. Following good and honest accounting advice is wise and no one wants to pay more than his due. There is, however, a fine line between tax avoidance and tax evasion. While there are some people who would never describe themselves as thieves, they think nothing of cheating on their taxes. They don’t call it theft but theft it is. Unfortunately, some of us dishonor God when preparing our taxes by fudging, misreporting, manipulating, or conveniently forgetting income. The term “creative accounting” doesn’t change what it is: stealing.

Some citizens justify tax cheating by saying they don’t approve of the way the government spends tax money. That’s a convenient excuse. Something tells me, no matter which party is in power and how the government spends, as long as they were expected to pay taxes, they’d never approve of the government’s expenditures. So, as much as we disliked doing it, yesterday we rendered unto to Caesar the things that are his. While we didn’t enjoying doing it, let us remember that laws and taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society.

Income tax returns are the most imaginative fiction being written today. [Herman Wouk]

So you must yield to the government, not only because you might be punished, but because you know it is right. This is also why you pay taxes. Rulers are working for God and give their time to their work. Pay everyone, then, what you owe. If you owe any kind of tax, pay it. Show respect and honor to them all. [Romans 13:5-7 (NCV)]

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